6. REVOLUTIONARY MILLENARIUM OF THE MIDDLE-AGED 2000 – 2004
It always seemed to me that most of us reach a time in our lives when dreams of scaling mountains, scoring goals and breaking down barriers fade away to be replaced by Saturday afternoons at B&Q and a spot of decorating. And it must have been my middle class conditioning that convinced me that time would come at forty. While I had no choice but to improve my woeful DIY skills with a pot of filler and a paint brush to make our house halfway decent, there was still time for one memorable last hurrah. At my belated fortieth birthday party a week into the new millennium, I was handed a ‘smoke’ dosed with DMT, PCP or some other hallucinogen that left me fixed to a garden chair in the middle of the lawn not daring to move for two hours through fear of drowning in the grass. Around midnight, with hypothermia setting in, I dived into the green stuff, swam to the safety of the concrete patio and promptly puked my guts up. I reckon that little adventure was as good a way as any to celebrate the big four O!
It’s strange but for as long as I could remember I had imagined myself at forty, if only because it coincided with the year 2000. When I was a young adolescent, the science fiction literature of the late sixties and early seventies had promised us a brave new world, a space age utopia in which we’d be flying around in silver jump suits with jet packs strapped to our backs. The future would be now and that now would be 2000 AD. For some reason I never imagined myself beyond that, say in 2010 or 2020. Those dates held no significance whatsoever. In fact a part of me always had the poetic, rather juvenile idea that as soon as the clock struck midnight on that cold, wet, New Millennium Eve, I would simply disappear into the ether. My childhood dreams failed to become reality but it still felt fantastic to finally get to a 21st century that had once seemed so far away. For the first time in my life I was truly loved and truly happy, and yet while there was a whole lot of living and loving to be done, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a global event that ultimately would have a devastating impact on me and mine.
In the past I’d never been bothered by international strife of any sort, so on 11th September 2001, when whispers began floating around work that a plane had smashed into the Twin Towers, I wasn’t overly interested. Never one of those kids in thrall to America or Americana, as I grew older world events merely served to reinforce my feeling that America the country was fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent. Forged during the unholy Thatcher/Reagan eighties love in, my distrust and dislike for ‘the land of the free’ intensified as the Britain I knew and loved morphed into the 51st state, the Yankee tidal wave of shopping malls, all-conquering franchises, gaudy advertising and junk food squeezing the life out of our own culture and identity, the subsequent stoking of insatiable desire pushing us into some kind of living hell.
Needless to say, that didn’t stop me from scuttling off to find the nearest TV in the shabby, sticky carpeted, council, social club, mainly because it was yet another handy excuse for a fag break. Even when the second plane imploded and the towers tumbled in startling, slow motion I didn’t pause to consider the possible consequences. Like most of those watching with me, I had plenty of sympathy for the victims but none at all for America itself. It could even be said that we were all secretly pleased that the land of the arrogant had finally been given a taste of its own medicine, although perhaps we should have guessed that for George W. Bush it was just the excuse he needed to turn his cowboy fantasy into reality.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as slimy toad Tony Blair bleated on about the new rules of terrorism, the sheer magnitude of what was happening both nationally and internationally slowly dawned on me. Suddenly we were being told that this new form of terror tactic offered a different kind of threat that required a brand new approach whereby certain fundamental rights we had historically taken for granted were now seen as impediments to our protection as opposed to a means of ensuring it. That things were changing was obvious, but there were serious doubts that it was quite to the extent Blair and Bush were suggesting.
Working in local government, itself a microcosm of how central government operates, I knew well enough how the ruling political parties loved to generate fear, not only when it was justified, but also as a convenient diversion from more damaging issues. And even though 9/11 led to us naively giving up a large chunk of our freedom in the name of security via an increase in the powers of the police, the proliferation of CCTV and surveillance equipment and the management and containment of populations, it also led to the haunting spectres of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worryingly, as British military involvement in those distant lands gathered momentum, my youngest son Richard was preparing to leave school at sixteen to join the infantry. It was only then that I finally put the two together and realised how the coming War on Terror might impact on our future. Exciting for sure but as scary as hell. And to think that I’d not had a clue where Afghanistan was until I reached for the atlas. Ironically, eighteen months later, right at the point when our personal rights were really being squeezed and our liberties eroded, the wonderful world of pop culture began its own all-out assault on the music industries own towers of power. Instead of planes it would involve technology, but this time just like the War on Terror, there would be no going back.
The arrival of iTunes and the expansion of MP3 culture changed the hallowed rules of pop forever, and in so doing sparked a revolution in consumerism and creativity that had nothing to do with individual artists or new genres and absolutely everything to do with technology. The invention of the iPod and the advent of illegal downloading in particular allowed us to access music, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Naturally the industry vented its spleen, ranting long and loud about the supposed psychological impact of getting music for free and how it would lead to a belief that music itself had no specific value, and yet that bigotry was only to be expected, especially when CD sales and profit margins began to slide.
In reality, the effect of free downloads on record company coffers proved minimal, but what they did do was break the industries monopoly on what was available and its ability to dictate taste. No longer brainwashed by conglomerate marketing and corporate radio playlists, it was possible to listen to whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. And with the inevitable demystification of computer software allowing any kid with a PC and a handful of ideas to create music from the comfort of their own bedroom, there was a hell of a lot of new songs to listen to.
The MP3 also revitalised interest in the past as online digital archives opened the flood gates of once forbidden and forgotten territories to bring every song ever recorded within easy reach. I was no different and launched myself into an obsessive second adolescence, greedily gobbling up hour after hour of material that had suddenly, magically, become available at the click of a button. With my insatiable quest for pop nirvana still burning bright, I suddenly felt the need to hear to all those saintly artists and records I’d ignored back in the day that even now continue to fill the top slots in all those depressing best album in the world polls. For the first and last time I spent every spare minute I had listening to everyone from The Beatles and Dylan to Neil Young and Frank Zappa before realising that most of them had nothing to do with me and simply weren’t worth the disk space.
One unexpected downside to all this discovery was that even new groups and artists began to sound tainted by a past that was proving impossible to escape. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d heard most of them somewhere before, and that the noughties was rapidly turning into a decade of rampant recycling where it was perfectly OK to reconstruct genres and styles plundered from the last forty, even fifty, years of music culture. Even the once shining lights of electronica and hip hop who had forged new futures seemingly at will began to sound repetitive and dull. It sounded to me as if the mania for nostalgia had finally put a stop to music’s ability to move on.
With my daily routine dominated by such a surfeit of downloading and listening, I found it problematic fitting in some of the more mundane things in life. The endless hours of DIY took a backseat but working for a living was trickier because like most folk I had no choice. After more than a decade of enduring some of the crummiest jobs imaginable, off the back of my own intelligence and the misfortune of others, I found myself in the unenviable position of Waste Operations Manager heading up the ranks of bin men I’d once worked alongside. With my complete lack of ambition and a reputation as an awkward bastard who never bowed or scraped to any fucker, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself heading up anything. The fact was that I’d been lucky.
Whispers of wholesale corruption amongst the councils in house labour force (itself a matter for serious scrutiny at a time when the majority of councils were contracting out services) had been rife since my first day, many of the senior managers mysteriously benefiting from new windows, heating systems, conservatories and extensions on huge homes that dwarfed their pay grade. The most persistent, long running rumour involved a handful of tradesmen who claimed they had been working fulltime for three years on the Contract Services Director’s place in Hampshire constructing a luxury residence more in keeping with a Premier League footballer. While it’s undeniable that everyone on the payroll was on some sort of fiddle, the odd fiver pocketed for picking up illicit shop rubbish paled into insignificance in comparison!
Everyone from top to bottom was aware of what was going on, and that including the towns equally tainted Burgermeister’s, and yet they were either too involved, too disempowered or too frightened to act until a new Chief Executive, rightly horrified at the institutionalised misuse of public funds, informed the fraud squad. In one fell swoop the Contract Services senior management team was wiped out, although wisely they had covered their tracks so well that no-one was ever charged with any crime, the lack of compelling evidence turning the whole exercise into a pointless farce. Indeed, so futile was it that once the dust had settled the majority of them enjoyed the benefit of enhanced pensions and handsome pay offs.
As for the rank and file, a month long amnesty was announced to allow the return of any permanently ‘borrowed’, council owned equipment with no questions asked, a move which recovered tens of thousands of pounds worth of computers, printers, power tools, jack hammers, cement mixers and the like, my favourite being the return of a couple of generators that had been hired out to a burger franchise at Leeds Festival by a particularly enterprising highways supervisor. The wag had even had the audacity to pay a couple of his staff double the going overtime rate for delivery and collection, during work time of course.
It was against this backdrop of scams, schemes, lies, intimidation and countless other deplorable tricks endemic in the world of town politics that I took up the reins. Determined to be different to the little Hitler’s I’d had the misfortune to work under, I concentrated on treating my sixty staff with the decency and respect they deserved, an ethos that didn’t exactly endear me to my university educated superiors, who in a classic case of the British class system in action viewed bin men, street sweepers and anyone associated with them as the shit on their shoes.
Nonetheless, I was thrown headlong into a cauldron of local politicking in a staunchly labour council (a rarity in the supposedly prosperous south) that seemed to me to be about nothing more than maintaining the equilibrium and staying in power. My predecessors had all suffered nervous breakdowns, worn down by the anarchistic nature and militant tendency of staff and a union well aware of the disruption they could inflict on politicians, bureaucrats and public alike if they so wished. Decades of cuts had certainly not broken their spirit. It was a job made for me, the money was great and I loved it, at least in the early years before the internal politics became exhausting. I couldn’t have asked for much more in my middle-age; a partner who loved me unreservedly, three great kids, a nice house, a nice car, and for the first time holidays abroad to Spain, the Balearics and the remarkable moonscape of Lanzarote. And yet, as I would soon discover, money couldn't buy us everything.
Our once sweet suburbia had slowly but surely turned sour as every urban idyll tends to do eventually. Late at night hordes of Neanderthal beer bellies would swarm out of the pubs and onto the streets seeking any poor sod in the wrong footie shirt to stab or beat the crap out of while their scabby kids terrorised young and old alike; nicking mobiles, smashing windows, scratching cars. Dan and Rich just accepted it as the norm, supremely confident in their own street smarts, but we became tired of the constant hassle, the final straw coming when the smackhead losers from the sink estate down the hill began a series of break in’s.
Now I’m definitely not someone averse to dishing out some meaningful violence to protect my own, but when the use of carpet gripper on the back fence and the threat of a baseball bat around the head failed to dissuade these drug zombies, it gradually dawned on us that there was going to be no stopping this particular urban tide. And so, not wishing to raise our daughter in such a climate of hate, fear and prejudice, we made plans for a different future. The time had come to move on.
EMINEM ‘The Real Slim Shady’ (The Marshall Mathers LP May 2000)
Back in the day it felt dangerous to think of a white boy nearing the aesthetic zenith of that celebration of black maleness they called hip hop. Then again, because of his colour Eminem had to be twice as good to get ahead, and he was. The first big star of the 21st century, The Marshall Mathers LP was a brilliantly dark, often twisted, commentary on the decline of the American Empire, provoking debate on everything from the working class males fear of homosexual feelings to how the values of the traditional Gods had been replaced by the moral vacuum of hard cash. I could have picked anything off this behemoth of a record but the motor mouthed parent baiting of ‘The Real Slim Shady’ just about nicks it, if only because it resurrects the memory of standing on a railway embankment overlooking the Reading Festival site in August 2001 watching a bunch of ticketless teens matching Eminem’s every song word for word, their hero a distant speck of light in the darkness.
THE INFESTICONS ‘Hero Theme’ (Gun Hill Road LP May 2000)
DEAD PREZ ‘Animal In Man’ (Let’s Get Free LP May 2000)
By the time Eminem got to take over the world, hip hop had become a very corporate beasty sold from supermarkets in the suburbs to middle class white kids seeking rebellion. By association that took away much of its purity, but having said that, there were always groups like The Infesticons and Dead Prez only too happy to balance the commercial lack of love for the art with the effort of innovation.
Sounding like a deranged beatnik ranting in the bath over an abstract flow of jubilant beats, Mike Ladd’s Gun Hill Road was an epic concept album about battling crews the Infesticons and the Majesticons and ‘Hero Theme’ a slice of sonic genius, but Dead Prez’s ‘Animal in Man’ was even better. Kicking off with an excerpt from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it was their take on George Orwell's Animal Farm albeit with a dark twist. Slightly misguided but with the best intentions, seven years later I played it to my daughter to try and explain such fantastical concepts as totalitarian socialism and the cult of personality. She was far too young to get her head around it but loves the tune to this day!
BLACK BOX RECORDER ‘The Facts Of Life’ (The Facts Of Life LP May 2000)
For their first two years Black Box Recorder were exquisitely, sinisterly English, soaking up the spirit of the addictive, wonderful, everyday horrors of our island nation and setting them to a 4/4 beat. Then something remarkable happened and Black Box Recorder had a top twenty hit. Obviously, with Sarah Nixey instructing ‘When boys are just eleven they begin to grow in height / At a faster rate than they have done before’ like a diligent schoolmarm, it could only have been a pseudo-scientific, semi-spoken, treatise on puberty, but somehow it got them on Top Of The Pops and to number twenty in the charts. Indeed, there's a good chance it might have got even higher had de facto spokesperson and man after my own heart Luke Haines not insisted on referring to their record label as ‘a bunch of fucking cunts’.
RADIOHEAD ‘Optimistic’ (Kid A LP October 2000)
Kid A was the first album to come out of Thom Yorke’s immersion into marginalised, avant-garde, dance music, albeit that in truth it wasn’t quite as radical as initially portrayed. Far from being mere electronic doodles, the tracks themselves rarely abandoned standard song structures, and yet Radiohead being Radiohead they still demanded attention, ‘Optimistic’ taunting us to ‘Try the best you can / Try the best you can’ before revealing the more resigned, ‘The best you can is good enough’. Relentlessly bleak, dislocated, dispossessed, numb, impotent and paralyzed while successfully detailing our natural response to a dog eat dog world where the logical impulse is to withdraw and disengage, Radiohead were and possibly still are everything a modern group should be.
OUTKAST ‘B.O.B.’ (Stankonia LP November 2000)
My relationship with hip hop faltered in the late nineties when it was overtaken by commerce and the willingness of rappers to exploit the very worst aspects of black stereotyping to make a buck. As a result Stankonia was almost but not quite my last blast and like most Outkast albums was everything hip hop could have been if it hadn’t sold its soul at the altar of greed. Fearless in its respect for black music history, its disquiet about America and the pure pleasure to be found in sex, women and being a man, Stankonia’s scope and depth of vision was literally breath taking. That gobshite egomaniac Jay Z may have crowned himself ‘The King Of Hip Hop’, but Andre and Big Boi were the true pretenders to his throne.
THE AVALANCHES ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ (Single A Side February 2001)
This strange little tune was constructed bit by bit from a stack of old records. Bizarrely hypnotic, its use of kid’s melodies and voices from a distant past struck me as a handy allegory for my teenage years, my mother casually telling my father ‘That boy needs therapy’. I never did think I was a nut, crazy in the coconut, but then I had no say in the matter.
TURIN BRAKES ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ (The Optimist LP March 2001)
When I witter on about it being OK for a good tune to be just a good tune with no significance or meaning, ‘Save Me’ is usually the song I’m thinking of, although ironically once you get past the clever hook lines you discover that it does mean something after all.
DAFT PUNK ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ (Discovery LP March 2001)
Coming over all mysterious in their robot masks, Daft Punk made the kind of dance music that slyly celebrated its own anonymity and production values. ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ certainly made me feel good but I was never quite sure if I was being cheated, what with its nudge-nudge, wink-wink cleverness and a robot voice I would have dismissed out of hand on any other record.
N*E*R*D ‘Lapdance’ (In Search Of LP March 2001)
In the early noughties I spent a fair amount of time in the beautiful city of Prague fascinated by the former Socialist Republic and the decadence capitalism bought along for the ride. I saw the Russian mafia move in, the increase in corruption and violence and the mobs of pissed up Brits seeking a thrill in the lapdancing clubs and brothels hidden amongst the poky backstreets off Wenceslas Square, once the countries central hub of protest and demonstration. What does this have to do with N*E*R*D. and their bump’n’grind anthem? In truth not a lot, although predictably given its title, ‘Lapdance’ was played pretty much non-stop in the bars and clubs where beautiful girls boosted their college funds by gyrating provocatively for lairy, drunken, middle-aged cunts stinking of vodka red bull and Marlboro lights.
MISSY ELLIOTT ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (Miss E So Addictive LP April 2001)
‘Get Ur Freak On’ still sounds extraordinary, an audacious, leftfield, stroke of genius that managed to push futurism and stupidly happy absurdity to ridiculous new heights and lived to tell the tale. Producer Timbaland may have led the way with his bhangra jungle beats and sci-fi synths, but it was Missy who stole the show, reclaimed the word ‘bitch’ as a synonym for badass, and revelled in the otherness that established ‘Get Ur Freak On’ as a game changer in the evolution of 21st century pop.
NECTARINE NO. 9 ‘Constellations Of A Vanity’ (Single A Side April 2001)
Davy Henderson was certainly a trier. In the early eighties he fronted the much rated Fire Engines before learning to sing so he could play the pop game proper with Win. Best of all though were Nectarine No. 9 and their fabulous Bolan meets Prince, freakazoid, Beefheart tunes of which ‘Constellations Of A Vanity’ was easily the greatest.
BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB ‘Whatever Happened To My Rock’n’Roll?’ (B.R.M.C. LP April 2001)
Richard Hell once said: ‘Rock’n’roll is a way of life. To choose rock’n’roll is to reject growing up and straight society, and to affirm other ways of being and of looking at the world’, which if you listen closely was exactly what Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were trying to say in their punky, Jesus and Mary Chain kind of way. And given my brief time in the orbit of rock’n’roll, I concurred. If only I could have hung around for a while longer.
LUKE HAINES ‘How To Hate The Working Classes’ (Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry LP June 2001)
Music is a wondrous thing otherwise how could the sweet guitars and whispery vocals on a song as obscure as ‘How To Hate The Working Classes’ from an obscure soundtrack to an obscure film about a disaffected young man who applies the principles of double entry book keeping to his life trigger troubling recollections of my disastrous first marriage, my uneasy relationship with the British class system and my own families changing place within it.
AIR ‘How Does It Make You Feel’ (10,000Hz Legend LP May 2001)
A typically Pink Floyd tempo, a crowd of creamy 10cc harmonies and that robotic voice so beloved of French men, I never expected Air to sound so good. Playing on new man vulnerability and the bonds of machismo that stops most blokes expressing their true feelings, whenever the world seemed like a soulless battleground I played ‘How Does It Make You Feel?’ to remind me that there really can be hope amongst the ruins.
SQUAREPUSHER ‘My Red Hot Car (Girl)’ (Single A Side May 2001)
From the sublime to the explicit. Like Daft Punk and Air, Squarepusher Tom Jenkinson employed a voice coder to express his innermost thoughts but was more interested in fucking you with his red hot cock than pondering on how it made you feel. And yet despite all the sonic cleverness, electronic noodling and spirit of adventure, at heart ‘My Red Hot Car’ remained a trad pop song with an unforgettable hook, although that didn’t seem to prevent it from pushing so close to the cutting edge that it almost tumbled over, something all electronic music should have been doing in the new millennium.
BJORK ‘Cocoon’ (Vespertine LP August 2001)
Densely layered with fragile microbeats, soft pillows of voices and the feeling of being submerged in a twenty tog duvet, Vespertine was littered with magic moments but it was ‘Cocoon’ that best represented Björk and my own sense of heavy lidded, post coital hibernation. Feeling almost intrusive, like reading someone's diary as they write about a new love, it flitted wondrously between metaphor (‘who would have known that a boy like him would have entered me lightly, restoring my blisses’) and too much information (‘He slides inside, half awake, half asleep.…gorgeousness, he's still inside me’) and was so intimate and remarkable that for a while I found it impossible to listen to anything else.
THE STROKES ‘Barely Legal’ (Is This It LP August 2001)
As the cool, skinny, Stroke boys wandered out of their Lower East Side basement studio, the only thing stirring in the world of guitar groups was the flatulent excess of sub Oasis ‘dad rock’ and the beige Coldplay, Starsailor, Stereophonics, Travis brigade. Of course I knew instantly that Is This It’s concept of short, sharp, sexy songs and artful arrogance was as pre-designed and perfectly executed as any boy or girl band but I also knew that it didn't matter because The Strokes gave kids like my sons generation a more exciting, alternative option, the legacy they handed on to the likes of The Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys was so influential it's still with us.
ROOTS MANUVA ‘Witness (One Hope)’ (Run Come Save Me LP August 2001)
Let’s face it, British hip hop never really stood much of a chance against its more illustrious, older cousin across the water. By the time our homegrown MC’s got it together in the late eighties, we had been so conditioned by the American drawl that great records by the likes of Hijack, Overlord X, Silver Bullet and the London Posse were dismissed as being somehow inauthentic. It would be over a decade before Roots Manuva came along to save our sorry souls from the commercialised hell hole and strictly American fantasy of guns, bitches and bling. ‘Witness (One Hope)’ was the Brit hop anthem, a razor blade ripped cyclone of a record built on a shuffling squelchy bass, a gritty narrative and enough authenticity to kick all those bullshit accusations into touch.
BRITNEY SPEARS ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ (Single A Side September 2001)
The early noughties marked the start of the cheap TV talent scam, the artistic futures of a never ending queue of naïve young wannabe’s desperate for their five minutes of fame decided by a panel of smug woulda, shoulda coulda’s and their fat controller. Britney was a prototype of sorts, a pre teeny tween, shamelessly hawked around talent shows by her domineering, God fearing mother. If the rest of those artistically bereft fools could have created records anywhere near as fab and funky as our favourite Disney club virgin, the land of pop would now be a far more exciting and adventurous place.
EELS ‘World Of Shit’ (Souljacker LP September 2001)
Mark Everett’s records hit like torrents of pent-up emotion; the death of his parents, his sister’s suicide, his cousin’s death on 9/11, the end of his marriage, his bouts of depression. But somewhere between the misery and the heartbreak, he has always been able to find some sort of balance within his often twisted existence. For all of his bleak discourses over the years, he has also reflected our own emotional vulnerability. He may have had more than his fair share of shit to deal with, but somehow he managed to find a rather brilliant way of expressing it to both his and our benefit.
PULP ‘Wickerman’ (We Love Life LP October 2001)
Part of my self-perceived connection with Pulp was due to their home city of Sheffield, my father’s father hailing from a long line of Brightside steel workers who spent their entire working lives toiling away beside the River Don. My grandfather chose to find his own patch of paradise down south in 1920’s Berkshire, but like Jarvis Cocker he never did forget where he came from and neither have I, ‘Wickerman’ a creepy trawl through the physical under- belly of the disappeared city and a 21st century take on the bittersweet tales he used to tell as we gathered around the open fire during the cold, winter evenings of my boyhood.
DOVES ‘Caught By The River’ (The Last Broadcast LP April 2002)
‘Life it can’t be easy, but you just can’t leave it’. I never used to go for this sort of thing yet I’ve never doubted that ‘Caught By The River’ was a tune and a sad one at that. A gloriously uplifting guitar anthem telling the story of a father watching helplessly as his son’s life falls apart, it reminded me of my soldier son. Richard’s life never fell apart but it was just the sort of empowering song he would use a few years later to soundtrack his combat tours of Afghanistan and the videos he pieced together to try and help us understand.
X PRESS 2 ‘Lazy’ (Single A Side April 2002)
People have been calling me lazy my entire life. Fuck em’ I say because one thing I know for sure is that fear, especially fear of not working or of not doing something ‘worthwhile’, dominates most people’s lives. We don’t need imposed slavery in Britain because each morning folk are happy to put on their chains and trot off dutifully to their daily grind. With over four hundred years of conditioning the fear of what will happen if they don’t is so deeply ingrained they can’t even recognise it. Knowing all that, I would argue that being called lazy is a compliment.
THE STREETS ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ (Original Pirate Material LP May 2002)
Just when I thought pop had no more surprises up its sleeve, along came a record to prove that a new twist is always just around the corner. Mike Skinners debut took on UK garage culture and single-handedly pushed it to the next level by really saying something, ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ a typically English clarion call for aesthetic ambition and content despite the mournful echo of early eighties Specials.
BRIGHT EYES ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’ (Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil LP August 2002)
Connor Oberst was 21 when he wrote the thirteen songs for Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, an album on which he was determined to define the misery of his youth. That he succeeded is wondrous enough, but it was also the way he did it. Hitting on just about every topic in excruciating detail, from the hell of love and heartbreak to the fear of an uncertain future, he exhibited such a broad range of sound that each song remained individual, unique and more to the point memorable.
AQUALUNG ‘Strange And Beautiful (I’ll Put A Spell On You)’ (Single A Side October 2002)
I’ve always been aware of the fact that like everyone else I’ve really only been feeling my way through this world. I’ve always appreciated music that reflects a feeling of vague existential disquiet and a concern about the worthiness of my existence, even though I’m fairly sure there isn’t any. I have no idea why but in 2002 ‘Strange and Beautiful’ encapsulated that feeling rather nicely.
IAN BROWN ‘Shadow Of A Saint’ [Boy Bierton Mix] (Remixes Of The Spheres LP November 2002)
It’s no secret that I never rated The Stone Roses. Then, in the winter of 2002, I read John Robb’s The Stone Roses & The Resurrection of British Pop and did a complete about turn. Even with John’s tendency to call everything brilliant like that bloke on The Fast Show, he did a great job convincing me that Ian Brown was actually an alright lad with interests and ideas beyond his arrogant public persona. Quickly grabbing a discarded copy of Remixes Of The Spheres Dan had left lying around, I got hooked on ‘Shadow Of The Saint’, a most unexpected treat.
JAMMER & KANO ‘Boys Love Girls' (Single A Side May 2003)
DIZZEE RASCAL ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’ (Boy In Da Corner LP July 2003)
At the height of the economic boom in the early noughties, while futures, champagne and bad debt swilled around Canary Wharf, the sound emanating from tower blocks barely a mile away served notice that there was more than one East London. Grime sounded as if it had crash landed in the present with no past so when pirate radio began to spread the word, its impact on British kids like Richard and his fifteen and sixteen year old mates was phenomenal. Many of them were so inspired they set up their own crews, ‘Youth making music for youth’ for the first time since punk. ‘Boys Love Girls’ and Boy In Da Corner represented the real break out moment and the first time I became fully aware of what was happening.
KINGS OF LEON ‘Spiral Staircase’ (Youth & Young Manhood LP July 2003)
You must have heard the fable of the three Followill brothers and their cousin, sons of a hell and brimstone Southern preacher man dragged around to churches and tent revivals across the Deep South for most of their childhood. I should have hated everything about them, but whereas The Strokes (who they were regularly compared to) were a fabricated pack of lies, these boys were the genuine, authentic article.
Their first EP Holy Roller Novacaine was great but it was Youth & Young Manhood and seeing them live at Reading Rivermead that made it click. Here were boys who not only wrote seriously deep fried songs about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, it was spectacularly obvious they were the living embodiment of their own subject matter. And the bassist was only sixteen for fucks sake. Oh to be a Followill in 2003.
THE LIBERTINES ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ (Single A Side August 2003)
They arrived in the summer of 2002 as fully formed as they’d ever be, a haze of sweat and cheap narcotics with pasty white chests poking out of skip salvaged jackets. With their tall tales of pension drawing drummers, rent boy pasts and idealistic visions of a mythical England, if you’re under forty it’s possible that The Libertines changed your world. Of course, the return to clattering rock’n’roll had started with the imported Strokes, but The Libertines idealistic visions of a mythical Albion opened youthful eyes to a freewheeling, fancy free side of life most never knew existed. Almost overnight the nation was overrun by a multitude of urchin rock laureates in skinny jeans and charity shop trilby’s.
THE RAPTURE ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ (Echoes LP September 2003)
Three years into the 21st century we already had the Kings Of Leon and The Libertines who, notwithstanding the associated hype and hullabaloo, were two of the best punk influenced outfits for many a decade. Then came The Rapture. For a lot of people ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ was so inextricably linked with the previous year and New York that by the time Echoes arrived it was viewed as a wake for a dance punk movement that came and went indecently fast even for an indie micro genre. Thankfully I knew nothing of that shit and besides it mattered not because there was no requirement to invest in the songs supposed importance to find pleasure in its pulsing bassline, fearlessly off key chorus and fabulous racket.
RYAN ADAMS ‘World War 24’ (Love Is Hell Pt. 1 LP November 2003)
Once a precocious wunderkind, I think it’s safe to say that Ryan Adams threw away most of his immense talent in his pursuit of hardcore drugs long before he faced serious allegations of beta male misogyny. I saw him in Bristol where he was the epitome of the surly out of it rocker trying to play brand new songs even the band didn’t know. Miraculously, halfway through, when the effect of what- ever he was on had either kicked in or worn off, he turned into the nicest bloke you could ever wish to meet, the show culminating in a Jesus like walk through the crowd while still playing guitar before downing a pint at the bar. And all without missing a note. The following night he fell off the stage in Liverpool and broke his wrist!
MYLO ‘Destroy Rock & Roll’ (Destroy Rock & Roll LP May 2004)
Coming over like the DIY dance music equivalent of The Ramones, did Mylo, or rather Myles Macinnes from Skye, really want to destroy rock’n’roll like the preacher he so liberally sampled. It was hard to tell but would any of us really have missed Springsteen, Tina Turner, Van Halen, Huey Lewis & The News, The Cars, Bonnie Tyler, Men At Work, ZZ Top, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Sheena Easton, Big Country, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Bananarama, John Cougar Mellencamp, U2, The Alan Parsons Project, The Thompson Twins, Missing Persons, Duran Duran, The Police, Eurythmics, Culture Club including Boy George or Band Aid? I think not.
THE FALL ‘Theme From Sparta FC #2’ (Single A Side June 2004)
No matter which dark corner of my mind I go searching in I can no longer find the rage of youth. More than anything these days the world makes me feel weary and more likely to go ‘Aw fuck it’. In fact all I really wanna do is go back to building my castle in the sand knowing only too well that the tide of time is getting higher every year. So how did Mark E. Smith do it? How did he carry on caring enough to make a record as brilliantly rockin’ as ‘Theme From Sparta FC #2’ in his late forties?
THE GO! TEAM ‘The Power Is On' (The Power Is On EP July 2004)
Those damn indie kids used to love their charity shops and car boot sales, the Go! Team sounding like the sonic equivalent of all those dusty shelves and overcrowded racks, reconstructing the finest musical debris and mixing it up with their own thundering piano, battling guitars and joyous cheerleader chants to arrive at something that for once sounded genuinely exciting.
JUNIOR BOYS ‘Teach Me How To Fight’ (Last Exit LP September 2004)
Canada’s Junior Boys were the first group of the new, digital age to gain their reputation courtesy of a newly emerging network of music bloggers. When they finally made it out of the blogosphere, their form of eighties electro pop was bold enough to take that influence and try something different, and with the warm, deceptively friendly Last Exit they succeeded beautifully.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS ‘Nature Boy’ (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus LP September 2004)
Nick Cave loves digging around in the dirt and the darkness and like all truly great artists would make all but the most cynical music fan feel differently about the world if they would only give him the chance. This staggering double album would be a brilliant starting point because for once it wasn’t his usual fire and brimstone, ‘Nature Boy’ a toe tapping rewrite of Cockney Rebels ‘Make Me Smile’, except Steve Harley rarely wrote a line as chilling as ‘I saw some ordinary slaughter, I saw some routine atrocity’. Mysterious, glorious, dismal and beautiful all at the same time, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus was another Nick Cave masterpiece leading us into temptation and delivering us from evil.
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT ‘The Art Teacher’ (Want Two LP November 2004)
How could anyone not be lured and lulled by Rufus Wainwright and ‘The Art Teacher’, a lovely piano ballad about a middle-aged woman remembering an unrequited schoolgirl crush. Recorded live and unadorned, you could even hear the boy Wainwright gasping for breath between each line, so making his eye for the affecting lyrical detail all the more obvious.