Tom Ewing

19
May 15

A Great Big Clipper Ship

FT98 comments • 2,327 views

NME charlie nicholas On Friday I went to the first day of Mark Sinker’s Underground/Overground conference, about the British music press from 1968-1985 – dates that spanned the rise of the underground press, its colonisation of the music papers, and the besieging or breaking of its spirit during the 80s, under competitive pressure from style and pop mags. Mark picked 1985 because of Live Aid, which was barely mentioned on the day I was there. But it was also the foundation, or first plottings at any rate, of Q Magazine, much booed and hissed as villain. And it was the year the miners’ strike ended: on the panel I moderated, Cynthia Rose mentioned how miners’ wives would turn up in the offices of the thoroughly politicised NME.

This era of the press is mythical – the time just before I began reading about music. Some of its stories and inhabitants were passed down to me. The NME ran a wary, slightly sarky assessment of its 80s at the end of them: if it had been “a market-leading socialist youth paper” – Rose’s phrase – it no longer cared to admit it. But the idea of missing something special lingered. I read and was left cold by Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff. I read and was quietly moved by Ian Macdonald’s collected writing. I read and revered Paul Morley’s Ask.

I even once ordered up a sheaf of 1975 NMEs from the Bodleian Library. This was its printed zenith as a cultural force – in terms of numbers, at least, which all the writers disdained, except when it suited them to boast. Circulation nudging a million, and it read that way – men (nearly always) telling boys (most likely) what to do, and knowing they’d be heard. The voice of the impatient older brother if we’re being kind. Of the prefect if we’re not. Later, I read the Schoolkids Issue of Oz, the magazine that put the underground press on trial and gave Charles Shaar Murray his start. It passed through my hands in 1997, almost thirty years on, a dispatch from a world that seemed completely lost. Full of mystique, of course. But it might as well have been the Boys Own Paper, for all it mattered then and there.

18
May 15

ALL SAINTS – “Black Coffee”

Popular68 comments • 3,069 views

#876, 14th October 2000

saintscoffee All Saints’ final number one is their most oblique, their most grown-up, also their finest. The song barely glances at its title – a pair of words out of a hundred in the lyric – but the whole record is a glance or a quiet smile, a celebration of tiny satisfactions, and of finding yourself with someone who conjures them so easily. “Each moment is cool / freeze the moment”. It’s a song, most of it, about feeling contented – a rare subject for pop, which prefers to nose out conflict (the video finds some anyway, staging “Black Coffee” as a post-Matrix bullet time break-up drama). There are songs – cousins to this, like “I Say A Little Prayer” – that capture the way love makes the everyday blush with significance, but “Black Coffee” is after something more comfortable. A day with your lover, as casually sweet as all the other ones. Nothing’s perfect, but “Black Coffee”’s rippling, overlapping melody lines make even the quarrels sound blissful.

10
May 15

I Know How To Curse

The Brown Wedge22 comments • 2,190 views

shootingstar2

1978: The Shooting Star

It’s the spider I remember. In The Shooting Star, boy reporter Tintin is investigating an apocalyptic threat, a star on a collision course with our world. He visits an observatory, hoping they can tell him what’s going on. They can: the world is doomed. He is led to the telescope and through it he sees a colossal spider, clinging to the star.

The beast is only on the telescope lens. And the world is not doomed. But I was entranced. By that, by the panic in the streets, by the race to reach a new island formed in the wake of the star’s passing, and by the grotesque exploding mushrooms our hero finds there. Tintin is the first comic I can remember reading, and The Shooting Star is my first memory of Tintin. In many ways, I wish it was almost any of his other adventures.

6
May 15

MARIAH CAREY AND WESTLIFE – “Against All Odds”

Popular44 comments • 4,804 views

#875, 30th September 2000

westlife against I don’t know if “Against All Odds” is the best Phil Collins song. I suspect it is. But it’s certainly the most Phil Collins song, the complete conjunction of things you might associate with Phil Collins: song-shifting drum breakdowns, male pattern agony, everybloke blues. It’s also a song that attracts covers: writing about one of them on NYLPM, I said: “The ur-version of “Against All Odds” will always be by a drunk divorced man in a suburban karaoke, singing his desperate heart away – Phil’s original is just a guide vocal.”

3
May 15

MODJO – “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”

Popular44 comments • 2,117 views

#874, 16th September 2000

modjo “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” came hard on the heels of “Groovejet” as a revivalist disco hit. It also works as a despondent, pleading answer record: where Sophie Ellis-Bextor embraces the dancefloor as a flirtatious zone of mystery and ambiguity, “Lady” begs for resolution. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, it circles its sampled groove like water circling a drain. Where “Groovejet” is spry, happy to lose itself in the possibility of disco, “Lady” finds a rut and keeps scratching it deeper in its despairing neediness. The singles’ proximity does “Lady” no favours – this suitor, and his simple plea, is run rings round.

1
May 15

From Beyond

The Brown Wedge15 comments • 559 views

secret wars cover NEW THRILL!

This is an origin story. Thirty years ago, give or take a day, I went to my local newsagent and I bought a new comic. The next day I asked the newsagent, Mr.Mann, he of the back room full of protein supplements and ‘marital advice’ partworks, to reserve it for me every fortnight. Two months later he was putting aside a second comic, 2000AD. Six months later I found a source for imported US Marvel comics, and I started ordering those. And so it grows.

The origin story is no different from any other comics fan’s. It begins when something radioactive bites you. Bought in a corner shop (but it could have been glimpsed in an attic, snipped up on Tumblr, passed on by an older sister, found in a doctor’s waiting room) – it sinks its teeth in. You’re changed. You borrow, and read, and buy. With great power comes financial irresponsibility. You walk away sometimes, you come back other times. And thirty years later, here you are.

29
Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

Popular72 comments • 2,728 views

#873, 9th September 2000

A1take A single that’s good for one thing, at least: “Which group got to No.1 with Take On Me?” is a reliably sneaky pop quiz question. Beyond that, it’s tempting to dismiss A1’s version as irrelevant. Doubly tempting if you were 12 in 1985, and the clean surge of that keyboard riff still sounded like the bright world of life and youth and adventure opening up in front of you. It’s not that a cover version is any kind of sacrilege – just that you can’t update the eternally young. But listen again and A-Ha’s original sounds stuck in its time: the synthesisers thin, the drum sound hollow and deadened. That doesn’t make it less glorious to me, it just reminds me of the work memory does in making songs great. Why not give new 12-year olds a chance for memories of their own?

26
Apr 15

MADONNA – “Music”

Popular67 comments • 3,246 views

#872, 2nd September 2000

madonna music “Her whole career’s been like, oh, they’re the trendy person of the moment, I’ll work with them to make me younger. They’re using you.” – Aphex Twin on Madonna, 2001.

I am the same age now – just turned 42 – as Madonna was when she released “Music”. Last week, with delightful serendipity, Spotify released a study suggesting that listeners hit a “musical mid-life crisis” at 42, as their tastes suddenly skew (a little) back towards the mainstream: are they trying to keep up? Was Madonna? The image of her as trend-chasing, desperate, even “vampiric” (as that Aphex interviewer glossed it) has hardened as the hits dried up. But the Aphex quote shows it was current in the Music era – how he framed the singer’s interest in working with him.

24
Apr 15

Taxonomy Domine

FT15 comments • 1,847 views

Sisyphus was a rockist.

Sisyphus was a rockist.

This is a list – scribbled down over lunch, then expanded – of ways that writers who focus on pop music have approached it. I agree with some. I disagree with some. Some of them I’ve tried, some I’ve only read. A few have become fairly orthodox. Others are rare, or at least rare nowadays.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and expansion is welcomed. (I think there should probably be something on camp in here, for instance, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it.)

1. Why Is This Popular?: I start with this one, because it’s largely what I do on Popular, which serves as an example. I am interested in things that are popular. The idea is that there’s value in thinking why something becomes a hit – what people hear or see in it. Popular things aren’t inherently good, but they are inherently interesting. Often shades into sociology, not always very expertly.

2. Pop As Expression Of The People: There are a few strands of thinking that really do hold popularity to be at least potentially a good in itself. “Popular culture is folk culture” (a Robert Wyatt paraphrase) would be the tenet here – pop is good because it reflects and represents everyday concerns, lives, dreams… maybe even a kind of will of the people. This type of angle feels unfashionable now, too monocultural (though see #8 below.)

3. Pop As A Site Of Subversion: A type of thinking that semi-inverts #2 – pop music is interesting when things sneak in and slip through that don’t ‘belong’ and that have the potential to question or overturn social norms. Runs the risk of turning into a simple scorecard or being horribly narrow about what constitutes subversion: where have all the protest songs gone, etc.

22
Apr 15

SPILLER – “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”

Popular107 comments • 3,916 views

#871, 26th August 2000

spiller groovejet The revival of disco within pop put a spotlight on something that had gone missing over the 90s: a sense of music not just for dancing, but for dancing with someone. Disco was a music of mutual attraction: cruising, flirtation, negotiation. Its dancefloor is a space for immediate pleasure, but also for promises kept and otherwise. It’s a place where things start, but their resolution, let alone their meaning, is never clear. All of 2000’s great disco number ones explore how to play this hand. Madison Avenue look to impose their will upon it, to set terms and roles. Spiller is less rigid. “Groovejet” accepts the night’s changeability, happily sells out certainty for an amused smile and a few great one-liners. “Just for one lifetime I can be your pastime”, “In it together till I know you better.” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s original chorus precisely caught the song’s resigned swoon: “And so it goes… how does it feel so good?”.