I started making music again…


Like so many people I was devastated when David Bowie died… it was an event that forced me into a period of self reflection where I started questioning many of my life decisions. One of the things that kept nagging me in the middle of the night was one simple question – when did I stop being creative? I know I’ve published books, I’ve given lectures and talks, and I’ve designed courses over recent years, but when did the creative urge to make music, write prose or simply read for pleasure leave me?  The more I thought about it the more I realised it hadn’t gone away at all, it was just tucked away in a darkened place where I’d hid it along with other distractions. It was as if creativity had been banished.

Quite why this happened is a long story, suffice to say I was offered two avenues through which I could once again express myself through music. All I had to do was get the confidence together to go for it. The first was a David Bowie celebration gig at the uni I work at. I reluctantly put my name forward to do two songs: ‘Lazarus’, the last song Bowie ever wrote and ‘Hallo Spaceboyone of my ‘ favourite songs from his much overlooked 90s period. The results were OK. ‘Lazarus’ was performed with some students who did a really nice job, while ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ was created with Sean Albiez as a techno-punk anthem. The track was amazing, my performance less so. Nerves got the better of me and I forgot the lyrics. But it forced me out of my self-imposed slump.

See Lazarus here 

Soon after I recorded vocals for two tracks on Solar Wolf’s Love in the Underground album. I also started work on an album with Sean Albiez. Hopefully, we’ll have it finished soon…

SSU’s Popular Music Journalism team announces the second Word Up! conference

Popular Music Journalism


Southampton Solent University is to host its second annual music journalism conference, Word Up!, on Monday 3rd November, at the Solent Lecture Theatre in the SM building at 12-4pm.

After last year’s hugely successful inaugural conference, this year’s event brings together another heavyweight line-up of writers and editors from top magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, Metal Hammer, Clash, The Line of Best Fit and Popjustice. Word Up! will once again offer students crucial insight into the industry and a chance to meet and network with experts at the top of their respective fields.

Sarah Hall, Senior Publicist at Sony Music, will be reflecting on a career promoting mega-selling artists, from Daft Punk to Pink, with Jacqui Swift (SSU, The Sun).

Alexis Petridis - with a hat Alexis Petridis – with a hat

The Guardian’s Head Music Critic Alexis Petridis, Metal Hammer’s Editor-At-Large Dom Lawson and The Line of Best Fit’s Lauren Down will be among…

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A silent voice across the MEdiaverse: The Next Day as identities prosumed


Back in March 2013 I posted an article in which I tried to analyse Bowie’s comeback album The Next Day. Quite a few things about ‘Bowie now’ intrigued me so I worked on some of my ideas around social media and identity and eventually published an academic remix of the original article (read original here) in Celebrity Studies journal.

Not long after publication The Next Day album designer Jonathan Barnbrook sent me this message which I took to be quite positive:

“…well very interesting. quite academic language but just about understandable. reasons are much more various and multifaceted, partly accidental but certainly contain elements that you are discussing.”

I love the ‘just about understandable’ bit… I suppose it was written for an academic journal so the language is a bit ‘academic’. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how rarified a language academic-speak can be. And like any language it takes some time to understand, so I was over the moon that Jonathan took the time and effort to read the article.

More recently I was told by someone close to Bowie’s camp that he also enjoyed the article… I can’t publish the email but I can say the fanboy in me did summersaults. So, here it is for anyone who wants to take a look… but I would urge you to read the original so you can see how everyday language can become tied in academic knots, while not really adding anything that new!!!

Click here to download a PDF of the article The Next Day as identities prosumed


Super Discount 2, The Sage Gateshead, 2005


Super Discount 2, The Sage Gateshead, Friday 11 February 2005

The sight of three balding producers bobbing their heads up and down as their fingers manipulate mixing keyboards, desk and computers to work up a breathtaking house-music storm may not be the most enticing proposition to many people. But for anyone who followed the late-Nineties French dance-music scene (or French Touch, as it was popularly known) the Super Discount live experience is exciting, as it is long overdue.

Why the excitement? Arguably, without the arrival of Etienne de Crecy’s Super Discount concept in 1996, Air and Daft Punk might never have enjoyed the same degree of success. It was through the 1997 Super Discount album that the UK’s dance-music media woke up to the concept of French dance music.

That album became the must-have house collection of the year, spearheading a musical revolution among the Parisian house cognoscenti that would not only spawn numerous Top 10 hits, but even alter the musical direction of Madonna. Her album Music was heavily reliant on the French Touch sound.

Despite Super Discount’s subsequent influence on global dance music, the second instalment arrived only last month. Super Discount 2 was no less inspirational, but where its predecessor was all about defining new ground, this set was defined by its search for authenticity.

It is this same search that underlines the Super Discount 2 live show. Augmented by his fellow Parisian producers Alex Gopher (who was once in a band with the Air duo) and Julien Delfaud, De Crecy appears intent on reclaiming the spirit of house and techno from the cheesy sounds that masquerade as “dance music” these days. The band offer up an obsessive’s brew of tweaking acid house, deep, pulsating Detroit techno and raw-edged Chicago house, all orbiting the relentless simplicity of Kraftwerk and absorbed through the rushing peaks and subliminal beats of the best club tracks.

Playing to a capacity crowd, Super Discount 2 deliver a series of stunning overtures that range from the twisted bleeps of “Poisoned” to the bass- driven hypnosis of “Overnet”. The highlight of the set comes in “Fast Track”, an adrenalised Formula One soundtrack with a bassline lifted from the vaults of New Order and injected with the deepest of house grooves.

While pundits everywhere are quick to write off electronic music, Super Discount 2 recaptures the essence of house culture at its rough-and-ready best. Vintage stuff, perhaps, but also a timely reminder of how potent a force this music has been for the past 20 years.

Roisin Murphy, The Dome, Brighton, 2007


Roisin Murphy, The Dome, Brighton, Wednesday 28 November 2007

In interview, Roisin Murphy appears not to suffer fools gladly. Direct, single-minded and occasionally a little belligerent, she comes across as a strong women who is in total control of both her art and her career.

It’s surprising, then, that her live shows reveal an individual who seems riddled with insecurities. It’s certainly the case at this opening show in support of her second solo album Overpowered, where her glamorous poses and supermodel poise are undone by awkward dance moves and embarrassed smiles and glances.

Such contrasting personality traits have always been at the heart of Murphy’s work. As one half of Moloko she milked these opposing forces of the dance-floor weirdo and the pop starlet to startling effect.

Live, however, these schizophrenic dynamics show a performer with a need to remain in complete control. This, despite the fact that her current music is built around a sense of jouissance – the out-of-body bliss of dance-floor pleasure.

Murphy’s displays of such free-spirited states of mind are tempered by her faux-celebrity performance. So pounding acid house-meets-disco beats are explored through a series of on-stage costume changes. These range from the high-couture judge for “The Truth” to the pantomime Gestapo princess for “Tell Everybody” and “Ramalama”.

The costume changes give Murphy the image of someone in need of constant reinvention. But then that is what this show is all about. The set is almost entirely drawn from her new album, while the only songs from the previous Ruby Blue set, “Sow Into You” and “Ramalama (Bang Bang)”, get a disco makeover.

As the band thunder through a performance that updates the soul revue to excellent effect, Murphy slips between personalities, proving herself to be one of the UK’s most interesting pop stars at the moment.

Her stagecraft draws on these various character traits to present an inspired observation on the split personality at the heart of the music industry. The stunning “Overpowered” finds her playing both puppet and puppet mistress, while the lone Moloko song “Forever More” sees Murphy joining her backing singers to become one of the girls, rather than the star of the show.

Endlessly inventive, beautiful, smart and blessed with a gorgeous voice: on the face of it Murphy is the perfect pop star. But as this performance showed, the obtuse side of her refuses to play the pop game according to the industry rules.

Patrick Wolf, St George’s Church, Brighton – 2007

Patrick Wolf

Patrick Wolf, St George’s Church, Brighton

Monday 26 November 2007, The Independent

The irony can’t have gone unnoticed as Patrick Wolf walked through the audience to the stage wearing an embellished approximation of a Roman soldier’s helmet. The venue is, after all, a Victorian church clearly readying itself for Christmas celebrations.

It’s an irony given poignancy by the song Wolf chooses to sing, a new number with the repeated hook “peacock die” and a plea for “divine intervention” to “fuel our reinvention”. Accompanied only by piano, the song’s anti-war themes are a rare moment of awareness in a performance that’s a mix of whimsical self-absorption and naive egotism.

The 23-year-old singer-songwriter inhabits similar territory to that of contemporary neo-folk revivalists like Devendra Banhart – irony-free music characterised by the honesty of “real” instruments (no sequencing) and emotion.

But here, it’s the empty emotion of allusion to a cause, the kind of off-the-peg spirituality that makes these songs perfect for technology adverts. Still, it’s an effect he does very well.

Wolf plays solo, bar the occasional accompaniment of a synth delivering simple arpeggios. Moving from plucked viola to hammered piano and on to strummed ukulele, he relishes the closeness of a crowd who beg him to play old faves.

But it is with his older songs that his musical weaknesses are clearest. “Wind in the Wires” displays a tendency for clichéd melody and teenage poetry with its descriptions of the “wild electricity” of a storm. The metaphor, if there is one, is lost in the clumsy lyricism.

At times the medieval minstrel, at others the mystical folk poet, Wolf’s is an insular show that invites us into his world. Highlights include the gorgeous “Stars”, the touching “Augustine” and the stunning new song “The Days”, which locates a journey through London in piano motifs that echo the soundtrack work of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

His cover of “Moon River” supplies a link to the show-tune influences of his songs, yet this only adds to the overall effect of self-centred emptiness. Wolf is a troubadour with an adoring audience living out some Sixties folk happening but without the politics.

This is why that Roman-helmeted display is so powerful. In a set all about “me”, the song is focused on a real cause – and he sounds all the more empowered for it. Shame that this sole moment of awareness came in the encore.

Roots Manuva, The Sage, Gateshead (The Independent – 2005)


Roots Manuva, The Sage, Gateshead

Wednesday 02 March 2005

Roots Manuva’s raps are delivered with the kind of gravel-distressed, ganja-soaked growl that takes years of larynx-burning inhalation to achieve. Strange, then, that he should open his latest tour in a no-smoking venue. But then, Rodney Smith (as Manuva is known to his family) is well used to playing the fish-out-of-water act. When he emerged as a part of the mid-Nineties UK hip-hop scene, his lyrics and delivery stood out from those of his Highbury-obsessed associates. Where they perfected their cock-er-nay drawl, Smith delivered rhymes that drew as much on the parlance of Jamaican back-a-yard culture as on London slang.

Through the course of his three albums, Smith has continually subverted the hip-hop form. Not for him simple funk breaks – instead, he has drawn on old soul, free-form jazz, contemporary dancehall and Eighties Sleng-Teng reggae, and contorted them through the filters of British techno. The resulting sound paved the way for Dizzee Rascal and the rest of today’s east-London grime movement.

Roots Manuva has just delivered his third album, Awfully Deep, to huge critical acclaim, and his recent single, the stunning “Colossal Insight”, gained round-the-clock Radio 1 support. So, at tonight’s show, Smith is riding a wave of near-hype. After an electrifying support set by MIA, Smith appears with an air of nonchalant bemusement. Just as his lyrical style has him delivering words slightly tardy of the beat, so his on-stage gait is a lazy shuffle. With hands constantly hoisting up his white tracksuit pants and his huge smile flashing nervously, he presents a vision of pure discomfort. It’s only when he looks up at the venue’s three circular tiers that he finally engages with the source of his outsider feelings. “Man, this place is so clean,” he laughs. “And no smoking.”

But far from being a negative force, the unusual (and quite beautiful) setting quickly draws out of Smith and his band a performance that is little short of inspirational. The robotic funk of “Chin High” develops into a scratch-a-delic showcase for DJ MK, the band turntablist, before the jump-up chorus has Smith and Ricky Ranking throwing hands in the air, and even threatening to throw down some breakdance shapes. The soul lament of “The Falling” evolves into a raw, aching expression of love lost. “Too Cold” becomes an exploration of Brechtian dislocation, its oompah beats exaggerated nearly to the point of burlesque. The crowd favourites “Dreamy Days” and “Witness” bring with them hip-hop’s obligatory call-and-response audience interaction. Not that you can imagine the likes of Eminem demanding shouts of “cheese on toast”.

“This could be my last album,” Smith sings on the set highlight, “Colossal Insight”. But on tonight’s showing, any suggestions of early retirement would be a huge loss to the musical landscape. For Roots Manuva is emerging as a unique voice and one of Britain’s most important artists.


23 Skidoo Interview, The Independent

23skidooRock the dancefloor? We built it

It may have been 15 years between 23 Skidoo albums, but that didn’t stop them laying the foundations of UK dance and hip hop. Just ask the Chemical Brothers

The Independent, Friday 30 June 2000

If you’ve read any one of the numerous dance-music histories published over recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, until the US gave us house music, the only dance we created was of the morris variety. Apparently, funk, disco and rare groove were genres that we consumed rather than produced. Even Northern Soul seemed to slip past the experts who were busy worshipping at the altars of Chicago and Detroit – the so-called birthplaces of house and techno respectively. According to these commentators, everything started with ecstasy, and year zero coincided with the opening of London’s legendary acid- house club Shoom in 1987.

But even the most rudimentary understanding of the creative tensions which forge new subcultures and musical styles would show how ludicrous a concept this is. Nothing can evolve in a vacuum and yet we are asked to believe that today’s dance culture has a definite moment of birth.

So what of the musicians pushing at the boundaries of funk and electronica prior to Shooom? Artists like 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA, A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and Pop Group who, for the first half of the 1980s, applied the same anything-goes nihilism to the US funk of James Brown and the Afro-funk of Fela Kuti, as the punks had previously applied to rock music. Or others like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Normal who attempted to harness Kraftwerk’s circuitry to the DIY aesthetic of the times.

It’s with these industrial funk bands that we can see much of the groundwork for the late-Eighties house aesthetic. The music was both conceptual and functional; it was free of the standardised pop-song format (The Beatles meant less to this generation than King Tubby) and it was mainly instrumental. Live, these bands performed heavily strobed multimedia events where projected films and slide shows took precedence over artists. Like the DJ culture that would follow, this was an anti-star scene.

Recently, the style magazine The Face ran an article celebrating the return of the sound that they’ve rechristened punk funk (industrial has come to represent the likes of US goth-rockers Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails).

The main inspiration is the re-emergence of 23 Skidoo with a new single, the gorgeous jazzy dub of “Dawning” (featuring Pharaoh Saunders) and an equally superb eponymous album. Both arrive some 15 years since their last release.

“We’re trying not to be too aware of any revivalism,” say the band “The fact is we never actually went away. We didn’t use the 23 Skidoo name, that’s all.”

23 Skidoo are Anglo-Singaporean Chinese brothers Alex and Johnny Turnbull, Fritz Catlin and Sketch (once a member of chart-topping British jazz-funk outfit Linx). Formed in 1979, the band soon came to the fore with their critically acclaimed debut single “The Gospel Comes to New Guinea”, which offered a startling amalgamation of percussive Afro rhythms, industrial ambience and heavily echoed guitars.

Over the course of the next six years, they released four albums (“7 Songs”, “Tearing Up the Plans”, “The Culling is Coming” and “Urban Gamelan”), although it’s for the celebrated 1984 single “Coup” that they are best remembered. Not least because its infectious bass line was lifted wholesale by The Chemical Brothers on their huge “Block Rocking Beats” hit.

Since 1985, 23 Skidoo appeared to have remained dormant. In reality, however, like many of their contemporaries, they never went away. Rather they withdrew into the studio where they became influential musical catalysts in the growth and development of acid house and post-acid house cultures. In 23 Skidoo’s case, they developed Ronin Records, a label through which they initially explored breakbeat house in the early Nineties (they unleashed the hugely popular rave anthem “Jailbreak” in 1990) before developing a love affair with hip hop. Ronin has subsequently been hugely instrumental in placing the UK firmly on the international hip hop stage. Among the artists they’ve championed are the globally acclaimed MCs Roots Manuva (who guest on the new album), Rodney P and DJ Skitz.

“People expected us to be heavily into dance music because of the trance element of our early stuff,” explains Alex from the cosy confines of the band’s north London studio. “But we were always more interested in funk and stuff like Fela [Kuti] and the Last Poets, y’know? When hip hop came along, we were immediately drawn to it. Hip hop’s been central to a lot of musical development. If you look at pop music now, it’s the same as what happened in R&B 10 years ago, which in itself drew on hip hop. Each development in hip hop eventually filters into the mainstream and really affects people.”

The notion of music in a constant state of evolution may be central to the band’s manifesto but, despite musical developments, their newer material is still instantly recognisable as 23 Skidoo. The moods are still dark and the rhythms still largely percussive. The only difference is that the standard of playing has improved, which raises the question of whether their original sound was partly due to their relative lack of ability.

“You can go up your backside with ability,” exclaims Alex. “It’s more about what it says to you than the technical virtuosity. A lot of dance music and experimental music might be technically perfect, but it is just so formulaic.” Which brings us back to the sampling formula as employed by the Chemical Brothers and their like. I wonder how they feel about that blatant lift from “Coup”?

“We’ve got mixed emotions about it, actually. It’s kind of ironic that people are questioning our relevance when one of the biggest dance acts in the world have lifted from us. We’ve also been sampled by Future Sound of London and Ice T, so the Chemicals aren’t alone.”

23 Skidoo. Not forgotten after all.

Vinyl Memories #2 – James White and the Blacks – Off White (1978) & James Chance and the Contortions – Buy Contortions (1979)

Image   Image

Punk’s year zero clarion call seemed increasingly empty as the UK lurched towards 1979’s winter of discontent. The music that had once seemed so brave had become reduced to a standardized three-chord stereotype by a generation of young punks seemingly content to remain ever the same.

Suddenly, over the grey horizon emerged a fresh, progressive musical approach in which all genres were ransacked in the same way that the Sex Pistols had attacked the back catalogue of The Who. This new era, which has become known as post punk in the years since, encouraged artists to think beyond restrictive structures. As a result the previously untouchable, hallowed ground of jazz became as open to plunder and redress as dub, reggae, funk, musique concrete and the avant-garde. Suddenly everything was punk.

Post-punk wasn’t about smashing the originals so much as it was a celebration of the source and stretch towards the unknown, realized through the creativity of a cut and paste genre fusion that reordered art’s sacred cows. Where punk might have declared ‘here’s three chords, now form a band’ post-punk screamed ‘here’s a load of genres, now form a universe’. And it touched art as much as music.

James Chance came to earth from the New York loft jazz scene of Manhattan where he created a mélange of James Brown, Charlie Parker and Throbbing Gristle that would become known as a part of New York’s No Wave.


Off White and Buy Contortions are essentially two inseparable sides of the same coin. Released within months of each other, the albums offer the perfect snapshot of the No Wave scene’s duel obsessions – punk and disco. In many ways they represented No Wave’s answer to Parliament and Funkadelic – same band, but with different ambitions. Parliament was the disco band, Funkadelic the funk band with a rock edge. Each identity aimed to question essentialist assumptions about black music.

Off White was James Chance’s mutant disco album. Buy Contortions was his punk funk set. Each attempted to redress essentialist notions of what a white rock and roll band was supposed to be like.

Easy listening it was not. Discordant guitars strangled hyperactive basslines. Edgy rhythms played counterpoint to squealing freeform sax as Chance (aka White) rinsed the ghosts from Charlie Parker’s be bop body. His vocals doing a similar number on James Brown’s on-the-one barking commands. “Contort yourself one time” yelped Chance… and we did.

I bought Off White from Scorpion Records in High Wycombe. It had a ‘promo only’ sticker on it, which explained why the shop had it stocked weeks before its release. At the time I didn’t know too much about No Wave. I’d read about Brian Eno’s compilation of what he considered to be the four best bands of the scene; James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Mars. But this isn’t what made me buy the album. Quite simply it was the cover art, which seemed like trailer trash Frank Sinatra – high style, low class. To me this was punk and I lapped it up. I’d already dropped the torn up bondage gear in favour of what I thought was a sharp suit (in retrospect it wasn’t). Doc Martens, Sex t-shirts and bedraggled hair remained in place. It was the Johnny Lydon effect. So when I saw James White’s punked up lounge lizard garb it already felt like a part of me and still does to this day.

Through the trash glam meets 50’s nostalgia of the covers, these two albums paved the way for the early 80s embrace of artifice as authenticity like few others. And despite their obvious influences, these two inseparable Siamese albums sound like no one else before… or since.

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