Best of the Year 2016 (Part One)

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Thirty tracks, ten films and five books, so a festive 45 of sorts. Not a vintage year for music (sadly I seem to say that every year nowadays) but as ever there has been plenty of excellent new singles and albums, in fact, I could easily have compiled a top one hundred.

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This 50-something’s favourites include music by a man in his 70s, a man pushing 70 and a man who died aged 69, namely Ian Hunter, Iggy Pop and, of course, David Bowie but I’m going to kick off with some new talent in the shape of Australian singer/songwriter Gabriella Cohen.

Former front woman of The Furrs, Gabriella has been lazily compared to Courtney Barnett; well, both are female, Melbourne based and get filed under indie but they don’t really have that much in common musically apart from a flair for making instantly enjoyable music.

Cohen’s debut album, Full Closure and No Details, is a self-produced collection of ten tracks brimming with an assurance and vitality that suggest she is definitely one to watch. Here’s my favourite cut from it, Downtown:



I did think Steve Mason deserved to win this year’s SAY Award with Meet the Humans but instead the judges voted that Scotland’s Album of the Year was Varmints by Anna Meredith, which would have been my number two.

One of the things I like about Anna is that in an age where every second Scottish act sometimes seem to be playing almost identikit folk inflected indie, she does her own classical/electronic/art pop/experimental thang with a perky playfulness that proves to be sonically intriguing, sometimes even provocative.

In the past this former Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been commissioned to make music utilising MRI scanners and performed ‘body percussion pieces’ which I haven’t seen/heard but which sound more innovative and ambitious than some sensitive indie guy singing songs of yearning on his acoustic guitar.

I’m gonna have to warn you that this video contains strobing/flashing lights throughout. This is Anna Meredith with The Vapours:


And now for some of Anna’s Moshi Moshi labelmates.

A big favourite of Unthought of, though, somehow, where I first came across them, Girl Ray (no relation to Man Ray or even poor old Johnnie Ray) recently recorded a session for Marc Riley and have supported the likes of Ezra Furman and Hooton Tennis Club in the past coupla months. Hopefully we get to hear a lot more of them in 2017.

Here they are with Trouble:


Here’s six more favourites to make up the first third of my musical selections:

Fat White Family: Breaking into Aldi
Rituals: Black River
The Limanas: Garden of Love
Stoor: Witchfinder General
Cate LeBon: Wonderful
&
The Parrots: Too High to Die

For more on Gabriella Cohen:
https://www.facebook.com/gabriellacohenmusic/

Steve Mason:
https://www.facebook.com/Steve-Mason-197724901872/?fref=ts

Anna Meredith:
http://www.annameredith.com/

Girl Ray:
https://www.facebook.com/girlraylondon/

Vashti, Françoise & Dennis: Three Festive Tunes for Friday

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A post that includes some Christmassy tracks that I haven’t seen featured elsewhere this year. A Christmas post was something I hadn’t imagined doing although as Half Man Half Biscuit once sang, ‘It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas’.

First up some Vashti Bunyan, an artist not universally loved by bloggers but someone I adore.

Whatever your thoughts on her music, it would be hard to deny that Vashti has an interesting backstory. Emerging as a singer in the swinging ’60s, she signed to stable of smitten Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham and released a couple of pop nuggets, Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (penned by Mick and Keef) and Train Song, which she co-wrote.

As Oldham put it in the second volume of his memoirs, 2Stoned: ‘Alas, Vashti was viewed as an auburn Marianne Faithfull spin-off, which more than dented the trail I had hoped to blaze for her.’

A new set of songs were written as she made her way very slowly by horse and cart from her home in London to a commune in Skye and these tracks were later recorded by Joe Boyd just before he worked his magic on Nick Drake’s Bryter Later. Like the previous singles, nobody paid much attention to Just Another Diamond Day, although the LP did very slowly earn cult status, eventually being re-issued in 2000, when it rightly received plaudits across the board from critics.

I first saw Vashti play at Belle and Sebastian’s Tramway Day in 2005, by which time she had made her return to making music, releasing a brilliant second album, Lookaftering, thirty five years after her first. Bit of a gap on the CV you might say but Vashti has never been one to follow a predictable path.

On the day I was told that this was her first ever Scottish show, even though she had been living here for decades – until her artistic rebirth, she hadn’t even picked up a guitar since the commercial failure of Just Another Diamond Day years except to teach her oldest son to play.

Vashti, it would have to be admitted, is not one of the most naturally self confident performers I have ever clapped my eyes on and she cut a rather vulnerable presence throughout the show – If I had known her, I’d have invited her to join me in Heraghty’s for a snifter beforehand to help quell the nerves.

Those nerves and the fragility of her voice – Maggie Bell she ain’t – made her performance all the more compelling and her set was one of the most delightful shows I have seen so far this century.

This is Twice As Much & Vashti with The Coldest Night Of The Year:


In 2Stoned, Andrew Loog Oldham also compared Vashti to Françoise Hardy, an artist I have to admit I knew little about until she sang on a version of To the End on one of Blur’s Country House CD releases – which was far superior to Country House and, come to think of it, Roll With It too, meaning that of all the tracks released during the so-called Battle of Britpop, the best was sung partly by a French woman.

Since then I have learned more about Françoise, mostly from the Blow Up Doll website that specialises in groovy yé-yé gals. If you’re interested in that kind of thing just google Blow Up Doll and hope for the best, or alternatively, click here.

From her 1970 album, Alone, this is Song of Winter:


The Dennis Wilson of 1977 was a very different one to the Dennis Wilson of Little Saint Nick and The Man With All the Toys. Famously Dennis was the only Beach Boy that actually surfed and by the mid 1960s he’d become the poster boy for Californian sun, sea and excessive sex.

What followed though included a quickly regretted association with Charles Manson, divorce, increasingly reckless behaviour and way too much booze and drugs.

With hindsight, Dennis’s scorching rasp here seems to reflect the many regrets in his life and maybe even some self-loathing and desperation too. If you’d heard him singing this on Christmas morning, you’d dread to think how he might be feeling by night-time.

Recorded at the tail end of November 1977 at The Beach Boys’ Brother studios although the track never saw the light of day till many years later, this is The Beach Boys with Dennis on vocal duties with his song Morning Christmas:

 
If you don’t already know Dennis Wilson’s magnificent solo album Pacific Ocean Blue then I’d advise you to seek it out. I’ll write about it in more detail in 2017.

Independent Scotland #9

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The Skids: Charles (No Bad Records) 1976

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I won’t need to remind anyone reading this blog that 2016 witnessed an unusually large number of deaths of musicians and music industry figures: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Brett Smiley, George Martin and Dale Griffin of Mott being just a handful of names of talents that spring to my mind. The high list of casualties has even led some music journalists to stupidly speak of the year having a hex on it as if strangers to the notion of coincidences.

Locally, one name whose death came back in April has remained largely under the radar. Sandy (Alexander) Muir might not be the most important figure in the history of Scottish music but the owner of Muir’s Record Shop in Dunfermline’s Queen Anne Street did play a vital role in the rise of Skids, managing the band for a spell as well as setting up a label to put out their first record.

No Bad Records, like two fellow Scottish based independents of the time, Sensible (The Rezillos) and Boring (The Exile) wasn’t a name to automatically excite, more a self-deprecating joke at the label’s expense – and I should point out here that the no here is short for not, as in when asked how you are doing, you might answer, ‘Aye. No’ bad.’

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The basis of The Skids’ line-up was supplied by two former members of a covers band called Tattoo, a key feature of whose sound belonged to self taught guitarist Stuart Adamson, who’d become almost effortlessly efficient on his instrument while still at Beath High School, where his pal, bassist Bill Simpson, also attended.

Next to join was a granite-jawed punk with raccoon striped hair who could sing (kind of), had charisma in bucket-loads and who even wrote lyrics. The son of a miner, Richard Jobson had been given little encouragement at school and could easily have embraced the punk cliché of ‘no future’ at a time when many of his contemporaries were leaving school and either signing on the dole, starting a life as factory wage slave, or else, often in order to acquire an apprenticeship, signing up for a spell in the army, usually in locally favoured regiment, the Black Watch.

To complete the band, one final part of the jigsaw was required and found via an ad in the Dunfermline Press: ‘DRUMMER wanted for new New Wave band young and energetic. no hairies please.’

Tom Kellichan evidently did not have hair down his back and was in.

A new band name was required and after a run of daft suggestions such as Dr. White & The Plastic Bags, they settled on The Skids and under that name played their debut show in the summer of 1977 at the weekly Friday rock night at the Belleville Hotel in Dunfermline, where they supported the memorably named Matt Vinyl & the Decorators, an Edinburgh outfit whose punky R&B riffs proved reasonably popular when I saw them later at Satellite City in Glasgow, albeit they never looked likely to make any kind of real breakthrough.

Playing with a mix of borrowed and hired instruments, Richard and the boys excelled, unleashing their energetic rough and ready, though already distinctly Scottish, punk/new wave sound.

One interested member of the crowd at the Belleville gig had been Sandy Muir, who the band had personally invited to come along.

Muir was no punk aficionado but was immediately struck by the band’s talent and potential, in fact, so impressed was he that – after discussions with Bruce Findlay, the man behind Zoom – he agreed to help out the band, speedily setting up AIM Enterprises Ltd to promote them and No Bad to release material by them.

Some punky pseudonyms were adopted and used in press releases – Alex Plode (Bill), Stevie Cologne (Stuart), Tom Bomb (Tom) and Joey Jolson (Richard) – and these names were how the band members were known for a time, such as when they were being lauded in early issues of Fife fanzine Kingdom Come, where the photo below is taken from incidentally, although by the time of the release of Charles they had reverted to more conventional handles.

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Three Stuart Adamson compositions were laid down at Edinburgh’s REL Studios (produced according to the record’s back sleeve by ‘Skids etc’). The Charles E.P (NB-1) was launched in March ’78 with Reasons and Test-Tube Babies making up the three track single.

Best-selling crime author and Fife boy Ian Rankin was an early fan, admiring the lyrics of Charles with that that twist at the end. ‘Charles’ was about a guy who worked in a factory like the one I worked in,’ he told Stuart Adamson biographer Allan Glen in the book In a Big Country. ‘It was about the kind of life waiting for most people in Fife back then, It was saying, ‘Don’t get stuck in a rut, don’t think that’s the only option – be bigger and braver’. Their songs were exciting and anthemic – and from very early on you knew they were destined for great things.’

According to Ripped and Torn fanzine Charles was ‘the best punk record to come out of Scotland yet’.


The song helped create a real buzz about the band with John Peel yet again becoming an early champion.

Within a year of their formation The Skids agreed to sign with Virgin. Sandy Muir telling the local press that the boys had been given, as big, if not a bigger break than Nazareth to prove themselves in the world of rock music, Nazareth just in case you don’t know being a successful band that had also been formed in Dunfermline but who would never have advertised for no hairies.

2017 will see The Skids back touring, dates including Edinburgh Liquid Room, Glasgow O2 ABC (where I’ll be going to see them), Montrose Town Hall and the Glen Pavilion in Dunfermline, Scotland.

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Burning Cities, their first album in thirty five years should also be out sometime next year. For more on that, click here.

For more on The Skids, here you go.

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No Bad continued after The Skids departure to Virgin, although with acts that would never enjoy the same level of media profile of The Skids, releasing a single from Biocar, a Dunfermline five-piece rock act whose other main claim to fame was supporting Girlschool at the Kinema in the summer of 1980, and a couple of albums by folk act Heritage, Some Rantin’ Rovin’ Fun (1980) and When the Dancin’ It’s A’ Done (1981) neither of which I have heard.

An episode of Andy Stewart’s STV early evening show Hear Here was devoted to Heritage in March of 1982, while When the Dancin’ it’s a’ Done made Scotsman critic Alistair Clark’s best folk albums of the year list. The band are still on the go.

 

Independent Scotland #8

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shop-assitants-safety-net

SHOP ASSISTANTS: SAFETY NET (53rd & 3rd) 1986

This week a group whose evolution began in 1981 in Newtonmore, a town in Inverness-shire better known for its shinty team than for its independent bands.

This was a relatively short-lived version of the band that later gained some success as Shop Assistants, but who, according to the fanzine Groovy Black Shades, played live for the first time under the name – wait for it – The Crispy Crunchies.

Now there’s a show I would likely have avoided like a Coldplay convention.

Mercifully, the music was far superior to the moniker.

Fast forward a few years and main songwriter and guitarist David Keegan sent a demo tape of the band (which again according to GBS was now known as Only the Worst) to Stephen Pastel in exchange for a Pastels tape. Stephen was mightily impressed by the songs on the tape and so started a long musical alliance between the two bands.

As Buba and The Shop Assistants, they recorded only one single, Something To Do, with David, Aggi (Annabel Wright from Juniper Beri Beri fanzine), Moray and John supplying the music together with a guest appearance from Stephen Pastel, who also produced the record and designed the sleeve.

The single may have been a pretty limited release but it displayed plenty of promise and was championed by Peter Easton on his Radio Scotland show Beat Patrol and also played by John Peel.

Buba and the Shop Assistants are an experience akin to, no I don’t know, being trussed up naked and thrashed with barbed wire by Clare Grogan. You want sex? Violence? This band have got it all. And beauty.  As well as chainsaw classics they have some really nice ballad type songs about things like people “Somewhere in China”.

The Buba and the Shop Assistants Story. The Underground #3 (A Subway Organisation fanzine)

Not long after the release of that debut single in the summer of 1984, Aggi left the now Edinburgh based band to join The Pastels – replaced on vocal duties by Alex Taylor, Alex and David forming a new nucleus of the band, ditching the Buba part of the name and losing their rhythm section.

That autumn Sarah Neale joined their ranks as bassist and the following spring a pair of drummers came onboard, Laura McPhail and Ann Donald.

August 1985 saw the Shopping Parade EP featuring All Day Long released by the Subway Organisation. Neil Taylor, reviewing the single for NME, praised the band as ‘easily the most original post-Mary Chain pop group’ and the Shoppies’ profile was boosted greatly when indie king Morrissey named All Day Long as the best single of the year (again in NME).

‘Not only are they the best, most important, and loveable independent band in Britain today but they double up as the most likely lad and lasses too.’

Lawrence Watson. NME. March 1986

Significantly John Peel’s support for the band grew and grew – they were given two Peel sessions and featured four times in his Festive Fifty, Safety Net being voted #8 in 1986.

This was their sole release on 53rd & 3rd, a label set up early in 1986 by David and Stephen Pastel with help from Sandy McLean. Named after the Ramones classic, the imprint proved highly influential across the globe with releases including singles by BMX Bandits, The Vaselines and Beat Happening. This is Safety Net:

 
Shop Assistants quickly moved again, this time signing to Blue Guitar – a subsidiary of Chrysalis with an A&R input from Geoff Travis and Mayo Thompson of Texan cult band The Red Crayola – where they issued their sole album before falling apart, although, with a changed line-up they did re-emerge for a while, signing this time to another Scottish independent, Avalanche – with David Keegan afterwards going on to perform a stint with The Pastels.

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This is the frenetic version of All Day Long (although I prefer the slower version myself):

 
Nowadays, Shop Assistants usually get lumped under the C86 category, a (sub)genre description I’ve never been that comfortable with, albeit it beats terms like shambling, cutie or anorak.

And, no, I never scored very highly on any tweeometer, so no oversize cardies, anoraks or duffle coats for me let alone a bowl haircut – and no real nostalgia either for that innocence of childhood thing beloved by many of the independent acts of the time, although in the age of Thatcher, Reagan and AIDS, I suppose it’s easy to understand the impulse behind some musicians and fans wanting to retreat back into a more innocent world.

Neither was I ever someone guaranteed to get excited by that many so-called ‘C86’ acts.

A frenetic and fuzzboxy, Buzzcocks meets The Velvets rudimentary sound like Shop Assistants, then fuck yeah!

But a bunch of wilfully amateurish wimps with trebly guitars who saw it as an achievement to remain underachievers, nah, no thanks, although, saying that, nine times out of ten, I would still take that over the big and bombastic, super slick post-Live Aid commercialism of the era.

More Shop Assistants in 2017, folks.

Trivia: The catalogue numbering system employed by 53rd & 3rd, AGARR, was a nice touch in the 1980s independent world often accused of lacking any real ambition and where chutzpah from anybody outside Morrissey or the Mary Chain was often frowned upon, AGARR standing for ‘As Good As Ramones Records’.