Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Memoirs

Melbourne's Wheeler Centre had the good foresight to bootleg an event I wish I could have attended: Carrie Brownstein in conversation with Myf Warhurst. Early on, Carrie began to describe how, as a kid, she would stage performances for her parents. It was an anecdote which highlighted an early compulsion to perform. I thought to myself, but surely we all did that? Didn't we sit various sets of parents down for the endless performances of singing, dancing and/or prancing?

The anecdote made me think of musical memoirs and how they manage to detail these various fan behaviours and activities. I often think of Giles Smith in Lost in Music, perpetuating this mythology surrounding his first 7" inch record. He had always insisted that his first disc happened to be the Beatles' last, but then upon searching for Let It Be, he found that he had never actually acquired the record. It's a story that charms me, in that it reflects a need to create this poetic narrative around the music, but upon closer inspection, it all falls apart.

The musical memoirs that remain with me capitalise on that balance, between the heady and the reverent, the silly and the extremely serious. I think of The Modfather, where David Lines collapsed in a newsagency upon hearing that the Jam just split up in 1982. There is a sincere sympathy with that boy on the floor with a bloody nose, but at the same time, there is this absurd portrait of this boy with a completely ridiculous musical obsession. The reader can affectionately chuckle, but the source of the humour comes from the recognition between writer and reader. We know, cause we've gone bananas over a band too.

I try to remain on good terms with the musical and personal past and I try speak of tastes and activities with an odd sardonic fondness. What I have to remember is that this kind of enthusiasm is hardly unique to myself. When fans talk to other fans about fandom, I think it is important to remember that love is an analogy: while I can talk of painting my left fingernails black in tribute to Freddie Mercury, I cannot inadvertently dismiss the dedication of another fan. The skill in it comes from crafting a story which illicits a glimmer of affinity and acknowledgement. The point is not only to honour the past but to encourage others to share their stories.

We all have a musical past and in the most idealistic sense, it would be so wild if more people developed the confidence to describe their relationship with music in blogs and zines. There are other ways to share obviously, only the other day, the Museum of London invited original punks to come down with personal objects for punk.london. They sat and described the significance of studded leather jackets, band buttons and weathered Doc Martens. If anything can be learned from that afternoon, it can be that physical things can be the best starting point.

So if you think you might want to begin, think of those band t-shirts (à la Vanessa Berry), ticket stubs, plectra, posters or your drawer of mixtapes, with dozens of romantic sentiments untapped. Write down anything that you would say to a friend who would care. Write quickly. Write every day. Share.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Oblique Strategies

I remember it was in the great musical text, Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters where Ray Davies encouraged the use of unfamiliar instruments during pop composition. I think about this a lot, that when you are adept at playing an instrument, whether that be piano, guitar or violin, your fingers tend to fall back in the same places.

The idea that Ray Davies presents offers hope to those who are not particularly dexterous on their pop instrument of choice. It relies upon that theory that creative acts can actually result from technical or physical limitations. On a personal level, it warms me to think that ridiculous contortions to avoid barre chords could ultimately result in something interesting and unique.

I recall Brian May saying something similar, that he preferred to make up melodies away from the guitar as he had shared a similar tendency to return to the same, comfortable places. The concept led me to think that perhaps what is pivotal is not what you can play, but what you can imagine. It reinforced a theory I developed when I jammed with vocalist Marcella back at Casa Hawksburn.

What impressed me most was her incredible ability to instantly invent and vocalise a melody over any given loop or chord progression. It was akin to a stream of consciousness practice, where all expression is experimental, yet still thoroughly valid. The process was be inspired yet straightforward, where the memorable melodies were later developed into full tracks with synths and lush string arrangements.

On some level, these songwriters might not have a scientific understanding of their own creative process. These musicians might just be offering oblique strategies for the pop curious. Perhaps it is a naive thing to suggest such things, particularly when pop can be broken down into its most formulaic components. For me, however, there is some comfort in the idea that regardless of your musical skill, it is the trust in your first thought which might be the most inspired thing.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Leftover Love

“I succeed very well, by not looking at the world around
By not looking at myself
Going on, moving, constantly.”
Dyva - Leftover Love

I felt a desperate need to listen to this song, lying across some seats on a local bus to Cirencester. It was some years ago and I was with my family. We were all stuck in traffic and I felt lousy. I knew only emotional early Italo Disco would assist with whatever ailed me. I sought out the bouncy bass and cloudy vocals and I wailed along under my breath:

“People can’t invent,
Their lovers and friends,
It’s life which gives these
And also takes them away sometimes.”

It’s not the most articulate of lyrics, but it reminded me of a friend who once described the appeal of Italo Disco. He said it was the language barrier which makes for more pure, expressive lyricism. It was an insight that, for me, added so much to a genre that is so commonly dismissed as disposable. Leftover Love is lyrically clunky, but it captures a desperate level of sincerity:

“I want to say yes,
Want to say yes to life!”

It's been a long time since that bus ride in Cirencester, but I occasionally think of Leftover Love and how meaningful lyrics needn't be particularly poetic or articulate. There can be something in the simplicity of expression which can make a song quite profound, even though it is hard to believe such meaning was ever really intended..

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Validity

I live in the hope that I will see the value in all music. I like to believe that even if song is not to my taste, it deserves to exist because it is a form of personal expression. It is for this reason that I would prefer to stay well away from musical criticism. Personally, I see it as a potentially damaging form of journalism which can unnecessarily discourage a musician who may be fledgling or insecure. The moral is simple: just because I don't understand it doesn't mean they should stop.

This lofty ideal sits alongside an ambition that I will like everything in time. When I refer to either idea in conversation, friends simply say to me: Throbbing Gristle. It's a tongue-in-check reference to the violent reaction I had when I saw footage of them live at the Oundle Film School. It was projected on a big screen, during a punk film festival at ACMI in 2007. It followed a night of raucuous performances from Blondie and The Ramones and I remember feeling how I wanted to be Richard Hell, singing Blank Generation.

Throbbing Gristle was a total affront to my pop sensibilities. There was no melody, just bleeding white noise. There was no vision, just blurred flashing light. I couldn't decipher what was going on and later, when friend would take me to some noise shows, I would leave feeling not only so confused but so totally angry by the whole performance. Even nine years on, I am convinced I'll never be able to understand or appreciate noise. It's a difficult thing to admit, since it comfortably sits synthpop and post punk as this hugely influential genre.

The easiest way to conform to such ideals is to keep quiet. I am motivated by the love and respect shown by peers and professionals, the awe displayed among musical intelligentsia. I have to remind myself: It's expression! It deserves to exist! All the while, I am far more inclined to say: What the fuck was that? I just, I can't... no. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Milk Diaries: FOMO

It's always a rare and special feeling to explore the collection of an informed enthusiast. I got that feeling in a completely different context, tripping over hoarded shards of Roman antiquities at the John Soanes Museum. I also felt it, exploring David Byrne's Music Library at the Southbank Centre. I went there with a musical friend who harboured a similar sense of awe with that place. We sat together at a round table with our respective stacks of specialist music books, carefully flipping over pages in silence. We agreed that it was absolutely imperative that we return, but unfortunately we never managed to go again.

There was a particular emphasis on the fact that these were David Byrne's, the books he used as research for his musical publications. My friend and I jabbed each other when we found his Todo Mondo bookplates or else little handwritten notes in the margins. It was a varied collection, encompassing books about world music, recording technology and the psychological effects of music. I could see that we had a different approach to music but I still took delight in the slightest overlaps with treasures in collection: Literally, The Faber Book of Pop, Revolution in the Head, Musicophilia and a few othersIn any case, I gravitated towards the books that featured grainy high contrast photographs of the New York underground.

I spent an awful lot of time with this one book, reading personal accounts of what it was like to live in New York City between 1977 and 1979. Each anecdote covered similar kinds of details, the idea of moving into a huge, run down old factory in a dubious part of town. The extremely low cost of living was always cited, particularly in light of the gentrification that would follow. The typical names were featured as you'd expect, stories of wild nights with Blondie, Richard Hell and Television and the reader was made to feel as if they'd really missed it all. It was all over and there was no way we could make up for that dreadful cosmic loss.

It was a familiar device in musical storytelling, that overwhelming sense that you missed this important scene. It was used extensively throughout the BBC6 Music's tribute to Larry Levan, Legends on the Dancefloor. It was an unusual piece in that it included lengthy and seemingly unedited interviews, fond anecdotes from DJs and club attendees. The interview subjects described the physicality of the place, what it was like to walk through the entrance and to walk up the stairs. They described the array of juices and drugs, the queues and the films they projected. It's an intensely visual piece that I very much enjoyed, but saying that, I was filled with those familiar New York scene sentiments: you couldn't understand what it was like if you weren't there.

Some veterans do not to say this so explicitly, but occasionally you can catch the sentiment on film, when they gesticulate wildly towards an abandoned club. Perhaps our sense of exclusion is generated by the vibrancy of their personal account. Whether it is the punks or the disco dancers, there appears to be a consistent hoard of people who manage to recall their scene with a profound level of detail that extends far beyond the antics of just one night, it goes towards the significance of the space itself. It suggests that many of them were paying attention, mutually appreciating the significance of that place and moment.

I have often smirked at those jibes that I missed out on whatever went down in New York. Whenever I'd come across one of those statements, I'd think that I never would have been able to fit in anyway, it simply wasn't my place. I can see now how it can be seemingly impossible to convey the importance of a physical place at one specific time. I realise now, since I am constantly dolling out anecdotes of growing up in an intensely musical household, jamming and discussing music with people who genuinely cared in the same way I did. I can say that no one else would understand the nature of our in-house music, but I would never mean for it to be a swipe at anyone. It's just a statement of truth: no one could ever know what it was like, except for us.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Manuscripts

Relatively early in my exploration of the Soviet post-punk band, Kino, I discovered a lyric sheet which was presumably written in the hand of the group's late singer, Viktor Tsoi. The cyrillic script was unfamiliar to me, but I liked the lined paper, the clean curvature of the print and the chord changes marked out on every second line. The most endearing part of it had to be the crosshatched sketch of a packet of cigarettes, referring to the name of the song and incidentally, one of their biggest hits.

There is an intrigue and allure in a person's handwriting, particularly in the context of these little bits of paper. They exist as score-free prompts to the songwriter, fragments with few clues referring to where this piece of paper came into the creative process. Was this jotted down in a bedroom, a hotel lobby, a studio? You come across some scribblings, crossed out lyrical alternatives that could have easily made it to session. For me, I look for clues of the songwriter's inner workings, their state of mind and the meekest suggestion that a perfect piece of pop could have immaculately conceived, free of heavy contemplation or anxiety.

I can only assume that my interest in handwriting derives from my background as a diarist. Although I have kept a diary for a little over 20 years, I only learned about stream of consciousness writing around seven years ago. The practice has allows the writer to purge thoughts and personal plagues in perfectly formed script and it's an amazing thing to see, pages and pages of work that is uncorrected and unscrutinised. The most blissful thing about it is not the analysis, as such, but the quickness of it, the simple act of your hand moving swiftly across the page.

I talk about handwritten music with my Dad a lot. He has developed this hobby of taking the messy, handwritten scores of favourite obscure operas and developing his own personal editions, comparing his interpretations with scanned rarities on IMSLP. He would tell me of the nuances of Rossini's handwriting over shelled peas and often show me clean copies of my favourite Arthur Sullivan operetta side-project, Cox and Box. In this project, it is not about interpreting the composer's state of mind, it is about clarifying his musical intention in light of the very few resources available.

Perhaps the precious thing about these musical artefacts is not the presence of handwritten mark by the hand of the songwriter or composer. I am beginning to think it is the fact that someone had the good will and foresight to preserve such documents. When Queen's archivist, Greg Brooks released a book of the band's studio jottings and lyric sheets, I was simultaneously both relieved and annoyed to see that these things existed. It was remarkable that these fragments remained, but I felt a bit jilted that they were kept from us for all that time.

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Strangers

I had assumed my position, pressed up against the stage of the Corner Hotel. It was an earnest thing to do, after all there only a handful of other people standing around, waiting for Ratcat's support act to appear. I internally smiled at every frantic girl sporting a black and white striped t-shirt. I felt prepped and elated when suddenly a stranger emerged from the guarded doors next to the stage: "You won't believe this, I just interviewed Simon Day for over an hour!" Without qualm or hesitation, I demanded to know every detail of the exchange, requesting a bootleg of the encounter. Just like that, Damo Musclecar and Missy El became friends forever.

We marveled at our similarities to one another, how we both had blogs and a podcast series, we both made zines, we both had previous radio projects. There was still a little gap in our respective areas of music specialisation, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of 70s New York punk and 80s hair metal whereas I lived and breathed 80s British new wave and synthpop. I recognised immediately that Damo possessed this unique kind of passion and enthusiasm that made you want to learn more, regardless of the genre in question. He had a wholehearted willingness to share all that he knew and I could recognise this when he coincidentally managed to define one of my core musical values: "I just want to document genres of music that haven't been properly documented before."

Damo stood alongside me during the show, among the girls squealed and swooned in the front row. Rose petals fluttered across over the stage and over Simon's Beatle boots. Fuzzy moments from the Tingles EP suddenly became real, shared and distorted. I wished for songs they'd never play, like Good Buy, Holiday and World in a Wrapper. Any sophisticated appreciation for their music was superseded a sudden onset of fangirl hysteria on my part. It was largely inspired by a look from Simon during the introductory moments of That Ain't Bad. This undermined any musical credibility I had established with Damo and I apologised profusely for it, explaining that I just had a moment with the most perennial of teen crushes. Damo reassured me that it was OK, insisting that he would introduce me to Simon after the show.

It did happen: Damo managed to convince the bouncer to let me "backstage", a corridor and small holding room held together with MDF, stained carpet and gaffa tape. We waited round and I felt more awkward than most, assuming a place among the band's friends and crew. Damo and I leaned against the side of the stage and discussed Bret Michaels at length before we realised it was time to accost Simon in the adjoining alleyway. It's embarrassing to recall the details of it now, my flushed cheeks and my inadequate, unrehearsed praise. Damo set about documenting the moment on camera, one such photo had my head in my hands and my hair flipped over my face in what was an ineffectual attempt to obscure my embarrassment. It was a wild moment after a night which managed to reaffirm so much.

I recalled all this today, when someone asked me why I have such a predilection for the musical past. I immediately quoted what Damo said to me because he managed to articulate the motives of fans creating culture in such a thoughtful way. He made me realise that I want to lead a life where I create and honour musical histories, fleshing them out and make them real to those who missed it the first time round.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Desire

Is there such a thing as a musical coincidence when you talk about music all the time? Probably not, but then it was damn weird when my songwriting teacher brought up Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman in class some time ago. My friend and I had only been talking about that song the night before and I don't believe I've ever talked about that song with anyone, ever.

The class analysed the imagery of the lyrics: lonely image of a heartbroken man, working on the telegraph poles, longing for love and a vacation. We dwelled on the lines, "And I need you more than I want you and I want you for all time..." Some classmates felt put off by the expression, dismissing it as easy and simplistic, yet I felt drawn to it for some reason.

It reminded me Craig Schuftan and his writing on pop, how desire and want is at the centre of pop lyricism. Even now, to vaguely recall pop titles like I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Only Want to be With You or I Want to be Your Dog reflect an adolescent kind of yearning that could be easily dismissed. To want a thing in pop is to echo a frustration but also a very physical desire.

The sentiment of want can be compared with that of need. It's a similar kind of thing, but you feel that there is greater sense of urgency involved: Need You Tonight, I Need You, All I Need is You, Saying that, the insistent quality of need tends to come across as a desperate, trumped up hypberole. It's saying that you need another person in order to exist and that is a bit absurd.

For the practising pop songwriter, to choose between want and need in a lyric is embarrassing. Perhaps these are overused pop cliches or else they denote an overblown sense of devotion that borders on insincere. Saying that, it is still these kinds of lyrics which ring in our ear when we consider expressions of desire in pop. They're simplistic things but they provide a shortform way to articulate love and lust.

It's convenient thing, especially when you stumble upon a line you love. You can say: "It's us."

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Denial

It was a cover Ace of Base never wanted to record, but Don't Turn Around exists as a visceral feature of their 1993 debut, The Sign (or Happy Nation, in the US). Originally recorded by Aswad in 1988, I must have listened to their synthy re-interpretation hundreds, if thousands of times since I bought it as my first CD. However, it was very only recently that it struck me why Don't Turn Around was such a potent song: its lyrics contain ineffectual statements which elude to an emotional recovery that is unlikely to take place anytime soon.

The opening line, delivered in strained spoken word says it all: "I will survive without you..." There is a synthesized rip, the kind of sound which would plausibly represent the sound of a heart being torn apart. The genius of the song does not simply exist in its instrumentation, the reggae riddim and B minor key signature, I believe it is in the lyrical treatment of vagueness and specificity, there is something heartbreaking in its depiction of both hope and denial.

Everything in the verses suggest that emotional investment is minimal: she will not campaign for reconsideration ("If you wanna leave, I won't beg you to stay"). She goes on to claim indifference about the dismantled relationship ("I won't miss your arms around me, holding me tight"). The future tense provides a clue that true recovery will take place in time ("And if you ever think about me, just know that I'll be alright"). The truth of her heartbreak is only ever revealed in the chorus:

"Don't turn around, cause you're gonna see my heart breaking,
Don't turn around, cause you're gonna see me cry,
Just walk away, it's tearing me apart that you're leaving,
I'm letting you go, but I won't let you know."

It is a devastating sentiment and you wonder whether she really does want him to turn around, to look back and acknowledge the breadth of her personal investment. It paints the portrait of a girl who attempts to regain a sense of power and composure at a time when words hold no persuasive currency. The contrast and contradiction leads us to consider whether the declaration in the chorus is designed to be an emotionally manipulative tactic or simply an explanation: please ignore the cold indifference, it is borne of grief.

Sentimentally speaking, Don't Turn Around could be aligned with Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. Both songs contain a succession of bold assurances of strength and goals of independence but the difference is that the confidence of I Will Survive suggests that recovery is inevitable. You don't really get that sense in Don't Turn Around, particularly since the Ace of Base version features a unique spoken word bridge from the estranged partner, declaring that pride prevents him from ever looking back.

The song remains preserved and unresolved, existing somewhere between truth and fiction forever and ever. I think that's why I need to pay heed to it. It's a perfect piece of songwriting.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Solos

I live with this perpetual gratitude that I live among the most kind and interestimg local and international travellers, among guests who quickly become cherished friends. I am fortunate, in that although we are only together for a limited time, we make a conscious decision to reconvene each night to openly gush: I really have to play you this song I heard today, I think you would really love it...

It's a sweet and meditative thing to sit and listen to Spotify together, shoulders rolled forward in concentration. I am ushered through different places, through other eras, which could mean anything from 70s American country, 80s Portuguese post punk to 90s Italian dance. I typically shoehorn Queen and Kino into everything but I usually urge friends to divulge their knowledge on flamencology or reggaeton and regardless of my own taste, I am always so moved by their passion.

I add songs to playlists, note down the humourous observations they make, how this song is the musical equivalent of a fashion blog whose images make you feel really uncomfortable. I fawn over the minute preferences and how beautifully they are articulated: I like it when the solo is the melody. We sometimes revisit old songs like Bette Davis Eyes and I say: It me, and you say: Yes. Friends, in turn, notify me when Sabrina is performing in their neighbourhood, acknowledging my open desire to be her in the Boys, Boys, Boys promo video clip.

Last night, I received a Facebook message from one of my friends who had bonded with me in such a way. He sent a YouTube clip of I Feel Bonnie, a Hot Chip remix we used to listen to repeatedly, late night at reception. I knew it was a significant song to him, well before it had been presented to me and for that reason, I felt relief that those listening sessions created its own measure of significance. A song needn't have a single association, it can have this impressive duality.

I write all this because I thought I had lost the desire to share my love and enthusiasm for music. It has been difficult to find the space and concentration to make a podcast in London but I realise that the desire to share music has not evaporated, it has simply manifested itself in another way. I hope to return to the routine of research and presentation very soon, but for the moment, I am just learning and sharing in a way that feels more honest and present than anything else.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Grace

We were in a coffee shop in Soho when my friend slapped a laminated ticket stub on the table. It was from a United Airlines flight and it bore the name Buckley/Jeff and I couldn't help but look at it over and over again, expecting some narrative to tumble out of it. I asked repeatedly how he had managed to come upon this relic but the providence of the stub remained a secret.

I constantly think of the stub while reading Dream Brother, David Browne's dual biography of Jeff and Tim Buckley. Many aspects of it haunt me, I think of Jeff's quiet curiosity of his father's personal regard for him, how Jeff unknowingly mimicked many of his father's personal and musical affectations. You are left with a lingering sadness, thinking of what it would have been like had they lived, what it would have been like had they known each other.

I never claimed to be a Jeff Buckley expert, but as my friend and I sat in that coffee shop that afternoon, we discussed the increased significance of a creating a grand magnum opus like Grace. My friend insisted that we could only ever expect to make one incredible work in our lifetime. I strenuously campaigned for continuous future workings and reworkings, interpretations and reinventions. I wanted twenty albums instead of the one, but I soon came round to his way of thinking.

It's sad to know that there was only one, but it's romantic to consider that there could have been more.