A love letter to everyone making music

I used to hate a lot of bands when I was young, often for the most spurious of reasons. Nirvana and Pearl Jam had a bit of a feud going on? Well, I loved Nirvana, so of course I must hate Pearl Jam. Some of my friends hated Teenage Fanclub because they’d had to sit through them at a festival whilst waiting for other bands to come on? I must hate them too, even though this experience involved me in no way whatsoever. I even made a compilation tape titled ‘Babybird Must Die’, the only crime of this particular band being to have one big hit that became irritating through over exposure.

Of course, I didn’t really hate any of these bands, some of them I even secretly quite liked. I was just, like most teenagers, a little angry, a lot insecure, yet overconfident in my often stupid opinions. I am only glad the internet wasn’t around then to record them, although any stupid opinions I retain today may well outlive me. I’m not sure it’s even possible to truly hate a band, despite the legions of internet commenters doing their best to suggest otherwise.

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The Raincoats

Each month Your New Favourite Old Band features a band who been around a long time, long since split up and otherwise forgotten or unfairly overlooked by music history. This month, The Raincoats.

It was Kurt and Courtney who first introduced me to The Raincoats, although not personally of course. Kurt was a big fan of the band, wrote the sleevenotes for the re-release of their self titled first album and booked them as a support band for Nirvana when the band reformed in the nineties. Courtney’s band Hole, who were my favourite band in my mid-teens, covered ‘The Void’ also from that same debut album.

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My 7 favourite Top of the Pops moments

I mentioned Top of the Pops in a piece I wrote a couple of weeks back, and it got me thinking about my favourite moments from the show. There has been plenty of nostalgia for TOTP, but it mainly concentrates on moments from before my time (Pans People, Dexy’s performing in front of a picture of darts player Jocky Wilson etc.). Most of my memories are from the 90s when TOTP was a fixture in my viewing schedule. Here are 7 of my favourite moments.

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Don’t really remember seeing this one at the time, only a couple of years later. Top of the Pops had two modes of performance. Either entirely mimed or mimed except for the vocals. Nirvana ignored the conventions of the show with Krist not even pretending to play his bass and Kurt changing the words and singing in a weird monotone. As a teenager I was pretty impressed by what now seems like a pretty tame form of rebellion.

Inspiral Carpets & Mark E Smith – I Want You (1993)

Being a thirteen year old fan of the Inspiral Carpets jaunty organ-led indie, I wasn’t really aware of The Fall so was a bit bamboozled by the grumpy middle aged man performing backing vocals. But even then I respected him very much for reading the lyrics from a bit of paper.

Bjork & Skunk Anansie – Army of Me (1995)

Given the purpose of Top of the Pops was promotion, most bands tried to present themselves in the most commercially friendly way possible, but Bjork was never one for the obvious. Instead of performing the single version of ‘Army of Me’ she went for the b-side version, a duet with labelmates Skunk Anansie, who at the time still seemed pretty angry and terrifying, not having settled into comfortable power ballad territory as they did a few years on.

Lee and Herring present (1995)

As a sarcastic teenager who enjoyed taking the mickey out of pop music (even whilst secretly enjoying some of it), what could be better than your favourite sarcastic comedians presenting top of the pops and taking the mickey put of them. Bonus points to Richard Herring for use of the word ‘wazzock’. Bonus points to Stewart Lee for being, presumably, the only person to both present Top of the Pops and curate All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Bis – Kandy Pop (1996)

By the mid-nineties Top of the Pops was making a bid for indie credibility, eschewing it’s usual policy of just featuring whatever sold the most records, leading to such moments as Heavy Stereo featuring when they weren’t even in the Top 40 (shock, horror!). Bis made history in 1996 by becoming the first unsigned band to appear. I loved them at the time (and still do), but I think this not especially representative track being broadcast to the nation led to them being written off as a novelty act. My metal-loving friends certainly thought they were a terrible joke band, so my love for them remained mainly hidden.

Minty – That’s Nice (1997)

The zenith/nadir of Top of the Pops bid for credibility was when they played the video for Minty’s ‘That’s Nice’ over the closing credits. Minty were more a performance art troupe than a band, and I can only imagine the bafflement of the nation’s living rooms at the weird people in strange costumes shouting “water with oestrogen and lemon, that’s nice” at them.

Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Part 1 (2002)

I love this song in any case, and did briefly wonder about calling our first child Yoshimi before almost immediately deciding it was a bad idea. But how to improve the performance for Top of the Pops? I know, let’s get Justin Timberlake to play bass whilst dressed in a dolphin outfit. I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t describe myself as a Timberlake fan, but I do enjoy ‘Cry Me a River’, and I do respect him for this particular performance.

8 ways I discovered music that my daughter never will

I wrote earlier in the week about how my daughter’s experiences of Internet music will be very different from mine. This got me thinking of all the other ways I used to discover music that my daughter never will.

1. Top of the Pops

The best thing about Top of the Pops was its’ egalitarianism. There was no attempt to be hip, but equally there was no attempt to exclude artists that were a little strange. If you sold enough records you got on the show, and at its’ peak popularity that meant that most of the country had heard of you (as only 4 TV channels meant plenty of people watching). An appearance on Top of the Pops meant you’d arrived. There’s almost no way now for a band to be exposed to such a large proportion of the population simultaneously, and as a consequence I think less people than ever have an idea of what’s currently popular, music-wise. I watched nearly every week from about 1988 to when it finished in 2006, learning much of what I know, especially of pop music, along the way.

2. Radio 1 Top 40 Chart Show

This still exists, but it’s been shunted to Friday afternoon, and isn’t such a big deal any more, so I doubt my daughter will ever be a listener. For me, for many years, it was the highlight of my Sunday, 3 hours where every one of the 40 best selling songs of the week were played. This meant I hear d everything, good or bad, from every genre (if it was popular enough). This had a massive impact on my musical taste, helping define what I liked and didn’t like. I also became strangely obsessed with the charts themselves. I had a book which listed the Top 40 for every week since it began, and at one stage I even used to try and predict the following week’s chart. When I became a teenage music snob I stopped listening to the Top 40 quite so obsessively, but was still always happy if a band Ioved did well.

3. The Chart Show

An hour long weekly music video show, The Chart Show became obsolete in the world of MTV (now obsolete itself, at least as a music video station), but for a while it was a staple of my Saturday mornings. The music selection always seemed a trifle unpredictable, but it was one of the only ways for me to see music videos at the time. I discovered Aphex Twin through The Chart Show, surprisingly enough, as they showed his video for ‘On’, which I later discovered had been directed by Jarvis Cocker. I especially enjoyed the weekly Dance, Rock and Indie charts, which illustrated my changing musical tastes. At age 12 I liked only songs in the dance and rock charts, and hated all that whiney indie music. Fast forward a year and it was Suede, Blur and erm… Kingmaker all the way for me.

4. Britannia Music Club

I’ve always been conscious of value for money, it’s no surprise really that I ended up an accountant. So, to my 12 year old self, five cassette albums for £1 from the Britannia Music Club seemed a bargain too good to pass up. I chose the first 4 easily enough: Annie Lennox, Shakespeare’s Sister, Now Dance 92, and some other equally dubious compilation. The fifth was more difficult. In the end I plumped for that band whose video I’d seen a brief clip of on The Chart Show earlier that week. Nirvana they were called. The first four albums are unsurprisingly long forgotten, but Nirvana soon became my favourite band and the biggest influence on my young musical taste. The music club itself was a stupid idea (although it kept going for a surprisingly long time), for the up-front bargain you had to guarantee you would buy an album from every issue of their magazine for the next 2 years, but I always be grateful to it for introducing me to one of my favourite bands.

5. Record label cheap sampler CDs

A great way to discover new bands, for a fiver or so you’d get a song or two by every band on a particular label’s roster. They were particularly popular with the pop-punk and ska revival bands I listened to a lot in my late teens, such as Fat Wreck Chords, Epitath and Hellcat. These bands would not get played on the radio a lot so there was often no other way to hear them. When my daughter grows up, or even right now, if she wants to hear all the bands on a particular label she just needs to get on Spotify or Youtube and there it all is.

6.The weekly music press

I bought either the NME or Melody Maker, or both every week for nearly 15 years. Whilst I didn’t love every band they wrote about, if they hyped a band , I wanted to hear them. And they hyped an awful lot of bands (Terris and Campag Velocet are amongst the long forgotten bands to grace their cover). Most bands I love I first read of in their pages, and occasionally I would buy an album purely based on what I read about them, Sleater-Kinney being the finest example. Melody Maker folded long ago, and NME has become a free paper. By the time my daughter takes an interest in music I doubt it will exist in physical form.

Terris

7. Mail order.

Hard though it is it to believe now, not all music was instantly available to buy in my youth. Whilst I was lucky enough to live in a city with a HMV, a Virgin Megastore and a number of smaller independent record shops, so I could find most albums I wanted, a few remained tantalisingly outside my grasp. Fortunately the inky back pages of the NME and Melody Maker held a secret. Mail-order catalogues, either from specialist retailers or from record labels, full of rare treats to fill the gaps in my record collection. Now the internet fills the same function of course, in a more efficient, all encompassing, but somehow less thrilling manner.

8. John Peel

Back when there were only a handful of radio stations, mainly playing heavily rotated pop and middle of the road music, John Peel was a beacon for lovers of anything different. He played everything from extreme metal to happy hardcore with no regard for what was cool or popular. We used to joke about the obscure and ridiculous names the bands he played had. One time we were making such a joke, switched his show on, and he was playing something on Death Vomit records, proving our point nicely. I heard artists as varied as Low and DJ Shadow for the first time on his show. Sadly, he passed away in 2004. I was in a record shop when I heard, which seems apt. There are plenty of places you can hear such obscure and strange music now, but it doesn’t quite seem as special without his voice announcing the names.

What are they tuning, a harp?

Yesterday, whilst Frida napped in the afternoon, I put on Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged in New York’. The choice of listening was not itself that significant, it was just that I realised it was the first time I had consciously chosen to put a particular album on at home since Frida was born. I had put music on to try and soothe Frida, I had put the radio on for background, I had listened to music on my headphones to and from work, but I hadn’t just sat down and listened to music for pleasure.

in my twenties, on a Saturday or Sunday daytime, if I didn’t have much to do, I would get up in the morning, go buy the Guardian, then return home and listen to music and read pretty much all day (with perhaps a break to watch the football results come in. The vast majority of weekend days were spent this way, as my socialising was kept for the evenings, and I didn’t appreciate the outdoors so much (as I lived in Mancheste the outdoors were generally grey and damp anyway)

I listened to a lot of music this way, but because it was kind of automatic that I would put it on, and because I was reading simultaneously I sometimes wonder how much of it I took in. Now, I listen a lot less, but what I do listen to I really appreciate. Which brings us back to ‘Unplugged in New York’, one of those albums I have loved more and more as time has passed, and the only Nirvana album I still listen to  with any regularity. It always makes me a little sad because, while I doubt that Kurt would have been still making albums like In Utero if he were still around today, I feel he might well have been making albums like ‘Unplugged in New York’. The sad part, as with any life cut short young, is we will never know.