Sunday, November 25, 2007

Everything you know is wrong

Behold the accompanying image of your humble narrator captured at our recent Radlett show; in my hot little hands is the Fender Telecaster that I've used for the majority of our show for the past 4 or 5 years. It's a '60's classic model- which basically means it's modelled on the type of guitar that Fender were making back in the 1960's. Popular opinion has it that the best Fender guitars were made in the '50's and '60's, in the era often termed 'pre-C.B.S.'- i.e. before Leo Fender sold his company to the C.B.S. corporation who introduced different production methods which for many resulted in a perceived drop in standards- this accounts for the inflated prices these guitars often command, although there's a huge market for 'vintage' guitars of all types. It's actually quite a 'cheap' guitar- it's made in Mexico rather than the U.S. and is part of their budget range that includes '50's and '70's classic guitars (echoing the above point there are many who dismiss '70's Fenders as anything but 'classic', although these have been re-evaluated in recent years- well, they have judging by the prices people are now asking for them). I bought it for a number of reasons- I like the look of it (very important- you're not going to play an instrument much if you think that you look an idiot playing it!), I like the feel of it (more about that in a minute) and the price was right. Also I wanted an instrument that was replaceable i.e. one that I wouldn't be worried about if I was taking it on a plane, or loading it in and out of vehicles and venues all the time. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't be concerned if it got damaged or even broken- it just means that I could get another one if this happened whereas my old Telecaster that allegedly used to belong to Wilko Johnson (that's what the guy I bought it off told me anyway!) is pretty much priceless to me. Also, it's got a rosewood fingerboard. I like rosewood fingerboards; I don't mind some maple fingerboards but I prefer rosewood. Well, I thought I did anyway- but first, for those of you wondering what on Earth I'm going on about, let me explain-

On a guitar the fingerboard is, literally, the board where your fingers go; it's the bit on the 'front' of the neck that the frets are fitted into. Fender guitars mostly use either rosewood or maple fingerboards and they're easy to tell apart- put simply, rosewood's dark and maple's light. A good example of a guitar with a maple fingerboard is the Eric Clapton signature Stratocaster (that's what E.C.'s playing in the 'Clapton shreds' footage that I talk of in my previous posting) whereas the Jeff Beck signature Strat has a rosewood fingerboard. They feel different- maple feels a bit smoother, not least because it's varnished- and they also effect the sound of the guitar- maple sounds 'brighter', rosewood's 'darker'. I've always preferred rosewood, but that's just me; after all, playing a maple necked guitar doesn't seem to have adversely effected Eric Clapton's career...

So- why am I telling you all of this? Well- because my Telecaster's literally wearing out. As I said earlier it's actually a budget instrument, not necessarily designed for playing hundreds of gigs; one of the pick-ups went wrong earlier this year (on stage in Maidstone), and now not only are the machineheads starting to work loose (this is not good for tuning stability!) but the frets are starting to develop dents in them at the parts of the neck where I play the most, resulting in buzzing on certain notes especially when I bend strings. It's all fixable- the guitar's in the trusty hands of Stuart the guitar repair man even as we speak- but it's made me realise that I need a spare guitar for Blues Brothers gigs, hence my recent purchase of a Baja Telecaster. But, since it's modelled on the guitars that Fender were making back in the 1950's, it's got a maple fingerboard. And I don't like maple fingerboards- remember? But I like this one. That's strange. No it is, really. I used it last night in Hexham (great night, sold out crowd all going mad, band playing well- what more can you ask for?) and enjoyed every minute of my time playing it.

What's happened? You're talking about someone who's so neurotically consumed by guitars that that can even tell you what song they're playing in the above photo by the position of their left hand (since you've asked, I'm playing the riff to 'Green Onions'- that's the only time in our show that I stretch my little finger like that on the bottom E string. Honest!) and who, if ever asked 'what do you prefer, maple or rosewood necks?' would always say something like 'rosewood- I don't really get on with maple'. But now I do. I kept looking down at my guitar last night and thinking 'that's weird, it's got a maple neck, and I don't like maple necks. But I like this one. Help!'

Hmm- I wonder what else I've always been wrong about?!?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Punk's not shred!

Enough of the serious stuff- if you've have 5 minutes or so spare, click on this link:-

-it seems that a Finnish nutter with far too much time on their hands and a very big and clever computer has seen fit to parody various guitar heroes and, as if that wasn't a strange enough idea, some bits of 'Star Wars'. I haven't watched them all (have you any idea how much time all this guitar nonsense takes up?!?) but the Eric Clapton one is something of a classic, especially the bit where the sax player appears... and you'll never take Slash seriously again (assuming that you ever did).


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Punk hasn't happened yet!- Alice Cooper/Motorhead/Joan Jett

Before punk rock, there was nothing.

Not true of course- but it felt (feels!) like that sometimes. There's a bit in the excellent Clash documentary 'Westway to the World' where Strummer refers to an 'almost Stalinist' situation where the band members even disowned friends in their attempts to embrace the future, such was the speed at which things were moving for them. But there was plenty of good music around before The Damned released 'New Rose' (generally acknowledged to be the first 'punk' single this side of the Atlantic), it just wasn't very easy to find sometimes...

Last night myself and Big Andy- still reeling from being told to remove his chewing gum by a security man at Friday's Pistols gig!- journeyed to Brighton for an evening that featured 3 acts often linked to punk without actually being punk acts themselves. Joan Jett was of course part of The Runaways who are, shall we say, fondly remembered by many men of a certain age (i.e. mine and Andy's!) for reasons not entirely musical, though I always though 'Cherry Bomb' was something of a minor classic (honest!). It sounded something of a minor classic last night too, the second number in a set of woefully under-amplified Noo Yawk rawk'n'rawl which was notable for the fact that Ms. Jett can still wear a pair of leather trousers better than you or I ever will (well, better than I ever will anyway!), and the discernible rise in tension when the audience realised that they were going to play a Gary Glitter song- they all sound rather different now don't they? And, yes, they played 'I Love Rock'n'Roll' though I can't help thinking that they should have finished with it- they played it 2 or 3 numbers from the end of their set which meant most of the audience went to the bar once they'd heard it.

Hawkwind were not necessarily a name to drop in 1977- or were they? Johnny Rotten made no secret of his admiration for them (I remember revues of the 'Anarchy in the U.K' single making comparisons between the 2 bands) and he wasn't alone, especially of course when Lemmy emerged in Motorhead who were generally seen as the heavy rock band that it was 'OK' for punkier people to like. I always thought that there was rather more to them than a lot of people gave them credit for- Eddie Clarke's guitar playing was always excellent and Phil Taylor virtually invented thrash metal drumming. But in the end of course it would all rise and fall with Lemmy- and, all these years later it still does.

A typical Lemmy/audience exchange:-

Lemmy - 'This is a rock'n'roll song. You like rock'n'roll don't you?' (millisecond pause, then shouts) 'SAY YES!'
Audience - (cowering and fearing for it's collective life) 'Yes'

I ranted and raved about Motorhead about a year ago in these very pages- suffice to say it's still all true, only louder. Even louder. We managed a few songs quite near the front (the word 'quite' is of course very important here) but had retreated long before the encore of 'Ace Of Spades' and 'Overkill'- which was just as well as it was probably the loudest thing I've ever heard. You know the bit in 'Jurassic Park' where the water in the glass starts moving in time with the sound of the footsteps as the monster approaches? That's what my beer was doing when they were playing. Really. Incredible- but true.

So- how does Alice Cooper (or indeed anybody) follow that? Rather well, as it happens...

Time for another 'I first saw them on 'Top of the Pops' story then- the unforgettable sight of 'School's Out' on said programme will stay with me forever (which, since I've just said that I consider it to be unforgettable, is fairly obvious I suppose.) The band looked like the maddest bunch to ever be allowed out of America, and the guy at the front had truly scary eye make-up and, of all things, a sword. He also pulled the hair of a girl in the audience (probably a set-up, but I wasn't to know that was I?) and drove my Dad to previously unimaginable levels of distraction. I loved it immediately. Stories circulated among my school mates- their older brothers had seen this bunch live and bought back tales of onstage death and debauchery. What could be better than that? Several classic singles followed- 'Elected', 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' etc (remember, singles were the thing for us kids in those far-off days; albums were expensive and went on a bit too long!) before it all seemed to go a bit 'nice'. Still, nothing good lasts forever does it? And when it was revealed that Mr. Rotten had auditioned for The Sex Pistols by miming to 'I'm Eighteen' on Malcolm McLaren's shop juke box the circle was complete- Alice really was a bad guy after all.
30-something years later he's still not someone to meet on a dark night. Before the first song he'd had a fight with himself (Alice in black beating Alice in white by running a sword through him then singing 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'); he then amused himself by dragging a young blonde lady (played by, of all people, his daughter!) around the stage by her hair before hammering a stake through a baby's heart (the 'dead' baby had the same eye make-up as Alice) then ending up in a straitjacket before being hanged. He came back to life to witness George Bush and Hilary Clinton brawling with each other. It doesn't look anywhere near as mad written down here as it looked on the night- if he didn't exist I'd have to make him up, except of course even I couldn't make it up. He remains one of the greatest iconic rock acts of them all, and 'School's Out' is still one of the best records of all time. Magnificent.

What a superb evening- 3 acts, all very different from one another but with enough common ground to make it all work together. It would be great to see this sort of thing happening more often wouldn't it?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

'Punk's Not Dead?' part 3- The Sex Pistols

Ah yes, The Sex Pistols. If ever there was a band that polarises opinion it's these boys. Some will tell you that none of them could play their instruments; others will tell you that they wrote some of the most vital, exciting rock songs ever. Some will tell you that they were just a creation of their manager who had a plan to swindle 'a million pounds' from the music industry; others will tell you that they changed the face of rock music forever at a time when it was at it's most sterile and uninteresting. And so on. And so on.
So- what really happened? And- since as I write this they're in the middle of a run of 5 London gigs- what's happening now, 30 years after the release of their only 'real' album?

I first heard of them in the spring of 1976. I was 14 and an avid reader of 'Sounds' magazine. (I thought 'Melody Maker' was a bit 'old' for me, and couldn't understand The New Musical Express'!) I liked '60's music- The Who, The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix- while my mates at school were 'into' bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd... some of that music sounded ok to me but I liked Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath- a bit heavier generally. But I really liked Dr. Feelgood, who I'd first seen playing live on a teatime T.V. programme when I came in from school (I've since found it was called 'Geordie Scene') and at whose music I'd thrown my pocket money at all too enthusiastically. Few were they of my age that agreed with me on this, to such an extent that when the Feelgoods played at Brunel University I couldn't find anybody to go with me and so I missed the show. But more about them another time...
So I read an article on a new group from London called The Sex Pistols. They hated everything, and were going to change it all. Their singer, who sounded a bit of a handful, seemed to rant at anything that moved- when asked 'why are you doing this John?' answered 'because I hate shit'. The piece ended with the guitarist saying something like 'I wish I could go and see us' on the grounds that none of them thought that there was anything around that was even remotely worth considering as interesting. I'd love to be able to say that I agreed with every word that they uttered- but to be honest I didn't. They just sounded scary, and like they knew something that I didn't- which of course they did.
Well, we all know what happened next. After gigging around they signed to E.M.I. in the late summer, released a single and appeared as last minute replacements for Queen on 'Today', a teatime T.V. programme in the London area- and changed everything. Overnight.
Throughout 1977 something called 'punk rock' was everywhere. Hard to believe now but it's true- you couldn't move for it. Bands were cropping up all over the place, pocket money was now being thrown at singles by groups called The Clash and The Damned and I'd somehow managed to persuade my Mum and Dad that it would be a really good idea for me to get an electric guitar. There were loads of good bands about, but The Pistols were the kings- despite the fact that no one could see them play they were always in the papers, not least because they'd thrown their bass player out and replaced him with an interesting looking chap called Sid. Rumours abounded that the original bassist had been too 'nice' but had been the main songwriter which had left them in an awkward position- nevertheless they released 3 singles that year that are among the greatest rock releases ever, and an album that almost defies analysis, such is it's legendary status. And, incredibly, me and my mates got to see them play live- though not all of my mates, because a lot of them wouldn't have anything to do with 'punk rock' because they said it wasn't 'real music' like Yes, or Genesis, or Pink Floyd.

When they spoke they sounded to me like they were about 100 years old.

It all ended in early 1978. You can watch their last gig on DVD; it looks terrifying to me, like something dying in front of you- which if you think about it, is what it is. The original line-up got back together in 1996, and again in 2002, to the usual mixed opinions and revues. But I've always thought that with The Sex Pistols you either get it or you don't- and if you get it you can't understand the people who don't, and vice versa. When I told people that I was going to some of the current Brixton shows it all started again- some said that I was wasting my time, that I was being ripped off, that they thought that I liked 'real music' not that rubbish, whilst others asked if I had any spare tickets, or said that they were going too and couldn't wait for the shows, or that they'd waited years for this and were finally going to see them play at last.

So- what of the Brixton shows? Well, here's what I think-

The best bass'n'drums rhythm section to come out of London since Entwistle and Moon have combined with a guitarist of almost limitless rock'n'roll power and a frontman who has literally redefined the role of a rock singer, to play some of the most visceral, incendiary music ever created, and have delivered performances that match anything that I have ever seen, or will probably ever see.

I could say more- I could go on for hours, and I probably will next time I see you if you're not careful. But the point here is of course that it doesn't matter what I think, because almost everyone has an opinion about The Sex Pistols, and nothing anybody ever says changes that opinion, whatever it may be. So here's an opinion from me-

If you don't like The Sex Pistols, you don't like rock'n'roll.

Friday, November 09, 2007

'Punk's Not Dead?' part 2- Penetration

For our next installment we journey to The 100 Club for a performance by Penetration of their first album 'Moving Targets'. I first saw them at, you guessed it, Brunel University in Uxbridge sometime in, I think, 1978. I remember them as being very good though I didn't like them as much as, say, Eddie and the Hot Rods; then again whenever I've heard them since I've been struck by how well it's weathered next to much of the music from that time. But how will it sound today?

More about them in a minute. Support came from Teasing Lulu, 2 young ladies and a young gentleman who began their first song before the soundman had got into position, resulting in them having to stop the song until he'd switched the vocal microphones on- a shaky start which didn't seem to bother them in the slightest. 'We've got a new single out' said the cheery girl bassist, as the lad on drums tried frantically to repair his broken snare drum wires and I mused on how much (or indeed how little) she reminded me of Gaye Advert. A guy danced wildly down the front, putting any other potential dancers off in the process such was the ferocity of his cavorting. What they lacked in stage presence they more than made up for in nonchalant punky spirit. Worth seeing.

No stage presence problems for Penetration- Pauline still does that 'walk backwards and forwards across the front of the stage' thing that she used to do, and doesn't look a lot different to how she did all those years ago. By the second number 'Life's a Gamble' it's all sounding pretty good; 'Lovers of Outrage' is as complex a song as I remember it to be (why do people still think that punk bands couldn't play?!?) and by 'Nostalgia' the place is going mad. They finish with the singles- 'Danger Signs', 'Don't Dictate', 'Come Into The Open'- which all sound to me like forgotten classics whilst at the same time sounding oddly contemporary, like if they came out now people would be raving about them. A fabulous performance.

After the gig I say hello to Gaye Advert and T.V. Smith- Gaye says she'd 'never have worn a skirt like that' and T.V.'s signing Adverts bootleg albums. Womble and Manny are at the bar- Manny used to book The Price at Bumbles in Acton back in the mid-'80's and Womble, incredibly, is still in The Decadent Few. Some people change and some people don't, but punk's not dead, and here's the proof. Don't let anybody ever tell you that it is.

Monday, November 05, 2007

'Punk's Not Dead?' part 1- The Stranglers/John Cooper Clarke

There's a lot of punk rock about at the moment don't you think? In my world this is of course a good thing though I guess not every one would agree... anyway since I'm going to see 3 'original' punk bands this week you can expect much pondering on the impact they've had on my little life, and no doubt the usual shamelessly romantic nonsense that I normally come out with given half a chance.

Last night saw The Stranglers return to The Roundhouse in London '30 years to the day' after their last appearance there. (I think- Burnel just said it was '30 years to the day' so I'm assuming that's what he was referring to; no doubt Big Andy can give me the full story?) I travelled up on the tube alone then met up with 'Fast' Tony Clarke (one for you Motorhead fans there!) and his mates in The Dublin Castle before meeting his brother Darrin and going to pick their tickets up from a rather shadowy figure called Marcus outside the venue- they'd bought them from 'an Internet ticket agency' which Tony rather worryingly referred to as 'Canvey Island Tickets' amid much talk of 'The Sweeney' and, astonishingly, revealing that when he paid for the tickets his money was converted to Hungarian currency...

Support came from the ever-wonderful John Cooper Clarke (I wonder if Tony and Darrin are related to him?!?) who, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be Poet Laureate. Kicking off with 'Hire Car', ('what's the difference between a Lada and a sheep? It's marginally less embarrassing being caught getting out of the back of a sheep') he tried in vain to rhyme 'Limerick' with 'turmeric', produced a haiku, which as I'm sure you all know is a 17-syllable oriental stanza, ('to-ex-press-your-self-in-sev-en-teen-syll-a-bles-is-ver-y-diff-ic') and finished with 'Crossing the Floor', a new poem about, you've guessed it, going on Breakfast T.V. to discuss your sex change operation. He encored with 'Twat'. Words like 'genius' don't cover it- the man should be made available on the National Health.

The first time I saw The Stranglers was pretty much exactly 30 years ago, in The Sports Hall at Brunel University in Uxbridge and they were terrific. Nowadays they've got Baz Warne on guitar and vocals- but close your eyes and they sound exactly as I remember them sounding all those years ago. The first song was 'No More Heroes'- Burnel's bass intro as mad as ever, Greenfield sipping his pint as he soloed- and almost total mayhem ensued immediately. It was all a bit much for Tony (clearly not as 'fast' as he might be!) who skulked off to the bar with the words 'too many men drinking and burping'.
Then, a problem- the keyboards were not behaving as they should. They carried on, but stopped 'Hanging Around' near the end, J.J. saying something like 'we're going off for 5 minutes while this gets sorted out'. They returned with the words 'this is a democracy- do you want us to start from the top of from where we got to?' Incredibly they started the set again- and, incredibly, the keyboards malfunctioned again. 'Don't worry' said J.J. who was clearly amused by the whole affair, 'it took us 5 hours to fix Dave's Hammond in New York once so this is nothing'. They went off, they returned- J.J. started 'No More Heroes again- but this time it was back to the set-list, with an audible sigh of relief from the tube passengers in the audience who were no doubt beginning to wonder just how late trains run on a Sunday... a devastating last section of the show ('Straighten Out', 'Something Better Change', 'Peaches' 'Go Buddy Go' etc) reminded me just how good a band they were, and indeed how good a band they still are. They were, as I say, terrific then- and they're terrific now. Let's hope it all comes out on DVD...

It's not always a good idea to re-visit the past- but is that what's really going here? I don't think so; both The Stranglers and J.C.C. have continued performing in one form or another for the last 30 years- so why do people always go on about 'nostalgia', or make fun of the fact that they're old, or say they should have stopped ages ago? It all sounded pretty good to me- and, as we all know, the customer is always right...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Wig wam bam

Time for another of our occasional excursions into another world- in this case Butley Priory in Suffolk. Richard's new-ish Chrysler PT Cruiser (his opening comment of 'we should be listening to ZZ Top' tells you all that you need to know) got him, Tracy and me down to the village of Butley in deepest Suffolk in no time but there's no sign of The Priory. There's a few houses, there's The Oyster Inn and there's absolutely no streetlights- but there's no people, no signposts and no mobile phone reception. Oh and we're running out of petrol. Panic! Eventually we get a phone to work- where would we be without them eh?- and Pete directs us to a crossroads a mile or so out of town (I use the word 'town' here very loosely; a better term might be 'settlement') where a very unofficial looking sign reads 'BUTLEY PRIORY- PRIVATE ROAD'. That'll be it.

'Ooh they've got tee-pees!' Tracy sounds excited, and with good reason because, however implausible it may seem, they have indeed got tee-pees. And we're playing in one of them. Excellent. It's a small stage but Pete assures us that it'll get bigger after they take the screen in front of it away; Tracy's worried that the light's will burn her legs- I set my gear up as quick as I can. Squirrel's got his son Joe with him, who he brings over to have a look at my new Baja Telecaster. Pity I've only got the old one with me. Doh! With the guests about to arrive in the tee-pee (there's a line I never thought I'd ever type!) we go indoors to our 'dressing room' which is actually the drawing room. There's a grand piano in the room next to us and the ceiling's about 40 feet high; Squirrel finds 'The Best of Child Care' on the bookshelf ('perhaps I should have read that one earlier') and they've given us some of those posh crisps that always hurt your teeth when you eat them- as Joe put it, 'there's never any ordinary peanuts at gigs like this are there?'. People are going outside for a smoke, or to try to get their mobile phones to work, and 'The X-Factor' is on the telly. Dave Land's arrives- he live in Norfolk and under-estimated the journey time; 'don't worry' says Richard, 'it's in a tent. It always runs late in a tent'. And it does- we're down for 2 sets starting at 8.30 with a 10 .30 curfew but that pretty soon becomes one set starting at 9 o'clock. And it's a good set- Pete's back as Jake after one of the shortest retirements in history, and him and Mike get things moving straight away. Halfway through the show the audience suddenly disappears- the fish and chip van's arrived. That's ok then. We even do an encore, a rarity at an event such as this. At the end people are asking if we have any business cards- yes, of course we do, rather a lot of them as it happens.

Time for some chips then....

Friday, November 02, 2007

The guitar's the star

Yesterday was All Saint's Day. Did you know that? I only do because the minister presiding over Paul Fox's funeral said that it was, although when he said it I found myself thinking something like 'oh yeah, of course it is'. There were over 300 of us crammed into and around the chapel at Breakspear Crematorium and what a strange lot we must have looked to a casual onlooker- family members next to mates from down the pub, punk rockers next to punk rock musicians, all wanting to say a last goodbye to Foxy. A few days earlier I'd received a call from the ubiquitous Mark Wyeth asking if I could write out the opening riff to 'Babylon's Burning' on music manuscript paper as Paul's wife Sharon wanted to have it printed on the outside of his coffin. I'd assumed that it would be transferred to computer and written out 'properly' (i.e. printed rather than handwritten) which left me rather surprised to say the least when I saw my scrawl emblazoned across the outside of his white coffin. I kept thinking about the times I saw him play and the times I played with him, the hours that I'd spent when learning to play trying to work out his solos on The Ruts records, the last conversation that I had with him where he thanked me for standing in for him at rehearsals and gigs back in the summer- and now my writing was all over his coffin. They carried it in to the sound of 'Bold as Love' by Jimi Hendrix; the minister said something like 'I hear that he was a bit of a wildman'- much to the amusement of many of the assembled multitude. There was talk of heaven, a better place where everything would be alright, and of sins committed here on Earth- then we all left to the sound of 'West One' by The Ruts. Lots of people cried and lots of people laughed as they remembered the man who had bought them all there an hour or so earlier; many were off to The Crown & Treaty to tell each other all about it. I'd like to have joined them (Segs from The Ruts asked me for directions!) but I had to go to Mansfield to play the guitar- but not just any guitar....

We arrived at The Palace Theatre just before 7 o'clock, after much swearing at the M1 and the Mansfield one-way system. With Shirley off parking the car I set up just in time to get changed for a 7.30 start. I'd decided to use my Stratocaster for the show- it used to belong to Paul so it seemed a good move. As we started 'Peter Gunn' I couldn't help but remember the way Paul would smile at me with the words 'how's my guitar?' I'd normally reply with something like 'my guitar's fine thank you' although had more recently taken to saying 'our guitar's fine thank you'. I usually use a white Telecaster so it was rather odd to look down and see a black Strat in it's place; Paul fitted a Schecter bridge sometime in the '80's, and gold hardware around the same time I think, he played it on Ruts recordings and on Dirty Strangers sessions with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, told me how much Mick Ralphs of Bad Company had liked it when he tried it... I don't play it as much as I should- then again sometimes I worry about taking it out of the case let alone out of the house. I played it at the 'Re:View' show back in June and it felt great then and it feels great now, and by the solo in 'She Caught The Katy' I'm wondering why I'd ever want to play any other guitar ever again. It's my guitar, it's Paul's guitar, it's our guitar.

Who said romance is dead? Cheers Paul.