Flyer (reverse) for Where’s Bowie?, 2011. Artwork: R. Marsh
[From the vaults: a mix from 2011]
Back in 2011 I organised a night called Where’s Bowie?. It had two aims: first, to make a noise so loud and glamorous it dragged the much-missed Duke out of retirement (we succeeded!), and second to raise money for MIND – a charity that creates awareness around mental health issues.
We held the event at Night & Day Café, Manchester, on 29th November. We showed a great film – Fritz Von Runte‘s ‘Bowie 2001‘ – a piece that splices Bowie’s remixed back catalogue into the original Kubrick movie. Three bands played: Hooker (now LIINES), Black Antlers and Monte Carlo.
I DJed along with Clair & Rebecca (Bad Timing) and Jane Hector-Jones.
I put together these ‘Bowie-esque’ mixes shortly afterwards as a souvenir for all the pink monkey birds that strutted their stuff on that special night.
01. Sebastian Tellier – Fantino
02. T. Rex – Cosmic Dancer
03. Blur – Strange News from Another Star
04. Brian Eno – Dead Finks Don’t Talk
05. Jobriath – World Without End
06. Luther Vandross – Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)
07. LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver
08. The Emperor Machine – Repetition
09. Tobor Experiment Disco Experience – Station To Station
10. David Bowie – When The Boys Come Marching Home
11. Brian Eno and John Cale – Spinning Away
12. Carla Bruni – Absolute Beginners
13. Brian Eno – I’ll Come Running
14. Warpaint – Ashes to Ashes
15. David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust (Studio Instrumental)
16. Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll
01. The Korgis – Everbody’s Got To Learn Sometimes (Instrumental)
02. Yello – Of Course I’m Lying
03. Dusty Springfield – Nothing Has Been Proved (Dance Mix)
04. Sade – No Ordinary Love (Full Length Version)
05. The Eagles – I Can’t Tell You Why
06. The Mythical Beasts – Communicate
07. Maxwell – Everwanting: To Want You To Want
08. Rossoulano – Friends In Lo PLaces
09. Lalomie Washburn – Try My Love
10. Kylie Minogue – Confide In Me
11. Feist – One Evening
12. Bryan Ferry – Which Way To Turn
13. The Flaming Lips – Sleeping On The Roof
14. Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing (Alternate 12″ Instrumental)
[From the vaults: a blog for Pop ‘Til You Drop, 2011]
“I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer
I spat out Plath and Pinter…”
A fortnight ago, whilst working my penultimate shift on the counter at Piccadilly Records, I was rendered flustered and giggly by the sudden appearance of James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire from Manic Street Preachers. They were in Manchester, it transpired, to perform a secret gig at Night and Day Café. I haven’t listened to the Manics for years, but seeing them up close and personal in the record shop environment made me ponder the influence of their music on my teenage years.
When ‘Generation Terrorists’ first came out in 1992, I was still, at fourteen, an enthusiastic attendee of my local Free Methodist bible group. I was troubled by all the usual teenage questions about evolution, mortality and morality, and persuaded, for a time, by the adults around me, that the answers could be found, if not in the dense and bloody Old Testament, then certainly in the eminently accessible, and rather funky, New. When, one Sunday, my bible group leader – a not unlikeable lad in his early thirties – pulled out a copy of ‘Generation Terrorists’ and cited it as an example of all that was wrong and evil in the world, I felt spasms of both shame and excitement. My sister owned the record and we’d been playing it for weeks.
Trying to work out how you really feel about things as a teenager is like starring in your own complex and slightly hallucinogenic detective story. You pull in clues from all manner of sources, to compare, contrast, reject. You believe what you think you ought to until you can’t any more. On the one hand I had the fluffy platitudes of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still water”), which made Christianity sound like a really nice day out in the Lakes, and on the other I had the Sylvia Plath quotation from the back of the ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ twelve inch: “I talk to God but the sky is empty” – a much more accurate description of what I was actually experiencing.
Thinking that Plath may be able to shed some light on the matter, I went to Waterstone’s one day and picked out ‘Ariel’, a slim volume – the only one I could afford – and immersed myself in it for weeks. Not the frothiest of reads, it has to be said. And not much help on the God front. But that’s what the Manics did. They forced you to investigate. Richey and Nicky spewed out reference points incoherently and indiscriminately, like cultural muck-spreaders, inviting their fans to work it out for themselves. It seemed like they were desperate to tell us something, but what?
Pre-internet it wasn’t easy to track down all those writers, those thinkers, those mysterious mind-shapers. Trips to the library were all part of the detective work: “Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words, as it were, never in reality.” (Camus/’Love’s Sweet Exile’ sleeve.)
We got Henry Miller inside the ‘Generation Terrorists’ sleeve: “The tragedy of it is that nobody sees the look of desperation on my face. Thousands and thousands of us, and we’re passing one another without a look of recognition.” (I won’t forget reading ‘Quiet Days In Clichy’ under the duvet in a hurry.)
We got Marlon Brando: “The more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalised, develop scabs, never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much.” (‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ sleeve)
We got Ballard: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” (‘Mausoleum’ sample)
The work of all of these people, and many more, became familiar to me through the Manics. Their music inspired my jubilant descent into atheism and its attendant vices – an experience entirely comparable, I suspect, to being born again, and one for which I shall forever be grateful.
(The Manics perform ‘Faster’ on TOTP – watch out for Vic and Bob)
In terms of actual songs, for me, ‘Faster’ is the Manics’ best – as lean as they ever sounded, stripped of the pop metal excesses of their previous albums, but still angry as fuck. The sample at the beginning is John Hurt in ‘1984’: “I hate purity, I hate goodness, I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt.” I love JDB’s guitar solo, which pops up unexpectedly in the last minute of the song, so waspish and wonky. In an interview, the band said they’d been listening to Magazine, Wire and Gang of Four. You can tell.
On June 9th 1994, the Manics opened Top Of The Pops with an incendiary performance of ‘Faster’. At the time they were wearing a lot of military gear, in tribute, they said, to The Clash. JDB was sporting a paramilitary-style balaclava with JAMES sewn on it. He looked like he’d been working out. Many viewers felt the band were aligning themselves with the IRA. The BBC received 25,000 complaints.
Four months later I saw the boys play Manchester Academy. They’d covered the venue in camouflage netting and were still in their army and navy shop fatigues. They came on to a ricocheting loop of the last phrase in ‘Faster’: “So damn easy to cave in! Man kills everything!” It was a powerful gig. Loud, mean, genuinely unsettling. Richey was there. Rake thin, of course, naked from the waist up, hanging over his upturned mike stand like the original James Dean in ‘Giant’.
Another four months on and he was gone, leaving behind a second ‘Holy Bible’ for me to pore over. With themes including prostitution, American consumerism, fascism, the Holocaust, self-starvation and suicide, it proved only slightly less punishing than the first.
[From the vaults: a piece for Red Bull Music Academy’s The Daily Note, 2010]
Forget ‘here’s three chords, now form a band’. At the moment, it’s more like: here’s an Ableton crack and a K-Tel disco LP, now go and forge a career in underground club music. Welcome to the weird world of disco edits – a magpie DIY genre that has sprung up and swamped the scene because of the ease with which record collectors and DJs can now access powerful music-editing software. These days, you can rip a track, cut it up, fuck it up and be playing it out to your Saturday night crowd all at the same time. Creative jocks are making the most of this development by presenting clubbers with unique collages of music that they won’t hear anywhere else. Other, less imaginative, knob-twiddlers are exhuming feeble disco obscurities that should have been left to rest in peace, adding a few naff tweaks and then pressing up a thousand twelves without so much as a by-your-leave to the original artist. They are like the paunchy uncles of the Noughties mash-up scene: the software is similar but these guys are serious. This is the rare disco mafia and they are here for your wallet.
In the last few years, the few remaining DJ-friendly record shops in the UK have been flooded with these modern-day bootlegs. As well as the re-hashed rarities that fly out, good or bad, because the originals are £50+ on the second hand market, there is also a glut of re-issued classics that have been randomly hacked about in the hope of providing a new slant on an ancient ‘anthem’ that no one ever needs to hear again. These edits in particular are often so bad they can put you off your own record collection. I recently stumbled across a version of Bowie’s Moonage Daydream that sounded as though Edward Scissorhands had gone postal on the Ziggy Stardust reels before attempting, shamefacedly, to gaffer tape them all back up again. Yours, if you’re interested, on a one-sided twelve, for a mere £9.99.
Choice items such as these are lapped up in the shop I work in by a loyal customer base I’ve come to think of as the Disco Dads – a coterie of suave, Barbour Jacketed forty-somethings who blanche visibly at the phrase UK Funky. One such punter came in the other day to try out the latest edits haul. He’d been propping up the decks, bumping through the new releases for about an hour before he suddenly ripped off his headphones, asked for the time and shouted, ‘Shit! I’ve left me toddler in the car!’ Not to worry, sir, at least you’ve secured your copy of the ultra-limited, hand screen-printed and numbered Muffled Sock Edits Vol 318 by Søme Scåndinavian Chåncer.
It must be noted, however, that dance music has a proud history of edits and mash-ups, and it’s often been this very practice that has ushered in new, exciting times for the genre. If you think of Tom Moulton’s first reel-to-reel and razor blade experiments or Kool Herc’s break-splicing turntablism it’s obvious that primitive edits by greenhorn producer-DJs make up some of the world’s most loved club records. The DJ Erens mix of You Got The Love, for instance, is an audacious mash-up that became a world-conquering classic way above and beyond the two tracks it comprises.
And it’s true, there are some compositions that benefit from a sensitive rework. George McCrae’s ‘I Get Lifted’ and JJ Cale’s ‘Ride Me High’ are two examples of tracks recently popularised by edits culture. Both fade harshly, in their original form, around the three-minute mark, leaving you and your dancefloor wanting more. In recent years, Mischief Brew, Joakim and Todd Terje have all released arrangements of these songs that do not intrude on the atmosphere of the original but artfully build the groove over seven or eight minutes, allowing humble bar DJs, such as myself, plenty of time to nip off for that all-important midnight widdle.
Unfortunately, though, to some people, doing an edit involves little more than hurling an innocent wav file into Soundforge, hitting time-stretch and dropping in a kick. And this is why we are drowning in mediocre records put out by uncreative opportunists, whose only real gifts lie in the art of self-promotion and online myth-making.
I wouldn’t want to argue that the current accessibility of music software is a bad thing. I love Ableton and have been known to disappear into it for days at a time. But now that the ‘perspiration’ element has been taken out of this aspect of music-making we all need to remember the ‘inspiration’ part of that old adage. Be discerning about what you edit and how you edit it. And if you really can’t do that, maybe it’s about time you sat down and learned those three chords.
Originally written under the pseudonym Jo Carstairs
[From the vaults: a blog for Pop ‘Til You Drop, 2011]
“You know what I’m saying
And I haven’t said a thing
Keep the record playing…”
Bursting out of my speakers on this mercifully sunny afternoon, Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’ sounds every bit as seductive and extreme as it did on its release date eight years ago this November. A peerless pop production then and now, ‘Slow’ was masterminded by engineer Dan Carey (The Kills, Hot Chip), Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini and, of course, the former Ms Charlene Mitchell herself.
As with lots of the landmark pop tracks I blog about, I can remember the first time I heard it – after hours in the basement of the record shop where I worked, the extended mix played off a white label. It wound its way around me, gave me no choice. It’s one of those records that draws the listener in with what it leaves out. A real statement.
Tricky to pull off live (I’ve heard a few attempts), ‘Slow’ is all about the studio. It’s a lesson in stealth and minimalism: the dryest of dry rhythm tracks, the merest hint of a synth riff, that four-note bassline – simplicity itself. Then there’s Kylie, of course, all close-miked and conspiratorial, murmuring something rather promising about her ‘body language’.
It’s testament to the quality of the production that Michael Mayer, co-owner of Cologne’s famed techno label Kompakt, was moved to cover ‘Slow’ in 2005. But even he could not compete with the purity of the original. His version didn’t really work. Why?
Because Kylie wasn’t on it.
‘Slow’, for me, belongs at the centre of an imagined Venn diagram of ace pop: the place where the experiments and extremities of the underground collide with the lavish sex appeal, star quality and accessibility of the mainstream. It’s one of my favourite places to spend time. Click here, here or here for more details.
Baillie Walsh, director of the ‘Slow’ video, contributed further to the atmosphere of the track with his highly stylised aerially shot film of poolside bathers shifting on their towels in mellifluous synchrony. Kylie’s right where she should be, working it at the centre, ‘best dress on’ (just).
[From the vaults: an interview with Dutch Uncles for The Chimp, 2011]
A whitewashed room containing little more than an unclothed mannequin in a distractingly come hither pose seems like a fitting place for to be meeting Marple’s arch pop aesthetes Dutch Uncles – a band whose reputation for visual flair and musical mischief precedes them.
Irresistible to A & R men from outset, Dutch Uncles were picked up in 2008 by German label Tapete for a one-album deal just three months after their first gig in Manchester. Since then, they’ve toured with The Futureheads , remixed Bombay Bicycle Club and scored a management deal with local label Love and Disaster, who put out ‘The Ink’ – a strikingly packaged seven inch reminiscent of classic XTC.
In summer of last year, the band recorded a World Cup song – a multi-layered a cappella in which the individual names of the England squad are repeated in time signatures dictated by their shirt numbers. To further boggle the mind, each player’s name is panned to a stereo position within the track that corresponds to his actual position on the playing field. The song, entitled Fabio Capello (whose name does not feature), made it onto NME radio within ten minutes of being mastered, and sounds like Laurie Anderson presenting Match of the Day.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that a band as musically obdurate and inventive as this would eventually be courted by Memphis Industries, one of the hottest indie labels in the land, and home to fellow math-poppers Field Music, with whom the band feel a close musical kinship.
Singer Duncan and bassist Robin explain how they came to mint this deal: “It started out as a friendly email sent after we put out The Ink, Duncan says. “It just read, ‘Like the new track. Keep up the good work’. Then we sent them an album sampler, which they liked.”
Robin: “Then they came up to the studio in Salford where we were recording and bought us pizza, and we played them unfinished MIDI tracks.”
Duncan: “Anyway, they were into it and we instantly knew we wanted to go that way. We’re big fans of Field Music and they’ve always been an influence on our writing style, so I think the fact that they had them and the Go! Team meant that we knew this was a label that holds onto bands and develops them, unlike most major labels.”
Listening to the new album, Cadenza, which evokes the sonic playfulness and ambition of band like Sparks and King Crimson, it’s obvious that the band are keen to fly in the face of the traditional meat-and-potato Manchester lad-rock sound. In fact, bending avant-garde disciplines into fun pop shapes could be described as their raison d’etre. On the track X-O the band have replayed movements from minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. A daring cover, if ever there was one.
Duncan explains, “We saw that as a challenge. It was something we spoke about very drunk one night. We just thought: this track is amazing…” Robin interjects: “Let’s turn it into a pop song!” Duncan again: “I hated every day of trying to write the lyrics. I just thought, ‘I’m murdering a classic instrumental here, it shouldn’t really have lyrics at all, who do I think I am?’ But it’s worked out really well. It adds a character to the album that we would never have been able to pull off completely on our own.”
Duncan also spent time developing a lyrical aesthetic to complement the complex instrumentation and shifting time signatures of Cadenza: “I’ve always admired the way David Byrne writes, how he’s almost in a trance when he’s singing. You almost feel like his eyes are rolling back in his head. He’s removing himself from the situation and just analysing what he’s doing. I’ve tried to develop a style of removing myself from my own emotions.”
Having just come back from a tour with joyful noise mongers Young British Artists, and boasting firm friendships with the likes of Everything Everything and Delphic, do Dutch Uncles think that a new Manchester scene, unfettered by the past, is emerging?
Robin: “There’ll always be those people who want to go and see Beady Eye at the Apollo – a load of knobheads, really. The Fac 251 club is still just digging up the past – we’d never play there. Peter Hook’s a wanker for bringing all that stuff down. But we don’t feel suffocated by it. There is a present, and it’s great.”
Duncan adds: “Everything Everything made one of the best albums of last year – they’ve given us a few breaks along the way. Egyptian Hip-Hop are also great. They’re probably our best ‘band’ friends. That whole Marple connection is pretty strong!”
This spirit of collaboration and co-operation has undoubtedly played a part in Dutch Uncles’ rapid evolution. Robin describes the Love and Disaster label as “like extended family”. The band are also keen to big up local graphic design collective Dr. Me, who have given the Cadenza album its unique physical identity.
“Artwork is very important to us”, says Duncan. “We’ve used a lot of bold, simple colour with our previous releases so we wanted to do something different for this one. We’ve gone for more of a collage this time. Dr. Me are the best friends I’ve had since I moved to town. It’s kind of extending the Love and Disaster family again. We’re so lucky. It’s incredible the way the best people for the job were also the closest people.”
So how keen are the band to crossover into the pop mainstream? Would they, for example, play Top of the Pops, should its rumoured return come into fruition?
“Well, I’d rather play The Old Grey Whistle Test!” Duncan admits. “I think any band that’s going to survive over time needs to have a breakthrough song, even if it’s just the one. Every band needs a ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. At this point he grows serious. “But in terms of overall ambition, I just want to make this my life.”
As the rest of the band arrive for the photo shoot and begin grabbing Ms Mannequin in inappropriate places, talk turns to their most treasured albums. Duncan eventually chooses Television’s Adventure whilst Robin goes for Discipline by King Crimson. Adventure and Discipline. Seems appropriate. The Dutch Uncles manifesto.
Originally written under the pseudonym Harper Hay.
[From the vaults: a blog for Pop ‘Til You Drop, 2011]
“I freeze, baby,
At the thought of leaving you behind…”
The question I least like being asked when I am DJing is:
“Are you the DJ?”
Closely followed by:
“Whenyer gunner play some Manchester stuff?”
But over the years I have developed coping mechanisms for both. For the first I have an affronted and unyielding Ron Mael-esque stare that says, ‘If you come near me again I will pin your scrotum to this turntable and then press start.’
For the second I have Marcel King.
What a record.
I first came across the amazing ‘N.Y. mix’ of ‘Reach For Love’ on an American blog years ago, and after perusing Discogs was surprised to discover the track came out on Factory Benelux in 1984. It was produced by New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Donald Johnson of ACR – Manchester’s all-time heaviest drummer. Apparently, this collaboration came about after New Order manager Rob Gretton – a massive soul head, of course – found Marcel sleeping rough in the back of a car. I’m not sure how much truth there is in this rumour.
Rob would have known Marcel from his tenure as front man for Sweet Sensation – the eight-piece Philly-style Manchester soul group that won the talent show New Faces in 1973 and had a hit with ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’.
‘Reach For Love’ is one of those records that never leaves my DJ bag. It’s like an old mate that can be relied upon to boot you smartly up the arse, buy you a pint and haul you onto the dancefloor when you need it most. Marcel’s vocal is something else: euphoric and yet easy-going, with just a tantalising hint of remonstration on those “I’ve been trying to show you a better way” lines. The production still sounds killer – even on shit café soundsystems. You have to be careful at what point you drop ‘Reach For Love’, though, because it can flatten other records with its knock-out punch.
Tragically, Marcel King died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1995, aged just 38.
[From the vaults: a blog for Pop ‘Til You Drop , 2011]
“Tunnel to the other side
It becomes daylight
I say he’s mine…”
How can a track like ‘Union City Blue’ – essentially a pop song with no discernible chorus – be so stirring, panoramic and unforgettable? Really, it’s just several verses strung together in a rather humdrum cycle, and yet it is one of the strongest songs in the Blondie catalogue. It’s so free-flowing and airy it sounds as though it took Debbie Harry and bassist Nigel Harrison (a Stockport lad, by the way) mere seconds to jam out. They obviously had the confidence to just let it fly. All power to them for not structuring the life out of it.
I find the track evocative of my teenage years in Preston. I used to blast it out in my ten-foot by ten-foot bedsit, often in an attempt to mask the sounds of the middle-aged man in the room opposite shagging his alsatian. The song personified everything I longed for at that point: escape; enterprise; the sheer glamour and scale of city life. All those words Harry throws at the listener – Skyline! Passion! Power! How they reeled me in.
I went to see Blondie in 2000. It wasn’t an amazing gig, but I treasured it because it was one I thought I’d never see. Chris Stein looked so frail and ill he gave the impression of being propped up and operated from behind by a complex pulley system. Debbie was throwing herself around like a pissed grandma on a bouncy castle to compensate. But when Clem Burke started slamming out the tom tom intro of ‘Union City Blue’, he looked and sounded perfect.
‘Union City Blue’ is as much Clem’s song as it is Nigel and Debbie’s. The end of the track is as heart-stopping as the opening. For almost the whole of the last minute, Clem is smashing the shit out of every cymbal available. Few other pop producers would countenance such a relentless hammering, but Mike Chapman knew better than to argue. Pure exhilaration.
On a final note, I have always noticed that, live, Debbie Harry tends to sing “powder” rather than “power”. I’m not entirely sure what this might be a reference to…
[From the vaults: a blog for Pop ‘Til You Drop, 2011]
“When you’re feeling full of doubt
And fear has got you in a bind
Love will save the day…”
I have done my best throughout my life to avoid the work of Whitney Houston. That never-ending winter of 1992 still casts a shadow. There was I, fifteen years old, miserable, watching ‘I Will Always Love You’ on The Chart Show for the umpteenth week, just yearning for something (anything) else to hit the number one spot. And there was Whitney, splay-legged, hands in that saintly clasp, wobbling her jaw to achieve maximum vibrato… God, she made me want to slash my armpits with boredom. No wonder records like this sounded so good.
But recent events have forced me to re-evaluate one tiny section of the Twitney back catalogue. At the second Pop ‘Til You Drop back in April, my partner in crime DJ Danielle Moore dropped ‘Love Will Save The Day’. I had just wedged myself into the toilet and was happily adding to the graffiti (I <3 Shep Pettibone) when the disquieting realisation that I was enjoying a Whitney Houston record hit me. Then, seconds later, lettuce barely shaken, I found myself careering around the dancefloor like an inebriated farmhand whilst paying customers looked on aghast.
By coincidence, last Monday evening, during an extravagantly lubricated Spotify session here at Pop Heights, ‘Love Will Save The Day’ surfaced again, confirming my suspicion that the tune is a wig-lifting, wab-wobbling, gusset-splitting anthem of titanic proportions, in spite of its cloying ‘message’.
The next day, after a couple of light ales, I was persuaded by my Whitney-loving friend to investigate the White Vest album further. One fraught listen off cassette on a car stereo, during which I left bite marks on my own fist, revealed there is little else on there for the taking. Whitney’s version of ‘I Know Him So Well’, performed with her mother (somewhat inappropriately), sounds like two car alarms arguing in an empty turbine hall. ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’ is another wallpaper-stripping ballad that Ms. Houston approaches with all the subtlety and restraint of a newly promoted drill sergeant. The whole album is plastered in the kind of electric piano that makes you feel like you’re having the contents of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg squeezed into your earhole as you listen. It really does make a girl want to smoke crack.
Which I almost did, back in 1993, when eventually Whitney was knocked off her perch by this: