Mike Atkinson

Interview feature: Bright Light Bright Light

Posted in features, interviews, Pride Life by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in Pride Life magazine.

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It’s a long way from the Welsh valleys to the streets of Brooklyn, but for Rod Thomas, the Neath-born purveyor of electronic pop who performs as Bright Light Bright Light, New York already feels like a natural home. “I moved over there in March 2013”, he tells me, “because I was working on my second album, and wanted a different stimulus. I’m a firm believer that the world around you and the people you interact with have a big impact on your outlook, so I thought it was a good idea to try living somewhere new.”

The album’s title, Life Is Easy, suggests a new-found contentment, but given New York’s reputation as a tough, competitive city, perhaps it shouldn’t be taken at face value. “No, my life is not easy”, Rod admits. “It’s a tongue in cheek statement. It partly refers to the idea that everyone dreams of the grass being greener somewhere else. If you go away and have an amazing time, part of that is escaping things you need to deal with, and part is being caught up in the magic and charm of being somewhere exciting and new.”

“But also, life is kind of easy”, he continues. “If you want to enjoy life, you really can. There are people with such horrendous circumstances across the world, who really make the most of life, while so much of our modern culture is based on reaching for something new, not being happy with your lot, improving, upgrading. But you can meet so many wonderful characters in your day to day life, who can change the way you look at the world.”

“There was nothing easy about moving to New York. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life over the last year. It’s a hard place, but it suits me. People work hard, but they also play hard, which is how I approach my life. They make sure that when they’re not working, they enjoy this wonderful city that they have, to make it worth working that hard.”

This newly optimistic mood is reflected in the album’s subject matter, described as “a snapshot of my last year and a half”. Rod credits much of this to the friends he has made in New York, who have “brought me back from a place where I felt exhausted, and at a bit at a loss, to a place where I feel positive and excited again. The album is about taking back control, and getting to a point where I can see life for all of the wonderful things it has to offer, rather than being caught up in a slightly British mindset of moaning.”

Del Marquis from the Scissor Sisters, one of Rod’s closest friends, is heavily involved with the album, and on its lead single, I Wish We Were Leaving, another friend supplies guest vocals: Sir Elton John, who has since invited Bright Light Bright Light to support him on tour during June and July. “I wouldn’t have asked him to do it, if we weren’t friends”, says Rod. “It means more than just having a ‘featured artist’ – because what does that add, unless they mean something to the track?”

Inspired by the ending of a real-life relationship, the song examines the situation from both sides, focussing on forgiveness and acceptance, rather than the self-pity and blame of so many break-up songs. “It’s not bitter”, he agrees. “The relationship hasn’t worked out, but you don’t hate them for it. You want to hold on to what you like about them.”

The video adds poignancy to Rod’s lyrics, being filmed in one of his ex-boyfriend’s favourite restaurants. The location was suggested by the video’s directors, who had no idea of its significance when pitching the storyline. “It was a real shock”, he admits. “So I thought: well, that’s fine, I’ll go along with the treatment!”

Although Rod is an openly gay performer, and the song is undeniably about the break-up of a gay relationship, the drama is re-enacted for the video by a heterosexual couple, and there are no gender-specific lyrical references. “I thought it was quite nice to show a connection between a man and a woman”, he says, “because some people would presume I’d never think about heterosexual relationships. It’s important to see life from every perspective, which is what my whole album is about. It’s about friendships, family, and relationships: straight and gay.”

On his previous single, In Your Care, Rod tackles a theme which many gay listeners can relate to, especially those who have left home to forge a new identity elsewhere. “I’m an only child, so I feel guilty when I leave my family behind. It’s important that people back home don’t see it as a snub. The song tries to get across what is sometimes hard to say: I do think about you all the time, and you are in my thoughts. It’s a direct song to my parents.”

“I find it hard to perform In Your Care live, and I nearly cry every time I sing it. I never thought it would affect me quite so much, because I’ve sung so many songs about people who have broken my heart, and it’s never got to me on stage. But that song does, and I’m pleased, because it’s about something very real.”

“Not many gay artists have written songs about their families specifically, and I just felt: fuck it, this is probably the biggest issue that anyone I know has got with their sexuality, especially if their family are religious, or from a small town. I wanted to do something as a gay artist that wasn’t just about sex or love. It’s a different type of love. Yes, I go on stage in fucking chenille jumpsuits or whatever, but I also can be quite boring. I like to go home and have a cup of tea with my gran, because I love her very much, and I never see her, or my mother and father. Gay people very clearly have families, and it’s important that people recognise that.”

The Guardian gig venue guide: Rescue Rooms, Nottingham

Posted in features, Rescue Rooms, The Guardian by Mike A on October 15, 2014

The Rescue Rooms is one of the jewels in the crown of a city that punches above its weight in music venues.

Capacity: 450. Upstairs, a separate performance space (the Red Room) holds 100.

Who plays there: Critically acclaimed bands on their way up, with the odd heritage act or tribute band along the way – the likes of Rudimental, Pere Ubu, Chvrches, John Murry, Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic, London Grammar, John Newman, Public Service Broadcasting and Low have appeared in the past year or so.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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“Gay jibes, racial slurs, and a chat at the bar: in battle rap, the rules are different.”

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on May 1, 2014

“There might be stringent security, but a family atmosphere prevails at Don’t Flop as the likes of Bru-C, Oshea and Ogmios trade a cappella insults in the worst possible taste.”

Outside Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms, the Saturday afternoon queue is edging forwards at a glacial pace. So stringent are the police-imposed security checks – there’s even a temporary ID scanner in the lobby – that it takes over three hours to admit the 500 ticket holders, some of whom have been queuing since mid-morning.

“Nottingham police were very suspicious of a hip hop event of this magnitude”, says Eurgh, co-founder and managing director of Don’t Flop, the rap battle league who have organised today’s event. “When they see this many tickets sold, and they hear the word “battle”, they think of people stabbing each other in the face. But it’s not what it is, and they don’t understand.”

Inside the venue, the day’s first pair of battlers, Bru-C from Nottingham and Pamflit from Manchester, are chatting amiably at the bar. Four days ago, Bru-C’s original opponent dropped out, demolishing weeks of preparation; like all contestants, he researches exhaustively, reviewing old battles and tailoring every bar for maximum personal damage. Rebuilding his routine from scratch has stretched him to the limit, but he’s hiding his nerves well.

By half past four, the main room is packed and the Don’t Flop entourage – battlers and their supporters, camera crew, assorted hangers-on – are drifting onto the stage, like teachers at an assembly. None of today’s six battles will be judged, so a relaxed atmosphere prevails.  As ever, each clash will be filmed for YouTube, and performed acapella; beats were largely banished years ago, for the sake of vocal clarity.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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“Value of working in close harmony”

Posted in features, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 25, 2014

Originally published in the Business section of the Nottingham Post, to accompany an interview with George Akins of DHP Family.

The rising fortune of Nottingham’s music scene has much to teach us about the value of co-operation and collaboration. Shorn of the backbiting cliquishness of former years, a genuine sense of community now prevails, where new talent is welcomed and championed, and the success of more prominent acts sets an inspiring example for emerging artists.

Over the past three years, eight acts have signed to national labels, spanning a wide variety of genres: from Saint Raymond’s catchy indie-rock to Harleighblu’s fresh take on classic soul. During that time, Jake Bugg’s chart-topping success has shone a new light on the city, sending record company A&R teams regularly scuttling up to showcase gigs.

Three years ago, you would have struggled to find a Nottingham act headlining a DHP show. Since then, Dog Is Dead have sold out Rock City, Jake Bugg has headlined the Splendour Festival and filled the Capital FM Arena, and three artists are booked to top the bill at the Rescue Rooms over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, a welcome shift in booking policy has seen countless local acts filling support slots at DHP venues, offering valuable experience of working larger stages.

Further encouragement is provided by the likes of LeftLion magazine, which has noticeably increased its music coverage, and Mark Del’s NUSIC team, who provide podcasts, filmed sessions, workshops and school tours. Over at BBC Radio Nottingham, Dean Jackson has been a stalwart champion of East Midlands talent; thanks to his efforts, Nottingham music has been added to national radio playlists, and represented at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals. Elsewhere, an enthusiastic and interconnected network of promoters, venues, studios and independent labels all have their part to play.

Blessed with the imminent arrival of Notts TV, which is sure to give the scene a further significant boost, Nottingham’s thriving music community is both an inspiration, and a source of immense pride.

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The Guardian gig venue guide: Capital FM Arena, Nottingham

Posted in Capital FM Arena, features, The Guardian by Mike A on March 11, 2014

Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated

Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Breaking Big: who’s going to top the pops in 2014?

Posted in features, Pride Life by Mike A on January 28, 2014

Originally published in Pride Life magazine.

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Indiana

Lacing her icy synth-pop with a grinding alt-rock crunch, Indiana built steady support for her music in 2013; even the Queen got to witness her in action, at Radio One’s Live Lounge. Lyrically, she explores the darker, more dysfunctional aspects of relationships; you’d never guess she was a happily settled mother of two, but Indiana thrives on such contrasts. “I’m in possession of a smoking gun, and I wanna hurt you just for fun”, she threatens, with a performance style that switches from doe-eyed vulnerability to steely fury in the blink of an eye. Mess with her at your peril.

Clean Bandit

Uniquely for a dance-based collective, Clean Bandit started out as a string quartet at Cambridge University, making them light on urban credentials, but strong on musical prowess. Strings are still central to their sound, which is peppered with naggingly familiar classical quotes, adding melodic sweetness to the electronic thump. They charted briefly, with the endearingly daft Mozart’s House, but they’ve been shaking off the novelty tag since then, with tracks such as the reflective Dust Clears and the uplifting diva-house of No Place I’d Rather Be. Like Basement Jaxx before them, their anything-goes musical stance is a joy to behold.

Amber Run

Formed just over a year ago, Amber Run have made remarkable progress for such a young band. Their fourth and fifth gigs were at the Reading and Leeds festivals – a baptism of fire, if ever there was one – and for their sixth show, they were backed by a 14-piece orchestra. Now signed to RCA Victor, the five lads have dropped out of their final years at university, to concentrate full-time on their music, described as “anthemic rock mixed with cinematic post-rock”. With songs as strong as Noah, Heaven and Spark, they could well be one of next summer’s festival favourites.

Ella Eyre

Having topped the singles chart with her guest vocal on Rudimental’s Waiting All Night, Ella Eyre is looking to match the solo success of John Newman, another Rudimental collaborator. A fierce and passionate performer on stage, the 19 year-old Brit School graduate has harnessed the same raw energy for Deeper, her début EP. Musically, the new material builds on Rudimental’s template, fusing classic soul/funk stylings with more dance-based elements, but it’s Ella’s husky, bluesy delivery that holds your attention throughout. A punchier, more powerful sound is promised for her forthcoming début album – but even now, she’s hardly short on clout.

Sleaford Mods

Unlike our other four picks, Sleaford Mods are unlikely to taste major commercial success in 2014 – they’re far too sweary, for starters – but their heroically uncompromising approach deserves a wider audience. Backed by Andrew Hearn’s minimal low-fi electronics, Jason Williamson spits surreal venom and scathing fury in an earthy East Midlands rasp, as if Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, had been weaned on John Cooper Clarke and The Fall. “Boris Johnson and The Cheeky Girls shut down the underground!” he rages – and, if only for a moment, you find yourself punching the air in agreement.

The Guardian gig venue guide: Rock City, Nottingham

Posted in features, Rock City, The Guardian by Mike A on January 23, 2014

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.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

 

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15 Nottingham Music Picks for 2014

Posted in features, Nottingham LIVE by Mike A on January 23, 2014

Originally written for Nottingham LIVE

1. Aja

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.

4. Ashmore

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.

5. Bluebird

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.

8. Hang

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.

9. Indiana

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.

11. Kagoule

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.

13. Ronika

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?

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Interview: Cantaloupe

Posted in features, interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 19, 2013

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.

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Pentatronix / Sabar Soundsystem / Mikey Davis

Posted in features, interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on June 3, 2013

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.

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Feature: Katty Heath of Spotlight Kid, on The Voice Of Holland

Posted in features, interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 10, 2013

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.

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Interview: I Am Lono

Posted in features, interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 10, 2013

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.

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Interview with Kagoule

Posted in features, interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 10, 2013

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.

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LeftLion: The Lion List

Posted in features, LeftLion by Mike A on March 10, 2013

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…

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Trent Sound Radio: Can Sound Turn A Pound?

Posted in features, LeftLion by Mike A on December 7, 2011

(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.

Listen to Trent Sound at trentsound.com.

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Nottingham’s music scene: soon to be heard?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on October 2, 2011

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday September 30 2011)

Its biggest claim to pop fame was once Su Pollard. Now, a formidable new generation of Nottingham artists is emerging.

‘So, which acts from round here have been in the charts?” In any decent-sized city, there’s a standard pub conversation to be had – but in Nottingham, it might be briefer than most. Forty years after their last big seller, blues rockers Ten Years After remain the city’s most successful albums act, by a huge distance. As for singles, the hall of fame is still headed by Paper Lace (three hits in 1974, including the chart-topping Billy Don’t Be a Hero), closely followed by KWS (early 90s dance-cover merchants, best known for their grim take on KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go). A pause will follow, as brains are racked. “What about Alvin Stardust?” someone might venture. “No, he’s from Mansfield,” another will counter. Finally and fatally, someone else will dredge up the lone hit by Nottingham’s highest-charting female singer: Su Pollard, who stormed to No 2 in 1986 with the wince-making Starting Together.

“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 CityRescue RoomsBodega 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.

Listen to a playlist of New Nottingham Music on Spotify.

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Under the covers: Why are Hi-NRG dance makeovers so popular?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on November 26, 2010

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday November 26 2010)

From Wonderwall to Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?, there’s barely a song in existence that hasn’t had a Hi-NRG dance cover. But who records them – and, more importantly, why?

Dancefloor epiphanies can strike in the most unexpected ways. One Saturday in the summer of 1996, I found myself dancing on the stage at Love Muscle, a gay club night that ran weekly at the Fridge in Brixton. Earlier that day, I had spent a dismal few hours at Knebworth Park, where Oasis – then reckoned to be at the peak of their powers – had headlined the first of two allegedly legendary shows. Disillusioned by every aspect of the event – the leaden atmosphere, the inadequate facilities, the invisibility and mediocrity of the performers – I duly sought sanctuary elsewhere.

As the Love Muscle DJ mixed into the bracingly fluffy Hi-NRG cover of Wonderwall by Jackie ‘O’, the residual shackles of dance snobbery slipped from my shoulders, and the epiphany struck. Against all the odds, I appeared to be having more fun dancing to this silly version of Noel Gallagher’s anthem than had been possible during his band’s set.

“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

Interview: Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys

Posted in features, interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 27, 2010

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.”

Bonus content.

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)

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

Posted in features, Freaky Trigger by Mike A on May 11, 2010

This series is currently running on Freaky Trigger.

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.

Continue reading Part One.

Ricky Martin and what it means to be a gay pop star in 2010.

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on April 2, 2010

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday April 2 2010)

The most widespread reaction to Ricky Martin coming out last week was a great big shrug. Have we stopped caring about our pop stars’ sexuality?

Twelve years ago, when his activities in a Californian public toilet forced George Michael to declare his sexuality to the world, the singer was widely hailed for his courage and good grace. This week, the reaction to Ricky Martin‘s apparently unforced declaration of gayness (“I am a fortunate homosexual man”) has been less effusive. On the BBC’s Have Your Say forum, opinions mostly ranged from “who cares” to “we already knew”, with some even suggesting that the whole episode was a publicity stunt, staged to boost flagging sales of his music.

If society has reached the stage where the coming out of a pop star provokes little more than a collective shrug, then perhaps the pressure is also easing on other openly gay performers, who now feel less burdened to act as figureheads or role models. 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.

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