Tag Archive | "Rotifer"

Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door

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Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door

Posted on 03 August 2016 by Joe

Not Your Door is a deeply personal album for Robert Rotifer, taking in his present life living in Canterbury, Kent, as well as his past, growing up in Vienna. But with its themes of family and the very notion of home it aims to resonate with many.

As with other Rotifer releases it also has a political edge and the timing of its release, coming after the European political landscape changed when Britain voted to leave the EU, gives its tale of an Austrian who has made his home in England added resonance.

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The first five tracks focus on his English life, as an artist, journalist and parent. Opener If We Hadn’t Had You is a deliberately non-mawkish look at parenthood that takes in his own sense of wonder and worries of having children while referencing the ongoing aftermath of the war in Iraq, where parents continue to live in fear that each day with their child may be their last.

Meanwhile in my Machine takes in our obsession with technology and its affect on real living. This is a theme that was also touched on in his John Howard and the Night Mail track last year, London’s After Work Drinking Culture.

Elsewhere on the album’s first half, Passing a Van looks at Shrodingers immigrant, who are perceived by Brexiters as a drain on the economy, while at the same time working hard and paying taxes in jobs such as working in care homes. With his fellow Kent residents voting to leave the EU by a whopping 59% you can see why he felt the need to write this track.

On side two Rotifer travels back to Vienna, visiting old haunts and key childhood memories. Falling off a bike in front of laughing workers on The Piano Factory and encounters with skinheads on Top of the Escalator are two such memories that many will have experienced in similar ways.

His incredibly interesting late grandmother Irma Schwager also features on two songs, Irma La Douce and the title track. As a Jewish communist she was forced to flee Austria during the Second World War, fought as a member of the French resistance and then returned home.

Across the album there’s a deliberate focus on lyrical content with instrumentation often taking a back seat. This gives it a folk feel in places, with hints of John Martyn at times in Rotifer’s acoustic guitar work. The sparse production has also meant he has had to be ruthless at times, in particular axing a version of If We Hadn’t Had You, featuring a saxello solo by Canterbury based jazz veteran Tony Coe. This version has been released separately as a single though, to ensure it is not lost.

Also, while Rotifer band members, bassist Mike Stein and drummer Ian Button, appear here, they are used sparingly, hence the album being released under the name Robert Rotifer rather than Rotifer.

While it lacks the energy of Rotifer’s last release The Cavalry Never Showed Up its low key feel works well, especially in capturing how lives are affected by events such as war and most recently the EU referendum.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

Robert Rotifer – Not Your Door is released by Gare Du Nord.

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Rapid Results College – In City Light

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Rapid Results College – In City Light

Posted on 12 May 2016 by Joe

Rapid Results College is such a great name for a band, cemented in modern urban life with tongue firmly in cheek about its pressures, pace and pitfalls.

Their debut album In City Light keeps this ethos going, offering the band’s particular take on modern life from the horrors, quite literally, of dating (The Cautionary Tale of Alphonse Du Gard) to its frantic pace, on the track Rapid Results.

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The delivery too is clean and precise, like a freshly swept city pavement early in the morning. This draws out the best in the simple sound of former The Hillfields frontman Rob Boyd’s guitar and vocals, Mike Stone’s (Television Personalities and Rotifer) bass and the drums of Owain Evans.

Knowing that Stone is a fan of XTC it was no surprise to hear the influence of the legendary Swindon act here. This is particularly on Rapid Results, which offers up glimpses of XTC tracks King for a Day on the guitar intro and Towers of London in the middle eight. Another Wiltshire act, Co-Pilgrim, is another point of reference as an act that uses a clean sound to draw out melody.

Rapid Results is just one of many hightlights, which also include the album’s best pop track Any Other Way and the aforementioned The Cautionary Tale of Alphonse Du Gard, where a date, possibly arranged through something Tinder, goes horrifically array.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

Rapid Results College – In City Light is released by Gare Du Nord. For more information click here.

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Picture Box – Songs of Joy

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Picture Box – Songs of Joy

Posted on 10 May 2016 by Joe

One of the most enduring memories I have from living in Canterbury was one night seeing a tall, hooded, ghostly figure walking towards me in a dark underpath from the university into the city centre.  As he approached,  in shadow of a nearby streetlight,  I was genuinely worried.

Luckily though he was no ghost or mutant ‘hoodie’, but a tall, friendly monk, who smiled as he passed me by. This for me sums up Canterbury, a city where England’s ancient, religious past mixes, often incongruously, with modern small city life.

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As well as friendly monks, the Kent city also has a rich musical heritage. Stopping into the Cathedral during a Saturday spent in its record shops I was often treated to its choir rehearsing. The then modern day 1940s pilgrims in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale enjoyed a similar treat.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s the Canterbury “scene” of Caravan and Soft Machine dominated and in the 1990s  the Acid Jazz scene bands from nearby Medway frequently played in the city.

But much has changed since then. Music venues are in short supply but at least its musical heritage continues through among others Robert Halcrow, self styled exponent of “wonky pop and Canterbury lo-fi”.

As part of the Gare Du Nord stable of artists, which also includes another musical Canterbury resident Robert Rotifer, Halcrow’s latest slice of wonky pop is heavily influenced by the lesser known nooks and crannies of the Kent city, taking in the demise of its speedway team the Canterbury Crusaders, its streets, hospitals and even its pet fish shops.

Best of all though is one of the year’s most surprising and arguably best cover versions. On first hearing Garden Song, I thought it was a fine flashback to the psychedelic pop of Canterbury’s past. It’s actually written by children’s TV legend Matthew Corbett from his days in the 1970s as part of musical act Rod, Matt and Jane on ITV kids show Rainbow. Children were lucky blighters back then to have such musical talent on tap.

Another highpoint is Disgusting. With the opening line “You think its disgusting, but everything smells. I don’t feel well” reminded me St Mildred’s Tannery, which until its closure more than a decade ago brought a truly unpleasant stench to an otherwise pleasant city centre stroll. From the rest of the song’s lyrics it seems to be more about a hangover, but I’d be surprised if Canterbury’s pungent, former landmark wasn’t near to Halcrow’s thoughts when writing this.

This  album is not just a quirky ode to Canterbury’s lesser known landmarks though. Above all it’s a good listen, full of English eccentricity and quality, albeit wonky, pop.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

To order  Picture Box – Songs of Joy click here.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The Top 10

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The Top 10

Posted on 16 December 2015 by Dorian

This week sees the much-anticipated release of the latest instalment in the world’s most popular space opera series, Star Wars: The Force awakens. It is impossible to avoid such a big release and media saturation is reaching fever pitch as the premier approaches.

When we see a bandwagon of this magnitude the only realistic option is to jump aboard. Luckily space is just as rich a source of inspiration for songs as it is for films. So here, for your listening pleasure, is the top 10 songs about space.

10. The Byrds – Mr.Spaceman

Early Byrds records were dominated by Gene Clark songs and cover versions, until Clark quit after two albums. This left Jim/Roger McGuinn to write the bulk of the songs, including this novelty from their 3rd album in 1966.

9. Pere Ubu – I Hear They Smoke The Barbecue

For a short period in the early 90s Pere Ubu decided to try to be a pop band, with mixed results. This track, about aliens among us, is one of their more successful attempts at being radio friendly.

8. Ash – Angel Interceptor

Ash’s first album, 1977, is very appropriate here as it is named after the year when Star wars first hit cinema screens in the US. ‘Angel Interceptor’ is named after the aircraft in the TV show Captain Scarlet. ‘Girl From Mars’ may have been a more appropriate choice for this list, but this is a better song.

7. Rotifer – The Cosmonaut Who Never Flew

This track is taken from the Vostok 5 EP that was part of an art show about people and animals in space. I could have picked any of the tracks from that EP (they are all pretty great) but this contribution from Robert Rotifer is a wonderful reflection on the Soviet space programme.

6. Sun Kil Moon – Space Travel Is Boring

I’m not a huge fan of Sun Kil Moon, whereas I’ve always loved the work of Modest Mouse. This cover of ‘Space Travel Is Boring’ is great though, and eclipses the original.

5. Robert Pollard – Love Your Spaceman

Superman Was A Rocker was one of Pollard’s least successful solo releases, an overtly lo-fi collection of forgotten songs that should have mostly remained unreleased. However, this is a Robert Pollard album, dig in the dirt and you’ll normally find a diamond. “When Fred says Rock ‘n’ Roll!” indeed.

4. The Beastie Boys – Intergalactic

When the Beastie Boys first hit the scene in the mid-80s it seemed unlikely that they would be releasing critically acclaimed chart topping albums 15 years later, but they were and this track is one of their best.

3. The Star Wars Rap

15 years ago I had no idea what a viral video was, or what a meme was or even what social media was, but I did know that this video was funny. Luke’s whiny delivery, and the slightly odd gin and tonic reference, have stuck with me that whole time. Classic.

2. Hefner – Alan Bean

This was the lead single from Hefner’s “difficult” final album and is one of the band’s most evocative tracks. It tells the story of the 4th man on the moon, who devoted his post-astronaut years to painting pictures of the lunar landscape.

1. Neon Neon – I Told Her On Alderaan

Super Furry Animal Gruf Rhys and Boom Bip collaborating on a song named after Princess Leia’s home planet, on a concept album about the inventor of the DeLorean. Near perfect pop.

Compiled by Dorian Rogers

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John Howard and the Night Mail

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John Howard and the Night Mail

Posted on 04 August 2015 by Joe

A new angle has emerged in the John Howard story. The 70s singer songwriter, who was lost by the music industry and found by an Internet generation, has now got himself into a pop group. After a decade or so into a fiercely independent comeback career, where he writes, plays all instruments and handles promotion and distribution, the creation of The Night Mail is actually a big deal for Howard.

JH

Control Freak, one of the best songs on this collection of clever, timeless pop, best exemplifies the fear and excitement of having to relinquish some of his guarded independence to others.

But don’t feel too sorry for him as he steps out of his comfort zone. He’s in good hands as the Night Mail of Robert Rotifer on guitar, Ian Button on drums and Andy Lewis on bass and mellotron, are no strangers.

All are seasoned musicians and songwriters who have been in contact with Howard through mutual musical appreciation and common friends, including former Hefner man Darren Hayman, for the last few years. All three also formed his backing band for his two most recent gigs in London. Howard knows what he’s getting into and judging by the results is loving every minute of being in a band.

All three musicians also bring their own personality to each song, with each taking joint songwriting credits as manuscripts, demos and lyric sheets shuffled to and fro between England and Spain ahead of its recording last year at Big Jelly Studios in Kent.

There are merits to all three collaborations. But with five shared songwriting credits it is Howard’s partnership with former Thrashing Doves and Death in Vegas man Button that dominates.

Given Button’s love of the 1970s pop scene, most notably on his recent set of covers under his Papernut Cambridge moniker, it is unsurprising that in Howard he has found a songwriting soulmate. Whether it’s Howard supplying the words and Button tackling the music on Control Freak and In the Light of Fires Burning, or vice versa on Deborah Fletcher, This Song and Thunder in Vienna, their love of the era that Howard started out recording in oozes through each catchy chorus and verse.

Rotifer and Howard share four songwriting credits and is another stellar partnership on display here. Howard’s music compliments Rotifer’s lyrics of modern life on London’s After Work Drinking Culture perfectly, and Rotifer’s music on opener Before provides another high point.

Lewis, who is also bassist in Paul Weller’s band, shares just one songwriting credit but what a credit it is. The Lewis and Howard track Intact and Smiling was the one I singled out as the best on my first listen and that hasn’t changed over the weeks. Seems I’m not alone as its been released as a single and has already garnered BBC 6Music airplay. This track is great pop. How Howard must have craved such a quality tune from Lewis back at the start of his career.

There’s a cover here too, Small World by Roddy Frame, and it’s a testament to the creative partnerships with Howard here that this high quality piece of songwriting does not overshadow the original songs.

Arguably this is amongst the three most important albums of Howard’s career. One day it may even be seen as more important than his other two classics – his rediscovered 1970s debut Kid in a Big World and his excellent 2005 comeback album As I Was Saying.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

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Darren Hayman – Chants for Socialists

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Darren Hayman – Chants for Socialists

Posted on 23 January 2015 by Joe

This latest release by Darren Hayman is perfectly timed for election year, offering a powerful reminder of the too often forgotten ideals of community, workers’ rights and friendship, as we gear up for voting.

As those who have followed former Hefner man Hayman’s solo career will know, his releases are varied and involve a strong attention to detail. From an instrumental album about lidos to a trilogy about Essex, including its shameful witch trial past, he immerses the listener in his diverse work.

This latest album is no exception, with Hayman taking a pamphlet of idealistic chants from Victorian socialist William Morris as the source material and delving deep into its lyrics and ethos.

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A key feature is the strong socialist ideal of togetherness, that united workers and families can rise from their sorrow and defeat the evils of greed and capitalism. On this album Hayman has used a choir of people local to Morris’s former homes to convey this ethos. He even recorded their parts in these  homes: Kelmscott House in Hammersmith as well as the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

In addition Hayman traveled to Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, to use Morris’s own piano for the album. And if that wasn’t enough Morris’ s letterpress was deployed to hand print limited vinyl editions of this release.

But while such details are important, this album should live or die on its music. Thankfully time has been taken over the songwriting as well. When Morris’s chants  require sadness Hayman is there to supply the right melody, particularly on the heartbreaking The Day is Coming. When a sense of optimism is needed he pops up with a smart guitar riff and infectious melody for May Day 1894. This is the album’s standout track and would be a sure fire hit if we happened to live in an alternate reality where a bloke from a 1990s indie band putting music to a  19th century political pamphlet is the secret of success.

To keep the songwriting fresh he’s also drafted regular collaborators and friends Ralegh Long and Robert Rotifer. Long’s tender songwriting style lends itself wonderfully to The Message of the March Wind, which may just be my favourite on the album.

Rotifer offers up his 1960s influences to good effect on Down Among the Dead Men, which sounds a little like it’s from a lost Ray Davies kitchen sink drama soundtrack.

But Chants for Socialists doesn’t always play to its strengths. The choir is chief among its assets but at times it feels too understated in the mix, more St Winifrids School Choir than the voice of a strong community. When they sing “We Will It”, on The Day Is Coming, they sound like they can barely muster the will to make a cup of tea let alone the will to “open wide the door” and send the “rich man” packing in “hurrying terror.” When the choir is used well the results are remarkable, such as on on the bold opener Awake London Lads, on the intro to A Death Song and their backing vocals on Down Among the Dead Men. I’d like to have heard more moments like those on this album.

Another strength is the array of musicians Hayman is able to call on. Nathan Thomas’s french horn addition to The Message of the March Wind and Down Among the Dead Men is really powerful but across the album he has been used far too sparingly.  The emotional pedal steel playing of Jack Hayter, who is also a former Hefner member and still a regular collaborator of Hayman, is a notable absentee on this album too.

There’s a book we frequently reference on this website called Electric Eden, by Rob Young. This charts modern folk music from its roots in Morris’ time through to the modern day. What Hayman is doing here is Young’s very definition of folk, taking traditional material from one era and recreating it in another. With our own modern May elections fast approaching I hope that the ideals of Morris and this album filter through in some way to the polling booths. It’s a slim hope though.  I also hope Young hears this album and considers including a section on Hayman in any forthcoming revision- he certainly deserves it after the effort that has gone into this.

7/10

by Joe Lepper

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Picturebox – Graffiti EP

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Picturebox – Graffiti EP

Posted on 08 December 2014 by Joe

Bonkers is a word that rarely gets used in reviews these days. I’m happy to revive it though to describe the brilliantly bonkers psych-pop of Giving It All I’ve Got, one of three covers on this four track EP by Canterbury’s Picturebox, led by Robert Halcrow.

This track, a cover of another Canterbury artist Luke Smith, alternates between robot vocals, indie pop, 1960s pyschedelia and spoken word from Emily Kennedy. As well as being utterly bonkers it is a darn clever track, managing to pack a lot of fun into its short three minutes.

There’s more fun too, with a rip roaring version of Bit Part, the Lemonhead’s classic indie-pop track from their stellar album It’s A Shame About Ray. Kennedy is back again here filling in the Juliana Hatfield role.

Halcrow’s third cover is an eponymous 2013 track from Papernut Cambridge, the ensemble project of Ian Button, one of the founders of Gare Du Nord records, which has released this EP and will release Picturebox’s album The Garden Path next year.

The creation of Gare Du Nord last year has come at a good time for Halcrow and it looks like with their help he has a good shot of getting a wider audience after years of “self releases and low key café gigs involving tea, biscuits and music,” as he puts it.

The last track to mention is the title track that opens the EP. At just over a minute it is an editor’s dream, delivering perfect indie-pop with no extra baggage and a similar decade spanning feel of Papernut Cambridge’s album There’s No Underground, one of 2014’s best releases.  But while this short track  about spontaneous love is a lovely slice of indiepop it is the Luke Smith cover that shines brightest as we eagerly await more clever musical bonkerness from Halcrow next year.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

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Gare du Nord’s Arrivée/Départ – Mel Mayr, John Howard & Rotifer – Servant Jazz Quarters, London (Nov 26, 2014)

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Gare du Nord’s Arrivée/Départ – Mel Mayr, John Howard & Rotifer – Servant Jazz Quarters, London (Nov 26, 2014)

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Patricia Turk

It wasn’t quite a trip on the Eurostar, and I didn’t need my passport, but at Arrivée/Départ, the festival organised by Gare du Nord records at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters last week, I did feel as if I was taken on a musical European journey of sorts.

From Spain to the UK via Austria – it was a whistlestop tour that managed to gather a group of talent together for two nights of music in the lovely east London venue.

Having been at the previous year’s event of the same name, it really was as though I had made part-way of the journey with the fledgling label that’s not so that’s not-so-fledgling anymore, and it was wonderful to be back beneath Bradbury Street to be a part of le premier anniversaire.

Mel Mayr

Mel Mayr

Founded by Robert Rotifer (of Rotifer), Ian Button (Death in Vegas) and singer/songwriter Ralegh Long, Gare du Nord first hosted the event last November in an effort to showcase its mix of emerging and established talent.

Speaking to Long before the gig, he said the label had been going from strength to strength, which, looking at the back of the label’s sampler CD, is quite clear and lists the likes of Papernut Cambridge, Thirty Pounds of Bone and Alex Highton, among an ever-growing and diverse cache of musicians.

This diversity was on full display on Wednesday night, the second of the two-night event, which got underway without fanfare or indeed introduction when Salzburg singer Mel Mayr took the stage to open the night. Performing her first ever live UK show, she started with some sombre solo songs that had something of the Sharon van Etten about them – raw, stripped back, emotional. But things took an altogether more optimistic turn when she was joined onstage by Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and other fellow Austrians/guitar shop owners, and we were treated to lush, melodic pop songs instead.

John Howard

John Howard

Up next,was John Howard. Last year I was blown away by his easy charm, effortlessly lifting voice and exquisite piano playing – and a year on, nothing was diminished for me and I found myself once again smiling from ear to ear while he played joyfully from his extensive back catalogue.

Howard’s story is one Neon Filler has documented extensively over the past few years – from his signing with CBS and subsequent ‘next-big-thing’ status in the 1970s, to relative obscurity, and finally, rediscovery in the 2000s. He played songs spanning the breadth of his career, including his debut single Goodbye Suzie, another of his 1970s tracks Family Man as well as Believe me Richard – from 2013’s Storey’s and still his most downloaded song to-date. Paul Weller’s  bassist Andy Lewis joined Howard on the cello for a beautiful rendition of Missing Key.

Full band back-up came from Button, Rotifer and Lewis, and Howard revealed that the foursome were, the very next day, retreating to Ramsgate to begin recording a new album. It’s a collaboration that has been in the pipeline for a while, beyond English borders, with music and lyrics being sent back and forth across the seas from Spain, where Howard is now based.

He treated us to two encores – Deadly Nightshade and then an incredibly moving rendition of Star Through My Window. Suffice to say, I am a fan.

Rotifer

Rotifer

With only minutes left before curfew, Canterbury-based-but-Vienna-born Robert Rotifer took the stage solo and played on his jangly, mod-ish own while his AWOL bass player was hunted down from wherever he had left his white wine. But pushing it past 11pm, they played from last year’s release The Calvary Never Showed Up, including Optimist out on the Open Sea, and the sentimental Canvey Island songs, about the young Rotifer’s unusual childhood stay with a family on the Essex seaside retreat, far from the bright lights of London he craved.

When writing about last year’s event, I went on about there being a great sense of musicians helping each other and supporting each other, and I think that Gare du Nord achieved that again this year. Collaboration seems to be at the centre of what Rotifer, Button and Long are trying to achieve with Gare du Nord and it’s wonderful to see it doing so well. I’ll be looking forward to hearing the results of the Ramsgate sessions immensely and am already looking forward to Arrivée/Départ 2015.

Words and pictures by Patricia Turk

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Interview: John Howard

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Interview: John Howard

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Joe

John Howard’s story is one of the best, albeit lesser known, in music. During the 1970s he was signed to CBS as the latest singer-songwriting talent. But it was a career that faltered before it began. Adjusting to failure he dusted himself off, took a job behind the scenes in the music industry and then years later embarked on a second music career, this time in an internet age where he continues to produce some of his best work.

It was another singer songwriter, Ralegh Long, who introduced us to his music and through a subsequent flurry of emails we forged a friendship with Howard and so did Long and his fellow artists at Gare Du Nord Records.

Howard is now a regular collaborator with the Gare Du Nord stable of artists, that also includes Robert Rotifer, Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge and Death in Vegas) and Alex Highton.

John Howard (Spain, 2010)

John Howard (Spain, 2010)

This month sees Howard return to the UK from his home in Spain for a rare live performance as part of a Gare Du Nord showcase at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, where his backing band will feature Rotifer, Button and Paul Weller’s bassist Andy Lewis. This is the same line up that backed him at his last UK gig, at the same venue last year. November also marks the release of his  latest album, Hello My Name Is.

As he prepares to pack his bags for the UK Neonfiller’s Joe Lepper caught up with him to ask him about his two contrasting musical careers in the 1970s and modern day, changing gay culture, forthcoming releases as well as some of the characters and themes on Hello My Name Is. We even find time to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of  social media, musical theatre and the evil that lurks in The X-Factor and other TV talent shows.

Neonfiller: Your latest album covers themes of perception and identity. What is your perception of yourself as an artist? How do you think others perceive you?

JH: That young aspiring artist of the 1970s feels like a different person to me. I don’t really recognise him. I was so confident and arrogant back then, I believed I couldn’t fail.

So failure when it came was something of a shock, even though it crept up on me over about two years, between 1974 and 1976. I’d had such a clear vision of the music I would make up to that point. But failure with doing my own thing,  in my own personal style, meant that to try and achieve ‘a hit record’ I had to go down several other musical avenues, none of which felt right or natural and didn’t succeed either. It taught me lot though, and the fact I managed to get up, dust myself down, and simply get on with things, rather than let it knock the stuffing out me made much stronger and resilient.

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Now, as a rediscovered artist from the ‘70s I have two fairly distinct sets of fans. There are those who can’t really get past my ‘Biba Glam Balladeer’ period, who consider Goodbye Suzie my only single which means anything, and post a ‘Like’ on Facebook whenever I put up a video of a ‘70s track on my Facebook page, but entirely ignore anything more recent.

Then there are those fans who probably discovered me via the unexpected rave reviews of my re-released 1970s albums and have thankfully gone beyond that. This group have followed, bought and supported the albums I’ve written and recorded since 2005.

I am, of course, very proud of some of my ‘70s output, and will always be grateful for its rediscovery giving me a new career again, but I sometimes wish some people could accept that I’m not that pin-stripe suited Kid In A Big World anymore. That album and period is just a small part of what makes me what I am in 2014. I hope that doesn’t sound ungrateful or sour. It’s not meant to at all. Just an observation of how some people see me, or want me to be preserved in 1970s aspic.

asIwassaying

I remember turning up at a gig in London in 2006, we were hulking my keyboard and stuff into the venue and a bloke ran up to me shouting, “It’s John Howard! Where is your suit? Why are you not wearing your suit?”. I was in jeans and t-shirt with my stage gear packed in my bag. “You’re wearing jeans,” he cried, hands clasped to his head. I felt I’d completely let him down, and in fact I had. The hilarious thing is I never wore suits in the ‘70s except for photo sessions and concerts, I wore jeans and T shirts back then as well. People’s perceptions, which, as you say, is what this new album covers.

Neonfiller: You mention in your press release about interaction through social media making the world smaller but at the same time making us lose a sense of self. What is your relationship with social media like?

JH: Social Media has been a godsend for my career. If I’d had it at my fingertips forty years ago things would have been very different. Back then, an artist was completely at the mercy of his or her record company and not being signed to a ‘major record company’ does mean I miss out on all the ‘big time’ promotional stuff. But I’m happy to fore go that to keep control of what and how I do things.

My main concern with social media is how one can be fooled into thinking you matter more because of it, by how many ‘friends’ you have, when in truth we can still name our true friends on one hand. And that can create a sense of worthlessness when we start to crave approval, many times during the day in some cases, which can only lead to disappointment. It depends how strong one is mentally and emotionally, and on how good our personal life is, in terms of how one copes with apparent ‘rejection’ or ‘being ignored’. It’s all so transitory too, you put up a post and down it scrolls within seconds from the home feed, its importance and immediacy sinking before your very eyes. If you don’t take it – and what people write to you and about you – too seriously, then it’s fun, often very useful, and a door-opener in many ways I would not have thought possible when I started out as a singer-songwriter in 1970.

Neonfiller: Some of the tales on Hello My Names Is are extremely sad. The protagonist in ‘Bob/Bobbi’ is particularly tragic. Tell us more about the characters on this album.

JH: As with most of my observational songs, they are mainly an amalgam of different people I’ve known or read about.  Bob/Bobbi was different in that it is actually about one person who I knew, though even in this song other memories and experiences are interwoven into ‘Bob/Bobbi’s’ story.

Hello_My_Name_Is_2400 front cover

Bob was a guy my partner Neil and I met while on holiday in The Canaries in the late ‘90s. We got chatting to him at the bar of the complex we were staying in – though chatting is something of an exaggeration as he wasn’t very talkative. He was very dour, smoked his cigar with head down and answered my nosy questions with occasional nods. Later that evening, Neil and I were sitting at the same bar and suddenly, like a flash of gorgeous pink and purple, out of one of the apartments came this beautiful creature, long tight dress, fabulous hair and make-up, feather boa, giggling and dancing down to the taxi rank by the main gate, jumping up and down with excitement. “That’s Bobbi,” one of our bar acquaintances said, “isn’t she amazing?”. It was Bob in full drag, a slim lithe laughing creature, in love with life and basking in how fabulous she looked and felt.

The next day, there was dour ol’ Bob sitting at the bar again. This happened every day and night of the week. On our last day, I sat next to Bob to say goodbye and after a few puffs of his cigar, he turned to me and said, “Last night was Bobbi’s last fling. I’m putting her away now. She’s gone.” I tried to ask him why but he didn’t want to expand on it, stood, nodded goodbye and left the bar. We never saw Bob again. This rather poignant episode has stayed with me ever since.

The ‘character’ in City St. Sirens is based in part on a young guy I heard talking to his mum on his mobile on the train. She had obviously asked how he was, concerned about her son in the Big City and he answered as brightly as he could “I’m Fine!” But it didn’t convince me at all, and I’m sure didn’t her either. It took me back to when I first arrived in London in 1973 at the age of 20, living in digs in Epping, looking for job to pay the rent, feeling shattered and my mum sounding worried on the phone. “Are you alright, son?” she’d ask, and there’s me trying to sound positive. “Yes, I’m fine, honest, mum, really” knowing she wasn’t convinced at all. But I did love living in London.

Neonfiller: Born Too Early is an intriguing song with its focus on sexuality and the double lives of some gay men. Tell us more about this song and the messages it is conveying?

JH: Yes, this one plays around with the ‘butch/bitch’ thing certainly gay men of my generation went through. I had a friend back in the ‘70s who used to wear a T Shirt with ‘Butch’ on the front and ‘Bitch’ on the back. I used that as the starting point of juxtapositioning things like ‘Bent as Shirley, McQueen Straight’ in the lyric, using wordplay, which I always enjoy.  Now of course, such terms seem laughable, from another age, and they are, but they were the language my friends and I used back then. All the gay men I knew had ‘camp names’ for each other – I was ‘Mary’ as my friend Bill (‘Beryl’) thought it perfectly summed up my ‘dizzy bitch’ personality.

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The lyrics “Big and burly, inert, innate, slender twirly, Dance Till Eight flashing in your eyes and a glass of Riesling in your hand” are all images from my early 20s, when I would dress up in my best gear at weekends and dance the night away, then we’d all drive to a morning diner in Fulham called Up All Night and eat burgers before crashing out on someone’s floor.

Gay pubs in the ‘70s were full of ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ guys, eyeing each other up, while, hilariously, between the sheets those roles were quite often reversed! There are times when I feel I was born at the right time, others I wish I’d been born in a different age. I sometimes long for the chic 1920s world Noel Coward inhabited but also know it was a very difficult and dangerous time to be gay. I grew up in a decade where being gay was finally legalised, and the ‘70s felt very free and abandoned to me, certainly in London.

The line “Some men stopped and stared, chance some of them stayed the night and never cared how their wives swallow lies” describes how I was quite often picked up in various clubs and bars I was performing in by guys who had just a few nights earlier been at the club with their wives. These double lives again. Sometimes the knowingness of young people today astonishes me, the gaucheness of my own youth just isn’t there, people in their teens seem very grown up in their attitudes, and being gay, which was such a talking point, especially among straight friends in the ‘70s, is now considered uninteresting by young folk, which is great but also alien to me still.

I grew up feeling different, actually glad to be different, and it’s a bit unnerving when you are no longer regarded as anything different or special “just because you’re gay.” Being ‘different’ together was how we survived together.

Neonfiller: How has the music industry changed for gay men since your first career in the 1970s?

JH: I wrote a song called My Beautiful Days in 2007 after a conversation I’d had with my former CBS producer Paul Phillips about why I hadn’t been a success back in the ‘70s. Paul shocked me by telling me he believed it was because some people on high at BBC radio back then were homophobic. Around the same time my former manager’s widow also told me she’d had a conversation with a particular producer who had intimated to her that my sexuality would prevent me getting plays on Radio 1.

That seems completely unbelievable now, doesn’t it? I remember when George Michael was arrested for ‘lewd acts in a public toilet’ in L.A. in the ‘90s, the trash tabloids were gleefully getting ready for him to get a public roasting. Instead, George went on Michael Parkinson’s show and talked openly about the incident, laughing about it, and making the audience laugh about it too. Within a week his record sales were tripling.

John Howard at Les Ambassadeurs, Park Lane, August 1974.

John Howard at Les Ambassadeurs, Park Lane, August 1974.

The ironic thing about my situation in the ‘70s was that it came at the same time we had the campest of pop stars cavorting around Top of The Pops. But the difference then was that none of those pop stars admitted to being gay, they were all ‘straight’, were married, had girlfriends, so it was considered a bit of a laugh to wear make-up, huge earrings and feather boas and swish around a BBC set.

David Bowie got headlines in the early ‘70s for ‘coming out’ as ‘bisexual’. The ‘announcement’ in, I think, Melody Maker made him the talking point of the press just as Ziggy was being launched. Then he’d arrive at press conferences with his wife on his arm. “That’s ok then,” said those on high. But here was me, totally out as a gay man, not hiding behind ‘bisexuality’. The poor old Beeb just considered it a step too far.

The BBC thought up all sorts of excuses not to play my singles, “too depressing”, “anti-female”, all quite bizarre reasons. One of the singer-songwriters I admire now is Rufus Wainwright, completely out as a gay man, admired by millions, straight and gay.

Neonfiller: Every now and again you like to release a covers collection, often by less well-known artists. Which tracks and artists are next on your radar? Also what other releases are in the pipeline?

JH: The next covers E.P. I do will be going back to my 1970s songwriting heroes. I want to record a song by The Incredible String Band, who I adored in the early ‘70s; a Nick Drake song, which I was planning to do a few years ago but there was such a media saturation of Nick’s material then about that time that I decided to hold off. I want to record another Shelagh MacDonald song, such a wonderful singer-songwriter who has also had something of a comeback to performing and recording in the last couple years after disappearing in the ‘70s. She very kindly got in touch with me when she’d heard my version of her ‘Canadian Man’ and we’re now in regular touch with each other. I’m still mulling over the other two songwriters I want to cover for the next E.P., but I think a Sandy Denny song would be lovely to do.

John Howard (l) and Andy Lewis (r), November 2013

John Howard (l) and Andy Lewis (r), November 2013

I am also soon to begin work on a new album with the band I’ve gigged with at The Servant Jazz Quarters (Rotifer, Button and Lewis) last November. It will be recorded as a band album, together in the studio at the same time, and it’s a long time since I did that – As I Was Saying in 2005 to be exact. This time we’ve written all the songs together, so there will be Rotifer-Howard, Button-Howard and Lewis-Howard songs on there. Seeing what, say, Robert does musically with a lyric I’ve sent him, ditto Ian and Andy, has been fascinating, and vice versa for them.

Neonfiller: You are playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London for the second time later this month. What does it mean to you to be able to return to the UK and perform in front of an audience and meet up with your friends at Gare Du Nord records?

JH: It means a lot to me. The response I had at last year’s SJQ gig completely overwhelmed me, I wasn’t expecting such an amazing reaction. Before I left the UK in 2006, I’d played quite a few gigs up and down the country, Manchester, Brighton, Chester, London, and was getting very depressed at the dwindling audience numbers – the last gig I played in Chester had 15 people there, and half of those were close friends who’d – thank goodness – made the effort to come and hear me. Somehow the word was not getting out there about me  and I decided to retire from live performing again.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.

I still wanted to write and record, firstly because I love it, and secondly because, although I’ll never be a big album seller, there are people who buy what I do all over the world. It was the live circuit which just wasn’t turning onto me. I did a couple of shows once I got to Spain in the autumn of 2007, which my then record company, Bilbao-based Hanky Panky Records arranged for me (they’d released my album Barefoot With Angels that year) but once that album had done its bit their interest waned and there were no more shows in Spain either.

Robert Rotifer, Ian Button, Andy Lewis and John Howard (l-r)

Robert Rotifer, Ian Button, Andy Lewis and John Howard (l-r)

The traditional ‘paper’ magazines also lost interest over time, so your fantastic interest in and coverage of my work in Neon Filler, along with a couple of other online music magazines, has been a real fillip for me in the last couple of years. It’s reignited my belief in what I do, seeing how there is still journalistic interest in my music. It matters to read reviews of what I release. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.

It’s actually because of you that I am finally back performing on stage again! You gave my 2012 album You Shall Go To The Ball! an amazing write-up in Neon Filler and introduced me to Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long, who unbeknownst to me were fans of mine. Robert, Ralegh and their Gare Du Nord compatriot Ian Button have been simply fantastic. They made me feel so welcome last year when I performed at The SJQ at their invitation, and that enthusiasm for what I do has never waned or lessened.

Neonfiller: Sometimes when on the rare occasions I watch Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor I wonder how you would go down among the mainstream prime time TV audience and the likes of Simon Cowell. Now don’t laugh, but would you ever consider applying for one of these shows?

JH: I absolutely loathe those programmes and what they stand for. Of course Britain’s got talent, as does every country in the world, it’s what the likes of Cowell do with that talent which bothers and angers me. He and his cohorts turn individuality into conveyor belt mush, autotuned-to-f**k vocals, the girls all sounding like Cowell’s’ musical wet dream of producing the love child of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, all singing 15 notes where one will do, and the male singers all ending up sounding like solo members of Westlife.

I call BGT and the X Factor ‘Cruelty TV’, the whole Coliseum atmosphere he creates, the audience baying for blood when they dislike a performer and cheering to the rafters when they see someone they approve of.

Cowell and his co-presenters have often defended this approach by saying that all artists have to get used to rejection in their careers, so the way singers are treated on X Factor. What tosh. Any rejection most artists experience from a manager, agent or record company is done in private, not with millions of people looking on. It’s just an excuse to make these self-important smug bastard judges feel like big men who get to wield their ‘power’ in public.

I guess you know the answer to your question then – No.

Neonfiller: Finally, I get a sense of drama from your songs. Your music and lyrics seem tailor made for the stage. Storeys in particular springs to mind. Have you written a musical that is sitting collecting dust somewhere?

JH: This is something that has been said to me ever since I started writing and performing in 1970. I never start out with any song intending it to have a dramatic twist but somehow, it usually does. I think the dramatic thing actually occurs because I love singing so much, and I always have had a physical need to take a melody from its base and let it soar. I discovered this ‘bent’ in my writing early on and as my voice got stronger then that happened increasingly more. I consider myself lucky that I can still do that. I think it’s fairly unusual to be able to still ‘soar’ vocally at 61. Don’t know why I still can, though I believe the fact I have never gigged very much has a lot to do with it. So there’s a kind of explanation of why my songs have that theatrical structure. I do love stage and screen musicals, always have, and my partner Neil and I regularly settle down of an evening to watch something like Oklahoma or South Pacific on DVD, every song is a classic, every performance a gem.

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I did have a couple of attempts at writing a stage musical back in the ‘70s, one was based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and I got as far as writing two songs for it then got bored, or events took over to take my attention away from it.

I feel very comfortable doing what I do, I know how to write and put across a song, I know how to record those songs, I know what arrangements I want for those songs, and I know how to get those songs out on the market. But a musical? It takes years to just get it on, if you ever get that far. The sheer effort which would likely end in failure exhausts me just thinking about it.

For more information about John Howard visit his website here.

Details about his November 26th gig at The Servant Jazz Quarters, London, can be found here.

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Papernut Cambridge- There’s No Underground

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Papernut Cambridge- There’s No Underground

Posted on 10 September 2014 by Joe

Former Death in Vegas man Ian Button has roused the troops and drafted in some talented foot soldiers for his second album under the Papernut Cambridge moniker.

With collaborators, such as Mary Epworth, ex-Hefner men Jack Hayter and Darren Hayman, Picturebox’s Robert Halcrow as well as Gare Du Nord label mates Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long,  Button and friends have conspired to create one of the year’s best pop releases.

Papernut Cambridge

Papernut Cambridge

Full of pop nuggets, with a few hints of 1990s Brit pop and lashings of 1967 psychedelia, it is the most English of albums with lovely Monty Python-esque notions like the government going on strike as well as the Ray Davies borrowed imagery of commuters traveling back to their Shangri-Las, rising out of the London Underground catacombs to the beautiful, suburban sunset above.

Among many highlights is the great pop of When She Said, What She Said,  the aforementioned The Day The Government Went On Strike and the album’s Underground free title track.

Another is the lovely, 1960s infused tragi-pop of Umbrella Man. With its lovely melody it is no wonder John Howard, the 1970s singer-songwriter and collaborator of Button, covered this track earlier this year.

The 1990s Britpop comes courtesy of Nutflake Social. It’s like the moment when The Soup Dragons went ‘baggy’ in the early 1990s, except good. This track also features some fine David Bowie Low era harmonica from Nick Tidmarsh to usher in some 1976 pop into the mix.

There are a few artists like Button who excel at traveling down this nostalgia-pop route. Jim Noir and Voluntary Butler Scheme are the two most well known that spring to mind and their fans will adore Papernut Cambridge and There’s No Underground’s unpretentious take on the great English pop album.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

There’s No Underground is released by Gare Du Nord on 13 October. Click here for more details.

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