Black lives matter: round 114, Nick’s choices

I grew up in a seaside town in Devon where practically the only faces that weren’t white were Chinese and ran takeaway restaurants. The only black people I knew as a child were my friend Ben and his brother, who lived on the same estate at the edge of town as I did, and whose mum was white, and a lesbian. It was quite a combination for the 80s. And so ‘black music’ – Motown, Public Enemy, Miles Davis, etc etc – was my principle exposure to cultures and identities other than my own when I was growing up. I still live in the south west, obviously, and while I work at a university with an international outlook the culture here remains predominantly white, more so than most other places in the UK.

I’ve always felt slightly guilty that I mainly listen to music made by people like me – white men, generally suburban or provincial rather than urban – and not enough by people from different races (or religions, cultures, countries, or gender identities for that matter). I do feel a need to performatively demonstrate my ‘wokeness’ in many ways, to prove I’m not a racist asshole from a backwards part of the country. But that makes it about me, and this is not about me. All white people are part of the problem, because the nature of the problem is systemic and ingrained in our culture. Acknowledge and accept this, educate yourself, be as anti-racist as you can, and try to make things better: don’t think just because you own a Marvin Gaye record that you’re somehow not part of the problem. Black lives matter.

But anyway, the songs I picked:

“We Need a Resolution” – Aaliyah
Ostensibly about a damaged and damaging romantic / emotional / sexual relationship between two people, but nevertheless the title as a phrase in and of itself was one of the first things that jumped into my head. Plus the song itself is a deep and long-standing favourite, a synthesis of artist and producer that promised an amazingly fertile creative partnership, which sadly did not come to pass. Aaliyah’s tragic life story and abuse at the hands of R Kelly feels like some kind of fucked-up metaphor.

“Umi Says” – Mos Def
Another beautiful song that I’ve loved for a long time, but it’s only in the shadow of this shitshow that it’s struck me that the key lyric and feeling of the song is from the backing vocals rather than the lead – “I want black people to be free, to be free, to be free / all my people to be free, to be free, to be free”. The US might have abolished slavery and segregation years ago, but as the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay brutally reveals, those laws were just replaced with others that prevented black people being truly free and equal. 21 years on from this song, and though there has been a black president the black prison population has increased massively. Black people are still not free.

“New Way New Life” – Asian Dub Foundation
Racism in the UK is as much about Asian lives, and there’s a positivity and hopefulness about this song – 20 years old, pre-9/11, written and released during the honeymoon of Tony Blair’s Britain – that seems almost quaint now, but which is still energising and vital. Integration, progression, celebration: a blueprint for how we could live together.

“The Charade” – D’Angelo and the Vanguard
A masterful moment from an astonishing record, this was released in late 2014, shortly after my daughter was born. The chilling refrain of “all we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk” seemed back then like it could signify a turning point – surely racist police brutality and murder couldn’t continue anymore? But it’s got worse. With every death this song becomes more horribly relevant.

Black Lives Matter: Round 114, Steve – I Have a Choice Not To Remain Silent


It’s hard to write a post that full encapsulates, gives justice to, celebrates, and raises the voices of Black lives, voices, instruments in the musical industry, and their voice and music amongst lets face it, a continued history of repression, inequality, and downright injustice. Black Lives Matter. It is a matter of historical fact that Black people have had, and still have it stacked against them. The music industry is no stranger to whiteness and white privilege. That is just a fact.

Since the brutal murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer there has been an outpouring of grief, and righteous anger. This has resulted in mass worldwide protests, rioting, and the toppling of the statue of a slaver in Bristol (my home city professionally – I work at the University as a Professor. Ok, more on that in a second). Goodbye Colston. The statue being dumped in St Augustine’s reach (listen now to “Augustine” by Blood Orange) is symbolic, but also a moment in history that has catapulted a movement to topple and decolonise systems of the oppression of Black people. And yet, the injustices against Black people in the US goes back 450 years (at least). This has been waiting to happen. For. A. Very. Long. Time.

Let’s get the facts straight. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, over 12 million Black enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic, stripped of their names, identities, made property through ownership, tipped overboard if they perished during the journey, and forcibly made to work the land on pain of death. Millions died. The endemic and huge negative impacts of slavery exist today, still impacting generations of Black people later, right across the African diaspora. If you want a good summary of the economic impact of this on Black African Americans then watch this video. In my article, I’ll do my best to put this in the words of those affected – Black people.

The music of this suffering and oppression is one of survival then. Emerging from this came gospel, blues, soul, jazz, dance, hip-hop, rap….basically the face of modern music should be Black. If we are to decolonise music, we have to de-centre, which in plain language means “stop putting yourself at the centre, and listen“. Language is also very important in this de-centering, so here I use capital ‘B’ for black, de-centering from the default “white”. This is something that goes back to the 1960s, and is covered here. I also won’t use BAME, or BME – bad terms, let’s get rid of them!

We have to use decolonisation as a tool of anti-racism. From the point of most oppression come the sounds of most resistance. However, if I am to come to this as a white man, then I also need to know that I am definitely part of the problem. Racism is a social construct and I am in that construct and have to accept my role, often in perpetrating it by staying silent, neutral, while also benefitting from it. In music, and my appreciation of it, my purchasing of it, and my influences, I have to own up to those benefits and privileges too. Some people have said to me, why listen to Black music, you don’t understand/relate to it? Well, if I want to understand other people’s perspective I would read a book. The same is true about some Black music, although it gets more complex than that. Or more simple – it’s also just great music! To assume that every Black artist must represent or be represented by their race is to discredit the diversity of contribution to that music by Black people. There is diversity in diversity. No need to always speak, sing, play, in that context. The fact that so few Black artists are credited as musicians within a wide range of genres is sometimes because of that classification – it being portrayed as ‘Black music’, rather than music by Black artists.

So, I decided that I wouldn’t go for the usual suspects for my selections on this evening when we chose to focus on Black Lives Matters. I should point out that Nick, Rob, and Tom also made selections too. I’ll leave them to write up those in their own words, but I especially enjoyed the range of their selections too. Much did focus on Black African American artists. I went for a wide range of music by UK Black artists, but also of UK bands that had Black artists in them, where perhaps their contributions or themselves were invisible, or not given due credit. I also tried to cover tracks that had come into my life at some point, but I was also trying to unpick some of the racism of Black contributions to music itself. I am trying to de-centre here, if you like decolonise the musical contributions of Black artists. They are varied, and complex statements of identity. My playlist is here if you want it (although I only played a few of these on the night).

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/6nucAD5StKaaczlPKgSlCS

You might want to listen as you read…

It does include some selections that do cover, sometimes presciently, the state of the US today, and how Black Lives Matters has once again thrown into sharp contrast the lives of Black men and women. One of these, “The Revolution Won’t Go Viral” by Third Root points a well-pointed finger at academics posting in coffee shops:

Many lies spread by keyboard activists, never putting theory into practice. Inaccurate. Intellectual academics stuck in coffee shops, posting articles but stay away from the block

Yes, guilty as charged….

The track also takes a pop at Kendrick Lamar’s genius album To Pimp A Butterfly, but I include one track from there in my list anyway (“King Kunta” which references a Black slave Kuta Kinte from the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley).

Dead Prez, with “Police State”, were just way ahead on the BLM thing. They had it nailed 20 years ago exactly with Let’s Get Free. Saw behind all the lies and told it how it is. They start with that age old contradiction of a police state and a police service, serving the community. The same problem exists in the UK. The police have actively oppressed Black people, and through institutional racism have maintained that oppression both in the US, and here in the UK too. Just read the MacPherson report. It’s all in there, and not much has progressed since then. Note progress, not change. Plenty changed, but plenty did not progress.

undefined

I’ll start the official write-up on a sombre note. As I write this post it is the 3rd anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster (14th June), tragedy,….although any of these words fail to capture the institutional racism that led to the event. I work as an engineer. If there was anything that would represent institutional racism in my profession, where engineering would be an active tool in this racism, it is Grenfell. So, I played “Prayer for Grenfell” by Ruby Rushton from the album Ironside. It’s a haunting 4-5 minute flute solo, with pain, anguish, and heartfelt notes – quite astonishing really, and a fitting tribute. RIP to the 72 who died. A disproportionate number were from ethnic minorities. Many were Black.

undefined

I played Joan Armatrading’s “Like Fire” from her debut album, which was released in 1976. I don’t think Joan is given enough credit for being a highly accomplished guitarist. When did you ever see her appear in a list of best guitarists ever? Typically you might catch Jimmy Hendrix in there for Black representation, but what of others? “Like Fire” has an incredible finger picking intro, very folksy, but then turning to funk. It is stunning, and not too dissimilar at the start of the track to Bert Jansch, who I covered in a previous round. Why are Black people noticeably absent from “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” lists? Then ask yourself how many of those in the lists are Black women?…..

undefined

Next up I played Rip Rig & Panic’s “Change Your Life” from their debut album God. Going back to my original forays into music, via punk and post-punk, I have recently been trying to pick up albums that came out during this time that did not fit the norm. [Krautrock influenced bands who later sold ‘pap’ to a MOR audience (more at a future meeting hopefully) are but one example – go on, guess who?]

Rip, Rig and Panic burst onto the early 80s Bristol scene, uniquely fusing jazz, punk and world music (I’m not always keen on that term). People sometimes think the ‘Bristol Scene’ might refer to Tricky (hear “Black Steel” and its anti-war, anti-state lyrics), or Massive Attack. Bristol has had a long history of its Black artists forming and shaping new music. This track by RRP is incredible, and so positively full of vibrant energy. Nothing beats watching that Pan-African joy of them live, as this clip shows. For the uninformed, Rip Rig and Panic started the career of a young Neneh Cherry (also in my playlist), but also Andi Oliver (now a famous chef). Tragically Andi’s brother, Sean Oliver, also a bandmember, died in 1990 of sickle cell disease at the age of 27. Sickle cell disease particularly affects people of African and Caribbean descent. It’s one of the reasons that Black people are particularly susceptible to Covid-19. Just one of the many things that are stacked against Black people. Just one of the many….

Neneh Cherry is an artist who is massively underappreciated. Here is a woman who has morphed and taken on a white man’s industry, suffered for it through not wishing to compromise to it, and made a set of music that has power, strength and a will to survive (listen to “Kong” – stunning!).

I also had another Black woman, Poly Styrene, in my playlist but under three very different guises. I’ve covered Poly before (Poly Styrene – Translucence), and her mixed heritage (Somali-UK), and her identity. Poly’s identity is often confused, being portrayed as one of few (maybe one of one) Black female punk artists. She is so much more than this. Her debut single – released as Mari Elliot (she was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) – was one of my curve-ball selections (“Silly Billy”). I was going to try the element of surprise with this one. It’s a reggae dance hall number. Released in 1976! She goes from this to X-ray Spex and ‘Identity’. Like Neneh, Poly is perhaps one of the most shape-shifting artists I know of. In her relatively short life she went from this, to punk, to hippie trip-hop, to Hare Krishna and back again. Incredible, shaping many identities. There’s a picture in a book I have on her life that says identity without words (see below). Look at the connection between the two Black artists in the front (Pauline Black of Selector, and Poly). Pauline Black talks about this in the book, about how they naturally gravitated to each other at the photo shoot. How the focus was the white girls at the back. You can almost feel the connection between the Black girls at the front, not really feeling part of the shoot…

hundefined

undefined

Okay, I did actually begin with an Afrika Bambaataa track (‘Planet Rock’) on the night, since I had played Kraftwerk – Computer World in my last official album round. Bambaataa famously sampled Trans Europe Express, and Pocket Calculator (from Computer World) on this single release. Now seminal, it is still delightful. I hadn’t heard it for years until I played it on the night. Many of us hadn’t heard it all the way through before. You cannot underestimate the contribution and influence of this track on modern music. It came out in 1982. Only a few years later Gerald Simpson, a young Black man flipping burgers in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, would under the name of A Guy Called Gerald release “Voodoo Ray”. He had been studying the music and technology of Bambaataa, amongst others. When I heard Voodoo Ray as a young teenager on John Peel I thought it was being beamed at me from outer space! Not enough credit is given in the UK to Black artists who took the dance music coming over the water from US Black African artists and created the dance and rave scene here. Footage from Mosside Community Centre in Manchester in 1986 shows it was young Black men and women who first embraced this dance music, not white ravers in the Hacienda, as is so often portrayed in the media. Lazy journalistic racism if you ask me. This story needs de-centering if ever one did.

undefined

One blast from the past that I actually played on the night, was by Credit to the Nation. Who remembers them? Rob and I recalled that we had perhaps been to the same gig in Leeds when they played there in the early 90s. Credit were fronted by one Matty Hanson. “Call it What You Want”, released in 1993 starts with something familiar, a sample of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Credit to the Nation mixed hip-hop with lyrics that challenged racism, homophobia, sexism and were deeply political. I’ll have to dig that album out again. We forget the political elements of UK rap music. I include also a track by Ruthless Rap Assassins (from Manchester) “Three the Hard Way”. Less political, and more a list of who they are. But seriously, if you thought UK rap started with Stormzy then you need to do more reading my friend. On that note, Stormzy recently apologised to Skin, from Skunk Anansie (also in my list “Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)”), for claiming to have been the first Black artist to have headlined at Glastonbury. I saw Skunk Anansie live a few times in the 90s. They were a great live act, but I also recall a lot of the music press would label Skin with the “angry Black female” tag that so often gets associated with Black women who are just being assertive of their opinion, or even just having an opinion full-stop.

I now want to talk about subtle racism in UK music, but nevertheless racism. It is what it is. We’re attuned perhaps to the more overt forms of racism e.g. name calling, microagressions, and perhaps not the simple overlooking of Black artists’ contributions to bands’ music. I had a whole list of tracks that give some insight into this. Would bands like Orange Juice have sounded the way they did without the presence of Zeke Manyika (“Rip it Up” – almost an anthem to decolonisation – ‘Rip it up and start again‘; “Hokoyo” on the album of the same name is written by Zeke and he sings it in his native African tongue of Shona), or Gilbert Gabriel in Dream Academy (“Life in a Northern Town” – reminds me of living in Glossop, a northern town with a vibrant world music scene, and sadly an indoor market that sold Gollys), or DC Lee, a Black female artist in her own right, with the Style Council (“Shout to The Top”). Was she a great backing singer (she performed this role in Wham) or did she deserve more credit? Should she have been more at the front? I have to think so. This idea of the visible/invisible other is a theme that is ever present for Black people, not just in music. In music though, countless bands, not just in the 80s but through to the present day, will use Black backing singers as a visual identity that “they got soul” R&B; a visible and yet invisible use of Black artists as a commodity to sell records. But, having said this you should take care not to judge or have preconceptions.

Lisa Fischer, a famous Black backing singer, once said of the profession

I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists.” and “Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.

It would be interesting to know just how many current UK backing singers are Black? Certainly a chart compiled 6 years ago in the Guardian had a fair proportion of Black artists in there. I am not aware of any studies on this, although a film some years ago – 20 Feet From Stardom – did cover the general topic of backing singers, with a fair few of the featured artists being Black. It’s a complex mix of intersectional racism, sexism, and class politics being played out here, with many Black, mostly female, backing singers literally on the breadline trying to be famous.

[In a postscript to this we have just heard of the untimely death of Denise Johnson (RIP) who sang with Primal Scream, A Certain Ratio, Electronic, and many other Manchester bands. With both the Manchester Evening News and the Guardian printing the wrong picture – of another Black woman – of Denise it only goes to show how deep and pervading this racism is. To say it’s just a mistake is to ignore the very deep nature of racism and how Black women time and time again are not acknowledged for their contributions]

undefined

The example I chose of an erasure of Black contributions to a group was that of Joe Leeway’s, a band member of Thompson Twins. Aside from the problematic issues of race in Tintin (for those of you who don’t know the Thompson twins were the identical twin detectives in the stories that had questionable attitudes towards ethnic minorities), Joe’s contributions to the group are almost forgotten. Joe was born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, and played percussion in Thompson Twins. He wrote two of the tracks, and was lead vocal on three, on their second album ‘Set’. I chose to play “Tok Tok” from this album. The sound has a very strong African music (Fela Kuti-esque) sound, with Burundi beats of Bow Wow Wow. How did they go from this to ‘Doctor, Doctor’…?

After the first two albums you would almost say that Joe, and his influence is invisible – when the commercial success came with all the hit singles that they had. Was this a deliberate act of racism? I can’t help but think that it was. But equally did he always have to play the role of the band member with Black African heritage? The 1980s music scene seems somewhat polarised between Black and white music, and what was marketable as such. Aside from Two-Tone there are only one or two exceptions of successful mixed groups, and none really without some political association of that mix. One perhaps unique example is Fine Young Cannibals. I include them since Roland Gift was told that a band fronted by a Black man would not sell records in the US. Released in 1985, “Suspicious Minds” was a worldwide hit – stick that racists! But there’s a more subtle message of Black power here. Public Enemy write in “Fight the Power” (also in my list)

Elvis was a hero to most but he
Elvis was a hero to most
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain

I don’t know what is more powerful, Public Enemy singing that, or Roland Gift, a Black man singing white man’s music back to a mainly white audience? I don’t know if this was something Gift ever considered? Anyway, it stands out of one of the greatest cover versions of all time. He owns it. Elvis famously stole the music of the Black south. Gift takes it back (although ‘Suspicious Minds’ was written and originally recorded by a white man in 1968 – Mark James). It was also recorded by a reggae group – The Heptones – in 1971! So, influences hey. Back and forth….

What about cultural appropriation? The music scene is guilty of this on so many levels, and yet influence, and the appropriation of Black music has enriched and created popular music today as we know it. Period. The wearing of dreadlocks by white artists is another matter. During the early 90s there were no end of bands that did this (crusties, white rastas – is that possible?). Can white people use this element of Black culture, so entwined within the struggles of that group, without acknowledging their struggles and discrimination? As one of my Black friends once told me, “My dreadlocks are not a fashion statement!”. For Black people they are a necessity for keeping and maintaining Black hair, alongside braiding and other things we white people typically think are just ‘styles’. There are historial connections too. Mothers of young children about to make the journey across the Middle Passage into slavery would weave rice into the braids to conceal food while aboard the boats – see this for information. These are symbols of oppression, symbols of survival.

But here, somewhere lies many difficulties in musical history. Ari Up (later of the post-punk Slits), who is credited on ‘God’, the Rip, Rig and Panic album (see before) famously, despite being a white middle class woman, joined Rastafarian communities in the Caribbean, and would not take cancer treatments on the basis of her religion (and for fear of losing her dreadlocks). She sadly died young from cancer. Was she appropriating? Were boundaries crossed, or barriers broken down? Music and the arts more broadly can often claim to do the latter. Pointing fingers is not activism, as Barak Obama says in this video. We do well not to leap to judge here. Agree to disagree on this one, but it is complex. Ari spent the best part of her later life promoting and recording with Black artists, much as she had done with Rip, Rig, and Panic.

I also talk about this because in about 1994 I went to see to Aba Shanti I (“Jah Bible” is in my list) at the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown in Leeds. I went with a white mate of mine, who had dreadlocks. He came from a broken home, a poor white “working class” (I’m never sure this term works since it is just often only associated with ‘white’) kid, unable to read or write (I spent some time helping him with this). He eventually died of a heroin overdose (RIP). But there, in the West Indian Centre, it felt like he shared at least some of the struggles, if not racial, of the young Black men and women that assembled with him. I didn’t by the way – just loved the music, still do. I make a big assumption here about the struggles of the Black people in the room, but at the time poverty, poor housing, lack of health and education were big issues for the Caribbean community in Leeds. Still are issues….But Black and white lives intersect in these communities. Raising it up for Black people can only help everyone. Then all lives will matter.

It was a great gig by the way with plaster falling off the ceiling with the bass racked up high. Years later I saw Aba (not Benny, Bjorn…) again in Camberwell. One of the best gigs ever. I was in the minority as a white guy – I counted 3 other white people (me, my ex-wife and the girl selling merch). But despite being told at University by my student hall warden not to go to Chapeltown, I always found it the most welcoming, accepting, come-all society I have ever had the pleasure to be in the company of (fond memories of blues parties in Leeds and Manchester). We can come together in unity. We talked a lot about that in those days. On the Credit to the Nation track he ends with a call for “Unity”. It’s sad to see so much division these days in our post-Brexit Britain. Social media is partly to blame I feel. Polarising views. Less understanding. We’re all part of the system…

In somewhat of similar vein I also went to see Goldie (“Inner City Life” on my list) in Manchester. Goldie said during the gig that all the white people “should get to the back of the room”. I was already there getting my ears blasted by the speakers! A few white people around me seemed offended by this. I had, and still have no issue with this request. I’ve always felt there is a time to stand up, and alongside, but there is a time to stand back and listen. You can’t always claim to share the same world in the same way. There is no complete equality of experience. Would I want to be Black? No way. So why claim to have similar experiences? If you are white and want to be Black then may be have a think about what that would mean for your life. You can’t just take the ‘good bits’ of an identity. I say just accept and see that difference, and come together in some unity around fighting oppression. Use your white privilege to do that though. Support Black causes. I sit on the Windrush Commemoration committee, and we hear all the time terrible stories of people being deported, UK citizens unable to prove their Britishness, all because of the colour of their skin. I include here Jashwah Moses (“No War”), a Black man in Bristol, a local reggae superstar, who sadly died just after finally getting his UK passport. You can hear his story here. Go write to your MP. Give money to Windrush causes. Speak up. Don’t just like a post. Get active.

Political blackness is not a term you hear that often these days in the times of so-called identity politics – I find this term is often used to erode anti-racism though. Asian Dub Foundation, another great live band, were founded on the basis of political blackness. Read about it here. I have “Culture Move” from their album Rafi’s Revenge, which is a wonderful mix of Bhangra, drum and bass, and dub reggae. Real unity against a common enemy of racism. In the early 90s a young Sikh lad came late into my University class in Manchester with his eye out like a golf ball, all bruised. I asked him what had happened. He said the police did it in a cell that night. That brought it home to me. That and me witnessing a police van rocking from side to side when they had nicked a young Asian lad out on Eid. And yes, we didn’t have phones then to video either. Sort of brings it home to a white kid, who can just walk on by. Passing through his education. None of those hurdles my friend. That was my culture move. You can’t stay neutral after seeing these things.

Finally, what about the effect that racism has on the individual? Two tracks in my list cover this. Dr Jason Arday has written about racism and musical scenes – particularly the Cool Brittania period in the UK. I also know that he is a big fan of Bloc Party (themselves fronted by a Black man – Kele Okereke) . Giving a talk at my University he used the lyrics of “Like Eating Glass” to describe what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism.

Like drinking poison. Like eating glass

Solange, on “Cranes in the Sky” sings about how she “tried to dance it away“. I have heard from, and read about how Black people feel real pain when receiving racism. Stories of having to spend days in bed afterwards. Songs like this ought to generate some understanding. Surely….?

So, Black Lives Matter, but as we can see music has its fair share of celebrating. I love “Made it Back” – Beverley Knight for this – pure dance joy!“Your Love is King” – Sade. Kings and Queens will know what this means. Black love and sexuality is so misrepresented.”Stay High” by Brittany Howard is almost the modern equivalent of Macy Gray’s “I Try”. I went to see Macy live in the early 90s. Such a fun and engaging stage presence. Black Grape (“Kelly’s Heroes” – “Jesus was a Black man. Jesus was Batman. Oh no that was Bruce Wayne“) were just great fun.Music by Black artists can be tender too, while having a strong message about Black womanhood (hear “Selfish” by Little Simz – one of the standout albums of last year was her Grey Area). Black Female UK rap artists seem in short supply – Wiki gives a list of 20 (total!), compared to 120 Black male artists. “You Ain’t the Problem” by Michael Kiwanuka became my earworm for the day after I’d heard him play it live on Jools Holland. After that I bought all three of his albums. I cover one of them here.Black musical history also includes the Irish-Black heritage of Phil Lynott, lead singer of Thin Lizzy (“Whiskey in the Jar”), who was also the son-in-law of Leslie Crowther. Come on down, Black history does not get better than that! Rock music, and more specifically Heavy Metal, has not been well-represented by Black artists. Perhaps one notable exception is the band Living Colour (listen to “Cult of Personality”), who blend heavy metal, hip-hop, jazz, punk, and funk with lyrics tackling racism in the US.

Music has erased contributions from, and shielded subtle and overt forms of racism against Black people. The contributions of Black artists need to be reappraised, decolonised, and addressed/confronted. But they also need to be celebrated as great music. It’s too easy to focus on negatives. But this should not only be in words, but in deed. Financial gain from Black artists is being eroded, even in R&B and hip-hop, rap, as this article points out. Occupying space, appropriation, all have consequences, some of which are financial. If Black Lives truly Matter then we need to confront and question this, de-centre the narrative, and decolonise…. We have a choice to not remain silent. Turn it up, or as Cameo said “Word Up!”.

Destroyer – Have We Met: Round 110 (probably), Nick’s choice

Time seems to move both very quickly and very slowly under lockdown. In fact it’s done that for the last few years – maybe that’s just parenthood. Certainly the last two years feel like they’ve contained too much, both in my personal life and in the world at large.

This was the record I chose to play (part of) at our first virtual meeting under lockdown circumstances some 8 weeks ago – zooming each other, sharing audio, sharing screens, typing comments rather than talking as we listened, no curry, sitting in our own livingrooms/bedrooms/kitchens rather than sharing air with each other. It seemed appropriate for two reasons: firstly, it was the record I’d played most from 2020 so far and as such I was eager to play it to friends and see what they thought. Because that’s what record club is for.

And secondly, in interviews Bejar described it as having been recorded almost under lockdown conditions – singing songs quietly into his laptop in his kitchen after his wife and daughter had gone to bed, sending the files through the ether to his collaborators for them to do similar with drum machines, synthesisers, electric guitars. It struck me that if music is to be made under lockdown by anyone not cohabiting then it must be made like this; via Skype, or Zoom, or Teams, or FaceTime, FTPing sound files, discussing strategies and approaches and influences and intentions via email or IM or even phonecalls. It seemed like a positive example of what can be achieved despite isolation.

Because Have We Met is fabulous, as strong a set of songs as Bejar has done, and in an aesthetic that suits his latterday writing and singing perfectly – slightly motorik, electronic, somehow out of time (redolent of the 80s but not slavish to them), related to but evolved from Kaputt (the opening line steals a reference directly from that album, as only Bejar could) and Poison Season, taking the best aesthetic cues from Ken and expanding them (and with better songs).

Before everything went crazy I listened to this (almost) obsessively; it soundtracked my walk to work day after day. And then…

Emma was talking about coronavirus since before Christmas I think, hooked on reports since word first emerged of deaths in China. She’s a repeat offender when it comes to early-adopting, but this time it was with a pandemic rather than foofy boots or a Swedish rucksack. She knew it was coming and she knew it would change the world. She still says, occasionally, that she worries this could be the virus that actually, finally, does for humanity. For the sake of my children I hope that’s not the case. For the sake of human culture I hope it’s not the case, too, because I would hate for this record (and so many others) to be so meaningless in the face of the apocalypse.

But I’m being dramatic (I’ve had a cider): we’ll survive this pandemic, and adjust some of our behaviours, and we will carry on, and we will make music and listen to it.

I should write about the songs, but that feels trite. I enjoy them. There’s an instrumental towards the end that feels like peak Berlin Bowie and Eno. One is called “Cue Synthesisers” and it does that “Dance to the Music” trick of mentioning an instrument before it joins the mix. Overall it is very smooth, almost soporific, but every so often an electric guitar solo rips through it like… a virus through a populace… and upends everything. The lyrics are Bejar’s usual concoction of meaningless placeholders, repetition, and nonsense that somehow attain a level of pseudo-profundity through their delivery and context. I love what he does. Very Roland Barthes. All aesthetic, for the listener to project onto.

Tonight is only the second time I’ve listened to this record since lockdown, despite having been listening to it twice a day for a while before the world changed. There’s not a lot of opportunity for music in my current circumstances. I hope there is in yours.

Steve Listened: It is in my life, but only a little. Loved the album Nick, and thanks for the write-up. I do hope, as you do, that this is not the end. As the world collapses though this album comes close to a soundtrack to those times, if we are in those times, which I hope we are not….

Kraftwerk – Computer World: Round 113 – Steve’s Selection

Kraftwerk_-_Computer_WorldI program my home computer. Beam myself into the future“. So the prophets and influencers of all things techno, acid house, electronic music, and Coldplay (!) sing in the synthesised voices on ‘Home Computer’.

It’s 1981, and one year before the release of the ZX Spectrum, my first home computer which I got as a present on my 10th birthday. I was too young then to know about Kraftwerk, and certainly not aware of the potential of computers to infiltrate, underpin, and govern the world and how it works today. Not so for one Florian Schneider (RIP; 7th April 1945 – 21st April 2020) and Ralf Hütter, on this their 8th studio album, and arguably (for me) at the height of their powers. They were predicting the future not just of technology on this album, but shining a light for a whole new form of electronic music. You might argue that had done that already through much of the mid to late 70s, on Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Radioactivity, but it’s here that it takes full flight in beautiful electronic gold plated glory.

I came to Kraftwerk through my church. I was brought up in a sometimes strange Christian sect (The Christadelphians). Some members shunned music, and especially anything that might deviate or challenge the faith. There was a member of our church who however revealed to me that he had quite a vast music collection, and he invited me to his house. His son also possessed a rather encyclopaedic knowledge of all the music he owned, and between them they had developed a cataloguing system of vinyl, CDs, tapes, and open reel tapes (they said this was audibly by far the best format – so there you go @sickmouthy). Anyway, to cut a long story short he taped a whole load of albums for me (Can, the Fall, Richard Hell and the Voidoids), including a complete set of Kraftwerk albums. I was smitten, but especially by Computer World. For me the rhythms, the beats, the clarity, timing, all had a purity and such a futuristic sound that it was hard not to fall in love with this rather iconoclastic group of Germans. By this time (around 85/86) I had stopped playing computer games, and had found a new love – music and in particular, record collecting. I bought a copy of Computer World, and Radioactivity (which I later sold and have only just recently replaced).

Computer World begins on the opening title track with a beat to die for and a sublime keyboard sequence that sings – without words – computer world (dee-dee-dah-dee). It’s subtle, but an Ohrwurm (‘earworm’ in German), that keeps coming back, time and time again throughout the album. I think is why, above all else, I love this album. The mere repetition of that sequence of notes….

Pocket calculator is also all electronic joy. The track had such a profound influence on Detroit techno, and subsequently dance and rave music over here in the UK. It was a few years later, after getting into Kraftwerk, that I heard A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ and felt like it was the same music being beamed back to me from outer space. It’s easy to understate and underestimate how influential Kraftwerk were on black African American audiences, and later the early UK scene by Gerald and the like. But as a clip demonstrates (at the bottom of the page…), ‘Numbers’ had such a huge important influence on the club and dance scene emerging out of Detroit, Chicago, and New York in the mid to late 80s.

The sound of Kraftwerk, because of their influence, can be found amongst the ‘bleeps and bloops’ of countless techno artists. But here on Computer World it also has funk. Kraftwerk were first through the door on this combination, and nobody at their time could replicate their sound, despite its simplicity. Perhaps that is why they are so heavily sampled. The sounds on Computer World are simple, and yet so complex. ‘Numbers’ segueways seamlessly back into the Computer World keyboard sequence to die for. It’s beautiful. ‘Computer Love’ is incredible too, with overlapping melodies and some timeless prophecies of ‘data dates’ to come. It’s no wonder that Bowie loved them, he too taking their cue to predict a computer age – we’ve all seen that clip of him predicting the internet. This album opens the door on that world. On the last track “It’s More Fun to Compute” I swear it says “It’s nearer to compute”, as opposed to “It’s nearer to commute” – and here we are, all joining each other virtually as Covid-19 continues to bear down and restrict our movement, at least for those of us who are privileged enough to be able to work at home and avoid the “unnecessary travel”.

In summary, I simply love this album. It’s certainly one of my favourites of all time. Let’s not get into that ‘top 10 albums that made me’ schtick though, but if we did, it would be in mine! We’ve not covered Kraftwerk before at DRC (I don’t think). For a band that is arguably more influential than the Beatles that seems strange. Paul Morley, who I normally don’t have much time for, contests in a Kraftwerk documentary on the BBC that they are more influential than the Beatles. He does this by dismissing the mop-tops’ musical influence (he asks ‘Who have the Beatles actually influenced? Elton John, ELO, Gary Barlow, and the Spice Girls’). The truth of it is the Beatles stole the sounds of Black African Americans and pretended it was their own. Whereas, he contends, Kraftwerk gave a unique sound back to black African American artists (e.g. Derrick May, Afrika Bambaataa), who adapted it and in turn gave back a whole new genre, and the love of which, for me, will never die. RIP Florian.

Pavement – Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: Round 112 – Tom’s Selection

Much of my life has panned out more or less as expected. If the twenty five year old version of myself was to have been told that at the age of fifty I would be living in a sleepy village in rural Devon with Karen and two wonderful children, still working in education, but not in school any more, and that I still get to go rock climbing every so often…I don’t think I would have been too surprised. However, if the twenty five year old me was to have found out that at this age I would have been in a record club that was convening for the one hundred and twelfth time and that in all the previous meetings not one of the members of the club had played an album by Pavement (and that, in fact, Pavement had barely been brought up in conversation), well I probably would have called you out as a liar!

In the mid nineties Pavement were top of my go-to list. Crucially almost everyone I listened to music with (the aforementioned wife, many of my friends…as well as my brother, Ben) held a similar point of view that Pavement could do no wrong. Whatever the situation: Friday nights in relaxing in our cherished little two up two down in Newton Abbot, car journeys in my newly acquired clapped out Citroen BX, holidays abroad (Brighten The Corners is the sound of the Costa Blanca for me), pretending to be grown ups whilst ‘entertaining’ friends at a dinner party…Pavement were ubiquitous. The one clear memory of the dreadful days after my beloved, brilliant brother shifted off his mortal coil is of driving out of my parents’ house to go home to Devon and having to pull the car over to the side of the road within the first mile as We Dance (Wowee Zowee’s opening track) reduced me to – literally – floods of tears; this was a precious music that held us connected  as adulthood was beginning to loosen the bonds that had kept us locked together through our youth and the track’s poignancy; its skewed lyrics, mournful chords and sheer bloody mindedness to be different without so much as a conscious thought was just too aligned to the character of the pal I had just lost for my fragile emotional state to cope with.

So it’s incredible that here were are, practically ten years into record club and this is the first time I have been able to write about what is, for me, the band of the nineties…their five albums spanning the decade from 1992’s incredible opening salvo (Slanted and Enchanted) through to their 1999 swansong, the misunderstood and probably underappreciated Terror Twilight. Until recently I have always held the sprawling, messed up, yet gem filled, Wowee Zowee as my pick of Pavement’s five albums but a chance encounter with Crooked Rain’s lead single, Cut Your Hair (a lockdown anthem that was being played on 6 Music as I was doing the gardening…a lockdown activity!) has encouraged me to re-evaluate. And I have fallen in love with this neglected masterwork all over again, probably 15 years at least since I last pulled it off my shelf and put it on the turntable.

I recall someone a long time ago on Desert Island Discs relating that he listened to pieces of music until he felt that he had ‘worked them out’, until there was nothing left to discover. I think he was explaining why Bruce Springsteen was so enduring a pleasure for him as he had never reached that point with any of his records. But I guess I had felt I was at that point with Crooked Rain, I had listened to it so many times over the decade since its release that it had worn itself out, every twist and turn could be anticipated, every lyric regurgitated, it aural landscape resembling the back of my hand! So familiar was it that I was no longer hearing its sound or appreciating its textures, warmth and sense of fun, I’d stopped seeing it holistically and could only consume it as a set of twelve distinct morsels all of which I had wrung dry.

But coming back to it recently I am once again in thrall to the album, the passing of time enabling me to appreciate the record as a complete piece of work. Sure, it’s got that trademark Pavement messiness going on; the lyrics are often off-kilter and surreal (but just as often hilarious: “Out on my skate board the night is just humming” or “til five hours later I’m chewin’, screwin’ myself with my hand”) and the songs are a stylistic smorgasbord that shouldn’t really work – check out the final five song run that goes through Dave Brubeck jazz tribute, country rock, indie folk, The Fall and then Bowiesque grandiosity.  But having immersed myself once again in this glorious high point of mid-nineties indie rock the one thing that I forgot to remember at the time I grew out of love with it way back when is the fact that these are pop songs par excellence (Gold Soundz, Cut Your Hair and Silence Kid being three of its finest exponents just in case you’re reading this and want to do a bit of YouTube ‘checking outing’). Pure and simple, wonderful pop music of a kind that I don’t think is (and am not sure, could be) made anymore.

Steve listened: Thanks for this account of why you love the album Tom. Hard to write I am sure. I loved hearing this album, but must confess to having only heard the ‘hit’ Cut Your Hair (which was an old dancefloor favourite in student days). The album does take a lot of genres in, all with a feelgood vibe going on. I really liked ‘The Fall’ track. The sort of music you could hang your leg out of the window whilst driving along to – if you were still young and carefree…

Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch: Round 112, Steve’s choice

Claire and BertJansch1965I moved down to sunny Devon, and Exeter, from the cold north nearly 10 years ago. We moved from a small town in the foot of the Derbyshire hills called Glossop, which had, at the time, a thriving music scene, playing hosts to many live acts with a diverse range of styles. Glossop was also only a stones throw away from Manchester, the place of my birth, and with a huge range of live music to choose from. Glossop had its fair share of folk artists pass through its venues. Maybe it’s the Venn of folk music with warm brown beer, woolly sweaters, beards, hiking, and the traveller that makes the space for this genre in such a place as Glossop? Sandwiched right between Sheffield to the East, and Manchester to the West, there may be an element of truth in that. In the absence of big names coming to town (other than Kate Rusby once before she got famous), Glossop held its own with the underground scene of ‘one man and his guitar’ type events. Now to Exeter…

I’m not sure what it is about the South West, but the Venn here is between holiday resorts and tribute acts. The further you head down the ‘nose’ of the SW, the less original the act…but that does beg the question about what constitutes originality anyway?

Exeter has a veritable venue in the Pheonix Art Centre, where I have seen amongst others, British Sea Power, Johnny Marr (more later…), Lambchop, and Half Man Half Biscuit. But, to see big names on a regular basis is again quite rare. Leading up to us moving down here I had started to furrow the back catalogue of folk, getting into the likes of John Martyn. With a severe lack of big name artists to see down here Claire and I decided to find a local folk club – we came across Topsham Folk Club. Established for 40 years, this folk club has been home over the years to many a ‘big name’. Topsham, is again a place for the traveller as it is a former port and trading post. We happened upon tickets for Martin Carthy, who for most aficionados would be considered folk royalty. He was great! A few weeks after that gig we saw an advert for Nick Harper, son of Roy Harper but an acclaimed folkie in his own right. Along to the gig we went – at the Pheonix in Exeter. His stage was set out as the living room in his childhood home, and as the gig started he began to explain how his life, from an early age, had been enriched by the presence of various folk legends brought to his home by his father. His early influences and acquaintances included Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Davey Graham, and most importantly the late, great, Bert Jansch. These were the people that influenced him, and some of whom taught him his guitar style.

Jansch is revered in folk circles, and a major influence on many artists (more later). Born in Scotland, he adopted a style that drew not just on the traditional folk of his homeland, but blended jazz and blues rhythms from the deep American south. Jansch is considered to be one of the most incredible and accomplished guitarists of his generation. Nick Harper said at one point during the gig that he was going to attempt to play a notoriously difficult Jansch number, the last track on his eponymous debut ‘Bert Jansch’, a track called ‘Angie’. Having tried a few times to get it right he finally played it through note perfect. My mouth was wide open. Angie’s reeling intricate fingerpicking is beyond belief. To hear this being played live was an incredible treat. Jansch had died a few years before I had bothered to even get into him. ‘Bert Jansch’, the album, has been a very recent addition to my collection, and the only record I own by him. So, simply for the experience of hearing it live, I thought it was about time to give this record an airing at Record club. It turned out that we were all quite unaware of Jansch’s wider work. Nor were we aware of the synchronicity of my choice with the other independent choice for the night from Tom (more later…).

Bert Jansch’s debut solo album is pure stripped back folk. Just him and his guitar, slurred lyrics, and no doubt a few refreshers to help him get through (Jansch famously boozed his way through the 60s, 70s, 80s, only to give up in the late 90s). Jansch later founded the group Pentangle, where he would be joined by a female vocalist and other musicians. His earlier recordings are however regarded as his best. Many of the tracks on this, his debut album, are instrumentals. Indeed ‘Angie’ is an instrumental. While other tracks sound quite Dylan-esque in vocal, the guitar playing is much richer than Dylan. You hear him beat the side of the instrument in a blues style that is reminiscent of Big Bill Broonzy and other early blues artists. One of the standout tracks, ‘Needle of Death’, is an anti-drugs song about the death of one of his close friends to a heroin overdose. This, released in 1965, would have contrasted wildly from other more ‘lets experiment with substances’ type songs of the era. It’s thought that this song is the inspiration for Neil Young’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ on Harvest. The opening track, ‘Strolling Down the Highway’, was later covered by Nick Drake – who was also influenced by Jansch. You can hear quite clearly the influences that tracks on this album had on later music, not just folk, but also rock, jazz and the slide into Van Morrison’s pastiche on Astral Weeks. For instance, it is well-known that Jimmy Page stole ‘Blackwaterslide’ (from Jansch’s 3rd album) and made ‘Black Mountain Side’ on Led Zeppelin’s debut – I never got along with Zep, despite trying really hard to like them in my youth. They always seemed quite derivative to me. Jimmy Page also nicked many of the picking styles of Jansch, and rocked them up, much to the chagrin of Bert in later life. Still, Jansch eschewed the high-life, and lived most of his time with a no-fixed-abode approach to the world. For him it wasn’t about the money…

Jansch’s debut is rootsy, yet complex. The rhythms and twists and turns each song takes draws you in. ‘Casbah’ contains eastern influences. Jansch famously travelled to Marrakesh and escaped back to London after a bout of dysentery. There he learned different playing styles which had a huge influence on him. He was tutored in guitar by Davey Graham (who originally recorded ‘Angie’, or Anji, I think – or a version of it). Graham was arguably the first person to bring Eastern influences into folk music, long before the Beatles ‘did it’ with rock & roll and claimed it as their own (hear him on this early clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2-j89MnNCw which shows the link between oriental music and Irish folk – it all comes from roots…). This is the trouble with folk, it is accessible and nobody claims a right to own the music. It is passed on and down to the next generation, reinterpreted. This was why ‘Angie’, when played by Harper that night in Exeter, was so poignant to me. It dawned on me in that moment that this song, so fiendishly difficult to play, may never be heard live again unless people take the time to learn it and reinterpret it. Here I was, privileged to hear it, being passed on to another generation. Who will play these songs when they are gone forever? Nick Harper reckoned there were very few people who could actually play it, and nobody like Bert Jansch. So fragile is the legacy of folk, and yet its influence can be traced forwards to other music. Hearing it is like going on a journey. I often think that folk comes out from the ground, and the earth. It has a basic quality that you can trace through other styles and genres.

As pointed out on the night by Nick (not Harper, but DRC’s @sickmouthy), influence is a difficult thing when it comes to music. Nick said you don’t have to sound like the original to claim influence. Johnny Marr is a big fan of Jansch, yet you might struggle to hear him in the Smiths, apart from maybe those minor chords. Throughout ‘Bert Jansch’ the minor chords bring a solemnity to the feel of the songs. Jansch was apparently more into the ‘feel of songs’ than the music. Now, I love a minor chord. It’s that feeling of regret that they fill you with, or maybe they pluck the chords of my own regrets in life? I am told that minor chords in Western music are an influence from the East (I heard this on a Radio 4 documentary once). Perhaps it’s those Eastern influences, again feeding into Jansch’s music, that we are hearing here.

So, to the other choice of the night (@tomrainbow brought along ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ by Pavement). I won’t steal Tom’s thunder too much but listening to the slightly off-kilter and bending the guitar to fit the lyrics style of Stephen Malkmus made me wonder if there was the faintest glimmer of a connectivity between the two artists? Low and behold, after a few Google searches following DRC I found that Bert Jansch is Malkmus’ favourite guitarist of all time, and he’s been massively influenced by him! I also found that Jansch plays guitar on a Babyshambles track (‘Lost Art of Murder’) on their album Shotters Nation, which for me is probably the best thing that Pete Doherty has ever done (his performance of it, without Jansch, on Jonathan Ross’ show is perhaps one of my most favourite live moments https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct6jWKqJ3y0). I certainly think all that off-kilter stuff that Doherty attempts with The Libertines is right down the barrel of Pavement…and so the wheel turns. What is original anyway? Pavement have been accused of their own level of plagiarism – a tribute act to the Fall? Does all music pay homage ultimately to a roots music, displayed here perfectly by a stripped back folksy-bluesy-jazz infused Jansch? Is Jansch just a gateway from rootsy folk, blues and jazz to modern rock and popular music of today? Perhaps a step too far, but he was certainly at that juxtaposition in time between roots and more developed styles of the late 60s, early 70s. In that respect ‘Bert Jansch’ is a pivotal album, sitting in the middle of two worlds, the old and the new.

So, to Bert Jansch, where to go with him? I’ve got a long back catalogue to now furrow, and with so many lines of influence who knows where it will take me. ‘Bert Jansch’ is a great record, and is certainly a classic. Right after record club I went and bought a copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Jansch’s second album ‘It Don’t Bother Me’. I’ll be listening harder now to find those connections. Listening harder to find the original sounds and follow them through to the present day. I’ll also have to get along to see Harper again if I want to hear that Angie again.

Tom listened: Folk is such a tricky genre for me and anything that evokes the ol’ finger in the ear warbling that, for me, is synonymous of traditional English folk music gets me running…in the opposite direction to where the sound is coming from! Yet I love Nick Drake’s folky take on arcadian England, there’s something deeply honest and vulnerable about his music that really draws me in, so close that its as if his hushed tones are whispering to me and me only.

When I think of other examples of folk inflected music from these shores that have found their way into my collection, it tends to be by artists of Celtic origin; Gorky’s and Cate Le Bon from Wales, Alasdair Roberts, John Martyn, James Yorkston from Scotland. I tend to like the quirkiness of the former and the pithiness of the latter and have avoided the Pentangle axis with relative ease and not much sense of missing out over the years.

I had been aware of Bert Jansch for much of my adult life, yet had never knowingly listened to him until last week. I guess I assumed that as he was around in the 60s his music would be neither pithy or quirky enough to fulfil my alt-folk needs; after all how likely was it that it would sound like There is No One What Will Take Care of You or A River is Too Much to Love? Well…funnily enough it wasn’t a million miles away from either and I was immediately surprised at how fresh, contemporary and nontraditional (to my untrained ears and ignorant mind) this felt. A dark record (I like it this way) I was reminded of Robbie Basho at times, Nick Drake at others but most of all this just felt like an inspired record from a singular artist who was simply getting the stuff from deep inside him out there.

And at no point did it sound like Pavement!

Home Again – Michael Kiwanuka: Round 110, Steve’s choice

kiwanukaIt was almost a year since we last met, although I was not present that night, back then in 2019. So much has happened recently; Nick’s son’s cancer diagnosis (see last post) and now also the threat of COVID-19. Given the timings of the meeting, mid pandemic and lockdown in the UK, we met electronically. Having grappled the tech, we agreed that a possible theme may be music that spoke of the ‘sign of the times’. I picked this album simply because one of the tracks, ‘I’m Getting Ready’, had made me cry while leaving the pharmacy on the night that Boris Johnson had announced that we were closing pubs, restaurants, and curbing a large number of freedoms that we take for granted. Not that I am advocating that we don’t adhere to these new restrictions. I was more driven to tears because  we had now reached a point in history, within my lifetime, within the early lifetime of my children, where we can’t say with certainty what is going to happen in the world. Nor can we say what the world will look like in the future, certainly not the same as it was before this crisis, and certainly never the same again. What I can say, and what I did say to one of my kids was that I’ve never had to live through anything like this before. I didn’t have to face this as a child. With all these fears, mainly for them, running round my head and revolving into a maelstrom of doubt these words came through the loudspeakers in my car:

“Oh my
I didn’t know how hard it would be
Oh my
I didn’t know how hard it would be

But if I hold on tight, is it true?
Would You take care of all that I do?

Oh Lord, I’m getting ready to believe”

At that moment, coming out of the pharmacy, getting in my car, and hearing a song of hope “Then we’ll be waving hands singing freely. Singing standing tall it’s now coming easy” juxtaposed with the lines “I didn’t know how hard it would be” just broke me. Can we really get ready now to believe? It’s the hope that kills you after all isn’t it?

Michael Kiwanuka, was born and raised in Muswell Hill in London, and is the son of Ugandan parents. He appears, on his debut (released in 2012), to have drawn in influences from the British folk scene (Nick Drake, John Martyn) as well as the often cited Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye etc. While his most recent release – last year’s Kiwanuka – draws on themes of Pan-Africanism, there is a distinctly, almost pastoral ‘folksy’ feeling to this album. It is not lyrically sophisticated, but in these times of trouble I feel platitudes and simple sentiments have a strong role to play. Musically, combined with incredible guitar playing, this album is definitely more sophisticated than one might initially think – at least that’s what I think reviewers failed to see when this album was first released (tepid reviews to say the least). But albums can grow in stature, and become more apposite as time goes by.

The album begins with “Tell Me a Tale”. It’s all too easy to reference songs against something horrific happening in your life. I can only remember all too vividly how every song spoke to my heartache when I was going through separation and divorce nearly 20 years ago. Now, with COVID-19, everything, even this review, is referenced against the unfolding crisis. It’s hard to turn a corner and not be faced with it. Although tragedy has not yet hit my nearest and dearest I feel like I’m awaking under a sword of Damocles. Only in my dreams am I released….

“Show me some strength that I can use
Give me a sound that I won’t refuse
Tell me a story that I can read
Tell me a story that I can believe.”

Need I (or he) say more? What to believe in the present post-truth times? Has Coronavirus forced truth, or does it just expose the lies of the world we live in? I am beginning to reach my limit, physically and mentally, to the volume of information and statistics that we are being constantly bombarded with. I long for stories that take me away from all of this, for something I can truly believe in to give me strength to cope with what is happening. So, Michael sings well within my experience right now. Perhaps it is that simplicity of the lyrics that manages to form a panacea of experience around my heart. Comforting me in times of trouble.

We only played half the album, but the stand-out track is the title track “Home Again”. Here Kiwanuka is stripped back, mainly just him and a guitar. If we have to deal with the present, we have to look to the past

“So I close my eyes
Look behind
Moving on, moving on”

Coping with life is never easy, especially if you’ve had to deal with major difficulties. I never really write about my son’s autism, mainly because I find it too hard to do that. Even to talk about it is sometimes difficult, but suffice to say that it has knocked our family for six. It’s part of our lives right now, but you can’t help wanting to look behind, turn back the clock on his life – to give him a better chance. Yet my wife and I know that all we can do is affect the future in the present time by helping him deal with the world and how it presents itself to him. In other words to move on. What is so unsettling about the coronavirus is that we seem so powerless, even for those in power, to stop its spread, to prevent the suffering in the present time. Even in the moment of our lives all we can do is sit and wait for it all to unfold….

The last track we played on the album was “Bones”, which has all the hallmarks of a 1950s/60s black spiritual. When I first heard it conjured images of New Orleans for me. As a frequent professional visitor to the ‘Big Easy’ I am deeply saddened to hear that the very highest rates of infection are now being reported from there. That city has had its fair share of suffering. The massacre of 1866 of black republicans by white democrats, the depression, Hurricane Katrina… yet, out of all of that suffering comes great hope. If you go there you sense it, hear it in the music and the lived in faces of its residents. Funerals begin solemnly marching down the street, but end with joyful processions being led by the chorus “Oh when the Saints, go marching in”. Often from the point of most oppression, from the place of most suffering, can come the songs of greatest hope. We need spirituals, Gospels, folk, common musical languages of love and hope right now in this crisis. What doesn’t divide us joins us together in harmony. This album goes some way to do that with a simple warmth expressed in deep humanity.

Hookworms – Microshift: Round 109, Nick’s choice

First record club in ages! At my house! Had some family stuff going on. More on that later.

Trigger warning: Michael Jackson and all that entails, plus men being fucking horrible in other ways.

The recent Michael Jackson documentary was gross. When I was eight I wanted to be one of those kids that went on tour and starred in weird crappy sci-fi films with him. I taught myself to moonwalk (poorly), and “Bad” was the first 7” single I ever owned. I remember writing a story at primary school and wanting something fantabulous to occur, and the wildest thing I could think of was Michael Jackson turning up. The documentary made me feel like I was basically a talent competition away from being molested. From the first allegations in 93 I pretty much always assumed he’d been… up to no good, as it were, but I’m now thoroughly convinced that he wasn’t up to no good accidentally, because he’d had a crazy, sad, fucked-up childhood, but that actually he was a deliberate, organised, hiding-in-plain-sight paedophile, literally turning his house into an amusement park in order to attract young boys so he could rape them, and that the crazy, sad, fucked-up childhood defence is simply not enough, because there is no justification. Someone told me to look at the cover art of Dangerous again, and I did. Holy shit.

Anyway, with that documentary ringing in my ears, I invoked the theme ”What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” and pondered whether or not I could bring myself to play Off The Wall or Thriller.

I couldn’t.

So I played Microshift instead.

Let’s be clear and upfront: I am not comparing MJ to Michael Jackson here. Although those initials are unfortunate.

We love(d) Hookworms – Rob played their debut album ages ago and I think we all went out and bought it. I thought we’d played their second record at DRC too, but I can’t find a piece about it, so maybe I imagined that. When “Negative Space” first found its way onto 6music in late 2017 I was on tenterhooks for Microshift, because it seemed as if they’d gone down the exact path I would have chosen for them to go down. I was as excited for a new record release as I had been in… probably years. Genuinely. I felt like a teenage boy. I wanted to go on a pilgrimage to buy it.

I bought the record on the Friday it came out in early February 2018, the same day as Field Music’s latest album, which I also bought. Oddly enough, I am vaguely connected to both bands via social media, as many people are these days; Field Music via David Brewis on Facebook, where we talk about our kids, as they are similar ages. I think we made friends online after I wrote about them here, actually. With Hookworms it was following MJ on Instagram; he followed me back, and we occasionally conversed about stuff, as you do. He seemed like a decent guy; his heart in the right place, and constantly, vociferously fighting the good fight, especially in the wake of #metoo.

I expected to connect more with the Field Music record, as I knew it was largely about having kids, and how they both ruin(!) and enrich your life. My son was born the Monday after both records came out, so it seemed ludicrously pertinent and timely. But actually it was the Hookworms record that caught me; it may have been about dementia, mental health issues, loneliness, lost love, insecurity, and other such fun, positive stuff, but it dealt with those issues with such sensitivity and insight, and, most importantly, such rich, exploratory, exciting, detailed music, that it offered a level of escapism that I needed in those early weeks of suddenly having two kids. I listened to it pretty much obsessively; my walk to work (two days a week when not driving my daughter to nursery first) is about 45 minutes long, and Microshift fitted it perfectly. It found joy at sadness, and sadness at joy, and it made me feel wonderful to listen to it.

I was as in love with it as I have been with any new record in my adult life. I heard echoes of old favourites (Spacemen 3, New Order, krautrock), and new ones (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith). I adored the move from guitars-upfront to electronics-upfront. I loved the sound, the layering. I loved the melodies, the structures, and the spacing. It felt like a massive step up from before, in terms of songwriting, production, and confidence. A band moving up to the next level. The reviews seemed to concur.

And then in July my baby son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer affecting his immune system, and our family life collapsed into some kind of still-unfinished living hell. What had been a difficult first few months with two kids became something else entirely. Time for music evaporated. I watched a lot of crappy brainless action films in the evenings when I was alone, my daughter asleep upstairs and my wife and son in hospital. I listened to What’s Goin’ On once on the M5 alone on the way to the children’s hospital and cried a lot. I followed it with Bridge Over Troubled Water and “Save The Life Of My Child”. I lost touch with Microshift a little, and with a lot of things.

And then in October Hookworms suddenly announced that they had split up because MJ – singer, keyboardist, producer, leader of the band – had been accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a former girlfriend. MJ, who had constantly and repeatedly said “believe victims”. MJ, who had repeatedly hung men accused of impropriety out to dry on social media. His band dropped him like a stone within an instant of the allegations, split, and gave up their promising musical future.

The accusation came in during the worst part of our cancer fight; my son had done two rounds of chemotherapy which hadn’t had the desired affect, and we were in limbo, awaiting news as to whether he’d be allowed to try an experimental new treatment (he was, and it continues to go very well indeed). I was past the first whirlwind of the situation, where sheer momentum and having to basically single-parent my three-year-old daughter, while trying to support my wife (who was in and out of hospital constantly with our still-a-baby son) had carried me through, and I was negotiating a phased return to work. It was, it’s fair to say, about the worst time of my life, and this thing, this beautiful, expressive record, that I had found immense sanctuary in months before, and which I was looking forward to finding even more sanctuary in when I eventually had more time to pay attention to anything but basic survival, was suddenly… I don’t know. Shit upon? Sullied? Tainted? Even if only by suggestion, association, allegation. I had no time or capacity to investigate the allegations against MJ, no ability to try and form an opinion. I didn’t know whether to believe the accuser (always believe victims) or to believe MJ’s statement. Relationships are complex – after the last nine months I know that better than I ever did before, as my marriage has bent, creaked, and been misshapen under immense, indescribable pressure – and things are never simply one thing or another. But always believe victims. MJ said so himself.

So yes, Michael Jackson had an impossible, disgusting, insane childhood, and we should sympathise with him for that. Yes, he made some almost mind-bendingly astounding music that brought millions upon millions of people intense joy. But he also (allegedly) fucked little boys and ruined their lives and destroyed their families. I can hold all three of those thoughts in my head at once. I played “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in our kitchen the day after the documentary finished and I still enjoyed it. And my kids danced to it, because it is that good that even the first time you hear it you can’t help but dance. But I don’t know whether I’ll ever deliberately put it, or anything else by Michael Jackson, on again. I thought about Roland Barthes, and the birth of the reader and the death of the author. Can the author kill the art? Can the author kill (metaphorically) the reader?

I’ve not listened to Swans in a long time. I’ve listened to The Beatles a lot lately, often with my daughter. Let’s not forget John was a wanker. I’ve listened to Bowie, who did many questionable things as a young man. No Led Zeppelin. A bit of Miles Davis. I remember a glam rock box set being released several years ago and containing no Glitter Band, which is understandable but is also rewriting history in a way that makes my head hurt, because they were undeniably important to that scene. I’ve seen people in bands behave in ways I would not behave first hand. As a young and insecure man I have behaved in ways I would not now behave. I am reasonably sure that you could find hundreds (thousands, probably) of people who have done awful things in our record collection, our book collection, our film collection. As I’m writing these final sentences I’ve put Microshift on. “I still hear you every time I’m down / in a negative space / I can’t believe it.”

To quote Claire Dederer, they are (some of them) monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.

Robert Wyatt – Nothing Can Stop Us: Round 108 – Steve’s Choice

My choice this week is in a compilation album. Whether that break the rules of Record Club or not I don’t know. Rules are not something that Mr Wyatt would pay much attention to. I see Robert as as the alternative to the alternative, having no frame of reference nor yardstick against which he can be measured. From his very first solo outing ‘ The End of An Ear’ he has sought to define his own train of thought. Even here, as he interprets a range of different covers of well-known artists, he does it in a way that is uncharacteristic even of himself, and yet with deference to the originals.

Until recently I only owned two Wyatt albums – ‘Ruth is Stranger Than Richard’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ – both of which I love dearly. I also have a connection to the artist (standing joke in DRC) in that I’m a good friend and former work colleague of his nephew. Recently his nephew posted some pictures of a family wedding on social media, and sure enough there was a picture of Uncle Robert. He had a flowing white beard, looking wizard-like with eyes glowing bright as one with far too much creativity and light to be human. Statuesque. Still. It is perhaps this stillness and unique style that has, down the years, made Robert Wyatt stand out as a lighthouse of British talent. Home grown eclecticism at its best. At least that’s how I see it. Other’s in our group may beg to differ.

‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ compiles covers and reworkings of recordings made (B-sides and others) from the 1970s and early 80s. The only original and new recording is the first track ‘Born Again Cretin’ which, with it’s characteristic Wyatt vocal warbles and baby-like ‘goo-goo’ sounds announces he’s back after almost a 10 year hiatus (released in 1982 this was the first recording since 1975) into a new world. Punk has almost dispatched itself. Disco done and Wyatt is here to sing to the world at a time when the UK was once again sadly aiming to recreate its imperialist past. This album spawned the single ‘Shipbuilding’, an anti-Falklands war song, lamenting the decline of the shipbuilding industry and the boys instead fighting an unjust war. This song does not feature on the album, but another Ivor Cutler number ‘Grass’ (originally ‘Go Sit Upon the Grass’ and recorded in 1975). It’s a slightly disturbing song, and Wyatt manages to capture the sublime violence beautifully

“Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you
Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you

And do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
Do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
I’ve something important to say

Other more mainstream covers are well-executed. Chic’s ‘At Last I am Free’ reveals the pathos of Nile Rogers’ original, giving it an almost reinvigorated political edge. The line “I can hardly see in front of me” evokes blinding tears of joy. Maybe because this track follows ‘Born Again Cretin’, which echoes the heartless views of apartheid South Africa, and the Thatcherite UK government’s stance on Mandela

“So let Mandela rot in prison
Someone should tell him how lucky he is

that we may even imagine the leader himself being released from chains, blinking through his tears into the light? In 1982 this was a bold and brave album indeed. On ‘Strange Fruit’ his tender vocal and gentle piano pay homage to the Billie Holliday original, but in a way that still capture the haunting images of black people hanging in the summer trees. Unnerving and yet altogether a reminder of terrible times and continued racial prejudice.

Other fights for freedom are raised to the podium. ‘Caimanera/Guantanamera’ is a Cuban song of independence – with Caimanera’s proximity to Guantanamo Bay we can all sing along to this one. My kids do! ‘Stalin wasn’t Stallin’ is a great Horrible Histories-esque folk compaction of 20th Century conflict

“Stalin wasn’t stallin’
When he told the beast of Berlin
That they’d never rest contented
Till they had driven him from the land
So he called the Yanks and English
And proceeded to extinguish
The Führer and its vermin
This is how it all began

Wyatt, so generous that he is, even allows the use of his vinyl space to give a song over to another other artists, without his contribution. At the end of the album we are treated to a rendition of ‘Trade Union’ originally penned by Abdus Salique, and sung here in traditional Bangladeshi style. The song is a call to arms for Bangladeshi workers who were suffering appalling treatment in East London factories in the late 1970s. Wyatt is not averse to the causes of his day, and his rendition of ‘ Red Flag’ is not, as some have assumed, an allegiance to the Labour Party, but true to the original a socialist call for unity that has been sung by Irish workers, South African miners and oppressed radical working classes since the 19th century.

So, in these febrile times, when the ruling classes seek to divide and conquer, raise your first, stand firm and still. This album is a true iron fist in a velvet glove, true in its word today as it was then. Aye comrade.

Maisha– There is a Place: Round 107 – Steve’s Choice

It’s a hard task to choose an album of the year when, if like me, you tend to associate certain albums with different seasons. Playing something that reminds me of zipping along country lanes in the long hot summer we had (such as Rolling Blackouts, Snail Mail…) hardly seems congruous with a damp cold foggy night in the weeks running up to Christmas. So, I chose some jazz. But not any old jazz. This is the debut outing by Maisha, a six piece jazz collective helped initially by the very influential organisation Tomorrow’s Warrior’s and their founders Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. Now only a few weeks before I came to DRC on that cold foggy night I was with both these good people at the 70th Anniversary of the formation of the University of the West Indies in London. Talking to them I learned about their incredible influence on an emerging new jazz scene from London, including other new talents that have blossomed this year, such as Ezra Collective (I will bring their new LP along soon).

It’s hard to write a review of a jazz record without sounding pretentious or inviting sneers of derision aimed at comparing you to the character in the Fast Show (‘nice’). I’ve liked jazz most of my adult life, but it’s always been more attuned to the traditional sounds of Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Just recently I ventured out to more experimental lands via The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Les Stances a Sophie’ and some of Robert Wyatt’s more eclectic recordings (such as his debut solo ‘End of an Ear’). After Maisha I’ll not look back, or more probably I will, to seek out its roots and influences. For theirs is a tradition of its own, but splitting into many roads and narrow lanes of various genres.

The album itself is beautiful. As the cover photo suggests a paradise, so the music journeys into a rich orchestral landscape (see I can do pretentious….). The incredible depth of sound that emanates from just six players is astonishing, drawing in hip-hop, afrobeat and funk. Members of the DRC, with more musical knowledge than I, found it hard to place in time. The frenetic lead single ‘Osiris’ opens the album. More symphonic saxophony of ‘Eaglehurst/The Place’ and ethereal piano-musings of closer ‘There Is A Place’ suggest a more contemplative mood. Overall the album has a richness of jazz folk (those of you who know Stewart Lee well can snigger now). Reworked jazz standards played with a distinctively urban and current sound. See it is possible to combine the two, and Maisha pay homage to their roots, but not too much deference to overshadow their craft.

Rob lent me Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ as a consequence of my choice for the night. Her album combined jazz with her interest in Hinduism – she became a disciple of the guru Satchidananda Saraswati. This intersection was apposite since my other track for the night was Poly Styrene’s ‘Code Pink Dub’ from her final album Generation Indigo – she became a Hare Krishna devotee for much of her later adult life. In a time when the idea of cultural appropriation is questioned we do well to remember that with respect (and respect is critical) this is how new forms of music develop. Styrene moved to dub reggae roots on her album, but on her earlier solo album she incorporated folk influences. Maisha continue this approach, drawing in influences that surely reflect the multiculturalism of London. So a jazz-folk genre is born.

Tomorrow’s Warrior’s vision is

We believe in a world where opportunities for participation, ownership and leadership in music and the arts are available to all.

Now, who could argue with that as a positive call for respectful appropriation and mixing of styles. Long may they be supported in this venture.