I hear the sirens calling
As the rain is gently falling

January

My internal iTunes always has Pilot’s “January” on a continuous loop at this time of year, but I’ve no problem with that because it’s an almost perfect pop song. The track was produced by Alan Parsons, and two of the guys from Pilot – frontman David Paton and guitarist Ian Bairnson – went on to become key members of The Alan Parsons Project. They also played on Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” debut album.

“January” was Number One in the UK for three weeks in 1975. In February.


My favourite album of 2011

Everyone’s doing their end-of-year lists at the moment. PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” seems to be a lot of people’s choice for Best Album of 2011 – which makes sense even if it is a little predictable. If I were to write out an Albums of 2011 list (which I’m not going to do because I’m too old for that sort of carry on), PJ Harvey would most likely appear quite high up. I’ve also really enjoyed this year’s efforts from Roots Manuva, James Blake, Alphabet Saints, The Fall (natch) and the utterly daft Master Musicians Of Bukkake, but the album I’ve played most and liked best in 2011 is “Bye Bye… We’re Melting” by The Millipede Engine.

“By Bye… We’re Melting” picked up some great reviews here in blogland but was largely ignored by the mainstream media, which is a shame. Maybe it’s because The Millipede Engine – Brill Nudie and Honey Lane – don’t fit easily into any musical category. I guess they’re kind of art rocky, kind of edging on proggy pop (or poppy prog). They like guitars and synths in equal measure, they’re not averse to brass and strings, and Brill Nudie’s vocals have been compared to David Bowie, Pete Shelley and Hurricane Smith. Brill and Honey are clever lyricists too. “The Cup Of Unconditional Love” is about a Jonestown-style mass suicide, while “Magic Robot” and “The Planet Tasters” delve into Ray Bradbury-esque sci-fi territory (and I’m a huge Bradbury fan). My old Melody Maker pal Mick Mercer described the Millipedes as “a bit weird, but in all the right ways” and you’ve only got to take a cursory glance at the sleeve of “Bye Bye” to see what he means.

You can hear every track on “Bye Bye… We’re Melting” at The Millipede Engine’s website (typically oddball of them, it scrolls across the page rather than up and down). Just click here and fire up their steampunk jukebox. If you don’t have time to listen to more than a couple of songs, choose from numbers 1, 3, 4, 9 and 11, and get ready for some multi-coloured dreams.


Anarchy in the ukulele

The Pukes version of Damned Damned Damned The Pukes version of London CallingThere’s only three weeks until Christmas and if you’re still wondering what to get the punk in your life, the answer may lie with The Pukes. I’m not talking about some obscure group from 1977 with a solitary crackly seven-inch to their name. The Pukes are about as here and now as you can get. Well, kinda. They are a self-proclaimed “anti-society” of 10 ladies, some of whom have had several 21st birthdays, who perform classic punk songs on ukuleles. Which is a marvellous concept – and all the more so since they play with considerable skill and a big bucketful of gusto.

I’ve got to say that I’m buying pretty much whatever The Pukes are selling. And right now, as well as dusty old ditties rattled and twanged from teeny-weeny stringed instruments, the ladies are selling a 2012 calendar featuring their interpretations of 12 iconic punk record sleeves. Should you need telling, the revamped creations above are The Damned’s “Damned Damned Damned” and The Clash’s “London Calling” (yup, that’s a ukelele being trashed on “London Calling”), and others in the set include Blondie’s “Parallel Lines”, X-Ray Spex’s “Germ Free Adolescents” and the first Ramones album. The images have been put together by photographer Diana More and designer Lorna Tiefholz, who is herself a Puke.

The Pukes’ calendar is A3, printed on glossy art paper, and will set you back a freshly ironed tenner (plus postage). You can order it by clicking here. You can also see the covers on display at Filthy MacNasty’s in Islington, London, until 17 December, and then at Norwich Arts Centre from 6 to 30 January next year. Watch out for the sweetcorn and the bits of carrot.

New stuff on my website

I’ve just uploaded a few more bits and bobs to Pushstuff, my archive website. Follow the links to read interviews with Flowered Up, Digital Underground, Bandulu, Nagamatzu and Terry Edwards, live reviews of My Bloody Valentine, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and US:UK, and album reviews of The Grid and Vagtazo Halottkemek, my all-time favourite Hungarian psychedelic rockers. I’ve also put up pieces about The Beatles and their 1960s merchandising items and the legal actions brought against 2 Live Crew over their notorious “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” album. Goodness, I do spoil you people, don’t I?


A bit of Guns N’ Roses for your wall

Guns N' Roses at The Marquee in London (1987) by Richard Bellia

My old buddy Richard Bellia has a small selection of his photographs available as prints at Yellow Korner, a website specialising in affordable art imagery. The prints include Joe Strummer (The Clash), Robert Smith (The Cure), reggae idol Lee “Scratch” Perry, two different photos of Nirvana, and the above shot of Guns N’ Roses, which was taken at The Marquee in the summer of 1987, on the band’s first trip to London. Each print is numbered, comes with a certificate of authenticity, and costs €69 – a bargain at twice the price.

I worked with Richard on loads of jobs for Melody Maker in the late Eighties and early Nineties. One of my most vivid memories was when we covered the 1988 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington, an event marred by the tragic death of two fans in the crush of the crowd during Guns N’ Roses’ set. You can read my review of the festival here and a Guns N’ Roses piece based on a couple of interviews I did with Slash (one of them backstage at Donington) here. And if you’ve not had enough of clicking, you can read more about Richard Bellia here. This last link is an extract from my book Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail, in which Richard plays a leading part (although I’m sure Scabies and I would have found the bloody thing quicker without him).


Adam Ant at the Cheese & Grain in Frome

What’s not to like about Adam Ant? I mean, come on now, all that wild-eyed whooping and yodelling, all those have-at-thee-varlet videos, all those “Poldark” and “Onedin Line” costume cast-offs. . .

Tonight, the opening date of his biggest tour in years, Adam strolls out in his finest French Revolutionary outfit. Two hours later, having disrobed layer by layer – first the tight-fitting, gold-braided jacket, then the airy linen shirt and finally, at the end, the Adam Ant vest (oh yes, he’s wearing his own merchandising) – he leaves the stage stripped to waist, which isn’t a pretty sight. He’s not what you would call chubby, but he’s had considerably more pies than Iggy Pop. His Napoleon hat remains firmly jammed on his head all night long, though. It doesn’t move a millimetre. It must have been superglued on, unlike his awkwardly large, black-rimmed spectacles, which he keeps having to push back up his nose with his index finger. Every time that he does it, I can’t help but think of Ronnie Corbett sitting on his big chair telling a shaggy dog story.

Oh balls. I said I wouldn’t do this. Adam Ant has long been an easy target for cynical bastard music journos. But actually, to be fair, when he’s got at least some clothes on, he’s looking good for a man rapidly approaching 60. He’s still sounding good too. Despite an erratic mix, his voice is terrific throughout. A gold star for his band as well. The two drummers (oh yes, he has two drummers) mean there’s plenty of rib rattling and the guitarist isn’t fazed that he’s following in the footsteps of Matthew Ashman and Marco Pirroni, who played such keys roles in Adam And The Ants. I’m not so taken with the pair of flesh-flashing female backing singers, who are more interested in their suspenders than their harmonies, but they’re not onstage half the time and are clearly not there just for their vocals anyway.

The focus of the show is as much on Adam’s punk beginnings as it is on his chart hits. “Cleopatra”, “Cartrouble”, “Whip In My Valise”, “Zerox” and “Deutscher Girls” are some of the early songs to get airings and there’s a lot of stuff from “Kings Of The Wild Frontier”, including a ferocious version of the title track. There’s also a sprinkling of new material, most notably a paean to Vince Taylor which is introduced with a dig at Morrissey, and a crafty medley of T-Rex’s “Get It On” and “20th Century Boy”, the flipping back and forth between the two songs working a treat. When it comes to the big smasheroos, the arrangements are not without surprises, “Prince Charming” getting stripped down to vocals, drums and little else besides. “Stand And Deliver” and “Goody Two Shoes” both flirt with chaos, but I’m glad the band haven’t rehearsed the life out of everything. Raucous energy beats musical perfection any day of the week.

Adam stays at the centre from start to finish, ever the entertainer, the showman, the ringmaster. He’s lost none of his pantomime skills (oh no he hasn’t), but I wonder if some of the crowd were expecting something slicker and poppier than this. Three guys near me keep exchanging confused glances, although I have a feeling they were confused already. The white stripes they’ve painted across their faces don’t go with their smartly pressed shirt collars and V-neck sweaters. They move even less than Adam Ant’s hat and, at the end of the set, their white stripes are fully intact and their shirt collars unruffled.

In contrast, most of the others who have dipped into their children’s facepaints before heading out – and there are a lot of them – are in a right state when the lights go up. One bloke looks like a post-apocalyptic clown, which I found extremely disturbing because I think I recognised him as my GP. I guess that’s the trouble with going to a gig so close to home. I just hope he never wants to stick his finger up my bum.

Adam Ant photo by FromeTV


Brickology

If you haven’t seen the Lego Album Covers group on Flickr, you really are missing a treat. There are over 250 images in the group and only one or two duff efforts among them. I especially like the work of Aaron Savage, who’s responsible for the three superb examples above – David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”, Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” and Grace Jones’s “Island Life”. You can see a slideshow of Aaron’s Lego album covers at his website, Savage Arrow, where you’ll also find a number of other inventive photographic and design creations.


Magazine at Komedia in Bath

I saw Magazine play live just the once in the post-punk era – with Bauhaus in Leeds in May 1980. These were dark and serious times and I went along expecting a dark and serious gig – I wore my dark and serious and overly long coat in readiness for all the darkness and seriousness – but Magazine weren’t having any of it. I remember thinking they were much more cheery than they were meant to have been and my head still holds an image of frontman Howard Devoto skipping across the stage like a small child, at one point almost slipping into that sand dance everyone used to do to Jonathan Richman’s “Egyptian Reggae”.

Back with a new album, “No Thyself”, their first for 30 years, Magazine are as mercurial as ever. At Komedia in Bath, the opening night of a 10-date UK tour, they begin with three old favourites, but “Definitive Gaze” and “Give Me Everything” are at best tentative, at worst perfunctory. It doesn’t help that Devoto seems mainly interested in holding up and waving around a couple of gigantic placards. I have no idea what the placards say because Devoto shields the messages printed on them from the audience. When they get to “Motorcade”, though, it all changes. The placards are chucked into the wings, keyboard maestro Dave Formula is on his feet, guitarist Noko’s chin is tilted up, and Magazine rock. Magazine rock as in THEY REALLY FUCKING ROCK. And from there on, they don’t stop rocking for a moment. I keep wondering if I had maybe wandered into an AC/DC show by mistake.

That bit about AC/DC is me being silly, of course. However full-on everything is, Magazine’s take on rock still involves atmospheric keyboard passages and funky bass runs, subtle shifts and sudden bends, awkward shapes and odd angles. Once they’re bedded in, there are many high spots. “Hello Mister Curtis” (one of only five tracks from “No Thyself”) and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” are perfect platforms for new bassist Jon White (he’s very good). “Permafrost” is introduced as a song about “the wrong kind of sex” and has Devoto speak-singing with particular precision. “The Light Pours Out Of Me” gets his arms zig-zagging like a nutty orchestra conductor. “Shot By Both Sides” is the blistering finale and the band at their most punk, but it climaxes with drummer John Doyle locked into a pumping groove and Formula throwing in squelchy noises and the strobes going ballistic. If they’d carried on like that a little longer, I swear the crowd would have had their shirts tied round their heads and been yelling “Aciieeed! Aciieeed!” at the tops of their voices.

In a 1977 interview published by New York Rocker, Jon Savage asked Devoto what he wanted “to do” with Magazine. “Improve people’s memories,” said Devoto, which you could read at least two ways. Tonight certainly reminds me how much Magazine have added to my memories. I hope it might do something for my memory as well. I’d hate to be sitting about in pissy trousers 50 years from now telling anyone who’ll listen that Howard Devoto was this Egyptian bloke who invented acid house.

Howard Devoto photo by Tony Smith at Hotpix UK


Erick and Parrish making more dollars

EPMD are rumoured to be recording a new album. If that’s true, it’s a safe bet it will have the word “business” somewhere in the title and include a cut called “Jane” – just like the group’s previous seven albums. I hope it’s true. I would love Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith to make more records together and make more dollars, even if they never again come up with anything as good as “So Wat Cha Sayin'”. I must have listened to “So Wat Cha Sayin'” a gazillion times over the years. A gazillion and a half times, maybe. That awesomely deep bassline and the little looped guitar sample from BT Express get me every time. It’s a great car bumping tune too. I think I’m gonna have to take my old Nissan Almera Estate out for a slow and menacing ride around the village now.


Morrissey and the NME (part one)

Left: The Smiths on the cover of NME in February 1984 after being crowned Best New Artist in the paper’s annual Readers’ Poll. I went to see The Smiths at the Gala Ballroom in Norwich during the summer of 1983 after reading about them in the NME. I thought they were wet and limp, like a sweaty vicar’s handshake, and the singer was a right chump. Still, I met John Peel that night, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I gave John a copy of my fanzine and he insisted on paying me for it. I believe he bought me a drink as well.

Right: Morrissey on the cover of NME in November 2007. This is a great cover and I could bang on about it for ages, but I’ll do my best to keep this short. The most striking thing is that nice bit of underlining. You can’t beat a nice bit of underlining. The way the main photo is torn along the left side is good too. So is the red blob up in the top right corner. You can’t beat a nice red blob up in the top right corner. Not sure about how those words under Morrisey’s name have been tippexed out, though. That seems weird.


225,000 Roses fans can’t be wrong

Selling 225,000 tickets in the space of a little more than an hour is a remarkable achievement, but I’m not convinced that the frenzied reaction to The Stone Roses’ reunion gigs at Manchester’s Heaton Park next June is an indication of what an important band they are. I think it probably says more about how, from their mid-30s onwards, most people wish they were several years younger than they are and get a bit woozy at the prospect of an evening re-living their past, which is something that music can help them to do more quickly and more completely than anything else.

Adam Ant talked about The Stone Roses when he appeared on last week’s “This Week”, BBC2’s zany political overview programme. Adam’s on the comeback trail himself (starting his forthcoming tour with a warm-up show in Frome, just down the road from me) and pointed out that what people want to hear at reunion gigs are the hits. He’s dead right, of course. So if I had one of those tickets for Heaton Park I’d be concerned at the news that, as well as playing live again, Ian Brown says the Roses are planning to record a new album. Let’s face it, most of the fine folk going along to Heaton Park won’t want to hear much stuff from the second album, let alone stuff from a possible third. I’d also be worried about the group spending a few months locked down in the recording studio, with all the potential conflict that might bring. There’s time for quite a lot of arguing and falling out between now and next June.

In all the media hoo-ha about The Stone Roses in recent days, I especially enjoyed a piece by The Independent on Sunday football correspondent Steve Tongue, who picked up on something bassist Mani said on Sky’s “Soccer AM” in 2006. Mani, a diehard Manchester United supporter, had joked that the band would only reform “after Man City won the European Cup”. Manchester City were flirting with relegation from the Premiership back then and finished that season losing nine of their last 10 games. Fast forward to today and City are sitting on top of the table, fresh from thrashing Manchester United 6-1 on Sunday, and pushing for a place in the last 16 of the UEFA European Champions League. I don’t suppose Mani will be best pleased if City were to make it all the way to the Champions League final. And as Steve Tongue notes, the final takes place on 19 May, a mere six weeks before The Stone Roses’ Heaton Park gigs.

Ian Brown photo by Bartosz Madejski at Bart Photography


Punk collage (from Sounds, 2 April 1977)

I can’t find the words to tell you just how much I love this. It was printed across the middle pages of Sounds in April 1977, accompanying an A-to-Z of the first wave of UK punk bands. I’ve lost the first and last pages of the article, and there are no credits on the pages that I do have, but I think the A-to-Z was written by Jonh Ingham and I presume the collage was put together by the Sounds art team, in a style in keeping with the fanzines of the time.

Sounds was several leagues ahead of the rest of the music press in covering the embryonic days of punk. The collage features all the obvious names – Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash and so on – but it also includes less well known acts such as The Models, The Cortinas and Suburban Studs. Click the image to see it in its full glory and keep an eye out for The Police (before they got hold of the peroxide bottle), Skrewdriver (before Ian Stuart Donaldson turned into a Nazi bastard) and a terrific early photo of The Slits. One outfit that you won’t see on there is Iron Maiden – but then you wouldn’t expect to, would you? Well, as it goes, Iron Maiden do appear in the A-to-Z, where they describe themselves as “bloody shock rock”. They were fronted by Den Ace at this point and had somebody called Ron Rebel playing drums.

I had the collage on my bedroom wall for ages and ages, so it’s badly discoloured, but I’d say that adds to its historic value. I’m not sure history will look kindly on me for having censored the “Fuck Off” on Gaye Advert’s T-shirt with a biro, though. At least I think that was me. I don’t remember doing it, but the scribbling out seems to be in blue ink rather than being an original feature of the collage. If it was me, I suspect I did it in case my mum ever took a close look at it on my wall.

UPDATE (posted 30/10/2011)

I was wrong about Jonh Ingham writing the A-to-Z that accompanied the collage. Jonh has been in touch to say that he wrote a big article about punk for Sounds in around October 1976 (The “?” Rock Special), but he had nothing to do with this piece. My next best guess is the A-to-Z was by the late Giovanni Dadomo, another early champion of punk in the music press. As well as being a journalist, Giovanni was a member of Arthur Comics (later known as The Snivelling Shits), who appear in the article between Alternative T-TV [sic] and The Boys.


One cello, two stylophones

This is the video for “Weirdo”, the first single by …Of Diamonds. You can read about them at My New Favourite Band. “Weirdo” was released a few days ago and I like it very much. It wormed its witchy way into my head as I watched the video last Saturday morning, distracting me when I should have been making changes to my fantasy football team, and I haven’t managed to get rid of it yet. I like most of what I’ve heard from …Of Diamonds, actually. As you will see here, one of them plays an old cello and the other two play stylophones. In another of their songs, one of them plays a melodica. I also like …Of Diamonds because they come from Norwich, which is a fine city.


You spin me round

More Than Tazos is one of the oddest shops on Ebay. It’s based in Argentina and the bulk of its stock consists of hundreds of little plastic toys branded with the names and images of musicians. My favourites are the pinball games and the spinning tops. The advert description is the same for almost every item and it says: “These toys were made in Argentina. I found them in a shop – this kind of toy having been made in our country for a long time. They were used in many ways: Gumball and cereal premiums. Gifts for birthday parties. Funfair prizes and gifts at small circuses. (When I say “this kind of toy”, I mean plastic watches, medals, keyrings, etc).”

Now what I find especially strange about these things is the names they’re branded with. As mass market trinkets, free with your cereal or whatever, you’d expect them to be megastars, wouldn’t you? Well, there are a few Beatles, Michael Jackson and Elton John toys – but it is only a few. The vast majority of the names are decidedly special interest. There are Gene Loves Jezebel and Nina Hagen rings, for instance. There’s a Dead Can Dance pinball, a Devo noughts and crosses game, and an Alien Sex Fiend version of Ludo. The spinning tops feature individual musicians rather than groups and there’s a huge choice of these, including Wattie (The Exploited), Lee Kerslake (Uriah Heep), Billie Currie (Ultravox), Boz Burrell (Bad Company) and Nick Chown (The Bolshoi). So were all these people that big in Argentina, then?

As a small boy, I remember getting shriekingly excited over a series of clip-together plastic cartoon figures being given away with some breakfast cereal at the time. I pestered my poor mum to buy every box of this cereal in the supermarket because I still hadn’t got the Yogi Bear figure, which was the one I reeeaally wanted. I can’t imagine that, had I been a small Argentinian boy, I’d have run round the kitchen with my pants on my head at the possibility of finding a little spinning top bearing a picture of Vom Ritchie from Die Toten Hosen in my Sugar Puffs. I mean, Vom is a great drummer and all that, but he’s no Yogi Bear.


New stuff on my website

I’ve just uploaded some more old scribblings to Pushstuff. Get yourself across there for interviews with SoundgardenS’Express and The Frank And Walters, reviews of NWA (“Straight Outta Compton”) and The Wonder Stuff (“Eight Legged Groove Machine”), Brett Anderson revealing all about the cover artwork of Suede‘s first two singles, and an article on Brian Eno‘s adventures beyond the world of music. The Eno piece, which was written in 1994, includes a reference to Eno being a member of “a computer-networked association of 100 musicians, artists and intellectuals”. A computer-networked association, eh? Stone me. The way things are going you’ll probably soon be able to take pictures with your telephone.


Spreadward

It’s British Cheese Week. I’m very much in favour of this, not least because I used to have a fanzine called Happy Cheese. I’ll probably treat you to a few scans from Happy Cheese at some point soon. I don’t know what usually happens during Cheese Week, but I should imagine it’s a whole heap of fun. The event is backed by the British Cheese Board, you see. Yes, that is a real organisation.

As part of this year’s festivities, Birmingham artist Faye Halliday has been commissioned to create a number of “cheese pictures” using Primula, one of the world’s oldest and most famous cheese spreads. Faye’s Primula pieces include Barack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, Justin Bieber and, best of all, those ever-loveable fuckwits Jedward, who are pictured here in their full stinky glory.

Now if you’ll please pass me the brown sauce…


I’m a negative creep

It’s 20 years since the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. But you will probably know that already because there have been several “Nevermind at 20” commemorative articles in the press over the past few days. There’ll no doubt be more to come.

To coincide with the anniversary, Rock’s Back Pages have put out an E-book called The Nirvana Electric Omnibus, which is a compendium of Nirvana interviews, reviews and reports published between 1989 and 1994. So these are what-happened-at-the-time accounts from Nirvana’s active years, not looking-back-long-after-the-event overviews. I’ve got two pieces in there – a review of “Bleach” and an interview with the band from late 1990, both originally written for Melody Maker – and the other contributors include Everett True, Keith Cameron, John Robb, Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs. You can download the book by following these links to Amazon UK or Amazon US. That’s assuming you’ve some money left after ordering your 2011 Super Deluxe Edition of “Nevermind”, a five-disc box-set released next week and a snip at £75/$110 or thereabouts.

Yesterday, with the spirit of “Nevermind At 20” upon me, I felt the need to get fully Nirvana-ed up and played the band’s three studio albums in succession. First “Bleach”, then “Nevermind”, then “In Utero”. It took some doing – I had to have a daytime telly break between each one – but the exercise confirmed what I think I’ve always thought. For all the fuss about it, “Nevermind” ain’t that great. Apart from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” and a couple of others, it’s an over-burdened beast, lead-footed and sometimes desperate for breath, like an old packhorse struggling through mud. It lacks the raw exhileration of “Bleach” and the absorbing contortions of “In Utero”. It’s nowhere near as good as either of those albums and it’s also nowhere near as good as Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger”, which came out a week or two after “Nevermind”. I played “Badmotorfinger” yesterday too. That’s still a scorcher, a real high-noon-in-the-desert record.

Many of the “Nevermind” anniversary articles talk about how the album changed popular culture for a generation/the whole wide world and everything in it/the known and unknown universe. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Pffffft. Of course it’s true that Nirvana had a huge impact on the mainstream rock scene – which is actually only a small part of the cosmos – but this was first and foremost because of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its memorable video. The success of the parent album, a record not universally applauded by the critics at the time of its release, naturally followed on from there. But I guess it’s inevitable the focus falls on “Nevermind”. Rock music is traditionally about albums, not singles or videos. Singles are for pop kids, not serious rockers. Plus it suits the record industry. You can’t make much of a box-set out of a single.

Incidentally, if you are thinking of getting the Super Deluxe Edition of “Nevermind”, please do so via these links – Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon Canada – because then I’ll earn a few quid commission. You really would have to be round the fucking twist, though.


Chicago Acid meets New York Electric

Carl Cox gives Rob Threezy’s “Chicago On Acid” a hammering at the 2011 Electric Zoo in New York City a couple of weeks ago. The YouTube top comment “Carl Cox blew that fucking place up!” is what’s known as an understatement.


The grandaddy of British undersea power

I’ve been reading how some of the lyrics from British Sea Power’s “Carrion” have been painted on the walls of a new wing of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London. I like BSP, I like BSP’s lyrics, I like the National Martime Museum, and I like text as a graphic element, so this seems a perfectly splendid idea to me.

Thinking about this led me to thinking about John Philip Holland, the fella with the natty bowler and the magnificent walrus moustache pictured here. Holland was the brains behind Britain’s first submarine, the artfully named Holland 1, which was launched in great secrecy in 1901. The head of the Royal Navy at the time, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, was not impressed and described the boat as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”, but it remained in service for several years. It was decommissioned in 1913 and sank while being towed to the scrapyard. I’ve been imagining the crew giving a rousing chorus of BSP’s “Carrion” – “Oh the heavy water, how it enfolds – as the submarine settled upon the seabed in a thick cloud of silt and shells and old fish bones. Never mind that there wasn’t actually anybody on board when it went down.

Holland 1 remained at the bottom of the English Channel until it was salvaged in the 1980s, since when it has been on display at the Royal Navy’s Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire. Earlier this year, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers gave it the Engineering Heritage Award, which promotes artefacts and locations of engineering importance that have altered or enhanced the way we live. Previous winners include George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number 1, the Rolls Royce RB211 engine and the Thames Barrier.

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, incidentally, was born in my home town of Swaffham in Norfolk. That’s Nelson’s county, that is.


Featherhead

I’m glad PJ Harvey has won this year’s Mercury Prize. I’ve not heard every album that was nominated, but I have heard “Let England Shake” and it’s a pretty special collection of songs. I’m not especially a fan of Polly Harvey as it goes, but my fellow Melody Maker writer and one-time flatmate Ngaire Ruth was one of her very earliest champions. She wrote the first review of PJ Harvey to appear in the national music press – a live review from the White Horse in London in 1991. Click on the clipping for a larger version if the text is too small for you to read.

Ngaire and I were living in Tufnel Park at the time of this review (a short distance from the White Horse and also a few minutes walk from venues like the Town & Country Club, the Bull & Gate and the Boston Arms) and I’ve a vague recollection of Polly popping round the flat once or twice. I seem to recall that she was quite friendly and very polite, but a little on the shy side. I don’t believe she ever wore a feathery headdress thing, though. I’m sure I would have remembered that.