A Medway Christmas Alphabet: O is for ‘One More Letter’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

The Daggermen EP
What would you do with a time machine?

There’s the obvious stuff, of course. You could go back to July 1888 and try persuading Mrs Hitler she’s got a headache. Or perhaps you could head back to 1555 to see if Queen Mary really was the spitting image of Dennis Waterman.

Then again, it could be fun to find Cellar Number Five beneath Rochester Bridge at some point in the mid-1980s and see if The Daggermen are rehearsing down there.

Maybe it’s me over-romanticising things, but there seems something just a little bit magical about the tales you hear about three lads kicking up a storm in a room not tall enough to stand in. If the stories are to believed, whenever the doors were open, there was a party going on down there.

It wasn’t just The Daggermen who practiced down there. It’s where a band called The Pressure went to rehearse (and have their amplifiers cannibalised) and where The Prisoners recorded ‘Gravedigger‘ – which features as a bonus track on their final album, In From The Cold.

And it wasn’t just down in ‘The Hole’, as they called it, where the party happened. Wherever they went, The Daggermen took the chaos with them. Their performances at The Nag’s Head saw them get thrown out by the landlady, Angie Minto. They would try to secure gigs under an alternate name, but she soon got wise to it.

The band would take their play fights – or bundles – out onto the street, or even across the Channel to France. And they would wind up overseas promoters by making out they were too drunk to perform.

The Daggermen form a cornerstone of much of the music that followed. Two members, Johnny Barker (bass) and Wolf Howard (drums) in particular have appeared in many of Medway’s bands from the 1980s to the present day: The James Taylor Quartet, Johnny and the Bandits, Goodchilde, The Kravin’ “A”s, The Prime Movers, The Solarflares, Dodson’s Dogs, Micky and the Salty Seadogs, Sergeant’s Mess, The Vandebilts, The Musicians of the British Empire, CTMF and, most recently, Senior Service have featured either or both members of the The Daggermen’s rhythm section. And it was a fondness for The Daggermen that saw Billy Childish form The Buff Medways alongside Barker and Howard. The Buffs even released an EP tribute to The Daggermen.

‘One More Letter’ comes from The Daggermen’s EP, Introducing the Daggermen released in 1985. It conveys all the frantic energy you would hope to find from a garage band who practiced in a cellar and terrorised landladies with play fights.

The song hurtles along against a basic blues chord progression with all three band members throwing everything the have into it: David Taylor on guitar and vocals, Johnny Barker on bass and Wolf Howard smashing into his drumkit like it would be of no use come tomorrow.

Writing about it doesn’t really do it justice. You’re just going to have to listen to it for yourself.

Find out more about Jon Barker and Wolf Howard’s latest project, Senior Service (also featuring Darry Hartley and Graham), on their Damaged Good page.

Read more about The Daggermen and many, many other bands and artists from Medway in my book: Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

 

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: N is for ‘The Night Had No Terror For Us’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas*. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

(On second thoughts, maybe I should have posted this one nearer to Hallowe’en).

Hand of Stabs

Should you ever have any trouble getting yourself – or a small child – to sleep, you might be tempted to go to Youtube and find any one of a large selection of pieces of soothing music, up to eight hours or so in length, to help secure a restful night’s slumber.

There might, entirely conceivably, exist some reason why you might want the exact opposite: to stay awake all night in a state of restlessness and unease; Should you wish to subject yourself to such self-inflicted insomnia, may I recommend the work of Hand of Stabs?

Hand of Stabs are a band like no other. But that’s almost implied in their name. Not for them the conformities of a couple of guitars, a bass, a drum kit and someone of vocals. Instead, their line-up is advertised as follows:

Captain Rex Standish – signal
Jocelyn von Bergdorff – interference
James Worse – pulse

In practice, this means creating sounds and – yes, I would call it music, from all manner of objects, most notably a bicycle wheel. And the result is haunting, eerie and really rather beautiful.

‘The Night Had No Terror For Us’ is typical of their atypical sound. It can be found on the Medway Eyes ME5 compilation from 2013.

A Theremin’s howling ill-wind gathers pace around wheezing squeeze boxes, the most minimal of percussion and a gentle clatter of playing card against bicycle wheel spokes. Added to this is a barely decipherable, distorted with echoes and reverberations until it sounds like a the loneliest of platform announcements at a long forgotten railway station.

Despite the name of the piece, there is something rather terrifying about it: a creepy, other-worldliness which doesn’t fit in with our understanding of what music should be. This, of course, makes it all the more compelling and fascinating.

File under “Don’t have nightmares”.

Find out more about Hand of Stabs on their FacebookBandcamp and Soundcloud pages.

Find out more about music from Medway in my book: Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

Of course, James Worse, of “pulse” fame, will be familiar not just to lovers of experimental, warped music, but also as a rather astute political commentator. As the following video shows (see 30 seconds in).

A Medway Christmas Alphabet – the story so far

A-M
Tradition dictates that the lead up to Christmas comes with some form of countdown – or, strictly speaking, a countup – often involving chocolate.

Here at Reviewage Heights we don’t have any chocolate on offer (as I’ve eaten it all myself), but I can point you towards a song for every letter of the alphabet – with two to come of Christmas Day.

As we’ve reached the half way point – and you might have missed some on the way – here’s the songs that have featured from A to M.

These songs are in no way meant to represent a “best of” – although I would maintain they’re all pretty darned good. But hopefully they do give a broad overview of the wide range of music Medway has had to offer over the last few decades.

So, here we go:

A – The Singing Loins – ‘Alien’

B – Funke and Two Tone Baby – ‘Bella’s Kiss’

C – Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society – ‘Call Me Dave’

D – Brigadier Ambrose – ‘Decembered’

E – Thee Headcoats – ‘Every Bit of Me’

F – Wheels – ‘Forget It’

G – The Dentists – ‘Gas’

H – Bob Collins and the Full Nelson – ‘Holy Man’

I -Theatre Royal – ‘I Believe in Father Christmas (Don’t Get Me Socks)’

J – Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris – ‘Jump at the Sun’

K – Frau Pouch – ‘Krakthulu’

L – The Claim – ‘Losers Corner’

M – Broken Banjo – ‘Might As Well Be Hell’

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: M is for ‘Might as Well be Hell’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

Broken Banjo - Repeat OffenderBroken Banjo can always be relied upon to kick up one hell of a decent blues-rock storm. And, on more than one occasion, they do themselves an injury in the process. Back at the Nags Head launch night of the Medway Eyes compilation, ME5,  guitarist and singer Liam Lynott managed to inexplicably split his forehead open mid-set.

Such are the risks associated with the life of a heavy rocker. It’s unlikely these problems have ever affected the likes of Joan Baez.

Broken Banjo’s latest EP, Repeat Offenders, presents plenty more opportunities for band members to do themselves injuries. If one of them doesn’t inflame their vocal chords, reduce their hands to bloody stumps or impale themselves on a cymbal, they’ll probably end up bursting a blood vessel as pure rage and self-loathing courses through their body.

It’s a fantastic display of anger mismanagement as injustices are addressed (in ‘Caroline’), and a sense of self-hatred leads to the bottle (“drunk again – it’s the only way I know” as one lyric puts it), or simply a feeling of absolute confusion (see the fantastically raucous ‘Hide Your Face’ with its chorus of “I’m guilty/I hate me/I love you”).

The one let-up appears in ‘Gone in the Morning’ with its Tom Waits-on-amphetamines growl describing a night of unadulterated hedonism.

Although Broken Banjo are heavily steeped in a Led-Zeppelin venerating blues-rock tradition, there are diversions from that path. ‘BirdCage’, a plea to “get back with me”, is text-book grunge with its quietly brooding and then explosively noisy formula.

Meanwhile ‘Leros’ is much more restrained, a beautiful, if tortured account of how ‘I can’t live – I won’t live – without the girl from Leros’ which only unleashes its full arsenal at the very end. They’ve caused each other pain but now it’s over “my broken heart has turned to sand”.

The mix of grunge with blues-rock, the combination of set backs and self-recriminations, climax spectacularly in ‘Might as Well be Hell’:

For all the trying and failing,
For all the train-wreck flailing,
For the all the words I’ve swallowed,
All false prophets followed,
This might as well be hell.

It’s a grim, intense blast of angst that goes well beyond the usual caricature of emo self-absorption. The barbed-wire guitars, the bottom of a whiskey bottle vocals and the written in blood lyrics all point towards some dark place you really don’t want to go.

It’s bleak stuff – but then some of the best music out there is just that.

You can buy the Repeat Offenders EP direct from Broken Banjo’s Bandcamp page.

Read more about the abject misery of Medway music in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: L is for ‘Losers Corner’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

The Claim - Black Path
Would it be such a bad thing, such a wrong thing, such a deluded thing to say The Claim should have been a much bigger band than they were?

Listening to ‘Losers Corner’ some 25 years after it was released as single, the song has all the ingredients of an indie classic. There’s a poetry to the lyrics that recalls both Morrissey and Ray Davies. And there’s a lilting, fairly simple melody that will haunt you long after the song has finished.

Mixed together, you have a song full of yearning and dissatisfaction and frustration set against the most heartbreakingly beautiful of tunes.

If a song like this drew large audiences for The Kinks (‘Autumn Almanac’), The Jam (‘Smithers-Jones’) or Blur (‘Charmless Man’), why, apart the whole thing about being in the right place at the right time, having the right management and having more than a little bit of luck on your side – apart from all those trifling little issues – why did the same thing not happen for The Claim?

It is, I’d dare to argue, only because a song like The Smiths’ ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ is so familiar, compared with The Claim’s ‘Losers Corner’ that we feel inclined to believe the former of these is a better song. And that ain’t necessarily so.

“It seems, yes it seems, that it’s gathering speed/to find a home and a car and a new family” runs the chorus of the world-weary song. It’s a song about suburban dreariness, the boredom of keeping up with the Jonses and the futility of working hard to achieve very little.

And yes, these themes have all been dealt with by all of the above – and more – but, in ‘Losers Corner’, there is an eloquence that makes these musings seem fresh and so very vital.

“To be told you’re too old to learn a trade/to be placed at the gates of the unattainable” goes the song’s opening couplet.

The poignancy of such lines, mourning the triumph of inevitability and mundanity over the seemingly powerless and unutterably bored, is so intense that, for the four and a half minutes during which the song runs, there never have been any Kinks, Jam or Smiths. There has only ever been The Claim retelling tales of infinite tedium and sadness.

You can buy The Claim’s best of, Black Path, featuring ‘Losers Corner’ from Amazon and iTunes.

Find out more about The Claim and plenty of other Medway bands and artists in my book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: K is for ‘Krakthulhu’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

Frau Pouch - All Hail Space Chicken

If ever you popped round to our house for a cup of tea – and you would be most welcome – you might, conceivably, take a look at the CDs I have, neatly arranged in alphabetical order, in a couple of cupboards in the living room.

Therein your eyes might be drawn towards any number of musical treats: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks got an this morning, Gogol Borgello probably need to be played again soon. And – if you’ll just excuse me while I pluck something else at random – there, on the bottom shelf of the first cupboard, are the haggard, fearful eyes of the cover-boy of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.

For all my forays into the worlds of Britpop, punk, prog-rock, various bits of electronica, folk-rock, morose singer-songwriter gloominess (there’s plenty of that), the all too loosely termed “world music” and even a smattering of hip-hop, there’s not much in the way of shambolic art punk disco filth, as Medway band Frau Pouch describe themselves, filed away.

But maybe there should be.

Frau Pouch’s charm lies in their blend of dark humour, ear destroying noise and their ability to switch from mischievous, cheeky scamps to purveyors of the most corrupting of filth.

Despite all that, they are ridiculously lovely people and it’s always been a pleasure to meet them.

With a back catalogue of songs about the moon hatching to release a chicken which solves the world’s hunger problems or about Godzilla getting a little frisky with a skyscraper, you know you’ll be in for a fairly old warped time of it with Frau Pouch. And ‘Krakthulhu’ is no exception.

The song, the first thing you’ll hear on 2013’s All Hail Space Chicken EP, is a typically noisy, rambunctious old tune.

Ollie Crook’s grainy bass guitar jerks convulses around as if it’s going through some kind of electro-shock therapy while Joe Wise (singer and guitarist) shouts through his tale of a debauched kraken life style.

And all the time Suzanne Wise bashes out seven shades of sea monster effluent from her drum kit.

I remember once going to The Command House to see various bands play at an Oxjam gig. Being a charity event on a Saturday afternoon, it was full of young families out to have a good day – despite the rain. Of all the bands who played that day, you can probably guess who it was who got the toddlers dancing.

Fortunately, Joe Wise’s vocals were particularly distorted that day. Otherwise the band’s set might have provoked a series of awkward questions.

Frau Pouch. They’re good. They’re not particularly clean. They’re far from wholesome. But they are great fun. Book them for your children’s party now.

Read more about Frau Pouch, Joe and Suzanne Wise’s promotional project Motherboy and plenty of noisy sounds to come from Medway in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

You can buy Frau Pouch’s All Hail Space Chicken EP from their Bandcamp page.

A Medway Christmas Alphabet – J is for ‘Jump at the Sun’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

Wolf's HEad and Vixen Morris - Unearthed
In my desperate attempt to bring as much of Christmas as I can into an alphabetically themed list of Medway  published in the days leading up to the Big 25, let me tell you a tale. It’s about Boxing Day.

I’m not from Medway originally. I’m not even from Kent. I grew up in Gloucester, a place made famous for its cheese (doubly so, in fact), for its cathedral’s use as the set for many a corridor and quadrangle scene in the earlier Harry Potter films. And, of course, rather famous for our own mass murderers, the delightful Mr. and Mrs. West.

Everyone hates (or, at least, has special dispensation to hate) their home town. And I’m no particular exception. If you’ve ever visited the place, you’ll no doubt tell me how utterly wrong I am. “It’s simply wonderful,” you might say. “The countryside, the docks, that beautiful cathedral.”

And yes, it has all of that. But it’s also got a lot of concrete. In the 1960s, developers seem to have got rather jealous of the fact that Hitler completely destroyed the beautiful city of Coventry, leaving town planners to start from scratch with a mass of substandard architecture. “Why couldn’t he have bombed our beautiful city?” they asked themselves. “Then we could have started from scratch with our own substandard architecture.”

And, innovative bunch that they were, they decided to do what the Fuhrer had failed to do themselves. Not bomb it exactly. But certainly knock it down.

The result was that where the city centre would have once had the appeal of Rochester’s High Street, complete with its higgledy-piggledy rows of historical buildings – and something of a soul, it now resembles something like the rather less photogenic Sittingbourne, albeit with a beautiful cathedral seemingly dumped somewhere over to the left for no particular reason.

It was outside this cathedral that I spent every single interminably dull Boxing Day standing in a circle on the car park’s tarmac, watching the same old mummers’ play in which various apparently comic characters fought each other badly with swords until one of them got knocked out, only for a doctor to arrive, produce a ping-pong ball from his bag and proclaim that said ping-pong ball-cum-tablet could cure – all together now – “the itch, the pitch, the palsy and the gout, pains within and pains without – AND PAINSWICK OVER THE HILL” – a joke you can only properly get if you know about, well, Painswick Hill.

The mummers’ play (never to be performed outside of the gates of the city, heaven forefend!) would be sandwiched between performances by various sides of Morris dancers, some clad in white and waving handkerchiefs, the omnipresent bells jingling at their feet as they danced, others in tanned leather waistcoats bashing sticks together for no reason I could ever quite gather.

This was accompanied by Santa Claus passing over-rich Christmas cake around the gathered throng, a man hiding his identity beneath a giant plastic horse’s head which he then used to headbut those who had come to watch, and another man hitting members of the audience with an inflated pig’s bladder.

It’s what we did for fun in Gloucester.

Eventually, my friend Peter and I took to leaving our respective parents to it while we took a walk around the cloisters, alternatively complaining about how rubbish the whole thing was while quoting extensively from the script of the mummers’ play. Ironically of course.

It was probably something to do with my name.

For someone who was regularly dubbed “Morris Minor” and “Morris Dancer” at school the prospect of having to see Morris dancing or – worse still – be seen seeing Morris dancing was not something I was particularly impressed with.

And then, with a few detours via Lancaster, back to Gloucester and then over to Sevenoaks and then Dartford, I eventually arrived in the Medway Towns where, among other things, I discovered they had a whole three day long festival devoted to the art of the sodding Morris dancer.

I still don’t entirely get Morris dancing. I imagine that’s the problem most of its detractors have. Of all artistic performers, the Morris dancer is probably the least understood. But I don’t quite have the same negative feelings as I did when I was growing up in a city far, far west of where I now live.

The cooling of my distaste has, in large part, been down to the existence of Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris. They do Morris dancing. But they do it in a more interesting way. They’re covered, head to foot in black, for a start and they seem to have a bit more of an attitude – and a bit spirit – than I’ve generally seen with other Morris dancers.

Part of their allure is that they wear their allusions to pre-Christian traditions on their jet black sleeves, looking to explore a past that extends beyond the rise and fall of kings and queens, of politics and organised religion. ‘We quite consciously work with ideas of shamanism,’ one of the Wolf’s Heads, Philip Kane told The Independent back in 2008. ‘It’s a form of ritual theatre, a magical space embracing both dancers and audience.’

The fact that Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris do things differently should make it of no surprise that in 2011, they released a CD, Unearthed, filled with the music to which they dance.

‘Jump at the Sun’, by John Kirkpatrick, appears as the finale to the album. And it’s a belter of a tune; gleefully chaotic, it seems impossible that anyone – let alone any group of people – could play so fast.

Violins and squeeze boxes race against each other in a furious display of spirit and skill which provide an insight into what the soundtrack of a Keystone Cops movie might have sounded like if it was performed by a bunch of Goth clad folk musicians.

Weirdly wonderful.

Bob Dylan: “Christmas in the Heart”

bob-dylan-christmas-in-the-heart

I love a good Christmas record, me.

Not the Noddy Holder and Cliff Richard stuff. Oh no. I like digging out things that are just a bit different. Last year I put together some reviews of some of my favourite alternative Christmas records.

I’ve already re-published one, Smoke Fairies’ Wild Winter, re-released this year. But there can’t be any harm in taking a look at another one, can there?

Cue Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: I is for ‘I Believe in Father Christmas (I Don’t Want Socks)’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

Theatre Royal - I Believe in Father Christmas
There’s probably an apology due.

Despite the talk of a Medway Christmas Alphabet in these latest posts, there has, in fact, been precious little in the way of anything festive about these blog entries. The closest thing we’ve had so far has been Brigadier Ambrose’s ‘Decembered’.

But despite it being (a). excellent (b). named after the month in which Christmas falls (c). in possession of a beautiful bunch of jingling bells, there are songs with a much more Christmassy vibe to them out there.

Theatre Royal’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas (I Don’t Want Socks)’, for example.

The song, a charity single in aid of Crisis, the homelessness charity, proved a reunion of sorts, with Daniel Lawrence, now of Kids Unique, joining forces with his old bandmates from The Long Weekend to help write and perform it in 2013.

Just as Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without certain things toys broken as soon as they’re unwrapped, drunken aunts falling asleep during the Queen’s speech and no-one eating their sprouts, so a Christmas song wouldn’t be a Christmas song without jingly bells and descending scales, a chorus of over enthusiastic backing singers and a catchy old earworm of a tune.

And that’s exactly what we have here.

It’s an unashamedly nostalgic affair – not just with the nod to the sound of Phil Spector and the summoning of memories about Father Christmases and Rudolphs, but also in its reference more recent traditions.

Amid all the talk of mistletoe and sherry, there are allusions to post-work Christmas party hangovers, assessing whether presents are DVDs or books and having to “stand in Woolworths at the back of a queue”. Rather poignantly a voice interrupts Ollie Burgess’s singing to grumble “not any longer”).

This is Christmas pop at its best. It is knowingly, but unrepentantly, ever so slightly cheese (“The Christmas single is a grand, yet much maligned tradition and one that we have this year welcomed with open arms and festive jumpers,” the band told The Guardian upon the song’s release).

And that, at Christmas, can never really be a bad thing.

Buy the song on Theatre Royal’s Bandcamp page.

Find out more about Theatre Royal, The Long Weekend, Kids Unique and plenty of other Medway bands and artists in my book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.

 

A Medway Christmas Alphabet: H is for ‘Holy Man’

‘Tis the festive season of advent calendars and countdowns to Christmas. To mark the occasion, what better way than to have a completely non-festive A-Z of Medway songs.

And so, with that in mind, let’s all listen to a song that takes a pop at men of the cloth…

Bob Collins and the Full Nelson - Telescopic Victory Kiss

It seems like only yesterday I was writing about Bob Collins’ contributions to a song about distancing yourself from someone else and moving on. And it seems like only yesterday that I was talking about how that particular guitarist had been part of a band – the Dentists – that celebrated living life in all its fullness.

Oh, wait…

Twenty – that’s twenty – years after the demise of The Dentists, the desire to move forward and an absolute repulsion at being held back remain massive themes for Bob Collins, now fronting Bob Collins and the Full Nelson. See, for a brilliant example, ‘Holy Man’, fresh from his newly released album, Telescopic Victory Kiss.

Collins may be a guitarist first and foremost – it’s no surprise that a guitar takes pride of place on the album cover – and the obvious standout moments on Telescopic…: ‘Sunshine of Your Soul’, ‘Emily’ or ‘Your Star is Fading’, for example, see the ex-Dentist on barnstorming form with his weapon of choice.

But his abilities as a lyricist and vocalist should never be underestimated – as can be proved with the album’s final song which strips everything back to its barest basics.

Just as ‘Beautiful Day’ from The Dentists’ album Heads and How to Read Them, documented exasperation with the imaginatively challenged (‘Only you will ever understand/only things that you can hold in both your hands’) , so too ‘Holy Man’ exposes the fraud of someone who claims to know better: ‘You don’t get just why I feel alive’ runs the song’s opening gambit.

Line by line, the song’s villain is taken down: a man who claims to represent something so big is shown to be staggeringly small: ‘no sign of joy, no trace of menace/paraphernalia – that’s all there is’ goes one particularly telling lyric.

Instead, our hero would prefer to go it alone – feeling alive and making decisions for himself.

It’s a beautiful song – a perfect album closer – and fantastic when performed live; it’ proved to be a highlight (for this writer at least) at the recent launch of Telescopic Victory Kiss.

Despite its sombre mood, despite the accusations and vilifications, ‘Holy Man’ is a fantastically optimistic song, celebrating the possibilities just being alive can present; a humanist’s hymn to human endeavour.

 

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