Sunday, 23 March 2014

The incessant noise of drum machines… Technique (1989) - New Order

As some of you will remember from my previous posts, 1989 has never been my favourite year for music. That melting pot of sound punctuating by a declining Stock, Aitken & Waterman and Jive Bunny. But there were a few glimmers of hope, particularly in the growing rave and dance music scene. Acts like Inner City, Adventures of Stevie V and Steve 'Silk' Hurley were making a big impact with their synth-laden singles, proving big hits in the UK clubs. 

Augmenting this was the fast-rising 'Madchester' scene, casting Manchester as the epicentre of late 80's/Early 90's indie music. Started by bands like The Smiths and record labels like Factory in the early 80's, it had grown into a behemoth with exiting new records coming out of awesome bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Monday, The LAs and The Charlatans. However, by far and away the leader of the pack was electronic/rock group New Order. 

Having formed from the fallout of Joy Division following Ian Curtis's suicide in 1980, the band had grown exponentially by 1989, carving a niche for themselves as one of the most musically exciting acts of the decade, coupling melodic riffs with razor-sharp production and a signature use of the latest synthesisers and drum machines.

Over the years records like Blue Monday, Thieves Like Us, Perfect Kiss and Bizarre Love Triangle had become airwaves staples cementing the group as one of the top-draw acts of the era. Coupled with this was the Northern dance scene they were fostering through their infamous 'pills, thrills and bellyaches' club 'The Hacienda' (a combination of acid house sensibilities and Factory Records' vision). It was a Mecca for all things of Manchester music scene. 

Come 1989 New order had not released a full album of new material for three years (the last being the patchy 'Brotherhood' in 1986). Buoyed, I'm sure, by the massive success of True Faith and Quincy Jones's prolific remake of Blue Monday ('88) the band embarked on a new set of material with incredible results.

Technique, is one of the best albums of the 80s and a great way to cap the decade. Combining thundering dance tracks with sombre indie rock it is a dark but danceable album showing a group at its zenith - hey, they were even asked to provide the World Cup anthem a year later! 

The album opens with, in my view, the best track of the set ‘Fine Time’ (also the first single off the album). The hypnotic beat of the drum machine and the catchy rhythm of the synth bass collapses into a weird and wonderful club track overlaid by Bernard Sumner’s idiosyncratic vocals. Clever effects and a liberal use of production combine to make this a memorable song that perfectly captures the flavour of the UK music scene during this period... others might disagree with this sweeping statement but I am sure they will not find fault with this track. 

This quickly descends into a slice of New Order stock fodder, will familiar production and a good melody ‘All The Way’ is a solid but unremarkable tune and weirdly fits alongside the previous, seemingly incongruous cut. Much the same can be said for ‘Love Less’ at no.3 which masterfully plays to Graham Hook’s signature bassline technique.

This slight, melancholy air is then obliterated by the next tune, ‘Round And Round’ the albums second single taken from the album. It’s a frantic and claustrophobic number, incorporating - dare I say it - a similar keyboard sound to that found on Phil Collin’s 1985 smash ‘Take Me Home’ (I am sure there are indie fans everywhere groaning at that comment). ‘Round and Round’ musically is New Order through and one might be forgiven for thinking that is structurally resembles ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ - although I am sure devotees of the band will disagree. Whatever, it is a standout track. 

Suddenly we are transported back to the incarnations of group for ‘Guilty Partner’, an atmospheric mid album number full of melancholy, not a favourite but not unlistenable as is the third single from the album ‘Run’, which marches on at a steady pace, made up for by it’s slow pace with some great work on the rhythm guitar. 

‘Mr. Disco’ is another dance orientated number with industrial sounds, heavy use of sythesizers, perfect for the pilled-out clubber of the day, zapped out of their mind on the shores of Ibiza (or more likely Bolton). Again, not one of the best, but pleasing. Luckily, this is followed by a top tune, ‘Vanishing Point’. Perhaps I like this because it is so of the New Order sound I prefer sharing the same name as one of my all-time greatest films. The echoey vocals and clever arrangement create a track that can be listened to over and over. 

The final number is another melodic, indie track and I think a unbefitting close to a brilliantly constructed album. ‘Dream Attack’ with its use of acoustic piano and spare production is good but I rather feel that it should have been scheduled earlier in Technique. Still, no matter. A great album and one that I thoroughly recommend to anyone looking for something to belt out loudly across South London as the sun shines and the beer and BBQs flow! 

Monday, 17 March 2014

The end of an affair… the last doner

‘Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end’ - Cocktail, 1988

Profound words I am sure you’ll agree, and the very essence of ‘Coughlan’s Law’ put into practice. Apologies for those who have not had the sheer pleasure of enjoying the flawed genius of the 1988 blockbuster Cocktail, but I feel the above quote is apt for this post. 

This affair, if you can call it that, dates back to the winter of 2001 where a 13-year old schoolboy (me) enjoyed his fist taste of a doner kebab. At the time it was a revelation. The slightly chewy, greasy savouriness and stale cumin aroma of the shaved meat atop crisp fries drenched in degraded vegetable oil and accompanied with the clean bitterness of white onion, limp, shredded lettuce, fiery pickled chilli and lashings of garlic sauce was a veritable feast! On the £10-a-week allowance it was a real Sunday lunchtime treat, appealing to that taste for junk food that all young people seem to have. Sitting on the steps outside the bustling ‘Charcoal Grill’, I was in an MSG, fat-laden heaven, tucking into a mountain of sub-prime meat and ersatz chips. So a long-term relationship was born with this icon of unhealthiness. 

A taste for the dish was developed throughout the years and in my time I sampled many a different take on this fast food classic, call it a wrap or a gyros, it was still the same thing.  However, it was at my alma mater, The University of Leeds where I became something of a connoisseur. Quality varied of course, but for the most part I was either hungry enough or drunk enough to chow down on some very suspect foodstuff, I don’t think the suppliers of the meat will be winning any Red Tractor awards any time soon. The garlic sauce, I believe, played a big part in masking the taste of low-grade alsatian definitely past its best - the further addition of punchy chilli sauce was also something of a panacea to the slightly putrid flavours playing havoc on the tastebuds.

There also seemed to be something of a ritual behind the consumption of the kebab. The pub crawl or heavy night clubbing, the 2:00am stagger home, the blinking signs of 1,001 different takeaways (all with a varying success rate in the hygiene stakes), the smell of rancid fat bubbling away in the deep fat fryer, the shouts of other sozzled revellers trying to place their orders in stilted drunken-ese... I am sure that many of you, dear readers, will remember remember this scene well. 

A request garbled whilst trying to hold down a booze-soaked conversation with other kebab shop pilgrims. The offending article then bagged and tagged, plastic fork stuck in the top of the polystyrene box. Home, TV on and the ritual of eating the meat and chips, indulgence in something that screamed naughtiness. You knew you’d feel bad the next day but the thrill of the quick fix was too much, worth the guilt and remorse you’d feel as the last, dried out chips stared back at you the next morning, reminding a person of their debauchery the previous night. 

It went on like this for many years, the cheap thrill of the doner kebab with its seedy lure was very appealing after a night out on the tiles, but it all came crashing down around me when I had the unfortunate luck to go to the ‘The New Grill’ (Formerly Kebab Delight) on Leopold Road, Wimbledon. It wasn’t even that late but I was coming back from some drinks and I couldn’t be bothered to cook - passing the shop I got something of a craving for poor-quality, low-grade meat. I entered, slightly concerned that they were shutting up shop at 10:30pm way before the the industry’s big trading hours. Seemingly I had stumbled into the only ‘small town’ kebab shop, something that Carson mcCullers might have written about, ‘Ballad to the sad kebab shop’. 

The staff were sullen and despondent, only emphasised by the unnatural glare of powerful fluorescent lighting. The fruit machine that had once been there was gone, replaced by a depressed looking palm tree that one felt was hankering for the dry heat of the French Riviera - it was its lot in life to be stuck in a South London fast food joint, having its leaves spattered with grease and receiving abuse from drunken punters pouring cans of Fanta into its bone dry soil. 

I was distracted from my musings on the plight of this palm by the cheery but slightly weary proprietor who informed me that all they had left on the menu was Doner and Chips. ‘Fine’ I thought, ‘that’s what I wanted anyway.’ 

So without further ado, I ordered usual topped off with lashings of garlic sauce. I had a couple of cold Stellas in the fridge and, in homage to Gary Strang of Men Behaving Badly fame I decided I would indulge in the above whilst watching some late night dross on TV. Of course I wasn’t disappointed, a double bill of ‘Don’t try this at home’ followed by  a repeat of ‘Stars in their Eyes’ on Challenge. The rest of the night was set and I was looking forward to a few chilled brews and my delicious kebab. I could’t have been more wrong. 

It had been a good six months since I had eaten my last doner and chips, and looking back a couple of weeks ago I can see why. It was just filthy, fond memories of slurping up slivers of shaved meat were wiped away in seconds as I bit into the semi congealed mess on top of chips that definitely could have done with some more time out of the freezer and in the fryer. To top it all off, the garlic sauce had so much sugar in it that it rendered the who sorry mess inedible... I came to realise that this truly was the end of an affair. My night was ruined (perhaps a little far-fetched but I am sure you will allow me some embellishment for the sake of entertaining prose)

Like the narrator in A E Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad I was reminded of those ‘happy highways whence I roamed, and cannot come again’. Such it was with the kebab, a sordid and longtime love but one which I must leave behind to the mists of misspent youth and the chip shops of West Yorkshire.