Monday, 30 November 2009
A kitchen in Dalston that we'd painted yellow, a dodgy CD player gathering dust, and the skinny half of the pair of us flailing around between the spaghetti bolognese he'd take four hours to cook, and a sink full of dishes – my skinny boy with sideburns and a Seventies shirt, a ladle in one hand, a tea-towel in the other. When anybody mentions The Streets, l hear the opening horns of this song, and the years peel away. I'm taken back to Barry, the 26-year-old boyfriend of 24-year-old me, and the flat that we shared on the dark side of town.
We thought Ridley Road was wonderful. We lived in Regal House, a white and blue building that would've looked spick and span if was on a sunny riviera, had been rubbed free of griminess, and had a view of bobbing fishing boats rather than the North London Line. But it was ours, it was cheap to rent, and we loved it. We loved the noise of the stalls on our street and the cheap food we would buy from them; the calypso that would soar from the food vans and record shops; the buildings we'd see rising up from the gloom of the city, including the Gherkin transforming from a root to a rocket; and even the rumble of the nuclear train every night at 10.30, drowning out the telly with its rattle and hum. We also loved the way the empty marketplace looked at night-time, a forbidding, shadowy avenue strung with tiny, glowing lights. For some reason, It made me think of Spaghetti Westerns, and I would often stride through it, in the dark, on my own, pretending I was Clint Eastwood (Good God, I was braver then). Although I'd have a Mr Bagels' veggie special between my teeth at that time, probably, instead of a toothpick or a sexy cigar.
Original Pirate Material was an album that we couldn't stop playing over that perfect year. It whirred as we painted our new home in all sorts of silly colours, and it entertained the mice that we hadn't known about just as much as us. It was also a great place for parties, and the best that we held there was on that New Years' Eve. The fancy dress theme, as these parties always had then, was the album sleeve. I went as the girl on Saint Etienne's Foxbase Alpha – my sign immaculate in red and black fit tip, before my rosé bloody ruined it – while Barry, a fan of The Wedding Present, went as George Best. There were two Live Through Thisses, two Parallel Lines (one male Blondie, one female), a couple as the White Stripes, an Aladdin Sane who fell asleep and smudged her zig-zag, a Meat Is Murder who kept looking at someone she shouldn't have, a Wish You Were Here who filled the flat with orange tissue paper, an inventive Sticky Fingers – with a literal large carrot down his trousers – and a blonde female friend transformed into Craig David with a goatee, headphones and beanie.
The costumes I remember most fondly, however, were the Original Pirate Materials. Guy in a t-shirt covered with yellow neon stickers – a lit-up block of flats disguised as a real human boy – and Lucy walking around in a big cardboard box, windows drawn on her sides, a pirate hat on her head, a peacock on her shoulder. I remember Guy drawing a scary rabbit in one window, and Lucy tapping her fag on him, before everything got a little hazy. Apart from us all flailing around to Let's Push Things Forward, half-drunk, half-asleep, without a care in the world.
Sunday, 29 November 2009
I couldn't believe what was happening when I first heard this song. It was if someone had grabbed a test tube and concocted a pop song precisely for me – a girl in her late twenties obsessed with the sounds of space, who loved icy singers, shiny synthesisers and incredible introductions. This was all in that song, and I swear – sorry, Mother – that it will always be one of my favourite singles. If you haven't heard it before, I implore you to play it now by clicking that arrow up there – feel it kick in, rise you up, take you somewhere sublime.
For months, I'd put it on my iPod and I left home every morning, my heart rising in its chest as the momentum as its beginning kept building – rising and rising and rising and rising. Its first note would blast out like a bomb every time, lifting my right foot right up, placing it back on the ground with fresh force and fresh meaning. This song made me feel indestructible. This song made me feel like the queen of the world.
It should also have been number one forever, but it wasn't to be. Some record company wrangles for the band meant this song became a lost classic, a piece of perfection frozen in time, a jewel lost in the galaxy. It would have to wait four long years to have its reprieve, too. Playing over the opening credits of The September Issue, the artful documentary about American Vogue, it carried Anna Wintour's cool struts and hard glances as the film swung into life, framing her conquering New York for the millionth time. The next day, I listened to it again as I strode through the wet streets of Hackney, and I knew exactly, precisely, how fantastic that felt.
Saturday, 28 November 2009
I first heard this in the brightly-coloured wonderland of Top Shop in Oxford Street in 2001, a place where I'd go to lose myself in town. Not that I could afford to buy anything. After my glamorous publishing life in Wealdstone and Watford had fizzled to a squib, I had read an advert in the back of the Media Guardian, promising me oodles of money if I wanted to work in advertising sales for a big magazine. My eyes were dazzled. I had a gob, I knew that, although I didn't really have the gall or the gumption to get big spenders parting with their cash, and I often got terrified when faced with a phone, something which wouldn't particularly help in this kind of employment. Nevertheless, I got the job, and was suddenly earning a whopping 12k plus commission. I didn't get much commission. Instead, I walked into town a lot because I couldn't afford the bus, and treated myself to lots of window-shopping trips.
At this time, I was still a pretty blinkered indie kid. If certain songs didn't fit into the glossy boundaries of cool then, well, that was that. And then I heard Plug In Baby. This jagged guitar line zig-zagging through the handbags, the scarves and the sweets on the lower ground floor, bold, big and beefy, and unapologetically cheesy. It sounded like early Radiohead with the subtleties rubbed clean; it was teenage rock with a daft swagger and a surly lip. I remember freezing on the spot, and a grin starting to move my mouth. Here I was, a 23-year-old standing still by the shoes, craning my neck to see the video, my toes starting to tap. After that, my prejudices fell like glitter from a tube. This terrible saleswoman was sold.
In the years to come, the song would return in different guises. A wintry night before Christmas in 2005, dancing to it with my friend Beck in a murky pub in Brixton, our arms round each other, screaming our hearts out to the disgust of our boyfriends (naturally, this only made us scream a little bit more). Buying the album it came from, Origin Of Symmetry, for James, my little brother, in 2006, us pogoing round his bedroom to it on his birthday. And the two of us exploding with happiness in the O2 three weeks ago, watching Matt, Dom and Chris, as we swayed our lagers and demolished our Smarties – sweets I can afford these days, thankfully – as they gave it their all.
James is 20 next month, a Muse fan forever, and the person keeping my love for them strong. As long as he keeps reminding me of the greatness of ridiculous music, and doesn't work for commission, I'll keep on being his happy big sister.
Friday, 27 November 2009
A cold, dark night at the end of October, the last time I would see him before heading up to the North. A glass of wine at the bar to steel nerves, a seat by his side, but the rules changing before us. No held hands, no wry glances, our bodies starting to draw themselves in different colours.
The concert, long booked, and so beautiful; our drink afterwards, the last vestiges of warmth running through my limbs, knowing what must come next. Toumani Diabate's heavenly kora still ringing like a bell as we stood by the bus stop, him returning to ours, me going back to Alex and Helen's, the warm bed in the spare room, a cup of comforting tea. It still carrying me on the train to Sheffield the next morning, through the five long days that followed, through long walks in Lancaster, stiff whiskies in Newcastle, windy wanders in Manchester. Its reverberations reminding me of the magic that we could make together, the loveliness that we were losing.
Thursday, 26 November 2009
In 2005, we started a club. Not that it felt like a club. It was held in a pub, once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, full of unwashed pint glasses and dust, where my friends and I would sit about, yammer hind legs off horses, and gently get pissed. We called it The Light Programme. Its purpose, a bit like the Reith lectures, we'd laugh, was to inspire, educate and entertain. And so we would play songs that clashed wildly with each other for the fun of it, while people read their papers and washed away last night's hangovers. I Want To Be Evil by Eartha Kitt would rub noses with Autopsy by Fairport Convention, while Adult. would stare coolly at Alice Coltrane. As they did, the sun would stream through the windows, the bitter making us dizzy, the Observer getting blurry.
I used to play this song by Electrelane almost every month. It came from The Power Out from the previous year, and it suited those woozy Sabbath days perfectly. There was something both sultry and sinister about the cinema organ as it started, something slyly seductive about that slow, beating drum. Then there were the vocals of the Chicago A Capella choir, the undeniable magic of those ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ahhhhs, the words from Siegfried Sassoon's A Letter Home rising through the gloom.
I also loved Electrelane because they were four peculiar women, who lived in four different parts of the world, whose songs stabbed and sparkled with a post-punky anarchy – they were the Delta 5 for my digital age. They also referenced 16th century Catalan poets and Friedrich Nietzsche in their songs, and, to me at least, became the worthy lyrical successors of Kate Bush and the Pet Shop Boys. They were also the band Rebecca and I would cue up when we wanted a 6pm singalong, at the point in the day when we'd had just enough ciders.
This song also reminds me of the time – the first time – that me and him got back together; that same summer where Stuart Staples kept telling me what to do. And although Dan and I ran the club with our friends, we'd work on it for hours together, making flyers, choosing CDs, having lunches we didn't need to. This song still reminds me of those moments where I thought it might work, and how wonderful everything sounded when I knew that it could.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
17th September 2002. The Royal Albert Hall packed to the rafters, all reds, velvets and golds, and me in the middle of it, squirming on my seat like a schoolgirl on Viagra. I am here to see a wry old soul who has been in exile for many years, a man that I love that I've never seen before. It's been a while since his last album, and even longer since the last one I loved – the imperial, heartbreaking Vauxhall and I – but I am still in need of self-validation, and would willingly meet him in the alley by the railway station. He walks on to the strains of I Want The One I Can't Have, and I stare at my friends, either side of me, dumb-founded. IT'S MORRISSEY say my glassy eyes, and my slack, open mouth. And he seems to be a real human being, after all.
I fell in love with The Smiths when I was 16. John Peel was presenting a series of shows about cult bands after the charts every Sunday – which I listened to religiously, writing about them in a series of garish, paisley notebooks – and one week he did an hour on this four-piece from Manchester. I adored The Smiths straightaway; they seemed so deliberately strange and so oddly old-fashioned. Not long after, I realised that I'd heard the singer's dank, off-key vowels before, on Now That's What I Call Music 11, stuck between Eddie Cochran's Come On Everybody and Elton John's Candle In The Wind. At the age of 10, I'd adored Suedehead – "Ahhhh'm soooo very SICK-ened", I'd sing at nobody particular – and now, at 16, I was putting the rest of Morrissey's story together.
First, I bought The Smiths' Hatful Of Hallow, with the proceeds of two weeks of paper rounds – £9.00 for twelve shifts around Loughor with a big, neon postbag – and put my birthday pound coins toward Morrissey's latest solo record. Fifteen years on, it remains my favourite of his, mainly because there's a real heart behind the songs on Vauxhall and I – from the lovely Now My Heart Is Full to the spikiness of Speedway – and a palpable sadness that he hasn't mastered since. I loved this record so much that it didn't matter that the records that followed it, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, were pretty bloody terrible. And neither did it matter on that windy, late summer evening in 2002. All that mattered then was our closeness to Morrissey, to be sharing the same space as him, breathing the same air.
In the years since that night – when, fair dos, he was wonderful, Speedway stuttering round the hall as he finished, as my throat was rubbed raw – my love for old Stephen has faded a little. This is mainly because of the unpleasant tussles in which he has landed himself, his patchy recent albums – too much bluster and muscle for me, duck, too much self-awareness – and a run of dodgy gigs that have lessened my memory of that night I first saw him.
But three special memories of Morrissey still light up this decade. Firstly, Andrew Harrison's brilliant interview with him for the fourth issue of The Word – I have never forgotten the detail about Morrissey living on cheese pizzas in LA, or those gorgeous primary-coloured pictures of him on the West Coast.
Secondly, the fantastic Irish Blood, English Heart, a song that always reminds me of Oliver Shepherd, one of my sweetest and silliest friends. It is a song that would come to us, unbidden, after big nights out in the pub, livening up 3am living rooms with impromptu karaoke. All together now: "I've been dreaming of a TIME WHEEEN / Theeee Iiiing-lish" – "and the WELSH", I'd howl, usually – "are SICK to death of LAYbour / And TOReeees / And spit upon the name, Oliver..." (At this point, we should have sung "CROM-WELLLLL", of course, after the big, throaty gasp at the end of the bar. Instead we would spit upon Oliver "SHEP-HEEEERD", and collapse in a pile of wet fags and spilt lagers, and wake up hours later feeling like Mike Joyce had written Morrissey on our foreheads and drumsticked us to death.)
The last memory comes from last year, at the playback for Years Of Refusal, probably my favourite album from Morrissey's recent glut of records. There he was again – a real human being, a few years older, a little greyer – stood up at the microphone, introducing his work. He smiled, he laughed softly, he said that he hoped that we "terrible journalists" loved it. He then turned round, locked eyes with someone in the crowd, and said, with conviction, "ESPECIALLY YOU."
The fact that he stared at me meant nothing, of course – his choice was entirely random. But at that moment in time, all Welsh blood and Welsh heart, it really didn't matter. I was sharing the same space as him, breathing the same air, and there was no one on earth I was afraid of.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
This is the sound of our car on that weekend in August; the trip from the Green Man through the lolling, endless valleys; the rocky roads to the coasts; a journey through a Wales that was ours, and ours only. This is the sound of the dramatic cliffs at Mewslade that made my jaw plummet – half an hour from the house in which I had grown up, a world away from the land I had left; the waterfalls at Newcastle Emlyn; the bay at Aberporth; the sea at Barafundle; the B&B at Nantgaredig; Dylan's boathouse at Laugharne; the church at St Davids; even the bacon roll in the layby van on the A40. This is the song that we played over and over again as I fell in love with the country I came from, discovering the secrets it hadn't told me in my childhood, the stories it held that I hadn't wanted to know as a teenager, desperate to fly the coop, find life breathing elsewhere.
This song is the sound of a country running away with its own – an older soul heading back, her eyes looking again, her heart bursting.
Monday, 23 November 2009
I could tell you a lot of stories about Rupert. The best takes us back to Valentines Day, 2001, when the two of us – 22 years young, hungry for drink, single and rampant – met up for a few comforting beers, and ended up in the bar of the Waldorf Hotel, where we shared mint juleps with an American banker and his pearl-wearing wife. Rupert charmed them, schmoozed them, and regaled them with stories about his great-grandfather, a man they loved dearly called Sherlock Holmes. Every time I've passed the hotel on a bus since, a guilty smile has returned to my mouth. They bought every word, the poor buggers; they also bought every drink.
Rupert and I also fell in love with the Strokes at the same time. We used to go to Trash at this point, a Monday night club that got properly fashionable just after I stopped going – yes, I know, making me both ahead of the curve and hopelessly out of touch – and also Track and Field, a cosy monthly affair full of charity shop kids, many of whom lived their lives through a messageboard called Bowlie. Oh God, that was so long ago. And oh God, I loved Bowlie. It introduced me to people in London who liked the same music as me – I hadn't know many in London before I'd started lurking there. It was also how I met Rupert, and many other funny people, and in these days before Facebook and Twitter, it was where dirty indie kids met – many of them hungry for company, or a furtive fumble at a bus stop. I, of course, fitted into both of these camps.
(Incidentally, my codename was Floaty Tabard, and later Pearly Spencer. I still don't know why I picked the first one. Nor I can live it down, or believe I've just told you.)
Then the Strokes came along. I first heard them in the Rough Trade under the skate shop in Covent Garden – this was their first glorious EP, The Modern Age, rattling the record racks – and suddenly music became exciting again, hot-browed and sweaty-palmed. Rupert had had the same feverish experience the very same day, and in the weeks to come, this band were suddenly everywhere. Not only did their songs sneak onto the turntables in both the clubs we attended – quite a feat when New Order and Belle and Sebastian were on permanent rotation – but they also got radio play, and bagged the band cover interviews in glossy magazines. Something strange was happening here, we realised quickly. Indie, our little world, was flying the nest, becoming something else.
We finally saw The Strokes that summer, me and Rupert, long after I'd left my unseemly adventures with him behind, wandered up the stairs in the Betsey and saw Adekola Sound, and started going out with a nice boy called Barry. The gig took place in Heaven, a gay club near the Embankment, and it was teeming with fashionable folk, as well as young scruffs like us. By now, the Strokes were massive. Rupert stood at the back with his friend Laura Barton – someone I would get to know better in the years that followed – but I charged to the front, wearing a red and black acrylic shirt and a black, shiny tie. When the band came on – God, I still remember the euphoria – I stared into their eyeballs; I danced like a lunatic; I screamed my little heart out. So much so, in fact, that halfway through the set, Albert Hammond Jr smiled down at me, and pointed at my top.
My shirt had unbuttoned itself – a lesson, young people, to never trust '70s acrylic – and I was showing the poor New Yorker a rather past-its-best bra, its tawdry black lace not really preserving my modesty. "Don't worry," he laughed, passing me a bottle of water, before putting two thumbs up and moving on with the show.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first rock star encounter. Pamela Des Barres I was certainly not.
Eight years on, I still manage to get past that memory - while laughing like a drain, of course – and I remember how thrilling The Strokes really were live. I do so as their debut album now sounds rather forced to me, and when the only songs I really love of theirs come from their third, maligned album – there's more of a desperate urgency to those tracks, less of a clamour of cool. I will rescue one of them from the murk before the year winds to a close, but this remains my favourite from their first long-playing flourish – a slightly melancholy rocker with a great middle-eight, a fantastic bassline, and brilliant rhythm guitar. It still gets me yearning for Albert Hammond Junior's direction, only next time, dear Albert, you'd best look elsewhere.
Sunday, 22 November 2009
To me, this song will always be the sound of a dying indie girl; the sound of what happens when the comforts of melancholy harden and blacken; the sound of El Perro Del Mar's strange, Swedish voice holding me by the shoulders as I wound through the subways at Aldgate every week. She'd tell me what a friend loneliness had been; how only I could know "how the days go by". It is the sound of a dull, dark dread that I couldn't shake off, of those never-ending months; it is a sound that I can barely bring myself to revisit.
Listening to this song now, remembering the "tears and the rain, the heart breaking again", its opening sentiment seems so silly and obvious – of course "this loneliness ain't pretty no more". But its words also take me back to the person I was – puts her head in the water, reminds her how far away the sun really seemed to be. And as the song gets to its end, the clouds of the past part, and I remember how she started to breathe again.
Saturday, 21 November 2009
In 2006, I fell in love with Scotland. Or, more precisely, I fell in love with the long journey north along Great Britain's backbone, the melancholy places I found, the lovely people I met. Among these with a group of musicians from Anstruther, known as the Fence Collective, and two people in particular – one of whom, James Yorkston, I'll be mentioning in a later dispatch. Today, I go back to one of my favourite memories as a music writer, a white, dusty van rattling through Northern Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, rain lashing its sides, laughter rocking its engine. I go back to my two days with King Creosote and the Earlies, and the most fun a girl – a girl like me, anyway – can have on four wheels.
I had flown up to Inverness in the early morning darkness, lights strung out across towns and villages like bulbs on a Christmas tree. I spent the day with the band there, and joined them the next day in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis – a shipping forecast station that was all stark hills and high waters, just as bleakly romantic as I hoped it'd be. Thankfully, Kenny Anderson, the man behind King Creosote, was a brilliant interviewee. All beard, grin and mad eyes, he was daft, warm and funny – happy to pose for photographs in front of castles and among standing stones, and adept at getting his hairy bandmates, a nervous support act (the very English and bewildered Jeremy Warmsley), a photographer and me into the busiest fish and chip shops to sing for our supper, the scariest pubs to hustle for a bitter. Their makeshift tour bus – a dodgy van that had long seen better days, and would definitely not pass Health and Safety tests – was our fancy chariot as we went about our business. It was brilliant. I remember the rowdy clamour of Pringles, Smarties and lagers spilling over back seats very fondly, and everyone doing impressions of Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man - Oh God, Oh Jesus Christ, Oh There Goes Another Can Of Fosters – as we wound through the wild, wintry weather, and held on for our lives.
That first night in Inverness, I also heard Leslie for the first time, the song would start Kenny's next record, 2007's brilliant Bombshell. It sounds like a small song at first, Kenny's thick, yearning accent set against an accordion's gentle yawns, to be joined later, on record, by wispy violin strings. But its weight, even that night in a little workingmen's club, was momentous. Its words snagged; its sentiments made my breath that much deeper.
It is a song about the strangeness of falling in love, I think; its lyrics both starkly conversational and strangely mysterious. In the first verse, a man finds a girl "grinning like a misbehaving child" behind the Hope Park Holy Wall, his insides "eating up the butterflies that kept hunger at bay", his nerves "playing crazy buggers with my sense of style". By the second verse, something profound has happened, and it seems like he has spent "twenty years just gazing at her face". There's no indication of how much time has passed, but there is the sense in this song that this is what love is like. It bends, it twists, it lengthens tiny moments to light years.
Only the chorus gives us a clue of what happens to our narrator. "Throw me round and down", Kenny sings, his voice managing to sound pleading, as well as mournfully resigned, "before I fall". He is his lover's victim, but a willing one, and I feel very similarly about this song. I always will be; happy to let its sadness pull me under, its tiny specks of hope lift me up.
Friday, 20 November 2009
Sometimes the songs that bring back the best memories are the silliest. When me and the boy got together in 2004, this song was bloody everywhere. It sang out of every music channel we switched on, blared out of every radio we tuned into, jumped out of car windows, shook our eardrums in supermarkets. It was a devilish, catchy thing – a song about a young boy who fancied his friend's mother which, like all Fountains Of Wayne singles, played like a three-minute American comedy movie, the perfect accompaniment to a big tub of popcorn. There was no escaping it, either, so the joke began there. Even though the lyrics were deeply inappropriate – I was two years younger for starters, and he was far from a schoolboy – this song was Our Song.
Of course there were other songs too. There were the tracks we had put on compilation CDs for each other, like United States Of America's Love Song For The Dead Che, Dusty Springfield's So Much Love, Cat Power's Sea of Love... love, love love. But this was the one that carried us along as we went about our way in the world. It made us laugh all the time, and it still takes me back to rainy evenings holding his hand on the top decks of Routemasters, him in his furry-collared coat, his deep, grey-green eyes looking into mine, that lovely smile starting to play on his mouth.
This song would soundtrack another funny moment in my life three years later – an interview with the band being the reason I had to get an American visa (I still laugh when I remember the Embassy official asking me why on earth I wanted to meet that "terrible band", who were quite sweet, for the record, even though I caught stomach flu off Adam Schlesinger's daughter at her seventh birthday party). But it's still mine and Dan's song above any other. And even though the Routemasters have long gone, as well as that coat, those eyes are still here – right now they're looking at a sandwich he's making in the kitchen, his smile popping into the living room as he gets ready for work. Just like Stacy's Mom, he's still got it going on.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
I can't remember where I was I first heard Rippin Kittin, but I remember, every time I heard it, how it would creep under my skin, how it would bruise a bit deeper, how its mark still survives. Back in the early days of this decade, I still thought the world of dance music was a terrifying place, even though my favourite band was Kraftwerk – the band who started so much of it, especially the techno I was drawn to – and despite the fact that I had spent the best night of my life, until that point at least, at the Tribal Gathering festival. That night in 1997 was a real revelation, and I danced to Orbital and Daft Punk, as well as my dream band from Düsseldorf, into the early hours of the morning, fuelled by coffees and egg butties from a van manned by some gypsies from Port Talbot. Nevertheless, I knew that I was more of an electronic pop nerd than a bon viveur. This was partly because drugs weren't my thing, and partly because the idea of going to a club until 7am made me want to reach for a blanket and a big mug of cocoa.
But by late 2001, my fear about dance music – on record at least – was disappearing. I'd go to Select-A-Disc in Soho and Rough Trade in Covent Garden after work, look for records on labels like Warp, Kitty-Yo and City Rockers, and buy them excitedly. This was the year of Daft Punk's Discovery and electroclash – a cold, icy genre that has not fared well by reputation, but at the time shook my nerves, and really rattled my brain. I got obsessed with the Felix Da Housecat album, Kittenz and Thee Glitz, and Miss Kittin's disco-Nico vocals, which featured very prominently. When I heard she was releasing a record with Golden Boy – I didn't know he was, but his name sounded lovely – I was itching to buy it.
I remember buying a 12-inch for me, and another for my friend Kathryn's birthday. She lived in an ex-local authority block just off Morning Lane with Jeanette, her best friend, and their flat was like a dizzy, pop culture dreamworld. They were the Liver Birds of E9, were Hudson and Leech, their digs teeming with old videos, board games and seven-inches. We'd sit around talking about music while getting through 2 litre bottles of Soave, dropping Sainsburys dips over the blue, mangy carpet. And when Kathryn loved Rippin Kittin too, I was delighted – especially because I could now share this strange song with someone else.
Rippin Kittin, after all, is a terrifying song. Sung from the perspective of a young girl, Miss Kittin asks her mummy if she "can go out and kill tonight" because "I feel, I feel like taking a life". Set against two synthesiser notes, jumping down an octave like the downward slice of silver, it's one of the most unsettling lyrics I've ever heard on record. There's something particularly chilling about the repetition of the phrase "I feel" - so off-hand, so nonchalant - and it also makes you dwell of the weirdness of being a small child. Nevertheless, I couldn't stop listening to it. Drawn to its beats like the frames of a good horror film, I wanted it to chill my blood, as well as dance to it – as Kathryn and I did regularly over the next year.
I still find it strange that I did this; that I could move my feet at the same time as battling a sensation that genuinely frightened me. But I remember thinking at the time: we all do this, don't we? We are all human beings. Fear keeps us going. And it's our fight against it – by dancing, or singing, or otherwise – that's what keeps us alive.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
The summer of 2005 was a very special one for me. It shouldn't have been, really. Me and him had broken up the previous Autumn, and the months that has passed were often unbearably awful – that afternoon he came round and told me he was going to New York with her, the weekend he went, the long, sleepless nights holding onto my phone wanting him to know exactly, precisely, what pain I was going through. By March, Kathryn was moving out to live with her new boyfriend, and Ms Miserable Rogers needed a new housemate. I vaguely knew a friend of a friend, who was travelling around the world, having met him at a pub quiz some time ago, and thought he might work. I sent him some pictures of the flat over e-mail – the February snowfall making Lower Clapton Road look much more inviting – and six weeks later, Andrew Denney popped round.
Andrew and I had a connection straightaway. He came round early on a sunny afternoon to have a look round the flat; we went to the pub at 4; he came home with me at 8; and at 3 in the morning the swine was still there, drinking me under the table, in the highest of spirits. He was perfect. He was sweet and funny, he liked to give others their space, he made good cups of tea, and – my God – he loved Kraftwerk. And this would've been the perfect beginning to a story about two people falling in love if we'd fancied each other. Instead, we became the kind of close friends that you only get very rarely, the sort that Enid Blyton and Judy Blume tell you about when you're little. But as we were sort of grown ups – not desperately into Sindy Dolls, or spending hours re-reading Forever – we drank cornershop lagers instead, watched Tindersticks videos, invented our own private worlds as our real ones fell apart.
By that summer, our respective love lives started to get a bit complicated. I was starting to get back together with my old boyfriend, while Andrew was in a bit of a pickle that I won't repeat here in case he reads this and kills me. We'd spend hours talking about our respective messes on the sofa, staring at a poster Andrew had tacked to the living room door. It was a poster for Waiting For The Moon from 2003, a Tindersticks album Andrew had recently played for me, which I had recently fallen for. I particularly loved a song called Sometimes It Hurts, a duet about two people wondering if there was "something new going on", old loves climbing walls, old songs running through their heads. Even now, I still catch my breath when I hear Lhasa De Sela's vocals – like a warm summer breeze cutting through clothes to the skin – that complement Stuart Staples' baritone so beautifully.
But back then, for us, everything was about Stuart. Given that so many of his songs were about indiscretions in bathrooms, and terrible affairs, we had him marked down as the ultimate rogue, someone very well-placed to give us unsuitable direction. What Would Stuart Do, Andrew asked me one day, and he soon became our own inappropriate personal Jesus. This joke ran and ran. We talked about getting ourselves W.W.S.D wristbands like evangelical Christians, and even extending the range to take in coffee mugs and tea-towels. The logic was this: wherever we were, Stuart would be there, pushing us towards much more exciting adventures. How could it fail?
Not long later, something unbelievable happened. As a young writer with not much experience, I managed to blag an hour-long interview spot with the great man himself. The interview was for the sadly-missed Comes With A Smile magazine, and you can see my cover interview with Stuart here.
The night before I met him, Andrew was away with work. I didn't sleep a wink. I was meeting Stuart at Hither Green train station in South London, and I had grand designs about our boy sweeping me up when I got there, taking me home to purr at me forever. The reality, of course, as it always is, was very different. Stuart was a happily married man with four children, after all, and, even more strangely, I didn't fancy him in the flesh. On stage he was my cigarette-smoking, dashing chanteur; in the real world, he was a gently grinning sweetheart with a natty taste in suits. Even though we caught the same train back to London after our time together – oh, God, Brief Encounter, just imagine the sequel – and although we shared many warm words, the dream had died. Hell, I didn't even mention the tea towels.
But two years later – you'll never guess what – I did. Dispatched to his new home in rural France by The Guardian, I spent a day with Mr Staples and his bandmate, Dave Boulter, followed by a long, boozy night in a small, local restaurant. Stuart's wife Suzanne also joined us – not the raven-haired, silent beauty I'd imagined from those exotic songs, but a short-cropped, wisecracking Northerner who I couldn't get enough of. We ate massive steak bleus, drank gallons of vin rouge, and got completely, thoroughly, exhilaratingly, rat-arsed. And then I couldn't hold it back any longer. I told Suzanne, and then Stuart, about W.W.S.D..
I can still hear the laughter rattling through Limousin, and the beep of my mobile phone when Andrew texted me back the next morning, not quite believing what his old housemate had done. When I hear Sometimes It Hurts now, it takes me back to that night, but it also reminds me of that glorious summer, of the friendship that began, and will continue, in the pub, this weekend. Thank you for helping me live and laugh again, Andrew Denney. You will always be my second favourite rogue in the world.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
"Alright so this is a song about anyone, it could be anyone." That's what it said, that's how it went, the rolling Professor Longhair piano sample bouncing along behind her – a girl with a ponytail who'd eaten glottal stops for breakfast and swear words for tea. This was the first time I heard Lily Allen, and the day that pop, for me, burst into technicolour again.
It was a gloomy day in early spring, I remember, and I was sat behind my desk, buggering about on the internet, trying to find something to make the grey clouds turn pink. I'd heard about this young singer, and how her dad was Keith Allen, a man that I'd interviewed many years previously when I was a Saturday girl at the Llanelli Star newspaper, filing photographs and receipts, trying to jump on any stories that weren't about old people's memories, or the latest GBH incident in Felinfoel. Keith had been born in Llanelli, and had recently directed a Blur video – this was 1995, the video for The Universal – so I spotted the chance for a story to impress my friends down the Coach House as we giggled over our watered-down lagers. A few weeks later he was on the phone, hamming up his lost vowels, not listening to my questions, and saying "look you" a lot. Eleven years on, I'll admit that I did not have high hopes for his daughter.
I remember clicking onto her MySpace page as it used to be, all fizzing rainbow colours like a sherbert fountain. It looked fantastic. Then, I heard LDN – its horns ushering that summer's girl in so playfully and perkily, while saying so much about the city I lived in and loved, despite its grit and its grimness. But Knock Me Out was the song that got me totally gaga. It was a succession of daft put-downs to dodgy geezer chat-up lines, full of silly voices and interjections ("Oh yeah, actually, yeah, I'm pregnant, having a baby in like 6 months so no, yeah, yeah"), set to a brilliantly bouncy New Orleans ramalama. It made me laugh as much as it made my limbs wriggle. Lily was light, fresh and funny, sometimes mercilessly so, and even now I can't hear Knock 'Em Out without its wicked final line ("I've got herpes, err, no, I've got syphilis, AIDS, AIDS, I've got AIDS"), faded out for the LP for obvious reasons. I liked Lily because she spoke like young girls did - rudely, crudely, and creatively. In the midst of the glossy-haired fembots that slicked their shiny way around the charts, she was wonderfully real. She was one of us.
A few months later, I interviewed her for The Word. She sat in a room in a Soho hotel in her big dress and bulky trainers, ranting about why cellulite didn't matter, the shallowness of celebrity culture and why she didn't want to write songs when Eastenders was on. She was a breath of fresh air. As she spoke, I mourned the fact that she had popped up on the pop scene just too late for Smash Hits, which had folded that February and taken my generation's shiny childhoods with it. She would have fitted in brilliantly beside Bananarama and Altered Images. She would have been its perfect girl.
On my way out, I also told Lily about the silly conversation I'd had with her father eleven years earlier. She cackled out loud and called him an arsehole. A few months later, I saw her in a Camden bar, a few days before Smile entered the charts at no. 1. She recognised me, came over, thanked me brightly for our interview, before dashing off into the street, and into the pop world proper. You and I know the rest. To my mind, her songs would get bigger and better, but this is the song I still hold the closest, the one that holds the most rebellious promise, dancing around to its own cheeky beat.
Monday, 16 November 2009
Before the end of the decade is upon us, I'll tell you all about 2003, the magical, mysterious year in which everything changed – the year that began in an icy charity office in Acton, where a charity worker would spend every morning crying into her keyboard, but ended in the silvery offices of Word Magazine, where you'd find the same person pinching herself every five minutes wondering what precisely had happened. But let's wait a while for that. As I've been writing about this band recently, and I haven't been able to shift this song from my mind since, let's leap forward two years, and jump halfway across the world as we do so.
In September 2005, I had been working part-time at Word for nearly two years, revelling in its dusty, messy wonderland of promotional CDs, mouldy tea mugs and hoary rock anecdotes. I had started there as an assistant to Reviews Editor Paul Du Noyer, a man whose every sentence, written or spoken, was warm, elegant and covetable, and now, two years on, I was writing small pieces myself. I hadn't yet written my first feature, but I wasn't even sure if I had that ability in me, terrified as I was of the blankness of the empty Microsoft Word document. It's a fear I've never shaken, incidentally, and I doubt I ever will.
Nevertheless, I remember the morning when I had to confront it with a fresh urgency. I was in the most ordinary of environments – a queue in a hectic post office in Hackney on my day off, trying to buy some stamps, carrying a bag of shopping – when my mobile phone rang. It was Mark Ellen, Word's spry, bouncy editor. Would I like to go to Vancouver next Wednesday, he asked, to interview the Arcade Fire? I'd have to go on my own, without the band's publicist, and spend two days with them, interviewing each one of them. I remember saying no at first – I was moving house that weekend, I couldn't possibly, argh – but then, five minutes later, I realised my folly. What was I doing? I phoned him back straightaway, back-pedalling furiously. A week later, my boyfriend was packing my life into boxes, and I was on a 12-hour flight to the west coast of Canada.
I had loved the Arcade Fire from day one. The way that Funeral swept you up and took you to another realm entirely – a gloomy fantasy land worthy of the eeriest children's literature. I also became obsessed with the group's lyrics about death, and adored the way in which their songs were both gothically grand and almost unbearably intimate. Looking back, perhaps I loved them so much because I was having a tough time in 2005 – retreating into personal memories of my own bereavements, the death of my father when I was a child returning to my mind like a thundercloud, always threatening to break. In The Backseat rang particularly loudly. It was Regine Chassagne's song about the death of her mother, and I found comfort and empathy in its twists and turns. The chorus spoke to me with the most weight, presenting a woman who was similarly directionless in the grip of grief: "Alice died/In the night", Chassagne sang, in her high, childlike voice, "I've been learning to drive/My whole life."
In Vancouver, I asked Regine about her mother, but she was surly in response, as she had every right to be. The band were a strange gaggle of people, to be honest, a few of them prickly, others eccentric and adorable. Still, their gig in the most ordinary of stadium environments – a dull hockey hangar on the edges of the city - was a revelation. These seven strange creatures banged their drums, hollered in unison, and captured my heart like few groups have ever done. However, they didn't play In The Backseat that night, as the set list had promised, plumping instead for New Order's Age Of Consent. I didn't mind – the New Order song was reborn for me that night - but it also didn't matter for another reason entirely. In The Backseat, indirectly, had helped me move on already.
The Arcade Fire had made this trip to Canada possible. And my four days in Vancouver... remembering it now still makes me catch my breath, sets butterflies dancing in my stomach, tingles my limbs with euphoria. Here I was, on a plane travelling across the world, no one holding my hand as I took off and landed, all by myself. Getting a cab from the airport to the hotel, speeding down the freeway, thanking the driver, all by myself. Having two days to explore a foreign city, drinking in its neon-lit bars, feeling the Pacific breeze on my face, all by myself.
I had never thought I could do this before. This was the first time I felt that I was my own person truly, an independent entity separate from anyone or anything. Previously, I had always felt I had to have permission to do anything I wanted to – gain a degree, write an article, live my life as I wanted - because even though I was a sociable and gregarious 27-year-old, I was also very scared of the big, bad world. And when the chips came down, I preferred to be like the girl In The Backseat, not having to drive, not having to speak.
But now I was driving, and I was speaking. The feeling of freedom was all-consuming, absolute. And when I think back to the moments in my life where I was most happy, I still think of the first time I walked out of my hotel into the dark Vancouver night, watching the hockey crowds head by for the game, 20 dollars in my pocket, the brightly-lit streets stretching away to the mountains. My whole life, I'd been learning. And now, at last, I was finally me.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Everyone forgets how huge this song was in 2003. Well, everyone apart from my friend Stuart Evers, perhaps. When I think of it now, I think back to the house parties we had over that sweltering summer, every beer-soggy carpet being pummelled by the thuds and twists of trainer soles, and Stuart's poor face crumpling as he looked at us. It would do so with sadness or horror, depending on the depth of his resilience, and how much booze he'd had for tea.
Six years on, the song sounds very distant to me – a rag-bag of novelty bells and whistles, all clanging and clunking – but it also brings back happy memories of Lucy, Dave and Neil C pogoing around Cowper Road, and me sitting on a sofa with my then-boyfriend Barry, drinking cheap wine, laughing at the dancing toast in the pixellated video on lazy Saturday mornings. So it still makes me smile, and – with apologies to Stuart – it still makes my feet twitch.
Saturday, 14 November 2009
If I hadn't left Rupert at the bar that night in April 2001, and wandered up the stairs of the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell to hear the support band, my life would have been very different. I wouldn't have heard the boy with the soft, high voice, and the song with a brilliant break in one verse where silence seemed to swirl out of the windows and make its way down to Farringdon. I didn't know then that a comment I left about the band on a messageboard would get us in touch, leading me to a pub in Muswell Hill, and the group of lovely, funny friends that would become a big reason for me to stay put in London. I also didn't know then that the boy with the soft, high voice would become mine some years later, and that when the decade would end, he would still be here.
Friday, 13 November 2009
In September 2000, I finished my Masters degree in (deep breath) Postmodernism, Literature and Contemporary Culture, and, a month later, I started my first job as an assistant at the new, two-man UK office of an American company called Westminster John Knox. WJK published works of theology, religion and self-help, and I hoped that this unusual entry into the big industry of books would lead to a glittering future in academic publishing. This was the official reason, anyway. I mainly took the job because the boss had promised me a trip to the annual sales conference in Louisville, Kentucky – in the United States of America! – where I intended to track down Bonnie "Prince" Billy and drink a lot of bourbon.
The many delights of a week in Kentucky aside - no Will Oldham for me, but great gulps of Makers Mark, a barn dance in a motel on the freeway where a band of vicars played Van Morrison covers on Moogs, a lesson learned that a winter coat is not enough to fight against a walk across the bridge to Indiana when it's minus 5 outside, and a ringside seat as the fall-out from the Bush vs Gore election entered its last, sorry stages – the job didn't warm my heart. I ended up working in a business centre in Watford, and then in a '60s tower block in Wealdstone, very often on my own, as my boss worked at home. There were few attractions to these places during lunch hours too, and it didn't help that I had to commute into central London and then out again to get to them, especially when the Hatfield train crash in October made most journeys last over two hours. I missed university very much, and I spent hours with a face on, wallowing daftly in melancholy.
One thing kept me going, however. Every day when Philip was out – and this was often – I'd listen to the radio. In the late autumn, Radio 1 DJs started to play a song called Ms Jackson by a band called Outkast. I had no idea who Outkast were, or who Ms Jackson was, and only found out later that Andre 3000 had written the song about the mother of Erykah Badu, his ex-girlfriend. But that didn't matter. All I cared about was that rising synth line, the twirling electric piano, that "OOOOH!" in the chorus after the title, which I'd sing into my coffee mug for the trillionth time as I looked out of tinted windows at the concrete and rainclouds, and the sun would seem to pop out for a moment. I finished the job the following March, but I've never thanked that song enough.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Here it was, then – the year 2000. The promise of this moment had hung over my childhood like a neon-lit spaceship from a comic book. It had winked at a little girl in astronaut-speckled pyjamas from the depths of the midnight sky. But now it was here, of course, it was very different. To this 21-year-old, all grown up and grouchy, it was just as Blur had predicted in my mid-teens. End of a century? Oh. It's nothing special.
That night, I didn't party like it was 1999, not even remotely. I sat in my parents' front room crying into an orange juice, three separate twists of fate keeping me away from London, a good friend away from town, and sending another to a hospital where her grandmother's heart had decided to give way on a rather inopportune afternoon. Not knowing what to do, I had joked to my parents that I may as well stay sober that night to drive their friends home. They missed the joke. When midnight came, there were no fireworks for me. There were no bangs, only whimpers.
That year continued in a similarly grumbly vein. A heartbreak from the previous summer still leaving its scars, the readjustment to a new life in London still taking its time. I retreated to the music of my recent past for comfort, before the first song of that century worked its way into my bones.
The song was by The Delgados, a band that made me think of that boy from the previous century. But this time, again, things were different. It came from their new album, The Great Eastern, which I bought in April, and listened to all year. It had a strange, ghostly figure on its cover, with which I felt an odd sort of empathy, drifting between my old life and my new one, feeling on the edges of everything, not really knowing where I fitted in. No Danger was track six, a song which talked about the desire to do something new, the comfort that came with being cowardly (these lyrics beinge full of misty references to heroin, rather than the fags and cheap beers that were my innocent vices), but there were pockets of hope also popping up alongside them.
These lyrics became mine as the year went on. "'We don't know we're strong enough"; "but people, people, we're not in love". I clung to them as I left him behind, and let me come through.