Something About England (2019)

Image result for boris johnson cartoon scarfeIt has, it seems to me, been a bad year to be English. The fissure caused by the UK’s narrow decision to separate from our European neighbours generated a level of intolerance, bigotry & nostalgia for an illusory past that saddens me. The election of our very own graceless, mendacious, racist, anti-democratic oaf marks a rejection of the post-war consensus, an attempt to distribute the resources of an affluent industrial nation more equitably, to the benefit of so many of the less advantaged of our country & a step closer to Hobbes’ view of society where Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. You had better grab what you can while you can. That’s not what I like about being English, not what I celebrate about the British.

 

Our government’s ignorance, duplicity & manipulation of the Northern Irish alongside a dismissal of the objections in Scotland has progressed the likelihood of the break-up of the United Kingdom. I wish my Irish & Scottish friends all the luck in their brave new futures but find little pleasure being left with this rump of self-harming ragged trousered misanthropists & gangster capitalists intent on selling England by the pound. At our best the British are resourceful, innovative, inclusive, self-deprecatory & progressive. Blake, Watt, Dickens, Stopes, Pankhurst, Bevan, the Beatles, George Best, Monty Python, the Clash & many more, they’re my kind of people. In 2019 I have taken it where I found it, here’s some English music.

 

 

Image result for robyn hitchcock andy partridgeRobyn Hitchcock & Andy Partridge, both born in 1953, have mutual musical interests & influences, The Beatles, the Kinks, Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett was around, the whimsical reverie of British psychedelia. Robyn has continued to make interesting records throughout this decade, often with the help of Peter Buck off of REM & other American friends. I’ve bought the last two, “The Man Upstairs”, warm & charming, was included in my picks of 2014. After a stunning run of albums with his group XTC Andy released 6 volumes of “Fuzzy Warbles” demos & since then the pickings have been slim. The last we heard from him was a song for the Monkees in 2016 then, two years later, cover versions of Syd’s “Apples & Oranges” & the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Humanoid Boogie”. The pair had collaborated before on just the one song for Hitchcock’s “Ole Tarantula” & now we’re treated to a whole 4-track EP.

 

Related image“Planet England” is what I was rambling about up the page. It’s creative, perspicacious &, running at 17 minutes, does not overstay its welcome. I said I was familiar with Hitchcock’s recent offerings while I listen to the late records of XTC more than any of the other 1980’s Beat groups. The more I listen the more I love the light lysergic touch of Andy’s harmonic & melodious flourishes & adornments. It’s good to have him back. The title track (starting at 11.10) is a gentle, nostalgic maybe (can that be avoided at our age?), certainly affectionate commentary on the English “oxygen inside our blood”. Ending with the sound of rain “Planet England” is my favourite of the year. Sir Raymond Douglas Davies off of the Kinks can be proud of his influence & legacy.

 

 

Image result for kate rusby philosophers poets and kings reviewWhen this Brexit brouhaha has settled (the English Civil War?) I’m moving 12 miles due West to the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire where, after a hard day’s work for an honest day’s pay, we’ll gather at the Jessica Ennis Memorial Hall & listen to the music of Kate Rusby. I love “the Barnsley Nightingale” & this year’s “Philosophers, Poets & Kings”, her 17th album, continues to showcase her flawless voice & taste in a mix of traditional & modern (an Oasis song!) Folk. Enhanced by the production & tenor guitar of Damien O’Kane it’s a delight & a beauty. Respect is paid to the British Folk Rock legacy with a version of Fairport Convention’s “Crazy Man Michael”, the self-penned “Halt the Wagons”, a commemoration of the Huskar Pit disaster where 26 working children perished, will bring a tear to the most hardened. The sprightly horse opera “Jenny”, an update of the ballad “Creeping Jen” makes the cut here but really any track will do. Kate Rusby is a treasure.

 

 

 

 

2019 saw the welcome & worth the wait return to recording for David Berman. It had been over 10 years since his group, the Silver Jews, had released the last of their six albums of lo-fi, country-tinged indie rock, music that has worn very well over time. Original member Stephen Malkmus was more successful with his other group Pavement while David, with an assortment of musicians, chronicled his good times & bad times with a fine turn of phrase, a sardonic humour & a Pop sensibility which had you singing along with choruses after just a couple of hearings.

 

Image result for david bermanAnd so it is with “Purple Mountains”, a set of songs artfully & honestly crafted, fractured cowboy chords with a little more polish in the production, to get to the point & get its hooks in you. David was obviously not in a good place to write these songs, affected by the death of his mother & estrangement from his wife, despondent probably doesn’t go far enough. Unfortunately just a month after the album’s release he took his own life. For a while the record was a difficult listen, it may have been Berman’s extended suicide note. It’s the quality of the music, songs as good as “All My Happiness Is Gone”, “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”, “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”, that has kept me reaching for the album & appreciating its dark humours. “Storyline Fever” is a jewel, that should have been played on the sort of radio station I would listen to.  

 

 

 

Related imageRoom for just one more. I’m still working my way through Prince’s 6 CD & DVD super deluxe edition of “1999” while the attractive & definitive “G Stands For Go-Betweens: Volume 2” is beyond my limited means so my re-issue of the year is “You’re the Man” by Marvin Gaye. The collection was promoted as a “lost” album from 1972, more than a little disingenuous. Marvin was top of the world Ma after the monumental “What’s Going On” re-defined the possibilities of Soul music as activism. The soundtrack “Trouble Man” (1972) & the intimate, erotic “Let’s Get it On” (1973) confirmed that he was entering his imperial phase. “You’re the Man” collects singles, released & shelved, studio out-takes & collaborative experiments from a time when Marvin was flying high, hesitant & conflicted about what was happening brother & where his music was going.

 

Image result for marvin gaye 1972We get the political, “The World is Rated X” & the title track, both excellent & the personal. “You Are My Special One” would not be out of place on “Let’s Get It On”. It was written & produced, like 3 others here, by talented Motown staff writer Willie Hutch. Two  songs , including the rather wonderful Marvin/Smokey Robinson tune “Symphony”, have had respectful modern re-mixes. A couple more reach back to his pre-“What’s Going On” Pop-Soul sound, he was not going to use them. My selection here is the final track “Checking Out (Double Clutch)”, a deliciously funky jam made with bandleader Hamilton Bohannon. The common denominator is the wonderful voice & thoughtful , soulful sensibility of marvellous Marvin Gaye.  “You’re the Man” documents an interesting period in a great singer’s career. Many of the tracks have appeared on other anthologies but it’s just fine to have them all in one place.

 

 

Random Notes (April 2017)

Well, the days fly by, a third of the year already gone & I’m late with this. The end of April was spent attending “Distorted Perspectives”, Donegal’s premier psychedelic festival. A long trek involving planes, trains & automobiles (“As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh.”) was made more than worthwhile by  a second chance to see my friends the Gatefolds play live. On a big stage, with a proper PA & sympathetic lighting they absolutely killed it. The following day I celebrated the marriage of Alison & Kevin, two lovely people, new friends made on my recent visits to Ireland. This was my first Irish wedding. Man, these people can drink & they can talk. The middle of the night bus ride back was a Flann O’Brien novel come-to-life. Wonderful people, great times.

 

OK, on to the music that has caught my ear in April.

 

 

Whitney’s LP “Light Upon the Lake” was a highlight of 2016. Short (30 mins), sweet & fresh its blend of indie-pop with touches of ramshackle roots was just what I needed when more established favourites seemed to be repeating the old tried & tested. Julien Ehrlich’s plaintiff falsetto & Max Kakacek’s precise guitar insertions give their music a distinct individuality which, for me, elevates Whitney from a horde of new sounds. The classy, considered brass contributions of Will Miller brings to mind Calexico & that’s a good thing too.

 

Image result for whitney band you've got a womanI caught Whitney’s set at Coachella (not a place I hung around for too long, them, Chicano Batman & I’m gone) & they have put their cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” on Spotify. Now there’s an upcoming 12″ record featuring a couple of surprising cover versions. “Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can)” is a Dolly Parton demo that wasn’t released until 2009 while “You’ve Got A Woman” is a Pop-Psych-Funk classic (really !) originally recorded in 1975 by Dutch duo Lion who made just this one record & nothing else. Whitney have done a great job here, there’s a flash video to promote the song &, while Julien’s voice still seems to divide opinions, I think (OK, hope) that they are set for bigger things.

 

 

Robyn Hitchcock has a new record out, the CD case is on the table in front of me. It’s his first since 2014’s “The Man Upstairs”, a cover-heavy collection produced by the doyen of British Folk-Rock Joe Boyd, which turned down the whimsy & turned on the charm. “Robyn Hitchcock” is his 22nd studio LP (probably, someone else is counting) & is a return to the rocking good music he made with the Egyptians & the Venus 3. He’s relocated to Nashville, there are a couple of countrified tracks here, hooked up with co-producer Brendan Benson off of the Raconteurs, got some star guests including Gillian Welch & Grant Lee Buffalo, & assembled 10 new songs that are proving to be most pleasing.

 

Image result for robyn hitchcock 2017Hitchcock’s work is always shot through with imagination & wit. The record opens with the melodic Power Pop of “I Wast to Tell You About What I Want”, closes with the pretty glorious, jangling Revolveresque “Time Coast”. His 60’s influences (Beatles, Syd Barrett) are always apparent but “1970 in Aspic” & “Autumn Sunglasses” are new Hitchcockian gems. It’s tough to choose just one track & “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” makes the cut because it reminds me of “Birds in Perspex”, an old favourite round here. “Robyn Hitchcock” is getting a lot of play this month.

 

 

Image result for black grape straightI’ve not yet listened to lead Kink Ray Davies’ new record “Americana” enough. I’m sure that, like “Working Man’s Cafe” (2007), it will get me in the end. So the third pick of the month is an immediate, groovy new single, the opening track from “Pop Voodoo” the new LP by Black Grape. I was not the biggest fan of Happy Mondays, at the time my ears were otherwise occupied, but I knew people who loved them. For a while they were everywhere & when I listened properly it did seem that someone had a handle on the varied influences of a bunch of drug-fucked Manchester chancers & was knocking up some very effective contemporary Dance-Rock. When Shaun Ryder hooked up with Kermit off of Ruthless Rap Assassins (a useful Hip-Hop crew from the north) in Black Grape “It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah” & its hit singles had a rush & a push of direct, appealing energy.

 

Happy Mondays have always had an audience for their reunions & Shaun has become a shoot from the lip Man of the People in his tabloid column & on reality TV. This is Black Grape’s first record for 20 years & I’ll nick Irving Welsh’s review, “The world is in a bit of a state right now, and bullshit reigns more than ever, and perversely disguised as candour. We need Manc street sass, intelligence and wit more than ever right now. This album has that in spades.” Hearing Shaun Ryder point out on “Everything You Know Is Wrong” that POTUS has “the biggest fucking lie in the world on top of his fucking nugget” to a very danceable rhythm provides a little, much needed & appreciated relief.

 

 

When It Hits You Feel No Pain (Best of 2014)

 

Two years ago I spent a memorable evening watching the Wilko Johnson Band do that thing that only they do. Wilko & I were friends from back then, the Dr Feelgood days. Seeing those 4 good guys move from pub gigs to Top of the Pops was a very pleasant experience. I went backstage to see Wilko for the first time in a long time. We were both happy to see each other, hugged, spoke of then & now (while my nephew waited to ask about “Game of Thrones”). Just weeks later Wilko was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was told he had 9 or 10 months to live…so it goes. He refused chemotherapy & set off on a farewell tour. I was distressed by the news but pleased that there had been one more good memory of him. The appreciation for his music & the support for his bravery was unanimous. His adoption as a National Treasure ? Well, it should not have been a matter of his mortality, Wilko had been one for a long time.

In March 2014 Wilko released an LP with Roger Daltrey off of the ‘Oo, “the last thing  I ever did” he thought. A surgeon friend, Charlie Chan, surprised that Wilko was still standing, organised extensive tests & in April he underwent radical surgery. Now Wilko is cancer-free, planning a future that he didn’t think he had & still doing that thing that only he does. “Going Back Home”, 10 of Wilko’s songs & a great cover of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, is an LP that should not have happened but praise Jah that it did. It stands as testament to the indomitability of a fine man and to the good news story of 2014.

 

 

“Beauty & Ruin” – Bob Mould. 2014 saw the release of “Workbook 25”, the expanded silver anniversary edition of Bob’s debut solo LP after the break up of Hüsker Dü. I’ve sometimes lost touch with Bob Mould’s music but “Beauty & Ruin”, along with 2012’s “Silver Age”, returns to the power trio, the scything chords that he does better than anyone. This record is like a visit from an old friend. There’s some new news & it’s still told with the passion, the authority which attracted you all those years ago. There is a sense of familiarity but another episode of Bob’s glorious, melodic headlong charge is OK by me. Play Loud !

 

 

“The Man Upstairs” – Robyn Hitchcock. Way, way back in 1991 Robyn Hitchcock made the best pop record of the year. “So You Think You’re In Love” was from a shiny LP “Perspex Island”, a bid for mainstream attention lacking some of the randomness & individuality which had attracted a devoted following. Since then Hitchcock has followed his own path, combining a dry wit with melodic psychedelia (If Syd Barrett had joined the Beatles…now there’s a thought). His LPs with the Venus 3 are good things.

This year, in collaboration with veteran producer Joe Boyd, he has made his folk LP, a “Judy Collins record”. Half of the songs are covers, including the Doors, Roxy Music & this effective version of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You”. The LP is an atmospheric piece, his best, I think, since 2006’s “Ole Tarantula”. For decades, my Sunday mornings began with a Nick Drake record, a beautiful suffusion to settle the morning after the night before. Currently “The Man Upstairs” is setting up the day of rest just right.

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

In 1977 every young musician in the UK cut their hair, ditched their flares and practiced their fiercest snarl in the bedroom mirror. Any songs they had written were made shorter, sharper and angrier. The Genesis and Pink Floyd LPs  were consigned to the wardrobe. If you were not punk or New Wave you were nowhere in this momentous musical year. Over a decade later a number of the veterans of the Punk Wars were still around. Older for sure, wiser maybe & probably not that richer. Now the music they made could channel their inner Lennon & McCartney, the music they had grown up with. Here are three fine examples of quality melodic pop made by three bands who started in the 70s.

As the 70s became the 80s I lived around Greenwich and Deptford and Squeeze were the local band. “The church and the steeple, the launderette on the hill” from “Tempted” always reminds me of the walk back to my flat from the station up Royal Hill. I saw them bash out a great set, on borrowed instruments at a gig to celebrate the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (“Let’s finish the job”). Glen Tilbrook had a team in a monthly quiz which we entered at a local pub. The drummer and I shared a coke dealer. They were part of the fabric of that lovely area of South East London.

The hits stopped coming and continuity was disrupted by personnel changes.  In the 80s every Squeeze LP seemed like a come-back. Each one contained great music and finely crafted lyrics by Difford and Tilbrook, “If It’s Love” is just one of them. These guys should have been writing musicals. The clumsily assembled generic storyline stapled on to a band’s back catalogue is an insult to our musical tradition. Difford and Tilbrook are successors to Ray Davies and could have been just the men to do the job properly.

I saw Robyn Hitchcock’s first band, The Soft Boys, as support to the legendary Pere Ubu at the similarly renowned Russell Club/Factory in Manchester. Blimey, that was some gig. With the Egyptians his wide musical influence and his tendency towards lyrical surrealism meant that he could be all over the place. The records, though, did contain attempts to get played on the radio and some of them are the finest pop songs of the time. “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)” is an obvious variation on a Fab Four theme. The distinctive guitar of Peter Buck  (nowadays in Robyn’s touring band) adds to what sounds like a hit record to me.

I love Hitchcock’s later work. I have heard his interpretations of tunes from a wide range of music but it’s his own songs that I prefer. I must try and get three of them onto this thing but there are a lot to choose from.

From the same year, 1989, as the Squeeze track this is my favourite track from XTC’s “Orange’s and Lemons” LP. I have written before about the songs of Andy Partridge .https://loosehandlebars.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/stand-up-naked-and-grin-xtc/ Here he channels his inner McCartney for his own version of “All You Need Is Love”. It is such an uplifting piece of music which has to go on repeat whenever it comes around.

All of these songs were produced by mature musicians who had probably given up on the dream of the Number 1 records but still made music. They are all worthy entrants into the list of finely crafted, intelligent British rock. It’s just that to be a “classic” you had to be around in the 60s or to be as useless as the platitudinous nonsense of Queen or Sting (spit !). Not round here they don’t.