The Yule Blog

So that’s my lot for 2018. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t written much new stuff lately and, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about knocking this blog on the head because I’m just not feeling it anymore. After doing it for 12 years I don’t think I have anything interesting left to say or the urge to say it. But who knows, the muse might strike again over the holiday. We’ll see.

In the meantime I hope you and yours have a wonderful Christmas. I’m going to be staying home with the family which is about the nicest way of spending time I can think of.

Download: Driving Home For Christmas – Saint Etienne (mp3)


That Was The Year That Was

The past few years I’ve moaned about what a terrible state the world is in politically but noted that at least we’ve had good music to listen to. Without it (and books, movies, TV, family) we’d all have probably gone insane by now. 2018 was another great year for new music but sadly the world seems even more fucked up. Would I swap a less awful present for a shitty year of music? I think I would at this stage. Anyways, here’s what floated my boat this year…

I’m All Ears – Let’s Eat Grandma
On their superb second album teen sensations Rosa and Jenny threaded the needle of sounding more mature and sophisticated without losing the character that made them unique. So while their songwriting took a huge leap forward and produced some sparkling synthpop tunes, there’s still the bit in “Hot Pink” that sounds like saucepans falling down the stairs, an instrumental that uses the sound of a purring cat, and the album closing with an 11-minute, Proggy epic inspired by Donnie Darko. Long may they be weird. Best concert I saw this year too.

Loner – Caroline Rose
A fizzy collection of sharp, witty songs that bounced around like a superball between genres from punk to surf-rock to synthpop. In the middle holding it all together was Caroline in her red tracksuit, throwing sarcastic darts at the world and having a ball. The highlight “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” was my favourite song of 2018.

All My Dreams/Plaything/Jacuzzi Rollercoaster/The Rumble – Roisin Murphy
She may have bemoaned her lack of commercial success on Twitter but creatively Roisin was on fire in 2018. The four 12” singles she released were sublime neo-disco groovers, full of rubbery basslines and glittery beats, and the videos she directed to go with them were equally brilliant. If all 8 tracks were collected together on one record (hint hint) it would no-contest be my album of the year.

Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
Country music so lush and spacey it sounded designed more for chill-out rooms and rocket ships than a honky tonk joint, with songs as beautifully crafted as precious jewelry. If there was a more gorgeous sounding record this year I didn’t hear it.

Expectations – Hayley Kiyoko
You don’t except too much from records made by former Disney starlets, but on her debut album Hayley exceeded the usual, um, expectations (sorry). A sleek collection of sophisticated and sexy — and unabashedly gay — modern pop music with a neon-lit atmosphere like driving around LA at night. Alongside the radio-friendly tunes were some more moody, multi-part tracks that lifted it above the crowd of generic pop tarts and I hope are a signpost for her future.

Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
Janelle’s reach has occasionally exceeded her grasp but this was the album where all the planets aligned for her strongest record yet. Maybe it was due to her being less coy about her sexuality that gave it the vibe of confident, don’t-give-a-fuck, liberation. This was filthy, freaky, female, and futuristic funk possessed by the spirit of Prince.

Record – Tracey Thorn
I’ve loved pretty much everything Tracey has ever done over the years but I was still surprised at her coming up with an album this strong so late in the game. She described the songs on this album as “feminist bangers” and it was a mature — and occasionally angry — reflection on life as a woman, pop star, and mother set to a disco beat. It proved that grown-up songs don’t have to be worthy and boring, we still like to dance too — if our creaky old hips let us.

Look Now – Elvis Costello & The Imposters
Speaking of old troupers hitting late-career peaks there was Elvis — who’s been making records since I was a schoolboy — producing his best album in donkey’s years. A mix of the chamber pop style of Imperial Bedroom and his Burt Bacharach collaboration with some classic pop and soul stylings, it wouldn’t sound too out of place next to the best albums of his career. There’s life in the four-eyed old dog yet. Pity the sleeve was so bloody ugly though.

Dream Wife – Dream Wife
Shouty, jumping-up-and-down punk rawk with razor-sharp tunes riding on screeching guitar licks. For a group that started as an art school project Dream Wife have certainly done their homework and graduated with first-class honours on their thrilling debut.

Mariners Apartment Complex/Venice Bitch – Lana Del Rey
Two sublime singles that have me creaming my Levi’s in anticipation of her new album next year which — Hail Lana — is going to be called Norman Fucking Rockwell. Yass Queen.

The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs – Wye Oak
Indie rock that swirled and soared on intricate layers of synths and guitar. The ethereal songs sounded precisely engineered but still carried an emotional punch thanks to the gorgeous voice of Jenn Wasner.

Also Notable:
Isolation – Kali Uchis
European Heartbreak – Amber Arcades
Be The Cowboy – Mitski
Confidence Man – Confidence Man

The Art School of Rock

Originally published September 2014

“The art schools from my time specialised in old-school teaching methods of brutalising your students with some wild thinking that was off the map.” — Pete Townshend

“The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp’s most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there – but on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way.” — Jarvis Cocker

“I had no talent as an artist, no real interest in art. I really wanted to get into a band. And it seemed like all my favorite musicians had gone to art school. So I went to art school. I just figured my first day, I’d walk into the toilet and there’d be a bunch of guys with guitars, and we’d be all set.” – Mick Jones

Where would British pop music be without art schools? They’ve been the incubator for some of our best talent since the 1950s, the place where kids with creative inclinations can be in an environment with other outsiders and rebels who don’t fit into traditional higher education or want a job in a bank or office. Many of them end up picking up guitars instead of paintbrushes as a means of expression.

The list of pop/rock art school alumni includes John Lennon (Liverpool College of Art), Keith Richards (Sidcup Art School), Jimmy Page (Sutton Art College), John Cale (Goldsmiths), Pete Townshend, Freddie Mercury (Ealing Art College), Ray Davies, Adam Ant (Hornsey College of Art), Syd Barrett (Camberwell), Bryan Ferry (Newcastle College of Art), Brian Eno (Winchester College of Art), Malcolm McLaren (Croydon Art College), Ian Dury (Royal College of Art), Joe Strummer (Central School of Art & Design), Viv Albertine (Chelsea School of Art), Paul Simonon (Byam Shaw), Sade (St. Martin’s), and PJ Harvey (Yeovil Art College).

I went to one myself in the early 1980s. I had no thought of what sort of job or career I’d get out of it but I was, as the cliche went, “good at drawing” at school and didn’t fancy reading books for three years at a university, so art school it was.

To begin with I took a one-year Foundation Course which is designed to make you try everything before deciding what to study for your degree, so I dabbled in painting, sculpture, environmental art, printmaking, and even performance art (sadly my piece “The White Brick” wasn’t filmed for posterity). But going from my rather mundane secondary school art lessons to the radical, experimental atmosphere of an art school was a real challenge. My tutor was a hard-core conceptual artist who called my work “shit” at one point, and I was close to leaving the first term as I struggled to get to grips with some of the projects we were given. But I stuck with it and by the end it turned into one of most rewarding, transformative experiences of my life, as important to who I am as hearing The Jam for the first time.

A lot of my non-student friends thought I just drew pictures all day but art schools aren’t there to teach you how to draw. Instead they encourage creative thinking and rule-breaking expression. At least the good ones do. Even the graphic design degree course I took was more about teaching us to think originally than learning technical job skills, and we were hanging out with painters, sculptors, photographers, and video artists, so it was a very stimulating environment to be in. We got drunk a lot too, of course.

You can point to Pete Townshend smashing up his guitar, Bryan Ferry treating songs as collages, and the early visual style of The Clash as the direct result of their art school experiences, and there is a definite link between them and what makes British pop so distinctive: The synthesizing of influences, the emphasis on visual presentation, the conceptual cleverness, and the sense of playful, subversive adventure. At it’s very best it’s a fusion of avant-garde art theory and rock and roll.

Sadly I’m not sure how true any of this is anymore with higher education in the UK being more results-based now, and the introduction of student loans means that fewer kids are able to spend four years just pissing around being “creative” at art school without a proper job at the end of it. Maybe one reason British pop has lost its edge is that most of our new stars come from stage schools instead.

In case you’re wondering, I never started or joined a band at art school myself, but some of my mates did. They were called He’s Dead Jim and only played one gig, in the student canteen during an all-night sit-in. I did “play” keyboards for them during one garage rehearsal though, my technique very one-note and droney owing to the fact that I couldn’t actually play the instrument. But that never stopped Brian Eno, did it?

Download: Art School – The Jam (mp3)

Every Picture Tells A Story

Originally published October 2010

If you have a copy of the terrific photo book London Through A Lens turn to page 199 where you’ll find the above picture titled “Roll’s-Royce at the Hilton” taken in 1965 with a caption that describes it as “the perfect image of urban glamour and sophistication in 1960s London”. Which it is, but besides being a great photo what makes it special to me (and gave me quite a nice surprise when I first looked through the book) is that the man in the top hat is my grandfather.

He was a doorman at The Hilton (and then The Dorchester) in the 60s and 70s and I imagine that working the door at such a swanky, jet-setter hotel during the height of Swinging London he must have seen and met a lot of the beautiful people of the era. Unfortunately I don’t have any stories about that or if I did I’ve forgotten them, and back then I wouldn’t have cared anyway unless he told me Captain Scarlet had stayed the night.

That salute he’s giving reminds me that another thing I never knew much about was his military service. I knew he’d been in the Navy on a submarine during WWII (which seems to have been about the toughest job a sailor could have ) but his generation never talked about that and, to be honest, my generation never asked either. Besides I reckon he’d rather play golf than talk about that stuff anyway, the only hint that he might have had another, more serious, life in the past was the faded tattoos of anchors on his forearms. But I never could quite square those and what they implied with the warm, happy man who used to give me 50p to wash his Ford Capri at the weekends.

As is often the case by the time I was old enough to think that maybe my grandad did have some interesting stories to tell he had passed away, having a heart attack while playing golf in the early 80s. At least he went doing something he loved and it gives me a real happy feeling to see him immortalized in such a great book — as part of London’s history too.

Download: A Salty Dog — Procol Harum

My Mother’s Records

Originally published January 2010

Much as I like to big up my mother’s love of Frank Sinatra as an example of her good taste in music she did have a few skeletons in her closet — or rather in the sideboard where she kept her records. For a few years she really had a thing for Rod Stewart, and unfortunately I don’t mean the classic, Faces-era Rod either. She loved – I think even preferred — late 1970s, Britt Ekland-shagging, spandex-tights-wearing, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod. In a nutshell: the crap Rod. But you know what mums are like, they just don’t care about things like authenticity and street cred.

The first album of his she bought was A Night On The Town in 1976, my opinion of which has always been marred by how much of an utter prat I think he looks on the cover. That photo of Rod in a blazer and boater enjoying a nice glass of champers after a hard days punting (or something) is like Exhibit A for Why Punk Happened. Here is Rod firmly established as wealthy rock royalty and looking so smug about it that you want to punch him in the face. The outfit he’s wearing is based on the pastiche of Renoir’s painting Le moulin de la Galette that’s on the other side of the cover and while I’m sure Rod was thinking to himself “it’s a bit classy, innit?” it looks like a rather naff vision of “the high life” to me, more Babycham than Dom Perignon. Only Bryan Ferry had the panache to do that sort of thing properly.

When he made this album he was well on his way to booking a stool at the bar next to George Best in the “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” Club but it does still have flickers of his old brilliance on it. His version of “First Cut Is The Deepest” is my favourite, and “The Balltrap” is great, raunchy Faces-style rawk and roll. But the real surprise is the beautiful “The Killing of Georgie”, a song Stewart wrote about a gay friend who was murdered. Given Rod’s image as a football-loving, skirt-chasing, Jack the Lad it’s an unusual subject for him to tackle and a fairly bold one too considering that at the time the popular image of homosexuals was either as camp Larry Graysons and John Inmans or shady perverts, so writing a delicate and touching song about a gay man — years before Tom Robinson, Bronski Beat, and Pet Shop Boys — and having a big hit with it was quite something. He even manages to show some understanding toward Georgie’s murderer too and it’s hard to believe such a sensitive song could come from the pen of the man who also wrote “Tonight’s The Night” on the same album, a lecherous song about deflowering a virgin that’s about as delicate as a Penthouse letter. Maybe he wasn’t such a prat after all.

Though if Rod was hoping to promote more tolerance toward gay people it fell on deaf ears at my school where this boy who was suspected of being a “poof” (for no reason that I can remember) got nicknamed “Georgie” and lots of kids (not me!) would shout “oooh, Georgie!” in limp-wristed voices at him. Poor bastard was probably scarred for life.

Download: The Killing of Georgie (Pt. 1 and 2) – Rod Stewart (mp3)

New Monday

Amber Arcades is the musical handle of Dutch singer-songwriter Annelotte de Graaf who, in a previous life, was an aide at a United Nations war crimes tribunal. Her second album European Heartbreak is a concept album of sorts about the current situation in Europe – Brexit, far-Right politicians, immigration etc. If that all sounds deathly dull it’s not, instead it’s a warm, beautiful (if sad) record full of lovely and lush indiepop that reminds me of Camera Obscura and Saint Etienne. Highly recommended.