Monday, July 07, 2008

A Feeling Mission



When we were talking, sat in that Tin Pan Alley bar and by now nursing near-empty glasses, I mentioned that first trip to the Astoria, in the 80s.

Back then, we were hanging on the coat-tails of a cooler crowd, who got us tickets for the gig and tolerated us with pleasing equanimity. Pocket money was too scarce to shell out on a Capitalcard for the train, so we'd actually travelled to the smoke on a pea-green double decker bus, one of those old Eastern National jalopies that would have taken us all the way to the pre-refit Liverpool Street. It would have juddered between the other satellite towns, then eventually followed the main arterial that clings to the Central Line, as the oases of green belt gave way entirely to the sprawling suburbs of Havering and Redbridge, pockmarked by between-the-wars semis, and then the bawling hubbub of East London proper.

We could have watched, arrayed as we were across of the front of the top deck, as the embers of the day were ground out by the slow descent of the summer eve, though likely as not the change would have passed unnoticed, lost in the excited chatter of schoolboys on their way to a night out with real grown-ups. How we made it from the bus station to the promised land of "up west", memory defeats, but it would either have been hopping on buses (in those days, when the Routemaster ruled Central London, you simply chased buses down as quarry, leaping on and off as they moved) or the more tried and tested hurdle over Underground ticket barriers.

But there was to be no epiphany at the Astoria that night, a night which sank like a stone once we'd arrived in the acrid, filthy atmosphere of the club, a teeming smog of dry ice and Silk Cut fumes and the stench of undeodorised teenagers, all the time having to pretend to be 18 by drinking drinks that we couldn't afford, we didn't like the taste of and that made us ill. And as for the band, they were risible, truly atrocious: let's not detain ourselves with them any further. But after what seemed an eternity of their dull-witted stagecraft and posing, we took the oppo to scramble for the exits while the singer, during a thoroughly unmerited second encore, began scaling the speaker stacks.

And then, suddenly it was clearer. All that expectation had dissipated, inexorably, into the Astoria fug, and now we realised we needed - longed for - music on our own terms, without this fakery, this self-absorption, this utter lack of self-consciousness. Not because it was bad per se, but just because it wasn't us.

We realised that the posing and the pouting and the gradual creep of rawk histrionics were, yet again, so much plastic. Yes, on the train home, everyone else was wearing Cheshire cat grins and yapping about how brilliant the band were, and we were happy they were happy, but we were happier still that we knew, with the wrongheaded but righthearted conviction of any teenager, that they were also *utterly deluded*, and when we got back we proved it to ourselves by listening the songs that we'd been taping off John Peel, by bands that would never scale speaker stacks in their life, and we picked up the fanzines that we liked but no-one else seemed to and even the copies of Sounds that were lying around (these were days when the papers had a cabal of writers at least showing sympathy for youngbloods like the June Brides and the Pastels and Close Lobsters and the Wolfhounds...) and we re-read and re-listened and yeah, "got into" these bands because we found we really did like them and because they spoke to us then, because they were trying only to be themselves (that line from Give My Love to Kevin, "I'm not trying to be anything..." was a tonic because we identified with it, so completely - later of course, it would be the Field Mice's iconic "I'm not brave / I'm not special / I'm not any of those things") and we no longer went for music just because others at school did. And before we knew it we were translating late night Radio 1 into shopping trips for vinyl, and spinning delightedly into all sorts of new worlds, even if it was a generation later when the speaker-climbing band's old manager reappeared out of the blue at our door, trying to sell us double glazing, and it seemed a virtuous circle was complete.

Ahem. Back on Tin Pan Alley, how we then got on to Floridian wonder-marque Cloudberry is less clear, but we did. At a guess, it started when we were talking about how once-cherished bands found it so easy to believe their own hype, to treat their advance as a sign they'd made it, to relentlessly milk their new found popularity by starting to act the role of pop star, minor or major league, rather than to do it because they wanted to. Even if climbing speaker stacks was very 80s, whereas to walk the walk in super media-savvy 2008 needs a more studied cool (handily now taught at stage school): act like you don't care, curl your lip, wear a Ramones t-shirt as if you mean it, glibly drip in and out of rehab. As a king of Manchester once said, and it seems to apply more than ever today: "All the young groups now / Act like peasants with free milk".

And on that kind of tip, Roque (off of Cloudberry) wrote a niiice piece in the splendid Iconoclastic Cardies #2 about certain bands kind of trying to cling to the coat-tails of indie as 'trendy', at the same time as using all the old ladder-climbing tricks to pull up sales and "buzz", all that kind of tosh. It's a little like the ongoing battle in hip-hop, typified by Ice-T's "Question And Answer" as long ago as '93 where he made clear he didn't have a problem with the artists who never pretended to be anything other than 'pop' (ha, even the "new and untouchable" Hammer): but when artists sold themselves as 'street' - whether underground pioneer or straight-up gangster from the group home - and then crossed over, they were player fakers. If you're putting a record out on Cloudberry, chances are you're not doing it for a quick leg-up into the demsne of pluggers and faux-indie. (Or, indeed, to sell yourself as gangsta when you prefer a quiet night in with the crossword). Cloudberry keep it real, and we don't care how you leap on that statement. Here's the 1, 2, 3.

The first thing is the aesthetics. Every single Cloudberry release is impeccably packaged, each 3" CD-r nestling in a micro-sleeve with carefully pored-over artwork. It's amazing how quickly we get blase about it, but we shouldn't. Great labels in the day like Sarah, Factory, Pink, September, or more recently Matinee or the immaculate LTM took great care over their presentation and packaging, too, and were all the better for it. Plus, there are the little country flags that remind us of the many nations of indie-pop, the power of the international pop underground (an august organisation that, liberated by the internet, now routinely makes border raids into new worlds of possibility, staking out its territory further). Cloudberry is one of its liveliest active splinter cells (we at in love with these times, in spite of these times are just sleepers).

The second thing, a touch more important: the attitude. "Cloudberry believes in unrequited love + systems of resistance + sense of community + DIY ethics + international socialism". While those are fine words, many indie-kids in the UK profess the same kind of thing, but beyond the trappings of indiepop fandom, still manage to fire themselves up only with deeply conservative idea(l)s, or vote Conservative, or, even worse don't bother to vote at all (well done again the 3 million registered voters in London to whom it should have been abundantly clear that if they didn't vote, the BNP would get their 5% threshold: and who still didn't bother). But in describing what Cloudberry does and represents, their own words seem entirely accurate and fair, and their rightful fascination with the *SINGLE* as a primary form of revolutionary communique has much in common with our own over-romantic notions of the single as being at the heart of (musical) love, resistance and community... And there, perhaps, is the most valid, most important link with Sarah, with the way that our interpretation of the Sarah ethos + politics (there were plenty of interpretations flying around, both now and then) was, for us, intrinsic to so appreciating the records.

And then there's the third thing, lest we forget - the music. We posted a few favourites elsewhere: that's a cool quarter-century of ace songs, for a start. There's no pretence at redrawing genre boundaries or breaking brave new critical moulds, and no reason there should be: the label's own blurb makes clear that it's "an indiepop label purveying the sound of jangly guitars". Sarah were always criticised for sticking to a certain "musical type", but as Matt Haynes pointed out the same criticisms were never extended to jazz labels, reggae labels etc which would be regarded as "specialist" and therefore immune from such high-handed criticism. You know, the sort of label that gets called an "imprint". On that analysis, Cloudberry, too, is a specialist label, we guess, and one churning out greatness in occasionally frightening volumes.

And a new epoch of Cloudberry (if any project so young can already be on to a second epoch) comes in 2008 with their first forays into 7" vinyl, the first handful of releases having come already from the Bridal Shop, the Summer Cats and the louche, luxurious OJ / Smithsy (but think via some of the classic Marsh Marigold or Firestation Tower bands) Twig. The Tartans' "My Baby Doesn't Care For You" is the fourth instalment: it's fragile as hell, and you almost feel you could despatch the lot of them with no more than an idle Subbuteo flick, but like other gems of the er, fetherlite genre (our chance to mention Bunny Nightlight's "Hail" again) it actually subverts our usual cynicism and desire for noise and velocity at all costs, and by the end of its 2 1/2 minutes (with a great dead stop ending) it's managed to wind us entirely around its little finger. We'd also exhort investment in the fifth Cloudberry 7", the Westfield Mining Disaster's "Hank Williams Saved My Life": it's grrreat, a slo-fi post-Tramway burn of insight, retrospection and perhaps a little latent Pastelism, that couples nicely with the similarly weighted semi-c&w B-side, "Six Months In Arrears". Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the quality though, given WMD Paul Towler's connection with the Haywains, a band who, if sometimes a little too prolific for their own good (if you've got any fanzine compilation tape from the late 80s, we bet you they're on it, along with the Driscolls and Thrilled Skinny, plus they ended up putting a fair number of tunes out on Vinyl Japan in the 90s if we're not mistaken), were always capable of raising themselves to great things ("Bythesea Road", "I Wouldn't Want That"). When they aimed high enough, and really put their minds to it.

Look. Anyone who tells you, in 2008, that Cloudberry *is* the new Sarah, or that Cloudberry has already eclipsed Sarah or 555 or Subway or Matinee or K or Earache or Relapse or Postcard or Music of Life or Factory or Maximum Minimum or Fast Product or Dischord or Rhyme Syndicate or er, Decca is wrong (even though it's been "statistically" "proven" that Cloudberry was the best label of 2007). We don't feel we can properly make such comparisons for a few years yet. And the label's far too prolific for us to be able to say, hand on heart, that every release meets with our approval: there have definitely been some that *don't* add all that to the global store of indie-pop goodness. But these, of course, are small, inevitable and irrelevant things. What matters of course is the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is the now.

That it would be worth Cloudberry existing even if they'd only given us one gem: just one single of the calibre of the ones mentioned above. It frankly wouldn't matter, in that light, if there'd been a hundred duds inbetween. And because of that track record, we're grateful for Cloudberry existing - no, not "existing", but HAPPENING - because faced as we are at any time with about 1,000 new records to listen to (most of which are B.A.D) Cloudberry is a pretty good filter for us to discover music, and without which we wouldn't have been able to follow up on half the bands above, for a start. Like all the labels we've namechecked, it's one we feel we can trust - even if that's not the same as meaning we blindly love everything they release. And it wouldn't be able to be that filter if this wasn't being done for the love of points one, two, three above, if it was just an extension of the rest of the "indie" industry in 2008, all pluggers and £40 haircuts and posing and fake self-deprecation. In short, without Cloudberry and its precious cavalcade of bands, our record collection would be a lot lighter and a lot poorer.

Hey. It's way past our bedtime, and we've kinda forgotten starting the post, but basically, so long as these DIY scenes - yes indiepop, but also grime, some techno, UKHH and so many more - are still whirring away, we can tell ourselves we're vindicated in still devoting our spare hours, our time off from real-life, to looking for them. Sometimes the journey sucks, like that first trip to the city did. But when it works, there's a kernel of joy we want to try and transmit to someone, anyone. We chase and paint, rapids and rainbows. That's our feeling. That's our mission.