Tag Archives: BBC

25 Years of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Let’s break up the drum posts with something different. I’ll be back next week with more underrated drum tracks.

Spin CDs send me an email every day, a little round-up of new and upcoming stock. Their algorithms have done their job well; there is, for instance, a Grateful Dead live album in almost every email (amazingly, a different one nearly every day). Right now they’re hawking the new 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

We’ll skip past the 25-years stuff, as no one needs another one of my wistful gee-how-did-I-get-to-be-in-my-mid-thirties disquisitions; it’s probably only been half a dozen posts since the last one. But I will say this, Out of Time is a pretty formative album for me.

I bought it with paper-round money in, I think, early 1995, when the record was about four years old. I’d liked every song I’d ever heard by R.E.M. and while I knew more songs from Automatic for the People (Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were all big enough hits in the UK for me to have heard them on the radio), I wanted a copy of Losing My Religion, which I knew, but not well; I guess I’d started listening more to the radio in the time between the releases of OOT and AFTP and had started to pay more attention to finding out which artists responsible for songs I liked.

Buying an album for £12.99 when you earned a tenner a week* was a big deal, so every time I bought a record, I played it to death, and didn’t purchase anything without a lot of forethought. I came to be familiar with every note of Out of Time, and it had a huge and lasting impact on my sense of what an album could be.

Out of Time stretched in all kinds of directions. It took the listener on a journey, one with unexpected digressions and tangents. The bassist sang two of its songs (one of which – Near Wild Heaven – had the temerity to be a single), while Endgame was a quasi-instrumental with a lyricless Michael Stipe vocal. Opening track Radio Song had an unlikely guest appearance from KRS One (it’s not widely loved, but I’ve always liked how they sound like they’re enjoying themselves). Low was stark, minimal and tense – not much more than Stipe’s voice, some muted guitar chords and Bill Berry’s congas. Shiny Happy People was, well, you know what it was (and I like to think it was on some level a parody). Losing my Religion was one of the great singles. Half a World Away and Country Feedback were the album’s sad, confused heart. Out of Time was by turns goofy and dark, happy and sad; up and down, high and low.

I didn’t understand when hearing it as a 13-year-old that few albums actually worked like this, that most strive for a streamlined consistency in which all the songs are good in essentially the same way. I imagined that R.E.M. were working to a formula other bands also followed. Not so. Twenty-five years later, I hear Out of Time‘s uniqueness, and love it all the more.

There’s a two-part documentary on BBC 6 Music at the moment (thanks to Sara for alerting me to it), narrated by long-time friend of the band Billy Bragg, with contributions from Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and producer Scott Litt. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan.

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*I was a teenage guitarist in a band, so I needed to pay for my share of rehearsal-room hire costs and buy new strings, cables, etc. We practised more or less weekly (not that you’d have been able to tell), so typically I could afford a new record once a month.

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Threads

Today we’re going to discuss a 1984 BBC movie called Threads, about nuclear war. It’s strong stuff, so please do take that as a warning. Spoilers follow.

Threads never leaves you. No film has ever affected me as deeply, or for anything like as long. I remember vividly the first time I watched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days later, I still felt depressed by what I’d seen. This was about six or seven years ago, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and an event like this stopped seeming inevitable.

I’m 34, so I can remember the last years of the Cold War, but I was only two when Threads was made, and it’s only been seen on British TV rarely since. I saw it first on YouTube or Vimeo (I forget), its impact dulled only slightly by the grainy image. And frankly, there were times in the firestorm scenes where I was grateful for not being able to see the images of charred corpses in total clarity.

Let’s back up. Threads was written by Barry Hinds, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave (which Ken Loach made into Kes), and was co-produced by the BBC, Australia’s Channel Nine and Western-World TV. Its director was Mick Jackson, who’d go on to make, of all things, The Bodyguard.

It’s essentially a docudrama, showing the effects of a nuclear exchange on the UK city of Sheffield, a target for its steel and mining industries, as well as for having a nearby US air base. It’s a small miracle of film-making. It was produced on a budget of about a quarter of a million pounds (far less than its US counterpart, The Day After), yet tells an ambitious story over a roughly 10-year period. It shows an entirely city being destroyed, and the pathetic attempts of civilisation to reassert itself during the resultant nuclear winter. By the time it’s finished, every character we see at the beginning of the film is dead.

The bombs don’t start falling until 45 minutes in, yet the early scenes are full of foreboding. Ruth and Jimmy are a young couple. She’s pregnant, and the pair decide to get married and move in together. Scenes of their families meeting, and of Ruth and Jimmy working on their new house, play out as TVs and radios in the background give updates on an escalating crisis situation in the Middle East, with Russia refusing to acknowledge US ultimatums. Eventually missiles are exchanged over the North Sea, and Sheffield is destroyed.

The film is unsparing in its depiction of what happens next. Jimmy is at work when it happens and he never sees Ruth again. We last see him running through the streets to try to get to her, 51 minutes into the 2-hour film. His fate is left unknown to us. (As a viewer in 2016, this is even more surprising as Reece Dinsdale, the actor who played Jimmy, is the most familiar face on screen – he’d go on to star in ITV sitcom Home to Roost with John Thaw, and was in Coronation Street for a couple of years, too.)

Ruth, meanwhile, survives the blast, in the cellar of her parents’ house. But days after the attack, she leaves the house to look for Jimmy. Later she returns, and her parents are dead in the cellar. We don’t see them, merely hearing the flies and scuttling of rats as she opens the door down to the cellar. Threads is, as I say, unsparing.

Ruth survives 10 years of nuclear winter, long enough to have her daughter, Jane, and to grow blind (cataracts) and prematurely aged from radiation poisoning. Jane grows up near mute (there is no system of education so language decays to a bare minimum of words needed to facilitate survival; order is maintained by the essentially totalitarian government witholding food from those unwilling to work) and the film ends with Jane screaming at the sight of her own stillborn baby.

This rough outline of the plot doesn’t come close to capturing the full horror. It’s the sheer relentlessness of Threads that’s so harrowing. Throughout the film, we frequently cut away to title cards giving updates on plot elements that happen off-screen or that give some indication of the nationwide picture. One such particularly brutal cut comes during the firestorm scene. After seeing several shots of buildings (shops, offices and terraced houses) destroyed by the blast wave, a title card tells us that two-thirds of houses in Britain are in the possible fire zone. We cut back to a shot of a whole city on fire, with everything that wasn’t already flattened burning.

That’s what remains so shocking about Threads. It’s not one individual thing. It’s not the burning bodies, the corpses in the wreckage, the scenes of survivors eating rats, or radioactive sheep; it’s not the soldiers gunning down looters, the council’s disaster response team all dying of suffocation in their shelter before they can be dug out, or the stillborn babies. It’s everything. It’s the total lack of pretense from Hinds and Jackson that an event like this could be survivable and anything like life as we know it could continue after. Some on the right have decried the film as propaganda, but Jackson was hired because he’d worked on the BBC’s QED programme A Guide to Armageddon, and Hinds and Jackson spent a week in a Home Office training centre for “official” survivors who’d need to help with the reconstruction effort.Hinds used sources such as Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, an article that Carl Sagan and James Pollack wrote for Scientist to determine realistic scenarios. From the vantage point of 2016, it’s amazing that it was ever broadcast. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, sent a letter of congratulations to Hinds. Ronald Reagan reportedly requested a screening of it.

I’m not ashamed to say Threads changed my stance on nuclear disarmament, pushing me far further towards unilateral disarmament that I’d been before. The idea that we’d spend another penny on weapons that can do this rather than education and welfare makes me boilingly angry. I honestly couldn’t recommend you watch Threads – it really is tremendously disturbing, it’s in no way enjoyable, and if you do watch it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to forget what you see. But I’m glad that I have seen it, however uncomfortable it was to watch.

Oh Lori – Alessi Brothers

The Alessi Brothers (or Alessi as they are sometimes billed) are not one-hit wonders. They had two hits, albeit different ones in the UK and the US. Oh Lori was their big British hit, a number eight in 1978 (Savin’ the Day, from the Ghostbusters soundtrack, was their US hit. No, me neither). Oh Lori is one of those songs I feel like I’ve always known, as it was an inescapable part of the BBC Radio 2 playlist for a couple of decades at a time when the music I heard was governed by what my parents wanted to listen to. My mum’s choice, Radio 2 was then home to voices I only dimly remember now, those who (unlike the late Terry Wogan and the still on-air Ken Bruce) didn’t survive James Moir’s cull: John Dunn, Derek Jameson and Jimmy Young.

Billy and Bobby Alessi were signed to A&M in the label’s 1970s heyday. It was an appropriate home for them, as A&M was not, and never has been, a hip label. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were good guys, but they were constantly behind the curve of music fashion and their rock roster has rarely been better than embarrassing. The quintessential A&M rock band (on their books during the label’s 1970s peak) were the Police – a band that comprised a jazzer, a progger and a schoolteacher in punk drag, a little too old to be convincing, a little too dextrous to be authentic, with identical bleach-blond haircuts. Alpert especially (a successful recording artist in his own right with the Tijuana Brass) was one to put his trust in old-fashioned virtues like graft and instrumental ability. Yet despite this, perhaps in a desperate effort to contemporise, they signed the Sex Pistols when EMI dropped them, famously letting them go a week later, after Sid Vicious had smashed a toilet in their offices and Johnny Rotten had harrangued the employees.

The Alessi Brothers were a far more typical signing: cute identical twins singing in jazzy falsetto. Like the brothers Gibb, to whom they owe a substantial debt, Billy and Bobby Alessi are consummate hacks, in the nicest possible way. They’ve maintained a career over 40 years as recording artists, songwriters, vocal arrangers and jingle writers, constantly employed, not often in the foreground, but always somewhere to be found if you look hard enough. Their hackwork is barely distinguishable from their best days at the office. Whatever they’re doing, they turn it out to a high standard.

But Oh Lori finds the brothers at the top of their A game. They may have broken the needle on the twee-o-meter with this song but they’re so damn sweet and doe-eyed about it – their idea of romance seems to have come from the same era as their chord changes: ‘I want to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars’ indeed – that all but the most cynical listener forgives the shamelessness of the manipulation.

Somewhere on his farm in Scotland, I suspect, Paul McCartney – no stranger either to the jazz pastiche or to doe-eyed audience manipulation – heard this and nodded his approval.

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It was the seventies. Hair like this was acceptable then

BBC Radio Kent session

On Sunday 7th February I played a session on Doug Welch’s Kent Folk show, on BBC Radio Kent. I played four songs and there were some short interview segments between the tracks.

Here’s a link to the podcast. Hope you enjoy it!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03gjvb2

BBC Kent1

If you like any of the songs and want to download studio versions, click on the Bandcamp link below:

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying – Labi Siffre

I first head Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying in a BBC documentary about motor racing called Grand Prix: The Killer Years.

If that sounds like a melodramatic title, it’s worth watching the programme, which was a good deal more sober (it seems to have disappeared off YouTube at the moment though). One scene, once viewed, is unforgettable.

During the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, Roger Williamson’s tyre blew. His car somersaulted, landed upside and caught fire. The driver behind him, David Purley, pulled over, tried on his own to roll the car over and, not being able to, looked in vain for assistance. He grabbed a fire extinguisher out of a marshal’s hand and tried to put out the fire himself. As the fire worsened, he pleaded with the assembled marshals (four or five of them) to help him try to roll the car over. Wearing no protective flame-retardant clothing, they declined to help (one half-heartedly stood directly behind Purley and pushed into his back). Williamson’s car was still burning, with still no sign of ambulances or fire engines. While the race continued, Purley signalled in frustration for the drivers to stop. Still Williamson’s car burned. By this time, Williamson was almost certainly dead.

So the film was harrowing (at times, in fact, it’s hard to believe that what you’re seeing happened, and was in fact broadcast as Sunday afternoon entertainment), and few who were not themselves former drivers emerged from it with any credit. The footage of Williamson’s fatal accident was allowed by the production team to play with no overdubbed music. You hear the engines of the cars as they go past, and occasionally you hear Purley’s remonstrations with the officials, but the gravity of the moment is not cheapened by added music.

Elswhere in the programme, though, they did make use of music, and good use of it too. One song, playing underneath reaction to (I think) the death of Jim Clark, was unknown to me, but beautiful, so I googled the lyrics and found out that it was Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying by Labi Siffre, from 1972.

Nowadays best remembered for the anti-apartheid song Something Inside So Strong, It Must Be Love (most associated with Madness) and I Got The… (the deathless groove of its second half is the sampled backbone of Eminem’s My Name Is), Siffre’s career stretches back to the early 1960s, when he played guitar in a Jimmy Smith-style jazz group. He found mainstream success in the early 1970s, presumably with the same kind of audience as that of Cat Stevens, to whose music Siffre’s sometimes bears a passing resemblance. He went to the same West London Catholic school, St Benedict’s, as my uncles (and Julian Clarey); “God is the last refuge of a scoundrel” reads the latest blog entry on Siffre’s website – a Catholic education so often seems to have the opposite of its intended effect.

Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying (also the title of its parent album) is one of those simple, elemental songs that feel as if they must always have existed. It’s just some nimble guitar picking, the same melodic phrases repeated four times, with small variations in the words, and a slowly, subtly building arrangement. Such musical and lyrical economy but such an emotional effect. Siffre makes something very difficult sound very easy here. Rod Stewart, Olivia Newton John and Jimmy Ruffin have all covered it; none could resist the temptation to make it bigger (surprisingly, the loathsome Stewart fares the best). Even so, Siffre’s version is the essential one.

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Labi Siffre

Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

*

I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs