London is grey. It’s gritty and grainy and broken windows on tiny alleyways. It’s worn off glamour and better days. But London is also a sound. It’s Sam Smith, John Neman and Disclosure. It’s Rudimental, Dizzy Rascal and Naughty Boy. And coming this November, it’s also Mary J Blige. The queen of R&B has descended. We are not worthy. This past summer Mary spent a month on Abbey Road working with Sam Roman, Sam Smith, Emeli Sande and other London scene luminaries, the result of which is The London Sessions album. To say that I’m waiting for this album like I’m waiting for the moon to rise, is an understatement. Mary J Blige is a diamond.The guest vocals she did on Disclosure’s F for You, were not guest vocals. She owned that song. At 43 and with over a decade of hits behind her, Mary could just sit on her laurels and wave her 9 Grammy Awards at London’s face. Instead she has gleaned on that one thing that makes London special, something us Londoners are very proud of. Our free spirit. “The music (in the UK) is free the way it used to be in the States. Artists are just free to do what they love. Listening to the radio you can hear the freedom.” Therapy, the first release from The London Sessions is co-written by Sam Smith, but the heart of it quite clearly beats to the sound of London’s own lost wild child, Amy Winehouse.
Sometimes first listens are disorientating. Our brains are programmed to fit things into boxes, data flick through past refrences, index categories by source, path and genre. But when none of that applies, its like watching an emperor in his new clothes. He says he is wearing them but your mind is computing… did I just see what I thought I did? That pretty much describes my relationship with Grimes. I admire her for her versatily. I envy her fabulously surreal mind. Yet at the same time, I am baffled by the sonic chaos. The weird and wonderful Claire Elise Boucher, 26 year old artist from Montreal, manages to sound like a Japanese Kabuki singer on Nightmusic and a synthpop engenue on Oblivion. What the mind does not completely understand is completely irresistible. So I go back and take another data hit. And again. And again. Its tickling the brain cells. Sticking onto the white matter, crawling under the skin. There is no straight path from verse bridge to chorus, then repeat. It takes a step, then floats, then body grooves in dark corners. It’s odd. It’s original. And even though “Go” is probably Grimes’s most obviously commercial single to date, (and originally written for and rejected by Rhianna) it does not comfortably fit into high rotation on drivetime. That’s what makes me admire her the most.
July 16, 1988. The morning was soft grey velvet, low hanging clouds, rain waiting, warm and still. It was us and a few dozen die hards at 7.30am when we took our places outside entrance D. The most amazing thing is, when I think back on it now, I don’t remember eating a thing. The entire day. I remember Pippa, my best friend and fellow MJ lover, drinking from a red can of Coke, and someone shouting “how dare you!!” for Michael Jackson “only drank Pepsi.” I remember there were squabbles about people jumping the queue, a Michael Jackson look-a-like loving the limelight, and the time that just flew. And then we ran, we ran like hell on wheels across the Wembley tarmac. I remember one helpless usher spreading her arms “Don’t run!!”but the bleachers were just a blur in my side vision as we careened to front and centre. Out of breath, panting, we looked around, damn, we were too close, and we actually retreated a few rows. I remember being very worried about fainting. Then we sat down alongside the rest of our tribe wanting to conserve energy for the show. Kim Wilde came on stage and we watched in polite curiosity, we didn’t get up for her though. I remember Princess Diana, as a small yellow dot in the royal box, but it was close to showtime then, and the adrenalin was pumping and making my hands tremble and my heart flutter up to my throat. The crowd was on its feet, we were craning our necks, twisting in the packed crowd for the best vantage point, and then the ear piercing screaming started. I tried to say something to Pippa, but all sense was drowned by the crowd and the wailing guitar. Floodlights blinded us and then we were lifted off the ground. Literally. The crowd jumped in one heaving mass and my feet did not touch the ground. Bodies pressed, bass vibrating, and then… he stood there. Shiny and oh, so real. It was almost a surprise he was actually flesh and bone. The show… well, it was like I was in a movie. It was so real it felt unreal. The songs were liner notes in my head…from The Jacksons Triumph album…ooh…this is so beautiful…oh, he IS doing Dirty Diana…wonder if Billy Jean is closing the show… it’s starting to rain… this night should never end… And before I knew it, “Man In The Mirror” was closing the show, and I gazed up at the skies, my heart was bursting with pure love and joy. I wanted to cry but no tears came, so I sang. Me and Michael, we sang. I looked over at Pippa and she had the biggest smile on her face. And then we held hands swaying with the crowd and we all sang; make that change.
Bob Dylan is in that league of gentlemen where in-depth columns and analysis are dedicated to his album releases. Even the big boys on Manhattan and Fleet Street sit in their glass cubicles de-coding his rock canon and finding cryptic undertows of hidden meaning; survivor guilt in “Roll On John” (Will Herme/Rolling Stone) or contempt for the bankers in “Early Roman Kings” (Alexis Petridi/Guardian) because he is Bob, man, and back in the 60s he changed the world. Those on the right side of 50 want him to hold his music like a reflecting mirror to our times, because in their youth he somehow made sense of the violent upheaval of their rapidly changing world. To those born into a universe whose bards spun yarns about crying doves and angels in Harlem, he holds less reverence. A friend of mine in her dewy glow of youth raised her eyes in awe, “Bob Dylan, is he still alive?” I fall somewhere in between the two, old enough to know his name holds a meaning, but too young to remember much about his glory days, except stuffing my face with sand and discovering crayons. So I feel I am primed to listen without prejudice and enjoy Dylan’s rootsy ragtime, effortlessly chugging along like only decades of skill allow. His rasp is grating, but soothingly so. And I guess nearly 50 years in the rock’n’roll trenches have earned him the right to cruise the streets dressed as a pimped up gaucho. Even the thought of it makes me smile.
Oh Lord, give me uncomplicated tonight. Give me a long sweet exhale under the limitless Colorado skies. Put a cold Coors in my hand and let the roar of a crowd haul my workaday worries away. Let there be glint in a pair of deep blue eyes, only a moment, then in a pregnant hush I will look up and count the stars. Allow an urban cowboy stand square in the beam of a spotlight with a voice rolled in bourbon and autumn leaves. And when he starts his tale of unanswered love, let it wash over me, I don’t mind drowning. Let lighters twinkle fairy dust on this country blue jean night. Tonight none of us are tired, none of us are poor or sad. Tonight we are all who we were meant to be, coming alive, breaking free. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Zac Brown Band and tonight they play my dreams back to me.
If you are not from England, you may not be familiar with Margate, the seaside town that Victorians based their mediterranean holiday dreams on and what the Spanish costas deprived Margate of; namely tourists. For centuries, weary Londoners have travelled the easy few hours to the fresh shores of Kent, to partake in that very English past-time of eating fish and chips on the beach. That was until the huddled masses were given proper wages and packed up nan and auntie and buggered off to Benidorm in Southern Spain to…er, east fish and chips on the beach. Whats left of Margate’s glory days is whats evident on local band Two Wounded Birds’s surf-rock video Britannia-style, the beach and one of the last remaining Wimpy’s hamburger restaurants. I like the Birds efficient and no-nonsense sound, you’ve got what you need; the guitars, the drums and a few cool kids (one of them is even called Johnny Danger, how rad is that?!) riding the very British grey clouds and waves. Even the song comes in at a decisive 1 minute and 51 seconds, keeping the fuss to a minimum and the impact to a maximum. Not surprisingly Jacob Graham of The Drums sniffed out this band like some indie pop surf hound before anyone else did and they are now Moshi Moshi label mates and opening gigs for The Drums. Exhilarating stuff.
This is my Duran Duran story: In the early part of the past decade I was living in Los Angeles. On an ordinary Tuesday evening I was making my way home from work and stopped at my local Ralph’s supermarket at Beverly Connection. I loaded up my salad, grilled chicken and a bottle of red and made my way to the parking lot. Beverly Connection at the time had The Warehouse (music store) on the corner of 3rd and La Cienega, and on the small parking lot in front of the store, Duran Duran were playing to a rag-tag audience of about 30 looky loos. The traffic whizzed by, most people did not stop for long, some guys were jokingly singing Hungry Like The Wolf. I remember stopping dead on my tracks, stunned, and thinking; at one time, I thought you were gods. In 1985 whilst leafing through my Smash Hits magazines I certainly did not imagine this is how our paths would cross, on a near empty parking lot of an ordinary Tuesday. Duran’s greatest achievement may not be the superstar days of the 80s, but the fact they are still here. Mark Ronson is living out his own childhood dreams by producing their 13th (!) studio album. What he has done brilliantly, is he has put the Duran back into Duran Duran. I swear I can hear a girl named Rio on the chorus of “All You Need Is Now”. It may have been nearly 30 years in the making, but this just might be the follow-up to the New Wave they were riding on all those years ago.
What I find amusing are superstars penning songs about the soul-destroying search of fame. Long gone are the days of innocence when you could be sipping a milkshake at the Schwab’s drugstore on Sunset Boulevard and the next thing you know, you’re doing the soft-shoe with Gene Kelly on the set of ‘Achors Aweigh’. I suspect some sort of persistent pursuit of attention has gone on behind the scenes to get yourself seen and heard, so it really seems like a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The pot, in this case Michael Buble, has released a happy little piece of fluff from his third edition of the Crazy Love album (boy, does he get mileage out of 13 songs!) where he imitates Bieber and goes nuclear on some over-eager paps. “Hollywood” has it all, horns, chorus girls, big energetic production and even a message about Hollywood being dead and finding happiness in yourself. And why not? We need a bit of cheer in these darkening winter evenings when the news are full of stories of a future where none of us can afford to retire and the endless ticker tape screams of a another young fallen hero. Buble’s biggest successes seem to come from original material, (how cute was “Haven’t Met you Yet”?) so if I was him, I’d give the old standards a heave-ho and concentrate on melting cougar hearts with some brand spanking new warbles of love.
Are you as tired of the surly pop barbies with their barely there skirts, pouting through 3 minutes of generic teflon pop, as I am? I call it teflon because the music is usually so universally bland, it goes in one ear, out the other and does not stick to anything, least of all the artist. You could place any stick figure teetering on 6 inch heels in front of a microphone and produce it up to the hilt, and yeah, it would probably sell. I don’t know about you, but what I keep missing is some original spark, some edge on the charts, something I can feel. Anita Blay, (aka The Cocknbullkid) was born to Ghanaian parents and hails from Hackney in East London. Most record companies told her she was too fat to be a pop star. How pathetic is that? Idiotic comments aside, she was touted as the one to watch a few years ago with her darkly brooding electro gems reminiscent of Human League and the like. Then… silence. Cue 2010 and Anita is back as Cocknbullkid ( “The” has been deleted) with songs just as edgy but more current with some genuinely sublime pop melodies. “One Eye Closed” is a Batmanesque (OK, that may not be a word, but listen to the opening riff… doesn’t it want to make you holler “Batman!?”) first release from “Adulthood” with a deliciously dark and seductive undertone. Is she the frustrated person under the one-eyed monster suit or isn’t she? Blay worked on the track with Joe Cross (of Performance), who incidentally also worked with my other current obsession Hurts. If there’s any pop justice in this world… Cocknbullkid will go colossal in 2011.