The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel“A record made from nothing but other records'” writes Frank Broughton on his site. The innovations that this record introduced have become so commonplace that it almost sounds clichĂ©d: the Good Times riff, the scratching and ‘found’ recordings. But try to imagine this crackling from the speakers in 1981. This is where it started baby-boy!

We were used to dancing the simple, knees-bend, white-boy skank of Two-Tone, and along comes this record where half the music isn’t there at all. Eventually, you discovered you could dance through the breaks. The beat (ahem) goes on.

I’ve always believed the “Why don’t you tell me a story'” section comes from a Danny Kaye film, but scouring the Internet I find no justification for this belief. Answers on a post-card, please.

Finally, this record is a tribute to John Peel, inevitably the only person who would play it on the radio. Like so many other landmark records of that period, it was featured nightly over a period of a week or two, mingled with boring bands from Belgium, until it got so deep into you, you just had to go out and buy it. After John died I was limp with grief for weeks.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. Buy it here

If you own the copyright for this track and would like me to remove it, please drop us a line, and I’ll remove it right away.

The Vinyl Countdown

A hoarder, me; I have a cupboard filled with about 500 LPs and probably an equal number of 7″ and 12″ singles. Caroline is constantly telling me they are an anchor, mooring us in the dock of clutter. And I sympathise. I loved a story I read the other day on a Zen Buddhist site, about the man who limits himself to 600 possessions — each time he receives a gift or acquires something new, he selects an item to give away.

As pleasing as this idea is, I cling to my vinyl like a comfort blanket. Belying the rock journo cliché that pop music is “disposable”, this stuff is no more disposable than a family photo album. Though I get shirty with those guests on Desert Island Discs, whose collections seem to represent only memories — as if what’s in the grooves counted for nothing — it’s undeniable that these records are stamped with their context: favourite record shops, pocket money and student grants, bargain bins, favourable reviews in the NME or radio plays.

[As I write, I’m conscious this talk of grooves and record shops casts me in the archaic mould of my grandparents with their wireless and stereogram, but bear with me young reader; you’ll be here sooner than you think, with your cherished memories of the shiny silver disc!]

The last LP I bought was Neil Young’s Freedom, and the first CDs included Kate Bush – The Sensual World and Rei Momo by David Byrne. So we must have graduated to CD around October ’89. A strange boy, I moved backward through recorded history as easily as forward, and so reckon my earliest is a November 1933 release of Your Mother’s Son-In-Law by Billie Holiday. A fifty-odd year slice of recorded music.

Inspired by the lovely Eclectic Boogaloo I have resolved to sweat this asset. will unleash choice cuts into the blogosphere under the usual ethical-if-not-quite-legal guidelines. If you like the music, buy it (unless it’s deleted, in which case tough luck mr. music mogul). MP3s will be removed after a limited airing of a week or two.

And the most delightful part of this plan is that it allows me to use a cheesy pun. Welcome to The Vinyl Countdown. Now read on…

Thank God that's over

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that our migration to a new web host has completed successfully. Though not without incident. I clumsily deleted all articles during the transition, and had to reconstitute from various bits of backup, here, there and everywhere. For a while our About page pointed to a story about Space Aliens, curiously appropriate especially after an all-night session to repair the mess I’d created. If I were Jerry Pournelle of Computing at Chaos Manor fame, I’d tell you all the gory details, but I’m not, so I won’t.

Normal service should now be resumed.

I’m all lost in the supermarket

shopping-list.jpgYou’re looking at a fragment of our weekly shopping list. Note the colour-coding for different sections of the store, the aisle numbers in the left-hand column, even the sub-aisles denoted by a proto Dewey decimal system of groceries. I know what you’re thinking. Hold fast those cries of “anal retentive”. Titter-ye-not at this most un J-M like behaviour. This is the work of my beloved and I am its beneficiary. Each week, Caroline studiously prepares this list, and I carry it to Sainsbury’s to perform a deft and streamlined weekly shop. I sleekly glide through the aisles like German engineering, picking items hither and thither without a care to furrow my brow.

I have been doing this on a weekly basis for many years. The routine doesn’t end with the list. Each week I meet Martin at Sainsbury’s and we share the same jokes, gossip about mutual friends, catch up on news of my former employer. Usually we meet in aisle 34, but just for grins we sometimes shake things up and give 33 a try.

Lately though, things have been sadly amiss at Sainsbury’s. Martin likened it to a Soviet winter. Gaping holes appear on shelves and the German machinery lurches and fails. Instead of a neat array of crosses, I return with a list scarred with circles; items that must be returned to next week’s list, or, worse, extraordinary shopping trips have to be undertaken.

This morning we decided to try something different. Circumstances found us Child-Free in Chandlers Ford (aside: Richard Curtis you may use this title in exchange for 1% of box-office takings). We felt the magnetic pull of the newish Waitrose store that has been drawing in people like us like moths to a flame.

“It’s a bit disorienting” I announce unsteadily.
“Never fear” says C. “It’ll be good for us; stretch us a bit”.
A few aisles later: “You have to keep your wits about you, on this mind-expanding trip around the supermarket”, I whimper. “I think we just missed Camomile tea”.

I’m discomfited by the massed shelves of Perfectly Balanced foods. A lifelong ectomorph, I distrust this stuff. I seek out Satisfyingly Saturated and Famously Filling. Still, the Bistro Tarts look tasty and Tom proclaimed the chocolate brownies a triumph. Small thrills cheer me: being able to self-scan The Guardian, rather than furtively declaring it a problem item, as if smuggling Das Kapital into Dallas-Fort Worth.

A last surprise in store (groan). Too many months working at BT have introduced me to the term “bill-shock”, but today I experienced it. Our case of Grolsch, regularly ‘11.99 at Sainsbury’s, even sometimes two for ’22, came in at ‘18.35.

A voice rings out from the service desk: “Customer about a lobster.”

Marshall Plan: What Plan?

If you squint your eyes a bit, you can blur out modern-day bourgeois Winchester, its preoccupation with property prices and the frequency of trains to Waterloo. What’s left is a vibrant medieval city, which often claims to be the historic capital of England. (As a native of Leofric’s Mercia, I suspect that claim is over-inflated, but I’m not one to pursue tribal disputes).

I took a walk up St. Giles Hill on a crisp, clear day. It sits just at the edge of the urban centre. It’s a short, steep climb, so the view from the top feels like that from a tall spire, rather than a distant hill-top. One could almost throw a stone through the Cathedral windows, or toss back a ball to the floppy-haired public-school boys at the College. The plateau of the hill was, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the site of St Giles Fair. Barbara Carpenter Turner’s History of Winchester explains the significance of the fair.

Merchants came from all over England, and even from Ireland, most of them trading in wool or cloth. … There were Frenchmen, Spaniards and men from the Low Countries. They brought in wine, spices, silks and other luxuries of medieval life, for this was one of the four most important fairs in England.

Gambian childrenSeveral years ago Caroline and I visited The Gambia. Our friend Jo took us up-country by Land Rover, stopping at the town of Farafenni. Farafenni sits at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, and is host to a market, one of the most important in West Africa. It attracts traders from all over the region: the lanky Wolof from Senegal, Fulani, Mandinka and the blue-hooded and cloaked Tuareg from the North. Stalls spread far into the distance, selling fabrics, spices, a few scrawny vegetables and some livestock. Diesel may have largely replaced the camel, indeed the nearby crossing of the Gambia river resembles Calais in a port strike, but otherwise the same scene must have existed for centuries.

What struck me as I climbed St Giles Hill was that Europe and Africa operated surprisingly similar economies a few hundred years ago, yet have drastically diverged. And that’s not meant pejoratively. I doubt the Africans are distraught that they lack the finer achievements of modern life: the M25, out-of-town shopping and Pot Noodles.

So, Gordon Brown has a mission to develop Africa, and a fine intent that is, but what is the model to which the continent should aspire’ Are African nations lining up to provide cheap manufacturing labour as the Asian tigers price themselves out of the market’ Or is there an alternative’

Martin Wolf, the FT columnist and author of Why Globalisation Works, is the toast of Threadneedle Street because (it’s claimed) he has comprehensively demolished the anti-globalisation argument. Naomi Klein (they say) is history.

I confess, I haven’t read Wolf’s book yet, but I have studied some of his data. Wolf’s seductive argument is that those countries that have embraced globalised industrial development — notably India, China and the South East Asian nations — have reduced poverty and decreased inequality. To his credit, Wolf measures wealth (or poverty) in terms of purchasing power parity, a more robust definition than those who ignore relative cost-of-living. I imagine one could live more lavishly on ‘5,000 a year in Kerala than ‘50,000 in Kew.

What makes me uncomfortable is Wolf’s premise that poverty can be monetarised so objectively. Who is richer, an African herdsman with sufficient cattle and bread to feed his family, or a Chinese factory worker, sweating for 16 hours a day in unhealthy conditions, but earning enough to make a one hour mobile phone call’ What evidence have we that a subsistence economy is poorer in real, human terms than an industrialised one’ How shall we quantify eradication of Malaria, or an end to famine’ What price freedom from genocide’

I wish I understood these things, and so Small Is Beautiful is on my reading list, along with Why Globalisation Works.

Keeping up appearances

Someone visited the site using a Netscape 4.7 browser. I know this looks hideous; unusable actually. It feels like meeting a friend in Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning, when you’re unshaven and with greasy hair. Actually it’s worse than that. It’s like being unshaven, greasy, and incoherent from drink.

Should I work on a stylesheet that passes muster under NN4?

Then again, I still don’t shave on Saturday mornings.

One Morning

Before Christmas, Dervala and I discovered a shared relish for Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album. It’s a quiet masterpiece, Daniel Lanois’ luminous production cradling a clutch of fine songs from a generation of great writers: Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and more. Dervala kindly sent me a compilation featuring some of Emmylou’s influences—along with a challenge to write something about these performers.

Hell Among the YearlingsGillian Welch is an odd one. As a student in Santa Cruz in the 80s, she was a devotee of the alternative rock scene. Camper Van Beethoven and The Pixies held sway on her turntable. But bizarrely, she began to develop a passion for old-timey and bluegrass music. The Clinch Mountain Boys elbowed out The Breeders, and Gillian, together with her writing and performing partner David Rawlings, adopted this archaic medium as her own. She can share a stage with a veteran like Ralph Stanley, but the real marvel is that Welch and Rawlings are able to escape pastiche and tackle thoroughly modern topics. For heaven’s sake, Everything Is Free is about illegal music downloads!

But the song that left the deepest mark on me portrays a historical, yet timeless scene. It’s deeply cinematic, vividly conjuring weather and landscape. In performance, it’s spacious, the frailed banjo refrains providing pause to absorb each stanza. Yet, unusually, I think it retains some power as poetry.

One morning, one morning as work I begun,

What did I see riding out of the sun,

On the road from Lexington’

One rider, one rider beating the breeze,

Down on his saddle, low to his knees,

Coming through my willow trees.

Now closer the terrible work of the gun,

Was stiffened and black where his blood all had run,

But I knew my wayward son.

One morning, one morning the boy of my breast,

Came to my door unable to rest,

Even in the arms of death.

On Hyndford Street

Walking out, gloved and hatted against the chill January darkness, leaving behind the Golden Mile, Belfast’s cosmopolitan, Victorian-yet-modern commercial heart, still lit with Christmas decorations. Crossing the Albert Bridge by the Central Railway Station, heading east and turning right on Castlereagh Street. Now this is East Belfast. This is working people’s land, unimproved. Loyalist; tattered Ulster and Union Flags flap limply from poles. Windowless bookie shops, eyes averted in shame from the street-corner Christian Outreach Mission.

Left now on Beersbridge Road, Magee’s Corner Coffee House a scant concession to the Cappuccino generation. Otherwise the scene seems little changed in forty years. Small engineering workshops, Chinese and Chips. A wee boy speeds past in a Formula One pedal car, pristine, The Green Machine — a treasured Christmas present, no doubt — and hops into the paper shop proffering pennies. For what’ ‘Barnbracks, Wagon Wheels’‘ Passing the site of the Elmgrove Primary School on the right, now demolished, graffiti reinforces my anxiety: Muggins is not acceptable in East Belfast; is it a misspelling, or is Muggins me’

Now right, on Hyndford Street, hallowed ground. Narrow road, narrow pavements, the odd-numbered side crammed with squat, flat-fronted terraces, the even-numbered, first workshops, then terraces with a downstairs bay; no doubt an important status elevator in this humble place. Staring rudely at doorways on the odd-numbered side, finally here it is. 125 Hyndford Street, the brass plaque proudly polished. Singer Songwriter Van Morrison lived here 1945-1961. I pause, but only for seconds, not wishing to draw attention to myself, and consider how this simple landscape gave rise to the epic grandeur of Astral Weeks. Continuing, teenagers on the corner send a radio-controlled car shuttling in my direction ‘Walter and John, Katie and Ron used to hang out by the corner lamp light’. Left on Dunraven Avenue the flags are now of the UVF, reminding that the troubles, though dormant, are not ended, still less forgotten.

But we’re moving up-market now, crossing avenues, first Martinez, broader, tree-lined. Solid semis, drives housing Mondeo and Avensis. And then — passing the rectangular heft of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church — Cyprus Avenue. ‘The clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe’. Astral Weeks is playing continuously in my head, burned-in by innumerable repeats in my own teens. Pavements broader still, two men could lie end-to-end across these. The trees, pollarded, providing summer shade. These are Victorian merchants’ houses, the drives deep and curving, nestling today’s luxury carriages: SUV, Mercedes, BMW. Vermilion walls and picture rails glimpsed through broad double bays. This is where Van came to spy on his fourteen-year-old princess, ‘rainbow ribbons in her hair’. A bare half-mile from Hyndford Street. The avenue, lofty from the start, climbs steadily to the grandest of the grand houses, ‘way up on the avenue of trees’. Was it simply the verdant space that fired Van’s poetic imagination, or did he also dream of privilege and upward mobility’ Music was, no doubt, his inescapable passion, but it’s hard not to conclude it was also his one-way ticket from Hyndford Street.

2004 music awards

It’s the time of year when thoughts turn to favourite music, at least for those afflicted (as I am) with Hornby’s Syndrome, an unhealthy desire to classify, evaluate and reduce great art to numbers and lists. I’ve not been on the ball this year, fROOTS has gone unread, I haven’t been hooked on any music lists. But still a few things seeped through to snag us. Not all 2004 releases, it takes me a while to catch up. Here are five:

Ojos de Brujo, Bari.

Album of the year in J-M land, these Catalans combine outrageously adept flamenco musicianship with hip-hop spirit to make music you can sing and dance to. Outstanding live; we missed them at WOMAD 2003 (though caught the TV coverage) but saw them at Glastonbury this summer. Should be due a new album soon, can it get as good as this’

Oi Va Voi, Laughter Through Tears.

Young Londoners take Jewish culture by the horns. 20-year-olds sound like octagenarian Rabbis as the Hebrew chants mix with beats, though in this case it’s only (real) drum and bass providing the rhythm.

Diana Krall, The Girl in the Other Room.

Always liked her voice, but a certain glibness turned me off at times. The tartness of songs co-written with Costello seems to be the missing ingredient. There’s real emotional depth here.

Jim White, Drill A Hole In That Substrate and Tell Me What You See.

How to describe this’ An ersatz Bob Dylan with a weedy voice and an obsession with the religiosity of Southern USA meets a swampy electro-blues soundtrack to produce some vivid sound pictures. Favourite track: Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style.

Damien Rice, O.

A dangerously populist choice, but D seems to be inhabited by a touch of the spirit of Van Morrison, while Lisa Hannigan’s voice and Vyvienne Long’s ‘cello are masterfully introduced.