Mike Atkinson

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Four days ago, it was announced that Keisha Buchanan, sole survivor of the original lineup, had been replaced by Jade Ewen, last seen in fifth place at this year’s Eurovision.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.

My 60 minutes of letting go on the plinth was a privilege of liberated fun.

Posted in features, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 28, 2009

I’m too old for nightclubs. I’m the wrong age to be invited to many weddings. And yet I still love dancing. So, if there was nowhere else left for me to shake my ever-thickening tushie, then, I concluded, I shall just have to create my own space – 8 metres high and 1.7 metres wide – right in the heart of London’s evening rush hour.

I’m under no delusions. My dancing style is most kindly described as “enthusiastic”, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to turn myself into an object of wonder and desire.

No, my aim was to dance with honesty, non-stop for an hour – and stone cold sober.

I created a mix of tunes, spliced together as a single, 60-minute MP3 and to ramp up the participative aspect, I’d made a copy available to download. So, when my allotted hour began anyone and everyone could dance along with me.

You spend 90 minutes in the One and Other project office – effectively two Portakabins on top of each other in Trafalgar Square.

They give you a Health and Safety talk, a pep talk, you can stash stuff in a locker, you’re searched for contraband… and then you’re taken into an interview room for a 15-minute audio interview, then photoshoot.

Ascending via the cherry picker, it was heartening to see so many supporters in the square – old friends, long-lost friends, people I had met through blogging and tweeting and message-boarding, my sister, my mother, my cousin and my partner – all looking up and beaming and waving and (mostly) jiggling around with me to Scissor Sisters, Lady GaGa, La Roux, Pet Shop Boys and Dana International.

During Sharon Redd’s In The Name Of Love I admired the buildings on the south side of the square.

I took in the full height of the column, then dipped my gaze down towards the giant chess set – still under construction.

Ahead of me and below, a smartly dressed upper-middle class couple in their late fifties hurried through the square, arm in arm. They glanced up, for no more than a second or two, visibly wincing at the vulgarity of the spectacle.

An open-topped tourist bus passed down the western side of the square, two lone passengers on its top deck. We exchanged friendly waves. A while later, a white stretch limo with blacked-out windows gave me a cheerful hoot.

I was red-faced, defiant, declaiming like a crazed preacher man. Swept up in the moment. Liberated. Totally and utterly letting go.

All too soon came the final song, Together In Electric Dreams by Giorgio Moroder & Phil Oakey. Behind me the cherry picker was drawing ever closer but I wasn’t about to be cut off in my scarlet-faced, vein-popping prime.

I turned to face the cherry picker at the precise moment that it docked on top of my water bottle: squashing it flat, spurting a thick jet of water over me, soaking my jeans.

Having my hour on Antony Gormley’s plinth – to dance, and share, and smile, and entertain, and create, and meditate, and celebrate, and connect, and let go, and be fully, fully myself – was the most incredible privilege.

It challenged me, and showed me that fear can always be overcome.

And it was the best fun, ever.

Fuck Buttons / Zun Zun Egui – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Monday September 21.

Posted in Bodega, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 22, 2009

Following in the slipstream of acts such as Dirty Projectors and Icy Demons, Bristol-based Zun Zun Egui are the latest band to draw influences from the jazzier end of prog rock. Their playing was fast, tight and intricate, with rhythms that lurched and shifted when you least expected them to. Mauritian band leader Kush’s chiming, trebly, pleasingly academic guitar style was strikingly similar in tone to the Projectors, while also carrying distinct echoes of Yes’s Steve Howe, circa 1972.

African influences also featured heavily, particularly when it came to Kush’s high, ululating vocals, which suggested a familiarity with the work of Mali’s legendary Salif Keita. North African and Congolese elements were also stirred into the brew, along with some of the elegantly funky fluidity of vintage Talking Heads.

It might sound like a strange mix on paper, but these seemingly opposite styles blended together in a way that sounded natural and unforced, leaving you wondering why no-one had attempted the same thing before. Although the set dragged a little towards the end, weighed down by some slightly heavy-handed percussion work, it displayed immense potential and promise.

Headliners Fuck Buttons made significant waves in 2008, with their critically acclaimed debut album Street Horrrsing. A new release, Tarot Sport, is due out next month. Produced by Andrew Weatherall, it signals a shift towards a more recognisably dance-based template, while losing none of the duo’s droney, fuzzed-out sonic experimentation.

Performing for over fifty minutes without a pause, Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power faced each other on stage, studiously hunched over tangled arrays of knobs and wires. Thick, monolithic, slow-moving slabs of sound formed the basic backbone of each track, underpinned by brutally simple downbeats and overlaid with skittering, clattering rhythms. Relentlessly intense, it promised rather more than it delivered.

For underneath all that initially impressive bombast, there was insufficient detail to hold the attention for the full duration of the set. The music remained static and earthbound, leading the imagination to nowhere in particular, and the rhythms were too solid to lift the feet very far off the floor.

That said, the final ten minutes did build to a reasonably effective climax, the tempo quickening and the musical layers expanding into something more fully realised. An abrupt, unexpected ending left you momentarily wondering whether someone had cut the power supply. A dazed silence, then applause at last. But had we been taken on a magical, mesmerising journey, or merely been bludgeoned into submission?

Tinchy Stryder – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Friday September 20.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on September 20, 2009

Like Dizzee Rascal before him, the 22-year old East End rapper Tinchy Stryder has made a remarkable journey, from hero of the underground grime scene to fully-fledged pop star. While scenester purists might baulk – as scenester purists always do – at the shameless commercialisation of it all, Stryder’s colourful, hook-heavy, dance-derived new sound demonstrates a keen understanding of pop craftsmanship. And in a year which has seen the UK singles charts rejuvenated and revitalised with some of the most consistently strong pop music in years, he has been responsible for some of its biggest, most memorable, and most defining moments.

With two consecutive chart-topping singles and a Number Two album under his belt, Stryder’s days of playing smaller venues such as the Rescue Rooms, to audiences of just under 500, must be numbered. Uncompromised by the relative intimacy of the surroundings, he claimed the stage like a pop star should, retaining most of his larger-than-life mystique. That said, perhaps the dense clouds of smoke that heralded his entrance were a flourish too far, keeping him virtually invisible for the first ten minutes of his hour-long set.

Combining razor-sharp lyrical flow with a commanding sense of showmanship, Stryder carried his audience with him all the way, even turning the obligatory merchandising plug into a rabble-rousing highlight. But was it really necessary for his DJ to dip the sound quite so often during the three big hits – Take Me Back, Number One and Never Leave You – leaving the crowd to fill in the gaps, and significantly dampening the mood?

A brief rendition of Calvin Harris’s I’m Not Alone drew the biggest reaction of the night, as everyone in the room surged forwards to its monster riff. A similarly chunky, euphoric version of Olive’s You’re Not Alone closed the set, blurring the lines between hip hop and dance to spellbinding effect.

Okkervil River – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday September 10.

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on September 10, 2009

They may not be household names, but the Texan six-piece Okkervil River have steadily built up a dedicated, diligent following in this country, especially following the critical acclaim that followed their breakthrough album, The Stage Names. Returning to Nottingham after a well received show at the Bodega in 2007, the band started their set in a controlled, almost subdued manner, their melodic country-rock influences well to the forefront.

Just as the audience were settling into an evening of gentle, understated pleasures, the mood started to shift. The stark, poetic ballad A Stone silenced the chatter at the edges of the room, as band leader Will Sheff held us rapt with his confessional, bruised delivery. Then it was straight into the exultant, galvanising John Allyn Smith Sails, with its crowd-pleasing lifts from the old Beach Boys standard, Sloop John B.

This signalled a second half of raw, ragged fervour, climaxing with Our Life Is Not A Movie Or A Maybe – still the band’s best number – and the surging, riff-driven Unless It’s Kicks. Although the raggedness sometimes spilled over into unfocussed sloppiness, it was abundantly clear that Okkervil River’s audience preferred them this way.