Friday, 27 October 2017

Fate, Feist and the Northern Quarter



Back in 2003 I had an affair with a girl from Manchester which went quite predictably and quite disastrously wrong. I ended up going back to Shrewsbury with a broken heart and my tail placed pretty firmly between my legs. The scars from the relationship, as they tend to do, healed up with time. I found myself getting over the girl, but my love for the city of Manchester stayed unabashed and undimmed. Usually, during this time in my life I would get over a break up by getting myself as drunk as possible but I found this wasn’t quite the ticket.

This was my busy music period. I was attending as many gigs as humanly possible. If there wasn’t a show to go to, I would catch the train, as painful as it was, back to Manchester and spend a day record shopping. I used to enjoy a post shop drink in Dry bar, but one day descended the stairs to the toilet to witness two huge men passing over (and I've ransacked my memory of this but it always gives the same results) a yellow balloon full of what I can only imagine to be cocaine. After that (a most embarrassing encounter, they were clearly waiting for me to finish my business but the shock of seeing my first ever proper drug deal had left my penis unable to piss) the port of call for a post record shop drink was next door at the Night and Day café. I fell in love with the place a couple of years previous, during a hopelessly romantic and stupidly and pretentiously dim poetic stage. When I walked in the girl behind the bar wore a stripy top, peddle pushers and ballet shoes. She looked like something from a Kerouac novel, and I found myself quite smitten with the place.

I found myself going there more and more. It's great place to sit and think, the perfect point of communication (or lack of) for a heat broken berk from Shropshire. It was at this time that that things got a little weird between the café and I. I had found a 7” single in the bargain bin in Vinyl Exchange which I had, in truth, only bought because I liked the sleeve. It was a black and white shot of girl framed by a circle. She had a perfect fringe and white tights with arrows drawn on in thick marker pointing down. It was sexy; a bit sixties, a bit mod. The record was One Evening by Feist. The A side was really good, an organ led half pissed on wine ditty to new and unexpected love (which as you can imagine was quite the tonic) but the B-side was better, a piano led woozy ballad called Lovers Spit, a song about relationships being a curse, which as you can imagine suited me even better. It's about now that strangeness kicks in. I strutted into Night and Day with the 7” in a cute little plastic bag to find Feist playing over the PA. Strange, I thought as I ordered my cup of tea. But this would go on happening. Over the next few trips I found (and I swear I'm not making this up) which ever record I bought would be playing when I walked into Night and Day. This happened maybe four or five times until it got to the point where I was almost expecting it. This is where things turn really strange.

I had finished my record shop at Vinyl Revival and walked out to head to Night and Day fully expecting to here my purchases played when I got there. As exited the door, there was two teenagers, a girl and a boy, looking at the stock in the shop window. The girl had caught sight of something exciting, possibly the mugs and yelled at her friend with great animation 'Hey! Joe!' whilst pointing at whatever took her fancy. Of course my mental jukebox started playing Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix. I took the minute walk to Night and Day and, mind blowingly, the said tune was belting out of the speakers. Spooky, no? I tried to rationalise all this. Told myself that the people behind the bar at N&D probably picked up the same bargains at nearby Vinyl Exchange, but then I thought about the amount of people shuffling the thousands upon thousands of cards in the CD racks and thought no. I read somewhere that it would be, statistically speaking, odder not to hear the tune you were humming come on the radio seconds later than to hear it. But five times on the spin? Was my insomnia making my brain make weird connections?

A few months later, after playing her debut LP to death, I found out Feist was doing a gig at the Night and Day. I took this as some sort of sign and booked myself a ticket. I'm not sure what I was expecting. The heavens to open and some sort of light to pour down on me through the Manchester sky. To meet the love of my life maybe? I don't know, but I was expecting something. As it turned out, the gig was uneventful. So uneventful that I can't find any record of it even taking place. There's nothing on the internet, but it happened. I was there. So were maybe thirty other people and place seemed sadly empty for such a great performance. She was brilliant (as was her band), a total star. Speaking in French between songs and belting out her songs like her life depended on it. She even wore the outfit she donned on the 7” sleeve. The support that night was a young lad called Sam Hammond and he was brilliant too. He was a good looking lad with a strong jaw of wispy beard and dressed (almost certainly by Pop Boutique) like an old blues man. He looked like he travelled with nothing but a small suitcase and a guitar and sang like someone who had lived a thousand lives. His songs were peppered with Dylan, but with an urban coffee shop twist. I thought his set was brilliant. I went home, though slightly disappointed that Dionysus didn't appear or anything, happy; trying to put such daft thoughts about coincidence and fate out of my head.

A couple of months after that, I went to a gig a lot closer (ten minutes from my house in fact) to home at the Buttermarket in Shrewsbury. It was by a Manchester band called Longview who had released a few singles on the 14th Floor label that had bothered the indie charts a bit. I usually, or at least did, get to gigs nice and early but being so close to my house I had left pretty late and when I climbed the steps to the hall the lights were already out signifying the support had started, I made my way through the dark the the bar when I heard a familiar voice singing. “I'm just a pawwwwn in her gaaayme'. It was Sam Hammond. He played another blinder, though weirdly to few more people than the Feist gig and had gone down well. I saw him at the bar after his set and bought him a pint. Told him I thought his said was great and how weird it was that I saw him randomly a few weeks back and even weirder here. He gave it the old 'Oh thanks man' with that slow head nod pop stars do when they are being flattered. 'So what music to you like?' he asked. I told him I was stuck on a song called Dark of my Moon. 'They Gene Clark song!' he shouted suddenly animated, spilling his Guinness over his suit 'I bloody love that song!'. He wrote down the chords for me, we shook hands. He most likely went his way, and I went mine.




I hadn't thought about any of this, the N&D coincidence, the Feist gig or any of it for well over a decade. There was a post recently, a pretty funny meme, on twitter about Bob Dylan that had gone 'viral'. The poster was someone called Sam Hammond. Was it the same guy? It was, of course, and the memories came flooding back. I tried to find Sam's CD, unplayed for a good twelve years, but searching the house high and low couldn’t find it. I tried searching Ebay to buy another copy but found that I couldn't remember the title. I half remembered it being named after the date it was recorded. And there it was. Sam Hammond. 171203. It was cut exactly four years before the death of my father. Spooky, no? 


Friday, 6 October 2017

Oh, Maybe: On sadness in pop



I was having a pint with my mate Kendo recently as and as usual the topic turned to music. One of life's little pleasures for Kendo is going to Sainsbury's after work on a Friday and buying a four bottles of beer and a freshly released CD. It's his way of keeping a hand in. Last weeks purchase was the new album by The National. “It's alright” he mused, supping a pint “but how many albums can you get out singing about heartbreak? Christ knows what his wife makes of it all”

Everyone has a personal source of sad songs to sooth in times of distress. My own port of call is End records. After seeing the success of Heartbreak Hotel, label owner George Goldner wisely started to fuse Doo Wop with early rock and roll and started recording and releasing teenage paeans to heartbreak. This was the late fifties, just before Elvis and lust cornered the teenage record buying market. If the kids were still too puritanical to scream blue murder and throw knickers at a stage, they could still express themselves through their post pubescent sadness in the privacy of their bedroom or slow dancing with beau. Jerry Leiber described Goldner as having the taste of a fourteen year old girl. It was meant as a compliment, Goldner's ear for talent and production earning him after hit after hit. It was music for teenagers by teenagers. Crossover smash Frankie Lymon and the Teenager's Why do fools fall in love was one of his, as was Tears on my Pillow by Little Anthony and the Imperials (later unmemorably covered by Kylie Minogue and shmaltzed up on the Grease soundtrack). But by some distance the jewel in his and End's crown is Maybe by the Chantels.

Two minutes and fifty four seconds of absolute wonder, Maybe is a phenomenal piece of work. From the melody (not dissimilar to future weeper Unchained Melody, released eight years later) to the leather lunged, hand wringing plea of vocal by Arlene Smith to the simple yet completely emotionally devastating lyric (the line Maybe/If I held your hand/You would understand never fails, however times I hear it, to cut me to the quick). Smith was reportedly an uncredited co-writer of the song (Goldner, an inveterate gambler, had, co-writing credit on the record, later taken off. It's plausible he needed the royalty money to pay off debt), aged sixteen at the time, her authorship would explain the pain of the lyrics.

It wasn't just teens cashing in on the heartbreak, mind. Released a few months before Maybe and written by a twenty five year old (young obviously, but ancient in the world of pre-Beatles pop) Conway Twitty, Only Make Believe hit the number one spot in the UK and the US and arguably kick started the career of Roy Orbison. It's a terrific record, slowly but steadily ascending to the heart wrenching crescendo of the chorus. How Elvis must have heard it and wept.

The tear jerkers slowly crept their way into R&B and soul too. Released on Wand in 1962, Getting Ready for the Heartbreak by Chuck Jackson (a long overdue reissue of his hits and rarities has just been released on Ace Records) is a truly devastating 45. If the vocal (It's almost like he's just been dragged to the mic after falling asleep whisky drunk in a bus shelter, he constantly sounds on the verge of breaking down and crying) doesn't do the damage, the lyrics will.

Closed up all my windows/so no-one could see
Even told the mailman to pass by me/
Cos' my love is coming today/
And I know what she's going to say.

It's an incredible piece of work. Rarely has being in the shit with the other half sounded so wonderful.

The sadness even came, if stealthily, by more commercial soul. Tucked away on the flip of her 1964 number one smash My Guy, Mary Wells' Oh Little Boy is one of Motown's (and Stateside's) hidden gems. Sad yet sassy, with a gut buster of a vocal, it could have been an Aretha hit. Saucer eyed and bordering on demented, the lyric is almost spat out. When she sing No! No! No! You can almost see her hands go up palms front. If you don't own this record, do your self a favour and splash out a fiver on Ebay. Tell 'em I sent you.

*********************

Modern pop has struggled to match the sadness and madness of these records. I'm not sure if it's the production of the early singles or the simplicity of the lyric, but writing a sophisticated modern sad pop hit has proven hard. There are examples of obviously, and when the formula works, be it Unfinished Sympathy, Nothing Compares 2U or Missing by Everything But the Girl, the bonding theme is that you feel the song is written about you, that heartbreak is a universal theme. Where songwriters get it wrong, particularly with indie bands, is the songs are written over egged in angst and lacking in sincerity.

Worst offender is Creep by Radiohead. Now, in his mind, you can see Thom Yorke thinking he is the poet laureate of the dispossessed, but in reality he comes across like a stalker sniffing his ex's tights. Like Lennon's Jealous Guy it's the worst kind of record, self obsessed rather than self assessing. A self love song. See also the Manic Street Preachers. Their quote lead assault of pop nihilism has not dated well (Black Horse apocalypse if you please) and listening to the Manics these days is rather like masturbating. It's perfectly acceptable in your teens abut a bit desperate in your thirties.

One of the only sad indie records to remain unscathed by public and critic alike is Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. From the sleeve to it's pioneering production it's a classic. For all the myths and legends, it's Factory's finest hour. If they had only released this it would still be in the top ten labels. Ever. It's beauty is it's ability to suck you into it's world from the very first drop of the needle. Lyrically it takes punks ability to document the chaos around it into documenting the chaos inside Ian Curtis' mind. I love Tony Wilson, his chutzpah, his talent of praising talent and raising pop music to the level of fine art. But his biggest crime (other than not signing the Smiths) was trying to propel the myth of Curtis into Jim Morrison levels. When he hung himself, we not only lost a musical pioneer, but a young girl lost her 24 year old dad.

The recent biopics and documentaries about Curtis love to tell us about Hooky's Sunday dinner. We love to watch Peter Saville's pained anguish when he tells the anecdote about telling Wilson there was a tomb on the sleeve for the thousandth time, and Paul Morley quip about going to see the Great Rock and Roll Swindle instead of attending the funeral, but what the film makers have conveniently left out his Ian's mother, Doreen's account of her reaction to finding out that her son was dead. Punk it is not, but sincere, honest, down to earth and brutally sobering it is. No art, however beautiful, is worth dying for.

******************************************

So then, the saddest song ever? Easy. Hands down, by a country furlong it's Diana by Paul Anka. Not so much the song itself, which actually rather jaunty, but the story behind it. A 16 year old Anka had cocked his hat at young girl at his local church, Diana Ayoub, and in an attempt to woo her wrote her a song. His advances were spurned, but the song became a world wide hit. Every time I hear the song, I picture a young Anka waiting in the wings at another gig in another county having to sing, for the four hundredth time, about a girl who broke his heart. Now that's tragic.


Monday, 25 September 2017

Laughter in the Dark-On Laughing Man by Rain



When I was 14, I was skiving out of doing my homework one night by watching Brookside with my mum. It was a pretty average episode until Mike Dixon, leather jacketed heart throb and rebel with a chin, came on the screen wearing a black T-shirt with the legend Rain printed on it in white writing. At this point I was steadily building my encyclopedic knowledge of indie music, and remember feeling somewhat miffed that a band could slip stealthily under my radar on to prime time television.

As well as building an internal database of indie artists, I was steadily puting together the foundations of my record collection. It was no small thrill when I found in the local advertisement paper coupon entitling the holder to purchase cheap records, namely 12” for £1 and 7”for 50p. I didn't know it at the time, but the shop dropping the discounts, Rainbow Records, was closing down. I had bought my cassettes from there, and found myself daydreaming about the small rack of 45s. No sleeves, just the paper die cut sleeve with the artist and title written in biro. This I found unbearably exciting. No pictures, no labels, no clues.

I was even more giddy when I rocked up one Sunday morning brandishing my voucher,and was told to go upstairs. When I reached the top I found a room containing the shops whole vinyl stock laid out on the floor, either randomly put together in plastic boxes or propped unsteadily on the floor. I've never found a better place to burn my paper round money.

I bought as much as my money would stretch to and my arms could carry (I could have bought the lot for a few of hundred quid) but the pick was a 10” called Lemonstone Desired and 7” on clear vinyl in a gatefold sleeve called Taste of Rain. Both records where by an artist called Rain.

The music was good. Guitar lead, with hints of blues and psychedelia. The music was driven, seemingly honed by years of hard touring, tight but with dirt under the fingernails. I flipped the 45 over to play the B-side. I've never stopped playing it.

                                                              * * *

In his lecture, Has the iPod changed our relationship with music?, Bill Drummond describes the downside of having a whole library of music inside a tiny box. The problem, as he sees it, is one finds themselves skipping tracks, whole albums worth, in a bid to find something satisfying. I had the same problem, but came up with my own solution. I split songs into two category's-Ipod friendly and not. The former contain songs with a bit of oomph about them,unfussy and uncomplicated. Good walking music. The latter contains more delicate songs designed for listening to in ones bedroom. When I say that, I don't mean songs to play in the car or do the washing up to. I mean songs to listen to. It's dying art, just listening to a record. Just watching the vinyl of round and inhaling nothing but oxygen and the sounds coming out the speakers. Laughing Man, the B-side of Taste of Rain, is the perfect song for this. It's beautiful, one of my top five. An acoustic balled peppered with slightly Spanish flecks of chiming guitar. Seemingly about someone trying to look after someone else (I see you/You see me/Take my hand/and we'll be free/Just as darkness turns to light/I will help you through the night) but tentatively holding on themselves (The laughing man/Came beating down my door/I'm laughing man/But I can't take no more). It's real 4am,whisky in hand stuff.

I was obsessed by the song, playing it in the dark through headphones, trying to make sense of it. The words, the emotion of the track. Clues were thin on the ground. The band were signed to Sony, something I figured was due to the track Lemonstone Desired,a slightly 60's sounding record which echo's the Byrds.(you can hear the influence of Rain to a certain degree in The Coral but quite majorly in the Stands).

 I could picture some A&R man trying to coin in the Stone Roses buck, down to it's Sally Cinnamon vibes . The sleeves bore witness to this, painted nude women, a mouth exhaling smoke. Who was the Laughing Man? For a while I though it may be based on the JD Salinger story of the same name, then after reading a dedication on the sleeve (“To all women everywhere, we would!”) and changed my mind. I sent an SAE to a mysterious 'Diane' via a Liverpool PO Box written in small print on the sleeve begging for information (and cheekily, some hand written lyrics to the song which gives you some understanding of my obsession) but received nothing back. The band had just vanished in to thin air. The song is possibly the only one I've played regularly since my teens. I love that song.

                                                            *** ***


So I contacted the band, and one of the songwriter for contribution to this piece, and both , in a reaction eerily similar to Diane's, have been ignored. I was initially a bit pissed off, but once I got over taking it personally, I was actually pretty chuffed. Maybe it's better that it's not possible to find out a song meaning with a quick click on Google, maybe I will paint my own picture of what the writer is trying to tell us. Mystique is wonderful thing. If you read this far, you are probably itching to hear the record. Well, tough. There are no MP3's on Google, no tracks on Youtube. If you want to hear it, then just like me you will have to hunt down the record. With ipod , we are trying to find a track to rescue us, but the best songs are the ones trying to find us. As we get older, I think, we find less and less music that defines us, but it never stops being able to console and heal. A 7” record can change your whole body chemistry in seconds. Long may it run.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Six Feet Under Milk Wood-Goodbye Evans the Death


I didn’t know it at the time, but as the car sped it's way through the breath taking Welsh countryside, the planets were aligning above me. The motor contained me and my pal John (specialist skills-Charisma, Ex-Gothness) and the plan was to head away from meeting mutual friends just off the coast of Llandudno to London where we would attend a gig headlined by the Garlands. There I would leave John to head to Bristol to attend the rest of the Big Pink Cake curated weekender. At the time, I had joined an online forum called Anorak, and was beyond inspired by it. Sat in the passenger seat, head heavy with plans to write about music, start a club night and put on gigs for myself, the world seemed suddenly open. The club night would eventually manifest itself as the Salopian shindig Just Like Honey and, as we shall see, I finally got to promote pop shows, but I had already started to write a blog called Brilldream (originally called I Had an Excellent Dream after the Dentists song, which proved a bit too much of a mouthful). It was pretty basic stuff at the time, like a songwriter learning the chords before finding it's own muse and own voice but it was SOMETHING.

The plan was going quite wonderfully until we hit the traffic coming into London and any bonhomie slowly turned into fatigue as the boredom of the stationary traffic started to gnaw at our souls. John was keen on sacking off the gig and just going for a curry instead, and stated the plan quite plainly. I however, persisted on going, and eventually won out. It was a very fortunate victory.

The gig was amazing. I got to meet a few of the inspirational people of Anorak. It was odd meeting them in the flesh, like the characters of your favourite novel popping out the pages and offering to buy you a pint. I was dizzily trying to take this all in, admiring the signed BMX Bandits poster on the Betsey Trotwood wall when out of nowhere a stunningly pretty girl bounded up to me, said she loved my T-shirt and insisted I attended her club night before slapping a flyer in my hand and bounding off again. As it happened, I wouldn't be able to attend the night (distance, real life, that sort of thing) but I was intrigued by the flyer. The night was called Librarians Wanted and the flyer was shaped as a bookmark, most wonderfully of all (due to all consuming passion to find new bands to write about) was a list of bands, three of them I had not heard of. One these bands was called Evans the Death.

I listened to all the bands on the bill, but it was the tracks off the Evans the Death Myspace (oh yes) that sent me a bit giddy. In particular the demo versions of So Unclean and Sleeping Song. I listened again and again,as my tea grew ever colder, in rapture. Everything was there, the songs, the lyrics that mixed genuine teen angst/ennui with Smithsonian whimsy, the voice. That voice! Like an instrument in itself, a voice to be trusted. Admired even. I abandoned my tea and set about writing down how brilliant it all was, how odd people so young could create something so perfect. I got a thanks off them via email for the write up and I somewhat cheekily asked them for an interview, which they accepted. It was, I think, their first ever and sparkled with wit and genuine inspiration. It was brilliant.

A little while later they sent out requests for promoters to fill in gaps in their tour, and it's around here where things get a little cosmic. Now, I was no promoter (far from it) but I knew I had to put them on. And we duly did, the second ever event under the Just Like Honey banner. The gig was wonderful, if sparsely attended (it was a Monday night in March, complete with snow blizzard) and was everything I hoped it would be. The band played a blinder, and later they got drunk on the free Red Stripe (one band member in particular who loudly claimed to have snorted cocaine off a dog with a member of indiepop royalty who will for reasons of libel remain nameless. We had to carry him back to my house, bless him) and we even managed to break even. Now, the reason I'm so fond of this gig is it in a very roundabout way lead me to meeting my partner, Rachel. The story is I got friendly with a lad called Dave who was mainly there to see the local-ish support band Bad Grammar, and in a few years time I would lend him a bass guitar and he would introduce me to the woman who would go on to be the mother of my baby. A pretty unremarkable story until you tick off the myriad of variables that could have put pay to the meeting. What if we had gone for that curry? What if I had not been at the bar when Silja gave me that flyer? What if we had set up Just Like Honey a month later and missed out? What if Evans had been shit? What of they had said no the interview? It goes on and on. The two weirdest ones for me was the fact that the original support band had pulled out a week before the gig, leaving us slightly in the shit (but still lending us loads of amps. Thank you Chris! I've not forgotten you!) and Bad Grammar had got in touch THE NEXT DAY practically begging for a slot. Even weirder was the fact that at work, we had a full drum kit just laying around, which had (and I swear I'm not making this up) been donated as a raffle prize three weeks before the gig and remained unclaimed. I'm not much one for fate, but bloody hell.

So, it's with sadness that I learned that Evans the Death are to be no more. It's obviously upsetting that we will get no more albums (which got more weird, more wonderful and more ambitious with every release), that the radio wasn't saturated with Moss Bros tunes and they never got to headline the range of festivals that their ambition heralded. What really irks me (quite personally actually) is that Katherine Whitaker never got to be a major influence on young women around the world. Her empathy, wit, and political intelligence should make her the pin up of choice over the new crop of singers and it reamains no short of a travesty she's not a global identity as big as Beyonce. When Martha, my daughter, is old enough to form a band, I will play her the EtD albums and tell her how Katherine (who will no doubt by then by the first MP with a Turner prize) and the boys once stayed at daddies house and how I met her mother.

The final Evans the Death show will be at the Windmill in Brixton on 23rd September. I won't be there (distance, real life, that sort of thing) but you should go. Maybe, just maybe, the planets will align for you.


Monday, 13 March 2017

Honeys Dead: JLH 2013-2017




It is with sadness that we announce the termination of the Salopian club night Just Like Honey.

The main reason is for half of JLH moving to France. We could barely organise the night when we lived in the same end of town, so to keep it going would be folly. We,of course, wish John and Daphne all the luck in the world.

We are incredibly proud of what we have achieved with JLH. We've gone from playing in the pub opposite Al Piccolino's to festivals supporting Saint Etienne. It's been quite the ride.

When I first germed the idea of starting the club night, I had a handful of ambitions. I wanted to play Felt, Teenage Fanclub and Orange Juice, I wanted to bring people from the big cities to Shrewsbury, I wanted to play a big city when that was achieved, I wanted to play Indietracks and wanted a couple to meet at our night and fall in love.

We've played those bands at every gig (You've not heard Primitive Painters until it's boomed out of a huge PA) plus being the only place for miles and miles that played the likes of Martha, The Spook School and Evans the Death. One punter was so excited about finding out what song we were playing that he skidded on the dance floor with pace. That, I think, is the sign of a good record. It was Everybody Deserves at Least One Summer of Love by The Understudies, and it is indeed a tune.

We've been very lucky insomuch that for a tiny night we've attracted people from Manchester, Cardiff, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and London to our nights (it's still a thrill thinking that when someone hears the word Shrewsbury, the first thing they think of is our night), even attracting some Italian Joy Division fans. We've played a gig in London and supported BOB The Spook School and the June Brides. We've played a set at Indietracks which was not only a highlight in my 'career' but my life too. We have met and worked with some of the most amazing and inspiring people in the world. We've been very lucky.

What I'm most proud of is the fact we kept going really. It was a mental idea to do a night playing obscure records, battling it out with super clubs playing you the same old shit. There's a great quote by Dave Haslam about the eclecticism of the Hacienda which goes

“No-one had the ambition or the madness or the genius to say lets be different to everywhere else and lets open our minds”

And that's what I'm most proud of at JLH, we did play anything and everything, we did play records that challenged. We treated our audience as grown up intelligent people rather that idiots expecting to be spoon fed the usual shit and we always made sure everyone had a good night. We are and always will be different to the point of unique. There's no night in the world quite like Just Like Honey.

One message we really want to get across is if you really wanted to something, write a book, form a band, write a song, put on a a night/shows then GO FOR IT. JLH is probably the first time in my life I actually stopped worrying and just put my guts into it. It really is amazing where a daydream can take you.

There will be a few a farewell nights, next one being 18 of March, look out for further night and a rather special night in May.

Oh, and no-one to my knowledge ever did meet and fall in love at a JLH night, but I met a lad called Dave when we put on Evans the Death (our second event under the banner Just Like Honey) who I got on with very well. Years later I leant him a bass guitar, and on the evening I handed the axe over he was with a very pretty girl. The pretty girl was called Rachel and we got on very well. It turned out we were both DJ's and we spent the night discussing politics, Pulp and Dolly Parton. We are expecting our first child in July. It is a fool who underestimates the power of pop.

Pour les enfants, toujours

Shaun and John xx

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Wee Coat Sparra

I, like everyone else, am gazing up at the Saint Pancras information board hoping that by some miracle it might bestow on us some information that may get us home a little quicker when it quietly occurs to me that I recognise the young man in the parka next to me. I roll through my mental rolodex (first pubs, then gigs, never, curiously, places of work or education) trying to put a name or at the very least a place to the face. Within seconds, to my quiet horror, I see that the chap is Serge, guitarist of pop band Kasabian. Its with no small alarm that it becomes quite clear he has caught me looking and has taken me as a fan. He waits, smiling gently at me, presumably waiting for me to ask for an autograph or, god forbid, a selfie. We stand in awkward silence for what probably adds up to a minute but feels like about ten years when, to my utter relief Serge turns to walk off. Still thinking me a fan, and an intensely shy one at that, he racks his brain for some sort of compensatory departing words. “Nice coat mate” he says patting my on the arm. He then slings his holdall on to his shoulder and peacocks away to platform four.

The truth of the matter is I've never been one for cutting a dash style wise. Indeed, at 6ft6, it's something of miracle if I find something that actually fits me. Shirts tend to cover my torso well enough, but not the cuffs and trousers, almost without president, cover either my hips or my ankles, seldom both. Off the peg suits or the worst, the jacket always a little small and the trousers have to pulled down to cover my ankles, thus leaving the crotch somewhere halfway down my thighs. The result leaves me looking like a cross between Rodney Trotter and MC Hammer. When I gave my sister away at her wedding, I was wearing a properly measured hire suit, my tears at the nuptials 90% sibling pride and 10% relief at finally wearing a pair of keks that actually fit.

Serge was right about the coat though. It's an absolute beauty. Purchased from Ebay (I'm under no obligation to tell you other auction sites are available bit will do so anyway) after putting 'old long coat' in to the search. My coat, a beautiful green tweed number, was the first one that came up. I was the only bidder and for the bargain price of £25 the coat was mine. The auctioneers had put some bumpf on the sale blurb about the coat being made for a Scottish actor who was in a Bond film. Quite naturally I suppose, my eyes rolled with pound signs like a fruit machine while I daydreamed of bids for Sean Connery's coat going higher and higher into the air at a posh auction house. When the coat arrived in the post, all this was forgotten immediately after trying it on. It fit like a dream. A little loose on the shoulders perhaps but other wise could have been made for me.

When I say forgotten, I mean the coats previous ownership didn't enter my mind until three years later. Sadly, the coats lining had started to come away from the inside. It had come off to such a degree that my left arm would no longer, without manipulation, go through the sleeve. My partner Rachel had decided enough was enough, and demanded that rather than watch me go through this sad pantomime of trying to get my hand to magically appear from my sleeve (thus delaying our exit from a pub or restaurant by at least 6 minutes) like a train coming out of a bunged up tunnel, she would take it to her mums for repair. We were talking quite casually a couple of days later when Rachel said that her mum had done a fine job on the repair, and she was a but upset about how the coat had been treated until she saw the label and realised how old it was.

What label? I replied.

I didn't know this, but anyone (like Rachel's mum) who knows anything about the making of clothes, especially old clothes, will tell you if you need information about your garment, always look inside the inside breast pocket. Mine told me that my coat had been handmade by B.Green and Sons of Glasgow in February 1959 for a J.D.G Macrae. Rachel's mum had indeed done a fine job, and was glowing in praise for whoever made the coat. It was clearly handmade and was put together by a real craftsman. I wondered if this JDG Macrae fellow could be this actor the sellers were talking about.

The first stumbling block was the name. The only Macrae involved in a Bond film was a Duncan Macrae, and he was in Casino Royale (though so low in the castings he fails to make the Wikipedia entry at all) which is more like a spoof of Bond film. Had I got all excited about a bit part player who may or may not have owned the coat? JDG, was Duncan a middle name?

Then came my first breakthrough, from the Oxford Dictionary of Biography

Macrae, (John) Duncan Graham (1905–1967), actor.

JDG Macrae. We had found our man.

************************

Duncan Macrae was a fine actor. These are not my words, but the words of anyone who worked with him. Every search of Duncan Macrae actor came with the same words 'wonderful' 'incredible' 'gifted'. 'Greatest Scottish actor' crops up again and again. It was quite obvious he was adored. A portrait of him by William Crosbie hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It's possible, however, that the source of this love was not his acting at all.



He started of as a comedien on the post-war Scottish stage, his 'angular face and lantern jaw' and broad shouldered lankiness (He was 6ft1, which may explain why the coat fits me so well) providing the perfect foil for his 'glaikit' comedy, which means essentially being bumbling and playing the fool. He was no idiot mind, the son of a sergeant of the police force and a trained engineer before becoming a school master. Acting was his passion however, joining the  Citizens' Theatre company in Glasgow. As well as his comedy roles, he was well known on the stage for his more serious acting roles, particularly his performance as King James VI in Jamie the Saxt by Robert McLellan. It was his comedy roles that lead him to the screen though. Indeed, perhaps is his most recognised performance is the reading of the traditional Scottish song Wee Cock Sparra, which was televised in the 50's and 60's as part of the Hogmanay celebrations. Not that he was best pleased with it. Comedian Johnny Beattie, who worked a lot with Macrae, put it ''Big John, as we knew him, was just a naturally funny man. Yet he couldn't tell if any comedy scripts sent in to him were funny. He would call us into his dressing room and ask: 'Is that funny?' without realising that it was his personality that would make it so. 'In the end, he got fed up with The Wee Cock Sparra. Everywhere he went, people were asking for it, forgetting about his serious work. He said it had become like an albatross around his neck.''
Though his influence cannot be denied. “Duncan Macrae used to sing this brilliant wee song.” Says actor Alex Norton of Wee Cock Sparra “I used to perform it (to great acclaim, it must be said) for my relatives when we would gather together each Hogmanay.”



Though essentially a list of bit parts, Macrae's screen appearances are to be envied. From the 60's hip (appearances in The Avengers and The Prisoner) to the steady (after years of bit parts, a proper series' in Kidnapped and Para Handy. The latter filmed around the time the coat was made) to the huge (Casino Royale also featured Peter Sellers, Ursula Andrews, David Niven, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen).


It's difficult to imagine Our Duncan mixing it with the stars however. He is often described as 'eccentric', but I can not find any evidence to back that up. It simply seems that he was quiet and reserved. That little about Duncan Macrae outside his work can be found is a testament to what a private man he was. Heartbreakingly, his family have struggled, and family tree type website begging for information about him (I presume you are referring to Duncan Macrae the actor who featured in films like The Kidnappers, Tunes of Glory, Whisky Galore, etc. If so, I understand that my father was a cousin of this Duncan and I, too, would be interested in any info you get on him which might also relate to our family.(My father's name was Colin Macrae and he came from a little place called Culkein in north-west Sutherland.” writes one “We had no contact with Duncan or his family (I believe he had two sons). Apart from the fact that they lived in Glasgow and we were in Edinburgh, my father's family (he had five sisters) were all rather religious, being Free Presbyterians, and did not associate with folk who worked or travelled "on the Sabbath Day".)



In fact (And I promise I'm not making this up) it was an autobiography by Nicholas Parsons that was the greatest resource to writing this). He writes Macrae as being a quiet but brilliant man who tried to work in London but didn't like and moved back the Glasgow.

One thing that is documented is his love of the Scottish Island of Millport. He even ended up buying a holiday home there. It's not difficult to imagine him on a film set somewhere miles away from home, writing to his wife Peggy about how he couldn't wait to take her and the children (two girls in fact, not boys) to Millport.
The Macraes at Millport

Christine Caldwell, grand-daughter of Duncan Macrae, unveiling a plaque to him 

***

As I wrote this, I found some amazing pictures of Duncan Macrae, this tiny one I found in an autograph catalogue is my favourite, not because of the size (it's tiny) or the pose (it's formal) but because of the fact he is wearing my coat.



































Saturday, 13 August 2016

Of Loves, labels and Lexington burgers. Farewell Fortuna Pop


He said Martin Hannett had told him about eight grand, which was a complete lie. I didn’t jump on it because it was a complete surprise, but looking back on it that was the dawn of the British independent movement, all from Rob thinking, well the first single Tony spent £5000, we got £5300 back after paying all the costs and we all made £100. If we made an album we would make real money, which would mean, and I quote Rob Gretton here, “I wouldn’t have to go to London every week and talk to cunts.”

Tony Wilson

The cunts Mr. Wilson (or rather Mr. Gretton) is talking about here are record label people. The big boys who work with record companies with three initials and worry about things like market penetration, audience targeting, and say things like “Yeah, but where's the single?”. They are not record label people like me and you know them, the people who release stuff we treasure forever and soundtrack our very existence. The people we see manning the merch stall and read about in fanzines and witness wolfing down Lexington burgers between bands. People like Sean Price of Fortuna Pop.

Like everyone else who has a passion for indiepop, I was gutted to hear that Fortuna Pop is in the process of being wound up. But, on reflection, it's a bit like when a hero leaves your football team. You are initially distraught, but if you love them you have to wish them well and thank them for the good times.

Fortuna Pop's first release (credited as being issued in 1995, and even by my GCSE maths makes the label 21, but as Mr. Wilson said, always print the legend) was a 7” by Taking Pictures called Fallen Angel. They're a friend of my brother’s band. We were living in Shepshed, near Loughborough.” wrote Price “When you live in a small town you make your own entertainment – smashing up shops or buying an eight-track.” The record made very little impact, but it was a start. Something born of a daydream that you could physically hold and play. The label, Bambi like, began to wobble to it's feet. “I had no idea really about distribution or marketing. I thought we would send one copy to John Peel who would play it and we would instantly get the band on Top Of The Pops and we’d take off and sell thousands of records” he said. “It didn’t quite happen like that!”

Things started to get interesting with the labels sixth release, the lost classic (and it is a classic) Rob A Bank by The Butterflies Of Love. It sounds like The Mary Chain doing Fuzzy by Grant Lee Buffalo, all shimmering echo and heartache. It's a beautiful record. Price himself describes it as “One of the best singles I’ve ever heard in my life. It was one of German Rolling Stone’s top 10 singles of the year, the year it came out. Up until then I was releasing records by friends. That’s the point where maybe I got more serious and maybe the quality of the label went up. It sounded like a real record, rather than one that was made by your mates.”

From that came a steady but solid stream of records that were adored in bedrooms all over the country but failed to bother the radio or the charts from bands like Mark 700, Twinkie, Discordia, and The Chemistry Experiment. By 2000 they were releasing records by bona fide indiepop legends. The evergreen You Can Hide Your Love Forever by Comet Gain (blessed with a pitch perfect talent for writing pop songs and aesthetically a beatnik Brian Jonestown Massacre but with a worse reputation for actually making the gig), ex Loft and Weather Prophet Pete Astor, Why Doesn't That Surprise Me by the Lucksmiths and Milky Wimpshake's Lovers Not Fighters. Soon, they were wielding the big hitters like The Last Match by The Aislers Set (described by Price as the best album the label put out and a proper classic in it's own right) and Amelia Fletcher's outfit Tender Trap. (I think Ten Songs About Girls is the best record she's ever made. An arguable point I agree, but I'll happily argue about it in the pub with you).

Things really started to cook in 2009 with the release of the eponymous album by Pains of Being Pure At Heart “The definitive release for me. Things didn't really work out in the end between me and them, but that was a key point for Fortuna Pop in the way it attracted so many more bands to the label. It increased Fortuna Pop's profile massively. I genuinely don't believe either Herman Dune or Crystal Stilts would be on the label if I hadn't had such success with that record. Before The Pains... it used to be me chasing bands to put their records out on Fortuna Pop. Now it's the other way round with bands chasing me”

The roster from then reads like a Who's Who of modern indiepop. Ex Hefner Darren Hayman, the uke driven dream pop of 'Allo Darlin', the sixties sing along of The Loves, the brittle but beautiful Withered Hand, the literally breathtaking Flowers, (along with Jerv's WIAIWYA label) the absolutely perfect Shrag, Joanna Gruesome, the much underappreciated Evans the Death (the first album is a classic, the latter LP's a byword in pop experimentation), The Spook School (sounds like Billy Bragg after eight bags of cola cubes, looks like three church mice with a Trumpton Tommy Cooper on drums) and Durham folk heroes Martha (ultra intelligent pop punk and Everyman charisma. Incredibly, they seem to get better after every release).

Despite quoting from the Factory label at the start of this, I think Fortuna Pop are more like Creation, one of those labels you just trust. The FPOP catalogue number being a reliable sign of quality, like the kitemark on your condom or the lion on your egg. The label took the best (Iie:pre Oasis. Oasis were playing Knebworth when the second Fortuna Pop record was being released, though being London based it's unlikely Fortuna Pop were afraid of Britpop) bits of Creation, things like putting on packed, thrilling, sweaty gigs above pubs and releasing killer 7” after killer 7”. Caring about what your label was, what it did and what it meant to people. Always trusting your ears and following your heart.

It's difficult to know what Fortuna Pop's legacy will be. It's unlikely FPOP001 will go for £500 quid on Ebay and baffled Belgian tourists will try and find Sean's gaff like Sarah Records, and Sean is probably far too humble (he probably hates eulogies like these), level headed and down to earth (One of my criteria for signing anyone is that I can go down the pub with them) to let a book or a DVD make the label a myth like the Creation and Factory documentaries. (Though I hope he writes his own book, he is a gifted writer. His sleeve notes to the Be True to Your School comp got me into writing about pop). Whatever happens, Sean Price has a label that the kids who dig the new Spooks and Martha LP's can work backwards through and discover gem after gem after gem. And you can't ask for more than that can you?


(Dedicated to Sean Price, with thanks to DiS, Penny Black Music and God is in the TV for the quotes. Special thanks to Paul Richards of Scared to Dance for getting me to write again (it's amazing what a chat over a pint at Indietracks can do). Apologies to any bands I've forgotten. I still love you.)