Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Tale Of Four Ala(i)ns

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… Ala(i)ns.

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 Ala(i)n goes by the, not uncommon, name of Alain 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 – Alain 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.