Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.
The Wonder Stuff
If The Beatles Had Read Hunter…The Singles 1994 – Polydor
I would count Brit Pop as my big light bulb moment of music. I loved chart pop and a little bit of grunge, but the war between Blur and Oasis – and the rush of bands that included Ash, Supergrass, Pulp and more – was the first music that was mine.
Which is unfair to Brit Pop because It was already on its second or third wace by 1994/1995. The few years before that are still largely a mystery to me, although I’ve heard of a lot of those bands. Take the Wonder Stuff, who had several chart hits and four albums (3 of them bothered the top 10) and had broken up and released a greatest hits before ‘Common People’ was even recorded.
My knowledge of the Wonder Stuff can be summed up thus;
– ‘Dizzy’, the friggin’ awesome single they did with Vic Reeves in 1991
– ‘Size Of A Cow’ and ‘Unbearable’ on various compilations
– The singer has long, curly hair
The kind of perfect amount of knowledge to bring in a Greatest Hits, then.
The title comes from a review of the band, (the Hunter being Hunter S Thompson) and it is a very generous assessment. They don’t have the clean lines of the Beatles, but they do have a lot of thrash-it-out energy, which is the most exciting part of this compilation.
There seems to be no order with this set, and I hate Greatest Hits collections that do this. Why? Why not just go chronological? Tell me a story. I don’t know your songs, and putting it in some biggest-hit-to-obscure-songs order helps me nothing. It is a bit of a jumpy listen straight through – production values and instrumentation (the violin in particular) come and go.
There’s a lot of catchy, fun stuff here, regardless. The songs I knew still shine. ‘Welcome To the Cheap Seats’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down Gently’, ‘Caught In My Shadow’, ‘A Wish Away’ – all lovely little pop confections. But there is filler too – a very British thing to have so many singles over a short career. The quieter stuff, the country-ish stuff, are nice but unremarkable.
(Here’s Welcome To the Cheap Seats, album in a longbox and Paul Schaffer on keys and everything)
Unremarkable also, because of history. Maybe it is my age bias, but the aforementioned Blur and Pulp would sweep in and add this level to artistry that would bury this band and other similar bands. I don’t know about theThompson comparison – I don’t know if the lyrical ambitions are that literary. Maybe these were cool lyrics in 1994, but by 1996 they were pop fluff.
At some point, I’ll probably start deleting some tracks off the iPod and be left with like 10 absolute solid thumpers. I don’t know if anyone talks about these guys anymore, and history is written by the victors. They missed to Brit-Pop movement going mainstream and international, although they have reformed and put out new albums. They also look dated. They had some great songs, but they just didn’t have it.
One last note – ‘Dizzy’ is still an amazing track. One of the very best.
This album is a clear number 2. These last two records twoer above anythign I heard this year, and are albums I will carry around with me for years.
I have loved so much music from Damon Albarn. Blur were a favourite, and the Gorillaz has many moments of pure joy. I like the man too, I love his approach to art, and what he has to say.
This is Albarn’s first genuine solo record. It took a long time, and a lot of flirting with opera and musicals before coming back with a pop record. But it’s not a Blur record, and he has synthesised his explorations in opera, world music and electronica, and then went and wrote some songs. Actual songs.
I listened to this album quite a bit and it never quite hit. But over time, those hooks, those melodies, and those sentiments started to stick. This is a grower, but I cannot imagine living without these songs. It makes little sense on first listen.
So many highlights – and oddly the singles are the least strong. The gentle History of a Cheating Heart, to the epic Heavy Seas Of Love. I love Photographs and the samples used. And Everyday Robots – the killer title track – it feels like Albarn has been trying to write this song his entire life.
The problem with Albarn is you never know what he will do next. Maybe his next record wont be so softly and lovely. Who knows where his spinning head might land next.
1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become? Virgin
The voices of the Beautiful South return with my album of the year. A modern, angry political record, wrapped up in some of the prettiest melodies. I often complain that music has nothing to say – well there’s more said on this album that just about every album I’ve heard this year combined.
The world is broken. And Heaton, who has been writing scathing songs about life for over 30 years now, has plenty to say about it. The idiot who is led astray in ‘Moulding Of A Fool‘, the type that gets to vote and run our lives. How we should talk about the baseball cap like we do the burqa. The enduring image of pizza boxes stacked towards the sun.
The phrases, the ideas, and the story of this record still roll around my head. It’s Heaton’s talent that he can turn that anger into wonderful images and great songs. And then it was a stroke of genius to get Jacqui Abbott on board to make the medicine even sweeter.
It’s not for everyone – not everyone cares for the subtext. That has been Heaton’s trick from his very first hit single, Happy Hour. He has always hidden deeper meanings in songs that milkmen can whistle. He’s back at it, and I couldn’t be happier.
Modern music is supremely lacking in balls. No one is challenging anything. Our artists have stopped leading us, and left us with nothing to learn. This record was the only bright spot of a year of ball-less music. Maybe some of the bands Heaton has inspired, from Manics to Arctic Monkeys to Belle And Sebastian, will follow suit.
Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.
Now I’m A Cowboy 1994 – Hut Records
Britpop was the first music that was mine. Grunge I had known loved a lot of, but it was my older brother’s thing. Britpop, and that blast of energy and melody, was mine and no one elses, and an era of music I still find fascinating. However, what I call Britpop was a few years too late. There was a scene before Blur hit it big, where bands like Suede were making fascinating inroads into the charts. Amongst them was The Auteurs.
I’ve been pretty aware of Luke Haines for a long time. His name just keeps popping up, especially in English magazines. Baader Meinhof, Black Box Recorder and The Auteurs were all band names I’ve heard of, but never heard.
This is Haines’ breakthrough, and biggest record, it seems. It features one big hit – ‘Lenny Valentino‘. It’s a hit that has somehow never appeared in any of the Britpop compilations I’ve collected over the years. I had never heard it until I bought this album. Lenny Valentino sounds like a hit single…a hook every 7 seconds indeed. In the clip, they definitey look more glam, before Britpop essentially moved north and into Oasis.
And oh, is it Britpop. There’s those jangly guitars mixed with loud guitars. There’s lots of lovely melodies and kitchen sink concerns. But there’s also a bit of Paul Westerberg here. There’s a graspy-ness to the vocal and a tenderness in the guitars. It makes sense that this did quite well (kinda) on radio in the UK and they toured the states.
Some really quite great songs. ‘New French Girlfriend‘ and ‘Chinese Bakery‘ are pretty great (as in pretty and great). That cello they have throughout adds a different colour, and used wonderfully on ‘A Sister Like You‘. Some of it has dated, and it doesn’t cover the stunning breadth of vision that, say, Parklife or Different Class would end up doing. There’s more than a couple of Britpop by numbers here.
What happened to The Auteurs was that Haines broke both his ankles in a drunken accident. It took them off the road and Haines came back with a downbeat record. There seems to be plenty of Haines devotees, people who follow his every band. I’m not sure I’m there yet. But dammit, that ‘Chinese Bakery‘ song is just so good. It’s definitely staying on the iPod. It’s actually getting better with every listen.
The review on Mojo #006 was broadly positive. They alsoe interviewed the band in the issue, about a recent tour with The Fall. This record was some success, to the point where it was actually reissued earlier in the year as a 2CD set.
The humble Film Clip has been left in the cold when people talk about the larger digital revolution. It’s music that has been the conversation for years, and film and TV are up next. But where does the Film Clip future lie?
In the DVD boom of the late 90s, many bands put out collections of their Film Clips. I own dozens of them – for many reasons.
– I wanted easy access to some of my favourite clips
– It was a way to see clips I’ve never seen before
– I want my favourite clips on DVD quality
– I just wanted to own everything my favourite bands did anyway.
But that was the late 90s, and the value of those Film Clip collection DVDs are plummeting. In the brave new digital world, do we really need them at all? Do I even need to keep the old ones I have?
The question of access is the first to become a non-issue, thanks to YouTube. But it’s not just YouTube – all video sites are using music clips as easy content to fill their servers.
Look at the otherside, the DVD. Does anyone really watch Film Clip collections from start to finish? If not, then after you’ve dug out the DVD, put it in the player and waited for it to load, you still have to navigate through a menu.
Having YouTube really puts the myth of access to rest. One click away, no menus, no waiting. My computer is also simply on more than my DVD player.
It comes back to cloud computing too. I don’t think these clips are going away. Even if YouTube falls, there are others. Film clips are not going away any time soon.
I also don’t see any record label putting up a paywall any time soon. They want their film clips seen.
Interesting the trajectory of how labels see the value of film clips. Damian Kulash Jr, of OK Go, nailed it in his New York Times piece from last year (link). In 2006, the viral hit of Here It Goes Again was a success for EMI. It was free advertising. In many ways, Film Clips have always been ads for a song or an album. Bands can’t play on every TV show, so they sent their videos on the road for them.
This led logically to MTV. MTV (back when it played clips) was essentially a series of ads for a series of bands. MTV didn’t pay for the clips – and made a bazillion dollars from them. So it’s interesting to hear CEO of Warner, Edgar Bronfman Jr, say that MTV made millions off the backs of the labels, and doesn’t want this repeated with YouTube. The danger – as he sees it (and others as well) – is creating another monster industry and missing out on any of the benefits.
So by 2010, a series of unsteady agreements were made with YouTube. Videos had ads, miniscule amounts of money exchanged hands and some videos were blocked altogether. The result was blocking the next big OK Go video – This Too Shall Pass. Free advertising for the band had turned into another way to make money.
It seems to be sliding back. I think it’s become quite clear that Film Clips are not a big money earner. iTunes have never been able to get any traction in selling them outright. Some money is passing hands from advertising revenue. And the number of people watching film clips on YouTube has taken on the most importance, yet again.
I think we can count on this trend continuing. Labels and bands never made money off Film Clips directly before. They are not going to be a cash cow now.
There’s also very few film clips I can’t see. Yes, there was a time when on-demand did not exist. And even my favourite bands, there were one or two obscure videos I never saw. Or I had a fuzzy VHS, taped off the telly. Then there are bands that never made it big in Australia (The Jayhawks and Sloan come to mind).
Now everything is up for grabs. Hundreds of thousands of Film Clips (and of course, even more live clips). We can safely assume having a DVD only clip is madness.
There’s not even an argument for having all of one band’s clips in one place. They are in one place – your computer screen. There are many DVDs in stores right now that can show you things you can’t see online. Film Clip Collections are not one of them.
People don’t watch film clips on TV anymore. Not first, and sometimes not ever. It’s an era of YouTube, and watching videos on little frames on our computer screens. NPR’s Neda Ulaby compared watching the ‘Thriller’ clip on a small screen to trying to take in Spartacus on an iPhone. Even the film clips themselves are changing.
It is yet another reason to not watch film clips on the home entertainment system. Single Ladies. The great OK Go videos. They are made for the medium of the internet. It’s also the first place people go to. Videos premiere on websites – and are passed virally.
It brings in a question of DVD fidelity. Do we care? For years, a small but vocal group decried digital music for it’s lack of sound quality. Millions of people chose to ignore this and love music anyway. Then music started being made for digital (see Soulja Boy).
And so, if film clips are being made for the internet – who cares about DVDs?
The final point is the biggest one – ownership. People are still skeptical of cloud computing – and I am too. But I am willing to forsake Film Clip collections for the internet version. Here’s why:
Cloud computing as scary security concerns. From fear that servers-might-crash-and-I-lose-my-stuff to I-don’t-want-a-company-to-know-that-much-about-me. I think both those things fail for Film Clips. I don’t care if YouTube can track the clips I watch. And I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding clips on the internet ever, even if YouTube crashes.
And those old DVDs are awful. They may have seemed nice at the time, but they usually offer no extra features. Even attachment to artwork is out the window. Most of them were just rehashes of existing artwork. Blur’s was just a reshaped version of their Best Of, and I have that artwork on a nice big vinyl record.
I think the ultimate test is this – if I didn’t own that Blur DVD already, and someone offered to give it to me for free, I’d probably say no.
The Film Clip collection is dead, I think that’s certain. But it’s death may be a sign of bigger things to come. As bandwidth and storage space increases, where does it lead for the Film and TV industry? That’s the next big war, and maybe the first battle has already been fought and won.
30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
9. NOTTING HILL
I lived around Notting Hill for 3 years. I was going to write a piece about London herself, but it’s West London and the Notting Hill surrounds that I will always remember.
I am currently not living there. After 3 years, I decided to move on. Most of friends have gone, and I wanted to try something different. I don’t regret it, but it’s not the best decision I’ve ever made. I miss it a lot.
Notting Hill is held together by Portobello Road – a long and winding road that goes from south to north. On the weekends it’s one of the best, busiest markets in the world. At nights it’s full of great pubs, restaurants and cinemas. At other times, it’s just a collection of flats, supermarkets and cafes. It’s a different thing at different times.
By luck, my job is in West London, so I tried to find a place to live near work. I found it in Ladbroke Grove, the next suburb up from Notting Hill, at the end of Portobello Road. From here, most mornings I would walk past the markets, and if it was a weekend I would soak in the shops and the atmosphere.
The place, even when packed with thousands of people, feels like home to me.
Portobello markets is the highlight. A million Saturday mornings spent going through it’s shops, and eating it’s paella. There were great record shops – the indie/famous Rough Trade, the 60s old school vinyl fanatics Minus Zero, and the soul/reggae shop Honest Jon (part owned by Damon Albarn).
For food, there are plenty of market stalls. Fantastic paella (with a slightly scary loud lady), excellent falafel rolls, nasty but sometimes necessary spicy German sausage to a little alleyway where some woman roasts a pig on a spit every Saturday. There’s always new ones too – I saw a Ghanan place the other day.
There’s plenty of sit down places too – the Electric, expensive and posh Italian at Osteria Basilico or Essenza, the best Thai in London at Market Thai. The Sausage And Mash Café is great for a hangover a50s chic décor, or the hidden away courtyard at Lazy Daisy. I have eaten myself mad on this street.
The shame is, there is no good coffee. London coffee is dodgy at best, so for a while I tried to support Progresso, a fair trade barista. But the coffee was so bad I had to spit it out, and I started going to Starbucks.
There are, however, a lot of pubs. From north to south – The Fat Badger, right in the Caribbean end of Portobello with a big open front room and comfy sofas. The Market Bar – always too crowded but a couple of great front-facing seats for people watching. The Castle – small but lovely, bar staff are wankers but we met a great group of people dressed up once. First Floor – my favourite bar that’s in the markets, right next to Rough Trade, people spilling out everywhere, clunky revolving doors, a million great memories. The Duke Of Wellington – the old man bar where I ran once after a heartbreaking night, to head into a conversation about continents. The Portobello Star – chic, charming, small bar that’s recently been prettied up. The Earl Of Lonsdale – cheap and with a big beer garden, many nights were spent in here, meeting lots of people. But if I had to choose one, it’s the Sun In Splendour –first shop south on Portobello. Quirky, great beer garden, best food – and it’s where Monty Python would drink and write the Flying Circus.
And that to the stalls that sells comics, CDs, vintage suits, old paperbacks, antiques, Hugh Grant’s Travel Bookshop, Jesse’s Western for old cowboy shirts – and more. Before I bore you with more details, just make a plan and visit it yourself.
Londoners are always fighting about what part of London is best. North vs South. East vs West. It gets kind of old. So I’m not going to go into why the West (where Notting Hill resides) is better than any other part of London. Except for one very important point.
Notting Hill is beautiful. Rows and rows of lovely terrace houses. Side street mews, and the wonderful All Saints Church just hidden away but over looking it all. It LOOKS like London from Paddington Bear cartoons. And, as with everything in my life, I usually go for the pretty.
As exciting as I find the place, people tell me I missed the golden days. The 50s brought with it an influx of Caribbean people – an influence that pervades the laid back, somewhat hippie culture of the area (and is best manifested in the yearly Notting Hill Carnival).
In the 60s, it was the home of Psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd, Cream and Hendrix all hung around there. Hendrix himself died in Notting Hill, in a hotel that is now a terrace building. The Electric, right in the middle of Portobello Road, was a famous avant garde cinema at the time.
Part of the reason for this was Notting Hill fell into disrepair. Large houses turned into artist slums. Leading well into the 70s, it was considered one of the worse areas of London. Clashes with police and the feeling of injustice led to Saint Joe Strummer, a local boy who created the Clash. In Strummer, I see all the great things about Portobello Rd and Notting Hill. An artistic life lived with passion. A mix of intellect and gut. World rhythms and white hot guitars. Politics and love intertwined. God, I love the Clash.
The 80s came Thatcher, and the slums and the bums were cleared out. Most of them were posers anyway, but the heart of the area stayed. Slowly it became neater, and the shops popped up. It became a buzzing part of new Britannia by the 90s – and was the home of Blur and Pulp. Jarvis Cocker wrote Common People about the influx of tourists and upper class types into the area.
Then came the Richard Curtis movie Notting Hill, which changed everything again. Now a worldwide postcard, Portobello was taken over by chain sneaker shops and expensive clothes. The danger has gone. It’s now one of the biggest tourist attractions in London.
But that Joe Strummer spirit is still there. The Portobello Film Festival isn anarchic and awesome. The street works together as a community. All peoples come together here, to dance, to kiss, to argue and to live.
A million memories flood my mind when I think of Portobello. Above and beyond the pubs – are the clubs. All of them mainly cool, and drinking spirits and dancing like a mad man to 70s funk. Be it Trailer Happiness or Notting Hill Arts Club. And walks home, buying more smokes, a bottle of water and sometimes instant noodles as well from the all night shops.
There were Sunday nights at the Coronet Cinema, mostly on my own, watching whatever indie film was on. The Hillgate, where Jay, Dan Ryan, Hampton and I ruled for months. The weird school where I took French lessons. I still get my haircuts from the South Americans on Golbourne Rd.
Many life changing scenes, both good and bad, occurred in Notting Hill. But that could be the amount of time I spent there. Many times I found myself walking down Portobello in the dead of night, and I have it all to myself. Friends made, girls kissed, girls lost, fights had, cans thrown, piss pissed, records bought, jokes told.
It’s where I think of when I think London. If any part of me is a Londoner, then I’m a West Londoner. Even if the whole place changes again, it will still be my London.