Design For Living

Design guru, retail and restaurant entrepreneur, and founder of Habitat stores Sir Terence Conran died over the weekend. It’s not an exaggeration to say he changed the way the British lived, and the way our houses and flats (and restaurants) look now is in large part due to him. His philosophy was that good design should be accessible to everyone and, before IKEA came to our shores, Habitat was where we bought well-designed, modern furniture and household goods at reasonable prices. Habitat did flat-pack furniture before them too.

The first Habitat opened on the Fulham Road in 1964 just as the country was about to climb out of drab, post-war austerity and start swinging. The stores were bright and modern, played pop music, and Conran sold a type of design that was new to Brits: simple Scandinavian furniture (there was a lot of pine) rustic French kitchenware, and minimal Japanese paper lampshades which were bought by the aspirational young generation who were the first to have holidays abroad and wanted some of that Continental sophistication in their own lives, not the ugly, old-fashioned crap their parents had. He introduced the nation to exotic items like woks, chicken bricks, modular shelving, and duvets — no more nylon sheets and blankets! — perfect for the professional young boys and girls about town who were getting their own flats or shacking up together.

We had that wooden corkscrew bottom right in the above photo, and just seeing it gave me a Proustian rush back to my youth which just goes to show you how much meaning can be imbued in even the simplest objects (Conran understood that). They probably made thousands of those but it had a simple, artisnal quality that made you think it had been hand-made by some old man in a Provence cottage. I’m sure it made my mum feel positively bohemian when she used it to open a bottle of Mateus Rosé.

When I got my first flat on my own in the late 80s I bought a couch and bed (and a duvet of course) from Habitat and felt enormously proud and grown-up to be furnishing my own place. They stayed with me through the next two places I lived and, far as I know, that couch could still be where I left it in a house in Hammermsith. OK, probably not but it’s a nice thought.

Download: Furniture Music – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (mp3)


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)


Originally published August 2012

Childhood heroes are usually pop stars and footballers, but growing up in the late 60s and early 70s we also had the Apollo astronauts to idolize, actual heroes who performed amazing, courageous feats that really mattered — unlike Marc Bolan and Peter Osgood. To us they were real-life versions of Captain Kirk, Scott Tracy, and our Major Matt toys. They looked so cool in those white spacesuits, blasting into space (space! outer space!) aboard the gigantic, beautiful Saturn V rocket (which I had an Airfix model of). When I lived in Florida I visited Kennedy Space Centre and seeing things like the Lunar Module made me feel like a thrilled little kid again. Great though it was, seeing the Space Shuttle never excited me like that.

The death of Neil Armstrong has brought a lot of those memories back and reminded me what a big deal it all was at the time. I watched all the Apollo missions on TV from lift-off to splashdown (with James Burke and Patrick Moore on the BBC), seeing the first moon landing in my pajamas as Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface at four in the morning our time. I think I went to bed for a few hours and my mum set her alarm to wake us up for the big moment.

To us kids the Apollo missions seemed to promise that the future might be like the one we saw in Gerry Anderson TV shows, and that by the time we were adults we’d be living on the moon. Little did we know that when Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972 we wouldn’t go back again, so the moonbase we dreamt about never happened — not to mention the jetpacks and flying cars.

All the obituaries will use the word “immortal” to describe Armstrong’s place in history and I think some part of me thought he literally was, because even though he was getting on a bit his death still shocked me, as if I was surprised that such a legend would just kick the bucket like the rest of us boringly do and not ascend to Valhalla on the back of a giant, flaming bird or something. Seven-year-old me would have expected nothing less.

Download: Enchanted Sky Machines – Judee Sill (mp3)

Day Dreaming

Doris Day was one of those stars you think is going to live forever and I’m genuinely upset that she’s gone. She was always there, from watching her films on the telly as a kid with my mum — our favourite was Young At Heart with Frank Sinatra — right up to my own daughter going through a cowgirl phase and loving Calamity Jane.

Though probably more famous now for the fluffy rom-coms she made in the 60s (which are mostly delightful) I prefer the films she made, as the joke goes, before she was a virgin. In movies like Calamity Jane, Love Me Or Leave Me, The Pajama Game, and Teacher’s Pet she was an acting and singing double threat with a firecracker presence. Watch her opposite big male screen icons like Cagney, Gable, and Sinatra, and she more than holds her own. Not that it means anything but I thought she was dead sexy too.

I think her huge mainstream popularity and sunny, sweet image meant that she was always underrated. In 1962 she made the album Duet with the Andre Previn Trio and shines in the intimate, cabaret setting, showing what a great Jazz vocalist she was. I just wish she’d recorded more stuff like this.

Download: Close Your Eyes – Doris Day with The Andre Previn Trio (mp3)

Ranking Full Stop

Well this has been a shitty week. First we lost Scott Walker, and now Ranking Roger has joined the great band in the sky too. The Beat were such an underrated band, despite having a bunch of hits and being consistently great over three albums they seemed to be a little in the shadow of The Specials and Madness. But they were just as good as them — often better — and Roger was such a big part of their appeal, adding flavour and spice to their punky-reggae stew.

My favourite things they did was their 12″ singles where they stretched out into more dubby directions. Like this gem which was on the b-side of “Too Nice To Talk To.”

Download: Psychedelic Rockers (Dubweiser) – The Beat (mp3)

The Man

He was 95 and had been ailing for a while but losing Stan Lee is still a major bummer.

I’ve written before about the huge part Marvel comics played in my early life ever since my mum brought home a copy of The Mighty World of Marvel for me when I was 10, and it’s safe to say that Stan was one of the major figures in my youth. Those comics fired my imagination, got me drawing seriously, and put me on a road that eventually led to art school and the career I have now. Marvel comics were as important to the direction of my life as hearing “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” for the first time.

I don’t want to get into the stupid arguments over who did what between Stan, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, because that’s like arguing over Lennon and McCartney’s individual contributions to The Beatles — they were equally important. What I think is beyond dispute though is that Marvel — and comics in general — would never have become the cultural phenomenon they did without Stan. He gave Marvel a singular and hip voice, from the creators nicknames (Jack “King” Kirby, “Jazzy” John Romita), to the catchphrases (Face Front! ‘Nuff Said! Excelsior!), and his chatty Stan’s Soapbox column in every month’s comics which made the Marvel Bullpen seem like the coolest, most creative place to work in the world — today we would call it “branding” and Stan was a genius at it. Reading Marvel comics was like being part of a community led by a groovy, wise-cracking uncle.

But all his marketing skills would mean nothing if the comics weren’t any good and Stan was involved in the creation of some of the greatest ever. They were revolutionary too. His most important innovation was turning superheroes into real human beings with problems. The Fantastic Four were always bickering, having super powers seemed like a burden for the angsty Peter Parker, the X-Men’s powers made them outcasts, and his snappy, slangy dialogue set them all apart from those dull squares Superman and Batman at DC. Anyone who has read the often turgid comics Kirby and Ditko did on their own knows how much the Pop-Art poetry of Stan’s writing brought to the table. He also made comics more relevant to the real world, having characters deal with hot-button issues like racial hatred, campus politics, and drugs.

Because of him — for better or worse — superhero comics are no longer cheap, trashy things read only by little boys before they discover girls and music, but rich, complicated universes that people of all ages enjoy. He changed pop culture forever, and my life too.

Speaking of Paul McCartney, he was a fan too.

Download: Magneto And Titanium Man – Wings (mp3)

Bad Girl

Even though I used to watch the late-70s TV show Blake’s 7 I don’t remember much about it beyond its cheap-as-chips BBC sets and effects. But I do vividly remember Jacqueline Pearce who played Servalan, the evil Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation (I had to look that up) and the main villain of the show.

Sadly, Jacqueline died the other day and my Twitter feed was full of (mostly) middle-aged men reminiscing about her so I wasn’t the only one she left an impression on.

She certainly stood out with her striking face, imperious manner, and outrageously glam outfits. I was especially taken with her close-cropped black hair which gave her a Punk/Goth vibe that was very in style at the time. Her and Sandra Douglas as Ursa in Superman II were like the science fiction versions of Siouxsie Sioux — dark and dangerous but very sexy. You’d let them crush your resistance and take over your planet anytime.

Download: Lucretia Mac Evil – Blood, Sweat & Tears (mp3)


I didn’t cry when Bowie died. I didn’t cry when Prince died. It’s not the sort of thing I do, no matter how much I loved the person’s music. But I was sitting at my desk at work yesterday getting quite choked up and teary thinking about Aretha. I was a little surprised at how deeply I felt, but one listen to the records and I know why.

You know where the obituaries are so you don’t need me to tell you about her. This track always hit me right in the heart, and now I find it hard to get through without blubbing again.

Download: Angel – Aretha Franklin (mp3)