Thursday, 20 June 2019

Secret Histories Revealed

I first came in contact with Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History in my early twenties when a woman I had had an exotic, turbulent and ultimately doomed (aren't they all?) affair with came bounding, years after speaking to each other, up to me in the middle of town and excitedly and passionately recommended Tartt's book. Our fling consisted of little more than discussing literature and music, and kissing.

It's clear, in retrospect, we were two lonely people and used each other to cement some form some sort of identity; it was exciting to find someone who shared the same ideals and intellectual leanings. It wasn't love, but a bond of mutual aspiration and common interest. I wrote down the title in my journal, we pecked cheeks, and parted. I didn't see her again for five years.

She was correct of course, The Secret History almost instantly became my favourite novel. A book about a group of rich college kids who study Greek under the inspiring and beguiling Julian Marrow and murder a class mate is maybe an odd favourite. The fact it contains no likeable characters and no female ones of any kind of depth makes it an even more curious choice. But I knew it was special when started to have dreams, not in the aesthetic or timbre, but in the mood of the book. I reread it at least once a year, an intellectual comfort blanket.

It's human nature that when we fall so baldy for a work of art that we want to know more about it, but The Secret History left slim and scarce pickings. Tartt, easily as gifted as Salinger, yet just as reclusive and interview prone left little clues. Then as if a gift from the gods for Tarttophiles came an Esquire article by author Lili Anolik about Bennington college in the 80's. It's incredibly well researched and it's parallels chime like a bell.

Bennington itself is eerily similar to Tartt's fictional Hampden college, based in Vermont it's a geographical match, even to the detail of both having a graveyard running to it's side. Brix Smith, a Bennington drop out who would later go on to play in The Fall describes it as like something out of a child’s fairy tale. It was so isolated and so beautiful, and it was green and surrounded by mountains. At the center of campus was a building—tall, white, very grand, with columns and a bell clock—called Commons. If you stood in front of Commons, you’d see, if you looked to one side, an old graveyard, and to the other side, a meadow. And then, if you looked straight ahead, a long, lush, rolling lawn lined by lovely, New England-y clapboard houses, creating this visual corridor so that your eye was drawn to the end of it, where the earth suddenly fell away, just—poofvanished. Not really, of course, but it looked as if it did. We called it “the End of the World.” Mists would roll in there at night, these swirling mists so thick you couldn’t see your hand when you held it up to your face. The rumor was that the campus was the site of an ancient Native American burial ground. Supposedly it was one of the few spots on earth where all four winds met at the same time. And there was something sacred about it, something haunted.

Even the winter break where Richard lives in a warehouse and almost dies is taken from Bennington (Bennington had something called NRT, Non-Resident Term. The school couldn’t afford to heat itself during the winter and so it shut down. You went out into the world and got an internship or job).

What's perhaps most jarring are the parallels between the novels characters and actual Bennington people. From the privileged party animals (You’d be shocked that this Neanderthal-looking dude sunbathing by a keg was actually, one day, going to inherit the Benson & Hedges fortune) to the most learned.

Julian Marrow is quite heavily based on classics professor Claude Fredericks (When I went to interview with Claude, his first question was “Have you ever had a job?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.” And then he said, “Have you ever been to a football game?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.”)

The detail is incredible, Julian's classroom is difficult to locate (Claude’s office...was hard to find. It was in Commons, at the top of this sort of secret staircase that was outside the building and led only to his office.) and bedecked with flowers (There’d be these exquisite flowers, Japanese flowers—I don’t know how or where he got them—in a vase, and everything was polished, beautiful. You’d sit across from him, and he’d serve you tea, and you really felt like you were in the inner sanctum.) , the anteroom where Julian was 'miraculously able to convey four-course meals' out of (You went to Claude’s office for lunch, and out would come this incredible food, and you didn’t know how he’d prepared it. You didn’t see it, you didn’t smell it, and then there it was—a perfect soup, a perfect quiche. He was a bit magical).
Even the Mont-blanc pen of Bunny and Henry's argument pops up (The idea of Claude having a big nouveau-riche pile of Montblancs was really too much.) (No, the Montblancs were true. But it was a piece of accidentalia that Donna seized on and used in a pointed way.)

Fredericks' words are quoted and used as Julian's. 'Julian took both Henry's hands into his own 'You should only, ever, do what is necessary' (Claude was my advisor when I was a student at Bennington. I had an appointment with him, and I was waiting outside his office. The door opened and out stepped this beautiful young man with curly blond hair. And the first thing I heard Claude say was “Not, do only what is necessary. Only do what is necessary.”)
(what Henry said about Julian—“I loved him more than anyone in the world”—was true of how I felt about Claude. He was the single greatest influence on my life.)

Other characters crop up too. (The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef. When it came out, Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all? And Claude is Julian and Matt is Bunny and you’re Henry.”)

Bunny is based on Matt Jacobsen (I called my mother and said, “I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.” And she said, “No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.” Then she read the book and said, “That’s you all right.” I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia—that’s what they called it in the 70s, anyway—like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man. I’d make broad, questionable statements. One day in the dining hall I was gawking at some girl and said, “Reminds me of the way Diana’s painted on the ceiling of my father’s club,” and that line found its way into Donna’s book. And I’d invite people to lunch and then realize I didn’t have any money, something dear old Bunny does. I was kind of a horrible bounder, though in my case it was never intentional. A funny thing. Bunny was actually what everyone called Margaret, Paul’s first girlfriend—the girlfriend before Donna, a cranberry heiress. Some folks thought it odd that my character’s name should’ve been taken from Paul’s old flame. But I always thought the name came from the critic Edmund Wilson. Bunny was his nickname, too.) and Henry on Todd O'Neal ( Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses. I’d gone to a Benedictine monastery for high school, where I learned Latin, and I taught myself Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit. I was very deep into the study of Plato and Plotinus, as Henry is described as being. I did go on a trip with Matt, and I did end up having to pay for it because his father didn’t give him much money and he was a bit of a sponge, though he and I always had fun together.)

And what about Donna Tartt, the most illusive of all characters? Well, we learn like Richard her parents were both gas station attendants (father) and secretary (mother). We learn she quoted herself: 'I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden' Tartt writes in The Secret History. And in her commencement speech: 'There is a time in everyone’s youth when character is fixed forever; for me, and I believe for most of us here, our Bennington years were that time.'

What I find most fascinating about the piece is Tartt's reinvention of herself. There is a picture from her school year book, long hair, cute dress, shy smile and one in Bennington in man's waistcoat and tie (Donna started wearing those mannish-cut blazers. She looked like a Mini-Me when she was hanging out with us. Black loafers, khaki pants—boys’ pants, not girls’—J. Press–type button-down, necktie, blue blazer with brass buttons, and hair in this funky little asexual bob. She looked like she came straight out of an English university. She and Paul were like Oxonian homosexuals or something. I once asked him, “What kind of relationship do you have?” And he said, “Well, that’s very funny, because she wants me to call her ‘my lad.’ ”) a cigarette burns in her fingers and she stares through the camera lens.

College is where self discovery and self image are cemented. It's where you decide what and who you are. You can play a few chords? You are a musician. You do a fanzine? You are a writer. It's where ideas germinate and plans blossom. Sometimes, sometimes, they bloom into the best novel of a generation.

Now, who wants to tell me who Judy Poovey is based on?

All quotes in italics are taken from Lili Anolik's incredible article for Esquire thank Ms.Anolik and apologise for pilfering her work so liberally.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Do you believe in magic?

A few weeks ago I was having a few pints with some friends when I got into a bit of an argument. In my defence, it was exactly a week before Xmas, the anniversary of my fathers death, so Yule is always a bad time for me mental health wise. Not that its much of an excuse. The row centred on the Harry Potter books. I made some drunk old man arsehole comment along the lines of its wrong to read kids books when you’ve not read all the grown up ones. My pal Paloma, quite rightly, shot me down to ribbons. There is, Paloma told me, magic in the books. And what’s wrong with a bit of magic in a world where magic is in such scant supply? I agreed and went home feeling a bit of a tit, but it got me thinking.

The magic for me in art is its relatablity. It needs to be sourced from the real. The first book I really fell for was a Gumbles Yard by John Rowe Townsend. I must have been all of nine years old. It was read out by our teacher, Mrs. Watson, who I had a walloping crush on. Mr. Watson was an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. He unearthed a load of woolly mammoth bones not far from school, so I knew I had no chance bit it didn’t stop me daydreaming. The book left a stamp on younger me. I remember little of the characters of the book and little of the plot, but I can still recall the sense of dark broody panic and sense of loss in the abandoned kids. I really loved the heaviness of it all. It wasn’t wizards or pirates or even footballers in books that got nine year old me going, it was two scared kids and the sense of dread hanging over them like dirty great cloud. I could never really relate to wizards as a kid, but to kids scared of coming home and finding their lost ones gone? Certainly.

The next big book was probably Catcher in the Rye, read out in class by a wonderful woman called Miss Herbert when I was about fourteen. She insisted on reading it a New Yoik accent ('it was real swaaaanky') and Salingers words buried themselves in to the very core of my mind and bones. I loved it. I took it home and read it all over the weekend. Next class Miss Herbert took me to one side afterwards and inquired to why I looked bored when in the last one I was sat open mouthed in rapture. I confessed I had finished the book under my own steam and asked if there were any more books like it I could read. I saw a little light turn on behind her eyes. Finally she had inspired one of the little sods. She wrote me a list of books (one of them was To Esme with Love and Squalor, still my favourite) with a barely concealed grin. It was, to put it lightly, an interesting time in my life. Around the same time I discovered Salinger I found girls no longer annoying but incredible and a source of deep fascination. The period took intellectualism and sexiness in females and entwined them as tight as stitches in a woollen jumper. From then on I would find intelligent and well read women almost unbearably sexy. Its a feeling I'm yet to lose.

Looking back, my tastes in art have barely wavered from Gumbles Yard. The art I like has a dark underbelly, a sense of sadness. An arm waiting to grab me from reality and plunge me somewhere deeper, somewhere scarier. Its there in the books of Donna Tartt and Richard Yates, in the music of Joy Division, The Smiths and the sixties girl group sound. In the paintings of John Waterhouse and photography of Francesca Woodman. Art to me is reality and reality is often sad. But magic? Yes I’ve seen magic. But not in tales of boy wizards but in the days on a cusp a seasons change. In the pint that turns the night into an adventure. In the last hungry kiss before the walk home. In holding hands with someone who really understands you. In drunk arguments that lead you to write. Magic seems an all encompassing word, but its not, its beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Finding someone to share the magic with is unfeignedly fantastic and beautiful. Hogwarts and all.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Bellshill to Brum:TFC and me

When I was 14 year old trainee indie kid, my favourite thing to do was go to Birmingham to record shop with my mate Trig. I say record shopping, our paper round money only stretched as far as the train ticket and a lowly lunch (always, I seem to remember, a can of fizzy Vimto and a packet of salt and vinegar Disco's crisps), but we did like to look at the records and the cute girls in stripy tights and Mega City Four t-shirts. Though we didn't discuss it, we both hoped to run in to a pop star whilst in the big city, one of Ned's Atomic Dustbin perhaps, or the holy of holies Miles Hunt out of the Wonder Stuff.*
           One day, in Birmingham's Virgin Megastore, I was flicking through the 7” singles while Trig rifled through the CD's downstairs. Across from me, on the other side of the rack was Norman from Teenage Fanclub. I knew it was him from reading the NME with religious zeal. He had the trademark long centre parting and Lennon specs and was wearing a dufflecoat and singing along loudly to the Neil Young track blaring out of the PA.**I stood awestruck. It was if George Best or Ghandi was in your local Co Op. I stood and watched him for a while, desperately trying to find something to say to him, but my bottle went so I joined Trig to look at the PWEI shorts upstairs. Later while drinking pop and eating crisps in Victoria Square, freezing in our long sleeve t-shirts (much to the chagrin of our mothers but vital to show off our indie loyalties) I didn't mention the sighting to Trig. It was a little because I knew he would be annoyed I didn't grab him immediately (he would have certainly had the courage to say hello), a little because I thought he wouldn't believe me but mostly because I wanted the moment, the little bit of magic, to be my own.
                                                                              At that point the only Teenage Fanclub music I actually owned was a cassette compilation which included What You Do To Me. I decided this situation needed rectifying post-haste. I felt I owed it to my new pal Norman to listen to his records properly. So, I consulted a lad in the year above called Kev Walder. As well as being Shropshire's premier expert on Depeche Mode, he was very friendly and happy to assist and advise aspiring indie kids. He told my I needed to get a copy of Bandwagonesque, which had a pink cover and and money bag on the front. I saved my paper round money and bought the cassette from Rainbow Records. It was love at first listen.
                                   Cut to a few later, it's a deliciously hot day at the Phoenix festival. Teenage Fanclub are on-stage and my pal Sam and me are sat towards the back being gamely chatted up by two girls from Newcastle. “You know what I do if I'm enjoying a band?” asks Norman “I like to wave my shoe at them. Can you wave shoes at me?” With that the view to the stage is blocked by hundreds of items of footwear being held aloft. Norman lets go a cheeky grin and tunes up. It's around this time it occurs to me I'm doing one of my favourite bands an injustice by sitting down at the back and need to experience them from the front. I make my excuses to the girls and Sam (who look at me like I've lost leave of my senses) and slalom my way through the people sat crossed legged, avoiding knocking paper cupped pints over, to go to the front. As walk, the sun pops up above the stage and the opening chords of Alcoholiday ring out. This is, by far, is my favourite Fannies song by a mile at this stage and it's the only time I've seen them do it live. There's something magical about it, being young, a little drunk, the mix of sunshine and those lazy, woozy chords. It's some kind of magic and remains one of my all time favourite live music moments.

Meanwhile, the Fannies release increasingly wonderful records and something called 'the internet' gets invented. I'm quite lucky, my dad is the secretary of his union and as such is responsible for sending 'emails' and before we know it we have a brand spanking new computer and a dial up modem. Whilst having all the information in the world at our finger tips is cool, it's actually more fun downloading music by the armful. Soon I'm looking up bands 'websites' and stumble across fans forums or message boards. Interestingly, Teenage Fanclub have their own message board. I decide to enquire within.
                       This was the period when message boards were at their absolute pomp. The TFC board was crammed with knowledgeable, friendly, funny people from all across the world. It's impossible to gauge how many bands and records I got into through the recommendations of this little on-line gang, everyone of them just as childishly daft about music as me. What I really loved was the sense of community, discussions went outside music and about everything from the mighty to the mundane. It seems daft now but I really felt amongst friends. When one of my favourite posters, a guy called TomTom died it really did effect me. I felt like I had lost a pal and in many ways I had. He was a great man, a total hardcore TFC fan who was funny and daft and lovely. I knew more about him, his loves, his politics, who he and his wife supported in the football and sometimes what he was having for his tea. The shock of has passing was real, as real as it could be for someone you had never met, and the place never really felt the same again.
                                                                        Sadly, the place went a bit Lord of the Flies. The was (probably still is) Guest setting where people could post anonymously which started off fine, some of the funniest posts were by 'Guesty' but soon it started getting a bit nasty and went out of control. Arguments would rage about football and, being Celtic and Rangers fans, religion and things started to get pretty horrible, with bullying and long ranting drunk abusive arguments being the norm. After a young man we shall call Milla took his own life due to on-line bullying*** is seemed prudent to join the real world again. I'd still pop in occasionally. There was a new LP called Man-Made out and I joined the discussion about how great it was. Someone had asked why the CD came with a card slip case. “Simple” replied Siobhan's Dad “It's for taking to the gig and getting signed”

When the Man-Made tour hit Birmingham I knew I was going to get the card signed. There was that kind of magic in the air. The train was full of excited people off to different shows. My gig was at the Academy 2, and almost comically small venue for such a great band. They didn't let us down though. The gig was incredible, all the favourites off all the albums (no Alcoholiday mind) and the crowd was small (Birmingham can be funny like that) but loyal and everyone had a great time. Afterwards I spotted Norman and marched up with my slip case and Sharpie and even managed a quick conversation while he signed, some gibberish about loving how 'dry' the new record sounded. “Oh” he said raising an eyebrow “thanks” and at that moment Gerry Love walked past and despite clearly wanting to be somewhere else was a darling and signed it too. I practically floated back to New Street Station.

The are bands we listen to when we are happy, those we listen to when we are sad and those we reach out for when something in life goes horribly wrong. There are bands we listen to that make us feel young, bands we miss and bands we hope make another record. To me, Teenage Fanclub are unique in so much they are band I've grown up and grown old with. Whatever has happened in my life, good and bad, big and small, they have been quietly in the back ground sound tracking it all. When it was announced Gerry Love was leaving the group I was quite saddened. Teenage Fanclub are like the sun and the lamp posts outside your front door. They are something you take for granted will always be there. 
          Happily, the bands aren’t splitting entirely and Gerry did leave us with some wonderful goodbye gifts in the form of the Creation era records being lavishly and wonderfully remastered. When I went to buy the first two (I could only afford to buy two a month , not because I was on paper round money but because I'm a dad now) it was at the end of the first proper summer in decades. I was still deciding which two to get on the way to the record shop when I bump into Kev Walder, demob happy from being let off work early and heading for the nearest beer garden. I tell him I'm off into town to get the new Teenage Fanclub record. “bloody hell” he says shaking his head with grin “nothing changes does it?” And he's right. It really doesn't.

*We never did meet Miles Hunt Birmingham but bizarrely bumped into him Shrewsbury when I was old enough to know better. In a weird twist, Mile's brother (the guy doing the Spinal Tap story in the Welcome to the Cheap Seats video) owns a local record shop.
**Baring in mind I didn't know Neil Young from Neil from the Young Ones at the time, I may have embellished that bit. But it was definitely something male and late 60's/early70's
***It should be pointed out that it was mainly bullying on another site though it a) certainly didn't help and b) makes it no less tragic

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Keep It Clean-14/07/18

Every now and then Facebook will throw up a new trend that everyone simply has to get involved in. There were some horrors, the one where everyone started a cartoon version of themselves, the ice bucket challenge, where what started as a fun way of raising money and awareness lead to teenagers literally breaking their necks (if there's a better metaphor for social media I'd like to hear it). The latest one is people posting a photo of one of their favourite albums with 'no reason to explain' and then one was supposed to 'nominate' someone else and the loop would go on and on.
This rubbed me up the wrong way for two reasons. One, what's wrong with, you know, writing about art that means something to you and two, how do you pick? Records and songs are like kisses to me. Some are better than others but they all mean something and equally special for different reasons.

Some records to stick with you forever, however. Whilst The Smiths dominated my twenties, Let's Get Out Of This Country by Camera Obscura was and is, by country mile, the most important LP of my thirties. I discovered it in 2006, I was on a Teenage Fanclub message board (remember those?), and asked the board elders to recommend some new music. Someone posted a JPEG of the sleeve, no further information. My curiosity must have been piqued, as the very next day I found myself on a train back from Manchester cradling the record. It was well worth the investment, it's an astonishing album. It was also like a gateway drug, a gateway to other message boards, other bands and other people. Indiepop was just about to hit it's absolute peak, and I just about found myself in the right place and the right time. Everything was exciting all of a sudden, there seemed to be a new gig or a new band or a new records to excited about on a weekly basis. It was a thrilling time. Then my dad died.

I'll not dwell on here about his death as I've already written about it on this blog, I've also written about the personal aftermath, but some of that, for context, bears repeating. I'll keep it to a minimum, not through shame (it's our duty normalise anxiety and issues of mental well being) but because I don't really want to re-tar roads already covered (I once got politely but firmly bollocked for writing too personally on the internet by Tjinder Singh. True Story).

SO: My dad died and for about six months I was a bit of a mess. Confused, isolated, withdrawn, angry and with a worrying dependency on the drink. Things came to head when I found myself on my own reading a book in the dim light of an awful nightclub. It was around my thirteenth pint of Guinness when it dawned on me this had to stop. I found myself talking every week to a lovely grief counsellor called Marilyn who got me off the drink and back to communicating. “What do you enjoy? What makes you happy?” she asked. “Music and writing I replied” “Well do that then” she said. This seemed like good advice.

So I started writing this here blog, which started as three line posts about what excited me then grew and grew (you're reading my 200th post) and started me communicating with the outside world. I started to finally leave my bedroom to got to gigs. Like a talisman, Camera Obscura were touring a fair bit and I went to see them in pretty much every city in the country. These were great day, possibly the band and their peak. The familiarity and comfort in clapping in time to Come Back Margaret, knowing the band had a good gig because they had refrain of Call Me Al in Lets Get Out Of This Country and the melting heartache of the fade of Razzle Dazzle Rose which meant it was time to go home.

It was a world of support bands, merch tables, set lists and pints of coke in plastic pint glasses but it still seemed like I was slowly getting back in touch with the real world and starting to feel like me again. Music has the power and ability to that. I even started talking to other human beings. One guy recommended a night called Kissing Just For Practise, a Belle and Sebastian disco run by a lad called Jamie in Manchester. I went and it was that night, talking to strangers from Leeds about Comet Gain and The Clientèle, dancing and laughing, that I felt like my old self again. I even, inspired by the evening, daydreamed about starting a club night myself. There was always a gig, always new friends to meet. I went to a Tender Trap gig in Manchester which was great, but what really caught my imagination was the DJ playing Sensitive by the Field Mice and people actually dancing. Wow. The thoughts of club night started to solidify from liquid form to something more tangible and touchable. I went to thank the DJ's, Kev and Linda for their amazing set and they in turn thanked me for coming and we must have stood for twenty minutes smiling, chatting and shaking hands. Them were good days.

Eventually I started to go to less and less Camera Obscura gigs, not because I went off them but because my life had slowly returned to normal (for which I owe them a great debt) and other things and other people became important again. They still stayed in my life obviously. Someone who knew someone who worked at the NME sent me a hooky promo copy of My Maudlin Career, which excited me to the degree that on release I bought it on vinyl and CD so I could play it on the decrepit CD player at work. I went to see them at the occasional gig, much much bigger gigs now, but no less wonderful. I even got to start a club night with my pal John Kertland. Just Like Honey ran for five amazing years, leading to playing at the Indietracks festival (playing Hey Lloyd and the intro causing people to stampede into the tent sending arms, legs, smiles and dust flying is one my favourite memories ever), a festival where I saw Camera Obscura head line the year before. It would be the last time I would see them play.

The news of Carey Landers passing was devastating. Carey had succumbed to Sarcoma, a very rare and to my mind very cruel type of bone cancer. It has taken the brightest, most beautiful and most caring person away from us. Right to the end, Carey was raising awareness and money for research into Sarcoma.

On the 14th of July at the Star and Garter in Manchester we will be holding a Camera Obscura disco, playing between the best CO tunes the greatest Scottish pop. DJ's for the evening will be myself, Kev and Linda and Jamie. All money raised will go to Sarcoma research. It's going to be an amazing evening and we hope to see you there. Xxx

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Morrissey-From Prophet to The Prince Phillip of Pop

I was having a sneaky post work afternoon pint a few weeks back adjacent to a table of full of refreshed old boys. Their topic of conversation was the celebrities of the seventies who ended up embroiled in charges of sexual misconduct. Bizarrely, this turned into a debate about who was the 'worst' offender. “Well” said one of the old timers “It has to be Stuart Hall”. “Stuart Hall??” chorused his pals in unison “Why Stuart Hall?” “Well” he said, supping his pint “I liked Stuart Hall”.

The British have a tendency to assume that the people they admire, particularly artistically, will have the same views and beliefs as themselves. When it turns out that they in fact do not, it hurts. It was especially galling to discover that Morrissey is in fact a massive twat. I wont bother revising why The Smiths meant (and mean) so much to me, I've wrote about it extensively on this very website. Suffice to say, in my teens and twenties they got me through some pretty dark and difficult times. What hurts is the fact that once upon a time Morrissey spoke for and about the unspoken and unmentioned. He spoke up for the marginalised people of society, the ugly, the shy, the lonely and the afraid. For the non binary. The non CIS. For the poor and the down trodden. For me and for you. How can someone who wrote 'It takes guts by gentle and shy' stumble so far into self flagellating and self fellation that he ends up a mouth piece for UKIP?

In his book, Saint Morrissey, Mark Simpson makes the case that Morrissey's bitterness, self worship and refusal to be wrong stems from years of staying to long in the closet. I think it's simpler than that. Morrissey has no-one to tell him 'look, you're talking bollocks there mate'. In his head, whatever he says is a statement of fact. When you have arenas full of fans baying at your every utterance it probably feels that way. When anyone disagrees with him they are 'out to get him'. He really is a daft old sod.

My respect for Morrissey grew thin around 2007 when, as a millionaire ex pat living in a mansion in LA, he deemed it necessary to pontificate to the British how shit their lives are and how as he never voted, we shouldn't either. Really mate? This was followed by some very dubious comments about immigration, which really sent the alarm bells ringing. These missives were totally misguided and, as he is a child of two Irish immigrants himself, incredibly hard to swallow. He was chatting shit, and deep down we knew it. Then in 2014, around the time of the release of the patchy if not totally shit World Peace Is None of Your Business, it was revealed that the Mozfather was suffering with cancer. Seemingly, all was forgiven due to the fear that he might go and die on us. This acceptance was short lived as he really went bat shit crazy. The pinnacle of his offensive prattishness was his comments after the bombing of Manchester Arena. Now, Manchester is my favourite city in the world, we have a lot of history, and everyone in my immediate family (bar my daughter) have attended concerts at the arena. This all felt very personal and eerily close to home. On the 23rd of May last year, the evening Johnny Marr took to the stage with Canadian band Broken Social Scene in an act of defiance and solidarity, Morrissey released a statement as offensive as it was bananas. Blaming immigration and Andy Burnham for the bombing was the final straw for me. I loved Morrissey but I couldn’t buy his records or go to his shows after this. Not any more.

I have been lucky, and I mean lucky, to have released myself from his grip. Hero worship is the enemy of common sense, and others remain shipwrecked on Mozzers bullshit island. The self styled 'Moz Army' are the worst offenders. These lot are little too far along the spectrum for my liking. A bit too obsessed. I'm a dad in my forties. I don't need Morrissey anymore, he hasn't been a talisman or a moral compass to me since my early twenties. But these lot are cursed, believing that saying anything negative about the quiffed Christ means they are somehow not true disciples. Ringleader of the titmice, Julie Hamill (who I actual feel a genuine sympathy for, she has some how ended up defending her hero, who is to cowardly to do it himself) has gone on record stating he is 'untitled to his opinion'. By attacking 'non whites' he is attacking my friends. This is not OK. Is it so scary to say 'actually, he's talking bollocks here'. Would you really be kicked out the gang?

Morrissey has become the darling of the right wing tweeting brigade (happily, easily identifiable by having a union jack by their username. Not quite going the full hog and having a swastika or 'TWAT' tattooed on their forehead but near enough) championing him for saying 'what everyone's really thinking but afraid to say'. Well lads, you are welcome to him. I'm not going to stop listening to The Smiths. Ever. Maybe that's the wrong choice, maybe we should stop listening to the Stooges because Iggy once said 'paki' in an interview or stop listening to Ian Curtis or Kate Bush because they voted Tory. I dunno. But I believe, maybe naively, that this is a vast difference between the Morrissey in his early twenties and the monster pushing sixty. So here is the compromise. We keep the kitten hugging cardigan wearing Wilde wannabe Morrissey and the right wing and the Moz Army and all the other lunatics take the husk of hate that he has become. Deal?

One final thought. The right wing-nuts have rallied around Morrissey because he's 'not afraid to tell it like it really is'. But I'm not sure that is totally correct. This barrage of hate is maybe just him testing the water, and maybe his private thoughts are actually full on horrifically racist. And the more people agree with his campaign of hate, the dirtier and more hateful views will rise to the top like shiny scum. Food for thought.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review-Travelling Companion by The Understudies

Travelling Companion is the first material from The Understudies since 2014's landmark LP Let Desire Guide Your Hand.. I should hold my hand up here and state that I have been an admirer of their work since the very early days of the band (how can you not love a band that has a song called Chip Pan Glam?). Brian Bryden is easily, easily, in my top ten of songwriters. He somehow managed to write songs that are an amalgamation of hints (but never lifts) of everything I love about popular culture. There are suggestions of all my favourite bands in his song writing, suggestions I can never quite lay a hand on. The bands' songs bring of sense of cinéma français and kitchen sink drama, but with no obvious links or sources. So the news of a new single was a very pleasant surprise. But was it worth the wait? Well...

This record is fucking incredible, not incredible for a third division indie band (or as my partner Rachel sagely puts it 'three fans bands from Scotland no-ones ever heard of') but genuinely and inescapably brilliant. Travelling Companion is as elegant and as fragile as a swans neck. Imagine The Tindersticks covering Asleep by The Smiths with lyrics by Norman Collins. A haunting, cinematic, knowingly bookish piano led song that coldly and darkly twinkles like London frost. The piano riff is instant hookworm material, exquisitely warmed through by strings and guitar that echo Marr at his most poignant and retentive in detail. This is the work of writers who have honed and French polished their craft to a very, very fine buff. The flip side (well, not really a flip side as it's a download, it remains nothing short of a travesty it's not a 45. Something this beautiful deserves vinyl permanence) Everybody's Got To Go is a postcard from the gallows. Slightly less pretty than the A-side but with much more of a hook. It even throws in a T Rex reference at the end. I repeat, how can you not love this band?

If Clint from Pop Will Eat Itself and Alex Turner can make money from writing scores, it's a sad, pitiful world the doesn't see The Understudies writing the soundtrack to your favourite movies for the next ten years. If the rest of the material on the upcoming LP is half as strong as this showing, we have an absolute shoe-in for album of the year. I'm genuinely excited.

The single, Travelling Companion is available for download now from The band will play a set of new songs at Saint Pancras Old Church, London, on February 19th

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Do I Love You? Why I'm a rubbish at Collecting Records

My theory was that my copy of Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles which had cost me seven and sixpence was no better or no worse than the copy Andy Warhol had”

Bill Drummond

I was a very young lad, 5 or 6 maybe, when my mum first told me about Elvis Presley. She told me about this kid who wore his hair like the truck drivers and made records to make his mum happy. About how he was a white kid, but sounded black on the radio, but everyone loved him anyway and what colour you were didn't matter but how much you loved your mother did. I was quite taken with him, he sounded pretty cool, but the image that cemented itself in my head was the original record, the first one off pressing of That's Alright Mama that he made as gift for his mother. I wanted to know where that record was. My mum said she didn't know, that she thought maybe it was buried with her. I thought about that record, worms crawling all over the shiny black vinyl inside the rotting coffin. I remember thinking that it belonged with her, but at the same time it should be in a museum. It was quite the conundrum.

I thought about this recently after reading about the discovery of one of the rarest records ever. It's a long story, but I’ll shave it down as not to bore you. Young Frank Wilson from Houston, Texas fancied himself as a singer. He cut a couple of discs under various aliases which did nothing, and decided he wanted to sign to Motown because that's where the money was. Berry Gordy, Motown's boss and lest we forget a disciple to money rather than art, recorded a Wilson single called Do I Love You (indeed I do) but decided that he had enough artists in his arsenal and wanted Wilson as writer and producer instead. The single wasn't released, and that's where the story should have ended. Cut to Northern England in the 1970's. A new scene has emerged of kids dancing to rare and obscure black American soul music. A kid called Simon Soussan, who had an enviable job of ransacking Motown's vaults and discovers a copy of Do I Love You. He promptly bootlegs it and sells it on to Northern Soul DJ's in Britain. The record, a dizzyingly joyful fizzy pop release of a song (which almost hits the same aural euphoria as Happy Together by the Turtles but not quite) is an instant hit on the dance floors. The original copies (two known to be in existence) are now the most sought after records on the Northern scene. The second copy sells for £25000.

Cut forward to England late 2017. It emerges there are not two copies, but three. But this one is even rarer. An original test pressing no less. Everything is scrutinised. The matrix numbers down to the handwriting on the label are put under the microscope. It's true, it's real, the golden egg of vinyl collecting. Estimates are so bold to state that the record could sell for £50000.

I watched on in amazement. I was raptured at the discovery when a terrible feeling come over me. I had absolutely no desire to own this record. What would I do with a record worth so much money? I certainly wouldn't play it (I'd be scared to pick it up). Where would I put it? I've also have a policy of not selling records on (I had to sell some Smiths import 12”s as a teenager to fund that years Christmas shopping. I still wince at the memory) so even though £50000 would come in very handy, I'd have to sell a piece of my soul too.

There is an assumption that if you buy a lot of records that makes you a record collector. This is not the case. I do buy a lot of vinyl, but have no completest urges. Collectors of Beatles have it the hardest. A slight variance of font on the label can increase the records by hundreds of pounds. Do I need two copies of the same album because the lettering is a bit different? No. I own lots of collectible records but not many rare ones. I have two test pressings of Sarah Records 7” singles. One is a white label and the other a Mayking Records factory test pressing. I rarely play them. Half the fun of playing a Sarah record is looking at the sleeve as it spins. This is what makes me a non-collector in essence. I don't buy them to file away like a stamp collection or pin them like butterflies in glass cases. I buy them to play them and enjoy them. I don't like and don't understand the one-upmanship of that world and I don't need it in my life.

Another reason I don't want to own that Frank Wilson record is I already have a copy. It's not an original obviously, not even a reissue. It's a third generation bootleg I bought off Ebay for a tenner. It still goes round and round though, and still sounds incredible. I played regularly whilst Djing at Just Like Honey and would have the pleasure of looking out at a dance floor packed with smiley sweaty people having the times of their lives. There was the girl who came to the booth and said it was her birthday, and we probably wouldn’t have it but she would love to hear Do I Love You by Frank Wilson. I still remember her smile as I got it out of the box. This one? Yes, she beamed. That's the one . It was also the last record we ever played at JLH and still has beer stains and possibly tear stains of the sleeve from that night.. I'm not sure you get these kind of memories from an MP3. But maybe you do and I'm just a snobbish old man. Either way, I hope the eventual owner of the test pressing enjoys his copy of Do I Love You 5000 times as much as I enjoy mine. But somehow I doubt it. 

(Written with gratitude and respect to the fine people at the incredible Soulsource website)