My Pop Life #143 : Step – Vampire Weekend

Step   –   Vampire Weekend

The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?

I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones

Change.  Everything is moving.   Movement.   Gravity holds us down but we’re spinning on our axis once every 24 hours and circling the sun once a year, and we’re growing older every week.

We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once more

Samuel Beckett : Waiting For Godot

Not that I want to worry you or anything, but it flashes by doesn’t it?   Kids shoot up and start breeding, the World Cup in Germany was 10 years ago, I was 23 a few hours ago.

I always used to say “I’m in the middle of my life – c’mon!”to justify a holiday after a gig, to spend the money immediately by jetting off to the Caribbean – again.  But looking back – I was – we were – in the middle of our lives.  So this blog is partly an awareness of that, of time and people slipping away, of wanting to say the things I want to say to the people I want to hear it.  Not waiting until somebody passes for a ‘tribute’ – to Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner, Frank Finlay et al.  Let’s do a little tribute while we’re still alive, so we can hear it.  My tributes are to friends and family, and my musical turning points.  And here’s another.

Jenny Jules as Cassius in Julius Caesar, 2013

October 2013 Jenny my wife had been given an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the duration of a Donmar all-female production of Julius Caesar which had transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO on the waterfront.  Down Under Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass.  An industrial area of warehouses and cobbled streets which has been gentrified up the wazoo and is now an expensive part of New York to live i.e. like everywhere else.  Brooklyn Heights is a fifteen minute walk south and up the slope, or you can connect via the waterfront of the East River.

Brookyn Heights promenade looking West at Manhattan

The views of downtown Manhattan from the elevated railings of Columbia Heights is second-to-none, and better than anything on Manhattan itself.  We were on Willow Street, one block east, opposite Truman Capote‘s old place.  Leafy, quiet, easy-going and maybe 200 years old or so, we fell in love.  We swooned.  We could live here, we said excitedly to each other, collecting garments from the Chinese dry cleaners on Henry Street, sitting in Montague Street Bagels, lunching in Dumbo Kitchen before a matinee.

Willow Street, Brooklyn

 Living on one floor of a classic New York brownstone townhouse with wood floors, tiled deco bathroom and giant fridge.  We recalled the early ’90s in King’s Road, West Hollywood.  America America !  the skies all seemed to say.  Once again. (see My Pop Life #130)

Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 2013

I was doing self-tapes and meetings when I visited Jenny, and now New York suddenly seemed easy and attainable and exciting for both of us.   Lots of blue sky and Vampire Weekend on the stereo.   Their new LP was a masterpiece in my ears, taking all the lovely work from the first two albums and shaping something really outward-looking, really confident and solid, really rather brilliant.

2013 was a great year for music.  Kanye West came out with Yeezus which was the record of the year because parts of it sounded so unlike anything else, ever.  His raps were patchy though.  Yasmine Hamdan had a solo record which was terrific.  Sky Ferreira.  Savages.  Disclosure.  John Grant.  Chance The Rapper.  Rudimental.  Sigur Ros.  Queens Of The Stone Age.  Electric Soft Parade.  Run The Jewels.  Beyonce.  Drake.  Justin Timberlake.  J.Cole.  Haim.  Janelle Monae.   Take your pick.  Pretty astoundingly good amount of greatness, unusual.  I picked Vampire Weekend which still is my favourite record of 2013.

Vampire Weekend – 2008

Vampire Weekend were formed by Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson over a shared love of punk and hip hop while at ivy league Colombia University on New York’s Upper West Side, one of the very first educational establishments in America.  Later joined by bassist Chris Baio and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij.  They started out as a college-rock art-school boys doing guitar-based African pop inspired rock – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, A-Punk, Oxford Comma are all bouncy upbeat unpretentious treats.  The 2nd album Contra (2010) was more of the same but the palette was broader and tinged with some melancholy – Cousins, Horchata.  By now the backlash had started – they were rich white kids appropriating African music.  This is so dull I won’t refute it in detail except to say that a) they’re not white – they’re Persian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian;  b)  on scholarships and bank loans;  And that, c) furthermore, anyone can play whatever they like.  They are the freshest buds on a family tree that stretches back through New York time to Dirty Projectors, and before them to the mighty Talking Heads (see My Pop Life #92)

2013

The third LP – Modern Vampires of The City – was a major development of their palette while staying recognisably a Vampire Weekend LP :  world-music rhythms played as 21st century pop music from a city which is the crossroads of the world.  It sounds fresh, playful, clever, funny, melodic, rhythmically interesting and new.  Hybrid music.  The band have grown up lyrically.  There is some darkness creeping in.   Ariel Rechtsaid was brought in to co-produce with Rostam Batmanglij and sonically there are many innovations, pitch-shifting and other unusual ways of recording vocals and drums. It rewards repeated plays. It gets deeper and more interesting.

Step appears to be about girlfriend trouble and opens with the coda

“Everytime I see you in the world you always step to my girl”

which is a quote from a single by Souls Of Mischief called Step To My Girl (1992) which also opens with the line

“Back, back way back…”

and which is about girl trouble by a rap group from Oakland in California.

Actually Oakland and not Alameda

Vampire Weekend’s re-think of the song is a little trickier though, and many commentators have suggested that the girl in the song is actually their music, that people are possessive about their music, the music of their era, or that they write in the same way that people are possessive over lovers.   Ezra Koenig the lead vocalist and key songwriter and lyricist in the band has suggested that the song itself has a family tree, layers of versions of samples of references.

I won’t dissect the whole thing here, because I am unreasonably obsessed with this song, and there’s no need to inflict it on you, but there are some fun links :  Souls Of Mischief sampled YZ’s Who’s That Girl and Grover Washington Jr‘s cover of Aubrey by Bread.  If we’re slicing songs from David Gates (who is credited as a co-writer) and this song is about music, then….

Ancestors told me that their girl was better
She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather 

I just ignore all the tales of her past life
Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife

Tougher Than Leather is an LP by Run DMC (1988).   And so on.  There are quotes from Talking Heads in there, references to growing old, to dying, to buying a house, wisdom teeth, truth, Anchorage, Mechanicsburg and Dar Es Salaam.  Oh and Angkor Watt.

It’s beautifully mysterious all the way through and I’ve had a lot of fun trying to unpick it, but perhaps it’s best left as a mystery anyway.   The video is a homage to New York City in black and white, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  In 2013 it was like the pied piper calling me across the Atlantic, a beckoning finger, here, this is the place, right here.

Keyboard player and producer on all three of their LPs Rostam Batmanglij has just last week announced that he is leaving the band but would continue to work with them on forthcoming projects.  He also works with Carly Rae Jepsen, Kid Cudi and Charlie XCX among others.  It’s the end of an era.

Tonight marks exactly two years since Jenny and I moved to New York in February 2014, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in the West Village.   I worked with Phil in 2008 on a film called The Boat That Rocks.   Jenny and I flew over to New York with 2 suitcases and a cat each and after two nights in Harlem, moved down to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the area where we still live today.

It was almost exactly three months after having a conversation together in Brooklyn Heights about starting over.

A new chapter, a fresh start.  We really didn’t take much convincing.

My Pop Life #97 : Where Are We Now? – David Bowie

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Where Are We Now?   –   David Bowie

Sitting in the Dschungel….on Nürnbergerstrasse…

a man lost in time…near KaDeWe..

just walking the dead…

It was pure chance that I stumbled on the key to unlock this song.   It becomes the second in an occasional and hopefully enjoyable series of  “inside the song” – the first one was Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher (see My Pop Life #16) and a trip round the Metropolitan Museum.    This time we’re inside David Bowie’s Berlin some 38 years ago, via a song that was released in 2013.

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Where Are We Now?  was dropped without fanfare or PR by David Bowie (after a ten-year absence with no new music) on the occasion of his 66th birthday on 8th January 2013.     All the musicians (mainly Bowie regulars like Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard) were sworn to secrecy, and the rest of us marvelled that soon we would have an entirely new David Bowie LP – The Next Day – to pore over, one month later.   But this song just blew me away.  Vintage Bowie, but more than that, essential Bowie, a piece of the introspective jigsaw puzzle, a lament for a younger artist, a divided city, a deeply sad reflection on ageing, consumerism, freedom, what lasts and what doesn’t.  What remains after all these years of glory ?  The new LP cover deliberately spelled out what was going on – the cover of 1977’s “Heroes” with a blank white space covering its centre.

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So what exactly is going on here?   Going where Ashes To Ashes had previously explored, (referencing a previous Bowie incarnation Major Tom), this is still daring, exposed and naked, and is for me one of the greatest songs in Bowie’s career, and would indeed be a compulsory question in the David Bowie A-level.  Why ?   It’s all about Berlin –  where he made arguably his three greatest albums from 1976-78 : Low, Heroes and Lodger (a period  I discussed with some embarrassment in My Pop Life #54),  and also a place where he actually lived for a long period.   An interesting, important place.   It’s also a song about David Bowie, the man.   The human.   Much of this song is mysterious, some of it is right on the nose.   Let’s break it down.   First see the lyric quote above… One of the strange words is :

KaDeWe

a word that all Berliners will instantly understand but which I stumbled over on my unplanned free day in Berlin.  I’d just bought a pair of Pumas in the sale (€30!) because my fabulous Czech Botas had turned out to be made of pain and after six days I couldn’t take it any more.  The large mixed-race German man in the Puma shop told me I could buy leather stretcher for them, but I explained that they were vegan shoes – no leather.  “Ah” he said, “then that is concomitant.  Is that a word?”  His English was better than mine.  “It means for example that I eat meat and I wear leather shoes.  If you kill an animal it’s better to use everything and not waste it“.   He was incredibly clear.   I was feeling foolish but he was kind.  “Will you keep the Czech shoes?” he asked.  “I will wear the new ones out of the store”  I replied, “I cannot walk another second in the Botas.  They look great, they’re killing me.”  I carried the Botas out in the Puma carrier bag.  It was red and comforting.

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Outside, new shoes – Fashion – turn to the right – I drifted along the street and saw a man being interviewed by a reporter as a crowd gawped outside what I thought was a hotel.   I  checked the hotel name.   KaDeWe.  Just walking the dead.   My spine shivered gently.  Where Are We Now ?  It was a shop.   But KaDeWe is more than just “a shop”.  I could see Gucci, Dior, Bulgari.   It feels like Harrods or Selfridges.    Clothes, yes.   Electronics.   Jewellry.   Perfume.   Food and drink :  A wooden map of where your malt whisky comes from.   Pastries.  Organic meat and cheese.  Newspapers from all corners of the world.  Rich.  Red Money.  Things you couldn’t buy in East Berlin in 1977.    I took escalators up, up, up to the 6th floor and the Konditorei.  Found a table and ordered Kaffee mit Shokolade und Schlagsahne and rice pudding with cinnamon (!) slightly warm.  It felt like a German choice of essen.    From the window seat I could see the broken spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche,  the symbol of post-war Berlin, and the Mercedes HQ, symbol of the people who shop at KaDeWe.

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I sang the song gently to myself and sipped my coffee.   Sitting in the Dschungel…   Right.    I would do the song today.   I would trace David Bowie’s Berlin footsteps via this song.   And I would do it without wifi since Berlin is bad at wifi and my phone wasn’t having it either.   Old school.    Maps plus intuition.   What could possibly go wrong?

Outside I found a free wifi portal – hold the front page – with a dirty unbreakable smeared screen made of perspex that I had to stab repeatedly with my finger.  OCD wouldn’t have made it past this obstacle.  I found a reference to the Dschungel which looked like a club of some kind, on Nürnbergerstrasse.   This would be my next stop.   I studied the map and failed to find it.   No information booths anywhere.   My finger was tired of stabbing the perspex so I hailed a cab.   “Nürnbergerstrasse bitte“.  He swung the car round.  “Welcher nummer?”   Shit I hadn’t retained that piece of information.    We drove one whole block back and onto Nürnbergerstrasse.   He dropped me one block down.   A journey of two whole minutes.   No Dschungel.    I turned around and walked back up the street to the ZoologischeGarten.   No Dschungel.   Balls.   I would have to walk back to the free robot wifi.

Featured imageFound it, stabbed it again.    My page was still up.   Nummer 53.   Drei und funfzig.    I walked back round to Nürnbergerstrasse.  In the centre of the strasse was a huge art deco building called The Ellington Hotel.

It straddled what would have been #53.   I entered into a strange, tiled, otherworldly, almost sanatorium-esque atmosphere where the white-clad employees smiled and everything was lovely.  “Excuse me – did there used to be a club called Dschungel here?“.   “Yes“.   Bingo.   She explained that Duke Ellington himself and other jazz greats used to frequent the cellar bar Badewane back in the late 40s, before it became the Dschungel, a place where Frank ZappaPrince and Bowie and Iggy Pop would host parties, rivalling Studio 54 for glamour in the late 70s.
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…a man lost in time…

David’s recollection of it all is melancholic, a man trying to enjoy himself in the midst of dislocation.  But he thrived on dislocation, and he knew it.  Through the 1970s he would lay down a new style, a new look, a new sound then quickly change shape and reappear just as the mice in their million hordes were forming groups to follow his “latest” thing.   Lennon’s on sale again.   He had to keep moving to create, and he knew it.   So many  of his songs are about “tomorrow” – sci-fi dystopias, from Oh You Pretty Things to Drive-In Saturday, Diamond Dogs to Moonage Daydream and Starman.   The other favourite theme is the surreal Postcard from the Edge of somewhere else, somewhere new.    Autobiographical, confessional, compulsive, mythological, introspective – Ziggy Stardust,  Ashes To Ashes,  Jean Genie, Station To Station,  Always Crashing In The Same Car,  The Bewlay Brothers,  Afraid, in fact it could be argued that as he progressed Bowie’s songs have become more and more personal.

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Bowie’s move to West Berlin came after the cocaine-addicted Los Angeles period of Station To Station, an LP which also lays claim to being his best, but which was produced under extreme conditions of drug-fuelled stress.    West Berlin was in 1976 an artistic, capitalist, symbolic western enclave surrounded by a Communist state – the DDR or Deutsche Demokratische Republik.   East Germany.    Created by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin after WW2, the city of West Berlin was surrounded by a Wall, with various armed crossing points complete with barbed wire, no-man’s land and soldiers.   The famous one was called Checkpoint Charlie (referenced in Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army) which Jenny and I had crossed in late December 1989 just as the Wall was being chipped away at and broken down from both sides.  We still had to show passports, get a short visa and return within six hours.  Berlin was divided but not for long.  On New Year’s Eve we stood on the Wall with millions of tourists who’d had the same idea as us and felt the weight of history.  Just for one day.   I’ll blog that trip properly another day though.

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Hansa Studios and The Wall, 1970s

David Bowie recorded at Hansa Studios, where he could see the Wall.   Traces of the Wall still remain, now protected by city ordinance, a tourist attraction, but most of it has been flattened and redeveloped.

Had to take the train from Potsdamer platz….you never knew that 

…that I could do that

just walking the dead…

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Die Mauer

So my next target was Potsdamer Platz.   Again no wifi, the map defeated me – but there was Potsdam at the end of the S7 line I’d already used from Alexanderplatz.  So I jumped on board and took the S7 to Potsdam which took about 35 minutes.  Maybe more.  It’s to the southwest of Berlin, like Richmond.  It immediately didn’t feel like a place that David Bowie would get on a train, but who knows right?  I got off and went to INFO where I was told to go back and get on an S1.

Featured imageOn the way back the map confirmed that a schoolboy error had occurred.  Potsdamer Platz is just to the south of Brandenburg Tor, and just to the north of Hansa Studios, right in the centre of town.    Of Course.   I disembark finally at Potsdamer Platz and there is an ugly piece of the wall remaining just outside the station, covered in chewing gum, which is even worse than those padlocks you find on bridges all over Europe.  Graffitti yes.  But chewing gum?  Draw the blinds on yesterday and its all so much scarier.   I walked to Brandenburg Gate (which is splendid and dull) and back through Tiergarten (frisbees and statues) to Potsdamer Platz where there are three stations – Deutsche-Bahn, U-bahn and S-bahn.  Which one did David use ?   And why was it such a big deal for him – to mention it in a song?   Maybe he was off to Paris to see a girlfriend.   Maybe he never took trains, ever.   Taxi man.   Of course in those days you couldn’t get a train across the city, from Potsdamer Platz you could only go one way – west.

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I gave my Puma box containing Czech Botas to a drunken beggar woman sitting at the top of the subway steps.   She seemed interested as I turned away and walked down underground to the U train east back to Alexanderplatz happy that I’d been there at least, and then took a tram back to the hotel ackselhaus.    I was staying in Prenzlauer Berg for the weekend – a visitor from Prague where I am working all summer.   Prenzlauer Berg is a newly gentrified quarter of old East Berlin, lovely old buildings, tramlines, cafes, pubs, near my friend Maria von Heland whom I’d met in Sweden at Amanda Ooms’ 50th birthday (see My Pop Life #14).   Amanda was in Berlin with her boyfriend Joakim Thåström, Swedish rock star and reconnected childhood sweetheart, he’d had a gig with his band the night before at Postbahnhof in the middle of a 40-degree heatwave which became a huge thunderstorm as he played.

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I had a quick beer, then went round the corner to a local pub Metzer Ebb which Maria had told me hasFeatured image remained unchanged since the days of the DDR.    I ordered Knackwurst und Kartoffelnsalate mit senf and drank a giant beer, was told I could take pictures but not with people in.   They were ladies in their 50s, friendly but not overly so.   They would have been 25 when the wall came down and Germany was re-unified.   The pub wall was covered in old black and white pictures, the wood was dark stained oak, the fittings and cigarette machines from a bygone era.    I loved it of course.    The knackwurst mit senf (mustard) was perfect and the potato salad had paprika and gherkin mixed into it.   Where Are We Now?

Amanda and Maria still hadn’t called me (I later discovered that iMessages don’t reach your phone unless you’re on wifi) so I had two dinners and put on the headphones to listen to David’s Berlin memories, and bask in the glory of my day and the song.

Ach Mein Gott !   Hang on to yourself !   There was a whole other verse I’d forgotten :

…20,000 people… cross Bösebrücke…

Fingers are crossed, just in case…

..walking the dead…

It was 9pm.   I had to get to Bösebrücke !!     Time – he’s waiting in the wings.   Hotel room.    Wifi – although not on the iphone- so still no messages from Maria and Amanda.  (I’d finally get 20 messages from them the following morning).   Map.    It wasn’t too far.   Still old East Berlin, a bridge to the old West.    I dashed back out, jumped onto a tram, then onto another tram.    I asked a man if he knew the way.   He was Sri Lankan.   He took me one stop on the U-train, then I started walking.    It was almost dark so I hailed a cab.    He knew exactly where it was and five minutes later there it was.

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Bösebrücke.   A memorial plaque and some giant photographs marked the spot where 20,000 people crossed from East Berlin into West Berlin on the 8th and 9th of November 1989, a month before Jenny and I got there, the start of the mass civil disobedience that saw the end of the East German state.  Heroes just for one day.

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 The bridge glowed with yellow lights in the deep blue dusk.   My heart filled with feeling.   So David’s song took Berlin as a starting point to measure this world of ours, his own ch-ch-changes, the passing of time, and ask what it all meant.   Others have said that “Where are we now?” actually means “Where am I now?” but I disagree – Bowie is never shy to put himself at the centre of his songs, using “…I could do that” for example, in the first verse here.    No, he means – where are we now ?   Not just Berliners, not just him, but all of us.

Featured imageOn the morning that I made this pilgrimage through Bowie’s Berlin the newspapers all had the same headline :  “Griechen sagen Nein“.  The bailout terms from the European Central Bank – more austerity, further cuts to pensions, wages and public institutions – had been rejected by the Greek people by 61%- 38%.   News had just come over – we had five years left to cry in…  Europe has unified since 1978, when David Bowie sang

I, I can remember.. standing…by the Wall,

with the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as if nothing could fall…

and the shame was on the other side…oh we can beat them for ever and ever…

(Incidentally the German-language version of “Heroes” “Helden” is magnificent, and probably more passionate than the cooler English-language song.   It is also worth pointing out that “Heroes” always has quote marks around it, giving us instant irony).

By 2013 previous communist regimes had fallen and joined the EU, including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, East Germany and West Germany had become Germany and the Euro had become the currency ideal of those who believed in the United States of Europe – a dream of trade co-operation, one currency, no borders, movement of workers and capital across the continent, a rival to the USA, to China, a bastion of democracy and liberal capitalism.    Hmmm.   Instead we now have a two or three-tier system, southern Europe has a very different economic outlook than the north (or maybe there will be a domino effect…) – not just Greece, but Italy, Spain and Portugal have economies and national debts which challenge the democratic fantasies of the most ardent Europhile.   And it seemed to me reading those headlines yesterday that while some things had “changed”, really : where are we now?    Retired schoolteachers in Athens – people who served and taught schoolchildren all their lives – are begging on the streets, alongside whole families.

…the moment you know, you know you know…

These are the 2008 Crash chickens coming home to roost, and it is divide and rule – we bailed out the banks to the tune of billions, we bailed out Germany’s war debts in the 1950s, but we can’t bail out Greek pensioners and families begging on street corners.   This is the sharp end of capitalism in 2015 and it is an ugly sight.   Think of us as fatherless scum and it won’t be forgotten...   Looking out from Berlin as David’s late-period masterpiece still hangs in the air, it seems to me that Greece is the new DDR.   We have to look down our snouts at somebody.   Capitalism doesn’t appear to work without someone losing out – which means haves and have-nots, economic migrants, austerity packages while those who run our lives get increasingly large bonuses.

…It’s the theatre of financiers
Count them, fifty ’round a table
White and dressed to kill…

A large dose of reality.   But as David can make you feel bleak, he can reaffirm life too, and this is a song that does both…

…as long as there’s sun….as long as there’s sun

…as long as there’s rain…as long as there’s rain

…as long as there’s fire….as long as there’s fire…

…as long as there’s me….as long as there’s you…

We’ll be all right.   Won’t we ?

Right at the end of the video we see David Bowie approaching his 66th birthday wearing a T-shirt that says m/s Song Of Norway.   Actually a cruise ship T-shirt, it is also the name of a film made in 1970 that his girlfriend – Hermione Farthingale – left him to be involved with.   Apparently David never got over it.   Here is a man who spent his entire artistic life being a spaceman, a starman, a thin white duke, aladdin sane, a fervent embracer of the future looking back at his life as a human.  It is a beautiful piece of work.

Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?

My Pop Life #96 : Climb On Board – Labrinth

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Climb On Board   –   Labrinth

Something tell me I’m almost there…

When was the day the music died ?   Not the Buddy Holly plane crash – For you I mean.  Or did it just fade away ?  How exactly do you ‘keep up’ with what’s going on ?  Maybe it doesn’t really matter to you.   Isn’t it strange that we all have a magic year of music which coincides with our 13th-14th birthdays?   Mine is 1971 – almost every song from that year makes me go weak at the knees.   So perhaps there is a year when we disengage with music, and our own peculiar musical taste is set in stone.   I find that my taste is growing all the time and – some people do this –  I actually do try to keep up with “what’s going on” – but in a filtered way of course.   For example – I was immersed in the punk and post-punk scene in London, but probably ignored the funk music, the metal, the folk music of that time.   I was similarly enamoured with hip hop from 1987-1990 and almost literally bought everything, but as a result ignored much of the pop and rock music of the late eighties (did I miss much?).   And as the years roll by, how do we stay in touch…?  Do we even want to…?  Should a 50-year-old man be listening to Radio One ?  Why not ?

If you have young people in your life, music becomes current naturally – if they live in your house you will hear the latest thing whether you want to or not.  My own musical curiosity has not dimmed at all over the years, and from time to time I do listen to Radio One, especially in the evenings if I’m in England, or even online.   I still read reviews of new music : Pitchfork, The Guardian, Quietus, anywhere.   I still chase music down, whether on Youtube channels, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp.   People send me stuff.   I follow up on leads.   I keep my ears open, generally.   But it is impossible to stay abreast of everything, even if that were desirable.   My relationship with music comes partly from repetition – listening to an LP over and over again, becoming obsessed with it, having to hear it at least once a day.  I still have those moments, but not so often.  Now – songs will still grab me, and I like to listen to them over and over.  Everything Everything still do that for me, three albums in.  Kanye West still does that for me.  And Labrinth certainly does that for me.

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I first heard this track Climb On Board by Labrinth inside my own house, played by my nephew Thomas Jules to one of his friends Paul.  They both loved it in a way that I immediately understood.   I really liked it too.   We played it again, then I ordered the LP Electronic Earth and it arrived a few days later.   It was summer 2012, I’d just shot Inspector George Gently with the rather wonderful Martin Shaw in Durham, and I’d taken the rather fantastic Diana Quick to dinner and talked shop.    I was now embarking on another round of the sitcom Him & Her for BBC3, where I played Her Dad.   My wife – or Her Mum – was one of my regular acting partners Marion Bailey – I think this was our fifth or sixth job together – not always married, but people who like her also like me, apparently.

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Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani were Him & Her, while Ricky Champ, Kerry Howard, Joe Wilkinson and Camille Coduri were the other regulars.  They became my family for four years, finishing in 2013 with The Wedding.  I did eight episodes in all.  It was a Great Gig, all directed by Richard Laxton, all written by Stefan Golaszewski, I’m immensely pleased and proud to have been a part of this series.

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Climb On Board is electronic music, 21st century British music.  It uses a drum and bass beat, auto-tuned vocals, synthesised riffs and chords and dubstep rhythms and breaks.  It is massively confident without being lyrically too clever.  It’s probably about drugs.  The middle eight is thrilling, and my favourite piece of the song (as so often with a Beatles or Motown track).   But there is another interesting feature which is the almost continuous conversation going on in the background – I haven’t managed to decode all of it but at one point you hear him saying “one step two step three step…whoah!” which presumably references 2-Step, the original name for the child of UK garage dubstep.   The idea being that Labrinth has gone beyond his roots in 2-step, gone beyond even 3-step.   The middle eight confirms that this is no idle boast.   The LP Electronic Earth has a large number of high points – this is track one, other hits include Earthquake which is tremendously powerful in a live context, Beneath Your Beautiful with Emeli Sandé providing the lead vocal,  Express Yourself (taking on the famous song from Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band) and Sundown which is a take on Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

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Clearly Labrinth is a major talent.   Born Timothy MacKenzie in North London, he and his eight siblings formed a band called Mac9.   His big breakthrough came when he hooked up with South Londoner Tinie Tempah and produced, and sang the vocals “Let it rain, let it pour away…” on the huge hit single Pass Out which reached number 1 in 2010 and won best British single at the Brits the following year.   Labrinth and Tinie Tempah collaborated again on the single Frisky, shortly after that Simon Cowell signed Labrinth to Syco his record label.   Labrinth remains the only non-variety-show winner on Cowell’s label.    Tinie Tempah returned the favour and dropped in to spit some lyrics on the single Earthquake in October 2011.   Electronic Earth was released in March 2012.

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Jenny and I saw him and his band performing live at The Brighton Centre on Feb 13th 2013 when Plan B was headlining and Rudimental was supporting, with nephew Thomas singing all the John Newman parts.  It was needless to say a rather splendid night.  Rudimental and Thomas smashed it as they always do – not that I take it for granted, ever – Labrinth played keyboards, lead guitar, pushed buttons and sang and was very impressive, and Plan B was doing the whole “She said I love you boy I love you so…” LP (Defamation Of Strickland Banks) with a cracking band and dancers!    I saw Labrinth again later in 2013 when Rizzle Kicks (old friends, long story) played Shakedown Festival in Stanmer Park and Labrinth was supporting.  He was excellent once again.

So now I look out for his new stuff – the last single Let It Be was very different to anything off the drum and bass style of Electronic Earth – more like new school soul music, or church in space perhaps, and it also featured a brilliant video.  Which I appear to have imagined since it has disappeared from the web.  But the new album looks like it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

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As for what’s new in 2015 – I couldn’t tell you since I’ve spent much of my music allowance time (strictly policed!) on this blog.   But early indications suggest that Natalie Prass, Kendrick Lamar and East India Youth might be pushing Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke and Everything Everything for that coveted Album of The Year Award.   Awarded by me.  Of course !  Unless the new LP from Labrinth : Take Me To The Truth knocks them all into a cocked hat !   Whatever that means !  Apparently we’ll find out on October 16th 2015.   In the meantime, we have this :

My Pop Life #73 : ‘Til Tomorrow – Marvin Gaye

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‘Til Tomorrow   –   Marvin Gaye

Hey girl what you doin’? gettin up?  You got to go ? …ah, don’t go just yet baby…Tu es encroyable…that’s French baby…it means you are incredible…mm?  …why you got to go?  baby don’t go, don’t go right now I can’t stand it please….

Now here’s a pop star who translates as he goes, unlike Grace Jones.  Tu es Encroyable.  And he has a decent accent too.   This is because he’s been living in Belgium for a year, coming off cocaine and becoming fit, healthy and writing songs again.  Marvin Gaye was in a terrible state in the early 80s, a cocaine/crack addict, owing the Revenue millions of dollars.

He was rescued by little-known Belgian entrepreneur Freddy Couseart who made aFeatured image connection in London through boxing, one of Marvin’s soft spots, and offered him shelter and sanctuary in his pension in Ostend on the Belgian coast.  Marvin, worn out with Motown (who had just released In Our Lifetime “before it was ready” which infuriated Marvin)  and drained of energy, dread and desire, needed a rest, needed a break, needed a change of scenery.  He found all three in this unlikely setting and started getting clean, getting physically fit, and writing songs.  By the end of 1981 he had an albums-worth of material and a number of record labels flew over to Belgium to bid for the next MG product.  CBS were wise and sent Harvey Fuqua who’d sung with Marvin in The Moonglows back in the 1950s before Motown and all that excitement, and CBS got the final LP Midnight Love (released in October 1982) and the lead single Sexual Healing.  Marvin went back to the USA, scored a huge hit single, paid his tax, sang the National Anthem at the 1983 basketball final, (an astonishing performance), moved back to his parent’s house and got shot by his father on April 1st 1984.

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I bought Midnight Love when it was released in 1982 and played it a lot.  I was living in Finsbury Park at the time with Mumtaz.  I’d started acting, in Moving Parts Theatre Company – (see My Pop Life #18), and then in pub theatres such as The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road doing an expressionist Clockwork Orange adapted by John Godber who I knew from Edinburgh days, also starring Paul Rider, Andy Winters, Pete Geeves.   I was a hopeful monster.    Some of my new feminist friends from Moving Parts came to see it and were horrified to find their pet man doing ultraviolence.   But I scored an agent – David Preston – a shaven-headed queen ensconced in his purple velvet-lined office with brass candlesticks somewhere in deepest Soho – well I had to start somewhere…

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This track ‘Til Tomorrow was the one that stood out for me (alongside the obvious charms of Sexual Healing) – the only ballad on a funky jazzy synth-heavy set, and with lyrics and instrumentation that are sparse to say the least, and a spoken Marvin-persona intro (which I include above) which is frankly hilarious, but somehow still sexy.  That’s just how he was.  I think my favourite Marvin Gaye LP(apart from WGO) is Live At The London Palladium from 1976, all the between-song chatter is fantastic, his voice is amazing, the band are great.  Only the duets are a little weak.

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Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium, 1981

In 2013 I was cast in a Marvin Gaye biopic called Sexual Healing.   Julien Temple was directing a script by Matthew Broughton about the last three years of Marvin’s life, (played by Jesse L. Martin) centred on the Ostend story with some flashbacks to Dad (Dwight Henry from Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and Mum (S. Epatha Merkers).  Freddie Cousearts was Brendan Gleeson.  I was Jeffrey Kruger Marvin’s tour manager in wig and large specs, the man who started London’s Flamingo Club a real music person, and a real person who now lives in Brighton.  I never did look him up – it’s weird playing real people – you want to be true to them, but you don’t want to feel obliged, and in the end you have to play the script and what is written.

Featured imageSo there we were in Luxembourg in nice hotels, working with a lovely local crew (mainly) and immersed in the world of Marvin Gaye – I discovered (much like Columbus ‘discovered’ America) his 1981 LP In Our Lifetime which has some classic moments including opening song “Praise”, and I enjoyed working with Julien since we had a lot of mutual friends.  I flew back to Brighton with one more day to complete – backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  We never shot it.  The crew flew to Ostend and shot all of that stuff, but the London end of things was never completed, neither was the film, and nobody got paid.  Another one of those stories.  Julien hawked the rushes around for a couple of years, maybe still is doing so, but nothing doing.  Essentially he’s trying to sell a huge debt with a possible money-spinning film behind it.  Given that every film ever made is entirely a leap of faith, when one comes off the rails it is very very very hard to put it back, no matter who is involved or how sexy the project looks from the outside.  Or the inside.  Damn shame.  A story that needs to be told as much as any I’ve ever done.

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The Gaye family recently won a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for stealing Got To Give It Up, but I have no doubt that the decision will be reversed on appeal.  The idea that you can copyright a groove is preposterous.

But Marvin’s legacy is still being fought over, Berry Gordy holds on tight to the Motown era songs, there has been a play based on Frankie Gaye‘s book Marvin Gaye My Brother, but somehow we had got the rights to the CBS LP Midnight Love so some of his tale could be told.  Too many crooks as ever in this dirty business.  Damn shame.    Frankie Gaye died in 2001, and I would recommend the book.  Frankie went to Vietnam and his experiences there in the late 1960s inspired Marvin to write and record What’s Goin’ On.   Marvin’s son is also named Frankie.

So I miss Marvin Gaye.  Miss him twice.   ’til tomorrow…  Thinking about him again, I have to say just this – his backing vocals are always completely amazing.  Cluster chords, stretching what is vocally possible behind his soaring lead vocal.  The guy was a master.

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Oh but I didn’t mention our cat, our kitten Marvin.  A Devon Rex with large ears and short fur, he would crawl up my body to sit on my shoulder whether I was wearing clothes or not.  We bought him at 9 weeks old and he lived for another eight blessed weeks.   Bled to death after cutting his mouth on a wicker basket, chewing it.  Took him to the vet but he had genetic Factor 8 deficiency.  Bless him the blood wouldn’t clot.  He died lying on my chest in the middle of the night.  Buried with full honours in the back garden.  Wept buckets.  So yeah, I miss Marvin three times.

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Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013