Monday, 7 December 2009

How not to make a PA


I've decided to fit a pickup to the awesome Linn record deck that's sat in my loft for the last decade as I have a couple of metres of great vinyl that's nagging me to be played. This reminds me of my old friend Andy Corrigan, who I shared a flat in Leeds with, along with Mark White, the two of them becoming the brilliant front men of the original Mekons.

Andy was an audiophile with a fine hi-fi system. Because of this he became Gang of Four’s first sound engineer . Having lied to us that he knew everything about sound gear , he took charge of our project to build a PA from scrap, army surplus parts and wood salvaged from fly tips. The system was built to his specification, using parts such as adapted 1/4" steel armour plated speaker drivers from WW2 airplanes - originally used to broadcast messages to troops on the ground - and an interesting sound recording device which used wire , not tape, and ran improbably slowly, so that you could hardly see it move. This turned out to be a seismological unit designed to measure earthquakes and not much good at recording music as it couldn’t record frequencies over 300Hz.

The PA horns were made from from plywood harvested from a dumped wardrobe . Overseen by Corrigan , Gill & I took turns holding a steaming kettle to the wood so that it softened and could be bent into the right shape. Corrigan was firmly of the view that, for optimum sound quality, the bass bins had to be extremely big and very, very, heavy. They were. Unfortunately, the PA was so huge that when we took it to Nottingham for a first try out in a tiny club, we couldn’t get it through the doors.

Corrigan’s next key acquisition was a powerful ex-army valve power amp. It was the perfect heart for our monster rig. But at our next show, Middlesborough, the internal circuitry melted when it was powered up. Andy and I mended it on the spot by soldering in place lengths of electrical cable recovered from a skip and made replacement fuses from fag ends wrapped in wire , assuming that a double wrap would have higher electrical resistance than a single wind. Rob Warr, our manager, thought this was very dangerous, but this would have been Health and Safety gone mad, so we ignored him. We were right as the amp , amazingly, didn’t catch fire until the end of the night, just after our final song. A great show, with pyro’s, too.

But do not do this at home.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Living on a prayer

I wish I could write a pop song a fraction as good as I Say A Little Prayer. One of those stories about daily life which rings true, where the expression is unimproveable . The condensed dream of a young African-American working girl, optimistic and joyful, where schmaltz is a stranger. The singer's rushing into a new world where a change has already come.

It's the first Pop song I can think of written in present simple, where whatever's said is always true ; in the past, the present and the future. It makes a magic tension; the words masquerade as being about the now, but they're about the forever; where, just by saying it, she sings into existence love itself.

" I'm combing my hair now/ and wondering what dress to wear now/I say a little prayer for you" The repeated line, the mantra, wishing up her lover, who maybe doesn't really exist at all.

She's a modern girl, earning a living, independent. " At work I just make time, and all through my coffee break time, I say a little prayer for you" . There she is, believing the world has turned for the better, skipping down the street like Mary Tyler Moore, rewarding us with the present of her eternal smile, yesterday, today and tomorrow's reverie of a woman mainlining on happiness.

The song's so powerful, so rich, that Dionne Warwick's office girl daydream becomes Aretha's gospel shout to Jesus, a Saint Theresa of Tennessee falling into religious ecstasy. No more in the North, back down Highway 61, where strange fruit had filled the trees, paycheques are as rare as diamonds and you'll only lose if you try to win. Here, you don't stand a prayer.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Go compare!


The Plan: Meet at Kings Cross station at 8am . Drive in a splitter van to Hassel, Belgium , for a “Sinner’s Day” concert to 10,000. Return home immediately post show. Tidy.
The day should run on auto pilot. But only someone who does not get out much and has never interacted with a musician - let alone a drummer or a bass player - would expect such a simple thing to happen.
On the bus, the new Tour Manager, doubling as The Drive, says, cheerfully: “ Does everyone have their passports?” . This bugs me, as he must really be a Drive doubling as a TM, as TM’s are notoriously bitter and twisted and know not to ask questions they don’t already know the answers to; because any answer will be bad, and everything is , or soon will be , a disaster . His smile betrays him. Everyone has a tell.
Thomas says “Jeeziz Fick! ” or something profane in weegie, and: “ I only thought you needed a passport when you fly” . No passport. Mark Heaney, one of the world’s most talented and experienced drummers, says: “ Bollocks!” . No passport , ditto. We are doomed to gun through East London’s streets of gold to collect travel documents . And miss our cross channel connection . Many hours later , in Hassel, we meet Gill , relaxed and chipper, as he has presciently travelled alone by Eurostar while I have been stuck in a splittervan with idiots .
The retro lineup today includes Front 242, The Human League & the excellent Gary Numan, who I once saw back in the day skeetering around a Hammersmith Odeon’s stage in a Sinclair C5 to the tune of “Cars”. We try to sweet talk him into singing “Anthrax” onstage with us, as he’d done a fine cover of the song in LA a couple of weeks ago with Trent Reznor. But no go. Our show’s good, the punters are great. It is fun. Belgium is a good place for music. Perhaps we have got away with it.
But on the way home, too much is drunk, too fast. Leffe, one of the world’s finest beers, is 6.5% alcohol & can be purchased in petrol stations. In the splitter’s black light, we talk about King Leopold’s genocidal colony in the Congo, in which up to 10million Africans died, and where Europeans invented innovative work incentivisation plans such as cutting off the feet and hands of the lowest producing workers; and when this lost its edge, the feet and hands off the workers’ children. It caused mass outrage in the late nineteenth century and inspired Joseph Conrad to write The Heart of Darkness .
We talk, too, about the most hopeless ad campaign ever on TV, for GoCompare.com , in which a fat opera singer jumps from domestic scenery to sing ( to the tune of the first world war recruiting song “ Over there!” ) rubbish new words boosting a poorly designed financial services price comparison website . It’s appalling ; and the thought perhaps creates the very ugly vibe that develops in the van. Angry voices are raised. The journey home is depressing. Our 11pm undersea train is cancelled. We are in Calais until the small hours. I muse about becoming a motorcycle despatch rider.
Today is Sinner’s Day. Mea Culpa, mea maxima culpa. I apologise to everyone I have not been good to. If this is you, I am sorry. Go compare.

Monday, 12 October 2009

El Condor Pasa No Pasaran!


I have a massage on my knee over the weekend at a “Healing Arts” centre, where Alternative Medicine is practised. This is “Alternative” in the sense that :

a) Nothing whatsoever can be proved to have any effect . (If it did it would be, uh, “medicine” )

b) It costs an arm and a leg

c) There are lots of self-help books around like “Who Moved The Cheese?” ( Elevator pitch: who gives a fuck ? Get over it! )

d) You are forced to listen to terrible musak

It's the last that gets to me. I’ll happily waste discretionary spend on a dippy masseuse fiddling with my cruciate; I’ll put up in a manly way with being relaxed , which always makes me tense ; but I draw the line at being forced to listen to plangent library music produced in some masturbator's bedroom.

This rubbish will drive you to the Samaritans: retro synth washes, quasi-Indian nods & winks to quarter tones, and , worse , duff samples of instruments you never want to hear, ever. We’re talking Tabla. Wind pipes. And - cruellest cut of all - Northumbrian bagpipes! All in 4/4 . WTF! No, MAC obsessive Garage-Band producer dude, they don’t use this time signature in classical Hindustani music.

The melody line goes on and on and on and on , stoner-style, bar after bar after bar after bar of undecodable voices, Gregorian chanters meet The Cocteau Twins on drugs,with gear so stepped on you can see bootprints in the snow .

It's as pointless as the wallpaper tunes that cod Peruvians mug you with in the Underground; the bowler hated muppets who you’d rather pummel to the ground and do six months bird than hear a single hemi-demi-semi quaver of El Condor Pasa. Not on your nelly, cabron!

In this alt-world of emotions and scented candles, the music’s not optional. & here's the rub, if the operation is successful ,the patient will pass away, assassinated by a cheap smile. Not me, pal. I break the rules & ask for the CD player to be turned off.

A froideur falls like an ice storm.

Black clouds gather .

It looks like rain.

In the end we are all dead.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bennett & the Golden Amex

Thinking about the myriad dumb things I've done, Gang of Four recording "Hard" in Miami with the useless Albert Brothers is right up there.

This potentially career murdering choice was bulldozed through by our machiavellian manager Bennett , because he thought Nile Rogers, our No 1 choice of co-producer ( when Chic was uncool & pre Let's Dance) cost too much and the Alberts were the nuts! And we gave in! Doh! Which meant Hard didn’t become what we dreamed of it being - a post post-modern post-disco confection ( which made Green's brilliant Wood Beez era work so irritating to hear when it came out 2 years later.) We should've been insomniac in a New York loft with Arthur Baker & an 808, not with 2 bearded fuckwits in Hawaiian shirts reminiscing about Dionne & Aretha .

Whatever, one night we're dining in a ritzy Miami restaurant after a hard day laying down tracks in Criteria sound, a marching powder addled BeeGee's studio . The band's joined by Bennett and his pneumatic Personal Assistant, H- . He's wearing, as always, tennis whites and his assistant has forced her impressive rack into a rib-breaking boob tube. We look like shit, as always.

The next table, a plaid clad salaryman and pant-suited partner, dressed like they spent a million dollars in Woolworth’s, are angry. We're ruining their evening . “It’s disgraceful they let anyone in here dressed like that” says the man to the woman, “ They should throw them out!” He won’t give it up.

We're professionals and ignore this, since Andy’s busy ordering the most expensive wine in the world because we think that someone else, like EMI, is paying! No! We're ripping off ourselves! Brilliant, not! But H- is wound up by the backchat from the dead zone and grabs Bennett’s wallet to leap over to the suit's table. “See this!” she says , waving it at the man in tartan as the credit cards concertina down in their little plastic pockets “See this!” she says “ This is a GOLD Amex! THIS IS A FUCKING GOLD AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD!”. It's getting out of hand, so Bennett says he’ll schmooze things out. He pulls H- off, jabs fatboy in the chest and says “I wore clothes like yours when I was poor! ” Good gag, but when the guy heads out of the restaurant, we’re told by the sommelier a few minutes later, he's seen in the parking lot with a handgun to maybe pop Bennett when we leave! It would've been a dream come true! But, sadly, cops are called . We've all had a drink. We've all got homes to go to.

But if you don’t have a dream how you gonna make a dream come true?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Sitting on a Virgin train is horrible. Two-tone announcements ruin my fitful dozing, ugly augmented 5ths, is it really a G sharp followed by a C, who can tell with these tired ears, but what philistine came up with this torture?

In mainland Europe, steeped in the Romantic tradition , a dream of democratic pluralism and joy is embedded in the mellifluous beeps and bongs of public announcements ; even Mussolini wouldn't mess with it; concordant thirds , sweet memories of Beethoven seducing us as we optimistically careen through the night toward the Mediterranean sun, life enhancing bings and tings doppler effecting by.

Not on Virgin , with its vicious neo-Schoenbergian frequencies haplessly knocked out to remind us that modern life doesn't deliver Le Corbusier but high rise slums built on the cheap by lump labour . It says : the misery of private equity will grind your dreams of happiness into the dust. Outside the trains don't run on time. True!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Musicians must get paid!

UK music posted a newspaper ad yesterday which really connected with me. It reproduced a blog from Falco, whose recent recording was illegally posted on the internet 8 weeks before scheduled release for so-called fans to download this for nothing. This totally devalued their work, destroyed any potential spike of interest in the band, meant they had no subsequent increase in audience, sinking any boost to their gig fees and ruined their hopes to make their mark from their music. I don't know Falco's work , but I felt for these guys. It's wrong.

Falco is just one of many victims of the rip-off notion that creative people's work doesn't deserve to be paid for; that resisting filesharing is luddite and old school; that simply saying that filesharing is wrong is somehow uncool (typically advanced by crews who've already made a career packet and are established live acts commanding decent fees) ; that the music industry ( whatever that is, these days ) has only itself to blame , so who gives a toss; and that it's right that a Mars bar is paid for but not a song.

The winners are criminals and new technology bores who think talking about new distribution paradigms will help musicians make a living, but really make an income from talking themselves into some blogosphere media guru commentariat rep. It's contemporary vicious capitalism at work by guys in sloppy tees and jeans masquerading as hipsters. Filesharing is not about friends swapping song lists or copying tracks they love to their buddies. It's about the bulk transfer of masses of data - songs! - facilitated by crooks & ISPs for misguided fans.

The pathetic recourse proposed last week by FAC ( the Featured Artists Coalition) is to send a warning letter - scary! - to the worst offending filesharers to tell them to stop . But if they ignore this, and the theft persists, they'll get another letter! Whoah! & third strike, they'll support squeezing their bandwidth! Strong stuff! It's pathetic. It's like saying that restricting shop hours would limit shop lifting! Musicians' livelihoods are at stake along with their support networks, roadcrews, suppliers, set designers, sound engineers , studio owners and myriad others. I have contempt for the apologists who won't stand up to this organised theft.

Gang of Four is lucky. Last month we got a gold award for Entertainment! celebrating the sale -the sale! - of 100, 000 units in the UK over the last 30 years. Are we the last generation of non-pop bands who'll ever again be able to do this? We earned little bits here and there when we started, which meant we could afford to keep at it, get signed , make records and attract an audience so that relatively early on we earned a wage & could do the job fulltime. Technology creep is dooming musicians to perpetual dayjobs. To hell with poverty! Say no to illegal filesharing! Don't do it!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Eddi Reader has an adventure with the Gang


Last week we played Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leamington spa The Forum, London, and appeared on BBCTV's " Later with Jools Holland" . On LWJH's Friday show we played 2 songs formerly banned by the BBC, "Tourist" & " I Love a Man in a Uniform ". The first because of the sexually licentious "rubbers" word. Saucy! The second , because it linked joining the army with lack of job opportunities. Get away! And shagging, of course. Just like back then, with the Falklands war, in a sea of unemployment, army recruitment is booming and disadvantaged working class boys are sent off to do our bidding in Afghanistan, and are abandoned when they come home.

Eddi Reader guested with us on BV's for these gigsShe's a wonderful singer, and a lovely person, and musical royalty in Scotland, laden with Brits & Ivor Novello's & MBE's & sunglasses & golden shoes. GOF was her first professional gig many years ago, when she bunked off from her factory job in Irvine New Town to audition for our "Songs of the Free" US tour. Her home town was famous for two things:

1/ Robert Burns lived there
2/ It had Scotland's dirtiest beach.

We discovered Eddi after a miserable couple of days fast-forwarding through the wierdo and wannabee auditioneers who want to be in a band but have zero ability and don't bother to learn the songs. You see this every week on the X Factor, but in real life it's hard to be nice to these timewasters, like Cheryl Cole is. I never had the eye lashes , either. Eddi walked in, all arms and legs, sang a verse and chorus and got the job. She was on The Old Grey Whistle Test the following week and in the US the week after , to be supported all around the States by our young buddies REM, before they were famous. Her first gig with us was in the mammoth 250,000 audience "US" festival with The Police, B52's, Talking Heads etc.

We've had a fine time this week. Teenagers in the mosh pit, oldies in the seats ( and on stage) . Mark Heaney's been sensational, solid, funky , on it. Thomas McNeice's bass super cool; funky but with the heart of a rocker. Gill trademark magisterial. Here's Friday's set list! Guess the rock'n'roll reference in the pic! Points mean prizes!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A playlist for today ( but only today)

Gill & I were asked to come up with a 20 song playlist the other day. Here it is. It’s hard to put the music you love into a bag. Today’s list won’t be the same as tomorrow’s. But today, and every day, there is Jimi Hendrix , all time greatest guitarist , taking us to a place beyond language, where every note, chord, squawk and feedback squeal meant something urgent, existential, real . An artist whose take on the US national anthem leaves no doubt that this product of an instant - the pure beautiful sound of metal strings vibrating in a magnetic field- means No! to the Vietnam war ( and by extension all unjust wars ) and racism and oppression and Yes! to beauty and freedom and the possibility of justice.
Here are artists who carve words into sparkling mountains of and wit and insight; Joni Mitchell’s morose beat memoire with its eccentric phrasing and vocal swoops ; Robert Johnson, buddy of Beezelbub , who slept with every woman he minded to and whose music, the fount of all rock and roll, travelled by freight train from the Delta to Chicago to be electrified by Muddy so that middle class Brit white boys like the Stones could invent their louche wall of doped out devilry. And Bob , on a highway , too, who inspired me with this song, aged 11, to want do something with my life that wasn’t straight or square or boring. A song of pure genius funny, clever and sour as a lemon squeeze.
Pop is a wonderful thing : Kylie’s superb piece of brainwashed dancerama, Marvin’s Gaye’s joyous masterpiece, I-Roy’s brilliant cover of the schmaltzy classic and the Beach Boy’s classic confection of rehab miserabilism .
And music now is so good. Hail The Stripes & I Heart Hiroshima & MC5’s mutant grandchildren, The Hives! Kick out the jams and enjoy!
1. Voodoo Chile ( slight Return ) Jimi Hendrix
2. The last time I saw Richard Joni Mitchell
3. DVNO - Justice
4. Back in Black - AC/DC
5. One nation Under a Groove - Funkadelic
6. Death from Above- Smashing Pumpkins
7. Hate to say I told you so - The Hives
8. Highway 61 revisited - Bob Dylan
9. Ain't No Mountain High enough - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
10. Cross road Blues - Robert Johnson
11. Work it - missy Elliot
12. Sympathy for the devil - stones
13. Star spangled banner - jimi
14. Honey bee - muddy waters
15. First cut is the deepest - I ROY
16. If You See Her, Say Hello - bob D
17. Surf’s up - beach boys
18. 7 nation army - stripes
19. sisters - I heart hiroshima
20. Kylie - can’t get you out of my head

Monday, 14 September 2009

The studio is a poisoned chalice

Writing and routining new songs at Gill’s studio over the weekend, and worrying over a noisy pot on the mixing desk that just wouldn't quieten down, we got to talking about Les Paul , and his genius. As Brian Eno pointed out , the three greatest leaps forward in the creation of music over the last two hundred years were the invention & perfection of the piano; the creation of the Symphony orchestra and the invention of the multi-track studio

Les Paul invented the third, a curse that cost him his mojo. Recorded music more or less stopped being being about performances in real-time and became constructions over time. Every snap, crackle and pop of imperfection could be tweaked and smoothed. You could, finally, the dream of A&R men everywhere, polish a turd. Steely Dan and Coldplay became possible. Sometimes, you wish you could just roll back the clock.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Entertainment, Track by track

We recorded Entertainment! in The Workhouse, a studio on the Old Kent road , then a seedy highway through a depressed South London , but still glamorous compared to the misery of Leeds. We’d routined the songs for a week or so in a residential farmhouse with rehearsal room attached , where we also wrote Great Men. Going into the studio, we knew exactly what we would do, as the songs were all nailed and road tested . We recorded them fast , just as they were. Gill & I produced the session , alongside our manager Rob Warr, in only 3 weeks start to finish. We wanted the songs to be authentic and capture a moment in time with no decoration or overdubs or tracking or FX. We argued a lot about not using any outboard effect that might colour the performance in a misleading way so that what we did was real . When we finished it sounded like itself. EMI left us completely alone and , when we’d finished, after the playback, said only, in a mystified way: “ Is this the demo?” to which we said “No. It’s the album” . To the record company’s credit, that was that. And it was put out without any polishing.


Love Like Anthrax


This was the first song Andy & I wrote where we felt we’d got to where we wanted to be . We were big fans of Godard’s movies , & loved the split screens and off-screen commentaries about what was going on in his great film “Numero Deux”. It seemed like a modern way to describe things, how stories can’t always be decoded from a single point of view and, among all the conflicting narratives, a story’s sense changes depending on where you sit. We played with ideas like this on the inside sleeve art, too. I’d written some words , a paean to a traumatising hangover – inspired by Raymond Chandler’s brilliant morning after description: “I woke up. An Axe split my head” - and , having talked about it for a while, wrote down on paper how the song would be before we ever played a note. Our plan was : heavy funky drums & bass throughout , 2x slabs of improvised guitar and two vocal sections where I sang fixed words and Andy commented on the words or wherever we were or whatever we were doing or whatever he was thinking about. This to make every performance different and not handcuff meanings. Andy’s guitar is brilliant, an echo Hendrix at Rainbow Bridge, working the tremolo, schmoozing the pickups, bending the neck; and , live, sometimes, destroying the guitar when the neck gives way under the assault. To me, the song's a moment in time freezeframed.


I found that Essence Rare


There was a cheesy magazine ad for a perfume, I forget which it was, that used this line. It summed up that lonely desire we all have to find something permanent and real and transformational in the middle of the relentless , oppressive programming and oppression we go through. Somehow we all end up doing, thinking and believing the same as everyone else but knowing at the same time it’s all lies and a conspiracy. That all the words we use lock us further into our own little jails of which we, of course, hold the keys. But don’t dare escape from. Discovering this line helped the rest come fast: “See the girl in the bikini, she doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-Bomb” etc. It seemed just right that a two-piece swimsuit was named after nuclear tests in the Pacific. The tune, of early birth, goes: verse bridge chorus, verse bridge chorus middle 8 chorus out! Hugo wrote this in felt pen on his floor tom during the recording to remember it. Essence rocks, in a not entirely formulaic way. EMI loved it and wanted Essence to be the first single from Entertainment! Never missing a chance to miss a chance, we said no way, the song was too commercial ( duh!) and wasn’t representative. We refused the release and succeeded in pisssing off our A&R team and lable manager. They moved their affections, what little they ever had any for us, to their new signing Duran Duran. Oh, Rio!


Corked up with the Ether


There’d been a report published in the mid 70’s that found the British Government guilty of torturing IRA suspects. They used to, among a smorgasbord of cruelties, make suspects stand up for hours in hoods while white noise was played at gross volumes to break their will. The Americans , years later, tweaked this format by playing hard rock to the holed up General Noriega in Panama until he surrendered. As US Sergeant Mark Hadsell said at the time: "These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them.” Yeah, dude.
Whatever, the report on what was being done in our name was shameful; reported back to us on TV, alongside some other world atrocity , while we were enjoying ourselves, unwinding at the end of the day, getting ready for fun and games. So the notion was for 2 voices , telling scripted parallel stories. One voice, the one who’s living his fine life , says “ Locked in heaven’s lifestyle” while the other, at the same time, says ” locked in Long Kesh” ( the prison for IRA & UDF members in Northern Ireland). Etc. You get the picture. This one does this as the other does that. The run out chant “ There may be oil in Rockall!”, was based on our paranoid notion that the reason the British annexed, in 1955, an ugly & tiny rock in the deep Atlantic was less about stopping the Russians spy on NATO missile tests than the fact there might be oil about to pillage . And it came to pass ! In 2007 the Brits announced a claim to vast swathes of the Atlantic for 350 miles around the rock! The first example of eco-colonialism!

Damaged Goods


Saturday afternoons, we wandered, walleyed, through the sun-bright aisles of Morrison’s supermarket in Leeds, looking for a 2 -4 -1 bargains and generic baked beans. The hopeless in-store slogan at the point of sale was: “The change will do you good” meaning “change” as in money and “change” as in switch store. Someone got paid for this rubbish!. I found this good starter for words about a doomed relationship where legover had become, maybe, too much of a good thing. Or at any rate, a thing. Andy punctuates the main lyric with a call and response thing and sings the iconic mid section “Damaged goods, send them back” words . The music’s cute: alternate the guitar and bass duh duh dink! Duh duh dink! & build the song around this R&B clatter among dynamic drop outs where everyone got to feature. We didn’t want a pop structure. We’d had it with dominant, subdominant , tonic chord progressions. So we had none, instead. The song was on our debut Fast product EP, which became a big indie hit . But we weren’t paid a cent for our work, majorly ripped off, so we re-recorded it for Entertainment! I regret not punching out the bloke who ran the label. ( Note to self: do this before you die ) We’re often asked “why did you sign to a major label if you’re so alternative?” One answer : EMI at least paid us for the records it sold.


5:45

The melodica’s a fine instrument: a signature sound, cheap and disposable and not part of rockism. I have a red one. Augustus Pablo had one, too. Reggae music, in the late 70’s, was the most innovative pop music around; pushing the latest technology, playing with form, talking about daily life; it just owned guitar chords on the offbeat. We didn’t want to copy this but were inspired by dub. Here, we’re, again, singing about how it is to watch TV and just there on screen a few feet away-there!- are people being shot, abused , wailing, suffering, while we’re in party hats. Andy says: “ How can I eat my tea, with all that BLOOD flowing on the television”. It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Villains need to be taken to the tumbrils, still. & “ Guerrilla War struggle is the new entertainment!”.

Contract


Being an Art students is great. You look at pictures and films and events ,think about what stuff means, adopt mad points of view, and loaf around . We took this POV to our music. Rock music generally stays in its Pandora's box of love, good or bad, and kicking out the jams. Shagging, getting fucked up & fighting are great, of course ( the best ever lyrics on the holy trinity : Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle”- “ We gonna to break out all of the windows/we gonna kick down all the doors/We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long/All night long, All night long, All night long” Brilliant! ), but it’s not all there is. Rock lyrics are so conservative . It’s the invisible 6th member of the band talking, the accountant, asking “ is this commercial?”. When we recorded Entertainment! , I was very interested in Situationism and Andy & I were excited by the ideas of Foucault & Lacan & behind all this how much of what we do or think is a construct. Our professor, the brilliant TJ Clarke, who later became a friend ,challenged us to deconstruct what we received and hunt down the meaning within the meaning. We use to have a running gag about what our songs would be if they were pictures. It’s not funny, unless you were there, and not even then, but Contract is , to me, Manet’s “Bar at the Folie Bergére”. Are we the point or is the picture the point or is the point the point?

Glass


Musicians mostly start off working in genre. We did, anyway. It’s the path of least resistance; you knock out styles you’ve heard or copy the chops of musicians you rate. After a while you might push it a bit or , later on, file it all away for reference and do your own thing, because , while imitation's the best form of flattery, it’s a bit boring if that’s all you do. But mixing it up's fun, too, and here, we felt good that we’d written what we thought was a cool pop song, even though there’s no bridge or chorus like there should be and it doesn’t follow the Tin Pan Alley rules. Recording it, we wondered whether the fact that it carried a tune was something we could allow ourselves, like an extra slice of angel cake. Were these mellifluous notes a surrender , false consciousness, was a debate that ran & ran late into the night after Hugo & Dave had long gone from the control room. The great guitar riff's melodic , there’s a tune in the vocal and the rhythm section is solid. We knocked this out, like the others, in take after take, old style, until we’d nailed it. 2 inch tape could be cut up and spliced but it was bad news , especially with the disengaged sound engineer we’d been dumped with. So this take is a take.

Natural’s not in it.


No, it’s not. Nor is there a verse, bridge, chorus or key change. One monster R&B riff , relentless, drop outs, everyone gets a turn, the words self explanatory, on and on, until it stops. It was a hard tune to get down as it’s all feel and drive and energy and this is often hard to get in a studio without a crowd pushing you to it. At the right time, in the right place, it does the right thing. We’d played this one a few times and it was all there.


At Home He’s A Tourist


Sometimes, you get lucky and a line comes that makes everything easy. Suddenly getting the answer to a question when you turn off and think about something else. Thrown-ness - if that’s a word at all – was something we puzzled over. Why, if everything like it is, do so many things seem ersatz, phoney . But it’s not phoney if you know it’s phoney, as Truman Capote said of Holly Golightly “ she’s not a phoney because she’s a real phoney”
So, with this present from the ether in the bag, Gill was inspired and came up with the perfect existential squawl, different every time it’s played, but on Entertainment! This is what happened that afternoon in a single take. No assemblage, pro-tools confection, just the strings being hit and screaming in pain as they’re bashed and cajoled into a beautiful anti-solo that is all abot the now and no about the maybe. We thought this song was a mutant disco thing, at a time when it was not done to like dance music, when funk and rock had to be kept in separate rooms for fear of miscegenation. But the genie was out of the box! Ain’t no stopping us now! We even used a delay on the vocals!


Not Great Men

Written in an afternoon in wet Wales in the weeks just before the recording, this was the youngest song on the album. The song felt funky , rocky, tough. It is about what it is about.


Return the Gift

You know, you get these offers that promise so much and, to make sure you know they’re value , you can even send them, back. The advice here, just do it. But not like Nike! A signature guitar figure that propels the tune from here to eternity. We wrote this, I recall, on an acoustic guitar , playing it into a useless cassette machine that crunched tapes like they were dry roasted peanuts in a bar . Playing it back to the boys in the rehearsal room was an effort of hearing, the sparkling, bitter guitar notes transformed into a mush of middle frequencies. But they got it, and the rhythm section do everything that’s necessary to feel the funk


Guns Before Butter

Goebbels said “when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver” . The inspiration was John Heartfield’s wonderful photo montages that undermined the vicious Nazi nonsense like this. Here a little guy is quaking in his boots at the lust for Blood & iron and order and control and wonders how he ever got sucked up into this evil. Sung over the relentless machine-like noise that will never end, except in hurt.


Tuesday, 25 August 2009

We play the Macbeth pub


tone · Dark and ominous, suggestive of a world turned topsy-turvy by foul and unnatural crimes


major conflicts · The struggle within a man 's ambition, his sense of right and wrong and the murderous evil represented by dominant ideology and the best interests of the people


themes · The corrupting nature of unchecked ambition; the relationship between cruelty and masculinity; the difference between kingship and tyranny


setting (time) · Modern times


setting (place) · Various locations in the UK & the USA


Do not mention "The Scottish play" or whistle in the boozer


Scene 1: A Shoreditch pub . Gill, King, Heaney & McNeice are in concert. The audience , some winners of tickets, some guests, have all had a drink.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Isn’t we lovely?











Denmark is the happiest country in the world. Everyone is good looking and has fulfilling jobs and the disadvantaged are cared for. They have the best design and the finest furniture. It is all lovely.
Luckily, we don’t stay long. We drive to Sweden, the land of The Hives & ABBA & Volvo, and I dream of London pavements blistered with chewing gum and dogshit where betrayed ex-servicemen are forced to beg homeless in the streets.
The Malmo promoter has done a fine job: tonight we have 6 ( six!) chairs in the dressing room , a fridge that works -holding excellent Chablis - and, sensationally, two My Little Pony and Hello Kitty balloons which we have asked for on the rider. This is because we plan to play “Cheeseburger” and think the helium will help Andy’s voice sound more like a New York waitress. It doesn’t. We are closing the show, the curfew is at 9pm, the crowd is rocking and we play good.
This is the running order:
Return the gift
(it’s not made by )Great Men
We Live, As We Dream, Alone
Cheeseburger!Ether
At home he’s a tourist
Anthrax
What we all want
I love a man in a uniform
He’d send in the army
Damaged Goods
Hero
To Hell With Poverty!

Later, we go to the fantastic Malmo Tempo bar where we eat delicious Swedish speciality food and drink beer and wine and fennel flavoured acquavit. Everything is lovely.
Friday, a flight to Trondheim in Norway, with its improbably beautiful fjords and Northern lights up in the Arctic. We’ve travelled from the most contented country in the world to the second richest . We’re asked in an interview what we think of when we think of Norway: Gill says salty seadogs clubbing baby seals and me, Dallas up a Fjord but with Saabs not Caddi's. The reality is , the thoughtful and attractive people are uniformly nice and live longer than Brits or Yanks do. It’s very depressing . The promoter gives us chocolates with a saucy motif of two young sailor women in a state of deshabillé , which is the non-PC logo of the festival. It's a lovely thought. A superb dinner is laid on for band & crew in the outstanding Credo restaurant nearby. It’s the best joint in town and all-time best gig meal. We agree not to get hard arsed on show-day over My Little Pony balloons.
Show day , I bump in to Bobby Gillespie . Primal Scream’s show will be, he says, their 90th in the last year and a half. He’s cream crackered. I don’t know what to say. That night we play our 90th in 2 decades. And Sunday , we fly back to London. It’s all been lovely.

video

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Thinking out of Lovebox


The thing about performing is that the thing is the thing. Like in the Deerhunter, when De Niro says, holding up the bullet “ This is This! This is this!”. But it’s hard to predict what the this will be. Sometimes the thing works and sometimes it doesn’t . But what’s always true is that you don’t know and (mostly) learn nothing from the experience in the sense that, while there’s a general sense of déjà vu, there’s rarely any actual replication. It’s not to say that you can’t recognise a situation, and have a situational response, maybe, to whatever ‘s happening, but specifically you have your eyes closed. Or open, even.
For example, there’s no point in looking at a formica table, where the rider sits, and wonder where the corkscrew is or why the wine is hot and not cold and think that the fact that it was different some other night makes any difference. You’re just snookered, is all. Get over it.


Tonight, at LoveBox, we’re sitting glumly in a Portacabin with a poisonous rain falling. This is a situational thing I can’t do anything about. We’re in this container because our “real” dressing room is a golf buggy ride away on the other side of Victoria Park and it can only be used for half an hour pre show! This is a new new thing. It's hopeless. Of course, this "real" dressing room, full of girly cushions, heating, lighting, corkscrews, grand pianos, wireless connectivity, chilled Puligny-Montrachet and a boxed set of The Wire etc, probably does not really exist, of course, like the moon landings or getting paid in 30 days. And why the 30 minute rule? Is it because Duran Duran are precious about their environment or something, and GOF might invade their personal space , and give them the heebie-jeebies? Not me, mate. Her Name Is Rio? Non!


Whatever, we opt for a Portacabin next to our stage. It has four stacking chairs ( because, I think, the promoter saw our name "Gang of Four" and thought we needed only four seats) four weak floor lights and one (! where are the other 3?) table with warm beer and wine on it. The floor is slick with water, mud & grass; it’s shite. & there’s no bottle opener. Thomas , our bass player, can open a bottle of beer on the rings on his fingers, a useful life skill; but he’s rubbish at poking a wine cork into a bottle. I blame the teachers.



Our set’s short’n’sweet . 45 minutes precisely. I do what I can to keep up. The sun goes down as we play , and the little lights our LD bought from a pound store twinkle in the microwave.



After us, Friendly Fires play . I introduce my daughter, a huge fan , to the singer, who is a very nice bloke. A picture is taken for Facebook. But , jeez, what am I doing , presenting a teenage girl to a rock and roll band!? I should be sectioned! I make our excuses and we split, super fast.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Don’t mention the War

Today, my I-Pod Shuffle throws me a line I can’t resist. The running order is impeccable, moving from Elvis Costello’s majestic “Shipbuilding” into Kenny Rogers’ masterpiece: “ Ruby, Don’t take Your Love To Town” .
The two songs, written years apart ,composed while events unfurled, on the ordinary lives of common people on the conveyor belts of war. Kenny’s character is a wheelchair- bound Vietnam Vet, back in the world, ruined and impotent, watching his woman doll herself up to find a man who still has some lead in his pencil . The drama’s cruel but underplayed , with none of the kitsch C&W bathos you’d expect. The vet sitsin a lonely room, waiting to die as the lights fade and his wife gets laid. It’s a fabulous and tormenting ( but maybe not intended to be) anti-war shout.
Elvis takes a different angle, focussing on the pathetic optimism of a man battered down by circumstance, hoping that maybe the Falklands war might turn around his life & he maybe will find work in the shipyard , which could mean “ A new winter coat and shoes for the wife and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday” . For this man, war's his only sad hope of doing any better. It's brilliant. The songs are just two examples of many across every musical genre.
Which brings into focus how pathetic contemporary musicians have been over the last 5 years. We’ve seen an illegal war in Iraq which has cost massive civilian bloodshed, cost trillions of dollars and cost us our security and peace of mind. And there’s hardly been a squeak on the subject. This isn’t nostalgia , it’s regret. Sometimes the music we get is what we deserve.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Someone just sent me the Youtube link to the cover of Damaged Goods by Hot Rats, the new outfit formed by Supergrass’s Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. It's all acoustic and spooky. I like it. We never made a video for DG, or any other song on our first 3 albums. Too expensive or something. A Magic Lantern show would have been more affordable and a relevant technology, the images flitting by , all herky jerky, married to Gill's fractured guitar & attacking bass. Duh-Duh Dink! Duh-Duh Dink!

Monday, 15 June 2009

The simple man
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to write a few words for The Independent newspaper about my favourite Neil Young song . It’s always hard to do this as different songs do different things for me at different times & a choice one day usually isn’t the same the next. Or from one minute to the next. But, that said, “The needle & the damage done” has to be up there among the best of many great tracks Neil has written, and the tune sits, insistently, on my I-Pod, demanding a regular outing. Like most of Neil’s work , the words are confessionally honest ; written in the first person, it’s the great man himself, talking about himself. Maybe the things he describes really happened. They probably did. Neil's tone of voice convinces you that he’s not a lifelong millionaire rockstar , spoiled by fate’s vomited generosities, but a simple guy , trying to tell it like it is, a plain talking man who might spill out his life to you over a beer and a game of pool. I see him in checked shirt and jeans, a Schlitz neon blinking blue-white over the bar, not wanting to head home, to a lonely bed. Now that the sad story’s told, I’m not sure I want to stay; things could, I feel, kick off at any point. I make my excuses and leave.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Searching for a metaphor

This September will be the anniversary of the release in the UK of the EMI version of Entertainment!
Gill & I want to celebrate this and will play 4 concerts , Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leamington Spa And The Forum, London, in which we’ll play the whole of the album. We’ll also play other stuff, so we may play 2 sets. There’ll be a re-released special edition of the album with a bunch of stuff from that time that strangely has only recently emerged , including multi-camera shoots of us onstage in the UK & US when we were cute. I don’t recall any of this having been done, which doesn’t say much, I guess. Seeing this will be a surprise for me, too.
Today, Gill & I are in his studio re-recording “ Glass “ as a bonus track for this special edition. We’re doing this because when we made Entertainment! we weren’t that sure about putting the original on the album, as it was the last survivor of music we’d been writing before we found our own sound. It was a little too this and a little too that. A little too much genre. The irritating skippy snare, like a gerbil on amphetamines, the too literal bass, mooching around like an audition for the Stuka’s , the overly musical guitar - which Wilco would have not approved of- and my lazy lyrics which used way too many metaphors before I’d escaped their tyranny.
Once we’d recorded this, we felt we’d let ourselves down by not pushing the ideas and parked the song for a long while and hardly played it live until we looked at it again , stripped it down and reinvented it. Embraced repetition. Dumped the winge factor. It became, we felt, a fine song . I even grew to like the lyics, especially “ Light myself a cigarette, nicotine really goes to my head” . It did. The eroticism of smoking. I’m pleased we can re-do this, give a tune away in a form that has time to live. There’s a metaphor in there. I just wish I knew what it is.

I watch The Who


So, I’m in the Arsenal Emirates stadium for the Teenage Cancer Trust fundraising dinner. Matt Lucas, of Little Britain, is the compere. He’s very funny, and a proper Gooner. The entire Arsenal first team is seated on a table just over there, looking trim. I get to meet Cesc Fabregas and have my picture taken with him.
On the table next to ours I shoot the breeze with the wonderful Feargal Sharkey, who is singlehandedly taking on the Government about protecting musicians’ rights against evil file sharers who think that it’s OK to pay for Mars Bars but not music. He and Andy Gill played an acoustic version of Teenage Kicks to confused UK MP’s in Parliament last week. I hope this helped change a few minds, as incredibly, it’s illegal in the UK to stand up and play a song in a pub or club without written police permission given in advance! You have to submit your name, address & , sinisterly, ethnic origin, before you can so much as whisper “Desperadoes”. How will you know you’ll be that pissed in advance? The law’s designed to stop the wrong kind of people ( i.e musicians or anyone else) singing the wrong kind of songs ( i.e any ) in the wrong places ( i.e anywhere) . Stasi-land or what?
Over there is the great Arsene Wenger sitting next to Roger Daltrey, who’s very committed to the Charity. The invite says that The Who will perform a set. I think this is a joke of sorts but it’s not. Roger & Pete Townsend hit the stage & play some of the greatest music ever written. The set is acoustic with 3 fine muso’s in support, one on stand-up bass and the others on Spanish guitars. Roger’s voice is as magisterial as ever, and is better now than ever. There are few signature voices like this. Pete’s guitar work is brilliant, a privilege to be so close to. . His lyrics inspired me as a teenager , and I still know more or less every song on Tommy off by heart. As a lifelong fan I can’t resists taking pix and a little bit of video on my mobile. Once a fan, always a fan. Thanks, guys.
Later I get to meet Arsene. I have a photo to prove it. He is incredibly nice and says to me“ You know the Who? They are very big in France”. Sensational evening!

video

Monday, 18 May 2009

All Tomorrow's Parties, Minehead

The Butlins Holiday camp in Minehead reminds me of my childhood. We always had family holidays these places , hectares of family chalets or caravans clustered around an all-weather “entertainment” hub rammed with one-armed bandits where depressed mothers and fathers tried to keep their sugar-stoked children occupied as the chill rain poured interminably down. Looking for an alternative to this led to the invention of the Costa Brava and the fall of Franco .
Which means that ATP have found the perfect site for a May festival in England. Today, of course, it’s pissing down, but the punters have somewhere dry to sleep and party and mooch about in between shows. What’s unusual about ATP is that it’s a music festival for people who actually love music ; and the curators of this weekend’s shows , The Breeders, have done well. A lot of fun is being had, the Brechtian delights of the complex are surely not being overlooked, the lineup is interesting, the production is good, they’ve read our rider and there’s a bottle opener , too. Sensational!
Gill & me have an hour long interview for a Franco-GermanTV series on post-punk that will be broadcast next year. The interviewer asks surprisingly interesting questions . This is too much. I have nothing to moan about. Even our management is doing a good job. It's not right.

We’re on stage for an hour & the fine audience - aficionados , all - get right into the cracked drama of Army – in which I don't drop playing on the four - and to Andy’s improvised genius guitar on Anthrax & to What We All Want , which funks out magnificently , drums’n’bass locked together in a devilish embrace. the rhythm section do good. Damaged Goods is the final song; we don't have time for To Hell With Poverty. Another day. We are born across the grave, there is a brief flash of light, and then all is dark.

The Great Escape

The Old Market Place in Hove is a fine old theatre with flushing toilets and clean dressing rooms that have TVs, which means we can watch the Eurovision Song Contest with assorted friends and partners while we psych ourselves up for the show.
The dismal British entry , penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has lame aspirational lyrics that even R Kelly would gag on : “This is my time” over & over. Well, no, it’s not. This Euro trash contest demands alliteration & total absence of meaning, to deliver to a music hating EU demographic . “ La ,La, La” , the Spanish winner in 1968 created the unbreakable mould for this. Don’t mess with it. My favourite act, Ukraine , has a fit girl with not much on and some buff six-packed boys dressed as Spartan warriors; if, that is, Spartans wore only tiny loin cloths & shin guards with fluffy feathered helmets. Not sure if this is strictly historically accurate. Germany’s entry has fit Frauleins cavorting in micro lederhosen and Dita Von Teese in an improbable basque trying to make the hopeless singer look good. He doesn’t . But his silver trousers make a bold statement about Germany post reunification. We discuss getting strides like this too, for our show. My calves are too thick, I think.
Other than watching this nonsense, the evening’s a frustrating thrill . There’s a strict 11 pm curfew so we get 40 mins onstage, time to play only 8 tunes. It was wild, a great vibe with a fantastic & receptive young crowd, with 500 more outside trying to get in. A shame we had to get off. If we play Brighton again, we’ll play a long set.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Rehearsing at John Henry







Today Gang of Four is in John Henry's, an only slightly scuzzy rehearsal room complex in Brewery Road, North London, where more or less everybody has rehearsed some time or other. The walls have very bad “art” drawings of famous musicians like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison - in which they somehow all look exactly the same as each other - and promo photo's of artistes who've worked here when they were thin and young . There is a pixie like Mick Jagger; and here are Robbie Williams and Boy George, who'd both now give away about 150lbs to their slimmer and cuter early versions; and here's a minx-like Lisa Stansfield, plastered in slap, just before she went all around the world to find her baby. When I heard her song the first time I thought it was an incredibly clever post-modern work that had brilliantly deconstructed shit Northern soul. And then realised she was dead serious. It actually was a shit northern soul song! Post-post-modern!

And, here -who would have thought they were still alive- a ( relatively, last decade ) recent picture of Canned Heat.They do look a little seedy , a bit like the late great Brian Connolly of Sweet, & surely must carry a mobile defibrillator on tour ( mental note: contact their supplier) . Canned Heat used to be ( I think) on Vertigo Records, which had a label with a cool B&W Bridget Riley inspired Op art Design put together to guarantee delight & nausea watching the 45 rotate after a fat jazz Woodbine. Intense!

Chris , our avuncular TM, would have made a first class priest. He acquired this confessional air having for years TM’d The Stranglers, a demanding bunch. Keen on Sudoko. We aren’t, that much: Chris’ priorities: 1) source ice tomorrow night to chill the white wine 2) that’s it. As usual, we’ve been emailed an itinerary which no-one will read. We will need a set list. Chris tells me that there won’t be a sound check, which is excellent as they are a waste of time. Years ago, boozing with Rockpile, Dave Edmunds told me that they had soundchecked once and that was enough. It never sounds so good again. Sound advice. First time tragedy, second time farce.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Routining the set












Today we're rehearsing in Andy's studio for our weekend shows at The Great Escape, Brighton on Saturday & All Tomorrow's Parties in Minehead on Sunday. We haven't played for quite a while as Gill & me have been writing new material for some time. It's great to see Mark and Thomas again. There's a very impressive and classic 72 input analogue mixing desk in here , a Neve 51 series ; which is about 3 metres long and slightly overspecified for a rehearsal monitor desk. We have a very talented engineer in the room , Struyaa, who's Croatian but has a perfect American accent, like everybody does in Europe now that British English dialects aren't popular in language schools. In some burger joint in bumfuck USA I was once asked where I was from, on account of my unusual accent. I said 'London, England' to which Cathy-Anne with the 3 server stars and backcombed hair said 'you speak English very well'. Thanks.



We have just played Damaged Goods . I , as usual, forgot the words that signal the stop where Gill first sings. It's comforting that nothing changes. The opening line was lifted from a lame ad slogan for Morrisons Supermarket in Leeds which we used to go to to admire the brilliantly lit products when we had hangovers. Somehow the vicious Tungsten light and packaged food made me feel a little better. We made our own entertainment in those days.