My Ten Best Points…

Cultural end-of-year lists are so fucking smug. They’ve already started appearing, and I’m having to avoid the Sunday papers where cultural hacks declare which books, films and albums were the most essential. What a lot of great shit I’ve missed (as usual).
There’s nothing wrong in theory with writers looking back at their personal highlights, but in practice looking over these lists always makes me feel lazy, un-cultural and basically skint. I’m usually lucky if I’ve heard a couple of the year’s “best albums” or seen many of the films. The year’s best music gig? I was probably busking outside.
It’s all very well for Mark Kermode to appraise the hundred or so films he’s seen in the year and boil them down the ten best; he doesn’t have to shell out a penny. Cinema tickets are nudging ten quid these days, and that’s before you’ve made it past the popcorn and Ben and Jerry’s without hemmoraging another fiver. I don’t need to be reminded of all the arthouse classics I can’t talk about.
The best-of-year book lists give me a similar feeling of cultural failure. If only I had the time and application to keep abreast of the latest literary sensations. I’m a slow reader and the lack of anything I recognise on the lists just makes me feel distinctly low-brow. If I didn’t get around to them when they were the ‘hot new read’ I probably never will.
But these lists are not just there to make us feel like philistines; they also have a commercial function. A decent ranking in the end-of-year lists can turn an overlooked book or album into a must-buy christmas gift.
Let’s face it, though nominally independent, arts journalists are as much a part of the marketing machine as the billboard poster. Critics, who get sent pre-release albums and concert tickets, are just the unofficial wing of the advertising campaign.

Often it doesn’t matter if reviews are positive, all the industry cares about is pushing the product into the public conciousness. However, writing favourably about an author, singer and actor means that agents are more likely to grant a journalist inteviews with said star. Meanwhile, with their end of year lists, critics get to bolster their position as cultural connoisseurs, compiling the canons of our times.

The arts pages that specialise in this vanity are really for a small section of metropolitan luvvies with the means to hoover up whatever cultural product they fancy, whether it’s HBO box sets or tickets for the royal opera house. For those of us in the zero-hours trap or the boho bum category, there is much more adventure. Old stuff. Second-hand stuff.
My year’s cultural highlights included reading Herman Hesse’s Siddharta (1922), as well as downloads of BB King’s Live at The Regal (1964) and Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993).
The arts press has nothing to say about the pleasures of exploring a second hand bookshop or dancing to your mate’s band in a sweaty basement. My idea of a cultural life isn’t just being a recipient for the never-ending stream of over-hyped new content being funnelled at us.

Despite this, I have managed to think of a few things that came out this year that I liked, so I can flag them up and feel like an arts journalist.
Album of the Year: Kurt Vile – Walkin on a Pretty Daze*
The American songwriter dashes off a folk-rock classic with his trademark stoned nonchalance. It’s got the attitude of Lou Reed and the sensitivity of Neil Young.

vile

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book of The Year: Sylvain Tesson – Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in The Middle Taiga
The journal of a Frenchman who retreated to the Siberian forest for six months to read and contemplate the wilderness. Full of philosophy and love for nature.

consiolations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film of the year: Pride

Based on a true story, a group of gay Londoners raise money for striking miners in 1984, go to visit their Northern pit village and forge an unlikely bond. Flawlessly done, feel-good, moving and inspiring.

pride

 

Gig of the year: Me, doing poetry at a night called the Secret Cabaret in Liverpool. I performed “Checkout Girl” and “Careless Wispa”, and according to someone who was there, I absolutely smashed it. I agree.

TV moment of the year: Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s interview with Richard Ayoade on Channel 4 News. A hilarious five minutes as he deconstructs the arts interview.

Theatre event of the year: I didn’t go to see any plays, sorry.
*ok, I’ve just found out this was actually released in 2013, but that’s still pretty current for me!

Ok, here’s the first in a series of posts about seminal moments in musical TV history. To be more specific, they are about various times in my life when I happened to see something that blew my mind, my heart, and generally left me in an exhilarated heap on the living room floor. This happened several times in my young life; and the occasions were often influential on my musical self.

Let’s start with BB King. It was July 1986 and like most people in the UK, and the world probably, I was watching the Live Aid concert on TV. Early on, BB King appeared with a performance beamed from a gig he was playing in Holland. I had already heard of him but as soon as he started playing I couldn’t believe that a guitar could make that noise.

His playing is so intense, but sparing. He contributes to the groove like a player in James Brown’s backing band. His voice is like the well-worn larynx of a southern gospel preacher with a fondness for rye whisky, roaring and barking the blues.

At the end of the first number ‘Why I have the blues’ he dazzles with some raw jazz phrasing that has been burned into my memory since I first saw it. I recorded the concert on a cassette tape recorder pushed against the TV speaker and those few seconds are my favourite part of the gig. It’s the slightly overdriven tone he uses here that really exites, combined with spiciest fretwork ever.

Here I may be controversial – on many of BB’s recordings he uses a completely clean tone that sounds annoying after a couple of verses. His playing is always at its best – like here – when it’s gritty and gutsy.

I went to see him the year after. The size and presence of the man is extraordinary. He had everyone at the Sheffield Octogan in the palm of his huge hand, with the call-and-response crowd skills he shows here. The trumpet player from this clip was there as well, still waggling his head around in a frankly worrying fashion – an unconventional brand of blues headbanging

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Here’s a new acoustic tune. I couldn’t be arsed to make a video for it so I put together a slideshow of some pics that seem to suit the tune. See if you can name any of the famous people. If you’re a Liverpool resident, maybe you spot yourself!

 

One of the compensations of winter is donning a nice, cosy wooly hat. There’s nothing like the snug feeling of those knitted sheep fibres embracing your cranium. But for me and many others, these items are more than just a way to keep warm. Woolen headgear has played a role in subculture for many years. It’s time to celebrate beanie bohemia.

 

I remember when I first began to wear a wool hat inside as well as outside; I was seventeen and playing drums in a band. My image was starting to become important to me. At family gatherings some elderly relative asked me: “Thomas, why are you wearing that wooly hat? Are you ill?” I snorted at the question. I could have said “Actually, I’m referencing Mike Nesmith in The Monkees, as well as various thrash punk bands – it’s a style thing, ok?!” but I merely grunted “”cos I want to”.

mike nes

Wool hats were all around me, on the heads of off-duty psychobillies, indie kids and punks, usually in black. We got from the Army Surplus Stores and called them ‘Bob hats’ for some reason, although who Bob was remained a mystery.

Some people used to roll them so tightly that they resembled a carbonised Danish pastry of the back of them head. I thought this looked stupid, and used to pull mine down to just above the eyes.

 

At that time a coarse knitted wool hat was reminiscent of dockers, builders and anyone out on a picket line in winter. Like the donkey jacket, it was a way to express solidarity with the working-class. The early look of Dexy’s Midnight Runners was based on New York longshoremen.

dexys460

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there were unplanned associations too. I remember walking into a grocers’ shop with my black hat on in on the late eighties and being called a terrorist. At that time the IRA was still engaged in it’s bombing campaign in mainland Britain and newspapers regularly featured the faces of IRA members or suspects on their front pages. They always seemed to be in black wool hats.

Seattle’s chilly climate created the grunge look in the early 90’s, with padded shirts and often woolen hats, which were now known as beanies. Rock acts now had their branded beanies, which were welded to the heads of their fans. It became common to see gangs of drunken eighteen year-olds at music festivals, sweating and lobsterised in the mid-day sun, still refusing to take off their black wool headgear.

One thing that can’t be left out here is the influence of knitted rasta hats. From Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to the extreme of Don Letts’s giant hat in recent years, this version of the wool hat is basically a bag to store your dreads in.

 

Bob with fine dread container

Bob with fine dread container

 

Gradually, this influenced the mainstream, who began to see that there was something kinda cool about a bit of excess baggage on the back of the head, even if you didn’t have anything to put in there.

This was probably the origin of the baggy beanie, an extra long version where the excess was left to hang at the back of the head like a flap. This looked ok unless the wearer happened to have a small head, in which case the flap looked ludicrously long – like Wee Willie Winkie’s night cap.

Unfortunately the baggy beanie quickly became commodified; available in grey from Top Man, worn by bodybuilders in espidrilles; and referencing nothing, except maybe an elephant’s piss-flap.

Beanies in their various lengths have also become the baldies’ savior. Outside the workplace, they are the 21st century version of a combover. The Edge, guitarist of ageing rockers U2, having tried bandanas and stetsons, has run out of options and has been trapped in a beanie since about 1990.

More recently, hipsterism has rehabilitated the bobble hat. During my youth I was phobic about bobbles, as I was about buttons and peas. A bobble hat was the symbol of a trainspotter, rambler or anyone untroubled by the vagaries of fashion. But twenty-first century style will suck anything into it’s orbit. Now bobbles are de rigeur and increasing in size. Even I have softened my stance; the hat I am currently wearing has a modest bobble.

This winter and indeed next summer, wear your hat with pride – you are in a fine tradition. And give thanks to the sheep that made it all possible.

 

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.

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