RIP Wombleton Records

20160810larecordstores09wombleton

via the LA Weekly

In planning my trip out to Los Angeles for EmoGeo (the Emotional Geographies Conference) next month, I stumbled upon some sad news. Wombleton Records, one of the three shops upon which I focused my chapter in The Production and Consumption of Music in the Digital Age (2015; B. Hracs, M. Seman, T. Virani, eds), closed its doors this past February. I somehow missed this news when it first came out in February; their normally fantastic newsletters stopped arriving and I guess I didn’t notice because I haven’t lived in California for a while now.

I’m mostly disappointed on behalf of anyone who stumbles upon my chapter in that book, gets excited to visit the store, looks it up, and realizes they’ll never get to. I hold no grudges over one of my case studies disappearing; it only emphasizes how transient these types of places are and how difficult it is to stay solvent in the modern urban economic landscape. It mainly sucks because it was such a cool little shop; the owners Ian and Jade emphasized design and atmosphere and curated their vinyl collection beautifully. I couldn’t even count the number of UK and European titles I found there that I would be highly unlikely to find anywhere else in the United States. I was already getting excited to flip through their 7″ section in the back trying to find any rogue single by the likes of Blur, Supergrass, or Manic Street Preachers.

At least LA (even the Highland Park area) isn’t particularly starving for good record shops these days. Wombleton was a clear labor of vinyl love, and the LA Weekly published a great retrospective on the storefront’s 7-year history the week it shut down. Best of luck to everybody who was involved!

Have a great weekend, everyone. More info about my California trip soon, as well as (while on the subject of Blur, ‘Grass, Manics, et al) a lengthy diatribe about the value of Britpop in Geography. Also, why Blur are categorically better than Oasis.

A Moment for Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield

One of the (dis)advantages of focusing my music research in a juggernaut of a tourist trap city like Washington, DC has been watching post-punk music seep through the cracks in the collective imaginary of place. DC (like Paris, my other city of focus) doesn’t need to lean on music to attract visitors, so on the rare instances when it includes music in the conversation, it’s noteworthy.

I was thinking about this today as I started hacking away at the summer writing process when this CityLab article came through on my twitter feed. Few (if any) post-punk bands have encapsulated “Sheffield” better than Pulp, not only because Jarvis Cocker started the band in 1978 during the “big bang” of the post-punk era in the UK. Geographers like Philip Long (2014) have placed Cocker’s music front-and-center in discussions about collective identity of that city, and now the city’s transit authority are literally inscribing his voice into their urban infrastructure. They are inserting Jarvis into the quotidian machinations of Sheffield, regardless of whether those riding the tram are his fans.

This whole thing seems like both 1) a city retroactively owning one of her most talented and influential sons as well as 2) a statement about the value of the music that would eventually evolve into the easily collectivized and nationally homogenized Britpop of the 90’s (which would catapult Pulp into international fame). This genre and scene were a bit slower to gain officially-sanctioned civic immortality than the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Long mentions that the Sheffield Public Library has published a walking tour about Def Leppard; also pretty cool), but two decades isn’t really that brutal of a lag. It doesn’t seem like Jarvis was ever in it for the transit voice-over career.

At any rate, these are the little things that earn a quality mention in the dissertation.

Liner Notes:
Long, Philip. “Popular Music, Psychogeography, Place Identity and Tourism: The Case of Sheffield.” Tourist Studies 14.1 (2014): 48-65.

Places mentioned in Pulp Songs Wiki that I just found  whilegoogling “Stanhope Rd”:
http://www.pulpwiki.net/Pulp/Places

During some last-minute fact-checking, I discovered that Jarvis’ estranged father Mac Cocker, a radio DJ in Australia for the past 3 decades, passed away on Friday.

Music Geography 101: The Jam – “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

I briefly considered using Suede’s beautiful album-and-show-capper “Saturday Night” here, but quickly withdrew it when I remembered I was packaging it with its video. Irresponsible of me, yes, but the video is a pretty wonderful tribute to the Tube, if you have a few minutes and want to feel nostalgia for British big city life. I needed a song that presented the intangible fears and fantasties that came with a modest subway ride. Time to rewind the clock before gentrification had made the world’s most expensive cities properly “safe:” the late 1970s.

One of punk’s greatest accomplishments was divorcing young British musicians from any obligation to sound or act American. The Beatles and Rolling Stones made careers (and to varying degrees, still do) by synthesizing American rock n’ roll standards. I would never deny that The Clash could have happened without The Ramones, but as the Thatcher era approached, a new generation of musicians found it possible to turn inward for cultural fuel. A petulent teenager named Paul Weller rejoiced in this zeitgeist. Weller didn’t seem too intent on satisfying audiences who weren’t directly in front of him (whether he suffered those who WERE was up for debate, too). The Jam resurrected the 60’s mod culture, and despite an avowed Motown influence, quickly developed into one of the most quintessentially ‘British’ bands of all time, whether or not that was their intent. Few of their photos didn’t feature a Union Jack or some other subversive type of English iconography.

Years before Jarvis Cocker perfected the kitchen-sink audio drama with Pulp (who technically began playing in 1978, only two years after the Jam did), Paul Weller was presenting unhappily-ending tales of quotidian Britishness. In one of my favorite songs of theirs, men working in a factory and a cornershop harbor secret grass-is-greener ambitions to be in the other’s place, though both of their times have passed. In “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” Weller articulates the all-too-present paranoia over street crime in that country, focused in the London Underground. The beauty of it is, you don’t need to be English, you don’t need to have been mugged in a train station, or even need to have a family to sympathize and strangely identify with this character. He doesn’t find a happy ending and we don’t get a resolution to the story. London doesn’t freely provide closure to those who expect it, so why should songs have about her have to?

Lyrics (from Google Play)

The distant echo –
of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
the ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps – repeat my own and reflect my thoughts
Cold and uninviting, partially naked
Except for toffee wrapers and this morning’s papers
Mr. Jones got run down
Headlines of death and sorrow – they tell of tomorrow
Madmen on the rampage
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I fumble for change – and pull out the Queen
Smiling, beguiling
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Behind me
Whispers in the shadows – gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
“Hey boy” they shout “have you got any money?”
And I said “I’ve a little money and a take away curry,
I’m on my way home to my wife.
She’ll be lining up the cutlery,
You know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather
It filled my eyes, ears, nose and mouth
It blocked all my senses
Couldn’t see, hear, speak any longer
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
I said I was down in the tube station at midnight

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read “Have an Awayday – a cheap holiday –
Do it today!”
I glanced back on my life
And thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys – and she’ll think it’s me
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold
I’m down in the tube station at midnight
Don’t want to go down in a tube station at midnight

Musical Geography 101: Blur – “This is a Low”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

… but it won’t hurt you. Those of you who know me know I cherish any opportunity to talk about Blur, one of my favourite [sic] bands and perhaps the best British guitar-pop singles group since the Kinks (or at least the Jam, who you’ll be reading about shortly). Of course, most Americans know Blur for “Song 2,” a ready-made anthem for sports arenas which began as a gentle jab at the Pixies and what the band viewed as simplistic American indie rock (though they undoubtedly love the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other quintessentially American bands they synthesized into their revitalized sound after the cocaine-drenched yet still wonderful 1995 album The Great Escape). Many Americans, particularly those tuned into MTV in 1994 while Britpop was thriving overseas, remember Blur’s magnum opus, Parklife. While the group themselves were hardly in awe of English culture, they did abscond and treat it not unlike Al Bundy treated Peg. It was a pain in their arse, but it was still what raised them and privileged them to be the most enduring, eclectic rock stars of that era. Sure, other bands sold more records (Oasis), broke more hearts (Pulp), and even seemed fairly adjusted and consistent (Supergrass), but none of those bands had the dueling secret weapons of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. The former has since established himself as his generation’s David Byrne through countless prolific musical collaborations and, oh yeah, another Glastonbury-headlining band he founded that included 1/2 of The Clash for a bit. The latter has spent the last two decades stretching the electric guitar to the absolute boundaries of what could still be considered pop music. Also, for those of you interested in drug policy and international relations, their bassist Alex James hosted a BBC documentary about the cocaine trade and has settled into a quiet, normal life collecting expensive instruments and making artisan cheeses. You can’t make this stuff up. If I told you their drummer has gotten heavily involved in the Labour Party and twice run for public office, you wouldn’t believe me, BUT HE ABSOLUTELY DID. For all the right reasons, Blur’s legacy has painted much of what the world conceives as “Britishness.”

Anyway, when the members of Blur were in their star-shaped mid-twenties, a lot of Albarn’s lyrics happened to include references to English landmarks (e.g. the white cliffs in “Clover Over Dover”), but “This is a Low,” supposedly inspired by a British shipping newsletter, closes out the record with a veritable catalog of places which dot the English cartographic landscape. Much like the 1997 track “Look Inside America,” “This is a Low” pulls back, floats high in the sky, surveys everything it can see, and decides, with a slight smile… “yeah, it’s alright.” From what I understand, Albarn had hit some writer’s block when James gave him a handkerchief that detailed British shipping centers as a gag gift. It may seem a cliché, but inspiration can come from the most surprising places.

Lyrics (from AtoZlyrics.com)

And into the sea goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea
Hit traffic on the dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go asleep
And the radio says

[Chorus]
THIS IS A LOW
BUT IT WON’T HURT YOU
WHEN YOU ARE ALONE IT WILL BE THERE WITH YOU
FINDING WAYS TO STAY SOLO

On the Tyne forth and Cramity
There’s a low in the high forties
And Saturday’s locked away on the pier
Not fast enough dear
On the Malin head, Blackpool looks blue and red
And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend
Jumped off Land’s End
And the radio says

[Chorus x 3]

Alex James on Music (or, why it doesn’t hurt to judge people based on their avocations)

Quote

   The earliest tonal instruments were made from reindeer toe bones. They’re closer to a whistle than a flute to look at, but they are technically flutes because you blow across the hole, rather than down it… It didn’t look like much, I must be honest. It didn’t sound great either but those crusty little bones were where it all started. A primitive musical instrument made by a primitive scientist.
Twenty thousand years later, anyone sitting down at a piano is sitting on top of a huge mountain of accumulated knowledge. When you hold even the cheapest guitar, you’re wielding a very sophisticated tool. The twelve-tone scale is a triumph of scientific understanding. It’s such a perfect structure that it’s rarely questioned or even understood by the people who use it. All musicians know how to tune up their instruments, but very few have any idea what they are actually doing as they tune. Musicians rarely have any more of an inkling of what music is than an electrician knows what electricity is.
All the really tricky business of the evolution of music has taken place, and it’s not important to know everything. It’s just important to know what sounds good. All anyone needs is one little idea. It can even be someone else’s idea. All you’ve got to be able to do is pick the good ones. There are no rules that can’t be broken in music-making. Confidence is all-important. Things that are completely wrong can sound new and interesting if they are done with conviction.

via the artist’s twitter

– Alex James, pp. 158-9 in his autobiography bit of a blur (London: Abacus, 2008). I’ve always been interested in the non-musical passions of musicians, and James is perhaps one of the prime examples of proof that a truly brilliant brain cannot be shut down by mountains of cocaine, booze, and women. Over the course of his towering rock stardom, he became a Visiting Scientist at one of England’s top research facilities, a recreational pilot (following drummer Dave Rowntree down that path and terrifying Damon Albarn in the process), documentary (about cocaine) host, and a devoted maker of fine cheeses. And somehow (probably by not being English), I missed out on this football anthem he ground out in 1998 with comedian Keith Allen (Lily’s dad) and everything-person Damien Hirst. Also, I just did some light googling to find that image, and I discovered via his twitter that he and Jamie Oliver are throwing a three-day food festival at his farm in the Cotswolds. Bizarre.

via the anti-emo empire

It’s no coincidence that the rock stars that history remembers the most kindly are the ones who were never content to be doing solely what their “role” in the public eye commanded. I recently went internet-rolling on the late Dead Milkmen bassist Dave “Blood” Schulthise as this past March 10 was the tenth anniversary of his suicide and my friends/colleagues Scott, Jose and I had a rare opportunity to catch The Dead Milkmen right after the AAG Conference in Tampa. Some say he was the band’s controlling force and secret weapon. I wouldn’t disagree, but either way he was definitely one hell of a bass player. The Dead Milkmen were (and still are) some of the finest satirists of the past three decades, and the more I read about Dave Blood, the more I understand how his way of looking at the world influenced their art. If you have a few minutes, check out this wonderful interview that Mark Prindle did with Blood the year before he died. He finally had the opportunity to explain the deep love he developed for Serbia relatively late in his life, and how it gave his life new meaning after the Dead Milkmen broke up, he had to stop playing, and he no longer had music.

These are the things I think about while I should be focusing on getting all my end-of-semester work off of my plate. That being said, I do apologize for the recent lack of updates. I’ll be back soon to talk about some projects I have coming up for the summer. It’s going to be a busy one.

“The Lowest of the Low” Thoughts on ‘Trainspotting’ and Scottishness

fanpop.com

I’m currently working with a class on the Geography of Europe, focusing primarily on the self-proclaimed continent since 1945, the year author Ian Baruma famously touted as ‘Year Zero‘ in that part of the globe. Interesting enough, the United Kingdom, having been one of the decisive victors in WWII, have shied away from any real leadership role (at least, within Europe) since then. The Brits have always had a knack for getting in spats (on whatever scale) with their neighbors, often overshadowing Great Britain’s internal spats. In 2005, I had a conversation with my Londoner friend Dominic about what social and political life over there was like, as I had yet to visit.

“The Scottish don’t particularly like us,” he said, “but we really just don’t care.”

Considering how I had only lived, at this point in my life, well above the Mason-Dixon line, I likened this to a strange Antebellum-philia many American Southerners (and elsewhere, in whatever cases) feel, coupled with antagonism toward the North and allegedly analogous federal government. Of course, to compare the American Civil War with a Millennium of shifting feudal allegiances and stirring political stew in Northern Europe would be disingenuous. I would be interested in seeing the existing parallels drawn out, though.

At any rate, our work in the European Geography course inspired me to revisit one of my favorite movies of all time “Trainspotting.” For the uninitiated, WATCH IT. (Sorry… let me try this again:) For the uninitiated, it’s a screen adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel about a pack of junkies and their sociopathic mates trying to maintain in late-1980s Edinburgh. The dialogue is fantastic, Danny Boyle’s inventive film-making never fails to impress, and we get to see Ewan MacGregor (whose career it kick-started) deliver one of the most iconic speeches on the grim realities of Scottishness that the sunny 80’s pop of Altered Images and Orange Juice did not dig up. (NSFW)

It also has one of my favorite endings, replete with gritty morals about drug use. I am not going to include too many spoilers here, but for your own good, if you have not seen it yet, do NOT watch it while eating.

Here’s the part about music as conduit of “scottishness.” While ‘Trainspotting’ may be one of the great European films of the 1990’s due to excellent acting, writing, and directing, what really set this film apart culturally was the soundtrack. Madchester and Britpop had already leaked across the Atlantic by the time of the Soundtrack’s release (most presciently, randomly enough, in the forms of EMF’s song “Unbelievable” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” respectively), but this soundtrack was what crystallized the aesthetic that had developed over British popular music over the previous twenty years. It even included a couple of 70’s gems by American artists that nonetheless fit into the film perfectly (the scene where Renton overdoses to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” gets more harrowing upon every viewing). 

I wish I had more time to write and research about this, but for now, the album (which user ‘Hayley Mills’ has uploaded) should make a great soundtrack for this Monday afternoon. In case anybody is wondering, New Order’s “Temptation” remains my favorite song used in the film, though there are so many classics here.

Tune in later this week for a massive post about Eastern Tennessee and Country Music with special guest Shane Rhyne.