My Favourite Year?

If you’re a reader of David Hepworth’s excellent blog you’ll know that he considers 1971 to be the best-ever year for rock albums. He’s beating that drum again by listing the albums that would have been on the Mercury Prize shortlist (albums released by UK and Irish acts) if they’d had one that year.

A very impressive list it is too (if you can ignore the presence of Yes and Jethro Tull which I’m trying hard to do) and in response I offer what would have been on the Mercury Prize shortlist in 1979. I’m leaving off some out of personal preference (The Fall, not my cup of tea) and I’m sure there are others missing that will be pointed out in the comments.

Metal Box – Public Image Ltd.
Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division
London Calling – The Clash
Entertainment! – Gang Of Four
Armed Forces – Elvis Costello & The Attractions
154 – Wire
The Raincoats – The Raincoats
Squeezing Out Sparks – Graham Parker
The Specials – The Specials
Forces Of Victory – Linton Kwesi Johnson
The Undertones – The Undertones
Setting Sons – The Jam
Drums & Wires – XTC
Cut – The Slits
Broken English – Marianne Faithful

Not that I want to start a generational war or anything, but: Eat that 1971!

I was 17 in 1979 so obviously I have a sentimental dog in this race but I think it wins this one by several noses. Not only is that a list of great records, many of them are great records which had a huge and lasting impact on rock music. 1979 looks even better when you see the NME albums and singles of the year.

Was it a better year than 1972 overall? We could argue about that until the cows come home but that’s what we like doing best isn’t it? Having completely pointless arguments about things that can never be proved one way or the other.

Download: Careering – Public Image Limited (mp3)
Download: New Dawn Fades – Joy Division (mp3)
Download: Discovering Japan – Graham Parker (mp3)
Download: Sonny’s Lettah – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
Download: No Side To Fall In – The Raincoats (mp3)
Download: Nite Klub – The Specials (mp3)

Music was her first love

I’ve been out with plenty of girls who loved music and could tell their House from their Garage and their Orange Juice from their Jam — I even married one — but I’ve never met one who rose to the obsessive level of nerdy music anorak that men do. The same with films, comics, and sport.

I know they exist. I have occasionally seen a girl in a second-hand record shop intently digging through the boxes, and every man in the place will be staring at her as if they’ve spotted some rare bird — because they have (and probably wish she could be their girlfriend). But usually, whatever gene it is that turns men into anal trainspotters who can name every Clash b-side, women don’t have it.

Obviously this is a sweeping generalization and I don’t intend to be sexist in any way. It’s a compliment really, High Fidelity couldn’t have been written about a woman because they just aren’t that sad and ridiculous.

The young lady above should be able to tell Mike that this is a classic dance track from 1984. Then she should break up with him.

Download: Music Is The Answer – Colonel Abrams (mp3)

Ode To Vinyl

This collection of vinyl-related movie clips was put together by a chap by the name of Mennomail and is beautifully done, I must admit there were a couple of times when I found it quite moving. You couldn’t make something as lovely as this about mp3s could you?

Apparently there are 16 different films in this but I only recognize seven of them — Ghost World, The Shawshank Redemption, Billy Elliot, High Fidelity, (500) Days of Summer, Crumb, and Poltergeist. Can you do any better?

Surprised he didn’t include The Virgin Suicides though:

"What kind of music do you like?"

Don’t you hate being asked that? I think I’d find it easier to explain quantum mechanics than come up with a simple answer to that question. When I was about 14 I could just say (and I did) “I like ELO, Queen, and Elton John” which was as far as my taste went at that age but, like everything else in life, it’s so much more complicated now. If I said “well, I like all sorts” (which is true) it would be too vague and noncommittal and I’d sound like one of those people who isn’t all that bothered about music and only buy two albums a year, both of which are related to something they saw on the telly and were on sale at the supermarket. For a while I used to say “I like everything from the Sex Pistols to Frank Sinatra” which is more specific, also true on one level, and name-drops two acts with unimpeachable cred, but I don’t really like everything on the imaginary spectrum between those two and sorting out who I do and don’t would take all bloody day, by which time the person who asked the question would have left the room or fallen asleep. If I was a real ponce I could reference Miles Davis’ quote about there being only two types of music — good and bad — and say “I like GOOD music” but I think I’d want to punch myself in the face if I ever said anything as smarmy as that.

But what I think annoys me the most about the question is the assumption that a person’s taste can be reduced to a single “kind” — and even if it could wouldn’t you hate to be that person?

So next time someone does ask me I think I’ll just sing this song to them.

Download: Music – John Miles (mp3)

(For those that don’t know this was a big UK hit in 1976)

Picture Post

Download: Clark County Record Fair – Saint Etienne (mp3)

I’ll try and post some actual writing soon, I’m a bit low on energy at the moment. Maybe I need to buy more records.

Everything old is new again

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in, oh, 17 years: I bought a brand new album on vinyl, the terrific “It’s Blitz” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I think it was the cover (above) that made me buy it in that format rather than a CD, something about that image and the lack of type gives it the feel of a classic 70s or 80s album — something New Wavey by some arty NY band on the Ze label maybe — which I’m sure was intentional given the electro/disco/rock sound of the record. It just felt like it was begging to be owned on 12″ vinyl instead of whatever piddly size a CD is.

It helped that the album came with a code to get a free digital download of it too which a lot of new releases are doing these days (at least in the States) and should encourage more people to shell out the couple of bucks extra for the vinyl. I’ve noticed that in my local music emporium the vinyl section is a lot bigger than it was last year and has been moved right by the front entrance, so maybe there is a demand for it among da kidz these days which reminded me of this piece in The Guardian recently about the return of fanzines (which inspired my big post about vinyl):

“Roy belongs to a kind of retro-vanguard within the youth of today who increasingly disenchanted with Web 2.0 reality, seeing its limitlessness and hyper-linked pseudo-connectivity as the problem, something working against the intimacy of a real, grounded community. “Fanzines say ‘hello it’s me, I’m here’. The internet is a bit scary to me – it is bigger than us, beyond our control.” There’s a groundswell of revived interest into analogue formats like vinyl (especially seven-inch singles) and cassettes (often encased in elaborate, hand-decorated packaging)…”Music is associated with tangible artefacts to me. A MP3 is a file – it can be erased in one click. Collection makes recollection possible. The albums you’ve listened to, the books you’ve read, they sit on your shelves, and it is memory made visible. There is no romance involved with MP3s.”

It probably doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, just a few analog King Canutes trying to hold back the unstoppable digital tide, but I can’t tell you how great it felt to be coming home from work with a new record in a bag. I almost felt, well, at least 29 again.

As it’s so new I’m not going to post any tracks from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs album but here’s a clip of them doing the single “Zero” on the Letterman show (I notice Dave has the vinyl too!) which also gives you a chance to see the lovely Karen O in action.

You can’t put your arms around an mp3

When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.

What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.

Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.

So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.

Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.

Download: Some Of Them Are Old – Brian Eno (mp3)
Buy: “Here Come The Warm Jets” (album)

You’re not going out dressed like that

I was going to start off this post by complaining that Scars 1981 album “Author! Author!” had never been reissued and what an injustice it was that this post-punk classic was seemingly lost forever. But the discovery that it actually has now opened up a whole contradictory can of thoughts I didn’t expect.

While I suppose it’s good thing that such a great record is available again (and I’m sure the band members won’t mind the royalty cheques) but seeing it there on that Amazon page made me wistfully sad that yet another artifact from the analogue past had been repackaged, catalogued, digitized and canonized. Does everything have to be reissued and become yet another shiny thing to add to the ever-growing pile of shiny things we already have? Are there any dusty corners of rock history left to be cleaned up, and isn’t it more interesting and romantic if some things stay lost and aren’t dragged into the digital era with the grubby fingerprints of history wiped off them? This deluge of reissues from the post-punk era (how strange is it to see the unholy racket of The Pop Group getting the deluxe remastered package treatment) makes me think my generation has become like the old geezers buying Eric Clapton box sets in the 90s, except now the “market” is for a part of my own past that managed to remain obscure and underground for so long. I’m probably not making any sense, having a record collection is like being the curator of a museum of your own memories and we all have a complicated and highly personal relationship with our bands and music. But I digress…

…what I really wanted to talk about was the outlandish gear the band wore on the album cover. As you can tell from the photo above Scars never went in for the dour, grey shirt and old overcoat look of most post-punk bands and were a bit more flamboyant. Those outfits made them look more like Duran Duran than the spiky art rockers they were, but from Danny LaRue to David Bowie and Boy George the British have a long tradition of entertainers wearing ridiculous clothes so if they wanted to look like gay Aztec pirates that was fine with us — I saw them live supporting Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls and don’t remember anyone laughing. It’s easy to mock now but back in 1981 Spandau Ballet were on the telly dressed in kilts and off-the-shoulder cloaks and Adam Ant was poncing around looking like a cross between Dick Turpin and Geronimo so it was perfectly normal for a band to look like that. Apparently the outfits were designed by Glen Matlock’s wife and were supposed to reflect the garish graphics of the album’s Rocking Russian-designed sleeve.

Scars could have been contenders, they were more tuneful, sexier and less deathly serious than Echo & The Bunnymen or U2 (yes kids, there was a time when U2 were a post-punk band) but fell apart after just the one album when lead singer Robert King went solo. But If your band is going to only make one album it should be a great one that old geezers like me are still talking bollocks about over 25 years later, and “Author! Author!” is one of those. I guess you should all go buy the CD then.

Download: The Lady In The Car With Glasses on and a Gun! – Scars (mp3)
Download: Leave Me In Autumn – Scars (mp3)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com




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