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.)

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:-http://chrissybarnacle.bandcamp.com/

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.