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

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