Blue Jeans… and other design classics

Shortly after setting up home with the future Mrs Slender, she expressed a wish to grace our bedroom wall with a rather attractive photograph of your author entertaining possibly dozens of ecstatic punters on stage at that Mecca of rock’n’roll debauchery, The Pied Bull in Islington. Not wishing to appear too immediately vain I sought sibling advice before agreeing. “Is it OK to have a picture on the wall where you’re playing guitar?” “Err, depends” wavered the Oracle, “what make of guitar is it?”

Joking aside, this was clearly the correct answer. Or question. As anybody who has ever been in a band will testify, as much as we pay lip service to the idea of our, ahem, “axe” as a mere tool, secretly we’re all thinking – does this make me look enough like Brian Jones? The choice of guitar is motivated more often by the choice of our heroes than it is by the sound it makes. Ironic then that so many of us have at some point resorted to playing a cheap Les Paul copy.

As an aside I have to say that the chances of me putting together a generation defining band are now more remote than ever. In view of this fact I would be happy for any of you to use my idea of Les Paul Copy for a band name. Failing that, feel free to choose from Bongo Leatherland, The Earl Shiltons or Fab! Gear. Or should that be The Fab Gears? You decide.

One man for whom financial necessity lead to the mother of all inventions was pathologically unsympathetic serial bowl-cut wearer, Johnny Ramone. When The Ramones formed in 1974 the once popular Mosrite guitar company had first found itself out of favour and then, since 1968, bankrupt. Consequently second hand stores were awash with the unfashionable albatrosses providing a cheap source of mojo 4-star for a generation of less educated guitar players seeking to tank up the rock’n’roll Cadillac. Fred “Sonic” Smith of The MC5, Pat Smear of The Germs, Ricky Wilson of The B-52’s, Todd Rundgren and later Kurt Cobain all cashed in, but it was the former John Cummings that made the model his own.

Like the aforementioned pudding basin do, the leather jackets and the cheap sneakers, Johnny’s Mosrite is an indispensible part of Ramones mythology, arguably because it was so wrong. Anyone cynically putting together a punk band which traded in classic jukebox rock’n’roll riffing and iconic rebel clothing would undoubtably have had Mrs Cummings’ cantankerous boy playing a Gibson 335 or Gretsch country gentleman. This of course would have been like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa – no rebellion in copying Chuck Berry. When it comes to tearing up rock’s rule book, you need help from The Ventures.

One man who needed no help from no one when it came to placing facial hair on priceless artworks was (regular readers will have guessed by now) Bo Diddley. Here’s two pictures of Bo. First with a production line guitar from his sponsors Gretsch.

Nice. But surely we can do better? Course we can! Just send our boy into the woodshed with a cigar box and THIS is what comes out.

I remember once reading an interview with Queen’s Brian May (I’m so sorry, I have no idea why. Maybe I was running a temperature) in which he was praised for making his own guitar. Iron joinery screws used for the pickups were, it transpires, responsible for giving the Farrokh Bulsara Combo its distinctive operatic wail… But it was (and I hope I’m not blinding you with technical audio terms here) a shite guitar. It has curves and stuff, like a real guitar. Loser.

I think it was Antoni Gaudi that said something to the effect that whilst the straight line is human, the curve is divine. Well how’s that going to help you soundcheck? Bo on the other hand, armed with a guitar that looks like it was designed by Homer Simpson, is most definitely flesh and blood, a man, made 21 with something in his pocket that could keep a lotta folks alive. Eventually even the good people at Gretsch were forced to agree and throwing up their hands said “Sod it. Have it your own way Bo, we’ll make ’em square.”

Having excelled himself in the service of the man born Ellas Otha Bates, Homer Simpson then went on to design the perfect Kid Slender fantasy guitar – the Vox Phantom. We may not, you and I, agree on the respective merits of The Ramones, The Ventures, Bo Diddley or Queen but on one thing we are, I believe, unanimous. The Vox Phantom: it’s absolutely off its head.

Released in 1962, Homer (or to give him his correct name, Thomas Jennings) had clearly taken to heart President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon, believing, it would seem, that said man would be needing to play a suitably space-age guitar when he got there. The Phantom had a dazzling array of nobs, knockers and effects and was built to operate in stereo via connections to twin amplifiers.

Unfortunately this combination of cutting edge technology and iconic design is rather at odds with the six strings and a fretboard setup that most people learn to play. And, it must be said, with the standard issue two hands and ten fingers that they learn to play with. Bear in mind also that rock’n’roll goes hand in hand with himalayan egos and that most guitarists object to being upstaged by their plug-in baby. The Vox Phantom was just… too much. It had the unfortunate effect of completely upstaging its… operator?

And operators there were. Jimmy Page had a bash before modestly hiding his bushel under a twin-neck. Ian Curtis it seems owned several but made the grave error of influencing the nascent Spandau Ballet by playing them at armpit level. Even Sterling Morrison – coolest musician ever: OFFICIAL – of Kid Slender lodestars The Velvet Underground, was unable to make sense of the damn thing and promptly flew the mothership back to planet Gretsch. The sad fact is that the Vox Phantom was a charming orphan unable to find loving parents to make it their own. Or was it?

Appropiately enough we need to travel to the future. 41 years into the future. Mr Jennings baby has become middle aged, synthesizers have become commonplace, the common cold has not been cured. And a band called Ladytron have released a single called “Blue Jeans”. I like it. A lot. It has an endearingly clumpy primitive electro feel like DAF or early Human League,  but the melody is pure 60’s beat girl. The lyrics? Well, I’m deaf remember. It might be about a claustrophobic affair whilst trying to get by on a student grant but don’t quote me on that.

It was some few years further into the future though that I thought to search youtube and there they were. Four angular, intense scousers, staring at the floor, thinking about Philip K Dick and sporting the mighty Phantom. I felt like punching the air. Not since Steve Claridge scored the last second winner against Crystal Palace in the 1996 Division 1 play-off final have I felt such a vesuvian surge of adrenalin. And it takes mere seconds before you realise that there is unequivocally no other guitar that a guitarist from this band could reasonably play. I say guitarist you see, as I have never bothered to learn the names of the band members. They’re just… Ladytron. A unit. I refuse to concede the possibility of solo careers or even a life outside of the band. The mundanities of paying the rent and feeding oneself are so clearly alien to these people that the only logical conclusion is that they spend most of their lives in a Sigourney Weaver-like suspended animation, emerging only to make videos and perform. Like my favourite TV programme, the Avengers, Ladytron have only a passing acquaintance with real life, with its litter, uniformed police and urchin children on BMXs. And like Steed and Mrs Peel they boast both impeccable style and perfect content.

 

JukeFox Journey! No. 9 – Robert Huth chooses Dakota Staton

Since bidding a fond farewell to the hallowed turf of Fortuna Biesdorf, Robert “Big Bob” Huth has been biting ankles and scaring children at the farthest flung corners of the known world. From Berlin to Chelsea, stopping off at Middlesborough and Stoke before finding his spiritual home at fortress Freeman’s Wharf, Bob’s resolute jaw and Jurassic brow have left a trail of shock, awe and yellow cards in their wake.

So after all that clench-jawed aggression it may come as some surprise that behind closed doors bon viveur Bob enjoys sophisticated evenings at home soundtracked by classic lounge jazz whilst suppressing his chuckles over a spot of Dorothy Parker.

“It never ceases to amaze me that Dakota Staton doesn’t enjoy the same reputation as her contemporaries. She knew instinctively how to pitch songs, emotionally speaking, and wasn’t afraid to do less in order to achieve greater effect. NOT LIKE THAT YOU IMBECILE! You’ll bruise the vermouth” he admonishes as I try to follow his special martini recipe.

When the dust and the olives have settled Bob and I find we’re in agreement that Dakota’s “The Late, Late Show” from 1957 is the album to own, although on this occasion he has chosen a 1973 cut from sessions with The Manny Albam Big Band. “It shows off her full range and I think you’ll agree it’s the greatest Bond theme never to grace a film”.

Choose your next witticism carefully Mr Huth, it may be your last I say in a foolish attempt at levity. Fixing me with his basilisk stare Bob eventually enters in to the spirit of the game. “Names is for tombstones, baby” and turning to the croupier adds “now take this honky outside. And waste him”.

Harsh words sir. Harsh words indeed.

JukeFox Journey! No. 8 – Jamie Vardy chooses Parliament

These days there’s no shortage of naysayers basking in the schadenfreude of Jamie Vardy’s lack of form. They don’t know the whole story.

Since last year’s notorious Japgate incident, Leicester’s unstoppable goalscoring tsunami has got wise, got educated and got radical. “Look, Trump and Bannon aren’t stupid… well OK, yes they are, but surely they would have known the immigration ban contravenes UN law and the Geneva convention? You have to wonder if there isn’t a smokescreen at work here to deflect attention from a wider agenda concerning the changes on the National Security Council and the covert activity that the Trump inner circle could control.”

WOOOAAAHH! No surprise then that Jamie finds moral support in Parliament’s state of the nation rant “Come In Out Of The Rain”. “Yeah – ‘the president’s talking ’bout change’ – it was all there, nearly 50 years ago. Plus ca change, y’know warramean?”. But Jamie, the flower power generation failed. We got Nixon, an escalation of the Vietnam war and deteriorating relations with the islamic world under Carter. Don’t you see any hope? “Dunno, but I know this. They should have put Clinton in the White House”. Hillary? “Naahhh, George”.

Right on brother, right on.

Postscript: In case anyone didn’t get the reference, George Clinton was the leader of and driving force behind both Parliament and Funkadelic, later to find solo success with the mildly alarming “Do Fries Go With That Shake?”. Embarrassingly for Jamie it seems that a George Clinton HAS been in the White House, serving as vice president to both the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Dr Funkenstein in the house, indeed.

Bitesize! The Family Cat

“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. She loves you, yeah yeah yeah. She loves you. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

Sometimes the best way to get your message accross is to just keep repeating it.

“I should be so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I should be so lucky in love.”

Repetition. Repetition.

“Here it comes. Here it comes. Here it comes rolling over the hill. Here it comes rolling over the hill. It’s rolling over the hill.”

I’m guessing the last one was less familiar.

The Family Cat whose seven year career was blighted by a lack of familiarity (with record buyers, with the charts, with success), crop up on very few 90s nostalgia compilations and are maybe best remembered for a briefly popular t-shirt which accompanied debut ep “Tell ’em We’re Surfing”. They were also cursed with the grave misfortune of plying their trade at the beginning of the 1990’s, a period guilty of oversized t-shirts, overgrown haircuts and the ill advised baggy shorts/high-top trainers combo. No surprise then that they drowned without trace in a sea of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Kingmaker, Pop Will Eat Itself, Carter The Unstopable Sex Machine and a plethora of other acronym inducing bands.

What distinguished The Family Cat from a majority of their contemporaries however, was possession of a singer who could genuinely sing. Paul Frederick had, and for all I know probably still has, a rich powerful croon at odds with the prevailing style of merely barking amiably. Unfortunately he and his band were inclined to dispel any gravitas by referring to him simply as “Fred”. Similarly, whilst such contractions as Hendrix or Coltrane conjure up images of epoch defining figureheads, referring to your guitarist, albeit quite correctly, as Jelbert, simply reinforces prejudices we may have of post baggy pre britpop mateyness.

I challenge any and all of you though to present to me a more moving song from the period than the thunderous behemoth that is “Steamroller”. A few years earlier The Stone Roses had been inspiring thousands to levels of euphoria that really did make them want to bang drums. Here was the first song in rock’n’roll history to make you feel like doing a bit of tarmacking.

I’ve long considered there to be a similarity between british indie and northern soul. Both are characterised by a reliance on songs; of single moments of inspiration rather than career building bodies of work. Both operated largely without the benefit of major company largesse and the Hendrixes and Coltranes of both genres seemed to be musicians who realized they were only going to get one chance at immortality.

On “Steamroller”, Fred knows his ship has come in as he roars his way through the song with a soulfulness that you don’t expect from a bunch of skinny west country longhairs.

“I know that I’ll love you for the rest of my life even though we never meet again.”

For every chain smoking food dodger who ever idolized Felt and The Marine Girls and thought, I can do that, Fred bellows his encouragement. For every alternative disco that was scuppered by the local rugby club annual night out, Fred pledges his support. Just as R. Dean Taylor, Marlena Shaw and Garnet Mimms did decades earlier, Fred mans the barricades, stiffens his sinews and imitates the eye of the tiger as he stakes out his little corner of rock’n’roll Valhalla.

Indie will always be succeptable to accusations of willful underachievement. The Family Cat prove that it can be noble, stirring and just a little bit heroic.

“Broad, fine, generous, solid and real. With the steamroller into gear you can feel like a star”.

Postscript: One obvious problem with trying to mythologize obscure songs is that they tend not to turn up on youtube. I recommend checking under “F” in your local second hand record shop for the album “Furthest From The Sun”. In addition to two contributions from a young Polly Harvey,  this will also allow you access to the full seven minute version of “Steamroller” with its reprise of the coruscating middle eight in which the guitars squeal like short wave radios. Bliss.

I Love New York – Ciccone Visits Midlands. Revives Career

Mash-ups. I rather like’em. There’s something simple and primitive about just welding one song on to another that seems in keeping with the original DIY spirit of rock’n’roll. No pretensions to artistry. No marathon sessions in the studio. Just two songs and one outcome.

I first became aware of them when swedish radio began, some years ago, to give serious airtime to a mash-up of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and the point at which it all began to go wrong for Michael Jackson, “Bad”. The joy was not simply the seamless way in which the two songs would morph into each other but also the way in which Cash appeared to prick Jackson’s ego. As the latter’s yelping, hiccoughing and vast aray of other vocal affectations reaches a climax, the effect is magnificently deflated by the sudden introduction of Luther Perkins’ wonderful self-effacing honky-tonk guitar.

Equally, Kid Slender favourites the Dandy Warhols had, in one fell swoop, all the sneering sarcasm wiped away from global mega-hit “Bohemian Like You” when someone thought to add their iconic Keef-esque guitar riff to the vocal track from cheeky chavettes Mousse T’s hormonal school disco anthem “I’m Horny”.

Madonna achieved something of the same effect when opening 2005 album “Confessions On A Dancefloor” with “Hung Up”, borrowing wholesale from Abba’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” in the process. A canny move as it left her free to knock together a riotously hedonistic disco pop album, free from the slight whiff of earnestness which lurked over “Ray Of Light”, excellent as it was.

A more articulate writer could probably essay a great thesis here about the effect of copywrite considerations on music in general and hip-hop in particular as it’s only the likes of Madonna and Kanye who can afford to sample these days. But there you go, Björn and Benny got the royalties and nobody is the poorer for it.

The quality control doesn’t let up, but the further you delve into the album the more you begin reaching for the liner notes to check the credits. “Sorry” still feels naggingly familiar. “Future Lovers” could easily be a Giorgio Moroder outtake and once we get to album highlight “I Love New York” it all clicks into place.

The album credits offered a huge clue, although you could forgive me for dismissing as mere cooncidence the fact that co-writer and producer Stuart Price shares his name with my eldest brother. Nevertheless, the Midlands have, as I suspected they always would, had a key role in moulding one of pop music’s greatest innovators. It might take a few listens but I have not a doubt that you, like me, will eventually find yourselves exclaiming, bugger me Madge, it’s Bela Lugosi’s dead!

Now B-movie horror imagery was nothing new to rock’n’roll from Bobby “Boris” Pickett to the Cramps, but nobody before had adopted the look with such single-minded unsmiling zeal as Bauhaus. This combination of Ed Wood style and Weimar pretension caught on quickly. Its names were legion and many. We came to know and love it as GOTH. And for some reason I have difficulty imagining its creation in the hands of anyone but four sons of the boot belt. Northampton.

I have a little first hand experience here. My hometown (apparently) 32.3 miles away was laid waste by the shockwaves from the GOTH explosion with many shops rationing hair gel and escalating stock prices for the manufacturers of hair crimpers. At least those stocked by the local Co-op. Something about GOTH’s melodrama and a lack of self awareness appealed to those in small towns and the provinces seeking an, albeit illusory, escape route. Oh no, this was in no way a metropolitan youth cult as GOTH could not survive sophistication or humour. No hint of reality could be allowed to intrude on GOTH or the whole shebang collapsed like a house of cards. A friend of mine once found himself, by the classic friend of a friend route, backstage at the first gig of former Sister of Mercy Patricia Morrison’s new band. Gliding majestically into the room this patent leathered amazon Goddess smashed GOTH’s fragile facade by announcing “OK girls, we’re on in five minutes. Now, has everyone been to the toilet?”.

Another son of the Midlands to arrive at the same three chords as Ms Ciccone was Julian Cope. The 32 years which have passed since he recorded second album “Fried” have in no way dented my conviction that it is the perfect soundtrack to the Midlands. Or rather the East Midlands. Or maybe just the Watling Street corridor. No matter. It’s an album brittle as the frozen farmland surrounding the Ashby canal. Heavy with bucolic memories of family days out to local ruins. An album that captures the longing to escape to a place more urbane and the comfortable resignation that you’ll keep coming back. It somehow manages to embrace the contradictions of the Midlands, combining the ballsy moronic thwump of Slade, the introspection of Nick Drake, the folksy artisanship of Family and a willingness to party seemingly at times to have been borrowed from, yes, Showaddywaddy.

But on the final track, “Torpedo” the joking abrubtly ceases and Copey delivers something approaching a manifesto, assuring us that, yes, I’m kneeling on Alvecote Mound with a tortoiseshell on my back but I’m actually serious about this. Sure, sometimes I just shamelessly rip off my heroes. With a smirk. But I’m no less sincere or respectful for all that.

Julian Cope recognises that playing rock music is a preposterously silly pursuit unworthy of anyone with intelligence but that it is in the spirit of rock’n’roll that we don’t care. Like a dog that licks his balls in polite company, we love it anyway.

Bauhaus recognised the same fact and were equally unapologetic over bellowing nonsense about bell towers and bleeding victims. When an eyebrow pencil is all that’s standing between you and a shift down the Doc Martens factory the only reasonable course of action is to suck in your cheeks and really go for it.

Madonna was clearly channelling the same Midlands spirit when she thought to punctuate one of her finest songs with one of the most stomach-churningly dreadful lines in her or anyone else’s back catalogue. “If you don’t like my attitude you can f-off”. ‘Scuse me, did you really just sing “f-off”? Madonna, the iconoclast who cavorted at the feet off a black Christ in a basque and who published a coffee table book of her breasts being fondled by Vanilla Ice. Now reduced to the self-censorship of “f-off”? You betcha!  And you know what?  She’s Madonna, she can do whatever she likes. Frankly, if she’d really said fuck, would anyone bother writing a blog about it?

That’s the Midlands for you. We’ll give you Shakespeare, George Eliot and Joe Orton but you’ll remember us for Tiswas, Crossroads and Hobbits.

Now then Madge me owd duck. Lend us a plaggy bag and I’ll get down the jitty for a crusty cob and some dobbers.


 

Bitesize! Cat’s Eyes

It was whilst driving to IKEA last Sunday in the obligatory Volvo estate that I stumbled upon a truism regarding the debut album by go-go goths Cat’s Eyes. Side 1, track 4, “Face In The Crowd” is quite possibly the snottiest song in rock’n’roll history.

Snot is to rock’n’roll as corruption is to American presidential elections and mediocrity is to all but one memorable season at Leicester City.  The intrinsically distasteful element by which we define our experience. From the moment that Bo Diddley (yes, it’s always Bo Diddley) spat “you’re that thing I throw peanuts at” in “Say Man”, rock’s landscape has been littered with hormonal outpourings of resentment, disaffection and bile.

Iconoclasts within music are often credited with breaking away from pop’s moon-in-June norm; yes Zimmerman, I’m talking to you.  But it is the level of sarcasm that Bob himself achieved in “It Ain’t Me Babe” that grants entry to the lyrical VIP lounge. Jagger, Ray Davies, Lydon may well be top of the guest list but even they would whither and cringe as Rachel Zeffira and the splendiidly named Faris Badwan trade insults like a couple of carousing toms. On a hot tin roof! “You’re not anyone at all” snarls Rachel,  like a leary 14 year old suffering her first alcho-pop high. Only to have the smirk wiped off her face by the worst put down in pop, “I’ve never had trouble getting girls I don’t need”. Ouch. I’ll say that again. Ouch. There’s a sentence that smothers all concerned in shame, to the point where I actually wince every time I hear it. But in a good way. Because like a biblical scapegoat Faris says it so that we don’t have to, leaving us free to bask in this wonderful slice of water retention Shangri-Las whilst dancing the mashed potato that the song demands.

Snot, bile, phlegm and a stomping beat. Do we need anything else from music?


 

JukeFox Journey! No.7 – Andy King chooses Orange Juice

One would expect that 12 years of the zen suffering that goes with life at Leicester City would have taken a Dorian Grey like toll on Andy King. Not a bit of it. His unmarked boyish features suggest he would have no problem getting served in the students’ union.

No surprise then to discover his scholarly attitude towards classic indie. “Their brand of fey innocence has become such a cliché within indie that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary Orange Juice were” he asserts. “No one had taken such a defiantly non-macho stance before. A lot of people were genuinely affronted by it. It’s okay to wander down Gallowtree Gate with a floppy fringe these days, but to stand up in front of an aggressive Glasgow crowd in the late 70s with that attitude took genuine commitment. We can laugh at taunts like ‘you’re all homosexual, apart from Steven’ but back then they were taking big risk. Apart, obviously, from Steven”.

So come the Champions League victory parade can we expect to see you in sandals and safari suit Andy? “Ye Gads!” he exclaims, not inappropriately.

Simply thrilled as ever, our kid.

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