7 – Spiritualized Review

The following album review was written for Pennyblackmusic. Though I still have a soft spot for this histrionic masterpiece, I’d hesitate to call it a ‘favourite album’ now. Yet am pleased not to be embarrassed by my 22-year-old-self’s assessment. It was fair and not dumb, which is more than can be said for a lot of things I did at 22.

Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

Like some kind of drugged-up, post-modern Virgil, Spiritualized front man Jason Pierce takes his audience on a pitch black, tragi-comic journey on their epic 1997 album, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’.

Pierce weeps and storms his way through his own personal hell for seventy soul-searing minutes. Unsettling shouldn’t be the word to describe what this sounds like; and it isn’t. Rather, Spiritualized creates music as luscious, as monstrous, as egotistical as grief itself.

Unashamedly epic, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ harks back to a time when rock bands weren’t afraid of endless solos, massive orchestrations and wilful musical indulgence. The closest thing to a conventional radio-friendly tune is the anomalous ‘Electricity’ (which was still cut before its release as a single) which marks an uneasy boundary between the yearning sadness of the first half of the album and the defiant bitterness of the second.

Eponymous opener ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’, ‘All Of My Thoughts’, and ‘Stay With Me’ all ooze heart-rending ‘I’ll do anything to get you back’ desperation. “Don’t know what to do by myself / Cause all of my time was with you,” (All Of My Thoughts) Pierce sings, voice bubbling over with emotion so raw it’s almost debasing. There’s nothing more painful, or more transfixing, than someone who will do literally anything to win back their lover, and listening to Pierce teeter on the sharp edge of total self-abnegation is horror-flick-style peeking-between-your-fingers voyeuristic ecstasy.

After the momentary respite of pop fantasy ‘Electricity’, the tone becomes less resigned, less measured. The bubble, it seems, has burst, and deep down he knows she’s never coming back. Any semblance of ‘coping’ disappears in paroxysms of rage, defiance, apathy and suicidal despair – and under a barrage of pharmaceuticals.


“I don’t even miss you,” Pierce claims (Home Of The Brave) then admits in the next breath, “but that’s ‘cause I’m fucked up.” He injects quavering glamour into the image of having breakfast “right off of the mirror,” and embodies junkie bravado with, “I’m too busy to be dreaming of you / There a lot of things that I’ve gotta do.”

Like all addicts – whether to love, heroin, or softer drugs – Pierce is, ultimately, selfish as hell. Which is the guilty pleasure of Ladies And Gentlemen… we all tumble into black holes of solipsistic grief sometimes, and its nice to have something to listen to while you wait for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Read the original at Pennyblackmusic.

6 – Trembling Blue Stars

The following excerpt is from an interview I did for Pennyblackmusic in Dec ’01 or Jan ’02. I’d only been in London a couple of months and found the West End as dizzying as did Mr Wratten. Despite being one of my first profiles, this remains one of my favourite pieces. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.

Photo by John Higgitt on Unsplash

The first thing you’ll notice about Trembling Blue Stars frontman Bobby Wratten is that, well, nothing stands out. No requisite dangling cigarette, no Mick Jagger sneer, not even any Bono specs, just a very slender, slightly balding man with light hair, blue eyes and a spaniel smile; a thoroughly unprepossessing rock star. Not that Bobby would like the term rock star: too clichéd, too aggressive.

Wratten doesn’t appear to be fond of the hectic or overstated. Even on a weeknight the routine bustle of London’s West End seems to unnerve him slightly. And he only looks marginally more comfortable settled into a low-lit pub. He’s not, it turns out, drinking orange juice in deference to his slight cough; he just doesn’t drink. Most of the nervousness, though none of the soft-spoken courtesy evaporates though as Wratten begins to talk about what really interests him – his music.

Though for someone who has devoted his life to making music, Wratten didn’t have a particularly polished beginning. Wratten confesses that he and [bassist] Michael Hiscock “couldn’t even tune our guitars,” in the early days of his first band, The Field Mice. When asked how their now-cultishly-adored whispery, twee-pop style developed he smiles, “you copy the bands you like and get it wrong, so that’s where you end up.” But press on and ask what bands he liked as a youngster and he rather incongruously names The Jam, The Clash, XTC, and Joy Division.One wonders exactly what strange things have to happen to bass and guitars, etc to get – accidentally – from The Clash to The Field Mice, but then the studied innocence of Wratten’s expression hints that he’s being more than a little disingenuous. And when he adds that, “there was nothing deliberate about any of it” it seems certain that the dim light of the pub is masking a twinkle in his eye.

After all, he insists that his music is neither as sad, nor as obsessive as some might like to believe. The acrimonious break-up of The Field Mice is well documented, as is the subsequent formation of Northern Picture Library by Wratten, and fellow former-Field Mice Annemari Davies and Mark Dobson. Even more legendary is the break-up of Annemari and Bobby’s long-term relationship, which led to the dissolution of Northern Picture Library after just one album and a handful of singles.

A self-professed incurable romantic, Wratten says, “like the idea you have a soul mate,” which goes a considerable way towards explaining the raw sadness captured in many of his lyrics. “I wrote a lot of songs about Annemari,” he says, perhaps understating the case just a little. The Trembling Blue Stars debut ‘Her Handwriting’, released in 1994, is an unabashed hankie-wringer of a CD recording the emotional devastation that came in the wake of the split with Davies. Unsurprisingly, Wratten reports that Davies declined to sing on ‘Her Handwriting’, though by the time he’d written the second Trembling Blue Stars record, ‘Lips That Taste Of Tears’ his ex-girlfriend was ready to rejoin him in the studio.

Which he claims is not at all creepy, in an “Every Breath You Take” kind of way. “I don’t [write songs about Davies] anymore but people still think I am, it’s just kind of funny,” he says. Then by way of supporting evidence points out a lyric from the third TBS record, ‘Broken By Whispers’: “it goes, ‘the way we left it was you would call,’ [from ‘Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise’] which I thought made it pretty obvious that it was about someone you weren’t in contact with, but Annemari was in the studio with me when I recorded it!” What’s more, he says, they are good friends outside the studio as well; Davies minds his house for him when he’s away. Which, most recently, was on Trembling Blue Stars inaugural tour of the States. Their American label, Sub Pop funded a multi-city junket, which Wratten thoroughly enjoyed. “[We’re] treated more seriously [there]” he says; possibly, one imagines, because Americans prefer to forgo the irony that Britain almost requires of its musicians.

Not that all their tour was spent in front of fawning audiences; in Portland, OR Trembling Blue Stars were booked to play a club called Dante’s – a seedy gay/leather sort of club.“ There were a few people in front who were there to see us, and a lot of people who just looked confused… but there were no disasters” Wratten recalls. Playing bars and clubs also meant that the shows tended to start late, after a long day of driving (the band navigated all the way from New York to San Francisco in the course of their tour), so “you play the first song three times as slow as it should be.” And instead of throwing yourselves a backstage shindig afterwards, apparently, you pack up and climb back into the van for some kip. “We weren’t very rock’n’roll,” Wratten explains, unnecessarily.Though in a world where“quiet is the new loud”, sleeping, chatting, and hanging out at truck stops may be new rock’n’roll.

In any case, returning to Mitchum, South London was a bit of a jolt, “it felt really strange coming home to nothing… we don’t really know what happens next,” he says, betraying for the first time a sense of anxiousness. This has something to do with their bassist leaving the band at the end of the American tour, and perhaps more to do with the fact that Trembling Blue Stars have already far overreached their intended lifespan. Her Handwriting was meant to be a one off record, and now, four albums later Wratten still believes you should “treat each record like it’s the last one you’re ever going to make.” Great for raising the artistic stakes probably, but surely stressful?

Read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

4 – Deaf Stereo

Profile of a short-lived indie electro outfit written for Clash sometime in ’06 or ’07

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash (NB: Not Deaf Stereo)

Deaf Stereo

Deaf Stereo has been percolating ever since Luke, Will and Ben met at Westminster Uni on a music course, at the turn of the millennium. It was four years before they had a name and an idea to go with it. “We decided to stop playing stuff we thought we should, and play music we wanted to listen to,” they explain. The music they wanted to play, if their first single is anything to go by, is solid, grooving beat driven indie pop. Disco biscuits with a side order of Jack Daniels, say.

“We’re into bands like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld… we like the peaks and troughs of dance, but we also wanted proper songs,” says Barney, who describes his role in the band as doing “keyboards and laptop stuff.” About a year ago, they completed their set up, with fifth member, Tom, the clean-cut drummer.

Sitting in the trendy bowels of the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, it’s Will, who plays bass, who keeps up the steadiest stream of patter. A series of wry asides from behind a hand rolled cigarette. “Would I ever sail a giant effigy of myself down the Thames? Shit. If I were as big as Michael Jackson that’s the least I would do. I’d have a whole set of them.”

Ben, (guitars, backing vocals) is small, dark, thoughtful. He takes on the philosophical questions. Or rather, turns questions philosophical. If you had a band uniform, say, what would it be? Luke (singer) runs a hand through his beautifully cut hair and says, “That’s something we’re still thinking about.” But Ben launches into an earnest and articulate explanation of the dangers of embracing style over substance. Absorbing this, Luke effortlessly readjusts his stance on the issue. “We happy wearing what we wear. No one’s told us to change anything yet.”

These small, subtle realignments happen more than once. Not in a deliberate presenting-a-united-front kind of way, but in a fluid manner which suggests long practice in accommodating each other’s ideas and opinions. Disagreements are minor: Barney prefers Addlestone cider, while Ben is happiest drinking mojitos. Will predicts a Dire Straits revival to general eye-rolling. When it matters, they’re in perfect sync. They want the right songs on the album (“we have a reputation as a party band, but we have some slower songs too, we want to showcase that”); they like the same venues (Koko and Fabric, where they played a riotous 3am gig); and perhaps most importantly, they all know what they want on their rider: “You mean when we have a rider? We’ll have as much as we can get! We got sandwiches when we were at Brixton, that was great,” Luke says.

So far, they’ve humped their equipment through calf-deep mud to play at Glastonbury last year. They’ve written a raft of songs which will somehow have to be whittled into an album. They’ve learned to party on backstage freebies because “we can’t afford to go out unless we’re playing.” They’ve been given some good advice: “Get a job, sort your life out, stop wasting your time,” Will guffaws. And what advice would they give someone following in their footsteps? Ben and Will catch each other’s eye and chorus, “Get a job! Stop wasting your time!” They all laugh.

3 – Slave to the Wage

This chart appeared in a Q Special sometime in the early Noughties — ’03 or ’04 perhaps.

01 Radiohead: Subterranean Homesick Alien (1997)

As suffocating and airless as a vacuum, this lays human weirdness depressingly bare.

02 Happy Mondays: Kinky Afro (1990)

Rough, shambling, baggy blues. Sounds like the Manc nutters had been rolling around the bottom of a barrel of whisky – which they probobly had.

03 Oasis: Roll With It (1995)

The brothers Gallagher know a bit about bad days. Even as millionaire rock stars they’ve managed more than their share of punch-ups and flame outs.

Q doing what it did best

04 William Orbit: Barber’s Adagio For Strings (1995)

Madonna’s producer pal puts a modern polish on this classical work and inadvertently conjures nirvana.

05 Primal Scream: Loaded (1990)

You wanna get high? So did these boys. And they made this drug-fuelled rebel anthem to tell the world about it.

06 Eminem: Lose Yourself (2002)

The how-to-guide to bursting from the wrong side of the tracks, in the wrong city.

07 The Clash: Death Or Glory (1979)

The quintessential punks with brains, The Clash were smart enough to see how bleak the future was.

08 Underworld: Push Upstairs (1998)

Hypnotic techno that rolls around your ears like marbles in a jar. Soothing and urgent at the same time.

09 Sex Pistols: No Future (1977)

Pure snot-nosed vitriol from the Queen’s least-favourite band. Rotten’s furious scorn made the prospect of ‘no future’ feel like a badge of honour.

10 Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall (1979)

A pulsing vein of menace runs through this track’s dense drone. Whatever you do, don’t be another brick in the all.

11 The Verve: Slide Away (1993)

The sound of grey skies, dead-end jobs and prodigious narcotic intake rolled into one.

12 The Stone Roses: Breaking Into Heaven (1994)

Combining Ian Brown’s guttural drawl and Doors-esque guitars from Squire to brilliant effect.

13 Electronic: Getting Away With It (1989)

New Order’s Bernard Sumner and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr join forces to invest the latter’s plaintive sensibility with the former’s ground-breaking pop.

14 The Smiths: Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (1984)

“l was looking for a job and then I found a job. And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Been there.

15 Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Whatever Happened to my Rock’n’Roll (Punk Song) (2000)

The Anglo-Yank trio pack a punch out of all proportion to their slight frames in this blast of righteous frustration.