I might have been expecting a brief ‘thanks-really appreciate this…’ Instead, I got a very thoughtful, eloquent reflection on the track and how it ended up being not just a historical reference, but also a lesson to the present and future.
” ‘Insurrection’ was always more than just another Hiatus track, but there was a point this summer when it turned into something else altogether. I was having dinner at the Highbury home of my friend Spencer – whose photographs grace the covers of all my releases – and we ended up glued to the television as the riots swept across London, the images of blazing buildings and looted shops almost indistinguishable from the footage edited together for the Insurrection video a few months earlier.
The next morning I woke in Brixton and went for a stroll around those parts of town that weren’t blocked off by police tape, marvelling at the boarded up windows, the shattered bus stops, the still smoking shell of Foot Locker. I recalled what several black residents of Brixton had told me in March, when I was researching a story on the anniversary of the riots for the New Statesman. With rents doubling in the refurbished market, black-owned stores closing to make way for upmarket coffee shops and one-bedroom flats costing on average £300 more per month than their equivalent in neighbouring Streatham Hill, there was a sense that Brixton’s much lauded regeneration was turning into a whitewash.
“The only people that can afford to stay are the affluent whites that Lambeth Council desperately wants to attract,” said Senior P, who works at the Blacker Dread record shop on Coldharbour Lane. “Some say Brixton is being regenerated, but for the people who live here and fought for these streets, the feeling is that the town is being taken away from us.”
Blacker Dread was one of three local record stores that I inundated with hundreds of free Insurrection promo CDs. I’d originally put the track together with a sample of Linton reading his seminal poem on the 1981 riots, Di Great Insohreckshan, afterwards getting in touch with the man himself and asking if he’d mind me releasing it as an official collaboration, which he was happy to do. The track went down well: a panel on Steve Lamacq’s roundtable (including James Lavelle) voted it their single of the week on BBC 6 Music; it featured on Kibwe Tavares’ animated sci fi reimagining of the 1981 riots, Robots Of Brixton, which recently screened on Channel 4; and it attracted a number of notable remixes, including a monstrous dubstep makeover by Rebel Sonix.
But the real legacy of that track for me is here in Brixton. For all the progress made since the travesty of the police reaction in 1981, there remains a simmering sense of unease, of a problem being wilfully ignored or swept under the carpet. Working with so powerful a voice and so profound a subject was a huge blessing, but it also created a sense of responsibility, especially after the events of this summer. I only hope the track serves as a reminder to all those quick to condemn rioters that for every bewildered teenager grabbing trainers there are those driven to destroy their own neighbourhoods through a genuine frustration at the impossibility of making life work in the modern world.”
When I first wrote about this song, I said that the video had reduced me to tears when I saw it back in February. I’ve pretty much known since then that it would be my ‘track of the year’ and so it has proved.
Ohio’s The Waitresses are best known these days for ‘Christmas Wrapping.’ This reached no.45 in 1982, and became a cult classic. I heard it on XFM in London (pre Scotland days) and at first was convinced that it was a Debbie Harry or Blondie side-project (it wasn’t; though the band’s drummer, Billy Ficca is perhaps best known as Television’s drummer).
The version here is the 12″ version, ripped from the single I found in a charity shop about eight years ago.
I feel a bit mean in a way that I’ve kind of lost track of what the Eels have been up to over the last decade, because songs their first three albums certainly soundtracked my early twenties. So if people would like to recommend me where to go, that would be great. Beautiful Freak will hopefully be reappraised in the no doubt inevitable 1990s revival.
Here’s hoping, anyway. Meanwhile, for now, here are the Eels with today’s Christmas festive songs.
Eels -‘Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.’ mp3
I’ve interviewed a number of different artists over the years that I’ve been doing 17 Seconds. The reality is that the longer the blog exists, the more and more submissions I receive, not all of them stuff I have any interest in featuring.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a PR company I have had quite a bit of contact with over the last year or so. ‘Are you up for doing something with Jai McDowall, the winner of Britain’s Got Talent?’
I wasn’t sure it was my thing, to be honest. While I have tried to broaden my field of listening outside of just indie over the last ten years (and hopefully the blog reflects that), I really wasn’t sure that this was something I saw myself doing. I can’t stand most of these talent shows. I particularly can’t stand Simon Cowell (this may have something to do with an NME interview where he said the White Stripes didn’t impress him).
And then, I started to wonder, if nothing else, it might be an experience. And the first track, a cover of U2’s ‘With Or Without You’ was surprising. Not groundbreaking, but an arrangement that suggested it was not Susan Boyle trying to reduce ‘Wild Horses’ to MOR sludge (I take my hat off to her and what she has achieved but I have no interest in her music). So I accepted the offer, and found myself heading towards Glasgow one cold November day.
Whatever plans I might have had, I found that once I met Jai McDowall, he is actually a really genuinely nice bloke, and however cynical I might be towards what I perceived as manufactured music, things are not as black and white as we might want to think.
So, has it been a rollercoaster year since winning Britain’s Got Talent?
‘Very much so,’ he says, pleased as punch. ’Well, half a year then! [the final took place in April]. It’s been crazy – good crazy – but nuts!’
There are a number of musicians – including those who like to show themselves as being ‘indie’ who have been through the BRITS school. Jai, on the other hand, is not of that ilk. In fact, a year ago, he was a working as a carer with young disabled people. ‘It’s completely different, obviously from doing that, it’s not like going to another job just down the road.
‘It’s been a good thing though, it’s something I always wanted to do, and I have the opportunity now to do it. It’s a weight off my shoulders as such [making his dream come true]. It’s also strange because I’ve spent most of my life dreaming that I’d do this, and now it’s here it’s like…strange.’
Whilst some people run off to the bright lights of London at the first sniff of success, Jai still lives in the Ayrshire town of Tarbolton, where he grew up. ‘It’s good to go to London – but there’s nothing quite like home. When I do gig up in Scotland it’s obviously a better reception because I’m one of you guys.’
With the first single ‘With Or Without You’ and album Believe due out on December 12, is he going for the Christmas no.1. ‘I’d love it, I’d definitely love it – we’re trying to get it to coincide with the Royal Variety Show as well.’ Anyone who doubts that a single performance can have an impact on a song would do well to remember just how big ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele became after her BRITS performance earlier this year. But with there being an increasing kick against the likes of Britain’s Got Talent and the X-Factor –with the X-Factor’s Joe McElderry losing out to Rage Againast The Machine in a Facebook-orchestrated campaign in 2009 for the Christmas no.1 and a similar campaign planned for this year with Nirvana’s ‘Smells lIke Teen Spirit’ the protestors’ weapon of choice. Would it disappoint him if ‘With Or Without you’ only got to No.2?
He’s politely firm about this. No, is the answer. ‘ At the end of the day, I want to be successful,’ he says. ‘When I started doing this, it wasn’t about being in the limelight but about the sheer enjoyment and satisfaction of doing something that I want to do.’ He confesses: ‘Obviously, if I got Christmas no.1 I’d probably break down crying in the middle of my living room!’ He says this rather tongue in cheek, in the manner of someone who isn’t sure that this is going to really happen. ‘ No.2? It doesn’t matter. Anywhere in the top 10 I’d backflip down the main street!
While there is still a conception that it the music world is ‘pop vs. indie’ it might interest you to know that many of the tracks on his debut album Believe are actually songs originally written and performed by those who would not sound out of place on the likes of 6Music, XFM or the Evening Session. To whit: the first single ‘With Or Without You’ is a U2 song, and the album also features versions of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You,’ Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’, Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and Evanescense’s ‘Bring Me To Life.’ Indie/Alternative music that you can buy in the supermarket, maybe, but it’s not an pick’n’mix album of Westlife and Boyzone numbers. This is in addition to numbers popularised by the likes of Norah Jones, and Celine Dion.
And whilst there might be those who assume that the album was presented as a fait accompli to him, Jai has spoken previously of how he has had a fair amount of creative control over the album. Whilst there are clearly those who have had things presented to them as a fait accompli (when three versions of the same song are lined up ready to go to iTunes depending on who wins, it’s not hard to be ever so slightly cynical), he was actually involved in choosing the songs that went on the album.
‘What happened was that my manager got in touch and said think of songs you would like to do.’ So he did – he came up with four sheets of paper worth of songs he would like to do, discussed it with the manager and here the album is ready to go. ‘There were a few songs on it that I had to do – I was like I absolutely have to do these songs.’ He has spoken of how his taste in music varies from Britney Spears to Iron Maiden – and I can’t pick holes in this (‘Toxic’ was an absolutely awesome tune).’ He likes the idea that different people may like two or three songs from the album, and in the era of Spotify and iTunes, when people are perhaps less likely than ever to just listen to an album from start to finish, this is probably a good approach. ‘It was a lengthy process, but one I was very much involved in, and I’m very very pleased with that,’ he says.
When I confess to my cynicism about aspects of the manufactured pop world, Jai comes clean too.
‘To be honest, I’m quite cynical as well. I went in thinking I was going to have to stand my ground, but it was a lot easier [than he thought it was going to be] and I didn’t have to argue with anyone. There was no huffs or hissy fits at all. It was pretty much plain sailing, to be honest so I was quite chuffed from that point of view that I didn’t really have to struggle to get where I wanted to go.’ He add ‘the next time around – if there is a next time – I’d like to write stuff.’
He doesn’t write songs at the moment, though he owns up to having lyrics at home, ‘but I’d love to write with someone, maybe a co-write, to get the idea of how to do it or whatever and then maybe go on to write my own stuff.’
I ask him if he worries about tall poppy syndrome, and if this is something he’s experiences yet. ‘Not yet, no, I’ve got pretty good family and friends. They’re ready to kick me in the other sense of the word, as in back down to earth- if I get too big for my boots. Because it’s taken me a long while to get here I’ve thought about where I’d like to go’ – he lists the US and the Middle East -‘I’d love to get my music out there – but not in the sense of I want to forget my roots. I’ve got to twenty-five staying true to my roots and I don’t think really that’s going to change. My Mum would slap me on the back of my head!’
So whatever his future, Jai’s a pretty grounded person. As I head back to Edinburgh I find myself reflecting on our meeting. Perhaps those who argue that the indie world is full of the sort of snobbery that we’re quick to accuse posh middle-class types of is something that we’re guilty of, too…
Hey folks, just having a quite night in, and what better soundtrack than Mogwai?
The first track appears in two slightly different forms. As ‘Xmas Steps’ it appears on the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP in 1998 and as ‘Christmas Steps’ on the the following years sophomore studio album, Come One Die Young.
‘Christmas Song’, meanwhile, appears on 1999’s Mogwai EP.
Mogwai -‘Xmas Steps.’ mp3
Mogwai -‘Christmas Steps.’ mp3
Mogwai -‘Christmas Song.’ mp3
Hope you are enjoying these folks; fourteen more sleeps to Santa, and plenty more Christmas music to come…
You should check out Mogwai’s two most recent releases, the album Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will and the EP Earth Division, both from this year are nigh on essential additions to your record collection.
Lee Simeone is a wonder-kid who has taken the notion of what the late seventies and early eighties musicains did and run with it. I have never met him, but I would be willing to bet that he has the vast majority (if not all) of Gary Numan’s albums, feels that Ultravox ceased to matter when Midge Ure took over from John Foxx, and would prefer to live in Berlin than LA, though wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to Japan.
All this is, of course, pure speculation on my part. What is clear is that this introductory package (fourteen new tracks, some which appeared on his debut album The Dream Weaver) showcases that there is something rather good at work here. Whilst all 21 tracks can be quite intense one after the other, it is clear that he understands dark-wave (synth-goth if you really need things broken up and made simple for you), and also relishes working with some of the pioneers. So there are collaboreations with ex-Renegade Soundwave member Gary Asquith, Adam and the Ants’ Kevin Mooney, as well as Karel Fialka and the aforementioned John Foxx.
The three tracks he picked out for me to share with you give a clear sign of his talent. While this won’t appeal to all, those who understand this msuic will take it to their hearts and watch where he goes from here…film soundtracks and some seriously cool music is my guess.