Kevin Rowland – the Great Indie Survivor

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Back in ’68 in a sweaty club…

The evocative opening line of ‘Geno’, Dexys Midnight Runners’ tribute to Geno Washington, which hit number one in 1980. For me the equivalent would be Back in ’81 at the Old Vic Theatre, which doesn’t sound anything like as cool, but it was when I witnessed one of the great gigs of my life, Dexys Midnight Runners’ Projected Passion Revue.

Like many things involving Kevin Rowland and Dexys, it was born out of chaos. There were disputes with record companies, uncertainty over the band’s musical direction, and band members coming and going with mind-boggling rapidity. This may have been connected with Rowland’s insistence on a new fitness regime for the band, which involved them exercising together and a ban on pre-show drinking and drug taking. All a bit ironic for a band named after a type of amphetamine, but Kev was never one for consistency.

All this madness briefly coalesced into three nights of magic at the Old Vic. Dexys were no longer a pretend soul band, but they hadn’t yet evolved into the raggle-taggle gypsies of the ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ era. Instead they were a bit of both, bringing together the horns of the old band with the strings of the new. And at the front stood Kevin, the visionary, the only one who could see how all this could be made to work. He bristled with passion and defiance and, for the most part, carried the audience with him. In the rare moments when anyone showed signs of not sharing his vision he confronted them.

“Fuck off back to the bar!” I remember him telling one heckler, who had shouted out during one of the quieter passages. This was ironic as, in keeping with the band’s new commitment to clean living, the bars had all been closed for the evening.

Before the Projected Passion Revue could be captured on record it all fell apart again, and by the time of their next album the horns had gone and they were a dungaree-clad distortion of an Irish folk band. ‘Come On Eileen’ gave them a huge hit single but these days it has the status of a novelty record, about as representative of Dexys as ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ is of Jeff Beck. Kev seemed to know this because, rather than continuing to milk a winning formula, he reinvented the band again, re-emerging in 1985 with ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’.

It was a classic that nobody liked. The young soul rebel look had been cool, the Celtic soul brother look had been clever, but the young urban professional look was just off-putting. And the music was equally disorientating, long slow-building songs interspersed with stilted dialogue between Kevin and his latest sidekick Billy Adams. The fact that the songs often developed into something wonderful was largely overlooked at the time.

Dexys fell apart, and so did Kevin. Drug and financial problems led to rehab and bankruptcy. There were several failed comebacks, some with Dexys, some on his own. The most notorious was the 1999 covers album ‘My Beauty’, which he promoted at the Reading Festival wearing a short white dress and red lipstick. He stood defiant in the face of a hostile audience, continuing to perform as the crowd hurled bottles at the stage.

A lesser man would have sunk into the obscurity that goes hand in hand with the misery of mental illness and addiction, but the amazing part of Kevin’s story is that he came back. In 2012 Dexys released ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’. On songs such as ‘Lost’ and ‘Nowhere is Home’ he confronted his demons and, on ‘It’s O.K., John Joe’, finally seemed to reach some sort of peace with himself. Mick Talbot’s arrangements were often uplifting, and the duets with M.J. Hyland introduced a welcome element of humour.

In September 2012 I headed off with Indie Dad Paul to see the latest incarnation of Dexys play at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. They played ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ in its entirety and a few older songs, including a terrific version of ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ and a reflective, revamped ‘Come on Eileen’. The audience’s applause at the end was heartfelt, and so was Kevin’s reaction. He was humble and appreciative but also vindicated, a man who had journeyed to the dark side and back. It was a great gig because, like that show at the Old Vic back in ’81, it felt like it mattered. A vulnerable genius had put himself on the line and emerged triumphant.

Kevin is a restless soul. Mick Talbot and the rest of the 2012 incarnation of Dexys have gone and been replaced by a new band for a new album: ‘Let the Record Show: Dexys do Irish and Country’. The album is a mix of Irish standards and other songs that Kev just happens to like. “It doesn’t really make sense, but it makes perfect sense to me,” he told Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. And so he goes on, pursuing his singular vision.

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Living with Loss – Nick Cave and Skeleton Tree

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One of the great gigs of my life was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing on Hastings pier in 2004. Nick bestrode the stage pointing and declaiming like a deranged preacher, while the band played with a power and intensity that shook the old Victorian structure to its very foundations. Perhaps that raw power was destructive – a few months later the pier was condemned as unsafe and closed down, staying that way until the terrible fire of 2009.

The pier was finally restored and reopened in 2016 with a celebratory gig from Madness (which was also great, though very different!). In the intervening years Nick Cave had pursued a course consistent with the twin albums he released in 2004; sometimes raucous and rabble-rousing, in the spirit of ‘Abattoir Blues’; sometimes thoughtful and reflective, in the spirit of ‘Lyre of Orpheus’. As time went on the reflective side came to the fore, and 2014’s ‘Push the Sky Away’ provided a meditation on middle age. The songs were slower and Warren Ellis’s arrangements were often beautiful, but the lyrics included lecherous observations of

The girls from the Capital

Who dance at the water’s edge, shaking their asses

The sleeve pictured Nick, dressed in his trademark white shirt and dark suit, pointing a naked young woman towards the door.

To call Nick Cave’s progress predictable would fail to do justice to the power and consistent quality of his work, but there was a logical progression from one album to the next. Then came the earthquake.

In July 2015 his fifteen year-old son, Arthur, died after falling from a cliff near Brighton. He had taken LSD with two friends, who reported their initially happy hallucinations slowly turning to paranoia. A passing motorist stopped, concerned at seeing Arthur staggering near the cliff edge, but nobody saw him fall.

Nick Cave was already working on a new album. The lines to the opening song, ‘Jesus Alone’, were apparently already written:

He fell from the sky

And crash landed in a field near the River Adur

As with much of the album the words are more spoken than sung, against a backing track of ominous, rumbling electronica. When Nick does sing, as on ‘I Need You’, his voice is often fragile, pained and vulnerable. On ‘Distant Sky’ his anguish is palpable as he sings the lyrics quoted in stark electric-green lettering on the plain black sleeve:

Let us go now, my darling companion

Set out for the distant skies

See the sun

See it rising

See it rising

In your eyes

Solace comes when the words are echoed by Else Torp’s repeat vocal; suddenly the song soars, and the spirits of father and son seem to rise together into the bright blue heavens.

I too lost a son. It was long ago, and he was very small. The sadness fades but never leaves; it blows down through the years and whispers on the breeze. But listening to ‘Skeleton Tree’ is like an icy wind blowing in from the Siberian Steppes, a blast of raw pain. It’s all right… repeats Nick at the end.  But it’s not all right, not yet, just the start of a long journey towards accepting that something terrible has happened, and learning to live with it.

Another Indie Dad Night Out: Trash’d at the Monkey

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Indie Dad Mike has left town, Indie Dad Ross was laid low with food poisoning, so it was left to Indie Dad Paul and I to head into Hastings for Trash’d at the Brass Monkey, part of the Trash Cannes Festival.

Hastings is a town of many festivals, partly because the word ‘festival’ is used loosely to describe anything which involves more than three people gathering in the back room of a pub. But the Trashed Cannes Festival is more substantial than that, incorporating a range of events with a punk/indie ethos. These include a competition to make a three minute film in five days, a screening of ‘Punk Strut, the Movie’, and tonight’s gig, featuring gentlemen punk rockers The Fallen Leaves supported by local young pretenders Doom Dream. Disappointingly I arrived too late for the opening act, intriguingly billed as ‘One Middle-Aged Man and a Ukulele’.

Doom Dream did well with the biggest gig of their young lives. They have a guitar player with great hair and a singer who looks like a youthful Lou Reed, but with considerably more charm. The drummer looks about 12 and his proud mum stood with us in the audience. Their songs were short, melodic and often quiet, but strong enough to make the audience stop talking and listen. In a room full of aging punks and indie types this was no small achievement.

The Fallen Leaves describe their music as “punk rock for gentlemen”. They look like a bunch of country gents, nattily turned out in tweed jackets, waistcoats and cravats; but their sound, dominated by Rob Symmons’ jagged guitar, has the distinctive energy of punk. The Sunday Times described them as “punk pop perfection”, and on songs such as ‘Prodigal Son’ you can hear what they mean.

Front man Rob Green has a great way with witty one-liners, flattering his audience by describing the band’s material as “simple songs for complex people”. Acknowledging the underachievers in the room he proudly declares “we’ve made failure into an art form”. During ‘I Made a Mistake’ he defies the smoking ban and lights up a cigarette, which feels like one of the few acts of rebellion left open to an aged punk. Later on he reverts to more gentlemanly ways and gets out a flask of tea. For a punk rebel In the strange days of 2016 it’s hard to decide which of these acts seems more transgressive.

Events like the Trash Cannes festival are important in keeping the spirit of Indie alive. And it’s somehow secured Arts Council funding for another year. Woo hoo! Let’s make the most of it while it’s there, and brighten these dark days of division and austerity in whatever ways we can.

Do Indie Dads clean the house?

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Of course they do! Or at least they should. But it may not happen until there are no mugs left for making a cuppa, the mountain of dishes stacked by the sink is in imminent danger of collapse, and the dust has formed into huge clumps which are blowing like tumbleweed across the floor.

When you reach this point it’s time to get to work! But you’re going to need a suitable soundtrack to get the cleaning process going. So here’s an indie dad playlist for cleaning the house.

Saturday Morning – Eels

You’ve worked Monday to Friday, the weekend’s finally here – and you need to clean the house. What’s going to get you up and moving? This track is a great one, although admittedly it’s about getting up and playing music rather than doing the vacuuming. The sentiments still apply though:

Nothing’s ever gonna happen here

If we don’t make it happen…

From the Floorboards Up – Paul Weller

Once you’re up, the next question is where to start? As ever the Modfather has the answer, with this succinct and energising guide to the cleaning process. It’s nice to think of him helping his many and increasingly youthful wives with a spot of dusting. Where to start? From the floorboards up, obviously!

Rat in Mi Kitchen – UB40

Men do a whole lot more housework than they used to, but the issue of thoroughness remains one of the areas of contention between the sexes. I know the fridge may be heavy to move, but if that’s where the rodent hid when it was chased in by the cat, then you’re going to have to get it out again. The default male response may to be leave it, but the smell of decaying rodent is never a good one to have around your kitchen. And even if you get through that stage, the appearance of rat remains when you finally have to move the fridge to redecorate is never a good thing.

Kitchen – the Lemonheads

Much housework centres around the kitchen so I’ve selected this track from ‘It’s a shame about Ray’, but it’s such an energising album that you might as well play the whole thing – it only lasts 28 minutes. Beware of a bit of an energy drop when you come to ‘Drug Buddy’, though; one track that’s no help to you when you’re cleaning the house, no help at all.

Burn Baby Burn – Ash

By the time you’ve done all this housework the kids will be up and demanding bacon sandwiches. It’s time to fire up the toaster, light up the gas, and put on some music that will be loud enough to hear above the ringing of the smoke alarm. For many obvious reasons Ash are the choice at this stage – Burn baby burn!

With this soundtrack you can complete your housework by Saturday lunchtime, leaving the rest of the weekend clear for going out to gigs!

An Indie Dad Night Out – Later with Jools Holland

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From the moment you arrive at Maidstone Studios, Later with Jools Holland is a pretty slick operation. Audience members are quickly processed through security, before being directed to the aptly named holding pen. There’s a small bar, nothing much to eat and not enough chairs for most people to sit down; a false economy for a show with an all-standing audience where, according to Keith the warm-up man, someone collapses and requires medical attention almost every week. Keith is a former lorry driver and has a veneer of friendliness, but gives the impression that if you step out of line he will take you outside and personally pulverise you.

Despite all this the atmosphere is ripe with anticipation. After all, this is a chance to get on the telly and see some top acts for free!

At around 8pm we are ushered through to the studio. Again, this is meticulously organised. On arrival a numbered, coloured sticker is put on your tickets, and this governs where you are placed in the studio. The audience stands on tiers in the four corners, and we find ourselves between Tame Impala and Moon Hooch. This turns out to be a pretty good spot, giving a close-up view of two of the night’s most impressive bands.

Once in position we are exhorted first by Keith, and then by Jools, to play our part as audience members in making it a great show. Jools’ arrival is without fanfare; one minute he’s not there, the next minute he is. The artists are already in position, and he greets some of them on his way in.

At 8.30 recording of the Friday night show begins. This is ‘as live’, with every artist taking their turn to play in the sequence we see on TV. Jools’ introductions are held up on a big board by the camera – no fiddly autocues to go wrong here. The studio crew whizz around between acts, the camera operators being particularly adept at speeding backwards. This sounds high risk but it isn’t, because everyone knows exactly where they’re going. No-one makes a single mistake, and no second takes are needed.

We get a few minutes to sit down, then we’re all up again for the live show at 10 o’clock. Most bands repeat one of the songs they performed earlier, although Moon Hooch make the brave choice of going for something different, though equally strange.

So what of the music? Biffy Clyro are muscular and predictable, and couldn’t be more different from the atmospheric sound and introverted song writing of James Blake. Michael Kiwanuka‘s ‘Black man in a white world’ sounds like one of those songs you’ve known forever, while Moon Hooch sound like nothing on earth, particularly when they use several stuck-on traffic cones to boost the sound of a saxophone. My favourites are Tame Impala, acid rock trimmed of its excesses and distilled into four minute pop songs.

Did I get on the telly? Yes – my eagle eyed kids spotted me when Jools introduced Lera Lynn. The BBC may try to hide us behind younger, better looking people but the indie dads are always there, lurking in the background.

What is Age-appropriate Indie?

 

Age Appropriate Indie

There’s a new phrase for the music I listen to now: ‘Age-appropriate Indie’. I first came across it in a review of Teenage Fanclub by Martin Horsfield in the Guardian. Age-appropriate indie retains the independent ethos but brings to it the fruits of age and experience. The songs are often melancholy and thoughtful; hardly surprising, given that they are usually written by men of around fifty reflecting on their lives. It seems a more honest response to a mid-life crisis than alternatives such as pretending to like Rap, or buying a convertible and cruising up and down the seafront blasting out driving anthems.

Examples of this newly evolving genre include Eels’ ‘The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett’, and Damon Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’. The Eels album includes a song called ‘The Mistakes of My Youth’, in which Everett reflects

I can’t keep defeating myself

I can’t keep repeating

The mistakes of my youth

I remember listening to this on my fifty fourth birthday, soon after I’d started my relationship with Cat. Two years later we’re still going strong, partly because we talk about our mistakes and how to avoid repeating them. It may be getting late, but there’s still time to learn to live differently.

This could all be conveyed by a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, but age-appropriate indie is often sonically adventurous. On ‘Everyday Robots’ Damon Albarn creates a richly textured soundscape which unifies the album, creating the feel of drifting through a long, hot summer’s afternoon, somewhere in the suburbs of outer London. His melancholy voice and lyrics combine to reflect on leaving the excesses of Brit-pop behind, and creating something deeper and richer.

‘Everyday Robots’ seemed to have been a cleansing process for Albarn and it’s no coincidence that Blur subsequently re-emerged, reinvigorated, with ‘The Magic Whip’. The Manic Street Preachers went through a similar process, with the age-appropriate indie reflectiveness of ‘Rewind the Film’ being followed by the upbeat and forward-looking ‘Futurology’.

A leading exponent of age-appropriate indie is Ben Watt, whose albums ‘Hendra’ and ‘Fever Dream’ feature songs about love and loss, sadness and beauty. The guys from Music’s Not Dead, Bexhill’s indie-dad central, persuaded him to kick off his latest tour by playing an intimate gig in the bar at the De La Warr Pavilion. This also meant a close-up view of Bernard Butler, one of the truly great indie guitarists, who produced both albums and now features in Ben Watt’s band. The restraint shown by great musicians like Bernard Butler in serving the songs, rather than indulging in guitar hero histrionics, is key to the spirit of indie. As are Ben Watt’s lyrics

Who am I fooling when I say

I have no regrets

You can put things to the back of your mind

But you can never forget

An indie dad reflection, if ever there was one.

 

Age-Appropriate Indie: A Playlist

Forget – Ben Watt

Mistakes of My Youth – Eels

Push the Sky Away – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Rewind the Film – Manic Street Preachers feat. Richard Hawley

Hollow Ponds – Damon Albarn

My Terracotta Heart – Blur

Fade Away – Noel Gallagher

I Need Direction – Teenage Fanclub

What do you think of the playlist? Anything you’d add or remove? You can make your suggestions in the comments box below.

What is an Indie Dad?

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What is an indie dad? I guess it’s someone who retains a love for independent music at an age when they might have been expected to have grown out of it. I became known as ‘Indie Dad’ when I was a mere thirty-something, back in the last decade of the last century. My younger work colleagues were amazed to discover that I liked the same music as they did –bands like Suede, Pulp and Blur. Going back, I was old enough to have seen bands from the first wave of Indie, the likes of The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Mighty Wah! To the indie boys these bands were the stuff of legend, and sometimes they’d indulge me in rambling on about how great they were while we sat in the pub. Equally I’d find out about new bands they’d discovered, the Libertines being one of them.

So my colleagues were the indie boys and I was Indie Dad. This was despite several of them already being parents while, at the time, I wasn’t. I didn’t attain ‘real dad’ status until 2000, when my first son, Michael, was born. By this time I was living in St Leonards on Sea and occasionally escaping my parenting and work responsibilities to go out with my friends Mike and Paul, both indie dads themselves. Our indie dad nights out sometimes just involved sitting around the FILO in Hastings Old Town until we got kicked out, but occasionally we’d make it to a gig. Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion became a great venue for non-mainstream bands and we saw the likes of the Fall, Band of Horses and the Decemberists. Occasionally we’d get sufficiently organised to drive all the way to Brighton to see bands like Eels, Public Image Ltd and the Lemonheads. “Look! It’s Evan Dando! And – despite all he’s done to himself – he’s not dead!”

One of the great moments for any indie dad is when your own kids start to share your taste in music. When Michael descended into the misery of his early teenage years I knocked on his bedroom door and gave him a bunch of Smiths CDs. An hour later he burst into the living room, misery overcome by exuberance.

“How does this man know all about my life?” he asked, having heard Morrissey’s lyrics.

Michael grew into an aspiring guitarist, and soon came to appreciate that the Smiths’ unique brand of melancholy owed as much to Johnny Marr’s musicality as it did to Morrissey’s way with words. So it was a great night when Johnny Marr came to Bexhill and we headed off to see him play at the De La Warr. He performed a mix of excellent solo songs and a few Smiths classics, a whole room full of indie dads bellowing along with the latter. Michael kept his eyes on Johnny’s guitar, watching and learning, an indie-boy in the making.