Friday, 25 February 2011

How to survive an open mic night

I’m standing watching a middle-aged man with the hair of George Lucas and the girth of Richard Griffiths sing an old Appalachian folk song about having sex with a twelve year-old girl. He’s wearing braces without irony and, I suspect, long johns. As he moves on to bellowing a chorus about how he’s going to remove her knickers with a dagger and screws his eyes shut to emphasise how this is a very serious moment, I’m finding it very hard to supress tears of laughter. “At least,” I think to myself, “it can’t get any more surreal.” Oh how wrong I am.

We’re in the upstairs room of the LHT Urban Bar in Whitechapel for the Spoonful of Poison open mic night. Downstairs is a traditional East End boozer where geezers are putting the world to rights, but up the rickety stairs is a whole different world. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. And landing in an episode of Father Ted.

Next up is the self-titled ‘worm lady’, the kind of woman who would be rejected by Britain’s Got Talent on sight for being too mental. She’s apparently a regular and delivers several poems about the sexual habits of worms in a slightly preachy headmistress style. She’s accessorising with a bum bag, which she’s managed to customise so she can nonchalantly sling it over her shoulder, and some neon pink socks. You wonder what tragedy has occurred in her life that she only has worms as a subject matter, until she gets on to her most ambitious verse yet – a treatise about how great civilisations are built on, yes, you guessed it, the hard work of worms. It’s surprisingly engaging, although the tears of laughter are once again streaming when she announces its arrival with probably the greatest sentence ever uttered: “This next one’s about civilisation…and worms.”

Thankfully there’s then a small break which gives us all a chance to calm down. I cast a wary eye around and end up talking to a very sweet poet with long flowing hair and an incredibly soft voice. She’s apparently an open mic regular and says that she comes for the sense of companionship. She gives me a CD even though she only has a couple left because she thinks I’ll enjoy it. She’s very excited when I tell her I’m writing an article about the night and tells me that it’s a shame that the talents of the performers are unknown outside of the open mic community. For a second I think she’s joking but then I realise she’s deadly serious.

A couple of non-descript comedians follow – one with musical accompaniment, one without, and then an acoustic Jack Johnson-meets-The Automatic act who are relatively forgettable. Another break and then the star turn of the night takes to the stage – Jazzman John Clarke. Clearly an open mic legend, the Jazzman plays a bamboo flute and recites surprisingly good beat poetry in the style of Gil Scott Heron. Except his subject matter isn’t the Bronx, but Lewisham. He looks a bit dirty and has huge glasses that make his eyes comically large but he’s the first act of the night that hasn’t made me cringe completely. He’s also a kindly figure, taking the chance in the interval to publicise several South London charity projects he’s involved with and ask us for clothes donations. If he got on the same bus as you, you’d probably try and avoid him, but he’s actually a nice guy.

If things had started to take a slightly less surreal turn, we’re soon back on track with the next couple of acts – a burlesque styled poet, a comedian whose routine entirely focuses on panda sex and a musical act whose commitment to tunelessness is almost commendable. As the singer howls like a banshee and bangs a synth indiscriminately, my eyes are desperately scanning the exit. Is it bad form to leave halfway through an act? By the time she gets to the shamanic chanting I reckon that this might actually be what hell sounds like. The bell signalling the end of the set sees palpable relief etched on everyone’s faces and also signals my cue to leave.

It’s been a somewhat overwhelming night. I’m still in a bit of a daze as I head home, but I muse that as mad as these people are, the fact they have a place they can express themselves and be encouraged has got to be positive. The kindly poet was right about the sense of community, and even the bad acts are received politely. It’s been a very entertaining night, if not for the reasons intended. I also leave with a vastly improved knowledge of the sex life of a worm. Which isn’t bad for a Thursday night.

Micky Flanagan @ The Churchill Theatre, Bromley

There couldn’t have been a better fit for Micky Flanagan’s East End boy-made-good routine than the slightly run down Churchill Theatre in Bromley. A south east London commuter town, its population largely consists of formerly working class people who’ve got together enough money to have a garden and send their kids to a nice school. Those in the audience know only too well the pitfalls of middle class living, and as Flanagan describes the social etiquette involved in everyday tasks such as shopping and saying hello to your neighbours there are plenty of wry smiles alongside the laughs.

Like many good comedians, Flanagan’s routine is about being a fish out of water. Not just in terms of being a Cockney who’s now expected to buy artisan bread, but also as a middle-aged man, a father and a husband. He admits to feeling lost a lot of the time, but it's this that makes him such an engaging on-stage figure. This outsider perspective has made him a keen observer, and it becomes clear that he gets a lot of material simply from watching people. There's a whole routine about the joys of peeping round curtains that manages to be universal but also unique to his sense of alienation. Another anecdote involves him watching the middle classes’ behaviour in his local supermarket; buying up the spaghetti carbonara while the working classes count themselves lucky to get a tin of alphabetti spaghetti. As he speaks you can imagine him stalking the aisles, learning from their alien behaviour like David Attenborough examining a gazelle.

He needn’t feel awkward though; the audience tonight couldn’t be further from viewing him as a cocky intruder. There's plenty of warmth directed at him from the get-go, and a cheer goes up as he admits that the level of success he’s achieved has lined his pockets nicely. His cheekiness is what people are attracted to, and as he smiles like a schoolboy up to no good; you can’t help but want him to succeed.

Tales of his East End childhood punctuate the set. Stories about his dad ‘Jimmy the Fish’ (a porter at Billingsgate market) as an opportunistic thief and old school husband hit the spot; especially an anecdote about him stealing a van full of hoovers and filling their tiny flat with them. His mum is also a recurring figure, a ghost of a way of life that his own son will never know. The image of her with a fag on, talking to her sisters about the menopause in the kitchen is so well described that it’s like she’s there on stage too.

But it's when Flanagan begins discussing relationships that the laughs really flow. “My wife and me are perfect for each other,” he says. “Because she loves multi-tasking and I like doing fuck all.” And somehow he gets away with it. Later in the set he analyses Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ to show how it presents the cracks in an apparently loving relationship – it's an old routine, but one that still has legs.

The encore sees him doing two routines that have become pretty recognisable and visibly suffer because of it. His schtick about how teenagers are obsessed with fried chicken falls a little flat and his ‘Out Out’ routine, which has recently been pilfered for a 118 advert, also suffers from overexposure. The gag is about how British people have different levels of being on the town – popped out (going to the shops), out (down the pub) and out-out (a night in a club). It's a great observational joke, which is why it’s a shame that most of the crowd already know the punch line. “I have to do it,” says Flanagan, looking a little weary. “It’s the name of the tour, and it’s practically in the contract.” He just about pulls it off though – mainly because he hasn’t yet reached Michael McIntyre levels of ubiquity. And also because of that cheeky grin.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Who owns a joke?

The row about joke ownership continued gathering momentum this week with the news that Ed Byrne has quit Twitter after clashing, once again, with Naked Jungle presenter Keith Chegwin. The two comedians came to blows over Cheggers constant posting of other people’s jokes, with Byrne calling him out over what he saw as an infringement of copyright. The Chegster however, remains unrepentant, claiming that comedians have a long history of joke sharing and that since his tweets have largely been from dead comedians, who the hell is going to complain anyway?

There is certainly a case to be made for either side and it is hard, perhaps, not to feel that comedians are being precious about what are, in the end, words strung together to make people laugh. The best comedy is a reflection of the world we live in- our attitudes, our weaknesses, and our prejudices. When you watch a comedian you are laughing along precisely because you recognise the idea being portrayed. Is it therefore not conceivable that two human beings, comedians or otherwise, have come up with the same witty response to a situation? Of course it is.

However, to downplay the argument is to forget that as trivial as this might seem, coming up with killer gags is a comedian’s job. Just as you would be peeved if someone gained acclaim from the boss for work that you had done, comedians are naturally upset that their material is being pilfered without due credit being given.

The debate has been escalated by the fact that new technology, in particular twitter, has made sharing jokes far easier. While this is clearly positive, for those whose work has been stolen it must be incredibly galling. Imagine if your job was to make people laugh. To watch that witty thought you’ve had on the bus zoom around cyberspace without so much as a thanks very much, and at lightning speed, must make your heart sink. Pre- internet you might have been at risk of a handful of imitators. Now your material is broadcast to thousands. And even if every one of them cries with laughter, it’s scant consolation. This is material that you can never use again.

With twitter’s constant competing hum of voices forming white noise, it is easy to lose track of who has said what. Preserving your ideas, and material, is therefore of paramount importance. Comedians like Tim Vine and Jimmy Carr are particularly under threat from this culture of joke sharing. While the 140 character limit is the perfect fit for their snappy one liners, both men have fallen foul of the retweet button and find themselves unable to perform material because it has already become too familiar, or been passed off by someone else.

To a certain extent, twitter has changed the landscape of comedy. Twenty years ago, in the dark days PT (pre twitter) alternative comedians ruled the roost. Nowadays people’s attention spans are shorter and comedy is also becoming more compact. Jokes have been revived from Christmas crackers and are now seen, not as filler, but as the main attraction. The proximity of comedians in people’s everyday lives also mean that they are now literally household names- not just on your TV but on your laptop, on your phone, tweeting you as you sit on the DLR. This new culture is one of the reasons comedians are the new rockstars. When Michael McIntrye can sell out the O2 night after night, comedy is big business. And protecting your business interests is essential.

Cheggers, still stuck in the days of the working man’s club where comedians largely repeated the same tired gags about mother in laws doesn’t see this. But then, if he can’t move with the times and feels that he has to recycle other people’s gags all the time, maybe it’s time to look at another career. I hear there’s soon going to be an opening for a Libyan president.

Crocodiles/ Cloud Nothings/ Paris, Suit Yourself @ Barfly

Every band likes to think that they’re making a sound that no one on earth has ever made, but halfway through Paris Suit Yourself’s blister inducing set, it becomes clear that these guys genuinely are. Howling, scratchy, feedback heavy, tracks from their delightfully named debut ‘My Main Shit Stain’ are a little bit TV On The Radio and a little bit Ol’ Dirty Bastard - but completely their own.

This is largely thanks to the unique presence of singer Luvinsky Atche, who prowls the stage like a man in need of a strait jacket, mumbling, groaning, and tearing at his clothes. Around him it sounds like the world has ended. At one point the band make a sound like a samba party taking place on a broken down Magic Roundabout. All the while they groan and screech like they’re trying to pick fights with their own bodies. For sheer spectacle it’s incredible, as a performance art piece about the fragility of the psyche it would work wonderfully, but largely it’s a tuneless ego trip. It’s also brain-meltingly loud, especially after a weekend on the lash.

Thankfully, Cloud Nothings, the main reason I’ve journeyed to Camden tonight, don’t disappoint. The sound is so polished and so perfectly spiky that it’s easy to forget that these guys can’t even drink in their native US. Every song is a pop punk gem, bringing to mind Dookie era Greenday and Blink 182 before they were awful. As each thrashing riff starts up and singer Dylan Baldi’s voice cracks and strains, you can practically smell the spot cream and rebellion. Despite having been formed just over a year ago, the group have already managed to release two albums, showing that they’re not taking this whole music thing lying down. Even so, it feels like the band should be playing their school’s talent competition as they lark around and make jokes about apple sauce. There's plenty of cheekiness on display as well. “This is the first tour we’ve played in a while where everyone has proper drug songs” smirks Dylan with a grin that lets us know that he’s no stranger to blocking his door with draught excluders to stop the tell-tale smell of weed seeping into his parent’s bedroom.

If Paris Suit Yourself have been at the hallucinogenics and Cloud Nothings have been puffing the magic dragon, then it’s clear where their supply came from - the cool kids in the school yard - Crocodiles. Some bands ooze charisma and rock 'n' roll star quality. Crocodiles are one of them. Parts Iggy Pop, parts Johnny Rotten, parts Lou Reed, there’s so much attitude and confrontation on-stage that you want to tell them to go to their bedrooms. Especially when Brandon Welchez sneers that the lights need to be turned down “So you can’t see my zits”

A lot of the bands from the lo- fi/surf rock scene are too strung out to be professional, but even when they’re covering everything in a fuzzy blanket; Crocodiles remain a tight and focused unit, clearly hell bent on world domination. While bands like Tame Impala or No Age seem just to be about having fun, Crocodiles take everything very seriously. This is not just about getting the money together to buy their next round. Their sound then, is not only swirly and trippy, but anthemic as well. Chugging through songs from 'Sleep Forever', there’s a sense that they might be a group who will outlive the constraints of the scene that has birthed them. They’ve certainly got the attitude. Let’s just hope the feds don’t pull over the tour bus before they get there. It’s going to be like Cheech and Chong in there.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Dead Rockstars: A Guide

Fancy spending a morbid day checking out the final resting places of rock's brightest and best? Of course you do. Good job we made this list of the most likely places to spot a celebrity ghost then...

Flat 9, 12 Curzon Place, W1J

Kill two birds with one stone (so to speak) and start your tour with a visit to the unluckiest, and most rock and roll, address in history. Originally owned by Harry Nilsson, the flat was the final resting place of The Mamas & the Papas singer Mama Cass, who was finished off by a ham sandwich on the 29th July 1974.

In a move more befitting of a rock star, The Who's Keith Moon snuffed it in the same bedroom on the 7th September 1978 after taking a massive overdose of a prescribed anti-alcohol drug. Rather strangely, neither of these deaths put off Keith's band mate Pete Townshend who purchased the flat from Nilsson shortly after Moony's demise.

Hotel Samarkand, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, W11 2NS

Way before it had become a cliché, Jimi Hendrix was a rock and roll trailblazer, choking on his own vomit on the 18th September 1970 at this London crash pad. The hotel has since been pulled down, but if you're the kind of person that gets their kicks from being close to dead people (and lets face it, if you're reading this you probably are) then why not book a stay at the new development that has opened on the site?

Until the 18th September 2011, the Cumberland is running a special Hendrix promotion which includes a bottle of Jack Daniels, an evening turndown treat (!) and breakfast the following morning for around £399 a night (based on two people sharing). Plus, good news for all you charidee fans. A £10 donation to the Jimi Hendrix Foundation will be made for every package booked. Ouija boards are not included in the price...

Queens Ride, Barnes, SW15 5RG

There are few opportunities to get as close to a rockstar's resting place than this. On the 16th September 1977, Marc Bolan of T-Rex careered his girlfriend's Mini into a tree in Barnes. Unlike Marc, the tree still remains and is maintained by the T-Rex fan club who have a permanent memorial erected there.

Heathrow Airport, UB3 5AP

According to folklore, the departures lounge of Heathrow Airport was the unfortunate final destination for much of the Sex Pistol's bassist Sid Vicious. On her way to scatter her son's ashes over the grave of his lover Nancy Spungen, Mama Vicious accidentally tripped, spilling much of her sons powdery remains over the floor and sending him spiralling up into the airport's ventilation system. Sure, it's only a rumour, but it is a bloody good one

Golders Green Cemetery, NW11 7NL

A veritable who's who of the decomposing celebrity world, Golders Green is home to a whole galaxy of stars, including jazz supremo Ronnie Scott, crooner Matt Monro, the composer Ivor Novello and chirpy punk geezer Ian Dury. If you feel you haven't seen enough of the 'Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll' star by the time you're done in the North London grave fest, you can also swing by Richmond Park where a memorial bench overlooks his favourite view of our fine city. A built-in headphone port allows mourners and fans to connect and hear a selection of eight songs plus Dury's appearance on Desert Island Discs.

Kensal Green Crematorium, W10 4RA

Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury was cremated here. His ashes were reportedly scattered on the shores of Lake Geneva, but die-hard fans may still want to pay visit to the place where Freddie went gently into the good night. A slightly less morbid venue in which to pay tribute is the singer's last London residence, located at 1 Logan Place, Kensington. Queen heads, including a massive number of Japanese fans, have made pilgrimages to cover the outside wall with messages of love.

67 Overhill Road, East Dulwich, SE22

By the time he got round to dying of alcohol poisoning and vomit gargling on February 19th 1980, it was pretty old hat. He also technically didn't die in the house, croaking it outside in his car. However, Bon Scott, lead singer of AC/DC during their most famous period ('Back in Black', 'Highway To Hell' etc..) was voted the number one frontman of all time by 'Classic Rock' magazine, so who are we to argue? His grave is also the most visited in Australia, so while he may be unoriginal, he's clearly loved. Pay your respects with a trip to South London.

The O2 Arena SE10/ Foxbury Manor, Chislehurst, BR7 6LY

Candlelit vigils took place in the days following The King of Pop™ Michael Jackson's death at the site that was due to host his final tour. A year on, fans and impersonators met for another memorial. Knowing the level of devotion Wacko's fans exhibit, this is going to be a death lover's hotspot for some time to come. If you take a short train ride into the leafy suburb of Chislehurst (which clings on into Zone 5), you can also have a nose at the house Jackson was due to live in while he performed his O2 dates. The 28 bedroom, three-storey pile – built in the 1800s – has quarters for 20 staff as well as an underground cinema, music room, indoor swimming pool, lake and private wood and cost £21,548 a month. It is also built above haunted caves. Of course.

Credit Crunch London: A Guide

With that nasty George Osborne slashing things left, right and centre like some kind of demented Freddy Kruger a-like, it's a cold world out there. Especially if you aren't getting the winter fuel allowance. A city like London can be the cruellest mistress of all to the credit-crunched, giving with one hand (lovely parks to wander around) and taking away with the other (the onset of pneumonia)

So what can you really do for free nowadays that's actually worthwhile? Could you really have a day in London without spending any money...?

The answer is, pretty much, yes. Your main stumbling blocks are obviously food and transport, which are the most crippling of all your daily needs. The good news is that most places in London are actually a lot closer than you think and if you're willing to walk between them you'll brush up on your geography and get fit at the same time. Score!

Food-wise, there's something in that old adage “there's no such thing as a free lunch”. Unless that is, you're Krishna. Those dudes prepare a vegetarian meal every day for people to come and help themselves to at their temple off Soho Street, and they also set up mobile stalls in Kentish Town, Camden Town and Kings Cross every day except Sunday. While you may be forced to engage in religious discussion with them, they seem like a pretty peaceful sort of people, and if they're loading up your plate with a vegetarian curry you can't really complain.

Assuming you've done that and you've got your walking boots on, here is the best free, year-round, entertainment the capital has to offer.


Dilettantes (that's art lovers to you and me) are pretty much spoiled for choice in London. All your biggies (National Gallery, British Museum, The Tates etc...) are free to wander about all year round – even Osborne decided against cutting that. As long as you avoid being seduced by the gift shop or the lattes, and keep away from the special exhibitions then you could get away with gawping at a whole load of classic works of art completely gratis. Places like the Saatchi Gallery, Wellcome Collection and Serpentine are also always free, whilst our Arts Team suggest a potter along Cork Street (if you're with your gran) or Vyner Street, if you like your art conceptual. For a real blag check out first Thursdays in which East London galleries throw open their doors until late and often offer free booze.


The Scoop run a free outdoor film festival throughout autumn which is always worth checking out: this year the programme included The Hurt Locker and Pretty Woman. For year-round film fun, why not check out a premiere? While standing in Leicester Square can be a cold and dispiriting experience (especially if the premiere in question is Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel) you may get to eyeball a genuine bona fide celebrity. I once saw Johnny Depp wearing an especially fetching hat. Swoon.


Pure Groove Records, Rough Trade East and Beyond Retro all offer free in-stores which can be a great way to see new bands before they get big. RTE for example has previously played host to the XX, Mumford and Sons and Black Lips. If you want to get up close and sweaty with those who've already made it, HMV Oxford Street hosts regular events where you can meet bands, see them perform tracks and get stuff signed. Good news for all you Olly Murs fans.

So rather than stay in, feeling sorry for yourself and burning the Lib Dem manifesto for warmth, why not get out there in the big wide world? Just try and avoid Osborne and his scissor hands...

The Best Folk Music In London: A Guide

I'm going to throw it out there- folk is now cool. It's no longer the preserve of old men with beards singing about boating disasters from the 1870's (although if you like that kind of thing, it's still around as well) Nu folk, with an indie twist a la Mumford is de rigour a la moment. Y'know the sort of thing- music people wouldn't have been able to make if Dylan hadn't gone electric, sung by pretty boys like Johnny Flynn and girls with bright cheeks like Laura Marling. So, where to go to hunt out this folk? Grab your plaid shirts and allow us to lead the way with our complete guide, snappily titled 'The Best Folk Music in London'...

Musical Traditions Club at the King and Queen

If you take your folk seriously and want to learn more about its roots, why not come along to the monthly musical traditions club which showcases the hairier, more angora sweater loving sections of the folk community. Gaelic and Scots music abounds, all played on instruments you've never heard of. If you want tunes that put you in mind of cliffs and wild windy moors then this is the place to come and nod appreciatively.

The Betsey Trotswood, Clerkenwell

A small but perfectly formed central London venue that offers freshly cooked food, a large range of single malt whiskies and real ales and a quirky line up of alt and traditional folk, acoustic, bluegrass and open mic poetry nights. There's a cellar if you fancy getting subterranean and a candlelit assembly room for some dark ages thrills and spills.

Half Moon, Putney

It's a pretty good venue all week round but the Moon comes into its own with two nights in particular- Half Moon Unsigned and Good Voodoo, weekly showcases of the best acoustic acts around. Both are ludicrously cheap and have enough acts to fill a sizeable barn. Generally you can expect to hear some nu-folk, bluegrass and indie tinged Americana.

Union Chapel

One of the most atmospheric venues in London. As the name suggests its an old chapel, complete with stained glass windows and the sense of grandeur that only places of worship inspire. Gigs here have the ability to be spine tingling and there is an impressive folk line up to keep even the most grizzled among you smiling.

Le Quecumbar

Le Quecumbar is well known for its jazz nights, which are pretty awesome, but if you're after folk with an Eastern European gypsy kind of spin, you'll also be well catered for here. All of the performers come with amazing back stories about keeping alive songs that have been passed down from gypsies in a small area of Transylvania called Kalotaszeg or having to pawn their shoes to buy a violin in order to be taught by Hungarian masters.

Cut A Shine Nights- across East London

Ad hoc indie tinged barn dances that are hosted across London. Previous events have taken place at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club and Stokey Town Hall. As well as live music there are DJs spinning country, blue grass, Irish and Scots and dance lessons so you can learn the steps. According to the organisers the events are “rip-roaring, thigh-slapping, pavement-stomping, exhilarating, heart thumping, and blood pumping” which is all you can really ask for from a club night.

Grouplove - Grouplove: Review

Grouplove have decided to keep things short and sweet with their debut, a self-titled six song EP, and it's easy to see why. They're having too much fun to care about whether anyone likes them.

Sounding like Modest Mouse's happy clappy cousins, the LA/NY/LDN natives are full of the joys of summer, albeit the kind of summer that only happens in American surf films. Not for them a picnic of scotch eggs in Hyde Park. These guys are all about ordering lobsters and downing black label, riding to the beach with your top down, holding hands with pretty girls and getting giddy. Their ethos is perhaps best summed up on Naked Kids with the lines "Naked kids, running wild, and free/ It's summer time fun, relax and stay young."

There's nothing to worry about here, nothing except the moment. And the moment is being filled with Beach Boys harmonising, twinkly guitar and so much joie de vivre that you can't help but wish you lived in California. Unless, of course, you do. As you listen you can imagine people doing cartwheels along the sand, and it's hard not to raise a smile, especially when the band seem to be imploring you to be their friend in every song. Come and join us! they shout. The water's warm!

One of the true joys of the record is its delivery, courtesy of singer Christian Zucconi's whining, sloth-like drawl, which envelops proceedings in a hazy cloud. He sounds like he's just dragged himself in from the beach to lay down some tracks, or been recently woken from an all night bender, and this separates the record from any sort of tweeness it might be in danger of possessing. Grouplove manage to keep it cool by having a slight sneer to their music, like the aforementioned Modest Mouse, and Zucconi's delivery even evokes the doyen of indie Conor Oberst, lending their cutesy jingly rhythms an automatic street cred.

The only moment of darkness comes halfway through with Gold Coast, which has a more industrial clanky sound and features lyrics designed to sober up any party going youngster. As the band suddenly start biting their nails, worrying about finding peace of mind and what's going to happen in the future, you long to tell them that there will be plenty of time for all that, and they better get back to the surf because it's totally going down at the beach house.

Thankfully by the time Getaway Car lollops along, the guys have realised that dealing with problems is for pussies and that the best thing to do when life gives you lemons is not to make lemonade, but to take a road trip with people you love. Oh, and get so mashed up that you don't even notice the mistakes you're making. After all, when the sun's hot and jumbo jets are flying over hard, life can't be so bad.

Frankie & The Heartstrings - Hunger: Review

Sunderland five-piece Frankie & The Heartstrings have a name straight out of an American diner, but a sound that gurgles with all the drama of the British kitchen sink. Produced by Edwyn Collins, their debut album has been much hyped by all the right people and plenty of touring and festival appearances mean that Hunger is going to be greedily received.

Opener Photograph gets things off to an energetic start, its higgledy-piggeldy clatter rock 'n' roll guaranteed to have indie discos kicking off. Next up comes the Spandau Ballet aping Ungrateful which adds synths and heartbreak into the mix. Third track Hunger returns to jerky rock while Possibilities goes a little bit '50s rock 'n' roll, a modern day Peggy Sue. Later tracks slow things down to dark, indie balladeering, sounding a bit like a robot writing a love song about XTC. The overall experience is one of indie's most catchy and life affirming moments being shoehorned together, and while there is nothing cynical about it- these guys genuinely do have passion behind the music they're making- it does at times feel a little like music by rote.

Yet every song is perfectly crafted indie pop, slickly executed, and combining just the right mix of fragile vocals, spiky guitars and synth work. Getting Collins on board most have been a dream come true, as Orange Juice's stamp is deeply ingrained in the band's sound. However, there's also plenty of classic indie elements in here - The Smiths and Joy Division of course, plus Dexy's Midnight Runners, as well as the great and the good from the world of indie-rock over the last few years in the forms of Good Shoes, Maxïmo Park, a bit of Franz Ferdinand, a pinch of Jack Peñate, some Kaiser Chiefs, The Futureheads and the like.

With The Vaccines on the rise, Frankie & The Heartstrings may have come to the fore at just the right time. Certainly if there's ever a moment their style of indie rock is going to be gratefully received, it's going to be now. Any one of these songs has the potential to be a dance floor filler and that's what they've been designed for. There is nothing too original here, nothing big nor clever neither, but then if you like guitars and songs about teenage love you're going to be well catered for. Overall the feeling is of forgetting everything except singing along with a huge grin on your face. On the strength of this album, Frankie & The Heartstrings might not survive to pass on their wisdom to the class of 2012, but it won't be for lack of trying. And if they bring a sound that's a little more themselves next time, there's every possibility open to them.

The 25 Dumbest Band Names

There are a lot of bands with very, very, silly names out there. I mean, what's wrong with something nice and simple like Robson and Jerome? Guys?... Guys?...

1.Enuff Z'Nuff
2.Joe Lean and The Jing Jang Jong
3.Limp Bizkit
7.Fountains Of Wayne
8.Bell Biv DeVoe
9.Bone, Thugs N' Harmony
10.The Goo Goo Dolls
12.Lez Zeppelin (an all female 'Zep tribute act)
13.Eagle Eye Cherry
14.Fake Bush
15.Proxy Music
16.Hootie and The Blowfish
17.Wet, Wet, Wet
18.Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip
21.Def Leppard
22.The Ting Tings
23.The The
25.Bowling For Soup

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Summer Camp @ Clarks, Regent Street

Let's face it, if any band are going to be at home in a shoe shop it's going to be Summer Camp. Aside from maybe a library or a boutique selling artisan bread and cutesy handmade jewellery, there couldn't be more of a perfect fit for their twee and dreamy sound than to be surrounded by floral desert boots and the smell of vintage leather.

The sense of whimsy and longed for childhood dreams created by their music is only added to by the fact that the last time most of us were in Clarks was when we were buying our school shoes. Branches of Clarks have a particular smell, and as we're ushered in off Regent Street it all comes flooding back: the parental anger as you begged for a pair of trainers that lit up as you walked, the disappointment at the 'sensible' black leather shoes that were your fate, and, best of all, that electric machine that measured the size of your feet with the metal bar. There was something so exciting about that moment you thought it was going to crush your toes, and the joy you felt when you'd gone up half a size. Sigh.

This acoustic set from Summer Camp forms part of a Clarks Originals concert series in partnership with Clash magazine. It's free, plus there are some discounts on shoes that mean while you watch you can also browse for your size fives – although naturally everyone is too polite and pays rapt attention to the group. There are only about twenty of us squashed into the upstairs display area, many of whom are bemused tourists dragged in by an eager man handing out flyers. This, coupled with years of being told to behave properly in shoe shops, means that there's a slightly stilted atmosphere. Polite clapping follows each song, but it all feels a bit strange.

Despite this, Summer Camp put on an extremely polished show. While no one could accuse them of being rock and roll, tonight's lack of squelchy synth-work means that their sound is a lot more raw than expected. Despite wearing adorable animal jumpers, there's a lack of innocence to their live sound which just doesn't come across on the EP.

Tall and imposing, Jeremy Warmsley strums violently at the guitar and almost makes it sound like a classical model. The vocals are also tighter and sound less sleepy than they do on record. Elizabeth Sankey especially has a prowling quality to her voice that makes much more of an impact in the close quarters of the shop. In half an hour they manage to rattle through much of their 'Young' EP, but the fact that it's so stripped back means the songs are barely recognisable and are often the better for it. Everyone loves synths, but there's something about this back to basics approach that really suits their style. Possibly it's the fact that Warmsley has folk pedigree, but taking their lo-fi sound to its logical conclusion makes the songs seem fresher and means they're far more resonant.

The set's newbies also benefit from this more rough and ready style. A frankly terrifying highlight is 'I Want You' in which Sankey let's us know in a growling huntress tone of voice that if she wanted us, she could have us. And then she'd bind our feet together so that we couldn't escape. Even Warmsley looks a little bit scared. Let's hope she at least buys him a nice pair of brogues.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Brit Awards 2011: The Winners

Hands were clapped, backs were slapped and the music industry drunk too much champagne last night as the winners of the Brit Awards 2011 were announced at Greenwich's O2 arena.

The event, presented by James Corden, threw up few surprises with Plan B announced as Best British Male and Take That walking away with Best British Group. Performances on the night included Rihanna with a medley of her more raunchy hits and turns from Adele and Tinie Tempah.

A full list of the night's winners follows below:

Mastercard British Album-
Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

Best British Single-
Tinie Tempah- Pass Out

Best British Male- Plan B

Best British Female- Laura Marling

Best British Group- Take That

Best British Breakthrough Act- Tinie Tempah

Best British Producer- Markus Dravs

Best International Album- Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

Best International Male- Cee Lo Green

Best International Female- Rihanna

Best International Group- Arcade Fire

Best International Breakthrough Act - Justin Bieber

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Making music with brain waves: An interview with Finn Peters

When I first read about Finn Peters I was confused, disturbed and very intrigued. Years of buddying up to science types and researching things the average man on the street couldn't even spell has mean that he's part of a pioneering group of musicians using brainwave technology to create music. In other words, he pops on a headset, plugs himself into a computer and creates jazzy trip hop-type sounds by recording the activity of his grey matter. Ahead of his group's performance at the Vortex Jazz Club we had a chat about the possibilities that are created when the brain is used as an instrument...

In as non-scientific a nutshell as possible, how do the headsets work?

Well, the guys that invented them have patented them and so they're pretty cagey about letting us know how they work. From what I understand the software mirrors the sort of patterns your brain makes when it is in deep states of concentration and so when you are plugged in, it responds to the beta waves created by your brain, which are associated with concentration.

How is the overall sound created? Is every member of the band making a different sound using their brainwaves to create an overall melody?

You can do that, or you can manage the software so it puts every person in control of different aspects of one musical entity. So when you're making a sound, one person will be controlling the frequency, one person might control the filter, one might control how loud the sound is.

How much nuance can you get from the headsets?

It's all based on how much focus you have. The harder you concentrate the higher the pitch will go for example. They did lots of experiments in the lab and found that musicians tend to be able to concentrate a lot over short periods of time which means that we are able to have a sustained level of control with them and therefore get more from the sound.

Can you see it becoming more accurate in the future? You can currently control individual sounds but do you envision a time when you'd be able to think of songs in your head and have a computer play them?

That's really what I'm hoping to do. If we could even get to the stage where we could get a computer to play 'Ba Ba Blacksheep' it would be amazing. It would be Nobel Prize-winning stuff. I definitely think it's possible, as they're already doing something similar using this technique. When we were first experimenting, Mick Grierson (the man behind the software) hooked me up to the computer and it flashed up a load of musical notes. You thought of one of them and out of the 64 notes on screen it would pick up which one you were thinking of.


I just couldn't believe it. It was that experiment that got me into doing this.

Do you get different sounds from different situations? If, for example, you wanted to convey anger or sadness could you do that?

Sort of. Different conditions certainly give you different results. When we were recording we did an experiment measuring my brainwaves when I was asleep. They were playing me different sine waves whilst I slept and then we looked at the patterns the waves made which altered a lot.

How have people responded?

Everyone seems to be really interested in what we're doing. We did one London gig and people were queuing round the block, but it has been hard to get gigs because a lot of people don't understand whether it's science or art. Or they think that it's just not possible.

Can you see this being a commercial venture? Perhaps this kind of software could enable people to create songs from their homes or imagine songs in their bedrooms...

Definitely. A lot of the applications would be very helpful for people who can't play an instrument for whatever reason, if they're unable to use their limbs for example. They could wear a headset and just be thinking of music. There are loads of different uses for it. I think it's an invention with a lot of legs.

It seems like it could potentially be extremely exciting...

The best part for me is that it's a different way of writing music. It's not just me sitting down with a pen and paper; it's me strapping on some crazy gear and experimenting a bit. More than that though it provokes discussion. It gets people thinking. We're not encouraged to do that very much in this country. They like to keep us calm and buying things and not actually thinking for ourselves. Anything that gets us doing that has to be a positive.

London Landmarks - London Dungeon

Value: 1
Queues: 5
Shop: 7
Family-friendly: 4
Enjoyment: 4

Total: 21/50

It was during my last visit to the London Dungeon that I realised what an awful human being I am. The scene was a spooky chamber where we were being played a video about Jack the Ripper's exploits. There was plenty of gory detail and people's nerves were frayed. Suddenly everything went pitch black. “The ripper is amongst us,” snarled the voice-over. “Get out of the room while you still can.” I fled. Never have I run so fast. Pushing aside tourists, I made it out of the room before anyone else, leaving my family to the mercy of the Ripper's knife. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that I would never be that person who saves their loved ones from a burning building. I'd just look after myself and let them smoulder.

Slightly more grown up but just as selfish I returned to find the London Dungeon almost completely altered. Gone was the reliance on animatronic thrills and spills. Instead real-life actors had been drafted in, showing that in reality, the most scary thing in the world is not a horror film or the global war on terror, but a man with fake blood on his face jumping out at you from the shadows. The acting varies quite a lot. Some of those playing dungeon masters and put-upon wenches do so with an air of barely concealed weariness, their eyes screaming, “I'm better than this! I've done Shakespeare! Didn't you see me as drug dealer three in The Bill?!” Others are excellent, remaining in character throughout. We're not traditionally a nation that likes joining in, but you're swept along in many of the stories, as full of hokum as they are.

The problem is that it's all a little cheesy. While you desperately want to believe that you're locked in a desperate struggle for survival, in reality there's no escaping that this is a tourist attraction. Illuminated signs showing you where the fire exits are located are clearly a necessity but they do somewhat ruin the atmosphere when you're supposedly trapped in the bakery that caused the Great Fire of London. Equally it's hard to be terrified on the boat ride to doom when you're told to keep your arms and legs inside at all times, and those with heart problems are escorted to one side.

The historical events that have been picked are also pretty odd. While the Sweeney Todd experience has me squeezing my friend's hand, and a section on body-snatching is pretty scary, the fire as more of an inconvenience than anything and a room featuring Bloody Mary only raises a shrug. Especially as they don't really explain who she was, leaving the tourists confused as to why we're watching a woman in a bodice screaming about burning protestants.

Far more hair-raising is the room where once again I find myself face to face with the Ripper, this time in a recreation of an East End pub. A chirpy young actor playing an East End landlord with a bit too much of an accent explains that we're in the tavern on the anniversary of the Ripper's first murder. Would he strike again? Of course he would. After ten minutes of building us into a frenzy the lights go out and the Ripper, dressed as the Phantom of the Opera for some unknown reason, jumps out from a cupboard. Even though you know it's coming it still makes you jump. I do that silly little gasp scream thing and feel embarrassed that the tourists next to me are looking bored and dreaming of the gift shop.

I did stay and make sure my companion was OK though. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

Milk Maid

Over the last few weeks our new music recommendations have been pretty electronica-heavy. Blame that pesky James Blake for turning our heads and our hearts towards post-dubstep sonic invention. Anyway, this week we're back in less bewitching territory with Milk Maid, a band who grew up listening to Pavement, not Tricky.

Milk Maid are from Manchester, where a lot of great stuff seems to be happening at the moment. And about time. Finally Manc music-makers are no longer having to rely on the legacy of the Hacienda, tales about how they totally once saw Tony Wilson sign a contract with the blood of Ian Curtis, or Noel bloody Gallagher. No siree. MM are striking out on their own. They're the newish project of Martin Cohen, previously from fuzzy grunge types Nine Black Alps. We always rather liked the Alps but, as ever, the NME built them up, destroyed them, threw their bones to the wolves and danced around a bonfire of their torched remains. Not that Martin has let it get him down. He's picked himself up, dusted himself off and started making music that retains the fuzzy driving rhythms of his old band and takes it into a more swirling surf pop direction.

Perhaps that's why the sound is so much fun. Hindsight is 20:20 and, armed with it, Cohen is just able to make music that makes you smile. He's done the whole being in the spotlight thing. He knows that unless you're the Rolling Stones, all that gets you is a couple of backstage blowjobs and a magazine cover to show your grandchildren. So now he makes music that's just him having a jolly good time, sometimes solo, sometimes with his mates. Of course it helps that he has talented musician mates and not ones that work in Nando's. The rest of the band is made up of the dudes from Weird Era, and with their backing he's able to achieve a meatier sound.

Milk Maid - Such Fun by neumagazine

The band have been playing shows alongside Male Bonding, Smith Westerns and Titus Andronicus which probably tells you where you should be slotting their music. Plus there are three songs on their Myspace which hint at a childhood spent listening to, amongst others, Guided By Voices. 'Can't You See' sounds like that guy who initiates a sing song at a beach party, 'Such Fun' sounds like The Vaselines with the female bits taken outs and 'Girl' is Tom Petty's 'American Girl' if it had been done by The Shins. And it's all fun with a capital F.

We're not really sure when this whole dreamy pop thing is going to end, but we hope it's not for a while yet. As much as we love a bit of synth experimentalism, sometimes you just can't bit a nice bit of sun inducing pop. Watch out. When summer comes Milk Maid's wares are going to be in high demand.

Monday, 14 February 2011

London Landmarks - London Eye

Value: 3
Queues: 6
Shop: 2
Family-friendly: 9
Enjoyment: 7

Total: 27/50

My friend is angling her blackberry around. When she points it south (hello Mum!) it tells us that we're in Lambeth. When she points it towards Big Ben it tells us that we're in Westminster. We're suitably impressed and set about tweeting pictures of ourselves suspended in the clouds. Self-promotion never stops. Even at 135 metres in the air.

It's an overcast day but the 'flight' (now sponsored by new partners EDF, as we are reminded fairly frequently) is still impressive. Half an hour passes in the blink of an eye and, aside from a slightly stressful moment during embarkation where I worry that I'll be tipped into the Thames, I rarely notice that we're moving. Everything is still and even though it's drizzly we're amazed at how far we can see. As residents of the fine city both of us come at the experience from a different viewpoint to the tourists we're sharing a pod with. They, understandably, see the whole thing as an exercise in naming and pointing out landmarks, desperately clutching at their guide books. Wasn't that where we were this morning? I wonder if the Queen's at home? I'm much more content just to stand and stare, master of all I survey, or something.

It's interesting to see a side of London that you only ever get to glimpse pulling into City Airport. The whole of the city's history, from St Paul's to the nearly completed Shard jostle for your attention, snaking around a Thames which looks from this height like a muddy vein or artery. The Olympic stadium looks suitably imposing. The glass roof at the back of Charing Cross station (something I've never really paid attention to) fans out majestically and is strangely striking. The Houses of Parliament are monumentally big (perhaps to house all those egos). These are the things that stand out more than anything. Below, the people are literally the size of ants. You feel like a giant. If you press your thumbs against the glass you can make believe that you're squashing them. Pretty cool.

It often feels like Londoners are too insular, too wrapped up in what's going on in their own area. I shocked a University friend the other day who was wondering whether she could go long distance with a guy in Birmingham by admitting that I would struggle to date someone who was right at the end of an opposing tube line. From this height you get a sense of London as a whole and you realise that actually, it's not that big. You also realise that there's a world beyond the city we call home, and that while London's not the centre of the universe, it's still the best place in the world.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Boy George - Ordinary Alien: Review

To say it's been a bad few years for Boy George is something of an understatement. Ever since he was pictured - flaky skinned and bloated - doing community service in New York, the world has watched his downward spiral with the kind of fervour usually reserved for rubbernecking at the twisted wreckages of cars on the motorway.

Arrested for assault, imprisoned, forced to wear an electronic tag and even, it is rumoured, turned down for Celebrity Big Brother (what greater shame), it's safe to say that events in his private life have overshadowed his work as a musician. Sadly, Ordinary Alien, his first album for more than a decade, is unlikely to revive his fortunes.

A strange mixture of reggaeton, trance and house, the album sounds like it's been made by someone who doesn't know the party is over. In Boy George's head it's clearly the late '90s or early '00s, a place where Chicane and remixes of Bob Marley still rule and everyone lives in an ecstasy fuelled Club Reps style bubble. The places he draws inspiration from are a strange mix of old and new - electro, drum and bass, hard house, euphoric dance. None gel together in quite the way he thinks they do. It's music for being on ketamine to and, while there's no denying there are places for such soundscapes, it's largely intolerable to listen to as a piece of work from beginning to end.

Opener Turn To Dust, a cod reggae/dance mash-up full of regurgitated and dreary bits of psychological wisdom ("Hatred must turn to dust", "I will stand up tall" &C.) lacks the emotional punch it's aiming for and just seems rambling. So does Amazing Grace ("It was just another ordinary day/ How did you know your life was going to change?"). They make Ordinary Alien feel like a 12-step self-help programme being put to music. It's rather like having someone who has found God bending your ear for hours about their newly awakened spirituality. You want to grab Boy George and tell him to save it for his diary. The relentless Mr Motivator act is perhaps at its most cloying on Yes We Can, a squelchy electro pop pile of nonsense that samples Barack Obama in an attempt to give itself magnitude and then drags in a choir to ram home the message of hope, peace and love maaan. It is truly dire.

Worse is to come. Perhaps the most distressing moment on the album is a reworking (for want of a better word) of Fleetwood Mac's classic Go Your Own Way - done as a hands aloft rave anthem. It's so bonkers that it should work, but sadly it just comes off as cynical and depressing.

The truth is that fans of Boy George will stick by him no matter what. For them, Ordinary Alien will be received as a work of genius, and that's fair enough. The man has made such an effort to sort himself out that it feels wrong to kick him when he's trying to get back up. Except we know that he's better than this. Fans and casual listeners alike deserve more than this bargain bin offering. Maybe it's time for the flamboyant frontman to admit that his best days of music making are behind him.

Monday, 7 February 2011

London Landmarks - London Aquarium

Value: 3
Queues: 9
Shop: 5
Family-friendly: 9
Enjoyment: 6

Total: 32/50

The overall ambience of the London Aquarium is one of stillness and gloom. This is mainly because of the piped music which sounds like an Ibiza chill-out CD being funnelled through the blow hole of a whale. It's also because of the strange murky light that hangs over everything like a fog. It feels like you yourself are underwater and it makes everything strangely calming. Escaping the madness of the tube, the South Bank, the gawping tourists and their umbrellas, you genuinely do start to feel like you're floating along without a care.

In terms of the company it's a mixed bag. Fish have a largely mournful look as if they know something you don't, and this can be unnerving. They lurch towards you gasping for air, their eyes glazed with regrets like something out of a Wilfred Owen poem (“He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”). Alternatively they float there slack-jawed and worried like they're suffering from shell shock. Dark things happen at the bottom of the ocean. Things you can't even imagine, and these guys have seen it all.

A lot of them though, are beautiful. Hues that you just don't get on the ground, bright sparkly bellies. There's one fish that's covered in glitter. Another is the kind of electric blue that you could never hope to replicate. The snake pipe fish, a pipe cleaner brought to life, is one of the oddest things you've ever seen and the mantis shrimp – half-shrimp, half-mantis – has got to be the biggest bad ass in the ocean. You also get to press your nose up against the glass and shriek as a shark glides past baring its gums. That never gets old. The day is pretty much made when I get the chance to stroke a starfish, which feels like a spongy emery board. It's not tempered by the fact I have to push a child aside in order to do this.

Be under no illusions though, dear reader, this was not purely a jolly. Admittedly I didn't arrive until lunchtime and I did get the day off work. But I took the whole affair very seriously. So seriously that I jotted down several fish-related facts. When global warming strikes properly, the whole of London is engulfed in 'The Day After Tomorrow' sized tidal waves and your new next door neighbour is a stingray, you're going to thank me.

1. Terrapins flirt with each other by waving their finger nails in each other's faces. The boy terrapin has longer fingernails 'cause he's all manly. They are fans of grapes.

2. Jellyfish are a bit like a one man Wizard of Oz production. They don't have a heart, blood, brain or gills. But they do have four horseshoe shaped gonads so every cloud...

3. The starfish is partial to shellfish and eats them by squeezing them until he crushes them. Then he lobs his stomach out of its body and begins digesting his prey. This can take several hours.

4. Blind cave fish have no eyes because where they live is so dark they've got no need for them. They navigate by using vibrations in the water.

5. A drop of water falling into the Thames will be drunk by 8 people before it reaches the sea.

6. The snowflake moray eel is the creepiest thing I've ever seen.

So, there we go. I learnt a lot, you learnt a lot, I got to handle a starfish and I generally felt pretty relaxed. You can't really ask for much more.

Thanks to Sophie Marchant for the photos!

The Vaselines @ XOYO

About five minutes into their set it becomes abundantly clear that Kurt Cobain's favourite band don't just use Vaseline for chapped lips. Despite the fact they're dressed like your parent's friends (Francis – all mumsy in floaty material, Eugene – jeans, waistcoat and smart shoes) middle age has not blunted their sex drives.

Throughout the night, the audience (a mixture of the usual hipsters and some paunchy older blokes who probably used 'Slushy' to win the hearts of their first wives) are treated to the kind of salty tales that you'd usually hear from a grizzled old sailor. Threesomes, STDs, how little Eugene has grown in size thanks to “five minutes of tugging a day”. It's like one of those Glamour sex quizzes brought to life. By the time Francis tells us she wanted their latest video to feature kinky nurses giving each other mouth to mouth, we're all pretty hot under the collar. Especially as the venue is rammed and we're all jammed up and sweaty. Sacré bleu.

Flanked by members of Belle and Sebastian, the Vaselines' live sound is meatier and less lo-fi than you'd expect. At one point during 'The Devil Inside Me' feedback is deployed deliberately to make what almost sounds like stoner rock. There are even some axe-grinding guitar solos – not exactly what you'd expect from a band more known for wearing grandma jumpers than starting moshpits.

Largely though the songs are cutesy and feelgood. Every single audience member is smiling contagiously and classics like 'Molly's Lips', 'Son of A Gun' and 'Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam' spread joy like a forest fire. The most twee moment of the night comes when the band admit that they've run out of CDs and an audience member calls out to ask if there are any vinyl left. Vaselines fans kick it old school.

New songs from the wryly named 'Sex With An X' are less well received than the old favourites but are still earworms. A lot of them are so simple and childlike that they almost sound like nursery rhymes and even those unacquainted begin singing. 'My God's Bigger Than Your God' and 'I Hate The '80s' stay just the right side of pastiche and show the band's sense of humour has only grown stronger after years in the indie wilderness. The mood is almost relentlessly fun. It's probably the most fun I've ever had at a gig. And, having watched Rod Stewart perform 'Hot Legs' in front of a twenty-foot inflatable pair of fish netted pins, that's no mean feat.

With just enough songs for an encore, the group bound back on stage after just a minute's break to tear through the blush-worthy 'You Think You're A Man' and bounce-inducing 'Dum Dum'. Everyone's garages have been well and truly rocked, but there's still time for the band to leave us with a lasting image to take home. A souvenir if you will. “That moment backstage was just enough time for me and Eugene to have sex,” grins Francis. “Twice,” says Eugene. See, kids? Premature ejaculation can be fun.

Friday, 4 February 2011

This man wants to buy you a burrito...

When Richard Fitzgerald won a year's supply of free burritos he decided to be generous (and a little bit amorous to boot) and use his Mexican stash to entice the laydeez. For 52 weeks he would take a different girl on a burrito date and then blog about his experience in the hope of finding true love (or maybe just someone hungry) I was date number 41. So how did our evening go? Here's my side....

18:55 Richard was standing outside and we shared a slightly uncomfortable hug and kiss on the cheek. Greeting people on a date is always a social minefield and we ended up being its first landmine victims. He was shorter than I'd pictured but he was cute and had a lovely smile. His Irish accent was also pretty dreamy.

18:57 He led me inside with a confidence that suggested Chilango had become a second home to him, and we ordered. He went for a pork burrito with all the trimmings except guacamole because he wanted to see what it would taste like. He later declared it to be lacking something. I went for a chicken burrito with guac, black beans, peppers, cheese, mild salsa and sour cream, washed down with an ice cold margarita. Richard had a beer. There were no seats inside and so we retired to the pavement which felt a bit conspicuous. And bloody cold.

19:02 One of his friends walked past and came over to say hello which was pretty awkward. I prayed that no one from work would stroll past. My face went a little red as I thought about it.

19:06 The usual questions followed one after another. University, life, jobs, families, where we were living. I've never been very good at this kind of stuff and while it wasn't uncomfortable, things didn't flow too well. I found myself babbling a bit about Spoonfed and how “it's so hard for bands to get their big break”. Halfway through I realised I sounded like a douche but I couldn't shut myself up.

19:09 Richard seemed distracted and admitted that he was under pressure at work. With me feeling anxious and him feeling knackered we weren't really clicking. The good news was that I didn't spill sour cream all over myself. In fact I managed to eat the burrito extremely neatly which was quite a feat. He seemed impressed and I was glad. Trying to be erudite with a face full of salsa is pretty hard.

19:25 Richard is originally from Ireland and works in a marketing company doing various social media things. He did German and economics at Uni and was really into art. He'd recently had an oil painting commissioned and he was trying to learn more about art history by wandering around galleries and listening to podcasts. He's a sporty guy who enjoys squash and has run marathons in the past. This made me feel a little uneasy. Eating the burrito had been workout enough for me. He claimed that he was not sick of burritos and that he could remember every date. He reeled off some and it was my turn to be impressed. He presented me with this neat t-shirt which lightened the mood.

19:35 Things picked up even more when we headed to the Camden Head for a drink. Formalities out of the way we were able to talk about more interesting things. We discussed dancing and films we'd seen. We both agreed that we wished we had more time to do things – learn languages, read the piles of books we'd accumulated, take up tango. He told me about his obsession with new media and showed me how to 'check in' on foursquare. We both made each other laugh and I, for one, felt more relaxed. He's clearly a guy who lives a lot of his life online and he bemoaned the fact that someone has 'checked in' to Chilangos more than him.

20:06 It started to drizzle. Once again we were outside, pushed from the pub by the assembled hoardes. I considered the possibility that we may well suffer frostbite and drunk quickly so that I could warm myself with alcohol.

20:25 Richard seemed tired and though the conversation had picked up, we hadn't planned anything else to do and, feeling cold, it felt natural that the date was beginning to wind down. I felt we had been a little rushed and it would have been nice to have a little more focus. Perhaps if we'd taken in a show or something there would have been more of a focal point to the night.

20:34 Another slightly awkward peck on the cheek and we went our separate ways – him on his bike to Shoreditch, me on the tube to London Bridge and eventually home.

20:39 On the tube I mused that it had been a very pleasant evening but had lacked spice. A bit like Richard's guacamole-bereft burrito, there was something missing and that something was the spark. Despite this Richard was a sweet and interesting guy and I would definitely meet him again without the pressure of a date. While I don't feel we're going to be eating a wedding buffet of burritos any time soon, it was nice to meet someone new. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Read Richard's thoughts on our date (and request your own) at:

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Interview: The Vaccines

If you aren't acquainted with The Vaccines then you're probably a woodlouse. Or something else that lives under a rock. The hotly tipped surf rockers have been hailed left right and centre as the band of 2011 and are winning fans by bringing back guitars. In a rare moment of quiet, I talk to guitarist Freddie about classic rock, radiation and how nobody ever learnt anything about life listening to Ri-Ri...

How's Justin's throat? We heard you had to cancel some dates...

He's doing fine. He couldn't really speak for a couple of days but he got really good at communicating without talking. He'd be holding a bottle of water and cover over some of the letters to spell out what he wanted to say.

I read that Katherine Jenkins doesn't speak for 24 hours before a gig. Maybe he should try that?

Yeah. He could start being a proper diva and demanding hot water and lemon.

Do you feel it's a sign you've been pushing yourselves too hard?

It is tough because none of us have ever done this before. The good thing about being a guitarist is that you can play night after night, but when you're the singer and your instrument is your voice you do get worn out. It's not like it isn't fun though.

The hype from the music press must be putting a fair amount of pressure on you. NME have called you “the saviours of rock and roll”. How does that kind of thing make you feel?

Wow. I don't think I can answer that. I just know this hype isn't something that's come from us.

Would you say 'rock and roll' is a fair assessment of your sound then?

I'd say that rock and roll is something we identify more with than say, traditional rock music. Rock is stuff like Bon Jovi which has about as much relevance to my life as electro pop, but rock and roll like Elvis or The Smiths, that's really important. Those are the kind of bands that change people's lives. If you look at someone like Rihanna, she's very talented but nobody ever changed their outlook listening to her. On the other hand I went to see the Strokes when I was fifteen and everything changed. I'll be a fan forever.

Would you be happy to be part of the Top 40?

Absolutely. We're not actively marketing ourselves towards it but we wouldn't object. You want as many people to hear your record as possible.

Do you feel like you're measuring yourselves against other 'Class of 2011' musicians like Brother or James Blake?

Not at all. James Blake is really good. Really talented. But he has nothing to do with the music that we make.

I guess people are trying to put you in a 'new music' box...

It's odd because people over here seem obsessed by the newness of music. When we were listening to the radio out in America they'd be playing all this classic rock from the last 40 years – Pearl Jam, Black Crowes, Nirvana. It almost feels like there's too much new music.

So what are you guys listening to at the moment?

Tame Impala. A lot of Clash. I'm also really into the Undertones. Everyone knows the singles but they forget what great albums they made. I want to bring them back. I'm planning to start an Undertones revolution.

In the spirit of newness, tell us something we don't know about the Vaccines?

Justin used to be a straight-edge punk.

If the world does end in 2012, what would you have hoped to have achieved?

To have built a bomb shelter. I'd love to be the last person on earth and just to get out and have a wander around before the radiation melted me.

So you wouldn't invite anyone else?

Maybe my Mum. I think it would be more intense to be alone though. Also, I've never built anything in my life so I'd probably mess it up and I wouldn't want anyone to see that.