I had a bit of a conversation with the ATL team at Radio Ulster about the great summer records. I could name a dozen without any bother, including 'Cottage In Negril' by Tyrone Taylor, 'Barefoot In The Head' by Man Called Adam and The Young Rascals with 'Groovin'. But the wonderful blaze of heat in the preceding week had tempted me to go with something like 'Too Hot' By The Specials. Instead, I settled with Bran Van 3000 and 'Drinking In LA'. This tune was delivered by some Canadian chancers in 1997 and perfectly recreates the sensations that cause a thirst and then a retreat into some welcoming hostelry. Bran Van 3000 quote from Snoop and chide themselves for not working harder on their careers in the film business. Instead, the days get woozy, the connections are loose and the heat haze leads to bad behaviour. I can recognise some of that.
The Ramones - California Sun (Sire)
Real Estate - Exactly Nothing (Domino)
Farriers - Keep It Alive (white)
Dexys - Now (BMG)
Hooded Fang - Jubb (Full Time Hobby)
Black Uhuru - What Is Life (Island)
Dirty Projectors - Gun Has No Trigger (Domino)
Bronagh Gallagher - Make A Move (Salty Dog)
Jack White - Freedom At 21 (XL)
Farriers - Faded Better Days (white)
Summer Camp - Always (Moshi Moshi)
The Honeys -Shoot The Curl (Sequel)
Mystery Jets - Greatest Hits (Rough Trade)
Crystal Fighters - Plage (Zirkulo)
Les Negresses Vertes - Voila L'Ete (Delabel)
The Magic - Mr Hollywood (Half Machine)
St Etienne - Popular (Heavenly)
Bran Van 3000 - Drinking In LA (Capitol)
King Creosote - Near Star Pole Star (Domino)
Nils Lofgren - Long May you Run (BBC)
Ryan Vail - Heartbeat (white)
Bronagh Gallagher - Love Will Find you (Salty Dog)
Neon Lights - Forgive (Underplan)
Here is a bunch of elated people, freshly released into the Belfast sunshine after a preview of the film Good Vibrations at the QFT.
Terri Hooley, owner of the aforementioned record shop and label has just seen the movie for the first time and to everyone's relief, he likes it. He's particularly fond of the flying scene and wants to know if the drugs still exist that will enable that particular feat.
As an observer, I've been party to around ten years of conversation about this film and it's pure joy to see the team getting it through. Some of the champions are in this photo, including the directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn, the writers Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, producer Chris Martin and actor Richard Dormer, who is immense in the role of Terri, also pictured here. Respect also to Jimmy Symington, who is a convincing paramilitary in a bar scene, to photographer and guitarist Michael and to the saintly Claire Archibald, who has partnered Hooley through six years of intensity. A lot of smiles, well-earned.
I'm not allowed to review the film until Friday, but let's say that the ending will make you cry, the music supervision is beautifully handled by David Holmes and the story is an extraordinary one.
What exactly is punk rock and what constitutes a good punk cover version? These are the questions that have occupied some of our thinkers since the Great Northern Songbook went live on Tuesday night from the Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Not too many people have quibbled about Katherine Philippa and 'Days Of Pearly Spencer'. Likewise with Ciaran Gribben and the historic wrench of 'The Island'. Also, Bronagh Gallagher was well regarded when she divined the beauty in Duke Special's 'Freewheel'. Exceptional moments these. But it was the punk songs on the night that sent a few malcontents onto the social networks for a right old moan.
So how do you honour 'Teenage Kicks', 'Big Time' and 'Alternative Ulster'? Does this require loud guitars and ferocity? Is it simply about style, or should we be looking for a more significant measure?
I always look to the American writer Greil Marcus for his definition of punk. Two words: Question Everything. You keep your wits sharp and you mistrust convention and tradition. There are no given rules, no received dogma. So, Patti Smith could rewrite the soul stomper, 'Land Of The Thousand Dances' and make it a transcendent fever. Devo could direct 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones into utter strangeness while The Flying Lizards made 'Money' sound like the coinage of another planet.
Back at the Ulster Hall with the well-regarded And So I Watch You From Afar. It was their remit to play the 1978 tune by Rudi, 'Big Time'. The first release on the Good Vibrations label, y'know. It changed my life actually. But ASIWYFA aren't going to be literal with the song. Instead, they settle on a few riffs and then abstract the rest. They encourage the Ulster Orchestra to go ape. Only in the closing moments does it sound much like 'Big Time'. Yet I recognised the same audacity, the assurance of a band in their own domain. They are basically true to the song.
It's punk, alright, but perhaps not as you know it.
On the May 14 show I played a track from the excellent new album by Shawn Lee and LA artist AM. Over the years, I've enjoyed Shawn when he crossed my horizon, starting with the 2000 album 'Monkey Boy' and the lovely track 'Happiness' that was later abducted by Will Young. Anyway, my pal Lyndon heard the track last week and he asks me if I've ever heard his version of 'Wichita Lineman'. This was news to me, but when I checked it out, the surprise was considerable. It's a lot more psychedelic than the Glen Campbell recording and while it's not advisable to tamper with a classic, there's a soaring validity to this response. Particularly given that Shawn was raised in Wichita, Kansas and he's heard that actual wind, singing in the wire.
The Skids - Into The Valley (Virgin)
Crocodiles - Endless Flowers (Souterrain)
JD McPherson - BGOMSRNR (Decca)
Simian Ghost - Automation (Heist Or Hit)
Morrissey - First Of The Gang To Die (Attack)
Howler - This One's Different (Rough Trade)
Jherek Bishoff - Eyes (Leaf)
Tom McShane - One Man Band (Third Bar)
Dexys - You (BMG)
Friends - Home (Lucky Numbers)
Gwen McCrae - Funky Sensation (WEA)
Liars - No 1 Against The Rush (Mute)
The Shirelles - Dedicated To The One I Love (GML)
Boy - Little Numbers (New Gronland)
Rufus Wainwright - Perfect Man (Polydor)
Joe Walsh - Lucky That Way (Decca)
Shawn Lee - Wichita Lineman (BBE)
Four Tops - Do What You Gotta Do (Motown)
Naim Amor - Dansons (Vacilando 69)
Dexys - She Got A Wiggle (BMG)
Pop Etc - Keep It For Your Own (Rough Trade)
Conway Twitty - Lonely Blue Boy (Righteous)
Spain - Sevenfold (Glitterhouse)
Roxy Music - Dance Away (Virgin)
Dexys - It's Ok John Joe (BMG)
I was standing in a bar in east Belfast on Saturday afternoon when the entire place broke out into a Village People song. This was a bit peculiar in that none of the drinkers seemed to have a liking for late Seventies disco, performed by muscular clones with handlebar moustaches. But they all knew the chorus line of the 1979 hit, 'Go West', notably with a few lyrical revisions. "Stand up for the Ulstermen", they bellowed as the rugby team went scrumming down with Leinster.
Only a few weeks before and I'd heard the same chorus being used to remember the Hillsborough dead. This time the refrain was, "Justice for the 96". Indeed, there's been almost 20 years of terrace value in the anthem, involving the likes of Manchester United, Norwich City and er, West Bromwich Albion.
The original version of the song was an allusion to San Francisco, a haven for the gay lifestyle. Just as the Village People had endorsed the YMCA, the US Navy and indeed Greenwich Village as places to find adventure, so the Castro District was the happening location in California. Historically, the chorus line had been an encouragement to the 19th century American settlers, but the spirit was happily revived by the authors of 'Macho Man' and the rest.
It wasn't their biggest hit, but the song took a fresh aspect with The Pet Shop Boys in 1993. They had performed the song at an AIDS benefit the previous year, and it followed that the tune now had an elegiac tone, looking back to an era when mortality wasn't such a pressing concern. There's a touching moment at the end of the band's video when the constructivist workers from the Soviet bloc (dressed in red and white) ascend a gleaming stairway to heaven. In this respect, it's not unlike the 1989 film 'Longtime Companion', which ends with the ghosts of Fire Island, all gone. Another requiem.
None of this may have been an issue to the rugby fans in Belfast on Saturday. As Leinster extended the score difference, the chorus line became less vocal, until there was nothing much to sing about. The occasion may have passed, but the song will live indefinitely.
I was blogging about Dexys Midnight Runners from day one, back in January 2007. In my initial post, I was looking forward to a new release for the band and excited about an online teaser called 'It's OK Johanna'.
Good job we weren't impatient. But hey, I'm now holding the new Dexys album in a trembling clutch. Only 27 years to wait, but here's the deal. 'One Day I'm Going To Soar' finds Kevin Rowland and various band veterans putting it out there. Swathes of soul and a deal of Caledonian swing. Amusing dialogue, stirring strings and levels of intensity that aren't often heard.
Such an artist. Kevin is still musing about his complex ancestry. Raised in the Midlands, but with parents from Mayo. He experienced the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. He was rooted but deracinated. You can hear the dilemma on 'Nowhere Is Home' on which the Roland stone is ever-rolling. Happiness and completeness are elusive. 'It's OK John Joe' is an update on that old MySpace track and it's another Kevin discourse on the pursuit of love, the advancing years and a soul in exile.
The defiance of those young Dexys records has largely gone. But he's no push-over yet, and he's nurtured this album through indifferent times. Occasionally that challenge is revealed in a moment of pique, when the volume crashes and the song kicks out. But this record is also about intimacy and confession. In this respect it's like Al Green and those Willie Mitchell productions. You feel that the singer is up close and confidential, ready to impart those precious nuances on the likes of 'You'.
One of the towering moments on 1985's 'Don't Stand Me Down' was the song 'What's She Like'. It was a tremendous bid to express the unsayable, and this quest continues. You understand it with the tender croon and the spooked refrain. It's in the glorious minutes after the song has seemingly ended, when Kevin gets a riff or a notion and he goes whirling away. Bliss. Like Van Morrison says, it ain't why, it just is.
Happy 30th birthday, 'Combat Rock'. It was released on May 14, 1982 and while I was still big into The Clash, the triple album 'Sandinista' of 1980 had drained off a little of my unquestioning love. This was the final record to involve the classic line-up, supplemented by Allen Ginsberg, Ellen Foley and their mate Kosmo Vinyl, pretending to be Travis Bickle. There's a bootleg out there of the proposed double album, which I don't recommend. There wasn't the discipline, so a tight edit actually redeemed a few of those tracks.
That said, 'Straight To Hell' is an awesome piece of writing. Joe Strummer put together this beat-speak meditation, starting in verse one with Sheffield, reeling under redundancies and Thatcher economics. Second verse is Vietnam and the mothers with their Amerasian kids, wondering if the GI dads will ever come back. This is followed by a wretched diorama of heroin abuse in Needle Park and the howlings of the dispossessed, the immigrants and the fatherless souls. King Solomon, he never lived 'round here.
Happy Mondays - Kinky Afro (Factory)
JD McPherson - Wolf Teeth (Rounder)
King Creosote - Doubles Underneath (Domino)
Ben Kweller - Out The Door (Noise)
Foreign Slippers -Avalanche (white)
Katie And The Carnival - Dinosaurs (A Little Fool To You) (Third Bar)
Jimmy Ruffin - It's Wonderful to Be Loved By You (Motown)
AM & Shawn Lee - Dark Into Night (ESL)
The Spook Of The 13th Lock - Heave The Bellows (Transduction)
Nick Drake - Northern Sky (Island)
Cold Specks - Send Your Youth (Mute)
Johnny Burtnette - Train Kept A Rolling (Proper)
JD McPherson - I Can't Complain(Rounder)
Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man In The Universe (XL)
Six Miles North - Still Waiting For the Revolution (Silver Tree)
Neil Young - From Hank to Hendrix (Reprise)
Cold Specks - Hector (Mute)
Farriers - Fickle Fold (white)
Jimmie Rogers - Train Whistle Blues (Proper)
Monroe Brothers - My Saviour's Train (Proper)
Sonny Boy Williamson - G, M and O Blues (Proper)
Chairlift - Amanaemonesia (Young Turks)
Cowboy Junkies - Idle Tales (Latent)
The Clash - Straight To Hell (CBS)
Foreign Slippers - What Are You Waiting For (white)
Runaway Go - Delicate Man (piano version) (Twenty30)
Like many others, I've been elated by this year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Thirteen years on, and the event was manifestly on its uppers, giving the people what they like and also moving on their expectations. In the early days, Sean Kelly had a notion that there was a shifting locus in Belfast's cultural life - back to the old side of town, loaded with history and potentially refreshed. His instincts were right and this year, there was no need to labour the point. It's essentially there.
It's no small deal when John Cale arrives in your city, and his night in the Festival Marquee imported some gravitas and that signature voice. Rachel Austin can only aspire to some of that, but her night in the basement of The Merchant was open to the best possibilities. Elsewhere, we encountered Katie And The Carnival, Bronagh Gallagher and a rogue appearance from General Fiasco. At The Assembly Rooms, Glenn Patterson was blowing out the candles like it was 1830 while return visits to Custom House Square gave us the Global Market, the Wonder Villains and the rare experience of The Undertones playing 'Instant Karma'.
There was crash test theatre at White's Tavern, where the Terra Nova company delivered the Ulster Kama Sutra. Perhaps we had expected comedy skits about our inhibited, religion-mangled sex lives, and indeed there was some of that. But there were also barmy songs, rhyming Tandragee with VD, and I suspect the hidden hand of Anthony Toner in there. I will never forget the soliloquy from a crocheted puppet. A male member, if you will. A country penis. Narrated and indeed animated by Nuala McKeever, it was a quiet admission of aloneness. We laughed, but our hearts were sore.
There was remedy of sorts with The Odd Couple, resourceful theatre in the Dark Horse. My old colleague Joe Lindsay and the Skewiff players managed to rock the Neil Simon play, causing us to laugh plenty at the disintegrating lives, the opposing manners and the prissy rage of Felix Unger. Maybe this could have happened elsewhere, but CQAF has the edge, the sense of artistic permission, an encouraging clientele and a perfect environment of cobbled alleys, new builds and curious reveals. Loved it.
Beachwood Sparks play sweet, woozy tunes from the canyons of California. I was terribly fond of their earlier records, 'Beachwood Sparks (2000), 'Once We Were Trees' (2001) and 'Make the Cowboy Robots Cry' (2002). And I remember a messy but sublime gig in Belfast, possibly at Auntie Annie's around the same time. Since then, it's been rather quiet, bar some reunion gigs on the West Coast. Happily though, there's a new album due, called 'The Tarnished Gold', and a teaser track that I played on Monday night. 'Forget The Song' is a reminder of the Beachwood ideal. The lap steel twinkles, the chorus is emotionally true, the voices are class and the listener transported. If you're looking for the antecedents of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, here they are.
New Order - Regret (Centerdate)
Spector - Celestine (Fiction)
Profile - Muscle Shoals Studios
Southern - Where The Wild Are (white)
Alabama Shakes - Hang Loose (Rough Trade)
Paul Simon - The Boy In The Bubble (Warner)
Rachel Austin - All That I Lose (live) (white)
Rufus Wainwright - Montauk (Polydor)
Clubfeet - City Of Light (Too Pure)
Our Krypton Son - Plutonium (Small Town America)
So So Sailor - De Moines (No Dancing)
Eddie and The Hot Rods - Do Anything You Wanna Do (Island)
Garland Jeffries - Coney Island Winter (Big Lake)
Glen Hansard - Love Don't Keep Me Waiting (Anti)
Nell Bryden - If I Forget (1st)
Beachwood Sparks - Forget The Song (Sub Pop)
George Jones - Nobody's Lonesome For Me (Righteous)
Ben Glover - Whatever Happens Will (white)
Perfume Genius - Dark Parts (Turnstile)
Eric Mercury - Wrap Me In A Map (Stax)
Kelly Hogan - We Can't Have Nice Things (Anti)
Bronagh Gallagher - Fool (white)
Cold Specks - Blank Maps (Broken Hertz)
The Who - Love Reign O'er Me (Polydor)
Reptar - Sebastian (Lucky Numbers)
Rachel Austin is the artist-in-residence at the year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast. Regulars to the radio show will appreciate that she hails from Virginia, she's got a voice that defies gravity and description and her songs are increasingly unfettered by standard form. A recent recording trip to Austin, Texas seems to have given her extra assurance to embrace the new. Therefore on Sunday night we gathered at Ollie's in the basement of the Merchant Hotel to witness another brave idea.
The plan was to record the event and also to improvise plenty. Barry Cullen, occasionally referred to as "Satan", provided a commentary of electronic bleeps and distortions. There was a stand-up bass, some trumpet and drums. The crimson décor and the selective lighting made it feel like some jazz-noir antechamber, scene of a half forgotten Twin Peaks experience.
Rachel loved it of course. She strummed on a black Fender Jaguar (a Kurt Cobain fave) and on occasions, sampled her own voice on a loop station, so that a cacophony of Austin effects asserted the art. Pig-snorting rhythms and all. Therefore it was edgy, rich with surprise and when she took an Appalachian departure into 'I'll Fly Away', that was excellent also.
She takes her leave with a song about hemlock and its fatal effects. Which is amazingly rare in popular culture, I'll guess. I can only think of Ronnie Lane, and he was writing in jest. But Rachel's version is closer to Socrates than the pop charts. We can sense the creeping morbidity as the song starts to lull and falter. Wow.
Twenty years ago I was in Los Angeles, looking at the smoking buildings and feeling apprehensive. It was a couple of days after the LA riots, and for a while my employers had refused to insure me as the city was classified as a war zone. But the trip had been set up a few months before - I was there to cover the Manic Street Preachers and their Californian debut at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Strip.
So the next day I was walking along Melrose with Richey Manic. The only shop that had been burnt and looted was Boy. "At least the rioters had good taste," Richey supposed.
The following evening I got a ride to South Central with the photographer Pennie Smith. We were at recording studio frequented by the act NWA, who had namechecked this area in their gangster chronicles, 'Straight Outta Compton'. We had arranged an interview with Easy-E. He wasn't exactly welcoming, but he sat on a window ledge and gave us forthright opinions about the Rodney King trial and other related issues.
There was a similar conversation with Ernie C, guitarist with Ice T's band Body Count. Only this time we were in the foyer of a Beverly Hills hotel and the bad boy was sipping on a strawberry daiquiri. The city was majorly distressed and it was almost a relief for myself and the Manics to take a ride out to Venice Beach.
But there was no respite here either. Marines with assault rifles were patrolling the shoreline. We were aiming to take photos for an NME feature, but the band kept ducking away whenever a soldier appeared near the frame. James Dean Bradfield was adamant. He didn't want to do a "Clash in Belfast", alluding to the punk band and their shots with Adrian Boot, posing around the heavy manners of Royal Avenue and the security checkpoints. The Manics were oddly moralistic about it all and I respected them all the more.
Dr Carl Jung, the wayward psychologist, thought about flying saucers a fair bit. He supposed that they were in part a reflection of internal psychic states. During the rampant insecurity of the Cold War, when things seemed perilous and broken, there was a yearning for some outside intervention, the UFO landing that would lead us away from the chaos into a more groovy, Aquarian age. Dame David Bowie was no slouch either, and his many songs about space and aliens were also about archetypes and psychic adventure. 'Starman' is a great one in that the contact seems to have been made, both parties have been primed, but there's still a worry that the full encounter will effectively melt the Earthling's mind. The interstellar message seems to be that the young people will facilitate the meeting of cultures, so long as they "sparkle". What better anthem could the glam kids ask for? Let all the children boogie.
David Bowie - Starman (RCA)
Little Comets - Jennifer (Dirty Hit)
Ben Kweller - Mean To Me (Noise)
Jack White - Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy (XL)
Grimes - Be A Body (4ad)
Rufus Wainwright - Rachida (Polydor)
Farriers - The Fires Burn (white)
The Hives - Go Right Ahead (Sony)
Paul Weller - That Dangerous Age (Island)
Amadou And Miriam - Dougou Badia (Because)
Michael Kiwanuka - I'll Get Along (Communion)
Stone Roses - Waterfall (Silvertone)
St Etienne - You're In A Bad Way (Heavenly)
Ben Kweller - Full Circle (Noise)
The Farriers - So Long As I Can Stay (white)
The Chieftains, Carolina Chocolate Drops - Pretty Little Girl (Universal)
The Shins - The Rifle's Spiral (Aural Apothecary)
Ben Glover - War To Believe (white)
AM and Shawn Lee - City Boy (ESL)
Punch Brothers - Kid A (Nonesuch)
Duke Special - Punch Of A Friend (Reel To Reel)
John Greenway - Talking Guitar Blues (Righteous)
Glen Campbell - Strong (Surfdog)
Ben Glover - Uncomplicated (white)
Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City (A&M)
Rufus Wainwright - Candles (Polydor)