A night for Billy, Glasgow, 27 April

I’m taking part in a special event to remember my friend Billy Samson on Saturday night (27 April). It’s at The Old Hairdresser’s in Glasgow and will feature many of Billy’s musical friends, me (and my glamorous assistant Kenny, bass player in our band) included. Entry’s free but we’ll be shaking buckets for the Help Musicians UK charity on the night, so please come and bring lots of pound coins.

Apologies, the venue isn’t accessible for wheelchair users.

Read it in books

My life isn’t all glamorous launches and rock concerts, you know. Sometimes I’ll stay in and read a book, usually a music one. Here are a few recent reads:

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out by MARTIN ASTON

This is incredible. It’s the queer equivalent of Revolution In The Head, an incredibly exhaustive (592 pages!) chronicle of the history of LGBTQ musicians in modern culture.

Anything that begins with John Grant’s Glacier and segues into 1920s lesbian blues guitarists is going to win me over, and that kind of contrast is what makes the book so much fun: it’s not a dull historical tract, but a celebration of some incredible music by some equally incredible people.

It’s also a sober reminder of how much progress has happened in a very short space of time. The chapters on music in the time of the AIDS panic are particularly sobering.

UNCOMMON PEOPLE BY DAVID HEPWORTH

I’m a big fan of Hepworth, who helped create Q Magazine, Empire and the much-missed Word magazine. This felt more like a collection of one-shot magazine features than a book, though.

The uncommon people of the title are rock stars, with Hepworth giving each of his chosen ones a chapter (or in the case of The Beatles, a few chapters). He argues that the era of the rock star is over: today, even financial traders call themselves rock stars. The book is his attempt to illustrate the rise and fall of a group of people we probably won’t see the likes of again.

It’s still interesting in places but felt a little insubstantial: perhaps the problem is that it feels aimed at the kind of people who don’t normally read rock stars’ biographies for whom the tales of Fleetwood Mac, The Who and Led Zeppelin may feel sparkling and new.

PLEASE KILL ME: THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK BY LEGS MCNEIL AND GILLIAN McCAIN

I hated this one.

I hated it because like most oral histories, the talking is mainly done by the people left behind by those who ascended to greater things – so it can be hard to concentrate over the sound of axes being ground.

I hated it because it’s terribly edited, giving very minor characters far too many column inches.

But the main problem I had with it is that I was reading it with a 2018/2019 sensibility. Reading about your supposed rock idols committing statutory rape, abusing groupies and generally acting like misogynist arseholes palls very quickly in our more enlightened age.

SMALL VICTORIES: THE TRUE STORY OF FAITH NO MORE BY ADRIAN HARTE

This promises to be the definitive biography of one of my favourite bands, and it’s well-researched with good access to most (but not all) of the band past and present.

But beware: it suffers from the rock-biog curse of pomposity, with some sections almost hilariously overwritten.

If you can get past that – and if you’re not a picky, whinging writer like me, you probably can – it’s probably as good a biog as FNM are going to get.

You do it to yourself, and that’s what really hurts

One of the weird things about doing creative things is that your feelings oscillate wildly. One minute you’re the greatest, most talented human being who ever lived; the next, you’re in a corner weeping about how worthless you are as you set fire to your latest creations. There’s rarely any middle ground. I don’t write a song and think “hmm, that’s okay.” I imagine thousands of screaming fans – for about five minutes, and then I want to hurl myself off the Erskine Bridge for creating such a terrible piece of music.

I wonder, do people with proper jobs experience this? Do truck drivers barrel down the road bellowing “I am the king of trucks!” before the critical voices kick in and they have to park in a lay-by for a cry?

I think the answer is probably no, because being a truck driver and being creative are different things. Truck drivers may well be really creative people in their spare time, but the day job isn’t really about that.

I think part of it is because creating things from scratch is a really weird thing to do. It’s something you generally do for little or no reward (sometimes there are no rewards, just penalties: bad reviews, indifferent crowds, being broke), but the act of creating something gives you an endorphin rush. That’s where bouncing around the room wearing a cape and shouting “I am the greatest of all time!” comes from. Whether you’re composing or performing, there’s a moment when everything comes together and you feel there’s magic in the room – magic that you’ve somehow channelled into this thing you’ve created or helped to create.

And then it goes, because if it doesn’t, if you think you’ve created the very best thing that has ever been or ever will be created then there’s zero incentive to create anything else. Whereas if you conclude that everything you’ve done so far is crap, then the next thing you do has got to be better.

I think, too, there’s the gap between what we imagine and what we can play, or what we can create in other ways. The gap between what I hear in my head and what I can actually play is huge, and no matter how good my version is I can always hear how it falls short. For example, the other week my piano teacher – an incredible musician – had a go at one of my songs, and what she did with it was absolutely beautiful. I’ll never be able to play it the way she played it. In my head I’m a ballet dancer, but in real life my limbs are made of lead.

It’s a strange addiction. You spend incredible amounts of time and effort and money in the pursuit of highs that are only ever fleeting, and which are always followed by the lowest lows. And yet somehow, it’s worth it.

 

A good day for a SWIM

I went to the launch of SWIM yesterday. SWIM, Scottish Women Inventing Music, is a collective of women from across the music industry: performers and promoters, managers and marketers, DJs and drum techs.

It was brilliant.

The day was a mix of formal panel discussions, informal networking and the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to the fabulous and funny Janet Beat, Scottish composer and electronic music pioneer. That last bit was an unexpected highlight, both hilarious and moving.

I enjoyed the whole day. The panel discussions were thought-provoking, insightful and useful and the buzz during the breaks was palpable: so many amazing, inspiring women who do amazing, inspiring things making connections and sharing experiences.

The panels were diverse, too, and I think that’s incredibly important: many of the issues affecting women in music are intersectional, so for example the things that affect all women may be amplified or complicated for women who are also black, or gay, or older, or who have family responsibilities. It was also refreshing to see the panelists drawn not just from the rock concert industry but from club culture, folk, jazz and other genres.

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it, and I went away with a head full of ideas and a bag full of flyers and business cards pointing me towards new music (I haven’t checked them all out yet but if they’re as good as the first artist I’ve listened to, Rosie Bans, my ears are in for a really great day).

And on a personal level, this really mattered. From the website:

when stating ‘women’ or ‘female’ this includes all people who identify as female.

SWIM is a diverse, inclusive organisation, and it welcomes non-binary people and trans women. It’s hard to overstate how important that feels, to be in a space that actively welcomes you, where you’re actively made to feel part of the family. I may have shed a tear or two.

Enough about me. SWIM has the potential to be an incredibly positive force in the music business, whether you’re a musician or a technician, a plugger or a promoter. If you’re interested in finding out more, becoming a member or volunteering, you can find everything you need on the SWIM website.

We always come back to the ones we love

This rather poor quality photo is from October 1998, long before decent digital cameras or smartphones. It was taken on stage at Glasgow’s legendary Barrowland, where my band had been picked as the local support for Mansun. I’m the skinny guy in the middle of the shot (lead guitarist Mark Clinton, now of The Lonely Souls, is in the foreground and bassist Chris Warden is just visible behind me), and I’m playing my favourite guitar.

I’ve owned quite a few guitars, but my Telecaster was always my favourite. It cost a ridiculous amount of money when I bought it back in the mid-90s, but I got my money’s worth: I played it on stages and in studios for years, and I’ve still got it today. It hasn’t been played for a very long time, though, because other guitars have competed for my affection: the beautiful but ridiculously big Epiphone Riviera I got for my 40th, the wonderfully quirky Fender Marauder I do most of my songwriting on, the Fender Stratocaster I rehearse with and the pointy Epiphone Explorer I play when I want to, er, play something pointy.

There are other reasons. I didn’t play it because there was something wrong with the pickup switch, so it could only make its most screeching sounds – something Telecasters are brilliant at, but which you don’t want all the time any more than you’d want to eat steak for every meal – and I didn’t want to spend money getting it fixed because I was always broke.

And I didn’t play it because it’s part of my past, which I don’t always want to think about.

But it was, and is, a beautiful guitar. So the other night I decided to get it out of its case.

It was a strange feeling because I genuinely haven’t looked at it, let alone touched it, for years. The catches on the case were stiff with rust, the case itself covered with access all areas passes for gigs so long ago I can barely remember the venue, never mind the gig. But the guitar itself was just as it was the last time I played it. It was even in tune.

It’s really, really weird to pick up a guitar that you haven’t played for years when you used to play it all the time, to feel the weight of it, the tension of the strings, the way the strap feels on your shoulder, the height of it, the way it fits in your hands. All of the things you got used to over time, all of the things your other guitars don’t have. It’s like getting into your own bed when you’ve been staying somewhere else: the beds do the same job, but only one of them is yours.

It turns out that the problem was so simple to fix that even I could fix it, so I did. And I plugged it in, and I played it, and heard that sound, the sound only a Telecaster makes, the sound only my Telecaster and my fingers make.

And I realised that while I like all of my guitars, there’s only one that I ever loved.

 

Mark Hollis RIP

Mark Hollis, singer in the critically acclaimed Talk Talk, has died. He was 64.

The word “genius” is thrown around a lot in music, but Hollis was the real deal. I was mesmerised by Talk Talk as a young teenager and developed a deep love of their music that I still have today. They made a string of extraordinarily beautiful records (and he made another one as a solo artist) and then they stopped, leaving an incredible musical legacy.

It’s always sad when a favourite musician dies, but this loss feels devastating. Hollis wrote the soundtrack to so much of my life.

TRNSMT: where are the women?

Last year, TRNSMT festival head Geoff Ellis told the BBC that there was “a long way to go” with gender balance at festivals: women weren’t really getting a look-in.

“We do have strong female representation across the line-up but we’re committed to doing more,” he said.

How’s that panned out this year?

Of the eight acts on the main stage on Friday, just one – Mabel – is a woman. On Saturday, Sigrid is the token woman; it’s possible that the singer of Sundara Karma is trans but I can’t find out how they identify. And on Sunday, the woman is Jess Glynne. The Amazons, further down the bill, may take their name from the legendary women warriors, but they’re blokes.

So out of 23 main stage acts there are three women. That means around 87% of the main stage line-up is male.

How does that compare to 2018? If the organisers are “committed to doing more”, you’d expect 2019 to be an improvement over 2018.

Nope.

Image of TRNSMT with male acts removed. Posted by @thatguyconnah on Twitter.

Last year, TRNSMT featured 33 acts on the main stage. Of those acts, there were five female artists or female-fronted bands. So the line-up was 85% male. That means female representation  at TRNSMT is actually worse in 2019 than it was in 2018.

This is not new, and it’s not limited to TRNSMT. The gender balance of festivals is generally 80% male, sometimes considerably higher (the Reading festival is notorious for its lack of female artists; it’s one of the few festivals to refuse to sign a pledge to improve gender equality). But it’s not really good enough, is it?

The problem is not that there aren’t enough women artists. As Roisin O’Connor wrote in the Independent, there are tons of great female artists and female-fronted bands. And there are plenty more coming up. Fender says that in the US and UK, women account for half of all guitar purchases. The problem is much simpler. Female artists aren’t being booked because festivals are sausagefests.

Geoff Ellis has defended TRNSMIT, pointing out – rightly – that acts such as Chvrches and Florence + The Machine are headlining the same firm’s Summer Sessions in Edinburgh later this year. But that doesn’t change the fact that while Ellis has promised to make TRNSMT more gender balanced, the balance is worse than it was when he made that promise last year. Promises are only worthwhile if you keep them.

Drill: the presumption of guilt

Drill musicians Reds, K Trap and Mischief. Image from YouTube.

As long as people have made music, other people have tried to censor it. The famously miserable song Gloomy Sunday, originally published in 1933, was banned by the BBC until 2002. George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows was banned in 1940 for its supposedly smutty lyrics. More recently, bands were banned from airplay during the Gulf War for having the wrong name, such as Massive Attack. And of course there have been attempts to ban entire genres of music such as heavy metal and gangsta rap.

It’s easy to laugh at this stuff, but sometimes it’s deadly serious. Take the case of drill music, a genre so subversive it can land you in prison for performing it. Guess which repressive regime that happens in?

England.

Writing in The Observer, Kenan Malik describes the case of two drill musicians, Skengdo and AM from the Brixton group 410. Last month they were given nine-month suspended sentences for performing a song.

The case is deeply disturbing, because while the police claim that drill incites violence the two musicians have not been charged under the pertinent legislation. The instrument used against them was a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO), the latest incarnation of the infamous anti-social behaviour order (ASBO).

As Malik writes:

Skengdo and AM were served with an injunction without having been convicted of a crime. Breaking the injunction is a criminal offence. They’ve been criminalised for making violent music without having been convicted of any offence of violence.

I don’t understand drill music; it’s not really aimed at the oh-so-lucrative white middle-class middle-aged trans demographic. It may well glamourise violence, and it may well be linked with gang activity. But the law exists to protect all of us, and part of that protection means that we should not be criminalised without due process.

Index on Censorship is no fan of drill music, but it points out that this is hardly the first time minorities have used music to describe their lives.

Drill is less about inspiring violence and more about providing a narrative of lives defined by violence. They are telling the stories of their lives, minus the sugar-coating, just as other writers, poets and musicians have done before them.

They continue:

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.

Free expression is not the same thing as freedom from consequences. But there appears to be a curious double standard here.

The press’s free-speech brigade are quick to defend the speech of racist populists such as Tommy Robinson, of alt-right dog whistling and of all kinds of repellent individuals. Freedom of speech, after all, means freedom of speech for views many people will find repellent. And yet the Spectator and Spiked and all the other Voltaire-misquoting defenders of offensive expression have been completely silent about the censorship and criminalisation of drill musicians.

It’s strange, isn’t it? They defend the speech of the white Tommy Robinson, of the white Count Dankula, of the white Milo, of various other white alt-right types – sometimes even the speech of white people who are actual neo-Nazis. And yet they’re completely silent about the ongoing censorship and criminalisation of black musicians. I wonder what the difference could be?

“I was lost last Christmas, but this year I am found”

I wrote a Christmas song!

I love (some) Christmas songs, and I particularly love U2’s cover of Baby Please Come Home. It’s got a real joy to it: where so many Christmas songs are dirges it’s got a propulsive energy that really appeals to me (as does Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, another favourite). Language aside I have a soft spot for The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York too.

I think the best Xmas songs are about yearning and unfettered big emotions, and my favourites tend to have a sense of humour to them, and I decided to see if I could come up with something that had the same qualities. The above track is the result. It’s a demo, so it’s really, really, really, really rough. But I really like it. It makes me smile.

Lyrics and a bit more information is on the linked Soundcloud page.

Things don’t sound the same

I have one of these, in the same “unpleasant coffee table” finish. It sounds as pointy as it looks.

One of my favourite musical jokes goes something like this. A guitarist is on stage and puts one guitar down to pick up another. “Oh, good,” the audience thinks. “Everything’s going to sound so different now!”

I find it funny because it’s true: while there are sound reasons for swapping guitars on stage (to get them tuned, mainly, but also because some guitarists move between different tunings or play 12-strings for certain songs), most of the time you can’t tell the bloody difference through a PA.

On record, though, things are different. Guitars and bass guitars sound different from other, ostensibly similar guitars and bass guitars. So different that Rush bassist Geddy Lee has written a massive book just about different bass guitars. It’s easy to mock but I think it sounds fantastic.

In it, he talks about the Fender Precision Bass, the Fender Jazz bass and the Gibson Thunderbird. I’ve got all three, albeit in cheaper form. And he’s right when he talks about how they sound.

I never took Gibson basses seriously because they have a muddier, deeper sound — much harder to get that twang that I love in my sound. So they were pushed off my plate, like when a little kid has peas on his plate — he doesn’t want to do there [laughs]. Yet friends of mine played Thunderbirds, for example, and loved them. When I started doing this whole revisionist look at the instrument, I had to check those out. As a player 42 years into my career, how does that feel in my hand? I found that fascinating, and I fell in love with all the bottom end coming out of those basses.

I’ve been a Fender player for many years, because they’re great guitars – and in my RSI-raddled hands, more comfortable to play than Gibsons, which feel different. But man, the sound a Thunderbird makes is really something. Fenders are at home in any company, but T-Birds are thugs. Where the Fenders are scalpels, the Thunderbird is a club with a nail stuck through it. The first time I played mine, I laughed.

It’s even more pronounced with lead guitars. Again, I’ve been a Fender fan for a long time: in my previous gigging days I played and loved a Fender Telecaster, and I also have a Stratocaster and a gloriously weird Marauder. But while they’re fun to play and very versatile, you can’t make them sound like Gibsons.

All of my Fenders are “proper” Fenders while my Gibsons are the lesser Epiphone models, but the Riviera and Explorer have sounds that you just don’t get from Fender guitars. They’re nowhere near as comfortable to play – my fantastically pointy Explorer has the ergonomics of a dining table – but they have a very distinct sound. The Riviera is fat and hot, while the Explorer hangs around with the wrong kind of people and like its Thunderbird stablemate is tooled up and looking for trouble. No wonder it’s so popular in heavy metal circles, played by the likes of Metallica and Therapy? (and U2’s The Edge, back in the day; he still uses the Explorer live for that authentic post-punk drive). As with the Thunderbird, the first time I played my Explorer I burst out laughing.

The guitar is only part of it, though. As Geddy Lee points out, even when you’re trying to emulate a particular guitarist, even if you have the same guitar and the same amp and the same effects and the same settings, you can’t mimic them entirely.

You can put the same bass, the same amplification in the same song with another player, and it’s not gonna sound like Chris Squire. Only Chris Squire sounds like Chris Squire. Only John Paul Jones sounds like John Paul Jones. That’s the personality of the player. When I was producing records for a short time a number of years ago, guys would come in and say, “I would love to sound like this guy.” I would say, “I’d love you to sound like that guy, but you’re not that guy. We’ll give you a similar sound to that guy, but you’re gonna sound you — you’re never gonna sound like him because you’re you, and you should celebrate the ‘you-ness’ of that.”

Many of my favourite musicians happily admit to trying – and failing – to sound like their heroes.

Lee again:

…failing to get it right is actually your benefit — when you fail to mimic them, you accidentally get your own thing out of it. I often say that style comes from being influenced by so many people that you can no longer recognize the influence and you’ve developed confidence in your own personality and that’s started to supersede the influences.