Monday, 26 October 2009
Arcade Fire as an event is imminent and, clearly, it's time to stop pussyfooting around. They could do without the responsibility, I'm sure - but I for one am pinning a lot of hopes and dreams on our cousins with the shared queen. I demand a lot from my music and I expect Arcade Fire to change my life. By summer 2005, in fact, I expect likely lads singing about skag and stupidity to be a figment of embarrassing memory.
That's not too tall an order. Arcade Fire's debut album cuts an astonishing dash. Vast, landscape-levelling sounds pulsate from its all-knowing brain. Precision-positioned violins scream blue murder over a soothing guitar, piano and vocal bedrock to produce a sound that is at once highly familiar (Bunnymen, New Order, Bowie, Suicide, Talking Heads, British Sea Power, blah blah blah) yet also utterly surprising, exciting and original. Chants and associated eerie oriental vocal antics, in both English and French, give this wonderful record a plausibly religious, possibly shamanic feel. The stuff of magic.
Onto this rich canvas are painted curious little ideas and images, of which the 'Neighborhood' four-part segment (oh yes, you can throw the traditional track one, track two format out of the window right now) is the most pronounced. These tales of family ties, family loss, deep memory, time-travel, catastrophe, astral flight and the 'escape' gene will shatter your heart one second; swell it with bravery and pride the next.
What an imagination! Chief fire officer Win Butler's grown-up but childlike tales are weird, dreamlike exercises that have no peer in modern music. A snowstorm engulfs the town and memories fade through eons to zilch in 'Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)', a vampiric brother seeks a brave new life by destroying family photos while his tears are collected in a cup during 'Neighborhood 2 (Laika)'. Icicles grow over the hands and eyes of parents in 'Neighborhood 3 (Power Cut)' and the planet is plunged into desperate darkness.
Then there's 'Wake Up', a wavering call for action to children, powered by a tambourine-led beat. It covers the passing of the age, the betrayal of memory and the disastrous pursuit of man. "We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms," shrieks Win. "Turning every good thing to rust."
The record officially ends with sadness and hope, memory and loss, bravery and passion - all combined for listening pleasure in the wonderfully haunting 'In The Backseat'. Life is a journey, friends, and we're all still learning to drive.
Except, it doesn't really end there, you know. The last track, I find, is one of my own making. It's not on the CD - it begins moments after the plastic has stopped spinning around. It's a moment of blessed silence, and you're going to need it if the power and majesty of this thing is to sink in sufficiently. The last 'track', then, is your own heart, your own breath and your own brain ticking, clicking and seething away.
What an album.
Saturday, 24 October 2009
Thursday, 15 October 2009
I've just come from a quiet pint turned full-on night out with Stiky and Gwen. I'm hammered. There was always going to be an element of old-time talking to the night, but I didn't quite suspect that I would get quite so far back into the zone as Stiky took me.
We had beers, we shared reminiscences, we looked at pictures of Stiky and Gwen's children. I was astounded by Rafe, Stiky's kid. He used to be 6. Now he's 18. He buys his dad pints. Wow.
Gwen's 16 year old is Alice. She's mates with my mate's teenage daughter. Small world. They should join together, form a band, play gigs. Play with our minds.
Stiky reminded me about incidents from the house I lives in 18 years ago. He reminded me about the parking ticket he got all those years ago. We remembered the gag about his band, Rollerco. "I've got all your records!" I would laugh. It was true. I'd pressed up 1,000 copies and they were all in a cupboard in my bedroom for years.
We went to the Underworld for a gig. The first band was alright. The second band were great. The third band was incredible.m They were like all the hardcore bands I had seen in Newport TJs in the early 1990s, all stuck together. I didn't care who they were, who was in the room, what had happened today or what would happen tomorrow: from some 15 minutes on, I was in the zone. I felt my legs go, then my arms, my head. I was twitching this way and that - I was feeling the music. Stiky had his arm around my shoulders, was bellowing something into my ear. Just like 18 years, ago it was incomprehensible. Song ended, new song began. I knew nothing - NOTHING - of the lyrical content. But the delivery shoved everything through.
I looked around me at kids half my age, watching politely. Semi-transfixed. I saw Stiky approach the stage, mid-song, to congratulate the guitarist on his last solo. That's how we used to roll. Convention, history, decorum... bunkum. It means diddly squat. This is me, this is Stiky, this is now.
I blubbed like a fool. Gwen asked me if I'd enjoyed myself. I hid my eyes in the shadows of the evening and suggested that it was my round.
I had such a great night, I totally forgot to go to Echo and the Bunnymen.
I had the time of my life.
(Written and edited for grammar only within 20 minutes, 16 Oct 2009. No rewrites.)
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
I reserve a healthy scepticism for the many oddball theories about our human origins that are out there. The least believable, to me, is the six-day creationist stuff in the Bible. Of the mainstream theories, Darwin's evolution seems to hold the most water.
Human evolution has accelarated way beyond the development of animals and plants, though, and there are many theories as to how this could have happened. Perhaps the most 'out-there' suggestion is also the one that I keep returning to as the most likely. Ironically, this is the one where Darwinism and Creationism appear to meet.
The oft-repeated and refined von Daniken-esque suggestion is that our current species is a derivative of homo erectus that was genetically modified many thousands of years ago. The story goes that scientifically advanced extra-terrestrial visitors to planet Earth gave our ape-like ancestors a genetic kick up the rear: larger brains, a longer life etc etc. The stuff of science fiction? Perhaps, but as research into the human genome and cloning techniques advance through the 21st century, the theory gains weight.
Revisiting the Adam and Eve story in 2009 is an interesting exercise. It's an absurdly accurate analogy for laboratory development of a new human species, is it not? 'God' (our advanced alien friend) takes a rib (strip of DNA) from Adam (himself) and creates an Eve (supercharged amalgam of alien and homo erectus). And if YOU were going to create your own little slave from scratch, wouldn't YOU wish to impose the same rules that were applied in the Garden of Eden (laboratory)? Namely, don't ask questions or there'll be trouble...
Having made a little workforce, perhaps to build its pyramids, henges and cities, the aliens left or maybe died out. The books that make up the Old Testament are littered with references to giants, nephilim (crossbred humans and 'angels'), people living for several hundred years and messengers coming down and then buggering off. The Noah story would appear to relate a rescue mission from a dying planet, complete with a cargo of DNA samples. Somewhere along the line, the human race was abandoned, and left feeling orphaned and perhaps homesick by alien proxy.
It's these feelings that dominate the drive to question our origins and our 'creators'. If you want to take a proper punt on it all, isn't it a bit interesting that church spires are rocket-shaped? When we pray, we put our hands together in an aerodynamic shape do we not? We think of 'God' as being in the heavens. we think of Jesus in terms of coming back.
We've been dumped. As a race, we want our collective daddies back. We want them to come and collect us and take us back to their place, because locked in our genetic history is a misty memory of where we came from. Either that or the stories in the Bible are a record of our future - a prediction that WE are the aliens who will abandon our Earth, travel to another planet and create a new race 'in our image'.
There. How do you like them apples?
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Back in the late 1990s I had a dream that I was at a live gig from the future. I could tell it was not the present because the audience had by and large abandoned the floor and were instead hovering in prone position, at various altitudes above sea level. The floating punters at the top of the building (which bore a very close resemblance to the old Leeds Town and Country) were tilting their heads slightly so they could look down on the musicians who were for some reason still rooted to terra firma.
The lower-level ones (which included me) sort of swerved around a bit, like they were lying on hoverboards, and there was also a smattering of people stood in the traditional manner, on the floor. The logic of the dream told me that the floating spectators had paid more for their unique P.O.V. And my dreamy head also suggested to me that this surreal effect was achieved through an air-thickening process that turned the air to something like water.
It struck a chord because I'd had a similar dream as a small boy, while at the dentist. I was put under with laughing gas and while the dentist prodded, poked, drilled and yanked at my gnashers I experienced the most surreal dream of my young life. In it, I was stuck floating in some kind of viscous air inside a cavernous cinema building. I was being sucked slowly towards the silver screen, with a tremendous atmospheric pressure all around me. A gentle ringing sound was in my ears.
It was only when I was considering material for this blog that it occurred to me how similar these dreams, which occurred 30 years apart, had been. A bomb dropped when I thought about the two scenes: one was a music venue, presumably because I was heavily into attending gigs at that point. The earlier one was a picture house. Why not a venue? Because I hadn't yet attended a gig - but I had been to the flicks.
Eureka? Two very potent dreams, both featuring a high density atmosphere and both involving large numbers of people facing a stage.
I've been trying to work it all out. Could the viscosity of the atmosphere and head-tilting towards the stage/screen be symptomatic of my suppressed memory of birth? Was this 'me', waiting for my call to stage? Or does it run deeper still?
I've always found it hard to be part of a church service or a good gig without feeling a massive emotional tug. I once wrote a review about crying at a gig, but what I didn't say at that time was that this is a feeling I have to fight most of the time. I frequently have a massive lump in my throat when I attend live music, almost regardless of content or quality. The good stuff takes me over the edge, but even the rubbish has an effect. You will only rarely see me smile in front of a band. Most of the time I'm fighting to keep control.
Is that how everyone feels? Is there something magical about the audience/stage configuration? Is it really just people on a wooden platform with a whole load of other people in front of it? Or does it go deeper into some matrix-like place? Does any of this have to do with my predilection for mulling over life decisions when I'm in the middle of a gig? I do find the atmosphere very conducive to big thinking. The church of noise, indeed.
Oh, this is tough! I guess it's harder than I thought to say what I feel sometimes, but if any of this strikes a chord please feel free to add your thoughts. I don't know if or how any of this is connected, but hey - I thought I'd throw it out there.
Sunday, 11 October 2009
Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of nice dreams too. Lots of great flying dreams, for instance. One in particular was so vivid that I can picture it in perfect recall even as I type this, some 25 years after it fizzed around my brain. Oh, and then there are the ludicrously symbolic ones, like the time I dreamed the word 'tessellate'. That one was a bit Monty Python-esque: "TESSELLATE" turned up on shop signs, street signs, in speech bubbles, scribbled on pieces of paper... at one point, I even dreamed a gaggle of nuns saying that word over and over again.
But the grim ones were properly grim. When I was very young, my active imagination would throw up the outline of fierce tigers in my room. I'd need my mum in there to shoo them away. Then Dr Who's cybermen would be waiting for me. It didn't help, at all, that the early seventies were prone to power cuts. Not only would the front room be plunged into darkness, and usually during a Dr Who scary bit, but the outage would leave me with no closure, no resolution. As my mum would set out the little nightlite candles I would still be left in the dark (literally) over whether the Doctor and his sexy assistants had been able to vanquish their plastic robot foes.
I'm not sure where my wireless dream came from. That was pretty sinister. In that particular horrorshow, my brother's transistor radio (we shared a bunkbed-ed room) would fizzle and crackle as it sat on the windowsill, and then sparks and explosions would emanate from the soft fabric mesh grill on its front. Smoke would billow from it and I knew it would spell trouble. It might sound lame, but for an eight year old it was pretty bleak. And it happened night after night.
There was a worse one. That involved me being stuck at the bottom of a sheer, metallic-grey cylinder made of toughened steel and measuring some 20 or 30 feet across. I would be pressed up against one of the cold walls trying desperately to avoid the tight-fitting plug that would be descending slowly towards me. I knew I'd be crushed and I would feel the heavy metal slab pressing down on my face like an SS officer's boot before I'd wake myself up in a panic.
Some eight or nine years after this dream which, again, would repeat itself night after night, I had cause to visit the peculiar domed building next to the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel under the Thames. The liftshaft inside looked just the same as my dream-state prison. Funny, that.
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
Two decades ago I had a full head of floppy hair, a job on a Welsh newspaper, a girlfriend called Jo and a best mate called Chris Strange. These were happy days.
Home for me was a converted garage in the grounds of a large house in Bridgend. It was cramped and cheap and I loved it. My landlady, a lovely lady called Pat, had described it in the local rag as a ‘compact and bijou garden flatlet’. I took it on as soon as I saw it, renaming it: ‘La Shed’.
There was just enough space for a fold-away sofa bed and a large wooden storage trunk in the main room, while the kitchen corner, shower space and bog occupied a walled-off area at the rear. It was small but perfectly formed.
Chris, an affable Brummy, worked in the same first floor office as me. Most days, we’d spend our lunch hours scoffing pasties and scouring the racks at the local Roxcene Records for new releases. We had an amicable and economical arrangement: we would buy an LP and a blank tape, split the costs, and then Chris would get the tape (he had a stereo in his blue Vauxhall Astra) and I would get the vinyl (I had the record player). It sounded like a decent deal to me.
We shared several great records this way - Frank Zappa’s ‘Broadway The Hard Way’, that one with the flower on the front cover by The Swans, the first Stone Roses album, ‘Copper Blue’ by Sugar… But the daddy of them all, by some considerable stretch, was ‘Doolittle” by the Pixies.
It may have been 1989, more than a stroppy teenage ago, but I can still remember that first audition like it was yesterday. Chris and I were sat cross-legged and attentive on the floor of La Shed, side one of ‘Doolittle’ facing upwards, shiny, virginal and turning at 33rpm on my record player. We both still had our ties on from work, the 4AD sleeve with its copper-coloured unhappy monkey motif was on the floor, Chris could well have been studying the lavish art-lyric booklet that came with it - I don’t recall that detail. My eye was concentrated on dropping the needle cautiously onto the 4AD run-in groove. “Wsssh-click!” and in. Volume up, kick back. The gauntlet is down. Impress us if you dare Black Francis, Mrs John Murphy, David Lovering, Joey Santiago. Impress us if you CAN!“Ding ding ding ding, dang dang dang dang, dong dong dong dong, ding ding ding ding…” ripped out of the quiet roar of the run-in groove, the now familiar bassline leaping from my tiny Pioneer speakers to fill the wooden-clad shed. It was followed swiftly by a choir of guitars, a fairytale riff and Black’s maniac fat-kid vocals. I don’t need to tell anyone how utterly, utterly brilliant ‘Debaser’ is - do I? But back then, auditioning the song on its birthdate along with the rest of an excited world, it seemed for a while like the end of the eighties was going to become very special, very quickly.
My eyes met Chris’s as Kim’s backing vocals helped speed the song to its breathless climax. We both looked away; stared at the record spinning on the deck beside us. As the track broke down to the drumless guitar acapella and shrieks of “Got me a movie - ha ha ha ho! Slicing up eyeballs - HA HA HA HO!”, my neck became a quiver of tattered muscles and broken nerves, and my arms found hairs and goosebumps that haven’t come back since that rainy early evening in La Shed.
The song ended. Chris, excited beyond belief and dog-wild in the eyes, blurted out his enthusiasm: “Fuckin’ hell son, that’s fucking amazing! Stick it on again!”
Back it went… “ding ding ding ding, dang dang dang dang etc…” - and so ‘Debaser’ shattered our nerves and preconceptions for a second time.
“Go on, son. Play it again!” A third spin - and this time we’re analysing the track a little. Picking up the references to “Un Chien Andalou”, enthusing over this bit or that, wondering aloud what tracks like ‘I Bleed’ could sound like, while remaining utterly unable to get past ‘Debaser’. “Doolittle” could have been a one-track album for all we cared. It was perfect, just perfect, in those first few minutes.
That first mildly obsessive, definitely repetitive session left an indelible mark on us both and, even after we finally got around to committing the thing to tape, we went back for more listens of ‘Debaser’.
Needless to say, ‘Doolittle’ quickly became my favourite album, and Pixies my favourite band. I hunted down and invested wisely in ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Come On Pilgrim’, I dug out a cassette of a Peel show with ‘River Euphrates’ on it, and I managed to find one of those generic NME freebie 7″ singles with a Pixies track or two.
On a subsequent visit to HMV in Cardiff, I found the 12″ of ‘Gigantic’ in the racks for a couple of quid. I took it up to the counter and the sales assistant’s face reddened in a mixture of embarrassment and anger.
“That’s sick!” he said, shaking his head at the naked crying boy baby image on the front cover. “That’s fucking sick…” he murmured as he keyed the info into his till. I couldn’t fathom the problem but I liked the idea that the Pixies could cause such a reaction. Debaser, indeed.Before long, I joined Chris as a car owner with a tape deck. Luxury. I put ‘Doolittle’ onto one side of a Memorex C90, ‘Surfer Rosa’ onto the other, and played them both continuously as I cruised my British racing green Datsun Cherry along the leafy A48 from Bridgend to Swansea or Cardiff. I would croon along to ‘La La Love You’, whine to a ‘Mr Grieves’ backing and scare fields full of cows and Welsh farmers with a cranked-up, windows-down ‘Crackity Jones’.
Yeah, these were happy days indeed.
Monday, 5 October 2009
Newton, an extra-terrestrial alien, is aware that he is looking back through time. The Waltons-esque farming family in bonnets, braces and breechers who drop everything to stare at the mysterious black and silver object flashing through their settlement are not. But for an instant both are visible to each other, through the vacuum of a century or more. Something supernatural has happened - like a crease in the fabric of time.
I can't pretend to have enjoyed the same experience as demonstrated in this brilliant film, but from time to time I do get a glorious view of days long gone. I call it 'going medieval' and, while I don't consider it a 'vision' as such, it does seem to be a little more lucid and real than a mere over-active imagination.
At its strongest, I can look down a busy road and witness the scene polarising into two differing views. It's like a filter is being applied, or I am donning magic goggles. I can see the road as it truly is with cars, shops, shoppers, bicycles and people - but I can also see the same street with very different buildings - with horses instead of cars, with people looking thin, badly dressed and dirty, and everything covered in straw. Always lots of straw. Generally, there'll be a fire burning somewhere in the street. It looks medieval... like the 13th century, or something.
The one common factor which links the two scenes is always the sky. Although the medieval one does not have aeroplanes in it, it is always the same colour and has the same clouds. And I am able to flick between both scenes, using my mind's eye, like I am quickly turning the pages of a book to reveal a 'before' pic and then an 'after'. The sky is the only constant.
I cannot claim that the medieval views I experience are authentic in detail - they're probably not. And, like I say, I do not believe them to be full-on visions: they are more like full-colour artist impressions of what might have been, one day, many centuries ago.
I wonder if the source of all of this is that great British corporate tradition, the pop music festival? I've attended a lot and the crowds that wander around such events, particularly at night, do take on an historic air sometimes. And the campfires, singalongs, alcohol and communion with nature are all a bit pagan, are they not?
I also wonder if my favourite scene for a medieval turn, Kentish Town Road NW1, might have entered my consciousness only after I learned the true-life history of the Assembly House pub at the top of the hill. It was here that people would gather, centuries ago, to be escorted through violent lanes to the city of London: protected from bandits, thieves and highwaymen by an armed escort of soldiers.
Certainly, the most common time for this 'going medieval' thing to occur is when I'm about to say goodbye to someone, to get a separate bus from them, to head to another part of town. It arises therefore at the beginning of two journeys, to two different homes, in two different parts of London that could just as easily be two separate villages. The night buses turn fleetingly to carriages, in my minds eye, and I very quickly 'go medieval'.
So what's this all about? It's baffling, fairly rare (it happens to me perhaps just a few times a year), interesting and a little confusing and sad. Anyone else get this?
Sunday, 4 October 2009
On Friday afternoon last week I was stood on a stage with Mal Troon, guitarist from Gemma Ray's live band. There is nothing unusual in this; it's what I do for work a lot of the time. We had just dragged heavy amps, cabs and drum cases from the back of a van through a narrow stage door onto this street-level platform. As we put bits of equipment together, the lighting tech in the booth at the back of the stalls shot swirling practice streaks of colour across the dark theatre, bringing slices of the art deco interior to life. In seconds, this modern West London concert facility was magically transformed. Suddenly this was no longer the HMV Apollo, home to Jack Dee's TV series and season six of the bleedin' X-Factor. As Mal and I gazed out over the rows of still-empty seats, the venue was transported back to its legendary status: we were stood, ladies and gentlemen, on the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon.
The name means different things to different people. Mal was, I think, chuffed to be treading the same boards as Bruce Sprinsgteen. Paul, the front of house soundman, was digging the AC/DC vibe. And my head was swimming with fantasies of Ziggy Stardust.
This was where David Bowie made his last stand with the Spiders from Mars on July 3, 1973. As I looked out, I saw the same landscape as he would have done all those years ago. I daydreamed the frenetic 'Ode To Joy' intro and wondered what it would have been like to step out from the wings in a ludicrously glittery garb. I hovered around the front of the stage and imagined Ronno to my left, Trevor to my right, Woody behind me. Then I looked over my shoulder towards the spot where Bowie's first costume change had occurred (between 'Hang Onto Yourself' and 'Ziggy Stardust')... and caught sight of Ian Hunter showing his grandson around the stage.
I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, asked him how last night's gig had gone, that kind of thing. And all the while I thought to myself, hmm... what a charmed existence this is, eh? Mott The Hoople recorded half of their legendary 1974 live LP right here... on this very spot. And here I am, in the same location, talking to the man behind all of that. All the while, incidentally, I was wearing a jacket bought from Overend-Watts.
As the soundcheck ended, doors opened and the hall gradually filled up with 3,500 expectant people. More magic filled the air - as it always does at great gigs. Gemma and band played a blinder, and as I helped to clear the stage after the last song I couldn't resist a jog over to the stage-right lip where my friends Martyn and John were waving at me. I grabbed their hands, cheesily, just as Ziggy had done during 'Let's Spend The Night Together' 36 years previously. Then I walked across to the other side carrying a drum carpet and heard another friend, Neil, calling me from his seat in the stalls. I clutched the rolled-up mat close to me: "Me and Mick Ronson!" I hollered back, ridiculously.
Back in the dressing room, everything looked just the same as it did in the old films. Have you seen 'A Hard Day's Night?' Just like that. Backstage visits from Jimmy Page and Mick Jones of Led Zep and The Clash respectively only added to a super-surreal atmosphere.
And back out front, finally watching Ian and the boys rattle out so many magical Mott hits, I actually caught myself feeling a strong wave of faux nostalgia for a time that I was actually way too young to have experienced for myself. I sang along to 'Saturday Gigs' somehow believing that '69 really was 'cheapo wine, have a good time, what's your sign?', even though as a five year old urchin I wouldn't have had the first clue...
This had been an extraordinary peek behind the curtain for me. I've been privy to the inner circles of many varied music productions - from the Water Rats to Wembley Stadium. But this one, aided by a decent dose of honaloochie boogie, had been a journey through time that I don't think I'll be forgetting any time soon.
It's good for your body. It's good for your soul. The golden age of rock'n'roll.
Thursday, 1 October 2009
Naturally, I have many regrets. There are many things I would like to do over - many conversations I would like to have another stab at. I am saddened to see, through the clarity of hindsight, that I was fighting such a massive mental breakdown during my dad's last months that it must have fogged my view of what was going on. I was in almost total denial. So much so that when my doctor asked me if my dad was dying - while on one of my frequent surgery calls to complain about (psychosomatic) chest and neck pains - I could not comprehend the question. It simply would not compute. Only on the last night before he died, I recall, did it finally occur to me that the end could be around the corner.
And so my last conversation with my dad was about spark plugs. Car maintenance filled a void that I couldn't bear to look into. It was small talk to mask the big, big conversation that was bursting to come out of me. I couldn't cope, you know? I just... couldn't... cope.
Nowadays, I'm happy to say I'm coping a lot better. My sadness is still there, of course, but balanced with happiness and gratitude for being able to grow up with a dad in the house. I had 40 years of being my dad's son.
My dad was nowhere near as lucky. His father, Frederick Barding, died of a brain haemorrhage at home on Christmas Day 1932 - when my dad was five. His mother, Edith, died when he was eight - on New Year's Day. My dad was never one to display emotion, and so I can only guess at the turmoil that must have been going on inside him on both those public holidays. His sister has kept a Christmas card from her mother with a prescient inscription: "There never dawns a Christmas morn nor comes a brand New Year, without us feeling in our hearts the ones we hold so dear."
So I have 40 years to be grateful for and the luxury of the rest of my life to digest and evaluate them. As I do so, little by little as each day passes, I find myself adopting some little mannerism or trait or attitude that reminds me of him. As my sister-in-law, Mandy, said when dad's ashes were being scattered, "he's living on in all of us now - he's part of all of us." It sounded like religious baloney to me at the time, but now I'm starting to get what she means.