Hamburg Amateurs

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I remember seeing The Beatles Anthology programme on television a decade or more ago, and being intrigued by the idea that they’d properly become a band after gigging hard and fast in Hamburg, playing 100 gigs in 100 days to whores and pimps and drunks and scumbags up and down the Reeperbahn.

A few years later I read John Robb’s book about The Stone Roses, and (I don’t have it to hand right now so can’t check) I seem to recall a similar experience for them in about 1986 when they played tiny venues in Sweden. There was an analogue… The cramped, claustrophobic, isolated and psychotic situations they went through together, binding them as a band both musically and psychologically. Like squaddies falling in love with each other, not in a romantic sense but in a fraternal sense, because of all the shit they’ve shovelled or sunk in together.

Arctic Monkeys may be being pimped as a band who broke themselves on the internet, but in reality… Well, they did and you can’t deny that, but you also can’t deny that they gigged long and hard and fast, playing tiny toilets together, getting tighter and tighter until they were as taut as a Catholic schoolgirl’s ringpiece.

Mega City Four’s debut album is called Tranzophobia, a neologism they came up with to describe the psychosis if being a group of men stuck together in a Transit van for months on end, playing gigs in shitholes, earning fuck-all money, writing songs and trying to be a band.

We watched Dig! the other night and The Brian Jonestown Massacre kind of failed at doing that, because Anton Newcombe seemed more concerned with being… something… a rock star?... a genius?... than with making his band work. Gigs for his band weren’t about getting tight or learning to play an audience; they were about Anton’s ego, about his control-freak complex, about hitting his bassist and swearing at his drummer and kicking a paying member of the audience in the head.

(What I also noticed is that despite Courtney Taylor and various A&R people continually wittering on about how incredible Anton’s music was, a few isolated moments aside, it wasn’t even any good, at least as far as I could tell from the film. It was total style over substance. Not even style… chic… junkie, hippie, 60s throwback sitar-playing smack-taking sideburn-wearing hipster fuckface chic. They didn’t seem to have any tunes. The Dandy Warhols succeeded where The Brian Jonestown Massacre failed because they had some tunes. Don’t be ashamed of hits, kids.)

It seems to be how bands meld, how they cement themselves, how they get to be any good – trying your songs out in front of an audience when you’re hungover and unwashed, growing up in public, tightening and tightening until people stop throwing bottles at your head when you’re trying to entertain them.

So much of this is “I seem to remember…” as if my memory is failing. I don’t make notes on this kind of thing; it’s all straight out of my head. I should make notes. I tried.

I seem to remember Embrace describing, in the early days (which sometimes seem as if they were only a few months ago, and sometimes seem as if they were a lifetime past, or a different life in another place, like here but different), how they’d started as a postpunk type band, into Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen and sounding it, but that there had been a moment when they’d stopped and said “we need to sound like us”, and from then on had stripped back how they made music and started again from scratch, building from the bottom up. Embrace never sounded to me like any other bands; the basslines, drums, guitar parts, melodies, structures never seemed to fit together like other bands I’d been in to.

In Timequake Kurt Vonnegut posits that there are two types of writers; those who splurge onto the page huge tracts of messy prose and then go back and revise it, and those who have to make sure a sentence is perfect before they go onto the next. I think he posited himself as the latter, which surprised me, and I think he also said that most people were the latter. I think I am the former when I’m good and the latter when I bleach myself out by trying to second guess what I’m writing. When I try to write rather than try to express…

Danny McNamara is not a musician in the way that… Nick Cave is a musician.

Mark Hollis formed Talk Talk as a punk band, because he couldn’t play and he didn’t think technical ability was important. Spirit Of Eden was recorded, made, constructed, by splurging hours of music, mostly improvised around themes, onto digital tape and then painstakingly going back over it and editing pieces together. A splurged record…? Embrace wrote most of This New Day by splurging, jamming around chord sequences together until they had songs, and then going back and tinkering, re-recording, adding, dubbing, rewriting.

I spent an hour and a half on the phone to James last night. I trust him. We talked about this.

Embrace didn’t play gigs until they thought the songs were totally ready. They spent two, three, four years rehearsing, writing, practicing in private. James hates The Good Will Out and hasn’t listened to it for pleasure since 1998, he claims. I might not have listened to it all the way through for pleasure since then either. I’ve listened to it all the way through since then out of a sense of duty and to test it and myself, see if my opinions have changed. We both love the songs, you see. Just not how they’re done.

Embrace were a rubbish band when they made The Good Will Out. They were a rubbish band because they’d only a played a couple of dozen gigs, at most, and they hadn’t learnt how to play together. What they did have was fucking amazing songs though. Absolutely extraordinary songs. I can’t think of another band who have emerged with as many strong songs as they did, no one who even comes close, not really. “Higher Sights”, man! “Retread”!

Think carefully about “All You Good Good People” for a moment – think about the structure, remember in your mind how it goes. That opening verse with the wandering melody, how it breaks into a huge chorus and then, instead of another verse, there’s that spectacular, unexpected orchestral break, trumpets and strings underlaid with guitar. Think about how that transforms into another verse that’s totally different melodically to the first, almost to the point of being a middle 8. Then that chorus again, massive and triumphant and sad and desperate all at the same time. And then there’s the build, the huge orgasm, the spectacular rise and rise and rise and spiral of instruments, of sound, that jaw-dropping moment. Live Richard then breaks into an extraordinary, psychedelic solo that changes at every gig, that they never caught on record. And then they finally breach the storm, emerge over tranquil oceans, that bassline like the sea but not the raging sea or a sea lapping gently at the shore – the huge, calm sea, miles out, still on the surface but with whales schooling underneath. The strings, guitar and piano swoop above this seascape like an aeroplane. I see it in my mind’s eye every time I listen to the song. I can see it now, just by thinking about it and describing it. Think about the journey that this song takes you on, all the places it visits. It’s an epic adventure, a quest. It changes you.

How fucking extraordinary is that?

“Higher Sights” is an amazing song with a great melody and high drama, likewise “Retread”, which is a phenomenally cathartic moment, stupendously powerful. “That’s All Changed Forever”, “My Weakness Is None Of Your Business”…

All amazing, dramatic, surging, sweeping songs that wrench your heart out. But they sound rubbish because the band had spent so long writing them that they never learnt how to play them, to perform them. Amateurs. It was charming, more than charming. It was unusual and bizarre. Live by the end of 1997 they were an awesome band, huge and rocking and noisy. They got better with every gig – had I seen them live in 1998 I’m sure they would have been awesome then too. And by 2000 they’d improved again. “Retread” at Blackpool Ballroom in May 2000 was extraordinary, as was “Hooligan” with the jazzy breaks, “One Big Family” with the dubscape. By 2004 “All You Good Good People” was a fucking world-ending behemoth, the spiralling climax so strung-out and powerful that you thought you’d explode. It’s not like that on record though. Not quite. It’s good on the album, Youth made them speed it up, lash on more guitar than the EP version, but it’s nowhere near as good as my memory of it live.

Embrace never had a Hamburg.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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