Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Tale Of Four Alans

It’s funny how the same name seems to crop up time and again in relation to my musical influences. Well, maybe not funny, but certainly makes for an interesting Blog thread, so here it is, a tale of four… Alans.

I remember hearing Violator for the first time sitting on the floor at our old bass player’s house. Steve Gent was always one for the very latest music, and in this ca se he had been the first of our gang to acquire Depeche Mode’s latest offering. I remember that first listening as much for the fact that the vinyl copy he had (the second copy as he’d already exchanged it twice) was scratched and used to skip infuriatingly. Vinyl was in demise at that time, and this was the catalyst for buying this album on CD, and presumably buying a CD player to go along with it. However, the music was quite extraordinary. Not since Nik Kershaw’s dramatic intro to Dancing Girls had I been so in love with a drum sound. Ever since World In Your Eyes hit my ears I have been in love with snare drums that go “pffft” instead of “therwap” or “crack”.

This led me to explore Depeche Mode’s back catalogue and discover the harder sound they’d developed since Vince Clarke has quit in 1981. That new sound was partly due to grittier songwriting of Martin Gore, but perhaps even more due to the craft and technique of Vince’s replacement – Alan Wilder. Although not immediately accepted as a core member of the band (he was asked to skip the recording of their next album – A Broken Frame) – he became an essential part of the mix for their most influential period. The albums that they produced – Construction Time Again, Black Celebration, Music For The Masses, Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion – all rate amongst my favourite long players. As well as keyboards, Wilder contributed Drums and endless time in the studio alongside Flood and other producers to turn a pop act into one of the greatest electro-rock bands in the world.

For my money they peaked with the combination of the film / live album “101” (Wilder’s choice of title apparently)  and the aforementioned Violator. Perhaps he thought so too, as in 1995 Wilder quit the band claiming that his influence and effort had never been properly recognised. I have to agree, most people have never heard of him, but they will know many of the tunes he helped to shape.

As an interesting footnote, Wilder sold off much of memorabilia and even some keyboards used with Depeche Mode in 2011 and the videos created for the auction make for absorbing watching.

The second Alan goes by the, not uncommon, name of Alan Whyte. He’s a guitarist and songwriter and was a local Burnt Oak boy (his mum knew the mum of a guy I was in a band with). But you probably haven’t heard of him. You almost certainly have heard of some of the songs he’s written and performed on. If I say that he co-wrote Glamorous Glue, Dagenham Dave, You’re The One For Me Fatty, Don’t Make Fun Of Daddy’s Voice then some of you might know who he worked with. However if I mention that he co-wrote Irish Blood, English Heart and First of the Gang to Die then I expect that many more of you will know these songs and who he played guitar for.

Yes, indeedy, alongside his conspirator – Boz Boorer – Alan Whyte wrote the music for many of Morrissey’s biggest tunes (not just him though, he has also written for Madonna, Chris Brown, Rihanna and The Black Eyed Peas).

Whatever you may think of Morrissey’s dodgy politics, you can’t fail to appreciate the sheer scale and excellent writing of many of his big hits. Well, funnily enough, he didn’t actually write them all himself. It was probably the song “You’re The One For Me Fatty” that first made he appreciate his work. Sure the lyric is provocative, but the tune is catchy, circular and well crafted. I was hooked.

I got hold of some live DVDs and was even more blown away. With a succession of beautiful Gibson and Gretsch semi-acoustic guitars Whyte and Boorer brought a sweaty, muscular rockabilly sound to Morrissey’s thoughtful, spiteful and left-field lyrics. It absolutely worked for me. Where I found The Smiths too introspective and clever, this was rock-and-roll at it’s best for me. Great tunes, big guitars and thought-provoking lyrics.

In the end though, like with the previous Alan, it all got a bit too much and a nervous breakdown led him to leave the band in 2007, perhaps Morrissey finally got to him, as he seems to be getting to us all these days.

Now I must confess that I’d never heard of my third Alan, when he was first mentioned to me by my good friend Tudor Davies. But it turned out that he needed a guitarist, and I was rather in need of a new band. And so it turned out that I got to meet the New-Prog-Legend that is Alan Reed, in his own house, playing his own songs (badly to start with). Although I could never hope to emulate the guitar lines of Niall Mathewson from his (most popular band) – Pallas (not the only band he's been in by the way) – it turned out that wasn’t what he was really after. Indeed Alan’s own guitar lines, especially in his excellent album – Honey On A Razor’s Edge – were not a million miles away from my own. Check out the riff on Razor and compare to my own on Snatch. You can, at least, see why Tudor thought that I might be suitable and, after appointing the amazing Mark Spencer as fall-back guitarist, I was in.

What an experience it has been (so far) – with the aforementioned Tudor on keyboards, Mark on electric guitar, Jennifer Ellen Clark on bass and the incredibly in demand Henry Rogers on bass we were off and running. Gigs in Stoke, Southampton, Glasgow and London followed, plus festival appearances at HRH Prog and Summer’s End in Wales and foreign trips to Pagney (France) and Boerderij Cultuurplatform (Netherlands). It’s been a total riot. Somewhere along the way we even managed to produce a live CD (Live From The Razor’s Edge) and there are rumours of a live DVD. Somehow I’ve even managed to lend my guitar tones to a solo record by Jennifer and crowd-type singing to a Twelfth Night release (coming soon). We now have a reputation for good music, energy and the sheer enjoyment of knowing that we are STILL IN A BAND!

Come and see us play next year.

Oh, so who is the final Alan in my series? Well my dad, of course - Alan Callow. The man who bought me my first guitar (birthday present I think, since my first keyboard was for passing my O Levels and I did terribly at A Level, and so generic a Strat copy that it had nothing at all written on the headstock) – that played one gig (see picture, the song is Wrapped Around Your Finger by The Police - easy number to start with, not) and then was promptly part exchanged for something better. He also tolerated our practices (as did our mum) and lent me his estate car to drive to endless gigs. Thanks dad, without your assistance and love not much of this would be possible.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Teleman - Family Of Aliens - Fragile electro-pop with a hint of vaudeville

I was invited to see Teleman first by a friend (stand up James King) who was always on the look out for fun things to do in Brighton. The first time I saw them was at the Old Market in central Hove and I was surprised by how much I liked them. Their music is a very light-weight form of pop that is so fragile in its construction that you almost think it might break at any moment. In fact, during my friend’s favourite tune – Christina – it actually does stop, and you are momentarily wondering if it will start again. Having said that, each tune was beautiful, melodic and just a bit different, which left me wanting more.

 My personal favourite at that point was a euro-friendly number called Düsseldorf, featuring genuine German translation at one point. Its more robust sound and indeed the generally more beefed up nature of their second album hinted at more electro-rock-esque possibilities for the future, in their third album – Family Of Aliens – this duly arrived.

Family Of Aliens is, not unnaturally, how the band see themselves, and perhaps having realised that's who they are, they certainly sound more confident and at home with their sound on this record. The keyboards and electro-pop component is ramped up, and often builds up into joyous extended instrumental sections (Submarine Life, Cactus) that verge on the edges of modern dance music. This is a record crying out for extended 12” remixes if that is still a thing.

At points they are so electro-pop on this disk that you could almost imagine this was how the Pet Shop Boys would sound if one of them played electric guitar. Song For A Seagull falls into this category, a tune that invokes the loneliness of a sea bird whilst simultaneously being up-beat and joyous. Indeed it’s when these elements are combined that Teleman are at their best. I find their music both uplifting and heart-breaking, the latter aided by singer Thomas Sanders unusually tremulous vocals. After all a band that can be both life-affirming and melancholic in the same song, pretty much has something for everyone who loves pop music.

The new found knees-up pomp hits its highest mark with the, practically Madness/Supergrass-esque duo of Twisted Heart and Between The Rain, but fret ye not, the fragility is still there too. Always Dreaming starts with a slow monophonic piano refrain and the next instrument to join sounds like an acoustic bass, it’s the perfect tune to accompany a wallow in misery, should you be so inclined.

Overall then, I have to say it’s a beautiful thing. Certainly their most confident, balanced and exciting record to date. Nothing stands out and that’s very much in it’s favour, it’s all excellent and a pleasure to listen to from end to end. In fact, I may even be inclined to get a vinyl copy, if they exist, as sonically it’s so varied that it would be a good match to the musicality of needle, amplifier and speaker.

I was once told that in the perfect photograph the darkest area will be 100% black and the lightest area pure white, that is to say the unexposed, pure white of the photographic paper – and I’ve always thought that a similar analogy should apply to music, that is to say that the loudest part of any record (or live set) should be the loudest noise you can manage, and the quietest bit should be silence. With this record, I think Teleman have cracked it. It’s the perfect picture, onto which you can project the best and worst moments of your life and revel in them both. It will be played on repeat in a thousand teenage bedrooms and, although mainstream radio might not pick it up, it is surely a pop classic that will simply grow in stature over time.

Personally, I love it, and I’m already excited to see what they conjure up next.

P.S.  There is no such thing as a seagull

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

We Are Traffic

Some trees, no cars.
We are traffic.

Have you ever stopped for a few moments to consider how the world around you would look if there were no cars? Try it now (well, not now, but in a few minutes after you have read this) – step out into your road and imagine that all the cars were gone. Perhaps you could let your imagination run riot and imagine each car replaced with a tree. Splashes of green where now there is garish metal, plastic, rubber and rust. Imagine a street were you can walk to the shops, or the bus down a pathway between shrubs, birds singing, children cycling and playing. It would be nice wouldn’t it?

But that’s not what we have. Instead we have more and more cars and a whole industry geared up to convincing us that we all need to own one, and drive it pointlessly around and around, because that’s cool, isn’t it? We need connectivity to our phones and wi-fi on tap, even though vehicles kill roughly 1,700 people every year in the UK (that's 1.25 million worldwide, equalling the total deaths from the First World War roughly every 15 years) and mobile phone usage in cars, vans and lorries is a big contributor to that.

Also, dunno if you’ve noticed this, but there is a lot of column inches (is that still a thing) being devoted to air pollution these days. Where does this blight on our, our children and old folks lives come from?

We are pollution.

And while we are thinking about it. When was the last time that driving a car was actually fun? Personally it was a long time ago, when I was young and foolish. The world feels different now, and even with all their much publicised problems, the train feels like much more pleasant option these days. You can read a book (is that still a thing) and go on Instagram without endangering everyone around you.

So what can be done? It seems to me that people are not keen to change their behaviour if it feels inconvenient to them in any way. Even though walking, cycling or taking public transport are either good for you, or good for the world, if you can just jump in your car to drive round the block, why would you give that up? Look at the plastic bag situation. For many years we’ve known that single use plastic bags were a blight on our world. Blowing around the countryside, strangling life and shredding into a billion invisible pieces that we now ingest with almost every mouthful. But did anyone change their behaviour until a tax was put on them? Well some did. In fact, I still mourn the fact that you used to get Tesco Clubcard points (other supermarket point based schemes are available) for every bag you re-used. Gone is the carrot, all hail the stick. And lo and behold bag usage is down to, oh you know just the odd 1.04 billion per year (it was 7.6 billion in 2014, but f**k me that still seems a lot). So I’m thinking that we need government to act if we are to have any chance with reducing pointless car journeys.

Here’s some thoughts then, let me know if you think any of these might tempt you out of your car and onto your feet.
  1. Increased Council Charge for any households with more than one car registered to the household
  2. Decreased Council Charge for any households with no cars registered there
  3. Raise the age you can start driving to 18
  4. Give free bicycles to 16 year olds
  5. Hell, give a free bicycle to everyone who wants one, they are a couple of hundred quid each. Anyone know how much one car costs us in road repairs, infrastructure, pollution and hospital bills per year? 
  6. Free bus passes to anyone who doesn’t own a car
  7. Mandatory buy-back scheme for the worst polluters, turning the scrap metal into, well bicycles seems an obvious fit
  8. Increase fuel duty
  9. Re-introduce road tax charging it by the mile
  10. Ban car adverts that show people driving pointlessly around and around unrealistically empty streets, or over the countryside (just see how many of these you notice now)
  11. Hell, ban all car adverts
I could go on. I probably will. But even if all that seems unpalatable to you, at least remember one thing. This isn’t someone else’s problem. If you own a car (and I do, although I seldom use it these days), then this is your problem and one day our kids will ask us what we did about it.

We are traffic.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Steampunk Podcast - ARC Light Programme

Since writing stories, performing with prog rock bands and doing my day job are clearly not enough, I have begun serialising my stories into a podcast series.  Based around a fictional presenter (Theodore Pilkington-Rhubarb) and his hapless assistant (Mabel - surname not yet revealed), the podcast takes the form of an old-fashioned radio show in the style of the Goon Show or I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.  Each week I read part of my book (either a whole story or half of one, concluding the following week) plus new material that I write.  At the moment this is a collection of Listener's Letters, but soon I'm going to branch out into other silly ideas.

It's also a great showcase for the steampunk music of Charlotte Savigar - it works so well in this context and it's well worth getting the album if you like what you hear.  It's all good clean fun and suitable for listeners of any age.  If you love a bit of comedy / storytelling and enjoy a good podcast or audio book, then it's well worth checking out.

You can subscribe via iTunes or Overcast or just visit Soundcloud to hear the episodes.  It's on Stitcher too and TuneIn, but I don't know the links (okay I found the links, so you can click any of them now).  You can find it by searching for "Tales of New Albion".  Do let me know what you think!  There is a new episode coming every week.

Mind you, you can't please all the people all the time.  Have a read of this letter, I don't know, critics!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Interview with Charlotte Savigar

As part of the promotion for the new Tales Of New Albion steampunk electro-rock album, I managed to get hold of the talented composer - Charlotte Savigar - to ask her a few questions about the creation process:

How did you get into music composing?

After starting piano aged 7, it was obvious I had an instant love for this instrument and indeed music. I remember as a kid listening to composers such as Liszt and Chopin at my Grandad’s house and feeling incredibly moved and connected to the piano pieces I was hearing. I guess this was the catalyst that prompted me to sit down and start writing my own music.
I wrote my first solo piano composition aged 11, it was called ‘Pulse’ and I remember feeling really proud of my creation. I even performed it at a school assembly. From there I filled up manuscript book after manuscript book writing down as many ideas as I could. 

Tell us about the Tales Of New Albion project and how that came about

I spend the majority of my time writing library music and every so often I will have a quiet patch where I’m waiting for my next project to begin. With this knowledge, my husband suggested that I write a piece of music for his next story (from the Tales of New Albion) that he was due to read at an upcoming Surrey Steampunk Convivial. After doing a little research about the steampunk genre I decided to create a victoriana / scifi sounding track that is now officially the ‘Albion theme music’. We were both very happy with the composition so Daren suggested that I compose more pieces to accompany his book. Over the course of about 10 months, he gave me more and more story briefs and I pretty much had free range to choose my musical pallet and get creative!  

What is your favourite track from the album and why?

My favourite track is ‘Lost in the Great White’, I would describe this as ‘the serious track’ on the album! It took a lot of time to create this Asian sounding composition and the reason I like it so much is that it really moves me. I feel an emotional connection this piece and am very proud of the writing here.

Your previous releases were more song based, how was it working on an instrumental album?

I loved it! As much as I enjoyed and still do enjoy recording vocal music in the studio, I struggle so much with writing lyrics that on so many occasions it’s held me back. I realised towards the end of 2015 that I was losing the passion for writing songs and once I started writing library music I decided that this was where my heart felt whole and ironically I felt I could express myself more through instrumental music than through words.
With this album I had the opportunity to write for instruments I wouldn’t have ever thought of writing for in the past. In particular synths! They play a big part in the album and really create the scifi landscape I was trying to achieve. I felt throughout the whole project that I had the freedom to create whatever I wanted and as a composer that felt truly liberating!

Any plans for a follow up?

Well Daren is already writing volume 2 so hell yeah!!!

Tell us something about your self that not many people know.

Apparently I’m a bus nerd! And I love to do impersonations!

Check out Charlie's website and download Tales Of New Albion from Bandcamp.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Tales Of New Albion - the Soundtrack Album

Well this is something a bit different from my usual posts.  A while back when I was doing a few readings of my Steampunk stories I asked Charlie (Charlotte Savigar) if she would do a piece of music as an intro for me.  One thing led to another and now we are very proud to announce that we have released a whole album's worth of music to accompany the book.  I'll post an interview with the composer and more about the specific tunes, but make sure you check it out here on Soundcloud.

If you like what you hear, then please do purchase the album from Bandcamp.  You can also order a signed copy of the book along with a signed CD of the soundtrack from Bandcamp, so check that out too.

A lot of the tracks are real earworms, but make sure you at least check out Ellen Hall, Tobias Fitch and Lost In The Great White - as these are just great pieces of music.  Once again there is great artwork by Frog Morris to accompany the release.  Charlie wrote, performed and mixed all these tracks and we had them mastered by Gethin John at Hafod Mastering just outside Cardiff.

I can't recommend this highly enough, so please do check it out and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Conversation With An Imp

It was dusk as I wandered drowsily and stiff with the fatigues of the day out into my garden, a bag of mealworms clutched in my hand to feed my local hedgehogs. There was a simple science to doing this. Your common or garden Hedgehog’s diet overlaps with both birds and cats, so choosing something that cats are not too fond of is ideal. Mealworms fit this bill perfectly, however the local birds will happy eat those, so you have to wait to put them out until it is late enough to prevent the birds swooping and nabbing the lot. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so you never see them in daylight unless they are unwell. Right now the warm evening light was a hazy shade of light orange, evocative and dreamlike.

With a small start I realised that standing at the bottom of my lawn in the little hollow near the bush where the fox liked to snooze was a curious looking child, or perhaps a midget as its face was noticeably older looking that its size would imply. Not dissimilar to how the infant Jesus is often portrayed with oddly mature features. It was about four feet tall and dressed plainly in white or very pale blue, its curiously androgynous features were friendly and it had a pleasant, calming smile as though it was delighted to see me. Nevertheless it chilled me rigid and a shiver pierced me through. It raised a hand slightly in a manner perhaps intended to relax me.
‘Please do not be afraid, we will not harm you.’ It spoke in a curiously adult voice, neither distinctly male nor female sounding, but sympathetic and mild. Not for the last time I was inclined to believe it. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked, trying to be calm although my throat was very dry and the words did not come without gruffness attached.
‘No,’ replied the imp with the merest of shrugs. ‘Perhaps we help you.’ It was a statement rather than a question. I swallowed and shook my head slightly to see if that helped in any way. The light continued its lazy drift through the oranges towards burnt ochre. I found myself curious that it had said “we”.
‘How many of you are there?’ I rasped dryly, flicking my eyes around nervously to see if there was more of its kind lurking nearby.
‘Difficult to say,’ it replied in a tone that seemed to imply that it would be hard to explain, rather than it being uncertain on the numbers. It was still slightly creepy though; if it had intoned, “We are legion” in the voice of the devil, I would have been no more perturbed.
‘Are you from round here?’ the question sounded daft even as I formed it.
‘Difficult to say,’ it intoned soothingly again, ‘we have been here before.’
Something felt very strange suddenly, perhaps it was the light. It was darker, but still eerily lit in ruddy tones creeping towards crimson. The clothing of the creature, for I dared not consider it human now, seemed more brilliantly white than before. This brought something to mind and without really considering it I blurted,
‘Are you an angel?’ The creature grinned broadly at this as though amused by the thought, however it shook its head subtly in a way that did not imply anything other than a simple denial.
‘No,’ it replied kindly. However it pre-empted further questions with an expanded explanation this time. ‘What we are is difficult to say. We can tell you what you are.’ The weighting on these words gave me the distinct impression that it didn’t mean me personally, but something much wider, more encompassing. I gulped but could not muster any words at this point as I was distinctly freaking right out (without any difficulty). ‘You are Selfish.’ It continued, still with a simple disarming smile and happy tone to its voice as though discussing a much-cherished pet. Fair enough, I thought but again could not muster any words at this point. The benevolent imp continued to smile pleasantly and its eyebrows lifted just a millimetre or two as if wondering if I had further questions. I did not know what to think. Somehow my lips found shapes and air left my heaving lungs.
‘Why are you here?’ I seemed to have asked, although I was not sure if I had actually spoken out loud. I was suddenly aware of my heart hammering somewhere amongst the veins in my neck.
‘To visit you,’ stated the imp, but again it seemed to imply that the visit was not to me personally. ‘To study and see if we can change.’ I gulped hard, not really following what it was saying. ‘Your planet will continue to revolve,’ it added, but my brain was now spinning sufficiently all on its own. A shudder of dizziness washed over me and wondered if I might faint. ‘We have been here before,’ it repeated, ‘we were selfish.’ This last addendum seemed to suggest that the selfish could overcome their inwardly greedy ways. Why was it speaking to me though, on this warm, sleepy evening that now ebbed inexorably into night? ‘To not be selfish, you must do something that does not benefit yourself,’ spoke the smiling face as though it had read my thoughts, could it read my thoughts? Was it even real?
‘How?’ I croaked in my pitchy head voice.
‘You feed the hedgehogs,’ it replied soothingly in a way that was neither fully instruction nor fully statement.
‘Feed the hedgehogs,’ I mouthed parrot fashion. I could not fathom the implications of the sentence. ‘Literally or metaphorically?’ I worded, astonished at my sudden evolution into some sort of philosophy professor.
‘It is difficult to say, but you should know.’ My head felt clamped now, the whole unreality of this discourse was clanging like a bell in my ears. ‘Hedgehogs are not aware that they are endangered.’ There was a rustling sound from the bushes and a snuffling that did not dissipate. I held still, I knew that hedgehogs have poor eyesight, but would depart pronto if they heard me move. ‘Life is fragile,’ said a gentle voice from somewhere.
‘Life is lumpy,’ I replied, there was the slightest of slight chuckles.
‘This will be hard for you to recall, you do not believe’.
‘You mean no one will believe me, or I will not remember?’ I do not know if I thought this or spoke it acoustically, since neither my garden nor my inner monologue has an echo. 

The sky was dark now, the soft amber glow from the garden lights was the only faint illumination. I could hear the hedgehogs snuffling in the shrubbery and found some residual energy to quietly move and place their food on the ground in the usual spots. I felt like something profound had happened, but I could not tell if it had really taken place or I had imagined it. I was not sure what the difference would be. Sometimes I am awoken suddenly at night by the sound of my doorbell, but no one is at the door; it felt like that.
 ‘I wonder if the hedgehogs will survive our selfishness?’ It was night, and I was talking to myself.