Thursday, 26 May 2016
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
I’ve never had a ‘place’ or a ‘local’, not sure if I wanted one. Rodi’s became my place, it was my office and living room and Franco and Maria were my work colleagues. They don’t know it but they helped me write songs. I felt safe and welcome there in a way that I felt nowhere else.
Wednesday, 13 July 2011
This Friday (15th July) I’m playing a benefit at Christ Church in Spitalfields. The idea is to raise money for my mate’s shop. Yes you did read that right. In an age of cataclysmic earthquakes, a besieged welfare state and bankrupt economies what right do I have to ask you to help a friend’s business?
Stay with me. I’ll only take a few minutes, I promise.
Matthew Reynolds started the Duke of Uke shop in Hanbury Street E1 in 2006. You know those people who talk about their great ideas and dreams after two drinks but never do anything about them? Matthew isn’t one of them. He makes things. He builds things. Like all my favourite people Matt’s vision is narrow and deep, his shop sells small, arcane musical instruments, some as old as your Grandmother. He doesn’t sell electric guitars; he could if he wanted.
It’s more than that though. You own records made underneath his shop in Soup Studios, or you will eventually. Most nights after the shop closes, group ukulele classes go on into the night. Matthew usually cracks open the wine.
Around 2008 I might have had a handle on most of the art and alliances that have been created because of Matthew and the Duke, but now it would be impossible to catalogue all the ideas born at 22 Hanbury Street. For me personally, if the Duke had not existed, I would be a fat friendless fuck replaying my non-hits from the 90s. The Duke of Uke brings people together; it fosters an atmosphere of inspiration.
Even Matthew isn’t aware of all the people who are falling in love under his roof. He’s too busy making things, fixing things. The fact that he doesn’t know half of what the shop has achieved makes us love him even more.
If you have been in the Duke I hope you have never found it to be a clique. Matthew never wanted that. The shop was always intended as an antidote to Denmark Street. People sit and play for hours and never buy anything; they are welcome to, the door is always open.
Matthew is only ok at business. He is like one of those spider’s that skits across the surface of ponds. He somehow never sinks, until now perhaps. The rent on the Duke of Uke has been hiked up in line with the local area that Matthew has been instrumental in rejuvinating. Matthew needs more money than the shop can make to relocate and carry on. Maybe market forces should decide and the shop should close. That’s the way commerce works isn’t it?
We get the world we deserve, not the one we want. I have recently been very critical of misplaced ‘charity’, bands begging for money online to record their album etc. maybe this is no different.
Or perhaps this is something important. Possibly this is a small beautiful thing that doesn’t need to die. This isn’t charity or business. It’s something much older and unfashionable that disapears as soon as you look at it.
This is ‘community’.
Friday 15th July
8pm - 11pm
A Little Orchestra
in collaboration with
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
I have a reputation for writing a lot of songs about sex. It isn’t strictly true, but you know, shit sticks. I try to avoid the streamlined, plastic and interstellar sex that permeates modern pop songs. I prefer an awkward, absurd sex that rarely finds itself in Britney Spears videos.
I like to use language that is uncommon in songs. I like to sing the word ‘fuck’. I don’t do it to shock; I think that would be impossible. It’s just that these are things we talk about everyday. They have become frequent territory for literature and television so why not songs?
Ambiguity and sweeping statements hold no appeal to me. I like to pepper my songs with objects and places. I use people’s names both real and fictional. It occurred to me that few people had attempted to write a song about porn and that it would be interesting to imagine a narrative based around a real porn star.
As a man I have, of course, in weaker moments, succumbed to the Internet’s primary use. I thought there would be something amusing about using a porn star’s name that men would possibly recognise and women might assume was made up. The women in this industry have a strange type of fame, they are known to millions but remain covert, hidden.
Crissy Moran is not that different from any other porn star in the way she drifted from topless modelling into hardcore sex scenes. My only reason for basing a song on her was a certain dislocation in her eyes. She looked like she wanted to be somewhere else. Who wouldn’t? In every other way she was your normal pneumatic, glossy sex doll. She just looked so distracted.
The song had a serious intent. I was trying to write about something very sad and specific, a moment of tragic ennui amongst all the chaos of ugly, fake lovemaking. Porn is desperate and tragic in many ways and this idea of erotic displacement is something I’ve explored before and since in song. Nonetheless the song; ‘Crissy M’, was hidden away on an EP on a small label, I wasn’t that brave.
About a year later, a moderator of a forum attached to my website told me that a ‘Crissy Moran’ had registered. I brushed it aside but soon Crissy emailed me herself. The world has certainly been turned upside down when porn stars start Googling you. She said my song had made her cry but that she identified with it strongly. She told me that I was right to sing that “her heart wasn’t in it” and that she had abandoned ‘hardcore’ and now only did ‘girl on girl’. Oddly, she attached a picture of herself. Perhaps she thought I didn’t know what she looked like?
I felt that I had done her a great disservice. Despite the fact that she seemed enamoured with the song, I felt I had just found a novel way to violate someone who had too often been disrespected. I said sorry and she was fine with it all, but the relationship didn’t last. Not with the distance involved.
Soon after, Crissy left the porn industry altogether and became a born again Christian. She is now something of a poster child for the Christian anti-porn movement. She often posts heartfelt blogs and she does seem happier, if not a little raw and fragile. She describes the porn industry as hurtful and manipulative. As an atheist, however, I can’t help but feel she’s won the booby prize.
When journalists write about Crissy they often come across my song and ask for an interview. There isn’t much I can say; I didn’t base the song so much on a person as a moment, an imagined feeling. I was also asked for the song to be used in a film about ex-porn stars but I declined. I decided it better to shut the door on this episode.
I think that music can often be sexy but rarely about sex itself. I have a big pile of CDs for ‘that’ mood, but I rarely find sex being sung about in the way that it is often written and talked about. Perhaps it is just too inelegant and brutal when you pull the airbrushed layers away.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
Discovering a disused train line that ran from nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres to Chalus was a lifeline. Lost railway tracks make me calmer. You’d like me more if you met me tracing some lost route through the hills and valleys.
I wore a hat with a British Rail badge because I’m a cock-end. People still said ‘Bonjour’ to me. The line ran 13 kilometres and I decided to walk there because I’m a fuckwit who doesn’t know how long a kilometre is.
South West France has been garnished liberally with Britons. I met seven British humans and four British dogs. I saw a Union Jack in a garden, seriously I did.
In Chalus I felt blisters forming on my feet. The word ‘taxi’ was met with laughter and I knew I’d have to walk all the way back. I decided to refuel.
Dave runs Hotel du Central in Chalus and has done for four years. He struggles with his French and his French struggles back.
“Champignons are mushrooms, right? Oignons are onions, they speak for themselves,” says Dave. He wears sports clothes, but doesn’t do sport.
“It’s the masculine and the feminine,” says Dave explaining his linguistic hurdles. “Lemonade is feminine, beer is feminine, but shandy is masculine. Now beer is, primarily, a man’s drink. I know women drink beer, but it is primarily a man’s drink.”
Dave uses the word ‘primarily’ to underline his words. Dave was on a roll; he had momentum.
“Now power tools! Half of them are feminine! I don’t know where it all comes from. I really don’t.”
Richard the Lionheart was killed in Chalus. He was a French speaking English King who spent little time on British soil. There’s a statue of him outside Westminster.
Sunday, 7 March 2010
Before a man was put into space, even before we put a dog up there, we sent music into space. In October 1957, the satellite Sputnik was the first man-made object to achieve Earth orbit. It was a metal ball, 58cm in diameter with a radio transmitter and a single oscillator that went ‘ beep beep beep beep' . It was to be heard throughout the world and recognised as a sign of the USSR's dominance of the cosmos; a buzzing flea in America's ear. Man's first music in space was avant-garde electronica. In1957 everybody could hum the tune.
On February 4 2008 NASA broadcast ‘Across the Universe' by the Beatles into space, perhaps in the hope that little green men would re-evaluate the Fab Four's swansong album. It's going to be a while before anyone hears it though; the nearest galaxy to Earth is Andromeda which is two million light years away. That's the equivalent of ten million Mojo magazine Beatles covers ( I'm disappointed with the choice of Lennon filler over McCartney prime cut - it smacks of a committee decision. Democracy doesn't suit music, that's how we end up with Bohemian Rhapsody as the best song ever recorded).
The Voyager space probes were also musical. Just in case aliens have vinyl records players, the 1977 space craft came with a gold disk that boasted a ninety-minute selection of music from around the world. These included works by Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mozart and no less than three contributions from Johan Sebastian Bach. It's fair to say that in 40,000 years time, when Voyager is expected to reach our nearest star, the Alpha Centurians won't be partying like its 41,999. However, if they make it through all that Bach they do get to kick back with Chuck Berry's ‘Johnny B. Goode'. Louis Armstrong is thoughtfully included for that ‘morning after' mood.
The USSR put the first man into Space in 1961; the Americans got there a month later. NASA's early Mercury missions were short, busy affairs and it wasn't until the longer Gemini flights that the Astronauts needed time to relax and sleep. Mission Control would broadcast ‘wake up' music to the astronauts over the communications link. The occupants of Gemini 6 were woken by a version of ‘Hello Dolly' with new lyrics by Jack Jones (‘quick, open the airlock I want to get out!) Gemini 6 is also notable for another ‘space music' first. On 15 December 1965, astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford claimed to have sighted a UFO. The object turned out to be ‘Santa Claus' and the lads performed a quick version of Jingle Bells on a stowed away harmonica and sleigh bells. You guys!
I'm looking for something a little more insightful, more personal. These men were the first to gaze on Earth from outside our atmosphere. What did they themselves choose for their soundtrack?
The first compact audio cassettes were mass marketed in the mid-‘60's. Cassette machines were taken on the early Apollo flights. The astronauts used them to record observations. Apollo 8 was the first mission to include onboard music. Apollo 8 is a mission often overshadowed by Apollo 11, but it was an astonishing achievement. Spacemen Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first to break free of Earth's orbit and hurtle around the moon. An achievement even more remarkable when you consider nobody has escaped Earths gravitational field since 1972. Like many subsequent astronauts, they chose country and western music, specifically Buck Owens, who recorded the music on the cassette especially for the mission.
Larry McGlynn lives in New England, USA and collects items that have been flown into space. Amongst his collection is a tape cassette that belonged to Gene Cernan and was flown around the moon on board Apollo 10. Gene Cernan made the tape with his friend Al Bishop; they sat on Al's carpet choosing the vinyl that best suited Gene's forthcoming journey. ‘ The quality of the tape reflects that type of early private recording', says Larry, ‘it has miscues, skips and clicks that an older record album would make on a turntable. That is what makes the tape so good for historic purposes. These two men took the time to sit, choose and record music for a flight to the Moon.'
The cassette features themed choices such as ‘Fly Me To The Moon' and ‘Moonriver' as well as six songs by Doris Day and seven by the Kingston Trio, as well as a bit of Acker Bilk.
‘When I listen to the tape it brings me back to the times of my youth when this music was popular during the 1960s. ' says Larry, ‘ I think about the tape doing its job of providing entertainment to the Apollo 10 crew while traveling further than man has journeyed before or since. I also think that Gene Cernan had some pretty good taste in popular music back then.'
If you only know the name of one astronaut then you know the name of Neil Armstrong. If you know anything else about him it would be that he is something of an enigma. Public appearances are rare and interviews like gold dust. We do know that Neil Armstrong is a musician, he played Dixieland Jazz on his cornet as a child and plays ragtime piano. On his return from the moon he requested a ukulele in his quarantine quarters. We also know for his voyage to the moon he chose ‘Music from the Moon' by Dr Samuel Hoffman. The 1947 piece heavily features an early electronic instrument called the Theremin.
Andrew Smith is the author of Moondust , an excellent portrait of the twelve men who have walked upon the moon; ‘It shows how eccentric he is', Smith says of Armstrong's very particular musical taste. ‘I just thought it was funny. It made me laugh and laugh; this instrument that we associate with Sci-Fi B-movies from the 1950s - that he should be taking that off into space with him.'
The Theremin produces an ‘alien' portmento sound by having an oscillator controlled by two antennae. The movement of the player's hands, without actually touching the instrument, controls the pitch. Portmento is the sound of one note sliding to another. It's interesting to note that this effect has often been used to evoke the sound of space; think of the theme tunes to Doctor Who or Star Trek. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the tones slide between the notes in our conventional musical scales, making the sound odd or unnerving.
Perhaps, despite his subsequent modesty, Armstrong saw himself as an enigmatic sci-fi hero? By being so reclusive, he leaves himself to our imaginations; we can believe anything we want of him. Armstrong took a dramatic and strange music into space that matched our sense of wonder at this new frontier. He dutifully fulfilled our expectations.
The Steel Guitar is another portmento instrument that has evoked the sound of Space. It was used by the legendary pop producer Joe Meek on his 1959 science fiction masterpiece ‘I Hear a New World'. Brian Eno made the connection between the spatial glide of the steel guitar and the country music chosen by astronauts and had collaborator Daniel Lanois deploy the instrument on the soundtrack to the 1989 space flight documentary ‘ For All Mankind' . “I thought (their choice of country music) said something interesting about how they saw themselves, which was as frontiersman,' Brian Eno is quoted as saying in Moondust , “I also wanted to make something that didn't seem to be coming from anywhere, that wasn't rooted in the earth; I wanted the roll without the rock I guess! All the harmonic pieces I wrote for the film have a kind of unearthly country-and-western feel.'
The choice of country and western could also tell us about where these men came from. It is interesting to note how many of the 1960s astronauts hailed from small town America rather then cities. This would also explain why their music choices fail to capture the 1960's zeitgeist. The astronauts were drafted from the air force test pilots and fighter pilots - the military tends to recruit outside city centres. The straightforward grit of country music is the natural choice for these determined, aspirational, small town men. This ‘grit' is personified by Buzz Aldrin, the ‘astronaut's astronaut' and the second man to walk on the moon. He declined to take any music into space claiming that he would be too busy. Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, took Dvorak's ‘New World Symphony'.
If the Apollo 11 mission is often portrayed as dark and serious then Apollo 12 is its antithesis. Astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean joked their way to the moon. Their cassette includes ‘Lousiana Man' by Rusty and Doug, ‘Wichita Lineman' by Glenn Campbell, ‘Sugar Sugar' by the Archies and ‘Son of a Preacher Man' by Dusty Springfield. Apparently Pete chose the country and Al chose the pop. I've been lucky enough to have spoken to Alan Bean twice. In 2001 I released a single called ‘Alan Bean' (complete with pedal steel and Theremin) which deals with his life after NASA. After leaving the space program, Alan devoted his life to painting pictures of himself and his fellow astronauts on the moon. Alan is a man who is acutely aware that the only type of people we have sent to another world are test pilots and that astronauts have difficulties in explaining how it ‘feels' to walk on the moon. They can explain altitude and landing procedures but find it harder to emote. Alan realized he was unique; he was the only moonwalker who felt compelled to tell his story though his creativity. ‘I was handed a gift that has never been given to any other artist in history', Bean says, ‘No other artist has had a planet all to his own.'
Apollo 13 was the ill-fated mission that failed to reach the moon due to an exploding oxygen tank. The crew was lucky to return to earth alive. Commander Jim Lovell took the theme from Staley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to listen to. It's good that he likes movies. He may have missed the moon but he did get to be portrayed by Tom Hanks in a movie. ‘I know one of the command module pilots saw 2001 eight times before he went up.' Andrew Smith tells me, “The astronauts liked that movie a lot”.
It isn't until we get to Apollo 15 that a true music nut gets to choose the sounds. Al Worden took no less than 12 cassettes into space with him. The tapes show him to be quite the hipster: Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkel and George Harrison all make appearances. The tapes also included poetry and book readings. One rather ‘personal' track is entitled ‘ Something Special From Your Wife'.
Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' accompanied Apollo 17 which was to be the last mission to the moon (to date). The Apollo program had failed to sustain the interest of the general public and the space program moved its attention away from lunar matters. The Skylab missions of the ‘70s were of much longer duration, as were the Shuttle missions of the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s. There was more on-board leisure time on these missions. Music had become a staple space entertainment. The astronauts carried with them Walkmans and, eventually, iPods and even musical instruments. There is currently an electronic piano onboard the International Space Station.
In 1993 the Shuttle astronauts had to start listening to themselves. Max-Q is an all astronaut rock band that plays rock'n'roll covers; they woke up the crew of Discovery with a cover of ‘Heartbreak Hotel'. German astronaut Tom Reiter had a specially designed guitar on the MIR space station and played Russian folk ballads. The last song played to the Columbia crew in 2003 before their ship disintegrated on re-entry was ‘Scotland the Brave'. Are these sometimes dubious astronautical tastes what the human race is to be musically judged upon? Maybe not; it just depends on how hard the aliens listen. I've heard it said that a certain amount of all our radio and TV transmissions leak into space. According to Raj Sivalingam, of the British Space Centre, ‘ To some extent this is true. Some transmitters reach their intended receivers indirectly by bouncing their signals off the layers of atmosphere (like mirrors). Careful planning is done to ensure that this is optimum. Thus extremely sophisticated receiving equipment will be needed to detect and discern such faint signals.'
Even so, it's a scary thought that extraterrestrial life could just be cherry picking the very worst that our culture has to offer. Comedian and writer Robin Ince agrees. ‘To think, that radio and TV signals will not die but keep journeying through the universe so long after the human race is dead and gone; the sound of Dave Lee Travis saying “ whack whack oops ” will still be alive. We have given the universe tinnitus. Even if the aliens do journey towards us, they'll face a horrifying disappointment. They'll pick up our signals and imagine a world of The Brains Trust, Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, Carl Sagan's Cosmos and the TV plays of Dennis Potter. Just as they arrive though, they'll tune into Balls of Steel and the Chris Moyles show and reverse at speed.'
What about us? If we listened hard to the stars what would we hear? In 2002 NASA's Cassini spacecraft picked up tiny radio emissions from Saturn. When the signals are lowered in frequency 44 times the human ear can hear what sounds remarkably like Theremin music with a lot of echo. Go to the NASA website and listen for yourself. Perhaps Neil Armstrong knew what we always hoped was true. We may previously have thought that space is silent, but now we know the truth; the music of space goes ‘ ooooowwwwweeeeeeeooooooooo' .
Stewart Lee – Comedian and Writer
I would send Klaatu's ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft' into space, but the version done by 1970s Canadian school children on The Langley Schools Music Project album. The kids' version of this attempt at fostering intergalactic harmony sounds utterly sincere, devoid of the kitsch elements of the Klaatu or Carpenters' readings; and I think it might buy us time in negotiating our way out of our long overdue eradication by a higher species, like the pests we are.” Raj Sivalingam (Director of UK Space Policy) ‘What a Wonderful World',by Louis Armstrong.
David Gedge – Singer with the Wedding Present and writer of many Space themed songs
‘Bizarre Love Triangle' by New Order because it's one of the greatest tunes ever written. Hopefully aliens won't speak English and so won't notice the terrible lyric.
Patrick Moore – Astronomer and Musician
At the age of seven I read a book, The Story of the Solar System and was ‘hooked'. My mother was a singer and I think I was trying to play the piano before I could talk. I chose the music for the intro to The Sky at Night . I'm not sure what music I would send into space, I'd probably choose a Strauss waltz, to show that we have a lighter side.
Robin Ince – Comedian and Writer
I would send up Robyn Hitchcock's ‘Spleen Rap' from Storefront Hitchcock , as i think it is a succinct description of why the human race require ribcages, though not technically a song. Otherwise, probably ‘Saturday Night' by Whigfield as it sums up the pointlessness of human endeavour – and that all this time after the enlightenment, man is still mainly interested in going out on a Saturday night with a vacuous frame of mind that may turn to violence after chemically altering the brain with blue booze.
Huw Stephens – Radio One DJ
I'd send ‘Into My Arms' by Nick Cave into space for them to see how miserable and sad we can sound when we want to be, but also to remind them that we're not as horrible as they think we are. Candidia Doyle – Pulp ‘At Last' by Etta Williams, because it's a song you could happily die to, a beautiful song with wonderful stringed accompaniment!
Tjinder Singh – Cornershop
Well i wouldn't think any music as such would capture their imagination. Alien life would probably be more impressed with CB banter operating at 27MHz. Live & interactive, this precursor of the World Wide Web would allude to intelligent life and motorway (or ‘super-slab') service stops. Start out on channel 11, and if there is interference force them up to channel 14. Failing all that, crank out Nigger Kojak and Liza
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
I am buying ingredients for a Valentine’s Day Dinner. The checkout girl is perky and over-keen. She has straw hair, an earnest smile and a cross hanging round her neck.
I can’t help but fixate on a cross when someone is an otherwise neutral role. It’s a signifier that can’t be ignored.
She asks if I have a loyalty card. She asks if I need bags. She asks if I need help packing.
She is polite and attentive, but this all changes when her blonde friend walks up in a big puffy jacket, pushing a pram.
They talk across me as the checkout girl rings up my shopping at a snail’s pace. They are being rude. I don’t mind though, it’s better than TV.
Everything about the checkout girl changes: her posture, her words, her accent.
‘How you been?’
‘Alright, how’s Steve?’
‘I tell you, I can’t take it no more. It’s driving me mental.’
‘How come you never phone no more?’ asked the blonde girl.
‘I’ve been mad busy, I’ve been so busy, I will though, I will text though, promise.’ replied the checkout girl.
There is something that all three of us know for certain. The checkout girl will never phone the blonde girl. The pram is the unspoken truth. She’s gone and fucked it for good.