Covid Against the Music

The following is an excerpt from a feature I wrote for Pennyblackmusic about Covid’s devastating effect on the live music industry. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

“When COVID-19 mushroomed into a global pandemic, production work disappeared almost overnight. It is impossible to predict when it might return, or grasp the full repercussions for crews, artists, venues or fans. This article attempts neither to summarise nor forecast, but to reflect on the early days of this crisis in the hope we can look back on it from a better place.” -excerpt from ‘Production Crew Confront Coronavirus’, Pennyblackmusic, April 2020.

Photo: Cila Warncke

2021

London: 11 February, 10:30AM Matt ‘Tag’ Tagliaferro adjusts his Airpods. Wet snow clings to the pavements outside his north London home. It is three degrees Celsius above freezing. “With these, I can get something done while I’m on the phone,” he says. “My screen time is way up this past year.”

Memphis, Tennessee: 5 March, 11:00AM “It felt good to have a break for a minute, but that got old.” Matt Brown gets up to refill his blue ceramic mug, and clears his throat. Later, he’ll strap on a parachute, grab a camera and follow tandem jumpers out of a plane, trying to hold the student’s awed face in frame as gravity hauls them all down.

London: 8 March, 10:00AM The phone screen shows him smiling, an old WhatsApp profile picture. “January was particularly hard,” Will Paterson says. “There was no sign of a return. Even the most motivated people had hard moments.”

Phoenix, Arizona: 13 March, 5:50AM The paper Holiday Inn coffee cups are stamped: “Start Fresh”. Chris Hall is trying. In half an hour, he’ll walk into the hotel conference room for the final written exams in his truck-driver training course.

There are two things that all these people have in common: They used to work in live music production. They never expected to be where they are now.

A year ago, we daydreamed that Covid-19 would vanish with the summer sun. What vanished instead was hope of a quick fix. Optimism became synonymous with magical thinking. The industry shutdown persisted like tinnitus.

According to trade publication Pollstar, the live music industry lost $30 billion of revenue in 2020. In Britain, some 10,000 people worked in music production, says Andy Lenthall, general manager of trade body the Production Services Association. In the United States, there were millions of such jobs. In the UK, the US and around the globe, most production workers lost their livelihoods.

The Lows

“When it first happened, I felt numb, panicked. I watched the news all the time.” Nevertheless, Brighton-based publicist Nikki McNeill told her clients, which include Serbia’s Exit Festival, the Amsterdam Dance Event, Secret Solstice in Iceland and the Netherlands’ Lowlands Festival, that she would keep working with them, budget or no.

After the initial blow, ripples of Covid distortion kept spreading. “So much of life has changed,” Will Paterson, head of sales for several London music venues, reflects. “Nobody would have thought we’d curtail our lives the way we have.”

Tagliaferro, erstwhile touring guitar tech, and his partner split up, “a Covid casualty, I guess.”

Audio technician Matt Brown says: “The biggest challenge is boredom. I’m still learning to write code, trying to stay busy.”

Another audio tech (and my partner), Chris Hall has put in his share of 200,000-mile travel years. Suddenly, the world shrank to the distance to the nearest grocery store. Mundane tasks became big deals. His neck and back locked up in the winter chill.

“Some people found purpose in spending time with their partners and kids,” Lenthall says. “But being at home is a problem for people who aren’t used to being at home. There are a lot of single people in the business, a lot of people who are always on tour. Their flat is where they repack their suitcase.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

A Different Beat

Odd pockets of production work still exist: Brown kept his job at local church which started streaming its services. Photographer Andy Cotterill has spent more than two decades shooting music royalty. His portfolio runs from Public Enemy and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Jarvis Cocker and Vivienne Westwood. Yet surviving Covid required other skills: “I was a top-grade student in woodworking at school so I did a few projects. People loved it. Someone asked me to do their kitchen, then a loft conversion. Before, if I’d done something else, I’d have felt like I failed at photography. I don’t think like that any more.”

Tagliaferro carried on fixing guitars. People who had guitars but never played them wanted them strung and tuned, bands stuck in London who’d started making new music, musicians whose prized instruments were in warehouses or shipping containers dug out beaters for an overhaul. “North London seemed to have a musical renaissance,” he says. “People wanted to do something productive and creative. It got to a point I couldn’t do it in my kitchen, so I rented a little space, built a few workbenches and fell into business, much like I fell into [touring] 15 years ago.”

This can-do, will-do attitude is characteristic. “You don’t want touring crew on the job market,” says Lenthall. “They are tenacious, hard working, they will get the job before you.” Delivery and logistics have absorbed a lot of bodies. “I’ve had groceries delivered by a lighting guy I know,” Lenthall remarks. “We have world-class production managers coordinating vaccination centres. [Telecom company] Openreach has production crew tackling its fibre optic installation backlog.”

Paterson has spent the past year overhauling everything from venue websites to internal communications to plumbing. “It has been a split,” he says. “Those who’ve had stuff to do – well, work helps. People who couldn’t work, like the operations staff, have done all sorts of things that have nothing to do with music, just to give themselves a purpose.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Patchy Safety Nets

Many cannot step into new roles, though, whether for health or other reasons, and driving a delivery van doesn’t come close to replacing tour wages. Government support has not been universally sufficient or effective. “Through multiple technicalities, I don’t qualify for anything,” says Tagliaferro. “I’ve never heard the phrase, ‘sorry, you fall through the cracks’ so often.” He reckons half the industry people he knows don’t qualify for assistance.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Paterson says half the people he knows have left music.

In the US, aid is on a state-by-state basis. Brown got a small grant, about enough to cover three months’ rent in his neighborhood. He was on unemployment, briefly, until Tennessee reinstated a work-search requirement, with no exceptions for those whose industry had vanished. “What was I going to do? Work at the supermarket? Those jobs were already taken.”

Like so much related to Covid, a lot came down to chance. “I was lucky. The way my company is set up meant I qualified for government grants,” says McNeill. “I have friends who do the same thing but are excluded [from help] because of how they set up their business. It’s hard.”

Continue reading at Pennyblackmusic

10 songs… Memphis Soul

The original version of this is published on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk — check it out.

Stax Museum, south Memphis, Tennessee

Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.

In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).

Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.

Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.

That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.

1. Sam & Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’

One of Stax’s most emblematic artists, Sam Moore and Dave Prater likely gave ‘soul’ its name with their hit ‘Soul Man’ whose irresistible rhythm, honking horns and gospel-inflected vocals characterised the genre. But it’s the brash, brassy ‘Hold On’ that sticks most in my mind. The playful entendre of the lyrics and opulent arrangements make it as endlessly rewarding as a good single malt.

2. William Bell – ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’

In 2013 the Obamas hosted a celebration of Memphis soul at the White House. One of the luminaries who performed was William Bell, singing a crème caramel rendition of his 1961 debut single, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. A plaintive meditation on lost love, thematically, it embraces the blues but the shuffling percussion, Hammond organ and brass adornment mark it as a soul staple.

3. Staple Singers – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’

Bob Dylan has spoken of his fascination with an early Staple Singers song, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ saying: “it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in…. It just went through me like my body was invisible.”

The father-daughter quintet of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne returned the respect with this stark cover. Released in 1968, following the many violent oppressions of the Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers’ voices invest Dylan’s words of warning with an implacable knowledge won of hard experience.

4. Ann Peebles – ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’

Royal Studios, the erstwhile home of Hi Records, which birthed this sublime heartbreak soul, still stands proud in south Memphis. About the size and shape of a brick cereal box, it’s a wonder Royal could contain much less capture the power and clarity of Peebles’ unadorned voice as it weaves through the echoing percussion and slow-finger bass crawl of this melancholy gem.

5. Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’

Familiarity can make this song easy to not hear, make it easy to overlook its lyrical heft and musical daring. Recorded not long before Redding died in a plane crash, ‘Rolling Stone’ reported that some of his label mates, his manager and even Stax boss Jim Stewart thought it was too great a stylistic leap. Instead, the wistful evocation of blighted hopes and faded promise became a posthumous Billboard number one and million-selling single, fulfilling Redding’s prediction.

6. Al Green – ‘Tired of Being Alone’

The first of a string of gold records Al Green cut at Hi Records, ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is 2:43 of pure sensuality. With deep roots in gospel (there are half-a-dozen churches within a couple blocks of Royal Studios), the best soul music brazenly blurred the line between sacred and sexual. Few did it better than this satin-tongued singer, and rarely better than on this unapologetic pitch for carnal comfort. Though Green went on to become an ordained minister, his catalogue makes a strong case for the devil having the best music.

7. Johnnie Taylor – ‘Who’s Making Love’

It is worth watching the video to fully appreciate the wit and influences of Taylor’s 1968 chart-topper which became the Stax stalwart’s iconic hit. Wearing a sharp green suit and Cuban heels, Taylor looks straight to camera and, like a preacher addressing his flock, begins: “. The rhythm and delivery is pure gospel. The question, rather more earthy, is posed to men who are out catting around: “Who’s making love to your old lady, while you’re out making love?”

8. Albert King – ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’

A transcendent fusion of blues and soul, ‘Born…’ is a perfect example of the musical fertility of Stax Records. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, it was a minor Billboard hit on its 1967 release and gained wider notoriety when Cream released a version in 1968. Dozens of artists have covered it since, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, MC5 and Rita Coolidge. One of the most affecting is Bell’s 2016 interpretation on his album, ‘This is Where I Live’.

9. Booker T & the MG’s – ‘Green Onions’

In fewer than three minutes this instrumental, penned by a 17-year-old Booker T., announced the arrival of an epoch-defining musical talent and proved, by the by, that a Hammond organ can rock a party. Anchored by a blues bassline, the Hammond burbles while horns blurt above the simmering musical stew, embodying the genius amalgamation of blues, funk and gospel that is soul.

10. Isaac Hayes & Rev. Jesse Jackson — ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (Live)

In 1972 Stax Records hosted Wattstax, a day-long festival in Los Angeles honouring the rise of Watts from the ashes of the 1965 riots. Isaac Hayes closed his set with the Pete Seeger-pinned ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (also a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary). With the help of Jimmy Jones, Hayes transformed it into a Black power anthem. The track opens with five and a half minutes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, hypnotic as falling rain and electrifying as adrenaline, exhorting his people to pride and strength. As a sinuous, eerie organ melody burbles Jackson cries, “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out justice. If I had a hammer tonight our people would be respected and protected…”.

Amen.

39 – Prince Tribute

This was published by Pennyblackmusic.co.uk after Prince died in 2016. One of the hardest pieces I’ve written.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince. This thought dogged me after my Tempranillo-fuelled email late on 21 April 2016, begging for precisely that privilege. It was an impulse a part of me regrets because no words that rise from a primordial emotional stew of disenfranchised grief, disbelief, nostalgia, and adoration will come close to doing him justice. Paying tribute to Prince is like holding a candle to the sun.

There is much we don’t know about Prince, including how he died [at the time, we didn’t. Now we do and it’s sadder still]. The one thing everyone knows, from fellow musicians or far-removed fans, is that he was the best. Genius is a word rendered thin and flavourless by overuse; as are icon, legend, unique, and inimitable. That doesn’t make them any less true when applied to Prince.

My private theory, long-held, is that the only reason he didn’t supplant Jimi Hendrix in music mythology as the ultimate guitar god is that he was too sexy, too queer in the old fashioned sense for the (mostly) straight, white male rock journalists who oversee the beatification of six-string saints. The marvel is: Prince was so good he forced them to pronounce his brilliance despite the yellow laser-cut trouser suit he wore to perform ‘Gett Off’ at the 1991 MTV Music Awards, and his lavish lyrical praise of women who really, really like sex.

Pre-Prince, men had a monopoly on the pocket full of Trojans (some of them used). Then an androgynous imp who played every instrument, arranged every note, and took no shit from anyone came straight outta Minneapolis and turned the world upside down. He made people nervous. Most famously, Tipper Gore whose horror at Nikki masturbating with a magazine birthed the ‘Parental Warning: Explicit Content’ label.

From ‘Darling Nikki’ to ‘Raspberry Beret’ to ‘Cream’ to ‘Peach’ to ‘Head’ to ‘When You Were Mine’ Prince sang about women who dug sex and had fun doing it. He unapologetically refused to adopt the rock’n’roll paradigm where men are Subjects and women are Objects (in the De Beauvoirian sense).

Refusing assent was one of the many things Prince did better than anyone else. From Warner Brothers to the internet, there was no Goliath he wouldn’t sling a pebble at. He didn’t always win these battles, but he never lost. In the end, the record labels, the critics, and the world wide web kowtowed to his sublime talent and awesome willfulness.

This we must celebrate. There aren’t many artists like that. Even, or especially, the most successful musicians play the game. They get slick, learn to give the right answers, straighten their teeth, take up knitting, buy trout farms, get into right-wing politics, advertise butter. Prince, though, never played the game by anyone’s rules but his own.

Magnificently onery to the end, he holed up at Paisley Park, recording, performing, throwing dance parties, hosting movie nights for the assortment of musicians, protegees, sound engineers and technicians who he routinely sacrificed on the altar of musical perfectionism. “The thing about Prince,” one of them told me, “Is that he was better than everyone, at everything.”

I can’t think of one lick of evidence to the contrary. Can you?

Which is why only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince, or sing a Prince song, or play a Prince riff. Maybe that’s the point though. To get through this thing called life we have to do our best when we’re not the best. We have to trudge while other soar. We have to accept that flowers wither; stars burn out; that perfection isn’t proof against death.

My gut feeling is Prince knew this better than anyone. And that it kept him from giving too much of a fuck. Nobody is ever going to sound as good or be as good as Prince. No one can recreate his magic. What we can do is let that show us how to live, take courage, let his music and spirit infuse us. Let’s be idiots for the things we love. Prince would approve.

38 – 10 Songs That Made Me Love Pulp

This article appears on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk. Check it out in its original form.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
“It’s not chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s something darker/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night”. Jarvis Cocker’s memorable assessment of the titular emotion in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (surely one of the Top 10 most awkwardly titled songs pop history) is a perfect epithet for the bands’ oeuvre.

The magic of Pulp is the mingling of sharp, danceable guitar pop with lyrics that veer from cynical to downright sinister. Their most radio-friendly hits are rife with violence (‘Joyriders’ “Mister, we just want your car/ ‘Cos we’re taking a girl to the reservoir”) and voyeurism (“I wanted to see as well as hear and so I hid inside her wardrobe,” in ‘Babies’). Love songs in Pulp world include lyrics like: “You are the last drink I should have ever drunk/ You are the body hidden in the trunk” (‘Like a Friend’).

Studying the arc of their career, it’s clear ‘Different Class’s’ arrival in Cool Britannia was coincidence; the subsequent lumping of Pulp with Britpop a music journalists’ convenience. Pulp never shared Blur’s mockney smuggery nor Oasis’ apolitical performance of working classness. Pulp was on a different trajectory: one that began in Sheffield in 1978, contained more than a decade of obscurity, and survived Britpop notoriety to deliver an acerbic welcome to the new millennium.

Its curve is marked by a rare, unflinching insight into the human psyche. Pulp takes love as a subject but, unlike most pop confectioners, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Cocker sees love as a slippery amalgam of baser needs: status, self-worth, revenge, amusement, actualisation, to see the darkest parts of ourselves reflected in another. Attraction doesn’t lead through flower-dappled fields at sunset but down gnarled alleys stale with fag smoke, booze and latent violence.

Rarer still, Cocker understands that society is an echo chamber of our dark hearts: it isn’t just individuals who behave in warped, self-defeating ways, but our whole culture.


1. ‘I Want You’ (‘Freaks’, 1987)

Released almost a decade into their existence, this marked Pulp’s unsteady progress from post-punk acolytes to popstars. Early on, they could have been The Fall’s slightly more socially adept younger sibling. While this is still true of ‘Freaks’ portentous opener ‘Fairground’, ‘I Want You’ has all the raw material of a lo-fi pop hit, laced with Cocker’s cyanide romanticism. Melodic guitars provide a distractingly pretty backdrop to the declaration: “I’ll break you because I lose myself inside you… Yes, you’re all that I ever desired/ Still I’ll kill you in the end.”

2. ‘Do You Remember the First Time’ (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)

What saved Pulp from permanent obscurity was a realisation (conscious or not) that matching the music to the dissonance of the lyrics made them inaccessible, to say the least. Polished pop chords were the Trojan Horse that could carry Cocker’s devastating aperçus into halls of residence and suburban discos. The diatribe of a man watching his ex-lover (?) go home to someone else (“You bought a toy that can reach/ The places he never goes… At least you never have to face up to the night on your own”) comes wrapped in layers of chiming guitar and a danceable groove.

3. ‘Mis-Shapes’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The opening track of ‘Different Class’ is Cocker spitting the accumulated bile of a decade and half of Tory rule. The opening phrase: “Raised on a diet of broken biscuits” attests to his talent for evoking the circumstances of a life in a single stark image. The embittered, bright working class protagonists of the song “learned to much at school now… We can’t help but see that the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.” Tellingly, the words still speak for Britain’s (young) people struggling with debt, gutted public services, and the crass Conservative war against social cohesion.

4. ‘Common People’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

Pulp’s biggest hit, the evergreen indie disco floorfiller ‘Common People’, drips with Maoist levels of vitriolic class consciousness. The (presumably autobiographic) account of a working-class kid who becomes the object of an art school student’s urge to slum it reeks with pent frustration, envy, longing and a paradoxical sense of superiority. “Everybody hates a tourist,” Cocker sneers. “Especially one who thinks it all such a laugh/ And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.” But he still drinks the rum ‘n’ coca cola.

5. ‘Pencil Skirt’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

It is a testimony to Pulp’s genius that a song that disturbed my mother when I was a teenager is as tantalizingly twisted two decades later. (It is also supports the strong argument that the first five tracks of ‘Different Class’ is one of the greatest sustained opening album sequences in 20th Century pop.) Cocker renders scenes with novelistic precision, using simple statements and objects to evoke dark knots of emotion. From the moment “You raise your pencil skirt, like a veil before my eyes” through the point where the adulterous lover declares “I’ve kissed your mother twice, and I’m working on your dad” the whole greedy, sordid, ignoble (in other words, ordinary) affair unfolds like exquisite tapestry.

6. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The original single artwork was a premeditated equivalent of Cocker’s subsequent bum-wagging stage invasion of the Brits in 1996. That the cheeky ‘Here’s how to make a wrap kids’ got the predictable response from the red tops, merely affirmed the incisiveness of Jarvis’ social sensibility. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ is so relentlessly specific that it attains to the universal. You don’t have to have ever “Lost an important part of your brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” to appreciate the youthful recklessness and yearning it evokes.

7. ‘The Fear’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

Other bands might have clung to their moment in the sun, retreading the formula, but not Pulp. As the ‘90s waned they released the ultimate comedown album (the only one I know, anyway, that reeks with the jaded wisdom and lack of regret of those who are able to give up chemical indulgences without disavowing them). Cocker isn’t naive enough to think repentance will buy off The Fear. He studies it, inviting the listener along with the minor-key reassurance: “When you’re no longer searching for beauty or love/ Just some kind of life with the edges taken off/ When you can’t even define what it/ is that you are frightened of/ This song will be here.”

8. ‘Glory Days’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

The apotheosis of Pulp’s genius for making the borderline tragic sound bright, ‘Glory Days’ is a sing-along anthem that captures ‘Mis-Shapes’ broken-biscuit eaters a decade later – undefeated but far from triumphant. “We were brought up on the space race/Now they expect you to clean toilets/ When you’ve seen how big the world is/ How can you make do with this?” Cocker rails. Then adds: “If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in.” It is righteous outrage against The System tempered by the mature realisation that The System is also us. No one is innocent. (We never, were. Were we, Jarvis?)

9. ‘Weeds, (‘We Love Life’, 2001)

Arguably, every song he’s ever written was a protest song, but ‘Weeds’ is a rare example of Jarvis tackling capital-P politics with his usual lacerating observations. Narrated from the perspective of refugees, it snarls with frustration and a loathing of smug privilege. “Make believe you’re turned on by planting trees and shrubs/ But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs.”

10. ‘C**ts are Still Running the World’ (‘Jarvis’, 2006)

Technically not a Pulp song but possibly the greatest Pulp song ever written. Jarvis’ censor-baiting analysis of modern ‘meritocratic’ Britain is par with Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker’ as a coda for our times. The only thing tarnishing the splendour of his cutting couplets (“The working classes are obsolete/ Surplus to society’s needs/ So let them all kill each other/ And get it made overseas”) is the fact that the song is more documentary than fiction.


It would be unfair to end on a down-note because Pulp is a fundamentally joy-making band – but I don’t believe Jarvis would see ‘C**ts…’ as a downer. The world may be, to put it politely, screwed but Pulp proved it can’t steal our spirit unless we let it. Be dumb, be furious, be disappointed, be fatalistic; even if you never set your sights higher than avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop, be proud. As Henry David Thoreau advised: “However mean your life is, meet and live it.”

30 – Green Velvet

A feature written for Ibiza Voice in 2008, probably. Not one of my finest pieces of writing but Green Velvet is a godlike (and godly) genius. This is for him.

If here ever was a time and place dedicated to stamping out the vestiges of party culture it is 21st century USA. In a nation where you can’t drink till you’re 21, where bottled water is considered drug paraphernalia and where electronic music promoters can be indicted under the same laws as people who run crack houses there isn’t a hell of a lot of leeway for having fun.

Sure, there is Pacha and Cielo in New York City, Chicago’s Crobar & Vision… a handful of big name clubs pulling glamorous crowds and A-list DJs. But what about everywhere else? Despite the obstacles, there are still brave promoters and music freaks who occasionally pull off a coup like luring techno legend Green Velvet to a small-time rave in an industrial corner of Portland, Oregon (pop: 500,000; biggest musical exports: the Dandy Warhols and Beth Ditto). This coffee-fuelled hippie haven happens to be my hometown, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see what happens when techno stars meet barebones raving.

Photo: C Warncke

One thing to know about partying American-style is that you’ll rarely find good music in a legitimate club. You don’t dress up to go out on a Saturday night so much as layer up, because chances are you’ll wind up wandering through freezing cold railway stockyards (or forests, or fields) trying to find the sound system.

After a false start that takes us across the path of a slow-rolling freight train loaded with desert camouflaged military jeeps we finally find a corrugated steel warehouse with a flickering sign outside reading On Air. A pair of guys in black parkas – one fat and bearded, the other rangy and pony-tailed – wave us in and another lanky kid standing behind a folding wooden table takes our 20 bucks entry fee. Even in the ostensibly free atmosphere of a semi-legal rave there are rules in abundance. Half the barn-like space is cordoned off to form a bar (more plywood tables and a cheap metal rack full of spirits) – you have to show ID to get in here, and once “inside” you can’t smoke. You also can’t carry any alcohol back onto the dancefloor, meaning those of us relying on vodka to keep warm have to make repeated trips between the two. Here, having a huge parka comes in handy: I manage to sneak a dance with my drink nestled inside my oversized cuffs.

However, it isn’t the funny little restrictions that are the most striking. It’s the spirit. Never mind the local DJ is busy mangling ‘Heater’ (ironic tune choice, given the ambient temperature is about three degrees), or that the only toilets are a row of port-a-loos on a concrete slab out back; or even that half the crowd looks too young to drive and the other half looks old enough to know better… the atmosphere is crazy. On the dancefloor drug-skinny kids are breaking out elaborate “liquid” moves that went out of fashion in Europe a decade ago. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care, because here there is still a sense that being a raver is something special, a mark of distinction. One boy in a trilby is soaking up attention, showing off moves he must have spent hours practicing. Around him, girls in tiny skirts and day-glo bangles are dancing with fierce concentration.

Half an hour earlier my friends and I looked around the warehouse and asked, “What the hell convinced Green Velvet to come out here ” Usually, he’s in a DJ booth dripping with the latest high-spec equipment, commanding the world’s best sound systems. Tonight, he’s on a make-shift stage DJing off two decks perched on one of those wire shelves they use as discount racks in supermarkets. But he’s a true professional and, more than that, a man on a mission. Soft-spoken Curtis Jones is a devout Christian who sees his DJing as an opportunity to spread love and positivity, and he’s throwing himself into this set with as much energy as if it were the main room of Space.

And the reaction? Well, it beats any crowd I’ve seen at Space…. There are only a couple of hundred kids here, but their energy is filling up the room. It doesn’t hurt that everyone seems seriously, loopily altered. Whatever they lack in legal access to alcohol they clearly make up for with fistfuls of narcotics. And it’s all treated in share-and-share alike fashion. Absolutely everyone will stop and say hello, offer you something if they have something (even if it’s just a smoke), or simply turn around and holler “you having fun?

Photo: C Warncke

Sometimes this goes better than others. One kid, dancing next to me, turns around with a shit-eating grin and gives me the thumbs up. “Have you ever seen Green Velvet play before?” I shout over the music. He looks at me, eyes like saucers. “Are you speaking German ” he shouts back. When I burst out laughing he grins back, anxious to please. “Whatever you just said, that was cool,” he assures me.

It’s enough to make the most sober head feel twisted, and there aren’t many here. Tall, thin and cool in black leather and Matrix-esque shades, Green Velvet finally drops the tune that he wrote for kids like this: La La Land. He originally meant it as an anti-drugs message, but that seems to go right over the heads of everyone who is shouting out the chorus in un-ironic appreciation. It is a world away from sophisticated, commodified European party culture but looking around the room, it kind of makes sense.

Outside this cold, ramshackle building the train loaded down with military hardware is still rolling inexorably past. Outside a stupid, venal government is too busy scheming to kill other people’s citizens to bother feeding, educating or providing health care for its own. Outside times are tough and probably not about to get better in a hurry. But inside… well, it’s la la land. A place where freedom exists, music matters and people treat each other as potential friends, not potential enemies. Right now it feels like the best, warmest, safest place to be.

27- Justice the band

This was written for… Mixmag? Ibiza Voice? DJ Mag? In any case, some dance magazine in 2008. It contains far too many adverbs and hyphens. Maybe someday I’ll learn to rein those in, maybe.

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Justice @ Club 75, Pacha Ibiza

Justice has never stuck to clearly defined roles. The fashionably thin, intensely Gallic duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay manage to both embody and defy stereotypes. They are intense in a well-educated, laconic, smoky Parisian sort of way (“we smoked 30,000 cigarettes making this record,” they said of debut album Cross). Yet their music pops with rainbow colours and kiddie-friendly choruses. Without ever courting the music press they snared the world’s attention by upstaging Kanye West at the MTV Music Awards. His onstage temper-tantrum ensured their notoriety to an audience that might never have noticed them otherwise. This, too, seemed to slide off their skinny, black-leather-bound shoulders. Justice simply marched on. From hipster hip hop parties in dingy Paris nightclubs to manic mainstage gigs at Sonar by night to international tours with audiences writhing in near-tearful devotion – they’ve done it all, and seen it all.

This makes their arrival at Pure Pacha highly incongruous. Pacha prides itself on sophistication and as much gentility as becomes a discotheque. It isn’t a natural destination for raving teenagers waving white crosses and homemade “Justice” banners. Tonight they are joined by Cassius, completing the French twist on the evening. On the corner, just past the main entrance a group of indeterminate youngsters is swigging down on bottled drinks. This is typical behaviour outside Amnesia, but here you almost expect one of the doormen to lumber down and have a word. No one does though. There is plenty of merriment in the warm air, and the kind of good natured jostling that happens in high-spirited queues. Judging by the snippets of conversation running Justice fan base travels well: Italian, Spanish, French and a fair portion of English voices ring out. Everyone is fidgeting to the hint of the kick drum oozing through the dense walls.

By the time we scramble inside there is a mini rush for the dancefloor. Any latent concerns about how Justice’s cheeky style and flamboyant showmanship would fit in the calm lines of Pacha vanishes in a moment. The booth – always a hive of activity – is a veritable swarm, with enough arms flailing through the dry ice to look as if it’s been taken over by an impatient octopus. Justice and Cassius are playing back to back, moving so fast it seems as if there surely must be more than three of them. On the dancefloor an enthusiastic moil keeps pace with the hyperactive display in the DJ box, swishing and pitching from side to side with giddy abandon. Girls in boutique dresses have bade farewell to propriety and are dancing manically. One, actually around her handbag (ironically, we hope).

Justice’s knowing melange of electro, pop and the odd stonking guitar riff is perfectly gender balanced: the boys are stomping away with equal concentration. Somehow, they engage the crowd without seeming to pay it much attention. Xavier, small and perky as a meerkat, bobs up from behind the decks to cheer the floor; Gaspard’s most demonstrative moment is a smile and half-wave when someone thrusts a mobile phone up at him, yet they are in perfect harmony with the crowd. The gurgling pop of ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ whips up a storm, and a tough, techno-tinged track gets just as much of a hearty response. Tonight, Justice – with a little help from their friend, Cassius – demonstrate perfectly why the are who they are: every expectation broken, every rule bent and everyone dancing towards dawn with a smile on their face.

Web: Justice.church

14 – The Martinez Brothers

This was a feature written for DJ Mag sometime in ’06 or ’07.

Photo by Dean Machala on Unsplash

The Martinez Brothers are a publicists’ dream come true. A super-talented teenage DJ duo that got their big break after becoming MySpace buddies with Dennis Ferrer, they have it all: youth, skill, good looks and a great story. Yet the most remarkable thing about them is how poorly that set of facts describes them, how much lies beneath the sound-bite surface of their success.

The story of the Martinez Brothers – and what it suggests they may mean to house music in particular and dance culture in general – is as opaque and arresting as their wide, dark eyes.

Steve Jnr appears first, a slip of a kid in baggy shorts and trendy black half-rimmed glasses. His eyes flicker, the “oh geez, Dad, please don’t embarrass” me gesture universal to teenagers. We’re bunkered away from the blazing Ibiza sun in the unlit, unopened lounge at the back of El Hotel Pacha. Steven Martinez Senior, a manager for an elevator company, proudly recounts his sons’ boyhood musical achievements. How Stevie loved drumming and “whatever he was into, Chris wanted to get into.”

His eldest son eyes him warily. “I’ll go get Chris.” A minute later the Martinez Brothers return and their father melts into the background. They are both wearing fitted white tee-shirts, chunky diamond studs in their left ears. Chris wears a fat gold chain that hangs almost to his waist, anchored by a cross. Both sport trendy Fifty9 baseball caps, worn at jaunty angles – Steve’s backwards, Chris’ slewed forward across his ruler-straight, close-cropped fringe. Steve is the spokesman: courteous, articulate, informed (he’s planning to vote for Barack Obama because “for him to win would change history”). Chris is mischievous, funny, cocky (asked what his hobbies are he deadpans, “ballroom dancing.” Then snickers at his joke.)

It is day three of their first-ever visit to Ibiza. They’ve hired scooters and tooled around the island. They are staying in an expensive designer hotel. Last night they were “chilling with Erick Morillo” at Defected, at Pacha. Tonight, they’ll be joining him on the bill at Subliminal Sessions. Neither of them seems to find these facts remarkable. In the larger context of their career they aren’t.

Using the word “career” when talking about a 16 and a 19-year-old feels strange. Like they should be Britney Spears-style stage school brats or geeky child prodigies (they aren’t). There isn’t any other word though, given the brothers have been professional musicians since roughly the ages of nine and 13.

The eldest of four children, Steve and Chris grew up in the Bronx. Ironically, they were the reason their father, a self-confessed house head, give up clubbing. “I was really into the scene. Going to the Paradise Garage, everything. But then I got married, had kids, that was my priority. I didn’t set foot in a club from 1987 till 2003,” Steve Snr says.

Young Steve and Chris were obsessed with music. Their Gran bought a toy drum kit as a present and the pair bloomed into in-demand freelance percussionists. “Bands used to call up our dad and ask, ‘can we hire your kids for the weekend?’” Steve recalls with a chuckle.

“We had this regular gig in Connecticut. We’d get up at 5AM on Saturday morning, pack our instruments and drive up there, listening to Jamiroquai,” Chris adds, as if the only unusual thing about being a 10-year-old professional musician were the hours.

Dance music re-entered the Martinez house partially as an antidote to hip hop, Chris says. “I was into Jay-Z, 50 Cent, stuff like that. Our dad didn’t vibe with their messages so he started bringing us different CDs.” The giants of hip hop didn’t stand a chance as the brothers threw themselves into the sounds of Jellybean Benitez, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and Timmy Rutherford.

Photo by Heshan Perera on Unsplash

When Steve said he wanted to be a DJ, though, his dad hesitated, not wishing to expose them to the dance music lifestyle (“they’re good kids. They go to church. They didn’t know there is more than music involved,” Steve Snr confides). Still, assuming decks would be a short-lived hobby, he bought them a pair of CDJs.

He needn’t have worried. Chris and Steve have a connoisseur’s passion for dance music – to the point the scene seems almost incidental. Ask who their musical heroes are and Steve sighs at the mundane question. “We studied – we study – everyone from Stevie Wonder to guys like Villalobos and Luciano, everything….”

It doesn’t seem remarkable to them, as it would to anyone older, that house music can be an object of artistic consideration. If they are aware that most people (both inside and outside the scene) view electronic music as fundamentally, intrinsically connected with drug culture they don’t let on. Not that they’re naive. Steve shrugs when asked what they think of playing to clubs full of people getting high: “that’s their way of having a high…”

“Ours is making music,” Chris chips in.

They approach music with a passion and a savvy that belies their age. A year or so ago, when Chris was 15, he started messaging Dennis Ferrer on MySpace. “That hook-up was my genius idea,” he quips. Chris can’t say what it was that made the revered house producer and Objektivity label boss curious about the youngster (at a guess, his insouciant cool and bone-dry wit) but he was. Mixes were exchanged and Ferrer invited the boy to play his night at Shelter in New York City. “So I asked if I could bring my brother along,” he says with a grin

Still shy of legal drinking age in the US, they had to arrive at Shelter after the bar closed at 4AM. Most DJs would blanch at having to follow Dennis Ferrer on the decks, but they didn’t. A partnership was born that night as effortless innovator Ferrer recognized a kindred spirit in the two skinny kids from the Bronx. Since then “Uncle Dennis” has been friend and mentor (they share management and he released their first record). “If we’re in the studio we’ll send stuff over to him. If he says it’s wack, it goes,” Chris says. The relationship works both ways. “He sends us stuff too. We tell him if it’s any good.”

This unlikely friendship has brought the Martinez Brothers into the Pantheon of the demigods of house music: Kenny ‘Dope’, Erick, Roger Sanchez. “All our friends are, like, 30 or 40,” Steve says with a laugh. It would be easy to think, cynically, that Chris and Steve are a mere novelty, a way for older house jocks to stir up a bit of publicity and attract a younger audience. Anyone who has seen them DJ knows better.

At 2AM the main room of Pacha is buzzing. Erick and a few friends are standing in the VIP area but every eye is on Chris and Steve in the DJ box. They are a two-headed, four-armed music machine, spinning around each other to grab CDs, fingers flying across the effects unit, heads bopping, never missing a beat. They aren’t just students of house music, they’re teachers, preachers, revivalists. Classic disco samples spin into faultless, pumping tech house and shots of vocals raise goose-pimples on arms. It isn’t just the music that’s infectious, it’s their attitude. Anyone else would be trying hard, they aren’t. They don’t have to. “It’s like seeing Masters At Work for the first time,” an awestruck punter exclaims. And he’s right; the Martinez Brothers belong here. Musically, stylistically, creatively, they are something special.

The sheer joy in their performance is infections. Summer is their chance to enjoy DJing without Chris, a high school senior, and Steve, a third-year liberal arts student, having to rush home for classes Monday morning. They are dutiful about their education but they know what the future holds. “Music, music, music,” Chris says emphatically.

Watching them wrap Pacha around their little fingers is enough to make the toughest skeptic a believer. Not just that they’ll get the production success, record label and high-flying DJ career they want, but that they are re-writing the rules of dance. That they are the first of a generation to take house music seriously, as music, and by doing so will take it further than anyone has before.

The Martinez Brothers, all grown up, spinning for Mixmag at Miami Music Week

9 -One to Watch: Camden Barfly

In which a live review for Disorder proves I had no future as a musical prognosticator.

Levi’s One To Watch, Camden Barfly, 9 Mar ’06

Smoking, rah-rah skirts, school ties, cider & black. Thursday night at the Camden Barfly and it’s like the 90s never happened. Onstage, The Fratellis are pretending the 80s never happened either. Unspeakably youthful, they’re barrelling through sturdy, loud, happy rock songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place soundtracking Almost Famous. Nor would Jon Fratelli’s wild curls, barely contained beneath a voluminous hat.

Their equally fresh-faced audience is lapping it up. “I like them. It’s happy music, says one girl.

“Good, but too young. Their sound will get better with time,” remarks George, with the accumulated wisdom of 24 years.

Equally young, but markedly more polished is trio On-Off. The name is boyishly literal. Their tunes flash past in punk-pop flavoured bursts of quiet/loud/quiet/loud. The singer has a pencil thin mustache and greased back hair. Begby in Trainspotting springs to mind, but he honestly believes he’s singing with the Jam. The bass thrashes joyfully; he thinks he’s playing with Green Day. Neo-punk and classic Mod shouldn’t fit, but here, tonight, they do. On-Off’s chemistry is apparent in their airtight instrumentation and their goofy interaction lights up the room, sending little fizz bombs of sound exploding in the air. Despite a lacklustre response they veer confidently through a series of grunge and ska infused vignettes of girls, booze and broken hearts. The lyrics are naff, admittedly, but tracks like the crisply realised ‘That’s Life’ promise better things with time.

Between sets boys and girls mill around, swapping notes and My Space addresses. “I heard The Maccabees on MySpace so I thought I’d come check them out,” Lucy (clearly only ‘18’ for purposes of admittance to nights like these) explains, smiling nervously.

A few feet away Anna is bouncing on an invisible pogo stock. “The Maccabees are fucking brilliant. I like music that’s fucking upbeat. It sounds like a cliché but they remind me of the Libertines.”

Actually, she’s not wrong. Orlando, Felix, Hugo, Rupert and Robert have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about The Libertines, listening to The Libertines, and possibly hoping to be a bit like The Libertines. The result is more endearing than exciting (imagine watching a group of young children performing a routine learned by heart from their favourite television programme). Rupert’s mum is nodding her salon-perfect ash blonde head, while Hugo’s dad stands next to her, beaming, windcheater still securely zipped up. Today is Hugo’s 20th, and little fragments of “happy birthday toooo youuuuu” bubble up between songs. Whatever they gave the birthday boy backstage it was one too many: his eyes are big and anxious in his white face as his band mates cheer.

Lanky teenage limbs are flying everywhere in a good-natured imitation of dancing. Lucy and company are right up the front, doing the pop-concert wave and shriek routine. The Maccabees probably won’t be around when Lucy really is 18, but for now everyone looks like their having fun. And on a cold winter night in Camden that’s more than enough.

NB: For those of you not au fait with early Noughties indie pop, The Maccabees had a successful decade-long career; The Fratellis‘ new album will be out in April; On-Off disappeared without a trace.

12 – New Order – Dreams Never End

This feature appeared on Ibiza Voice in 2011.

Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

How does it feel/To treat me like you do?

New Order is in the news after Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert announced they are playing two benefit gigs in Brussels on 17 and 18 October in aid of their friend and former Factory Records creative producer Michael Shamberg. This is news in part because the announcement was news to bassist Peter Hook, who released a statement saying: “It has taken me completely by surprise! Everyone knows that NEW ORDER without PETER HOOK is like QUEEN without FREDDIE MERCURY, U2 without THE EDGE… it would have been courteous and professional to have spoken to me in advance of the announcements. It is very sad.”

It would be sadder to let the latter day acrimony between the (ex) members of New Order tarnish the memory of a band shaped electronic music. The story goes like this…

Love will tear us apart/Again

When Joy Division singer Ian Curtis hangs himself in his home in May 1980, age 23, the band is left with a Top 20 single and no idea what the future might hold. Joy Division’s swan song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” is a shattering hymn of lost love and disillusion, and a fitting farewell to the bleak British 70s. Wisely, the remaining members of Joy Division, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, realise there’s no future in clinging to the shadows of the past. They change their name to New Order, recruit keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and begin writing new music.

“There isn’t a band in history to have so radically changed how they sound and what they do in such a short time,” writes Guardian journalist Rob Fitzpatrick. The evidence bears him out. “Temptation,” released two years after Curtis’s death, is an irresistible almost-love song that takes Joy Division’s bass-fuelled angularity and drapes it in a starburst guitar and skittering drumbeats. When bands like the Klaxons and Cut Copy ape New Order’s formula, some 25 years later, the press calls it “nu-rave.”

This is perhaps why New Order doesn’t seem radical: we’re used to the mix of glistening synths, jangling guitars and propulsive beats that they conjured from thin air. Their most emblematic record, “Blue Monday” is not only the best-selling 12” in history, it still has an electrifying effect on dancefloors around the world. I’ve seen it start riots at electro clubs and ignite underground techno dins. This is in itself remarkable; doubly so when you realise “Blue Monday” was first released in 1983. To put that in context, the Summer of Love wouldn’t break on England for another six years, US house music wasn’t even in its infancy: it was still a foetus. New Order sensed a future that hadn’t even arrived, and wrote the soundtrack.

Eventually, the rest of the world caught up and songs like “Sub-Culture” and “Regret” reverberated in parties in London, Ibiza, New York – anywhere people wanted to dance. But New Order was so far ahead of the curve they were coming to the end of that particular arc. In 1993 the band took a seven-year hiatus. In 2001 they released the album “Get Ready.” They followed it up with “Waiting for the Siren’s Call” in 2005 then split for good.

Many ways our lives have changed

New Order didn’t fracture on even lines. Sumner, along with Morris and Gilbert (who are married, as well as being band-mates) are on one side of a divide; an unrepentant Peter Hook on the other. The falling out, detailed in Fitzpatrick’s Joyless Divisions: the end of New Order, involves the usual suspects: money, ego, and legacy. Hook says Sumner is a “twat and he always has been,” while the other three are angry that Hook bought the rights to the Hacienda name – the Hac being the infamous Manchester nightclub that helped create the legend of New Order – and that Hook plays Joy Division covers with a new band. Plus there are, inevitably, “personal matters.” The moral of the story, if there is one, is that even the most extraordinary bands are made up of ordinary people. And that nothing lasts forever, apart from great music.

11- Aeroplane

This profile appeared on Ibiza Voice, an electronic music zine dedicated to ‘hype, lies and gossip’.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Last year [2008], on a hot August night, I was in the bottom of Space Terrace hell-pit, nose-to-armpit with a horrifying selection of gurning, greasy humanity. Not even VIP access and a bottle of vodka justifies my being here, I thought. It was too late to go, and too early to leave, however, so I shouldered my way through the Lynx-saturated crowd and took refuge in the Caja Roja. There, along with five other people, I had the most transcendent two hours of the entire season. Stephan Fasano and Vito De Luca – aka Aeroplane – playing with blissful abandon. If they were disgruntled at being faced with an audience of half-a-dozen it didn’t show. They alternated records, egging each other on, each track more brilliant than the last. There’s one that still haunts me; I’d give anything to remember the name, or even the vocal hook. All I know is it made me happy. I left sober but high as the moon. Aeroplane did what no other DJ did for me that summer: they played music that made me dance.

Much has changed in the last 12 months. Vito and Stephan have parted part ways – “It was friendly, I didn’t call the lawyers or anything” Vito assures me – and the new album, We Can’t Fly, proves Aeroplane can, even solo. Fittingly, I caught up with 28-year-old Vito as he makes his way through airport security to hop a plane to Ibiza. A seasoned traveller, he scoots minutes to spare and chats through the signal-warping walk down the tunnel and a conversation about luggage. “Is making music everything I hoped it would be?” he muses. “It’s the only thing that keeps me obsessed.”

Born in Belgium to Italian parents, Vito’s mum encouraged his love of music. “I started playing around on little synths she bought me when I was five or six,” he says. This led to music school, where he studied piano and guitar, and finally – at the ripe old age of 16 – he started buying studio equipment. Did he always want to be a musician? Vito chuckles: “It’s more like: ‘can I do anything else?’” He tried. There was a stint managing a clothes shop, and he ran a record store for a couple of years but concluded he “wasn’t talented at anything else.”

Whether or not this is true, Vito is definitely talented at music. It’s evident in the magic he summons as a DJ and, especially, in the irresistible, 80s-obsessed, kitscher-than-kitsch yet thrillingly original beats of We Can’t Fly. Critics are gushing:

“It’s BONKERS. It’s a fully orchestrated rock-disco epic, like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds on a collision course with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as Trevor Horn, Jim Steinman and Giorgio Moroder battle for supremacy in the studio.”

It is a compliment Vito is happy to take. Giorgio Moroder is one of his heroes and he is unabashedly in love with the 80s. “I tried to record the album as if it was the 80s,” he explains. “I used the same tools, the same process.”

Aeroplane on SoundCloud