Monday, 30 August 2010

The 10 best books about music

The oft repeated missive is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. This is perhaps even more true in internet savvy world where even the least experienced music fan can access unlimited music at the click of a button. One wonders therefore where this leaves music blogs (such as this) and even more so the music book. I would argue that people still value a recommendation while others will always want to know more about a genre or artist than a website can provide. A good music book enables the potential listener to delve deeper into a genre or artist, finding out what makes them tick and what the formative sounds were that influenced them (as well as enabling the reader to find out about other related artists which might be of interest). Having spent many years ploughing through such books I feel well qualified to signpost you to some of the best. I admit a bias towards the recent and to genre-wide reads rather than a focus on individual artists - I guess that's just taste. Disagree? Then leave your suggestions at the end of the article for others to enjoy...

10. Chuck Klosterman IV – A decade of curious people and dangerous ideas

A book in three parts- the first consists interviews with various megastars – Britney, Bono, Jack White, Thom Yorke etc. The second, a series of essays on theories that Klosterman believes in (from the profound to the absurd) and the third a short story about a woman who drops out of the sky. Utterly baffling but the first section in particular is very good. His skill is in managing to have something new to say about the stars that we think we know so well. His tale of Bono picking up hitchhikers is particularly amusing and his observations on Britney's use of sex (or not)is extremely thought provoking while a piece on Jeff Tweedy from Wilco is actually very moving.

Sample quote 'Bono punches up track four. He hits play, and it's loud; it sounds like someone dropping the throttle on a Harrier Jump Jet. Bono starts singing along, harmonizing with himself. He's playing air drums while he drives. The music changes, and he exclaims, "This is the Gary Glitter part!" The music changes again. "This is the Brian Wilson moment!" The teenagers aren't even talking. They're just kind of looking at each other, almost like they're afraid this is some Celtic version of Punk'd.'

9. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – Jeff Chang

One of many histories of hip hop on the market from the Bronx of the 1970’s through to Jay Z. What sets this one apart is its wider sociological analysis of urban decay in the early days and understanding of the suburbanisation of hip hop in more recent years. The story of Public Enemy is well told as is the story of Gangster Rap. Includes interviews with DJ Kool Herc, Ice Cube, Afrika Bambaata among others.

Sample quote ‘If the arc of hip hop generation’s cultural revolution was bowing toward difficult issues of engagement and exploitation, its political revolution was just taking flight.’

8. Walk this way – Aerosmith with Stephen Davis

Classic tale of drug fuelled, sex crazed debauchery. Aerosmith spent two decades snorting and shagging around the world. This book is a collection of quotes from the band and their associates and great toilet reading. See also Hammer of the Gods (Led Zeppelin) and the Dirt (Motley Crue).

Sample quote ‘I’d been buying opium, an ounce at a time, black pinch opium you roll in a ball and swallow and be fucking stoned for 12 hours.’

7. 45 – Bill Drummond

The ex KLF man is the author of some of the very best writing about music (See also: How to have a number 1 single and 45). Like Paul Morley (below), Drummond considers at great length what it is to like music and constantly challenges himself to listen to it in different ways. Spending a whole year listening to artists that begin with the letter B for example. His views on the place of music in his life often leads to insights about his own life - including his time on the Merseyside indie scene in the 1980's and his time with KLF. This particular project focuses on ignoring recorded music and creating music that will be performed just once thus making it totally unique. The 17 of the title refers to the 17 individuals who need to be present for each performance.

Sample quote: What is music for? And why do we listen to it in the way that we do? And what would it be like if…? But the big questions seemed to be Why am I so frustrated with it? and Why do I want it to be something other than it is? and Why do I want it to exist in some other sort of way than it already does?'

6. Last night a DJ saved my life – Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Hugely enjoyable read about the history of the DJ. Starts with post war Parisian nightclubs and Jimmy Savile (the world’s first DJ doncha know!) and takes us through almost every ‘scene’ since. Covers off dicso, northern soul, hip hop, house etc and like the Tim Laurence book (below) contains a number of lists of key songs of clubs such as the Hacienda and Stealth.

Sample quote ‘Sal Abbatiello remembers the first time he heard Rapper’s Delight...I was in my office, I heard the record and I’m like Who’s out there rapping? They said No that’s a record. I said About time somebody was smart enough to put this shit on record. Now they won’t be breaking all my microphones.’

5. Energy Flash – Simon Reynolds

An excellent history of dance music from the warehouses of Chicago, Detroit and New York to the UK Jungle Explosion and Daft Punk some two decades later. Reynolds covers off techno, house, garage, trip hop and drum n bass and manages to place the scene within its political (Criminal Justice Act etc) and social (explosion of Ecstasy use etc) contexts. Original copies came with an excellent CD...

Sample quote ‘For me, the exhilarating thing about rave was that it was psychedelic disco, a mindblowing merger of rock delinquency and club culture’s science of sound.’

4. Bass Culture – Lloyd Bradley

A comprehensive history of post-war reggae in Jamaica and the UK. Bradley takes us from the early ska years of Duke Reid, Clement Dodd and Prince Buster, through lover’s rock, dancehall dub and ragga. Tales of early soundclashes are excellent as are the sections on Rastafarianism and Lee Scratch Perry.

Sample quote ‘To the uninitiated it must appear remarkable that grown men could get so worked up that they’d go to war for what is, after all, no more than playing records, even in the light of the sound systems’ earning potential.’

3. Words and Music – A history of pop in the shape of a city – Paul Morley

Morley’s book rather bizarrely takes as its starting point his love of both Alvin Lucier’s experimental monotone I am sitting in a room and Kylie’s Can’t get you out of my Head and seeks to explore the reasons for his love of both. His subsequent journey (with various legends sharing a car with Kylie) explores two millennia of music culminating in a thesis that Rock n Roll as a valid art form died with Nirvana. Deliberately thought provoking and concluding that the making of lists of the greatest records of all time is completely pointless (which it clearly is, but much fun).

Sample quote ‘Albert Einstein named Time’s Man of the Twentieth Century. Annoyingly he prefers the Strokes to Prefuse 73.’

2. Electric Eden – Rob Young

Only released this summer, Electric Eden tells the story of British Folk with a particular angle on acid folk (folk infused with psychedelia). Young traces the origins of the modern folk movement to Cecil Sharp and the first folk revival at the beginning of the twentieth century and takes the reader from Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst through Ewan McCall and the 1950’s folk revival before dwelling heavily on the folk movement of the 1960s covering acts such as Pentangle, Vashti Bunyan, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake etc. He takes the story on through the Wurzals, Kate Bush and Boards of Canada to highlight the journey that folk music has been on ever since. The quality of the writing throughout is superb. Like many of the other books on the list Young situates the music well within a wider social context and explores at length related topics such as the Glastonbury Festival and the Wickerman and Withnail and I movies.

Sample quote ‘Donovan flew back as a magic carpet with a pipe load of Eastern mysticism and a newly piqued interest in Celtic Medievalism manifested in songs such as Guinevere, Legend of a child girl Linda and Season of the Witch.

1.Love saves the Day – Tim Lawrence

A exhaustive text on the history of New York disco. Taking in the journey from the Loft through to the Paradise Garage Laurence secured interviews with all of the key players including Mancuso, Francois Kevorkian, Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano. The book explores disco’s birth via splicing together rock and funk records in gay clubs, through the evolution of the disco sound, its burst into the mainstream and its eventual decline and re-evolution into house. The book includes lists of the key records DJs played at their best known clubs (Loft, Gallery, Garage, Flamingo etc) and a comprehensive discography at the back (from which I’ve been attempting to collect from ever since). Laurence’s commentary on David Mancuso’s ethos and background (he was brought up in an orphanage for some of his childhood) is particularly fascinating. Like all the best music books it has you wanting to hear the music. For an exclusive interview with Tim Lawrence check my post from 28th April...

Sample quote ‘The Loft – which was dark and warm and, at 1850 square feet, really quite cozy, also symbolically recreated the irretrievable scene of the womb....unable to avoid body contact on all sides, individual dancers had little choice but to dissolve into the amorphous whole.’

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Hidden Gem: Me and Guiliani down by the schoolyard (A true story) - !!! (Warp)

I play records out from time to time. Nothing special – just pubs and bars – to anyone who’ll listen. There are certain records I’ll pack time and time again – Ain’t Nobody by Chaka Khan and You can’t hide your love by David Joseph are two that spring to mind. Records that never fail to sound good or get people dancing.

There is one record however that is a bit of a weird one. I pack it time and time again and yet never play it. Often I cue it up but it never feels quite right – sometimes it sounds too upbeat, other times too downbeat, sometimes too guitary and other times too in your face. Its a record that isn’t quite like any other record I own (and I own a fair few) its Me and Guiliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story) by !!!.

The whole package is intriguing. Take the band name - !!! – how are you supposed to pronounce that?! Then there is the packaging, lime green with black exclamation marks – you’d think it was an electroclash record from the cover. Inside is an insert which thanks the people that came to their parties that 'didn’t throw beer at cops' and the lyrics to the song which suggest that NYC Mayor’s Guiliani and Bloomberg lose their inhibitions and dance.

Finally you put the record on and this is the real revelation. For this record has three to four distinct phases – it starts out as a fairly standard Rapture/LCD Soundsystem type thing (!!! Came out of the same NY punk-funk scene post millennium) but then takes on the Happy Mondays and the Stooges before climaxing in a funky accapella. Throughout the whole song, the solid drums and an infectious bassline hold the whole thing together. It almost like the history of cool rock n roll in one song. Hints of pre punk, post punk, acid house and punk funk combine to create a thrilling 9 minutes. Bizarely its on Warp records, a label better known for its tasteful electronica.

!!! (pronounced chk-chk-chk) are actually from Sacramento and have released four albums the last of which (Strange Weather, isn't it)was recorded in Berlin and came out in the last few weeks. They've encountered tragedy along the way - their drummer Jerry Fuchs was killed in 2009 by falling down a lift shaft while original drummer Mikel Guis was killed in a car crash in 2007, they've also encountered numerous line up changes, but have managed to produce some quality sounds along the way. Myth Takes (released in 2007) is particularly good. Imagine Red Hot Chilli Peppers if they had remained true to their crazy punk funk roots rather than selling out to the man - showcasing a variety of styles, creating a sense of playful adventurism and you get the picture.

Having said that, nothing in !!!'s work quite matches Me and Guiliani. It really is a unique record, a classic on its own terms and the song which will always be the fans favourite (see also The Man Don't Give a Fuck by Super Furry Animals, Losing my Edge by LCD Soundsystem or Sanctuary by Iron Maiden). Who knows, maybe one day I'll even get to play it to you...

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Interview: The Gentle Good

Those still looking for the ultimate festival experience this summer could do far worse than the Green Man Festival which takes place 21-23 August in the heart of the Breacon Beacons. It manages to walk the thin line between providing established festival acts (Doves, Flaming Lips) as well as the cream of the folk movement (The Unthanks, Fionn Regan)and those that manage to be both (Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom). The provision of only the best quality food and ale as well as perhaps the best natural setting of any UK festival make this a magical experience.

Someone who knows this better than most is Cardif resident Gareth Bonello. Known as the Gentle Good he has played the festival countless times, to the point that it would be a surprise if he wasn't on the bill. Since his debut single in November 2008 he has released a series of recordings which call to mind Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, Martyn Carthy and Donovan, picking up favourable reviews along the way and winning plaudits for his live performances. As part of the resurgent welsh folk scene he has played with Richard James (ex Gorkys Xygotic Mynci) and he has recieved airplay from Gideon Coe and (somewhat inevitably) Huw Stephens. I caught up with Gareth to find out more about his latest activities in advance of the Green Man.

How did you first get into singer songwriting?

I’d been playing guitar for many years and always thought of myself as a guitarist rather than a singer or songwriter. After a while I started playing traditional music about Cardiff and as I got more gigs I realised that I wanted to sing new material as well so I started writing.

Who do you regard as your formative influences?

Jimi Hendrix got me into the guitar, Martin Carthy got me into folk music and Bob Dylan got me into songwriting. After that I’d say I’m hugely influenced by guitarists from the 60s folk revival such as Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

Do you think folk music still has something new to say in 2010?

Of course! Like most music Folk is a very diverse genre and you get everything from heartfelt ballads to freaky instrumental wig-outs to political statement to comedy and they all have something to say. As a genre it also tends to be one that will focus more heavily on the lyrical side of things so there is often more depth of content in Folk song than say, Pop. If you want to hear music that has absolutely nothing to say your best bet is probably to tune into the top 40.

How was playing Glastonbury?

It was hectic, nerve-wracking and brilliant. I’d like to go back and take my time to appreciate it as it just seemed to fly by.

You're playing at the Green Man again this year. Anything special lined up for that?

I’ve got a new album on the way so I’m going to be playing new material and have drafted in bass drums and keyboards for the close of the set – a combo that I’ve never played live with before. I’m also going to be giving away free CDs of some instrumental music that I’ve recorded over the years as a kind of thank you to the Green Man Festival for putting me on for the 5th year in a row.

Any other dates planned?

I’ve got a few gigs lines up in the Autumn, including Cardiff’s Swn Festival and I’m hoping to go on tour in the autumn/winter to promote the new album.

What about recorded material? I understand the new album is well underway?

Yup it’s almost finished. The songs are a lot bigger than the last album and I’m very happy with the way it’s going. We’ve just got a few touches left and it’ll be done. I can’t wait!

Do you feel with artists such as 9 Bach, Richard James and Cate Le Bon (many of whom you've worked with) coming through that the Welsh folk scene is in good health right now?

Yes I’d say it is in good health in that respect. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve got such a great collection of songwriters writing new folk music and making it contemporary and relevant again. It obviously helps if a scene develops because it draws people’s attention to artists they wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

You sing in Welsh as well as English - what is your preferred language for recording?

I don’t have one to be honest. When I write a song the words of whichever language feels best goes on the track. I’m pretty bilingual as I live in Cardiff (which is mainly English speaking obviously) but have a lot of Welsh speaking friends here so I find my mind is pretty much evenly split between the two most of the time.

What next for Gentle Good?

I’m just focusing on the album at the moment but after that I hope to play more extensively about the UK and then get back recording – I don’t want to have such a long gap between releases this time.

The Gentle Good plays the Green Man festival, Glanusk Park, Crickhowell on 22nd August and the Coal Exchange Cardiff on 4th September.