Is punk relevant 35 years after Never Mind the Bollocks?

http://www.virgin.com/music/blog/is-punk-relevant-35-years-after-never-mind-the-bollocks

22 September 2012

What does punk mean by definition? Does it mean “not giving a fuck?” because if so then it’s spirit is alive and well judging by tonight’s antiquated notions of a beaten white underclass and a rather po-faced understanding of the forward moving linear concept of time. Arguably time is an abstract, so let’s concern ourselves with the abstract nature of punk shall we? Punk means different things to different people, and so it should. This personal memory of punk was discussed by a panel of mostly self confessed “old farts” for the 35th anniversary re-release of the Sex Pistols’ seminal ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ album at the 100 Club in London, which included legendary Mancunian wit John Cooper Clarke and renowned director Julien Temple.

It would seem that now is as timely a coda as ever for punk’s closing chapter given the Queen’s jubilee this summer and the ever contracting economy. Surely, in these dour times, punk should resonate more than ever? But from the panel there’s a distinct variety of understanding of what ‘punk’ actually is. For John Cooper Clarke punk was a reaction to the mid 70s deluge of prog-rock. Ever the diplomat he reserves his comments for Genesis by saying “Phil Collins’ daughter might be in the audience and I don’t want to piss on her chips”. The surprising but welcome inclusion of Brit award winning Kate Nash brings a contemporary angle as she comments how she first discovered the Sex Pistols, and by proxy punk, when she was working in River Island as a “frustrated teenager looking for sense of identity”. As a display of an enduring legacy this is surely more than any artist could ask for? That your work be a milestone, a go to reference point, a voice for the voiceless in these mass-marketed consumer focussed times… But it is exactly these trite, if well intentioned, over-generalised terms that only serve to reinforce and undermine punk’s enduring enigma.


The case in point comes when Bernard Rhodes, once manager of The Clash, comments that “punk had to happen, if it didn’t happen everyone would be dead and bored”. There seems to be an underlying notion here that punk is an ideal, an anachronism; a higher concept from a simpler time. Such thought infers that everything that has happened subsequently is redundant as a result. There is frequent talk of whether punk has actually changed anything. The discussion becomes somewhat heated when it’s pointed out that the deluxe box set, which this event commemorates, will cost £100. Bernard (who now lives in New York, despite, or rather in spite of his brow beating comments on the state of Britain) defends this point by glibly observing a food shop costs the same price and how white people (the presumed consumers?) are no longer working class. His comments are at this point clearly contentious, muddled and unclear. Is punk solely focussed on the dirt under the fingernails of white working class British pride? Surely not…

There is a marvellously erudite moment when a middle-aged, white, skin head taxi driver in the audience asserts that grime artists in East London “don’t give a fuck about punk, and why should they? It means nothing to them” Quite right. Punk is a youth movement that belonged to a specific time, it channelled an energy relevant for the time and place in which it was relevant. We can learn from it, but we can’t interact with it – like any truly meaningful youth movement it shone bright but dispersed.

These days people tend to reminisce about punk in intentionally vague and obtuse terms because, realistically, it is conceptually no longer viable. Punk is an ethos and belongs in a museum. This does not deride its cultural impact or importance, but it does mean we should stop looking at the present through the imperfect gaze of the past.

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Leonard Cohen live at Wembley Arena

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/leonard-cohen-live-at-wembley-arena

12 September 2012

https://i2.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-_huKLeG7Jo0/Tcl0whRBoXI/AAAAAAAABQM/6tg-li-lSiI/s1600/leonard-cohen19408.jpg

There had been some mystery in the weeks preceding Leonard Cohen’s weekend London performances… An eleventh hour press release had been issued saying the venue, the idyllic Hop Farm in Kent, would be changed to the somewhat more prosaic Wembley Arena. The reason was also unclear, vaguely citing “unforeseen circumstances”. On Saturday, the first of two dates, Cohen was quick to apologise, claiming he only found out about the move when the audience did. In his own inimitable and endearing manner he quelled the misunderstanding by stating “There are unseen hands that manipulate the marketplace; hands that I don’t get to shake… or crush for that matter”.

Whether or not the performances happened at Hop Farm was, and is certainly now, utterly irrelevant. After all, Cohen inspires such reverence in a crowd and has the rare ability to bring an intimacy to the vastest of venues. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to have seen him live since his long awaited and acclaimed return to the stage four years ago will know what to expect – his performances are equal parts impassioned, graceful and humbling. Age has matured and refined his voice, arguably giving his songs and poetry far more resonance then when they were first recorded. Nowhere is this more evident than the superlative renditions of early classics such as ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ from his 1967 debut, the latter inspiring a mass sing along that clearly touched Cohen.

Saturday’s set highlighted the best of the set he’s been touring these past few years along with key moments off his recent album ‘Old Ideas’ including ‘Darkness’, the soul searching ‘Amen’ and the dryly self-deprecating ‘Going Home’ – where in a wry delivery, and to much crowd amusement, he paints himself as a ‘lazy bastard living in a suit’. But Saturday also served as an opportunity to dig into the archive and perform some rarities, notably ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ (which film aficionados may recall featuring on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack). For a man in his late seventies he’s still as smooth talking and silver tongued as he was in his ladykilling heyday; he personally praises his long-term musical collaborator Sharon Robinson and backing singers The Webb Sisters to the crowd during set staple ‘Tower of Song’ saying “thank you for your angelic voices, without them no-one would come”. It’s this modesty that makes Cohen such an endearing and captivating performer as is his ability to occasionally poke fun at himself; during the same song, after a rapturous applause from his rather pedestrian keyboard solo, he comments to the sell out crowd “I see your generosity hasn’t diminished”. The small touches tonight make the biggest impact, for instance there’s a telling poise during ‘I’m Your Man’ when a knowing and revealing lift of his signature fedora marks the lyric ‘I’ll wear an old man’s mask for you’.


The set helps prove why Cohen and his band are peerless performers; guitarist Javier Mas’ stunning Middle East inflected passages at the start of ‘Who By Fire’ still have the ability to send shivers down the spine. Conversely some of the arrangements have been altered and played with to keep them fresh and vibrant, ‘Heart with No Companion’ has been given a Southern state skiffle. Unlike Bob Dylan, who habitually makes a po-faced effort to alter his songs live so drastically to the point of them being unrecognisable, Cohen and his band instinctively know when to hold off or when to indulge. After all, his USP has always been his world-wearied lyricism and in his wizened years he’s become adept at inflecting humour and humility to his sorrow and melancholy without dampening the formidable effect of his verse.

After more than three hours and a stunning career spanning thirty song set, Cohen literally skips back on stage for a second encore, diving into a heart wrenching rendition of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which sounds just as injured and fragile as when it was first recorded over forty years ago. Closing the evening they perform a cover of The Drifters’ ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ with Cohen making his humblest apologies for the fact that it’s already half eleven and that the powers that be have ordered that he’s simply not allowed to play any longer. Charming, warm & generous – Leonard Cohen is only getting better with age.

10/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Elbow & Bat For Lashes live at iTunes Festival

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/elbow-bat-for-lashes-live-at-i-tunes-festival

10 September 2012

iTunes’ annual month long residency at the Camden Roundhouse is now firmly established and tonight saw Mancunian legends Elbow supported by ethereal songstress Bat For Lashes.

Bat for Lashes, nom de plume of Natasha Khan, took the stage donning a navy blue jump suit, red cape and fascinator; successfully coming across as a mix of Bjork and Little Red Riding Hood. Performing a short set drawing on her last two albums (including ‘What’s a Girl to Do?’ and ‘Horse and I’ from her accomplished 2006 debut ‘Fur and Gold’) as well as a handful of new songs off the forthcoming ‘The Haunted Man’. Her new songs display something of a direction change, far less brooding and more electronic pop-centric. She introduces new song ‘Oh Yeah’ as one “to get you dancing”; as it lollops along on a course of electronic drum patterns and catchy synth melodies. She has reinvented her persona again (previous cohort and ex-Ash member Charlotte Hatherley is nowhere to be seen) and is clearly taking the Kate Bush influences that always ran through her output more seriously. Latest single ‘Laura’ and the similarly name-inspired ‘Daniel’ help stake her claim as the current queen of the theatrical alternative pop.

Imagine being Guy Garvey for a second, your band has put in over 10 years of hard graft, you’ve garnished increased critical acclaim over the course of five albums, built a strong reputation as the festival band, you’ve won the Mercury Prize, Hell, you’ve even got your own 6 Music radio show. There’s a reassuring touch of honesty about Elbow; they’re not a flash in the pan success, after all they’ve only recently started headlining arenas. Their popularity is a result of keeping their heads down and simply getting on with it. All very British, then. This hard earned reputation culminated over the summer with their much publicised commissioning by the BBC to write the official Olympic anthem ‘First Steps’. After their performance at the closing ceremony their record sales shot up 1000%.

There was a touch of the victory lap to Elbow’s performance; Guy exuded a confidence and charisma befitting of their newfound ubiquity. They began with ‘High Ideals’ from last year’s ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ before slipping into the ‘The Bones of You’ – the set focused mostly on their last three albums. Before ‘Leaders of the Free World’ Guy took pointed effort to explain in his inimitable, charming fashion the history of the Roundhouse venue, explaining how horses would turn trains around in the main hall “whilst the Sex Pistols played downstairs”.

The rousing and anthemic ‘Grounds for Divorce’ saw Guy thumping at the drums whilst the crowd rapturously sang along to the infectious harmony. ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’ was soul-stirring; the backing string quartet giving the song a graceful air. Before ‘Weather to Fly’ Guy led the audience in a Happy Birthday sing a long for bassist Pete Turner, humorously quipping that we “wouldn’t believe how many birthdays Pete’s had this year!” They finished the evening with the Olympic friendly ‘One Day Like This’, the crowd – euphoric and elated – eating out the palm of their hands.

Fair play to Elbow. They’ve done their porridge, stayed humble and as a result are getting all their due rewards.

8/10

Images from iTunes Festival

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Cat Power – Sun

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/cat-power–sun

03 September 2012

‘Sun’ marks Cat Power’s first album of original material in six years. It is also her most personal and reflective set of songs since 1998’s seminal ‘Moon Pix’, an album of notoriously bare boned emotional fragility. ‘Sun’ is also a break-up album, inspired by the split with her long-term actor partner Giovanni Ribisi. Fans of Chan Marshall may well be worried by the prospect, in true post-break up angst she cut all her hair off (reference the album sleeve for proof) and in her youth she was certainly prone to bouts of crushing self-absorption writ large and laid bare on record. Indeed it was this extreme isolation that gave Moon Pix the sense she was dancing precariously in the shadows of a haunted depression. However, for all the evidence to the contrary Sun is actually incredibly upbeat with Chan citing the album as a “rebirth”.

The album was self-recorded and produced over the past three years in a studio she built herself in Malibu, and was mixed in Paris with Phillipe Zdar (who has leant his skills to the likes of Phoenix and Chromeo). Perhaps the Florida climate and the helpful hand of a French pop luminary contributed to the albums bright sheen, but ‘Sun’ is also a statement of complete control, both thematically and in its production. Chan claims that “Sun is don’t look back, pick up, and go confidently into your own future, to personal power and fulfilment.” A change in direction, in other words.

Opening track ‘Cherokee’ marries a classic Cat Power piano refrain to washes of evocative guitar as she incants “Never knew love like this… never knew pain like this… If I die before my time bury me upside down.” Although lyrically the album may draw direct comparison to ‘Moon Pix’ musically it cites the playful curiosity and global ambitions set out in ‘You Are Free’, nowhere is this more evident than on ‘Ruin’ which rides on an infectious latin inspired nine-piano loop. ‘3,6,9’ takes the vocal hook from the nursery rhyme (you know, the one where the goose drinks wine?) making it something of an electronic pop anthem adding vocoded multi-layered harmonies. On paper it may sound pointedly absurd but in practice Chan pulls it off with deft skill. This electronic theme continues with ‘Real Life’ and ‘Human Being’ which structurally carry the patented blues elements from Cat Power of old whilst making them defiantly contemporary.

The album highlights come in the form of ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Nothin But Time’. The former propels on a minimal drum machine pattern which anchors delayed icy piano stabs. Chan pragmatically picks apart the fading of a relationship as she observes “the hotel room with the street below, people come and people go, all the friends we used to know ain’t coming back.” The twelve minute epic piano ballard ‘Nothin But Time’ builds slowly with modulating synthesizer spikes, waves of Galaxie 500 esque guitars and a motorik drum rhythm. It’s the most candid and confessional song on the album, as if she is offering advice to her younger self when she intones “I see you kid, you got the weight on your mind… I know this life seems never ending but your world is just beginning.” About two thirds in Iggy Pop lends his vocals giving weight to the lyric “It’s up to you be a superhero, it’s up to you be like nobody.” It’s a singularly brave statement from an artist who used to be so utterly and frighteningly fragile.

The album dissects the sunset of a relationship, picking out our own insecurities and anxieties, but also offering an optimism that, despite it all, such things make us stronger. It is a confidence that has hitherto been missing in Chan’s lexicon and as a consequence Sun is a personal and professional victory.

8/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

This guest blog complies to Virgin.com terms & conditions.

Leonard Cohen – new shows for the old ceremony

http://www.virgin.com/music/blog/leonard-cohen-new-shows-for-the-old-ceremony

15 August 2012


Legendary is a trite and hollow adjective, oft used but rarely meant. However if there is one artist who is deserving of such an accolade it is Leonard Cohen; The singer songwriter archetype who over the course of his near half century long career has followed his muse with nothing shy of a righteous yet intimate sincerity. Modern music would be a very different landscape without Cohen’s influence, for evidence one need only look as far as the likes of Nick Cave, Jeff BuckleyPJ Harvey and Rufus Wainwright who all bear the introspective and melancholic hallmarks that are the beating heart of Cohen’s musical legacy.

Cohen made a welcome and acclaimed return to the live stage four years ago after being in self-enforced purdah in a Buddhist monastery. The resulting world tour, lapped up by the public and critics alike, only served to raise the profile for a musician who many feared had all but retired. His world-wearied, graveled vocals lending new weight and emotive significance to his oeuvre.

This renewed energy resulted in this year’s number one album ‘Old Ideas’. His first new album in almost a decade, it deals with staple Cohen themes such as mortality and loss, but like much of his more recent work it does so with a hopeful frankness, finding comfort and acceptance where he once found only love and hate.

In support of ‘Old Ideas’ Cohen is performing two exclusive UK dates in September at the Hop Farm in Kent, a rural haven also used for the now firmly established Hop Farm festival. The sets promise to be ambitious and career spanning which, if his last UK dates were any indication, are sure to exceed the three hour mark. For a man pushing 80 Cohen is (to paraphrase a line from his classic ‘I Tried To Leave You’) clearly ‘still working for your smile’…

More information and tickets can be found here: http://adayatthehopfarm.com/

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

Bloc 2012: What went wrong?

http://www.virgin.com/music/blog/bloc-2012-what-went-wrong

09 July 2012

If you have a cursory interest in festivals and a modicum of social media understanding you will no doubt be aware of the unfortunate early closure of Bloc 2012, which should have taken place over the weekend at the newly opened London Pleasure Gardens venue. The festival was subject to a controlled shut on the first night by the organisers due to public safety concerns. The rumour mill on site burst into gear… with people saying that tickets for the 15,000 capacity festival had been massively oversold.

The atmosphere on the ground was tense, with massive queues throughout the night. In fact, many had to queue for over two hours to enter the site (there’s a pointed irony that the online ticket agent used for the festival was called Crowdsurge). Queues for venues were always long, particularly the much-hyped MS Stubnitz boat, resulting in many festival goers missing acts they wanted to see.

Tent barriers were soon breeched with the overwhelmed security doing their best to control the enormous crowding. At 00:45, before headliner Snoop Dogg could take the stage, the Metropolitan police assisted on site staff evacuate the site. At 03:15 the official Bloc website announced the rest of the weekend would be cancelled, informing ticket holders to “Stand by for full information on refunds”.

Despite the obvious negative feeling amongst ticket holders the evacuation was for the most part good-natured; it could’ve descended into violence and arrests, thankfully it didn’t. That in itself is a credit to the festival goers, the on site team and the police.

It would be all too easy at this early stage to point the finger of blame, but remaining subjective let’s not forget the organisers didn’t want to have to shut it down. However, there are still some keen lessons that can be learnt, notably:

1. Use social media responsibly!

The official Bloc Twitter account was never used to communicate what was going on leaving punters having to rely on hashtags reporting scraps and conjecture which only helped exacerbated the problem. Social media is not a PR tool in instances like this – it’s a necessary news source.

2. Apologise and explain as quickly as possible.

The initial official announcement never actually apologised nor offered an explanation beyond the self-evident “crowd safety concerns”.

3. First year teething problems?

Previous Bloc festivals have been held in Butlins holiday camps. This concept works perfectly as the chalets naturally designate the capacity of the venues. As a site the London Pleasure Gardens reports a 15,000 capacity but the tents didn’t seem to match this. Did London Pleasure Gardens miss-sell the venue to the Bloc organisers? The site map displayed a bridge that crossed the dock. This was not present meaning all the crowding was confined to a relatively small area. Was the site actually finished and fit for purpose? These questions will no doubt be answered but in the silence awaiting answers the noise of the rumour mill takes over.

4. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat…”

Many on Twitter have facetiously quoted this iconic line from Jaws in reference the colossal queues to gain entry to the Stubnitz boat. This venue was a major coup for the festival, and consequently became the first to become shut down for safety concerns. On board the venue worked incredibly and would’ve proved unforgettable had the festival ran to plan.

There is no doubt that much has to be learnt from this year if Bloc is to have a future. Cynics may say it was the victim of its own success, but for the short time the festival ran there were some truly amazing performances from Steve Reich and Nicolas JaarAmon Tobin’s ISAMshow was visually stunning and worked as an epitome of the forward thinking nature of the festival. In the coming weeks there will be some bitter pills to swallow for all concerned as the reasons behind what happened become more clear. But let’s hope this serves as a lesson to all festivals and that this can be prevented again. Let’s also hope that Bloc can make suitable reparations and prove themselves next year.

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

http://www.virgin.com/music/reviews/dirty-projectors–swing-lo-magellan

04 July 2012

There would be a very valid argument to have to suggest that Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective are arguably the two most important and restlessly innovative bands of the last decade… and not just the ‘most important New York bands’, even though both do hail from the city.

David Longstreth, ostensibly the brains behind Dirty Projectors, has proved himself to be nothing short of a polymath and in the process picked up celebrity fans come musical contributors in the shape of David Byrne and Bjork. In fact it would be quite easy to draw parallels to Dirty Projectors and Byrne’s Talking Heads in their shared incorporation of world music rhythms and intricate melodic structures. Dirty Projectors have never been shy of their own uncompromising complexity wearing it instead as badge of honour; as if they’re the self-appointed indie intelligentsia.

Previous Dirty Projectors albums have often felt like purposeful projects, ‘The Getty Address’ made a pointed effort to deconstruct contemporary avant-garde orchestration whilst ‘Rise Above’ re-imagined the Black Flag album ‘Damaged’ in a typically idiosyncratic manner. Whilst ‘Bitte Orca’ felt like something of a creative fulfillment the Bjork collaboration ‘Mount Wittenberg’ was an emotive exercise in vocal polyphonic experimentation.

‘Swing Lo Magellan’ has been touted by Longstreth as being “an album of songs, an album of songwriting”, which despite coming across as a particularly redundant statement does go some distance in helping establish that the onus here is on the songs themselves rather than making a trenchant grandiose statement. Opening gambit ‘Offspring Are Blank’ begins with archetypal Dirty Projectors vocal harmonizing over a syncopated R&B bass beat before exploding intermittently in a cacophony of garage guitars with unapologetic solos – a distinct irony given the lyrics promise “a silence that can swallow sound”. ‘About to Die’ features a beautifully wonky treated percussion that gives way to an off kilter orchestral interlude. The infectiously catchy lead single ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ bounces over a tightly locked drum beat, giving Longstreth’s ever creative harmonies space to soar with assistance from backing vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle.


The titular ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ throws a relative curveball, in that it’s a straight-ahead and threadbare acoustic track whilst ‘Just From Chevron’ is replete with knotty African inspired guitar lines. Piano ballad ‘Impregnable Question’ features one of Longsteth’s most candid and honest vocals, stripped of pretense he coos “you’re my love and I want you in my life”. It’s the sort of potentially saccharine lyric he’d probably have been embarrassed by previously, but he strikes it such that it feels utterly sincere. ‘See What You’re Seeing’ is equally evocative as it ebbs with warped guitar chords, sweeping strings and rickety, shuffling rhythm patterns.

‘The Socialites’, is a sardonic paean to celebrity culture. Hayley Dekle takes lead vocals singing such tongue in cheek lines as “I think she’s the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen, her hair has meaning and volume and such a sheen”. The track has a regressing and slightly mawkish guitar refrain counterpointed by sliding tonal shifts and a staccato drum pattern. Album closer and Grizzly Bear esque ‘Irresponsible Tune’ sees Longstreth multi-track his vocal over a simple acoustic song as he verbally deconstructs the recording process and asking “Will there be peace in the world or will violence always own the truth?” Sonically it sounds like a solo barbershop rendition recorded in a desolate wood cabin. Lyrically it’s a mischievously abstract close to the album.

Always avoiding categorization. Often paradoxical, conceptual and overly thought out. Dirty Projectors have a strong reputation for fearlessly subverting expectations. ‘Swing Lo Magellan’, although no less inventive, is by far their most coherent album and easily their finest to date.

9/10

By Nik Jeffries. Blogs at nikjeffries.wordpress.com and tweets at njeffries