Friday, 23 August 2013

No Religion, Only Music #1 : Hallelujah I Love It So

This first in an occasional series* looks at those moments when something special happens in a song whether live or in the studio that makes your heart leap, spine shiver and moves you.

Once there was a song beloved by music fans all over the world. In the mainstream it was fairly unknown and rarely in its original form. Artists like Jeff Buckley and John Cale had introduced it to a whole new audience. A delicate and brittle piece it was still malleable enough to takes all manner of interpretation and arrangement without breaking.

Then came Simon Cowell's evil plan to mould it into a mushy lifeless MOR ballad with all the emotion and mystery taken and replaced with diva histrionics and singing-seventy-notes-when-one-will-do school of vocals. And so the song passed into kareoke hell and the world was dark.

Yet before the axe fell, a singer who had confessed her love\lust for its author, Leonard Cohen, and his music on film ('What Leonard Cohen Did For Me' - see Youtube) played the song live as the finale of her set and a version of it was captured on, what was then, the hottest ever day EVER at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London. Appearing on her covers album 'Relations' it perfectly captured that wonderful summer night where for once London was calm and still.

Kathryn Williams version of the song is my personal favourite. I could spend a good part of an evening in a pub arguing between the other fine versions and the original but for me, this is the one.

To begin with - a women is singing it - yes, state the bleedin' obvious - but I had a right 2 n 8 with someone once who said that only a man could sing those lyrics otherwise it was a nonsense. His beef was with the line "remember when I moved in you" and its literal meaning to him. His tangential riff involving sex toys will not be repeated here. I argued that the line was up to any manner of interpretation and did it really matter that much. I can't recall how the conversation ended but I think it was with me thinking he was a bit of a dick.

But it's Kathryn's performance of the song which makes it so special. its not surprising to me that they chose to include the live version of the song rather than attempt a studio take. The song unfurls slowly. Kathryn considering and savoring every line. I recall the first time I saw her perform it with the crowd enraptured as if the whole room was holding its breath.

Then came the extraordinary climax of the song - Kathryn would grip both sides of the mic, close her eyes, and rock slightly back and forth on her heels and this sound emerged as if it was being ripped from her throat. An animalistic, painful, raw emotion that never failed to move me however many times I saw her perform. It was shocking yet fit with her reading of the lyric perfectly. A lump would rise in my throat and and I would physically shiver from the intensity of what I was feeling and witnessing. Sometimes she appeared taken aback by the sounds she made herself.

It was one of those rare times when music becomes something "other" - it crackles in the air and becomes so powerful you can barely breathe. That's when it becomes special to me. Its in the moment and then its gone but you never forget the effect it had. 

Simon Cowell stole this from the people, Kathryn Williams should steal it back for you when you watch this.

I hope one day she will pull the song back out and give us some shivers once again. That said, there is plenty of similar passion and heart in her own songs for her not to need to lean on Lenny.

You can hear Kathryn's live version of 'Hallelujah' on her album 'Relations' (rare example of a GREAT cover LP IMHO)and catch her live later this year all across the UK. 

* when I think of it 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

A new millennium dawns on The Year Of The Diamond Dogs

And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare
The shutters lifted in ancient Temperance Building
High on Poacher's Hill
And red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City

No more big wheels
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald

In the Day Of The Dog
The Year Of The Diamond Dogs 

Well the first moments of the year 2000 wasn't quite like that. I was right next to the Houses Of Parliament. I can't remember how I got there - not through drink or drugs but a simple lack of appreciation of to why on earth I was on my own amongst this throng of people at midnight when I despise New Years Eve and its enforced sense of fun

I had driven into town, parked outside the exclusion zone in Earls Court and walked all the way down to the South Bank. Ken Livingstone and his pals had laid on free music and I remember a steel drum band making a marvelous racket under the arches of Waterloo Bridge, Glenn Tilbrook engaging the audience in a version of 'Perfect Day' a la the BBC advert and my first introduction to Alabama 3.

The Very Reverend Dr D. Wayne Love surveyed the 5pm family crowd and spoke - "Fuck the millennium, we gettin' on for three thousand years on this rock....' the rest of his intro drowned out by tutting parents and picking up of M&S blankets on the ground. They played a funky little set with a guy in full Santa costume dancing through the crowd swigging from a bottle of Jack D. They were followed by an Cuban band playing an endless version of 'Guantanamara' so I moved on. 

I recall walking over Westminster Bridge, getting stuck in a bit of a logjam of people, wandering back over to the south side, then along the embankment past two bridges closed to anything but emergency vehicles. There was hardly anything on the roads and it was full of people taking over the place. 

This was very much pre 9\11 times and I can't imagine that sort of careless and spontaneous invasion of the heart of British power happened ever again without a riot kicking off. Eventually I made it back to around the Houses Of Parliament - countdown, cheers, random snogging and then walk back to Earls Court.

Oi, I hear you cry, what's all this got to do with David Bowie's 1974 concept album. Like Zabriskie, I'll get to the point.

As I pulled out into the empty roads of London and onto the Westway to the world I had an important decision to make. Which album would I play first in this brave new age for humankind? 

Well I've sort of spoilt the surprise but it was The Dame's 'Diamond Dogs'. It was around 3am, I didn't see anyone else on the road for a good 25 miles - it was as if the Y2K bug had hit and turned the world off. Sober and not speeding it was quite a feeling as this beautiful strange music carried me home.

As ne fule kno Diamond Dogs was partly influenced by Bowie's attempt to write a musical version of George Orwell's '1984' populated by 'A Clockwork Orange's droogs and The New York Dolls. 
When Orwell's widow crushed the project he created this dystopian soundscape. 

Although Ziggy was long dead, this albums marked the end of Bowie's gender bending rock period. And I believe that the Sweet Thing\Candidate section on Side 1 may well be one of the best things he has ever done in his remarkable career.

And isn't it me, putting pain in a stranger?

It oozes sleaze, danger, sexual excitement and thrills. The song creates in my mind an archetypal New York City alleyway, its puddles of oil and water, scaffolding and fire escapes, overflowing garbage cans and stray cats picking at dead rats. 

I'm having so much fun with the poisonous people
Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up

The backward sounds and confusion that kicks things off reflects the brain of the young characters in this song.
Flirting with danger Bowie plays the hunter and hunted - those feeding off the young for their pleasure and the young wanting to see the bright lights whatever the cost.

When it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad I go to pieces
If you want it, Boys, get it here, then

Til the sun drips blood on the seedy young knights
Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright

Bowie's vocal is deep and slightly raw and at turns soaring, his masterful use of falsetto on the immaculate intricate backing vocals a career highlight  The sultry wailing sax clinging to the razor guitar sound as the drums play a slow military beat slowly gathering pace as the tales of excitement and desperation takes hold joined by a sassy tambourine shake. 

It gives way to a more seductive reprise before sliding the dirtiest riffing in the world ending a little 9 minute masterpiece

Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?
Do you think that your face looks the same?
Then let it be, it's all I ever wanted
It's a street with a deal, it's got taste
It's got claws, it's got me, it's got you ...

I've seen 'Rock N Roll With Me' being described as a low point of the album and admittedly it seems kinda straight and normal compared to the material that surrounds it. However I think its one of Bowie's best ballads and finest vocals. 

I heard the closing section of side 2 of 'Diamond Dogs' playing in a North London record shop recently and I was taken once again with how truly unusual and slightly unhinged it was., The funky soul rhythm and strings of '1984', the conversational 'We Are The Dead' with subtle vocal treatment adding to the unease of this tale of a predatory old man and the sex police knocking on the door.

I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails
Oh, dress yourself, my urchin one, 
for I hear them on the rails
Because of all we've seen, 
because of all we've said
We are the dead

'Big Brother' unsurprisingly has a foreboding, dark atmosphere, yearning for a saviour from the pits of vice and sin depicted over the course of the album and dissolving into the hypnotic 'Chant Of the Every Circling Skeletal Family' and ending on repeat. 

The album often gets characterized as Bowie running on empty on the last fumes of his first shot of fame. For me its an artist at his most inventive and imaginative fueled by pharmaceuticals and milk. I would have been quite interested in Bowie's take on a '1984' musical. And at its dark heart is Sweet Thing\Candidate and 'We Are The Dead' - with enough illicit sex, death and depravity to keep your average emo band going for a whole career. 

 guess we could cruise down one more time
With you by my side, it should be fine
We'll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Gaming in the 80's:We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg

But Daaaaad, we whined, its got educational games that will help with our homework.

They literally bought it.

But which of the powerhouses of home computing to choose from in 1984? The Amiga was still a time away, VIC-20 was old hat and the Amstrad? Who has ever bought anything from Amstrad - looked dreadful. How SirAlan made his fortune is beyond me.

The Blur & Oasis of 80's home gaming were the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. The ZX Spectrun or "Speccy" was simpler, cheaper, with more basic graphics and a cheap looking but beguiling rubber keyboard - clearly Oasis. Commodore 64's, or C64, more stylish, expensive, sophisticated pixel intensity and sound - those southern softies, Blur.

I realise you may have other opinions on which Britpop bands represent 80's home computers so feel free to play along at home.

Me - I went for the C64 - as if the blinking cursor above didn't make that clear. It just looked more lake a computer that you saw in films than the Speccy. I was 11 years old and this was the future in my very own room. Naturally i wasn't allowed to use the family telly to play as my dad had heard that the images from the games could be permanently burnt into the cathode ray tube. A bloke down the pub had said this was true.
  It makes me smile when people complain about slow load times of games/apps on their i-pads, phones and games systems. C64 games were on tapes, the loading screen was a epilepsy inducing rainbow of colour and at every pause you would hold your breath in case the load failed. Sometimes you would let the tape run til the end not realising it had crashed. If the game was a multi-part load the odds were shortened further and hours of hard work was lost. Save points? Prrrrrppphhhhh!!!

Later we got a disk drive but those big floppy things (missis) were equally as unreliable. Yet it taught a whole generation how to interact with computers, technology and not trust the bastards one little bit. Turn your back and they'll let you down. 

Boots The Chemist was my game retailer of choice. I used to scour the budget range collection - Mastertronic - (red label for C64 / yellow label for Speccy) - for exciting new titles for no more that £2.99.

I'm sure that if you were of a similar age you had your favourites - 'Elite' obviously, 1942, Ghost n Goblins, Gauntlet, Bubble Bobble and other versions of popular arcade games.  

'Impossible Mission' was one of the most addictive around - you had to search rooms defended by robots for key-codes to defeat the brilliantly named Professor 
Elvin Atombender. It was the sound effects that made it - the bloodcurdling scream as you plummeted to your death or the fizzy buzz as a robot eviscerated yo' ass sent shivers up the spine.

I must have spent the
summer of 1984 playing Jet Set Willy - no thats not a euphemism - and it seemed time well spent. trying to remember the pixel perfect jumps that otherwise meant a death plunge, it was nail biting stuff. ZZAP 64! magazine printed a map of Willy's mansion so you could plan your game. I never clean up all the items and got to go to bed. Only many years later did I discover that it was impossible to finish. A programming fuck up meant that several items were impossible to get without a bug fix. I felt cheated.

In those endless summer holidays when the world was free of paedophiles and the streets were alive to the sound of tennis ball against window we had time to build dens, torture ants with a  magnifying glass, snogging the girl down the road AND spend days playing computer games.

The EPYX stable would help us out with their popular 'Games' series of Olympic sports - Summer and Winter titles obviously but then "California\Summer Games" with BMX biking, skateboarding and "Hacky-sacking" as the disciplines. The sleeve had a glossary of terms that were supposedly alien to a British audience - "dude" "gnarly" "cool" "far out". My friends and I would each pick a country to represent with the good ol' USSR \ USA cold war being fought out over our inability to make a pixelated horse jump over even one bloody fence. 

Like any youth craze that hoovers the money from adults via their kids whether it be by pocket money or paper rounds the "tie in game" was a must for a summer blockbuster. Sly Stallone's "Rambo II: First Blood" might have been held responsible by the Daily Mail for the Hungerford massacre but he was turned into an blocky little killing machine for kids by the Vic II graphics chip capable of generating 16 colours although never at the same time.

The one I enjoyed above all others was the simple but effective 'Ghostbusters' where you ran your own Ghostbusters franchise. Success would lead to more money and better equipment.
Capturing ghosts, stopping the Marshmallow Man from stomping all over town and finally crossing the streams to defeat Zuul. And of course that infectious theme song was there in all its midi glory

Unsurprisingly those master media manipulators of the age behind chart busting pop act Frankie Goes To Hollywood produced a game that even at that tender age I could tell was pretentious as hell and totally confusing. And so Paul Morley's work has remained to me to this very day. 

I found the cassette that came with the game the other day - it contains a live version of 'Relax' that I suspect may not be live at all but a studio creation with dubbed on audience sounds.

That said the 100% Bernard Matthews special that was Paul McCartney's 1980's vanity film project 'Give My Regards To Broad Street' (once seen - never understood - never seen again) got a game. All I recall about it was driving round a 2D London map in a VW Beetle (gerrit?) and it crashing a lot - the game not the car. 
'No More Lonely Nights' is still a cracking tune though - great single mix.

Pitstop II - F1 racing with pit-stops bought a bit of tactics and planning into thrashing your friends on the track with tyre wear and fuel levels coming into play. I recall a birthday party being turned over to a racing championship with a 4-pack of Mars Bars as a prize. Twenty seven years old I was etc

Head Over Heels was a truly innovative title. Full of fiendish problem solving the titular pair began divided by a wall and had to circumnavigate 
many room and puzzles until they were reunited before performing tasks that the other was unable to do. Head could jump high whereas Heels could fit under small gaps. A strange and imaginative play.  

Which was the greatest C64 game of them all? For me it was a bizarre, very odd and downright bonkers games called 'Wizball'Stretching the C64's CPU to its limits it featured a wizard in a large smiling testicle like ball collecting colours to transform the black and white scenery he was living in. He was aided by a black cat (in his own satellite who caught the large droplets of colour as they fell from defeated alien creatures and ships. Addictive, endlessly replayable and hypnotoc its one of the few I've revisited in recent years via a C64 emulator to play again. It still rocks!

If you fancy a trip back to those days then I recommend:

lemon64 for info, reviews and all that good stuff to download games, get an emulator

for plenty of games I have yet to mention - Dizzy, Thing On A Spring, Spyhunter, Manic Mansion, The Last Ninja. Lode Runner, Boulderdash, defender Of the Crown, Spindizzy and Paradroid.

Gaming lasts forever but not so 8/16bit machines. I never moved on to an Amiga and soon the PC was within reach with its Castle Wolfenstein with not so blocky graphics. 

These days I occasionally devote huge chunks of time to gaming - usually over Xmas when the world stops. Yet as sophisticated as Skyrims or GTA is there are no more addictive than Paperboy.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul

Depression often descends like legendary London fog.

You can't see any way out, can't think clearly as it seeps into your head, thoughts get lost and gone. Whatever I try to do I can't disperse it. Its here for the duration and I just have to muddle through somehow. Other people's good fortune and happiness only make things worse so I just end up hiding away from the world. Its not anyone's fault but mine.

I try and do things to lift my mood of which music is the main one. There is a line in the film 'High Fidelity' "I don't know if I'm depressed cos I listen to depressing music or I listen to depressing music because I'm depressed". Well I find melancholy tunes more cathartic than depressing. Its the closest I get to any sort of religious experience. Loud, aggressive sounds can only take you so far getting rid of anger and frustration - you need the soothing balm to make things feel better  

This past two weeks have been by far the worst for some time. Anyone who has encountered me must have been aware that something is wrong and its nothing that you could have done. It takes a room full of people to make you realise how lonely you are with your life problems. How I wish I had a hand to hold and how I  can't let anyone get that close to me the state I am in. I have nothing to offer anyone.

I try thinking positively and I have some great friends that help but I often think that is more out of pity than friendship. People feel sorry for me which is why they stick with me. Then I get down about treating the friendship of those I love this way. 

The recent media hysteria over on line bullying of children missed out one pertinent point. Those horrid little viscous kids grow up to be nasty vindictive adults far more sophisticated in their abuse. I got a dose of that recently by a group of people who gathered together to use things I have written on this blog to berate and hurt me. The things that they said weren't the problem but the effort that was made to try and make me feel bad. It hit me at just the wrong\right moment to have the right\wrong effect.

And when you are down you can't help but feel there must be something about you that makes people feel that way towards you.

Now I know why friends never seem to invite me out with them. Why they wouldn't want to spend time with me. I always have to suggest meeting up otherwise I wouldn't see another friendly face for weeks. This may be how my depression twists things but from my POV - I'm not someone people want around. If this all sounds like self pity - correct, well done, have a biscuit. Doesn't help for a fucking second. 

This is very much a snapshot of how my depression is right now. Tomorrow is a new week and it may lift as quickly as it arrived. I hope it will, its all I can do. 

At this moment, on a Sunday night in 2013 - I feel I have nothing. And no-one.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Everything You Say Should Be Righteous

Luke Haines: Live at the Borderline, London 30th July 2013

'I don't think I could handle a night of acerbic 70's nostalgia' says a pal. He knows Luke Haines too well maybe. Me - I can take his sardonic wit and psychedelic flights of fantasy anytime. Particularly tonight (30th July) at the lightly frying Borderline basement as Luke launches his latest LP 'Rock N Roll Animals'.

Like his previous album celebrating the grapplers of the 1970's the new un comes with its own fully realized world - Magic Town. A frisky fox, Jimmy Pursey , a hep-cat called Gene Vincent and a badger called Nick Lowe do battle against a fuck ugly bird, The Angel Of The North. 

You still in? Good, we'll get on fine

Luke plays pretty much everything on the album so as he explains 'tonight will feature live overdubs' as he switches back n forth from guitar, percussion and keyboards. Yes its a little ramshackle but there's so much goodwill in the room, we don't care, he laughs and we laugh along.

The new new album is full with the same humour and slanted point of view that has made Haines an outside man but one of the most engaging live performers out there. The quick asides, the 'rock\roll' glasses as seen above that he occasionally has to pear over the check what's next on the set list and his raspy drawled delivery - it just works for me

He pauses to read an article about Gene Vincent written by journalist \ musician Mick Farren who died of a heart attack on the same stage just days before. Its a bit of a downer ending with Vincent on his knees in front of his mother coughing up blood. 'Luckily, this song isn't that depressing' as Luke intro's , yes, 'Gene Vincent'.

The finale 'Rock N Roll Animals In Space' outlines the manifesto with difference between the righteous (Deep Purple Mk 2\ Soft Machine with Wyatt \ Soft Machine post Wyatt) and not righteous (Led Zeppelin \ The Stones without Brian Jones (even though he was probably evil)). And above all things - 'don't get the old band back together'

Kendo Nagasaki emerges and the air soon hums with the smell of liver sausage sandwiches as Luke gives us some of his meditations on grappling giants of the past with 'Haystacks In Heaven' prompting some communal singing.

The set ends with some old favourites 'Showgirl' , 'Lenny Valentino, the mighty 'Baader Meinhof' and 'Leeds United' whose lyric suggesting The Yorkshire Ripper's identity could be Jimmy Saville has Luke rueing 'there are some lines you wish you hadn't written'

Despite the outsider edge he gives off, when it comes to it, Luke Haines is a bit like Gene Vincent - a wily old pussycat at heart.

The new album is available from Cherry Red Records on
Limited 7"

Friday, 2 August 2013

I've never felt better and I like the sensation of feeling numb

It seems fitting that Kathryn Williams should play a truly transcendentally wonderful show in such holy surroundings with a sweltering summer night making you feel like you've picked a table downstairs.

For this intimate show at Old St Pancras Church, a quiet idyll tucked behind the rush and bustle of Kings Cross and St Pancras rail terminals, Kathryn presented her new album, 'Crown Electric' and made new songs sound like old friends that you've known for years. 

'I made The Beatles appear' - the Fabs at Old St Pancras Church 1968 on the 'Mad Day Out'

With the audience using their origami skills to fashion improvised hand fans it bought to mind the public gallery in 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' (but with less rednecks and not segregated - sorry, where was I?) at times but despite that we felt fortunate to be there.

I've seen Kathryn play live more times than  I care to remember but it must be in the low 30's - bit like last night's temperature - and I think I have never seen her so confident, relaxed and happy to be on a stage. Whereas in the past her onstage quips and asides would make her crumble into embarrassed cringing, she seems far more at ease with saying offbeat and daft things knowing that her audience love her for her honesty.

One track stuck out in tonight's for me - the wonderful 'Sequins' when she was joined by co-writer Ed Harcourt who played some delicate and moving piano. The intro reminds me a little of one of my favourite Elvis Costello songs 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No.4' from the much maligned but actually flipping awesome 'Mighty Like A Rose'. Like that tune, Kathryn's song deals with matters of life and death.

"And when in the years, the disintegration
Now the fillers are holding and I like the sensation
I'm pulling the string, the strange medication
I've never felt better and I like the sensation of feeling numb
Finally feeling numb"

If this live version is anything to go by then this is set to be one of the best songs she has ever recorded. I was genuinely in tears from about halfway through - her voice and delivery was so strong and confident, the lyric at terms funny and profound. Ed later told us that she wrote it in the bath - well this truly is a 'eureka' (rather than 'you reek uh') moment for her songwriting. 

'Underground' chimed with me as I too have had panic attacks and tube\trains converge just when you don't want them too. 'I've got to get out, got to slow down' has been my mantra many a time whilst travelling.  Ben Trigg wrote and arranged the strings for 'Crown Electric' and from tonight's evidence he's done a fantastic job. There is real drama and melancholy throughout with 'Morning Twilight' featuring Ed Harcourt being a spooky and mysterious highlight. The solid gold pop of 'Heart Shaped Stone' (see 33&A Nerd Podcast 3) sounded even better live filled out with strings and David Saw's added guitar.


The sweetness of 'Darkness Light', the woozy groovy 'Count', the yearning 'Known' - it really was an embarrassment of rich tunes

Despite only playing 4 songs that would be familiar to the audience including a mellow take on the Boss' 'Dancing In the Dark' - sadly with no dancing with an audience member - we sat in enraptured silence and she was cheered to the belfry at the end of the set. I'm so happy Kathryn has finally managed to enjoy this playing live lark as tonight she was simply spellbinding

Kathryn is touring the UK soon - book now to avoid disappointment

The new single 'Heart Shaped Stone'   is out on Monday (5th August) from i-tunes etc. and you can pre-order the new album from all good independent record shops...or AmazonUK AND THERE IS A VINYL EDITION!! (out 30th September)

I simply cannot wait for the album to hit my mat.