Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #10

Julian Cope
Bristol Carling Academy, 20/02/2006
The only thing you can predict with a Julian Cope live show is that it will be unpredictable. In the half dozen or so gigs experienced in the past two decades, I've witnessed his near asphyxiation by plastic shopping bag, epic two and a half hour shows divided into acoustic, full band and 'greatest hits' sets, impromptu poetry recitals forced by a bout of layringitis, parading on stage in a monkey suit before stripping down to a banana yellow thong, and catwalking the bar mid-song, to the bemusement of staff and audience alike. This gig, located in a former cinema-turned-greedhead-dive, was no exception. Arriving on stage, stripped to the waist, looking like a roadie for Laibach with his peaked military cap, studded, fingerless leather gloves and cheap black shades, Cope is revisiting his rock 'n' roll persona "Saint Julian", albeit in a more grizzled and gaunt incarnation. An unusually small band - Mr E on drums and Spiritualized's Doggen on guitar, with Cope playing bass - set the scene for a 90-minute Stooges-esque noisefest with recent song "White Bitch Comes Good". Surprisingly, 2005's brace of albums - "Dark Orgasm" and "Citizen Cain'd" - are only represented by a further song apiece, the main focus being Cope's vast back catalogue. Therefore, we get grungy versions of "Sunspots", "Double Vegetation" and "Shot Down", as well as his pre-Teardrop Explodes collaboration with Ian McCulloch (and perennial live favourite) "Books". Cope's typically physically active performance is somewhat restricted by his duties on bass, though he takes several opportunities to descend into the crowd. As expected, the between-song anecdotes are highly entertaining, as is Cope's casual handling of hecklers. When someone complains that the vocals are inaudible, the Arch Drude drily responds, "Even if you can't hear the vocals, I'm almost certainly saying something important!" There are more Spinal Tap moments: moving to the Mellotron for a solo rendition of "O King Of Chaos", from 1984's "Fried", Cope calls a roadie on stage to remove his gloves with a pair of pliers; refusing to take off his shades, he consequently 'improvises' through a string of bum notes and off-key moments. There are further limitations: the venue's draconian 11.00pm curfew means that the end of the set arrives all too quickly; as Cope argues for an extension, the audience become restless, yelling at him to get on with it. Resigning himself to playing "the hits", Cope closes with blistering versions of "World Shut Your Mouth" and "Spacehopper". The band have barely left the stage before the house lights come on and bouncers are herding people towards the exit. Julian Cope is perhaps at his best in a more welcoming location, but there's no doubting his ability to rock like a mutha and work the crowd like a true showman.
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Monday, February 20, 2006

Comic Book Letters Pages Aren't What They Used To Be...

Trawling through some old comics this weekend, I came across "Forces In Combat", Marvel UK's short-lived attempt to emulate the success of war-based anthology titles such as "Battle" and "Commando". A reminder of how amateur 'cut and paste' techniques looked when you literally had to cut and paste, "Forces In Combat" was also notable for 'Sergeant Mike', who would personally answer readers' letters. Some, as you might expect, were run-of-the-mill, expressing a preference for Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos over Rom Spaceknight or Shang Chi, Master Of Kung Fu. Some were just plain weird:

"Dear Sergeant Mike, I would like to tell you a story that happened to my grandfather during the first World War. My great grandfather was called up along with his three brothers. Before the army came to collect him, he ran away, while his three brothers went to war. He hid in an old mine pit and stayed there for months, until one day he was walking when he thought he saw his three brothers. As he drew closer the brothers seemed to be walking away, when he got to where he saw them last he could not see them anymore, so he ran home, only to find his mother crying. He asked her what the matter was, and she said "Your brothers are dead". After that no-one would talk to him. I am looking forward to next weeks Forces In Combat! Joseph Trumper, Swansea"

If this had been submitted as a homework assignment, any self-respecting English teacher would immediately be inclined to give a mark of D- and ask Joseph to: (a) get his story straight - is it his grandfather or his great grandfather?; (b) look up the phrase 'urban myth’ and (c) work on his ending. However, the hapless editor masquerading as ‘Sergeant Mike’ could only offer the following response: "Thank you for your story Joseph, that certainly is a strange one! We're glad that you are enjoying our comic!!". Presumably, Joseph's (great) grandfather never knew that his story had finally been told, as no-one was talking to him anymore.

You may have also spotted that the same issue of "Forces In Combat" (cover date 24th July 1980) saw the first instalment of "I Was Adolf's Double". Is that the sound of a barrel being scraped...?
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Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Beast Of Bexley

So, the infamous Beast of Bexley has finally been photographed. It may be my poor vision (or cynicism) but the photo look more like a game bird than a big cat! Give it up, Kent Tourist Board, this is never going to be another Loch Ness Monster...

For the photo & full story, visit the This Is London news page

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #9

Goldfrapp "Ride A White Horse"
I've found it difficult to warm to Goldfrapp's latest material: I enjoyed the radical change from "Felt Mountain" to "Black Cherry", but still feel that "Supernature" has done little more than refine the electro-meets-glam rock of their previous album, albeit with arguably greater commercial success. Following on from "Ooh La La" and "Number 1", "Ride A White Horse" is an obvious choice for single. However, it's the remixes that provide the most enjoyment. On the 2-track CD, the DFA provide a dirty rework of "Slide In", the muddy-sounding beats complementing Alison Goldfrapp's affected vocals. The maxi-CD provides four mixes, the best being Serge Santiago's Re-Edit and the "Disco Whores Dub" by Francois Kervorkian and Eric Kupper. The ubiquitous Ewan Pearson provides the 15 minute + "Disco Odyssey Parts 1+2", combining a vocal and dub mix in the old tradition. I enjoy Pearson's mixes, but don't understand quite why his remix work is so acclaimed. Like his previous efforts for The Chemical Brothers, Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp, "Ride A White Horse" is pepped up with a club-friendly beat for an extended workout but Pearson has not particularly taken the song in a new direction. I'm immediately reminded of the 1980s extended 12" mixes by Julian Mendelsohn, Barbiero & Thomspon and even Francois Kervorkian himself. Download a few of the recommended remixes, or stick with the album if you prefer unadulterated Goldfrapp, otherwise skip this single.

Mew "Why Are You Looking Grave?"
The largely unappealing sleeve designs of their records detract from the lush sounds of Mew. On the strength of this single alone, it's like the slacker/grunge US rock scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s never died, a point made more obvious by the guest vocals from Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis on the opening album version. This 'collector's edition' CD perhaps takes things a little too far by compiling seven versions of the same song (nine if you count the additional studio and live videos). There are a number of variations, from alternative and live versions, to a demo recorded in the band's kitchen and another take played on their tour bus, but the majority of these are surplus to requirements. The sole remix, by ambient noiseniks Mogwai, singly makes this purchase worthwhile, retaining Mascis' lethargic singing and stretching it out over a swirling wash of sound. This CD provides great value for money, but you'll never be able to listen to it more than once in a single sitting - a four track EP would have been more than ample.

Cornershop "Wop the Groove"
Cornershop return with a new single featuring Rowetta, ex-Happy Mondays backing singer and, more recently, near-miss on the UK version of TV talent show "Pop Idol". Sadly, her powerful lungs are put to little use on this track, where she repeats the title in varying degrees of agitation. Accompanying track "The Dixons D90 Series" sees frontman Tjinder reciting what sounds like the manufacturer's warnings of possible faults with the eponymous tape product, over a sparse toy keyboard backing. Pointless instrumental versions of both tracks round off the EP. Cornershop seem to be wilfully avoiding repeating the commercial success of "Brimful of Asha", but these sound more like throwaway B-sides from the same period rather than a groundbreaking new direction.

The Magic Numbers "I See You, You See Me"
Another lovely offering from the dual brother-sister band, pairing the original album version with a strong live performance from last year's UK tour, and offered as a glorious double 7" single in red and white coloured vinyl respectively. The B-sides deliver two BBC Radio session cover versions, with varying success. Their close-harmonied take on The Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" is a mistake from the start, but the acoustic version of Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" is a winner.
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Friday, February 17, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #8

Sparks "Perfume"
The lead single from "Hello Young Lovers", Sparks' 20th album, sees Ron and Russell Mael's creative force undiminshed. The title track relates a man telling his girlfriend that he loves her because she doesn't wear perfume, unlike his numerous exes (who he lists in detail, along with their preferred scent). Russell Mael's deadpan delivery plays with the lyrics and rhythm, underpinned by layered keyboards, guitars and strings. Clor's "Eau De Perfume Remix" is a fun electropop variation, though it lacks the complex melodies of the original by comparison. A alternative version of album standout "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country" completes the EP, following a similarly unconventional musical and lyrical structure, with nuggets like "I need the enjoyment of rapid deployment". The songs eschew the verse-chorus-verse format of the mainstream, but this is arguably pop and undeniably Sparks.
You can listen to snippets of the EP here: http://www.juno.co.uk/ppps/products/207033-01.htm
And, if you're quick, you can catch their interview on Jonathan Ross's Radio 2 show from Sat 11 Feb: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/shows/ross/
plus Valentine's Day live studio performances of these songs on Mark Radcliffe's Radio 2 show:
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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Smash(ed) Hits

Monday 13th February will see the last issue of "Smash Hits" , once required reading by UK teens, but now a victim of today's demand for immediate pop updates and fickle music tastes. Launched in September 1978 as a monthly magazine, it quickly increased to fortnightly publication and reached a peak of 1 million readers during the Kylie/Jason era in the late 1980s. Recent sales have dropped to about a tenth of that. Despite it's demise as a print title, the "Smash Hits" brand will apparently continue as a digital radio station and music TV channel.

This was probably my first issue of "Smash Hits". I say probably because I've long consigned my copies to the rubbish heap of history. "Smash Hits" provided the wallpaper for a generation and I was no exception. This was probably my first issue of "Smash Hits" because, at the time, I was squandering my pocket money on any magazines that featured my pop idol, Adam Ant. The first record I ever bought was Adam & The Ants' "Kings Of The Wild Frontier", £3.99 for a vinyl album with limited edition collectors' booklet. I preferred "Smash Hits" to any of the other titles I bought, the fold-out poster magazines being insubstantial, the likes of "The Face" being too highbrow for my pre-teen mind. "Smash Hits" struck the right balance of gloss, substance and fun: revealing but light-hearted interviews; lots of pull-out-and-keep posters; crucially, the words to the incredible chart sounds I was discovering at the time. I couldn't afford to buy it every fortnight, so it was a blessing when my older brother subsequently placed a regular order at the newsagent. As a reader in the early 1980's, "Smash Hits" was a great celebration of the diversity of the period, tackling the necessary evils of Bucks Fizz and Tight Fit, uncovering the subversive pop of Japan, Associates and the Human League and introducing the more bizarre (and often one-hit wonder) sounds of Haysi Fantayzee and Men Without Hats. My bedroom wall reflected not only my developing eclectic tastes, but also "Smash Hits" at times 'out there' approach to the poster pin-up: Marc And The Mambas; Talk Talk; Propaganda; Spear Of Destiny; Madness and Heaven 17, all jostling for space at one point. The 'vox pop' interviews underlined both a love of music and a sense of humour; was it editor emeritus Neil Tennant who coined the names 'Sir William of Idol' and 'Sir Clifford of Richard'? Kipper Williams' often hilarious cartoons were another highlight. I particularly remember one featuring a guy in a shoe shop asking for a pair of "slip on Dexy's"; in line with their "Come On Eileen" image, these inevitably turn out to be a pair of facsimile dirty, bare feet! Well, I guess you had to be there... The occasional 'reader request' issues were another treat - I marvelled at the lyrics of David Bowie's "Young Americans" and The Teardrop Explodes' "The Great Dominions" long before I heard the songs themselves. Inevitably, as I entered my teens, I began to look for a more satisfying read, and found this in the in-depth interviews featured in "NME", "Melody Maker" and "Sounds", then magazines like "The Face", "Select" and "Jockey Slut". Sadly, all but "NME" have proved unable to adapt to changing times, tastes and technology and have long been cancelled; even "NME" is a shadow of it's former self, preferring soundbites to insight, downloads to detailed critiques. I currently buy "Uncut", though it's blinkered focus on the rock pantheon of Dylan, Lennon, The Who, Neil Young, et al and it's tendency to only champion 'new music' if it's Americana, often rankles. "Smash Hits" had clearly lost it's way since my time as a reader, but it's a shame that there's no longer a teen market magazine that highlights that there's more to music than reality TV show winners, manufactured pop bands and resampled, resurrected hip-hop corpses... Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stage Presence #1

"Air Guitar" by Peter Kesterston
Bristol Old Vic Studio, 04/02/06

Producer Mike is in the West Country of England, overseeing a low-budget but popular digital TV 'reality show' about vets, and decides to look up his older brother Edward. The two have been estranged for the past decade and attempts at a reconciliation initially flounder. Edward was a promising science student, but a number of personal traumas have led to him going 'back to nature', living in a rundown caravan, with troubled teenager Jan his only companion. Mike has an reason for rekindling his fraternal relationship, whilst Edward has own sinister reasons for complying. Bonding briefly whilst playing air guitar and recalling their activist youth, Mike becomes increasingly concerned that Edward is still very much active and threatens to destroy Mike's world...

Kesterston's first full-length stage production won the 2005 Southwest Scriptwriters Playwriting Competition and it's not difficult to see why. The writing capitalises on the small cast and single location - Edward's exposed yet claustrophobic countryside retreat - to create a narrative that simmers with tension and impending menace. The script explores compromise, betrayal, jealousy, sibling rivalry, political conflict and the consequences of taking these beliefs to their logical conclusion. Despite the challenging themes, Kesterton imbues the script with humour, sometimes 'laugh out loud' (the air guitar sequence), sometimes uncomfortable ( Edward's return from hunting rabbits). The play's denouement becomes increasingly inevitable, yet is delivered convincingly, thanks to the strong cast and effective direction from Jilly Bond. Russel Boulter gives a suitably edgy performance as Edward, effortlessly conveying the fragility, yet disturbing focus, of the central character; Nicolas Chambers, though initially seeming over the top, eases into the role of Mike, enabling the audience to empathise with the character's predicament; Becci Gemmell successfully captures the superficially simple but inwardly complex character of Jan. Designer Colin Williams creates an authentic set, from the rusting, mildewed caravan to the footworn, anaemic grass and encroaching foliage that isolates Edward from the outside world. A sharp soundtrack underscores Edward's somewhat naive politicism, focussing on U2's "Bad" and live version of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower", whilst the eponymous scene is played out to - what else? - Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town". "Air Guitar" is a shining example of a play thriving on, rather than struggling with, it's limitations.
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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #7

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions
“Rattlesnakes (Deluxe Edition)”

A twentieth anniversary reissue for the band’s debut album, more evidence that my teenage years are rapidly retreating into the past. It’s difficult to place these songs in the glossy mid-1980s, thanks to a combination of sharp lyrics, an unusual (for a mainstream UK ‘pop’ band) predeliction for country music and deft production from Paul Hardiman. During my “headphone years”, when songs were played in a dimly lit bedroom and the narrative meant as much as the melody, “Rattlesnakes” ranked up there with The The’s “Soul Mining” and The Smiths’ “Hatful Of Hollow” and, on reflection, has stood the test of time. There’s no sense of filler, with ten songs clocking in at just over half an hour and a near flawless running order. The statement of intent is there from the outset, with “Perfect Skin”’s declaration that “I choose my friends only far too well / I’m up on the pavement / They’re all down in the cellar with their government grants and my IQ”. It was perhaps inevitable that, like The Smiths, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions would be pigeonholed as ‘student bedsit soundtrack music’, given the lyrical references to Norman Mailer, Love’s Arthur Lee and Eve Marie Saint and love songs about girls with “cheekbones like geometry” who “know how to spell ‘audaciously’”. Yet Cole’s admittedly maudlin delivery is balanced with humour and strong melodies, arguably equalling The Smiths in this respect. “Speedboat” is a great example, with it’s swampy sound underscored by the narrator’s admission that “It was just not my style to find surf in my eye / It was much more my style to get sand kicked in my eye”. Another is closing track “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?”, where the central character, “pumped up full of vitamins”, is advised “If you really want to get straight / read Norman Mailer / or get a new tailor.” Writer Julie Burchill dismissed tham at the time as “country and western Velvet Underground”, though this is a fair – if simplistic – description. The second CD is a curiosity, containing demos, live tracks, radio sessions and B-sides from the era. The live tracks demonstrate that, as a performer, Cole sounded every bit as uncomfortable as his characters, but it’s interesting to hear an alternative take on “Charlotte Street”, with awkward, excess verses that were thankfully excised from the superior studio recording. The BBC Radio 1 sessions are enjoyable, particularly “Forest Fire” and “Speedboat”, but again do not surpass the originals. The B-sides themselves are mostly forgettable, with a few exceptions, notably “Andy’s Babies” and “Jesus Said”, though there’s no sense that the “Rattlesnakes” album would have been stronger for their inclusion. In that sense, the Deluxe Edition works well, by keeping the original album intact and separate from the generous quantity of bonus tracks. Another plus is the lavishly illustrated booklet, which features song by song commentary from the band members. There are some great quotes throughout, my favourite by keyboardist Blair Cowan, describing an encounter with goth gods The Sisters Of Mercy which recording “Charlotte Street”: “The [band] were in the same studio and on a scorching summer afternoon we played them at tennis. We were in shorts, t-shirts and trainers and they wore Cuban heels, black drain pipes, black polo necks, black everything. They beat us.”
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Blurred Vision

Saturday morning, the world outside looks as grey and foggy as my brain feels... Unfortunately, I can punish my body in any number of ways - you name it: whisky; Chinese takeaways riddled with red hot chilli peppers; listening to Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" - but my mind will, without exception, snap my body out of it's recuperative slumber at 7:30am each weekend. A good opportunity to detox, go for a jog, cleanse the mind and body, you might think. Instead, I'm on my third mug of green tea and staring at my PC through rheumy eyes, whilst regretting the fact that I'm out of cigarettes. And Jeff Buckley's "Grace" is about to bring tears to my eyes. Life is sweet... Posted by Picasa