Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Frank Zappa

So inevitably Z comes along and the A-Z challenge comes to an end. It feels like the end of a train journey across the top of Siberia. You remember the poor food, the day the toilets blocked up and the hard beds. But there was also the night you saw the Northern Lights glittering away there beyond the low earthy dampness of the tundra and you realized you had not seen anything as beautiful for a long time.

You remember fondly the people you met in the dining car and you feel a sense of loss that the adventure is over. But you may have some of their numbers scrawled down on train tickets somewhere. You may even stay in touch.

So suddenly your feet are on the terra firma of the platform and you permit yourself a quick glance back as the last of the smoke departs from the funnel of the engine and kinks when it hits the cold air, as if it is waving you goodbye. But you don't look back twice because to do so would freeze you in time or like a pillar of salt, bitter and unmoving, like Lott's wife when she looked back on the destruction of the arid cities of the plain.

But before I go there is the small matter of Z. A lovely happy ever after ending would be good but I don't do happy endings. The sad endings are the most moving ones. In Dr Zhivago, one of the greatest love stories ever told, the star crossed lovers never end up in each others' arms again. And Lara, played by the incomparably beautiful Julie Christie and later rather alluringly by Keira Knightley, dies in one of Stalin's gulags.

This doesn't have so much to do with Frank Zappa. I'm not sure what does. But clearly Frank is a bad ending rather than a good one, he became interested in politics, for a start. I don't know so much about him but life has taught me one important lesson about Frank. If you are struggling to find a name for your kid, don't call up Frank.

Zappa named his eldest daughter Moon Unit. In a subsequent interview Moon Unit described how her upbringing left her requiring therapy. Her name clearly didn't help. Wistfully she looked at her younger siblings and wished she had normal names like Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen.

Exposure to a mustard gas factory in Baltimore affected Zappa as a child, causing him many health problems. Later in life there was the small issue of exposure to the Sixties and more chemicals, albeit with a larger degree of consent.

By the time Zappa died in 1993, rendering his role as a child name consultant moot, he had produced more than 60 albums. Zappa is renown for the use of the much of the Synclavier, a kind of protoype synthesizer the size of a small house, as a compositional and performance tool

Considering he was so productive I don't think I could recognize a Zappa song if it punched me in the nose. All of that is about to change.

Curious fact about Frank Zappa - In 1979 Zappa released a movie Baby Snakes billed as "A movie about people who do stuff that is not normal," The movie contained several extraordinary sequences of clay animation by Bruce Bickford. The movie did not do well at the box office. Dr Zhivago it was not.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Yazoo

Yazoo, not to be confused with a search engine or a scandal 200 years ago in Georgia, were a British synthpop duo from Basildon, Essex who enjoyed some success in the early 1980s.

If you thought Swindon was bleak make a point of not visiting Basildon. It's basically a new town which means it was built in the 1960s so it's like the nasty bits of England without the old parts to redeem it. I have vague memory of its concrete precincts, blurred by the rain on the windscreen, as I killed time waiting for God know's what; or maybe just God.

Yazoo was formed Formed in late 1981 by former Depeche Mode songwriter Vince Clarke (synthesiser) and Alison Moyet (vocals).

Yazoo's first single Only You was released in 1982 and, although its sound was clearly rooted in the synthesizer obsessed eighties, it was an impressive debut, that launched Moyet's big voice on a big stage. She's certainly the sort of gal you'd want right by your side - at least if you found yourself in a fist fight.

The single was followed by Situation and Don't Go in 1982. Which was another excellent single that did well in the charts at the time. It brings back those crazy plastic nightclubs in the 1980s with expensive watery drinks when Yazoo were about the only promising thing on the turn table.

The second album You and Me Both also contained some great tracks like the single Nobody's Diary. I had totally forgotten how good this track was, albeit in an eighties context. We love this song because it is so much about love and loss and raises an important question that goes to the route of modern existence; namely does anybody keep a diary anymore? New hair-oos in this one and Vince stuck his finger in a powet socket.

Yazoo never made it big in the US. Sadly Yazoo split up in 1983, although unusually both elements of the band had some degree of success - Moyet on her own and Clarke as one half of Erasure. Moyet had a Number One hit with Invisible and another major hit with Love Resurrection. Here Moyet does an impression of Lawrence of Arabia minus his motorcycle.

Ultimately Erasure were bigger and better becoming one of the most successful groups of the mid 1980s and early 1990s. This is Ship of Fools.

Curious fact about Yazoo - The band was called Yaz because a band called Yazoo already existed. This is also the name of a birth control pill.

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for XTC

I always associate XTC's Senses Working Overtime with the smell of chips and the English seaside. Not what Americans call chips but what they call French Fries. Except British chips taste better than American fries as they are cooked in lard and wrapped in newspaper and drenched in vinegar and served with a heart attack on a plate.

The place was Charmouth, Dorset. The year was 1982 and we were on a geology trip. Senses Working Overtime sounded from the cafe as we headed to the fossil encrusted cliffs.

A light rain fell from a heavy gray sky. The Golden Cap, England's highest cliffs drifted in and out of sight. Someone suggested going in the sea, which was crazy because it was probably about 50 degrees and the sea was much colder. Heavy brown waves with white heads sloughed into the shingle beach.

Gingerly we went into the sea, tasting the brine in the air, shivering in the wind. But after a few freezing minutes an exhilaration took over. After a while the sea didn't seem so cold. We were buffered around, at one with the elements, the swirling rain and the frowning sky. It was spontaneous fun. Not something you often associate with geology field trips.

I think that was the last time I went in the sea. In England, at any rate.

All of which puts off the duty to described XTC. I don't know a lot about the band. Apart from the fact they begin with X.

Wikipedia, states the band is "even better known for their long-standing critical (rather than commercial) success." I'm not sure I know what this means.

The band came together in the early 1970s, the creation of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding.

Andy Partridge should not be confused with Alan Partridge but, as I am a big fan of Alan, this is surely the chance to post a video that's totally irrelevant to this post. Here Alan talks about Wings "the band the Beatles could have been."

Many bands appears to have been formed in unlikely places and XTC were no exception coming from Swindon, England, a city best known for an unusual traffic roundabout.

They performed a lot live in the late 1970 and early 1980s until Andy Partridge's breakdown, which led to chronic stage fright, reportedly precipitated by his wife throwing away his supply of Valium. The band's biography said the drug was prescribed to him as a teenager when his parents divorced but he was never withdrawn from the drug and became dependent on it. Concerned about her husband's dependence Partridge's wife threw his tablets away—without seeking medical advice.

The result was the band only performed in studios from then on.

The band's biggest hit was the 1979 song Making Plans for Nigel which was apparently big in Canada. Quite what plans were being made, it's not clear but the single has a distinctive sound of the so-called New Wave bands.

XTC's 1984 album The Big Express was one of their lowest selling but Partridge rates tracks such as Smalltown and Train Running Low on Soul Coal as his best. I'm not totally convinced by the later but at least it showcases Swindon in all its ugliness.

Later in 1984, the members of XTC created their alter-ego, "The Dukes of Stratosphear" (a suggested band name that the group had considered when they first formed). I'm not really clear why.

Although XTC were active until they broke up in 2005, their heyday was clearly the late 1970s and early 1980s when songs like Senses Working Overtime threatened to make them big.I still question what constitutes 'biscuit shape' as biscuits can be many different shapes.

Curious fact about XTC - one of their singles Statue of Liberty was banned by the BBC because of its supposedly "lewd" reference to the famous statue ("in my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt").

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A-Z blogging challenge failure - hits but few new followers

Just a quick observation before I scour what's left of my challenge-fried brain for any decent groups beginning with X.

This challenge has led to some strange things happening to my blog Brits in the USA. The number of daily hits has risen dramatically from about 200 a day to more than 500. I wish the same thing would happen to my salary.

On the downside my rather modest aim of gaining 200 followers looks likely to fail. At the onset these challenges tend to attract a lot of blog hoppers but toward the end of the month, the enthusiasm wanes. And my blog hopping has been erratic to say the least. I know I have missed tons of great blogs. I have been an unreliable follower.

Why do we do this in the first place? Probably because our laptops have stolen our brains and reduced us to stat obsessed automatons a long time ago.

But there's a silver lining. I've gained some fantastic new followers and friends. And, at the final reckoning that's a lot more important than the empty science of stats which warbles away in the darkness like Rain Man counting matches.

W is for Waterboys

I have always felt an odd nostalgia for the Waterboys song All the Things She Gave Me which gives me strange flashbacks of dew drenched Welsh parks and the ragged mosaic on the pathway of my old student house, although I don't know quite why.

During a rather tempestuous relationship with a girl called V, I was keen on this track and I like the emphasis on burning love tokens. While I'm all for harmonious break-ups, there's something wonderfully cathartic about burning belongs, although I can't say I've done it. For a start V never gave me anything to burn.

The Waterboys are a curious Scottish, Irish rag tag of style and substance. I saw them once in the very un-Celtic surroundings of Milton Keynes, when they were blasting out This is the Sea and The Whole of the Moon.

At the time in the early 1980s they were associated with the Big Music sound and were often spoken of in the same breath as bands such as Big Country and Simple Minds, the band they were warming up for at Milton Keynes.

The second album A Pagan Place was rather awesome, and underrated, containing tracks such as All the Things She Gave Me, A Pagan Place and A Church Not Made of Hands, which was a rather ambitious attempt to depict spirituality in nature.

The band never received the commercial success it deserved, although, after an initial outing at number 26, The Whole of the Moon, returned to the UK charts to reach Number 2.

Founder Mike Scott, a Scotsman, was accused of selling out by some critics, when the band's fourth album Fisherman's Blues in 1988, took on an Irish folksy theme.

The band has always been anchored in literature. Recently Scott set 20 W.B. Yeats poems to music in an enterprise that evolved into a show entitled An Appointment With Mr. Yeats.

Although the Waterboys have been labelled as Christian rockers this is not entitely accurate. Thier influences, state Wikipedia, are romantic Neopaganism and esotericism of authors such as Yeats and Dion Fortune, which can be observed in the repeated references to the ancient Greek deity Pan in both "The Pan Within" and "The Return of Pan".

This relieves me no end. I am always in favor of a spot of Neopaganism to liven up a wet Thursday afternoon.

Curious fact about the Waterboys - the band has had dozens of members. More than 50 people have been Waterboys at some time or another.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

V is for Vega

Suzanne Vega seemed to be high profile in the late 1980s and then she was gone; wispy and thin with a pale voice and pastel skin that reflected her Swedish, German, Scottish, English, Irish roots. No Latin blood in Suzanne Vega or hint of the Salsa.

Her songs brought to mind urban parks and brownstones and the wind buffeting leafs along a chilly sidewalk somewhere near Central Park in November as the last of the light scuttled for cover.

Her voice was as crisp as her lyrics such as those in Freeze Tag.

We go to the playground

In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime

There are allusions to Dietrich and Dean, Bogart and Bacall, but we know the great movie lovers are specters, for the characters in the park who are more interested in a cold fumble on the swings than a great romance.

Vega seemed to be keen on Marlene Dietrich, the German actress, as evidenced by the song Marlene on the Wall.

Vega wrote the song about coping with loneliness. She had a poster of Dietrich on her wall and found comfort by looking up to it. She explained in SongTalk magazine: "That was a truthful song. The lines came out of my life."

It was her first hit, and while it was big in Britain it didn't register in the US. But the 1987 album Solitude Standing made Vega a household name for a while on both sides of the Atlantic. It's most recognizable single was Luka, a song about an abused child.

Vega later said in an interview in Sweden. "A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn't know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing."

Although the song was about an abused child the real life Luke was just different.

Tom's Diner became Vega's biggest hit in 1990. It was a quirky song with an a cappella voice, an unusual candidate for a mega hit. Rather bizarrely Rapper Tupac Shakur later sampled the track in "Dopefiend's Diner".

Vega is still recording. In retrospect her heyday in the 1980s seems brief and fleeting and yet Vega's songs were a contradiction in many ways - light and pleasing to the ear but at the same time weighty in their themes such as loneliness and child abuse.

Curious fact about Suzanne Vega - Tom's Diner was set at Tom's Restaurant at 112th Street and Broadway in New York City. Exterior shots of the same restaurant appear in the television sitcom Seinfeld as Monk's, the eatery where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer hang out.

Monday, April 23, 2012

U is for U2

A lot of people tend to be dismissive about U2. Perhaps it's because the band became too successful to be cutting edge or because they have been around for so long.

But it's impossible to leave out these mega stars from Dublin from the musical odyssey of the last three decades even if they have been through a bewildering number of changes in styles.

The band's first album was Boy in 1981 and it wasn't a bad debut. It spawned the single I Will Follow that gave U2 their first hit in the United States.

The video is notable for not very much apart from The Edge's attempt to look like a somewhat unpretty version of a member of Duran Duran and lead singer Bono's leather trousers.

U2's next album October has a rough and ready style and a spiritual theme. About this time The Edge and Bono almost left the band due to a spiritual crisis.  Bono, The Edge, and Larry Mullen had joined a Christian group in Dublin called the "Shalom Fellowship", which led them to question the relationship between the Christian faith and the rock and roll lifestyle.

Tomorrow remains my favorite track from this album. It's a haunting song that encapsulates all of the sad uncertainty of Ulster for me, although I still don't know if it was about Northern Ireland at all.

War followed in 1983, a powerful album that made peace a crusade. U2 certainly knew how to churn out albums. It was around this time that everybody seemed to wake up to U2 as a force. The album included two mega hits - Sunday Bloody Sunday, describing the British massacre of Catholics in Derry's Bogside and New Year's Day. I can't find the official video so this is something to do with the Battle of the Bulge.

Then in 1984 U2 abruptly changed course in a move that left many of my high school friends shaking their heads in disbelief. Under the influence of producer Brian Eno, The Unforgettable Fire was dreamy and ambient. It's biggest hit was Pride, devoted to MLK. It's title track was more intriguing.

The 1986 album The Joshua Tree marked another change in style, as the influence of artists such as Bob Dylan and the wide open spaces of America were brought to bear. Bono travelled to places such as El Salvador to see first hand how a ruthless US backed regime was treating the population in a dirty little war. Yet while the track Bullet the Blue Sky is a scathing attack on America The Joshua Tree also illustrates U2's fascination with its wide open spaces. Red Hill Mining Town is one of the most underrated tracks.

The Joshua Tree was a hard act to follow. The live album Rattle and Hum had mixed reviews. In 1991 U2 turned in a different direction to Germany where the Berlin Wall had recently come crashing down. They embraced a European industrial sound in Achtung Baby which contained hits such as One and The Fly.

So Cruel is one of the album's more obscure tracks but one of the most powerful, in its own way. Apologies for the Spanish subtitles but I liked this footage of intense looking folks wearing woolly hats.

And then after the highs of Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree, U2 seemed to lose some of their direction and became more pop-like as Bono became increasingly sanctimonious (that may have happened earlier actually).

After a couple of disappointing albums U2 appeared to be close to their best with All That You Can't Leave Behind, a 2000 album that featured the single Beautiful Day. There's not been a lot worth a mention since.

Rolling Stone ranked U2 at number 22 in its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Curious fact about U2 - The Band was originally called Feedback and then The Hype. The band decided on U2 because it was the least objectionable of a the names on a shortlist.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

T is for Talking Heads

My A-Z series on bands has probably been just a brit Britcentric and has bypassed some great American artists such as REM, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins.

But my 'T' entry Taking Heads is American, although America never really appreciated the band as much as Britain.

One of the band's most well known hits Once in a Lifetime, failed to register much stateside while it made it big in the UK. In fact, Burning Down the House was the only top 10 hit Talking Heads achieved in America.

Maybe America simply did not get their quirky brand of The New Wave  punk, art rock, avant-garde, world music and pop funk.

I once knew a girl who was keen on Talking Heads but it worried me that her favorite track was the 1977 number Psycho Killer. As soon as the taut lyrics "I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax," started, a strange far away look would come over her features as if she'd just received a calling from God and she'd disappear into the kitchen that, like many kitchens, contained a lot of sharp knives.

At this point I'd disappear out of the window which was a tad unfortunate given that she lived on the fourth floor.

David Byrne, the lead singer of Talking Heads, said of the song.

"When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad. Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies."

That was the kind of guy Byrne was.

Talking Heads were formed in 1975. Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. I don't know a lot about Rhode Island but I assume it's not large and wonder if they are the only famous artists to ever come from the place.

A cover of Al Green's Take Me to the River brought the band to national conciousness in the late 1970s.

The band was big in the 1980s for a while when the album Little Creatures (which featured the hit singles "And She Was" and "Road to Nowhere, were released. They broke up in 1991.

 In a 2011 update of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", the band was ranked 100.

There were some tentative efforts at a reunion in the early 2000 but Byrne spoke of "bad blood."

Weymouth was also scathing of Byrne describing him as "a man incapable of returning friendship."

Curious fact about Talking Heads - The band chose their name from a TV guide that contained a description of a person talking.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Siouxsie and the Banshees

The late Seventies that saw the arrival of Punk rock must have been an exciting and chaotic time. The sudden appearance of Punk is associated with the Sex Pistols, an anarchic band that was essentially a creation of the Machiavellian marketing and fashion guru and impresario Malcolm McLaren.

The Sex Pistols were all about noise and outrage rather than talent. But they went down in history as one of the most controversial and influential bands of all time.

Siouxsie and the Banshees were formed in 1976 by vocalist Siouxsie Sioux and bassist Steven Severin. Siouxsie was initially a Sex Pistols hanger on who took her distinctive appearance from the Punk era. She's later credited with being a pioneer of the Gothic movement and the band gained a deserved reputation for innovative experimentation.

The 1970s were certainly strange and anarchic days in England, although I was too young for them to really register.

John Lydon of the Sex Pistols said of the era: "Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks...then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us."

If Siouxsie and the Banshees were copycats at least they were talented. They were cited as major influences by Morrissey, U2, Radiohead and The Cure.

The Times cited Siouxsie and the Banshees as "one of the most audacious and uncompromising musical adventurers of the post-punk era.

Some of the band's most well known tracks include Spellbound, Happy House, Kiss Them for Me and Dear Prudence, a haunting cover of the Beatles song.

The band later broke up in 2004, crippled by Siouxsie's face powder bill. Siouxsie pursued a solo career. The band made some impact in the US with the hit Peek a Boo.

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Radiohead

R is going to be on the the fly. I am conscious that the A-Z blogging challenge is coming to an end with even my modest aim of gaining 200 followers now looking beyond reach. It doesn't bother me too much because there's a hollowness in numbers. Richard told me this. He told me about the maths whizz at his university who would steal scraps of food from students' tables and tare angrily into space. Then one day he didn't show up at the lecture he was meant to be giving. He had killed himself on the railway line. I digress.

So R will be hurried, which is a shame because R offers so many possibilities. Roxy Music were so sexy, the Rolling Stones were about as sexy as Keith Richards' cigarette end, but wildly crazily talented. But I was really torn between R.E.M.and Radiohead - Seattle cool and somewhere near Oxford cool.

I guess the Brits win because I'm biased. But Radiohead have always struck this great big chord with me, even if it was a misericord, which s really nothing to do with being glum but it a minimalist kind of seat in a Medieval church.

But Radiohead lost out to my desire to walk round the vaguely emerald waters of a lake in which turtles lined up on their logs. Then there's the small matter of the writer's group and breathing some life into the novel that's lapsed again.

Radiohead formed in 1985 and they were from Abingdon in Oxfordshire, another unpromising suburban setting. Their first major hit was Creep in 1992 which was frankly creepy and, from the outset, established Radiohead as a very different kind of outfit from the photogenic boy bands of the 1990s such as Take That.

It's safe to say Radiohead's lead singer Thom Yorke lacks the classic good looks of an Elvis Presley or a John Taylor. Hell, he lacks the classic good looks of Boy George, resembling a mole who has been dragged unwillingly into the light from his hole.

Creep failed to register at first and then became big, particularly in places like Israel. The 1995 album The Bends marked the band's arrival on the big scene, with hits such as Fake Plastic Trees and High and Dry.

Street Spirit remains my fave, even if's it's irredeemably dark. Street Spirit was described by Yorke as "the dark tunnel without the light at the end."

The 1997 album OK Computer with its experimental sounds made even bigger waves than The Bends and has often been described as one of the top albums of the 20th century.

Then, just as Radiohead stood on the verge of mega stardom, they did the opposite thing to Oasis and retreated. Their next album Kid A, was more obscure with fewer obvious hits. Some critics liked it, others dubbed it a "commercial suicide note."

Yorke, who had been suffering from serious depression around this time, may have deliberately intended to downplay Radiohead.

Radiohead have not faced out like Street Spirit, although they haven't had such a high profile as in their heyday in the 1990s.

The band have embraced the rapidly changing nature of the music industry. Radiohead's seventh album, In Rainbows, for instance, was released through the band's website in October 2007 as a digital download for which customers could make whatever payment that they deemed appropriate.

Radiohead-Karma Police by pghj2005

Karma Police is probably Radiohead's most famous hit. The video still confuses me but it seems to have a message that can be technically described as "shit happens."

Curious Fact about Radiohead - Thom Yorke almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the car he was in while filing the video for Karma Police.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Queen

Ugh. I just said it. It's an understatement to say there aren't many bands beginning with 'Q' and because no elderly women have yet started a tambourine troupe called Quilters, I'll have to go with Queen.

Queen may have been a massive British success story but I never really warmed to them. I'd rather go to a concert featuring last year's A-Z for Q entry Q is for (the) Queen and see her play a flute with her corgis howling in the background.

Queen were formed in 1971 and soon became one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. While I'm not a huge fan of their material I have to concede they could put on a great live show and clearly stole the show at Live Aid in 1985.

They could certainly rock you, if you were feeling remotely like being rocked. At least they changed their name early on from Smile, which strikes me as a very lame name for a band.

Thir biggest hit was Bohemian Rhapsody which was the third biggest selling record in British history and somewhat bizzarely became Number One at two separate Christmases. I'm actually fairly partial to a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody which is a good song to sing along to after about eight beers, although not as good as Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl.

But I really don't go in much for We Are The Champions, We Will Rock You, Crazy Little Thing Called Love... blah blah.

The 1978 album Jazz with the singles Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race, was accompanied by a strange marketing campaign in which 65 naked women were persuaded to get on bicycles rented from Halford's cycles and sent racing around Wimbledon Stadium. This has given me a moment of pique because I am recalling my new bicycle from Halford's that was callously stolen. We are actively seeking video of this marketing campaign that is probably even stranger than Pink Floyd floating an inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station.

Queen were fronted by the ever exuberant Freddie Mercury (real name Farrokh Bulsara) who tragically died of pneumonia linked to AIDS. His death raised the profile of AIDS tremendously in Britain and the UK. Mercury remains one of the consummate showman in rock and a legend on both sides of the Atlantic.

Curious fact about Queen: Lady Gaga was a big fan of the band and their hit Radio Gaga inspired her name.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Pink Floyd

When I was at university I befriended a girl called C. She was a big fan of The Wall by Pink Floyd. She'd invite me to her room and cook for me at times. She may have had designs but she wasn't very happy.

In the end she dated my best friend, although I always find the American term "dated" a curious term for relationship. She still wasn't particularly happy. When he broke off the relationship she was even less happy. She'd dart out suddenly in front of cars, although it was unclear if it was a play for attention or a genuine suicide bid.

By the second year C. became less relevant. She lived in a house on another street with some almost equally unhappy people. It was like visiting the House of Usher. Just grimmer.

Sometimes she'd come to our place and watch The Wall. We'd all watch it and by the end even the most upbeat soul would feel at one with C. All those scenes of flying coffins that became crosses, people with jellied faces and Bob Geldof lying on a filthy floor with his hand down the toilet, tended to negate against spontaneous happiness. There was a wall between us and the undergraduate world which is supposed to be jovial and hedonistic.

Jeff was certainly hedonistic. He'd come up to me in the law faculty common room and tell me about the exploits of Jeff and his girlfriend Vikki, which was the last thing I wanted to hear about given that I'd spent the previous night alone nursing a tin of baked beans.

"Man. I got wasted with a capital W," he'd tell me. "Smoked some stuff, Shoved on Dark Side of the Moon and woke up two hours later thinking I was on the moon."

Ah. Floyd again.

I'm not sure that I can even attempt to sum up Floyd in their progressive and psychedelic awesomeness.

The band was formed in 1965 by  university students Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, and Syd Barrett, the latter who took too many drugs and went loopy.

As a kid the massive hit Another Brick in the Wall affected me. I thought it subversive with its anti schooling message and depiction of Gradgrindesque Scottish school masters, while the part with the kids being fed into meat grinders appalled me. Kids of a certain age tend to be conservative and I was no exception.

The film The Wall was based on the central character of Pink, drawn from Waters' childhood experiences, the most notable of which was the death of his father in World War II.

This first 'brick in the wall' led to more problems; Pink became drug-addled and worn down by the music industry becoming a fascist megalomaniac, a development inspired partly by the decline of Barrett. At the end of the album the increasingly fascist audience would watch as Pink 'tore down the wall', once again becoming a normal caring person.

Comfortably Numb is very powerful in The Wall and is perhaps one of the best Floyd songs.

The album The Dark Side of the Moon was apparently an allusion to lunacy rather than the moon. Floyd were those kind of guys; probably safer to listen to than to hang out with.

Curious fact about Pink Floyd: Shooting for the cover of the album Animals featured The a 30 feet pig-shaped balloon that was floated over Battersea Power Station in London. Bad weather delayed filming and the balloon broke free in strong winds, and landed in Kent where it was recovered by a local farmer, reportedly furious that it had apparently scared his cows.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Oasis

Slip inside the eye of your mind. Don't you know you might find. A better place to play.

So begins Don't Look Back in Anger, one of my favorite Oasis songs. This track makes me think about the Nineties and about one of the decade's most profound dramas Our Friends in the North, as our heroes walked slowly away into obscurity under the bridges of the Tyne to the sound track of Oasis, their parts that dated back decades now over, the identities lost in the modern world.

Music appeared to reach its zenith in the Nineties and then it faded away. But we shouldn't look back in anger. It's a good philosophy for life. While I don't generally favor the Biblical turn the other cheek mentality that can be translated as 'bitch slap me until I'm blue in the face,' there's much to be said for just walking away and finding yourself in another place where nobody knows your name.

It's strange that this should be the Oasis song that strikes a cord with me the most because the brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher appeared to look back in anger most of the time. Before turning back in anger and punching somebody in the face.

Oasis styled themselves on the Beatles, even if they were from the rival city of Manchester, rather than Liverpool. And for a while from 1994 to 1997 they were almost as big as the Beatles, before abruptly facing away.

Oasis had a raw and angry sound that seemed to come straight from the mean streets they grew up on. Their first hit Supersonic was taut and edgy. They were discovered by Creation Records co-owner Alan McGee, who invited them to play at King Tut's Wah Hut in Glasgow. Nobody recognized their name on the door but, by all accounts they bullied their way in, and stole the show.

Although Oasis were not originally seen as part of the Brit Pop movement, their epic battle with Blur for the Number One slot - primarily a media creation at the time - has forever associated them with the Brit Pop movement.

Blur's County House edged out Oasis' Roll With It. Oasis claimed there was a problem with the bar code on the single. Noel Gallagher later told a newspaper he hoped Damon Albarn and Alex James of Blur would "catch AIDS and die," later apologizing for the remark.

Noel Gallagher was the oldest and more sensible of the brothers.

His battles with his younger brother Liam, that often spilled over into violence, are the stuff of Oasis legend.

In 1994, for instance,  at a gig in LA, Liam,  under the influence of crystal meth, made offensive remarks about American audiences and assaulted Noel with a tambourine.

Oasis ultimately proved to be bigger than their nemesis Blur with an unprecedented run of 22 top 10 hits in the UK.

But they also went down faster and Blur's legacy remains stronger. The fame, mansions, swimming pools and girls, appeared to dull the edge of the Gallagher brothers and they lost their distinctive street fighting sound.

The Gallaghers did the normal band thing of splitting up and going solo. But they left a hell of a legacy. Let's hope they don't look back in anger.

Curious fact about Oasis - This hard edged northern band were named after a leisure center in southern Swindon of all places.

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for New Order

When Blue Monday by New Order was in the charts, it spurred us on to develop the robot dance at school. I was passable but self conscious. Elicit cider supping helped. In contrast Pete was a dream in his white gloves. We would all form a circle while Pete worked his jerky moves. He was also a whizz on the running track.

Sadly Pete was in the slow lane in the classroom. I didn't stay in touch but could imagine him working in a packing factory or under a car. Then my imagination would kick in and I'd wonder if 20 years later, Blue Monday would be played on the radio one day and he'd wistfully remember when people formed a circle around him in his white gloves.

Or maybe I'm the only one who thinks that way and Pete forgot about Blue Monday years ago.

I'm not sure how big New Order were in the US, but they were ground breaking in Britain for a while with their electronic, industrial sound that was influenced by the German band Kraftwerk. And perhaps there were more sinister German influences at play.

Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris were originally members of Joy Division, a band whose gloomy sound was at odds with their name.

Lead singer Ian Curtis had suffered from ill health including bouts of epilepsy that sometimes took place on stage. Members of the audience wrongly though this was part of the act. Amid a marital breakdown he committed suicide in 1980.

The 1983 single Blue Monday became the best-selling independent 12 inch single of all time in the UK, the won;t mean a lot to people under a certain age. The general public were somewhat dischuffed to find it wasn't on the track list of the album Power, Corruption and Lies, resulting in a sticker appearing on unsold copies of the album that said: "DOES NOT CONTAIN BLUE MONDAY.

New Order and Factory Records were instrumental in setting up the famous Hacienda club in Manchester in the days when a wealth of alternative talent led to the city being dubbed "Madchester."

New Order - True Faith by hushhush112

True Faith became New Order's first American top 40 hit, although Ruined in a Day performed better stateside.

In more recent years New Order have done the usual band thing, namely splitting up and falling out. reported in July 2007 Hook had posted a message on his MySpace blog, claiming he would take steps to prevent Morris and Sumner to continue as New Order, writing "This group [New Order] has split up! You are no more New Order than I am! You may have two thirds, but don't assume you have the rights to do anything 'New Order-ey', because you don't. I've still got a third! But I'm open to negotiation."

They got together soon afterwards. Then split.

Curious face about New Order: Critics claimed the band had fascist undertones. The term "New Order" was featured in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf as "the new order of the Third Reich" while the name Joy Division originated from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel The House of Dolls.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Morrissey

Few artists have had such a profound influence on the zeitgeist as Morrissey. Few artists have managed to annoy people as much, once again proving the link between genius and spikiness.

Morrissey has been described by been described by music magazine New Musical Express as "one of the most influential artists ever," and The Independent has stated "most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status he has reached in his lifetime.

Steven Patrick Morrissey grew up in inner city Manchester and his lyrics reflect the crumbling streets, back-to-back houses and garbage strewn streets of a city where all it seems to do is rain.

Morrissey's influences seem to have been Coronation Street, James Dean and Oscar Wilde. He was a fan of the New York Dolls and briefly fronted the Nosebleeds before a meeting of minds and talents with Johnny Marr led to the creation of The Smiths in the 1980s.

From the outset The Smiths were different. In an age of synthesisers and gaudy clothes The Smiths were marvelously downbeat. Their first top 10 UK hit Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now contained the lyric: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now."

Seriously. We can all relate to that lyric.

A previous single What Difference Does it Make? only reached number 12 which is surprising considering it's one of the best tracks in the history of forever. In my unbiased opinion.

Morrissey's uncompromising vegetarian PETA-loving credentials were set out in the title of the 1985 album Meat is Murder, a song that coincidentally busted my first and only clandestine teenage party.

My parents were away and we decided to hold a party. We may have got away with it had two diehard Smiths fans wearing Meat is Murder T-shirts not tipped out all of our milk in the coat closet by way of protest. That took some explaining.

The album The Queen is Dead coincided with my departure for university which was handy because it meant I could hang Smiths posters in my room and could listen to their mournful lyrics on a student downer which occurred at least twice a week:

And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her roman nose
And her Walkman started to melt

Morrissey later upgraded the lyric at a concert, replacing "walkman" with iPod, apprently, although, to be fair, Joan of Arc may have had more pressing concerns that her iTunes playlist as she was burned at the stake.

Inevitably Morrissey and Marr fell out and Morrissey went solo in the late 1980s, recording some memorable songs including Suedehead, Every Day is Like Sunday, The Last of the International Playboys and The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get.

Morrissey's musical industry feuds and political controversies are legendary. In a 1984 interview, he said of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "She is only one person. She can be destroyed. It is the only remedy for this country at the moment." His first solo album, Viva Hate, included a track entitled "Margaret on the Guillotine."

In 2010, despite a the previous feud, he supported Marr, when he forbade British Prime Minister, David Cameron, another Conservative, from liking the Smiths. Morrissey said: "I would like to, if I may, offer support to Johnny Marr who has spoken out to the media this week against David Cameron. David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence."

There have been the extreme animal rights comments and allegations of racism that coincided when he said of the Chinese. "Youcan't help but feel the Chinese are a sub-species." He was referring to China's record on animal rights.

In 2011 in the wake of the Norwegian massacre Morrissey said: "We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 [sic] dead. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Shit every day."

These kinds of comments raise the distinct possibility that Morrissey may be a bit of a jerk. But at least he's a jerk that sounds good.

Curious fact about Morrissey - he worked for the Inland Revenue for a while but was so unimpressed with the job he decided to go on the dole instead.

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Lennox

I'm happy to report my blog posting on the Kinks was picked up by a Kinks website and has received hundreds of hits today.

Other than my brief jubilation at this minor blimp in the numbers game I have little else to celebrate but a night of beers with a pal may sort this out.

Before that there's the small problem of L; more like Ell. There is a serious shortage of decent artists beginning with L. I was beginning to despair until I remembered Annie.

Annie Lennox is like the alter ego of Madonna. She's also very talented but instead of being self centered she does lots of things for good causes and everybody loves her. It's funny that when Sting talks about the rain forest and Bono from U2 bangs on about world poverty, they sound like sanctimonious gits. But Annie Lennox can never put a foot wrong.

Like many of the featured artists she was born into a degree of poverty. Her father was a shipyard worker and her mother was a nurse and the lived in a two roomed apartment with shared washing facilities. It was upstanding Scottish poverty rather than the kind of moral wasteland Jimi Hendrix was born into - see H is for Hendrix.

In the 1970s Annie joined forces with Dave Stewart to form The Tourists, She was in a relationship with him initially. That didn't stop her forming Eurythmics with her ex and the band went on to dominate the eighties with hits such as Love is a Stranger, Who's That Girl, Here Comes the Rain Again and Sweet Dreams.

As demonstrated by the video for Love is a Stranger, Lennox took on an androgynous look, at times looking like Bowie and at other times a femme fatale.

In the early 1990s Lennox embarked on an equally successful solo career that spawned hits such as Why, Walking on Broken Glass and No More I Love Yous.

Lennox has been a public supporter of a number of charities for many years including Amnesty International and Greenpeace and she and Dave Stewart donated all of the profits from Eurythmics' 1999 Peacetour to both charities.

In 2006, in response to her humanitarian work, Lennox became the patron of the Master's Course in Humanitarian and Development Practice for Oxford Brookes University. In 2006, she addressed Members of Parliament in the UK about the need for children in the UK to help their counterparts in Africa.

Curious fact about Annie Lennox - her first marriage was to  a German Hare Krishna devotee Radha Raman. It lasted just a year from 1984 to 1985.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for Kinks

Back at school no school disco was complete without "Big Roger's stomp." Roger was a hard drinking, serially disaffected English teacher who could be funny at times even if his stock joke "Do you like Dickens? I've never been to one." was met with a wall of classroom silence every time he told it.

At the cheesy affairs that were otherwise known as school discos, whenever You Really Got Me by the Kinks was put on the turntable, the dance floor would clear and Big Roger would appear and proceed to dance a frenzied stomp that defied all description in menacing ever decreasing circles. The record would switch to Satisfaction by the Stones and Big Roger would up the tempo, if that was even possible, running the risk of shattering the dance floor and his tibia with his movements.

Years later I was drinking in the work social club on the first day of my new job wondering what the hell I was doing. The news editor, who had told me "the most important thing we do here is have fun," was slumped gloomily over a pint of heavy, suggesting today's paper was "utter shite." He seemed less than impressed that I had failed to grasp the intricacies of local government reorganization on my first day on the job.

Then a strange thing happened. Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks came on and suddenly my morose mustachioed boss was transformed. coming over all misty eyed at some memory related to the song that I didn't want to know about.

Although The Kinks were in their heyday some time before me, these episodes illustrated how they had a habit of appearing in my life. The Kinks can be like that. The band was mould breaking and anyone familiar with The Kinks has a favorite track.

The Kinks were labelled a "British invasion" band in the US. The band was formed in 1964 by brothers Ray and Dave Davies in Muswell Hill, London. It seems Ray and Dave had the kind of parents we all wished for but so few of us got. In the unpromisingly suburban surroundings of north London, Frederick and Annie Davies held all night rock and roll parties that inspired their offspring to form a band.

The band was originally called The Ravens but changed their name to The Kinks in 1963. Manager Robert Wace recalled a friend had advised him the risque name would be a good way of getting publicity. Band members were horrified about a name that suggested they were in some way deviant.  "I've never really liked the name," Ray stated.

You Really Got Me in was released in 1964. It was boosted by a performance on the television show Ready Steady Go. It reached number one in the UK and number 10 in the US.

The Kinks acquired something of a reputation for on stage rowdiness afer an incident in Cardiff in 1965 in which Dave Davies insulted the drummer Mick Avory and kicked over his drum set. Avory hit Davies with his hi-hat stand, leaving him unconscious, before fleeing from the scene, fearing that he had killed him. Davies received 16 stitches to his head at the hospital.

Such behavior may explain why the American Federation of Musicians refused permits for the group to appear in US concerts for four years.

In the 1965 record See My Friends written by Ray Davies the band integrated Indian raga sounds into their music before the Beatles did the same thing. Later the band took on an increasingly theatrical aspect, which also has parallels with The Beatles.

The 1967 record Waterloo Sunset is one of the most enduring tracks from The Kinks. The dreamy feel of the track has always appealed to me. Waterloo station is a vast terminus surrounded by decay and disorder, tower blocks and ring roads. Waterloo Sunset hints at escapism and loneliness in the vastness of London.

The song describes two lovers walking over a bridge, with a melancholic observer reflecting on the them. The song was rumoured to have been inspired by the romance between actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Ray Davies denied this in his autobiography, and later said: "It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world and they were going to emigrate and go to another country."

By 1973 there was little romance left between Ray Davies and his wife Rasa, who took their children and left him. The lead singer's depression led  to a public outburst during a gig in London where a reviewer said he he swore that he was "sick of the whole thing'. ... He was "sick up to here with it. "At the end of the show he declared he was quitting, kissed Dave Davies on the cheek and collapsed from a drug overdose.

The incident clearly provided a decent scoop for the reporter from Melody Maker. Fortunately, Davies lived but The Kinks faded out like the bittersweet melody of Waterloo Sunset, although their legacy lived on in numerous bands who re-recorded their songs.

Curious fact about The Kinks - in the early 1960s they tried out a number of vocalists including Rod Stewart, who was unknown at the time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for Japan

J has cut me up because I've only left myself an hour of Wednesday and I am missing the days of two blog postings a week and I haven't had time to acknowledge all of you fab people who have commented.

J is also tearing me up because I had a Howard Jones phase, but Tom Jones is a God, even if the idea of throwing under garments at someone icks me out. And Norah Jones sounded nice for a while back there.

And while I didn't like The Jam a lot at the time after Weller declared he would vote Conservative, it turns out the marketing people has told him to say that. In retrospect I love their angry but controlled sound.

Japan, in contrast seem to be pale faced pretty boys who were in on the early cusp of the New Romantic movement in the early 1980s, although they distanced themselves from it before fading away. They never made it big in America.

But even today their elegant sound stands the test of time. They are considered and clever and age like a fine wine or the painting of an impressionist with its subtle pastel undertones. For a while I had a double album of Exorcising Ghosts complete with pretty water colors on the sleeve. CDs killed vinyl but there's something aesthetically beautiful about the appearance of an album like that. There's something beautiful about Japan too.

Nobody died of a drug overdose but bassist Mick Karn died of cancer in 2011. And lead singer David Sylvian made a few pretty sounding albums about trees before fading into obscurity. Funny to think such beauty could come out of Catford.

Curious fact about Japan - the band was,in fact, big in Japan.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for INXS

Let's face it possums, as Dame Edna might say, we all want to visit Australia. But has anything cool ever come out of the place?

Although cities like Sydney may be cosmopolitan, it seems to be an exception to the rule. The stereotypical view of Australia involves red earth, flies, spiders that attack you from the toilets in the outback and Crocodile Dundee types who don't take kindly to Sheilas in their bars.

INXS were clearly an exception to the rule, although they started off life with the less than cool name the Farriss Brothers.

A name change and the lead singer Michael Hutchence changed all of that. "Hutchence was the archetypal rock showman. He exuded an overtly sexual, macho cool with his flowing locks, and lithe and exuberant stage movements," commented rock music historian Ian McFarlane.

When he dated Kylie Minogue it was the nearest Australia had to a celeb couple. He also dated the model Helena Christensen.

Hits included Need You Tonight, Never Tear Us Apart, Disappear and Suicide Blonde.

The band, or at least the volatile Hutchence - was undone by a suicide blonde. Paula Yates, the infamous British TV presenter and rock chick first met him on her sofa on Channel 4's rock magazine program The Tube in 1985.

Being married to Bob Geldof didn't stop Paula stalking Hutchence with a vengeance for a decade until she finally got her man.

Geldof and Paula already had three kids - Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie. Paula and Hutchence felt they had to have their own daughter with a silly name and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence (known as 'Tiger') was born in July 1996.

There was no happy ending. Apparently, missing his child Hutchence committed suicide in 2007. Yates bitterly contested the verdict, arguing Hutchence was seeking sexual gratificaiton by hanging himself with a belt in his hotel room - perhaps the first time in history somebody has tried to argue auto erotic strangulation as a more preferable way to go.

It seems that rather a lot of the artists featured in this A-Z challenge have met premature ends. Inevitably Yates later died of a drug overdose.

Curious fact about INXS - The name INXS was inspired by the English band XTC and Australian jam makers IXL. Which is only slightly less glamorous than being named after a fish canning company. See A is for ABBA.

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...