You may already be a winner!

Lets talk about music. So, let us imagine we are somewhere both accommodating and appropriate, holding this discussion. Hey, how about The Garage in Phnom Penh? Yes? Good. Let’s buy Jeff a (virtual) G&T then get down to it…but before I reveal my personal favourite album of 2010, shall we recap on the year?

‘Goin’ Back’ may well have been my musical theme for 2010, as much of the time I spent re-exploring the music that inspired me in my youth. It also marked my own return to the live arena after 5 wilderness years, my first ever solo performances and, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the (limited edition 7-inch in coloured vinyl on 1977 records!) re-issue of the first Radio City record I made to satisfy the demands of mainly Japanese collectors. Now (with the emphasis firmly on the pantomime aspects of the following statement), I am truly a ‘cult’…

Jerry Goffin and Carole King’s ‘Goin’ Back’ is normally cast as a wistful, dreamy reverie of a song that evokes a resigned sense of nostalgia through its chords and lyrics. It was rendered virtually immaculate in 1960’s in the hands of The Byrds, softly pillowed in whispered harmonies and gently chiming 12-string guitars. The version I went back to this year however was the strident piano driven statement of intent emanating from the first solo album recorded by Nils Lofgren in the early 1970’s. He takes the song by the scruff of the neck and possesses the lyric in a way that totally reflects the attitude that oozes from the rest of the tracks and from the cover picture of a leather jacketed swaggering Lofgren… ‘But thinking young and growing older is no sin, and I can play the game of life to win…’ yes, we need the past to make sense of the present and prepare us for that unknown future…
This was one of my favourite ‘getting ready to go out for the unknown future of the weekend’ songs back in those heady days, and this song and its parent album were again established as firm favourites on the Jamesian playlist for 2010.

2010 was also the year of returning to some other old friends from the 70’s and 80’s – Dwight Twilley, The Raspberries (‘Starting Over’ – what a song – what an album!), the Shoes, the Db’s, the Plimsouls, Marshall Crenshaw, Let’s Active, the Flaming Groovies, the Rain Parade, John Hiatt, the Only Ones, early Cheap Trick, the Stiff and Chiswick records crew, the Postcard and Post-Postcard bands …. andmoreagain and again. I kept up my love affair with the 1960’s, the greats and the garage bands, spent far too much time with the complete Pete Townsend demos and with outtakes from the Beatles and Stones, obsessed (as usual) over the Kinks had a huge crush on the Bonzos/Viv Stanshall (shared by Otis!) and continued to love those contemporary artists whose musical hearts are very firmly in the classic tradition – the wonderful Black Keys, White Stripes and Billy Childish/Holly Golightly spring to mind here.

I continue to mourn the loss but celebrate the work of Alex Chilton. A complex kid indeed, but a true musician, and a HUGE personal inspiration. Although the direct line in my own work is closest to the first two Big Star albums, I’ve recently been listening to live tapes drawn from throughout his life, and there is no doubt that the image he had of being an ornery cuss at times overshadows just how good the man was…

So, so sad at the passing of Mark Linkous also… to be selfish I shall really miss the spooky scratchy whisperings of Sparklehorse. Listening to them reminded me of hiding from your friends in the damp dark woods when you were young… being so aware of your own body, breath and heartbeat, then realising there were other things there also, rustling and moving next to you, a natural world co-existing with you… I wish you peace now, Mark, and thank you for the memories in sound you have left behind…

I also confess that for many years I never really ‘got’ Captain Beefheart, but over the last few years had developed a real fondness for a great deal of his music, so his recent death was another reason to feel sad, as we will never see the like again… another original gone…

Enough of the maudlin for now, what has been the new music that moved me in 2010?

Well, I loved The Decemberists ‘Hazards of Love’, Midlake’s ‘Courage of Others’, John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ and Karen Elson’s ‘Ghost Who Walks’. Honourable mentions go out to Josh Rouse for ‘El Turista’ (even though he is currently walking a path parlously close to Paul Simon!), The Villagers ‘Becoming a Jackal’, The National ‘High Violet’ and Alejandro Escovedo’s ‘Street Songs of Love’.

Of course there were hundreds of others too, the ever-changing daily obsessions, but however (cue fanfare!), the time has now come to reveal the winner of the coveted(?) accolade, James’ Album of the Year, 2010. Bear with me whilst I do so in true ‘getting- up-slightly-tipsy-at-an-awards-ceremony-fashion’…

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this award goes to an artist who has weathered not only the changing face of a music industry he entered over thirty years ago as a shorts-clad sandal-shod, bright eyed and bushy-tailed hat wearing naive, but one who has also fought back in recent years from a near fatal and debilitating illness to confound us all with an album that stands as a career high. Of course, he has done this with a little help from his friends, some very much in the public eye themselves (hey Alex, Roddy! Hiya Paul! Alright Johnny?), others much less so, such as wife and manager, Grace… this is no maudlin, weepy, ‘oh me, oh my’ album either, but a pounding, vibrant re-affirmation of life in the face of adversity that is not afraid to face its demons armed with a killer guitar riff and a northern soul bass line. Ladies and gentlemen, raise a glass of Orange Juice as I give you my Album of the Year, 2010, and most of all I ask you to appreciate its creator, no Poor Old Soul but the Blue Boy himself…
‘Losing Sleep’, by Edwyn Collins!’

And that, dear reader, is all there is to say. If you haven’t heard it, please do seek it out and listen. It’s every bit as good as I say it is, indeed more so.

I’m off now, but I’ll be back later.

See you then….

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S’cool Days

‘Today I learned about the sea and ‘bout someone in history
well, ain’t that cool
they taught me how to square a cube and put a fly into a tube
well, ain’t that cool…’

the above lines are lifted from the very wonderful 45 ‘S’cool days’ by Stanley Frank. I can’t quite remember when it was released (late 70s? early 80s?), and I can tell you very little about Mr. Frank, but other than coming enclosed in a particularly nasty orange sleeve it was one of those great one-off new wave non-hits that proliferated around that time. I’m sorry, perhaps some of you would be puzzled by the ‘45’ reference in the opening sentence. Nowadays they would call it a 7-inch vinyl. Those exciting little slabs of plastic generally revolve around the turntable at 45rpm, hence the abbreviation, most commonly used in the 60s and 70s. It’s extremely heartening that whatever you choose to call it, the good old single record is still around.

Can you remember the first one you bought with your own pocket money? Mine was ‘Lady Madonna/The Inner light’ by The Beatles, 6/11d from the Music Shop, Thurso… I can still recall the smell of the vinyl as I removed it from its black paper sleeve and the sheer joy and anticipation of placing it over the spindle of my Aunt Catherine’s Dansette record player…

I was certainly no stranger to the wonders of the 7-inch record at that point, as my collecting habit had been kick started by my mum and dad many years before with ‘The Old Chisum Trail/Red River Valley’ by Roy Rogers, which was the first record I had bought for me. It was actually a red vinyl 78rpm with a magnificent picture of Roy and his trusty white steed Trigger adorning the front. He stuffed him, you know. Stop sniggering at the back, it’s true. When his four-legged friend passed on to the great pasture in the sky, Roy had him stuffed and placed in the Roy Rogers museum. I wonder if a similar thought flitted across the mind of Roy’s wife Dale when the singing cowboy joined the ranks of the ghost riders in the sky… doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it…

My mum and dad both loved music, so we had plenty of records around the house. My Aunt Catherine also had a great love of music, and, being single, a bit more in the way of disposable income so she had a pretty awesome collection mostly stored at my nana’s house, where the aforesaid Dansette also resided. My nana was another music lover, her tastes mainly being for ballad singers. She was particularly fond of Ken Dodd (he actually had a very ‘country’ style catch in his voice… ‘Tears’ showcases that to great effect. Bet you never thought I’d admit to being a bit of a Ken Dodd connoisseur, eh?) and Englebert Humperdinck, whose name she steadfastly pretended she could not pronounce. “J, would you please put that lovely Dinglebert record on.” she would ask, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and D.J. J would oblige, and then pretend to do the Last Waltz with his nana around the tiny sitting room.

That selfsame tiny sitting room (we actually always called it the living room) in a remote northern Scottish town was the scene of many Saturday afternoon rave-ups, when my sisters, cousins, nana and I would enjoy the latest discs bought by my Aunt by frugging enthusiastically around the tiny space to them before inevitably collapsing in a heap when the needle hit the run-out groove. The best collapsing in a heap record was undoubtedly ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ by Georgie Fame, where we would all re-enact the bullet-riddled end of the doomed lovers in a gloriously over the top manner which William Penn’s gore fest movie could only hint at…

Writing this the memories are coming thick and fast… working in the music business for over twenty five years had somewhat dulled my visceral reaction to music, but it’s been a long time and now with the benefit of some hindsight I can clearly recall the thrill engendered by those black circles of plastic, the differing weights, smells, some in picture sleeves, some Extended Plays (the four track E.P.’s) in their heavy laminated sleeves, like mini-albums, the band names, which seemed to precisely invoke the music lurking in the spiral groove… space rock from The Tornados, psychedelic music hall from The Kinks, the jazz tinged cool of Manfred Mann… I could go on and on and on, and I will, but… later!

As I grew older, DJ’ing took precedence over dancing, and I began to really notice the elements of a record that excited me, the beat, the bass line, the sound of the voices and instruments – particularly guitar, the melody, harmony… the best 45’s were an encapsulation of feelings that could be sadness, joy, happiness, loneliness or anything else, delivered in a sonic mélange that took you on a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of emotions, a journey that lasted from the moment the needle dropped into the vinyl until the click of the tone arm moving back into place, ready for the next one… S’cool days, indeed…

During my late teens and early twenties, on visits to Edinburgh I would frequent the ‘Hot Licks’ record shop in Cockburn Street, a very ‘studenty’ cobbled wynd near the castle. In addition to having the world’s coolest carrier bags (the Stones tongue logo) they often stocked limited copies of obscure US import singles, LP’s and other cool stuff, and it was there that I bought such essential items as copies of ‘Punk’ and ‘Trouser Press’ magazines, ‘Go Girl Crazy’ by the Dictators, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television, ‘The Summer Sun EP’ by Chris Stamey and the absolutely bonkers but truly wonderful ‘Bangkok’ by Alex Chilton. I also bought ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, Bruce Springsteen, on the day of its release from Hot Licks, and I recall how sombre and low key Bruce appeared on the sleeve, a bleary eyed leather-jacketed Al Pacino look-alike, tired and bruised from the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune had sent his way since the success of ‘Born to Run’. It very quickly became my favourite Springsteen album, and has remained in that lofty position (albeit challenged by ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ from time to time) until now.

The surprise challenger is the new Bruce album, ‘Working on a Dream.’ It’s his best collection of pop songs in a long time, emerging from the dark post 9-11 clouds that have weighed heavy on his last few albums, choosing instead to be funny, happy, joyous, just a little bit serious, and, for Bruce, pretty experimental with the sonic palette. In feel, it touches base with the exuberant and untrammeled early works, ‘Greetings…’ and ‘The Wild, the Innocent…’ and his recent ‘Night with the Jersey Devil’ Halloween freebie whilst also letting a great deal of very Brian Wilson style light into his arrangements, which have in the past been occasionally just a little too dense for their own good. It’s also, on occasion, as pleasingly daft as a semi-psychedelic brush. Which is also good. Very good. Try the bizarre eight-minute opening epic ‘Outlaw Pete’ (‘…at six months old he’d done three months in jail…’)or ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ with its killer pay-off line for a taster of some of the new directions (whistling and backwards guitars?) followed by The Boss…

The Other Boss, little O, has also been making his musical mark lately. Daddy finally got around to buying and putting strings onto his customized mini-guitar (with retro Cowboy illustrations… yippee-ay-yeh! The influence of a John Fogerty video makes itself felt…), so the O is now happily thrashing away and experimenting with his six-string sidekick. He seems at the moment to be partial to the Syd Barrett/Blixa Bargeld school of using various implements to modify the sonic output and of course he has a somewhat maverick approach to the niceties of tuning, but, hey, he’s only two… Hopefully he’ll soon be confident enough to pop a couple of doors up and jam with our new neighbour in Villa Domino (the very Bond-like residence which has sprung up in our street recently), who adds a wonderful dream-like ambience to our hot weekend days by sitting up on his balcony as the late afternoon sun brings a fuzzy orange glow to the surrounding buildings and tootles away on what sounds like a tenor sax. His repertoire is limited but appropriate, and it often adds just the right amount of mellow to an already laid back day…

Tuesday night A and I managed to have a quiet, civilized and entirely uninterrupted evening repast in the oasis of calm that is Commé a la Maison. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, the little O was back home, safely causing havoc with his ever patient Aunt Packdey. Dear A wisely went home after our leisurely meal, leaving yours truly to venture out again with a colleague from Laos in search of LOUD ROCK MUSIC. During the course of a lengthy evening that did indeed lead to LOUD ROCK MUSIC (namely Zeppelin Rock Bar, where Jun, who never ceases to amaze me with his musical selections, played some Rick Derringer! Yay! Then on to Memphis (bar, not city) where, fortified with copious amounts of my good friend San Miguel I assaulted the sensitive ears of the hardy few with renditions of ‘classic’ rock tunes accompanied by the house band. My head and throat really hurt the next day…) we visited the Meta House gallery where we bumped into Tim Page, the iconic war (and peace) photographer. Well, to be honest, we didn’t really ‘bump’ into him, we kind of stalked him. Tim is a patron of the organisation I work for, and on guessing he might well be in town to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work we thought we could pin him down to ask him for some favours. Ever the gentleman, he duly obliged, and we spent an hour or so chatting to him. He now feels closer than ever to finally solving the riddles surrounding the disappearance of his close friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, and is returning to Cambodia next week to continue his quest for the truth, with, he hopes, some resolution and closure in sight. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, but he’s a remarkable man, in many ways the Keith Richards of photojournalism, yet infinitely humble though charged with an intense inner flame, whose pictures of the mayhem and destruction wreaked by war are a frozen reminder of the insanity that humans continually perpetuate seemingly without ever learning that it is really not a good thing…

Time for a change of subject… let us muse briefly on tropical torpor. We are definitely moving into the hot season now, the temperature is rising and life is moving ever so slightly slower than it did before. Weddings are on the increase (we have been invited to three in the last two weeks) and so is the prevalence of that massively popular Khmer outdoor sport, spot squeezing. On every corner one can expect to see someone, more often than not a Tuk-Tuk or moto driver, bent in intense concentration in front of a wing mirror, squeezing and popping for all they are worth… ah, life’s small pleasures. Nose-picking, nit-picking, zit zapping, spitting, urination and spot squeezing are all publicly paraded on the thoroughfares of this fair city. Still, better out than in, as my dad used to say…
… and so the days crawl by here in the Kingdom of Cambodia, counting slowly down to the summer holidays in a lazy haze. I venture that Ray Davies would love it here, given how many Kinks songs mention either sitting, or the sun, or both… perhaps I ought to rechristen my current domicile the Kinkdom of Cambodia?

Now there’s a thought…

‘I’m just sittin’ in the midday sun
Just soaking up that currant bun
With no particular purpose or reason
Just sittin’ in the midday sun.’

‘Sitting in the Midday Sun’ The Kinks

ciao, bambinos

something/anything

Yeah I know – last night’s roll call of the mighty in the vocal field left many (hundreds in fact) out. Sorry. Blogging is often an immediate response, as was last nights – so apologies to all the wonderful voices who were not name checked in my ramblings but who deserve to be up there in the pantheon of vocal greats. Can I just give honourable mentions to Josh Rouse, Brett Sparks, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Neil Hannon, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Todd Rundgren, Evan Dando, Bic Runga, Alex Chilton, Donald Fagen, John Lydon, Jenny Watson, Dr John, Little Richard, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Rod Stewart (late 60’s early 70’s version) etc, etc..
Anyway – life is not all about music (oh yes it is…) … what have I me mine been up to in the long weeks since last blogging? Well, we survived a robbery… although our I-Pod did not, and led to me visiting the local nick. Have you seen Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’? That might give you some idea of what I was up against… the local police chief must have had extremely bad toothache, as he had obviously been gargling for several days with cheap whisky, and the array of ladies of the night who seemed to be his support staff were also highly amused by the foreigner in their midst… number one question was ‘…what do you want us to do about this?’ . I swear that if I had said ‘you must bring me the perpetrator’s heads on a silver platter!’ I would have had a better reaction than the one I got when I meekly asked if perhaps they might try and find out who did this and get the items back… my Khmer friends at the office were highly amused by all the shenanigans around my ill-advised attempts to report the incident, and seemed to suggest that the local constabulary might be fairly deeply implicated in the theft anyway…
Otis is now crawling everywhere with the manic intensity and superhuman agility of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and with pretty much the same horrendously destructive effect. We can’t wait for him to start walking. No, honestly, we can’t. He’s a truly wonderful little chap, and a constant source of amusement and bemusement to the Sutherland-Mathur’s. He also has top and bottom teeth now. Ouch. Next week we are taking him to Thailand. Please watch CNN 24 Hour News for further details and updates, as and when they happen.
I went to Nairobi a couple of weeks ago, to attend a course on gender in mine action, which was most entertaining and extremely illuminating, as mine action is still male-dominated and full of ex-army machismo. Things are changing though, which is good. There was no doubt that the feistiest and toughest people there were the women, which was very heartening – most of the men seemed stuck in a terribly British Terry Thomas/Leslie Phillips landscape which ceased to exist a long time ago… “ I say! That’s a bit unfair, old chap…”
I’m sorry, those last two or three paragraphs were really quite boring. So, life goes on. I’m a little tired tonight, so I won’t ramble or bore you any further. It’s time for bed, as Zebedee used to say. Tomorrow, who knows…
I think I’ll listen to a little Elliot Smith.
Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine…

Night Night

Sleep tight