Monthly Archives: January 2021

Borders (Cruel Expectations) – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.

Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.

It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).

For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.

James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.

As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.

I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).

Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.

Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.

In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.

Murderer, record producer dies

Whatever we may think of Phil Spector’s productions, however much we may either hate the man for his crimes or look for mitigating factors, it’s impossible to tell the story of pop music without him – which is why I’m writing this now. He sold too many records and influenced too many talented people to not acknowledge his death at least briefly, whatever our feelings about his work or whether one should be able to separate the art from the artist.

What Spector’s art can’t do – what armchair diagnoses of mental illness or trauma can’t do; no such professional diagnosis was ever made – is in any way mitigate his crimes and abuses: murdering Lana Clarkson, beating and terrorising Ronnie Spector and keeping her a prisoner in her own home, and pulling guns on numerous other artists who hired him. Penance and remorse could have perhaps have done that, maybe; Be My Baby cannot.

It’s possible that, like tragic Jim Gordon – the session drummer who killed his mother during a psychotic episode in 1983, was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and remains in a psychiatric hospital today – Spector was genuinely mentally ill and we should feel compassion for him as well as his victims. But since, as I say, no professional diagnosis was ever made, it’s more likely that he was just a louse.

From what I’ve seen, no one who’s been paid to report or comment on Spector’s death is trying to whitewash his crimes. Yes, there have been some crassly worded headlines and tweets, and in the Daily Mail some horrendously misogynistic imagery choices, but all the articles I’ve seen deal with Clarkson’s murder in as much depth as his professional successes. The coverage has mostly gotten it right but can’t resolve in us the question of how to feel about Spector, his music or his death.

I could go around in circles all day on this. Regular readers will have seen me grapple with issues like this before, and will know that I don’t have a coherent and consistent philosophical approach to dealing with art by abusers and criminals. Perhaps if I’m making my way towards one, it’s this: I don’t think art made by bad people should be off limits, but we should always remember their victims, and we should never think that the art somehow absolves the crimes.

I’ll have to leave it somewhere, so I’ll leave it there: Phil Spector’s dead, but so is Lana Clarkson, and that matters more.

Solid State Logik 1 – The KLF

At least one good thing has already happened in 2021: the KLF have released Solid State Logik 1, which brings together their commercially best-known singles as the KLF, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and, of course, the Timelords, to streaming sites.

For the uninitiated, the KLF may be pop’s greatest-ever pranksters and provocateurs. In the late 1970s, Bill Drummond was a fixture in the Liverpool punk scene, playing guitar in the band Big in Japan. A pretty short-lived group with only a single, an EP and various compilation appearances to their name, Big in Japan are nonetheless legendary for the people who passed through their ranks. As well as Drummond, that includes Jayne Casey (Pink Military/Pink Industry), Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds), Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), David Balfe (the Teardrop Explodes) and Clive Langer (notable producer of Elvis Costello, Madness and others). Drummond later worked in A&R and as manager of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen.

In 1982, he began managing an ambitious new band called Brilliant. Formed by former Killing Joke bassist Youth, the group were savaged by the British music press and failed to make much of a splash commercially. However, it was through Drummond’s involvement with Brilliant that he began working with the group’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty.

After Brilliant’s demise, Drummond and Cauty started making sample-heavy, hip-hop-influenced records in a South London squat under the name the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (the JAMs), scoring an underground hit with the Beatles-sampling All You Need is Love. They had the audacity to marry their Beatles lift with Samantha Fox samples and children singing Ring a Ring o’ Roses, with Drummond yelling in a hoarse Scottish accent about the ravages of AIDS. “Subversive” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Plus, of course, there were all the allusions to the Illuminatus! Trilogy – the duo’s name being only the most obvious.

Drummond and Cauty followed it with two more epochal singles. Whitney Joins the JAMs repeated the All You Need is Love formula, this time fusing the chorus of I Wanna Dance With Somebody with samples from Mission: Impossible, over which Drummond beseeched Houston to save popular music by hooking up with the JAMs. His repeated bellows of “Whitney! Whitney!” are among the most joyous sounds in popular music.

The other landmark record was of course Doctorin’ the Tardis, which Drummond and Cauty released under the name the Timelords. A mash-up avant la lettre, which sutured together the Doctor Who theme, Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Part II and the Sweet’s Block Buster, it reached number one in the UK, and was followed by The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a book in which the pair sort-of revealed how they did it. “Sort-of” because it’s wise never to take anything Drummond and Cauty say in public entirely at face value. They’ve always been in love with the power of self-mythology, and seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Doctorin’ the Tardis is a record whose joke may only bear only a few repeats, but it rightly begins Solid State Logik 1, as it was the base from which the duo launched the KLF, their most famous guise.

The KLF was initially a vehicle for sample- and rap-free pure dance music, reflecting the acid house movement of the late 1980s. Along the way, though, the pair acquired pop ambitions for their experiments in dance music. 3am Eternal, Last Train to Trancentral and What Time is Love were all duly issued in their “stadium house” incarnations, with rap verses by Ricardo da Force, sampled crowd noises, an increasing refinement of and concentration on their instrumental hooks and a panoply of vocal chants (“Justified!”, “Mu Mu”, etc.) drawn from their previous records as the JAMs. They promoted the singles in videos and on Top of the Pops dressed in hooded robes, King Boy D (Drummond) and Rockman Rock (Jimmy Cauty) reborn as high priests of an Illuminatus cult.

The stadium house trilogy, plus America: What Time is Love, It’s Grim Up North (released under the revived Justified Ancients of Mu Mu sobriquet) and Justified and Ancient, with its lead vocal by a perplexed but up-for-it Tammy Wynette, is the early 1990s’ best run of pop singles in any genre, in any country, no questions, no arguments, no exceptions. On one level, they’re pop music as pure event and spectacle – one put together on a shoestring (that train set in the video for Last Train to Trancentral!) – but they were put togther by people with an evident love of euphoric pop and a wide frame of reference, so they absolutely work simply as pop music, without the visuals. Drummond and Cauty never condescended to their audience, they never sniggered at the music they played or at anyone who liked it, which is how they managed to combine their roles as pranksters and pop stars without ever acting like they were in any way above it all.

In May 1992, a few months after an appearance at the BRIT Awards during which the band played a hardcore punk version of 3am Eternal with Extreme Noise Terror, Drummond fired blanks into the audience, and the band dumped a dead sheep at the after-party (with the message “I died for ewe”), Drummond and Cauty retired from music and deleted their catalogue. They then burned a million quid in royalties on the Scottish island of Jura. Since then, hearing their music on anything other than YouTube has been somewhat tricky, or at least expensive.

My sincere recommendation, then, is that you enjoy Solid State Logik 1 while you can – there are no physical releases, and you can’t buy the tracks from iTunes. The KLF could pull their music down any day, and they just might. Solid State Logik 1 is only a sampler of their work (it contains no Pure Trance mixes of the stadium house trilogy, no B-sides like the sombre, anti-war America No More, and no Whitney Joins the JAMs or All You Need is Love – sample clearance may preclude the latter two getting a new official release), but further volumes are promised, so we await with interest.

The Rites of Mu on the Isle of Mu (oh fine, the Isle of Jura), midsummer solstice, 1991