(Guardian Film & Music, Friday September 30 2011)
Its biggest claim to pop fame was once Su Pollard. Now, a formidable new generation of Nottingham artists is emerging.
‘So, which acts from round here have been in the charts?” In any decent-sized city, there’s a standard pub conversation to be had – but in Nottingham, it might be briefer than most. Forty years after their last big seller, blues rockers Ten Years After remain the city’s most successful albums act, by a huge distance. As for singles, the hall of fame is still headed by Paper Lace (three hits in 1974, including the chart-topping Billy Don’t Be a Hero), closely followed by KWS (early 90s dance-cover merchants, best known for their grim take on KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go). A pause will follow, as brains are racked. “What about Alvin Stardust?” someone might venture. “No, he’s from Mansfield,” another will counter. Finally and fatally, someone else will dredge up the lone hit by Nottingham’s highest-charting female singer: Su Pollard, who stormed to No 2 in 1986 with the wince-making Starting Together.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday November 26 2010)
From Wonderwall to Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?, there’s barely a song in existence that hasn’t had a Hi-NRG dance cover. But who records them – and, more importantly, why?
Dancefloor epiphanies can strike in the most unexpected ways. One Saturday in the summer of 1996, I found myself dancing on the stage at Love Muscle, a gay club night that ran weekly at the Fridge in Brixton. Earlier that day, I had spent a dismal few hours at Knebworth Park, where Oasis – then reckoned to be at the peak of their powers – had headlined the first of two allegedly legendary shows. Disillusioned by every aspect of the event – the leaden atmosphere, the inadequate facilities, the invisibility and mediocrity of the performers – I duly sought sanctuary elsewhere.
As the Love Muscle DJ mixed into the bracingly fluffy Hi-NRG cover of Wonderwall by Jackie ‘O’, the residual shackles of dance snobbery slipped from my shoulders, and the epiphany struck. Against all the odds, I appeared to be having more fun dancing to this silly version of Noel Gallagher’s anthem than had been possible during his band’s set.
(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.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 26 March 2010)
How do you move on from being Dublin’s rock’n'roll Lucifer? By becoming U2′s ‘aesthetic midwife’, outdressing 50 Cent and roping in the Salvation Army for your latest album. Mike Atkinson meets Gavin Friday.
His public profile might be low – after all, it has been 15 years since his last album – but Gavin Friday is a remarkably well-connected man. In October 2009, four days ahead of his 50th birthday, he was the subject of a tribute concert staged in Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring an impressive array of friends, fans and collaborators. All four members of U2 performed in Friday’s honour, along with the likes of Lou Reed, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shane MacGowan, Andrea Corr, Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson and Laurie Anderson. Joel Grey reprised his Oscar-winning role as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Patrick McCabe read from his novel Breakfast On Pluto. (In the 2005 film adaptation, Friday played glam-rocker Billy Hatchett.)
Owl City: Shy, retiring and No 1 everywhere. Adam Young, aka Owl City, has made the journey from the basement of a Minnesota farmhouse to the top of the charts all over the world. Here he tells the story of his success.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 29 January 2010)
Like many people with a strong creative streak, Adam Young has difficulty sleeping at night. While others might battle fretfully against the condition, he has learned to embrace its more positive aspects.
“The creative juices start flowing most when I’m lying awake with nothing to do,” he explains to me, a few hours ahead of a sell-out gig in Oklahoma City. “My mind is quiet, and my thoughts are collected, and that’s when I find that the ideas really start happening.”
In 2007, a 21-year-old Young was working in a warehouse in his hometown of Owatonna, an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis in the midwestern state of Minnesota. He still lived with his parents – a mechanic and a school teacher – in a late-Victorian farmhouse, spending much of his time in its unkempt, windowless basement. One weekend in June, alone in the house for a couple of days, and motivated as much by boredom as anything else, he began to channel his insomniac energies into music, piecing together melodies and lyrics in his subterranean den.
Give pub rock another chance: Fans were quick to turn their back on Dr Feelgood et al once punk hit, but they weren’t so different really.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 22 January 2010)
In the autumn of 1976, a poll was published in our school’s self-styled “underground” magazine, in which more than 300 of us had voted for our favourite bands of the day. Although dominated by the usual slew of superstar proggers, the act in second place – just behind Santana – stood in incongruous contrast to their contemporaries. Riding high with their live album Stupidity, which had topped the charts for a week in October, Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood were, albeit briefly, the biggest band in the UK.
Although they were routinely lauded in the weekly music press, the standard critical line on the Feelgoods was that they were an astonishing live band who could never quite recapture their essence in the studio. Still, there was a lot of goodwill towards then, and a faith that the band would one day make good on their promise.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 18 December 2009)
Next time you watch the video for Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas – and given that the single reached No 1 25 years ago this month, it’s a fair bet that you’ll get the chance to do so this holiday season – take a good, close look at the state of everybody’s hair. Hauled out of bed at next to no notice on a Sunday morning, and summoned to the studios for a brisk 11am start, the pop royalty of 1984 (and Marilyn) evidently had no time to attend to the niceties of styling. And judging by the state that some of them arrived in – Phil Collins in a nasty Argyle tank-top, Sting looking like a mangy scarecrow, Simon Le Bon in woefully mismatched vertical and horizontal stripes – you have to wonder whether they even knew that cameras would be present.
(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 25 September 2009)
On the 2007 Sugababes tour, an official T-shirt bore the names of all its members, past and present: “Keisha & Mutya & Siobhan & Heidi & Amelle.” In an amusing – if perhaps tellingly catty – acknowledgement of the group’s chequered history, the second and third names on the list were roughly scribbled out, as if one of the girls had crossly taken a marker pen to the design.
My feature on Unicorn Kid – a 17-year old electronic dance musician from Leith who recently remixed “Did You See Me Coming” for Pet Shop Boys – appeared The Guardian’s Film & Music supplement on Friday 10 July 2009. You can read the feature here.
Here are some additional out-takes from the interview.
It’s a really good remix. It was the first time I heard you. I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys show on Radio 2, in the bath. And it came on, and I thought: oh, this is good. And then the next I heard of you was via Twitter, where Jake Shears was giving you a shout-out. Did he came to your London gig?
He actually missed it, but I went out for a drink with him afterwards with some other people and it was really cool. And also Peter Robinson [Popjustice], who has been really supportive. It was actually him who got me the Pet Shop Boys remix. He was the one who set it up.
Did you go into the studio, or did you do it all at home?
I did it all in my bedroom actually, during the Easter holidays. (Laughs)
Is that the first time that you worked with a vocal track?
I’d had goes at remixes, of my friends’ vocal tracks and stuff like that, just to mess around with what it would be like. It was the first time that I’d actually applied myself and thought: I actually have to finish this.
How long did it take?
The full two weeks of the holidays. Working every day in my room.
Did they just e-mail you the constituent parts?
It was on an FTP server, on the Internet. All I needed were the vocals, but they sent me every single part. So there were something like 30 or 40 WAV files that got sent to me. But I only touched five vocal parts.
So you didn’t even take a rhythm track from there?
No, no. I sped the whole thing up, as well. So it’s completely different.
So, this tour that you’ve been doing: have you had different reactions in different places?
Yeah, I tend not to like doing over 18s, because you realise it’s 14-to-19 that’s the demographic, or even younger. I like that, and I gear what I’m doing towards that. I like playing to those guys better than I like playing to the over 18s. I’ve played about four Club NME dates on the tour. Some of them were good and some of them were bad. Chelmsford was horrendous, it was really bad. It was empty, and nobody got it.
I think because when you’re playing a club night, everyone’s enjoying dancing to things that they know, and they’re all having a good time. Then someone weird like me comes on, and plays stuff that they don’t have a clue about, at such a faster pace. I didn’t get booed off the stage or anything, but nobody was really feeling it. But when I play 14+ gigs, people jump around and have a good time. I gauge the success of a show on how much the crowd seem to be enjoying it.
And you know that their senses haven’t been dulled by alcohol, so it’s all genuine. How much of the music do you create on stage?
The different parts of the songs are being triggered by pads on a MIDI controller. They’re being filtered or changed, or drums or bass are being taken in, or a chorus as a whole. There’s also synth parts being played over live.
I like to jump around and stuff like that, so there’s nothing much else more that I can do without kind of dampening [the effect]. It’s just me on stage, so I have to create a live energy. I couldn’t be doing any more without having to stand really, really still.
So you’re not picking out those incredibly fast melody lines with your fingers?
No, no way. My keyboard playing is poor. It’s done with a mouse. Essentially, you get almost like a piano down the side, and I kind of type it in. I think that’s how the melodies are so weird, because I’ve got free rein to click what I want.
But I’m happy with the legitimacy of my live show. If I wasn’t on stage, the songs would not be playing. If I pressed Go, it would be looping on the same bit, the same 30 seconds, for the next hour.
And you’ve got the freedom to change it around?
Definitely. Each live show is completely different to the next one. I might choose to go to one bit, one time, depending on if the crowd is enjoying it. If the crowd’s enjoying the chorus, then I can keep it on for another, or I can double it, or whatever.
You had a problem at one of the venues – they weren’t going to let you in because of your age?
That was Chelmsford. I got kicked out before we had even played the gig! We were sitting down on the sofa, and I was bored because I knew it wasn’t going to be a good one, and I was a bit moody because I was tired after London, and I’d just done Brighton. And the guy said, have you got any ID. And I said, I’m playing tonight, I don’t need any ID! And then he was like, get outside. Are you kidding?
That must have been your first “don’t you know who I am” moment.
I was like, are you honestly kicking me out? Because if you’re kicking me out, I’ll go. I’ll go home if you want me to. And then the manager came over and had a word with the bouncer. But obviously I would never not play the show, because a couple of guys did come down to see me who actually knew who I was. I wasn’t going to go away.
Even if there’s only two people in the room who have made the effort…
And they enjoyed it. They drove 40 minutes to come and see me. I also played Southampton, it was an over-18s one. And it was a girl’s birthday – I think she was 14 – and she and a bunch of her friends had come down for the gig. But it was an over 18s, so I had to turn them away at the door. It was heartbreaking, you know? And they’d driven about an hour and a half to come over, and it was about 9 o’clock at night. So I gave them all CDs and took pictures with them – but I felt really bad.
Well, at least they let you play. When Laura Marling was 16, she was barred from her own gig in Soho, so she ended up busking on the pavement outside.
I heard about that! Somebody used that as a comparison, saying you should have done that. But it would be difficult for me, I suppose!
You’d have to find a plug socket.
It would take about an hour to set up!
I loved your comment on Twitter. You were obviously replying to someone who was worried about going to the gig because they felt too old. And you said: just pretend you’re a journalist. That made me feel so much better about myself.
Brace yourself for the Hell Machine, some Balkan bombast and a rendition of ‘skiddly buffely boodely bump’ as Mike Atkinson tips 10 potential winners of Eurovision 2009. (Cover story, Guardian Film & Music, Friday 15 May 2009.)
Mike Atkinson on the rise and fall of Selectadisc, a much-loved institution in Nottingham since 1966. (Guardian Film & Music, Friday 13 March 2009.)
Mike Atkinson meets the P Brothers, the unlikely new kings of hip-hop. (Guardian Film & Music, Friday 9 January 2009.)