New Monday

Faye Webster‘s album Atlanta Millionaires Club was one of my favourites of last year and she hasn’t wasted any time following it up with this terrific new single. It’s a gorgeously soft and soulful ballad that should tenderly soothe all our troubled brows in these times.


Lean On Bill

The 70s were a golden age for soul music with giants like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield pushing the frontiers of what soul could sound like and be about. By contrast, the late and very great Bill Withers‘ appeal was more honest and blue-collar. He was the guy from the factory who just happen to be able to write incredible, heartfelt songs about the trials of everyday life with a minimalist, conversational simplicity.

Being able to do simple things brilliantly meant that he was probably a little underrated — especially given his competition at the time — but his catalogue is rich with classics, like this sumptuous ballad from his 1975 album Making Music.

Download: Hello Like Before – Bill Withers (mp3)

Things Fall Apart

This bloody virus has claimed the life of the great Cristina Monet, the avant-garde disco chanteuse who put out records on the Ze label at the start of the 80s.

A key part of the whole Mutant Disco sound, her two albums are quirky treats as is her amazing cover of “Is That All There Is?” and the Xmas classic “Things Fall Apart”. There’s also this brilliantly iconoclastic take on the old Fabs’ chestnut from 1980. I’m not trying to be controversial when I say I prefer this to the original.

Download: Baby You Can Drive My Car (Remix Version) – Cristina (mp3)

While I was writing this I heard that the virus had also taken Adam Schlesinger, the phenomenally-talented songwriter with Fountains of Wayne who also wrote a string of great songs for movies and the brilliant TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Schlesinger was so good he was in two great bands at the same time, the other being the wonderful Ivy who were one of the best sophisticated jangle-pop bands of the 90s.

Fuck this shit.

Download: The Best Thing – Ivy (mp3)

New Monday

Yes, I know it’s Wednesday but who cares what day it is anymore?

As James Brown once said “The one thing that can solve all our problems is dancing” which sounds a bit trite when thousands of people are dying, but it’s generally good advice when you feel down and anxious. To lift the blues you could do a lot worse than the terrific new Dua Lipa album Future Nostalgia which will fulfill all your needs for sleek dance music.

My other stay-at-home jam is the latest album by U.S. Girls Heavy Light which fuses disco, plastic soul, and Phil Spector through a modern filter. Big contender for album of the year for me.

The Screaming Lurgy

Only 20 years in and the 21st century is the gift that just keeps on giving: 9/11, 7/7, Iraq, the financial crash, massive hurricanes and tsunamis, Arctic ice melting, droughts, wild fires, bees dying, bird flu, swine flu, and now COVID-19. I hate to be a Debbie Downer but I worry that this is the track we’re on now, just lurching from one crisis to the next. I guess you could have said the same thing 100 years ago after World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic, but at least the planet wasn’t fucked up back then. Now the combination of a worldwide plague together with environmental disaster doesn’t seem like something out of a dystopian SF novel.

Being British of an older generation you’re raised to accept that life is often a bit crap and you have to make do and muddle through — I grew up in the 70s with the 3-day week, power cuts, inflation, and the Winter of Discontent — so I usually take things like this on the chin, but I’d be lying if I said that, as a 57-year-old former smoker, this virus doesn’t make me anxious.

At least one thing I don’t have to worry about is my job. I’m very lucky to have one I can do from home, but I know people who work in the restaurant business who aren’t so lucky and have been laid off. Who knows if they’ll ever get those old jobs back? When we all finally leave our houses again and go back to work I’m dreading how many businesses I used to frequent — restaurant, book shop, indie cinema, barbers, comic shop — won’t be there any more.

Still, though it doesn’t come naturally, I guess you have to stay positive and look forward to the day this is all over — and it will be, at least until the next disaster.

And on that happy note…

Download: Infected (12″ Mix) – The The (mp3)

The School Disco

Originally published May 2007

My American wife loves watching 1980s teen movies like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles (she was at high school herself during that era and I think she wanted to be Molly Ringwald) and what always strikes me watching these films is what a completely different universe an American school is compared to English ones. U.S. schools seem to be more like social clubs ruled by the good-looking and the athletic that revolve around dating, sports, being popular (the most important thing) and events like Prom and Homecoming dances which have a life and death significance in kid’s lives.

We don’t have Proms or Homecoming in England, what we had – if we were lucky – was the occasional School Disco. They weren’t the elaborate affairs that Proms are, with kids arriving in limos all decked out in tuxedos and ballgowns to be entertained by live bands and professional DJs. At my school the couple of discos we had were held in one of the classrooms with the music provided by some kid in the corner with a record player and a pile of 45s. There may have been some orange squash in paper cups for refreshments too but I’m not sure we even had that extravagance. In many ways this perfectly encapsulates the differences between the two countries (at least back then): you have the rich, glamourous Americans with their confidence and perfect teeth, while us Brits were a bit shabby and pathetic, making our entertainment out of old Cornflakes boxes and sticky-back plastic.

I went to an all-boys school which meant we were also missing one vital ingredient for a good disco: girls. They had to be invited over from the local girls school and they arrived as these exotic, alien creatures that we’d heard a lot about but had no idea how to communicate with. So the picture above shows exactly how the evening always ended up, the girls dancing together on one side of the room while the boys just stared at them from afar, too scared to cross the terrifying No Man’s Land of the room and talk to them. Occasionally there was a boy with the front to actually go and chat one of them up and you always hated/envied those confident, jammy bastards.

If I’d had the bottle to actually ask a girl to dance I might have a “special” school disco record to remind me of that moment, but I didn’t so there isn’t one. Reggae was always very popular though, you’d have to be a total spazz not to be able to singalong and dance to something like “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna. This got to No. 1 in 1977 and was a massive favourite with everyone apart from the some of the West Indian kids at school who were into heavy dub and pooh-poohed this sort of light, pop-reggae (they even called Bob Marley “white man’s music”.)

This kind of dusty, skanking beat always reminds me of those days, and in my head it’s playing on a tinny record player in the corner of some dingy classroom and I’m standing there all alone with a paper cup of warm orange squash in my hand, too scared to go and ask Jackie Bolton to dance.

Download: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (mp3)

Update: Since I wrote this it seems that a lot English schools do now have Proms which I find a bit depressing.

Ooh Look

Originally published June 2007

I was never the sort of kid who was interested in planes or trains or automobiles, but even I got a kick out of seeing Concorde. It started commercial flights in 1976 and used to fly over our school one afternoon every week on its way from Heathrow to Bahrain. For a while that was the only route it flew out of England so spotting it was something of an event. We were usually in the playground on our way to the next lesson when it came over, everyone would excitedly look up when we heard its roaring engines and kids inside would rush over to their classroom windows to try and catch a glimpse.

What made Concorde so great was that it was (at least partly) British. It started flying during the dark days of the 1970s when the country was falling apart and we had little to be proud of except our “glorious” past, but here was this gorgeous, futuristic thing we helped design and build — easily the most beautiful passenger plane ever created. With it’s sleek, sexy lines and thrusting nose it was like the E-Type of aircraft, an object that stirred the loins of national pride. The fact that the Americans wouldn’t allow it to land at their airports made our pride swell even more, they said it was because of noise pollution but we thought they were just jealous because they hadn’t built the world’s first supersonic airliner themselves.

The Concorde project started in the 50s but to me it evoked the British “can do” forward thinking of the 1960s, that optimistic period when when we’d never had it so good and PM Harold Wilson was talking about the “white hot heat” of the technological revolution. It didn’t last of course, by the time Concorde was ready to fly the country was in the toilet and the oil crisis meant there wasn’t much demand for a petrol-hungry supersonic plane. So it was a bit of a white elephant that cost a boatload of money and ended up in limited service only for the wealthy, but it was a magnificent white elephant and it was ours.

John Peel played some bizarre music on his show but “There Goes Concorde Again” by …And The Native Hipsters from 1980 must rank as the one of the most completely bonkers. This is nearly seven minutes of spoken word whimsy punctuated by tuneless electronic bleeps and bloops and the occasional clattering of typewriter keys. “Vocalist” Nanette Greenblatt sounds like some batty old cat lady who spends too much time indoors, watching the comings and goings of the world from behind her net curtains. You either love this or it will drive you from the room screaming. Me, I think it’s a lovely piece of peculiarly English eccentricity and never get tired of it no matter how many times she says “ooh look!” — which is a lot.

Surprisingly this was a big hit on the indie charts and I swear I remember Peel playing a parody version of it someone did about looking out of the window and seeing two Joy Division fans walk by carrying copies of Unknown Pleasures under their arms. Anyone else remember this or did I hallucinate the whole thing?

Download: There Goes Concorde Again – …And The Native Hipsters (mp3)

Liking Phil Collins

Originally published February 2010. Reposted in light of the Genesis reunion which has stirred up the old Phil hatred online.

“Do you like Phil Collins? I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn’t understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was on Duke where Phil Collins’ presence became more apparent. I think Invisible Touch was the group’s undisputed masterpiece. It’s an epic meditation on intangibility. At the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums. Christy, take off your robe. Listen to the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford. You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument. Sabrina, remove your dress. In terms of lyrical craftsmanship, the sheer songwriting, this album hits a new peak of professionalism. Sabrina, why don’t you dance a little. Take the lyrics to Land of Confusion. In this song, Phil Collins addresses the problems of abusive political authority. In Too Deep is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting. Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock. Christy, get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole. Phil Collins’ solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way. Especially songs like In the Air Tonight and Against All Odds. Sabrina, don’t just stare at it, eat it. But I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist. This is Sussudio, a great, great song, a personal favorite.”

This is yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman in the movie version of American Psycho expressing his enthusiasm for Phil Collins to two prostitutes (he goes on at greater, more tedious length in the the novel) right before he has three-way sex with them which he videotapes while Sussudio plays on his high-end stereo and he admires his own body in a mirror. Now, bad reviews are one thing, but you know your critical reputation is low when you’ve become such a metaphor for everything bad about the 1980s that everyone gets the big joke that your music is perfect for a narcissistic psychopath with a black hole where his personality should be, an ideal soundtrack for his life of empty materialism and status obsession (with a little ultraviolent murder on the side). He’s also a big fan of Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston.

It almost makes me feel sorry for poor old Phil but then I remember those videos of him and Genesis in their badly-fitting suits with the jacket sleeves rolled up like every old fart rocker that was stinking up the charts that decade and I think of committing shocking acts of violence myself. There was a time when Phil had a certain amount of artistic credibility (he also played drums for Brian Eno, John Martyn, John Cale, and Robert Fripp) but he’s so reviled now that defending any of his work — particularly in the 1980s — feels a little like pointing out that Mussolini wasn’t all bad because he made the trains run on time. The “yes, but…” I’m referring to is his first solo album Face Value which — and I know you’re all rushing for the exits at this point — happens to be a pretty great record.

It helps that the album came out in 1981 when he was still just the singer/drummer in a Prog band with his own little solo effort (which he didn’t expect to sell all that much) and hadn’t yet become Phil Collins, the prick who crapped all over “You Can’t Hurry Love” and said he’d leave the country if Labour got in power, and without all that baggage it’s a enjoyably loose and unassuming record and he doesn’t sound like a smug twat. The songs are mostly about the break-up of his marriage and, without wanting to sound like Patrick Bateman, the ballads are often quite sensitive and touching (Sabrina, take off your shoes) particularly “If Leaving Me Is Easy” which is especially gorgeous. I’ve always liked the funky instrumental “Hand In Hand” too (with horns by Earth, Wind & Fire) which has the added bonus for some that he doesn’t sing on it and just plays some rather cracking drums.

So, as George Michael said, listen without prejudice, I swear it won’t make you want to murder anyone.

Download: If Leaving Me Is Easy – Phil Collins (mp3)
Download: Hand In Hand – Phil Collins (mp3)

The Speed of Pop

Originally published November 2015

The movie American Grafitti, an ode to teenage life in 1962, was released in 1973 only 11 years after the year it is so nostalgic about. But even though it was such a short space of time it looked like a different world and sounded like it too, the gulf between Chuck Berry and David Bowie was just enormous — and you could say roughly the same about a movie made in 1983 about music in 1972. Today the equivalent would be a movie set in 2004 that got all misty-eyed about listening to “Hey Ya!” and “Milkshake” on an iPod Mini. While I’m sure there are people with reasons to be nostalgic for that time and those records, the musical gulf between then and now doesn’t seem nearly so wide. They certainly don’t sound over a decade old, a time-span which used to be an eternity in pop music years.

So is pop music not changing as fast as it used to, or am I just a clueless and out-of-touch old fart?

The 1960s were obviously a time of rapid upheaval, but the following 20-plus years didn’t exactly stand still either, giving us (off the top of my head) Prog, Metal, Reggae, Glam, Disco, Punk, Post-Punk, Hip-Hop, Synthpop, Shoegaze, Techno, and House. Pop used to change clothes as often as Cher playing a show in Vegas but I just don’t hear that quick turnover of ideas and styles anymore.

If I’m not imagining things and there is a notable down-shifting now, it could be due to music-biz economics and the internet. Downloading and streaming has destroyed the old business model and bands make more money from concerts than records now, so they spend longer on tour and try to milk an album as much as possible before moving on to the next one.

It used to be standard for an act to put out an album every year – or even two a year in some cases — but now two years is the minimum a major artist takes between long-players, often longer. Coldplay have made six albums in 15 years, if The Beatles had put them out at that rate Rubber Soul would have been released in 1978. The lifecycle of pop has gone from being like a Mayfly — cramming a lot into a very short time — to more like an elephant. 

I loves me some Charli, Taylor, and Miley, so I don’t have a huge beef with modern mainstream pop. But I would like pop music to be zooming forward and discarding old ideas the way it used to. Maybe I should just be grateful that Coldplay have only made six albums.

Download: Getting Nowhere Fast – Girls At Our Best (mp3)

Even Stranger Things

Originally published January 2017

The Netflix series Stranger Things is a loving homage to American pop culture tropes of the 1980s, especially those seen in Spielberg-related films like ET, The Goonies, and Poltergeist: Nerdy kids on BMX bikes, sleepy suburban towns, supernatural creatures, and shady government organizations (the 2011 movie Super 8 was a similar tribute).

I’ve been thinking that it would be a great idea to do a British version set in the 1970s that was influenced by creepy kid’s TV shows like The Tomorrow People, Children of The Stones, the Jon Pertwee Dr Who, and the scary public information films of the era.

In this version the kids would have adventures while riding around a dingy London on Chopper bikes. Fueled on greasy chips and Fanta, they would fight toxic rubbish monsters that emerged from disused canals and rusty old fridges on bombsites. The mean old lady who lives in the crumbling, dark house at the end of their street would be a pagan witch who enslaved children when they climbed into her back garden to get their football back.

The Stranger Things soundtrack also reached back to the 80s with throbbing analog synths straight out of Miami Vice or a John Carpenter film. In my imaginary show the music would be influenced by the eerie themes of those 70s kid’s shows. They still sound scary today, especially if you were an impressionable kid when they were first broadcast.

The Tomorrow People Theme – Dudley Simpson (mp3)
Children of The Stones Theme- Ambrosian Singers (mp3)
Dr. Who (Original Theme) – BBC Radiophonic Workshop (mp3)
Maneche (Theme from Picture Box) – Jacques Lasry (mp3)

Think I can get Netflix interested?