Friday, February 28, 2014

Skiffle Listening

I'm listening to the skiffle mixes, the Sam Phillips effect well under operation.
Listening to mixes is a raw experience; you become hyper-critical of your own part in the proceedings without necessarily considering what else is going on. I cringed at some points on first listen- where I'm out of tune, or my voice sounds 'metallic'- but these are first take live recordings of songs hot off the press, and second listen isn't quite so excruciating!
The overall sound is great- just what I wanted- percussive and very much alive. Hats off to the guys for giving 100% energy over the weekend and for being straightforward to work with and very, very talented.
Headphone listen next....

Below: with Colin Mee, rockabilly engineer extraordinaire; in the garden, the instruments get a breath of fresh air; the Geordinaires: John Cavener, Jim Hornsby, Martin Stephenson and Colin Mee; well-earned tea break and Greggs run. Top two pix Juan Fitzgerald; lower two, yours truly.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


What is it about oblong grey rooms? No part of the human body is that shape or colour, unless those features belong to some one that I haven't met yet.
Who invented boxes for people? What science decided that this was the way for humans to function?
Where you have corners, you have places to hide or cower in fear.
You have hierarchies based on proximity to the 'front' or 'back' of the room, or closeness to the door or windows (if you have them).
Is it a way of creating grey thought, with no colourful dissent or ultra-violet... 'thinking outside the box'?
I don't only want to think outside the box, I want to BE outside it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Skiffle On The Way

I spent Saturday and Sunday in a garage in Darlington recording eleven skiffle songs with Martin, Jim Hornsby (guitar and Dobro), John Cavener (double bass) and Colin Mee (recording device). The door flipped open, we filed in, tuned up and got to work, fuelled by tea and sandwiches. We got some great sounds; Jim found a great scratchy sound on the Dobro for the Anarchy Skiffle and Martin made a percussive scratch for Pioneer Town on his guitar. At the end of day two, we put four- piece male harmonies as backing vocals on some of the songs, an idea I got from working with a group of ten student producers as we did a song writing exercise last year- they jumped out of character and started singing in unison and sounded fabulous. 'I want that sound', I thought, and I got it and harmonies too. We worked quickly: John Cavener's bass added a bounce to everything, and yesterday lunchtime I sat at the kitchen table and scribbled out the lyrics for a song I'd sung on to my phone, never thinking I'd ever use it. My fave is a song called The Bachelor Boys but there are lots that worked out well, including a sort of forties one called Sugar Hill. It's a very happifying thing to do, to  secrete a group of musicians away in a garage with a bit if recording equipment. Next job is whether to plump for a dry mix or a Sam Phillips mix a la Elvis Sun Sessions- and then find a way to real ease it...  on vinyl!

Thursday, February 20, 2014


I'm delighted to say that a dog has started following me on Twitter.

The Robbie Robertson Blues Band at the 12 Bar

I'm not going to be able to name names unfortunately because I haven't got access to the Internet to fact-check, but me and my Champagne Friend had such a nice night out last night that I decided to write about it anyway. We met up in town for a cup of tea at my favourite secret cafe and then went on to the 12 Bar, where Dot, who I met at a conference in Leeds a few years ago, was playing keyboards for the band. They had set off at six in the morning from Edinburgh, and were raring to go.
The 12 Bar is a dear old place. It gets revamped from time to time, lurching from one type of scruffiness to another. The one thing that never changes is the sticky floor (and I have mentioned the sticky stage before, that is so beer-sodden that the prongs of my stool legs got completely embedded in it one time). The other thing that doesn't change is the extraordinary clientele. Everybody is weird. In fact, it's the one venue in London where I feel totally comfortable, which is a little depressing when you come to think of it.
Last night's prize was won by the lady carrying a plank, who was there with a man with a broken foot in a plaster cast. The plaster cast had an elaborate and rather beautiful face drawn on the toe, complete with eyelashes and full, sexy, red lips. The man sporting this elaborate affair looked too grumpy to have such a fun plaster cast but maybe I caught his eye at the wrong moment.
Anyway: back to the music. The singer, Annette Chapman, is a wonderful blonde Scottish woman, who is strikingly tall and who has a disarmingly straightforward stage manner and an absolutely gorgeous voice. She could, I am sure, sing anything that jazz threw at her but she's obviously a total blues fan.
Robin Robertson the guitarist is a seasoned blues player and his fingers charged about all over the fretboard of his Fender with total ease, playing some scorching solos as well as tight rhythm. The drummer, Ruaridh Saunders, and bass player Brian Branford were solid and tight and Dot my girl, you were a revelation! You can more than carry a solo and I do hope your gig went well tonight too!
Both me and my Champagne Friend really enjoyed good powerful music played so close you could touch it. Who cares about Beyoncé and her thousands of dancers, Madonna and her horrible 'sexy' costumes, the silly young 'ins and their desperate need for column inches! There's nothing like good live music played by enthusiasts in a weeny venue with a sticky floor on a Wednesday night. There really isn't!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sausage Sleep

Last night I slept a night of sausage sleep: late to sleep, early to wake, squashed up and mashed up.
I've already done an hour and a half's work this morning looking at students' CVs.
They are trying to find work placements in the music industry, which at times can feel for all of us like pushing a boulder uphill. A spiky one.
The washing machine is roaring, Offsprog One's complaining about it and I told her to turn the volume down.
There's so much paper on the table that it looks like snow has fallen.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Complaints Choirs

A couple of years ago my colleague Luis and myself worked with a film maker on a project called The Cleaners' Voice, which was a campaigning song for the London Living Wage. Our cleaners at work successfully achieved their objective, which was wonderful.
Luis invited me along on Monday to work with his students, who had formed a Complaints Choir because they hate working in groups. They had already start working on words and I was invited along to help them make it into a song.
It was really good fun; they are Theatre Studies students and have all sorts of skills that are different to musicians' skills; they can do things immediately and remember really long sequences of words and actions. This group had great rhythm too. Very quickly we had clapping rhythms and the chant had developed into a melody; we had call and response. All this before I even got the guitar out.
The guitar tidied it up which was a good thing and a bad thing. It was fun while it was loose but the mood lifted as it started to materialise into a proper song. We talked, we agreed, we discussed.
As a group.
Towards the end of the session, spirits were flagging. Was this it?
Luis suggested that they lined up opposite each other and walked to change sides as they sang. They went for it and suddenly the smiles appeared with a new element to the song: the sound of stamping feet. The voices were loud and confident; they sang with gusto, they laughed.
The irony of a group who hate group work, working together to create a lovely song to sing was not lost on anybody!

Monday, February 17, 2014


Soon I will be heading to Darlington to record some skiffle songs with Jim Hornsby, John Cavener and of course Martin, at Skip Rat Studios, a proper garage studio with a pink carpet and old Skool gear. We'll be recording live and I'll be playing uke as well as guitar. I'm hoping we'll get some good backing vocals done too.
I haven't been playing the songs live so far apart from Sugar Hill, which I managed only the first line of on Friday before I forgot the rest and had to wait till the end for another go at it. I'd been trying to do a sweet'n'sour Valentine's set in Gateshead at the Caedmon Hall, which is a lovely venue like an upturned Noah's Ark inside, all dark wood and good acoustics.
I was supporting Martin and Jim. Martin chose a lovely set of some of the more laid back songs and the audience were amazing- not least for coming out on such a miserable Friday night of rain and blustery wind. Best song? Maybe Home, dedicated to my Dad as well as Martin's Mum. Jim is a great foil for Martin on stage, keeping him grounded with grumpiness that isn't real at all, and playing subtle guitar counterpoints to Martin's picking. It's always a real pleasure to see the interplay between them on stage.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Page 3

Is that going to hook a bunch of Sun-reader browsers?
Who knows.
I have got to page three of my new comic; there are no topless women- well, one almost, actually, on page two being photographed by a pervy photographer.
One more page to go, then a whole load of tidying up and a trip to the local library to reduce it in size and see what it looks like as an A4.
I'm such a graphic designer type that the only reason I drew the strip (funrrr) in A3 size is because that's the size of the paper I had. So sophisticated, non?
The only think I'm fussy about is that the paper must be smooth, which takes W.H. Smith's sketch pads right out of the picture. They downgraded their paper quality and obviously thought that stupid artists wouldn't notice the difference. It's like trying to draw on cotton wool.
The drawings are resting for a few days, for practical reasons (if I rub out the pencil lines and the ink hasn't dried rock-hard, it smudges) and practical reasons (I'm playing in Gateshead tomorrow evening with Martin and Jim). I'm also going to interview a Geordie for my next lot of research: multicultural, hein?
You might notice that there's the odd French word thrown in here and there in this posting; this is possibly because the story I'm working on is actually called Bande Dessinee, which is French for comic strip.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Happy End

The Happy End were a fabulous big-band that were around during the 1980s.
There were about 20 of them, male and female, all different abilities; they were a mass of spiky hair, red and black clothes, huge grins and sparkling brass instruments. Their music was big, loud, joyous and rickety, and was always political; it swayed and it swung with the abandon of a children's playground swing.
They were the first people I heard playing Hans Eisler's music; their singer was Sarah Jane Morris, who had a head of russet hair, a skinny dress, big black Doctor Marten's and a voice as big and deep as the Atlantic Ocean.
My favourite gig of theirs was a Christmas gig at the Fridge in Brixton which unusually for them had a layer of camp but it didn't damp their sincerity. They sat en masse amongst a sea of fake Christmas trees and managed to be festive and Left-wing at the same time.
When Sarah Jane left (due to her success with the Communards, I think) I went along to audition. I did Surabaya Johnny, but I knew as I sang that my voice was far too weedy to hack it; but it was still a blast singing with them and they were very nice to me.
Their arranger, the heart of the band Matt Fox, helped to check an arrangement I'd done for one of Chaucer's tales, Chanticleer and Pertelote. I had big ideas of staging it at Southwark Cathedral but I never did that. Matt said the parts were fine; I've still got it all bundled up somewhere. He came and sang on a demo of one of the songs but by then I'd lost the plot somewhat and was using samples from The Slits Cut album instead of brass arrangements!
He was a good natured and patient man, and as I said, the beating heart of the band. I am so very sorry to hear that he has died; I was just thinking about that funny recording the other day and then found out that very day. He can't have been very old; early fifties perhaps; it's a real loss to music. Bless him.

Gateshead on Valentine's Day

Here is a ticket link to the gig in Gateshead on Valentine's Day:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Been yakking on the phone and saw my friend who I haven't seen for decades, David Webber, tucked up in his jarmas on Holby City. He starred in the panto version of Titus Andronicus that me and Dave Jago wrote music for and that was put on by the Count of Three Theatre group in the 1980s.
I also missed Helen and the Horns being mentioned on Danny Baker's 1980s show on BBC4; I will have to forgive him for saying that I sounded like Maddy Prior on speed when I was in The Chefs, and watch it on iPlayer tomoz.
It's been all go, tonight.

Monday, February 10, 2014


In the background, DCI Banks (missed episode one so it's not going to make much sense).
In the foreground, page two of a story, a project that should be named Guerilla Drawfare I think.


It must be here, on this table... how can it not be? I have the latest release by The Irrepressibles, which I have been wanting to review for weeks. Where is it?

The Lucky Generation

It appears that I belong to a lucky generation, born before 1965, who left University (or College in my case), walked straight into jobs, bought cars and houses, and we have no idea what it is like for our children.
This is news to me. Where's this nonsense coming from? What about the years and years of unemployment some of us experienced as a result of Thatcherism? Starting jobs, only to get the funding pulled on the second day of work, over and over again?
I worked as a cleaner, a breakfast waitress, a barmaid, a veterinary printer, a youth worker, and a database co-ordinator: some of those jobs several times, and none of them (except one, that I was harassed out of) permanent, so all punctuated by long spells on... *whispers* benefits.
I wouldn't swap my life for any other, but let's get history straight: the lack of jobs and opportunities is history repeating itself.

Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

I went to the Museum of Childhood this morning, looking for cultural food for my brain.
It wasn't what I expected at all- because it was thronging with what seemed like 250 primary school children all yakking at the tops of their voices. Because the main part of it is Victorian, the reverb was incredibly efficient. Waist-level humans barged hither and thither in fluorescent jackets, their worksheets waving in the crosswinds. It was nice but noisy.
There was lots to see; I liked the old projectors and the mechanical toys, especially the beautiful French Dunce that played a mournful melody when you wound it up (apparently). What was disappointing was the information on the labels: the most ancient rocking horse in the entire world didn't seem to have its own information card, or maybe I missed it. And it was all written in children-speak. Maybe that's not surprising but it seems a bit like those people who speak to babies in baby-talk and then expect them to grow up speaking like humans.
It was an inspiring trip, waking up my imagination which has been sleeping for a while. I resisted the temptation to buy an automated tin monkey, and (slightly harder to resist) a Maurice Sendak book which was packed with his illustrations and ink and paper jokes; he used to mock the page while simultaneously making very observant illustrations of the state of childhood and babyhood.
On the way out I noticed that the entrance hall wall were lined with buggies of all shapes and sizes, neatly parked up against the walls and waiting for their contents be decanted back into them.
So that's where all the children go.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

From Being TIme-Poor...

At last the anarcho punk article is flying off on its way; I've had a walk round town (passing many invisible signs declaring 'These are the suburbs: keep out!').
I can clear some of the books from the kitchen table, and maybe even continue a drawing that I started six months ago. But first, some crisps!

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Almost Finished

After another three hours' writing today, I am beginning to feel that be anarcho punk article that I've been writing is almost finished. It's too long by about 500 words which I'll slash and burn tomorrow along with sorting out the referencing.
It has led to a revisiting of a corner of punk that was always at the edges- apart, that is, from the wonderful Vi Subversa who not only persuaded Poison Girls original bass player, Bella Donna, to lend me her semi-acoustic bass that had once belonged to The Buzzcocks, but also lent us her son Danny (who was 14 at the time) to be our drummer. But the Crass thing always seemed to be happening elsewhere (although I think I might have seen them playing upstairs at the Resource Centre in Brighton one time); and then of course everything got very black clothes and by that time I was a checked shirt sort of person playing pop.
It's unbelievable how many bands we used to go to see back then; and when The Chefs moved to London I lived in Dyne Road in Kilburn, which was a long street away from The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, where we had a residency. And I used to go there every night and just see whoever I saw. Sometimes it would be a rockabilly band with Crazy-Coloured quiffs and a WEM Copycat working away next to the mixing desk adding reverb to everything. Once it was The Thompson Twins before they shrunk to a 3-piece. Dolly Mixture, who we invited to share our residency; Girls At Our Best, OK Jive; all sorts of music.
The DJ there told me that Decca Studios had been next door, and they used to run cables into the club to record live sessions by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

Friday, February 07, 2014

More Ukulele

I have been teaching myself to play skiffle songs on the uke; not good for the fingernails at all, but very loud and jolly. In a couple of weeks' time I'm off to Colin's studio in Darlington to record a skiffle album with John Cavener (double bass), Keith Shepherd (drums), Jim Hornsby on Dobro and Martin on rhythm guitar. I'll play uke and guitar and sing and arrange. It will be live so we'll all have to know our stuff backwards.
I've been wanting to become a better musician; I am learning scales on the guitar, very slowly. The boredom threshold is rather low, I'm afraid, as I've never needed these things to write songs.
Meanwhile, I've been tutoring some really interesting student projects: a website for undergraduate research work, and a songwriter who is grappling with lapsed Catholicism and learning how to use Garageband at the same time!
At another University, I have 50 students looking for work placements. That's a lot of CVs to look through.
And we are on strike. One University removes an entire day's pay if you strike for two hours. So of course, you see staff staying off for an entire day, instead of two hours. Where is the sense in that?
I have lost so much money that I probably won't be able to afford to travel to work soon.
Right, I'm off- someone's trying to hack into this computer! I've just had to log in again. See you in a bit.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


The vintage ukulele has been out of its case tonight and I've been chordifying. Lord knows, when the pressure's on at work its nice to have a few other avenues to pursue.
I am trying to meteorite the new chords and its going to take a few attempts. I can play all sorts of things by ear, but its time to learn the chord shapes.
Every instrument, even different guitars, subtly suggests different ways of writing songs and the ukulele is no exception. For a funny little instrument you can play some remarkably beautiful chords and the gruesome weather encouraged me to dwell on the more grey and mournful ones.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Early Morning Edinburgh

We roared through the baleful yellow-lit streets with the traffic lights on our side. The taxi driver had been up since five and would be finished in time to collect his boys from school; the woman's in the sandwich shop had been up since four.
We all agreed that having the world to yourself is quite.  a bonus for early risers.
I miss the cleaners at Docklands. I used to rise at six and be in Docklands at 7.30. Sometimes Francesca would give me a big hug, or I'd stand and chat to Marc, who spoke five languages. Cleaners aren't always the people that other people assume they might be.
Now on the train, I'm heading back to the Smoke for this afternoons lecture. I've been in Ayr, where I work as an External Examiner, and I visited McMum on my way back and did an unplugged spot at Foakies in the evening. Scott MacDonald came over from Glasgow; the evening, hosted by Mark Barnett, was intimate and really enjoyable. We broke off midway through to have an anti-war chat that was probably inspired by the Pete Seeger theme of the evening. Scott was trying out some new songs- they were great-and I'm looking forward to working with him and Martin at the Dumfries Songwriters Weekend in June.
So on to the next very busy Semester at the University. I hope the sun rises before the train passed through beautiful Northumberland so I can gaze at the grumpy grey North Sea, all poised to rinse those pesky humans out of a Planet Earth's hair.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Time, Motion and Transcription

Shocking, the number of hours one can put into a 'part time' job.
That's all I'm saying!

On the upside, I have found a transcriber and I can finally get moving with the research that has been on hold for almost a year, and which I started in 2010. I will be presenting a paper at the Simon Frith conference in Edinburgh in April but my research been rather backgrounded, although my radar has definitely not stopped working.
Other researchers are ploughing the same furrow but growing different crops (urgh: metaphor alert!) but I have always felt that the more strands that there are, the more voices creating histories, the better; there is room for all of us.
Getting the interviews transcribed has cleared space for me to complete the project; I need to interview about ten more people, I think.
The anarcho punk and feminism paper is almost complete and I have a week's grace on that. I suddenly became really immersed in it after finding it impossible to even make a start. Any researcher will tell you that you open a box and find more and more boxes inside it; what I thought I was going to say has morphed into something entirely different. I have some fact-checking to do and some structural editing, that's been inspired by the fact that I've done a lot of marking of student work recently and I need to apply the same criteria to my own writing. But I have renewed my scholarly acquaintance with the wonderful Catherine MacKinnon's writing: she who describes postmodernism as dealing in 'factish things'!
I got a lovely letter from a chap called Mark Johnson who wrote to me a couple of years ago about a PHD he was doing that applies religious theology to punk. He has now published his own academic book called Seditious Theology which I hope to get hold of next time I do some proposal reviews for Ashgate, who published the original and rather raw version of The Lost Women of Rock Music (publishers 'pay' for this type of reviewing with books), and who have published his book.
When I do get hold of it, I'll review it here.

This is a bit of a 'news book' posting. I wonder if they still do those in primary schools?

You wouldn't believe my kitchen. Sometimes it's a studio and plays host to microphone stands, the odd guitar and metres of black-clad cabling tangled into nests of signals buzzing hither and thither.
At the moment, it hosts the old printer/scanner that doesn't print (Epson), and the new printer/scanner that doesn't scan (Canon). Ugly beasts, both of them. I've cleared the book pile and now there are only seven books on the kitchen table, plus piles of scribbled notes, an electronic metronome, the latest Irrepressibles CD that I want to listen to and review here, and a tangle of data wires.

Today's plan is not to stare into the computer for twelve hours as I did one day earlier this week. Today, the computer's job is playing music while I hoof it about the house, dancing, singing and remembering what it's like to be upright instead of hunched in front of a screen.