FRIDAY NOVEMBER 1
A QUICK ONE
Couldn't ask for a busier day yesterday. The CMJ Music Marathon, with its tempting gigs; the proper NYC Marathon (attended the Expo yesterday, picked up my number and various goodie bags,and was totally pumped at seeing and hearing all the international runners - from, Peru, Britain, Argentina, France, Japan, Italy and other countries too), and the small matter of Halloween. I didn't think I was going to get dressed up, but I put together Ozzy in about 15 minutes and had his accent down in less. Enjoyed playing the part, too. Sharon, where are you Sharon? I can't see a fookin' thing.A few of the neighborhood kids thought I was Howard Stern, but that just goes to show that old rockers never get the respect they deserve. (PS: That's a Bionicle that Campbell's dressed as. The woman in the picture doesn't normally look like that either!)
THURSDAY OCTOBER 31
MARATHON WEEK, CONTINUED...
For those who've promised to come out and cheer me on this Sunday and have been asking how to identify me from the other 30,000 runners, my New York Marathon number is 29284. (Looks like I only just got accepted, doesn't it?) I'm apparently representing Great Britain and I don't know if they give me some kind of flag tag to prove it. I also haven't figured out what, if any, kind of message I'm going to put on my shirt. (Let you know when I do.) I'm more concerned about the fact it looks like being the coldest Marathon in years, and hope that doesn't keep the 'crowd' at home. Anyway, best way to give me moral support is to figure from this map on the right what mile marker you're watching from, multiply that by the nine minutes a mile I hope to be running at, add ten minutes for the crowded start and, especially if I pass later than the intended time, shout to me that you know I can still do it! I just read this course description and again wonder what the hell I think I'm playing at!
People who've run the Marathon before tell me that the crowd really dries up in Harlem and the South Bronx, right when us poor runners hit the dreaded 20-mile wall, so if you really want to be of help, those are the areas to get out and cheer everyone on. I'm serious. (Are you?)
Also, the New York City Marathon collects for cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. I'm really crap at door-to-door canvassing (bad memories of trying to sell Jamming! to skinheads at ska gigs back in '79) and I haven't had time to figure out a way to design online sponsor forms either. But if you want to support the cause, this is the place to go and make an online donation.
Last week I wrote the following: 'I'm glad to hear people like DFA's James Murphy comment that, four years ago, New York youth culture was "Totally dead. There was nothing going on. It was awful."' And I added how I was glad that people like DFA started throwing parties to change things. I got a bit of an e-mail pasting from Shout! Co-promoter Steve Pestanza (who I love) as a result; Steve rightly pointed out how vibrant his Sunday night club was back then, how it was not alone in playing different musics to a young, hungry crowd, and how all the now-happening groups were coalescing around such nights as these long before the likes of DFA came on the scene.
True enough, and I stand corrected insofar as, quite obviously, there were people out there working hard to promote an interesting New York scene four-five years ago and certainly, in the case of Shout!, succeeding. But my general point remains: while the seeds of this new scene may have been taking root in the late nineties, the overall mood around New York was one of too much Wall Street/dot-com money coupled with Guiliani's anti-clubbing policies, resulting in an overly casual and often conceited vibe at all but the most underground levels. Anyone who came to the city expecting excitement to be seeping up and down the streets was sorely disappointed and the likes of Murphy clearly felt compelled to do something about it. The fact that I wasn't frequenting the more relevant, forward-looking, innovative parties that paved the way for the current scene was largely my own fault (though with pretty good excuses, such as parenting and book-writing), but it shouldn't take away from those promoters' hard work at a difficult time. Thanks to them, the city's booming again.
But still booming in the wrong way
It's bad enough when New York's music pioneers die young of disease (Joey Ramone) or self-abuse (Dee Dee Ramone). When they're murdered in cold blood, it really fucking hurts. The news that Jam Master Jay was gunned down in his Jamaica, Queens recording studio last night is painful to anyone who ever had love for hip-hop in general, Run-D.M.C. in particular. I got to hang with Jay (born Jason Mizell) a few times in the late 80s/early 90s when I was doing lots of TV work; like his partners Run (Joseph Simmons) and D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels), he was always larger than life, a true hip hop superstar. When I did a story on his side-project the Afros, he also reveled in the humor that was never far from his main band's surface. With gangsta rappers like Biggie and Tupac, we somewhat expected them to come to a violent end, but Run-D.M.C. were among the originals, long before gansta became glamorous, and violence was not part of their everyday language. Though they looked frightening to us Brits back in the mid-80s, anyone who met them realized they were basically just well-bred, hard-working, innovative musicians, poets and performers and anyone who heard them knows that they helped change the musical landscape of our times. Condolences to Jay's wife and kids, to Joseph and Darryl and Russell and anyone who had positive dealings with them and love for them. And in closing, yes we may be heading for another new low in the homicide rate in New York this year, but for as long as murderers can walk the streets with guns and kill at will, we haven't reached low enough. Damn.
Wednesday October 30
"THE STREETS IN AMERICA
There had been advance talk that the live show wasn't up to much. Which just goes to show that people will talk crap for the sake of sounding hip. It's the kind of playa-hating subject matter Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, could write a rhyme around. And maybe he has done. But Monday night at the Mercury Lounge, Skinner and his merry band were too busy having fun to worry about what the critics might think. And so was everyone else. In no uncertain way, this show was a party.
The Streets' Mike Skinner: "totally drunk" but totally on top of his game
In case you need a primer, let it be stated clearly: the 23-year old Skinner's debut album as The Streets, Original Pirate Material, is the most revolutionary record of the year. It's been called garage, two-step, rap and hip-hop. But it's so much more than that. It clearly doffs its hat to 2-Tone, it's got that same punk ethic you can hear at the heart of the Basement Jaxx, it's frighteningly astute in its street-smart observations of British youth culture on the social fringes, and for all that it's got some seriously important things to say about drinking, drugging, dealing and dancing it's consistently witty throughout.
For the Streets' debut American gigs (Monday was the last of five), Skinner let the social context drift behind his music's entertainment quota. There was no preaching, no politicking, and a couple of the album's most overt numbers - 'The Irony Of It All,' which pits an aggressively alcoholic 'law abider' against a well-mannered marijuana-toting 'criminal', and 'Stay Positive,' which descends into heroin abuse were left out in preference for those tracks, like 'Too Much Brandy,' that celebrate youthful self-abuse instead. Skinner himself performed much of the set with a Heineken in hand, proclaiming cheerfully at one point, "I'm totally drunk." Given his upbeat personality and charisma and the fact that he didn't miss a rhyme throughout - nobody seemed to mind.
But don't mistake good humor for lack of purpose. The Streets' singular style was evident in the stage set-up, which included drums, bass, and keyboards. (But notably, no guitar.) Up front, Skinner's rapping and chatting was ideally complemented by Kevin Trail's soulful vocals and deft MCing: the pair played off each other magnificently all night long, as engaging a front duo as I've seen in dance music for a while.
||Trail's got the voice, but this was Skinner's show through and through. Dressed in standard hip-hop sports gear, looking more Brooklyn than his native Birmingham or current home Brixton (and while press cuttings focus on his Brummie background, his voice sounds totally 'sarf landon' to me), he was every bit the cheeky chappy, the leery street boy who you just know caused trouble at school. On stage, he'd frequently fix someone with a menacing stare, only to break into a devilish grin once he'd got them worried.
You could imagine such behavior getting out of hand as apparently happened the previous night, at the Bowery Ballroom, where broken microphones and damaged dressing rooms led to the promoters' official demand that the Streets be more "subdued" tonight. Skinner made light of this throughout the show. "Oi! Subdued!" he'd insist of bassist Morgan Nicholls (who, in Fred Perry and punk hairdo, looked distinctly older than the others, and hung over too) and drummer John Jenkins (younger and livelier); the rhythm section nonetheless struck forth with stomach rumbling force. Keyboard player Richard Wheatley, meanwhile, supplied many of the symphonic melodies that give The Streets' music its musical drama, and a Mac laptop was spied playing what couldn't be replicated on stage.
Original Pirate Material supplied most of the night's music of course, its first nine tracks all performed at some point or another. Not surprisingly, the most orthodox and upbeat numbers drew the best response. 'Let's Push Things Forward,' which has been cited for its ska influence, included a chorus of the Specials' 'Ghost Town'. (Skinner's decision to sing the line "all the clubs have been closed down" indicated either a wise understanding of Guiliani era politics or was just fortuitous coincidence). And the jumpy 'Don't Mug Yourself,' in which the narrator is advised to slow down on chasing a girl, had the beered-up Brits in the front rows pogoing furiously. A couple of non-album tracks were in much the same vein, with 'Give Me Back My Lighter' notable for Trail's chorus line "I can't be dealing with this crap anymore."
There wasn't much crap to deal with on Monday, though. Skinner vibed the crowd with regular chants of "We're The Streets in America oi!" He also recounted how he'd taken great pleasure at the LA gig by being the only person smoking in the tobacco-free room. (Maybe he doesn't know New York mayors so well after all: this city could be next.) All in all, it was hard not to believe that Skinner's got it all. Supreme word skills, infectious onstage charisma, and musical brilliance: it was important to remember that he originally wrote and played every note being played behind him. And all this at 23. The only concern then is the ease with which, like so many prodigious rockers and rappers before him, he could blow it.
But Original Pirate Material is remarkable as much for how it laments life's lows as celebrates its highs, and Skinner seems way too (street) smart to let the acclaim truly affect his ego. So sure, he bashed microphones against drum kits just to rile the promoters, and yes he may have had one beer too many before the show, but when the night ended with 'Weak Become Heroes,' his nostalgic recounting of teenage ecstasy use (dedicated on record to Oakenfold, Rampling, Holloway and the other Ibiza pioneers, and featuring a house groove coda not on the album), he looked and sounded like a man who knows his roots and plans to stick to them. Overall, Skinner made it look easy. But you don't make an album like Original Pirate Material, nor deliver a live show so exhilarating, without also knowing how it can be or how to be hard.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 29, 2002
DOES ROCK'N'ROLL NEED SAVING?
New Yorkers keen to witness the next big band in the international garage rock revival were out in force at Brooklyn's Southpaw on Sunday night, where a couple of visiting Scandinavian acts (Sahara Hotnights, the Flaming Sideburns) lined up alongside a couple of New York's own (the Mooney Suzuki, Stellastarr*) for a night of phenomenal value. In an age where classic rock bands routinely charge $75 for nosebleed seats, the $10 cover was such obscenely good value that the venue sold out days in advance.
Better still, most punters made a point of it to get there early enough to watch all four bands. That was fully my intention too, but due to typically inaccurate second-guessing of set times, I walked in on the last song of the Flaming Sideburns' set, at which point, like a scene out of Blues Brothers, singer Eduardo Martinez was crouched low on the dance floor, the crowd all squatting alongside him. Clearly, audience participation had begun early, and as the band roared through an extended coda and Martinez stripped to a very Iggy-like shirtless pose, the raucous response indicated that on this, their New York City debut, the Finnish six-piece had delivered exactly what the crowd wanted. Or expected. Or both.
After all, The Flaming Sideburns' debut American album, Save Rock'n'Roll makes all the right noises in all the right places for fans of the Hives and Soundtrack of Our Lives (each of whom has endorsed it): a back-to-basics assault of wailing guitars, bass and drums, equal parts Stooges, Stones and Sonics. Song titles like 'Up In Flames,' 'Blow The Roof' and 'Street Survivor' demonstrate the band's strength in masculinity, and for all that it sounds so old-fashioned that it could be a re-release, the little I saw of the full-on live show left me hungry for more. And that, I assume, is the way it's meant to be.
Flaming Sideburns want to save rock'n'roll
Stellastarr* want you to stay entertained
New York's Stellastarr*, who I've written about here many times before, were the odd ones out on this bill; while that part of Shawn Christensen's singing and songwriting which is Pixies-influenced fitted in well with the night's energy, the Talking Heads rhythms and Cure-like lead guitar lines didn't. But that was fine by me: they provided a welcome detour into a more angular, and ultimately intriguing, music than the other bands on the bill. Every time I see Stellastarr* live, they seem a little more confident bassist Amanda Tannen in particular, has loosened up and started shaking around on stage and newer songs like 'Stay Entertained' are delivering proper choruses such as are ultimately useful in this world of rock and pop. The group's debut EP will be out on Tiswas Records next month, and major label reps are increasingly visible at their New York shows; I only hope that if the act signs on the dotted line, it doesn't get lost in the shuffle.
Certainly, a lack of major label association hasn't harmed Sahara Hotnights any. Though the Swedish quartet have barely released their debut American album, Jennie Bomb (like Flaming Sideburns, they're on Jetset Records), they appeared to be the night's biggest draw. And why not? Four Swedish girls in their early twenties, who've reputedly been playing together for almost ten years, whose front woman goes out with The Hives' Pelle Almqvist, and whose reputation for furiously uncompromising punk-garage precedes them, they could hardly have shown up on these shores at a more career-enhancing moment.
Showing up, however, doesn't appear to be their strong point. Sahara Hotnights kept the crowd kept waiting a full hour, an inexcusable delay for a Sunday night club gig, $10 cover charge or not. Word has it that the band sends a roadie to soundcheck on its behalf, which is fine if you're a superstar, but when you keep the crowd waiting while you fine-tune at the last minute, you're only revealing yourself as prima donnas. Such was the wait that slow hand clapping descended into plain out booing, but once the girls came out and kicked straight into their album's opening track 'Alright Alright', they were immediately forgiven by the overly-expectant hordes.
|Sahara Hotnights' Jennie Asplund and Maria Andersson, with drummer Johanna Asplund in background : hooks and charisma substituted by pure noise and generic metal poses.
I was less that impressed, though: the hooks and charisma that emanate from Jennie Bomb were substituted on stage by a leaden display of pure noise and generic metal poses, more Girl School than the Runaways. There's clearly a psychological explanation for why girl guitar bands feel compelled to be more macho than their male counterparts, but I wish Sahara Hotnights could, if not totally give in to temptation, then at least temper it. Good song after good song ('Fire Alarm,' 'On Top Of Your World', 'With or Without Control') was drowned in excessive volume and tired posturing. Devoid of any color, and especially of humor, the set was entirely monochromatic and for me, ultimately boring: not even a straight-faced cover of Suzi Quatro's 1973 glam classic 'Can The Can' could save it. Consider this a warning to all those suddenly fashionable back-to-basics bands: volume and image alone do not guarantee a great live show. My advice (like they care): try harder to show up for soundchecks, and don't try (to look) so hard when you're actually on stage.
||It was left to headliners the Mooney Suzuki (shown, left, blinded by the light) to show how this stuff is done. Renowned for their relentless touring, famed for their onstage energy, acclaimed for their two albums, and still all the youthful side of 25, the New York quartet came onstage like they were playing the most important gig of their lives and left, over an hour later, with that sense of crucial urgency still intact.
The Mooney Suzuki's recordings are purposefully old-fashioned (last year's Electric Sweat comes with a Side 1 and Side 2, even on CD) and subsumed by their influences. But what they may lack in quality songs, they make up for in live chops. Lead guitarist Graham Tyler combines lightning-fast riffs and solos with a twitchy exhibitionism that sees him routinely dropping to his knees or diving into the audience, as hypnotizing and talented a musician as I've seen in recent months. Singer and guitarist Sammy James Jr. not only wears shades like Pete Townshend circa 1965 but has the Who guitarist's windmill arm down pat too. His voice is gruff, and his introductions rely a little too heavily on a southern 'brother' shtick, but he's a compelling front man, and importantly, he understands the value of dry humor. Like John Entwistle, bassist Michael Bangs is the shy man in the pack (all things being relative), and to round out their Who obsession, drummer Augie Wilson has a Moon like tendency to jump all over his kit, propel the beat with unexpected snare rolls, and true to his influence, even kicked over his drum kit just two songs in. This temper tantrum was probably down to frustration with the sound, which was inexcusably bad all night long, but the front line trio managed to keep the beat perfectly without him. Consistent live work has its rewards.
|The Mooney Suzukl's Graham Tyler plays in a blur; Sammy James Jr is barely more stable.
So old-fashioned are they that it was easy to second guess James' late-set speech about "rock'n'roll," how some people are saying "it's back" but to Mooney Suzuki it "never went away." James then dead-panned how people have asked his band to "save rock'n'roll
But The Mooney Suzuki can't save rock'n'roll, because the Mooney Suzuki never LOST rock'n'roll." Delivered alongside a big heads-up to the Flaming Sideburns (and Sahara Hotnights), this contradiction of the opening band's message may bears repeating. The Flaming Sideburns Save Rock'n'Roll is a witty but dangerously fashionable album title. The Mooney Suzuki want nothing to do with trends: they're too rooted in their roots rock to give a damn about what's hip today.
Essentially, the Mooney Suzuki are a prime case of a band that only makes sense in the flesh. It wasn't so much that their best songs ('In A Young Man's Mind', 'Oh Sweet Susanna,') came alive onstage, as much as that their phenomenal power and presence raised the standard of their weaker songs with them. Even when I couldn't relate to a particularly generic set of power chords and solos, I was mesmerized by the group's visual appeal. The encore of 'I Woke Up This Morning' ("and found myself alive") saw, at various moments, Tyler playing on the Southpaw bar, James playing on his back in the audience, Wilson playing from on top of his kit, and Tyler playing on top of James' shoulders on the dance floor. It was only to be expected that Wilson would end the show by throwing his drums all round the stage in a perfect imitation of Mr. Moon at Monterey. Original? Not in the slightest. Entertaining, energetic, exciting value-for-money? All of the above. And more.
MONDAY OCTOBER 28, 2002
Two new reviews: New Order's Back To Mine mix, and an unusual, though inexpensive wine to go with it: McWilliams Mount Pleasant's Museum Elizabeth Semillon 1990
I'm looking forward to this coming week, for certain, but I'm also dreading it. Seven days from now, I'm going to be running the New York City Marathon for the first time ever. That's 26.2 miles of hard road and harder hills, all for no other logical reason than the thrill of being able to say 'I did it.' And I'm sure I can. Sure enough, in fact, that I'm determined to break four hours. (That means running sub-nine minute miles, given that there's a ten minute bottleneck at the race start, when 30,000 runners have to funnel through the Verrazano Bridge together.) I'm feeling great about it. I've been training well, living healthily, even repaired the worst effects of the runner's knee I acquired as I upped my long runs to a body-breaking 20 miles. As they tend to say in the States, "I'm psyched."
But first I have to get through another Marathon, the CMJ Music Marathon which, especially since the demise of the New Music Seminar in the mid-nineties, is the 'alternative' music industry's primary annual showcase and conference shindig. Last year's CMJ MM, originally planned for the weekend following September 11, was a sparsely-attended disappointment after it was rescheduled barely a month later. So I have to give the organizers advance credit for pulling so many interesting bands, DJs, speakers and movie-makers for their four-day a fest this year.
Of course the timing could have been kinder: this is the first time in my memory that the Music Marathon has bumped right into the 'real' Marathon, and it just happens to be the year I'm running. That means I'll be avoiding Saturday night shows by the Chemical Brothers, Sing Sing and The Music in search of much-needed sleep. Between now and then, though, this week has enough interesting events going on like Halloween in the middle of it, which if you're a parent in Brooklyn falls not far behind Christmas for childish preparations - that it'll be an endurance test just to write about them all. Come back Tuesday for a review of Sunday night's show by Mooney Suzuki/Sahara Hotnights/Stellastarr* and Flaming Sideburns, and you'll see what I mean.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 26, 2002
BITTER SWEET VICTORY
A pause to note the bitter sweet victory of my beloved Crystal Palace over long-term rivals, Brighton, today, by a phenomenal (at least for the Palace) five goals to nil. (That's 5-0.) What's bitter-sweet about that? Only that the greatest manager Palace ever had, and one of the few genuine good guys left in the sport, Steve Coppell - who was rudely fired by our new chairman, Simon Jordan, two years ago - had only just taken over at Brighton. I was glad (though hardly surprised) that Coppell got a standing ovation from Palace fans today, and like Kyri, who's already posted over at The Forum, I'd have been happy with a 1-0 win in our first comeptitive game against Brighton for many years. (I'd be happier if Coppell was still Palace's manager, to be honest.) But, as they say, that's football for you. And we'll take a much-needed 5-0 booster where we can get it. Here's hoping Coppell has better luck with his new team for the rest of the year.