Category: Birmingham

Magnétophone: Relax, Its The End Of Electronica

magnetophone-special-lady-2002

Static Caravan 2002.  VAN 40

Discogs

Magnétophone usually record for 4AD so this beautifully presented and very limited 7″ was slightly surprising, although their geeky, glitchy electronica fits rather better here than there.  Perhaps it’s because it’s less accessible than their usual stuff, especially the B sides which have little in the way of conventional structure.  Regardless, the band are probably the most effective exponent of this genre.

Unfortunately Static Caravan’s love of the 33rpm 7″ continues here.  It really is the most abominable format this side of the cassette tape.  Still, it’s worth a listen.

Robert Lloyd and the New Four Seasons: Nothing Matters (In Tape 12″ Version)

Folder

In Tape 1988.  ITTI059

Discogs

This is the second and last Robert Lloyd In Tape 12″; the first one is here.

It has a lot in common with Something Nice.  It’s long but doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s a great song performed with an infectious energy and no-one bought it.  The first B side is a rather odd variant on Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue (!) but when it launches straight into  Mr Superior, normal service is resumed.  Why he sings it as Mr Soupy Rear isn’t clear though.

According to Discogs I also have his entire output on Virgin, so I’ll post that at some point too.

The Very Things: Motortown

Folder

One Little Indian 1987. TPLP6.

Discogs

The Very Things described themselves as Dadaists, which I guess they were but it’s not a helpful guide to what they sounded like.  The problem is that they didn’t really sound like anyone else.  There’s a Cramps style interest in 1950s b movie sci-fi kitcsh, a bit of music hall, some motown (as the name of this mini album suggests) and some mid 80s indie guitar.  That all sounds like a bit of a car crash, but they made some fine records, this being one of them.

They must also be the best thing ever to come out of Redditch, a godforsaken new town just outside Birmingham, which maybe inspired the motortown thing.  An alien landing there could be forgiven for thinking it’s populated by cars and the weird two legged creatures are some sort of parasite they have to endure.

Modified Toy Orchestra: New Sounds From Old Circuits

front

Static Caravan 2002.  VAN35

Discogs

Ah, the Modified Toy Orchestra.  Hilarious, totally original, inventive, funky….  MTO is the brainchild of sound artist and ubergeek Brian Duffy.  He gathers together old children’s toys which produce electronic sounds of one sort or another, alters the wiring (called circuit bending) and uses the sounds they produce to make records.   On one level it’s hilarious – a wonderful novelty band: grown men on stage playing Speak and Spell machines and plastic guitars, but there’s much more to it than that.  The toys provide an entirely new sound palate from electronics which have nothing at all in common with the usual sources of electronic sound.  Yes, those toys sounded tinny and awful, but that was mainly because of the tiny speakers they used – hook them up to a decent PA and you have an entirely different proposition.  It follows the same rationale as the craze for tracking down obsolete keyboards but takes it one stage further.  Those ancient (and very valuable) keyboards were intended to be musical instruments and became obsolete.  The toys were never intended to produce music and have never been used in this way before.

All of this would be nothing more than an interesting art project were it not for Brian’s skill at turning these insane sound sources into something worth listening to – MTO works musically, not just conceptually.

This is the first MTO single, and is musically more experimental and less developed than what was to follow.  It sounds not unlike the sort of glitchy electronica I’ve posted previously on the blog, which is no bad thing of course, but it wasn’t until the first album, Toygopop that Brian created the pop/experimental electronica hybrid which works so well.  It suffers slightly from Static Caravan’s love of the 33rpm 7″ single, a truly awful sounding format – fortunately only affecting the B side.

While Brian is the creative force and produces the music himself in the studio, live performances require more people.   A good friend of mine is in the live band and brought his two boys around who’d been busy circuit bending an old plastic guitar from a boot sale.  The process it turns out is pretty random – it just involves messing around with the electronics until something interesting comes out of the speakers.  A few extra switches, dials and LEDs complete the transformation to something both bonkers and wonderful.  I also have to mention the rather alarming Barbie Doll Brian uses on stage.  It produces sound of some sort, but the red LEDs he’s fitted where her eyes should be are truly scary – she looks like the devil.

Both their albums are utterly original and, I think essential and you can get them from Warm Circuit. For the full effect you really need to see them live. They don’t play that often – the toys are rather fragile, but there are a handful of dates on their web site for this summer. Go see them – it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.

Update: Well it seems there are no dates for this summer. The stuff on the web site is from last year. However the good news is that Brian has finished a new MTO album. I’m sworn to secrecy about the title, but it should be out soon via Warm Circuit.

03

The Atom Spies: … And Their Treacherous Pop On Microdot

Panorama

Cake Records 1987.  12 Slice 3

Discogs

Another long forgotten Birmingham band today: the short lived Atom Spies who made only this one single, although I seem to remember that they also recorded a Peel session.  However they do have a claim to fame, which is that the band’s Chandra Blunt (Geddit?) went on to become Steve Chandrasonic of Asian Dub Foundation.

The Atom Spies always came across very much as a work in progress.  As their name and the title of this single suggest they were into the whole 1960s spy look, and they were often to be seen mincing around Birmingham in their sharp 60s suits.  The look worked well, and they had some pretty inventive material to go with it, but in those days their ability to play didn’t quite match up to their ambition.  Live they got away with it – I remember seeing them at Aston Triangle and at Peacocks supporting Pigbros and liking them, but the sound on this single is pretty thin – it was obviously recorded on the cheap and the artwork is similar.  However the material is really good and the whole 60s spy chic paranoia is pretty effective.  It’s a shame they never developed the idea, but I’ve always been fond of Asian Dub Foundation, so it’s not like their talent went to waste.  Anyway, for all its limitations I really like this single, and it turns out to be quite valuable, I guess because of the Asian Dub Foundation connection.

Robert Lloyd And The New Four Seasons: Something Nice

robert-lloyd-and-the-new-four-seasons-something-nice-in-tape

In Tape, 1988.  ITT056

Discogs

Writing about the long tracks on Dexy’s Don’t Stand Me Down put me in mind of this very fine Robert Lloyd single which clocks in at a hefty 9 minutes or so, but like Dexy’s, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Robert Lloyd is mostly known as a founder member of The Nightingales, but he had a brief stint in the late 80s as a solo artist, initially on Marc Reilly’s In Tape, then Virgin.  He also used to run Birmingham’s Vindaloo Records who were responsible for discovering Ted Chippington (he justified his existence by this alone) and Fuzzbox.

His solo career didn’t go well at all, but it wasn’t for want of good material.  This single is as good as anything I bought that year; a wonderful song played with a real energy complete with Stone Roses style drumming, a year before the Stone Roses really made it big.  The B sides aren’t too shabby either.  I have no idea what the “New Four Seasons” thing is about though.  He doesn’t sound anything like them.

Further listening: well none of his solo material is available, but the Nightingales are soldiering on and always worth a listen.  Their current album No Love Lost is as good as anything they’ve done, which is no mean feat with a back catalogue like theirs.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Don’t Stand Me Down

Writing a music blog is a geeky thing to do at the best of times, but this is a geeky post even for a music blog.  It’s also a terrible shame that I’m able to do it at all – this album should be available, but since it’s not….

You probably already know that this album, Kevin Rowland’s magnum opus, bombed on release, partly because he refused to issue singles, partly because of the very odd cover, partly because it wasn’t what people were expecting after Come On Eileen and partly because it’s bonkers.

Without a doubt it’s the best music ever made by a Brummy.  It’s a contender for best 80s album, although at the time I thought The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead was better, but it’s certainly the greatest “lost” album of the decade.

It existed in three different versions, all of which are here (that’s the geeky bit).

So let’s start with the original issue:

front

Mercury, 1985.  MERH56

Discogs

This is a vinyl rip of my original 1985 copy.  It’s not strictly speaking complete because the CD version (which is very rare) has an instrumental version of This Is What She’s Like, but that’s clearly not essential.  It has only 7 tracks, and at the time, I didn’t find it a particularly easy listen, but it doesn’t take long for This Is What She’s Like to get under your skin: 12 minutes of searing brilliance which justifies every second, even the rather odd conversation at the start which sets up a suitably tense atmosphere for when the band kicks in.

Rowland doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout, although there are more surreal conversations between some of the tracks.  Every one is better than most bands produce in a career, and it’s brilliant precisely because Rowland was mad.  This is the result of a level of obsession and perfectionism which clearly drove everyone around him nuts, but which created not just brilliant material, not just superb performances, but a manically intense whole which is like nothing else before or since.

dsmd creation

Creation 1997.  CRECD 154

Discogs

Kevin Rowland’s obsession with this album continued long after its release, so when Alan McGee offered to re-issue it on Creation, simply because he loved it, Rowland took the opportunity to tinker with it.  There was new artwork, although with the same clothing style which Rowland described as “Ivy League”, two extra tracks (Reminisce Part 1 and The Way You Look Tonight”).  Knowledge Of Beauty became My National Pride, its original title which Rowland was too afraid to use first time around, and Listen To This became I Love You (Listen to This).

However, Alan McGee, never much interested in sound quality, hired a muppet to master it who used something called a stereo enhancer which ruined the sound.  Rowland was bitterly disappointed, and the album quickly disappeared again.  It’s worth having for the two extra tracks which appear nowhere else.

dexys-midnight-runners-dont-stand-me-down-the-directors-cut-100127227

EMI 2002.  537 0130

Discogs

Finally we have the Director’s Cut, a second re-issue from 2002 which Rowland currently says he’s happy with. It features a third set of artwork, another new track Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time but the removal of the extra tracks on the Creation issue.  Crucially a good job was done on the mastering, so it sounds great, and it seems to be that more than anything which Kevin Rowlands was interested in.  However, this re-issue also disappeared quickly and is now insanely expensive.

This version also appeared as a limited edition with a DVD of promo videos.  I’m not usually much interested in videos, but this is an exception, so I’ve posted it too.  I first came across it at a film festival during an afternoon screening of sundry short films.  Suddenly the video for This Is What She’s Like came on and I wondered why they were playing it.  It soon became clear: the film is every bit as gripping as the music it accompanies, and it was the only one of the shorts I saw that afternoon which got a round of applause.  I’ve heard that Rowland himself doesn’t like this film being seen.

I know about ripping music, but I’m a bit clueless about DVDs I’m afraid.  What I’ve done is created an image of the DVD, and it plays fine from the files on my PC, and you should also be able to burn a DVD from it.

As for further listening, Dexy’s never released a duff album, but apart from this my favourites are Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (their debut), The Projected Passion Revue (An amazing live album) and their first new album since this one, One Day I’m Going To Soar (which is a triumphant return to form).

Swans Way: The Fugitive Kind

Folder

Balgier 1984. SWAN1

Discogs

Folder

Exit International 1984. EXT312

Discogs

Back when I was 18 I thought Swans Way were the height of sophistication, and I had a point.  Yes it’s very 80s, what with the overblown vocals and arrangements, but the cool jazzy vibe still works really well and combines better than you’d think with the poppy aspects of their sound.  Their sophistication was something that many bands of the time aspired to, but few delivered.

Soul Train is their classic single; a really great song which suits their style very well.  I’ve included the 12″ single which is a much longer version – it merits the extended treatment but it suffers more from 80s arrangements than the album version does.

The album is much more consistent than you’d expect from a band who really didn’t stick around for long.  A daft number of album tracks were released as singles (5 I think), which made no sense but does reflect the quality of the individual tracks.

The live 12″ B sides are a mixed bag.  I love the idea of them playing Gershwin’s Summertime at Birmingham’s beautiful Botanical Gardens, but the reality falls rather short.  Gloomy Sunday is much more successful.

Postscript:  It seems Andy was actually at the Botanical Gardens gig; while I was dreaming of sophistication he was living it….   Amazingly he still has a couple of photos, which I’ve posted below.  It all looks very civilised.   Thanks Andy.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Pigbros: Cheap Life

Panorama

Backs Records 1986.  12NCH 110

Discogs

In the mid 80s it seemed like I saw Pigbros play every week.  They were local and they were good, and seeing bands (unlike buying records) was cheap back then.  Often they’d be playing with Mighty Mighty, whose BBC sessions I posted a while ago, although Pigbros were an altogether darker prospect than their jangly buddies.

They were very much a part of the Birmingham music scene – Nic Beale had been in The Nightingales, Fuzz Townsend, the drummer, who I first became aware of as a busker drumming on an old tin bath which became part of his drumkit in Pigbros, later joined Pop Will Eat Itself (he was wasted there I thought, but I guess it was fun and paid the bills), Svor Naan went by various aliases and was in The Cravats, and Jonathan Cooke – sorry, no idea.

This track was really powerful live and sounds pretty good here, although I guess they didn’t have the cash to create such a full sound in the studio.  Looking back, they split before they really reached their potential; they were certainly one of the more creative outfits on the local circuit.

Stephen Duffy: Natalie

Rock, metal Płyta: Stephen Duffy - Natalie

Parlophone 1993. CDR 6339

Discogs

By far the most popular post on my blog so far has been the swordfish version of The Lilac Time’s debut album, so here’s the only other Stephen Duffy material I have, the 1993 solo single, Natalie.  It has much in common with The Lilac Time as you might expect and shares the same excellent songwriting.  In fact, considering how much I’ve played this and the LT album over the years, I can’t understand why I never bought more.

Nigel Kennedy, the famously irritating violinist who (rather bravely I thought) ran off with The Fall’s Mark E Smith’s wife (Brix Smith) plays on this single, and the accompanying, easy to find album Music In Colours.  Natalie is taken from that album but the other three titles here are exclusives.