Blackstar & Oh, To Be a Defector (Best of 2015, Part One)

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Okay, in no particular order, the first batch of my thirty favourite tracks released during 2015, kicking off with David Bowie – who I first heard in 1969 when Space Oddity made the British singles chart – and Chorusgirl, a London based act that I only discovered a few weeks ago and whose self titled album is just out on Fortuna POP! I have also included a list of my five top reads and, in future weeks, you can expect ten of the very best compilations, reissues or soundtracks and the ten films that have impressed me the most.

singles

_Linden: Rest and Be Thankful
John Foxx: Oceanic II
FFS: Johnny Delusional
Anton Newcombe and Tess Parks: German Tangerine
David Bowie: Blackstar:


Django Django: First Light
Jacco Gardner: Find Yourself
The Pop Group: Mad Truth
The Cathode Ray: Resist
Chorusgirl: Oh, To Be a Defector


Chorusgirl play Nice N Sleazy in Glasgow on 06/12/15 with The Spook School and tickets are only six quid.

For more on Chorusgirl click here for their official site. And here for their Facebook page.

the-written-word

It’s been a year where I have read less new fiction than is normally the case although, before the end of the year, I am hoping to make a start on the new Ian Rankin Rebus novel and Silenced by talented Glasgow crime writer A.J. McCreanor. And I might even have a go at Morrissey’s fiction debut, List of the Lost, a book savaged by many critics and which has just been nominated for The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Heaven knows how Morrissey will feel if it wins this unwelcome ‘honour’ but I’m guessing pretty miserable.

Anyway, here’s my top five:

Stuart DavidIn the All-Night Cafe
Stuart Cosgrove – Detroit 67
David Cavanagh – Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life
Kris Needs – Dream Baby Dream: Suicide: A New York City Story
Irvine Welsh – A Decent Ride

‘I’m an Extraordinarily Bitter Person.’

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Elvis Costello. Alison 
Extraordinarily bitter person? No, not me, I’m only a little bitter myself, the headline quote comes from a man who released a single in 1983 titled Everyday I Write the Book.

Now he has, an autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which I am currently reading and enjoying more than any of recent Elvis Costello albums I’ve heard (he says, comparing apples with oranges).

It’s a huge book brimming with fascinating details that in typical Costello fashion makes absolutely no concession to the idea of the supposed fast dwindling attention spans of readers.

He’s also chosen to go down the non-linear path of writing. ‘I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin,’ he writes. ‘I apologise in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.’ This is from page 81.

The big surprise, though, is the sheer depth of personal detail he has decided to go into. Back in 1977, the angry young man who until recently had been known as Declan Partick McManus wasn’t so keen to volunteer this kind of information.

‘I don’t really think that the past – my past – is all that interesting,’ he told Allan Jones in Melody Maker that summer. ‘I don’t see any point in talking about the past, I don’t want to get into that. I mean, I haven’t just learned the guitar in the last 10 minutes, but I’m not going to get talking about what I’ve done in the past.’

’77 was the breakout year for Costello when he progressed from being a virtual unknown to signing with Stiff, gaining that new ATTENTION PLEASE! name and then a new backing band too in the shape of The Attractions. According to some music hacks anyway, he went from potentially becoming the new Graham Parker to potentially becoming the new Bruce Springsteen in a matter of months.

For once the hype was deserved. There was a highly impressive flurry of singles starting in the spring with Less Than Zero, and continuing through Alison, Red Shoes and then that autumn, a taste of things to come with Watching The Detectives, the first single issued on Stiff to chart. Debut long player, My Aim is True didn’t disappoint either, and was an album of ‘often intense brilliance’ according to NME. That December he made an appearance on Saturday Night Live and America began taking serious notice too.

Trouser Press, December 1977 
The bulk of My Aim is True was written at his work, the famous computer operator job at Elizabeth Arden, or on the tube home to Hounslow and here is what the man himself says about the second single and album highlight, Alison:

’I’ve always told people that I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honor.

’Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.’

This is a live version of the track recorded some time after its original release:

 
Costello talks in Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink about the one time plan of DJ and author Charlie Gillett to sign him to Oval, his independent label that specialised in putting out some great reggae such as Dennis Brown and Horace Andy and some even better Cajun flavoured tracks that he licensed from the States, the best of which was his coupling of Shelton Dunaway’s swamp-pop take on Betty and Dupree and Johnnie Allan’s joyous Promised Land, a single that is one of my favourite ever cover versions and which almost broke into the British Top Thirty in 1974.

It’s also a song that Costello’s old pub rock band Flip City once played live to the inmates of London’s Wandsworth Prison, probably around the time when another guy called Elvis released his version of the song on 45. Despite having a captive audience, apparently Flip City failed to make the jailhouse rock although Promised Land was the first song in the set that managed to elicit any applause from the assorted crims.

Here is the Allan version, which even outshines the Chuck Berry original:

 
For more on Elvis Costello, click here.

New Ork Groove

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Chris Stamey The Summer Sun 
Nowadays the BBC network is very much TV by committee and so programmes like the recent The Story of Indie: Music for Misfits often veer towards the safe rather than the challenging. Saying that, each of the three documentaries was mostly enjoyable enough stuff.

’In the 1970s,’ the show’s BBC Four webpage page tells us, ’the music industry was controlled by the major record labels, and the notion of releasing a record independently seemed like an impossible dream. At a time when even the Sex Pistols were on a major label, the true act of rebellion was would be to do it yourself.’

A big generalisation, albeit with more than a couple of grains of truth in it but I’m guessing that whoever wrote those two sentences has never heard Clem Dane’s The Wee Kirkcudbright Centipede, released by Glasgow based Klub at a time when The Pistols were front page news in 1977. Klub were certainly no EMI, Arista or WEA and managed to survive by flogging records by some local light entertainment artistes and dodgy Scottish club comedians like Hector Nicol. Early the next year, they put out the musical embarrassment that was Andy Cameron’s Ally’s Tartan Army, a single that went on to sell over 360,000 copies and made the UK top ten, meaning that, in terms of sales, Klub dwarfed those of Fast and Zoom. Klub also later released a three track single by a proggy Glasgow band with a Beefheart fixation called Chou Pahrot, whose songs had titles like Gwizgweela Gwamphnoo and Buzgo Tram Chorus. Where they fitted in with the label’s vision I cannot even begin to guess.

If I did have a problem with Music For Misfits it was with the lack of historical perspective in the first of the three shows, which presented a world where no independent records seemed to have ever existed before Spiral Scratch.

No mention of Triumph Records, founded in 1960 by Joe Meek together with William Barrington-Coupe; no Immediate, run by Andrew Loog Oldham and Tony Calder; no Stiff or Chiswick and despite this being the BBC and multiple mentions of John Peel, nothing about his own Dandelion imprint. Nothing on Fatal Records, set up by The Saints to release (I’m) Stranded in Australia in 1976; not a mention of the countless American labels that released shedloads of rip roarin’ rockabilly and glorious but obscure soul back in the ’50s and ’60s, although the focus was on indie from British shores, England and Scotland to be specific – even Belfast’s Good Vibrations was ignored, which I found a strange oversight.

No Ork either obviously, a label that gave the world Television’s Little Johnny Jewel, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation and Free Again by Alex Chilton.

Forty years after its launch, the entire output of Ork has just, for the first time, been collected together and, along with a couple of previously unreleased singles from the The Feelies and Erasers, been released by Numero Group. The compilation includes some sublime NYC punk, new wave and powerpop, one fine example of the latter category being this gem by Chris Stamey, aided and abetted by the genius that was Alex Chilton. This is the beautifully bittersweet The Summer Sun:

 
Ork was the brainchild of Terry Ork, a gay Californian who moved to New York in the late ’60s and befriended Gerard Malanga, soon becoming his assistant in the Factory while also finding time to work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

He also for a time managed Greenwich Village store Cinemabilia, where Richard Hell first met future Voidoid Robert Quine and he let Television rehearse in his loft. He later managed that band. Ork hung around in Max’s Kansas City and then in CBGB and according to Marky Ramone’s book Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, at one point he effectively became the booking agent for that legendary bar. Indeed, he was portrayed in the 2013 film CBGB by Johnny Galecki, although the role was relatively minor – if I remember this pretty forgettable film correctly, his big moment was offering to give Iggy Pop a blowjob.

Terry Ork came across New Jersey band The Feelies in 1976 and agreed to sign and manage them. The following summer they recorded a couple of songs, Fa Cé-La and Big Plans, for Ork, which was apparently going to be hooking up with major Polygram. The deal, through, stalled and the single never came out via Ork. By the time Terry acquired the finances needed to make the release happen, the band had gone off the tracks as their sound had moved on.

Another version of Fa Cé-La was, though, released as a single on Rough Trade in 1979 but this is the superior version intended for Ork. Just listen to that What Goes On guitar and marvel!

 
For more on the Ork Records Complete Singles compilation, click here.