A Weekend In My Own Back Catalogue
There are people who have had one favourite band for their whole musical life, but that’s never been me. It’s not that I get bored with them, generally, but things move on: line-ups shift, people leave, bands split; and even if they don’t, musical styles evolve and even the most enduring of bands have periods where they dip somewhat. Your taste changes too – never more so than in your teenage years.
I’ve written before of my inexplicable but deep love, around the age of 14-15, for the by then middle-aged Stranglers. By the time I was sixteen my taste had shifted more towards local music; there was a lot going on in Manchester at that point and my favourite band were Inspiral Carpets whose first single “Keep The Circle Around” came out on the day I officially left school. That and their legendary cow cassette soundtracked that long post-GCSE summer, but I was to see them live just twice before they fell apart at the end of 1988. Sure, they were reborn almost immediately with Tom Hingley replacing Stephen Holt on vocals; I saw them another 20 plus times in that configuration either between 89 and 94 or during the 2003 reunion era; they made some great records along the way – but they were never quite MY Inspirals. I moved on again. By the time my teenage years drew to a close I was in musical mourning for the recently separated Spacemen 3 and whilst initially “taking the side” of Sonic Boom/Spectrum (whose work, on balance over the intervening years, would still be my preference if I could only keep one of them) I was getting quite heavily into Spiritualized, and in May 1992 I threw caution to the wind and spent a week following their “Lazer Guided Melodies” tour around Britain, hitch-hiking and jumping trains and sleeping in car parks and on the floors of friendly strangers – there’s probably a book to be written about that week! The last weekend in March 2012 saw all three on tour; three of the most important (a select list, of certainly fewer than ten) bands of my past over three consecutive nights? Hell, I’m half expecting Michael Aspel to show up with his Big Red Book…
Friday 23rd we were straight on the train after work to catch THE STRANGLERS in Sheffield as their Manchester date clashed with the Inspirals one I’d long had tickets for. Sadly Jet Black was still sidelined by illness, but then they did say two years ago that may be his last full tour and it seems circumstances may have proved them right. What we got though was a brilliant classic Stranglers set full of things I seriously never thought I would hear live in a million years, from the opening salvo of “Burning up Time”, “Sometimes” and “The Raven” to the one minute wonder that is “Shut Up” and the still stunning Dave Greenfield showcase that is “Walk On By”Â. It’s as if they’ve realised they could pretty much play anything from those first few years, it doesn’t have to just be the obvious ones – and the new stuff sounds pretty good too. I’d only heard “Giants” once before the gig but the songs stood up well. As, of course, does the excellent Baz Warne: I can’t actually think of another band who can play their old hits without the original singer and you don’t even miss him a lot of the time. Maybe it’s because the sound of the Stranglers is the sound of JJ and Dave, the filthy bass versus the garagey organ, and as long as these two can stand up unaided I’ll gladly go and watch and listen to them.
Jet Black’s hospitalisation, coming as it did a few days after the death of The Monkees’ Davy Jones from heart failure, got me thinking. The latter caused a few people to post on Facebook about how there seem to be a lot of pop stars dying of late, and it occurred to me that this is only the beginning. Pop stars and celebrities in the modern sense only really started in the late fifties: there were plenty of 1920s-30s film stars, but wartime kind of drew a line between culture before and after, then with the advent of mass TV in the 50s-60s and the fad for nostalgia you have younger generations far more familiar with 60s pop culture than our parents’ generations generally are/were with 30s pop culture. And someone who was 20 in 1960 is now 72. Pop star deaths up until this point have always been premature – serious illness, drugs or alcohol, accidents, suicide, murder. But from round about now old age will come into the equation – last year watching Suicide it was odd to think of them as both older than my parents, but they are. There will be pop stars in nursing homes, and within a decade or so rarely a week will pass without someone whose records we’ve bought turning up in the obituaries. So if that band you loved when you were young is having one last run-out, go and see them. They might be shit, but they might be amazing and if you don’t go and you never get a chance to see them again you will never know…
INSPIRAL CARPETS certainly didn’t let me down. One of those bands at which the cooler-than-thou brigade openly sneer, looking back it’s still a mystery exactly how a psychedelic Farfisa-fuelled garage band managed to convert such into a commercial pop career. With Holt back on board there was little chance this was going to be like the 2003 reunion tour which felt more like a staged presentation of the big hit singles, although even now the band must be conscious of the fact that each crowd will contain those who want to throw their arms round their mates and hold their beer in the air and moo along to “This Is How it Feels”, and those who almost explode with joy at the opening bars of “Greek Wedding Song”. I’d presumed myself to be firmly in the latter camp, and for the most part it was those tracks from those pre-pop days which thrilled (at the Holmfirth gig the week before Manchester we were in something of a minority trying to get the crowd going for “Keep The Circle Around”), although it would be a cold-hearted child of the space age who didn’t love “Saturn 5”Â. Clint’s organ sounded just as it did all those years ago; skinny mopheaded guitarist Graham Lambert doesn’t actually seem to have aged at all, and Steve was perfect. Even the songs made famous by his successor just sounded better coming out of his mouth.
Heading out to watch SPIRITUALIZED the following night my expectations weren’t that high. I was with a couple of members of Air Cav who would have been at primary school when I was following that tour in 92, but one of whom has been much more of a fan over the past decade or so then I have. I never quite got all the orchestral stuff in the late 90s, it just wasn’t really where my head was at, and whilst each album’s been hailed as a return to form, all have disappointed me. Why was I going then? Because I usually do when they play in Manchester, because one day they might just recapture that spirit again that I loved so much twenty years ago. And within seconds of the loud, psychedelic rock’n’roll swirl of new single “Sweet Jane” kicking off this set I was stunned: this was the night I’d been waiting for. Stripped of all the neo-classical trappings which made Spiritualized more of a pleasant evening’s semi-highbrow relaxation than a rock’n’roll band, they sounded as close to those early days as they ever have; new songs from the forthcoming album really seemed to recapture the space-rock side and stuff from the intervening years – “Electricity”, “Ladies And Gentlemen…” – sounded the best it ever has. Two solid hours they played, never got dull. Over the next couple of days I read similarly glowing reports from similarly lapsed fans attending other dates and began to think about how rare it is that this happens: to see a band hit such high at this stage in their existence, and it was only later I realised they hadn’t even played anything off “Lazer Guided Melodies” and it didn’t really matter.
So ended my weekend in my own back catalogue. Spiritualized made a firm statement that nostalgia isn’t where they are right now (though they did tour playing “Ladies And Gentlemen…” in full a couple of years ago, so it’s not as if they’re completely opposed to it) while The Stranglers know their market and serve it well, but at least these days the new songs are actually pretty good. It’s too early to say yet whether Inspirals will be able to break out of the nostalgia zone – sadly most of their summer bookings seem to be at retro-heavy Britpop-based festivals and I really have no desire to be in the same field as the likes of Cast or Space, but we’ll have to see where they go with the album they’re apparently making. You can’t stay frozen in time, and any reunited band will have little staying power if all they’re going to be is a postcard from the past.
How about some bands whose combined age isn’t several hundred then? In a month where I somehow managed to see 81 different bands I’d be here all week going into any sort of detail about them all. Admittedly 24 of those were at ATP which I wrote about at the time, but it’s still been very rich pickings closer to home. Given that there were a few nights I was just too tired or skint to go out, and a few tasty gigs that clashed with stuff I was already going to, anyone who says there’s no good music around these days really needs to get out more. I probably need to get out less, but then I’d have missed some of these…
BACK TO THE PRESENT: MANCHESTER ROUND-UP
JANICE GRAHAM BAND put in a fine set supporting Inspirals in Manchester, as well as a headliner at a rammed FAC251 the week before (16th). Mislabelled, somewhat sneeringly, as “indie ska” by a declining print mag (there’s not a great deal of skankin’ here, aside from “Murder” which is more of a dub reggae jam anyway) the roots of the Janice sound are actually in 60s soul: “No Money Honey” could segue perfectly into something like (the original) “Harlem Shuffle” for instance. It’s a sound which will always be popular with people who generally pay little heed to the fads and fashions of music magazines: remember, when the Northern Soul scene was in full swing NME front cover teasers would promise Tom Jones, Moody Blues and a weekly Beatles speculation, whilst the counterculture mags covered psychedelic happenings that meant nothing to your average factory worker out for the weekend.
At the time of writing, the immediate future of live music at Gulliver’s is in doubt as the pub stands (hopefully temporarily) closed. This is a real shame, as the venue’s open minded attitude and cheap hire price had helped it establish itself in little over a year since its refurbishment as the place for DIY music and promoters while it retained a certain friendly roughness which set it apart from the more gentrified haunts of the Northern Quarter. The last (hopefully not forever) Stroke Club there (22nd) was a typically chaotic evening, starting late because the room had been double-booked with a thrash night but eventually presenting excellent sets from Kent-based shoegazer types IT HUGS BACK who reminded us of the fuzzier, rockier end of the genre (early Ride; Swervedriver) and Manchester’s very own STRANGER SON. After about six or seven years and multiple personnel changes the current and seemingly stabilised line-up (incorporating one of GNOD, and Julie aka Lonelady) is a tense, dark beast fusing local post-punk with the underbelly of Krautrock. We also popped in after the Inspirals gig (the only good thing about the Ritz’s ridiculously early gigs – all out by 10pm – being you can usually make another gig after) and caught the sunny woozy Beach Boys-ish melodies of SILVER SOUND EXPLOSION.
Gulliver’s was also supposed to be the home of the relaunched Blowout night, a central Manchester live music clubbing institution in the mid-00s when it lived in Piccadilly’s Bierkeller, now a few years gone. Quick thinking and a bit of luck saw the relaunch (30th) shifted over the road to the Castle, where we walked in to find SECRETAIRE playing lo-fi psychedelia dressed only in wrestling masks and their underpants. As you do.
The latest cool venue in that part of town is Soup Kitchen, just off Stevenson Square. They’ve been having gigs in there for a while now but the live music promoting side of it was recently taken over by Ciaran Cullen who has for a few years been bringing weird and wonderful ATP-type bands to Manchester under the Wotgodforgot banner, and he’s also getting some good bookings from like-minded souls. It was the Manchester outpost of DrownedinSound who were behind the month’s best electronic gig (29th) with Brooklyn duo BLONDES headlining. They delighted technoheads with their brilliant psychedelic dance music which references the likes of Fuck Buttons and old-school Balearica in roughly equal measure, and geeks with the sheer amount of interlinked equipment on which they did so, whilst support DIE HEXEN – a female duo playing their first ever live gig – impressed early arrivals with what can only be described as electronic goth opera.
Meanwhile, just a few metres away, one of the area’s longest serving venues Night And Day is having a bit of a renaissance. There seems to be a fairly rapid turnover of live music promoters there but the current one’s getting some good stuff in: a random new bands night on the 14th yielded great sets by THE DETOUR who do a haunting and lovely mix of electronic shoegaze and kind of Sigur Ros type sounds, plus BLACK LIGHTS who first featured as a LTW new band to watch nearly a year ago now though I’ve only just got round to seeing them myself. They reminded me of a more commercially polished young Puressence, and could go a very long way. Another young local band tipped for big things are THE LOUCHE (formerly the Louche FC) although their Night & Day appearance on the 4th will be remembered for possibly the wrong reasons. They were supposed to be headlining, with WE ARE AUGUSTINES, a US band who do a very good take on the old “Springsteen via Gaslight Anthem and Airborne Toxic Event” blue-collar passion thing, supporting – but in the weeks before the event, We Are Augustines suddenly started getting airplay and press, so the gig was upgraded from its original home of The Castle and the visitors given the headline slot. Which they very much deserved, from the crowd point-of-view; the place was rammed for a Sunday and they were very warmly received. Unfortunately someone in their party – not satisfied with being promoted to headliners – demanded that the supports be banned from the dressing room, and The Louche’s guitarist decided to air his grievances onstage, causing a minor Twitter storm in which his band were accused of having disgraced Manchester. Hilarious, really. If you like kind of hazy shoegazey classic pop with the kind of tunes The Jesus And Mary Chain used to steal off Phil Spector then they do it better than most.
Then round the corner on High Street, Ruby Lounge continues to boast the best billing schedules in Manchester. I was gutted to miss Jah Wobble (who clashed with both Inspirals and The Stranglers, somewhat splitting the older music fans’ vote) but I did manage four visits in March: THE DUKE SPIRIT (1st) kicked the month off doing exactly what they always do – sultry female fronted dirty indie rock’n’roll – and they still do it very well. Sonic Cathedral’s YETI LANE were there on the 15th (supporting a band called Diagrams best described as “not for me”) – stripped back to a duo, their sound actually seems to have got bigger and better with lots of Neu! grooves and electronics enhancing their dreamy sounds, and there was a fine set of similarly woozy indie pop from the oddly named BUTCHER THE BAR. EARTH got me in the mood for ATP with an absolutely mesmerising set of deep sludge drone (those are all complimentary terms in this context!), and then when we got home from Minehead XIU XIU and TRUMPETS OF DEATH were the comedown I needed, the former I described at the time as “like the young Edwyn Collins fronting a post-rock band trying to play pop disco but without any real idea how to go about it” while the latter did brilliant atonal art-noise involving a trumpet stuffed through effects pedals but with unexpectedly soft vocals.
London-based Japanese heavy psychedelic band BO NINGEN were probably the second loudest thing I heard this month (after Boredoms at ATP – what is it with Japanese bands?) delivering a blistering half hour post-midnight set at British Sea Power’s Krankenhaus night in Brighton (3rd) despite some of the band being ill with flu bugs. Every time I have seen this band they have blown me away, and I just read they have a new album on the way so should be a headline tour sometime this year: everyone should see them at least once. BRITISH SEA POWER themselves put in another fine set, but I won’t bang on about them again, and Electric Soft Parade / Brakes man THOMAS WHITE previewed some delicate folky sounds from his new album “Yalla!” with a seven piece choir which was lovely, even if most of the crowd seemed to prefer to chat over it. Again, I look forward to a headline date. Even quieter were the pure-ambient sounds of PIMMON and RIVERRUN who played possibly the most out-of-the-way gig of 2012, at the St John’s In The Wilderness church up in the hills outside Hebden Bridge. Riverrun being the solo project of DANIEL LAND, who almost rivals Mr White for prolific eclecticism what with a new MODERN PAINTERS album coming soon on the great Club AC30 label. I’ve had the privilege of hearing it and it’s a thing of beauty. And of course I managed to catch a couple of dates of AIR CAV’s first full headline tour in Manchester and London. I’m so proud to have been involved with this band in the past; these days I’m just a fan, and with their excellent debut album just a few months old they’re already previewing some great new songs.
ALL DAY AND MOST OF THE NIGHT
We are undoubtedly spoilt with the quantity of great music around right now, there are barely enough days in any month – which is why it’s always good when someone decides to stick a load of great bands on in one day and March was bookended by a couple of such events. Leeds has always been good for this – from the brilliant Nastyfest which ran at the Faversham in the mid-to-late-00s to the ever-growing multi-venue behemoth that is Live At Leeds (May bank holiday weekend, recommended) to November’s relative newcomer Constellations it’s not unusual to find me and a few other Mancunian music addicts piling off the train in the early afternoon and back onto it very late at night, having done little in between times but watch band after band after band. British Wildlife Festival, held at the wonderful Brudenell Social Club and near neighbour Royal Park (3rd March) is a little more low-key than those, but for fans of post-rock/noise/drone type stuff it’s well worth a visit – even if you do, as we did, just stay in the Brudenell all day enjoying its ludicrously cheap drinks and comfy seats. Amongst the treats paraded in front of our greedy ears were the noisy post-hardcore sounds of HUMAN HAIR (the second band, after Air Cav, that I’ve seen cover Kraftwerk’s “The Model” recently, needless to say theirs is a rather noisier version); some twiddly math-rock from AZORES; the brilliant cosmic space-rock of HOOKWORMS, trumpet-fuelled post-rock from TEETH OF THE SEA and some old favourites in the form of THAT FUCKING TANK. It had been a long time since I’d seen them and you’re there wondering why you were ever excited about a band that’s basically two blokes, one drumkit and one guitar, and then they start and they’re just such outstanding musicians, it’s almost a privilege to be standing that close to them.
Four weeks later it was Manchester’s Jabez Clegg which provided a packed bill in the name of FRANKFEST, a fund raiser for a statue of the late Frank Sidebottom to be erected in Timperley (of course). THE FALL played a great raucous late night set at the end of a day which had also taken in LOVELY EGGS’ surrealist lo-fi indie punk; BADLY DRAWN BOY being a bit boring to be honest as he sometimes can be (it’s a festival, play the hits!), FRAZER KING as anarchic and wonderful as ever; JEZ KERR from ACR impressing with his solo stuff and DIRTY NORTH. The Wythenshawe band are unsurprisingly excited about opening for The Stone Roses at Heaton Park and I for one am very glad that the luck of the draw sent me a ticket for the day they’re on. They’ve got a new second singer, a young girl with a big soulful voice, and I reckon they’ll go down a storm if people are prepared to get there early and open their minds to some new sounds.
The flat pack furniture from last month is still sitting unassembled in the back bedroom. I’m clearly not very good at this being middle-aged thing yet…