Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEWS // Noughties, But Nice (2010)

This review was initially slated to appear online at the beginning of the year. Other commitments got in the way and it got pushed back. I later started writing it for my general blog ‘Postings From An Edge’, but ended up being such a lengthy piece that I felt it would go better here. As it covers ten years from a global and personal point of view, it didn’t seem to matter about missing the zeitgeist moment of early January.


'Noughties, but Nice': What can you find hidden in the streets of Shibuya?

NAMING OUR TIMES

At the end of the 1990s, I was one of the many that struggled with the thorny issue of what to call the then-pending decade. The previous ten-year blocks I’d lived through had been easy to label – the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties – but this one didn’t fit into such comfortable naming as the others did. Now on the other side of it, it seems that there is still no definitive and satisfactory answer to that question – what to call the decade that lasted from 2000 to 2009. The Noughties sounds a bit odd, and only really works in a British English context. The Two Thousands would cover the whole millennium rather than just the decade. The Twenty Hundreds doesn’t feel anywhere near as right as the Nineteen or Eighteen Hundreds seems to feel, and still caters more for a century than a decade. None of the other suggestions proposed, such as the Ohs or the Oh-Ohs feel right either.

It seems like the lexical debate is one likely to remain unsettled. If so, then so be it – some things don’t fit easy compartmentalisation and it could be argued that such pursuits are really only media obsessions anyway, having no actual bearing on peoples lives. Of course, until we reach the Twenty Twenties when decade-naming can easily revert to type and the same labels used in the Twentieth Century can be recycled, it seems like the same issue is faced all over again with the decade we’ve just entered. Might have to stick with the numbers and call it the 2010s (Twenty Tens), just to make things easier.

Still, naming a decade can be very helpful from a historical context, as delivering the past in comprehensible chunks is a necessary feature of understanding or interpreting it. The first decade of a millennium is often a fascinating time to look back on too, given that societies look so much more different over a span of a hundred years than over ten of them, and turning points hold greater intrigue.

The Nineteen Hundreds (or however else we name that particular decade) was as tumultuous a time as the 2000s appears to have been. A period of global upheaval, it included the rise of Imperial Japan, the first Russian Revolution, and a high water mark in the imperial expansion of the European powers. In science and technology, the first manned flights happened, Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Culturally, the decade spawned the birth of modern art, cinema and the early stirrings of radio. A century prior to that, the Eighteen Hundreds (1800 – 1809) saw the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK), plus the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Romanticism, while the Industrial Revolution raged on with the introduction of the first steam-powered ships and trains.

It seems that the first decade of a century can be a time for revolutionary change. We citizens of the world in the early 21st Century have been having ours too, with the Digital Revolution still in full swing and possibly even in its infancy. Having been living through such heady days myself and been an eager participant, this article will serve to review the previous decade on both a global and a personal level, with a clear digital string running throughout it.

BOOKENDS

Titles from the Art section

Titles in the Art section

I started the Noughties (a term I’ll use for want of a better one and to have something to hold the concept of the decade onto) in one way very similar but mostly very different to how I ended it. In 2000, I had just been laid off from a retail job I was keen on getting out of anyway. I’d spent the preceding four years as a bookseller and although being surrounded by books on a daily basis was enjoyable in many ways, it didn’t hold a particularly lucrative future. In the final years of my twenties, I was a single man living a pretty analogue life in Brighton. I was due to spend a week living in Paris, with a rock band back home that was starting to go somewhere and a career path heading into the voluntary sector. Even less lucrative than retail.

The decade ended for me back in Brighton again, only this time a married man coming up to 40, and having digitised most aspects of my life. I’m currently working as a teacher for a global education company, and studying a postgraduate Cambridge University Diploma in English Language Teaching (DELTA). I don’t really have a band on the go for once in my life, although I do have several other projects happening simultaneously, as usual. Perhaps the one thing that might be most surprising for the young man that began the decade with a trip to France intended as a breather before the rigours of rejoining the dole queue is that I spent half of the past ten years living in Tokyo, Japan.

THE WORLD’S A STAGE

9/11 attacks on New York

The decade began with the hopefulness of the Millennium celebrations, a global moment of optimism that I spent with friends on Brighton beach – as good a place as any to spend it. However, a decade doesn’t really seem to get fully underway without a defining event and it wasn’t until over a year and a half in that the Twenty First Century really seemed to kick in. Sat in my Brighton flat on a sunny afternoon in September of 2001, after a morning’s teaching and awaiting a speech by Tony Blair on TV about public service reform, I wondered what was keeping him from his platform. Flipping the channels, I found some news coming in from New York about an aeroplane hitting the World Trade Center. The defining moment had arrived, a shocking one at that and one that effectively opened the page on the Bush era more than his disputed election. Needless to say, the first lesson I taught on the morning of September 12th – full of young people from around the world away from home and including a young Japanese woman whose brother was actually in New York at the time – was one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever had to teach.

For those of us that lived through it, the Bush era is one that either should never have happened or was an appropriate expression of American might, depending on which side of the fence you fall (and there’s little sitting on the fence about it). I would wager that, overall and worldwide, a majority of people would fall into the former camp, but history is history and what’s done can’t be undone. One of the undeniable consequences of the era was a window of global dominance by the US, a unipolar moment unique in world history for better or worse. That seems to have gone now, with the rise of China and other nations over the same decade and the economic crash that bookended the era started with 9/11.

It could also be argued that the excesses of the Bush era led to the election of the first African-American president – something I’d never have expected from America in calmer times. And while Barack Obama may have one of the toughest jobs in the world – cleaning up after Bush – and is struggling to get much of what he wants to get done done, his election was an exhilarating moment in a narrative that the world seemed to get wrapped up in back in 2008.

Video for ‘Change’ by Control K, about the 2008 US Presidential Elections

Back in March 2003, I was sitting on the East African coast in a bar fashioned from an old boat, when I got the news that I’d been hoping I’d never hear – the invasion of Iraq was going ahead. That whole sorry episode and my government’s part in it contributed to my decision to leave the West behind and throw myself into a totally new place for a fresh start, thus beginning my almost five year stint living in Tokyo (a remarkable experience in so many ways that transformed my life completely, and which I’ve documented extensively elsewhere).

Apart from the massive loss of life that that particular conflict and all the others that have arisen over the same period, one of the really saddening features of the decade for me has been the remilitarisation of Western culture – something largely missing from the Nineties. On the upside, the decade just passed witnessed the global mainstreaming of environmentalism and green thinking. This was admittedly building up a pretty strong head of steam throughout the decade prior to it and was taken highly seriously with events like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but it became a much more noticeable feature of general discourse over the past ten years.

One of the interesting things about being away from Britain and coming back intermittently was seeing these changes becoming more embedded with every visit. Yes, there has also been an equivalent rise of denial of the science or state-level refusal to take serious actions against those continuing to pollute the atmosphere. Yes, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 failed to come up with a satisfactory and binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions (and perhaps was never going to). Yes, there is still a long way to go. But overall I would still claim consciousness of the problem to be moving in the right direction, which is half of the battle.

GETTING AROUND

The Andes from the air

Shot of The Andes, taken during flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This leads almost paradoxically on to another feature of the 2000s for me – travel. Paradoxical because I am fully aware that many consider flying a reckless act for a committed green thinker to perform and flying is something I did an awful lot of over the last ten years.

Back in the early Nineties, I’d decided that Britain was too small a place to limit my personal horizons to and set out to become more European in my outlook – Mainland Europe having the range of destinations closest to my backyard. I got myself around the continent as much as I could (though more by train and other means than by air). This carried on in the early years of the new decade, which kicked off with the trip to Paris, and also took in the Netherlands, Greece and other sundry Euro-spots. Once I’d achieved that wider mindset (having also lived in Florida a while during 1994, thus taking on the US too, in a small way), the need for further horizons and other ways of thinking to explore came around. I made my first visit to Africa, with a week in Tanzania in 2003 (while Iraq was being invaded) and a revisit two years later.

The big one was Asia, the larger part of the vast land mass I lived off one edge of. From a new base in Japan, I further explored what Asia had to offer. A trip to Korea included a visit to the DMZ, the notorious border between North and South. My 33rd birthday was spent in Beijing, as China was on its meteoric ascent and sweeping away the old to make way for the glittering new of a modern Olympian nation. At the invitation of a friend from Tokyo, I went to visit him at home in Kathmandu, thus witnessing a Nepal under the martial crackdown of a king on his way out.

Coming in near decade close, I managed to add a fifth continent to tuck under my belt by spending some time in Argentina. Standing in front of the mighty Iguazu Falls on the country’s border with Brazil, I realised that it was time to come back to the UK for a period of rebuilding. Brief memories of other moments included Bangkok, Dubai, Toronto, Uruguay

CUTTING A PATH

Official Peace Not War Japan promo video

That which most needed rebuilding was my career. In 2000, I was ending a short period in bookselling and my tenure in retail. Here now in 2010, I am a teacher – something I spent a long time avoiding for one reason or another but which seemed to have kept on calling me. I’ve spent the majority of the 2000s doing just that, and am able to look back now with some satisfaction. However, I have also had several other roles in that time, some of which were attempts at carving out a professional path for myself and others of which were simply a means of putting the proverbial bread on the table.

For a while, I managed an Internet cafe in Brighton, in the days before the ubiquity of portable devices and wi-fi. It was a role that must have helped to mesh my destiny with the Web a little more deeply. I also had a period of temping and taking whatever came along. There were a number of cleaning roles here. I ran a minibus shuttle service for a while. I worked as a conference steward, serving up coffees and lunches to visiting executives from an international credit card company. Curiously, I even worked for a few days processing customs documents for a shipping company that sent stuff by boat a few times a year from the UK to the Falkland Islands. Little did I know that one day a few years on from that peculiar post, I’d end up in the back of an Argentinean taxi driver’s cab, trying to make up some Spanish on the spot to answer his probing questions over my opinion on correct ownership of ‘Las Malvinas’ (as the same islands are known by those living closer to them) whilst rattling through the back streets of Buenos Aires.

As I was also trying to hold down various jobs along the way, another common strand running through most of the era was the range of freelance or volunteer roles I carved out for myself. It started on my return from Paris when I offered my services to a local community organisation (Sounds Phenomenal) to help them out with a Music Conference they’d been running, I ended up taking on the running of the organisation and my first foray into ‘working for myself’.

Taking the non-profit sector experience I’d built up in the UK for them and wedding it to the reignited activism that the Iraq War had awakened in me, I founded an overseas branch of a British anti-war group whilst living in Tokyo – Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ). Having such a major venture on my hands with no local language skills to speak of and no contacts on the ground was undeniably a significant challenge. Ultimately, it brought out a side of the country that I would never have seen otherwise and gave me an opportunity to leave my own mark before I left – the first (as far as I could tell) compilation album of modern Japanese protest music, which was issued nationally and sold…moderately. I’m proud to say that PNWJ continues to this day, despite my having handed over the tiller to other hands.

Being a ‘foreigner’ in Tokyo opened doors to many other opportunities that would never have come my way otherwise. I had a run at journalism, with several pieces published in Japanese and international publications. I advised the company that handled the Japanese release of the BBC series ‘The Office‘. I also ended up as a consultant to the Embassy of Tanzania, where I helped them to put a Japanese-language tourism website together. Despite the fits, starts, and random professional turns taken over the past decade, it all made for quite a group of experiences and landed me with a most unusual skillset. The path ahead seems to lead in the direction of education – which is no bad thing.

DIGITAL NATIVES AND EXPATS

'Social-ist', a montage of personal websites, by D1 Designs

Today’s young people are often defined as ‘digital natives’, meaning that they are utterly at ease with using computers or the Internet, sometimes to the bemusement of their elders. Older people who made the choice to turn their backs on their analogue pasts and join in with this digital world are invariably referred to as ‘digital immigrants’. The implication of this is that they are less fluent in the ways of the modern world, yet have fled to it in search of something better.

Being a cautious steward of such terms as ‘foreigner’ or ‘immigrant’ in my classrooms, I consider such a label appropriate for some but something of a misnomer for myself. The immigrant is one that is viewed by those in the destination of choice as the outsider that has come in. Conversely, the emigrant is viewed by those in the place of departure as the one that has left their roots behind for pastures new. The expatriate (or expat for short) is the migrant who is not perceived in any particular way by the departed or receiving community, but who makes a personal choice to move bases from one place to another. I’ve tended to place myself in this category.

Sensing the prevailing winds back in the late Nineties, I knew that change was afoot, and made a conscious decision to relocate and become a digital expat. Despite sending my first email in 1995 and gaining my first email address a few years later, it wasn’t until the Millennium had passed that I really joined in with the new world. I got my first computer in the early Noughties, and quickly got to grips with the vagaries of Windows 2000. Moving from a creative world of paints and pencils, tape recordings, and notebooks, I upgraded to image and sound editors, sequencers, and word processing. I stopped writing letters by hand and began sending emails instead. Still uncertain what the Internet was actually for and blissfully unaware of the difference between the ‘Net and the Web, I started dialing up and going online, tentatively peeping at what was out there.

Once I moved to Japan in 2003 and digital communications were the best means of staying in touch with those closest to me, I got my first broadband connection and my life went online. A new world opened up just as it was starting to get richer and broader anyway. Whereas it had previously taken me an hour to upload a song to sites like mp3.com for the aim of establishing some sort of online presence for my creative works, now it took minutes. Prior to Tokyo, my biggest footprint on the Web was the collection of pages cobbled together in FrontPage to archive the Sounds Phenomenal work. Now, I started to spread my wings and socialise.

A first MySpace page went up for some music. Photos of my travels followed, initially at an image hosting site run by Sony and later transferred to the daddy of image hosting – Flickr. I began my first blog in 2006, to join in with what was going on and as an evolution of the diary that I’d been writing since I was 14 years old (only this time taking the jump of actually showing people some of my writings). Multiple volumes on, that diary seems to have now stalled, or at least hit some form of hiatus, as life online doesn’t provide enough time in the day to keep up such commitments. With YouTube having finally brought video online as no other had been quite able to do before, I began my own channel in 2007, now becoming a broadcaster in addition to being a publisher and record label.

As with millions of other people around the world, I now spend probably several hours a day online, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips yet equally unable to keep up with this data deluge. This is definitely a very different person from the Brighton guy that saw in the Millennium on New Year’s Eve 1999. A good friend that I first met about six months after that date influenced much of the way I perceived and embraced the Web. A pioneer in his chosen field of streaming media who seems to have played a notable part in the building of that industry, I learned about people like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee from him, or ideas such as TCP/IP or IP Multicasting.

He’s the person I turn to in order to gain a peek at the future of the Internet, rather than simply learn about its past or present. He’s previously described the Internet to me as ‘open prairie’, a nice concept for realising that we are still in the very early days of what this global network has to offer humanity. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the pending decade will see the Web and the Internet playing an increasingly greater role in our lives than it does even now – for better or worse.

A MUSICAL DECADE

Video for Shelf Life‘s ‘Endgame’

I took my initial English Teacher training back in 1996, aware that at some point I might feel the need or urge to leave the country for more than just a holiday, and that if I was to do this it was better to work elsewhere than waste a few years bumming around in the backyard of someone else’s poverty. Teaching English allows just that opportunity as the language is a tool that is in demand the world over, and there is always a shortage when it comes to supply meeting demand.

Bizarre as it might now seem to my far more widely travelled mind, I once held off for several years from the idea of leaving Britain on musical grounds. That is, I was determined that my future lay as a working musician (along with romantic notions of ‘changing the world through song’ or something like that) and I thought that Britain was the only place to be when it came down to getting somewhere in music. I’ve been pretty obsessive about music from my mid-teens onwards and bought the NME religiously between 1986 and 2002, even to the extent of carting all the back issues I owned around all the different houses I lived in during the Nineties.

Living in 90s Brighton vastly broadened my musical horizons in terms of what I listened to, but I still held on to the notion of fronting a rock ‘n’ roll outfit and taking the world by storm. After numerous attempts at creating that world-shattering unit, I put my final UK group together in 1999, expanding from a four piece to a five piece in 2000. Starting life as Jaded, the band built a small local following from a bunch of live shows and recorded a handful of songs before deciding on a name change. We switched to The Zamora, named after Brighton’s then-star striker Bobby Zamora.

Jacket for The Zamora's 'Pigeon Souvenirs' anthology

After one press release announcing the name change to promote a gig went out, I got a phone call from The Sun, who wanted to do a story and photoshoot with the footballer himself. This kicked off a bizarre snowball of media activity that saw the group gaining extensive TV, radio and newspaper coverage, even including a slot on BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ show on a Saturday afternoon – prime viewing for millions of British football fans. Such attention pulled the individual members in different directions and to my surprise led to my dismissal from the outfit I’d started.

This became both an end and a beginning. It was the end of my dreams of becoming a rock star, which I viewed negatively at the time. However, as it ended up leading me to Japan, it was ultimately a very good thing. I wouldn’t wish to have traded what I have seen and done for traipsing around more student union bars and getting into debt with a record label just as the industry got hit by Napster and the digital tsunami that was to transform it.

Jacket for Control K's 'The Front Line (Redux)'

Having reached the end of a line, it also meant that in order to continue to be involved in making music, I would need to finally start working on my own rather than having to rely on other people to get a sound up and running. I did this with the creation of a new electronic alter-ego, which would act as a conduit for the far wider range of musical output that was flowing into me than the simple rock ‘n’ roll format. The first Control K album went on sale in the middle of the last decade, and I’ve managed to find time to put a few more tracks together and out over the ‘Net since then too.

Jacket for Shelf Life's 'Best Before End'

Rock ‘n’ roll’s a hard thing to get completely out of one’s system though, and in Japan I succumbed to getting into yet another band. This one, with Japanese musicians and called Shelf Life, actually went further again than I’d been before. We played together for almost four years, mainly at a small bar in my suburban neighbourhood in Western Tokyo. I found a great song-writing partner in the guitarist (who also owned the bar) and we crafted a collection of our own material that was released as an album shortly before I left town. We made a semi-professional pop video to accompany one of the tracks, so got a further flavour of the fun and games of taking a band to another level. After my return to the UK, the boys even came over for a short tour and we played dates in Brighton and London.

By the end of the decade just passed, however, I was an entirely different musical beast from the one that had started it. From a fanboy wedded to a musical bible who tended to buy a handful of new CDs every month just to get my hands on new tunes or to plug in the gaps in my meticulously assembled collection to a plugged in consumer of streaming waves of zeroes and ones with no particular tribal affiliations – from NME to mp3.

Having opened up in the Nineties to dub, jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and electronic music, I took that sense of exploration further in the Noughties and kept my ears working on the sounds I found around me. I grew an interest in African music, explored Japanese music extensively, and also turned my tastes towards Latin or Arabic rhythms. Having once anchored myself so solidly to Anglospheric music, I opened up to listening to words in other languages. Radio Nova from Paris took over from BBC’s Radio One. Manu Chao, who sings in French, Spanish and English, became a new favourite. I particularly enjoyed when differing musical cultures fused or collided, as they did with the Okinawan folk and beats style of Ryukyu Underground or the tango for a different dancefloor of Gotan Project.

Despite all that and as I’ve previously said, it’s hard to get traditional rock ‘n’ roll completely out of your system once it’s got in there. My final live performance of the decade was at a Christmas show at work amidst the widely ranging performances of the assorted international students also taking to the stage. Cobbling a brief line-up of interested teachers together and with a rehearsal or two beforehand, we ran through a rugged version of ‘Life On Mars’ for the assembled crowd. Funnily enough, I think it might have been my biggest live audience yet. And The Beatles remain evergreen to my ears.

AS ONE CHAPTER ENDS…LOOKING AHEAD

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

So, the ill-named Noughties have been more militarised yet consciously greener, have seen a more easterly tilting of the poles of world power, and have been revolutionary in the digitisation of global citizenry. I got myself into further corners of the planet than I’d previously thought possible, settled on a career path and got myself married, plus created a not insubstantial body of work to show for my time on the Earth, along with becoming a fully paid up digital expat.

I set myself and met several goals. They included professional ones (putting together a six-day programme of events including a conference, founding a non-profit organisation overseas), artistic (15 minutes of fame with a band, the production and issuing of six CD albums, creating and releasing my first book) and personal (relocating to Japan and settling there, becoming well travelled, developing a global mindset, and getting married).

How can I follow my thirties, as I move into my forties? What does the new equally unnameable decade hold in store? One thing’s for certain, I lived most of the previous decades as a defiantly single young man, following my nose wherever it took me. I am now thinking for two, which is really a quantum shift in one’s approach to life. Hopefully, at some point the two of us will even grow to three or more. My 40s will therefore be more family focused. This means that having settled on that career path, it’s time to build on it and make it grow, time to try and make a difference within my own profession rather than constantly being on the outside and knocking at the window of somewhere or other trying to get in. If at all possible, I’d also like to squeeze in some kind of Masters degree before I get to the end of my next decade.

There are several parts of the world that are still crying out to be visited, including Australasia, great American cities like New York and San Francisco, plus much of the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Being married to a Japanese woman, I can expect that I’ll also be finding myself back in Japan on more than one or two occasions. And never being one to shy away from ridiculous ambitions, I would dearly love to find some way to make it to Antarctica before I turn 50. At this point, who knows where I’ll end up. Probably likely to visit fewer places than in my 30s though, given the family man agenda.

Creatively, I’ll be getting a bit too old to keep on rocking (at least with some sense of dignity) but the urge to make music remains strong. I hope to see the growth of Control K, at least one or two more albums and perhaps a move into licensing or soundtracks of some sort. One thing that I am finding though, is that writing is taking more and more of an important place in my life. There are several novels in my head waiting to come out, some mere sketches, some almost fully formed.

Predicting the future is, of course, a fools game. There’s no failsafe way of saying or seeing what will happen on the road ahead. I do however think that it’s helpful for travellers through life to have destinations in mind, even if the means they have of getting there are completely different to what was expected or they end up in a place utterly unlike where they expected to find themselves. So, whatever the highs, lows, challenges, pleasures, surprises and treats of the…2010s, I say bring them on.

For further coverage of the last ten years, visit The Guardian page for extensive reviews and round-ups of the decade in arts, global politics, technology, sports, and much more.

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Filed under 2010, Articles, Brighton, Control K, Features, Japan, Peace, Reviews, Shelf Life, The Zamora, Travel

REVIEWS // The Fest Yet (1991)

I’ve never counted how many gigs and live shows I’ve been to in my life, but it could easily run into four figures. The very first one I remember was at the tender age of 15, seeing a band called Rodgau Monotones somewhere in Germany at the behest of my penpal of the time. I wasn’t particularly impressed with them and all I recall is thinking that they sounded a little like ZZ Top.

The first one that I went to by choice, probably not long after, was Julian Cope. I was 16 by then and Cope was touring the ‘Saint Julian’ album, his comeback collection after having ducked out of the scene whilst he recuperated from having fried his synapses a little too much for the pop mainstream. The key gimmick on this particular tour was a scaffold-like mic stand that Cope clambered on and which swung around as he kicked through his set. I left the venue, Cardiff University, as he was going through his seventh encore, a feat I’ve not seen replicated by any performer since. I guess by then I was hooked.

In the first half of my twenties, I substituted the desire to go abroad and explore foreign lands for standing in muddy English fields to watch as many bands as I could possibly squeeze in to three days. This was a time when the British festival scene was considerably smaller and there were only really two main events to go to – Glastonbury and Reading. Just attending these two was enough to stretch the limited student finances to breaking point, so it was probably just as well that there weren’t a lot of others going on. My first of the era was Glastonbury in 1990 and the last major festival I went to was WOMAD in 1995, having finally started branching out from solid indie rock.

At the end of it all, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t go back to the likes of Glastonbury unless I was playing there in my own band and set out on my efforts to put such a combo together. Still haven’t made it back yet. One day though, who knows?

I did however get a crack at being a music journalist, when I wrote up a review of the 1991 Reading Festival. This was published in college rag The Printed Image and can be found in full glory below.

The Fest Yet

What does every journalist open a festival review with? Yes, a quick recap on the weather, of course. Naturally, arrival at the site was heralded with seriously heavy rainfall. Memories of last year’s Glastonbury Festival came flooding back, of having to cross oceans of mud to reach anywhere resembling a good view of the main stage. However, the mud soon ceased to be a problem, as you would cease to be too if you were trampled on by 30,000 pairs of Doc Martens.

It is very easy to find your way to the site if you’ve never been to the festival before. All you need to do is follow the long flow of greboes heading in the same direction. The festival goers took on the form of a funeral procession. Almost everyone was clad in black, but I suppose with The Sisters Of Mercy headlining the Sunday night, it was to be expected. For a finishing touch, the procession was complete with an array of flowers (admittedly all on James T-shirts though).

Friday 23rd

BABES IN TOYLAND delivered the first excitement of the day, and were obviously eagerly anticipated, judging by the mass migration towards the stage. Spearheading the new wave of all female US hardcore bands, the Babes set out to prove that they could make as much noise as the boys on the bill.

SILVERFISH turned up next to thrill us with their screaming guitars and blistering noise. The guitarist Fuzz, was clad in a tuxedo while Leslie happily swore at the audience as if she hated them. And with songs like ‘Total Fucking Asshole’, who’s to argue?

NIRVANA followed Silverfish, sounding even harder and grittier. Nirvana have recently fled the Sub-Pop nest to join the elder statesmen of hardcore, Sonic Youth, on Geffen. A major label doesn’t mean any compromise on their sound either. Introduced by John Peel as ‘another dandy little combo’, they kicked Reading into a higher gear in preparation for the bigger names that were to follow.

You can always hope for something special about the day when DINOSAUR JR grace the stage. J Mascis looked a little bored but that didn’t undermine their combination of soaring guitars, brilliant noise and great melodies. ‘I Live For That Look’, ‘The Wagon’ and ‘Freakscene’ all helped to drag out the sun, kicking and screaming, to brighten the day and the moods.

For all those suffering from hardcore fatigue, there was either the comedy tent or POP WILL EAT EATSELF, who changed the mood by giving the crowd an opportunity to dance instead of slam. The Poppies made a very spirited attempt to put on a good show, with smoke and backdrops, and they succeeded in being entertaining if a little tacky. All the PWEI classics were rolled out including ‘Def Con One’, ‘There Is No Love Between Us Anymore’ and material from the recent ‘Cure For Sanity’ LP. They really brought the crowds to their feet.

SONIC YOUTH, Friday’s co-headliners, were out to kill. By the second song, Thurston Moore was already hurling his guitar around the stage. This was a band who clearly belonged up there in front of an audience where they could take their fusion of experimentation and extreme noise considerably further. They slugged their equipment around so much that they had to tune up between most of the songs. Kim Gordon ended the set by jumping up and down on her bass guitar as if the instrument had offended her family, while Thurston Moore continued to hurl his guitar over the edge of the stage like a dog on an extending lead. It’s times like these that you’re grateful not to be one of Sonic Youth’s guitars! Highlights of the set included ‘Teen Age Riot’, ‘Mary Christ’ and ‘Dirty Boots’ (surely the theme song of the day).

Suffering blistered ears and a battered body from Sonic Youth, IGGY POP, Friday’s headliner, started out as a real anti-climax. He failed to make very much of an impression, despite his prancing around like Mick Jagger on heat, his claims of having been ‘sent here to rock this shit’ and the removal of most of his clothes (often dropping his jeans too). There was little distinction between the songs and there had been far more powerful bands on earlier. Still, I suppose even ‘living legends’ must have their time to warm up and Iggy Pop is no exception. ‘China Girl’ (yes, that one) broke the pattern by sounding different, and had me on my feet; ‘Real Wild Child’ got everyone dancing, while ‘The Passenger’ was even granted an audience singalong. By ‘Lust For Life’ the boredom had been forgotten. He encored with two Stooges songs, ‘No Fun’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. When we thought that it was all over he came back for one more song, the old R ‘n’ B classic that he had retitled ‘Louie Fuckin’ Louie’. It may have taken a while, but Iggy Pop showed us why he was up there at the top of the bill.

Saturday 24th

Saturday turned out to be an altogether more varied day with the emphasis on ‘pop’ music on the bill. The first (and only) disappointment of the day were FLOWERED UP. Imagine a third rate Happy Mondays with Cockney accents and all the songs sounding the same and you’ll get the picture.

That left the brilliant TEENAGE FANCLUB to make the first good impression on me and give me reason to stand up. They succeeded. Kicking off with the classic ‘God Knows It’s True’ and ending up with the rolling ‘Everything Flows’, they managed to pack in as much serious fun as possible. Teenage Fanclub were clearing playing for themselves and having a whale of a time while they were at it. They gave a more diverse element to the day’s billing with their swaggering Dinosaur Jr/Neil Young guitar sound.

Seeing as this year’s festival seemed to be full of those who’ve hit the limelight very quickly (Neds, Babes, Fannies), this gave a great excuse to put BLUR on. This is a band who both want to be big and who will be. Damon, the singer, loped on stage looking completely stoned and proceeded to spend the entire set falling all over the place like an Orang Utan with his spine removed. From catchy pop ditties to swirling hippy anthems, Blur smothered the audience with adoration and were loved in return. Damon must have been watching Sonic Youth (albeit in slow motion), the way he was knocking things over, including himself. If this man had a guitar, he would be dangerous. Whenever a roadie ran on to put back an unfortunate mic stand or Dave’s cymbals, Damon tried to mount him. Future headliners?

DE LA SOUL were so bad at Glastonbury last year that I decided to skip them this time, making THE FALL the next band to grace the stage. Even the existential miserable bastard Mark E. Smith seemed in high spirits today. He was actually smiling when he kicked the roadie off stage! Keeping with the band’s tradition of barely ever playing anything more than a couple of years old, this year’s ‘Shiftwork’ LP was really brought alive. This is quite sad because it means a largely excellent back catalogue gets ignored, with virtually the only ‘old’ song they played being ‘Big New Prinz’. Still, Mark does like to keep himself on his toes. An encore was called for and delivered in the shape of last year’s Festive 50 chart topper ‘Bill Is Dead’ and the title track from the ‘Shiftwork’ LP. ‘Always different, always the same, they are the reason I listen to pop music’, John Peel is quoted as saying when asked to describe The Fall. They are now in a league of their own.

That left two bands to round up the day and the best were (naturally) left till last. Simply put, CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE were brilliant. Rock festival purists would undoubtedly have been horrified at two guys running around on stage with a drum machine and backing tapes for accompaniment. Despite the fact that Carter are better suited to slightly more intimate venues than a 30,000 capacity outdoor arena, they didn’t let this spoil their set and their sound was far from lost in the open air. They were also very well received. The set was opened with ‘Surfing U.S.M.’ and continued with many faithful renditions of tracks from their last LP ‘30 Something’. When Carter play live, the songs sound no different from their vinyl counterparts, but that is testimony to how good their records are. That’s why it’s better to see them live; because you look stupid stage-diving in your bedroom. ‘Sheriff Fatman’ and ‘This Is How It Feels’, the Inspiral Carpets number, formed the first encore and ‘G.I. Blues’ closed the set completely.

Watching JAMES in concert is always both a pleasure and an experience. Tonight’s spot at the Reading Festival was no exception even though my view was mostly obscured by the large gut of a front row security guard. James have now reached a stage where you have to have an opinion on them. Every third person you pass on the street is wearing a James T-shirt. For a band that have been together in various incarnations since 1983, it’s a surprise that it has taken them so long to get this far. James have a back catalogue that many bands would kill to have written themselves. From the opening shot ‘What For’ (a single that deserved to be a massive hit), through to the end ‘How Was It For You’ (their first taste of Top 40 success) and the encore of ‘Come Home’, there was never a dull moment. All the old songs were revitalised and sounded as fresh as if they had been written yesterday. The new songs were all gems in their own right. Tracks like ‘Hymn From A Village’ tend to lose their vulnerability under the expanded line-up but that’s not to say that the song wasn’t done justice to. The band put so much energy and vitality into their performances, it’s as if each one is playing for the last time and is trying to outdo the other while still staying in complete harmony. Tim puts so much into it that he appears to be hyperventilating between each song. Of course, even bands of magnitude have their problems. The early part of the set was brought down by bad sound. It took times trying to start ‘Walking The Ghost’ before Tim gave up and went for another mic. But there are always the highs with the lows. After they played ‘Sit Down’, the crowd broke up the order by singing the chorus back to the onstage assemblage at such a volume that the band couldn’t carry on. It is moments like seeing the look of elation on Tim’s face as he sat and surveyed the mass of singing faces that make it all worthwhile. ‘Lose Control’ followed, stripped down completely to acoustic guitar and vocals. They manage to keep their stage shows fresh and alive by constantly changing their set around and making each show unique. James have finally arrived and they are untouchable.

Sunday 25th

Seeing as the Main Stage had such a patchy line-up, I decided to spend most of the day in the Mean Fiddler tent. Naturally, it took a few bands for the atmosphere to warm up. WELL LOADED did nothing for me at all. They in fact sent me to sleep. TOASTED HERETIC were marginally better, yet still not enjoyable. LOVES YOUNG NIGHTMARE were fairly good, or worth applauding anyway. The tent packed out for the next artist, CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, appearing in trademark red beret and round shades. He was great, giving us a run through his greatest moments, including old Damned favourites ‘New Rose’ and ‘Smash It Up’, and ‘Glad It’s All Over’. He left the stage with a cry of ‘Buy my records, you fucking bums!’

THE POPINJAYS sprang up next to inject a bit of fun into the proceedings with bouncy melodies and catchy choruses, after legions of Damned fans left the tent. The girls didn’t look as if they expected to go down too well. Despite this, they were very well received.

Swansea’s very own indie favourites, THE POOH STICKS, followed some out of place jazz band. They were really good, even though I knew none of the songs. Amelia Fletcher guested to add some sugar to the harmonies and Hue finished off by squirting the audience with a water pistol!

FATIMA MANSIONS were the next band that I saw in the Mean Fiddler, who were just fascinating to watch. Cathal Coughlan has enough venom in him to put a charging rhino to sleep, while his excellent choice of songs showed that it is possible to sing about political matters and not come across as a load of pretentious toss like THE GODFATHERS (Main Stage). He must come off stage completely exhausted after his performance of a marionette in a cyclone. Fatima Mansions closed with the epic ‘Blues For Ceausescu’.

NEDS ATOMIC DUSTBIN were the only band on the Main Stage that I bothered to see anything of, and that was only about twenty minutes worth. The Neds played a selection of new songs and their hit single ‘Happy’ in the short time that I saw them. They were as energetic as ever and looking as if they were having a great time, which is what it’s all about really.

NEW FAST AUTOMATIC DAFFODILS proved themselves to be as effortlessly brilliant as ever, exuding their gritty funk grooves to the point where the tent felt more like a club than a gig, and everyone was dancing. New FADS are not as raw as they used to be but that does not make them mellow by any stretch of the imagination. Tracks included ‘Big’, ‘Fishes Eyes’ and ‘Man Without Qualities’. The crowd were seriously disappointed when the band left the stage and didn’t come back on. Because there were so many bands on at this tent, they all had to play condensed versions of their normal length sets.

The choice between the headliners was easy. It was either a case of standing in a field amongst a bunch of preening goths listening to the pretentious drivel of THE SISTERS OF MERCY or packing myself like a sardine into the Mean Fiddler to experience Bristol’s finest, THE BLUE AEROPLANES.

They were well worth the wait. People who were pissed off about New FADS short set soon forgot their grumbles. As is always the case with The Blue Aeroplanes, there seemed to more people up on the stage than down in the crowd. Their mixture of ‘beat poetry’ with layers of guitars (and a weird Polish dancer) seems to work every time now. The band rolled off such favourites as ‘Jacket Hangs’, ‘…And Stones’, ‘Yr Own World’ and their Paul Simon cover of ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. Even the indecently young looking guitarist Rodney Allen got his own singing spot. Gerard looked like Rodney’s father next to him, placing a firm parental hand on the young lad’s shoulder. Are The Blue Aeroplanes pretentious or brilliant? Probably a bit of both, but that’s OK because sometimes pretension works. Tonight, The Blue Aeroplanes soared. But they do prompt the question: Was Gerard Langley born with those shades on, or what?

If you want to know what the festival was about; not being able to shower, shit or shave properly for five days, eating cold junk food and drinking warm beer, but being able to see loads of brilliant bands, don’t ask me or take notice of any of the reviews. Get yourself a ticket for Reading ’92 and experience it for yourself!

(all pictures courtesy of www.musicpictures.com except for Iggy Pop, courtesy of Reading Evening Post)

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REVIEWS // Lively Up Yourself (2006)

Sometimes you come across something that you just can’t resist. So it was when I learned about the inaugural Reggae Snow Splash event in one of Japan’s premier ski areas. I knew the organisers through other ventures and decided that it was an event that I couldn’t miss – an unusual combination (reggae and winter sports) but an irresistible one all the same. Pulling together a small crew of likely sorts, we set off by bus from the the heart of the city bound for the Japan Alps.


The event itself was undoubtedly the party of the year. Through all the fun and games, I managed to write up a review of the event and throw in a little ‘gonzo‘ background to the trip too.


The resulting review got published on a Canadian website named The Foreigner – Japan that I got a couple of other pieces published at too. It can be found here. Having sent the review around a couple of other options too, I also ended up getting commissioned by Outdoor Japan to write the cover story for their Summer Music Festivals issue, posted elsewhere in this blog.


I wasn’t able to attend the second Reggae Snow Splash, in 2007, but I know that the organisers expanded the programme for it. I wish them the very best with it in the future and hope to see this fantastic event becoming a permanent fixture on the Japanese event calendar.

Event photos by Racer; Alpine scenery by Dom Pates.


Lively Up Yourself


Chalk and cheese. Salt and cornflakes. Some things are just not meant to go together and can make for an awful mess. However, some opposites can compliment each other. I once tried chocolate chilli at a Mexican restaurant, with great trepidation. It was delicious. British entrants are rarely expected to qualify for the Winter Olympics, yet the UK even came back from Turin with a medal this time around.

Reggae. Snow. Perhaps the last place you’d expect a reggae festival would be at a ski resort. Jamaica might be known for its Blue Mountains but certainly not any white ones. These days, such a sun-kissed sound is no longer confined to the Caribbean, but heard the world over. And Reggae Snow Splash (RSS), in the heart of the Japan Alps, made perfect sense.

The first event of its kind, it provided skiing and snowboarding by day, and live reggae and DJs by night – all at the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. A bus was laid on to take merry revellers up to Nagano from Tokyo, and the event was put together guaranteeing a stress-free weekend away from the city. Faces from the Japanese reggae scene would be providing the entertainment and for partygoers not wishing to hit the slopes in the daytime, there was even a guided snowshoe hike through a beautiful mountainous setting, with winter forests and spiced wine to top it off.


My gang and I joined the Ski Babylon bus leaving on the Friday night. Once on the road, the passengers were all welcomed with a jerk chicken bento and a cup of ‘jungle juice’ to get us all in the mood – a fine attention to detail that showed the organisation that had gone into this event. Sat at the back and joined by one of the bands playing, we got into the swing pretty quickly.

The bus rolled into Hakuba and we joined the party at Tracks bar that had already kicked off. We partied until 3AM and then bowed out, for the slopes were drawing us later on.

On the main day itself, one and all were not quite up to tackling snowboarding straight away. After surfacing, we borrowed some bicycles from the lodge we were staying at and headed off for a ride through country with breathtaking alpine backdrops – a fine way to clear the foggy head. We stopped in Hakuba town at a restaurant called Uncle Stevens, and were served huge portions of delicious Mexican food at reasonable prices. On the way back, a visit to a nearby onsen was paid – a perfect way to relax and rejuvenate in preparation for the evening.

Back at Tracks, the main event was warmed up by local DJs and Caribbean Dandy, a unit from Tokyo on the leading edge of the reggae DJ scene in Japan. The first band on was Tex & the Sun Flower Seed, who describe their sound as ‘J-Po-ggae’ – a mix of reggae, ska, rocksteady and J-Pop. With eight people on stage and a tight yet loose sound, they made a commanding start to the live music. After a long day out on the slopes, the audience was a little slow to move at first, but Tex’s lively and inclusive set warmed them up quickly. Anchored in bass, horn laden and with a very lively frontman, the band’s sunny grooves won the audience over and had the whole room dancing away the remaining winter chills.


Cool Wise Men were the main act. Active messengers of the Jamaican roots music scene in Japan since forming in 1993, they were to bring the day to a climax and did so with great style. Some hot horn action was provided at the front by sax, trumpet and trombone, with rhythm, guitar and keys holding down the back. Soon enough, the place was jumping and grooving to the Wise Men’s traditional and rootsy sound. Sometimes, a well-known reggae refrain was thrown in. A good energy and solid stamina from them kept the crowd going throughout the night. Most of the material lacked vocals, but they weren’t missed. Cool Wise Men can be seen playing with Jamaican trombone legend Rico Rodriguez in Tokyo in May – a sure-fire hit show to be.

After their set, Caribbean Dandy played out the rest of the party and spun many fine, classic tunes, helping the happy Snow Splashers to keep on grooving till the small hours.

Up and about early the next day, we were on the slopes by mid-morning. As a former Winter Olympics site, Hakuba is well developed for a whole range of winter sports. There are many shops offering gear and wear rental, plus opportunities for beginners to learn from experienced instructors. Plenty of bars and restaurants provide much of the off-slope entertainment and the array of ubiquitous hot springs give the chance to rest those weary bones after all the excitement of plunging downhill fast. Other outdoor activities can also be enjoyed, such as trekking, hiking, and kayaking or rafting along the Himekawa River that flows through the resort. Many of the mountains in the range reach 3,000 metres high and it can be tough to beat the spectacular wintry alpine views from some of the peaks.


Mid afternoon, and all the partygoers gathered together for a final time to say goodbyes to new friends before the bus took everyone back to Tokyo. In terms of organisation, concept, attention to detail and vibe, I’d have to say that it was the best party I’ve been to in a long time. The tour guide on the bus even took the trouble to sing us a number with the on-board karaoke system as we rolled out of Hakuba!

On the return home, hanami season appeared to have kicked off in Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park, with many people partying under the blossoming cherry trees and welcoming in a new season.

So from Winter, must come Spring…

Links

Reggae Snow Splash
Outdoor Japan
Hakuba Alps Backpackers Lodge

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REVIEWS // Playing It Cool (1997)

I’ve contributed sporadically to magazines over the years. It seems to come in fits and starts.

Having served as Music Editor at a sixth form college magazine in the early 90’s, I moved on to making music, films and painting for a few years instead. By the late 90’s, I came back again to writing a little when asked by a friend who worked for a University publication (even though I was no longer at Uni).

During the period as Music Editor, I found my way into plenty of gigs by artists I liked when they came to town. Sometimes, I actually wrote up the interviews that I conducted too. I managed to revive this technique for a Super Furry Animals show in Brighton in 1997 and hooked up an interview with the band. Turned up at the venue, asked who I thought would be the right person to let the band know I was there, waited for ages and no-one came. As I’d been really hoping to meet the band, I was rather disappointed that nothing came of my manoeuvres.

Still, I thought that I might as well use the opportunity to write a review of the show anyway. The review that appears below was originally in the now-defunct University Of Brighton publication Babble. I have seen Super Furry Animals countless times since this one and they remain one of my favourite live bands – often quite a spectacle to witness and usually very memorable. Check them out if you get the chance.

Playing It Cool

Super Furry Animals, Brighton Centre East Wing

Growing up in South Wales in the late 80’s and early 90’s could be quite a dull place to be if one was, to any extent, a fan of contemporary cutting edge music. It remained as one of the last outposts of spandex-trousered, poodlehaired, old style heavy metal, even after Kurt Cobain slayed the beast. House, techno and later on jungle had a very long journey there. The only hints of it were so underground that you couldn’t reach them because all the mines had been closed anyway. The Manics’ mascared manifestos of situationist gobshite caring had barely made it to ‘A’ Level. Singing in Welsh could only either get you a laugh or a play on John Peel (when nobody else at the station listened to him).

Now, after the Manics killed a legacy that limply contained Tom, Shirley, Shaky and The Alarm, and finally put Wales on the musical map, the door was at last kicked open. This means that wonders such as Super Furry Animals have been let through and allowed to flourish in all their psychedelic/punk/bubblegum/techno/folk splendour.

It’s a shame that they were playing in such a shit venue as the Brighton Centre East Wing. This carpeted conference room could only have been designed with suits around tables in mind and the band looked rather uncomfortable when first taking to the stage. It took four songs before they decided to break the ice and speak to the audience. Brighton crowds can also be notoriously ‘here we are now, entertain us’. The high teen turnout ensured that the crowd didn’t have to wait long before being surfed upon. And, unimaginable five years ago down here, people brought out the Welsh flag, wrapping themselves in it and waving it at the band.

Once things were underway, the Super Furries both thrilled and plucked at heartstrings too. The amphetamine fuzz funk of ‘Play It Cool’, the acid punk of ‘Something For The Weekend’, the poignancies of ‘Gathering Moss’ and ‘If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’ (you can almost see it ‘when the insects fly all around you’). They’ve taken psychedelia mixed with punk but keeping the essential bubblegum elements of both, whilst driving their techno-blaring purple tank straight into Brian Wilson’s cupboard and nicking all the best harmonies.

Who knows where they’re going? They have an oddball feel to them that makes them nicheless. Their influences point them in so many different directions that they could just fall apart through a lack of seams. Then again, if you’re looking back on the late 90’s, you don’t need to look much further for a finer set of pop songs (with Gallagher having wrestled the song from the clutches of the beat) than their first two albums ‘Fuzzy Logic’ and ‘Radiator’. Gruff, the singer, left the stage while the rest of the band stayed on playing a furious trance and thrashing the two huge kettle drums that had lain obtrusive and untouched, centrestage, throughout the gig. Then Gruff returned for the encores, with the Furries bowing out on the hypnotic thrash loops of ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ ringing in the ears.

Next time Super Furry Animals play Brighton is when they support Blur at the larger Brighton Centre. May they stamp all over the place and let us all give a fuck about these furry magicians.

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Filed under 1997, Reviews