Category Archives: Uncategorized

Spirited Away – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Over the last few years, the majority of live shows I’ve played have been as a guitar player in James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

I’ve written about James before, but to save you reading an old piece, we met at university some 20 years ago, and we’ve been playing music together more or less ever since. After his old band, the ‘A’ Train, broke up, James began making solo albums, and I’ve been helping him to do it: recording, mixing, playing instruments, co-producing and generally lending a hand wherever I could.

The last James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album was recorded over a number of separate sessions at my flat, James’s flat, my dad’s house and One Cat studio in London (operated by Jon Clayton of Hurtling), with the personnel different on every song. It hangs together remarkably well as an album, but this time, James wanted to record all the basic tracks live at One Cat as a five-piece live band, with Jon engineering, and keep overdubbing to a minimum. The idea was that we’d then have a unified sound throughout the whole record (mission successful), which could be more or less replicated live (mission successful), and get the whole thing done quickly (mission less successful).

The band was/is a really good one (even though I was in it). On drums we had Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) and on bass Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union), while ace singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic and sang.

On most songs, that’s the entire instrumental palette, but we also had Basia Bartz of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band playing violin on two songs, while Nick Frater helped us out with some brass sounds on another couple of songs. James and I handled most of the backing vocals on the record, but we also had extensive contributions from my partner Melanie, as well as Matt and Chris from the band, James’s brother Dan McKean and north London singer-songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Despite being a five-piece band with two lead electric guitarists and a fair amount of harmonies, the results don’t sound very much at all like the Eagles, which given that band’s critical and cultural standing these days, most will take as good news.

While the basic tracks all sounded good and James and I slowly worked on getting lead vocals, harmonies and extra things like synth and violin parts recorded, progress on final mixes was slow until the coronavirus crisis. After I was furloughed by my company, I had more time to work on musical projects than I’d had in the seven years or so since I started my job. I was really able to focus, cranking out a mix or two per day and sending them to James for notes.

The album is now completely mixed, and is being mastered as we speak. Before it comes out, though, James is releasing a four-song EP based around one of its tracks, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is one of my favourites on the album. I felt at the time we recorded it that it had the best basic track of all the songs on the album. Given the relative complexity of the song (it’s in the guitar-unfriendly key of Bb and has a fair number of changes), I was very happy with how we played it. It had good feel and good tempo.

James sang an excellent lead vocal and worked up a great backing vocal arrangement (I added some voices to his to make the backing vox thicker and wider), and Basia’s violin, largely scored by James, adds a huge amount to it. We recorded her parts at my house on the morning after Super Bowl LIII, and it was somewhat challenging. Not because I was hungover, you understand; I’d been poorly all week and was feverish during the game itself, sitting under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably while drinking coffee. The next morning, sleep deprived and generally feeling terrible, I was not at the top of my game, but the tracking went well, luckily!

The EP’s three other tracks are largely James’s work, recorded and mixed by himself at his home. Don’t Have Far to Go has had a long life, having originally been recorded by the ‘A’ Train. In this incarnation, it’s a Dylan-esque acoustic strummer with a verse/refrain structure. I think I like this version better than any previous take on the song, and a line James wrote somewhere around twelve years ago – “In this age of documentary are there stories left to tell?” – seems so appropriate to our times it’s as if he wrote it yesterday.

The Falls is, I think, a super-charming old-timey song inspired by the film Up, sung from the point of view of the elderly Carl. Matt plays double bass on this one, and James’s finger-picking acoustic part with all the right jazzy passing chords is great. The final track is James’s version of one of my songs, Nothing Means More, for which he reused and remixed my backing track, adding his own lead and backing vocals. At the time I wrote it, I thought it sounded more like one of his songs than the kind of thing I usually do, and I was really honoured he wanted to record it. He’s done a cracking job with it, and it’s great to hear a proper singer have a go at something I wrote for my little voice to sing.

Spirited Away is available to stream and download from Bandcamp, along with James’s other releases.

More news on the release date for the full album soon.

 

 

 

 

So here we are

Silence means consent. Silence is complicity. Silence is violence. These words ring in my ears, castigating me, every day. I imagine many of us have felt that way this week.

It may sound trite, or just a cop out, but this week I’ve not wanted to post anything here. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with protests and riots still happening across the US, and with solidarity protests also taking place in Europe, writing about old music – or even offering my own take on what’s going on, like anyone needs a lecture on race from a white British guy – has seemed utterly inappropriate. I’ve rather preferred to read, learn and reflect on what is happening (the protests, the riots and the responses to them both), but without drawing attention to myself.

I understand the wish to demonstrate which side you’re on – and I’m most assuredly on the side of the protesters – but much of what I’ve seen on social media this week, from both white individials and corporations looking to score PR points, has a performativity to it that could be dismissed as merely silly if it weren’t actively unhelpful. These are serious times; we can’t afford silliness. When hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk congregating and protesting together in public during the middle of a pandemic that’s so far claimed 380,000 lives globally because this racist police murder is just one damn murder too many, when news coverage is filled with police battering peaceful protesters and leaving them bleeding on the ground; ramming SUVs into barriers behind which stand unarmed, innocent people; and marching through city streets like Imperial Stormtroopers while the president agitates to deploy the armed forces against the citizens they exist to protect, the times could scarcely be more serious.

The response we have seen from the police, elected officials and above all from the White House is deeply concerning. That peaceful protesters have too often been met with violently disproportionate policing tactics is not deniable, unless you believe that any level of protest automatically warrants being beaten with sticks or violently shoved to the ground and left there to bleed. If that is your view, I doubt anything I can say can change your mind or that there’s anything we ever could agree on – including, I should say, the worth of the music I usually write about here.

This president has always sought to govern by division, by portraying any criticism of him as evidence of a conspiracy, and any critic of him as undemocratic – un-American, even. He revels in creating division, then whipping his side up with inflammatory rhetoric. To have a president behave that way may be offensive and indecorous, but it’s not on its own enough to make his governance illegitimate and incompatible with American democracy.

But by tear-gassing peaceful protesters to clear the way for a photo op in which he posed with a Bible he hasn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t attend; by hiding in a bunker at the first sign of trouble; by fortifying the White House so it resembles the palace of a dictator; by threatening to have the army shoot looters on sight; by allowing – encouraging – police chiefs to double down on violent suppression of peaceful protest, Trump has crossed several lines. These tactics have been used many times before, and when deployed elsewhere, we wouldn’t hesitate to call them fascist. The US has gone to war with other nations because their leaders have treated their citizens thus.

Fascism is of course not a word to use lightly, but I think we’re at the point now where it’s becoming undeniable. Trump’s racial prejudices are visceral and well documented, but whether they are evidence of genuinely fascist leanings would only truly be seen in how he reacted to having his authority challenged by a significant number of people. In the last week, we’ve seen his reaction: restricting press freedoms, pressuring politicians at state level to restrict the rights of people to peacefully assemble, and signalling a willingness to use the army against the people. In so doing, he has shown what he truly is. In Trump’s world, black lives do not matter. But really, in Trump’s world nothing matters except for whatever benefits him.

Who knows where this will end now – with the army marching down the streets of Manhattan and Minneapolis? Will the wall around the White House stay there permanently? If Trump loses in November, would he even leave office without a protracted, ugly battle played out in the courts, on Twitter, in the right-wing media and, God forbid, on the streets? These are unprecedented times, and nothing seems impossible.

All of this is is why posting about music this week has seemed inappropriate. I had thought I’d wait until the moment was less febrile, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. So I guess I’ll be back with something musical in a couple of days. In the meantime, I do recommend this podcast about police funding. It gave me a lot to think about. Stay safe, everyone.

Tenderness – Jay Som

Of course lo-fi yacht rock is a thing.

It’s not the only style that Melina Duterte essays on Anak Ko, her most recent album as Jay Som, but in the shape of the second single Tenderness, it is perhaps the most striking.

Duterte started uploading home-recorded bedroom indie rock to Myspace in 2006 at the age of 12, progressing to uploading bedroom shoegaze to Bandcamp in 2012. Her previous albums – 2016 debut Turn Into and Everybody Works from 2017, both entirely self-played and self-recorded – are charming enough, and promising from a young artist. Duterte is a fine multi-instrumentalist and a creative producer, and writes appealing, slightly Juliana Hatfield-ish melodies. And if her drum tracks are sometimes a little wonky compared to her assured guitar playing, that’s all part of the records’ DIY vibe and feel.

On Anak Ko, though, Duterte’s gets her self-recording methods down to a fine art, and widens her songwriting palette so that, while everything still sounds a little bit like the Sundays or the Cocteau Twins, a wider array of influences creep in from outside the dream pop universe: the huge, J Mascis-like solo at the end of Superbike, for example, or the Steely Dan chords of the aforementioned yacht rock jam Tenderness.

Anak Ko features a wide cast of musicians on a Jay Som record for the first time, including members of her live band. On Tenderness, the contributions of drummer Zachary Elsasser are key. As I said, Duterte’s own rhythm tracks on her first two albums are integral to the vibe, but even lo-fi yacht rock has to be impeccably smooth or it’s not yacht rock but something else entirely; Elsasser’s hi-hat patterns, triplet figures gesturing towards a shuffle without quite coming out and playing one, is straight out of the Jeff Porcaro playbook. Duterte’s own bass and guitars are similarly smooth.

Tenderness isn’t the only impressive track on Anak Ko. I’m hugely fond of Superbike, (which I heard for the first time while Mel and I were having coffee in KEXP’s gathering space during a trip to Seattle last September) and Devotion’s intricate tapestry of chorused guitars and almost gamelan-like keyboards; the latter is also an example of how to successfully use heavily reverberant vocal tracks in the context of a generally drier overall mix.

Duterte’s work is still perhaps stronger on texture and atmosphere than it is on melodies that stick (the best part of the title track is the 90-second instrumental section in the middle; the vocal sections either side are slight in comparison), but each Jay Som record  seems to me to be getting stronger and more focused. Duterte is an artist to keep an eye on.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

Strange days

Well, these are interesting times to be living through. If by “interesting” we mean, scary and totally bizarre.

I’m not afraid of getting sick. Maybe I should be. I have a heart condition, after all. But I’m in good health – better than before my condition was diagnosed probably. The odds would be in my favour. And anyway, I’ve been sick. I know what it’s like to be hospitalised, to receive a life-changing diagnosis, to confront the possibilty of dying. None of that scares me.

What scares me is, what if Mel got sick, or a member of my family? What if my company can’t afford to keep going, or lays me off in the attempt to? What if this takes 18 months to subside? What if the economy is so broken by this that everything just keeps getting worse for everybody, and there’s no money left to even attempt something radical like a universal basic income? It’s the uncertainty that scares me.

The speed at which everything has changed is dizzying. Last Thursday I went on a day-long training course in Russell Square, met Mel for dinner then went to the Electric Ballroom to see Nada Surf and John Vanderslice. It didn’t feel like the world’s most sensible idea, but it was a first chance to see Vanderslice since I became familiar with his music seven years ago, and probably the last chance we’d have to see anyone play live for some months at least. As it turns out, none of us have gotten sick yet, and I assume we’re past the incubation point now, nine days on. If we were to get ill now, it wouldn’t be because we caught it in Camden.

That was the last semi-normal day. The next day, I worked from home. It was going to be a trial thing: we’d all work from home for two days either side of the weekend to see how it would work, whether we had the IT in place and so on. But things started spiralling, most of the businesses in central London sent their employees home, the panic buying started and socialising began to stop.

Yesterday I had to go into my office. Mel and I had ordered wedding invitations weeks ago, before any of this seriously kicked off. We don’t have a porch or anything, so we usually have parcels delivered to my office. I’d got a message that they’d arrived, and with rumours rife online that London was going to be put in Paris-style lockdown, with the army and armed police ensuring that no one could leave home except to buy food, I figured that it might be the only chance I’d have to pick them up for literally months.

Central London was quiet, but not a ghost town. The restaurants were mostly dead, but the bars and pubs were worryingly crowded. Some of the owners were obviously caught in a terrible dilemma: open up and maybe make money to pay staff, but encourage the virus to spread, or close and lose money, and bring forward the moment where you can’t pay staff anymore. I don’t envy them having to make that choice. But of course, some of the pubs that were crowded with beered-up lads practising no kind of social distancing whatsoever were chain pubs that were open because Tim Martin or some goon from Greene King said so. May history judge them them as harshly as they deserve. The news today that pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and gyms must all close tonight is inevitable and several days too late.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this. It feels weird to be living through something so unprecedented in my lifetime, and I’ve not written anything about it all week, or anything about anything at all, truth be told. At the end of each day, I’ve been a bit wrung out, shattered. Bad things are happening to people I know (bad things economically; I don’t believe anyone I know has fallen ill yet), and there’s so little anyone can do to help. Everything feels… provisional. Planning ahead beyond the next day seems naive. I hope for the best, of course. But I’ve got zero confidence in the political decisions being made, so I’m braced for more restrictions, increasingly serious food shortages and a pile-up of bodies as our wonderful but dreadfully underfunded health service gets overwhelmed.

At times like these, music helps, of course. But so much of what it is to play music is about freedom, and freedom is of course what we have to sacrifice in order to beat this thing.

I hope you’re all doing OK, wherever you are. Isolation is the hardest thing of all. If you need someone to talk to and for whatever reason read my blatherings, you can email me. Use the contact form. Say hi. I’ll reply.

If a 10-minute distraction would help, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently.

Honey Down a String – Krista Detor

A few years ago, I came across a song on Soundcloud called Honey Down a String, by an American singer-songwriter called Krista Detor.

Honey Down a String was not (and still isn’t) on Detor’s own Soundcloud, but on the Helber Sisters’. The Helbers are natives of Bloomington, Indiana, where the California-born Detor is also based. A folksinging duo in the 1970s and ’80s, they began singing together again in the last decade after a long lay-off. Detor asked them to add harmonies to Honey Down a String, from her 2014 album Flat Earth Diary. The sound of Detor and Janet and Vicki Helber all singing together is absolutely heavenly, and it was that sound that hooked me when I first heard this song. I’m a sucker for voices in harmony.

As a song, Honey Down a String deals with the emotional resonance of small moments and images: looking at a field of wheat in the distance and being reminded of a faded photograph; overhearing someone nearby singing Autumn Leaves; stopping a while to muse on who left that ginger ale outside to grow warm in the sun. Detor constructs these little moments and ties them into, not a narrative exactly, but at least a context where we know that what she’s really thinking about is someone close to her, and that these little moments are fragments of thoughts that cross her mind briefly, before floating away. Which is why the key lines of the song are “Don’t you go carrying on so carelessly when you are so close to me, when you are so near” – the moment when she addresses that person directly.

It’s a beautiful little miniature of a song – one that I’ve come back to frequently since first hearing it three or four years back – and as a recording it has all the intimacy and immediacy that is missing from the contemporary indie reverb-haze productions. You can hear every detail of Detor’s vocal – every breath, every little shift in the timbre of the voice – and every nuance of her piano, including her pedal movements, as if you were in the same room as her, a few feet away. It’s that level of detail I love in 1970s singer-songwriter recordings, and it’s a big part of what I find so attractive about Honey Down a String.

 

Woodbine

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me the first album by Woodbine, a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop, and asked if I wanted to go and see them live.

I found the record interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music. So I was up for going to see them play, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter, David Gedge, had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. (I was so young!) My friend and I were by some distance the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good 15 years older than we were.

Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever seen play live, I think. It didn’t help that they were all drunk (their drummer was really drunk – falling-down drunk. He was half asleep in charge of a drum kit), but I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Even at on their best day, they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at a small boozer (the Crown & Anchor down the road, maybe), it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two of their own and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage (the venue now called Thousand Island) later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to singer Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed rather embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy, narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising – to be untidy – is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, wouldn’t feel the same at all. Would be all wrong, in fact. There is a rightness to the analogue wrongness of Woodbine.

Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want and Tricity Tiara* will do you.

tricity tiara
This is a Tricity Tiara, or more correctly a Tricity-Bendix Tiara. Not many of these about any more, but a landlord’s favourite cheap oven for donkey’s years.

 

Never Let Her Slip Away – Andrew Gold

Andrew Gold was practically bound by genetics to become a successful musician. After all, he was the son of Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold and the most sought-after ghost singer in Hollywood, Marni Nixon*.

After a couple of aborted attempts at launching a career as a recording artist, Gold worked himself up a full-time career as a musician, arranger, songwriter and producer. He was recruited by Linda Ronstadt for the recording of her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel and quickly became her de facto bandleader and musical lieutenant. Some of the songs on Heart Like a Wheel, including her hit cover of Dee Dee Warwick’s You’re No Good, were more or less played entirely by Gold: guitars, keyboards, drums, everything.

His work with Ronstadt brought him to the attention of LA’s singer-songwriter kingpin David Geffen, who signed him to his label Asylum (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, the Eagles, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, etc.). In the US, he hit big with his single Lonely Boy, from his second album, and Thank You for Being a Friend**, from his third. But in the UK, he had a third, even bigger, hit.

Gold recorded Never Let Her Slip Away for his third album, All This and Heaven Too, the cover of which saw Gold in a white suit and top hat, with a cane, doing a dance move. You might assume from that picture that Gold was a Warren Zevon-style smartarse, unlikely to write a straight ballad without some sort of angle or ironic distance.

The great thing about Never Let Her Slip Away is that, despite how cleverly it’s written (and it’s very cleverly written; there are some ninja-level chord changes in there), Gold seems to have written and sung the song from a place of total sincerity. There’s no side at all. Part of the way that Gold projects that sincerity is the sparseness of the arrangement. It’s simply him at his keyboard with a crude-sounding percussion loop. OK, maybe in an ideal world he’d not have included the proto-1980s smooth-jazz saxophone (or got a different player), but it doesn’t spoil the song at all for me; the player, Ernie Watts, wouldn’t win any prizes for taste and subtlety here, but like Gold, he doesn’t sound fake or insincere. When recording a song like Never Let Her Slip Away, that’s crucial. To write and perform a song like this, you have to mean it.

Gold was always popular within the music industry, with fellow artists and producers appreciative of the breadth of his talent. That goodwill can be seen in the range of artists who he worked with; he would go on to have a secondary career as a hitmaker in the 1980s as half of the duo Wax with 10CC’s Graham Gouldman, while uncredited on Never Let Her Slip Away as a backing singer is none other than Freddie Mercury.

*Nixon was the uncredited singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
**Yep, the one that would become the theme to The Golden Girls.

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

In early January 2012, I was discharged from hospital and sent home to adjust to life as a heart failure survivor (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – prognosis, at the time, not all that good).

It’s hard to fill your days when can’t walk even a few hundred metres without needing a long rest to recover. You don’t leave your house an awful lot, and even doing the things you enjoy can become tiresome. New enthusiasms are a godsend.

Soon after I was discharged, BBC4 broadcast the first episode of Jonathan Meades’s series of films on France. I’d seen some Meades before (his Queen Victoria film in 2001, when I was home from university; I missed the start of it, though), but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to watch one properly, and I was transfixed. Here was a singular TV presence: dark-suited, ferociously eloquent, idiosyncratic, unapologetic, scabrous (lists that end without a conjunction are a Meades speciality).

The Guardian described him as exploring France like a man trying to poo a dictionary, but you don’t learn many new words watching telly these days, so it certainly didn’t seem like a valid criticism to me. I found all his other films online, going back to his early Abroad in Britain stuff, and devoured it all. All of his films merited a rewatch or two (or three in my case), and so they became a kind of life raft, something to cling to during long, boring afternoons or evenings otherwise filled with nothing.

While I was working backward through his archive, Meades’s TV output slowed. He is not, it should be said, just a writer and performer on TV. His talents are many. But he has spoken in interviews about how difficult it now is to get series or programmes commissioned and adequately funded by the BBC. In truth, the lack of funding directed towards BBC4 programme making is everywhere evident: 15 years ago, there was something interesting on most nights, and a new music documentary most Fridays at nine. Now, new shows come along much less frequently, and are evidently made for less money than previously.

Meades’s last series with high production values was On France. His recent films Ben Building and this week’s Franco Building, which completes his quartet of films about the architecture of Europe’s great 20th-century dictators (I’m holding out hope for Tito Building, though), are evidently the product of straitened circumstances. In his older films, Meades inserted himself physically into almost every shot: as he discussed the architecture of the Soviet Union, or 1960s big-tech structures in the UK, or Belgian suburbs, he’d stand there, in his suit and dark glasses, thunderously declaiming to camera. He was fond of visual, in-camera jokes that depended on his conspicuous, hitman-esque presence.

His more recent work sees much of his narration delivered in a studio, in front of a green screen. To make it more visually interesting, Meades is superimposed on buildings, or behind buildings, as he discusses them. Still images are photoshopped, some segments are illustrated with animation or static drawings. He’s doing his best, but the budgets are clearly not what they were. We should, I suppose, be grateful that he’s still allowed to make films at all. Especially, this one: Franco Building, broadcast this week, sees Meades in uncompromising anti-religion form. I’m surprised no one senior at BBC4 got cold feet about showing it. I’m sure there will have been complaints.

Their loss. Franco Building was thrilling. From Jerry Building to Ben Building, Meades has never shied away from showing the horror of these despotic regimes, and there were ample shots of human remains in mass burial pits and sinister orphanages in which the children of dead Republicans were housed and re-educated (that is, indoctrinated) after the civil war to show the enormity of Franco’s regime. But tourism was the programme’s throughline, from the posh hotels that sprang up in the 1950s to house well-heeled pilgrims and culture tourists walking the trail to Santiago de Compostela, to 1960s high-rise blocks in Benidorm, which long-time Meades watchers won’t be surprised to find he has a great deal of sympathy for.

Neither will long-time Meades watchers need reminding of where the birthplace of modern mass tourism is: Prora, on the German island of Rügen, where the arm of the Nazi state called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) built eight identical blocks, parallel to the beach, measuring nearly three miles in length. In light of Meades’s evident horror of Prora, the murderous regime that built it and the others that copied it, his sympathy for Benidorm’s sometimes kitschy, sometimes pleasingly futuristic towers may seem surprising. But then, Meades has always preferred bad taste to middlebrow taste.

In a week where the prime minister has announced via the Queen that he will suspend British parliamentary democracy for five weeks because it doesn’t suit him to face any opposition to his plans for a no-deal Brexit – plans supported by a only a fraction of the population, and an even smaller fraction of MPs – it may do us good to remember what actual fascism results in, but also how actual fascism starts. There are parallels. Perhaps one day, in a more enlightened era, a successor to Meades – an older, crustier Owen Hatherley, perhaps – will make a programme called Boris Building, but let us hope that won’t be necessary.

Dummy at 25 – Portishead’s masterpiece

The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”

The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.

Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.

A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.

Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.

Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.

 

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

29-trouble-boys.w700.h700

*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?