In the mid-eighties every pop record had to have a saxophone break in it. From ‘new romantic’ acts like ABC to global stars like Whitney Houston, chart singles would almost inevitably feature a screeching tenor sax in the middle section.
Seventies pop songs would often feature a guitar solo, but punk changed all that. Guitar virtuosity became taboo and outside of heavy metal, you would rarely hear any twiddly fretwork.

In the eighties, something a bit more elegant was considered neccessary to enhance a pop single, something with no associations of blokeish self-indulgence. The saxophone was a classic, expressive sound redolent of jazz and fifties rock’n’roll. In time they became the signature of a bland formula, but a good eighties sax solo sounded like fizzing champagne spilling out of a just-opened bottle; it was the ubiquitous cherry on the top of pop. And they looked pretty good too…

Once dance culture hit in the late eighties, saxes were out. The minimalist worship of the beat banished instrumental grandstanding of any kind; now the middle section usually featured a rap. By the late eighties there must have been scores of proffessional sax players struggling to pay the rent.

But anyway, back to the eighties and one of my favourite ‘lost’ bands. The Blow Monkeys (fronted by one Dr Robert, who resembled a vampiric Mr Punch Doll) had four albums and eleven singles in the UK charts from 1986 and 1990. I’m not sure how popular they were around the world – maybe you can tell me.

This soulful, heart-tugging tune from 1986 was their second single. It’s got a gorgeous chord structure, lush backing vocals and yes! A sax solo. This was their biggest hit and it always sends me somewhere special.

Discovered over Coffee

coffee

 

 

Things you find by chance are often more precious than things you find by looking. I spend a lot of time in cafes writing, reading and generally hanging out; and occasionally a piece of music comes on the establishment’s stereo that I have to know more about. If I’m feeling sufficiently self-confident (it’s somehow daunting to reveal what a secretly obsessive culture-stalker you are) I go over to the counter and ask what it is.

Here are some tunes I have discovered whilst lounging with a coffee in Liverpool.

Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (album)
Discovered at: The Egg Cafe

I was sitting in the Egg when they were playing a gorgeous album by someone I’d never heard before. They told me it was Iron and Wine, I’m not sure which album, but it may well have been this one. Samuel Beam a.k.a. Iron and Wine writes gentle, hypnotic songs and his soothing voice seeps into you by stealth.

Camera Obscura – If Looks Could Kill
Discovered at: Mello Mello

My ears pricked up when I heard this scuzzed-up combination of Motown and Scottish indie-pop wafting from behind the counter at this now sadly-defunct establishment. I’m so glad I asked about it because the album from which it comes, ‘Let’s Get Out of This Country’ is now one of my favourite albums.

Andrew Bird – Hole in The Ocean Floor
Discovered at: FACT cafe

I was transfixed and transported when I heard this semi-classical track floating through the air at FACT. Particularly the hauntingly beautifully end section.

Tiny Dancers – Hannah We Know
Discovered at: Keith’s Wine Bar

This is a tune I had heard on the radio years ago but I didn’t hear who the artist was. It had been going round my head intermittently ever since and I was grief-stricken that I would never hear its blissfully repetitious chorus ever again. Then last week, it was playing in Keith’s and I finally got the chance to identify it.

Remember, if you hear a tune you like, don’t be shy. Ask what it is!

It was the eighties, I was a youth and I was often in the company of goths. Evenings around friends’ houses were often suffused with the smell of cheap hairspray and hot crimping irons. ‘Cider and Black’ was the drink of choice at our underground haunts.
It must have been a comforting subculture to join; to feel misunderstood by the world, retreat behind a black fringe and nurture your alienation, studying your toes as you walked back and forth on the dancefloor.

But goth was something I could never identify with. I had never been into the occult, I didn’t enjoy being miserable. I liked passion and honesty. I wanted to look the world in the eye and tell it where to go.

Goth was a movement but not a musical style as such, but the bands associated with it all tended to sing in deep, moody voices and avoid conventional tropes of popular music like y’know…melody and dynamics.

There was one band, though, that were worth my attention. The Cult had started out as Southern Death Cult, which was shortened to Death Cult and finally, The Cult. Their early highlights included the Killing Joke-ish single ‘Ressurection Joe’. But they really broke through with their 1985 album Love and the big hit ‘She Sells Sanctuary’.

This single, with it’s high-energy beat and switchback riff, was a surefire floor filler at any indie, goth or rock disco. Ian Astbury’s voice was powerful and faintly androgynous, similar to Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. During the ‘Love’ era, The Cult had a great look, with Astbury rocking a gothic Haight-Ashbury vibe. And with Duffy playing a beautiful Gretsch White Falcon as his onstage sparring partner, it was a perfect package.

It didn’t last. For the band’s next album Electric, produced by Rick Rubin, they decided to reinvent themselves as a heavy rock band. Perhaps this was an attempt to firmly distance themselves from the goth tag they’d got sick of, but it was all a bit hard to believe.

I welcomed it at the time, and in retrospect the single ‘Love Removal Machine’ has an enjoyable, punchy swagger. But the musicians, particulary Duffy, lacked the skills to really pull it off. Duffy had been a creator of classic alternative rock riffs, now he just sounded like a piss-poor Angus Young imitator.

The subsequent album Sonic Temple had it’s moments but they no longer had any relevance. The Cult were an inherently limited band but they still had something. And for a brief moment they managed to distill it into magic.

Footnote:

The Cult have continued to release albums for a hardcore of devoted fans including the most recent, Choice of Weapon in 2012.
Astbury went on to tour with the remaining members of The Doors, impersonating his hero, Jim Morrison.

We have all met people possessed of a natural charm that enables them to hold the attention of groups of people, who listen to their opinions, laugh at their jokes and possibly want to share bodily fluids with them.

Charisma is like a magical chemical product flowing in certain peoples’ bloodstream. If you start out in life with nothing but charisma, you will usually make it because you can make people believe in you. Charismatic people are never short of people to help them in their ventures, or to vouch for them if they get in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wealth, looks or talent but how they can make people feel.

In theory I’m a believer in collective organising, but I’ve noticed that successful projects are usually spearheaded by a motivator who has a vision. People will always be happy to fall in line if there is an inspiring figure who knows where they are going. The most successful generals are those that somehow manage to make their troops love them. The danger is that their position can become like that of a cult leader, with their power unlimited.

I remember a TV documentary a few years ago which told the story of a pub barman who convinced several customers he was a spy on top-secret government business. He held them under his spell for years, involving them in bizarre fabricated missions and swindling them out of thousands of pounds for ‘essential’ expenses before eventually being brought to justice.
I’ve never come across anyone like that, but certain people I know have led me to believe that we should be wary of people with an excess of charm. They have often read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People and consider themselves experts at psychological manouvering.

Psychological strategies can be leaned, but I’d argue true charisma is inborn and largely unconscious. Charismatic people seem to have an amplified personality ”turned up to 11” that they couldn’t turn down if they tried.

I can think of a couple of people I know who are not close friends, but when I bump into them and have a brief chat, I always walk away feeling exhilarated, inspired and perhaps just a little jealous of their self-possession. Charismatic people can help us to believe in ourselves.

Then there are others with a quiet charisma, who attract attention by not trying to. They are in their own space and hold a mysterious aura around them. I can imagine the impression conjured by the young Bob Dylan when he was playing in coffee houses in New York City in 1961. Here was a guy who was hard to pin down; odd-looking and enigmatic, there was clearly ‘something’ about him. And fifty-odd years later, people are still trying to figure out what it is.

Throughout the entertainment world, charisma is a highly-prized and relatively rare commodity. I go to a lot of gigs but only occasionally do I see someone with a magnetic presence that holds the attention. When you see it you can never explain it, it’s just ‘it’. There are all kinds of tips and tricks of stagecraft that can be learned from teachers or picked up by experience; but star quality is inborn.

A few years ago, after being a drummer and a guitarist in several bands, I decided to try being a vocalist in a band, just holding the mic at the front of the stage. I wanted to see what it was like being the focus of everyone’s attention.

We were a ragged punk rock outfit, stylistically not far from The Stooges and at the time I was in awe of Iggy Pop, who is surely one of the most unpredictable and riveting live performers ever. My first gig as a frontman was in a small bar in front of perhaps 70 people. I threw myself into it, prowling the stage, climbing on the amps, wrapping myself up in cables.

“He’s a live wire!” I imagined people thinking “…What will he do next?!”

I thought I was doing great, then I looked at the audience’s faces. Not one of them was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were either on the guitarist’s hands, or the bassist’s flailing hair, or the drummer – anywhere but on the person actually singing the songs – me!

I was internally furious. What was wrong with them? Couldn’t they see how hard I was working? Weren’t they moved by my unpredictable passion? I felt like ranting, but I just continued the gig, now intimidated by the whole situation and feeling like a fraud. I laugh about it now, but I learned a tough lesson. You can’t decide to be charismatic. You either have it or you don’t.

shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to watch someone who most definately ‘has it’ . I was working at the 02 Arena in Liverpool and got the chance to see a few big mainstream acts. Def Leppard, Meatloaf and Michael Buble were all entertaining enough, but Diana Ross had something else. Standing onstage in a red satin ballgown, her charisma completely filled the huge venue. Even inbetween songs, her speaking voice and regal presence cast some kind of shimmering spell over the place.

I’m sure one day some brain scientist or communication theorist will come up with a theory that will explain charisma, but until then all we can say is that some people have a kind of magic!

Achtung Maybe!

Rumblings on the grapevine suggest that a new U2 album is likely to appear before the end of the year, in fact according to Rolling Stone magazine it could even be released this month. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s a significant moment as U2 have now been spent several decades amongst the very biggest bands.

u2I remember when I first got into U2 as a kid in the early 80’s. I liked the imaginative guitar style, the tribal-influenced drumming and the fact that the singer bellowed those impassioned choruses like his life depended on it.

They weren’t megastars at this stage, just one of many great post-punk bands around at the time. Something that marked them out was their Irish background; along with other celtic bands like Big Country and Simple Minds, their music had that bracing, romantic (in a misty-eyed sense) flavour – a sensibility, incidentally, that is incompatible with cool.

I bought their album War, which had an extraordinary cover. It featured a black and white photo of a boy about my age, staring into the camera with a serious expression (the same kid had also appeared on the cover of their debut album, Boy). I identified with him, whoever he was. I was young and indignant and I felt like standing up for something, or at least for myself.

u2-war_a_l

The album seemed to come from a place of conviction – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was about the troubles still kicking off in northern Ireland; Larry Mullen Jnr’s drums were mixed loud, evoking the rhythms of the marching season. The rest of the album was an object lesson in small-band dynamics, The Edge’s chiming guitar lines interlocking brilliantly with Clayton and Mullen’s driving rhythm section.

I remember Live Aid so well. I sat and watched the whole show in our kitchen from twelve noon until, well…it must have been about midnight when I finally sloped off to bed. One of the highlights of the event for me was U2’s performance when they extended the song ‘Bad’ to about nine minutes, Bono disappearing to the front of the stage, plucking a girl out of the front row and dancing with her. It was an outrageously confident performance from a band who most of the world didn’t even know about at that stage.

We all know what happened after that. In a short time U2 became globally massive, with the epic, mainstream album The Joshua Tree. It was satisfying to see them make it big but I was aware that amongst my friends, no-one seemed to like U2; in fact most of them seemed to hate them.

I couldn’t work it out. For us, originality was the key trait we valued in music. U2 were clearly one of the most original bands around, having invented their own sonic landscape, but something about them was turning off the ‘the cool people’. On the rare occasions I could get anyone to mull over the issue in their minds their complaint was usually with “that dickhead singer”.

Google “I hate Bono” and 2.5 million seperate pages appear. No other rock star has attracted so much bile. Can you imagine any other rock star inspiring a film with a title like “Killing Bono”?

If you examine some of the reasons on internet discussions, you will find people saying “He’s so egotistical” or “He wears sunglasses all the time” or “He loves himself” All of these may be true but are they not also amongst the main criteria for being a rock star? Was Jim Morrison not vain? is Axl Rose not arrogant?

A more compelling criticism relates to his charity work. Ever since live aid, Bono has had a parallel career as a campaigner, working for debt relief, human rights and AIDS projects, setting up charities and foundations, meeting world leaders. His efforts have undoubtedly raised the profile of many issues but they have also raised the profile of Bono.

And this is where the animosity comes in. Bono’s fame and fortune is intrinsically linked to his charity work; there is no way to disentangle the two. To his detractors, the vanity of his persona is all-pervading. He can’t hold a press conference about human rights without sounding smarmy and pleased with himself, or play a benefit concert without basking in the glory of his saintly mission. It all appears to be for the greater glory of Bono.

Then there is the fact that he has often seemed a little too pally with the likes of George W Bush and Tony Blair. To his radical critics, it is always going to look like he is ‘cosying up’ to the powerful rather than influencing them for the good. He should be smashing the system not flattering it.

For other people who have little interest in global politics, all the campaigns just feel like lecturing. For them rock’n’roll isn’t about being responsible, it’s supposed to be the exact opposite. Authentic rock heroes give themselves up to their spontaneous, debauched, animalistic side; and as a result their fans get a vicarious release from the tedium of their workaday lives. Real rockers don’t give a shit. It’s not cool to give a shit.

As someone on a Drowned In Sound discussion board says:
“If Bono had never done any charity work and just set himself up to be an abrasive cunt, we’d probably all think he was a bit of a legend.”

I get that Bono is quite annoying – ok very annoying – but it doesn’t put me off. Like Prince or Sting, he’s one of the artists I regard as a bit of a tit, but I still have affection for. When interviewed in music magazines, his humility and intellect are undeniable; and there are often self-mocking lines in his excellent lyrics.

In his defence, he is one of the few celebrities attempting to use his fame and influence for something useful. And is his approach to campaigning so misguided? Perhaps you have to get inside the powerful cliques to have any hope of changing the system. After all, a kid with AIDS hasn’t got the luxury to wait for a world revolution.

As for his band, I can’t think of another who had such an impact on the sound of music of rock music in the last thirty years, apart from Nirvana. That impact was not all for the good in my opinion; the big, widescreen production techniques of Brian Eno on U2 albums laid the foundation for the blandly-streamlined wash of sound favoured by Coldplay and many others.

The ace in the pack for me is The Edge, who back in the 80’s came at the guitar from a completely original angle, with a range of chiming, percussive, atmospheric techniques that he continues to develop.

Despite that, he’s always been somewhat low on the pecking order in guitar hero terms. It probably has something to do with that worthless currency of cool. Despite his name, Edge has never had any ‘edginess’ around him – he’s never looked particularly iconic, or had any reputation with drink or drugs; he just gets on with being a boundlessly inventive musician who wears a crap little beanie.

As for the new record, I’m not particularly eager to hear it. The last thing I liked by U2 was the single ”Electrical Storm” from 2002 and I think their best work is probably behind them. I’ll keep on listening to their best stuff like this, the title track of what I think is their best album, The Unforgettable Fire.

gaza mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There will be no more divisions,
No cultural collisions,
Or blinkered racial visions
On the other side of the wall

There will be no flagellations,
No female mutilations
Or power-hungry nations
With no mercy at all

There won’t be terror forces,
Denial of resources
Or distant bearded voices
In stony holy vow

No vicious circle game
Of here we go again
Where history takes the blame
But punishment is now

On the other side of the wall,
The strong will heed the call
Of dignity for all,
The need to understand

To heal the great divide
That festers deep inside
And cannot be denied
When written on the land

On broken Belfast streets
Where concrete keeps the peace
With reinforced beliefs
That stand twenty feet tall

In east and west Berlin
The long divided kin
Who never did give in
Until they saw it fall

In Gaza on the strip
Where sniper bullets rip
A nation in the grip
Of merciless control

Existing without power
Beneath the look out tower
With murder by the hour
And hospitals in holes

On the other side of this pain
Truth will fall like rain
And pour down onto flame
Extinguishing the grief

On the other side of this rage
The troops will disengage
Like someone turned a page
Restoring our belief

There will be no more excuses
No temporary truces
Or human rights abuses
To dim the inner light

Suspicion will be banned
And martyrs will be slammed
And people will demand
Their safety from the fight

On the other side of the wall
Hearts run free
Horizons of hope
Stretch continuously

The dream of all nations
Believe it we must
On the other side of the wall
The rebirth of trust

 

Season of Sweat

female boxer Today the temperature has hit 29 degrees (that’s centigrade, my American friends) which is pretty ferocious anywhere in the UK but particularly so in a Northern town like Liverpool. Sitting here without a shirt and sticking to the back of my vinyl chair, I have little energy to do anything more than muse upon that familiar yet strange physiological phenomenon, sweating.

It’s the bodily function we have least control over. We can, at least briefly, control the impulse to urinate, defecate, vomit, sneeze, fart, cough or cry but when things get hot, our sweat glands get to work without consulting us.

For many people, it’s a regular cause of embarrassment. Sweating reveals us as essentially bestial – we talk of “sweating like a pig” – and many people carry anti-perspirants around with them every day, regularly blocking their pores, lest their uncontrollable animal body lets them down.

Of course we know that the actions of those two million tiny glands are our body’s cooling system, but it’s one that has had limited effectiveness since humans started wearing clothes, and now it’s only function is to mess up our hair and make us smell.

Airplane!Sweating is often triggered by anxiety; the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview is often accompanied by moist palms, while a best man’s speech at a wedding is not complete without a constantly wiped brow. It’s a disloyal bodily function that reveals your inner state to the outside world like a blush or a stammer. And when it strikes, whether as a result of anxiety or simply overheating, the discomfort is magnified by the embarrassment of damp patches under the arms.

Nevertheless, sweat also has plenty of positive associations – it is synonymous with honest physical toil and is also frequently highly erotic. Sweat is such a powerful signifier that if it didn’t exist, the advertising and movie industry would have had to invent it.

In the 1951 film The African Queen, Humprey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn make a hazardous journey down an African river in a tiny steamboat, both covered in a layer of sweat throughout the film. Sweat seems to dissolve the class divide between no-nonsense sailor Charlie and Rose the prim, dignified missionary, leading to an unlikely romance.

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn

Of course, respectable ladies didn’t sweat in that era (the film was set in 1914). In the polite parlance, they ‘glowed’, while gentlemen ‘perspired’.

During the pre-air conditioned years of the British Empire, sweating would have been a regular physical reminder to Europeans that they weren’t built for tropical climes; but of course it wasn’t only the ruling classes that suffered so.

The vast majority of colonial sweat was shed by Africans slaves forced to work through midday heat on cotton and sugar plantations. The black sweat and blood that built the United States and made the Empire rich stains our collective conscience to this day.

I happen to be blessed with a skinny frame, therefore I rarely sweat profusely. If I do, it normally happens on a packed bus on a summer day. Other people, usually the heavier ones, will be already have wet fringes and beads of sweat on their faces, even though the windows are open. When the bus is stuck in traffic with ruthless sun coming through the windows, the situation is a mild kind of torture and the only remedy is to pant like a dog!

So far this has been a great summer for sport, from the warm lawns of Wimbledon to the sticky heat of the World Cup in Brazil. Sweat is part of the iconography of physical performance, whether it’s the sweat-varnished torso of the boxer or the soaked hair of a rock vocalist sticking to his face. Here it is an index of heroic effort; it shows how hard they are working to entertain us.

Iggy Pop

Despite our uncomfortable relationship with sweating, ultimately one of the most relaxing experiences in the world is sitting in a sauna and just letting your pores do their thing. When you are wrapped in a towel gently stewing in your own brine, the worries of the world melt away. Those stressed out citizens on the bus might reflect that it’s not sweat that is the real enemy, but our modern lives.

And now for a nice cool drink…

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 896 other followers

%d bloggers like this: