Friday, April 07, 2006

The ever-changing artist

I've always been intrigued by how bands journey from Point A to Point B. How Joy Division went from the macabre "No Love Lost" to the funeral dirge that's "The Eternal." How Primal Scream went from the melodic rattle of "Velocity Girl" to the dance-fueled bombast of "Loaded."

And how Simple Minds went from a grinning punk classic like "Pablo Picasso" to movie soundtrack dreck. (Though to be fair, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" wasn't even written by the usual songwriting tandem of singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill. It was penned by Keith Forsey, a Londoner who, it was said, "Made punk bankable." Ugh.)

"Pablo Picasso" was a leftover from Simple Mind's previous incarnation: the punk act Johnny & The Self Abusers. And what a leftover it was: chants of "Leather freak," strumming, scratchy guitar -- a building tension that's finally released in the frenzied chorus. John Milarky, the founder of that group, wrote the song about his motorbike-loving, leather-clad brother. When the group made their debut at Doune Castle in early 1977, it was the only original song they performed. (And yes, it was inspired by The Modern Lovers' song of the same name, though in this case the girls did think he was an asshole.)

Johnny & The Self Abusers split in the fall of 1977; by year's end Simple Minds had formed and cut seven demos. "Pablo Picasso" was featured on one and Milarky was invited back to sing.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Pablo Picasso" by Simple Minds.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

'A helter-skelter, jangly racket'

Fans gobbled it up; critics and musicians derided it.

It was C86, a compilation cassette issued by NME back in 1986 (and later sold on vinyl by Rough Trade.) Over the years, it's become one of indie music's most-talked about compilations, inspiring zealous fans to speculate what material would have been issued on subsequent releases, or conversely, spurring zealous haters to spew a bit of vitriol. (Journalist David Cavanaugh summed up the scene as, "A helter-skelter, jangly racket performed by four or more pale boys with hurt feelings.")

The compilation's origins go back five years, when the NME experienced overwhelming success with its C81 tape, a compilation featuring acts like Cabaret Voltaire, The Red Krayola, and Subway Sect, as well as Scottish artists Orange Juice, Josef K, and Aztec Camera. Another collection, Jive Wire, was issued in 1982; more followed every few months in the coming years.

Theories abound regarding why the C86 comp had the sound it did. Some speculate the tape came as a result of the power struggle then taking place at the NME: those wanting to cover hip-hop jostling with those wanting to cover guitar pop. Nineteen eighty-six was also dominated by the guitar-laden dazzle of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead. Who better to showcase then bands emulating them?

Like its predecessor, C86 was a huge success with fans. Many critics, however, didn't especially care for the compilation, saying the tape's 22 tracks were skewed too much towards one particular sound. Fellow musicians weren't sold either, mainly on account of the music's stripped-down, guitar-heavy leanings. Gone were the flecks of disco, soul, and funk mixed in by many of the bands on the C81 tape. Gone were the black influences.

C86 featured a number of Scottish acts, including The Close Lobsters. Interestingly enough, singer/songwriter Andrew Burnett was asked about the entire scene years later and had this to say: "C86 was a fantasy conjured out of thin air by the staff at the NME newspaper to generate some interest in a flagging UK music scene after the Underground Anarcho explosion of the early '80s."

A quick sidenote: Plans to commerate the 20th anniversary of the compilation are in the works. A series of nightly gigs -- much like the ones Cerne Canning and Simon Epslen put together at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts to promote the cassette -- are tentatively planned.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Words On Power" by The Close Lobsters.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Quit your day job

Much is made of their other jobs. By day, they're schoolteachers, a sound technician, and a nursery nurse. By night, they're one of Scotland's best indie pop bands.

Edinburgh's ballboy (they're known to be very particular about that small 'B') have been making music together since 1998. Their strength lies in their lyrics, which are the perfect blend of poison and poignancy. Freshly shaved Olympic cyclists, the many foibles of their homeland, the art of kissing, gun control, finding solace in country music -- ballboy has covered it all throughout a rather prolific career that's already come to encompass four LPs and 3 EPs.

They've experienced a smidge of success (three tracks in John Peel's Festive 50), but unfortunately, not enough to make gigging and recording a full-time venture. "I love teaching," singer/songwriter Gordon McIntyre once said in an interview. "But you can go back and teach whenever. You can't really put the band thing on hold. I have no qualms about giving up my day job, and I think my head teacher knows that!"

One can't help but wonder what McIntyre's head teacher (or even the six- and seven-year-olds he works with, for that matter) thinks of the lyrics in a song like, "You Can't Spend Your Whole Life Hanging Around With Arseholes." I'm sure they'd find it as cheeky as we do.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "A Europewide Search For Love" by ballboy. Layer after layer of gorgeous strings accompanied by a meditative little monologue with lines like, "Someone once told me, 'The world is moving because you are.'"

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Attack! Attack!

"Sounds reported that the crowd reaction was a disgrace but we all realized that we had provoked a reaction at a major event, and we were happy with that -- despite the fear."

Ah, the halcyon days of U.K. punk. In the late 1970s, an act knew it had achieved some perverted level of success when it elicited a violent reaction at a major gig, be it a mass gobbing, a barrage of beer cans and other detritus, or crazed listeners invading the stage. For The Scars, success came at a June of 1979 show in Craigmillar, a suburb of Edinburgh in the southeast part of the city. The event was the Anti-Nazi League Carnival, which took place in front of 6,000 onlookers.

The Scars were relative veterans of the Scotland punk scene, having been around since late 1977. This meant they had been canned off stage countless times before, typically at small clubs in and around their native Edinburgh. However, those incidents paled in comparison to what took place at the Craigmillar show.

Of course, the group didn't particularly endear itself to the audience when it was introduced in French. ("Ladies and gentlemen . . . Les Cicatreuses!") A hurried soundcheck and the band's tiny amplifiers only worsened their sound quality -- and the situation. Early into the set, the crowd tried to soften up Scars with an opening salvo of beer cans; then followed the infantry, or in this case, occasional stage invaders. Naturally, the entire incident ticked off quite a few in attendance.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Adult/ery" by The Scars.