Friday, April 27, 2012

The day that music died. A bit.

Plenty of things get up us Brits' noses. For a start, we're islanders, which means a predisposition to dislike foreign food. And foreigners who don't respect queuing. And foreigners.

Secondly, we get easily upset when you mess with our music television.

When Top Of The Pops was shipped off to a Dignitas clinic after 42 years of poor miming, a faux party atmosphere and the inexplicable contractual provision of work to 'zany' Radio 1 DJs, there was national outcry.

It was, nonetheless, a mercy killing, but it was received publicly as if Auntie Beeb had slipped something lethal into an elderly relative's mug of tea.

It had been a long time since "The Pops" had been 'destination TV', to use the terrible American marketing term. Conceived in 1964, just as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were getting up steam, two, even three generations grew up with the show.

In its heyday, BBC1 at 7 o'clock on a Thursday evening meant Bryan Ferry's creepily shrill vibrato and Alvin Stardust, dressed head-to-toe in leather with a gloved index finger pointing straight down the lens; The Sweet camping around to Blockbuster and Mud (with their culottes-wearing bass player, whose mum worked in my local Sainsbury's) jiving around to Tiger Feet; Ron Mael of Sparks spooking everyone out with his his mad stare and Hitler moustache, and Pan's People creating the first stirrings of pre-pubescent awkwardness by as they pranced about to a T-Rex backing track because the bookers couldn't actually secure Bolan's presence in in the studio.

TOTP survived punk and the invention of the pop video. It's only real competition - if you wanted to see pop stars in the flesh on TV - was Saturday morning kids' TV (a choice between Noel Edmonds' highly sanitised Swap Shop or ITV's more anarchic TISWAS) or the grown-up Old Grey Whistle Test, over on late night BBC2. Whistle Test, in any case, catered for bearded musos to "catch" live performances by the likes of the Edgar Winter Band or daft Dutch prog combo Focus. And it was also presented by bona fide music journalists like Richard Williams, not Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis, like its BBC1 cousin.

Given all this, Friday, November 5, 1982 brought about a minor revolution that would have unnerved even Guy Fawkes himself. Because that was the day The Tube arrived.

Broadcast for an hour and a half every Friday evening live from Newcastle, it reflected everything the brand new Channel 4 was about, and everything the BBC and even ITV wasn't. The Tube was brash, it was chaotic and it was at times so rough around the edges you wondered whether you were watching a rehearsal.

The Tube's debut was an aftershock of a larger temblor that had taken place in British broadcasting just three days previously: in the 20 years before Channel 4 arrived on November 2, Britain had got by with just three national TV channels. When you consider that, today, there are more than 30 channels on Sky devoted exclusively to music, a new music show on a new channel was a seismic event.

It's presenters were relative unknowns: Jools Holland had been the keyboard player in Squeeze, and won his gig on The Tube after being noticed larking about in a documentary about The Police, with whom he'd been on tour.

Paula Yates was born into an entertainment family (Jess Yates was supposed to be her father until she learned otherwise...) and was plucked from the showbiz desk of the Daily Mirror.

There was also a never-ending stream of new second-string presenters, such as the punkish Scot punk Muriel Gray, actress Leslie Ash (post-Quadrophenia and pre-Men Behaving Badly), and Nick Laird-Clowes, once of The Dream Academy, famous for the hit Life In A Northern Town.

The interviews were hammy at best: Holland wasn't - and still isn't - an interviewer of any depth, and Yates, who at least had some journalistic chops about her, tended towards grotesque flirtation in most of her interviews (meeting the zenith of her craft with Michael Hutchence...).

From time-to-time The Tube included magazine elements and filmed features, along with "alternative" poetry from Mark Miwurdz and comedy bits featuring Jim Moir - later to become Vic Reeves - various members of The Comic Strip gang (then Channel 4 darlings) and Rowland Rivron, a drummer friend of Holland's.

However, you didn't tune in to The Tube for variety, or to hear Holland losing his thread mid-question, Gray being sarky, or Yates fluttering her eyelids at some snake-hipped rock god. It was about music. But not as TV viewers knew it.

"It infuriates me," The Tube's executive producer Malcolm Gerrie told me in 1987 in an interview for LM magazine, "that we have to be compared with Top Of The Pops. Because when you broadcast pop music you are merged into a market, one area. If Channel 4 or ITV had asked to compete with Top Of The Pops you'd have seen a very different Tube."

As a platform for live music during its five-year run, The Tube provided storming early TV appearances for Madonna, R.E.M., Bon Jovi, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and a little four-piece from Dublin called U2. The Proclaimers can even point to their debut appearance on the show as the moment they took off with Letter From America.

The mainstream of the day was also well represented, with Duran Duran, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Alison Moyet, Elvis Costello, Paul Young, The Style Council, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston amongst hundreds more all performing live in an eclectic mixture that Jools Holland has continued today with his ...Later show. On any given week, Cliff Richard might be on with The Art of Noise, Bon Jovi, and the Cocteau Twins.

What made this all the more remarkable was the fact that The Tube was produced 300 miles north of where most bands, their managers and record companies were all based. It's possible that until The Tube came along, the last Londoner to head up to Newcastle had been Michael Caine as Jack Carter.

Music biz people thought Channel 4 and Tyne-Tees Television were mad trying to persuade bands to fly up to Tyneside for a TV show on a Friday evening. But that's exactly what Gerrie - a proud Geordie then - managed to pull off. "I think that if it came from anywhere else," he told me 25 years ago, "it would be a totally different program. There's an energy and freshness up here that seems a tradition in the rock bands from this area - from Bryan Ferry, Sting, Dire Straits and David Coverdale to even Hank Marvin!"

The Tube also helped put Newcastle on bands' tour schedules, as well as drawing attention to the north-east's own music scene - acts like The Kane Gang, for example, ("Before The Tube it used to be bloody difficult to even get an A&R ['artist and repertoire'] man up here", Gerrie at the time).

As the show gained in prominence, credibility and notoriety, it became required weekly viewing. Just as some radio DJs had become outlets for exclusive first listens, The Tube soon became the show to premiere new music.

On March 6, 1987 The Tube was given a world exclusive: the first play of the video of a new song by U2 - With Or Without You. Whatever your opinion of U2 now, this was A Moment, and the moment in particular that tipped them from simply "interesting" Irish rockers into global superstars.

I was lucky to be up at The Tube that particular Friday. It was the day of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster - I recall watching live news coverage of it in the reception area of Tyne-Tees TV.

By chance, it was the week that Holland returned from suspension, the result of 'accidentally' mentioning the phrase "ungroovy fuckers" in a live trailer that went out just before 5pm. Even for 'Channel Filth', as the Daily Mail branded it, this was a little bit too strong for kids' teatime TV.

Yates introduced the new U2 song and, as its first bars of synth pad progressed, the video faded from black to reveal Bono singing "See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side". Hairs on the back of every neck crammed into the control room of Studio 5 - including mine - were raised in unison. No one then in that studio knew what With Or Without You and its parent album, The Joshua Tree would go on to do.

One thing, however, that everyone working on The Tube that Friday did know was that the show was coming to an end. For months there had been rumblings: concern about the programming by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the resignation of a high-profile Channel 4 executive because of it, and then Holland's faux pas which resulted in the boogie-woogieist being suspended for six weeks, and the show itself being blacked out for three.

At the end of its 1987 run, The Tube came to halt. 25 years ago this week. Axed in its prime. All had not been right for a while, and the Holland affair merely accelerated the show's exit. There were murmurings from within the production team that the show had changed too much in five years, that it had lost its cutting edge and had started to become diluted. The end, it was suggested, was inevitable.

On Friday April 24, 1987, The Tube went out with a bang. Duran Duran, seen largely as poster boys for 80s glam pop and global warming (Smash Hits used to run regular features referring to the band's copious use of ozone-depleting hair spray), produced a storming live set which went on long after transmission had ended. It enhanced their reputation, no end, and perfectly underlined the strength of The Tube, that getting even pop's most pop bands to come on and plug in, they could showcase their musical credibility as much as their should pads.

Afterwards the production team, the presenters, the bands from the final show - and, I'm proud to say, yours truly - slipped off to a nightclub in Newcastle's Bigg Market for a rousing end-of-show wake. It was a glorious evening, one - which I'm also proud to say - went on long into the morning, as a somewhat inebriated What Would David Bowie Do? and comedian Rowland Rivron staggered through Newcastle in search of Central Station and our train back to London.

Some might say - and, indeed, did - that The Tube was an experiment that went on too long. "To be given the brief that The Tube has," Malcolm Gerrie told me all those years ago, "and to do that at 5.30 on a Friday evening is really difficult." He would have preferred a later show, one which would have been edgier by nature. But even now, credit must be given for a getting away with something which dared to be different, and didn't go for popularity or ratings. Its legacy wasn't the anarchy, or the chaos, or the other rough edges that attracted the tabloid attention. It was its sheer love of live music.

"It'd be the simplest thing in the world to pack the show with videos or Madonna or Springsteen or whatever meganames you want," said Gerrie. "But part of the brief was to showcase new bands. I'd rather have the penalty of lower ratings and have the freedom we've had on Channel 4."

Perhaps that freedom went to far, but today, please raise a hat to a show which, in the pantheon of television, may now, 25 years on, be just another entry, but which raised the bar high for British music television.

What Did David Bowie Do on The Tube - the Dame discusses Let's Dance with Jools Holland

David Bowie - The Tube Interview 1983 Pt1 on MUZU.TV.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Even the beautiful game gets a zit from time to time

Hear that? That growling noise? That's the sound of indignant vitriol. Football purists complaining that Chelsea have somehow defiled the beautiful game in their unlikely defeat of Barcelona over two legs. For the next four weeks we will have to put up with griping about how the greatest club side of the modern era were "cheated" out of some divine right to play at the Fußball Arena München on May 19.

Well, sorry if it was "win ugly", but Chelsea are through to the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final and Barcelona are not. Deal with it. What was Roberto Di Matteo going to do? Put out a combative side that was weak and exposed at the back but may - may - have scored one or two goals past an ageing Barça defence? Of course he wasn't.

The likeable Swiss-born Italian was always going to park his expensive bus in front of Petr Čech, whether at Stamford Bridge or Camp Nou, and hope for the best. And it worked - the hope part. Over 180-plus minutes Chelsea rode their luck, on a scale of Mr Magoo hitching a ride on the back of Moby Dick.

This morning that first leg in London seems a long time ago. A game comprised of Chelsea punting the ball upfield to Didier Drogba for 90 minutes, with the Ivorian either running with it, falling over with it or, on one solitary occasion, scoring a goal with it, was indeed a poor advertisement football, I'll concede. But you couldn't fault its effectiveness.

So with that slender away goal advantage, Chelsea took to Barcelona a slim hope that they could, against apparent odds, do the seemingly impossible. I must admit, I was not confident. The statistics didn't help. The size of the Barça pitch wouldn't help. The fact that Lionel Messi had scored on his own almost as many goals as the Chelsea outfield players combined simply added to the hoodoo.

But as soon as Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır blew his whistle to get the game under way, we were into unknown territory. For 93 minutes it was hard to know where to look. Or for how long. Or why. I'm not even sure it was a game of football. Well, it was at the initial kick-off, when there were 22 players on the field.

If there was a script, no one was remembering their lines. After just 30 seconds Chelsea almost had an unlikely opening goal, before losing Gary Cahill to a hamstring injury after 10 minutes. As Jose Bosingwa - one time first-choice right-back and now spent force - came on you felt that the "blue angel" Ruud Gullitt kept referring to on Twitter was preparing to leave and grace someone else's fortunes.

Sergio Busquets' goal for Barça on 30 minutes restored faith that there may have been a script after all, and that the barely-disguised pundits' view that Chelsea had pushed their luck too far in the first leg meant that the second would be a foregone conclusion to their European adventure.

But that was before the kind of moment of madness that hangs a player out to dry. Remember Beckham's sending off against Argentina? Rooney's against Portugal? Add to that John Terry's sending off against Barcelona. What he initially suggested was an accidental shove against Alexis Sanchez was quickly seen by everyone - at home, in the pub, in the stadium - as a stupid and intentional knee in the back. He deserved to go.

Quite what that did to Chelsea may never be fully understood. To the neutral or even the mildly indifferent, being down to 10 men with its recognised central defensive partnership off the pitch, it looked liked the floodgates were being unlocked. The prospect of a side, whose defensive frailties have been largely to blame for their domestic league position for the first two-thirds of this season, holding out for another hour seemed about as unlikely as the outcome of the Siege of Malta.

Sometimes adversity brings out a strange response. There are stories of those who, like the Incredible Hulk, in a fit of pique perform remarkable acts of physical bravery, freeing people trapped beneath a car by lifting it, despite being a seven-stone weakling. Chelsea, perhaps aggrieved by Terry's red card, or by the genuine fear that, for many of them, this would be their last chance of playing for the opportunity of reaching a European final, dug in.

Discipline - Chelsea's - started to fray, and this proved to be Barcelona's undoing. Barely minutes after being needlessly booked for dissent, Ramires chipped Valdes almost on half time and the script was, all of a sudden, in the shredder. Any hope of the purists' dream being fulfilled, and the rightful order of football being restored by Barcelona walking into another Champions League Final and, probably, the title itself, fell royally on its arse as Ramires restored balance to the aggregate.

In its entirety, the second half of the second leg of the 2012 Champions League Semi-Final between Chelsea and Barcelona was not a football match as anyone would recognise the description. It was now a surreal dream, a baffling footballing version of a David Lynch film in which actors speak dialogue, but you have no actual idea of in what context.

Two minutes into the half, Drogba upended Fabregas inside the box and a penalty was given. It was here, however, that I experienced an odd feeling. As Messi stepped up to take what, surely, would have been a decisive penalty, something made me think that either the heroic Čech would save it, or it would miss the goal itself. And so it did. I can't explain it. In any other game - in any other life - I would have expected Messi to score. But in this freak show, this parallel footballing universe that had somehow crossed into ours, he did not.

Undeterred, the Catalans pressed on and on and on, with Chelsea acquiring yellow cards and suspensions for the-then hypothetical final like an over-eater racks up Nectar points at Sainsbury's. Much of the remaining 40 minutes was played within a 35-yard radius of the Chelsea goalmouth. Kalou, Drogba, Meireles and Ramires looked far more convincing as a back-four than the makeshift back-four itself.

Chelsea still had an aggregate advantage, of course, but as time and nerves ebbed away, the odds grew impossibly that something wouldn't happen, even if, mostly privately, Chelsea fans were thinking the seemingly impossible. That, however, depends on your concept of impossible. When Di Matteo brought on Torres for the tiring Drogba ten minutes before the end of normal time, it was the final signal for Chelsea to batten down the hatches fully. All respect due to Torres, but he wasn't expected to do much other than be downfield to pick up one of the myriad balls being punted out of the Chelsea penalty area with the rapidity of an intense game of squash. The casual nature with which Torres trotted around suggested that he was still warming up, rather than on the field of play.

And then it happened. Like some gem of a secret track hidden on a CD, the Blues lifted another ball out of their penalty area and, 40 seconds into injury time Torres broke away from the Barcelona pack that had camped inside Chelsea's final third. Running in on Victor Valdes unchallenged Torres slipped past the keeper to score a goal that, on any other night this season, he could have easily fluffed.

It was here that the correct emotional response was difficult to pick. Amazement, bewilderment, tears of joy, tears of confusion, borderline mental breakdown, as it became difficult to comprehend exactly what had just happened. In the cold light of day, it's still not easy to work out what happened. Or what has been happening since March 4 when André Villas-Boas was replaced by Roberto Di Matteo as 'interim first-team coach'. A team that had lacked confidence, lacked defensive cohesion, lacked goal-scoring potency and, worst of all, lacked team unity, has restored more or less all of those attributes.

As hangovers pound on today like the Guns of Navarone, there are still many questions for Di Matteo and his side to answer. One of the most obvious improvements in recent weeks has been the defence. Cahill and Terry have started looking like a decent central partnership, Cole has continued to bust a gut on every occasion, and Branislav Ivanovic has continued - when fit - to demonstrate being Chelsea's best outfield player this season. But with Terry and Ivanovic suspended - along with Ramires and Meireles - for the final, and David Luiz continuing to be out injured, much will fall on the shoulders of a recovered Cahill in Munich. The downside is that he's likely to have Jose Bosingwa alongside him, and possibly the veteran Paulo Ferreira rolled out, like an ancient blunderbuss in a modern firefight involving automatic weapons.

Between now and May 19 Chelsea have also got to tackle the politically tricky home fixture this Sunday against QPR, and another tough home match against the strident Newcastle next Wednesday, followed by an FA Cup Final against Liverpool the Saturday after that. But with the unlikely manner to which the team's luck has been stretching so far under Di Matteo, whose to say that these aren't mere hurdles.

"It's an incredible achievement by this group of players. A lot of people had written us off," Di Matteo said after last night's match. He was referring specifically to the Barcelona result, but it more than adequately appraises Chelsea's recovery under him.

It is, sadly, unlikely that Roman Abramovich will appoint Di Matteo permanently to be Chelsea's manager next season.

The feeling inside Stamford Bridge is that, while the Italian has done a remarkable job in restoring the wheels that had fallen off Chelsea's season under his predecessor, his lack of experience in overhauling an ageing squad will count against him.

I'm not so sure: perhaps with a more experienced director of football - Guus Hiddink anyone? - Di Matteo could be left to do whatever it is he has done against the odds in the last seven weeks. Then again, perhaps his magic has only worked with this group of players, and once Abramovich achieves his intention of breaking it up to bring in new blood, the chemistry will be undone.

Chelsea, we should remember, haven't won anything yet.  But the fact that they're in the finals of two of football's most prestigious club cup competitions at the end of a season that, until March, was looking to be a write-off, hats should be flying skyward in recognition of an achievement that even the most churlish of purist would have to concede. Even begrudgingly.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The White Album

There are many cities in the world which serve as shorthand for what seems to preoccupy their incumbents. With Paris, I'm told, it is love. In Glasgow it is drinking and fighting and in Las Vegas, gambling and sin.

Nashville, by similar token, is country music. You can’t escape it. Drive down Broadway and it twangs out of every honky-tonk bar lining the mile-long drag. As the self-styled “Capital of Country” Nashville represents a certain brand of American conservatism, held together by the values of country music which are still preached each week from the hallowed radio pulpit of The Grand Ole Opry.

You might say that the only thing Jack White has in common with the capital of Tennessee is his surname, which covers the dominant ethnicity of those who patronise those honky-tonk bars - blondes squeezed into stonewashed denim, men almost uniformly sporting untucked shirts, jeans, tennis shoes and baseball caps.

It may be atypical eccentricity, then, that White now resides in Nashville himself, given that for 15 years the 36-year-old has been confounding those unable to work out whether he is just a brilliantly post-modern blues journeyman or the living amalgam of every character Tim Burton has made Johnny Depp play.

It's not that White is bizarre. Just...strange. The "coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time", the New York Times recently headlined, and in that you have an incontestable description. When they first came together in 1997, The White Stripes were an all-senses assault on convention: a guitarist with a vibrato voice pitched barely an octave lower than Tiny Tim's, accompanied by just a drummer who may have been his sister or may have been his ex-wife one even now seems to know. And were they blues, or some form of alt-rock? No one ever did reach that conclusion, either.

Deep within the shag pile of White's musical foundation was his Detroit upbringing - one of 10 children in a Catholic family of Polish/Scottish/Canadian origin living in a Mexican district. Somewhere in that mix he was turned on to authentic bluesmen like Son House and Robert Johnson which he later interpreted idiosyncratically in the Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and the numerous other side projects that seem to spring up without warning.

So, yes, "idiosyncratic". Probably the best word to describe Jack White. Even when he and British model Karen Elson divorced the couple threw a party to both celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary and mark the "making and breaking of the sacred union of marriage." Elson remains on the roster of White's Third Man Records label, part of his studio, production and retail empire set up in Nashville.

It is in the studio of Third Man Records that the Prince of Paleness has also produced his first solo album, Blunderbuss. It is by far the closest White has come to convention, but that doesn't mean it's a sellout. Far from it. It's just that White has welcomed accessibility. Or, at least, his version of it.

Blunderbuss is certainly a gentler White, to a degree. Missing Pieces eases awake the record with a gorgeously floaty Fender-Rhodes electric piano, although this soon proves a false dawn for a track about self-dismemberment. 

There is certainly something of The South, too, about the album, with a lap-steel and battered upright church hall piano tinkling up the title track, and adding to the ageing, All The Young Dudes-feel of Hypocritical Kiss.

And if this is supposed to be his divorce record, you'd struggle to look for the catharsis. For starters, his ex- herself sings on several tracks (an option Marvin Gaye passed on with ...There My Dear), such as Love Interuption (which sounds like an unlikely duet between Robert Plant and Dolly Parton) and it flits briskly between the familiar White Stripes staccato of Sixteen Saltines to the theatrical, Who-like Weep Themselves To Sleep, stopping off at a playful cover of Little Willie John's I'm Shakin'.

The voice of Plant comes back again on Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy and the dreamy On And On. It's here that you begin to wonder whether White has simply found a route back to where Led Zeppellin left off. It's not that appearing with Jimmy Page in the musos' dream documentary It Might Get Loud must have rubbed off on White, but in trying to understand what it is that gets him out of bed in the morning to pick up a guitar, it's clear that the same strain of blues that carried the Zepp through their career is alive and well in White's own musical genetics.

It would be wrong to get stuck on such comparisons. This is a Jack White album that happens to enjoy a shared heritage, but you have to wait until the final track, Take Me With You When You Go, to fully realise this point. Split into two, it's first half is a pleasant quicktime, all square-dancing violins and more of that church piano, before it breaks into classic White treated guitar and a mad appropriation of an Andrews Sisters chorus.

Blunderbuss may not be as confounding as some of White's earlier canon, but it doesn't suffer as some might expect such apparent normalcy would cause. It's a grown-up album by a musician who revels, quietly, in being pop's outsider, Edward Guitarhands if you will - the strange boy who traded one great musical metropolis for another one. And a splendid record it is too.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The day to love the smell of vinyl in the morning

For a place of such rich reward, visiting a record shop as a teenager was an experience of some intimidation.

Perhaps this is a discussion best had with a mental wellbeing professional, but walking into my local high street record shop as a 14-year-old (kids - I can explain the concept of a high street record shop later) was a fraught experience.

Because there, behind the counter, would be the coolest individual in the neighbourhood. And he knew it.

For a start, he spent his day in a record shop, playing whatever music he wanted to. Bliss. Secondly, he got his hands on the best new stuff through connections with record company promoters. And thirdly, because he had the power to look down his nose at anyone who came in asking for anything even remotely uncool.

This might sound too much like Barry in High Fidelity but such was Nick Hornby's sharp observation (and Jack Black's borderline sociopath portrayal in the film adaptation) that almost anyone of a certain age will be familiar with both the shop and its employee.

Photo courtesy of Laurence Arnold/Flickr
Mine was MJM Records in New Malden. It is here that my record collection commenced, first with the album Songs From Chigley & Trumpton and The Laughing Gnome by you-know-who (and you'll have to accept that I was but a babe-in-arms when these were purchased), and later, with the benefit of disposable personal income, Reggatta de Blanc by The Police. Clearly no one would deny that owning records is a matter of taste.

When I got a Saturday job in my local branch of Boots, I was delighted to find it was literally across the road from MJM. That meant lunchtimes, most weeks, pouring through its record racks - under the glare of Intimidatingly Cool Bloke - to see what singles had just come in, and discover EPs with extra live tracks and back catalogue LPs to fill out my burgeoning library (which then only occupied a black vinyl carrying case, rather than the furniture-requiring array things became).

The record shop is - or perhaps was - a rite of passage, and it's no surprise that icons of music itself hold the experience of trawling racks of 12-inch cardboard sleeves in search of a hidden gem in such treasure. Wistful, perhaps, but in this era of iTunes and the painfully obvious disappearance of shops selling any form of physical media, they are memories of endless happiness.

"The Meet The Beatles album cover, those four head shots — I remember, I seen 'em at J. J. Newberry's," recalled Bruce Springsteen during his incredible keynote at SXSW a few weeks ago.

"It was the first thing I saw when, you ran down to the five-and-ten cent store," Springsteen continued. "There were no record stores. There weren't enough records, I don't think, in those days. There was, like, a little set, by the toys where they sold a few albums. And I remember running in and seeing that album cover with those four headshots. It was like the silent gods of Olympus. Your future was just sort of staring you in the face."

Today, Saturday 21st April, is Record Store Day, a concept created in 2007 by a group of Americans to celebrate the hundreds of independent record shops that survive today. It's a day for anyone who draws pleasure from the search, who happily loses themselves for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon in the hope of finding something new, something different or something long-lost.

It's also a day for the owners of these shops themselves to celebrate a retailing culture which, even if populated by the likes of Barry and Intimidatingly Cool Bloke, has a unique place in so many people's lives.

"After 28 years as proprietor of an independent record store and weathering all the industry changes," says Tom Kohn, owner of Bop Shop Records in Rochester, New York, "I firmly believe the future of the music industry lies in the hands of the independents. We push the envelope by taking chances on and promoting lesser-known artists, and are passionate in our support and beliefs."

"The independent record store," adds Kohn, "is a place where folks can gather and connect around a common interest, and in that respect, bears little difference from the quintessential social networking sites - the old book and record stores of the 50s and 60s."

Record Store Day is an admirable effort to celebrate an experience shared by so many of us, but as CD sales continue to fall off a cliff, and digital downloads take over as the predominant means of acquiring music, there is a danger of it turning into an enthusiasts' adventure, a Campaign For Real Ale for vinylholics.

Last year, UK CD album sales fell by 12.3 million and there are fears that British high streets will soon be bereft of any major record stores, such as the dwindling HMV chain, echoing the disappearance of chains like Tower Records in America.

There's no doubt that downloading is a convenient alternative, but at risk of sounding like a dreadfully old head, it does completely lack any degree of emotional satisfaction in the act of purchase, even if the end result - the music itself - is. 

More worrying is the effect on independent music that the decline of physical music formats is having. Just because CD sales are being replaced by downloads doesn't mean things are any better for the artist.

New York-based singer-songwriter John Lester agrees: "As an independent artist the CD remains a good source of income when I play on the road. CD sales have accounted for half of my income, the rest being performance fees."

"However," says Lester, "as CD sales drop because people 'can' download my songs, the income from downloads is falling far short from that of CDs. Often, if people don't buy a CD or two after the excitement of a live show, the moment is lost and they often don't get around to downloading later."

So, the message is - support your local record shop if you love music. And if you're looking for a rarity, you never know what you might find, if you can get past the intimidating glare of the impossibly cool bloke behind the counter.

Details of the 2012 Record Store Day can be found at

Monday, April 16, 2012

99 posts later, there are still lines being crossed...or not

Ninety-nine posts ago, What Would David Bowie Do? made its debut with a lengthy diatribe about England's ignominious departure from the 2010 World Cup.

It was an angry rant, with its bile composed of England's piss-poor performance in South Africa, their ejection by Germany yet again, by the fact it was written exceedingly early on a Monday morning and during an arduous daily train ride to a destination I was growing decidedly antsy about, and by virtue of me being in a generally foul frame of mind, the reasons for which are best left unmentioned.

Viewed from a better perspective, the root of my bateyness was the fact that during England's final 16 encounter with Germany, Frank Lampard's delightful 38th-minute chip had bounced off the German bar and across the line so far the ball ended up in a different post code. Millions watching around the world saw it cross the line, as did most of the 40,510 spectators inside the Free State Stadium. I missed it as I was, at the time, somewhere beneath the English Channel where technology has yet to find a means of relaying radio signals. As it transpired, I wasn't alone in missing it: Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, his two assistants and FIFA's fourth and fifth officials had also blinked just as the ball crossed the line.

It is unfortunately circuitous, then, that WWDBD?'s 100th post should fall on the occasion of another refereeing howler, again involving a team featuring Lampard, albeit with the prolific midfielder being on the victorious side this time. Chelsea's second "goal" in yesterday's FA Cup Semi-Final against Tottenham is not one I, as a Blues fan, will be particularly proud of. But if I'm uncomfortable at the goal standing, referee Martin Atkinson should be hiding his head in shame at allowing such a comical decision to stand.

Larrionda is said to have exclaimed "Oh my God!" when he later saw a replay of Lampard's disallowed goal. I wonder how hard and jagged was the item Atkinson swallowed when he saw video of various Spurs and Chelsea players bundled together like newly-betrothed snakes as Juan Mata's shot bounced off the sole of Benoit Assou-Ekotto's boot, effectively still in play.

According to Harry Redknapp, the referee has at least copped to his mistake: “[He's] watched it now and says he feels worse than I do. I said, ‘I don’t think so’. But he says he feels bad," the Spurs manager said afterwards. “He knows he’s made a mistake and he says he’ll have a bad week as well.”

So here we go with wave upon wave of renewed calls for goal-line technology and shallow defensive comments about referees being "only human", and indeed some are. Some are also splendidly gullible.

The argument against technology, certainly, is no longer tenable. When there are so many cameras around the ground that players can be punished retrospectively for off-ball incidents, it seems nonsense that decisions can't be made instantly when a disputed goal is scored. Or not.

Introducing technology has nothing to do with messing with the traditions of the game or even challenging the authority of the man in the middle. It's just that the pace of football now, coupled with the level of scrutiny afforded everyone except the match officials themselves is such that without technology they are disadvantaged.

We shall never know whether, had the goal been disallowed, the 5-1 scoreline would have been any different. It's possible that Spurs could have rallied, and beaten Chelsea handsomely. England, had Lampard's goal stood, may have also gone on to trounce Germany (although only the most myopic England supporter would have expected that, given the team's abject displays in the three games prior).

The absence of technology to conclude irrevocably that a goal had been scored has left us, yet again with more questions about how good our referees are in another weekend of big clubs, big decisions and big mistakes. There also remains questions about the moral fidelity of players. Diving, "simulation" or just plain old 'cheating' has rarely been further from attention than as now. So is there a difference between Ashley Young winning his second penalty in a week through another challenge to Tom Daley as Britain's greatest diving hope, and a ball not crossing the line, the referee attesting that it did, and the player with a claim to the 'goal' wheeling away as if he'd just struck a blinder?

To be fair to Juan Mata, the rush of blood to the head after you've put the ball in the back of the net (or at least sent it in that general direction) will blind the player to all other rational thought. Wembley is a magical place, and it's not just English schoolboys who dream of scoring on its hallowed turf. Can you really blame Mata for celebrating having, in his mind, added his name to Wembley lore?

And what about John Terry - should he have offered to set Atkinson straight? His admission, later, that "I thought it hit me and stayed out" does beg the response "Well, why didn't you tell the ref, then?" but given the season Chelsea's players have had, least of all Terry, it would take a particularly unusual player to have not taken that "ghost goal". It's not, either, as if it killed the game. Spurs are made of stronger fibre than that, and the fact that they clawed one back via Chelsea's season-long gappy defence, shows they weren't - at that point at least - going to just put their feet up. Until, of course, tiredness crept in, heads dropped and Florent Malouda, of all people, poked home Chelsea's fifth goal, following Ramires' cool third and Lampard's spectacular fourth.

I'll take that 5-1 win over Tottenham, but in my heart I'll regard it as 4-1. It's still an impressive scoreline for a Wembley encounter. The only note of real discomfort is the small minority who chose to disrespect the memories of the Hillsborough 96 and Livorno's Piermario Morosini, who collapsed and died 31 minutes into his Serie B game against Pescara the day before.

Football is only a game. It has its flaws and imperfections, but it is only a game. Spurs fans will be smarting, but compared with an FA Cup Semi-Final played on April 15th, 23 years ago, they will at least be able to go on smarting about a poor piece of refereeing for the weeks to come, as opposed to mourning the loss of 96 fellow human beings who left their homes one morning to watch a football match, and never came back. And that is something no replay can ever explain and certainly no technology can ever revoke.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Singing songs about the Southland

For all its 24-hour drive-through simplicity, America is a highly confusing place. And vast. In fact it is so confusingly vast that the region known as 'The South' only actually covers the bits at the bottom in the middle and on the right.

To the left of The South is, unsurprisingly, “the South-West”, and this includes states like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. However, California, the most south-westerly state, is bafflingly not included as it is part of The West.

Florida is also in The South (even including the most southernmost point of the “contiguous” United States) and yet Floridians do not appear to consider themselves Southern in the same way their gun-owning, grits-eating, pick up-driving cousins do elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. Probably because they're having too good a time at the beach.

In the midst of this puzzling geography is Alabama. A squat state just 250 miles long from top to the mere toe it dips into the Gulf of Mexico, it has borne the brunt of misconception about Dixieland, providing a shorthand symbol for clichés about dueling banjos, inbred policemen wearing mirrored sunglasses and dentally-challenged yokels threatening to induce porcine squealing.

What hasn't helped is Alabama's reputation for harbouring right-wing conservatism and the Klu-Klux Klan, but then again it has also been the powerful seat of the American civil rights movement. Still, given this history, it's no surprise that most tourists barreling along I-10 from California to Florida - and probably the only consistency in the southern states - will carry on through to the beaches and theme parks of "The Sunshine State" next door.

Compared with some of its neighboring states, Alabama lacks culturally iconic attractions, unless you are interested in Huntsville being "the rocket capital of the world" and built the rockets for Apollo 11,  that Montgomery - the state capital - was the birthplace of the Confederacy (and Nat King Cole), and that Hitler's typewriter is on display in the town of Bessemer.

Significantly more interesting is the contribution Alabama has made to The South's musical heritage. Muscle Shoals boasts one of the most famous recording studios in music history as well as being the birthplace of WC Handy, the "father of the blues", and Hank Williams - the pioneer of modern country music - was born in a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. Alabama also featured in one of the most vitriolic exchanges of lyrical handbags between artists, with Lynyrd Skynyrd writing Sweet Home Alabama in response to Neil Young's Southern Man. The fact that two of the members of Skynyrd who wrote the song came from Florida and a third was Californian is neither here nor there. So, yes, southern, but not Southern.

Now, however, Alabama is being plonked loudly back on the musical map by a band who wears its Alabamian origins like a full-body Yakuza tattoo, and who have been described - by just about everyone - as the must-see band of the moment: Alabama Shakes.

With an unashamedly retro sound as sweaty as The South is muggy and mosquito-infested, the Shakes are comprised of the splendidly fruity vocals of former postwoman Brittany Howard and the rhythm section of bassist and co-founder Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson, a trio to match Cropper/Dunn/Jackson in their Memphis prime.

In a short space of time, the Alabama Shakes have built a reputation for stomping live performances of southern soul and blues-infused swamp rock, all of which provides the fabric of their wonderfully down-and-dirty debut album, Boys & Girls.

It's an album that could easily have been recorded in a single, 38-minute session, such is its no-nonsense feel. You'd be tempted to brand it 'lo-fi' until you realise just how ridiculous a description that is, given that back-in-the-day all albums were recorded without the embellishment of multi-tracking and ProTools, the musician's equivalent of CGI.

Such stripped-back authenticity is no affectation and, despite the obvious nods to Janice Joplin in Howard's throatsome singing or Creedence Clearwater Revival in Fogg's riffs (especially on Hang Loose), this is no pastiche, no parody, but a continuation of a musical style unencumbered by contemporary garnish.

Hold On, their debut single, represents this perfectly, building rhythmically with a swelling chug that emerged from an on-stage improvisation ("We threw out that riff," recalls Cockrell, "and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.").

Like all good soul bands, the singer draws the focus of the song, and none more so with Brittany Howard than on I Found You and I Ain't The Same. If, however, you try and ignore the obvious aural resemblance to Joplin, you recognise greater similarities to Otis Redding, in phrasing and the topography of her pitch. You Ain't Alone, in particular, pays inadvertent tribute to Try A Little Tenderness, pulling in the intensity of Joe Cocker or even Led Zeppellin into the bargain. The track is, says Howard, "a slice of the real".

In their early days, the band covered Zeppellin live, so the site of Heartbreaker on the track listing of Boys & Girls did create some expectation, but this particular tale of romantic charlatanism is instead a gloriously rich stab of triple-time R'n'B which reaches its rasping denouement with a pounding organ to match the rancor of the reminiscence.

It would be wrong, however, to look upon Boys & Girls as a musical museum: Rise To The Sun could easily be the product of Alex Turner's southern American cousin, while there are numerous moments on the album which remind of another much-hailed debut flying the Confederate flag, Youth And Young Mahood, the Kings of Leon's 2003 entrance. The Fallowill clan created an enjoyably confounding blend of quirk and rooted tradition (and were also considered the critics' breakthrough darlings), which the Alabama Shakes replicate with On Your Way and the eerily short Goin' To The Party.

Of course, since 2003, the Kings of Leon have spectacularly risen, and spectacularly come to an abrupt halt. The Alabama Shakes will be conscious of not repeating the same trajectory, and that may require the  development of their repertoire and writing acumen. Boys & Girls is a tremendous debut and a relief to anyone worried that the prevalence of Simon Cowell and his oeuvre has in some way brought about the end of both live music and music built on the simplicity of a voice and three instruments. For the good of us all, the Shakes need to come back with a sophomore effort to reassure the casual listener that this is not a flirtation but a long-term relationship.

The Alabama Shakes blow the lid off Austin during SXSW 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

The difference between Fab and fabricated

Can you hear that? That's the sound of shuddering at the idea of James McCartney, Sean Lennon, Dhani Harrison and Jason Starkey forming a band.

Not that they would be bad - quite the opposite. However...

Talk of The Beatles being 'reformed' by their offspring - arguably the head-on collision between a Hollywood remake and a tribute band - was sparked earlier this week when James McCartney, the 34-year-old son of Sir Paul, suggested - and I stress, suggested - in a BBC interview that a Beatles reboot might be fun.

McCartney Jr may have ill-advisedly answered a question by saying that he, plus the younger Lennon and Harrison, might be up for it, with either of Ringo Starr's drumming sons Zak or Jason yet to be canvassed. It was only a suggestion but it nonetheless struck a chord of terror.

Surely a band trading off the coincidence that each of its members' fathers were in the greatest pop band in recording history is a recipe for disaster? I'm sure they've been friends since childhood, but that wouldn't give forming a band any more legitimacy.

Talent obviously runs through the respective McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr/Starkey bloodlines: James McCartney is currently promoting his own, emerging solo career while sister Stella has become one of the world's leading fashion designers (other half-siblings Heather and Mary keep low profiles). Julian and Sean Lennon have both enjoyed varying degrees of music success, though the former hadn't been heard of much since early hits in the 1980s before re-emerging last year with a new album. Ringo'a sons Zak and Jason became professional drummers, but only Zak has enjoyed any degree of prominence, touring as drummer for The Who and playing for both Paul Weller and Oasis.

And then there's Dhani Harrison - who looks and sounds uncannily like George - and who made his professional debut as a guitarist on his late father's final album, Brainwashed. Since then his career has been developing relatively modestly, with guest appearances and collaborations here and there, including the formation of Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur a couple of years ago.

Harrison has also been involved in the band thenewno2, from which a cryptic tweet appeared this week which many suspected was from The Quiet One's son himself, nixing the whole idea. That hasn't prevented a media frenzy at the idea of a Fab Second Coming, with some wag already naming them the 'Mop Tots'.

"If they want to play together privately to entertain themselves and their friends, that would be terrific," offered Beatles biographer Ray Connolly in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, who then helpfully pointed out the size of the shadows are probably perfectly aware of standing in: "Forged by the accidental cross-seeding of extraordinary talents in a post-war environment of social change, [The Beatles'] grip on the world’s imagination cannot be replicated. All the elements that came together then and helped create them and their myth cannot recur."

The familiar-looking cheekbones of Coco Sumner
We should be now well used to musical offspring making a go of it themselves, being well inside the second age of rock and pop.

Bob Dylan's son Jakob was one of the first of his generation of showbusiness kids to embark upon a prominent music career of their own, with others like Ziggy Marley, Rufus and Martha Wainright, Dweezil Zappa and more recently Coco Sumner joining the family firm. 

Comparable, in terms of parental reputation, to this story, Lisa Marie Presley has made several attempts at a music career, with her 2003 debut album To Whom It May Concern even reaching No.5 in the Billboard album chart (and who has been working with the omnipresent T-Bone Burnett on a new record due this year).

Others, however, have steered well clear: Duncan 'Zowie Bowie' Jones adopted his father's real surname and took up film directing (what would David Jones do...?), various members of the Jagger brood have found their way into fashion, while many more have simply found something altogether less laden with expectation to forge careers upon.

But what if McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starkey did give it a go, and Beatles: The Next Generation became reality? A charity project, may be (and hats off, too - no better way to leverage the ancestral arms). As long as we didn't end up with a Beatle-version of S Club Juniors, the "franchised" S Club 7 spinoff. Because we would not be talking about a Toytown pop group, but scions of a band to which few will ever hold a candle. Trying to compete with that legacy for any band, let alone The Beatles' children, would, I'm afraid, only end in tears.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

If you think that was Messi, there could be worse to come

They call Old Trafford football's "Theatre Of Dreams" but by comparison to Camp Nou - F.C. Barcelona's home ground - the Manchester United stadium is little more than a community playhouse.

Just over a month ago I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see a match at the Catalan giants' jaw-dropping ampitheatre, watching Barça play La Liga minnows Gijon.

To tell you the truth, it wasn't the greatest game I've ever seen: Pep Guardiola had rested several of his star players, including the mercurial Lionel Messi - who, just a few days later, became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League game as they battered Bayer Leverkusen 7-1. Still, they managed to beat Gijon 3-1 and, in so doing, provided an abject reminder that even when below par, they are currently the world's greatest football team.

Which doesn't leave me brimming with confidence about the forthcoming Champions League Semi-Final, in which Messi and amigos will take on Chelsea. By their standards, Barcelona haven't exactly been firing on all cylinders this season. But considering the Leverkusen scoreline, it will be an apocalyptic challenge for the Blues who have, for much of the season been even below being below par.

True, things have picked up since Robbie Di Matteo was installed with the condescending title of "interim first-team coach", finding the means to communicate and motivate his players in a way the hapless André Villas-Boas apparently couldn't.

There has clearly been a new confidence about the team, notably with Fernando Torres looking like his former self - even scoring a goal, God forbid! - and the walking liability that was David Luiz starting to resemble a half-decent centre-half.

These are, however, straws I'm clutching at: the confidence that led to Torres scoring against Aston Villa the other week was undermined by the same back four defensive frailties that let two in. And were it not for the outstanding Petr Čech - who has, frankly, kept Chelsea in more games this season than any of the outfield players - the Villa game, like so many others, could have ended very differently.

Last night Chelsea struggled against a determined 10-man opposition in Benfica. With John Terry disappearing through a worrying rib injury that could leave him out of a packed run of games, Chelsea will tire even further in their build up to the first Semi-Final leg against Barcelona. By the time Barça arrive at Stamford Bridge on April 18, their opponents will have played Wigan and Fulham in the space of two days, and then Tottenham at Wembley in a FA Cup Semi-Final which kicks off only 72 hours before the Barcelona game gets underway.

The fear is that the Catalans - and, specifically, Messi - will just cut through Chelsea like a hot knife. Pessimistic or realistic? You decide. Di Matteo is doing something right and, were it not for the twisted logic of Abramovich managerial strategy, should be considered as Chelsea's permanent manager on the scant basis of the tactical and man-management prowess he has demonstrated over the last month.

The likeable Italian is saying all the right things in declaring: "It will be a combination of playing to our strengths and being aware of theirs," but in recognising the Messi danger, adding: "we have to play our game and play to our strengths."

Good managerspeak, but those strengths aren't obvious, even after a month of re-emerging confidence. Torres is looking brighter, but he's still not the lethal weapon he once was; Daniel Sturridge is blowing hot-and-cold; Didier Drogba is, only when his mind is in the right gear, potent; and Saloman Kalou - who has remained a Chelsea player as inexplicably as the crocodilian family survived whatever wiped out dinosaurs - may have been given more opportunities to play by Di Matteo, but he's still not a forward to give Barcelona defenders too much concern.

Pyschologically, of course, there will be a lot to fire Chelsea up: their 2009 Champions League Semi-Final against Barça was a disgraceful demonstration of refereeing by Norwegian Tom Henning Ovrebo. Who knows whether his defiant ignorance of clear penalty shouts would have led to Chelsea beating Barcelona, but two years ago Chelsea could have been considered equals to Barcelona in many aspects of their game.

That match ended in farce, with a flip-flop wearing Didier Drogba unleashing X-rated invective on an unsuspecting TV camera, and Michael Ballack applying himself to Ovrebo's ankles like an enraged pit bull, such was the understandable vexation almost everyone - Chelsea players, fans and neutrals alike - felt over the Norwegian's inept refereeing.

God only knows how Jose Mourinho would have reacted if still in charge of Chelsea. Given his own history with Barcelona - as both assistant coach and opposing manager - and his predilection for entertainingly explosive histrionics, it is possible he would have simply detonated, cartoon-style, as the only reaction left in his bag of tricks.

Naturally he has an opinion on the outcome of the Chelsea-Barcelona tie, with his Real Madrid a contender for the final itself if they can beat Bayern Munich: “Let me be honest, I don’t think the final will be a Real Madrid-Chelsea final,” Mourinho said on the prospect of an emotional and thrilling meeting between his current and former club.

Typically Mourinho, his conjecture didn't appear solely based on form: "It could be Bayern versus Barcelona, I just don’t think it will be Real Madrid versus Chelsea - and we know why.” Was this a nod-and-a-wink to conspiracy theories that Barcelona are afforded favour in the Champions League? Surely not, the cheeky scamp...

The Chelsea players will be - or at least, should be - fired up for righting the wrongs of that match in 2009: “Everyone’s got unfinished business with Barcelona,” according to Frank Lampard. But even he is realistic in what he'll be up against. "[Barcelona] are the greatest team in the world. They have been and they still are. That game is still in our minds, but this is a different year and we have to try to beat them. They’ll be favourites but we have got belief.”

No doubt, but even the most zealous Chelsea optimist will have to concede that they'll need more than just belief to beat Barcelona over two legs.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Going (Back) To California

The mountains and the canyons started to tremble and shake
As the children of the sun began to awake.
(Jimmy Page & Robert Plant; Superhype Publishing, Inc. All rights administered by WB Music Corp., ASCAP.)

California has long been the musician's muse. There are more songs about the Golden State than all the other locations enshrined in song put together. Its southern stretches of seaside sand inspired The Beach Boys and its desert wilderness inspired U2; the 'NoCal' coastal towns of Santa Cruz and Big Sur inspired an entire album by The Thrills; both the Chili Peppers and Tom Petty sang of the pitfalls that can bring the Californian dream to an end; San Francisco provided Tony Bennett with his signature piece, while the genius that is Randy Newman wedged tongue firmly in cheek to extoll the virtues of the state's chaotic love-it/hate-it focal point, Los Angeles.

On the City of Angels' topographic outskirts, the Laurel and Topanga Canyons respectively slice huge grooves through the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains. Within them reside, still today, remnants of the counter culture movements who set up camp in these mystic glacial cut-throughs in the mid-1960s, and smoked a lot of, uh, stuff.

As Barney Hoskyns' highly entertaining tome Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons - 1967-1976 recounts, this was a time of communal creative endeavour; Canyon homesteaders like CSN&Y, Joni Mitchell (who still has a place today in Laurel Canyon), James Taylor and Jackson Browne produced some of the era's finest folk-rock with songs, mostly about loving each other, which apparently went on a lot in LA's most swinging neighborhood.

Around the same time as all this was going on, three boys were born - albeit four years separating them - in the Midlands of England. Nigel Clark, Andy Miller and Mathew Priest would grow up to form a band with an ironic name, Dodgy, and they would be a fixture of the endless summer that seemed to expand through the mid part of the 1990s as part of the extraordinary cultural movement that was Britpop.

The trio would make their breakthrough in 1993 with a sunshine anthem, Staying Out For The Summer, but would remain - along with Cast, Kula Shaker, Catatonia, The Boo Radleys and others -  glittering sparks in the dust tails of 'Cool Britannia's biggest comets, Oasis, Blur and Pulp.

Nevertheless, Dodgy would be integral to this new era of guitar-rooted indie pop and its wholesale plundering of parental record collections. As 17 years of Tory rule came to an end, and 'New' Labour rolled in, we were enjoying ourselves. Hedonism was back: this was the height of Good-time Britain - when lads could be lads, and girls could be lads too, and Loaded magazine captured the zeitgeist in all its good, bad and ugly forms.

Dodgy's particular corner of the party would continue in 1996 with Good Enough, about as enjoyable a summer singalong as Alright by Supergrass or any one of a number of VW camper van favorites around that time. With its sun-kissed, tropical promo echoing the Caribbean video japes of another threesome, The Police, more than a decade before, Good Enough was perfect for a summer in a resurgent Britain, the kind of hit that finds its way up window cleaners' ladders as well as blasting across muddy, tent-infested farmland.

Free Peace Sweet, the album which spawned Good Enough, found the band exploring influences like The Who (none more so than on Jack The Lad), but the hits seemed to dry up and with it, the appearances on Top Of The Pops and Saturday morning kids TV subsided. In 1998 vocalist Clark went solo, leaving Priest (comedic, porkpie-hatted drummer, band spokesman and Never Mind The Buzzcocks favourite) and guitarist Miller ('The Quiet One') carried on as part of a largely unremarkable five-piece, which fizzled out itself.

Drawn together by a mutual friend's funeral,  Clark, Miller and Priest reformed in 2008, initially to play live and then to start work on new material.

And so, after four years of gigging and writing, Dodgy have returned to the fore with Stand Upright In A Cool Place. It's a grown-up, party's-over album reflective of three men in their early 40s (Priest, with his avuncular, greying beard, now looks a lot like perennially middle-aged England cricketer Mike Gatting) - considering what they have, what they had and what is still left to go after.

A delightful mix of pastoral folk-rock and wistful melodies, Stand Up is seeped in the music that came out of those stoner homesteads in southern Californian more than 40 years ago. But unlike the LA canyon folk who purposefully dialed out of convention, Dodgy are embracing it in their middle age.

The VW camper has been sold and its proceeds spent on bedding plants and a kitchen extension. But not without some regret of the loss of youthfull opportunities and past relationships, as expressed on ShadowsDid It Have To Be This Way and What Became Of You.

Only A Heartbeat is another consideration of separation, but could have been plucked from John Lennon's Double Fantasy - largely because of Clark's uncanny vocal resemblance to Lennon (take note, Liam). If this gives the impression of a tendency towards the melancholy - well, OK, it does. It's a badge of honour all of us over the age of 40 have earned the right to wear.

Stand Up is not all acoustic guitars and Fleet Foxes harmonics, either: while we could do without the woodland sound effects on Raggedstone Hill (you don't need the sound of woodpeckers pecking and twigs snapping underfoot to set the rustic scene), it progresses from gentle folk into grungy yarn about a Malvern monk finding love in a fair-skinned forest saucepot. At almost seven minutes long, it is almost in prog territory (perhaps even a companion to The Lady Lies on ...And Then There Were Three by Genesis) in its storytelling. It's also the most complicated track on the album, an enjoyable departure from the melodic simplicity elsewhere.

The last of Stand Up's eleven tracks is its most deceptive. Happy Ending suggests closure but instead mocks an unidentified character for not being able to "stand a chance...and you never did", berating this poor individual for underachievement and unfulfilment. There is no explanation whom its about, but the suspicion is that this is a mild form of self admonishment, Dodgy giving itself a hard time for not doing as well as it could have done in the past.

The paradox is that Happy Ending is closure to an album which you would be hard pressed to call happy, but which is a still a superbly joyful return from a band who, when the Britpop wave first washed them ashore, struggled to be seen as anything other than good-time party band for festivals. Perhaps Stand Upright In A Cool Place will afford Dodgy the spotlight they weren't ready for almost twenty years ago. It is, after all, a fantastic record.