years ago, in germany....

bbc four's rather super krautrock documentary was (at an hour) necessarily a bit sketchy. a six part series would have been more like it but hey....what was particularly great was seeing these beautiful, mad old geezers still at it some 40 years later. it was especially lovely to see danny fichelscher (guitarist with popul vuh and drummer with amon duul 2 and one of my particular heroes) still around, and confirm once more that michael rother is probably the nicest and best looking 59 year old bloke on the planet. even faust came across as rather likeable. and renate knaup is clearly the thinking man's nico.

my first exposure to, er, german indigenous rock ('krautrock' has always struck me as a dodgy term) was to can as a feckless teen in the late 70s. when my parents were out i would lie on the floor with my head between the speakers of our dodgy old decca 'music centre' and blast 'yoo doo right' at silly volume. can and faust seemed much more radical, dangerous and fun than punk, and obviously for a nascent muso snob they had the required exotica value. wandering around school with a copy of faust's first album (clear vinyl, clear sleeve, clear insert) became a habit.

but it was the much more low key stuff put out by the neu!/rother/cluster axis, early kraftwerk and especially popol vuh that really got me. many of the musicians in the documentary spoke of their determination to avoid sounding english or american - to make it year zero for music. to me it's these bands that managed to do that best. even neu! seemed to have much less to do with 'rock' than can, amon duul or faust, whose music still bore traces of american or british psychedelia (or the velvet underground's dystopian throb).

the music that harmonia, cluster and rother put out in the mid 70s is both distinctively european and seemingly not much to do with anything else that ever went before it. it seemed to be more about marvelling at the world rather than grabbing it by the balls and giving it a good kicking. more organic than kraftwerk, less kosmische than t. dream or ashra or schulze, their music was benevolent without being merely 'pretty'; iggy pop summed neu! up in the doc as 'pastoral psychedelia'. certainly looking at the view from harmonia's (and now rother's) studio in forst puts that music in some kind of context.

what was interesting too was the slightly ambivalent attitude from moebius and co towards their collaborations with mr eno in 1976. brian was at a creative impasse at the time and after a week of improvising, recording and hanging out in forst, eno disappeared with the tapes (even using one track for his next album). as rother said rather ruefully - 'we couldn't afford blank tapes - we were poor'; moebius was less circumspect; 'eno told me we would be rich one day - he was not right'.

mr parker

oh yes.


some things coming up...

17th october - i'll be playing electric bass (oh, the shame) with the insect explosion as part of the galvanised festival at cafe oto. it will be noisy.

21st october - double bass with the rick jensen trio at flim flam, ryans bar, stoke newington, 181 church st.

22nd october - the second sonnamble gig - at openlab, the roebuck, se1. i'll be playing lap steel guitar and conor will be making it sound interesting.

30th october - watson, marsh and may at the always entertaining scaledown club, the king and queen, foley st, w1. ian r watson - trumpet; me - double bass; paul may - drums etc. it'll look something like this, i suspect. though we may wear slightly different clothes.

bat for lashes

i saw bat for lashes twice last week. this wasn't entirely intentional, it must be said, but it did make me think quite a bit about how gigs work and the kind of factors that can make or break the experience for an audience member.

first off i have to say that i quite like bat for lashes. after initially being rather sniffy about the first album i've grown to rather love some of natasha khan's stuff. so i approached both gigs in a positive frame of mind. the first was at the brighton dome. the sound was good, the view pretty good too. the set was geared towards the more uptempo numbers which meant i was a little disappointed, favouring as i do the more miserable songs. but not to worry. it was a nice gig.

the second was at the roundhouse - a rather more cavernous venue; the sound wasn't quite as good, the view restricted by a flat floor and the presence of a lot more people (some of whom wore large hats). what was slightly disappointing was that it was exactly the same set - same order, even the same (minimal) patter between songs. possibly natasha's voice wasn't quite as together at the second gig, but that'd be nitpicking.

but what struck me most on both occasions was that (apart from my lovely companions) i was essentially totally surrounded by wankers. this shouldn't be a surprise to me by now, you'd have thought, but still i am utterly gobsmacked by the numbnut behaviour that goes on at gigs. at the roundhouse someone standing mext to me actually made a phone call. now being a bloke i'm quite good at ignoring things that are going on right under my nose but i found it very hard to ignore that kind of thing. at a gig i want at the very least to be able to hear the music without someone shouting inanities down their fucking blackberry. or to each other.

so instead of having some mystical experience listening to the stuff that's coming off the stage i find myself wondering why people would pay 20 quid to go and stand in a darkened room pumped with loud music and talk loudly about how they got so pissed the night before they couldn't stand or how they've been passed up for promotion at the web design agency they work for or shout about the shit photos they've just taken on their iphone ('s a shit photo of the thing we should actually be experiencing instead of taking shit photos of it. how cool is that?). perhaps if i paid them each £20 they could come round my house and do that while i go out and see a gig that i know they can't attend and therefore have a cat in hell's chance of hearing the fucking music.

but i don't really have enough money for that. tossers.

music on the move ran one of the straplines for the sony walkman when it came out, or so i remember. that was 30 years ago (sheesh) though i didn't manage to get one till around 1985 or so. despite their habit of chewing tapes, going through batteries like water etc etc, i found pretty soon that i couldn't live without one; going on a 200 mile coach journey without my hatfield and the north compilation became unthinkable.

but after a while i found that the walkman was doing more than just allowing me to indulge my taste for canterbury prog while using public transport. listening to stuff like eno's 'on land' on a moonlit beach or john dowland's lachrymae by a river as the sun came up made for experiences as rich and as revelatory as any acid trip. or anything else i can think of.

of course, the material and the surroundings have to come together - hatfield and the north on a coach are unlikely to do it (kraftwek are probably a better bet in that situation). but a couple of days ago i had one of those magic moments. the soundtrack was this and this is what my phone thought the world was looking like at the time...

queer as folk

like most people of a certain age, the late lamented john peel played a pretty big part in my musical education. huddled under my nylon sheets, headphones (or usually earphone) on, i'd be regularly exposed to damascene experiences of all shapes and sizes, from linton kwesi johnson to ivor cutler to god knows what.

so far, so obvious, i suppose. but equally peel often educated me as to what i really didn't like. for instance, his interest in folk music struck me as unfathomable. often he'd play something ineffably fantastic by pere ubu or the raincoats or the slits or whoever, only to follow it with a selection of jigs and reels by the bothy band or some dirge by june tabor about walking out one midsummer morning and seeing a pretty maiden. i could see or rather hear no redeeming features in this music. it felt alien, but not in a good way. it was a culture that had nothing to do with me. surely this was the sort of thing they played on radio 2 for god's sake...

though for some weird reason i had bought steeleye span's 'all around my hat' on a single, my aversion to folk music remained very firmly in place for years, despite the fact i did have a soft spot for arran jumpers (i blame my gran's exceptional knitting skills). instead i devoured increasingly industrial amounts of krautrock, jazz, prog, post punk and avant rock. and though i had developed a love for john martyn, that was pretty much as close as i got. and anyway, he wasn't proper folk, was he?

in the late 80s i joined a band called three straw men. their guitarist andy bole had played with a very fine band called the lowest note on the organ. i had one of their singles. he hung out with fred frith and the like. they sent me a demo tape and though it sounded suspiciously like, well, folk music, i assumed all that would change and we'd become some wilfully odd experimental outfit.

i was wrong. andy was about to leave and we only managed one gig together; and i found that the other members were deeply into traditional breton and eastern european folk. but we had lots of gigs and studio time and despite my misgivings about the music, i stayed on, thinking that a broadening of my musical experience was probably not a bad idea.

i was right on that front but it was often a difficult experience. most audiences actually regarded us as a wilfully odd experimental outfit, so i had got my wish i suppose. and though initially the sight of accordions, melodeons, hurdy gurdies, pipes and banjos among our fellow musicians (not to mention their beards) that we shared bills with all over the country filled me with abject terror, eventually i learned at least some tolerance towards them. and their sincerity and passion for tradition began to trigger something slightly more profound in me, though my listening habits remained largely unchanged. while on tour in ireland, i would habitually slink off from some marathon pub session to listen to motorhead on my walkman.

something changed though, and it was probably in ireland that it happened. while i was deeply impressed by what went on in the sessions - the passion, the knowledge, the idea of a shared vocabulary of tunes and the notion of music as a precious and essential part of everyday life, the music itself still refused to speak to me, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. actually this routine by tommy tiernan sums up the pleasures of a good irish session beautifully.

but on my return i found myself with a hankering to hear some of that music. my bandmate ashley compiled a tape of irish tunes for me, and it rarely left my side for months. i still have it. but though i loved it dearly, this was music that was essentially exotica - as foreign to my cultural roots (whatever they were) as john zorn or linton kewsi johnson or ornette coleman.

so began a love/hate relationship with english traditional music that has of late became more of a love/love thing. there's much that still pisses me off about the folk scene (froots magazine, for instance and the indiscriminate use of the term 'folk' for anyone who has an acoustic guitar), though i do find these days i'm probably more on the side of those who'd ban drumkits and amplification from the stages of the cambridge festival; not because i think such things are contrary to the spirit of the music or that it cheapens it, rather than there's enough of that kind of thing elsewhere. i even tolerate accordions for fuck's sake.

i think part of this is might be born of some kind of desire to feel part of a cultural lineage, however bastardised it's been. but maybe it's more a desire to hear something that's somehow unmediated, unaffected, something honest. it's still somehow transgressive to hear someone like chris wood sing about how we wishes he were still a maid, or martin carthy declare his love for a blacksmith....i don't know, it's hard to explain. but increasingly it's the only kind of music i really want to listen to.

better get meself a tankard.