Saturday, 7 September 2013

Bread and circuses

God only knows why, but tonight I sat down to eat my delicious dinner, switched on the TV, and found myself watching the steaming pile of shite which is "The X Factor UK." I should've switched to something else immediately (eventually I settled on an unwatched DVD, the excellent documentary "Blank City"), but for some unknown reason, I stuck with it for a few minutes. One hopeless middle-aged Scotsman and one very promising teenage singer-songwriter from Middlesbrough later, there appeared on my screen this man, Colin Stacey.

I recognised him immediately, not only because I've seen him several times recently on the streets of East Dulwich, where we both live, but, more to the point, because we lived across the street from each other for a decade.

Once upon a time, in a different life, I owned a house on the decent part of Upland Road in fashionable SE22, and Colin Stacey lived just across the road, a couple of doors down. He lived with his elderly parents, and seemed to dutifully drive off to some job, somewhere, every day, sporting short hair, a suit, and a briefcase, and always talking to himself incessantly (though inaudibly - maybe he was singing). I never got to know him, because in the many times I passed him on the street, he didn't give the impression that he was particularly open to expanding his social circle.

Now, in 2013, he appears with long hair, a stud in his ear, as a minicab dispatcher with a passion for singing. And unfortunately, no musical talent.

Not that this should matter to the predatory producers of "The X Factor UK." Their sole agenda is to deliver this year's crop of disposable musical heroes, punctuated by a plethora of possibly deluded, almost certainly troubled, and undeniably freakish, audition victims, which the judges, themselves ghastly caricatures of humanity such as Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, can snigger at.

I think that most people watching the show dismiss all this as an abstraction. It's just some fat loser from Birmingham who has no business in show business, or some sweet, but tone-deaf, no-hoper from Liverpool, who should really just focus on his job as a quantity surveyor. What hit me tonight was the fact that I have observed this man first-hand for many years, and I think he's probably vulnerable. I wonder if he realises he's a figure of public ridicule across a country of 61m people tonight, and how that would make him feel if he knew it.

This is a truly insidious industry, in that Cowell and his minions would, no doubt, only argue that someone like poor Colin ended up on the show because he signed up to audition. Therefore they are innocent. But the mere existence of an audition in this desperate and star-struck economy will inevitably draw all sorts of desperate and hopeless candidates. There's certainly no artistic grounds to show this on TV, and the very fact that it's available to "go viral" on the programme's YouTube channel within an hour of broadcast is a very pointed indication of what exactly is at work here.

So, what's next? Paraplegic children, thrust onto the floor from their wheelchairs, singing "Crawling from the Wreckage," while Ashley Banjo and his crew street dance inventively around their writhing bodies? Maybe Cowell can find a modern equivalent of Joseph Merrick, but with a beautiful voice? Or maybe one of the humiliated tops himself once he realises he's been played like a violin on national television. Cruel and exploitative. I'm afraid it's a "No" from me.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

¡Viva la musica Norteña!

Though I call myself a Memphibian, it is not by birth. My family comes from Texas originally - indeed almost all my extended family still lives there - and I was born in Fort Worth and lived in Arlington until 1970. We then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for four years, before moving to Memphis. One set of my grandparents lived in the (then) overwhelmingly white northeast Texas, not far from the Louisiana/Arkansas border (the "Ark-La-Tex"), and the other set lived in Fort Worth, which had a significant Latino presence.

Back in the 1970's and early '80's, when we would make fairly frequent trips down to Texas at Christmas time and in the summer vacations, one thing I would look forward to was switching on KTVT, Channel 11, in Fort Worth (which was just around the corner from my grandparents' house, and I thus imagined that the signals were coming directly from there) early on a Saturday evening, and seeing mariachi and Norteño groups performing in the studio, on very low-budget music shows. And there were radio stations which played nothing but cumbias, rancheras, polkas, and all the other styles associated with this music. I remember beach holidays in and around Galveston where I would entertain myself out on the breezy deck at night (this was lonnnnng before the advent of the internet or satellite TV) with my radio, scanning up and down for Mexican stations, and immersing myself in hours of accordion fuelled musical revelry.

This felt very exotic to me, as Memphis, at that point in history, had a Hispanic population which could be counted on the fingers of one hand (this is no longer the case). I thought at the time, and I still do today, that I could listen to this music every day and never tire of it. And there is no better representative, in my book, than Flaco Jimenez, featured in performance in San Antonio (where my Fort Worth grandparents were from) in this segment from the excellent documentary which follows. 

Friday, 30 August 2013

Cruel Summer

I certainly have been very neglectful of my blogs recently, but work and life sometimes just have to override all else. It was just this time last year that I unveiled a project, which I called "About a Girl," which involved my recording 14 songs in 14 days, alone, all written (or co-written) by female songwriters. I had various reasons for doing this, and it was a huge challenge. Just selecting the material was tough, and then there was trying to work out interesting approaches to each song, and then finding a way to execute them, all under self-imposed time pressure. It was a real journey of discovery, and a year later, I'm still very pleased with the result, despite the fact that some of it sounds sloppy and ragged in places. I feel as though I've learned more about how to record effectively with my primitive set-up (GarageBand for iPad), and that the things I do today sound better.

Anyway, at the time, a close friend urged me to continue with the project, make it open-ended, and try to build a live performance around it. I didn't follow his advice (perhaps I should have), but went on to record other things, though I have played some songs from that project live. Now, a year later, and in the same late summer doldrums which inspired the first project, I have resumed the quest, albeit without the self-imposed deadline or any other constraints. I'm just trying to discover interesting material and find a unique way to present it, as and when. I have plenty of interesting stuff on my list of to-do's. Here's what I've done so far.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Swim and Sleep

I like this Ruban Nielson song a lot (well, I like all his stuff a lot), and one day I woke up thinking it might be interesting to try it in 6/8, with more of a sort of gospel feel to it, so that's what I did.

Cambodia 2013

I've ended up working on a project in Cambodia, which I've been fortunate enough to visit twice in the past month. It's an incredible place, and I've come away from my visits feeling pretty deeply affected by it. I find it hard to explain, but the feeling I've had upon returning home both times is one of appreciation for being alive, and for the life I have. Now, for some photos.

Scenes from London life


Archive recordings

I've finally made good on a threat I made some time ago - to transcribe a bunch of old cassettes I've had lying around for years. Some of them are more than 30 years old, and I'm astonished they still play at all. Contained herein are some early recordings I made with my friend, and eventual band mate, Mark Edwards, the first recordings we made with Linda Heck, some live and studio stuff by our first band, Pseudobop (1982 - 84), Kings of the Western Bop (1984), some live tracks from our friends Shagnasty (1984), Linda Heck and the Train Wreck (1987 - 88), some four-track recordings I made of The Marilyns (1988) and a live radio broadcast by The Grundies (1992). Unleash the lo-fi!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New York - Wimborne

Well, the Adrian Belew video I posted earlier took me right down the rabbit hole, and I emerged on the other side to find this 30-minute documentary about his musical foil, Robert Fripp. Also features a cameo from Andy Summers, during their short-lived "I Advance Masked" collaboration.

Adrian Belew: History & Future of Guitar Noise

One of the most unique guitarists in the history of the instrument, talking guitar history and sound techniques. A very entertaining hour, if you've got one to spare.

Monday, 8 April 2013


In case you missed it, Margaret Thatcher died today. I didn't live in the UK during her reign, but since I arrived here nearly 18 years ago, I've been consistently overwhelmed by the depth of enmity with which she is regarded, even by people I would consider to be fairly normal, certainly not political radicals in any sense of the word. It's a genuinely unique talent to be able to divide a country so definitively for over three decades, to the point of generating public jubilation at one's demise. While many of us from the same generation in the US obviously had disdain for Reaganism at the time, it could never approach the virulence of enduring hatred I have sensed towards Maggie in the UK. Economic history will decide whether she did more good than bad, but from an artistic perspective, she undeniably inspired a huge amount of great work, and this is the greatest example I can think of. I was captivated by this song when I first heard it, and when I saw Elvis on tour supporting this album, this piece was the show-stopper, hands down. Plus, the album version was my introduction to Chet Baker, for which I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

New Day

A new video (shot by Price Harrison) from the new album by my friend Mark Harrison (a.k.a. "Snakehips"), who was kind enough to give me a lift home from a wedding reception back in January in Memphis. He is a great guy, and it was a fun ride. I really like the Bucksnort, Tennessee, reference here, though it's almost certainly lost on anyone who has never driven between Memphis and Nashville.

Snakehips "New Day" from Price Harrison on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


I've been thinking for some time of covering a Madonna song, and narrowly avoided doing so on last summer's runaway smash success trans-gender project. There's so much in her work that is crying out for subversion/perversion/inversion, but "Borderline" has always really been my favourite. Until I settled on this song and began researching it, I had been completely unaware of the Reggie Lucas connection (which, sweetly, leads us to Mtume and Miles Davis - isn't life grand?). Anyway, one morning recently, I was lying in bed, less-than-half awake, and in my sleep-addled brain, somehow I formed a connection between this song and Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over."

One Sock Missing

Dang! Turn your back for just a moment, and suddenly it's the 20th anniversary of a classic album. The Grifters were either feeling very charitable, or possibly masochistic, when they invited me and a few other primitive/non-horn players to perform on the bonus track (or "bogus track"), "I Arise." Hardly my finest recorded moment, but I do remember it was a fun evening in the back room of the flower shop at Poplar and Mendenhall where Dave Shouse worked as a delivery driver, and where the Grifters rehearsed and recorded. And it was such a nice and talented group of people in that room that night, even if the "Skronkadelic Orchestra Unlimited" didn't cover itself in glory.

I'm reliably told that, in honor of the 20th anniversary of this seminal gem, an individual video for each track on the album has been/is being produced, and here's the first, "Bummer." I miss the Grifters.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Let's Go Back to Bed

A good candidate for universal theme song of the recently unemployed, and I speak from personal experience.

In Memphis, no one can hear you scream

I was a huge sci-fi fan as a child and a young man, but nothing could have prepared me for the release of "Alien." It's one of those films which has been so influential that those who can't remember a time before "Alien" couldn't possibly appreciate just how shockingly different it was at the time. (It even inspired The Clash to appropriate the film's tag line, etching "In space... no one can hear you Clash!" on the inner groove of the "Sandinista!" album.) I saw it with my parents, at either the Paramount or Park Theaters (both of which are long gone) in Memphis, on its first release. My dad was so shocked and scared by the "chest-burster" scene that he hit the floor of the cinema and stayed there until he was convinced the coast was clear. We still laugh about it today. This is an interesting documentary on how the film came into being, though, as with so many great works, it sounds as though there was also every chance that it either wouldn't have been made, or would have been made badly. Imagine a world without this beautiful and terrifying vision of the future.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Rock in Peace, Mick Cock

At the risk of sounding like a boring old git (which, by the way, I am), I think it's entirely true to say that life brings a lot of revelations as one gets older. Some have to do with decisions made which could have been better, others with roads not taken, still others with the often sizeable gaps between what we think we need in life and what we really need, and some with people we should have gotten to know better. The latter seems to be a particularly relevant theme in my own life, and the passing of time, and of a friend, only underlines this. Sometimes we don't have the time, sometimes we don't make the time, and all too often life pulls us in different directions, despite our better judgement.

Today, in Memphis, Michael Cupp, a.k.a. Mick Cock, left this world after losing a hard-fought battle with liver disease. To those who knew him, or his work, I don't need to explain anything. For the other people reading this humble bloglet, the best analogy I could make would probably be a three-way head-on collision between Iggy Pop, George Clinton and a redneck bastard child of Frank Zappa. Even that description is a massive disservice to him.

With the various bands Mike (he was first introduced to me as Mike, and that's how I always knew him) fronted over the years (the ones known to me are Cock Rock [so far ahead of the curve for Memphis, I can't even begin to describe], Four Neat Guys [in which I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times], Eraserhead, Voodoo Village People [the name a brilliant portmanteau of The Village People and the misunderstood Voodoo Village community in Memphis], Florescent Butt Jam, The Menstruls [a drag band in which I was the drummer on one or two occasions], and Whateverdude), there was always a common thread of spectacle, genre satire, self-deprecation, and fairly gentle mockery of others. Some found it offensive at times, but it was never malicious. I tend to think of Mike as court jester, satirizing everyone and everything around him, but typically placing himself in the most absurd context possible.

However, what I observed about Mike's work was that it was always done with the utmost passion and attention. Even though I only played with him a handful of times in the mid-80s and early 90s, my recollection is that he was the first "amateur" or "primitive" musician I ever played with who impressed me as having a genuine sense of professionalism and confidence. As I noted in my post on the Four Neat Guys, whenever Mike was in the mix, the band sounded much better, more together, with greater drive. He wasn't flashy, or pushy, but upon reflection, I think he understood (even at that young age) that he was a natural and extremely charismatic performer, with a very solid musical talent. His sense of humor spoke for itself, as it will now forever, beyond the grave.

Apart from all the obvious reasons to mourn Mike's passing, I have another. In the autumn/early winter of 2009, I was in a bad place emotionally. My marriage had ended, I was living apart from my kids for the first time, I had taken a sizeable financial hit, and my career was in the throes of the financial collapse (as well as a bit of my own lack of judgement). We had become friends on Facebook at some point I can't recall, but I hadn't actually seen him since the early 90s. One day, for some reason still not clear to me, I got an instant message from Mike on Facebook, engaging me in conversation.

Though we'd known each other socially for years in a fairly superficial way, as a function of playing together sporadically, we'd never really had anything resembling a serious conversation, that I could recall. Yet, in 2009, he was on Facebook instant messaging, asking how I was doing, because, for whatever reason, he was concerned. I explained the situation, and where my head was at. He was entirely sympathetic and was similarly open and transparent about the impact of losing his beloved wife Sylvia, and raising their son, Jarek, on his own. He expressed very poignantly how much he loved Jarek, how proud he was of him, and how close the two of them were. And he was reassuring in his message to me, to stay positive and focus on the people and things I loved, and the things in life which I could actually control.

This was all a bit of a revelation for me, because, in my limited exposure to Mike, I'd always thought of him as someone who tended to deflect things through his sense of humor. Maybe that was the case. I will never know, because I didn't know him well, and that's a regret I feel deeply right now. However, at that moment (in truth, it was a number of IM sessions over a few occasions), his kind words and concern, and the strength he'd found in enduring his crisis, gave me a source of strength. Yes, I had very close friends and family around me, doing and saying wonderful things in my time of need; however, in this case, here was a person who had no real investment in me, still reaching out to see if I was okay, and offering what he could by way of consolation.

I was moved at the time, and I am very moved now, and full of regret that I didn't get to know this man better when we were both much younger, let alone alive. I told him that I was due to play a "comeback" show, with Linda Heck and posse, on New Year's Day, in Memphis. This was New Year's Day, 2010, and not only did he come to the show, but he brought me a Whateverdude t-shirt and handed it to me between sets. We had a brief chat, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

I offer my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, collaborators, and fans.

  Gift from Mick Cock

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Scenes from London life


GBV @ Oyafestivalen, Oslo, 2011

I've linked to a couple of segments from this in a previous post, as it features my ex-patriate Memphibian friend Vanessa, and her husband Gavin, if only briefly. A few days ago, the whole show suddenly appeared online. This is a genuinely good set, and an interesting document. The sound is better than usual in the numerous audience videos, being a TV broadcast, and it's interesting to see a band accustomed to playing two or three hour shows having to adjust to a tightly-managed 60-minute slot, paring the set list down to (apparently) the material they feel most strongly about. The playing is also very solid and together all around (though Kevin Fennell's face suggests he is fighting for his life), as is Bob Pollard's performance. It occurs to me that 60 minutes isn't quite long enough for anyone to get drunk enough for things to really deteriorate as they might in longer shows.

Friday, 22 February 2013


I'm really looking forward to seeing these guys at their London gig in a couple of weeks. Sam and Eric (who is from Memphis) were in Shrimp Boat, with whom the Grundies did some very enjoyable gigs in Memphis and Chicago back in 1992. They were exceptionally gracious hosts in their communal living space in Chicago, and I have very fond memories of that time. Somewhere, buried in my archives, is a nice version of a Shrimp Boat song called "Showboat," which bears no relation to The Sea and Cake song of the same title, with me playing tenor sax badly, recorded at their rehearsal space, on that trip. Which is another way of saying, please enjoy this completely unrelated piece of very fine music and film.

Jello and Juggernauts

Yeah, I know this song is from a 2011 album, and that the band has an excellent new album out, which I also own and love. But, I was in town today for an interesting meeting in the morning, and afterwards, I wandered around Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill in the cold and indifferent snow flurries (because I was already there, not because I wanted to be there), listening to this song several times in a row, with a smile on my face. So there.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Transformed Dub

I don't quite know quite why or how, but it hit me recently that my dear friend Linda Heck's song "Transformed" might make a nice candidate for a dub treatment (I also have a spoken-word "William Shatner" version in reserve). This was fun to make, and she seems to like it.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Stranger in Town

This is a cover of a song by my friend Mark Harrison, who is the founder (and, I believe, sole regular member) of Snakehips. It appeared on his first album, from 1993, called "Lit," and it's always been one of my favourites by him. I'd been thinking of covering it for some time, but I didn't just want it to be a recreation of his version, and one day it hit me that something along the lines of Little Feat might be an interesting context. So that's what I did.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Universal Truths and Cycles

The world is full of universal truths. One such universal truth is that everyone will be made (or be found to be) redundant (in some sense of the word) at some point in their lives. And everyone knows that things come in cycles, including redundancy. As of yesterday, I am in the third wave of my redundancy super-cycle. Time to catch up on my YouTube viewing. Here's one I stumbled on by chance - a tour de force live performance of the entire album (possibly for the first time), with spectacular banter from Bob Pollard, and even better, fellow Memphibian Dave Shouse (of The Grifters, et al, whom I first met in 1981) gets name checked at the get-go for opening the show.

Thursday, 7 February 2013


Fittingly, it was just today that I realized that Linda Heck yesterday posted this track to her SoundCloud. I think it may well be my favourite song of hers, and I love this recording of it (I've also done my own, in typically primitive fashion). It comes from the "Lost Album," most of which was recorded at Easley - McCain in Memphis in 1991, with a few songs and overdubs added in 1992, before being somewhat hastily mixed and then, more or less, abandoned. I still hold out hope that it may eventually be released in some form. There are 21 songs on it, in all, and I like all of them, but some clearly stand out from others. I think this one is the real highlight, and I stand by my description from a previous post:

"One of the very best Linda Heck songs, and one of the most exciting to play live in my opinion. Written for the late Craig Shindler to wish him well at a low point in life, it has a positive message characteristic of its vintage:

'Pain will go, before you know,
Let it fall away,
Happiness is within you,
And it can be today'

It's an unusual and intriguing structure, which is probably why I have always liked it, because it feels like it's always moving to a new level. Starting in C and reverting there for the bridge, switching to B for the verses, with the odd A to F-sharp interlude. Outstanding performance from Doug here, and I like the rising harmony vocals in the instrumental section. Linda is sublime throughout."

I do recall that Doug Garrison (drums), who was a newcomer to all these songs, wasn't completely happy with his performance here, but we managed to convince him it was a keeper. He is such a consummate drummer that, even finding his way through the unusual section changes in this song, he brings a real drive and immediacy to the whole thing. I'm pretty sure it doesn't get any better than this. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

A visit to Sam Phillips Recording

Back in late December, I was invited to participate in a recording session at the amazing Phillips studio at 639 Madison, Memphis, TN. Misty White, composer of the immortal classic, "I Need a Ride," was doing a session with the wonderful Roland Janes, a genuine living legend and a very nice and entertaining man. I had some time constraints, and as the session structure was somewhat, uh, fluid, I ended up not playing a note. I did manage to take some photos, however, and I stumbled upon a disused studio down the hall containing old instruments and vending machines from God knows when.

Unintended consequences, or, how I gained 15 minutes of fame for accidentally writing a gay anthem...

There are a few universal truths in life which are indisputable: you can't escape death and taxes; a watched pot never boils; corporate lawyers are spiritually and emotionally dead; there's nowt so queer as folk.

A little over a week ago, I awoke and logged on to the interwebs, to check email, Facebook, and a few other sites before getting on with my day. One of the more masochistic aspects of my morning web regime is checking my SoundCloud account, a typically thankless task which never fails to remind me that I make music for my own enjoyment rather than attention or adulation. I typically find a number of listens in the single digits over the preceding 24 hours, or, if I'm lucky, in the low teens. Last Sunday, however, I saw over 200 listens overnight, all to the same track - "Truckstop of Your Love," a cornball country parody of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love."

The torrent of listens continued into Monday/Tuesday, and then gradually faded away over the rest of last week. As at this writing, the track has had over 970 listens, 90% of which have occurred during the past week. By contrast, the next-most-listened-to song in my site has 136 listens.

So, what could be behind the sudden viral popularity of this inane little track? A resourceful friend did some Googling and emailed me to inform me that a link to the song had been posted to a blog. I would post a link, but this is no ordinary blog, being devoted to, er, well, ahem, aficionados of mens' rooms in truck stops. If you're not into that sort of thing, I wouldn't want to inflict it on you, and if you are, then surely you can find it yourself.

There, among countless photos of well-endowed young gay men urinating in truck stops across the country, suddenly pops up my humble song. I confess that I am somewhat baffled, given that my lyrics are plainly about a waitress, but maybe there's some sort of crypto-transvestite vibe there of which I was not previously aware.

Anyway, I guess fans are fans, and I shouldn't complain. Keep on truckin', girls!


You never know who you'll meet in SE22

For a few years now, my younger daughter has been friends with a very nice child in her class, who is usually dropped off and picked up by her dad. With slightly Mod-ish hairstyle and rakish good looks, and somewhat unique in being even older than me among a group of seemingly ever-younger dads, I never gave him much thought, and we've never really had occasion to talk. Then one day I found out he is a space rock legend. You just never know...

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Scenes from London life

Walking past this today, I was reminded of a print I was given many years ago by Memphis photographer (and former schoolmate) David Julian Leonard, which still adorns one wall of my crumbling hovel.


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Meat Sounds

I woke up Sunday morning imagining what the Meat Puppets' classic "Lost" would sound like with a Pet Sounds/Phil Spector sort of treatment, so that's what I did. As usual, all sounds are by me, recorded in GarageBand for iPad.


Scenes from London life


Monday, 7 January 2013

Some recent GarageBand experiments


I've spent my first day of the new work year back in the office with terrible jet lag and a thumping headache, but I try to remain philosophical. The healing power of truly bad music usually comes through at times like these, and there is no greater example than The Shaggs.