Tag Archives: London

Lockdown – end of week 1

I had some really sad news yesterday. Dr Habib Zaidi died of coronavirus in Southend General Hospital. He had been my family’s GP since we moved to Leigh-on-Sea from Maldon in 1987. He was a such a kind man, and an excellent doctor. He was 76 years old, and didn’t need to still be seeing patients at his age, at a time when a global pandemic is killing thousands every day. But, as his daughter (who is also a GP in the same practice) has said, it was a vocation for him. He felt a responsibility. I can’t really put into words how much I admire and respect him for that bravery, and how sad I am at his passing. It was his wife, also a GP at that practice (everybody in their family works in the medical profession), who first recognised the symptoms of heart failure in me, so I quite literally owe the Zaidi family my life, and this is pretty hard to process.

How is everyone doing?

Mel and I are doing OK, all things considered. We’re five days into the official lockdown here. Restrictions are manageable. We’re allowed to go outside once a day for exercise, so I’ve been going out for a 40-minute walk before work when there aren’t many people around and it’s easier to maintain a safe distance from anyone who is out jogging or walking their dog.

As of Wednesday, my established routine will be out the window, though. The company I work for is furloughing most of the staff, including me, and applying for a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme grant, which should cover 80% of my salary for the next two months, but enforce idleness upon me. I realise that compared to, say, the US the scheme in place here is a fairly comprehensive one, and one that is likely to prevent hundreds of thousands of people being laid off, including hopefully me. But still, like everything else that’s going on right now, it’s disconcerting. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do. I’ve been in my job for seven years, around five of which have been full time. I’m usually out of my house 11 hours a day, so I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands.

The NHS is running a volunteer scheme, but as I don’t have a car the roles open to me are limited. I’d basically just be calling people to say hi. Not that doing that isn’t important, but talking to people I don’t know is definitely not my strength. I’m going to look into locally based charity schemes to see if there’s anything more concrete I can do in my community.

Other than that, I’ll be aiming to finish mixing the EP I’m making with Mel and the album I’m making with James McKean, and furthering the album I started with Yo Zushi just before Christmas. It’s likely that I’ll blog more, and try to write more songs too. I want to hope that by the end of May, when the 2-month furlough period ends, the worst will be behind us, I’ll be able to go back to work and we’ll have some kind of normality again. But that’s probably hoping for too much. We’ve not had the worst of it here yet

What are you doing to help get you through this? Any films or music you’d recommend?

If a 10-minute distraction would help, 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.

Tennis @ Omeara, 02/06/17

And so to Omeara in Borough for the first time.

Omeara was announced with much fanfare last autumn. It’s owned by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons and consists of a live-music space, a gallery and a couple of bars, halfway between Southwark station and Borough High Street. It’s part of the Flat Iron Square development, which is an attempt to create an insant foodie hub in some formerly under-utilised railway arches on Union Street. Judging by the number of people who were there when we arrived at just after 7pm last night, it’s working pretty well.

It’s easy to be cynical about all this, especially since my beloved Gladstone Arms around the corner was forced to close by an owner who priced the leaseholder out because he wanted to build flats, and then, when the council showed some kind of resistance to the idea, sold the lease to some young and deep-pocketed entrepeneurial types who had the briliant idea to reopen the Gladstone as Pegz N “Frazes” (yes, really*).

The message is clear: yes, we can have live music in London, but not as part of any grassroots community – it has to be imposed from above by a businessman musician like Lovett and come accompanied by bars and “street food” vendors, serving overpriced drinks and food in an attempt to make up for the crippling rents they’re paying to be there in the first place.

Ah, the modern city.

None of this, of course, is Tennis’s fault – they just happened to be playing there, and Omeara happened to be the right kind of size for them right now. I’m cynical enough, or not enough of a puritan, to swallow my distaste and go anyway.

Besides, I’ve been looking forward to Tennis playing in London for three years, as I first heard their single Never Work for Free about one week after their last London show in 2014. From having seen/heard their live sessions on WFUV and KEXP, I knew these guys could play their asses off, and despite the lushness of the material on Ritual in Repeat, I actually prefer the more stripped-down live versions of songs like I’m Callin’ and Needle and a Knife to their studio-recording counterparts.

On the night, though, Tennis’s set was disappointing.

I harp on a lot about live sound mixes, I know, and it is a difficult job. I’ve done it myself. The engineer may have been contending with a load of technical problems none of us know about and could have been doing an amazing job to get things sounding acceptable out front. That said, the vocal was quiet to the point where no words were discernable. The kick drum was twice as loud as the snare so the drums had no punch or presence in the crucial midrange. Patrick Riley’s guitar was too loud and stepped on the vocal as a result, and Alaina Moore’s keyboards were far too quiet – barely audible, in fact.

Worse, I think the band had their own mix problems on stage. The set started with In the Morning I’ll be Better, and after the intro, which featured Moore’s pre-recorded voice in harmony, Moore began singing live on mike, only to find her microphone wasn’t actually on. It took a surprising amount of time for this issue to be fixed. Whether that threw them, who knows, but their performance seemed hampered, a bit tame – as if they were having to concentrate too hard on the technicals to let go and really get into the music – so perhaps the dead microphone was just the most obvious issue among many. Near the end of the set Moore talked about things being pretty crazy up on stage; since there was no visible craziness, I can only assume she was alluding to sound issues.

There were some fine moments, despite that. At the end of Needle and a Knife the band played a short outro jam where things seemed to click for them after a few listless songs at the start of the set. Suddenly they seemed to be playing twice as loud, and it was the first time in the set Riley and Moore looked like they were enjoying themselves. Mean Streets was a touch slower than ideal, but had a sexy swing nonetheless. The crowd loved Marathon (their very early material is a bit twee for my tastes, tbh). My Emotions are Blinding (another from the new record, Yours Conditionally) and Young and Old‘s My Better Self were both great and overcame the limitations of the mix. At the end of the set, the drummer and bass player left the stage and Moore and Riley played Bad Girls on their own, guitar and vocal. It was great, and put the spotlight on Moore’s vocal in a way that hadn’t been possible earlier in the set and hinted at what could have been.

Bad sound at gigs happens, and Tennis are pros and they got through it graciously. But the band wasn’t playing at the level they usually reach, and that was definitely a bummer, especially at a venue that’s only been open eight months and is meant to have a state of the art sound system.


Sanity intervened, and after the new leaseholders’ preferred name was exposed to much public mockery, they announced the Gladstone would reopen under its old name. The spirit of the Glad, meanwhile, has flown and can now be found at the Spit and Sawdust.

Farewell to the Glad

First up, I’m sorry for the long silence. Last week, following a death in the family, I went home and spent a week with my dad, taking a couple of days off work and commuting into London the rest of the week. It wasn’t the right time or place to be thinking about blogging, really. Then, in rather happier news, I was at my cousin’s wedding, then back in London to play a gig at The Gladstone Arms, more of which shortly.

I’ve been struggling with a piece all week, writing a bit here and a bit there, and it’s not really come together. I don’t know whether to persist or junk it, or maybe use the bits of it that most interest me as a starting point for another piece entirely. Maybe the latter. That might be a good way out of the hole I’ve found myself in on that one.

But I did want to write something, and this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gladstone, having played there the other day for what may be the last time.

I wrote about the threat to The Gladstone last year, but the situation has changed a bit since then. The company that bought it wanted to pull it down and build flats on the site, but in the face of local opposition and Southwark Council listing it as an asset of community value, the developers changed strategy. They instead offered the leaseholders a new lease at a greatly increased rate. They can’t pay it, and as things stand The Gladstone will close when the current lease expires at the end of October.

My partner Melanie wrote a piece on her blog last night that gets to the heart of why the Gladstone is so precious, so I don’t need to say any more about that. I just want to relive the memories that are most precious to me.

The time I saw Adam Beattie play A Song of 100 Years for the first time and was brought to tears – genuine big fat tears – by it.

Watching fleet-fingered guitar pickers like Oli Talkes and Chris Brambley and wanting to go home and get practicing right away, so I could do the things they do too.

Seeing the guys from Hoatzin transform themselves into one being with four brains and eight arms, playing a set of complex, intricate jazzy post-rock without making a single mistake or breaking sweat.

James McKean’s album launch show on Easter Sunday earlier this year, and the biblical rainstorm that followed it.

The carol-singing evenings at Christmas.

The pies, especially the Moo.

The late evenings spent hanging around outside the pub, chewing over the evening’s music, catching up with friends.

And finally, the Sunday evening in August where I played what may end up being my only solo show at The Gladstone. Where, because the billed headliner pulled out, I was given the opportunity to transform my favourite London venue into my own front room for the evening, and invite James and Mel on to the stage with me, to sing a few of their songs each after I’d played my set, and finally to relive the days when James and I used to sit at the kitchen table, swapping songs and playing covers, just for the joy of making music.

The joy of making music was what The Gladstone was all about, and I fervently hope some way will be found to save it.

000 small

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 6: Cattle and Cane – The Go-Betweens

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

While they’d go on to produce some minor pop masterpieces – several per album on Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane in the 1980s, and then again on The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart from 2000 up to singer-guitarist Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 – the Go-Betweens’ early music was a knotty thing indeed, speaking loudly of their punk and post-punk influences as well as their inability to play smooth.

The group’s second album, Before Hollywood, is where they begin that journey towards lasting pop greatness (and step out of shadows of their early heroes), with two haunting songs from MacLennan: Dusty in Here and Cattle and Cane, which in the 30 years since its release has garnered huge acclaim in the band’s native Australia. Yet this most Australian of songs was written in London, on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, and recorded in Eastbourne, of all places.*

Drummer Lindy Morrison explained the song as being spurred by McLennan’s intense homesickness and his pre-occupation with his childhood, which must have seemed a long way away to a young man living thousands and thousands of miles in a bohemian demi-monde in London with characters like Cave and the rest of the Birthday Party providing company and role models.

Grant was incredibly homesick for the first couple of years we were in England and he spent those first couple of years thinking about his past. He was obsessed with it. A lot of those songs on Before Hollywood have the imagery of Australia. I think Cattle and Cane is a master song.

This is a generous repsonse from Morrison. Not because she’s overrating the song, but because her relationship with McLennan was never easy. Not long after joining the Go-Betweens, she began a relationship with the group’s founder, Robert Forster, McLennan’s best friend. McLennan tended to treat her pretty condescendingly, despite Morrison’s relative maturity (she was seven years older than Forster and McLennan, already 33 in 1983 when Cattle and Cane was released), and the interaction between the two was seldom comfortable. McLennan, for his part, recognised that Morrison did great things with a very tricky song.

Cattle and Cane is a metrically complicated song. Morrison explained that she counted it as a bar of 5, then a bar of 2, then a bar of 4. A musicologist might simply say it’s in 11/4 time, but Morrison’s approach acknowledges the strong beats and chord changes that MacLennan plays on guitar, and feels more intuitive and natural to me.

She keeps a tight rein on the song, staying off the snare until it’s well underway, giving the impression that the song is speeding up (there probably is also subtle ratcheting up of tempo as the track goes on), simultaneously making the irregular metre feel entirely natural. Her approach is wonderfully appropriate, since the song’s lyrics are presented to us as McLennan’s reveries when returning home on a train to visit his family at their cattle station. We actually feel like we’re on the train with him. Even without the music, even without the words, Morrison’s drum track would evoke movement, a train journey specifically. It’s an incredibly evocative performance, the one for which she’ll always be remembered.

go-betweens-2
The Go-Betweens: l-r Robert Forster, Robert Vickers, Grant McLennan and Lindy Morrison

*Eastbourne is a seaside town in East Sussex with a large population of retirees. Brighton, 20-odd miles down the coast and a spiritual world away, would seem a far more appropriate venue for a band to make a classic record. My grandparents lived in a town called Seaford, located between Eastbourne and Brighton, but closer to Eastbourne. So while Brighton was only half an hour’s drive away, I’ve been there maybe five or six times at most, while Eastbourne would be more like 20 or 30, the last three of which were for the funerals of my granddad, granny and aunt. I’d be happy not to go there again.

Streets of London – Ralph McTell

I was going to write a piece about a different song that came out of the British folk rock scene of the late sixties and early seventies, but in a digressive introduction, I found myself writing and thinking about Ralph McTell instead. So later for the original piece, I’m afraid.

Streets of London is such a fixture in British culture that we don’t notice it, may go years without thinking about it. I remember a teacher playing it to us one morning at assembly when I was primary school in the 1980s, twenty years after McTell had written the song and 15 years after it had been a hit. We were too young, too sheltered (most of us), to have encountered too much wretchedness first-hand. What I took from the song was its pretty tune and its bottomless melancholy.

Now, as an adult, I find that, away from the experience of listening to the song, I don’t actually agree with its sentiments all that much. It’s not of much help to most people struggling with depression, loneliness or isolation to simply remind them that others have it worse. There’s always someone who has it worse, but in the moment that doesn’t lessen real grief, real sorrow or real hurt. Emotions are impervious to appeals to reason.

Yet, I love Streets of London. More than just a pretty tune, some deft picking and a deathless chord sequence taken from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it is full of compassion, empathy and wisdom. For its four-minute duration, McTell’s reminder that we should reserve our deepest sympathy for someone other than ourselves feels authoritative and common-sensical, even if most of the time I don’t feel it’s practical, or even possible.

Streets of London exists in its most perfect form wherever McTell happens to be playing it. It’s a song that doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory studio recording. Its original recording is found on his second album, released in 1969 and produced by Gus Dudgeon. It’s a spare reading of the song, recorded in one take, guitar and vocal alike. It’s an effective and affecting take, but when you listen to the 1974 re-recording that became a hit, it’s undeniable that his voice had become deeper and richer in a very pleasing way in the time between. But the 1974 arrangement is over-egged: the guitar is doubled (tightly but unnecessarily), a high and lonesome harmonica is present to no real effect, and the backing vocals that enter in the second verse, intended no doubt to evoke a folk club, sound cheesily showbiz.

The perfect version would be a simple live recording of the song sung by McTell alone, without the audience aping the 1974 version by joining in the choruses. I hope to hear one.

McTell has gotten something of a raw deal in music history as it is written down. A modest man, he lives in the shadow of his peers: the spell-weaving guitar players Bert Jansch and Davy Graham; the questing, visionary John Martyn, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson; the yeoman Martin Carthy; Nick Drake and Sandy Denny, with their romantic early deaths. Having a huge worldwide hit made him somehow other to them. He was left out of Rob Young’s Electric Eden, which deals comprehensively with the British folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, yet he was indubitably there – busking in Paris, playing at Les Cousins, releasing records on Transatlantic – following the same paths as his more storied contemporaries and he wrote the songs to prove it. Streets of London is merely the most famous one.

by Brian Shuel, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1968
Ralph McTell, 1968 – the year he wrote Streets of London (Brian Shuel)

The Gladstone Arms to close?

The Gladstone Arms, a pub on Lant Street, Borough, may be forced to close. Its owners have applied to Southwark council for permission to demolish the pub and replace it with a 10-storey block of flats. Their proposed site being less than two minutes’ walk from Borough Tube station and little more than 10 from London Bridge, the flats would, I expect, fetch a pretty price, despite the available plans from Black Architecture suggesting that the block would be of no architectural moment whatsoever.*

It would provide Zone 1 with another nine luxury flats (I use that qualifier advisedly) that it doesn’t need, at the cost of a community resource it does. The Gladstone seems to me (I’m no insider, though I’ve played there probably 10 times with either James McKean or Yo Zushi, pop in there on occasion for a pie and/or a drink after rehearsal round the corner, watched friends play there, and know a former member of the pub’s staff) to be in a pretty healthy state, with Sunday evenings being perenially popular. I doubt that any pressing financial need to close is behind the application. Simply, when Sartorio Ltd bought the Gladstone from Punch Taverns in 2014, it bought a patch of land on which it could build for profit. That there was a pub on top of the land being bought was a mere detail to be worked out later.

Pubs close all the time (a BBC report from earlier this year says the figure is 29 a week), with changing demographics, the smoking ban, high beer taxes and cheap supermarket alcohol usually blamed. Not all of these ex-pubs deserve eulogies: a lot of boozers are horrible, staffed by the unfriendly and incompetent, and patronised by the aggressive and the cretinous, with beer that I wouldn’t wash my dog in, had I a dog. And I say that as someone who still always chooses a pub over a bar or a cafe as a preferred hangout, and this long, long after I stopped drinking alcohol.

The Gladstone is different: a considerate neighbour (the manager insists that drummers play with hot rods or brushes rather than sticks, in deference to nearby residents) and a genuine centre of a community of musicians and music fans, who all hold it in high esteem, its loss would be felt far beyond its immediate environs (it rankles that, as a resident of Lewisham, I can’t sign the e-petition on Southwark council’s website). Again, the bar or restaurant promised by the developer for the ground floor is unlikely to give as much to the community as the Gladstone does and would no doubt continue to.

This has to stop. Piece by piece, London is being lost to the people who live and work in it. In a system that worked, planning laws would prevent this. Let’s hope that just this one time – for heaven knows that planning laws don’t usually work – a valuable piece of a community can be saved and the profiteers sent packing.

thegladinside

*Black Architecture is a practice that is capable of good work, as its King’s Cross “Veggie Pod” scheme for Gasholder No 8 evidences. The proposed Lant Street block, though, is just a collection of identical units built off site to be connected to the building’s concrete core. We shouldn’t knock down so much as a sandcastle to make way for it, let alone a thriving pub like the Gladstone Arms.

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.

The Replacements @ the Roundhouse, London

Last night I saw the Replacements at the Roundhouse in London.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

I’m too young for the Replacements to mean to me what they evidently meant to a good few people at the show last night. When the Mats helped to show that not all Midwest rock had to be Chicago or REO Speedwagon in the early 1980s (or rather, that there could be a path between the Speedwagon on one hand and Hüsker Dü on the other), I was toddling around, falling over a lot and picking up things and putting them in my mouth.

By the time I knew about them, the band had been defunct for five years or so, and Paul Westerberg was no longer someone to watch as a potential solo star. He and his career were past tense. Suicaine Gratification (still a dreadful title), Mono, Stereo, Folker – Westerberg/Grandpaboy records came and went and made no impression on me, despite the enthusiasm of my good friend and gig buddy Yo Zushi.

But still, once a fan… I was keen to go to the show, relieved that Yo had got tickets (the day they went on sale, I was ill in bed. Very ill. No-energy-to-even-crawl-to-my-laptop ill) and had been getting increasingly excited over the last few days. But in a low-stakes sort of way. The whole point about the Replacements (as with my beloved Sebadoh) was that they were a chaotic live act, by all accounts capable of jaw-dropping power and buffoonish incompetence within the same show. The same song, even. So if they were terrible, fine – at least I’d know I’d seen a legit Replacements gig. And they might be great.

They were, well, mainly great. The start of the show saw them smashing headlong into their early material, all played at a furious, hardcore-like tempo (they were always too tuneful and interior-looking to be hardcore really, but they did play as quickly as their cross-town rivals the Hüskers in the early days): Takin’ a Ride, I’m in Trouble, Favorite Thing (a thrilling moment, that – the best marriage of melody and heavy riffing during their Twin/Tone era), Tommy gets his Tonsils Out. Bam bam bam. Their drummer, Josh Freese, deserves a lot of credit, for maintaining the energy levels as much as anything.

Achin’ to Be provided a mid-set highlight, but here the limitations of their current approach to their set, and of their touring guitarist Dave Minehan, did start to become apparent. At the moment the Replacements live experience is of a group are plugged in and amped up at all times: an acoustic guitar and some light and shade wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. The ability to move from one to the other, to do Skyway as well as Bastards of Young, was what defined the Replacements. It’s the very thing that made them so great.

Minehan, meanwhile, had been the band’s MVP during the first half of the set, throwing himself around like a man half his age (from my vantage point, the boyish guitarist really did look like a kid who’d won a competition to play on stage with his favourite band) and doing a credible job of filling in for the late Bob Stinson. But he seemed to fade away as the night went on, becoming less and less integral to the songs. On reflection, I wonder whether he simply doesn’t slip as well into Slim Dunlap’s shoes as he does Stinson’s. Dunlap’s single-note lead guitar on a song like Achin’ to Be is simple in effect but tricky to execute: it has to be played absolutely straight, and in the middle of a rock show, with all that adrenaline, it takes a lot of self-discipline to play it that straight (there was more of this to come).

The final third of the set was a victory lap: I’ll Be You, a cover of Maybellene (as sloppy as you could hope from the group that gave us Like a Rolling Pin), Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young (segueing into My Boy Lollipop), Left of the Dial and finally Alex Chilton. You almost had to pinch yourself. Yeah, that man up there who wrote all these songs is singing all these songs on British soil for the first time in 24 years and we’re watching him do it. It was quite something.

The encore, well, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d hoped they’d play Unsatisfied. When they did, I wished they hadn’t. Michael Hann in The Guardian loved it. For me, the song was spoiled by Minehan’s slide guitar (pedal steel does feature on the recording, but subtly: a few swoops here and there, in the background): Minehan was too loud, too busy and sometimes out of key. Westerberg meanwhile sang the song distractedly, pulling the phrasing around until it felt wrong and missing out the key line (“I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”), possibly because it hasn’t occured to him that it’s the song’s emotional crux. It served as a reminder that, as I’ve said before, the record and Westerberg’s vocal performance are essentially the same thing. A moment like that is unrepeatable and I should have realised it would be.

The rest of the set (just a couple of songs) passed me by. I was now thinking about how and why Unsatisfied hadn’t come off but, more happily, of how great the rest of the show had been. I’d feared a cold-eyed, Pixies-style cash-in, where the band’s cupidity threatens to drown out the damn music. It was a long way from that. They were great, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were clearly having a ball and only the most hardened cynic could have heard I’ll Be You without getting a little bit misty. They may even go on from here to do a Go-Betweens or a Dinosaur Jr and make new music in their second life that’s just as vital as the work they did in their first. I wouldn’t bet against them. Alternatively it may all fall apart tomorrow. They are, after all, the Replacements.

Update: It did all fall apart, the day after I wrote this, after their set at Primavera. Thanks, guys.

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Paul Westerberg @ the Roundhouse, 03/06/15

More bassists to come at the weekend!

Recent work:

Give some to the bass player, part 6 – It’s My Life by Talk Talk

I live in London, I studied in London and have lived in London for seven of my 33 years, but I’m not really that metropolitan a guy. I come from a town called Leigh-on-Sea, which is the 20th-century outgrowth of a medieval fishing village nowadays known as Old Leigh, all of which has been absorbed into the larger unitary borough of Southend-on-Sea. Southend has a certain reputation amongst people who don’t live there, one it tends to embrace to its own detriment. I wasn’t born there, my parents don’t come from there but I’ve lived there for two-thirds of my life and in some fundamental way I still think of Leigh – oh, all right: of Southend – as home. London is 40 miles, and a psychological world, away. When I arrived at university, I couldn’t have felt more like a kid from the boondocks. Everyone, every single full-of-shit 18-year-old kid I met who lived with their parents the week before, seemed more sophisticated than me.

London’s musical history isn’t something I take any great pride in, then. As the capital and absolute centre of the UK music industry, London has some kind of claim on the vast majority of music that’s come out of these isles. And when you come from a town in the shadow of London, there aren’t many local heroes. In Southend we’ve got Dr Feelgood (actually from Canvey Island, but close enough), Eddie & the Hot Rods (ditto), the Kursaal Flyers, Gary Brooker and Robin Trower from Procol Harum, some of Busted, My Life Story, Tina Cousins, the Horrors (who got the hell out as soon as they could), a few members of Menswear. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about many of them.

We also have Talk Talk, whose connection is a little tenuous. Paul Webb and Lee Harris went to school in Southend, and Mark Hollis’s brother Ed managed Eddie & the Hot Rods.

Talk Talk are the best we’ve got, the only group in that list who have produced genuinely classic albums (apologies to Procol Harum).

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are monumental pieces of work, deeply atmospheric and hushed, with songs that take days, or even weeks, to seep into you but will undoubtedly do so if you give them the time they need. They’re the band’s most celebrated work these days (amazing to think that the 1992 Rolling Stone Albums Guide gave Spirit of Eden precisely one star – “Instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year”), but the group are remembered, if at all, by more casual music fans for their early singles: Talk Talk, Today, It’s My Life and Life’s What You Make It.

The slowest burning of slow-burning hits (its highest chart placing – 13 – in the UK came the third time it was released, in 1990), It’s My Life, for all its synth hooks and seagull noises and Mark Hollis’s tremulous vocal, derives its force from the drive provided by Paul Webb’s fretless bass, the song’s restless heart. Without a guitar to compete with, the bass dominates the track completely. No Doubt’s flat cover, which replaced most of the keyboards with Tom Dumont’s guitars, only proved how good the original arrangement was. Credit, then, to the best rhythm section ever to come out of Southend, Essex.

Paul Webb
Paul Webb, Talk Talk’s bass man