Wednesday, 25 November 2009


The unforgivable deviation from the steady stream of rock'n'roll tales from the past, and indeed lack of entries of any kind can only be excused by one thing...a busy present. I am glad to report that part three of the saga which started in the summer on the 30th year anniversary of Age Of Berlin, continued through the reunion with Mark, Rich and Sandy, has now manifested itself in a completed new album by a project we have named `Pata-Particles'. It ain't in Fearnleys or Tony's Records just yet, but plans are afoot to release it to the world (on an LP !) It's all chopped together now and sounds amazing.

I picked a weekend in September at random and Mark said "that's cool, I'm playing with Damo on the Friday". What better circumstances in which to meet up again and begin a weekend's recording with Mark Spybey than a Damo Suzuki gig ? Damo gets everywhere....he says the same thing about me. I'm not in the band but turn up early anyway, and to have Damo to myself while the musicians are doing what musicians do at soundchecks is fine. There we are sitting together on the only two chairs in the place. He has a great pair of white sunglasses. I tell him he won't be needing them much longer, but he smiles back with "I am in Switzerland next week". I am amazed to learn that this show in Newcastle is his first in the city since 1972 with Can. A great night is had at a superb venue (The Star and Shadow). The backstage area is a lively throng of musicians,partners and friends gathered around a table of veggie food, and conversation is freely exchanged by people who have just met. Damo may sit there and observe most of the time but he is the reason these people are together in the same place. It really is a network in every sense, and to be valued and cherished. There's something wonderful about sitting in a tatty backstage space with 20 other souls and no television.

Out in the venue it's filled up to capacity and the Network roar through an improvised set of nearly two hours for a stunned audience, most of whom I would think have never experienced this before. Afterwards the night slowly dissipates, and I find myself heading for Warkworth Northumberland, in the pitch dark, with Mark's cousin the amiable Matt, following on his motorbike. A few whiskies and a great sleep later and we're into the late summer sun of a Saturday morning in Warkworth. We take a stroll arounfd the village to buy fresh bread, have a fantastic breakfast, Mark prepares the studio for occupation, Matt records a couple of cameos before roaring off on his bike back down South and we're off.....

24 hours later, I'm heading back to Yorkshire and Mark has a bag full of joint explorations, drum tracks I did when he took the dog out, filmic pieces recorded whilst watching Polanski's Macbeth, and all manner of other spontaneity. Mark's philosophy is `press record'. I heartily agree.

I send a bunch of half finished pieces I'd been working on in August, to which Mark adds vocals and other things , and Rich Sanderson who has been anxiously waiting in London for news from the North, sends his own contributions up to Mark who works tirelessly over the following weeks to blend the whole thing together until I get the call at short notice to come and help him finally nail it down. I find myself unexpectedly back up at the other end of the country from the RMI trip to Hampshire the weekend before, (with a week's work inbetween) in the first week of November. An overdub here, a drum track there, and much more besides and it is now nailed down.

It's good to make things a reality and carry out something we "always meant to do". It opens doors to the future. Even a 30 year gap isn't too fact it's better, because we now know what the hell we're doing .

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Power Of Independent Blogging

When I wrote the entry 3 or 4 weeks back about my first band `Age Of Berlin', it was largely to mark the occasion and get some of that nostalgia I am regularly plagued with out into the world. Certain significant dates in my life will always be there lurking in my memory, and will always be marked or remembered internally at least. There are many people I've met who place no value on what they did ten, twenty, thirty years ago, live for the day and take no delight in retracing old steps, but for me it is not only a source of quiet joy, it helps provide an understanding of how we all got to where we are now. It helps to make sense of things, and much amusement comes from memories of just how different things were back then.

The piece actually became a catalyst for some of the people from those days finding the motivation to get ourselves to the same place at the same time for 2-3 hours and spend a sunny afternoon reminiscing, jogging those memories and indeed seeing how we all turned out. So it was that last Sunday last I found myself in the Cleveland Bay Hotel in Redcar East, having hot-footed it up from Harrogate, anticipating the arrival of 3 friends who I hadn't seen for 10, 26 and 28 years respectively.

Rich Sanderson has lived more than half his life in London now, and was on a two week annual trip back to Teesside with his family, (he wasn't in Age Of Berlin, but his presence was felt at the time) the other two, Spib and Sandy, are in the North within striking distance, so it was the ideal opportunity to make it happen. They set it up, and I was happy to join them. Their histories together go back far further again than my mere thirty years, they formed their first band `Solaris' in 1974, so it was amusing to feel like the newcomer in their midst. The three have known each other since infant school, but had not all seen each other for some 17 years.

It was a special and affectionate 3 hours which only lifted the lid on detailed conversations which could have lasted days. I'm sure it won't be another 17 years before it happens again.

L-R Mark (Sandy) Sanderson, Mark (Spib) Spybey, Rich Sanderson

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tunes I Never Tire Of #6: Public Image Ltd `Death Disco'

I am one of those music nuts for whom bands can lie dormant in the collection for long periods, only to bloom in all their glory once again, triggered by a single track, or a magazine article, becoming an obsession once again for a few weeks to the exclusion of just about everything else.

As I wrote my previous entry, I inevitably dug out a bit of PiL to refresh the senses. Here I am a couple of weeks later driving everyone in the house mad with `Careering' at 8 o'clock in the morning, and the criminally ignored and vastly superior single version of `Memories' for elevenses. It's one thing to catch up with a band via their recordings when their prime has slipped past (on account of not being born soon enough in the case of too many of the artists I love), but quite another to live through a band's development in real time, and between 15 in 1978, and 20 in 1983 when I left home, and they lost it, Public Image Ltd were one such band for me. Their debut single in late '78 had been a corker, and despite sniffy `king's new clothes' jibes from journos hell bent on hearing the Sex Pistols mkII, (yawn) the debut album acquitted itself pretty well, without being a masterpiece, it was certainly a statement of intent, and it certainly wasn't "goddam awful rock'n'roll either" as John Lydon would say.

However, nothing could prepare anybody for the shock of `Metal Box' as it slowly unfolded over the pivotal year of 1979 via advance singles and a couple of legendary TV appearances until it finally arrived as 3 x 12" 45's in a heavyweight film cannister towards the end of the year. It was £7.49 which I couldn't afford, so I taped it from the scary acquaintance who had once thumped me for liking Yes (see previous entry !). I eventually bought the LP version`Second Edition'. It wasn't the same, but at least it didn't turn to rust like the boxes apparently did, although that in itself was pretty cool really I suppose.

The calling card was `Death Disco' which emerged in the summer. A true cacophony was the only word for it. When I first heard it I wasn't sure if it was the worst thing I'd ever heard or the best, but I had to have it. The incredible thing about it was that it was played on daytime radio. Imagine that ! I don't think many of the poptastic DJ's of the time greeted it with anything other than indifference or incredulity, but played it certainly was. It reached the Top 20 ! Economics dictated that it was the 7" single I bought, which came in a scary picture cover with, strangely, the slot to get the single out at the bottom of the sleeve rather than the top. I never knew if this was deliberate or not.

There had been chart songs before about dying (the sickly sentimental `Seasons In The Sun', the comic strip `Leader Of The Pack' or `Tell Laura I Love Her') but nothing like this. This was a catharsis of stark, honest, harrowing reality as John Lydon lost his mother to cancer. "Watch her slowly die, sorry in her eyes. Choking on a bed, flowers rotting dead"; to a disco beat, with a bastardisation of `Swan Lake' as the guitar theme ! For sheer subversion it must be the greatest thing ever seen on `Top Of The Pops'. What a glorious racket, and note Jah Wobble's frankly deranged grinning throughout. These people were genuinely frightening.

Check It Out here:

P.S. Speaking of `Check It Out', PiL's July 1979 appearance on the dismal Tyne Tees `yoof' programme of the same name, is possibly my TV highlight of all time. My brother and I watched in awe (twice !), in the pre-VCR days, my Mum was less than impressed. Most of it is viewable across these two links, although neither are complete despite claims to the contrary.

The hapless berk with the `Sid The Sexist' hair arrangements is one Chris Cowey, who rightly disappeared into obscurity very shortly after this farce. Hang on, no he didn't, he became the producer of `Top Of The Pops'. You couldn't make it up...

For the full story/transcript behind events which led to what you see here, have a read of this from the magnificently authoratative `Fodderstompf' PiL fansite.

PPS: A couple of years ago I was down in London to see Van Der Graaf Generator with my friend Russell. I was in the midst of my last major PiL `phase' and had been hammering `Death Disco' having discovered the full 10 minute take which had just been issued. Being a cheery sort of soul, who knows how to show somebody a good time, Russell suggested a walk in the enormous cemetry between Archway and East Finchley in North London. As we ambled along chatting I was somewhat stunned, when out of thousands and thousands of graves I came across this one quite by chance: "In Loving Memory of Eileen Lydon. Wife and Mother. Sadly Missed".

Life can sometimes floor you.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

It Was 30 Years Ago Today: Age Of Berlin

June 1979 was the month when `O' levels were completed, school was out forever, (until sixth form college at least, and you could wear denim at sixth form) and a long summer stretched out ahead of us. We didn't look back or give a thought to those who we would probably never see again, which in the case of some of the girls was a shame. Karen Mustard where are you now ? Many of us who'd done `O' levels were on course to bag a couple of `A' levels and eventually fly off from our Teesside enclave to a university somewhere to start our own adventures in halls of residence and 'Young Ones' styled student houses in cities like Sheffield, Manchester and even Bromley. Others were destined to spend their whole lives in Marske-by-the -Sea. We saw no reason to spend the rest of our lives in the place where we happened to be born.

I recently saw an old female classmate in `The Ship' on one of my regular visits to my hometown. It came as quite a shock to me, she looked well over 50, and like she'd had a pretty rough life, no doubt with a pretty rough bloke or two. We were sitting next to her for twenty minutes before the penny dropped as to who she was. I'm sure she was even in my `top ten' back in Mr Hebden's class. I immediately revised any plans I had to attend the impending 30 year school reunion. Too scary, and let's face it, if you haven't tried to keep in touch with someone over the last 30 years, then maybe you never had a thing in common in the first place. I left Marske 26 years ago and never wished I'd stayed there. I love the place dearly, but only to come back to.

Of far more significance to me than leaving school, the summer of 1979 also marked the beginning of a magical and fun process which continues to this day; getting together in a room and making a purposeful noise with other people. I did it as recently as last Sunday and it was still fun ! In fact it was amazing. We kept the next band waiting outside 10 minutes while we finished up a most unholy and hallucogenic racket, and when we finally finished one of them had the grace to ask us who we were influenced by, "on that performance... I would say the devil" I could only reply, as the sweat dripped off me onto the floor.

Back in July 1979 when Duncan and I took our seats at the History table during our prospective sixth form's `meet the students' open day, it was actually our own personal histories we were unwittingly setting in motion. One of the students who'd volunteered to tell all about `A' level History was Mark Spybey. As was `de rigeur' in those days among 16 year old boys, I had my haversack on display lovingly painted with the names of my musical heroes, and discussion soon turned away from History and to their relative merits..."don't like them, don't like THEM, they're OK..." Duncan piped up that he'd been messing about with audio generators and tape machines at home. "Wow ! like Dik Mik from Hawkwind ?" said Mark. We all agreed Hawkwind was good. Mark then uttered the immortal words which would change our lives forever: "the college has a synthesizer you know".

So somehow before we had even properly enrolled at the place, we managed to blag their most precious educational tool, the Roland SH1000, on long term loan. We could scarcely believe it as it sat in Duncan's front room making random noises at us. Spybey brought his old friend Mark Sanderson round to marvel at Duncan's tape echo skills and give us his best robot impression to test them out. We formed a band right there and then. For me it was the moment we ceased to be schoolkids and moved up into a new world. They were only a year older than us, but it felt like a lot more.

A rehearsal was arranged for July 23rd, at Joe's parents' house at 81 Hummershill Lane, Marske-by-the-Sea. If you drive past it today you'll not notice a blue `English Heritage' plaque commemorating the event. Joe was going to be the vocalist but hadn't really got a clue, hadn't written anything, and spent his time farting about, eventually rendered speechless by the racket which ensued from those gathered in his unknowing parents' house. The rest of us meant business in a 16-17 year old kind of way. On guitar was Jon Davis, Led Zeppelin fan and ego-maniac, who brought his tape machine along too, placing it right next to his amp, so all he could hear on the recording was himself. His nemesis in terms of musical taste and personality was Spybey who was a tidy assured drummer. Sandy played Bass. Spib and Sandy had worked on a collection of riffs which we used as a starting point....and indeed a finishing point.

Then there was Duncan and me. Duncan had an Audio Generator and real tape echo for making swooping noises (that Ferrograph machine weighed a ton), and because I could almost pick out a tune, I got to play the synthesizer. Duncan and me had comically transported everything to Joe's house about half a mile away balanced precariously on Duncan's red Go-cart, after our primary mode of transport, a speed frame, had collapsed under the weight of the synthesizer, the aforementioned Ferrograph tape machine, and a flight case after (according to Duncan) "about 4 foot".

Mark Spybey had come up with a typed manifesto: "Harmony is Harmony. Noise is Noise: This is the noise" and a band name: AGE OF BERLIN (How thrilling to be IN A BAND, particularly one with pluralistic undertones, it would be another ten years before the wall came down) "Space-Rock, Psychedelic Renewalism" it continued. I'm not quite certain what the latter was exactly, but we have certainly become well acquainted with the former in the ensuing years. As we made our way precariously to that first rehearsal, we felt like we had arrived into a new world. Boy, did we have fun ! Duncan and I went through the same 18" speaker, which didn't stop Duncan being twice as loud as anyone else, and terrorizing us with everything from echo sounders ("Don't ! it kills yer !" I can be heard begging for mercy on the tape) to pneumatic drills ("Aaaaaagh ! Woooo!") as I wazzed around on a synthesizer for the first time; literally a kid with a new toy. Before the afternoon was out that speaker would already be well on the way to premature burn out.

It was also the first time I'd been within touching distance of an actual drum kit, and when Spib handed me the sticks during the lunchtime pastie break, it was the moment I'd been waiting for all my life. I already knew I was going to be a drummer, and this just confirmed it. He was also kind enough to let me have the kit on loan for the next couple of years when he went off to college, and I taught myself to play, to the joy and delight of all at 8 Wanstead Close and surrounding properties.

You could therefore say that July 23rd 1979 was one of the most significant days of my life. It was the first time we heard ourselves as part of a band and at full volume, the glory of a huge vibrating racket, and I immediately knew that nothing else could compare, we had a purpose in life !

Over that summer we spent evenings round at Spib's in Redcar, full of exciting ideas for the band while he played us all sorts of stuff from an impressive contemporary record collection: Gang Of Four, Joy Division, The Specials' debut single Gangsters, John Cooper-Clarke, Alternative TV, `Pop Musik' by M and er...Tubeway Army, but you can't win them all. Things were moving fast musically in the UK, the old guard had been jettisoned (by him not us, I was still listening to Genesis) but we found common ground in the likes of Peter Hammill, Hawkwind, Here and Now and Hillage. Before the summer was out Public Image Ltd unleashed the mighty `Metal Box' which changed things for everybody including me. Sandy actually handed over £7.49 for this artefact. I think he must have had a paid job, as it was an outrageous sum for us to contemplate as penniless students, fantastic though it was.

I had no problem ignoring the less savoury trends of the time like the godawful `New Wave Of British Heavy Metal 'which gave us Saxon, Iron Midden, Lef Deppelin and the likes, and I stuck to a core of all things progressive, who many of the `New Wave' bands liked anyway as it later turned out. (It was a sweet moment many years later when Keith Levene, guitar `enfant terrible' of Public Image Ltd admitted his favourite album of all time was Yes' `Tales From Topographic Oceans', idolised Steve Howe and had even roadied for them as a schoolboy ! Ha Ha Ha. I was once hit for liking Yes by a PiL fan !). I loved the humour, originality and DIY diversity of some of the wayward souls that the `new wave' threw up into the spotlight, there's never been a time like it since; totally non-corporate. I listened to and absorbed everything anybody cared to throw at me over the airwaves and in their record collections (apart from The Clash with their ugly sloganeering and joyless posturing. Of course, they inevitably became my younger brother's favourite band as is always the case in sibling conflict) .

One Sunday night at Spib's, his friend Russ Walker brought Gary Houghton round. He was learning the guitar, and happened to be in the process of moving to Marske from Redcar. Jon Davis slid off the radar sometime around Zeppelin's last stand at Knebworth, and Gary became our new guitarist. Age Of Berlin finished after nearly a year's apprenticeship, during which we rehearsed, never gigged, but learnt a lot (photos here taken in April 1980 at Zetland Church Hall). Spib went off to study Music Therapy, and eventually moved to Vancouver, surfacing back into our lives many years later with a highly impressive musical CV. Our reunion with Mark as a member of Michael Karoli's band in 1999 at the Can Barbican solo gigs was quite an occasion ("Yes I remember playing Redcar, where is there more booze ?" Michael Karoli)

Duncan, Gary and me had already started recording with the synthesiser at Duncan's by the end of 1979, and here we still are 30 years later, 30 and more albums later, having established Radio Massacre International as a way of musical life which has taken us to places we only dreamed of.

Here are a couple of tunes from the day when it all started, big cheers to Mark Spybey for being a mighty catalyst.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Worst Day I Ever Spent In The Music Biz or Why Promo Videos Are The Work Of Satan.

When I think about developments between the two eras of the 1970's and 1980's, perhaps the most marked `step forward' is the music promotional video.

February 1991, I'm standing in an enormous disused warehouse somewhere in South East London within striking distance of Elephant and Castle. There is a single three bar electric heater for warmth in a freezing building the size of a football pitch and outside us on the wasteland there has been a substantial snowfall. Snow being a London video director's dream, we four Honey Smugglers find ourselves out in the white stuff in a spirit of what could initially at least be described as fun. With a couple of lunchtime pints and a shot or two of whisky, this is all a bit of a first.

Ged, Stevie C and myself, are acting unconvincingly (being largely unconvinced about what the hell we are supposed to be doing) and are but a sideshow to Chris the singer's lip synched close-ups, which he does carry off extremely well in his leather fur-lined hat. The rest of us don't have instruments with us to pretend to play, so we look like a right bunch of aimless charlies as we piss about under the freezing afternoon sun, taking vague instructions like "it would be really good if you all walked off in different directions".

The outside shots finally under wraps, the wind blowing ever colder and the novelty having worn off along with the effects of the whisky, we return to the warehouse. Inside, the other star of the video is a child actor in a multicoloured hammock looking (for reasons which are never explained) through a telescope, while a record spins on a turntable. The song has a storyboard involving us trudging through snow, our singer reading a book about Hollywood and leaving a photo frame in the snow...... while a kid looks through a telescope in a hammock. An obvious BAFTA candidate I'm sure you'll agree.

As the kid's solo scenes are filmed , (he's been hired for a couple of hours only, probably to comply with child cruelty laws), we become gradually conscious of the fact that an hour or two in the snow has taken it's toll on the lower trousers, socks and shoes of us assembled would be pop stars. The temperature in the open sided warehouse is decreasing by the hour as the winter dusk descends, and it begins to dawn on me that making pop videos is perhaps a pain best endured only once. Or at least to not be so stupid as to let a director mess you about in sub zero temperatures when you could be at home on this Sunday from hell enjoying a warm and soft time in bed with your lovely young wife to be.

Standing around (there are no chairs, who do we think we are ? U2?) for hours in a freezing warehouse with wet shoes, trousers and feet, no warmth and no food or drink: this is the life ! I'm sure Duran Duran felt the same, being kept waiting in the sunshine on that luxury yacht off the Brazilian coast no doubt being fed champagne, canapes and cocaine by leggy models while they re-did Simon Le Bon Bon's hair for the umpteenth time.

On an hourly basis we treat ourselves to ten minutes huddled together in Steve's car with the heating on, until between visits the car is broken into by some `Sarf London' urchins, thereby creating unwanted ventilation through the hole where the side window used to be and defeating the object of us trying to use it for respite from the biting winds chilling our marrows in the warehouse.

I know making videos isn't easy, but there were whole hours where nothing appeared to be happening at all. Surely it can't be that hard to point a camera at something. It was made worse by a complete lack of communication from the video guys. Hanging around is one thing, but it's the not knowing for how much longer which really gets you down. This became an endurance test of mammoth proportions and was about as interesting and rewarding as standing at a bus stop for 12 hours.

It's evening and even colder by the time we Smugglers line-up for inside shots of us dancing amid glittery strips of foil hanging from the roof while Chris once again lip-synchs the lead vocal to cut to and from the snow shots. It takes an absolute technical eternity to get Stevie C, Ged and I lined up in one shot, why I don't know....there's this farcical passing of a photo frame from one person to the other (mine ended up on the cutting room floor) and then there are some shots of each of us reflected in a chunk of mirror.... until finally, late that evening, with food and drink but a distant memory of some 12 hours ago, we were mercifully done.

An end to the misery finally in reach, and having no money for a cab, (I naively thought we'd be finished while the buses were still running) and with barely a clue as to where the hell we are anyway, I beg Stevie `Vox Continental ' Cox to take me home to my door about 3 miles away in Camberwell. Our keyboard man is the only one of us smart enough to have a car to deliver us from this god-forsaken place, even if it does now have a busted side window. I've rarely appreciated a lift as much as I did that night. "One of the most testing days of my life", says the diary.

About a month later, one Monday, my friend Sally Wooly says she saw the video on MTV the night before and that she didn't quite know how to say this but........she couldn't really see me in it. That's right kids ! I had stood around freezing my toes off and starving for 13 hours for nothing. The video director, who we never saw again from that day to this, hadn't even seen fit to include a couple of token shots of the insignificant long haired drummer guy as some small reward for his misery.

In the 70's the only thing that mattered was the music. You heard new bands on the radio if you knew where to listen, and there was a magic and mystery about only hearing them and not seeing them. If you liked them so much that you wanted to find out more you generally went to your local city hall or university and caught them in the flesh. When I first heard such obscurities as Seventh Wave on my local radio station in 1975, they sounded like they were from the moon, and what's more I didn't give a second thought to what the buggers looked like. Who cared ? The music was the soundtrack to your imagination. Imagination is not a pre-requisite for listening, but it happens because by listening rather than watching, the music is given a chance to "conjure up images of sacred spaces" as my friend Archie Patterson once so eloquently put it. Archie may have been talking about the great Kosmische Musik but it applies equally to say, `Tangled Up In Blue'. Can you imagine the pointlessness of shooting a promo for this song, when every one of the millions of people who have heard Bob Dylan's masterpiece have their own set of images in their head, to be added to as every nuance makes itself clearer.

Then MTV reared it's ugly corporate head, and it soon became the norm that some fool would be employed at great expense (the artist's expense of course) to make a video for the `marketplace'. All of a sudden lame storyboards, exotic locations (not if you're the Honey Smugglers), punishing shooting schedules, and protracted editing sessions become another exciting way to waste vast amounts of money you'd never recoup...and in all honesty the net result of all this indulgence ? many great music videos can you name ?

Although I can see the lists forming in your heads already, I can't think of one I really ever want to see again. I just don't think they work as an artform. They chain a song down to an association with a repeatable visual image, and that in my view defeats the object of music in principle, whilst one can listen to the same timeless song for a lifetime, who would want to watch the video more than once or twice ? Visual information becomes very boring very quickly, but for some mystical and magical reason music bears repeated listening in a variety of moods, circumstances and over vast timespans.

The other long term effect on the culture of popular music, entrenched today, was that bands were just as likely to be signed if their faces were video friendly, as if their music was any good. Ben Wardle admitted as much in his recent blog about the ubiquitous Ms Boyle. That's why today we have endless bands who are more bothered about the way they look than writing any remotely memorable or ground-breaking music, although even this theory doesn't explain or excuse Coldplay.

I'm with Jimi on this one. When, in the 60's, Hendrix was innocently asked what he had thought of an early oil slide lightshow in the golden days of London's UFO club his response was "Man, I've got better pictures in my head". If he'd lived long enough to witness the advent of the promo video he'd have been very grateful indeed for what he'd seen that night.

Suffer with me one time, I'm in there somewhere if you don't blink, and it's not a bad song.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Been Solo Without You

As any music fan will tell you, the highlight of any album or live performance is the drum solo.

There is usually a mass exodus to the bar during the inevitable medley of a band's best known and loved numbers in order to stock up on drinks in preparation for the highlight of the night.
A wonderful 10, 15 even 20 minutes where the star of the show gets a chance to shine leaving the underlings in the band (guitarist, singer etc) enviously nursing a scotch and coke in the wings, secretly wishing that they were the drummer and could get all the girls, while our hero has the audience transfixed in a world of paradiddles, mummy/daddy rolls and triplets.

How many of us from punk rockers to folk fans have rushed home with a newly purchased triple live LP and gone excitedly to the longest track secure in the knowledge that between our favourite verses on what was once a 3 minute song, there will be 15 minutes of drum heaven from the smallest cowbell to the largest gong, with every single thing within the drummer's reach being hit at least once ? Including the bass player.

Here is my humble contribution to God's own form of musical expression, recorded exclusively for this blog just two days ago (actually Martin had gone to pick up Glynn and I found myself in the rehearsal room with just my kit for company, and rather like finding yourself alone with a woman I thought I'd better at least attempt to do something creative with my hands).

Sit back, relax and enjoy, lighters at the ready and don't forget to clap along kids !

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Two Ronnies

I received Luke Haines' book `Bad Vibes' for my birthday, an excellent choice by Sarah it has to be said. I tore through it in a day and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm sure glad I wasn't in a band with the miserable bastard though.

He tells of his own personal journey through the music business, (as leader of The Auteurs and beyond) very truthfully, and is a great read. For the descriptions of Oasis' `Don't Look Back In Anger' as "a brainless, oafish anthem about nothing at all" and The Verve's `Bittersweet Symphony' as "the musical equivalent of a child's colouring in book: simpleton lyrics about life sometimes being good and sometimes being bad" he earns my special admiration...

Meanwhile back in Dusty Rainbows land, it's December 1989, and the Honey Smugglers are completing 3 songs in 3 days at Raezor Studios in South West London. We're recording in a 24-track for the first time with development money generously provided by a major record label, and it's sounding excellent beyond our wildest hopes. For the first time our individual parts are distinguishable from the rehearsal room murk we're used to.

Having recorded our tracks quickly and with spirit we move swiftly on to the mixing with Bernard the engineer. It's a tricky process which can make or break a song, and long hours are spent balancing the instruments in relation to each other. The state of the art computerised desk remembers every setting and fader movement, and after a day or more of moving towards the goal slowly but surely, viola ! ...sorry, voila !..everyone is happy with the final mixes. The studio standard monitor speakers are small Yamahas designed to give a definitive reference point should a band wish to record the drums in one studio, the vocals in another, and the bass trombone parts in yet another. Throughout the mixing process these speakers are the only ones we've heard the songs on.

By now it is well into the evening of the last day and friends and well wishers, (including some chums from late 80's popsters The Muscle Shoal) have started to appear, aware that the end is in sight, bearing bottles and smokes. It is the moment we've all been waiting for...time to hear it on THE BIG SPEAKERS. They are so huge they literally go from floor to ceiling in the control room, on either side of the window to the live room. Luke Haines reckons the official jargon is the `Ronnies' (Big speakers=Biggies=Ronnie Biggs=Ronnies). I'll therefore take that to it's logical conclusion and call them the Two Ronnies, given that they come as a pair.

The long hours of intense concentration are at an end, and it's time to party. When we get to the last of the three tunes, `Listen' the party is in full swing. I will never forget the feling of sheer unassailable joy at hearing this massive sounding THING we have created. I don't even care if nobody else ever hears it, it is the culmination of everything we've been aiming for in our 18 month life as a band. We sound absolutely bloody fantastic, and no-one can take that feeling away. Nobody can talk over it because it's too damn loud. It's loud, but it is as clear as a bell. You can feel the bass through the floor and in your ribs, the massive drums propelling it forwards, the soaring vocals bathed in reverb, the entire contents of the percussion box moving and shaking, and the gwirling, growling Organ are all there surrounded by their own halo of magnificence. If only you could invite the whole world to this studio right now to share this.

In the control room dancing breaks out, mile wide smiles abound, wine is drunk and life doesn't get any better. Three days ago this didn't exist, and now we've made something which will live forever. The massive size and quality of the speakers make it a wonder to behold. The moment is cherished, so much so that it remains clear to me virtually 20 years on.

You never forget your first experience with The Two Ronnies.

At the time I'm working at the BBC, and the next day is the Christmas party at the BBC Club next to Broadcasting House. I've spent the whole day at home listening to a DAT tape of the mixes from last night. It's not the same on my speakers. At the BBC party that evening, Sarah, Russell and I are robbed of the prize of a CD player in the raffle because Russell's number is being called out while he's in deep conversation elsewhere in the room, despite the fact that we know it's his. It goes to some girl who doesn't even work there anymore. CD players are a big deal in 1989, and more importantly I HAVEN'T GOT ONE. We leave the party in disgust at the injustice perpetrated upon us.

We go up to Russell's office on the fifth floor of Broadcasting House where he has a bottle of Scotch stashed away. Russell has not heard the recording yet. We put it on the hi-fi in his office in all it's digital glory. It sounds fantastic. We've had a lot to drink, so we open the door and blast it out down the stuffy, curvy corridors of the ship-shaped front of this bastion of the broacasting establishment. Fuck them all ! This is rock'n'roll and we'll show them ! One day we will rule the world !!

It's approximately 9.30 in the evening, and along in Studio 5A, a mere 100 yards from Russell's small archive selector's office, Radio 4's flagship arts programme `Kaleidoscope' is being transmitted. The clearly illuminated red light is a major clue to this. I'm at this point thinking it would be an excellent idea to give them an exclusive first hearing of the grooviest thing they'll hear this week or next, or the one after that, and set off down the corridor with the DAT tape.
I peer through the glass at the faces gathered around several beautifully suspended microphones, discussing goodness knows what, and wonder what I'm really going to do next.

At this moment I am brought back to sanity by Sahra and Russell who point out that it's likely I'll never set foot in Broadcasting House again if I even attempt to open that studio door. My glittering media career will be at an immediate end. Yours truly having finally seen sense, we retreat to Russ's office, and by way of compensation and still drunk, we manage to get the volume control on his amp all the way up to ten. The noise is deafening, but it still can't compare with the Two Ronnies.

The next day, Russell can't do any work because apart from a crippling hangover, his speakers are putting out an indistinct and pathetic flapping sound. We'd royally blown his woofers and tweeters to bits the night before and no mistake. He calls BBC premises department and they send a little man to replace the equipment without so much as a question as to how they ended up in this sorry state. People in the office remark about the incredibly loud music which could be heard the night before on the other side of the building. Our lips are sealed.

Put this on the biggest speakers you can find, but it still won't compare with the Two Ronnies !

Listen Link Below

A Little Something...

As you know, I play with Radio Massacre International, which is a very much a group effort and all the more exciting for that. Lately I've taken to recording a few things at home, some of which might end up being adapted by the band, and some of which will constitute my winning entry in the race to release a solo album before Duncan and Gary can get round to it. How prog is that ? I always thought it really funny that when Yes went up themselves in the mid-seventies, everyone in the band insisted on doing one, including the drummer. His was rubbish of course, as was surprisingly perhaps, the guitarist's. The singer, keyboardist and bass player won the day...not that you probably care !

In fact I do have an album ready to go called `New Church' for which I just need the artwork finishing. Meantime I thought it'd be fun to post a brand new thing hot off the presses, which I recorded on March 1st. There's no grand concept, it's just interesting that whenever I fire the gear up I usually end up with something a few hours later. It won't change your life but you might find it a pleasant diversion for 5 minutes or so.

Listen/Download here:

Friday, 6 March 2009

Tunes I Never Tire Of #5: 10cc - I'm Mandy Fly Me

It's been a busy few weeks, and all quiet on the blogging front. Much of my time has been spent making tweaks to some new RMI pieces, distilling the essence down to something releasable and repeatable on discerning hi-fi systems across the globe. I love getting the music `back to the lab' for analysis and scrutiny, although believe me, listening to a synchronised crossfade edit too many times in a `late night frame of mind' can do your head in. We largely record everything live to multitrack in the rehearsal space we have used for many a year in Stockport (Greater Manchester).

By coincidence, a thread on Progressive Ears got me digging around for the magnificent and mind blowing `Consequences' by Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. These two left 10cc at their height and spent over a year holed up in the studio making this boxed triple album which cost an amazing £11 in 1977. It is now largely regarded as a grand folly, an indulgent failure and typical of 70's excess (yawn yawn). Well me and my mate Nige were two of the seventeen people who thought it was utter genius. Aside from the incredible music and out of this world recording techniques, what's not to like about a playlet entirely scripted and performed by Peter Cook in a multitude of voices ? can't teach ducks to dance.

Most of the work on it was done in Stockport, as were the early 10cc albums I inevitably graduated towards after unlocking `Consequences' once again. My listening for the week therefore has all originated in this proud Lancashire town, which is possibly the only place in the world to boast both a viaduct and a pyramid.

On reading up on 10cc's Strawberry Studio, I was quite flabbergasted to learn that it was the first commercial studio to be built outside London. I had no idea. I knew it was groundbreaking, but it seems amazing now that if you were a band from Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow you had to go to London to make a record, even up until the late sixties.

I love the way that the four members of 10cc bought an empty space, started equipping it, and whilst messing about with drum sounds to test out their new multitrack machine, by sheer fluke ended up with `Neanderthal Man' (naming the band Hotlegs) and having surely one of the most bizarre No2 hits ever.

This was the springboard for 10cc, they honed studio recording to a fine art as nobody had done before, yet they never took their eye off the charts. In retrospect, those of us privileged enough to first become aware of pop music between 1972-77 were absolutely spoilt. The bar has never been raised as high since, and never will be again judging by the state of the bands we're churning out these days who seem to be more interested in their hair gel than spending three weeks overdubbing vocals in the spirit of sonic exploration. I absolutely recommend this article on the making of the legendary `I'm Not In Love' which will make you hear it once more with fresh ears. It was and is a towering achievement.

The following year, 10cc came out with `I'm Mandy Fly Me'. It was similarly epic but is now far less familiar to the majority of the population than `I'm Not In Love'. This is thanks to modern radio's oldies policy of choosing one or two hits by name bands and discarding the rest as if they never happened. It's easy to forget that bands like 10cc had 10 or 12 chart hits. In their quest to sound more like everyone else than everyone else, the oldies stations' entire music databases are now probably dwarfed by the number of songs on most people's I-Pod Nanos, and far less diverse.

The song is a poignant and personal tale of a guy on the street whose life is going nowhere, until he sees a poster for an airline with the hostess beckoning "I'm Mandy Fly Me". He gets whisked away and finds himself in the plane with Mandy which then crashes over the sea. He survives and is rescued by Mandy, only to find her missing and himself deposited back on the street staring at the wall. They really don't write them like that anymore.

More than anything it's the mixing and the construction of the song as a mini movie which makes it such a triumph, and there can be few more seductive introductions to any record....awesomely phased and panned white noise, backwards and forwards zither strokes swirling around the stereo image, as the introductory melody soars over the top. Is it played on a state of the art synthesizer they could no doubt afford by this time ? Is it heck, it's somebody whistling along to a Fender Rhodes electric piano. You try and better it !

The main feature is a great lead vocal by Eric Stewart, you're there with him in the story. There are carefully crafted changes of pace, key and scene. It's cinematic, and flows seamlessly. It stretches the boundaries, but never risks alienating the pop audience. It could be heard regularly on wonderful Radio One in the glorious early summer of 1976.

Listen and marvel one time at these four geniuses from sunny Stockport who went to the moon and back on behalf of pop music.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Slowly Slipping Into History Feel Us Go...

The well publicized closures of two old and contrasting `indie' stomping grounds are part of the latest chapter in an endless tale of woe about the gradual death of the music industry as we know it. Both of them hold great memories for me.

The Astoria in Charing Cross Road, literally in the middle of London (Centre Point tower is opposite), served for years as one of the 'biggies' to play alongside the Kentish Town Forum a few miles up the road. It had a capacity of 2000 and you pretty much felt like you'd arrived if you played there. The bouncers were intimidating thugs and the drinks were served in atrociously overpriced cans which could have been bought round the corner for a fraction of the cost, but the trick was to arrive late full of ale, see the band and leg it back to the pub (usually the Pillars Of Hercules). In fact I seem to remember us making an early exit to the pub after about two songs when the Manic Street Preachers (or was it Blur ? possibly both) played there, but that's the luxury of guest lists for you. A decent pint becomes more important than a band if you haven't paid anything to get in.

It will be sadly missed by the indie kids of old though. It was one of the best `moshing' venues around. Its sticky floor a heady mixture of beer, ground-in fag ash and bodily fluids as testament to hundreds of nights of stage-diving abandonment and joy at volume levels which will no doubt be illegal very soon, along with enjoying yourself.

Now on the same patch of ground, they'll be building a new rail link, mainly so that businessmen can get to the continent more quickly. How marvellous for them, it'll be nice when they finish it years behind schedule and no doubt several billion pounds over budget, that's if there's any business left to be done by then. How totally irrelevant to the person of culture, taste and low funds who doesn't give two hoots about business, but just wants to boogie their face off on a Friday night while high on recreational substances. What could possibly be wrong with that?

I played there in October 1990 with the Honey Smugglers as the grand homecoming on our first UK tour as support to the mighty Eat, who were among the best live bands I ever saw. It was a joy to see and learn from them night after night throughout our glorious adventure through the windswept town centres of our fair country. When the Smugglers hit the enormous Astoria stage it was early and the place was nowhere near capacity, but we'd been invited by Eat to join them on their encores, by which time the place was full. They all doubled up on percussion, so with plenty of instruments to hand, I found myself hitting Timbales for all I was worth in a power duet with their human dynamo drummer Pete Howard, while our singer Chris danced deliriously alongside Ged on tambourine and Steve C on Organ. This was in front of nearly 2000 swaying people and I wanted that moment slap bang in the centre of London to last forever. It was certainly the place to be that night.

By contrast in terms of size (300 capacity) but not in atmosphere, is Leicester's more modest but equally legendary Princess Charlotte, which is 99% likely to close any time now because it's gone into receivership. A roll call of big names such as Stone Roses, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and er, Pete Docherty (or Doherty or whatever the dismally untalented creep calls himself) have all passed through this unassuming city centre pub on their way to the top.

More importantly, this venue was a vital component of the affectionately known indie `toilet circuit'. From Southampton (The Joiners) to Hull (The Adelphi) and at least a dozen points inbetween, an abundant variety of groups on the verge of their big breakthrough, with a single in the shops, would slog their way through the provinces in battered vans of dubious provenance. The locals having read about them in the music papers (remember them ??) could check them out first hand for a few quid, and a following could be slowly built. The Charlotte was typical of these venues which were often unloved and unlovely, but somehow belonged to the kids who frequented them. The best ones were where the pub landlord had given over an under used function room to a keen young promoter, let him call it `The Electric Whirlpool' or the `The Psychic Pig' and enjoyed the greatly improved bar takings that the gigs brought in. There was no need for stringent security, your indie kids were generally a good natured intelligent bunch, and as long as a blind eye was turned to the odd spliff then there was no trouble from anybody.

The first time the Honey Smugglers saw the Charlotte was on a wet Monday in March 1991, and we initially wanted to turn round and go back home. The dressing room was painted entirely black with a single light bulb hanging in the middle. There was nothing resembling furniture as far as I recall. I was amused to see a poster advertsing The Mercurys (my brother's band) who had already beaten us to it. Leaving these somewhat dismal surroundings after soundchecking we went for pizza in town.

On our return an hour or two later the transformation was total. The place was buzzing with young indie kids. The bar was serving up fine ale and all was suddenly well with the world.
A venue is brought alive by it's punters, and to see the place busy made the band want to go on and have a good time too. We played a great gig with excellent sound, to a fine reaction. We celebrated what was our 100th gig in real style.

Two years later I was back drumming with my new band TV Eye (which included Paul and Max Noble from Eat, I was going up in the world) and this time we had a proper tour bus with a CD player and video (ooh get you !), as we rolled up outside the Charlotte. The trip itself had been a hoot because our singer Paul Kaye (pictured right on that very journey) had been on incredible form, and no doubt assisted by the several joints we had smoked on the way we had hardly stopped laughing. He's made a hell of a lot more people laugh since, but there was a time when we had him all to ourselves. You really had to be there to see the "Oh no lads I've stuck a Rizla to my hand by accident...the gig's off" routine.

On this tour I was now signing into guest houses as `Beeb Fader', my newly acquired alias, after my skills on the mixing desk had been noticed by Paul during a recording session. He was now `Jack Cake' and on the rare occasions we were required to give autographs, his sign off was "Have a slice of me". Jack's persona was known to occasionally take over in rehearsals and sing of "going to get me some ice-cream" or "we are toast" instead of the somewhat more serious matters in hand.

As we carved `TV Eye' lovingly into the wall of the dressing room at The Charlotte, we wondered if that light bulb hanging in the middle of the room had been changed in the two years since I was last here, the gig was great, intense and loud and we went down well in front of Thousand Yard Stare's audience, but the episode which sticks strongest in the mind was during the pre-gig pint and hanging around time in the bar of The Charlotte.

I stumbled into the middle of it having been out to find food. Basically Louis Jones our bass player was on the floor in such convulsions of laughter that he literally couldn't breathe and was begging for Paul K to stop, whilst emitting a high pitched whine in between gasps for air. "Stop what ?" I hear you ask. Paul had captured the exact characteristics of Louis helpless whine and was relaying it back to him pitch perfect, making him lose it even more. This was punctuated with declarations of "nothing to see here" in high nasal upper crust tones , and with a suitably daft face for good measure staring at Louis from close range he had the power to virtually hospitalize our poor bass player with split sides.

It was amazing to see the Kaye in action. Without doubt the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. From then on he attempted to "light Louis' cummerbund of fire" at every available opportunity, including throwing himself down a motorway embankment, but that's another story.

Those great times have gone, now many of the places where they happened are going too...

Honey Smugglers `Need' @ Princess Charlotte 18/3/91 : Download here

T.V.Eye `Wow' @ Princess Charlotte 25/4/93:Download here

Pictured Above: Paul looking like he's just about to set Louis off again. (Oxford April 1993)