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.
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.
I have a pet theory. Every generation of music lovers is doomed in its conviction that their youth was a golden era for rock’n’roll. That music will never again reach the heights it climbed when they were 16 years old. That youth is wasted on the young. Especially the current bunch.
Each fresh generation on the other hand should rightly judge their predecessors to be nostalgic sentimental dinosaurs who can’t get over the fact that John Lennon’s… married Cynthia!
It’s a necessary attitude for innovation for how else can we create a climate for rebellion? If young John Mellor was content withWoody Guthrie impressions. Or the infant Van Vliet wanted no more than to continue covering Bo Diddley. Or if Bronx resident Joseph Saddler went along with his mother’s ambition for him to study electronics, music would be the poorer. No Joe Strummer. No Captain Beefheart. No Grandmaster Flash.
Do you follow? We learn the ropes and then a chosen few tear up the rulebook and create a new golden era for the next generation.
Of course all this was hopelessly lost on my mother, who, despite seeing her children reach the rock’n’roll bar mitzvah age of 16 in three different decades, maintained down the years an infuriating and tactless habit of approving of her childrens’ taste. Every fresh attempt to reinforce the generation gap was met by beslippered toe-tapping and a pause in her tricky cable-knitting to offer an encouraging smile. The zenith of this activity was reached when she interrupted my autodidactic attempt to channel the late 60’s psychedelic revolution by bursting into my room to announce “I like this one our David. It’s got a very jolly beat”. I’m not sure that jolly beats were what The Seeds were aiming for when they recorded 1967’s unhinged masterpiece “A Web Of Sound” but I like to think singer Sky Saxon would have approved of the generational crossover appeal of his 15 minute two chord album closer “Up In Her Room”
There was however one exception to all this parental good will and an outlet for my teenage need to rebel. Terry Hall. She just couldn’t stand the man.
There are dozens of reasons to like Terry Hall. The sinister, sneering performer of “Gangsters” who introduced us to a better dressed version of punk. The bonkers pop star version of Terry who with the Fun Boy Three epitomised Tom Waits rhetorical question “tell me, how long have you been combing your hair with a wrench?”. The duffel coated artisan songwriter with The Colourfield who chronicled the Thatcher kitchen sink years with a wry smile.
What seemed to lead people to apoplexy though was the overwhelmimg impression that Terry simply couldn’t give a toss if it all ended tomorrow.
Asked what he was rebelling against in “The Wild One” Marlon Brando famously replied “what have you got?”. Nevertheless, we knew that the object of this rebellion would be faced whilst wearing a really nice set of leathers. Take Johnny Boy’s Harley away from him and he’d kick up a proper tantrum. A right old mardy and no mistake. Terry Hall made people nervous because there was nothing you could take away from him. In fact he’d get in the first blow. Having recorded, in “Ghost Town”, what many people regard as the greatest number 1 single ever, perfectly soundtracking the inner city riots of the early 80’s, Terry did what any well brought up iconoclast would do. He legged it.
It’s a bit tricky after all these years to describe the effect of “Ghost Town”. On the face of it simply bemoaning the lack of live venues in Coventry, but anticipating perfectly the havoc, industrial, political and social, that Thatcher was about to wreak on the country. Nobody could’ve guessed just how medieval she was about to get on our collective ass but The Specials with their “yaarrrrrrghh ya-ya-ya yaarrrrrrghh” bedlam chorus showed us it wasn’t going to be pretty. And that we could do nothing. Not a thing, to stop it.
So how to you top that? Easy. Ditch the guitars. Buy loads of drums and a cheap synth. And most importantly, crank the paranoia knob up to 11.
Where “Ghost Town” was all wild eyed careening, the inmates of “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum” had long ago resorted to banging their heads against the wall. Slowly. Insistently. Endlessly.
And here’s my case. Why the music of my youth is better than the music of yours. OK, “Lunatics” isn’t ground breaking in its originality. The song is a paper thin two chords, the rhythm merely a slightly lysergic “Sympathy For The Devil” and the technology, by 1981 standards, familiar. But lets sum up: a funereal rant about the arms race with a “doomed, we’re all doomed” conclusion performed by a bi-polar miserabilist. And it reached #20 in the charts. It was mainstream pop. The Fun Boy Three graced Top Of The Pops. Pan’s People may even have interpreted it. In 1981 this was par for the course as the graduates of punks ram-a-lama high school started looking for something more interesting. As kids from New York’s less fashionable boroughs started to explore what more could be done with two turntables and a microphone. As nerds the world over began exploiting the availability of cheap synthesizers. And as, seemingly, everyone and his mate claimed “yeah, I’ve always been into African beats. Actually”.
The Fun Boy Three cavorted wildly from 1981-83, spawned two albums and contributed to a period of pop almost unprecedented in its tolerance. Pil, Pigbag, The Associates, Soft Cell, Grandmaster Flash, Bow Wow Wow, Devo, The Teardrop Explodes, Motorhead. All would, in other, less broadminded times have been regarded as leftfield acts. Even The Birthday Party managed to nudge the bottom reaches of the charts and by 1983 no one questioned the appearance of one Jim Thirlwell on Top Of The Pops, contributing the saxophone solo to Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up”. A man previously known for such chart friendly acts as You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus Over Frisco and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheels.
It couldn’t last of course and soon the money men moved in to force feed us a diet of Howard Jones. Even my mum had trouble keeping count of stitches whenever Then Jericho appeared. I realise that all this makes me sound a bit like a rock’n’roll Colonel Blimp forever complaining that it was better in my day, but I just don’t see the same degree of careless rebellion in Father John Misty or Sia. We live in more brand-savvy times and any statues to be kicked over need to approved by a focus group first.
Then again, I’m 52 years old – I would say that wouldn’t I?
The Kid Slender debut album, provisionally titled “…fulfills his manifest destiny” (Thanks Dad, great toilet euphemism), is in need of an upbeat number. So join me now as I indulge one of my teenage air guitar fantasies by mercilessly flogging my two favourite major chords, A&E, in pursuit of the Everly Brothers paean to doomed romance and self loathing “The Price Of Love”. Gin, indeed, is bitter.
Tricky chaps, Don and Phil. Their position as rock’n’roll pioneers is beyond question. Their influence over generations of artists is abundantly clear, from Brian Wilson right up to the present with the (in Sweden at least) ubiquitous First Aid Kit. Curiously though they’ve never quite achieved the iconic status of the rest of the class of ’56. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all have graced more t-shirts than the Everlys. All have appeared in bio flicks. Hell, even Chuck’s cousin Marvin cropped up on the silver screen playing second fiddle to Michael J Fox. Yet Don and Phil seem forever to be sitting in the bleachers while the jocks get the girls. Be honest, how many of us, shown a picture of the Everly Brothers, would know which was Ron and which was Bill?
A degree of anonymity however has contributed to their longevity. Or to put it another way, the Everlys were never yoked to one image in the way that Chuck Berry will be forever duckwalking behind his Gibson 335 or Jerry Lee eternally thrashing away at the ivories, fringe flailing while his 13 year old child bride waits in the wings.
Just check out their record sleeves for evidence. Here they are on 1958’s “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” with a priapic leer, equally ready to tussle with Annette Funicello or Steve Reeves as the occasion demands. 1966’s “In Our Image” has the teen dream morphing into Greenwich Village existentialism courtesy of some high contrast side lighting and a turtle neck jumper and come 1968’s acclaimed “Roots” album the fellas have the Californian acid guru look in full effect. All achieved without in any way diluting the Appalachian close harmony blueprint that birthed their first hit “Bye Bye Love”.
“The Price Of Love” is the Everlys career in a nutshell. No deviation from the formula (as Mike Love was urging his Wilson cousins)…
…but what exactly was their formula? Well, clearly they copywrited (copywrote?) the early rock’n’roll demand for yearning, regret and heartfelt pleading, all wrapped up in a non threatening confection. But equally clearly they must have had something more to continue arousing this much devotion. Roy Orbison once said that he tried to recreate the sound of a fairground on a prairie in his singing. Don and Phil (can we call them “Dopherly” or something?) have something of the same distance and unattainabilty, always a little bit out of focus and out of reach. Hang on, I’m already up to 533 words and I haven’t even mentioned pencil moustaches yet…
…and only a little extra rama-lama to place it in the British invasion mid 60’s. But with an adaptability that allows you to imagine the song being played in any decade. And I do. Hank Williams, Nick Drake, The Sweet, The Raincoats, Asian Dub Foundation and Wolfmother have all cut fantasy versions of the song, available only on the Kid Slender inner iPod.
It was though, a real life flesh and blood cover that first introduced me to the song. That made me realise that teenage torment and rejection was not just going to involve staring magnificently out of rain streaked windows but would also demand ranting mysogonistically about life’s essential injustices whilst riding the crest of a self destructive shandy bass freak out. A torment which would be compensated by a lifelong love of pencil moustaches and white suits.
Bryan Ferry. I thank you.
I would love to claim that in 1976 I was down with kids, checking out NME’s young hungry gunslingers and gatecrashing the 100 club to heckle the punk rock festival. In reality I was worrying that my bike wasn’t as clean as Guy Griffiths’ and that my table tennis backhand wasn’t as unretuturnable as Lee Dixon’s. I was, mind you, beginning to cherry pick nuggets from my big brother’s record collection. One such was Bryan Ferry’s rather remarkable “Let’s Stick Together”. Remarkable not only for being glam rock’s last hurrah but for being a covers collection in which Bryan covered, mainly, himself. Leaving aside his reworking of early Roxy numbers, the album is remembered chiefly for the title track. Or to be more exact, its video.
Time tends to slow down when you watch early pop videos. We’re so used to edits at an epilepsy inducing rate that we forget the joy of watching a bunch of people staring at guitars and lip synching. Bryan and his band, the redoubtable Chris Spedding among them, attempt very little else. Most of the action appears in the form of Bryan demonstrating his unique ability to squint using only his lower eyelids. A feat which gives the impression of a man trying to squeeze out a fart silently whilst standing barefoot on lego bricks. This though, doesn’t stop him from putting in one of rock’s finest performances as he sqirms, preens and fidgets inside THAT white suit while his wonderful Ronald Coleman moustache (known in Sweden by the evocative name of “tango-rabatt”) takes on a greasy, slimy, untrustworthy life of its own. Even when Jerry Hall slinks in to deliver a middle eight of Catwoman yelping, Bryan turns to stare at her, not with the curiosity of a man checking out a saucy lady but rather to better allow her to get a load of his soup-strainer.
All this self adoration sits rather well in the context of “The Price Of Love”. Gone is the Everlys hand wringing and despair, replaced with the Ferry bravado which knows that lost love isn’t going to bother him too much. “You kiss one…. you kiss one…” he stutters, knowing full well that he’ll be kissing quite a few before Jerry decamps to Team Jagger. C’mon, he’s Bryan Ferry! He’ll be playing the tormented soul card but he’s really thinking, I’m Bryan Ferry. And you’ll never get better than that, babe.
Meanwhile, a few miles eastward along the A13, “daarn” Essex way, possibly the greatest white suit practitioner of all was plying his trade. Lee Brilleaux’s pale whistle had, like the Ferry moustache, taken on a life of its own. A life that, come 1976, appeared to involve sleeping in a ditch.
Rock revisionism seems to have written a timeline that goes, “Louie Louie, Sgt Pepper, Stooges, Dolls, Punk”, one which thankfully, but inaccurately bypasses, “Moody Blues, Harry Nilsson, 10CC, Mike Oldfield”. In light of the latter it’s easier to understand why the appearance of Dr Feelgood in 1971 was not merely menacing but bordering on the terrifying. Lee, Wilko Johnson, John B Sparks, the Big Figure. Their names alone sound like targets for Nipper Read.
The Feelgoods really shouldn’t have worked. Four unconventionally good looking lowlifes from Canvey Island with a stash of Hooker, Diddley and Burke in the boot of a borrowed MKII Cortina? By rights they should have been found out for being poseurs. The skinny kid in the playground bragging to the 5th formers about his dodgy uncle. That they weren’t and couldn’t be, depended on two things.
We can gloss over Wilko. I’ll assume I’m largely preaching to the converted and that you’re aware that he’s one of the most prodigously and unfathomably talented guitarists ever, That his songwriting aped classic blues while accommodating his own idiosyncratic style, making it impossible to do the songs justice without him. If not, I envy you the evening you have ahead of you, searching youtube.
The other ace up their well tailored sleeve is harder to pin down. For a clue we turn, oddly enough, to japanese jazz pianist and arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi. Finding herself in the fortunate position of meeting Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus pianist Hampton Hawes, she took the opportunity to ask “How do you play the blues that way? How can I learn to play so authentically?”. “I play the blues right because I eat collard greens, black-eyed peas and corn pone and clabber” came the reply. Nobody’s fool, Akiyoshi shot back “Then where can I get such food”.
So what’s my point? Well, what Hampton was clearly saying was that authenticity isn’t something you can learn, much less buy off the peg. His style was his life. He could no more play Appalachian close harmonies with conviction than could the Everly Brothers bang out a hard bop album. Luckily for us there seems to have been a ready supply of corn pone on Canvey Island in the mid 70’s as no one could question Lee Brilleaux’s conviction. He may well appear on the same family tree as Howlin’ Wolf but he’s the bastard cousin thrice removed who doesn’t get invited round at Christmas.
Certain artists could only come from one place. Lou Reed IS New York. Depeche Mode ARE new town Essex. Motown could ONLY have existed in a mid-west industrial US city. And it’s impossible to imagine the oil refineries towering over the Thames estuary being soundtracked by anything other than Lee Brilleaux’s ursine bark.
Many singers are credited with stalking the stage. Few did it as if they were genuinely hunting something. A fellow jailbird. A wayward girlfriend. Somebody looking at him the wrong way. Somehow we were all looking at Lee Brilleaux the wrong way. All of us found wanting but all ready to be put back on the right track. If Lee was angry with us then we deserved it. Lee came along at the perfect moment of industrial decay and musical atrophy and found the perfect vehicle to document it. Or it found him. Same old blues, different fury.
Time and place. Dr Feelgood. Right time, right place. The Everly Brothers. Timeless. Any place.
Now. Does anyone fancy coming down the rub-a-dub for a pint of clabber?
Banging away inarticulately in my little corner of central Sweden, I’m often unaware of how far an insignificant blog can reach. Over the past months I’ve occasionally had cause to mention some of the world’s less populous nations. This is immediately followed by a visit, cyberly speaking, from a resident of said nation, conjuring a charming image of websurfers around the globe hunched over their laptops like short wave radio enthusiasts, anxiously waiting for the blessing of a mention by Kid Slender.
And so it is with the shameless intention of boosting my readership that I now send out a (forgive the inverted commas, but I’m far too old to be saying this) “big up” to my readers in Barbados and the Faroe Islands and a massive “shout out” to the peoples of Bhutan, Guyana, Djibouti (love the flag you guys) and Haiti. “Respect”.
Some time ago I threatened to get out the guitar. However, being made of nine parts good intentions and one part inertia this never happened. Until, that is, I stumbled across the chords to micro Sub Pop hit “the Past and Pending” by The Shins. For several weeks now I have been cackling hideously at the sheer joy of being able to piece together this fragile little tune, a tune I’ve been taking for granted for years which has suddenly taken off its horn-rimmed glasses, shaken out its hair and revealed its true self. My God Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!
The Shins, for some reason, remain something of a hard sell. All Music describes them as “one of indie pop’s most acclaimed and beloved acts”. They can boast two billboard top 10 albums, although their 19 year long career has so far produced a Kid Slender inertia-like four long players. Their songs have graced slacktastic Hollywood movie “Garden State” prompting one character to describe them as life changing. And yet during all that time I have never heard them on the radio. I have never met anyone who admits to owning one of their records. And believe me, I know people who own records. I have never seen an advert for a live performance. OK, I acknowledge that the swedish county of Värmland is probably not the first stop on the tour itinerary of yer average life changing New Mexico combo, but still.
Unfair as it is, I’m sure even they would admit to a lack of any definable image being a major contributor to their anonymity. How else to explain the photo shoot that tried to adress this problem by dressing them in super-hero costumes. A ploy which backfired spectacularly when passers-by commented “wow, Robin’s really outta shape”. Even with enhanced body sculpture they still succeeded in looking like local council employees compiling traffic statistics. Google, much as I hate to give them free advertising, has a “similar pictures” option among its search menu. Here are some “similar pictures” of The Shins.
I suspect however, with the greatest of respect, that the hard working folk who wear dayglo tabbards for a living don’t tend to imagine the end of a relationship in phrases like “a trail of white blood betrays the reckless route your craft is running”.
I’ve tried in previous blog entries to explain my views on good songwriting. That, unlike poetry, lyrics need to grab you by the lapels in order to hold your attention for four minutes. This is where “the Past and Pending” hits paydirt. From the moment James Mercer croons “As someone sets light to the first fire of autumn, we settle down to cut ourselves apart” you’re hooked. You know this is something you need to hear about. That it might be a story you’ve heard countless times before and even been through yourself, but that this time you’re going to hear it in a new way. In a seductive way. In a way that makes you want to hold misery around you like a comfort blanket. And bask. A bit like being bitten by a vampire. Sorry, is that just me?
Shins songs get you like that. Phrases that leap out of the underachieving murk and slap you about the face a bit. Even so, an entire album can sometimes try your patience. A little too polite. A little too fey and wistful. My brother (and I hope he’ll forgive me for sharing this) was once in a band that Melody Maker dismissed as “indie plankton”. That, during the moments when they’re treading water, is The Shins. Until we get to 2012’s “Port Of Morrow”.
We all love trailblazing debut albums. There’s much fun to be had arguing the case for a number of difficult second albums. Contrary as I try to be, I have a great fondness for the overlooked fourth album. Bands who find fashion has pointed her fickle finger elsewhere, critics turning away to stare at the younger model who’s just entered the room, waiting till the twilight of their career before releasing a masterwork, sticking two fingers up and shouting “thank you Stevenage, goodnight”. I’m thinking Pulp’s “We Love Life”, “The Sin Of Pride” by The Undertones and swamp noir nihilists Gallon Drunk’s “In The Long Still Night”. The last named bucking the trend by continuing to bid adieu to new towns to this day.
After ending their contract with Sub Pop, the band announced they would be releasing future albums on their own label. Uh oh. Years passed. Line-ups changed. And then suddenly there it was. Sharp and spiky where the previous three had been all soft focus. Lurching from side to side like a Wellington bomber with a drunk at the controls trying to land on one engine. And then just as suddenly, gone. Nothing. Like a rock’n’roll Brigadoon, appearing for a moment just to show us what guitar pop could be like. In an ideal world.
The website promises a gig in September. But frustratingly fails to mention which year this might take place. The venue is to be an equally vague, Dorset. In the United Kingdom. Don’t be surprised if there turns out to be a Dorset on the arabian peninsular.
I hope they’ve not given up. We need bands like The Shins. People who are prepared to strum away the years, not caring if there’s money or acclaim in it. Just for the joy of hearing E A D over and over.
Maybe they’ll surprise us again. If not, thank you Andorra. Goodnight!