Thanks, Sis

My sister died yesterday. She was 51. She was clever, loving, terrible at the trumpet, and the whole world to my brother-in-law and my little nieces. Caroline was ill for a long time. She had cancer and lived with it for seven years. In that time, she tried everything. She faced chemo, invasive surgery, laser knifing, wild drugs, and continual uncertainty. I always thought I was the tough sibling. I was thicker skinned than her, less forgiving of minor irritants and, when I was a kid, much more ready to get in scraps. But that’s all bollocks. Caroline had a mastectomy, she had repeated brain surgery, she had chemo again and again. She got back up every time. She took the kids to shows and on holidays. She took the dog for long walks. She got through shielding without cake ambushes. She sent presents and funny text messages. She was as hard as nails and, in the end, that’s how I’ll think of her.

I’ve never lost anyone close to me in this way before. I thought it would be more visceral and savage than this. I thought I would be screaming. I’m not. I’m confused, tired, and lost. My friends, my wife and my therapist all tell me there’s no way to organise grief and no way to predict its tides. I’ve got to just go with it they say. What I wasn’t ready for is how physical it is. Sometimes I can’t get off the couch. Sometimes I’m hyper. Sometimes I want to stuff my face. Sometimes I want to hit the bottle. All the time I want to smoke. The sadness feels heavy. It sits on me and pushes into the front of my head. It’s a cloud but also a muddy lump. It’s awful.

I know making sense isn’t possible. Cancer defies logic. It’s a shit like that. What I can do though is talk about how we connected over music. I like telling music stories. They help me work through most things. They won’t help this time but I’m going to tell them anyway.

Caroline was five years older than me. Her musical epiphanies happened in the 1980s. She had a tiny record player in her room. It had foldable legs and a brown veneer finish. She inherited it from my mum and dad. It was my first record player too, given to me when Caroline bought her first hi-fi with her Boots staff discount when she was fifteen. She bought seven-inch singles in Woolworths. I was often with her when she did this. She bought ‘Green Door’ by Shakin’ Stevens with a record token and quickly grew to hate it. She bought everything by Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandeau Ballet and Erasure. Her copy of ‘Gold’ came with a scratch that made the ‘prison wall’ line repeat. It became a running joke in our house. My mum still calls it the ‘prison wall’ song.

None of these bands came close to her one true love though. George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were everything to her. Wham organised her life. Being the awkward bugger she was, she always preferred Andrew. She listened to them endlessly. She carried this on with George’s solo stuff.  ‘Careless Whisper’ still makes me think of her. We both used to laugh at the idea of ‘guilty feet’ having to face a judge and jury.

We didn’t have much musical common ground. Pre-teen me liked Madonna, Five Star and Kylie. Teen me saw the start of life as a music snob. This sort of thing was something Caroline never tolerated. She hated judgement of any kind. She liked what she liked and wore it with pride. We both liked Depeche Mode I suppose. Bon Jovi too, although her joyously and me secretly. Our musical differences came to the fore in my mum’s car on the way to school. I wanted my tapes to play, she wanted hers. I wanted Happy Mondays, she did not. (This was never an issue in the longer holiday drives in my dad’s car as the choice there was ‘Movie War Themes’ or silence). My mum used to put up with this for so long. If it got out of hand she would intervene and make sure that Terry Wogan soundtracked the morning.

Despite all these differences, and against her better judgement I’m sure, Caroline took me to my first proper gig. She was at university in Nottingham by then, becoming the amazing doctor she would be. I went to see her there a few times. What a different world. Bars, cool older kids, halls, my sister’s pretty friends. I loved it and it made me certain I wanted to go on to uni when it was my turn. About the fourth time I went she had a surprise for me. She’d bought us tickets to see Transvision Vamp. Like so many boys my age, Wendy James was a big deal for me. I had Pop Art and Velveteen and played them endlessly. They were my first choice in the car tape battles. I was in love with Wendy of course but I also loved the band. Aside from the radio friendly singles, they made filthy punk pop that referenced Blondie, the Velvet Underground, the Primitives and the Stooges. The lyrics were grandiose and chock full of mid-twentieth century pop culture. The sleeve art for Velveteen had pictures of icons like Marilyn and Jimmy Dean scattered around and old Dylan LPs piled up next to well-chosen bits of cult literature.

Seeing them live, or anyone live for that matter, was a far-off fantasy for me at 14. But Caroline took me, her spotty little twat of a brother, to see Transvision Vamp in the Nottingham Royal Court. They were marvellous. It was marvellous. I never stopped going to gigs.

Thanks, Sis.

When we got older, we talked about music less and laughed about how funny our dogs are instead. We agreed on that much more.

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 6 Meeting Miki

That brings me to meeting Miki. This is the bit of this writing that I have been putting off. It’s sitting here twenty pages and nearly eighteen months into the process. Here goes. About a year before we published our book, Rob, Helen and I hosted a conference at our university campus. Titled ‘Twisting My Memory, Man’ (the name we now use for our blog space and a tribute to our shared love for the Mondays), we welcomed a fantastic bunch of fans, musicians and writers to the event. Most of our punters were a bit of each. We had two days of great talks, performances, chats and even a bit of sunshine for the beer garden at the end. It was ace. We felt super confident about the work and excited about moving forward.

It was in this spirit of optimism that I contacted Miki Berenyi from Lush. I’d followed her on Twitter for ages and had really enjoyed her take on music and memory. Her recollections of the Lush era are illustrated by personal photos, flyers, diary snippets and bits of newspaper. These bits of visual culture tell a fantastically messy and analogue story of London’s early 90s and Miki’s part in a particular indie moment. So, I tweeted her about the conference and had a nice exchange of DMs (not the sort I used to scuff up) in which she said maybe, and I said ok. There we left it for a bit. She got in touch a few months later by email to say sorry she hadn’t got involved and I said no bother. I said I hope to see you with a guitar again and she said that she was holding one as we spoke. This would turn out to be part of the writing and rehearsal process for her new project Piroshka (more on them in a bit).

As usual, I need to fill in some background here. Try as I might, I can’t make the segue from Throwing Muses to Lush as easily as those above between the four American bands. Those bands are all part of an intermingled scene (as illustrated by Kim Deal in that woeful MTV interview) and I sort of see them as one big noisy spider diagram. Lush are from London. They sound very different to all the other bands. They sort of fit with shoegaze but that is too narrow a term. They sort of got lumped in with Britpop later in their career but were miles better than any of those reactionary bellends. Their sound is huge, noisy, frightening, soothing and haunting. Where other bands have oppositions and paradoxes, Lush are a palimpsest. Layers upon layers of guitar, a sonic whirlwind in which Miki and fellow vocalist and guitarist Emma Anderson (the same Emma Anderson whose tweet got this whole thing going) trade voices that are recognisably London and strangely otherworldly.

They also speak to a different bit of my cultural plastic bag. I grew up not far away from where they were making a name for themselves. My middle England suburb was just a travel card and Thameslink schlep away from the wild boozers and smoky venues around North London where Lush and a load of other bands were playing and being reviewed in the weeklies. I went to see bands in Camden at the Dublin Castle and the Falcon, Kentish Town at the Bull and Gate and various other spots around the NW intersections. It was a world of sweaty band merch, illegally purchased snakebite and black, badly made roll ups and endless flyers thrust into ink stamped hands. It was stupidly noisy and fucking brilliant. Scenes had edges and clear names but also overlapped. I loved the filth of Camden Lurch and still evangelise about Th’Faith Healers and Silverfish (there’ll be another bit of writing about them one day). I loved the art school posturing and off key singing of shoegaze. That wall of noise coupled with an existential gloom spoke deeply to my increasingly pissed off teenage self. I would stand before my mirror and hope against hope that I could be as aloof and distracted as Chapterhouse, Ride and Catherine Wheel. There is a little window in the early 90s that was after baggy and before grunge and all these bands sort of filled that up. I was desperate to be a part of it. It was even starting to be on the telly.

Being the story obsessed dick that I am, I am always searching for those key moments of change. They don’t really exist, of course, life is always much duller than the narratives we shape it with. Nevertheless, my Saturday lunchtime telly habits mark a low key Joycean epiphany. Football Focus and Saint and Greavsie were what my whole week built towards. It’s hard to understand it now, but there was hardly any football on the telly in the 80s and early 90s and these shows were where you might see a few goals. You’d also get Bob Wilson talking to football players on one side and Ian St John laughing uncontrollably at whatever bit of absurdist freeform mouth jazz was coming out of Jimmy Greaves. I loved it. I used to get my weekly delivery of Shoot and Roy of the Rovers on a Saturday morning, devour them both and settle down for two hours of football telly. I watched with my Dad and then we went out to watch the enormously average spectacle offered up by St Albans City of the Isthmian League. It was all pretty easy and made me very happy. Then music took over. It was music that my Dad didn’t get. He got football. We still watched these shows on a Saturday lunchtime but now they were just a precursor to the much more eagerly awaited Chart Show on ITV.

How the fuck do you describe the Chart Show? It was odd. Lots and lots of music videos stitched together by strange graphics and quasi video recorder functions. Videos would play, fast forward and pause (did they ever rewind?). Videos that played in full were augmented by a sort of DTP interface with a cursor that triggered information from a task bar. It was the sort of fluff you get from press releases alongside slightly offbeat observations about the content of the video itself. Various charts would appear on weekly rotation. The Heavy Metal chart would be announced with an animated wall that moved and rotated. It was covered with studded lights and letters. The sort of thing you’d get at the back of a stage from some hair metal nonsense. The dance videos were linked by graphics that tried and failed to say ‘tripping hard on all the drugs’. I get the visual signifiers with those two. Even in a crude way they sort of work with the music and matched the aesthetics in the videos. The ‘indie singles’ (never ‘chart’ for some reason) was different though. It used a fairground. A carousel spinning out of control was the nightmarish image that introduced the viewer to top tens that featured the Bridewell Taxis, Slowdive and, due to the nature of the label, whatever those devils SAW had put out on PWL that week (hence Kylie battling for top spot with the New Fast Automatic Daffodils). It was confusing and dissonant. But I like confusing and dissonant. That’s why I like 4AD and that’s why the Chart Show took over from Football Focus and Saint and Greavsie as the nexus of my Saturday ritual. In case you are concerned though, I still got to see St Albans go into battle with Kingstonian and Boreham Wood for a couple of years further until a Saturday job in Boots stopped all that.

It was the Chart Show where I first saw Lush. The episode was aired in March 1990 (thanks YouTube!), but I didn’t actually see it until about a year later sat at my mate Ian’s house. He used to record anything on the telly that was linked to indie. The Toyota Band Explosion at the Marquee was a recurring favourite, as was Granada’s Manchester: The New Sound of the North. He used to tape the indie singles bit of the Chart Show whenever they were on (usually every third week ­ they shared the weirdo music segment with metal and dance) and we, with our squashy two litre bottles of terrible cider, would watch them in his living room when his parents were out. I used to think that taping stuff off the telly made Ian some kind of technical savant and that my sister, still stuck in the stone age of holding her tape recorder up to the radio every Sunday night, was some kind of luddite (I mean, she was, and she still is, but you get my point).

The episode in question is pretty amazing. If you wanted ten songs that defined indie at the start of the 90s and that defined how I saw myself at that time and that defined how my nostalgia for that era takes shape now, then these are those. It starts with Fugazi and, even though my love of the shouty testosterone bit of the American underground was a year or two away (and I am still put off by Henry Rollins’ shorts), there is an undeniable directness to the anger which speaks to any teenage boy worth his salt. At number 9 is the familiar Brummie jingle jangle of Birdland’s Sleep With Me. It’s indie by numbers and it’s pretty good. Both of these videos only get a snippet before the imaginary chart show finger hits FFWD.

The first video to get a full play is The Sugarcubes’ Planet. I love Björk and I love each of her iterations. She is a constantly evolving maverick genius and I wish there were more performers out there who share her drive and singularity. Her videos as a solo artist are famous for their Avant Garde sensibilities and for pushing video technology to its very edges. The Chris Cunningham collaboration for All is Full of Love is timeless. I’ve even seen her in full VR splendour at the Bjork Digital exhibition in 2016. So, with all this in mind, you’d think I would be all over this video. Nope, it’s terrible. The problem with pushing video technology to its very edge is that, given a year or two (or three decades in this case), it’s not the edge anymore. It’s in the middle or right at the back. This is the case here. Björk’s disembodied head floats around in a bubble across an undersea landscape (think Little Mermaid in a K-hole) before taking off to roam across the sort of mountainous vastness that had Wincey Willis panicking on Treasure Hunt. Great song of course but not a great vid.  Although the info bar bit does tell us that Barry White is a fan of the band. OK.

Moving on, we hit a very young looking Ride with gaze pointed shoewards as usual. Mark Gardner isn’t quite in his floppy haired pomp just yet but looks pretty dreamy against a blur of reddy brown. Then, moving on to number six, Lush arrive as the second full video choice. The song is De-Luxe and, remember this is the first time I’ve ever encountered this band, the strangeness is instant. The vocals sit deep in the mix and the chords shift unexpectedly. The video is serious and playful. The band walk through landscape lit by strange purple light. They swing from trees and play instruments silhouetted against a red sky. The video is ego free. It seems as if the band would be wandering around this trippy half space whether we are there or not. It stands out from the videos so far for this reason. The others thus far have singers looking us in the eye, asking for some kind of tacit approval. Even bubble Bjork. Lush don’t give a shit. They offer us sound and vision but don’t care if we take it or not. Even when the video moves to a more conventional monochrome section with the full band playing, Miki only glances our way. Her focus is on that insistent guitar and its uncanny chiming. The info graphics suddenly appear to tell us that this song and the EP it comes from are getting some good press and that band all like football apart from Emma. Such banalities seem at odds with the remainder of the video as it moves into strobe and wall of noise territory. All of this sounds overblown, I know, but put yourself in the shoes (scuffed DMs obvs) of a 15-year-old me. This was new and it was strange and it was fucking magical. I was now a Lush fan. That’s all it took.

The Top five indie singles that week shows what rude health the scene was in at this time. Sitting just above Lush are NYC Velvets revivalists Galaxie 500 with a video that looks like David Lynch’s last minute homework. By way of massive contrast, the next video is Depeche Mode’s ode on shutting up, Enjoy the Silence. Clearly, it’s a massive single but the video’s atmospherics don’t seem out of place here. More country rambling (with crowns this time) and a sort of lo-fi wonkiness that probably cost plenty to achieve. The top three are super familiar and demonstrate the commercial longevity of baggy and indie-dance. Andrew Weatherall’s reworked Loaded sees Primal Scream caning it to the max at number three while a stupidly young and massively groovy Tim Burgess leads his Charlatans through Indian Rope at number two (so young and groovy that they don’t even get a video ­ just a still of Tim). Finally, the top spot goes to yet more outside capering in the form of Stone Roses’ Elephant Stone. The fact that these three singles are still heard pretty regularly shows how much Madchester and its crossover offshoots changed the pop landscape. It also marks the moment I packed away the hoodies and flares and sought out the second hand stinko uniform I would need for my move into full indie kid status.

After that ITV epiphany, I went to Our Price after school and bought as much Lush as I could. That amounted to two things. A copy of the six-track Scar on tape and Sweetness and Light on twelve inch. I’m sad to say that the tape is long gone (now bought on vinyl from a record stall in Scarborough a couple of years ago). The single, however, is still with me and is a seriously treasured item. How could it not be? Sweetness and Light is immense. It is Lush at their weirdest, their most ambiguous and the record that shows how short-sighted journalists were when trying to put a label on their sound. Even when I fell out of love with indie later in the 90s (all the fault of Aphex Twin, jungle and the unrelenting shitness of Britpop) I would play Sweetness and Light. I still play it. I am playing it right now. You should too.

In fact, eulogising about this song is how I left it when I contacted Miki Berenyi. It seemed a good place to round off our conversation. News of a new band called Piroshka seemed like a good place to pick it back up again. Miki’s Twitter feed shared press announcements that revealed an indie all-star team were releasing an LP and going on tour. The band comprises Miki, FX and feedback legend Moose (from the band Moose), bass wizard Michael Conroy from Modern English and Elastica’s drummer Justin Welch and their stuff was coming out on Bella Union. Good stuff. One of the gigs was scheduled for Leeds’ best venue (probably the north’s best venue) the Brudenell Social Club. Great stuff. I emailed Miki and asked if me and my colleague Rob could interview her for an as yet undefined piece of writing. She said yes. Terrifying stuff.

All of my confidence about our various music and writing projects suddenly seemed outweighed by a double dose of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be making any kind of weighty scholarly claims about indie culture? Who was I to sit down with an indie superhero? Was I actually just an oldish bloke finding comfort in his records and his memories? I feared being found out. I feared looking like a dick. I feared becoming an amusing story for indie stars to chuckle at as they sipped indie cocktails in the indie members club. The nearer it got to the interview, the worse it got. I couldn’t sleep. I had, shall we say, an unpredictable tummy. I even started smoking again (any excuse). I wrote and rewrote questions. I downloaded five different Dictaphone apps so that I would look like I knew what I was doing. I stressed out over whether to wear a cool t-shirt. Would my 4AD one be too cringey? Would wearing another band t-shirt be insulting? Or, should I just go for that other staple of middle aged indie men, the checked shirt? Should I have a few drinks beforehand to settle my nerves? What if I seemed too pissed and blasé? What if I dropped food down myself?

It was a fucking nightmare. I am a fucking nightmare.

All of the stress, as it so often is, was a waste of time. It was ace. Miki is ace. When we got there, Miki and the band were mid soundcheck and then had to eat. She texted us with updates about how good her Brudenell scran was and we listened to the soundcheck from the bar. It was exciting. I had a list of questions and some idea of what I wanted to find out about Miki’s take on music and memory. I wanted to know about being on small labels and about how songs come about. I wanted to know about Lush playing in small London venues. I wanted to know about Lush playing at Lolloapalooza with a mad smorgasbord of American superstars and I wanted to ask about how her brilliantly curated Twitter feed helped to make sense of her long career. I got all of this and loads more. I’ve never written up an interview before so here goes.

There are three things to note about talking to Miki Berenyi. She is fucking clever. She is fucking funny. She swears a fucking lot. She was immediately open about her song writing process with Lush and how this differed from Piroshka, telling us that she and Emma ‘wrote separately, and it was very much one person’s vision of the song plus the producer that we were working with’. Piroshka, meanwhile, didn’t use a producer because they ‘didn’t have any fucking money’. I mean, this type of info is the dream start to an interview with an indie star. The process of creation as one that is fractured, challenging and limited by finance is sort of how I always imagined it would be. Then I asked about labels and, again, found out that lots of assumptions I had made about the creative and community atmosphere in indie land were in fact not far from the truth. To set this up a little, it is worth making it clear that Bella Union’s head honcho is Simon Raymonde who was the bass player in gigantic 4AD act Cocteau Twins. This is the kind of indie lineage I love. Miki says that, the label is, ‘very much like a family and everyone is very friendly.’ The Piroshka album is densely layered in terms of instrumentation and many of the session players came together through the label. ‘Bella Union is great in terms of making connections, everyone is good people, you know what I mean? It’s not like cold business. There’s fuck all money there, so everyone has to rely on good will.’ Certain labels are a mark of quality for the punter. It seems that this is the case for the practitioner too. Good to note also that making good music for the sake of it, for some at least, still trumps making shite music for cash.

Up to this bit of the interview, we had been sitting to the side of the stage but then the drum techs got going so we moved to the bar. Me and my colleague Rob, his wife Julia, and our indie hero Miki Berenyi walk into a bar. It was a bar with the Liverpool and Spurs match on from that day. The rise and fall of the crowd inside Anfield is clearly audible on the recording and sounds a bit like we are interviewing before 50,000 people. I still can’t quite get my head round it. I’m not a music journalist so this sort of stuff doesn’t happen to me. I am a fan first and then maybe an academic (although I’m still working that bit out) so forgive me if the rest of the interview goes in slightly weird directions.

 Rob’s chapter in the book I keep mentioning, as you already know, is about bands reforming. I have seen my 4AD heroes more in the last decade than I ever did in the 90s. Lush had their own reunion tour and put out some new music so that was what we asked about next. What are the reasons that bands keep doing this? Money? Nostalgia? Boredom? Why did Lush choose to join the reformed bands scene? ‘I was very ambivalent about the Lush thing, not least because of how it ended in the first place (Lush’s drummer Chris Acland tragically took his own life in 1996, an event that Miki described later in the interview as ‘like an atomic bomb going off’) and I was quite worried about it getting a bit fucked up. I was really surprised that people even remembered Lush or even cared so the fact that they did is quite a testament to us. I didn’t know because I wasn’t on social media or anything and I thought that we might sully all that in some way.’ Miki has a point here, there’s something about bands getting back together for an arena tour with merch and big money tickets that cynics might see as cashing in. While the bands that I’ve seen getting back together have been great (Belly, Breeders and Ride in particular), I hear from friends who are more Britpop inclined that some of those reunions have been, for want of a better term, dog shit. Some of the bigger players on the US alt-rock scene (cough, Smashing Pumpkins, cough) have become little more than the overblown stadium acts that they once railed against. With this in mind then, what convinced a clearly sceptical Miki to give it a go? ‘It was Slowdive, I thought they did it really well. It was quite classy, and it wasn’t too end-of-the-pier and cashing in, do you know what I mean? Especially as they weren’t all that big the first time around, so it just felt that it seemed like it was about the music. It felt like something new and I quite liked that.’

The epitome of shoegaze, Slowdive’s return has been handled beautifully. They, like Lush, returned with a killer new track. Star Roving is astonishing and, to my ears, the best song they’ve ever recorded. Similarly, Lush came back with the Blind Spot EP which contains Out of Control, a song that could have easily featured in one of my beloved ‘indie singles’ top tens. When bands do the return well, it is so often around great new material. The Breeders’ All Nerve LP is magnificent and Belly’s Dove a marvel. Playing a set that merges the old and new means that these tours are more than nostalgia. They are a mix of looking backwards and forwards and a reminder of the exciting song craft that got you so hooked in the first place. Bands that are cashing in are never going to do it well. Indie is supposed to be about more than greatest hits sets. Bands are not playlists. This is something that Miki is all too aware of, saying that a friend told her that, ‘you have to find a reason to do it other than money otherwise it will be fucking awful’. It turns out that one of the main reasons for her getting involved in the newly touring Lush was pretty personal. ‘It would be quite nice for my kids to see that I’d actually done this. There’s a whole part of my life that they know nothing about’. Ever the music fan, she worries that reformed bands are ‘clogging up the system when we should be hearing new things’. For her, the reformed bands have to be offering something ‘creative and new’. They have to rehearse and be ‘fucking good’. For those that are willing to put the work in, there are other advantageous factors in place. ‘When people are older, they’re less likely to be completely fucked on stage. When you’re young you’re more likely to just say fuck it, it’ll be alright. There’s also the fact that the technology now works, back in the day you had no chance with backing tapes, everything was totally out of sync.’

So, playing live is one way to update the past and rejuvenate our memories. What else is there? Well, as I said above, Miki’s Twitter feed is remarkable. There are photos of Lush, photos of other indie luminaries, long forgotten indie also rans, snippets from the press, diary pages, ticket stubs, wristbands and all sorts of bits and pieces. It’s like a museum of indie and it’s all curated with self-deprecating humour and an openness to conversation and chat. Miki’s not actually a fan of social media and only got involved when Lush reformed. Her initial reaction to the suggestion she started a Twitter feed was, ‘oh for fuck’s sake, alright I’ll have a go. I kept looking at what other people do, and I thought I can’t do that sort of thing. You know, fucking Trump and this is what I think of fucking Gove or whatever, you know, who gives a shit what I think? I thought the only thing I could do that would be quite charming and fun was all this Lush stuff. Then I thought there’s also this sweet stuff from some little band at the Clarendon (The Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmith, site of many fine indie gigs in the late 80s and early 90s) and from that period. It was actually like doing a school project rather than trying to build a profile.’

That period. It was only a short while, but it takes up so much of my brain. It was when I formed friendships that I still have. It was when I sort of became who I am now. It was when I bought records I still play. It was when I went to gigs in London and fell in love with Camden. So, self-indulgently, the indie scene in and around Camden and Hammersmith is what I asked about next: ‘it really started for me with me being in a band and meeting other people who were in bands, albeit very small. Like, the Valentines all lived in Kentish Town. It was local and you’d get called up asked to do a support. You could literally get a gig the next week and you’d just say yeah alright we’ll do it. There was always a really good community. There were all these little localised scenes and it was as much about the community around it. Fanzines and everyone bootlegging tapes and just being fans. Sometimes when people describe scenes, it all sounds terribly elitist like it’s some groovy bunch of people who only hang out with each other but that wasn’t the case at all. It was a free for all. All sorts of odd people, you know, whatever age, whatever gender, that’s what was so great about those scenes.’ Scenes are great in the moment, but it seems they become sullied with retelling. ‘Once the music press discover it, they try to form a pattern out of it and there isn’t a fucking pattern it’s just a pub where people go.’

From the small scale and the local, then, to the trans-Atlantic. Lush took part in Jane’s Addiction leader Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza tour in 1992. For a teenage punter like me, this was another universe. It belonged with such exotic things as the Seattle scene, CBGBs and Woodstock. You would read about it in the NME (in fact Lush bassist Phil King wrote a diary of the tour for that very rag) and see bits of footage here and there. The bands involved were all part of that moment when American indie went mega-boom and seemed to take over everything. Lush’s main stage mates were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Ice Cube and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Huge bands with power chords, big shorts and tops off, a controversial and antagonistic hip hop artist and Scottish blokes involved in an eternal sulk with each other. It seemed so odd at the time that a band with a complex and sensitive sound would take the stage with such a macho line up. It still seems odd now. It’s like once the alternative boom happened the scenes got muddled up. Pre Nevermind, you knew your industrial from your Glaswegian noise and your grunge from your shoegaze. Suddenly, all bets were off. If you have long hair and look like you might graffiti an anarchy sign on the back on a toilet door then you’re in! If you listen carefully you can hear the NME and Melody Maker gatekeepers tripping over each other as they rush towards you. If you look at the horizon you can see the bookers from Rapido and The Word punching each other out of the way. It was a musical free for all and Lollapalooza seemed to be the epitome of all this. As a fan, I liked the local and accessible. Indie made sense because, despite the strangeness and intellectual ambiguity of the sound and aesthetic, you could imagine being in band just like your heroes (although, to be fair, all of my own efforts were beyond shit). Giant stages and Flea’s cock sock were not quite the same.

How did it feel for Lush? ‘What was really good about that Lollapalooza was that it was only the second one, it was still quite a new thing, and everyone was really excited about it. We were like fucking hell we’re on this bill with all these really fucking heavy bands. Pearl Jam actually were booked to be on after us and then they got massively popular and their fame went fucking ballistic. But Pearl Jam being really lovely guys said they would still go on just after us and that was great because loads of people turned up early to watch them.’

From my telly screen, Lollapalooza always looked sort of corporate and hierarchical, but Miki says that this was only really the case in later years when it became ‘first stage, second stage, VIP this, guest list that’. The year that Lush joined though was ‘really loose’ and ‘bands were hanging out with each other, people were riding on each other’s buses, it was really good fun. People wanted to be friendly, it was like joining a circus.’ All of this is really refreshing to hear. It sounds as if, when it comes down to it, bands are bands. It’s only when the press and the sponsors get involved that it all gets crappy. For an indie fan, that’s good to hear.

In fact, it’s the press that come in for a bit of kicking as our conversation draws to a close. Their simplistic categorising of scenes and regional movements has, with the passing of time, revealed some unpleasantness about the music media of the early to mid 90s. This is especially the case when compared to the way that bloggers and social media users are now offering detailed reviews of bands and sharing them directly with the performers themselves. ‘People write quite involved reviews and they work really hard at saying something positive which I don’t think is a bad thing. This is probably why the music papers have died a death. When I look back on the music press it is important to remember that they gave lots of young writers from all sorts of classes a chance to get involved. You could be some kid in Glasgow and get your review from a gig at King Tuts out there. But, on the negative side, when some of the journalists decided that they would slag a band off it left lot of fans quite isolated. Suddenly there was no place to get your happy information from. It’s like every time Ned’s Atomic Dustbin get mentioned it’s just slagging them off. So, where do fans find their connection?’

Fans will remember the familiar process. Find a scene, name a scene, destroy a scene. ‘It’s a way to diminish it all. Some of it was just like fucking trolling really. Anything that a band did would be met with some sneering comment. I think the music press got a bit out of control and went very tabloid. I know it’s fine to have a bit of rapier wit going on, but it got to the point where they were either totally up someone’s arse and that band couldn’t put a foot wrong while other people were shot down and bullied. I really remember it with that whole Manchester thing. It was juxtaposed with shoegaze. We were all supposed to be soft southern wankers and Oxford kids against all the having-it-large Mancs. Half the fucking writers saying this had been to Oxford and it’s not like Slowdive were part of the landed gentry. It was like, if you’re in with us we’ll overlook any problems, if you’re not then we’ll fucking go for you.’

This sort of petty tribalism only got worse as Britpop arrived. Alongside the depressingly reactionary sounds and English exceptionalism came a new celebration of crass boorishness. Being a dick was supposedly just an ironic take on British culture. No, it wasn’t. it was being a dick (chasing page three girls around in your video, really?). The music press dutifully played their part in this shift downwards to tabloid idiocy. I was at Uni during the moronic Blur/Oasis thing (for the record I thought both were terrible and still do) and it was a bad as you probably think it was. Stupid coked up men in shit bands slagging each other off. Videos and magazines that had all the sophistication of the Benny Hill Show. This was indie culture? Nope, this was the sort of crap I’d tried to avoid by getting into indie in the first place. For Blur and Oasis in the mid 90s, read hair metal in the 80s or Pharrell and Robin Thicke more recently. It’s dull, corporate nonsense. Britpop’s finest were thoroughly obnoxious in that way stupid coked up men in shit bands usually are. But they got away with it thanks to a compliant press eager for easy stories. The sense that we were back to a big boys’ club was palpable.

‘Because the press bought into it all wholesale, there was no real challenge to some of the outright misogyny amongst some of those bands. I thought it was remarkable that they weren’t going to mention the way that they were talking about women at all. You know, you’re a journalist, do your fucking job properly. When you get that kind of ‘women in rock’ cliché that the NME or the Melody Maker would do every now and again, I think it was quite well intentioned, but the problem is that it immediately puts you in a niche. You also end up with people who should know better, people who you thought were in your own tribe, going along with it and then turning on someone like me and saying shut up, you’re spoiling the party. So, you think, really? Ok, that’s interesting, a few years ago you were all Greenham Common.’

Miki says she felt, ‘betrayed by her own’ as the 90s moved into their second half and I get what she means. All of the progressive politics and intellectually ambitious art sort of went out of the window the day that Alan McGee and the Gallaghers decided that world domination was on their to-do list.

Like loads of indie kids, I had a tantrum in the late 90s. I walked away from it all. I went to clubs, raved in festival dance tents and got more interested in decks than shoegaze FX. Indie and lad culture had got themselves into a dumbed down and drooling Faustian pact. Between the late 90s and the middle of the noughties, I don’t think I bought any guitar music at all. I missed out on all of the NYC hipster stuff and gleefully absented myself from the surge of landfill indie dominating the radio and the arena gig scene. My label love shifted to Warp, Rephlex and Ninja Tune. It was in these places that I found those same complexities and juxtapositions that I’d always sought out in 4AD.

Then I grew up a bit. I saw Pixies at V2005 (awful festival BTW) and loved it. I pined for indie. I wanted jangly, chiming guitars and off centre ideas. I realised that I could like both. I could lose my shit at an indie gig just as much as I could watching Orbital and their techno specs. And that’s sort of been the way ever since. I love loads of labels now. As well as 4AD, there’s Heavenly (30 years old now), good old Rough Trade, my exciting American lover Sub Pop, loads of esoteric and magical dance labels and, appropriately enough for this ending, Bella Union. I say appropriate as I want to end up with me, Rob and Julia watching Miki and her band in the Brudenell gig room. It was only last year but the thrill of watching humans make extraordinary noise together was a fresh as it had been when I stood in those same rooms in 1991. Bella Union make me feel the same things that 4AD always have. Their roster is impeccable. Decisions are made based on music. Their artists can make me spiral through the full gamut of emotion with a simple riff or turn of phrase (John Grant gigs are overwhelming in their power, intensity and intelligence). Their artwork is cool. Plus, they have the Miki seal of approval.

If our interview with her proved anything it was that all my dearly held ideas about indie authenticity were sort of true. As I get older, it can be easy to dismiss the stuff I used to believe in as naïve or posturing rubbish. I get more cynical and less trustful. Miki’s love of music and her insistence that the music comes first is evidence to the contrary. I can believe in good music people and the labels that help them. If that’s the case, then staying loyal to 4AD for so long actually means something. It gives me a moral and cultural framework of sorts. People exist that do things for the right reasons and that is always going to be something worth my loyalty. If they keep doing it then I’ll keep buying it. I’ll probably keep banging on about it too. Just not on the radio.

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 5 Big Stack of Thick Books

Jesus, where do I start with Kristin Hersh? This is going to be the hardest bit of this to write. She is slippery and phantom like. She never stands still. She is ambiguous and all powerful. If someone asked me what 4AD looked like and sounded like, it would be a glance at her shadow or a brief look through the emotional and intellectual kaleidoscope you get from her music, writing, art and performances. This isn’t even the first time I’ve tried to write about her. In the collection I mentioned earlier, Music, Memory and Memoir, I wrote a chapter about her book, Paradoxical Undressing, a book that revisits a massive year for an 18-year-old Kristin and her colleagues in Throwing Muses. Hersh rewrites her teenage diaries and works in impressionistic fragments of memory and abstract moments of lyricism from her prodigious output. It’s a remarkable book. Half the battle when writing critical analysis about it was in avoiding gushing praise. Part of me wanted to write a chapter that simply said, ‘this book is fucking brilliant’ and leave it there. Reading that book for the first time was something of a personal and professional epiphany. I’d always seen music books as a sort of hobby or as summer pleasure. They were a far cry from material I taught each week and a billion miles from the American war fiction that filled my PhD. Somehow, books written by musicians or about musicians seemed unworthy of serious thought. Years of studying in various lit departments had ingrained a kind of canonical snobbery in me that meant reading 500 pages about the history of Creation Records or an even longer oral history of the Seattle boom felt like cheating. These books were the copy of the Beano that I had to hide inside my broadsheet newspaper. Paradoxical Undressing changed that. It’s innovations and stylistic adventurousness could not be described as anything other than literary. It’s commentaries on mental health, work, creativity, culture and the beauty of unfinished products lend themselves to discussions that equal those found on any reading list (I actually include the book on an MA module that I run now). It bridged the gap. Admittedly, this was a gap that I had constructed myself. It was a space between what I felt I should be reading and teaching and what I wanted to read. This book meant I could engage with what I loved and what I do for a living. I’d always envied academics and teachers who sort of loved their work in ways that I could never manage. Don’t get me wrong, I adore teaching and reading carefully and thoughtfully are the only things that can save us all now.  But this book was the first that meant the piles or old records and a life spent in gigs could be interwoven with seminar rooms, curriculum decisions and my research outputs. The book was also the spark for my work with Rob and Helen. They had been having the same kind of responses to a range of other texts by figures like Tracey Thorn, Tom Hingley and Cud. Our corridor chats tuned to plans and, hey presto, a mere three years later we had a book. The Hersh influence on that book doesn’t end there either. Halfway through putting it together, Me and Rob and our wives Nic and Julia went to see Kristin Hersh perform at the Crescent in York. I always say that gigs are better than they were (this has got much worse since Twitter) but this one was genuinely life changing. She read pieces of creative writing, played those trademark compositions with their odd tempos and frightening lyrical pictures and made us all laugh a lot. She sat on the tiny stage on a big stool and fucking owned the room. It was serious and stupid. It was studied and adhoc. It was highbrow and punk. Julia took a picture of her guitar and this now adorns the front cover of our book.

I won’t go into loads of detail about Paradoxical Undressing here (you can read the book for that) but there is one thing that I need to mention. The second half of the book sees Kristin and her band (including half-sister Tanya Donnelly) trying to get Throwing Muses to make the leap from popular local outfit to a band with a deal. The problem is, as I’m sure many bands have found, that record label A&R men are mostly wankers. The band have dinners with them, and they come away deeply unimpressed by the ‘orange men’ and their coked up hubris. The industry stinks. It wants creative control and aesthetic final say. It’s all money and ego and the antithesis of the band’s playful authentic spirit.

Apart from one bloke who makes polite enquiries on the phone. Apart from one bloke who wants to give the band a chance on their own artistic terms. Apart from one bloke whose patience and good manners help the band make a seismic recording. Apart from one bloke who sits in opposition to all the egomaniacal nonsense usually associated with label visionaries and Svengalis. An unassuming bloke with a weird name.

The quiet determination and artistic single-mindedness that define Ivo Watts-Russell are a blessed relief from the situationist superiority espoused by Tony Wilson at Factory and the childish drug boasts that always accompanied the success Alan McGee forged with Creation. Please don’t misunderstand me, I love both of those labels and their products sit proudly on my record shelves and in my t-shirt drawer. It’s just that I know deep down that the two men in question would not be my cup of tea. I’m a bit old fashioned and quite like modesty and decency. Hubris fills me with trepidation and people banging on about their epic pill binges are as dull as dull can be. Kristin Hersh gets this. Her book is full of tales in which Ivo’s strange sense of humour and sideways take on the world around him chime with her own. To Kristin, his disembodied telephone voice belongs to a ‘six-year-old in a bowler hat’. His creative and critical singularity come from a ‘misguided angel’.

In the summer of 2015, I submitted my PhD thesis and about a fortnight later went to the lovely Greek island of Samos for a week of sun, feta and colourful booze (I also got loads of mosquito bites thrown in for free). Whenever I go on this type of holiday, part of the pleasure is a big stack of thick books. These are usually books you can lose yourself in. They have intricate plots and Dickensian caricatures. Often, this will be a big American novel by someone like John Irving or Donna Tartt. For this holiday though, I wanted to get away from American fiction for a bit (and certainly from issues around violence, masculinity and myth which I had been struggling to theorise in my thesis for the previous four years). I chose music writing. As I said above, until I read Paradoxical Undressing, music writing was always an escape hatch. So, instead of a stonking great multi-generational New England saga or dark tales about stolen paintings or fucked-up university students, I went for a pile of label histories. I took David Cavanagh’s, My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize: The Creation Records Story, Mick Middles’ Factory: The Story of the Label and Martin Aston’s Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD. These three books comprise just short of 2000 pages of detail, analysis, gossip, myth and scandal. Yep, you guessed it. The label histories and the big novels are pretty much the same. I should have clocked the word ‘story’ on all three covers; it was a bit of a giveaway. McGee, Wilson and Watts-Russell may as well have been Twist, Copperfield and Nickleby. These are three picaresque figures defined by their creative drive, their terrible business decisions and their folk hero status. They tumble through the texts making friends and enemies. Their bands’ output is their alchemy and the aesthetic of the label becomes an indelible cultural stamp. The one difference is that, unlike McGee and Wilson, Ivo Watts-Russell sounds like a nice bloke. The bristling world of revenge, machismo and competition is not really for him. He is a quiet man surrounded by great artists. He’s not a wanker. Here’s how Martin Aston describes him and his label in the introduction to his book.

“Ivo-Watts Russell was more of recluse than a media-savvy self-promoter, and 4AD had no recognisable ties to the zeitgeist – nor to any cultural trend, in fact. All of that, Ivo felt, was irrelevant; only the artefact mattered – the music and its exquisite packaging.”

Aston devotes a healthy chunk of his book to the coming together of Throwing Muses and Watts-Russell and his initial description of the man is borne out in the way that both parties recount their conversations. Hersh told Aston that, ‘Ivo and I would talk about everything but the music industry, which was easy because that didn’t interest either of us’. Their conversations instead included ‘rose diseases, interesting animals, crazy shit that we saw’. As in Paradoxical Undressing, Hersh makes it clear that ‘he was essentially a child in a man’s body’. From Ivo’s perspective, it is those fabled oppositions and complexities that attract him to Throwing Muses and suggest that they would make an ideal fit for the label. The music is ‘hard and aggressive’ but also contains ‘beauty’.

My ears are far less sophisticated than those belonging to label wizards, but I can hear that Throwing Muses are certainly weirder than anything else I’ve tried to describe here so far. The four band members, Kristin, Tanya, bass player Leslie Langston and drummer Dave Narcizo pull in different rhythmic directions. Songs make sonic and thematic handbrake turns. It is indie but also something stranger and murkier. Songs explore spatial constructs, blurred memories, the pain of desire and the intensity of artistic creation itself. They are melodic and sweet but then jarring and angular. All of these things take you by surprise. I must have listened to Hunkpapa, for example, (it’s literally on my turntable as I write this) at least a hundred times but the switches still catch me out. Sometimes this happens within songs and sometimes in the curation of the LP itself. Angel is about as near as the record gets to a conventional pop song but then this is followed by the trippy country punk of Mania. Kristin’s voices runs up and down a scale. The song drops away to a claustrophobic bass line and then builds again with spiralling guitar and frenetic drum patterns. Its fucking frightening. It’s also fucking clever. Never ever could you just pop this on. Throwing Muses records demand your attention and your participation. Get involved and make sense then, when you listen again, abandon all of those ideas and start again. They challenge you and confront you. The music is an encouraging punch in the face and an addictive kick in the ears.

Then, of course, there is the Tanya Donnelly factor. To use another Venn diagram (I really like them), she is the centre of Breeders, Belly and Throwing Muses. The three bands sound very different but are glued together by her song writing and musicianship. Her melodies are sweeter than Kristin Hersh’s but her guitar playing is more abrasive and sonically challenging than either of the Deal twins. She carries that same complexity that I’ve been banging on about the whole time. Nowhere is this clearer than in the magical Not Too Soon. Most Throwing Muses songs are Hersh compositions and are brilliantly fucked. Just see the analysis above for why. In 1991, the Real Ramona LP contained three songs written by Tanya Donnelly and Not Too Soon is one of them. It’s a stone cold indie pop belter. It has perfect vocal interplay, a festival-friendly melody and gorgeous warm production. So far, so good but where is the trademark complexity? Where are the odd turns? Well, they are right there in the chorus. It doesn’t have any words. It has Tanya making sort of growly, throaty noises. They follow the melody of the guitar and sort of make fun of it. So, like the video for Safari, this is a band who can make perfect pop music but make fun of it in a kind of meta way. Writing a great guitar hook and then showing how absurd great guitar hooks probably are is about as 4AD as you can get. The artists take their music seriously but are self-aware and witty enough to also poke a tongue out at themselves for being such muso bores.

As I’ve tried to make clear, these oppositions, paradoxes and oxymorons are what I relish in art generally and in 4AD’s roster specifically. The music makes me work hard. It’s approach to releases means that my senses run smack into each other. To see is to hear is to feel is to read. As a fan, this is an endlessly renewing thrill. As someone who works with words, it’s a chance to try and shape all of this into critical and intellectual arguments. I think I’m getting there with this but there are still mistakes and fuck ups ready to be made.

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 4 Cool Thing in Leeds

I’ve been to three Belly gigs and they were all marvellous. The second one was 21 years after the first one. The third one was two years after that. This is the way now with bands you love. In the book that I put together with my colleagues Helen and Rob, we examined the ways that music, memory and storytelling all coalesce in forming selfhood. Watching bands is a big part of this. Bands that we loved when we were kids split up and form part of the sepia of our youth, right? Not any more, they don’t. They get back together and do tours. They do what Rob suggests in our book, they don’t ever really break up, they go on ‘hiatus’. Pixies started this. They’ve now been ‘back together’ much longer than they existed in the first phase. As an old person, I’ve seen bands that defined my ideas of me as a young person much more than I ever did when I was an actual young person. The list is long and I have a crappy memory but it includes Mudhoney, Ride, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Dinosaur Jr. I’ve seen some bands that I never saw in the first place. Pixies, Happy Mondays and Breeders included. The gigs are a bit different now of course. Pints are shitter but much more expensive. There are loads of angry people around who think the gig is just for them (thanks Thatcherism). There are loads of phones pointed at the stage which makes the angry people even angrier. The tickets cost about the same as a small mortgage and you have to buy them several decades in advance. High vis jackets are the dominant vibe. Plus, I stand at the back now. No moshing or crowd surfing for me (although I always hated both of those things anyway. Getting booted in the head by a stinky grebo is so much worse than someone nearby using a phone). Despite all of my historical and contemporary moaning (I am pretty consistent in this regard), I love gigs. I love gigs in tiny rooms, I love gigs on the toilet scene, I love gigs in arenas, I’ve even enjoyed a stadium gig (but only one) and I love gigs at festivals. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still stand up for a couple of hours for a band. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still put up with the ringing ears and the mid-range hangover at work the next day. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still look after the ticket stub, buy a t-shirt and feel blessed if the bass player acknowledges me saying ‘nice one mate’ in the bar.

I’ve got a stack of Belly records, but it is the three gigs that really define my relationship with them. That’s not to say that I don’t adore their recorded output, I really do. Tanya Donnelly is a wonderful songwriter and the band share that same swing between opposites and blurring of binaries that define 4AD for me. The references to folklore and fairy tale are both dark and sentimental. The shifts between adult rationality and the ambiguous spaces of childhood drive their clever melodies, anthemic choruses and Tanya’s unique voice. They are probably the most pop sounding of all the 4AD bands I love but this isn’t a bad thing, especially at a gig. Sometimes I want gigs to be stupidly intense experiences. I want to be blown away by a noise band, float up to the ceiling at a sound system or sweat myself to techno oblivion in front of skilful men from Detroit. None of this is what I want from Belly gigs. I want to hang on every sound and hear every word. I want to be told stories and have pictures painted for me. I am like a child sat cross legged and enchanted at the local library (remember them?) story time. Belly tell stories. Stories about women with dogs on their back, stories about falling out of windows backwards, stories about frogs and stories about trees. They are weird and twisted stories. These are the best type. I love music and I love storytelling and Belly do both of these things.

The first gig was at Glastonbury in 1995. It was my first Glastonbury and it was about as Glastonbury an experience as Glastonbury can be. There are already too many pieces of writing that mythologise Glastonbury, so I won’t add to them here. There are lots of clichés out there, so I’ll try to avoid that too. There are also lots of bullshit ‘back in the day stories’ from old and grumpy punters, so I’ll give them a miss as well. Suffice to say, yes, Glastonbury is beyond big. It can be fucking mental. When it rains and it gets muddy, it’s an awful experience. And, of course, it was different when you could jump the fence. For a start, you now get to miss out on the thrill of being robbed, fleeced or chased by gangs of scary crims. One more thing before I move on, I have a message for the endless online voices who say, ‘Oh, Glastonbury is just a middle class wank fest now’. Wind your neck in. It was always this. Look at the old footage. Look at the Eavis family, for fuck’s sake. Making this claim doesn’t make you some sort of class warrior edge lord. It just makes you much more of a cliché than the kids from suburbs with hair wraps and small bags of weed you are so keen to call out.  Glastonbury is ace. It’s unique. It’s the place where I enjoyed Belly a great deal.

So, it’s 1995 and I have long hair (with a hair wrap and a small bag of weed) and I’m at Glastonbury. I went with some mates and met up with some more there. I didn’t actually see that many bands. I saw Orbital, Tricky, Earthling, G-Love and Special Sauce, the Massive Attack sound system, plenty of nameless DJs at the Joe Bananas blanket stall. And Belly.

Belly was the best bit. I was an outlier at this festival. I still liked jangly indie pop. I also liked jungle, acid and all of the new Bristol sounds. These were the tunes we all liked and that got played at each other’s houses and on friends’ car stereos. Lots of my mates had once liked indie but, like pious ex-smokers, now disavowed it with religious fervour. They had chucked their Teenage Fanclub t-shirts out and claimed they never liked Mega City Four. They now read Jockey Slut and claimed the NME was for bourgeois wankers (it was). They took down their bluetacked ticket stubs from the Astoria, Town and Country Club and Brixton Academy and replaced them with psychedelic flyers, free festival wristbands and ‘kill the bill’ mementos of a day out playing at protest. But I still liked it. I still listened to Thousand Yard Stare and Ride and Babes in Toyland and Mudhoney. Yes, I also loved Grooverider, Jeff Mills and Laurent Garnier but I couldn’t see why one culture had to exclude the other. I’ve never been one for tribalism, I suppose. So, on the Saturday morning, you can imagine the response when I asked if anyone fancied coming with me to the NME stage to watch Belly that afternoon. My mates queued up to make it clear that Belly were not cool enough for them and that, yes, I should fuck off. Only my friend Christy felt sorry for me. Only my friend Christy agreed to go with me. Only my friend Christy checked if I still had a small bag of weed and if it was going to make an appearance while we were watching Belly.

So, me and Christy and my small bag of weed found a spot near the front to watch Belly. There are some videos of the performance online. Some are recordings of the official Channel 4 footage of the band playing Super Connected. These are a great watch and have all the onstage close ups you expect from Glastonbury coverage. Sure, the VHS recordings off someone’s Dad’s telly are a bit ropey but it’s not too bad. There is one video that is remarkable though. A bloke calling himself Scottish TeeVee has uploaded the whole gig as filmed from his own spot in the crowd. He’s near the front and stage left. Of course, this is far from unique these days. Everybody and their dog films gigs. Not so much in 1995. Doing it then was rare. This time it meant using a camcorder for a whole gig down the front at Glastonbury. Sure, the footage is shaky, there are comical zooms and pans and the sound is muffled but you have to admire this as a feat of endurance. You also have to admire the fact that it’s lasted this long without being chucked out or having Match of the Day taped over it. Better than the footage of the band in this instance is the footage of the crowd around Mr TeeVee. It’s so fucking 90s. There are bucket hats, undercuts, hardly any beards, no mobiles anywhere and lots and lots of smoke. People look tired and frazzled by the sun. Nobody looks enthusiastic. Plenty of people probably need a piss and are wondering whether their mate’s small bag of weed is really worth all the trouble. Onstage, the Belly dynamic between Tanya and bass player Gail Greenwood is in full effect. Visually, this is what you always take away from Belly gigs. Tanya is mostly still, when she dances the movements are small. She is dressed like a hippy. Floral clothes and pinky-purple shades. Gail is the visual binary. She rocks out. Leather trousers with one foot up on the monitor. Her bass guitar slung low and fired from the hip. She is the rock n’ roll monster to Tanya’s indie sprite. Oppositions and contrasts again. The videos are helpful as my own memories of the gig are sketchy at best. I remember singing along to Feed the Tree and chatting to two kids about their homegrown grass (by ‘chatting’ I mean scrounging some of course). Me and Christy were stood stage right and could see the Channel 4 crew and their cherry picker camera set up. I was worried my mum might see me all stoned and messy on the telly. I know I enjoyed it. I know it was some respite from all the trance and crusties at the Joe Bananas stall. I also know that I enjoyed the two other gigs a bit more.

It’s fair to say that 2016 was a shit year. Brexit, Trump, good people dying, football violence. It really had it all. The years since haven’t been much better. However, the 16th July was good for two reasons. Number one: it was my wedding anniversary, and my wife and I always do cool stuff on that day to celebrate. The cool thing that year was the second reason this date was so good. We went to see Belly in Leeds. I’d sort of given up on Belly reuniting for gigs. I’d followed Tanya’s solo career and bought most of the albums. The year before this gig, I’d bought a collection called The Swan Song Series which sort of suggested that this was the end. I was sad but also happy knowing I’d always have hours of Tanya’s music to listen to. Like Belly always suggested it would, her music’s country melancholy and counter cultural folksiness had come to the foreground. That’s ok. I’m a little bit country after all. But a new Belly tour? Nah, wasn’t going to happen. Wrong. They played for ages. So long, in fact, that the gig was split in to two parts. No support band, just Belly song after Belly song. They sounded better than the 90s, which might be down to me being less fucked (no small bag of weed this time) or them being less fucked or us all being less fucked. Better sound techs too I imagine. Oh, and it was in a small SU building rather than a sun-baked Somerset field full of drug-baked caners. The age of the crowd was up in its 40s, the band even older. Rather than worrying about getting served at the bar and nervously fingering fake ID, punters at this gig put off calling the babysitter or tried to talk their way out of DIY obligations that were planned for the following day. Whereas the Glastonbury gig had been a curious blend of haze, size and boredom, this one was all about warmth. They were funny, expert and knowing. The songs were dark and familiar and strange and comforting. That 4AD blend once more. Hard to beat, right?


In the space of a fortnight in 2018 I got to see the Breeders and Belly. I saw two of my five 4AD touchstones over the same period it took to organise a gas engineer to finally come out and look at my stove. Life’s myriad other irritants seemed less of a bother. The usual trepidation I have about being out late and the inevitable brain ache that follows were less of a worry. Two bands, two gigs. Two chances to wear my 4AD t-shirt and show off my indie cred. Both bands had new LPs to share. Breeders All Nerve had the Last Splash line up back together and featured the ridiculous and glorious noise of Wait In the Car. Belly put out Dove (I bought it on clear blue vinyl), an album full of shimmering optimism and that uncanny ability to tell stories that warp and weft with each new listening. What’s going on? Why are both these new albums so good? Don’t they care about nostalgia? Yes, it’s good to enjoy old tunes and revel in old memories (god knows I do this a lot), but it’s also good to keep changing. The Breeders and Belly do this with their gigs and with their music. They look over their shoulders for sure, but they do what they have always done and break new ground. They try new ways of doing things and adopt new techniques and models. It’s no surprise really. They all know a woman called Kristin Hersh.

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 3 Off Centre Strawberry

What is it about the start of Cannonball? How can something so quiet and unassuming make people lose it? Whether it’s a crowd of scenesters at a gig or a cabal of middle aged caners at a house party, the response is always the same. Why does Josephine Wiggs’ bass sound so good? How does that little percussive rattle make me shiver in anticipation? If any song was ever more than the sum of its parts, then it’s this one. And each part is fucking brilliant. Big indie hits from the 90s are overplayed. There was a time when the opening few bars of Smells Like Teen Spirit made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Heard it too many times now. There was a time when Killing in the Name Of made me want to start an actual revolution. Heard it too many times now. There was a time when Kill Your Television made me want to slam dance with the nearest grebo. Yep. Heard it too many times now. That hasn’t happened with Cannonball. It was on MTV all the time in the 90s. It got played at every indie disco in the land. It was played in my SU bar every day for three years. I play it at home at least once a month. It’s one of 6 Music’s sacred cows. Every fibre of my music snob existence wants to resist it and move on. I can’t do it. It’s too fucking good. It’s better than any Pixies song. The Breeders are better than Pixies. There, I’ve said it. My name is Fraser and I am a Breeders addict. Thank you.

By the time I bought Last Splash, I’d moved from tapes to CDs. So, the sleeve was a bit bigger this time. More to look at. This time, instead of a big central planet, there’s a slightly off- centre strawberry. It’s glistening red clashes and glares against a green familiar to anyone who used to drink Mad Dog 2020’s various dayglo fuckup juices. They are colours that are at once suggestive of a corporate grab at shelf space and sight lines, but also a clear attempt to satirise this very process. A sort of meta-marketing. The strawberry at the front is sharply defined. It’s red is speckled by black seeds and lit up the glare of an imagined flash bulb. It’s a strawberry but it could be mistaken for a sentimental heart from Valentine’s day or an organ plucked straight from a warm body. It’s friendly and frightening. It says come on in and it says I’ll fucking kill you. Behind the strawberry is a blurry and phantasmagorical miasma. It is as shapeless as the foreground is clear. As with Bossanova, the visual and the auditory are playing with each other. Last Splash is this same tug of war between commercial power chords and woozy psychedelia. Its clarity always sits against fuzziness. The two qualities swap places and then bleed into each other.

Perhaps more that any other bands talked about here, this blend of the strange and familiar is evident in Breeders’ videos. As I’ve already mentioned, Cannonball was a staple of mid 90s MTV running orders and the video is probably pretty well known by any indie kids of my increasingly rarefied vintage. On the surface, it seems nothing special really. It looks like little more than a filmed performance with some de rigueur alt-rock mucking about chucked in. But then you remember it’s directed by lo-fi whiz kid Spike Jonze and Sonic’ Youth’s dissonance-maker-in-chief Kim Gordon and your Spidey senses start tingling. Yes, it’s the band performing and having a chuckle at the same time but why is there a quick bit with Kim singing underwater? Is this about drowning in adulation? Motherhood? Addiction? Ooh, look now there’s an actual cannonball rolling down the street. Is this just literal or am I missing a metaphor? Or is this some kind of double bluff? Hang on, now that I’m thinking about it all, is this actually a triple bluff? A triple bluff running out of control down a road? Whaaaat? Ah, good, now we’re back to the band performing, I can deal (sorry…) with that. Wait, what’s happened to their clothes? Why is Kim’s hair doing that? Is the fancy dress some kind of comment on the new rules of performance in the newly corporatized indie world? But this is a well-financed video so how fucking dare they make such a smug comment while being guilty of the very same thing? Is this meta? I wish I hadn’t been so hungover in my last theory seminar. Come back triple bluffing cannonball. I preferred you after all.

The Cannonball video is certainly playful but, to get to the brilliantly offbeat heart of Breeders style humour, you need to watch what they did for Safari. The title track from the 1992 EP, Safari is a fucking magnificent piece of music. Kim’s vocal and her opaque lyrics sit against a rhythmic ebb and flow built on infectious bass and layers of deceptively complex but decidedly filthy guitar. It is hypnotic and it is rocking. It is funny and it is sexy as fuck. It’s meaning is ambiguous and it is clear as day. During an (excruciating) interview on MTV’s 120 Minutes that same year, Kim said that the song was about ‘love hunting’, adding that she was ‘probably the hunter, maybe’. It’s also, pub quiz fans, the only release by the band in which Kim’s twin sister Kelley plays alongside original Breeders member (and Throwing Muses co-founder AND leader of Belly) Tanya Donnelly (much more on Tanya in a bit). This is where the 4AD family tree gets all tangly. When Kim joined Pixies, Kelley was asked if she fancied being the drummer but turned it down and opted to stay in Dayton before going to LA to work as a computer programmer. Tanya joined Kim in the Breeders (as a side project to her Throwing Muses and Kim’s Pixies) and then, when she left to form Belly, Kelley became a full time lead guitarist. Except, and this is my favourite bit of 4AD trivia, she couldn’t actually play the guitar. No, she was a drummer.  A good drummer too. But she was hopeless at guitar. She was also working hard as a high security clearance level computer programmer and, in her own words, ‘a functioning alcoholic’ and someone ‘who had been shooting up heroin from the age of fourteen’. Quite a full to-do list, one imagines.

So, the video. It’s an indie museum piece. It has a line-up that would never be repeated. It has three members of 4AD royalty out front and, in Josephine Wiggs, one of the label’s most iconic bass players grooving along behind. It’s also a piece of high parody that shows that the band love rock n’ roll while also finding it all fucking hilarious. First of all, Kelley is in her work clothes. A grey suit and smart shoes. It wasn’t a prank or some sort of comment on art as labour. She had come from work. She carried on working while the band were touring with Nirvana. She was doing heroin and working in an office and playing guitar for the Breeders. Kelley Deal is hardcore.

The video is a parody of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. In the original, Ozzy and his pals take themselves very seriously. They play on a white circular space that has a big phallic pathway coming out of it towards the viewer. They are in front of a green screen that shows pictures of a scared looking bald figure with heavy eye makeup alternating with trippy close ups of the band members (double Sabbath). The foreground of the screen alternates superimposed close ups of band members being serious and a bit metal (triple Sabbath). It is reminder upon reminder upon reminder that rock music is serious. Musicians are a serious bunch. For a band that were fuck-a-doodled ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s remarkably po-faced. The Breeders don’t add much really. The set-up is the same. The relative positions of the band are similar (albeit with an extra Tanya thrown in). Kim’s stance is the same as Ozzy’s. Their performance has the same stilted quality. Kelley and Tanya look ever so serious about their guitars and Josephine looks like she might kick off any minute. It’s pretty much a carbon copy. Except that it’s really funny. The difference is Kim. She looks like the beginning of a smirk and the start of a chuckle are seconds away. It’s a pisstake and they all know it. Plus, their background has images of big gorillas on it. It’s homage and satire. They are a fucking great rock band who make fun of fucking great rock bands. It’s an insider joke and evidence of being on the outside. It’s serious and stupid. Those juxtapositions and blurred sensibilities so evident on 4AD sleeve designs are there in the video. You never quite know where you are with the Breeders and this makes them brilliant. Tanya’s guitar solo is a case in point. It’s the sort of sonic mess only a great musician can pull off. I am shit at the guitar and always sound shit. I could try to make a sonic mess and people would ask me politely to shut up. Tanya’s sonic mess is elegant and weird. It is both a piece of virtuosity and it is a pisstake of macho axe stylings. It comes from a place of originality yet speaks to deep knowledge of alternative culture. It’s glorious.

So, it feels like I’m getting closer to unpacking that plastic bag now. My relationship with 4AD is authentic because their take on music combines with my own hang ups and cultural sensibilities. I love rock music but also find it all ridiculous. I can’t stand anyone taking it too seriously. I hate anyone who doesn’t take it too seriously. I am a music snob but always want to tell music snobs to fuck off. All of this conflict means that, at my core, I am allergic to anyone who claims to get it. There is no single ‘it’ to get. I revel in subjectivity to the point of contrarianism. I change my mind minute by minute and change my story almost as often. There is no absolute truth out there and no musician, writer or punter can tell me otherwise. Everything is shades of grey. And green. And all of the other colours. It’s all a liminal blur and I love it that way. Binaries bleed into one another and things make sense as much as they are confusing. This is what 4AD communicate. Their sounds are artful, gentle, punkish and brutal. Their artwork is progressive and sentimental. It speaks to the comfort of familiarity and the terror of the new. It is all of these uncanny sensations that speak to me and mean that no two experiences are the same. I put on Bossanova and it sounds newer and stranger than the hundreds of other times I’ve heard it. I listen to Cannonball and hear a new gap in the song that I flood with ambiguous certainties. It speaks to the eager child in me as much as the exhausted adult. Its heroes are both of the everyday and of the rock n’ roll fairy tale. Tanya Donnelly more than most.

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 2 Venn Diagrams

Pixies (never the Pixies) are a band that I can’t seem to shake. They (along with Neil Diamond, my mum’s favourite) have been ever present in my musical life. Sometimes they dip a little off the radar but never enough so that their surfy art school anger stops beeping entirely. Lately, I’ll admit, it’s been harder to sustain. Their post-Kim material has been consistent in its disappointment (although they still rock it live) but I can’t imagine a day when I’ll ever say I’m over them. When I was starting my ascent on Mount Indie there was some degree of Venn diagramming at work. On one side was ‘fairly generic music in the charts’ and this covered pretty much everything from hair metal to daisy age via Fine Young Cannibals, Soul II Soul and Transvision Vamp. This part of the diagram contains loads of good stuff but there wasn’t any determined taste or tribalism involved. The other side just said ‘indie’ and that included all the various scenes I would later claim to discern. It also contained Pixies. This name stood on its own and had no real contemporaries. I didn’t know anything about the American Underground. Sonic Youth were a noisy nightmare still to come, Tad was a word I’d use when trying to sound clever and Dinosaur Jr was that annoying little shit Gadzooky who spoilt the Godzilla cartoons on Going Live. Pixies were there because in the centre of the Venn was me. I was desperate to be cool but still liked Roy of the Rovers. I was desperate to showcase my taste but still limited in my listening and reading habits. I like to think I was buying NME every week and Select every month but, in those early transitional moments, it was Look In, Fast Forward and, of course, Smash Hits.

I know now that Smash Hits was taking the piss. I know now that there was a playfulness to their interviews and a tacit recognition that lots of the music they featured was terrible. I know that now. I didn’t then. When I was 14 it was proper actual journalism and, more importantly, it came with loads of posters. It was there, while reading the reviews in a hospital waiting room, that I encountered a paragraph reviewing Bossanova, the fourth Pixies album (if you count Come on Pilgrim which I very much do, thank you very much.). It’s weird, my memory of reading that particular issue is that this review stood out from all of the technicolour pop stuff and that most of the magazine was taken up by whatever the latest SAW nonsense was. This, however, is only partly true. I discovered this when chancing (aka searching for several hours) upon a scanned copy on the Internet.  The other reviews that week, for example, include Ice Cube, Smith and Mighty, and The Farm. But this is offset somewhat by the main review feature being given to Ramsey Street’s dungaree brandishing, ex-con, sweetie-pie Craig McClachlan. The rest of the magazine gives pretty much equal space to Bobby Gillespie (‘At Home With’), MC Hammer (‘24½ interesting facts’) and Betty Boo (‘lost in space’). I liked all of these artists at one time or another and I suppose that is why I bought the mag for so long. Turns out it was better than I remember, and this is pretty much the opposite of all of my other nostalgic obsessions. Like me, in 1990 it seems like Smash Hits sat in the middle of the Venn diagram. When the 80s gave way to the 90s and the underground started to make noise, this was reflected in this magazine, on Top of the Tops and in my small but perfectly formed cassette collection.

Anyway, to the review in question and how it started me on my 4AD journey. It’s weird. You would assume that there was some magical incantation there that suggested a sonic space where sorcery happened and where lyrical genius bit your face before kissing it better. For a review that changed my life, it’s actually pretty rubbish. The epic grandeur of Velouria is described as ‘having a nice tune without sounding poppy’. The rest of the songs are, ‘more spikey, and have an energising sort of boisterous drive’. Lyrics are ‘pretty weird’ but, never fear, ‘like Depeche Mode, the whole thing really sneaks up on you’.

But this review worked. The next chance I had, I went into Woolworths (miss you!) and spent my paper round money on Bossanova. This small brown rectangle was my first true indie album. It was also, unknowingly at the time, my first 4AD product. The cover, even at tape size, is fucking magic. The Saturn style logo sits in the middle of a red brown palate. Strange and kitsch alien forms encased in 60s futurist circles sit in the four corners. Interviewed by Murray Stassen, Vaughan Oliver explains that the ‘B-Movie’ feel came out of conversations with Pixies head honcho Black Francis (Charles Thompson to his mum) around ‘lyrics with UFO references’. The colour scheme, it turns out, was a happy accident. Photographer Simon Larbelestier accidentally flooded the images with red light. I’ve been listening to this album for 30 years and staring at that sleeve the whole time but writing this and reading that interview are the first time I’ve actually seen the process and details. I’d never really noticed the plastic rods before or made the connection to the band’s sci-fi schlock. But, simultaneously, I’ve always known all of this. It’d gone in by osmosis. This is the strange hold these sleeves have over me and why I would never go on the radio to talk about them. They speak to the cultural quagmire that exists beneath any way of articulating it in coherent language. The references to film, visual culture, high- and low art, and literature are, to quote Douglas Adams, ‘the whole sort of general mish mash’ of my life. They are the contents of my plastic bag. They are the stuff that pours out in my dreams (which have become paralyzingly weird during lockdown). The sleeves speak to the liminal space between my conscious and unconscious selves. And what better one to start with for a 14-year-old idiot who loved space stories, spaceships and all other spacey things? The sleeve celebrates this type of storytelling but also speaks more broadly to unknowable otherness and mystery. It asks us to engage with strangeness and accept the complexities of desire, knowledge and movement.

I mean, imagine saying all that on a radio show. Not a chance.

My Pixies love has waxed, waned and carried on spinning much like that lovely red brown planet. Once they split and I morphed from indie kid to techno head, they featured less and less in my daily life. They never really went away though and became the sort of band that I’d suddenly want to listen to in a, ‘ooh, I haven’t heard that for ages’ sort of way. I’d be sitting with my friends at university and, among all the terrible Goa trance we’d somehow got into, I’d put on Doolittle and discover that we all loved it. Someone would grab a guitar and try to play Here Comes Your Man (I hated this though. When it comes to earnest guitar strumming, I am firmly in the John Belushi camp). But it was all nostalgic. Even in our early twenties we were looking back and reconstructing ourselves. At university this process is always magnified. You are always reinventing yourself for a new gang and being a big old Pixies fan was certainly a better look than the Wendy James fixation that had taken up most of 1989.

All of this nostalgia for teenage music came to fruition in the noughties. It seems odd to say this now, but canonical bands getting back together after a horrible split was pretty rare before the 21st century. Pixies had a split more horrible than many. No, band reunions were reserved for the big boomer acts ready to sell out Wembley and flog a billion t-shirts. Someone as cool and angsty as Pixies would never do it. Wait…what? Yep, as we all know now, they did just that in 2004. They got back together and toured all of the old numbers across the US and then across Europe. They played a gazillion festival dates (including the execrable, litter-strewn extravaganza that was V2005, where I saw them) and then toured some more. They did a Doolittle 20th anniversary tour (I saw them at Brixton Academy about 20 feet from Kim Deal. Magnificent.) Then Kim left. She was replaced by another Kim (RIP) and then by a Paz.  She was always going to leave. The tensions in the band as they toured are brilliantly captured in Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s documentary QuietLoudQuiet. Kim’s addiction problems, the heart-wrenching grief drummer David Lovering feels for the loss of his Dad, Joey’s ambivalence and Charles’ barely contained rage are a pretty toxic cocktail. On stage it means they smash it night after night (apart from David’s occasional on stage drum melt down) but offstage they can barely speak to one another. Kim and Charles are particularly frosty. When Kim has to soak her blistered hand in ice after their opening gig, Charles’ ‘oh, Kim’ mumbled in sympathy carries a clear ‘Kim, you are a fuckwit’ subtext.

So, she left. Went back to Dayton to be with her ailing mum and her twin sister Kelley. Like lots of musos my age, I suffer from Kim Deal syndrome. She is the coolest rock star of all time. A brilliant musician, funny as fuck, the best songwriter I can think of. She could drink us all under the table. What’s not to fall in love with? Other indie stars come and go, but Kim will always be the coolest. So, when she left Pixies it was no Kim, no Deal for me. They would never be the same without her. It would just be Charles’ band now. The tension between the two of them and the sonic juxtaposition of their voices (you don’t get that sort of phrase in Smash Hits do you?) was what made them so fascinating. And so it proved. The material that Pixies have written and recorded since is pretty mediocre. They are still worth a watch live as I can attest to after a very pissed night at Blue Dot festival in 2017 during which they played THIRTY songs. But the new albums? Nah. The Breeders on the other hand…

Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 1 Plastic Bags

To misquote Wham, last Christmas I had a weird email exchange. I shouldn’t have even been checking my work email but there was a lull between my morning Toblerone and War Games starting on ITV4. More out of muscle memory than anything else, I flicked outlook open on my phone. Among a metric ton of marketing emails from Bloomsbury, the London Review of Books and someone keen on flogging me bitcoin (still not sure what that is) was a real message from a human being. ‘Hi’, it said, ‘saw your tweet yesterday and wondered if you were free to talk on our drive time show about the legacy of Vaughan Oliver and 4AD Records. About five minutes should do it’. Odd, right? Five minutes to cover the legacy of one of the greatest (maybe THE greatest) sleeve designers of my lifetime and the sprawling and strange magnificence of the label itself. All of this on a crappy commercial (and politically suspect) radio station.  As that little bald bloke from The Princess Bride (on after War Games) might exclaim, ‘inconceivable!’

I didn’t do it. I read the email too late. I’m glad. It would not have been a success.

I should back up a little here.

The day before this, 29th December 2019 to be precise, Vaughan Oliver died. Oliver and his graphic design studios Envelope 23 and v23 were responsible for nearly four decades of surrealist sleeve design for that totem of indie cool, 4AD. Their musical output is unthinkable without these designs.  The ethereal sounds created by Robin Guthrie’s guitar and Liz Fraser’s voice find their visual plane in the watery depths that adorn Cocteau Twins LPs and 12-inches. Black Francis’ sexual rage and Joey Santiago’s B-movie guitar licks seem to be written especially for the mysterious naked figure on the sleeve of Pixies’ Surfa Rosa.  Lush’s discordant jangles and spikes find a new dimension through the clashing fractals on Scar and Spooky. To hear these records is to see this art. This is music that is mysterious and evades clarity. It sits alongside a visual mode that is unsettling and uncanny. Images that are new yet familiar and songs that are delicate yet overpowering. All of these oppositions sit at the heart of the 4AD aesthetic.

That paragraph took me over an hour to write (and several more to fiddle with) and is the sort of thing I would have hoped to say on the radio. Art this complex resists simple sound bites. You need to take your time to think about what it means to you. I’ve had 30-odd years to practice and I’m still only half a percent sure.

But, hearing the sad news on this day, I tried to say it all in 280 inadequate words. Deaths and other assorted challenges are a chance to stick my digital oar in. Famous musician dies? ‘RIP man, here’s some YouTube footage of your early stuff that shows how cool I am.’ Famous DJ dies? ‘RIP dude, here’s a comment that hints at how wrecked on pills I will pretend I was at one of your early sets that I was definitely not at because I was eleven years old at that time.’ Grieving is supposed to be a personal affair; even when it’s a famous person that you’ve never met. Twitter has buggered this up. Now cool and groovy deaths are marked by links to thought pieces in cool and groovy magazines and cool and groovy blogs that just happen to casually mention that the cool and groovy author and the deceased were mates that shared a few cool and groovy private moments that you non-cool and non-groovy plebs will just never understand.

So, on the morning of the 30th December, I expressed my sadness about Vaughan Oliver on Twitter. I did so by engaging with a comment from Lush’s Emma Anderson, an artist in a far better position than me to offer comment on his legacy. It was this that the radio researcher picked up. Even if I had seen the email in time to reply, I would have declined. Contacting me instead of someone who was actually in a 4AD band with Vaughan Oliver designed sleeves is not a great way for a researcher to show off their research.

I was actually trying to have a festive digital detox because the unique poison of a modern general election campaign had taken up most of December. When I should have been tutting at pictures of beardy bellends in Christmas jumpers and monitoring the latest spats about Pogues songs (annual traditions both), I was instead raging at liars and dying inside. The whole tone of Christmas was ruined. Everyone I know felt exhausted and dispirited. It wasn’t so much about a Boris Johnson victory (although that is obviously horrible), more a sense that any dangling remnant of social decency was gone and would never return. This was the new normal and the awful future. I am as culpable as everyone else. I spewed bile online about the BBC (which is odd as I love the old dear – I’ve even got 6Music on as I type this). I expressed outrage about fridges, hospital floors and Andrew Neil’s confusing hair. I actively made the world worse at a time of year when it usually seems that little bit better. Pub time was dominated by politics instead of cracker jokes. Spittle flecked digital hate replaced ‘sleeps ‘til Christmas’ memes and Dickensian Muppet clips.

It was shit and I felt terrible. I needed space from this. I needed a news void and a social media blackout. I needed Christmas shopping, vegetarian roast dinners and lots of telly. It mostly worked and the Christmas week started to feel like recovery.

I heard about Vaughan Oliver on the radio. It was announced solemnly during the news bulletin and discussed in reverential tones by the presenters and a range of guest voices. He was too young and too talented, and it was going to leave a massive hole in indie culture. It’s hard to disagree with any of this. His art and the records it houses are a part of my identity. It shaped me as a teenager. It was a way for a clunky and hopelessly short-sighted boy to communicate cultural capital and make come-get-me eyes at the cool kids.  It was the start of a process that still hasn’t ended. It was the beginning of my life as someone who is into record labels.

This is going to take some explaining.

Let’s start fancy and work with some theory (see? Always with the cultural capital…even the term ‘cultural capital’ is cultural capital. A Bourdieu wormhole awaits.).  Walter Benjamin’s words help position the record label in the world of art and aesthetic appreciation. In his 1935 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin speaks of the artwork’s unique status by arguing for the presence of its ‘aura’. The rapid pace of technology in the century that preceded Benjamin’s writing saw art shift from singular and original to multiple and regenerating. Benjamin’s problem is that, ‘even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’. Technical processes ‘put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself’. Art in modernity is characterised by the notion that ‘it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique experience’. Just shy of a decade later, Adorno and Horkenheimer add that ‘the achievement of mass production and standardisation’ is to empower ‘executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers or, above all, themselves’.  In this sense the art and commerce become inseparable. To purchase art is to become complicit with the nefarious machinations and ideologies of commodity culture and its proponents. Consuming art ­ even that which purports to be radical and subversive ­ should offer a means of resistance. It turns out, though, that it’s really just acquiescence.

All of this marks a compromise for the ‘serious’ music fan. I am snobby and pretentious when it comes to music (but a big old pleb with other media) and I desire a clear distinction between commodity and artwork. Benjamin and his buddies suggest that this is fantasy. I cannot access music without participating in a process that involves commerce, trade, advertising, and all of the other immovable facets of capitalist process. To enjoy music is to consume. The artistic object (the song) loses its aura as soon as it is recorded. Perhaps you could argue that studio chicanery is the artform too. But even then it is copied, pressed, packaged and distributed. Unless I get a seat in the studio or pinch the mixing desk at the end of the day then I am always miles away from the aura. Like many musos, I see my hobby as somehow superior to shopping or collecting. Music is a higher calling after all.  But all of this is an illusion. The fan is duped into spending income on a broken promise. The acts of resistance or outsidership offered by indie connoisseurship are really just an admission that there’s no alternative to the economic systems of our time.


However, there might be a loophole. Perhaps I can work out a way to love records that means something other than mere trend-following or blind, grasping, aspirational consumerism. It’s all thanks to Tony Wilson really. Before I fell in love with 4AD there was Factory. I wasn’t old enough for Joy Division and New Order never really appealed to me. My Factory infatuation started with Shaun William Ryder and the twisted funk of the Madchester Rave On EP. Like loads of kids my age, Thursday November 23rd, 1989 was the moment that the world changed. Top of the Pops featured The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays (or ‘Happy Monday’ as presenter Jenny Powell introduced them). Yes, Top of the Pops. The weekly crap-fest hosted by Radio 1 deejays and ‘music personalities’ surrounded by grinning 80s blokes in shiny suits and women with extraordinary perm commitment. To be fair, 1989 had slowly got a bit better. Hip house was a regular feature and the electronic underground was starting to chip away at Stock, Aitken and Waterman, MTV behemoths and Cliff fucking Richard. Most weeks would have something a bit interesting even if they finished up with that stupid rabbit and his 60s mega mixes. This episode was different though. I sort of knew what ‘indie’ was but it all looked a bit scary and something of a closed shop. I’d even seen the Mondays’ Wrote For Luck video (the one with a VERY battered Shaun in a club) but still hadn’t really understood. I don’t know what it was about the TOTP appearance that changed everything. Maybe it was guest vocalist Kirsty Macoll’s double denim. It could have been Shaun’s wayward curtains and their resistance to ubiquitous 80s hair spray. It might have even been the fact that I sort of heard the words ‘fill you full of junk’ without having a scooby about what they meant. I’d like to think it was the discordant groove of Hallelujah itself, all scrawling guitar and filthy, lazy bass. Whatever it was I loved it and wanted more. This episode was on a week after my 14th birthday and by my 15th I had stupid big jeans, curtains of my own, a record player, band t-shirts ordered from the NME and even knew some drug slang (mostly thanks to the Shamen and my mate’s big sister).

I think I may have even been developing taste. It’s hard to tell because my school’s violent attitudes to difference (especially when it came to footwear and hairstyles, ­ transgressions met with a variety of violent punishments) had made much of what I did weirdly defensive. But I was starting to find others who were a bit ‘indie’ (or ‘fucking weirdo goths’ according to the hard lads) and we sort of banded together. I knew I liked music that sounded different. I liked chords that didn’t really work together and vocals that either screamed in my face or mumbled away as if they didn’t give a shit. I liked words like ‘jangly’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘fusion’. Expressions like ‘wall of sound’ or the timeless ‘shoe gaze’ made it into our daily fag break chat (one Embassy No. 1 between us obvs.).

Of course, the paradox of getting involved in a subculture is that attempts at marking out your individuality are signified by allegiance to a group. The performance of anti-cool outsidership means breaking rules by adopting new rules. You become a non-conformist through strict conformity. As well as the aforementioned t-shirts and hair experiments, there were the ubiquitous 8-hole DMs which were scuffed just enough (polished was a huge faux pas), some kind of army surplus coat, a zippo lighter and, most importantly of all, every one of your possessions needed to look sort of broken. You would graffiti your pencil case or school bag with band logos and make sure that your clothes had tony burns all over them. Your jacket needed a button missing and your specs needed a sticking plaster holding them together. Most of all, you needed to get the right plastic bag. Yep, that’s right, a plastic bag. This was before fancy tote bags became the norm but smack in the middle of when your pockets were too small for your hanging-about-up-town kit (walkman, tapes, pack of cigs, book, bus fare). You needed a plastic bag. At first, I misread this code. I thought any old bag would do. I went with all sorts; Budgens, Sainsbury’s, plain blue. Basically, any bag lying about at home would do. No. This was wrong. I looked like a bag wanker. You needed a bag that communicated your taste. A bag from a record shop was best. Our Price if you stayed local but one of the Berwick Street or Covent Garden gang if you ventured into the big town. Rough Trade, Sister Ray, Grey Market, Select-a-Disc or the Camden Record and Tape Exchange were top of the tree.

This, to come back to my original point about commerce and art, is where I can make my peace with consumerism. Me, plus the desirable object, equals the aura that Benjamin speaks of. That makes me sound like a wanker. Let me try again. I could (and can) have a unique experience with mass produced art by being alive to my own reaction to it. My reception is an essential bit of the art itself. So, to work this through. My Rough Trade bag contained on most days: my terrible Boots walkman, a compilation tape made by my mate Jim, an actual shop-bought cassette of Bossanova (still my favourite Pixies album – more on this below), Marlboro, swan vestas, some money and the NME. All of these objects interacted with each other and formed my own narrative. I was the sum of these imperfect parts. I smelt a bit of the matches and my hands had ink on them from the music rag. The tapes were in battered cases. All of this was unique. It made me feel unique. It made my relationship with my cultural choices feel unique. Even when I basically looked the same as all of my friends.

So, what does this mean for record labels and their mass produced output? Well, I’m getting there. Hold on a mo. The next step on the cool ladder from knowing the bands was knowing the labels. As I said, I like to think my first label love affair was with Factory but, honestly, that was really just the Mondays and bit of Northside. I wasn’t aware of Tony Wilson’s arch take on Modernism or his willing facsimile of Warholian aesthetics. I just wanted to get fucked with Shaun and Bez and say ‘call the cops’. This was very much band love with a thin pretence of label love added retrospectively. It was the same with Creation. 1991 was quite the year for an indie kid. You had, in the space of twelve months: Bandwagonesque, Screamadellica, Nowhere and Raise. Four LPs that never really age. Four LPs that still make it on to top 100 lists compiled by Guardian journalists younger than my trainers. Four LPs that sound divergent yet capture a moment in British youth culture and are testament to Alan McGee’s tastemaking. But I still wouldn’t have called myself a ‘Creation’ fan. I didn’t know about his love of 60s garage or his particular brand of socialist entrepreneurism or that he was a bit of a dick. I didn’t even know he was Scottish. I wasn’t an Alan McGee fanboy and, given the Oasis horror show later in the decade, I never really would be.

But there was a creeping sense that labels were more than just an anonymous place somewhere (probably in London or Manchester, far away from my suburban ennui) where contracts were signed, music was recorded, and LPs were manufactured (however that happened). I honestly never really thought about the logistics of all this. For all I knew it happened in the same building on the same road. I just liked the bands and I had allegiance to them. I also liked the record shops and I sort of styled myself around the logo on my plastic bag of anti-cool individuality.  Five bands changed all of this.

Vinyl Affair

Record shopping is a funny world and one that I inhabit. My life has involved a long and varied relationship with record shopping, record collecting, record boasting and lumping boxes of the fucking things from one flat or house to another. Like any long-term relationship, it’s had its ups and downs. There have been failed experiments (I’m looking at you Willie Nelson), tragedies, (still reeling from the damp floor/ruined Ninja Tune sleeve incident of 1998), epiphanies (half-term, dingy room, Aphex Twin), dysfunction (6 months without a record player in the noughties after an ill-advised boozey attempt at scratching with a belt-driven deck) and, most of all, love. So much love. Despite the cost, the dust, the space or the endless conversations with delivery people (‘yep, that IS a lot of records…no, not really into the Eagles…well, you never know what’s hidden away in a loft…yes, maybe you should get it valued…’), I love the things.

I don’t have kids and I don’t have a dog. I have records. I have weird records that I bought on a whim. Most of these are shit. Whims are shit. I have records that, bunched together, tell stories of time-bound fads and obsessions. That moment, for instance, when I went a bit West Coast mad and bought as much CSN, Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish and Flying Burrito Brothers as I could (an endeavour ruined somewhat by the discovery that much of the live material had clearly been recorded by a dude concealing a tape recorder in his bong). There was my brief flirtation with gabber. For those unfamiliar, this is stupidly speedy (tempo and otherwise) Euro techno that is, basically, fucking awful. My wife is not keen on that at all. Although, she prefers it to my on-off friendship with skate thrash and the Pacific-North-West-power-violence scene. That’s just ‘shouty bollocks’.

There are some bits that are longer lasting of course. The emergence of grunge and the broader American underground in the late 80s and early 90s is a sound and style that I have never really moved on from. The names Mudhoney, Tad and the Melvins still send a drop D, plaid shirted, shiver down my spine. The same can be said of the records that make up my first real spending spree. Before I got cool and started buying things on Warp and Rephlex; post-baggy indie pop emerged just as the economic conditions of my life improved.

You see, early teenage me was skint. I don’t mean pushing a bike up a hill for fucking bread or whatever skint, I lived in the bad land suburbs in the south east after all. I mean that like most kids who are twelve or thirteen, I had no money of my own. It was that weird bit of your life when your body is half boy half man. Sprouting hairs and accumulating zits like no tomorrow. It’s that time when your voice moves from baritone elegance to weird squeaky oddball. The time when your female teachers are both substitute mother and unbearable sex fantasy (and who you accidentally call Mum in moments directly followed by a wish for instant death). It’s also the time when your consumerist desires change. For many years (about three or four really) all I wanted was football stuff and Star Wars stuff. My room was homage to the first division and to the Death Star. My heroes wore Crown Paints on their shirt or wielded light sabres. Music was sort of there but not really. I could hear strains of Wham, Spandau Ballet and Frankie drifting out of my older sister’s room (she is STILL listening to all of those bands) and my mum played Neil Diamond when she was a bit pissed, but real devotion to music playing was just not a thing in our house. For my part, I liked Kylie and I quite liked Madonna. I loved Five Star. Transvision Vamp started to trouble my teenage testosterone and Jon Bon Jovi had cool hair. It wasn’t what you might call connoisseurship.

Like everyone else though this changed at secondary school. Toys were suddenly a bit embarrassing. Liking sport was ok as long as you didn’t seem too bothered by it. The hard lads at school seemed to see any kind of enthusiasm as evidence of weakness and a free pass at giving you a thump in the guts or a withering insult (both hurt). The cool lads knew their music. They were mostly different from the hard lads but with some Venn diagram overlap – the cool/hard lads were a rare breed still talked of in hushed tones. They mostly had older brothers or sisters that were in a different universe. They got in cars not driven by their parents. They went to the pub. They smoked fags without coughing and looked like grown-ups. Yes, they wore our school uniform, but they did it better. They put the thin bit of their school tie out the front and tucked the fat bit inside their shirt. They wore trainers instead of school shoes. They had acid smiley face badges on their lapels and always seemed to have a walk that exuded confidence rather than the limping shuffle of their awkward peers. They knew their tunes. Man oh man, did they know their tunes. Earphones appeared from inside their school blazers. Their Walkmans (Walkmen?) were handled with quick-fingered expertise and tapes were flipped with the magnificence of Vegas croupiers. Not for them the latest Smash Hits freebie or the top 40 taped off of Radio One. No, they had albums by bands with mysterious names that sounded like they were made on other planets. They listened to loud guitars that chimed in minor chords or bleeps and breaks that sounded illegal. It seemed that the rule here was simple; chart music equalled shit music. You had to find something outside of the familiar. You had to crack some kind of code. You needed a cool mate. You needed Rich.

He came to our school a little later than most and like those kids always seemed to be, he was cool in a quiet way. He wasn’t intimidating or unapproachable. He was just sort of nice. He had cool hair and had a girlfriend called Jenny. He smoked Marlboros. The go to brand at our school was Embassy so this marked him out as some kind of maverick. He listened to Hendrix and the Doors. He had a tape with a banana on the front with songs about taking heroin on it. He had another one that had strange unsettling songs about loneliness sung by a man with a deep voice and a Macclesfield accent. This wasn’t just cool music; it was fucking amazing. Rich lent us tapes so we could copy them at home (miles ahead of those Johnny come lately Napster twats). He lent us magazines that had articles about these bands. He told us who John Peel was. He told us tales of the vast and epic vinyl landscape in his house. His older brother (a figure who lived in an unknown land named ‘Uni’) had passed on records to Rich. We could go round and listen them if we wanted to. Thank fuck for Rich.

This is where it all began. I wanted records. I wanted a record player. I wanted to get rid of all of my Star Wars toys and my pile of Roy of the Rovers comics. I was suddenly ashamed of my Superman wallpaper and Spiderman duvet set. It was time to grow up and buying records was how I intended to signify this move into adulthood. The problem was, as I said above, I didn’t have any money. I had my pocket money I suppose. It was enough for Panini stickers and a bag of rhubarb and custards (the actual sweets, not the celebrated disco biscuits of later years) but not great for fitting out my newfound maturity with a suitable record collection. My Dad is a good bloke and resists many of the stereotypes about Scottish people of his generation. He doesn’t drink whiskey or smoke javelin length cheap fags. He likes Billy Connelly but has no interest in the Proclaimers. He hates Hogmanay and thinks Sean Connery is a bellend. But he is a bit tight. By that I don’t mean he’s a skinflint or bitter about other people’s success. He’ll always get a round in (just not whiskey) and he’s helped out the adult version of me on more times than I care to list here. But he is a bit tight. He hates money being wasted and he hated me wasting money on teenage fads. Records were such a fad. They weren’t like books or bikes or car stuff; they were items that had longevity and they lasted. Records were a passing interest at best. If I wanted records, then I had to earn the money and even then, I probably shouldn’t actually buy any. There’s a bit of me that’s probably still rebelling whenever I buy a record. By ‘probably’, of course, I mean absolutely without a doubt.

I love going to the car boot sale these days. A good wander around, some second-hand records, a cup of terrible tea. It’s the sort of middle-aged bag I am happy to carry around. It’s remarkable that I do really because it was a car boot sale held on a shitty spring Sunday at my sister’s school that left one of my deepest teenage scars. This is a grievance that I will carry to my grave. I admit that I hold grudges about the smallest things (crap presents and unresolved arguments still linger from last century) but this is no small potatoes. It’s a mountain of fucking mash. My dad made me sell all my crap. At a car boot. For not much money.

I know, I know, I’ve already said that I was eager to make the leap from child to adult and that the toys needed to go. But not this way. Not on this morning. My Star Wars figures were piled up in an ice cream tub and flogged for a tenner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those wankers who wants to salivate over box fresh toys and bang on about their value. People like that don’t deserve toys in the first place. But come on! A tenner? The geezer that bought them could hardly contain himself. I once got hold of a copy of LFO by LFO in its lovely purple sleeve for 50p. I was shaking as I handed the coins over, sure that I would be rumbled. This must be a bit like this man felt. The difference is that I bought this record from a house clearance bloke who didn’t know his Phil Collins arse from his bleep and bass elbow. Not from a child. A grown man bought a child’s Star Wars toys in an old ice cream tub for a tenner. I hope he at least did well out of them. Bought his first car or put down a deposit on a house. No, fuck that. I hope he choked on Han Solo’s blaster gun.

If that wasn’t bad enough, ten minutes later I sold all of my Roy of the Rovers comics in a bundle for a fiver. For most readers, I imagine that won’t even cause a ripple of shock. So what? A football comic? No bother. Not for me though. The emotional investment I put into those stories is hard to quantify. It wasn’t just the titular hero and his Melchester Rovers team (Roy Race was actually a bit too much of a sanctimonious twat for me) but the super weird adventures of Billy Dane and his magic old time boots, the pure and unadulterated thuggery of Johnny ‘Hard Man’ Dexter and the lethal right foot of Highland league superman ‘Hot Shot’ Hamish Balfour were my foundation stories. I work with books and complex narratives every day of my working life and this is where it began. As a young man, I didn’t read books really (unless they were football annuals) and struggled with English lessons at school. But those stories…wow. The thunk on the doormat as the comic arrived on a Saturday morning (about an hour or two before Saint and Greavsie started) was the best moment of the week. I even went on the telly to talk about Roy’s 50th birthday. The editor of the comic lived on my friend Jason’s road and he, alongside a BBC film crew, came into our school looking for interviewees. Me and a bloke called Simon spoke. My school tie was flapping over my shoulder as I talked about Roy ‘looking good for his age’. I was on the Breakfast news, the lunchtime news and, most impressive of all, John fucking Craven’s fucking Newsround. It’s still my proudest moment (and my mum’s too if I’m depressingly honest). So selling these in a tatty bundle for a fiver was rubbish. No more Star Wars toys and no more Roy of the Rovers. But I did have fifteen quid. All mine. All ready to join the record buying elite. Now was the time to become cool and emulate Rich and his magical brother. Bollocks to you hard lads. Cool lads, I’m coming for you. Make room for a new member.

Reader, I choked.

I bought a Madonna record. I bought a Dire Straits record. I bought a Poison record.

Why? I cannot say. It just sort of happened. Madonna sat there on her bed and her big belt buckle said ‘buy me’ (turned out it said ‘Boy Toy’). Mark Knopfler’s guitar against its pastel blue background reeled me in. Fuck knows what happened with Poison. I would make a joke about every rose and its thorn but it’s all too sad. Over the next few years these records sat at the back of my collection. A collection that had got better and better and definitely cooler. They sat there as a reminder of the sliver that exists between cool and not cool. They were laughed at by friends and girlfriends. So I flogged them. They went to another car boot sale on another shitty spring morning at my sister’s school. A quid each. I can live with their loss.

The money issue persisted though. I only had so much stuff to sell. So, I went through the rite of passage all suburban kids must endure. A paper round. Two, in fact. One was the St Albans Observer, the other the St Albans Herald. They were indistinguishable. Free sheets that nobody wanted unless there was a photo of their kid’s school play on page two or a report about their spouse in the courts section. They were mostly made up of adverts and printed with ink that was both blurry and indelible. I had to deliver 200 odd to the houses around my red brick housing estate. I used an old trolley and it took hours. I hated it. I got paid £4.62 for one round and the much finer sum of £7.18 for the other. This amounted to £11.80 for about 7 hours work and is probably the reason that I’ve always joined the union in my adult life. Some snotty little kids had their mums helping them. Their mountains of papers were in the boots of Volvos and were driven around the various crescents and cul-de-sacs with their weird pastoral names. Not me. My mum and dad insisted that this was character building. They just didn’t say what kind of character. The fact that I’m still whinging about it now probably answers that question. Still, it was a regular wage of sorts and gave me a chance to recalibrate by record shopping. It meant a couple of singles a week or a new LP. It meant a weekly trip up town with my mate Paul and a trawl around the shops. It meant Saturday mornings on the bus with two brown envelopes laden with coins ready to spend. It was a start but it wasn’t enough. Greater financial clout lay ahead. I was about to get a Saturday job

These days, Boots is just a massive shampoo and pain killer supermarket but it wasn’t always that way. No, in the mid-90s it sold all sorts. It had a ‘cook shop’, millions of photo albums, horrid picture frames, crap clothes and my own domain, the unintentionally Bowie-esque ‘Sound and Vision’. We sold CDs, tapes and all the plastic gadgets one required for playing them. These ranged from the desirable (the yellow Sony Sports Walkman is still the single greatest aesthetic achievement in human history AND it had auto reverse) to the rubbish (anything that was made by Alba and came in that weird pastel grey colour). I learnt the language of gadgets without ever really knowing how they worked. I knew that joggers needed ‘anti-rolling’ technology’ but never knew what that was (or why joggers always tell you that they are joggers with the first five syllables they utter). Best of all was the staff discount. Oh boy. I could get stuff for 20% off. I actually got a massive 40% off Boots own brand stuff but most of it was so shit and shameful that this remained unused. This was handy for Christmas and was great for my parents’ silver wedding (incidentally, if my sister is reading this, you still owe me fifty-five quid for the dining set). But, sadly, it was crap for music buying.

Me and two blokes called Pat and Gav sort of fooled ourselves into thinking that the job was cooler than it was. I mean, it was definitely the plum spot in Boots, the lads who worked on the main tills selling hair spray and pre-packed BLTs looked upon us with genuine envy. One even sidled up to me in the smoking room and asked if I could ‘get him in’. Not a chance sir, this was an exclusive club (and I had beyond no influence. My influence was in the negative). Yep, we were the rockin’ bad boys of Boots. The chemist’s own tastemakers. But what that position really entailed was playing the few CDs in stock that were just about ok. The Sound of the Suburbs CD was not bad in a kind of Jam and Buzzcocks sort of way. The Stones greatest hits got plenty of airtime (until it hit the 80s bit) and Legend got played a lot (regularly requested by Jules the lonely Jamaican security guard). Our boss was a terrifying psychopath called Avril. She loved telling us that she ‘bled Boots’ and would be ‘happy to die here’. Yep, this was as depressing as it sounds and may have even come true for all I know. She used to walk past us and demand that we ‘turn off the heavy metal’ (a reference to anything involving an electric guitar). CDs in the top five were the store policy but this was a regulation we were proud to break. It’s not like we were Miles Davis and John Coltrane rewriting the rules of jazz (there is only so much iconoclasm one can manage in a polyester tie) but we did play ‘Jesus Built my Hotrod’ by Ministry (I even brought in my own copy) at ten to five on my last day. Eat that Avril you knob.

We dreamed of conversations with credible punters who were looking for new drum n’ bass compilations or indie kids searching for rare 4AD releases. Instead, we got mums looking for the new Now compilation for their kid’s 10th birthday. We got dads clutching post-it notes with band names scrawled on them (one smug idiot proudly asked for ‘the album by…* adjusts glasses*…Rapid Eye Movement’). The worst of it all was the shoppers tapping in to the so-called ‘over 35 CD market’.  I don’t know who coined this term but they need a punch. It meant dross. It meant the kind of played out dad rock that gives Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron a semi (funnily enough, the sort of stuff that now gets repacked and flogged in ‘special collection’ vinyl box sets to the same set of wankers who were buying it from me in the 90s). It meant compilations with beaches and palm trees on the cover or pictures of cars driving past beaches and palm trees. Or pictures of women in swimming suits in cars driving past beaches and palm trees. It meant blokes who wear suits with the sleeves rolled up and make videos with identikit women playing in their band. It meant Later with Jools fucking Holland. It meant estate agents and regional sales managers spending their soul-exchange money. Ultimately, it was music for people who don’t like music. Getting a 20% discount on this was the epitome of futility. No, my money was going elsewhere.

I want to tell you about the grungy little indie shop I used to go to. About its cast of quirky characters and their Nick Hornby ways. I want to tell you about a shop like the one Richard King describes in Original Rockers as ‘tatterdemalion’. The sort of place that Charlatans head honcho Tim Burgess celebrates in his vinyl love letter Tim Book Two. I want to tell you that the punters were all connoisseurs on the hunt for that special and oh so rare limited edition gatefold pressing of Teenage Fanclub or the rumoured Frank and Walters run of 500. I want to tell you that the staff consisted of Frank Zappa savants who had smoked crack with Bez and shagged Mark E Smith (possibly at the same time, probably not). I want to tell you that it has survived the slings and arrows of the industry and is still standing. I want to tell you all of that because it is the story we’ve all got used to. It’s the one that we all love.

But I can’t.

St Albans only had Our Price. Actually, it had two but one of them was pretty small and was in the new fangled ‘Maltings’ pedestrianized shopping ‘experience’ (this was where my sister and her friend Dorothy Perkins and the girls Chelsea and Tammy hung out. It sucked.) The other Our Price was a bit better. It was near the market stalls so on Wednesdays and Saturdays its shop stereo battled with the fruit and veg blokes shouting ‘pandapandapears’ and ‘gerralaaavleeegrapesnappppellll’. To get through the front door you had to boot litter out of the way and say ‘alright’ to whichever staff member was having a quick smoke outside. It had two floors and they were dirty. It had three staff and they were pretty dirty too. It was branded in that famous red and grey but it was long past needing a lick of paint. Staff badges hung at weird angles from crumpled staff t-shirts. Boxes of stuff fought for space at the back of the shop. Cargoes of empty jewel cases made a break for freedom. Downstairs was all the crap. Piles of the stuff 90s enthusiasts conveniently leave out of the Brit Pop celebrations, BBC4 epics and lottery funded exhibitions. Aqua, Whigfield, Mr Blobby, the second Stone Roses album. All that shite. Upstairs, however, was where they kept the Holy Grail (or at least as close as you got to it in my middle England hell).

The indie section.

It was only three racks, but it was wonderful. It contained the names of bands I’d only glimpsed on the psychedelic fairground bit of the Chart Show or seen written on the back of German Army jackets worn by some of the cool lads at school. Fugazi, Bridewell Taxis, Mega City Four, New Fast Automatic Daffodils, Silverfish, Th’Faith Healers and, the band who were to become an obsession, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The indie section was held in reverence. These were the actual records we saw reviewed by the smug fucks in the NME. These were the actual records we heard on John Peel. There they were. They were just a pay packet away from sitting in our bedrooms. They were just a Tippex bottle away from being enshrined on our school bags and on the back of toilet doors. They were just a C60 away from being shared with mates who would gasp at your newfound cultural clout and insider knowledge. There. They. Were. Fuck me it was glorious.

So, my world of record buying had finally arrived. Me and my little band of pals talked about records ALL the time.

No, that’s bollocks.

We talked about records some of the time. We talked about girls we were impossibly in love with much more. And we slagged off our mental teachers and parents quite a lot too. We also talked about the best people to score small bits of hash from. So there was all of that. But, we did talk about records quite a lot and a lot of these conversations were on the same day as all the stuff about girls, teachers, parents and small bits of hash. This was a bit of my life soundtracked by weird indie bands. The more obscure the better. We talked of Grebo and shoegaze. We liked the Camden Lurch scene but weren’t so keen on the fact that the NME had named it. We read that famous old rag every week on the day it came out. Obsessively. Religiously. But we all claimed to hate the fucking thing. It was bourgeois nonsense. It turned our beloved music into a broken commodity in a world of transparent cultural capital. Well, that’s what our mate Jim said and we usually agreed with him. We wore indie T-shirts to show our taste. We learnt the hard way, though, that you shouldn’t wear a band’s t-shirt to one of their gigs. You also shouldn’t wear a Swervedriver t-shirt to a gig with a pissed crusty on the door as they might think it’s a Screwdriver t-shirt and call you a fascist cunt as they cover you with marker pen (true story – it happened to Jim). Nope, this was a terrible faux pas. We argued with our parents about how grubby our DMs were and how nasty or unkempt our hair was. We wasted all of our newly earned money on records (and small bits of hash) and that caused rows too. It got to the point where you would sneak records home. They would be hidden under your coat and stashed away in a drawer. Once we got ensconced in our rooms and got those beauties on our shitty record players (no 1210s for us), the world opened up. We were Mark Gardner or Dan Dan the Fast Drumming Man. Tennis rackets for guitars, hockey sticks were the bass. Lyrics were internalised, ready to be yelled at the band the next time they played in Hatfield or Hemel Hempstead.

Records, records records. Sometime wax, sometimes choons. Never ever fucking vinyls. Since the early 90s they have been the constant. My one true love.

Wait, that’s bollocks too.

My first true love was actually a pretty dysfunctional one. Tapes. Neat little rectangles stacked in corners. Those perfect spines just big enough to display the contents. Shops selling row upon row of them. Most of my early musical purchases were on tape. They were cheap and, of course, they were the format best suited to my mobile teenage life. Like most kids my age I became a kind of cyborg human-walkman hybrid. The first of these machines was bought with that Boots discount. A top of the range matt black Sony auto-reverse machine…sat right next to the Alba monstrosity that I bought for about half the price (and with my discount). It was an awful thing. Clunky, coloured in that terrible grey palette and replete with spongy orange headphones on a metal alice band. It was a handy way of telling your schoolmates that, no matter how low your finances were, your levels of taste and sophistication were even lower. It did the job though. I listened to my freebie indie compilations and my treasured copy of Bossa Nova by the Pixies while I was cycling to school and while I was doing my paper round. I even started carrying around spare AA batteries just in case the music started its strange and lysergic journey to flatness when voices grew bassier and the gaps between tinny beats lasted that little bit longer.   

Tapes were also my first real shot at law breaking. All of my Mum and Dad’s LPs (all 8 of them) carried dire warnings regarding a musical apocalypse. A skull and crossbones on the inner sleeve loomed over the phrase ‘home taping is killing music’. It was a chilling sight and one that would be repeated years later by those ridiculously threatening adverts about pirate VHS tapes. These communiqués told us that committing either of these acts was a line too far. You would have the doors of your house kicked in by a cabal of coppers, market stallholders and tooled up members of Genesis. Yep, it was a serious offence. We didn’t care though. We spent money on packs of TDK blank tapes. We bought C60s usually (C90s were for wankers and show offs) and we taped the living fuck out of each other. We taped LPs and singles. We sat by the radio hitting the pause button to cut out the droning bullshit offered by Bruno Brookes.  We taped other tapes, the music becoming a Baudrilladian version of itself, fading and fading until the gaps and absences meant as much as the pentatonic solo. We taped stuff at home on equipment so crap that it picked up mum’s hoovering and Dad’s lawn mower. We swapped tapes, we nicked tapes of each other and we traded tapes for luxury items (those small bits of hash again). We impressed the girls on the bus and up town with our tapes (although we very rarely made them mix tapes, that was a high school rom-com cliché and far too much effort for us to ever really do). The cool lads had tapes from raves or bought on Camden market. It was a world in flux where you would tape music over other music and end up with accidental hybrids and collages. They were useless and they unwound but they were glorious in their functionality. Oh God they were ace and they were shit.

I see now that they are making a trendy comeback. There’s a ‘cassette store day’ and you can buy t-shirts, mugs and phone cases (guilty, guilty and fucking well guilty) with pictures of cassettes on them. I think I’m OK with this. I reckon it won’t be long before we all remember that tapes were basically crap and that any nostalgia for them is probably the same as nostalgia for chopper bikes; fun for five minutes until they crack you in the nuts and fall apart.

I have hundreds of CDs too. No one could live through the nineties and noughties without them. Look, records are ace but they can be a pain in the arse. You have to get up and flip them over (I would have written all of this a fuck of a lot quicker if I hadn’t been flipping records over every 20 minutes). You can’t skip to your favourite track. They can’t be played on the road or in a mate’s car. They get damaged easily. They take up lots of space. CDs, we were promised, were the answer to all of this. Tomorrow’s World used to be a real programme. It’s hard to believe this now as it seems like a hauntological parody of itself. But it really was a big part of weekly telly. They told us that CDs were pretty much indestructible. You could chuck them out of a car window. You could stub out an Embassy Number 1 on them. You could even take your house keys and play noughts and crosses on the things if you so desired. They were the future. I don’t care what anyone says now. We all bought into this. Rather than remembering stuff like the Berlin Wall coming down, I remember going to the Galleria shopping centre in Hatfield with my dad while he bought out first fancy stereo. It was a Kenwood and it was genuinely wonderful. It had a record deck that only conked out when I had it in Finsbury Park in 2001, a CD player that lasted about a year more and the biggest, heaviest, badass speakers I’ve ever known (my mate Adam has them on the Isle of Wight now and I check on their wellbeing whenever I speak to him). It was matt black and sexy as fuck. It beat all the rubbish I sold in Boots into a cocked bucket hat.  Who wouldn’t want some of that? So began my own CD years. The first was Hendrix in 1992 the last was Squarepusher this week. They’re still great. They are handy, cheap and available. Sorry vinyl, you’ll have to share me with CDs.

And with my IPod too.

This is getting weird. I’m supposed to be convincing you of my unadulterated love affair with records but it seems as if I am a big old tart who’ll have a go on anything. I got an IPod once all of the fuss had died down. It was a Christmas present and I was pretty sceptical. You see, I’d been burnt. I got into mini discs. I was an evangelist for the things. I bought a stereo (the one that replaced the awesome Kenwood) and made sure it had capacity for playing mini discs. I bought a portable mini disc player (inevitably named a ‘mini-discman’) and spent hours copying album after album onto them. It was only after a few months that I noticed the names of tracks would appear across the dot matrix screens of my newfound kit. This blew my mind to bits. I carried bundles of mini discs wherever I went and banged on about their ‘superior fidelity’ to whoever was unfortunate enough to be listening. I was a mini disc bore. I was living the mini disc dream.

And then they vanished. Gone. No one was talking about them or using them anymore. They just stopped being a thing. Why? Fucking Apple and their fucking vision of the fucking future.

I heard Lauren Laverne talking about IPods once and she said something that I think about nearly every time I use mine. She said that if someone had told her 15-year-old self that one day she could carry around her whole record collection in her pocket it would have made her mind explode. It’s pretty hard to argue with this. Now that we access music in the way that we do, it’s hard to remember just how mad the concept of the IPod was to the uninitiated. It was a little bit of plastic that carried around thousands of tunes. Actually, scratch that, the final iterations of the product carried thousands of hours of music (alright, it’s not that many but the repetition of thousands reads better). It’s all so overwhelming. How can you listen to that many songs? How can you get a handle on all of those musical ideas or all of that history? All wrapped up in a neat little gadget with its playful click wheel and practically perfect white earphones. It’s like the class swot or the person that keeps winning on Bake Off. You sort of admire them yet find them deeply irritating all at the same time. There’s so many songs in them and they find them so quickly and it’s all so fucking clever. Even the clicks are sweet and lovely. It’s tedious. But, just like CDs they are fallible. It turned out that CDs weren’t indesctructable. One speck of dust or a spilt ashtray would fuck them into oblivion and destroy whatever machine was try to eek music out of them. IPods are the same. They run out of steam. They start behaving weirdly. The neat little earphones are destined to shed their pure white sheaths and reveal their wirey nakedness. All of these gadgets end up on the scrap heap. I chuckle at the idiots that flogged all their music because they had ‘ripped’ (what a telling verb) all of it to a computer only for that computer to wave cheerio as it went to the great hard drive in the sky (is this what the cloud is?). While we’re on the topic of gadgets and new fangled ways of enjoying music, it’s time to categorically state that streaming is bullshit. No one is getting paid. This means that posh twats are making all the music for focus-grouped mugs. Streaming is the reason that Ed Sheeran is the biggest artist on earth. People who make Spotify playlists are the same people who bought C90s.

This is why, despite dalliances and adventures in the sun with other formats, records stay the course. They don’t offer convenience. They don’t offer portability. They don’t offer visions of the future or a chance to go to the #susanalbumparty. They just sit there being great objects. They sound ok to me on my average stereo and they look pretty good on my shelf. I am more than halfway through my life now and I don’t really care about the next big thing. I have the records I have and they will last as long as I do and probably a bit longer. They’ll end up in car boot sales or the charity shop or some enterprising relative I haven’t met yet will flog them. I don’t mind which. I still go to record shops and I love crate digging in charity shops and at car boot sales. I order a lot online too. The thrill at my weekly Roy of the Rovers has now been replaced by the mysterious red cards left by the postie and the awkward knock on my neighbour’s door (to be fair, if you sit around in your pants smoking draw all day you do end up as the local sorting office pretty quickly). I still shiver at the word indie and keep promising myself that I’ll get a cool record label tattoo one day (my mate Nathan has Trojan on his bicep – it’s well good). Friendships that are still dear to me are shaped around chances to listen to each other’s records and pretend we’ve heard of the latest obscure release. I love techno, I love jungle, but I am still a bit scared of dance music shops. I love grunge and shoegaze, but I am still a bit bored by nerdy indie fans. Most of all, I am my records. They are 12-inch slabs of memory and the stories they hold shape me. They are dusty and they are annoying. So am I though, and that’s alright. 



Reading Sound and Hearing Words – some ideas and a cracking new book

If I’m completely honest and not particularly worried about my diminishing levels of credibility, I’ll admit that my first musical hero was an unusual one. I would love to say that it was Norman Blake or Kristin Hersh. If I was doing that reverse hipster thing, I might even say it was Kylie. But no, it was Michael Winslow from the Police Academy films.

I wasn’t really supposed to watch these as they were, according to my mum, ‘a wee bit rude’ and, according to my dad, ‘a waste of time, money and our video shop card’. But watch them I did. I watched them at mates’ houses, at the cinema when I was a bit older and even on our treasured video machine when I had temporary control of the card. They are of course deeply problematic films. They are riddled with cheap misogyny, crass homophobia, racist stereotypes and the kind of cheesy celebrations of Technicolor capitalism so often at the heart of 80s Hollywood. I suppose they are anti-authority in the same way Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run are and they do have awesome car chases and explosions. When you are an eleven-year old, this is usually enough.

But – and it is a big but – they featured the magical mouth of Michael Winslow. As a kid, he grew up on an air base and battled his loneliness by impersonating aircraft and vehicles. His mouth became a conduit for the sonic world that he inhabited. So, after an early career on TV and in Cheech and Chong (now THAT’S a problematic film, let’s come back to that in another blog post), Winslow played Sgt Larvelle Jones in every iteration of the Police Academy franchise (way better than that part-timer Steve Guttenburg). One of the good guys, his role in the films was to provide noises that usually served one of two purposes. One: he made noises that added to the party. If there wasn’t a boom box available then Jones would provide the tunes (his version of ‘Purple Haze’ was literally the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix). Two: he made noises that hoodwinked the criminals and embarrassed the corrupt top brass Harris and Proctor. He impersonated CB radio, submarines, semi-automatic rifles, electro beats, blues harps and arcade games. It was genuinely ear-boggling.

Less surprising of course were our tributes to him in the school playground. His fame coincided with that of Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and so it was inevitable that our break times were spent showering each other with spit in an effort to be the first-year’s finest beatboxer. We made beats, we imitated the sounds of scratching and, when Guns & effin’ Roses appeared, we sought to emulate Slash’s fretwork. We were shit but that didn’t stop us. It still doesn’t. If a microphone appears and literally any amount of booze has been consumed then the result is a horrible cacophony of noise. I think I sound like the amen opening to ‘Straight Outta Compton’. My friends assure me otherwise.

When sitting down to write this, I ended up falling down a beatbox wormhole. I watched clips of Sgt Jones and then remembered that I’d seen Beardy Man and Schlomo at the same festival once and so watched all their videos too. I realised that I still find it all fascinating. How can they do that with their mouths? What?! Was that two noises at once? Three? It messes with your ears and it messes with your brain. I might have to give it another go at the staff Christmas do. Sorry in advance.

What this fascination amounts to is probably better described as frustration. I love music, talking about music and writing about music. But I always feel that I never get across what a certain song or gig is actually like in terms of sound. My mouth and my ears are out of sync. My pen and my speakers likewise. I can’t make the noises (despite my best efforts) and language falls short too. There’s an episode of Peep Show in which Jeremy gets a job in a recording studio. He blows it when he tries to explain to the band where they are going wrong by imitating his preferred direction with a series of sounds and terrible metaphors. He looks like a dick and gets fired. I worry that I do this. Talking about music always seems to be a case of tragic miscommunication. There’s onomatopoeia, I suppose, but this is usually a limiting and reductive figurative tool. Beyond the staples of ‘banging’ and ‘bleepy’, I communicate the joys of a 303 as ‘squelchy’ or sub-bass as ‘rumbling’. But these words never quite hit home. Soggy trainers are squelchy too and, when I lived near Finsbury Park Tube, the whole world rumbled.

The semantic gap between language and sound is an area of much academic debate and one that Dr Helen Pleasance, Dr Rob Edgar and I dipped our scholarly toes into when we started putting together our edited collection Music, Memory and Memoir. Responding to the work of musicologists Leon Botstein and Tia De Nora, we argued for an ‘extramusical’ reading of memories and narratives that explore and communicate sound. In our methodological article from earlier this year, we define this term as ‘the ephemera and material culture that surrounds musical production, performance and engagement’. T-shirts, record sleeves, tickets and all the other stuff we accumulate have narrative shapes that are absent in sound. As a fan telling a story, the individual subject relies on the tangible to communicate the intangible. This helps to navigate the ‘slippery interface between the abstractions of sound and the narrative processes made possible in language’. As with all things narratological, it’s complex. The experience of music initiates a desire to share narrative but the unique status of sound makes this process very difficult, perhaps even impossible. It’s an idea taken further by Dr Laura Watson in her chapter in Music, Memory and Memoir entitled ‘Reading Lyrics, hearing prose: Morrissey’s Autobiography‘ (which is, of course, the inspiration for the title here). She argues that, in Morrissey’s memoir, his ‘mode of lyrical expression influenced the text’s themes and literary style’. Sound and language are entwined yet still resist one another. Indeed, Laura goes on to argue that the audiobook versions of this memoir and others ‘stand at the interface between printed word and performance.’  These are the paradoxes and discussions that make our work both fascinating and agonising. The more I read, write and listen, the more tangled and knotted the issue becomes.

With this in mind, it was a great pleasure to read Ed Garland’s new book Earwitness. It is a significant intervention in this debate. Adding to the complexity outlined above, the author of this hybrid text has a relationship with sound that is altered by his ‘hearing loss and tinnitus’. Blending astute literary criticism and debate with memoir that is by turns self-deprecating and powerful, Garland explores the ‘sounds contained within stories and novels’. His new sonic world creates new limitations as a listener but also opens multi-sensory doors as a reader.

Garland’s writing asks that we experience sounds again. Recently, my colleague Dr Jo Waugh lectured on Olaudah Equiano and made reference to Viktor Shklovsky’s notions of defamiliarisation. Jo argued that Equiano can only communicate the absurd cruelty of the slave ship by making its material status and concrete detail feel strange and alien. Shklovsky asks that the writer ‘make the stone stony’ so that ‘one may recover the sensation of life’. There is something similar going on in this text. Garland takes the familiar world of work (crappy jobs in shops, bars and offices are surely central to our late capitalist collective memory) and renders it ‘worky’. Its soundscape is uncanny and so the unhappy pursuit of a wage becomes meaningless. Indeed, the Kafkaesque environs of the Bristol courthouse provide a ‘cloud of sonic dissatisfaction’. This is a dissonant world of ‘mutters, moans, whinges, sobs, growls, sarcastic laughs, pummeled keyboards and stifled laments’. Garland’s job as an usher provides him with a spot in the building in which the echoes and ricochets of daily conflict turn into a phasing symphony redolent of Steve Reich. A particularly memorable example of this reads:

The waiting areas of all five floors were open to each other, so a squabble by the lifts at the entrance could bounce off the floor tiles and spiral sixty feet up the central staircase, to be absorbed by the carpet outside court number nine, under the feet of a grey faced family who’ve been arguing about inheritance for so many years that there’s no longer anything left for them to inherit.

Garland’s own language is packed with sonic features. It flits between alliteration and assonance and, consequently, we hear the words themselves anew. Away from work, there are similarly unsettling (but always darkly funny) takes on shared living, noisy neighbours and hangovers spent listening to the ‘meow and yelp and howl’ of the local seagulls.    

All of this autobiographical material revolves in temporal circles around the text’s narrative pivot. The author’s adult life has been shaped by the ‘endless ring of tinnitus’ and his ‘muffled’ ears. The experience itself is an example of the complexity of communicating sound. The chapter entitled ‘Not One Acute Sense’, for example, narrates the moment that Garland’s ‘tinnitus split in two’. On one side is the ‘familiar ringing’ but the other experiences a ‘rapid fluttering […] a bit like a drunken skylark practising a one-note improvisation’. Such outlandish similes demonstrate that sharing actual sonic experience is all but impossible. Language will not and cannot provide absolutes.

Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is that it resists offering such certainties, answers or conclusions. The author gets better at dealing with this new sound world by reading. This is a fluid process and far from complete or positivist. There are engagements with musicology and psychology as well as discussions regarding the material (or otherwise) nature of sound waves. This multi-disciplinary conversation provides a framework of sorts, or, reveals that others are at least asking the same questions. It is fiction, however, that provides the author with his most illuminating moments. Garland finds new ways to read. He, under instruction from Ursula K Le Guin, ‘listens’ to the texts and the noises they make. He celebrates slow deliberation over ‘frantic’ reading that ‘hoover[s] up’ words. He castigates his younger self (been there…) as someone who ‘didn’t listen to what mattered, didn’t provide any time and space in which characters could form and events could resonate’.

The reading in this takes its time and listens carefully. It responds to figures as divergent as Samuel Beckett, Ralph Waldo Ellison, Henry Miller and James Joyce. These texts all make use of sound, but like the workplace, these are sounds that are often ignored. Garland forces our ears to the page. We are encouraged to re-listen and re-think. Since reading the text, I’ve found myself doing just this. My walk to work is now punctuated by the clanging of my water bottle jostling for space in my bag. The students in my seminars speak to one another in accents that clash, blur and combine. Their mismatched vowels and dropped consonants are music. Their learning is sonic. My own reading is slower and I am conscious of my breathing as I turn pages. This is what I ask of those who are newer to reading for a living, so it is great to have this reminder that I should be doing the same.

I still think that sound is hard to write and to narrate but this text celebrates such difficulty. It offers rumination rather than conclusion. It bears re-reading and it instills new ways of doing so. I look forward to the next installment.  

Techno, tornadoes and turntables

It seems that telling stories about raving is quite the thing at the moment. The summer saw Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place and Norman Cook’s Ibiza: The Silent Movie getting their Friday groove going on BBC4 while, in the theatre, Gary Clarke’s Wasteland has been receiving (ahem) rave reviews. All three of these examples share a paradoxical insistence on telling stories in unique ways. Deller leads a class of initially bemused sixth formers into something of a techno epiphany through social history, brilliantly chosen film clips and the thrill of mucking about with Roland kit. Fatboy Slim’s film plays fast and loose with Ibiza’s rich mythic history and its string of unlikely occupations to arrive at the conclusion that capitalism is a bit crap. Clarke, meanwhile, uses the language of choreography to make links between Britain’s industrial heritage and the ‘repetitive…organised chaos’ of the dance floor/field.  

All of this was on my mind as I paid a visit to the Saatchi Gallery’s Sweet Harmony exhibition a couple of weeks ago. Described as a ‘fully immersive experience’ (aren’t all galleries sort of immersive?), it sets out to tell stories about UK rave culture via bespoke artwork, masses of photography, walls covered in psychedelic flyers and plinths displaying the ephemera and paraphernalia discarded along the way by the cool, the fucked and the criminal.

It mostly works.

I’ll get the things that were a let down out of the way first. Number one, the gallery is in Chelsea. Outside it are cafes frequented by the only sort of jobless oiks deemed acceptable in double-barrel land. Men with no socks on and women with massive shopping bags all chatting loudly and listening badly. It looks like a trailer for a bad E4 show about a biscuit twat and his plummy friends. Give me Camden Town any day. Secondly, it is an exhibition about the joys of being in the moment, the rush of the dance floor moving as one, the politics of resistance and cultural revolt. But it is also an exhibition chock full of people with selfie sticks. The photos and artwork aren’t good enough on their own. They need two cretins pouting and flashing peace signs to make them that little bit better. I mean, photos of an important socio-historical movement are fine and all, but they are kinda hard to insta. #FFS.

Everybody loves a 303

Spiral Tribe in the areaaaa

Aside from my middle-aged bloke moans (I say literally the same things about every gig, play, restaurant and festival I attend), the exhibition had lots to enjoy. Best of all was the opportunity to play around with 909s and 303s. For four whole minutes I was on equal footing with DJ Pierre and Richie Hawtin. I was making acid house that sounded like something that a producer might have discarded after 30 seconds consideration. Yes mate, it was that good. When I took the cans off, there was a queue of baldy beardy men (completely copying my vibe) that looked for all the world like 80s kids waiting to buy their new Star Wars figures. There was a room dedicated to sound system culture with photos of the infamous Spiral Tribe on every wall. Resplendent in their hoodies and Nike Air, they still say everything to me about rebellion and the hardest of hard techno. In terms of storytelling, it’s hard to beat the room in which photographer and veteran scenester Vinca Petersen’s diary was recreated along a 40-foot wall. Polaroid pictures, flyers and wonderfully opaque prose took the reader from the early 90s right through to this decade. Raves were ‘well wicked’ and fuelled by ‘trippy pills’ and ‘epic sets’. This was narrative that engaged through its gaps. Among the hedonistic hints were more mundane notes regarding ‘shelf-stacking’ jobs in WH Smith and, horror of all horrors, ‘meeting Shed Seven’. The manner of telling here is as significant as the story itself.  


I love all of this. Readers of this blog’s (somewhat infrequent) output will know that I value stories much more than notions of truth. I love the shape of stories, their obvious holes and contradictions and the way that they rise and fall. It’s all this that makes story telling so musical and is the reason why I can’t fit an extra-slim Vera between the two modes. It’s especially interesting with rave as I both remember it and don’t remember it. I don’t mean this as some kind of hedonistic boast (man). I just mean that I was a little bit young for the glory days. I can exclusively reveal that I was not running around the M25 looking for the spot that Super Kev had announced on the phone line. Nor was I decked out in white gloves and whistle as the second summer of love kicked in. No, I was listening to Transvision Vamp and praying for my acne to fuck off. Rave came to me via tabloid hysteria and older lads at school telling lies. Rave was a thing I wasn’t allowed to do (along with smoking fags, getting my ear pierced and any kind of overt socialism). It was something that surely signified the end of civilisation. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by all of that? Well, it took me a long old while to be just that.

It was ages before I got into techno or jungle or hardcore. I had some mates that were always a little ahead of the curve. I had just about caught up with Neds, Pavement and Jesus Jones (!) when they were already gushing about Autechre, Jeff Mills and LFO. I was reluctant to leave the guitars and DMs behind and to appreciate that synths, decks and sequencers were actually pretty awesome.

The epiphany happened in a mate’s living room during a half term holiday. His mum was out at work, so about 15 of us spent the day smoking roll ups and sharing about three cans of illicit lager in his back garden. He had a new record that was blowing his mind. Had never heard anything like it before. I tried my best to look enthusiastic, but my inside voice was going, ‘more techno rubbish, why can’t we all just love Mega City Four and Leatherface?’ He put it on. It was absurdly good. Mesmirising and strange. Lifting and shifting all over the shop. It was ‘Digeridoo’ by Aphex Twin.

I don’t know why this tune hit where others had failed. Maybe the stereo in this house was better than others. Maybe it was the psychoactive impact of half a can of Skol. Maybe it was the thrill of a Tuesday afternoon not in double maths. Whatever. It rocked and I was a changed man.

I got into techno after that. I still loved messy haired men and women from Stourbridge, Seattle and Boston, but now I also liked producers from Detroit and DJs from south London. I said ‘sorted’ and ‘nice one’ a little more and ‘where’s me jumper’ a little less. I wanted to go raving with my mates when they went to the Rocket but a) I had a Saturday job in Boots and b) I had a Scottish Dad who wasnae having any of that pish.

I got there in the end but when I raved it was in small clubs in and around my middle England home with names like ‘Decompression’ and ‘Interactive’. I adopted all the pseudo hippy stuff and went a bit crusty. I even knew a couple of the Spiral Tribe lads (although I was shit scared of them and one stole my mate’s Gameboy). I ventured into London a few times and went to Club UK and Soundshaft but I was always more comfortable bobbing about to a band than throwing sweaty shapes with my top off. I suppose it doesn’t help that I am a terrible mover. A dad dancer before my time. As such I don’t have many good raving stories beyond, ‘we saw [insert Belgian techno legend here] and it was well loud.’ No, I don’t have many of those.

But I do have one.

I cocked up my A levels a bit and, as a result, had an unplanned year out. I spent three quarters of it working in a book shop on Hollywell Hill in St Albans. It was a lovely old place with a garden, a knackered vacuum cleaner and a grumpy cat (both called Henry). It paid not much and was a daily reminder of how weird and wonderful the general public are (especially when revealing their reading habits). It was also the year that my mum and dad moved to Ottawa in Canada. The move was long planned and was supposed to coincide with me going off to the University of Southampton to study history and literature. However, one botched history paper (damn you Bismarck!) later and the plan had changed. So, I was now living on my own in my mum and dad’s house and working. You can guess what sort of year it was. Suffice to say, I did not spend it building schools in Mozambique or diving into Caribbean waterfalls.

I did go travelling for a bit though. Sort of. I went to the States and to Canada. A safe bet where I could end up tired and skint at my parents’ new gaff for a couple of weeks. I was there with some mates that I will call Katie, Christy and Mark (for that was their names). We were a crew so useless that to this day I am astonished that we managed to get the train to Gatwick, let alone fly across the Atlantic and get let into another country. After some time in Boston and a few days marvelling at Niagara Falls, we ended up in Toronto and this is where the ravey things started to happen. We were having a cuppa outside our hostel when we spotted a flyer on the table next to us. It was called ‘Destiny 10’ (whether there had been a previous 9 I do not know) and it was organised by the fine folks at ‘World Electronic Music Festivals’ (operating in Canada only). It was taking place somewhere about two hours outside of Toronto and it looked magnificent. We were supposed to go to the bus station and then phone a number on the night. It was like we were real ravers! The line-up included acts from Plus 8 Records and a UK contingent in the form of Keith Fielder and the late great Colin Faver (we actually met both of these gents and hung out with them a bit but that’s a story for another time).

It took us AGES to get there on the rickety old school bus (yes, one of those yellow ones from the films) surrounded by the best of mid-90s ravers. They wore the obligatory uniform of died hair, very small rucksacks, huge jeans and phat (note the spelling) skate shoes. They spoke in a North American drawl  that was a blend of Floyd the stoner from True Romance (Brad Pitt’s finest moment) and Keith Richards circa 1971 (if Keith Richards was from Ontario rather than Dartford…sort of…whatever…you get the point).

We got to the site at a very early hour of the morning and were met by three or four tents whose ominous bass thumps and synth squawks were battling for sonic supremacy. As well as the noise, there was intense heat and humidity. None of us pasty British types had ever felt anything like it. It was like being slowly steamed in a wok (or something less liberal elite – I’m an inclusive writer). These two things, alongside the aforementioned sartorial experiments, made for a unique and somewhat unsettling sensory overload.

It got worse.

I’d only ever seen tornadoes on the telly and even then I’m pretty sure they were on cartoons and films. They’d twist and whip and pick up the Wiley Coyote or Dorothy’s house before dumping them somewhere new. I’m also pretty sure that I thought that they weren’t really a thing. Something that odd could only be the result of a fevered imagination. I mean, they couldn’t pick up a record from a deck and sling it across a tent like a wax frisbee could they? They couldn’t pick up the central pole in a massive tent and send hundreds of screaming ravers scarpering for the one open flap could they? They couldn’t throw lightening about and set fire to the toilets could they? They couldn’t leave tripped out teenagers crying for their mums could they?

Yep, they could.

Look, this was the 90s so we weren’t clutching precious phones. We didn’t film any of this or take any pictures. The rave itself only has two vague entries on the internet (a weird ravers’ forum and a brief story from a Toronto news site). This stuff only exists in my memory. I can’t even check it with my three mates as we lost touch yonks ago (one lives in Brighton I think and was last heard of being a train conductor). I am positive that the more I’ve told the story the more it changes and I know for sure that I have added bits that are pure bullshit. I definitely, depending on the audience, leave out some parts (not you dear blog reader – you get the unvarnished and only-a-bit-fictional version). I’ve never told my mum any of it.

There really was a tornado that ripped that rave to pieces though. The next day, people stumbled about wondering what the hell had happened. No one had slept. No tents remained intact. The bus wasn’t due to take us back to Toronto until the next day. What the fuck were we supposed to do? Well, riding in like an electronic cavalry came the DJs. They set up a rig on the back of a flat bed truck and played loud, banging techno. All day. It is a huge, clanging cliché but the tunes saved the day. My dad dancing got me through it all. No food, no water. Nutrition came in the form of Canadian B&H and Moosehead lager.

It was really, really good.

So this is my one decent raving story. This is why I felt a connection with what Jeremy Deller was talking about on the telly and with what the Saatchi curators put together in their exhibition. These weren’t my memories. I wasn’t even a part of that scene. But the act of telling a story with wonderfully hazy edges speaks to me. Their memories and their cultural makeup make me reflect on my own. We are our stories. They shape our lives and our loves. I was too young to party with the original cheesy Quavers but, in my own small (and admittedly weird) way, I have a stake in this.

Old man plays records in shed

I still love techno. In fact, the day after visiting the Saatchi, I got on the ones and twos at my friend Mel’s birthday bash in Walthamstow (she had a Disco Shed – it was the best thing EVER). I entertained/bored (delete as applicable) my old mates with an hour of the stuff. Old records with dusty sleeves carried in a tatty Aphex Twin tote bag. What could be better?

The weather was good too.