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Today I stumbled across The Truth of Revolution, Brother, a proposed book about the philosophy of punk.

Taking its title from a Crass lyric, (the infamous anarcho-punk band that took punk’s DIY ethos to a whole new socio-political level), the book promises to go well beyond the music, fashion and graphics shlock that most nostalgic punk cash-ins opt for. For anyone like myself who formed many of their personal and social political beliefs from their experiences within the punk movement will understand what an important document this could end up being. Particularly if the accompanying promo video is anything to go by:

 

The book is being put together by the surnameless Lisa, Charlie and Robin, who say the book is largely written and designed, almost ready to go. With a launch date of August 2014, they’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds for the first print run, and come payday, I’ll be on Kickstarter making my donation.

 

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With 2013 nearly over, as usual, I’m publishing the most listened to purchases, downloads, steals and donated music of my year. I leave it until after Christmas, safe in the knowledge that I’m unlikely to come across any other music between now and 1 January 2014, while thinking that many lists are produced too early. If I’d have written this when others were doing so, such as my most ‘go-to’ music publications in 2013, The Quietus and The Wire, I’d not have included The Fall’s very recently released EP, The Remainderer, which is, in a nutshell, excellent.

This list comprises everything that I’ve given time to and have returned to again and again after an initial listen. Much more music has been consumed in these past 12 months, but much has fallen by the wayside and I’ve stripped this back to all that I rate, and that has been repeatedly replayed, whether through sheer enjoyment, or trying to find some redeeming feature.

On repeat
Of those that have had the most listens, then The Baptist Generals’ Jackleg Devotional To The Heart and The Ex & Brass Unbound’s Enormous Door are probably neck and neck, closely followed by Wire’s Change Becomes Us. The latter shows Wire continuing to push the boundaries of what they do, and proving, as they state, they are a contemporary band. The Ex & Brass Unbound merge rhythmic hypnotic punk rock with Congotronic style riffs, Ethiopian rhythms and free jazz—sounds awful on paper, but you’ll have to take it from me if you haven’t heard them, they are truly spectacular. Finally, The Baptist General’s return was maybe not as glorious as it could be, considering the long wait, but this is probably the album that has grown on me the most over repeated listens this year.

Surprises
The surprises this year came from Matmos’ excellent 
The Marriage of True Minds, particularly their truly remarkable cover of Buzzcocks’ ESP. Another surprise was one that many probably experiences, in David Bowie’s The Next Day. While he didn’t make an outstanding LP, and in fact, the first half is far stronger than the remainder as it proves to outstay its welcome on listening to it as a whole, it is at least credible and there are some good tunes on there. I think we can safely agree he has redeemed himself of the travesties of everything he has done since Let’s Dance. Lastly, another breath of fresh air, and one I have to thank The Wire for introducing me to, was Young Echo’s Nexus, which proved there is still life in Bristolian dub, (at least visible to those outside of Bristol).

Disappointments
Akron/Family continue to disappoint, which is a real shame after 2009’s excellent Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free—my favourite album of that year. In 2009 I thought I’d discovered a band that I’d carry to the grave. In 2013, after two poor follow-ups, this year’s being Sub Verses, I’ve decided to stop buying their records. Nick Cave was equally disappointing; although note that I didn’t say The Bad Seeds. The latter are at the top of their game, sounding brooding, tight and displaying a maturity that is completely befitting. Unfortunately, when coupled with some truly atrocious lyrics, on Push The Sky Away, (come on Nick, “I fire up her snatch”; please), they are unsubtly trampled over, that and with the exaggerated vocal performance that tries just a little too hard. If only it had been a solo Bad Seeds album and Mr Cave had stayed at home, but at least he, (and the Bad Seeds that were involved), are over the mid-life crisis that was Grinderman, which I suppose we have something to be grateful for.

That’s it for those that are interested. Sorry I haven’t provided links for everything, but it’s all out there in Internetland somewhere for you to find for yourself.

This is what a year sounds like: 2013—presented in reverse chronological order:
The Fall – The Remainderer EP
Lee “Scratch” Perry & The Upsetters – Roaring Lion
Burial – Rival Dealer EP
Africa Express – Maison Des Jeunes
British Sea Power – From The Sea To The Land Beyond
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live from KCRW
Ezra Furman – Day Of The Dog
Stealing Stars – Noah And The Paper Moon
Death Grips – Government Plates
The Thing – Boot!
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Autechre – L Event EP
Various – The Wire Tapper 33
Robert Wyatt – 68
Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
MGMT – MGMT
Jeffrey Lewis and the Rain – WWPRD? EP
The Mighty Diamonds – Reggae Anthology: Pass The Knowledge
Linval Thompson & The Revolutionaries – Boss Man’s Dub
Storm Bugs – No Nothingness
Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
Dinos Chapman – Luftbobler
Hugh Cornwall and Robert Williams – Nosferatu
Young Echo – Nexus
Belle & Sebastian – The Third Eye Centre
Phil Ochs – The Broadside Tapes
Various – The Wire Tapper 32
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain
Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Kanye West – Yeezus
Congo Natty – Jungle Revolutions
The Beatles – All albums from Please Please Me through to Let It Be
James Blake – Overgrown
Ghostpoet – Some Say I, So I Say Light
Dan Deacon – America
Julian Cope – Revolutionary Suicide
Terry Edwards – 681
Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Baptist Generals – Jackleg Devotional To The Heart
The Fall – Re-mit
The Ex & Brass Unbound – Enormous Door
Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Savages – Silence Yourself
Anne James Chaton & Andy Moor – Transfer
Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect
Akron/Family – Sub Verses
Matmos – The Marriage of True Minds
The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Chumbawamba – In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher
Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express
Lee Perry And The Sufferers – The Sound Doctor: Black Ark Singles And Dub Plates 1972 – 1978
Kraftwerk – Man Machine
British Sea Power – Machineries Of Joy
Wire – Change Becomes Us
Autechre – Exai
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
John Foxx And The Maths – Evidence
Various – The Story of Blue Best 1961: Parts 1 & 2
Various – The Story of Blue Beat 1960
David Bowie – The Next Day
Various – Caveat Emptor 2
The Pre New – Music For Homeowners
Roots Manuva – Banana Skank EP
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
Various – Deutsche Elektronische Musik Vol 1 & 2
Atoms For Peace – AMOK
Andy Moor and Colin McLean – Everything But The Beginning
Mogwai – Les Revenants Soundtrack
Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie Prince Billy – What The Brothers Sang
Sun Ra – A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple
Darkstar – News From Nowhere
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
The Stranglers – La Folie
Various – Evolution of Dub, Volume 7: Creationist Rebel
The Thing – Bag it!
Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing Remixes
Can – Delay 1968
Fire! Orchestra – Exit!
Pere Ubu – Lady from Shanghai
Villagers – {Awayland}
Broadcast – Berberian Sound Studio
Lean Left – Live at Cafe Oto

And so goodbye to 2013—with the promise of new Mogwai and Polar Bear albums in the news already, I can’t wait for 2014. If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for reading, and I’ll leave 2013 with a live set from The Baptist Generals for your listening pleasure.

The last time

Two years ago Claire took me to see Lou Reed at the Hammersmith Apollo as a birthday present. The fact the gig was the day after my birthday, and not some distant point afterwards, made it all that more special.

We spent the weekend with good friends in a rented apartment in Hammersmith, and it was they who first asked us if we wanted tickets. I’d never seen him live before, but was concerned, knowing that his voice was long shot. Lou singing songs that were written for his voice as it currently was, was one thing. But him trying to sing songs written for a voice that was long past, could be painful, as was attested by the live recording of the Berlin album he had made a few years before. But we said yes, and justifying the hefty ticket price by asking ourselves if we’d ever get the chance to see him live again, knowing the life he had lived and the toll this must have taken on his body. As it turned out, we wouldn’t.

I need not have worried, he was excellent that night. We were five seats from the stage, and just the thrill of seeing him that close was enough to create some sort of strange disconnected connection with the past and everything he had done—there was a sense of Warhol and the Factory that hung to him. This man had been there, the myth personified and right in front of me.

But this wasn’t just a nostalgia trip—nostalgia being something that I usually run a mile from—it was truly a great performance. The band he had were super tight, yet relaxed. They knew when to let the noise out of the bag, but kept it controlled at all times. The set was a surprise as well, with half of it being tracks from albums I’d passed by, such as Ecstasy, Legendary Hearts, Rock N Roll Heart, Songs For Drella among others. (Regardless of the quality of any Lou album, and there are a lot of shit ones, I’m convinced every release he’s made contains a nugget of gold in there somewhere.) He did a couple of intimate acoustic jazz versions of Velvet’s classics, before launching into an explosive rock version of Sweet Jane that made the audience erupt. The band encored to a gloriously riotous version of The Bells.

We knew then that all wasn’t well. He had to be helped on and off stage, and had to have his guitar lifted around his neck by someone. He appeared to be shaking for much of the set, and was unsteady. But despite this, his confidence in front of the mic and with a guitar round his neck was captivating. Claire and I, on leaving our friends to stay a week longer in the apartment and driving back to Ipswich, we pretty much spoke of nothing other than how great the gig was on the 2 hour car journey back to Ipswich.

The first time

I think it must have been Transformer I heard first. I obviously knew Walk On The Wild side, but my 14 year old ears didn’t really make the connection between this song I occasionally heard on the radio and the artist that my older sister’s boyfriend was going on at me about one time I was staying with them during a school summer holiday. I was hungry for new music, too young to experience punk first hand, catching its coat tails with post-punk and Two Tone and I was soaking up any and all music that wasn’t what my school friends listened to, (mainly heavy metal and prog-rock, punk didn’t reach Mansfield, where I was then living, until about 1982). So after bouts of staying with my brother or sister in London over the summer holidays, who would expose me to wonders I would never otherwise have come across and opened my mind to new possibilites, I would return to the cultural backwaters of Mansfield and raid the local library’s catalogue for anything that seemed strange, exciting, and that didn’t have pictures of satan or fairies on the cover. It was there that I borrowed Transformer and fell in love with it immediately.

But what cemented my love of anything by Lou Reed, was buying a foreign import Velvet Underground compilation record on the back of listening to Transformer. It only had six tracks, and was cheap, hence my paper-round money going on it. It also had a great booklet stapled into the 12″ gatefold sleeve, (in Spanish, I think), with some iconic photographs of the band. To a 14 year old anxious for rebellion and musical adventure, holed-up and feeling alienated in an east Midlands town, there could have been no better purchase I could have made at that time.

Venus In Furs is the track that first got me. I had never, ever heard anything like it before. The droning, the sonic overload, the sheer density of the song. And then there were the strange atonally voiced lyrics. I have a fantasy list of songs I wish I could hear again for the first time, that feeling of being totally amazed and dumbfounded by a new audio experience—Venus In Furs is at the top of that list.

The second track on the album that cemented my view of Lou being a songwriting genius, (and that is not a term I use lightly), which juxtaposed Venus In Furs completely, was Pale Blue Eyes. I lost count of the amount of times I played it over and over after that first hearing. Once heard, I immediately lifted the needle and put it back at the start of the track. I don’t think I’d ever heard a song before that almost ‘wasn’t there’. The lightness of touch, the minimalism, and the tenderness made it somehow rawer than the explosive and chaotic Venus In Furs. I then knew I would never ever be able to write and record a song as good as that, and for someone who was desperate to be in a band, that was an acceptance of failure before I’d even really started.

The middle

So I became a Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fan. I didn’t immediately buy everything, and there are still albums of his I don’t know. Spotify has proved the most useful tool to me in finding out what it is I want to buy and own and cherish; and what will take one listen to know that I don’t need to purchase that particular album. Most recently, and somewhat timely, I downloaded Magic and Loss, an album Lou wrote about death in 1992 that I hadn’t previously explored. I haven’t yet listened to it—it sitting in my iTunes library waiting to be dedicated some time to—and I sense it may take a while for me to pluck up the courage to do so.

Sunday evening

I’m not nostalgic, nor do I put celebrities on pedestals. I hate musician’s egos, (and in fact, many of the lyrics I’ve written over the years for different bands I’ve been in have lambasted such stupidity). And with Lou Reed, his best was past him—such a shame that the Metallica/Lulu project will be his dying record. But Lou Reed has followed me throughout my life and has influenced my opinions about what music can be more than any other artist. I don’t think any musician or lyricist has had a greater impact on my life, and so when I got the text from a friend on Sunday evening telling me the news he had died, I was floored. Not surprised, but speechless and tearful. Echoing my brother’s comments on Facebook as we swapped Lou Reed lyrics, I had to keep telling myself to ‘get a grip’ when tuning into Tom Robinson’s tribute on 6music while cooking dinner that evening. Thankfully it wasn’t played while I listened, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to listen to Pale Blue Eyes for some time.

In all the epitaphs that appeared online, and in all the lyrics being posted on Twitter, I searched for a suitable one to post myself. In Candy Says, Lou’s protagonist asks: “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?” That has always been a poignant lyric to me, and it was more so in that moment. And to try to answer your question Lou, I guess you now know what you see.

R.I.P

FaceAcheLeft: Tate Etc. Issue 29, Autumn 2013. Design & Art Direction—Mark El-khatib and Sara De Bondt
Right: Face Dances by The Who. 1981. Sleeve—Peter Blake

Beatles

Hierarchy of albums by The Beatles

The Beatles were the first band I really liked. I can’t remember when I first heard them, but memories of being given a compilation album as a present, watching all their films one Christmas, having the 1964 Royal Variety poster on my wall and singing Yellow Submarine and When I’m 64 on family holidays between the age of 6 and 12, are lodged firmly in my memory.

Several Beatles albums became favourites, although I owned few of them. That is until recently. When Apple re-released their entire catalogue in 2009, remastered for CD  and download, I started to buy them one by one. I began with those that I either had on vinyl in the loft or on tape in a cupboard somewhere—Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (The White Album), Abbey Road—and then worked through some that I didn’t know so well such as Help, other soundtracks and their early releases. The earliest, I didn’t know at all as albums, and these were the last of my purchases.

That is, excepting Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My father had oddly bought himself a copy circa 1973, and I can clearly remember him bringing it home, (this was odd because my father never bought LPs for himself). And over the years, I grew to first love, then hate that album. The songs you sing in the car as an eight year old with your family can quickly become toxic to the ears of a teenager discovering punk rock. It further grated with me when it was played every day back to back from the pyramid stage the one and only time I went to Glastonbury Festival, (1987 and the LP had just been released on CD for the first time).

So now I owned the set, I decided to experiment and listen to them one by one, in order of release, as an exercise in hearing a band develop and grow. And boy, what an interesting experiment it was.

The image above visually ranks the albums, in my opinion, in order from best at the top to worst at the bottom. The list, for those that don’t know the album covers is:
01. Rubber Soul
02. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
03. The Beatles
04. Magical Mystery Tour
05. A Hard Day’s Night
06. Revolver
07. Abbey Road
08. With The Beatles
09. Help
10. Beatles For Sale
11. Let It Be
12. Yellow Submarine
13. Please Please Me

Lots of people will disagree with my list, so I ought to explain my judging criteria, (not that I think that will convince any music/Beatles purists reading this). Outside of personal enjoyment and taste, my analysis boiled down to an albums consistency and the band’s exploration/developmental leaps.

My first choice, Rubber Soul, has always been the Beatles album I’ve loved more than any other, so it is of little surprise that it remains my favourite. But nostalgia aside, to me, it is the sound of a band in transformation, on the verge of breaking new ground and is utterly of its time. Here they were breaking away from purely being a pop band, into recording artists who commanded their sound and their songwriting. It is the promise of what is to come, and therefore in my mind, better than what followed.

What did surprise me was that Sgt Pepper’s should come second, having anticipated that I would put Revolver in that spot and considering my previous contempt for The Hearts Club Band. But on listening to the albums in order, while Revolver probably contains one of the greatest songs ever in Tomorrow Never Knows, and also hosts probably one of the best opening tracks to an LP in Taxman, the rest of it lacks the consistency of Rubber Soul and Sgt Pepper’s. It feels like an album of extremes; they weren’t brave enough to jettison the frankly shit Yellow Submarine and sickly pop songs which sit awkwardly alongside the more pioneering experimental moments. It is still an astounding record, but doesn’t deserve second place based on my listening rationale. Where as Sgt Pepper’s, on listening to again after so many years of avoiding it, was a delight. It hung together really well, and I could even forgive When I’m 64, (just). In many respects, not listening to it as a concept album, and rather, thinking of it as a collection of songs helped. The distance helped as well, but just how soon I’ll get around to listening to it again, I don’t know. Now I’ve discovered it again, I don’t want to lose it straight away.

I’m not going to go through the rest of my choices here, although the big surprise to me was how good A Hard Day’s Night is. It isn’t an album that I previously knew, although I obviously knew most of the tracks on it from the film and various compilations. But for me, it was their first truly great record. It maintains some of the gritty rock n roll vibe from the previous albums, especially in Lennon’s vocal delivery, (although it must be said that McCartney can scream for England). All tracks were penned by the band themselves—a rarity in 1964—and the more feisty tracks are balanced with their delicate crafting of tender ballads and joyous pop songs. It was a gem to discover.

You could almost say that The Beatles didn’t make any bad albums, although Please Please Me isn’t great, Let It Be is the sound of a band that had run out of ideas, and Yellow Submarine is only half an album, (and it has Yellow Submarine on it). Regardless, they all have their moments, and to listen to them all from start to finish, in order, was a really interesting musical journey to witness. Especially considering that these 13 albums were all released within the space of seven years.

sound-system-the-clash

In my teens and early twenties I was a big Clash fan. Then as my music tastes matured, and I started to tire of rock music’s clichés, I started to fall out of love with the band’s early work, which traded so heavily on rock clichés. Half of Black Market Clash, and all of Sandinista and Combat Rock are all I can really listen to by them now. It is almost as if I have divided them into two different bands. The diversity of their later work, post-London Calling, which experimented with different styles and genres of music, bought a breadth to the band that wasn’t previously there. This period of material outshines anything that went before it for its sheer inquisitiveness. Their artistry flourished as their music became conceptually linked to lyrical content and they matured as they became more and more interested in emerging popular cultures from around the globe.

Outside of their music, another appeal of The Clash to my young eyes was their over-all aesthetic. Encouraged in their early days by manager Bernie Rhodes, the army surplus and leather jacket stylings gave a rebel stance that became emblematic, and spawned many a teenage lookalike. This defined punk fashion in many immotators eyes, not least myself in my late teenage years. In their graphics, their evolving visual language of distressed or stencil typography, saturated revolutionary reds and military greens, heavily posed photographs, and knowing reggae and hip-hop reference points, formed an aggressive identity that flirted with insurrectionary fervour. The influence of this has been utilised by many a marketeer in the last 20 years, and you see their graphic stylings on anything nowadays that is trying to look slightly edgy, urban and rebellious, from skateboard magazines to energy drinks. Mainstream ‘alternative’ would be an apt description and the ‘making money out of rebellion’ Strummer quote rather obviously comes back to haunt his memory.

When I heard about the proposed release of Sound System, a box set of Clash material due to hit the shops this September, nostalgia got the better of me and I searched it out online. I was expecting to be disappointed, a feeling that nostalgia often promotes—stripped of any contemporary relevance and promoting a sense of longing for something that can never be again. However, disappointing is too weak a word for what I found; as I looked at the pre-release marketing shots and promo videos I was gob-smacked by how truly awful this looked. The ‘boom’ box container is the first thing that grates. I can’t even think where I would keep this in my house if I owned one, I certainly wouldn’t want it on show. Ugly and cheap are words I try to avoid when discussing design, but I’m afraid I can find no better ones to articulate here. Then there are the contents—stickers, dog tags, a poster presented in a giant cigarette tube, badges, more stickers—gimmick after gimmick thrown together on a whim with little thought to consistency or sophistication. Childish, naive, and verging on being patronising, it is if Sound System is aimed at the average 14 year-old punk new-bee rather than ageing Clash fans with the disposable £111 to spend on it.

If this project was just down to record company excesses trying to make a quick buck in a dying industry, then I could almost excuse it, distancing as it would the product from the band. But to know that Mick Jones and Paul Simonon have been involved in designing this is disheartening, as it does a real disservice to The Clash’s legacy. I can’t believe that Joe Strummer isn’t turning in his grave.

Strom

Google image search results for Storm Thorgerson

It was very sad news to hear of the death of Storm Thorgerson last month. Without a shadow of a doubt, Thorgerson was one of the greatest album sleeve designers ever and there are probably few record collections that don’t boast some of his work amongst their ranks.

It was refreshing to hear the reverence with which he was held in news reports and in discussions with friends. It was interesting to consider that some of those that mourned his passing may not even have previously known know his name, (nor that of Hipgnosis), but knew the work extremely well. This is testament to his enormous talent as much as because they recognised the work in relation to their  favourite bands. It is also interesting to consider that during these pronouncements, Thorgerson has himself become a metaphor by which to mourn the ‘good old days’ of vinyl.

However,  and here is where I commit graphic design sacrilege: I don’t actually like his work.

So there is a dichotomy at work here—how can I praise someone so much, admire their output and recognise its importance, while at the same time not actually liking it? This cognitive dissonance boils down to the fact of what Thorgerson was—a brilliant graphic designer. In an interview with Adrian Shaughnessy, of which aspects were reprinted in Thorgerson’s Creative Review’s obituary, he says: “All I try to do is represent the music.” In this one statement, he hits the nail on the head. As I don’t like the music he is designing for, it is only right, that if he is trying to represent that music, that I don’t like the imagery. But I can recognise its effectiveness all the same. Thorgerson has done his job brilliantly, and not attracted me, because I’m not the desired audience.

In reading through the discography on Wikipedia of the hundreds of album sleeves that Hipgnosis designed in their career—not to mention what Thorgerson did after their demise—I think I could list about eight records I actually like. Take Pink Floyd for example, I have never liked their post-Barrett output believing it to be pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy, polished, and far too serious. I’ve always felt it to be stripped of the psychedelic drug induced experimentalism that made early Floyd so great with Barrett, (who also happened to write some killer pop hooks).  And as I cut my musical teeth in the late 1970s and early 1980s during post-punk, where playful and experimental records could make it into the pop charts, where there was a broadening of musical horizons rather, such terms as pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy and polished, collectively have negative associations for me.  But Thorgerson brilliantly illustrates these in his cryptic, overblown set pieces full of knowing metaphors and forced school boy humour, yet devoid of any rough edges and any sense of irony. The one sleeve that Hipgnosis produced that stands head and shoulders above anything else they did during their reign, in my opinion, is XTC’s Go2. See previous Dubdog posts over on Blogger where I’ve discussed this sleeve extensively.

When thinking about album sleeve design, there are a few designers that have become synonymous with the medium that I really admire, such as Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett, Stanley Donwood, and Julian House; but there are also many un-tutored designers who remain un-credited whose work I would just as easily hang on my wall. There are also plenty of examples of bands who have created their own artwork which are equally as effective as professional designers, and record labels, such as Constellation Records, who steer an aesthetic visual tone through the label’s output. Regardless of the scenario, if an album sleeve works, then it is generally because the author shares the same rationale as Thorgerson when creating the work—to represent the music. And as in book jacket design, if a graphic designer is doing their job properly, tutored or otherwise, you absolutely should be able to judge a record by its sleeve.

I saw Storm Thorgerson interviewed by Adrian Shaughnessy at D&AD XChange in 2009, and he proved to be a likeable rogue; slightly arrogant and antagonistic but a natural raconteur with a huge wit. The fact he wasn’t overly mobile, and that he needed several helpers to aid him on and off the stage, (as well as to give out postcards of his work to the entire audience, which was a nice touch), it was obvious that this larger than life character wasn’t in the best of health. Therefore I wasn’t completely surprised to hear of his passing. But regardless of my personal tastes dictating my knee-jerk reactions to the work he did for bands I didn’t like, his graphic design and music legacy is an important one, and I have nothing but utmost respect for the man and his enormous talent. The world is a poorer place for his passing and all music lovers, regardless of taste, owe him an enormous debt. RIP Storm Thorgerson.

RandB

I’ve just finished reading Wilson Neate’s excellent book about Wire called Read & Burn. Much like Wire’s proclamations in 1977 that for the band there were to be: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms,” Neate states of the book that: “This book was not read, vetted, or approved by Wire; this book is not a biography of Wire collectively or individually; this book is not about the band-members’ solo projects; this book does not forensically dissect each of Wire’s albums; this book does not mention every Wire song, record sleeve, tour or gig; this book does not provide a complete discography.”

Except for the first statement above about Wire not approving the book, the remainder of Neate’s manifesto is somewhat inaccurate. It is a biography, it does forensically dissect Wire albums, and it has a pretty comprehensive discography at the back. Even the first statement is at odds with the fact that Wire sell the publication as part of a package with their latest album: Change Becomes Us.

Despite this, Read & Burn tells the fascinating story of the band from their pre-Wire days at art school up to the rationale behind 2013’s Change Becomes Us. On the surface of it this book will seem to have little to interest non-Wire fans. The trawl through album tracks and how they came about will be excruciating for those who don’t know the work. At times, and I count myself as a Wire fan, I had to go back and listen to tracks to brief myself on what was being discussed. But this aside, what I would recommend it for, to the non-Wire fan, particularly those who work in creative fields, is the insight into creative tensions and artistic endevour. Throughout the book it highlights different takes by individuals about the same events, and how collaborative working is a difficult beast when egos and pretensions clash. The fact that each band member, (and band associates), were interviewed separately allows individuals to recount their side of the story, deconstructing their methodologies, likes and dislikes about what they’ve done, all the while being acutely aware that each member of the band will probably read the book at some stage. Each band member are all highly critical of Wire as a project, of each other, and of their output. But they intelligently examine what they’ve achieved collectively, from the prospective of creating sound experiments and art pieces that form a body of work by Wire, (there is often a sense of detachment when they use the band name, as if it is a living entity in itself). And as pretentious as that sounds, Read & Burn can be read more as a study of the psychology of artists working together than anything else, which makes it all the more interesting than your average rock biography.

The fact that Wire are still going after all these years, through almost wilful self-destruction, (and not in a standard drink and drugs narrative), is remarkable. As a catalogue of advice of how not to create a successful band, the following should probably be taught at rock schools everywhere: they refused to play old music at their gigs up until recently, (they once hired a Wire tribute band to support them live so they didn’t have to play old material): they wilfully alienated fans by staging experimental performance art pieces at shows; they would showcase new and developing work live; they immediately rejected the punk scene that spawned them on the release of their first ‘punk’ album; they  created sound experiments based on their own invented ‘dugga‘ rhythms and played the piece that came from this, Drill, live on American TV rather than their latest single, much to the annoyance of their record label; guitarist Bruce Gilbert refused to play on tracks that were too pop orientated for his liking—all these things, and much more, show the band as being wilfully perverse in their approach to earning a living from what they did. Much of this is down to the creative tensions in the band, of four people who clearly don’t particularly like each other, but who realise that as a creative unit they make something special, something that has a degree of uniqueness and as a result is a refreshing antidote  to your average band fixated on stardom who will compromise any integrity they might have in the quest for success.

Wire have always been concerned with being contemporary and not playing the punk cabaret circuit of their 1977 peers, this drive has kept them pushing forward throughout their lifespan. For the non-Wire fan out their, you’ll need to skip through the muso moments in this story. But if you work collaboratively with others, this book will reveal itself to you as a brave and honest depiction of the realities of ego clashes and mixed agendas, poor communication and assumptions, deliberate obstinance and artistic integrity. And with this, they individually demonstrate a collective sense of what constitutes their aesthetic collective identity, and use this as a measure for what they do and do not allow Wire to do artistically.

Listen to Wire’s latest release, Change Becomes Us, on Soundcloud.

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I’m not sure when streaming a band’s forthcoming album, pre-launch date, became a popular marketing ploy. But for at least 7 of the new releases I’ve bought this year so far, I’ve been able to listen to them in their entirety prior to making a purchase, and usually several weeks in advance.

As a marketing ploy, this is good news for me—it is good to know what I’m getting before I buy it, especially with bands I am unfamiliar with. It was streaming The Villagers album {Awayland}, a band that had previously passed me by, that convinced me to buy it. This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to take risks, or rely on a trusted journalist’s or friend’s recommendation, but it does mean I can be more discerning when hitting the ‘buy’ button.

Could this work against an artist? Well, certainly. That hotly tipped release that has been slavered over by critics who have had advance copies months ahead could end up being just hyperbole and bandwagon jumping, which is often the case. I pre-ordered the last, much lauded, Nick Cave CD when its release was first announced, and then nearly cancelled the order when it streamed on The Guardian as the lyrics were, in places, embarrassing, and the overly dramatic vocal delivery grated, (The Bad Seeds though, what a band—please make a solo album without Nick). But I still kept the order if only for the promise of well designed packaging.

Therefore, it struck me as odd yesterday, when The Quietus announced that Stockholm electronic experimentalists, The Knife, were streaming their new album, due for release next week, on their website. Not so odd in itself in this day and age, but the fact that the artwork for Shaking The Habitual was also on show for all to see did strike me as such. The artwork contains a witty anti-capitalist side swipe by comic strip artist Liv Strömquist, (section above). This will come with all physical and digital purchases, and, as The Knife proudly announce, be fully readable online. As someone who has never given up on buying CDs as I’m old fashioned enough to still like having an artefact with artwork, this stumped me slightly. For now, I’ve read the comic online, laughed, got the joke. I’ve heard the music. Anytime between now and next week I can go back to The Knife’s website and listen to it again to the point that I could get bored with it. And then, I could stream it on Spotify once it has been released if there are still a few listens left in it. And I can point anyone that I might think is interested in such things to the website to read the comic strip, as I’m technically doing here. Therefore, this seems to really make buying a physical or digital own-able item pointless.

The question that now remains is: will I buy the album? Under normal circumstances I would do, as I like it. In some respects, as a sucker for (good) experimental electronic music that has its feet firmly rooted in pop, and as the sort of person who laps up satirical agit-prop comic book art, then I’m a target market for this ‘product’. The fact I’ve become interested enough to want to write about all this ‘new’ media gubbings, probably, also demonstrates that I’ve already, metaphorically at least, bought into this album. The fact that I will want to put it on my iPhone for the walk to work or for playing in the car, as well as listen to it on the decent stereo we have in our front room, (rather than on my computer speakers), will probably tip the balance. But if free wifi was rolled out across the country and I was truly always connected, then this, and other similar marketing activities, would probably, finally, start to kill the collector in me.

Earlier this week I was asked to go head to head on the radio in a song war with a friend of mine Tim Hetherington. Kim Trotter, who hosts the All Things Considered show on Ipswich Community Radio runs a feature called Wheels of Steel, where by she pits two people’s song choices against each other in three categories. When Kim asked if I’d be interested, I jumped at the chance, as I’m always up for a bit of musical competitiveness.

The winner was decided by studio guests, the band Reggae Rainbows, and I think I scraped a narrow win against Tim, 2–1, through bias, as one of my choices was Ken Boothe. You can listen to the show here—the Wheels of Steel feature is about an hour in.

For those without the time, here are the tunes I picked, and their competition, plus the rationale I emailed to Kim to justify my choices.

Best punk song: Shot By Both Sides by Magazine vs Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers
This was actually my second choice, the first being Boredom by the Buzzcocks from their Spiral Scratch EP. However, as that had swearing in it and not suitable for broadcast at 11am on a Thursday morning, I went for Magazine. Howard Devoto has the best Punk voice ever, (he also sung Boredom, as he was originally in the Buzzcocks before leaving after Spiral Scratch to form Magazine). The lyrics have an outsider spirit which completely fits the original punk ethos, as well as having nihilistic undertones. The fact that Pete Shelley allowed Devoto to take a guitar riff with him when he left the band and use it for Shot By Both Sides completes the circle on this. However, the irony is that Devoto formed Magazine because he didn’t want to be confined to punks’ narrow and reductive aesthetic, so I’m sure he wouldn’t be best pleased with thinking it is thought of as a punk classic.

Best pop song: Prince Charming by Adam And The Ants vs Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode
The opening guitar strum, the primal screams, and the acoustic riff all set this song up for greatness. And then the lyrics kick in, declaring that no one should be afraid to express themselves. Raising self-esteem and personal pride lies at the heart of this song, and that, in my mind, sends an important personal/political message from the get go. Questioning who has the right to tell anyone what to do, how to dress or how to behave should be at the heart of pop, whether implicitly through dress codes or explicitly through lyrics, and pop has been doing this since Elvis first shook his legs in Memphis in July 1954. My love for this song was reaffirmed when I saw Adam Ant in Ipswich last July, and the sight of pretty much the entire audience, (except for me), do ‘that’ dance, made me smile in admiration at them all as Adam sang ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’, probably one of the best pop lyrics ever.

Best sing along song: Everything I Own by Ken Boothe vs Sweet Talking Woman by ELO
This song is sheer emotion—there is something about Boothe’s tender vocal delivery that pulls directly on the heart strings. I have always been fascinated by how he pronounces his ‘H’s on this, which I stupidly emulate when I join in wishing I had such a voice as his. I sometimes wonder whether I just HAVE to sing along to stop myself from sobbing uncontrollably, it is that powerful. It is sung directly to the listener forcing you to FEEL his heartache. And all to a gorgeous Lover’s Rock rhythm to boot. But please, don’t anyone mention the Boy George version, or I’m likely to get very angry.

 

Thanks Kim and Tim, this was great fun.

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