Category Archives: Article

Welcome to Castle Dracula (aka Bela Lugosi’s shed)

LugosiDraculaWhile it’s pretty clear that civilisation in general is going through a bit of a bad patch at the minute, what with the revival of the concept of the undeserving poor and the slashing, belittling and selling off of essential public services for reasons that seem dubious at best, there are however one or two fringe benefits to being alive right now, particularly if you’re into old movies. Back in the day, before videos and DVDs and way before on-demand streaming, you sometimes had to make herculean efforts to see any film not currently on general release, either by waiting up into the small hours to catch a screening on one of the three TV channels or by attending film clubs, where the quality of the prints were usually so dire that you weren’t left much the wiser by the end. The advent of VHS rental shops seemed like a revolution, but even then you usually ended up squinting at something smeary and riddled with tracking artefacts and there was the ever present possibility that your machine would chew the tape into unusability. Plus it wasn’t necessarily cheap: shops would often require you to buy one film at retail price before they let you start renting, and the price of a film could be something like £45, which could represent several weeks worth of disposal income in the early 80s.

Nowadays on the other hand you can get high-definition surround-sound transfers of just about anything beamed direct into your cerebral cortex within seconds of thinking of it. Or, if you’re still wedded to the idea of the physical product you can probably order it on disc for the price of a latte or a magazine. For example: as part of their centenary celebrations, Universal studios have issued a handsome box containing blu-rays of eight of their classic horror movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s and you can currently get it online for £18. That’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. For eighteen quid! It’s an austerity-age bargain! And these are no knocked-off cheapo editions either – they’re buffed up, restored, gleaming transfers with yards of value added material such as documentaries and commentaries attached, and you even get a glossy little book and postcards showcasing the original promotional art.

So far I’ve only watched Dracula (1931) all the way through. It’s a classic, just for the opening ten minutes, which are all wild mountainside roads and the Count’s spectacularly cobwebbed and ultra-gothic castle. The sets and matte paintings are just gorgeous. Eventually Bela Lugosi makes his appearance and despite his slightly stilted delivery (you can tell English is not his first language) he’s immediately the definitive Dracula: elegant, charming, slick-backed and exotically accented. He couldn’t be more of a contrast to the rat-like Max Shreck in Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and is the template for more or less every screen vampire-in-chief ever since. I’ve got to say that the earlier film is ultimately more effective and resonant due to its sheer weirdness and scenes of plague and disaster – where Murnau showed a whole town succumbing to the baleful influence of the vampire, the 1931 film seems to bed down into long and not very dramatic dialogues scenes that take place in a comfortable mansion, as though we’re watching a stage play. The main points of interest are Dwight Frye’s manic interjections as the possessed Renfield, which do shatter the slightly soporific tone even if they’re a bit hammy.

Anyway, one film down, seven to go and if you’d told me thirty years ago that a collection like this would be available for the price of a small shopping basket at Tesco I’d have told you that it sounded like someone somewhere had got their priorities a bit tangled.

Chancellor George Osborne

Look! Who’s back!

WebOfFearThe last week or so has been just about the most exciting time to be a hardcore longtime fan of Doctor Who ever: at midnight last night after months of frothing online speculation it was finally confirmed by the BBC that nine previously missing episodes of the show from the late 60s Patrick Troughton era had been recovered. And if that were not enough to cause severe palpitations across a large swathe of middle-aged men around the world the Beeb also announced that the episodes would be made available via iTunes with immediate effect, with DVDs to follow in the next few weeks.

Some context is probably called for here. Back in the days before home video players television was considered a pretty ephemeral medium and the idea of preserving and archiving entertainment programmes didn’t really exist. The videotape on which shows were recorded was expensive but reusable so it made sense to wipe the tapes of broadcasts after a respectable interval had passed – the BBC even had a policy agreed with the actors’ union of not repeating programmes more than once, as it was felt that repeats cut down the time available for new commissions. Subsequently by the mid-70s the cupboard was pretty bare of vintage Who, though some episodes had managed to hang on to existence by dint of being transferred onto film for potential sale in other countries. By 1978 when the Corporation woke up to the possibility that they were destroying an exploitable asset there were only 118 black and white Doctor Who episodes known to exist, with 135 missing. Over the next few years recoveries were made in dribs and drabs from overseas television stations and private collectors, with the most notable find being all four parts of the Troughton story The Tomb Of The Cybermen which was reclaimed from Hong Kong in 1992. After this last though it looked like that was that: in the next twenty years only another four episodes were located and by last year it seemed pretty unlikely that the missing episode count of 106 would be whittled down any further.

However. Doctor Who fans are nothing in not tenacious, and one in particular had the time and resources to actually travel to broadcasting companies across world in search of missing TV programmes. Philip Morris started his epic hunt round about the time that the successful revival of the programme hit our screens and has been trawling archives across Africa and beyond. His dedication paid off: the trail eventually led to a TV station in Jos, Nigeria where he found some highly interesting cans of film. The full results of his labours are yet to be revealed (one persistent rumour suggests that he’s dug up something like ninety of the missing Who episodes, along with tonnes of other programmes that went AWOL in the 60s and 70s), but the discovery of just these nine episodes is mind-boggling enough, particularly as they represent the complete restoration of one Troughton six part story The Enemy Of The World and the near-complete restoration of another, one of the fans’ absolute Holy Grails, The Web Of Fear (aka The One With The Yetis In The London Underground. You know, the one where the Doctor meets the Brigadier). I know it’s basically just a children’s TV series we’re talking about here, and a fairly cheaply made one at that, but for those of the anorak persuasion this is on the order of someone suddenly popping up with ten hitherto-unsuspected Shakespeare plays, or five unreleased Beatles albums, or a revised version of the 1990 World Cup which shows England beating Germany on penalties in the semi-final and going on to lift the trophy. The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who has until now been something of a disappointment, with not even the casting announcement of the fabulous Peter Capaldi (surely one of the two men on the planet best equipped to play the Doctor, and Benedict Cumberbatch has already let it be known he’s not interested) really making up for the paucity of new episodes and the slightly so-what quality of those that have been screened, but it’s hard to imagine a better end to it than this.

I haven’t downloaded the material as it perversely seems a bit too…well…easy, and I prefer to watch things on DVD rather than on computer screens anyway, but I’ve seen a few clips from the recovered stories and they look bright, shiny and as in good nick as any of the stuff that’s been available for years. Pat Troughton looks like he’s having a whale of a time and is uncannily reminiscent of Matt Smith in places…or should that be the other way round? This is an amazing find, and the possibility that it might just be the tip of an iceberg may be enough to make the whole of Who fandom spontaneously combust. Mr Morris, we thank you very much.

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas


I’m not normally tempted to write about deluxe reissues of classic albums but I’m making an exception for Merge Records’ remastered new edition of The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album All Hail West Texas, on the grounds that a) it’s a bit of a masterpiece (possibly my favourite record released in the last thirty years, even) and b) no-one I know has ever even heard of it, much less listened to it. And it’s such an unlikely candidate for the buffed-up audio treatment anyway, in addition to its relative obscurity. Goats leader (and on this collection, sole contributor) John Darnielle has in the past been indifferent verging on the hostile to the idea of revisiting his past recordings, preferring always to concentrate on maintaining his ferocious output of new material, and this particular album is also notable for being as lo-fi a recording as can possibly exist in this century: Darnielle recorded all these songs in his front room using only his voice, an acoustic guitar, a couple of unreliable cassette decks and on one track only a cheap Casio keyboard. There are no overdubs but there is plenty of audible tape hiss and grind – on a first listen, you wouldn’t even class these recordings as sophisticated enough to qualify as demos. One would reasonably assume the scope for remastering to be limited.

However. These fourteen tracks may be unapologetically basic in form (and Darnielle’s confident reliance on tried and tested chord sequences and strum patterns straight out of a play-in-a-day guitar primer makes the compositions sound at a first listen as unsophisticated as the recording) but I’d struggle to think of another set of original songs as rich and evocative and unshakeably memorable given a chance as these are. By the time Darnielle hit the record and play controls on his boom-box to capture this batch he’d already been releasing records and tapes and CDs for ten years and had garnered literally hundreds of songwriting credits, and all that woodshedding of his craft pays off with interest here – all of these pieces set brilliant, moving, sometimes funny and sometimes devastating lyrics to catchy, flowing melodies that stick with you like araldite once you get past the surface sketchiness and fuzz of the sound. The album’s subtitle “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” should give you an idea of the type of characters that populate Darnielle’s songs: outsiders, drop-outs, people whose lives have become derailed through bad choices or lack of opportunity or arbitrary turns of fortune. He gets inside and articulates the pain and longing and occasional mad euphoria of those trapped in the margins like no other songwriter I know and he does it without ever becoming precious or patronising: the opening The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, which the current line-up of The Mountain Goats still tend to end their sets with, tells a tragic of tale of two teenagers’ shattered dreams before ending with a rousing refrain of “Hail Satan!” where one might have expected a moral, or a finger-wagging indictment of institutional authority. Pretty much every track on the album hits the spot, usually in under three and a half minutes – right now, I’ll recommend Source DecayPink And BlueDistant Stations and Riches And Wonders (which may be the greatest love song since Love Will Tear Us Apart) but it’ll probably be other tracks if you ask me next week. Only the sweet but slight Blues In Dallas, which features the one appearance of keyboard rather than guitar, comes off as less than essential.

So this new edition then. To be honest I’m not sure I can notice much difference in the sound quality to before, but there are a couple of good reasons for proud owners of the original CD to upgrade (and if you’re strictly old school in your listening habits you’re catered for as well: the album’s now being issued on vinyl for the first time). Firstly, Darnielle has managed to unearth seven bonus tracks, despite throwing a tape containing a lot of unreleased material recorded at the same time as the album into the garbage in a fit of pique years later, and not only are six of them previously unheard songs of a quality that damn near matches the fourteen main attractions (the seventh is a redundant alternative take of Jenny) but they sound pretty good as well, with if anything less hiss and tape noise than those on the original album. And secondly, the booklet contains a fascinating essay by Darnielle outlining his working methods at this time – basically, he’d write lyrics at work during the day, set them to music in the evening and record them straight away, ditching anything that didn’t seem to work immediately. Hence, every song on this album was recorded only hours, or even minutes, after it was composed, with many unlucky casualties rejected in between.

All Hail West Texas turned out to be the last Mountain Goats album to be recorded outside a conventional recording studio. John Darnielle continued (and continues) to be a bewilderingly prolific songwriter – the next album, one that a lot of fans rate as their finest work, Tallahassee, came out only a few months after this one – but this, in the probable eternal absence of a Best Of album, may be the best place to start if you’re curious. Hail Satan!

Tracklist: The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, Fall Of The Star High Running Back, Color In Your Cheeks, Jenny, Fault Lines, Balance, Pink And Blue, Riches And Wonders, The Mess Inside, Jeff Davis County Blues, Distant Stations, Blues In Dallas, Source Decay, Absolute Lithops Effect. Bonus tracks: Hardpan Song, Answering The Phone, Indonesia, Midland, Jenny (alt. take), Tape Travel Is Lonely, Waco

The Top 100 Albums Ever, a definitive and unarguable list

Sorry, this one’s more than unusually self-indulgent…see, the thing is I used to be fatally attracted towards pointless lists of the best songs/films/makes of carpet cleaner etc but I have managed to wean myself off them in recent years, helped largely by a form of passive aversion therapy: these days you can’t open a music magazine without a new and vital list of things you must hear before you die assailing you and I’m at the stage where I could quite happily never think of the words Astral Weeks or Pet Sounds or Exile On Main Street ever again, let alone wade through a rehashed twenty page feature on the making of them.

However…someone on The Afterword forum (the unofficial successor to that of the much mourned Word magazine) yesterday launched a poll to establish The Best Albums Ever, whereby participants were asked to submit a list of their favourites, the kicker being that said list was required to contain not three, or five, or even ten cherished classics but a full hundred. This is such an insane and ambitious undertaking that I felt honour bound to come out of list-retirement and contribute.

So, here’s the list, slightly amended from the one I submitted yesterday due to me inevitably remembering a handful of choice items that really should have been on there. I’ve limited myself to no more than one entry per artist to avoid clogging the thing up with Mountain Goats and Robyn Hitchcock records, but have allowed Greatest Hits and multi-artist compilations in order to correct the bias against great stuff that works better as singles than it does as albums. This was a totally ludicrous exercise, but I had fun doing it and thought it was worth sticking somewhere I could find it later on, and I promise I won’t be making a habit of this kind of thing. Anyway:

1 Big Star: Radio City (1974)

2 Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (1980)

3 The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas (2002)

4 REM: Murmur (1983)

5 The Clash: The Clash (1977)

6 Patti Smith: Horses (1975)

7 Diana Ross and the Supremes: 20 Golden Greats (or any Supremes compilation really) (1977)

8 Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream Of Trains (1984)

9 Pixies: Doolittle (1989)

10 Wire: Pink Flag (1977)

11 Joy Division: Closer (1980)

12 Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (1985)

13 Half Man Half Biscuit: Cammell Laird Social Club (2002)

14 Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

15 Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

16 X Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents (1978)

17 Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)

18 The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (2006)

19 David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)

20 Blondie: Parallel Lines (1978)

21 Gang Of Four: Entertainment! (1979)

22 The Modern Lovers: The Modern Lovers (1976)

23 Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (1978)

24 Public Image Limited: Metal Box (1979)

25 Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (1979)

26 The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (1986)

27 The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)

28 The Jam: Snap! (is this still available? Better than the Greatest Hits cos of the album tracks and B-sides) (1983)

29 Television: Marquee Moon (1977)

30 Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth (1980)

31 Wussy: Funeral Dress (2005)

32 Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969)

33 The B52s: The B52s (1979)

34 Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (1983)

35 The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005)

36 Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)

37 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004)

38 Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

39 The Vibrators: Pure Mania (1978)

40 The Only Ones: Peel Sessions (1989)

41 Laura Cantrell: When The Roses Bloom Again (2002)

42 Joni Mitchell: For The Roses (1972)

43 Roddy Frame: Surf (2002)

44 The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004)

45 Graham Parker: Heat Treatment (1976)

46 Ian Dury and the Blockheads: Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll (or any half-decent compilation) (1987)

47 The Human League: Dare (1981)

48 The Velvet Underground and Nico: The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

49 Eno: Another Green World (1975)

50 Roxy Music: Roxy Music (1972)

51 The Violent Femmes: The Violent Femmes (1983)

52 Chumbawamba: Anarchy (1994)

53 Husker Du: Flip Your Wig (1985)

54 The Soft Boys: Live At The Portland Arms (1978)

55 John Cale: Paris 1919 (1973)

56 Chic: Les Plus Grands Succes De Chic (1979)

57 Love: Forever Changes (1968)

58 John Grant: Queen Of Denmark (2010)

59 Madness: Divine Madness (1992)

60 Aimee Mann: Magnolia (soundtrack) (1999)

61 Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)

62 The Fall: This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

63 Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones: Have Moicy! (1976)

64 The Wedding Present: George Best (1987)

65 Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses (1986)

66 Iggy Pop: Lust For Life (1977)

67 The Stooges: Fun House (1970)

68 The Monochrome Set: Strange Boutique (1980)

69 The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)

70 Various Artists: Up All Night! (30 track Northern Soul compilation) (1990)

71 Antony and the Johnsons: I Am A Bird Now (2005)

72 Camper van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie (1989)

73 Ramones: Ramones (1976)

74 10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987)

75 Lou Reed: Berlin (1973)

76 Felt: Me And A Monkey On The Moon (1989)

77 The National: Boxer (2007)

78 PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)

79 Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)

80 The Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)

81 XTC: Black Sea (1980)

82 Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1973)

83 The Cure: Boys Don’t Cry (1979)

84 Various Artists: Atlantic Soul Classics (1985)

85 Pulp: Different Class 91995)

86 Various Artists: Motown Chartbusters volume 3 (this is the one with This Old Heart Of Mine and Heard It Through The Grapevine on) (1969)

87 The Strokes: Is This It? (2001)

88 Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (1970)

89 The Undertones: The Undertones (1979)

90 Doors: Strange Days (1967)

91 New York Dolls: New York Dolls (1973)

92 New Order: Substance (1987)

93 Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come (soundtrack) (1972)

94 Robert Wyatt: Old Rottenhat (1985)

95 Morrissey: You Are The Quarry (2004)

96 Orange Juice: The Glasgow School (2005)

97 Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)

98 Nic Jones: Penguin Eggs (1981)

99 Alex Chilton: High Priest (1987)

100 Adam and Joe: Song Wars volume 1 (2008)

Hmm. Lots of quite old, a fair amount of quite new, not much in between. Anyone got any tips for 90s stuff I might like?

RIP The Word Magazine 2003 – 2012

A couple of days ago the news came through to me (via Twitter, how modern) that The Word magazine was closing. This was kind of a shock – it’s the only magazine of any type that I make a point of reading every month, and there have been none of the tell-tale drop-offs in quality or desperate advertising promotions in recent issues that would have been indications that it was destined for the dumper. It would be tastelessly melodramatic to compare the closure of a music periodical to the death of a friend, but I did feel surprisingly upset about it, and I’m far from the only one judging from the flood of despondent messages on the magazine’s online forum. So what’s the big deal?

Word (the definite article was added later) was set up in 2003 by media old hands David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, who you may remember from their stint as Old Grey Whistle Test presenters even if you didn’t know about their central roles in the launches of such august publications as Smash Hits, Q, Empire, Heat and even Just Seventeen. All successful brands, but you get the definite feeling that The Word is where their hearts lay – it was a small-scale, independently produced venture (though no less glossy or less packed with interviews with respected elder statesmen of rock than its nearest competitors Mojo and Uncut) run by an enthusiastic and talented team out of a small office in Islington. It was clearly aimed at a relatively affluent, literate and middle-aged demographic and Hepworth and Ellen positively relished running features of unusual length and depth on eminent music veterans, backstage histories and interesting newcomers as well as, somewhat less characteristically for this type of magazine, cutting edge developments in digital music and the internet and the changes these would force on both the industry and listeners’ habits. Hepworth in particular has always been willing to embrace and discuss media innovations that might, ironically, eventually herald the demise of traditional periodical publishing, and The Word spawned two offshoots that are great examples of how a magazine can succeed in engaging with its audience via digital means: the aforementioned forum, the regular users of which are unusually articulate and tolerant of lively debate, and the weekly podcast, which typically featured Hepworth and Ellen informally chewing over topical issues with a rotating cast of guest journalists and musicians. In case of all of this sounds a bit po-faced I should emphasise that the main reason The Word engendered such an unusual degree of affection and loyalty from its readers was that it was fun: unpretentious, witty, well-informed and often approaching established showbiz phenomena from angles that simply would never have occurred to you. I managed to unexpectedly fluke my way onto the podcast once, and after chatting with Mark Ellen afterwards I can confirm that he really is as funny, generous and engaging in real life as he comes across in the podcast and in print.

I’m not too devastated by the magazine’s closure, though. Hepworth’s always been a canny and unsentimental operator and I’d be surprised if he hasn’t got a strong idea about what he’s going to do next – an internet or tablet-only incarnation of something reassuringly Word-like seems like a good possibility to me. But I’ll miss The Word – even if I wasn’t always that interested in the subject matter (a prog-rock special, anyone?) the writing was usually accessible and incisive enough to make the thing worth reading more or less cover to cover. And I was looking forward to more of the gigs they’d started to put on recently (like this one)…and I’d never have come across C.W.Stoneking with them…and the free CDs were pretty good sometimes too…pah. Where’s me real ale and Incredible String Band boxset when I need em?

Another new favourite band: Wussy, faithful pop song Stalinists

A couple of weeks ago I posted a ramble about my difficulty in coming to terms with folk music, and my reluctant realisation that I don’t actually seem to be too interested in any music that strays too far from the uptempo three minute pop song Motown/Beatles/new wave template. And as if to prove my point I’ve recently stumbled across and subsequently gotten obsessed with a band from Cincinnati who deal exclusively with hooks and riffs and catchy bits and conversational lyrics detailing loves lost and found and wished for. They’re called Wussy, and they operate so far inside my comfort zone it’s simply unseemly.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this group’s music, and there’s no unique selling point. It’s a bog standard set-up: one drummer, one bass player and two guitarists who write the songs and take turns in singing them. One of the singers is fifty-something Chuck Cleaver, whose grizzled beardy appearance and frail, papery singing voice are both gratifyingly consistent with his splendid name, the other is the somewhat younger Lisa Walker, whose vocals are stronger but still flecked with enough imperfections to reassure you this outfit has no truck with auto-tune or Pro Tools. The band’s sound is similarly on the raw and slangy and droney side, though you couldn’t call it sloppy, and while the sound of the guitars never betrays much in the way of treatment or effects they always seem to be just about in tune. This is, as I’m sure John Peel used to say in reference to his beloved Fall records, exactly as it should be.

No, the reason you should listen to Wussy is nothing to do with aural sensationalism and everything to do with the quality of their songs, which exhibit an almost Buzzcocks level of consistent brilliance. They’ve released four albums and an EP since 2005, and more or less every one of the 49 tracks on them is worthy of your attention, either because they boast choruses you can’t shake out of your head or because they feature words that seem cynical or throwaway on the surface but actually cut as deep as Bob Dylan’s finest or because it’s just a splendid uplifting racket that you can imagine witnessing at your local pub and it being the best gig you’ve ever been to. Cleaver’s songs tend to be more world-weary and rueful, and although he does drop the odd profanity here and there he always makes you feel like he’s earned the right to. Walker’s though are the real jewels: she’s got that rare intuitive talent for constructing simple and fresh sounding songs from very familiar chord sequences and harmonic patterns. My advice if you’re curious is to start with the songs beginning with M, one from each of the four albums: Motorcycle, Mayflies, Maglite and Magnolia are all indelible melodic nuggets that feel like established classics the first time you hear them.

Anyway, they’re going to be touring the UK in the Autumn, with any luck in small enough venues that I’ll be able to see the whites of their eyes. Watch this space for further developments.

Wussy discography: Funeral Dress (2005), Left For Dead (2007), Rigor Mortis EP (2008), Wussy (2009), Funeral Dress II – Acoustically (2011), Strawberry (2011). I don’t think any of these have been officially released in the UK, but there seem to be (legal) downloads available for some of them.

Top Of The Pops 1977 reaches the Jubilee

Now. I’m one of those irritating people fond of airily declaring “oh, I never watch television” every time the discussion turns to the latest talent competition or Scandinavian crime drama or sensational soap denouement. I’d like to pretend that this not because I’m a typical middle-class highbrow elitist culture snob (I know that I am all those things), but because I haven’t got enough time because my free hours are taken up with more wholesome pursuits, like gardening, and cooking, and composing light operas and so on…the truth is however that much of my leisure time is spent listlessly flipping about on the internet, or solving excruciating Japanese number puzzles, or just failing completely to commit to the very basic chore of bothering to watch a series from the start, for however many weeks it runs for. And given that I’m equipped with a personal video recorder and fast enough broadband to effortlessly access the various helpful catch-up TV services that’s not really a very big ask these days.

I think my ennui concerning events televisual may be something to do with there just being too much damn choice of what to watch these days (my list of multi-season TV shows that well-meaning friends have insisted I simply must get up to speed with is so long that I’m paralysed into indecision every time I consider it, so never watch any of them). Whatever the reason, I find myself retreating more and more into watching stuff that I’ve already seen, or already know about. Pretty much the only new show I make any kind of effort for now is Doctor Who, more through decades-established habit than anything else these days (though it’s still holding my attention: see here and here), and lately I’ve been finding myself drawn to watching the repeats of one of the other must-see programmes from my youth, to wit Top Of The Pops, which BBC4 started repeating week by week last year. Like Doctor Who, and many other iconic shows from the 60s and 70s, the BBC’s archive of early TOTP is pretty patchy, with most of the programmes long-wiped – they do however hold a continuous archive from 1976, which is the point from which they started screening the repeats. They’re currently up to June 1977, an interesting month for a reason I’ll go into later.

The BBC have been harvesting choice performances from old TOTPs for years for presentation in compilation shows, but it’s a funny old business, seeing these unedited samples of soft rock, limp balladry, workmanlike soul and very occasionally searing pop genius again. I was eight years old in 1977 and would have been glued to the screen when TOTP was on, but most of these songs seem to have made no impression on me whatsoever – they’re formulaic, uninspired, well-crafted filler, usually delivered by uncharismatic session players. The soul and disco numbers are significantly better, even if there’s something a bit disquieting about watching talented singers working through tightly choreographed routines in matching brightly-coloured outfits. At least you can imagine people dancing to them, even if you can’t actually see anyone in the studio audience busting out any moves – one of the most endearing features of TOTP 1977 is the way that the ordinary (and reassuringly non-glamorously dressed) punters spend most of their time just sort of milling about looking resolutely non-excited about proceedings.

In fact, most of the time the most memorable, and not in a good way, aspect of these curiously washed-out shows is the attitude of the Radio 1 disc jockeys selected to present them. Noel Edmonds is smug and condescending. Dave Lee Travis is odious, lecherous, smug and condescending. Jimmy Savile is weird, and you can’t help worrying about the safety of the young ladies in the audience that have been shepherded into his proximity. Only Kid Jensen comes off as a halfway reasonable human being. TV presenters these days are often accused of being vacuous or cynical, but you can’t help feeling that we’ve come a long way. These self-important specimens are nearly enough to make you turn off, but not quite…sometimes, not often but sometimes, a jewel of a song comes down the sluice of mediocrity to remind you why you love pop music so much in the first place, most recently Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, which is, astonishingly given the amount of abuse it’s had over the years by the hand of Steve Coogan, still heart-rendingly affecting. Even the kitsch “memories” voiceover bit in the second verse. And the simple, largely effects-free, video is simply devastating.

So I’m going to keep on watching, for the next few weeks at least, to relive a particular memory. There was a Jubilee going on in 1977 as well, and I remember at the time being puzzled and alarmed by the presence of a record at number 2 that I’d never heard and nobody seemed to want to acknowledge. Have a good weekend, and God Save The Queen.

Fear of Folk exhibit A: Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones

Confession: I have a difficult relationship with folk music.

Actually, come to think of it, writing as somebody who likes to regard himself as curious and open-minded with catholic tastes in music and a secret conviction that the number of tracks on one’s ipod is an index to one’s worth as a human being, there are loads of genres I don’t get on with. I think both opera and heavy metal are overwrought and silly, that both jazz and electronica are self-indulgent and irritatingly structureless, that most pre-1900 classical should be confined to the soundtracks of Jane Austen adaptations and that progressive rock is about as fit for public consumption as most other bedroom activities of teenage boys. It seems that if it’s not under four minutes long with verses, choruses and hooks and a beats-per-minute rate of not less than 100 I’m not interested. Basically, I’m a pop song Stalinist.

I have however of late being making a few inroads into alien territory. I’m fine with country and Americana now, having been eased in via brilliant modern singers and songwriters like Neko Case, Laura Cantrell and Caitlin Rose, and since last year I wouldn’t be without my beloved Have Moicy! And I really ought to be able to handle some traditional English folk by now. I mean, it’s got forms and structures that I should be able to relate to, it’s generally pretty stripped down and played on acoustic guitars, which I’ve always got on better with than their electric, effects-swamped counterparts and there are many transparently brilliant people working in the area, like Richard Thompson and Eliza Carthy. But I’ve never really got to grips with it. I think more than anything it’s the wholesome organic authentic vibe of the genre that puts me off, rather than anything specific in the music – I seem to have no problem enjoying folk songs when they’re delivered in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by ironists like Robyn Hitchcock or The Decemberists.

Anyway, this year I’ve taken the plunge and bought a ticket to the Cambridge Folk Festival, one of the most prestigious events of its type in Europe, which I’ve never been to despite living within stumbling distance for the last twenty years. So in order to get the most out of it I’ve embarked on a short acclimatisation course which involves digging out and listening to music by some of the acts that will be playing. All of which leads me finally to the point of this post, namely to talk about Penguin Eggs, the 1981 album by Nic Jones, who will be making his first major appearance for some considerable time at the festival this year.

Jones was a highly respected guitar and fiddle player much in demand as a session player with four previous solo albums under his belt by the time that he recorded Penguin Eggs, but it’s this record that he’s best known for. It contains nine, mostly traditional, folk songs that are presented elegantly and unfussily – for the bulk of the album, the odd backing vocal, accordion or recorder apart, there’s little or nothing to distract you from Jones’s clear, unmannered vocals and really quite extraordinarily adept guitar playing, which carries these songs as effectively as if he’d hired a full danceband. The guitar seems to fulfil both rhythmic and melodic functions effortlessly, with clipped and perfectly accented chord patterns forming the backing for fluid and lyrical runs of notes. I’ve got no idea how he was able to play like this, but there’s no hint of any studio trickery. The songs are pretty good, too, typically stories of rural or nautical misadventure set to sturdy and attractive tunes. After a couple of plays I found I was actually getting a bit obsessed with this record, and it turns out that I’m not the only one to rate it highly: in 2001 it was voted second-best folk album of all time by listeners of the Mike Harding radio show, and its opening song Canadee-i-o has been covered by Bob Dylan. Noted cultural connoisseur Stewart Lee is also a fan.

Nic Jones’s career was brought to a tragic and abrupt conclusion in 1982 when he was involved in a car accident that left with him with brain damage and permanant problems with physical co-ordination, although he’s still able to play the guitar. He’s only recently started giving a few short stage performances, which makes his appearance on the Folk Festival bill a pretty big deal. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago, but I’m very glad I discovered Penguin Eggs. Maybe folk ain’t as queer as I thought.

The Maxon House 2011 CD: tasting notes

So this is my hundredth post, and I was thinking I should use it for something suitably pompous like a list of films of the year or new acts to watch out for in 2012 or a testing Christmas quiz but in the end I figured that I don’t really possess anything like the necessary acumen for any of those. Here instead is something different but no less self-indulgent. Every year at this time my house compiles a CD for distribution among friends that contains recent tracks we particularly like and one or two older songs that relate to gigs we’ve been to or other significant events. People sometimes ask us about the tracks and artists, so here as a public service are some tasting notes, together with a few links.

1. The Agitator: Get Ready. Used to be known as the famous poet Derek Meins who had a nice line in filthy acoustic songs about Sigmund Freud. Has now given up the guitars in favour of urgent agit-prop beats and soulful bellowing.

2. Poly Styrene: I Love Ur Sneakers. RIP. Damn shame. But a brilliant, unapologetically right-on, album to go out on.

3. The Go! Team: Buy Nothing Day. Catchiest track of the year. You can almost hear the bright primary colours, a physical response is compulsory.

4. PJ Harvey: The Glorious Land. From the startlingly great Let England Shake. Went to see her at Ally Pally in July.

5. Real Estate: It’s Real. Deceptively smooth and tuneful indie guitar band from New Jersey. This is from their second album Days, which is so mellow and relaxing and free of dissonance it’s actually quite sinister.

6. Wire: Clay. All these postpunk conceptual outfits keep ploughing on. Didn’t rate the new Gang Of Four album much, but this is well up to par.

7. Half Man Half Biscuit: Excavating Rita. This may be the most commercial sounding track they’ve ever done, ironic given the subject matter. From the splendid 90 Bisodol (Crimond).

8. Joan As Police Woman: The Magic. Terribly awkward alias for Joan Wasser, who was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend you know. This rather slinky track from the album The Deep Field.

9. Blancmange: The Western. Yes, even Blancmange have a new album out. This is pleasingly similar to Living On The Ceiling. Let’s party like it’s 1982.

10. Eliza Newman: Eyjafjallajökull. Jolly ditty celebrating the holiday-complicating Icelandic volcano.

11. Zoey Van Goey: You Told The Drunks I Knew Karate. I know nothing about this. But I do like the title…right, just looked them up. They’re from Glasgow.

12. Robyn Hitchcock: Dismal City. From the stopgap album Tromsø, Kaptein, which is actually a much better collection than either of his last two official releases. Saw him doing Captain Beefheart in June. Here he sounds more like The Kinks.

13. The Low Anthem: Boeing 737. This lot are ironically named, I’m guessing, as most of the tracks on their Smart Flesh album are so quiet they make the Cowboy Junkies sound like Motorhead. This one’s nicely bombastic though.

14. Anna Calvi: Blackout. My single of the year, I think. Sweeping, lush, widescreen, those sort of adjectives.

15. C.W.Stoneking: Don’t Go Dancin’ Down The Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Seen him three times this year. He does an enthralling rambly surreal intro to this when he does it live, involving a Hoodoo doctor and a prophesy that he’ll die in an eight sided room.

16. The Decemberists: This Is Why We Fight. From the best REM album in twenty years.

17. Alex Turner: Piledriver Waltz: From the soundtrack of the quirky, self-conscious, but still very likeable Submarine. Later re-done by The Arctic Monkeys but I prefer this one. Just looked him up as well, turns out we have the same birthday.

18. Magazine: A Song From Under The Floorboards. Should have been one from their new album really,  but none of the new songs are a patch on this. Saw them live in November.

19. Bonus track. My current favourite songwriter doing a cover, karaoke style.

If you’re interested I think most of these should be on Spotify, or you can contact me for a CD. And, er, Merry Christmas.

Morgan Howell and the art of the big hit single

I don’t know much about art and most of the time I’m not very sure if I know what I like, but the work of English artist Morgan Howell is sure as hell right up my lapsed-obsessive-record-collector street. Howell specialises in painstakingly accurate reproductions of 7 inch singles from the 60s and 70s, by which I don’t mean picture sleeves but the classic flimsy paper housed artefacts that required one to examine the label showing through the central circular hole in the cover if you wanted to identify them. These are three dimensional objects, not paintings, and Howell’s attention to detail is fastidious, down to the authentically distressed and creased canvas that stands in for the paper sleeves and the tiny imperfections round the edges of the labels on the foam board records – the one tiny thing that might tip you off that his artworks aren’t the real thing is their size: 27 inches square, with smaller reproductions available at 16 inches by 16. A very pleasing detail on some of the latter is the inclusion of a rendering of the shiny rounded record spindle you get on some players, which is painted to show the reflection of the room beyond.

I went to an exhibition of Howell’s work at the Williams Art Gallery in Cambridge where the walls were covered in these enormous singles and found it tremendously evocative. Apart from anything else, Howell is to be commended for his taste in subject matter: the reproductions included “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas, Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, “Gangsters” by The Specials and rather excitingly for me “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” by The Clash, which I’ve previously rambled on about at some length. Buying works of art is a ridiculous bourgeois indulgence but I couldn’t resist splashing out on one of the cheaper reproductions of this one. If you love old singles and you get the chance you should definitely go and see Howell’s work. He even takes commissions!