31 January 2010

THE HOT RATS - TURN ONS

Listen to this: In an age when most covers albums are recorded out of either contractual obligation or creative bankruptcy, Turns Ons, the exuberant debut by Supergrass spin-off the Hot Rats actually sounds like it was created for the sheer fun of it.

Featuring 12 tracks that cram roughly 20 years of rock and roll history into just over 30 minutes, it's essentially a fuzzed up love letter to Gaz Coombes' and Danny Goffey's influences, cranked up to 11 and spitting out sparks. The source of the material (The Kinks, Bowie, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols) isn't all that surprising and there's not much here that will be mistaken for innovative, but the gusto with which Coombes, Goffey and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich attack old favorites like "Pump it Up" and "Queen Bitch" more than makes up for any lack of originality.

Still, the highlights are the songs transformed the most: "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" re-casts Beastie Boys' bratrock anthem as The Who circa 1967, while "The Lovecats" by The Cure is injected with the raucous rhythm of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" and Gang of Four's angular "Damaged Goods" is carefully stripped down to rumbling bass and raw acoustic guitar. Best of all, the more atmospheric production applied to the kitchen sink drama of Squeeze's "Up the Junction" elevates the Difford & Tilbrook's classic into a genuinely affecting lament.

Considering that the highest compliment one can usually pay a covers album is to say it's not bad, Turn Ons is something of an unexpected joy.

30 January 2010

ON THE TOWN

29 January 2010

WHEN YOU'RE YOUNG

Here's an essay on the Sixties written by Paul Weller back in the early '80s, not long before he split up The Jam. I think it was originally published in a long out of print book called Cool Cats: 25 Years of Rock 'n' Roll Style. I wonder what the young man who wrote this would make of his 52-year-old counterpart today?

THE TOTAL LOOK
by Paul Weller

In general you can't put a value on style because it's so personal. Perhaps that's its appeal. It's like a million people telling me that Picasso was a genius; well, I think he was shite and that a French Small Faces EP cover can piss all over any of his paintings. So to understand my involvement with the '60s, you have to realise that it's made up from this "style," and that it can't be viewed or judged alongside anything else. Its influence on me is total, but not blinding.
My interest is with the style years – the Total Look – from 1963 to 1967. It covers a whole range, from the early Mod(ernists) to swinging young dandies and up until the hedonistic hippies. It's a purely aesthetic and quite possibly superficial interest; very rarely does it extend past clothes, music, films and books. Politicians are politicians, they're all the same eternal scum as far as I'm concerned. So I've no interest in '60s economics or politics; save for, perhaps, the student riots of 1968 when it seemed the whole (young) world caught fire. Their intentions and radicalism are laudable, but I can't help feeling it was another luxury in the hands of the middle classes.

It's also these once young radicals that have clogged up a lot of channels for today's working class youth. I suppose I'm talking primarily about music, TV and the media in general; but it has been these old bastards who won't get out the way for the new generations, and this has caused a bottleneck. Anyway, I don't mean to knock them too much; I doubt if I would have the bottle to shove a flower down a gun barrel, if bottle is indeed the quality in question. I first became interested in the early '60s Mods in late 1974. I can't properly remember how or why. I think it was possibly through seeing a photograph of a group, and I also remember a couple of letters in the New Musical Express from some original Mods who described their lifestyle at the time. In any case it interested me deeply and I tried to find out more about it. The most important aspect was the music of the '70s: I hated all of it, until the glorious, liberating Sex Pistols in 1976!

Before them it was all the clutching-at-straws glam bollocks; all the soft nonsense, Philly "soul," and the terrible MOR stuff. Bowie and Bolan were okay, but I even lost interest in them after their third or fourth LPs.

Instead, I went back and listened to the early R&B, R&R and soul records, and The Beatles who I had always been a fan of anyway. I think it was the stylessness and bland facelessness of the '70s that induced my '60s obsessions. There was nothing to be part of, you know, nothing to base myself on (and I am talking pre-punk remember).

At the time we – The Jam – were still playing Chuck Berry songs and the obligatory R&R standards with which we were rapidly becoming bored. I saw that through becoming a Mod it would give me a base and an angle to write from, and this we eventually did. We went out and bought black suits and started playing Motown, Stax and Atlantic covers. I bought a Rickenbacher guitar, a Lambretta GP 150 and tried to style my hair like Steve Marriott's circa '66. I felt so individual and arrogant because of it. It was like my own little esoteric world, people stared and thought I looked strange. It was exactly the same effect The Sex Pistols had on me and my mates after we saw them in '76. Oh, the blase arrogance the day after in the local pub! "You've never seen them?" "You've never heard of The Sex Pistols or Johnny Rotten?!" They were ours, our own private little group which all the uncool people had never heard of! Well, that's the same feeling I had about the Mods. Most kids my age had never heard of Mods, or, at the most, could barely remember them. Like some mythical beast from the Dark Ages. My own crusade!

If it's facts or chronological fashion changes you want, you need only look at the photos. They say everything about the '60s: One picture of Steve Marriott or a 19-year-old Pete Townshend says it all! Well, these pictures spoke to me (they still do actually), and I conjured up my own image of what the Mods were about. I saw them as clean, smart, working class, arrogant, anti-authoritarian with absolutely no respect for their elders.

The whole image is C-O-O-L: dancing into the small hours, blocked, finger clickin' to J.B. and the Famous Flames, even smokin' to Bluebeat! Shopping on Saturday morning in Carnaby Street or watching Pete Townshend smash all that "valuable" equipment. It's this imagery that appeals to me. It's also this very same imagery that made the 1979 Mod revival seem like an anachronism. Prats like Ian Page, a once failed Punk Star who then tried his hand at Mod, told the lads that punk was dead and had never lived up to its promises anyway, and the only way to win in the rat race was by joining the bastards in their own game! What? It was the complete antithesis of the original '60s Mod movement. They didn't want to join in anyone's fucking game, they played their own and made their own rules; if you didn't like it you could f-f-f-fade away!

The '79 revival was also a little saddening and cheapening for the kids involved, it just seemed so desperate, these young working class kids trying their best to dress up and look the part while all around their environment was crumbling. So, perhaps they did get that part right: after all, was it not Mod mentor and The Who's first manager, Pete Meadon who described Mod as "clean living under difficult circumstances?" People are always telling me about the disparity between Mod and Punk, but it's something I could never (and still can't) see. The Modernists created their own scene just as Punk did (albeit with an entrepreneurial helping hand from Malcolm McLaren). Both movements came from the kids themselves and relied on no one else for support (Mod particularly, I think). They created their own clubs, music, lifestyles and clothes shops.

In fact, the first time I went to the 100 Club in London's Oxford Street, it seemed as if I was walking onto a '60s film set. Troggs and Kinks records were blaring up the stairs. The Clash clanged out their tinny Kinks-derivative riffs. Short hair! Individual looking kids! The Pistols' noisy garage band racket and Rotten's youthful amphetamined arrogance. I loved it! It was so YOUNG and EXCITING, and of course, there were NO FLARES – one of the most hideous fashion creations ever!

It's fantastic when kids create their own scenes, but as with anything once its popularity spreads and, more importantly, the media get hold of it, that's it! You might as well kiss it goodbye. The media have killed so much young spirit with their crass commercialism that it's sickening. They did the same with the original Mod movement – throwing together Sunday supplements on the club scene and so attracting the bright young things from Chelsea. (Well, who else reads the Sunday supplements?)

I saw the very same thing happen to Punk, especially at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden. All those ageing, middle class wankers in their £30 bondage trousers. Oh, how outrageous darling, showing a glimpse of freshly washed nipple. And whaaat? Two girls kissing!

The other side of the media, the prole papers, attracted the other Mod, the moron element, certain to eliminate any promising young scene. It was this lot who started the boring Mod versus Rockers seaside riots in the '60s. It was nothing at all to do with the real Modernists and stylists who wouldn't have anything to do with anything so crass and vulgar, and quite rightly they turned their backs on the new moronic Mod interlopers... "It was as though we were taking over the country."

Yes, mate, that's just what "they" wanted you to think. Where are you now, in the nick or raving with the wife? That's not a criticism on my part; it's a game the establishment always plays with youth: it goes on for a while, they let you think you're winning, but they turn the tables at the last moment – or is it that we just get bored?

Perhaps the last real surviving link with the original Mods is the wonderful Northern Soul Scene. A couple of my mates were into Northern Soul and I remember them taking me to an all-nighter. These lads ain't there to pose or fight, they have one purpose - to dance and enjoy themselves. Hedonists maybe, but with a real dedication. They still play a lot of the early Mod soul sounds and obscure soul stuff. The clothes are quite different, but you're nearly always bound to see a few beautifully decorated scooters outside. Long may you spin, jump and back-flip and finish off with Dean Parrish!

By 1965 the real Mod movement was dying except in a few provincial towns and up North. As for London, where it all started after all, it had been taken over by the young jet set. Britain was now moving into its Swinging Sixties period.

A few batches of Mods battled on bravely, just like zombies silently marching towards their Mecca (ballroom) in the shape of Brighton or Margate every Bank Holiday. It makes me think of a song I never got round to finishing called, "The Last of the Scooter Boys." Sad, eh?

While the scene became diluted and commercial, taken over by entrepreneurs and such like, I still think the '65/'66 period produced some of the best music ever and some of the greatest clothes styles. Mod had had a vast effect on the bands, who'd actually copied the kids' way of dress rather than vice versa.

Where would The Who be now if they had never been in contact with Mod? Townshend has always gone to great lengths to explain the influence Mod had on him. Small Faces, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Marc Bolan – all of them came out of the Mod scene.

But by 1965 big business had taken the reins again and were peddling fashions back to the kids, while the bands were becoming more and more outrageous, using contrived styles of clothes only as gimmicks. The Who adopted their questionable pop-art clobber (and music!); The Creation, who copied them, took their action art canvases on stage. Even more so in 1966, there were bands like The Move from Birmingham projecting a gangster look and sound. And what are we still seeing today? Every band on the BBC's weekly TV show Top of the Pops have got themselves a Total Image: Stray Cats, Spandau Ballet, Adam And The Ants; except none of it is new, it's been done and done and done, time and time again.

After all, what is revivalism? For me it's just another word for people clutching at straws, looking for another opening to squeeze through. And the same can be said of the '65/'66 period with its fashions and clothes.

Whereas the Mods were original, the Swinging Sixties era was a hotchpotch of styles – the old, if-you-throw-enough-shit-at-the-wall-some-of-it-has-gotta-stick syndrome. Mind you, that might be a bit of an over-reaction on my part; perhaps it was just this (comparatively) affluent generation looking for laughs.

Whatever, this particular period heralded Britain as the centre of youth culture, ornamented with Union Jacks clocks, socks, trays and shirts. "I'm backing Britain," the badges read, without the least hint of jingoism (see, patriotism can be fun!). It was all done with a sense of frivolity, almost as if Harold Wilson himself (for it was he) not only approved of the young's actions but wholeheartedly encouraged it, what with the Fab Four getting MBEs and all.

But I'm still not sure whether this picture of the '60s is the real one or the one I've been conditioned into imagining with too many re-runs of the 1966 movie, Blow Up. But the badges and MBEs definitely existed.

The real and positive side of this period was that the young were given more control in certain areas, like the theatre, films, music, literature. And although this might be hard to swallow, young DJs also became a major influence on British radio for the first time. When pirate ships were outlawed in 1967, the government was forced to create the first official youth oriented radio station, Radio One, and employ many of the former pirate DJs.

George Melly wrote in great detail about the late '50s and early '60s in his retrospective, Revolt into Style (Penguin). It's worth getting hold of if you want to know more about the Swinging London club scene, though like another '60s youth culture book, Generation X, it's far too clinical and obviously written by an "outsider" to be that accurate. But the significance of these books was that for the first time people were actually taking young people seriously and desperately trying to analyse them.

By 1966, having had a couple of years to assimilate the British musical invasion – spearheaded by The Beatles and followed by a whole bunch of marketable commodities when the Fab Britain Fever gripped the States – America exported its own groups and scene back to the UK. Along with The Byrds, Grateful Dead, Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane and the rest, came acid, mysticism, free-thinking and bohemianism. Peace and love were (and still are) admirable sentiments... but if they have to be induced by drugs, what's the fucking point?

Compared to the so-called British underground groups, the Americans were crap. It was just blues speeded up, extended with tedious guitar soloing with a few "Far outs!" in-between. Howlin' Wolf with headbands!

In any case, the centre of the new youth culture switched from Britain and London's Carnaby Street to America and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury area – which is still there, full of clapped-out, filthy degenerates, still saying peace and love man, then asking you to show how much you love them by donating a couple of bucks for their junk habits.

The advent of the hippies' scene, which had been growing underground since 1965, tended to polarise fashion and musical styles; it seemed there was either pop or there was "serious' music." In their day the Mods had shown the same kind of elitism and hate of commerciality, but perhaps not quite as dogmatically as those in the underground who even turned their backs on soul music!

Another similarity was that the media again grabbed their chance of yet more sensationalism at the expense of the hippies with lurid descriptions of their sex, fashion and lifestyles, thus attracting more sharks ready with their instant kaftans, love beads and joss sticks. 1967 was the summer of love, and all that entailed.

The nucleaus of the British underground movement was mainly organised by the art college mob and the middle class quasi-activists, with new bands like The Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Hendrix inspired and gave fashion credibility to the Afro hairstyle. (And will he ever be forgiven?) Weirdness found an identity with the Floyd's mentor and original guitarist Syd Barrett, as much a bizarre dresser as personality.

Another group whose records symbolise the flippancy and superficiality of the hippie period were John's Children, at one time featuring Marc Bolan. Their records were all about flowers, young girls and sex; all very Beardsley and decadent-evil. And I always see the style of 1967 along the same lines as the 1920s – the affluent, hedonistic society, going at such a fast pace. In fact, all of the '60s seem to have been lived at a furious speed, with styles, attitudes and music all changing so rapidly.

So here ends my interest. As someone once said to me, you need only look at the pictures of The Beatles from '63 to '69 to note all the changes. In '63 they were fresh faced, optimistic youths; in '67 they were expanding their minds, young men in search of knowledge; by the end of the decade they were hardened, disillusioned old men.

I feel no pity nor respect really: You pay your money, you take your choice. But now it seems that the attitudes towards young people are regressing to those pre-'56: They're being swept back under the rug.

In reality the rug never went away in the '60s, they just took it to the cleaners for a while.

28 January 2010

GONE FOR GOOD

J.D. Salinger made his way out of this world yesterday at the age of 91. He left behind a small handful of published work and an almost unparalleled commitment to privacy: The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, a couple dozen short stories, and then nearly six decades of silence. There were some lawsuits over the years and there were a couple memoirs – one by a former lover, another by his daughter – but remarkably, once Salinger left Manhattan for the more secluded confines of New Hampshire, he withdrew from public life and never looked back.

If you haven't read any of the obituaries yet, that's a reasonably fair summary of what they're saying. Some focus a bit more on the tremendous importance of The Catcher in the Rye, others on the supposedly sensational aspects of his personal life. (Sample lurid tidbit: His daughter claims he bottled and drank his own piss.) None have portrayed his uncompromising attitude towards his own privacy as something to be admired.

In his own time, Salinger was merely regarded as "enigmatic," but given the nature of the non-stop information cabaret we live in today, the very notion of a literary recluse must seem positively bewildering. After all, what could be more preposterous than rejecting fame when the success of everything from reality TV to social networking phenomena like Twitter is built upon the desire for attention at any cost? Celebrities of a certain stripe invariably complain about lack of privacy, but not a one of them are so put out they'd actually swap fame for a normal life. Holden Caufield had a word for people like that: phonies.

Without undervaluing Salinger's contribution to American literature, I think it's his courage and integrity we should be celebrating. He continued writing long after he'd retreated from public view, he just focused on a different audience: himself. In doing so, he no doubt wrote what he wanted, the way he wanted, with no concern for whatever random expectations his readers or his critics might have placed upon him. In short, he lived his life the way he wanted, and as strange as it seems in this all-access age of rough drafts and demos and director commentaries, anything less would have been a goddamn lie.