Agitate, Educate, Organise!

I’ve recently been a guest speaker at a couple of PRS meetings and the question I’m most often asked is, “What advice can you give me to help me make it?” My reply is always the same: get on the Net. I’m surprised by how many times this response is greeted with cynicism or outright hostility. It seems a lot of musicians out there believe the Net is at best an unreliable, non-secure shopping mall and at worst a den of thieves, plotting to purloin their life’s work. Let me tell you why I think they’re wrong.

This *could be* the best of times for independent musicians. Yes, the major music industry is more moribund and desperate than I can ever remember. Yes, it’s bloody difficult to compete with them for rack space when they’re giving stock away. But at the same time, it’s never been easier for musicians to communicate, collaborate and connect, not just with potential audiences but with other musicians, video directors, graphic artists, whatever. We may not have access to the funds majors have but, as Noam Chomsky said, “There are ways of compensating for the absence of resources.”

There are people out there who’d *love* to make you a pop video or design your sleeve (maybe for free) just an email away. And by the Net, I don’t only mean the World Wide Web. That’s just one face, like email, of the Net. My favourite face is Usenet, which I love because it’s uncensored, open, funny, and often libellous. It’s my main source of music reviews, recommendations and even collaborations. In fact, the last four remixes I’ve done have been through friends I made on newsgroups. This is equally true of the work I got in *before* my two minutes of fame and without the Net I’m not even sure I would have had that brief commercial success. I got a huge amount of help and advice from Net mates, signed and unsigned, at that time.

The Net can help combat one of the biggest problems for modern musicians – isolation. A lot of people work on their own, in a little room filled with a rusty menagerie of gear. You may not find anyone else in your home town who likes/understands your stuff but it’s a big world out there – why not let the Net help you connect? MP3 files of samples or vocals can be emailed back and forth or you can even take the plunge and meet up in the flesh.

Yes, the Net has dangers, anything in life worth doing is risky. But it’s nothing a good firewall, a virus checker and some common sense can’t handle. For example, *never* send anyone your lyrics or music unsolicited – you may get ripped-off or severely annoy someone.

I believe that for a modern musician the basic starting point should be having a personal website, email address and Usenet presence. Look at what’s on the Net and if you don’t like it, create your own website, newsgroup or NetRadio station. It’s time to take music back from the corporations…

(This guest editorial was in the November 2000 issue of The Mix magazine)

That Motown Moment

Earlier tonight I was half-watching ‘Witness’ while trying to decide whether the Microsoft Sidewinder joystick I’d bought today was shit or I was stupider than toads.

In the background I could hear the strains of an old-time Motown classic, during a suitably syrupy part of the film. Without even being able to make out what song it was, I knew the film was traversing its Motown Moment.

This Motown Moment (MM) is of course an important part of contemporary white American culture. I’ve seen countless films and TV shows spring into their own MMs, with varying levels of success. It’s in ‘Mystic Pizza’, it’s all there is in ‘The Wonder Years.’ What does it signify?

It shows (mostly) white Americans getting on down with some black music, as long as that music is at least thirty-plus years old. It shows them being “down” with their darker brethren, at least for the two minutes of schmaltzy jigging. It shows they *care* (man).

Think about the choice of music. Imagine a Motown Moment with, say, ‘Juicy’ by Biggie Smalls as the soundtrack. Or ‘Niggers’ by The Last Poets. Doesn’t really gel, does it? The music of the MM has to be completely safe, shorn of any possible political content and, hopefully, nothing more than a sunny paean to love, boardwalks or my girl. Of course, when those Motown songs were originally coming out, they were immensely political by their mere presence and social context, as John Water’s slinky film ‘Hairspray’ highlighted.

But Watts Riots and de-segregation are not the past that the MM enshrines. It’s there to commemorate pushbikes with streamers on the handles, corner stores selling icy root beer, JFK, hope, idealism. An America of dreams and noble ambitions, pre-Vietnam, pre-Nixon. An America that, as much as Morrissey’s conception of England, never existed.

It’s Hollywood trying to paper over all the old ugly cracks, all the Amos & Andys and pop-eyed black Mammys. The truth is never wholly easy: JFK sent the first troops into Vietnam and shared his women like a factory porn mag. Most of those idyllic corner stores wouldn’t have served a “colored” customer even if they’d heard their “jungle music” on the radio. The America of Hoover and Cointelpro sent the FBI pushing drugs and guns into black neighbourhoods to try and diffuse the Panthers Commie threat. What a sunny, happy, beautiful world.

Age makes everything mundane. Even the most revolutionary, innovative and troubled artists of the Motown golden age end up becoming the ad-man’s dream, the saccharine background to corporate wankery. Perhaps in forty years time we’ll have Hip Hop Moments where ageing romantic leads rap along to ‘Fight The Power’ or ‘My Philosophy.’ I can see the dollars rolling in now…

Nilsson, Jonathan Richman, Daniel Johnston

I got a copy of ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’ from today for the nice price of 8.99. What makes it even nicer is that it’s remastered and you also get the Harry album on the same CD. There’s also a couple of bonus tracks, ‘Waiting’ (from the film ‘Jenny’) and ‘Snow.’ I think this as an essential CD if you’re a Nilsson fan or just if you want a cheap intro to his work.

I also got ‘Home Of The Hits – The Best of Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers.’ It’s a lovely comp of Jonathan’s Beserkley output with detailed liner notes by none other than Mark Radcliffe. His notes tell the standard Jonathan story (VU fixation,Kim Fowley, Warner’s shitting out) but with a twist of love inspired by the brilliant, simple songs. You also ge a bonus CD of Beserkly notables like Greg Kihn, Rubinoos and Tyla Gang for the very reasonable sum of 8.99. Again, if you’ve not got any Richman, this is a great intro. And I’d also recommend Cooking Vinyl’s ‘I Must Be King’, but be careful cos there is some duplication of tracks between the two comps.

And now onto Daniel Johnston’s ‘Why Me?’, which is a live recording made at the Volksbuhne in Berlin on 6/6/99, released on Trikont. I have mixed feelings about this CD. On the one hand, it’s a great record with Daniel singing beatiful songs like ‘Everlasting Love’, ‘Like A Dream’ and ‘I Hate Myself.’ But Daniel’s obviously not a well man and I do wonder if I’m just being voyeuristic on someone else’s sadness. Make your own mind up – I can’t help but love the songs as much as I loved ‘Yip Jump Music’ when I first heard it. Phew, I’m pooped. I’m still listening to ’69 Love Songs’ as I’m typing all this, now with that smug ‘gonna-be-seeing-them-live-soon’ grin…

love and kisses,

Magnetic Fields Gig – London Queen Elizabeth Hall 25/7/2000

Click here for some photos I took

Well, I’m still recovering from what has to be one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. It was also cool meeting up with ukma lurker Paul Speller who’s promised to post his own mini-review if I post one first. It’s hard to know where to start.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall was rammed and there was a strange atmosphere, like we were all waiting for Jesus rather than a pop band. On stage was a grand piano, synth, electric cello and a couple of amps. Stephin, Claudia, Sam and John ambled onstage and the music began… How can such a sparse, delicate live setup be so emotive? Yeah, they’re all great instumentalists and Claudia and Stephin both have the voices of angels but there was something magical about the gig. It’s that hair-raising-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment that you only get at those gigs you know you’ll remember for your lifetime.

When Claudia sang ‘Acoustic Guitar’ with only John’s electric as accompaniment I kept thinking, ‘This can’t work live, although it’s great on the record.’ But it did, beautifully. The yearning melody stretched across the audience and we all held our breaths, not wanting to crush it. Even the pissed-up heckler cunt who’d tried to ruin the start of the gig with his hilarious “Cheer up!” jibes had stumbled off somewhere.

I won’t run through all the songs because they did play from 8.45 till about 10.30 and even that didn’t seem long enough. It was all stuff from ’69 Love Songs’ apart from when they did ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ from ‘Get Lost.’ One of the highlights was a bawdy rendition of ‘The Night You Can’t Remember’ with Claudia and Stephin waving what looked like champagne glasses at each other and *having fun*. I hate it when people caricature MF as being glum. These must be the same people who miss out on the humour of Leonard Cohen and just go with the party line that he’s “depressing.”

‘Papa Was A Rodeo’ gave us Stephin at his gravelly-voiced best. I can honestly admit that I’m hugely jealous of the bastard for being able to sing like that. I know that MF have got good reviews for the new album and the media are slowly coming round but I won’t be happy till they’re in the proper charts at number one. The songs deserve it.

When ‘I Don’t Believe In The Sun’ rolled out, it felt like hearing some Motown or Nashville classic, you can’t quite believe this is a new pop song from a band that’s largely unknown. You’re singing along (quietly) like you’ve known this song all your life. That’s pop. The same goes for when Stephin sang ‘The Book Of Love.’

I can’t imagine anyone else commanding the audience like he did with this song live. It’s archetypal MF: funny, sad, hopeful and hopeless at once and he connected with the audience immediately. There were a lot of people there who’d never heard the songs before (you could tell from the laughs at certain lyrics) and they were hooked.

I’m gonna cut it short here before my review just degenerates into gibbering worship. This gig was one of the highs of my life. The only downside is that I’m now very down. I’m questioning if anything I’m doing musically is worth doing. And feeling very envious of MF as a *band*. Yeah, Stephin’s songs are great but it’s also John, Sam and Claudia. I think they’re incredibly lucky to have found each other, god knows in 18 years of doing music I’ve never found *one* musician I’ve got on with that well, let alone three.

Ah well… anyone need their windows cleaning?

love and kisses,

Sagem WA 3050

You know how it is – you need to phone someone on your mobile but you haven’t got their number in it. You’ve got it in your Pilot/Psion/Outlook but that’s at home…


You’ve been out and, inevitably, bumped into people and put their numbers into your moby. Now, since your phone doesn’t synchronise to anything, you have to find any new entries and then laboriously re-enter them into your organiser hardware/software.

If you’ve got a lot of contacts, friends or business, and have had the above happen, then you’ll probably be switching to a Sagem-type device in the next few years. The whole point of the WA 3050 (snappy name, eh?) and similar jobbies like the Nokia 9210 or Trium Mondo is that they combine proficient electronic organisers with mobile phones. Therefore, if you’ve got your phone on you, you’ve got your entire list of contacts. And if you bump into someone, you’ll be entering their details into your organiser, not just a phone. And all these devices synchronise to PCs (and sometimes Macs) so you can backup your data cheaply to CDR. So, if you ever lost the
device, or it got nicked, at least you wouldn’t lose all that essential data. Thankfully, you can also password-protect the Sagem so if some knob did nick it, they wouldn’t have instant access to your life.

I bought the Sagem from Amazon and it was bloody expensive at nearly £700 but it’s already saved me loads of hassle. It integrates phone, contact, fax, SMS, email, web, wap and other functions very well, if sometimes a little frustratingly. For example, it’s great that all you have to do to call or email someone is tap and hold their name in Contacts but why isn’t there also an SMS option? Sounds like a minor niggle but it does feel clumsy that you have to use a different and slower menu for picking an SMS

But, geek that I am, other things please me immensely. Even though I’m connecting at a ridiculously slow speeds, there is fun to be had in viewing web pages in Pocket Internet Explorer. Okay, huge pictures take aeons to download but it’s so easy to browse text-heavy sites (like this one) and there’s also the sites that do special, mobile versions. The mobile version of The Onion is a favourite of mine and it’s very cool to be able to access it anywhere you can get a phone signal.

It does look a bit weird, especially if you’re using it like a phone. Then again, you’ve always got the option of going into hands-free mode and using it like a classic Star Trek communicator. Mmmm…

Also cool is the built-in recorder which you can activate in any mode just by pressing a button on the side. Depending on available memory, you can record little reminders to yourself or, very usefully, record an incoming call. This means instead of frantically scribbling down an address or number when you’re on the phone, you can just record it and then listen back at your leisure. I’ve already used this feature to phone a mate sitting next to me, switch the volume up and then record the hideous, warbling feedback that we got from putting the phones next to each other. I’ve now got a truly horrible sound that I plan to use in a future White Town track.

The Sagem can also use any .wav file you transfer to it as a ring tone so goodbye annoying bleeping, hello Sound Of Da Police. I’ve not used this option myself, I’ve left it on the standard ring cos I think personalised ring tones are as wanky as personalised number plates. But… a bad little part of me is tempted to use the trumpet sample from ‘Your Woman’ as my ring tone

There’s loads of other WinCE/Pocket PC stuff on the Sagem, including Pocket Word and MS Reader. I’ve played with most of it and it all works well and intuitively. I do wish they’d stuck on a couple of games alongside the inevitable Solitaire, though. It’s not exactly pushing the Sagem to its limits.

The Sagem is a great little gadget and you can get it cheaper if you buy it with a phone contract. I’m using mine on a Virgin SIM I transferred from my previous phone and it’s happy with that. The non-contract price may seem high but to have the same kind of functionality you’d have to spend at least £400 on an organiser and maybe $150 on a phone and you still wouldn’t enjoy the same degree of integration.

Casio CMD40 Watch

You can tell a lot about someone by the watch they wear. I wear a Casio CMD 40 which says:


I’ve had it for about two years and I’m in love with it. I’ve programmed it to control my telly and my home cinema amp. Allegedly, you can nick car alarm’s infra-red control signals via the Casio’s learning ability but I dunno – if you’re geeky enough to work this watch, you’re probably too clever to be a car thief. I’m saying this based on the strange situation we have where most adults are apparently so tech-afraid they can’t even program their videos.

Hell, if you get bored with the remote functions, it’s still a great calculator. The buttons, although tiny, are very responsive and it’s immensely handy.

When I see people with normal digital watches or, the ultimate horror, analogue watches (spit), I pity the poor fools. They’re chasing after style, status and conformity. Whereas I can program my watch to CONTROL THE WORLD!!! BWAHAHAHA! THE SIMPLETONS! THEY ARE AS ANTS BEFORE MY CASIO!

Plus, it’s always fun sneaking into Currys and seeing how many telly channels you can change before getting chucked out…


One of the major changes that’s happened in my lifetime is the burgeoning of the culture of celebrity. When I was a kid, famous people were famous for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they were great beauties, skilled footballers, brilliant scientists or tortured artists.

In the 21st Century, we have a culture where fame is a goal in itself rather than a by-product of achieving something significant. Look at all the worldwide docusoaps like Big Brother, Popstars and Castaway. Here, entirely unexceptional people become celebrities due to being on telly for a couple of months. That’s their only achievement. They’re not on telly cos they’re famous, they’re famous cos they’ve been on telly.

Maybe you could argue that this a great democratisation of culture and that it’s finally bringing Warhol’s dull “famous for fifteen minutes” prediction to fruition.

I reckon that’s bollocks.

What we have now is a media culture that’s so bloated and lazy, so venal and dim that the mundane becomes magnificent. What does it take to get in a music paper? Contacts and not much else. It helps enormously if your band features one or two ex-music journalists or at least flatmates of journalists. Then, no matter how much like watery shit your music is, you can be guaranteed media exposure. And inevitably with publicity comes sales. Hey, with today’s mass media, if you spread your net far enough *someone* will buy your stuff.

Where we’re at in 2001 is a junction, a phase transition. The old mass media is vainly trying to stretch itself as far as possible, seeping through the shiny new channels of satellite tv and internet webshites. But in the process, it ceases to be mass media and instead becomes that difficult cheese pony, niche media. Goodbye common culture, goodbye swapping opinions on soap operas watched by millions, hello audiences of less than a thousand.

Hell, I’m part of this transition myself. On my Bzangy site, I post up my reviews and rants and if I get forty or fifty hits a day, I consider that good. Figure that out – a daily audience of *fifty*! Somehow I don’t think Rupert Murdoch is quaking in his snakeskin boots. The only reason I carry on is that the majority of the music I review isn’t covered by the British mass media. They may catch up a year or two later, maybe. That’s what happens when you have a stagnant media, they offer you nothing new, nothing you don’t already know about.

This is the sleepy media that feeds on manufactured celebrity. It can’t be arsed to dig up genuine greatness so it promotes mediocrity. Half the “hot new tips” on TV chat shows and ‘yoof’ programmes are direct from major labels or feature mates of the presenters/producer. The media is eating itself and then vomiting the result into our faces.

Of course, this isn’t only armchair philosophy on my behalf. I myself was unjustifiably famous for about two weeks back in ’97 because of a song that had managed to slip past the media police and onto Radio One, thanks only to Mark Radcliffe’s fearless DJ-ing. This song had previously been rejected by *all* the major labels. The week my song went number one, my life exploded into a confused, dreamlike TV-movie.

It’s a peculiar process to watch your music and ultimately your life being turned into a media spectacle. My story was light relief, a kind of ‘fat bloke has shock hit’ item to tag onto the end of a bulletin or somewhere around page four but the impact on me was huge.

Television vans camped outside my little house, reporters shouted through my letterbox at my girlfriend. Tabloids sent reporters round Derby pubs, trying to dig up stories, which might have worked if I wasn’t a teetotaller. Things got curiouser and curiouser, people I didn’t even know ended up on national bloody TV talking about *me*! Why the hell was any of this that important? I’d only had *one* hit song!

Most of the hyper-coverage happened cos I refused to do most media – I wasn’t even in my own video apart from incidentally. This is because I’ve never wanted to be famous, just rich and unknown. So, cos I treated them mean, the media became extra keen. They had to have an angle so overnight I became a ‘computer nerd’ who’d had a hit record out of the blue. Never mind that I’d been releasing records for seven years! Nerd?? I’m a geek, goddammit! And damn proud of it.

Then the email started flooding in. Is it true you’re gay? A transsexual? A woman? A white guy living in London? Too fat to leave your house? A goddamn limey faggot?

That’s the other thing about celebrity. Previously, the people who’d written or emailed me about White Town were dedicated music weirdos, nice geeks. They had to be on the periphery or else they wouldn’t have heard of my tiny, unimportant band. Now, suddenly, the mainstream media bought mainstream interest, some of it from homophobes and racists. My little home project was now out in the big, bad world, blinking fearfully in the spotlights. I couldn’t even go shopping in Sainsburys any more because people would start whistling my song at me. Or were they? After a while, I couldn’t tell where the reality ended and the paranoia began. Everything changed.

Musicians who’d previously told me all my stuff was crap, to my face, now glad-handed me and offered to go on Top Of The Pops with me. Very big of them. Very strangely, girls who wouldn’t even talk to a bloater like me before were suddenly more interested in me, now I was a famous, very rich bloater.

Inevitably, I went barmy. My role models were Howard Hughes and Brian Wilson. I stayed in the house for weeks, growing a beard, ordering in pizzas and playing Goldeneye on the N64. I played it so much that I used to dream I was in the temple, bouncing grenades round corners. But in the dream, Oddjob would run up to me singing that bloody melody from ‘Your Woman’ and waving an autograph book. Not for him, of course, but his girlfriend, Dennis.

I’d had so much over-exposure in such a short time that it scalded me. That’s modern media culture. In truth, I didn’t deserve that huge, slavering coverage. Okay, I’d written a good song that a lot of people liked but the way the media pounced on me you’d think I’d cured cancer. And then, a week later I was old news (thank God). That’s the modern media world. Attention spans are attenuated to the nanosecond level by 800 channels of adverts. People want stuff NOW! and then they’re bored and BANG! they want the next thing. On the big media side, game over. But meanwhile, Derby being a small city, I was still a pretty big, disturbed fish.

Then a strange thing happened. I went on holiday to a different city, a city where I wasn’t a local boy done good, where I was a stranger.

Bliss !

Sweet, sweet anonymity. Unless you’ve been famous, you’ve no idea how beautiful it is to amble around a city centre, just buying CDs and flicking through magazines, without being recognised. The joy of being no-one, the nirvana of indifference.

Now, after the EMI blip, I’m back full-circle. I’m writing and recording at home, releasing records on small labels I can trust and working with people who don’t pong of brimstone. I’ll never trouble the charts again and so the mass media will never trouble me again. I like that deal. I’ve joined that most select of clubs, one-hit wonders and I’m *delighted*.

I’m looking forward to a magnificently unremarkable future.