Monday, April 06, 2009

Convivial Pirate Material

Happy new tax year.

We were all trying to get there

By the early 1990s, we'd decamped, lock stock and biscuit-barrel, to a cosy domesticity in Bristol, a city then in the vice-like of some vaguely magical happenings. First and foremost, Sarah Records, Clifton's favourite cottage (sorry, garden flat) industry, was continuing to quietly churn out largely miraculous releases. So we got to ride the buses that appeared on Sarah 7"s, inhale the same air as Secret Shine, tread the same pavements as Tramway, make intermittent forays - invariably to the Fleece - to see Sarah bands (sorry, slipped into NME-speak there, we mean bands who happened to be *on* Sarah...)

For us indie-kids of a certain age - the Christine's Cat generation, in our striped T-shirts and frankly pathetic fringes - it was our Altamont, Woodstock, Madchester, rolled into a naif whole. We even, I'm ashamed to say, found somewhere off Cornmarket you could buy sherbet fountains. Not that we ever anticipated at the time that a decade into the next century There And Back Again Lane would be a zealously-fetishised cross between Abbey Road and Mecca (with some even inclined to theft), that nutters (OK then, us) would pilgrim it up to where Brighter had their photo taken on the back sleeve of "Laurel", and that e-bay would be practically overrun by international point-missers trading Sarah plastic for parasitical prices: a sad kaleidoscope of nostalgia viewed through the ugly prism of capitalism.

But there was (heresy alert) a local musical heart beating stridently outside of Sarah: from the Beatnik Filmstars' fidgety, Fall-ish embrace of yelping lo-fi through to the marble-smooth crossover of Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (yes, a coffee table staple, but that's why it's so criminally undervalued: there is more fire in the belly of that album than in most of the much-vaunted indie crop, now or then: plus, Kyoko's sublime cover of "Protection" later drew the strands together so neatly). There were eminently grazeable record stores in town, among them the alliterative holy trinity of Replay, Rival and Revolver, each giving us many hours of lucky-dip record amassing. There was even the week that Bristol was anointed Sound City by "wunnerful Radio One" and we found ourselves shoehorned into a holding pen from which we were forced, in between vain attempts to heckle Lamacq off the stage, to witness roadshow miming from the Boo Radleys and Ultimate Kaos.

The city even boasted two clubs in the second division: a truly giddy height in the pyramid, in retrospect. The Rovers, workmanlike rather than gifted, nevertheless used Fortress Twerton to launch occasional demolitions of the crosstown enemy as well as despatching divisional rivals of the day like Middlesbrough and Blackburn (King Kev's Newcastle sadly survived big Devon White's all-shoulders onslaught unscathed, accompanied as ever by somewhat over-sympathetic refereeing). We'd fermented a plot that if we could just find a way to come into some money, perhaps via an insurance scam or the bumping-off of a fractious relative, we could stump up to have the Sarah Records cherries emblazoned on the famed blue and white quarters: a plan that evaporated some way short of fruition, though we'd got as far as debating over a jar or three in the Ostrich whether in the event we'd be able to persuade Clare and Matt that the cherries might tactfully be rebranded Rovers-blue.

Radio, live transmission

Anyway. While in Bristol, we made one more enchanting local find. But in this instance, there was no need to leave the comfort of our own home. For our discovery was a radio station. Its name ? Slit Your Throat FM.

Obviously, SYT, as it branded itself, was a pirate. It seemed to be run from somewhere in Totterdown (and used the mailing address of the Greenleaf bookshop, the workers co-op now sadly no more). Like many such enterprises you'd occasionally tune in only to find there'd been a police raid, or the transmitters were on the blink, and wait in hope for the airwaves to re-open. But what was most engaging about SYT was that it bore none of the hallmarks of modern pirates, such as flooding you with adverts for raves atop a non-stop diet of junglist chaos. It neither aspired to legitimacy, nor really flaunted its anti-establishment credentials. Instead, SYT was quite clearly just a few blokes who, with their local accents and down to earth patter, loved music and, for whatever reason, were happy to risk prosecution just to put out a few hours of their favourite tunes every Sunday. And for that, they need to be roundly saluted.

The playlist was *grreat*: the 'legitimate' opposition, BBC's Bristol and Somerset Sound, simply could not compete. Yes, there was a heavy fondness for tuneful post-punk and new wave (Buzzcocks, the Vapors, "Where's Bill Grundy Now ?", the Rejects and the Sham) but we heard everything on SYT from "Pristine Christine" to "Original Gangsta". In short, the platters mattered. But better still were the mysterious men on the decks. Our favourite was a guy who styled himself - one suspects ironically - as "DJ Low Alcohol", the unflappable doyen of the teatime slot. We'll probably never ever know his true identity, but to this day, he's one of our favourite ever broadcasters. His fluttering banter was free-flowing, down-the-pub conversational: everything that legal radio can't give you. Which made it more marked when his tone flipped on occasion to wise, even stentorian: after playing some fevered Ice-T verses about crossfire in South Central, he paused before observing starkly, "There is a man who speaks some sense". You knew he meant it, and you knew he was right.

Dead air time was not uncommon, especially as the evening wore on: it might start with a slowing in motion of the team's Brizzle drawl, from which you coralled the distinct impression either of west country Westwood-ism or, at the least, being dangerously over-cidered. Indeed, by midnight, the DJ-ing was sometimes no more than mumbles and mutters, with long gaps as each record was gingerly cued up. This was real D.I.Y.

Fuck Religion, Fuck Politics, Fuck The Lot of You ?

Trying to track down anything about SYT now, we seem to be at a dead end (a bit like There And Back Again Lane). But there was one clue, a clue repeated a few times on air, as to who might have been behind SYT, or at least helped to inspire it. It was that the various DJs (ooh, DJ Teetotal was another one, we now recall) seemed to display a surprisingly intimate working knowledge of the discography of "a great Bristol band...", as Teetotal once slurred in the witching hour, "...called Chaotic Dischord".

We'd heard, of course, of Chaotic Dischord. Back in yes, 1986, we'd been ardent perusers of the indie charts published every week in Sounds: with newsprint-stained fingers we tracked the "Sorry To Embarrass You"s and the "Completely and Utterly"s as they rose and fell, we waited to see if "Blue Monday" would ever drop out of the singles list, we marvelled at the peculiar titles of albums we'd never heard, usually by Psychic TV or Alien Sex Fiend, that seemed to hover in those charts, lists that gave such bands both mystery and in our impressionable eyes even a smidgeon of credibility. But the title that stood out was Chaotic Dischord's "Goat Fuckin' Virgin Killerz From Hell". God, they must be *rubbish*, we thought at the time.

But we were wrong about 'ver Dischord. Well, alright, not completely wrong, because mostly they were pretty terrible, if pretty deliberately terrible, but sometimes wrong. They were certainly better than the Beatles. "Fuck Religion, Fuck Politics, Fuck The Lot Of You", the title track of their first and finest LP (recorded at Brizzle's SAM Studios, later the birthplace of all sorts of fine Subway singles), is, however accidentally, a blank generation ker-lassic. And "Cliff", a tune you can pick up on the Riot City singles collection even if you can't track down any C.D. CDs, is their still-notorious expletive-filled 'ode' to Harry Webb, two and a half minutes of distilled yet seemingly genuine anger at Cliff's continuing reign that finishes with a bizarre, brilliant and suitably offensive cut-up / sample of his Eurovision moment, "Congratulations". (Once, after playing it on SYT, one of the DJs confided - again, we would guess from a position of some knowledge - that "the bit of splicing at the end took longer to do than recording the whole of the rest of the album"). And that's how we find ourselves in the rather strange position of feeling that we may have ended up owing Chaotic Dischord, of all bands, rather a lot.

Which all makes Slit Your Throat FM one of the finest radio stations that ever existed: with wings of sparrow and arse of crow, it absolutely rains it down on XFM or 6Music. As far as we're concerned, whoever the DJs really were, and however much they did it for the thrill (or for the booze), they also did it *for the love* of the music. Which brings us to a short (ok then, long) canter through the usual.

* * * * *

Y'know, we'd been at least 3/4-expecting the much-trailed Dap-C / L'il Wayne collaboration to be a trainwreck, undoing all the good work that C did in teaming with Blak Twang for the still-delish "Music Game", but it's really very far from that: whatever Wayne got paid was worth it, because unlike the Chef's turn on Geejay's album, or the properly abysmal likes of Wayne's own "Prom Queen", the man from New Orleans properly turns up, with both Talib Kweli (another neat guest spot, following on from "We Gets It In" on Craig and Marl's "Operation Take Back") and old-stager and metric martyr Royce Da 5' 9" in tow. In that company, Dap-C's own verse sounds more surreally out of place (a card-carrying Geordie in the booth with the US's finest) than bad: though he doesn't really need to introduce himself by starting it with a brusque "Dap-C!" because there's no way any listener is going to be getting him confused with Talib, Wayne or Royce. Meantime, the beauty of (homestyler) Quincey Tones' vaguely serene, unflashy string-laden backing is that it just lets each MC concentrate on limbering up their larynxes: there are no attempts to interact, and the five minutes, entirely free of wack chorus lines or wholesale Kanye-style song steals, goes by shockingly fast. It shouldn't work, of course it shouldn't, but it really does.

Similarly fly is Very Truly Yours' debut (a brace on a Cloudberry's new line, the fluffed-up pillows of pop loveliness that are their "800" series), with "Popsong '91" shining the brightest, as it veritably Melbergs-up some 'UK 80s-90s' Brit(indie)pop stylings. VTY also turn up on WeePop!'s "Starting Over" compilation, one fresh for the new year and so which came out nearly as long ago as "Ma Money", but it's just as fine, so excuse our tardiness. Literally a "pop-up" compilation (a modern-day 3D Whittington surveys the big city on the gorgeous, rained-in playtime sleeve), up spring seven tunes from seven stars of the new pop firmament including not only the Yours, but Amida, Electrophonvintage and Horowitz.

Ah yes, and Horowitz. What a single their forthcoming 45 on Cloudberry is, two songs that could fight all day for A-side status and you'd never be able to sensibly resolve it without UN intervention. "How To Look Imploring" is even more ridiculously tuneful than "Popsong '91", all carefree careering down a luge of snowflake-covered melody, while "The Drunks Are Writing Punk Songs" admits little changes of pace while still anchoring them brutally to Tullycraft-esque hooks the size of the Appalachian mountains. There's all sorts of ways of parcelling up vinyl - the "V" and "A" sides of Violent Arrest, the "P" and "E" sides of Public Enemy, the "X" and "Y" sides of those early EPMD 12"s, the silent double-As of "Solace" and "Sensitive" - but there's no getting away from the fact that when both sides rule as much as this, the humble 7" continues to be one of our greatest sources of joy in this sometimes dark, decaying world. PS Our contacts on the new music black market have also secured us access to a pre-release tape of Horowitz's "Government Center", a cover of one J. Richman of course, which you'll recognise from many a stellar 'witz set, and set to see the light of day soon via a comp on an august UK label (clue: "new and untouchable"). It is, of course, dapper.

Now the Hermit Crabs have been skittering to and fro across our radar for the past year or so. We were probably a little unnecessarily ill-disposed to them for having had the temerity to enter, just as much win, a songwriting competition (with "Feel Good Factor"), because in our minds that brought up images of Rockschool or Orange Unsigned or every battle of the bands we'd ever suffered, and in any case we actually vastly preferred the album debut that followed, "Saw You Dancing", a frothy and clever brew of delicate folk-tinged indie pop, but now with the "Correspondence Course" EP on (the really shouldn't be taken for granted) Matinee Recordings we have what we think is easily their breakthrough moment. "About You Before" is as warm, as cosy, as cuddly and catchy as "Eighties Fan", while the title track, which we found ourselves revisiting in earnest thanks to Sam's little review, repaid his (and our) faith, especially with the extra washes of guitar that intrude towards the end. It also namechecks This Mortal Coil, which brought us back in a flash to 1986 and yes, those Sounds indie charts... This might also be the place to point out that Butcher Boy's new and sumptuously-packaged LP on How Does It Feel ? (even if its title, "React Or Die", sounds more like something Negative Approach or Youth Of Today would come up with, but anyway) contains a couple of smoochable tracks with that same cultured, melodic, sauntering, breezy Hermit Crabs / Math & Physics feel... what we're tempted to christen "That Matinee Sound".

Napalm Death's "Time Waits For No Slave" - they're somewhere in their mid-teens of studio albums now - is another uncompromising ND battering ram, and moreover one which has pounded its way into the German top 100 (we're impressed by that, even if you're not), making it probably their biggest hit. And it has much more depth than previous outings: more Swans-type industrial doom, more Deicide-like bumblebee guitar parts, more of Mitch Harris' high-pitched backing screams, more thoughtful and extensive arrangements and there's even a dramatic, epic bonus track, blooming with semi-gothic doom, which reminds us in parts of the Cocteau Twins. Not that any of this should make you think, not even for a second, that it isn't still an unbelievably fast, blastbeast-filled pneumatic drill of a record: it's just more of an extreme metal masterpiece than good old punk-influenced grindcore. And for some worringly conservative reason, that wasn't quite what we wanted from it, and we can't yet clutch it to their bosom as we have all their previous post-Earache albums. Mind you, there is enough here (the breakdown in "Diktat", the the record's lone "guitar solo" - a minimalist Bill Steer-circa 1990 flourish - in "No Sided Argument", the whole of "On the Brink of Extinction") to keep it fairly anchored in any self-respecting CD player. And we're still stoked that the Germans like it so much.

Despite being lauded by Artrocker, and invited to tour with the Cribs, Brighton's Shrag are actually quite good. Their self-titled debut LP, effectively a collection of their five 7"s for the all too-imperceptible Where It's At Is Where You Are, ranges from Fall-influenced '80s-era Peel bands through hints of the spikier girl-sung Comet Gain via the punkishness of Reverend Pike & the shoutiness of bis and Bearsuit and, lest we be unclear about this, the Fall again (most obviously, the combination of Elena-style keyboards and guitar riffs hewn from the Scanlon / Hanley golden era). We prefer most of all the two atypical, slightly calmer tunes, "Hopelessly Wasted" and "Forty-Five 45s", both of which suggest that a certain longevity is open to Shrag should they wish to, um, "progress". No particular hurry though - any band who combines slanted, fairly frazzled nearly-indie pop with Guided Missile-style awkwardness is probably (with the exception of the very weak "Talk To The Left") doing a fair bit right.

Durrty Goodz' "Ultrasound" mixtape (soz, "pre-album") is a blinder, as damn talented, confident and danceable as "Axiom", so much so that we're reluctantly convinced already that his upcoming "Born Blessed" set isn't going to be able to match it. DG obviously has the same beefs with most grime mixtapes that we do - they're too long, they're full of filler, etc - so as well as reeling off one massive tune after another, he has time and temerity to drop in superb parodies of other MC's "sweetboy" songs *AND* the recent spate of feeble electro-crossover singles by grimesters (welcomely declaring the latter bandwagon OVER), to throw in a whole number about fast forwarding through rivals' mixtapes, to team up with Maniac for "Grime Killers", which skilfully works in samples from a Dotun Adebayo phone-in addressing the lack of role models and educational achievement in the black community. Best of all, this is actually a "grime" album that sounds like grime, rather than sludgy hip-hop apologia: sugar rushes like "Destruction" or "Superhero" make you wanna make like Lionel and dance the ceiling to bits. As you know, we're at best sceptical as to musical talent, because it so often fails to translate to exciting music. But what's special about Goodz is that he's palpably, prodigiously talented and *doesn't* let it hinder him. On this evidence, the guy remains simply head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries.

Good news from Stockholm, because Carcass copyists General Surgery (importantly though, copyists who know that "Symphonies Of Sickness", not "Reek Of Putrefaction" is the album to ape, much as that comment will be as hotly disputed as our conclusion on "Solace" vs "Please Rain Fall" or, indeed, our clear predilection for the stunning, massively underrated "Forever" over "36 Chambers") have completed their second LP, "Corpus In Extremis - Analysing Necrocriticism" (such a "Descanting The Salubrious"-type title). You won't need a feverishly over-exercised imagination to know what it sounds like: the title track, a "Symphonies" throwback, is a peach.

Bristol's latest slept-on sensation, the Short Stories, have taken only months from album no.1, "Short Stories For Long Nights", to complete their second long-player, "The Night Is On Fire". Two things jumped out at us initially. One is that it's difficult to recall any album made since, ooh, approx. the dawn of time that starts with such relentless miserableness as the lyrics to (and delivery of) opener "It Only Hurts When I Move": but you need to bear with it, because the song butterflies into a plush, pastoral instrumental with a gorgeous coda the keyboard swells of which deftly and deliberately recall a morose classic of times past (listen, and you'll divine what we mean). Two, for "See My Skin", the Short Stories have achieved what Dave Simpson signally failed to for his otherwise so-comprehensive survey "The Fallen", and managed to coax ex-Blue Orchids and Fall ledge Martin Bramah out briefly from hiding, to deliver a short spoken word overlay to the track's clanging, *cough" Fall-esque guitar serrations.

There is, of course, more to the record than that: similar sentiments to "It Only Hurts" drive "Sink Or Swim", but this time the music is a little breezier, a piece that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Forest Giants' elegant swansong "Things We Do When We're Bored". "Closing Time" is more straightforward still, a slightly whimsical new wavey number that would have sat equally well on their debut, and that would probably be the obvious single choice, were small labels to be afforded the luxury of being able to release those anymore. There's the album finisher, "Adoration", a thoughtful dissection of the differences between us that we usually gloss over: its gently repetitious cadences give it the feel almost of a lullaby. But the whole LP is anchored by the rather tender narrative of "The Loser's Club", a most delectable slow burn of dramatic Velvetsy guitar-shuffling combined with that rambling feel of the young Fall's most cogent storytelling moments. It goes on for around 12 minutes, but - and here's the crucial part - a little like the later Fall's "50 Year Old Man", you get sucked into the narrative sufficiently that you could swear those twelve minutes pass in a mere instant or two.

And the Beatnik Filmstars have a 7", "Slow Decay", on the Satisfaction Recording Company that follows their own masterly album of last year with a song as delicate and pained, yet rewarding, as anything on the Short Stories record... And Recordkingz' "Heat" single, featuring none other than longtime on/off ilwttisott favourites Mobb Deep, is a pretty imperious introduction to Recordkingz' vaguely imminent long-player: while we could do without all of the "niggaz / bitches" stuff in the chorus (and the "play hard like rugby" simile, which seems rather inappropriate for tru gangstaz), it's otherwise a sweet summation of the artistry of Queensbridge's most revered veterans. Ooh, and while neither Chase & Status nor Kano have proved terrifically reliable at producing anything outlandishly good in recent years, they have at least teamed up for a very amiable, if throwaway single called "Against All Odds": a kind of 70s' funk-UKHH hybrid that is one part Hoodz Underground's "How Do You Feel" (the samples), one part Deejay-Punk Rock vs. Onyx's "Roc-in-it" and one part Nightmares On Wax's "70s-80s"... And while entertaining rather than exhilarating, the Qemists' "Dem Na Like Me" single (on Ninja Tune) is fuelled by some typically brazen + enterprisingly bluster from Wiley: "I'll take a hammer to your Audi", he smiles.

We haven't heard much (indeed, we haven't heard enough) from Newham Generals since we saw them at the Electric Ballroom in the early summer of 2005, and they put together the 26th best album of the year in 2006. But their new single, "Head Get Mangled", especially when coupled with the hundredweight of pure old-style "Run The Road"-esque grime that is "Merked Again", could easily be the single of 2009 so far: interpolating sidewinder rhymes with washes of d&b and experimental instrumental, like a grime "Levitate", it makes having your head mangled a true pleasure. They're probably best known for being proteges of Dizzee Rascal, but DR, now seemingly more fond of hob-nobbing with Lily Allen, Joss Stone or the cardboard-indie crowd, hasn't made a record this exciting since "I Luv U". If you would prefer something that more slowly entwines its path into your affections, then that's exactly what Shirley Lee's "The Smack Of The Pavement In Your Face" has done to us... dead romantic, it was the taster for a self-titled album which we're bound to get round to buying before the century is out. Or there's Wake The President's sprightly and in places frankly irresistible "Miss Tierney", one side of a 7" with the often-great Je Suis Animal, which mingles the brash beauteousness of Felt with some Sarah-ish jangle and only intermittently annoying vocals.

We've read a lot, mostly on the money, on the next record to mention, so don't propose to say much, only this. One of the sad things about some of the wonderful bands who sprouted up around '86 was that while they produced blissful singles for the next couple of years, relatively few ended up making equally life-affirming first albums: some never progressed to LPs at all, others only when they had grown up a little, or sold out a lot. So whatever the passage of time does to the Pains of Being Pure At Heart, we can at least all be happy that they have produced a(n eponymous) full-length, on Fortuna Pop! here in the UK, that lays out perfectly, just as it should, all the confidence and poise they have now, and that we'll never have to hold that same regret in respect of them. (The latest 7" from it is "Young Adult Friction", btw. Rightly).

And actually, the same thing goes for Pocketbooks. How many artists can claim to have released a record where the first three songs are really without blemish ? Right now, we can only think of "Straight Outta Compton" (obviously). But whereas from track four "Straight..." then takes a high-dive onto the steepest possible downhill incline to end in a series of musically unadventurous, un-incendiary and frankly egregiously reactionary whimpers, Pocketbooks' new record, "Flight Paths" (hot on the heels of "React Or Die", it's a similarly lusciously designed artefact from the How Does It Feel ? stable) follows the plumes of harmony that verily *rain* down over the perfect first three tracks - "Footsteps", "Fleeting Moments" and "Camera Angles" - with a proper LP-ful of vitamin goodness. Now God only knows what trouble we'd get into if we told you that this record was an even better debut than the Pains', so we'll keep that under our hats and instead record merely that "Flight Paths" is a stream of hummable, always likeable stories, bubbling with lyrical imagination, rippling with a determination to encompass all of London life into a series of vignettes, to treat us to a series of top-deck pop journeys around the city (at one point citing the number 23 bus, which we're sure is the one that I, Ludicrous mention in "Carter - They're Unstoppable", bus route reference fans). They've also largely left that slight church hall-feel long behind, with the songs boasting production that more snugly mimics the art of their arrangements, and we even get re-recordings of the two songs from that superb Atomic Beat 7" that manage not to emasculate the joie de vivre of the originals (y'know, we've been scribbling under the ilwttisott umbrella for a decade-plus now, but there are few more bubblingly, buzzingly sublime songs written in that time than "Cross The Line"). Yeah, this record is about the subtle tangle of connection between us all, our "flight paths to each other", presumably a Pastels nod. There's even a bit near the end of the final track, "All We Do Is Rush Around", where Andy SHOUTS and then they *ROCK OUT* for 20 seconds and the excitement of that is a breathless tribute to all that's gone before, a fall of ticker tape to top off the parade. So. Hold my hands, and tell me that Pocketbooks will never leave me.

"Briefly" picking up on a couple of bands mentioned on these pages before: the very great Doom have their ultra-rare 1996 LP, "Rush Hour of the Gods", released on CD together with four tracks from their 1998 split 10" with Cress. It's the usual bleak, repressive and swishingly *fabulous* grind-influenced hardcore punk / crust: listen to it all in one go for a real rush, being pre-warned that opening track "Feel Good Factor" is not that "Feel Good Factor", and indeed won't have placed in any songwriting competitions we know of. And Earache have released a single CD compiling the works of Narcosis: "Best Served Cold: Discography 1998-2007". Of the 51 tracks, the highlights are probably still the twenty that made up their "Romance" set, touched on here, but their sheer unflinching commitment to icy blood-and-thunder, somewhat trebly noise-grind deserves this more comprehensive testament. And as we're on an Earache tip, here's a freebie, and an absolute banker: you *MUST*, whatever else you do this year, buy Earache's welcome release of Insect Warfare's "World Extermination" LP. Much much more from us on that one day, we hope.

Don't think we're going to pass up this chance to big up Aswad's newly issued "BBC Sessions" double-CD set. Within about three seconds of getting the cellophane off, their first Peel sesh from 1976 was in the player, and it's as illuminating, as invigorating, as you can sensibly imagine. Of course, in the many years of patience from their first Peel session to their first number one single, their style changed dramatically, but their work up until the early 1980s, when they signed to Island and managed to deliver at least one landmark UK reggae LP, is well reflected by this exhaustive package. The bass on their nascent recording of "Natural Progression" is unfathomably deep, lending it a different kind of magic to the horn-bled version that would appear on "New Chapter" half a decade on: and the heartrendingly beautiful (really) "Pressure" even outflanks its polar opposite, Negative Approach's song of the same name, in quality. Like "Fussing and Fighting" or "Bluebeat & Ska", it's a pristine e.g. of how roots reggae can be peerless. CD2, to be honest, is best ignored - we're not quite sure why Aswad, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, indeed everyone suddenly became so terrible in the 80s, though think it may have had something to do with (a) production trends at the time and (b) the evil, ever-encroaching shadow of UB40 - but CD1 has enough on it to help you through the darkest of days. Buy it as a treat for yourself.

While we're in revival mode, 555's "The Wetherbeat Scene" is a little treasure chest too. Whereas the Sound of Leamington Spa comps (now up to volume 233, stat attack stalkers) bely their name by necessarily zooooming all around the UK to chuck together both the gold and less-so soundz of late 80s janglers, this CD does consist solely of tunes extracted from the alchemic Yorkshire town of Wetherby 'twixt '88 and '91 (indeed, as far as we can tell, by bands from Wetherby High School who shared the honour of being within a teenage musical web that had a certain Stewart Anderson at its epicentre). What this means in headline terms is that we get some early belters from two combos who grew to become two of the best groups in the world, no danger - yep, Boyracer and Hood - and in the latter case we're talking "Structured Disasters"-type fragments, including an even more excitable "Swan Finer" and the wondrous three minutes that is "Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse" (a precursor of "Your 6th Sense" or "Sirens" or some of "Cabled Linear", being all sweet adolescent fumblings and anxious boy / girl vocals, but then topped off by a completely random burst of noise that nearly brings the whole thing toppling down abt 2 mins in). (Some old ilwtt,isott stuff from Hood here, here and here, btw). As for the Boyracer numbers, "My Town" reappears (the unblinking, scratchy, semi-precious and surprisingly catchy number that turned up on "Boyfuckingracer") along with two we didn't know, "Man" and "My Favourite Pastime". Neither of those quite have the spleen or confidence that the band were to display by the time of that first Sarah single, or even the rawness that made "Boyracer" (the song) such a sit-up-and-listen moment, but as a glimpse into the evolutionary process behind a great songwriter, they are maxi-welcome.

* * * * *

And somewhere in a parallel universe shaped from our youth, a pirate station is even now playing Goodz and Horowitz, the Hermit Crabs and Doom, Aswad and Butcher Boy, Napalm and Pocketbooks and the rest. And there's no way you'll ever convince us that DJ Low Alcohol and our other SYT heroes wouldn't have been with us - and them - in spirit, all the way.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The first cut is the deepest: 8 great ways to start a compilation tape

Happy new (financial) year, btw.

The Field Mice "Sensitive"

What it says: Hey, I'm sensitive. Will you be my girlfriend ?

Ah, the daddy of compilation-tape starting. If (speaking hypothetically of course) you were a wet-behind-the-ears 15 yr old boy when this came out, this one would get wheeled out again and again. Only years later would you realise that there wasn't a girl in your town who would have put "sensitive" in the top ten list of qualities she required from a prospective boyf. at the time, especially when there were lads up the road with XR3s. The real reason that "Sensitive" works so well as a tape starter is that it's basically a cracking record. And, that even now, it's a statement of intent. Of sorts. The first time we heard "Sensitive" (SARAH 18), Peel had preceded it by reading extracts from an excitable covering letter from Sarah which had unsubtly indicated they thought it one of the best records ever made. As the song unfolded for the first time, we weren't sure we could quite see that, but somehow it reeled us in as it went by, and by the time Bobby's avowed favourite three Field Mice minutes - thinly sliced layers of guitar, fingers climbing the fretboard inamidst that well-drilled, repeating chord sequence - passed by, we were (a) willing it not to end (b) waiting, just waiting, for the time daylight would come and we could find a shop to buy it in.

Now there's been some debate about the lyrics. Specifically, whether they were "repugnant", "arrogant", "delusional"... True, looked at in an unforgiving light you could say the words were a bit preachy. But what you have to remember is what we were trying to kick against, then and now, frankly. Macho posturing of the type that resurfaced with a vengeance with Oasis and co around the time that Sarah sadly called it quits, and which is still in full enough effect in 2009 when we seek a quiet pint in a nearby Wetherspoon's, or try and walk down the street on matchdays, or listen to Radio 5, or, to be honest, half the time we step outside our front door at all. So I felt like *cheering* when those lines about "the beauty they're busy killing" emerged from the Mice's plaintive morass of guitar fuzz. Was even sufficiently motivated to vote for it in 1989's Festive 50 (in the old days, remember, this required purchase of a postcard and a stamp). Between us, we got it to number 26.

PS Shout out to all the anoraks in the house: the vinyl version of "Sensitive" has a lone, scuffed chord at the start, before the drum machine intro, that doesn't seem to be on the digital versions reissued since on "There And Back Again Lane", "Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way" or LTM's "Snowball + Singles". But we somehow always need that one scuffed chord to remind us of the time we did get hold of the record, and brought it home, and cued it up, and the needle landing on the groove felt like a bird flying free from our hands.

See also Blueboy's "Clearer": another, equally naked, equally unallayed, statement of intent.

King Of The Slums "The Pennine Spitter"

What it says: Sorry, did we hurt your ears ?

Putting "PLAY LOUD" on compilation tapes, indeed on any records, is a common enough trick. But it was a good way of drawing attention to some of indie's greatest ever intros. Sometimes, rather than starting a tape with a statement (as above), or soft-pedalling acoustic fluffyness (later), it was worth diving straight in to something a little busier. And "The Pennine Spitter", which begins with a scree of wondrous electric violin before unfolding into two and a half minutes of said violin plus slurred vocal, punchy Rourke-ish bass and clanging Ron Johnson guitar, is still a refreshing, raucous and original experience (not least because that flood of noisy-violin indie we fully expected in KOTS' rather shimmering wake never materialised). If your tape recipient / victim had, unwisely but as the inlay urged, pressed PLAY with the volume right up, there would always be a few seconds where they briefly recoiled and had to readjust a little.

See also J&MC's "In A Hole": the first few seconds of that are pure, sheer without-warning feedback, rather than "Pennine"'s migraine violin, but achieve a similarly disorienting effect.

MDC "Chock Full Of Shit"

What it says: You're meant to think "what's this ? it's fluffy and acoustic", but ACTUALLY it's going to end up really noisy! Deceived!

A frequent comp-tape starter, as it coquettes into view with lilting, melodic, surprisingly intricate Spanish guitar trills and arpeggios, then slowly weaving in rhythm and tempo and amplified strum before converting finally and inevitably into a much more typical Sandinist-ish (we might copyright that word) MDC thrash about worker exploitation in the developing world. As with "Sensitive" though, the real clincher is that it's a brilliant song. Plus, the lyrics are delivered with just the right mix of glee and contempt.

Now. A supplemental. We are absolutely convinced that MDC did a Peel Session, probably very late 80s or start of 90s, and that this was on it, albeit tactfully retitled "Chock Full Of It", and in a form shorn of the acoustic intro. Yet Ken Garner's epic, exhaustive, excellent Peel Sessions book doesn't seem to list MDC having done a Peel Session at all, even under any of the various alternative monikers we remember them employing (Millions of Dead Cops, "Millions of Damn Christians" (also the LP from which "Chock Full..." is taken!), Multi Death Corporations, "Guns For Nicaragua"'s tongue-in-cheek Moral and Decent Christians, etc). So if someone could tell us the Peel Session did really happen, and we know we're not going slowly gaga, that would be lovely.

Cockney Rejects' "Lumon"

What it says: You're meant to think "what's this ? it's fluffy and acoustic" and then that will probably make you suspicious and think "ACTUALLY it's going to end up really noisy!" but in fact it's just going to carry on being fluffy and acoustic and not go noisy at all! Deceived!

The complex psychology of the mixtape, huh ? Of course, it would depend a little on whether you were going for the "mixtape with tracklist" or a pure lucky dip: if the former, then the victim would alight on the words "Cockney Rejects" on the inlay and expect they were in for some entertaining / wearisome (depending on your PoV) second division Pistols, so for them to get a fetchingly lilting guitar instrumental (btw it's track four on their "Power and the Glory" LP) at least would demonstrate there was a bit more width in later Rejects outings (and it was at this point that you could layer things by following "Lumon" with "Chock Full Of Shit" (q.v.) and if lucky double-bluff them). If, on the other hand, this was a "white label" mixtape, then they'd probably just think "err... what was the point of that ?" and wait for all the Subway Organisation stuff they knew you'd put on later.

There were, of course, a couple of halfway houses that a few of us (word to Matt and Simon especially) used for comp tapes in day, if either "full tracklist" or "no tracklist" didn't quite cut it: you could pluck for the "mystery track" route, so that there would be a tracklist, but every 2 or 3 songs you would resort to virtual Tipp-ex and replace the excised track name with "Mystery track #1" or whatever, which stopped your listener just fast-forwarding through a tune they didn't like the look of - in our case most mystery tracks were, of course, Chas n' Dave: OR you could go down the "non-specific track list" route, where there would be some text but it might be along the lines of "After a couple of indie-pop classics, the tape moves via some Italo-house and a classic Postcard tune to a brace of golden era West Coast bangers..." or even something more obtuse like "after a few songs about death and loneliness, there's a tune about life and loveliness. And then one named after one of Henry VIII's wives. And then one about travelling to heaven to see if there's any precipitation up there..."

God, looking back, we really should have got out more.

Hood "Dismissed Army Brought Us Knives"

What it says: Ha! I bamboozle you with lo-fi!

A truly special song that we first picked up from side two of the "Lee Faust's Million Piece Orchestra" 7" on 555 and loved partly because it felt like the music we might have made right then if we'd had the muse, and an ounce of the ability: deliciously rough, home-made, stumbling, shambling, off-key conversational, a fuller version of the equally gorgeous and teenage "Biochemistry Revision Can Wait" on side one. On a compilation tape, "Dismissed" did a good job of queering the pitch right from kick-off, sometimes provoking a bemused response from the recipient along the lines of "Is this your band ?" Oh, if only.

The tune has since reappeared on both the "Structured Disasters" CD on Happy-Go-Lucky and Misplaced Music's "Singles Compiled", if that helps.

McCarthy "Red Sleeping Beauty". Or "Frans Hals"

What it says: There can be beauty in politics. And vice versa

Sometimes an old song can reel in a new listener simply by soothing 'em in: the deployment of something understated, yet intriguing. And if you want a classic intro - let's say eighty seconds' worth of instrumental, hinging around mysterious guitars that tingled with desire and brooding, but then followed by brittle, plaintive yet powerful lyrics - both these early McCarthy singles deliver in spades. And buckets.

In "Red Sleeping Beauty", when Malcolm Eden's voice does emerge from the dense thicket of finding-their-feet guitars, it's to softly, shyly pluck out articles of faith ("while there's still a world to win...") at the same time as fixing the hardest stare - "NOTHING STIRS THE SOUND ASLEEP" - on the complacent and the cowed who created the climate in which Thatcherism could survive, and has done since. The gently rolling drums strike up a quiet march: later, of course, McCarthy would more formally document "the procession of popular capitalism". With "Frans Hals", the words are initially unsure, even nervy, but as the guitars keep to their drilled chimes, the music begins to display a kind of cards-to-chest menace, while the words cast off the velvet glove completely ("Make your will out, mate... We'll really deal with you"). Yet the sheer, I dunno, *pulchritude* of both songs remains intact, utterly untainted by all the polemic.

The other reason these songs matter to us is that, well, they represent a tradition of unashamed, unabashed, unafraid *politics*. And we're unbowed defenders of music suffused, even drenched in the stuff: we prostrate ourselves at the feet of McCarthy, yes, but also genuflect to "Fear Of A Black Planet", "Meat Is Murder", "Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing", "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder", to Napalm Death's most seismically-charged attacks on the '-isms ("Evolved As One", "Missing Link", "Unchallenged Hate"), to bristling vegetarian / vegan diatribes over the generation from ENT's "Murder" to Cattle Decapitation's latest collection of songs about animal slaughter. The memory of Billy Bragg gatecrashing TOTP in the middle of the miner's strike, standing there alone pounding out "Between The Wars" to a perplexed studio audience (just like McCarthy, a voice of reason, or at least opposition, when mainstream pop in the 80s had all but embraced capitalist rhetoric) still makes our cockles moist with warmth; we share with Mark Steel a strange um, satisfaction in the fact that "the Redskins accomplished the extraordinary feat of getting into the top forty with a dance song about Russia being state capitalist". And we still find ourselves fighting to remind those who really should know better that the music was only the half of the resplendence of Sarah Records.

[***Tolstoy-length rant about people who want to take the "politics out of music" (i.e. "explicit and / or left-wing politics out of music" excised***]

Yes, like any political animal, McCarthy could get a little too deliberate, even high-horsey. The likes of "Get A Knife Between Your Teeth" or "Boy Meets Girl, So What ?" gave the impression they felt they could only get attention by making their point rather painfully obvious. It was a shame they never quite sustained the economy in the lyrics that so profited "Red Sleeping Beauty" or most of the rollicking "I Am A Wallet": even Peel pronounced himself a little bemused that by the time of the "At War" EP they were penning mocking couplets as cumbersome as "Let's hope to God that the unions will negotiate / Militancy is no answer", although he was at pains to say his problem was with the band's scansion rather than their sentiment. Yet even when it didn't quite work, at least they were trying to communicate things that did matter. And "Red Sleeping Beauty" was feted in "Are You Scared To Get Happy?", the one fanzine which displayed an invective and brilliance to match.

And oh, when their music did work: the sublime jangling guitar spirals of "An MP Speaks", the deceptively sparkling, power-poppy sensibilities of "Write To Your MP Today", the slow, subdued, simmering "And Tomorrow The Stock Exchange Will Be The Human Race", the almost jaunty way that "Governing Takes Brains" shakes the cri de coeur of the Right, "You know that equality / Is an impossible dream" into a glorious, hook-laden outro: it was beautiful and chilling. And just as chilling now, what with that being the unending mantra of our beloved press hammering away at largely their own construct, "political correctness" (and talking of AYSTGH, we're unapologetically with greater minds than us on this issue too).

E-A Ski "Blast If I Have To"

What it says: I blast if I have to. Don't make me have to

Remember that halcyon summer of 1998 ? You know, when everyone sat around on Clapham Common having picnics, listening to Belle and Sebastian and discussing foreign films ? We don't.

Instead, D'Alma and I were in the XR3 (yes, by now we'd finally acquired our own!) rolling around town pumping out mostly hip-hop and dance at absurd volumes and getting into the sort of scrapes we wouldn't ever contemplate risking (or admitting to) now. But it was a brilliant, if mildly crazed, time, and while there were a few car stereo staples - Etienne de Crecy, Alex Gopher, Junkie XL, "Know The Ledge", that jumping Def Jam cassette with "Slam", "Regulate" and LL's "Ain't Nobody" - it was the soundtrack to the Ice Cube / Chris Tucker comic flick "Friday" that was the don. The record is more celebrated, probably, for stuff like Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'". But "Blast If I Have To", which we think is used to soundtrack the drive-by scene in the movie, is the one that we loved - still love - the most, because from the get-go it's not only uncompromising, violent and expletive-strewn, yet *crucially* is musically just as tight, urgent, compelling. And danceable. It made perfect sense that any mixtape we did you in '98 would not start with "Falling And Laughing", as you thought and hoped (though that was bound to turn up later). It would start with this, something just as great, but from a slightly different world.

The most intriguing thing about "Blast If I Have To" is perhaps the fact that as a solo artist E-A Ski has never done anything else, which is remarkable considering how ace it is (a loose equivalent might be how Slumber did the Sleep EP, blatantly one of the acest maxi-singles in world history, but otherwise belong only to obscurity). What with today's internet superhighways and superbyways, it's now possible to find about a little about Mr Ski, and sure, it seems he was always a hyper-prolific producer, but to us "Blast" suggests he should have done more in his own name. Still, what he left us with will last.

Sea Urchins "Solace"

What it says: Nothing. We just really like this record.

Confession one. We don't own this on 7". Maybe pocket money at the time was a bit short. We taped it off a mate. Sorry.

Confession two. (Deep breath). We prefer "Solace" to "Please Rain Fall". (Pause for jaws to drop, knives to be sharpened). Always have done. Can't discern for a second why we're in such a tiny minority on this (if, pleasingly, not alone). "Rain Fall", on the other side of the 7" of course (SARAH 8), is a redeeming, bittersweet, picturesque song, and so deftly executed, but for us "Solace" reminds us of "Sensitive" in its marriage of lyrics that bowl you over and feral, pacey guitars. The words appealed to us,and still appeal to us, in just the same way as those of "Sensitive": they rail against the same distant "they": this time, instead of killing beauty, those evil bastards "they" are "getting kicks giving / the kicks they are giving", when all the while the Urchins are marvelling at the gorgeousness of nature, just as we did when we were sixteen when we lived in town and escaped it by walking to the first set of fields just west of Mountnessing Road, and just as we do now, when we live in the city but marvel at the blackbirds and the robins and the magpies all around us even here. And that might make certain discussion-thread dwellers mock us, but we're uninclined to care. Meanwhile, the comp tape starts, after a few secs the drums bundle in and from thereon in the guitars just power along, a force of nature in themselves. And the song eventually dissolves magically in echoing "Blind to it"'s. We still adore.

PS Confession three. We prefer "Solace" to "Pristine Christine", too. Have we been excommunicated yet ?