Bob Stanley: Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story Of Modern Pop

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This’ll be the second month in a row I’ve been spending most of my free time wading through a big old book that details important events in the history of pop music. The major difference is that whereas Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Tune In focused tightly on one five year period in the career of one group Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah is in stark contrast a brave attempt to cover pretty much everything significant in the fifty years that popular songs were consumed chiefly via the single record (initially 78rpm discs, then 45s, cassettes, CDs and ultimately downloads). The result is a tome that’s maybe slightly too opinionated to qualify as definitive but is certainly informative, passionate and well written with welcome touches of wit. It’s also formidably well researched, as you’d expect from a true music obsessive like Stanley, whose day job is as part of pop classicist outfit St. Etienne – if he mentions in a footnote that When Doves Cry was the first hit not to feature a bassline since Andrew Gold’s Never Let Her Slip Away six years previously you can be damn sure he’s listened to every record that got into the charts between them to check.

The author takes a sensible broadly chronological approach, starting in the early 50s and using each chapter (of which there are 65) to concentrate on a particular development, genre or, occasionally, single artist. Each chapter can thus be read as a stand-alone essay, though it’s undoubtedly easier to perceive the various throughlines that Stanley carefully sets out if you start at the beginning and work your way through. Some of the subjects here have already been copiously documented (Elvis, Beatles, Dylan, Motown, Pistols) and these chapters don’t add too much to what’s already been said, but the bulk of the book deals with musicians and subgenres that I can’t remember being covered in this depth before outside of ponderous and over-earnest features in places like Mojo and Uncut, and Stanley’s readable and funny (breezy, even) writing style is a cut above what you generally find in those magazines. In particular, the sections on the era immediately before rock’n’roll kicked in and those on mid-sixties rhythm and blues are packed with information and enthusiasm and make you want to go out and try to find the original singles right away.

Where the book is less effective is in those passages where Stanley lets his own preferences and idiosyncracies colour his descriptions. He makes no secret of his disdain for much of the music of the early 70s and sometimes comes out with comparisons that seem calculated to wind up rock-snobs: was the music of The Sweet really on a par with that of Led Zeppelin? Later on he seems a bit sniffy about my beloved post-punk and overly dismissive of certain massively successful acts (The Police were undoubtedly a bit cynical and sometimes horribly pretentious but they did put out some cracking singles). I found the last part of the book the hardest to get through, though that’s probably more down to my lack of understanding of the appeal of techno and the myriad subdivisions of house than any failure of the author.

Stanley doesn’t quite succeed in conquering his impossible self-imposed brief – certain artists and genres (The Velvet Underground, lots of 90s alt-country stuff) get short shrift from his habit of squeezing less mainstream trends into pithy capsule summaries – but this is still a mightily impressive project, and a very handy reference for things you might catch on the radio and not instantly recognise. And also it’s a fun book to pick fights with. Just don’t slag off The Beach Boys within earshot of the author.

Cate Le Bon, Cambridge Junction, February 10 2014

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Cate Le Bon’s hour long set at The Junction last night was brisk, efficient and surprisingly loud and crunchy. Surprising to me, anyway – for some unfathomable reason I’d had her tagged somewhere down the hippy corner of the indie-alternative scene and had been expecting a few bespoke acoustic instruments and possibly some onstage basket weaving and pot throwing as well, but other than the occasional bit of swirly organ reminding me of paisley patterned wallpaper this was a no-nonsense rocking-out set played at high volume but with enough clarity to be able to pick out all the lovely fiddly bits that help give Le Bon’s music its distinctive offbeat character. Other significant distinguishing factors are her wistful, highly proficient and definitely Welsh vocals (she sustains some of the high notes for very impressive stretches of time) and the slightly lurching, loping nature of her compositions. The band (which contains notable musicians Sweet Baboo on bass and H. Hawkline on guitar and keyboards) is as tight as a drum, but the tendency towards including bars containing irregular numbers of beats, unconventional accenting and chord sequences that never quite develop or resolve as you’d expect make the songs as hard to dance to as they’re intriguing to listen to. There’s no shortage of catchy hooks though, as a few listens to the lead tracks I Can’t Help You and Are You With Me Now from her recent Mug Museum album will make clear, and there’s no hint of any proggy indulgence. In the end the only disappointment is the absence of mugs for the sale at the merchandise stand, but that’s a pretty churlish complaint given the musicians’ friendliness and willingness to chat to the fans after the gig. A lovely night out.

Mark Lewisohn: The Beatles Tune In

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I’ve not been on here much recently, largely because most of  my free time has been taken up with working my way through Tune In, Mark Lewisohn’s new history of The Beatles up to the end of 1962. This is one enormous slab of a book in itself but even at 840 pages plus introduction, notes and index it’s only the first third of something even bigger called All These Years which will surely be the last word on this already copiously written about group (the other two volumes are in preparation). Incredibly, this doorstop is the streamlined, edited version of Lewisohn’s work – I thought I was a Beatles obsessive, but even I balk at the extended edition which is twice as long and is currently going for about a thousand pounds on Amazon (or about forty quid on Kindle). Is there really anything more to be said on this subject that hasn’t been comprehensively covered already?

As it turns out: yes, actually, there is. Despite its sheer weight making it a bit of an awkward read anywhere except in an armchair or at a lectern Tune In is, presuming you’ve got a healthy interest in its subject, a real page-turner. It’s written in a clear, accessible style and while Lewisohn doesn’t skimp on presenting the fruits of his formidable research into, for example, the family backgrounds of these boys and the myriad professional and amateur bands working around Liverpool and Hamburg at the time the book hardly ever gets bogged down into dry and unreadable fine detail. Personally, I found the only hard parts to get through were those concerning managerial and publishing contracts but these bits are there for a reason: I never knew before that pressure from a music publisher was one of the deciding factors in George Martin going against his better judgement and allowing the group to release one of their own compositions as their first single. This decision was pretty remarkable. Lennon and McCartney had written dozens of songs together as teenagers but it simply wasn’t the done thing to play your own stuff live and almost all of these were never used – it seems that they didn’t revive their songwriting in any serious way until after they’d secured their recording contract with EMI and had a real possibility of stamping their personalities on the records via the use of their own material.

For the bulk of the book the author does an admirable job of dropping you into the lives of a group of bright young men growing up in Liverpool in the late 50s who are confident and talented enough to want to make music but have no establishment connections on their side to do any favours for them. These boys were obsessed with rock’n’roll at a time when you could only get to listen to it via unreliable pirate radio stations and the odd precious 45rpm record you might be able to pinch from a shop or hear at a party and Lewisohn really communicates the sheer thrill and impact of listening to Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time. It must have felt music from outer space when compared to the sedate easy listening fare that the BBC was providing.

John, Paul and George had formed a seemingly unbreakable musical unit as early as 1958 (George was only fourteen at the time) and spent the next couple of years playing sporadic gigs where and with whom they could (at one point they played as trio called Japage 3, which sounds like the name of a particularly naff early 80s futurist outfit). Eventually John persuaded his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe to fill in on bass but drummers were always a problem. Pete Best only got the gig when a last minute slot for a 1960 season at a Hamburg nightclub comes up and he’s literally the only candidate who’s even vaguely suitable but he never fitted in and the book is particularly thorough at presenting all the reasons that he was dropped just as the group was about to break big, even if seemed like a shocking and callous decision at the time. Hamburg really marks the start of the group as a cultural phenomenon: from this point they’re maturing and evolving at an explosive rate, working through a vast repertoire of popular standards and rhythm and blues obscurities as they unfailingly whip up their audiences into a very un-British frenzy.

Tune In ends, somewhat frustratingly, at the end of 1962 with the group having achieved national success with their first single Love Me Do and with the surefire follow-up Please Please Me about to be unleashed. They’ve got to this point through a combination of raw talent, unabashed confidence and tireless guidance on the part of manager Brian Epstein, and have had startling luck in falling into the hands of George Martin, probably the only record producer working in the UK who had the good taste and judgement to let them be themselves, despite his initial misgivings about them. A project on this scale can hardly be recommended for the casual reader (if you’re only ever going to read one book on this subject Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head is still my favourite, even if I don’t always agree with him) but it’s clearly as definitive as anyone could wish for, and it’s highly readable too (although I hope they clear up the typos for the next reprint). Great photos too.

Anna Calvi, The Troxy, London, February 8 2014

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English singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi doesn’t seem to be that well known to the great music buying public, possibly because she doesn’t fit neatly into any convenient marketing category, but on the evidence of last night’s gig at The Troxy in east London (a rather beautiful venue, incidentally, which looks like it was a probably a ballroom in a former life) she deserves to be a major star. Her restrained appearance, non-existent stage banter and tastefully minimal back-up band (drummer, keyboard player and percussionist, with the latter two occasionally taking turns on bass) don’t give much of a clue to what’s coming, but believe me, this was a full-on rock’n’roll monster of a set.

Calvi’s stock-in-trade is to set up broody, pulsing atmospherics in which her impeccably twangy electric guitar conjures up lovelorn encounters in oppressive badland locales before soaring operatic choruses dramatically raise the stakes – it’s impressive on record, but quite astonishing to witness live. Imagine the soundtrack to a desert-set David Lynch movie suddenly ramping up into a full-blown torch song and you’re getting somewhere close. Flame-haired divas whose lung-power can fill a hall without the aid of a PA system are not so unusual, but Calvi’s unique in being a genuine guitar hero too, with a technical grasp and inventive flair that would put a lot of prog-rock veterans to shame. She hardly ever resorts to mere strumming while she’s singing, usually picking out spare but ingenious riffs and counter-melodies but sometimes pulling off complex and quite alarmingly ferocious wig-outs. I don’t normally comment on or even notice the lighting at gigs, but here the lightshow complements the music with rare taste and effectiveness, picking Calvi and her Fender out in silhouette as she shreds her way through her solos. The dominant colour is red, which fits as Calvi’s songs seem be to be constantly evoking images of heat, passion and flame, and her choice of Springsteen’s “Fire” as a cover version couldn’t be more appropriate. The pacing, arrangements and dynamics of these songs are highly impressive: none of them seem to go on a second longer than they need to and they all seem as spare and pruned of extraneous layers of sound as they could possible be. The sound in the room is excellent, with Calvi’s powerful vocals ringing out even in the loudest passages and lots of lovely reverb-y space in the quiet parts.

After an encore featuring her rousing singles Blackout and Jezebel Calvi calls it a night…at this venue, anyway. A solo show follows straight on at a pub down the road for those lucky ticket holders not reliant on public transport to get home. She’s an amazing talent, and her profile might get considerably higher before too long: with this much command of the whole sultry/operatic thing surely a Bond theme sometime soon is an inevitability? See her if you get the chance.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen brothers, is an odd hybrid of comedy and existential howl of despair. Set among the clubs, coffee shops and rented rooms of the New York folk music scene of 1961 it stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, a gifted but catastrophically self-centred performer whose efforts to establish himself as a commercially viable act are constantly sabotaged by his thoughtlessness and refusal to make the necessary accommodations of other people’s help and constructive advice. He’s repeatedly seen tramping through snowy streets to whatever kindhearted acquaintance he thinks he might be able to persuade to put him up for the night and his spare time between his very occasional gigs seems to be spent in arguing with and generally alienating fellow musicians, family members and record company bosses. About the only living being other than himself that he shows concern for is a ginger cat that he manages to misplace while minding a friend’s apartment.

Llewyn’s misadventures and lack of social niceties make for some very funny and sometimes winceworthy scenes, with dialogue as sharp and inventive as you might expect from the makers of The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s also an underlying melancholic tone that makes his bumbling plight feel almost tragic at times, most notably during a speculative roadtrip that Llewyn makes to Chicago in order to try to impress a famed folk music impresario. His two travelling companions (one taciturn, one patronisingly garrulous) seem not just eccentric but disquietingly alien and the long car journey to a freezing, windswept Chicago comes over like an odyssey to the dark depths of Llewyn’s soul. The muted, soft-brown, colours that the Coens use for the bulk of the film give way here to deep wintry blues and near-blacks that couldn’t be a better choice for spelling out “All hope is lost”.

Llewyn’s one redeeming quality is that he is, despite all his arrogance and indifference towards the people who might help him, a pretty spellbinding guitarist and singer…which means that Oscar Isaac must be as well, as we’re treated to several unbroken and closely observed sequences of the man doing his thing, at live shows and auditions and at one point even in the passenger seat of a car. The Coens have always been good with music (witness the groundbreaking success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) and one of this film’s main pleasures is the way it’s saturated with stripped down folk songs that are captivating and authentic (or authentic-sounding, anyway. I’ve got no idea how many of the pieces here were written specially for the movie). The fingerpicking and close harmonies are gorgeous and even the deliberately cheesy tunes have a weird fascination.

You wouldn’t call Inside Llewyn Davis a feelgood film by any measure other than musical as it ends up feeling as weirdly unresolved and ultimately a bit unsatisfying as other recent Coen efforts No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. It is however exquisitely made, with some great turns by the cast (Carey Mulligan is convincingly and formidably pissed-off as one of Llewyn’s one night stands) and an unusually affecting atmosphere. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen about a talented but self-destructive acoustic guitar player since Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown about fifteen years ago…although I guess there hasn’t been too much competition there. And it’s got the best cat acting ever.

The Railway Man

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The Railway Man is an adaptation of the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British World War Two veteran whose horrific experiences in Burma at the hands of the Japanese army were causing him severe post-traumatic stress even thirty-five years later. When Lomax discovers that the interpreter Nagase who facilitated his barbaric interrogation sessions is still alive and working at the same location he decides, with the encouragement of his new wife, to take the trip over to South-East Asia to face his demons and maybe achieve closure.

This is an earnest and worthy film that sets out to explore weighty themes of memory and reconciliation and if you’re looking for an actor who can deliver stiff-upper-lip repressed torment you’re not ever going to do better than Colin Firth but even so, I dunno…it all felt a bit fumbled and awkward to me. It’s structurally odd, starting as it does with a rather charming meet-cute between Firth and Nicole Kidman on a train, the light tone of which is absent from the rest of the film, before working its way through a rather contrived set of flashbacks showing Lomax as a young man being captured and set to work along with the rest of his unit on the infamously high-casualty Burma railway construction project. Presumably this format has been adopted so that the audience gets the information about Lomax’s past in the same sequence as his wife uncovers it but it might have been better for the flow of the film to have presented it in a straightforward chronological order. I was also distracted by Kidman’s haircut and over-precise enunciation and, slightly less trivially, by the decision to cast the  defiantly Swedish-accented Stellan Skarsgard as Lomax’s former comrade-in-arms Finlay. Surely we’re not running that short of adequate Scottish actors? It all feels like someone should have run an iron over the script to minimise the wrinkles before they started shooting.

When, however, The Railway Man does get going and is allowed to get to the heart of its story it succeeds well in getting across the horrors of this particular corner of war. The scenes set in the 1940s are both vibrant and harrowing, presenting a convincing depiction of brave and resourceful men struggling to survive in a hostile situation. Jeremy Irvine does an excellent job as the younger Lomax who’s put through hell when his enthusiasm for making maps of trainlines is misinterpreted by his captors and some of the other actors look disturbingly malnourished. The film’s also pretty affecting later, when a stony-faced Firth returns to confront Nagase – you’re genuinely not quite sure how these scenes will play out. There’s enough good stuff in this film to make it worth your while if you’re interested in the subject, or just want a good cry – I was just left feeling that it was a shame that a fairly amazing true story had been put on the screen in such a convoluted fashion.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

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If you thought Martin Scorsese’s new epic The Wolf Of Wall Street was going to be a heavy and serious critique of the excesses of the banking sector in the last few years think again. It’s based on the memoir of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort which came out before the big crash of 2008 and details his working practices, fraudulent activities and jaw-droppingly unrestrained playboy lifestyle in the years of plenty…plenty being a euphemism for industrial-scale misselling of stocks and shares of highly dubious potential.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as a slick, ambitious and hyper-confident salesman who’s convinced that the world is for his taking as long as he can make his pitch irresistible. As it turned out, he was right: within a few years of starting his career by coldcalling gullible clients with honeyed promises from scuzzy offices converted from garages he was making millions a month, able to afford a mammoth mansion in upstate New York, a yacht the size of a shopping centre and a constant cycle of uproarious parties and sleazy liaisons, fuelled by a regime of illegal stimulants and relaxants. All of this is rendered on screen with gusto and panache, with the scenes set among the coked-up, aggressive dealers on the trading floor barely less feral than the bacchanalian orgies that follow (the dwarf-tossing party actually occurs in the workplace, while trading is open). This film is very much in Scorsese’s comfort zone, and with its tale of the rise and fall of an outsider through a vicious hierarchy of power it’s highly reminiscent of Goodfellas, even down to the cocky voiceover and the freezeframes, and I also recognised the same tone of heightened mania that runs through The Aviator. What it’s lacking, despite all the luxurious trappings, beautiful models and top of the range sportscars, is glamour – DiCaprio and an unexpected cameo from Joanna Lumley aside, all these chancers look and act like slobs. At times it’s a gallery of flab, bad hair, base appetites and self-centredness, with Jonah Hill’s performance as Belfort’s bizarre right-hand man Donny a particularly fascinating study in creepiness. The good times of course can’t last, and the FBI gradually get wind of Belfort’s insider deals and failure to declare mountains of cash, making for a denouement that may be inevitable but is still pretty dramatic, and along the way there are at least half a dozen setpiece confrontations and capers that seem destined to become classics (Belfort’s return home from the country club down the road from his house had me cackling in my seat).

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a riot, three hours of outrageous and reprehensible behaviour that had me gasping, laughing and occasionally even cheering throughout despite the misgivings of my impeccably right-on inner Guardian reader. Politically correct it isn’t but hilarious it most certainly is and there’s just enough self-awareness and punishment for its loathsome lead characters for the viewer not to feel too bad about it.