Half Man Half Biscuit – Northampton Roadmender, 29th November

“Anyone know what DNA stands for? It’s the National Association of Dyslexics”.

It appears that it has been decreed that today is ‘Black Friday’. Despite it being a term that I have never heard anyone else use before today, it has arrived on these shores as if by stealth – unbidden by all except the readers of Retail Week. The implication in the media is quietly sinister “Today is Black Friday. Today has always been Black Friday. Remember?”.

At 8.30pm on this day, HMHB emerge diffidently onto the stage at Northampton Roadmender, with Britain’s true poet laureate, Nigel Blackwell, carrying a guitar in one hand and a ‘Caution: Wet Floor’ sign in the other, which he deposits by his amplifier. Then, suddenly, he is gone, disappearing back behind the curtain, leaving his bandmates exchanging shrugs and nervous glances as the intro music continues to blare out of the PA. A minute or so passes, until he re-emerges clutching a crumpled piece of paper. “Forgot the set list” he explains, before putting it on his amp and returning to the microphone, and striking the first chord of the set before confusion descends again. “Now that I’ve got it, I should probably refer to it” he points out, although realises fairly quickly that he can’t read the handwriting anyway. They pile into ‘The Light At The End of the Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)’ and a two hour greatest hits set – of sorts – begins to unfurl.

Nigel would no doubt cringe at the very suggestion but there is an unrivalled warmth at the heart of this band, cheerfully unpretentious but also witheringly satirical and occasionally – very occasionally – righteously angry. When he talks about spending the bands milk money on a “decadent” trip down the M6 toll road, you can’t help but admire the band’s commitment to the cause of laziness and a proud lack of professionalism. There is no interest in a ‘career’, whatever that means. A handful of gigs a year, a record every three or four years and an enormous amount of sitting around in between, seems positively heroic in an era of desperation to be famous – for whatever reason. As the man himself sings: “There is nothing better in life than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro”.

Yet, the lack of strenuous effort is tempered with songs that rail against the casual idiocy of modern life, from a lack of pedestrian etiquette to slack jawed singers appearing on Soccer AM, taking potshots at Sainsburys security guards, Slipknot, rugby players who have just discovered Johnny Cash and, brilliantly, managing to lacerate both the stupidity of colossal expenditure on pointless national celebrations and Sting at the same time. “She died with her telly on, eighty-seven and confused with not enough hospital beds ‘cos all the money’s been used on the end of the century party preparations and they reckon that the last thing she saw in her life was
Sting, singing on the roof of the Barbican – Sting, singing on the roof of the roof of the Barbican”. The final insult.

In an age where it seems that the only way of valuing people’s contribution to the world is how much money they generate for the economy, where social mobility is all about desperately grasping upwards for status and possessions, where we are encouraged to sneer at people who don’t fall into these weird neat boxes, whether they are ‘benefit scroungers’, immigrants, the disabled or gypsies, Half Man Half Biscuit strike a blow for the value of humanity, humour, wit, laziness and warmth.

Black Friday? It must be National Shite Day.


Bob Dylan – Albert Hall 27/11

“Don’t go to see Bob Dylan, you’ll regret it”, warned a friend, sternly.

Strong words, but ones that are fairly easily ignored when an entirely different friend produces a ticket bearing the words ‘Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall’.

I have lived a life strewn with more regrets than the average hedgerow is littered with McDonalds wrappers, but I felt pretty sure that Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall would not be among them. It’s a phrase that is in itself iconic – conjuring up images of the Pennebaker film of the man in his pomp when he was unquestionably the coolest human on the entire planet. Shades and sunglasses. “Give the anarchist a cigarette”. The misattribution of the ‘Judas’ chant. “Play fucking loud”. And, my personal favourite: “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half”.

A less iconic soundbite echoed through the maroon and gold corridors as we arrived – ‘Please take your seats, Bob Dylan will be taking the stage in three minutes’. The last time I heard this type of announcement, back in the summer at the Royal Festival Hall, it was applied to Iggy and the Stooges and preceded what sounded like a forty megaton nuclear explosion being detonated in the main hall.

Tonight, we politely take our seats and within seconds, the lights have dropped, someone walks onto the stage strumming an acoustic guitar and then – bang – there he is, twitching at the microphone, legs straddled, a scarecrow’s silhouette. Singing….. something off ‘Tempest’ (I think).

The first thing that hits you is, of course, the growl. You don’t hear it so much as feel it. It occupies frequencies so nefarious that it feels as if it is emanating from your own stomach – the last time I felt like that was when My Bloody Valentine permanently damaged my hearing five years ago. Its a sound that seems to sink into your bones, and the bass player cannot hope to compete.

The problem is, of course, that you can barely make out a word of it. Of course no-one but a fool expects to go to a Dylan concert and hear renditions of songs that resemble the originals, but recent laboratory tests have revealed that 42.6% of the appeal of his songs (at least in the 60s and 70s) is rooted in his dazzling lyrical artistry. Remove this, and the rest of the show has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Luckily, the band are superb. With everything woven together, no instrument rising too far above its station, they are fluid, warm and vibrant. They bring liquid delicacy to ‘She Belongs To Me’ (I think) and creaking, drama to ‘Lovesick’ (I think) – the latter being unquestionably the highlight of the night, with the band giving space for that growl to inhabit the entire hall to the point where it sounds like the ancient soul of the building itself.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for ‘Spirit on the Water’ (I think), one of the highlights of ‘Modern Times’, pointlessly tossed away in the second half, slightly too fast but not in a way that succeeds in raising the pulse, just in ruining the gorgeous melody. ‘Dusquesne Whistle’ (I think) on the other hand rattles along beautifully, gloriously ramshackle, busting and shaking.

While the audience lap it all up, rising to their feet to applaud every song, raising the roof, I’m not sure if it’s a bit like when you go to see Shakespeare and people laugh a little too hard at each joke to show everyone around them how clever they are, or whether I am genuinely missing something (it wouldn’t be the first time). There are many moments when you lose yourself in the brilliance of the band, but there are also too many moments when you start thinking about getting up in the morning. After debating the issue for two or three songs, we eventually left after ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (I think), under a polite hailstorm of ‘how could you’ glares and tuts.

Flashes of brilliance, a remarkable voice and a wonderful band. Not the stuff of regrets, then, but not The Greatest Night in Human History either. Just a tick on the list, which isn’t really what a Bob Dylan should or could be.

A narrative context for music

When I was twelve or thirteen, my mate Steve once expressed mild astonishment that I liked to sit and listen to music without doing something else at the same time, like playing Golden Axe on the Megadrive that our lives revolved around at the time. For him, music was a pleasant background to the main event. In fact, most people are like that – music tends to appeal to most people when it is part of a narrative, which is one of the reasons why X Factor gets considerably more viewers than Jools Holland. That doesn’t mean their relationship with music is less deep than the bloke who sits around listening to an album on headphones in the dark with his eyes closed. Narrative has always been important to music – right from Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads. Music is full of goodies, baddies, myths and folklore, much of which has a significant impact on how you listen.

The recent-ish Blur film ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was an affecting document of four men recovering their friendship, which gave the performances an uniquely emotional charge that captivated audiences, particularly at Glastonbury 2009 (which is still the best show I have ever been to, apart from maybe the Stooges at Hammersmith Apollo in 2005). The story added something to the experience and to the film which made it more affecting.

Quite often, our enjoyment of music is significantly enhanced by narrative. Back when Steve and I were arguing about whether to mute the Megadrive so we could hear the stereo, it was primarily hip hop that was being played – Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, De La Soul, Eric B and Rakim or EPMD. As you might expect, being two kids from a small town in Devon, we had little understanding of what was really being said in those songs. To quote Britain’s real poet laureat Nigel Blackwell, the closest we came to that world was a “drive by shouting”. We just liked the swearing.

Over the years, my love for those albums and the genre as a whole got more intense, particularly during the astonishing run of Wu Tang albums from 1993-1996. I became more wordly wise and began to understand more and more of the world that those records reflected, but a big part of that was in watching the films that surrounded them. Boyz n Tha Hood, Trespass, New Jack City. All of those films enhanced my understanding of the music I was listening to and enabled me to get a lot more from them.

A few years later, The Wire enriched my love of hip hop by painting that world in lavish detail. When I heard references to stick up kids in those songs, the trials and tribulations of Omar Little sprung readily to mind. A throwaway line now had an incredibly compelling, deep and emotionally rich background. It gave all my records another lease of life – especially songs like Ice Cube’s ‘Summer Vacation’, a tale of gangs fighting over a corner and GZA’s ‘Gold’, the story at the other end of the scale – the bosses playing with their pawns.

It worked the other way too, having a knowledge of the culture, music and slang arguably made watching The Wire a more rewarding experience – I heard a lot of people at the time saying they needed subtitles and access to Urban Dictionary to find out what ‘re-up’ meant. I suspect that, like me, fans of New Orleans music get more from Treme than a more casual viewer.

But it works at the other end of the spectrum too – someone will get more pleasure from James Arthur’s performance of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ on X Factor than someone who doesn’t know the backstory – who might just dismiss it as karaoke.

All of this makes me wonder whether this might form part of the future for the music industry – to create narrative context that gives the music even deeper meaning. That’s something it’s always been doing of course, but maybe by giving more focus to the hours of obligatory ‘content’ that are created and giving more of a reason for that to exist than filming the artist as they are transported to their next show or eating a Nandos, they can captivate a bigger audience. What about telling a story that’s linked to the music that everyone can relate to but doesn’t necessarily feature the artist? It felt like a missed opportunity with Lana Del Rey – the whole ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ angle sounded like a story which could have been explored in a way a lot more people would have found a whole lot more interesting.

For me, the music is always going to be enough, I like the suggestion that comes with a tightly crafted lyric that allows a whole world to build in your imagination but I wouldn’t deny that a narrative context has enhanced that greatly at times. There’s a lot of music in the world and a hell of a lot of ‘content’ – people only have time for things that make an emotional connection with them. Sometimes music does this on its own perfectly well and at massive scale – ‘Someone Like You’ – but sometimes it needs a little help.

Flawed is beautiful

A year or so ago, I got into downloading music podcasts to listen to while running. This was of course primarily a way to distract myself from the grinding drudgery of physical exercise, but also a way to reignite the inexhaustible passion for discovering new music that I had as a teenager (and perhaps even regain the physique).

Before that, I’d spent a good ten years going back in time, when ‘new music’ only really meant ‘stuff I’d not heard before’. I got into blues, New Orleans soul and piano music, Northern Soul, Southern Soul, psychedelic rock, French pop and. But I wanted to find something new – I can’t bring myself to believe that it’s all been done and that nothing will ever top the music from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. I wanted to find some bands I could go to see in small venues, bands you could make a real connection with, that when you went to their shows, it didn’t feel like you were watching a video of someone else having a good time. I started to go to shows that weren’t merely about reliving my youth, or someone else’s.

Two podcasts were selected – the Guardian and Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable.  I discovered artists like Stealing Sheep, Melody’s Echo Chamber, the Amazing Snakeheads, Lucy Rose and Ty Segall.

A year later, only Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable remains, although in all honesty, the Guardian one never really got more than a couple of listens. The main reason was the arcane list of scenes and genres that Petridis and guests nonchalantly yawned into existence. Chillwave, dreampop, brostep, zombie rock, cloud rap, witch house, outsider house. It wasn’t just the try-hard terminology that was bothering me, but more the fact that I had become so cynical due to the continuing fragmentation of music, shrunk down and dissected to a point where it doesn’t really mean anything, where there are no real rallying points.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of a badly named scene as much as any extravagantly bearded yet short of trouser Shoreditch denizen. I gleefully participated in 1994’s ‘New Wave of New Wave’ scene and even dipped a snakeskin loafer clad toe into Romo a couple of years later. It’s just that it feels like the innocence of all that was annihilated by a combination of Britpop and the internet.

Before that, it was possible to will a new scene into life and for its participants to create enough hype for it to gain some kind of momentum. Punk was created by a bunch of people hanging round a shop. Like any crowd scene, if you angle the camera properly, you can’t tell how few people are actually there. You can dress it up and make it sound more exciting and dangerous than it really was. Post-Britpop, a small scene was no longer good enough – if it wasn’t shifting millions of records it would never survive. In an internet world, your scene will get rumbled pretty quickly – everyone can see exactly how few people are participating, thousands of professionally grumpy music forum contributors can declare it the ’emperor’s new clothes’ and finish it all off before its even got going. There’s no room for the charlatans (note small c) and chancers that make the whole thing so much fun.

There was something pure and innocent about the days of scenes which took the music press by storm. The couple of good bands, the crap ones gleefully jumping on the bandwagon, the hours spent trying, and failing, to replicate the look in a time where all high street clothes shops were rigidly mainstream.

In today’s world, the chances of failure are greatly magnified but it’s almost impossible to fail utterly gloriously.

And that’s a real shame.

Where are the schemers? Where are the dreamer? Where are the believers? There’s loads of great bands, but hype has become a whole lot harder and that seems a shame. In times past, the hype was in the hands of people who were really good at it, like Tony WIlson, Alan McGee, Bill Drummond, Neil Kulkarni, Simon Price or Taylor Parkes, people who could make it sound like a bomb was about to off at the bottom of your road. They could make you believe, and that’s what being a teenage music fan is all about. Print the myth, don’t let facts get in the way of a great story. There’s an exchange about Catholicism in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – “You can’t believe in something just because it’s a nice idea”.

“Why can’t I?”.

Flawed is beautiful. 

Straight Outta Cullompton – the book

Between April 1994 and August 1996, the British music scene turned itself inside out. ‘Straight Outta Cullompton’ is my story of that time – living through it far away from the cynicism of London, falling in love with a new record every week whilst plotting my own journey to Top of The Pops.

It was a time where the right thing wasn’t always an option, so ‘nearly right’ had to do. It mixes my own memories with new interviews from some of the bands that I spent so much time and money shamelessly copying during the time – These Animal Men, S*M*A*S*H, Gene and Menswe@r.

Get it here


Big Deal – Bucks Uni, High Wycombe, 16th Nov 2013

Big Deal have made the best record released this year.

A quick look at iTunes tells me I have listened to it 36 times since June, although that doesn’t count the endless rotation in my car (I don’t think I have changed the CD since it came out) and the vinyl version that rarely leaves the turntable.

I can’t remember the last time I played a record so many times, to the point where I know every inch of it, every chord change, every lyric, where you start to hear little melodies and flourishes that you’re not entirely sure are even there. That was how I fell in love with records when I was thirteen, when my meagre pocket money would only stretch to a handful of albums on cassette across a year and I’d play them until they were worn out and the tape snapped. I’m thirty six in two weeks – I shouldn’t be doing this at my age. But in 2013, where I could be listening to absolutely any song, for free, there’s been something unbelievably rewarding, even life affirming, to become so immersed in a single record.

This aside, ‘June Gloom’ is no mere fluke – their debut, ‘Lights Out’ was one of the best records released in 2011. Clearly, there’s something going on here. So when a band with two superlative albums sail into a town not accustomed to receiving such illustrious guests, you’d expect pandemonium. Impromptu street parties. People swinging from chandeliers. That kind of thing.

Sadly, as my friend and I sit in an icily empty club in the home of rock n’ roll – High Wycombe University – on a grey sofa under a poster for the new Jackass film, watching the light pattern change colour while the DJ morosely spins what sounds alarmingly like Soundgarden, it becomes clear that the news of Big Deal’s arrival has clearly not permeated this bastion of education. By the time the band arrive on stage, the place has filled out a bit, and approximately ten people (almost a third of which are in the support band) are assembled, shivering in coats to witness what should be a rabidly received victory lap for the ‘June Gloom’ LP.

Whereas lesser bands might treat this disgraceful injustice as an excuse for sullen ‘I will not tidy my room’ posturing, Alice, KC and co approach the situation with extraordinary grace and end up pulling off a minor triumph. Kicking off with new single ‘Swapping Spit’, the band are grinning ear to ear, having clearly realised that the only way to deal with this situation is to melt our faces off. It’s like they have transported the Brixton Academy sound system into a room smaller than Dingwalls.

With ‘Dream Machines’ following up, it feels like we’re watching a private greatest hits set performed for just for us, like some kind of deranged Emirate’s birthday party, swapping Elton John for Big Deal and the golden palace for a drizzly night in High Wycombe.
The band hit on the inspired idea of dealing with the sparse attendance by promising to dedicate a song to each of the audience and offering a prize of two rather forlorn looking segments of a tangerine to the best audience member.

And so it proceeds. Charm – melt faces – charm – melt faces – charm – melt faces. It occurs to me that this is exactly the reason why I love ‘June Gloom’ so much, with its golden harmonies, sweetly sad lyrics and swathes of thick, ragged guitar. ‘Pterodactyl’ follows – none more face-melt – the single that would have made ‘MBV’ a more memorable experience. There’s a colossal roar that sounds like the sky being torn open, KC and Alice hit the high note on the ‘come on let’s go’ and the show begins to tip towards triumph.

From this point on, Big Deal have turned it round and the place is warmer in every sense. Word about the tangerine seems to have spread like wildfire amongst the local student community and at least thirty of them are now witnessing the mesmeric spectacle of the UK’s best new(ish) band in full stride, jaws agape. I get my dedication, a full band version of ‘Locked Up’, which I promise to myself I won’t tweet about for fear of looking like an overexcited fifteen year old, but then do anyway.

Giggly versions of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘In Your Car’ lead into the final song, a fuzzed up take on ‘Talk’.
It feels like we’ve shared a private party as squished up tangerine bits find their way into the crowd and the band leave the stage, hopefully on their way to a venue or at least a future where unimaginably vast crowds await, showering them with apes, peacocks and ivory.

They clearly deserve so much more but watching such a magnificent band in such a tiny venue alongside a small gathering of believers was a rare treat, the kind of experience that can’t be bought. It can though and it will only cost you a fiver.

So go.