Saturday, September 26, 2009

Florence + the Machine at the Academy, Manchester, 25th September 2009

Last night I saw Florence + the Machine play a sell-out show at the Academy and was not disappointed. With her ample vocal talent, Florence Welch has single-handedly made the name "Florence" cool to a new generation. Perhaps because the gig was timed to coincide with the end of Freshers Week, the Manchester crowd absolutely loved her. She has a tender, soaring voice reminiscent of Souixie Souix meeting Kate Bush on some pagan ritual site, with dashes of Chrissy Hynde and Dido thrown in for good measure. As you might gather, I'm a fan; I like the way she has arrived on the UK music scene with a strong voice and an aesthetic identity that combines 1970s vintage with slight undertones of the gothic macabre. Some of Florence's more tormented lyrics remind one of the sort of things Gordon Downie of the Tragically hip used to write. Lines like "There's a ghost in my mouth in it talks in my sleep" and "A kiss from a fist is better than none."

This time she was dressed in a black, wizard sleeve creation which looked like something out of a Hammer horror film - the garb of a high preistess - and she made it work, raising her arms and trailing them like a charred butterfly, even twirling on stage. She seemed to sing as if a trance, and when she stepped out of it for a moment, a different person could be glimpsed; a shy and jaunty young woman dressing up to explore the meanings of this new identity, gleefully stepping into a theatre of ritual just for the sake of art. Her band even have a classical harpist to give their sound an ethereal dimension.

It's great to see someone like that at the peak of their powers and appreciated for it by a live audience. Perhaps educated by Spotify, the crowd seemed to know all her songs and was behind her all the way. In some senses, Florence is of course conforming to traditional standards of feminity, but she is doing it with an aesthetic that runs so counter to the whole direction of contemporary plastic pop that you can't help supporting her for it... Maybe her sound marks a return to the kind of dreamy songwriting of the 1980s? If the major labels continue to find and promote artists like this, they may have more longevity than we might think.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mark's posts on the music industry

Magazine, fandom and the music industry (how to avoid the mistakes of an artistic genius)

The end of the noughties (a decade where attention to consumer technologies overtook content)

Magazine, fandom and the music industry

I've just finished reading Helen Chase's biography of my favourite band, Magazine. My experience as a fan began in the mid-1980s, when my younger brother introduced me to their music. It was, to say the least, an acquired taste, after my diet of early 1980s pop. Yet soon it had a hold of me: lead singer Howard Devoto's towering lyrics and cold cerebral voice seemed scary, surreal, knowing, too private and personal, out of time - intellectually triumphant but emotionally struggling. Like sexuality, music has a power to transform early trauma and unhappiness into something pleasurable.

Devoto used his music to show us who he was and what art could be. It connected with me and I soon found myself on a mission to collect all the band's vinyl. There were times when I would walk into a record shop and not want to listen to anything else. (I still put Magazine and Devoto in their own genre on my ipod, as there's nothing else like it; they made it their own way.) I can remember pouring over Record Collector and going what seemed like half way across the country to find Adrian's Record Shop in Wickford, Essex and procure some rare Magazine 12 inch singles, like I was on the trail of something fascinating.

My encounter with Magazine was therefore as alienated as they sounded, and a bit fetistishic too. In 1988, after Devoto had re-entered the music industry and formed Luxuria, we - my two brothers and I - went to see them play in Colchester. Although his music never lost its grip and I remained a fan for years, Devoto went AWOL again until he reunited with the band last year for some dates. Needless to say I was at the front in the Forum to greet them on their return. As a side note here, I was a bit shocked by the audience of boozed-up fifty-something skinheads who made up the bulk of the crowd, aside from a few intellectuals of various ages. Nevertheless, they were still great, and I even met Howard and keyboardist Dave Formula momentarily backstage at their Aftershow party in Manchester.

I mention all this because Chase's biography presents a portrait of a band that I only ever really knew through their music, so it filled in some blanks for me. What is clear is that while Devoto was great for music, he was often bad for business, trying to prove his ego and refusing to play the game. One is never sure whether Devoto missed his mark or never really wanted the big time, but either way he made a few mistake that I want to explore, in hope that budding musicians out there might not make them too:

1) Insisting on doing everything differently, meant that Devoto screwed things up with his record company. The band had bad timing, purposely missing its first invitation to Top of The Pops. Devoto also made everyone pay to get in one showcase gig, a move hardly likely to endear him to the press or record company. To add to that, Magazine released one single without any promotion at all, and others within a very short space of time of each other, competing against themselves in effect. The only advice I can offer here is: by all means do it differently once you are very famous and selling heaps of records. In the meantime, like the art stay in the music and let the business operate around it as per usual.

2) Devoto's intellectual games with the press eventually backfired on him. Reporters started referring to him as "Howie" (urgh) and describing him and his music as pretentious. I give Magazine props for never maximizing their market like the more anthemic Simple Minds did, even though it cost them commercially. Nevertheless, Devoto used his Buzzcocks ticket to the spotlight to begin biting the writing hand that fed him, and when it bit back he shrunk from publicity altogether.

3) Ignoring the trend and being too clever never really worked in Magazine's favour. While their second album, 'Secondhand Daylight,' might just be my favourite record ever, it must have landed like an alien object in its day, as it completely ignored the plot. Of course, I don't believe in plots either, but doing so made no commercial sense. Critics panned the album as "prog rock" and attempted to bury the group. It was way too bleak, up-close and intense to be prog, but that was an easy label to hand. The moral is that you have to check which way the wind is blowing if you don't want it to blow you over.

4) Magazine's gift was that they had a range of players, styles and personalities to temper and bring the best out of Devoto. They made edgy music for an edgy lead singer - compare some of the more mellow material on Luxuria's second LP Beastbox, which killed Devoto's art in my opinion (though not in his). There was a penduluos dynamic in the band between keyboards and guitar on each album, which meant that their genius guitarist John McGeogh - the man who put the avant-jazz into post-punk - felt creatively suppressed, so he left for the more popular Soiuxie and the Banshees, ripping the heart out of Magazine's sound.

It's interesting to compare the careers of Devoto and the German musician Blixa Bargeld, as I think Bargeld had the career that Devoto should have had, straddingly rock and the avant-garde with surprizing ease. With his interest in border crossings and feeding the enemy, maybe Howard was just born in the wrong country.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Binks Building, University of Chester
Friday 25th June 2010

Click here to see how the day went.

Keynote speaker: Matt Hills


Start time: 9.30am, room 013/2, Binks Building, main Parkgate Road campus.

While a range of researchers in cultural studies - notably Henry Jenkins, Matt Hills and Cornell Sandvoss - have moved the discussion about media fandom forward, much less work has been done specifically on popular music fandom. Confirmed speakers...

Tonya Anderson, University of Sunderland:

Still Kissing their Posters Goodnight: The Shift from Individual to Communal ‘Bedroom Culture’ as Pop Idol Fandom goes Online

Dr Lucy Bennett, Cardiff University:

Triskaidekaphobics: R.E.M. Fans in Pursuit of the Ultimate First Listen

Nancy Bruseker, University of Liverpool:

With(in) the Band: the Queering of the Female Fan Experience

Dr Mark Duffett, University of Chester:

Fan Words: Towards a New Vocabulary of Fan Theory

Dr Karen Fournier, University of Michigan:

From Fandom to Stardom in Punk: The Female Experience

John Harries, Recording Artist:

David Bowie: A Case Study of the Established Artist as Fan and ‘Musical Conscience’ for the Mainstream

Jack Harrison, Georgetown University, USA:

Critiquing the Lyrics, Critiquing the Music: Inverting the Critical Work of Fanvids

Dr Nedim Hassan, University of Liverpool:

Hidden Fans? Fandom and Domestic Musical Activity

Dr Matt Hills, Cardiff University:

Keynote speech: Post-popular music, mnemic communities, and intermediary fandoms: Challenging general approaches to fan culture?

Martin King, Principal lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University:

Beatlemania: In the Beginning there was the Scream

Alexei Michailowsky, UNIRIO, Brazil:

When the Researcher is a Fan: Methodological Points on Carrying Out Research into Your Favourite Artist

Dr Beate Peter, University of Salford:

Metalheadz, Punks, Ravers: Genre, Fandom and the Non-musical Expression of Belonging

Janne Poikolainen, University of Helsinki, Finland:

‘I Love You Paul!’: Adolescent Sexuality and Finnish Female Fandom at the Turn of the 1950s and 1960s

Dr Nicola Smith, University of Wales Institute Cardiff:

Constructing Northern Soul Fandom in the Absence of an Artist: Issues of Identity, Originality, Ownership and Locality

Simone Varriale, University of Bologna, Italy:

Politicizing Fandom: Music Listeners as Imagined Subjectivities in the 1970s Italian Music Press

Rebecca Williams, Lecturer, University of Glamorgan:

‘Anyone who calls Muse a Twilight band will be shot on sight’: Music, Fandom, and Distinction in the Twilight Franchise

Nancy Young, Lesley University, USA:

Highlighting Theory and Research Relevant to the Identity Development of GLBTQ Dusty Springfield Fans

... Speakers - click for FAQs.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Some 2009 pop research books

From a review list for the journal Popular Music, these recent offerings are mainly published by Ashgate and American university presses:

Baraka, Amiri (2009) Digging The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music.
UCLA Press.

Bayer, Gerd ed. (2009) Heavy Metal Music in Britain. Ashgate.

Bicknell, Jeanette (2009) Why Music Moves Us. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cooper, David (2009) The Musical Traditions of Northern Ireland and its Diaspora.
Community and Conflict
. Ashgate.

Charters, Samuel (2009) A Language of Song, Journeys in the Musical World of the
African Diaspora.
Duke University Press.

Dibben, Nicola (2009) Björk. Equinox/Indiana University Press.

Ferris, William (2009) Give My Poor Heart Ease Voices of the Mississippi Blues.
University of Northern Carolina Press.

Hawkins, Stan (2009) The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture.

Kallimopoulou, Eleni (2009) Paradisiaká: Music, Meaning and Identity in Modern

Macías, Anthony (2008) Mexican American Mojo, Popular Music, Dance and Urban
Culture in Los Angeles 1935-1968
. Duke University Press.

Morgan, Marcyliena (2009) The Real Hip Hop, Battling for Knowledge , Power and
Respect in the LA Underground
. Duke University Press.

Perone, James. (2009) Mods, Rockers and the Music of the British Invasion.

Plasketes, George (2009) B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to
Popular in Music, 1960 to the Present
. Ashgate.

Ragland, Cathy (2009) Música Norteña, Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation between
. Temple University Press.

Seniors, Paula Marie (2009) Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Cultural of
Uplift, Identity and Politics in Black Musical Theatre
. Ohio State University Press.

Sheehy, Colleen and Swiss, Thomas eds (2009) Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan's
Road from Minnesota to the World.
University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Graeme (2009) Singing Australian, A History of Folk and Country Music. Pluto

Smith, Chris (2009) 101 Albums that Changed Popular Music. OUP.

Tirro, Frank (2009) The Birth of the Cool of Miles Davis and His Associates.
Pendragon Press.

Elijah Wald (2009) How The Beatles Destroyed Rock'N'Roll, An Alternative History
of American Popular Music
. Oxford University Press.

Wallach, Jeremy (2008) Modern Noise, Fluid Genres Popular Music in Indonesia
. University of Wisconsin Press.

Welberry, Karen and Dalziell, Tanya (2009) Cultural Seeds, Essays on the Work
of Nick Cave
. Ashgate.

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