We kick off a new weekly series giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about the UK’s best venues with a trip to the East Midlands.
Capacity: 2,450 in the main room, 300 in the basement.
Who plays there: Big names from Rock City’s past include Nirvana, Oasis, David Bowie, REM, Guns N’ Roses and Blur. The roster is slanted towards rock, as the name would imply, but other genres still get a look in; to the disgust of regulars, Blue played here in 2013. The NME tour is an annual fixture, as are the Dot to Dot and Hit the Deck festivals, covering indie and rock respectively. Other recent acts include Two Door Cinema Club, the Deftones, Foals, Bastille, Suede, Public Enemy, Alt-J, the 1975, Johnny Marr, AlunaGeorge, Gary Numan and Disclosure.
Originally written for Nottingham LIVE
I’m starting this list with an artist who I only heard for the first time today – but hey, when you feel it, you’ve got to go with it. Having recently guested on One Bomb’s Take Over, Aja is now preparing for the release of a four-track EP, which showcases her brand of icy, bassy electronica – and as a teaser video for lead track Made Of Glass suggests, she’s equally strong on visual presentation, too.
2. Amber Run
If Aja is the darkest horse on this list, then Amber Run have to be one of the safest bets. Signed by RCA Victor less than a year after they formed, and with appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals already under their belts, Amber Run’s rise has been so swift, and so smooth, that you could be forgiven for suspecting an undisclosed sinister master plan. The truth is pretty simple, though: they’re a naturally cohesive unit, blessed with good looks, canny management and a talent for turning out future festival anthems, such as last summer’s ubiquitous Noah and their anthemic set-closer, Spark. Aided by its memorable closing refrain – “Let the light in, let the light in” – Spark could well be their breakthrough track in early 2014.
3. April Towers
Formed from the ashes of the late lamented Frontiers, Charles Burley and Alexander Noble have re-grouped as an electronic duo, channelling something of the spirit of New Order and Electronic. They’ve been a studio-based project thus far, but live dates are promised in early 2014.
With a loose-limbed, beatnik style that sets him apart from the hip hop pack, Kane Ashmore burst onto the Nottingham scene last spring with his low-slung signature tune, The Ashmore Show. Since then, he’s been gigging incessantly, and building expectation for his next project, Loonyology, due in February and featuring the likes of Bru- C, Motormouf and Rebecca King. An unreleased album has been knocking around for a while – perhaps it will never see the light of day – but tracks such as the Notts-to-its-core Yah Get Meh and the cheeky Scribbling & Dribbling (“I’m the type of guy to steal your soul, and eat your rolls while listening to Nat King Cole”) are too good to be left on the shelf forever.
I may not know much about emo – well, let’s face it, I know next to nothing about emo – but Bluebird impressed me greatly when supporting Kagoule in the basement of the Lacehouse in December. As I said at the time, they’re “a young band, who haven’t been performing for long, but they’re already impressively tight. Offering a fresh take on classic emo, their songs navigate complex twists and turns, stops and starts. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014.”
6. Gallery 47
If I had to pick a favourite track of 2013 from a Nottingham artist, it would have to be All It Could Grow Up To Be, from Gallery 47’s free EP Dividends. Since then, The Guardian’s Paul Lester has picked Jack Peachey’s alter ego as one of his New Bands of the Day, describing him as a “Midlands tunesmith with an angelic falsetto singing about car bombs and weight loss”, and a number of London showcase gigs towards the end of the year have further helped to spread the word. A second album, All Will Be Well, is due shortly.
7. Georgie Rose
Few, if any, local acts can have worked it harder on the city’s live circuit in 2013, and no festival was ever complete without Georgie Rose’s name on the bill. And yet, wisely, she has resisted the temptation to give it all away for free on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, thus building expectations for the studio recordings which are sure to follow in 2014. In the meantime, live favourites such as Twenty Mile Road, Fool In The Summer, Love Me Again and L.O.V.E. are clear indications of a talent which has only just begun to be tapped.
Underground to the point of near-invisibility – you’ll search in vain for the merest trace of an online presence – Hang have retained a pleasing sense of mystery. “Transcendental repeato-riffs and primal boogie, for fans of all things cyclical”, said Cantaloupe, prior to a joint gig at The Chameleon. It’s a fair description, but nothing can really prepare you for the immersive onslaught of their live show. Pitched halfway between Hookworms and Hawkwind, and tempered with Krautrock’s unflashy precision, they play without pause, twisting basic, chugging riffs into slowly shifting shapes while their keyboardist adds sonic texture, and their drummer provides rhythmic colour. Spellbinding stuff, but you’ll need to work hard to track them down.
Tipped by many to break through big time in 2013, Indiana opted instead for the slow build, rather than the big bang; understandable, when you’ve a baby on the way. Three singles emerged – Bound, Smoking Gun, Mess Around – and each fared well in terms of national radio support, if not in terms of chart placings. Meanwhile, she debuted at Glastonbury, performed for the Queen, recorded in L.A, and gave birth to Etta, her second child. With the likes of London Grammar achieving significant success in a similar musical vein, the time is ripe for that long awaited début album.
10. Josh Wheatley
“I’m not that rich, and I don’t have a boat; all I own is in my coat.” Featuring Nottingham LIVE! Radio’s favourite lyric of the year, “Sail Away” was angelic-voiced 18 year-old Josh Wheatley’s calling card, bringing him to the the city’s attention back in April. Produced by Trekkah from the Afterdark Movement, Josh’s début EP (Follow The Smoke) is due for release at the end of January, with a launch gig at Pepper Rocks on Thursday January 30th.
Their studies complete, Kagoule are now free to concentrate on their music full-time, making 2014 theirs for the taking. Once rather shy on stage, their performances now crackle with chemistry, as Laurence’s brilliant drumming underpins Cai and Lucy’s instinctive rapport. Radio One and the NME are already on board; many more look certain to follow.
12. Nina Smith
The formerly ubiquitous Nina Smith took time out during 2013, in order to work on new material and a fresh approach. Re-emerging at the end of November, with a showcase gig at a packed Rescue Rooms, she staged a triumphant return, working her way through a brand new set list with a brand new band, and never sounding in finer voice. A second appearance swiftly followed at the Royal Concert Hall, confirming that one of the city’s most enduringly popular characters is well and truly back in the game.
It was also a quiet year for Ronika, with just one EP release to her name (plus a free download, featuring her strongest vocal performance to date), but that’s all set to change in 2014, with the release of her splendidly titled début album, Selectadisc. She might be based in London now, but what better tribute could there be to Ronika’s Nottingham roots?
14. Saint Raymond
At this stage, it’s almost beyond question that Saint Raymond is set to become Nottingham’s biggest post-Bugg breakout star. Signed to Asylum/Atlantic on the strength of his Escapade EP, Callum Burrows has gone one better with his follow-up, which is due to drop on January 5th. As a songwriter, he has an enviable knack for a winning indie-pop hook, and tunes like Young Blood (his hit-in-waiting) and Fall At Your Feet (from the first EP) are stuffed full of them, from end to end. Fresh from supporting Haim on tour, he’s perfectly poised to seize the moment.
15. Sleaford Mods
Embraced during 2013 by the European arthouse hipster set, with gigs in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and boosted by Twitter support from Luke Haines and Kim Gordon, Sleaford Mods ended the year on various publications’ “best of” lists for their album Austerity Dogs, while simultaneously releasing four 7-inch singles on four different European labels. A German tour is planned for May – although what German audiences will make of Jason Williamson’s surreal, venomous and deeply sweary tirades is anyone’s guess – and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a feature on the duo is due to be published in Arena Homme Plus, a magazine that is best known for its upmarket mens’ fashion spreads. Where will it all end? The catwalk, or the dole office?
An edited version of this feature originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
“So, what sort of music do you play?”
If your work tends towards the leftfield end of the spectrum, you might come to dread this question, especially if asked by well-meaning relatives or less clued-up colleagues.
“I always end up giving vague descriptions and saying it sounds quite krautrocky” says John Simson (better known as Simmo), keyboard player with Cantaloupe. “Then people look at me and think: what’s that? So I always end up saying: you know the video games you played when you were a kid? It sounds like that. And they seem to get that.”
“You normally end up going: we’re really boring rock music” says Dave Stockwell, who contributes guitar and bass. “Then they stop talking. Otherwise they want to hear it. Then they go: what is this music? What are you doing? Like, is this pop music?”
In Cantaloupe’s heads, the answer is a firm yes. According to Simmo, “it’s just dancey, fun instrumental pop.” “We try to make it unpretentious and enjoyable, for us as well as everybody else”, Dave adds.
This still doesn’t account for Cantaloupe’s fondness for unusual time signatures, though. For all its bright, melodic accessibility, Splish, the lead track on their new single, is in 10/4 time. It’s danceable enough – but the closer you listen, the trickier it becomes.
“That’s definitely one of the challenges we like to take on”, says Simmo. “Doing something in an unusual time signature, so that when you listen to it, it has a totally natural rhythm and flow. But if you start breaking it down, maybe you see more complex things at play. Being an instrumental band makes it easier to take that on, because it’s hard to get vocals into an unusual measure, in a way that makes any sense.”
“Instrumental music is quite associative”, he continues. “When you have lyrical music, there’s a narrative there, which sets emotional boundaries. With instrumental music, you’re more reliant on hinting at things. So you get bands like Boards Of Canada, who have these almost nostalgic sounds, like something remembered from your childhood. I think with instrumental music, you’ve got to tap a lot more into that association and memory. One thing I never want to do is sound explicitly retro, but we definitely take cues.”
The three members of Cantaloupe came together last year, following the break-up of Souvaris, the band they had all played in for the past twelve years. Thanks to the contacts which they made over the years, they were recently able to book a full European tour.
“Half the tour is just us staying with friends”, says Dave. “You’re treated so well over there. You get fed really nice food, and you get really nice booze. We’re taking a half empty van and we’re going to come back with cases of wine.”
“I brought 36 bottles back the last time we went”, Simmo admits. “And that was just one out of six people.”
Continental Europe holds a special appeal to Cantaloupe. “It’s a different mentality”, Simmo explains, “because they haven’t really had fifty or sixty years of pop music culture, especially alternative music. It’s a bit more special to them. You get a much greater mix in the audience, for example.”
“There are stories we’ve got from touring Europe before, and the experiences we’ve had of meeting people”, says Dave. Take the case of Stanislav the Spanish artist, for instance.
“We were playing in the middle of nowhere in Spain, at two o’clock in the morning, in a theatre. Stanislav couldn’t afford to buy our record, so he went home, picked out an oil painting that he’d done, and insisted on paying us with an oil painting.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of thing over here that often – and when you do, it’s normally a little more of a scary experience. But because you’re abroad, it seems much more charming.”
Cantaloupe release their new single Splish / Wet Dog on limited edition 12” vinyl and digital download on 17th June.
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
On a Wednesday in late April, I met up with five core members of the Pentatronix project at the Night Rooms studio, where they were working on a specially commissioned show for Nottingham Contemporary, under the direction of Mikey Davis, leader of Sabar Soundsystem. The invitation came with the promise of an exclusive performance of a brand new piece, which had been composed that very morning. Before that, while the rest of the team broke for lunch – classical Chinese musician Ling Peng, electronic artist Si Tew, and two players of the “chimes”, Sabar’s unique tubular bell constructions – I settled on a sofa with Mikey, who filled me in on the background behind the project.
I started by raising the delicate subject of Mikey’s 2009 appearance on Dragons Den, which saw his old percussion troupe, BassToneSlap, secure funding for a drumming-based corporate team-building venture. “That was one of the greatest errors of my life” he admitted.
But your clips weren’t embarrassing. You gave a good account of yourself.
Basically, we only ever wanted to do it for the advertising. We never actually thought we would do the thing, even though we shook hands. We didn’t take the money, but we made a lot of money just from being on the show.
So how could that have a negative consequence?
If you stick a big lot of money into a group, it changes people. And the working relationships all just changed. Basically, we went down a really stupid route, and we ended up doing a load of corporate shit, which is not why I play drums. We got caught by the pound signs in the eyes, and we lost sight of what it’s about.
We didn’t exactly disband – we still met up and did gigs – but it was very, very wounded. Then we started getting some fresh blood in, and we started getting back to what it was actually all about.
You changed your name to Sabar Soundsystem at the start of 2011. Did you consciously want to rebrand – to break the link?
Yes, and just to clear out the dead wood. One side of this studio used to be floor-to-ceiling with 150 djembes, which we used for corporate workshops. So we got rid of all the gear that was this monument to the failure of the whole thing, and we started writing fresh music.
How did the idea for the Pentatronix project come about?
A few of us are involved with City Arts, a Nottingham based arts company who do a lot of outdoor theatre. They gave us some money to develop a tune, which we performed at the WEYA festival last year, in front of the Council House. It was the first collaboratively written piece that we’d done. Afterwards, we thought we had to do more. People kept saying that I should apply to the Arts Council. I’m a drummer and I hate paperwork, but eventually I did it. It got the green light about three weeks ago, so we’ve just begun.
How many performers will be with you on the day itself?
It’s about ten at the moment. We’ll also have a tabla player: Biant Singh. He’s the most amazingly inspirational guy. He has a project called The Science of Rhythm, which has basically got the entire Nottinghamshire mental health service to put drums into their assessments. So when somebody is having a review, to see how they should be handled, they actually have the opportunity to drum with the people assessing them.
What does that bring to the assessment?
Rhythmic music has an effect on people. It links people together, so people start getting a communal feeling. On a fundamental level, people’s minds become synchronised, and it creates an openness. Through that openness, people become very empathic with each other.
Now think about those people who can’t communicate verbally. They’re the kind of people that Biant is dealing with. If you put a drum in there, they can drum with the people that they’re struggling to communicate with. And they just become in tune. They start to feel each other.
I was trying to track your influences when I saw Sabar performing at the Arts Theatre last year. Biant brought some Indian flavours, and I could also detect aspects of Indonesian, African and Cuban music.
That’s accurate. The sabar drums come from Gambia, and that’s where we take our name. Conceptually, our chimes are very similar to Javanese gamelan, and they use the same pentatonic scale as Chinese music. Now we’ve brought Ling in for her Chinese influence, and Si for a more European electronic influence.
There’s been a sort of a journey that has gone on for many years, which is the driving force as to why I do this thing. When I was a kid, I had this crazy fascination with Africa. Then I got the opportunity to go there in my late twenties. I went a few times. I spent a while in Gambia, living with a family who were traditional drummers, going back for generations.
The third time I was there, I basically realised that no matter how much you study it, you’re always going to have this problem of translation – because at the end of the day, it’s not my culture. I was so demoralised. I wanted to stop drumming, because I realised that I could never have the thing that I wanted – which, at that point, was simply to have been born into that culture. I got depressed about it for a long time, but then I started thinking: OK, what is the reality?
The actual reality is that I was born here, in England. We don’t really have a rhythmic tradition of our own; it’s all completely dissipated. As a nation, we’re utterly disconnected from our rhythmic root. Meanwhile, there are so many amazing bands from Africa, so why be a load of white guys playing African music? What is the purpose of that? Let them do it – they’re brilliant at it. But in England, we’re good at dance music. It’s a living folk music. It’s all made by computer, but it’s massively popular, and it gets people up and dancing.
I realised that I was barking up the wrong tree with the whole African thing. Actually, what it’s about is looking at what’s really successful here and creating it acoustically, because I think that acoustic music is always more powerful. Music made in the moment, by humans, is more powerful than a computer-generated version.
So essentially, that’s what this has now become: a sort of acoustic dance music, with a huge range of different influences.
It was time to hear an example of this music. The players gathered in a circle: Mikey on drums, Nicky and Ceri on chimes, Si on his laptop and sampler. Completing the circle, Ling picked up her erhu: a bowed instrument, whose small sound box was covered in Chinese python skin. “I went to the mountains and waited for the python to come out”, she explained. “You have to catch your own python, or else they don’t let you play”, Ceri added.
(OK, so this was a total wind-up. But let the story stand, as a testament to my gullibility.)
The piece that followed was a gentler, more meditative affair than I was expecting. Taking a traditional Chinese melody, Ling started unaccompanied, playing with exquisite beauty. The melody was taken up by the chimes, and expanded into rippling variations. Si added a discreet electronic bassline, topped with subtle samples of Ling’s erhu that stretched out her sound, without smothering its essence. Working to a click track, Mikey supplied the mid-paced rhythmic backdrop. It felt like an overture; the calm before the percussive, immersive storm.
Sabar Soundsystem presents ‘Pentatronix’ featuring Si Tew and Ling Peng: Nottingham Contemporary, Friday June 7. Tickets on sale from Nottingham Contemporary, gigantic.com, Alley Cafe, Jamcafe and The Music Exchange.
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.
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.
“It couldn’t get more embarrassing” says Simon Wilson, entertainment editor at the Nottingham Post, who is acutely aware of the city’s reputation for underachievement. “Record labels have always said to me: build up a scene in your own city, and that will attract the attention of A&R,” he says. But where cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds have all had their time in the sun – thanks to a particular defining sound, or a notable breakout act – there has never been a “Nottingham moment”. If success came at all, it was despite an artist coming from Nottingham, not because of it.
In 2011, the situation is markedly different. Four local acts have signed to major labels this year, and there’s a tangible buzz in the air, as the scene finally finds its identity: confident, visible, with a new spirit of collaborative bonhomie. “They all seem to be genuinely supportive of each other, and they don’t slag anyone off,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t like that in the 90s; there was a lot of bitching going on. We’ve not had anything like this, in terms of people getting recognition.”
This shouldn’t be surprising, given Nottingham’s enviable reputation for live music venues; a recent survey placed it third in the UK in terms of consumer choice, behind Newcastle and Manchester. Venues range from the 10,000-capacity Arena to tiny ventures such as The Chameleon, and the Jamcafé. Four of them – Rock City, Rescue Rooms, Bodega Social Club and Stealth – are operated by local promoters DHP, whose booking policy regarding homegrown acts has become notably more inclusive.
“There’s more of a spotlight on the city, because we’re trying to put one on it,” says DHP managing director George Akins. “We’re trying to be more proactive about how we give the leg-up. If we spot someone we like, we try and fit them with a suitable support slot. Let’s not wait for the agent to tell us there’s no support. We’re already thinking about who would fit.” This integrated approach has spread to annual music festivals such as Dot to Dot and Splendour, both promoted by DHP. The city’s leading acts now share stages with nationally recognised names, bringing local talent to the attention of more casual punters.
Mark Del, who heads the non-profit voluntary organisation Nusic (it’s a contraction of “Nottingham New Music”), has lobbied hard for this shift. A forceful, ebullient character, who grew his venture from local radio shows and a “let’s get a Nottingham act to No 1″ Facebook campaign, Del is just the sort of scene champion the city needs. Nusic is active on a number of fronts, including awareness-raising workshops in schools, weekly podcasts, and a high-profile contest called Future Sound of Nottingham,whose winners opened the main stage at this year’s Splendour. The podcasts are cheery affairs, peppered with jingles and DJ banter, and aimed squarely at a general audience. This sits well with the more populist, less niche-bound nature of the current scene, which is now producing many acts that you could plausibly expect to hear on daytime playlists.
Liam Bailey has already tasted chart success this year, contributing lead vocals to Blind Faith, a top five hit for Chase & Status. Bailey achieved recognition in the old way, by moving to London and slogging round venues in the capital. “Not enough bands are willing to come down and play London,” he says. “They’re too happy where they are. In London you’re here on your own, and it’s dog-eat-dog. So if Nottingham is starting to establish itself as a scene, then God bless it.”
Bailey retains strong personal links with the city – his last video was shot here, for instance – and he enthuses over fellow soul singer Natalie Duncan, now signed to Universal. (“The best singer I’ve ever heard coming out of Nottingham. She wipes the floor with me.”) He’s particularly passionate about its long-established and distinctive hip-hop scene, which is characterised by adherence to old-school breaks-and-beats values and an almost universal retention of local accents. (Nottingham’s vowel sounds and cadences are mysteriously well-suited to rap; it’s difficult to imagine rappers from Birmingham or Bristol pulling off the same trick.) Lyrically, there’s an absence of brag, bling and hard-man posturing; instead, the wry, observational rhymes of MCs such as Cappo,Scorzayzee and Juga-Naut are rooted in real-life experience. On C-Mone‘s current album Dancing With Mirrors, there’s even a rap about housing policy in St Ann’s, one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. “Nottingham hip-hop is how it should be,” Bailey says. “It’s real people talking. I don’t hear any American hip-hop artists talking like that.”
Bailey’s decision to leave town might have made sense at the time, but perhaps it’s no longer necessary. Take Ronika, for instance. “Obviously, coming from Nottingham it’s harder to get yourself heard,” she says. “But now there are so many online tools, I decided that rather than waiting to be found, I’d do it myself.”
Working almost entirely independently, Ronika has built her own buzz, offering previews to tastemaker blogs (Electronic Rumours has dubbed her “the Madonna of the Midlands”) and steadily accruing national press attention for her delightful brand of 80s-influenced dance pop. While majors hover, she is retaining her mystique and keeping a cool head; a third EP is due this month on her own label, and live dates are gradually becoming more regular.
The impact of Ronika’s online strategy suggests an altered landscape, with a newly levelled playing field. Today’s A&R departments are no longer just trawling gigs; they’re scouring SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Facebook, and looking for evidence of genuine support. In this world, followers and play counts matter just as much as audience numbers, offering enhanced opportunities to regional acts.
Nottingham’s newest significant arrival is 17-year-old Jake Bugg: a plaintive performer with a distinctive, reedy voice and a knack for writing songs that already sound decades old. Bugg, who signed to Mercury over the summer, is a beneficiary of the BBC Introducing initiative, which aims to support “unsigned, undiscovered and under-the-radar” musicians. Its website provides an upload facility for new acts, who can tag their tracks by genre and region. Any submissions from the east Midlands are automatically routed to Dean Jackson, a music presenter at BBC Radio Nottingham. Jackson and his team typically receive around 200 tracks a week. They aim to listen to at least 95%.
If Jackson likes what he hears, a live session is arranged for his Saturday evening show The Beat, and filmed for YouTube. A respected figure nationally, with several years of service on the Mercury prize judging panel, Jackson habitually refers the most promising acts to his contacts on national radio, such as Tom Robinson at 6Music, Radio 1′s Huw Stephens, or Mistajam at 1Xtra. The dream conclusion of this process is a place on the Radio 1 playlist, which reserves a weekly slot for BBC Introducing acts. This year, four tracks from Nottingham acts have qualified for inclusion, including Jake Bugg’s Someone Told Me andYoung by Dog Is Dead, a dextrous and characterful five-piece who have since signed to Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s radio clout has been matched by his track record of placing bands on the BBC Introducing stages at festivals, both regionally and nationally. At this year’s Glastonbury, for example, three of his proteges appeared: Jake Bugg, shoegaze revivalists Spotlight Kid, and a rap collaboration between 2Tone, Jah Digga and DJ Vimto.
Dog Is Dead’s 2010 appearance there proved to be a major staging post, setting them on the path that led to their deal with Atlantic. Widely tipped to be the next Nottingham act to break through, they remain unfazed by the weight of expectation. “I don’t think there’s that kind of pressure,” singer Rob Milton says, “because we’ve had all the support we need. So it spurs us on, in a way. It’s something to be proud of, and in fact it helps us nationally – because it’s more interesting, coming from a place without anything.”
Thanks to this recent flurry of activity, a gathering sense of momentum has infected the music community, sweeping aside the last vestiges of cosy fatalism. “Coming back to Nottingham after two months on tour, you notice that there’s three or four artists who are pushing to a stage where we were a few months back,” Milton says. “It’s happened really quickly, and it hasn’t really happened before.” Speculation is rife in the city as to who will be next to step up; perhaps it will be Nina Smith‘s deftly understated acoustic pop, or Kirk Spencer‘s Indian-influenced electronica, or Swimming‘s synthy, cosmic indie rock. And who knows, perhaps Mark Del’s longed-for third Nottingham No 1 may yet become a reality.
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.
“That record did phenomenally well,” recalls Martyn Norris of Almighty Records, who was responsible for recording and releasing the Jackie ‘O’ track. “You never knew why some of them were so successful, but that was one of them. It wasn’t just the gay community that took to it. It was a much wider audience.”
Twenty-one years after Almighty’s first release – a dance cover of Limahl’s Never Ending Story – the label is still going strong, its release schedule as packed as ever. Under its auspices, Jackie ‘O’ has gone on to cover many more rock tracks in a dance style (Satisfaction, Get It On, I Believe in a Thing Called Love), even paying a return visit to the Gallagher catalogue with a courageous assault on Whatever. But despite her lengthy association with the label, little is known about Jackie herself. In common with the majority of Almighty recording artists (Obsession, Déjà Vu, Belle Lawrence et al), no photographs adorn her record sleeves and no club PA has ever been staged in support of her releases. Although Jackie has been identified elsewhere as Jill Saward of veteran Brit-funkers Shakatak, that has never been confirmed by Almighty, who remain tight-lipped about the real identities of most of their roster.
“I don’t particularly want to get into who’s who,” says Norris – who, once his initial wariness has subsided (“so you’re not going to crucify the cover version?”), turns out to be warmly forthcoming on Almighty’s history. “When we started, we used singers who possibly didn’t want to be associated with the work we were doing. We’ve always used top-act singers, and some wouldn’t even consider doing what we were doing. Some people just said: ‘Oh, no no no, I’ll do backing vocals for you – but I’m not doing a lead.’”
The stigma attached to the Hi-NRG covers of classic rock is not just misplaced; it’s inconsistent as well. On Radio 1′s Live Lounge sessions, slowed down acoustic versions of zingy pop tracks have become commonplace, and lauded as signifiers of an act’s interpretive dexterity. By the same token, X Factor finalist Matt Cardle repeated the trick that Travis once played on Britney Spears‘s Baby One More Time, drawing praise for his boldness. But while slowing a song down to make it sound sadder has become artistically acceptable – however far the new interpretation might stray from its composer’s intentions – speeding a song up to make it sound happier remains beyond the pale.
“We try and treat songs as well as we possibly can,” Norris says. “And I think we do deliver on what is artistically acceptable.” Be that as it may, Almighty’s standards of quality control are not universally maintained elsewhere. Scratch the surface of YouTube and Spotify, and a whole host of horrors start to emerge. A Spanish compilation called Makina Klassix throws up some particularly challenging examples of the dance-cover merchant’s art. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shader Of Pale is rendered as boshing gabba-lite, its vocals replaced by the rap from Lock And Load’s 2000 hard house anthem Blow Your Mind. In the hands of DJ Konik, a brutal mangling is meted out to Sting’s Russians. Although its lyrics survive, they are interpreted by guest vocalist Michelle Collins (not the one who played Cindy in EastEnders) in a style best described as “phonetic”.
For prospective connoisseurs of the genre’s outer limits, the Swedish compilation series Replay Dance Mania is an indispensable guide. Head to Replay Dance Rock Mania, and marvel at what can be done to the likes of Smoke on the Water, We Will Rock You, Dancing in the Dark, and yea, even unto Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Second Run’s all-out attack on Seasons in the Sun (from Replay Dance Mania Volume Two) betrays a lack of sensitivity to Rod McKuen’s lyric that should challenge even the strongest stomach. “Goodbye Michelle, it’s hard to die,” wails the diva-for-hire, speeded to an early grave by a merciless barrage of donks. The coup de grace is wielded by an instrumental reprise of the chorus’s melody line, hammered out on the “bagpipe” setting with all the finesse of a military tattoo. Much the same trick is deployed on a cover of Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, credited to the Italo Brothers. Meanwhile, fellow Italians Prezioso and Marvin recently opted to render the hook of Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle on electronic pan pipes. In the parallel universe of the Eurodance cover, the only limits are your imagination and your nerve.
Displaying more nerve than most, the Irish producer Micky Modelle has seemingly made it his life’s work to turn every song ever written into an uplifting club banger, regardless of provenance: from Mull of Kintyre to Donald Where’s Your Troosers (Scottish Club Anthems) from Teenage Kicks to The Wild Rover (Irish Clubland), and from Sweet Child o’ Mine to Rocking All Over the World (Rock Anthems in Clubland). You sense this is a man who knows that time is not on his side; during a perfunctory romp through Dr Hook’s Sylvia’s Mother, you can almost hear the ticking of the studio clock. As to what demographic could possibly make practical use of an uplifting club version of a four-decades-old Dr Hook single, perhaps only the voices inside Modelle’s head could provide an answer.
When it comes to establishing what the original artists make of their clubbed-up makeovers, information is frustratingly scant. Very occasionally, an act will actively lend its support: Status Quo collaborated with Scooter on an update of Whatever You Want, and the Cure’s Robert Smith supplied a new vocal for the Blank and Jones cover of A Forest, for example. One other occasions, although these are rare indeed, a publisher might flatly refuse permission: Almighty’s covers of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful and David Bowie’s Life on Mars were both blocked from full release. But in these instances, you can never be sure whether the order has come directly from the artist, or merely from those employed to protect the artist’s legacy.
As for, say, Keane’s reaction to Almighty’s remakes of Everybody’s Changing and Somewhere Only We Know, we can only speculate – but there’s no reason to assume that they would be necessarily horrified. In common with many recent Almighty covers, which have leant towards arena-friendly mainstream indie – Coldplay, Killers, Snow Patrol – the cheese factor has been dialled down, allowing a certain melancholy to surface above the brightness. Could the comparative elegance of this approach find favour in indie circles, or do charges of sacrilege automatically go with the territory?
For Martyn Norris, such considerations are immaterial. “We’ve wound up the indie snobs for years,” he says – and when it comes to the likes of Belle Lawrence’s I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, you do have to wonder whether Almighty are sometimes laughing up their sleeves. But for the most part, Norris is simply looking for memorable songs, whose intrinsic strengths can withstand the transition. Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which surfaced as an Almighty cover long before the Pet Shop Boys added it to their touring set list, is a good case in point.
“Because they don’t do Coldplay dance remixes, they are the most perfect things to cover,” he explains. “It’s the same with the Arctic Monkeys. But basically it’s the song, straight away. Is it a very strong melody? Is there a hook line? Is it going to work well on the dance floor? Is it quite simple? And Coldplay songs are very well written. They’re not over-complicated, like songs from previous decades – like some of Elton John’s songs, which are very complicated. We find the ones that work for us are the most contemporary songs. And if there are no dance versions, even better.”
On Sunday evenings at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, the legacy of Love Muscle lives on. 7th Heaven’s remix of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain is packing them in this month, as is Melanie Wilson’s update of Donna Summer’s This Time I Know It’s for Real – and thanks to the recent efforts of Ellie Goulding, Cher Lloyd and Susan Boyle, Almighty’s fine covers of Your Song, Stay and Perfect Day are sure to be back in rotation. As each opening line bursts unexpectedly through the mix, and a hundred pairs of hands fly up in a shared moment of recognition, it becomes ever harder to argue with music like this.
Hear Mike Atkinson’s Spotify playlist of dance cover versions at v.gd/eurorock
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.
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. When asked about this in 2008, Boy George told me he “never had that separatist attitude about ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. I love being gay and I support gay culture, but I don’t think of myself as being a solely gay artist.”
Nevertheless, George’s follow-up comments provided an unexpected sting. “Today’s pop stars are out of the closet,” he continued, “but they don’t express anything about their sexuality. They don’t ever use the word ‘he’ in their songs. They think they don’t need to, because they think everybody loves them. They’ve been lulled into this false sense of security.”
At this charge, a gay performer might trot out that well-worn line, “I want my songs to have a universal appeal.” A cynic might retort that he was merely scared of being pigeonholed as a gay act, as that could limit his appeal. Either way, you’ll search long and hard to find hit songs that unequivocally reference same-sex desire, as opposed to dropping veiled hints. Curiously, many of the former – Suede’s The Drowners, Franz Ferdinand’s Michael, Placebo’s Nancy Boy, Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, tATu’s All the Things She Said – are the work of artists who have sought to play games with sexual identity, rather than bona fide, down-the-line gay acts. In other words, it’s the ambiguous acts who have often felt the most free to sing in unambiguous terms.
In the case of Suede, who reunited last week for a rapturously received show at the Royal Albert Hall, most of the ambiguity was supplied by singer Brett Anderson, who famously declared that he was “a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience”. His sexuality became an object of fascination, even though Suede’s drummer Simon Gilbert had quietly come out early in the band’s career. As with his contemporary Simon Fowler, the singer of Ocean Colour Scene, there was never any big deal about Gilbert’s sexuality, perhaps because neither performer could be placed into the usual categories – arty/cerebral (Neil Tennant, Michael Stipe) or colourful/flamboyant (Jake Shears, Elton John) – that still define most gay performers. Neither Gilbert nor Fowler played with representations of sexuality: they just happened to be gay.
For isolated young gay men who might be seeking public role models, but who remain wary of identifying with anyone that carries too strong a whiff of camp, perhaps it is the gay stars of mainstream pop who have had the most to offer. Will Young, Mark Feehily of Westlife and the late Stephen Gately have all presented themselves as clean-cut boy-next-door types – and yet all remained objects of desire for their overwhelmingly female fanbases.
That has given rise to a curious phenomenon, whereby openly gay pop performers now feel free to flirt on stage with wildly appreciative female audiences, without compromising their core identities. You’ll find the same thing at John Barrowman’s shows, where the star can be found relating homespun anecdotes about his partner, before suggestively wiggling and thrusting his way through songs like Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic. So if you’re hoping that Ricky Martin, gay pop’s freshest addition to the ranks, might start reworking his old hits with a new gay twist (He Bangs, anyone?), you are best advised to prepare for disappointment.
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…
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.)
To the delight of his loyal fanbase, founder members of Friday’s first band, the Virgin Prunes, also reunited for a couple of songs. Before they took to the stage, Courtney Love paid fond and fervent tribute (“I wasn’t asked to do this show; I demanded to do this show”), citing the “swagger, charisma, shamanism and fury” of their early Dublin gigs. “I had never seen so much sex, snarl, poetry, evil, restraint, grace, filth, raw power and the very essence of rock and roll,” she testified, casting the Prunes as “Lucifer: arch and cunning to U2′s Gabriel: angelic and gorgeous. U2 gave me lashes of love and inspiration, and a few nights later the Virgin Prunes fucked – me – up.”
“It’s quite a mouthful,” says Friday, five months later. “It’s quite great, actually. She gave it to me framed. I have it over my toilet pot – fittingly.”
Love and Friday first met in 1997 at the Las Vegas opening of U2′s PopMart tour. Friday was there to advise his friends on staging and performance. He has been similarly employed on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree, describing himself as their “aesthetic midwife”.
“I have a fond memory of sitting in one of the dressing rooms, talking about Ireland in the 80s, and her showing me as many of her shamrock tattoos as possible. We reminisced about the early days of punk: her from an American point of view, and me from Ireland and Britain. We got on very well. And then I didn’t see her for years.”
The pair met again in the early 2000s. “She was hanging out a lot with Winona Ryder. I think they were having a bit of a wild girl moment. I saw her perform in the Russian Tea Rooms in New York. It was some sort of strange benefit event. She was playing very improvised abstract stuff on guitar, and Winona was reading poetry. They’re really grandiose, beautiful, art deco, very wealthy rooms. And they were like two demons from hell, vomiting all over the china.”
At the Carnegie Hall show, Love and Friday duetted on a cover of Magazine’s The Light Pours Out of Me. The song was “very fitting for me and Courtney”, says Friday. “We didn’t shy away from the lyric at all. When we were rehearsing, this guttural energy just came up from the floorboards. It was electric and vibrant. It wasn’t like we were going through any motions.”
“It was the same when I did the Virgin Prunes songs,” he says. “I was able to dig deep in there and in some way become a young Gavin Friday again – for a moment.”
Did he feel Lucifer rising once more? “Well, it’s odd. You can’t be what you were. You can’t go back to what London was like in the early 80s. We’re going through a recession now, but the recession we had then, with the steel claw of Maggie Thatcher bashing anything that moved, was a very different environment. With revolutionary bands that were run by angst, or anger, or kicking against the so-called pricks, you can’t suddenly reinvent that. And the Virgin Prunes were not like a conventional rock’n’roll band. We were avant-garde, experimental, visual. It had as much to do with performance art as it did with rock’n’roll or punk.”
Having in effect disbanded the Prunes in 1986, Friday released his first solo album (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves) three years later. Drawing on European influences such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, it marked a complete break from his musical past. The Lydon-influenced wailing of the Prunes days was gone, as Friday discovered his lower register. “I’m a late developer, so maybe my balls dropped later. My tone got lower – and higher – as I got older.”
Two more albums followed, before a sequence of misfortunes – the termination of his contract with Island Records (“They basically turned into the Sugababes label”), the death of his father, the break-up of his marriage, a period of depression (“I went a bit arseways in my own life, didn’t know who I was”), major back surgery (“I couldn’t fucking do anything for about a year and a half”) – conspired to place Friday’s solo recording career on indefinite hiatus.
“And then you’re in your early 40s, and you’re going: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And everything’s changing taste-wise: in some ways for the better, in most ways for the worse. And you’re going, ‘Wow, do I even fit in here? Or do I want to fit in here?’”
Although he never stopped stock-piling new songs, Friday turned his attention to other projects. “I ended up going underground, and learning more about film scores, and getting lost in that crazy world of Hollywood.” A string of commissions followed, including an unlikely collaboration with Quincy Jones and 50 Cent on the soundtrack for Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent’s movie vehicle.
“I got on really well with them, which is a strange thing. I have a fear of grown men in short trousers. And those hip-hop guys, they all have about 10 managers and 10 assistants, all with the BlackBerrys. And they all wear these ridiculously short trousers, even in the middle of winter. We met in Canada, and I wore a three-piece suit, a cravat, my hair tied back, and earrings. If you dress well, these guys will respect you. At that first meeting, my suit did all the talking.”
And what of Jones? “Quincy was quite brilliant. My dad had just died, and he was born on the very same day, in the very same year. My father had turned into a black emperor. Hey, you motherfucking crazy Friday! Taliban Friday! That’s what he was calling me. It was like: my dad’s not dead, he’s living in Quincy Jones again.”
For the album he is now in the middle of recording, Friday made a strategic decision to go it alone. “I could have called up Antony and said: ‘Will you do a song with me?’ I will always have certain names tagged on to me, simply because of my birthright.” (Friday and Bono famously grew up on the same Dublin street.) “But I didn’t want any of the ‘famous fuck’, as I call it. I don’t want any celebrity on my album.”
Hooking up with producer Ken Thomas and his son Jolyon, Friday recorded his new songs in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. “It’s a cross between the smell of stew and cigarettes,” he says. “The people are so beautiful and so down to earth. It felt like I was in Dublin in the 80s again. It looks like you’re in a scene from that Hovis ad – like a shrine to the past – but it was just devastated in the 80s by Thatcher.”
As evidence of this new-found fondness, the album features a guest appearance from a local Salvation Army band. Their presence reminded Friday of an old situationist stunt from the Virgin Prunes days. “When we were going up to northern England, we used to loop the theme of Coronation Street and play it for 45 minutes before we went on stage. The fucking audience were banging their heads against the wall. It was actually more hardcore than white noise. But you listen to the music and it has this maudlin depression and beauty at the same time.”
Covering the “usual” themes of “life, love and death”, and said to reference both his past problems and his efforts to overcome them, Friday’s new album could be his most personal, revealing collection to date. And yet he remains an intensely private man, who maintains a wary distance from “this whole Twitter/Facebook thing. I can’t run with it seriously. When I was a kid, I never had fucking penpals. ‘Hello. It’s raining in Ireland. How are you? I’m 18.’ For fuck’s sake!”
“I like mystique,” he concludes. “Why does everyone have to show their tits, so quickly? Mystique is much nicer. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m a Chablis, or a very fine red wine.”
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.
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.
Young worked in isolation, making up his own rules as he went along. He didn’t come from a musical family, none of his friends played instruments, and the live scene in Owatonna was almost non-existent. Instead, he took his initial inspiration from film scores and movie soundtracks. “One of the things which got me interested in music as being aesthetically pleasing was the movie Finding Nemo,” he says. “The music from that film is just so inspiring. It’s a testament to how well music can stand up on its own, when it’s written for something visually. That really made me stop and think: wow, this guy makes me feel like I wanna be able to do that for other people. I didn’t have any sort of structure, or an innate sense of direction that I wanted to go in lyrically, but I knew that I wanted to stand out from whatever else was floating around out there.”
A month later, Young had completed the recording of seven tracks. Adopting the name Owl City, he began to upload his music to MySpace, eventually making the tracks available as a self-released EP, Of June. Aside from telling a few friends, he did little to publicise his work.
“Slowly but surely, kids started to catch on to it and discover it. They started to pass it around to each other, and I just sat back in awe and amazement to see how fast people were connecting with what I’d done. I honestly thought there wouldn’t be a lot of people, because in comparison to what I thought was the popularised kind of music, that people find easy to connect to, I thought it was a bit off the beaten path.”
Although Young was no longer a teenager himself, his wistful, daydreamy synth-pop quickly found a natural constituency among the core MySpace demographic. His lyrics made frequent reference to the oceans, but he had yet to visit either coast. He had never travelled overseas, and he had never set foot on a plane. Equally isolated in their bedrooms, and equally innocent of the outside world, his young listeners instinctively related to these songs of inexperience, imagination and wonder. The connection was direct, intimate and personal. Friend requests and play counts started to stack up. Six months on from his MySpace debut, Young quit his job at the warehouse.
By the spring of 2008, emails from major record labels were arriving on an increasingly regular basis. Initially wary of their advances, Young was in no hurry to respond.
According to Avery Lipman, co-president of Universal Republic records, “It took us a good six weeks just to convince him to come to New York to meet us. He had no interest, he was nervous, he was intimidated. When he finally came, I think he was actually accompanied by a town councilman; I thought it was his dad. This guy was an accountant by trade, hoping to make sure this young kid didn’t get taken advantage of.
“Adam certainly had no concept of the business. I basically had to explain Record Business 101: what a record company does, how the relationship works, how and why he should get himself an attorney and a manager and a booking agent. He certainly listened. He was intrigued. And yet it took us yet another three months to convince him to finally sign with us. He was probably, and with good reason, concerned of the unknown.”
“I didn’t want to have anyone swooping and taking this out from under me,” Young admits, “because it was so special, given that it was something that came out of leftfield. I wasn’t planning on the whole success thing. It was so unexpected.”
Once the deal was signed, Young returned to Minnesota and continued much as before. The deal was kept under wraps, prolonging the illusion of independence. A self-released full-length album, Maybe I’m Dreaming, continued to notch up healthy sales. Back in the basement, work began on its follow-up. Aside from some string overdubs on a few tracks, almost all the music was recorded in the usual manner. The winning formula was not to be messed with.
News of the Universal deal finally broke in February 2009, just as Owl City was preparing to perform live for the first time. The first gig was a small, hometown affair. “I was pretty apprehensive, because I’d never done it before,” says Young, who has now played more than 90 shows. “Creating all this music as one person alone in a room on a computer, it’s hard to translate that into a really aggressive, exciting live performance experience. So I was scared that it wouldn’t come across, and that it would be boring. But that first show sold out, and it was so much fun that I wanted to do more.”
A backing band was put together, comprising an additional singer and keyboardist, a violinist, a cellist and a drummer. Between May and July, Owl City gigged constantly, building support for the forthcoming album, Ocean Eyes. On the eve of its digital release, iTunes chose one track, Fireflies, as its free single of the week. The decision came as a surprise to Young, who had never thought of it as a potential hit; in his eyes, it was “towards the bottom of the list”.
Fireflies entered the Billboard Hot 100 in early September, at the start of Owl City’s second US tour. Supporting the band on the first leg was Unicorn Kid, a teenage dance musician from Edinburgh who had flown over at Young’s request. While manning his merchandise stall, Unicorn Kid witnessed the increasing fervour first hand. “Every night, it was like a mania,” he says. “The fans are so dedicated. They all seem to identify with Owl City as being more than just a band; it’s something that seems to bind them all together. They take pride in the fact that they knew songs besides Fireflies before he got famous.
“I would often have Owl City fans coming up and asking if I could give him things. For example, because he’s quite heavily Christian and a lot of his fans are as well, there was a girl who had found a lightbulb. She took the end off it, then made origami stars and wrote bible verses on the stars. She filled the light bulb up with them, screwed it back on, and made it as a present for him.”
Two months after first charting, and despite scant support from Top 40 radio, Fireflies reached No 1 on the Billboard charts. By the end of 2009, it had amassed over 2.5m sales.
Given Owl City’s undeniable stylistic resemblance to the Postal Service, who had delighted critics in 2003 with the cult hit Such Great Heights, it was small wonder that the rock press gave Fireflies such short shrift. The influential indie-centric website Pitchfork awarded it a rare 1 out of 10, lambasting its “emasculated, cloying wheeze that serves as a cutesy defense mechanism for a guy who’s trying so hard to be sincere, he forgets to say what he actually means”.
None of this halted its progress. Fireflies is currently the No 1 single in Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands – and the UK, where it deposed the previous incumbent last Sunday, a week after entering the Top 40.
Amid the furore, Adam Young remains a shy, unassuming soul and a reluctant interviewee, who delights in confounding his interrogators with whimsical tall tales. There are conflicting accounts of how he chose the name Owl City, ranging from a “marvellously mysterious forest” in the “lovely Scottish foothills”, crammed full of owls, to an incident at school when “Pickles”, an owl brought by a classmate to a show-and-tell, burst out of its cage and “began flapping around the classroom, ripping scribbled posters off the walls and wreaking havoc”.
“He has a childlike way about him,” Unicorn Kid confirms. “He’s certainly very innocent in reality. It’s not something that he’s created or made up. He’s 100% genuine in his representation of himself.”
“I still really haven’t come to grips with that feeling,” Young says, reflecting on the success that Fireflies has brought him. “It’s still very new. It’s very surreal, but it’s so thrilling. When I lay awake at night and think about that song, it has been listened to by so many more people than I ever imagined it reaching when I was writing it.
“I’m trying not to take it for granted. If it all goes away tomorrow, if the whole thing is a flash in the pan, I’m still a happy camper. I can still go back to what I was doing before and have a lot of good stories to tell from it. So I’m just trying to take it day by day, and soak it in, and be grateful for what I have, while I have it.”
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.
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.
For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.
As for that troublesome “pub rock” tag, it’s worth remembering that in those pre-punk times, the label carried no shame. It was a handy code for a smaller scale, more egalitarian performance ethic, which stood in opposition to the florid, remote, stadium-scaled pomp of the bigtime prog elite. Meanwhile, the network of London venues that evolved around it, or whose lifespans were sustained by it – the Hope and Anchor, the Nashville, Dingwalls – provided a ready-made launch pad for the punk scene.
Before the barriers came up, the boundaries between punk and pub were blurred. The Sex Pistols supported the Hot Rods at the Marquee, and scene stalwarts The 101ers at the Nashville. The Feelgoods and the Ramones shared a bill in New York. The word “punk” debuted on Top of the Pops on a T-shirt worn by a Hot Rod. Punk bible Sniffin’ Glue even ran a rave review of Stupidity, claiming that “this is the way rock should be”.
“Our energy was our legacy to the punks,” argued Dr Feelgood’s guitarist Wilko Johnson, quoted in Will Birch’s history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. “It was the violence of our act and the mean look which got to them. They didn’t have the knowledge or the technique, but they had the attitude.”
Naturally, there was no place for gratitude from the UK punks, given their scorched-earth approach. As the new bands landed record deals, “pub rock” changed from a term of modest, affectionate pride into a scornful signifier of plodding, jam-band conservatism. For those of us who jumped ship during 1977, Dr Feelgood’s brand of supercharged rhythm and blues fell into almost immediate redundancy. It was as if we had been living in an Eastern bloc state, longing to wear Levi’s but making do with frumpy denim slacks. If this was a generationally necessary distancing, it was also – with the wisdom of hindsight – a harsh, juvenile snap judgment.
But if you’re still inclined to dismiss the Feelgoods as a Canvey Quo with one too many Chuck Berry covers in their repertoire, take a fresh listen to Wilko Johnson’s lean, taut slashes of guitar on She Does It Right, the first track on their 1975 debut Down By the Jetty. Then search YouTube for Going Back Home, as performed at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Observe singer Lee Brilleaux, menacing the crowd and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy white suit, and ask yourself whether Rotten was taking notes (Weller and Strummer certainly were). Finally, go to see Julien Temple’s forthcoming documentary Oil City Confidential, and marvel at the legacy of this malevolently raw, dirty and groundbreaking band.
Oil City Confidential is released on 5 February. Mike Atkinson’s Spotify pub rock playlist: tinyurl.com/pubrock
The epoch-defining charity single drew a line under the fragmented UK music scene, and brought us into the modern era – for good or for ill.
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.
Whether by accident or design, this utilitarian lack of vanity (from a generation that was better known for hailing the virtues of a well-sculpted bouffant, or proclaiming that one’s clothes were a window on one’s very soul) marked the first sign that British pop was heading for a massive change. The overriding seriousness of the Band Aid mission effectively signalled that the age of stylised froth and arch, postmodernist frolic was over, rendered redundant by more pressing, pragmatic concerns. If lives were now at stake, then who could give two hoots about the hairdos?
The events of December 1984 also marked the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk, eight years earlier – for by welcoming “good old Phil” and “good old Quo” back to the party, Band Aid in effect extinguished any last flickers of a culture of opposition within mainstream pop. United by a common cause, the new breed was no longer required to chafe against the old school. Biggest once again equalled best, and as the stadium-sized spectacle of Live Aid was soon to affirm, the primacy of a superstar elite was re-established. Good old Freddie! Good old Macca! Good old Elton!
Those of a weekly music-press mindset might well have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing disquieting parallels with the closing pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Had the punk wars been fought in vain? The NME dismissed the project with withering snootiness, grudgingly conceding that a rubbish record had at least been made for the right reasons. But by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the power structures that had allowed the Ethiopian disaster to happen, Geldof and Ure lay themselves open to self-righteous charges of naivety at best, or collusion at worst. Wasn’t it every rocker’s duty to stick it to the man, rather than pat him on the back for agreeing to waive the VAT?
Then again, you could argue that the Band Aid generation was simply making good on the promises of its predecessors. As romantic as it might have been to sing about wanting to change the world in the 1960s, surely the opportunity to make a significant, tangible, measurable difference to it was worth a certain measure of ideological compromise? The argument must have played well with the former firebrands of the baby-boom generation, by then in their 30s and starting to populate the corridors of power. But for anyone with an abiding faith in the power of the mass-market protest song, Do They Know It’s Christmas all but ended a tradition that had stretched from Bob Dylan (soon to be a participant in We Are the World) to Paul Weller (a scowling, incongruous and largely inaudible presence at the Band Aid sessions).
Within the UK charts, the fall-out was swift and sudden. As 1985 progressed, we saw a marked swing towards renewed notions of “authenticity” (Springsteen’s time had come at last, while Collins and Knopfler cleaned up with No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms), and a hurried distancing from “artificiality” (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts, if you will). Over the next couple of years, pop became grown-up, respectable, civic-minded, feebly acquiescent – and really rather dull. It was a poor cultural legacy for a bold, unprecedented, well-intentioned (and in strict material terms, staggeringly successful) project which – for a few heady weeks at least – had appeared to expand the possibilities of what pop music could achieve.
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.
Four days ago, it was announced that Keisha Buchanan, sole survivor of the original lineup, had been replaced by Jade Ewen, last seen in fifth place at this year’s Eurovision. In a troubling week for long-suffering fans and overstocked merchandising companies alike, the Sugababes have gained admittance to a small, strange subset of acts, whose only shared characteristic is a desire to continue working, despite containing none of their original members.
If its fourth incarnation survives long enough to score another UK hit, the Sugababes will have achieved a rare feat indeed. Discounting occasional dabblers such as the England World Cup squad, Liverpool FC and Manchester United, only two British groups have charted with wholly different lineups. Having cracked the top 10 in 1970 with United We Stand, an all-new version of Brotherhood of Man returned six years later, with the all-conquering Save Your Kisses For Me. The same lineup is still touring today. And in early 1982, after an absence from the charts of just four months, the anonymous session musicians of Tight Fit – a hastily assembled outfit, cashing in on the Stars on 45 medley boom – were replaced by a markedly more photogenic trio, whose cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight topped the charts.
Away from the mainstream, the world of progressive rock has demonstrated equal fickleness. Mike Ratledge, the last remaining founder member of the Soft Machine, quit the band in 1976, leaving Karl Jenkins to take over as leader of a band whose original sound had mutated out of all recognition. A similar mission-creep affected the late-70s incarnation of Gong. Under the command of drummer Pierre Moerlen, the new lineup jettisoned all lingering traces of pothead pixies and flying teapots, in favour of a stern jazz/rock fusion.
Many acts continue to ply their trade on the live circuit, long after their more bankable members have departed, secure in the knowledge that a brand alone can draw a crowd. In this respect, death is no obstacle. Dr Feelgood, Thin Lizzy and “Mud II” have all ploughed on, long after the passing of Lee Brilleaux, Phil Lynott and Les Gray – and of the three, only Lizzy – in the form of guitarist Scott Gorham – have a member who contributed to any of the hits (and he was not an original member). As for the act that tours as T.Rex, 32 years after the death of Marc Bolan, its only direct connection to the 70s lineup is with a drummer who joined in 1973. Nevertheless, they can still claim one founder member … of Saxon, that is.
In fairness to these anonymous journeymen, many have served for decades, extending the life span of their adopted bands many times over. Would that we could say the same for the current incarnation of soul legends the Drifters, who are now reduced to a mere franchise, the British legal rights to their name secured by the daughter of their original manager. Amazingly, their two longest-serving members joined as recently as 2005. (In other territories, other Drifters remain available.)
For some acts, constant shifts in personnel have been no block to success. The Three Degrees lost their last original member in 1976, but notched up major international hits for the rest of the decade. There have been 21 documented members of Napalm Death over the years, the band’s lineup even changing between sides one and two of their first album (only the drummer appears on both). And for the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, whose members were routinely booted out on their 16th birthdays, this rigorous, Logan’s Run-style approach provided a significant boost to the group’s shelf life. With this in mind, perhaps our newest Sugababe should check her contract carefully before signing.