Thursday, 26 March 2015

Record Store Day

Any fans of record shops will know that this year's Record Store Day is just around the corner. Now I quite like the idea of RSD, unfortunately, like Emerson Lake and Palmer or the Sony Discman, the theory is much better than the reality.
I've only 'done' RSD once, two years ago. Unless you're wont to get out of bed at stupid o'clock in the morning on a Saturday then I really wouldn't bother going. I can guarantee that by the time you get there, whatever you've gone for will be gone. When I went to a participating RSD shop back in 2013 the only thing I went for had been sold out for ages. The handy thing was, that when I was standing in line, I had two studenty types behind me who couldn't wait to get in there and buy, ugh,'vinyls'. I got there at around midday and certainly didn't expect to queue to get in when I arrived. So what happens then? Well, you just buy something. Anything so that you don't feel that you've had a wasted journey. I came home with, amongst other things, a Frankie Goes to Hollywood picture single. It's a nice thing to have but it's hardly essential.
Last year I saw the author of Last Shop Standing, Graham Jones, give a talk on record shops. This came a few weeks after RSD 2014. When he took questions from the floor he was asked what could make RSD better. He came up with a number of ideas to improve the RSD experience for everyone. He suggested that the organisers were considering limiting official RSD releases to new music only. Or introducing a loyalty card scheme so that regular independent record shop customers could get first dibs on RSD by getting four stamps on their card over the previous year. None of these ideas have been implemented. So this year there are well over 500 official RSD releases. I've had a look at the list and there's absolutely nothing I'm desperate for. So yet again we will see people queueing outside Piccadilly Records in Manchester before it's even closed the day before. And for what? A few 7" singles that you didn't really want because the David Bowie picture disc you went in for sold out at 8:30, while you were still parking the car. I realise that RSD is important for independent record shops in their constant struggle to survive against downloads, online stores and supermarkets but against the backdrop of me supporting independent music stores throughout the rest of the year and tales of an unscrupulous retailer reserving stock for favoured customers means that on April 18th I'll stay snuggled in bed for as long as I please.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Piss on the goons

Peter Gabriel or Blake Edmonds?
Tracks of My Years Pt.2
Peter Gabriel - Games Without Frontiers

This song will always remind me of boiled egg and soldiers for breakfast. I don't know why but my mother went on some kind of mission for me and my sister to go to school on an egg. God knows what my farts smelt like, they're bad enough when I don't have any eggs. Anyway, because Dave Lee Travis used to seemingly play this every day on the Radio 1 breakfast show at the that time we were having boiled eggs, the two will forever go hand-in-hand.
Again this another song that I can remember from my childhood that used to scare the wits out of me. David Rhodes' repetitive slide up the fretboard in there is one reason - completely unsettling. The vocal wasn't normal either. This man sounded like he was the modern day version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's childcatcher; watching children playing from afar while clearly formulating something in his mind. Hans plays with Lotte which gradually descends into Adolf and Enrico building and playing with a bonfire. My mum tried to keep me away from people who set bonfires (probably because my fellow egg-munching, pyromanical sister once tried to set fire to the garage, but that's another story), they were deemed to be naughty and no good would end up coming of them (she was right about one of them, as it turned out).
Sticking with the lyrics, I always thought that the opening lines to the song were "She, so popular" Who is she, and why is she so popular? I didn't know. And who is She? Lotte? Suki? Britt? Jane? Well, Jane did play with Willi, so it could be her (ho ho!). Turns out, of course that the opening line is "Jeux sans frontieres". Now I have a confession to make here, it wasn't until about ten years ago, when I bought Peter Gabriel 3 and looked at the lyric sheet that I found out what the lyrics actually were. Of course then it all makes sense! Jeux sans Frontieres was the French name for the television inter-city shitfest It's a Knockout! I'm not happy to report that it was only when I reached my mid-thirties that the lyrics all made perfect sense. You know, watching people play 'silly games' like the contestants in It's a Knockout*. And that all adds up to the song being an allegory on the foolish games politicians and leaders play with people's lives. Dur! Thick, aren't I?
I do remember, however, being struck how clever it was that the line "Whistling tunes..." was accompanied by actual whistling. I'm clearly quite easy to impress, especially as the next big hit to feature whistling was that bloody Wind of Change.
Anyway, it's a good job I never saw the accompanying video and single sleeve at the time as that would have had me hiding under the dining room table. Gabriel looks like a man possessed in the video, then there's that weird spinning three-headed doll thing and footage of a nuclear explosion. Christ. While Gabriel's melting head on the cover of the 7" would have had me having to have it placed upside down at all times. But having said that, his face does like like that of Blake Edmonds, a character in the Tiger comic at the time in a strip called Death Wish** which I lapped up every week. Little did I know at the time that less than a decade earlier this guy used to prance around with a flower on his head singing about farms, firemen, hogweeds and Green Shield stamps.

I think I may be giving the impression that I spent my whole childhood in a state of perpetual fear here. Don't worry, the next song I have lined up for this is what John Shuttleworth would call 'a fun track'.
All getting a bit prog, this blog, isn't it? Don't worry, I'm sure there'll be something on the TV to moan about soon enough.

*My parents knew someone who competed in IAKO when it came to Newark. He was dressed as a giant dog and had to find a bone in a haystack. We didn't go to the recording of it as Dad was too cheap to buy tickets. instead we went down the day before the recording, and gawped at Stuart Hall watching the set up and talking to the production team. Well, who knew...?
**Death Wish! In a kids' comic! Didn't think anything of a suicidal racing driver at the time of course. Clearly inspired by Niki Lauda, I guess.

Monday, 16 March 2015

IQ test

I've seen some odd sights in the quarter of a century that I've been going to concerts. When you've been to as many heavy metal, thrash and grunge gigs as I have you kind of take oddball fans and behaviour as something that isn't exactly out of place.
However, at the Steven Wilson concert that myself and Mrs Ambassador attended on Saturday night in Manchester, I was witness to one of the oddest fans I think I've ever seen. Progressive (or 'conceptual', as Wilson would have it) rock is normally home to the more genteel breed of rock fan. The sort of person who would quietly nod along to the music and emit polite applause, or maybe a cheer if they're feeling particularly exuberant, at the end of each son (unless you're at a Rush gig)
Anyway, a little scene-setting is required. I spotted this man walk in after we had taken our seats when he came and sat down two rows in front. I noticed him in particular because I thought to myself that he looked the archetypal middle-aged prog fan. He was wearing an IQ tour t-shirt, which was no doubt carefully selected to show off his prog credentials. Not a particularly well known act, IQ, so he was showing he liked 'deep cuts' and everyone knows it's a big no-no to go in a shirt of the artist you're seeing that night, unless it's a really old one so that you can show everyone else that you've been into this outfit for bloody ages. He looked like Mr Average, not very tall, and was wearing the ultimate in comfort: a fleece jacket (you might as well have a sign over your head saying "I've given up, me" if you're going to go out on a Saturday night dressed in a material made from old pop bottles). I think he was the kind of guy who made an effort to get down to London when he was student to see Marillion when they were virtually residents at the Marquee Club. And I bet he still jokes that he only just dried out a fortnight ago after the Genesis/Peter Gabriel reunion show at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1982 (it rained, famously. Well, famously amongst proggers). Oh, and he arrived alone. Now I spend a chunk of my spare time fighting music snobbery, so I hate to pigeonhole people but he really did look like what the kind of people who listen to BBC 6 Music think a fan of progressive rock might look like, i.e. quiet, unassuming, a bit of a nerd, CAMRA member. I'm not like that, of course, I'm far too cool.
So imagine, my surprise when during Wilson's first address to the crowd he said that he knew we were all seated but if we could make the band feel like we were actually at a rock 'n' roll show then that would be fine. At this point, matey jumps up out of his seat, rips the IQ t-shirt from his body, twirls it around his bonce and starts roaring. Yes, roaring! Mrs Ambassador and I exchanged a glance.
Again, during the song Index (about a serial killer who collects the body parts of his victims. Yes, I know.) our friend decides to really throw himself into the song, pointing, headbanging. He was really feeling that song. Worryingly.
But he saved the best to last, during the instrumental section of the song Harmony Korine, he was repeatedly punching himself in the side of the head. Incredibly quickly.
I hope I don't sound like I'm being sarcastic about this guy. I just found it a strange way to carry on at a prog gig. True to form, most of the other audience members nodded along in time with the music. And as the audience was about 80% male, the balding heads gave an extra dimension to the lights as they added a handy reflective surface for the light to bounce off. Well, they were nodding after they'd put their real ales down.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Stand still, laddie

I've been thinking of doing this for ages now: songs that first made me sit up and listen to what was coming out of the radio. Obviously I can remember the hits that everyone else was listening to, as well as more kiddy-friendly fare like the dozen records Junior Choice trotted out every week, but these are the ones that really stuck with me and had some bearing on the music that I would come to love later in  life. I think I'll split it over different posts rather that do it all in one. Besides, I need to get my hand back in to blog posts as I've had two, yes, count 'em, TWO!, people over the past couple of weeks tell me I don't post enough.

So, Part 1 in a Ken Bruce Tracks of My Years style series is:
Pink Floyd - Another Brick in the Wall Pt.2

The last number one single of the 1970s and first of the 1980s then. I don't seem to recall that there was all that much of a fuss about the Christmas number one when I was growing up. If there was then this surely must have ranked alongside Rage Against the Machine's protest no.1 from a few years ago, and Mr Blobby, as one that the bookies probably didn't see coming.
I think what first struck me about this song was, like everyone else, the "We don't need no education" refrain. I was eight, going on nine at the time and while I wasn't much of a fan of school, probably viewed it as a necessary evil. So who were these people who were telling me that they didn't need no education? At the time I thought they were some of those punk rockers I'd heard about. People said these punk rockers were troublemakers. How wrong I was in Pink Floyd's case. But there was something about that vocal performance and those horrible-sounding kids that made me think that these people were to be avoided at all costs.
Then there was the video. The band didn't appear in it themselves, of course. That mixture of panning camera shots of a pre-regeneration London, animation, those ruffian kids again and the teacher led me to be even more fearful of this band of punk rockers. Who were these people? Why didn't they want us to see them? Were they so disfigured by years of being evil that their faces were a diabolical mess of vein and pus with bulging eyes? I didn't know. I don't think I wanted to know.
And those kids, they sounded hard, didn't they? What with their 'fort cont-roal' and everything. And according to the video they lived in council flats. No good ever came of anyone who lived in council flats. Not if a kids' show at the time, The Latchkey Kids, was to be believed.*
Coming back to that teacher, that bloody teacher**. This band were so evil they thought it was okay for their song to be depicted by this horrible teacher pushing these poor schoolkids into a mincer while his eye turns into a magnifying glass. A mincer! Kids in a mincer! That could be me! No, no, no, Pink Floyd, with your weird name, please spare me the mincer.
Anyway, this song, despite it being evil incarnate, stuck with me. And I didn't even know what 'dark sarcasm' was. It might be that I like being scared out of my wits, I always have and probably always will***. Of course now I know that the producer, Bob Ezrin, knew exactly what he was doing by giving it the standard disco beat with Nile Rodgers' style rhythm guitar guaranteed it tons of airplay. Good job he did because a near bankrupt Floyd were desperate for the cash that a hit single could knock on to sales of a double album.

Now fast forward to the mid-1980s. Settling down to watch Saturday teatime telly and on comes Mike Read's Pop Quiz. One of the team captains is this guy called Dave Gilmour (before the law was changed in 1988 and everybody had to address him as 'David'). Well this Dave guy was incredibly well-spoken, nicely turned out, was witty and quite handsome. Can you imagine my surprise when it turns out that this Dave bloke was a member of Pink Floyd? What had happened to his punk mohican? Where were the safety pins? Why wasn't he snarling? Of course, that was before I knew about the band, who ended up as one of favourites. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

*Now I know that the kids in the video aren't the kids in the song. The kids in the video are stage school kids, as evidenced by the girl in the 'Number 32' top who walks like a trained dancer. My wife is convinced that one of the kids is Terry Sue Patt who played Benny Green in Grange Hill. I'm not so sure.
**Who, I think, bears an uncanny resemblance to BBC arts editor Will Gompertz.
***Some music still frightens me. Check out Black Mass from Delia Derbyshire's band White Noise. While Black Sabbath's eponymous track is the sound of suffering and is immensely disquieting, even to a 44 year-old.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Arriving Somewhere

They say that you should never meet your heroes because you'll only be disappointed, don't they? It's a maxim I've tried to live by, not that I'm exactly inundated with invitations to meet, among others, the members of Rush, John Robertson, Dr Janina Ramirez or Eric 'Winkle' Brown, you must understand. I'm not the kind of person who pushes myself forward in social situations anyway, so I wouldn't normally approach people whom I admire, nor would I usually enter competitions to meet them, and neither would I apply to go on meet 'n' greets at events. So why then, about a month or so ago, did I decide that I'd quite like to go and meet the singer/songwriter, and former leader of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, when the proprietor of the marvellous 101 Collectors Records in Farnham announced that Wilson would be doing an instore in his shop in March? Well, I can't answer that. I'd not had too much of a good time over January, I'd had a bout of the 'flu, which meant my birthday was pretty rubbish. The 'flu then buggered off and left me with hearing problems. So life's not exactly been a riot. Something inside just said "Bugger it, I want some records signed, I've got some leave from work to use up and I'd like to do something fun"
So last Monday, off I set for the 170 mile journey down the M1, around the M25 and across the M3 to the small Surrey town. I nipped into the shop first to buy a vinyl copy of the LP from Andy, the friendly chap who runs the store. Then to check into my hotel for the night. Hmmm, checking into a hotel on your own when you're clearly not there on business leads to all sorts of odd looks from the check-in staff. It's almost as though they think you're up to no good. What they don't realise is that they could give me odd looks all they like but I knew that there was hardly any hot water available in the room.
The allotted hour came when I was to meet the great man, so I went back into town where I was due to meet a longtime internet friend and her husband who live nearby, and who also happen to be fans of Wilson. I met with my friends outside where we joined the queue to get in. I'd have to admit I was a little nervous. I mean, what do you say? You can't pretend that you're old friends who are just exchanging pleasantries. Neither can you be a gushing pillock.
We finally get into the shop and wait our turn to go to the signing table. There was a guy there with loads of stuff to sign, he had really early, and rare, Porcupine Tree LPs amongst other stuff from Wilson's varied career. I felt like an amateur fan after gawping at all that lot. Anyway, my turn came. I stood straight in front of him like an idiot, just as he shouted if he could have another drink. I thought he was talking to me. Oh dear. Recovering quickly I handed over my LP sleeves and asked if he would do dedications. "Yes, but not for anything silly" he replied. That was okay, I only asked for names. So he asked for the names. When I told him my name he repeated it back to me. I remember thinking "Yes! That's my name, why don't you know it? I know yours! I've known your name for over a decade!". Of course he doesn't know my name, why would he? It's because I guess that I consider him to be a friend. Oh well. While he was signing the Cover Version album I mentioned that I thought his version of Abba's The Day Before You Came as rather magnificent. "Thank you" he said "It's quite an easy song to get wrong" I then mentioned that I had once heard that the song was being told from the perspective of a murder victim and that I thought that was why it would have appealed to his macabre side. "Really? I've never heard that" he said, quite surprised. By this time I wanted to make sure that my friends would get a photo of me with the great man. Photos were taken. As he turned to go and I was saying thanks, he noticed my badge. "Mmmm, Mr Benn" he said gesturing to the badge. And that was it. It probably lasted less than two minutes, but it was worth it. I told him something he didn't know and he liked my badge. And I was quite chuffed that I'm taller than him.
Now I've had time to sit and think, I've thought of some better questions to ask him. One of which is "What's Nick Beggs really like?" (the Kajagoogoo four stringer is the bassist in Wilson's band). Oh well, I'll save that until next time.

I finally met one of my heroes.

And if you're interested, his new LP, Hand.Cannot.Erase. is terrific. Terrific if you like concept albums about someone retreating from society, that is. No, wait, come back...