Joe Sparrow : Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)

If the past is a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley said, then the nitty-gritty of what happened – the conversations, the opinions, the mindless trivia – live in a dusty cabinet in the furthest corner of a foreign museum. This is the stuff that’s ignored, lost and forgotten by most, but the devoted will work their way down the corridors to peer through the glass just one more time. 

This is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is revitalising. Or nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is like drinking: a little at the right time can lift the spirits and reconnect your ego with your values, your past joys and triumphs. Too much, too often, is deadly to your vitality, muffling your connection with now, and stifling happiness. That is also nostalgia.

When we look backwards, it’s only natural that we see the landmark events, and skip from one to another to design the simplest story which lets us understand how things happened back then. Life’s too big to stop and sift through all the ins and outs of every conversation that happened.

Or is it? 

To extend the tortured museum metaphor, we’re all highly-knowledgable expert curators of a very, very specific niche in the Museum of Everything. Your niche can be whatever you like: the various haircuts sported by J-Hope from BTS,  the Automeris subfamily of moths, late Victorian-era Canadian Anglican bishops, the early records by Swedish recording artist Robyn, whatever. 

In these areas, we find the chit-chat, the debate, the details, the minutiae, innately fascinating. This is also nostalgia.

True nostalgia is a prism to view a very personal past that reveals the path to our very personal future.


Revelling in the minutiae of your niche, done right, is the good kind of nostalgia. And reader, I indulged. 

Feeling slowed down to a crawl by the lumbering weight of an extended period of hard work, I self-prescribed a strategic slice of nostalgia, and bought, for €2.90, the July 1st, 1995 issue of Melody Maker, the deceased UK music weekly newspaper. It came in the post, two days later, in a plastic wrapper. It had never been read. It still smelled, faintly, of new ink.

A reminder: good nostalgia is *niche*. I don’t need to justify this purchase. 

The Melody Maker doesn’t mean much to most people any more. A weekly music newspaper that always lingered in the shadow of its more famous rival the NME, the Melody Maker’s wiki page is now a whistle-stop summation of a 75-year publication. 

But, every Thursday between the years of about 1995 and 1999, I would walk to school or college a slightly different route, in order to pass a particular newsagent who received their delivery of ‘Makers in the morning, and I’d lift an inky copy off the pile, plop 75p down on the counter, and head to school, reading the first few pages on the way.

(See – that’s a nostalgic passage right there. No mention of the rain that accompanied the walk, no mention of the dreaded rugby game that awaited on Thursday mornings, no teenage angst, nothing. Nostalgia is an escape drug, remember.)


A quick eulogy follows for the Melody Maker.

I guess I chose to read the Melody Maker partly because it wasn’t the NME, and partly because it was a grab-bag of contradictions. It openly criticised the bands that I loved (the scathing review of Oasis’s “What’s The Story…,” ended with the words, “they sound knackered,” and I went out and bought it anyway), yet it still had all the interviews and photos of these same bands that I hankered after, because the paper knew which side their bread was buttered. 

Writers like Simon Price, Neil Kulkarni, Everett True et al were outspoken, and disagreed with each other in amusingly colourful language. The articles took every opportunity to divert me from the drudge of the new Meanswe@r single to the visceral thrills of then-emerging music like jungle, “speed garage” and US hip-hop. (The best-reviewed album on 1st July 1995 was Mobb Deep’s brilliant “The Infamous”, an LP that had, until yesterday, escaped my ears for 23 years.)

In short, Melody Maker immediately shaped my teenage years, how I viewed the thing I loved most – music – and, because of that, the rest of my life. 

Now, in an age when I receive music news and reviews from a million different drab sources, weekly music newspapers are an antiquity. In 1995, it was one of a small handful of sources for music news: two weekly newspapers, a few monthly mags, and a scattering of trusted radio shows.

Re-reading Melody Maker now reveals the pros and cons of this one-stop shop. 

On one hand, everything is in one place, curated by thoughtful experts with strong opinions, and with a remit to keep exploring for me, the reader. It’s funny, informed, and feels true.

On the other hand, where are the unfiltered voices that we now hear loudest of all via social media – those of of the artists and the listeners? Where is the unfettered opportunity for each and every DIY artist to promote themselves on an equal footing without becoming part of the machine? 

You can choose which of the above is the “pro” and which is the “con”.


The other thing I learnt by re-reading MM through adult eyes is that it was written with the various communities it served in mind. 

It was written not to merely scratch the itch of the new, but to nurture the lives of groups of people, to stretch them, to change them – because that’s how communities work. They revel in a central passion, and mutate and grow. The MM made readers part of one or more of the gangs represented in its pages.

Today, extreme capitalism has won: we’re all atomised from each other, and everything we say or do is expected to be as a lone individual. Caveat Emptor. Doing things for a community – any community – is not de rigeuer. Communities are about togetherness – and fear is more easily monetisable. Social media influencers shilling slim-tummy teas and appetite-suppressant lollipops are not about togetherness.

Yet nostalgia is, above all, a warm feeling of connection to a clique of people who think and feel like us, and allow us to rail against the normies with our mutual fascination of something that’s ours. Nostalgia allows this: it’s safe, it’s already happened, the contemporary details can be parsed and defined. In the right doses, it’s guaranteed pleasure.

And this is where the details become important. My Melody Maker contained gossip, photos, chatter, bickering and tiny nuggets of period info that you can’t find anywhere else. Their importance felt vital on July 1st 1995, but not in the fullness of time: they have been rightly edited from the bigger story of the period. 

Except… that they were all utterly fascinating to me when reading them today, and would be to anyone else who’d feel the thrill of discovering the first printed mention of a “new song” by Pulp called “Sorted For E’s And Whizz”, complete with mis-heard lyrics, buried in a brief review of Pulp’s now-famed 1995 Glastonbury set.


Nostalgia is a drug. We shouldn’t have too much. But also: everything in moderation, including moderation. Nostalgia is re-living the excitement of when passions were new. And the excitement felt around new passions is the feeling of nostalgia years before it becomes so.

You’re building your future nostalgia right now without realising which parts you’ll be nostalgic for. In that way, nostalgia is happened today, while you’re *holistically living in the moment*, not just when you’re looking back.

And the excitement of nostalgia really does require people to be excited with, however loosely, however remotely. So where do we go to be nostalgic with our gang today? Social media allows us to shout into the wind in the hope that we’ll connect with people like us, but does it really work?

Social media also shoots new looks, ideas, and bandwagons instantly to every place on earth, and it enforces a worldwide smoothing of cultural foibles. It’s hard to imagine a niche music/social scene like – god help us – Grebo happening now, because it’s easier to define yourself by pushing against a small-town local scene than against the global MOR-cabal. 

Social media weaponises nostalgia – but this is not good nostalgia, because good nostalgia is defined by the community that loves Niche Thing X. Nostalgia defined by the gang becomes about an investment of time and money as a consequence. If commerce uses nostalgia as a sales tool, the tail is wagging the dog.


We can reclaim nostalgia for us. But it requires the communities to scrape everything into a pile. Music nostalgia, for instance, is scattered wide across the internet and beyond: tit-bits buried in obscure fan forums; borderline-conspiracy-theory deep-dives shoved into fan-sites that haven’t been updated since 2006; illegal scans of out-of-print books and magazines tweeted and forgotten about; sub-pub-quiz-trivia permanently and uselessly etched in people’s brains.

Everything is out there: the scattered gang members, the desire for a pleasurable wallow, the snippets and tit-bits and chatter, the excitement about springing from our established passions to similar-but-different new ones. 

Bringing it together requires treating music and books and movies differently: each item a narrowband channel that encourages wider exploration. The details of the past can be brought around the object – all the trivia described above could be pinned to the song itself; a totem pole of context, of excitement, of nostalgia. 

Then the community can rally around the thing they love – and jump into the future, together, confident and fulfilled.

Joe Sparrow : Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1

It’s hard to believe that in under a year, MONTAG has blossomed from “weirdo blog that Grover commissioned for reasons that are not yet fully fleshed-out” into “weirdo blog that now has a really good weekly newsletter, a remarkably coherent podcast, and a frankly stunning print edition.”

And while a huge chunk of that is down to the talent of the contributors and artists I have the pleasure of editing, I was really happy to have been able to write some stuff that I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have got away with anywhere else. Such are the joys of being your own editor, I guess.

Here are a few of the Greatest Hits* that I wrote for Issue 1: Together Tomorrow. Click through to read the full thing…

TODAY’S DYSTOPIA: Farenheit 451 Is the world that Ray Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451 – a controlling, authoritarian horror-show, occupied by puppet-humans for whom individual thought is, erm, unthinkable – actually so different to 2017?

Memento Mori: would you keep a dead relative as a VR pet?: How will we deal with death in the future – when we can recreate dead people in VR?

VR: the Victorian Revolution: how new is our newest technology? If you showed a VR headset to someone from the 1800s, they might not be as freaked out as you think…

And if that’s whetted your appetite, you can read the rest here, over at MONTAG.WTF.

*your milage may vary

Joe Sparrow : Spot the gif-ference*

*It’s pronounced with a hard “G”, I don’t care what anyone says

Blog posts that begin with “I’ve not posted for so long because…” are ten-a-penny and all boil down to three main excuses: my job got super busy; I had a baby; I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff.

For me it was, boringly, the former. But now I can breathe again. One of the things that has kept me so busy is being the editor of MONTAG.WTF , the can-you-believe-they-trusted-him-to-launch-it-under-that-name magazine of weird futurist philosophy, oddball sci-fi fiction, and terrified glances at dystopias that the Berlin startup Grover funds.

I’m endlessly grateful that the people at Grover who sign off on things have been so daring and blasé ab out signing off on MONTAG, which has now branched out into a blog, a surprisingly decent podcast, a devastatingly gorgeous print edition, and an actually-rather-good weekly email. Everyone who I’ve been lucky enough to corral into working on MONTAG is brilliant.

Anyway.

One thing that has given me huge pleasure is creating a series of frankly bananas gifs for MONTAG. We aimed for eyebrow-raising writing with lowbrow gifs, and I think we have generally hit that… er… benchmark? Either way, here are some of the gifs I made that I’m most proud of.

Tupac Shakur crotch-thrusting at a Victorian lady from a crystal ball for this piece on VR.

Some firemen burning books for this piece on Fahrenheit 451.

I snuck some classic headlines including “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” into this gif for a piece on Automation and creative jobs.

Corr, just feel the width of the white-hot satire as Kim Kardashian gets inserted into a gif for a piece about dystopian futures (in this case, Blade Runner)

And I’m simply proud of this one, because it looks good  – from a piece on the storification of your own life via AR.

Joe Sparrow : Oasis’s “lost” third album: Forever… And A Day

forever-and-a-day-oasis-v2

In the new Supersonic documentary, Noel Gallagher reflected that Oasis should have split after their conjoined-twin moment of peak popularity: Knebworth and Be Here Now. He also finally admitted what the rest of us have known for years: the songs Oasis cockily threw away as B-sides should have been used for their third LP instead.

Noel’s right on both fronts. I wondered how things would have panned out had Oasis not released the notorious edifice that masqueraded as Be Here Now.

Use your imaginayyyy-sheeeeeee-uuuurn and jump back to the heady summer of 1997: shortly after Tony strolled into Number 10, and just before Lady Di checked out forever. Here’s what their third, final LP might have been.

For the title, I used a lyric from Don’t Go Away, one of only two Be Here Now tracks that made the cut into this alternative-history LP: Forever… And A Day. (The ellipsis is in there because of Oasis’ habit of dropping wonky punctation into titles.)

Here’s the album as a Spotify playlist. I mocked up the cover from a behind-the-scenes photo of the Be Here Now shoot by Microdot.

Oasis’ Third LP: Forever… And A Day

Whilst shuffling tracks in and out of contention, I wondered what a third Oasis LP meant in 1997. After (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, after becoming household names and tabloid fodder, after their songs became the rallying call of the ignored majority, and after 4% of the UK applied for tickets to Knebworth.

It turned out that Be Here Now, with cocaine largesse and swagger in the place of tunes, was not what people wanted. In those unusually upbeat and confident times, I think the public simply hankered after more Oasis: a band whose music mirrored those fleeting feelings.

This alternative LP is mainly composed of songs of glory, gumption and grit; songs that howl from the speakers, like Acquiesce. But it also has Noel’s two most touching and tender songs: Talk Tonight and Half The World Away. “Something for the mums,” as a hypothetical full-page Sun review might have tactfully put it.

Appropriately for a band who faced the terrifying might of the UK’s tabloid press and the obliterating power of universal fame head-on, it also has, in Listen Up and It’s Better People, reflective songs that express emotion beyond “let’s fuckin’ ‘ave it!” 

Making the Cut

All the songs off the peerless Some Might Say single are on Forever… And A Day. Even though Noel has spent 20 years denying it, Acquiesce is the only Oasis song that addresses the siblings’ oil-and-water relationship. It’s also the only song where they share lead vocal duties, to astonishing and beautiful effect; it was a shoo-in to open the album.

By the way, the Don’t Look Back In Anger and Wonderwall packages of songs are each almost as good as Some Might Say. Imagine how brutally euphoric the band must have felt to release these 12 songs within a year and to happily consign three quarters of them to gather dust as B-sides.

So there’s a strong argument that the (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? singles box set is in actuality the “real” secret third Oasis LP. Minus songs from that album and live versions/covers, this version of the third album would line up like this, and it’d have been pretty great:

Step Out
Underneath the Sky
Talk Tonight
Acquiesce
Headshrinker
It’s Better People
Rockin’ Chair
Round Are Way
The Swamp Song
The Masterplan

And entries from Be Here Now itself? A paltry two songs made it on the lifeboat: I Hope I Think, I Know, and Don’t Go Away. They made it because they are good songs, but mainly because they are unusual as their main intentions were not, apparently, to be over-loud and over-long.

B-Side Here Now?

There are no B-sides from any Be Here Now singles on this LP, simply because they’re really poor. It’s painfully sad how they pale in comparison to the B-sides from the first two Oasis albums.

Oasis had recorded covers as B-sides before, and they either felt appropriate (I Am The Walrus) or wry (the even-better-than-the-original Cum On Feel The Noize). Covering “Heroes” and Street Fighting Man is lazy at best, ego-driven at worst – and they’re utterly disposable.

Stay Young almost made it – it has a lovely Liam vocal – and Going Nowhere was jostling too, due to an uncharacteristically gentle horn section. Ultimately though, both suffer from the same dull, flabby, plodding anonymity that clouds most post-Be Here Now Oasis songs.

The depths plumbed are surprising: Flashbax, from All Around The World’s flip, is just average – lazy lyrics, pacing akin to lichen growth, and the drab chord changes you hear at every open mic night. I Got The Fever is anonymous and, in an act so far beyond absurd that it’s essentially rock ‘n’ roll treachery, it nicks the main lyric from Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight.

Compare the gee’d-up The Fame with Headshrinker (from Some Might Say). The latter is shrill with punk-with-a-capital-P snot and amphetamine; the coked-up Fame is the sound of one big mouth shouting into the void.

Cocaine is one hell of a drug.

Side 2

But what treasure they buried on B-sides before that descent. Step Out is the great “lost” Oasis song, pulled from What’s The Story at the very last minute, and subsequently hidden on the Don’t Look Back In Anger single.

It’s easy to forget how slipping on an early Oasis song provided the equivalent fizzy-blood rush of the best night out, the thrill of a speeding car, or the skin-bursting pleasure of a last minute goal. Step Out is this feeling, over and over.

As Pete Paphides pointed out at the time, in one of the rare accurate, underwhelmed contemporary reviews of Be Here Now, despite their bluster, Oasis had no peers when it came to expressing feelings of vulnerability and limitation.

Don’t Go Away nails this in simple prose: “Damn my education/ I can’t find the words to say/ With all the things caught in my mind.” The ability to articulate working-class frustration was core to Oasis’ appeal, and Don’t Go Away might have been the last song where they truly captured this feeling.

A note on Headshrinker: it’s included as the “Ringo track” at the end. It’s my list; some things don’t need justifying.

And finally: the Official Anthemic Oasis Album Closer. All Around The World *almost* survived because Oasis had been playing it since 1992 and Oasis lore stated that it was always destined for the third album.

But it’s a dud compared with the gloriously superior Masterplan. If this LP was real, and plonked into nearly a million homes within a week of release, maybe this song would have challenged Champagne Supernova as the arms-around-your-aunty song at weddings all over the UK.

I wonder how Oasis might be considered today if they had left no more than a trio of perfect albums in their wake. Noel says they’d be held up alongside the Beatles. On this evidence, for once his words might not be hyperbole.

Ten songs. 45 minutes. Forever… And A Day. History re-written. Almost perfect.

Notes:

My Big Mouth is my personal favourite off Be Here Now, if only for the sledgehammer effect of 34(!) overdubbed guitars, but it was painfully cut at the last-minute: it sounds a bit hollow when pressed up next to Noel’s killer B’s and Liam’s sweetest vocals.

I left off Noel’s 2016 re-work of D’Yer Know What I Mean, even though it’s a huge improvement. I’d love Noel to re-mix the whole LP…

I momentarily toyed with including Noel’s Chemical Brothers collaboration, Setting Sun, a truly excellent song which would stick out like a sore thumb.

Joe Sparrow : Oasis minus the fun

This is the first of a trio of blog posts that try and grapple with the quad-headed beer-sloshing Manc-monster that was Oasis; partly because the Oasis documentary, Supersonic, is about to be released, and partly because I’ve been on a tragic nostalgia trip and feel the need to flush out my synapses.

Unlike every book on Oasis I have read or could imagine, the Definitely Maybe 33 ⅓ book is deliberately dry, overtly scholarly and entirely — entirely — humour-free. This is an achievement worth dwelling on.

Oasis were a living, breathing smorgasbord of hilariously knuckle-headed rock ’n’ roll escapades: a band, remember, who were once thrown out of Holland before they even stepped off the ferry onto Dutch soil. An argument between Liam and Noel about this incident was so weird and amusing, the recording was released as a single. It got to number 52 in the charts. Even now Noel is now primarily revered for his caution-to-the-wind interviews.

So to ignore all this in order to tell the Oasis story is a bold move. But the dryness has a function for a book that investigates Definitely Maybe from a communitarian perspective. It asserts that Oasis are both a catalyst for, and function of, working class ambition and togetherness. It proposes that Definitely Maybe is one final hurrah of a social group of people in the UK whose voice is now throttled forever.

It turns out that the humourlessness is essential to the book’s success.

(Sometimes the rampantly academic analysis in the 33 ⅓ book leads the argument awry. Do the frequent references to water in the LP’s lyrics hint at a broiling undercurrent of working-class social unrest? Or is it the words of a band – whose lyrics never dug deep in the search for meaning – who happened lived in a notoriously rainy city? HINT: I lived in Manchester for a decade; the year-round drizzle sapped my will and led to dreams of escape, too.)

I’m still not sure if I actually enjoyed the book. It’s not a knockabout laugh-riot. But the parts that caused my to eyes roll also opened them wide, forcing a profound realignment with what Oasis originally meant, before all the chaos and carnage of their runaway success.

And that’s the most important thing about Oasis – what they stood for in the eyes of the people. Not the tunes. The songs were amazing, but they were a vehicle for the point of Oasis.

Oasis mean something to millions of people. Unlike almost any other cultural phenomenon in the UK, when they arrived fully formed and looking for a fight, they wholly represented those millions of people: their hopes, dreams and disappointments. Oasis connected on a subliminal level to the ignored people who form a huge slice of the UK. Oasis means we can vicariously live our lives as rock stars. Oasis are for people tired of seeing the same people from the same social strata being handed the same glory. Oasis fuel the dreams the rest of us dream.

These dreams – of fucking off from the post-industrial-town council estate and showing the world what they could really do, especially if they were given a skinful of beer, some decent clothes and a baggie of grotty coke – had a unifying message: “we’d show them, if only we had a voice.”

Oasis were that voice. Unless you’ve played darts in a dreary pub full of young men with quasi-mod haircuts, Stone Island parkas and an unerring eagerness for a scrap in the car park, you can’t fully understand Definitely Maybe. Perhaps these same frustrated masses channelled the same exasperation into votes for Brexit, too.

And when you put it like that, not all of Definitely Maybe sounds like much fun. Maybe that’s why the book isn’t either.

Joe Sparrow : Blackstar, Big Exit

I can’t remember the last time I truly dug into an album — straining to understand each word, trying to unlock each decision and quantify every sound — as I have with David Bowie’s Blackstar.

It feels horribly glib to say that death was a marketing masterstroke by Bowie; and yet the album is so carefully constructed to frame the end he knew was coming, that it’s probably not as gauche as it might sound.

After overcoming the shock of his death, any prior analysis of Blackstar immediately evaporated. And then, any shock – from the realisation that the true context had been hidden in plain sight all along – was tempered by a feeling of jarring clarity. The control and gracefulness of the LP, and how it addresses death, was obvious.

Compare Bowie’s end with that of another rock star, Lemmy: both were loved and praised since their death, but only one reached the end still innovating, reaching, gambling. Only one entirely controlled the dialogue around his exit.

Most artists’ later output is unremarkable. Instead, Bowie gilded his reputation by producing an album which dallies with invention in a manner unlike any of his work since the late 70s.

And then there’s the lingering feeling that Blackstar — the album, the media and the message around it — is like a puzzle box: something important sits at its heart. But what is it?

There is a lot in Blackstar that knowingly harks back to 1977’s Low. For me, these echoes of Low make Blackstar’s finality even more beautiful and difficult. Low was the first Bowie LP that I really loved, and it’s still my favourite. On Low, a combination of bizarro pop and startling innovation negate the honky-tonk theatricality that dulled my connection to some of his work.

Aside from sharing an overtly experimental approach, Blackstar’s open connection to Low is intriguing. Warszawa’s synth sounds prop up the woozy Lazarus; an immediately recognisable harmonica hook from Low spikes the gut-wrenching final track I Can’t Give Everything Away.

The harmonica hook is taken from the song which marks the point where Low enters a wholly unexpected state. It initiates the transition from art-pop album to otherworldly soundscape. The song is called A New Career In A New Town. 

My neck hairs prickled when the penny finally dropped: Bowie was not simply using his glorious past to frame his present art as on his previous album, he was leveraging meaning from his whole career to frame his future. A new career in a new town.

Whatever lies beyond the end — an afterlife, utter nothingness, anything in between — Bowie is exiting with the nod and a wink of a man comfortable with himself and intrigued by what lies ahead.

As far as a final message goes, Blackstar is almost unbearably beautiful; as a piece of pop music addressing death, it’s an unparalleled statement; as a brazen appraisal of his whole career, it’s breathtaking. His parting gift is a powerful fillip for us all: be fearless, be true to yourself, step into the unknown. I can’t imagine how my approach to life will ever be quite the same now.

I always wanted to meet David Bowie. And in a weird way, after diving into Blackstar, I feel like I have.

Joe Sparrow : The Sandinista! Problem

Classic LPs without context can be excruciatingly hard to “get into.” When I first listened to Exile on Main Street, I found, to my astonishment, that I just couldn’t get into it. This inability was, frankly, a bit befuddling: it’s Exile On Main Street! What am I doing wrong?

I’d listen again and again, but find myself quickly lost in the sheer density of the smoke-and-booze-soaked tracks, and give up. I only persisted because I’d read enough articles which spilt superlatives over Exile on Main Street like blood in a slaughterhouse.

This isn’t the only album where I’ve experienced this feeling: like being the French exchange student in a room of hard-accented English-speaking school-kids. You kind-of understand what’s going on, but all the in-jokes are meaningless. And why are they wearing their ties that way? And why do they prefer Miss Knowles over Mr Brown?

Here are some other LPs that are hard to get into:

  • Sandinista!
  • Brian Eno’s Ambient series
  • Wu-Tang Forever
  • Loveless
  • Duck Rock
  • Metal Machine Music

The key to unlocking these dense, focussed, complex experiences is context: internal and external.

Internal — the question of how the transcendent moments of the album relate to the LP as a whole — is less bothersome: it’s something that comes with time and patience.

External context is more important in terms of access: how the album came to exist, and how the band reached a point where they made it. This part is the story, and it’s this part that stirs people into giving the album a chance in the first place.

In the end, it all clicked. Out of frustration, I’d listen to Beggar’s Banquet immediately prior to Exile… again, and gradually, it began to make sense, albeit without being able to fully enjoy it.

And then one day — appropriately half-way through Shine a Light — it all became stunningly clear how perfect the album was, and what every song meant within the context of all the others, and I sensed how the album came to be, at that point in time, by those people. It felt slightly magical as phrases, riffs and choruses started to fall, Tetris-like, correctly into place.

The thing is that Exile on Main Street isn’t really designed to be an easy LP to get into,  and this is especially true 40-odd years later. It’s a double album, for a start, and double albums are by definition obtuse and overwhelming.

This bothers me even more today, when the playlist is king, and the focus is almost entirely on individual songs. Who has the time or inclination to listen to a 20-track LP, in a world where every song should be a stand-alone hit?

Initially — and for many fruitless years — Sandinista! felt like a complicated mess. With perseverance, I started to see Sandinista! as the technicolour cousin to the Clash’s previous work. Where their prior LPs were relatively straightforward and black and white (and brilliant), Sandinista! is ultra-confident, lithe, experimental and funky. It’s a better album, and it’s more difficult because of it.

This experience is paralleled in a comparison between Beggars’ Banquet and Exile on Main Street: both brilliant, both stuffed with perfect songs, but where the first is essentially an album full of pop songs (albeit dirty, gritty ones), the second is imbued with a soulfulness that sets it apart.

Individual songs might be automatically timeless, but albums — especially challenging or exceptional ones — are not. And yet albums offer the richer listening experience. They need work and patience and understanding. What is the best way to embed context into music for a new generation of listeners?

Joe Sparrow : Gifting Music

One of the wonderful things about my life over the last few years is the number of fascinating people I’ve been lucky enough to count as new friends. Among them are Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle, three genuinely wonderful people who I kind of view as one three-pronged, fun-fuelled entity, as I only ever meet them in person all at once.

Being thrusting young futuristas, we keep in touch via social media, mainly.

This morning I replied to one of Taylor’s tweets while I was brushing my teeth*, pressed play on my iPod, and jumped into the shower. The song playing was Don’t Fight It, Feel It.

Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is one of the half-dozen albums I’d sling in the life-raft if I was to be stranded on a desert island. It is perfect in a thousand ways, of which follow just three: the wild variety of the songs on the album is awe-inspiring, the euphoria contained within them makes my skin prickle, and the simultaneous timeless/time-capsule nature of it is almost unique.

It’s an album that I always push on other people: try it, you’ll love it, you won’t guess what will happen next, but you’ll love what does. It’s perfect for both late nights and early mornings, for fuelling the rush before you go out and to nurture the comedown when you get back home afterwards.

Covered in suds, and with skin prickling, I decided, in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity, that I’d gift the LP to Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle. They’d love everything about it. Even better, they may never have heard it, and what a wonderful thing it would be to hear it for the first time.

But, wait: how do I give someone an album now? A really wonderful one? This is something I hadn’t really thought about before. Giving is a beautiful thing — so how does this work with music today?

The quandary:

  • I can’t send them CDs — I may as well send an eight-track tape and a spidery, paranoid note written in green biro;
  • A 12” record is no good either — I don’t think any of them have a record player (and don’t be fooled: most people don’t), and anyway, I’m not buying into the suspiciously publicised (and priced) fetishism of vinyl;
  • The idea of sending a download code is gross, and offers as much appeal as receiving a birthday voucher for a clothes store you hate: it’ll do the job, but making use of it will be a wholly joyless experience;
  • You can’t gift a Spotify stream.
  • An email containing a link to a torrent stream may as well sign off “with love and odour from my parent’s basement.” 
  • A Dropbox link to the files feels clinical, cold, industry.

The transference of music from the physical to the ephemeral is absolutely fine by me: the awful cabal of the record industry has withered, and music will never again be tied down to a silly disc. Hooray, etc.

But tactile interactions count for something, and while for most of the time I am totally happy with music’s physicality extending no further than sound-waves themselves, occasionally, well… there’s an un-human gap in functionality.

I recently visited a clothes shop that I love, and bought a new coat and shirt. I was really pleased. At the till, I remembered a good friend in the USA who likes the clothing label too, so I bought him a smart enamel badge, slipped it in an envelope, and posted it to him.

It made him happy, it made me happy, and an object had moved between us.

As for Taylor, Kaitlyn and Michelle? Well, they will need to go without. I ended up stuck and frustrated. Life’s infuriating truism is that so much good stuff is accompanied by a negative — the slice of chocolate cake that goes straight to your hips or the beautiful person with nothing interesting to say.

Maybe this universal dichotomy accounts for music’s ephemerality. Maybe we don’t get to enjoy gifting it, because this thing — so wonderful you want to own it and control it — cannot be owned or controlled.

That might be ultimately disappointing – but still makes more sense than paying £23 for a heavyweight gatefold vinyl pressing.

 

*It later transpired that I am still unable to determine nuance in 140 characters and got the wrong end of the stick, completely missing a joke, and so my replies became a death spiral of minor online humiliation. As always, a reminder from our social gods: Never Tweet.

Joe Sparrow : How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows

I recently bought two fat NYPD Blue boxsets for £5 from a second-hand store. I remembered the show from late-night Channel 4 in the 90s, a time when late-night Channel 4 was the place good imported TV shows went to die.

By any reasonable measure, NYPD Blue is now an anachronism.

Unlike the malleable story arcs of True Detective, thick with translucent plotlessness*, NYPD Blue’s storylines are almost comically direct, zipping at a dizzy lick from well-flagged plot point to well-flagged plot point.

The stories aren’t just spelt out in advance; they’re taken for granted. We’re all in on the scam, and we hop on NYPD Blue for the ride as you would a rollercoaster. The viewer scopes out the ups and downs in advance and then rides it on rails. And the fun is more real because of it.

David Simon, creator of the best TV show ever, The Wire, describes how he intentionally made the Wire’s storylines complex, long and foggy to separate the show from ‘unrealistic’ cop shows like — huh — NYPD Blue.

NYPD Blue isn’t The Wire. In fact, it’s replete with the kind of faults that would sink most shows.

The tonal qualities of the acting in NYPD Blue can sometimes be measured in inch-thick slices of ham, and the characters shuttle back and forth between cop cliches: seedy bars, choppy relationships, overtime forms, crappy coffee, powdered donuts and personal tragedy: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The stories are unadulterated slash ’n’ weep pulp fiction, gleefully veering into absurdity at every opportunity.

But here’s what that simple framework brings: space. Acres of grubby, smoggy, glorious space. 

Characters are given time to breathe and grow, despite the breakneck pace of the fast-talking-scamster bullshit storylines that surround it. The characters don’t grow much, but that’s not the point: they’re alive. It’s this focus on seemingly two-dimensional characters that make the show remarkable.

Essentially, NYPD Blue’s brilliance is in the rigidity of the show’s structure. Instead of trying to make ten different things fairly well, the focus is on portraying one thing brilliantly: the interaction between the humanity of the characters and the noise of the city.

Nuance of plot is secondary to finding out what happens when you draw characters with crayon and stick with them through thick and thin in a mad city.

NYPD Blue is addictive for the same reason that Instagram is so addictive. It seems stupid when you think about it: we are all carrying insanely advanced cameras in our pockets, and we take most pleasure from them when we shove shitty filters over them. It turns out that by picking from a simple set of options and washing out colours, scrubbing away detail and replacing complexity for noise, we create something more real, or at least more enjoyable.

Life is complex, but it doesn’t all need to be. Order out of chaos; and chaos out of familiarity. NYPD Blue does what it needs to truly be alive, and nothing more — and that’s more than most of us will ever do.

*Note: that meant to read “plotlines” but was autocorrected twice in a row. I assume that the mellifluous plotting of the show is crossing over to my own reality.

Joe Sparrow : Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine

I recently started a new job and had to share some #FunFacts about me with my new colleagues.

Racking my brain for suitable candidates was a much more fraught experience than I expected. Banality and humblebrags lurked at each turn, primed to translate my initial contact with 80 new workmates into a flurry of get-a-load-of-this-jerk emails.

The faintest whiff of desperation clung to my choices, all the same. One of them was this:

3) I have spent a moderately embarrassing amount of money collecting all but the first issue of Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine. (If you have a copy, please email me! :) )

Besides that heinous bracketed addendum, something else odd happened. It turns out that Grand Royal is a secret handshake: prising open societal loopholes and thrusting co-conspirators into a world of boyish* enthusiasm over odd stuff. 

New colleagues who I’d not even met, let alone learnt the names of, sidled up to me in the kitchen, initiating wide-eyed conversations about weird hip-hop cuts, Stüssy T-shirts and limited edition Adidas footwear. One conspiratorially rolled up his sleeve to show me a blue, limited edition wristwatch that had a photo of Mike D in a captain’s hat on the face.

I cooed pathetically over it; all because I’d mentioned a magazine that was published, sporadically, over six increasingly odd issues at the end of the last millennium.

Some people who didn’t know anything much about the B-Boys asked about Grand Royal, interested in the furtive conversations they’d seen. The first issue — I explained —  is almost impossible to get hold of, as they only printed a few thousand, and you don’t really see them outside of the USA. 

About once a year, they pop up on eBay, I continued, and I was bidding on a copy once, but I bowed out when bidding topped £200. (It turns out that one true hero has put the PDF of issue #1 online now.)

These interested parties often pronounced the magazine “Grand Royale”, with an “E”: Grand Roy-al.

I don’t correct them, because I too mispronounced it this way in 1997 when, in the Hanley branch of Mike Lloyd Music (RIP), I first saw a copy of Grand Royal (possibly issue 4, but maybe issue 6), which I later regretted not buying.

Also, I remember feeling silly when someone cool corrected me: of course it’s Grand-Royal-without-an-“E”; I must be conflating the name with that “Royale with cheese” bit in Pulp Fiction.

But looking back, I wonder if that connection between the Beastie Boys’ magazine and QT’s 90s movie behemoth is some sort of holistic proto-logic, surfacing from the depths of my consciousness.

Look at the similarities: Grand Royal and Pulp Fiction both are cultural grab-bags penned by outsider auteurs; cut-and-paste scrapbooks of hyper-aware creative madmen.

Bear with me here: on one hand Tarantino breathes life back into John Travolta, Little Green Bag, and Jheri Curls; on the other, three hyperactive hip-hop heads fund ten page Demolition Derby special features, cut-out-and-keep cardboard jeeps with protruding bass units, and interviews with Russell Simins pretending to be Russell Simmons.

Brimming with the skittering confidence of auteurs at their creative peaks, both QT and the Beasties transformed the obscure into the ultra-cool, and flipped the old into the new; all through a weird cross-cultural alchemy.

Grand Royal’s wild mix of this, that and the other has rarely been replicated in a magazine format, and it’s probably not even been fully replicated on the web — the perfect home for this kind of verge-of-ludicrous scrapbooking.

Today, maybe the curated best-of-the-web über-blogs like Boing Boing and Kotkke, or the quasi-gonzo output of Gawker, are closest in spirit to Grand Royal.

Some of the Grand Royal-isms — like bizarro meta-interviews with Weird Al — would (and do) comfortably sit on Gawker: this is a huge media platform that runs a blog written by a dog, after all.

However, I can imagine others — “Joey Buttafuoco’s back To School Wear For ’93” — being greeted with furrowed brows and short shrift.

Grand Royal was blogging before blogging: whatever the Beasties wanted in the mag went in the mag. I’m pretty sure some stuff they didn’t want in the mag went in too, simply because it had nowhere else to go and they figured it was the right thing to do.

This approach seems a simple reflex action today, when populating your Tumblr feed with whatever makes you you is a frictionless, instinctive action. But in 1996, it was a fairly revolutionary tactic, particularly on an international, high-profile platform.

Grand Royal ultimately could not sustain itself: three rich pop stars propped it up and then they moved on to new whizz-bang ideas.

And now, surely it’s time for a Grand Royal rebirth: 2015’s world of push-notifications, oddball niche Twitter streams and chuck-it-online-and-see-what-happens Buzzfeed listicles seems specifically designed to deliver Grand Royal’s mad excess in a way that might finally pay off. I’d subscribe in a  heartbeat.

*I know, I know, “boyish”. I’ve not met any women who are Grand Royal aficionados, but they are obviously out there, and I’m looking forward to greeting them with the same secret GR handshake.



all posts



2018
September
6Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)
January
23Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1


2017
November
15Spot the gif-ference*


2016
October
9Oasis’s “lost” third album: Forever… And A Day
September
28Oasis minus the fun
January
24Blackstar, Big Exit


2015
October
25The Sandinista! Problem
July
28Gifting Music
6How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows
May
24Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine
9Simon Cowell, political agitator
March
11I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will
January
29Gray’s Papaya
5Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time


2014
November
14ALBUMMED
October
22Everything, everything
8The Kids are all right
September
19Why I (almost) killed A New Band A Day
4I just figured out why I love pop music…
August
29Music streaming, scarcity and breadth vs. depth
26Scale x Time: How Spotify Works Right Now [Part 1]
18Are Sleaford Mods the best band in the UK? (Yes.)
7Bearable wearables
4Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context
July
16Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification
15A couple of paragraphs from an email I wrote to a friend about Tommy Ramone’s death, and rock fetishism

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