Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flats "Country / Moonwalk" (Sweat Shop / One Little Indian): The Fall "Night Of The Humerons" (Cherry Red)

Flats get a lot of abuse. For being squatters, for getting press, for being related to Alan McGee. Now by all means slag them off for their music, which many of you do: but please play the ball, rather than the man.

For what it's worth, we quite like the sound that Flats make, although I am a little surprised that anyone else does, unless those old Riot City comps have been selling rather better than I thought. Anyway, after last year's pulsating "Never Again", which, primarily thanks to nicking a Thrilled Skinny riff ("It's A Good Doss") had a tune and everything, these two numbers on the follow-up 7" may neglect the melody side, but they do instead imbue a certain lo-fi punk rawness (of the sort which was two-a-penny in 1980, but has virtually disappeared now) with definite twinges of 'metal' influence.

"Moonwalk", the AA side, is our favourite. It starts off sounding like a bootleg of Napalm Death at the Mermaid circa 1985, and then stomps around all over the place (perhaps that's how the craters appeared), alternating pacy pound with thudding, slower sections until it finishes with a proper bloodcurdling shout, the sort Dean Jones would be proud of. "Country", the A, actually has a riff of sorts, which pounds relentlessly on while Dan yells something about demanding an apology. We think this may be the song about the teacher who physically abused him at school, in which case his anger is more than justified. Either way, there's happily still no discernible production, which suits proceedings perfectly.

We'd embrace Flats even more warmly if they sang about the political instead of the personal - which would after all be in keeping with the traditions on which One Little Indian was founded, as well as the Discharge T-shirt being sported on the back of the sleeve: but to be fair we guess they've looked at bands like the Fall, and how their decision, early on, not to go down that road actually gave them much greater longevity. We think that Flats make a lot of sense in 2012: it's a breath of fresh air to hear a new generation playing this kind of thing, making them - if nothing else - an antidote to just about everything that's wrong with modern 'alternative' music.

As are the Fall, in their way. After an honestly top-drawer album, "Ersatz GB", "Night Of The Humerons" was their Record Store Day 7" and on first listen yes, it's pretty rubbish. Newie "Victrola Time" has the wife improvising on keys for a minute or so before Smith, after warming up with a couple of mangled screams, starts randomly shouting in the usual manner. While entertaining enough Salford vaudeville - a bit like the "Reformation" single, but without the urgent two-note bass riff which anchored it - it's not a patch on any of the fine songs on their long-player. And on the flip, there's a perfectly passable, if still largely pointless, live version of "Taking Off", from that album. But "Victrola Time" grows modestly with repeated rotation, and what "Night Of The Humerons" has in common with the Flats 7" is that it at least sounds like *opposition* to the morass of mundane music we're being mis-sold all the time.

We might, if you catch us in an unguarded moment, privately concede that neither of these records are really that great. But for now, Flats and the Fall are two bands, if borne of very different eras and ideals, who are least swimming as fast as they can against an incoming tide (a mainstream, if you like) of woeful "indie" conformity. This requires plenty of splashing, thrashing, and spluttering: that's why it won't always make for entirely comfortable listening. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Great Leap Forward "This Is Our Decade Of Living Cheaply And Getting By" (Communications Unique)

As coincidence would have it, it was on the song "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards" that Billy Bragg sang those oft-quoted lines "mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment, and my usual excuses". It's a strange sentiment, because bands rarely have to apologise for other topics they decide to write lyrics about, or indeed for relentlessly harping on about the same topics (another criticism aimed at Bragg, but rarely levelled at those who write suites of songs bemoaning some ill-defined pseudo-indie ennui, knock off whole albums about chilling in the club with honeys, or deliver track after track plundered at random from other people's "classic songbooks"). But in 2012, it seems that mixing pop and politics is even further beyond the critical pale. It's not widely *derided* as such: it just doesn't really happen. And happily, this is where the Great Leap Forward come in.

But some history first, because it all starts with bIG*fLAME. Everything starts with bIG*fLAME. bIG*fLAME were an insolent foghorn of itching POP noise, a brutalist Molotov cocktail of humour, frantic energy and situationist sloganeering that crossed Beefheart with the Pop Group, upped the tempo several notches and then hurled itself with fizzing glee at any unsuspecting lughole within range. Even in the context of a typical John Peel show they sounded exotically raging and ragged, spewing molten lava and exclamation marks over the airwaves. It was no wonder, as Meat Mouth later had it, that the girls all fancied bIG*fLAME: after all, us boys did too. The trio even performed a smash and grab on side two of C86, with the splenetic "New Way (Quick Wash And Brush Up With Liberation Theology)" launching itself from the grooves to daze the unready listener, the rest of the record rather wilting away until the concussion had died down. bIG*fLAME were positively incendiary and impossibly perfect, and frankly we will never hear their like again.

It was only after b*f had (inevitably but deliberately) imploded, circa 1986, that their bass-mangler and singer Alan Brown began his Great Leap Forward project. The first couple of EPs represented a transition stage during which some of the former band's trademark scratchiness remained, but wisely the GLF did not seek to emulate the fLAME's spluttering, scattershot blueprint of musical violence. The guitars got cleaner, the treble was reined in and by doubling the average song length, Brown was soon able to incorporate electronics and samples alongside his wordy, nakedly political lyrics. In doing so, he revealed a penchant for thoughtful songwriting that his former band's M.O. simply did not allow, amply illustrated by upwardly-mellow third 45 "Who Works The Weather ?" and, later, by "Heart and Soul", a gorgeous and upbeat pop standout that was surely their great lost hit single.

So back in 1988, when Mao's "great leap forward" was meant to have ended in triumph, and while Billy Bragg sang the lines above, we immersed ourselves in the Great Leap Forward records that circulated on the 152 bus and in the junior cloakroom at school. That series of splendid initial singles had culminated with the tremendous album, "Don't Be Afraid Of Change", bedecked with gems like "How To Be Successful In A World Of Failure", "Honours In Spades" and "Cursing This Audacity": a record which now seems as much a postcard from eighties Britain as an unmournful goodbye to it. By the turn of the decade - just like the Wolfhoundsit seemed the Great Leap Forward were *on fire*, but just like the Wolfhounds, the breakthrough never came. Life moved on, and the moment was gone. We chalked it up to experience.

Their welcome re-emergence came in 2008, with a 'catch-up' album, "Finished Unfinished Business":

"the songs are polished, spattered with samples, keenly political and not infrequently funky. This is all nothing less than you'd expect..."

Despite the two decades between "Don't Be Afraid" and its sequel, we noted then how much of the political background hadn't changed, a legacy of this island's post-Callaghan neo-liberal consensus. And while, on the surface, much has happened in the four years since - the vicissitudes of recession, the return of an (essentially) Conservative administration and a new austerity drive which can only magnify the very inequalities that a thirty year love-in with Thatcherite policies created in the first place - the laissez-faire leanings of all three main parties remain largely undimmed.

The time is ripe, then, for the third Great Leap Forward LP to enter from stage left. Little wonder that it begins with a sparky title track lamenting the cyclical nature of the free-market jihad: "we’ve seen it before, boys / it’s come full circle, but now with added interest..." croons Brown, as the guitars arc and swoop in empathy. It's no time before "Race To The Bottom" is mocking, with expansive glee, the continued delusion (completely unhindered by evidence or experience) as to the success of trickle-down economics. To quote early GLF classic "A Peck On The Cheek", is this the only way forward ?

We're soon on to what would be the obvious single, if there was one. "Tax The Richer" may be a manifesto (literally: half-way through, Brown raps (!) his way through a seven-point plan for recovery) but it is also a mini-anthem, an unashamedly catchy pop song, gilded with skybound trumpet, whose cascading guitars recall McCarthy at their most devilishly insouciant (you know, like the beautiful peals that frame "Governing Takes Brains"), and which elides into "Capital Is Wonderful", a sarcastic paean to the bail-out that inevitably finishes with the distant rattle of Gang of Four's "Capital - It Fails Us Now".

One striking feature of the album is that it transcends agit-prop tradition by taking care to outline solutions, rather than merely highlighting problems. As well as "Tax The Richer"'s shopping list for political change, the GLF canvass a healthy dose of personal improvement in the driven guitar-pop narratives of "The Power Of Positive Deviance" and "Turning Difficulties Into Goals". "Combatting illiteracy, disempowerment and poverty / doesn’t have to be huge steps / just little things that bring big change", sings Brown, and it's vital that we sign up to that, don't merely despair at what's visited on us and in doing so betray the apathy that helped them do this to us in the first place. In the same spirit, the LP finishes with a reprise of the title tune, but whereas the opening version soundtracked the gathering storm and warned us to batten down the hatches, part two is optimistic: it's about how to cope, urging that we rise above the ideology that underlies both the crash and the subsequent stampede to impose austerity.

The lyrical themes are not confined to socio-economic blues, though. "Heaven's Just A Short Journey From Platform 4a" makes a case for getting away from it all, for escaping the unforgiving rigour of the city for a sojourn in Yorkshire, while "I Catch The Last Bus Home With The Driver Of The Flying Scotsman" is the story of a chance meeting that brings back childhood memories of "an excited small boy / caught in rapture and awe" by the locomotive in its prime. And - somewhat typifying the ambition on display - a luxurious ten minutes are devoted to the sweeping, elegant "Not The Full English Breakfast", a rather affecting song about social anxiety disorder no less, pursued by an extended instrumental reprise that sweeps up the embers of the original version and sprinkles them with speech samples and wistful piano.

All the while we are still, musically, within a stone's throw of the GLF's previous work. Most of the songs, driven by guitar and bass, nestle between harder-edged indie-pop and tune-led indie-rock, but the drum machine, neatly-deployed sequencer and a fair smattering of spoken word samples help to retain the innate danceability that has become one of their hallmarks. For those feeling starved of past funk leanings, the mesh of guitar on "Theme From The Basher" and some startlingly fine bass-plucking on the re-working of the title track will provide nourishing slivers of added funkiness.

Ah. As you'll perhaps have gleaned, "This Is Our Decade Of Living Cheaply And Getting By" is a lengthy tract, with a decidedly didactic dynamic. But it also boasts a heart the size of the Yorkshire Dales. If I cast back again to those days on the 152, discussing last night's Peel show, there are so many records from the time that thrilled me, excited me, charmed me, beguiled me, seduced me, or made me happy for a host of other reasons, but looking back there were very few that *inspired* me in the way that the Great Leap Forward's did. That's the tradition which "This Is Our Decade..." continues, and is ultimately why we implore you to give it a spin. For which we *refuse* to offer either embarrassment, or our usual excuses.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wolfhounds "EP001" (Vollwert-Records Berlin)

It's great to welcome [the] Wolfhounds back, a band we've followed keenly since they first emerged from the Essex / East London hinterlands in the mid-80s. We're proud owners of most of their records, many purchased at Our Price after school and the rest salvaged gratefully from Record & Tape Exchange in later life.

Some of our personal very favourite Wolfies tracks remain the treblier of their early numbers (like the A-sides "Cruelty" and "Me", and "Stars In The Tarmac" from the first Pink Label comp), a side to them that was captured neatly on 1988's "Essential Wolfhounds" round-up, if sadly under-represented on their later de facto 'best of', the "Lost But Happy" Cherry Red comp. However, the band were more ambitious, and soon their vinyl outpourings had veered away from such nuggets of nu-janglist strum (including that spot on side one of C86) to concentrate on bitterer narratives, framed by more angular and daring compositions.

Witness the way that the single version of "Son Of Nothing", itself so viscerally different from that on their final Peel session, was itself turned inside-out by "Second Son" on the flip. Or just listen to the blinding "Rent Act", a late-Thatcher era shout for empowerment of those downtrodden by housing poverty, and one of the most crushing-yet-catchy indie singles you could imagine. This evolution culminated with the full force of their 1990 swansong "Attitude", an assured, coruscating and rewardingly mazy album which should have heralded some kind of breakthrough but which, if memory serves, was released to an ungrateful fanfare of relative indifference.

The twist with their 'new' CD "EP001" - sneaked out on the excellent German (but old school British-indie fetishising) boutique label Vollwert - is that it consists of three early Wolfhounds numbers never properly released but now freshly re-recorded, ready for a new-century assault of original tunes from the boys. But while the EP might thus give voice to the mewlings of young Wolfhounds, there is nothing fey, whey-faced or immature about proceedings: you wouldn't obviously recognise the combo that served up the sallow and jittery "Feeling So Strange Again", much as we love it, from the splashing, clattering confidence that's on display here.

Lead track "Skullface" is Wolfhounds as lowdown punk rock, lighting up the Rezz, sporting ripped jeans from Romford market: even the opening handclaps sound vaguely threatening before punchy guitar riffs rise from a scuffed floor to wreak symphonic menace, the song's huge hook landing it somewhere between "Jarg Armani" and the addictive refrains of yet another great Wolfies 45 that we treasure, "Anti-Midas Touch". As taut, tense, tremelo-flayed guitars combine and Callahan, in his distinctive sardonic drawl, sings about the protagonist "creeping through some fields / like a wolfhound alone", you realise that this is actually their title track, that it should probably always have been our introduction to them. The lyrics - displaced man as shadow, hiding from reality, staring back at his skeletal face in the mirror - conjure up themes of darkness, solitude and claustrophobia that could have come from "Whitechapel" (the TV series, not necessarily the place: after all, the Wolfhounds were "Disgusted, E7" rather than E1). If - if only - this were a vinyl release, then "Skullface" would be the (not-so lazy!) 'A'.

Hard on the heels of "Skullface"'s stomping vigour come the spry and caustic "6,000 Acres", briefly a part of their live set back in '86, and the equally spiky "Rats On A Raft", a song which sounds like it would happily have sat on their first LP, "Unseen Ripples From a Pebble", but was instead released in its original form on a split flexi shared with the mighty Razorcuts, another band who liked to keep you guessing on the definite article. Oh, and it's nice to see a sleeve design credit for Andy Royston, the man behind a number of past Wolfhounds covers (as well as artwork for their near-neighbours, erstwhile labelmates and fellow in love with these times, in spite of these times darlings McCarthy and Catapult).

Perhaps even these early songs serve as a demonstration as to why Wolfhounds, commercially and perhaps critically, seemed to "fall through the cracks" first time around. The EP brings to mind the febrile post-post punk guitarrrism of Ron Johnson Records (if without some of those bands' wilful cubist inclinations) at least as much as the more placid rumblings of their shambling band contemporaries: perhaps our heroes were too jagged and angry for the anorak crowd, yet too insular and knowing for a wider audience who were, by the time Wolfhounds disappeared from view, being beguiled by a motley assortment of baggy chancers and other scenesters. It also can't have helped that they were releasing records on a series of fairly short-lived labels.

So this record is much more than a historical curio. Yes, its very existence has inspired us to dust off our valued vinyl, to treat our ears to songs that embrace us like old friends, to relive the past times and haunts we associate with them. But "EP001" stands up as a barnstorming release in its own right. I make it eight Wolfhounds singles now, and can't tell you how stoked and lucky I feel to own them all. And we're as intrigued as you about what the future holds in store from them.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

And those that laughed, they are laughing again (again)

It's a black day for London. But however much the dark arts of Lynton Crosby and the risible outpourings of the Evening Standard might have contributed, Ken ultimately has to take the blame, his personality flaws rendering him author of his own misfortune. The upshot is that we are now firmly ensconced in an era where the only mayors we'll ever get (whether Labour or Tory - and it will only be Labour or Tory) are going to be in it as a stepping-stone, rather than as a calling, no doubt happy to rake in cash from jobs on the side while they're at it. And we'll certainly never see an independent mayor again, as Ken achieved in 2000, to Tony Blair's fury and chagrin (remember, this was when Blair was actually quite popular).

Meanwhile, on the ground, Boris's ostensible (and quite cleverly calculated) "do nothing" approach (perfectly encapsulated by his 2012 manifesto, which was launched so late it nearly missed the poll, and contained things he'd promised to do in his 2008 one) would be bad enough for a city with the size and the problems of London: but his *real* policies, involving creeping cuts to services, tilting transport policy yet further towards the motorist, apologia for News International and City excess, political interference with the police, cronyism typified by the Veronica Wadley affair, ongoing management incompetence as all those deputy mayors fell by the wayside and innumerable vanity projects (Boris Island, the Routemaster debacle, and the sodding cable-car), are worse. Having nothing positive to show for his four years in office didn't seem to be an issue though, which is why the Conservative flyer that came through our door had *no references at all* to either Boris, or his campaign, or his party: not a single pixel of true blue, nor a single syllable of policy. Cloaked in Millbank red, it consisted entirely of extracts from Boris-supporting newspapers (and quotes from Alan Sugar, a man known chiefly for hamming it up on some light entertainment programme) about Ken's general unsuitability.

What we really hadn't expected was how suddenly Ken (more popular than Labour in the 1980s before the GLC's abolition, and then again in 2000, 2004 and 2008 once the role of the Mayor was created) had lost so much support amongst Labour voters, in a city which has traditionally preferred candidates from the left of the party. In particular, how one in ten "Labour" voters apparently voted for Boris: we were discussing this in the Shooting Star en route to Brick Lane last night, but none of us could get our head around that mindset. Were these people Blairites on a wrecking mission, or just innocents somehow unaware that Boris is about as far from "soft" right as you can be in the allegedly modernised Conservative party ? What were grand statements like abolishing London's anti-racist festival, other than fairly transparent attempts to win "anti-PC" points from the UKIP and BNP voters whose second preferences helped him to maintain power ?

I know that some of you are already berating us Londoners for giving the Tories post-council election succour. All I can say in my own defence is that in our constituency (which also happens to be Johnson's: I walk past his house on the way to work), Ken outpolled his rival by 2:1. As always, the key places where the vote came through for Boris were those parts of the "Greater London" constituency which are simply not - whether you look at it historically, sociologically or just at the postcode - actually in London.

Them's the breaks, though. So leaving our partisanship to one side, perhaps what's most upsetting in the cold light of day is looking at the 'hidden' voting figures, rather than the headline brawl between the two heavyweights. It was obvious to any observer, however unseasoned, that the mayoral vote would go to a second round. It was also plain that only two candidates would be in that second round, so there was no point in putting anyone but Boris or Ken as a second preference. And yet... 363,000 put the Lib Dems as second preference. Another 363,000 opted for the Green Party. Some 547,000 plumped for one of the three remaining candidates knocked out in the first round. (We accept that some of these would be Ken / Boris overspill votes - we wouldn't expect too many people to put Boris first and Ken second, or vice versa - but it's fair to assume that a good many were not, making them frankly just wasted ballots).

That's not to mention the 50,000 people who were defeated by the ballot paper altogether and managed to vote for too many candidates, or not to put their X in any of the boxes provided. (Rather touchingly, 213,000 punters voted for the same candidate as both first and second preference). And then, of course - and here's the real kick in the stomach - the 68% of eligible Londoners who didn't bother to vote at all (don't even *start* on the line that they were justified because "it doesn't make a difference who you vote for", or that "all politicians are the same" - really ? For the mayoralty, Ken and Boris 'the same' ? On the Assembly, the BNP 'the same' as the Greens ?) *Sigh*...

So, in a contest where first beat second by 60,000 votes, you have 3.6 million people who didn't turn out, and a good proportion more whose mark could have counted for something, but failed to, either through apathy or ineptitude. Whether you're red, blue or any other colour of the political spectrum, you can't but find that depressing.