Monthly Archives: September 2012

Rock-N-Reads: “Staring At Sound”

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I found the ‘official’ Flaming Lips bio, called “Staring At Sound” in a charity shop for £3. I couldn’t pass it up at that price and I’d meant to buy it when it was first published in 2006.

Written by Jim DeRogatis, it traces the band’s history from their childhood days up to the making of their (then new) record “At War With The Mystics”. I also own DeRogatis’s history of psychedelic rock, called “Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades Of Psychedelic Rock” (previously published as “Kaleidoscope Eyes” in 1996). I quite like “Turn On Your Mind”, even though, to me, he misses out some pretty important bands. I suppose that is to be expected with any book attempting to cover an entire genre in just a few hundred pages.

Featured in a chapter of “Kaleidoscope Eyes” and updated in “Turn On Your Mind..” were The Flaming Lips – who DeRogatis cited as one of the more important psych guitar bands of the 1990s (along with Anglo-Irish ‘shoegazers’, My Bloody Valentine). He was able to hang out during the recording of their 1995 release, “Clouds Taste Metallic” and used that as some of the chapter in the book. I suppose after that and some more meetings with The Lips and their spaced-cowboy Okie leader, Wayne Coyne, over the next five or six years led him to expand it into a whole book about the band.

The chapters in “Staring…” are based around the group’s record releases, so you get the atmosphere of what was happening, tour-wise and studio-craft. I found the earlier years of The Lips more of a revelation than the post-“Soft Bulletin” era, simply because there seem to have been very few interviews from around then (unless you were hip to small ‘zines in the late 1980s that may have had pieces about The Lips). The author did a fine job rounding up ex-members of the band and letting them have a say – particularly former drummers Richard English and Nathan Roberts. Tellingly, Ronald Jones, the guitar wunderkind who joined just in time to help kick-start The Lips again in 1993, refused to be interviewed. He’s portrayed as an uber-sensitive soul who had a spiritual discovery while on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994 and subsequently left the group soon after the release of “Clouds Taste Metallic”.

DeRogatis doesn’t shy away from most subjects – Steven Drozd, the drummer/multi-instrumentalist who’s been with the group the longest, besides Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins, had drug and drink troubles in the late 90s/early 2000s and nearly left The Lips a few times. Coyne’s jealous streaks and control-freak nature are also given a public airing – particularly concerning his former girlfriend/band manager Michelle Vlasminsky. The group’s spats with producer/engineer Keith Cleversley, who’s portrayed as arrogant and fomenting tension between the band members, are another example of the bad times…as is the 2002 tour with Beck.

Through it all, though, you can’t help but admire their persistence and positive attitude. At each dip, they somehow manage to pull themselves out of it and start a new phase – such as in 1989, when Jonathan Donahue (who brought his own Lips-ian flair to his own group, Mercury Rev) joined and from their non-stop jamming, the guitar-skronk classic, “In A Priest Driven Ambulance” album was realised. They did it again after Jones left. Trimmed down to a trio (which they essentially remained since), Coyne got the idea for the “Boom-Box Orchestra” shows, which led to the 4-disc album “Zaireeka“, released in 1997. They then hit super-stardom with the “Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” records, released in 1999 and 2002, respectively. A few massive tours and four years later, “At War With The Mystics” was finally completed. The book ends with the band in the studio, recording that very album.

Though more detail could’ve been used for the later sections of the book, I’d recommend “Staring At Sound” for the Lips novice, though the hardcore devotees will probably find out things about the band they didn’t know either – unless they’re personal friends of the individual Lips.

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100 Years of Woody Guthrie: Billy Bragg Live in Treorchy, 12.9.12

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This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American folk singer, Woody Guthrie, an occasion that has prompted Billy Bragg to perform concerts in each of the nations of the UK, at the behest of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. Bragg and Ms. Guthrie have worked together now for a number of years on the Mermaid Avenue albums project which has seen Billy and US band, Wilco, putting music to previously unrecorded and unseen Guthrie lyrics. The two original Mermaid Avenue volumes have recently been joined by a box set of the entire recordings with previously unissued tracks and a DVD of the fine Bragg-fronted film about Woody’s work, Man In The Sand. Here in south Wales, we were fortunate to get the show on our doorstep at the great little Parc and Dare theatre in Treorchy. Here’s my reflections on an evening of Guthrie via Bragg.

First off, support act, Martyn Joseph, well known in these parts, but not so well recognised in the rest of the UK, put on a fine but all too brief performance that perfectly illustrated that all one needs for a good night’s entertainment is a man, his guitar(s) and some very good songs. Joseph did almost come to national prominence in the 80’s when he was being promoted as a rising pop star in an unfortunately AOR mode but he has since come to see that his strengths lie very much as a more straight-ahead singer-songwriter. Songs like ‘Cardiff Bay’ and ‘Dic Penderyn’, whilst obviously displaying local affiliations, touch on universal themes that made me draw comparisons with the likes of Tom Russell and, if I may be so bold, Springsteen. Indeed, Joseph acknowledged his debt to The Boss with a strong version of ‘The River’, which was not out of place alongside songs of his own like ‘Arizona Dreams’ and ‘Lonely Like America’. I will certainly say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the man’s set and could easily have listened to him for another hour or so.

Billy Bragg, probably the UK’s best known Guthrie promoter and preserver of the spirit of Woodrow, walked onto the very bare Parc and Dare stage and sat with two acoustic guitars and a supply of tea to lubricate his throat. I’ll admit that I had hoped he would be performing a whole range of Woody’s songs but from the off it’s clear that he intends to, more or less, stick to the Mermaid Avenue material, although we do get a couple of original Guthrie gems in the shape of ‘Slip Knot’ and ‘Deportees’ before the night is over. Still, one can’t complain because he certainly did great service to Woody’s words with his music and his performance to night is as strong as you would expect. Favourites like ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ and ‘She Came Along To Me’ are all present and correct and Billy does a good job in showing the uninitiated a wider view of the art and character of Mr. Guthrie with laugh-filled talk of Woody’s obviously masturbatory fantasies about Ingrid Bergman. Bragg is a very engaging host but I did find it slightly ironic that even though he had prefaced the evening’s performance by saying how he wanted to get right away from the academic style of presentation that so often dooms the discussion and playing of folk song, his approach was sometimes more akin to a lecture than the proto-punk rock spirit of Woody himself. I’m sure if we’d had the  chance to see the legend in the flesh for ourselves he would have been jumping around the stage and firing off songs left right and centre in a fashion closer to Bragg’s own punk heroes, The Clash, than that of someone just signed up to the ‘Pete Seeger School of Earnest Folk Singers’. For this audience member, Billy only really seemed to truly get the adrenaline (his and ours) running when he jumped into ‘All You Fascists’, the aforementioned original Woody classics, ‘Deportees’ (one of the encores with Martyn Joseph) and ‘Slip Knot’ or, the final songs of the entire (long but I ain’t complaining) night, his own ‘Don’t Buy The Sun’ and ‘Waiting The For Great Leap Forwards’. Indeed, with these final two tunes, where Billy talked of the new revelations about the Hillsborough football ground tragedy, he truly began to channel the spirit of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. I will also add that throughout the whole show we were kept highly entertained not only by the songs but Bragg’s own abilities as a raconteur. If you’ve never heard the hilarious tale of his stay at Morrissey’s house with Paul Weller, Jimmy Sommerville and the rubber bed sheet, I’m sure you’ll find it on YouTube.

To sum up: a very solid night of entertainment and edification in celebration of the life and work of one of the most important singers and writers of the twentieth century which would have benefited even more from an injection of Bragg’s own spiky spirit and a step away from the traditions of the Folklore Society or The Smithsonian Institute.

Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming” album is 30 years old

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The Quietus music site has posted an article about Kate Bush‘s The Dreaming record being released thirty years ago this month. Thirty years! Sheesh, the 1980s really are starting to become the distant past, or at least that’s the way it seems.

“The Dreaming” seems to be the most overlooked of her continuously pored-over canon. She went out on a limb, buoyed by watching Peter Gabriel‘s far-reaching experiments with his third solo album. Recorded over the space of a year in four different studios, the songs would almost give her nervous exhaustion, trying to perfect the sounds she heard in her mind.

The resulting melange was avoided by the punters and the singles from the record didn’t disturb the charts much. Like The Beatles before her, when “Strawberry Fields Forever” didn’t hit the top of the charts, there was doubt as to where Kate was going with her latest long-player. EMI bigwigs also expressed their doubts and called her in for a dressing-down about the budget for the LP. She was just too progressive and strong-willed in 1982. If “The Dreaming” had been released ten years earlier on EMI’s Harvest label, home to her influences Pink Floyd and Roy Harper, among others, I suspect it would have fared much better and original-press copies of the LP would no doubt be going for £100 on eBay.

In my view, “The Dreaming” continues on from the path set in Kate’s third LP, “Never For Ever”, released in 1980. She yearned to move on from the ‘girl with the piano’ image and exploit the possibilities of more rhythm and technology in her music. “The Dreaming” just gets more overtly psychedelic (albeit a kind of dark, claustrophobic psychedelia) and multi-faceted. As the article points out, between Kate’s record, Siouxsie & The Banshees’ A Kiss In The Dreamhouse and Danielle Dax‘s Pop Eyes and The Jesus Egg That Wept, formed an almost alternate dark psychedelic early 1980s, at least in the UK. It seemed a world away from the pomp and frills of the New Romantic scene and the robotic glam of techno-pop like the newly souped-up Human League and Gary Numan.

After the album’s cooled reception, Kate high-tailed it out of the city and set up a home studio at her parents’ place in Kent. She was able to work at her own pace and keep recording costs down. By the time she returned in 1985 with arguably her finest record, Hounds Of Love, the musical landscape had shifted again. This time, though, possibly because the songs were more radio-friendly, the punters were more receptive. While “The Dreaming” remains her ‘difficult’ album – surely without it, “Hounds Of Love” wouldn’t be quite the masterpiece that it seems.

You can read the Quietus article here.

When Comedians Attack!

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A friend of mine shared a blog post from a stand-up comedy site called “Cook’d and Bomb’d” on Facebook yesterday. I was intrigued by the title of the article: “Comedians using their fans for co-ordinated safety-in-numbers bullying” – so I read the post.

If you’re not familiar with Twitter – it’s a ‘social networking’ site that lets you post statements of 160 characters. It’s become a phenomenon in the past few years, mainly due to celebrity endorsers, like Stephen Fry. Unlike Facebook, which has you send a friend request to celebrities, leaving them to decide whether they want you to be able to see their profile page or not — Twitter lets you “follow” them, without any restrictions.

As such, ‘slebs’ get large numbers of followers..Fry has more than a million. That in itself is no problem – though some get very desperate to curry favour with their fave actor, or musician, or comedian, in this case. The blog post is about what happens when a ‘regular person’ has a disagreement with a celebrity on Twitter – or the celebrity spots a bad review online and ‘tweets’ about it. Sometimes, the celebrity will mobilise their Twitter followers into an internet mob, to excoriate the ‘offender’. They followers either attack the person, if they are on Twitter – or go to the online review and deluge the comments section with positive comments about the sleb and negative ones about the review and reviewer.

Ricky Gervais, according to the blog post, seems to be the biggest culprit for this type of Twitter behaviour. This doesn’t shock me that much – as Gervais has always seemed to have a bit of the “dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it” persona. I love “The Office” and I even like some of his stand-up stuff, even though, to me, his schtick wears a bit thin over repeated viewings. The reviewer in question, wrote a disparaging comment about the second series of “An Idiot Abroad”, which Gervais took exception to. A link was added to Twitter was added to his page and away it went.

More surprising was Noel Fielding, of The Mighty Boosh, using the tactic against an art critic who objected to Fielding being chosen to interview Damien Hirst. Just recently, his followers attacked a woman on Twitter because she took offense at Fielding using the word ‘retard’. Now, there’s two sides to the story and perhaps the woman was being unjustly harsh with him – but that’s no reason for his followers to jump in and castigate her for daring to speak to him like that. After a long confrontation with Fielding’s followers, she left Twitter and reportedly tried to kill herself. I love The Boosh, though t.b.h., I’m not so hot on Fielding’s solo efforts–his “Luxury Comedy” seemed to be just weird for the sake of being weird. Still, I didn’t think he would behave in such a way – given his image as a lovable, spacey fashionista. He’s since left Twitter himself.

There was also an incident with Simon Pegg, who became incensed with a follower’s comment and asked the rest of his followers to ‘flame’ the person. After the post was pointed out to him – he did apologise and reminded everyone not to attack someone on his whim. So, all in all, Pegg comes out of it as a gentleman and thoughtful.

I remember an incident with a guy called Jon Spira, who got into an argument with “Twitter-sleb” Emma Kennedy over whether up-and-coming writers should sometimes work for free, to get their name known. The argument escalated a bit and suddenly, Kennedy was claiming that Spira was ‘stalking’ her and she was calling him a misogynist, etc. Her followers got whipped into a frenzy and the same sort of thing happened. You can read about it here. I fell foul of her temper as well – when disagreeing with her about the Diane Abbott tweet shit-storm. I’ve since un-followed Kennedy – I may have blocked her as well. I can’t recall.

I suppose it’s just one more symptom of celebrity culture – people who are so desperate to be noticed by their idols will become mindless thugs if they perceive their idol “is” being attacked and instead of letting the person handle criticism themselves. At the very least, if they feel the need to jump into a conversation – they could at least try to discuss it in a rational manner.

You can read the “Cook’d and Bomb’d” post here. Warning: for a post about comedy, it’s not particularly funny – but then, it’s not meant to be.

Forward…Into The Past? …Or I Got Them 1980s Blues Again, Mama

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While the world (or most of it) was morning the loss of Neil Armstrong, an original space pioneer, and the futurist spirit of the late 1960s – other events suggested a leap backward to the dim and not-so-distant 1980s.

Exhibit A: A group of young women in Russia were given two-year jail sentences for singing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral. Two years in prison…for a song!! So much for glasnost and the ‘New Dawn’ of 1989–looks like ol’ Pooty-Poot wants to return to the days of czardom, or at the very least, Stalin. Now, whether or not you think the cathedral was an inappropriate place for a protest song, those sentences are pretty disproportionate to the “crime”. During the trial, the women were placed in a glass cage in the courtroom. Allegedly, there was a fire alarm one day – the courtroom was cleared, apart from the women, who were left in the cage. The Russian Orthodox Church helped to convict them as well, but then, after the sentences were handed down – pleaded for mercy for the women. Too little, too late, you hypocrites. Another sad day for free speech and another step toward police states. Kudos to the women, for standing their ground and not softening their stance in the face of authoritarians.

Exhibit B: Miners who were striking in South Africa were shot by police in a pay dispute protest, which also involved rival worker unions. Another deja vu, although things never got quite that bad in the UK, it seems unbelievable that this would happen. Then again, negligent owners are everywhere and still exploiting their work forces. Yes, there’s probably much more to the story than that – but heavy-handed tactics by the police never help. In a bizarre twist to the story – the miners have been charged with murder for the deaths of some of their colleagues (!!!). No mention of whether any police officers will be charged with murder or brutality. Their claim is that they were “defending themselves”…or course, of course.

Exhibit C: “Dallas” returns. You read that right…that show with those people…something about oil. A guy was shot, or something. You know, that soap opera show….with the ranch and it was in Texas. That one. Yes, they’ve made a new series.

Ah well, at least Madonna’s called it a day. She hasn’t!! Oh no. Next you’ll tell me that shoulder-pads are back….please don’t…

Right, I’m off to listen to Kajagoogoo and Huey Lewis & The News, while trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. It’s gonna be rad, man.