Photoblogs can be deadly dull. Many of them are jammed up with cutesy kids, macro shots of the petunias in the back garden and grandma’s blurry birthday. Which is one reason why I admire www.headphoneland.com . This is the work of an 18 year old from Belfast, Gavin Mullan. Every day, he posts up a new image, and a startling new way to see the local landscape.
He’s got an amazing eye for composition and loads of poetry in his heart. He finds beauty in twigs, ceilings, beer cans and puddles. He’s looking for significance in the Mournes, the Law Courts and Shaw’s Bridge. One of his specialities is long exposures, catching the trails of car headlights and the lesser known night features. And his increasing confidence at post-processing on the computer makes every new posting a fresh revelation.
In the coming weeks, I may also point to the photographic talents of Iona Bateman, Graham Smith, Gavin Millar, Phil O’ Kane, Paul Smith, Keith Wilson and Alan Maguire. But while I’m in the process of showing you some of mine, why not show me yours?
One of the great things about being in a band is that you can take your work anywhere. So when the Downpatrick band Ash felt they needed a change of scenery, they hired themselves a studio space in New York and started rocking afresh. Once again, they became familiar with big melodies and roaring guitars. They were finding inspiration in the tumult of Manhattan and in Tim’s case, discovering some romance there also.
I met up with the singer in December, filming some parts of a TV documentary on the roof of his studio building, just off 6th Avenue. It was ferociously cold, but he obliged us with thoughtful answers, humour and warmth. Ash has been one of the excellent features of Ulster music for the past 12 years and they’re surely going to continue that way.
As from today, you can download a free track from Ash, ‘I Started A Fire’. It’s a teaser for the new album and finds the band returning to the core three piece after the departure of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. They’re playing with the gusto of teenagers and the savvy of veterans. It’s rather great.
I heard some of the rough mixes from the album and they include swooning ballads, lusty declarations and a perfectly massive closing track. We conclude that 2007 is clearly another vintage year for Ulster music, and it’s such a treat to hear the Ash contribution.
Click on www.ash-official.com to get your own free download.
And so Foy Vance plays the Meter Room in the old Gas Works complex in Belfast. Many people at this Tuesday night reception are a little refreshed, and aren’t paying full attention. But if you care to check it out, you will hear excellent singing, guitar skill, humour, intensity and grace. In a few years, people who weren’t even here will pretend that they listened all the way through.
Foy comes from Bangor, with a broad detour through America with his preacher dad. His music is high on hope, notably on the future classic, ‘Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness’ which pictures beautiful deeds in surprising places. He plays in a kind of soul-jazz vernacular and you guess that he’s into John Martyn. A bonus.
He lightens the tone with an abstract version of ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ and a romp though ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, with Linley Hamilton on trumpet, blowing some happy boogaloo.
At the very end of his set, the music and the voices are looped and layered on some digital device, chiming and recurring even when the author has left the stage and stepped out into the night air. Hours later and those notes are still in our head, sweetly rebounding.
Back in 1935, an Ulster songwriter called Jimmy Kennedy was so enthralled by a Portstewart evening that he wrote ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, a tune later recorded by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Fast forward to 2007 and some young punks from Whitehead called Switch 14 are also writing about the Antrim coastline.
However, there’s no rosy glow to their tune. ‘By The Sea’ is a sustained moan about the lack of rock and roll facilities in this seaside town. Verse by verse, they mither and rubbish the place, while the guitars clatter and a very youthful singer makes petulant faces. Every day might be like Sunday in your world, but does your music have to sound like it?
Welcome to the second year of ATL Rock School, a clearing house for imminent talent and flailing chancers. In Switch 14’s case, the average ago is 14 and so their ill-aimed attack is forgivable. Some others are visibly dying in front of the cameras. The Humbleweeds play lumpen indie-synth, and the judging panel (Neil Hannon, Michael McKeegan and NME’s James Jam) is quite savage. Derry act The Q are probably too cool for this sort of thing while Post Mortem noodle and thrash with empty precision.
But hooray for Nice ‘N’ Sleezy, a band made of hairspray, leopardskin and rock lore. They come from Enniskillen but their metier is the sound of Hollywood and Sunset Strip. Neil Hannon says that it’s a bag of star-spangled clichés, but fun with it. The others agree. And so it’s a Sleezy triumph, another milestone on the corpse-spattered road to Wonderland Avenue.
“We’re the saviours of rock and roll,” they promise. “If you don’t know us, then your daughters will.”
And by the way, mine aren’t coming out.
As a cub reporter in 1985, I was asked to interview a band called The Waterboys. Their big record at the time was ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ and I thought it was a bunch of overwrought piffle. Actually, I was completely wrong about the tune, but myself and Mike Scott had a bit of a barney in his record company offices and it made for a good feature.
Three years later, The Waterboys released the ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, and I was smitten. By this stage, Mike had given up on the interview caper and so I basically stalked him across Dublin and Spiddal, Kilburn and Belfast. We eventually set up an interview in Stornaway, in the Outer Hebrides. The night before we’d taken a moonlight adventure to see the Callanish Stones, this mind-blowing megalithic walkway, which also helped me to understand the guy.
There’s a very long version of this story, but essentially, we became quite friendly. I got a dedication on his ‘Dream Harder’ album and we corresponded a bit. And on my Radio Ulster programme tonight, sometime after 10pm, you can hear us talking up his new album ‘Book Of Lightning’.
It’s a rousing collection, with Steve Wickam lashing out the fiddle lines, while trumpet player Roddy Lorimer is blowing with gusto. A couple of tracks date back to the ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ period and they are instantly regal. The news songs also have a majestic dimension and I’m very much looking forward to the Waterboys show at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, March 25. And if they play ‘Whole Of The Moon’ I may be leaping around like I’ve always, always loved that record.
Yesterday I interviewed an artist from Portland, Oregon called Laura Veirs. She was in a studio in London and I in Belfast, but it worked fine down the wires as we discussed her excellent new record, ‘Saltbreakers’. It is strange and elemental music, with hints of Patti Smith and Emily Bronte. Apparently her personal life was a bit tempestuous at the time. But she sounds revived now and she gushes quietly, remembering a recording session at Johnny Cash’s old home studio in Henderson, Tennessee. Apparently the mantelpiece is signed by all the guests, including Bob Dylan, and Laura was also asked to add her name.
Even minor stars have interesting things happen to them, and Laura went to France last year, where a school choir was singing these ethereal versions of her songs. She was smiling and weeping at the same time. I hope she gets so famous that she’s immortalised on Rockney Rhyming slang. As in: “I went down to the pub for a few Lauras, and then across the road for a Ruby.”
She speaks fluent Chinese and has a degree in geology. I told her about the Giant’s Causeway and she’s already talking about a field trip during her next Irish tour. Let it rock!
When is a name change nothing to worry about? That’s what some of my radio listeners want to know when the Friday 10pm slot finds me changing my wrapper from Across The Line to the Late Show livery. Does it mean that the playlist will suffer, that Stu’s freestyle tendencies will be curbed?
Actually no. It’s still a lovely and indulgent show, from Doug Sahm to The Ramones, stopping off for a dose of Gruff Rhys, Studio One reggae and that magnificent new Soulsavers album. It’s a combination of precious values and chance collisions: your fave music all in one place. And the name change is like the classic Marathon bar mutating into the Snickers. You still have that combination of sweet coating and savoury nut, plus all the essential nutrients. You dig?
Anyway, I’m no longer signing off the station for Friday listeners. The every-frisky Joe Lindsay takes it onwards from midnight until one am, lashing out the Jarvis Cocker, The Cramps, The James Gang and turbulent hip hop. Just ahead of his launch, we bicker about the value of Mark E Smith and The Fall (horrendously over-rated, says I) and I feel glad because Joe effectively keeps the radio nation awake for longer that the norm. Extra value. Join us for next week’s unruly experiment, and don’t be shy of a challenging song request.
Many years ago, my old dad sat by the TV and laughed himself silly over Tommy Cooper, Harry Worth and Eric Morecambe. We giggled along with him, sharing his pleasure, even when the finer points of the jokes were lost on us. It was, of course, a vintage stratum of light entertainment, when people bonded over daft jokes and ill-fitting spectacles. We assume that this era has given way to more sophisticated and worldly television. But then we watch Harry Hill on a Saturday and all is hilariously well again.
Harry starts his evening run with You’ve Been Framed, which was never so great with Jeremy Beadle or Lisa Riley. They were either smug or patronising, and the punch lines were often blunted by our dislike of the grinning face between clips. But how would you find harm with Harry? He has little malice and he tickles us with scatty observations about golfing mishaps, BMX pile-ups and hamsters opening biscuit tins. The video footage often takes place at a safari park, prompting Hill to exclaim: “the baboon – chav of the monkey world!” just before a startled granny is relieved of her cheese baguette.
Next up is Harry Hill’s TV Burp, another barmpot critique of modern life. We are invited to see the absurd side of Eastenders, and Phil Mitchell’s acting style is a weekly rip-snorter. The naturalist Nick Baker provides endless mirth and yes, there really is a therapy farm for fussy eaters, where a young lad is encourage to chow down on a sausage, despite his terrible misgivings.
One of the gag writers for this show is David Quantick, and old pal from my NME days. He can write a funny sentence like other people can play an amazing guitar solo, and one of his old music reviews was the basis of the band name, Pop Will Eat Itself.
So here’s the after dinner belch. We end this week’s show as Harry dresses as a giant hamburger and sings the advertising theme to Reggae Reggae Sauce. I am filled with helpless laugher, and the Bailie girls all join in.
It’s Thursday at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast and Van Morrison is in legendary form. He’s blowing sax on ‘Moondance’ and riffing on the piano, he’s thumping the guitar strings with the flat of his hand and he’s slurping away at the harmonica during a peerless version of ‘Help Me’.
When he’s in this kind of form, summoning up great sheets of memory and sentiment, you can forgive him almost anything. He’s lifting us beyond the humdrum, out of our petty worries and greater woes. He’s giving us religion in a way that most churches can not. The centrepiece of tonight’s rhapsody is ‘The Healing Has Begun’, in which the singer’s thoughts return to a girl and a glorious Belfast avenue, back in the day. He’s floored by the beauty of it all, but still feeling lustful, murmuring salacious things about where they might go and what they might do.
The song rises and rises, off into the swirl of time, as Van sings about being back home in the backstreets, where the spirit first moved him. It’s like William Blake doing the boogie with John Lee Hooker and it’s perfectly great.
He bleats ‘There Stands The Glass’ and you shudder as the lovesick narrator thinks about getting drunk and obliterated. He changes ‘Have I Told You Lately’ into a jump-blues tune, like something from an old Louis Prima record. And bless him, he even signs off ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and the timeless ballyhoo of ‘Gloria’.
At times like this, how could you not love the fella?
Belfast’s Royal Avenue on a damp Monday evening isn’t the best prospects for Winter fun. But inside the Virgin Megastore there’s a perfect glow. Peter Wilson from Duke Special is playing a bespoke gig, meeting his ever-increasing fan club and signing records. Everybody’s smiling and a proper, feel-good event is in session.
It’s been a tremendous time for the fella. He’s done Jools Holland and TOTP2, while ‘Freewheel’ has been Radio 2’s record of the week. His online messageboard is alive with new believers and satisfied, older followers. By degrees, the world is finding out about our uncommon talent. It’s been many years coming, but that’s been a compelling part of the story also.
As I watch him singing ‘Brixton Leaves’ amongst the record racks, I’m thinking of another difficult and perilous story. If Duke Special was a book, it would be ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ by John Bunyan. It’s been a long quest, battling through the slough of despond (playing covers in the local bars for rent money), and distracting times at Vanity Fair (the music biz). It’s not been effortless, but that difficulty has informed the music, with those tales of peril, near death and perseverance.
The road is long and home is indeed a distant drumlin. But Peter has a good soul and an unfaltering sense of purpose. And happily, we’re beginning to see the light.
Why do I feel so offended that a Ramones song is being used in a TV advert for rugby? Is it right to feel precious about an ancient punk song called ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ when so many of the band members are no longer with us, and the New York bar that birthed them has recently been taken apart? The answer is still yes. Because rugby stinks.
In my experience, rugby players are a dull lot, with their misshapen ears and ill-fitting sweat pants. The Ramones, on the other hand, looked amazing in their leather jackets, their pipe cleaner jeans and white sneakers. The Ramones were raised on three chords, overloaded guitars and the majestic sounds of Phil Spector and The Ronnettes. Meanwhile, a rugby tour bus still resounds to tawdry versions of ‘Old Sir Jasper’, ‘Four And Twenty Virgins’ and ‘Dina Dina, Show Us Your Leg’. These people just don’t deserve punk rock.
Rugby is sustained by assistant bank managers, slumming it at the weekend in their sheepskin jackets, pouring pints of beer over each other’s heads. It has no style, no attitude. It’s the playground of the petite bourgeoisie, the school ties, the boys-own bores. The Ramones were genuine freaks who were shunned by the mainstream when they released their first record. Their style came from Marlon Brando and New York’s gay subculture. And they were rapidly hailed by the underground, by teenagers who had been bullied and sidelined by the jocks and their dumb culture.
In my school, punks were routinely beaten up by the rugger buggers. It was a clash between the creatives and the conservatives, and the latter could only respond with their fat fists. I doubt that anything has changed. Which is why I despair at thought of their sons, bellowing “hey ho, let’s go” as they infect each other with scrum pox and trot smugly back to their locker rooms for another round of dirty jokes.
Throughout February, Snow Patrol will be doing the equivalent of a victory lap.
Their first leg was the Meteor Awards in Dublin last night, where they won Best Band, Best Live Performance. Most Downloaded Single and Best Album. Not bad. They’ve been completely blanked at the NME Awards, but maybe that’s just the price of fame. Next up is The Grammys in Los Angeles, Feb 11, the Brit Awards, London, Feb 14 and the Choice music bash, again in Dublin, Feb 28.
This month should be useful for the air miles account if nothing else, and while I strongly fancy Duke Special for a Choice award, a Snow Patrol Brit is entirely possible. Amazing, innit?
Russell Brand’s illegitimate children are scampering around the Ulster Hall in Belfast, proudly wearing the eyeliner and haystack bouffants. They have found themselves a new cultural icon and while these teenagers may not be genetically linked to the bearded one, he is their spiritual dad. They share his excitable nature, his potty mouth and his fondness for unfeasibly tight black jeans.
Am I jealous? Well, tight pants would fit my legs like sausage skins, so I’ll not be returning there. It’s a youth thing, of course. And the event in question is the NME Indie Tour, our annual look at the cool acts of the season. Back in 1993, I was one of the music writers who launched the NME Brats, our answer to the boring Brits, so I too have a parental role in this.
I see that the event is sponsored by hair products and that the music chain stores are hurling money at the show. Adverts from other parts of yoof culture industry are also getting intimate. And of course all of the bands on the bill are all signed to major record labels. It’s a corporate love-in, but should that matter?
I watch The Horrors, with their bad approximations of Nick Cave and Screaming Lord Such. They have stack hair and dress in black. The keyboard player keeps flapping his cape around, but he’s not going anywhere.
I see an old mate at the back of the venue, Phil Jupitus. We chat about the old days, about Billy Bragg and the Housemartins and the time when he was an illustrator and stand-up comic called Porky the Poet. We watch The View with some approval, hoping that some loud guitars and songs about bad hygiene in Dundee might put a bit of attitude into this audience, with their ever-flashing phones and vacant political outlooks.
The kids of today, eh?