Thursday, 24 October 2013

Issue 15: Are you dancing?

I was standing outside The Clachan on Kingly Street last Friday dinner, gulping a pint of perfectly drinkable 3.9-per-cent ale with my fellow Vauxhall Conference-level DJ, The Butler. A health-books editor by day, The Butler was in high spirits knowing he’d be DJing over the weekend in a small Clerkenwell drinking establishment surrounded by pals, pals of pals, and a pile of his own felt-tip-marked CDs.

As befits a Non-League DJ, The Butler was yet to sort his playlist, but was adamant about one thing: “Just give people music they already know.” I nodded acceptance to this, having learnt the hard way that an empty dancefloor is a lose/lose situation for punter and DJ alike. Now, nobody’s suggesting that you de-ball yourself by playing top-20 guff by the likes of that newly wild Hannah Montana, lorry-driver-in-a-dress Pink! or those 19th-century canal workers Mumfords, but in every right-thinking person’s iTunes library, there should be more than enough five-star (not Five Star) dance bombs to keep most people happy most of the time.

Like many dads in their 40s, I like to get on the dancefloor at the earliest possible juncture from three pints in, but I find that 99.9 per cent of DJs are unable to connect with me on any level. That’s why I decided to give it a go myself just over ten years ago. The only DJs that I truly enjoy these days are the gadgies that I play parties with – the Non-Leaguers, like The Butler. Us that can’t mix have an instinctive understanding of what constitutes a foot-tapper.

The Butler used to host spectacular parties when he resided in a central-London flat. He rented a double-decker des res above five floors of solicitors’ offices, an accommodation curio with a fair-sized living room that masqueraded twice a year as a maple sprung dancefloor. At the weekend in The Butler’s abode, when the solicitors were in their country piles in the Herts hinterland, nobody could hear you scream. It was a stupendous party venue.

In 2006, The Butler roped me in to play a warm-up slot for a World Cup-themed shindig that he was putting on. The timing of the night was impeccable – England had just gone out on penalties to Portugal, and on the Northern Line journey up to The Butler’s flat, there was an overwhelming sense of menace, as browned-off, fat football revellers directed their ill-judged anger at London Underground staff. I’d watched the match, but to be honest, I couldn’t give a bugger – I was past caring. Once a bedraggled England finds itself lifelessly booting penalties in a quarter-final, you know it’s time to switch the telly off and set about some chores. The players would rather be elsewhere anyway, sitting by a pool on the equator, gazing through men’s-earring websites on their iPads. Spending.

I’d stopped mithering about the national side in Euro 2004, when England were 1-0 up against France with a minute to go and still managed to cock it up, losing 2-1. I had little St George’s flags on top of my telly that day, getting into the spirit of it all. I knocked them flying with the side of my hand at the final whistle. I couldn’t have that sort of grief any more – I took England’s defeats way too personally.

At The Butler’s World Cup party, I played 8pm-11.30pm. Round about 10.30pm you could feel the night starting to hot up – half-ten’s a crucial point for a big-night; it’s when the party reveals its hand. By 11pm, we were seriously straying into the crackers zone and it’s a smashing thing to see strangers writhing to your collection. There was a shimmer in the air and as the dancefloor filled, I knew we were riding a wave. I thought: “This is why I came to London.” I quickly realised it was going to be the best party I’d ever attended.

Now, the DJ who was on after me came out of his trap with “Mr Blue Sky” (1978) by Electric Light Orchestra. I don’t like ELO, nor do I particularly appreciate that track, but it fit the occasion and made me want to get in the middle of the room where the action was. “Don’t Stop Me Now” (1979) by Queen was a similar inclusion – I loathe Queen, but it also worked well. It made my big-hitting “World In Motion” by New Order seem a bit obvious. I’d played “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand and “It Takes Two” by Rob Bass & DJ E-Z Rock, so I wasn’t letting the side down too greatly – although the night didn’t really need “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present and could probably have survived without Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”. It’s a learning curve.

It wasn’t like a school disco, or anything sh**e like that – there was no Bon Jovi, “Final Countdown” or “99 Red Balloons”, but you knew every tune that was being played. I left the party at 5.30am and walked through a warm, soft, summer dawn with my mate Chris, a pal from school, thinking: “I’m devastated that the night’s come to an end.” It was that good. I knew I had enough material in my music collection to be able to move forward from that point, and maybe even bring a bit of my own personality into this tight association of secret-party DJs. I started work on my next party playlist that evening. Since World Cup ’06, we’ve been having these parties twice a year, although The Butler’s spectacular flat has long since found new tenants. With nights like that, you only need to go out twice a year anyway. You’d be dead by 50, otherwise.

When I was at Festival No.6 last month, trampling through Gwynedd’s sodden loam, I thought that too many DJs were overly reliant on obscure disco. Fair-dos, it seemed to get a fairly positive response from the audience, like a six-out-of-ten score, but the reaction might have been more raucous with a little more foresight from the DJs. You want to go f***ing nuts at a festival, not sway gently from side to side. If you’re playing disco, harpoon us with it! Give us “Lost In Music (Dmitri In Paris Remix)” by Sister Sledge – don’t pussyfoot about with a 1975 warehouse find that you bought for £15 from Phonica Records in Poland Street, a track that would have been rejected in its day, that Larry Levan would have discus-thrown from the toilet window of the Paradise Garage in disgust.

A few weeks ago, I asked a number of groove-worshipping acquaintances what track would guarantee their rapid passage to the dancefloor. For the results, bypass all this bumf and head directly to the foot of this latest blog, but I think you should stay with me for a bit – you’re on a bit of downtime, after all. What’s interesting is that Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” came out top. I’ve never played this when I’ve been out, but I might do from now on. Back when I was DJing every month at a London soul night, I bought Herbie Hancock’s “Bring Down The Birds”, which “Groove Is In The Heart” borrows from. “Bring Down The Birds” appeared in Blow-Up, a 1966 film about a fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings. The track was re-released in 2008 on MGM with a lively “B-Boy Edit” – it was tight, tight, tight. The thing is, around then, I had an incredible knack of clearing a floor more effectively than a Miele hoover, and to my surprise and abject annoyance, Hancock’s fast-moving, bass-driven brute had the same effect on London’s soul crowd as a well-aimed canister of tear gas. People dispersed rapidly, dashing upstairs to smoke – it was better to have long-term health problems than listen to my dirge! I looked at these Sixties-worshipping empty vessels filing out and thought: “You tw*ts.” I suspect that folk just couldn’t make the connection between “Bring Down The Birds” and “Groove Is In The Heart”. They’d have preferred “Move On Up” on a loop, or just a Take That album played in its entirety.

“Groove Is In The Heart” is undoubtedly a tremendous dance record – better than the Hancock original. I remember watching the video for the first time in the summer of 1990. A few of us were looking after a house for a week – a mate’s mam and dad were on holiday in Switzerland or Austria, somewhere up a mountain anyway, with Heidi passing the window every morning, now aged 40, off to do the cleaning for some rich Germans, no doubt. Back then, The Chart Show, with its Commodore Amiga graphics, was essential viewing on a Saturday morning, a real event. We’d heard the track in the week, probably on the radio when driving to Sheffield to look around the shelves of Warp Records’ own vinyl emporium on Division Street. With cups of tea in hand, we settled in to study the “Groove Is In The Heart” video, and were instantly blown away by a festival of De La Soul-inspired Seventies’ hues. The singer, Lady Miss Kier, age 27, was in a tight catsuit that had a psychedelic print on it, and for the next three minutes and 54 seconds, as she danced like a mad dolly, we remained in situ, glued to the spot, each of us captivated. I was taping it on my music video, so I’d have been sprawled across the floor – I usually was. When it finished, my mate Chris (who was at the World Cup party with me 16 years later) said, “F***in’ ’ell.”

Last week, I asked Deee-Lites Lady Miss Kier why she thought Groove Is In The Heart is such a memorable dance track – as you do. Because it has a relentless groove, which is 50 per cent to making any hit, she replied. And most importantly because its positive, with optimistic lyrics. I really meant every word I sang. And if youre wondering what would make Lady Miss Kier sprint to the dancefloor, theres a Sheffield connection! Its Heaven 17s (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”.

I was very proud of my E240 music video; by 1990, I was getting up at 3am so I could record bands on through-the-night TV channel Music Box. I returned from college one weekend in 1991, with my well-travelled video, to stay at my nana’s house. I always stayed at Nana’s – it was the only non-smoking house in the whole of South Yorkshire. Still is! On Saturday night, my brother visited prior to us heading out for a Zulu battle down Doncaster’s high street. We clanked on my music video while sharpening our spears, slapping on a bit of the old Calvin Klein Eternity while helping ourselves to a nip or two from the liquor cabinet. When I pressed play, to my dizzy disbelief, MC Tunes and 808 State disappeared in a haze of grey crackle and the opening bars of Coronation Street’s theme music began. I’ll tell you what, I danced to that tune!

I feverishly fast-forwarded, thinking there must be a colossal mistake, but the realisation that this was now an incontrovertible fact soon descended. It stated clearly on the cover of my cassette, “Lee’s Music Video – DO NOT TAPE OVER”. As I immersed in dismay, my brother rolled onto the floor in paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, unable to breathe with the purity of this sensational comedy situation, knowing that years of work had been atom-bombed with the quasi-sitcom outcomes of Alec and Bet Gilroy’s Rovers Return. When Nana got back from bingo at half-eight, she said, “Well I didn’t bleeding know – I just grabbed the first tape I could find!” We have a general rule that we don’t get angry with Nana – it still exists today. It was severely tested that evening, though.

Apart from the Coronation Street theme, the ultimate dance track is, of course, “Blue Monday” (1983) by New Order. It will never be beaten, although “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk feat Pharrell Williams gave it a bloody good run for its money this year. “Blue Monday” has it all. It begins with a drumbeat that’s so whopping that it sounds like a German 88mm field gun, beckoning you towards the DJ’s decks. Bump-bump b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bump bump… “Blue Monday” never fails in its primary objective of hijacking the night. Its sound is three-dimensional, while its crispness seems to adjust the colour within the club setting, turning up the reds, greens and, obviously, blues. It’s the sensation of coming to life. In its seven minutes and 29 seconds, there is no dead time, no wasted beat, and even today, it still sounds fresh. I’ve spoken at length to New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Factory’s in-house designer Peter Saville (who designed its die-cut 12” sleeve) about this seminal, scene-changing production. So now, like on Play School, let’s have a look through the Round Window and find out what Bernard and Peter have to say about it, shall we?

Bernard Sumner:
It was on the cusp, working with new equipment. It was done with the little sequencer I’d made, and we got a Moog and a new drum machine we’d bought, a DMX. So we were excited about this new equipment. We didn’t play encores at gigs, and we were getting into a lot of trouble over it. So rather naively, we thought we’d write a song that could be played by machines and all we’d have to do was press the button. They’d get what they wanted and we’d get what we wanted. It was an exploration into electronic music, more kind of pure electronic music, so we took the machines to the limit to see what we could do with them. What we could do with them was very basic at the time, so it was making the most out of what little gear we had.

“Stephen [Morris] whacked the drum machine, as I remember. He spent all day programming a backing track and then he caught a power cable to the DMX drum machine with his bloody foot, ripped the power cable out and lost all the drum programming. So we had to start again on the drums. We managed to get most of it back, but out there somewhere is the original. It was different. It’s funny that it’s become one of our most famous songs.

“It’s not really a song, the way I see it. It’s more of a machine that sounds good on club systems. I was doing some work with 52nd Street, a Manchester group on Factory Records, kind of funk music, and I was just doing some keyboard effects with them and occasionally I would produce them, and I was going to a lot of clubs with them, clubs I wouldn’t normally go to. I was just listening to the sound systems in clubs, the sub-bass frequencies. It never occurred to me to listen to that frequency when I was in Joy Division, because we never used that frequency. We never used bass bass really, cos Hooky’s bass was all middle. We never used bottom end. So we went to a club that had a fantastic sound system with all this sub-bass, and we used that knowledge on ‘Blue Monday’. There was a lot of trickery going on in ‘Blue Monday’ that you don’t realise. It’s not just the bass, there’s quite a lot of subsonics.”

Peter Saville:
“When I was at school in the Seventies, you had a choice. Do you like rock or dance music? Not both. ‘Blue Monday’ is made by post-industrial prog-rock guys from an alternative label bravely bringing together what everyone really wanted: thinking beats. We know that Hooky’s bass is lead percussion. There’s Stephen’s automaton drumming. There’s Bernard’s melodic accent. New Order are fundamental to the chemistry that changes Britain’s music, and culture change comes with it. ‘Blue Monday’ is more than an audio experiment, it’s the beginning of a convergence of sensibility. ‘Blue Monday’ changes the way we dress, and our fashion. Through ‘Blue Monday’, drugs enter our culture. It was coming anyway, but ‘Blue Monday’ brings together that moment. When you hear ‘Blue Monday’, it doesn’t date. It’s 30 years old and it still sounds modern. It doesn’t sound vintage. It’s still music of the modern; a signifier of contemporary.”

If 2013 has taught me anything, it’s that a track doesn’t need a fast tempo to fill a room. Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself To Dance” comes in at a pedestrian 100bpm but has been the starting point to all two of my sets over summer, and even made people squeal with delight at Festival No.6… although maybe somebody had just slipped in the mud. When you’re behind the mixer, your ego is enhanced – the sight of eight people dancing will always be 30 in your mind. At 101bpm, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” also has a lagubrious groove, but still stands as a rollicking dance anthem. The Brighton crowd tell me that “The Path (Sofrito Edit)” by Concept Neuf was Ibiza’s standout track over the summer – and that’s another slow mover, a re-edit from 1979/80, I believe, featuring that oft-overlooked instrument, the steel drum. Maybe I should play “The Path” at the witching hour – 10.30pm! I’ve come across the Sofrito mob before – they’re an east London collective of DJs and producers. I’ve got a few 12”s by them, back from a time when I was taking an interest in Central African rhythms – I must have thought I was Damon All Bran at the time. I stand by “Manzara” by Soseme Makonde (1977), mind – that’ll ruffle your plumage.

Alas, The Funk Pursuivant won’t be leaving his musical depot until 2014 now – he’s in for a fresh coat of paint – but that gives plenty of time to put together a new set. I’ll tell you what, though, I’ll definitely be playing “I Want Your Love (Wideboys Miami Mix)” by Jody Watley and “Shine On” by Degrees Of Motion & Mark Wilkinson at next year’s Festival No.6. Why? Because the wife has put in a request for them. It’s an insurance policy: include the tracks that Mrs Pursuivant loves and I’ll never face another soul-destroying Miele moment again.

And so, without further ado, here are the ultimate dance tracks that my small poll of groovy (and some not so groovy) pals has thus decided on, with choices from NME, ex-NME and Mixmag (the latter's Sean Griffiths is responsible for Armand Van Helden) among them! I’ve bundled it, to save internet space.

“Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea & Donna; “Sweet Love (M Beat Jungle Remix)” – Anita Baker (Nesha Fleischer, who calls herself a New Order fan, huh!: “Did the trick on Sunday night.”); “Knights Of The Jaguar – Aztec Mystic (Mike Shallcross, Detroit techno editor, Men’s Health: “Roland Rocha and friends on the best label in the world, Underground Resistance. Has a very distinctive intro, a useful pause until the strings tear out – so you have time to put your drink and fight your way to the middle of the dancefloor – and if you love anything from War to Masters At Work to Robert Hood, it will make you dance.”); “Love Shack” – The B52’s; “Stayin’ Alive” – Bee Gees; “Crazy In Love” – Beyonce feat Jay-Z; “Remember Me” – Blueboy; “Rhythm On The Loose” – Break Of Dawn (Mike Gough, former raver of international repute): “Definitely early Nineties. Has all the old-school classic elements. Opening piano breaks… just check it.”); “Cannonball” – The Breeders; “Holiday Road” – Lindsey Buckingham (Mark Service, Indiana Jones-type archaeologist: “Not that it ever has been or ever will be played by any DJ anywhere.”); “Rudy Can’t Fail” – The Clash (Keith Laidlaw, ex-NME subber: “He really can’t.”); “She Sells Sanctuary” – The Cult; “Groove Is In The Heart” – Deee-Lite (Michael Booth, dour designer: It reminds me of when I was young, free and single with my whole life ahead of me, rather than the spent, bitter middle-aged husk I have become.” Cath Goss, Manchester-based kids’ clothes designer: “Danced to this in many a hole! Always had to find any raised bit of stage, chair or, at house parties, hearth. I thought I was Lady Miss Kier. Sadly disillusioned!”); “Build Me Up Buttercup” – The Foundations; “Rock Steady (Danny Krivit Re-edit)” – Aretha Franklin (Keith Laidlaw: “A pounding floor-filler and one of the few reworkings of old classics I would rate high enough to play out.”); “Oops Upside Your Head” – The Gap Band (Doug Harman, tech wizard and one-time DJ at violent gypsy weddings: “You canny beat a bit of rowing with 30 other drunken strangers after a few pints, and it's always fun to see just who can get up again afterwards – or not!”); “Bounce” – Calvin Harris feat Kelis; “(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove ThangHeaven 17; “Jump Around” – House Of Pain (Dwayne Lewis, lawyer representing criminal tykes and miscreants: “After a few pints, mind.”); “Million Dollar Bill” – Whitney Houston (Kiran Moodley, Fjallraven backpack-wearing GQ contributor: “I'm just going to have to say it because I feel I should be honest with myself and the internet.”); “I Believe In Miracles” – Jackson Sisters; “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson (Justin McCrae, Asda manager in Barnsley and former nightclub DJ from Doncaster: “It's in the bass, man.”); “Don't Stop ’Til You Get Enough" – Michael Jackson; “Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones; “Tears” – Frankie Knuckles (Dave Dowding, designer and League Two DJ: “Mix it with the ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King.”); “Time Will Pass You By” – Tobi Legend; “Expansions” – Lonny Liston Smith; “Got To Be Real” – Cheryl Lynn (Jaye Thompson, world-travelling fashion sort and League One DJ: “That horn opener and disco syncopation is like a spiritual shout out, saying, ‘Dance now sista!'”); “Perfect (Exceeder)” – Mason vs Princess Superstar (Emma Gale, DJ consultant: “Does the job for me.”); “Basement Blues/The Story Of The Blues (Peel Session)” – The Mighty Wah! (Rich Morgan, New York-based designer and all-round Wylie ambassador: “It starts with a rousing call to arms from their bass player, Washington, before launching into a reworking of their 1982 hit which is completely transformed into a driving, urgent Motown-esque stomp. It doesn't get better than this...”); “Tiger Feet” – Mud (Dave Dowding: “A classic. You could mix this in with ‘My Ever Changing Moods’ easily.”); “Blue Monday” – New Order; “Sin” – Nine Inch Nails; “Band Of Gold” – Freda Payne; “Common People” – Pulp (Kevin EG Perry, NME writer and booze associate of Mark E Smith, by all accounts: “Maybe it's something about Jarvis making it OK for awkward men to dance, maybe it's because it's the perfect pop song.”); “Long After Tonight Is All Over” – Jimmy Radcliffe; “You’ve Gotta Show Me Love” – Robin S; “Get Off Of My Cloud” – The Rolling Stones; “Chain Reaction” – Diana Ross; “I’m Coming Out” – Diana Ross (Pandora George, wife of former GQ and NME writer Iestyn George, and a Brighton-based party stalwart): “As played at Festival No.6 by Gilles P.”); “Upside Down” – Diana Ross; “The Bottle” – Gil Scott-Heron; anything by Shakin’ Stevens; “California Soul” by Marlena Shaw (Keith Laidlaw: “Something about it is just irresistible. I can't stay still when it's playing. Plus, it's all about how irresistible the aforementioned Californian soul is, which makes a neat circle. Of course, living in California helps.”); “Thinking Of You” – Sister Sledge (Pandora George: “For the reason that Niles is God.”); “This Corrosion” – Sisters Of Mercy (Chris Harris, Brian Glover-type teacher from Doncaster: “My spine still tingles and foot begins to tap when I hear the opening to ‘This Corrosion’. An interesting time in my first year at uni. Never wore eyeliner though... Honestly.”); “You Got The Love” – Candi Staton; “I Am The Resurrection” – The Stone Roses; “Promised Land” – The Style Council (Ben Chappell, Colin Welland-type teacher from Doncaster: “Or the Joe Smooth version.”); “Solid Bond In Your Heart” – The Style Council; “Walls Come Tumbling Down” – The Style Council. (Liz Horsfield, wife of Guardian subber and rather decent maker of cakes: “I'm there by the end of the third chord of the intro.”); “I Feel Love” – Donna Summer (Che Storey, The Funk Pursuivant's cartoon co-pilot from Argentina '78: Been a classic hit since I was a kid spitting on the waltzers. “The Night” – Frankie Valli (Rob Crane, Che Storey’s valet: “Bassline.”); “You Don't Know Me”Armand Van Helden; “Needle In A Haystack” – The Velvelettes (Gill Mullins, former lads mag sergeant major: “Back to my Wigan roots – although, by the time I was old enough to go to the Casino it was only for indie nights.” Ben Chappell: “I'm on my way, northern-soul classic!”); “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” – Jackie Wilson (Tim Harris, banker, partly responsible for the bloody economic mess we’re in now: “Amazing intro, uplifting chorus and it's probably the greatest song ever recorded.”); “Higher States” – Josh Wink (Scott Bentley, coffee-magazine magnate: “Just reminds me of being at college and always brings back great memories. Unfortunately it's not attractive dancing.”); “Are You Ready To Rock” – Wizzard (Rich Morgan: “Fun fact: Mr Wilks from Emmerdale Farm was played by Arthur Pentelow, whose son was the saxophonist in Wizzard. Speaking of which, you should play this guaranteed floor filler. It even has a bagpipe solo!”). Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Friday, 11 October 2013

Issue 14: Sorting the railways out

The day hadn’t started well. I can now see that informing the wife that the cat was dead, when in fact she was just sleeping heavily, ought to have been more closely investigated. With necessary apologies and consoling completed, a brisk stomp to Palmers Green train station was required and I arrived, at the top of rush hour, to discover that the First Capital Connect service to Moorgate had also seemingly expired. CANCELLED. A confused swarm quickly gathered by the ticket office wondering how on earth it was going to reach the office. Next train: 20 minutes – if it turns up. Annoyance is a familiar sensation on the Hertford North to central London stretch. There are so many trains cancelled that the word has practically burnt onto the destination screen.

This time, the excuse for the no-show was particularly irksome. You see, the same service hadn’t arrived the previous day either. We were told by the lone, overstretched employee at the station that when a driver is ill, or hungover, or has overslept, the service can’t run because there are no replacement staff. “So, can we expect this service to be cancelled tomorrow as well?” a vexed passenger enquired. “Well, probably,” the station employee admitted. Folk dissipated with mouths agape – and you can fully understand the raw disbelief. If a driver doesn’t turn up, tens of thousands suffer. Is there not a substitute crew to call on? This is surely the poorest service on the entire railway network. Nowadays, the hardest part of our working day is getting to and from work.

I’ve just finished Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey To The Soul Of Britain (2009), a fascinating alternative history of British rail travel from the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 onwards. Engel reveals that rail travel has always been a wretched affair, but his findings on John Major’s rail privatisation in the Nineties makes particularly uncomfortable reading. The taxpayer now stumps up five times as much in rail subsidy – £4.8bn – as it did in the latter days of British Rail. Pre-privatisation, if BR revealed it was having problems, it would be told to go away and come up with its own solution. But when the Conservatives pulled the rug from under BR, the new train-operating and infrastructure companies couldn’t be allowed to fail. That’s why so much of our cash is ploughed into railways.

“But where has all the money gone?” asks Engel. “‘Wages and salaries,' according to John Welsby, British Rail’s former chief executive. ‘Increasing infrastructure costs,” according to Matthew Elson and Stephen Fiddler in a paper prepared for Tony Blair in 2003. ‘£800m a year in dividends to investors,’ according to the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. And they all appear to be at least partially right.”

Surely by nationalising the railway, there’d be an instant saving of almost a billion pounds! Imagine what you could do with that! King’s Cross station has been completely transformed over ten years at a cost of £600m. It’s now a paean to modern rail termini (and more classy than St Pancras across the road). In effect, we’re now paying our fares twice. Train-operating companies (TOCs) will gladly accept handouts to ensure their survival and to sate the voracious appetite of the shareholders, but then they announce they’re raising ticket prices way over the rate of inflation. For me, the biggest kick in the plums comes on the morning of 1 January, when the fares have just jumped up. On New Year’s Day, I usually have to catch the first train out of Palmers Green to see my kids in south London and if it’s not cancelled, it’s laughably late – the first train of the year! Why late? It has to be driver laziness, rolling around in bed on £60,000 a year with a rollicking Scotch headache! It nicely sets the stall for the coming months.

Like most writers, I struggle to make ends meet. The magazine industry’s pay structure stagnated round about the time that Massive Attack released Protection. The day rate for a freelance sub-editor is the same in 2013 as it was almost 20 years ago, and this has an obvious knock-on effect on lifestyle. I now dread the annual price hike of rail fares because I know I’ll have to adjust the amount of lolly I spend on groceries, kids’ clothes and, of course, wine. I’ll be teetotal by 2015! TOCs don’t understand the danger they’re putting themselves in. If they push punters too hard, we’ll rear up and bite. The moment will arrive when people can’t afford to get to work. They’ll either hurdle the barriers en masse or be forced to give up their jobs.

As it stands, being on the dole is starting to look like an attractive career path. We’ve got four kids between us and live in a two-bedroom flat – and before you mither, “You shouldn’t have had so many nippers,” they’re the result of previously failed relationships, so think on before you open that big gob of yours! If me and the wife jacked in our jobs, we’d be eligible for a five-bedroom house in six months. With UK magazine publishers deeming an annual pay rise too kind a gesture, so the prospect of us ever owning a house dwindles. We’re becoming gradually poorer. Now, if everyone reaches the point where they can no longer afford the travel costs, there’ll be a financial backlash more severe than the banking crisis of 2007. The wheels of industry will grind to a halt. Either that, or passengers will mob up and force entry onto train services.

“Tickets please.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that now.”

Although Palmers Green has a timetabled weekend service, you’re lucky if you see a train on Sundays. The excuse is usually engineering work, but as I’ve been living in Palmers Green for over three years, you have to wonder if the improvements will ever be complete. All that engineering works is bollocks, anyway. It’s cheaper to have a small crew of orange-vested navvies changing some track in the Enfield area than running a proper rail service. Hiring a few knackered buses from a private operator in Potters Bar for an entire day is probably cheaper than running one half-sized train on a single service.  We’re not simple!

Surely it would make more sense to shut the entire line for five years, upgrade the whole stretch, then have a proper, seven-day service running from that point on. They manage it in Switzerland and Japan. They’ll hand you a sword in Tokyo if you don’t keep the trains running. It’s a matter of honour. I drive everywhere on Sunday now – it’s the only way you can get around London. And the state of First Capital Connect’s trains! Do you know how old they are? My stepfather, Keith, made the bloody things at York Works in 1976 between playing cards and sticking his favourite screwdrivers into sandwich-stealing rats. I’ll be glad when First Capital Connect loses its franchise. You feel that it’s just waiting for the inevitable to happen.

I travel across London more than most. My kids live at the opposite end of town, so I get to see the inadequacies of the rail system in all its glory. When it works, it’s great: one hour and ten minutes door to door. Sunday? Usually two hours. The car was in the garage last weekend so I had no choice but to use the railway. On Sunday, FCC decided it was going to run a train once an hour – not the two on the timetable – but at least it was operating full-sized stock, ie six coaches. The dirty trick that TOCs play at the weekend is to half the size of trains, so you’ve got all these families trying to get out and see some of the city they live in, and all these tourists who’ve travelled thousands of miles to buy an ice cream on the South Bank, and all these weekend revellers and all these sports supporters, and all these dads travelling to see their kids, and they’re packed onto three- or four-car services. There are just as many people travelling at the weekend as in the week. You shouldn’t have to stand at 7am on a Sunday, just so a train company can save a bob or two – money we’ve given them! If you raise fares by a ludicrous amount every year, then run full-sized trains at the weekend!

I make a huge effort to see my kids. I take them to school three mornings a week, give them a bath on Wednesday night and spend all day Sunday with them. Modern dads seem more compelled to be with their nippers than they were in the past. I have to set the alarm for 5.50am most mornings – and I can tell you that’s no easy gig. I’ve worked out that the average distance travelled on my overpriced £43.80 weekly Travelcard is 190 miles, or roughly 850 miles a months. I’ve turned into the Egon Ronay of cross-city travel, sampling the wares of First Capital Connect, London Underground and South West Trains on a massive scale.

What I’ve noticed is, if one line goes down due to a signal failure or the wrong type of electricity in overhead cables, the other lines are quick to collapse. I think there’s a linked-up rail-operator intranet, so when one line changes to red, indicating a problem, the other operators halt their own services to save cash. I have this vision of all these control rooms filled with overweight, sweaty men, mugs of tea and half-eaten doughnuts everywhere, and these rail-system fatties are bent double, laughing like bronchial hyenas, slapping tables and whooping with joy as they conjure inconvenience at the flick of a switch.

In the Seventies and Eighties, my stepfather worked for BREL, screwing trains together – the same ones I travel in today. This meant I was eligible for a “priv” card, which amounted to 32 days of free rail travel a year, and a third off all fares. To a teenager, this was absolute freedom. I used mine to the max. You had to mark off the date in a box but if you used an erasable Paper Mate Replay, you effectively had unlimited rail travel from Thurso to Penzance whenever you needed it. Doncaster train station wasn’t far from our house; after school, sometimes me and my brother would tell Mam we were off out, get a train to Edinburgh, grab a bite to eat at Waverley station, then head back to South Yorkshire and be in bed by 10.30pm.

In a two-year period from 1986, we were basically on a nationwide tour. We had more than a passing interest in the railways by this point. On Saturdays, we’d travel as far as we possibly could in a day, visiting Southampton, Swansea and Chester, and we occasionally travelled overnight, sleeping on train-carriage floors, so we could be in Scotland for an early start. We’d visit Dundee, Perth and Glasgow just to see what these far-flung places were like. We palled up with a 26-year-old dole-ite in Doncaster called Gary. He was a big Beatles and Madonna fan – not gay, although women didn’t just give Gary a wide berth, they gave him no berth at all. He liked James Bond films and got me into Clint Eastwood. He was 6’2” and acted as our protector and valet.

I recall, fondly, when some idle teens thought I’d be an easy picking one afternoon in Leicester. I was waiting by a wall, eating a 30p bag of chips, when these bean-headed would-be brawlers approached. Gary had nipped into a shop to buy 35mm film – he liked photography. He wasn’t a paedo, or anything like that. The chips were whacked out of my hands and I took a punch round the chops. I was probably wearing glasses at the time too – as I say, an easy target. Gary stepped out of the shop, Jessops no doubt, dropped his bag and laid into the lot of them like a dog on a ratting expedition. It was a fantastic spectacle to see these so-called hard nuts s***ing it, screaming, scattering in all directions and panicking like jessies. It was probably Kasabian.

The cat remains alive, but at 14, she’s gone deaf and as a result has started meowing too loudly, especially in the night. She also forgets that you’ve put food in her bowl and sits by your feet going, “MEOWWW! MEOWWW! MEOWWW!”, like a confused old lady. Gary’s nana lost her marbles in her late 70s. She used to leave sandwiches out for newsreaders by the telly and was startled upon seeing a clip of Jurassic Park, thinking it was a documentary rather than a far-fetched yarn. I told her: “Why bring back dinosaurs now – people must be mental!” She said, “Oh Goooood.” I suppose we’ve all got that to look forward – the slide.

It took me two hours to get home last night. The Victoria Line was running with delays – two hours to travel 8.3 miles. You can reach York from King’s Cross in that time. I often wonder what the country would be like if I seized power and became a slightly left-of-centre despot. The likes of Alexa Chung, James Corden and that blaze victim Claudia Winkleman would be disappeared – and if you ask no questions, I’ll tell you no lies. The railway would be nationalised at a stroke and an immediate investigation launched to find out how much money was paid to shareholders. I’d recoup the lot, then set about making a railway we could all be proud of. Won’t you help me?

Kasabian have no future gig commitments planned. But when they have, ask them about the Jessops incident. Serge Pizzorno doesn't look too belting in the G-Star Raw window on Oxford Street at the moment.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Issue 13: Unlucky for some

If I ever make it as a professional footballer, which is increasingly unlikely, my first-choice squad number would be 13. As I’m not superstitious, I’ll gladly take that No.13 shirt to bypass any bun fight over the traditionally coveted No.7 or No.10 shirts. To me, superstition is a medieval ailment, antique fear born from an inability to rationalise. If you believe in bad luck from walking under ladders, cracking a mirror or flapping open an umbrella indoors, then you must also accept that pixies prance in forests, crocks of gold are buried at the foot of rainbows and dragons soar above steam locomotives in Wales. Thirteen is just a number, a necessary bridge between 12 and 14. I’d obviously be miffed if I was handed the 666 shirt, especially if there were only 30 players in the squad, but if I had to, I’d accept that number and put in a shift.

One of the most prolific net bulgers in the history of the game was the West German forward Gerd Müller, who scored 68 goals in 62 international appearances between 1966-74. His shirt number of choice for – as Stan Boardman referred to them – the “Jirmins”, was 13. “Der Bomber”, as Müller was known, simply shifted the onus of unluckiness onto the opposition. In Mexico ’70, the greatest World Cup in history, Müller scored ten times including a cruel extra-time winner against reigning world champions England. Eusebio of Portugal also opted for number 13 and it never did him any harm. In England ’66, the not imaginatively titled “Black Pearl” – because he’s black – scored nine goals, including four against a battling North Korea at Goodison Park. (FYI, Boardman played for Tranmere Rovers in his teens; this was obviously decades before his career-crushing racist stand-up routine at a Leeds United function in 2002.)

While BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was gasping, “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now! It’s four!” in 1966, Patrick McGoohan had already started scribbling notes about an exceedingly stylish ITV spy series, to be called The Prisoner. McGoohan would play a man who’d lost the right to a name and was titled, simply, “No.6”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – that football quote doesn’t sound right! Wolstenholme recorded a revised commentary for Goal! The World Cup (1967), the official FIFA film of the England World Cup, where he spoke, “Some of the crowd are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now!”, which was used on EnglandNewOrder’s No.1 smash “World In Motion” in 1990. It’s far more succinct, I think you’ll agree, but it isn’t the original commentary.

Anyway, I first came across The Prisoner in 1991, when a Southern college pal with a raver’s ponytail, who had a wide-ranging knowledge of avant-garde telly and films, sat me down and made me watch the entire series on video. In 1991, we had hectares of spare time, and I was instantly hooked on The Prisoner’s bizarre premise. Well, I was for the first six episodes. The other eleven flew over my head. But its stylishness, from the “Village” font seen on street signage (a derivative of the Albertus font family, apparently) to the crackingly cool outfits worn by the Village’s inhabitants, struck a deep chord. I’ve just bought the series on Amazon, so I’m going to give it another go over the coming weeks. We were drunk a lot in 1991, on beer, vodka and whatever else was on special offer, so maybe those frequent roaring hangovers did little to assist my comprehension of McGoohan’s later episodes. McGoohan was 39 when he filmed The Prisoner. He looked more like 51, but then again, men were men back then, rather than lagered-up Noddy-type figures. McGoohan was asked to be James Bond but turned it down – another stylish move.

I can’t fathom why No.6 was so keen to leave the Village. He had a flat with incredible views, a cleaner, great clothes and plenty of time to play chess down by the estuary. Plus, there were no kids ruining the day! If No.6 was so angry at having his freedom removed, imagine what he’d be like with the enforced slavery of becoming a parent! He’s got a pretty good deal from what I can see. Maybe he was missing his Lotus Seven.

My renewed interest in the exploits of McGoohan’s retired secret agent stems from Festival No.6, a Prisoner-themed music and literary jamboree held at Portmeirion in north Wales. It’s the actual location where The Prisoner was filmed and it’s a bonkers place, like nowhere else on the planet. You’re never at ease when you’re in Portmeirion, what with heads used as architectural embellishments and houses built on rocky promontories, which is why it works so well in the series. Festival No.6 is now in its second year. September is obviously Wales’ rainy season. In 2012, New Order played, dressed in Prisoner uniform. We slip-slapped along the mud’s glistening surface like Harold Lloyd just to reach the main stage.

This year, I returned as an artist (H-hmm, that’s right! – said in the style of No.6), having convinced FN6 organiser Luke Bainbridge, the former editor of Observer Music Monthly, that I ought to interview Declan Lowney, the director of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Father Ted, live, on-stage, in front of a real audience. I have to say, I prefer wearing wristbands that say “Artist” on them rather than “VIP”, “Press” or “No Frills”. Now, a Q&A in front of a crowd, leaning into a microphone, hearing your own voice blasting out, is a whole different ballgame to relaxing in a pub with a voice recorder running. Even before you’ve asked the first question onstage, you’ve waged war with yourself just to keep a lid on everything. On Sunday at Festival No.6, the day of the interview, we were hit by a storm that almost matched the intensity of the persistent anticyclonic Great Red Spot on Jupiter. As a result, our 2pm kick-off was put back to 6.30pm.

Those hours of delay were agony. You’re in a landing craft waiting to attack a beach on D-Day, but they won’t let the bloody ramp down. We didn’t even know if the Q&A was going to take place as the afternoon dragged on, because there was a knock-on effect with the later acts, but they managed to find alternative stages for that Cath Kidston ragdoll Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie, who, it was suggested to me, is starting to resemble Widow Twankey. Me, Declan, our wives and entourage filled the chasm of time drinking wine, which, as you know, slips past the clacker with incredible ease in the daytime. You’ve got to be really careful with wine. It’ll consume you if you drink it like ale. Three glasses is already taking you to your booze limit – any more than that and you’re booking a hangover. I had a few glasses, but once I’d drank a pail of water and walked around outside to test if my legs were still operating, I felt alright. As the clouds raced towards the Snowdonia National Park, leaving us with bright evening sunshine, Bainbridge arrived to say, “Fix bayonets, it’s show time!”

It’s a long walk to the stage – well it was on this occasion because the grass was wet and it was a gradually rising gradient. Declan’s missus Jenny insisted I wear her own, homemade Prisoner jacket, which matched her husband’s get-up. And so it was that I interviewed the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Father Ted director in a woman’s Jigsaw jacket, size 12. The wife says the talk went down well and that we both looked pretty confident up on stage, so you’ll have to take her word for it. The full transcript will appear on very soon. Once it was over, I fancied doing another live Q&A, but I’m happy to wait for a year. I have to say, I enjoyed it. I might have to interview Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order next time – the band should have a fresh collection of tracks by then.

Of course, the Q&A was just one nail-biting aspect of that rain-lashed weekend. Before the festival, Bainbridge emailed and said, “I’ve been wondering whether I’ll get you and Ché to DJ the VIP bar.” Now, Ché’s half Mancunian, half Argentinian, and as a result is a hairier version of 10cc’s Kevin Godley. Ché’s existence is an epic cartoon, full of calamitous injury, Granadaland dialogue and Hanna-Barbera posturing. He wouldn’t look out of place on a Salford remake of Top Cat or Captain Caveman. So we turned up, separately, on Friday evening, got the tents up, went down to the VIP bar to see what was going on, and were told, “Right lads, you’re on tonight, have you got your music ready?” I’d barely sipped my first beer. At the moment, Ché’s only got one working eye because he keeps sleeping with his contact lenses in, so he’s unable to judge distances or see any detail. Although he found the general act of DJing troublesome, between the two of us, we put on a belting show for three hours and even had Widow Twankey dancing.

We don’t mix tracks together; we’re masters of the merge. I’ve never seen the point of all that knob twiddling, and even if I did, I don’t know how to do it. The musicians and engineers have already given us a decent track. Surely that’s their skill and expertise. DJs should let the track do the talking. It doesn’t need further faffing. My playlist was something along the lines of this…

“Lose Yourself To Dance” – Daft Punk; “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” – Saint Etienne; “Acceptable In The 80’s” – Calvin Harris; “Finest Dreams (Richard X Remix)” – Kelis; “Remember Me” – Blueboy; “Voodoo Ray” – A Guy Called Gerald; “NY Excuse” – Soulwax; “Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine” – James Brown; “Think (It Takes Two)” – A.Skillz feat Lyn Collins; “Perfect (Exceeder)” – Mason vs Princess Superstar; “Blue Monday” – New Order; “Do Ya Wanna Funk” – Sylvester; “Hey Boy Hey Girl” – The Chemical Brothers; “Everybody Needs A 303” – Fatboy Slim; “Move Your Body” – Marshall Jefferson; “I Feel Love (Radio Edit)” – Donna Summer; “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” – Stevie Wonder; “Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones; “Can’t See Me (Bacon & Quarmby Remix)” – Ian Brown; “Step On” – Happy Mondays; “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Smiths; “Let’s Wade In The Water” – Marlena Shaw; “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” – Wayne McGhie; “Back By Dope Demand (Funky Bass Mix)” – King Bee; “Apache” – Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band; “I Want To Know” – Sugar Simone; “Do Your Stuff” – Sono Rhizmo; “The Only One I Know” – The Charlatans; “Over And Over” – Hot Chip; “Fools Gold” – The Stone Roses.

Ché came out his blurry blocks with “My Old Piano” by Diana Ross, a statement of intent and a solid dance track that was still echoing round my head during a severe hangover the following morning. He also played “Get Lucky (Michael Jackson Mix)” – Daft Punk (feat Pharrell Williams), which I’d never heard before, and caused much curiosity among the jiving throng. Interestingly, it was Friday 13th when we performed. Nothing unlucky for us, but then again, I don’t believe in all that mumbo jumbo.

When the National Lottery started in the Nineties, my stepfather Keith kept an on-going record of the numbers and would explain, with biro clasped in hand, how he’d recognised a pattern and could now accurately predict the following week’s Lottery. I said, “If that’s the case, how come you’re still here in one of Doncaster’s poorer districts and not hanging out with Tom Cruise in Malibu?” He replied, “Well, that’s the thing, I’m always one or two numbers out – look, I’ll show you.” He’d often tell me that he was on the verge of “cracking the code”.

These insightful sessions would last an hour, and I have to say, if Keith had gone for 41 and not 40, and 15 instead of 16, and 35 instead of 34, he might now be discussing the future of Scientology with a group of notable Hollywood actors. “This is just nonsense, Keith,” I reasoned. “You’re attempting to unravel the mysteries of Chaos Theory. There’s no order to the Lottery numbers. You’re as likely to get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 coming out as the numbers your system is telling you to choose.”

Keith was convinced he was onto something and continued his Bletchley Park studies for a further two years before running out of patience. He remains estranged from Cruise et al, but there was a moment where, at the back of my mind, I wondered if Keith might end up as famous as Albert Einstein. Keith used to work at the plant works in Doncaster, making trains for British Rail, and once revealed how he’d lost his favourite screwdriver by sticking it in the back of sandwich-stealing rat. The rat then scampered off squealing with the screwdriver still upright in its hump, like a bizarre gear stick. I’ll bet Einstein never lost his favourite screwdriver that way!

Three years after I’d first watched The Prisoner, my Southern college pal visited me in my small London flat just off Fulham Road. Instead of sitting in watching videos, we went boozing round Covent Garden, supping “rock stars” – JD & Coke! We got a taxi back, like the rock stars we were, and when we opened the cab’s door, my college mate spilled into the road like that runny-metal shapeshifting robot from Terminator 2; Judgment Day. To be fair, this wasn’t like him – he could usually hold his liquor. I thought: "I'm more powerful than you now." My flat was on the third floor of a town house, and as we ascended, for some unknown reason, rather than navigate the final bend of the stairs to reach my door, my visitor continued in a straight line and marched straight through a large glass pane, falling headfirst into the night. Now, my flat was 250 feet above the ground, and it took some guts for me to peer through the jagged shards to see what had become of my sozzled companion. Incredibly, he was laid prostrate just six feet below the window ledge, on a small plastic roof shelter – the only one on the entire exterior of the building.

By rights, my mate's number should have been up. His biggest injury was a cut finger, which required four stitches at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Talk about spectacularly lucky – he did more than win the Lottery that night. The way I see it, life's too short for superstition and there are no ghouls, God or Herly Gherst either. There are people, animals, kids, toys, clothes, house-cleaning implements, MOTs, wine, work, telly, texts and great weekends away, like Festival No.6, with fantastic company. That should suffice. It does for me. You don't need foolish religious reverence. If you want magic, miracles and comedy occurrences caused by walking under ladders, just watch the Sooty Show. That's what I do.