Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ahead of the curve - the Strat at 60

With the rock stars who defined rock stardom now entering their 70s, it is no longer news when one of them turns 60. But there is one particular new member of the sixtysomething club deserving of the sky being darkened by hats for its place in music history.

This is a rock star that has known the wildest excesses of the business, has been smashed to pieces on stage, been set light to with lighter fluid, and has seen age and misuse reduce its once pristine beauty to a defaced husk, all without losing its signature sound.

From the earliest outings of rock'n'roll though blues, punk, country, funk, new wave, prog - you name it, this icon has covered every genre.

This icon is the Fender Stratocaster. For those who play it, it is a guitar of extraordinary variety - a loud, scream one minute, a gentle, tender, jangle the next. It has a versatility like no other electric guitar, a versatility underscored by the ubiquity with which it has been part of the soundtrack of the last six decades, from Buddy Holly and The Crickets' That’ll Be the Day to Daft Punk's Get Lucky.

Not even Gibson's Les Paul can claim to be a defining symbol of as many artists as the Strat, and the artists it has, in turn, helped inspire.

Buddy Holly played a Strat and, thus, Hank Marvin had to have one, prompting David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler, to choose the Strat as well.

Throw into this cocktail the influential surf sound of Dick Dale (think Misirlou and you think of Pulp Fiction), Rory Gallagher's artfully battered number, Nile Rodgers' signature funk technique, modern day stoners like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' John Frusciante and John Mayer,  Bob Dylan choosing the Strat for his electric 'conversion', and, perhaps, the most distinctive master of the Strat of all time, Jimi Hendrix, who probably demonstrated the guitar's versatility more than any other artist.

Eric Clapton's association with the guitar also led to Fender creating their first 'signature' series in his name. Today, it's hard to think of him playing any other electric guitar, an association Clapton which commenced in 1970 when he purchased six of the guitars for $100 each from Sho-Bud in Nashville, giving one to George Harrison, another to Steve Winwood and a third to Pete Townshend.

The remaining three came together to form the hybrid 'Blackie', which was later sold for a staggering £600,000 in a charity auction. "I’ve moved around with many guitars and tried many different things," Clapton has said. "but I’ve always come back to the Stratocaster."

So what is the secret of the Strat's success and, in particular, its stellar patronage? There are obvious and less obvious reasons. Guitarists can get ridiculously nerdy about their guitars. The fact that Eric Clapton put Blackie together from three separate Strats shows the ludicrous extent to which guitar players will go to get the perfect tone. To the uninitiated, the Strat already offers the perfect tone, but with a change of necks, a rewired electrics, or even a different weight of pick guard, a guitar's sound can be tuned to the player's personal tastes.

The Strat's versatility is probably it's most obvious attraction, but a near second is its design. When he introduced the Strat in 1954, Leo Fender effectively created the shape most people associate with the electric guitar, the 'double-horn' body allowing easy access to the upper reaches of the neck, while the  scalloped back accommodates even the most generous of guitarist girths.

Overall, though, the Stratocaster is a thing of beauty. Much has been said of its feminine curves, but that is only the start of its aesthetic appeal. It is a design classic, one which can be rightfully considered in the same league as Concorde, the Spitfire, the Porsche 911 or the relationship between Ferrari and Pininfarina, even the Kalishnikov AK47 rifle.

A simple but effective shape (and, like the 911 and AK47, barely modified in 60 years), immensely practical, but capable of creating a beautiful noise. In 1954, it evoked unlimited possibility, "Strato" being the prefix of choice in 1950s America (a year after the Stratocaster appeared, Boeing introduced the B-52 bomber, named "Stratofortress").

Like most guitarists, I've given different guitars a go, but I've come back to the Strat every time. I've now owned three - each of them immensely playable, all of them utterly satisfying.

I'm by no means anything other than one of those amateurs who has barely progressed on from posing in front of the bedroom mirror with a tennis racquet. And as much as I think I'm Clapton, Gilmour or Hendrix when I pick up my Strat, I know I'm not.

But that doesn't do anything to diminish the enjoyment of an instrument which sounds like none other with six strings, which looks like none other, and which gives such simple pleasure like none other.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An inverse sense of proportion: Editors at La Cigale, Paris

© 2014 Simon Poulter

For over 50 years we have blithely accepted the fact that Doctor Who's spaceship, the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside, and that a Metropolitan Police phone box from the early 1960s is capable of holding the equivalent floor space of a split-level penthouse apartment.

This Einstein-bothering concept is achievable, we are informed, only by the canny ability of yer Time Lord to bend space in much the same manner as one packs for flying with Ryanair.

However, I have news: Editors, for the past 12 years British guitar pop’s perennial future, appear to have a similar capability for inverting the laws of physics. For that is the only explanation I can come up with for how they managed to turn the diminutive La Cigalle theatre in the Pigalle district of Paris into a cavernous arena.

Nasal hair-singeing amplification and copious reverb are normally the main means for bands and their sound engineers to fit quarts into pint pots, and thus it appeared to be so on St. Patrick's Night as Editors unleashed their expansive, perfectly wrapped, 80s-style alt-rock like an escaping rare gas.

Editors are, apparently, much-maligned, and I really don't know why. Reviews of perfectly good albums (four to date) have met with sneering derision and gigs that have delighted the many have drawn barbs from the published few. Throughout their history, they have endured less than favourable comparison with the likes of Joy Division (and their offspring New Order), Echo & The Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and mid-80s Aussies, The Church, all because singer Tom Smith sings in a baritone like Ian McCulloch, and bassist Russell Leetch plays with a bit of a thud. And there’s more – basically choose your reference, from The Killers to Kings of Leon - all queing up to be included in tired old comments about wannabe stadium rock giants.

Clearly Editors have thick skins, as they have ploughed on regardless. Their most recent album, The Weight Of Your Love - released last year - did offer a somewhat lighter fare than its predecessors, but with Monday's set opening with the pounding bass lines of Sugar from that album, from the outset it was clear that they were not about to go soft on their live audiences.

© 2014 Simon Poulter

This was a full-on lavishment of energy and relentlessness, the band bathed, for much of the night in the anonymity of backlit silhouetting - frequently rendering them like the ultimate close encounter between Richard Dreyfuss and the aliens.

Tracks from The Weight Of Your Love were sprinkled through the evening: the jiggable  Formaldehyde amped up to epic proportions, the plaintive Honesty and Nothing - included in the encore - given a raw energy not present on the album versions.

Noticeably, though, there was a heavy presence from The Back Room, their delightfully gloomy 2005 breakout album, with Someone Says and Munich appearing as early as the second and third song of the set, Smith hitching his guitar into its trademark, Nick Heywood-style armpit position, while Justin Lockey to his right clanging away with great gothic soundscapes on his low-hanging (and I mean Peter Hook low) Telecaster. Lights and Bullets later formed another back-to-back brace from The Back Room, their individual darkness made more absorbing by the breathless bombast of their live performance.

© 2014 Simon Poulter
If there was one niggle I could throw at Editors on Monday night it's that it took until the very last song - the radio hit Papillon from In This Light And On This Evening - before those who'd been sitting were on their feet and showing more vigorous signs of movement, beyond the obligatory clapalongs and air punching that had punctuated the night so far.

That, though, might suggest at an evening lacking animation. Anything but. Editors are a brilliant live act. True, this wasn't never going to be an epic, and Smith is not exactly Springsteen when it comes to audience orchestration. But there was nothing, I heard or saw that provided any reason for the negativity Editors have endured via the pages of certain magazines.

There have, though, been many times over the years - including when I was doing it for a living - that I've questioned the balance of live music reviews. Surely, a band that manages to get a crowd moving, nodding, foot-tapping or any one of a number of other means of showing engagement, must have achieved something.

And while, yes, their sound can be called derivative (and show me anyone since Elvis Presley who isn't), Editors engaged the tightly packed La Cigale crowd with a scything vigor that will always be welcome if you go out on a school night - even if it is St. Patrick's - looking for some proper rock and roll.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When managers lose it

In case you haven't noticed, we have entered that highly entertaining stage of the footballing year which everyone likes to refer to as "the business end of the season".

This is, keen fans of this very blog might recall (Cliche Corner), when football applies itself en masse to the most copious usage of hackneyed expressions such as "we’re going to take each game as it comes", "we're going to give it [insert mathematically impossible percentage] until it's out of our hands" and "every game is a cup final", amongst many others.

The Spring thaw is when the pressure tells. This is when the previously dismissed possibility of relegation becomes all-too real for those below each league's Mason-Dixon Line. It is when managerial positions become untenable even for the caretakers brought in during November's dismissal window, and for everyone else, either the dreaded Chairman's vote of confidence.

But most entertaining or all is that this is the time of year when managers start to lose it. It was, for example, in the closing, April stages of the 1995-96 term when Kevin Keegan, then in charge of Newcastle United, let rip at Sir Alex Ferguson with his famous "I will love it!" rant:

"When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce - I've kept really quiet, but I'll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that - we have not resorted to that. But I'll tell ya - you can tell him now if you're watching it - we're still fighting for this title, and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and... and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!"
Kevin Keegan, keeping it together, after Newcastle had beaten Leeds on April 27, 1996
A couple of years later, Giovanni Trapattoni went one better with what is still considered today a high watermark for a public managerial eruption, going off like Vesuvius during a post-match press conference on March 10, 1998, while manager of Bayern Munich. In demonstrably bad German, Trap went somewhat Adolf by screaming about the attitude of Thomas Strunz and then comparing Mehmet Scholl and Mario Basler to empty bottles. This was no Steve McClaren attempt to affect the local tongue - this was a full-on, Nuremberg-grade firestorm that probably wouldn't be anywhere near as effective or funny in any other language (even if locals at the time wilfully pointed out that the Italian positively mullered their vernacular.

More recently we've had another Newcastle manager - Alan Pardew - allowing his blood pressure to sky north of widely accepted NHS guidelines. Generally regarded during his playing days as a somewhat genial individual, his seemingly placid nature in interviews appears to mask an incandescent flow of molten lava beneath the surface. Firstly, in January - neither the business end or whatever is the opposite end of the season - he let fly at Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, charging the exquisitely bouffant Chilean with less than collegial language involving the bombs F and C. Well, it happens. And City were leading 2-0.

Less explainable is Pardew's frankly baffling physical contretemps the other week in which he attempted to speed proceedings along in Newcastle's meeting with Hull City by using his head. And not in the intellectual sense either. Despite his team being 3-1 up, Pardew took umbrage at Hull's David Meyler apparently pushing him out of the way while trying to get the ball for a throw-in, and pushed his head into Meyler's face.
"I did not mean any damage to the guy but I have moved my head forward," Pardew attempted to explain after the match, adding, helpfully, "I tried to push him away with my head." Normally, I believe that is known as a headbutt.

Along with his industrial engagement with Pellegrini, Pardew has other previous to be taken into account, such as his shove of linesman Peter Kirkup during an early season encounter with Spurs in 2012 which Newcastle won. "It was ridiculous" he later chirruped. Notably, this wasn't March but the warmth of August, when there is a whole season ahead. Clearly the apparently affable Pardew has some issues to work out.

José Mourinho, on the other hand, has had his issues worked out already. When he reappeared at Chelsea last summer he claimed to no longer be the high-maintenance, high-strung Special One, but the "Happy One". He has spent most of this season stock-still on the touchline, barely raising a fist pump when Chelsea score, hands thrust in the pockets of his puffa coat. No histrionics or paranoid delusions about refereeing conspiracies - no, just Nice Guy José. Older, wiser, relaxed. Even attempts by the press to bait Mourinho on Chelsea's title chances have been batted away with a semi-smiling shrug and bizarre comparisons with horses.

However, Mourinho finally succumbed to the inner beast on Saturday evening by losing it at Villa Park. Admittedly he'd seen Willian and Ramires sent off by Chris Foy (though the two-footed lunging nature of the latter's offence was a justifiable red card), and then got sent off himself in the ensuing melee. And so the cork popped: "We must be very, very unlucky to have another refereeing performance like this one," growled the more familiar fuming, conspiratorial Mourinho. "This is not about one mistake from a referee. This is about a performance from minute one to minute 94."

Chelsea are, today, four points clear of Liverpool and six points clear of Manchester City, who have a couple of games to spare. You could say the pressure is telling.

But what of other managers? Why no emotional breakdown yet from Arsène Wenger? Does he ever get emotional, for that matter? Why was Tim Sherwood simply just downbeat when he described his players as lacking "guts and character" after their 4-0 heaving to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago. And what about David Moyes? Surely if anyone's going to crack, Manchester United's continuing gravitational plunge must be pushing even the big Scot to some form of vexation. Perhaps the moment of no return is approaching....

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mr Benn: a childhood stalwart

My childhood took place in Britain in the 1970s. As a consequence, until the age of 15, I was mostly exposed to the colour grey. That's because the skies were permanently leaden, we only had a black and white television set for most of the decade, and the news on it was dominated by politicians and thundering trade unionists droning on about strikes and three-day weeks at factories building astonishingly poor cars.

Amid this lugubrious landscape strode Anthony Wedgwood Benn. With his bullet-hole dark eyes, angular skull and trademark pipe, coupled with old-school oratory and counter-cultural politics (born into privilege/ passionate socialist/renounced his hereditary peerage within 20 minutes of a law being passed allowing him to do so), he loomed enormously in my unconscious political upbringing, even if I had no idea what he was doing there.

Perhaps it had something to do with these attributes making him the ideal muse for newspaper cartoonists and TV impressionists. Either way, his death, announced this morning, has transported me back to my pre-adolescent gloom.

On reflection, however, it's clear to see how, compared to today's political so-called heavyweights, Benn was a colossus. Living outside of the UK for almost 15 years, I have watched British politics blandify. The current crop of party leaders - Cameron, Clegg and Miliband - could change places with each other and no-one would notice. Add Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, crackpot Neil Young to this Crosby, Stills and Nash of politics and the picture doesn't improve (and by the way, what is Farage doing being only 49 years old but looking and behaving like a permanently enraged Daily Mail reader in his 70s?).

Benn, we must now conclude, was a politician of unquestioning conviction. Actually, let's just say he was a politician in the very best sense of the phrase. An MP for 50 years, he retired from politics in 2001 to, famously, "spend more time on politics". And thus he did - long into old age, maintaining his anti-war drumbeat, standing for a political left that may have become unfashionable and even irrelevant in the post-Thatcher, ad agency-groomed Blair era. But the point is, he stood for something. He spoke his mind. He made his point.

There has been no shortage of politicians of every persuasion lining up to pay tribute. David Cameron gave his customary, vacuous two penn'orth ("There was never a dull moment listening to him, even when you disagreed with everything he said."). Current Labour leader Ed Miliband had a more meaningful statement to make, pointing out that Benn "spoke his mind and spoke up for his values", adding, critically, that his strong views were "often at odds with his Party".

That made him a prominent member of the British Left's 'awkward squad'. But the former baronet, who changed his name from Anthony Wedgwood Benn to the more populist Tony Benn, took the view that democratic British politics needed a stronger role in shaping the country and preventing the excess of corporate, old school tie influence. "If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system," he once argued, "they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum".

Latterly, he put forward an even stronger view, rubbishing the idea that politics is all about charisma and spin. "It is trust that matters". Amen to that.

I'm no political thinker and have, at best, a crude pub bore's view of politics. There were plenty of things that were wrong with the Labour Party Benn stood for, even more so when he lurched further to left to support Michael Foot, marginalising the movement and keeping them out of office. But no one should dismiss or deride his stance as foolhardiness.

The platitudes - even the thin ones - do hold consistency to the fact that, left or right, Tony Benn was a master parliamentarian. "Although he had passionate feelings he didn't let himself turn into a sour partisan like a lot of politics today," Dame Shirley Williams told the BBC today. "Look at Prime Minister's Questions and what you get is a kind of football terrace effect without much thought. Tony did think about things, you see he thought about them carefully. And if he disagreed he would lay out his reasons for disagreement."

Whether they wear a red rosette or a blue one, Britain could do with more politicians like Tony Benn. At least they wouldn't be grey.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Flying High: Elbow - The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything

There comes a point in the careers of pop stars that whatever it was that propelled them to stardom in the first place either becomes passé or they, themselves, simply get bored with it and move on.

Sometimes this is met with acclaim - Madonna and Bowie are the obvious examples of regularly and successfully breaking the formula. And sometimes it is met with disdain - Dylan was famously booed for going electric while the Stones faced universal derision for 'doing disco' (oh, how we now all enjoy Miss You...).

But sometimes it is best not to change at all. Just stick to the formula that won the masses over in the first place and apply minimum tinkerage. Some might say this is unadventurous, but there is good argument to support the view that maintaining continuity is harder than trying to be different - and failing.

It would be tempting, then, to surmise that Elbow took that as the creative brief for their sixth album, The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything. On first listen it does exactly what an Elbow album should do - blanketing you in a mellifluous hour of old-beyond-years musings about life from the perspective of a band individually still only approaching their 40s (yes, I was surprised too). But give it a second, third or fourth listen, and like peeling away the layers of an onion, you get closer and closer to the core of an album with depths-a-plenty.

However, before treading further into those depths, let's get out of the way the inevitable mention of Coldplay. Elbow aren't Coldplay. Coldplay are Coldplay. Of course, when you mention "anthemic", "uplifting" and "infectious choruses" there are only two bands you could be possibly talking about. Some will say the margin between Coldplay and Elbow is gossamer thin. Or, as the NME's Emily Mackay somewhat colourfully put it that they are "...only ever a sonic bollock hair from Coldplay, but a world away in the minds of their fans thanks to their romantic but sardonic northern sensibilities". She has a point.

Elbow: whatever gave you the idea they were Northerners?
So let's get 'the North' thing out of the way, too. There is clearly a thread that runs through Bury's Elbow, Manchester's Doves and I Am Kloot, and Sheffield's Richard Hawley, whether it is the reverb-drenched vocals, the thudding, cold Peter Hook bass notes, or the tendency towards bloke-in-the-corner-of-the-pub introspection. It is its no surprise that Elbow, Doves and the Kloots move in the same circles.

But, to be honest, so what? Guy Garvey, brothers Mark and Craig Potter, Pete Turner and Richard Jupp have crafted to perfection the Elbow thing. In a cynical age, when it is so tempting to sneer at populism (well, there is plenty of populist crap about), Elbow have found a songwriting niche that exudes wit, wisdom, empathy and, above all, warmth. Only those with neat anti-freeze coursing their veins could fail to have felt uplifted by One Day Like This.

And so, if you haven't yet heard it, New York Morning, the breakout single from The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything, does the same. Clearly the outcome of Garvey's recent relationship split and subsequent escape to New York, it progressively builds itself up to just short of epic proportions, as if Garvey himself was coming late to the conclusion that life was crap before, and that a life-affirming wake-up in the Big Apple offers a restorative effect. Call me a sucker for such stuff, but it's a beautiful song.

Despite his avuncular appearance and personable demeanour (his BBC 6 show has been required listening for both late night Sunday soothing and for the breadth of taste) Garvey possesses a jaded side. "These fuckers are ignoring me" he broods on Fly Boy Blue/Lunette.

There is a distinct coldness to The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything but its the sort of coldness that drew many a sixth-former to Pink Floyd. It's not necessarily morosity, but there is a kindred spirit here to the Floyd's "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" line on Time. But whereas the Floyd's take on Englishness was built on repressed middle class adolescence in academic Cambridgeshire, Elbow unashamedly apply their northern cojones to a street fighting song like Charge, a boozed-up self-induced argument of a song.

There is a lot to enjoy with The Takeoff And Landing Of Everything but do not be put off by some critics who, I suspect, have given it a cursory single listen and dismissed it as a musical mid-life crisis. Give it your full attention and then repeat. Two or three times. You'll unravel an absolute gem.