A paragraph should be spared for Hugh Cornwell, formerly of the Stranglers, whose opening set for From The Jam last Saturday in New York was simultaneously upbeat and laid back. Once was a time when the Stranglers were considered the most successful of the original punk bands, but of course that depended on your definition of punk, and whether it included 40-year old former ice cream van drivers, Ray Manzarek keyboard impersonators, and beards. Semantics aside, between 77 and 79, they released some great singles by any era’s standards, and Hugh was playing one as we entered: “Peaches,” which I instantly recalled (I have a memory for minutia) was actually written by bassist Jean-Jacques Burnell, one of punk’s most obvious pin-ups. It was, also, one of the many Stranglers songs put down by their peers for being sexist. Which makes it perhaps apt that in Cornwall’s current trio, the role of bass-playing falls to a young Goth-like lass who, as my friend Patrick has pointed out, is very easy on the eye. Hugh knows that people would not show up in similar droves for a Stranglers reunion as they will two of the Jam, nor indeed for himself as they do for Siouxsie, and he seems quite comfortable with his eventual place in the scheme of things. “Beats staying at home in England the rain,” he quipped as he introduced another oldie but goodie, “Hanging Around,” which, as with the others in his set (I recall “No More Heroes” but not “Golden Brown”), he performed somewhat stripped of its original brittle nature. Perhaps we missed Dave Greenfield’s swirling keyboards, but under the circumstances I was happy to hear the songs simply as songs. They’ve stood the test of time well and Hugh, who seemed that much older than other punk musicians back in the day but who didn’t seem that much older than the rest of us in the after-show bar, also endeared himself to all around as a nice chap. A drink in the iJamming! Pub is in order.
Talking of nice English chaps, I have this friend, Ben Wardle, who is as English as they come in his conversational style and humor – both of which are firmly in the John Peel style – and his musical taste, which is Britpop to a tee. (As an A&R man, he signed Sleeper back in the day and tried to give a leg-up to our mutually beloved Steven Duffy. He also put his faith in 60Ft Dolls, but no one is perfect.) About the only thing not quintessentially English about Ben is his wife, who is from the Bronx (a lovely girl, I should add, having known her before they met), and with whom he’s just had a second child. They live together in Walthamstow what I sometimes picture, in the nicest possible way of course, as a two-up two-down with a pot of Tetley’s permanently on the boil and a copy of the Guardian on the sofa. Anyway all of this is preamble to the fact that, many years after he should have done so, Mr. Wardle, an excellent writer on the side, has finally started one of those blog type things I hear are popular these days. A&Rmchair – great name, heh? – is a laconically witty and already quite poignant birds-eye view of a collapsing London music industry through the eyes of a 43-year old balding male who can’t quite quit it despite himself. Ben, whose last record company job ended when his label decided to stop releasing new music, has switched to management. Until he finds the next Radiohead, he’s wisely put his faith in a group of young girls to make his vision much easier. Check A&Rmchair here, and read it in an English accent.
Staying with the English, and the concept of the written word, another good old friend – though not nearly as old as Ben and myself – is Jemma Kennedy, author of the excellent novel Skywalking. Jemma’s one of those characters who is always finding new ways to be involved in this thing we call life; along with her friend Julia, she has just established Kitchen Sink Dramas which, I understand, is planning on selling printed verse attached to your everyday household items. But if you don’t want to buy anything, just sign up at the Reading Room and every month, so they promise, you will receive “an easily digestible morsel from a classic work of fiction or poetry” sent “directly to your inbox to refresh your literary palate.” Beats getting spam.
Finally, part of my research for my book requires me spending time online reading up on old bands. Today I came across a ten year old interview with Simeon of the Silver Apples, a duo who really helped pioneer synth-space rock in the late sixties; Simeon created an enormous mixing-board size multi-oscillator long before the words “Moog” or “Eno” were household terms. The interview had me falling off my seat with laughter, Simeon’s account of his act’s relative hey day was so witty. It had also had me fascinated: It had clearly had not been conducted in real time, as Simeon’s comments were just too well-chosen, too prosaic, the punchlines too perfect to be spontaneous. But the nature of the follow-up questions suggested that it couldn’t have been done in one foul e-mail swoop either. A note at the end finally explained that the interview was in fact conducted in letter form, back and forth over a period of time. I guess that when your duo has been broken up for twenty-seven years and people are only just rediscovering your music, you may as well take your time telling your story. In the process, Simeon not only offered up a complete account of his pioneering work, but something of a classic tome about simultaneously making it and breaking it in this very strange art form called music. This anecdote about playing Central Park during the 1969 Moon Landing is just one of the many passages that made me laugh out loud. You don’t need to know Silver Apples’ music to enjoy the exchange. But it helps, and believe me, it’s stood the test of time a lot better than some other gumph from the late sixties.
The rocket launch went off without a hitch but as the spaceship began its approach to the surface of the moon, it began to rain cats and dogs in New York City. We were at least under the cover of a band shell, more than I can say for the thousands of people under parkas or umbrellas or newspapers all around the park, but there was a noticeable amount of water trickling onto the stage floor and under my bass switches. We decided to forego the build-up portion of our concert – explaining it to the crowd, who applauded our concern for our safety – but when Neil Armstrong began his descent to the moon’s surface Danny and I struck up the band, caught up in the emotion of it all, and performed ‘Mune Toon’. I was receiving electrical shocks every time I touched the instrument but there was nothing that seemed like it was life-threatening so we kept going. I just kept my hands on the oscillators because I found that when I let go and then tried to re-touch them, that was when I got zapped. So all during ‘Mune Toon’ there was this tingling, sexy, frightening, scary thing coursing through my body and I was singing my heart out and Armstrong was stepping onto the moon and human beings were entering a new era and thousands of people were crying with happiness and soaking wet and singing and hugging each other. Well, just when he thought the most political-mileage-moment was upon him Mayor Lindsay grabbed the microphone to say something profound and I swear I saw his ears light up. He was baptized into the world of electronic music. His hair looked like the bride of Frankenstein. Rolling Stone magazine did a piece on the event and called me the “leading exponent of hippy technology.” I have always liked that, but have never figured out how to use it at parties.