Saturday, 21 April 2018

Morrissey-From Prophet to The Prince Phillip of Pop

I was having a sneaky post work afternoon pint a few weeks back adjacent to a table of full of refreshed old boys. Their topic of conversation was the celebrities of the seventies who ended up embroiled in charges of sexual misconduct. Bizarrely, this turned into a debate about who was the 'worst' offender. “Well” said one of the old timers “It has to be Stuart Hall”. “Stuart Hall??” chorused his pals in unison “Why Stuart Hall?” “Well” he said, supping his pint “I liked Stuart Hall”.

The British have a tendency to assume that the people they admire, particularly artistically, will have the same views and beliefs as themselves. When it turns out that they in fact do not, it hurts. It was especially galling to discover that Morrissey is in fact a massive twat. I wont bother revising why The Smiths meant (and mean) so much to me, I've wrote about it extensively on this very website. Suffice to say, in my teens and twenties they got me through some pretty dark and difficult times. What hurts is the fact that once upon a time Morrissey spoke for and about the unspoken and unmentioned. He spoke up for the marginalised people of society, the ugly, the shy, the lonely and the afraid. For the non binary. The non CIS. For the poor and the down trodden. For me and for you. How can someone who wrote 'It takes guts by gentle and shy' stumble so far into self flagellating and self fellation that he ends up a mouth piece for UKIP?

In his book, Saint Morrissey, Mark Simpson makes the case that Morrissey's bitterness, self worship and refusal to be wrong stems from years of staying to long in the closet. I think it's simpler than that. Morrissey has no-one to tell him 'look, you're talking bollocks there mate'. In his head, whatever he says is a statement of fact. When you have arenas full of fans baying at your every utterance it probably feels that way. When anyone disagrees with him they are 'out to get him'. He really is a daft old sod.

My respect for Morrissey grew thin around 2007 when, as a millionaire ex pat living in a mansion in LA, he deemed it necessary to pontificate to the British how shit their lives are and how as he never voted, we shouldn't either. Really mate? This was followed by some very dubious comments about immigration, which really sent the alarm bells ringing. These missives were totally misguided and, as he is a child of two Irish immigrants himself, incredibly hard to swallow. He was chatting shit, and deep down we knew it. Then in 2014, around the time of the release of the patchy if not totally shit World Peace Is None of Your Business, it was revealed that the Mozfather was suffering with cancer. Seemingly, all was forgiven due to the fear that he might go and die on us. This acceptance was short lived as he really went bat shit crazy. The pinnacle of his offensive prattishness was his comments after the bombing of Manchester Arena. Now, Manchester is my favourite city in the world, we have a lot of history, and everyone in my immediate family (bar my daughter) have attended concerts at the arena. This all felt very personal and eerily close to home. On the 23rd of May last year, the evening Johnny Marr took to the stage with Canadian band Broken Social Scene in an act of defiance and solidarity, Morrissey released a statement as offensive as it was bananas. Blaming immigration and Andy Burnham for the bombing was the final straw for me. I loved Morrissey but I couldn’t buy his records or go to his shows after this. Not any more.

I have been lucky, and I mean lucky, to have released myself from his grip. Hero worship is the enemy of common sense, and others remain shipwrecked on Mozzers bullshit island. The self styled 'Moz Army' are the worst offenders. These lot are little too far along the spectrum for my liking. A bit too obsessed. I'm a dad in my forties. I don't need Morrissey anymore, he hasn't been a talisman or a moral compass to me since my early twenties. But these lot are cursed, believing that saying anything negative about the quiffed Christ means they are somehow not true disciples. Ringleader of the titmice, Julie Hamill (who I actual feel a genuine sympathy for, she has some how ended up defending her hero, who is to cowardly to do it himself) has gone on record stating he is 'untitled to his opinion'. By attacking 'non whites' he is attacking my friends. This is not OK. Is it so scary to say 'actually, he's talking bollocks here'. Would you really be kicked out the gang?

Morrissey has become the darling of the right wing tweeting brigade (happily, easily identifiable by having a union jack by their username. Not quite going the full hog and having a swastika or 'TWAT' tattooed on their forehead but near enough) championing him for saying 'what everyone's really thinking but afraid to say'. Well lads, you are welcome to him. I'm not going to stop listening to The Smiths. Ever. Maybe that's the wrong choice, maybe we should stop listening to the Stooges because Iggy once said 'paki' in an interview or stop listening to Ian Curtis or Kate Bush because they voted Tory. I dunno. But I believe, maybe naively, that this is a vast difference between the Morrissey in his early twenties and the monster pushing sixty. So here is the compromise. We keep the kitten hugging cardigan wearing Wilde wannabe Morrissey and the right wing and the Moz Army and all the other lunatics take the husk of hate that he has become. Deal?

One final thought. The right wing-nuts have rallied around Morrissey because he's 'not afraid to tell it like it really is'. But I'm not sure that is totally correct. This barrage of hate is maybe just him testing the water, and maybe his private thoughts are actually full on horrifically racist. And the more people agree with his campaign of hate, the dirtier and more hateful views will rise to the top like shiny scum. Food for thought.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review-Travelling Companion by The Understudies

Travelling Companion is the first material from The Understudies since 2014's landmark LP Let Desire Guide Your Hand.. I should hold my hand up here and state that I have been an admirer of their work since the very early days of the band (how can you not love a band that has a song called Chip Pan Glam?). Brian Bryden is easily, easily, in my top ten of songwriters. He somehow managed to write songs that are an amalgamation of hints (but never lifts) of everything I love about popular culture. There are suggestions of all my favourite bands in his song writing, suggestions I can never quite lay a hand on. The bands' songs bring of sense of cinéma français and kitchen sink drama, but with no obvious links or sources. So the news of a new single was a very pleasant surprise. But was it worth the wait? Well...

This record is fucking incredible, not incredible for a third division indie band (or as my partner Rachel sagely puts it 'three fans bands from Scotland no-ones ever heard of') but genuinely and inescapably brilliant. Travelling Companion is as elegant and as fragile as a swans neck. Imagine The Tindersticks covering Asleep by The Smiths with lyrics by Norman Collins. A haunting, cinematic, knowingly bookish piano led song that coldly and darkly twinkles like London frost. The piano riff is instant hookworm material, exquisitely warmed through by strings and guitar that echo Marr at his most poignant and retentive in detail. This is the work of writers who have honed and French polished their craft to a very, very fine buff. The flip side (well, not really a flip side as it's a download, it remains nothing short of a travesty it's not a 45. Something this beautiful deserves vinyl permanence) Everybody's Got To Go is a postcard from the gallows. Slightly less pretty than the A-side but with much more of a hook. It even throws in a T Rex reference at the end. I repeat, how can you not love this band?

If Clint from Pop Will Eat Itself and Alex Turner can make money from writing scores, it's a sad, pitiful world the doesn't see The Understudies writing the soundtrack to your favourite movies for the next ten years. If the rest of the material on the upcoming LP is half as strong as this showing, we have an absolute shoe-in for album of the year. I'm genuinely excited.

The single, Travelling Companion is available for download now from The band will play a set of new songs at Saint Pancras Old Church, London, on February 19th

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Do I Love You? Why I'm a rubbish at Collecting Records

My theory was that my copy of Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles which had cost me seven and sixpence was no better or no worse than the copy Andy Warhol had”

Bill Drummond

I was a very young lad, 5 or 6 maybe, when my mum first told me about Elvis Presley. She told me about this kid who wore his hair like the truck drivers and made records to make his mum happy. About how he was a white kid, but sounded black on the radio, but everyone loved him anyway and what colour you were didn't matter but how much you loved your mother did. I was quite taken with him, he sounded pretty cool, but the image that cemented itself in my head was the original record, the first one off pressing of That's Alright Mama that he made as gift for his mother. I wanted to know where that record was. My mum said she didn't know, that she thought maybe it was buried with her. I thought about that record, worms crawling all over the shiny black vinyl inside the rotting coffin. I remember thinking that it belonged with her, but at the same time it should be in a museum. It was quite the conundrum.

I thought about this recently after reading about the discovery of one of the rarest records ever. It's a long story, but I’ll shave it down as not to bore you. Young Frank Wilson from Houston, Texas fancied himself as a singer. He cut a couple of discs under various aliases which did nothing, and decided he wanted to sign to Motown because that's where the money was. Berry Gordy, Motown's boss and lest we forget a disciple to money rather than art, recorded a Wilson single called Do I Love You (indeed I do) but decided that he had enough artists in his arsenal and wanted Wilson as writer and producer instead. The single wasn't released, and that's where the story should have ended. Cut to Northern England in the 1970's. A new scene has emerged of kids dancing to rare and obscure black American soul music. A kid called Simon Soussan, who had an enviable job of ransacking Motown's vaults and discovers a copy of Do I Love You. He promptly bootlegs it and sells it on to Northern Soul DJ's in Britain. The record, a dizzyingly joyful fizzy pop release of a song (which almost hits the same aural euphoria as Happy Together by the Turtles but not quite) is an instant hit on the dance floors. The original copies (two known to be in existence) are now the most sought after records on the Northern scene. The second copy sells for £25000.

Cut forward to England late 2017. It emerges there are not two copies, but three. But this one is even rarer. An original test pressing no less. Everything is scrutinised. The matrix numbers down to the handwriting on the label are put under the microscope. It's true, it's real, the golden egg of vinyl collecting. Estimates are so bold to state that the record could sell for £50000.

I watched on in amazement. I was raptured at the discovery when a terrible feeling come over me. I had absolutely no desire to own this record. What would I do with a record worth so much money? I certainly wouldn't play it (I'd be scared to pick it up). Where would I put it? I've also have a policy of not selling records on (I had to sell some Smiths import 12”s as a teenager to fund that years Christmas shopping. I still wince at the memory) so even though £50000 would come in very handy, I'd have to sell a piece of my soul too.

There is an assumption that if you buy a lot of records that makes you a record collector. This is not the case. I do buy a lot of vinyl, but have no completest urges. Collectors of Beatles have it the hardest. A slight variance of font on the label can increase the records by hundreds of pounds. Do I need two copies of the same album because the lettering is a bit different? No. I own lots of collectible records but not many rare ones. I have two test pressings of Sarah Records 7” singles. One is a white label and the other a Mayking Records factory test pressing. I rarely play them. Half the fun of playing a Sarah record is looking at the sleeve as it spins. This is what makes me a non-collector in essence. I don't buy them to file away like a stamp collection or pin them like butterflies in glass cases. I buy them to play them and enjoy them. I don't like and don't understand the one-upmanship of that world and I don't need it in my life.

Another reason I don't want to own that Frank Wilson record is I already have a copy. It's not an original obviously, not even a reissue. It's a third generation bootleg I bought off Ebay for a tenner. It still goes round and round though, and still sounds incredible. I played regularly whilst Djing at Just Like Honey and would have the pleasure of looking out at a dance floor packed with smiley sweaty people having the times of their lives. There was the girl who came to the booth and said it was her birthday, and we probably wouldn’t have it but she would love to hear Do I Love You by Frank Wilson. I still remember her smile as I got it out of the box. This one? Yes, she beamed. That's the one . It was also the last record we ever played at JLH and still has beer stains and possibly tear stains of the sleeve from that night.. I'm not sure you get these kind of memories from an MP3. But maybe you do and I'm just a snobbish old man. Either way, I hope the eventual owner of the test pressing enjoys his copy of Do I Love You 5000 times as much as I enjoy mine. But somehow I doubt it. 

(Written with gratitude and respect to the fine people at the incredible Soulsource website)

Monday, 22 January 2018

This Is My Street (Daytrip Records)

No music scene has pilfered the British Swinging Sixties songbook quite as shamelessly as the one crudely dubbed Britpop. Guitar bands decided to stop making singles that sounded indie and wanted to write classic pop again. The movement of wanting to write songs that sounded great coming out of the caff radio and whistled by the postman was triggered by the twin polls of the release of the Beatles' Anthology series and Ian MacDonald’s faultless Fabs almanac Revolution in the Head. It's perhaps then unsurprising that it's the Beatles that were most pastiched. Not just the riffs and the lyrics, but everything from the drum loops to the haircuts and interview sound bites. When Britpop relocated to London, suddenly swinging again and a hub of creativity, it was the Kinks turn to have their back catalogue ransacked.

And of course what a back catalogue it is. The run of singles on Pye from 1964 to 1970 is an incredible body of work. Each record slightly better than the last and each bringing something new, unique and exciting to the party. 1964's All Day and All of the Night manages to sound drum tight and marvellously unhinged all the same time. It was the the first punk single, ripped off wholesale on the Doors' Hello, I Love You and covered faithfully by the Stranglers. It was the blueprint for the pre-Tommy career of the Who. Ray Davies seemed to ooze confidence and verve and each record sounded more sophisticated and interesting than the last. Tired of Waiting For You sounded slightly sulky and utterly terrific. See My Friends sounds like the party described by the kid who had smoked too much pot. The arguable high point coming in '67's Waterloo Sunset. It's not so much the sound of the record but the feeling it evokes. It's so ridiculously evocative ('chilly, chilly is the evening time') that it's like stepping into a painting. It sounds like London in the same way The Drifters' On Broadway sounds like New York and Ghost Town sounds like the Thatcher era in the Midlands.

Still Britpop almost steadfastly refused to doth their collective caps to the Davies song writing cannon save for furtively ripping it off. Only Blur's Damon Albarn seemed to want pay homage, with a slightly too sleepy reading of Waterloo Sunset (a post breakdown Davies plays guitar and looks on bemused) on TV's The White Room. Luckily, Indiepop is not so shy to give credit where it's due, as displayed on Daytrip Records' compilation of Kinks covers This is My Street. And what lovingly wonderful record it is.

Cosines kick off with a sleek, confident version of Someone Stole My Car from 93's Phobia album. It's very bold and slightly glam and drags the song from the red neck saloon to the urban wine bar. It's instantly infectious and beautifully executed.

Slightly more out there is Los Bonsais take on All Day and All of the Night. It sounds like fuzzed up cross between the Mary Chain and Velvet Underground. It's slightly stoned, very cool and sexy as fuck.

Equally thrilling is Picture Book by The Just Joans which sounds all the world like The Fall at their most unhinged with a shade of Talking Heads thrown in. It's really brilliant, slightly piss takey in the best possible way, a tad bonkers and totally ace. Imagine Mark E Smith bouncing on Buckfast.

The School's Animal Farm is a delight, like a Sylvie Vartan cover version-slightly bashful but lovely, all tambourines, harmonies, and fringes. Gorgeous.

I'm Not Like Everybody Else by Sweet Nothings is a proper belter. A twitchy, angry version that captures the claustrophobia of the original whilst bringing it's own earthy slightly grimy twist.

Darren Hayman's weighs with a lovely piano led wistful reading of Come Dancing. It's just on the right side of woozy and impossibly pretty. It ends with a Ronnie Lane-esque jam and would sound perfect in an old boozer after five pints of Best Bitter.

Eux Autres deliver a driving take on A Long Way From Home. It's proper road trip material this, managing to make Ray Davies reflective original sound like Bruce Springsteen.

Stephen Todd's Bontempi version of No Return sounds like Smog at their most reflective. A brave and oddly moving reading.

Little My slightly fey but faithful take on Autumn Almanac is impossibly pretty. It's lovingly delivered with warmth and is delightfully twinkly.

Wendy Darlings trashy Spector-ish take on Stop Your Sobbing is like a gritty girl group, bubblegum picked off and chewed from the pub floor. Wonderful stuff.

Simon Love's pastoral reading of Till Death Us Do Part is a stunner, aching and very very beautiful. It sounds like a what a Noel Gallagher record sounds like in Noel Gallagher's head.

Laura K's breathy and poptastic version of Victoria is a breezy treat. Airy, sweet and rather lovely, it's faithful treatment recorded with real love and affection and will steal your heart.

It takes balls of steel to cover a standard like Waterloo Sunset, but happily Catenary Wires are more than capable and their version is very very beautiful. The vocal ping-pongs from sweet to sour, from darkness to light, from the dirtiness of the river to the brightness of the taxi light. The harmonies are exquisite and and the lend the song a confidence and verve. It's shimmery and lovely and would make old Ray dead proud.

'THIS IS MY STREET' - a compilation of Kinks songs performed by indiepop artists, released by Daytrip Records on the 16th of February 2018 9AM GMT.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Live review: Onsind @ Partisan, Manchester 24/11/17

Fears that my first outing to gig since becoming a dad would see me somewhat ring rusty turned out to be well founded. Finding the venue, Manchester's Partisan, proved something of a mission. After tens of minutes wandering round in circles with a decidedly unhelpful Google map, I finally followed two people who looked vaguely punk and found it that way (it's to the right of the faintly terrifying snooker hall then right again).

I've been, quite understandably slightly wary of 'safe spaces' after being in one in Leeds and seeing a pissed middle aged man call the lead singer and songwriter of the headline band a 'blonde girl cunt' and proceed to kick seven shades of shit out her tour van. Partisan, however, is everything it claims to be. The space is excellent, the sound brilliant and everyone from the bar tenders to the doormen (not quite to the world weary cheerfulness of the Star and Garter bouncers but not far off) are super friendly and happy. The whole audience seemed relaxed and at home. Job done Partisan, job done.

I arrived just in time to catch the last two songs by Zaplain, who sounded brilliant. I quietly berated myself for my poor orienteering skills that prevented me catching the rest of the set. Brighton's Just Blankets cheered me up again, however. Their gloriously noisy set was infectious with melody and good cheer. Set highlight, Short Walks ('How many short walks/to make this place feel like home?/I don't know') can be found on their Like Velcro EP out now on Everything Sucks. Go buy it. It's class.

Onto the tonight's main attraction, the much missed Onsind. Blooming from a punka troubadour two piece to a newly established five piece, they bound on stage with an odd mix of nervous energy and extreme confidence. The set explodes into Magnolia, taken from their incredible new LP We Wilt, We Bloom on Specialist Subject Records. It's immediately and abundantly clear that the band are skin tight, they sound absurdly confident and absolutely terrific. New cuts are proudly unveiled. Immature, the classic in waiting Sectioned and a poignant Loyalty Festers, introduced by a long and heartbreaking monologue by Nathan about a school friend of his being swept away by the dark icy waves of the far right. (Shamefully, a small gang about the back continued laughing and chatting away through out this speech. It got to the point where the sound man had to go and tell them to be quiet. I've never ever understood this; why go and see a band and talk to your mates all the way through?).

New babies proudly shown off, the band went into a section of what Nathan called, tongue firmly in cheek, 'the hits'. And what beauties there are in their cannon. The still furious BA77, the moving Dissatisfactions, poignant Suicide is Painful and the personal highlight of the evening God Hates Facts. Now, this song is so powerful and emotive it would sound good played on the spoons, but this line up absolutely smacked it out the park. There's a tiny bit of my stomach only the 'Meet me at the reservoir' bit can reach. Heterosexuality Is a Construct has turned into an absolute monster. Delivered at break neck speed (“We are gonna do it faster and faster it last, like, a minute” jokes Nathan), so fast it's a challenge to sing along. Class.

Just before the encore, the promoter comes up to the stage with a cake celebrating Onsind's 11 years as a band. The band are quite visibly touched. “It's vegan too!” adds the promoter, getting one of the biggest cheers of the night. Then onto the promised encore, the greatly anticipated Pokemon City Limits. “Lets get rid of some Tory's” spits Nathan “Seriously, I want to see some fucking heads on spikes”. It doesn’t really get more comforting or cathartic than Manchester screaming never trust a Tory in unison.

This is the key to Onsind I think. Anyone buying their new LP hoping for a map through political swamplands or a cure for mental illness will be left wanting. What the band offer is a hand to hold in the darkness. There's nothing like mental illness, anxiety and disgust at a political climate to make you feel alone. Onsind are not the antidote, but sometimes finding someone or something just as fucked up and fucked off as you are is a comfort. Here's to the next eleven years.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

Fate, Feist and the Northern Quarter

Back in 2003 I had an affair with a girl from Manchester which went quite predictably and quite disastrously wrong. I ended up going back to Shrewsbury with a broken heart and my tail placed pretty firmly between my legs. The scars from the relationship, as they tend to do, healed up with time. I found myself getting over the girl, but my love for the city of Manchester stayed unabashed and undimmed. Usually, during this time in my life I would get over a break up by getting myself as drunk as possible but I found this wasn’t quite the ticket.

This was my busy music period. I was attending as many gigs as humanly possible. If there wasn’t a show to go to, I would catch the train, as painful as it was, back to Manchester and spend a day record shopping. I used to enjoy a post shop drink in Dry bar, but one day descended the stairs to the toilet to witness two huge men passing over (and I've ransacked my memory of this but it always gives the same results) a yellow balloon full of what I can only imagine to be cocaine. After that (a most embarrassing encounter, they were clearly waiting for me to finish my business but the shock of seeing my first ever proper drug deal had left my penis unable to piss) the port of call for a post record shop drink was next door at the Night and Day café. I fell in love with the place a couple of years previous, during a hopelessly romantic and stupidly and pretentiously dim poetic stage. When I walked in the girl behind the bar wore a stripy top, peddle pushers and ballet shoes. She looked like something from a Kerouac novel, and I found myself quite smitten with the place.

I found myself going there more and more. It's great place to sit and think, the perfect point of communication (or lack of) for a heat broken berk from Shropshire. It was at this time that that things got a little weird between the café and I. I had found a 7” single in the bargain bin in Vinyl Exchange which I had, in truth, only bought because I liked the sleeve. It was a black and white shot of girl framed by a circle. She had a perfect fringe and white tights with arrows drawn on in thick marker pointing down. It was sexy; a bit sixties, a bit mod. The record was One Evening by Feist. The A side was really good, an organ led half pissed on wine ditty to new and unexpected love (which as you can imagine was quite the tonic) but the B-side was better, a piano led woozy ballad called Lovers Spit, a song about relationships being a curse, which as you can imagine suited me even better. It's about now that strangeness kicks in. I strutted into Night and Day with the 7” in a cute little plastic bag to find Feist playing over the PA. Strange, I thought as I ordered my cup of tea. But this would go on happening. Over the next few trips I found (and I swear I'm not making this up) which ever record I bought would be playing when I walked into Night and Day. This happened maybe four or five times until it got to the point where I was almost expecting it. This is where things turn really strange.

I had finished my record shop at Vinyl Revival and walked out to head to Night and Day fully expecting to here my purchases played when I got there. As exited the door, there was two teenagers, a girl and a boy, looking at the stock in the shop window. The girl had caught sight of something exciting, possibly the mugs and yelled at her friend with great animation 'Hey! Joe!' whilst pointing at whatever took her fancy. Of course my mental jukebox started playing Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix. I took the minute walk to Night and Day and, mind blowingly, the said tune was belting out of the speakers. Spooky, no? I tried to rationalise all this. Told myself that the people behind the bar at N&D probably picked up the same bargains at nearby Vinyl Exchange, but then I thought about the amount of people shuffling the thousands upon thousands of cards in the CD racks and thought no. I read somewhere that it would be, statistically speaking, odder not to hear the tune you were humming come on the radio seconds later than to hear it. But five times on the spin? Was my insomnia making my brain make weird connections?

A few months later, after playing her debut LP to death, I found out Feist was doing a gig at the Night and Day. I took this as some sort of sign and booked myself a ticket. I'm not sure what I was expecting. The heavens to open and some sort of light to pour down on me through the Manchester sky. To meet the love of my life maybe? I don't know, but I was expecting something. As it turned out, the gig was uneventful. So uneventful that I can't find any record of it even taking place. There's nothing on the internet, but it happened. I was there. So were maybe thirty other people and place seemed sadly empty for such a great performance. She was brilliant (as was her band), a total star. Speaking in French between songs and belting out her songs like her life depended on it. She even wore the outfit she donned on the 7” sleeve. The support that night was a young lad called Sam Hammond and he was brilliant too. He was a good looking lad with a strong jaw of wispy beard and dressed (almost certainly by Pop Boutique) like an old blues man. He looked like he travelled with nothing but a small suitcase and a guitar and sang like someone who had lived a thousand lives. His songs were peppered with Dylan, but with an urban coffee shop twist. I thought his set was brilliant. I went home, though slightly disappointed that Dionysus didn't appear or anything, happy; trying to put such daft thoughts about coincidence and fate out of my head.

A couple of months after that, I went to a gig a lot closer (ten minutes from my house in fact) to home at the Buttermarket in Shrewsbury. It was by a Manchester band called Longview who had released a few singles on the 14th Floor label that had bothered the indie charts a bit. I usually, or at least did, get to gigs nice and early but being so close to my house I had left pretty late and when I climbed the steps to the hall the lights were already out signifying the support had started, I made my way through the dark the the bar when I heard a familiar voice singing. “I'm just a pawwwwn in her gaaayme'. It was Sam Hammond. He played another blinder, though weirdly to few more people than the Feist gig and had gone down well. I saw him at the bar after his set and bought him a pint. Told him I thought his said was great and how weird it was that I saw him randomly a few weeks back and even weirder here. He gave it the old 'Oh thanks man' with that slow head nod pop stars do when they are being flattered. 'So what music to you like?' he asked. I told him I was stuck on a song called Dark of my Moon. 'They Gene Clark song!' he shouted suddenly animated, spilling his Guinness over his suit 'I bloody love that song!'. He wrote down the chords for me, we shook hands. He most likely went his way, and I went mine.

I hadn't thought about any of this, the N&D coincidence, the Feist gig or any of it for well over a decade. There was a post recently, a pretty funny meme, on twitter about Bob Dylan that had gone 'viral'. The poster was someone called Sam Hammond. Was it the same guy? It was, of course, and the memories came flooding back. I tried to find Sam's CD, unplayed for a good twelve years, but searching the house high and low couldn’t find it. I tried searching Ebay to buy another copy but found that I couldn't remember the title. I half remembered it being named after the date it was recorded. And there it was. Sam Hammond. 171203. It was cut exactly four years before the death of my father. Spooky, no? 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Oh, Maybe: On sadness in pop

I was having a pint with my mate Kendo recently as and as usual the topic turned to music. One of life's little pleasures for Kendo is going to Sainsbury's after work on a Friday and buying a four bottles of beer and a freshly released CD. It's his way of keeping a hand in. Last weeks purchase was the new album by The National. “It's alright” he mused, supping a pint “but how many albums can you get out singing about heartbreak? Christ knows what his wife makes of it all”

Everyone has a personal source of sad songs to sooth in times of distress. My own port of call is End records. After seeing the success of Heartbreak Hotel, label owner George Goldner wisely started to fuse Doo Wop with early rock and roll and started recording and releasing teenage paeans to heartbreak. This was the late fifties, just before Elvis and lust cornered the teenage record buying market. If the kids were still too puritanical to scream blue murder and throw knickers at a stage, they could still express themselves through their post pubescent sadness in the privacy of their bedroom or slow dancing with beau. Jerry Leiber described Goldner as having the taste of a fourteen year old girl. It was meant as a compliment, Goldner's ear for talent and production earning him after hit after hit. It was music for teenagers by teenagers. Crossover smash Frankie Lymon and the Teenager's Why do fools fall in love was one of his, as was Tears on my Pillow by Little Anthony and the Imperials (later unmemorably covered by Kylie Minogue and shmaltzed up on the Grease soundtrack). But by some distance the jewel in his and End's crown is Maybe by the Chantels.

Two minutes and fifty four seconds of absolute wonder, Maybe is a phenomenal piece of work. From the melody (not dissimilar to future weeper Unchained Melody, released eight years later) to the leather lunged, hand wringing plea of vocal by Arlene Smith to the simple yet completely emotionally devastating lyric (the line Maybe/If I held your hand/You would understand never fails, however times I hear it, to cut me to the quick). Smith was reportedly an uncredited co-writer of the song (Goldner, an inveterate gambler, had, co-writing credit on the record, later taken off. It's plausible he needed the royalty money to pay off debt), aged sixteen at the time, her authorship would explain the pain of the lyrics.

It wasn't just teens cashing in on the heartbreak, mind. Released a few months before Maybe and written by a twenty five year old (young obviously, but ancient in the world of pre-Beatles pop) Conway Twitty, Only Make Believe hit the number one spot in the UK and the US and arguably kick started the career of Roy Orbison. It's a terrific record, slowly but steadily ascending to the heart wrenching crescendo of the chorus. How Elvis must have heard it and wept.

The tear jerkers slowly crept their way into R&B and soul too. Released on Wand in 1962, Getting Ready for the Heartbreak by Chuck Jackson (a long overdue reissue of his hits and rarities has just been released on Ace Records) is a truly devastating 45. If the vocal (It's almost like he's just been dragged to the mic after falling asleep whisky drunk in a bus shelter, he constantly sounds on the verge of breaking down and crying) doesn't do the damage, the lyrics will.

Closed up all my windows/so no-one could see
Even told the mailman to pass by me/
Cos' my love is coming today/
And I know what she's going to say.

It's an incredible piece of work. Rarely has being in the shit with the other half sounded so wonderful.

The sadness even came, if stealthily, by more commercial soul. Tucked away on the flip of her 1964 number one smash My Guy, Mary Wells' Oh Little Boy is one of Motown's (and Stateside's) hidden gems. Sad yet sassy, with a gut buster of a vocal, it could have been an Aretha hit. Saucer eyed and bordering on demented, the lyric is almost spat out. When she sing No! No! No! You can almost see her hands go up palms front. If you don't own this record, do your self a favour and splash out a fiver on Ebay. Tell 'em I sent you.


Modern pop has struggled to match the sadness and madness of these records. I'm not sure if it's the production of the early singles or the simplicity of the lyric, but writing a sophisticated modern sad pop hit has proven hard. There are examples of obviously, and when the formula works, be it Unfinished Sympathy, Nothing Compares 2U or Missing by Everything But the Girl, the bonding theme is that you feel the song is written about you, that heartbreak is a universal theme. Where songwriters get it wrong, particularly with indie bands, is the songs are written over egged in angst and lacking in sincerity.

Worst offender is Creep by Radiohead. Now, in his mind, you can see Thom Yorke thinking he is the poet laureate of the dispossessed, but in reality he comes across like a stalker sniffing his ex's tights. Like Lennon's Jealous Guy it's the worst kind of record, self obsessed rather than self assessing. A self love song. See also the Manic Street Preachers. Their quote lead assault of pop nihilism has not dated well (Black Horse apocalypse if you please) and listening to the Manics these days is rather like masturbating. It's perfectly acceptable in your teens abut a bit desperate in your thirties.

One of the only sad indie records to remain unscathed by public and critic alike is Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. From the sleeve to it's pioneering production it's a classic. For all the myths and legends, it's Factory's finest hour. If they had only released this it would still be in the top ten labels. Ever. It's beauty is it's ability to suck you into it's world from the very first drop of the needle. Lyrically it takes punks ability to document the chaos around it into documenting the chaos inside Ian Curtis' mind. I love Tony Wilson, his chutzpah, his talent of praising talent and raising pop music to the level of fine art. But his biggest crime (other than not signing the Smiths) was trying to propel the myth of Curtis into Jim Morrison levels. When he hung himself, we not only lost a musical pioneer, but a young girl lost her 24 year old dad.

The recent biopics and documentaries about Curtis love to tell us about Hooky's Sunday dinner. We love to watch Peter Saville's pained anguish when he tells the anecdote about telling Wilson there was a tomb on the sleeve for the thousandth time, and Paul Morley quip about going to see the Great Rock and Roll Swindle instead of attending the funeral, but what the film makers have conveniently left out his Ian's mother, Doreen's account of her reaction to finding out that her son was dead. Punk it is not, but sincere, honest, down to earth and brutally sobering it is. No art, however beautiful, is worth dying for.


So then, the saddest song ever? Easy. Hands down, by a country furlong it's Diana by Paul Anka. Not so much the song itself, which actually rather jaunty, but the story behind it. A 16 year old Anka had cocked his hat at young girl at his local church, Diana Ayoub, and in an attempt to woo her wrote her a song. His advances were spurned, but the song became a world wide hit. Every time I hear the song, I picture a young Anka waiting in the wings at another gig in another county having to sing, for the four hundredth time, about a girl who broke his heart. Now that's tragic.