At the beginning of it all it was so exciting and intriguing just to gaze and to wonder.
My morning read of The Guardian newspaper website reported numerous sightings of army personnel appearing en masse in various public places across the UK. Sometimes in groups of one or two soldiers, sometimes many more, each occupying public space in their vintage green military uniform.
They did not speak as they gathered, not to each other, nor to curious passers by, but merely arrived silently in places of hectic rush as people headed into work. Apparently there were a thousand of them all told. If approached by intrigued commuters they would hand over a small card bearing a detailed inscription of a fallen soldier who was killed in battle during World War 1.
Today marks the one-hundred year anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme in France, during which eventually more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. But this was not a typically fitting bereavement or commemoration of events, it felt more like an art installation of the unusual or perverse suddenly appearing without fanfare into modern everyday life, and for that reason I found it so much more compelling because of it.
For most of the day in my workplace the intrigue still lingered around me as I went about my typical routine, and I was keen to tell as many people as I thought would be interested of what an unusual and powerful statement I had seen. As a tribute to remembrance this felt more like a Banksy sighting than an event at a cenotaph.
And so I had songs of war on my mind for most of the day. This is just how my mind works most of the time. I can distract myself so easily with this stuff and I just love it when I do. But in truth I don’t have many records that could be considered songs of war, in fact very few at all, and even less that might reflect or represent the first World War.
But there is this one great song I have by a four-piece band called GoodBooks, and that’s no typo there, folks. They really did write their name like that on their records. They represent that frequent recurrence in my record collection of bands that barely extend themselves beyond a couple of singles or maybe an album or two if they’re even that lucky.
GoodBooks came from Kent in the South-East of England, arriving with their first single in 2005 and leaving with their last in 2007. In between they put out a total of six singles and one LP. (They also issued a CD-only remix album of the one LP which for me doesn’t count at all because those things are usually a rubbish idea.)
With two years of total activity and one of those on a major label, they released their sole LP, Control, in 2007, and five songs had come from it as various singles throughout their short time. If my memory serves me right, because the internet yields virtually nothing about their releases, the song I was singing all day long was the fourth single from that LP, and its name is Passchendaele.
Also named for a first World War battle as well as the name of a rural village in Belgium, it’s a simple but emotive tale of lost love and heartbreak fought on the battlefields of Northern Europe by young men who may well have had no choice but to be there. Towards the end of the song a lone trumpet pierces the rising music and never fails to send me off to somewhere else as it plays.
He carried English bayonets in an English way. he smoked German cigarettes on Christmas Day. He never made is past twenty-five, he died at Passchendaele. Fighting for the cause in a war to end all wars…
GoodBooks singer and Harry Potter doppelganger Max Cook refers in part to a scene immortalized in the 2005 French movie Joyeux Noel, about a Christmas truce between the warring nations, when soldiers from France, Germany, and Scotland declared a truce on Christmas Day, playing football together and exchanging cigarettes and stories.
Later in the day as I returned home from work I learned that the event of soldiers appearing throughout the UK was in fact a work by a Turner Prize-winning artist by the name of Jeremy Deller.
With a Twitter hashtag of #We Are Here it employed volunteers from all walks of life; from farmers to flight attendants, shopkeepers to schoolboys, all sworn to secrecy, and rendering the occasion that much more fantastic because of it.
Deller said he didn’t want to take the people to a memorial, but instead took the memorial to the people, who would not know that it was happening as it arrived. Such a simple idea rendered so effectively by secrecy. His idea was to avoid sentimentality. He named the event We’re Here Because We’re Here, a title which marked the one and only time that the soldiers’ voices would be heard today, singing those words along to the familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne, as sung by the wearied soldiers back in the dark trenches of the Somme.
Silver Thunderbird // Angelsong (Atlantic Records 7″ single, 1991)
Don’t you give me no Buick. Son, you must take my word. If there’s a god in heaven, he’s got a Silver Thunderbird. You can keep your Eldorados and the foreign car’s absurd. Me, I wanna go down in a Silver Thunderbird…
This song to me is just a dream, and an ideal. A pure fantasy.
A young boy waits patiently by the window for his father to come home. His dad drives a big American car that he is so proud of, and almost every word of the song echoes his passion for it. You can feel it in the life around that car for the boy, and in the detail of his father’s daily grind in the geography of the journey.
The second verse implies a distance between the son and his ideal. He lies in bed in the morning and listens to his dad getting ready for work, but he’s gone by the time he gets out of bed. It doesn’t describe any further the relationship between father and son, but leaves it hanging with just enough for the listener to fill in the cracks.
At least that’s what it does for me, because it speaks to me about my own fantasy life with my father too.
Silver Thunderbird is the second single from Marc Cohn’s self titled album in 1991. It’s the follow-up to the Grammy winning Walking in Memphis, which is permanently placed in my all-time top-five most loathed songs on planet Earth.
What’s worse is that I seem to hear that more famous song everywhere I go; whether it’s in line at the bank, in the grocery store, or at least once a day in my workplace. Cohn must have made enough moolah from that dang song alone to happily live on a small island with his piano for the rest of his life.
Walking in Memphis is just a cheesy list to me, a grab-bag of Memphis cliche, and in my mind I have often performed my own cover version of the song as part of a comedy routine.
My version is called Wikipedia Memphis, and it goes like this.
WIKIPEDIA MEMPHIS: A short two-minute sketch for three players.
A piano player, a singer, and a placard bearer a la Subterranean Homesick Blues.
The song begins;
Singer: Put on my blue suede shoes…
Placard: “Blue Suede Shoes is a rock n’ roll standard made famous by Carl Perkins…”
Singer: … and I boarded the plane. Touched down in the land of the delta blues…
Placard: “The delta blues is one of the earliest styles of blues music…”
Singer: … in the middle of the pouring rain…
Placard: “Memphis’ average annual precipitation is 53.67 inches…”
Trust me on this one, this imagined sketch has kept me entertained in different versions for every time I have to suffer that infernal song. So as a result of my disdain I shan’t ever be able to fully invest into the album-length work of Marc Cohn, but just content myself with my perfectly formed compact seven-inch single version as pictured here.
I watched the Silver Thunderbird video on You Tube – the view-count paling in the shadow of his ten-million-plus other song – and although its story is something of a literal translation I can still take it. With some maneuvering I can just about place my own life with my father into it.
Today being Father’s Day I recall how I used to avoid this day when I was a Facebook subscriber. “Here’s me and dad at the ball game…” or “enjoying a couple of beers…”, came post after post. “Here’s us hanging out at the mall… and now playing a round of golf…” Heck, even going walking in Memphis would have suited me over barely being able to stroll with mine.
This isn’t meant to sound woeful at all. It isn’t a bleat. It just is what it was.
It was just different times in the seventies and eighties. Dads didn’t have to bond with their kids, and besides my younger brother was much more dad’s speed anyway, by taking apart car engines on newspapers in front of the kitchen fireplace. Dad could relate to that. I had an earring and often brought home weird loud music, trying to get band after band off the ground.
He was a simple man, my mum said. These days I call him a Pleasantville dad, after William H. Macy in the film of the same name. He sat and read his paper, cut the grass when needed, drove mum to the shops, kept himself to himself, didn’t want to be disturbed.
He passed away from Parkinson’s complications in 2003, and I was over here in the states for most of that, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, which again is just what it is since we weren’t particularly close anyway. Maybe it’s just the modern age that places such importance on the way parents are with their kids.
Earlier this month I took my vacation back to the old house, the only one I’ve ever known, and with mum now in assisted living I had to sort out the small mountain range of photographs that had accumulated in albums and drawers and boxes. My sister said she couldn’t do it, by her own admission being far too sentimental for the serious amount of editing that would have to be done.
I managed to cram a small suitcase full of mostly black and white photos, many of my dad when he was a lot younger, most of which I’d never seen before, not being interested when I lived there. I made the suitcase my second carry-on for the flight back, not wanting to risk losing them in transit.
I hadn’t really thought about the fact that there aren’t any photos of my dad and me after we’d stopped taking family holidays together when we were very young. I tried to find one to post with this piece but couldn’t. Again, our family just didn’t think about stuff like that later on, but just got on with it. It is what it is.
So instead I get to try to place him leaving the house at the wheel of a big American car, Willy Loman style, driving with his packed lunch into work, and not putting the radio on because he didn’t care for music, he once said in earnest to me.
He’d have just taken the journey in silence I suppose, but then even he would have to agree that he’d have looked really good just getting there.
White Sands // I Only Want Your Love (Gadzook Recordings 7″ single, 2014)
It was probably through a post on Young Knives’ official Facebook page that I was alerted to this limited edition white vinyl 7″ single release, from back when I was present on social media, but more about an even more unusually bizarre Facebook post in a bit.
I’d been a fan of this ace UK indie rock trio since their debut LP, Voices of Animals and Men. which came out in 2006, coincidentally in the same year of Arctic Monkeys’ and The Long Blondes’ debut LP’s. It was such a good year was that one. Young Knives come from the wonderfully named English town of Ashby-de-la-Zouche. I’ve never been there and don’t even really know where that is, but I’m sure it’s a lovely place.
I can’t recall how I first heard about them now. It was probably that I really liked their name first – often a good starting point, I find – and then I looked further in through my world of imported UK monthly magazines or via the weekly NME paper from back when it was good. Regardless of how I came in I’ve bought every record they’ve put out since then. This single is taken from their fourth LP Sick Octave on their own Gadzook Recordings label in 2013.
Arriving in 2002 via their debut indie release The Young Knives… Are Dead, they signed to Transgressive Records and released two LP’s on there, before leaving and putting out their third and fourth albums on their own label. The band’s sound has changed quite a bit since their early records, moving from catchy and edgy guitar pop with dead good words into a more surreal terrain with their later stuff, but I’ve steadfastly stuck by them and bought each release as it happened. You could say I’m fairly vested with their stuff by now.
Then sometime in 2014 they advertised a limited edition white vinyl 7″ single of the song White Sands from the Sick Octave LP with this description;
Get a special Christmas message from Young Knives for the div in your life. We will write your special message on a hand made copy of White Sands on White vinyl. Each cover is a totally unique, one off photo from Young Knives studio
Orders must be placed by Wednesday 17th December so we can get it in the post on time.
Tracks A. White Sands B. I only want your love
Once you place your order please email your message to us firstname.lastname@example.org
So that is exactly what I did.
Then through the relative efficiency of my sent mail folder I am now able to track my initial order and request to the band which said this;
My name is Tony and you can pretty much put what you like and thank you. You cannot insult me. I dig you guys. Cheers and ‘appy Christmas if that be your bag. xo
And evidently according to my email folder on the very same day I received a reply from Henry, lead singer and guitarist in the band, which said this;
Cheers for your order. We will make up something hilarious.
All the best
At 54 years of age I hope that I never lose the utter fanboy thrill of receiving a personal email message from the likes of Henry Dartnall of Young Knives, whose last name incidentally doesn’t sound a million miles away from mine.
Fast forward one week or so later and imagine my surprise when on one crisp November morning I see this post on their official Facebook page;
(Lawyers please note that I have disguised the identities of the post responses from my page in the best way that I can.)
Well now, I wonder. What do you reckon, readers? Is this one my copy or what?
Anyone else want one of these?, says their post.
A mere ten days after I placed my order for White Sands a copy of the very same record appears on their Facebook page to promote the Christmas campaign. It has my name on the sleeve. Too much of a coincidence? I think so. I dash off a reply to their Gmail;
Hello again, chap(s),
Thanks for the note re my 7″single order.
But now you’ve got me a mite curious, I shan’t lie.
On my Facebook page today I saw a picture of one of the singles with scrawl on it addressed to some bod named Tony.
Is that going to be my copy I wonder?
It would be fab if it was and don’t worry, I won’t ask for commission for the sudden spike in sales.
Yours, plucking gamely at the guitar behind the curtain
Tony in NC, USA
And on that same day again young Henry is straight back on the case with this;
I’m not telling you,
but they are being posted today.
That was on the 10th of December. How do I know this? Because I kept the thick white card envelope that my copy of the record arrived in, and yes, you’ve guessed it, that was my copy that they used to advertise the release. Here’s a shot of the back of the sleeve featuring the customs declaration form from my parcel, signed by Henry Dartnall as he placed it in the post to me;
Hardly the stuff of legend I know, but when was the last time that one of your favourite bands photographed a record for their official Facebook page, and then duly sent that very same record along to you?
My own copy is pictured at the start of this post and noted furthermore, in the exclusive photo on the sleeve from their studio, I spotted the name of the town of Greensborough as featured in their image. I live but a 33 minutes drive from the town of Greensboro in North Carolina.
A typo coincidence? Hmmmm… I wonder.
The plot clearly thickens.
Now, please go and listen to Young Knives and I thank you for your time.
This post is dedicated to Diz for his kind words of encouragement in The Lion pub in Runcorn a couple of weeks back. Thanks, mate. x
Just hold still and listen to me for a moment now…
I came to America and I got a record in the mail.
But hold on, because it wasn’t the one you can see pictured. This was in Alabama in July of 1997, when another record came from my buddy Alex who was living in Tennessee at the time, and just like that record you can see up there this wasn’t your typical single record either.
Because this record was affixed to the front of a postcard.
Let’s think about that concept for a second. It’s one that we covered in my fourth post on this blog about the Monty Python flexi-disc, you may recall. The record that Alex mailed came from the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, which at that time was in various locations before it closed its doors permanently six years ago in 2009.
Nothing lasts forever it seems.
But my postcard record did, and this is what it looks like;
The postcard measures five-and-a-half inches by three-and-a-half inches, and has a colour photo of Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger on the front; then ‘a permanent resident’ (as the card says on its back) of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans museum, thus;
(I’ve deleted Alex’s text as it was kinda personal and he wouldn’t like that.)
My postcard of an embalmed horse has a small clear plastic record attached to its front, as you can see via my hopefully high-res scan. It plays at thirty-three-and-a-third RPM, LP speed, and features a one-minute-and-twenty seconds version of the cowboy classic Happy Trails, performed by The Slowpokes, and later still by Van Halen as I recall, but that’s another story. This exact version of the song would typically be the last song played at the end of every session of my faux radio show Radio Cheezwiz, as talked about in my previous post.
Ah, for the glory days of Cheezwiz…
But consider this, if you will for a second. A typical everyday appliance like a camera, or a compact disc player, a computer or a microwave, does all of its work on the inside; closed up from you, and their working parts are not seen in action by the user.
But a record player is working right there out front for you to see.
You take hold of that thin stem tone-arm thing with the cartridge and needle on the end and you move it towards the revolving turntable, placing it on the surface of the record. Out will then come a song, or whatever it is that is on that record.
I don’t think I’ll ever not be fascinated by the method of how that works. Truth is I don’t know precisely the exact science of how it does work and I don’t really want to know. I’ve seen microscopic imagery of a record groove and it looks like a mountain valley range in the desert, and I love that.
A good friend of mine who reads this blog was fascinated by the spirals that you can see on the surface of some records, and if you’re clever enough (which my pal is) to read the spiral you can associate it with the exact point where the beat hits, and may even be able to tell what speed or beat the music is playing at just by looking at it! That’s just crazy to me.
Also incredible to me is that this Happy Trails postcard record of mine isn’t protected from the outside world by anything in its transit. Think of what machinery it must have gone through in order to arrive in my mailbox; postal machine scans, tiny overheating vans, sweaty mailman’s hands, journeys over lands, and yet it still plays grand, as it did not ten minutes ago when I put it on my record player in order to time its playing length for you.
But a word of warning if you’re curious to hear it for yourself, and there are copies of this very postcard record for sale on Ebay.
This record has a smaller centre of impact (ie. where the needle touches down at the start of the song) than what you may find on most standard issue 7″ records; ergo if you try to put the needle to this record your player may immediately initiate its reject function and automatically pull back before it can even start. It plays well on my Numark portable and also on my posh Technics turntable so I’m sorted, but y’all’s might be different.
But I digress, and besides, a story from New Orleans in Louisiana is awaiting the telling.
Underground Sounds was a small record store located on Magazine Street in the Garden District of New Orleans that I would visit on my many trips to the city between 1993 and 2003 when I lived in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve visited hundreds of record shops/stores in various countries in my life but Underground Sounds was genuinely fantastic, and one of the very best, as it had some of the strangest and most unusual records I’d ever seen for sale in there.
I just did a Google search and found a website that listed an address and telephone number for the store. I dialled the number and it started to ring. It’s at that point that you get the feeling of being somewhat unprepared for what you’re going to say, because you hadn’t expected it to ring in the first place.
The line picks up with a single hello and I ask the voice if this is Underground Sounds.
“Good heavens me, no” comes the reply. “I’ve lived in this apartment since 2001 and was given this number.” I’m so sorry, I say to the clearly older guy on the other end.
“Oh, it’s no problem”, he says. “I get calls about it from time to time. It must have been a really good store.” You have no idea, I tell him as we chat for a couple of minutes longer and he tells me to call around radio stations in the area, as maybe they’d have more of an idea.
Thank you very much, kind unknown man. You were a true gentleman.
It’s my impression from fading memory that Underground Sounds was stocked almost exclusively from someone’s private collection because the records I found in that store I hadn’t seen anywhere else and they were just too good. I bought a whole bunch of decently priced and somewhat obscure 7″ singles from there, and Mother May I’s Meet You There was one of those.
I recalled seeing the band on MTV 120 Minutes one night and admiring the song’s infectious guitar riff, being something of a lover of twisting guitar arpeggio riffs as I am, and so filed their name away for future use.
The song came home with me eventually for a mere fifty cents and on a playable postcard record too. It was just too good to be true. That it also has the original record store sticker attached to the front – which I would typically remove if it was a paper sleeve – is a boon to the tale also, as there is nothing at all existent on the internet about this once fine independent record store. I fear it may not be alone in that respect.
There will be more choice moments from those Underground Sounds journeys as this blog progresses.
And so what then of Mother May I? What do they look like? Like this I suppose, from the back of the card;
And what do they sound like? The quote from the now defunct Bikini magazine sets you about straight on that one.
I bought their Splitsville CD – in those times I could only get it on CD – featuring Meet You There, and it also has a good song on it called Painted On, about getting a tattoo; putting it up there with the likes of wonderful tattoo songs such as Jennifer She Said by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, another great tune from that limited subject matter.
I wrote a fan letter to the band back then because I am that kind of a fun guy and I got a handwritten reply from someone called Damon from New Jersey who was thrilled to write one of his favourite rude Brit culture references to me. The chosen phrase was ‘shite’. It thrilled him to say that. He seemed like a nice man. I wonder which one he is.
My girlfriend Amanda just told me that the band is named after a school playground game popular in the USA. (There may have been a similar game in my school yard days in England, but fading memory can’t recall the name of it.)
It’s with this in mind – and also in need of a title for the blog post – that I inadvertently created a game of my own from this band’s name and their song title. Amanda and I sometimes travel great distances in her car and entertain ourselves with invented music games to pass the long and often dark miles of interstate.
Using the name of this band and the name of their song put together I was able to create a new sentence from the two, mother may I meet you there. So that’s how you play the new game, by creating a sentence from a band name and a song, ie. The Jam and In the City then becomes the jam in the city.
Artist names are not allowed (like Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash) because that would be too easy. If you get a good one write it in the comments field.
I can’t seem to get it straight, stay up late and sleep all day, listening to my Versus tape is still the same…
I came to America and got to hang out with bands.
Small Factory from my previous post has a song on the first CD that I bought by them and it’s called Versus Tape. It seems to be about the singer trying to get his life into some kind of shape, and listening to the Brooklyn band Versus clearly helps him a lot. I love it when singers of songs mention other singers or bands in their lyrics, and especially if the singer is a fan of the particular act in question.
(There are probably hundreds of examples of artist references in songs that I sure would appreciate y’all adding your own versions to in the comments. Right now I’m stuck on Versus Tape and something by The Who that mentions drinking himself blind to the sound of old T.Rex. Patrik Fitzgerald in another of my posts mentions listening to Bowie and riding with him out through the stars. That’s just breathtaking. I love that namedrop thing.)
I liked Versus Tape so much and the way he sang about them that I went and bought a Versus CD without ever hearing them. This was back in the day when you couldn’t just key up a song on any device you happened to have handy to see if you liked it or not. (Writing this post I tried to find songs by Small Factory and Versus on the net and they weren’t easy to track down either.)
As I’ve said on here I was living in a town that didn’t have much going for it and so I just had to take a chance on a band I’d never heard. I bought the first CD Versus released – which was fairly new at the time – because even though I didn’t know the singer in Small Factory personally I trusted him implicitly. The love of a good band can do that to you.
As I found out Versus are very good and didn’t sound a million miles away from Small Factory. On their debut album Versus also consisted of two guys and a girl, like Small Factory, except the girl in Versus plays the bass and she’s called Fontaine Toups; another excellent name to rival that of Small Factory drummer Phoebe Summersquash. The other two guys in Versus were that rare thing of being Filipino brothers in a rock band in America; singer and guitarist Richard Baluyut and his brother Ed on the drums.
I guess you’d call Versus ‘indie rock’ if you were looking for a safe house. I recall being pleased with my risk purchase for the way that they played their guitars being somewhat different and more melodic to grunge and hard rock which I didn’t particularly care for. Don’t get me wrong Versus can certainly belt it out with the best of them too.
Over the years I bought everything they released up to a point, and all on compact disc as records were hard to find in lower Alabama at that time. I would do this thing to liven up or personalize CD packaging by replacing the grey back plate that typically holds the disc in place with a clear plastic back plate, which I would then store stuff behind, such as reviews and bits of receipts and such. Anything to make it seem more mine as I found the compact disc format rather impersonal and clunky and I never really got to care for it.
I recall seeing Versus one time only at a venue called Howlin’ Wolf in the warehouse district of New Orleans. The venue is still going strong in its new location in the French Quarter of the city. I say this because I don’t recall much about the show that I saw or even what year it was but I do recall that my ex-wife and I got lost attempting to locate the venue in the warehouse district, ending up driving through a poor and run-down ghetto area of the city; with huge potholes in the road, street lights smashed out or broken, and large numbers of gathered people staring in at us as we drove past, and with a cop car following us with its lights on full beam to guide us both safely out.
At the venue I met two of the members of Versus and they signed their names on a compilation CD of theirs called Dead Leaves, a detail of which I include here alongside an image from their debut CD The Stars are Insane, complete with its adjusted back plate;
I spoke to Richard from the band as he signed the inside of the CD case, and was thrilled that he referred to me as The King of England. That’s a landmark memory right there. Also behind the back case of The Stars are Insane there’s a small torn corner from a newspaper upon which Richard wrote a note to me about bringing the band to perform in my then hometown of Mobile, Alabama, thus;
No way was I capable or connected enough to be able to bring Versus to perform a show in Mobile as I just didn’t know how to go about doing that sort of thing. It was different in the USA to how it was when the band I’d been in – at that time in my life nary five years ago – had been given lots of opportunities and varied venues to play in England. In America I could but dream and hope that a band I was interested in would one day play in my part of the world, which at that time was a rare thing.
Speaking of dreams, one of mine eventually came true when I came across Versus on vinyl at last, via the single featured here, at a record fair in my new home town of Winston Salem some years later. I paid $6.00 for the 7″ 45 on the Pop Narcotic label based out of Boston, MA, and was chuffed that it featured Bright Light, my favourite song on the Dead Leaves CD that Richard from the band had scrawled on back there.
“Amazing!”, says the handwriting on the small white sticker that was affixed to the front of the 7″ record sleeve. “Brooklynesque pop on Brack’s candy vinyl… I (heart) dese guys!”
I enjoyed the handwritten colloquial play on the word ‘these’ written there, even if I still have no idea what Brack’s candy actually is or even looks like. Let’s look at the actual record, shall we, and see if it reminds y’all of the candy brand and colour that my sticker refers to;
Chances are good that the white background of the scanner I use at work is not doing the vibrancy of the plastic featured here any justice at all. It really is a lovely thing; a wonder found purely through a chance meeting with another band on MTV 120 Minutes, who were singing about a cassette tape that featured another band who were so good they just had to write a song about the feeling it gave.
And now I wonder if any song on my many cassette mix-tapes had that same effect on those I sent them to.
When I first came to America I discovered so much new music so quickly that I just had to share it with my friends I’d left back home in England.
At first I couldn’t work here until I was legalized and so days would turn into months listening to music and compiling tapes at a large circular wooden table in the dining room in Mobile, Alabama. I would keep scrupulous notes of which mate got which song, notes I still have, so that I wouldn’t duplicate music that may even pass between the two. It was a light industry of creativity and entertainment and variety that I sorely miss in these digital days, when music doesn’t seem to even want to have a tangible form anymore.
At first my tapes were just songs played consecutively one after the other, until one day I decided to add a faux DJ element to the mix with a microphone I plugged into the cassette deck; my dreams of being a real radio DJ peering into the light. I even invented a name for my pretend radio station; Radio Cheezwiz, the subtle vocabulary difference allegedly separating me from the popular US cheese spread brand of a similar name.
I’d get a six-pack of beer, a full night stretching ahead of me (later with a day off from work the next day), and records and tapes stacked around as I began my journey. There was no template or plan other than the desire to belt a song over the imaginary tennis net to the receiver on the other side.
I had little or no specific response about songs from the many subscribers I had on my yellow legal pad lists, but just to do it was enough for me, and I loved it.
In return I’d get tapes from the same mates in Old Blighty, a selection of which I’ve photographed here alongside one or two of mine, to wrap this show up.
I’d make covers from magazine ads and such, double-stick taped to the label inner of the Maxell XLII 90, (Radio Cheezwiz cassette tape brand of choice. You can’t buy them in stores anymore.)
Often I would give the entire shebang a title – one pictured here that my mate Greg photographed for me from his own copy is named Search: Go To just because I liked the sound of the phrase.
Then off it would fly in the post, its destination varied, hopefully to invoke a similar reaction upon its receipt to the Frazier Chorus song String that I have previously written about on here. Same words, different feeling.
I am still dreaming and I keep listening, even if I’m not taping anymore. Some of the cassette tapes featured have specks of dust on them, and I like that.
You can’t get dust on a digital file. I’m fairly certain you can’t even own it, and at no point does it ever seem like it’s being used. My creased up card and worn down plastic buzzes and creaks like something mechanical, and I will always rejoice in that difference.
No, no way… I’m not done. I’m having too much fun. It’s not over for me now, life has just begun…
I came to America and started a pop music quiz.
In the early oughties (or two-thousands, whatever you lot call them) my then wife and I were approached by the owner of Mobile’s only independent record store, Satori Sound Records, with the idea of sharing in the concept of a coffee house and cafe as part of the premises. The plan was to keep the record store and to attach a cafe to the other half of the building; and so it came to be that for a brief couple of years towards the end of my time in Alabama I had the coolest job of my life that far; working in the record store and also helping out in the cafe serving coffee.
(Okay, so I pretty much hated working as a barista making frothy coffee, but let’s get past that for now.)
It was during that tricky first year of opening that we needed ways to bring more trade into the cafe in the evening, and so that’s where the idea of a pop music quiz first germinated. I’d been a huge fan of the popular UK TV music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, that my mum and various friends would send to me on VHS tapes from England that I could then watch on the universal VCR I owned at the time. (That show is still going strong as a staple of Friday night telly in England, now almost in its twentieth year.) I based the original version of the quiz on that show and stole a few ideas from other less popular variants too.
I have the flyer from the very first music quiz I hosted in the USA on my bedroom wall and have just noticed that today marks almost the thirteenth anniversary of that first night. I did an eighties music quiz on Friday 15th February in 2002 in the cafe. I can’t recall much about it despite still having my script for the quiz in my archive.
In those days it took place in a small and well-lit coffee house with a creaky and uneven wooden floor and various tables scattered around. I had a clipboard and a cassette tape player plugged into a couple of small speakers. I spoke in my normal unamplified voice and it was a polite and somewhat restrained affair. There was no alcohol, only coffee and various fruity drinks.
I tell you this because just last week I hosted my 99th quiz in my hometown of Winston Salem, North Carolina, in the best live music venue; The Garage downtown. These days it’s darker, a lot larger, a little crazier, and louder via a microphone and big speakers and a much noisier crowd. You can order anything you like from the bar if you’re old enough, and it’s a good deal more fun and unhinged in its present state.
By hook and crook I hauled the bones of the quiz through my last days in Alabama, and then put it into storage in Tennessee for just under a year, until it landed a little bruised and battered but otherwise compact, and began life once more in November of 2006 and continuing since on Thursday nights monthly in downtown Winston.
I am fierce proud of what my girl Amanda AKA DJ Shute and I have done with the evolution of the quiz and you can like us on our Facebook page and see tons of flyers and photographs of the many great nights we’ve had doing it here in Winston. We’ve also seen married two couples who first met at the quiz so go easy trampling around in there. You never know what you’re gonna come away with at the quiz.
I tell you all of this because last week in that 99th quiz I did a five-question round on the days of MTV and specifically their 120 Minutes show that used to air on Friday nights between ten and midnight when I was back in Alabama. This show specialized in what was widely becoming known as alternative music in the nineties. I’d record the show on then pre-DVD standard VHS tape and watch it later, often fast-forwarding through the commercials and the stuff I didn’t much care for.
One question in that quiz round set my mind wandering about how you could hear a piece of music that you may not have heard in a long while and an entire flood of memory would travel back accompanying it. I got that same feeling on You Tube just last week watching the video to The Last Time That We Talked by Small Factory.
I first saw that same video clip one night scrolling through 120 Minutes back in my bedroom in Mobile and it had a seismic effect on me. 120 Minutes in those days was a somewhat turgid affair; with emphasis on harder rock and dark and brooding lyrical themes, heavy on angst and moody with it. Suddenly there was this fun and catchy pop song created by a band I’d never heard of; featuring two guys and a singing girl drummer who I found out later had the excellent name of Phoebe Summersquash.
I rode that wave of elation from their song for a few weeks, putting out magazines in my day job at Barnes and Noble in Springdale Mall. There were so many small-print-run indie publications we’d carry in those days, with pages I’d devour on lunch breaks trying to drain as much information on bands as I could find.
You have to remember that there wasn’t an Internet as such to gather information on music minutiae, and the local radio wasn’t helping either, nor the local newspaper, and so word-of-mouth and magazines were all I had. Tailspins magazine from Evanston in Illinois, just outside of Chicago, was one of many small publications I’d read and one day in April or May of 1995 I came across this review here;
I couldn’t buy their new album on record because they didn’t exist for me in that format in that town at that time, but I got the CD of For If You Cannot Fly from Satori Sound, the indie record store I would later work in, and I loved it. I wrote the also ace-named reviewer Floyd Spangler a passionate retort and then got on with my everyday life.
A month or so later I get the shock of my life when flicking through the next issue of Tailspins. I see my reply to Floyd published in the magazine. Except that they didn’t actually copy it per se from my original handwriting, but reproduced my exact letter, and in my own writing, in full on their letters page!
I can’t explain to you easily just how freaky a feeling it is to suddenly catch your own handwriting looking right back at you from a place that you were not expecting it to be, thus;
As I write this entry from nearly twenty years on there are many, many things that I am sucking my teeth at concerning the verbiage of that note I wrote. Consider if you will such phrases as ‘these cats’, ‘skinny ass’, and especially the appalling ‘bleating wailment’.
NB: I right-click on the red underlining that appends to the word wailment in my text to find the computer’s closest ally; ailment. Enough said.
I’ve scant connection to that writing but I can very much tap into the sensation. From my music press archive I found the following piece on the band in the UK weekly Melody Maker from around the same time. If you struggled to grasp what I’m on about in my letter to Floyd Spangler, you’ll have as much chance as I have in trying to unravel the first paragraph of this brief feature here;
Some years later I finally found The Last Time That We Talked on a UK version 7″ single on the most eye-popping hue of coloured vinyl I think I own.
That colour simply has no comparison with anything that I can compare it to in life. You’d have to wear sunglasses to even play it. I have no idea where I bought it.
There’s a small square yellow sticker stuck inside the cardboard of the sleeve that leads to nowhere. This is a thing I do with my records; I add things inside, so you get much more than you’d get at the cash register. This time I added the tiny yellow sticker. It doesn’t even have a price on that sticker! It’s almost as though an earlier prototype version of me thought that it made total sense to affix a sticker – and nothing else – to the inside of the sleeve. If it stood for anything at all back when I did that, like most vague details in my life these days, I have now mislaid it completely.
I read somewhere that one of the better ways to work with memory loss – something that is happening to me an alarming amount these days – is to sing along to your favourite songs. It seems that there are tiny spaces in the brain that store the millions of song words I have gathered and retained along the way. It’s weird how I can put a record on and away I go, there’s no stopping me.
In little else do I feel so confident.
On any day I would struggle hard to remember anything at all beyond the vague outline of my daily life from back in those Alabama days, but then I can put this record on and even if I haven’t heard it in ages, and never get to recall where it was that I bought it, I effortlessly sing along to every single word of it.
I think there’s more than I can remember to say for that.
I had lived in the North of England for over thirty years and never travelled to mainland Europe, or to anywhere else in the world for that matter. That’s probably quite unusual, but these days I say it was different times. It’s even possible that my friends had flown or sailed to various places, but I just never did. So to find myself in my thirties and visiting the United States for the first time, well, what a reinvention that was going to be.
It came just when I needed it to. I’d been jaded and just about getting by after leaving both the band that I had been in and my hometown too, and so was probably open for adventure even if I wasn’t particularly aware of it. My pen-pal at the time – who I’d been writing to off and on for years – suddenly offered the opportunity for me to visit her in Alabama; down in the bible belt, the deep South.
I knew very little about any of America at all, but I took her offer anyway. It just felt right for that particular time of my life.
It was in August of 1993 that my feet first touched American soil at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. I was so naive to world travel, time zones, and behaviour that upon arriving in the South in the middle of summer I thought that the temperature in the airport was going to be the same as it was outside; cool and breezy and fresh.
The automated doors to America then swung open and I immediately found out how wrong I was.
In a heat like I had never known before.
“What on Earth is that?”, I ask.
That’s how it is here, came the reply.
I get in the car and immediately wind the window down.
No, I’m told. You keep the windows up.
Air-conditioning, you see. I hadn’t known what that even was. We didn’t have it back home.
But eventually you get used to it and you learn to adapt.
I relocated to Mobile, Alabama, got married, was legalized, and got a job and settled in, working in a bookstore for my first work in America; eventually becoming the newsstand director, handling the magazines in a brand new store just outside of a mall, and next door to an established music and movie chain-store. I’d do that job for five years.
Which is how I first came across true independent music in the USA.
There was a great music magazine that was called CMJ New Music Monthly that came with a free compilation CD every month, and since my records were in storage after the journey over, I was open to anything that fired my imagination when it came to hearing new stuff.
CMJNew Music Monthly was unique in that it had a wonderful reviewing policy called ‘recommended if you like’, through which the music reviewed was compared to other artists you might already know about. I thought this was an excellent idea and had not seen it before.
NB: As new issues of music magazines were published the vendors that my store used were only interested in receiving the front cover of each magazine (containing the bar-code) sent back for full refund. They just didn’t need the rest, and so I would tear through the back issues for articles and art, and take home bulk copies of the free music CD’s. The remaindered magazines were then recycled on my day off from the job.
For several good years I would send music articles and free CMJ compilation CD’s back home to my mates in England, noting the contents of each package on yellow-lined paper so that I would not duplicate. I was a cottage industry of new music all to myself.
In Mobile, Alabama there wasn’t a good college radio station, and only one decent independent record store, so you had to work just that little bit harder to find via word-of-mouth or good reviews just what you were after. I’m mostly a fan of pop music guitar bands; with good choruses and hip-swinging tunes. Unfortunately I had landed in the states during the time of the last days of grunge – which didn’t appeal to me at all – and so the music TV and radio I did hear was mostly full of that kind of thing.
Despite the plaid shirt setback I discovered a great deal of new music in those first few years; from Low to East River Pipe, from Spain to Soul Coughing, Idaho, Small Factory, Versus, The Magnetic Fields, The Handsome Family. The list just kept on growing as more CD’s were ordered on labels like Teenbeat, Pop Narcotic, Kranky, Merge, Carrot Top, Feel Good All Over, Vernon Yard, and Parasol. In those days there weren’t many vinyl records being pressed, and if there were they weren’t reaching me down in Mobile, a good few years before the internet and the ease of buying music online. So mostly I made do with CD’s through the mail and from that one good local record store.
And then I came across Independent Project Records / Press based in Sedona, Arizona.
As I recall it was CMJ that reviewed a trio called Scenic in mid-1995, comparing them to Red House Painters, a band I’d bought a few albums by when I was in England. I loved the name Scenic – so evocative – and there was a snapshot of a sleeve and it too looked interesting. It was their debut album called Incident at Cima, an instrumental tour-de-force.
Ah, there’s going to be a problem right there, I thought to myself. The very idea of music with no words…
The truth is that I think I was a bit of a snob when it came to music with no words and typically just avoided it. I’m a great lover of lyrics, inner sleeves with song words on them, a really good turn of phrase etc. Surely the idea of a band playing with no singer at the front was going to lessen the impact of the music?
It was through another instrumental song called Nothing Lies Still Long by a band called Pell Mell, from a CMJ CD that crawled into my skin when playing the disc one night. It was the music of the long distances that are never far away in the USA, the endless miles stretching for hours that I’d started to travel. The song ebbs and flows as the journey grows. It’s the first track on the band’s album called Interstate, that I then bought on CD to play in the car on my own journeys. This was my introduction to the music of America’s highways.
Scenic, on the other hand, was the music of the desert.
I have no idea where my obsession with deserts comes from. I suppose you could trace it back to England and my love for the Australian band Midnight Oil, who similarly came a little late to me during another music drought in the early nineties, in the midst of what the UK press had termed baggy, a la Happy Mondays and The Charlatans, The Farm and Northside, and all of that hedonistic shuffly dance beat ‘lad’ bollocks. The Diesel and Dust and Beds are Burning period of Midnight Oil may have been a guidepost towards the desert, but it wasn’t as strong then as this was becoming for me here in the USA.
Even if I wasn’t exactly living in a desert climate I could almost imagine the heat from the swelter of my deep South summers. I could not even conceive of a place so empty, so vast, and so enticing. I could only dream of it.
Independent Project Records is a small graphic design cum record label operation that has been in business since 1980, based in Los Angeles but later relocated to the desert town of Sedona in Arizona. These days you can find them back in California in the town of Bishop. The head of the label and design studio is Bruce Licher, the owner of the hand-fed letterpress printing press that gives the label its unique graphic look. Bruce is also the lead guitarist in the band Scenic.
Since that first introduction to his band’s music I have purchased everything I could find featuring the Scenic name, and even though after twenty-plus years of living in the states I am still no nearer to actually seeing a desert, each time I play Scenic I can transport myself to the place where the music was made, on the outskirts of the great Mojave desert.
I.P.R has kindly mailed much of their unique artwork in the form of fliers, press releases, and cards which I then like to put inside the sleeves for the next person who is going to get my records after me. I liked that I could call up the label and someone would answer and be only too happy to oblige my occasional specific questions. You just couldn’t get that from the major labels. I.P.R. has followed me through various relationships, different addresses, and states of this country as I’ve wound my way to where I am living now;
For those who are discovering Scenic for the first time The Kelso Run is one hell of a place to start, with an edgy and frenetic fast-paced sound described by Rolling Stone as “a desert mirage rattle-and-strum that suggests Ennio Morricone dune-surfing in Death Valley.” I love that. The scan of the sleeve at the top of the post is of a higher quality, enabling anyone interested to read the story behind the title of the song, printed at the bottom of the sleeve.
Flip the record over and you find two quieter and more atmospheric b-sides – similar in style to the soundtrack to the movie Paris, Texas – in which the acoustic guitar is recorded so well that you can hear every squeak and buzz that the wood of the instrument makes. All three songs here are taken from the Incident at Cima album.
Also photographed on this post are two sheets of Scenic Post stamps, not official tender of course, that were created at Independent Project Press as promotional material for the album and single;
and last of all some remaining inserts that were included with the original clear vinyl issue of the single – mine being #0115 in an edition of 1200 copies from December of 1993, mere months after arriving in America for the first time.
The last word on this significant episode in my American life goes to Bruce Licher himself, via a handwritten note he included in one of my many packages received over the years from his excellent record label. Thank you, sir. You made the journey worth it.