Mike Atkinson

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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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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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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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

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.

Gavin Friday: ‘You can’t be what you were’

Posted in features, interviews, The Guardian by Mike A on April 1, 2010

(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.)

To the delight of his loyal fanbase, founder members of Friday’s first band, the Virgin Prunes, also reunited for a couple of songs. Before they took to the stage, Courtney Love paid fond and fervent tribute (“I wasn’t asked to do this show; I demanded to do this show”), citing the “swagger, charisma, shamanism and fury” of their early Dublin gigs. “I had never seen so much sex, snarl, poetry, evil, restraint, grace, filth, raw power and the very essence of rock and roll,” she testified, casting the Prunes as “Lucifer: arch and cunning to U2’s Gabriel: angelic and gorgeous. U2 gave me lashes of love and inspiration, and a few nights later the Virgin Prunes fucked – me – up.”

“It’s quite a mouthful,” says Friday, five months later. “It’s quite great, actually. She gave it to me framed. I have it over my toilet pot – fittingly.”

Love and Friday first met in 1997 at the Las Vegas opening of U2’s PopMart tour. Friday was there to advise his friends on staging and performance. He has been similarly employed on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree, describing himself as their “aesthetic midwife”.

“I have a fond memory of sitting in one of the dressing rooms, talking about Ireland in the 80s, and her showing me as many of her shamrock tattoos as possible. We reminisced about the early days of punk: her from an American point of view, and me from Ireland and Britain. We got on very well. And then I didn’t see her for years.”

The pair met again in the early 2000s. “She was hanging out a lot with Winona Ryder. I think they were having a bit of a wild girl moment. I saw her perform in the Russian Tea Rooms in New York. It was some sort of strange benefit event. She was playing very improvised abstract stuff on guitar, and Winona was reading poetry. They’re really grandiose, beautiful, art deco, very wealthy rooms. And they were like two demons from hell, vomiting all over the china.”

At the Carnegie Hall show, Love and Friday duetted on a cover of Magazine’s The Light Pours Out of Me. The song was “very fitting for me and Courtney”, says Friday. “We didn’t shy away from the lyric at all. When we were rehearsing, this guttural energy just came up from the floorboards. It was electric and vibrant. It wasn’t like we were going through any motions.”

“It was the same when I did the Virgin Prunes songs,” he says. “I was able to dig deep in there and in some way become a young Gavin Friday again – for a moment.”

Did he feel Lucifer rising once more? “Well, it’s odd. You can’t be what you were. You can’t go back to what London was like in the early 80s. We’re going through a recession now, but the recession we had then, with the steel claw of Maggie Thatcher bashing anything that moved, was a very different environment. With revolutionary bands that were run by angst, or anger, or kicking against the so-called pricks, you can’t suddenly reinvent that. And the Virgin Prunes were not like a conventional rock’n’roll band. We were avant-garde, experimental, visual. It had as much to do with performance art as it did with rock’n’roll or punk.”

Having in effect disbanded the Prunes in 1986, Friday released his first solo album (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves) three years later. Drawing on European influences such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, it marked a complete break from his musical past. The Lydon-influenced wailing of the Prunes days was gone, as Friday discovered his lower register. “I’m a late developer, so maybe my balls dropped later. My tone got lower – and higher – as I got older.”

Two more albums followed, before a sequence of misfortunes – the termination of his contract with Island Records (“They basically turned into the Sugababes label”), the death of his father, the break-up of his marriage, a period of depression (“I went a bit arseways in my own life, didn’t know who I was”), major back surgery (“I couldn’t fucking do anything for about a year and a half”) – conspired to place Friday’s solo recording career on indefinite hiatus.

“And then you’re in your early 40s, and you’re going: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And everything’s changing taste-wise: in some ways for the better, in most ways for the worse. And you’re going, ‘Wow, do I even fit in here? Or do I want to fit in here?'”

Although he never stopped stock-piling new songs, Friday turned his attention to other projects. “I ended up going underground, and learning more about film scores, and getting lost in that crazy world of Hollywood.” A string of commissions followed, including an unlikely collaboration with Quincy Jones and 50 Cent on the soundtrack for Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent’s movie vehicle.

“I got on really well with them, which is a strange thing. I have a fear of grown men in short trousers. And those hip-hop guys, they all have about 10 managers and 10 assistants, all with the BlackBerrys. And they all wear these ridiculously short trousers, even in the middle of winter. We met in Canada, and I wore a three-piece suit, a cravat, my hair tied back, and earrings. If you dress well, these guys will respect you. At that first meeting, my suit did all the talking.”

And what of Jones? “Quincy was quite brilliant. My dad had just died, and he was born on the very same day, in the very same year. My father had turned into a black emperor. Hey, you motherfucking crazy Friday! Taliban Friday! That’s what he was calling me. It was like: my dad’s not dead, he’s living in Quincy Jones again.”

For the album he is now in the middle of recording, Friday made a strategic decision to go it alone. “I could have called up Antony and said: ‘Will you do a song with me?’ I will always have certain names tagged on to me, simply because of my birthright.” (Friday and Bono famously grew up on the same Dublin street.) “But I didn’t want any of the ‘famous fuck’, as I call it. I don’t want any celebrity on my album.”

Hooking up with producer Ken Thomas and his son Jolyon, Friday recorded his new songs in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. “It’s a cross between the smell of stew and cigarettes,” he says. “The people are so beautiful and so down to earth. It felt like I was in Dublin in the 80s again. It looks like you’re in a scene from that Hovis ad – like a shrine to the past – but it was just devastated in the 80s by Thatcher.”

As evidence of this new-found fondness, the album features a guest appearance from a local Salvation Army band. Their presence reminded Friday of an old situationist stunt from the Virgin Prunes days. “When we were going up to northern England, we used to loop the theme of Coronation Street and play it for 45 minutes before we went on stage. The fucking audience were banging their heads against the wall. It was actually more hardcore than white noise. But you listen to the music and it has this maudlin depression and beauty at the same time.”

Covering the “usual” themes of “life, love and death”, and said to reference both his past problems and his efforts to overcome them, Friday’s new album could be his most personal, revealing collection to date. And yet he remains an intensely private man, who maintains a wary distance from “this whole Twitter/Facebook thing. I can’t run with it seriously. When I was a kid, I never had fucking penpals. ‘Hello. It’s raining in Ireland. How are you? I’m 18.’ For fuck’s sake!”

“I like mystique,” he concludes. “Why does everyone have to show their tits, so quickly? Mystique is much nicer. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m a Chablis, or a very fine red wine.”

Owl City: Shy, retiring and No 1 everywhere.

Posted in features, interviews, The Guardian by Mike A on January 29, 2010

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 29 January 2010)

Adam Young, aka Owl City, has made the journey from the basement of a Minnesota farmhouse to the top of the charts all over the world. Here he tells the story of his success.

Like many people with a strong creative streak, Adam Young has difficulty sleeping at night. While others might battle fretfully against the condition, he has learned to embrace its more positive aspects.

“The creative juices start flowing most when I’m lying awake with nothing to do,” he explains to me, a few hours ahead of a sell-out gig in Oklahoma City. “My mind is quiet, and my thoughts are collected, and that’s when I find that the ideas really start happening.”

In 2007, a 21-year-old Young was working in a warehouse in his hometown of Owatonna, an hour’s drive south of ­Minneapolis in the midwestern state of Minnesota. He still lived with his parents – a mechanic and a school teacher – in a late-Victorian farmhouse, spending much of his time in its unkempt, windowless basement. One weekend in June, alone in the house for a couple of days, and motivated as much by boredom as ­anything else, he began to channel his insomniac energies into music, piecing together melodies and lyrics in his ­subterranean den.

Young worked in isolation, making up his own rules as he went along. He didn’t come from a musical family, none of his friends played instruments, and the live scene in Owatonna was almost non-existent. Instead, he took his initial ­inspiration from film scores and movie soundtracks. “One of the things which got me interested in music as being ­aesthetically pleasing was the movie ­Finding Nemo,” he says. “The music from that film is just so inspiring. It’s a testament to how well music can stand up on its own, when it’s written for something visually. That really made me stop and think: wow, this guy makes me feel like I wanna be able to do that for other people. I didn’t have any sort of structure, or an innate sense of direction that I wanted to go in lyrically, but I knew that I wanted to stand out from whatever else was floating around out there.”

A month later, Young had completed the recording of seven tracks. Adopting the name Owl City, he began to upload his music to MySpace, eventually ­making the tracks available as a self-released EP, Of June. Aside from telling a few friends, he did little to publicise his work.

“Slowly but surely, kids started to catch on to it and discover it. They started to pass it around to each other, and I just sat back in awe and amazement to see how fast people were connecting with what I’d done. I honestly thought there wouldn’t be a lot of people, because in comparison to what I thought was the popularised kind of music, that people find easy to connect to, I thought it was a bit off the beaten path.”

Although Young was no longer a ­teenager himself, his wistful, daydreamy synth-pop quickly found a natural ­constituency among the core MySpace demographic. His lyrics made frequent reference to the oceans, but he had yet to visit either coast. He had never travelled overseas, and he had never set foot on a plane. Equally isolated in their bedrooms, and equally innocent of the outside world, his young listeners ­instinctively related to these songs of inexperience, imagination and wonder. The connection was direct, intimate and personal. Friend requests and play counts started to stack up. Six months on from his MySpace debut, Young quit his job at the warehouse.

By the spring of 2008, emails from major record labels were arriving on an increasingly regular basis. Initially wary of their advances, Young was in no hurry to respond.

According to Avery Lipman, co-­president of Universal Republic records, “It took us a good six weeks just to ­convince him to come to New York to meet us. He had no interest, he was nervous, he was intimidated. When he finally came, I think he was actually accompanied by a town councilman; I thought it was his dad. This guy was an accountant by trade, hoping to make sure this young kid didn’t get taken advantage of.

“Adam certainly had no concept of the business. I basically had to explain Record Business 101: what a record company does, how the relationship works, how and why he should get himself an attorney and a manager and a booking agent. He certainly listened. He was intrigued. And yet it took us yet another three months to convince him to finally sign with us. He was probably, and with good reason, ­concerned of the unknown.”

“I didn’t want to have anyone swooping and taking this out from under me,” Young admits, “because it was so special, given that it was something that came out of leftfield. I wasn’t planning on the whole success thing. It was so unexpected.”

Once the deal was signed, Young returned to Minnesota and continued much as before. The deal was kept under wraps, prolonging the illusion of independence. A self-released full-length album, Maybe I’m Dreaming, continued to notch up healthy sales. Back in the basement, work began on its follow-up. Aside from some string overdubs on a few tracks, almost all the music was recorded in the usual manner. The winning formula was not to be messed with.

News of the Universal deal finally broke in February 2009, just as Owl City was preparing to perform live for the first time. The first gig was a small, hometown affair. “I was pretty apprehensive, because I’d never done it before,” says Young, who has now played more than 90 shows. “Creating all this music as one person alone in a room on a computer, it’s hard to translate that into a really aggressive, exciting live performance experience. So I was scared that it wouldn’t come across, and that it would be boring. But that first show sold out, and it was so much fun that I wanted to do more.”

A backing band was put together, ­comprising an additional singer and ­keyboardist, a violinist, a cellist and a ­drummer. Between May and July, Owl City gigged constantly, building support for the forthcoming album, Ocean Eyes. On the eve of its digital release, iTunes chose one track, Fireflies, as its free single of the week. The decision came as a surprise to Young, who had never thought of it as a potential hit; in his eyes, it was “towards the bottom of the list”.

Fireflies entered the Billboard Hot 100 in early September, at the start of Owl City’s second US tour. Supporting the band on the first leg was Unicorn Kid, a teenage dance musician from Edinburgh who had flown over at Young’s request. While manning his merchandise stall, ­Unicorn Kid witnessed the increasing ­fervour first hand. “Every night, it was like a mania,” he says. “The fans are so dedicated. They all seem to identify with Owl City as being more than just a band; it’s something that seems to bind them all together. They take pride in the fact that they knew songs besides Fireflies before he got famous.

“I would often have Owl City fans ­coming up and asking if I could give him things. For example, because he’s quite heavily Christian and a lot of his fans are as well, there was a girl who had found a lightbulb. She took the end off it, then made origami stars and wrote bible verses on the stars. She filled the light bulb up with them, screwed it back on, and made it as a present for him.”

Two months after first charting, and despite scant support from Top 40 radio, Fireflies reached No 1 on the Billboard charts. By the end of 2009, it had amassed over 2.5m sales.

Given Owl City’s ­undeniable stylistic resemblance to the Postal Service, who had delighted critics in 2003 with the cult hit Such Great Heights, it was small wonder that the rock press gave Fireflies such short shrift. The influential indie-centric website Pitchfork awarded it a rare 1 out of 10, lambasting its “emasculated, ­cloying wheeze that serves as a cutesy defense mechanism for a guy who’s trying so hard to be sincere, he forgets to say what he ­actually means”.

None of this halted its progress. Fireflies is currently the No 1 single in ­Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands – and the UK, where it deposed the previous incumbent last Sunday, a week after ­entering the Top 40.

Amid the furore, Adam Young remains a shy, unassuming soul and a reluctant interviewee, who delights in confounding his interrogators with whimsical tall tales. There are conflicting accounts of how he chose the name Owl City, ranging from a “marvellously mysterious forest” in the “lovely Scottish foothills”, crammed full of owls, to an incident at school when “Pickles”, an owl brought by a classmate to a show-and-tell, burst out of its cage and “began flapping around the classroom, ripping scribbled posters off the walls and wreaking havoc”.

“He has a childlike way about him,” Unicorn Kid confirms. “He’s certainly very innocent in reality. It’s not something that he’s created or made up. He’s 100% genuine in his representation of himself.”

“I still really haven’t come to grips with that feeling,” Young says, reflecting on the success that Fireflies has brought him. “It’s still very new. It’s very surreal, but it’s so thrilling. When I lay awake at night and think about that song, it has been listened to by so many more people than I ever imagined it reaching when I was writing it.

“I’m trying not to take it for granted. If it all goes away tomorrow, if the whole thing is a flash in the pan, I’m still a happy camper. I can still go back to what I was doing before and have a lot of good stories to tell from it. So I’m just ­trying to take it day by day, and soak it in, and be grateful for what I have, while I have it.”

Give pub rock another chance: Fans were quick to turn their back on Dr Feelgood et al once punk hit, but they weren’t so different really.

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on January 22, 2010

(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.

For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to ­tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.

As for that troublesome “pub rock” tag, it’s worth remembering that in those pre-punk times, the label carried no shame. It was a handy code for a smaller scale, more egalitarian performance ethic, which stood in opposition to the florid, remote, stadium-scaled pomp of the bigtime prog elite. Meanwhile, the network of London venues that evolved around it, or whose lifespans were sustained by it – the Hope and Anchor, the Nashville, Dingwalls – provided a ready-made launch pad for the punk scene.

Before the barriers came up, the boundaries between punk and pub were blurred. The Sex Pistols supported the Hot Rods at the ­Marquee, and scene ­stalwarts The 101ers at the Nashville. The Feelgoods and the Ramones shared a bill in New York. The word “punk” debuted on Top of the Pops on a T-shirt worn by a Hot Rod. Punk bible Sniffin’ Glue even ran a rave review of Stupidity, claiming that “this is the way rock should be”.

“Our energy was our legacy to the punks,” argued Dr Feelgood’s guitarist Wilko Johnson, quoted in Will Birch’s history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. “It was the violence of our act and the mean look which got to them. They didn’t have the knowledge or the technique, but they had the attitude.”

Naturally, there was no place for ­gratitude from the UK punks, given their scorched-earth approach. As the new bands landed record deals, “pub rock” changed from a term of modest, affectionate pride into a scornful signifier of plodding, jam-band conservatism. For those of us who jumped ship during 1977, Dr Feelgood’s brand of supercharged rhythm and blues fell into ­almost immediate redundancy. It was as if we had been living in an Eastern bloc state, longing to wear Levi’s but making do with frumpy denim slacks. If this was a generationally necessary distancing, it was also – with the wisdom of hindsight – a harsh, juvenile snap judgment.

But if you’re still inclined to dismiss the Feelgoods as a Canvey Quo with one too many Chuck Berry covers in their repertoire, take a fresh listen to Wilko Johnson’s lean, taut slashes of guitar on She Does It Right, the first track on their 1975 debut Down By the Jetty. Then search YouTube for Going Back Home, as performed at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Observe singer Lee Brilleaux, menacing the crowd and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy white suit, and ask yourself whether Rotten was taking notes (Weller and Strummer ­certainly were). Finally, go to see Julien Temple’s ­forthcoming documentary Oil City Confidential, and ­marvel at the legacy of this malevolently raw, dirty and groundbreaking band.

Oil City Confidential is ­released on 5 ­February. Mike Atkinson’s Spotify pub rock playlist: tinyurl.com/pubrock

Do they know Band Aid was 25 years ago?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on December 18, 2009

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 18 December 2009)

The epoch-defining charity single drew a line under the fragmented UK music scene, and brought us into the modern era – for good or for ill.

Next time you watch the video for Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas – and given that the single reached No 1 25 years ago this month, it’s a fair bet that you’ll get the chance to do so this holiday season – take a good, close look at the state of everybody’s hair. Hauled out of bed at next to no notice on a Sunday morning, and summoned to the studios for a brisk 11am start, the pop royalty of 1984 (and Marilyn) evidently had no time to attend to the niceties of styling. And judging by the state that some of them arrived in – Phil Collins in a nasty Argyle tank-top, Sting looking like a mangy scarecrow, Simon Le Bon in woefully mismatched vertical and horizontal stripes – you have to wonder whether they even knew that cameras would be present.

Whether by accident or design, this utilitarian lack of vanity (from a generation that was better known for hailing the virtues of a well-sculpted bouffant, or proclaiming that one’s clothes were a window on one’s very soul) marked the first sign that British pop was heading for a massive change. The overriding seriousness of the Band Aid mission effectively signalled that the age of stylised froth and arch, postmodernist frolic was over, rendered redundant by more pressing, pragmatic concerns. If lives were now at stake, then who could give two hoots about the hairdos?

The events of December 1984 also marked the closing of a generation gap that had first opened up with punk, eight years earlier – for by welcoming “good old Phil” and “good old Quo” back to the party, Band Aid in effect extinguished any last flickers of a culture of opposition within mainstream pop. United by a common cause, the new breed was no longer required to chafe against the old school. Biggest once again equalled best, and as the stadium-sized spectacle of Live Aid was soon to affirm, the primacy of a superstar elite was re-established. Good old Freddie! Good old Macca! Good   old Elton!

Those of a weekly music-press mindset might well have recoiled in horror at the scene, drawing disquieting parallels with the closing pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Had the punk wars been fought in vain? The NME dismissed the project with withering snootiness, grudgingly conceding that a rubbish record had at least been made for the right reasons. But by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the power structures that had allowed the Ethiopian disaster to happen, Geldof and Ure lay themselves open to self-righteous charges of naivety at best, or collusion at worst. Wasn’t it every rocker’s duty to stick it to the man, rather than pat him on the back for agreeing to waive the VAT?

Then again, you could argue that the Band Aid generation was simply making good on the promises of its predecessors. As romantic as it might have been to sing about wanting to change the world in the 1960s, surely the opportunity to make a significant, tangible, measurable difference to it was worth a certain measure of ideological compromise? The argument must have played well with the former firebrands of the baby-boom generation, by then in their 30s and starting to populate the corridors of power. But for anyone with an abiding faith in the power of the mass-market protest song, Do They Know It’s Christmas all but ended a tradition that had stretched from Bob Dylan (soon to be a participant in We Are the World) to Paul Weller (a scowling, incongruous and largely inaudible presence at the Band Aid sessions).

Within the UK charts, the fall-out was swift and sudden. As 1985 progressed, we saw a marked swing towards renewed notions of “authenticity” (Springsteen’s time had come at last, while Collins and Knopfler cleaned up with No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms), and a hurried distancing from “artificiality” (plastic poseur cocktail crap with stupid haircuts, if you will). Over the next couple of years, pop became grown-up, respectable, civic-minded, feebly acquiescent – and really rather dull. It was a poor cultural legacy for a bold, unprecedented, well-intentioned (and in strict material terms, staggeringly successful) project which – for a few heady weeks at least – had appeared to expand the possibilities of what pop music could achieve.

Sugababes’ re-revamp: how will the girl group survive without any of its founder members?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on September 28, 2009

(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.

Four days ago, it was announced that Keisha Buchanan, sole survivor of the original lineup, had been replaced by Jade Ewen, last seen in fifth place at this year’s Eurovision. In a troubling week for long-suffering fans and overstocked merchandising companies alike, the Sugababes have gained admittance to a small, strange subset of acts, whose only shared characteristic is a desire to continue working, despite containing none of their original members.

If its fourth incarnation survives long enough to score another UK hit, the Sugababes will have achieved a rare feat indeed. Discounting occasional dabblers such as the England World Cup squad, Liverpool FC and Manchester United, only two British groups have charted with wholly different lineups. Having cracked the top 10 in 1970 with United We Stand, an all-new version of Brotherhood of Man returned six years later, with the all-conquering Save Your Kisses For Me. The same lineup is still touring today. And in early 1982, after an absence from the charts of just four months, the anonymous session musicians of Tight Fit – a hastily assembled outfit, cashing in on the Stars on 45 medley boom – were replaced by a markedly more photogenic trio, whose cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight topped the charts.

Away from the mainstream, the world of progressive rock has demonstrated equal fickleness. Mike Ratledge, the last remaining founder member of the Soft Machine, quit the band in 1976, leaving Karl Jenkins to take over as leader of a band whose original sound had mutated out of all recognition. A similar mission-creep affected the late-70s incarnation of Gong. Under the command of drummer Pierre Moerlen, the new lineup jettisoned all lingering traces of pothead pixies and flying teapots, in favour of a stern jazz/rock fusion.

Many acts continue to ply their trade on the live circuit, long after their more bankable members have departed, secure in the knowledge that a brand alone can draw a crowd. In this respect, death is no obstacle. Dr Feelgood, Thin Lizzy and “Mud II” have all ploughed on, long after the passing of Lee Brilleaux, Phil Lynott and Les Gray – and of the three, only Lizzy – in the form of guitarist Scott Gorham – have a member who contributed to any of the hits (and he was not an original member). As for the act that tours as T.Rex, 32 years after the death of Marc Bolan, its only direct connection to the 70s lineup is with a drummer who joined in 1973. Nevertheless, they can still claim one founder member … of Saxon, that is.

In fairness to these anonymous journeymen, many have served for decades, extending the life span of their adopted bands many times over. Would that we could say the same for the current incarnation of soul legends the Drifters, who are now reduced to a mere franchise, the British legal rights to their name secured by the daughter of their original manager. Amazingly, their two longest-serving members joined as recently as 2005. (In other territories, other Drifters remain available.)

For some acts, constant shifts in personnel have been no block to success. The Three Degrees lost their last original member in 1976, but notched up major international hits for the rest of the decade. There have been 21 documented members of Napalm Death over the years, the band’s lineup even changing between sides one and two of their first album (only the drummer appears on both). And for the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, whose members were routinely booted out on their 16th birthdays, this rigorous, Logan’s Run-style approach provided a significant boost to the group’s shelf life. With this in mind, perhaps our newest Sugababe should check her contract carefully before signing.

Unicorn Kid: the teenager who remixed Pet Shop Boys.

Posted in features, interviews, The Guardian by Mike A on July 10, 2009

(The Guardian Film & Music, Friday 10 July 2009.)

Not many teenage bedroom musicians get the chance to be heard outside their own bedrooms. Fewer still get invited to remix an arena-filling act. But for Oli Sabin, a 17-year old from Leith who has been recording and performing as Unicorn Kid since he was 15, the dream became a reality during the Easter school holidays, when he was invited to rework the latest Pet Shop Boys single, Did You See Me Coming?

“It was the first remix that I did,” he admits. “I was sitting in my room and I started opening all the files up, and I had five different a capellas of Neil Tennant’s voice. It was so weird to be hearing that.”

In his remix, Tennant’s vocals are the sole surviving elements of the original track. As for Chris Lowe’s instrumentation, “I kind of wiped him out. I started the remix before I’d actually listened to the original track, so I wasn’t too influenced by what it sounds like. The chord combinations underneath it are all completely different. Maybe that’s the reason why they liked it.”

Championed by Popjustice.com’s Peter Robinson – who brokered the hook-up with Tennant and Lowe – and Huw Stephens at Radio 1, Unicorn Kid’s bright, brash, richly melodic brand of electronic dance music has also caught the ear of Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, who publicly courted his friendship on Twitter. Following a recent London showcase gig (“60, 80 kids down in the pit, and it was all just industry at the back”), the pair met, clicked, and discussed future collaborations.

Unicorn Kid’s music has its roots in the 8-bit scene: a long-established if mostly overlooked genre (also known as chiptune or gamewave), whose practitioners use old-school videogame consoles to generate original compositions. “I’m not well-regarded within the scene,” he concedes. Perhaps it’s because he uses modern equipment to emulate the sound chips of the games consoles, thus offending the genre purists – or perhaps it’s “because I’m a young guy, making popular young music. But I’m not looking to impress them more than anyone else.”

To unschooled ears, 8-bit’s blaring bleeps and swirls can sound jarring and over-insistent – but for Unicorn Kid, its appeal lies in the clean, electronic purity of the sound. “It gave me a kind of sound set,” he explains. “Something to hang on to, to make you understand it a bit better. If I wasn’t doing that, I think I would have got lost with all the other dance music.”

Unicorn Kid insists his work should not be bracketed as “video game music”. Neither should it be seen as purely functional, mechanistic dancefloor fodder. “You get feelings of determination,” he suggests, “or of positive optimism. People often message me, saying it makes them feel happy when they listen to it. It often reflects what I’m feeling at that time.”

On stage, the tumbling melodic intricacy that defines his sound is beefed up with fatter basslines and a more pronounced rhythmic urgency. Mindful of his popularity with teenage fans, Unicorn Kid is happiest when playing gigs at which under-18s are admitted, and wary of age-restricted club PAs, where his music can sometimes sound plain wrong.

Despite its roots in trance and hardcore, the cheerful freshness of tracks such as Lion Hat and Wee Monsters contrasts sharply with the more demonic, oblivion-seeking dynamics of hard dance. Listen carefully, and you might catch echoes of Bollywood soundtracks, Scottish jigs and reels, or even the flashy wizardry of prog. Curious and inclusive by nature, Unicorn Kid cheerfully acknowledges the uncool delights of “stuff that people would consider to be bad music, like Clubland albums”. Best of all, he’s an unashamed fan of current mainstream pop – Lady GaGa, Tinchy Stryder, Calvin Harris – at a time when the singles charts are arguably in their healthiest state for years. “I love the production sounds, and I really think there’s elements of what I’m doing occurring in stuff like La Roux,” he agrees. “I think it’s my time, to come in and do my thing now.”

——————

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.

Eurovision 2009: a night of a thousand key changes.

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on May 15, 2009

(Cover story, Guardian Film & Music, Friday 15 May 2009.)

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.

Sweden – the camp one

Language buffs might be drawn to the Eurovision Song Contest for its cultural plurality. A statistician might revel in the quirks of its voting system. A homesick expatriate might place an emotional stake in the success of his or her homeland, however justifiably (most former Soviet or Yugoslav republics) or foolishly (all points west of Prague). But for Britons, the contest represents one of the last outposts of that most devalued of currencies: high camp. And in this year’s finals in Moscow, the camp comes no higher than Sweden’s daring fusion of light opera and throbbing eurodance.

Graced with the voice of a song-thrush, the shoulders of a stevedore and the lung power of an industrial dehumidifier, Malena Ernman is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano with serious chops: she’s played Carmen and Dido, sung at Vienna and Glyndebourne, and worked with Barenboim and Rattle. Tomorrow night, equipped with little more than a feathery frock, a souped-up karaoke machine and a mask-flaunting dance troupe, she faces an audience of 100 million, whose unqualified respect might not be forthcoming. If camp’s comedic power resides in the gap between intention and effect, then the gap here is one in which we may all gratefully luxuriate.

Malta – the plucky one

No country is more eager to win Eurovision than Malta, and no country has displayed greater loyalty to the hapless UK – even to the point of awarding the full douze points to Scooch, in 2007. There’s no getting away from it: we owe them.

With that in mind, you are urged to gaze charitably upon the delightful Chiara, who returns to the finals for a third attempt. Granted, there’s nothing immediately ear-grabbing about What If We, an old-fashioned ballad that mires itself in metaphysical riddles (“What if we could be free? Mystify our wisdom in time and one day we’ll see”). But know this also: Chiara has form. She came third in 1998, second in 2005, and her hardcore Eurovision fanbase adore her still-can-do spirit. Underestimate her at your peril.

Turkey – the toddler-talking one

Times may change, but a Eurovision cleansed of lyrical toddler-talk would be a bleak place indeed. With this in mind, we must commend its few remaining exponents. Moldova has us merrily shai-lalai-ing; Armenia chips in with some sturdy takituk-takituk-takituk-ing; and Germany goes the whole hog, inviting us variously to “do the skiddly skiddly bo”, the “skiddly buffely boodely bump” and most winningly of all, the “ring-a-bing bing”.

But it’s to Turkey’s Hadise that we must turn for a toddler song title – first pausing to admire her way with a double-edged compliment. “No one can kiss like you do – as if it’s your profession,” she purrs. Surely there are better ways to a man’s heart than suggesting he snogs like a rent boy?

Düm Tek Tek is the hotly tipped, rump-shaking ditty in question, its title an onomatopoeic representation of Hadise’s wild, unfettered heartbeat. In other words, it’s a Turkish version of Boom Bang-a-Bang. And for that alone, we must salute it.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – the war-weary one

There’s a certain strain of butched-up Balkan bombast that always does well at Eurovision, to the bafflement of those deprived of sufficient opportunities to acquire a taste for it. This year it’s the Bosnian rock band Regina who look set to galvanise the former Yugoslav voting bloc into phone-stabbing action. Bistra Voda (Clear Water) couples a stirring tune with poetic, impressionistic lyrics and distinct military overtones; you could imagine it performed by a weary, battle-scarred marching band, still defiant in defeat. Watch out for a striking Socialist Realist tableau vivant, in which the players adopt the noble, faraway gazes of Worker Hero archetypes. Or are they merely refugees from a Sarajevan production of Les Miserables? It’s hard to decide.

Norway – the bloc-straddling one

Where football leads, Eurovision follows. As countries of birth or residence become ever less relevant when it comes to assigning players to teams (Ronan Keating has co-written this year’s Danish entry, for instance), cynical tongues have seen fit to wag at Norway’s apparent outsourcing of their entry to Alexander Rybak, a Byelorussian. What neater way could there be to unite two of the major voting blocs, the Slavs and the Scandinavians?

In fairness, Rybak has lived in Norway since he was four, giving him every right to assert his Norwegian identity. During the fortnight of rehearsals, press conferences and parties that have preceded tomorrow’s finals, he has presented himself as a model of accessible, unassuming charm – and it’s these qualities that make his self-penned song Fairytale such a strong tip to win. Indeed, it has been the universally acknowledged red-hot favourite for so long that its supremacy has rather deadened the fun of trying to pick a winner.

Stringed instruments are big news at this year’s Eurovision – nobody quite knows why – and Rybak’s nimble fiddle breaks lie at the heart of Fairytale’s appeal. Granted, his irrepressible sunniness does clash with the lyrical despair (“I don’t care if I lose my mind, I’m already cursed”), and there’s an awkward tautology in the opening line (“Years ago, when I was younger”) which sits oddly with the winsome boyishness he projects – but Rybak has just turned 23, and is hence clearly entitled to have a “past”. Fairytale’s spell palls swiftly on repeated exposure, but it would be churlish not to wish him well.

Greece – the age-inappropriate one

We last saw Sakis Rouvas at the 2006 finals in Athens, as presenter rather than contestant. Those who recall his graceful, high-wire-assisted descent on to the Athens stage will be heartened by this year’s continuation of the “man in flight” theme – although this time round, as the Greek entrant, his execution is altogether more earthbound. In other words, Sakis gets to jump off his podium a lot, barking “Fly!” upon each descent, with a misplaced optimism that would have shamed Icarus.

A fully fledged heartthrob at home, Sakis seems blissfully unburdened by self-doubt – but at 37, his age might just be starting to catch up with him. So as you watch him shimmy and thrust, playing eternal peek-a-boo with midriff and man-cleavage alike, you can’t help questioning the age-appropriateness of all this galumphing around. Still, there’s plenty on stage to distract us. The posing platform briefly becomes a conveyor belt, before morphing into a giant sunbed, upon whose half-open lid Sakis triumphantly perches. Unmissable stuff.

Ukraine – the kinky one

In a comparatively unchallenging year for the Eurovision props department, it falls to Ukraine’s frankly alarming Svetlana Loboda to go the whole hog, bolstered by an equally arresting troupe of swarthy hunks and “anti-crisis girls”. Brace yourselves for a riot of eye-popping gimmickry – from the so-called “Hell Machine” that dominates the stage (essentially a set of giant MDF cogs, but let’s not puncture the metaphor), to the drum kit on wheels that is heaved towards centre stage in the closing moments. The overall aesthetic combines interwar industrial dystopianism – think Chaplin’s Modern Times, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – with bare-chested centurions who appear to have been drafted in from a Derek Jarman film.

And all this for a mispronounced ode to the male posterior – “You are sexy bom; really crazy bom.” You sense that someone on Svetlana’s design team must be having the time of his life.

Russia – the tactical no-hope one

And so to the vexed question of “political voting”, and the apparent refusal of eastern European countries to cast votes for their western counterparts. Until last year, the standard anti-conspiracy theory ran like this: political voting might bump a mediocre song up a couple of notches, but it has never created a winner. Besides, non-conspiracists would say: how exactly does one organise a conspiracy based on not voting for people? But at the 2008 finals, with former Soviet republics submitting nearly a quarter of all votes cast, most agreed that a tipping point had been reached. How else to explain the triumph of Russian-language superstar Dima Bilan, and his resolutely unmemorable song Believe?

Stung into action by a surging tide of western dissent, Terry Wogan fulminating at its helm, the authorities have tried to reassure those suspicious of the east by reintroducing a jury system that will count for half of each country’s votes, with votes from TV viewers accounting for the other half (since 2002, TV viewers have controlled the whole vote). Theoretically, jurors are drawn from a select pool of music business experts, and charged with the solemn duty of evaluating each entry strictly on its songcraft – but if past practice is any measure, then any country deploying pan pipes, Gypsy fiddles or power ballads stands to be rewarded handsomely.

None of this need concern this year’s Russian entry, as every effort has been taken to ensure that Moscow won’t be playing host again in 2010. Anastasiya Prikhodko was parachuted into the selection process at the 11th hour, and whole sections of her song Mamo are caterwauled in Ukranian, in effect dampening local support to a containable minimum. Besides, every final needs its toilet break. It’s a service, of sorts.

France – the dignified, face-saving one

For the so-called “big four” (France, Germany, Spain and the UK), whose annual financial contributions to Eurovision guarantee automatic passage to the finals (payola didn’t die, it just became transparent), crunch time has come. Long since barred from the top half of the scoreboard, and presumably weary of forever bankrolling their own ritual humiliation, all four countries have raised their games – even the French, habitually impervious to being slighted by the rest of Europe.

Patricia Kaas is a multimillion-selling institution in her homeland, so there’s nothing she needs to prove tomorrow night. Indeed, her gimmick is that there’s no gimmick. Alone on a bare stage, she smoulders; she emotes; she delivers. Her song – no, her chanson – is John Barry with a twist of Jacques Brel; it’s Charlotte Rampling sulking in a wet-look trenchcoat; it’s a jaded nightclub turn at the end of the evening. It’s a grower rather than an instant hit, to be sure – but it could be the “growers” that stand to gain most from the reintroduction of a jury system. Although for safety’s sake, a last-minute burst of Gypsy fiddling possibly wouldn’t go amiss.

United Kingdom – the ovation-inspiring one

Dare we dream? OK, so the combination of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren might have gifted us with little more than a glorified upgrade of the X Factor winner’s template – as if the world was crying out for another That’s My Goal, When You Believe or A Moment Like This, for pity’s sake. But to dwell on It’s My Time’s generic standing-prouds, breaking-throughs and moah-ments risks missing a crucial point. Its whole raison d’être is to grab votes, and if that calls for a syrupy show tune, then so be it.

Boosted by a superb place in tomorrow’s draw (the 23rd song of 25, sandwiched between undistinguished offerings from Romania and Finland), “our” Jade Ewen has everything to play for. An unarguably accomplished vocalist, she sells It’s My Time like a trouper, taking us on a three-minute journey from nervous hesitance to triumphant certainty.

In a night of a thousand key changes (don’t even think of planning your Eurovision drinking game without factoring them in), Ewen gets to ride the most show-stopping, ovation-inducing key change of them all – just as the camera pans round to reveal Lord Lloyd Webber himself, modestly placed behind his piano, and doubtless flushing with demure pride at a job well done.

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Sleccy’s vinyl countdown.

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on March 13, 2009

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 13 March 2009.)

Mike Atkinson on the rise and fall of Selectadisc, a much-loved institution in Nottingham since 1966.

Every city deserves a great record shop: as hang-out for the cognoscenti, learning centre for the novitiate, and focal point for the local scene. Since 1966, Nottingham’s music lovers have congregated in Selectadisc – a much-loved institution, widely regarded as one of the country’s best. Two weeks ago, to general gasps of dismay, the store announced it would close at the end of March. Although we knew times were hard for independent music retailers, few imagined that good old “Sleccy”, of all places, would go under. Then again, how many of us were still pushing money over its counter on a regular basis? As with so many revered institutions, we had taken it for granted for too long.

Selectadisc began life as a market stall, before moving to tiny, condemned premises – with cheap rent to match – on the edge of Nottingham. Before long, owner Brian Selby spotted an opportunity to corner the market in Northern Soul rarities. Opening a “soul cellar” below the main shop, he traded in US imports and UK repressings, offering unmatchable bargains to Midlands soul fans – including a young Pete Waterman, who travelled up frequently from Coventry. A mail-order business followed, along with a record label (Black Magic), which licensed reissues of Northern Soul floor-fillers. Its biggest release, Papa Oom Mow Mow by the Sharonettes, briefly grazed the top 30 in 1975.

By the early 1980s, Selectadisc had graduated to the city centre. In late 1983, Selby bought a dilapidated reggae club in the old Lace Market, relaunching it as the Garage: a hip alternative to the chrome-plated, smart-dress-enforced pick-up joints of the day. Needing someone to play records in the upstairs bar on opening night, Selby press-ganged a young Selectadisc sales assistant called Graeme Park, at under a day’s notice. Park’s 25-year reputation as an international house DJ was founded at the Garage. Two years ahead of the 1988 “Summer of Love”, he spearheaded the introduction of Chicago house into the UK, before graduating to the Hacienda in Manchester. “If it wasn’t for Selectadisc, I would never have become a DJ”, he says today.

The club’s success fed back into the shop, which soon opened a dedicated singles store. Where soul DJs had once cursed Selectadisc for undercutting the value of their rarities, hordes of aspiring bedroom DJs were now flicking through its racks of 12in vinyl – a format the store never abandoned.

“I’ve always stuck with vinyl,” says the current store manager, Jim Cooke. “During the 1990s, I remember going down and talking to people at Warner Brothers when I was trying to get a load of John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus reissued. They just thought: you’re a fucking idiot from the sticks. And I proved them wrong. I’ve talked to EMI, and got Morrissey and Blur albums repressed. I also did a lot of work with Gordon Montgomery, who owned Fopp. The two of us used to work together in getting things reissued.”

Ironically, the Nottingham opening of Fopp in 2001 marked the beginning of the end for Selectadisc. Hoovering up the “50-quid bloke” market, Fopp effectively beat Selectadisc at its oldest game: sourcing and discounting overstocks, deletions and cheap imports. When Fopp went into administration in 2007, Selectadisc’s profits briefly bounced back up, only to slump again when the Nottingham Fopp was one of six stores in the chain reopened by HMV.

For 18 months, Sleccy soldiered on, “more as a social service than as a normally functioning business”, as current owner Phil Barton admits. But squeezed between the defecting 50-quidsters, the convenience of online retailers, and the general decline of recorded music sales, it was living on borrowed time. Now that time has been called, the punters have come flooding back – but you’ll still struggle to find anyone in there under the age of 30.

“I had two kids, two weeks ago, come into me”, says Cooke. “They were doing a business studies course at the local university. One of them said, ‘Why is your shop geared to classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull?’ I said, ‘When did you last buy a CD?’ And he said, ‘Six years ago.’ So I said, ‘Well, there’s your fucking answer, mate.'”

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Nottingham’s star beatmakers: Mike Atkinson meets the P Brothers, the unlikely new kings of hip-hop.

Posted in features, interviews, The Guardian by Mike A on January 9, 2009

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday 9 January 2009.)

Few saw the P Brothers coming last year, when the attention of hip-hop fans was fixed upon the likes of Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy rather than on a pair of fortysomethings from Nottinghamshire. But the P Brothers’ debut album, The Gas, was voted the second best rap album of 2008 by Hip Hop Connection magazine – nine places ahead of Lil’ Wayne and 12 ahead of Young Jeezy. Not that they are exactly stars: if you’ve heard of the P Brothers at all, perhaps you’ve heard the received wisdom that they only work with US rappers; they think hip-hop died in the mid-1990s; they’re a pair of mithering old grumps, locked into a perpetual 1988. The first is demonstrably false; the second and third require further qualification.

In the flesh, Paul S and DJ Ivory present themselves as affable, thoughtful and disarmingly sincere. They’re quick to claim kinship with John Peel, acknowledging his early influence and later support. Indeed, their whole ethos – fiercely independent, determinedly purist – is recognisably Peelite. It sets them worlds apart from the self-glorifying materialism which informs popular perceptions of commercial hip-hop – and they take pride in maintaining that distance.

Recorded in Nottingham and New York, and released on the duo’s own Heavy Bronx label, The Gas has been a long time coming. Paul and Ivory have been hip-hop DJs since the mid-80s, and they’ve been producers, label bosses and 12-inch recording artists since the turn of the decade – but only last year was the time right for a full-blown P Brothers album.

“Everything we’ve done business-wise has been bad timing,” says Ivory. “We started putting out records when people weren’t buying records, and we’ve put out our first CD album at a time when no one’s buying CDs. We just operate in a weird kind of way, that feels right to us.”

The Gas is vocalised wholly by New York MCs. Their rhymes roll at an even, measured pace, the deftly layered, lovingly sourced breaks and beats rising up to meet them. The brooding soulfulness of the music matches well with the gritty subject matter – but when it comes to lyrical content, the P Brothers maintain a non-interventionist stance. “You can’t tell people what to say,” says Paul. “Politicians might do that, but rappers? No; it’s their life and their angle.”

“They’re in a social situation where they’re not living a life of luxury”, adds Ivory. “So you hear them rap in a certain kind of way. It’s heartfelt, and it’s because of their circumstances.”

With its street-based lyrical flow and its emphasis on 1970s analogue samples, The Gas consciously adheres to the rules laid down by hip-hop’s forefathers. “We’ve been into this since 1983, so that real important rule book of hip-hop is within you,” Ivory says. “It’s part of your everyday rules. The way in which you behave with people is defined by hip-hop. It has to be.” He feels the quality of hip-hop has been diluted in recent years, and that too many people are trying to force hip-hop away from its old precepts. “Good stuff’s coming out all the time,” he says. “But when you went into an import shop back in the day, there were probably only three new hip-hop records out, and they were all good. Whereas now there’s 300 hip-hop records out, and there’s probably still three good ones in there.”

The prevalence of so much “absolute garbage” is what led the P Brothers to steer their own creative course. “It’s the only reason we’ve put out records,” Ivory admits. Their journey took them to the Bronx, attracting the attention of old-school stalwart Sadat X of Brand Nubian. Word of mouth spread, tapes were passed around, and the collaborations started flowing. As for the recent critical acclaim, the Brothers appear largely unmoved – “In terms of what we do, it doesn’t really mean anything,” Ivory says. But when pushed, he agrees it might help steer their work towards “the right people, that can’t find those three good hip-hop records that we were talking about.”

Including Guardian readers? “Perhaps they can put it next to their Massive Attack albums,” suggests Paul.

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