Category Archives: Music

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.

Sweet Baboo, The Portland Arms, Cambridge, 20 November 2013

SweetBaboo1I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.

Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.

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I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.

Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.

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David Byrne: How Music Works

DavidByrneHowMusicWorksDavid Byrne’s How Music Works couldn’t be more different to the last music-related book I read, which was Morrissey’s Autobiography…actually, that’s wrong, if that last sentence was true Byrne’s book would have to be an iceberg or a classification system for light aircraft or a herbal treatment for verrucas, whereas it is, like Mozzer’s, largely an account of the late 20th century music business written by the former singer of an original, literate, musically accomplished and critically adored band. But you get my point. Morrissey’s effort (or at least the second half of it) is a hilarious and highly subjective broadside against the massed incompetent and grasping industry forces that he perceives to have been responsible for sabotaging his career and indeed life over the last quarter century. Byrne’s on the other hand is perky, user-friendly and downright educational, consisting as it does of a series of self-contained chapters that each address one aspect of how music is made, appreciated and marketed. You can imagine these units starting life as a lecture series, to be delivered alongside audio-visual material organised via Powerpoint – there are even helpful, referenced, illustrations of the type typical of this sort of presentation included in the book.

Despite its preppy, slightly earnest approach though How Music Works turns out to be an excellent read, putting forward some genuinely revealing and valuable insights into what makes musical performances and recordings really live and hacking efficiently through some of the mysteries and contradictions of record company practices. Byrne is fascinated by the way that collections of noises and voices can combine to make compelling tunes, grooves and atmospheres and uses his own experiences and those of many artists he admires to illustrate the sometimes random and unpredictable nature of creativity. He starts with the history of music and over the course of the book takes in anthropology, architecture, astronomy, computer science and even some politics, all of which is admirably well-researched and explained in clear, and often unexpectedly funny and self-deprecatory, prose. A central theme is that our appreciation of music both recorded and live is highly dependent on context and nebulous variables such as one’s mood – a piece that has a room full of people happily dancing for ages in a nightclub may well sound bizarre and repetitive if one heard it played in a cathedral or at a dinner party. One therefore shouldn’t set too much stall in establishing critical hierarchies or canons of acceptable work in any genre as it’s just as possible that you’ll come across a life-changingly wonderful song in a disco or at a local jam session in a bar as in an opera house. In the spirit of encouraging serendipitous collisions of musical ideas the author also provides some advice on how to set up and foster a thriving music scene, based on what he observed back when Talking Heads were a regular band at CBGBs in New York (a good tip: provide customers with pool tables to give them something else to do when the groups are playing other than just being a captive audience for a bunch of malnourished freaks).

Byrne’s candour about his working practices and many collaborations extends to a willingness to discuss the economics of being a musician, using himself as an example. In one chapter he provides detailed breakdowns of the costs involved in making two of his albums, one funded by a record company in the traditional manner and one a self-released project with Brian Eno which the two of them paid for themselves: although the two sold a comparable number of copies he made much more on the second, which demonstrates why a lot of record labels are getting hot and bothered these days about the ease with which the internet has allowed artists to bypass them. Byrne has decidedly mixed feelings about innovations like Spotify which provide ultimate convenience to consumers but don’t necessarily pay the people who actually made the music anything more than pin money but on this issue, as on all others that he covers, he keeps an open mind and argues his case fairly and convincingly (it would be hard to imagine Morrissey, say, taking such a balanced approach if he had suspicions he was being ripped off). How Music Works is ambitious, detailed and wide-ranging and it’s a must-read if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of how and why you get to hear the songs and pieces you love and the various creative and financial challenges of the artists who make them.

Morrissey: Autobiography

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The tremulously awaited Morrissey autobiography is now with us and it’s everything you wished for and everything you feared. This is a door-stop sized dollop of full-on Moz, not ghost-written and I’d be willing to bet not even edited, a vast slab of melodramatic and self-pitying soul baring that would be almost completely preposterous and laughably self-serving if it wasn’t so saturated with wit and passion and sheer outrageous conviction. It’s pretty damn well-written too, even if the author has a somewhat cavalier approach to strict chronology (and even what tense he’s writing in) and clearly finds the notion of dividing one’s magnum opus into easily digestible chapters hopelessly pedestrian. While you sometimes find yourself craving a bit more detail on the nuts and bolts of making those extraordinary records it can’t be denied that Autobiography is several cuts above your average plodding rockstar career summary.

Or at least it is for the first half of the book. In these first 225 pages Morrissey achieves the tricky feat of tempering his relentless denouncements of the various establishment forces that he transparently feels are working round the clock to deny him fulfilment (you know, schoolteachers, record label bosses, meat eaters, people like that) with frequent flashes of self-deprecatory humour and turns of phrases that bolster his reputation as one of the greatest of lyricists. One of his teachers will “die smelling of attics”. Another is “a sexual hoax”. The release of the first Smiths single Hand In Glove shattered their staunchly alternative label Rough Trade’s afternoons of “wok rotas, poetry workshops and Women’s Hour”. David Bowie “feeds on the blood of mammals”. It’s bracing, hilarious, fiercely non-ingratiating stuff that cedes not an inch to the many commentators who dismiss him as a one-note miserabilist and the style couldn’t be mistaken for that of another human being on the planet.

And once you’ve acclimatised yourself to the style you get quite a bit of insight into the formative years of a sensitive Mancunian lad raised in the 1960s within an extended Irish family dominated by doughty women. If the young Mozzer’s chief sources of misery were school and the brutal attitudes of teachers and would-be teenage gang leaders alike his salvations were television, books and particularly 45 rpm records, which he collected and studied obsessively. Later he would fall under the spell of The New York Dolls, Jobriath and other strange, sexually ambiguous acts on the margins of rock music, but his tentative attempts to establish himself as either writer or singer didn’t come to much until Johnny Marr came knocking on his door in the early 80s. Morrissey conjures the whirl and creative flood of the early days of the group he’ll always be best remembered for with rare economy and flair: “The Smiths’ sound rockets with meteoric progression; bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it all I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish.” Autobiography captures the emotional highs and lows of the band’s stormy five-year lifespan brilliantly even if it leaves it up to the reader to remember or research some of the prosaic discographic facts (anyone wanting a more objective summary of these years is hereby directed to Tony Fletcher’s excellent A Light That Never Goes Out).

After the group breaks up however the book becomes considerably less essential as Morrissey’s sense of being wronged by the world in general and by a long list of former collaborators, judges and media figures in particular starts to colour everything. It’s still a more or less entertaining read but the dramatic tension is gone with the narrative flitting around between perceived slights that people have made against Moz’s character and, fatally, a fifty page account of the court action initiated by Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in pursuit of what he claimed was his fair share of The Smiths’ earnings that ends with judge John Weeks finding against the singer and branding him “devious, truculent and unreliable.” Morrissey does not like this one little bit and goes into obsessive, nit-picking detail about the spuriousness of Joyce’s case, repeating himself and restating his unimpeachable arguments over and over and over again. Sometimes, the reader is forced to conclude, it’s better to just let something go.

To be fair though, the book is not all Morrissey railing at the world. There are some unexpectedly tender passages scattered here and there amongst all the disappointment and bile. The singer pays moving tribute to the much missed Kirsty MacColl and several other prematurely deceased friends such as producer Mick Ronson, manager Nigel Thomas and video director Tim Broad, and is constant in his devotion to members of his family. There are also one or two accounts of Moz helping injured and distressed birds and animals, another constituency that he’s always been a fearless defender of.

But in the end you can’t help feeling that the book, despite delivering a surface punch as powerful and witty as anyone could have hoped for, has missed its mark ever so slightly. It’s a shame, because without the court case section and with some judicious trimming and collation of the isolated, loosely strung-together events and impressions that make up the back end of the book Autobiography would have been a genuine instant Penguin Classic, worthy of the imprint that Moz insisted on as part of the publishing deal. As it is, it’s closer to something like The Kenneth Williams Diaries – an insight into a unique and unmistakable British recording artist who’s as incapable of mellowing with age as a neglected stub of camembert at the back of the fridge.

Thomas Dolby: The Invisible Lighthouse

ThomasDolbyLighthouseSo that makes two idiosyncratically English songwriters that I’ve seen play live in Screen One of the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in support of their new films in the space of two days, though I think you can safely say that the seasoned producer, session player and electronic games designer Thomas Dolby possesses just a touch more technical competence than the blessed John Otway. He’s not however known as a director and this presentation of his forty minute film The Invisible Lighthouse has more of the ambitious Pink Floyd-style concert-plus-lightshow about it than your typical film festival screening: Dolby provides live narration, soundtracking and inventive visual effects from the side of the auditorium while his movie plays, making this a unique and personal event.

…which is nicely appropriate, given the subject matter and the autobiographical slant Dolby has given it – his roots are in Suffolk and he grew up near the coast among the peculiarly bleak flatlands of Orford Ness, where a lighthouse has stood since the eighteenth century*. This area is gradually being reclaimed by the sea and the lighthouse (which at one point boasted the most powerful lamp of any in the United Kingdom) was finally deemed unsafe and decommissioned in 2013. On hearing the news Dolby, who has in recent years returned to live here again, felt moved to mark the passing of what he remembered as a formative influence on his childhood by shooting what is in effect a home movie, albeit one that’s been shot and assembled using modern digital technology. He weaves his memories of the lighthouse and its landscape together with stories from his family history and he turns out to have had plenty of illustrious forebears including the builder of the barley malting plant of Snape Maltings, now an arts complex, and the first woman to become the mayor of an English town (Aldeburgh). He’s determined to be present when the lighthouse shines out for the last time but receives scant support from the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, the bodies responsible for the spit of land on which the lighthouse stands, so takes the opportunity to go on a dawn commando-style reconnaissance mission in his speedboat down one of the murky channels that criss-cross the site and thankfully gets out without detonating any of the unexploded warheads supposedly still concealed in the shingle. At one point the film digresses in a slightly Sebald-ish manner into an account of a dubious extra-terrestrial sighting in a local wood and Dolby has rounded up the footage of US army personnel swearing blind that they witnessed something metallic dissolve into liquid and vanish through the trees (if you want to visit the spot in question it seems to be clearly signposted on a woodland UFO trail). If nothing else this film is a lovely look into a highly distinctive part of the country that very rarely gets much exposure outside regional news bulletins.

After the screening the confident and affable Dolby chats about why and how he chose to make his movie and even goes into the detail of how much particular bits of equipment cost him: he reckons the total cost of the project to be of the order of a modest £1,500. It’s unlikely to receive a conventional release, either in cinemas or on DVD, as he prefers to be present when it’s shown and besides he still enjoys tinkering with it – the beauty of it existing only on his laptop is that it’s easy to chop and change elements without inconveniencing anyone but himself. He rounds off the evening with a few of his old songs, the backing tracks of which have been pre-programmed into his keyboards, and even this provides an impressively multimedia experience with footage from his 80s videos and the visual representations of the songs on his computer being seamlessly projected behind him while he sings. He’s clearly fascinated by the possibilities of technology and is something of a master of the software – the only mechanism that lets him down is the mechanical pivot he uses to secure one of his keyboards to his waist which fails rather badly when he attempts a ZZ Top style spin of the instrument, not that it seems to affect the smooth playing of the music at all. I bought my first Thomas Dolby single in 1981 and now I’ve got to see him live, and at a film festival too. This was an unexpected treat.

* Interestingly Brian Eno, Dolby’s chief competitor in the electronic music boffin stakes, hails from nearby Woodbridge. Must be something in the water.

Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie

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“OK, let’s make this the big one for Otway!” – John Otway, spoken intro to Beware Of The Flowers, 1977

The Cambridge Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with Hawking, a moving tribute to a unique and celebrated figure. Last night the organisers were good enough to screen a documentary about someone who in some select circles might be considered equally legendary and inspiring, though in this case it’s not so much for any profound breakthroughs in understanding the nature of our universe as for being a wonderful example of the triumph of unreasonable optimism and a sweetly self-deprecatory confidence over any demonstrable talent. Ladies and gentlemen, after 35 years of scrabbling around trying to recapture a tiny and barely earned spark of success we present Otway the Movie!

John Otway is a singer-songwriter and all-purpose attention-seeking exhibitionist who emerged from Aylesbury in the 1970s at just the right time to catch the attention of record company scouts eager to sign up anything rough-and-ready sounding in the slipstream of punk rock. With his considerably more musically adept partner Wild Willy Barrett he scored a minor hit with the infectiously basic Cor Baby That’s Really Free and secured appearances on Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test (the footage from the latter providing an early recorded instance of Otway’s propensity to sabotage his career through poor judgement and sheer over-enthusiasm: his fall when he attempts to leap onto a stack of amplifiers looks spectacularly painful). Astonishingly Polydor Records had sufficient faith to award him an advance of £250,000, which Otway proceeded to blow as though he was a fully-fledged rockstar – a fancy house in Maida Vale, a vintage Bentley and, most ill-considered of all, the hire of a hundred piece orchestra to play on his next single, a drippy ballad called Geneve, in the hope that it would impress the lusted-after girl who was the subject of the song. The resulting record couldn’t have been contrived better to turn off the young pogoers who bought Really Free and Otway’s career nosedived.

Or did it? You could argue that Otway’s real creativity and imagination didn’t really emerge until he started to understand that he wasn’t ever going to re-establish himself as a successful artist through fair means and that he had enough of a loyal fan base (built up mainly through his exuberantly physical and at times death-defying live performances) to try some highly unorthodox and entertaining capers in an attempt to rig the charts in his favour. These start out with a run of gigs where punters needed not a ticket but a copy of Otway’s current single to gain admittance and a Willy Wonka style special edition pressing of another single whereby three copies were sent out sans vocal and the lucky buyers of these would receive a house visit from Otway so that he could sing it to them live. Gradually the schemes get more elaborate and the fans get more dedicated until in 2002 it pays off: a ruthlessly well-organised internet campaign manages to generate enough sales of the single Bunsen Burner to get it into the Top Ten, despite it not being available at many of the major retailers. One fan interviewed in the film admits to buying 45 copies – I myself bought three, having followed Otway on and off since about 1991, when the band I was in at the time supported him at a pub gig. I remember watching his triumphant return to Top Of The Pops and literally choking back tears!

Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure documents all this and much more besides with the help of many of Otway’s collaborators, managers and minders, all of whom display a nice line in eye-rolling resignation at their charge’s constant stream of ludicrously over-optimistic plans, and a really impressive assembly of archive footage (it seems he’s organised enough to have retained and archived pretty much every piece of film and video that he’s ever appeared on). It’s a brilliant, funny, heart-warming film that displays a very English love of the underdog and the eccentric with not a hint of self-pity or bitterness. Otway himself is present throughout, gleefully describing his hair-brained schemes which these days it seems come to fruition more often than they don’t (hire the London Palladium for a party to celebrate the success of a single that doesn’t even exist yet? Why not? Get a conductor, an arranger and a full orchestra in for a concert in the Albert Hall despite not being musical enough to understand when to start singing? What could possibly go wrong?) He’s a dreamer but a very likeable one and it’s brilliant that he’s around to show us the power of positive thinking, even if that power isn’t necessarily harnessed terribly sensibly (witness his shenanigans with a theremin, or his serial microphone-abuse).

Otway himself turns up to introduce this screening and he’s as excited and puppy-doggish as ever. Brilliantly, he’s arranged for two and a half seconds of the film to be made available as a little flip-book that you can run through with your thumb to animate! After the film he and his director Steve Barker take questions from a friendly and responsive audience – sessions like this can feel a bit awkward but this one’s a hoot, with plenty of good-humoured jokes being made at Otway’s expense. Finally, the great man straps on his guitar and we’re treated to both Beware Of The Flowers and, somewhat unexpectedly, the ill-starred Geneve. It may just be the good vibe in the room but just for once this last song sounds rather lovely and touching. Next stop: Otway the Musical.

The Wave Pictures at The Portland Arms, Cambridge, September 11 2013

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I’ve been remiss. I’ve only recently become aware of The Wave Pictures and on the evidence of Wednesday’s gig at the Portland Arms this represents a rather serious case of cultural oversight on my part. They’re a trio from somewhere in Leicestershire who have it seems been regularly releasing collections of witty and infectious deconstructions of personal relationships and neuroses (with particular reference to household condiments) for the last ten years or so. Their wikipedia page lists The Smiths, Jonathan Richman, Darren Hayman, Jeffrey Lewis and The Mountain Goats amongst their influences and collaborators, which places them so firmly in my ball-park they’re practically sitting on my lap and nibbling on my burrito, and if the two or three albums that I’ve heard are anything to go by their songwriter David Tattersall deserves to be as celebrated as any of the above. Musically they come over initially as classic jangly indie-pop, but close attention reveals a rare fluency and judgement in the arrangements and playing. This date was the first on a tour to promote a new album City Forgiveness (which curiously their record company are not going to be releasing for another couple of months) which will be something like their thirteenth…difficult to believe given Tattersall still looks like he’s in the sixth form.

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Support is provided by Mammoth Penguin, who would be worth a mention just for their splendid name even if they weren’t a pretty good power trio in their own right. Their pleasingly diffident and self-deprecatory stage manner contrasts nicely with the crunchy vigour of their performance and the distinctive full-throated delivery of the singer and the crowd get behind them enthusiastically. A short set of short but eventful songs, just the way I like it.

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In what must be a first the main act takes to the stage slightly before the advertised starting time and without any ceremony kick things off with a nimble take on Spaghetti. It’s clear straight away that this is one talented band. Drummer Jonny Helm is all over his kit, managing to hold down a light funky beat at the same time as providing backing vocals while the seemingly unflappable Franic Rozycki (who I saw in June on this very stage playing mandolin in The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel band) plays his bass like a master, throwing in unexpected melodic runs up and down the neck but never straying into irritating muso territory. It’s David Tattersall’s guitar playing however that’s the real revelation: slightly obscured on record by his defiantly English vocals and wordplay it’s actually a bit of a wonder to behold, with full-on bluesy solos, crisp choppy chord-work and delicate picky bits being effortlessly despatched, all on a slightly battered looking Les Paul with no effects pedals anywhere in evidence. I really hadn’t expected anything half as accomplished, and that he’s also able to find his way through his sometimes knotty and tongue-twistery lyrics without fouling up once makes it even more impressive.

From the first song on you know that you’re in safe hands and the evening flies by. They play songs old and new, including one from the forthcoming album that features high-life style guitar playing that recalls Paul Simon’s Graceland, and a couple (Now You Are Pregnant and Sleepy Eye) that afford Jonny Helm an opportunity to emerge from behind his kit and treat us to his soulful lead vocals – honestly, he looks like he’s having his very heart torn in two while he’s singing them. The material ranges from old school indie stompers (Leave The Scene Behind) through ballads (Red Wine Teeth) and even something that sounds a bit like a proper respectable blues. One of the most striking aspects is the band’s willingness to leave space in their material (instruments often drop out and sometimes Franic’s bass is the only sound to be heard) and to be, you know, quiet. On a couple of occasions Tattersall mutes his guitar right down and starts singing a song softly off-mic – at first the chatter from the back of the audience drowns him out, but it doesn’t take long for people to catch on, shut up and give him their full attention. You can’t imagine ever witnessing this kind of dynamic at Wembley Stadium.

WavePictures3After ninety minutes or so they leave us with the rowdy Friday Night In Loughborough and the house lights come on…except they don’t leave us, they go straight to the back of the room to man the merchandise stall. This gig was a rare treat. If you like your pop quirky and literate and English you should go see this group as soon as you can, and even if you don’t you should probably go anyway just because they’re such damn good musicians.