Archive

Monthly Archives: February 2010

I feel in the mood to burble a while. The recent viewing of “Oil City Confidential” has had me thinking more than a little about music and life. I’m absolutely fine as long as I never look in a mirror. On the odd occasion that I accidently stumble in front of one, the true extent of the rift in the space/time continuum becomes glaringly apparent. Am I really that old? Yes, I am. I could, perfectly legally, have great grand children – and I had the gall to moan about how old and shambolic Wilko Johnson looked last week.

… but I really don’t feel as old as he looked!

Oddly, my reaction has been to have a nostalgia binge. In the main, I was concerned with the music but as is always the case, I strayed into the realms of the internet and computers. They are, of course, all connected. It’s fifteen years ago that I opened my web site. In those days, you could leave your machine on overnight to download music and maybe, if you hadn’t dropped the connection, you’d have an album sitting on your desktop in the morning. Try it nowadays and it can take just one minute.

The sad thing about that is nothing has any real value. If you’ve got a Rapidshare account and a free day, you can download hundreds, if not thousands of albums. Browsing http://www.rlslog.net will mean that albums, games, TV shows, films and even e-books are just a free click away. In many ways, I think the music we listen to, like so much else in our lives has truly become disposable.

Back in the days, you could go into real shops selling real records, where you could stand in a booth and listen before buying. If it was an album, you’d sometimes eschew the ubiquitous carrier bag, unless it was transparent. Then, at least, your peers could wonder at your taste and style and envy the record you were taking home to play. Sans carrier, it was an under the arm job and that was fraught with danger. Would your garb clash with the latest artistic statement you were carrying? In these days of iPods filled with a lifetime’s listening, people really haven’t got a clue.

In my teens, I wore an khaki Army greatcoat when most around me were clad in Air Force blue ones. My personal feeling was this was a far better background for most albums one might be transporting. While it never seemed to be compulsory to have a Roger Dean cover under the arm, there does seem to have been something about them that appealed to the teenage male psyche. Those were innocent days. It was perfectly possible to walk out of a record shop and, because of the vinyl you were carrying, find yourself in someone else’s home, listening to them try and out play you in a rather sad version of top trumps.

Essentially, everyone was trying to garner “Prog Points”. The weirder the cover, the longer the tracks, the more unpronounceable the track titles or band name, the more inaccessible the music – the higher the “Prog Points”. These “innocent” days were possibly marred by a misuse of copious quantities of cannabis that dictated when an album scored incredibly high “Prog Points”, the listener could at least declare, “Oh, wow man!”

The 1980’s were a big let-down for me. I’d liked the energy of punk but the styles of the New Romantics were too bizarre for my tastes. I can easily accept that it probably had little to do with musical trends and far more to do with me, in my twenties, trying to find identity when it seemed that all around me had lost theirs. Decades can change but that doesn’t mean my listening habits had to. They didn’t but that was no excuse for some bands to treat their fans as lab-rats and expose them to a fanciful form of musical experimentation that would see some groups blatantly try to jump on any passing band-wagon.

In some cases, we even had musicians with hugely successful albums behind them, turning their back on on the recording studio and opting, instead, for the soundstage to create that most hideous of entities, the pop promo video. Now, of course, everyone is a video director, a reporter and … a blogger. I can accept that it offers everyone a freedom to communicate and artistic expression but it doesn’t seem to have any excitement.

For a collector of rock video like me, YouTube is a dream come true but it’s also my worst nightmare. I spent more than a decade trading video around the world and now, it would take you weeks to garner what I’ve collected. It all seems so lifeless. There may be ease of use and speed of download but it feels moribund. The fact that ad agencies now use viral e-mail campaigns is surely proof of this.

Rockmine, as a web site went online on July 18th, 1995. The world wide web, as it then was, had been in existence for 20 months. They were strange, exciting, halcyon days. I had an Apple Powerbook 180c. A stunning machine that looked a bit like a Tonka Toy computer and had a 9 inch colour screen and a massive 3mb RAM. With RamDoubler and MaxRam, I could con the poor beast into thinking it had 36mb RAM. Enough to run an email client, browse the web and work in PhotoShop! New, it cost well over £ 2,000. I bought mine second hand for £ 800 and have never had the heart to throw it out, even although it has long since ceased to boot up.

I used to frequent the newsgroups in those early days. The Internet Marketing Digest and the VRML list were my two favourites. Everyone was trying to work out how to market themselves and some of us had hopes of a true virtual reality in cyberspace. One day on the IMD, a member was kind enough to give all the other members a mail to which we could post details of our sites. He was Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo and he guaranteed we’d get listed within 24 hours! On the VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) list, the members once got an even stranger posting. We were asked to check out the US Army’s tank battlefield simulator that they were building on the web.

Technology keeps expanding and yet I seem to remain unexcited by it. The nearest I’ve got to it of late is a bit perverse. For the last 4 months, I’ve been without a Mac laptop which, sadly, has troubled me deeply. It’s the first time in nearly 15 years that I haven’t had a Mac portable with me at almost all times. The straightened strictures of the current economic climate have discounted any possibility of getting a new one.

I do have a PC laptop which, like any PC’s is a tad unstable but at least it is a portable computer – made all the more acceptable by the fact that it now runs Mac OS 10.5.5! How sad am I that instead of getting excited about music, I’m genuinely pleased to have conned a poor unsuspecting PC into running Apple software, even if it has to be as a virtual machine.

Here’s a screen grab of my desktop

and a close up of the System Profiler

OS X running on an Intel Celeron M! How cool is that?

Oh, and just in case you wondered, it is perfectly useable.

Advertisements

I found myself in Aberdeen last night, in the middle of a blizzard of snow, wondering if it were possible to be further away from the Canvey Island of Dr. Feelgood. Not that odd a thought, as I was there to see “Oil City Confidential” at one of only four cinemas in Scotland showing this hybrid rock/cinema event.

Sitting at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century, watching a paean to proto punk, pub rock is probably pretty weird as evidenced by the almost embarrassing smattering of people that left probably 90% of the seats vacant. Director, Julian Temple had melded a strange amalgam of home movies, film noir clips, reconstructions, live footage and talking heads into a fatally flawed film. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a good film, or an interesting one. It was, but it didn’t gel as a film about Dr. Feelgood. Far more, it seemed to be an homage to Wilko Johnson.

If Wilko was dead, not Lee Brilleaux, I could see the point and how it would work; friends and band-mates recounting anecdotes and tall tales but this didn’t work for me – because of Wilko. His stage persona was lithe, frenetic, focussed but as narrator of his own story he seemed largely lost. It didn’t help that I seemed incapable of accepting that the old shambling figure before me seemed nothing more than a detached observer of his own life. This really couldn’t be Wilko.

From time to time, we’d see this narrator play something to illustrate part of the story but the playing, like his words, was all over the place. I met him once. Dr. Feelgood were in the middle of their first U.S. tour but during a few days off, Wilko flew back to London. I was at United Artists offices in the city, sitting in reception when he walked in. The exact details are somewhat clouded by the passage of time but the trip home had been prompted by the non-appearance of a bag of white powder in The States.

The receptionist greeted him warmly and having ascertained why he wasn’t on the other side of the pond, found the missing bag. Wilko then asked for a room with a typewriter and disappeared. On my way out from seeing the press officer, I was walking past an open door when the, by then wired, guitarist called out to me. He’d been busy battering out lyrics on a portable and asked me if I’d listen to some of them and give my opinion. I remember being impressed both with the occasion and words but that’s all the information I’ve retained.

That’s the crux of my problem. I remember the Wilko that I met and yet I seem unprepared to accept that I have aged as much as he has. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the 1970’s high-energy performances seen in the captured live footage, with the guitarist as he is now seemed all the sadder. I wanted an unsullied celebration of this all too English amphetamine fuelled, electric, delta blues. I wanted the snapshot in time.

Canvey Island was itself a major player in the film. The faded fifties glamour of the casinos and holiday camp were a powerful backdrop to the evolution of the band. Even seeing it now, it offered far less pathos than inspiration as we followed one of the regular 2 hour tours that takes fans round all the important Feelgood landmarks.

The fact that fans still take those tours is testament to something hugely important that was sidestepped to a large degree: there was a Dr. Feelgood after Wilko left the band. It might not have been as exciting an era as when he was part of it but it saw the band continue to grow as a group of musicians and Lee Brilleaux take his rightful place as one of Britain’s best blues men. They may never again have had the startling effect that their early years made on the music industry but it can easily be argued that without Feelgood, there would never have been Punk. Unlike Punk, of course, Feelgood weathered the changing musical tastes of several decades and stayed true to their roots. They also remained in the hearts and minds of fans of basic rhythm and blues.

For me, the most poignant part of the film was Wilko sitting with his life in cuttings and pictures spread out before him. I had a deep sense of intruding on a private moment, watching someone access personal memories that should never be lightly shared. That, more than anything else troubled me. It seemed that he had lost his own connection with those events; was seeing them as a third party and yet I understand the reasoning (if there is one).

Despite that pathos there was one real sense of emotion in the film. It came from Shirley Brilleaux, Lee’s widow. She was filled with such feeling for this man that saw her smile, laugh and cry whilst thinking of him. Such simple emotions that were obviously heartfelt left me hungering for more knowledge of her husband. In many ways, Shirley was the unexpected star of this film. She did Lee proud.

When the film petered out there was a break before the video feed was turned on again. It was just enough time to hit the bar and hope for better things to come. I wasn’t expecting much, based on what I’d seen of Wilko and the announcement that Alison Moyet was going to be a guest did not bode well for me. “Alf” from Yazoo with Wilko Johnson? No way!

Strangely, that was the unexpected highlight of the evening. She looked great and sounded amazing! As for the shambolic narrator, a simple truth became self evident – all he needed was an audience. Not a film crew but a real audience that he could strut his stuff in front of – and boy, did he strut! The moves, the energy and, of course, the licks were all there. I just wanted someone to put a “Wilko” wig on him and take me back 35 years. The video feed was stunning. To see every chop of his fingers on those strings, every chord change, was incredible. I just didn’t want to see the bushiness of his eyebrows or the lines on his face that the high definition picked out in minute detail.

Playing counterpoint to Wilko’s machine-gun like guitar was Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Watt-Roy goes back to 1968 with The Greatest Show On Earth, an early signing to the Harvest label. From there he joined Glencoe, then Loving Awareness and finally Ian Dury & The Blockheads. It was an odd sight. He seemed unaware of his guitarist but somehow, as is the case with all great bass players, totally attuned to him. Odd isn’t really the word. More outlandish. Part gargoyle let loose; part Orang Utang; part octopus. A figure dancing to his own tune yet producing the most incredible runs far beyond the reach of many. His dexterity on the fretboard and his obvious skill with picking and slapping the strings between the bridge and first pick-up was totally breathtaking.

There was one other guest onstage. A leather-jacketed harmonica player that looked totally familiar and yet I couldn’t believe I was seeing. Charles Shaar Murray, one of the greatest music journalists ever, showed he really knew how to blow a blues harp and paid a fine tribute to the one man missing from the stage – Lee Brilleaux. Somehow, that tied it all together. Wilko’s guitar was as good as it ever was but his singing was weak and reedy.

Alison Moyet lifted the event, as did C S M but really all it did was point out that Dr. Feelgood was at its best when the original line-up was together. A stunning guitarist capable of great lyrics and a wonderful vocalist who could make a harmonica wail unlike anyone outside the American blues elite. One thing is certain, Lee and the Feelgoods are missing from today’s music and that’s sad.