The War Against Intelligence

John Williamson's web stuff


March 2007

Top of the Pops


I must admit to paying little, make that no, attention to Top of the Pops since it was removed from the air last year. Yet it still exists, sort of, as a kind of publicly-funded brand extension.

So why am I watching this recording of TOTP2? Well, it is mainly down to a press release received earlier in the week entitled ‘How Queer – Fire Engines on TOTP2.’ Yes, these Fire Engines – Henderson, Slade, Burn & Main – a short-lived band from Edinburgh circa 1980.They were never known to have unduly troubled the chart compilers (although the sales of ‘Big Gold Dream’ would have easily found them in the top 5 these days) and hardly TV regulars at the time. The footage came, apparently, from a long forgotten show called ‘Riverside.’

The context here is key. With the exception of the Kaiser Chiefs doing a spot of product placement for their new album in the studio and an Arctic Monkeys’ video, the nature of the show is one of faintly ridiculous nostalgia. It would appear that the BBC archives are not raided for the best performances (or perhaps they have used them all up) but for a ragtag of items that could not be more musically disconnected if they tried. Hence we have Genesis performing ‘Follow You, Follow Me’ with a relatively hirsute Phil overcompensating in the front man’s role since his elevation from the drum kit. It is damning with faint praise to hail this actually o.k. pop song as one of his finest ever works.

A glimpse of Elton John’s ‘Kiss The Bride’ recalls a period when Reg had hair, bad teeth, big glasses and was married. Those around in 83 may have been justified in thinking that his career was on its last legs. Unfortunately, Live Aid, Princess Di and a hair weave put paid to such optimistic predictions.

Yet even Elton is outdone in the nonsense stakes by Marillion. Fish, sports tartan trousers and a six-fister (official unit of measurement of the mullet) while using some hand scrawled lyrics on a flip chart, ‘Don’t Look Back’ style, in a vain attempt to convince us that ‘Lavender Blue’ is, in fact, poetry. A double-headed guitar only adds to the unintended comedy value.

If this is embedded in the eighties, then so is the incongruous clip of the Waterboys’ ‘Glastonbury Song.’ It is all superfluous backing vocals, big keyboards and Mike Scott in a red beret hiding surplus hair. Unfortunately, this would be vaguely forgivable (after all he has made some good records) if it were recorded in the said decade. It was 1993.

So in these surroundings Fire Engines, musically lean and physically (cod liver) oiled, are timeless and transcendent. They have been gigging occasionally in recent years and their limited back catalogue has been reactivated by Domino (in the first instance where the band own the rights) and presumably the highest bidder (in the other where they don’t). Their some-time label mates, Arctic Monkeys, have never looked so ordinary by comparison. Queer, indeed.


Corinne Bailey Rae

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Projected to stardom with a memorable Jools Holland appearance and a stunning single, ‘Put Your Records On’, 2006 seemed to mark the emergence of a global superstar in Corinne Bailey Rae.

However, this concert, rescheduled from last October, is an underwhelming spectacle, as much a result of recording industry’s star-making regime than the artist herself.

There is no question that Bailey Rae is a likeable and modest performer, with a great voice and some interesting, genre-crossing ideas. Yet everything about this presentation, from the production to the execution, seems hurried and somehow incomplete. The eight piece band is polished and proficient but often superfluous. Though her voice is soulful in a Roberta Flack fashion, it is not particularly powerful and works best when less rather than more instrumentation is applied.

A case in point is one of the better songs, ‘No Love Child’ which starts as a pretty piano based ballad before turning into a messy gospel crescendo with backing vocalists, brass and drums all competing for attention.

The pacing of the set is also unfathomable. With a shortage of great songs and a surplus of filler, it makes for a run of mediocre, mid-tempo material, punctuated by a dreadful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Long Summer’ before she finally reaches the Isley Brothers inspired ‘Like a Star’, ‘Put Your Records On’ and “Choux Pastry Heart’, the three highlights of her debut album.

There is also hope in that the new songs sound more intriguing than many of the album tracks, but a strategic rethink is surely required. For now, Bailey Rae appears both phased by and uncomfortable with the perhaps unexpected demands and scale of touring a three million selling record.

Kristin Hersh

Oran Mor, Glasgow

At forty years of age, Kristin Hersh could be forgiven for slowing down or looking back on a musical journey that began when she formed Throwing Muses at the age of fourteen. Since then she has juggled band work with a solo career and more recently with a new outfit, 50 Foot Wave.

Yet this is no triumph of quantity over quality: she retains the restless energy and intense presence that marked her out as a uniquely driven writer and performer two decades ago.

This is achieved mainly utilising the taut material from her recent ‘Learn To Sing Like A Star’ album, with a few landmark selections from ‘Hips and Makers’ and ‘Sunny Border Blue’ thrown in.

Though drawing almost entirely on solo tracks, it is a far from laid back show, with Hersh’s guttural guitar pickings augmented by her two 50 Foot Wave band mates as a rhythm section. However, rather than opting for her oft-preferred power trio line up, strings are added throughout by The McCarricks, who double up as support act.

It makes for a big, robust sound that covers the wear and tear in Hersh’s voice. Even so, the verve with which she attacks ‘Day Glow,’ Listerine’ and ‘Sugar Baby’ shows no concession to illness (a cold), and the pace is maintained throughout, with the most restrained song, ‘White Bikini Sand,’ (one of only two Throwing Muses songs) being the slowest on offer.

In between, she is an engaging mixture of self-depreciation (describing ‘The Letter’ as ‘ a “very bad song, written by me”) and wit (recounting stories of previous visits to Glasgow), all contributing to the overall impression of an artist entirely at ease in her own, disturbingly attractive world.

Arcade Fire

Barrowlands, Glasgow

It is not only the deafeningly euphoric response that suggests this is Arcade Fire’s moment. With two sold out shows and an album, ‘Neon Bible,’ that missed the number 1 slot by less than 400 sales, they appear destined to make the near seamless transition from growing cult to mainstream acceptance.

It refreshingly rare to see a band so emboldened with confidence, so energised in the performance and, perhaps, so oblivious to their own shortcomings. Even so, it is an alluring performance, not least because of the mixture of instrumentation and power on display.

While anyone who does their bit to give the viola a prominent place in rock music deserves commendation, it would be a more effective ruse were the sound mix sufficiently clear to discern what exactly is going on.

Therein lies the problem that makes this a likeable rather than amazing show. For all the layers of sound, the end effect is surprisingly bereft of subtlety. The bass drum dominates, the vocals are submerged and the combined effect of the anthems (‘Keep The Car Running’, ‘Black Mirror’ and the closing ‘Wake Up’) is one of being bludgeoned into submission in a manner not evident on the albums.

Win Butler is a charismatic frontman, launching himself into the audience at one point, but his wife, Regine Chassagne, seems to encapsulate the spirit of the group – appearing all over the stage with different instruments in hand and taking lead vocals on the most interesting song, ‘Haiti’ – full of the sort of dislocated rhythms last heard on the Sugarcubes’ debut album.

If they stick to their principles and continue their present ascent, Arcade Fire may yet become the best arena rock band ever. (John Williamson)

Bryan Ferry

Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow


At the age of 61, Bryan Ferry’s decline is perhaps best measured by his media profile. Having made three of the best records of the 1970s, he is now best known as the face of Marks & Spencer and a voice of the Countryside Alliance.

It is hard not to view his current tour beyond that context, and an air of self-satisfaction at the underachieving musical wares on display is as predictable as it is disappointing.

While it all begins in lively enough fashion with The In Crowd and Kiss and Tell it soon descends into a tasteful, mid-tempo groove that does its best to eclipse Ferry’s still-great voice.

If the Roxy Music reformation concerts of 2001 showed a reinvigorated frontman, still capable of breaking a sweat, this is very much Ferry on the type of autopilot that has characterised his solo output.

The playing, particularly by long-term collaborators Chris Spedding and Andy Newmark is impeccable, though the cocktail-jazz saxophone interlude while Ferry took a break to change into some tartan trousers typifies a desire to please rather than push boundaries.

With only Just Like You and the inevitable encore of Jealous Guy from the Roxy catalogue, much of the show draws on his current collection of Bob Dylan songs, Dylanesque.

As with the recorded versions, it is difficult to see the point. Ferry’s voice plus great songs really ought to make for more than he tends to produce. Knocking on Heaven’s Door and Simple Twist of Fate are cases in point: stripped of nuance and laden down by over playing.

Belatedly, Let’s Stick Together raises the tempo a little, but the abundance of complacency makes up for the apparent lack of hunger throughout.

The Gossip

ABC, Glasgow
After the best part of five years touring small venues and being widely ignored by all but the most hardcore fans, the rise to prominence of The Gossip, and more specifically their frontwoman, Beth Ditto, is as unexpected as it is pleasing.

Indeed, this is a sold out rock show that is inclusive, funny, self-depreciating and powered by her incredible energy and presence.

These factors, coupled with a predominantly female audience, make it utterly atypical of the dour, male greyness of the majority of NME sponsored indie-rock, or the contrivance that is the ‘nu-rave’ scene on which they have hitched something of a ride.

Instead, Ditto’s most obvious musical reference points are the likes of The Slits, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre – bands that channelled female punk energy into an arguably more arty, less commercial concoction.

The accessibility derives mainly from Ditto’s voice (somewhere between Ronnie Spector and Candi Staton) rather than the songs. Few punk inspired bands have ever had the benefit of such a rich, soulful voice, which makes up for the sketchbook nature of some of the songs.

At their best – the current single, ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ and ‘My Jealousy’ – the tunes are riotously danceable, but often it is the sheer force of Ditto’s personality and the voice that drive the material rather than vice versa.

The only cautionary note is the singer’s own discomfort in her new found success. Deciding that the stage is “too big” and could house “forty Smart Cars,” she descends into the audience and with it goes both the visual focus and sound quality.

Nevertheless, watching their discomfort in success, though slightly incongruous, is both refreshing and a large part of the thrill.

Scottish music industry welcomes new funding initiative

music industry

Scotland’s music industry is to benefit from extra and better co-ordinated support from the country’s enterprise networks, it was announced today.

A key element of this will be a new £500,000 fund – the Scottish Music Futures Fund – to support the music stars of tomorrow. The new fund will be made available across Scotland.

The summit follows on from the Music Industry Summit in October last year and involved the Cross Party Group on Contemporary Music (CPG), representatives of the enterprise networks, Scottish Arts Council, and figures from the Scottish music industry.

Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen said:

“There has been a lot of work done since last year’s Music Summit. I am pleased that the sector is now organising itself to speak with one voice and is in a position to express the needs of the industry as a whole.

“I am delighted to confirm that Ministers have listened to that voice. The industry asked us to support the proposed new Scottish Music Industry Association (SMIA). Scottish Enterprise (SE) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will now contribute financially to the creation of the new association.

“We will make £500,000 available to administer the new Scottish Music Futures Fund. It will be administered by HIE, who have considerable expertise in supporting the music industry.

“The enterprise networks will also will work alongside the Scottish Arts Council and industry representatives to support the industry to develop its strategy for contemporary music.

“This strategy will require close and detailed discussions with the music industry. This will result in the delivery for the first time in Scotland of a strategy to support the commercial development of the music industry. The Scottish Arts Council and the new SMIA, once it is operational will be involved in the consultation.

“The Scottish contemporary music industry is making its mark internationally and is something of which we should be proud. It is an industry that deserves government backing. I am delighted to give that backing – the fusion of musical talent with business expertise can significantly strengthen our growing industry.”

The CPG was formed in 2000 and comprises a broad cross-section of musicians, music industry figures, politicians, education experts and media representatives. The CPG believes that Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in the creation and marketing of contemporary music, and has a big contribution to make to the Scottish economy.

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