1. Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
2. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
3. Over the Ice – The Field
4. Tugboat – Galaxie 500
5. You Made Me Realise – My Bloody Valentine
6. Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr. Hitler – Wild Billy Childish & The Blackhands
7. Take a Ride – The Questions
8. Damaged Goods – Gang of Four
9. Stardust – Billy Ward and His Dominoes
10. El Toro – Chico Hamilton
11. I Put a Spell on You – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
12. Tramp – Lowell Fulsom
13. Come on In – The Music Machine
14. Como El Agua – Camaron de la isla y Paco de Lucia
15. National Shite Day – Half Man Half Biscuit
16. Ingenue – Atoms for Peace
17. FFunny FFriends – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
18. Flowers – Galaxie 500
19. Swing Easy – The Soul Vendors
20. Blow Your Head – Fred Wesley and the JB’s
21. Late in the Evening – Paul Simon
22. Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits
23. Every Picture Tells a Story – Rod Stewart
Bouldering is indoor climbing utilising plastic holds, without ropes; you’re never so high off the ground that a deep crashmat won’t do should you fall. I bouldered at The Arch before they were kicked out of their premises by British Rail. They then moved to a warehouse in Bermondsey called The Biscuit Factory. This was a great shame, but London Bridge station was to be expanded, and now has been.
Contrary to the music those loons at the Vauxhall Climbing Centre like to subject their clientele to, at The Biscuit Factory they normally do all right, and it was there that I came across the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They had released two albums at this point: an eponymously titled work and II. Both are represented here. Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) is taken from their second record. It works well as an opening track, although it isn’t used as such on the album. The music has been deliberately recorded to sound like the psychedelic records it takes inspiration from. That is to say, it sounds like you’re listening to it through an old Dansette record player, even though you’re more than likely not.
When I first became interested in indie music, PJ Harvey was one of the artists introduced to me. She was, by today’s standards, relatively unknown – this was around the time of her second album, Rid of Me – and the approaching juggernaut that was Britpop suggested it might remain that way. Instead, just as Britpop was nearing its critical mass – early 1995 – she released To Bring You My Love, which was a success critically and to some degree commercially. And whilst bands like Suede, Radiohead and The Verve would be conveniently co-opted into the Britpop movement, once it had established itself, PJ Harvey stood apart. She was succeeding on her own terms, and Britpop’s sustainability was not her concern.
I took note of all this but PJ Harvey’s next album, Is This Desire, released in 1998, eluded me. Her fifth, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, made more of an impact but not enough for me to go out and buy a copy. 2004’s Uh Huh Her barely even registered. White Chalk, forget it. I guess I had my ears pressed against other things: Latin jazz, funk, soul, ska, psychedelia, garage rock, new wave.
It was my lady friend who broke the embargo. In 2012, she bought for me Let England Shake, reinvigorating my appreciation of PJ Harvey’s oeuvre as whole. I especially appreciated the use of the autoharp and zither on many of the tracks. This is Polly Harvey’s great strength: an ear for euphonic textures, off-beat rhythms, sound collages.
Living alone and left to his own devices, my Cornish friend was listening to various electronic music. He played me From Here We Go Sublime by The Field. Billed as techno, it’s closer to trance, although not of the Goa kind. Perhaps it’s neither for it leans heavily on sampling, inhabiting a wistful sort of groove. That said, Over the Ice is fairly upbeat, even if the tune it borrows from – Kate Bush’s Under Ice – isn't.
My nostalgia for late ‘80s/early ‘90s indie music, which had started with Sebadoh, led me back to Galaxie 500 (although it was Dean Wareham’s other band, Luna, that I was more familiar with). It seemed to me that Galaxie 500 held more in common musically with the more sixties’ influenced groups on Sarah Records than it did alternative indie American rock. Dreampop, slowcore, shoegaze… whatever you want to call it, it’s the folksy flipside to Dinosaur Jr. Wareham’s ostensibly simple guitar work is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground after John Cale was kicked out and their music became prettier. Except Wareham’s voice is far thinner than Lou Reed’s.
Up pops My Bloody Valentine on a second, consecutive compilation. This time around it’s one of their more conservative numbers, You Made Me Realise. Conservative in the sense that it possesses a verse and a chorus, what passes for a riff, vaguely melodic harmonies, and an instrumental breakout about halfway through. That said, the song descends into a mess of feedback that has been known to last, in a live setting, for over half an hour – what’s been referred to as the ‘holocaust section’. It’s like The Pastels jamming with Sonic Youth.
Adolf Hitler. There’s a certain attitude towards this monomaniacal piece of work that’s distinctly British. In the lead up to the Second World War and during it, the Fuhrer was perceived as a figure of fun, a caricature to be ridiculed and laughed at. This attitude is manifest in Allied propaganda: in posters (American placards were very much more aggressive than their British equivalents), songs (Hitler Has Only Got One Ball), films (The Great Dictator), plays (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), even cartoons (the Bugs Bunny short Herr Meets Hare). Charlie Chaplin said that had he been cognizant of the holocaust, he would never have made The Great Dictator, which appears to be the general consensus. After 1945, once the strange terror of the Third Reich had been revealed to all, portrayals of Hitler became more considered and generally light on laughs. Just don’t mention the war. (I say ‘strange’ because so inimical to the German war effort was the holocaust that early reports of it were dismissed as preposterous. Knowing that it did indeed take place does not render it any less so.)
But we do mention the war. I mentioned the war, albeit obliquely, on a friend’s stag-do in Berlin that I’d been called upon to organise. Somebody had got wind of this thing called the Berlin Beer Bike Tour, and I took it on board. A beer bike is no such thing. Although it is pedal-powered, it has four wheels and can accommodate up to 16 persons. It also incorporates a sound system, and so I prepared a CD especially for the occasion. As well as some old Acid Jazz numbers to bring back memories of the Quay Club in Plymouth, and few Britpop favourites to evoke Saturday nights down at JFKs, I included Wild Billy Childish & The Blackhands’ cover of the Dad’s Army theme tune. Billy Childish’s tribute is recorded in the ska tradition, and recorded live. It’s actually quite difficult to catch the words, all the more so in an open-air, urban setting. Nonetheless, a song was played that asks of Mr Hitler who he thinks he might be kidding, in the very heart of the German capital. Just to add another layer of subversion, I was done up like a member of the Red Army Faction: khaki field jacket, slim-fit black cords, cable-knit pullover, brown shoes. I doubt anybody made the connection.
The Questions were (Les) Lou’s by another name. In their incarnation as The Questions, they appeared briefly in the obscure French punk flick La Brune et Moi, performing Take a Ride. This track can be found on the hard-to-find compilation entitled My Girlfriend Was A Punk! Rare Early Female Punkrockers. I suspect The Questions were formed for the purpose of the film, because I can find no trace of anything else recorded by them. Not that Lou’s were prolific either, but they did at least support The Clash on their 1977 ‘Get Out of Control Tour’ (playing under Richard Hell and The Voidoids).
With their choppy guitar parts and slinky bass lines, Gang of Four are sort of like England’s answer to Talking Heads. Their debut album, Entertainment! might be the best album released under the auspices of post punk (unless of course you think The Fall were post punk, which I don’t). Footage of Gang of Four playing To Hell with Poverty on the Old Grey Whistle Test drew my curiosity. The song, taken from the EP Another Day/Another Dollar, is available as a bonus track on the re-issued version of their second album, Solid Gold. If I hadn’t quickly followed up with Gang of Four’s first LP, Entertainment! then it might have been that track, rather than Damaged Goods, that ended up on this compilation.
Sometimes a shift in musical style can be so pronounced that it somehow works. From post punk to R&B with a doo-wop slant; you may be familiar with Stardust from its inclusion in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas. The tune itself dates back to 1927 but the Dominoes version was released in 1957, and it was a big hit. The lead vocal is sung by Eugene Mumford, who died in 1977, a month shy of his 52nd birthday.
I made the mistake of assuming that Conquistadores was representative of Chico Hamilton’s output. The associated LP – El Chico – is an exercise in Latin influenced jazz that takes full advantage of Gábor Szabó’s underrated ability on guitar. The Dealer is not, although it is an interesting record in its own right. But a strange thing: reading up on where I went wrong, I discovered that the reissued CD of the album included another collaboration with Gábor Szabó, entitled El Toro, which had been recorded four years earlier for the album Passin’ Thru. It’s not as full-on bossa nova as Conquistadors but there’s enough ‘exoticism’ going on to fulfil my remit – a sort of North African, hard bop vibe – so I downloaded it.
In 1993 I became fascinated with a Levi’s advert that depicted an inevitably handsome man, dazzling in a pair of pristine indigo 501s, laying to rest the jeans he’d just replaced. This all plays out to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins singing Heartattack and Vine, which its author Tom Waits objected to. I’d been mesmerised by both the song and the jeans themselves, the iconic Red Tab looking almost violet beneath the colour-balancing filter. If Levi Strauss had produced a limited edition 501 jean with a purple tab, I’d have bought them. Anyway, I must have needed a new pair of jeans or something because I looked up the commercial on YouTube and reacquainted myself with ‘Procession’ (did you know Levi’s gave their adverts actual names?). This in turn prompted an investigation into Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The rest is history. I was familiar with Nina Simone’s recording of I Put a Spell on You but not Screamin’ Jay’s. I prefer Screamin’ Jay’s.
I have previously alluded to my quest to replace all my old hip hop cassettes with their vinyl counterpart – original pressings if at all possible – as and when I come across them. I was lucky enough to chance upon an immaculate copy of Cypress Hill’s first album for a very reasonable price, either in the Music & Video Exchange in Greenwich or Reckless Records on Berwick Street in Soho. (Whichever one it wasn’t may have been where I picked up an equally immaculate copy of Bazerk, Bazerk, Bazerk by Son Of Bazerk.) Released in the summer of 1991, How I Could Just Kill Man was Cypress Hill’s first single. The eponymously titled record that followed teems with samples in the way It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back does: ambient noise and people talking buried in deep amongst horns and percussion to create a mise-en-scène that evokes the sounds of 1960s/70s Los Angeles. How I Could Just Kill Man is built around a guitar riff employed by West Coast bluesman Lowell Fulsom in his song Tramp, although Lowell regulates its intensity to create a very different effect.
Another song sampled in How I Could Just Kill Man – and there are at least five – is less congruous. The Music Machine were a sort of psychedelic proto-punk outfit in keeping with the sort you’ll find on the Nuggets and Rubble anthologies I’d been buying ten years earlier. Come On In represents one of their more delicate moments, almost worthy of The Left Banke. The Music Machine were visually ahead of their time. Dressed in black and wearing pudding bowl haircuts, the singer and guitarist sporting single black gloves, they surely inspired the way bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Telescopes or My Bloody Valentine presented themselves in the 1980s.
A bit of a jolt but I didn’t know where else to put it. Como El Agua is sung by Camarón de la Isla, the definitive singer of the flamenco revival that occurred in Spain in the latter third of the 20th Century. Likewise, Paco de Lucia, with whom Camarón often collaborated, was a virtuoso flamenco guitarist at the forefront of the same movement. Como El Agua was selected to round off an edition of the Vuelta a Espana highlights. I was onto it, and downloaded it from somewhere or other. Camarón de la Isla was revered in Spain as a sort of ‘gypsy’ take on Mick Jagger, although his recreational habits were apparently more in keeping with Keith Richards – hence is premature death at the age of just 41 from lung cancer.
The day after returning from Berlin, probably slightly worse for wear, I journeyed to Highgate to pick up my latest bike, having decided that my existing one, purchased just six months earlier, wasn’t up to the job of transporting me from London to Brighton, which was scheduled to happen in June. In the meantime, I’d just finished a three month tenure working as a website assistant at an independent tour operator in Kingston, for peanuts, during what was a cold and protracted winter, and I was skint. So not ideal. Half Man Half Biscuit captured the mood:
Down in the High Street somebody careered out of Boots without due care or attention.
I suggest that they learn some pedestrian etiquette:
i.e. sidle out of the store gingerly;
Embrace the margin.
The song National Shite Day recounts a set of circumstances so infuriating that its protagonist is left to conclude that the day in question has been contrived to annoy. Really, it’s a frustrated rant offering up the sort of banal irritancies that afflict contemporary living. I could feel Nigel Blackwell’s pain.
Aside from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Tom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace is really the only current music included on this playlist. (I’m not going to bother painting the musical backdrop to all of this, because I took almost no notice then and so it would be disingenuous to pass comment now.) Ingenue is mere filler, albeit of a pleasing kind, and not markedly different to anything Radiohead had been up to lately (which wasn’t much: 2011’s The King of Limbs had been their last release). FFunny FFriends is the older of the two Unknown Mortal Orchestra tracks I've included, although there’s no way of telling that. Flowers, on the other hand, is from the same Galaxie 500 album as the earlier included Tugboat.
Swing Easy by The Soul Vendors is an instrumental rocksteady track, a hangover from my ska binge the previous year. The Soul Vendors were a band Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd threw together to tour England, comprised mostly of members of Studio One’s studio backing-band The Soul Brothers, who were in turn cobbled together after the dissolution of The Skatalites. Keyboard player Jackie Mittoo seems to be the guy who wrote most of the songs, and would continue to do so once The Soul Vendors mutated into Sound Dimension.
The rest of this compendium represents an exercise in mopping up – more filler. Nothing wrong with Blow Your Head by Fred Wesley and the JB’s, but I used to listen to all of that back in the day with the guy who used to own a pager, around his flat and on holidays in France. Late in the Evening by Paul Simon is pure whimsey, and although I’d often found myself riveted by the bass line to Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing, since when had I been inclined to include it on any playlist of mine?
But not Rod Stewart. Every Picture Tells a Story is taken from the same album that contains Maggie May but more redolent of the songs he recorded with the Faces. Of course, the Faces were still very much extant and even contributed to Stewart’s solo endeavours. I don’t really know what Rod was playing at, but he got away with it. I can’t say what brought Every Picture Tells a Story to my attention – drinking in The Blue Lion on Grays Inn Road opposite where I worked for a short while, or in The Sussex on Twickenham Green, which had its own record player, or the St Margarets Tavern, which had improved on its music policy no end. I’d like to think it was the short break I took with my lady friend to Paris in the middle of the year, but it could have been anything.