This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
Here in Nottingham, Katty Heath is best known as the singer with Spotlight Kid: a gloriously noisy alternative rock band, once described in this paper as “sounding like twenty thousand bees trapped in a wind tunnel”. But over in The Netherlands, where she has been living since 2011, Katty is more likely to be recognised a contestant on The Voice Of Holland, the TV talent show which spawned last year’s The Voice on BBC1.
Swapping the grime of the indie circuit for the glamour of the television studio, Katty’s transformation couldn’t have been more complete – but as she now reveals, her journey was a largely dispiriting and disillusioning experience.
“I was never a big fan of those shows in the first place”, she explains, talking to EG from her houseboat in central Amsterdam. “So I was going a little bit against my morals, I guess. But I felt that if I was going to have a permanent life here, I really want to have a music career here. So I thought, well, this could be a fast track way of making some connections in the industry.”
Persuaded to give the show a try, Katty applied online, and was invited in for a couple of selection rounds. These proved successful, as did the first two televised rounds: the “blind audition”, where the show’s judges cannot see the contestants, and the “battle round”, where each singer goes head-to-head with a rival. Katty sailed through them all, landing herself a place on the first of the live shows.
At this point, the eager contestant felt what little control she had over the process slipping away. Rejecting all her song proposals – Fleetwood Mac, Portishead, Nina Simone, Kate Bush – as “too unusual, not commercial enough, or too obvious”, the show’s producers insisted that she tackled Katy Perry’s Firework instead.
“Oh my God, I hate that song! And as the build-up came, it was very intensive. You’re in every day from nine in the morning until ten at night. It’s very tiring, so you’re not really in a fit state to sing to your biggest audience in your life.”
Swamped by a noisy arrangement, complete with mid-song pyrotechnics – the very opposite of what she had wanted – Katty did her best, but the voting went against her, and she failed to qualify for the next round.
A pre-recorded version of the track was immediately placed on iTunes, but “we never see a cent of that.” In fact, none of the contestants are paid to be on the show. “The only thing we received from it was a phone, because it was sponsored by Samsung.”
“When you’re in the show, you’re like: this is amazing, I’m loving the fame! And then as soon as you’re out of it, you’re like: Oh my God, it’s just a money-making machine, and we are pawns in it.”
“The first week after, I was just in a big hole of despair. You’re just dropped into nothingness. There’s no kind of follow-up, to see if you’re OK. From beginning to end, it’s six months, and you can’t really commit to anything else in your life. So I was sort of broken: financially, emotionally and psychologically.”
Tied by a year-long contract, which forbids her from releasing any other material until the end of March, Katty found herself in limbo, unable to capitalise from any immediate post-show opportunities. More humiliatingly still, she was even turned away from the doors of the studio, when attempting to watch one of the later live shows.
“Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have done it”, she reflects. “But I still think it was a valuable lesson, and a learning experience.”
When asked what advice she would give to anyone contemplating a similar move, Katty pauses before answering.
“Don’t expect to get paid. Don’t expect it to be the be-all and end-all. Just see it as an experience, rather than a solution. See it for what it is: entertainment, a TV show, and very quickly you’re going to be yesterday’s news. Take from it what you can, but don’t be deluded into thinking it’s about you. Because it’s not. It’s about viewing figures, and the company making money out of you.”
The most intrusive part of the whole process for Katty was having her past scrutinised. “We all had to have an interview with a private investigator, who had already investigated us,” she says. “That’s to protect the company, because if people come forward with stories about you, they want to be prepared.”
She adds, laughing: “So of course they were with me for a long time, because I’ve had a right shady past!”
Spotlight Kid’s single Budge Up is out on Monday.
This feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
They might describe their music as “claustrophobic, pounding and paranoid”, but in the flesh, I Am Lono are an affably untroubled pair of souls – or so it would seem on the surface, at any rate.
According to Matthew Cooper, who sings and plays the keyboards, the claustrophobia is a by-product of the duo’s creative environment. “We write all the music in the basement, and it is very claustrophobic. There are no windows. The dehumidifier is the only bit of moisture that we get close to.”
Guitarist and co-composer David Startin agrees. “Every time we write anything, we have these speakers that really enclose us. It’s a very direct way of writing, so we’ve always got that element.”
“I think we’re both very sensitive people”, adds Matthew. “It’s difficult not to be paranoid.”
The pair met through sharing music and books, and their mutual admiration for the crazed “gonzo journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson gave them their name. In his early Eighties memoir, The Curse Of Lono, Thompson finds himself in Hawaii, attempting to cover a marathon. A fishing trip ensues, and Thompson lands a huge marlin, which he clubs to death. Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility and music, he screams “I am Lono!” as he slaughters the fish, before going into hiding from angry islanders.
There’s another cultural reference in I Am Lono’s debut single, which will be launched at the Rescue Rooms on Tuesday. Lead track Leland is inspired by a character in David Lynch’s early Nineties drama Twin Peaks. Possessed by a demonic spirit, Leland Palmer, the small town’s seemingly mild-mannered attorney, is eventually revealed as the murderer of his daughter Laura, solving the central mystery of the show’s first season.
With that in mind, the song’s chorus – “Oh Leland, I want your love” – makes for a disturbing tribute, but as Matthew explains, “It has a sort of tension to it, that I liked. There is the ambiguity of the name, as it’s not definitely a male name, but also there’s ambiguity with Leland as a character. In a way, the song is a cry for innocence.”
It’s also a prime example of David and Matthew’s love of soundtrack music. John Carpenter is another inspirational figure – “Escape From New York is one of the best soundtracks ever”, says David – and before the band formed in early 2011, Matthew mainly worked on soundtracks for independent film makers.
Visuals are an important component of their approach; Matthew does all the artwork, and the pair are “very much in control of what we want visually”. At the launch, visuals will be provided by a member of the Kneel Before Zod video club, who regularly screen “old B-movies and slasher movies”. The intention is for these to be mixed with live visuals on the night.
As a further inducement, advance ticket purchasers will be able to exchange their stubs for a free copy of the vinyl single. This pairs Leland – their most “four-to-the-floor” and dance-derived composition to date, with a “1978 New York” feel to it – with the thrashier, more guitar-driven In Silence, which David describes as having “a Pixies-esque early Nineties kind of feel; that kind of sonic power that pushes out.”
A digital release is also planned, although David and Matthew are less enthused about the format. “With downloads, it does feel more like a rental – a partial ownership of music”, says Matthew. As for making their music available on Spotify, he is decidedly lukewarm. “One million hits, and you can’t even buy a pizza.”
Support on the night will be provided by another electronic duo, the gloriously splenetic Sleaford Mods, whose acerbic social commentary stands in contrast to I Am Lono’s more enigmatic approach. “We’ve not got a song that will bring down the government”, says David. “Not yet”, he adds. Well, you never know.
An edited version of this feature was originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Amongst the three members of Kagoule, there’s little discernible love for the garment which gave them their name. “We own probably none”, says singer and guitarist Cai Burns. “There’s at least three in my house”, admits bassist Lucy Hatter. “We just said it as a joke”, explains drummer Lawrence English, “but then we thought it might be alright.”
If you hear a band name often enough, it takes on its own meaning. Think of The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the band’s key influences, and gourd-related violence will rarely spring to mind. Likewise, it’s unlikely that you’ll link Kagoule with lightweight, foldable anoraks for too long. And besides, they’ve customised the name with a kooky K. Like Kriss Kross, or Kool and the Gang.
That’s pretty much where the kookiness ends, though. Despite their youth – they’re all seventeen, and in their final year at college – Kagoule are a remarkably level-headed bunch, with a clear-sighted dedication to their craft. Of the three, Lawrence is perhaps the most assertive, business-like one. Lucy tends to express the firmest opinions, while Cai has a thoughtful, dreamy reticence that marks him out as the main songwriter and front man.
The band formed two years ago. Lawrence knew Cai from school, Cai and Lucy were already a couple, and Lucy was friends with Lawrence’s sister, “so it all linked in quite nicely”. After serving the usual apprenticeship at “dodgy Maze nights”, the big break arrived in December 2011, when they were asked to open for Dog Is Dead on the main stage of Rock City. “It was the first proper gig”, reckons Lucy. “The first gig that wasn’t awful”, adds Lawrence.
The set was a triumph, opening the door to a host of new opportunities. “It made things more professional”, says Cai. “It made us feel like an actual band, and it got us into contact with a lot of people.” The band gigged regularly throughout 2012, appearing at festivals such as Dot To Dot, Y-Not and Branch Out. Denizen Recordings took them under their wing, giving them access to experienced management and state-of-the-art recording facilities. And now there’s a single, their first physical release, which will be launched at The Chameleon on Saturday night.
The tracks in question – Monarchy and Mudhole – are two of Cai’s earliest compositions, “so it seemed right to release them first”. Monarchy was written when he was just fourteen. It’s drawn from personal experience, but he declines to explain further, as “it can ruin it for some people”. Mudhole “is some fiction – I like to make up stories.” “It’s easier than writing a book”, says Lucy.
Musically, the band are inspired by the alt-rock of the early-to-mid Nineties: the Pumpkins, Nirvana, Fugazi, and Cai’s favourites, Unwound. “It’s so much better than what’s out now”, Lucy asserts. “It’s the most recent good music, I’d say.” “We didn’t really go for a Nineties sound”, says Cai. “We got compared to those kinds of bands, then we started listening to that music. After that, we realised that’s the music that we all really like.”
Once their studies are completed, the trio intends to take a year out, before thinking about university. “We’re not going to miss that opportunity”, says Lucy. An album is in the pipeline, and most of the tracks are already written. At the end of the month, they’ll be embarking on a mini-tour with label mates Kappa Gamma, with dates in Leicester, Leeds and Manchester.
Time for one final question. If Kagoule were given the opportunity to soundtrack a TV ad, what product would they choose to endorse? Pampers, says Lawrence, quick as a flash. Guns, says Lucy, without even a hint of a smile. Cai considers this longer and harder than the others, before opting for talcum powder. Nobody even thinks about lightweight, foldable anoraks.
We asked fourteen local music experts to select the top ten Nottingham bands and artists they were excited about in 2013. We then collated their results and picked out the dozen that came up most.
This is not a ‘best of’ or ‘most likely to’ list. It’s a mixture of established acts and newcomers who our panel believe are on the verge of doing something interesting musically this year. In alphabetical order we have…
(Written for LeftLion magazine)
For those who still remember Radio Trent in its Seventies and Eighties glory days, when the station broadcast on 301 metres AM, Trent Sound’s studio address should hold a special resonance. In point of fact, there wasn’t a “301 Coventry Road, Bulwell” before the service launched on June 13th – but for station manager Andy Lloyd, who sold his adjacent computer business in order to fund the start-up, the chance to revive the memory was too good to pass up.
It’s a fitting inspiration for a station that seeks to “capture the magic, fun and local identity of Radio Trent” – although for the latter-day owners of the now defunct Trent FM, which was subsumed into the Capital behemoth on January 3rd, the tribute fell on somewhat stony ground.
According to Lloyd, “All hell broke loose; they sent a courier up from London on a motorbike, with a cease and desist letter. They didn’t want us to use the name Trent at all. We had to sign certain undertakings about things that we wouldn’t do, and they in turn “permitted” us to use the word Trent. We pointed out that it’s actually the name of a river – which they may not have been aware of, down in London – and it’s not really in their gift to grant. We’ve got Trent Valley Windows, Trent Kebabs… Trent everything, really.”
While various Trent exiles – including the station’s first ever on-air presenter, John Peters – clubbed together at radiotrent.co.uk, which launched as a web-only service three weeks after Trent Sound, Lloyd and his team started to forge a different path. Their ultimate objective is to secure a community radio licence, which would allow them to migrate to FM full time. There will be a chance to do that in 2013, when Ofcom opens its doors to the next round of licensing applications – but until then, the station is obliged to remain almost entirely internet-based, broadcasting round the clock from http://www.trentsound.com.
Despite this restriction, there are still periodic opportunities for Trent Sound to hit the city’s radio dials, thanks to Ofcom’s “restricted service licences” (or RSLs, as they say in the business). These can be granted to stations who are preparing to apply for a permanent licence, up to a maximum of two 28-day periods per year.
Handily timed for the holiday period, Trent Sound’s first RSL is scheduled to run from December 12th until January 8th. You’ll find them right at the top of the dial – on 87.9 FM, just to the left of Radio 2 – and if you like what you hear, they’re hoping you’ll follow them back onto the internet, after the licence expires. In this respect, the welcome lack of on-air adverts should help curry favour with new listeners. “We really need to get the station out there”, says Lloyd, “and we don’t give a stuff about making money”.
Although the station’s weekday output sticks to an oldies-based format – nothing before 1965, nothing after 1995 – a wide array of evening and weekend specialist slots aim to create “a radio station for everybody”, according to Lloyd. There are programmes dedicated to rock, indie, R&B, house, world/folk and blues, as well as a gay show on Saturday nights, and a three hour show on Wednesday evenings called Notts Live, which is dedicated to promoting local talent.
Presented by Andy Haynes and Bainy Bain, Notts Live has been doing its thing since September 2010. After its original hosts Sherwood Radio shut down in May, the show quickly found a new home at Trent Sound. Each week’s edition is themed around acts that will be playing in town over the following week, and a full gig guide is broadcast during the first hour. “We try not to be genre-based”, says Andy Haynes. “If they’re from Nottingham, we’ll try and feature them.”
Since its inception, Notts Live has featured tracks by around five hundred Nottingham acts. It’s a staggering total, which speaks volumes about the healthy state of the current scene. Live studio sessions have featured such local worthies as Will Jeffrey, Alexa Hawksworth, Adam Peter Smith and Euler, and regular “two hour takeovers” have been hosted by the likes of Satnam’s Tash and the Amber Herd. No stranger to music-making himself, Andy Haynes has been known to join the Amber Herd on stage, brandishing his Theremin. (“I put myself out there as a bit of a Theremin slag”, he explains, “but I’ve not had too much take-up on that.”) The Notts Live brand also extends to occasional live promotions, and to this end there will be a “Notts Live Office Christmas Party” at the Jam Cafe on Dec 21st, headlined by Spaceships Are Cool and broadcast live on the show.
As for the rest of Trent Sound’s schedule, Andy Lloyd’s operates an “open access” policy, which presents opportunities for aspiring broadcasters to get involved. “This doesn’t mean that anybody can”, he cautions, “because you have to have some degree of professionalism, but we’re not an old boys’ network and we want to be accessible. But it’s going to be staffed with the people who will stay. What I don’t want are the glory boys, who will just come in for the RSL. We’ve had it already!”
They’re aiming high, and there’s still a long way to go. But if you agree with Lloyd that “the whole premise of independent local radio has died” – just listen to Capital, and weep for what has been lost – then Trent Sound deserves full credit, for trying to put the “local” back into local radio.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday September 30 2011)
Its biggest claim to pop fame was once Su Pollard. Now, a formidable new generation of Nottingham artists is emerging.
‘So, which acts from round here have been in the charts?” In any decent-sized city, there’s a standard pub conversation to be had – but in Nottingham, it might be briefer than most. Forty years after their last big seller, blues rockers Ten Years After remain the city’s most successful albums act, by a huge distance. As for singles, the hall of fame is still headed by Paper Lace (three hits in 1974, including the chart-topping Billy Don’t Be a Hero), closely followed by KWS (early 90s dance-cover merchants, best known for their grim take on KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go). A pause will follow, as brains are racked. “What about Alvin Stardust?” someone might venture. “No, he’s from Mansfield,” another will counter. Finally and fatally, someone else will dredge up the lone hit by Nottingham’s highest-charting female singer: Su Pollard, who stormed to No 2 in 1986 with the wince-making Starting Together.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday November 26 2010)
From Wonderwall to Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?, there’s barely a song in existence that hasn’t had a Hi-NRG dance cover. But who records them – and, more importantly, why?
Dancefloor epiphanies can strike in the most unexpected ways. One Saturday in the summer of 1996, I found myself dancing on the stage at Love Muscle, a gay club night that ran weekly at the Fridge in Brixton. Earlier that day, I had spent a dismal few hours at Knebworth Park, where Oasis – then reckoned to be at the peak of their powers – had headlined the first of two allegedly legendary shows. Disillusioned by every aspect of the event – the leaden atmosphere, the inadequate facilities, the invisibility and mediocrity of the performers – I duly sought sanctuary elsewhere.
As the Love Muscle DJ mixed into the bracingly fluffy Hi-NRG cover of Wonderwall by Jackie ‘O’, the residual shackles of dance snobbery slipped from my shoulders, and the epiphany struck. Against all the odds, I appeared to be having more fun dancing to this silly version of Noel Gallagher’s anthem than had been possible during his band’s set.
A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.
Neil Tennant is in need of some sea air. He and Chris Lowe have just arrived at Blackpool (“the huge convoy of trucks arrived separately; we rolled up on the train”), ahead of the first Pet Shop Boys show in Chris’s home town in almost twenty years. “We thought it was about time we played it”, he muses. “It’s nice to be here, actually. I like Blackpool.”
Having booked a hotel room on the sea front, Neil has just discovered that his windows cannot be opened without assistance. “I guess it’s slightly odd”, he mutters, as flunkies come and go and window-related negotiations progress, stalling our conversation and prompting courteous apologies from the ozone-starved pop survivor.
The Blackpool date comes midway through the latest leg of the Pet Shop Boys’ seemingly never-ending Pandemonium tour. This particular show has been on the road since June of last year, with a five month break between December and May. A souvenir live album was recorded before Christmas, and the CD has been on sale since February, and yet the show rolls on, evoking unlikely comparisons with the perpetually touring Bob Dylan.
“We actually finish the whole thing with the V Festival at the end of August”, Neil assures me, unaware of the dangerous precedent set by Oasis, whose headlining set at Weston Park last year turned out to be their final performance. But while the Gallagher brothers turned in a bored, lacklustre, last-legs set that shamed their legacy, there seems little danger that disaster will strike twice, especially given this show’s recent ecstatic reception on the festival circuit. “Pandemonium” might not be the first word that you would associate with a Pet Shop Boys concert, but it’s a state of mind which Tennant and Lowe are happy to encourage.
“We always say that a lot of the pandemonium tends to come from the audience”, says Neil. “Since we started at the end of May, we headlined the Primavera festival in Barcelona, then we did a show in a castle in Italy, then we did Glastonbury, and we’ve just come back from the Balaton festival in Hungary, and playing in Munich. And I really think that all of these shows have been the best shows of our lives. I don’t know why, but the experience has been incredible and the show is very tight now. I like to think it’s a very entertaining show. It’s not a bit like anyone else’s show.”
Tomorrow’s performance at Splendour in Woollaton Park – where Tennant and Lowe headline over Calvin Harris, The Noisettes, Athlete and viral YouTube sensations OK Go – will to all intents and purposes be the same visual and musical experience which they brought to Glastonbury four weeks ago. If you caught the set on BBC Three, where it was broadcast live in its entirety, then you’ll know what to expect.
The memory makes Tennant both beam and bristle. “Glastonbury was an amazing experience. We got between forty and fifty thousand people watching. Of course, the media traditionally emphasises rock bands – they’re regarded as more important – but in fact we got an amazing reaction.”
It has been ten years since the Boys last played Glastonbury. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because Glastonbury has become such a big deal. Because it’s televised, it’s almost treated like a sporting event by the media, and so there’s something very competitive about it. When we first did it in 2000, we were on the main stage between two rock bands: Ocean Colour Scene and Travis. So we were wondering whether it was going to be our audience. In fact, once we got going, the audience grew and grew, and afterwards everybody said it was a big success.”
“This time, we were headlining the Other Stage. We were wondering how big the crowd would be, because we knew that Muse were on the main stage. But actually, Glastonbury isn’t a rock festival – they call it a festival of contemporary arts – so we got a huge audience before we even started, and the reaction and the energy from the audience was really remarkable.”
For anyone who still nurses memories of those impassive, static television appearances which defined the duo’s image in the Eighties, Tennant’s newly energised, openly enthusiastic performing style – complete with actual smiling, actual waving, and actual invitations to sing along – may come as some surprise. And yet he denies that playing to a festival crowd has changed his approach to his stagecraft.
“No, the show is the show”, he insists. “Maybe if you saw the transmission from Glastonbury, we were very hyped up, in a way. Because it’s a big deal, and of course it’s live on the television. And it’s a different audience. At a concert, people have paid to see you specifically. But at a festival, people have paid for the experience of a festival. So you’re very much aware that while you’re on, there’s a range of other people they could go and see. From the stage, you can see the coming and going of the audience. And at these concerts recently, we haven’t seen a lot of going!”
Of course, having an elaborate and ever-changing stage set-up will always help maintain an audience’s attention – and in this area, the Pandemonium experience is unlikely to disappoint. As Neil explains, the show is a “theatrical, multi-media experience” which splits into four distinct parts. “It’s not a story, but it has a sort of narrative impetus, that takes you through to the end. It’s a very creative show, and people can’t quite believe that it’s based around 250 cardboard boxes.”
Early in the set, as the recent album track “Building A Wall” is performed, these white boxes start to stack up at the rear of the stage, in a manner which might evoke memories of a certain legendary Pink Floyd show. But later on, as the wall disintegrates and the boxes form looser, more disorganised shapes, you might be reminded of the Turner Prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread, and her recent “giant sugar cube” installation at Tate Modern.
“I’ve never seen the Pink Floyd show”, says Neil. “It’s much more Rachel Whiteread, although I don’t think it’s inspired by her either. Sometimes we might be playing a small theatre in Milwaukee, and sometimes we’ll be headlining Glastonbury – so you want something that’s flexible. That was our original starting point.”
The show starts with a song which, despite topping the charts for three weeks in 1988, remains the least remembered of the Pet Shop Boys’ four Number One singles. For while most people will have no difficulty recalling West End Girls, It’s A Sin and Always On My Mind, they may well have forgotten about Heart. For many years, the track was omitted from the Boys’ live set. More recently, it has been welcomed back into their repertoire.
If Tennant had ever fallen out of love with Heart, he is not about to admit it now. “The audience normally sing along, so it’s not that forgotten. And it’s a lovely song. Every night that we sing it, I think what a clever song it is: the melody and the way it’s structured. It’s a very warm song, and that’s what I really like about it.”
As for Always On My Mind, the song’s seemingly warm and heartfelt sentiments are undercut by Tennant’s final line, delivered just as the track starts to fade. “Maybe I didn’t love you”, he sings once more – and this time there’s no qualification, just a brutal full stop.
“The song is sung from the point of view of a selfish and self-obsessed man, who is possibly incapable of love, and who is now drinking whiskey and feeling sorry for himself. It’s a completely tactless song. And I guess I never told you” – here, Neil places withering emphasis on the word “guess” – “or, you know, I guess I could have held you. So actually, “maybe I didn’t love you” is a completely logical conclusion. It was written originally as a country song, and it’s a very maudlin and in my opinion slightly cynical country song. I sang it on the record like that. At the same time, it’s a beautiful melody.”
Another unlikely cover is saved for the show’s climax: Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, mashed up with Tennant and Lowe’s 1988 hit Domino Dancing. But as unlikely as the song choice might seem, Neil has a full explanation for its inclusion.
“When we were working on the last album, that Coldplay record had just come out. In fact, we heard it from EMI even before it came out. Viva La Vida was a very unusual song for Coldplay. It bears no relationship to the rest of their catalogue. It’s what we call a “four on the floor” dance record – and it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record. We suggested doing a remix for them, and I think they were quite into the idea.”
“I don’t know if you remember what happened with Viva La Vida, but it was the first record that the public ever made a Number One hit, without it actually being released as a single. So it was too late. But Chris and I always had this idea that we would like to record it, and turn it into the Pet Shop Boys record we always felt it could be.”
“Because we have the song Se A Vida É, we thought we’d go into Viva La Vida. We call it Se A Vida La Viva, so it’s a sort of Latin section of the show. Chris had the idea of putting the Domino Dancing riff over it, and it works really well. It’s a great audience sing along as well.”
“In fact”, he continues, warming to his theme, “we were in St Petersburg on the very first day of our tour – and of course, the song is all about “St Peter won’t call my name”. So we shot some film of me wandering around the statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg.” How very conceptual. How very Pet Shop Boys.
Although Domino Dancing’s comparatively low chart position effectively ended what Tennant has subsequently called the group’s “imperial phase”, what followed was not a dramatic fall from grace, but rather a graceful abdication of their position as the UK’s top pop act.
“You know that sort of thing is never going to last”, he explains. “So we just carried on following our instincts, and doing the kind of thing we wanted to do. In the Eighties, the Pet Shop Boys was a singles band. In the Nineties, the Pet Shop Boys became an albums band. In the following decade, the Pet Shop Boys became a touring band, as well as being a singles band and an albums band. We branched out into a variety of other projects, and we have evolved a combination of music and theatre in our performances, which I think has influenced a few people – but I also think it’s something that really only we do. Digital music frees you up for a lot of visuals, because we don’t have a drum riser on the stage, for instance. And so, twenty-five years after West End Girls, here we are. I think it’s a tribute to actually not being about fame, and not being about celebrity, but being about songwriting and creativity.”
It sometimes feels as if you’re following a seamless master plan, which you’re executing with absolute certainty. I imagine you getting together for planning meetings once a year, and deciding on your theme word for the year – like “Yes” or “Fundamental”.
What’s great is that – as we have actually written this ballet now – after we do the V Festival in August, I don’t really know what we’re doing. There’s something quite liberating about that. We don’t really think more than a year ahead, to be honest.
I’d like to know more about this ballet.
It came about because a friend of ours is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet. He phoned me up one day, and said he’d been offered a solo slot at Sadlers Wells, as part of their summer season, and would we write something for him. He was actually thinking of a male Dance of the Seven Veils. And I said: well, I don’t know, I’m quite busy at the moment, but I’ll ask Chris. To be honest, I forgot all about it.
But by a weird coincidence, Chris phoned me up two days later and said that he’d been reading Hans Christian Andersen stories. There was this one called The Most Incredible Thing, and he thought it would make an amazing ballet. So we decided that because of the synchronicity of that, we should do this.
We met Sadlers Wells, who are an amazing organisation, and we’ve subsequently written this three-act ballet, which is a mixture of electronic music and a small chamber orchestra. It opens on March 20th next year at Sadlers Wells, and goes on, I believe, a ten week tour. It might even go to Nottingham!
We are on the map for this sort of thing.
I know you are! I think you’ve got a good theatre for dance. So hopefully it will come to Nottingham. It was very exciting. What we wanted was to update the idea of a Tchaikovsky ballet, but do it with modern electronic music.
Do you get any say over the staging, or is your contribution strictly musical?
Well, we’ve developed the story. It’s a four page story, although in fact there’s so much in that four pages, you could have made a ten hour ballet out of it. We’ve been involved with a playwright called Matthew Dunster, in developing the scenario to write the music to.
When it comes to the staging and the choreography, they do very kindly ask our opinion. But Chris and I think we should just let them get on with it, really. We don’t claim to know anything about ballet.
People have said, are you going to be in it? (laughs) Actually, there is a non-dancing role: the king. I keep hinting to people that maybe I could play it. But they haven’t taken up the hint. (laughs)
Hello! I’m Mike Atkinson, and over the course of the next three or four weeks, I’ll be overseeing an IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT IN PARTICIPATIVE DEMOCRACY, right here on Freaky Trigger. If you’ve ever visited my old blog during the month of February, then you might be familiar with the procedures – but with a new decade underway and the old blog sinking into disrepair, it felt like the right time to move operations to a new home (and arguably its natural home), and to start the process all over again from scratch.
If you’re new to the game, then this is what’s going to happen. I’ll be taking you on a guided, step-by-step excursion through the Top Ten UK singles from this week in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Today, we’ll be looking at the singles at Number Ten in each chart. In two days’ time (all being well), we’ll examine the Number Nines… and so on, until we reach the Number Ones.
I’ll be providing YouTube links throughout, as well as a brief memory-jogging MP3 medley, containing roughly thirty seconds from each of that day’s six tracks.
At the end of each post, you will be invited to rank the six tracks in descending order of preference. I’ll be totting up your votes (using an inverse points system, but let’s not sweat the details just yet) and providing running totals at regular intervals.
As we step through the chart positions together – day by day, place by place, from the Number Tens to the Number Ones – your scores will be accumulated into running totals for each decade. So when we get to the end of the exercise, we will have SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN which of our six decades – the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, the Noughties or, um, this one – contains the GREATEST POP MUSIC OF ALL TIME.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday April 2 2010)
The most widespread reaction to Ricky Martin coming out last week was a great big shrug. Have we stopped caring about our pop stars’ sexuality?
Twelve years ago, when his activities in a Californian public toilet forced George Michael to declare his sexuality to the world, the singer was widely hailed for his courage and good grace. This week, the reaction to Ricky Martin’s apparently unforced declaration of gayness (“I am a fortunate homosexual man”) has been less effusive. On the BBC’s Have Your Say forum, opinions mostly ranged from “who cares” to “we already knew”, with some even suggesting that the whole episode was a publicity stunt, staged to boost flagging sales of his music.
If society has reached the stage where the coming out of a pop star provokes little more than a collective shrug, then perhaps the pressure is also easing on other openly gay performers, who now feel less burdened to act as figureheads or role models.
Robin Hood: Absolutely Queer? Mike Atkinson investigates the claims that our local legend was even more familiar with the wood than we ever realised…
He lives with a bunch of so-called ‘Merry’ men (and we all know what ‘Merry’ means, right?) in the middle of a forest (and we all know what ‘Merry’ Men get up to in wooded thickets, right?). With no women for miles around, save for an impossibly perfect little madam who swishes about in embroidered frocks, the men content themselves with “bonding” activities such as:
• Blowing each other’s horns
• Clapping each other heartily on the back
• Kitting themselves out in matching short-shorts and tights
• Ordering likely-looking strangers to ‘Stand and Deliver’
• Huddling into a tight, dark, enclosed space (aka the Major Oak, arguably the world’s first ever ‘dark room’), at even the flimsiest of pretexts.
If any of this irrepressibly man-to-man cavorting has ever struck you as, well, not entirely heterosexual, then you are not alone in your suspicions. The homo-eroticism of Hood has been the subject of serious academic study (he “inter-phallicised endlessly with his masculine coevals, while Maid Marian drooped about waiting for the token final kiss”); themed walking tours have taken place in Nottingham over the last few years (“Hear about the gay origins of the world’s most famous folk hero”); and even Peter Tatchell has optimistically stuck his oar in (“His lifestyle alone was enough to provoke speculation”).
Still not convinced? Well, how about the line uttered by Douglas Fairbanks, playing Robin Hood in the 1922 film of the same name, as he tries to duck out of some wench-related frolics offered by Richard The Lionheart (also thought not to be entirely heterosexual, but that’s a whole other scrappily researched think-piece): “Exempt me sire, I am afeard of women.” Or in the modern vernacular: “Eww, minge – scar-eh!”
Need a more historically legitimate citation? Then look no further than the original ballads upon which the Hood legend is said to be based, as penned by a fourteenth century poet called Sir John Clanvowe. You’ll find no mention of Maid Marian here; she doesn’t pop up for another couple of hundred years, and is thought by some to represent an after-the-fact attempt at butching Hood up: part fag-hag, part “beard”, part cover story. Instead, Clanvowe’s ballads linger lovingly on the close friendship between Robin and “Little” John (who, as we all know, was quite the opposite – feel free to extrapolate further):
“When Robin Hood was about twenty years old… he happened to meet Little John. A jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade, for he was a lusty young man.”
As the pair face each other off, famously brandishing their respective poles, Clanvowe dramatises the dialogue in terms that fairly drip with innuendo.
“And now for thy sake, a staff will I take, the truth of thy manhood to try!” “Lo, see my staff! It is lusty and tough! Now here on the bridge we will play!”
It has been claimed that Clanvowe’s inspiration for the ballads was drawn from his own relationship with one Sir William Neville, the constable of Nottingham Castle (and hence presumably the protector of Mortimer’s Hole, but let’s not muddy the waters with over-conjecture). Widely thought to be a gay couple, the pair fought together in the Hundred Years War, and were eventually buried in the same tomb.
In the face of such iron-clad antecedents, it would be frivolous to speculate further – so let’s do just that. Did Little John ever take his lusty paramour for tea up at his Nan’s in Mansfield? (“I don’t care what y’are duckeh, as long as yer ‘appeh, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for yer, yer know that, don’t yer duckeh…”) Were the Merry Men’s neckerchiefs colour-coded signifiers of sexual predilection, as they remain to this day within certain “specialist” gay circles? (If so, this puts Will Scarlet’s cries of “Hands up, give me all you’ve got” into a wholly different context – you might need to look that one up.) Given the well-documented historical association of the colour green with “rent”, was Maid Marian the clandestine madam of a redistributive anarcho-syndicalist escort agency? (“We bottom for the rich, and top for the poor.”) Was Friar Tuck brought in to service the “bear” market, his nom-du-bonk a thinly veiled Spoonerism? And was Robin Hood really hailed as “the prince of thieves” – or merely slagged off, by the more uncouth and ungrateful recipients of his largesse, as “that ponce from Thieves’ Wood”? Alas, we may never know…
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 26 March 2010)
How do you move on from being Dublin’s rock’n'roll Lucifer? By becoming U2′s ‘aesthetic midwife’, outdressing 50 Cent and roping in the Salvation Army for your latest album. Mike Atkinson meets Gavin Friday.
His public profile might be low – after all, it has been 15 years since his last album – but Gavin Friday is a remarkably well-connected man. In October 2009, four days ahead of his 50th birthday, he was the subject of a tribute concert staged in Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring an impressive array of friends, fans and collaborators. All four members of U2 performed in Friday’s honour, along with the likes of Lou Reed, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shane MacGowan, Andrea Corr, Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson and Laurie Anderson. Joel Grey reprised his Oscar-winning role as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Patrick McCabe read from his novel Breakfast On Pluto. (In the 2005 film adaptation, Friday played glam-rocker Billy Hatchett.)
Owl City: Shy, retiring and No 1 everywhere. Adam Young, aka Owl City, has made the journey from the basement of a Minnesota farmhouse to the top of the charts all over the world. Here he tells the story of his success.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 29 January 2010)
Like many people with a strong creative streak, Adam Young has difficulty sleeping at night. While others might battle fretfully against the condition, he has learned to embrace its more positive aspects.
“The creative juices start flowing most when I’m lying awake with nothing to do,” he explains to me, a few hours ahead of a sell-out gig in Oklahoma City. “My mind is quiet, and my thoughts are collected, and that’s when I find that the ideas really start happening.”
In 2007, a 21-year-old Young was working in a warehouse in his hometown of Owatonna, an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis in the midwestern state of Minnesota. He still lived with his parents – a mechanic and a school teacher – in a late-Victorian farmhouse, spending much of his time in its unkempt, windowless basement. One weekend in June, alone in the house for a couple of days, and motivated as much by boredom as anything else, he began to channel his insomniac energies into music, piecing together melodies and lyrics in his subterranean den.
Give pub rock another chance: Fans were quick to turn their back on Dr Feelgood et al once punk hit, but they weren’t so different really.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 22 January 2010)
In the autumn of 1976, a poll was published in our school’s self-styled “underground” magazine, in which more than 300 of us had voted for our favourite bands of the day. Although dominated by the usual slew of superstar proggers, the act in second place – just behind Santana – stood in incongruous contrast to their contemporaries. Riding high with their live album Stupidity, which had topped the charts for a week in October, Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood were, albeit briefly, the biggest band in the UK.
Although they were routinely lauded in the weekly music press, the standard critical line on the Feelgoods was that they were an astonishing live band who could never quite recapture their essence in the studio. Still, there was a lot of goodwill towards then, and a faith that the band would one day make good on their promise.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 18 December 2009)
Next time you watch the video for Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas – and given that the single reached No 1 25 years ago this month, it’s a fair bet that you’ll get the chance to do so this holiday season – take a good, close look at the state of everybody’s hair. Hauled out of bed at next to no notice on a Sunday morning, and summoned to the studios for a brisk 11am start, the pop royalty of 1984 (and Marilyn) evidently had no time to attend to the niceties of styling. And judging by the state that some of them arrived in – Phil Collins in a nasty Argyle tank-top, Sting looking like a mangy scarecrow, Simon Le Bon in woefully mismatched vertical and horizontal stripes – you have to wonder whether they even knew that cameras would be present.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 25 September 2009)
On the 2007 Sugababes tour, an official T-shirt bore the names of all its members, past and present: “Keisha & Mutya & Siobhan & Heidi & Amelle.” In an amusing – if perhaps tellingly catty – acknowledgement of the group’s chequered history, the second and third names on the list were roughly scribbled out, as if one of the girls had crossly taken a marker pen to the design.
I’m too old for nightclubs. I’m the wrong age to be invited to many weddings. And yet I still love dancing. So, if there was nowhere else left for me to shake my ever-thickening tushie, then, I concluded, I shall just have to create my own space – 8 metres high and 1.7 metres wide – right in the heart of London’s evening rush hour.
I’m under no delusions. My dancing style is most kindly described as “enthusiastic”, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to turn myself into an object of wonder and desire.
No, my aim was to dance with honesty, non-stop for an hour – and stone cold sober.
I created a mix of tunes, spliced together as a single, 60-minute MP3 and to ramp up the participative aspect, I’d made a copy available to download. So, when my allotted hour began anyone and everyone could dance along with me.
You spend 90 minutes in the One and Other project office – effectively two Portakabins on top of each other in Trafalgar Square.
They give you a Health and Safety talk, a pep talk, you can stash stuff in a locker, you’re searched for contraband… and then you’re taken into an interview room for a 15-minute audio interview, then photoshoot.
Ascending via the cherry picker, it was heartening to see so many supporters in the square – old friends, long-lost friends, people I had met through blogging and tweeting and message-boarding, my sister, my mother, my cousin and my partner – all looking up and beaming and waving and (mostly) jiggling around with me to Scissor Sisters, Lady GaGa, La Roux, Pet Shop Boys and Dana International.
During Sharon Redd’s In The Name Of Love I admired the buildings on the south side of the square.
I took in the full height of the column, then dipped my gaze down towards the giant chess set – still under construction.
Ahead of me and below, a smartly dressed upper-middle class couple in their late fifties hurried through the square, arm in arm. They glanced up, for no more than a second or two, visibly wincing at the vulgarity of the spectacle.
An open-topped tourist bus passed down the western side of the square, two lone passengers on its top deck. We exchanged friendly waves. A while later, a white stretch limo with blacked-out windows gave me a cheerful hoot.
I was red-faced, defiant, declaiming like a crazed preacher man. Swept up in the moment. Liberated. Totally and utterly letting go.
All too soon came the final song, Together In Electric Dreams by Giorgio Moroder & Phil Oakey. Behind me the cherry picker was drawing ever closer but I wasn’t about to be cut off in my scarlet-faced, vein-popping prime.
I turned to face the cherry picker at the precise moment that it docked on top of my water bottle: squashing it flat, spurting a thick jet of water over me, soaking my jeans.
Having my hour on Antony Gormley’s plinth – to dance, and share, and smile, and entertain, and create, and meditate, and celebrate, and connect, and let go, and be fully, fully myself – was the most incredible privilege.
It challenged me, and showed me that fear can always be overcome.
My feature on Unicorn Kid – a 17-year old electronic dance musician from Leith who recently remixed “Did You See Me Coming” for Pet Shop Boys – appeared The Guardian’s Film & Music supplement on Friday 10 July 2009. You can read the feature here.
Here are some additional out-takes from the interview.
It’s a really good remix. It was the first time I heard you. I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys show on Radio 2, in the bath. And it came on, and I thought: oh, this is good. And then the next I heard of you was via Twitter, where Jake Shears was giving you a shout-out. Did he came to your London gig?
He actually missed it, but I went out for a drink with him afterwards with some other people and it was really cool. And also Peter Robinson [Popjustice], who has been really supportive. It was actually him who got me the Pet Shop Boys remix. He was the one who set it up.
Did you go into the studio, or did you do it all at home?
I did it all in my bedroom actually, during the Easter holidays. (Laughs)
Is that the first time that you worked with a vocal track?
I’d had goes at remixes, of my friends’ vocal tracks and stuff like that, just to mess around with what it would be like. It was the first time that I’d actually applied myself and thought: I actually have to finish this.
How long did it take?
The full two weeks of the holidays. Working every day in my room.
Did they just e-mail you the constituent parts?
It was on an FTP server, on the Internet. All I needed were the vocals, but they sent me every single part. So there were something like 30 or 40 WAV files that got sent to me. But I only touched five vocal parts.
So you didn’t even take a rhythm track from there?
No, no. I sped the whole thing up, as well. So it’s completely different.
So, this tour that you’ve been doing: have you had different reactions in different places?
Yeah, I tend not to like doing over 18s, because you realise it’s 14-to-19 that’s the demographic, or even younger. I like that, and I gear what I’m doing towards that. I like playing to those guys better than I like playing to the over 18s. I’ve played about four Club NME dates on the tour. Some of them were good and some of them were bad. Chelmsford was horrendous, it was really bad. It was empty, and nobody got it.
I think because when you’re playing a club night, everyone’s enjoying dancing to things that they know, and they’re all having a good time. Then someone weird like me comes on, and plays stuff that they don’t have a clue about, at such a faster pace. I didn’t get booed off the stage or anything, but nobody was really feeling it. But when I play 14+ gigs, people jump around and have a good time. I gauge the success of a show on how much the crowd seem to be enjoying it.
And you know that their senses haven’t been dulled by alcohol, so it’s all genuine. How much of the music do you create on stage?
The different parts of the songs are being triggered by pads on a MIDI controller. They’re being filtered or changed, or drums or bass are being taken in, or a chorus as a whole. There’s also synth parts being played over live.
I like to jump around and stuff like that, so there’s nothing much else more that I can do without kind of dampening [the effect]. It’s just me on stage, so I have to create a live energy. I couldn’t be doing any more without having to stand really, really still.
So you’re not picking out those incredibly fast melody lines with your fingers?
No, no way. My keyboard playing is poor. It’s done with a mouse. Essentially, you get almost like a piano down the side, and I kind of type it in. I think that’s how the melodies are so weird, because I’ve got free rein to click what I want.
But I’m happy with the legitimacy of my live show. If I wasn’t on stage, the songs would not be playing. If I pressed Go, it would be looping on the same bit, the same 30 seconds, for the next hour.
And you’ve got the freedom to change it around?
Definitely. Each live show is completely different to the next one. I might choose to go to one bit, one time, depending on if the crowd is enjoying it. If the crowd’s enjoying the chorus, then I can keep it on for another, or I can double it, or whatever.
You had a problem at one of the venues – they weren’t going to let you in because of your age?
That was Chelmsford. I got kicked out before we had even played the gig! We were sitting down on the sofa, and I was bored because I knew it wasn’t going to be a good one, and I was a bit moody because I was tired after London, and I’d just done Brighton. And the guy said, have you got any ID. And I said, I’m playing tonight, I don’t need any ID! And then he was like, get outside. Are you kidding?
That must have been your first “don’t you know who I am” moment.
I was like, are you honestly kicking me out? Because if you’re kicking me out, I’ll go. I’ll go home if you want me to. And then the manager came over and had a word with the bouncer. But obviously I would never not play the show, because a couple of guys did come down to see me who actually knew who I was. I wasn’t going to go away.
Even if there’s only two people in the room who have made the effort…
And they enjoyed it. They drove 40 minutes to come and see me. I also played Southampton, it was an over-18s one. And it was a girl’s birthday – I think she was 14 – and she and a bunch of her friends had come down for the gig. But it was an over 18s, so I had to turn them away at the door. It was heartbreaking, you know? And they’d driven about an hour and a half to come over, and it was about 9 o’clock at night. So I gave them all CDs and took pictures with them – but I felt really bad.
Well, at least they let you play. When Laura Marling was 16, she was barred from her own gig in Soho, so she ended up busking on the pavement outside.
I heard about that! Somebody used that as a comparison, saying you should have done that. But it would be difficult for me, I suppose!
You’d have to find a plug socket.
It would take about an hour to set up!
I loved your comment on Twitter. You were obviously replying to someone who was worried about going to the gig because they felt too old. And you said: just pretend you’re a journalist. That made me feel so much better about myself.
Nottingham latched onto the house boom long before most cities but was too cool for smiley T-shirts, as Mike Atkinson recalls…
For me, it all began at The Asylum, in the autumn of 1982. Tucked round the back of Woolworths on Stanford Street, the basement venue had previously been a gay club called Whispers – and as a hangover from those times, it continued to sell little brown bottles of amyl nitrate (“poppers”) from behind the bar. “Avoid direct contact with the nose”, said the label – and so, knowing no better, we would hold the bottles at chin height, making vague wafting motions and wondering why nothing was happening. Ah, such innocent times.
The Asylum wasn’t Nottingham’s first poser’s paradise – that honour would probably go to the Saturday “futurist” nights at Rock City – but it was perhaps the first club in town to adopt the ethos of London venues like The Mud Club and The Wag. The music didn’t change much from week to week, but we were happy with the familiarity of Blue Monday, Buffalo Gals, Planet Claire, The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed, Blancmange’s Feel Me and Lies by the Thompson Twins. A year later, as its allure began to dwindle, a new place opened up in the Lace Market: the legendary Garage, run by the Selectadisc crew.
Back in the day, the Garage’s clientele split right down the middle, mingling only in the ground floor bars. Upstairs was for the togged-up trendies; downstairs was for the crimped and buckled Goths. Our gang liked it better upstairs, where Graeme Park mixed style-pop with funkier stuff, gradually nudging the music policy towards the latter. By the middle of 1985, the conversion was complete, with the harder, tougher sounds of early Def Jam (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J) and Washington DC go-go now dominating Park’s dance floor. Twelve months later, Chicago house hit The Garage – and clubbing was never the same again.
Your entry was never guaranteed, though – for this was also the age of style fascism, led by the fashion pages of The Face, Blitz and i-D. “Dress up, dress down, dress sideways – but above all, dress”, ordered one of The Garage’s posters – and the door staff had been instructed accordingly. One Friday night, a group of us showed up in less than cutting-edge apparel, only to be turned away at the door. “But we’re interesting, creative, exotic people!”, I pleaded – not entirely seriously, but giving it a last-ditch shot none the less. “Oh, OK, you’d better come in then”, muttered the doorman, remembering his brief. A couple of months later, faced with the problem of sneaking in a mate-of-a-mate with a streaked mullet and stone-washed jeans, I tried the same line again, with equal success. It was like uncovering a magic password.
1988’s fabled Summer Of Love might have revolutionised the scene in London and Manchester, but the acid house explosion largely passed us by. Down at The Garage, now re-branded as the Kool Kat, Graeme Park continued to ride the entire spectrum of BPMs: half an hour of hip hop, half an hour of house, and back again. And it wasn’t druggy, either. The eccies didn’t make their empathy-inducing presence felt until the early Nineties, and so we continued to sulk in designer threads, sucking on bottles of Sol with wedges of lime stuck in the necks. Zhivagos in the Viccy Centre tried a one-off acid night, but it didn’t really work. The usual crowd turned up, aloof as ever, but obediently sticking their hands in the air because that was what you were supposed to do, right?
Meanwhile, James Baillie had opened The Barracuda on Hurts Yard, where Michael Murphy’s anything-goes “Queen Vic” nights became the stuff of legend. (Abba’s Dancing Queen, in a cool club? It felt radical at the time.) In the spring of 1988, Baillie and Murphy upgraded to Eden on Greyhound Street, and in late 1989 Ballie’s Venus – housed in the same venue as the old Asylum club – brought clubbers of my generation full circle. Next came the hazy hedonism of the Nineties – but that was a whole new chapter…
Brace yourself for the Hell Machine, some Balkan bombast and a rendition of ‘skiddly buffely boodely bump’ as Mike Atkinson tips 10 potential winners of Eurovision 2009. (Cover story, Guardian Film & Music, Friday 15 May 2009.)