Saturday, January 3, 2009

Planet Claire

From the demon seed bred earth, fire, water and stars. From the great grey shard of shadow within a sleepless night, wrapped within a duvet in a borrowed bed the night-birds call; half-awake, half-asleep dreams morph one reality to another, of too many high-rise tenement blocks – teetering on the edge, looking down while wanting to look up yet step out; of uncelebrated days amidst the well of a blank despondency of hopelessness – unwittingly tripping over a shaft of light yet being brought crashing down onto a pavement of ice. I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy.

Making lists in my head; scratching around for pen and paper in the murky gloom then realising that’s as pointless an exercise as it gets since my glasses have dreamed their own dreams elsewhere.

Lists that are subjective and – within my own objectivity, lists that have to begin by looking back to beyond the summer of World Cup Willie; lists that recently began on a train-ride west of the Pecos, lists that… the more I think about it, I’ve been making since I began collecting records.

An assembly of lists that, at this moment in time, is serendipitous.

It is a few days before everyone went mad on the Festive High Street bringing short-term joy to a nation of shop-keepers, and the end of an intriguing day for Project X in central London – I’ve had two absolutely full-on pitches to make and both have elicited unexpected results. I’ve garnered not just serious support but absolutely top-end advice from one of the world’s leading specialists in new technology delivery platforms while the later meeting led to a new realism within the core of all that’s being planned.

My final west-of-central meeting was – yet wasn’t – Project X related; more a long overdue catch-up with the one remaining Island staff-member from way back when.

Her cluttered yet highly organised office overlooks a phalanx of free-form desks that groan inwardly with technology, each manned by staff that all appear busy doing… something or other; she is the hub of the production end of the corporation wherein all record releases are scheduled. A one-time lowly assistant to that most bearded of wonders, Phil Cooper, the doyen of Island’s International department; she’s now a director in her own right.

She’s also the only Island staff-member (and justifiably proud of the fact) to have worked on every single release that a once-upon-a-time small combo from Dublin have made. Needless to say, they’re currently driving her to distraction by being holed up at Olympic Studios – barely a stone’s throw away – and missing one after another after another delivery deadline for their latest progeny that’s got a working title of No Line On The Horizon.

There’s a five pm conference call scheduled with regard to all that they can’t seem to get finished so we have an hour or so to get down to brass tacks.

Armed with tea for her and somewhat weaker coffee than I’m generally used to we start the catch-up process; Rob’s funeral is high on the agenda as is her recent visit to the Arctic Circle to witness the Northern Lights – oh, how I wish; then the trials, tribulations and sky-scraping highs of working with that Irish 4-piece are detailed, before I outline Project X – the elevator pitch (more support) before we head off at the turning marked Island 50.

Although there’s no need to officially bring me up to speed on any of this – in that my only involvement is the link between Project X and the whole initiative, we talk about the planned book, the forthcoming exhibition that I’d have loved to have worked upon, the series of shows for the late spring – who might do what and where or not as the case may well be – as well as the seemingly ever-changing but now more or less set in stone list of Island’s 50 seminal records.

How some were included and others were not is beyond me but… there you go. Try these for size then… The Feeling’s 2006 release 12 Stops & Home outweighs (say) the first Roxy Music magnum-opus..? That’s like saying Hercule Poirot couldn’t solve a crime. Is Riptide Robert Palmer’s finest Island album… errr, no. Has Eric B and Rakim’s Paid In Full been more influential than King Crimson’s In The Court Of… album… impossible. And… including three Bob Marley albums… clearly each a classic in its own right but… that means two other epoch-shaping recordings don’t make the final cut either.

We debate this for quite a while and find we’re in agreement. This is about marketing, the selling of a brand. Thus, it has to be public-friendly. Cover all the bases. A bit like how the sleeve to Bob Marley’s Legend album was conceived… it had to be a smiling, semi-pensive Bob and non-threatening – equals easy on the dreadlocks, heavily airbrushed and re-touched. And, of course, it sold in the zillions which equals – marketing people probably go it right. So, maybe The Feeling have every right to be on the list despite the fact that they may very probably cite Roxy Music as an early influence.

We’re also going to be doing a series of compilations…

Oh… really…? I’d heard a whisper about that in September. Seems to have a certain logic behind it. We talk then of my recent meeting with CB and of his and my rambling conversation concerning Bumpers, one of the utterly essential compilations of that time. Who’s putting them all together..? I assume that there’s going to be a reggae one, so I imagine Trevor (Wyatt) will be doing that?

Actually, I’ve drawn the short straw and Trevor initially passed on the reggae one but has now said he’ll do it with Don Letts. But, quite honestly I don’t have the time or… really… the inclination. And I was wondering… would you be interested..? I realise that doing what you’re doing with Project X would take up most of your time but… you know the entire catalogue, you were there from way before I was and… you’ve probably got stuff that we don’t even have in the archive… and… we’d pay you too.

I’m a bit taken aback by this.

It’s not quite what I’d imagined when I arrived this afternoon. Are you sure..?

Of course, you’d be ideal. If you want, you can come in for a few days – I’ll find you a desk – and work from here, however long you need really. Because, you’ll need to do all the sleeve notes too.

OK… I catch myself smiling. Actually, I have to say… it’s quite a privilege being asked and I’d love to.

And so now, its days later… and I’m back in a distant past with Ken Evans, an Australian friend of my father’s who – tho’ I didn’t realise it at the time – was the first person to really turn me on to music. A small, dapper, man – how Ken and my Dad even met I’ve no knowledge since their world’s were far from close; the former being Head of Programming at Radio Luxembourg while my Pa, at the time, ran the London office of the Sheffield cutlery company, Viners.

Ken first started to appear at our Hampshire home when I’d have been about twelve; The Beatles had kicked in while the nascent rebel in me preferred the Stones, Top Of The Pops was a weekly black and white ritual, Ready Steady Go had just begun and Ken began bringing down armfuls of seven inch singles for me to play on the family’s rich-red Dansette record player. The only other records around at the time were a couple of long-players by The Inkspots and one that my Mum liked by a singer called Deanna Durben. Neither of which floated my pubescent boat.

Although I didn’t know it then, Ken was awash with some really serious vinyl – these visits of his were my first sightings of James Brown, early Motown, early Stax singles, obscure British groups like Rupert’s People; the Hi-Numbers before they became the Who and Jeff Beck’s Tallyman which was coupled with the now perennial embarrassing relatives wave their hands in the air at a wedding epic, Hi Ho Silver Lining.

All great stuff but I’d not really got any reference points back then. Thus, it was more luck… or… just maybe it was Ken thinking… I reckon this, that and the next thing are great… maybe Neil will enjoy that too.

And, in amongst all of this and a whole heap more, a record on the Sue label called Shotgun Wedding by Roy C.

Who or what Roy C was or is or maybe used to be, I know not. I didn’t even know what a Shotgun Wedding was at that time either. But… the list that I was compiling in my head during this latest in my round of sleepless suitcase-nights began with that record. I think that particular compilation ended with Keane’s The Iron Sea but what was in-between, is now blurred and out of focus.

Why begin with that record..? Because, it’s the first Island record I ever owned – and, for my money, that makes it a decent enough starting point.

But, it’s led me to thinking about how to compile these compilations – anyone who’d ever do something like this would do it on a personal preference basis. Wouldn’t they?

It’s like compiling an i-Pod full of delicacies, designed to turn someone on to music that you like that you think they, too, will like. It’s a bit like DJ’ing for someone, a concept that I actually learned from La Faithful.

Back in the early nineties she’d released album F – I forget which one – and undertook to do a whole series of interviews where she then lived – the Shell Cottage on the Carton Estate some miles west of Dublin.

Having arranged all of the interviews, my role for the week was to collect journalist Y and snapper Z from the airport and deliver them into the presence whereupon we’d all have a leisurely lunch, she’d roll a fairly sizeable spliff and then start conversing with the writer.

Snapper and I’d make ourselves scarce for the allotted time – generally by walking round the vast lake at the bottom of her garden, feeding the ducks, swans and sundry other waterfowl as well as quite often collecting a stash of watercress that grew wild along the way.

She’d then have her picture taken before I’d take the two back for their early evening flight. Then, back again to the Shell Cottage, more food and wine after which we’d laze about on the lawn overlooking the lake talking and… playing music quite often very late into the night.

One thing would mutate into another, one song or other would spark a train of thought… this should come next… and usually did. One magical moment springs back into sharp focus – Traffic’s Dear Mr Fantasy played at uber-volume out across the lake as the sun finally set… spine-tingling.

The end result, when I appeared bleary-eyed from the spare room the next again morning being that there were cd’s scattered all over the floor, their cases often a distance away – a case of tidy up before heading off to the airport to repeat the performance all over again.

Tony the Greek was a fore-runner of the concept; arriving at whatever hour at his Madchester lair, he'd always have a nugget or three to play - the first time I copped an earful of Peter Gabriel's Biko being just one example, he had an early white-label version of that which, to this day, I'd still hold up above the one that was eventually released.

That sort of scenario really took off, though, when I moved to France whereby, I’d cook and provide the wine, my friends would bowl up and have the run of the record collection. Some of my most treasured evenings and nights have been spent like that; sound ricocheting off into the starlit sky on balmy summer evenings just as much as music would warm a room of winter’s chill every bit as well as a well-stocked wood-burner ever did.

Music when complied should therefore… tantalise.

So… what else should go in there?

How does one choose… mix and match… or… go random commando?

Instinct says the latter – to my ears Augustus Pablo’s melodia-driven outsized sonic-dub-experience of King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown would fit perfectly in with John Cale’s Mr Wilson – same goes for Spooky Tooth’s pre-grunge I Am The Walrus cuddling up alongside Jim Capaldi’s Love Hurts… and how about Jess Roden’s sublime reading of The Quiet Sound of You And I from his near-enough forgotten The Player Not The Game album with Wally Badarou’s beautiful sequencer-driven theme from the film Countryman. Sparks’ Amateur Hour – in which 'girls grow tops to go topless in' – next to 12 year old Junior Tucker’s original single of Some Guys Have All The Luck that Robert Palmer later covered and had all the luck with. As I type, I can hear these in my head… and… they’ll work.

I’ve got five albums worth to do… which, I’d imagine is going to be about fifteen tracks per disc… that’s seventy-five songs or pieces of music in all… from fifty years worth of releases.

The strategy, currently, is one track per artist.

And, almost without trying and mainly from the top of my head, I’ve cobbled together seventy-five artists. And many have already got song-titles against their names. Maybe not their best known or most loved work… certainly many that were not big hit records.

But, all of them have a special something… they’re all shot through with that little bit of fairy dust, musical magic. Which is why – to me – they’re a crucial part of the Island legacy.

Seventy-five absolutely essential acts from the last fifty years.

And, in the last ten minutes, I wrote down a further twenty.

I wonder… I just wonder… if they’ll allow me to make this ten as opposed to five compilations… otherwise the casualties could be serious indeed.

*** update... Four hours after completing this, I've reached a total of 210 acts and / or artists who've released albums on Island... I don't have any of my catalogues with me and I've barely sniffed at the singles bar.


Drew said...

What a project, Neil.

You really don't know how pleased I am for you, reading this.


Anonymous said...

You lucky bxxxxxd... wow...

But, it isn't what you collate and pull together - it'll be what you'll have to leave off... This should be an ongoing series.

Good luck. And I wanna read more, loads more on this.

Sounds (reads) like some heavy shit going on in your life too. Maybe this'll take your mind off that.

But, still, what a way to start a New Year!