Wednesday 24 February 2016

Hate Week

2016's first classic 7 inch single is here. 3 songs, all excellent, featuring see-saw guitar hooks like Buzzcocks, raging lunacy like Dinosaur Jr, Wire's disturbing atmosphere and Pavement's unflinching sonic assault.

Hate Week have a great pedigree - 10 years ago they were The Javelins, whose one 7 inch We Paid A Lot For Our Style is a lost classic (you should hunt it down). Then they became The Faintest Ideas, who surely you remember.

Hate Week's debut of taut, sharp shocks is, I'm confidently declaring, the best of the bunch. It's that good.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

The death of the 7 inch single

Last year I bought less than 100 7 inch singles. I started to get worried around May, when the total hit 40. The year end was about 90. Or about 10 less than each of the last few years.

So no big change in recent years, but a massive change over time. In 1996, for example, I’d bought over 100 7 inch singles by Easter. There are obvious reasons for such historical profligacy:
  • pretty much all new releases - and there were a lot - were on 7 inch
  • in my tender youth there were still lots of older releases to scoop up
  • perhaps I was less discriminating then (okay, that one does seem a bit of a stretch)

A decent chunk of those early 1996 singles were by Scottish bands like The Delgados, Bis and Urusei Yatsura. Last year, loads of exciting new Scottish bands came through. Spinning Coin? They released 2 tapes. Breakfast Muff? A tape and a lathe cut 7 inch of just 25 copies.

Tapes are being released instead of singles because it’s a cheap and immediate process, and you can press as few as you need. If labels are making 7 inch singles, they’re often on special editions like a lathe cut.

Ask any of the bigger indie labels and they’ll tell you even with reputations and PRs it’s really tough to shift even 300 singles. The vinyl market is mostly an older demographic. And it’s got to be a richer demographic. Of the 4 (FOUR!? Jesus…it’s getting worse) 7 inch singles I’ve bought this year, one cost £18.

Even though it was another lathe cut (in a pressing of 50 copies) most of that went on postage. By the time it had arrived, I’d played it to death on bandcamp. I’d had my fill. I played the actual record once. So I’m really not sure if I’ll buy another record like that.

All labels put records up for order before they’re pressed, so they can have the money to press them. I’m cool with that. I’m just tiring of handing over most of my pay cheque to the post office and gorging on a stream of the single so when I finally get the record it doesn’t have even half the excitement and mystique it should have.

I sometimes release records as part of the club I co-run, the Hangover Lounge. Last August, a great band asked us to put out a Christmas single. I love this band. I bet you do, too. If they could get me the finished masters within 4 days I could have it back from the pressing plant in December. They couldn’t.

The 7 inch single might be on its last legs, but the single isn’t. I get a lot of promo emails about singles. Very rarely do they pique my interest. But one last year was by Ciggie Witch, whose 2014 album Rock And Roll Juice I love to distraction.

I searched the darkest corners of the internet for the new Ciggie Witch single the email had promised. In desperation, I emailed the label. It was a digital-only release. ‘But that’s not a single,’ I grumbled to myself.

Except it is. With that single Ciggie Witch got a lot of write-ups on blogs. They’d have attracted new fans. And just as importantly they realised that a lot of people like what they do so they may as well carry on and do some more. Maybe there’ll be a new record soon.

Which has just reminded me: I didn’t buy it even though it’s amazing. I’ve rectified that. It cost  me about 60p. Great song, cheap, money goes to the band. Sorry, but I can’t work out who loses here. I mean, I was the loser when I didn’t buy it because I unrealistically expected a 7 inch single.

This week? Wurld Series released a digital single which I read about yesterday on the Pop Lib blog. Now I know. I’ll buy their album when it comes out. That’s part of the promotional value of a digital single.

Singles have always been a promotional device. No matter the size of the label, singles sales don’t make money. They’re tools to advertise albums. Just like videos used to be. And recently are doing so again because video streams contribute to Billboard chart placings. So you’ve got a future of nubile young women cavorting around in states of undress (hello, Miley Cyrus) to sell singles.

The internet has taught us these commercial lessons: its main commodity is naked women and it’s hard to get people to pay for music. But if you get people to watch naked women writhe around to backing music (aka ‘a single’) then that single will go up the charts.

That business model works for the majors with big budgets. For indies, they’re sticking to the model of releasing singles as music (no video), mostly digital these days.

The weekly UK music press used to run on a high turnover of singles so they had something to write about. The big blogs which have replaced them need a lot of new singles so they’ve got something new to write about every day. And they’re no more likely to write about a single if it’s on 7 inch than if it’s digital only.

The 7 inch single isn’t dead, but don’t expect its decline to be reversed. Because labels are lucky to break even on them, pressing plant delays remove the promotional planning factor and fewer people are buying them when they do get released.

Monday 15 February 2016

Life Without Buildings

Some dates stick in your mind. February 28, 2000. Steve Lamacq played New Town by Life Without Buildings on the radio.

I could recognise some of the influences - The Raincoats, Talking Heads, The Go-Betweens’ Send Me A Lullaby - but no one had been doing the punk-funk thing since the mid-90s. New Town was the finest example of that sound since the Nectarine No 9’s This Arsehole’s Been Burned Too Many Times Before 6 years previously.

Better still, this was a new band. Looking back, it’s easy to say that this date was when 21st century music - or 10 years of early 80s post-punk influenced music - started. At the time, despite occasional national radio play, Life Without Buildings were a thrilling secret.

I saw them soon afterwards in London. They played on the floor rather than the stage and captivated me and a handful of others. I left when they finished. Anything else would have been a disappointment.

There were 2 more singles that year, both mesmerising and dervish-like. They were ahead of everyone else. But very few seemed to notice.

About a year after hearing them on the radio that first time, they supported The Strokes at their debut London gig. The Strokes were the hottest ticket in town, but it was obvious that night that they were the sound of the present (style over substance, hype over delivery) and Life Without Buildings were the sound of the future.

Press and radio were mostly interested in The Strokes. It made sense. They were an easily digestible, if unchallenging, rework of Blondie and The Kinks. Life Without Building’s anger and joy - I’m never sure which is which when I listen to them - is a much more difficult, but infinitely more rewarding, concept. They sound like they’re sprinting headfirst into the darkness, trying to find new ways to confront madness.

2001’s Any Other City got the reissue treatment in 2014. It was long overdue to recognise them as pioneers, as the ignition to the post-punk revival. That didn’t happen. To this day, I know very little about Life Without Buildings. They stopped after 3 singles and an album. They remain an enigma. I’m still uncertain about what some of the lyrics are or even if I know what they are then what they mean.

I like it that way. What I am absolutely certain of is that Any Other City is easily one of the greatest and most important British albums of the 21st century.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Robert Vickers and #1 Records

The American underground was on fire in the early 90s. Information was hard to come by, so all I knew about #1 Records at the time was:

  • they were named after Big Star's debut
  • all their releases were worth picking up

I was quietly pleased when my favourite label of that era, Bus Stop, put out records by 2 of the same bands on #1 Records: The Streams and The Hello Strangers.

American pop historians might have a different chronology, but that's the order they appeared in my record shop's import racks in 1992.

What I knew about #1 Records years later:

  • 5 releases wasn't enough
  • Robert Vickers ran the label

A friend in the pub told me that Vickers ran the label, and at a Forster/McLennan gig in about 1996 someone shouted for Robert Vickers. Forster replied that he was releasing 7" singles in New York City.

Vickers played in one of the bands, Big Louise:

The two releases that hit me hardest then and still do today are those Streams and Hello Strangers singles. There's a separate post to be written about The Hello Strangers.

I know, you can't wait. Go to Spike Priggen's site for all the information - Spike played in Big Louise, The Streams and The Hello Strangers (and that's where I got the Big Louise photo).

Monday 1 February 2016

Mark Dumais

Mark Dumais burnt briefly but very brightly on records by Crash and Tangerine from 1985 to 1990. Crash's 1987 album I Feel Fine marries the Mary Chain's menacing noise with Scritti Politti's artistic pop.

It was Kurt Ralske's training ground before he found a bigger stage with Ultra Vivid Scene: "He [Dumais] was brilliant, and he was somebody who had a very clear vision and wasn’t going to let anything get him away from achieving what he wanted to achieve."

You can file Crash's last single, Bright Colored Lights, under all-time 7" pop classic. There aren't many better.

Dumais signed to Creation in 1989 with Tangerine. Along with Creation contemporaries Pacific, they seemed to be the act that could achieve Alan McGee's ambition of making Creation a label like Atlantic that combined the best of rock and dance.

Tangerine (and Pacific) got nothing wrong but their timing. They weren't indie enough and they weren't dance enough to satisfy 1980s compartmentalised audiences, and they definitely weren't indie-dance crossover.

They covered Flaming Ember and Tommy James and the Shondells. Like World Of Twist, they had the best sounds in town but everyone else had gone to a different party. A re-evaluation is long overdue.

Mark Dumais died in 1992 of an AIDS-related illness.