29 July 2006

It's Number One, It's...

Paul Weller wearing an apron. John Peel complimenting the singer of Kajagoogoo on his "nice hat". John Lydon handing some kid in the audience a violin. Iron Maiden getting to play live when everyone else had to mime. Mark. E. Smith guesting with the Inspiral Carpets-uh and reading the lyrics-uh off a sheet of paper. The Clash, conspicuous by their absence. Judy Tzuke's lead guitarist and his extremely NSFW guitar, festooned with erotic art. Ian Anderson in possession of an unlicensed flute, with intent to cause grevious bodily harm. Hot Gossip (i.e. Sarah Brightman keeping her mouth shut). Chas, Dave and an entire orchestra wearing Doc Martens. Pan's People. (Pan's People? God I'm old.) The Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing "Boston Tea Party". The Rezillos. The Orb playing chess. Finbar Furey with his finger in his ear and his eyes clenched shut singing Sweet Sixteen. St. Winifred's School Choir. Kate Bush. Terry and Arfur doing What Are We Gonna Get For Christmas (For 'Er Indoors). Whole Lotta Love by Alexis Korner's CCS (via Zeppelin). Foster and Allen in green lamé leprechaun suits doing A Bunch Of Thyme (Their manager - this is true - tried to pass them off as "New Romantics"). Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs. Keef shaking his head like a Beatle and cracking the rest of the Stones up doing I Wanna Be Your Man. Legs and Co. (Mmmm. Legs and Co.) Tubeway Army spending an entire summer at the top. Bob Geldof playing a candelabra on "Rat Trap" (union wouldn't let him use a sax, y'see). Morrissey swinging flowers around the place. Madness doing The Prince. Tammy Wynette with the KLF and that improbably pneumatic dancer (the cameraman definitely liked her; most cleavage close-ups ever). Mike Skinner of The Streets being indiscreet about a particular female pop-singer. The Timelords and That Police Car. Mud doing Tiger Feet. The Faces kicking footballs around while John Peel "played" mandolin. Yellow Peril by Phil Lynott.

As of tomorrow, Top Of The Pops will be no more. I actually watched it not too long ago. Was it good? Was it bad? That doesn't matter, it was Top of the Pops, wasn't it?

16 July 2006

Hibernian Squalour #5,468, or, Unsolved Mysteries of the Sea

So the sun is spilling down, splitting the rocks and sending us all out to the nearest beach-al area, there to sit around until our complexions turn beet-red. In a week or two, things will be back to normal and we can pretend it’s always been raining for as long as we can remember, except for that nice heatwave back in '98. In five or six years perhaps we’ll finally accept the spell of nice weather in ‘06. Until then, there are icecreams to eat, trouser-legs to be rolled up, and sun-cream to splather on our faces, limbs and delicate bits.

I used to swim in the sea practically every day, first thing in the morning, rain or shine. I say “practically” every day because, in fact, I abstained during the months with BRR in them. Well, September and half of October were okay, before “the turn”, as the hardcore swimmers used to call the time when the water temperature suddenly dropped a few degrees. Not many degrees, but just enough to make the difference between Refreshing and Bollock-shrivelling.

Being beside the seaside is always a balm to the soul, whether you dunk yourself or not. There is the refreshing sea air, full of negative-ion goodness, guaranteed to lift your mood. The riot of life, plants and birds and small skittering things, a tableau of nature on the march, a daily reminder of the large portion of the planet that simply gets on with things and (thankfully) doesn’t particularly give a damn about you.

Getting in there is a bonus though, striding out to about knee-height and just throwing yourself in. There’s always the preparation bit, where you get goosebumps and start wondering if it isn’t maybe a little too cold. But once you’re in, you’re in, and you wonder why you ever doubted. Breasting the waves, slithering down under like a fish with your eyes open, checking out the happenings in the benthic community. (Benthic is from the Greek, means “of the sea bed”.)

Who cares if you’re not Olympic material? That isn’t the point. You’re in there and you're moving around. Do it for a few weeks and your back will feel better, your limbs not so stiff, and your complexion will glow. Swimming in the bay, if you have a bay, is a highly recommended pursuit, good for what ails you.

For a few years the bay was simply too filthy to swim in though. Blame the recent population growth, the high rate of conspicuous consumption, whatever. Since they built the sewage treatment plant, things are better, though it looks like they’re going to need another one soon, what with all the Celtic Tiger cubs needing somewhere to send all their poo, etc.

I still like going for a dunk, even if it’s not a particularly nice day. It’s one of those things: even if you’re not in the mood for it, after you’ve done it you’ll be glad you did. Of course the high summer is the most opportune time, with plenty of sun and the tides at their peak. Plenty of people around, so the ideal time is when there aren’t so many people that you’ll fear for your clothes and possessions left piled up on a rock, but not so few that you feel like a complete antisocial bastard.

There is another great advantage to having a few people around. The more people there are in the water, swimming and paddling and thrashing about, the less likely it is that you’re going to meet a jellyfish.

I have a major bee in my bonnet about these jellyfish. Spotting one in the middle of the swim is often enough to make me turn around and head back in for the towel and tobacco.

Jellyfish are, of course, very aesthetically appealing, as desktop backgrounds or screensavers for instance, and look very pretty when you’re watching them bob around on your TV, but in real life the bastards sting. Now the quality of the sting varies from Mildly Annoying For an Hour or Two to Making You Feel Like Someone’s Spiked Your Fanta. The worst I ever had made me feel like I’d pulled a muscle in my leg for about a day, but it was enough to put me off the buggers.

So there I was yesterday, happily ploughing along through the calm waters at low tide, when I spotted one. Turned around and then spotted another.


But it was such a beautiful day. Perfect for a swim. They weren’t going to put me off this time, no way. So I just went in to a safely shallow bit and started marking off my territory. Thrashing and kicking and stomping. They started moving away.

So I stayed there for a bit, free of marine invertebrate molestation. Grumbling a bit, not wanting to swim too far out in case I came across one. But not wanting to let the bastards win anyway. For now, I’m content with a minor victory.

Victory? It’s no more than a squabble with your neighbour about the apples that fall on his side. The jellyfish, after all, don’t come up to swimmers with the express intent of chomping on them (with accompanying Jaws soundtrack). They’re like the old tramp who gets upset when someone sits on his bench, or the guy who parks in the same public space every morning, or the kids who come to the playground every day and feel it belongs to them. No more than my thrashing and kicking and water-agitating, they’re marking off their territory.

Besides, creeping middle-aged-hippie-ism compels me to try and see the other side. Of course there’s more of them, the bay is clean again, after all - that’s why there are more people swimming in it, yes?

Call it peaceful co-existence then. At least, it had better be. Next time, I’m bringing a couple of heavy rocks just in case.

Further aiding me in the achievement of balanced, reasoned perspective on the jellyfish issue was the arrival of two foreign gents, denizens of a neighbouring island, who were happily strolling along nearby when one of them pointed out a big trunk of dried-up kelp. They started moving away rapidly, and from their talk it became clear that they were afraid it was a poisonous snake of some kind.


26 April 2006

All the muse that's print to fit.

MOJO, that voluminous and prodigiously priced magazine for the out-of-touch old wrinkly discerning music fan, has just reached its 150th issue. In addition to a great little piece about Elvis by Robert Gordon, and interviews with Chrissie Moore and Christy Hynde (shurely shome mishtake?), the latest Mojomag also features a list of "100 modern classics" (it says here) - albums of distinction that have come out in the years since the mag itself started out in 1993. For those without the mag, the list is up at rateyourmusic so you can see the countdown for yourself.

It's an interesting selection. The usual names turn up, your Becks and your Dylans and your Radioheads and your PeeJay Harveys. Siochfraidh Ó Buachalla's wonderful album Grace is up there at a very deserving #1. It's also a relief to see Michael Head (of Shack)'s solo album The Magical World Of The Strands getting in there, a classic record that more people should hear. (Maybe now it won't be so hard to find...) Mucho fabulatto also to see Solomon Burke's comeback album getting in. And (sigh) I suppose they had to put the dire and passionless twaddle that is Caldploy in there somewhere (like at the very end, ha ha).

Yes, another list at Mojo... but this is kind of interesting. Simply because it only includes albums that have come out since October '93, so a lot of otherwise quite obvious albums of the 'nineties didn't make it. No Loveless, then, no Nevermind, no Use Your Illusion and no Screamadelica either, for instance.

Anyway, (moving swiftly along from the fact that I own all but 20 of the albums on the list), here are five personal favourites of mine (plus one that got away) from that timeframe that Mojo left out...

Alpha - ComeFromHeaven
Okay, Mojo didn't forget Massive Attack. Or Portishead. Or Tricky, bless him. But what about this lot? Alpha signed to Massive's Melankolik label and brought out this beauty. Apart from the technology involved (sampling and beats) there are few points of reference in common with their above-named compadres. This doesn't sound like an 'electronic' album at all. It's full of strings, lush musical settings, well-placed live playing and evocative, elemental sounds. The voices of Martin Barnard and Wendy Stubbs weave around each other, circling like wary lovers. SometimeLater is absolutely heartbreaking. The first time I heard this record I had to play it over and over, just to find out what was going on, what it was that moved the spirit so. I still don't know, but this is a record it's impossible to get sick of. Put it on when it's raining, open all the windows and breathe deeply. The linked review says that this is the sort of album that "Jay Gatsby could get into". That's fair enough.

Richard Davies - Telegraph
I don't know much about Davies, except that he used to be in a band called the Moles and he's an Australian singer-songwriter based in the USA. The songs on this album are very hard to compare to anything else. In places you might think of a more restrained Robyn Hitchcock or a more together Syd Barrett but... no. Davies puts together songs that are unique and call up images and feelings that are impossible to pin down. Excellent, economical backing underpins these oddball vignettes of everyday (and not-so-everyday) life. Telegraph seems to call up a curiosity and "sense of puzzlement" that I thought had gone missing from music. Good thing I was wrong.

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - Barafundle
Imagine some pretty piano and falsetto singing. Then imagine some tough metal riffing. Then think of the Beach Boys. If the Beach Boys sang in Welsh. (Put Super Furry Animals right out of your mind.) Then think spanish guitars and violas and crumhorns (played by the singer's dad). Then think of something else altogether, and chances are that the Gorky boys (and girl) will come up with it sooner or later. But whatever about the dizzying eclecticism of this record, it's full of great moods, fine moments and a host of little suprises. Patio Song and Better Rooms are quite wonderful. So is the Tolkien pisstake The Wizard And The Lizard. Gorky's earlier stuff was very much an acquired taste, their later stuff remains solid and listenable but I guess we've grown used to their singular slant on things. Here they sound like The Band or the Waterboys one minute, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt or even Gentle Giant the next. Overall, you can't but think of a bunch of punked-out pixies who have discovered a moog synthesizer under a fairy mound. Brilliant.

The Posies - Amazing Disgrace
The Posies album before this, Frosting On The Beater, was their major-label debut; it was full of fine tunes but suffered a bit from generic production that tried to make the band sound like a cross between Sonic Youth and Crazy Horse, with pretty harmonies on top. Nuh-uh. Here the band rock harder but keep the melody and those trademark harmonies, and there's plenty of dark humour on show (as opposed to the eye-rolling adolescent anomie that used to pass for "irony" in the 90s"). Plus the writing is noticeably stronger. Frosting was a fine record, but here they sound like they mean it. And yes, one was rather pleased that when the reformed Posies played down the Róisín last year, they featured quite a few numbers off this album.

Saint Etienne - Tiger Bay
The first words you hear on this album are: "Milan, when I was a kitten / We'd sit and sing old songs"... This record isn't entirely unlike the Alpha album in a lot of ways, in conception if not sound. There's that same breathy, romantic quality, but with a sort of wry humour too. I would have nominated the one before this, So Tough, except it came out before the first Mojo, but this is as good a place as any to start. Saint Etienne draw their influences from all over the place, from classic sixties pop through cutting-edge electronica to modern-day Eurocheese, and here they stretch out a bit and get in touch with their acoustic side. Tiger Bay is full of lovely touches of spanish guitar and strings, and singer Sara Cracknell is in fine voice, duetting with Stephen Duffy of the Lilac Time on an excellent treatment of the old standard Western Wind that manages to fuse dub, orchestral music and folk. Elsewhere, the pretty pop vibe is never buried in tweeness, and always tempered with a bit of wit. This record is sandwiches and cider on a sunny day, with true love just around the corner...

Oh, and it's a pity that Giant Steps by Merseyside's Boo Radleys doesn't quite qualify - because it came out a couple of months before the first Mojo - but it's a little classic, well worth searching out. Probably the most ambitious record to come out of the later indie era, barring perhaps the aforementioned Loveless. There's a bit of everything here, from dub reggae through free jazz and shoegazing fuzz to just plain old pop music. Best Lose The Fear is awesome, Lazarus even more so. The gently louche Thinking Of Ways sounds like Smile-era Beach Boys after a trip to the pub. Butterfly McQueen is a beautifully realised three-minute mini-opera that wouldn't sound out of place next to Pete Townshend or Ray Davies' finer moments. Listening to Giant Steps is like being a kid in a musical candy store, there's so much going on it's hard to know where to start. Plus, there's a bit of cheeky Merseybeat on the closer, What's That Noise, which could have come off the Yellow Submarine soundtrack or a Paul McCartney b-side.