Archive for the music Category

Alex Chilton

Posted in music with tags , , on April 6, 2010 by richardblandford

Alex Chilton died. He was in a band called Big Star, who were around in the early 70s but didn’t sell many records, and were probably my favourite band when I was seventeen.

I was having trouble negotiating everyday teenage life with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum condition, and their music, listened to on second or third generation tape copies, made perfect sense to me. Their three albums, which would be classified as power-pop, although they transcend any easy definition, seemed to form a perfect trilogy. The first, #1 Record, is optimistic and sunny. It represented for me the life I hoped to attain, but curiously couldn’t get to, due to some mysterious blocks in my head. The second, Radio City, is rawer and more ragged, with Chilton’s co-leader, Chris Bell having departed. Although it still had joyous moments, such as their iconic song September Gurls, a darkness had sunken in. It was as if a realisation that life was harsher and more cruel than they’d previously imagined had now taken hold.

The third album, known as Sister Lovers, or simply Third, and nearly a Chilton solo album in all but name, took this to an extreme. The songs had become strange, and sounded on the verge of falling apart, with gaps in the arrangements that produced a chilling effect. Nevertheless, there was never a descent into nihilism which, in 1993, was what I felt I was being offered by the grunge records someone of my generation was ‘meant’ to buy. Instead I clung to the cautious advice that Chilton offered: ‘Take care not to hurt yourself/Beware of the need for help/You might need too much/And people are such…’

On a wave of interest sparked by Teenage Fanclub and others claiming them as an influence, Chilton fronted a new version of Big Star that year. I saw them live, performing to an adoring audience.

I saw them perform again a couple of years ago, to a roomful of uninterested chattering London hipsters (who I hope are fucking pleased with themselves now), struggling with a bad mix. Now there’ll never be another chance.

Of course, I didn’t really know Alex Chilton, and from the trail of bad feeling he left behind him, I suspect we wouldn’t have got on at all. But when he died, it finally hit me just how important he was to me. I’d forgotten just how much of myself was embedded there, in old copied tapes from 1993.

Big Star on Spotify
#1 Record
Radio City
There are various different orders for the track-listing of Third/Sister Lovers, as the album was never officially sequenced. This is my own personal order that I find produces the most satisfying listen.

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Nick Cave

Posted in Life, music with tags , , on March 7, 2010 by richardblandford

I saw Nick Cave once, in the old Borders bookshop in Brighton’s Churchill Square. I didn’t realise it was him at first. He was standing with his back up against some books in an alcove. Then, when a rather stiff-looking man walked past, he leapt out.

‘Look at my red right hand!’ he shouted. ‘Look at my red right hand!’

The man jumped, and let out an undignified yelp, before walking away as fast as he could, shaking his head and muttering.

Nick crept back into the alcove. I could see it was him now, his features familiar despite the startling hair-loss of recent years and the carefully-shaped beard that had yet to be revealed to the public. I could also see that he did indeed have a red right hand. At least, it had been haphazardly coloured-in red, in what seemed like felt tip.

A young, pretty woman walked past the alcove. Nick jumped out again.

‘Look at my red right hand!’ he said, waving it in the woman’s face. ‘The devil made it red, you know!’

The woman screamed as Nick flung himself backwards against the books, knocking several from the shelf as he pretended to be strangled by the red hand, and fighting it off with the other. He then fell to the floor, kicking more books as he went.

A store security man soon stood over him, trying to get his attention.

Nick just looked up as he writhed about, meanwhile kicking the security man in the back of the knee.

‘Stop it!’ He gasped. ‘Stop the hand. It’s killing me!’

The security man looked about, as if embarrassed.

‘Not again,’ I’m sure I heard him mutter.

Then he reached down, effortlessly grabbed the hand from around Nick’s neck by the wrist, and banged it several times against a hardback book of astronomy with little force.

He dropped the hand, and it fell to the floor.

‘Think it’s time for you to leave now, sir,’ said the security man.

‘Ow,’ said Nick, rubbing the limp red right hand. ‘That hurt.’

‘Come on, now,’ said the security man, lifting him up from the floor.

‘That really hurt,’ said Nick, as he was led away.

Degrees of Separation

Posted in music with tags , , , , on February 21, 2010 by richardblandford

EJ Norman

For some time now, I’ve been writing or co-writing lyrics for electropop artist EJ Norman, and now you can hear the cream of our work on the free-to-download album ‘Degrees of Separation.’

Although many musicians have been drawing on the synth-pop of the eighties as inspiration recently, EJ and I have chosen to focus on the aspects that figures such as Little Boots and La Roux tend to ignore – pathos, melodrama, and storytelling, whilst trying to avoid simple pastiche.  The resulting tracks, I feel, describe a world in which relationships are managed through mobile phone conversations in the stairwells of open plan offices, and lives become ordered and maintained, rather than lived.

Anyway, I’m immensely proud of the whole thing, and you can download the tracks here, as well as listen to them in streaming audio, along with a printable cover.

Hope you like it.

Inconvenient Music Club: Electric Café

Posted in music with tags , , on December 28, 2009 by richardblandford

Kraftwerk’s 1986 album, Electric Café, is where it’s widely considered to begin going wrong for the legendary electronic music group. After a run of classic, innovative albums from 1975’s Autobahn to Computer World in 1981, Electric Café was believed to reveal that the trailblazers had fallen behind the pack, overtaken by the very acts they influenced such as the Human League and New Order, and rendered redundant by the incorporation of their electro-industrial rhythms into hip-hop. Electric Café, perhaps, is the sound of a once-fearless group losing its confidence. For most music fans, this is where the story ends. In the world of Inconvenient Music, however, it’s exactly where we start paying attention.

Side one consists of a suite of three inter-related tracks, Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop, and Musique Non-Stop. Skeletally sparse, and not overly melodic, the tracks could be seen as a blueprint for much of the dance music of the following decade. Except that they never quite ‘kick in’ the way you assume they’re supposed to. There’s no real build and release of tension. They just sort of hover uncertainly, as if they know there’s something they should be doing, but can’t quite work out how to do it.

On one level, it’s just the sound of music not working, but on another it’s quite revealing. It’s as if Kraftwerk had indeed seen the future, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to sign up to it, at least, not yet. They would correct this ‘fault’ on their 1990 self-remix album The Mix, in which the three tracks were condensed into one mighty piece, Music Non-Stop, that does exactly what dance music’s supposed to do, thrillingly. It’s an improvement in that it’s ‘better’ music, but without the strange hesitating mood of the original elements, it’s perhaps less interesting.

Side two opens with the elegant pop of The Telephone Call, which could easily sit on the earlier Computer World, if it were not for the fact that whereas the songs on that album presented (albeit with typical Kraftwerkian irony) a world of harmony between man and device, in which social interaction is eased through developments in information technology, The Telephone Call depicts these as means of non-communication, with calls being redirected to the mocking sound of an answering machine message, and the physical distance of the relationship only too apparent.

The song that follows, Sex Object, is one of the more baffling entries in the Kraftwerk songbook. ‘I don’t want to be your sex object,’ sings main-man/machine Hutter, ‘Have some feeling and respect’. It verges on the laughable, with a group that had previously only concerned themselves with the love of machines suddenly turning their attention to physical relationships. The curiously nonsynthetic-sounding slap bass, meanwhile, suggests that they’d lost their bearings completely. The track’s ‘wrongness’, however, once again adds to its meaning. It’s the sound of a crack in a flawless surface, as a group who had until then sung in seeming praise of their eventual dehumanisation turn against the idea and make a plea for individuality.

The album ends with the title-track, Electric Café, a pleasing enough return to the streamlined electronic constructions of side one, leaving the listener in what sounds like a prediction of the existence of internet cafes. We now all live in the Electric Café, Kraftwerk seem to be suggesting, with social interaction simultaneously eased and obstructed by the devices we use to achieve it. The album’s re-branding as Techno Pop upon its rerelease earlier this year nearly deprives it of this layer of meaning.

Electric Cafe is the ultimate flawed gem, with the very things that stop it from working totally successfully being those which give it the depth and meaning that it does possess. Sometimes, imperfection is a work of art’s logical end-point.

Listen to Techno Pop (Electric Cafe) on Spotify.

Flying Saucer Rock & Roll Radio – Better, Longer, Less Often

Posted in music with tags , on November 8, 2009 by richardblandford

Behind the scenes at Flying Saucer Rock & Roll Radio.

A recent dramatic development in the Flying Saucer Rock & Roll Radio office has been my decision to compile it monthly, rather than weekly, and make it two hours long instead of just one.  There are no particular reasons for this, other than I just felt like it.  And it’s my show and I’ll do what I want.  So there. (Not that it’s actually a radio show, it’s just a Spotify playlist.  But you’re not paying for it so just get off my back, ok?  Jesus, some people.)

Anyway, you can access it as always by clicking on the ‘FSRAR Radio’ link on the sidebar, that’s if you live in a country that’s a member state of the SU (Spotify Union).  I’m not putting them up on Share My Playlists for posterity any more as I’ve decided I find their ephemeral nature arousing.

I have to say that Spotify has pretty much re-ignited by love of music.  Before, I was suffering from a form of musical ennui.  My record collection would sit glaring at me from the corner of the room, angry at the tiny amount of time I now gave it.  Absorbing new CDs seemed like a chore, what with most releases now being approximately nine years long as artists widdled away, trying to fill in every available microsecond of the CD format.  The fact that I’d paid money for it made me persevere, even though I knew really that it wasn’t worth my time.

Spotify wipes all those problems away in a stroke.  There is no physical object, so the question of whether a particular album justifies its place in a limited storage space is redundant.  Also, the very fact that no money has changed hands for a particular recording means that there’s no incentive to get your money’s worth.  If something’s just not doing it for you, it can be deleted from your playlist and it need never bother you again.

(The crucial psychological difference between paid downloads and Spotify is that with the former, you’re cherry-picking, deciding what you might want from a sample.  There’s no room for reflection.  Spotify returns the listener to thinking about albums as a whole.  You can hear everything in the context the artist intended before making a judgement about how much you like it.)

That’s not to say Spotify doesn’t have it’s downside.  Even Spotify Premium doesn’t yet have CD-level sound quality, although I’m confident it’s only a matter of time before it’s on its way.  What is there already, however, has to be seen as a major improvement on your average MP3, which loses 90% of the digital information of its source.

MP3s are to CDs, I believe, what piss is to wine.  They have a particularly thin sound which is fantastically unlikable.  Pre-recorded cassettes may have sounded like mud most of the time, but at least it was a nice, friendly mud.  And yes I know vinyl has a warmth to it that can’t be found in any other medium blah blah fucking blah.

Other issues with Spotify are that it’s not entirely stable, with record companies mysteriously pulling down albums that have been put up, and some albums being available in some countries but not in others.  And, of course, it doesn’t need mentioning that the adverts featured on the free service will eventually drive someone to suicide or worse.

But overall, by making me think of music as a resource to be accessed rather than a thing to be owned, Spotify has reinvigorated my relationship with it.  I’m listening to things I never would have done before, for reasons far healthier than ‘it’s there’ or ‘I paid for it so I better bloody listen to the thing’.

It’s not ever going to make me feel like a teenager buying my first second-hand Bowie album again, but what it does do is give me a framework for listening to and thinking about music that feels more appropriate for an adult.  So, to quote the supremely irritating man who pops up every five songs (at least until I can afford Spotify Premium), ‘Thank you, Spotify, a hundred thank yous.’

Inconvenient Music Club: Robin’s Reign

Posted in music on October 25, 2009 by richardblandford

RobinsReign.jpg image by plaxico81

In 1969, Robin Gibb left the Bee Gees.  Although they had just recorded their arguable masterpiece, the psychedelic epic Odessa, he and his brother Barry had clashed over the choice of A-side for their latest single, and Robin was rumoured to perhaps not be in the best of ways.

Nevertheless, his solo career got off to a flying start with his single, ‘Saved By the Bell’ going to no. 2 in the British charts.  The accompanying album, Robin’s Reign, with the lone Gibb brother standing in full Royal Guardsman’s regalia on the cover, did less well.  As always in the world of Inconvenient Music, there’s a reason for that.

A track-by-track analysis of the album would be pointless, as by and large they all do the same thing.  Never getting above mid-tempo, the mood is generally mournful, with relationships crumbling and hard facts faced at every turn.  Occasionally, whimsy breaks out, when the eponymous heroes of ‘Mother and Jack’ go to see the Emperor in order to stop their house being knocked down.

The album’s appeal isn’t really found in its songs, however, good though they are.  Ultimately, its most striking quality is its overall sound.  Drums are often absent, the beat kept instead by a primitive drum machine.  On top of this are thick string arrangements, and on top of that, a choir, all the members of which being one Robin Gibb, overdubbing himself, and on top of all that, Robin’s lead vocal, quivering with more vibrato than Marc Bolan sat on a washing machine.

Listening to the album is like bathing in a warm, thick, melancholy soup of sound.  It’s surprisingly relaxing, although you wouldn’t want any getting up your nose.

More than this, it feels like a tremendous act of will on Robin’s part; a fragile soul producing something eccentric and glorious because it simply has to.  It’s an orchestrated MOR answer to Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, although it never gets as excited as either.  The terminal heartbreak would later be echoed in the oeuvre of Daniel Johnston, while the funereal pace would be taken down a notch by the moribundly odd outsider musician Jandek.

Like Brian Wilson, Robin Gibb was, briefly, an outsider artist who operated on the inside of the music industry.  Then, while a second solo album Sing Slowly Sisters was left in the vaults, he rejoined the Bee Gees, and it would not be too long before disco changed their path forever.

With his brothers or by himself, Robin would never again make anything that touches on the strangeness of Robin’s Reign.  Long out of print, it still occasionally haunts car boot sales and record fairs, a reminder of a sad, sweet moment when the disco ball was definitely not spinning for Robin.





The Rocker

Posted in music on July 9, 2009 by richardblandford

I was listening to Spotify radio the other day, and one of the songs the musical aleph picked out for me was one called ‘The Rocker’ by Thin Lizzy. I hadn’t heard it before, but was immediately struck by the informative nature of the lyrics. In this song, Phil Lynott claims not only to be a ‘rocker’, but also, perhaps unintentionally, provides an invaluable guide to their identifying features. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that the song ultimately raised far more questions than it answered.

Here I present a breakdown and analysis of the lyrics, in the hope of achieving some sort of understanding of the nature of the tendencies that mark out a ‘rocker’.

‘I am your main man if you’re looking for trouble,
I’ll take no lip ’cause no ones tougher than me.’

In this opening couplet, we see that a ‘rocker’ has a propensity towards violence. If you go looking for him, it seems, he will immediately reward your interest with a display of aggression. This is unavoidably anti-social.

‘If I kicked your face you’d soon be seeing double,
Hey little girl, keep your hands off me ’cause I’m a rocker.’

Here, it gets more troubling. The ‘rocker’ is blatantly threatening to kick a ‘little girl’ in the face, simply because the small child touched him. ‘Rockers’ are often viewed as existing somewhat outside society, and this couplet offers a clue as to why this may be a good thing.

‘I’m a rocker!
I’m a roller too, baby.’

Now this is quite interesting. Not only is he a ‘rocker’, but also a ‘roller’. The two are clearly intended to be distinguishable, although what separates the signifying tendencies of a ‘rocker’ from a ‘roller’ is not clear. One can clearly be both, and the prominence Lynott gives to being a rocker suggests that one can be the former without necessarily being the latter. But can one be a ‘roller’ without first being a ‘rocker’? The question is not answered in the song.

‘Down at the juke joint me and the boys were stompin’,
Bippin’ an a boppin’, telling a dirty joke or two.’

Here it is stated that a ‘rocker’ will ‘bip’, ‘bop’, and ‘tell a dirty joke’. Or two. Presumably one can tell a dirty joke without being a rocker, but are ‘bipping’ and ‘bopping’ exclusively ‘rocker’ activities? Can a ‘roller’ who is not a ‘rocker’ (if they exist) also ‘bip’ and ‘bop’? Again, a pertinent issue is not explored.

‘In walked this chick and I knew she was up to something,
I kissed her right there out of the blue.’

The ‘rocker’ considers a sexual assault acceptable if a woman appears to him to be ‘up to something’. No further comment is needed here, I feel.

‘I said “Hey baby, meet me I’m a tough guy,
Got my cycle outside, you wanna try?”‘

The ‘rocker’ has only a very basic grasp of English, it seems.

‘She just looked at me and rolled them big eyes,
And said “Ooh I’d do anything for you ’cause you’re a rocker.”‘

Here it is evident that the ‘rocker’ is a fantasist, believing that his victims are willing participants in their degradation.

In summary, the ‘rocker’ can be seen to be violent, even towards children, and sexually aggressive, with a questionable grasp on reality. Also, there is a propensity to ‘bip’, ‘bop’ and ‘tell dirty jokes’.

‘Rollers’ remain undefined, but are rumoured to be marked by their desire to ‘shang a lang’. Further investigation is required in determining the nature of the ‘lang’ and how one would go about ‘shanging’ it. Any offers of help with funding for this research are greatly appreciated.