Saturday, March 30, 2019

Album Review: The Specials - Encore (2019)

What an unexpected treat. Brand new material from The Specials after all these years. And in the form of my expanded deluxe version of the album, it comes with a swag of old favourites in a live setting to supplement the new stuff. I can’t really ask for much more than that ...

There’s always a danger such a prolonged hiatus between “official” albums will work against an band, more so when that band is so intrinsically linked with a certain time and place. As The Specials most certainly are. And when that band is missing more than half of its original line-up, well, the task of being relevant and remaining true to its fanbase is especially difficult.

But key foundation personnel Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter, manage to pull it off with some aplomb on Encore, and the album’s predominant themes - immigration, racism, poverty, urban life, mental health, gun crime, politics, corruption - remain as relevant today as the social issues tackled by the band in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Plus they get some help, with the indomitable Steve Cradock on guitar, renowned jazz stickman Kenrick Rowe on beats, and much travelled session man Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keys. And of course, there’s the guest vocal appearance of civil rights activist Saffiyah Khan on the reimagined King Tubby classic ‘Ten Commandments’, which she well and truly makes her own.

There’s funk in the form of ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’, a disco-fied Equals cover, which opens the album, and on ‘BLM’, where Golding’s narrative confronts racism, offering just a few specific examples of the many times he’s been subjected to it over the years.

‘Vote For Me’ and ‘Breaking Point’ are more in the style of the old school ska we’re more used to from The Specials, while ‘The Lunatics’ revisits Hall and Golding’s 1981 Fun Boy Three hit of the same name, and again, it feels even more prescient today - with Brexit, Trump, the rise of right-wing nationalism etc - than it did during the dark days of Thatcher’s regime. If that’s even possible.

The third cover (of the ten “new” tracks on the core album) is an NRA-baiting rejig of ‘Blam Blam Fever’, which was a minor hit in the late Sixties for Jamaican group The Valentines.

Terry Hall’s spoken lament ‘The Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression)’ deals with issues relating to mental health, and it’s probably the best thing here, complete with horns, and an unlikely Doors-referencing keyboard breakdown.

The “bonus” live material comes from two separate gigs, at Le Bataclan (Paris) in 2014, and at The Troxy (London) in 2016. The Paris set includes ‘Gangsters’, ‘A Message To You, Rudy’, ‘Stereotype’, and ‘Ghost Town’, while highlights from the London set include ‘Too Much Too Young’ and a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. Plus there’s plenty more.

It’s a veritable feast. The old, the new, the borrowed, and the (chequered) blue. All immaculately packaged and produced for both newcomer and hardcore fan alike. Something close to perfect.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Doom Parade

Something from a more obscure angle, and a pay-what-you-like download on Bandcamp, I'm currently enjoying this seriously good funky/jazzy afrobeat EP. Coming at you straight outta Tauranga. Get some in ya.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gig Review: Beat Rhythm Fashion, Meow, Wellington, 16 March 2019

There was a strange vibe in and around Wellington city on Saturday night. Everything was a little bit flat, sombre, and low key. As was to be expected in the immediate wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks less than 36 hours earlier. Sure, there were a few wild revellers about, those keen to escape the stark reality of what had happened by whatever means possible, but as I slowly made my way to the venue via the waterfront and the Cuba Street night market, the early-doors vibe on the periphery of Wellington’s party strip was as subdued as I’ve ever experienced it. 

Having said that, the opening act at Meow, No Broadcast, did their absolute best to change things up a level with a raucous opening set of pure adrenaline-fuelled power rock. That was followed by a far more serene, but nonetheless still very enjoyable, support slot from locals Orangefarm.

Beat Rhythm Fashion, Meow … photo: Iain Cargill

Beat Rhythm Fashion - Nino Birch (vox/guitar), Rob Mayes (bass), and Caroline Easther (drums) - arrived on stage around 10.30pm and Birch immediately addressed the steadily filling (but never close to full) room with a few poignant words about taking some power back, not only from terrorists - in this case the intellectually challenged far-right white nationalists who attacked Christchurch’s mosques - but from scaremongering politicians and the wider mainstream media narrative which helps fuel such repugnant violence. 

It was a theme he’d return to a few times during the evening without wearing it out, and for the most part BRF let their music do the talking, opening with ‘One Percent’ and ‘Fake Peace’, both from the band’s 2019 album, Tenterhook. Third song in, we got one of the gems from the band’s long lost past in the form of the quite lovely ‘Turn of the Century’, with Birch having already taken some time out to acknowledge the band’s local roots, old friends in the crowd, and, of course, his original co-conspirator, brother Dan, who passed away in 2011. That tune was one of the highlights of the early part of the set, as was a heartfelt rendition of ‘Dan’, a song Nino had written in the immediate wake of Dan Birch’s death. 

Most of the set consisted of material from Tenterhook with - in no particular order - tracks like ‘Eulogy’, ‘Whatever’, and ‘Property’, sounding as fresh and crisp in a live setting as they do on the album. The “new” single, but another remnant from the past, ‘Hard as Hell’, got an outing near the end, leading into the band’s classic early single, ‘Beings Rest Finally’, to close a thoroughly absorbing set. 

There were cries from the floor for “more”, naturally, with multiple requests for ‘No Great Oaks’ being knocked back, and Birch admitting the band was not equipped for that particular old favourite. The encore we did get was brief, one song; I think it was ‘Chrysalis Ones’, from Tenterhook, but the fact that I’m not entirely sure about that point is rather more to do with my own worse-for-wear state than anything to do with the band itself. 

A pretty good gig, all told. Everything I thought it would be, despite the slightly surreal circumstances surrounding the night.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Return of Beat Rhythm Fashion

For me, Beat Rhythm Fashion were always one of the great lost New Zealand bands. Indeed, one of the great lost Wellington bands. A near mythical band I’d seen on Radio With Pictures back in the distant sepia-tinged days of 1981 or 1982. A band I was unable to witness live and up close, simply because I was too young. By the time I was of an age to start attending gigs, they’d long since disappeared. Over before they really got started. But I loved what I’d seen and heard, and over the past couple of decades I’ve regularly sought out YouTube clips of the band’s precious early singles, 'Beings Rest Finally', and 'Turn of the Century'. What I never expected to happen was that in 2019 there would be a new album, Tenterhook, or that I’d finally get the chance to see Beat Rhythm Fashion perform. Albeit a version of the band without founding member Dan Birch, who died in 2011.

Dan & Nino Birch, photo: Charles Jameson

That gig is at Wellington’s Meow, this coming Saturday night, and it will feature original guitarist/vocalist Nino Birch (Dan’s brother), well-travelled drummer Caroline Easther, whose connection with Birch and BRF extends all the way back to 1981, and Failsafe Records’ main man Rob Mayes, who produced Tenterhook. It is, to some extent, a bucket list event for me, and for the past few weeks I’ve had Beat Rhythm Fashion’s music on high rotation. Ahead of the gig, I want to share a few interesting/related links for the curious (see footer), and to record a few thoughts about each of the band’s albums - not comprehensive reviews - just a few notes on each.

Bring Real Freedom (2007) 

One of the reasons I refer to Beat Rhythm Fashion as one of this country’s “great lost bands” is because for some 25 years its only material legacy was three early singles, and no accompanying album. Failsafe Records put this right with the release of this 2007 compilation, which included those singles, the related B-sides, and a selection of live tracks from that same early period. It’s essentially the album we didn’t get at the time. The first two singles, ‘Beings Rest Finally’ and ‘Turn of the Century’ are obvious stand-outs, as are ‘Welfare State Rent’, ‘Song of the Hairless Ape’, ‘Art and Duty’, and ‘No Great Oaks’, although it remains something of a mystery to me all these years later which of the latter pair was the actual third single. I’d always thought it was ‘Art and Duty’ but I note that the band’s “Discogs” page lists ‘No Great Oaks’ as the A-side, not the flip. There’s also an early version of the current (2019, digital only) single ‘Hard as Hell’. Bring Real Freedom’s live material, recorded by Chris Cullinane, restored by Rob Mayes, scrubbed up very well, and was a long overdue bonus for those fans seeking a more expansive set than anything offered at the time. The belated album served to document the band’s pioneering post-punk roots and strong early-Cure influences, and given the overall strength of this work, I’m left to ponder what might have been had Dan Birch not made the decision to relocate to Australia in 1982. A move that ultimately meant the end of Beat Rhythm Fashion, or at least, what might become known as “phase one” of Beat Rhythm Fashion.

Tenterhook (2019) 

If there is a “phase two”, or to be a prolonged phase two - and Nino Birch has suggested there’s more to come - then Tenterhook is a great way to kick things off. There’s a lot to like here, and lost brother Dan’s influence remains omnipresent, with four co-writing credits on some the older material featured - ‘Hard as Hell’, ‘Freezing Mr Precedent’, ‘Optimism’, and ‘Property’ - plus there’s a Dan Birch original (from 1993) in the form of the excellent ‘Nothing Damaged’. More than that though, Nino Birch’s own songwriting on Tenterhook’s newer material is exceptional, and there’s a sense of genuine progression here, with an expansion beyond the band’s original palate to include more pop-styled hooks and a much fuller sound. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of it is particularly uplifting, but it does feel less gloomy, less generic, and perhaps more personal than the circa 1980-1982 stuff. Particularly on the track ‘Dan’, where Nino Birch attempts to offer some context around his brother’s death, with that tune’s lyrics resonating most, to remain firmly stuck in my head long after the track has finished. Credit must go to the work of Easther and Mayes too. In fact, perhaps the biggest triumph of all, on an album full of them, is the fragmented way Tenterhook was pieced together, with the three core constituent parts - resident in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand - somehow managing to produce an immaculate fully formed whole. 

Sample lyrics from ‘Dan’ … 

“You were never at home, so you got wild with all your drinking
Your common pathways were lost in the acute darkness of your thinking
And your friends watched you leave from the tyranny of distance
But you never achieved from this path of least resistance

Oh your mind, twist and turned
As your soul crashed and burned
You were never up for this ride
So what the hell were you thinking
Damn it Dan, Damn it Dan!”

Some great links if you’re keen to learn more about Beat Rhythm Fashion, both past and present: 

Andrew Schmidt’s Audioculture profile from 2013

Radio New Zealand’s interview on the second coming (broadcast last week)

Gary Steel’s recently published Q&A with Nino Birch. A prolific writer about the Wellington 1980s post-punk scene, Steel was there for the first incarnation of the band

Beat Rhythm Fashion on Bandcamp

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Album Review: The Dandy Warhols - Why You So Crazy (2019)

The thing about The Dandy Warhols is that they have their moments. Moments of real promise. Moments that transport you back to the band’s turn of the century pomp. Little glimpses of what the Portland band offered on a couple of terrific albums from that era; The Dandy Warhols Come Down (1997), and Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000). Those albums were slightly flawed masterpieces in one way or another, but on each one, the good overwhelmingly outweighed the bad.

Sadly, almost inevitably, on every Dandys album released over the past decade or so, the opposite applies, and those moments have been fewer and further between. They’re still there, those ever-infrequent morsels of hope, but in truth, it’s a hope that’s framed only by ill-conceived faith, and “moments” are probably not enough anymore. Not when they’ve been doing this thing for a quarter of a century or more. Give or take. 

So we get a few moments on Why You So Crazy, most notably when the band stick to tried and trusted formulas - with the almost Velvet Underground-aping fuzzy power pop psychedelia of (lead single) ‘Be Alright’, and the Iggy-lite country/redneck parody of ‘Motor City Steel’. Beyond that, there’s not much here to get excited about. 

There’s quite a lot of that faux-country groove thing they’ve so often used for filler on past releases. More than might be considered wise, and it reeks of a tacit acceptance that nobody takes the band too seriously anymore. With a sense that the band itself is saying: “you can’t take this shit seriously, we clearly don’t, so don’t even try” ... or perhaps it’s merely that the band just don’t have any fresh pop hooks these days, so they revert to the comfort zone of a long-held default. 

As for the rest of the material on Why You So Crazy, amid a procession of not-all-that-interesting noise, I can make out fragments of songs, or ideas, mostly half-formed, some more developed than others, but to call them “songs” would surely be overstating it. They’re just moments - thirty second glimpses into what might have been. What once was, but no longer is. 

I had high hopes for this release. Even when armed with the knowledge that the past decade hasn’t been kind, I hoped that the good would outweigh the bad. But it’s always the hope that kills you, right?

Monday, March 4, 2019

Joe Strummer vs the Rich: when anarchy met The Clash hero

Craig Stephen presents an overview of 1988’s Rock Against The Rich tour …


Apparently, it happened like this. A drunken, mouthy anarchist approached Joe Strummer in a London pub, chewed his ear for a bit and within a few pints had the former Clash man down for a full-on national tour. It would be called Rock Against the Rich. 

As the planning took place the organisers craftily added a Welsh language band to the tour schedule, without asking for their permission, and pulled it off. 

So began the route to a tour that inspired Strummer and, while not giving the world’s rich-listers a boot in the bollocks, at least raised the issue of how wealth inequality creates an unstable society.

The drunken, mouthy anarchist was Ian Bone, who had form in the shape of Bash The Rich marches, disrupting the boat race for toffs, Henley Regatta, and organising campaigns against yuppies, in his own inimitable manner. He was the public face of Class War. 

According to one of the protagonists, Darren Ryan, the conversation in March 1988 at Notting Hill boozer the Warwick Castle, initially centred on a one-off benefit gig for Class War, the anarchist group that loathed the upper classes and loved violence – its newspaper contained a regular section called ‘Hospitalised Coppers’. 

As the pints flowed, it somehow became a full-blown tour.

“We presented the idea to Strummer that it was going to make his return to his Clash roots – back to Garageland, back to the streets. I think that he thought he would get some kind of political street cred from associating with us,” says Ryan. 

“Throughout this table-banging tirade from me and Ian, Strummer became totally animated. He was like a cadaver that got electrocuted back to life and wanted to live it all now – all at once. He fuckin’ loved it.” 

As everyone knows, grand ideas fuelled by plentiful supplies of drink tend to be met with a ‘did I really say that?’ in the hangover hours, but Strummer was committed even as he pissed out the pints. 

With the former Clash man promising to help fund it, the details were thrashed out. 

The tour started badly, with the free concert on the Isle of Dogs, in London’s East End, falling through late on. The Mudchute Farm Committee, on whose land it was to be held, got cold feet. The gig was transferred to the Brixton Fridge; a warm-up act was another mouthy anarchist, Class War’s candidate for the Kensington by-election, John Duignan (he got 60 votes, 0.25%). 

However, there is a doubt over whether this was actually part of the tour. Ryan insists it was but it also has been claimed that this was a benefit gig in support of the Nicaraguan rebel group turned government the FSLN. 

Ryan again: “Strummer came out looking like a punk Johnny Cash, and he fucking rocked the Fridge with what everyone wanted to hear – a combination of old and new material. We were happy with the result – we sold loads of Class War papers and T-shirts, and our name was up in the lights again.” 

The Latino Rockabilly War was a curious combination comprised of musicians with diverse backgrounds in punk, jazz and traditional Colombian music: Zander Schloss (Circle Jerks) on guitar, Roberto Pla on percussion, Jim Donica on bass, and Willie McNeil (ex-Untouchables) on drums.

The Latino Rockabilly War

From London, Strummer and Class War went onwards on a “fucking huge tour bus” paid for by Strummer. There was booze, booze and more booze. 

The singer wasn’t short of money thanks to The Clash and there was a certain irony perhaps in him rocking against the rich. But not his commitment, as he told music journalist Sheila Rogers on the eve of the tour: “Every gig goes to some needy local fund. For example, in one town some people were caught stealing coal off trains during the winter. The proceeds from this would go to their defence fund.” 

The tour visited Leeds, Liverpool, Doncaster, Sheffield, Bristol, Merthyr Tydfil, Exeter, Poole, Southampton, Brighton, Swansea, Northampton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow (Barrowlands), Hull, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and finally, Hultsfred in Sweden. 

The gig in Derby was cancelled due to poor ticket sales while a second gig in Brighton was pulled due to police concerns about two gigs over two nights in one small venue (the Concord) so the gigs were united as one at the Dome. 

As well as the gigs Class War arranged for the band to meet activists on housing estates, such as Jimmi Walker, in Liverpool, who was battling smack dealers. 

Clash fan Joe Swinford was at the Bristol gig and wasn’t convinced by the new band. 

“Joe’s backing band, The Latino Rockabilly War, were lacking in the image stakes, and for someone who was an integral part of a high profile, image conscious band like The Clash, it was thought Joe would have hired musicians who not only played well, but also fitted the bill in the threads department. I’m sure Joe had his reasons, but on this occasion, ability was preferred over image. In certain circumstances this isn’t a bad thing, however, in this instance, The Latino Rockabilly War looked inappropriate, alongside Strummer’s unmistakable cool. Stepping into Mick Jones’ shoes must be a daunting task, but bespectacled Latino’s guitarist Zander Schloss was on a hiding to nothing from the off. He wasn’t a bad guitarist, but endless over-played guitar fills drew obvious comparisons to Mick’s work. Sadly, Zander’s playing was messy and overworked. Drummer Willie McNeil was OK, but rudimentary compared to Topper. Naming the band the Latino Rockabilly War was appropriate, as it was indeed a collision of musical styles. But it must have been difficult for Joe to assemble a credible outfit equalling The Clash’s legacy.”

One of the support bands, Welsh language punk band Anhrefn, were snared through a somewhat unusual tactic. As Rhys Mwyn explains they found out about their backing through a musical newspaper while on tour. 

“We’d check out NME for any reviews or whatever and on this particular day a tour by Joe Strummer had just been announced under the banner of Rock Against The Rich. Being huge Strummer fans we immediately checked this article out to find that we were listed as one of the support bands on the tour. First we’d heard. The tour was being organised by Class War and at the end of the piece they gave a London number for more details. On the other end of the line was a bloke called Matt Runacre who said ‘I was hoping you’d phone’. So it was true, they did want us to support and he’d used the NME as a way of getting us to contact him.” 

Soundcheck issues meant Anhrefn couldn’t play in Newcastle, but got the opener in Edinburgh, playing just three songs to the early birds. They also played Bristol, before One Style, a reggae band from London. 

Anhrefn’s Sion: “We were quite surprised with Joe Strummer, he could have been a bloody pop star if he'd wanted to, but he wasn't, he was totally OK, totally down to Earth, no shit at all. The tour was good, there was good audiences, but I don't know how many of the actual audience knew what the whole thing was about. There was one guy (Ray Jones) who introduced the bands, who would sometimes try to explain what it was all about, but the crowd would just be going ‘Strummer, Strummer, Strummer’. So I think a lot of the crowd were just there to see Joe Strummer because he used to be in the Clash, and didn't really know what was going on, even though they gave out leaflets, most of the leaflets would be on the floor by the end of the night.” 

Setlists will undoubtedly abound around the net, but the one at Nottingham Rock City on 3 August is likely to have been replicated elsewhere. 

Shouting Street/ Keys to Your Heart/ Somebody Got Murdered/ Oye Coma Va!/ Spanish Bombs/ Armagideon Time/ Sightsee MC/ This is England/ Junco Partner/ Police and Thieves/ V Thirteen/ Nothin About Nothin/ Straight to Hell/ If I Should Fall from Grace/ I Fought the Law/ Ubangi Stomp/ Brand New Cadillac/ Police on My Back/ Tropic of No Return/ Trash City/ Ride Your Donkey/ Love of the Common People/ Love Kills. 

It’s quite a mix of stuff, Clash classics, solo material, notable covers, a couple of Big Audio Dynamite songs (surprising given Mick and Joe weren’t apparently on good terms by then) and The Pogues’ 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'. 

Was it worth it? This is what Darren Ryan made of the tour: 

“It may not have been how we originally intended it, but it was moderately successful in some ways. And it was a lot of fun. But I look back in anger at it, as we had such great ideas for it, and it still gets my blood boiling the way it was turned from potentially dangerous to pleasantly adventurous by people who used it as their ticket into the music industry.”

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Album Review: Joe Strummer - 001 (2018)

This is the first of two posts from our resident Clash aficionado, Craig Stephen, taking a look back at the post-Clash legacy of Joe Strummer. This one focuses on the career-spanning compilation album, 001, which was released in late 2018. 

The second Strummer-related post will feature on the blog in the next couple of days.


Despite having taking a dip from the public spotlight for virtually the entirety of the 1990s, it’s largely forgotten how prolific Joe Strummer was following the breakup of The Clash in 1984, and how excellent and varied the recordings were.

001 has finally tied up much of the array of tracks on a double album CD/triple vinyl album that includes Strummer’s contributions to groups and collaborations that even the most hardcore of Clash fans may have missed. Soundtracks, singles, B-sides, and demos make up these 32 tracks, a dozen of which have never been released before; plenty, therefore, for the collector or casual fan to indulge in, albeit with varying degrees of satisfaction as we will discover.

But to get to the post-Clash era, we have to go back to 1975, when Strummer began his musical adventure with pub rockers The 101ers. Neither ‘Letsgetabitrockin’’ (two versions of which are included) nor the sole single ‘Keys To Your Heart’ offer any hint of what was to come. And it’s fair to say that these tracks show that there was only one option for Strummer when the opportunity arose to form a band with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon.

The band’s ascent was rapid, the decline slow and heartbreaking, and after the much-derided Cut The Crap album that featured only a remnant of the band, Strummer was forced to think anew. 001 does cover this “final days” era, with the inclusion of a version of ‘This is England’ and ‘Pouring Rain’ by Strummer, Simonon and Pete Howard, recorded in 1983-84. The latter track (and another version that’s also included) sound almost different songs to The Clash’s powering live version that was included on The Future Is Unwritten soundtrack.

But where this album comes alive is on the solo material from two separate periods. From 1986 to 1990 Strummer recorded one solo album, a soundtrack, contributed to two further soundtracks and released a handful of singles. Aside from a team-up with Black Grape on a World Cup football single and gigs with The Pogues, there’s a fallow period until 1999 when Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros united for two studio albums, while one more was released posthumously.

From this first period, ‘Tennessee Rain’, off the Soundtrack to Walker, is a Latin-tinged underrated standout. ‘Love Kills’ is a brilliantly riveting accompaniment to the almost-good Sid & Nancy biopic and there were five tracks contributed to the Permanent Record soundtrack, as Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War, notably ‘Trash City’, which is included here.

Unfortunately, even Clash fans bypassed his solo exercise Earthquake Weather and Strummer went underground for virtually a decade. The return was heralded by ‘It’s A Rockin’ World’ for the South Park movie and then came the Mescaleros years, which are represented by six tracks, including ‘Yalla Yalla’ and ‘Johnny Appleseed’. Which means no room for the brilliant ‘Bhindi Bhagee’, the tale of a wide-eyed New Zealander who had just landed in London and was looking for mushy peas only to be directed by Strummer to the city’s cosmopolitan platter.   

There’s collaborations with Johnny Cash (on Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’) and Jimmy Cliff that I never knew existed; and the second disk includes those dozen unreleased tracks, mostly demos. There needs to be some honesty here: few of it was worth dredging up. Strummer sounds sometimes as if he wanted to be a blues singer, but his voice isn’t gravelly enough. A couple of outtakes, one credited to Pearl Harbour, the other to the Soothsayers, which missed the Sid & Nancy boat are among them, and it concludes with ‘U.S. North’ which is credited to Mick and Joe. It’s 10 minutes of unrelenting repeated beats and a slew of words that would have been fine if reduced to four minutes.

And to imitate that annoying voice that promises “ … and there’s more” in every TV advertorial, the vinyl version contains an additional three tracks, but you’ll need a loan from the bank to be able to afford that.

While many of the obscure and forgotten singles and B-sides have been torpedoed to the surface, the numbering suggests there could be the possibility of a second turn, though that presumably would be mainly through album tracks not included here, such as some of those from Walker. Given the continuing interest in Strummer it is feasible that the retro machine will keep on churning out material.