Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Move...

Roy Wood (of The Move)
Mojo Awards, June '07

tomorrow, North Fork Sound starts moving into its new space. Normal, regular service will resume mid-late June, hopefully.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Mondays

Shaun Ryder, Kim Deal, Bez, Nathan McGough
23rd St, NYC

Tony Wilson was sitting in my office, trying to explain this new 'casual' culture that was all the rage in the UK. According to him, working-class, predominately male yoof would kit up in expensive designer garb, trip out on ecstasy and wave 3 ft. inflatable bananas at the opposition while watching the football at Maine Road. (I didn't get the last bit either...why anyone would want to watch Manchester City was beyond me). Naturally, he had the 'soundtrack' to these activities and he tossed me a DAT of the latest album by his "favourite band". I looked at the label and groaned, "but Tony, we went through this last year with 'Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)". Well, now he had the second Happy Mondays album and a video to show me. We adjourned to the conference room, as my office was practically - and proudly - the only office at Elektra without a tv in it (I hated videos) and I shoved the videocassette into the player. The music starts and Tony’s already dancing in his chair. His enthusiasm is front and center. On the screen was some single-camera footage of some anonymous people dancing at Manchester’s International nightclub, high as kites, one of whom was (sort of) mouthing the words to a song called 'Wrote For Luck', an infectious dollop of funky rock featuring a gloriously lout-of-tune singer. Tony was eager to explain said chap in the hoodie (known as “X” or Shaun Ryder to the authorities) was "on a trip" and furthermore, with a little help from his friends, was able to finance the band by supplying the North of England and Scotland with ecstasy, bought in Ibiza from funds gained by fencing stolen stereos in Amsterdam! Great. By the end of the song, I’m hooked, but it’s clear it was gonna be tough trying to convince the Kras they would make a good signing. Tony says "play it again", so I rewind and, as it gets to the bit where Shaun’s eyes seem to roll back into his head, the door opens and Elektra boss Bob Krasow walks in, says “hi Tony”, looks at the screen for about 20 seconds - then at me - and says, “talk to Gary, make it happen”, meaning Gary Casson, head of Business Affairs. Bob and Tony talk awhile, and then Bob asks Tony the name of the band and takes his leave. Tony and I look at each other and burst out laughing. So simple!

The Mondays were beginning to make some noise in the UK, so Peter Lubin (a colleague in the A&R Dept.) and I flew to London for their show at at U.L.U. (cap: 800). 'Bummed' had just been released (1989) and reviews had been good. The show was sold out and there was a palpable vibe that the band was on the verge of taking off. Prior to show-time, we hooked up with Tony backstage and he introduced us to the band's manager, Nathan McGough. (Nathan's step-dad used to be in The Scaffold and is esteemed 'Liverpool Poet', Roger McGough, CBE
). As we finished shaking his hand, he said, “Here, have some of this…mandatory!” thrusting paper wrap of damp, chunky, pinkish powder in our direction. Pete and I looked at each other and collectively thought "uh-oh, here we go." Both of us were Ecstasy virgins but supposed if we had to do some, the Mondays might as well supply the soundtrack. Four snorts later, we made our way up to the balcony where we could get a good look at the show and watch the audience reaction. Needless to say, about halfway through, everything seemed quite nice and even the crowd, which consisted mainly of scruffy, wispy-bearded students wearing brown corduroy flares and navy duffle-coats - and those were the girls har har - didn’t seem quite so naff as it had earlier. By the end, the place was grooving mightily, and so were we. The show was a big success and afterwards, we went back to pay our respects and finally meet the band. There, we ran into a sweaty, bug-eyed Bez (who was only interested in keeping the party going) and a beaming Wilson who told us meeting Shaun wouldn’t be possible right now as he was "tripping with Pink Floyd on the headphones and can't be disturbed. Shall we go dancing?" Pete & I (along with Tony, his lovely new g/f and former Miss UK, Yvette Livesey and Bez piled into Tony’s BMW cranked the music and ended up at 'Sin', in the Astoria on Charing Cross Rd. Tony rolled joints on the bar, Bez did his loping, goggle-eyed Bez-dance for the next two hours and Pete and I floated about the place, drinking JD and trying to get to grips with House Music which - at the time - did not seem remotely repetitive or boring.

'Bummed' was going to be released in the US in a few weeks, so it was time to fly Shaun and Bez in to do some press. Flights and hotels were arranged and just as their plane was halfway across the Atlantic, I got a call from Nathan, who said that they’d need “an ounce of draw, 8 hits of ‘E’ and a couple of grams at the hotel” or he couldn’t guarantee their complete co-operation. Considering they were only going to be at the Berkshire Place Hotel for 2 nights, I thought this was somewhat excessive but Nathan insisted it was “necessary” and he “wasn’t joking”. Ok, so it was just a stroll down the corridor to the ‘artist relations’ department where the drugs cupboard was….kidding. This was far too tall an order to find in-house, so the rest of the day was spent hustling a number of dodgy contacts around town so our guests could feel at home. I managed to come up with half an ounce of weed, 6 tabs of ‘e’ and a couple of grams of coke, which I paid for myself, and had it biked over to the hotel. The plan was to hook up after work and when I met them in their room around 7pm, I was astonished to discover they’d polished off most of the grass and all the ‘e’ and coke. They'd only been there about 3 hours. I suggested we start the evening at Downtown Beirut, a dive in the East Village, and play the rest of the night by ear. That seemed agreeable and soon we were drinking screwdrivers and playing the jukebox. Unfortunately, due to the pair’s thick-as-syrup Mancunian accents and the fact that they seemed to talk in some weird, home-made slang I’d never heard before, much of my evening was spent trying to figure out what, exactly, it was they were talking about. We talked about music, Manchester, their home-lives, petty crime, Italian clothes designers and god knows what else for about 3 hours, at which point I suggested we change venues for a nightcap and some sightseeing. We piled into a taxi and ended up around the corner from my apartment at (the late, lamented) Billy’s Topless on 6th Ave at 24th St, another dive with cheap drinks, free ‘catering’ (remnants of a 6 foot sandwich, or pasta from lunchtime) and the least energetic dancers in the city. Dancers might be the wrong term. Most lay on their backs with their legs in the air trying to suck dollars from the punters sat at the edge of the stage. We'd switched to Jack Daniels and even more slurred, unintelligible conversation ensued at the bar until about 1am, when I thought it best to call it a night. Shaun and Bez wanted to stay, so I wrote the address of their hotel on a napkin and suggested they took a cab back soon, as their first interview was scheduled for 10.30am. They 'borrowed' cab fare ("no dollars, H"), and I taxi’d the 2 blocks home.

The following day at around noon, I got a frantic call from (head of publicity) Sherry Ring’s office asking if I knew where the Mondays were because they hadn’t shown up yet and no one was answering the phone in their hotel room. I said I'd not seen them. At 2.30pm, Shaun and Bez eventually ambled into my office and told me they’d met a recently discharged Marine at Billy’s and, with his money, had bought 6 grams of coke, rented a couple of hookers and taken him back to the hotel for a party. Of course, they hadn’t been to sleep yet and were now beginning to feel “a bit jet-lagged”! Of course, most of the journalists scheduled to interview them had left, and those that hadn’t couldn’t get much in the way of anything comprehensible from our dynamic duo. Even the press department asked if I could 'translate', because they couldn’t understand a word they were saying, either. In the end, I think a journalist from CMJ managed to cobble a short column together and that was about it.

When the band came over to tour with The Pixies in ‘89, at Long Island's Malibu Club, I gave Shaun a metal sign I’d found in a warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky while visiting The Shaking Family, a band from there. On a yellow background in black lettering, the message read: “You are positively forbidden to work with acid without goggles”.

For ‘Rubaiyat’ (Elektra’s 40th anniversary project) Bob Krasnow, wanted our current artist roster to cover the songs that made the label famous. (A couple of examples: The Gipsy Kings did a pretty funny, phonetic version of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, John Zorn did a manic take on The Stooges ‘TV Eye’ and The Cure did 2 versions of The Doors' 'Hello I Love You', (A short, mid-tempo take was used instead of an infinitely better long, slow, psychedelic reading). I called Tony to invite the Mondays to be part of the project and he agreed. The band had just broken in the UK with their ‘Madchester Rave On’ EP and the lead cut ‘Hallelujah’ had scraped into the top 20. Tony suggested I speak to Nathan McGough to get it sorted. Elektra had released 'He's Gonna Step On You Again' by John Kongos in America in the early 70s and, it being a favourite single of mine, I really wanted someone to cover the song. So I threw some tunes and another Kongos UK hit, 'Tokoloshe Man', on a cassette and sent it to Nathan. A week or so later, he called to say the band are going with 'He’s Gonna...etc.' and Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne were lined up to produce it, along with the new album. Once recorded, it didn’t take a genius to realize (the now re-titled) 'Step On' had ‘smash’ written all over it and it wasn’t long before Wilson called to say, “Sorry, H, we’re keeping the song for the album and a single over here. How about we give you something else instead?” A feeble version of Tokoloshe Man was quickly recorded and stuck on ‘Rubaiyat’, only to be ignored by everyone. Factory Records scheduled 'Step On' as the first single from 'Pills ‘n’ Thrills & Bellyaches' and it ended up reaching # 5 in the UK, their biggest single ever. Shows at Wembley Arena and Manchester’s G-Mex Center were certified thrillers and, for the briefest of moments, it looked like there was actually going to be no stopping them. Both 'Step On' and 'Kinky Afro' became huge hits on CMJ’s Alternative and Billboard’s Modern Rock charts when we released the album in America.

Here's the first couple of paras from The Face (Jan 1990):
After a year of underground success, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays crowd into a Top Of The Pops dressing room to celebrate their entry into the national charts. With Britain at their feet, the world will surely follow, and if you're looking for the sound of the nineties, these are the Mancunian candidates.
"Last night his bed caught fire 'cos o' smoking that. There were flames comin' up from 'is pillow. He didn't know owt about it tho'. He were fookin' comatose!"

The Happy Mondays' infamous dancer, Bez, whose bed it was, holds aloft a pellet-sized lump of hashish the colour of wan excrement towards the gaze of the Stone Roses' drummer, Remi (sic), then flashes him a good conspiratorial 'mad' look before stating, without any intended irony: "Aye, when your bed's on fire, you know you're dealin' with top fookin' draw!"

In April ’91 the Mondays were invited to open for Jane’s Addiction at Madison Square Garden. This was to be their biggest gig in the US but they got to the venue 20 minutes after they were due onstage because some of the band had gone uptown looking to buy drugs. They were allowed to play for 25 minutes and were just warming up when they were forced leave the stage. Try explaining that to all the gathered Elektra department heads, some seeing the band for the first time. Backstage was never so frazzled.

The following year, Factory booked the band into Eddy Grant’s studio in Barbados to record the follow-up to Pills etc. Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads were in the production seat(s). Periodically, I’d call Nathan to see how things were going, angling for an invite out to the island. Usually, he’d say things were proceeding nicely, but after they’d been in Barbados for nearly 3 months and we hadn't heard anything, I thought it was time to pay a visit. Upon arriving at the studio, I ran into Bez who had his right arm in a sling. He told me he was leaving for the UK the following day to get some 'proper' treatment. I asked what had happened and he told me that, in crashing and rolling his jeep early in their visit, he’d broken his arm. Good thing he's the dancer, not the drummer, right? What I found out later was four weeks after the initial break, he’d gone jet-ski-ing against doctor’s orders and broken it again. (Later, we learned that Bez’s arm, at that point, was gangrenous and extensive surgery was required. He ended up with a four-pronged, external metal brace bolted into his arm to hold the bone together.)

(photo courtesy Stinking Thinking CD single, photographer not listed)

Chris and Tina brought me into the studio, where I was expecting to hear some mixes. They told me that all the tracks were done but they were waiting for Shaun to finish the lyrics and do his vocals. They said they'd got a couple of vocals down but they wouldn't play them. "Not good enough...unfinished". Unfortunately, he’d gotten deeply into smoking crack and was, essentially, dysfunctional. His couldn’t write and his voice was shot. Furthermore, I was told he’d been selling furniture from the studio and was now nickin' items and food from the studio's kitchen to fund his habit. The band’s parts were done and they were fed up with waiting around for him to get it together. Chris & Tina played me four or five instrumental tracks which sounded pretty good, though not quite what I was expecting, and suggested I spend some time with Shaun so I could see for myself the extent of the problem. The vibe at dinner was fragile. The band mainly kept to themselves and Shaun, who'd been sleeping all day, didn’t even show up. Bez was preoccupied with packing, so I got to know Chris and Tina a little. I told them we’d met briefly before in Lyons, France when the Talking Heads' were on tour with The Ramones and Eddie And The Hot Rods. (That particular occasion was marked for me by the Hot Rods’ guitarist, Dave Higgs, getting turned in by the hotel's concierge to the local gendarmes for removing a hotel door and only a hefty payoff by Meaty, their tour manager saved him from a stint in jail. Plus, the Hot Rods told me the Ramones weren't interested in partying and were in bed by ten). Shaun finally surfaced and he and I made plans to drive into Bridgetown, the island's capital, and shop for some reggae. Shaun's been over to my place, with Bez, a couple of times. He's always thoroughly good value and a fun hang with a sharp northern wit. So I was looking forward to our expedition and the following day, I picked him up at noon and we set off, with him navigating. About 10 minutes in, he said "Make a right, H...we need to stop in here, get some smoke for the drive. You want some smoke for the drive, don’t ya?" pointing to a dirt track in a field that would eventually lead to a dilapidated wooden, two-room shack inhabited by a couple of Rastafarians. I got introduced, and we made a deal for $20 worth of the sweet weed. Now, these guys were Shaun’s buddies (so to speak) so we had to stay and share a joint or it wouldn’t have been polite - etiquette, ya know - so spliffs were rolled, passed and smoked and it's not long before the room begins to spin. I go outside to get some air. I guess I'm lucky, because it doesn’t take much to get me high - two or three puffs on a joint will set me up for hours. Also, I can take it, or leave it. That goes for anything that might be addictive. I rarely smoke in public because then usually I find everything hilarious. So now I’m higher than I’d ever been before - in my life - and Shaun and the guys are grooving to The Congos, a righteous roots band once produced by NoFoSound fave, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Another 20 minutes go by and I remind Shaun we had an appointment in town so we bade the guys farewell and set off again. Normally, I wouldn’t drive in an impaired condition, but my co-pilot wasn’t going to, so I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to erase the visions of the imaginary Daily Mirror headline “Mondays’ Singer Killed In Caribbean Car Crash” that was currently spinning through my mind. I opened the window for a cooling breeze, anything to keep me focused on driving but that earned an "H, shut the fookin window, willya, I’m trying to smoke ‘ere". I wind up the window and look over to my left (the steering wheel was on the right) and see he’s only trying to inhale smoke through an empty ball point pen casingfrom something burning on a piece of silver paper .
"Shaun, what the fuck are you doing?"

"Just smokin’, H. Don’t’s only the rock".
"The rock? What the fuck is that?"
"Crack, H. Me, I’m up to 35 rocks a day. It's ok...I can handle it".
Jeez. I realized he must have made a separate deal with the Rastas back in the shack while I was outside. I pulled myself together as best I could and we talked about the 'situation' until we got to the record shop. He told me he'd dropped (and broken) the bottle that held his Methadone at Manchester Airport just as they were departing the UK, leaving him with nothing to see him through his time in Barbados. And the only drugs available on Barbados were ganja and crack, so he’d managed to acquire a debilitating (and expensive) habit. He'd spent all his per diems and had to find alternative ways to pay his bills. But right now, he felt good, so we spent the next hour and a half listening to dancehall reggae 45s. Shaun had told me he was really into a Barrington Levy song called ‘Love The Life You Live’, but the shop had sold out. I 'expensed' our purchases and we headed back to the studio. On the way, he suggested we stop off at a roadside bar he knew about for Red Stripes and rum drinks and I took some 3-D photos of Shaun, outside. Looking back, I don't feel proud of enabling Shaun but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been much different, had I not been there. He'd given me a glimpse of his world and I found it both exhilarating and scary at the same time. Finally, we made it back and I dropped him at his room back at the studio. I tracked down Chris & Tina. We talked and decided it would be best to send everyone home, for Shaun to go into rehab and then finish the album when he was better. They told me I should call the UK to fill them in. I got the feeling they’d already alerted management and the record company about the situation but had been told to finish the album or they wouldn't get paid. I called Nathan, who told me he had his own problems involving custody of his child and wasn’t able to focus on anything else. Told me to call call Wilson. I informed Tony that Shaun was in pretty bad shape and we should get him into rehab because, at this rate, something very bad might happen. He might lose a singer permanently, and the band itself was so demoralized, it wouldn't have surprised me if they called it a day. In all my dealings with Tony, this was the first, and only, time I ever knew him to be unable to make a decision. That was odd. He suggested I call his partner at Factory. I think I spoke to Alan Erasmus, but whoever it was, that person wasn’t too thrilled to hear what I was saying. I didn't know it then, but Factory was going through some dire financial straits, largely brought on by the costs of these sessions. He told me to do what I thought best and that gave me the green light to shut things down. The band were relieved they could finally go home. I'm sure Chris & Tina must have been wondering if the last 3 months had been worth it. Someone told me that Shaun was met at Heathrow with a couple of grams of heroin and checked himself straight into rehab. I don't know if that's true. Eventually, work resumed on the album and he completed his parts at Comfort's Farm Studios in the not so sunny climes of Surrey. "Yes, Please" was released, got savaged in the press, the Mondays broke up, Factory declared bankruptcy and Roger Ames' London Records scooped up New Order.

Shaun and Bez went on to form Reverend Black Grape. The last time I saw Shaun was at an
in-store at a Virgin Records, Times Square in 1995, signing copies of their fine debut, "It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah!" He was genuinely pleased to see me, gave me a cd signed "To H from X" and invited me to the band's NYC debut at Irving Plaza later that night. I was allowed to watch the performance from the side of the stage. No one but crew, friends and family got that privilege.

One thing I'll say about Shaun Ryder, he's never disappointed me. He's always been a stand up guy. Loyal, funny, sharp and, well...more talented than he's ever been given credit for. He's got a way with words, has Shaun. Not to mention a style that's one in a million. I think he's one of the best people I've had the privilege of working with. A double-top man.

(Shaun & Bez slideshow here)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Suicide - The Future Of Music Since 1975..."

Club Europa, Brookyn, May 15th '08

...that's what the voice said over the PA as Alan & Marty left the stage last night. The crowd clamored for more and a good 7 or 8 minutes later, the guys blessed us by playing 'Staying Alive' and a beautiful down-tempo piece straight outa the 50s probably called 'I Love You' for the encore.
It didn't used to be like that, as anyone checking out their "Live '77-'78" box set will hear. Sets used to end early and occasionally bloody. Sometimes they'd be ducking hurled objects (coins, shoes, chairs, the occasional axe) or fending off irate audience members. In Brussels, a mic was stolen right out of Alan's hand to curtail the set. Back then, the band would have to endure no end of abuse, humiliation, spit, violence and hatred just to be heard. Shame, really, because their underlying message is really about living. And love. That was then. Now, Suicide is on the top of their game and the audience loves them back.

Alan Vega, Martin Rev

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Tell The Truth Until They Bleed"

Josh Alan Friedman has a new book out. I like reading him, same as I like reading Tosches and Meltzer. His 'Tales Of Times Square' is a fucking blast. If you want to know what NYC could taste like before it got so antiseptic, the chapter on one-legged stripper Long Jean Silver at the Melody Burlesque is worth the price of entry alone. And if you need to know what Plato's Retreat was like, it'll tell you in full, goo-ey detail. The new one, "Tell The Truth Until They Bleed" brings fresh perspective to Jerry Leiber, Doc Pomus, Joel Dorn, Dr. John, Mose Allison and other flames who burn(ed) so bright in the music world, some known, some not but all worth checking out. For those of us who've fantasized about being Ronnie Spector's boyfriend, now there's no real need to do that anymore and the chapter on Josh Alan's time spent as an 'assistant engineer' at Regent Sound Studios (New York version) only makes it clear to me what an average writer I am. Now I feel like I have to completely re-write my Trident Studios entry. Hey, look - I never claimed to be a writer, ok? I only do this to bring some attention to the station, capice? I play the stuff I write about, and I play stuff that other people - who I like - write about, dig?. Anyway, if you like music and the characters that made the business what it was, buy this book. You'll thank me later.

George Gilmore & The Giblets

George Gilmore, Ed Hamell
23rd St, NYC

Last week, I had to go into Manhattan so my dentist could moan at me about bone loss round me molars. Since it was the first Tuesday of the month, I decided to cheer myself up by meeting up with my good pal Eric Danville and checking out George Gilmore & The Giblets' regular monthly stint at The Lakeside Lounge, my favourite watering hole on the Lower East Side. The Lakeside is known mainly for having the best jukebox in the city, exquisitely curated by co-owners, Jim 'The Hound' Marshall & Eric 'Roscoe' Ambel, who was in The Del-Lords, and is now in The Yayhoos. You can get a decent pint, a generous shot and some Roky Erickson or The Real Kids from whoever is behind the bar, which can sometimes be the luscious Leslie Day, who played guitar in The Prissteens, the city's last great, and vastly under appreciated, (mostly) girl-group. Anyway, that night, none of them were around, but George soon came early and we caught up. Back in the day, he used to bartend at Arlene's Grocery as well as the Lakeside, which I deemed my 'local' ever since Billy's Topless closed. George was a first-class host and knew how to mix a Jack & Coke better than everyone. Like in a pint glass. It was the kind of place one could do a bag of mushrooms at the bar with a colleague and spend the night laughing at everything. Apparently. We spoke about the Giblets and I suggested they should consider playing on Long Island with the Blaggards or the Lone Sharks, the two best acts we have out here. George pointed out that Sharks' sax-ist, Paul Scher, moonlights as a Giblet, so maybe there's hope for a double-bill sometime. Eric and I grabbed another beer and moved into the lounge...
These days, there's not too many bands pepper their sets
with tunes by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Jimmy McCracklin, Otis Rush, Conway Twitty and Carl Perkins but that should tell you they got good taste. Their originals can sound like Brinsley Schwarz or Graham Parker sometimes and, as George said about one song, "like a twisted Skip James". Special guest, 'Thirsty' Dave Hanson from The Western Caravan's sang on 'It's Only Make Believe' and 'Nadine' and boy, does he have a great voice! So, a most enjoyable night was had by all. Mark it down...the first Tuesday in every month - Giblets at the Lakeside.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Sugarcubes - Pt. 3

Siggi & Einar
Iceland, '89-ish

One of the best parts of being in a&r was the traveling, the seeing places I would never have gone to if I’d had a ‘proper’ job. Having hung out with the Sugarcubes for a good portion of their first US tour, I felt compelled to visit the country that could spawn such creative, open-minded and, overall, such splendid people. They were brilliant ambassadors and were keen to have everyone visit their homeland as (although they never said it) I’m sure they felt as far as countries go, theirs was a lot better than most, if not all. I rarely took vacations, since work always seemed like a holiday, but I decided to take a week off and see Iceland for myself.
The flight from JFK to Keflavik takes just over 5 1/2 hours, but soon I was checking into the Hotel Holt, one the band had recommended. I was immediately struck by the smell in my room. A bit like like rotten eggs. I thought of switching rooms, but on my way down to reception, I noticed everything smelled like that. I mentioned this to the girl at the check in desk and she told me “you’ll get used to it, it’s just the sulfur in the geo-thermal heating system”. She smiled, and said “is that all?” Later, Einar explained that Iceland derives its power and hot water via geothermal activity and many rivers and waterfalls are harnessed for hydroelectricity, availing its population to cheap, renewable energy. Fortunately, the smell comes and goes, and after a short while, you hardly notice it. I was surprised to see so many mobile phones, too. Technologically, Iceland seemed far ahead of any other country I’d been to and today, it tops the list of most developed countries in the world, having just overtaken Norway (according to the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and GDP per capita for countries, worldwide).
I was there during October, so it was chilly, but not too bad. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t good for seeing the ‘northern lights’ but the volcanic terrain outside the city made it seem like you were on the moon. During my stay, Siggi and Einar took me on a sightseeing trip (Golden Falls, some hot pools and erupting geysers), showed me their “national forest” (a small clump of ‘trees’ about 30 inches high – I think they were joking) and introduced me to their ‘alchemist’ friend and fellow musician, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, a fascinating guy with an interest in Alistair Crowley and owns large collection of his original works and memorabilia. Before I left, as a present, he gave me 'Egil’s Saga' and 'Najal’s Saga' both epic stories written in the 13th century, about Icelandic life during the 9th -11th centuries…fantastic stuff about Viking times! Everywhere I went, people gave me presents: Björk gave me a cap with an Icelandic flag on it and a necklace with a snowflake pendant hanging from it, Bragi gave me a published volume of his own poetry, Einar gave me a book about a dark, Icelandic surrealist, Alfred Flóki, I was given albums at the Bad Taste record shop, featuring pre-Sugarcubes works by Bjork, Einar and Magga and other local bands like Ham and Reptile. One night, Thor and Magga invited me to their house for dinner and Magga cooked roast puffin, a seabird which (for a change) tasted like fish, not chicken. Everyone I met was super-friendly and very proud of their heritage. I don’t remember seeing any policemen (apparently there are 700 in the whole country) and the crime rate is so low, they only have 137 prisoners, 4 of whom are women. When I was there, the population was about 245,000 and the band had been booked to play a charity concert, to be broadcast live on the national radio station. Listeners pledged approximately $110,000. I think it says a lot for a band - and a country - where the equivalent of the entire nation donates about 40 cents for a good cause. Evenings were spent drinking Brenavin, a ‘potato moonshine’ (also known as Black Death), in one of the many bars there and, on my last night there, the group decided to throw an Oktoberfest party, so sausages were strung around a room, beer was ordered, Siggi ‘became’ Heidi in another dress and curly, blonde wig and - as always with these guys - much jollity ensued. Björk blew a horn and led the conga line.
I had such a good time, it was a pleasure to take record producer Paul Fox out there a couple of years later. The first thing we did was help look for Einar's brother Arni's horses who'd bolted from their pen having been spooked by some fireworks a couple of days earlier. We drove through the snow-covered countryside for about an hour, 90 minutes maybe, and somehow managed to find them in, corralled in some random farmer's pen. I was amazed. While we were there, a 'Cubes side-project, Konrad B (a variable 10+ piece jazz band consisting of members of the Sugarcubes, Reptile and other local musicians was booked for a concert and Bragi asked if I would like to join the band for the night. The thing about Konrad B is that all the musicians have to play an instrument they don't normally play. They had a euphonium lying about, so, what the hell...why not? That’s how I found myself making my stage debut, in front of approx. 200 Reykjavik locals, sitting next to Björk (clarinet), and across from Siggi (vocals), Magga (accordion), Einar and others. I was asked to take a solo during ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ on an instrument I’d never I did. It probably wasn't very good, but one look at the front row showed me exactly why it's so great to be a musician. (For Sugarcubes in Iceland slide-show, click here).
In 2006, when The Sugarcubes reformed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of their incredible single, ‘Birthday’, I found myself back there watching them play a one-off to a sold-out crowd in a basketball arena. They were just as great as ever.

Laugardalshöll Arena, Reykjavik, Nov 17 '06

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Sugarcubes - Pt. 2

Elektra offices, NYC

So Elektra released their debut, 'Life’s Too Good', and I thought I'd try to catch as much of the accompanying tour as possible. Their first show in the US was at the 9.30 Club in Washington, DC where I finally got to see the group in all their glory. Margrét (Magga) Örnólfsdóttir (now a permanent member, having replaced Einar Melax on keyboards) was dating guitarist, Thor. Thor had previously been Björk’s partner and their 2 year old boy, Sindri, (aka ‘Sparky’), was with them on the road. There was no weird fact, everyone meshed beautifully, sharing responsibilities and taking care of business professionally and with good humour. It's not usually like that with musicians on tour. There’d often be an unstable one, perhaps a jealous-of-the-singer one, there’d be somebody who cared more about the ‘business’ than the music, a married one (whose spouse resented the band), often one who’d given up a good, paying job and found themselves in a filthy van, eating crap and sleeping on floors. There was none of that here. The ‘Cubes were the most democratic, hard working, down to earth, secure band I’d worked with. They took their artistry very seriously, but not at the expense of their lives outside the band. Hanging out with them was fun and inspirational. The DC show was a solid start to the tour and it was immediately obvious Björk would, one day, become a big star. The next show – July 29th 1988 - was in a decrepit hall in NY’s East Village called The World. It had no air conditioning and the temperature was in the low hundreds. I don’t think the group had ever felt such heat before, but they played their hearts out and later, backstage, made many new friends. A full complement of Elektra staff showed up, from the mail room to the legal department, and all were hugely impressed. Later, the show was pressed up as a bootleg double LP, 'Have An Ice Day'.
drawing of 'The Sugarcubes In Concert'
by Bragi (Konrad Bé) Ólafsson

Boston was next, and I watched the show standing a few feet to the side of Siggi’s drum kit. Now this guy’s a drummer! Not because he chose to wear a fetching white dress with a ton of tulle filling the drum-stool, but because his crisp, meticulous playing and extraordinary technique was a revelation to watch and hear. His playing is a huge factor in the band’s distinctive sound and later, he showed me he could play in four different time signatures simultaneously (using both hands and both feet independently), something not many drummers I ever ran into could do. After the show, we all went to Elektra promo rep Dave Johnson’s house for a party. Mark Cohen, our Deadhead from the mail room and Mary Mancini, an assistant in the a&r dept - and these, days a popular talk radio hostess in the Nashville market (Google and listen to her Liberadio show) - had both made the journey and were happy to watch Einar and Siggi demonstrate ‘Glima’, a form of Icelandic folk-wrestling which, apparently, is best undertaken after many Heinekens. According to Wikipedia, there are four points that differentiate it from regular wrestling:
* The opponents must always stand erect.
* The opponents step clockwise around each other (looks similar to a waltz). This is to create opportunities for offense and defense, and to prevent a stalemate.

* It is not permitted to fall down on your opponent or to push him down in a forceful manner, as it is not considered sportsman-like.

* The opponents are supposed to look across each other's shoulders as much as possible because it is considered proper to wrestle by touch and feel rather than sight.
Ok, that's quite enough of that...
The following day, I took the band to my favourite Boston attraction, the Mapparium in the Mary Baker Eddy Library, next to the Christian Science Monitor building. The place is a trip and after we walked across the ‘equator’ and tested the freaky acoustics inside the globe, I returned to NY feeling really happy with our latest signing. I caught them again in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Word was spreading and People Magazine arranged a photo shoot at the Phoenix Hotel in SF where I introduced Björk to SF resident and NoFoSo playlist-mate, Angel Corpus Christi. According to the big map of the United States displayed in their bus, the tour had been christened NAMERIKA ’88 and, for some reason, whenever Duran Duran’s 'Notorious' came on the radio, the whole band would leap to their feet and start frantically spazz-dancing. Elektra’s Peter Philbin took us all out for sushi in Los Angeles, and once again, there was our mail room guy, Mark Cohen! How the hell did he get out here? The tour ended back in New York at the Ritz. Joey Ramone, Richard Butler and Sinead O’Connor came to pay their respects. So did Denis McNamara from WLIR, which, at that time, was the only radio station with a relatively far-reaching signal within a radius of hundreds of miles that played ‘modern’ music. For a slideshow of the Sugarcubes' first US visit and tour, click here...

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Sugarcubes - Pt. 1

Thor, Einar, Björk
23rd St, NYC, 1988

The Kras stepped into my office and said “I want you to go to England and see Wet Wet Wet. They’re playing the Hammersmith Odeon tomorrow ‘first’, if you have to”. I had a deal with Rough Trade, a record store in London. Every week, they’d send me the new entries to the UK top 50 singles chart so I already knew what they sounded like, but what Bob Krasnow wants, Bob Krasnow gets, so I asked my assistant, Valerie, to book me a flight. A few hours later I was sitting in Elektra’s London office reading the music papers. Sounds had picked 'Birthday' by The Sugarcubes - a band from Iceland - as their Single Of The Week and their review was so...well...rave-y, I just had to hear it. Like, now! I thought about getting a cab over to Rough Trade but as chance would have it, the 45 was sitting right there at the front of a pile of singles on the floor, leaning against a&r manager Dave Field’s desk. I placed it on the turntable and must have played it 5 or 6 times, in complete awe of its sheer beauty and unique, fresh sound. Whoa! Moments like this happen only a handful of times in a talent scouting career. Most of the stuff you hear is mediocre at best, and a large part of the job is saying “sorry, not quite right for us” to musicians hoping for a recording career. Out of the blue, here was a 100% bona fide, instant ‘hell, YEAH’. I was thoroughly blown away by this record and now wanted to see the band in concert, as soon as possible. I kept playing the record as I finished reading the paper and could scarcely believe my eyes when I read there was a Sugarcubes show, that night, at a pub near Great Portland Street tube station. I called the venue (I thought it was called the Portland Arms but there's something called the Green Man there now) and learned they were due to play at 11pm. Dave was out of the office at meetings and had another band to see that night, but he told me on the phone that he would try and catch the Wets last 2 songs and meet me in the Odeon’s lobby at the end of the show. The band played a perfectly professional set and seemed to satisfy their audience of (mainly) teenage girls. However, they didn’t strike me, particularly, as a band that would sit comfortably on Elektra’s roster, or sell particularly well in the US. I found Dave and he offered to drive me back to my hotel. I asked if he could drive me to Great Portland Street and invited him in to watch the Sugarcubes with me but he begged off saying he had to pack, as we were both flying to America in the morning to attend one of our 6 monthly, company-wide a&r meetings. We made plans to meet at the airport and I made my way into the venue. Inside, I was dismayed to see practically every a&r person I knew in the UK packed into this very smoky pub room, obviously trying to coax the band away from One Little Indian, the tiny independent label that had released the single. By this point I was exhausted and had been awake for nearly 40 hours. I staked my claim on a small flight of stairs so I could see the stage better and waited for the band to start. And waited. And waited. Midnight rolled around and I was feeling a bad mood coming on. There was no room to move, it was difficult to breathe with all the smoke, I couldn’t get a drink (or I’d lose my vantage point), I was tired and my feet were killing me. When the band finally decided to hit the stage at about 12.30am I was seething, and when the ugliest, most cacophonous, unrelenting, grating noise burst out of the speakers, I was totally shocked. It couldn’t have been more opposite to what I’d heard earlier that day and I wondered whether if this was the 'right' Sugarcubes. After about 8 more minutes of this, I thought, “screw this” and made my way back to my hotel. A couple of month later, I’m reading one of the music papers in my Manhattan office and I see the Sugarcubes’ second single, 'Cold Sweat', is picked as their ‘Single Of The Week’ again. I phoned Dave and asked him to have it couriered over. Once the 45 showed up, it was obvious they were a truly fantastic band - on record – and quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard, a factor high on my list of criteria needed for me to want to work with someone. I walked down the corridor to Bob Krasnow’s office and asked if I could play him a couple of tunes. He agreed, and once ‘Birthday’ faded out, he told me to call Derek and “make it happen”. I loved working for Bob. There was never any doubt, and you knew where you stood. Dave Field had been following the Sugarcubes’ progress in the UK and gave me the number of their record company and the name of the fellow in charge. I called Derek Birkett who’s in the middle of co-producing the album (with Ray Shulman) and he agrees to send over some rough mixes of what he’s done so far and to talk to Gary Casson in our business affairs department. I do not mention the show I’d seen. A deal is worked out so now it’s time to meet the band. I fly to London and take them all out to dinner at the Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian restaurant in London’s Soho district. Finally, I meet Derek, who brings some of his staff and Siggi, Bragi, Thor, Einar Melax, Einar Örn and, of course, Björk. We eat, talk, and the drinks flow. All of them struck me as smart, vital, creative, highly likeable people and I learned they weren’t above having a little fun with folks they found stuffy, or ridiculous. Planeloads of Brits had to fly to Iceland to meet with them and I’m reasonably sure the band had no intention of ever leaving Derek or OLI. Indeed, over 20 years later, Björk is still with Derek, and One Little Indian continues to release her brilliant albums. Towards the end of dinner, I was feeling very good about our new relationship, when Einar Örn (co-vocalist/trumpet), who was sitting next to me, told me how much he was looking forward to me seeing the band play live, as I was probably the only person (by then) who hadn’t. I looked him in the eye and said, "well, actually Einar, I’ve already seen you in concert."
He looked genuinely surprised and asked "Where did you see us?"

"I think it was a place called The Portland Arms...near Great Portland Street tube"

He narrowed his eyes and looked at me quizzically... "oh yeah? (pause) What did you think?"

"Well, to be honest, I thought it was terrible and left after about 10 minutes."

He leans back, a smile coming slowly to his lips. "Correct! That was our "punk" gig. We wanted to play a really obnoxious show that would confuse the record industry people who were bothering us!"

Phew! I could have easily said I thought they were "great". It certainly wasn’t easy to tell my new pal that the show I’d seen was, uh, crappy, but I’ve always thought honesty’s the best policy and – although it’s got me into trouble before – this time, it marked the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship.

Joey Ramone, Einar, Thor & Siggi
The World, NYC, '88

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Happy Birthday, Patsy Stone

Joanna Lumley, ht
'Absolutely Fabulous' launch party in NYC '94

(photo: Maryanne Russell)

Saffy - 'I thought they didn't let people with drug convictions into America.'
Patsy - 'It's not so much a conviction, darling. It's more of a strong belief.'