Neutralised

Neutral Milk Hotel, Albert Hall, Manchester, May 17th & 18th

Like many people I came to Neutral Milk Hotel late; way after they had ceased to be a going concern. I think I picked In The Aeroplane Over the Sea up in Fopp because I liked the sleeve. It was a few weeks later when I got round to listening to it in the car. That CD remained in my car on repeat for the next three months, working it’s magic on me. I fell hard.

It can be a tough listen for the uninitiated, but once it finds it’s way into the ancient primeval part of your brain it’s difficult to shift. It’s dense poetic lyrics, part adolescent sexual fantasy, part twisted body horror, all watched over by the ghost of Anne Frank and sang with a voice teetering on the edge of complete abandon. Set against a musical background almost steampunk in it’s oddness; fuzzy acoustic guitars, singing saws, esoteric brass and even bagpipes, all meshing together to form something strange and beautiful. It’s difficult to put a finger on it, but I react to this album the same way I react to a Rothko painting; a pure unfiltered emotional response. It’s sad and melancholic, sometimes almost revelling in it’s own sense of disconnectedness…. But then we all feel like that sometimes, don’t we?

After a bit of online research I came to realise that NMH were a long defunct outfit, and their singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum was rumoured to be a reclusive almost hobo-like character, homeless and sleeping on people’s floors. It seemed unlikely I would ever get to see him in the flesh. So when I saw he was curating ATP in 2012, it was a done deal, I had to be there. I have to say it is my favourite festival experience, the Elephant 6 crowd were all warm and enthusiastic and made it a completely welcoming experience.

There was however one thing which irked me. Jeff played two sets that weekend. The first, on the Friday, was wonderful, haunting, emotional and euphoric. It left me feeling like I’d been through intensive psycho-therapy… A bit bruised but ultimately happier. There was however huge anticipation about the Sunday evening; a full band revival surely? Sadly that wasn’t to be, it was Jeff again, solo. Amazing once again, but I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated. Would I ever get to see Neutral Milk Hotel the band?

On hearing that Neutral Milk Hotel had announced some US dates, and would be playing some of the big European festivals, I was understandably itching for news of further dates. When the word came out that they would be playing a limited number of UK appearances, well the anticipation was desperate. We were worrying for days prior to the tickets going on sale that we wouldn’t get any. Because in the minds of the faithful they are bigger than Springsteen, rather than a tiny little cult band. So after all the waiting, for two nights in Manchester, I finally get to see the band I had been desperate to see for so long.

First a word about the venue, Albert Hall, Manchester. A Wesleyan chapel, abandoned for many years, hidden away upstairs above what was once Brannigans nightclub. Beautiful tall stained glass windows along each side and across its vaulted ceiling, a broad sweeping balcony and high stage in the shadow of an amazing pipe organ, I could not have picked a more appropriate venue.

Being typically English, I tend not to show great excitement at things, preferring restraint to obvious ebullience. But I confess waiting for the band to come on stage, my heart was beating faster. At the appointed time Jeff Mangum stumbled onto the stage; long beard, peaked cap and army surplus coat, he bore a closer resemblance to an Ozarks meth runner than a rock star. He didn’t say much, just began to strum this first simple chords of The King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1, and as his voice stretched out into the darkness for the first time I knew this would be everything I had hoped it would be.

Out of the wings the rest of the band crept onto the stage, picking up archaic instruments and allowing the cacophony to build as they kicked into Pt 2. Hearing a crowd of 2000 people singing ‘I Love you Jesus Christ!’ can be an odd experience for an atheist like myself, but by this time I was already locked into Jeff’s fantastical world. The band are the essence of anti-rock star, anti-image, looking like they had strayed in from a homeless shelter or another dimension. The bear-like Scott Spillaine with his Father Christmas beard, blasting beautiful haunting sounds for an array of ancient brass instruments. The man-child Julian Koster bouncing around in his bibbity bobbity hat, wrenching thunderous noises from his bass, and his singing saws all terrifying and sad. Behind the drums Jeremy Barnes, extravagant of moustache, stroking the drums, sometimes with the sensitivity of a jazz drummer, and sometimes like Thor in a bad mood.

No new material, but they do work their way through a mix of songs from On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, filling them with fresh cacophonous fizzy energy. Holland 1945 is raucous and acoustically punky, Gardenhead is weird and arty, Two-headed Boy breaks my heart in a million pieces. The rest of the band leave the stage as Jeff strums the sad chords of Oh Comely. It’s dense impenetrable lyrics, full of foetuses and sugary sweet machines. It’s the poetry, the sheer joy in the sound of words that gets me as I close my eyes and submit to the emotion of it.

The main set finishes with Snow Song Pt 1, all drones and noise, interspersed with flashes of melody and crazy jazzbo drumming from Jeremy. Then quietly they troop back to the wings as we whoop and cheer, and try to catch our collective breath. After a short break they return for the final few songs; a carnivalesque Ghost and a Two Headed Boy Pt 2. Finishing with the beautiful nursery rhyme that is Engine they quietly leave the stage to return to whatever strange planet it is they come to leaving a Manchester crowd euphoric and emotionally drained.

So that was it. After all this time, two night of the band I had waited so long to see. Did it live up to expectations? More than I can adequately describe. ATP at Minehead was incredible, but this was something else entirely. It was everything I could have imagined, a wild steampunk cacophony filled with brutal, terrifying beauty. Those songs continued to reverberate around my brain for days afterwards. I shall be seeing them again in August at Jabberwocky; I’m sure it will be great, but whether it can live up to this is another story. All we need now is for Jeff to bury a few demons and start writing again.

Oh and by the way, that CD is back on my car stereo… I think it will be there for a while.

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Learning how to die…..

I should point out before I start that there is no humour in this post; no laughs, no irony. It’s remarkably low on fun stuff, so it would probably be best if you turn back now. I’m not normally given to over-personal blog posts, but this past few months have been a tough time for people I care about. Not sure why I feel the need to record this, but I find it strangely comforting to do so; that will have to be reason enough.

I have slipped away upstairs for a little while to start writing this. My mum is downstairs at the bedside of her husband (my stepfather?… Not sure if that is the right term to honest as we never really had a parental relationship). Anyway, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus 8 months ago. He’s over 80 but underwent & survived very long and complicated surgery to try and remove it and give him some quality of life. He has never really recovered from the surgery as he should have done, and as is so often the case this vile cancer has taken hold elsewhere.

It’s been a long hard eight months and it looks like we are reaching the final hours. The house is full of his family, which I am sure must be some comfort although he is pretty much unconscious most of the time. The automated syringe driver ensuring a constant stream of pain killers & anti-anxiety drugs are flooding his system. I barely know anybody here, but am here for my mother’s sake, so I have slipped away and am sat at the top of the stairs, quietly tapping away into my iPad.

So where to start? My relationship with J has had it’s ups and downs over the years I suppose. I think we eventually settled on mutual tolerance. Actually that’s probably being a little unfair; I think he basically likes me, just just finds me a bit odd. I have tried to tolerate his views but found some of of them too difficult to bear. Consequently I have stayed away more than I should have over the years. Sadly my pig-headedness has led to a fairly strained family relationship at times. Not something I’m particularly proud of but you can’t change the past, only the future. Anyway in thirty years he never raised his voice to my mother and has loved her to the end. I guess in the sometimes complicated machinations of family life that’s as much as you can hope for. I only mention this for the purposes of full disclosure… Families are complicated beasts, nobody’s circumstances will be the same as yours.

We have tried to help and support as much as we can over this period, but ultimately the weight of responsibility and 24/7 care has fallen to my mum. It is only reflecting now that I realise how much this has taken out of her. I’ve seen friends go through this with their parents too and Its never easy. So god (or deity of your choice) forbid you should find yourself in a similar situation, either as a victim or primary care giver, these are my meagre unqualified and unsubstantiated observations…..

1. Cancer is a vile, relentless disease. It shows no pity and rains nothing but misery, pain and heartache on everybody who comes into contact with it. Not only does it drain the life of the victim, it chips away at the spirit of those closest to them as well. It’s a glib and obvious thing to say but nonetheless true. I guess it’s always good to know your enemy from the start and be prepared for every eventuality, good or bad.

2. Whatever help is offered, take it. Don’t be proud. It’s a hard road and impossible to negotiate without help. I wish I had done more to help. Still not sure what, but it nags at me that there is something I didn’t do. So don’t be afraid to ask for help. People generally want to feel useful, want to feel they are doing something to help. So just ask, don’t be stoic.

3. Think long and hard about how you want to spend your final weeks. Electing to die at home may seem like a good idea; a safe comfortable environment. However, you need to be aware of the pressure that puts on your primary care giver. You will be reliant on a thinly stretched district nurse service for support, and most of the heavy lifting, literally, will fall to whoever is with you. This puts an additional physical strain on the carer, which makes the psychological and emotional burden even harder to bear. If the opportunity to take advantage of a local hospice is there, then take it. Pain will be better managed, and the carer will be better looked after. I may be wrong, but I’m sure that if a hospice had been involved these past few days would have been pain free and considerably more dignified than they have been. But as I say, that’s just a personal opinion.

4. My final point is perhaps a little more general, hopeful even. The image which sticks in my mind most vividly these past few days is that of my mother holding J’s hand, not prepared to leave his side for one second. I’m not generally gushy or over-sentimental, but every time I see that I catch the back of my throat. It’s a powerful thing, it kind of stops you in your tracks. I just hope, and god forbid this is never the case, but if I were in a similar position and could show an ounce of the commitment, fortitude and sheer force of will that my mum has demonstrated over the last eight months, then I would at least be able to look myself in the eye and feel I was a decent human being. At the end of the day I don’t think we can ask for much more than that.

I’ve seen it your eyes and I’ve read it in books….

[Writing soundtrack: Unknown Mortal Orchestra)

I look around me some days and become acutely aware that I am surrounded by books. Great piles of the things. Hard backs, paper backs; some dog eared and tatty others pristine and unread. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels by the ton, glossy coffee table tomes (I don’t even own a bloody coffee table). They’re every where; next to my bed, under my bed, in the kitchen, by the sofa, piled up in the corner of the living room; don’t even get me started on the box room. There’s a pristine copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace sat up there which has been taunting me to read it for years.

I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t this way. From as young as I can remember I feasted on comics. I wanted to be one of the Bash St kids, take Gnasher for a walk. I was stealing my mums old horror paperbacks from the age of 12; parents I really don’t recommend this. While mates were running about climbing trees and building dens, I would slope off and bury my head in a Stephen King or a James Herbert.

Now, I wouldn’t say I was well read by any means. I don’t think I’ve read anything which could really be considered literary fiction since I did my A level English. I was a right pretentious little arse back then as well. Getting to class early and going off syllabus reading Ullyses and Nausea, and not really understanding either. But I eventually got over myself and just started reading for the love of reading and losing myself in someone else world for a few hours.

I have an equal passion for non-fiction as well; the joy of learning something new. I think I have a small forests worth of biographies & autobiographies littering the place, mostly by and about musicians if I’m being honest. But bits of history gripped me in my middle years. I can remember at some point in the mid-nineties realising I new nothing about the recent Balkan conflicts, feeling quite guilty about that I proceeded to read every single published work on the subject. Seriously, I could work for the UN.  I still find inspiration to this day in the books of journalism which lie lopsided on shelves; Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe, the usual suspects. plus sundry others.

My tastes in fiction are pretty middle brow. Not trash by any means, but not destined for Nobel prizes either. Writers like Iain Banks, Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis & Rupert Thomson are my go to comfort reading. Sharp, clever, well observed writing with fascinating characters, intriguing plots and just a touch of the weird; a sense that they are writing about an alternative universe, not dissimilar to ours but subtly altered.

If i was forced at gunpoint to name my favourite writer I would instinctively say Iain Banks (no M, don’t really do sci-fi).  I was in my early twenties when someone thrust a scruffy paperback of The Wasp Factory into my hand and was told ‘you really have to read this’. The opening line was a killer,“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me”.  I was drawn in immediately. It was weird and claustrophobic, terrifying and revolting, and ultimately utterly tragic. As Bill Hicks would say, I think I’ve found my brand.

I have since read everything he has ever written, but the one which I have re-read the most is The Crow Road. I have always been a sucker for a good opening line. I always loved the start of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold“.  You kind of know where things are going after an opening like that. But The Crow Road has a belter, “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach“. I know, good isn’t it; I defy you not to continue reading after a start like that. A subtle tale of family secrets and growing up, it grips from the first page because of it’s rich and warmly drawn characters. Clearly a man who loves women, he writes them so well, I fell hopelessly in love with the character of Ash. There’s no crush like a literary crush. Yes, definitely my favourite book and if you have never read it, I implore you to put that right. You won’t regret it.

Hearing of Iain Bank’s premature death earlier this year came as a crushing blow for many reasons. Firstly, he always seemed like one of the good guys. Passionate about his writing, but passionate about life in general and vocally scathing of cowardly modern politics. But mostly because it genuinely felt like losing a friend; someone who had always been there with words to sooth and enflame, excite and humour. You could always rest easy knowing that if things got bad, there would be a new book along soon. His final novel, The Quarry, was published last month. I have decided not to read it, not just yet anyway. I want to retain the feeling of there always being another book to read. So to Iain Banks, and all the other dead novelists, and to all of those who’ve thought of writing a book but didn’t have the time or the confidence; I salute you.

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Finally, a selection of reads, in no particular order plucked from my head at random. If you read any, let me know what you think…

Fiction

~ The Crow Road – Iain Banks (obvs)

~ Dreams of Leaving – Rupert Thomson

~ All Families Are Psychotic – Douglas Coupland

~ American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis

~ The Devil’s Paintbrush – Jake Arnott

~ 84 – David Peace

~ Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

~ Carter Versus The Devil – Glenn David Gold

~ Harlot’s Ghost – Norman Mailer

~ The Secret History – Donna Tartt

~ The House of Sleep – Jonathon Coe

~ Crooked Little Vein – Warren Ellis

~ The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

~ The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier & Clay – Michael Chabon

Non Fiction

~ Our Band Could Be Your Life – Michael Azzerad

~ All The Presidents Men – Woodward/Bernstein

~ Head on / Re-posessed – Julian Cope

~ Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs – John Lydon

~ In Harm’s Way – Martin Bell

~ My War Gone by, I miss It so – Anthony Lloyd

~ Fear and Loathing on the campaign Trail ’72 – Hunter S Thompson

~ Psychotic Reactions & Carburretor Dung – Lester Bangs

~ Trusted Mole – Milos Stankovic

~ War Junkie – Jon Steele

~ Englands Dreaming – Jon Savage

Graphic Novels/Series

~ Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis

~ The Invisibles  – Grant Morrison

~ From Hell – Alan Moore

~ Preacher – Garth Ennis

~ Sandman – Neil Gaiman

~ Morning Glories – Nick Spencer

~ Stickleback – Ian Edgington/D’israeli

~ Palestine – Joe Sacco

~ Y: The Last Man – Brian K Vaughn

Does anybody remember when comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll?

[Writing soundtrack: The Broken Family Band]

Before music there was comedy. I was in my very late teens before I began to develop even the vaguest of critical faculties regards music. Comedy though, that was always there. I think it is for everyone. Somebody leans over your pushchair and pulls a funny face. You giggle. Congratulations, barely out of the womb and you’ve just attended your first stand up gig. Also, I can’t tell jokes or stories myself, so I have always been awestruck by anyone who can. The skill it takes, I’m not sure can be learnt; the timing, the use of deliberate hesitations & digressions, the ability to engage the listener…it just amazes me. I used to work with a guy, now retired, who could turn a simple tale of putting up a curtain rail into a 45 minute epic which would leave you with cracked ribs. I lack the skills, I didn’t get the comedy gene, I don’t have funny bones.

I suppose my comedy education started just like everyone else’s, learning to see the difference between BBC & ITV sit-coms; Porridge, Fawlty Towers, The Likely Lads (good), Bless this House, Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language (bad). I knew almost instinctively that there was a difference, something about the phrasing, the timing, the quality. That of course led to that surreal strain of humour that came out of the 50s and 60s, Monty Python, The Goodies, Spike Milligan’s Q series (my personal favourite, despite its occasionally border-line racism). Everyone, well every boy anyway, knew someone at school who had Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl LP, and knew the words of every sketch of by heart. If you didn’t, then it was probably you.

I find it interesting that ‘stand up’ as we know it today didn’t really exist when I was growing up in the 70s; not in grey old pre-punk England anyway. No, it was just fat blokes with regional accents telling jokes on The Comedians and Wheeltappers & Shunters. Knocking out the same dozen or so jokes that they had been telling for their entire careers, so it’s understandable that they had got quite good at telling them. Racism & sexism was considered okay for prime-time, and the careers of Bernard Manning & Jim Davison flourished as a result. Our parents generation thought it hilarious, probably still do. I’m sure I even laughed myself but have managed to edit it out of my consciousness following my politically correct re-education as a teenager.

‘What political re-education?’ I hear you ask. You know, when The Young Ones and the Comic Strip came along in the 80s with all of their PC ‘take that Thatcher’ liberal attitudes. What, you don’t remember that? The revolution being televised? Yeah, me neither, it was just a bunch of bored University graduates dicking about really wasn’t it. Funny though. I think the Young Ones facilitated my very first water cooler conversation. Not that we had a water cooler; or bike sheds for that matter, but you get my point. For a whole generation of comedy starved teens it was the first thing that actually belonged to us. It was snotty, crass, unsophisticated; slapstick and knob gags dressed up as Marxist polemic, and it was ours.

It was around this time that I also discovered the joy of the comedy album. It’s seems hard to imagine these days, when everything is so transient and ephemeral, that I would play these things over and over again, poring over the album covers with the same intensity as I would my Blondie albums. Just with a bit less of the confused teenage feelings elicited by the latter. It was the folk club raconteurs who first drew me in; Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot. I know he seems a bit of an arse these days, but Billy Connolly made me cry with laughter, no matter how many times I listened. My sixth form tutor, Mr Hobson, used to let me bring my Billy Connolly LPs in to play during morning registration. I think there was only me and him laughing. Then again he also used to let me off being late, which I nearly always was, if I could come up with a creative enough excuse; ‘I’m sorry sir, but my mates goat escaped’ being the most memorable. There was also always somebody who had that secret cassette as well, the one spoken of in hushed tones due to the level of its filth & depravity: Ad Nauseam by Derek & Clive. It’s levels of creative profanity still unsurpassed to this day.

Then in my later teenage years I discovered the American stand up comedians. Wow. There was a level of skill and sophistication here that made our end of the pier joke pedlars look like rank amateurs. The more edgy the better; Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor is probably the closest thing to a real comedy genius there has ever been. Forget his patchy film career and watch his Live on Sunset Strip performance and try to imagine how that shook the world of comedy in 1982. Bill Murray’s sardonic deadpan, John Belushi’s comedy wild man, the Americans were just in a different league. I inhaled Bob Woodward’s Wired, the tale of the fast life and premature death of John Belushi, a man who lived faster than any rock star. Now try to imagine Bobby Davro in the same story…

Sometime in the early 90s I had a real comedy epiphany. Having been out drinking with my mate Mark, and we ended up back at mine with the intention of continuing drinking whilst watching some crap TV, as you do in your early 20s. There was some standup comedy show on C4, comedian I’d never heard before, might as well give it a whirl. It was Bill Hicks: Relentless. It was like being slapped unexpectedly & repeatedly in the face with a wet fish. The confidence, the assured delivery, the subject matter; sex, drugs, rock n roll, politics, the Gulf War. It was stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen before. It hit me with the same force as seeing for the first time any band that I have come to love and obsess over. And obsess I did, tracking down anything I could by him and listening to it endlessly with the same rapt attention that I had with all those old Billy Connolly albums.

Bill Hicks - Sane Man

Bill Hicks – Sane Man

A strange dichotomy of opinion has arisen around Bill Hicks. He is seen in some quarters as a comedian who only really found fame amongst a certain breed of young hip indie kids, and is to a certain extent not held in the high esteem of many stand up comedians. But for those of us saw him live, there was nobody better. I was lucky enough to see hime twice before he died. The first time, at the Royal Northern College of Music, he was wild and profane but also warm and engaging, coming back on to do a Q&A with the audience after his main set. I think he was just high on finally finding an audience who appreciated him. The second time was at the Royal Exchange and it didn’t start until about 1am. I don’t know for sure if this was after his cancer diagnosis, my memory of dates is hazy at best, but it was Bill Hicks at his angriest. Ranting and railing like an old testament preacher, against everything he saw as being wrong with America, and the world. Not that he wasn’t funny, he was, hilarious in fact, but this time edgier like he just wanted to say everything he had left to say. A 1am gig, and having no money of course, meant staying in Kai’s chinese restaurant until 6am, dawdling over stir fried noodles and and trying not to catch the eye of any local gangsters, before grabbing a few hours sleep on Victoria station while waiting for the first train home.

So what brought on this unexpected reminiscence about my memories of comedy? After Bill Hicks died, I was searching for related stuff on-line. Now, this was still in the days of dial up modems, so as you can imagine, this was a slow and time consuming business. Eventually I stumbled upon a site run by his childhood friend Kevin Booth, detailing how they had set up a wildlife preservation charity in his name (Bill dug possums, who knew?). they were selling t-shirts, and videos and had been doing comedy concerts in Austin Tx to raise money. So half expecting never to hear from them again, I sent off a cheque for a t-shirt and VHS video of a tribute night held in a small club in Austin, which also contained a lot of previously unseen footage ~ Ninja Bachelor Party really has to be seen to be believed. Several months later, to my amazement, a package arrived containing said items…now sadly lost to the ages. However, it also contained a beautiful hand written card from Bill’s mother, Mary Rees-Hicks, thanking me for my donation and promising that it would be used for the good. I stumbled upon this the other day…and the memories came flooding back.

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Wouldn’t you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstition? Perhaps? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Just for once?

“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” – Bill Hicks

[Blog Ends]

ATP Curated by Deerhunter: Day 3 ~ No sleep ’til Brooklyn

[Writing soundtrack: The Black Lips]

The final day of the ATP adventure  arrived with the sound of mutant gulls and retching hipsters. If you can imagine Neil Young’s Arc played on a kazoo; well that. Two nights of Pontins luxury accommodation, and the body really wasn’t holding up. Rising from my bed to meet the new day like an arthritic sloth it was time to make plans for the day. Day 3 was looking like a bit of a cracker (why is that always the way festival schedulers). With Steve Reich, Pere Ubu, Robin Hitchcock and Deerhunter on the agenda there was only one thing which was going to get me back on an even keel: copious amounts of tea and a fry up. A quick Google search located the Rye Bay cafe where the traditional full English was scoffed with abandon. Followed by a bracing stroll on the Sands, where paddling hipsters and locals eyed each other warily, we were finally set for the day.

Camber Sands

Camber Sands

[I should point out at this juncture that it is now almost a week since ATP; drink has since been partaken and my memory is not that great at the best of times. So if I should digress at some point about being kidnapped by pirates or some such, I have probably just drifted off into a revery or started confusing my real life with films again. Apologies in advance.]

Before partaking of further musical indulgence there was the tricky matter of Lord Sinclair’s Rock n Roll quiz to be negotiated. In a holiday camp full of music nerds this was a concern. We really didn’t stand a chance. A Twitter plea for reinforcements was made ,and thanks to @DrElfy and @Sipperana for stepping up to the plate, so we weren’t sat there like Billy no mates. In a packed Queen Vic the quiz commenced with the declaration from the quiz master that we needed to get this thing wrapped up so we could get off to watch Steve Reich at 3pm. It was never going to happen really. Now I have no idea who Lord Sinclair is, or what he does when he isn’t being Lord Sinclair, but boy can the feller talk. Dapperly dressed and permanently pissed, he kicked off the quiz in a shambolic fashion which was maintained throughout. Amusing anecdotes ran headlong into questions, making it difficult to tell if he was asking questions or just rambling on like Rowley Birkin. He was usually very, very drunk and completely hilarious.

As the minutes ticked away it was becoming blatantly clear that the chances of making the start of the first act were slim to none. A long interlude when two teams went into a ‘draw off’ to design the sleeve to the Fuck Buttons new album, ate into the time and produced amusingly literal results.

Quiz shenanigans

Quiz shenanigans

It was turning into the War & Peace of pop quizzes. However as answers to various rounds were read out it became clear that we were doing okay, and it at least wasn’t going to be a total humiliation. The raging green gilled hangovers of our fellow quizzers was working to our advantage, as various teams, and I’m quoting, ‘fucked off’. In for a penny, we decided to stick it out to the bitter end, and as the results were read out were surprised to find our names not mentioned. By some incredible twist of fate, which I can only put down to @johnfidler retching up the Marvelettes from the dark recesses of his memory, we’d only come bloody second. Well technically we were third as there was a tie break between two other teams for first place, but runners up was a good result, given the company. We didn’t win the chalet for the final ATP, but  it’s still a result I want carving on my tombstone.

Quiz booty

Quiz booty

Following this unexpected result we raced up stairs to catch the rest of the Steve Reich. I can’t say I have ever listened to any of his work, but was aware of his reputation as one of America’s great composers and pioneer of musical minimalism. We got there about half way through to see a man playing the clarinet. That doesn’t really do justice to the sweet sounds he was making, soft melodies to rid you of even the most stubborn hangover. It was billed as the London Sinfonietta, and was expecting something orchestral for some reason, so was quite surprised as musicians stepped up to play guitars while Mr Reich himself sat down at the piano. If anyone knows the name of the piece they played next I would appreciate it if you could let me know, as its gentle, jazzy repetitive groove had me hypnotised. Just lovely. As he stepped forward to join his musicians to take a final bow, ATP roared it’s appreciation for giving us something genuinely different amongst the noise and thunder of the festival.

To celebrate our quiz victory (yes by this point it had become a bloody victory) we decided to forgo the Gallic delights of Laetitia Sadier, and go down the road to the very dodgy looking boozer for a pint of real beer and some pie & mash from the stall next door (jellied eels optional). Sadly the pie & mash stall was closed (what were they thinking?) so we headed into the pub. If you remember the scene in American Werewolf where they go into the Slaughtered Lamb, that’s kind of in the ballpark of how it felt walking in to this austere and imposing establishment. To be fair it was fine, they were quite friendly and even had a room set aside for ATP staff, so they were pretty much down with events next door.

Heading back to the Pontins remand centre for ageing anarchists, we fortified ourselves with  cheese and wine before heading off to watch Micael Hurley. The scheduling of this ATP was beginning to make more sense; sometimes on a Sunday afternoon all you really want to hear is an old man singing sweet country blues about cups of tea and the workings of his digestive system.  I saw him wandering around the car park afterwards and rushed over to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoyed his set. He just looked a bit baffled to be honest. Bless.

Michael Hurley

Michael Hurley

Next up was Pere Ubu. We arrived as they were sound checking; this then turned into the gig itself as they decided to just get on with it whether anybody wanted to listen or not. David Thomas, seated and reading his lyrics from a lectern throughout was on good form. Professionally grumpy, and funny and charming with it. They rattled through a set largely drawn from their latest Lady from Shanghai album with some oldies mixed in. Sadly no Non-alignment pact, but they did do a rip roaring Modern Dance. With songs decicated to the ladies in the house and weird anecdotes about trying to write a song for Kylie, it was all good fun. [At this point I think the Pirates came for me. They stole all of my 2ps and made me walk the plank, never to play the Coronation St slot machine ever again. Surrounded by plastic sharks and Chinese replica Cartman’s I declared myself their Emperor and went onto conquer the world armed only with a stick of rock. True story.]

David Thomas ~ Pere Ubu

David Thomas ~ Pere Ubu

Having escaped pirate enslavement, and following the ritual booze refill at the chalet, we made our way up to see Robyn Hictchcock. The crowd was a little sparse sadly, the younger element having been lured away by the sweaty racket going off downstairs (Dan Deacon I think),  but it did at least mean we could locate ourselves in a good position near the front. The thing I admire most about Robyn Hitchcock is that he decided to wear a black and white polka dot shirt some time in the mid 80s and thought ‘well I don’t really see any point in exploring the delights of other materials’ and has stuck with it ever since.

Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

I first saw Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians at Glastonbury in 1986….he appeared to be wearing the exact same shirt today. I really should ask what detergent he uses. It was good to see him performing with a full band this time, including former Young Fresh Fellow & REM sideman Scott McCaughy. On chatty form, he was witty and surreal throughout, belting out a set of lovely pop-psycedelia, including a cracking version of Kingdom of Love. Bidding us farewell Robyn admonished us to look after our teeth, and never to brush anyone else’s  teeth without their permission. As I’m sure Alan Partidge would say, classic Hitchcock!

Feeling weary now, final day festival fatigue starting to take hold, so we headed back for a restorative chocolate Hob Nob and polished off the last of the wine, and prayed I’d get my 4th wind. To be fair I cannot commend highly enough the reviving powers of a good bottle of shiraz. I suspect my liver may beg to differ.

We made our way back to the main stage and joined the throng waiting for Deerhunter’s final set of the weekend, a performance of Halcyon Digest. This album was my first exposure to Deerhunter, and it’s weirdly melodic pop charm had worked it’s spell on me, so this was the one I had been looking forward to all weekend. The band took the stage to rapturous applause and proceeded to play a stunning set; Revival, Memory Boy, Desire Lines…all sung along to with gusto. A touching reminiscence from Bradford about the late Jay Reatard was followed by a thunderous Coronado, accompanied by Verity Susan on sax, and ending with a stunning He Would have laughed.

Returning to the stage for the encore in a dress, Bradford spent a good twenty minutes thanking EVERYONE individually, as anticipation rose for the final songs of the evening. It was a triple bill from the new album, Dream Captain, Back to the Middle and finally a mental extended version of Monomania with every amp turned up to eleven.  Perfect.

IMG_0542IMG_0550

Bradford in a lovely dress

Bradford in a lovely dress

Tired but happy we decided against indulging further in final day insanity and decided to give Black Dice a miss (where they any good?). Conscious of the early start and long drive northwards in the morning I decided to crash…so tired I knew I would be asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. The gang of stoners in the chalet over the way had other ideas however and decided to sit outside my window until SIX FUCKING AM talking bollocks and being utterly annoying. With typical English reserve, instead of asking them to remove themselves from the property to continue the party elsewhere, I lay awake swearing quietly and plotting strange murder scenarios involving Komodo dragons and their genitals. It was at this point I had an epiphany: I really am a miserable sod.

[Blog ends]

ATP Curated by Deerhunter: Day 2 ~ The Seven Seas of Rye

[Writing Soundtrack: Low]

Day 2 of the festival drifted into a hazy focus. Checking my surroundings, I was momentarily confused; was I in prison? What the hell happened last night? Then came the relief filled realization that this wasn’t one of HMP Slade’s finest compact and bijou holding cells, and I wasn’t going to have to give all my snout to Grouty. No, here I was in Stalag Pontins, Camber Sands, with another 2 days of musical excitement to look forward to.

Fortified by cups of tea, and Nisa shop croissants we decided that rather than spend the day in the confines of the Camber Sands Gulag, playing on the Tuppeny Falls and trying to win sufficient tokens to claim a poorly realised replica of Stewy from Family Guy, we would instead venture into the nearby town (or is it a village) of Rye. On making the short drive to Rye and parking up, I was disappointed to find there was no sea: I  expected seven would be the minimum requirement. There was a castle though, with proper big cannons and everything.

Grammer School Records ~ Rye. You go in, but you never ever leave.

Grammer School Records ~ Rye. You go in, but you never ever leave.

Following a handy Twitter tip off (thanks Jo) we set off to seek out Grammar School Records. Walking through the door was like stepping back in time….it’s kind of like the shop in Black Books, except with records obviously. A bearded old bloke sits behind the counter listening to his jazz records, mostly oblivious to the flood of ATP vinyl junkies cluttering up his shop. I’m pretty sure you’d be buggered if you tried to pay by credit card; he doesn’t even have a till, writes down his sales in a little notebook.

Piles of second hand DVDs, boxes and racks of records, all manner of ephemera piled high everywhere; a proper Aladdin’s cave. One wall seemed to be some kind of weird art installation; old LP covers on the wall modified to have the same cats head over the central character adorning the LP sleeve. Very odd. I could have spent all day in there going through the racks of vinyl (it had that musty, plasticy smell I remember from record shops of old), but made do with a couple of purchases: LPs by The Bar Kays and Marianne Faithful, for the sake of completeness. He said he’d put them in a ‘lovely bag’ for me…proper customer service. Actually, wandering round town with a bag of records is a heady childhood memory, so I figured it best to grab a bite to eat in a local hostelry and make our way back to Camp X Ray, before I started weeping.

First band of the day was Ex Models ft Kid Millions (another band I had never head of). It was loud and fast hardcore punk all the way; which for some reason I found to be absolutely hilarious. I think I might have just been struck by a bout of mid-festival giddiness. Following that we headed downstairs to catch The Hollow Stars (again, no idea.) Apparently the lead singer was a former Deerhunter guitarist, so I went with high hopes. They started promisingly enough, with lovely ethereal 80s guitar lines over throbbing keyboards, but it eventually grew a little tiresome. It was all just a bit too po-faced and serious for my tastes. I stayed for most of the set, just in case things livened up, but became aware that I was feeling a bit grotty, so headed back cell block H for a quick shower, a change of clothes and glass of Shiraz to set me up for the afternoon.

Meeting up up at The Queen Vic for a swift one, we headed upstairs to watch The Black Lips. At least I had vaguely heard of this lot, and was informed that they had previously been banned from ATP events for unruly behaviour. I mean just exactly how rowdy do you need to be to get banned from ATP?! This boded well.

The Black Lips ~ The Spirit of '76 lives

The Black Lips
~ The Spirit of ’76 lives

It was just what the doctor ordered; The Black Lips bringing a welcome dose of good humour, great tunes and bratty punk rock joy to proceedings. Stretched 3 across the stage in the classic Clash tradition they belted out a set of rousing pop/punk tunes, interspersed with motormouth stage banter, talking over each other like The Goonies. Not sure if they were just high on life or something more chemical, but I was sold and made a mental note to give this mob a listen once I returned to the real world.

Realising a diet of beer and cider was probably not the most healthy combination if we were to make it to the end of the day, we returned to the dungeon to feast on pork pies, cheese and wine by way of preparation for going to see Tom Tom Club. Now call me an old fogie if  you will (and you probably will) but of all the new and edgy bands on the ATP bill, it was this bunch of reformed 80s funkateers I was most looking forward to seeing this weekend. I mean it’s the ryhthm section from Talking Heads for gods sake, what’s not to be excited about.

Ton Tom Club

Ton Tom Club

Finding a good spot on the fringes of the dance-floor (far enough away from the moshers to be safe, but not so far back that you felt like an OAP) we were treated to an hour or so of wonderful happy pop/funk fun. They’re just so sparkly! They belted out the ‘hits’ like it was still the 80s; Genius of Love, Wordy Rappinghood…utterly joyous stuff. I found myself imperceptibly doing the hands in pocket, shuffley dance that can only be done properly by fat old knackers like me. That is, I would have been doing that if my feet weren’t stuck like glue to the by now cider drenched dance-floor.

Tina Weymouth

Tina Weymouth

A couple of bizarre cover versions added to the fun; and added to the weird feeling of being at an 80s 6th form party, where the Geography teacher has been left in charge of the disco. Under the Boardwalk (we were praying for Bruce Willis to come onstage, but sadly no sign…) and a hilarious rendition of Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing…yes that one.

The crowd began to thin a bit towards the end. Not sure if this was due to Panda Bear playing downstairs, or the hipsters just having too much fun. Well whatever it was those who headed for the exit door early missed a treat as they finished on a superb version of Psycho Killer, which left me with a massive smile as we headed back out into the by now cold and windy Camber Sands evening.

Popped back to the chalet, for essential sitting down (old, kackered, tired feet) and something decent to drink. We had by now realised that the drinks on offer at Pontins were on the whole bloody awful. So the chalet dash for well needed Shiraz was becoming something of a between band ritual. Whatever happened to the real ale stall that they had at Minehead? That at least offered something a bit different.

Last band of the day would be Deerhunter performing Mircrocastles. Now my take on Deerhunter has been that each album has got progressively more tuneful and poppy. That isn’t meant to be a criticism by the way; I am a pop music fan at heart. I just like it with a bit of weirdness thrown on top to keep things interesting. Tonight’s performance, for many reasons, was a much more angry and muscular affair than I had been expecting, while still managing to end on a note of joyous optimism.

They started like they meant business. Even gentle pop confections like Agoraphobia had new found muscularity. More than anything the evening’s performance demonstrated the group dynamic; four normal quiet guys and a hugely charismatic, oddball, loose canon front man. An incident where Lockett’s amp stopped working led to a long period of Bradford the raconteur, chatting, occasionally preaching, to his devoted audience. This was later followed by an angry violent exchange when Bradford took issue with the stage security team who were being too heavy handed with the crowd surfers, spitting water at them and quite literally losing his wig. This seemed to give the band the necessary anger to perform as the rest of the set was performed with a rage and intensity which was frankly stunning.

The good vibes were restored at the end of the set, as Bradford whispered in the ears of each of the band in turn: cue raised eyebrows, and oh fuck it, why not shrugs from each of them. As the noise reached fever pitch Bradford and Lockett jumped into the crowd, and where held aloft by an adoring crowd. The non-plussed security team were considerably more gentle this time. Bradford eventually getting back on stage to take over on bass and let the rest of the band join in the fun. A fantastic end to the evening.

Bradford crowd surfing

Bradford crowd surfing

Lockett

Lockett

Deerhunter ~ Microcastles
Deerhunter ~ Microcastles

ATP Curated by Deerhunter: Day 1 ~ A Voyage into the unknown

ATP Curated by Deerhunter: Day 1 ~ A Voyage into the Unknown

 

[Writing soundtrack: James Brown]

There is something deeply depressing when you finally find a festival which lives up to your expectations, only to find out that it is coming to an end. My first All Tomorrow’s Parties experience was last years Jeff Mangum curated love fest at Minehead; a weekend which still lingers long in the memory as my favourite ever festival experience. So it was a toss up between TV on The Radio and Deerhunter; eventually plumping for Deerhunter despite being unfamiliar with the band, or indeed much of the line-up. So it was a real journey into the unknown as we put peddle to the metal and headed southbound to Camber Sands.

After a relatively painless five hour drive we arrived at Pontins Camber Sands, and made our way to the friendly if somewhat shambolic check in. We were giving the chalet share option a whirl, so were a little concerned we may end up with cannibal serial killers, or even worse skinny jeaned hipsters. As it turned out they had given our chalet to somebody else. Not to worry though, new digs were quickly sorted and we found ourselves with a spacious 4 berth chalet and no annoying chalet mates: result!

Cell Block H

Cell Block H – Escape Committee convened

In typical fashion bags were quickly dumped and we headed straight to the pub, where the longstanding tradition of over doing it a bit on the first day was adhered to. After few ciders and a wander round the penny arcade (i now want a Tuppeny Falls machine installed in my kitchen) we head upstairs to catch the first act of the day, Atlas Sound. This was my first sighting of the gangly Lazarus Churchyard-like presence of Bradford Cox… the first of many on Day 1. He was charm personified as he welcomed us all to his party and then proceeded to play a solo set of weird, ethereal, downbeat electronica. I had never heard any Atlas Sound before and, if I’m being honest, found the strange soundscapes interesting rather than truly loveable. Not to demean it any way, interesting can be a good thing; exposure to new sounds is all part of the ATP experience.

Atlas Sound

Atlas Sound – Bradford Cox

We left shortly before the end to head downstairs to watch The Blue Orchids, Martin Bramah’s seminal 80s post-Fall combo. Bringing a healthy dose of Manc snarkiness and patented brand of organ driven garage-indie. They hurtled through Bed Education, Disney Boys, A Year With No Head… Being a simple soul at heart this is the stuff I love, simply arranged arsey pop music and their brilliant early evening set brought a big smile to my face.

Blue Orchids

Blue Orchids

Blue Orchids

Blue Orchids

Following a bit of a mooch, and trip back to the chalet to check if, the at this point still expected cannibal serial killers, had arrived: they hadn’t. We also, grabbed a bite to eat in the Pontin’s Sand Dunes ‘restaurant’…note to self: don’t do that again. I think my body is still trying to process what was in the food, which was in now way natural. Full of mashed up roadkill and salmonella we headed back to Stage 1 to catch the end of Cavern of Anti-matter. Being Tim Gane from Stereolab’s band I kind of wish I’d made more of an effort to catch them from the start, as it was sounding good, and I must make an effort to listen to some of their stuff. Although, we arrived just in time as Laetitia Sadier ambled on stage for an impromptu, if not entirely unsurprising Stereolab reunion…the crowd goes wild.

8.30 TBC says the line-up. Whatever can that be. Intrigued, what seemed like the whole site trooped into Stage 2 to see what it was all about. Grabbing a decent spot, stage right we waited eagerly to see what would unfold. Bradford & Lockett from Deerhunter wander on stage setting up guitars and amps, and sound checking. Expectation rises.

Tom Tom Club/Deerhuner - funk jam

Tom Tom Club/Deerhuner – funk jam

Then to my absolute delight Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Tom Tom Club join the party. It is quite hard do justice to the next 40 minutes of mind-blowing musical thrills with the mere words ‘improvised funk jam’, but in essence that’s what it was. Bradford starts playing the kind of hot funk guitar rhythms which would give Sly Stone food for thought, while the tightest, funkiest rhythm section ever to come out of CBGBs laid down the groove. And on it went, relentlessly for 40 minutes as the sweat started to drip from the ceiling. The sideways ‘oh these kids’ glances Tina was giving to Chris, whenever Bradford went off on some weird musical tangent were priceless. P1000470At one point the Bradford Cox seemed to be having guitar sex with the bass player from freaking Talking Heads!!! Like I say, hard to put into words, but to say you had to be there would seem churlish. I wandered out completely deaf and grinning ear to ear…starting to feel like ATP now.

A quick dash back to the chalet; still no serial killers. Unless they were really good at hiding. Or had been turned into mutant seagulls. Actually, its a more likely explanation that they were eaten by the mutant seagulls; they were bloody massive.

Anyway, back at Pontins central command the Breeders were taking the stage to perform The Last Splash in full, and also Pod. We arrive just in time to catch the closing bars of Cannonball…the one we obviously wanted to hear. I don’t know if it was the muddy sound, the people talking loudly near us or the fact that i was still in awe of the set downstairs, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by The Breeders.

The Breeders

The Breeders

Bradford popped on stage for his by now de rigeur cameo appearance, but it just wasn’t cutting it for me so we retired for a drink back at the chalet and prepared for Deerhunter’s first set of the weekend.

Now at this point I should confess that prior to purchasing ATP tickets, Deerhunter were a band who had escaped my radar. I had probably heard the odd single on 6Music, but had never really given them a go. Their early material, tonight performing Cryptograms in full, was very much a foreign country to me.

Bathed in blue light, Deerunter entered the fray. They are a strange looking group, Deerhunter. The band, and trusted right hand man Lockett Pundt in particular, look like a bunch of regular guys. It’s almost as if by some strange alchemy, Bradford Cox has managed to absorb all of their charisma and personality into himself, to become the force of nature that he is. Spindly effected guitar lines cut through the air over a heavy, dubby, motorik beat. Bradford wrapped around, a rather beautiful Vox Phantom, wailing impenetrable fuzzed up vocal cacophony into the night. P1000478Occasionally songs I had listened to as part of my pre-festival ‘revision’ began to swim into view; a swoony Octet, a dazzling Cryptograms, a sweetly ferocious Flourescent Grey. The band tight and well drilled, keeping their loose cannon front man on the right track. Utterly mesmerised, I found myself understanding just what the fuss was all about.

Having mainly listened to the later stuff, i couldn’t help thinking as I wandered out into the cool Camber Sands air, that the weekend’s musical delights would only get better, and better.

A suggestion that we should ‘go and find the sea’ was met by  replies of, ‘don’t be so bloody stupid’, ‘it’s too dark’ and ‘I really can’t be arsed’, nevertheless, I still found myself attempting to climb a sand dune at 1am in the morning. I say climbing, more falling and landing on a handily placed timber death trap. Cue more bleating from me and a knackered ankle; i still have the bruises. Tired and emotional, limping back to a serial killer free chalet, to watch weird Tarkovsky movies on ATP TV until i finally fell asleep….just in time for the mutant gull dawn chorus to erupt like a thousand angry car alarms.

[Blog ends]