I hate to say it, but British Sea Power are a little bit of a national treasure. A band who encapsulate what indie music is all about: an independent guitar-based band who have done things their own way over the years. Some of you may remember their infamous Club Sea Power gigs of yore, which encapsulated their cultural eclecticism and inclusiveness. Born at a time when Britpop had run out of fuel, British Sea Power's club do's combined the likes of noise garage-punks The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster with Sussex’ first family of folk, The Copper Family, with added attractions such as a retro fashion show, featuring men and women in vintage war-time outfits. They have been trailblazers in many other respects; from organising gigs in very unusual locations (the Lido in Saltdean, Newhaven Fort, Natural History Museum, various village halls, the Czech Embassy in London, hosting their own festival at Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn etc), to live soundtracking films such as Man of Arran, and composing the music for the brilliantly evocative documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond, a film that explored a century of life along Britain’s coastline. It was a perfect match for British Sea Power, a band who have readily incorporated history – not just British but European, cultural, and natural history, too – into their music and image; from the wearing of retro cycling tops to spreading their live stages with foliage, from using grid references with which to meet journalists to showcasing obscure Cumbrian wrestling, and from releasing a joint single with Somerset’s finest The Wurzels, playing with various brass bands under the moniker Sea of Brass.
Despite the huge popularity of the BBC comedy sitcom Steptoe and Son in the 1960s and 70s, which helped maintain the rag and bone man’s status in English folklore, by the 80s they were mostly gone, consigned to the, er, scrapheap of history. But, as is the way with much of the 21st century so far, with the peculiar British tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses and give it new life, there has been a revival, albeit a minuscule one. You are extremely unlikely to see a rag and bone man with a horse and cart any more (they will now usually use a van) but, as poverty conditions continue to deepen for many in the UK, as always an opportunity is always being sniffed out for those looking to scratch out a living, however meagre.
There's this fantastic collage going round that parodies Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper's album sleeve, replacing the iconic stars (dead or alive) of 1967 with just the dead of 2016. It kept getting updated, right up to the end of 2016, with the untimely deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher sealing the perceived deal that we were dealt a bummer of a hand last year. There's no doubt that many bloggers, commentators and reviewers have, or will report, that 2016 was a bit of a bitch.
It's all hogwash, of course. Social media has made us all commentators now, and amongst many of my Facebook friends, it has been the death of famous musicians that has in particular exercised their tear ducts and pseudo-theorising. But rather than mourning, we should be celebrating. As they do with such life-affirming style in Mexico. Indeed, the theme of 2016 should be about celebrating in the face of adversity, be it emanating from politics and world affairs, or that of art and entertainment.
And how do we celebrate? By revisiting the incredible music that the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael et al produced, of course. Indeed, there was even more excuses for further celebration in the cases of Bowie and Cohen, by dint of the fact they both produced some of their finest ever work in their dying days. And for that we should be thankful.
We should also be thankful that the increasingly justifiably maligned format, The Music Download, continued its freefall into the grave, shortly to permanently snuggle up against phonograph cylinders, minidiscs, 8-tracks, laserdiscs and DAT. Vinyl, meanwhile, after itself flirting with extinction, has been resurrected and, most impressively, overtaken downloads in sales. This is another genuine cause for celebration, as it was only nine years ago – 2007 – that vinyl reached its nadir, when a paltry 200,000 albums were sold in total. Then, many major and independent artists and labels opted not to bother with the format at all. Death seemed likely.
So we’ve made it through the second half of 2016 and the time has come for the second instalment of our half yearly round-up. Back in June I was saying it felt like we’d already been through most of a year, but famous deaths and shocking news stories have turned into a constant theme. It’s almost like a meme has been established and the world’s journalists have simply been searching for more stories that fit the trope. Yes, 2016, you’ve really been trolling us with all of these bizarre twists: Trump, Brexit, the train strikes, the rising celebrity death-count and of course the shock ending of Brangelina! Of course all this is merely the support band and music itself is the big star for us here at Brightonsfinest.com. We’ve asked our writers to pick out their favourite album and show of 2016, as well as an album we missed for review when it was released. Read on to see what we loved from the last six months…
Best of July – December 2016
People Powered – Concerts for Corbyn – Brighton Dome – Friday 16th December 2016
Politics and music have not always seen eye to eye, but their intimately intermingled relationship has, to a greater or lesser degree, always been there. However, political protest via the medium of music had all but been submerged within the commercial airwaves by the first decade of the 21st century. Thankfully though, their spirit has driven much of contemporary alternative music. Indeed, folk music has always had social and political issues at its heart, folk music in essence reflecting the creativity of working people, who have consistently used it as a political voice, and not just one for the purposes of ‘entertaining’.
But, in the wrong hands, politics and music have often been uneasy bedfellows. Certainly, no one likes to be pummelled into submission via political sloganeering.
Take John Lennon, for instance. Songs such as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Revolution’ (in particular, the anti-revolution album version), and ‘Come Together’ are all, to varying degrees, songs with oblique socio-political-cultural references. They are shrouded in cryptic allusions to political events and scenes, which nevertheless resonated with listeners. These songs, and others, were open to interpretation, and didn’t attempt to force a point of view on anyone. That’s why they are liked. Loved even (of course, the melodies and harmonies have to be there as well!). Conversely, when Lennon went nakedly political for his almost universally derided Some Time in New York City album, his table thumping, extreme political posturing resulted in by far the worst, and least popular music of his career. Such direct lyricism in the political arena almost always goes hand-in-hand with sledgehammers for melodies. From ‘Imagine’ to ‘Woman Is The Nigger of the World’ in the space of little more than a year. From sublime and nuanced poetry, that at least attempts to understand and communicate the complexities of life, to obnoxious generalisations that only dictatorial regimes could sign up to.
Of course, when it comes to issues like racism, it was relatively easy to rally the forces. Rock Against Racism of the late 70s was a no-brainer (apart from for racists), an easy wagon to jump on to and believe in. However, the Red Wedge campaign of the mid-80s was a more difficult sell. In essence, its purpose was to sell the politics and ideology of the Labour Party. The likes of Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The Communards, Elvis Costello, The The and many other alternative and mainstream stars of the day took sides with the Labour Party of headed by Neil Kinnock, as the 1987 general election loomed. The Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, comfortably won that election, and indeed the subsequent one under John Major in 1992. But, in ’97, Labour finally won back power, and for a short moment, it seemed most of the country’s musicians partied with the politicians; everyone from Oasis to Peter Gabriel believed big changes were a-coming. But, instead of poetic outpourings we instead got ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Alas, it was not quite to be for many of those initially star-struck stars. And from then on, the country glacially shifted to the centre ground. Recent shockwaves however, have opened up a Pandora’s box of ‘whatever next’. These are, to say the least, interesting and volatile times we live in.
Brighton will get to see plenty of Kate Tempest next May. She has been named Guest Artistic Director for next year’s Brighton Festival. A hands-on job, it will enable her to curate artists and acts she believes in, and hopefully we’ll get to see her perform too. She’ll also be, by some distance, the youngest Guest Artistic Director the Brighton Festival has ever seen. Only 30, Tempest’s list of achievements are already extraordinary; Mercury Prize nominee for her debut album Everybody Down, Ted Hughes award winner for Brand New Ancients, shortlisted for the 2016 Costa poetry award, writer of several plays including Wasted, Glasshouse and Hopelessly; and acclaimed novelist with the multi-generational tale of drugs, desire and belonging, The Bricks That Built The Houses.
But it is her music that she is best known for. She has a long history of performing at open mics, spoken word events and with bands, all of which prepared her for Everybody Down, her first official album release. It was a brilliantly conceived collection of narrative tracks that married her traditional poetry craft, her skilful and resonating spoken metre, with the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and urban electro beats courtesy of Dan Carey. With that album she spoke from the heart and with a great deal of courage about everyday tales of poverty, class, consumerism and even simple everyday living – at times drawing on mythology and holistic philosophy to tie the individual narratives into a cohesive whole. Socio-political issues were being subtly woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives. She was a much needed socio-political voice in a sea of trite and trivial pop and rock. But she was also sharp and funny with it.
A couple of months ago, she released her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, also made with Dan Carey. A continuation of Everybody Down, Tempest delved deeper into her thoughts on the universe and everything: each individual’s place within it and the interconnectivity between them and all things. It’s a collection of songs centred around an apocalyptic storm, that ultimately pulls together the lives of seven seemingly unconnected individuals, living on the same anonymous street in London. It details their lives at 4.18am, perhaps the deepest part of the night, a time when humans are perhaps least physically connected.
A lot was pinned on this young man. Expectations had gone through the roof. That maybe here was another Ed Sheehan or Sam Smith on their hands. Someone who could shift records en masse in this day and age of declining sales.
He has’t quite got to that point and it’s unlikely he ever will. Not because he isn’t any good. It’s just that expectations were way too high to begin with and because he’s Jack Garratt: a self-described “musical sponge,” growing up on the likes of Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Waits. A man so in love with music and the craft of music making that he’d probably be doing it anyway, whether anyone was listening or not.
At the beginning of the year he won the BBC Sound Poll, a hugely significant award for many artists down the years. The annual award aims to predict the artists who are likely to have a fruitful 12 months ahead of them. Adele, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J and the aforementioned Sam Smith have been previous winners and now Garratt. He’s also won the Brit critics’ choice award, hence the anticipation that things might go stratospheric. Certainly, as far the business side of the industry was concerned, there might be a little disappointment that his debut album, Phase, ‘only’ made it to number three, and that some of his tour dates didn’t sell out. But, by any measure of success, for one so early in his career, this has been a good year. Moreover, Phase is a remarkable album, a stunningly inventive electro-pop creation that has, rather bewilderingly, not been given the reviews I think it deserves. There might be a little snobbery here. Garratt is not particularly cool in the eyes of some tastemakers; there is a discernible geekiness about him; he’s from the very Middle England village of Little Chalfont in Buckinghamshire and he can come across as uber-eager, a little irritatingly so!
The Big Four: Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Clash and The Damned. The Pistols had all the notoriety, the headlines in the press, and the archetypal punk rockers in Johnny Rotten and, later on, Sid Vicious. Buzzcocks had the tunes, the energy and were (almost) there first. The Clash had the politics, the ire, the songs too. Then there was the Damned. They were the first in may ways. Perhaps closest allied to the Pistols in terms of dress sense, and the ever-so-slightly cartoonish quality they brought to an era. But they had it all. They had the songs, the raucousness, the image and indeed the musicianship.
Whilst punk rockers like to say that music was in dire need of a kick up the arse in 1976, this is only partly true. As always, there was great music being released. Some true rock’n’roll beauties as well, but almost all from abroad; The Ramones, AC/DC, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, and Blondie (via their debut ‘X Offender’ single), were all making a big mark. Their back-to basics, no frills rock’n’roll, with more than a hint of embedded DIY, was obviously sending waves across the Atlantic to a nascent punk scene that was forming in small pockets around the country, particularly in London and Manchester.
Yes, there was an impetus to create simple, no-nonsense music as an antidote to the increasingly bombastic and lightweight pop and rock worlds of the time. Artists such as Yes, Camel, Camel, Genesis, Peter Frampton, Steely Dan, Jean-Michel Jarre, Wings, 10cc, and Led Zeppelin were in the firing line for these brewing punks, who were out to question the status quo; the way these things were done (major labels, huge expenses, slow moving, etc) and the way music was supposed to be. Not that these acts were bad per se, it was just that they were getting tired and over reaching themselves. For instance Led Zeppelin, a band who in their day were ferocious, loud, and most definitely raw, like punks in fact, were over reaching by 1976, the release of Presence, was simply blunted, a little overblown and a little… old.
Many of you will know the story by now. Brighton based Mike Rosenberg and his band had a fair bit of development money thrown at them in the mid 2000s, but to little avail. Despite a well received album, Wicked Man's Rest, the money ran out and in 2009 Mike aborted the project and decided to live a life on the road, as a solo acoustic singer songwriter. He would get on the train, rock up here and there, busk on the streets, do some gigs and he started spending half of his time in Australia, which became a second home. The consummate songwriter and performer, he was making a living, and was releasing his own music, independently, including three albums that did particularly well in Australia.
Sometime in 2010/11 he re-kindled his friendship with Ed Sheeran, whom he had first known when Sheeran was just 15, performing together in a small Cambridge venue. Over the years they played together on occasion, while both were in effect struggling musicians trying to carve out their respective careers. By 2011 Sheeran's popularity was going through the roof and he invited Mike to tour with him as a support act and joining him onstage for duets. In mid 2012, Mike's ‘Let Her Go’ was released as a single. From the All The Little Lights album, it was eventually picked up by a Dutch radio station, who ran with it, helping to turn it into a number two hit in Holland. The dominoes quickly fell after this point, the song reaching number one in 18 countries in 2013, as well as number two in the UK and number five in the USA.
Although he hasn't replicated the success of that hit since, his popularity continues to rise. Not only has he two back-to-back sold out shows at the Dome in Brighton to look forward to, his recent album, Young As the Morning Old As The Sea made it to the top of the UK album charts.
A bona-fide cult indie legend, since the age of 14 Kristin Hersh has spent her life making music, following her ’accidental’ creative calling. She started her first band, Throwing Muses, soon after sustaining injuries in a bicycle accident, at the age of 16, an accident that saw her possessed by sounds she heard in her head. Sounds that she was able to turn into song at a prolific rate. Sounds that she can’t actually do anything about. They came to her and she seemed to have no other option but to put them down as songs. This continued right up to only a couple of years ago when she was finally properly diagnosed and a treatment was found. Whilst she was able to channel these sounds into a career as a songwriter and musician, she was also periodically suffering from this ‘malaise’, that had alternately enabled and inhibited her. “It’s a blessing,” she says whilst on the road for another tour of the UK. “It’s very quiet now.”
In her recent memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, she described the sound in her head as, "a metallic whining, like industrial noise, layered with humming tones and wind chimes.” There were shapes, too. "I watched and listened," she wrote, "bewildered and enthralled as sound and colour filled my empty hospital room.” She’s also described her songwriting method as, “Lyrics puke themselves out, for me. I hear them as an instrument, of phonetic melody. When I try and sing lyrics that are wrong they stick in my throat. I feel that I am lying and it’s not until they spill out that I know they are telling the truth.”
She also says she has no memory of having written any song. “I had no memories of any of the traumas in my life. I had no emotional attachment to any of them. I didn’t know what my songs were about. So what it released was a barrage of trauma. Your whole psyche is geared towards avoiding those traumas. I thought it would kill me. I thought the pain would kill me.
“I was a very nice lady who would scream and yell for a living. I am a little frustrated that there isn’t a single professional in all these audiences for thirty years that could see me shifting personalities, where I would start to shiver and freeze and go glassy-eyed and not be present. In-between songs I would be me. It was classic dissociative (behaviour). My drummer said he knew. Journalists, I think, must have thought I was speaking metaphorically when I said I had no idea what was going on when I play. I’m not there, I disappear.”
Such is the extraordinary conditions that Kristin Hersh has had to endure since that childhood accident, conditions that have had her diagnosed as bi-polar, and schizophrenic. Not that it was all bad. She’s survived, and she’s had plenty of fun and good times on the way. But her peculiar condition was one she had to learn very hard to cope with along the way. “The dissociative issue is one of those terrible secrets,” she says. “Your form, your psychology, your physiology. I don’t want to say it ruined my life, but my goodness! When I went through EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitisation, Reproducing), I lost about 100 pounds of history.”