Monday 31 October 2011

Halloween and all that - Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side)

I'm sorry to be a humbug but I can't abide Halloween. At least, not in its current form. To me, Halloween should be about parties for kids (not adults, are you listening?), doing apple-bobbing, listening to ghost stories and, if there's any dressing up involved, it should be limited to cutting out triangles of white cardboard to stick under your top lip and, at a push, making a cape out of one of your mum's or big sister's old skirts. That's it. That's what kids do. What it definitely shouldn't be is supermarkets having whole aisles of costumes to buy. Nor should it be anything to do with trick or treating. I blame Spielberg for introducing that over here.

But since today is All Hallow's Eve, I suppose I could share this with you. It's a beautiful little stop-motion short film from Spike Jonze, entitled Mourir Auprès De Toi. Smiths fans will be delighted to learn that this translates as "to die by your side". It's not scary, but it does have an otherworldly feel, dead characters, many literary references and a cracking piece of music to soundtrack the credits. Above all that though, it's lovely to watch... even if you're a Halloween humbug like me.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Clandestine Classic XIX - Popscene (live at Peel Acres) #keepingitpeel

#keepingitpeelThe nineteenth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Is it possible for there to be a clandestine classic from a band as wildly successful as Blur? After all, they bestrode the music scene like cheeky Southern Britpop gods, didn't they? And it was ever thus. Wasn't it? Well, not really. And without today's classic, there's a good chance they would only be remembered now, if at all, as indie also-rans with just one hit song still bringing in the PRS cheques.

Early Blur had a minor hit with first single She's So High but things took off for them with their next release, There's No Other Way. With Graham's instantly memorable guitar hook, Damon's slightly flowered-up delivery, and a shuffling rhythm from Alex and Dave that owed a lot to the so-called Madchester scene that Blur were never really part of, it was a massive hit. And also something of a millstone around their collective neck. Debut album Leisure just didn't measure up. And it wasn't the sound of Blur either - it was the sound of a band chasing a scene. By the time they released the last single from Leisure, Bang, all was not well in camp Blur. I picked Bang on 12" vinyl out of Woolworths' bargain bin within a couple of weeks of its release. I don't think the chicken cover art helped much. When I saw Blur live for the first time, in 1992, Damon introduced There's No Other Way by saying "You're gonna think this is shit." And it was, but then I guess that's what happens when a band is both pissed and pissed off.

So what happened between Bang and the release of classic album Modern Life Is Rubbish in May 1993 (the band's highpoint in my view), an album that fused Blur's danceable indie with story-telling songs in the tradition of The Kinks and XTC? What happened was simple: Blur re-invented themselves. A complete re-think, re-boot, re-imagining, re-everything. And the first product of this re-invention was Popscene. Pseudo-Madchester beats? Gone. Hippy-trippy vocals? Gone. Flared trousers? Gone. In their place were frantic, buzzing guitars, a brass section, cherry-red DM boots. And lyrics that were observational and loaded with humour - with the line "In the absence of a way of life, I'll repeat this again and again... and again" Blur were perhaps even parodying the bandwagon they had so recently tried to jump on. Popscene was a massive step into the dark for Blur - if I can cut and paste from Wikipedia for a second... "We felt 'Popscene' was a big departure; a very, very English record," Albarn told the NME in 1993, "But that annoyed a lot of people... We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal and no-one was interested." In fact there was so little interest that Popscene stalled at 32 in the singles chart. Ironic that a song that would later lend its name to so many indie club nights across the country should have performed so poorly.

But the change in tone was set, and Popscene paved the way for all that was to follow, from the Britpop triumvirate of Modern Life, Parklife and The Great Escape, right through to the punkier, dirtier, more experimental Blur, 13 and Think Tank. And as Blur became the biggest band in the country (sorry Gallagher bros), suddenly Popscene became "the great lost single" and very sought after. Copies began changing hands on e-bay for silly money. And the fact that it just wasn't on any album fuelled its desirability. It was even omitted from their first Best Of compilation. So people like me had to make do with the version I feature here today, that the band recorded live in John Peel's garden for Radio 1. I seem to recall taping this off the radio. Yes, tape, kids. My neatly written inlay card tells me the sesion, which became known as "Live at Peel Acres" was broadcast on the 5th of May 1997. And since today is Keeping It Peel day, I champion the Peel Acres version of Popscene in honour of the late, great John Peel. I seem to recall John saying that his daughter and her mates had bunked off school to stay home and see Blur. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

The Peel Acres Popscene eventually turned up the B-side of On Your Own, and then on afterthought live/remix compilation Bustin' and Dronin'. The original studio version of the song finally made it onto an album with the recent release of the Midlife compilation but, since today is Keeping It Peel day let's stick with the Peel Acres version. You can read more about the whole session courtesy of the always-excellent Vinyl Villain. If downloading is your thing you can probably find an interesting file here. Alternatively, there's always YouTube... here you go.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Separated at birth III

I've done a couple of "separated at birth" posts before (here and here) but today's is a bit different, because it is based not on visual similarity but instead on voices. These two are vocal-a-likes, if you will. My evidence is below: the first is a video of Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, being interviewed on Channel 4 news; the second features Gerald the Gorilla, giving his only known televised interview. Close your eyes and listen to the voices - uncanny, isn't it?

Thursday 6 October 2011

Steve Jobs, I Hardly Knew Ye

Apple announced the sad death of Steve Jobs yesterday. Now whatever you think of the man and his products, whether you're a Mac-devotee or anti-Apple, I hope you can see Steve's passing for what it is - the loss of someone who achieved a great deal in his chosen field and, by daring to be different, someone who fostered a creative competition with the MS/IBM empire, a competition that gave rise to revolutionary, visionary products. The Guardian has a decent obituary for Steve.

Today is National Poetry Day, so the hack poet in me has come out of retirement with a tribute to Mr Jobs.

Steve Jobs, I Hardly Knew Ye

Steve Jobs, I hardly knew ye.
I've never owned a Mac,
An iPod or an iPad.
I took my Newton back.

The Luke to Gates's Vader,
The guy in the white hat,
The underdog, the mouse that roared,
The PC saw to that.

You polarised the IT world,
Evangelical - touch the screen!
If you'd teamed up with IBM
Who knows what might have been?

You ended on a high note,
A monopoly of your own.
With an app for everything it seems
The world loves their iPhone.

Monday 3 October 2011

Clandestine Classic XVIII - Davy Chase

This Is Not A Song cover artThe eighteenth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

I'm starting to notice something of a pattern emerging in these Clandestine Classics - I seem to feature a lot of nearly men. You know, bands that almost make it big but stumble just when they're on the cusp. Once they stumble, quite a lot of these nearly men implode, but I'm pleased to say that wasn't the case with today's featured artists, The Frank And Walters. It's easy to forget (I had, until I started researching this post) that in their early days The Frank And Walters were supported by the likes of Radiohead and Suede - what ever became of them? (Oh, how I would "lol" if I could, but a love of the English language prevents me). Not only that but one Noel Gallagher had a brief spell on their road crew as a guitar tech. So how come The Franks were eclipsed? Why were they not bigger?

Part of the problem, I think, is that in those very early years quite a lot of their songs sounded the same. They certainly all had variations on the same post-Roses, pre-Britpop shuffly drum beat that you'll hear on today's Classic. And the thing is, there isn't necessarily a problem with all your songs sounding the same as long as enough people like how they sound... but that was where The Franks came unstuck. A core, loyal, diehard following loved how they sounded, but that core never really grew.

Let's look at this in more detail. The band were formed in Cork in 1990 by Paul Linehan (vocals/bass), his brother Niall (guitar) and Ashley Keating (drums). Wikipedia tells us that they took the band's name in honour of two eccentric Cork characters. Their debut single, Happy Busman, peaked at UK #49. Their next effort, This Is Not A Song, similarly stalled at UK #46. Their commercial peak came with the third single, the slightly more romantic After All, which climbed to the dizzy heights of UK #11 around Christmas of the same year. But after that they were back to the more conventional Franks' sound with Fashion Crisis Hits New York (UK #42) and that, I believe, was the last time they troubled the singles chart.

As the group progressesd and grew, band members changed and their sound evolved far beyond the rapid jingle-jangle of their early releases. Over time, this perhaps yielded a slightly wider (though probably less passionate) fan-base. As for me, well, I still prefer those early releases - I'm just a sucker for rapid jingle-jangle! Indeed, perhaps my most treasured Franks' recording is one I made myself, taping a live performance off the radio (back in the days before illegal downloading it was home-taping that was killing music, kids). Part of Sound City 93 in Sheffield, the Linehan brothers did a short acoustic set that, for me, was better than anything studio-based of theirs that I owned. But I haven't got around to digitising that old tape yet, so instead you'll have to make do with the excellent Davy Chase for today's Clandestine Classic, a B-side from the CD single release of This Is Not A Song. The Frank And Walters continued to ply their trade, happily, and have a couple of "best of" compilations on Amazon (this and this), neither of which feature today's Classic. I couldn't find a download for you either, so you'll just have to make do with YouTube. Here 'tis.