Teenage Fanclub at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, 14 November 2018

On Wednesday I went with my friend Dave to see Teenage Fanclub at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. The band are doing a tour at the moment where they play three gigs covering the span of their albums over the years. For me the must-see concert was number two, which covered what I think most fans will agree was their peak musically: the albums “Grand Prix” and “Songs from Northern Britain”, released in 1995 and 1997 respectively. It was a hot ticket – sold out very quickly. We got lucky.

“Grand Prix” is an album I particularly like. In fact it has grown in my appreciation over the years, and would probably make my top twenty of all time these days. It’s not that easy to get into that! I wrote a bit about the album in “I Was There – A Musical Journey” of course. And “Songs from Northern Britain” got a look-in too. Since I wrote this, I think I’ve got to like that album more and more.

Anyway, this is what I wrote about the two albums:

“Grand Prix” is one of the great indie albums. Or power pop, or mid-tempo, minor key guitar rock. It is the great Teenage Fanclub album. It takes all their good qualities – the driving riffs, the searing guitar solos, the great harmonies, the tunes – and hones them to perfection.  It’s one of the albums that found its way onto a cassette for the car and so I’ve listened to it endlessly while driving. It is perfect for that, like I’ve said about one or two others. Mid-tempo, but not bland. A real feel-good sound, even if some of the lyrics are bitter. Totally uplifting. Some of the best guitars ever. I really love this album.

The album starts with a classic jangling, Byrds-style singalong, “About You”. But then it shifts a gear, with “Sparky’s Dream”, one of the best of the best.  A twanging guitar, and then lift off.  Though not quite for the protagonist, who takes a wrong direction from a shooting star!

A searing riff, harmonies that reminded me a bit of the sixties Who. Some wistful, what-might-have-been lyrics. A great pop song.

“Mellow Doubt” eases the pace for a moment – a country-tinged tale of regret – before the awesome “Don’t Look Back” ups the riff factor, and the plaintive vocals, and the harmonies, for the most uplifting moment of the album. There’s no doubt that Teenage Fanclub have that thing called celtic soul. And Gerard Love, maybe most of all – he leads on “Sparky’s Dream” and “Don’t Look Back”, his voice fragile and wistful, amid the chiming guitars.

“Verisimilitude” is a downbeat but insidious interlude, all Elvis Costello cynicism and menace. Reminds me of “Green Shirt” a bit. It’s the timeout before maybe the best song of all, “Neil Jung”. Of course the title is a pun, maybe a double one.  (There’s a bit of psychology in there). It’s another Elvis Costello-style bitter take on the transience of relationships. It’s lifted by the melody – Norman Blake on vocals – and the magnificent, singing, guitar throughout, ending with a supreme solo in the style of… who else? 

The guitar hero moment of the album, no doubt…

That front six was so good that it took me a while really to get into the rest of the album, but there are some very fine songs at the back. A rich variety, the Fanclub songsmiths at their most inspired. “Discolite” is classic surf punk; “Going Places” shimmers beautifully; “Say No” could have been on The Beatles’ “White Album”. And on it goes – one of the best nineties pop albums. It kind of got lost in all the hype about Britpop, which, strangely, Teenage Fanclub were never considered part of.  I guess it was a rather grown-up pop. You’d find it in the rock section of the record shop, rather than pop.

So “Grand Prix” is still something of a hidden treasure. It didn’t lead to an outpouring of Teenage Fanclub-style bands. It didn’t create a genre. It’s just there to be enjoyed for its own sake, in a place where so many of the best pop and rock sounds of the previous twenty years bumped into each other and came out winners.

“Songs from Northern Britain”, the follow up album in 1997, was more of same. Not quite as distinctive as the collection on “Grand Prix”, although the opening track, “Start Again”, would have held its own. The closing guitar solo was up there with the one on “Neil Jung”. “I Don’t want Control of You” jogged the memories of Badfinger, from the early seventies. I liked the irony in the album title: the breezy sounds and harmonies sounded more like they’d come from sunny California than cloudy Scotland. I read somewhere that some people regard it as Teenage Fanclub’s masterpiece. I have to say I’ve listened to it more in the last few days, as I’ve written this piece, than I ever did when I bought it, and my appreciation has grown. It’s an album with depth. But it’s destined to be in the if you like “Grand Prix”, try this… category. Vying with “Bandwagonesque” for the second-best Teenage Fanclub album slot.

The format for the show at the Electric Ballroom was pretty straightforward. Two sets, with an interval. “Grand Prix” first, then “Songs from Northern Britain”. It was singer and bassist Gerard Love’s second last show – he’s leaving the band because of the international touring that the band are embarking on next year. The band aren’t flamboyant – they just get on with the songs. And the songs – so good! It was a brilliant show. The Byrds influence comes across strongly live, especially in the “Songs from Northern Britain” half. The highlights for me were obviously the songs I celebrated in my book. My top three these days have to be “Don’t Look Back”, “Neil Jung” and “Start Again”. As well as wonderful melodies (and some poignant lyrics) they all have great guitar moments. If I had one criticism of the show, it was that the solos weren’t mixed up high enough in the sound. So I was using my memory a bit to appreciate them. Maybe that was just me.

So, a great celebration of an unassuming band, but that one that has stayed really popular because their songs are just so good. On the way home, a little while after the gig had finished, a bloke about my age sat next to me on the Northern Line. He asked me if I had been to the concert – reasonable guess that any man of my age still in Camden might well have been there! I said yes and he said he just needed to talk about the gig, because it was so good. He was a massive fan – he had tickets for all three shows at the Electric Ballroom, and had been to the Glasgow concerts too – the band’s homecoming. That is dedication.

I’m not at that level, but Teenage Fanclub are a band I like a lot, and it was a privilege to be at the show last night.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

My novel “The Decision” is now on Amazon and Kindle!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I first published “The Decision” in March this year. It’s now on Amazon and Kindle. See the link here or at the end.

“The Decision” is a dystopian political tale set in 2027, where family loyalties and commitment to the Cause are in frequent conflict. The narrative revolves around a kidnap at Wembley Stadium in London before a big football (soccer) match. It tells the story of the build up and the aftermath.

It’s part one of a trilogy. I’m just about to start work on the second.

I’ve had some great feedback from people who have read the book. Some real engagement with the characters, and a real desire to know what will happen next, during the story, as well as what’s going to happen in part two!

If you do buy it and enjoy it, please tell your friends!

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+decision+by+john+sills

 

Posted in Art, books, theatre, cinema, London | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Newcastle evening, with Slaves at the O2 Academy

7 November 2018

Went up to Newcastle to see my daughter at Uni.

Took in a concert while I was there.

Chose Slaves at O2 Academy because Amyl and the Sniffers were the support.

Aussie punks.

Brilliant at End of the Road.

They pulled out!

Went anyway.

Dinner with my daughter.

A pint in Brewdog, working on a poem about the colour green.

Missed the support bands.

The balcony bar was a trestle table.

Carling cans or wine.

Had some white – borderline sweet.

The music on the PA was surprising.

Included Whigfield’s “Saturday Night”.

Good Gawd!

Slaves came on.

Lights flashed, drums were bashed, vocals lashed.

In yer face, rhythms pounding.

Singer shouting, guitarist leaping.

A father and young son near me, heads nodding.

In unison, rather touching.

Below, the teenagers moshing.

Don’t know many of the songs.

But they rock!

They were brilliant at Latitude a couple of years ago.

So I knew they would be tonight.

“Feed the Mantaray” was awesome.

A great rock’n’roll band, Slaves.

With a lot to say.

Very loudly.

Afterwards the streets were busy.

With the youngsters queuing for the clubs.

I felt old.

But loved it too.

The energy, the optimism of youth.

Palpable.

Back to the Premier Inn.

A glass of Pinot Grigio.

Reading a book on the iPad.

Shall I say what it was?

Ok, “Crazy Rich Asians”.

Reading it for a book group discussion.

Not my thing, but kind of amusing.

Filigree lightness.

Across from me, a bloke asleep.

With half his beer in front of him.

Nodding occasionally.

A member of staff woke him up.

He smiled and fell asleep again.

I had another glass of Pinot Grigio and carried on reading.

A good evening.

In its own way.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

lovelondonscenes 149 – Battersea Power Station re-emerges

On Sunday I walked along the Thames from Wandsworth Bridge to London Bridge. I was pleased to see that part of the route by Battersea Power Station is now open, so you don’t have to divert along the roads quite as much. And you can get close up. Still a way to go, but it is going to be brilliant in the not too distant future.

Posted in Photos - lovelondonscenes | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

lovelondonscenes 148 – London Wall, in the City

Inspired by the excellent “London Nights” photo exhibition at the Museum of London , which I saw a week or so ago, I took this shot and turned it into black and white. It was 6 o’clock in the evening.

Posted in Photos - lovelondonscenes | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

“Bob Dylan – The Words of the Songs” at Wilton’s Music Hall, 5 November 2018

On Monday I went along to Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End to see a “Dead Poets Live” show, in which three actors – Toby Jones, Sheila Atim and Robert Sheehan – performed the songs of Bob Dylan. Without the music. The poetry of Bob Dylan. The tickets for the show were a retirement present from a friend, Annabelle, even though she doesn’t like Bob Dylan! Or didn’t. She might explore a few of the songs after what we saw on the night.

Dylan, of course, recently won the Nobel prize for literature, which many purists hated. I thought it was great, and well-deserved. And if you ever needed proof of the power and profundity of words, this was a night that provided it. This wasn’t an evening that concentrated on the obvious “protest” songs, or many of his well-known songs at all; but a range of songs that focused on relationships – lost loves mainly. Lost but not forgotten. A touching example of that was a song called “Most of the Time”, which came from the 1989 album “Oh Mercy”. It was hailed at the time as a return to form for Dylan. The album was produced by then in-demand producer Daniel Lanois, who specialised in echoey atmospherics and had worked extensively with U2, amongst others. Dylan describes the recording of the album in New Orleans in his autobiography “ Chronicles Volume 1”. The process was difficult, but the outcome was probably the best album since “Desire” in 1976. “Most of the Time” is a song about getting over someone – or maybe not. Toby Jones read this one beautifully, with a touch of sad humour. His phrasing was such that each most of the time stood on its own, a wistful reflection on the claims that went before that everything was fine, really.

Most of the songs/poems were read by one of the actors, but in a few they combined, which gave the pieces another dimension. One, “Brownsville Girl”, which I didn’t know, really came to life when Sheila Atim, sitting at the piano, sang the choruses. It’s a song from the 1986 album, “Knocked Out Loaded”, one of those which I studiously avoided at the time. When I got home I listened to the song – it’s very long and a bit too gospelly for my liking, but I can see the appeal. As a spoken word piece, with just the chorus in music, it worked really well.

Along with “Most of the Time” my highlights were the versions of “Visions of Johanna” from “Blonde on Blonde”, “Tangled up in Blue” from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Isis” from “Desire. The first two of those I founded incredibly poignant. They are songs I love, and stripped back to just the words, the poetic form, the sadness, the regret, was palpable. “Isis” is an epic story as it is sung – Dylan the storyteller at his best. As the spoken word, it was truly compelling.

There was a compere, James Lever Rowse. He introduced the pieces and explained their meaning afterwards. We didn’t really need that, as the meaning is wrapped up in our individual perceptions, but he did offer some interesting insights. And, assuming he had some hand in the curation of the show, then massive credit to him.

So is Bob Dylan a poet, or just a simple troubadour? He has often liked to claim the latter. But he is unquestionably both, and a lot more besides – spokesman for a generation, etc, etc. Tonight’s show was evidence of that.

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections, Poems | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

4 days, 4 concerts – The Pixies, Palace Winter, Goat Girl, King Crimson

Last week was one of those musical weeks. A concert pile-up. A highly influential grunge pioneer, an Aussie/ Danish purveyor of melodious pop, an alt-punk up-and comer and to cap it all, a 70s prog behemoth. The latter was, it is fair to say, against my better judgement, but it involved a good night out with the lads, so was worth a few moments of ennui and alienation!

The bands and venues were: the Pixies at the Roundhouse; Palace Winter at Oslo, Hackney; Goat Girl at Koko, Camden; and… King Crimson at the Palladium. I’ll take them in turn.

Pixies, Roundhouse, 31 October

The Pixies played five sold out nights at the Roundhouse, with photo ID checks to get in – to battle the touts. They are a very influential band in the indie world, but I assumed that they were essentially a cult band. Wrong, clearly; and the age range proved that. Plenty of old timers who remember their 80s/90s hey day, but a lot of youngsters too, who ensured some pretty extensive moshing when the riffing broke out, as it did for pretty much every song! The concert featured two of their late 80s works, each played right through. The first was “Come on Pilgrim”, a mini-album that I wasn’t that familiar with; the second was the first full album, 1988’s “Surfer Rosa”. A real indie/punk classic. Naturally it gets a mention in “I Was There – A Musical Journey”. Here’s what I wrote:

The best songs were extraordinary: edgy, strung-out, punky and rocking. Black Francis’s voice was slightly disturbing. They were masters of the slow-quick-slow sound. A bass heavy, scratchy build up and then a wall of riffs. The best was “Where is my Mind?”. The title said it all. The verse had a piercing guitar squall, firing over Black Francis’s jittery vocals, and an eerie howl. “Bone Machine” was a stuttering wreck of a song, with a jagged guitar ripping it up. You can hear so much that came later in these songs, be it Nirvana, or early Radiohead, or PJ Harvey, or QOTSA, or even U2, as they evolved their Berlin sound in “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa”. In fact, it was pretty much de rigeur to cite The Pixies as an influence if you were in an indie band in the 90s and 2000s.

Three of the original band members were still there: frontman Black Francis (real name Charles Thompson), the nattily-dressed lead guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. The band reformed in 2004, having split in 1993. Bassist Kim Deal left again in 2013, and has been playing with her other great band, the Breeders. On this tour, she was replaced very ably on the bass by Paz Lenchantin. She and Lovering played some really tight, driving rhythms, which gave the music its remorseless dynamism.

The show kicked off with “Caribou” and it set the tone for the whole evening. Those punching beats, Black Francis’ howl and hardcore riffs and Joey playing a few tricks with his guitar. The unfamiliarity of “Come on Pilgrim”, apart from “Caribou” and “Nimrod’s Son”, didn’t stop it being engrossing, especially with the excellent array of screens and obscure, arresting graphics, in classic Pixies style. There are a lot of Latin American references on both the albums amid the general weirdness – product of Francis’ travels in that part of the world. No Latin beats though.

“Surfer Rosa” then took things to greater heights, starting with that awesome opener, “Bone Machine”. “Where is my Mind” was anthemic; and maybe the best chorus singalong was for “Gigantic”. Quite an easy one that! The punk mayhem of songs like “Oh my Golly” and “Something Against You” was quite something too. The Pixies really do have simple but immense power in their live sound. Masters of their craft. Francis didn’t say a lot – in fact he didn’t say anything – but he didn’t need to. The music spoke for itself. The encore was three songs, but not a run through of some of the Pixies’ other great songs like “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. But, to my delight, they did play the majestic Planet of Sound”, maybe my favourite Pixies song of all.

None of my friends who came along – Jon E, Dave and Tony – knew the band that well. But they all loved the show. They recognised the sheer class of the Pixies – still at the top of their game.

Palace Winter – Oslo, Hackney

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love this band. I’d seen them twice this year, prior to this gig, first at a short promotional show at Rough Trade East, to mark the release of their new album “Nowadays”; then at Latitude, where they got a great reception at the Sunrise Arena. Palace Winter are essentially Australian singer and guitarist Carl Coleman and Danish keyboard player Caspar Hesselager, augmented by another guitarist and a drummer. They specialise in songs with soaring melodies, washes of electronica and driving beats. Their first album “Waiting for the World to Turn”, released in 2016, was a masterpiece. It made my top ten of the year, and is an album I still listen to a lot.

The set tonight erred towards the new album, but there was still room for a few old favourites like “H.W.Running”, “Dune”, “Positron” and, in the encore, the magnificent “Soft Machine”. “Positron”, with its guitar/keyboard wig out, is the perfect song to end a set. Out on a high. From “Nowadays” I particularly like “Empire” and “Take Shelter”, though overall it doesn’t quite match its predecessor (at least not yet – Palace Winter songs have a habit of growing on you). There were a couple of songs near the end of the main set that went on a bit: got, dare I say it, rather too prog for my liking. But this was another really enjoyable show, with Carl his usual bouncy, engaging self, and Caspar quietly providing the swirling sounds that paint Palace Winter’s musical picture.

Goat Girl – Koko, Camden

South London’s Goat Girl released their debut album, “Goat Girl” earlier this year. They can do punk, but it’s rather more than that. The songs are all pretty short. They slur, twang (a hint of rockabilly) go a bit reggae and then break out in some punk riffing. The subject matter is discursive, unsettling, sometimes just plain weird. Not much love but plenty of lust and disgust. The most straightforward rock’n’roll song, “The Man”, is an example of that. The brilliant “Country Sleaze” is another

They rattled through the album and one or two other songs in about 45 minutes. Singer/guitarist Clottie Cream managed the odd smile – after all, they had just about sold out Koko and the more boisterous members of the crowd were managing to mosh to quite a few unlikely candidates. Highlights included “The Man”, which raised the tempo in mid set, two of those twangers, “Cracker Drool” and “The Man With no Heart or Brain”, and a rousing “Country Sleaze” at the end.

There was clearly no encore planned, as music came back on the PA. However, the lights wavered and then it went dark again. And the band came back on again. One of them said, “We haven’t got any songs left, we’ll have to play something again. What would you like?” There were various shouts, then they settled on a stripped back version of a less well-known song, “Lay Down”. And that was that.

Goat Girl’s music is perhaps an acquired taste, but it is worth acquiring. The new album is a grower and the live show reflects its bite.

King Crimson – Palladium

And so to the old prog rockers. Not as stereotypically so as, say, Yes or ELP, but still purveyors of strung-out, overblown, over complicated songs that rarely manage anything like a tune. Just my view, like. After all there were a few thousand greying, balding blokes (and a few women) nodding their heads approvingly through the nearly three hour show. Yes, three hours! There was even an interval.

King Crimson do have a certain credibility because of guitarist and band leader Robert Fripp, who has a CV that takes in many great bands, including collaborations with David Bowie, Eno and U2. He’s a man to introduce some edgy, left-field guitar to your sound. He’s in his 70s now, and didn’t really act like band leader, sitting to one side of the band with headphones on all the time. No words were exchanged with the audience. Actually no-one really interacted with the audience, or, with the exception of the three drummers, with each other. Having said that, they all looked pretty chuffed at the end, taking photos of the enthusiastic applause. It was a bit like being at a classical concert really: listen intently (with added head-nodding here) and show your appreciation at the end. And definitely no photos.

On the positive side, the musicianship was very accomplished, the drummers were pretty amazing – between them they must have had every piece of drumming kit known to man – and there were some decent jazzy bits which weren’t so different from Miles Davis’ forays into jazz rock. And “21st Century Schizoid Man” was fun at the end. It has a recognisable riff and a chorus!

Perhaps some of my fellow attendees – same as for the Pixies – will offer the alternative take on the show, in which it will be one the most brilliant examples of musical virtuosity they have witnessed for many a year. And who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? That’s the joy of music.

But give me Goat Girl any day!

Posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments