Breakfast of champions

It’s breakfast time in an unnaturally quiet Phnom Penh. Unnaturally, as it is Water Festival which normally brings milling throngs in their millions to the city from the provinces, but this year the spectacular boat races pivotal to the festival have been cancelled as the countryside is still reeling under the impact of the floods. Maybe some echoes of last year’s tragedy at Koh Pichhave also added to the sense of quiet contemplation that seems to have settled over the city. Even the fireworks of yesterday evening seemed almost perfunctory and embarrassed to be breaking the calm. However, it’s not so quiet in our street.

deconstruction

After a long and noisy period of deconstruction, construction work has now begun opposite us, and as this is a mid-scale job (probably a high-rise apartment block), the lack of safety precautions taken by the construction team is frankly alarming to behold. I have already watched one worker place his head directly under a jackhammer which seconds before had been pounding relentlessly away (no hard hats either, which of course wouldn’t really have made any difference) and another, a teenage boy, swinging from the hook of a crane by one arm, about 15m off the ground. Meanwhile the local kids are playing in and around the site, which has no safety barriers or warning signs of any kind in evidence…

construction

So, breakfast time… ah, yes, it makes me think fondly of orange juice (you poor old soul, you!) and fond thoughts of orange juice lead on to even fonder thoughts of the chieftain of OJ, the inestimable Sir Edwyn Collins. His remarkable journey back from his debilitating illness continues, and the latest evidence can be found right here on ‘Down the Line’, a brand new track from his forthcoming album. It will be released next year on the rather wonderful AED Records (Analogue Enhanced Digital – Todays Technology Now!), a label to cherish, with some excellent acts joining Edwyn in keeping the spirit of independent music alive, whilst simultaneously falling and laughing…

 

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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….

Home Again

‘One is a lonely number…’
not, as you may be thinking, another half-baked philosophical statement from yours truly, but actually the title of the first track on the latest Edwyn Collins album ‘Home Again’. I purchased the aforesaid CD when I was back in the UK in the summer, and… no, lets save it for later. I promise we will return to Edwyn shortly, but let us first catch up on the second part of our summer holiday adventures. After the minor hell of our return journey to the UK we had a week or so more of enjoying the English summer. Prior to the U.S.A trip we had enjoyed some quintessentially English moments, visiting summer fetes, watching cricket on the green, feeding ducks in the mill pond, that sort of thing. As a Scotsman, and coming from a family who have its fair share of intensely patriotic members I do find it strange how I am inexorably drawn to a particular notion, or sense, of ‘Englishness’. I blame this on an inordinate fondness for the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and many others who jumped into the spaces created by those very significant footprints. Records on the Harvest label seemed to imbue this character almost naturally. I recall many a chilly northern night spent lying with my head between the speakers (my primitive version of headphones) of my portable stereo listening to ‘Grantchester Meadows’ off ‘Ummagumma’, or ‘Fat Old Sun’ from ‘Atom Heart Mother’, or ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ and immersing myself in the hazy warmth of the sounds emanating from the straining speaker cones…

In the middle distance, the muffled murmuring of the traffic gave way to the sonorous clang of the church bells and the gentle rustling of the leaves in the honey-thick breeze. The world was revolving slowly and lazily in the sticky warmth of this sunny afternoon.
‘More tea, Vicar?’
“Oh, splendid, Miss Jones,a capital idea, I must say. My goodness, your muffins are extraordinary…’
‘Oh Vicar, you are such a card…’
Sorry. Drifting off again. Let me get back on track.

Yes, summer holiday memories. Many of them from this year involve the continually evolving wonder that is our son. Little O attempting to adapt his funky Khmer style of dance to the strains of a brass band performing Abba songs; his joy at visiting a country park …very wide open spaces where he could simply run and run and run with what must have seemed to him as no boundaries; feeding ducks and swans with O doing his ‘one for you, one for me’ routine; a miniature train journey, O and Granddad together – who was most excited by that…? I wonder…; blowing bubbles in the garden, sheer naked enjoyment, O running around and around in circles laughing gleefully; feeding times, characterised by the infinite patience of Nana, with accompaniment from Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy; a visit to Swindon Mela, with so many familiar colours, shapes, sounds, smells and tastes – and time for some more O-type dancing, this time to familiar rhythms…; having the time and space to see the wonderful bond between O and mummy growing every day…
These are just some of the memories I have of this summer, there are many, many others that will come to me in the future, to make the good times better and to help me to smile during the hard times… summers are wonderful, magical things that re-awaken the child within us all, and we should cherish each and every moment of them…

My goodness, that was a bit Sunday Post-ish, wasn’t it? What has happened to my tireless cynicism? I confess I really don’t know, I’m sure it was here a minute ago… I must have temporarily mislaid it…

The other night, performing the increasingly difficult wrestling match that is getting O into his ‘jammies’ at bedtime I got to thinking about how much the vintage cowboy print thereon reminded me of the old Postcard Records label design. Ah, ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’… memories swept into my synapses, of those mysterious cardboard boxes from Fast Distribution that would arrive in Thurso Music Shop on a Saturday afternoon or Monday morning and be eagerly ripped upon to reveal their contents… would the eagerly awaited ‘1 only cat no PC-80-6 Orange Juice ‘Simply Thrilled, Honey’ 7” single’ in its cowboy bedecked sleeve be in there? Yes!! In stock! Mine! Those were exciting times, and many of us (hello Messrs Gavin Duncan and Ian Begg – where are you now?) felt such musical affinity with Orange Juice in particular, as their melodic gifts were really, really strong but tempered with some willfully unkempt, ragged yet glorious performances. I only knew (and if truth be told, still do) three chords, and hadn’t really mastered any of that barré chord stuff, so it was a joy to have it reinforced that traditional skill wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite of making exciting, clamorous, glamorous music. The Fire Engines were another band who shared that rowdy charabanc to pop success, music that sounded all over the place, spiky and fuzzy, but absolutely imbued with a total sense of fun. ‘Candyskin’ comes on like a Scottish Salvation Army playgroup that has had just a wee drop too much acid in their Irn Bru… wonderful stuff which even now brings a smile to my face as I type this.

‘Englishness’, ‘Scottishness’… I’m not sure how I got here, but the moving fingers type, and having typed, move on… or rather back, back to Edwyn Collins. He’s grown up now, has Edwyn. Life has dealt him some pretty bad cards in the last couple of years – he’s suffered two strokes, but has fought back and has been on tour, performing again this summer in a few festivals. I finally got round to listening to ‘Home Again’ a few nights ago, and I am so happy to tell you that it is an absolutely magnificent album, his best since ‘Gorgeous George’. He’s still wry, still sonically adventurous, still making records that sound like ‘records’, but his recent brushes with the fragility of existence seem to permeate his music (although amazingly, given some of the lyrics, most of this was written before he suffered his successive strokes) and give it a strikingly unusual cast, that of the man-child facing the enormity of life and the natural and un-natural challenges it throws against us all. The title track is quite simply awesome, a meditation on the redemptive and healing power of music that is almost overwhelmingly emotional in its evocation of that feeling of being truly at ‘home’ that music can bring. The Bearsden Blues, no less. As the late, great, Stuart Henry would have said, ‘I can’t recommend this album highly enough, my friends.’

Oh well, I’m off now to slip into my sandals and fringed buckskin jacket and nip round to Roddy’s house to see if he can show me how to play that augmented 7th chord… you coming? No? OK, catch you later, man…

Next episode – the return to a post-election Phnom Penh and all that entailed.
This episode was brought to you borne on the angel wings of Edwyn Collins ‘Home Again’ on Heavenly Records, remembrances of Postcard Records – the Sound of Young Scotland, ‘ Long Way Down’ on BBC DVD (Ben, it’s the same two guys, McGregor and Boorman, biking from John ‘o’ Groats in Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. Let me know if you want me to get you a copy my friend), and is dedicated to all those who hung around on a Friday, Saturday or Monday in the Music Shop, Thurso, waiting for the boxes of new releases…’there’s only one copy… and it’s mine!!’

Rip It Up

…And start again. As I get older (losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greet – stop it! Be still, my Beatling heart…) I start to have so many more of them. Preconceptions, that is. Rip them up and start again, or at the very least leave them at the door, that will be my new philosophy.

On Saturday we had a somewhat cultural day, firstly visiting the International School of Phnom Penh International Day. Ani wore her Sari, Otis was decked out in his wee kilt with Sutherland Clan crested kilt pin, and I looked like an American. That is, until I took the Stetson off, then I just looked like a white male, 50-ish, medium build, receding graying hair, no distinguishing features… ‘He just looks like any outa town rube’ Kincaid sneered as he crudely rolled the body over with the toe of his badly scuffed boot. Brett stopped and lowered the camera from his eyes which narrowed with disdain as he squinted at Kincaid. ‘Never forget, Mr. Kincaid, that this was someone’s son, maybe someone’s father… we should show some respect, no matter how hardened we’ve become down the years…’ Kincaid shrugged, embarrassed at this outburst from the normally reticent photographer, and spat his chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth into the same dirt where John Doe had struggled for his last gasps of air…

Sorry, got sidetracked there briefly. Yes, in the riot of colour that characterized International Day I was a mild protest of drabness. However, the day, or rather the morning we spent there, was extremely entertaining and well worth the $5 entry fee. (Note to self; I’m becoming just a little obsessed with vfm these days… a worrying trend – gone are the carefree days when I would go out and splash $10 on trivialities…) The food was good (excellent somosas!) and the performances were exemplary. Ani’s class did her proud in their gosh-gee-whiz-aren’t-they-cute way, by performing a very strange piece about hats and monkeys. Unfortunately I missed the apparent highlight, as I was informed by Ani, which was three (female) senior students performing a hula dance. Apparently every male in the audience resembled the big bad wolf in that old Betty Boop Little Red Riding Hood cartoon, eyes out on stalks and tongues dragging on the ground. At that exact time my eyes were also on stalks and my tongue dragging on the ground in the International Food room, where I had just encountered the Belgian chocolate display next to the New Zealand chocolate cake…

Otis drew his usual admiring glances and was his usual charming self as we flitted from country stall to country stall. The face of the woman in the room dedicated to India was a picture as I informed her of Otis’ Indian heritage. You could read her mind ‘… this man is crazy; he comes in here with the whitest baby in the world and expects me to believe that the child is part Indian…?’ So we did the rounds, nodded and smiled, piled as much food as we could under the buggy then rode off into the mid-day sun…

We did a little shopping in the afternoon, going to the Russian market to buy some winter clothing for Otis. The temperature has dropped to around 20º in the evenings now, and is hovering around 30º during the days so we thought it time to get him some long sleeved woolens and mittens and scarves to ward off frostbite. Ha ha ha. No, but we are returning to dear old blighty soon, and it is apparently a bit chilly around those parts, so time to stock up on the winter woolies. That done, we went off to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) so I could finish typing up my dispatch to send it out with the Reuters journalist on the last chopper before the sun set and the rebels mounted their assault on the Palace under cover of darkness… Or alternatively I could have a Tiger beer and a poke of chips. I settled for the alternative. It’s hard to imagine what places like the FCC must have been like ten or fifteen years ago. Probably pretty horrible actually, bursting at the seams with gung-ho foreign correspondents and their ever expanding egos. As a younger man, I used to imagine myself one day having an ‘Our Man in Havana’ type existence, rushing about in a hot place in a crumpled linen suit mopping my brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and masterminding incredible feats of espionage in a kind of bumblingly endearing James Bond manner, whilst confounding those damned journalists at every step. Pretty much what I do now actually, albeit more in the manner of the drunken elderly ex-consul lampooned by The Fast Show…

I had noted earlier in the week that the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh was to take place in the Titanic (!) restaurant on 1st December. And it was free. Major VFM, no less. The cynic in me leapt at the opportunity to spend some time guffawing at what the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh would present for our edification. We were promised a German band called Diva International, fronted by a Debbie Harry type singer and influenced by Bowie and Iggy, a ‘nylon punk’ band (!) from Thailand called Bear Garden, and PP’s own Thom Thom (or Josie and the Pussycats as I call them). Oh boy… a German punk band called Diva International… the laugh-o-meter was cranked up and ready to go! I used to be a big fan of German music of the early 70’s – I would go round to my friend Eric’s house (where and how are you now, Mr. Law?) to listen to Aamon Duul II and Can and Neu and Tangerine Dream. These albums were serious pieces of work, with fantastic cover art and great titles – ‘ Dance of the Lemmings’, ‘Tago Mago’, ‘Monster Movie’, ‘Phaedra’… then came the wonderful Nina Hagen, eventually she gave way to the still tolerable Nena and her 99 Red Balloons and then, as far as I was concerned, it all went wrong. It seemed as if most of Europe didn’t quite get punk right, and Germany were no exception. Die Totden Hosen. Oh Holy Jebus, somebody please tell them that the UK Subs are not the kind of role models to build a career on… so German rock music and yours truly drifted apart at that point, until…

…now! It’s 8pm in the quite wonderfully but bafflingly named Titanic Restaurant (considering it is perched on a jetty at the riverside – visions of the whole shebang sliding slowly into the dark waters as the bands play on swim before my eyes ), and I have just missed Thom Thom. Not to worry, they are playing an acoustic gig later this week so opportunity to catch up then, but as I arrive a rap duo, a young man and an older man, both Cambodian, are performing a rap about genocide to the smallish crowd of mostly German expats. Some people are enjoying a Saturday evening meal, apparently oblivious to the frenetic rapping and scratching coming from the dynamic duo on stage, who I find out are DJ Sday and his young protégé, MC Curly. This is their last number for the moment, then Curly introduces Thai duo Bear Garden, a young woman playing bass and singing and a young man playing a vintage Casio mini keyboard. They’re pretty good, a little like a cut price B52’s crossed with Sadistic Mika Band ,and I find myself doing some on the spot restrained Dad dancing to their plinky-plonk rhythms and bass popping. Good stuff. Another rap from Curly, who is now genuinely amazed at the gathering crowd, and then he announces Diva International. Nothing happens for about five minutes, then the black clad rhythm section amble on, look about them a bit then walk off stage again. Perhaps they are a little upset at the neon sign above the stage that somewhat erratically flashes the words ‘Titanic Band’ and variations thereof above their heads in electric blue. A young man with dark curly hair and a permanently worried expression is obviously the band’s gopher, and he rushes over to fix whatever has been displeasing them so much that they have telepathically communicated it to him before retreating. They return, and now they are four, skinny guys dressed in black with low-slung guitars. Where is Debbie Harry soundalike? Utilizing the old ‘dramatic pause before entrance’ routine perhaps? Well, no. It’s clear that as the band start up that there is no female front person, just the skinniest of the skinny foursome with low slung Telecaster untouched round his neck, see-sawing his microphone and stand up and down in the grip of first number nerves, cigarette smouldering in his left fist and laconic Lou Reed/David Bowie vocal tics firmly in place. They are good. I eat my thoughts. They are really, really good. All you could really fault them on would be the horrendously cheesy between song patter. Every cliché is being expounded, and I don’t really think it’s worth wasting your or my time repeating them. Come on, put your hands in the air and ROCK AND ROLL if you agree with me. Are you having a good time reading this? I can’t hear you… come on, are you having a good time??!! Hello World, are you ready to rock tonight? One, two – more monitor… Yeah! You’re the best crowd who has read my blog ever! I love you! Goodnight! I’ll be back!!

There is one deeply surreal moment when the singer shouts from the stage ‘hey…. anyone here tonight from… Bristol?’ but all becomes clear when moments later they lurched into a growlingly electric version of Portishead’s “Glory Box’. Curly Roadie is kept endlessly busy attending to the whims of the singer, who cannot plug his guitar in, light a cigarette, pick up a plectrum, turn up his amp or indeed wipe sweat from his own brow without help, but that’s ROCK AND ROLL isn’t it, and he is forgiven as they are so good. It’s a short set, but they win two encores and get MC Curly and Roadie Curly to join them in a scrappy yet exciting jam at the end, and their whole veneer of distant cool and arch pretension has long since dissolved in the sweat lashing from them. I congratulate the singer as they come off stage, telling him how much I enjoyed their performance and how good the cover of ‘Glory Box’ was, and he puts me exactly in my place and reinforces that I need to really keep an open mind when it comes to perceptions or preconceptions about music (or indeed anything) – ‘Thank you’ he says ‘ it’s really difficult to do this when it’s not your own language’…

On another subject, Orange Juice (spot the easy connection) once had a whimsical wee ditty called ‘you old eccentric’, and thinking about that got me wondering, where are the eccentrics of my generation? Maybe I’m not thinking quite hard enough, but have my generation not spawned any George Mellys, Ivor Cutlers or Spike Milligans? The only one worthy that I can think of right now to follow in those hallowed footsteps would be old irascible John Lydon, but there must be more – write in with your ideas, and we’ll put together a list of current great eccentrics to give us hope and inspiration when the real world becomes a tad too crazy for our own good.

In the meantime, be good, clever or both at the same time (sound of sock full of custard hitting brick wall).

Thank you and goodnight from Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia.