Monthly Archives: November 2011

On having a moustache

I have been growing a fine, nay, magnificent, horseshoe moustache since the first of November, in the name of charity. You may have heard of Movember, the fundraising scheme which encourages men to grow a moustache in order to raise awareness of men’s health issues such as testicular and prostate cancer.

I’ve fancied taking part for the last couple of years but somehow always managed to forget. This year, though, I stated my aim early, set-up a page on the official Movember website, and then, on the first of November, made sure I was completely clean shaven so I could grow a moustache from scratch.

It’s been an odd process; several of us at work are taking part, and between around a dozen of us we’ve now raised well over £1,000 in sponsorship. We’ve met up once a week to see how we’re all getting on with growing our face-furniture, and the camaraderie and encouragement in the first couple of weeks, when we all looked like hapless adolescents, was a definite help.

I decided to grow a full on “Hulk Hogan” style moustache (which I understand is called a ‘horseshoe’ in some circles), as it seemed the most fun; a tiny hint of style and a healthy dose of self-aware amusement. For the first few days it was fine; a couple of weeks in and I was very aware of the fuzz above my mouth, conscious of it every time I moved my lips to speak, eat, or assume any kind of facial expression. There have been a couple of moments, generally when very tired or warm, when it has itched me into irritation, but the weight of sponsorship has kept me from shaving it off.

The itching barrier is always what prevents me growing a full beard (that and vague patchiness / creeping ginger) on the occasions where I’ve left it more than a few days without shaving and wondered whether I could / should take it further. (I hate shaving, and try to only do it a couple of times a week; I’m cursed with sensitive skin, which no amount of moisturiser or soothing aftershave balms can keep from becoming inflamed and irritated when I scrape sharp metal over it.)

I’ve been called a lot of things whilst growing the moustache: “el bandito”, ‘a German porn star”, “a trucker”, “a hipster”, “a Mexican”… A colleague’s toddler son called me “daddy” purely because his dad apparently has a beard, and toddlers are nothing if not easily confused by facial hair. Several people have told me that it suits me, and asked if I’ll keep it; while it’s nice to know that I don’t look as daft as some people taking part in Movember, I don’t think I’ll be keeping it; for a start, Emma’s dad has had a moustache for as long as she’s been alive, so she’s not keen on me keeping it past the end of the month. Also, it seems like more of an effort to maintain a moustache than to shave completely; a well as being careful not to clip the edges of it when shaving, you also have to shampoo, comb, trim, moisturise and manicure the damn thing, and all while it’s on your face, to prevent tangles, dry skin, and looking like a tramp.

Having a moustache this month has made me wander what moustaches mean, what they signify, and I haven’t the foggiest. It does change the way people look at you, from time to time. Some people stare; some people take a second glance. Is growing a moustache about the reclamation of an eroded masculinity? Beards in recent years have assumed a certain counter-cultural acceptability when worn by young men, generally geeky alternative types empowered by certain musical aesthetics. But the moustache, although celebrated in some hipster circles, and popular with a certain breed of cyclist, still seems to be a rare affectation except during Movember. Obviously there are a number of styles it can be worn in, each carrying its own signifiers and cultural baggage – no one, I would wager, will be growing a “Hitler” this month. Almost anyone you see with a proper, established, more-than-a-month-old moustache is generally older, but beyond that I can’t generalise. Some look like truckers. Some don’t. Not many look like Charlie Bronson.

If I can manage to put up with it for a few days past the first of December, my hairdresser has offered to shear the moustache off for free with her clippers next Saturday, to save me the agony of scissoring and wet-shaving it off. I think I’ll grow another next Movember.

If you’re feeling flush, you can sponsor me here.


Rites of passage

Adam’s massive television filled his entire desk; this suggested, to me, that he wasn’t that interested in, you know, studying, at his desk. Which is what the desk was for. The TV was probably only 28” across the diagonal, but this was 1998, and flat-panel plasma, LCD, and LED TVs were either prohibitively expensive or else didn’t really exist yet, so Adam’s massive television was an old-fashioned cathode ray tube, and thus deep. It was black, as I recall. I think Adam was from Scunthorpe. I cannot remember his surname for the life of me. He owned a pair of Versace jeans. I suspected they were knock-offs. I had never heard of Stone Island clothes until I met Adam. I have still never seen anyone wearing anything badged with Stone Island who looks as though they could legitimately afford it.

There was a little guy called Dave, who was a Brummie, I think. I remember little about him except that he liked a drink – I recall one incident where he downed a pint of lager in one go, brought it straight back up into his glass, and then drank it again, because, to all intents and purposes, it appeared to be unaltered apart from having lost a little fizz.

Then there was a guy called Jon or something who was from Croydon, or somewhere, in the room next to me. He’d play bad house music very loud. His name wasn’t Jon. I don’t know what it was. He’d go home at weekends. I think he had an old MG back there, probably working on fixing it up with his dad. He didn’t seem to deal very well with being away from home. I think he had a girlfriend back there, too.

Dan was Welsh but not so as you’d notice. He knew who Tricky was, I think, so I felt like I had more in common with him than any of the others. Brummie Dave owned a copy of Urban Hymns but only because everyone did back then. Dan could have gone one of two ways. He went the other way, and I don’t think I really spoke to him after the first six weeks.

That’s four. Plus me makes five. Our flat had six bedrooms and a kitchen. The sixth flatmate was definitely called John. His surname began with a P. I can’t remember it now. I once, in a fit of pique, called him “the worst person I have ever met”. He was prone to yelling things like “let’s fucken ‘ave it” and “you fucken cunt” very loudly, and downing pints of strong lager. In the first week, when everyone else put up posters and photos to stamp some personality on their blank halls of residence walls, John stuck up several dozen pieces of A4 paper upon which he had scribbled the phrase “YOU FUCKING CUNT”. I wasn’t convinced that this was a psychologically beneficial thing for him to do. I also suspected it indicated that he might be an absolute raving sociopath. I have a feeling he was doing Sports Studies with Management, or something.

In my first week I spent £250 on a minidisc walkman, theorising that if I spent my evenings in the computer room, messing about on the internet and listening to music, rather than getting hammered in the crappy nightclubs in town, it would soon prove to be a sound investment. Messing about on the internet and listening to music became a bit of a theme, obviously.

One night, about five weeks into term, I’d stayed in to read some poetry for my English class the next day, while everyone else in the flat had gone to one of the nightclubs in town. Visage, I think it was called. I never set foot in it in three years there. They got back late, drunk, and went into the kitchen, with a couple of other lads from adjacent flats. Northampton was not a great university. The entry requirements were not high. I had an A at A Level and this made people ask me what the fuck I was doing there. I didn’t know; I only had the one A though.

Some Asian guys passed the kitchen window, and some shouting and idiotic, racially charged bravado led to one of the guys from an adjacent flat punching his way through the double-glazed window, presumably in an effort to demonstrate his masculinity and idiotic racist “superiority” to one of the Asian guys outside. As the only sober person there it was up to me to call an ambulance and pick shards of broken glass out of the moron’s hand and wrap a clean pillowcase around it to stem the bleeding. This wasn’t the first incident where I’d thought I should probably move out of the flat as soon as possible. In fact, there had been lots, and lots, over the course of six weeks or so, to the point where I thought I was going mad, and felt like a pariah, and suspected I might actually be some kind of weird gibbering freakazoid who no one liked and who had no social skills. I ran to Student Services the next day and begged to be moved to a different flat. They moved me. It was better. I’ll write about Chico and Ginger Nick and Biggles and the guy whose name I can’t remember who kept all his dirty dishes underneath his bed some other time.

Having known and been friends with almost literally everyone at the school I’d done GCSEs and A Levels at, having played on the football team a few times and been ‘principal student’, and been student rep on the board of governors, and having been in every school play, and just generally been a big fish in a small pond, going away to university and suddenly becoming a lonely freak surrounded by football hooligans was a humbling and confidence rattling experience. I “should” have been president of the students’ union, editor of the student paper, etc. etc., but instead I withdrew from any kind of participation at all, apart from with a small circle of (admittedly pretty wonderful) people, who also probably “should” have all been president of the students’ union and editor of the student paper, too, but who, instead, found themselves lost and isolated at in a weird bit of the country that didn’t know if it was a suburb of London or a part of the midlands or an outlier of East Anglia.

There were good times, too; the midnight drive to London with a stolen gnome; Oliver’s opening words to me after our first seminar together, still frighteningly prescient (“I bet you’ve got a fucking wicked stereo”); parties with Jewish Ben and Emily and everyone else, real people, nice people, at the hall of residence across the way; a certain sense of belonging when our lecturers battered us with Marxist cultural theory in the opening weeks of term in an effort to make people who thought the course would be a “doss” drop out at an alarming rate; lots and lots of laughter with Olly and James and Cat and Ben; hours spent trawling record shops; listening to records with Magnus at his house where he had a wife, and, after 10 months of university, a baby too(!); Friday afternoons spent reading The Guardian in The Charles Bradlaugh pub with a few pints of Guinness; late nights listening to music and talking shit with like-minded people in halls – well, one like-minded person. Etc, etc.

I spent Wednesday this week on an epic all-day photoshoot for work, taking pictures of students for the profiles that we put in the prospectus. The vast majority of them were recommended because of how much they participate – in Community Action, in the Guild, in RAG activities, in societies, in training and employment and study abroad opportunities, in student media, in starting their own magazines or companies. They all, every one, love the university they’re at. I love the university they’re at more than the one I went to study at myself. Which isn’t really surprising, given that I didn’t participate at all, felt no sense of community, of ownership, of identity, of belonging to the place. Experiences like Wednesday give me a little pang of regret, make me wish I could have my time at university over again, pick somewhere different, be someone different. But it doesn’t last long.

It’s not Adam or Dave or Dan or John’s fault; it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way things happened. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing at university, for the most part; I didn’t really understand that you get back what you put in. I didn’t know how to put anything in, and at the time I didn’t want to and probably couldn’t have anyway even if the inclination had been there. I’m lucky that I got from there to where I am now, which is a very nice place indeed for the time being. Sometimes I wonder what Adam and Dave and Dan and John are doing. But not very often.

Some thoughts on St. Vincent and women in music

For some reason I didn’t really like female vocalists when I was younger; I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it was a pre-adolescent and adolescent identity thing – a lot of the music you like when you’re young is aspirational, is by people you want to be like in some way, or reflects (or, perhaps more likely, influences) character traits you (want to) see in yourself. And boys are taught not to want to be women, not to identify with them. It wasn’t until I was 20 or 21 and started getting into PJ Harvey that I started to really get into women as musical artists, beyond a dabbling with Björk and a love of 60s women-as-vehicle-for-song (Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick). 90s women, the ones making records when I was really getting into music, were strange, frightening, sexual things that I didn’t understand – Björk filtered through because she was essentially a space-alien when positioned next to anyone else, so far beyond ‘other’ that she became an innovation rather than a woman, and thus I could deal with her.

The last twelve years have seen me try to redress this balance, but it’s an almost impossible thing to do. If I were to go along our music shelves and figure out the proportion of records by female artists across the whole I’m pretty sure it would be less than 10%. Sadly, I suspect that 10% is probably quite a high proportion against the average.

On Friday night we drove to Bristol to see Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent. We got into her a couple of years ago with Actor, and eagerly awaited her new record this year. Strange Mercy hasn’t fully kicked in with me yet, but Actor was a slow burner, which wormed its way to being probably my most-played and most-enjoyed record of 2009 over a period of several months. In my experience these are the best records, the ones I enjoy the most, the ones I find the deepest layers of satisfaction in.

At one point last night I heard a couple of guys, who I think were in their late 40s, talking about Annie Clark’s guitar playing. One of them said (and this is as close to verbatim as I can recall) “I’m not sure how much is her, and how much is coming from that guy on the synth.” Now I’m not sure exactly of the context of their conversation, but I didn’t take this as a point about the varied tone and texture emanating from the fretboard being so skillful and unreal as to be unlike a guitar (“no synthesizers were used in the making of this record” as Kitchens Of Distinction used to say); I took it as meaning “I’m not sure girl could play guitar that well; it must be that guy doing it in secret for her”. A song and a half later, Anne let rip a vicious guitar solo that could only be emanating from her fingers, which pleased me no end.

Caroline Sullivan reviewed St. Vincent’s London gig, a couple of days before we saw her in Bristol, for The Guardian, and recalled a similar comment – “She plays like a man!” – only this time from a woman. I bumped into an old friend outside the gig in Bristol, and spent the evening catching up with him between songs. At one point he compared her to Kate Bush; I couldn’t agree, because I don’t hear her as sounding anything like Kate Bush. But what else have we got to compare her with? At points the sounds she produced from her guitar, the dreamlike wash of noise interspersed with savage, metallic slashes, reminded me a little of Nick McCabe. But only a little.

Emma and I talked about her virtuosity in the car on the way back; neither of us could think of another woman with a similar approach to the guitar who wasn’t also just a nameless member of an all-female band. I don’t know the names of the musicians in Warpaint or Electrelane (I don’t know the names of Wild Beasts or These New Puritans off the top of my head either though, to be fair – which probably says something about my 30-something capacity for being interested in the people in bands, which is greatly reduced from when I was 15 or 20). Even PJ Harvey, awesome axe-wielder that she is (or perhaps was, as she prefers an autoharp these days), isn’t quite a virtuoso – she’d never solo like St. Vincent, and has commented on not practicing guitar as a method of keeping fresh as a songwriter. Marnie Stern comes to mind, and googling turns up a few “best female guitarist lists”, but often the results concern “hotness” rather than skill. This awesome list approaches the idea seriously though – but I barely know any of the names on it, to my shame. (Although, as I just mentioned, that’s not necessarily a gender bias. I’m also, on the whole, not that into guitarists / technical musicians…)

Anyway. Onstage Annie Clark was striking. I didn’t want to write about her appearance, because that shouldn’t matter, but her eyes were astonishing (Emma seemed impressed by her hair, too). I’ve seen people refer to her as beautiful before but never been struck by it in pictures. In the same room, albeit from some distance away, I could see what they meant. More entrancing than her eyes, though, were her fingers; from where we were we could only really see her left hand, but they moved so quickly and precisely, dancing delicately around the fretboard. When I caught a glimpse of her right hand, her fingers seemed to barely touch the strings enough to produce any noise at all; perhaps this was the problem the guy behind me had?

Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.

I wanted to write something about the inherent gender bias in music; it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately following various Twitter conversations with Masonic Boom, who has a thorough, sophisticated, and enviable grasp of the multi-layered psychological politics at play; She’s pointed out my culpability with regards to several pretty outrageously sexist things I’ve said / written, which simply don’t seem sexist (to men) on first contact because the linguistics, (pseudo-platonic) mythologies, assumptions, and imagery that makes up the discourse around music is so pre-loaded. Not a single woman came up in ILM’s Producers Recording Engineers, and Studio Wizards poll, for instance.

Listening to I Want To Be The President by Electrelane. It’s awesome. You should hear it.

The records that shaped my life…

Many years back I’d vaguely intended on doing a series of podcasts for Stylus about ‘epiphany records’, which is almost, but not quite, what this ILM thread is about. An epiphany record would always be an album which shapes your life, but not all albums which shape your life would be epiphany records; some of them creep up on you and act as trends in the development of your taste you’re your relationship with music, rather than turning points that spin your preconceptions and ears round on themselves and leave you facing a new direction.

But anyway…

Age 5(?): Dionne Warwick – Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
I remember hearing this on some oldies local radio program, on Saturday mornings, on the way to the supermarket. The lyric about “all the stars / who never were / are parking cars and pumping gas” meant nothing to me at that age, but stuck in my mind. I still love Bacharach’s way with a melody.

Age 10-12: Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction; Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Cassette tapes (originals, not dubs), inherited from my older brothers, and listened to over and over and over again, the way ten year olds listen. I still own a copy of the former, but not the latter. I see it as about my only guilty pleasure. I’d probably quite enjoy it if I listened to it again.

Age 14: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
I got my first CD player at age 14, and stole a copy of this, and Sgt Pepper, from my dad. They were an odd pair of Beatles albums for him to own – why not the red and blue compilations? – amongst the dinner jazz and Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra; he’s not very psychedelic. The brass, the codas, the instrumental, the basslines – this album left an indelible mark on the sonic signifiers, the aural aesthetics, that I’d respond to for the rest of my life thus far.

Age 15-16: The Stone Roses; Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
The Stone Roses I first heard at age 10, seeping through bedroom walls, and ignored. Later, I’d hear their songs again, recognise their contours, fall in love, Carole-Anne the CD for what felt like every waking hour. (That’s a reference for Kate, if she reads this – “Carole-Anne-ing” is now a verb in my mind, and I don’t even know the source-song – ‘Carole-Anne-ing, verb. to play a song or album over and over again’.) Marvin Gaye I bought because Ian Brown said it was the greatest album ever. I don’t know if I agreed, but it certainly affected me.

Age 17: Orbital – In Sides
Other albums impacted upon me at this age – Paul’s Boutique, Post, Public Enemy, many others – as I was ravenous for sounds and sensations I’d not felt before, but this really stopped me in my tracks. I still remember, and recount, that first listen as an epiphany, as the epiphany, of my musical fandom.

Age 18: Embrace – Fireworks EP; Spiritualized – Ladies & Gentlemen; Jeff Buckley – Grace; Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album
Records that would change my listening, that would impact me on first listen, leave me open mouthed, that would challenge and confound me, that would hook me into communities and activities that would shape my life as well as my tastes, continued to come thick and fast. These are probably the key four.

Age 20-21: Primal Scream – XTRMNTR; Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
XTRMNTR felt like an important record, and epochal record, a record that would change things. I think it actually did – I can see its echoes ripple through an awful lot of 00s music, from The DFA to The Klaxons. Miles Davis, and the rest of jazz beyond him, was something I’d tasted, decided to explore, when I was 19, but which really started to click with me when I found In A Silent Way.

Age 23; Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
I don’t remember quite how I got here, or when I first heard it. I’m pretty sure that ILM and AllMusic led the way, my ravenous research and consumption of music aided and abetted by an undemanding job which gave me free access to the internet and a huge collection of jazz vinyl to explore. This seemed like the logical culmination of that. I barely ever listen to it these days.

Age 24: Manitoba – Up In Flames
Another epiphany – this seemed, on first listen, to have been designed to fit my tastes. I ranted a review about it, and followed Dan Snaith closely from hereon in. He’s got better since, and my affection and admiration for his music has grown, but the moment I bust this out of the cellophane and stuck it in the CD player is a strong memory.

Age 25: The Necks – Drive By
We played a lot of records in the AV department in the library – Fugazi, Underworld, O Rang, John Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, De La Soul, Brian Eno, T Power, Charles Mingus, field records of religious Shaker music, and much, much more – but this was the record that was commented on more than any other, and always positively. I own about 8 of their albums now; they’re all the same, all different, but this remains the one I’ve listened to the most. So many times.

Age 28: Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
I’m not sure that any records since then have “shaped my life”; there have been so many, that the influence of any individual record seems miniscule. These two each feel important, though…

What I’ve not really dealt with here is singles – bar Dionne Warwick – even though they make up many of the epiphanies and trends of my listening. Maybe that’s for another post.