Blimey, is that the decade over? I remember a bit of tumult and shouting, skinny trousers, old punk chords, warfare, anxiety and the eventual advance of electroclash. Radiohead were contrary, Bob Dylan was barking and Americana made comforting overtures to the old folk. So like everyone else, I'm thinking of lists and a special radio show to sift through an era that has largely coincided with my Radio Ulster period.
What I'd really like is for you, kind listeners, to help me with the list, which may broadcast the Monday after Xmas. Did you go for The Arcade Fire or Loretta, with Rufus, Martha, LCD Soundsystem or Sufjan? Do tell...
I've just taken possession of a box set of essays, themed around the arts in NI and The Troubles. It features names such as Fergal Keane, Frank Ormsby, Patricia Craig and Ciaran Carson. While I haven't gone deeply into the copy yet, it's certainly a challenging idea that takes in architecture, literature and even prison art. I have also authored a volume about popular music and the conflict, some 5000 words about punk rock and showbands, suspect devices and the glimmer of an artistic sunrise. A lot of the significant moments of my life are on those pages and I'm looking forward to a launch at the Ulster Museum in a few day's time. Given that I sat in Frank Ormsby's classroom for a few interesting years, absorbing some of his passion for the written word, it's quite a bonus to find myself in printed proximity to the man.
Here comes Tim Wheeler and gig number 28 in a series that's taken them on an A-Z trajectory across the UK, onwards to Dublin and finally Belfast. He looks spry and self-possessed and his mission is to tackle music industry blues by playing to the faithful and peppering the web with ace tunes. You have to admire the guy.
Whatever happens to Ash (and we assume it will be positive), they are forever in possession of a tidy back catalogue that future generations will love. It's also guaranteed to expand as a series of new live tracks show that the Wheeler touch is intact, even if social patterns aren't directing the multitudes this way. The Spring & Airbrake is rammed (though apparently not as intense as the Exmouth Town Hall) and hearts are receptive. For now, that's reward enough.
Are the Arctic Monkeys an indie landfill band? I don't believe that they are. Granted, there were moments at their Odyssey gig when you could visualise the brick dust and potato peelings, but there were also some lovely parts. Like the cracked betrayal of 'Cornerstone', proof that the Monkeys can still make it work in the company of their American mates with the ugly riffs. I'll bet that earnest English Lit essays are already being despatched on the subject and indeed, "I smelt your scent on my seat belt" is surely one of the most evocative lines that's currently in the ether.
And there's a moment near the end when the confetti bombs erupt during 'Secret Door', when the Odyssey is illuminated and the chords billow and furl. I guess it's not their fault that demand has quickly taken then to venues of this scale, where the modest gestures are lost and the keenly parochial becomes commonplace. Hey, such things happen in a personality recession, and it's at least reassuring to know that Alex Turner is still holding his value.
Judee Sill released her first album in 1971 and her second in 1973. She died in 1979, possibly a suicide, most likely a drug mishap. She'd become so withdrawn that friends didn't know about her passing for years. But those two records are as intense and as magical as any troubadour or word-slinger has ever been.
She was in thrall to Bach and had learnt to play the organ in a reform school - the result of a youthful delinquency that had found her robbing stores at gunpoint and dosing up on heroin. She'd come from a pleasant Californian home, but issues had gotten complicated and she never got over the broken home and the lost idyll. She took consolation in creating swoonsome, exultant music, loading the words with allusions to esoteric spirituality (she was a big fan of Madame Blavatsky) and unusual ideas of salvation. That would tend to make her unique.
Her song 'The Kiss' is from 'Heart Food', the second album. Andy Partridge from XTC calls it "the most beautiful song ever recorded", and he's not just saying that for effect. Go listen.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Mondays, ten - midnight
Badly Drawn Boy - Donna And Blitzen (Twisted Nerve)
Cortney Tidwell - So We Sing (City Slang)
The Len Price 3 - After You're Gone (Wicked Cool)
The Specials - Do Nothing (Two Tone)
The Hussies - Greatest Living Actress (Cheerleader)
Lucinda Williams - Jug Band Music (Retroworld)
Shrag - Rabbit Kids (WIAIWYA)
Judee Sill - The Kiss (Water)
Ash - True Love 1980 (Atomic Heart)
No Comebacks - Corina Corina (Ocean)
Joe and Rose Lee Maphis - Country Girl Courtship (Righteous)
Bill Coleman Welcome To The Breakdown (downloadmusic.ie)
Graham Parker - Don't Ask Me Questions (Mercury)
Arctic Monkeys - Cornerstone (Domino)
Nitin Sawhney - Distant Dreams (cv)
Van Morrison - Eternal Kansas City (Polydor)
Charlie Parker Billlies Bounce (Savoy)
Devendra Banhart 16 & Valencia Roxy Music (Warner)
Bob Dylan - The Christmas Blues (Columbia)
Laura Viers - Life Is Good Blues (Bella Union)
Richard Hawley As The Dawn Breaks (Mute)
Nitin Sawhney - October Daze (cv)
Prince - I Wanna Be Your Lover (Warner)
Simian Mobile Disco - Cruel Intentions (Wichita)
James Blackshaw - Cross (Young God)
Does the world need a 351 page history of Stiff Little Fingers? Well, you're probably asking the wrong person, because I'm quite passionate about the story of Ulster punk and this hefty volume will sit proudly alongside a few other, choice volumes. 'Kicking Up A Racket - The Story Of Stiff Little Fingers' covers the central years, 1977-83. The author, Roland Link, comes from Worcester, and he's risen to the challenge of writing a book that will be read and admired by a modest collection of people. I guess this means that he's done it for love, and indeed the book's contents would bear that out.
Increasingly, any story that involves the Conflict has an eerie quality about it, a period and a mindset that's hopefully evaporating. So too have the early punk landmarks, like The Harp Bar, The Pound, The Trident and Paddy Lamb's. There are moments of proper exhilaration, like the recording of 'Suspect Device' on Downtown Radio's modest 8 track machine, and the challenge of wrapping hundreds of single sleeves by hand. Likewise with the unscripted success of the album 'Inflammable Material', which goes Top 20 and establishes Rough Trade as the definitive indie label.
Some of the local references are rogue. The Maze prison has been relocated to Belfast, the Defects appear in the story about three years too early and the Belfast accent has foxed a few translations. But the minutia is happily received by this reader. There's a pathos in the fact that Jake Burns wore his dad's shoes around the time of 'Suspect Device' because his own pair needed fixing. And there's a classic ingenuity in the story about the first copies of the single being distributed to Scotland in a commandeered bakery van.
A lot of the story concerns the band's perceived lack of cool and the bitter backlash at the time. Belfast is routinely hostile to its success stories (just ask Therapy, Ash and Snow Patrol), but SLF copped it very badly by those who thought that the band and their management were exploiting the local situation. I was one of those begrudgers, but increasingly I listen to those early records and hear a rage and a pain that is beyond contrivance.
I believe there's some kind of a book launch at the John Hewitt in Belfast this Thursday evening. Come on down, shake Roland's hand and buy one of his books.
Brighton is full of rude boys. They are tattoed like merchant seamen and their necks have the girth of large bulls. They look intimidating and if truth be told, they are shockingly flatulent. But tonight thay are in excellent humour because The Specials are back, after almost 30 years away. And yes, myself and the small but vocal Belfast posse are also in noisy accord.
The Specials were always an astounding live act and tonight they live up to the legend. The rhythm team are totally on it, Roddy Radiation is cavorting like a kid with a guitar and even Terry Hall concedes that fun is a possibility. Wisely, they stick mostly to the first album and we feel privileged to be reminded of the multi-racial sweetness that is 'It Doesn't Make It Alright'. They're toned down 'Concrete Jungle' a little, but 'Monkey Man' is still untamed and we shiver at the revived sentiments of 'Ghost Town'.
My pal Markie has inadvertently brought out two right-footed sneakers from similar pairs, and is hobbling with effect. Meantime Davy, our Brighton host, is telling us about a recent hospital visit when a stent was fitted to a needy artery. He was fully conscious at the time, and aware of the background music: Moby and 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad'....
Therefore, we enjoy ourselves perfectly. Because as the song tells it; it's later than you think.
Dave Rawlings is a neo-bluegrass practitioner who hangs out with Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes and Gillian Welch. He plays beautifully and writes a decent song, including a Ryan collaboration, To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High). Happily, he has stepped out of semi-obscurity to deliver his own album, which includes a version of the aforementioned tune, plus some sweet and evocative extras.
You dont need an introduction to Dame Shirley Bassey, and you may know that producer David Arnold has helped the artiste to complete a record thats arch, emotional and not overly dramatic. Songs have been written by Rufus Wainwright, Neil Tennant, and Richard Hawley, but its the Manic Street Preachers who have presented her with The Girl From Tiger Bay, a soaring sense of place and intensity that fits so well.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Mondays, ten midnight
Bjork - Joga (One Little Indian)
Fionn Regan - Protection Racket (Heavenly)
Dame Shirley Bassey - The Girl From Tiger Bay (Geffen)
God Help The Boy Hes A Loving Kind Of Boy (Rough Trade)
Zoot Money - Let The Music Make You Happy (Righteous)
Dave Rawlings - To Be Young (Is To Be Sad Is To Be High) (Acony )
Tom Waits Picture In A Frame (live) (Anti)
Louis Eliot and The Embers - 25th of the 12th (white)
Isaac Hayes - Run Fay Run (Soul Jazz)
The Duke And The King - One More Year (Loose)
Dame Shirley Bassey - After The Rain (Geffen)
Passion Pit Little - Secrets (Sony)
New Order Thieves Like Us (Factory)
Paloma Faith - Do You Want The Truth (Epic)
Dan Arbosise - Another Side Of The Sky (Just)
Spiritualized - Ladies And Gentlemen (acappella) (Sony)
Dave Rawlings - Ruby (Acony)
Ricky Lee Jones - Remember Me (Fantasy)
Thomas Dybtahl - Cecilia (Last Suppa)
Geoff Gatt - Moment (white)
William Fitzsimmons - Good Morning (Naim Edge)
Dan Hicks I Got Mine (Big Beat)
Dave Rawlings - Bells Of Harlem (Acony)
Bob Marley Redempion Song (Island)
James Yuill Lef Handed Girl (Moshi Moshi)
Dame Shirley Bassey The Performance Of My Life (Geffen)
Animal Collective - Brother Sport (Domino)
They Shoot Horses Don't They is a 1969 film about the Great Depression and the way that human anxieties are pulped and processed into mass entertainment. The setting is Santa Monica and the event is a dance marathon with the chances of the winners being lifted out of grinding poverty. But the prize is bogus and the contenders suffer the most awful humiliations. Does this sound a bit familiar?
Like many of you, I've been watching X Factor, transfixed by the clod-hoppery of the Jedward boys. Their survival every week has seemed like a mocking rebuke on the pop process and the machinations of Simon Cowell. The problems is that the twins have reached the level that they are merely poor as opposed to terrible. Simon is no longer aghast and so the drama has abated. It's business as usual, with the teeth, the vibrato, the hair and the crushing Queen covers. Our only consolation is the Beelzebub must have a particular devil set aside for Cowell.
This week, I've taken great pleasure in following the Guardian series of supplements, '100 Years Of Great Press Photographs'. I've been regarding some iconic and lesser-known pictures of war, culture, leisure and sufferation. Some of the snappers, like Harry Borden and David Corio are known to me while the legends of the Magnum agency are heavily represented.
I'm not sure that the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith qualifies as a press photograph, but it did make the cover of her debut album 'Horses' and it does represent one of the most confrontational visions of Seventies music. The photographer and the artist were sometime lovers and there's a great feeling of conspiracy in the shot. Patti is dressed like a French symbolist poet (Rimbaud, inevitably) while the jacket flung over her shoulder has the essence of Frank Sinatra. The Guardian notes that Patti also has some hair on her upper lip and that some music industry handlers weren't keen on it. They suggested that fluff was airbrushed out, but the singer wasn't having it. And she was never inclined to suffer fools. An awesome image.
It's a slightly bitter joke that the cultural firebrands of the Seventies are becoming ancient and grizzled. The journey from anarchy to infirmity is well advanced. The kids who once sang 'No Time To Be 21' are now counting down to the free bus pass. They've gone from 'Wild Youth' to severe angina. So how better to console the old folk than to make a shopping visit to punkgrandad.com.
You can then deliver their Xmas cheer with an amusing 'Pension Calling' T shirt, or even 'Generation XXL'. And on a rather callous note, theres 'Nevemind The Prostrate' to ring the shiver of mortality ever closer. Cheers.
Reggie Chamberlain King, our friend and Late Show cultural attaché was in last night. The theme for the second hour was great 'lost' albums, and so it was a chance for us to gas on about Brian Wilson and the making of 'Smile', the recent appearance of a 1992 creation by Prefab Sprout, the oddly prophetic Who album about communication networks and Jimi Hendrix's comic book concept. Many of the records were put together in the Seventies, a time of mad ambition and excess. These days, every sonic shaving goes online without ceremony.
We could have filled an entire show with Bob Dylan, particularly his adventures in Woodstock and the legendary Big Pink recordings. Masses of tracks from 'The Basement Tapes' are still unreleased, and some day I'd love to give a legitimate spin of Bob crooning 'The Auld Triangle' by Brendan Behan. Alternately, there's the first set of sessions in 1974 for 'Blood On The Tracks', that famously intense record. Fans will argue that the New York sessions were more articulate and revealing, but Dylan thought otherwise and re-recorded the project in Minneapolis. But you can check out some of the early versions on various Bob compilations and his first encounter with 'Tangled Up In Blue' is shockingly strong. Shame that the buttons on his sleeve clatter against the guitar throughout the song, but that's also part of the trainspotter legend.
BBC Radio Ulster, 92-95 FM
Mondays, ten - midnight
Blur - To The End (Parlophone)
Devendra Banhart - Foolin (Warner)
Pocket Billiards - Belfast Town (white)
Pocket Billiards - Don't Touch My Soca (white)
Fred Neil - Everybody's Talking (Revola)
Piney Gir - For the Love Of Others (Damaged Goods)
Tom Waits - Get Behind The Mule (live) (Anti)
Iain Archer - Streamer On A Kite (iainarcher)
Devendra Banhart - Angelika (Warner)
Dan Arbose - Feet In The Sea Head In The Stars (Just Music)
Second hour great lost albums with Reggie Chamberlain King
Beach Boys - Heroes & Villains (Alternate Take)
Prefab Sprout I Love Music (Kitchenware)
Prince - Shockadelica (Warner)
The Velvet Underground - Stephanie Says (Verve)
Bob Dylan - Tangled Up In Blue (New York version) (Columbia)
Daryll Hall & Robert Fripp - Something in 4/4 Time (Buddha)
Jimi Hendrix - Drifting (MCA)
The Who - Pure & Easy (Polydor)
The Beatles - The Long And Winding Road (naked) (Parlophone)
Elton John - Are You Ready For Love (Southern Fried)
Andy White was at the Black Box in Belfast the other night, reading parts of his new book, 21st Century Troubadour. There were snapshots of Canadian folk festivals and accounts of the benign tedium of the touring life. But the piece that really swung it was a list of the excuses that German promoters use to explain the lack of an audience at the gig.
It was funny, but clearly informed by some wretched nights and flakey individuals. You could visualise the tumbleweeds on the dancefloor and the hackneyed lines about the weather being too cold or too warm, about Radiohead playing across town or a festival in the next city. Apparently the stock of Celtic strummers rises and plummets like some rogue currency and you wouldn't want to compete with a Corrs promotional shebang, next door, on the same night.
Anyone who has promoted gigs for fun or even for a livelihood will recognise the deeps of anxiety that accompany a slow box office. Much of the time, a bit of enthusiastic promotions and a nose for the local music scene will deliver a reasonable turn-out. At worse, you can badger friends and family, or at worst, 'paper' the gig with free tickets. That's always a risky option because some guy who has actually paid into the gig may realise that he's in a tiny minority.
But concert promotion is never going to be a science and that's one reason why many promoters are often eccentric fellows. If a gig hasn't sold upfront, there's the chance of a dramatic 'walk-up', when the punters may materialize in great numbers, at the last moment. Or they may not. It may depend on random issues such as the X Factor results, a beer promotion, payday or cult following.
Back in his semi-credible days, Leo Sayer wrote a song called 'The Last Gig Of Johnny B Goode'. It was the downside of the rock and roll myth, the night when the crowd doesn't rock. There's a line in it which suggest that "we should have booked the audience, rather than booked the band", which still resonates. I'm thinking about this as I bump into a promoter on Hill Street, who has a gig on later that night. He stammers about the credit crunch and the awful straits of live music. In the optimistic jargon of his trade, "tickets are still available". Which means that he's not sold any. I see the pain in his face and explain that actually, I have a pressing engagement across town...
If you were quick off the mark, you might have secured some gratis tickets for Friday's top gig in Belfast. It's part of the Raw Money series which inspired our 'Hard Times' playlist earlier in the year. The premise, as I understand it, is that by sharing older songs about credit problems that you come to a better understanding of the current anxieties. Allied to this is the chance to speak with financial experts and to learn more about personal money management.
The upside is that this Friday's gig will also go out online, via the BBC NI website. Which means that from 8pm, you can still see Foy Vance, Ram's Pocket Radio, Pocket Promise, Captain Kennedy, Here Comes The Landed Gentry and more. It's a commendably bold idea that will involve Rigsy and Paul from ATL plus presenter Sarah McGlinchey, all winging it with style. I also hear that some mad combo is planning to perform the theme tune to Only Fools And Horses ....
How can you dislike Bob Dylan? His later years have been filled with mirth, broadcasting cheer, some quietly intense records, those barmy chronicles, and now a Christmas album. And what a silly record it is, too. The backing tracks sound like they're rented off a karaoke machine, the songs are worn flat with familiarity, and the sleigh bell player is on overtime.
And yet I found myself grinning throughout. Bob chuckles like a guy who doesn't have to do this at all, My guess is that his work is subject to so much analysis that there's a freedom in being daft. And I don't know if the Zimmerman family ever threw a party on December 25, but there's a loose nostalgia here also. Meantime the phrasing is off the scale, the vocal chords seem to function at random and the inner artwork includes a Betty Page figure, getting foxy in a winter wonderland. Cosmic.
The Cure - Inbetweendays (Fiction)
Mumford And Sons - Winter Winds (Island)
Bob Dylan - Winter Wonderland (Columbia)
Paul Curreri - Down By The Water (Tin Angel)
Regina Spektor - Eet (Sire)
Ash - True Love 1980 (Atomic Heart)
Rickie Lee Jones - Wild Girl (Fantasy)
Chuck E Weiss - Fake Dance (Cooking Vinyl)
Slim Harpo - Strange Love (Righteous)
Martha Wainwright - Adieu Mon Coeur (coop)
Choir Of Young Believers - Why Must It always Be This Way (Ghostly International)
Madness - My Girl (Salvo)
Pocket Billiards - Don't Touch My Soca (white)
Bob Dylan - Here Comes Santa Claus (Columbia)
Erin Mc Keown - Santa Cruz (Righteous Babe)
Edwin Collins - You'll Never Know (Heavenly)
Spiritualized -Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space (Sony)
Panama Kings - Judas (white)
Lisa Hannigan - Lili (live) (EMI)
J Tillman - A Year In The Kingdom (Bella Union)
Richard Hawley - Ashes On The Fire (Mute)
Mantler - Childman (Tin Angel)
Willie Nelson - Baby Its Cold Outside (Blue Note)
Cold Cave - Death Comes Close (Matador)