Ten Rules of Rock And Roll

The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll, Collected Music Writings 2005-2011 by ex-Go Betweens Robert Forster
The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll by Robert Forster

The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll, Collected Music Writings 2005-2011 by Robert Forster

Ex Go-Betweens front man Robert Forster has updated his collected musical writings, The 10 Rules of Rock And Roll, drawn primarily from his column for Australian magazine The Monthly.  He started writing these pieces in 2005 having had no previous journalistic experience, aside from an article on hair care for Manchester fanzine Debris, in which he recommended “Always comb your hair before washing. This loosens the hair on your scalp and makes the shampooing far more effective”.  Sound advice indeed. Sadly this article isn’t included in 10 Rules but can be viewed here.

Forster seems to have taken to the task of Rock Critic  rather well as he was awarded the Pascall Prize for criticism soon after picking up your pen, a gong declaring him to be Australia’s top critic no less. Has he thus become an example of poacher turned gamekeeper in his new role? On the contrary he believes that a love of music unites rather than divides rock critics and musicians, and his enthusiasm for music new and old is evident throughout his collection of reviews.

Given the title of the book it seems to make sense to list his 10 Rules here. Without further ado:

1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as ‘dark’.
2. The second-last song on every album is the weakest.
3. Great bands tend to look alike.
4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.
5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.
6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.
7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.
9. Great bands don’t have members making solo albums.
10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

Who could argue with any of this?

Robert Forster seems to have been given a wide brief as the subjects of his musings range from Glen Campbell to Bonnie Prince Billy via Bob Dylan. On each he casts his songwriter’s eye in a respectful manner, saying of Campbell, for example, “what is interesting is that Glen Campbell is in the search for new horizons while the old rebels – The Stones, The Who – are bogged and scared. Perhaps Campbell was meant to last”. Although clearly an advocate of the literate song writing style of Dylan’s work he finds Modern Times to be an untidy affair, where “you realise that someone else is needed to push Dylan on his material and the way it might sound”. His tone is that of an insider, unwilling to engage in an easy disparagement of an individual, instead focusing on the merits of the work.

In “Lost Women Found” he writes adoringly of the uncompromising quality of the music of Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier & Connie Converse. About the latter he states; “All she had were the songs and her circle of friends. But it has turned out to be enough, as it did for fellow singer-songwriters Sibylle Baier and Vashti Bunyan, all of whom put songs in a bottle and kissed them goodbye, not knowing that one day the bottle would drift back, carrying the dreams and emotions of youth, to be picked up by an audience far larger and more appreciative than the one that greeted the music at its inception.” Such words send one heading off to the search engines to find out more about these artists and to listen oneself to the material about which he eulogises. This is a thematic thread that runs through the book.

As well as album reviews there are a few live and book pieces in which Forster writes knowingly on the business he has inhabited for over 30 years. However the most moving pieces are the two about his soul mate and Go-Betweens co-collaborator Grant McLennan, who died of a heart attack in May 2006. In “A True Hipster”, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of his great friend, Forster charts the genesis of their fruitful relationship, revealing much on how they worked together.  Surprisingly for those of us who know The Go-Betweens he says of McLennan; “He called me “the strategist”. He was the dreamer. We both realised, and came to relish, the perversity of the fact that this was an exact reversal of the perception people had of us as artists and personalities in the band – that I was the flamboyant man out of time and Grant the sensible rock. In reality, the opposite was true”. What great friends they stayed though thick, thin and solo ventures.

Having broken up in 1989 the band reconvened in 2000 to produce three more LPs, with the promise of more to come. In “Demon Days” he writes poignantly about their last musical collaboration and how “I lost my best male friend and my working partner: the one who’d been with me through countless performances, studios, rehearsals, airports, tour buses, bad television shows, hard-to-find radio stations, songwriting bedrooms and kitchens; the one I thought I still had a future with.” Out of a wish to honour the memory of such times came “The Evangelist”, an album containing two songs McLennan had written shortly before his untimely death.

Robert Forster continues to record music and perform live but one can expect further additions to a body of written work that is so well informed. He is most certainly a musician who falls into that rare group who can effortlessly write about his craft. However, I trust that he won’t give up the day job just yet as I, for one, would miss him.

The Ten Rules of Rock And Roll, Collected Music Writings 2005-2011 by Robert Forster is published by Jawbone Press.

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The Phoenix Foundation Live @ Concorde 2

The Phoenix Foundation played at Concorde 2 in Brighton on Friday 13th May 2011 as part of  The Great Escape Festival 2011.

The Phoenix Foundation chose the Great Escape to kick-off their largest UK tour thus far following grand reviews for their latest long player, Buffalo. A visit to the Brighton at this time of year offers folk the chance to dash around catching as many of the 300+ bands as possible playing in 30 venues over a 3-day period. This is a format that has many strengths but also means that acts are forced to cram their finer points into short 30-minute sets, with barely a moment to turn things around between acts.

Such haste didn’t prevent The Phoenix Foundation languidly launching proceedings with a low-key melancholic song, somewhat unrepresentative of the current LP and indeed much of the rest of the set.  It hinted at the comfort each of the band’s sextet have in each other’s musical company, unsurprising given the fact that they have been together for over 10 years, albeit mostly back in their native New Zealand. They loosened things up with a slightly hirsute, pub-rocky version of Bitte Bitte that pushed Samuel Flynn Scott centre-stage amidst his very busy looking colleagues.

Flock of Hearts would rank as their most melodic song of the night with a pleasing, lilting pop-sensibility that contrasted with the slightly chaotic tone of the evening. The Thin Lizzy-style guitar solo pegged on to end went down very nicely, and the antics of the percussionist Will Ricketts throughout impressed my mate Al very much. The 30-minute democracy of The Great Escape leaves few opportunities for inter-song wit and repartee, which The Phoenix Foundation had displayed so charmingly on 6 Music the day before, so all they really managed was a remark about having been warned about being “stabbed up” in Brighton, which bemused all present.  Perhaps it means something quite different in Wellington.

The earthy, quirkiness of Orange & Mango lightened the mood and set things up rather nicely up for the slowly ascending glory of the LP’s title track; Buffalo where it suddenly came together in a crystallization of all that seems best about The Phoenix Foundation. The multiple elements blended with tuneful, melodic ease for the high point of the evening as the short taster came to a close.

The Phoenix Foundation live lack the polish, and perhaps even some of the romance, of their studio work but on this night in Brighton one felt that thyme were setting down a marker for a tour that will gather them much attention over the coming three weeks. Pay them some of your own if you get the opportunity.

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Ramona @ Brighton Live Festival

Ramona
Tuesday 5th October, 2010 live @ Madame Geisha, Brighton

Another month and it’s another music festival in Brighton in the shape of Brighton Live, now in its seventh year of showcasing the best up and coming bands in this happy seaside town of ours.

Covering 18 venues and featuring over 100 local bands it’s another free event to warm the cockles and get one out on these cool autumnal evenings.  Doing the honours on the festival launch night were Ramona, who have been making waves locally for a short time now.

Kicking things off with “Bowie” was a keen indicator of the 1970s musical references that pepper the set, albeit infused with a new wave sensibility of short, energetic songs. The current single, “How Long”, confirms early thoughts with its distinctly New York punk feel, by way of a hefty nod in the direction of Blondie and, of course, the Ramones. There was certainly an echo of Blitzkrieg Bop in there and the fact that the set later contains a song called NYC would seem to make such a comparison somewhat obvious I’m afraid.

Given that there is a definite style to Ramona it could be said that the material can seem a bit samey but a few  songs in and it was time for Karen Anne to take off her guitar and get a bit more spirited in her delivery.  This developed into a full-on routine for “Break Away”, another number in a CBGBs vein. Very much the focus of things Anne is indeed a striking figure, as the evening continues at a high tempo. She finished things off with “Steve McQueen” telling us that the song was inspired by the said actor’s cock, no less. No-one batted an eyelid. It was a short and sweet set to kick off four days of Brighton’s best young acts.

These New Puritans, Fenech-Soler, Feldberg – The Great Escape @ Audio, Brighton

The Great Escape festival in Brighton offers 350+ bands playing in 30 venues over a 3-day period. Where to begin we thought, then headed off to Levi’s OnesToWatch @ Audio to see some much-touted up and coming acts.

First up were Icelandic duo Feldberg. Given the recent financial and geological shenanigans emanating from their homeland one might have found Rósa Birgitta Ísfeld & Einar Tönsberg nervous of the reception that awaited them but once into their  stride with the gentle melody of ‘Dreamin’ and upbeat tone of ‘Don’t be a Stranger’ the packed auditorium was easily won over. Perhaps some of the subtlety of the former track was lost in a bass-heavy sound, but well supported by a grafted-on rhythm section the simplicity of the composition filtered through.

It was all over too soon as at breakneck speed it was the turn of Fenech Soler to set up and get going in the similarly small time allotted to them.  This meant they could manage only 4 tracks before their time too was up prematurely, but in that short time they did their lustrous best to make an impression. Taking to the stage resplendent in sparkly tops to a man, they exuded a Gallic charm reminiscent of Daft Punk, a commendable feat for a group of young men from Cambridgeshire.

They threw themselves into their synth-heavy repertoire with ‘Lies’ best representing what they’re all about. Bass driven but with a keen-eyed pop sensibility, singer Ben Duffy has a chunky exuberance that does put one in mind of Simon le Bon for a fleeting moment. Backing this up with ‘Stop & Stare’ the packed crowd were certainly getting into Fenech Soler’s anthemic style when things were cut short by the night’s tight schedule.

The headline act These New Puritans were allowed a little more time to let their sound build over a number of songs. A sombre, measured start, blended a series of disparate sounds from what I believe were bass clarinets, synth drums, guitars and various percussions elements. A meandering opening number gave way to the punchy, bombastic sound of ‘Attack Music’. Singer Jack Barnett leads from the front with a staccato delivery that reflects the experimental nature of his band’s work, staying on the right side of avant-garde.  Classical references abound alongside a grand-scale, primal percussion backbeat, driven along by Jack’s twin brother George, that generates a lot of the energy in the performance. ‘We Want War’ is the focal point of the evening’s show, drawing upon influences of electronic pop, hip hop, classical and indie guitar that infuse The New Puritan’s variety of sound. A seven-minute mini-epic, with shades of Massive Attack, it’s very much on the dark-side of their oeuvre with the trade-mark clattering percussion to the fore.

Once again it was all over too soon on a night where the acts had to be precise and focused.  This was probably just as well, with the audience heading off for their next slice of action as The Great Escape continued across the city into the early hours.