Thursday, July 31, 2008

Does Your Mother Play Golf? Productions Presents…How Smash Hits Went Down The Dumper

On February 13th 2006 Smash Hits was published for the final time, having succumbed to the pratfalls of the pop publishing industry. But now it’s back! Back! BACK! Currently propping up the record shelves in a shop near you, is "Smash Hits: The 80s" - a three disc compilation of pop from that decade. It is mostly brilliant, but the best of it is half-forgotten things like "Since Yesterday" by Strawberry Switchblade or "Each Time You Break My Heart" by Nick Kamen. It is a companion to the "swingorilliant" book “The Best Of Smash Hits: The 80s”, edited by Mark Frith. Now on sale in Chapters for just €3 (a snip!), you’d be a fool to miss this trip through the greatest reading matter of its day. The publication which gave our language the phrases “A so-called famous so-called Astrologer writes…”, “Sniiiiiip!”, and “Aaaack-tualloi…” The publication for which Vic Reeves once applied to be editor (which in itself speaks volumes), which campaigned for the knighthood of Cliff Richard, and referred to him as Sir Cliff before the event anyway. A world where foxtresses (i.e. scantily clad young ladies of the “not-very-ugly” variety) could be seen “cavorting” with various “Uncle Disgustings” (i.e wrinkly old goats of a pervy “bent” like Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger or Robert Palmer in the video for “Addicted To Love”). It was the magazine which deployed inverted commas in a way which was frankly baffling at first, but which alerted us to the clichés of rock journalism. The magazine which stumped its interviewees with a series of searching and frequently barking mad questions; “You’re not very good at acting, are you?” (to “Dame” David Bowie), “What colour is January?” (to Wayne Hussey of The Mission), “Have you ever been sick in a kangaroo’s pouch?” (to Jason Donovan) and “Does your mother play golf?” (to Susannah Hoffs). Its letters page was presided over by the devastatingly sarcastic Black Type, a shadowy figure which would extol the virtues of Um Bongo and weather presenter of “yore” Wincie Willis, as often as he’d keep to the subject of pop, and who was “killed off” when a picnic table supposedly fell on him, only for the character to be revived 10 months later insisting that “It was all a dream!” - Dallas-style.

It was, in short, the wittiest and most beguiling music publication in the world for about 7 years (between 1983 and 1990, really), but ended ignominiously, ignored by the public in February 2006. The question is: how did it go from selling a million copies in 1988 to disappearing in a cloud of disinterest 18 years later? Smash Hits emerged in the wake of punk and was the brainchild of ex-NME editor Nick Logan. With the bright, brash, colourful rise of the New Romantics in the early 80s, Smash Hits – being glossy rather than inky – was in a position to print captivating pics of mean, hunkin’ pop stars such as Adam Ant, David Sylvian and John Taylor (of Duran Duran). By the mid 80s it outsold the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds combined by almost 3:1. Smash Hits reflected the humour of pop after the dourness of post-punk. NME was littered with postmodern critiques of pop by the likes of Paul Morley and Barney Hoskins, whereas Smash Hits was more at home getting Robert Smith of The Cure to appear on the cover peeking out from behind a fish-tank. While the legendary “hip-hop wars” raged at the NME, Smash Hits ran bets on who would replace the recently departed Clark Datchler as singer of 1980s chart-botherers Johnny Hates Jazz (Fish, who had just left Marillion, got their vote of confidence - narrowly beating Blockbusters presenter Bob “I’ll have a P please, Bob” Holness into second place).

Peak-period Smash Hits does read rather like the place where the pop journalism and surrealist comedy collide. This is due to the in-jokey nature of the writing, the willingness of pop stars to put themselves forward for a slagging, and the tone of the magazine - which wonderfully straddled disdain for, and devotion to, pop music. Smash Hits journalists took it for granted that pop music was at once the most ridiculous and most wonderful thing on the planet. And with the likes of Julian Cope, Five Star, Terence Trent D’Arby, A-ha, Morrissey and Prince filling its pages week after week, it’s not hard to see why. Even Margaret Thatcher deigned to grant an interview in the run-up to the 1987 general election, responding to journalist Tom Hibbert’s enquiry into a possible knighthood for Cliff Richard with a terse “Always be serious!” Smash Hits was never really serious, but it still managed to criticize the pop of the time in a fairly comprehensive manner. The review for Duran Duran’s 1988 LP “Big Thing” concluded that “the dumper beckons” – “going down the dumper” being the resting ground for no-longer-famous, no-longer-any-good pop stars. Memorably, the magazine once declared “The dumper has no bottom, but if it did have a bottom you’d find Paul King there.” Pop stars’ egos were systematically set upon. Most notable in this regard, was Jon Bon Jovi, who humourlessly objected to questions such as “Have you any interesting scars?” and “Have you any good fishing tips?” in a manner which seemed to speak volumes about the man. “Come on, man!,” barked the bouffanted one, “Ask me about life on the road, or how I write my songs! Do I know any good fishing tips? I mean, jeez, who gives a shit!?” It’s funny how a banal question can penetrate the surface isn’t it. The magazine’s readers were always referred to as “viewers” (as if this were all taking place on TV). Interjections from the “editor” peppered the magazine. Overly esoteric articles would end with an abrupt “(Series discontinued – you’re sacked! – Ed)”. If a pop star was rabbitting on drearily, or veering into pervy subject matter, they would be stopped in their tracks with the phrase “(Sniiiiiiiiiipp!)”. Black Type’s letters page was frequently interrupted by a sleazy publisher character. To wit: “A publisher writes: It’s an outrage! Take a letter Miss Pringle. Er, by the way, Miss Pringle…have I ever mentioned what an uncanny resemblance you bear to erstwhile “sex-kitten” Marilyn Monroe? Did you perchance see that film where Ms Monroe steps on a vent thingie, allowing the breeze to raise up her skirtings, revealing her undergarments and shapely legs? I wonder if you would oblige me by… (Sniiiiiiiiiiiiiiip!! – Ed.)"

One Smash Hits innovation was to get pop stars to review the new singles. In a memorable moment of grumpiness, “professional misery” Morrissey dismissed Alphaville’s “Forever Young” with the withering one-line review: “They should have been drowned at birth”. Samantha Fox (always referred to in the magazine as Sir Samuel Saucepot of Fox), had the following to say of Paul McCartney’s 1986 single “Press”: “Yeah, he’s grey, but my dad’s grey and Michael Heseltine is grey…” Enlightening stuff. She wrapped up by adding that she “grew up with Sgt Pepper’s records in the house”. It’s difficult to imagine, say, Paris Hilton’s P.R. people allowing such things to reach the light of day. This is probably the key to Smash Hits’ gradual demise in the 1990s. As pop stars became more and more au-fait with the ins-and-outs of the career aspect of being a pop star, they started to get wise to interview techniques. When Eternal took a year out to go on a public relations course in 1999, Smash Hits’ fate was all but sealed, really. Not that the magazine was cruel. (Well, okay it was cruel to Chesney Hawkes, whose career the magazine never took with the same gravitas as the pimpled pop star did). You could genuinely get a sense that the staff of Smash Hits cared about and even loved pop music. And pop in this sense meant Half Man Half Biscuit and The Jesus and Mary Chain as much as it did Kylie and Jason. One of Smash Hits’ staff members, Neil Tennant, left his position as assistant editor in 1985 to scale the charts himself as a member of Pet Shop Boys. Almost certainly, Tennant’s innate understanding and appreciation of pop music informed his actual pop star career.

Smash Hits’ parlance is ingrained deeply in the consciousness of anyone who grew up with the magazine in the 1980s. “Perv-breeks” were usually leather trousers as worn by a member of a “rawk” group, and such band members’ more excessive lifestyle choices were referred to in oblique but hilarious fashion. Alcohol was “rock and roll mouthwash”. To be drunk was to “have a bit of a summer cold”, having had “one Tizer too many”. And to be in the throes of a rockstar ego strop was “to be in a bit of a tizz because fame is, like, a double-edged sword…” Anyone who over-used the old hairspray was said to be in possession of a “fright-wig”. This led Italian popstress Spagna (of “Call Me” notoriety) to protest: “Is not, ‘ow you say, a frighten wig. Is real hair.” Smash Hits would always print the words of pop stars phonetically to capture their faltering English as you can see above, and the phrase “sic” was never necessary. It would even print out how a pop star laughed (“Hihihihihihihihiii!”, in the case of Kylie. Or “hurhurhurhur” in the case of Lemmy from Motorhead.) This has become standard journalistic practice, it seems. Taking their verbatim obsession to extremes, ‘ver Hits (as it was known) would faithfully reproduce even the most monotonous acid-house song lyrics. Its coup-de-grace in this area was its reproduction of the lyric to Art Of Noise’s 1984 hit “Close To The Edit” (i.e. “Dum dum/ dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum/ Dum dum dum, tra la la”.)

The influence of Smash Hits is extraordinarily far-reaching. Now you find interviews with Britney Spears and Franz Ferdinand in broadsheet newspapers, on the 6 o’clock news and so on. This was not really the case before Smash Hits came along. These days it seems that everyone is a pop critic, anyone can maintain an on-line “blog” or post to a message board or forum of some description and vent. Some use their Bebo or MySpace accounts to offer their observations on the world of popular culture. Things like allow for anyone and everyone to contribute, and Popjustice’s editor Peter Robinson (himself an ex Smash Hits “scribe”) is clearly keen to keep Smash Hits’ joyous, witty approach to pop alive. Likewise, Popworld (especially when it was under the guidance of Simon Amstell) is very much in the vein of Smash Hits at its best. Smash Hits itself really started to fall asunder in the early 1990s, when a paucity of pop stars meant it had to be content with any interviewees it could get. House and rave were too faceless, too druggy for Smash Hits to tackle. Take That, East 17 and Britpop in the mid 90s saw a brief resurgence of Smash Hits’ fortunes, but by the new millennium and the proliferation of things like Pop Idol, Fame Academy and Big Brother, a kind of pop meltdown had been reached. And by this time Smash Hits had become a rather sorry, humourless thing. The final issue “boasted” “naked McFly pics!” Good grief.

At a time when the circulation of the NME is barely traceable, when pop and rock has been overrun with careerists (a recent edition of the NME suggests that you use your degree to further your career as a music journalist, yeah smash the system eh kids?!), it seems that Smash Hits’ irreverence is needed now more than ever. It does seem fair to say that Morrissey is intrinsically more interesting than Ricky from Kaiser Chiefs. What a swizz. When I bought “The Best Of Smash Hits: The 80s”, I approached the counter with crisp €20 in hand, and on mentioning that I’m entitled to a student discount, the shop assistant chirruped “that will be €19.84 then please. Approriate really, eh?” The girl stood next to him then mentioned that she wasn’t even born in 1984 and a brief discussion of 80s style ensued between them.

What “larks”, eh viewers? (Yes, that’s quite enough Smash Hits speak thank you – Ed.)

"Smash Hits: The 80s" is out now on Rhino Records. “The Best Of Smash Hits: The 80s” (Ed. Mark Frith) is also out now, and published by Sphere.

Pop Rules!

Below is an article by David Quantick on the power of pop music. It is thought-provoking to say the least, and downright spot-on to say the most.

“Strange how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward once said, doubtless while trolling round the drawing room in his pyjamas to the strains of some Cole Porter song. These days, assuming he wouldn’t be beating Paddy McAloon to death with a copy of ‘A Life Of Surprises’, Coward might be making the same remarks about the Top 40.

Potent is the word when it comes to pop music; no other form of music, not even free-style jazz or Verve b-sides, can exert the same irritating, crazed influence on the adult brain. No other music is that simple and direct; pop music, whether it’s The Beatles, Take That or Phil Bastard Collins, breaks into your mind and squats in it until you die.

Pop music is of course a subjective business. Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston records make us cool pop persons with our REM and Orb records run into the bushes and gag like hippos, but millions of other people feel very differently. Similarly, the dull men of rock out there in medialand who can only groove to Peter Gabriel, BB King and the Brits nominees run with horror from anybody over 125bpm (and indeed under 125 years old).

So we won’t waste a lot of time defining the creaking question of what is pop? – except to say that if it is Sting, then all we have ever fought for is an empty sham. Nirvana – they have hits, they have tunes – are pop. Public Enemy – they are exciting, they make memorable records – are pop. And, sadly, even Undercover – they look like shit, they are shit – are pop. Hey, that’s showbiz.

Some people won’t accept this. Some people think that their record collections are morally superior to other people’s record collections. They think that liking Belly or Pavement makes them better, more intelligent people than folks who opt for Erasure or East 17. Bloody hell, some people think that pop – that’s pop, ladies and gentlemen, the musical form that gave the world Motown and The Beatles and punk rock and Suede – is inferior to what they thrillingly call “proper music”. They will tell you from the moral high ground of owning ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ that people who like pop music are “morons” or “brainwashed”. And we wonder why Morrissey is so popular.

STUDENT: “These pop groups are rubbish. They don’t even play their own instruments!”

- Extract from my forthcoming novel Die Sad Indie Boy, Die!

You know what pisses me off? This: there are thousands of people out there who profess themselves fit enough to go into shops and buy records but who despise everything about pop music. They might from time to time buy a Pet Shop Boys single because they have heard that Neil Tennant is a bit “ironic”; they might have a couple of drinks and dance to ABBA at a party because that’s a “funny” thing to do; and they like a bit of SexKylie (even though they do not know why ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ was a great single) but show them anything outside their weeping world of guitar self-righteousness and they sneer a half-wit’s sneer of disdain.

History is riddled with such gits. In the 1950s, when everyone was doing it naked in the streets to Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Chuck Berry, these people were buying 1920s-style trad jazz albums and wearing bowler hats.

In the 1960s, when everyone was doing it on speed and then acid in the streets to everything from The Monkees to Smokey Robinson, from The Who to Jimi Hendrix, these people were sitting down and listening to weedy white grammar school boys playing tedious copies of old blues songs. And then there were the 70s…

The 70s, as we know, gave us punk. But the real reason for punk rock wasn’t social upheaval or inflation or the oil crisis; it all came about one afternoon when the nation’s sane teenagers – happy with their T Rex and Bowie and Barry White and Philly Soul and all the rich cultural heritage of the day – finally tired of being told by their elder brothers that the likes of Yes and Genesis and ELP and Wishbone Ash – decaying, talent-free, self-abusing arsefluff of the devil every single one of them – were not only “good” but were in fact “important” because they could play their instruments and wrote about elves and spacemen.

BAM! That was it. The nation’s pop kids went through nine evolutionary stages in a week and destroyed the world in a spitting, leather and safety-pin hail of hate and guitars. Well, almost. Some of the sadder punks claimed the joy and release of disco was in fact “faceless” and, horrors, “commercial” and formed sad hardcore labels in the 1980s which went bust. Wicked!

“I could do with the money…” – David Bowie, ‘Star’

But we digress. The point is that these wankers have always been wrong about pop. Who cares if people play their own instruments or even sing on their own records? It’s what the record sounds like that counts. Who cares if pop is “mindless”? It’s an emotional form; given the right circumstances a pop record can be even more exciting or moving or even weird than anything “rock” has to offer.

Ah, say some invertebrates or Levellers fans, but pop records are so meaningless and cynical and tacky. Pop artists only care about the money and they put no thought or creativity into the record, like, and you have to admit that Stock, Aitken and Waterman weren’t in it for the love.

This is an interesting argument. It assumes that you can only make good records if you are doing it for free and giving the proceeds to charity, which pretty much puts paid to every record ever made. It also assumes that rock equals honesty and pop equals dishonesty, and neither of these things is true.

Pop is honest. It was invented to make money and it never pretends otherwise. And it will shamelessly try every trick in the book to make you like it. It steals from everyone and it makes no bones about it; at the moment, it’s stealing from hip-hop, ragga, hardcore, techno and even Asian music (pop, is in fact, the only real “world music”) and it doesn’t pretend to originality – this despite the fact that there’s more inventiveness in a third-rate dance track than most of U2’s career. Look at an average band like East 17, whose records casually blend about five different musical styles from the past 20 years, but fail to boast about it. Meanwhile, Elvis Costello hires a string quartet and you’d think he’d found the lost bastard chord. Originality in pop is a daily occurrence; originality in rock means owning a Big Star album.

Rock, basically, is dishonest. It’s founded on dishonesty, from Jim Morrison pretending to be a poet to Bruce Springsteen pretending to be a steelworker. The major labels are crammed with rebels in limos, street kids with accountants and pure woodland spirits with $1,000,000,000-a-day coke habits.

Morrissey is a stadium rock act who sells himself as a lonely bedsit lad. Bono promotes himself as a man subverting the very concept of rock, when in fact all U2 are is Bon Jovi with boggle shades and a good art director.

The worst pork pie about rock and pop, however, is the claims they make about “meaning”. The difference between rock and pop isn’t that rock has meaning and pop doesn’t – it’s that rock claims to have meaning, whereas pop generates meaning. It’s like this: nearly every “serious” rock act seeks to have some kind of artistic impact on the listener. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they don’t, but they’re always after that effect.

Pop records, though, can be crass and cynical and all that, but because people take them up and relate them to their lives or to incidents in their lives, those records mean something. It might be as spooky as ‘Man On The Moon’ or ‘How Soon Is Now’ or it might be some saccharine weepy that turns up twice a week on Our Tune, but it doesn’t matter.

Pop is great because people take meaning from it and, while it’s unlikely to change our lives, it reflects our lives and becomes part of them too.

Strange, how potent cheap music is.

- David Quantick, “Pop Rules!”, NME (6/2/93)

Monday, July 28, 2008

David Turpin: My Favourite Things

I meet David Turpin in a bar that doubles as a sort of library. Books surround us. Some cackling ladies are apparently over for a hen party. The strange mixture of literature and let-your-hair-down fun could seem incongruous, but here it feels oddly appropriate. It is the perfect place to ask the bookish, thoughtful, Sandymount based grave-digger (i.e. he “digs” graves, ho ho!) about his new album, his favourite records, books and films, and about the relationship between sex and death. And, of course! The politics of dancing – on graves.

David’s debut LP, “The Sweet Used-To Be”, is this year’s most strikingly original Irish album. Gentle electronics and the occasional sample provide the backdrop for a lyrical world populated by ghosts and wild animals and the atmosphere is just a little bit spooky. It is redolent of 4AD’s more wistful, ethereal output: This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins and even Frazier Chorus. Momus and Pet Shop Boys also spring to mind. One of the sprightliest things on the record is called “Dancing On My Grave”. Turpin is, it seems, enamoured with the supernatural. I enquire if he is interested in Romantic Poetry. “The Romantic Poets were always praising nature, talking about how wonderful it is and feeling in awe of it. I’m more interested in the idea that nature can be cruel too, and even evil. Besides I’m not just interested in the natural world, I’m interested in the world of the fairies.”

Later, he tells me that his dog died recently. “The difference between being alive one minute and being dead the next is so small but still so huge. I know it’s only a dog and I’m not comparing it to a human dying, but I looked around the house and all the dog’s baskets were there. We buried him in the garden. Really it was the last act of kindness I could show him. You don’t have to be particularly religious to feel that sense of the sanctity of a grave. My song ‘Dancing On My Grave’ is an invitation to somebody to dance on my grave when I’m dead.” I ask him what he thinks of the idea of people who plan to dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave when she passes on. “Whether you’re an atheist of not, to do that is such a profoundly disrespectful thing to do, to make light of somebody’s death like that. You know that feeling when you’re in a graveyard and you accidentally step on someone’s grave…? But to actually invite someone to dance on your grave after you’re dead is either an act of incredible masochism, or it’s a very empowering thing to do”.

A brief discussion of the history of masochism in pop ensues. “That Antony and the Johnsons song “Fistful of Love” is so great because he freely and openly admits to being a masochist. He says he likes being slapped around. Some people pretend to be into masochism but feel the need to let you know that they don’t approve of that sort of thing really. That’s what that song by The Crystals, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)’ was all about. There’s a real honesty about that song. People don’t want to hear a woman say those things, but The Crystals are obviously singing in character there. Immediately everyone is looking for the man pulling the strings who is making her sing this. Little Eva (of “The Locomotion” fame – Ed) told Carol King that her boyfriend had hit her because he heard she’d cheated but she was pleased in a way because it meant he loved her, so Carol wrote a song about it. It’s a representation of something that isn’t nice but we’re still entitled to sing about it. It’s a taboo – we can’t talk about the impulse to be the victim.” Ah yes, pop’s dark side. It’s not all “I Should Be So Lucky” and “Touch My Bum” you know.

He tells me he’d love to work with Kylie, and I have to applaud the ambition that is latent in this statement. So many Dublin musicians seem to think that having your demo get a spin on Phantom FM is as good as it gets. So who else would you like to record with, David? “Grace Jones. Have you heard her new song? It’s alright, it sounds like a Massive Attack song, but it opens with the line ‘Pleased to eat you, pleased to have you on my plate’ which is brilliant, very Grace Jones. I saw her live once and she was two hours late coming on stage. All these people around me were booing – you could tell they didn’t know Grace Jones. When she did arrive you knew immediately that she was doing you a favour by just being there. Liza Minelli, especially since Cabaret, always has this…grip on herself. She’s always seeking attention, always asking to be loved in one way or another. But with Grace Jones you believe it.” Maybe that’s the difference between growing up in Hollywood and growing up in the riot-strewn Jamaica of the late 60s and early 70s? “Maybe, yeah. If I made a record with Grace Jones and she didn’t treat me like shit throughout the recording process, I’d be disappointed.” Spoken like a true masochist. So, David Turpin, tell us about some of your favourite things…

Kate Bush “The Hounds of Love” (1985)
“It’s a record that has its own sealed world. You can like it or dislike it but you can’t really say it’s deficient, you know, because it is what it is what it is. There’s a real sense of joy about it. You have to look past the big 80s drums, but it’s still a masterpiece. ‘Hounds of Love’ is really where Kate Bush ceases to just be a singles artist and becomes an albums artist. All the little girlishness of her earlier records falls away at this point. You know that line “is there so much hate for the ones we love?” It’s the sound of the record too. Her voice is obviously very evocative and the lyrics are very good… blah blah blah…but all the sounds that are going on in this record are great too. She shamelessly writes about topics that some people might think of as being incredibly boring, but she manages to extrapolate something form them that justifies the reference. ‘Cloudbusting’ is about Wilhelm Reich who I don’t know that much about, and the whole second side is about Tennyson! So it might be intellectual but it could, you know, go on Top of the Pops, and it did in fact. I love the almost onomatopoeia of “Running Up That Hill”, the drums sound like someone running and so on, I like that attention to detail. There are sounds on the record where you’re not sure if you actually heard it or dreamed it or imagined it. Those voices on ‘Waking The Witch’ for example, and that song that follows it (’Watching You Without Me’ – Ed), where a voice appears as a ghostly thing. Her last album was good too, and she came back with dignity, which is…admirable. I always think of her as being this sort of ancient being, but she’s not – she’s probably only something like fifty years old…”

Jimmy Scott “Heaven” (1996)
“He made records as Little Jimmy Scott and he had a sort of alto female voice, so it was kind of separated from gender. He then went away for a bit and came back and made a record with Ray Charles, which didn’t get released. After that he went off into obscurity for a long time until he was sort of rediscovered by Lou Reed in the early 90s. He released this record called “Heaven” which a collection of spirituals. One of them is called “There’s No Disappointment In Heaven”. He sings it like a ninety-year-old man that has the innocence of a child. It’s jazz, but it’s a very spacious sort of jazz sound, it’s not a cocktail jazz sound. It’s kind of hard to say what’s so great about it. He had a bad family history, it sounds like he’s singing the story of his life. It’s weird to hear him since that song “Heaven” (a Talking Heads cover – Ed), because the song is maybe atheist or agnostic at best, but he makes into a sort of spiritual song and brings out the ambiguity of it. It’s a cynical song drained of cynicism and there’s still something there. Even though it’s very anti-God because he’s very religious he manages to find the faith in it. When I grew up were weren’t raised religious, I thought that was fairly normal but then years later I realized it wasn’t so normal at all. So I don’t really have a background in religious music, it’s something I discovered much later - maybe as a teenager. I’m interested in that notion of wanting to pray even though you don’t know who or what you’re praying to. I don’t dance but I would never dance on somebody’s grave, no.”

Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliot “Supa-Dupa Fly” (1997)
“I’ve just been getting into hip-hop recently. Journalists tend to ask me who I think I sound like and I’m often tempted to mention The Sugarhill Gang and things like that, but they’re not really an influence on my record, though they could be on the next one. My friend who plays keyboards with me and writes with me is really into block parties – with a ‘k’ mind you. And so I’ve started to sort of plunge into that a bit. “Supa-Dupa Fly” is sort of like “The Hounds of Love” in that it just takes this pleasure in invention. I find some of the sounds on it really funny. I don’t know why but anytime you hear all the sounds fit in to place it makes you laugh. When I record something with my friend and it just sounds right, we laugh. Missy Elliot is also a very underrated singer, a soul singer. I’m not saying she’s the best singer there is, but she is good, and she’s a good rapper too. There aren’t many female producers around who produce for other people. There are lots who produce themselves of course, Joni Mitchell, Bjork produces her stuff with Nellee Hooper obviously, but I can’t think of many jobbing female producers.”

“Blue Velvet” (1986)
“I love the film; I think it’s far better than ‘American Beauty’. I like Laura Dern’s character in it. A lot of people don’t understand it, they think it’s funny, particularly that scene outside the church but I don’t think it’s funny at all. I like how her character is treated here - sympathetically. Not like in ‘American Beauty’, where the film thinks it’s so much better than the character Mena Suvari plays. It spends all its time mocking her and reveling in her misery, it’s laughing at her all the time. I like how in Blue Velvet it treats the girl as a “girl in trouble”. Sure, she’s not very clever and she’s spoilt and so on but that doesn’t matter. I love the score. I know it’s full of big 80s synth-pads, but it adds to it. It’s mysterious and electronic; we don’t really know where we are. Lots of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores are like that. Even in ‘Twin Peaks’, the jazz bits are played on sort of electronic instruments, there’s something not quite right about it. I love the main song in ‘Blue Velvet’, the simplicity of it. I think it’s just a couple of lines – ‘Sometimes the wind blows and the mysteries of love come clear…’”

Michael Lesy “Wisconsin Death Trip”
“It’s a book of photographs taken in this town were tragedy seemed to be around every turn. There was a cholera epidemic, lots of people died, all the kids turned out gay, and it just seemed that everything turned out wrong in this town. There are a lot of photographs of dead babies’ bodies. It’s like the last act of kindness the parents’ could show to their dead infant children. When somebody dies and you get to see them after their death, it’s the first time you ever get to see them still, genuinely still. A friend of mine died, though I didn’t see him die, and I didn’t see his body, but I imagine it’s the same with a person as it was with my dog. Not that I mean to compare the two things!”

David Turpin’s album, “The Sweet Used-To Be”, is out now on Kabinet Records.

Ancient, But Justified.

Just a quick note to say that KLF Online is sort of back and running again having been mothballed for some time. They've just re-instated everything that was there before, downloads-and-all, so it's the "one stop shop" for "all your Drummond and Cauty related needs". If you need reminding why The KLF were the best thing ever to happen to pop music, have a look at this...

...and a read of this...


"Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Berry Gordy, Chinn and Chapman and Pete Waterman have all understood the Golden Rules thoroughly. The reason why Waterman will not continue churning out number ones from now until the end of the century, and the others had only limited reigns, is not because Lady Luck’s hand strayed elsewhere or that fashion moved on, it is because after you’ve had a run of success your coffers are full, keeping strictly to the “GRs” is boring. It all becomes empty and meaningless. Some have become emotionally or business-wise embroiled with artists whose ambitions now lie elsewhere and far from merely having Number Ones. Lieber and Stoller could walk into a studio tomorrow and have a world-wide Number One in three months if they were so motivated.

The basic Golden Rules as far as they apply to writing a debut single that can go to Number One in the UK Charts are as follows:

Do not attempt the impossible by trying to work the whole thing out before you go into the studio. Working in a studio has to be a fluid and creative venture but at all times remember at the end of it you are going to have to have a 7-inch version that fulfills all the criteria perfectly.

Do not try and sit down and write a complete song. Songs that have been written in such a way and reached Number One can only be done by the true song-writing genius and be delivered by artists with such forceful convincing passion that the world HAS to listen. You know the sort of thing, “Sailing” by Rod Stewart, “Without You” by Nilsson.

What the Golden Rules can provide you with is a frame-work that you can fit the component parts into.

Firstly, it has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7-inch-buying generation will find irresistible. Secondly, it must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (just under three minutes and twenty seconds is preferable). If they are any longer Radio One daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home – the most important part of any record. Thirdly, it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.

- from “The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way)” by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, 1988."

Good, eh?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Birdie "Some Dusty" (1999)

1. Laugh
2. Dusty Morning
3. Let Her Go
4. One Two Five
5. Lazy Day
6. Folk Singer
7. Port Sunlight
8. Blue Dress
9. Linus
10. I Can't Let Go

Birdie are (or were - I'm not sure they're still a going concern) Debsey Wykes and Paul Kelly. Debsey was a member of Dolly Mixture, who released some records in the early 80s which can bring tears of nostalgia to the eyes of aged indie anoraks up and down the country. 'Ver Mixture (as Smash Hits would probably have called them) became Captain Sensible's backing band for a bit. That's Debsey dressed as a south sea islander performing "Happy Talk" on Top of the Pops. Paul Kelly was a member of East Village. He directs music videos these days (for Eighteenth Day of May and Birdie), and he has also just finished work on a documentary on the Royal Festival Hall which is called "This Is Tomorrow" (see post below). Debsey and Paul met when they toured with Saint Etienne in the early nineties.

"Some Dusty" was Birdie's first album, released in the autumn of 1999. Reviews at the time were generally very positive and it seemed that all of them mentioned "early Velvet Underground" as being the primary influence on Birdie's sound (such a sound!), and as you'll hear, there are similarities. I prefer to think of this as "Sunday Morning Music", perfect music for hangovers. Aural Alka Seltzer. The spirit of C86 is also lurking in here, and sixties pop at its most laid back; Francoise Hardy, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull that sort of thing. I don't know if Debsey is a great singer as such, but she has a beautiful voice. On "One Two Five" and "Folk Singer" double-tracking showcases her vocal talents wonderfully, and the band are no slouches either (hopefully Roman Empress will be along at some stage to pass on some more info about them). "Blue Dress" is a world of organs, Revolver-style backwards guitar and psychedelic strings - it's just magnificent is an unassuming sort of way. It would take a hard heart to resisit the soothing single "Let Her Go" or the shimmering "Port Sunlight". Track this album down, and while you're about it pick up their follow up set "Triple Echo". Birdie are a great lost band, so I'm happy to spread the word about them.

Let Her Go
Such A Sound

The Collected Films of Saint Etienne

To anyone who knows me who might be knew I would do this.

Today, somebody asked me who my favourite group was. I gave the pat answer that OBVIOUSLY I couldn't choose just one. In truth, I was being coy, Saint Etienne sprang to mind immediately.

Their albums and singles, it should go without saying, are always brilliant, fresh-sounding, future-eyeing, intelligent pop. And they keep getting better, their most recent album "Tales From Turnpike House" is probably their best so far. A new compilation is released in September. Appropriately enough it is called "London Conversations: The Best of Saint Etienne", and two singles are coming along with it; a new version of "Burnt Out Car" (re-jigged by Xenomania), and a collaboration with Annie and Richard X called "This Is Tomorrow", which incidentally is the name of Saint Etienne's latest film.

My favourite thing Saint Etienne have ever done is probably their film "Finisterre", which they made in 2002 to sort-of promote their album of the same name, and which finally got released on DVD over here in 2005. It's about London: the train journeys to the city centre from the suburbs, the coffee shops, record shops and parks; it's about people's experiences of living and working there, or of leaving and coming back to it. It goes into the night life, romantic literature about the city, the gulf between the sunken, run down council estates and the luxury appartments in affluent areas. It depicts the city as it undergoes a period of renewal at the beginning of this decade; many locations in the film have apparently disappeared since it was made. Many people are interviewed to talk about their experience of London (among them White Stripes' producer Liam Watson, Vashti Bunyan, novelist Shena Mackay and Subway Sect leader-turned-postie Vic Goddard) but no-one actually appears on film as a talking head, instead we just hear their voices over lovingly-shot images of the city. Saint Etienne's music and a narration, which is delivered by Michael Jayston and written by Bob Stanley and Kevin Pearce, hold it all together via a flurry of musical and literary references (of which my favourite is the McCarthy/ Manics inspired "We told the friendly bank manager about our dreams, he talked of business plans and pension schemes; Natwest, Barclays, Midland, Lloyds: use a bank? I'd rather die..."). At one point the voice over intones "My object is to encourage an appreciation of the unlooked for pleasures. The create an enthusiasm for the neglected or undervalued...the freakish, even." - a sentiment which I, and I'm sure many "bloggers", can identify with. "Finisterre" is a real work of love; beautifully shot, well narrated, and ultimately... very Saint Etienne. Bob and co-director Paul Kelly (also a member of Birdie, of whom more tomorrow...) were interviewed for The Guardian's media section last week and you can see that here. Kieran Evans also deserves credit for his wonderful work on "Finisterre".

Here's a YouTube link of a live version of a track from the album "Finisterre" (on the album it's immediately followed by the quote "Rock could be so good, but we make it all so rubbishy...").

And while we're about it...
a very short and very selective history of rock on film

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Eggstone "Ca Chauffe En Suede! Avec Eggstone" (compilation, 1999)

Further to the Scandinavian Pop post below...

1. Waiting For The Bell
2. Still All Stands Still
3. Against The Sun
4. If You Say
5. Summer and Looking For a Job
6. See The Good Things
7. Good Morning
8. She's Perfect
9. Marabous
10. Wrong Heaven
11. Beach Boy
12. Shooting Time
13. Penguin
14. Sun King
15. The Dog
16. Birds In Cages
17. Brass
18. Taramasalata
19. Mizu

One summer in the late nineties, Supergrass were due to play at Denmark's Roskilde festival but had to pull out at the last minute. The gap they left on the bill was filled by Eggstone, who strode out on stage wearing stuck on sideburns and other items of comedy facial hair. This is reason enough to like them isn't it. Well I think so anyway.

Per Sunding, Patrik Bartosch and Maurits Carlsson, who comprise the group, had met about ten years previously on the ferry back to their native Malmo from the Roskilde festival. Eventually, along with their friends Tore Johansson and Anders Nordgren, they established Tambourine Studios in Malmo. Five years after that they set up their own record label and called it Vibrafon, which is sort of appropriate given what Eggstone's records sounded like. The Cardigans' best albums were recorded with Tore Johansson at Tambourine. Scott 4, Texas, New Order and Saint Etienne also recorded here. Not since Benny and Bjorn from ABBA founded Polar Studios in 1978, had one band had such influence over the sound of Swedish pop music.

Not that Eggstone get the credit they deserve outside their native country. In Spain there has for some years been a vibrant indie-pop scene based around the Siesta record label in Madrid. Eccentric record label boss Mike Alway, who helped to found Cherry Red and él records in the UK, is based in Madrid now, and has links with Siesta. It's no surprise then that the label released an Eggstone compilation called "Spanish Slalom", raising the group's profile - just a little - in Spain. In 1999, the confusingly titled compilation "Ca Chauffe En Suede! Avec Eggstone" was released to mild critical acclaim. In fact I think only Uncut magazine picked up on it at all. Tracks from all three Eggstone albums ("Eggstone In San Diego", "Somersault", Vive La Différence") appear here, so it's a good place to start with the group. They've never split by the way so hope remains of a fourth album appearing at some stage.

"Waiting For The Bell" is a brilliant introduction to the band, the Tambourine sound is all in place here, in the crisp drums, the bright pianos and vibes. Having been so taken with Eggstone in the late 90s that I visited Malmo myself, it's impossible to hear these records without thinking of woodcabins in the forests of Skane, of Malmo's modest fishing port, and still, chilly, Swedish air. Listening to the exhilirating "Against The Sun" now, I wonder why Eggstone weren't bigger in the UK. Just try to listen to it without grinning. The sixties swing of "See The Good Things" and "Marabous" would have sat comfortably in the UK charts at the height of britpop. They're just two of the songs here that lurch off into psychedelia, the sort of things you might expect to find on a Dukes of Stratosphear record. "Good Morning" and "She's Perfect" are string-drenched, cocktail party pop songs, while "Shooting Time" anticipates The Cardigans' disco direction on "Lovefool".


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The 2008 Popjustice Music Prize Short List

Announced yesterday. Always a good overview of British pop in any given year, the recipitents of the PJ prize receive "a crisp £20 note" for their efforts. For the past six years the award has shadowed the Mercury Prize, so just as both shortlists were revealed yesterday, so the winner will be announced on September 9th. You'll have read about the Mercury Prize in just about every newspaper today, probably. Here's the shortlist for the 2008 PJ£20 Prize then...

'A&E' - Goldfrapp
'About You Now' - Sugababes
'Bleeding Love' - Leona Lewis
'Call The Shots' - Girls Aloud
'Dance Wiv Me' - Dizzee Rascal feat Calvin Harris
'Flux' - Bloc Party
'Money' - Daggers
'That's Not My Name' - The Ting TIngs
'Valerie' - Mark Ronson feat Amy Winehouse
'Ready For The Floor' - Hot Chip
'Song 4 Mutya (Out Of Control)' - Groove Armada feat Mutya Buena
'Stuck On Repeat' - Little Boots


Frazier Chorus "Sue" (1989)

1. Dream Kitchen
2. Storm
3. Forty Winks
4. Ha-Ha-Happiness
5. Sloppy Heart
6. Living Room
7. Sugar High
8. Forgetful
9. Typical!
10. Ski-Head
11. Little Chef

This might be the most criminally underrated album I own. Seriously, if you ever find this in a second hand shop, on vinyl or CD, buy it. They were formed by vocalist Tim Freeman (brother of Martin Freeman, the actor who played Tim in The Office. And if that sentence sounds ambiguous that's ok - some people say he based the character on his elder brother), the woodwind playing Kate Holmes, Chris Taplin and Michelle Allardyce. Frazier Chorus's story really begins when an early version of "Sloppy Heart" falls into the hands of 4AD and is a minor indie hit. Then the band leave that label and sign to Virgin, releasing their debut LP "Sue" in 1989. Their second album was called "Ray", incidentally. I like to think the albums were given christian names but actually I think it's more likely the title "Sue" refers to litigation - there is a line on the album that goes "they say you're itching to sue..." - which would fit in with the band's darker side.

The most noticeable thing about Frazier Chorus on first listen is undoubtedly Freeman's whispery voice. Then there's the clarinet, oboe, flute and plucked violin strings. All of this is going on over gentle synth-pop. It's clear that the chief lyrical pre-occupation here is with domesticity. Most of the songs seem to be set in a sort of suburban middle-class hell. "Dream Kitchen" which was almost a hit in 1989 is full of this imagery, mention of the kitchen sink, tea and the phrase "this stuff's so kind to my hands, I'm never gonna change to a different brand". Dark humour abounds, sometimes it's laugh-out-loud funny: the aforementioned single contains the bitter line "Your life's too good to be true/ I think I'll ruin it for you", and it's just sung in a ridiculously chirpy way. Later, the opening lines of "Forgetful" go: "I just saw your friend and he told me to forget your haircut and forget your shoes/ He told me all the things I ought to forget and I forgot them all, except for you". It cracks me up every time, because the music behind it is so downbeat. Then I remember how sour the lyrics can be; when they're not all to do with revenge, infidelity and jealousy, they're about self-harm or wanking ("Sloppy Heart") or refer to dead dogs ("Ski-Head"). You won't be surprised to hear that "Dream Kitchen"'s b-side, "Down", was about oral sex.

An album with lyrics like that has no right to be so damn pretty. Frazier Chorus never quite matched it again, although their 1990 single "Cloud 8", which was produced by (Lightning Seed) Ian Broudie, is rather good. They hemorrhaged a member with each album until by 1996, Tim Freeman was using the Frazier Chorus handle to put out what was really solo material. Chris Taplin formed Espiritu who had a couple of decent singles in the mid 1990s on Heavenly. Kate Holmes is now a member of Client along with Sarah Blackwood (ex-Dubstar).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One Dove "Morning Dove White" (1993)

1. Fallen
2. White Love (Guitar Paradise Mix)
3. Breakdown (Cellophane Boat Mix)
4. There Goes The Cure
5. Sirens
6. My Friend
7. The (Transient) Truth
8. Why Don't You Take Me
9. White Love (Piano Reprise)
10. Breakdown (Radio Mix)
11. White Love (Radio Mix)

This is one of those records which you remember being a bigger hit than it actually was. Perhaps that's because One Dove were all over the music press during 1993 and 1994, to the point where lead singer Dot Allison became something of an indie pin up. It's suprising indeed that "Morning Dove White" wasn't a smash as its mixture of dubby, lollopping rhythms and dreamy melodiousness sounds like a perfect meeting between The Orb, Cocteau Twins and Curve. Maybe it was just a bit ahead of its time. Death In Vegas would go on to record similarly stoned pop towards the end of the 90s, to great acclaim and even commercial success. It's no surprise Dot collaborated with them. Andrew Weatherall, who co-produced this with the band and engineer Jagz Kooner, is legendary for his soporific Balearic productions whether under his real name or recording as Sabres of Paradise. This album could be his best work though.

You won't, I suspect, do much in the way of dancing to this album. And it's not really a record to do the washing up to either. This is very much a record to light josticks to. At its best you might catch yourself singing along to some irresistible tune ("Fallen", "White Love"). But really this is a lazy, downtempo sort of album. It's quite wistful and sad sounding in places, and often is redolent of the trippier moments from Primal Scream's "Screamadelica". That's quite a compliment. It really consists of conventional enough pop songs which have been stretched out, like dub reggae mixes, or like floaty, extended jams. Two of its singles ("Breakdown" and "Why Don't You Take Me") did manage to scrape into the top 30, as did the album itself. Nevertheless, "Morning Dove White" is a bit of an overlooked classic.

What Madonna Should Do Next

Madonna "Something To Remember" (compilation, 1995)

1. I Want You (with Massive Attack)
2. I'll Remember
3. Take A Bow
4. You'll See
5. Crazy For You
6. This Used To Be My Playground
7. Live To Tell
8. Love Don't Live Here Anymore
9. Something To Remember
10. Forbidden Love
11. One More Chance
12. Rain
13. Oh Father
14. I Want You (Orchestral) [with Massive Attack]

Her marriage to Guy Ritchie may or may not be in trouble, but after the disappointment of the recent “Hard Candy” LP, marital strife might just inspire Madonna to an artistic renaissance.

Last month, the tabloid papers were awash with speculation on the state of Madonna’s marriage. Just the usual gossipy prattle you expect really. In April Madonna released her latest LP, “Hard Candy”, featuring collaborations with Pharell Williams, Kanye West, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. It was something of a disappointment after the brilliant “Confessions On A Dancefloor”. Despite boasting the number one single “4 Minutes”, much of the new album’s 40 minutes seemed to take 4 hours to tick away. Only the current single “Beat Goes On” (a throwback to the era of 80s Soul Weekenders) and the polite but charming “Miles Away” really leaped out at the listener. Madonna always does this, of course. She succumbs to the law of diminishing returns only to arrest the rot about three albums down the line. Her next album will either be disastrous or it will be another, surprising, career highlight. If she’s aiming for the latter option, perhaps she should explore the complications of her personal life.

Back in 1989, after a painful divorce from Sean Penn, Madonna released what was by far her best album up to that point, “Like A Prayer”. Apparently, the recording process was torturous, delayed by the singer’s gloom, punctuated by extended sobbing sessions and much soul-searching. It may well have been painful for its creator, but it’s hard to deny that the resulting record was terrific. “Oh Father” and “Keep It Together” were ruminations on broken homes, “Dear Jessie” an exercise in comforting infantilism, “Cherish” was the moment of optimism amidst the anguish, and the title track was The Bold Statement. According to Lucy O’Brien’s superb study of the history of women in pop, rock and soul, “She Bop”, even the fact that Madonna ditched the peroxide and allowed her natural auburn locks to roam free was a statement. It said she wasn’t just the sexualized blonde strumpet of media imaginings - she was an individual, not just a marketing man’s puppet, and that she needed a change. Of course, a mere eighteen months after the album’s release she was blonde again, and cavorting with some manly hunk in the video for “Justify My Love” but that’s where a reputation as a sex-pot will lead you.

Since then, the “Ray Of Light” album has come to be seen as her best work but, for me, Madonna’s most interesting characteristic is her way with a despondent tear-soaked ballad. And for that reason, the 1995 compilation “Something To Remember” is a fantastic record. When I was a child in the 1980s it always seemed that the sort of pop the girls at school really liked wasn’t the product of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s brainstorming sessions, or the enthusiastically received (in the music press) output of The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys or New Order. The girls at school preferred weepies. You were more likely to catch my elder sister and her playground friends singing “Crazy For You” or “Live To Tell”. Skip forward to the mid 90s, and ballads like “This Used To Be My Playground”, “You’ll See” and “Take A Bow” are the memorable Madonna songs. And when you remember that those 90s singles came after a truly low-ebb for Madonna - the release of 1992’s underwhelming “Erotica” album, and its attendant book “Sex” - a light-bulb pops in this writer’s head. The surest way for Madonna to turn around her lagging fortunes is to play to her real strength, which is singing brilliant big-balled ballads. You’ll find all of the best ones on “Something To Remember”.

She has of course had the occasional tender moment since the electro-revival of “Ray Of Light”. Some of that album’s more enduring moments include the terrific “The Power Of Goodbye”, lead single “Frozen” and the underappreciated “Little Star” (I say “underappreciated” because it’s lurking on a pop album, and albums are a rock business, right kids?). Since “Ray Of Light”, Madonna has pursued that dancey pop direction, best heard on the barnstorming likes of “Hung Up” and “Music”. But it feels like Madonna’s output this decade has been inconsistent. The general tunelessness and crap rapping of “American Life” didn’t help her critical reputation, and now “Hard Candy” has shown that Madonna is quite capable of following a genuinely great album with a frustratingly patchy one. If singles are anything to go by, let it be remembered that you could have picked almost anything for release from “Confessions…”, whereas this time it’s hard to say which of “Hard Candy”’s perfunctory r’n’b trots will be chosen next.

When Madonna fails in her attempt to make us dance, she can always rely on her ability to make us cry. That’s why I’m hoping her next album will be a blub-athon of mammoth proportions.

1234567890 Achtung! The Mysterious World of Short Wave Numbers Stations

A child’s strange, mechanized voice is announcing a series of apparently random numbers. Odd, xylophone-aided, musical interludes are repeated on a loop. Now a disembodied voice barks the phrase “konek!” and the broadcast falls silent. This isn’t some new musical experiment from Steve Reich. You are listening to short wave radio and have stumbled upon a Numbers Station. These intriguing, and often disturbing, radio broadcasts have been beamed across Europe from various secret locations for the best part of 50 years. But who is broadcasting and what exactly are they in aid of? Officially, the answer is that nobody really knows. Short Wave enthusiasts the world over, however, are unanimous in asserting that these “stations” are a means used by the world’s various secret services to communicate information to spies. They are illegal – in fact, theoretically you could be arrested for just listening to one.

Numbers Stations used to be all over short wave radio, especially during the Cold War. Now, they are still in evidence although to a lesser degree. Try scanning through the short wave dial at nighttime, where you will be bombarded with radio broadcasts from all over the world. “The Voice of Russia”, “Radio Havana Cuba”, a plethora of American religious evangelists, distorted pop from the Asian sub-continent; you’ll find it all here. But nothing is more exciting on listening to the SW band than finding a Numbers Station. Radio enthusiasts make a hobby out of searching for them, and swap notes on which broadcasts have been found, which times the recordings were made, which wavelength was being used and so on. But the target audience for these broadcasts is apparently that man on the park bench wearing the dirty rain mac and sunglasses. Or possibly sitting on a train reading a newspaper with two holes cut out for him to peep through.

The only people who are prepared to comment on the machinations of Numbers Stations are radio hobbyists, no nation state has ever confirmed or denied that they operate such a station. According to the short wave aficionados however, the station that has become known as “The Lincolnshire Poacher” is operated by MI6, and broadcasts from a rather tatty old building in Cyprus. Its transmitters are directed towards the Middle East so what the secret service can do is send one of their agents to a country like Turkey (for example) and send messages to him over the airwaves. Similarly, it is thought that MOSSAD, the KGB and others have all made use of this means of communication.

So how do they work? All you need to decode the broadcast is a pen, access to a short wave radio and what is called a “one time pad”. Each letter of the alphabet is randomly assigned an equivalent number, creating a numerical language in which messages can be spelled out, jotted down and ultimately interpreted by the agent in question. Each time a new message is broadcast, the letters of the alphabet are reassigned random numbers, making each individual code theoretically “uncrackable” by anyone who hasn’t been informed which numbers represent which letters. Hence, “one time pad”. One of the rare incidences where an institution was prosecuted for using a one time pad happened in 1998 when some Cuban spies were tried in the U.S. In this case, a station called “Atención” had made the broadcasts. One of the messages was the well sinister “Under no circumstances should agents German nor Castro fly with Brothers To The Rescue or another organization between the 24th and 27th…” Broadcasts are typically made in a foreign language to further obscure the indentity of the message’s sender and recipient . Also, the voices of women and children are often preferred.

The secrecy and danger of numbers stations is partly what makes them so fascinating, so compelling and so mysterious. Happily they often sound fantastic too, especially if you happen to be into abstract electronica or the spooky music we tend to associate with 1970s children’s television programmes – one thinks of the haunting theme tune to Picture Box, which is genuinely one of the most beautiful pieces of instrumental music you could wish to hear. Forward thinking musicians such as Boards of Canada have peppered their records with samples of Numbers Stations. Wilco named their brilliant “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album after a sample they’d used of a numbers station broadcast. There’s a website where you can download a four disc compilation called “The Conet Project: Recordings of Short Wave Numbers Stations” for free. It must rank as one of the finest collections of avant-garde or “outsider” music there is.

It is named after a mishearing of the Czech phrase “konek” which means “end”, a phrase that brings some Numbers Stations broadcasts to a close. Highlights include "The Gong Station" which is the most sinister thing I think I've ever heard - really, it's the kind of thing you listen to in bed in the dark with the covers pulled up around your face to hide yourself from the monsters lurking under your bed. The distorted electronic noise that goes along with the broadcast and which, some say, constitutes part of the coded message, sounds so other-worldly. But there are some brilliantly surreal moments on "The Conet Project" too; the Alpine bonkersness of "Tirolean Music Station" for example which features yodelling, and Austrian music of the oompah-oompah beer festival variety, which is then interrupted by a sullen sounding man reading out numbers in German.

Every now and then I like to stick "The Conet Project" on and play it as I would an Aphex Twin, Autechre or Black Dog Productions album. But it's SO repetitive. Usually I get to about track ten, disc one and decide that I'm far too spooked to listen to any more. It gives me the shivers in the same way the BBC's terrifying account of mutually assured destruction "Threads" does. I'm just about part of the generation that remembers when "Threads" was broadcast in 1984. Mention of the programme still gives me the spooks. There's a moment in "Threads" in fact, which is very "The Conet Project", now that I think of it. That bit which shows some children a few years after the bombs have dropped passively watching Words and Pictures on a grotty old video tape, as part of an effort to educate the poverty stricken, radiation-enfeebled kids just a little bit. It's the mixture of childhood innocence and maturity-through-suffering that does it. If you watch this thread (har har!) of YouTube clips - and I recommend you do if you want to scare the bejaysus out of yourself - then you can find what I'm talking about at the end of part 12/13. So Numbers Stations are very much connected in my mind with that sort of cold war, nuclear terror. Horrible, but completely compelling at the same time.

Over and out.

Listen to "The Conet Project: Recordings of Short Wave Numbers Stations" here.

Scandinavian Pop

I’ve loved all things Scandinavian since I first heard ABBA’s “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” from the comfort of my crib (not in the MTV sense) when I was about three years old, and I’m open to the criticism that my musical taste hasn’t become much more sophisticated since then. “The Name Of The Game” was number one on the day I was born. Perhaps I was a viking in a previous life. It does seem though, that the pop music from that part of Europe is – unlike my efforts to account for my love of Scandinavian pop of all stripes - effortlessly uncomplicated. And so whistleable! Is it a response to the lack of daylight up there? Recently we have seen a wave of new Scandinavian pop groups release a body of amazingly good pop music. In the immediate wake of terrific albums by Annie, The Knife and Robyn, a glut of brilliant Nordic pop has emerged, much of it synthpop. Northern Europe has a long tradition in this regard, think of ABBA’s “The Visitors” as the jump off point. Giving the synths a swerve meanwhile, are The Concretes and Peter, Bjorn and John – the latter gave the world the bothersome or brilliant (depending on your fancy) “Young Folks”. Whatever instruments they employ, or whether they bother to learn an instrument at all (see Pay TV below), from Bergen to Stockholm, from Reykjavik to Silkeborg, the mood is vibrant, colourful, breezy pop. Amen to that.

Back in the 1990s of course, there was “Scando-pop”. This was a sort of scene-but-not-really based loosely around the Tambourine studios in Malmo. With producer Tore Johansson at the helm, The Cardigan’s best records were created here, alongside a series of brilliant (although overlooked on these shores) releases by Eggstone. The sound was literally wooden; the antique-pine acoustics of the studio, ancient instruments and brittle sounding drums led to a beautiful, icy sound. The Cardigan’s “Life” LP is a great example of this. It could hardly have been more twee if you’d stuck a slide in its hair and plopped a lollipop in its mouth. These people had obviously spent some time in the company of the back catalogue of “él records”. Operating elsewhere, and missing out on the Tore magic, there were meat ‘n’ potatoes rockers Kent, the practically bipolar Wannadies and Whale, the latter posessing it must be said a rather knockabout sense of humour. Anyone who remembers Whale’s “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” or “Young Dumb ‘N’ Full Of Cum” will attest to the rather irritating “wackiness” of the duo. If they’d recorded a single called “Look! My Dog Is Wearing The Sunglasses! Hoho!”, you wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. Iceland’s Emiliana Torrini tried and failed to have hits here, although she did co-write Kylie’s hit “Slow”. Both of her albums are well worth a listen, and “Unemployed In Summertime” is one of the great lost singles of the 1990s. The rather more abstruse Stina Nordenstam could and perhaps should have had proper hits here, but remains a cult figure.

Now however, Scandinavian pop doesn’t sound so exotic, it doesn’t sound like it’s being produced in some outpost. Much of the most vital pop music of the past five years has been indebted to the likes of Royksopp and The Knife. Annie’s brilliant 2005 single “Heartbeat” was produced by the former, while The Knife used their royalties from the Sony advert which used Jose Gonzalez’s cover of “Heartbeats” to set up a record label. The UK’s most prolifically brilliant producers and songwriters, Richard X and Xenomania, have obviously been paying attention. Meanwhile Denmark’s Alphabeat are spearheading the so-called Wonky Pop movement, bringing bright brash pop to the sort of grimy sweaty clubs where you imagine a lot of trilbies get handed in to the cloak room. They appear to be going through a critical backlash of sorts at the moment, their album took a bit of a drubbing in the music press, but even dogs in the street know that “Fascination” is one of the best singles of the year so far. In 2008, our Northern European cousins are at the heart of pop.

As some of our readers will know, Lykke Li’s “Youth Novels” is one of the better LP releases of this year so far. Its pared-back sound has made it a hit on alternative radio, on Radio 2 and at festivals throughout Europe. Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John produced it, and the likes of “I’m Good, I’m Gone” , “Little Bit” and “Handing High” are lovely enough that you probably wouldn’t actually mind them reaching “Young Folks”-level omnipresence. Lykke Li is one of the guests on compatriot Kleerup’s new self-titled album. He collaborated with Robyn on “With Every Heartbeat” – possibly the greatest single of 2007. Elsewhere half-sisters Neneh Cherry and Titiyo guest.
The album has already been a top 10 hit in his homeland. Swedish pop is in a particular healthy state at the moment. Even its “melodifestivalen” (the route by which you may become their entry for the Eurovision song contest) displays brilliant imaginative pop. Recent participants Pay TV’s current single “Fashion Report” is incredible, see its disturbing but compelling video here. It’s part “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, part “I’d Rather Jack”. With a dollop of KLF style black-humour on top. If you like this you’ll like Bodies Without Organs – formed by ex members of Army Of Lovers, very camp but possibly too clever for their own good on occasion. But what do you expect from a group who name themselves after a concept from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari? For those of you who miss The Knife (currently on hiatus), Zeigeist’s LP “The Jade Motel” is a like a slightly more cheerful, younger sister to “Silent Shout”.

Most exciting of all though is the expected arrival (in October) of Annie’s new album “Don’t Stop”. A megamix of tracks from the album has been on a tour of the internet recently and it sounds completely brilliant. Her extraordinary debut set, “Anniemal”, stalled despite being one of the very best pop albums of the last 10 years. Hopefully this time proper fame will beckon, and to this end she has worked with pop-production gods of our time, Xenomania (as well as her usual collaborators Richard X and Timo Kaukolampi). Last time out, fellow Bergen dwellers Royksopp helped out, this time it’s fellow Bergen dweller Fredrick from Datarock who puts in an appearance (on the energetic “Misery”). Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand contributes guitar to “Loco” and “My Love Is Better” (Girls Aloud also contributed to the latter, but record company politics have seen to it that their vocals have been removed). If what’s been leaked on the internet so far is anything to go by, “Don’t Stop” will be the best pop LP of 2008.

Annie “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me”

Pay TV “Fashion Report”

Emiliana Torrini “Unemployed In Summertime”

Lykke Li “I’m Good I’m Gone”

Alphabeat “Fascination”

Annie “Don’t Stop (Megamix)”