Mexrissey: A glorious celebration of colaboración intercultural

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It’s unlikely that even at the height of their fame any of The Smiths (Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke or Mike Joyce) would have expected to one day become the subjects of a Mexican tribute album. The Manchester trio became huge global stars in the mid-1980s with their songs of maudlin woe and overliterate self-pity striking a chord with misunderstood teenagers all over the world. On the surface it’s hard to see how their fey northern English sensibility might appeal to millennial Mexicans, but a portly deadpan genius by the name of Camilo Lara (together with the bandmaster Sergio Mendoza) has drawn on the threesome’s long-standing cult status in his country and amongst LA chicanos to create an album which mixes trip-hop and dub reggae with happy/sad mariachi trumpets and the swooning strings and tragic sobs of ranchera, all of which overlays the erudite gloom of the original songs to wonderful (and often hilarious) effect. Working under the name ‘Mexrissey’ (although the origin of the group’s name is obscure, the album’s title, ‘No Manches’, is a top-class chilango pun), he has given songs such as ‘Cada día es como domingo’ and ‘El último del gang a morir’ (I’ll leave you to work out which is which) a new twist which reveals new dimensions of sound and meaning.

Unlike most tribute bands, who just present a photocopy of the original work and look of their idols, Mexrissey’s histrionic performances (there is little Mexicans enjoy more than drinking, singing and crying all at the same time) are a outright celebration not just of the music of the three Manchester troubadors, but also of the joyousness of such cultural interaction. They reveal the songs of The Smiths to make more sense once uprooted from the petty, miserable, post-colonial melancholy that originally inspired them. While the young (was he ever thus?) Nigel Farage might once have felt some affinity with the line ‘England is mine, it owes me a living’ or stomped along to the song ‘Bengali in platforms’, he and his dwindling fanbase would surely feel affronted to hear it sung with such typically Mexican melodrama. Music is, after all, all about interacción and reciprocidad. It puts me in mind of one of the very best gigs I’ve ever seen: UK-born Cuban and Bangladeshi musicians bashing and tooting up a storm together in East London several years ago. For all the despondency of their source material, Mexrissey make music in much the same spirit. The three members of The Smiths must be encantados.

In unrelated music news, former-pop-star-turned-political-commentator (and, er, novellistMorrissey has announced that his new single will be a cover version of the Bon Jovi classic ‘Sleep when I’m dead’. In a break from tradition, the sleeve photo of the single will not be a portrait of one of his idols (cover stars have, in the past, included Myra Hindley and Benito Mussolini), but an image of the singer himself. You can see an exclusive photo of the single here.)

(Btw, Anne Marie Waters isn’t, as media reports are calling her, an ‘anti-Islam activist’. She’s a pro-death camp wannabe demagogue.)

(Bbtw: actually, Morrissey and I have a lot in common: we both have immigrant parents, for one thing, and we’ve also both been immigrants ourselves in Rome. That’s where some of his far-right bedfellows – the ones he’s been spending all day in bed with, if you like – just put up some posters advertising a demonstration against the ‘immigrant invasion’. Sadly for them and for him, one of those invading immigrants (me) was on hand to rip them right down again 🙂

Thanks to my baby daughter, I’m used to handling other people’s shit. Time to find a bin, one fit for unrecyclable, undifferentiated filth.

Che pezzo di merda sei, Morrissey.)

Eight songs to celebrate our daughter’s eight-month birthday

Human beings only really come into existence in the own right following nine months of total dependence on their mothers. Nine months is therefore a significant enough milestone to blow up balloons, eat cake with lots of sugar and ice-cream (us, not her) and make playlists. As it happens, our daughter was actually born eight months today, but this site has a tradition of celebrating anniversaries on the wrong date, and in any case I just had the idea for creating a playlist and I don’t have the patience to wait another month. Plus it turned out that I can only (just) think of eight birthday-related songs I like*.

The Beatles – Birthday

So far she’s tended to turn her tiny piggly-wiggly nose up at the “White Album”, but this is a lot jollier than ‘Happiness is a warm gun’, plus the beat is very uniform and she loves banging her arms up and down like a totally demented  (if very young) Herbert von Karajan.

Altered Images – Happy Birthday

She’s not quite old enough to remember either Altered Images or ‘Gregory’s Girl’, but then neither is her mum. Actually, speaking of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, people did used to tell her dad (me) that he (me) was a dead ringer for the film’s star, and given that everyone who sees our daughter immediately exclaims that she looks just like me, we have the dubious honour of having a baby daughter who looks exactly like John Gordon Sinclair.

Stevie Wonder – Happy birthday 

This would make a far better US national anthem than that godawful self-aggrandizing dirge, which, let’s be honest, is more likely to make you lie down and go to sleep than stand to attention. Plus the Stevie Wonder version expresses far more laudable sentiments, with which no sane person could reasonably disagree. Also, at eight months our daughter is just getting to the point where she can actually (like Stevie himself) #taketheknee.

The Sugarcubes – Birthday

At this point in the testing of the playlist, our daughter starts actually singing along with gusto. Or she could just be in need of milky-wilky. Either way, she seems to know all the words. Maybe she’s been speaking Icelandic for the last few months, and we haven’t noticed.

The Birthday Party – Release the bats

Again, slightly before her time, and not in any sense a birthday song, but you will notice the presence of the b-word in the name of the band, and her dad’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave recently because there was a rave review of one of their gigs in The Guardian. Plus as she likes The Sugarcubes she might go for the screeching and the atonal elements in this one. Hard to tell, cos her mum took her off to her grandma’s place, muttering something about ‘torturando tua figlia con questa musica di merda’, which sounds bad.

Pedro Infante – Las Mañanitas

A change in tone from the previous one. My wife always gets embarrassed when I explain that the reason our daughter has a Mexican name is that she was conceived in Mexico. She prefers explanations which involve cicogne. If we were still living there our daughter would be hearing and singing this all the time, as it’s the Mexican version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I do know all the words, just not all in the right order.

Rafaelle Carrà – Tanti Auguri

This is the Italian birthday/wedding disco anthem of all time, to the extent we had it on our own wedding playlist. That of me and my wife, that is. Not me and my daughter. That would be…odd, even in the south of Italy.

Heaven 17 – (We don’t need this) fascist groove thang

You can probably tell that I really was running out of birthday-related favourites at this point, but then Spotify handily suggested including this, which is sort of appropriate, as she was born nine days after Tr*mp’s inauguration. On the one hand I’d hate it if his name was her first word, but at the same time I have been teaching her the word whenever she does one. Two more reasons to choose this song: 1) It is, like her dad (me) from Sheffield and 2) Current pedagogical theory suggests that it’s best to introduce the existence of (unnecessary) brackets to one’s child sometime between the eight and ninth months.

* ‘Birthday Girl’ by Stormzy was a candidate for inclusion, but on mature reflection I decided that its many references to ‘birthday sex’ were…inappropriate.

Abba in Glasgow

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The news that Spandau Ballet (who I hadn’t realised were back together) have split up again reminded me of a photo from Q magazine in c. 1990 of bandleader Tony Hadley in the company of two female fans. It accompanied one of those deeply sardonic interviews conducted by Tom Hibbert, erstwhile Smash Hits snarkist extraordinaire. Hadley was flanked by two middle-aged women for whom the encounter clearly represented the highlight of their lives, the realisation of a decade-long dream, because the expressions on their faces were flushed with unadulterated joy. It was, however, not a flattering photo of any of the three subjects. Hadley’s face didn’t express any enjoyment whatsoever but was that of a man imprisoned in anguish. In front of him stood a pint glass which was distinctly half-empty; he looked like a man who’d just had explained to him that he was Tony Hadley and that the year was 1990.

Thinking of that photo put me in mind of a story about a young girl from Glasgow who was obsessed with Abba. As far back as anyone could remember (this was the late 1970s), her bedroom walls had been festooned with images of Anni-Frid, Benny, Bjorn, and Agnetha (her favourite). When the news broke in mid-1979 that her idols would be visiting her hometown, her screaming was so loud it brought people running in from the neighbouring close to find out what was wrong. In the weeks leading up to the concert she was uncontrollable, talking nonstop about which songs they would play (her favourite was, naturally, ‘Dancing Queen’) and what the girls would be wearing. She didn’t sleep for a full week before the day of the gig.

It finally came: November 13th 1979. The concert was everything that she had dreamed of. It wasn’t just Agnetha’s outfit that sparkled: the whole night, inside and outside the Apollo Theatre, was filled with glitter. They started with Voulez Vous (the title track of their latest album, which she’d loved so much she’d almost worn through) and included so many of her favourite songs she felt like she would burst with joy: I Have A Dream, S.O.S., Take A Chance On Me…. Between tracks she and her friends tried hard to catch their breath and remind each other what songs they’d already done so that they could capture every moment to relive later, but then the opening bars of the next song would sweep in and they’d be off, dancing and bawling their hearts out. Summer Nights City, Does Your Mother Know, and then, just when she was starting to feel scared that they’d miss it out for some reason and that The Way That Old Friends Do would be their very last song, that ecstatic piano riff that sent her soaring above the crowd like an angel, so high up in the rafters, having the time of her fucking life, that she then spent the whole of the final number (Waterloo) in floods of tears, her mates trying to console her at the same time as dancing for all they were worth…the last words Benny said from the stage were “We love you, Glasgow!”.

Abba, man. We love you. Unforgettable. They floated home, singing and screaming and bawling all the way.

She read all the reviews she could find in the local papers and added them to her collection. In the new year she was suddenly seventeen, just like in the song. Every time she and her friends met they couldn’t stop talking about the concert. Then, in summer, they heard that Abba had a new album coming out, in November, with a single due in July! She counted down the days again, imagining the lyrics and the songs and the photo on the sleeve. She had to wait to get the single as they were away with her gran in bloody Greenock, where there wasn’t even a record shop, but when she managed to get her hands on ‘The Winner Takes It All’ it broke her heart it the sweetest possible way, it made her suddenly feel like an adult. She loved the sorrowful tone, and the fact that at the most intensely tragic moment of the song the backing singers seemed to be singing (she argued about this with her friends) the refrain ‘BIG ONES, SMALL ONES’ felt like the funniest joke she’d ever been told.

She was ill in bed the day the album (‘Super Trouper’) was released. Bloody mumps. Nae bother, because as soon as school was finished for the day her best friend rushed into town, bought the LP and then got the bus to hers, fizzing with excitement. She ran up the stairs and, giggling and shaking like loons, they put the record on the turntable, sat back on her bed and awaited the worst horror of all.

 

Stealing books from the KLF, Parts 1 and 2

Part 1

Sometime in c.1994 a fax arrived at the radio station where I worked which had me and my then drinking partner Brian punching the air with anticipatory glee. It invited whoever fancied it to Dublin’s most salubrious nitespot The Pod to hang out with none other than stadium-techno prankster Bill Drummond, who had just a short time before burned his bridges with the music industry and thrown every remaining penny it’d rewarded/bribed him with onto the pyre because whyever not. (You can see the resulting documentary ‘Watch the K Foundation burn a million quid’ here). The event was to mark the publication of a book he’d written about a trip he’d purportedly undertaken to the North Pole in the company of Zodiac Mindwarp (of minor 1980s pop fame). On the evening in question we ambled along and got stuck into the free Canadian beer, chatting with the other liggers who included minor Dublin pop aristocracy such as the erstwhile Paul Wonderful, aka the funniest man in the world, who would just a couple of years later introduce the world to his masterwork Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. At some point a huge book started to circulate, a version of the work being launched, which was said to be bound in calfskin and to exist in a limited edition of only five copies. It was all a bit silly, and in our mounting giddiness we may have spilled a bit of free beer on some of the pages, which as I recall featured pornographic photos in which the faces of the participants had been replaced with the heads of Disney characters. Our sense of exhilaration at the absurdity of the occasion and the fact of our presence there hit new heights when Bill Drummond himself limped in, accompanied by some bloke wearing a frilly shirt and an expression of considerable self-importance. Emboldened by our or third or was it thirteenth free bottle of Molson Export or was it Big Rock, we pushed through the crowd and introduced ourselves, explaining to Bill (who, I seem to recall, had green teeth) why burning a million pounds was totally the right thing to do, displaying a indepth knowledge of his movements and motivations derived from obsessive lifelong study of the music press and generally (we thought) being uproariously entertaining. At some point it became clear that there were still some other people in the room who wanted to talk to Bill, a fact that Mr Frilly Shirt was keen to stress, but his constant interruptions only prompted Bill to utter the following deathless phrase in his uplands lilt: “Nooo, these are the only interesting people I’ve met all night!”. Confirmed in our ascendency to the position of Coolest People In The World For One Night Only, we continued to celebrate by chugging even more ice-cold free Canadian lager, which served to make the evening even more deliriously exciting, and also to disorient us to the point where we lost contact not only with Bill but with each other, and from the heights of fraternising publicly with one of the world’s hippest human beings (with whom we were, we believed, just on the brink of exchanging contact details in preparation for a joint trip to Shangri-La), the evening descended precipitously into a messy finale of fallen barstools, broken glass, heavy-handed bouncers, and an eventual fine of three thousand pounds imposed on Brian for, with catastrophically ill-judged overexuberance, jumping up and down on one or two cars in the immediate vicinity of Harcourt Street, which is, after all, where Ireland’s largest police station happens to be located. Luckily, by the time the gardaí got involved, I myself was stumbling northwards feeling like I’d been blessed by the Pope of pop himself.

The following morning, buoyed up with starstruck hubris and basically still drunk, I floated into work and bathed in the admiration of my colleagues, some of whom had no idea who Bill Drummond was but seem impressed that I’d managed to survive the whole escapade. Brian hadn’t, in the sense that he now in almost all certainty faced the prospect of having to find a proper job for a few months to pay off his debauchery. At lunchtime we staggered off down Wicklow Street towards a local greasy spoon which we hoped might soak up some of the excess blood in our alcohol streams. As we walked and tried to relive or at least recall the glory of the previous night, we were startled to be violently set upon by one of its protagonists: Bill Drummond’s frilly-shirted assistant, who ran across the street and set about trying to kick us both up the arse while shouting something about a missing book. We were nonplussed, and after some slapstick tomfoolery managed to get him to give up and fuck off. It was only when we got back to work that someone pointed to an article in the gossip section of the hot-off-the-press Evening Herald, which reported that former pop icon Bill Drummond had successfully launched his new book, but that in the process it appeared that someone has stolen a special edition of which there were only five in the world, and that he and his publishers were keen that it be returned in its original condition as soon as possible.

The whole experience was so exciting and so very odd that I promptly forgot to tell one of my very best friends (a fellow KLF enthusiast) about it for several years. When I finally remembered to do so, it turned out to be somewhat serendipitous, because he responded with the following anecdote: 

Part 2

Summer 1999. My girlfriend and I are living on a shared giro of £52.something pence a fortnight. She likes to spend much of this money on brand name suntan lotion which she applies to her entire body, every day, regardless of season. We can scarcely afford to eat, never mind go out and get drunk. She did have very soft skin, though.

We were living in a boring city in the UK where we, alongside our similarly financially endowed friends would seek out any free cultural events, no matter how mundane. So imagine my joy when I saw posters advertising a talk by fucking Bill Drummond from out of the KLF, a band I had loved since the 1980s, for free!

It was taking place in a posh and inevitably boring “brasserie” pub. The premise of the event was thrilling: Drummond had written his autobiography, 45. He was 45 years old at the time and most of the records he’d made played at 45rpm. The book was seven inches square to represent a 7″ single. But this evening, he announced that his publisher’s lawyers had said that twelve anecdotes from his text were unpublishable and as he anyway preferred the twelve inch single to the seven inch, he had decided to self-publish twelve copies of the book with the twelve unpublishable anecdotes published within, in a hardback twelve inch squared format. These twelve books were scattered around various tables at which we were sitting, and by each book was a packet of crayons.

He told us that if we wanted to, we could leaf through the book, read parts, make comments or drawings in it with the crayons, even destroy the book if we wanted to (no-one did), but that we couldn’t take the books home with us and that they were not for sale; could not be sold in fact because of the unpublishable material.

He signed my 12″ of Kylie Said to Jason with the highlighter pen that I gave him. I then had to put selotape over the autograph to stop it rubbing off because I couldn’t even afford to buy a permanent marker. As I did so I asked him what sort of music he was into at the time and he said he didn’t like music any more 🙁.

Unfortunately he then read an extremely boring passage from the book, something about the countryside if memory serves, and I remember thinking he was dressed in extremely boring clothing and glasses, a bit like the ironic country gent look that Vic Reeves wore at the time.

As I grew disenchanted with the evening’s entertainments I drank another cider and looked out of the window at the orange glow of the sunset on the pavement from the brasserie towards my house. Then I glanced at the book again, then I looked at my rucksack on the floor which was about an inch wider than the book. Then I looked at the book again.

Reader, I stole it.

A couple of months later I bought a copy of the actually published, publishing-lawyer-censored 7″ version of the book in a charity shop. I tried to impress on my girlfriend that the only way to extract the twelve scurrilous anecdotes from my … OK actually Drummond’s uncensored book would be to read the two books simultaneously, aloud to each other in bed.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what these twelve stories are because she expressed her extreme disinterest in this project as she rubbed overpriced suntan lotion into her skin on that chilly late September night.

Manu Chao and Momus: Citizens of Everywhere

I first came across Manu Chao exactly sixteen years ago, at which point I’d already been listening to Momus for around the same amount of time. Momus was an ever-present in the UK music press of the late 80s- early 90s*, and as for Manu, it was (appropriately enough for someone of my lifestyle and worldview) the Guardian that alerted me to his existence, in summer 2001. The article focussed on how surprisingly little-known he was in the English-speaking world, given what a superstar his album Clandestino had made him elsewhere, and also mentioned that its follow-up was coming out later that week. Just as it happened, he was also playing a free outside gig in Lisbon (where I lived at the time) the very same weekend. I bought and immediately loved both CDs and two days later found myself in the midst of billowing clouds of weedsmoke bouncing up and down next to the Torre de Belém for three hours (while ignoring the disparaging comments from my friend Andrew about ‘fucking crusties’). Manu himself was leaping around on the stage 200 metres away, wearing an Algerian football shirt and kicking footballs into the crowd with seemingly boundless euphoria and energy. I was enamoured.

Although in the ensuing years Momus has released sixteen albums of consistently excellent original material and Manu Chao (who was previously part of the group Mano Negra) has put out just two**, the two artists have much more in common than being born just one year apart and possessing a shared penchant for unconventionally colourful and extremely baggy trousers. In both cases they have a level of creative energy that seems to increase exponentially with the years. Theirs is making as a mode of being, reminding me of the line from Fernando Pessoa – “I get distracted and start doing something”.  It’s also, in both cases, entirely impossible to predict what they might do next. This year Manu has been posting, from who knows where, new songs (hooray!) which are a collaboration under the name of Ti.Po.Ta) with a Greek actress/singer called Klelia Renesi, while Momus has been traversing Europe by train switching between being David Bowie and various versions of himself.

On the sleeve of ‘Radiolina’ (2007) there was a reference to ‘permanent summer’. Manu seems to be always on the move, from Barcelona to Bayonne to Bogotá. He says of himself that ‘my one luxury is travel’. Both he and Momus migrate instinctively towards similar scenes and people, but while Momus is more likely to pop up at art fairs and residences, Manu is an organic superstar, an incessantly mobile global troubador. The lifestyles of both artists are thus a rebuke to Theresa May’s tiny-minded denunciation of ‘citizens of nowhere’. Their lives and work are a celebration of mobility and migration. Wherever you happen to be on the planet there is an outside chance than one or the other will at some point soon be entertaining people at the end of your street***. Youtube abounds in videos of Manu playing in cafes, strumming and carousing while walking down the street and doing the entertaining at an actual children’s party. Momus’ gigs consist of him and his laptop, so they share a spirit of ‘let’s do the gig right here!’. While Momus’ gigs are spellbindingly intense and entertaining, Manu’s concerts are characterised by exuberance. If you’re at all into bouncing round your living room, whether alone, with friends, or with a newborn baby in our arms, his live albums are a must.

The border-flouting approach of both Manu and Momus is reflected in their linguistic eclecticism. Manu has sung in Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Arabic as well as English, French and Spanish; often he just mixes it all up in what what Diego Marani calls Europanto, often based around Manu’s own idiosycratic international take on English rock n’roll grammar. Sometimes his lyrics sound like stoned nonsense. His core audience is, after all, weed-addled Spanish perroflautas, punkabbestie italiane and French whatever-the-French-word-for-crusties-is. One thing the two artists have in common, lyrically just as much as musically, is inventiveness. Interestingly, in French Manu’s lyrics have a less wacky, more literary bent. Momus is consistently erudite but, with his history of having been big-in-Japan, has a mastery of International English and a strong appreciation of the absurdity and ambiguity of the pop idiom. He’s also a pioneer of using google to write songs in other languages and (akin to Michel Houellebecq) basing lyrics on Wikipedia entries. In a recent interview about his approach to lyric-writing, he talked of using a Burroughsian cut-up approach; not too dissimilarly, Manu’s lyrics often appear to be the result of a collage.

While Manu has lived in Brazil and currently (I think) resides in Barcelona, Europe’s most Latin American city, Momus, after floating between London, Paris, New York and Berlin, has gravitated towards Asia and is now based in Osaka, ‘Japan’s most working class city’. Given that Momus has never visited Latin America, it’s tempting to think of he and Manu as covering different parts of the planet. That may carry colonialist implications -and it is worth noting that as white European men their access to mobility is enhanced – but few make such use of it, and neither is unaware of the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation. As noted, they share an interest in and are advocates of free movement. as a corrective to nationalist and imperialist worldviews. Their magpie approach to sampling is not the mere cultural appropriation that at least one artist of their generation has been accused of. Both reuse source material with irreverence, treating culture as a living, fluid thing rather than a collection of solid museum artifacts. Theirs is not the globalism of Starbucks with its slogan ‘culture is just a flavour’. Hence they have both produced snarling critiques of neoliberalism, the notion of human society as a conveyor belt which stamps price tags on everything it doesn’t simply discard. One of Manu’s most recent tracks is called ‘No solo en China hay futuro’ – it’s not only in China that there’s a future.  Their refutation of the conveyor belt world view lies in the fact that they are both fascinated by what has been or stands to be discarded.

Both Momus and Manu Chao tracks are instantly recognisable as such, despite their catholic approach to borrowing sounds. Momus has invented some genres and pastiched others and ended with something which is absolutely distinctive. Manu’s music combines head-down boogie with ska, funk, punk and reggae; both show a laudable disregard for copyright. Another feature they share is artistic promiscuity, with a constant eye for collaborations. While Momus has made albums with Anne Laplatine and as part of  Joemus and MomusMcclymont, Manu has shared his creativity with Amadou et Mariam and (more recently) Calypso Rose. They both make exemplary use of the internet to try out and diffuse new ideas****. There’s also something similar in form and mood about Momus’ hearspools and Manu’s ongoing work with Radio La Colifata, in which he riffs and quotes from his own music. Both artists also continuously remake old songs for new performances.

There’s also a sense of generosity, not just promoting other artists but also causes. Manu very regularly lends his support to campaigns against GM farming and fights against mining extraction. Momus is definitely not a protest singer (or, it’s important to point out, very much not a crusty) but can, I think, be regarded as an intellectual engagé. Both produced relatively impromptu songs in relation to referendums in Scotland and Greece; late last year Momus released an album lamenting Brexit, while just a few weeks ago Manu (who was born in Paris) posted a short clip against Le Pen.

Both artists have taught me a huge amount. Many people said of David Bowie that he was a sort of proto-google, in that through him fans discovered other artists, writers, etc. Momus’ pedagogical role is now semi-official, in that he has, after a fashion, opened his own university. As for Manu Chao, it was mostly él que me ensenó el casteyano. Gracias, Manu. Cheers, Nick.

*Although his music wasn’t always appreciated by the morons there employed.
**Here is five hours of unreleased material from Manu Chao; you can listen to and/or watch many of Momus’ last few albums here.
***Apart from Mexico, where Momus has never been and from where Manu Chao is apparently banned.
****To get a good sense of what Momus is drawing upon nowadays this is an excellent listen.

“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan

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Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Read the interview in full at katoikos.eu.

Celebrity IELTS interviews no. 1: Momus

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I’ve been an IELTS examiner for over eight years. That’s a perfect English sentence, but it’s not in itself very interesting. Far more impressive is the fact that Nick Currie, also known as Momus, has made around 30 albums, written six novels, performed as an Unreliable Guide at various art festivals and biennali, produced reams of art criticism and a consistently compelling blog, and even written a food column for the Japan Times. All that makes him a fascinating subject for an interview, and I had the chance to do just that recently in the jaw-droppingly beautiful setting of the Istituto Svizzero in Rome (interview itself coming soon). Knowing that Nick’s father was an English teacher who brought up his family in Canada, Italy and Greece, I thought it would be fun to take advantage of the encounter to conduct another kind of interview, viz specifically an IELTS one, not because he’s planning to apply for an Australian visa or hoping to embark on a Business Studies course at Aston University*, but because I’m very interested in the question of how articulacy and what it’s probably not okay these days to call well-spokenness relates to language ability, education, personality and intelligence**. Nick happens to be a (problematic term coming up) ‘native speaker’ who is extremely articulate, engaging and intelligent, so I thought he might make a useful and entertaining model for what, if such a thing exists, IELTS 10, 11 or beyond might sound like. Apologies for the audio, which only gets 5.5 as we were up on the roof and it was a bit windy. This is the first of a series of IELTS interviews with semi-famous people; in coming weeks, I’ll be speaking to Lawrence from Denim, Justine from Elastica and the drummer from Ride about why old buildings should be preserved, the usefulness of mobile phones and how uniquely annoying it is to hear 16 candidates in a row all use the phrase ‘global village’ at least five times each.

*A bit like Russell Brand.

**I’m aware that this sentence could have been phrased more elegantly.

 

My life as a gangsta in 1990s Dublin

When it comes to early-90s Dublin thievery and skullduggery, Martin “The General” Cahill had nothing on me. Long before filesharing became the rage, I used to steal music. The radio station I worked at regularly gave away prizes, mostly in the form of Daniel O’Donnell and (get this) sub-Daniel O’Donnell CDs. Often the winners would come into town and pop into the station to collect their prize, and would be disappointed to be told (by me) that the disc in question couldn’t be found and that I’d personally dispatch a replacement directly to their front porch. What I was scrupulously careful not to tell them was that I’d stolen the CD, taken it to one of Dublin’s then-many record emporiums, made up a short entertaining anecdote about a generous but dotty elderly relative with a misplaced understanding of modern musical trends, and swapped it for some hiphop.

This went on for some time, during which I was able to amass quite a collection of the very latest releases from Redman, Mobb Deep, various Wu-Tang offshoots, and etc. To be fair, it was all just a means of feeding my family, although to be more fair my beloved sirelings all went by names such as ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’, ‘Midnight Marauders’ and ‘Whut: Thee Album’. It was kind of a victimless crime in that a small record company would get to believe that their music was slightly more in demand than it actually was and some elderly Dubliner would acquire a nice anecdote about how they went all the way into town to pick up that CD they’d won and although it turned out they’d have to wait to get their hands on the prize they’d had a pleasant chat with a very well-spoken and charming Englishman with admittedly slightly shifty eyes and (unbeknownst to them) very sticky fingers.

Then there was the keg-of-Caffreys episode. Ah yes. Ahem. The 88-pint barrel of beer in question was the (as it were) prize prize of the year, as it was to be awarded to anyone who could (correctly) guess the winners of that year’s Caffrey’s Hot Press Irish Music Awards. There were numerous entries but they all shared two simple defects: 1) They were all sent and received before the winners had been announced and 2) The person who’d guessed (the ‘entrant’) didn’t work in the radio station which was hosting the competition. The radio station receptionist suffered from neither of these disadvantages and the fact that he seemed to be slightly eye-squiffy and wobbly on his feet every morning for the following month was not recognised as in any way connected to the seemingly above-board award of the (massive) vessel of ale to a (unbeknownst to them) pseudonymous version of his then-girlfriend.

Two things brought my budding criminal career to a close. Inevitably, after a certain point, my confidence, my hubris if you will, brought me down to earth, like an Icarus who had overestimated how many pilfered CDs and knocked-off pints of creamy beer he could take on his sunbound ride. One evening I happened to spot my boss walking through Temple Bar, which was a commonplace occurence as our office was just around the corner (at no. 3 Grafton Street, to be exact). The awkward thing was that at the very moment he waved hello I was sitting behind a pristine restaurant window with a fork halfway to my lips while a colleague-in-dishonesty gulped down the contents of one of many wine glasses. The fork and wine glass in question were both the property of a recently-opened dining establishment which had just the week before (via our radio outlet) offered vouchers for a slap-up meal for two to the first listener who could name the singer of Aslan (Christy Dignam). The vouchers in question had sadly not been to be found on the premises when the person who’d rightfully won them (the ‘winner’) had come to pick them up a couple of days previously, and I had apologised profusely and promised to get back in touch with the restaurant to replace them. It was only a short while later that my boss (Paul) called me into his office and in grave tones explained that we needed to do something about all these prizes going missing. His solution was to put me (the thief) (he didn’t say ‘the thief’) in charge of an investigative task-force to track down the culprit. Shortly afterwards, gangland boss Martin “The General” Cahill was shot dead near his home in Rathmines. In the words of Coolio, he was on his way to gangster’s paradise at last, and it was time to put a stop to my own life of crime just in case it should come to a similarly sanguinary end.

Bryan Adams in Mozambique: Parts 1, 2 and 3

If you should ever visit the island of Inhaca in the Bay of Mozambique and make your way on foot in the 35° heat along the mangrove-lined coast to the south of the island to visit an abandoned lighthouse, and should you along the way get talking to a charming young local kid called César who appoints himself as your guide for the rest of the trek and tells you among other things about his life that he’s a particularly big admirer of the Canadian rock singer Bryan Adams, don’t tell him this story:

In the mid-1990s (a newspaper once reported) Bryan Adams was living in London. Next to his (obviously very expensive) house or apartment there was a pub which played loud music late into the night. Bryan Adams was annoyed by the noise so he bought the pub and closed it down.

If you make the mistake of telling César that story, something very like this will happen:

César: (laughs for ten minutes)

Ele… (He…) (laughs for another ten minutes)

Ele….comprou o bar… (He…bought the pub…)

Richard: Sim (Yes)

César: …e não gostou…da música….(and he didn’t like the music)

Richard: Não (No)

César: (Laughs for another four minutes)

Richard: Este farol, está perto? (Are we getting close to the lighthouse yet?)

César (still laughing): Foi em Londres? (Was this in London?)

Richard: Sim (Yes)

César (still laughing): Que zona de Londres? (Which part of London?)

Richard: Acho que foi em Chelsea. (I think it was in Chelsea)

César: Como e que se chamava o bar? (What was the bar called?)

Richard: Não sei (I don’t know)

César: Mas aconteceu mesmo? (Did it really happen?)

Richard: É o que dizem (Apparently)

César: Mas é verdade? (But is it true?)

Richard: Sim (Yes)

César: (laughs for six minutes) Ele…comprou…e mandou fechar…(he bought the bar…and closed it down) (laughs for eight minutes)

Richard: Sim (Yes)

Richard’s wife: Temos água? (Did we bring any water?)

César: (still laughing) Mas quando foi? (When was this)

Richard: Nos anos noventa, acho (In the 1990s, I think)

César: Ele mora lá ainda? (Does he still live there now?)

Richard: Não sei (I don’t know)

Richard’s wife: Porque não trouxemos água? (Why didn’t we bring any water?)

Richard: Desculpa (Sorry)

César (still laughing): Mas muita gente gostava do bar? (Was the bar popular?)

Richard: Não sei (I don’t know)

César (still laughing): Ele…(He…) (laughs for seven minutes)

Richard’s wife: Este farol, está perto? (Are we getting close to the lighthouse yet?)

César: Podes contar a historia de novo? (Can you tell me the story again?)

Richard: Não (No)

*****

Here’s a story I didn’t tell César:

I once (in about 1995) heard an interview on Irish radio in which Bryan Adams explained the genesis of his most recent hit song (see below). He recounted that he had been messing around in his home studio (possibly in London, I don’t know.) He had a tune in his head but was feeling short of lyrical inspiration. Then his pet dog walked in, and he ended up writing a song about his dog.

Here’s the song:

 *****

Yesterday I was in Birrificio Marconi, a pleasant bar round the corner from our apartment. The TV screens were showing motor-racing (declaration: I fucking hate motor-racing) but thankfully the sound was turned off and the stereo was playing a not-unpleasant selection of Classic Rock. The song ‘Summer of ’69’ by Bryan Adams came on. Here are some thoughts inspired by the experience:

1. The intro sounds exactly like a number of songs on one of Billy Bragg’s first two albums (I’ve thought this for over 30 years but never got round to mentioning it to anyone.)

2. It’s also a Bruce Springsteen pastiche, just like many of Bon Jovi’s early hits. In the memo on my phone it says ‘teenage working class nostalgia’, which is a bit of a weak insight, I mean it’s obvious that’s what it is. I might be able to redeem this point by telling you that Adams’s dad went to the horrendously posh English military college Sandhurst, which happens to be true and does suggest that the image on the front of the single (see above) was playing on Brucie’s success and was a bit fake.

3. I think the choice of ’69’ as the setting for the song was to some extent laviscious and contributed to the song’s success as with its lyrics about ‘playing til my fingers bled’ etc etc it’s partly about discovering sex. (NB I’ve just read the Wikipedia page about the song and my interpretation is 100% spot on.) (I didn’t edit it myself.)

4. It’s entirely up to you whether you wish to relate point 3. above to the preceding anecdote (part 2).

5. Although it appears to be a simple let’s-do-the-gig-right-here bash-it-out rock song the very impressive surround speaker system of the Birrificio Marconi drew my attention to its emblematically mid-80s production: it has a lush, inflated sound which I believe started in the late 70s with Fleetwood Mac, particularly their hugely expensive album ‘Tusk’, which features one of my favourite songs (‘Sara’). That particular production style puts me in mind of the later stages of the films ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Goodfellas’. As the action moves into the cocaine bloat of the early 80s it’s soundtracked by the empty and gargantuan (but at those specific moments on those specific films actually quite moving) sound of stadium rock (Journey and the like), which speaks to me of cushioned studio walls and million-dollar recording budgets. You can hear this in the Bryan Adams song, as on a decent surround sound set of speakers it has a multidimensional sound, like you’re inhabiting the music. Those studio effects quickly became ubiquitous (think of the vacuous horrors of Heart and Starship and also Dylan’s almost unlistenable 1985 album ‘Empire Burlesque’, with its empty, echoey, overproduction values), and it’s no accident that the antihero of ‘American Psycho’, Patrick Bateman, rhapsodised about the sound of Whitney Houston’s debut album and the ‘consumate professionalism’ of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News; the curious thing about hearing the Bryan Adams song yesterday was that it actually sounded really, really great.

*****

I would like to apologise to anyone disappointed to find that parts 2 and 3 of this whatever-it-is have nothing whatsover to do with Mozambique. If there’s any demand for parts 4, 5 and 6 I’ll see what I can do but I’d imagine it’s quite unlikely to emerge anytime in the near future.