Thursday, March 31, 2016

Guest Review/Interview: Chairman Ralph: Bristol Boys Make More Noise: Mods, Power Pop, Scooter Boys: 1979-87

(Bristol Archive Records:,


Like many buzzwords, the definition of Mod depends on who coins it. If you lived in London, you could plug into a readymade subculture – whether you caught the Who in their '60s prime, or the unfairly-overlooked late '70s/early '80s “second wavers” (like the Chords, for instance) – and connect the dots. So firmly had the late Pete Meaden's now-famous definition (“clean living under difficult circumstances”) imprinted itself on the UK's psyche. 

So what did you do, then, if you lived far from the madding capitol crowd, and its oh-so-cool aura? One answer lies in Bristol Music Archive's latest compilation, BRISTOL BOYS MAKE MORE NOISE: MODS, POWER POP, SCOOTER BOYS: 1979-87, featuring 21 underdog nuggets that fell short of wider exposure (either appearing on small 7-inch single runs – or previously unreleased – that ain't limited man, that's incarcerated!). Further reinforcement will come with a novel, TO BE SOMEONE: BRISTOL MOD 1979-85, by Michael W. Salter, which Bristol Archive Records and Tangent Books will co-publish later this year. 

<The Rimshots: Skylarking at rehearsal, 1980
Left to right: Doug Poole, Mike Darby>
[Photo courtesy of Mike Darby, Bristol Archive Records]

Bristol’s always been an amazing city for producing great bands. Whether it be any subculture (Punk, Mod, Ska, Reggae, Goth, Dark Wave, Rock, Metal), you can always find a great band that fitted the genre,” notes Mike Darby – who staked out his contribution as lead singer of the Rimshots, and now runs Bristol Archive Records. “Mod was quite small I would say in Bristol, Power Pop bands were much more commonplace. But the Power Pop bands were all influenced by the progression from punk into New Wave and then post punk (White shirts, thin black ties, skinny jeans).”

Phil Olerenshaw, drummer of Thin Air – also featured here – heartily seconds those sentiments “The great thing is, that there were dozens of bands gigging in Bristol at the time, and it was a really creative time. The Rimshots were the flagship for ska/bluebeat, and we were certainly grateful to them for giving us a lot of support slots in the early days,” Olerenshaw recalls. “Both bands fitted together well, and had a decent fan base. The Ska 'thing' actually only lasted 12-18 months in terms of fashion, and inevitably we all moved on in different directions.

Personally, I always enjoyed the 'Arty' Bristol bands like Sneak Preview, The Hybrids, Creature Beat and The Controls. These bands were very clever musically, with plenty of social commentary, and catchy melodies. They were all gigging regularly at a number of venues, and it was easy to get to know their material. The other great thing to mention is that a lot of the bands supported each other, and it was very common to see faces from other bands in the crowd. There was none of the 'rivalry' bollocks that existed elsewhere. That's how it should be.”

Playing in a local band had one other side benefit – the chance to open for your musical heroes. In the Rimshots' case, that meant 2-Tone bands like the Selecter, the Specials, and the English Beat. Of the Rimshots' latter opening slot, Darby recalls: “An amazing experience. The Beat had just blown up HUGE, so the place was packed, nearly 1,500. The whole building was jumping, the dance floor used to be like a trampoline.

My lasting memory was asking Saxa to sign a copy of one of their 7-inch singles for me. He politely refused, saying that no musician would do this for another, we were all the same. I quickly changed approach and asked if he could do it for my younger brother, which of course he was delighted to do – I have still have that treasured 7” vinyl.”

Thin Air's initial peak – supporting the Jam, at the Locarno – coincided with the horror of John Lennon's murder, (December 8, 1980), as Olerenshaw vivdly recalls all too well: “He was assassinated in the early hours of the morning (UK time), so the whole crowd, and indeed the bands, were in a state of numbness by the time of the gig that evening.” The Jam's singer-guitarist, Paul Weller, responded by dedicating “Start” – which nods melodically to the Beatles' “Taxman” – in Lennon's memory.

For the gig itself, I remember coming on stage in darkness with the lights down, while the intro music played, and seeing pairs of eyes literally everywhere (there were 3,000 people watching!),” Olerenshaw says. “I remember the silence for a couple of seconds when our first song ended, followed by a huge roar! Finally, I recall Paul Weller telling us to go back for an encore, when we'd finished, because we'd 'gone down' really well, and the crowd were calling for us. 

We also got the best seats in the house to watch the Jam themselves, who were at the 'top of their game' at the time, and had been number 1 in the charts with their album, Sound Affects, and both singles ('Going Underground' and 'Start'). Finally I remember signing autographs, giving away drumsticks, and getting home at 2 a.m., with school the next day!!” 

<The Rimshots: Live 'N' Direct,
Trinity Hall, 1980:
Left to right: Richard Bentley, Mike Darby,
Simon Heathfield, Mike Furzman.>
[Photo courtesy of Mike Darby, Bristol Archive Records]

With all those memories still ringing vividly in their holders' minds, how do we start examining this thing called Bristol Mod? In this case,start with the opening blast of “Too Young Girl” (The ATs: 1980), which combines all the essential ingredients – a smart call and response vocal hook, a rousing chorus and a raveup that would do the Who or the Yardbirds proud – into a rumbling Mod-Pop recipe. Various Artists pull off the same trick on their contribution, “Weekends” – released on their own label, in 1981 – whose length (an epic 5:09) shouldn't put you off, especially after you hear the extended coda that kicks in halfway through, and lifts the song to a whole 'nother level.

As this disc makes plain, the line between its main genres – Mod, power pop and ska – is razor thin, one that Bristol's finest relished blurring, and often to glorious effect. For examples, check out “A Thousand Burning Voices” (Thin Air: 1982, previously unreleased), whose anthemic blast offers a tantalizing glimpse into what might have been – had the proverbial “suits” resisted the temptation to break rock 'n' roll's Unwritten 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Mess With What's Already Good).

Olerenshaw cites “Voices” as an example of singer-guitarist Paul Sandrone's newfound maturity as a songwriter: “We learnt the song in a day (during the school holidays) and it evolved into a clever song with excellent dynamics, having a reflective, acoustic verse, and then it launches into a euphoric punchy chorus. Personally, I loved the way that the tempo goes from half-time in the verse, to standard-time in the bridge , and then double-time in the chorus which makes the song 'take off'. The harmonies on that song were also pretty spectacular and the Beach Boys influence was very evident! It's a clever song, about love and self doubt...and it became popular in the live set.”

This being the '80s – and the twin spectres of yuppie drones and Margaret Thatcher's aggressive monetarism ravaging the British landscape – it's hardly surprising that a fair slice of social commentary runs through the proceedings here. Choice examples include the Rimshots' “I Was Wrong” (1980), and its deadpan sendup of looking for work that doesn't remotely promise any idea of fulfillment ("My mum said I would get a very good job/I went down to Bristol to get a job/I was wrong"), and the Cass Carnaby Five's “November Rain” (1985), a propulsive look at the isolation of urban life (“He looks out of his window, hoping for more than he's seen before/Just another day in November rain”). And, in “Fleet Street,” the Review gives the fourth estate a sound kicking, though the lyrics are a bit hard to make out (I'll have to give that track another shot and try again, I suppose).

Other chordsmiths chose to work the lovelorn angle, such as Huw Gower – the biggest name here, who went on to the Records (and also played on bills with the Jam, incidentally). He turns is a moody, but shimmering slice of pop in “She's Still A Mystery” (1981), which laments that perennially unavailable “girl who knocks you off your feet.” In a fairer world, this song – buoyed by a swirling, insistent guitar and keyboard line – should have snagged a smash hit for its composer. Then again, rock isn't a meritocracy, or else compilations like this one wouldn't be necessary, right?

At the same time, it's also worth remembering that other styles coexisted comfortably under the Mod umbrella – with R&B, soul and ska providing the musical common denominator. Power pop and rock weren't the only flavors of the day – though, in some cases, it meant going back to home base and turning a genre on its head. That's what the Newbeats do on “Somebody's Girl,” whose double-tracked vocals, shimmering guitars and telegrammatic lyrics (“I want to hold her tight through the night”) could slot comfortably in the Merseybeat file (albeit -- released in 1985). By contrast, the Untouchables confidently mine the R&B angle on “Keep Your Distance” (1980) , which barrels along a prominent harmonica hook and solo that would give Lew Lewis a run for his money.

Other outfits preferred to fly the ska banner, as exemplified by Sky High's “Maryanne,” which drives its romantic discontent home with a hefty dose of horns and organ. The CD ends with a pair of live tracks from Blue Riverside, who also show a definite '60s-ish influence. For my money, “Experiments In Colour” is the stronger performance – though both tracks boast plenty of rip-roaring guitar to pull you along. (These bands always had good guitarists, which is only one reason that I – being a musician myself – appreciate this particular sub-genre.)

To untrained ears, ending with these two tracks seems like a curious choice – since the fidelity isn't immaculate – but I'd much rather hear a basement show captured in all its gritty glory than a dull performance recorded immaculately. If nothing else, Mod is about rowdiness, sweat and passion, which is why the Blue Riverside tracks provide an apt exclamation point. Compilations are often hit or miss affairs – depending on who's included, or excluded – but that's not the case here.

Obviously, it helps to have a theme, but there's plenty of strong material on offer (I just listed the ones that caught my attention first) – which is why you should pick up this release, and give it time on your shelf. In short, MODS stands up as a timely reminder of an era that casts a strong ripple effect on today's culture, as Darby explains: “The Mod scene has never really gone away and it’s still fairly big to this day with the following bands having reformed and still out gigging, some to huge crowds – The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat (three versions), Bad Manners, the Chords, Secret Affair, The Purple Hearts and new mod bands that have just appeared, like The Spitfires.”

I think it's simply a great era to celebrate,” agrees Olerenshaw. “Mod and Ska has stood the test of time, and to this day, a lot of football grounds play stuff like 'The Liquidator' and 'Double Barrel' before matches. It's the ultimate feelgood music, and I think it will always be popular!” <Chairman Ralph>





[reprinted by permission of:]

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The 10 Commandments Of Hipsterdom (How To Succeed In Your Friendly Neighborhood Subculture)


Everybody loves a good subculture, whether it's angry female singer-songwriters, junk-slinging grunge muppets, stick-thin alternative troubadours, or vampire- and zombie-fueled pulp storytellers...phenomenons that feed on our need to believe that yes, anybody can get a foot in the door, if they only believe. Look, ma, I can do it, too: I can become just like them. Isn't that cool? Everybody's invited to the party.

But that's not how it really least, if you're serious about some kind of creative art career. At some point, like it or not, you'll encounter that shadowy clique who really calls the shots in any art scene, any local subculture...the Art Mafia. The Cognoscenti. The Hipster Cartel. The In Crowd. The Oracle. They go by various names, but their purpose is always the same: co-opt and twist what they can't control absolutely, while sucking all the oxygen out of the so-called local scene for themselves, with the drawbridge always carefully raised up to keep the newcomers away. And, of course, perpetuating themselves forever.

(Perpetuity is a big thing for any Hipster, as I once learned -- the hard way -- when talking with a fellow open mike night denizen: "How often have you played here?" He replied, in that tone of demanding immediate, automatic deference: "Oh, I've been playing music in this area for decades..." How'd I react? Let's put it this way: I didn't feel the urge to curtsy.)

Given all these challenges (as well as the odds of actually succeeding), maybe you should cut to the chase and forget the whole career performance bit -- so you can become one of those shadowy Hipster decision-makers who destroys others with the simple whooshing of thumbs up, or thumbs down. If that's your interest, you've come to the right place! Now you can get a crash course in the fine art of HIpsterdom without leaving your home. Look at the fringe benefits: access to a fast crowd, getting seen in all the right places, intimidating others into accepting your natural-born greatness (and pick up the tab for it) without having to think (if ever) for a long time...what's not to like about that? So how do you get your hands on these goodies, then?

Here's what you need to do, based on my firsthand observations of how your friendly neighborhood subculture works:

1. Art and culture is a zero-sum game, so play it to win, at any cost. From day one, the moment you dedicate yourself to the Hipster Lifestyle, focus every effort on getting to the top, however your area defines it. Don't worry about how many people you shit on or step on, because getting there matters, more than creativity or ideas or vision or all that other crap that the groundlings keep jabbering about. You get the gig or acclaim that someone else doesn't; nothing else matters. That's justification enough. What's good enough for others is never good enough for you, so proceed accordingly.

2. People are commodities; women are accessories. Success in any subculture depends on cultivating relationships with the in-crowd. Choose all your friends on this basis: "What can they do for me? How can this person make me look good?" And no self-respecting hipster is complete without an equally gritty-looking woman stapled to his long as she realizes, she's not there as his equal. She's there to make him look good.

3. Master the art of creative shapeshifting. Read your reviews religiously, and tailor your art or music or writing around them. So Pitchfork finds your latest masterpiece isn't whiny or self-referential enough? Then crank up the Narcissism Quotient for your next album or EP. Study what's selling in your field, and if you see something that's worth milking, don't hesitate to jump on it. Imagine what the world could do with a hiphop-/Americana-flavored remix of "I Am The (Zombie Vampire) Walrus (Forever)," for instance. You get the idea.

4. Namedrop, namedrop, and namedrop some more. Becoming a successful Hipster means learning how to keep the riffraff out. This requires learning Hipsterspeak that only you and the Chosen People in your Narcissistic Tribe understand. One, you don't need the extra competition, and two, you'll periodically need to evoke a better-known person's name to elevate yourself. Not sure how to go about it?

Watch something like those nauseating Matt Pinfield cartoons on VH1 Classic, and notice how he weaves himself into the action -- such as when he and his latest interview subject, Bono (U2), bond over a bad case of Montezuma's Revenue together (I kid you not) -- without upstaging the star. They'll appreciate the free advertising you give them, and you'll catch a little of their reflected glow. Everybody wins.

5. Always stay clinically detached from the action. Parse your emotions. Don't admit to having any feelings, especially for others. That's a waste of your time. (For further reference, study Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers -- either the original or the remake will do fine.) Caring deeply about something isn't
 to your advantage...because somebody else might get the upper hand on you. You're an aloof, cool and nonchalant member of the Hipster Narcissist Cartel. Your job goes on 24 hours a day, so act the part.

6. Crank out the same thing, in slightly differently variations, but never deviate from your self-imposed formula. Examples of this phenomenon are legion: Shepherd Fairey's reheated '40s-style posters, Keith Haring's squiggly figure, Damien Hirst's jeweled skulls -- the key is to find something that clicks with people, and repeating it...again. And again. And again. And again. But don't change the blueprint too much. That only confuses people. You'll appreciate this logic when you stare from the verandah of the overpriced condo that all your hackwork bought, sipping your $7 latte, as you remind yourself: "Now this is the life."

7. Never tell the same story more than once. Why's that, you ask? First, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. That's your get-out clause: practice saying it over and over, until you start believing it yourself. As most smart politicians know, you're less likely to get caught in a lie if you always throw out a different narrative to cover it up. You're not joining a police lineup, so what's the point in keeping your story straight? Leave that to the plebes.

8. Follow the in-crowd's tastes zealously, even if you don't buy into them yourself. To master this skill, you may have to channel those childhood moments when Dear Old Mom or Dad forced you to eat your Cream-O'-Wheat. You may have the same reaction to craft beer or vegetarian fare, but you can't risk deviating from your newfound fake friends' acquired matter how wacky or skewed they seem. Remember, make one misstep, and you'll not only lose might get voted out of the tribe. Then it's back to the gas station, keeping the coffee pot warm for minimum wage. Who wants that fate? Not you.

9. Develop an older/younger brother/sister-style relationship with a handful of select non-Hipsters. This approach serves two purposes. First, you can come across as "a man (or woman) of the people" without ever really committing to those ideals. Second, if you get them to believe that image, you'll soon have an army of plebes advertising your work, without you ever spending a dime. Don't forget to keep stringing them along. You want them to keep on thinking they'll somehow find a way to join the club, even though that'll never happen.

10. Self-preservation is everything. Never tell anybody to their face what you think of them. Unpleasant as it sounds, you'll often have to trash somebody's work or reputation to stay in the zero-sum game. Think of it as the cost of doing business. Such work is best done from a distance, however, like posting an anonymous blog entry -- or spreading rumors via social media -- because a true Hipster always strives to keep his fingerprints off the murder weapon. The more you refine this technique, the less likely that someone will ever get the drop on you. As John Lennon once said: "But first you must learn how to smile as you kill/If you want to live like the folks on the hill."

And remember: everyone around you is expendable. Everyone. --The Reckoner

Social rules have no negation
Kiss ass, kiss ass
What else are you good for
You think you're "unique," you think you're alone
You never learned how to think on your own
Your only basis for existence
is to gain group acceptance
Kiss ass, kiss ass
Kiss ass to your peer group

Form your "opinions," repeat what is said
Make your own "choices," go where you're led
Think your own "thoughts," eat what you're fed
Strength in numbers, not in your head
Kiss ass, kiss ass
Kiss ass to your peer group
--No Trend, "Kiss Ass To Your Peer Group"

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Talking Heads (Take Note): I'm Not Going Along With "The Program"

Don't touch that dial!
Television screams, your face turning green,
Don't listen to the news,
Don't know what you hear, they never make it clear,
They like to keep your state confused,
Propaganda time, the official line,
You're hungry, you get fed,
Everlasting smile, you must convey their style,
But they're just a Talking Head
--Motorhead, "Talking Head"

Salon: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton & The Democrats' Dilemma: