London’s Lost Sounds – And Britain’s Lost Senses

Admittedly an uncharacteristically provocative title for one of my blog posts, but frankly I’m mad as hell. I usually try and avoid politics on these pages and originally I had no intention of prattling on about the EU Referendum in any depth here. But it’s been such a terminally obscene farce with all sensible debate suspended in favour of scare-mongering and bigotry, compounded by the printing of massive, whopping lies on the side of campaign buses that are then retracted as soon as victory is declared, that it’s hard to feel anything for this country anymore other than an ever-deepening sense of shame. Particularly when you hear of the apparent nationwide surge in hate crime and intolerance that has followed in the wake of last week’s result. The idiots really are winning.

Not that you’ll be needing to hear any of this from me. An awful lot of heat has already been generated over the past few weeks and many very worthy commentators have been far more insightful and articulate in their coverage of the gigantic, irrecoverable mess that we’re now saddled with thanks to this glorified popularity contest between a bunch of greedy and contemptible right-wingers (not that the left have been much use either). But having been subjected, as we all have, to so much windy rhetoric over the past few weeks, particularly the frequent use of expressions such as ‘Make Britain Great Again’ and ‘I want my country back’, I couldn’t help but be strangely reminded of a curious incident I spotted on youtube a couple of years ago that I thought was worth sharing with you now. Hopefully it might even raise a smile – it’s certainly far less depressing than dwelling on the actual facts.

So, allow me to present to you the real subject of today’s post, an amusingly kitsch cycling safety film from 1971 that national treasure The BFI posted on their youtube account – and some of the rather peculiar viewer comments that followed. Do yourself a favour and take a few minutes to watch it now, even if you’ve seen it already. If your week has been anything like mine, it might even briefly cheer you up:

Having watched the video, I must now rather regretfully draw your attention to the comments section and several messages left by other users that have watched this video before you. Of course, one of the golden fundamentals of life is to NEVER read youtube comments as they generally consist of a mixture of unwarranted character assassination and barely-literate hate-poison. But the amount of regret, anger and nostalgic sorrow that appears to have been generated by one breezily kitsch film on bicycle safety is just too strange to ignore. Here’s a handful of my own favourites, all genuine:

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Where to start? I’ve got to be honest, nothing burns my toast more than the kind of sad old bore who would use a light-hearted exercise in fluffy nostalgic whimsy as an opportunity to harp on how much better everything was when they were less sad, old and boring than they are now. Do you, dear reader, share these commentators’ memories of some glorious Brit-opia, where bantam-weight popstars willingly cancelled engagements in order to invigilate a safe-cycling competition between rival gangs of mop-topped urchins? That golden age of minor celebrities selflessly putting their careers on hold in order to commandeer minimokes driven by benignly smiling silent men in blouses, all the better to follow Keith Chegwin around suburbia armed with a clipboard, a walkie-talkie and a surprisingly effective pair of binoculars? Are you also wistful for that era where you could hang as many girly tassels on your ‘chopper’ as you liked and still refer to yourself as ‘Butch’? Do you pine for the days when there was a good old British Bobby directing traffic at every T-junction instead of all the drug dealers that are probably hanging out there right now – pedalling their wares to passing cars and funded by YOUR taxes, I shouldn’t wonder?! The pre-decimalisation days when money was impossibly confusing, but it didn’t matter because nobody actually had or needed any? The days when Cheggers was forever young and kept his clothes on? The days when you could leave all your doors and windows unlocked or perhaps even take them with you on a lovely holiday to Butlins, safe in the knowledge that the only crime that could possibly be committed in your absence was those naughty young scamps filling their jumpers with apples pilfered from the vicarage orchard? The halcyon days when cyling was a noble, gentlemanly pursuit, before ‘multiculturalism’ came along and completely ruined it for everyone? The sound of willow and cream, of leather on strawberries?

Betcher - Wow

Of course you bloody well don’t! Nobody does! It’s all a load of old tripe! But in the last couple of years such phantom memories of an unnaturally green and pleasant imaginary Albion appear to have gained such traction that they’ve become a form of mass hysteria that seems to haunt the collective dreams of both these youtube critics and now many eminent figures of society at large. And even worse, it would appear that the invocation of these phantom memories can actually WIN you a referendum! Suddenly a great many people appear to be fully anticipating a ‘return’ to this rose-tinted, suet-pudding, croquet-and-spitfires version of a Britain that only ever really existed on tea-towels, novelty coasters and inside the twisted imagination of wealthy Etonians who try to convince you that we’re all in this together.

Betcher - Swiss

Now, I cannot deny that in the past I have been as guilty as anyone of daydreaming aloud about wanting to live inside a British Transport film – particularly that Michael Aspell one about the pretty girl balancing the spoon. But even while making such proclamations I was acutely aware that it was all nothing more than borrowed nostalgia from an age only ever found on newsreels and promotional films made by companies that ultimately had a product they wanted you to invest in. That pretty girl never really did exist. That spoon probably never existed either – or if it did it was some kind of super-advanced stunt-spoon borrowed from NASA. Michael Aspell of course did and does exist, but he is highly unlikely to be in any position to effect a rescue any time soon, despite the very pleasing mental image the thought of him doing so conjures up. And as for going back to any kind of golden age, given that our glorious ‘leaders’ appear to have no plans at all for this brave new world they’ve forced upon us, I’m willing to predict an imminent slide into a sort of neo-mediaeval era that will probably look ironically similar to that other great Keith Chegwin star-turn, the 1976 Children’s Film Foundation classic Robin Hood Junior. Never mind the youth of today, should these dark ages actually return, I guarantee you we’ll ALL be knifing each other!

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I wish Peter Noone was here. He’d know what to do…

So now, in some small attempt to calm the madness and put all this borrowed nostalgia into the correct perspective, I’d like to belatedly share with you this report I produced for BBC World Service a few weeks ago on the subject of Ian Rawes and his remarkable London Sound Survey archive. Ian has featured on these pages before, of course, but the announcement of another of his ‘London’s Lost Sounds’ listening events, where the bygone sounds of London are served up for a modern audience was just too good an opportunity to miss reporting on. Originally due for transmission three weeks ago, but held back in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death, sharing it with you here and now feels entirely appropriate.

I could listen to Ian talking about such things for hours and he’s the perfect tour guide, putting these precious recordings in context for his growing audiences, leading them into this long-forgotten world with just the right combination of awe, wonder and pragmatism – none of the sugar-coating or bluster of the louder, brasher voices we’ve been hearing so much of lately.

In a week when it’s beginning to look distinctly likely that we’re on the cusp of losing something a whole lot greater than lavender sellers and inept fortune-tellers, we must cherish these sounds more than ever – but we must also bear in mind that, enticing as they are, recordings such as ‘Hopping Holiday’ are often partial fabrications themselves, a scenario set up in the presence and for the benefit of a microphone. Does this make them any less special? Hardly. But it might just make us question the legitimacy of mourning for some supposed golden age where young boys everywhere were at liberty to cycle down a beautifully clean, monocultural high street without being menaced by drug dealers, while the lead singer of a contemporary beat combo follows at a safe distance, nodding his approval from the safety of a toy car.

Those weren’t the days.  These are the days – and we’re in severe danger of irretrievably screwing them up.

Save us, Mr. Aspell!

Finally, a quick word about this week’s Near Mint, in which Hannah and I decided that the only way to cheer ourselves up post-result was to pop down to Rat Records in Camberwell for a browse through the racks, while our old chums Jonny Trunk and DJ Food spun library and soundtracks behind the counter. As luck would have it we bumped into a number of old friends and fellow vinyl nerds, including former guests Strictly KevTom Central and Resonance’s Lucky Cat Zoe. It was decided the most sensible course of action would be to pack them all off down the pub for a spot of post-digging show-and-tell and this week’s show is the hastily-edited and slightly tipsy result…

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Starving Daughters In The Mint

Howlround EU

Hello. There’s loads to tell you and plenty going on, including a new Howlround work to be premiered in an derelict tower-block in July (shortly before demolition – but hopefully not too shortly!) as well some forthcoming gigs and two new short works for radio, but to be honest I think I’m just going to wait for this whole EU thing to blow over first. Self-promotion is hard enough at the best of times without having to compete with the hectoring and bellowing of all these right-wing loons such as that mouthy woman who appears to have become a major political force after rising to fame by calling other women fat on Twitter…

But in the meantime I will at least provide you with this week’s Near Mint show, which has been put together by guest curator Chris Tillotson, an LA-based musician and expert crate digger who runs the Starving Daughters Vinyl Impressions blog. It’s a glorious mix of largely-Italian and seriously rare library and soundtrack cues that I fear may go un-noticed because of unfortunate timing and our current state of national hysteria. Have a click and a listen and then go visit Chris’ blog for more of the same. He also produces original music under the Starving Daughters name and that’s pretty great too…

Everything else can wait until next week. Except to say thanks to everyone who came down to Cafe Oto last night and made it such a special event. It was great to hear live sets from fellow-performers Ben Neill and Radionics Radio, to report that the machines were suspiciously well behaved; and to see so many friends old and new in attendance. Special thanks must also go to Gabriel Edvy for this rather splendid image, which is probably the most photogenic I’ve looked in years…

Howlround by Gabriel Edvy

Business as usual next week? Hope so….

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Delaware Spirit Oto The Blow

An absolutely classic Near Mint show for you this week, served up with love by special guest curator Steve Of The North. Otherwise known as a stalwart member of cult band Monkeys In Love, Steve has put together a special ‘Industrial Actions’ mix of 60s and 70s advertising music featuring musical odes to sausages, safe driving, chevrolet, cigarettes and -of course- former president Nixon. It’s a thoroughly stimulating, surprisingly funky listen with a twist at every turn. Give it a spin and then head over to the band’s website check out their thematically-linked ‘Second Shopping Song’. To these ears it sounds like a punkier version  of The Go! Team doing a Frank Sidebottom cover – and I really, really hope the band will take that as the compliment it’s meant to be!

SpiritOfA

Howlround news now, and I’m very pleased to announce me and the machines will be returning to legendary Dalston venue Cafe Oto on June 22nd, alongside genius composer Ben Neill and Dan Wilson’s Radionics project (he’s pretty genius-like too).

Ben Neill Flier

The event will be broadcast live on Resonance FM sister station Resonance EXTRA and further details plus tickets can be found here. Hoping all the machines behave this time, but then I say that before every show and the results tend to be the same – they don’t behave at all and it’s painful and awkward, but somehow also weirdly entertaining. So I really have no idea what to wish for anymore. A nice high table, perhaps? A muscular assistant to help me lift the gear onto the nightbus afterwards? Or, as it’s a Resonance affair, perhaps a lift back to Penge in Simon Integral’s Landrover – provided it’s still street-legal?

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And then just as I had the date confirmed, what should suddenly pop up online, but a freshly-uploaded video from Alan Gubby of Buried Treasure, documenting Howlround’s opening set at the now-legendary Delaware Road launch party of last winter.

It was the first time I’d seen it and I must say it’s come out beautifully, especially as you can only see my elbow for much of the performance – which suits me fine! Alan has been tirelessly working to edit and upload all of the footage he shot both for and during that concert – and that’s a pretty mammoth task, so it’s great to see it all gradually starting to creep out for the edification of those poor saps who couldn’t get a ticket. Hopefully they’ll be a follow-up concert before too long. He’s also somehow found time to put out the excellent Dandelion Set LP and a 1971 7″ of EVP recordings by Konstantin Raudive. A busy chap, then? ‘Mark you, make-believe my dear! Yes!’. 

Also very much looking forward to the release next month of the first volume of The Blow, a new series of split cassette releases from sonically adventurous Manchester label Front And Follow, who you might remember released The Outer Church compilation a few years ago, as well as equally fine releases by Kemper Norton, Pye Corner Audio and more. For the first volume the label has given Saxon Roach’s IX Tab and Suffolk’s own Hoofus a side each and stepped well back to await the results, which will be touching down early next month and will doubtless be completely awesome.

The label have put together this teaser video which offers a tantalising glimpse at the tape’s contents and beautiful bespoke letterpress artwork, so if it all whets your appetite, you can pre-order the cassette from the label’s shop or bandcamp page. Ordered mine already!

Even more excitingly, I can reveal that volume 2 of The Blow, due out in the autumn, will feature a side of brand new tracks by Howlround and another of equally new works by Time Attendant. My side was created over the last couple of months, entirely from a single recording I made in a ghost town in the Mojave desert and has been described by the few who have heard it as ‘more sci-fi than your usual stuff’ and ‘spiky, energetic wobbly railway horn’. I can live with that.

Oh, and on Friday I’m going to be recording the sounds of a soon to be demolished building. But that’s another story…


A Freakier Fog And An Avant-Garde Ali

6music tape

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Huge thanks to host Stuart Maconie and producer Rebecca Gaskell for allowing me to come on and play some of my favourite tape music on last week’s Freakier Zone on BBC 6 Music. The full programme can be found here (for the next 25 days at the time of writing) and includes a brand new Howlround track that will hopefully surface officially later on in the summer. It seems the show was very well received and the positive feedback has been most gratifying. Though really there’s little to argue about with a tracklisting of the calibre of Pierre Henry, Miles Davis, Sculpture and Tom White, is there?

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This week’s Near Mint show shouldn’t give anyone much reason to complain either, as I’m paying tribute to the recently departed, late-great Muhammad Ali in fine style by dusting off my copy of his 1976 dental hygiene classic Ali and His Gang vs Mr. Tooth Decay. While listening, please do take a moment to savour the above shots taken from the album’s cover, in which Ali and the kids hang out in a surrealist nightmare painting that appears to be a more up-beat version of Picasso’s Guernica. Set in some sort of organic tooth-garden – perhaps we could call it ‘A scene from ‘Dente’s Inferno’? – such images set the listener up nicely for the audio delights to be found within, with the lurid cut-and-paste cover artwork perfectly echoing the lackadaisical production handiwork of whichever pioneering genius was charged with putting the recordings together. Thanks to that person’s efforts (or lack of – it’s hard to say), the result is a beautiful and confusing train-wreck of an LP that appears to have been mixed and edited using an entire bag of hammers and goes far beyond the contemporaneous cut-up works favoured by the likes of William Burroughs et al and far into the realms of the dangerously avant-garde. Plus it has a happier ending – Ali beats the crap out of this guy while the kids all cheer:

Personalised Cassock: Mr. Tooth Decay

Personalised Cassock: Mr. Tooth Decay

Without giving too much more away, the record tells the story of Ali and the Gang’s battles against Mr. Tooth Decay, a truly wicked character instantly recognisable by his sallow greenish skin, evil frosty glare and the sporting of a personalised cassock. In contrast, the titular gang consists of a confusingly large number of children, none of whom seem to possess any kind of distinguishing features or personality traits at all, which makes it really quite tricky to keep track of what’s going on or who’s doing what; particularly as listening closely to the decidedly haphazard mix suggests less a room full of corporeal beings and rather more a parallel dimension populated by disembodied voices floating around one another in mid air, only to vanish without trace a moment later. I’m no Beckettian scholar, but I don’t think even he was considering exploring this kind of territory back then. Furthermore, the kids appear to be operating as a sort of collective consciousness or hive-mind, which manifests itself in their frequent and chilling tendency to speak complex sentences in absolute unison. I’m reminded of that classic 1960 movie Village Of The Damned, in which another band of spooky children terrify a rural British community, with no sporting legends available to assist. I was even going to suggest creating a remake entitled  Village of the Dental Damned at this point, but then I remembered what a dental dam is actually used for and decided against it – not sure Ali ever got round to making a record that dispensed that kind of wisdom.

A more wholesome kind of nightmare

You’ll be seeing this in your dreams tonight

There is so much to treasure on this LP and some surprisingly groovy music underneath it all too. Some of my favourite moments include the sudden and brief ‘Ali in Dub’ section with liberal use of tape echo, the extended ‘bragging and gasping’ interlude in which a single sound-effect is used over and over until it has dramatically out-stayed its welcome; the scene where several of the children appear to turn into chickens, Ali’s attempts to pick up another chicken that he thinks is trying to thumb a lift, the moment where the story is temporarily paused while another child collapses into near hysterics at Frank Sinatra’s inability to grasp why it is that a heavyweight boxer and a large number of children are standing in his shop and refusing to buy ice cream… I could go on. But I think perhaps the best is saved to last, when the album closes with well-known sports commentator Howard Cosell incanting a poem in the grimly-competent style of a man whose knows his appearance fee requires him to read out loud whatever has just been put into his hand. There’s an amusing moment where he pronounces the word ‘put’ as ‘poot’ and they just leave it in. Plus if you can sit through him pronouncing the word ‘Lally-parp’ without giggling you’re a finer fellow than I.

One bard mutha: Howard Cosell

One bard mutha: Howard Cosell

It’s certainly a novel approach to personify health and hygiene problems as Bogeymen figures to be vanquished by being placed into a boxing ring and pounded into submission by whichever passing heavyweight champion of the world is available. But if I may offer one morsel of criticism, Mr. Tooth Decay is really a rather dreary name for such a heinous fiend. Surely they could have come up with something more evocative – The Cavity Kid? Count Plaqula? Dr. N’Dentulous*? It seems we’re gradually losing the knack as a society for this sort of thing –  having celebrities do battle with social ills on our behalf. And so, as an attempt to address this situation, I’ve come up with a few ideas for modern-day follow-up albums aimed at tackling some of the very different problems the ageing members of the original gang might find themselves facing in the 21st century. So far I’ve come up with Chris Eubank and his Gang vs. Captain Stood-Up-Too-QuicklyTyson Fury Battles Madame Bunions, George Foreman Meets The Lumbago Kid and Rocky Marciano vs.  Mr. What-Did-I-Come-In-Here-For-Again? No doubt they’ll be plenty more where those came from. Any potential investors are warmly advised to send a cash-stuffed envelope to the usual address.

Ali Nightmare Garden2

*This made me laugh for almost ten minutes.


Freakier Zone Meets Hardcore Death And Horror

This week I am in a state of quite feverish excitement over the latest episode of Near Mint. I’m aware that I tend to open all of my posts on these pages along similar lines, waxing lyrical about how excited I am to be bringing you the current edition of Resonance FM‘s journey into the wonderful world of obsessive vinyl collecting; but today I am even more jazzed up than usual (though as you’ll subsequently hear, the term ‘jazz’ is a distinct red herring). In fact if I was American I’d even go so far as to claim that I was  ‘pumped’. Why? Well, because last week I had the good fortune to come across two separate vinyl treasure troves: the first a collection of mint-condition Oldskool Hardcore 12″s and the second a trio of LPs from the BBC’s classic Sounds Of Death And Horror SFX series. And I figured what better way to salute such outrageous good fortune than to produce a half-hour radio programme where these two separate worlds were slammed together?! The result is a truly joyous escapade that pits classic tracks by Noise Factory, Nebula II and Egyptian Empire against assorted werewolves, baying lunatics, killer bees, some eye-gouging and a cameo from Pacman himself. And while you’d be forgiven for assuming such behaviour to be the revolutionary outpourings of some dangerous maverick, it’s a curious truth that the opposing worlds of hardcore and horror have proved surprisingly compatible bedfellows in the past. Producers such as Boogie Times Tribe, Shy FX and Urban Shakedown (to name a few) have all pilfered Auntie’s scary sounds to great effect, and this classic track by MC Lethal just might have sampled one of the ominously tolling bells on the second side of Even More Sounds Of Death and Horror, but the jury is still out on that one (the jury is me).

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In other news, I will be making a return appearance on 6Music’s The Freakier Zone this Saturday night / Sunday morning where I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of magnetic tape as a creative medium with Mr. Stuart Maconie and playing some of my favourite examples. And who could possibly offer a better or more balanced perspective on the subject? Surely nobody has called tape machines as many names as I have! Which other fellow could boast toes as flat as mine after years of stubbing them on various hefty pieces of equipment? What other mortal has loudly serenaded his phalanx of semi-functioning Revoxes with as many shades of profanity as I? Who else has crossed London town without noticing the long piece of misplaced tape dangling out the back of his trousers like a small brown tail? Well, you get the idea. It’s a total no-brainer. And there’s even a little sneak preview of something from the new Howlround LP, which is so near completion that I can practically taste it…

Maconie