Sunday, 11 October 2015

Carey Lander

The news of the death of an artist you admire, particularly when you hit a certain age, becomes something of a norm. Hard to chew, yes, but ultimately easy to swallow. The cruelty of the death of Carey Lander however has been an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.

I fell pretty much fell for Camera Obscura in 2006. I had asked for some  recommendations for new music on a Teenage Fanclub message board and someone had simply posted a picture of the sleeve of Let's Get Out of This Country. Whether on whim or out of impatience I'm not sure, but I took a train to Manchester that very day to buy the LP. I've been in love with the band ever since. They have not only been the soundtrack to my life (crushes, true love, heartbreak, important train journeys, house moves, shit days at work. All that stuff) but something much much more vital than that.

It's 2008 and I'm sitting in front of my grief counselor after the death of my dad. “What do you  really really like Shaun” she asks “what's your passion? What excites you?”. The question goes into my ears almost comically simplistic but by the time it reaches my brain it actually scares me. I don't know. The grief, so over powering that all my energy and thoughts are spent on actually getting up every day, dressing and eating something. I realise in that instant the grief has robbed me of my personality. You know when they say '(S)he's not been him/herself since”? This is what they are on about. I think for a good five minutes, rooting around the corners of my brain trying to remember what I like, what I'm passionate about, what makes me me.

“Music” the word sounds concrete. Real. “I like music”

When I went to watch Camera Obscura up and down the country between 2008 and 2009, I thought it was some kind of mid-life crisis, some daft boyishness or some sort a reclamation of the glory days, but looking back I see it for what it was. It was rehabilitation into being a functional, thoughtful human being again.

I fell so hard for the band there was even a bungled attempt at promoting one of their gigs in Shrewsbury. Always on the backfoot, the gig would prove to be about a year and half to early for the towns taste and was deflatingly poorly attended. It did however give me the opportunity to see the band behind the scenes, both figuratively and literally. Camera Obscura have had a problem of being seen in some quarters as dour. “I love their gigs, but why don't they just smile” or some such nonsense would set my teeth on edge. Who says that every band have to be the Monkees between songs? Would such a pathetic comment be made if the singer was male? To anybody who have though the band were miserable, I would like to tell you two little stories, both from the Shrewsbury gig.

The first is of Carey doubled up in laughter holding a two pint bottle of milk. The rest of the band were puzzled at what was so funny. It turned out the venue (and this really sums up the place at the time) had provided (presumably as per the rider) two types of coffee, four types of tea, a bag of sugar, a jar of honey and a two pinter of milk. Only no kettle.

The second was when I was walking up to the venue pre-sound check with a case of leads or some such nonsense when I saw my favourite band in the world cadging a fag break, back dropped by Shrewsbury prison. Whilst Gav made a rollie, Carey kept doing rasperries on a giggling Tracyanne's cheek. It was moment so oddly intimate I had to back track and take a route over the Dana instead.

With respect (and love) to Tracyanne, Gav Kenny and Lee, Carey was always my favourite. Not only an incredibly talented musician (the keys on the latter verses of Keep it Clean still (still) give me gooseflesh) but ultimately an adorable, intelligent human being. I loved the way her ankles would twist when going for the high notes, her unashamed bookishness (I discovered many a novel through her recommendations) and her love and respect not only for making music but being a part of Camera Obscura. I remember reading a rumour about the title of a then unreleased Camera Obscura LP and sensing a scoop, published the erroneous title on my blog. I received a very very polite yet very very firm bollocking off Carey, something along the lines of only believing the band themselves and the magic of waiting and seeing.

A genuinely funny person, I loved her deft skills of deadpan and self deprecation and I'll miss an adorable human being who's music brought delight and escape to thousands and thousands of people and who stayed true to the cause to the very, very end.

It feels bitterly, bitterly cruel to write about a life ending so young, but Carey Lander found what she really really liked, what she was passionate about and what excited her about life and chased it. It would seem churlish, wouldn’t it, not to do likewise ourselves.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

I want to tell you how I feel-Martha by Martha

Rock and roll is littered with artists who want to escape the bitterness and artlessness of their hometown. Lost, beaten suburbanites look skywards and dream of the big city-the hustle and the people whilst hardened city kids vow to themselves to escape the smog and crime and escape to the country. But what if you wanted to make your hometown a better place? There is a slightly wonky definition of Bohemia that describes it as trying to make your life better, not through politics, but through art. Is it possible to make your hometown bearable, cool even, through creativity and belief? Durham band Martha, and in particular their self titled debut EP are testament to creativity and togetherness. It's a classic.

The lovely people at Tuff Enuff have made my dream come true by finally releasing it on vinyl. Back in 2012, Martha released their eponymous debut EP on cassette and CD and (presumably surprisingly to the band) where taken to the bosom of the indiepop community. On the surface, this seemed something of a mismatch-the stripy-topped Walter the Softies aligning themselves with the Durham Menaces-, but Martha and indiepop really do compliment each other. Both thrive on inclusive, friendly, and cheap venues and tiny, day dreamy record labels. And, of course, a mutual adoration of the first Housemartins LP.

The main reason people fell in love with the Martha EP is simply because the music is so brilliant. On initial listening, the songs kick out the speakers in a kind of Big Star/Buzzcocks amalgam of pop and punk. But actually the songs are based on an almost Motown formula-No messing around rhythms, a chorus to shout along to and a heart that is almost defiantly joyful. So far so pop, but This IS a political band, presenting their politics in stories about the everyday. These are tales about the crushed, and those who kick back, sometimes the same person in the same song.

One of pops neatest tricks is present a song and later reveal an unexpected depth to it. Take Neil youngs FM anthem 'rocking in the free world, a song with verses so teeth grindingly angry the listener can only conclude the chorus is presented bathed in sarcasm. Or Happy Hour by the Housemartins, less a tie loosening peon to the pleasure of a post work pint, more a lemon sharp warning against falling for the same backward thinking that traps your workmates. Even bona fide classics like the Leader of the Pack by the Shirelles is seen in some circles as a gum popping camp curio rather than possibly the darkest 45 ever released. Similarly, Martha songs are almost like punk oyster's holding intellectual pearls.

Take 1978, Smiling Politely, which on my Ipod sounded like a gum chewing, dusty, sun dappled anthem or a paranoid ode to a road trip which pushes the pedal to the floor in the hope the velocity of the car will keep a relationships flame alight. But it's in fact a tribute to the incredibly inspirational poet /activist Audre Lorde. Lorde gained as many critics as supporters by confronting racism within the feminist movement. 

"What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority" she told her critics. Throughout her life, and after her death in 1992, she has inspired and educated through her essays and poetry. (Anyone who has had their interest piqued by Martha name checking of this artist should start with Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches)

And Gretna Green, is that simply a song about wistfully looking back on lost love and chilly regret? Not quite. Gretna Green (the place) is just over an hour away from the scene of the Quintinshill rail disaster. In May 1915, two signal men were due to overlap their day and night shift. However, George Meakin and James Tinsley had come to an arrengement. There was a train going from Carlisle to Beattock that would go from Gretna to Qunitinshill, thus saving the man doing the early shift the mile and a bit walk. However, this would have the man arriving for work at 6.30am and and not 6. As the men rotated shifts, the came to an arrangement where the men would fiddle the records and get an extra hour in bed.

Tinsley and Meakin were discussing the war with two brakesmen in the signalbox when a local train fireman signed the train register without carrying out his duty by reminding the signalmen that his train was on the Up main line. Three minutes later, the first two of five trains would collide on the same junction. The collision and resulting fire injured 246 people and killed a further 226, mainly soldiers of the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots.
Seemingly, the song is about someone waiting for their lover to arrive so together they could wed at the nearby Blacksmiths Shop(where young couples had wed since 1754) or at the very least eloping together. But tragically one half of the couple had died in the rail disaster, leaving the other half eternally waiting. The line calling marriage a patriarchal scam and the fact most of the fatalities where young men in the armed services it would appear the song was written from the point of view of a young women. It's hard not to wonder what she did with the rest of her life.

Martha humbly offer us the startlingly simple idea that music should not be about margins, fame or notability but about making new friends, seeing new places and above all having fun. Martha, like the Spook School, The Tuts and the much missed Ace Bushy Striptease make you want to be part of their gang. Not because of an attraction to T-bird cool but because they make everything look like so much fun. Despite lyrically tackling monstrously serious issues, they still stand by a defiance of taking themselves too seriously that borders on militancy. Time IS short and life IS cruel but it really is up to US to change this town called Malice, or Pity Me or Shrewsbury or wherever you find yourself. The thing with small towns is if you don't do it yourself, no-ones else will. Like Josie Long said so brilliantly, if you want something to exist, sometimes you have to make it yourself. Creativity in these towns is not a luxury but a real necessity. Even if buying the records and t-shirts is too much for you, support your local girl gang, punk band, indie venue. Every now and then a record turns up that reminds you why all this is worth it. The putting on gigs, the traveling for miles to spend £3 on watching bands above a room in a pub, the having a band sleep on your sofa, the writing for a fanzine or a blog. Sometimes a record reminds you that you made the right choice-that not worrying about where your career is or getting a mortgage or having babies is perfectly acceptable way to live your life. You are not wrong, just different. Martha's debut EP is one of those records, and I love it to the bottom of my daft heart.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Dizzy dark desire: Chrissy Barnacle

My mums dog, Honey, is a gorgeous if slightly dippy fox coloured Labrador. Honey is a rescue dog, and one of the saddest problems with rescue dogs is you don't know an awful lot about their past. One afternoon, my sister visited mum, and whilst messing around with an old trilby, covered her eyes with it's brim (a la the cover of All Hits by All Saints). Honey went quite uncharacteristically berserk at this, snarling and barking with the hair on her back stood up. My sister removed the hat, and Honey instantly went back to her normal self;waggly tailed and hustling for a fuss. We're not sure what that hat symbolised to poor old Honey, but it clearly triggered something unsavory in her psyche. It was a sobering moment for all concerned.

I have similar reaction to the word 'folk'. I was dragged along to a local 'folk' night once and it was a spectacularly bad evening, it's quaintness both forced and false. The session was teeming full of men with egg yoke stained jumpers and bits of pork pie in their beards singing songs about either a) small children drowning in a well or b) having their hearts broken by a 'lady so fair'. Some of the music I like has been described as twee, but really, this was aural bunting. Don't get me wrong, I can and do enjoy folk music (Judee Sill, Sandy Denny and Judy Collins for example) but the word 'folk' sends my mind spiraling back to that night and off in search of a stiff drink and a listen of something abrasive and urban (nine times out of ten it's Light User Syndrome by the Fall). Live 'folk' music? Brrr. Not for me pal.

Enter Chrissy Barnacle. I first saw Chrissy supporting Durham Irn Bru crew Martha (though poles apart in musical type, they made surprisingly good touring partners. Both play songs that simultaneously hold your head and your heart, and they share a defiance of taking themselves too seriously that borders on militancy). The first thing that strikes you about Chrissy is what an amazing guitarist she is. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing that she must use a headache inducingly difficult tuning, because at times the effect is like listening to three guitars at once. It's either that or some kind of witch craft. You can't help up but be drawn into the songs intros, delicate with the intricacy of a spiders web, her Spanish guitar chimes, echos and loops like smoke spiraling from a librarians candle.

Then comes the voice. I've read elsewhere of writers comparing her voice from everyone from Joni Mitchell to Kate Bush. Well maybe, but to me her voice is one that has taken years to discover and finally find the courage to release to the world. She stands at the mic, guitar just under her chin, eyes closed and shoulders hunched, searching deeply for this voice, her voice, to propel the yearning within her. Her songs are like a sword fight between her inner optimism and the self doubt that lurks on her shoulder, despairingly desperate to validate their hopeless romanticism. It's an often breath taking tussle.

With songs so dizzyingly intimate and brimming with chimericaly emotional wanderlust and wryly honest aural postcards about the ascertainment of the true inner self, it's impossible not to champion Chrissy Barnacle both as an artist and a human being. I'm not sure what she is searching for, but you can't help but hope she finds it. Chrissy has made folk music for the punx to fall in love with, and for that we should take our hats off to her, as I'm sure Honey would agree.

All of Chrissy's recorded music to date is available as pay what you like (IE nowt if you're tight) downloads and can be found here:-

Friday, 4 July 2014

Annik Honore

Way back in 2005, I got pretty obsessed with the story of Factory Records. To me, the tale plays out like a particularly wonderful play. It's equal parts tragedy, comedy and romance. You can go on shopping web sites right now and buy whole books on the main characters of this play. Everyone from the label owner, to the  building where everything happened to the singers to the singers widow. One character intrigued me the most. Mainly because there was so little known about her.

Annik Honore met Ian Curtis when she was 22. She was promoting gigs in Brussels and writing for fanzines. They began a love affair, despite Ian having a wife and a new born baby back home in Macclesfield. A few months later, after admitting the affair and breaking up with his wife, Ian took his own life in his family home on the eve of an American tour, leaving a wife, a baby and a girlfriend devastated.

Back in 2005, very little was known about Annik. The only points of reference were the book Touching from a Distance, a book by Ian's widow Deborah, and a few mentions by Factory people in interviews. The mentions in Deborah Curtis's book are scathing on Annik, (a women she had never met) and in Factory interviews, any mentions of Annik would be extremely vague, presumably due to guilt about keeping the affair a secret and not wishing to upset Deborah by seeming to 'side' with Annik.

One mention did grab my attention. Tony Wilson describes a time very shortly to Ian's suicide. Annik was incredibly distressed about the lyrics of the then unreleased Joy Division album Closer. She drove to the Wilson's home in tears. She was was desperately trying to point out how real the dark, depressed and void of hope lyrics were. Wilson and his wife sat her down, gave her tea. It's just art Wilson told her. Just art. “After Ian took his life,” quipped Wilson, “I wish I had fucking listened”.

Whats intriguing here is that no-one, not his manager, his wife, his parents or his band mates that he spent day after day with saw these lyrics for what they were. They were not Curtis visiting the muse, but a heartbreakingly bleak account of the darkness that surrounded him and the hopelessness and disgust of life he felt. No-one saw this as, not a cry but, a scream for help except Annik. Who was this woman?

Maybe it's a sign of having any piece of information I desire at my finger tips, but the shadowy, almost ghostly figure of Annik both intrigued and frustrated me. I trawled and crawled through the internet in search of any information. Nothing. No interviews, no articles. Nothing. How did she remain silent while people told her story for her, sometimes hopelessly inaccurately? Did she not want to tell her side of the story?

Then, out of nowhere, I found an email address with her name on it. It couldn’t be the same woman, could it? I (looking back, extremely cheekily and perhaps insensitively) sent of an email asking if it was the elusive lady, and if it was I admired her silence deeply.

I got an email from the Belgian embassy a few hours later. Yes, it was that Annik.

It matters to me that Ian is well represented / pictured as a good man. And so far the things that had been written on me (and therefore on us and him in a way) were totally untrue and biased or even ridiculous. Fair enough - the world is like this - people have the right to write whatever they feel like and everybody has different opinions and feelings.” She wrote “Debbie's book but I guess she needed to write those horrible things about me in order to feel better. That's human nature and I +/- understand her hatred for me and certainly her suffering. Still it does not excuse the lack of "intellectual fairness" (esp. after so many years). A pity she did not try to understand why it happened and that I was a kid and not a groupie and that when love is involved things become different. I trust Anton (Corbijn who was talking about making a film that would go on to be Control) understands this. Anyway silence is often the best answer.”

I got two long emails altogether. Full of calm, understanding, and forgiveness. I didn't really reply to the second one, just a thank you and best wishes. I didn't ask her any questions, and yet she was happy to share her innermost feelings to a stranger who emailed her out of the blue. I regret not writing again. It's pretty obvious she was a woman who had a lot to get of her chest. She was also a thoughtful, polite, and incredibly articulate pen pal.

Annik Honore died yesterday (July 3rd 2014) of a serious illness. Even now, there's little known about Annik. Searching for a picture to head this article, I found one picture of Annik to every 40 of the actress who played her. There a few interviews here and there, but we know little about the actual woman. When we remember Annik, I hope we remember her not as a home wrecker or Ian Curtis's mistress but a bright, forgiving, human who gave her soul to music and to love.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

For the record-debunking the myth of a vinyl revival

"Well they say "Brian is back", but in my heart he's always been around" The Beach Boys-Brian's Back

"Mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury's/ tears in their eyes/They'll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again/Their old 45s gathering dust..." Saint Etienne-Teenage Winter

Imagine, if you will, a world where the media gets itself all excited about a beer revival. The BBC makes programmes about beer, full of hazily recreated shots of a heavily side-burned young man entering a 70's pub and wistfully buying a pint in a handled glass. The great and the good trip of themselves to comment about how great buying beer is. "You never forget buying your first pint" says one. "There's that silence, then a clink of glass" chimes another "then you get your first sip. It's like magic". The press flies the flag for beer. 'The Beer Revival' screams the Mail headline. "An online poll of 1,700 beer buyers found that 86 per cent of them said it was their favourite ale format. A third of today’s beer fans are aged under 35. 'Beer is back' says another. "The first half of 2013 saw sales of beer increase by over 33%, based on the previous year’s numbers.' Great, you may think to yourself, I like beer. But hang on a minute, I've been buying beer since my late teens and have never stopped, how can it be back if it never went away?

Of course, the above quotes are not about beer, but about vinyl. It would appear that thanks to an Arctic Monkeys LP an increase of sales of vinyl occurred to the tune of 33%. The only people really trumping this are the major record labels. We should perhaps remind ourselves that we owe these people no favours. In 1979 Sony and Phillips united to introduce a new digital storage disc. The CD (a kind of mug coaster invented by Metal Mickey) was a disaster for LP's and 45's and killed off the cassette tape. The marketing campaign for CD's in the late 80's and early 90's was a simple one: the vinyl record is obsolete, this new shiny disc is all you need. Strangely, the record buying public acquiesced, with 400 million compact discs being produced in 1988 alone. People where getting rid of their weighty, cumbersome, scratchy, space consuming LP's and buying into the slick new age. Then, just as the record companies were doing an Arthur Daley-esque trade in pushing you to buy a record you already owned, it all went horribly wrong for them. After enjoying the Britpop boom of record sales (once again kids where spending pocket money on records in Beatlemania proportions) the 2000's saw the internet triumph. MP3's and file sharing was the new thing daddio. Your music lover could askew the nasty business of having to actually buy recorded music and could simply download that tune they wanted free, or if they couldn't find the songs they wanted, they could buy the ghostly essence of a song from Itunes for 79p. This development pretty much killed of popular music as we knew it in the UK. We lost Tower, Virgin. Our Price, MVC to name just a few. We lost Top of the Pops and 90% of independent record shops. We lost the act of buying a record. It was the Sony wot dunnit.

During all this though, did you actually stop buying new records on vinyl? The other formats all had flaws (tapes chewed, CD skipped, MP3's, well, pretend records hardly constitute a record collection do they? You don't even own it. Your collection of songs downloaded from Itunes remains the property of Apple, and is theirs to take back once you die) but vinyl when looked after can last forever. Don't get me wrong, I own an ipod, I have bought tapes and CD's, but I prefer listening to vinyl. It's my format of choice. I like vinyl. I love buying records more than I love buying socks, but we should remember they are very much the same act.

For my money, there are two kinds of people who buy their records on vinyl. One is the collector, the person who is a bit older and has a bit more spare cash and must have every release by an artist or label, even if it means shelling out £50 for a record they already own because the font is slightly different on the label. This is vinyl as fetishism. Sawdust Caesars building their own little empires of taste. The spotlight was shone on these kind of collectors by Nick Hornby in his book (and eventual film) High Fidelity. In the book, one record shop worker sells a Dylan LP to a gullible customer on the grounds that people will mock him if doesn't own it. It made an A&M pressing of the God Save the Queen 7" the pinnacle of the desirable record collectible and as a result the price of the 45 rocketed. It is perhaps easy to sympathise or even feel empathy towards these fellows. In a harsh and uncaring world, a record collection is a sane beacon of light, one to cherish in mutual understanding. But make no bones about it, these are lovers of vinyl not music. Their purchases are based on their heads rather than their hearts. They buy records as an act of tribalism rather than love, the same way football fans show their allegiance not by going to games but by buying the new shirt every season and any mug, car air freshener, socks, or wallet with the team logo on it. Records are not be played and enjoyed, but bought, filed away and stored, like a stamp collection. A very recent example of this is Pristine Christine by the Sea Urchins, the first release on Sarah records suddenly selling in excess of £200. It's perfectly possible the new owner is spinning it regularly and drinking in it's chiming indie tones with an ear to the speaker and a feeling of warmth all over them, but I somehow doubt it.

The second type of vinyl buyer is the music fan. They love nothing better than to discover a new band or a new label. They can be very easily identified, they play the same 7" over and over again and gently sway the pub conversation towards the new band, song, album, label that you simply MUST listen to. These are music's bread and butter, the reason the world of music is still thrilling and wonderful. There's nothing quite like that buzz of finding something new to fall in love with. It, of course, doesn't have to be a new release. One of my favourite record shops is Beatin' Rhythm Records in Manchester, but it was really special when it was on Tib Street. It was a room full of 45's and a couple of decks with headphones. You could pick up a pile of 7" records, give them a spin and buy the ones you liked the sound of. There was something lovely, beautiful and exciting about that. You may have picked up a record that you will still playing when you're sixty, or it may be a load of shit. I love that gamble. (Through digging there I picked up a copy of Tainted Love by Ruth Swann for a fiver and a copy of Let the Music Play by Didi Noel for two quid. I sill play these records in pretty much every DJ set I do). Of course, you could buy the prettily packaged CD set of 100 best Northern Soul records, with extensive sleeve notes and pictures. But really, where's the fun in that?

Perversely, the nostalgia thing has gone full circle, with people trying to replace the LP they got rid of when they bought the CD. "I used to have that on vinyl" they say, and drift off into a warm daydream, then find themselves shelling out silly money on Ebay. There is a rather confusing quote by head of BPI Geoff Taylor. "The LP is back in the groove. We're witnessing a renaissance for records - they’re no longer retromania and are becoming the format of choice for more and more music fans." he says "This year has been a treat for vinyl aficionados with releases from Daft Punk, David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Black Sabbath". I'm not sure how buying a Black Sabbath record isn't 'retromania', but there we are. One thing the majors have got wind of is the genius idea of having an MP3 download code included when you buy a new LP, an idea nicked wholesale from the indie labels the BPI ignore. It means you can enjoy your new LP at home, have it on your ipod when you walk to the pub or burn it onto CD for the car. One thing the BPI cannot smooth over, is where someone wanting to buy the new Daft Punk, David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Black Sabbath LP's can do so. With HMV now effectively a t-shirt and DVD shop, how can the BPI trump a vinyl revival when it's impossible for people outside cities to actually physically buy them? Even indie labels who specialise in vinyl releases are feeling the pinch, with the price of mailing them out getting giddily higher and higher, making it virtually unsustainable to ship records over seas. Maybe the resurgence will see the comeback of record shops, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Look, there is no vinyl revival. People have never stopped buying it they way the stopped buying cassettes. It's always been a format of choice. However heavily glossed up for the press, an increase in sales of LP's is a good thing, but can only be sustained if people go on buying it. Maybe someone buying an Arctic Monkeys LP can buy a key to the wonderful world of buying records. Or maybe their loan foot square purchase will sit in a corner gathering dust. One thing is for certain, every year there is a new label, a new band, a new LP to fall in love with. Your only job is to discover it.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

This is your brain on frothy coffee-The Yearning

Faringdon’s The Yearning are a studio band that specialise in daydreamy retro-pop, kind of like a classy All Saints to the Pipettes’ sassy Spice Girls. They delicately dress up 50’s/60’s pop (Brill Building, Peggy Lee, Spector, The Shirelles, Brian Wilson, all the best bits) in a de-mob suit and take it to the caff for a frothy coffee.. Judging by their short films and photographs, they have more in common with Max Bygraves than My Bloody Valentine, but are far more likely to steal your heart away.

Whether you enjoy The Yearning, I think, is more down to your attitude than your ears. A cynic may say it’s akin to hearing The Shirelles played on the piano by Nicholas Lyndhurst in Goodnight Sweetheart, but I’m rather charmed by them. The songs swell with brass and sway squiffy with strings but the best bit is it feels like singer Maddie Dobie (17 years old, voice as vulnerable and warm as recently awoken kitten) performs directly to you, the listener. A rare skill indeed. You get the feeling that what the band are trying achieve is not recreating their favourite records, but creating something beautiful, magic, timeless, personal and special. And they do achieve it.

In another universe, If You Were my Boyfriend (lead single off Elefant 10” mini album Still in Love, out now on mint green vinyl) would be the biggest wedding song in the country. It sounds like a aching hearted teenager watching the drizzle make little rivers on a window pane. The songs are hardly tomes of arch feminism (quite the opposite) but even arch feminists feel like day dreamy teenagers in love sometimes. And The Yearning capture these moments with impressive aplomb. They knocked my Bobby socks off.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Turning half my heart beat up: Indiepop and Northern soul

“I think there’s something wrong with the world really. To get enjoyment from life in your teens and twenties, people do have to build a more or less alternative society just to enjoy themselves.”
 Wigan Casino regular Dave, speaking in Granada’s This England, 1977

The debut of our club night, Just Like Honey, was a massive success. We got exactly what we wanted, a floor full of people dancing to records they would not hear anywhere else (certainly not in Shrewsbury anyway). We we’re also quite struck that the two most popular records of the evening. Judging by the whooping, hands in the air and feet on the floor, the two 45s that really caught people’s attention were This Charming Man by the Smiths and Tainted Love by Ruth Swann. On paper, you could not get two more dissimilar records. One was designed for the brain, a record for the intellectual romantic who stayed bedroom bound a lot of the time, the other 7” a two and half of minutes of hand clapping, foot stomping dance floor nirvana. I could not figure out the duality.

But the more I thought about the more it started to make some kind of sense. The pre/post Brit pop indie and the Northern Soul scene have much in common. Both are fiercely independent and underground, both music based and strongly unmacho, both fuelled by cheaply manufactured seven inch singles. Whilst indie came from bands making softer, more melodic and focused records with the DIY culture they had learned with punk, Northern Soul where tiny American labels and artists trying to recreate the Tamla sound, pretty much always failing but with their top heavy, thunder drummed take on Motown created a sound all of their own. Both scenes rarely troubled the charts, but both created some incredibly beautiful and inspiring records.

“I think clubs have been mixing northern soul and indiepop for years. Track And Field would do it, DJs at indiepop shows back in the day would play Shangri-Las songs between the bands, I think it's part of the history of indiepop. It's certainly not something we've invented. Possibly the only difference we've made is that we've upped the ratio to be roughly 50/50, indiepop and soul, whereas perhaps before the ratio might have been 75/25. I put together a gallery of posters from indiepop gigs and club nights in the 80s for one of our recent C86 specials and the music mentioned on the club posters would include girl group stuff and indie. It's just part of indiepop's DNA, as far as I'm concerned.”

Ian Watson runs the hugely popular ‘How Does It Feel to be Loved?’ in London. It’s more than fair to say without HDIF? There would be no Just Like Honey.

Ian sees indiepop as a very different beast to the indie I was listening to as a teenager

 “I was a fan of indiepop in the 80s and of the Mega City 4/Senseless Things/Snuff scene too, and they were totally different things, populated by different people, who had different tastes. Put simply, indiepop has pop at its heart, hence the connection with northern soul and girl groups, whereas that fraggle scene, for want of a better term, was a punk thing really, a pop punk thing but a punk thing nonetheless. Snuff mixed in the mod influence, of course, and were brilliant at it but we're going off on another tangent with them.”

Was he surprised as I was how well indie and Northern mixed?

 “I don't think indiepop aligning itself with northern soul and girl groups is a recent thing - it's always been there, from day one. I guess in terms of the history of indiepop you just have to look at the bands mentioned in On Tape by The Pooh Sticks - along with Mighty Mighty and Orange Juice and The Pastels, there's The Ronettes and The Velvet Underground and The Monkees. 60s pop and indiepop have always gone hand in hand. it's definitely there in the music too, from the Shop Assistants covering the Shangri Las and the Pleasure Seekers and Talulah Gosh referencing girl groups, right up to Belle & Sebastian being inspired by northern soul”

Ah, Belle and Sebastian. When Brit pop got a bit lads and lager for my tastes, I went off on a different slant, attending funk nights and dancing myself dizzy to the sweet sounds of NorthernSoul. It was the softer, less macho records of B&S that pulled my back towards indie music. How did they end up getting their kicks on the floor?

“I lived in Colchester in 1992-3 and my friend Did, who was the drummer in my first band, had been a scooter boy and had tapes of Northern stuff he'd play in his camper van. I remember the DJ at one of the gigs we played spinning "The snake" and being quite excited by it, as a lot of people are the first time they hear it, if not the 1000th!”

Says Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian, resident Soul head and writer of those sensuous B&S Hammond grooves. He goes on...

“The following year I was back in up Glasgow and soon started going to Divine at the Art School, where the DJs Andrew and Alan would play a mixture of Northern, 60s psych, indie, exotica, and some acid house and big beat. The night is still going, concentrating almost exclusively on 60s and 70s stuff these days, but still with a mixture of soul, psych, funk, reggae etc.

The first night I went to that was all Northern would probably have been Good Foot, which was a really popular club in Glasgow around the same time. It was run by young guys from Paisley and it was a pretty hip crowd that went.

Over that period I started buying Kent compilations and then Andrew Divine hooked me up with a couple of dealer lists when I expressed an interest in collecting original 45s.
I went to a couple of all-nighters at the Ritz in Manchester but although the venue and the music was great I preferred the nights in Glasgow from a social point of view; you'd go to the club and see all your pals and the music was new to us even though it was old whereas at the nights down south it was an older crowd. Probably the age I am now!”

But surely he was into indie too?

“I don't really like indie as a genre. I know that sounds daft as I'm in the quintessential indie band, but it can mean anything can't it? I love loads of indie stuff, The Pastels, the Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Stone Roses, Vaselines, Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Dinosuar Jr were huge for me when I was young, and I got turned onto loads of great 60s stuff as a result of those bands' interviews. More recently I've got more into early Rough Trade stuff like Kleenex and have loved records by Beach House, Dirty Projectors, Melody's Echo Chamber. But as a genre "indie" is really vague and includes a load of rubbish as well as stuff I like so I'd shy away from calling myself a fan in case it gave the impression I liked really dull guitar music.”

“Whereas with Northern Soul I can pretty much say I like most of it, or at least I like the essence of the genre; uptempo danceable soul records. From big label things with massive arrangements to more lo-fi indie label stuff the general standard of performance and arrangement on the records is pretty uniformly high. I mean there might be the odd tune where a shaky vocal lets it down a bit, and some of the cheesier 70s cash in stuff obviously hasn't dated very well but that still leaves thousands of amazing records.”

But does indie and Northern mix?

“Well, I would say if you were at club that played stuff like Primal Scream, Stone Roses, Charlatans then 60s stuff like the Beatles, Stones, Small Faces or Dusty Springfield would fit in pretty well, and if you play that then classic soul like Otis, Aretha or the Supremes wouldn't be out of place either and then it's just a matter of time until you hear Bobby Reed "The Time Is Right for Love", which takes you neatly back to St Etienne for another indie segment!

I mean, they're not that disparate musically are they? It's all 4/4, mostly made with guitar, bass and drums, all traceable back to some hybrid of gospel, country, tin pan alley and R&B.
 guess DJs like the Chemical Brothers and David Holmes really opened things up in the 90s in terms of playing different styles of music together, but if you look at playlists from David Mancuso at the Loft, or the early hip-hop guys like Kool Herc and Bambatta people had been doing that 20 years previously anyway.”

Does being in Glasgow help being into what is essentially black music?

“Yeah, probably. Certainly Manchester always has(had places to listen to black music), London, Liverpool too. The mod thing is pretty big in Glasgow at the moment, has been forever really but there's a new generation coming through although a lot of the nights are playing more psych and garage than black music.

I've seen some things come and go over the years, back around the turn of the millennium there was a funk night in Glasgow used to get a few hundred people every month, Good Foot was the same at it's peak. To be honest I've not gone out to a soul night for a while so I couldn't really say how numbers are at nights up here now. I know from reading stuff online that there's still plenty of people in the north of England going strong who've been doing it since back in the day although those nights aren't necessarily tied to student centres.”

So if it’s easy for a white audience to appreciate black music in England, then it must be easy for a non white to be accepted, right?

“I used to go to the Lord Raglan in town with my brother, and a more biker place which had a tree growing in it, cant remember its name, but this was not every week, by any means.  It was ultra rare to see Asians at such places, but I was lucky enough to know some girls from school that may also be there.“

I first caught an ear to Cornershop years ago via the much missed ‘indie’ section. I caught a picture of Tjinder Singh with the legend ‘CORNERSHOP/DAYS OF THE FORD CORTINA EP‘. I’ve been listening to Cornershop ever since.

Tjinder Singh is an indie fan. No, sack that, Tjinder is a MUSIC fan.

“ I started off with Punjabi Folk music, and devotional music, so had to build up on the western musical catalogue which my parents never had.  my eldest brother liked Zeppelin to Rainbow, my youngest i.e. 2nd eldest, then went into indie, and I followed in his footsteps, but I liked reggae and electronic music like Kraftwerk prior to that.  So I was indie but quickly filled in the gaps of musical historical knowledge when I could, mainly through collecting records.”

But is Tjinder still listening to indie as much as pre-Brit-pop?

“In those days I was probably yearning for all music to be played out of a night, but nowadays that freedoms reality means nobody really cares about the craft of a song in any respect.  I thought the 80s and 90's was a war to get what you want musically, and now that that war is over people are getting away with murder in everyday civilian life.  The Hurts for example, made me want to be sick when I sadly happened upon them at a festival, real weak piss. “

I’ve always wondered how non white indie kids reacted to the views of Morrissey. In a scene often chastised for being to white, middle class and twee, it must have been hard to sallow Stephen Patrick’s questionable views about race, Englishness and immigration. One thing Northern Soul and indiepop scenes share, is a level of camaraderie and acceptance regardless of sex, colour and gender. As long as you loved the music, you where in. Perhaps Soul music lacked(lacks) a figurehead like, say, Chuck D in hip hop or Rotten/Strummer in punk. Could it be indie’s spokesperson is less enthused to cross genres?

“My uni days were spent in indie clubs and at indie gigs. I didn't matter who you were or your background, the Brit-pop movement was there for everyone. Cornershop and Echobelly were fabulous prominent indie bands in the early 90s but they wouldn't fall into the stereotype of "white pale middle class kids".

Dickie Felton is an uber Morrissey fan, author of two books centred on Morrissey fan culture. It’s pretty much his job to understand Morrissey and his fans. Does he see his charge as racist?

“Morrissey's comments about not liking reggae were made nearly three decades ago.
So I'm not sure that's still his view. I'm aware of him liking some so called "disco" records. I don't think the comments he made about a type of music in 1984 had any bearing whatsoever on people deciding if they liked The Smiths or not.

Morrissey has had pretty strong views on almost everything. That's part of his appeal. But I think ultimately its been the music and lyrics that has appealed to people - not his views on the pop charts. “

(Chris Geddes: “I'm not really a fan of Morrissey but I don't think that one person's opinion should put you off a whole genre of music. Some reggae artists and rappers have said some pretty objectionable stuff about gays and women but I don't write off all reggae or hip hop as a result.
He's said some stuff which has come across badly but I don't really think he's racist, he just likes to stir up a bit of controversy and he's got a pretty huge Latino fan base in the US who obviously don't have a problem with it.”
Tjinder Singh: “We were big Smiths fans, and Morrissey once had the indie kids ear, but not any more.  The way his music has gone, i.e. more duck arse in attitude and sound leaves me thinking that The Smiths was a great four piece outfit, and all contributed to the sound - Morrissey was good but the band better, Man is good but the woman smarter.”)

So has Dickie Felton lost it back flipping on a dance floor to Judy Street’s ‘What?’ ?
“I've always been a fan of indie. Northern soul passed me by.” he says.

Does indie and Northern Soul have a future together? As long as people still want to dance to indie and Northern records, we will always play them at Just Like Honey. It’s still music that excites me. As both scenes are underground, it’s still a thrill to unearth a new record to fall in love with, be it recorded in Halifax last Tuesday or in Detroit in 1964. If you strip away all the barriers the powers that be put up to divide us (sexuality, religion, race, gender) underneath are we all not music fans? Do we not all deserve to get our kicks out on the floor? It’s for all of us, right? I’ll leave the last word to Tjinder.

“I think indiepop is northern soul uniform, with modern guitar bands that sing about love and loss - which is a lot more than modern day hipsters that dress up like grown ups and sing about credit cards.  Neither have had much black faces in them, unless they happen to be friendly with some white girls from school.”