To Sidmouth again, where I stop and sit on a prom bench in order to fix a loose shoe plate. Behind me a trader sells lobster and gin from a table in front of his restaurant whilst the beach in front looks as busy as I have seen it for a long time. A discarded transparent green beachball trundles past, blown by the wind and bouncing off the railings. It looks like the marble in Mousetrap.
“All artforms are in the service of the greatest of all arts: the art of living.”
― Bertolt Brecht
Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you reflect on your own childhood and the records which were landmarks. Inevitably , some of these crossover with his (The Wombles, Abba, The Beat, Madness) and some don’t (Barron Knights) but that is part of the fun of this book. The point is that records meant such a stupid amount to him and to me. I no longer buy or own vinyl but I remember the thrill of going into a record shop knowing you had the money to buy something and chancing on a gem. For some, this never goes away but for me it has. I love music but no longer wish to spend half my life searching around for it. I don’t begrudge those who do – there are worse hobbies – and it is nice to see it described here
Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you recall experiences of school which may not be identical but ring some horrible bells. For instance, what was it about PE teachers in the 70s? So many seemed to be psychotic. I once met someone who was injured in a football match and told by a dismissive teacher to ‘run it off’ only to discover hours later (in hospital) that he had broken his leg. A class at my school was kept out for too long and one boy caught hypothermia. I’m not pretending to be scarred by this or that it is something I dwell on but I cannot imagine similar things happening now.
Reading a book like Broken Greek makes you think about your parents. Mine are very different to his (as least how he describes them) but similarly, they did not seem to bat an eyelid at some of my quirky decisions. I can appreciate that now and see that it a measure of love – raise an eyebrow but just let it all pass, for surely it will. He also gets the relationship about older siblings, about how you share music and yet want to have your ‘own’ bands and how you learn from them.
Reading a book like Broken Greek or Tracey Thorn’s Another Planet makes me wonder about the point in looking back like this. Is it just nostalgia? Looking for answers in someone else’s past? I like to think not. We need to learn from our own history as much as we need to learn from the history of the world. There is no need to dwell, now really is tomorrow but of course it came after yesterday. Carefully handled, as here, it makes for interesting reading.
This is an honest and very readable book. It is affectionate, it has an understated humour and an ease about it which makes you think ‘I could have written something like this’ when of course, you could not.
Christian Jones. May 2020
So I finally got around to reading Mick Farren’s ‘Give The Anarchist A Cigarette’. Only, like, nearly 20 years since I first saw it and thought ‘oh yeah, man, I should read that’, but who’s counting? My old Tangents writing buddy William is to thank for finally giving me the proverbial (virtual) dig in the ribs and prod in the back and I’m eternally grateful, for it has been just the kind of hilarious self-mythologising memoir I’ve needed to keep me in some semblance of sanity in these wild and crazy times. Funny how it takes only a few weeks of government imposed isolation for any kind of reference to collective gatherings such as music festivals seem utterly bizarre and also, man, you just can’t help but project Farren’s descriptions of autocratic ‘police state’ surveillance and harassment into the present and near future and think ‘oh wow, he really was like some sage or prophet of Times To Come’. Well, maybe not, but it’s funny to think so.
Speaking of prophets, I’ve also started in on the first of Phil Rickman’s two novels featuring Dr John. That’s Dr John Dee of course, the 16th Century astrologer, occultist and, depending on what you believe, occasional lover of Queen Elizabeth. Dee is a fascinating figure and, as is the way of such things, a part of me is now desperately keen to start following the threads and learn more about the ‘real’ history, but not until I’ve finished up with Rickman’s fictionalised version and his journey to 16th Century Glastonbury and a search for the ‘Bones of Avalon’. As mentioned previously, I am a huge fan of Rickman’s Merrilly Watkins novels and he is a fine writer capable of penning a narrative that keeps you turning the pages. It might just be my particular weakness for enjoying sense of place, but it seems to me too that Rickman is also superbly adept at (ahem) conjuring landscape. So yes, yes, I’ve been picturing in my mind’s eye the descent from the Mendips down into the Vale of Avalon (one of the sweetest, madcap descents on a bike I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride) and day dreaming of how Glastonbury might look without the dreary pseudo-psychedelia of ‘new age’ materialist tat that has infected its streets since time immemorial (for such is how it feels). As an aside, Farren also (of course) makes reference to Glastonbury and the view from Pilton to the Tor and Vale from the old pyramid stage of the first Fair and yes, yes, I admit that view is similarly etched in my memory from a walk down there back in the mists of time when I first set foot in Somersetshire and Devonshire and promptly vowed never to leave it again. Self-laid roots. Or something.
So Rickman is very fine at painting landscapes and peopling them with believable characters whilst using his narratives as vehicles for pulling in all kinds of historical and magikal references. The Watkins novels are especially terrific at this precisely because, whilst they deal with history and myth, they are not Historical Fiction. The Dee novels, at least on early experience, suffer ever so slightly from being stuck in the 16th Century with characters who seem not entirely certain how they ought to talk. Where does one strike the balance between writing their dialogue as being believable as 16th Century and being engaging to a 21st Century audience? It’s a tough balancing act, and whilst I think Rickman does a commendable job, the doubts always seem verily to hover just barely within our vision. It’s a minor quibble, however, and I’m more than willing to place it to one side as I continue to enjoy the tale. And since you ask, yes, the inner soundtrack to reading this novel comprises the likes of Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’, The Kinks’ ‘Arthur’, Rodney Allen’s marvellous ‘Glastonbury’ and, ahem, inevitably, The Chesterfields’ ‘Johnny Dee’.
Now I don’t much care to dwell on things I have not enjoyed, but I feel driven to share with you a warning about ‘The Vinyl Detective’. In a moment of weakness and/or desperate boredom I download a copy of the first in this ongoing series by Andrew Cartmel. Thought it might be an amusing diversion, combining, as ‘Written In Dead Wax’ seemed to offer, something of the detective thriller and record collecting. Should have known better than to be tempted by any fiction that attempts to make reference to music and records for in my experience it almost never works. Indeed, perhaps only Peter Benson’s terrific ‘Riptide’ with its references to The Waterboys and Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’ with its mix tape lists manage to make musical reference feel simultaneously off-the-cuff and intrinsically invaluable within the fiction format. Perhaps there are others but frankly they escape me. Certainly there was nothing in ‘Written In Dead Wax’ that thrilled me, but there was certainly a great deal that exasperated and irritated. If I were to be as positive as possible I would concede that it has a certain pace about it which at least allowed me to keep desperately turning the pages and reach the end, if only to be absolutely certain that yes, I really had seen the entirety of the plot unfolding from remarkably early in the book and that, yes, there is nothing redeeming in any of the characters whatsoever. Lazy and self-indulgent, ‘Written In Dead Wax’ reads like a middle aged white man’s fantasy (just certainly not THIS middle aged white man’s fantasy) although it’s references to Jazz records and artists did make me desperate to re-watch Alan Plater’s divine Beiderbecke trilogy and for that alone I suppose I ought to be grateful.
“When you do something creative, on the other hand, whether it’s writing a song, cooking something, planting something or mending something, dancing or singing, then you are stepping out of your passive role, the role of a mere spectator, for a while.”
The feelings of boredom which Tracey Thorn felt made her want to create, to step outside of her existence in suburbia and try to make something happen. I didn’t grow up in a village outside London but in a sleepy seaside town in Devon. Nothing much happens but it is a pleasant enough place. I quite like it now but as a teenager it was exactly as she describes Brookmans Park in Another Planet – boring. We longed for something to happen and as with Tracey Thorn, music was a path that led away. The excitement of records and bands gave many of us a lifeline, something to look forward to when sitting through interminable classes or stuffy bus journeys. The need to create something, to do something, was strongly felt by a lot of people I knew. Nothing much is happening, let’s make something happen. And if we do, will anything happen? Well, it might. Tracey found a path, initially in independent music (anyone who calls it ‘indie’ is a dope). All you needed were some songs and there were outlets there, away from the mainstream but available if these were good enough. No need for drum lessons or endless hours learning Pink Floyd chord changes. As if. Write a song, form a band, do it. In a roundabout way, amongst all the details of her family life and thoughts about her teenage self, the process of finding a different way via music is what Tracey Thorn describes here so well. I recommend it.
It’s easy to look back and swim in nostalgia. It rarely helps. This book details her past life but works because it avoids any rose-tinted self-indulgence. Instead, we have humour and a sense of curious despair at her teenage self. There is also real sense of longing: to change something, to kick against the roles decided for her, to do something different. She would never claim to be a revolutionary communist, but you can hear real anger in some of the early songs, which a book like this makes you go and seek out again. It’s very much worth it.
Reading Another Planet makes me wonder if anyone feels similarly bored now. Does the endlessness of apps, phones and social media mean we are always entertained? Or is the infinity pool just… boring? I do not long for pre-internet days any more than I long for the return of the horse and cart as a mode of transport but perhaps being bored is no bad thing sometimes. As I write, everyone is at home and all alone and looking for things to do. Read this book. You will enjoy it.
Christian Jones. March 2020.
Morning Come, Maria’s Gone – Burd Ellen (from cassette. Bandcamp)
The Bonny Raven – Kitchen Cynics (from ‘Sans Seraphim’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Young People – Lankum (from ‘The Livelong Day’ LP. Bandcamp)
Richmond – Shelagh Mcdonald (from ‘Shelagh McDonald’ LP reissue. YouTube)
Touch Her If You Can – Matthews’ Southern Comfort (from ‘Scion’ LP. YouTube)
Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course (Single Version) – Chad & Jeremy (from ‘Three In The Attic’ soundtrack. Available on ‘The Ark’ LP and the ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ soundtrack. YouTube)
Spring Turns To Winter – The Claim (from 7″ single. Bandcamp)
Thinking of You – Sister Sledge (from ‘Thinking Of You’ 6 CD boxset)
If Pennies Came From Heaven Could Karl Marx Have Been Mistaken? – The Beloved (from ‘Where It Is’ reissue. Bandcamp)
Down In Splendour – Straitjacket Fits (from ‘Melt’ LP. YouTube. R.I.P. Andrew Brough.
Stardust Magical – Sneaky Feelings (from ‘The Mercury Moment’ LP. Bandcamp)
Kiss My Lips – Jonathan Bree (from ‘After The Curtains Close’ LP. Bandcamp)
In a Year – Izzie Derry (digital single. YouTube)
FOMO – Tidal Rave (from ‘Heart Screams’ LP. Bandcamp)
Give/Take – Porridge Radio (from ‘Every Bad’ LP. Bandcamp)
Dream Grrrl (single vers.) – Grrrl Gang (from ‘Here To Stay’ LP. Bandcamp)
Rip the Price Off – Store Front (from ‘Task’ EP. Bandcamp)
Michael Is My Girlfriend – Massage (digital single. Bandcamp)
Hold Me – Peter Hall (from ‘There’s Something Wrong With Everyone’ EP. Bandcamp)
Say You Don’t Mind – Colin Blunstone (available on ‘Tea and Symphony’ compilation. YouTube)
Full playlist on The Mixcloud
It’s barely a few days since we told you how much we had been enjoying the recordings of Izzie Derry yet already there is a new four song EP for us to explore. It is perhaps inevitable that the record should be the sound of a young singer-songwriter exploring the possibilities offered by the bottomless well of influence, but whilst we may not be convinced by Derry’s dabbling in the realms of The Blues on opener ‘All For Something’ and ‘Fire’, there are glimmers of hope even here. The organ and bluesy guitar irritations ultimately spoil it for us, but ‘Fire’ is often darkly insistent in its proclamations of independence and structurally has moments of thrilling expectation that once again summon memories of the marvellous Hello Saferide. Perhaps one worth revisiting in the way in which Derry previously reworked her ‘Learn To Grow’ into something more spacious and intriguing from the blunt (but still terrific) indie-folk-rock interpretation on the ‘Lost At Sea’ EP. The flip side of this exploration of a blues direction are two songs which tread paths we feel much more comfortable on, with the country folk slow dance of ’Now I See’ and the introspective EP title track ‘Take It From Me’. ‘Now I See’ is a gorgeous ballad that recalls the delicate desolation angel qualities of Courtney Marie Andrews or Carson McHone. Title track ’Take It From Me’ continues in this vein but adds some additional body to the sound in appropriate places, setting off a sweet balance to the voids into which Derry lets her voice creak like leather in the desert heat. It all makes for an EP that comes over a bit like First Aid Kit given a few goings over with sandpaper to scuff the smooth edges, and there is nothing wrong with that. Those DM boots always look better with a couple of scratches and a patina of weariness after all, don’t they?
We made reference to Fairport Convention a few days ago, and whilst the right to change opinions about The Greatest Band Ever on a weekly (nay, daily) basis is at the very core of our Unpopular Philosophy of Musical Appreciation and Critical Understanding (we’ll be running a course in this when we eventually retire from the tedious grind of telling eleven year olds to stop eating glue-sticks) it would be fair to say that in recent years it has come to our attention that the Sandy Denny era Fairport Convention are indeed that Greatest Band Ever. Granted, it took us a few decades to eventually reach this conclusion; decades in which we slowly discarded the flimsy gaudy rags of Keeping Up With The Now in favour of the hallucinatory history lessons of Losing Ourselves In The Then. Perhaps this is what enlightenment feels like.
Now whilst it is tempting to share with you our thoughts on why the Sandy Denny era Fairport Convention are the Greatest Band Ever we are sure too that it would be somewhat superficial and essentially pointless. Others, notably Rob Young in his ‘Electric Eden’ have said it better than we could possibly manage. But still, it would be fair to say, would it not, that no-one has ever quite managed to blend mystical folk traditions with electric rock hallucinations with quite the exquisite balance as did Fairport Convention in 1969. We are very clear that our Younger Selves snubbed noses and suggested that this balance was too strongly rooted in the folk and that the rock strangeness was not Strange enough, but years have passed and we understand more clearly than ever those lines about not needing to be strange to be strange. Fairport Convention implicitly understood this before Mark E. explicitly suggested it, but that’s not saying one was more valuable that the other. For we like to think there are rivers of conceptual enlightenment running through time to infinity, tapped into in different moments and contexts by those open to their electric pulses. Oh lord. And now we sound like some of those damned Hippies we always swore we despised. The ones who Ruined Everything and who hilariously Get Their Just Rewards in that recent Tarantino movie fairytale about Hollywood and 1969. The one with the terrific soundtrack (and hey, did you catch that line from Chad And Jeremy’s terrific ‘Paxton Quigley’ coming from ’Three In The Attic’?) although what? No Fairport Convention? Perhaps if it had been ‘Once Upon A Time In South London’. Perhaps not.
Yet whilst in recent years we have certainly enjoyed the pleasures of Losing Ourselves In Then we admit that the intrigue of the Now retains a certain thrill. Not as in some desperate Need To Keep Up of course, but rather as in the delights of tripping over and falling into the rumbling surf of contemporary clamour to come up with a few precious stones to add to our collections. Izzie Derry is certainly one of those precious stones, as you will surely agree when you hear her gorgeous ‘In A Year’ on the forthcoming Unpopular mix for March. There is a sweet video clip on The YouTube of Derry performing the song with her acoustic guitar beside a tastefully decorated Christmas tree back in 2018, and whilst it is endearing and occasionally sets the hairs on the back of our necks quivering when her voice cracks just so in that Joni manner, it’s the ‘full band’ version released a year later that really stirs our souls. For with a troupe of carousing revellers alongside her, Derry shifts up a gear and allows the electric blankets of sound to bolster her voice into something tougher, whilst retaining the brittle tenderness essential to human connection. This, and the excellent five song ‘Lost At Sea’ EP put us in mind of Natalie Merchant and her 10,000 Maniacs or, to cross oceans and time frames, of the wonderful (and underrated/forgotten?) Annika Norlin whose English/Swedish IndieRockFolk songs as Hello Saferide and Säkert! are so precious to us. Or what about Frida Hyvonen? We would love it if Derry could cover ’The Lakes We Skate On’ or ‘London’. Wouldn’t that be something?
And as for that Sandy Denny era Fairport Convention reference? Well, turns out that Izzie Derry supported the 2019 incarnation of the group in a church last year, played a cover of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ and received the Denny stamp of approval for it. Imagine that! As we are wont to say, ‘it all fits’.
We have had a lot to thank Everett True for in recent weeks as he has directed our attention to a number of artists who may otherwise have slipped through nets. First there was the ravaged grit of RVG, whose glorious ‘Alexandra’ single became one of the highlights of our Unpopular mix for February and about whom we skipped off a few brief words at the start of the year, before the debilitating disease of work stole our tongues and suffocated our brains. Not that we’re bitter or nothin’. In more recent weeks ET has prodded us to check out Grrrl Gang and blimey, how glad are we that he did so? For whilst Grrrl Gang might not be an actual Grrrl Gang, we actually rather like the fact they are not. Indeed we are rather taken by the notion that Grrrl Gang simply redraw gender definitions and deny expectations and traditions whilst simultaneously drinking deeply from a musical tradition that roots itself firmly in the likes of (tossing off names in a sherbet rush of indiscretion) Talulah Gosh, Shonen Knife and Beat Happening. Or… or… McTells suffused in broken bokeh shivers of dream pop sheen. Pains Of Being Pure At Heart when they were 16, playing Tiger Trap covers on five and dime guitars. Helen Love flirting with Cub and tripping on a dancefloor sticky with spilt lager. Or… or… something else entirely. You’re going to catch their fabulous ‘Dream Grrrl’ track on the March Unpopular mix and you are going to fall in love. Plussing as which they have a song called ‘Guys Don’t Read Sylvia Plath’ so, you know, go figure.
And speaking of something else entirely, ET also recently hipped us to the sounds of Lankum, whose epic seven minute ‘Young People’ will be an early highlight of the March mix. Taken from their ‘The Livelong Day’ set from last year, ‘Young People’ has had us scurrying back to uncover the earlier ‘Between The Earth and Sky’ album and the ‘Cold Old Fire’ set recorded when they were called Lynched. All three records are fine pieces but there is a distinct narrative of a group becoming stranger and more unique as they have grown over the past six years or so. For where the first two sets are quite firmly in the realms of traditional folk played with an ever-increasing degree of tangential exploration, on ‘Livelong Day’ Lankum have seemingly found another level, beginning at their best to suggest the splendour of Fairport Convention, the group who re-wrote the, ahem, conventions of Folk Rock and pushed our minds into stratospheres we may otherwise have barely speculated existed. With a willingness to simultaneously strip sound down to simple refrains and to build those refrains into drones that circle each other on layers of spacious texture, Lankum tread the paths we enjoyed so much last year laid down by the likes of Alula Down, Burd Ellen and Big Thief.
It is clear from listening to those first two albums that Lankum have never been afraid to take on the challenge of extended song pieces, but it’s only on ‘Livelong Day’ that the group have mastered the difficulties in making those lengthy pieces texturally captivating rather than relying almost exclusively on the traditional narrative of lyrics. The nine minute dirge of Lankum’s take on ‘Katie Cruel’ is a key example of this, as drones turn smoke around our eyes and crackling strings scratch on opened wounds. Darkly, exquisitely, so. Album closer ‘Hunting The Wren’ is another magical dirge, spending seven minutes drawing us solemnly into practices ancient and strange whilst giving them a peculiarly contemporary sprinkling of faerie dust. It’s the haunting, sinister beauty of ‘Young People’ that we keep returning to, however. A relentless building of sound grows to an almost impenetrable barrier of texture as we loop around repeated lyrical refrains taking in feathers, sands, chapels, stone and soft winter apples. The song closes in on us, pressing from all sides so that the claustrophobia is almost tangibly expectant, whilst simultaneously offering glimpses of sunlight through dappled leaves, until we dance on dragonfly wings and fall onto dune drifts of summer dreamt delirium.
If we were looking for a visual accompaniment to the sound of Lankum’s ‘Young People’ we would do well to turn our attentions to Martin Bogren’s recently published ‘August Song’. A project that documents summer balls in the Swedish Countryside, Bogren’s photographs are often spectral, near-hallucinatory fragments of human connection in a liminal space and time between dark and light. There is little in Bogren’s photographs to give a contextual sense of time. The project may have spanned seven years, but in truth we could be looking at images made at any time in the past seventy or so years since the tradition grew from the Swedish branch of rock’n’roll called dansbandmusik. ‘August Song’ is rich in obscured, simple narrative and puts us in mind of Nancy Rexroth’s ‘Iowa’ or Raymond Meeks’ ‘Halfstory Halflife’ in the way that the photographic process seems to be an intrinsic part of the work, carrying as much of the ultimate meaning as the subject matter. More, perhaps, for it is the dissolution of form into ambient compositions of textural tone that allow Bogren’s photographs to break free from the confines of subject. These may be photographs of cars and trucks parked by the edge of the forest, illuminated by midnight sun, or of of dancing couples backlit by stagelights, but they are images that resonate with the wattery-eyed magic of chemically enhanced mysticism and this is what we take with us.
If we remember Grrrl Gang’s record again, however, we are reminded that technical proficiency can be be overrated, and certainly it would be true that whilst Bogren’s technical processes surely have immense importance to the quality of the work, this would be as nothing were it not for the acute sensitivity to human interaction that his images convey. The photographs in ‘August Song’ may be fuzzy monochrome impressions of transitory passions and but they contain more colour and genuine warmth than a million Instagrammed snaps of vacuous lust and glamour.
There was once a compilation of Felt songs called ‘Stains On A Decade’. I always thought it was a terrific title because it could be read in various ways. On some days it feels self-deprecatingly ironic. On others, a delicately profound observation on the nature of art. Thinking back on decades then, I’m drawn again to the notion of how I have documented, in some way, the decade just disappeared by compiling collections of songs into mixes that have dropped on a regular basis into the withering environment of the Interwebs. Fleeting sonic polaroids of moments, each exquisitely passed over in favour of the next. Favourites forever changing. And because I’ve been suffering from early fifties ennui and end of half term flu I decided to drag every song from every mix into one playlist called (and this will come as no surprise) ’Stains On A Decade’. There are 4017 discrete songs and altogether those songs take up 35GB of space on my computer. Rather marvellously it would take ten days to play. The playlist starts with ‘Monday’s Rain’ by The Clientele and ends with ‘The End’ by The Beatles. The former an accident, the latter a crude decision to put a punctuation mark in the timeline of Unpopularity. Not a full stop. Certainly not an exclamation mark. Perhaps a question mark. Or then again a semi-colon separating decades. A pause for breath. And we’re off again. Already with a third mix of the new decade pre-programmed and nearly ready to roll. It’s the best one yet. After the last one and until the next one. Now where’s the paracetamol?
We borrow our post title from a compilation by Felt, and it feels an apposite one for what follows: A decade of Unpopular mixes.
There were mixes on the blog before 2010 of course, and we are slowly going back to fix download links on those posts. Not entirely certain why, as there are only ever likely to be of handful of people interested at any given point in time, but… it feels like the Right Thing To Do. Also we hate leaving things broken.
And so, to the lengthy list. TEN YEARS!!