Monday, 5 June 2017

It was fifty years ago today! The merchandise is here to stay!

Tell me about the good old days, son...

This is an excerpt - the whole flyer is below
One of Birmingham's finer music DJs, Dylan Gibbons, son of Steve, has dug out a lovely flyer and put it up on Facebook. It lists acts playing the long-gone Barbarellas in Spring 1974, 43 years ago. I was at the (also long-gone) BRMB Radio then. I interviewed some of those acts on air before they headed to the gig. My show ran from 7-10; the timing worked. The complete flyer, with amazing spelling errors, is available to enjoy a bit down this post: you can see Queen, at the start of their run, and Cockney Rebel too. 

But check the March acts, in the detail above. From March 28 to 30, Bill Haley and the Comets played. Then, Hayley was at the tail end of his career, aged 49 or so; he died at 55. At his peak, he played the Birmingham Odeon, in 1957. Haley it was who had the very first rock and roll hits, in 1953 and 54. Then Elvis came along and blew him out of the water.

Nostalgia kept Haley in business. And look! The very next day, a few years into his career, there's Steve Gibbons. Steve, of course, is still gigging now. How brilliant is that? The entire historic timespan of rock music, from 1953 to now, captured quite by accident on a playbill from two generations back.

The Nostalgia business. Ker-ching.

Floyd Cans! £379! Bargain!
It's lovely to look back at those days. Nostalgia's great fun. I do, however, get ticked off at the nostalgia industry. The Victoria and Albert museum in London makes a bundle putting on artsy nostalgia shows, generally about acts they wouldn't have given the time of day to when those artists were at their peak. In 2013, the show was David Bowie, and the merch page is still up on site, with goodies at eye-watering prices - £125 get you an album cover print; Bowie vinyls are £25 a pop. 

This year, it's Pink Floyd. Step right up, £20 gets you in the door, so you can be told all about it. Exit through the gift shop – where pink Pink Floyd headphones go for a mere £379, and a Dark Side Of The Moon cycling jersey is a snip at £85. Bargain! Have a cigar! That's some considerable distance from one of the albums of my student days, Ummagumma, half of which was recorded in front of maybe 200 souls at Mothers in Erdington.

Brace yourselves, though: Sergeant Pepper is now fifty years old. So there's shows on TV with learned and earnest experts. Just out: a 6-CD reissue package. While the Beatles had, by 1967, long since moved out to country estates in the south, Liverpool, logically, is putting on a summer series of events. Most of them are free, which is fair enough.

Thing is, I remember the day the album came out. We lapped it up, of course – the Beatles were ours – but it was part of our lives, not some pumped up deal, it wasn't a marketable experience. We were kids, it was our music, end of. The Beatles weren't gods; they were just good guys, our good guys. The marketing-driven reverence now being afforded the band, and which shoots though the poshed up Bowie and Floyd 
museum offers like a lucrative golden vein, simply wasn't there.

That deification of things past is there for commercial purposes. It's only another way to squeeze yet more money out of the original product, after cassettes, CD reissues, repackaging, remastering and more. With this reverence come the priests of pop culture: the writers, the experts, the pundits, the curators, generally quite a lot younger than the audience this music was first made for. Of course, that's nothing new – as long as I can remember, we've had fresh-faced jazz pundits explaining Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, Wagner experts, Sinatraphiles, ready to explain it all.

Who knew? Well, we did, actually. 

Only now, I'm taking it personally. I'm being lectured about the music of my youth, the stuff I grew up with, by people who weren't born when it came out. And I'm sorry, that does piss me off. The music? It was and is brilliant, and it lives on. 

But its longevity and charm provides platforms for more revenue generation and pundit career development. The people who paid for that music in the first place are no longer part of the equation. 

I'm not saying pundits 25 years younger than me can't have valid or interesting takes on the music, mind - of course they can. There's always room for a fresh perspective. But that room only exists because of the nostalgia industry.

Meantime, looking at that frayed old 1974 flyer for those bands at Barbs, I'm thinking of the bands of the day, and exactly how great that classic Gibbons line-up was (the current one's pretty damn good, too). But there's no money to be made, or careers to build, out of that scene. The V and A won't come calling; fresh faced music scribes won't prance down Broad Street expounding to camera on how great it was.

But I bet they're working on those Police and Dire Straits shows right now, for some time next decade. Peter Gabriel and Genesis? That's an obvious one. What price a Coldplay retrospective for 2030? 


I still do radio stuff an Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. Listen online heredownload the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


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Sunday, 4 June 2017

West Midlands Rock Royalty at the Robin - Jim's Jam

Celebrating one of the greats...

I blogged about Jim Hickman in 2014. Jim was one of those singers: big, loving, soulful. That post (read it here) is a potted history of the best of Black Country music from back in the day. 

Jim wasn't doing well when we talked: drawers full of scary medication. But he rallied and went back out on the road. Things were good, his voice was right there, and all his years of craft and experience showed in his performances.

Shockingly, he passed away, days after a 2017 New Year's Day gig. His funeral was rammed, a testament to how loved he was. 

Now, there's something grand and happy, this coming Sunday: the Jim Jam, set for Sunday 11th June, to celebrate Jim's life. I doubt we'll ever see such a gathering of old and new-school West Midlands talent in one place ever again.

West Midlands Rock Royalty

The Jim Jam takes place next Sunday at the Robin 2 in Bilston, from 3pm. 

Just take a look at the poster. That's some line up. More acts are coming; there will be surprise guests. If you ever enjoyed Little Acre, or ZooQ, the Honeydrippers with Robert Plant and Ricky Cool, or more recently the Little Band, you should go.  

This gig is to set up to do three things: firstly to remember and celebrate Jim; secondly, to raise money for research into heart disease, which was what took him away; and thirdly to have a bloody good time listening to great musos, all friends and contemporaries of Jim's.

This is proper West Midland old-school rock royalty. I can't wait. I am hoping – no promises – to capture some of the performances for Brum Radio. But when it's live, there are no guarantees. If it works out, it would a lovely little extra to mark and honour Jim. 

We marked his passing on Brum Radio last January this way:

And I hope to take it a little bit further on Sunday. We'll see. Can't wait...

Tickets for the Jim Jam are £8 in advance from The Robin 2 website, here

You might like to check this post out too: the JBs book. Jim's stomping ground.


I still do radio stuff on Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. Listen online heredownload the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Protest and 60s flashbacks in 2017

Something's happening here... 

Thanks to SMUQ on flickr
Lately, I've been thinking about protest songs. The ones we used to hear all the time back in the day. The ones I got to play on the radio. 

You don't hear protest songs on the radio now. So it was nice to hear the excellent Amit Dattani give an outing to Dylan's protest anthem 'The Hour When The Ship Comes In', at a gig this week. People were singing along, too, to a song recorded in 1964.

Earlier that week, on Facebook, a pal commented warily on fresh video cameras in his neighbourhood. So I put up a YouTube link to Buffalo Springfield's 'For What It's Worth', to be ironic, like you do. The verse I had in mind was this
Paranoia strikes deep
into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away 
Hippy boomers will remember it. But It was only after I stuck the link up that I realised the song, a staple of my teenage years, was fifty years old. That set me thinking.

The music of the day - protest. Then. 

In the 60s, Protest Music was big. America, especially, saw waves of politicised unrest: the 1966 Watts riots, decade-long Vietnam war protests, with riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, and the 1970 shooting of students by the National Guard at Kent State.

Protest fed the music we listened to. Some of the most incendiary and uplifting soul music ever recorded was triggered by the black power movement – think Aretha and 'Respect', BB King's 'Why I sing the Blues', Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues', Stevie Wonder's 'Living For The City'....

Us white kids in the UK had precious few notions about the brutal realities behind these songs. It was damn good, passionate music. We loved it, we bought it. The record companies who sold it weren't complaining. And there was punchier, radical stuff, from the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, who made damn sure you couldn't miss their point. Or check out the Staple Singers. Listen to the song, dig into the background. 

White protest was higher up the UK agenda. Spearheaded by Folk in the 50s and 60s, it eventually fed into Rock. In the US, it was powered by the ongoing threat to a generation: that of having to go fight in Vietnam. So we had CSNY's 'Ohio', The Doors' 'Unknown Soldier', Country Joe and the Fish's 'Fixing to Die Rag', Jefferson Airplane's 'Volunteers', Simon & Garfunkel's 'Silent Night/7 O' Clock News', Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Fortunate Son'... at least a dozen great songs from Dylan. I could go on.

Meantime, the Beatles and the Stones struck, in my view, distinctly Lib-Dem positions with 'Revolution' and 'Street Fighting Man' respectively – although, later on, 'Gimme Shelter' and Lennon's 'Imagine' evened things out a bit. But Vietnam wasn't a generational threat to UK kids, so many of the truly venomous and articulate songs largely passed us by.

I got lucky, though. My first paid radio gig was at a rock station in the USA, in 1971, in the middle of all this. So I heard a lot of this material when it came out. 

The US Draft and a radicalised generation

Let me paint an unsettling picture. Generations of kids of college age waited to learn their birth date-related number in a bi-yearly lottery draft. Draft numbers ran from 1 up to 365. The lower your number, the greater the chances of being sent to be shot to pieces in Vietnam. The higher the number, the lesser the risk. In the worst years, they'd get well into the 200s, working through the available candidates.

At the station, when we got the latest set of draft numbers, people could call the studio up to find out their number. I remember telling one guy his number was 3. He hung up without a word. Another lad had drawn 315. His reaction was understandably gleeful, but also nauseating: this wasn't a lottery anybody won.

My station, staffed by hippies with ponytails, played rock, catering to a threatened generation. Our music reflected their concerns. This was a constant, overwhelming, threat which galvanised a generation. It lasted until the end of the Vietnam war. After that, sadly, a lot of people shed their political concerns without a backward glance.

The music of the day now? Hmmm.... 

That was fifty years ago, and oh, how things have changed. As I said, we don't hear that many protest songs these days, certainly not on mainstream media. Sure, people are still writing songs (and, now, spitting rhymes) of protest. They just don't seem to fit the marketing plans of our contemporary pop megastars.

Ever get the feeling someone's watching?
The primary agent of change has been the web, of course. It has empowered us, yes; but it has divided and distracted us much more. Now, we get predigested protest, simplified and manipulated into slogans and memes, fine-tuned to boost our existing assumptions and fed to us in our online silos. Often there is scant regard for the truth.

We read of dark forces operating in sinister alliances, who don't have our interests at heart. Political-digital skullduggery is rife. We can't control it. That sense of doom and mistrust of forces we couldn't fight back then, echoes down to me when I look at my world today. Then, it was, simply, 'The Man'. Now? Take your pick – we have a cornucopia of paranoia to select from. And it's all logged online. 

That's what brought me up short when I stuck Buffalo Springfield up on Facebook. A simple, slightly awkward but brilliant and direct song, that still works. But now we conveniently register our protest online. And, like protest songs were back in the day, our protest has become a marketable commodity. Have your say! Share a political Facebook posting, put up a YouTube link.... and look, everyone has protest emojis.

Lesson learned? I'm too close to now to be able to tell. Maybe things haven't really changed. It's not that different from 50 years back, except that now the waters of bland and diverting entertainment have, again, closed over the rocky outcrops of dissent. Then, protest music, was, typically, co-opted and repackaged by the entertainment industry. Nowadays protest is delivered online with smooth, machine-tooled, well-researched efficiency on our social networks. We sign the petitions, we rage online in chatrooms. It's addictive - we still lap it up. Back in the day, they used bread and circuses.


I do stuff on Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. Listen online here; download the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Surinder Sandhu and his funky Karma Machine

One of the most exciting albums I've heard in years. I don't say that very often these days.

I'm ancient. So I've heard a lot of stuff. I've seen the same ideas come round and round and round. And really, there's nothing wrong with that – pop music is always rewriting itself using what's been done before. For many people, including kids making music for the first time, that's a rush for them, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nothing wrong with grabbing old ideas and giving them fresh interpretation either. Once in a while, the results are exceptional.

Step forward Surinder Sandhu. Surinder takes his time. His projects can take years. This one took at least five, but then he is a busy man. When I chatted with him, he was just heading off for a rehearsal at a local theatre, before finishing off a project for the CBSO, and setting up stuff for the next Mr Khan project.

There's a new album at last: Karma Machine. I see it as a hugely significant development in Birmingham's world of music.

What fascinates me is how this is all developing. Asian music coming out of Brum is just - different. We should be very very proud of what's going on.  It calls for a bit of  support and recognition.

I've know of Surinder for a while. His Saurang Orchestra album, which emerged in 2003/4, was a hugely ambitious and expensive project involving location recording, the Royal Liverpool  Philharmonic Orchestra, and guitar giants like Steve Vai, along with Surinder's super-expressive work on Sarangi.

Sarangi? It's an Asian stringed instrument, with generally four bowed strings and maybe 30 sympathetic drone strings, but proportions vary. Think of an eastern Theorbo, if you like.

The Saurang Orchestra album sported a host of other luminaries too, but I'm not sure it's recouped even now. The economics of modern-day recording are fascinating and terrifying. But the bonus for you is that it remains a fascinating album mixing Asian traditional instrumentation with full-on western ideas. You should check it out.

East-West fusions? Not new

Of course, east-west fusions have been going on for decades now, from Jazz work (John Mayer, John Coltrane, John MacLaughlin...) and latterly multiple strands of pop and dance emerging now and again into the mainstream. George Harrison deserves recognition for the work he was doing in the mid-sixties with the Beatles, as early as the Revolver album.

Birmingham has rich veins of talent and creativity in this field, with Layla Tutt, Mendi Singh and the Duggal brothers whose cluster of projects takes in Swami and Apache Indian. I know I've missed a few - please correct me if you have the inclination.

Having listened to Surinder's stuff  for a long time, I sought him out for a Radio To Go blog piece a few years ago. At the time, he was planning something new and ambitious, mixing 70s funk with some of his own ideas, under the working title of Funkawallahs. It's finally seen the light of day, and I'm enchanted; I'm astonished and impressed. When I hooked up with him to talk about the project, we talked music and music cultures for hours.
Surinder: For me the album is a look back at my youth growing up in the UK, and listening to James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, Quincy Jones – later on, Prince... I could go on all day. 
RV: On Karma Machine you're using the Sarangi in a different way to how you did fourteen years ago on the Saurang Orchestra project...
Surinder: It's about serving the song. Playing the Sarangi in a soloist manner didn't serve the music on Karma Machine. I wanted to create something to do with texture, to do with the melody. If you look at Motown, or any of the bands that inspired Karma Machine, there's not a lot of solos in the music. 

So – a lotta lotta funk. Mixed with all kinds of other stuff. You have to listen to it to believe it. Karma Machine is loaded to the gunwales with some of Birmingham's finest, most able musos - Roger Innis, Glyn Phillips, Loz Rabone, Nige Mellor, to pick a few at random. I think they had a ball recording it.
Surinder: I've worked quite a lot with Loz (Rabone).  Loz  is a brilliant songwriter. And we're making music that's fun, that reconnects us with our childhood. That's what makes it so energising for us. The best way to create is to surround yourself with kind, calm, ego less talents. It was a blissful, creative process. 
And it works, by golly does it work. You can check it out on his website and keep your eyes peeled for free downloads in this digital marketing age.

Surinder Sandhu website
Karma Machine promo teaser

Listen to a two-part Surinder special with me on Brum Radio:
Part 1 goes out on Tuesday 9th May at 4pm.
Part 2 goes out on Tuesday 16th, same time.
Both will be also available on Listen-again.

Karma Machine is also the feature album this week on Brum Radio, with a track every two hours outside of live shows.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Elections. Hustings. Culture. I'm so depressed.

It's election season. God help us.

I went to a hustings this week. A what? A hustings – that's where a bunch of people who want to be elected try to convince you that they know what they are talking about, and have an idea of a way to go forward.

Elections. Again, dammit. The reality is a parade of insincere individuals spouting robotic slogans to convince us that they really care, when for the past ten years (and more, going back to 1997 and Tony Blair) it's been painfully obvious that they really don't.

This hustings was for the West Midlands Mayoral election, and the specific area for discussion was Culture. You probably didn't know that this was going on. And if you did, you probably weren't that excited – after all, the hall (the small one in the Birmingham Rep/Birmingham Library complex) wasn't even full.

I wanted hope. I lost the will to live.

God, it was depressing. Six candidates, wielding sound-bites ranging from old-school hard left gags (the Communist guy, who might be good fun at a party) through to the deeply depressing 'Take Back Control' slogan that Labour have saddled themselves with – what were they thinking of? But as for even half a spark of originality? Thin pickings, I'm afraid. The Green party guy punched above his weight, and the Lib Dem lady was ever so nice and reasonable, but I don't see either of them sweeping the board. As for UKIP? Talking with any credibility about arts and culture in the most diverse region in the UK is, frankly, a bit of a challenge.

Meantime, at the coal face - anyone been there to take a look?  

Local knowledge, let alone recognition of the problems people in the creative sector have to deal with was pretty much non-existent. Sion Simon, the grumpily subdued Labour guy, muttered a few words about local music, which was the least I would have expected from an ex-employee of Music UK. No-one else had the remotest clue about how brilliant our music scene is. Of course, they'd have had to have done a bit of research. That means rather more than just going to a play at the Rep.

There was talk of Channel 4 coming to Brum. There was talk of Stephen 'Peaky Blinders' Knight's plans to set up a local studio. Both of those would be nice, of course. But nothing's happened yet. Still, it let the candidates witter on about theoretically positive developments

And there was talk of major gigs, big names coming to Brum! Whoopee! But those events are self-funding, and when you think about it, they actually extract money from our region. Some vague talk about corporate partnerships emerged from the (very well-funded) Tory candidate, Andy Street, who bounced about enthusiastically, but actually said very little indeed about anything, and saved a low politico blow for Sion Simon to the very end. 

But as for culture? Oh, come on. Nobody paid the slightest attention to the grass roots areas where new theatre, dance, music, poetry, multimedia and experimentation are flourishing, entirely through the efforts of dedicated individuals who love what they do. Nobody talked about growing and supporting local talent. Nobody talked about securing and preserving venues and platforms for talent to emerge. Nobody has the remotest notion of making positive use of the brilliant work that's already going on, and which will continue to go on, with no support from funding bodies. Nobody even acknowledged that the grass roots is where it all starts from, and that's why the grass roots are so important.

So.... going forward, chaps? Any ideas? At All?

The audience was, predictably, clued up on funding. Questions ranged from the well-documented and obscene gap in ACE funding, where London's spending ran at £26 a head, and ours ran at £12.33 a head in 2015/16 - before the more savage recent cuts - to the insultingly paltry BBC Midlands regional spend, which has led over the past two decades to a virtually complete collapse in local radio and tv production. When these figures came up in questions, every candidate sprang to life and banged on about how jolly unfair it all was. But as for a strategy to build up from where we are now? I heard nothing.

I will vote on May 4th. I will vote with my heart. But I don't expect things to change in the slightest.