Friday, 23 March 2012

Vinyl, the return

On the 28th April 2012 to mark record store day, a special limited edition 7” picture disc of Bowie’s Starman will be released with a special Top of the Pops mix of the track on the b-side!

Now to me and everyone else who was buying music prior to 1992 or so, this is a classic blast from the past. Although I pretty much stopped buying 7” singles sometime in the mid 80’s preferring instead a 12” format of anything a band had released as a taster of its forthcoming album I will certainly be trying purchase a copy of the Bowie release.

These days if a band decides to bother releasing a single at all, it’s normally as a download and if it’s released as any other formats it will be a CD single (normally a charity single or the annual X-Factor rubbish). People who no longer by music in a tangible format will buy the download and sometimes not even the entire album, just the songs they like. Fair enough but for me I like to buy an album and then download it onto my iphone.

Anyway I digress. Back in the early 90’s I worked for HMV and it was still a record shop in those days. Two floors, albums and singles downstairs and everything else upstairs including videos and special interest music. There was still a fairly considerable rack containing vinyl and most record company reps who came into the store touting their new releases would offer the three formats, vinyl, cassette and compact disc. At this time cassette was probably the most popular format going and we would always order these in bulk, less compact disc’s (they were still growing as a format) and a token number of vinyl albums. By 1993 the entire vinyl rack had vanished and new releases were not ordered in this style even if available.

Vinyl was dead, cassettes were so yesterday and CD was the future! I remember a few people coming in and buying an album in CD format but lamenting that they were being forced to change how they bought their music. I felt obliged to defend the company policy that CD’s were the future and that no one really bought vinyl anymore and I remember debating with one bloke who was particularly passionate who told me I was missing the point! I did not really see it at the time but he was so right!

I’d been buying vinyl for nearly 20 years and I’d abandoned it so casually to usher in the new format. No longer would anyone be walking home with 12” shaped bags with Our Price, Virgin or HMV logo’s on the side, no longer would side one and side two of an album matter, it would just be a track listing. That was particularly sad as pre 90’s it was significant to how much you liked an album, did you prefer side one to side two? Some albums I’ve had on CD for years I still think of as having sides rather than a track listing. Bowie’s Low is a classic case in point although there are hundreds of examples!

Most decent record stores, and I’m not including HMV in this as it’s no longer a record store (in fact I have no idea what it is now and nor does HMV) are starting to reintroduce a vinyl section as some bands and artist’s now insist that their new release is included as a vinyl format. Retro style record decks are also easily available so lets face it, there is no excuse for not buying back into everyone (of a certain age) favourite format.

So what exactly is it about vinyl and the ability to buy it new from a proper record shop again that gets me so excited? It’s the nostalgia as much as anything also you really have to look after it CDs and cassettes were idiot proof.  There is nothing tangible when you download music.  Records have a tactile quality like nothing else.  There was a ritual involved in playing records.  Pulling the sleeved 12 inch black disc from its sleeve, the unmistakable smell of the record.  The care involved in making sure that you held it in the right way and didn't leave greasy finger/thumb prints on it, didn't scratch it.  It was a sign that you really cared about proper music if you knew how to care for a record.  Putting it on the turntable, lifting the arm holding the needle to get the record revolving while you gently held a record brush to the vinyl to collect any dust and prevent static crackle.  Carefully placing the needle onto the record so as not to scratch it, the slight hiss sound before the track started.  The skill with which you learned to read a record and its grooves and could tell where favourite tracks began an ended - no automatic jumping to the tracks you loved so obsessively that you wanted to play them over and over.  

Long live vinyl and what next, a return of the audio cassette? I hope not, I never actually bought a cassette!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

David Bowie what next?

In 2003 David Bowie released his last studio album Reality. Not one of his best but not the worst of his 24 studio albums. It was released at a time of considerable creative activity hot on the heels of the excellent Heathen album and followed by the Reality world tour. It was during this tour in Germany 2004 that a blocked artery caused him to collapse after coming off stage and so began the start of his retirement. Now this retirement has been going on for 8 years because he has never actually said he’s calling it a day despite continued rumours of ill health and although he no longer speaks to the press and only makes sporadic public appearances, he continues to mine his not inconsiderable back catalogue for re-issues, re-mixes and outtakes which in a way compensate for the lack of new material.

So what does he do these days? He is father to a young teenage daughter and his public life involves attending various charitable events in New York (where he lives) with his wife Iman. Every year a new rumour about his ‘come back’ surfaces, a recent one appeared on Twitter from one of his many fake accounts stating that Lou Reed had inspired him to return to the studio for a collaboration on Transformer 2 or something. His official website confirmed that this was nonsense as he does not even use Twitter. It would be unusual for him to do so bearing in mind he is generally shunning public contact as far as his career goes. His official website sometimes goes days without an update and when it does it’s rarely to inform us of anything really interesting. However it has announced that for Record Store Day there will be a special 7" vinyl picture disc release of Starman and there will be a collector’s edition of a recent album ‘Hours’ being released next month. I thought it was a strange choice of album to rerelease as a collectors edition, not that it’s a bad album, it’s just not synchronous to the order of earlier albums that have gone through a repackaging to make them collectable. The last one prior to this was the lavish Station to Station boxset containing heavy vinyl, CD’s, posters, badges, tour and fan club memorabilia from the 1976 release (my wife very kindly carried my copy home from its delivery point on the South Bank to our flat in East London in the pissing rain trying to protect the precious cargo with a small umbrella, still pissed off  with me I think).

So is there a plan for the ‘Berlin Trilogy’? I would guess so as these three (bar Scary Monsters) are the last truly great releases of David’s career and the end of his frankly breathtaking 70’s output. Although the 80’s is largely forgettable and the 90’s considerably better I would love to see Low, Heroes and Lodger getting some of the collectable treatment, it would be almost as good as a new release, better in fact if the new release turned out to be no good! There is a story flying around that the demo of Loving the Alien which is one of the few good tracks on the indifferent 80’s album Tonight is far superior to the version that appears on the album, maybe that will see the light of day if Tonight is reissued. The downside is that it would share album space with his cover of God Only Knows often regarded as his worst and most pointless recording.

I like to think that if he’s not going to release any new material and future touring is out of the question maybe he is working on his long anticipated autobiography, something he started working on back in the 70’s and then abandoned. Lots has happened since the 70’s and although I’ve read several biographies all with a different point of view on his career, to get his own take on what happened would be the holy grail for most fans.

Maybe he will do nothing. His legacy is intact and he certainly has nothing to prove anymore or maybe he has? Whatever Bowie does, it will be no doubt as it has always been, exactly what no one expects.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Thierry Henry - Icon, legend, hero!

Who has been Arsene Wenger’s greatest signing? There have been some truly world class players who have played for Arsenal since Wenger’s tenure began nearly 17 years ago and a few who most people would rather forget, but there is one player who most Gooners would agree is at the very top.

I first noticed him playing for France in 1998 during the World Cup also held in France. England had disappointingly been knocked out by Argentina in the first knock out round (it was nice to see them get theirs in the next round when Bergkamp scored ‘that’ goal). My interest then switched to France simply because Arsenal had a French coach and Vieira and Petit were playing. This young bloke with his trade mark corner flag celebration finished their top scorer as they deservedly went on to win the tournament. I heard Wenger had discovered him at brought him to AS Monaco several years before so I hoped, like many others that he would join the French revolution at Highbury. Not a chance, he went and joined Juventus so that was that I thought!

The year at Juventus was by all accounts not a very happy one. Forced to play on the wing his game was somewhat stifled and their coach at the time clearly had no idea what he had on his hands and sold him to Arsenal for £11m. Wenger switched him to his favoured forward position and the rest is history. Over the subsequent years he scored an incredible 226 goals for Arsenal winning two EPL titles and three FA cups, not a bad haul. The amount of pleasure he has given me both watching him at Highbury or in the pub on the television is immeasurable! Sometimes the joy of seeing him score against Spurs, Chelsea or Man Utd whilst watching the game in the pub surrounded by fans of those teams was as good as seeing him do it at the game! There was always a grudging admiration for a player they all openly coveted!

In 2007 he transferred to Barcelona leaving behind a legacy that is unlikely to ever be bettered. In the eight years he played for Arsenal he became a legend, he was and is a footballer who mixed grace and power in equal measure. His swiveled volley against Barthez, his solo effort against Spurs in 2002, his goal against Liverpool in 2004, his four goals against Leeds, its hard to pick the best. This is why he was immortalized with a statue outside the Emirates in December last year, a fitting tribute to the most magnificent player to wear the Arsenal shirt, oh how we missed him.

What if he came back? What if he spent a few weeks back at the club that made him to ‘help out’ during a season that was again teetering on the brink of disaster! Would it be a bad idea to go back after four years away and would it tarnish his legacy if he made a few cameo appearances that were largely pointless as you could no longer cut it at the very top? Some people thought it would be!

Well he did come back and he goes back to New York this week. In the time he came on the pitch against Leeds Utd and scored the winner in the FA cup, he scored the 7th and final goal against Blackburn in the league and his final touch of the ball was to score the winner against Sunderland, securing three of the most vital points we will ever need!

Is it possible to improve on excellence? Just ask Thierry!

Friday, 30 December 2011

Joe Strummer a short tribute

22nd December 2011 was the 9th anniversary of the passing of the great Joe Strummer, one of my all time heroes and someone who is still as relevant to me now as he ever was. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I was working in East London and whilst walking down East Ham High Street I started getting texts from friends who were also Clash fans, so I knew it was no bizarre wind up but still an incredulous moment when belief is suspended! I got incredibly drunk that night.

I first saw Joe with his band Latino Rockabilly War at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1988 at an Amnesty International gig. One of my friends had passed out through too much beer and weed (it was only about 3 in the afternoon) and I remember spending the first 5 minutes of Joe’s set trying to revive him as he had said he didn’t want to miss Joe! Well neither did I so I left him to it and moved down to the front. Never saw the Clash live much to my disappointment but Joe always played as much Clash material with whatever band he was playing as he did the new album he was promoting. He didn’t disappoint on this occasion either and Mick joined him on stage at the end!

I saw the Mescaleros on several occasions and never saw a gig that didn't leave me feeling exhilerated and 10ft tall! Joe had that effect on people especially when he was projecting it from the stage! They say you should never meet your heroes for fear of disappointment. I agree, except with Joe, he was a man that one wanted to meet and I never did. My brother met him when he attended Suggs’ daughter’s 18th birthday party a good few years ago. I am and always will be very envious!

As we approach 2012 the UK is decimated by recession, rising unemployment the worst it has been in a generation, not seen since the mid 70’s and the fucking Tories are back in No. 10. This is a time that is crying out for someone like Joe Strummer but he was unique! Fortunately his work still resonates 35 years on, we were lucky to have had him!

Monday, 31 October 2011

Reunions good or bad?

After the furore of the recent announcement of the Stone Roses reforming it got me thinking about the motivation of bands that have attained an almost mythical status due to their (sometimes) brief existance as a touring/recording band to do this! In many cases it is only for the money and why not! The record industry has changed radically in recent years and the only real money these days is in touring! However it can be a tad irritating when its dressed up as something else!!

I've nothing against the Stone Roses, I saw them in 1989 (I think) in Tonbridge of all places and they were good! I think their first album is excellent and like many when Second Coming was finally released after years of waiting I was a little disappointed. I've enjoyed Ian Brown's solo work and fondly remember the 90's prog rock of Squire's Seahorses. However this is the band that said they would never reform  but apparently a chance meeting at a funeral allowed various feuding members to bury the hatchet, complete some unfinished business and even plan to release songs written between both their albums (or so I'm told). I hope everyone who see's them next summer thoroughly enjoys the experience but its not really for me this time around!

Other recent examples were the Led Zeppelin one off at the O2 a couple of years ago unlikely to be repeated and of course Pink Floyd, now I can't stand Pink Floyd but I think there is a distinct risk of them deciding to tour again especially with the entire back catalogue being rereleased yet again ove rthe past couple of months!

I'm pleased the Clash never got round to it but I think it is possible it may have happened if Joe was still with us, I guess we'll never know but that is what was part of their legend the fact that it could have happened many times over the subsequent years but never did, although they joined each other on stage a number of times during various members solo outings!

The Smiths is the one that everyone would go absolutely crazy for! One of my all time favourite bands reforming after more than 20 years! Would I be happy? No I fucking would not!! I need not fear though, there is as much chance of that happeneing as there is of Torres finishing top scorer in the league! Morrissey and Marr simply don't like each other!

The one I would find amusing is the slightly absurd but much touted Abba reunion! They have allegedly been offered $1billion buy some oligarch or other on more than one occasion and yet Benny and Bjorn continue to resist! How much money does someone really need though and Agnetha is apparenlty an island dwelling recluse so don't hold your breath Euro Popsters!

For me though I'm holding out for the return of Bowie. What are the chances of The Thin White Duke dazzling us with one more album and maybe a short tour? Absolutely no chance in my opinion but at least he would escape the dreaded 'reunion' tag if he did.....

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Drug dealing on the Starship Enterprise

I first came across the award winning writer Harlan Ellison some time in the 1980’s when a friend recommended him.  At the time I thought his genre was sci fi but it’s now termed ‘speculative fiction’ and takes in horror, fantasy etc.  He is not exactly a household name but his influence is far reaching and, as a short story writer, I consider him second to none.  He is also one of the most controversial figures in US popular writing in the last 50 years.

Born in 1934 Ellison, who lost his father at an early age, grew up in Ohio.  Always fancying himself as a writer he enrolled at Ohio State University at the age of 17.  He lasted little over a year before being kicked out for twatting a professor who had slagged off his ability to write.  After this he apparently joined a New York street gang in order to research and write about gang life. Then going to Hollywood he became a renowned screenwriter (credits include The Outer Limits and Man from U.N.C.L.E) and even managed to get into an altercation with Frank Sinatra who, for some reason, took offence to a pair of boots Ellison wore during a game of billiards.  All the while he was writing some truly amazing short stories that were being published in a variety of US magazines.  Check out ‘Repent Harlequin said the TickTock Man’ set in a future where being late for something has become a crime and the penalty for which is the lost amount of time is deducted from your lifespan.  Or ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ the story of a group of survivors from a world war tormented by the supercomputer that destroyed the human race.  For me it’s not just the story, it’s the way he writes and the titles are intriguing.  I’m no expert but it seems so unconventional.  I heard a story that back in the 1960’s a teacher at a school in Texas added one of his books to the curriculum which so incensed the parents and the school authorities that she was run out of town.

His work as a screenwriter was also a mixture of genius and controversy.  He apparently submitted a script to Gene Roddenberry for an episode of the original Star Trek which involved drug dealing on the Enterprise.  Imagine how brilliantly bizarre that episode would have been had they made it.  The eventual submission was City on the Edge of Forever, a time travel classic which also starred a young Joan Collins.  I’m told Star Trek aficionados  universally regard this as the best episode ever made.  A number of his stories were dramatised for the new version of the Twilight Zone in the 1980’s and he even managed to get himself sacked as a screenwriter for Disney on his first day after being overheard (jokingly) saying that he intended to write an animated pornographic film featuring their best loved characters.

His unconventional style was also demonstrated when he temporarily hosted a US radio show during which he decided to write a short story on air complete with his trademark typewriter.  He invited listeners to telephone in and put forward suggestions which he incorporated into the story while they were on air.  That story when eventually published under the title ‘Hitler Painted Roses’ was the first Harlan Ellison story I read and it immediately got me hooked.

I’ve certainly not done Harlan Ellison any real justice in this piece as his body of work is so much bigger than my feeble attempt at an introduction.  He is however a genius and although regarded by some who know him as abrasive and argumentative, I am so very pleased to have discovered and been able to read his work. He even recently voiced his own character in an episode of Scooby Doo. How cool is that?

Friday, 26 August 2011

Gigs then and now or how my habits and rituals are moving towards middle age!

Back in the 80’s and 90’s I saw so many bands I’ve lost count and at many great venues in London, some better than others. Anyone remember the Ambulance Station in Old Kent Road? We would in the very early days make a point of arriving at the venue several hours before the doors opened and sit outside drinking dodgy cider and smoking cheap fags.

There would always be groups of fans milling around the venue at the same time and someone always had one of those large naval kit bags that looked like it was full of laundry or something. Normally they were the hardcore fans who were following the band around the country. I loved that commitment, travelling from city to city and hoping to find somewhere to crash after the gig. Only did this once myself many years ago after travelling to Blackpool with novelty punks Splodgenessabounds. Max asked the audience if there was anywhere the band could stay after the gig which actually meant him, his cousin, me and someone else also not in the band. We got several offers and ended up in a needle strewn high rise flat in which the bath seemed to double up as a second toilet. It was truly horrific!

I also remember going to Camden or Kensington market a few days later to buy a barely audible C90 cassette recording of the gig I'd attended, normally including a badly photocopied yellow cardboard inlay depicting an image of the band and the wrong set list. Still got a few of them knocking about probably in a shoebox in the loft!

The years passed and I started attending gigs less fequently but I saw the Stranglers in Brighton a few months ago and the nostalgia of the situation got the better of me. I ventured 'down the front' for the first time in about 17 years where a group of grey haired old punks were mixing it with their younger, fitter counterparts. I lasted about 20 minutes before I lost my balance and fucked my knee up. As I was pulled up from the floor by concerned audience members I thought this is akin to an elderly gentleman slipping on a patch of ice outside the post office.

My next gig will be Polly Harvey at the Albert Hall, a glass of wine or two, comfortable seats, maybe a taxi home and why not! Still great music but the experience is now somewhat more refined than accidently sitting in a pile of vomit at a Nick Cave gig in 1988.