Ever Decreasing Circles

Do you remember other people? I know they could be dickheads but I do miss them. Squeezing in between them on the bus, avoiding eye contact on the train, rubbing shoulders at a concert, sharing a long table at a restaurant, talking drunken bollocks with them in a bar.

The borders of my life are currently reduced to being at home with my wife and two kids and I feel a little like we’re the family in A Quiet Place, a self-contained unit keeping to ourselves for the sake of our survival. I don’t know how I would have dealt with this if I was on my own, probably gone a little potty though it might have been like being a teenager again: spending too much time on my own, listening to music, and a lot of wanking.

Even before all this happened there was a drift toward people doing everything online, even basic things like buying groceries, and I hope that when this is over people might start to appreciate human contact again instead of interacting with the world through a screen. Not putting my house on it though.

Download: These Streets Will Never Look The Same (Ruth Radelet Version) – Chromatics (mp3)


Not What It Used To Be

Originally published May 2013

With all the hand-wringing about how the internet is destroying our attention spans, I also wonder… oh look, cats that look like Hitler!… sorry, where was I? Oh yes… I also wonder if it will screw with our our memories too.

When all human knowledge and culture of the past — from the epochal to the hopelessly trivial — is catalogued for instant call-up at the click of a mouse button it’s almost impossible to forget anything. In the probable future when our brains are literally hard-wired into the web you won’t even need a mouse or keyboard, your subconscious will do a Google search so quickly you’ll “know” something a nanosecond before you’re even aware that you’d forgotten about it. In this world we’re all trivia experts and pub arguments end in the time it takes for someone to whip out their iPhone.

The internet makes it a lot easier to literally own the past too. It used to take a JR Hartley-esque effort to find, but now everything that previously only existed in your foggy memory is there for instant purchase in a vast nostalgia marketplace. I know I’m not the only one who’s used eBay to buy lost items from my youth — records, magazines, Whizzer and Chips annuals — but I find the pleasure of winning an auction doesn’t match up to the thrill of accidentally coming across something in a second-hand record or charity shop because that really does feel like discovering buried treasure, not something you just Googled and bid on.

And what’s sad is the reality of the thing itself rarely matches up to the romanticized image you had in your head either. That old copy of Look-In loses its mystical power the minute you hold it in your hands (or see that old TV show on YouTube) because you have to face the cold, hard truth that it was actually a bit rubbish. Some things are probably best left un-bought and unseen.

So while the internet has enabled nostalgia by allowing us to wallow in every trivial thing we ever enjoyed as kids (and write blogs about it), it’s also killed it a bit by taking away its mystique and that lovely, hazy quality things have when they’re only vaguely half-remembered.

But I’m sure that if you’d described the internet to me thirty years ago I’d have said it sounds like the most wonderful thing ever invented.

Download: Memorabilia – Soft Cell (mp3)

Love Me Do, Or Else

Last weekend on my Twitter feed some bloke expressed disbelief that a person could actually dislike The Beatles, then someone else said that anyone who claimed they did was only trying to be “cool”. I don’t know if they were all reacting to some story or tweet somewhere but the collective, absolute certainty of them really got my back up. Experience has taught me not to get involved in Twitter fights so I wrote this instead.

Let me say right off the bat that I think The Beatles are fine, I like them, but anyone who think it’s impossible to not feel that way is operating under the old-fashioned and blinkered assumption that the default position of pop music is white boys with guitars. The truth is that hasn’t been the case for about 30 years now and Kraftwerk and James Brown have been far more influential on the last few decades of pop than the Fabs. If you grew up loving Hip-Hop, Techno, or even Death Metal they would not only mean fuck-all to you, but you might not even like the sort of thing they do.

I know there’s a difference between not thinking they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread and actively disliking them, but I swear some Beatles evangelists act like the former position is the only correct one and they can prove it by citing the number of classic songs they wrote like it’s empirical data. But music isn’t football and you don’t “win” the game by scoring more goals. The Fabs did write an incredible number of great songs — they probably have the best goal difference of any band — but I honestly like “Tin Soldier” or “Waterloo Sunset” more than all of them (if we’re comparing apples to apples).

My own personal feeling about The Beatles is more admiration than love. I wouldn’t claim that The Jam were a “better” group but I prefer them because they mean more to me. I swear I’m not just trying to be cool (ha!) when I say that I would take All Mod Cons over Revolver any day.

Given attitudes like the above it’s not surprising there are still teenagers who feel the need to declare “THE BEATLES SUCK!” and think they’re being punky rebels by doing so. I know we all have a patronizing laugh and tell them it’s just a phase they’ll grown out of, but I completely understand the impulse to say that. Who needs some middle-aged man (and it always is men) telling you what you’re supposed to like and calling you a liar if you don’t? It’s the sort of bollocks that makes me want to say this is better than the original. Not that I would, but…

Download: Strawberry Fields Forever – Candy Flip (mp3)

Ten Years of Tears

Many happy returns to this here blog which turns ten years old today. That’s a whole decade of writing bollocks sentimental musings. Who’d have thought it would last this long when I published the first post on December 12th, 2006? Certainly not me.

The idea for all this came about because I’d been reading a lot of elegiac books about Britain like Lost Worlds, The Likes Of Us, The Village That Died For England, and even Bollocks To Alton Towers, that had me feeling wistful about the country of my youth and all the things that had vanished since then. So I decided I wanted to write about that, but not in any cheesy “I Heart The Seventies” way. I didn’t care if anyone else but me was interested in things like what records my mum listened to or who I fancied when I was 12, and had no idea I could get a decade of mileage out of it. The original title was going to be England Made Me but there was already a (now-defunct) blog of that name, but I think the alternative I came up with (in a moment of inspiration on a train to New York) was much better anyway.

A decade is a lifetime in internet years (even longer if you add the three years I did my previous blog The Number One Songs In Heaven — sadly lost in Blogspot limbo somewhere) and things have changed a lot in that time. When I first started, mp3 blogs were the hot new thing and I got mentions in The Guardian, USA Today, Word magazine, and The Boston Globe which often caused a surge in traffic that used up all my monthly bandwidth and took the site down for days (remember that?) But with the warp-speed things move on the internet blogging has lost its youthful buzz. Now all the kidz are Snapchatting, Tumblring, Facetiming, and Instagramming instead, and the web landscape is littered with the ghosts of abandoned blogs. To couch it in terms more relevant to this site, blogging has become the vinyl records of the internet: an obsolete medium superseded by more convenient formats but still beloved by sentimental oldsters.

It’s a shame really, I think the internet has become a less interesting place since it was consumed by social media which has created more of a herd mentality than the individualism which existed before (Facebook might even be bad for democracy). I miss the frontier days when services like Geocities and Tripod (where I first learned HTML) provided a platform for anyone with a hobby or obsession to express themselves — usually with blue type on a purple background and lots of animated gifs. It was often bizarre and amateurish but it was more alive. Blogging was an extension of that, giving exposure to a multitude of new voices and opinions, but now that expression has been reduced to a “Like” button or 140 characters.

I’m no saint, I’m just as bad as anyone at tearing myself away from Twitter and doing something more useful like writing this blog or playing with my kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought this place was on it’s last legs and running on fumes, but I still have things to write about so hopefully next year I’ll still be keeping the blog flag flying high, even if it’s not cool anymore. Doubt if I’ll make another ten years though.

Lot of songs I could have picked to go with this post, but Pauline Murray is one of the few artists I’ve written about enough times to earn her own tag.

Download: Time Slipping – Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls (mp3)

Between now and Christmas I’m going to be republishing some of my favourite posts from the archive. Then hopefully I’ll have my 2016 review written (if I can bear to think about this God-awful year), and then… more of the same I guess.

Losing My Cool

I struggled to stop smoking for a long time, falling in and out of the habit for years before finally quitting. Obviously I was addicted, but almost as strong as that — and my worry about dying a premature death from cancer — was the feeling that without cigarettes I’d just be some safe and boring middle-aged bloke. I know it sounds stupid, but smoking meant being a nonconformist rebel and sticking two fingers up at society with it’s smug health and fitness obsession (you can’t even smoke at a concert anymore, how rock and roll is that?) Most of all, a cigarette went with being young, drinking too much, clubbing till late, living on the edge, being cool. It was hard to let go of that, without it I might as well start wearing comfy shoes and listening to Coldplay.

We like to say that one of the best things about getting old is not actually caring about being cool anymore which is true to a certain extent, but no one wants to be un-cool, do they? The worst thing is that feeling you aren’t where it’s at anymore, the culture has moved on and replaced you with annoying young people — and young people are always annoying when you’re not one. Just to rub salt in the wound, a lot of these kids are into the same bands you were at their age so it’s like the little buggers are parasites living off your past coolness.

A while ago I was on the bus and there was some kid wearing a Clash t-shirt with their first album cover on it. I became very aware that, while he was in his cool Punk Rock shirt, I was sitting there with my reading glasses and hair greying at the temples, so to this kid I’m just some old fart with a boring life. He probably didn’t even notice me but inside I wanted to shout at him “I SAW THE CLASH BEFORE YOU WERE FUCKING BORN! I TOOK DRUGS! I USED TO BE COOL!”

Maybe I should have just lit up a fag on the bus, that would’ve shown him what a rebel I was.

As I was writing this post I realized I might as well have just posted this record and left it at that.

Download: Losing My Edge – LCD Soundsystem (mp3)

The Bright Side of Life

The world is such a depressing place at the moment. Terrorism, mass shootings, beloved music icons dying, and politics on both sides of the Atlantic becoming a fucked-up mix of circus clown show and Nuremberg rally.

Being English I’m normally a gloomy, glass-half-empty pessimist but I find that having kids is the antidote to that. Sorry if this is a naff greetings card sentiment, but having them in your life (when they’re not complaining anyway) makes the world seem not entirely shitty. Booze helps too.

And music of course. Think I may have posted it before years ago but, what the hell, it’s one of the best extended mixes I have.

Download: I Could Be Happy (12″ mix) – Altered Images (mp3)

The Class Struggle

I used to belong to a Facebook group called “I Grew Up In Fulham” through which I reconnected with some old school friends, heard news about others, and even learned a few things about the history of my old manor. Most of the group were old-school, white working-class people, and sadly — with some decent exceptions — the majority of them were rabidly right-wing, nationalistic, immigrant-haters. I tried to argue with them and their bullshit for a while but eventually gave up and left the group because I got sick of seeing their nasty xenophobia in my Facebook feed. On top of that none of them could spell and I was almost as offended by their illiteracy as I was the racism.

There are stupid bigots in every walk of life but these were people who had grown up in the same neighborhoods and gone to the same schools as me, and I felt like an alien amongst them. I’m under no illusions about the British working classes being a bunch of bleeding heart liberals — I know they’d vote to bring back hanging tomorrow if they could — but it was a profoundly depressing experience that made me feel even further disconnected from my roots. I hated thinking “Thank God I got away from you people” because I’m proud that I grew up working class.

I was thinking about that experience when I read the article How I Became Middle Class by Lynsey Hanley in The Guardian the other week which is about the anxiety and identity crisis that can come with upward mobility. Like me, Hanley grew up on a council estate and went to a shitty comprehensive school, but managed to go to college and now has a thoroughly middle-class life with a job in a creative, middle-class profession — a writer in her case — so I related to a lot of it.

Hanley writes about feeling isolated growing up because she was interested in learning and not into doing the same things her friends were and, while I wouldn’t say I ever felt lonely, I know what she means. I was hardly a swot as a kid, but at my school anyone who was the slightest bit academic or read books for pleasure was seen as a teacher’s pet, bully-fodder, and probably a bit gay. Few boys stayed on for the Sixth Form and only two of us took A-Level English. They weren’t any help with my career either, I got into art school under my own steam two years after I left school. During that two-year gap I worked at a t-shirt printing factory where all the workers read The Sun at lunchtime while I had The Guardian which got me a few funny looks and comments. Over the years I’ve had temp jobs as a dishwasher, cleaner, and hotel porter and it was always the same: I was the smartypants who didn’t fit in there, even though my upbringing was the same as the other workers.

I never had any Billy Liar dreams of escaping my background but that’s what art school amounted to. Four years in that environment — and meeting a lot of other kids like myself — can make it very hard to really go “home” again. You still love your family and the friends you had before, but you’ve been shown this other world where you can be more truly yourself (I wonder if my Dad felt the same when he went from being a cab driver to stage manager at the National Theatre). Plus you now have a profession which pays enough money to buy yourself the life your new pretensions require.

But I don’t entirely belong here either because you can take the boy out of the council estate but never really take the council estate out of the boy. We’re not well-off by any means but make just about enough to send our kids to a private school for a few years (but not enough to keep them there longer) which I was often conflicted about. Hanging around with some of the richer parents would make me feel like a class traitor and I’d have to fight the urge to go all Class War on their BMWs. The smug assumptions of the liberal middle classes — and often total lack of experience with people who think differently — can be really annoying too, and make me want say something reactionary just to pop their cozy little bubble. And I love good food but there’s often this common voice in my head sneering that most middle-class lifestyle trappings like fancy coffee, craft beer, and artisnal tomatoes are all just overpriced, poncey bollocks. I may have gone from Carling Black Label to Côtes du Rhône, and tins of Heinz Ravioli to organic pasta from Whole Foods, but my favourite food is still sausages with HP Sauce.

Download: Ambition – Subway Sect (mp3)

Four Eyes

I have terrible eyesight. Without glasses or contacts the whole world is a blur to me, I couldn’t recognize my own kids from five feet away. I started wearing glasses when I was about seven years old, initially just for reading and seeing the blackboard at school, but by the time I was in my teens I needed them all the time.

Being a teenager is hard enough without that additional handicap, and in those days glasses weren’t the slightest bit cool or fashionable if you were young. Kids who wore them were called Four Eyes, Specky, Brains, Joe 90, and usually got beaten up and had their lunch money stolen. They marked you as a weedy, swotty bookworm invisible to the opposite sex. Glasses had the power to turn Superman into the boring sad sack Clark Kent, and if you wanted to make even  the volcanically-hot Valerie Leon look undesirable the first thing you did was stick a pair of specs on her.

I wore National Health glasses for a long time which didn’t help my image, their choices were pretty basic and limited. I spent most of my teens in their black frame ones and switched to the round wireframes in my early 20s which was an improvement because they had a John Lennon cachet about them. But I never stopped feeling like I was being punished for something that wasn’t my fault — bad eyesight.

Besides Lennon, other bespectacled pop stars like Buddy Holly, Elton John, and Elvis Costello were hardly aspirational figures when it came to style or attracting the ladies. The first one of my generation to make glasses cool was Morrissey who wore the same NHS frames I had in my teens but I never looked as good as him in them. He didn’t actually need them but, like his fake hearing aid, wore them as a visual statement that he stood with the loners and losers, the awkward and introverted. 

I got contact lenses after leaving college and I can still remember how strange it felt to see my face clearly in a mirror without it having glasses on it, I almost didn’t recognize myself. The world was suddenly sharper and clearer without a sheet of glass (or plastic) between me and it, the general effect was like switching to a HD television and not realizing until then how shit the picture you’d been watching before was.

Contacts were very expensive back then (you had to get them insured) but so worth it. Friends were amazed by how different I looked, an uncle said to me in surprise at a family party “You’re a good-looking boy, Lee!” as if I’d been this specky ogre before. I didn’t suddenly turn into Tom Jones and have girls throwing their knickers at me on the Tube, but I did feel more confident, more like the me I was supposed to be be without those bloody things on my face. I still wear contacts but now my eyes are so bad I need reading glasses on top of them too, basically I’m back to where I was when I was seven.

Now my daughter needs glasses for school and there isn’t anything like the same stigma attached to them — her frames are certainly more stylish than mine were at her age. These days glasses are so hip and looking bookish is so cool that they’re worn by even more people who don’t need them — people I would like to smack around the head. Don’t these posers know how much some of us have suffered because of our poor eyesight and would give anything NOT to have to wear them?

Here’s the Jackson Five pissing all over Jackson Brown’s original.

Download: Doctor My Eyes – The Jackson Five (mp3)

The Speed of Pop

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 even Miley, so I don’t have a huge beef with modern mainstream pop. But I do want pop music to be constantly 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: We Live So Fast (Extended Mix) – Heaven 17 (mp3)

Kids Today

When you get older it’s common to start thinking that modern pop music is rubbish and the younger generation are more stupid, superficial, and self-absorbed than you were at their age.

I try to avoid doing that because I know every generation thinks the ones after it likes crap music and are a sign that the world is going to hell.

But has the thought ever crossed your mind that for once, maybe, it could be true?

Download: Blank Generation – Richard Hell & The Voidoids