The past may not have passed.

A student stops me in the corridor and asks if I remember some vaguely familiar name. As I nod in a distracted manner I’m informed that aforementioned name is this child’s mother. On parent’s evening a father who also seems oddly familiar appears in front of me and as I somewhat unkindly think of how the years have not treated him so well I wonder what on earth he’s thinking about me, still stuck here twenty years after he left. As teachers we accept that such moments are the inevitable reminders that we are Getting Old, but what kinds of triggers perform this function for everyone else? Policemen looking like they are twelve is undoubtedly one of them, closely followed by the now regular occurrence of 30 and 40 year reissues of records we bought when we were a mere slip of a thing. Ouch. So, thirty years since ‘Boomy Tella’ by The Claim was first released? Surely some mistake officer. And are you quite certain you are old enough to be carrying that side arm?

Christian reminds us that the past is a foreign country we wouldn’t much want to be reminded of, let alone visit, and yet like him this record by The Claim is one blip of history I’m quite happy to welcome back into my life. Not so much for memories of this, that or the other (though there are a few of those) but for the realisation that, when all those explicitly personal meanings and connections are removed from the frame (or as much as that is possible), it really does sound like a terrific record; a record that I like to think, had it been made in 2019 by a bunch of stringy kids from the suburbs, would be making me itch and dance inside like a fevered wraith.

I have resisted looking back in old fanzines to see what kinds of words and phrases I used to describe The Claim and ‘Boomy Tella’ at the time of its release. I have resisted the temptation to see what reference points I threw in. That said, I am certain I would have made more than passing reference to The Kinks and yes, the need to do so again is strong for the sounds of The Claim are certainly very much in line with the noise made by those Muswell Hillbillies, particularly on those ‘Kontroversy’ recordings where they simultaneously snarled, sneered and strangely soothed. And to go off an a tangent, remember how Sleater Kinney neatly nodded to the cover of the ‘Kink Kontroversy’ for their ‘Dig Me Out’ set? Well I’m going to be cheeky and suggest that there is something of The Claim in The Kinney; something in the way noises they create(d) are sweet sensations of controlled aggression tempered by a deeply held concern for humanity. Well what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding after all? Yeah, yeah yeah. Which is to say too that there’s something of Brinsley Shwartz and that energised pub-rock pre-punk tension in ‘Boomy Tella’ too and if I did not spot that on first release then it says more about my less-than-complete musical/cultural knowledge than anything else. If I’d told me that then of course I’d have laughed in my face and said something fatuous about Missing The Point Entirely. I’d have been wrong and I’d have been right. And vice-versa.

Christian is certainly right when he says that ‘Boomy Tella’ is up there with the best when it comes to the perfect way to open a record. I am sure I’d have said the same in those shrouded mists of history, probably throwing in some connection to ‘Waterloo Sunset’. It’s not just that perfectly pitched opening line about being wayward and cynical (I’ve lost track of the number of times I have thrown that reference into words I’ve written about any number of topics down these past thirty years) but it’s also in the way the song seems to snap you instantly to attention, secure in it’s self-assurance yet never aggrandising. No, never that.

Didn’t we talk in the past about lineage from The Kinks through Vic Godard to The Claim? As I say, many things from the/my past are intentionally obscured like Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning drawing but that concept is one that refuses to drop. The Godard point is particularly pertinent, for there is certainly something of Godard’s eloquent use of the English language in the context of Pop within lines like “When the leaves of hope are looking sombre, don’t brush them aside, they’re needing gathering up and nurtured for a rainy day”. Chasing this chimera of content, indeed. There’s certainly too a Subway Sect current to much of the noise of ‘Boomy Tella’, which strangely now sounds more angular and sharply grazed than I remember. I even listened again to my original Esurient record to make sure it wasn’t something in re-mastering or pressing (things which I would never in a million years understand) but no, there it is: evidence that it’s my mis-remembered perceptions of the past clouding up the moment. Which is fine. As is the nudge of reminder to dig out and delight in those Godard discs from the past thirty years. It is tempting in idle moments to wonder what records The Claim might have gone on to make in those same thirty years had ‘Boomy Tella’ not slipped almost immediately into semi-obscurity (a perfect storm of failures in distribution service colliding with changes in cultural fashions within music) and certainly one strongly suspects they would have made records as equally terrific as, say, ‘The End Of The Surrey People’ or ‘Sansend’.

Thankfully all is not lost, and whilst recent experiments in quantum physics might suggest that the past has not in fact passed, the re-emergence of ‘Boomy Tella’ alongside the first new recordings by The Claim in nearly three decades appear to bear this out. Certainly the early indications are that ‘The New Industrial Ballads’ set (out on the re-ignited A Turntable Friend label in May) will be one that inevitably nods backwards to the glorious jambalaya of references held within ‘Boomy Tella’ whilst acknowledging present and potential futures. Edges may have been gently rounded, but The Claim still sound sharp and angry yet yes, with that same deeply rooted concern and love for humanity intact (if inevitably somewhat bruised). In what feels like a time of limited positives in the world, that’s got to be worth something.

Being wayward and cynical.

I was 18 when Boomy Tella first came out. It felt important then, it is still important now. There are a limited number of great pop albums and this is one of them. None of the songs extend beyond 4 minutes, many are under three. There are no guitar solos, there is no ‘stretching out’, no noodling, no filler. These things are important. Say what you want and then stop. Think ‘I just can’t stop it’, ‘I am a wallet’, ‘Two sevens clash’, ‘Meat is murder’, ‘Born this way’ and ‘Ping pong’.

Great albums always have a great opening song and ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ is just that. It sets the tone and you want to hear what comes next. Great songs always have a great opening line and ‘Being wayward and cynical never left a lasting impression on her lonely heart’ is up there with some of the best: “Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds”; “When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face…”; “You spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel I’m dirt and I’m hurt.”

Nothing is deliberately obscure or difficult but there is an air of mystery and surprise. I still don’t know if ‘Love letter’ is sung from a spurned male or female point of view, the trombone and laughter in ‘Beneath the reach’ suddenly appear but just seem to fit and the party which starts in the background of ‘Las Regas El Resoto’ is like an abrupt left turn down a tiny side street. But it works. The words are clear and articulate but leave gaps for you to fill in. These are no themes, and nothing is in your face. ‘Mrs Shepherd’ seems to be about a pompous and high-handed moralist whose daughter turns out to be a lesbian, ‘Down by the chimney’ perhaps about someone’s loss of innocence. The music is angular and yet melodic. ‘Not so simple Sharon says’ has a hook so catchy it is one of those tunes you would recognise within a second or two if it ever happened to be on the radio. It’s familiar but you can’t pin it down. As John Peel said of someone more famous – it’s not immediately possible to tell what they have been listening to. Labelling this as ‘mod’ or using the term ‘mod band’ feels reductive and dismissive. For me, this is an album that deserves more than that.

1988 was a long time ago and the past is a country I don’t much want to visit. But this is a great record and it is nice to have it back.

Christian Jones.

Buy the reissued ‘Boomy Tella’ on vinyl, CD or download via Bandcamp

“I don’t know dude.” Or: the creative process unpacked

Several musician friends this morning retweeted the above thought by Mitski. I’ve enjoyed some of Mitski’s records (last year’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ had some great moments and often put me in mind of Jens Lekman) but I found the tweet even more interesting: “every song i write feels like the last song I’ll ever write, and the moment it’s done I fully forget how I did any of it lol. if artists were fully honest in interviews half our answers to Qs about “process” would probably be “i don’t know dude””. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the reference to process that interests me, or more specifically the explanation of process. This is something our students are expected to do as part of their art/photography GCSE and it is always one of the most difficult things for them to do. The phrase I keep using in class is “you need to tell the examiner what’s going on inside your head” and I’m always intrigued by the differing degrees of response to this. Some are able to unpack that thinking process fairly well (I model it all the time when we do one to one tutorial sessions) but other just don’t seem able to do it at all. Of course this is all tied into metacognition and we know from research that metacognition is perhaps the ‘strategy’ that has the single most positive impact on learning.

Now I understand artists’ wish to keep the secrets of their creative processes hidden because it maintains the mystery and magic and it may be that Mitski is being somewhat disingenuous with this tweet because I really believe that if someone asked the correct questions (‘tell me about your creative process’ is rarely a question that will get you to that answer) she would have some really interesting insights into what happens. Mitski might genuinely feel she ‘forgets’ how she has written any one song but the ‘secrets’ of that process are clearly woven into her neural pathways. She does know, but she seems to be telling herself (or us) that she doesn’t. Perhaps this is a self-preservation mode kicking in or perhaps it is, as I said, a somewhat disingenuous dodging of the issue in order to maintain the mystery.

This is fine because as an artist you don’t have any exams to pass where someone is going to judge you on your ability to explain your creative processes, but from an educational perspective it is critical. It brings to mind a research project I did around 20 years ago (when funding still existed to facilitate such things) exploring the creative process within film editing. My findings from that project were largely around unpacking the creative process and debunking the notion of creativity as some innate skill or ‘gift’ and this has driven much of my own thinking (and practice) in education in the intervening years. My favourite phrase for a time (apologies to the colleagues who must have wearied of hearing it) was “the creative process is the learning process and vice-versa” and an intrinsic part of that creative process is that very metacognition that we know leads to progress. Mitski might want to think about that if she ever needs to pass a GCSE in art..

What Not To Do

Breakfast reading for the past six months or has been The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is attempt to both keep brain active and also avoid reading in any depth about Brexit and British Problems which all UK journals appear to be (probably) rightly obsessed with and which (probably) wrongly I have a desperate desire to avoid. Over toast (locally sourced sourdough, naturally) and coffee (black, naturally) I delved into article titled ‘Yes, America Can Still Lead The World’ (cheekily provocative title) wherein I was struck by a quote from Harvard economics professor Michael Porter who has apparently said that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Immediately struck dumb by apparent obviousness of statement, resonance with what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years in leadership meetings (colleagues no doubt bored to tears by my constant refrain of ‘yes, but if we do that what are we Not Going To Do?’) and deceptive difficulty in carrying through on aforementioned quote.

By some strange quirk of coincidence this quote is read the day after teaching year 9 about notions of interdependence, for I think it is this idea of interdependence that is central to Porter’s observation. For if strategy is too complex, too convoluted, then surely this creates more opportunities for errors? Complex strategy that focuses exclusively on Things We Are Going To Do runs the risk of failing to predict the interactions of the multiple strategy actions we put in place. Better surely to say “we will do this, and by doing this it means we cannot/should not do that because if we do This AND That it will potentially cause The Other (where The Other is something unpleasant and counter-productive to the aim of the strategy)”.

What does this have to do with education? Well, a lot I think. One example would be the battle against The Content. A bad strategy would be predicated on all the students having to get through all the content regardless, whilst a good strategy would be predicated on ensuring students are securing knowledge before moving onto the next piece of content. In this instance the strategy of choosing What Not To Do is inherent in that decision to be prepared to possibly/probably/definitely not cover all of the content. Again, this is much easier to say/write than to do in practice, particularly for heavily knowledge based subjects and teachers who may be very Set In Their Ways (the words pot black and kettle spring to mind here to which I plead Guilty As Charged).

Another example might be around assessment/marking strategies and teacher workload. If a school leaders’ strategy is to lessen workload (and it possibly/probably/definitely should be) by implementing less frequent but still effective assessment schedules then it is in the interests of everyone to clearly communicate What Not To Do (e.g. DO NOT mark every piece of work, DO NOT mark every line of every piece of work etc). Focus of monitoring/EQ procedures could similarly align with this consideration of What Not To Do and be predicated on nudging colleagues away from those practices and into thoughts on What To Do With All That Gained Time! Strategies for which might include Reading The Atlantic Monthly magazine over breakfast. Well, it’s a thought, right?

The Unpopular Advent Mix – 2018

Disc 1
Fireworks – First Aid Kit
BB – Daphne & Celeste
When You’re Depressed – Go Kart Mozart
Unto the Earth – Last of the Easy Riders
Queen – Tracey Thorn
Fake Protest Song – Whyte Horses
Hemlock – Buffalo Tom
Forest mass – trappist afterland
The Old Guys – Amy Rigby
Berlin – Chaos Chaos
We Will Get There – Ray Davies
Sister’s Jeans – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Sixty Second Window – Alison Statton & Spike
Wastelands – Suede

Disc 2
Bad Sugar – The Chills
The Seaside Town – Deerful
Sunset Drive – Deerful
Growing Older – Princess Chelsea
Of Their Bones – Oskar’s Drum
Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self-Loathing – Malcolm Middleton
Free (The Original Memphis Recordings) – Primal Scream
Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey
The Promised Land (Intro) – Bruce Springsteen
The Promised Land – Bruce Springsteen
All That Remains – The Left Outsides
Make Time For Love – The Goon Sax
Strange Light – The Goon Sax

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 17

Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

There is a terrific moment towards the end of ‘The Loneliest Girl’’s closing track (the lovely ‘All I Need To Do’) in which Princess Chelsea sings about watching Springsteen and Little Steven singing ‘Promised Land’. Initially hearing the reference is something of a jarring moment, but then we quickly realise that it is the perfect connection for it punctures the notion of Springsteen as an essentially masculine figure and illuminates him as theatrical character (we’ll come back to this in a few days time), just as Princess Chelsea herself is a crafted Pop persona. And here we are again at this point where we celebrate Pop as theatre; Pop as the rejection of inherited definitions of authenticity.

‘The Loneliest Girl’ is a knowingly, lovingly constructed illusion housed within a carefully documented reality. Or is it the other way round? Certainly there appears to be an autobiographical narrative going on here but from the cover photograph/illustration to the songs themselves there is always the question mark hanging over concepts of truth and reality. Where does Chelsea Nikkel end and Princess Chelsea begin? Or indeed vice-versa. This is the eternal, essential Pop Star conundrum.

There is certainly something of Saint Etienne in Princess Chelsea too (the icy cool take on ‘And I Love Her’ would be her ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ if only the title track from this album hadn’t gone and made such a cheeky wonky photocopy of the Young vs Etienne classic), and since we are on the subject can I slip off on a momentary tangent and say how much I have been enjoying the 2018 re-issue of ‘Fox Base Beta’? It completely passed me by previously and though I was initially sceptical it really is rather tremendous, isn’t it? I’m aware too that this should not come as any sort of surprise really for when has anything involving Saint Etienne ever been less than magical?

When too has Princess Chelsea ever been anything less than magical? Certainly listening to The Loneliest Girl, then revisiting The Great Cybernetic Depression and L’il Golden Book (plus her terrific 2016 covers set ‘Aftertouch’) I’m struck that the answer is Pretty Much Never. Looking back too I have been reminded of those great Brunettes records (and man, there was another Springsteen reference right there in ‘Summer Love’ too) and let’s not forget that it’s Brunettes’ Jonathan Bree whose collaboration helps make ‘The Loneliest Girl’ so terrific and hey, wasn’t his own ‘Sleepwalking’ set just the best Magnetic Fields record that Stephin Merritt didn’t make in 2018? And whilst we are also on the caffeinated rush of writing, let’s also point out Chelsea’s contribution to a couple of cuts on that set returning the compliment as it were.

Glistening gems populate the entirety of ‘The Loneliest Girl’ but it’s to one of the most obviously autobiographical numbers that I keep coming back to. ‘Growing Older’ is a song about, well, growing older. Lyrically it is very straight and almost diaristic. Chelsea recounts facts and moments (“some of us are almost thirty /some of us are older” precedes the recounting of an encounter with a younger girl in a bar in which haircut envy appears to be the driving force of the observation) whilst metaphorically shrugging her shoulders and admitting that getting older is a lot more enjoyable that she might have thought a decade ago. A simple keyboard refrain roots the song whilst squalls of guitars and feedback seep into the background to lend texture and shade. This spacious sound stage on which Chelsea’s vocal drifts is not a million miles away from Molly Nilsson (whose terrific ’20/20′ set only just missed out on appearing here) or the gorgeous blissed out sparseness of Cara Dal Forno (whose 2016 ‘You Know What It’s Like’ set I somehow missed at the time despite adoring single ‘Fast Cars’). At its best (which is almost all of the time) Chelsea’s voice drifts over like Connie Stevens seducing Nico or Trish Keenan singing Ann-Margret numbers in that hillside meadow where we never did get to listen to Tracey Thorn. It’s a voice we at once recognise as being utterly familiar and yet simultaneously find ourselves being drawn into by the details of difference. It’s a good reference point for Princess Chelsea in general for she is an artist who can on the surface seem glimmeringly, glamorously Pop yet once the surface is touched the ripples reveal an intriguing and darker subterranean depth. To put it another way, Princess Chelsea is perhaps a Mrs Maisel of contemporary Pop. She’s certainly every bit as marvellous.

Unpop 168

resistance is the joy of holding your breath

Quiet, The Winter Harbor – Mazzy Star (from ‘Still’ EP)
24 Hour Drugstore – Marlaena Moore (from ‘Gaze’ LP. Bandcamp)
Feel Like Going Home – Alpaca Sports (from ‘From Paris With Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Say You’ll Be Home For Christmas – White Town (from WIAIWYA ‘Stars’ LP (Bandcamp)
The Christmas Stick – Bubble and Squeak (digital single)
Respect The Labourers – Princess Chelsea (from ‘The Loneliest Girl’ LP. Bandcamp)
Radio Kids – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Hard Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Tom Petty Karaoke – Amy Rigby (digital single. Bandcamp)
Say No – Oskar’s Drum (from ‘Degenerate Art’ LP. Bandcamp)
Poll – The Monkees (from ‘Head’ LP)
Lamplight – Bee Gees (from ‘Odessa’ LP)
Mars (Won’t Save Us) – The Room in the Wood (from ‘ The Mars EP’. Bandcamp)
100 Years From Now – Last of the Easy Riders (digital single. Bandcamp)
Videograms – The Twilight Sad (10″ single)
Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey (from Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’ LP. Bandcamp)
Flying – Hairband (from ‘Hairband’ EP. Bandcamp)
Playing as Punks – Free Love (from ‘Luxury Hits‘ LP)
October – NICHOLAS KRGOVICH (from ‘Ouch’ LP. Bandcamp)
This Is the Love – Norma Jean Wright (from ‘Norma Jean’ LP)
Heaven, Almost – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp)
A Hard Rain (Live At SPOC) – Chris T-T (from ‘In the Church With A Cold’. Bandcamp)

fumbling to press record