Monday, September 11, 2017

Classic Album Review: Barmy Army - The English Disease (1989)

This won’t fit the common definition of what a classic album is, but given that your blogger is a fully certifiable On-U Sound nutter, what passes for “classic” at everythingsgonegreen towers, and what counts as a “classic” elsewhere, is always likely to be two (or more) different things …

The English Disease is something of a novelty item for those familiar with the bass-heavy dub sounds of the On-U Sound posse, and it features several of the artists who produce output for Adrian Sherwood’s legendary label.

The Barmy Army was effectively the loose collective otherwise known as Tackhead and friends, and here they combine a couple of their shared passions – sampling and football – to create a body work unlike anything else heard before or since. It won’t appeal to all, but it does have some curiosity value, and will be well worth a listen for anyone who has previously enjoyed Tackhead, Little Axe, Dub Syndicate, Mark Stewart, or indeed fans of experimental dub or eclectic lightweight cut-and-paste style hip hop.

When this was initially released in the immediate aftermath of the Heysel, Bradford, and Hillsborough tragedies, English football was at its lowest ebb for several generations, and the game was awash with hooliganism, also labelled the “English disease” by those oblivious to its widespread international reach. Attendances were low, safety concerns high, and the family-friendly all-seater environment we see today was still some way off in the future. The Taylor Report of the early Nineties and the influx of cash generated by the subscription television boom of the mid-late Nineties changed the face of English football forever, but that’s not to say that the “product” offered today is any superior.

What it has become, in truth, is a far more sterile and palatable “entertainment” option for the masses. Something has been lost however, and here the Barmy Army unashamedly celebrate a little of what went before, throwing into the mix a splattering of politics, terrace-style humour, and a fairly transparent love of West Ham United.

It’s hard to define the sound in an orthodox sense, but file this one away under: dub, reggae, hip hop, or that extraordinary one-off category created especially for this album: Terrace and voiceover (commentary) samples with some heavy beats holding it all together. Or something.

Those familiar with the On-U compilation series Pay It All Back, will already know of the Barmy Army’s ‘Billy Bonds MBE’, and ‘Blue Moon’ … well, here is some more material of that nature.

Best tracks: ‘Sharp As A Needle’ (tribute to King Kenny Dalglish), ‘Devo’ (Alan Devonshire), ‘Leroy’s Boots’ (Leroy Rosenior), and ‘Brian Clout’ (Brian Clough).

Apparently all crowd samples were recorded by the editor of a West Ham fanzine, but check out the additional credits for this album – it’ll help you recognise just who you’re dealing with here: Doug Wimbish (ex-Sugarhill house band, Tackhead, and various), Skip McDonald aka Little Axe (ex-Sugarhill, Tackhead, and various), Al Jourgensen (Ministry), and Jah Wobble (PIL). Among many others.

All done under the watchful and somewhat critical eye of the UK’s foremost master dub producer himself, Adrian Sherwood.

Recommended for the open-minded, plus football fans of all clubs and creeds …

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 4: The 1980s … Trouser Press, Blues & Soul, and The Face

So far I’ve looked at a childhood obsession with football magazines, including a comic, a brief flirtation with a commercial pop music glossy, and an early love of newsprint-based music papers. But I’ve only got as far as the early to mid-1980s, and my desire to actually collect magazines, rather than to simply buy them for reading purposes only, is really just starting to take hold ...

And so to my discovery of The Face, Blues & Soul, and to a lesser extent, Trouser Press.

I’ll deal with the New York-based monthly, Trouser Press, first, because it was the most short-lived, and given that less than 100 issues were ever published (between 1974 and 1984), surely the most collectable in the sense that copies would now be relatively rare, and I presume, highly sought after. Regrettably, I have no idea where my own small Trouser Press collection may have ended up.
It’ll certainly be far more collectable than the monolith it was up against in its home market, Rolling Stone (yawn), which, despite being hugely popular, was never able to adequately represent the more alternative or post-punk genres I was most keen on. Which is something that Trouser Press specialised in – all of that left-of-centre stuff that existed outside the realm of FM radio and the Billboard charts. Not by any stretch was it exclusively American, but it was definitely far more sympathetic to home-based “alt-rock” and all things “new wave”, than any other US-based publication I ever came across.
In later years, across the last couple of dozen issues (roughly), Trouser Press offered a “free” flexi-disc to supplement issues of the magazine. Acts like Altered Images, Berlin, Buggles, Japan, Joan Jett, OMD, REM, and XTC, all had flexi-discs released via the magazine. And after it wound up its magazine format, the Trouser Press brand continued as a series of “record guide” books, five in total – three under the title of the ‘New Trouser Press Record Guide’ (1985, 1989, 1991), one as ‘The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records’ (1983), with its final publication being ‘The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock’ (1997).
In early 1986, I decided it was time to move to Wellington. I’d been feeling trapped in Palmerston North for far too long … I was unhappy in my job, and I’d been on the painful end of two relationship break-ups. The capital city offered a number of new challenges and attractions, not the least of which was a comparatively vibrant nightlife. The fact is, nightclubbing had become, if not an obsession, then pretty much my main hobby in life. In so far as it was something I spent almost as much time doing as my fulltime job – which was soon to become, conveniently enough (from a “body clock” perspective), a night duty manager at a large Wellington hotel.
Naturally, with that kind of lifestyle choice, I was being exposed to (and loving) a whole raft of new and exciting music – electro, hi energy, rare groove, hip hop, and before too long, new genres like house and techno. And as anyone who knows anything at all about that scene at that time will tell you, there were two “bibles” for the discerning nightclub patron (or DJ) of the era – Blues & Soul magazine, and The Face. I started to collect both.
(As an aside, although Mixmag was established in 1983, it remained underground for much of the decade before emerging, and um, peaking, during the acid house years. The other more high profile dance music publication of recent times, DJ magazine, didn’t emerge until 1991).
Blues & Soul is basically an institution, established as far back as 1966, and still active today, 1000-plus issues later. A few years back it had a brief spell as an online-only publication before reverting back to its original print format.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Blues & Soul was compulsory reading – what key contributors John Abbey (founder), David Nathan, and Roger St. Pierre, didn’t know about disco, funk, and soul, really wasn’t worth knowing. The magazine’s list of features and interviews through the latter decade in particular reads like a Who’s Who of every genre ever heard inside a club.
Prominent contributors during 1980s included the likes of Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, and Tim Westwood, before each man would eventually go on to establish a successful career as a DJ in his own right. Tong wrote an industry gossip column under the guise of ‘The Mouth’ – a “fortnightly foray into fads, fax, fallacy, and fun”. Oakenfold contributed a regular column called ‘Wotupski’, and Westwood is credited with establishing the first ever hip hop-specific column at the magazine.
The nature of club music is that it can be very fickle, very scene-centric, and at that time there seemed to be an unwritten “freshest is best” rule. To that end, I can recall religiously trawling the magazine’s various charts on a regular basis, obsessing over what I’d heard and what I hadn’t, what I “owned”, what I could potentially get my hands on, and what I’d clearly have to wait for a long time for. For better or for worse, these things seemed important for a few years in the late 1980s. In fact, Blues & Soul had a chart for just about everything – singles and albums, for the UK and the US, the magazine’s own ‘City Slickers Hip List’, ‘Groove Control’ and other assorted club charts, and later in the decade, an RPM (raps per minute) chart.
The Face magazine was a slightly different beast in that it wasn’t really a music magazine. It was all about style – fashion, film, art, design, trends, identity, and politics. Naturally, a lot of music content aligned itself with that. From memory, its main rivals in that (relatively broad) market during the era were i-D, Blitz, and Arena magazines, but I think The Face was the quintessential 1980s style guide. Or at least it was for a certain demographic, one that I skirted around the periphery of due to my interest in clubbing, and the small fact that my partner between 1987 and 1990 was a committed fashionista studying textile design at Wellington Polytech.
Nick Logan, a former editor at the NME, who was also prominent in the establishment of Smash Hits, was the driving force behind setting up The Face in 1980. Logan was able to tap into the pool of outstanding journalists he’d worked alongside previously – most notably Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill (see part three), and the guru of them all, Jon Savage, who had worked for Sounds, Melody Maker, and the NME. Savage would later go on write ‘England’s Dreaming’ (1991), the seminal tome about the Sex Pistols and the punk era.
It wasn’t just about words though. As a glossy, published monthly, The Face was also renowned for its great photography and experimental/cutting edge design. Neville Brody was the magazine’s art director through the first half of the 1980s – he later moved to Arena – and much of the mag’s reputation was forged on the back of his ability to bring together all of the separate elements (fashion, film, music etc) into one cohesive whole. Brody is also noted for his album cover designs, and his CV includes work for Throbbing Gristle, Level 42, and Depeche Mode. In the case of the latter, the single sleeve for ‘I Just Can’t Enough’.
I think my own interest in The Face had started to fade by the start of the 1990s, but not until I had amassed a fairly decent collection (again, currently awol). I broke up with the aforementioned partner, who would go on to establish her own label and set up shop in Wellington’s bohemian Cuba Street before disappearing from my life completely.

Things were about to take another turn for me, and while music, nightlife, and er, magazines, remained right at the core of my being, I was about to indulge in that most Kiwi of 20-something pursuits, “the big OE”, and head back to the UK indefinitely. I didn’t really have any specific plans, but my passport was British, my ticket was one way, and my intent was to travel light …

Monday, September 4, 2017

Classic Album Review: Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus (1977)

When people think of reggae, Bob Marley is usually the first artist they think of. And with good reason – Marley and his supporting cast have been at the very forefront of the genre for the best part of 45 years, even today, more than 35 years after Marley’s premature death in 1981.

Such was the quality of The Wailers’ output throughout the Seventies, with a succession of fine albums, Marley left a mark on popular culture that can never be denied. Without having the documentary evidence to support such a claim, obviously, I reckon Bob Marley is singularly responsible for turning more people on to reggae than any other artist.

Exodus is the album many believe to be The Wailers’ finest moment (Kaya just shades it in my view, but I know that’s only a personal thing), conceived and mostly recorded in London in 1977 following an attempt on Marley’s life back in Jamaica.

In 2017, Exodus celebrates its 40th anniversary, with deluxe packages of the original coming in a variety of different formats, depending on the amount of discretionary cash you’re prepared to part with. I’m fairly certain there’s double, triple, and quadruple LP options for this year’s deluxe-fest, all including live versions and alternate mixes.

This is the Wailers in its post-Peter Tosh, post-Bunny Wailer form, but the famous I-Threes remain a crucial ingredient, and there simply isn’t a dud moment on Exodus. All of the expected political and social references points are covered and it features many of Marley’s best known tracks.

Highlights: the title track itself is often too readily overlooked but it was surely one of Marley’s peaks, from both a song-writing and performance perspective. The best of the rest include: the beautifully crafted ‘Natural Mystic’, ‘Jammin’, ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Three Little Birds’, and ‘One Love/People Get Ready’.

Most people will have a copy of Legend in their music collection, and that works fine as an overview, in a singles context, but Exodus is something else altogether, and for those who feel the need for a little more, this one comes highly recommended. I would also suggest you pick up a copy of Kaya (1978) while you’re at it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

EP Review: Dreams Are Like Water - A Sea-Spell (2017)

Of all the local debut releases I've been exposed to over the past couple of years, few have made as big a first impression (on me) as A Sea-Spell, the highly polished first outing for Wellington three-piece Dreams Are Like Water.

I suspect a small part of that is simply down to a personal genre preference, with Dreams Are Like Water specialising in the sort of dark post-punk your reviewer reserves a real fondness for. But by the same measure, my love of that sound just as likely means I'm going to listen with a far more critical ear than I perhaps otherwise would.

In fact, it's virtually impossible to listen to the EP - which traverses four tracks - without spontaneous recall of early Cure, Kaleidoscope-era Siouxsie, All About Eve, or the ethereal dark beauty of the Cocteau Twins’ best work. Incidentally, the band name is the title of a This Mortal Coil tune, and TMC was, of course, a precursor act and 4AD label-mate of the Cocteau Twins.

So that’s the general template offered here, or at the very least, the band – Rosebud Garland (vocals, piano, bass), Michel Rowland (vocals, guitar), and Jamie Scott Palmer (synths/keys, guitar) – is able to offer up its own variation on those rather terrific touchstones. While the ethos is perhaps a little derivative, the execution here is distinctly original.

There's a lightness of touch and an unhurried charm about proceedings, best demonstrated on the title track and opener, which features a gentle melody and shared vocals from Garland and Rowland. There’s an immediate sense that this is going to be dark stuff, yet Garland’s almost saccharine vocal gives it a lift, and her voice offers the requisite shard of light amid the wider sense of gloom. It really is a wonderful early example of the subtlety and balance at play right across the duration of the EP.

‘(Thrice) In Blood’ is of a higher tempo, slightly edgy, with swirly post-punk guitar, and intermittent use of piano. Those somewhat haunting keys feature again on ‘Ineffable’, an atmospheric brooding equivalent, which is perhaps best appreciated after several plays. That way you can digest the extra layers of texture, and fully appreciate the way the band is able to skilfully master the delicate art of repetition. Which is key, a hook in itself, and quite a powerful thing.

I initially thought ‘(Thrice) In Blood’ was the best track on the EP, but it turns out I just needed to be more patient with the closer, ‘Feathered Infant Bells’, which becomes an exercise in slow-build and tension; we’re nearly a full four minutes into it before Garland's vocal finally kicks in and the whole thing starts reveal itself in all of its fluorescent multi-layered glory. There’s some superb vocal FX on offer as the powers of light and dark once again start to caress and bounce off of each other, and this nine-minute epic is a perfect finale to what is a truly intense listening experience.

The whole thing is lovingly mixed and produced by Bryan Tabuteau (Molière Recording), and if there’s an EP or album with more fitting cover art this year – a painting by 19th century artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (called A Sea-Spell, naturally) – then I’ve yet to discover it.

You can pick up your copy of the EP at the Dreams Are Like Water Bandcamp page (here)
 
And here’s ‘Feathered Infant Bells’:


 
 
 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

EP Review: Alice Glass - Alice Glass (2017)

When ex-Crystal Castles vocalist Alice Glass was asked what she finds most surprising about the release of her self-titled debut solo EP, she replied … “that you can hear my voice clearly.” She says this like she believes it's a good thing.

In truth, it's also a bit of a porky. Or at least a stretch. Sure, we get to hear her voice more clearly than we did when her mostly chopped up vocals were key to three terrific Crystal Castles albums, but what she really means is that on this EP we get to hear her very heavily autotuned voice more clearly. Which might be a different thing altogether.

Because that voice is weak. Thin. And there's clearly a good reason Ethan Kath opted to bury Alice's vocal deep in the mix on much of that Crystal Castles work. On those occasions he wasn't slicing it up into tiny little strips and making an instrument out of it, that is. That worked. This doesn't.

So the much anticipated (for some) Alice Glass return, a full two years after her first solo release, the one-off single, 'Stillbirth', is something of a minor let down. Despite production assistance from Jupiter Keyes (ex-HEALTH), who adds the electro-pop flourishes Glass fans will be most familiar with.

But he's not Kath, this feels a little bit like cheap imitation, and there's something missing. It’s just as likely a lack of tunes, and this six-track EP is all a bit ordinary. Even that feels like high praise. The highlight is the pre-release "single", 'Without Love', which opens proceedings. From there, it just becomes a slippery slope.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Miromiro

A few weeks back, I sat down to chat with Ashok Jacob, an 18-year-old Wellington-based arts student who releases music online under the guise of Miromiro. It was for the purpose of writing a NZ Musician/Fresh Talent feature, and it's fair to say I've never before encountered a more articulate or quietly assured teenager. His music has a certain synth-wavey retro-electro appeal to it, and he has a couple of full-length releases available on Bandcamp - the latest offering being Kembe Falls, which was released in June of this year. It's well worth checking out ...

Miromiro/NZ Musician feature here

Miromiro on Bandcamp here

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 3: The 1980s … NME, Smash Hits, & Rip It Up

By 1979, my life as a high school student was all but over. I was sitting School Certificate and putting in just enough effort to scrape a “pass” in all five of my subjects except History, which I passed with some aplomb, simply because I loved that subject way more than any of the others. The plan was that I’d do 6th form, my University Entrance year, in 1980, but there were a couple of stumbling blocks in my path that I’d eventually fail to overcome.

The first was that, at 15, all of the things that had shaped my world up until that point, suddenly started to seem less important. I’d more or less lost interest in playing football, and while I was still involved with the school team, I was no longer being looked at for representative team selection. I was off the radar, and in truth, I lacked the physicality to play at any higher level. Shoot! magazine (see Part 2) had started to lose its appeal, and things like Paul McCartney’s Wings, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and this crazy thing called punk rock – an unfathomable mix, I’ll grant you – became far more important distractions to fill my head with.

It was probably around 1979 when I first bought my first music and pop culture magazine. I’m fairly certain it was an Australian publication called Popscore, which enjoyed a brief foray into the New Zealand market around that time. It was a glossy, and I can recall cutting out pictures – one of McCartney stands out – and plastering them all over my school books. I’m still doing something similar on Facebook, and on this blog, today.

I’d started doing after school jobs, and started buying music with my hard earned dosh. I had also started saving money for what would prove to be the second major stumbling block in a forlorn attempt to complete my education (by passing University Entrance) – a family trip to the UK and the USA for several months smack bang in the middle of 1980. The plan had changed, and I was supposed to study from a distance, but it never quite happened.

What that trip did however, was cement my burgeoning relationship with popular culture. Lifestyles, tribes, music, and fashion in London, Brighton, and Glasgow – the places we stayed or visited most while in the UK – were a huge eye-opener for the recently turned 16-year-old me. Punks, Mods, Skinheads, Rude Boys, tartan bondage pants, DMs, the music of The Specials, The Clash, The Jam, and The Police, blaring out from shop doorways and pub jukeboxes … this was all very different to the world I’d known in Palmerston North. And it was at this time I discovered a music newspaper called the New Musical Express, which I started buying as often as I could.
 
 The late '70s, through the 1980s, was a special time for the NME, which found itself at the vanguard of music criticism during the rise of punk and post-punk. Exceptional writers like Paul Morley, Tony Parsons, and Julie Burchill, were all plying their trade at the paper during this period, and the NME was streets ahead of Melody Maker and Sounds, which were its two main rivals in the market – at least in terms of non-glossy UK-based weekly newsprint publications. In the second half of the decade key writers included the equally entertaining likes of Adrian Thrills, Stuart Cosgrove, and Paolo Hewitt.

The quality of the writing – insightful analysis of ever-changing and quickly evolving scenes, and all of the context around that, plus witty album and gig reviews, etc – from staffers was one thing, but the letters-to-the-editor page (or ‘The Big Bad Read’) was something else entirely, and probably where I spent most of my time. It was clear NME readers also held firm opinions and weren't afraid to share them. Often at the cost of a scathing reply from said editor. I also loved browsing the classifieds, and the charts page, with a special shout out to the history-nut-centric ‘Lest We Forget’ charts of years/decades past. And of course there was always Fred Dollar’s ‘Fred Fact’, a tiny morsel of weekly musical eccentricity to ponder and/or marvel at.

For whatever reason, or reasons, the NME has fallen away badly over the past couple of decades and it no longer commands the same level of reach or influence. If anything, for readers of my generation say, the (now) magazine is something of a joke and a sad pale shadow of what it once represented.

While the NME was the champion of all things indie, political, and cutting edge, fans of straight up unadulterated pop music could get their fix from Smash Hits, a magazine that catered for the pop charts. And that meant for much of the first half of the 1980s, it was very much a synthpop-centric type of publication, which is where I came in.
 
Published fortnightly, Smash Hits was a colourful glossy crammed full of posters, lyric sheets, and digestible tidbits. It was almost tabloid-esque at times. Something to be consumed and tossed away, rather than studiously pored over and/or collected. It had its own little niche corner of the market. For a while it did have a specialist indie page, and one dedicated to disco, but mostly it was a rock snob’s nightmare and it concerned itself only with whatever was happening on top 40 radio at any given time. To its credit, the magazine survived for nearly three decades before market forces and falling advertising revenues saw it close in 2006.

My relationship with Smash Hits was only ever intermittent, that whole early 80s synthpop thing being its main draw, but I was still buying it as late as 1983, because I recall having a Tears For Fears poster/lyric page for ‘Pale Shelter’ (removed from the mag) pinned to a bedroom wall in one of my first flats. I can laugh about now, but at the time it all seemed so deadly serious.

Trivia Fact: Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant was once an assistant editor at Smash Hits. Then he released ‘West End Girls’ and the rest is history …

By the time I’d left school, found a job, left home, and established a set of like-minded gig-going companions (let’s say by 1983, for argument’s sake), I had become aware of Rip It Up, a local music paper, a monthly, that was free to pick up at “record shops” (quaint term) across the country.

Rip It Up started life in 1977, the brainchild of local music identity Murray Cammick, and while it wasn’t New Zealand’s first rock/pop culture periodical, it was the first of any real significance for my generation. It wasn’t exclusively about local music – interviews, album reviews, gig reviews – but it was the only place, beyond token coverage in mainstream newspapers, we could read about local bands, local gigs, and everything else to do with “us”. That said, it had a balanced mix of the local and the international, and was fairly widescreen in scope and genre.
 
Initially, it was quite rudimentary in its design and layout – it was advert-dependent and free, after all – with one-word section headers – “records” (reviews), “live” (gig reviews), “briefs” (short news snippets), and “letters” (self-explanatory, and only occasionally NME-standard for hilarity). It had a genuine fanzine quality about it.

I’d usually start at the “rumours” section, which took the reader on a tour around the country, covering odds and ends, news and gossip, with focus placed on each the four main centres. It offered a summary of what had been happening in each location, and what we could expect in the way of releases, tours, and events during the month ahead.

From 1977, through the decade that followed, Rip It Up was a newsprint publication, mostly black and white, with a splash of colour reserved for the front cover and the occasional advert. But in 1991, the title underwent a facelift and a change in format, morphing into a glossy magazine, with a sale price attached. And while that’s all fair enough, and perfectly logical, something that ensured its longer term survival, it’s fair to say my own interest in the paper/magazine had fallen away by this time. Not because there was a cost associated with it, but because it had become less concerned with the grassroots, and far more mainstream in its approach.

You can find a fascinating archive of classic early Rip It Up content online here 

So far, all of the titles I’ve covered off in this series – with the exception of Rip It Up – have been UK-based publications, but in the next post I’ll expand those horizons just a little. Still looking at the 1980s, but taking a short detour into rather more exotic climes …

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Atlas Shrugged ...

I was going to write my own blurb for the release of The Prophet Motive’s second album, Atlas Shrugged, but somehow the words on the artist’s own Bandcamp page (italics, below) seem more than adequate. I’ve had a quick listen to the album and reckon it’s every bit as good as the debut release of 2014, if not substantially better. I profiled The Prophet Motive (here) when that first album came out, but it’s worth noting that since then, James Fox-O’Connell has been replaced by Matt Billington. Main dude Mitch Cookson is still in place, and the agit-folk-punk duo's modus operandi remains almost identical ... this is acoustic-based political and social commentary which seeks to challenge the collective complacency of a nation raised on the "she'll be right" mantra ... when quite evidently, things are far from right. But don't take my word for it, have a listen for yourself …
 
***

The Prophet Motive is back, with the release of their second full-length album, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. After the successful reception of their first album, 2014’s ‘Manifest Density’, and the addition of Matt Billington (Myth of Democracy, Future Theft, 5th Threat, Cheap For A Reason) to the band, Mitch Cookson has relocated Rotorua’s 4th best Political Folk-Punk Duo deep into the ragged heart of the housing bubble in Auckland, paying exorbitant rent and dealing with the harsh realities of life in the precariat/working classes after 9 long years of National-led Governments.

With another Douche Vs. Turd Election upon us, The Prophet Motive release 12 tracks which cast a spotlight on the ramifications of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy on the people and the planet, from the perspectives of two working-class New Zealand men – one Maori, one Pakeha – both of whom are coming to grips with the failures of Western Democratic Institutions and the two impending worldwide disasters created by human beings – Climate Change and Right Wing Nationalism. Atlas Shrugged is a continuation of The Prophet Motive’s fight for progressive, socialist change for all nations and peoples on earth.



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Film Review: Swagger of Thieves (a film by Julian Boshier)

As per my previous post, last Thursday evening I attended the local Film Festival screening of Swagger of Thieves at the Lighthouse Theatre in Petone. Let’s call it the “Hutt Valley Premiere” for the Julian Boshier-directed documentary, which focuses on the life and times of Wellington hard rock band, Head Like A Hole. It was all at once equal parts confronting, sobering, and exhilarating …

I’ve stopped short of calling it a “rockumentary”, because that would imply that the film traverses a standard formula or cliché path. It doesn’t, and it’s all the better for that. And for all that it will be regarded as the definitive story of a “band”, it’s really the tale of the two key protagonists within the band, the two Nigels, vocalist Beazley (aka Booga), and guitarist Regan.

The mostly black-and-white film is essentially something close to – on and off – 15 years’ worth of fly-on-the-wall footage condensed into a digestible form, with Boshier’s first cut of some six hours eventually being reduced down to a rather more manageable 110 minutes. There’s no voiceover narrative or any real obvious timeline as we skip back and forth between archival footage from the band’s earliest 1990s incarnation(s), to the 2009/2010 “comeback” period, with a strong focus on the recording of the band’s fifth – and most commercially successful – album, Blood Will Out, and the national tour that accompanied it.

And yet, while so much footage will have been discarded along the way, the documentary wasn’t over edited to feature only the most obvious stuff (the performances, the few successes, etc). There’s a lot of focus on the broken individuals, the lost dreams, the sweet souls, the fights and internal personality clashes, and the resilience of those close to the band – most notably that of Beazley’s partner, Tamsin. All the dirt and raw grit – including sequences of graphic intravenous drug use – is left in there unedited, with no feelings spared, and no attempt to gloss over any of what Regan himself calls the “bad decision-making” along the way.

It is to a large extent a tale of contrast and extremes; Beazley, the hard living cocksure rock god who morphs into the somewhat insecure, yet extremely likeable “Mr Local” of Otaki, a window cleaning father of twin girls. Ditto, his relationship with Regan. One moment they’re the closest of old friends (they were schoolboy mates), and the next minute they’re falling out over what appears to be a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing. There are moments of pure hilarity, which are often immediately followed by moments of genuine sadness, but mostly there’s a real sense of frustration as the band continually seems to get in its own way. All the while, we (the audience) keep willing them to sort their shit out.
Nigel and Nigel ... in full flow

There’s understandable angst from Beazley as he contemplates the possible amputation of an infected foot (doesn’t happen, but a tour is postponed), acknowledgement of the key roles played by other band members (ex and current members alike), most of whom are desperate to keep the two Nigels off the hard drugs. And of course, there’s the story within the story, one that was also covered in the recent Shihad documentary – reflections and thoughts around the untimely drug-fuelled death of the otherwise inspirational Gerald Dwyer, who managed both bands.
There’s a fair amount of archival footage of the band in its early (naked and semi-naked) pomp, and coverage of the significant events like the Big Day Out(s) and Mountain Rock. This stuff is gold for grassroots historians/local music fanatics like yours truly.

I’m not sure where the independently-made/funded Swagger of Thieves will go from here. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a widespread/mainstream release in any format other than DVD, due mainly to its graphic content and the fact that the wider public perception will be that it’s a very niche sort of thing.

Which is a shame really, because while the principal theme is certainly fairly narrow on the surface (the portrait of a struggling local band, ala Spinal Tap even) it’s far from niche; it’s a close-up, no-holds-barred, intimate portrayal of the human condition. An honest, uncompromising, frequently very funny film about highs, lows, loss, and the continual struggle we all face when trying to overcome our personal flaws. With quite a lot of hard rock music thrown in for good measure.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Milkshakes, Malls, and Mobility Scooters

Last Thursday I went to a NZ International Film Festival screening of Swagger of Thieves, the extraordinary fly-on-the-wall doco about Wellington rockers Head Like A Hole. I'll write a short review of the film for the blog shortly, but here's something I wrote about the band for NZ Musician magazine in early 2015. (I can't find an online link but it appeared in the April/May 2015 hardcopy edition of the magazine) ...

***
I meet Head Like A Hole vocalist Booga Beazley and fellow band original Nigel Regan in the crowded car park of a suburban Kapiti Coast shopping mall. It’s a busy Saturday morning and the mobility scooter crews are out in full force. The sun is also out, so we all agree to relocate to a quieter outdoor spot for our chat. But Booga is restless. And he’s thirsty, so first we’re off to Wendy’s for a milkshake. Things don’t get much more rock n roll than this.
Only they do, and it’s not long before Beazley and Regan are regaling me with hilarious stories of death metal festivals in Warsaw, of choreographed showcased corporate metal, of meeting heroes, and of the delicious irony behind hoardes of stonewashed denim-clad bogans – “depressed Polish-looking ones” – chasing ex-drummer Mark Hamill’s autograph.
 
Booga Beazley, Rock God ... photo: Tony Barrett

But they were with me to talk of none of those things, because Head Like A Hole have a brand new album out. Narcocorrido is officially album number six, a fact that seems rather moot given the sheer volume of EP-length and non-album releases from the band over the years. It’s the second post-reunion album after 2011’s Blood Will Out took the reformed band into unprecedented top ten chart territory.
Narcocorrido has been self-released on Kickstarter, so I begin by asking Regan about the thinking behind that.
“Kickstarter was an absolute necessity. Without it there wouldn’t have been an album. We would have had to tour and save all of that money and even then I don’t think we could have done it. Kickstarter paid for it. We got more than we asked for.”
Beazley adds, “we have a distributor, it’s just that we don’t have a record label saying ‘here’s eighty grand, go and do a record’. Blood Will Out cost almost thirty grand all up so we had to do something (with Kickstarter). We asked for ten grand, and we got just over eleven, and it came in at around nine after they take some money and other costs out.”
The recording and production process was not without its issues, but each man seems happy with the final result, with Regan keen to acknowledge the role of producer Andrew Buckton.
“The production was a combination of the band and Andrew. He had quite a bit of input, the things he came up with were usually pretty spot on. Andrew actually pulled out the guitar, and played on some of the songs. He had really good ideas that actually fit.
“We went into (Buckton’s) Studio 203, did all the guitars and vocals, and mixed it. But then he shut his studio down in the middle of it, so we ended up doing some tracks at Roundhead, and some at York Street. Then we did some guitars and vocals with Jol Mulholland at the Oven.”
Beazley also notes that working with Buckton made perfect sense, but laments the lack of time spent together as a band.
“Andrew did Blood Will Out so that’s why we went back to him. We did say to him that we didn’t want the album to be a copy of that. But we knew from the songs we’d written that it would be something different.
 “Things have definitely changed, the song-writing skills have got better. There’s still room for a lot of improvement, if we could spend more time together as a band. If we can do Narcocorrido on the bare minimum of time as a band then what would happen if we threw ourselves at it?
“I had to do all the vocals in two days. And that bummed me out. I wanted to go back and do more. But because of time and going back and forth on the internet, all of the communication needed, it was too hard. It’s so frustrating. There will probably be a couple of songs on the album where the vocal levels could have been louder, and where we probably could have revisited that vocal and the mix, but it just came down to time.”
Regan wonders how fans will receive it.
“Because we took a lot more risks musically. I mean, one of the songs on there is called ‘Mexico’, and I wrote that about 15 years ago. I’ve been trying to get the guys to do it forever. I’ve recorded it about five times before. Booga had always been a bit iffy about it, but we thought maybe we could give it a go this time. It’s a bit slower.”
Both men then reflect on the perils of cleaning things up too much, and of the importance of leaving “some dirt in there”. I ask whether all of the band members felt happy with their contribution to the end result, whether or not they’d all been equally involved, and Beazley is quick to quip … “nah, I reckon Nigel (Regan) did most of it.”
 
Nigel and Nigel (Booga) outside the mall, early 2015

Regan responds, “I write the songs but I only come up with the skeleton of it in most cases. With this album one of the best songs on it is ‘Rise and Fall of the Sun’ and Andrew Ashton wrote that. He was pissed at one of the practices and started playing this riff, and it was one of those riffs that only happen from band practices. I remember it was funny because it changed each time he showed it to me, but it had this groove and then next minute, bam! … we had this whole song instantly.”
A regular Head Like A Hole party trick comes in the form of covers, and Beazley confirms that at some point “we’re going to do a covers album. There’s tracks I’d love to do.
“We talked about that (for this album) but it was just the thing about time really. We hadn’t enough time to play as a band, we had just enough time to bash out the ideas for songs and get them sounding good for recording really.”
Regan adds, “yeah, unfortunately we don’t usually end up with many more songs than we actually need. We come up with the album, where a lot of bands will have maybe 15 or 16 songs recorded, and then trim it down for the album.”
The band plan to tour the album shortly after its April 10 release date, with Beazley confirming that “May or June” dates are most likely.
“It’s gotta pay. We’ve gotta break even. Eccles is slapping it together for us. We’ve gone through a few booking agents, and you know, had a bit of history with other people, but at the moment we’re using Eccles Entertainment. Dave Munro did a really great job on the last tour. The band has confidence in him. It can be a little bit frustrating sometimes when things don’t roll along as fast as you expect, because everyone has to plan their life around the tour dates, and when you’ve got family it’s bloody hard just to drop everything and take off on tour.”
The conversation inevitably skirts around the periphery of Head Like A Hole’s indelible link with onetime label mates Shihad, the early years of touring nationally and across Europe, with Regan ultimately reflecting on the respective paths taken by each band.
“To a lot of average punters, when a band is overseas it normally equates to the impression they’re doing well, but then you watch the Shihad doco, and look at all the shit they went through at the time and you know, it didn’t actually look like it was all that much fun.”
Beazley has some fun with the topic, “we quit in 2000 and came back in 2011, or 2010, and you know that ten years was a great break and that did great things for us. And it probably could have done great things for Shihad too (laughs).”
He then notes that Head Like A Hole has its own movie-length doco in the process of being finished. A work-in-progress since the band reformed, it could be completed sometime in the “next six months.”
Beazley is relatively coy about details but is clearly excited by the prospect. 
“It has a lot of clips of us years ago, and heaps of live stuff, some wicked photographs of people, interviews, and it’s just a really great story of how we started and what we went through over the years.”
Near the end of our chat Beazley comments on how Blood Will Out had hit the ground running, climbing into the upper echelon of the charts almost immediately. I tease him a little, expressing my surprise that the charts or radio play are things that even enter the band’s collective psyche, before leaving it to Regan to have the final word …
“The thing is, we’re still the same guys we were when we started the band. If someone had told me then that I’d be sitting here now (25 years later) talking about our sixth album I wouldn’t have believed it. So when you hear your song on the radio we still get that buzz. It’s like, ‘wow, people like our music’. At the end of the day we do it for ourselves, and if people like it, that’s great.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Porky Post ... Album Review: Goldfrapp – Silver Eye (2017)

I recently published a guest blogpost on punk’s legacy, which was written by Porky, a longtime friend of everythingsgonegreen. I enjoyed Porky’s surprise visit to my pigsty so much, I invited him back, and it turns out our porcine hero was keen to share a few more words with us … this time in the form of an album review …  

***
For the uninitiated, Goldfrapp is an English electro outfit fronted by the eponymous Alison Goldfrapp, who have been around since 1999, with several peaks and troughs experienced along the way.
Appreciated more in their native UK and throughout Europe, Goldfrapp have released an album, Silver Eye, that signals another change in direction, from the more laidback, even semi-acoustic works of the past few years, to one that delves into their heralded back catalogue (the peaks).
The term electro is, ultimately, meaningless. There is little music made today that doesn’t contain some element of synths, beats etc. The sound that may be still be associated with Gary Numan, Kraftwerk and the Human League is now ubiquitous; you’ll even hear it on a Katy Perry hit, should you ever wish to punish yourself.

But Goldfrapp are a breed apart. They have a cinematic quality, and an understanding of what makes the perfect pop song. As for the later quality, it seems only just that they soundtrack a future James Bond film. Their influence is tangible, and I can detect some notable touches in Lorde’s just-out second album, praise indeed for the London-based duo.

The album has a two moods feel: side one is the more upbeat, shake it all about disposition, beginning with the atmospheric ‘Anymore’, which is heavy with synth sounds against a steady, pulsating beat. It’s followed by ‘Systemagic’, which is two parts ABBA and three parts Kraftwerk, and the kind of tune you would want to have on the iPod for a long plane journey.

In a similar disco-meets-pop-gold vein is ‘Become The One’, which was inspired by a documentary about transgender children.

The second side (I’m listening on vinyl) sees Goldfrapp in more restrained mood, except for ‘Everything Is Never Enough’, a word of warning for those that live today with no thought for tomorrow, by which time it will be too late: “Insatiable perfect neon stranger/ All the money you need/ Watching nature on my screensaver/ In a wasteland”.

I think that is recommendation enough.

Want more Porky? …  Go here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 2: The 1970s … Shoot! and Tiger

I must have been about nine years old when I signed up for my first magazine subscription. It was 1973, or perhaps 1974, a standing order for Shoot! magazine, a British football weekly. Once a week, I’d race down to collect the magazine from the local newsagent at the Awapuni shopping centre, which was a five minute bike ride from my home in the sprawling metropolis of Palmerston North … four minutes, if traffic was kind.

It was all very exciting. I came to love the smell of newsprint, there was a cardboard folder behind the counter with my actual name on it, and I think the cost of the magazine was around 35 cents local currency, which was about half my usual weekly “pocket money” (or allowance). Although the ship freighted magazines arrived some three months after publication in the UK, I’d pore over each new issue as though it contained all the hidden secrets of the universe.

It might as well have. Football was more or less my whole world at that age. My Lanarkshire-born immigrant father played it at a high local level, representing Hawkes Bay, Manawatu, and the NZ Combined Services team (he was in the police) at various times throughout the 1960s and 1970s. I trained most evenings myself, and my weekends were consumed by round ball activity – Saturday mornings for the school or (later) club teams, Saturday afternoons watching Dad's games, which often involved travelling to different North Island towns, and by 1976, my Sundays were taken over by my own representative/Manawatu age group team commitments.
 
If I was really lucky I'd manage to catch the LWT-produced Big Match on television once a week. The main drawback being that this hour-long highlights package of games from the English top flight of a week earlier, had an often inconvenient Sunday lunch broadcast slot. This was, of course, in the days prior to the VCR, or the scarcely imaginable option of saving a TV programme to something called a hard drive.

As for local newspapers covering British football ... forget it. The Wellington-based broadsheet, the Evening Post, offered weekly league tables, printed on a Monday, but any coverage in Palmy's Evening Standard was a rarity, and very much a bonus if it happened at all. So in this tiny isolated rugby-obsessed corner of the globe, Shoot! magazine was a godsend, my weekly bible, and my only way of keeping up with all the news on the global game. It was an escape into another, hugely exciting, world.

Once a year, in late July or early August, at the start of every new football season, Shoot! had a removable cardboard league ladder feature, where each division in England and Scotland had its own set of slots, and each team had its own tab which could then be inserted, removed, and reinserted on a weekly basis as the teams jockeyed for position, up and down the various tables as the season progressed. Not having regular access to the Evening Post, I’d try to keep my own tables up to date by listening to the early Sunday morning reading of the British football results on national radio (from games played overnight), calculating the weekend tables accordingly. But it was usually a forlorn task, as those pesky midweek games often went unreported, and in truth, I probably wasn’t as good at maths as I thought I was.
 
Shoot! also had a "star-studded" line-up of feature writers (or at least, ghost writers representing them) – the likes of Alan Ball, Gerry Francis, and Kevin Keegan being the most memorable from that mid-1970s period in terms of the English game. But as a fan of Glasgow Celtic, I had a special relationship with the game north of the border, and I was always drawn to what the “tartan talk” columnists had to say – the likes of Danny McGrain and Kenny Dalglish were, as Celtic players of the era, particular favourites at the time.

Other features in Shoot! included ‘Football Funnies’, which included a short comic strip called Nobby, ‘Ask The Expert’, which offered £1 for every letter published, and ‘You Are The Ref’, where the reader is presented with a rule book conundrum to resolve, and a chance to play the role of the “bastard in the black”.

I especially enjoyed the ‘Club Spotlight’ sections, usually two per issue, which included a team photo of the featured club(s) and short player bios. And the ‘Focus On’ section was always good read, where one top player was asked a series of questions from the professional to the personal, but in a very digestible/snapshot format.

I was supposed to be saving up for a “racing bike” (to get me to the shops faster, right?), but usually, if I had any spare money leftover, I’d more than likely spend it on a comic called Tiger. Tiger was also a football-centric UK-based comic, the original home for the famous Roy of the Rovers strip, prior to Roy Race and his Melchester Rovers club becoming popular enough to demand an entire comic of their very own.
 
Alongside Roy of the Rovers, Tiger had strips like Billy’s Boots and Hot Shot Hamish, along with a Motor Racing/Formula One strip called Skid Solo, and a wrestling one featuring a giant American Indian dude called Johnny Cougar. Tiger merged with a rival comic called Scorcher, before disappearing completely in the wake of Roy Race’s rebranding.

I occasionally flirted with a more highbrow monthly, the illustrious World Soccer (magazine), which I sourced from second-hand bookshops. Or I found myself the lucky recipient of used copies that Dad had somehow found for me. It’s funny, because although Dad often frowned upon me spending so much time reading about football when I “should be outside practicing”, he did tend to support and feed my obsession.

World Soccer was a much more challenging read however, with a lot more emphasis placed on the international game, and Shoot! was my main poison of choice throughout the mid-to-late Seventies.

It was all rather fascinating stuff for a pre-teen come pre-pubescent teenager living on the other side of the world to where all the action was (clearly!) taking place, but things were about to change, and by 1978 or 1979, I started to develop a healthy (or unhealthy) interest in music and pop culture, one that stays with me to this very day.

The origins of this newly discovered horizon, or soon-to-be obsession, can perhaps be traced back to an older sister, who also had a couple of magazine subscriptions of the same era – I’m fairly certain her sub was for a girl’s mag called Diana, or it may have been Jackie magazine. Each of those publications had pull-out posters, of (then) teen idols like David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, through to more serious artists like David Bowie and um, Gary Glitter … but I’ll cover some of this off in the next post as we journey into a far less innocent time and place …

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 1: Introduction

My name’s Michael, and I’m a recovering collect-aholic. For much of my life, I’ve been obsessed with collecting music, books, and magazines.

In recent years, while music and books still remain very much at the forefront of this personal form of OCD, I’ve been relieved of the need to collect magazines. But for a while, peaking perhaps in the late 1980s, magazines were the most important thing of all. Mostly magazines of the music and pop culture variety, but also magazines relating to sport – football, cricket, boxing (specifically The Ring) … even the odd bloodstock glossy relating to the thoroughbred industry (Blood Horse rules ok!).

The recent demise of NZ Musician magazine – in its printed/magazine format – was at least understandable, but also a little disturbing for someone with my affliction, and it got me thinking about all of the great magazines that have come and gone throughout my lifetime. There’s been a few.
 
So I’ve decided to dedicate a series of blogposts to the genre, a handful of posts about the magazines, incorporating music “papers” and the odd comic, that have been important to me across the past four decades or so. Little bursts of nostalgia, with some context and detail around why each publication meant something to me.

Thanks to the way we now consume news, information, and infotainment, magazines will never again have the influence, or carry the gravitas they once bore. These days, there is less need – or desire – for tangible copy. Everything is available in an instant, on a hand-held device, no less. All the news and information we’ll ever need can now be accessed within a few seconds, and be discarded just as quickly. And that’s fine too.

When I was growing up, during the 1970s and 1980s, it was inconceivable that such an option could ever exist, that technology could open up so many possibilities, and I’m certainly not about to dismiss that level of accessibility in any “oooh, it were way better in my day, lad” kind of way.
 
But I do feel a little sad for my children, in that they’ll never experience the thrill of a weekly magazine subscription. Not for them, the rush of excitement as they walk into the newsagent and spot the new issue of something they’ve been looking forward to, sitting up there on the rack, in pristine condition, in all of its colourful glory. It’s quite probable they’ll never really understand the catharsis that can come with sitting down to casually flick through the latest issue of a magazine they’ve been forced to wait a few weeks for.

One of the goals behind everythingsgonegreen is document some of this stuff from the past, purely for posterity, or else it’ll be allowed to fall between the cracks. When my children can post online, for all of the world to see, from now until eternity, what they’re about to eat for dinner, then surely it’s up to my generation to record some of the pre-internet tidbits relevant to our own otherwise undocumented grassroots existence … and clearly, my former OCD-level need to collect, has now been surpassed by my self-indulgent need to document the trivial. If it’s not recorded, or written about, it surely didn’t happen, right?

I’ll break the series up into several parts … part 2 covering the 1970s, part 3 will look at the first half of the 1980s, part 4 will tick off the second half of that glorious decade, part 5 will look at the 1990s and beyond, leading into the slow steady demise of the printed glossy in the ever less functional world of everythingsgonegreen …

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Album Review: Ebola Babies - Ebola Babies (2017)

I wrote the following album review for the NZ Musician website, but I very much doubt it will ever see the light of day. Listening to the album was a complete waste of my time. I only wrote the review out of obligation because I’d been sent a CD and given a deadline. But I completely understand if the website chooses not to use it. I don’t think the band concerned is worthy of any coverage whatsoever – good or bad – on that particular platform (this blog is far less widely read, however, so it makes no odds). A couple of things first though – I’m generally not a fan of writing negative reviews. I’m never comfortable criticising someone’s “art” … I tend to post reviews on everythingsgonegreen only because I want to share the good stuff in my world as a music consumer. That’s the driver. The second thing is that I’ve seen Ebola Babies described as a “fun” band, but the truth is there is nothing at all “fun” about their music, or its bigoted/sexist/misogynist themes. Quite the opposite. Punk rock is supposed to be clever, and this certainly isn’t that. The third thing is that Ebola Babies is a fantastic name for punk rock band in 2017, what a shame it’s wasted on these guys.

***
 
Review below:

The thing about punk rock is that, for the most part, it sets out to make a point. Be it social, political, or even something of a slightly more philosophical or experimental bent. That's been my experience, regardless of the variable levels of musical aptitude offered alongside the requisite attitude. And while the Ebola Babies probably think they're punk rock - I can't think of any other excuse for their borderline musical ability - they offer none of the genre's aforementioned redeeming features. These guys don't even have the wherewithal to pass any notional humour test. If you think that's harsh, I ask you to consider these lyrics: "Show us yer knickers, do you want it hard, do you want it rough" (on 'Red Light District') ... "I didn't mean to sleep with this girl, I didn't mean to suck her tit, I didn't mean to lick her clit"  ... repeat etc (on 'Tequila'). A puerile collection of tales about drug deals, caravan life, vampire sex, and gimp men. With a gravel voiced guy whose vocabulary rarely extends beyond variations on the F-word, screaming at us over a series of sludge rock dirges. And those lyrics are just tasters. A small sample of the depths plumbed in order to sate the band's apparent need to try to shock us. I don't know what sort of "music" fan is likely to want this self-titled debut, but it's not likely to be anyone you know. Well, hopefully not anyone you know. When all is said and done, this album is crammed full of horrible, no filter, pre-pubescent misogynist crud trying to pass itself off as something worth listening to. Don't waste your time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Corvus Frugilegus

I’ve known Brendan Conlon on and off for close to 35 years. Through a shared passion for music. When I first met him he was playing Killing Joke covers in a Palmerston North pub. When I last saw him, he was playing Cure covers in a Wellington pub. And for all the years in between he’s been doing a whole lot of original stuff under a variety of names (Remarkables, Urchins, Burt Real, and Black Wings, for starters). This week Brendan has released an album of intimate/personal acoustic tunes on Bandcamp. It’s well worth a listen:

(Incidentally, Corvus Frugilegus is the scientific name for the Rook, with the artwork on this release created by Wellington artist Izzy Joy).

... and you can explore some of his work with Black Wings here.