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Made in Shoreditch

I also contribute a weekly column to Made in Shoreditch magazine called 'Old East End/New East End', where I look at the relationship between the East End of old and new, looking at the changes and the stalwarts in landscape, residents and culture, focussing on one street or district each week. You can find it here.

Sean Combs's Emotional Masterstroke

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Traditionally the ‘live fast, die young’ attitude has been synonymous with rock music. The glamour associated with bowing out early has always allured youth cultures and often dying early can add to the mythology and, importantly, the subsequent veneration of the dead hero’s talent. It seems that hip-hop, often a genre obsessed with its legends and, oddly, death itself (think Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album or 2Pac’s Machiavelli period) can now boast similar fast-living, early-dying credentials with the deaths of 2Pac, Biggie, Big Pun, Proof (of Detroit group D12), Jam Master Jay and others all taking place in the last 20 years.

Insert whatever he's calling himself at the time of reading here

In 1997 Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112 all came together to record I’ll Be Missing You. The song would become a huge seller which would go Number 1 across the World. Using a haunting sample from The Police’s generally haunting I’ll Be Watching You, Puff Daddy takes a retrospective lyrical look at his time spent with his (at the time) recently deceased friend and musical collaborator; Notorious B.I.G. (formerly Biggie Smalls, real name Christopher Wallace). Faith Evans (Biggie’s girlfriend) sings the chorus, which mimics Sting’s Police chorus melodically with a slight lyric change, while 112 chip in with the melancholic outro. The significance of this song as both a huge selling hip-hop single and, more importantly, the Biggie Smalls legend maker was huge.

Biggie and Tupac together

The shooting of Biggie’s rival emcee 2Pac (real name Tupac Shakur) the year before caused an outpouring of public grief, but with the release of I’ll Be Missing You, the legend of not only Biggie was made, but the legend of the story of Biggie and 2Pac’s rivalry was made. Beyond that the legend of the dead rapper was made. In 1996 and ’97 the two best rappers around (oft cited as the greatest ever rappers) were killed. Upon the release of Puff Daddy and co.’s emotional marketing masterpiece in ’97 the rap game would change forever. Suddenly it was as cool in hip-hop to be a dead hero as it had been in rock ‘n’ roll.

I'll Be Missing You

I'm not saying here that Puff Daddy (as he was then known) set out to make money and create a culture of 'it's cool to be dead' in rap, but I am saying that as a by-product of his ode to his friend, both happened.

5 of the Best - Posthumous Releases

Thursday, 28 July 2011

2Pac, Biggie, Jimi Hendrix and even Joe Strummer, to name just a few, have all released posthumous music to varying degrees of success and quality. Now it seems that Amy Winehouse will be the next in line.

Amy Winehouse, in case you've been under a rock for the last 6 years

According to The Independent, Universal Records believe there are about a dozen songs with a "framework". This probably means that 12 or so have a vocal take laid down, which in today's world is easily tweaked if not perfect.

Anyway, with that in mind, here's 5otB released under an artist's name after their death...

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Coma Girl: Strummer's ode to his daughter and her festival-loving nature is one hell of a rebel rock track. All rockabilly guitars and snarled, biting vocal, this is one of the best tunes the band ever released.

Coma Girl

Otis Redding - Sittin' on the Dock of a Bay: Released just after a plane crash tragically took one of soul's greatest artists, Sittin' on the Dock of a Bay could calm down a pack of blood-thirsty rotweilers at a hare convention. A beautiful, calm and easy track with the catchiest damn whistled melody ever put to a recorded song.

Jimi Hendrix - Angel: Hendrix manages to evoke such emotion in this song that whenever it's played I simply shut the hell up and listen. It is a song of superb sonic sadness and beauty and is one of those you can file in the spine-tinglers folder.


Billie Holiday - Baby Won't You Please Come Home: Set against lovely brass parts, Holiday's perfect vocal leaves one questioning 'what if she'd stayed alive?' Sadly she didn't and what we are left with is Last Recordings, the album this song sits at the end of. If ever there were a cushion for the blows dealt by pop star deaths, this song and its parent album have to be considered among the softest.

Johnny Cash - Ain't No Grave: The lyric says it all really in this song and I must say, and maybe it's due to the masterful production by Rick Rubin, but Cash's vocals in his later years might actually be better than those on his earlier works. An extremely sad and haunting song.

Ain't No Grave

Great Songs: Patti Smith Group - Because the Night

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cascada, the disgracefully bad dance artist from Germany, has released many a buggerisation of an original song and many of her own rubbish bin-worthy twaddle over the years, but her massacre of one of the most wonderfully crafted pop songs ever really has to be the biggest travesty since Cockney Rebel decided to have a go at Here Comes the Sun. How, with such wonderful material could she fuck it up? Even with trashy Euro-dance beats and crappy synths.

Anyway, that particular version is not up for discussion here, but Patti Smith's gorgeous, passion filled version is.

Style and Substance

Co-written with Bruce Springsteen (who had the song in mind for his Darkness on the Edge of Town LP), the song is a tour-de-force in goal-oriented song writing. The verses lull and swoon into the bridges of anthemic "can't hurt you now" brilliance which drive straight into the melodic, passionate, sing-along-or-die choruses which belt out at what seems like 120 decibels.

Because the Night has a beauty about it as well. Smith's vocal delivery is perfect. The slurred verses against perfect diction in the choruses are the perfect example of what's known in musicology as 'teleological song form'.

Without going too much into it, musical teleology is not to be too confused with philosophical teleology (though it certainly has roots there), but is, rudimentarily, goal-oriented song structure which has its verses build to a big chorus. Both the way this song is written and sung/played grasp this perfectly, whether or not its writers and performers had any idea that this was what they were doing.

Patti Smith Group - Because the Night

Complex musical terms aside, Because the Night is simply a superb 3 minutes of popular music. Its lyric is a touching note on love, intimacy and good old sex. The lyric treats sex with respect, however, rather than the throw-away disdain that Gene Simmons might. The merging of two song writers of the quality of Springsteen and Smith should, in theory, work perfectly and guess what? It does in practice.

This is one of Smith's most famous numbers, which usually can take a song's class away due to overplaying etc., but, this song is simply great and therefore nothing can aid in a detraction of its quality.

Jack White and Black Milk

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Detroit: the post industrial, rough-edged, musical talent-filled city in the North of the U.S.A. A place where cars are made and apparently stolen quite a lot. In many ways it shares quite a lot with my adopted city of Manchester. It doesn't have the best weather in the country, its inner-city streets are awash with crime and many a fine musician has come out of it since the 1960s.

Jack White

If the American city closest to my home-town of London in terms of reputation is New York, then the American city closest to the one I live in as a student at the moment may be Detroit. A bustling city centre with, as I've said, some rough edges.

The coming together, then, of one of the city's most famous, talented and interesting musical characters of the last 15 years (Jack White) and one of its prodigies-in-waiting (rapper Black Milk) is an unexpected one. Nonetheless, the two songs the pair have recorded together are fantastic.

Brain and Royal Mega, the songs in question, are what I will term 'grown-up hip-hop'. No disrespect to the genre is intended by this at all, it's just that as of recent, much of the hip-hop available in the mainstream has been, well, juvenile. Other than some fine releases from Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, that have pushed the boundaries of political correctness and taste in a sophisticated, smart manner a la the Eminem of '99 - '03, and material released by a couple of the heavyweights of the game such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, a lot of it has been crap.

Black Milk

Jack White, at the controls at his Nashville studio, however, and Black Milk and his Mos-Def-esque flow and wordplay have managed to push the genre into a place it might never have been before, or ever come back from if they're a hit.

I cannot rave enough about the quality of the music and the rapping at play in these two songs and urge anybody who reads this to check this stuff out.


Royal Mega

Amy Winehouse is Dead

Monday, 25 July 2011

In his superb first novel, Junky, William S. Burroughs takes the reader on a journey through the life of a man addicted to opiates. The book's startling revelations, unapologetic tone and stark honesty lay bare all of the thoughts, feelings and sickness that one in the stranglehold of 'junk' has.

What Junky gives the reader is a feeling of compassion with the 'junky'. So then, the news of the death of singer Amy Winehouse on Saturday comes firstly, as a sad, horrific and humbling turn of events, but secondly conjures up a sympathetic and empathetic stirring in me which ultimately makes me think of everything she hadn't done.

Always Controversial - Amy Winehouse

Opiates have a hold on their user comparable to a possessive lover. They control them, make them base their life around them and eventually ruin their life. In Winehouse's case, they ended it.

Taken from the World at just 27, Winehouse leaves us at the age that many a pop star before has including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Unfortunately, the 27 Club (as it's known in rock circles) has welcomed its newest member.

The outpouring of sadness and despair at her untimely demise has had one recurring theme; this is not only a loss to the World, but a real loss to music. That is not debatable. Winehouse had a talent and knowledge of music unparalleled by many. The great shame, musically, is that Winehouse had more in her than Back to Black and Frank. Though both albums were fine, the harking backwards to soul and jazz on those albums could sound passée.

Winehouse on 'junk' (left) and before 'junk' (right)

The future held so much for Winehouse career-wise. Back to Black should not have been her magnum opus. With a talent such as her's, if she'd had a long, mappable career, we could have looked back and seen her second studio album as the point at which she started to flower. In many ways it could have been an album analogous to Rubber Soul by The Beatles. Winehouse had a chance to cross genres and transcend stereotypes. She now has nothing and her family have lost her.

Ultimately Winehouse's death is so sad because she was so young, so talented and so troubled. It's another early death in popular music mired by the use of hard drugs. A post-mortem will be carried out today, most of us expect it to show that her system was ravaged by drug-use. Winehouse was a junky and because of that was governed by opiates. She is now dead, like many before her. My thoughts are with her family.

What's Going On?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Marvin Gaye once asked that rather ambiguous question and put it in a setting in which ambiguity had no place. He masterfully questioned the world around him in a song which means so much to so many. With that in mind, I ask what's going on right now?

Well, the News International phone-hacking scandal continues to both fascinate and disgust. The web of revelations keeps spinning and day by day I, as well as many others, lose any faith in the notion that Britain is not corrupt.

We've lost Lucian Freud, the man revered as "the best British painter alive", sadly the latter part of that statement can be wiped off, but arguably not the former. Though Lowry may give him a run for his money.

One of Freud's great self portraits

The music industry has had a warning from Elton John to clean up its act and start nurturing artists properly, like he is with his new Rocket company, and stop being so throw-away. Elton's comments were made in an interview with Music Week and can be found here:

Finally, a hospital in Stockport (where my girlfriend did a placement once) has been at the centre of a saline contamination scandal. To answer the question 'what's going on?'; quite a bloody lot is.

Mercury Prize Nominees Announced

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Last night the announcement was made that this year's Mercury Music Prize will be contested between twelve albums, they are as follows:

1. Adele - 21
2. Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi
3. Katy B - On a Mission
4. Metronomy - The English Riviera
5. Everything Everything - Man Alive
6. King Creosote and Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
7. Tinie Tempah - Disc-Overy
8. James Blake - James Blake
9. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
10. Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
11. Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys!
12. Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau

Everything Everything - "We're just, like, soooo vintage yah".

Notable omissions from the list are Arctic Monkeys' Suck it and See and Radiohead's King of Limbs.

The entries are the usual mix of contemporary pop, hip-hop, jazz and folk to be honest. Personally I wouldn't have the Adele record in there, it's got maybe two or three good tunes on it and Tinie Tempah is dross. Elbow bore me too much to even speak of them.

"The royalties cheques after a Mercury nomination are meant to be like this big, innit."

That said the James Blake record is good, I like a bit of Katy B and the PJ Harvey record (though I've only listened to it properly twice) is very good indeed. Metronomy and Everything Everything fill the box which reads 'much hyped, not much cop though' and I have no clue who Ghostpoet is (though I'm told he's a rapper) or, for that matter, who King Creosote and Jon Hopkins are. I've not checked out the Anna Calvi record either so I'll have to listen to the latter three records unless I want to be uncool, hey? Also, what sort of blinking name is Gwilym Simcock?

Apparently PJ Harvey and Adele are the favourites so, knowing the Mercurys, the prize is Ghostpoet's.

The Pop Quest for Love

Monday, 18 July 2011

Love is probably the most covered subject in popular music. Lyricists have agonised over love, celebrated it, condemned it, embraced it and nearly all have discussed it at some point.

The quest for love is something which is hard to define. Everybody wants to be loved; lyricists both recognise this and display it constantly. Within love many may discuss lust and hate in equal measure.

Certainly the two finest examples I can think of where a lyricist explains what love is as an emotion - and, importantly, how humans react to it - are Morrissey's line in How Soon Is Now "I am human and I need to be loved/just like everybody else does" and John Lennon's summarising in this topic's eponymous masterpiece "Love is needing to be loved".

John Lennon amongst his 'loved ones'

Lennon also told us that "love is all you need", but is it? Certainly a case could be put forward for hate's necessity in art, especially pop. Without hate would Lennon's contemporary Bob Dylan have written tracks such as A Hard Rain's Gonna' Fall? Then again, "love is one of the necessary components you need, but is not the only" isn't nearly as catchy now is it?

The reason I'm pondering and discussing all this is due to listening to the aforementioned Love by John Lennon and being overpowered by its resonance. It just goes to show that a song you've heard hundreds of times can still move you to distraction. Which is exactly why I love music.

John Lennon - Love

5 of the Best - Newspapers

Sunday, 17 July 2011

With the abhorrent actions of those under a certain Australian tycoon's wings still fresh in the mind and causing passionate outpourings of scorn the World over, here's 5 of the Best songs ever made to do with newspapers.

The Clash - The Leader: This track off of their wonderfully varied fourth LP Sandinista is a humorous riot, with its refrain line of "the people must have something good to read on a Sunday" being its focal point. Very apt today, the first Sunday without the News of the World available in newsagents since 1843.

The Jam - News of the World: An equally apt song, if not more so. Paul Weller's sarcastic, snarling commentary on Britain's best-selling Sunday newspaper is also one of his best songs.

The Jam - News of the World

The Beatles - A Day in the Life: The last song on Sgt. Pepper's... is quite simply astonishing. No song on this list, or any other maybe, will match its brilliance and its impact.

Billy Joel - New York State of Mind: Though not directly about a newspaper, this song's mentioning of The New York Times and the Daily News justifies its entry here. Joel's best ballad? Maybe, I think Piano Man just wins that one though.

Billy Joel - New York State of Mind

Bob Dylan - Ballad of a Thin Man: Dylan tells it like it is on this track and once again tells it better than anybody else. Might have to rethink that Beatles statement, this is up in that pantheon. Its brilliance and impact are also immeasurable.

A Few Things to Be Excited About...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I've not updated recently due to moving flat and waiting for the internet man from Virgin sodding Media to turn up. He still hasn't and I'm currently in the library at Uni writing this! But I'm not bitter.

Anyway, here are a few things to be excited about:

First things first. All reports seem to say Damon Albarn's Doctor Dee is fantastic, so let's hope he goes nationwide (worldwide, in fact) with it. I'm sure he will. The main thing to get excited about, however, is that he, Tony Allen and Flea will all be playing Ireland's Cork Festival together as a group as well as releasing an album later this year/early next. Great bassist, great drummer and great frontman hook up. Only great things can be expected, right?

Damon Albarn

Secondly. Mark Lynas has a new book titled The God Species out. More apocalyptic visions from the author of the brilliant, insightful and downright scary Six Degrees.

Finally. Jack White and Black Milk have teamed up for a new song called Brain. It's good. That's all.