Thursday, 28 May 2009

Red Inquest

Not the rumination you might expect, picking over faults and failings from last night's disappointing failure to capture a third/fourth Champions League crown, instead I've been wondering why exactly I support United anyway. And where this niggling sense of robbery comes from. Normally, I consider myself very anti-corporate, not particularly selfish; a One Nation Under Dog kind of guy. I only EVER wear replica shirts on European Cup nights/morning afters. Yet here I am, gnashing my teeth over United's failure to haul themselves further up the golden ladder.

So what are my reasons for choosing Red over Right?

1. I should be following Bangor City. Or, taking geography to its most reductivist conclusion, Llanfairpwll, my home village side. Both teams have fought well above their weight in the past, due in part to the Welsh FA's privileged position in world football, and I am otherwise very keen to promote the Welsh associations in my life. My first game was Bangor City in 1983 (the magic GLC year!), playing non-league English at the time. However, United date from my Welsh years, when I was perhaps more interested in what set me apart from my environment, and (difficult as it might seem now) Manchester was my original "City", my first taste of people busying about and tall buildings.

2. My Dad supported them, even though they were perhaps more accurately, his second team after Macclesfield Town, who were strictly non-League all his life. He died before they leapt up into the Coca-Cola business. He got on a bus sometime during or after the war and went to see United play at Maine Road and became a fan. He followed them during their post-war flush of success, Matt Busby's first great side, and had already stopped his season ticket by the time of the Best-Law-Charlton era. He was a link to the time before United became national property, and longer before they were the hated monolith they are now. So there is that handy memorial angle, but it's not the whole story.

3. They were the best weapon to hand on the playground to fuck with Liverpool. My childhood was dominated in football terms by the Liver Bird and the perfidious influence of Dalgleish, bubble perms and 'tasches; and it was only United who seemed to be able to really get under their thick skins. Of course, this cuts both ways, and this last season has taught me that it takes only a stiff challenge from Anfield for my old animosities and insecurities to well up from the pre-PL era and fill my mouth with bile.

4. I loved their big-spending underachieving ways, their champagne-addled wrongheadedness. Paul McGrath's natural athleticism and nous riddled with self-doubt and self-destructive boozing v Alan Hansen's dour professionalism - where was the contest? I'm very aware now that I was buying into a what might be wielded as a brand nowadays, but at the time, I am sure, it was simply United's attempt to express themselves, having been somehow caught up in the glamourous riptide of football's showbiz side. The more remote consistency and success seemed, the more they seemed to reach for the chequebook. Perhaps Newcastle could be held up as a more recent example, but it seems that where the Geordies seem nowadays to specialise in blind, (literally) Messianic passion, United fans of the 80s and early 90s seemed nourished more by a throbbing sense of injustice. It was a simple refusal to accept that their formula was badly-conceived, that they weren't reaping the silverware on a regular basis. Only the FA Cup seemed possible, the format that seemed to match United's self-regard/romance quotient most neatly during the dark league days. What good could ever come of this refusal to face up to reality?

5. The United Myth. Here is where I start to get particularly perverse and irrational. I was very happy to buy into the idea of United as the Red Arrows of Destiny, a football display team set apart from other workaday concerns, the Harlem Globetrotters of world football. With its Fifties stars mown down by tragedy while (allegedly) merely building up to the heights of their powers, and thereby safe from actually disappointing the fans by failing to meet their potential, their magnificent trajectory was somehow adumbrated over the following decades. It acted as a powerfully intimidating benchmark for thirty years' worth of talented players; but somehow sustained my/our belief that United were one of Europe's, and the world's, greatest clubs purely because they hadn't been proved wrong. Munich was maybe our version of Barcelona's Franco. Surely we would have eclipsed Liverpool in exactly the same way as Barca would've been nine cups better off instead of those fascists at the Bernabeu. As it stands, we've still only won one more Cup than Nottingham Forest. That still burns. Until we get the trophy cabinet, we are only royalty in terms of our bank balance.

On the whole, these reasons feel as foggy and dissonant as they always have. We accrue trophies under AF with predictable regularity. We are arguably the greatest club in England in terms of domestic achievements (matching Lerpwl in the league, holding more FA Cups than anyone else). We have as many European cups as Barcelona (unfortunately). But any victories just seem to be thrown into a dull ache in my belly. Had we won last night, there would have been a brief buzz of justification, a sense of temporary fulfillment, then the anxieties and impatience would have percolated back up. I patronisingly yearn for a genuine thrill of reaching some hitherto undreamed pinnacle, instead of feeling the need to tick little silver boxes on the way to applying for the post of unassailably best club ever, and thereby best ever primary school decision ever made.

Your pal, Coc x

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Every Day is Unlike Sunday - ATP v Fans (Day the Third)

Day Three. Highly unusually for ATP, I am expecting Sunday to provide the most highlights. From Grails at 4.45 to The Mae Shi finish at 11.30, I hear nothing but net. Even the Pavillion stage seemed shrouded in a mysterious fug that gives it the mystic air of some kind of cathedral. Totally un-Butlins.

Grails are indeed massive. There's a kind of paranoid bliss to their sound, that works as a metaphor for my weekend. It sounds like the soundtrack to important life decisions. Some Eastern sounds, some dubby moments. I find it all very uplifting and am quite emotional when I move on downstairs to catch another act I'd mentally circled for greatness.

Future of the Left enter stage left with “ATP” taped on the back of Kelson's bass, and yet it seems the band have been held up as some anti-ATP totem by the Hipsters That Be. The band adopt this role with relish, setting themselves up against the “friendly bearded cunts” that make up the majority of the audience, claiming that 40% of the audience are made up of the same moneyed class nobs that litter the Royal Family, “if your foreheads are anything to go by”. Perhaps that's the point. Despite the fact that they seem closely modelled on a higher-regsiter version of former curators Shellac, they give off more static than the rest of the assembled rock stars rolled up into a mute foetal ball. By two songs, they've spoken more words than the rest of the bill does all weekend. They are sharp, gruffly eloquent and angry. They are not Beirut. They are not Health.

When people think of Welsh bands, they often think of the mystic, fuzzy types like Gruff Rhys' various projects or Gorky's. These boys are different. They are spiky Silurian fucks. They dress in Motorhead black. They are witheringly funny and will not tolerate dissent. They are those manly types with library cards that my Mam never warned me about. They are the upside of the British Pop Instinct, playing fierce, punchy, literate rock. Beautiful, beautiful men.

After that sharp, anti-rock punk blow to the senses, !!! suffer horribly by comparison. I've heard them play a couple times live before, including a great set at Glastonbury a few years ago, but I'd never actually SEEN them before. I had never seen the embarrassingly sub-Jagger posturing of Nic Jammer. (Do you see what they did there?) The bassline heroics are still there, but the rest of it is a lazy, muddy pile of “We Love You, England” showbizz bullshit. Funk, maybe. Punk? Nope.

I decide against Parts And Labor (previously burnt fingers) and Killing Joke (not one for middle-aged rock operatics), and I only come out to lend Spiritualized an ear when I realise I could be chalet-ing Sunday away completely. Weak. I have an innate suspicion of bands with Gospel singers backing them up. It suggests a lack of conviction, and it never worked for Paul Shane. All light show, no substance.

School of Seven Bells fail to bring their A-game to the party as well. “Alpinisms” is a beautiful LP, but cute as they are, the Deheza sisters fail to reproduce the magic. So I head to The Mae Shi. They are hyperactive, inventive and anarchic, with a sizeable nerdy shout-along pop edge. Blink 182 with Jello Biafra, or a band full of Mike Pattons. The sound is horribly muddy, but the sheer enthusiasm of band and crowd alike pushes it over the tape.

I take a quick look at The Jesus Lizard, watch Yow surfing the crowd and pacing about like a childbeater, but decide to see out the weekend back at Crazy Horse with Fuck Buttons on the decks. I'm just an iPod with genitals, you understand.

A day of contrasts it had been, a little underwhelming in places perhaps, but I'm already jealous of the lucky fuckers making their way down to Minehead next weekend. Please touch the hem of Laura-Mary Carter's garment for me. Thanks.

Your pal, Coc x

Saturday Night's Alright For Writing - ATP v Fans (Day The Second)

Day Two. Begin by watching The Decline & Fall of Western Civilization: The Metal Years on ATP TV. I hated hair metal during the Eighties, and was delirious when Nirvana et al saw fit to sweep the preening pricks into the sea almost twenty years ago. Any admiration I feel for these pussy-hunting peacocks and their painted muses as I watch is so completely intermingled with contempt for their bone-headed hedonistic optimism that I leave the chalet in a strange mood.

The consistent subliminal message of ATP is that Americans ROCK so much better than we do. Perhaps this is because they are still at war with Daddy over there. We won that battle years ago, and Duran Duran rushed in to fill the void. They're audial; we're visual. They're stoned; we're rushing. All we want is a fucking disco: we're iPods with genitals. If we could just jam out the fucking pop signal that crashes into our faggy art school brainwaves, maybe we could sound heavy too. Even Mogwai had ironic t-shirts. We're doomed!

Retribution Gospel Choir is kind of name usually employed with a black irony by the thuggiest heavy rock geezers, but when actual Mormons are involved (Low's Alan Sparhawk) it becomes a little creepy. They rock, they wail, etc. but as I'm listening a new theory clouds up in my head. What exactly is rock'n'roll supposed to save us from now? Sexuality stopped being suppressed decades ago. Anti-authoritarian individualism has long been co-opted by ex-hippy marketing gurus. No matter how well-performed rock is nowadays, the initial impulse has long ebbed away and we're left with a noisy, fuzzy, empty museum piece. This is the sound of that magnetic husk.

I hang around upstairs to watch some of David Yow's other band, Qui. They churn and throb with satisfactory menace, but all eyes are on The Jesus Lizard frontman. He stalks about the stage, barking at hecklers, watching his own (voluminous) clouds of spit glisten in the stage lights. He reminds me of Chancellor Palpatine from Star Wars, but played by Sean Penn; and he cuts a sizeable contrast to the next band on.

Young Marble Giants are so English, it's too extreme even for parody. They bring on sheet music, despite the very un-orchestral nature of their sound. They make polite jokes about “tiffin”. At one point, Stuart Moxham says: “Nice forbearance everybody.” It is stiff upper lip middle class pop with husky guitar, observational lyrics and a refusal to be rushed. Despite the fact they are billed as playing “Colossal Youth” in its entirety, they don't perform “Final Day”, blaming an unco-operative keyboard. Irritating.

Grizzly Bear are already going by the time I get back downstairs. While I'm a bit suspicious of the multi-melodic aesthetic on anti-Eagles grounds, their lovely arching melodies match the circling shadows of the seagulls on the Pavillion ceiling so sweetly I just sit and watch pretty girls wander by and enjoy the warmth. There are so many checkshirts on stage it's like the band have been infiltrated by lumberjacks. This unsettling rock/pop dialetic mood will not leave me.

Beirut are so bad that we mime tearing the ears from the side of our terrified heads, but there is no escape. In the end, we flee to an empty Crazy Horse disco and watch a lone booty-shaker dance for her DJ boyfriend. We don't leave until we are sure this smug anti-music has finished, the aural equivalent of the pretentious, beige novels that clog the bestseller charts month after month. A horrible waste of trumpets.

We stumble relieved into Reds to see Errors, back to the pop end and voted for by The Fans. A bit like Mogwai with synths, swirling somewhere around the Hot Chip/New Order nexus. Our blood pumps once again. After a diversion of some more hippy rock nonsense from Sleepy Sun, we close the programme with Marnie Stern, a bizarre Suzi Quatro update with sewing machine fingers and a needlessly squeaky voice. It all feels a bit High School, as she and her sexy bass-playing bandmate trade slutty jokes, but it fits the need for Saturday night fun.

A long night of revelling follows, including mashing my skeleton to pieces in a sweat-drenched attempt to dance to “Windowlicker” at the Crazy Horse and watching a disturbing topless distress flare display. Garth Merenghi's Darkplace is on TV when I get back, but my body can take no more.

Your pal, Coc x

Arbeit Macht Freitag - ATP vs Fans (Day The First)

ATP v FANS, Butlins Minehead – 8-10 May 09

Sunshine? Weird. ATP is not about sunshine: it's about huddling around the flickering flame of alternative music under overcast skies. It's about booking a cavernous holiday complex and filling it with glamorous long-haired bearded psych-rock types, even if their waistbands thicken ever so slightly year on year. It's about Fuck Buttons playing every year. It's about monstrous seagulls and a deepening morass of nostalgia for the rainy days at Camber, when you could leave your chalet unlocked and the neighbours would pop round for a cup of absinthe. It's subtle, this incremental heartbreak. Some years it seems as though the gig is up, but I always drift back.

Day One. I skip Casiotone, giving in to bad band-name prejudice, and kick off watching Jeffrey Lewis on the Pavillion stage. He does his half-lecture on the development of punk rock on the Lower East Side, which is always a pleasure. “Bugs & Flowers” from the new LP sounds sweet and darkly lush. Then up I tramp to the moodily-lit cabaret lounge that is Centre Stage for one of the hotspots of the weekend.

Health are awesome – Close Encounters with tachycardia. Constant battering drums, earthmover bass, guitar noises mashed through a thousand tiny metal teeth. At one point, a noise is emitted like the funereal sod hitting your coffin. Visceral, beautiful broken stuff. I desparately want to put my finger on what these tropical punk sounds from the Smell club and Brooklyn's Animal Collective types share, but I can't. Some sense of music as a living, vegetative yet potentially cruel force. It's so thrilling, I can almost forgive LA for Guns 'N Roses - but not Motley Crue.

Then a bleak period. I watch some M83 with fond memories of their “Dead Cities” era, but the slo-mo adolescent glory I remember translates into a dreary Euro drudge in the semi-oudoor atmosphere of the Pavillion. Unsuitable. Against my better judgement, I then sample Andrew WK. Rancid. Tom Cruise on Lazytown. He runs about the stage, preaching the party line in his white tee and jeans, hammering at his little piano. Self-help seminar toss.

Devo tried to warn us about shaven chimps like WK. Thirty years ago civilisation's decline was mainstream stuff, fit for perky novelty pop, before it became the domain of Radiohead and Slipknot. Five paunchy men in matching jumpsuits would normally spell IRRELEVANT; but seeing as no-one talks about how shit humanity is in this punky poppy format any more, they seem pretty fresh. There's the same sociopathic twitch to the synths, and the auld spudboys are as tight a unit as the black shorts they whip out halfway through the set. They play all the hits - “Mongoloid”, “Gut Feeling”; they wear all the outfits. They're living proof of how edgy youth gets fat and goes to seed – and it's beautiful.

Hip-hop acts always seem to stiff a little at ATP – a black, urban spectacle for white, middle-class onlookers to pore over without getting involved. Even Anti-Pop Consortium's brain-friendly dubstep-inflected enormity fails to snap people out of their museum poses - criminal. The boys crowd round their equipment, nodding and twitching and running glorious from the mouth, fizzing with a cool menace. “Human Shield” is massive, smashing thousands of crippled Lil Wayne clones like beer cans against its majestic forehead.

My Friday is finalled off by ATP-protegees Fuck Buttons. Seen them twice and loved them, but this time they lack a little special spasmodic something. Loops build, organs swell, drums are smacked, but there was precious little taste of chaos. A friend complains that they tick too many boxes without ever stepping out of them. I am sated.

Your pal, Coc x

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Thoughts of Chairman Coc re: Recent Urban Narnia


My first SFOTC! Excitement glands were tingling as we made our way over to Chapel Street. Confusion followed when to the untrained eye nothing seemed to be happening - the most low key festival I have ever known. As though the Other City was itself buried underneath the deserted Salford street, like a scruffy, urban Narnia of ginnels and workshops - an All Tomorrow's Pubs.

At The Salford Arms cross-purposes were at work, regulars out for a Sunday afternoon drink sat alongside Your Mama's Cookin' jiveabilly vintage business. It was still early. Over to Golden Lab, where Monopoly Child Star Searchers were playing their “primitive punk avant-thought”, backs turned to us, in a place that felt like an allotment shed - the sound of trees moving in the night; a beautiful Brownian motion of musical mosses and moulds; a slow-paced desert meditative noir; and a very promising start.

Lexie Mountain Boys (from Baltimore) came across like a bus-stop full of drunken Aretha Franklins, a breathless Olympian Village People acapella hybrid with nu-folk head bands and fake beards. All karaoke should be conducted like this. Mazes at the Kings Arms' Lamb & Wolf slot failed to match expectations - a limp White Stripes – so we doubled back for A Middle Sex at the URC. Playing alongside Hitchcock's silent movie, “The Lodger”, they filled the stuffy basement with the sound of a supercharged headache, amplifying the claustrophobic paranoia on the screen with droning loops and yelps and relentless rhythms; duelling Aphex Twins soundtracking Dr Who as a silent movie ghoul. Stone cold highlight.

Wu Lf Wu Lf impressed with pop/start Afro-noise hysterics and Eraserhead hair, their erratic sound scrambling for all available exits. Then, via some very standard indie harmonies from First Time Flyer, that left my right ear feeling as though it was missing a filling, and a plodding set from The Tombots, we failed to get inside The Rovers Return, which won the award for most consistently inaccessible venue of the festival. We could hear Cats In Paris' “Foxes” sparkle out the windows, and we cursed our restless luck before pushing on to The Black Lion.

The Terrorist showcase there seemed more like the promising beginning/exhausted end of a great house party. English Electric pumped out some Orbital-flavoured pop party acid meaty enough to offer a stiff handshake. Then we headed back to the crowded Kings Arms for Banjo or Freakout, who despite their terrible name, delivered an intense set, recreating a human-shaped Animal Collective feel, the sound rolling around and around inside a heartbeat. Bizarre instruments figured throughout, one tune apparently composed of arcade classic Galaxians and thumb pianos.

Finally inside The Kings Arms we witnessed The Invisible's milky/funky, cowbell-bothering, masterful New York space-rock., which got biggest crowd reaction of the day. Then we ate our sandwiches and took in Huw Stephen's visiting Swn system at the Sacred Trinity, where the chattering classes sat on pews, drinking cans of Grunwalder lager under stained glass, with crazy, psychedelic primary school drawings of grey-pencil crucified Christs on the walls.

In this setting, the music was disappointing. Sweet Baboo wasn't exactly twee, but so musically and melodically minimal it felt like a dull, one-handed pub conversation. As for Marina & The Diamonds... for every Kate Bush, there are a hundred Toyahs. Another cadet from the quirky pop drama school, she limped through a weak approximation of eccentric songcraft, further pissing me off by covering Gwen Stefani's self-congratulatory reptilian anti-classic “What You Waitin' For?” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Your pal,

Coc x

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Swine flu misses target by several dozen thousand pounds a year

Nothing is a clearer indication of how the dickheads that run large companies are set firmly in the face of common sense than watching the interminable policy leap-frogging of Waterstones and Borders.

After years and years of running a Distribution Centre in the remote corner of England that is Cornwall, Borders decided to close it last Summer and order the stock for stores via the publisher directly. In order to save money you understand, and of course it meant that a few Cornish people were cast out onto the stony ground, but you know ... it's not like they're that important.

Today I read in The Guardian that Waterstones (after somewhat smugly priding themselves on their expert staff ordering their own books for years and years) have announced that they will be opening a new Distribution Centre in Burton-on-Trent with stores now ordering from the central hub. The intention is to save money, of course, though there will be up to 650 jobs axed as a result, presumably in the sort rooms of their 300-odd stores. So, THAT approach means saving money and redundancies as well?

I must admit I am confused. It would be simpler, perhaps, to conclude that the wobbly-jowled cretins that run these organisations couldn't save money if it floated past them on a lifeboat, but feel the need to make themselves feel important by signing big important pieces of paper that smell of the future. Thinking out of the big blue sky box of thinking.

On a job interview last year, one such tubby bigwig asked me what I would do to save money if I was in charge of a bookshop. I talked about stock management and making sure no money was being wasted on supplies. He said he would sack the cleaners. Now, that's bold management!

Your pal,

Coc x