Tag Archives: The George

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.

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Inside Out – John Martyn

There can be no mistake there
Can be no mistake there can
Be no mistake
It
Must
Must
Must
Be love

Outside In

In late 2001, my friend, former housemate and long-time musical collaborator James McKean played me John Martyn for the first time. We’d known each other for a year by this point and he’d already introduced me to the music of Fred Neil and Big Star. Over the years there’d be much more to come. But John Martyn was a big moment.

We lived in a large household — six housemates plus the girlfriend of one of the actual tenants — but James and I often seemed to be the first home, giving us the run of the house for an hour or so. We’d put CDs on the DVD player in the front room, using the TV for speakers, and hang out. I imagine it sounded terrible, but I don’t remember that being a problem. What I do remember is hearing Fine Lines and being close to bursting out laughing. I’d never heard anyone sing that way, and I’d heard a lot of people sing a lot of ways. Fine Lines is the first song on Inside Out, the album where Martyn really developed and explored the outer reaches of this vocal style. The title track of Solid Air had seen him slurring his delivery in a way that initially sounds drunken but that you soon realise is imitative of a saxophone and allows him to bend his phrasing and delivery to get inside the lyric and explore its potential for musical and verbal meaning. But Inside Out was something else again. My incredulity soon gave way to fascination. Fine Lines was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d heard before. But the rest took some more work. By the next year, when we’d moved from our big rambling Lewisham house to a smaller one on an estate in Stepney (behind the George, then run down and on the point of closing), we were listening to Inside Out and Solid Air, which I’d purchased, regularly, and it was then that I began to get a handle on this singular pair of records.

To this day they still seem like two sides of the same coin to me: Solid Air is the focused, concise and accessible heads; Inside Out is the digressive, rambling and exploratory tails. While Solid Air has wonderful songs (the title track, Don’t Want to Know, Over the Hill, May You Never), Inside Out marries killer songwriting (Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, So Much in Love With You, Ain’t No Saint) to jazz improvisation and sonic experimentation, containing both Martyn’s definitive Echoplex track (Outside In) and mutant arrangements of traditional melodies (Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill).

It took longer to get but it hit me harder, and I still come back to it, most recently this week. It’s an incredible, utterly idiosyncratic, piece of work. I’ve still never heard anyone else make music that sounds like Ain’t No Saint and Look In. They just crackle with tension and clenched-jawed, barely restrained aggression, yet the rhythm section on both tracks eschew the traditional rock drum kit, instead featuring Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Indian tabla player Keshav Sathe (from John Mayer’s — not that John Mayer — Indo Jazz Fusions). Outside In, meanwhile, is just astonishing, eight and a half minutes long, in two distinct sections: the first is a full-band Echoplex jam in the vein of Glistening Glyndebourne and I’d Rather Be the Devil. Two and half minutes in, though, it collapses into a freeform dialogue between Bobby Keyes’ unusually tender and lyrical saxophone and Danny Thompson’s bass, with Steve Winwood adding atmospheric keyboards and Kabaka punctuating the track with outbursts of astonishing power on the drums. Then out of nowhere, six minutes in, Martyn – off-mic but getting closer – roars ‘Love!’ and the track’s vocal passage reveals the song as what it is: an 8-minute exploration of the idea of love, the conceptual and musical centrepiece of a record that takes love as its very subject. It’s quite a moment. The 18-minute version that opens his Live at Leeds album from 1977 is, if it’s possible, even more astonishing.

Make No Mistake and So Much in Love With You continue the theme. If So Much presages the cocktail-jazz sound that Martyn would adopt for Grace and Danger in the late 1970s, it cuts deeper than the bulk of that album (strong though much of it is) by retaining its rough edges and including an edge-of-the-moment solo from Martyn. He’s such an underrated guitarist: not only a great acoustic picker and a trailblazing experimenter with loops and delays, but a highly effective electric lead player too. Tell Jack Donaghy the news: John Martyn’s work on electric guitar is a real-life third heat.

Make No Mistake, meanwhile, is the album’s third showstopper. It’s always dangerous to assume a performer’s work is reflective of their own lived experience, but in light of his well-documented problems with alcohol (and other substances), it’s safe to assume Martyn knew whereof he sang on this song: “Do you know how it feels / To be dead drunk on the floor / To get up and ask for more? / To be lying in the dark crying?” The song fades out, and back in again, and out again, as the band embark on another jam, the snatches we hear every bit as compelling as those elsewhere on the record. It’s a spine-chilling moment.

Wilfully eclectic and free-ranging, Inside Out only feels coherent as an album when you get to know it. Its unity is in concept and attitude, not in the sonics or the arrangements from track to track. But when you do come to know it well, few albums are as rewarding.

I should admit that hearing Martyn’s “classic trilogy” of albums backwards has surely impacted the esteem I hold them in; I’m sure I’d have got far more out of Bless the Weather if I’d heard it first (veteran Martyn fans reading this will note that I didn’t mention Bless the Weather above when I described Solid Air and Inside Out as two sides of the same coin). As it was, instead of having my mind blown by Glistening Glyndebourne, I heard it as a slightly weak-brew warm-up for Outside In from two years later. A record containing songs as good as Bless the Weather and Head and Heart deserves better from me, but it’s really a tribute to the power of those later records. If you’re a Martyn newbie, do yourself a favour and listen to Bless the Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out in chronological order. But remember when you’re listening to I Don’t Want to Know that, hard as it may be to credit, the best stuff is yet to come.

John-Martyn-770-2
John Martyn, early 1970s