Filed under: MP3
I had in mind a slew of small, unrelated posts I wanted to make (a lot summarising stuff that I’ve seen across the summer when I haven’t been blogging much), but during another sleepless night I realised that with a bit of creativity I could bolt it all together into a single post that has some kind of flow to it.
It’s probably toss, but it’ll make things less fractured at least.
First off, there’s a lot of fuss about The Specials playing at Bestival a couple of weeks ago. Now, it sounds like it was fantastic and the clips on youtube look great and I can’t pretend I’m not a bit miffed I wasn’t there. But to me, it’s not The Specials.
Of course acts can carry on minus a member or two (or in the case of old sixties soul acts, with two acts on tour at the same time with no original members at all). But the role of Jerry Dammers in The Specials is too fundamental to sideline, especially in the light of the way he’s been treated in the intervening years (a fine example being a Chrysalis Records Terry Hall compilation album that actually featured Free Nelson Mandela, a track he wasn’t even on). The first time I met Dammers I was wearing a t-shirt with the old Walt Jabsco logo and the words Two Turntables. He looked at it quizzically and then muttered, “there’s something else I won’t make any money out of”.
If the other Specials want to play together that’s fine (indeed, various combinations of members have been doing that for years, normally with Neville Staples at the front) but to bill it as the long-anticipated “proper” Specials reunion sticks in my craw.
Curiously, while considering this I’ve been listening to The Fun Boy 3 again. A lot. Hall may have lost his way (although I reckon this happened later than most other people do – I actually had a lot of time for Terry, Blair & Anoushka!) but hanging around with Sean Rowley and the apocalyptic crock of wank that is Guilty Pleasures has pretty much finished him off. But The Fun Boy 3 were in their own way as astonishing, as creative and as remarkable as The Specials were. The first album was pretty flawed but had moments of brilliance, while Waiting is superb from start to finish and really quite unusual – the percussion, the vocal arrangements, the way the brass is used, the subject matter. It came as no surprise when Tricky worked with Terry Hall on the Nearly God project because it was always clear that Tricky’s way with a rhythm track owed a lot to FB3.
And “The More That I See (The Less I Believe)” is in my opinion the equal of anything The Specials ever released, a desperate and appalled look at the “Irish Question” with Belfast as the Ghost Town.
So me? I’m holding out for a Fun Boy Three reunion.
It seems the reunion juggernaut is showing no signs of slowing down, and while I may bitch and moan about the lack of support for new acts when having pub rows with mates, I’m as guilty as anyone of rushing to the Ticketbastard website when the latest of my 80s obsessions decides to give it another shot. But for the most part (and maybe I’m kidding myself here) I do try and see reformed bands that still have something to give, who quit while they were ahead or before they’d done everything they were supposed to. For example, seeing My Bloody Valentine at the Roundhouse earlier this summer didn’t feel like a band attempting to pay some bills by trudging through their back catalogue while we queued at the merchandise concession. Rather, it showed that what they achieved still hasn’t really been tackled by anybody (I guess the superior end of the post-rock – spit – bands like Mogwai overlap) and the show I went to was as intense and ecstatic and visceral as any I’ve ever seen. Everyone talks about the volume levels for the “apocalypse” section of You Made Me Realise (which by the time I went was up to about 20 minutes and 100 million decibels), but it was about more than the volume. The whole set was beautiful and cathartic. I must admit I did derive a lot of pleasure from watching some of the younger indie kids fleeing from the Roundhouse – presumably they’d expected a gig that sounded like Loveless or Isn’t Anything did on record and had no idea quite what MBV were capable of live. I saw them a few times back then, and it’s a testament to the way PAs have improved in the intervening years that they sound so much better now, without losing any of the impact.
Perhaps the flipside of the MBV reunion was the return of The Butthole Surfers. I’m not even sure if they ever really split up, but they certainly faded into a morass of side-projects and legal battles (although I’m not convinced they were quite the villains of the piece they were portrayed as in that whole Touch & Go battle, whatever the great and good of the US underground might claim). When it was announced the Butthole Surfers were coming over, it wasn’t even clear who’d be coming – was it just going to be Gibby and some hired hands he picked up during one of his spells in rehab? In the end, it was the absolute classic line-up, with Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus and both the classic-era drummers.
To be honest, my expectations weren’t high but I figured it’d be a laugh. In the end, it was absolutely brilliant (initial sound problems aside). The place was rammed, there was a real buzz about it, and they didn’t disappoint on any level. I could have written the set list myself (lots of old stuff, precious little from the 90s), and while they were never going to be as crazed as at their peak (especially since setting shit on fire is probably out of bounds in The Forum) they had a force and an abandon that nobody else has ever done in quite the same way. The support band – Paul Green’s School of Rock – was exactly that: a group of teens playing hoary old rock classics (including a cover of the Buttholes covering Bachman Turner Overdrive’s American Woman). The kids kept popping up during the Buttholes set, a guitarist here, a percussionist there, and seeing Gibby (looking surprisingly and undeservedly chipper and healthy) singing “Happy Birthday” to a mid-teens girl whilst towering above her was just a bit creepy. The ending was fantastic –an absurd noise freakout with everyone on stage, the kids going batshit, until – as I remember it –they were the only ones left, the Buttholes having stepped aside to let the next generation do the fucking shit up for them.
I got to thinking who’d I’d really love to reform (it’s my version of “what would you do if you won the lottery”, and I play it almost as much as I play “what would the line-up be of your perfect festival”, where I try and work out if Shellac should headline above Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the main stage or on a separate stage entirely). All the obvious names – Husker Du, Big Black (although they did, sort of, last year and I couldn’t make it to Chicago to join in the fun), and then the less obvious such as the mighty Prolapse. And of course, the KLF. But the band I’d most like to see live again are pretty recent.
Mclusky seemed great to me at the time, but if anything have become greater with the passing of time. I was at their farewell gig at ULU back in 2004 (although I don’t think I knew it was their farewell gig) and, like all the other times I saw them, they were awesome. Caustic and funny but with an ability to mix Shellac’s abrasion with a damn good song. If you haven’t already got Mcluskyism (the a-sides, the b-sides, the c-sides and the farewell gig to boot), I thoroughly recommend it. As far as I know, with the bassist in Australia and some apparent bad blood, I can’t see the reunion happening anywhere but in my head, although we have the pretty good Future of the Left to at least partly plug the gap.
But the best thing I’ve seen all year was also a reunion. As part of the Heavenly Records 18th Birthday shindig (Forever Heavenly), The Rockingbirds played for the first time in about 12-13 years and it couldn’t have been better (unless they’d played in a decent club – such as What’s Cooking – rather than the soulless Purcell Room, which looks better suited to a marketing conference than a country gig). They were squeezed in between The Loose Salute, a passable London country rock act, and Edwyn Collins (who’s band has a couple of Rockingbirds in tow). Seeing Edwyn Collins (for about 3 songs – I was drunk and bored) was a shock: I knew about his strokes and the rest, but I didn’t expect him to look quite so damaged – he had to sit on an amp throughout the gig, his right arm out of commission and seemingly having a bit of trouble talking, although his voice was intact. With Collins unable to play guitar, Roddy Frame took over, and he was as perky and irritating and smug as he always was.
Anyway, I’ve long wanted a Rockingbirds reunion (I even fantasised about booking them for my wedding) and as often mentioned on here, I think they’re one of the ‘great lost bands’ from this country, who beat the whole Americana boom by about 5 years and thus lost out. Fantastic songs, a brilliant voice, a glorious mix of country-rock, country and a bit of soul (such as Searching, which really would have been a perfect song for Elvis to cover circa 1973). I went to their farewell gig up at The Garage. It was rammed and celebratory and it made you wonder why they were calling it a day. They refused to play Band of Dreams (their song about how ace the Rockingbirds are, and how they’d prevail) and lots of manly tears were shed, both in the crowd and onstage.
And they were fantastic at the reunion gig – short as their set was, it was perfect. Alan Tyler’s voice is still a thing of wonder, the rest of the band were tight as hell, the reaction from the crowd – who I’d assumed were largely there for Collins – was rapturous. They didn’t play Band Of Dreams though, for the same reasons they left it out at the farewell gig, presumably. I’ve no idea if they’ll play any more, but it’d be a damned shame for them not to do at least a couple more shows, if not a full comeback. We’ll see.
Tying together The Rockingbirds (country) and The Butthole Surfers (Texas) we have Ray Wylie Hubbard. I’ve never really bothered with country rock, the bits I’d heard were mostly abominable, but being aware so some of my country sets were perhaps too miserable and slow, I figured I needed to broaden my horizons a bit. Turns out most of it is still shit, but amongst the preponderance of dreadful West Coast toss, there are a few gems – Pure Prairie League, for example, and more recently Drive By Truckers. But my favourite discovery by far is Ray Wylie Hubbard, who made a name for himself way back when with Up Against The Wall, Redneck Motherfucker and despite being very rooted in a kind of Texan country / boogie sort of sound, has a humour and an edge and a healthy dose of anger and bitterness that makes it stand out.
His best track for me is “Screw You, We’re From Texas”, a brilliant rant about the Lone Star State that throws in Stevie Ray Vaughan and the 13th Floor Elevators as proof that Texas really is the best. I love all that Texan separatist stuff: even folk in the college town islands of liberalism like Austin happily espouse such stuff, and you gotta love the Don’t Mess With Texas slogan / logo, which for all its menace was actually coined by Willie Nelson as part of an anti-littering campaign. First time I saw the slogan was on a stained and tattered tshirt being worn by Gibby (him again) at the George Robey.
Nearer to home, my county of origin Dorset has separatist issues of its own. When I was a teen, I found myself a member of a largely dumb, theoretically terrorist and perpetually drunk faction called the Wessex Liberation Front. I think we wanted to secede from the rest of the UK, and draw the boundaries based loosely on Hardy’s version of Wessex. We played fast and loose with that, as I recall, by stretching to include places like Bristol that we liked, but leaving out various houses of people we didn’t like, and the whole of Bournemouth.
This last is also an important part of Who’s Afear’d’s worldview. Dorset through and through, apart from the Danish one and apart from the fact they live in Bristol, not Dorset (exiled for their beliefs, presumably, and thus taking their place in a proud tradition of dissidents struggling away from their birthplace which includes Marx, Lenin and Phil Collins), Who’s Afear’d are forging a career based on a couple of very basic but fundamental principles:
1) Cider is great
2) Dorset is best
3) Devon is an abomination, with poisonous red soil and Torquay
4) But Hampshire is much, much worse.
5) The country boundary revisions of 1974 which saw Christchurch, Bournemouth and the rest somehow dumped from Hampshire into Dorset were a human rights violation, a crime against humanity and a county-council based holocaust.
You’d think this would be a fairly narrow seam of material, and you’d be right but you’d be wrong. By adapting classic songs – mostly country – to more accurately detail the travails of this most wondrous of counties, Who’s Afear’d are really onto something and I expect to see them play more gigs outside Bristol and Wimborne very soon (as usual, I was ahead of the loop by booking them to play last year’s PROD Xmas Party – to the amusement of some and the bemusement of most). Take for example such songs as Portland Prison Blues (“…I shot a man in Weymouth, just to watch him die”), Imagine There’s No Devon, and (Go For A Drive) On The A35. Rousing, inspirational stuff that has played a big part in my rediscovery of my Dorset heritage and really irritated those not fully up to speed on affairs in Litton Cheney.
I’m supposed to be playing the launch party for their awesome debut album, Day Of The Badger. I’ll let you know, cos I’m sure you’ll want to be there.
(On a related note, the campaign to have the ‘People’s Flag’ instated as the official flag for the county has been a success, and it’s fair to say Who’s Afear’d played their own part in that success, through a combination of bad guitar, swearing and quiche).
There was going to be more – about other Dorset bands, about reformations, about bad metal on cable TV and about Lykke Li. But it’ll have to wait.
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