Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Top 11 Albums of the Year, 2013

The current issue of Uncut has a very interesting Best of 2013 supplement, which includes the albums of the year. The list was compiled from Top 20 lists supplied by the magazine's writers. It's a bit arbitrary, of course, but harmless. When I voted I went for the records that haven't moved from the top of the CD player. Here are the top 11. (The other 9 may follow at a later date).

1.         Bill Callahan – Dream River

2.         Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

4. .         Chris Forsyth – Solar Motel

5.         Yo La Tengo – Fade

6.         David Bowie – The Next Day

7.         Low – The Invisible Way

8.         The Shouting Matches – The Shouting Matches

9.         William Tyler – Impossible Truth

10.         Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol 2

11.      Denison Witmer – Denison Witmer

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Butler: A Zelig-like Tale of Struggle in Which the Metaphor Wears a Tuxedo.

There’s an extraordinary moment towards the end of The Butler, Lee Daniels’ warm-hearted epic film about the American Civil Rights struggle. It comes when the now-retired White House butler, played with calm authority by Forest Whitaker, makes a pilgrimage to his father’s grave, at an old cotton plantation in Georgia. Whitaker and his wife – an exuberant Oprah Winfrey – are clad in shell-suits, and the moment seems almost comic, until Whitaker starts to wonder aloud about Nazi concentration camps. He looks around at the ruined buildings – where, in the first scenes of the film, he has witnessed his mother being led away to be raped and seen his father murdered. “These camps went on for 200 years,” Whitaker says quietly, “right here in America.”
The scene is startling not only because it equates American history with the Holocaust, but also because, in all the numerous controversies which have surrounded the film, no one has mentioned it.
“I got very nervous writing that,” says Daniels, who was Oscar-nominated for directing Precious. “I was nervous about putting it in the story, but you can’t be nervous about the truth. My children are, needless to say, African-American and they go to a practically all-white school in the Upper West Side in New York City, a very prestigious school. And the fact of the matter is that they know more about the Diary of Anne Frank than they do about their own heritage, about the atrocities that have taken place here in America.”
The Butler was inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, from 1952-86. But Whitaker’s butler is a composite, and the story of his family frames the shifting politics of a single lifetime.
“There are some powerful stories intertwining,” says Whitaker. “But what’s great about the film is that it’s about how those things affected our lives. At the heart of it was a story about holding a family together through hard times and troubles, and the prodigal son returning.”
The Butler’s prodigal, Cecil’s more radical son Louis, is played by British actor David Oyelowo, who also appeared in that other cinematic exploration of racial servitude, The Help. “For me,” says Oyelowo, “The Butler takes the conversation forward. The Help is looking at the lives of the domestic servants through the eyes of the white characters. The Butler goes deeper, because you not only see it through the eyes of a black family, but through the eyes of a black protagonist. This is his story and you see the world through his eyes. That doesn’t happen often.”
The film has been a huge hit, taking $115m so far at the US box office, despite some negative publicity. Much of the controversy concerns the divergence from the facts of the Eugene Allen’s life (there was no rape, no radical son, but he was invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan). The (sympathetic) portrayal of Nancy by Jane Fonda has drawn flak, from a Veterans’ group unable to forgive “Hanoi Jane” for her anti-Vietnam campaign. Reagan’s son Michael has also criticised the (largely benign) depiction of his father. “If you knew my father, you’d know he was the last person on Earth you would call a racist,” he wrote.
“Nancy Reagan was very excited to have Jane play the role,” counters Daniels. “She’s seen the movie. Her son and her daughter loved it; all but one, who is a very staunch Republican – that’s the one that always has something to complain about.” President Obama was reportedly moved to tears by the movie, though his endorsement is hardly surprising as the drama concludes with his 2008 election victory.
Ultimately, The Butler is a Zelig-like tale of struggle in which the metaphor wears a tuxe
do. The butler, we learn, must learn to live with two faces, one for his family and friends, and another for public life. He must be present, but unseen.
“You see Cecil with his friends, you see him in a jocular mood, you see him enjoying food with his family,” says Oyelewo. “Then suddenly there’s the public face and the public demeanour – the wallflower. And my character is someone who has lost patience with that way of being, he wants to be true in private and true in public. That’s the clash: toeing the line, versus ‘we’ve had enough’.”
“I remember when Obama became president, I didn’t feel the need to have two faces,” says Daniels. “For so long there was the face that we had for business, and our personal face that we have for family; and for African-Americans to survive in the world there needed to be both. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I even had two faces. But when Obama became president I became one.”
Daniels was a hands-on director, ordering Winfrey to seek coaching to refresh her acting skills, and urging Whitaker to do less, and trust that his emotions would be transmitted. “It was really remarkable working with Forest,” says James Marsden (who plays JFK), “how measured and calm and specific he was. His nature is very different to Lee’s.”
The director, meanwhile, praises the “zen-like angelic quality” Whitaker brought to the set. “In preparation I had to revisit many of the atrocities that my mother and my grandmother endured,” says Daniels. “I’m 54, so I remember drinking from a ‘colored’ water fountain. You choose to block things out to get on in the world. But when I was doing the research, it was three months of watching things – the beatings, the murders. I came to set the first day angry, Forest saw that anger and he said: ‘Lee, you can’t carry that energy with you, because the minute that you see racism, it becomes real, and if its real, then it eats you alive. You have to rise above it, and act as if it’s not there, even if it’s in your face.’”
“My character comes from a period where, if you didn’t hide your emotions, it could cost you your life,” says Whitaker. “At that time, it meant survival. For myself, I’ve stayed pretty true to what I feel, to what I am, but we’ve had a lot of incidents in the country … Not that long ago, even, near where I was born in Jasper, Texas, someone dragged this guy through the streets. [James Byrd Jr. was murdered by white supremacists in 1998]. Different things go on as we try to evolve as a nation.”
Certainly, the subject matter was familiar to Whitaker (52), who lived in the South Los Angeles area in the 1960s and early 1970s, and was due to be bussed to a school in Compton until his parents told officials that he lived with a cousin, meaning he was sent to a largely-white school. He also has distinct memories of the radical Black Panther movement operating in his neighbourhood.
“I remember not understanding when Dr King was assassinated, not being at school. And the Black Panther party was around the corner from my house. When I would go to school, I saw them every day. They knew my name, they picked me up, invited me to go to a breakfast programme. I also saw when their building was blown up. I walked right by, I looked for them, ’cause these guys were always talking to me.
“The town I was born in (Longview, Texas), in which I spent all my summers with my grandfather, was always divided. There was this side of the river, or the other side of the river. That was the dividing line between race and culture. That happened throughout the movement of my youth. It’s shifting now, but there are remnants of it.”
If the triumphalism of the film’s conclusion seems a little over-stated in the light of the compromises of the Obama’s administration, Whitaker remains optimistic.
“His election brought a lot of hope to people, and it still does. Dr King talked about it. He said a promissory note had been was given – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is what was in the constitution. This promissory note is what we’ve been working towards.
“As a nation, we’re very young, and the amount of movement that’s occurred in this short span of time is unbelievable.
“Barack is one of those steps that’s moving us there. And it’s a great step. We’ve moved a long way – but we’re still trying to reach a true definition of what we said we were going to be. So in that way, we haven’t become what we’ve promised ourselves.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remember How The Darkness Doubled? Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel Is Like A Brilliant Sequel To Marquee Moon

Chris Forsyth, it’s true, is a little surprised to find himself described as a new artist, after a decade of service with noise band Peeesseye, and a number of collaborations on the fringes of space rock, free jazz and (it says here) intergalactic glossolalia.
But there is a sense of a sudden snapping into focus on his new solo album, Solar Motel. It’s a fierce, exploratory record, which sounds, in a way, like an instrumental sequel to Television’s Marquee Moon. Not incidentally, Forsyth studied guitar with Richard Lloyd of Television when he was living in Brooklyn in the late 1990s.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise,” he says. “I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“Marquee Moon is just in my blood. In the town I grew up in, nobody knew who Television was, so when I stumbled across that when I was 15, 16, a light-bulb went off. Then, studying with Richard automatically makes him/them my biggest influence because he taught me so much. I feel like it’s just something that’s in my DNA. But the exact music wasn’t specifically inspired by it.”
Lloyd, in any case, is not a conventional teacher. “He’s an incredibly brilliant guy – he taught me a lot of fundamental practical things, but he also has a very cosmic approach to music.  So some days we would just learn certain scales or patterns or tricks to get around the neck, and other days he would read poetry and talk to me about the nature of creativity. It’s funny, because Television is referred to as the first punk band in New York, but I think they, and Patti Smith, are actually like the last hippies. There’s definitely a line between that kind of Sixties’questing approach and what they did. They just cut their hair, you know?”
Forsyth’s journey towards Solar Motel was a long, winding journey through the backroads of experimental, improvised music. Peeesseye (a trio with Jaime Fennelly and Fritz Welch) toiled at the coalface of rackety minimalism for a decade, and Forsyth considers their work to be his “first serious musical accomplishment” after a long period “down an experimental rabbit-hole”.
“We always felt like outsiders – we were a little too lyrical for the noise scene and we were a little too freaked out for the rock scene so we didn’t fit anywhere. It was also an anarchic group – nobody told anybody what to do, we improvised a lot, though we also composed pieces. I’m very proud of the records.”
Ultimately, Peeesseye drifted apart geographically, and split when the logistics of living in different cities grew too complicated. “When Brooklyn started to change the various members of the group started leaving New York. First Jamie, then Fritz – he lives in Glasgow now, Jamie lives in Chicago and I moved to Philadelphia. So the band got destabilised.”
Without a band to consider, Forsyth began to concentrate on solo work. “I could really just do exactly what I wanted, so I started going back to roots, playing more lyrically, mostly electric guitar but combining the psychedelic thing with some strong melodic sense.  His luck really changed in 2011, when he was awarded a Pew Fellowship: “It allowed me to not have to bar tend or wait tables or hustle money so much. It allowed me to go deeper into the music.”
The first result of this deeper creative focus was 2012’s Kenzo Deluxe, which can be considered Forsyth’s first true solo album. It was followed quickly by Solar Motel. The music is hard to categorise, though Forsyth is wary of aligning himself with space rock or psychedelia. “I feel like space rock or psychedelic rock is a style that people attach themselves to; I’m trying to make music. It comes out as these extended conversations, or motifs, but the aim is always to have a point, musically.”
For the moment, he has settled, with some reservations, on Cosmic Americana, a label borrowed from a review of his 2011 album Paranoid Cat. “There’s a lot of American roots music that I’m influenced by – blues and country and jazz – although it’s maybe a little less overt. It’s not a stylistic thing to me, more of a musical thing.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise. I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“By the same token, one of my all-time favourite guitarists is Richard Thompson, and he would be the ultimate English guitar player. There’s a meeting point in there somewhere.”
Since the album was recorded, over 18 months ago, Forsyth has assembled the Solar Motel Band, with Paul Sukeena (guitar), Steven Urgo (drums), and Peter Kerlin (bass), and says the music has progressed further. “It turned out a really good chemical reactions. There’s also a lot of spaces on the record that are wide open, or improvised. I always want that instant creativity thing happening. That aspect of it has gone into a whole other realm, and the character of the players is really strong. So it’s snowballed.”
Forsyth has also found time to score an experimental soundtrack to Robert Frank’s infamous Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues. The Forsyth version is called, Never Meant To Change The World (Cocksucker Blues). “I screen a really degraded bootleg DVD of Cocksucker Blues and I erase 95% of the sound from the film. Mostly it’s just dialogue. There’s all those weird hanger-on bits of dialogue which are some of the most interesting parts of the film, so I left some of that in. But basically I reframed the film with my music. I’m a Stones fan, but I’m a huge Robert Frank fan also, and I think aside from being interesting to Stones fans I think it’s a phenomenal film.”
The film was conceived for a Philadelphia art gallery, under the heading The Big Idea.
“I thought, oh, The Rolling Stones, they were once a very dangerous proposition and, God, that kinda failed.”
Solar Motel is on Paradise of Bachelors.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sandpaper, Factory Records, Joy Division And The Noises In Vini Reilly's Head: The Beautiful Messing Of The Durutti Column

Vini Reilly’s first album, The Return of The Durutti Column, was more notorious for its sandpaper sleeve than the music contained therein. The sleeve was a Factory Records joke, designed to destroy neighbouring albums. Joy Division were employed on a piece-rate to stick the sandpaper sheets onto the sleeves. “I was highly embarrassed,” Reilly recalls. “I hadn’t done anything to help them on their albums. But I had praised them when they were Warsaw. I mentioned them to Tony (Wilson) because I’d seen them twice.”
The Durutti Column’s music, despite borrowing a band name from a group of Spanish anarchists – was less demonstrative, and more rewarding. It also gave Reilly a box-seat during those early, crazy days of Factory. “I remember it being very disorganised. For example, Tony Wilson left me to my own devices after that first album had been done. I didn’t even know it was going to be an album, I just got picked up by (producer) Martin Hannett, was taken to the studio, recorded 30 odd pieces of music off the top of me head, and went away.
“I was very seriously ill at that point, and I went back home and concentrated on being depressed. A couple of weeks later, Tony handed me a white label, and said: ‘Listen to it, see what you think’. I liked it, I said, ‘Yeah, carry on, it’s great. Brilliant.’ After that I was earning a wage from royalties, which meant I could concentrate on just doing music, which was all I ever wanted to do.
“I’d always worked, I’d never been on the dole. I’d been expelled from school, I was all over the place. Anyway, I bought a 4-track reel-to-reel from Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe. It was knackered, it was a very old machine. I bought it off my own bat, just to muck around with. And one night, about three o’clock in the morning – I was staying at my mum’s house, she was quite elderly - I went in the spare bedroom, and I just felt very inspired and I recorded for about three hours, with a very cheap drum machine, a space echo and one guitar, and one very cheap microphone, and that’s LC. I didn’t do it to make an album, I just did it because I was inspired.”
LC (short for “Lotta Continua” – continuous struggle) is no noisier than Reilly’s debut,  though it includes some piano, and skittish drums by Bruce Mitchell of Albertos Y Los Trios Paranoias. Reilly sings occasionally (in the manner of a whispering Bernard Sumner), notably on the beautiful opener, Sketch For Dawn.
“Next day Tony Wilson asked me could he have a listen. I had a very early Walkman, he listened to it, and he wouldn’t give me my Walkman back. He carried on listening to it all afternoon. After a couple of hours he said, ‘This is an album.’ I said ‘I don’t think it is,’ but the next day we went into a very small studio which was really built for jingles, but it meant that Bruce could add his drumkit and I put a piano down. That’s all that was added, and Tony said: 'That’s great, that’s an album’. I didn’t really mind, I was quite happy about that. So if you listen to LC you’ll hear hiss from the space echo, hiss from the quarter-inch tape, a very old tape that had been recorded over and over again. As far as audio people are concerned, sonically it’s terrible. It’s full of hiss and all sorts.”
Broadly speaking, it’s uncategorisable. Reilly – classical by training, derailed by punk - went for “new wave”, by which he meant he was in serious opposition to rock’n’roll, and while he was experimental by intuition, his instincts were towards listenability. There’s a lovely song for Ian Curtis, The Missing Boy, which demonstrates that while Reilly was a Factory man, his music transcends that time and place.
“It’s an instant reaction, because I spoke to Ian after his attempted suicide. I knew him quite well, and I also knew his Belgian girlfriend, Annik, she was a friend of mine. I didn’t really know his wife but I knew Annik very well, when I went to Brussels I used to stay with her. She was very intelligent, sophisticated, worldly, and Ian was spellbound by her. The trouble was, he had epilepsy and the treatment if you had epilepsy in those days was to give you a huge amount of barbiturates, and when you take that sort of medication at that level, you lose any sense of reality, and that’s basically what happened. He was in a difficult situation anyway, because he had a young daughter, who’s been a friend of mine ever since. She came into Factory when she was 14, and Tony pointed at me and said ‘Vini’ll look after you’. I did. And she’s now a fine young woman, a very good photographer and a dear friend.
“The title for The Missing Boy came from when we were in America. It was myself, ACR, and New Order. I was just sat by the hotel swimming pool one day, in LA, and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves, because we were just working class Manchester guys, and here we were in LA. I suddenly turned round, and I said to Tony very clearly, ‘You know who’s missing, don’t you?’ And he looked at me straight away, and he said, ‘Yeah, Ian’. That’s why I called it that – he was missing. And at exactly that point, the piece of music arrived, and that was it. It was just there. These things just arrive. There’s no work involved. There’s no cerebral , intellectual exercise. It’s all simple, very simple, and it’s played as it is in my head.”
Reilly, who is recovering from a series of strokes, confesses to some bemusement at the continuing interest in his old music. “I can’t hear whatever it is that people are hearing in it. All I hear is me messing about, and that’s it.”
Messing about, he suggests modestly, is “all I’ve ever done. It’s hard to explain.  I get a piece of music in my head. You know when you play a piece of music, it’s a series of events that take place over a space of time. When I hear a piece of music – when one arrives in my head from wherever, it’s not like that, it’s complete, a beginning, a middle, an end, it doesn’t happen over a space of time, it’s complete in itself. It just exists in my head – I plug my guitar in and tap into it, and play it. I don’t need to rehearse it, I don’t need to work it out or practice it. I just play it. In that sense, it’s not improvised, it’s complete in its entirety in my brain. Then once I’ve done it, I’ve lost all interest in it, it’s done. Then I’ll go to the next little point in my head which is another complete piece of music. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t really explain it very well – that’s the best I can do.”
LC has recently been reissued by Factory Benelux

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chance Martin's In Search: A Lost Missive From The Other Side Of Nashville

Chance with Johnny Cash
Chance Martin has lived many lives, and goes by many names. He has been, variously, Mr Freedom Man, The Stoned Ranger, Johnny Chainsaw, Captain Quick Tour and Orson Green. Currently, Martin is professionally known as Alamo Jones, sidekick to “Cowboy” Jack Clement on Sirius XM, a Nashville-based satellite radio station.  But in 1981, working as Chance, he released the uncategorisable In Search, which went unnoticed, because it was out of tune with the disco era. Actually, the album exists in an era of its own, though the Paradise of Bachelors label has defined it as countrydelic. It sounds, at times, like Isaac Hayes doing the watusi with Captain Beefheart. (Chance, bemused by this comparison, will admit to a fondness for Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones). 
Chance Martin's In Search Of is the kind of totally warped holy grail artifact that I wish Nashville in the golden era had produced more of," says Nashville guitarist William Tyler. “It's hard to imagine a record both so intentionally psychedelic and unintentionally cosmic.
Chance's first proper job was cue-card man on The Johnny Cash TV show. He graduated to lighting and stage design on the Man In Black’s world tours. The Cash connection was a matter of luck and chutzpah.  “I was at a radio station here in Nashville, hanging out with some top disc jockeys,” says Chance, “and I got a call from my mother. My dad was downtown at the hotel where the Johnny Cash Show had set up their headquarters. They were getting ready to do a show, and they had hired several people to take over this cue card business. They didn’t last long. They went through about 10 people trying to find someone. My daddy was down at the hotel, and he overheard the producers talking about it, and told ’em he had the right man for ’em. They told me to come down the hotel and audition. I was 23 years old, I went down, and I didn’t get home for three weeks. They gave me a room at the hotel, and another room for an office. And that was it! I never turned back. I worked in every department. When 58 shows were over, after three seasons, I moved out to Hendersonville. John gave me a place to live. I worked in his publishing house. Eventually I went to work redesigning his bicentennial tour, and was his lighting director and stage manager. I redid his souvenir book, shot an album cover, and totally changed the look of his show.”
Musically, Chance’s influences were diverse. He cites the Alllman Brothers as an influence, while also suggesting that the presence of Jimi Hendrix in Nashville may have had some significance. “I liked the Allmans a lot. They were around here in the Sixties when I was in high school, and I used to go and see ‘em every night at the Briar Patch. They were called the Allman Joys at that time, with Duane and Greg.
“Greg Allman went to school out in Wilson County, where I live, in Mt Juliet. I went to see them in high school, and I was in a band, and we played private parties and skating rinks. When I got out of high school I went to radio school, and I ended up going straight to work for Johnny Cash. So I really put my dream to the side cos I was working with these legends, travelling the world. And one day, in 1977, I said: 'I’m 31, I gotta stop and do this thing.' I took five years and I did it.”
Chance’s recording career was, by necessity, a stop-start affair, with sessions taking place in a spare room above the garage in his parents’ house in South Nashville, nicknamed The Dead End (it was in a cul de sac). “We put a stage in there, we had a bar area and a waterbed where we could crash. It was a good-sized room and we recorded all out rehearsals on a reel to reel, before we’d go to a recording studio and cut one here in Nashville. We always recorded at midnight on a full moon night. We wasn’t in any hurry. I was producing this, and publishing it, and writing songs. We played together for five years and we were real tight, and we enjoyed what we did. We’d perfect the sound that we wanted for each song before we’d go in a studio. And when we did, we usually did one-take stuff. We would go in, and the first hour that we were on the clock at $150 an hour, we’d just sit around and let our instruments breathe, have a few beers and relax and kinda chill, and talk to the engineer, and have some fun, and then when we’d get ready, we’d get up, they would roll tape and we would do it.”
Chance’s tales of the Dead End, as detailed in the album’s sleevenotes, are the stuff of screenplays (and may soon become one). There were 15 foot marijuana plants growing in the garden outside. Chance’s neighbours, he says, were a cop and a pharmacist. Famous musicians would show up – Rosanne Cash came, as did Carl Perkins, who ended the night at a local disco. Tanya Tucker dropped by, and, according to Chance: “She just got her some new boobs and couldn’t wait to show 'em off. Then she started on me with karate!” When Tucker leaves, she drives her jeep straight through the garden fence.
The record sounds like nothing else on earth. “When I recorded it, country music was 90% of the things that were being done in Nashville. What really keyed all this in, for me as a writer, was my lead guitar player Don Mooney. He was a nobody, and he’d never been in a recording studio, but I thought he was a genius. He’d say, ‘Chance, I hear something here we could do backwards’, and they hadn’t been doing that here, except perhaps Hendrix.”
Just 1000 copies were pressed. “Disco hurt me,” says Chance. “I didn’t sell any, I kept them to myself.” A sequel, The Search Is Over, was equally ill-starred, due a few artistic differences with some Miami mobsters.
Still, Chance is encouraged that his original vision has emerged intact after 32 eventful years. “I’ve been on world tours with Johnny Cash,” he says, “and the most fun I’ve had in my life was the five years I spent working on this album.” 
Where does it fit in today? William Tyler says this: “A fully integral sonic rest stop of gratuitous guitar fuzz, wandering beat poetry, nightclub moves, and hi-tech studio possibility, it's an album for the stoned midnight cowboy, the final port of call for the wild and weird era of the Music Row outlaws.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Forget C86, The Pastels' Slow Summits Is Like The Soundtrack To A Haruki Marakami Film Starring James Garner

Blurred vision: Stephen & Katrina of the Pastels
With five albums over a 31 year career, the Pastels could never be accused of being prolific. But even by their standards, a 16 year gap between LPs seems a little excessive.
“It doesn’t feel that it took so long to us,” says Stephen McRobbie (nee Pastel). “Although in some ways it does, in that the studio we started recording it in isn’t there anymore; it’s flats, and that happened a while ago. We made the record over concentrated bursts, but these bursts took place over several years. But we weren’t working for days aspiring to get a Steely Dan snare sound.”
In truth, the Pastels never really went away. There was a well-received 2009 collaboration with Japanese duo Tenniscoats, and a soundtrack to David Mackenzie’s film The Last Great Wilderness in 2003. Plus, thanks to his involvement in Glasgow’s Monorail Music, McRobbie has helped shape the tastes of Glasgow’s independent record buyers. Before that, as Teenage Fanclub’s Gerard Love attests, McRobbie’s stint in the record department of the West End bookseller’s, John Smith, had a significant influence on the city’s musical education.
“That’s a parallel influence,” says Love.  “It influences people who are not maybe influenced in guitar music, there may be people who are into electronic music who are tipping their hat to Stephen because of the way he has stocked his shops over the years. But the Pastels represented different thing to different people. People like Norman (Blake of Teenage Fanclub) or maybe Duglas (Stewart, of BMX Bandits) would see the more melodic side of the Pastels, but also in their early days there was a kind of rock scuzziness. So in Glasgow you’d get a group like Yummy Fur who were more art rock than Teenage Fanclub; they were maybe influenced by the more droning, arty side of the Pastels. Mk 1 Pastels has a rock and roll element, plus they had a more melodic side, and then it became a different band when it became Stephen and Aggi and Katrina – it became more artistic – it wasn’t as robust. They had a real DIY approach, and even their covers started to change.”
When the Pastels formed in 1982, few would have predicted that it was they, and not more hyped, commercially-oriented bands, who would endure. “We started in a void, to an extent,” says McRobbie. “It was a strange time in Glasgow. The Orange Juice moment had passed. There were a lot of people trying to make quite aspirational music. We were aspirational but not in the same way at all. And we were absolutely rudimentary. Very soon after that, we met groups like the Jesus and Marychain and Primal Scream and Shop Assistants that we felt a certain kinship with, but when we started there wasn’t anything like us.
“The group we were closest to in terms of friendship was Strawberry Switchblade. The Orange Juice thing was really brief. Postcard didn’t really root down to any extent. It was a bright spark, and it was much later the city became a place where there was an informal network of musicians, and people started helping each other and there were places to play that weren’t run by gangsters, and good rehearsal rooms. When we started there was Davy Henderson’s [not of the Fire Engines] Hellfire Club, we practiced there, and that was a good place. It was later, probably around 1985-6 that we were meeting Bobby (Gillespie, of Primal Scream) and Norman and Eugene and Frances (Kelly and McKee, of the Vaselines) and we started to think we had more in common.”
The Pastels aesthetic was strong enough to attract the support of several independent labels (including Rough Trade, Creation, and their current home Domino). “We were part of the fanzine network, and we sent a tape to Rough Trade and Geoff Travis asked us if we would make a single for him.  It was so exciting. Rough Trade was the label I really loved. I sent a tape to Dan Treacy of the TV Personalities, he really liked it and we did a single on his label, Whaam! We didn’t have a sense of entitlement or anything – we just thought that was perfectly normal. We weren’t arrogant, but we thought it was incredibly easy, and that probably had a negative impact on a lot of the records we made in the 1980s. It took us a long time to realise that you need to put a bit of work in.”
That said, their artfully shambolic approach had an international appeal, not least in Japan, which the group visited three times in the 1990s. McRobbie confesses he still doesn’t understand their appeal to the Japanese. “It was a very intense experience, because people were so excited that we had gone. It was like a micro-moment, a kind of realisation of what one second in the Beatles’ lives would have been in 1963 or 1964.”
The Pastels progress has been slowed by line-up changes, notably the departure of Annabel (Aggi) Wright in 2000 to concentrate on her work as an illustrator. For a time, McRobbie and drummer Katrina Mitchell put their efforts into their label, Geographic, before the offer of soundtrack work redirected their energies. The recruitment of Gerard Love as an occasional Pastel also brought stability to the group.  “Gerard’s a very strong person,” says McRobbie, “and he’s good at problem solving with music.”
Even so, the maturity of Slow Summits may surprise those who continue to associate the group with the fey pop of the C86 movement (named after an NME mixtape). “The earlier NME cassette, C81, had the sense of ambition about it,” says McRobbie. “All these different styles of music. But C86 was incredibly narrow. I don’t think I’ve ever played C86 all the way through and I don’t think I ever will!
“I don’t think indie music means anything at all. ‘Independent minded’ is my notion of it. You’re operating in a certain way with smaller budgets but a more adventurous spirit to try to be chance-taking.”
Slow Summits includes a sumptuous string arrangement by composer Craig Armstrong (on “Kicking Leaves”), while the core band is augmented by flautist Tom Crossley (also heard on Love’s fine solo project, Lightships). “Maybe the earlier records had a slight trashiness to them, a popness, and maybe through time that diminished,” says McRobbie. “But with this record we tried to be a bit bolder.”
The album was clearly informed by the group’s soundtrack work, as McRobbie became obsessed with Krzysztof Komeda and Ennio Morricone. “We’ve learned to leave more space and not feel that you have to have action all the time.”
“I think it’s quite a varied record, almost like a mixtape,” says Love.  “But the Pastels’ sound has changed over the years. They've become more impressionistic.”
“We made the record in concentrated bursts,” says McRobbie, sounding freshly bewildered at the record’s lengthy gestation. (In truth, he has made an art of sounding bewildered). “We ended up with lots of songs,” he says. “We left off a track that we thought was a masterpiece.”
It would, of course, be a very Pastels thing to record a masterpiece, then fail to release it.
“It would be a very Pastels thing to say you weren’t releasing your masterpiece,” laughs McRobbie. “Then it would turn up and people would say: ‘Was that what you thought was your masterpiece?”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hiss Golden Messenger's Haw: A Question of Faith, Laughing In The Face of Death

MC Taylor’s 2011 album as Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon, blended folk, soul and gospel, revealing Taylor as a writer inside his own lyrical universe; hewn from Biblical imagery and folk mores. The beautiful sequel, Haw, is the same, but moreso. The arrangements are bigger, the language more dense, the symbolism darker.
Hat act: HGM's MC Taylor
“We didn’t set out to make a record that was more complex,” says Taylor. “There’s a weird dynamic at work with Hiss Golden Messenger. As I continue to make records, they feel like they’re becoming more personal, not less. The more records I make, the more solitary they become, emotionally speaking. I, of course, hope that people connect to them. But in the case of HGM the reason the small group of people that connect to them connect to them is because of the rawness of spirit that is in them. It took me a long time before I felt safe enough to put that stuff to record, to tape. It makes me feel very vulnerable, but the thing that gives me hope is that these are personal feelings, but they’re also universal. I think everybody has questions of faith and who they’re supposed to be and what their responsibility is to the world and to the community.”
Taylor also suggests that Haw is an attempt to understand his spiritual life, a recurring theme in his work. Emotionally, it’s tough, swinging between Christmas (I’ve Got A Name For The Newborn Child) and rebirth (the gorgeous Cheerwine Easter).
“It’s a seasonal record in a way. It has a blustery and bright Spring quality to it. There is some light, and there is a lot of darkness too, which you referred to as density. Maybe density would be a better way to describe it. It’s certainly a more emotionally complex record than Poor Moon is. If Poor Moon was setting the stage for these questions of faith then Haw really tries to puzzle them out a little more. If Poor Moon opened up the possibility to me that I could be a spiritual person, then Haw interrogates these questions of: what does that mean and why, what use is faith? And what are the problems with faith? There are many.”
There’s a solution of sorts on Devotion, but Taylor is serious enough to understand that deliverance and pain are eternally intertwined.
“There is a through line on Haw that has to do with a reckoning with death, and understanding that death is the end result of life. To recognise that and to understand that on a daily basis has the potential to make life and our experience of being in the world more profound, I think. This is a hard concept for me to wrap my head around because I’m a person that thinks about the past a lot, or I think about the future – it’s hard for me to live in the moment.
“I was reading an interview with author George Saunders. He’s a very profound writer because of the way he addresses life questions. His latest book, 10th of December, is a funny book, but it’s also really deep. But in this interview he did with the New York Times he says something to the effect of: when death is in the room, things become very interesting. What he meant was, when you are aware of the imminence of death, not as something bleak or dark, but as something which can serve to make life richer because you have to value each moment, then things become a lot more interesting. I just thought that was so incredible. It’s such a simple statement, and kind of obvious, but it also summed up a lot of what I was feeling and thinking during the making of Haw. Death is on the way, how do we celebrate these days?” 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ed Bankston's Red Rippers: Viet-Boogie Recollections Of A Hell-For-Leather Military Man

The latest piece of archaeology by the Paradise of Bachelors label is an extraordinary album of Viet Vet country boogie. First released in 1983, and sold through a small ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, it’s the work of Vietnam veteran Edwin Bankston, who wrote the songs in the decade following his service aboard the aircraft carrier Kittyhawk. The ad read: “For a lot less than a box of ammo to sharpen your eye, you get an album that will nourish your heart and mind for years.”
“I started playing in bars when I was 15,” Bankston recalls. “I lived in a rural area, and we’d play Friday and Saturday nights for five dollars a night. I always thought that would be my life, playing music, but then I got in the service. When I got out, I still thought of myself as a musician but music’s a tough business, and if you’re gonna have success you’re gonna have to give up a lot as far as family goes. I had three kids, and I got to a point where I had to make a choice – either I’m gonna keep doing this, or just become a square and raise the kids. I chose the kids.”
Much of the record is Waylon Jennings-style country boogie – “I’m a soldier of fortune, a hell for leather mercenary man” he sings on “Soldier of Fortune” - but there are occasional 1980s’ period flourishes; on “Firefight”, Bankston embellishes the chorus “here you are, and death is all around you” with a Chicory Tip-style riff.  “I grew up with Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, an old rockabilly type guy. I liked Creedence Clearwater … I always thought of myself as a country guy, but Waylon led us country guys away from straight country – he opened the doors for a lot of musicians, to say that you don’t have to sound like Hank Williams anymore. You can sound like whoever you want.”
Bankston viewed the war as “a perfect storm of psychic wackiness”, and if Vietnam Blues sounds like a Ry Cooder character piece, the song gains poignancy from the singer’s investment in the subject and, perhaps, his awareness of his potential audience. When he sings about being “a hell-for-leather mercenary man” the line “if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time” packs a heavy punch.
“I started writing these songs because I felt kind of estranged from what we call now popular culture. I was playing round different places, and a funny thing happened. Several times I’d take a break from the set, and a guy would come up to me and say, who did such and such a song? I’d say, well, that’s one of my songs. He’d say, ‘Really?’ and we’d get to talking and he’d say, ‘Well you should write a song about this,’ and he’d start telling me about some particular experience that he’d had. You’re always looking for an idea for a song, and I’d go back and forth with these guys, and generally they’d say, ‘Yeah, you kind of got it there’. One song that made it on the album was called Firefight, about a firefight in the jungle, which i never did, but an old marine suggested that to me. I said, ‘Tell me about it’. So his remembrances are what’s in that song.
“As veterans, we all felt pretty rejected. Our fathers were the World War II generation, and they all came back and were hailed and feted. But then we would come back, and we got the opposite reactions. Some people were openly hostile, but even amongst people that weren’t, there was an attitude of: we don’t want to hear about it, just pretend it never happened. They were just ready to put it all out of their minds, which kind of left us hanging. 
“The album was less about that than how unhappy we veterans were with how the whole thing turned out looking back. We were just doing what veterans have always done. We didn’t start the war – we weren’t making any policy or anything, we were just there doing the dirty work, just like soldiers have for thousands of years. I understand the American public was just tired of the whole thing, they wanted it to go away.”

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chris Boot: Magnum, photojournalism, and the flawed reality of great photography

Thomas Hoepker: View From Brooklyn, New York City,
USA, 11 September, 2001, in Magnum Stories

During the course of researching his book about the photography of John Hinde, documenter of the Butlins holiday camp empire, Chris Boot came across a quote from Fellini. “All great photographs,” the great director said, “have something wrong with them.”
In the case of Hinde, whose propaganda for Billy Butlin’s camp was anthologised in the book Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight, the flaw was reality. The pictures were lavish, beautifully lit affairs, in which real holidaymakers did their best to make a visit to Butlins resemble a weekend in Paradise. “What is fascinating,” says Boot, “is that the holidaymakers are not quite playing their roles adequately. Those photographs are like plays.”
Boot was appointed Executive Director of the Aperture Foundation in New York in 2011. Prior to that, his London-based company published idiosyncratic photography books, such as Bliss, Martin Parr’s collection of impossibly romantic European postcards. “We treat postcards, and their view of the world, as somehow inevitable,” says Boot. “Yes, it’s cheesy, but we have to remember that people invented these ways of looking at things.”
Boot’s interest in photography was honed during his lengthy stint as director of the Magnum agency, in both its London and New York offices. “That doesn’t really constitute running it, because it’s the sort of anarchic thing that nobody runs. It’s a place of freedom, in the sense that photographers want to be part of it and at the same time have a context in which to distribute work and collaborate with like-minded photographers.”
The history of the agency is related in Magnum Stories (Phaidon), which Boot edited. As well as offering handsome portfolios by Magnum founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the book offers a subtle reinterpretation of the history of photography. Magnum is often viewed as a bastion of photojournalism: in fact, according to Boot, it was established in opposition to photojournalism, a form established by LIFE magazine in which editors, not photographers, controlled the context of the pictures.
“Robert Capa was very smart, and he saw the possibility for non-photojournalists working in the context of magazine picture stories, and the potential for Magnum to achieve its goals by not being a group of photojournalists. He recruited Cartier-Bresson to that idea, and that made the idea stronger. Even at that stage, in 1947, you would have described Cartier-Bresson as an artist who was using photography. He certainly wasn’t a photojournalist. And that was the dominant tradition of Magnum – Robert Capa was the exception. The majority of its photographers were interested in what they were interested in, and for them, this was a way of earning a living.”
The changing magazine market has limited the opportunities for photographic essays, partly as a result of the power of television. “You can’t account for it entirely in terms of technological change, or other media. You just have to look at Britain in the early 1990s, when you suddenly got a mass of magazines emerging: The Sunday Correspondent and the Independent. I don’t think there has been a point in Britain when more photo stories were being published than then. Those magazines didn’t work, so maybe that tells us something.”
Digital cameras and the spread of camera phones have also shaped our expectations. The most immediate photos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the torture pictures of Abu Ghraib, were taken by amateurs, with little regard for composition or artistry. “Photography is as ubiquitous as the opportunities that present themselves,” says Boot, “and it’s no longer exclusively in the hands of the photojournalist, the way it once was.”
Boot’s championing of postcards, and his publication of Martin Parr’s pictures of commemorative Saddam Hussein wrist-watches, show that he isn’t precious about his subject. “People’s current visual literacy is incomparable even to when I was a child. You just have to look at the story of colour – how many colour photographs did we see when we were children? And now we live in a world that offers colour photography as wallpaper. The audience is much more sophisticated, but a photograph will still excite you for the same reason that it always did; it shows you something that you hadn’t seen before, it shows you something in a way that is appealing, it engages you with the subject. Or it is just plain beautiful.
“Photography does quite clearly influence the world. The way people now see Britain has been influenced by Martin Parr. Think about Little Britain, that vision has been informed by a photographer’s view of the world. And that’s one of the things that photographers do. They explore ways of seeing things which, when they take hold as ideas, do affect the ways we relate to the visual environment.”
Now that everyone is a photographer, Boot has some encouraging advice. “Instead of seeing your holiday pictures as failing, put them away for a few years. Let them mature. Photographs do mature, they do change over time. And that is what’s scary, when you start to think about the billions of photographs that have been taken. They are all interesting. They are all revealing.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

RIP Reg Presley, Trogg, hod-carrier, maverick genius, Wild Thing

Reg Presley of The Troggs died yesterday. As a tribute to his raw brilliance, here's an interview I did with him about recording The Troggs' greatest hit, Wild Thing.  
My influences were Louisiana Red and Lightnin’ Hopkins and the blues from America were sort of kicking us. But we also realised that it wasn’t quite the same in England. So you heard those influences, heard those sounds, and heard the differences. And every time we heard a song and said, ‘Oh that’s a good number, let’s do that,’ the Stones had already beaten us to it. It was a bastard trying to get something.
I’d started to write songs. I don’t think Larry Page, the Troggs manager, would have known, other than me saying ‘Oh I’ve got a song’, you know what I mean?  I didn’t have a telephone in those days. I had to go to a phone box. But he sent down, Did You Ever Have to Make Me Decide? by the Loving Spoonful for us to do. And also what was sent with it was the old demo of Wild Thing, which Denis Berger, who worked in the office, had got out of a whole heap of demos. He saw it and thought, ‘Ooh, that’d be good for the Troggs’. He sent it with the one Larry wanted us to do. At that time I really wasn’t into music, like Did You ever Have to Make Me Decide. And when I finally got hold of Larry he said ‘How did you get on with the harmonies?’ I thought for a minute, because I thought Wild Thing was the one that suited us best. So I said, ‘Harmonies? On Wild Thing?’ and he said, ‘You haven’t done the other one?’
Well, I had A Girl Like You – I’d just finished that one. And we sat in an old Bedford truck, outside the studio, cos Larry told us that he was doing his orchestra, and if there was any time left on the end of that session, we could have it. We waited and waited. We knew what time the end of the session was supposed to be, and they came out about three quarters of an hour before the end. We looked at out watches and we said: ‘We’ve got three quarters of an hour to do this, then.’ They were coming out with their violins underneath their arms and what have you, so we dived in there, and said ‘Are we still going for this?’ Larry said, ‘Yeah, come on’. So we got our amps and that in there, and we ran through about eight bars of Wild Thing, and did it, and about eight bars of With A Girl Like You, and did it. They were both number ones. We couldn’t believe it.
We had been in other little studios, but this was our first time professionally, where everything was so, so, and dead right. Larry would speak though the mike and say 'Right we’ll try it' after he’d heard a few bars. 'OK from the top, go on.' So we’d do 8 bars, and he said 'OK, do it'. So we thought, OK, we’ve got to go for it, do it,' and that’s how it was done. We had to get out the studio cos somebody else was coming in. Our first album took two and a quarter hours – it’s stupid but that’s how it was.
It was all so fast. I was working on a building, doing a gable end, when I first heard Wild Thing on the radio. There was a painter, and he was working on the scaffolding behind me, and when Wild Thing came on his transistor radio, he shouted over to me, not knowing who I was. He said, have you heard this one? I said, ‘Yeah, yeah’. He said, ‘If that ain’t number one next week I’ll eat my brush.’ I thought: that bastard could be right. I threw my trowel down, there was a tea break starting, and I looked round the shed and said ‘Share out me tools, I’m off’.
The sound was raw. Music was starting at that time to go towards flower power. A lot of people say we’re the first punk rock. Well when you look back and see how the punks started, they’re probably bloody right, because they were rebels and they cut across the scene as it was in ‘77, and I think we did the same thing in ‘66. The strange thing about Wild Thing – it helps youngsters who just pick up the guitar, because to do that they’ve only got to learn three chords. It’s the first song they can play.
I still love it. It’s done some mileage. I went up to London one night. Chip Taylor, who wrote Wild Thing, was playing this little club, and I thought, he’s bound to ask me up onstage, I’ll take the ocarina just in case. Sure enough he did. And he does it so slow – you know when a 45’s on, and you put your finger on it to slow it down – it felt like that to me. It was weird.
After Hendrix had done Wild Thing. Chas Chandler, his manager, took me round to his apartment, but he wasn’t there. Chas opened the door, went in, he showed me round the place. And he went into the bedroom, and I couldn’t believe it. If he’d have been lying in bed, you’d never have seen him, cos the whole room was black. The walls were entirely black all the way round, sheets everything, everything was black.  If there’s any other way Wild Thing should have been done, he chose it. He saw the wildness of it.