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.

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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.