All hail the incompetent!

Wednesday 25 May 2011, 11:00

Adam Walton Adam Walton

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When I call Alan Holmes the 'Godfather of the Welsh underground' I'm doing more than mythologising someone who appears regularly on my show, so that I can indulge in some much-needed reflection bathing. Alan deserves the epithet, although I suspect he'd prefer to shrug it off. He's a founder member of Fflaps and Ectogram; he's produced Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and designed striking Bosch-on-mescaline cover art for them (and others). He is a fount of easily shared wisdom behind the counter at Recordiau Cob in Bangor. When Alan says something, it's worth listening to.

He said something prior to my show on Sunday night that has struck a chord in me. And I'm going to share it here so that it strikes a chord with you, too. In this way, I'm hoping that we can catalyse a musical chain reaction across Wales that will shake some interesting music out of the nation's bowers.

The chord we're playing isn't an E Major. It isn't a powerchord either. In fact, not knowing which chord it is, is entirely the point.

"Bands are all very competent, these days, aren't they? There don't seem to be any bands who don't know what they're doing... you know, bands making mistakes and, as a result, sort of doing something interesting."

That was, more or less, the extent of our conversation on this point. We had radio business to hand. Only the business of saving lives or baking cakes is more important. But Alan's sage observation has been tapping me on the shoulder ever since.

In my experience, he's quite right. Young bands in 2011 appear out of nowhere able to play the entirety of Funeral For A Friend's back catalogue note perfect. It seems that - right here, right now - people forming bands can all play. What an awful, prescriptive, suffocating state of affairs!

It's not all that long ago that The Stilletoes were thrillingly bugging the hell out of the bands they were gigging with by treating their instruments like a substance-fuelled one night stand. The majority of music in 2011 is made by people married to their instruments. Snore! It's made by people whose fingers automatically gravitate towards a note that will go with the one that preceded it. You'd be more likely surprised by a Hollywood rom com.

"What? She's going to fall for that dweeb she really hated at the start of the story in the last reel of the film?"

Yes, she is. In perpetuity.

E from the Eels once told me that he has a room filled with odd instruments he can't play. When he's writing he picks up one of these instruments, the one he is least familiar with, and stumbles into its strings or keys or holes knowing that whichever way he bounces off them (if you can bounce off a hole) is likely to be in an interesting new direction. E doesn't want to be the dweeb assigned to a cutey pie in the last reel of a film.

He wants to be a sonic photon, zinging around the universe pseudo-randomly, illuminating the parts of the imagination that other human beings cannot reach.

At least, that's what's listed under 'Occupation' on his passport.

I was fortunate enough to interview eminent physicist and science communicator, Frank Close, for BBC Radio Wales' Science Café earlier this week. It was like interviewing an incredibly intelligent and eloquent six year old. His head is still full of questions. None of the doors are closed. But some of us, the less gifted and inspired, spend our lives learning by shutting the doors that open into unexpected rooms.

So, I learnt to shut the A-to-E-flat-Major door pretty early on, cos it wasn't a change apparent in the Small Faces' back catalogue. But I shouldn't have been learning things that prescriptively. Stumble into accidents; do not be afraid of the unknown; put mined whoopee cushions on every easy chair in the front-room of your creativity. I didn't abide to any of these credos. I'm trying to do it now with my writing, and it's embarrassing, isn't it? I'd rather be embarrassing than dull. I've turned into the Dad Dancer of BBC Music Blogs.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

There has been a lot written and broadcast about Bob Dylan over the last few weeks. Seems the ornery fuzzball is 70. But he isn't 70 where it matters. He still plays and sings as if he's never learnt a note on the guitar. His harmonica playing sounds like someone trying to do a Jasper Johns through reeds. BBC4 and 6Music have been littered with comments from former band members saying things like: "we wouldn't know which song he was going to play next, or how he was going to play it. We just had to go with him. If we could."

If you've seen Bob Dylan live in the last 30 years, or so, you'll know it can be a frustrating business. I stood watching him at Phoenix Festival 15 years ago. One half of the people around me were singing along to Tangled Up In Blue, the other half were mouthing Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, God knows which song Dylan was doing. But on the occasion when this harem scarem approach works, man, it's thrilling! You get to hear this knackered, restless, wildebeest of a man discover a whole new savannah in songs that've been bleeding into our water table for decades.

Quite a thing.

And it's testament to something that this most titanic of blues artists sees fit to induce incompetence into his performances. I think it's more than just wanting to keep the set he plays hundreds of times every year interesting. I just think it's the way, artistically and intellectually, he has wired himself. Make the moment shine in what you do, don't dull it with pre-meditation.

David Wrench, Wales' finest record producer and a man whose recorded output is nothing if not peripatetic, also plays keyboard for Julian Cope. Recently he detailed an experience on stage with Cope where he ended up playing a song he hadn't heard for years, let alone played. But that was the moment in the performance that most enervated David, and most gripped the audience. Keep an intuitive musician on their toes and they're more likely to do something amazing.

Back to Dylan. In Scorcese's No Direction Home, Al Kooper tells us the story of his impromptu organ part for Like A Rolling Stone. Kooper had been hired to play guitar, but his six-string talents paled considerably next to another hired gun, Mike Bloomfield's. However Kooper wanted in on the session. He could sense the frisson of history being made in the studio. He shuffled over to the organ when the producer was otherwise distracted. The band (literally) roll into the next take of the song. Kooper stares at Dylan's fingers, trying to fathom which changes are coming. His part starts off hesitant, each swell of the organ an off beat late. But as the song progresses, he gets more familiar with it and the part grows, flourishes, becomes one of its most recognisable features. It's that hesitancy and edge, that narrative, that makes the part and helps give the performance its momentum.

It's a state of grace-thing, is what it is. But it's rarely graceful.

So, where have all the shambolic bands gone?

Where are the happy accidents, the interesting mistakes, the ineptitude that enables surprising feats of expression? Or has rock music become the new jazz? Have we stopped allowing the inept into our cabal?

If you haven't got a clue what you're doing, but you've got ideas that need to get out anyway, please hurl them in my direction.

Be punk, but not Punk, punk.

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    Comment number 1.

    I wholeheartedly agree Adam. I blame technology.

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    Comment number 2.

    I'm intrigued, Steve - what do you think technology has done? It's true that bands can record themselves better at home now. I think technology has - as a rule - been incredibly liberating for artists. But I also think that too many are guilty of letting the technology be a crutch, and don't think beyond stock sounds, obvious structures. It's become much easier to replicate the sound of your favourite artists and too many are content to let that be the limit of their ambitions. I think, anyway!


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