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Monday, 27 August 2012

Griff says; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Gamer

We take another of our occasional forays into the world of gaming tonight. This being the Streetlamp you needn't expect a review of the latest hyper-violent, first-person shooter, of course, but a glimpse at the artistic margins of the gaming world. Those of you who've read our previous pieces on existentialist, 8-bit heroes Ledo and Ix or the bleak, Russian, street-child art-game Ulitsa Dimitrova will know what to expect. Like Ulitsa Dimitrova, the game I'm writing about tonight, Jordan Magnuson's Loneliness, is not so much a game as a piece of art that utilises gaming principles and conventions to make its point. But in doing so, it also expands the mechanics of gaming in a very interesting way, as you will discover.

Let me set the scene. A couple of years ago, Jordan Magnuson set out to travel the world and came up with the concept of 'game trekking'. His idea was to use short flash-games, which he developed on his travels, to try and convey thoughts, ideas and feelings about the things he was learning and experiencing on his journey — computer games as a form of reflective travel-writing, if you will. Magnuson, however, is not your average flash-game creator looking to give you something meaningless to while away long bus journeys. If you play any of the games he's made so far you’ll soon realise that his emphasis is on experimenting with the medium, and on the exploration of place and how it relates to us as humans, over and against 'fun' or gameplay as such (which is why he prefers the label 'notgames' for his creations).

The 'notgame' Loneliness is an experimental, minimalistic microgame about loneliness, made for the Korean middle school students Magnuson taught for a year. Loneliness tells the simple story, through a series of black blocks on a white background, of one person who is shunned by everyone around them.

The interesting feature of this 'notgame' lies in its inherent mechanics. The narrative of the game is simple, and seems at first confining, but its beauty lies in the fact that the very mechanics of the game allow the player to explore a wide, possibly limitless, range of choices. The game narrative features no words or instructions and by dint of being undefined is different for every player. As you play you realise that the narrative is determined by HOW the player plays the game. Thus, each response to the game is its own distinct narrative. The conscious choices you make while playing are an example of how you respond to Loneliness. By having the meaning embedded in the mechanics this allows the player to make analogue rather than binary choices. It allows us to make a combination of choices. The combined choices of each player is possibly unique. In playing Loneliness you set your own goal and craft you own story. In a world of trivial, time-wasting, insignificant, and juvenile game-play this act of creative interaction is almost subversive.

To see what I'm on about you can try playing Loneliness 'here' at, a site founded by Magnuson in 2009 explicitly focused on exploring meaning and significance with games. Magnuson has many other interesting 'notgames' available and every game he makes for the game trekking project is 100% free, open source, and cross-platform. You can view his portfolio at necessary games 'here'. You can visit his game trekking site 'here'.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

A Nippy Sweeties/Musical Prozac Hybrid 2: A Decade Went Madder

About a year ago, I wrote a Blog looking at some of the more bizarre and 'out there' songs from the 1960s, a decade whose grasp of reality seems all the more unstable the further we move away from it! The article proved quite popular (well, Griff liked it anyway), so I've decided to open up my box of 60s nonsense once again and have another rummage through some of the obscure, whacked out and downright demented  examples of 60s Pop and Rock.
And they don't come much more demented than...

The Monocles

....with their loony tune 'The Spider & The Fly'. Taking the entire premise of the 1958 movie 'The Fly' in which, due to some scientific faffing around, a man becomes a fly and a fly becomes a man, this seething slab of pulsating garage rock provides the backdrop over which a rather hysterical (in every sense of the word) psychodrama unfolds. A doomy voice paints a nightmare scenario of a spider closing in on the tiny man/fly hybrid who yells 'Help Me!' in what appears to be a Helium accentuated voice. Then the victim of the nightmare is awoken by his concerned wife who panics when she realises her husband has turned into a giant fly! Soon she is screaming 'Help Me!' along with the tiny fly! If you haven't heard this before the strap yourself in as this is one of the most memorable and insane 60s Psychedelic Garage tracks. Why wasn't this a hit?

John Trubee

So, who's all heard 'Blind Man's Penis' then?
I first became aware of the song when the Jesus & Mary Chain used the track as part of their intro tape when I saw them at the Barrowlands back in 1989. Then a few years later Mark E Smith of The Fall declared it one of his favourite all time records when he appeared (utterly sozzled....surprise!!) on the Adam & Joe Show.
Written by John Trubee and sung rather laconically by Ramsey Kearney, reportedly in the late 1960s, the track is a real period piece with blatant references to LSD (which other acts only hinted at at the time), and all kind of mad jabberings about UFOs and Martians. The song was originally called 'Stevie Wonder's Penis' and was passed around as a bootleg cassette gaining much Underground acclaim until it was released around 1975 on a 7" single. By this time the potentially libellous reference to Stevie was replaced with the more generic 'Blind Man'.
And remember, the blind man's penis is erect because he's blind! And with that kind of skewed logic, who's arguing?

The Beach Boys

By 1968 the Beach Boys' hipster stock was in tragic decline. Having turned down the chance to play at the Monterey Pop Festival, they were viewed by the long haired hippy radicals as a bunch of cornbread Conservative milquetoasts. How different it may all have been however had they followed up one of the greatest Pop albums EVER ('Pet Sounds') with an even GREATER one! Which they would have done had Brian Wilson not gotten cold feet over the genius of follow-up album 'Smile'. After aborting the 'Smile' project, Wilson was still expected by Capitol Records to turn out something akin to the Beatles 'Sgt Pepper'. What they got was a half-baked, uninspired dollop of unlovliness called 'Smiley Smile'.....what an absolute disappointment! Apart from outstanding lead-off singles 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes & Villains', this was a collection of weak and weedy soulless embarrassments, reaching it's nadir with 'Fall Breaks And Back To Winter', an instrumental based around the five note call of Woody Woopecker! For phux ache Brian....what are you playing at?!?!
'Fall Breaks...' frequently tops the polls as the Beach Boys worst ever song....yes, even worse than 'Johnny Carson' or 'A Day In The Life Of A Tree'(now, that IS bad shit...)

After the 'Smile' debacle, Dennis Wilson found himself less and less involved with the creative process. He no longer played in the studio, only sometimes drummed as part of the touring band, and was reduced to backing vocals and the occasional lead, often on songs nobody else wanted to sing. Around this time he began hanging out with a long-haired, mad-eyed, hippy freak who called himself The Wizard. The Wizard could procure drugs and young women with apparent ease, two things Dennis was very interested in. The Wizard was also a songwriter and claimed he auditioned for The Monkees (this has since been declared false!). The Wizard gave Dennis one of his songs which he hoped the Beach Boys would cover, and Dennis took the song to the next session. Big bro Brian, immediately sceptical of the song's negative title 'Cease To Exist', agreed to record the song on the basis they change the opening line to 'Cease to resist', and the song's title to the bewilderingly awkward 'Never Learn Not To Love'. Awkward syntax would be the least of the Beach Boys' concerns when The Wizard and his cronies committed mass murder at the Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles, killing the actress Sharon Tate and several of her friends. It now probably didn't seem too wise not to have given a writer's credit to The Wizard aka Charles Manson on their album....something Manson is reportedly still pissed off about!!

(You can check out both the Beach Boys and Charlie's own version below...)

The Sunday Funnies

Take a slice of sparkling, pure Garage Pop, full of chiming guitars, nifty time signatures, and a spiralling, swirly Farfisa organ running through....aaahh, all is good! Now get the singer to deliver his profound vocals....hang on....what's happening? What's up with the vocals? What's up with the vocalist, more like?
'A Pindaric Ode' is a superb example of Pop Psychedelia, but you really have to wonder what is going on with the vocals? The singer sounds so out of it that he doesn't even appear to be able to sing directly into the mic. In fact he doesn't appear to able to sing...period; drawling and mumbling away all kinds of gibberish. Was it supposed to be like this? Were they not allowed a second take? Did the rest of the band not question why their singer had apparently forgotten to, you know....sing?
Despit all that, this is one of my favourite all time Garage tracks, and I hope at least that it was all a glorious accident....

Bo & Peep

So who is Bo & Peep then?
Well, actually the're nobody. Bo & Peep's take on the Tab Hunter classic 'Young Love' is one of those conundrums that puzzled Rock historians for years. It has always been claimed that it was one of the biggest bands of the 1960s just pissing about and having a lark...was it The Beatles? Was it the Rolling Stones? Was it The Who? Was it early pre-fame Pink Floyd or David Bowie? was one of them....sort of!
It became evident, years later, that the track had been recorded under the auspices of legendary Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who wanted to create a kind of Rock and Pop Orchestra that would record various sessions and interpretations of hits of the time. On the session that produced 'Young Love' were, it is alleged, all five Rolling Stones (six if you include Ian Stewart), Gene Pitney, and legendary L.A producer, songwriter, and madman Kim Fowley. Who is doing what on the track is lost to the mists of time, but this is a cracking version of the song, powering along with full Garage bluster, Beach Boy-esque backing vocals (Jagger & Richard were huge BB fans), and deliriously infectious lead vocals.
If this does indeed feature the Rolling Stones then this is undoubtedly my favourite performance by them....

Crystal Chandelier

An early Doors demo I hear you ask? No, but you wouldn't be the first to think this. 'Suicidal Flowers' by Texas's Crystal Chandelier has always been mistaken by 60s music afficianados as an actual recording by The Doors, but it isn't....the vocalist just happens to be a remarkably good impersonator of Mr Mojo Risin', right down the little grunts, inflections and ad-libs...maybe a bit too good!
The song has often been interpreted as an anti-Flower Power song, and I would even go as far to say that this may well be the first Goth Rock song; it's doomy atmosphere and over-wrought vocals may be the very foundation of all purple hair-dye sales....

Jimmy Cross

Necrophilia hasn't been a very marketable commodity in the music industry really (well, except some Operas maybe), but Jimmy Cross's 1965 song 'I Want My Baby Back' is probably the most famous, even if you've never heard it before! Arriving at the tail-end of the Death Disc boom which had seen some of the greatest records of all time; the Shangri-Las' 'Leader Of The Pack', Ricky Valance's 'Tell Laura I Love Her' and Twinkle's 'Terry', to name but a few, Jimmy Cross delivers what is surely the most tasteless of all, in which wracked with self pity at the death of his girlfriend, he does what any normal man would do and digs up his girl's corpse...."I GOT my baby back" he rather creepily intones at the records fade-out.
The fact that it's also quite badly sung is the reason that it regularly tops the 'Worst Record Of All Time' polls....

13th Floor Elevators

I'll end tonight's Blog with something a little spiritual and quite moving.
I'm sure everyone knows 'May The Circle Be Unbroken', one of America's greatest contributions to the modern songbook, and one of Griff's favourite songs I believe, as performed by the Carter Family. Well, as the 13th Floor Elevators recording career began to wane, and as the drugs got harder and the albums susequently poorer, Roky Erickson decide to have a crack at the song for the finale of the massively disappointing 'Bull Of The Woods' album. Performing what can really only be described as a delay-pedal solo and drawling laconically the title over and over again, there are contributions on organ, and someone plays occasional percussion, but it's pretty much a solo effort and should, on paper at least, be quite awful. In fact, it's brilliant, and has an odd haunting, almost moving quality to it.
And it's the perfect outro to my latest trawl through my 60s Box Of Nonsense....

Keep Your Mind Open!


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Open Head Wounds 2: Boards Of Canada, Chilled Euphoria and Sunset at the Café Del Mar

....And then Cabaret Voltaire released the single 'Yashar'!

Cabaret Voltaire had been my outsider band of choice at high school, a name I would drop to perplex and bemuse the chart orientated Pop fans among my school friends. Cabaret Voltaire made discordant, awkward, difficult, avant garde electronic music full of snarled vocals and samples from movies, TV, radio broadcasts etc. The use of electronics and of electronic drum machines meant that there was always a mechanical, repetitive rhythm to their music, and as the 80s progressed the early Post-Punk skreee was replaced with more emphasis on rhythmic structure. 1982's breakout album '2x45' saw them embrace a gritty funk sound, and the following year's 'The Crackdown' had an almost commercial electronic sheen that almost spawned a chart-hit with 'Just Fascination'. It didn't occur to me that CV may have started to make Dance records because 'Dance music' as we know it now, didn't exist fully in the public domain.

In July of 1983, Factory Records released a 12" single of Cabaret Voltaire called 'Yashar'. The track had appeared on their album '2x45' but now had been extensively remixed and had become a huge dancefloor hit at the Hacienda. Being a CV completist, obviously I bought the single and thus, the Trojan Horse of Dance Music entered my record collection.

Of course, it didn't really twig with me that it WAS Dance Music! To me it was just electronic music filled with lots of samples, but it made me realise that a lot of records that I owned could be classed as Dance Music, from the sinewy Post-Punk Funk of PIL's 'Metal Box' to New Order's 'Blue Monday'. In fact New Order's follow up to 'Blue Monday', 'Confusion', is really just a collection of sequenced electronic dance rhythms.

In 1987 two Indie bands that I was fond of, AR Kane and Colourbox, collaborated on a record under the guise of M/A/R/R/S  that unknowingly changed music history; 'Pump Up The Volume'.  I won't lie and say that I loved or even liked the record at the time, but I have grown quite fond of it over the years. But 'Pump Up The Volume' was one of the very first British records that acquired the tags 'Techno' or 'House'.

By 1988 Techno and House had merged under the chemical sunset of the drug Ecstasy to create Acid House, and for the first time since Punk, a genuinely new and counter-cultural musical movement had enveloped Britain. As a torn-faced old Smiths fan, you would expect that I detested all of the Acid House malarky, right? Well....not so. I already had one of the first underground Acid House records 'Jack The Tab' by MESH (which apparently involved Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle), some early Meat Beat Manifesto records and, of course, albums like 'In Gorbachev We Trust' and 'Phorward' by The Shamen before they got crap!
Now I am not pretending for one second that I am any kind of authority on Dance music, and sure some of my comments and musing here will be embarrassing to those who really know their stuff on the subject, but I guess I'm just saying that the electronic music that I loved while at school, I still followed as it morphed into Dance Music, even if I wasn't fully aware of the fact.

If we go back to Cabaret Voltaire for a moment; my first ever encounter with them may have been the very moment that subliminally programmed me to appreciate Techno, Rave and Acid House music whilst retaining my Indie-saddo mantle! Back in what I assume must have been 1981, I was lying under the bedcovers with a tiny mono radio with it's hearing-aid style earpiece listening to John Peel (a scenario a whole generation will doubtless recall). He introduced a song entitled 'Walls Of Jericho' by Cabaret Voltaire and for the next seven minutes or so I found myself listening to music so unusual, so alien that it may as well have been beamed in from Mars. Yet 'Walls Of Jericho' seems to predate Techno and Acid House by a good half decade. Given that I was already quite a fan of electronic music, this track (which I bought the following Saturday) seems to have planted the seeds of appreciation of what would be classed as 'Dance' music, a phrase that withered in the mouths of we Indie-Pop kids....

Given that 'Dance' music is such a broad church these days, it's no surprise that a lot of purveyors of electronic music often get branded as 'Dance' acts. Take The Orb for instance; pretty much an electronic Pink Floyd for today, though FAR better than that suggests!
Or indeed one of my favourite bands of the last 10 years or so, Boards Of Canada....

Boards Of Canada are two Scottish brothers, Mike and Marcus, who have been experimenting with sound from as far back as 1986 when, as kids, they used to create sound montages on their old cassette recorders, layering found sounds and library music into sweeps of weird resonance. Ray and I used to do something similar back in our school days when we both had cassette recorders and a Casio organ....if only we'd stuck at it!!
By 1995 Boards Of Canada had pretty much arrived at the fully formed item they are today, and since then have turned out otherworldly collections of dreamy and affecting music that often taps right into hidden thoughts and subdued memories.
Take 'Roygbiv' for example; after an ominously lumbering intro, the track suddenly bursts into a whirl of keyboard sounds that recall old 1970s TV adverts, music from those strange educational shows we used to get at school that never seemed to appear on 'normal' television, and that whole bright, breezy optimism you only seem to have as a child....

With 'Everything You Do Is A Balloon', the track begins with a minute or so of tones that bring to mind that unusual feeling you have directly after a head-knock, before a somnambulent rhythm leads us into the heart of the music and suddenly you're a child again, off sick from school and loaded up on Benylin, trying to watch children's TV and lapsing in and out of pharmaceutically altered dreams....

There is no doubt that Boards Of Canada's music creates a feeling of childhood dreams and memories, particularly if you were a child in Scotland in the 1970s and 80s. There's a wooziness, a feeling of chemical unbalance that threatens to tip either way; into nightmare or pleasant recollection that can actually affect your mood or mindset. Take 'In A Beautiful Place In the Country' for example....

Staying with 'Dance' based music that can act as mood enhancer, but moving away from Boards Of Canada, one of my musical 'guilty pleasures' (and this will probably come as a surprise to Griff and Ray) is the Techno music known as Euphoria (Griff and Ray: "JUDAS!!").
Basically a subgenre of Trance music, Euphoria emerged around 1998 and was a more extreme version of House/Techno with rising tonal modulation that creates a feeling of uplifting joy, probably designed to be experienced through a haze of MDMA, but which for jaded, cynical, unchemichally enhanced depressives like me, can be as equally joyful.
I first became aware of Euphoria when I started my relationship with my (now) wife Libby. She wasn't into 'Rock' music at all, but liked Dance music, and not just the cheesy chart stuff either. By wading through her collection of Dance compilation CDs I became aware that there were certain tracks and genres that I was actually quite partial to. Pretty soon I began listening to collections by Lisa Lashes, The Tidy Boys, and anything the Ministry Of Sound put out. It may sound a tad pretentious, but I can honestly say that I find their mood enhancing properties more viable than any chemical crutch....

The one variety of Euphoria/Trance that I love above all others is the more chilled wave. These softer variations with less rush but the same uplifting feelings have become synonymous with the sunset on Ibiza. Even though I've never been to Ibiza, there's nothing I like more than a good sunset over the ocean when I'm on my holidays, and often over the last 12 years or so they have been accompanied by the sounds of Ibiza's legendary Cafe Del Mar....

So there you have it.
Perhaps not a Blog I ever anticipated writing when we began the ~Streetlamp~, but hopefully I've managed to convey my love for electronic music in it's myriad guise, and that it stems from the simple fact that I believe that analogue synthesisers can tap into parts of the brain and memory that chiming Rickenbackers simply can't.
And why my favourite record of the moment is 'Language' by Porter Robinson.

All from that tiny mono radio!

Normal Indiepop service will resume shortly!


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

If you want to change the world, start by changing yourself.

In my Niamh de Barra post yesterday I ended by saying we could fight back against the forces of neoliberal capitalism by "forming affinity groups based on the principles of libertarian socialism". I was asked by someone last night to elaborate what I was on about, and to define what an affinity group is, so I've decided to give you all a little gift today, which will make everything clear.

In 2004, the CrimethInc. ex-Workers' Collective put together a book which they hoped would serve as a source of information and inspiration for political activists the world over, who might make use of the tools therein in the course of making the world a better place. The book was called Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook and since its release it has been circulated, reproduced and transmitted to anyone who wants to take control of her life and accept responsibility for her part in determining the fate of humanity.

Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook is a handbook for direct action. For the spectator born in captivity and raised in submission, direct action changes everything. The morning she arises to put a plan into motion, she awakens under a different sun - if she has been able to sleep at all, that is - and in a different body, attuned to every detail of the world around her and possessed of the power to change it.

Step 1 of this new world might be forming an affinity group, basically a circle of friends who know each other intimately and who work consensually together to accomplish a goal, or series of goals. An affinity group could be a sewing circle, a bicycle maintenance group, a guerilla gardening collective, even a group of bloggers blogging about art, politics and culture! Whatever it is, you and your friends already comprise one, so begin by trading ideas and start changing the world. What are you waiting for? You don't need anyone's permission.

Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook gives you the lowdown on making things happen, from A for Affinity Group to W for Wheatpasting. In between, you might want to try Coalition Building, Dumpster Diving, Hitchhiking, Pie Throwing, Spellcasting or Stickering. Or, indeed, just make up some activities of your own - the world of direct action is yours, do what you will with it. To get you started, however, you perhaps want to read the book for yourself, and that's our little gift to you today. You can download a pdf of Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook 'here'. It's quite a large file, but is worth having as it's a good quality copy, complete with photographs etc.

At this point, we'd like to give the following disclaimer; Some of the activities in the book are illegal or dangerous and we wouldn't like you to think that we are endorsing these or encouraging anyone to take part in activities that they do not feel comfortable with. We do think, however, that Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook is a great starting point for anyone interested in the sorts of varied techniques that comprise direct action. Better to start slowly and conservatively though, building a sustainable involvement with direct action projects that you can continue over a lifetime rather than rushing headlong into something you're not prepared for.

Don't let anyone tell you that nothing ever changes. Politicians, the media and all of the forces of the establishment want you to think that way. They want you passive, silent and acquiescent - is that what you want?

If you want to change the world, start by changing yourself.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Griff says; Reflections from the echo chamber.

We're back in the exciting and slightly crazy world of Irish experimental music today. Those of you who've hung around the Streetlamp for a long time will remember how excited I was back in 2010 when I unleashed Mariel McCormack and Marie O Hara on you (see 'here').
Well, with the release this month of the 9-song album Echo by Niamh de Barra I'm finding myself reaching the same sort of levels of hysteria (Gordon - "Oh, please God, no!").

Niamh de Barra is a classically trained pianist and vocalist from Dublin who has been making music for quite some time now. From 2002, she was part of the now defunct improvisational group John Mary Trilogy, during which period she took up the cello, which now features prominently in her work. In 2008, the band broke up and Niamh began her solo career, initially under the moniker Scurvy Lass. Since returning to her own name, she has released two EPs, ‘Cusp’ (2010) and ‘Below The Sea’ (2012) both of which are avaialable as free digital downloads from her bandcamp page. It was the latter EP which brought her to my attention as it was released on Scotland's own, excellent Black Lantern Music free netlabel. I was really struck by the innovative methods she used to record the tracks on this, layering and looping the vocals and instruments to make something which sounded both traditional and yet completely modern. With this latest release, Niamh employs the same distinctive style, slowly building the songs by layering different textures, to deliver a masterpiece of gothic, folktronica experimentation.

I'm predicting that if you enjoyed recent Streetlamp recommendation Muscles of Joy (see 'here') you'll enjoy this. The other obvious musical reference point is de Barra's compatriot Laura Sheeran.

I'm embedding a couple of songs below for your delectation. Firstly, here's Spooked, a song which manages the odd combination of being both creepy and witty. As its subject matter is riding your bike at night it serves as a nice counterpoint to our recent musical offering on the same subject from Capybara (see 'here'):

Hope you enjoyed that - and musicians aspiring to gain Streetlamp coverage take note; nothing gets you on the Streetlamp quicker than a song about cycling.
Next, here's The Machine, a song which examines the incredible destruction wrought by the deadly loosening of the ravaging forces of free-market capitalism and rather honestly notes de Barra's failure to recognise this during the so-called boom years:

Hope you enjoyed that. The opening lyric asks:

"We say, "Fight Back", but how do you fight the PR machine? 
How do you fight against a shadow or an oil-slick?" 

The answer, of course, is by forming affinity groups based on the principles of libertarian socialism - but then you knew that already.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Open Head Wounds 1: The Melancholia Of Analogue Synths

One of the pivotal moments in my self-tutored musical education occurred in August of 1980 on a Saturday morning. For some reason, the usual Saturday morning kids TV staples, Swap Shop and Tiswas, weren't on, and some gubbins called Fun Factory was on in it's place. During a fairly uneventful show there suddenly appeared a rock band whose unusual name I had heard of, but whom I had never heard. The band were Ultravox, and the song they performed was 'Sleepwalk', their first single with new vocalist Midge Ure (not that I knew that at the time). The song clattered along at a fair old whack making me assume that they were some new Punk band, but I couldn't help but notice that no-one on stage was playing a guitar of any description. What gives?

Of course, it turned out that Ultravox were among the early pioneers of synthesiser driven Pop music. Synths had been used in music since the early 70s with Kraftwerk, Can and David Bowie at the forefront of the new Electronic guard. But since Punk had changed the landscape and a new DIY ethos had taken over, many budding musicians questioned why bother going to all the trouble of learning to play guitar or piano when you could just push a button on a synthesiser and you were off and running.
Early pre-Punk bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle had been using synths from as far back as 1975, but had often used them to create atonal ambiance or discordant white noise. The duality of Punk Rock coupled with Bowie's synth-washed Low and "Heroes" albums proved the touchstone for many bands who emerged in the very early 80s. The NME at the time seemed to take a neutral stance; not deriding bands for their lack of musical rootsiness, and also championing the aloof and arty pretensions of some of the more serious synthesiser based acts.

At the time, the synthesiser, in particular the Fairlight synthesiser, was seen as the instrument of the future and was often used unsparingly on TV soundtracks and adverts, on Public Information Films, early video and computer games, and especially on home video distributor's idents. That hollow, unearthly, entirely artificical sound seemed everywhere in 1980 and very quickly became dated, a symbol of the synthetic falseness that many tarnish the 1980s with as a decade.
Yet there is, and practically always has been, an odd melancholy to the tones and notes created by those synthesisers, that now creates a weird mix of Proustian flashback with a memory of looking forward....that those strange sounding, mechanical Pop songs contain memories of futures to come....futures that ended up sounding nothing like the music they created. But even at the time, the very non-humanised textures of the music had a peculiar despondency to them that I'm sure their creators weren't intending as they composed them.
Take for instance 'Almost' by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark....I find this to be one of the most melancholic pieces of music ever performed. The haunting downbeat melody could almost certainly never have been created on a guitar or acoustic piano; it's the very flat, soulless-ness of the instrument that gives the song it's heartbreaking power....

Playing a very similar melody, if an octave lower, is 'The Path Of Least Resistance' by the Human League, long before Phil Oakey acquired two female co-vocalists and chased the great Pop dream. Early Human League records were very serious affairs with pure synthesised instrumentation backing Oakey's stentorian vocal concerns of a dystopian future of mechanised illness and genetic mutation....

In the early 80s it became de riguer for the more serious bands out there to feature synthesisers in their line-up, mostly in place of a lead guitar, but this lead to great deal of critical sniffiness about the 'authenticity' of the music. Whilst no-one ever took a swipe at Kraftwerk for creating beautiful, glacial soundscapes purely on synthesisers, many New Romantic, Futurist or Post-Punk bands were harshly criticised or mocked for their 'plastic soul'.
And yet this didn't seem to stem the flow. Even back in the day when we were forming school bands, Griff was involved in a band that purely played 'authentic' instruments. When he tried to get me into the band, it was on the belief that I would play keyboards (I had a tiny, cheap electronic keyboard at the time), even though the band didn't really need another member, and especially didn't need a synthesiser. But that was the point! I couldn't play guitar, bass or piano, but I could faff about with an electronic keyboard and get in the band!

Just as Punk had liberated music with it's 'anyone can do it' manifesto, so the synthesiser meant that anyone could be in a band even if they couldn't play 'proper' instruments. Whilst this may have led to a few extremely ropey chart acts (Depeche Mode, Howard Jones) it also led to some very fine music indeed.
Take, for example, nearly-rans B-Movie who, despite relentless enthusiastic championing from Kid Jensen, just failed to hit the big time with their excellent singles 'Remembrance Day' and 'Nowhere Girl'....

Then there was The Passage....starting out as contemporaries of The Fall and even once auditioning one Steven Patrick Morrissey of Salford as vocalist, The Passage went from scrappy, scribbly Post-Punk guitar band to being almost entirely synthesised in the space of one album. The Passage made some of the best alternative Pop music of the early 80s, intellectually sharp and musically complex, and really should have scored one of the biggest chart hits of the time with the exceptional 'XOYO', a song whose failure to chart still mystifies me to this day....

(I should point out that I have no idea what the video representing the song below is supposed to signify!!)

And so back to I became a fan of theirs, so I slowly began finding out more about their past. 'Sleepwalk' wasn't their first single as I had believed, but the band had had a whole 5 year history before that single's release.
Starting in 1975 as Tiger Lily and then changing to Ultravox as Punk broke, the band released three rather fantastic albums and a clutch of singles while fronted by original vocalist John Foxx. I had heard the name John Foxx before as he had released a single called 'Underpass', an odd completely synthesiser based song that I had bought without knowing anything about the singer or his past.

John Foxx was one of my first real musical heroes, just before Adam Ant and Morrissey changed me forever. There was something strangely moving about his entirely computerised music that had a detached alienation coupled with a poetic romanticism. It's no wonder then that Michaelangelo Antonioni asked Foxx to score his 1982 film 'Identification Of A Woman', a sobering study of a film-maker's existential crisis and failure to communicate with the women he is in relationships with.
His early singles all seemed to have a motorised theme running through them; 'Underpass', 'Burning Car', 'No-one Driving', and his debut solo album 'Metamatic' is considered as a high watermark in electronic music. Given that the album was created with nothing but electronic instruments, it still has a soulful beauty perhaps best captured on the track 'Blurred Girl'....

Foxx would go onto create an impeccable body of work taking in dreamy Pop albums ('The Garden'), ambient works ('Cathedral Oceans'), and still proves proficient today, working with longtime collaborator The Maths on a series of critically acclaimed albums.
While his early releases crept into the charts, he has remained a peripheral cult figure and only now is being hailed as true pioneer of electronic music and has finally gained the kudos and respect of even the most synth-phobic out there.

Whilst some of contemporaries and peers may look down upon the synthesiser and the mechanised music they created in the early 80s, I never had a problem with them, and now find their eerie tones and weird modulations a comforting and dreamy recollection of times past....

(to be continued next week....)


Sunday, 5 August 2012

Playing Devil's Advocate: In Praise Of Jilted John

Yes, I hear you....oh sweet irony and all that! Someone called Gordon actually writing a Blog in praise of Jilted John.
Well let me start by saying that I think Jilted John is one of the great Pop/Punk singles of all time and, even though it should have ruined my life and made my childhood Hell, it never really had the damaging effect you might think. You see I was lucky in that the record was released when we were all on our school Summer holidays, and by the time we all got back, given that most kids have goldfish-like memories, it took a few a days before some wag finally twigged and decided to berate me with the chorus of "Gordon is a moron". But the simple truth was that I loved the song and, had it had ANY other name in the infamous chant section, it would probably rank as one of my favourite records of all time.

To the uninitiated, Jilted John was the titular song by a character created by actor and comedy songwriter Graham Fellows who would later become more successful as Northern Philosopher/Club Entertainer John Shuttleworth. The song, whilst deliberately Punk-by-numbers, is delivered in a whiny, heartbroken Mancunian accent, detailing the break up of John and his girlfriend Julie, and her subsequent new love Gordon. The lyrics drip with bitter vexation as John reels of a string of insults at Julie and Gordon, but contain just enough pathos to prevent the song becoming mean. Any heartbroken teenager will identify immediately with the splenetic vitriol on display. Back in the day when people used to tape-record the Top 40 off the radio, we used to have a chart countdown that had Jilted John and 'Ever Fallen In Love With Someone....' by The Buzzcocks, and it's actually surprising how similar the two songs are; Punk riffing tunes imbued with bleaty Mancunian vocals.

The song got to Number 4 in the British charts in the Summer of 1978, and pretty much became a one-hit wonder. There was an album, 'True Love Stories', released as well, which I remember seeing once in the old John Menzies shop in Stirling, but that was pretty much it. I recall once on some Saturday morning kids TV show that a young lad calling in to the show won a record token. When asked what he was going to buy with the token he replied 'Jilted John'. That was the last time I ever heard of Jilted John for years, even though the single was occasionally played on nostalgia shows.
I always wondered about that album though and recently searched on the Internet to see if it was out there for downloading.
It was, and as I sat down to listen to what I imagined would be a whole album of Punkish broad comedy novelty, something strange occurred....the album was good, very good in fact, and nothing like what I was expecting....

'True Love Stories' is pretty much a concept album, detailing 'John's life from pre-pubescence, through school, through his first love with Karen (not Julie as in the single), his fist parties, and then the break-up with Karen and his subsequent decision to leave home and head to London.
Two things strike you right away; the lyrics are fantastic, and the music is not the second rate Punk gruel you might expect. No, the music and Graham ('John')'s vocals conjure up comparisons with 'Parklife'-era Blur, pre-fame Pulp, Robyn Hitchcock, Felt (particularly 'The Pictorial Jackson Review' album), The Cardiacs, and most evidently for me (at least), Deep Freeze Mice and their off-shoot band The Chrysanthemums. And because of Graham's deeply personal heart-on-sleeve lyrics, there are also traces of The Field Mice, and indeed almost all Sarah Records! From Jilted John?? Who on Earth would have thunk it? And, as I'm sure I don't have to point out, Graham's album predated most of those other artists mentioned by nearly a decade!! Is Graham Fellow's alter-ego THE great influence on British Indie Pop? It may seem, and probably IS unlikely, but who knows how many of those other artists mentioned may have bought 'True Love Sories' on the back of the single, only to have some musical Trojan horse bring a melange of melancholic ennui and angst-driven hubris draped in a curious Lounge-Pop sheen (Griff: You're not writing for the Guardian, you know!) into their lives!
Let me give you an example; take the song 'Shirley' which is one of the last songs on the album and sees John trying to hitch-hike to London and being picked up by an attractive older woman....can't you hear Blur, can't you hear The Cardiacs? If you say can't hear The Chrysanthemums I'll understand because I know they're a little obscure....

If you grew up in the 1970s or early 80s then the albums reference points add that little bit of extra Proustian flashback. Take 'I Was A Pre-Pubescent' in which Graham gives us a snapshot critique of John's early life from birth to school. This is a fabulous song delivered beautifully, which could sum up anyone's life in Northern Britain at that time....including your scribe (although I wasn't born in 1959 obviously!)....

'The Paperboy Song' sees John leave school and get a paper round to supplement his dole money. This is where he first meets Karen (a pivotal moment in his life, as it would be in any young lad's life) and the song ends with a bit of scene setting which runs through the album, but not enough to spoil the music....

'True Love' continues with the John knows he is in love and gushes forth all the platitudes that take over your mind when you meet that first 'one'. This song is almost pure Felt, from the strummed guitar, through the sparkling keyboard runs, down to Graham's over enunciated delivery. Believe me, all C-86 influenced Pop begins here....

In the end, Karen breaks up the relationship as I mentioned earlier, and heads off to London leaving a heartbroken John in her pursuit.
The hit single therefore would feel somewhat incongruous as it doesn't fit the musical palette, nor does his break up with Julie and her subsequent relationship with Gordon. And indeed, the single doesn't appear! But what does appear is an alternative (I believe earlier) take of the song which includes all the same lyrics and ad-libs, but which fits more with the album's feel. Personally though, I find this the most disappointing track on the album. See what you think....

So there you have it, a nice, odd little Pop album a million miles away from what you may have expected. I now wonder what that young lad who was going to buy the album with his record token thought about the album? Maybe he grew up to be Damon Albarn!

As with any successful 'novelty' record (as Jilted John was seen by many), there were attempts to cash in on the single's success. Graham Fellows himself followed the album with a couple of singles as Gordon The Moron, none of which did anything. One of those singles, 'Sold On You' is actually a lovely piece of dream-pop which unfortunately I can't find on Youtube, however it does appear on the album as an extra track.

The most blatant cash-in however, was a dreadful record called 'Gordon's Not A Moron' by Julie & Gordon. Set up as a direct response to Jilted John's hit, this unlovely piece of work features the most moronic (hah! Irony!) third rate Punk grinding over which 'Julie' and 'Gordon' deliver their own attack on John in the broadest Cockney accents imaginable. Now....wasn't the whole thing supposed to have occurred down Salford way? Are there many broad Cockneys in North Lancashire? Believe me, I am more offended by this tripe than anything Jilted John ever uttered!!

Graham Fellows never repeated Jilted John's chart success, but carved out a career as an actor, even appearing in Coronation Street, before creating the character John Shuttleworth and appearing with Vic & Bob, Harry Hill and regularly playing at the Edinburgh Festival and on TV.

In an interview with the NME once, before donning John Shuttleworth's garb, Graham Fellows spoke about Jilted John and claimed he had people called Gordon approaching him all the time, telling him he ruined their lives. Cryptically he left the statement hanging, without giving any hint or clue as to why he chose that particular name to berate.
Well....he may have ruined other Gordons lives, but his 'True Love Stories' album certainly has enriched mine!

'Ere we go, 2...3...4!


You can download the album 'True Love Stories' complete with bonus tracks here

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Griff says; Come and stand for peace.

Next Monday, August 6th., is marked as Hiroshima Day by peace campaigners all over the world. Hiroshima Day marks the day in 1945 when an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed a few days later by another dropped on the city of Nagasaki.

Hiroshima Day, as well as commemorating the needless destruction of a city and its population, is now a focus for anti-war and anti-nuclear discussions and demonstrations. The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament will be holding events across the length and breadth of Scotland. There will be gatherings in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bridge of Allan, Aberdeen, Dundee, Irvine, Kilmarnock, Rutherglen, Inverness and Paisley. See 'here' for more details. Needless to say, 'The Streetlamp' will be attending at least one of the events and we urge any of our readers to find out where Hiroshima Day is being commemorated in their own locality and going along to take part.

If you are unable to do so then please, if you live in Scotland, show support for Scottish CND by supporting their Nae Nuclear Weapons Here Campaign. All Scottish CND want people to do is to add a pin to their map to show that people in every corner of this country want to see nuclear disarmament. Add your pin 'here'.

As well as urging you to commemorate Hiroshima Day we would like to bring your attention to the work of Nâzim Hikmet. Hikmet was a Turkish poet, playwright and novelist who was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and spent much of his adult life in prison or in exile. A good selection of his work can be found at the Marxists Internet Archive. He is most well known in this country for the poem Kiz Çocugu (The Little Girl). This poignant piece, written in 1956, conveys a plea for peace from a seven-year-old girl, ten years after she has perished in the atomic bomb attack at Hiroshima. This poem is known in English by various other titles, including "I come and Stand at Every Door" and "Hiroshima Girl" and has been set to music and covered by numerous artists. In this writer's opinion, the most moving version is the rendition by This Mortal Coil from their 1991 album Blood. The breathtaking vocals on this version are by well-known Glaswegian singing sisters Louise and Deirdre Rutkowski along with Tim Freeman.

The images in this video are, of course, from the 1983 anime Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), itself based on the seminal, Japanese, manga series by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa. If you've never seen this film, a free version of the entire film with an English dub can be found 'here'.

The English translation of the poem used here is provided below:

I come and stand at every door 
But no one hears my silent tread 
I knock and yet remain unseen 
For I am dead, for I am dead. 

I'm only seven although I died 
In Hiroshima long ago 
I'm seven now as I was then 
When children die they do not grow. 

My hair was scorched by swirling flame 
My eyes grew dim, my eyes grew blind 
Death came and turned my bones to dust 
And that was scattered by the wind. 

I need no fruit, I need no rice 
I need no sweet, nor even bread 
I ask for nothing for myself 
For I am dead, for I am dead. 

All that I ask is that for peace 
You fight today, you fight today 
So that the children of this world 
May live and grow and laugh and play. 

An MP3 of this song can be downloaded 'here'.