Archie, Marry Me & Bang

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John Peel died ten years ago today and I reckon that I must have listened to a good few thousand of his radio shows between 1976 and 2004. In fact, I have a big black bin liner in my cupboard filled with old cassette tapes that mostly consist of sessions and other tracks from these shows although not the one where I recorded parts of his first ever Festive Fifty, which is apparently much sought after, a kind of holy grail for Peel obsessives. That would likely have been taped over within weeks of broadcast. Maybe days.

John Peel Radio Show 1976

My musical tastes were largely sculpted by listening to Peelie during those years. I first heard Subway Sect on Peel, first heard Joy Division, The Smiths, Pulp, My Bloody Valentine and Boards of Canada there too – and Melt Banana, Napalm Death and The Cuban Boys, who Peel adored but who I never remotely understood the appeal of. That, though, was somehow part of the fun.

In the age of podcasts, Mixcloud sets, Spotify and everything else that’s out there, discovering exciting new music – and older music I’d previously been unaware of – has certainly become more complicated for me since his death.

Helpfully Louder Than War have just updated their own Ultimate Guide on where to find New Music in a Post-Peel World (which I made a very small contribution to) and it’s full of interesting suggestions. I’m intending myself to investigate some of them today.

Sometimes nowadays I come across new acts very randomly. A few hours ago a Canadian band* got in touch via email, I listened to their new single, liked it and visited their Facebook page where they recommended another band, who have a self-titled album out at the moment on Transgressive in Britain.

I originally guessed that this band might just be Scottish, as for some reason I can’t figure out, the first thing you see on their official website at the moment is a photo of 70s Edinburgh folkies, Silly Wizard with the message: ‘silly wizard, ahead of their era’ but no, Alvvays (pronounced Always) are Canadians too, albeit the singer’s called Molly Rankin and Kerri MacLellan is the name of the keyboard player so I’m guessing there’s plenty of Scots in their ancestry.

Dreamy, timeless indie pop with shades of Camera Obscura and The Sundays (two big Peel favourites) this is Alvvays with Archie, Marry Me:


Surely Archie would be mad not to.

The band are currently touring and play the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds tonight.

Also from the musically fertile city of Toronto are BB Guns, who I came across last year when Tess Parks recommended them to me during my interview with her. This is the ‘sparkling’ lead track from their Bang EP:


BB Guns will be supporting Dum Dum Girls on Saturday night at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. Should be fun.

* Christian Punk Band in case you’re wondering, who’s name I think is slightly misleading.

For more on Alvvays:
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Happy x 3

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7x7-1977 smaller

Velvet Hammer: Happy
(Soozi Records)

Following on from last week’s post I’ve decided to keep the Northern Soul theme going.

Although it sounds to me as if it might have been recorded earlier, today’s track first came out in 1977 as the B side of the single Party Hardy, released on Soozi Records, a small Chicago label. It also appeared on the album Call Me! from ’77 and it’s been re-released as a 45 in various combinations ever since, most recently by Originals who teamed the song up with its namesake by Pharrell Williams on limited edition 7 inch vinyl, Velvet Hammer being the A side.

I’m told it first became popular in Northern circles in 1978 when it was repeatedly spun at the Lafayette in Wolverhampton (where The Sex Pistols played as part of their SPOTS tour) before being picked up by Wigan Casino DJs like Richard Searling and Gary Rushbrooke.

This is Velvet Hammer and Happy:

 
This Happy though is probably best known as a YouTube sensation where ‘Northern Soul Girl’ Levanna McLean dances to half of the song together with half of Happy by Pharrell Williams. I know which one I prefer:

 
And if you want to hear a longer edit of the Velvet Hammer track here’s one by The Apple Scruffs which is definitely worth a listen. Enjoy:

Some Northern Soul & the Patron Saint of Scottish Indie

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Let’s rewind once again to the now hazy days of 1977 when millions of viewers tuned into a peak time documentary strand from Granada TV called This England, on this occasion for an episode titled Wigan Casino, which examined the most popular club on the Northern Soul scene, famous for its all–nighters where DJs like Russ Winstanley and Richard Searling would spin American soul rarities from the 1960s issued on labels like Okeh, Ric Tic and Mirwood.

There was some amazingly energetic and acrobatic dancing on display and what is equally amazing in the age of ‘reality’ TV and wannabes desperately craving media attention is the fact that many young Casino regulars didn’t want their private passion publicised and director Tony Palmer was under strict orders not to film those who didn’t want the exposure.

The documentary was undoubtedly a fascinating insight into a subculture I knew little about at the time, albeit I do think Palmer devoted too much time to local social history with old–timers reminiscing about the deprivation of their younger days accompanied by English folk tunes but the soul music was generally terrific, my own favourite being Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up, although the Charity Brown and Rain single Out of My Mind does sound more Eurovision than Detroit to my ears.

 
As a youngster I’d always enjoyed tracks like Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me, The Night, There’s a Ghost in My House and even (I’m whispering this) Footsie by Wigan’s Chosen Few but, by 1977, the idea of people making their way to Wigan, Blackpool, Stoke–on–Trent or anywhere else for a night of soul music struck me as outdated when they could probably venture out to a more local venue and see The Clash, Ramones or Stranglers perform live.

Likewise, why pay some crate digger over the top prices for some obscurity from a decade before when you could easily buy the latest blistering single by The Damned or Sex Pistols for under a quid?

And those tent–like flares and silly vests? No thanks.

Okay. Fast forward about twenty five years.

I’m half of a team that have just been shortlisted to make a Scottish based documentary and the proposal that is under consideration is on the subject of Northern Soul.

The plan is to shoot some footage at a few venues that put on Northern nights – Caley Soul at the Woodside Club in Glasgow and the Bonnyrigg Soul Club being two possibilities – and also interview some hardcore fans, the ideal candidates including a DJ and collector, Kenny Burrell, who at the time owned the most expensive single in the world after splashing out £15,000 for one of only two known copies of Frank Wilson’s Do I love You, and Stuart Cosgrove, author, broadcaster and former media editor of NME, who is also a well known soul fanatic and one time Wigan frequenter (he later coincidentally campaigned to keep the Wilson 45 in Scotland when Burrell put the record up for auction in 2009 – it went on to fetch over £25,000, another world record price and was sold to an anonymous buyer).

Obviously the story behind Do I Love You was be told in the doc along with the recollections of some Scots who made the long trip down to clubs like the Casino in the 1970s but we also intended to devote a fair bit of time examining the contemporary scene around the country and talk to some of the soul fraternity who were still keeping the faith.

There were definitely some serious devotees of the genre around at this point. One time at a special Hogmanay do held at Strawberry Fields in Glasgow that I attended, many of the punters weren’t very pleased when the DJ interrupted the music in order to count down the bells and wish everybody a happy New Year. Some even began booing the poor guy and demanding he get the soul music back on pronto. Believe me, that kind of thing is just about unheard of in Scotland on the most widely celebrated night of the year.

Sadly we weren’t selected to receive the funding to help make the film. Maybe the competing proposals were more professionally packaged and imaginative although I reckon we missed out because the idea of making a short film about a subject that, even in its heyday decades before, had only ever flirted with the mainstream was probably considered to have just too little general appeal. Maybe just a few years later our idea would have fell on more receptive ears.

Even ten years ago Northern Soul didn’t quite possess the hip cachet that it does now and few non aficionados could have predicted just how much interest would exist today on the subject; there’s certainly been a glut of documentaries in the last decade, including two made fairly recently by the BBC, as well as two feature films: 2010’s Soulboy starring Martin Compston and the forthcoming Northern Soul directed by Elaine Constantine, which will be screened in certain cinemas from the seventeenth of this month with the DVD and Blu–ray out just days afterwards.

Casino and Mecca Northern Soul Patches

You might just be wondering what happened between 1977, when I judged Northern Soul backward looking, and the middle part of the noughties when I was attending Northern nights and planning documentaries about the music?

Actually as far back as the last third of 1978, I had begun to reassess my thoughts on Northern Soul, after a visit to Blackpool in the last weekend in September, a local holiday in the West of Scotland. Down with a bunch of pals, we entered a mostly deserted bar early one evening, where a couple of guys were up dancing in an area to the side of the bar, shuffling across the floorboards and performing effortless spins and expert backflips. What looked impressive in snatches during This England looked absolutely incredible fifteen feet away from me in the flesh.

I’m guessing that this was the prelude to them making a pilgrimage to the nearby Blackpool Mecca, which at the time was the big rival to the Casino.

Being a group of sixteen and seventeen year old boys out for a good time we were soon on the move to somewhere busier and there was little chance of us heading to anywhere like the Mecca; the idea of paying into a club where we were unlikely to know any of the music being played and where guys and girls danced alone, wouldn’t have held much appeal at a time when our teenage hormones were busily erupting. And we would likely have been laughed at anyway if we’d dared to actually take to the dancefloor ourselves.

Instead we ended up in a disco dive called Diamond Lil’s on the Pleasure Beach where we proceeded to get blootered on watered down lager and Pernod n’ blackcurrants. Classy weren’t we?

I did though make a mental note to try and learn more once our weekend bender ended and we returned home but this wasn’t easy in the days before the advent of CDs and the internet. Northern Soul was back underground and local record shops weren’t exactly heavily stocked with soul stompers; radio stations weren’t playing the music and music papers like NME and Sounds only very occasionally even mentioned it.

Three or so weeks later I went to the Glasgow Apollo to see a double bill featuring two of my very favourite punk bands, Subway Sect and Buzzcocks,

Round about this time Vic Godard of Subway Sect was starting to immerse himself in Northern Soul after Sect bassist Paul Meyers had lent him a bunch of singles he’d got from a pal called Jacko, who was a regular at all–nighters. These proved to be a revelation to Vic.

Before the year was out and with their second single Ambition just released on Rough Trade, Vic was explaining in an interview in Sounds how he was already searching for a new sound and the music that this required sound came closest to was Northern Soul.

This next phase of Subway Sect would be relatively short and also largely undocumented. Early in 1980, at a support slot to Siouxsie and The Banshees at the Music Machine on Camden High Street though, Postcard Records boss Alan Horne, who was there with Steven Daly of Orange Juice, bootlegged the show on his ghetto blaster.

Almost immediately Orange Juice began covering one of the songs showcased that night called Holiday Hymn, and they later included a version of it in their John Peel session of August 1981, by which point Vic had already moved on, dipping a musical toe into jazz, swing and the world of crooning (by this time too, a radical reinterpretation by Soft Cell of the Casino classic Tainted Love was on its way to becoming Britain’s bestselling song of the year).

Since 1981, the careers of Edwyn Collins and Vic Godard have often intertwined, Edwyn, for example, produced Vic’s ‘comeback’ album of 1993, The End of the Surrey People and a couple of years later, Vic helped out with some backing vocals for Edwyn’s international hit single A Girl Like You, to name only two of their collaborations.

Now, along with Seb Lewsley, Collins has recorded and produced the latest Subway Sect project, 1979 NOW!, an album wrapped in some wonderfully intriguing artwork designed by Andrew Paul Shaw, that recreates what has become known as the Sects’ ‘Northern Soul period’.

 
Sandwiched between a pair of instrumentals that both echo their debut single Nobody’s Scared but which also introduce an entirely new funky guitar feel and cool, modish keyboards, the album really is an enjoyable listen, packed with tunes like Caught In Midstream and the aforementioned Holiday Hymn that won’t just get your toes tapping but make you pine for an opportunity to get out on the dancefloor and enjoy them properly.

What The Subway Sect have did here is no attempt to recreate an exact facsimile of the Northern sound; for a start Vic makes no attempt to imitate the yearning vocal delivery of a Jimmy Radcliffe or Edwin Starr but remains happily West London throughout. The record lacks too the lush orchestration of some of the most popular records that would have been played in the Mecca or Casino but the footstomping 4/4 beat of Northern is utilised for inspiration on many of the tracks, some of which Vic fans might already know and love from previous albums and more recent live shows.

Okay, I do sometimes go into hyperbole overdrive when I’m talking about Godard but really if one of the Motown Hit Factory’s ace songwriting teams had presented Born to be a Rebel to Berry Gordy on a Friday afternoon in 1965, then I think the label boss would have been a very happy man over the weekend; the song also features a baritone sax solo worthy of Motown at its best, courtesy of Jim Knight.

Reviews so far have been very positive with Mojo calling the songs ‘strange, sibylline and gorgeous’, Uncut describing the album as ‘a brilliant hybrid’ and Louder Than War declaring: ‘The band sound organic and totally on-it throughout. There isn’t a weak track’.

I wouldn’t argue with any of that. Another triumph for Mr. Godard.

Filmed in Birmingham just a few days ago by Lee McFadden, this is another song from the album Get That Girl:

 
And here are a couple of Northern gems that Vic told me this week he’d been listening to back in the late 1970s, firstly Jay and The Techniques with Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie, a big hit in the States in 1967, which only really became popular on this side of the Atlantic some years later on the Northern scene:

 
And this is Michael, a 1965 single by The C.O.D.’s, later covered by Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band and referenced in Geno, Dexys Midnight Runners’ tribute to Washington; ‘You were Michael the lover, the fighter that won’.

 
Vic will be performing in Scotland next month with dates on November 14th in Glasgow’s Stereo and the following night at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh. Support on both nights being provided by The Sexual Objects.

Vic Godard & Subway Sect Glasgow StereoVic Godard & Subway Sect Edinburgh 04

For more on Vic Godard & Subway Sect
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For more on the current Northern Soul scene in Scotland click here.
And to read my interview with Vic Godard click here.

Music about Life and Death, Love and Sorrow, Sex and Dreams: An Interview with Natalie Pryce

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Natalie Pryce

Another week, another highly promising Scottish act for you.

Despite the name, Natalie Pryce are actually a four piece band consisting of Mark Swan (Vocals/Harmonica & Melodica), Greg Taylor (Guitar), Steven Litts (Bass) and Stephen Coleman (Drums).

After a successful Kickstarter campaign the band will be recording their second album Vol. II: The Ascent from Ego to Ego in the very near future and it really is time that they featured on this blog as they create a great neo-noir tinged bluesy garage rock racket.

A few days ago, I emailed some questions to frontman Mark Swan. He replied almost immediately with some fascinating and not always predictable answers. But first, the searing new Natalie Pryce single Emily, available to download free for a limited period of time here.

 
How and when did Natalie Pryce form?

Well the group all met at a Howard Phillips Lovecraft appreciation society in Glasgow. We were brought together through a mutual interest in Lovecraftian occult madness. That’s where the music came from too: at these society meeting we would have readings of the stories, the guys that would ultimately become Natalie Pryce would bring their instruments and improvise some music to play along with the words being read. One day I suggested that we try doing the same thing but with some original stories that I’d written. After that we had the band.

Why choose Natalie Pryce as the name of the band?

Natalie Pryce is the name of the protagonist in a novel by Mary Unthank called ‘The Uneffectual Fire’. It is, in part, a retelling of the Orpheus myth. It felt like everything that the character goes through in that book is what the band wanted to sound like. It’s a great, great book. As far as I’m aware not too many people have read it but it is definitely worth seeking out.

Your songs often reflect the band’s interest in cinema, literature and theatre, Sam’s about Samuel Beckett, isn’t it?

To say that the song ‘Sam’ is about Samuel Beckett wouldn’t be entirely true. Samuel Beckett is a character in the song and I’ve used the setting of his famous play ‘Waiting for Godot’ in the story but what the song is really about is the creative process. In the song there is a dialogue between two characters which follow a style that is in part based on the back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon but actually in my song the two voices represent the duality of my own creative and destructive urges. Samuel Beckett appears in the song as a corpse that is dragged up to excite some inspiration but fails to inspire a song worth singing. The song is about the difficulties of moving away from one’s own influences and creating original work. It is also about the cannibalisation of the things you once loved for the sake of writing: in the song Beckett’s corpse fails to inspire and that is because it has been all used up. There is a quote from Goethe’s Faust that I really love – “When scholars study a thing, they strive to kill it first, if it’s alive; then they have the parts and the’be lost the whole, for the link that’s missing was the living soul.” That’s what ‘Sam’ is about.

Who are the main influences on the band’s music?

Franz Kafka, Francis Bacon, David Lynch, Angela Carter, insects, J. G. Ballard, Egon Schiele, Philip K. Dick, Paula Rego, Michelle Hannah, flowers, Philip Larkin, Edvard Munch, Marlene Dietrich, Ingmar Bergman, Austin Osman Spare, Vladimir Nabokov, Stewart Lee, W. H. Auden, Marilyn Monroe, Dylan Thomas, Werner Herzog, Edith Wharton, William Blake, Jake and Dinos Chapman, tungsten light bulbs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky , Sigmund Freud, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Frida Kahlo, Harry Clarke, crows, Christopher Marlowe, storms, Susanna Clarke, John Milton, Will Self, Sarah Kane, Nikola Tesla, Robert Mitchum, John Keats, Christopher Lee, Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Sylvia Plath, Orson Wells, Emily Dickinson, Carl Jung, Saint Sebastian, Alan Moore, Ben Wheatley, smoke, Harpo Marx, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Dee, Nicolas Winding Refn, Sandro Botticelli, Alasdair Gray, Søren Kierkegaard, Henry James, Lynne Ramsay, Artemisia Gentileschi… there is a few to start with.

What about current acts, any you’d like to recommend?

Most of the groups we’ve played shows with are really great and it’s brilliant to see them live. There is such a strong scene in contemporary music now. There are still loads of groups I’m itching to play live with as well.

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I’m curious about the collective Natalie Pryce image which is rather dapper, how did that come about?

Gangsters, cowboys, highway men, secret agents, hitmen, Natalie Pryce: we’re carrying on a tradition of folk heroes and villains.

The promo videos are visually very striking. Who shoots them and do the band have much of an input into them?

Thank you! How much input does the band have? All of it! We do all of it ourselves from the original concept to editing it together and everything in between. The one exception is the video for the song ‘Raquel’ which our good friend and skilled photographer Kev Thomas acted as our cinematographer. The videos have been so fun to make. I think I’m getting better at making them too. Each new video is better than the last. I’m gradually forming my own style. I think that mainly happens in the editing. I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. Editing is the only unique aspect of filmmaking which does not resemble any other art form.

You’ve just successfully funded the recording of your second album using Kickstarter, that must surely be a very satisfying feeling?

The success of the Kickstarter campaign was inspiring. I’m still buzzing from it. I feel invigorated by it. The idea that people are interested and excited as much as I am about the music is an incredible feeling. I feel like I’ve achieved what I always wanted to achieve with art – which is to make a connection with people. It’s like when you become moved by a piece of art and even if it’s dark or sad in tone the joy of the thing is in that connection, that empathy with the artist. It’s that feeling of un-aloneness that creativity strives towards. A lot of my heroes died in poverty and complete obscurity so the idea that there is enough interest in the music of Natalie Pryce that people are willing to pay for us to make more is about as great as it gets.

So you’d advise other bands to go down the same route?

I would recommend Kickstarter. To me it seems like such a great model that I don’t know why all music isn’t created through it (there is probably a good reason – feel free to contact me through our website with the answer). For small bands like Natalie Pryce that make albums quickly and cheaply it works so well – people interested can pay in a small amount to get a copy and they’re money covers the costs of recording. For huge bands like the Rolling Stones that spend a lot of time and money on their albums it would work for them too because more people would be interested in paying in. One of the main advantages of the Kickstarter approach is the freedom it entitles the artist. It’s great for fans as well because they get to be a part of the creation of something they are interested in. Their input directly affects the thing being made.

You recorded and mixed your first album in two days doing one live take of each song. Same again second time around?

Two days?! Wow. We did that out of necessity because the cost of recording music being what it is two days was all we could afford but what happened is the sound on that album is amazing – there is so much energy in the room. It was like high wire walking, if we made a mistake we were dead. I think that rawness and tension can be heard in the recordings. This time around, for our upcoming album ‘Vol. II: The Ascent from Ego to Ego’, we aim to do the same again.

Natalie Pryce King TutsNatalie Pryce King Tuts 2Natalie Pryce King Tuts 3

Where are you recording the album?

We are recording the album once again at the incredible Green Door Studios. It is pretty much the most important studio in the world at the moment. All of Scotland’s greatest acts have come out of the Green Door Studio. It has a sound and an atmosphere to the place that is so unique. The building itself is like an additional instrument. We’re booked in for next month so till then we’re all in intensive training.

Why should we buy it?

Natalie Pryce hold a unique position in new music. They take the roots of jazz, blues and punk and grind them through the mill of their imagination. A unique imagination filled with Freudian symbols and Jungian archetypes, cult cinema, fairy-tales, classic literature, high art and low art. With their music Natalie Pryce create a world to slip into: a world with raging hallucinatory characters and impossible nocturnal cities where magick is real and reality is never taken at face value… it’s music about life and death, love and sorrow, sex and dreams that leaves you still listening well after the songs are finished.

Plans for the future?

Make our greatest album yet, make better and better visually striking promo videos, play some more gigs with bands that we love, write more interesting songs, repeat…

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Mark. And good luck with the album.

* The full band photo is from an unplugged show last year at the Old Hairdressers in Glasgow. © Fotomaki, while the other three are from a recent show at King Tut’s, © Paul Barclay.

Natalie Pryce Bannerrman's Bar

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