Terminal Jive

Postcards from the outskirts of pop

Page 3 of 3

Adventure and Discipline

Dutch Uncles

[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.

Reach For Love

[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.

R.I.P, sir. You fucking rocked.

Union City Blue

[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…

[DWAN] Archiving Women’s Performance Practice, HOME_Mcr, Jan 2016

Veba with Groove Armada 2008 Australia
Photo: Veba by Diego Denicola

Archives are closely linked with how we understand history and can be a site for resistance and celebration in challenging how history is defined. Abigail Ward and Sarah Feinstein will speak about how this relates to women’s performance through Manchester District Music Archive. Drawing from selection of artefacts in the user-generated collection, Abigail will showcase women’s agency in the history of music, politics and protest in Greater Manchester. Sarah will discuss how a previous online exhibition curated by Abigail led her to a conversation with ground-breaking feminist artist Linder Sterling.

[DWAN] Digital Women’s Archive North is an educational arts and heritage enterprise unlocking the women’s histories in archives – delivering training & skills development; arts & heritage projects; and research. Follow them on Twitter @dwarchivenorth.

More info here.

Connected Communities – Pararchive Conference, University of Leeds, 2015

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Multiple Histories – The Democratisation of Manchester’s Music Heritage

Manchester District Music Archive is a user-led, volunteer-run online archive established in 2003 to celebrate Greater Manchester music and its social history.

Co-founders Alison Surtees and Abigail Ward discuss the development of their groundbreaking project, which allows users to preserve, share and research their own musical heritage through digitised ephemera such as tickets, photos, press articles, posters and video. The talk will chart the rise of MDMArchive; the difficulties encountered; and how these challenges, such as who ‘owns’ heritage and who ‘decides’ what is shown, were overcome through user-generated content. MDMArchive has been at the forefront of developments in community-led digital storytelling for over ten years. This talk will explore why digital environments are important for sharing heritage, destabilising dominant historical narratives and opening up access to archival material for many to enjoy and have ownership of.

The Pararchive project explores open access community storytelling and the digital archive.

The First National LGBT History Festival – Queer Noise presentation, 2015

Photo: Pete Shelley by Kevin Cummins
Photo: Pete Shelley by Kevin Cummins

In late 2009 I acquired a small amount of funding to develop ‘Queer Noise’ – an online exhibition for Manchester District Music Archive that aimed to lift the lid on LGBT music-making and club life in Greater Manchester from the sixties to the present day. The exhibition would harness and contextualise scanned ephemera, such as posters, flyers, photos and press articles uploaded to MDMArchive by members of public all over the world, in addition to my own collection of artefacts, which I had been digitising for a number of years.

Launched in 2010, ‘Queer Noise’ now contains over two hundred chronologically ordered images and written recollections, and continues to grow as more and more people share their memories. A selection of these artefacts will form the basis of my short presentation to the LGBT History Festival in February.

In my talk for  I will be examining three key points in the city’s LGBT music history: the birth of punk in 1976; the house music explosion of the early 90s: and the alt-gay scene which developed a decade later as a response to the homogeneity of the music on offer on Canal Street (Manchester’s gay village).

In the summer of 1976, punk hit Manchester following the Sex Pistols’ pivotal brace of gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Misunderstood by many as an aggressive, negative force, the early punk scene in Manchester celebrated difference; fostered a DIY approach to creativity and self-expression; and created a tightly knit music community, which (for the most part) welcomed LGBT young people. Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, who co-promoted the Pistols’ second gig, was openly bisexual and sang about romantic experiences with both men and women in a very straightforward way. But ‘76 was also the year in which James Anderton began his tenure as Chief Constable, marking the beginning of a sustained period of harassment of Manchester’s LGBT community by police. Punk historian Jon Savage said of this time, ‘Manchester felt under lock-down then: if you were out late at night, you’d get stopped at least twice a week. It wasn’t just gay people, it was anyone who looked and acted different.’

Fast forward to 1990 and we see the launch of Manto on Canal Street – a sophisticated European-style bar that deliberately flouted the prevailing ‘behind closed doors’ culture of gay venues by installing full height plate glass windows. Thanks to DJ Tim Lennox, house music took hold at Central Street’s gay-friendly Number 1 Club, which in turn led to the birth of Flesh at the Haçienda – a wildly successfully Ecstasy-fuelled house and garage night flagrantly billed as ‘Serious Pleasure for Dykes and Queers’. It was during this time that the city was dubbed ‘Gaychester’, the first Mardi Gras happened, Canal Street boomed and Manchester City Council truly cottoned on to the potential of the pink pound.

Flesh lasted until 1996, spawning many copycat club nights and, along with the Number 1 Club and Paradise Factory, was responsible for the making house music the dominant sound of ‘Gaychester’. But by 1998, some of the same DJs, promoters and club goers that had inspired the house boom were growing tired of the commercialisation of both the scene and the music. At this point, LGBT club nights boasting a more eclectic soundtrack spanning funk, soul, disco, hip hop and indie began to emerge. Club Brenda and Homo Electric were at the forefront of this movement. Like the punk scene that had come before, these clubs celebrated difference, with flyers boasting slogans such as ‘Music is life, gym is the coffin, be ugly‘.

As well as flyers, posters, gig tickets and photos, my presentation will include some unseen footage of Manchester’s gay clubs, plus excerpts of oral histories captured exclusively for the festival.

If you would like to add any artefacts or recollections to the Queer Noise online exhibition, please register to become a member of Manchester District Music Archive here and start sharing your history. Alternatively, you can email: info@mdmarchive.co.uk.

Love Will Save The Day

[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:

Hard times indeed.

Louder Than Words Festival – Manchester song lyrics panel, 2014

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Photo: Alison Surtees

‘Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly’ is a panel event exploring the art of song lyricism, Manchester-style. Guest lyricists are Jaheda Choudhury-Potter of Ajah UK, Jonathan Higgs from Everything Everything and Guy Garvey of Elbow.  It will reveal contrasting processes, backgrounds and styles whilst exploring Greater Manchester lyricism across the decades.

Chaired and curated by Abigail Ward.

Louder Than Words Festival – Bigmouth Strikes Again panel, 2013

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Defining Me – Musical Adventures in Manchester exhibition, The Lowry, 2013

Defining Me launch event
Defining Me launch, September 2013 

In 2013, following investment from Heritage Lottery Fund, Manchester District Music Archive  launched ‘Defining Me: Musical Adventures in Manchester’, a 5-month show at The Lowry co-curated by members of MDMarchive’s online community. The exhibition attracted 32,000 visitors. Speaking at the launch were Abigail Ward (MDMarchive), Ivan Riches (HLF) and Michael Simpson (The Lowry).

There were a number of spin-off events featuring Greater Manchester music luminaries in conversation, including Barry Adamson (Magazine, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds); photographer Kevin Cummins; Manchester punk icons Denise Shaw and Dawn Bradbury; artist and promoter Barney Doodlebug; and Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon.

In 2014 the project ended with a community concert at Band on the Wall featuring rave pioneer Graham Massey in collaboration with The Prospectors,  a collective of disabled musicians from Stockport.

A Storify review detailing the event can be viewed here.

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Photo: Leah Connolly

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Photo: Matthew Norman

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Photo: Leah Connolly

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Photo: Leah Connolly

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Photo: Leah Connolly

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