Sunday, 13 March 2011

University Year One: The Boy's A Hack In Town

Ahem. Sorry about that subtitle.

Before we get to the main meat of this chapter - namely, 1994 and my first foray into Rock Journalism - I have a confession to make. Up until this point, my research has been meticulously conducted, apart from my inability to discover exactly when Bob played in Ilminster. However, I've come across a show where the internet directly contradicts my own memory. It appears that the Lemonheads played Brixton Academy in October 1993, which means I should have written about them last time; however - and I appreciate that this is a strange thing to remember - I'm sure I discussed the Tindersticks' debut album being Melody Maker's Album of 1993 with Simon in his university halls before heading down to Brixton, which means that the gig couldn't have taken place earlier than mid-December 1993, and probably not until January 1994.

Anyway, whenever the gig happened, the Lemonheads had a special place in our hearts. When we holidayed in Cornwall in summer 1993, a tape of their album It's A Shame About Ray played a large part in the soundtrack to our week (along with a compilation I'd made which featured Astralasia's Sul-E Stomp, New Model Army, Swervedriver, Aphex Twin and what I can say with some confidence must have been another twenty or so stone cold classics). ...Ray is a slight piece of work, unlikely to appear in many Best Albums Of All Time lists (although Pitchfork appear to have named its title track the 138th best tune of the 1990s, and the album was No.4 on the NME's list for that year).What it does have, however, is a hazy, sunny feel and a bunch of lyrics about love and relationships which made it perfect for what a devotee of American High School flicks would almost certainly have dubbed our Coming Of Age summer.

Simon, Natalie and I definitely went to see them in Brixton; I don't remember whether either of our fellow Cornwall tourists Ben and Lucy were there. We got to the Academy in time to catch a bit of the Senseless Things (different bits of the internet suggest that Drugstore and Eugenius may have also played, but if they did, we missed 'em). It was our first experience of the strange sloping floor of this venue, which did at least mean that we got a pretty good view for a set filled with much of It's A Shame About Ray, plus tunes off their new album Come On Feel The Lemonheads. It was a show that felt special due to our own associations with the tunes, and it was probably one of the band's last London gigs before mainman Evan Dando went properly off the rails, more interested in hanging out with Oasis than making his own music and pushing his substance intake until he became seen as a sad, shambling yesterday's man. I'd see him do a solo gig in Southampton in the early 2000s, by which time he'd overcome his problems to turn in a pretty good set which brought back how good his best songs are.

Now, given that I've been filling your eyes with words all about me for several blogs now, it won't surprise you to learn that at some point I decided that my opinions on what people's parents refer to as The Music Scene were well worth foisting on the public. I decided that the best place to start was by writing for a local publication, of which there were a few. I was strangely reluctant to get involved with the university paper Wessex News at this point, perhaps thinking that after only one term of uni I'd be laughed out of the offices as a fresher with ideas above his station. A local listings paper called Sound Info had already become essential reading for me (and my stash of old issues has proved invaluable research for this enterprise) and did publish reviews, but I'd already got the impression that they might be quite a tight gang to infiltrate. That left another local free arts paper called Kavort (yes, I know, that's a terrible name). I can only assume that they were desperate for contributors, as they seemed to agree to publish me suspiciously easily.

Any lucky Southampton resident who happened to pick up a copy of Kavort between the 4th and 17th of February 1994 would have discovered not one but a whopping two reviews by plucky new writer Olly Thomas, sharing a page with a writer going by the name Mustapha Mosh (oh my sides, etc) and pieces on Tenpole Tudor, a punk covers band called Wile Coyote and, er, a performance of Shirley Valentine at the Salisbury Playhouse.

The first of these reviews, both on paper and in real life, involved me going to the Joiners to see the Wishplants. At this point in musical history, the influence of prog rock on indie was pretty minimal, but there was definitely a bit of Steve Hillage flickering around guitarist Ed's contributions. As a regular reader of Melody Maker, I knew that proper journalists never missed an opportunity to make a snide remark in passing, so I suggested that the Wishplants' tunes sounded "as if the Ozrics suddenly woke up and started writing tunes." A couple of issues later, Kavort printed a furious letter from one Clovis Patten of Southampton's Portswood area, who wrote "...but in a comparison to Ozrics, Ozrics will always be better, but they are just misunderstood by cynics like him (i.e. me)." Brilliant, I thought, my first review and I'm already stirring up controversy amongst the Portswood contingent of the Ozric Tentacles fanbase! The editor's reply was curiously unsupportive, but having suggested hoisting me up by my tentacles (I'm assuming you can see what he did there), he did go on to mock Clovis for his unusual Christian name.

Poor Clovis.

I don't recall whether I was also sent to interview the Wishplants - my small collection of Kavort magazine is missing an issue which may have contained such a work - but Sophie and I certainly got chatting to them. Later in the year, we'd arrange for them to play at my University hall's ball, an arrangement which caused some confusion when it was advertised as taking place at Southampton University rather than being a closed gig open to residents of the afore-mentioned Chamberlain Hall and their guests.I should probably give you some background info on Chamberlain. I'm pretty sure it was the smallest hall of residence at Southampton Uni. One entire side of the building was designated as a "quiet" space - no music, no parties, no fun - and proved popular with the foreign students who, unlike most of their British counterparts, had actually come to Southampton to study. There was also a larger-than-average contingent of Christians at Chamberlain. Infuriatingly, as is their wont, these people turned out to be universally good eggs - I'd even play in a band with some of them, about whom more will follow in due course - but you couldn't describe them as wild. So, imagine you're the Wishplants, and you've agreed to play at some ball at a University - you'd be a bit disappointed when turning up at the smallest, quietest, most Christian hall in the city, particularly when most of the attendees aren't too bothered by your indie-prog wares and are just waiting for you to get off so the DJ can play some hits, right? I seem to remember them enjoying themselves, though...well, I can remember them sitting "backstage" taking the piss out of my suit ("Look at your shoes, man!") and singer Saul making a casually offensive joke about rape which didn't go down too well.

Sadly, things never quite took off for the Wishplants. They don't appear to have an entry on Wikipedia, and I think you can tell a lot by the fact that my internet research has yielded the information that a fellow called Dave Guerin was their monitor engineer in April and May 1994 (don't remember him at Chamberlain Hall, sadly), somebody found a copy of their Tortoiseshell EP in their loft in March 2009, and, most distressingly, that Wishplants drummer Mick is now doing this...

Back to the pages of Kavort, and if your glance was to move one column to the right and down a bit from the Wishplants review,you'd be looking at some words I wrote about a band who are still at it in 2011, namely Cornershop. This assignment took me to Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms for the first time, and indeed to the faintly depressing backstage area thereof to conduct an interview with Tjinder and Ben. Now, if your experience of Cornershop goes no further back than the Fatboy Slim remix of Brimful Of Asha, it might come as some surprise that in 1994, Cornershop had been depicted in the music press as political firebrands, their most famous image a photograph of the band setting fire to a picture of Morrissey in protest at his alleged flirtations with fascism. These days I can't help but think of Moz like you would a slightly nuts old uncle whose opinions are more cringe-worthy than genuinely offensive, but back then it felt like a new frontier had opened up, with indie's old guard being held to account by a savvy new generation.

It turned out that, contrary to their angry image, Cornershop were thoughtful, friendly fellows who were totally welcoming to a nervous kid who, thanks to a sheltered upbringing, wasn't much more used to hanging out with Asian dudes than he was to interviewing indie bands. Unfortunately, as my review testifies, I wasn't too impressed by the actual music, which tended towards non-descript sub-Sonic Youth noise, although I did single out England's Dreaming as an unsung classic. It's an opinion I still hold - with its scrappy energy rush and hijacking of signifiers from Public Enemy, The Smiths (!) and (in its title) Jon Savage's seminal Sex Pistols book, it remains one of the best singles from the Riot Grrrl era (along with Huggy Bear's Her Jazz and Mambo Taxi's Poems On The Underground).

Also on the bill were Brighton's Action Painting! (who I thought were trying far too hard and didn't even mention in my review) and Breed, who were the band of the night by some distance. There have been many bands called Breed over the years (I even know of one from Portsmouth), but this was a trio from (I think) Liverpool whose sound I described at the time as "twisted late night blueswailing." Crikey! In practice, this meant that they shared characteristics with the Bad Seeds, Tindersticks and Gallon Drunk, producing sharp-but-stately tunes fuelled by life's darker side. Their album Wonderful Blade is highly recommended, and please don't be put off by the fact that their drummer Steve Hewitt went on to join Placebo. Singer Simon has kept it more real, as you can discover here:

The next gig I went to was Skyscaper at the Joiners. Kavort weren't interested, and to be fair neither was anybody else I knew. Sophie and a horde of my pals from Chamberlain were off to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Mayflower in full regalia, so I was saved from donning a basque and suspenders and chucking toast about that evening. Skyscraper was the brainchild of ex-Swervedriver bassist Adi Vines (don't worry, Swervedriver hadn't split up - I think Adi had already left by the time I'd seen them a few months earlier). I mentioned this to a girl called Thea who wrinkled her nose in disgust at the thought I was going to see a Nazi band, but I was quick to point out that she was thinking of Skrewdriver, and that neither Swervedriver nor Skyscraper harboured far right allegiances. When Swervedriver were called on by the music press to list bands and tunes they dug, Adi would always mention the likes of Killing Joke and Murder Inc, and this was the vibe that he was going for with his new concern. By this point,they'd released a couple of good singles (Choke and Lovesick) and made for a diverting live band, although I'm not sure their album Superstate has aged too well.

Nine days later, I was back at The Joiners for my next Kavort assignment. The Voodoo Queens were a big favourite of mine and Sophie's (and of John Peel's, natch) so we were stoked to be seeing them. Looking back, they were very much the lightweight option from the Riot Grrrl days; they might have had songs critiquing the supermodel-fuelled beauty myth and sexism in general, but they also liked to pen tunes about how much they liked chocolate, shopping and Keanu Reeves (on Kenuwee Head, a tune which I can now only barely believe actually existed). In my review, I argued that this sense of humour was important as it "destroy(ed) the myth that equates feminists with dour men haters", but I can see now that it also provided ammunition for anyone who wanted to shoot them down. Not that you'd want to, mind; another way they differed from, say, Huggy Bear or Linus was that their music was unapologetically pop, in a trash-punk-surf-bubblegum kind of way. With this in mind, whoever booked Submarine as their tour support was heroically misguided; their slo-mo shoegaze was probably quite good, but as I put it at the time, their "mournful basslines and doomy atmosphere str(uck) the wrong chord with the assembled pop kids, and ke(pt) on striking it for far too long." This ultimately didn't detract from the fun to be had with headliners, however, with Voodoo Queens singer Anjali impressing us with both her abillity to deal with the sort of fuckwads who seemed to attend this sort of show just to heckle, and by her friendliness when we approached her afterwards to sign Sophie's t-shirt.


At this point, one of the hippest names in clubland was Megadog. Originally a club night in London which booked many of they key bands on the crusty/techno borderlands, it became a travelling roadshow which put on parties in tents at festivals and, by 1994, was doing tours, one of which pulled in to Southampton University on the 9th of March. The primary attractions were Trans-Global Underground and Banco De Gaia, along with founding DJ Michael Dog and the unforgettable MC Teabag. Other treats listed on the ticket included Dog Decor and the Woof Cinema, and if anyone who was there can remember exactly what these consisted of, I'd be grateful. Both of the main acts were fantastic: Banco De Gaia was the more techno-aligned of the two, albeit with a rich strain of Middle and Far Eastern sounds underpinning much of the set, while TGU were a glorious riot of party-starting colour and sound, putting music from across the globe (as, I'm sure you'll have noticed, their name might suggest) into a blender of dubby dance music. Members wore ethnic masks and singer Natacha Atlas belly-danced. This was not the sort of thing you got at indie gigs.

Business as usual was restored the very next day, when I went to review Tiny Monroe at the Joiners. As one Jimmy Martin has pointed out, I neglected to mention them in the last blog when they supported Curve at the university, mainly because I literally can't remember a single thing about that performance. I can, however, remember their Joiners set, which I approvingly noted at the time was possessed of "a cool swagger" and "a wired, dark tension bubbling under." They were one of a wave of female-fronted bands which was just breaking at the time, but unlike their contemporaries like Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper, they never really grabbed the attention of the wider populace. I actually compared them favourably to Elastica in my review, noting rather snarkily that the latter had less talent but better connections (no pun intended, then or now). In truth, Elastica had become an early example of my being put off a band on the basis of reading too much hype before hearing any actual music - they grew on me soon enough, and their self-titled debut is more likely to find its way to my stereo these days than anything by Tiny Monroe. That said, I did unearth a tape of the latter playing live on Mark Radcliffe's radio show while researching this blog, and they weren't half bad. Ska, or at least its up-stroke guitar style, was curiously in vogue in UK indie at this point - bands as varied as Kingmaker and Therapy? had appropriated it for Queen Jane and Turn respectively - and this was a technique Tiny Monroe were fond of, along with a spiky-yet-insouciant new wave sensibility. Their frontwoman, NJ, meanwhile, was almost certainly described as "striking" in every contemporary review (although, oddly, not in mine).

As I'm saving festivals for a later blog, there's only one more First Year gig to tell you about. It was time to rock, it was time to rap, it was time to crusty techno. Yes, it was time for Senser, although technically first of all it was time for New Kingdom. These were a hip hop group from NYC, centred on the vocal talents of Nosaj and Sebastian Laws, who had started to attract favourable notices from the more forward-thinking writers in the UK music press. Theirs was a fuggy, psychedelic stew, sticking out like a sore thumb at a time when G-funk was the dominant sound in hip hop - New Kingdom had more in common with Tom Waits than Snoop Doggy Dogg. They pretty much pre-empted the rise of trip hop, and the blunted paranoia of their records found a kindred spirit in Tricky, who collaborated with Nosaj for a b-side called Moody Broody Buddhist Camp. Years later, I would discover that my friend Benny Beats and his mates used to refer to them as "drunk hip hop", and that fits their slurry style pretty well, I reckon. They were an excellent support for Senser, but in the absence of any footage of that night, you'll have to content yourselves with this clip of them on The Word. Is that Lionel Blair getting down to New Kingdom? It ruddy well is.

Minds were blown accordingly, but at this point Senser were certainly capable of picking up the gauntlet laid down by their support band. This gig happened on the 11th of May, which would have been three days after their debut album Stacked Up entered the charts at No.4 - an almost unthinkable achievement back in the days when they were known primarily as the Ozrics' favourite support band. Clearly, they'd crossed over, and on their own terms too. This show felt triumphant, and came with the added bonus of Nosaj joining them onstage for a rendition of the Beastie Boys' Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun. Here's them doing it (without Nosaj) on the telly. I think you get a good sense of how short singer Heitham is from this footage...

So that was it for my First Year at university - but hang about,. I also played in a band around this time! Looks like you'll just have to come back next time to hear about my several months in a 33.3% Christian folk/indie/funk/pop collective which was named after a book about fishing...