Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Favourite Album: Bloc Party, Silent Alarm

We all get them, those weird tingly moments when something about a song ticks all the right boxes - when it stops you dead and forces you to listen, to drink it in deep and savour it.  Well, that’s what I get every single time I hear ‘Like Eating Glass’, the opening track to Silent Alarm, my favourite album and, I would argue, one of the best albums of the last decade.  The band might have sullied their reputation somewhat with ill judged forays into dance in their later releases, but their debut album remains, much like Is This It, a musical landmark, both for myself and the world of ‘indie’ in general.

Sorry, that really is one hell of a pretentious an opening paragraph – I’m not really used to writing blogs like this so and have yet to develop a particular STYLE, so this might be a bit rambling and loose, for which I apologise.  I guess the difficulty comes from being asked to explain why a particular album is your favourite - what it is about it that makes it the one you reach for when at a loss for what to listen to, safe in the knowledge that you’ll enjoy it and take something from it each and every time, despite your mood or circumstance.  Music, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is such a deeply personal thing that it seems a bit distasteful to write about it in this way, especially as it’s an album I’ve grown up with (oh the stories it could tell, if it, you know, had eyes, and a mouth…which would be weird)

So why Silent Alarm? There will almost certainly be some reading this who detest the band, deriding them as Gang of Four knock-offs partly responsible for the strangehold that wiry, angular guitar music had on the ‘indie’ scenes in the mid Noughties (god what a horrible word – is that really what we’re going for now? ) But to think of the album in that light would do it a great disservice, as it is for my money one of the most assured, powerful and breathtaking debut albums ever made, although quite why I think that is hard to explain.  Much like Mr. Tume, my theoretical knowledge of music is practically non-existent, and although I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I like and why I like it, explaining it in terms other than ‘er…cos it’s well good’ is tough.
I’ll give it a shot though, and I guess the first thing that drew me to the band and this album in particular is the interplay between the drums (Matt Tong) and the bass (Gordon Moakes) – for example, the intro to ‘Positive Tensionis just amazing, and every single song is pulled together by really tight and interweaving rhythms, with some amazing drums fills scattered throughout.  ‘Luno’ is another great example, driven by a really insistent bass line and topped with crashing drums and cymbals, it builds to an amazing climax and creates an atmosphere unlike any other band I know – perhaps the closest parallel would be Joy Division and their devotees/imitators Interpol (I’m on the devotee side of the debate, but I can see what people mean).  With such a solid backing, the two guitars have room to clamber and skitter all over the shop, creating some amazing textures that really fill out the songs – and I think that’s another reason why I love this album so much, is that it introduced me to a whole new world of guitar noises and sound effects etc. It sounds silly to say, but before I heard this album I was still stuck listening to Jet and The Offspring, thinking all guitars should be loud, brash, and simple – and the huge ranges of styles and ideas on Silent Alarm blew me away.  One minute you’re lost in the fast, jerky rhythms of ‘Banquet’, the next there’s lush synths and chords in ‘Blue Light’, and each of the 15 songs gives you a fresh idea, and basically gave me one hell of a good musical education.  I think that works in its favour as well, the fact that it’s 15 songs long makes me for a really absorbing experience, one that it’s difficult to get tired of because there’s always something new you haven’t noticed before – and its incredibly impressive that there’s not (I would argue) a single weak link or ‘filler’ song.   Sure, some of the tracks might be a little overshadowed by the ubiquity of ‘Helicopter’ or ‘Banquet’, but as a whole it stands together better than most other albums of this length – not overstaying its welcome but not leaving you feeling cheated either (cough The Vaccines cough).  It manages to combine indie disco floorfillers with softer, more introspective ‘solo’ listening experiences (‘Compliments’) without feeling disjointed or confused, which is pretty astounding, and to me the sign of a truly great band/album.

I don’t really know how else to describe how much I like the music, but I feel on much safer ground discussing the lyrics, seeing as I’m an English student (or was. Bloody hell.)  I think it’s the lyrics above all that make this my favourite album, and of course part of that is how well they gel with the music, the tone and the atmosphere created by everything else.  But they stand out in so many tracks as truly wonderful, and were such a revelation to me when I first discovered the album.  I could pick out hundreds of examples, but that would be not only a little boring for you reading this but might also kill some of the magic, by over-anaylsing or ruining that sense of surprise or discovery, so I’ll just restrict myself to a few.  This album demonstrates Kele Okereke’s lyric writing at its best, when he nailed the art of telling a story but keeping it vague enough to mean so much to so many different people – I’m not concerned with the problems of being forced to shave my legs as talked about in ‘Luno’, but the problems  of ‘being tired of your mum and you’re tired of your dad, got you jumping through hoops’ seems to me to be pretty universal.  Sure, there’s the occasional lyrical weak spot, such as ‘you’ve been trying to reach me, you bought me a book’ (This Modern Love) but such moments are part of the charm, a touch of human warmth under what can often be quite icy and forbidding guitar lines.  The fact is that I first discovered the album through friends when I was  15/16, and we all know how fun and carefree a time that was . For various reasons lyrics such as ‘it hurts all the time when you don’t return my calls and you haven’t got the time to remember how it was’ from ‘Like Eating Glass’ and ‘if you feel, a little left behind’ from ‘Banquet’ really hit home, and in many ways the reason I like this album so much is that it seems to me to be about growing up: the anger and frustration – ‘why do you have to get, so fucking useless’ (‘Positive Tension’ – an absolutely astonishing moment live); the sadness and melancholy ‘this modern love, breaks me’ (‘Modern Love’) and the endless ups and downs of a pretty normal childhood.  Trying to explain this feels pretty weird, as each song over the years has built up this huge backlog of invested emotions, and even now listening to the repeated refrain of ‘I figured it out’ of ‘So Here We Are’ brings back so much, all of it intangible and half remembered but important nonetheless.  ‘Plans’ might be the best of the whole bunch, so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me if I quote at length:

Wake up dreamer
It's happening without you

Cut your hair and shave your beard
You squandered your chances
I'll give you a thousand pounds
To show me how you do it
Stop being so laissez-faire
We're all scared of the future

Been training vipers to come for you
In your dreams to release you
Been training vipers to come for you
In your sleep
And the ravens are leaving the tower
And the ravens are leaving the tower
Make your peace

I've got a taste for blood
Leave the weak, leave the young
I've got a taste for blood
I'm walking out without you
You will kill or be killed

It's about progress
I've got a taste for blood

Wake up sleepyhead
It's happening without you
Such a nice guy
You tell me everything twice
Whipcrack speed jump
We will run backwards
Stop being so laissez-faire
We're all scared of the future

We make plans for big times
Get bogged down, distracted
We make plans for good times
All neon, all surface
So kiss me before it all gets complicated

I've got a taste for blood

This song sums up so much of what it’s like to grow up and feel like you’re missing out, switching from sadness to anger to confusion, mixing readily understandable images with slightly unsettling phrases...pff – I’m kinda running out of words, as I don’t really want to ruin it but getting too analytical. I guess I can never really communicate what these songs and lyrics mean to me, because I can barely explain it myself, but even if you don’t like Bloc Party I hope that this has reminded you of the songs that mean a lot to you, and the reason why music is so important – why good, meaningful music needs to be supported and spread to as many people as possible.  This was such a big album for me growing up that I don’t think it’s too far to say that I’d be a very different person if I hadn’t been shown it when I was, and without a doubt it’s one of the reasons I got into offbeat and am so keen to get people involved and talking about the music they love.  If I had to have a conclusion, I guess I’d say that I still love this album because I’m still growing up in a way, and the day I stop loving it might be that day I become an adult. And then God help us all.

Big love x


Illustrious History Update

Good news guys, we've got the whole 'zine up for your viewing pleasure at:

It's quite a long read, but well worth the time (and to be honest, it beats revision hands down)

Hope you enjoy it, and as always any comments/ideas just let us know via facebook:

or at su256@warwicksu.com

Big love

Alex x

The Illustrious History of Offbeat

'If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.'


            Although it may seem difficult to believe thanks to our collective youthful exuberance and childish enthusiasm for shiny things, offbeat is in fact a very old society – formed way back in the days of yore (or 1984 if you’re using a normal calendar) it is one of, if not the, oldest university based music societies in the country! Which is nice.  For our 25th anniversary an old offbeat alumnus (Mark Sturdy) put together an amazing history ‘zine documenting the birth of the society and its various ups and downs over the years – it makes for fascinating reading, and so we thought we’d put it up on here so people can learn about what the society was/is!  The original was full of amazing posters from over the years, but sadly we can’t host them all on here - we’re looking at ways to host the pdf so you can ‘experience’ the whole thing, but for now, we hope you enjoy this taster of offbeat history:

Early days - 1984-87

In the autumn of 1984, a group of friends, disillusioned by the conservative range of most student discos at Warwick yet inspired by the eclectic range of music they were hearing on the John Peel show and events such as The Smiths’ gig at Warwick Arts Centre (in June 1983, a matter of weeks after their first single came out), decided to get together and start their own society to fill the gap. The first disco takes place that term in a venue at the top of the Students’ Union, then known as The Elephant’s Nest…

ADAM KING (Offbeat member 198485 and president 198586):
The founding fathers, and mother, were Jagdish Patel (or Dougie, as he was known), Mark Oxley and Mandy Groom. Myself and Simon Bernstein were also heavily involved, mainly in the heavy lifting department. Dougie and Mark were the main DJs. Mandy, I think, came up with the name, and her profoundly uncomfortable Citro├źn 2CV carried the records back and forth from Leamington.

MARK OXLEY (founding copresident, 198485):
There were two main motivations for starting the society. First, at that time there wasn't much of a choice as far as being able to strut your stuff to some decent music at the university was concerned. If I remember there was the usual type of disco offering your bog standard fare of the time, and there was something along the lines of an alternative music society. The existence of this latter led to some heated opposition from the President of Entertainments or whatever his title was as he accused us of being more or less the same as the alternative society, or mutton dressed up as lamb or something like that. But quite frankly dancing along to the likes of Clock DVA, You've Got Foetus on Your Breath, 23 Skidoo and their ilk was a bit beyond Dougie and myself. We wanted to do a disco where the music was eclectic but always danceable. The second reason was to be able to get our sticky paws on a minibus so we could organize trips to gigs. As far as I can remember we only got round to organizing two, both at Leicester Uni or Poly: R.E.M. and Billy Mackenzie. We also put on a gig ourselves at Warwick by Slab! Whose singer, Steve Dray, was at Warwick when we were there  or at least he was hanging around there after graduating.

It was essentially founded as a place where Doug and Mark could play music that they liked, play it loud and play it in the company of their friends. Their tastes were magnificently eclectic and ranged from mainstream rock to the most obscure World music and everything in between. Stuff that no conventional Warwick disco, in the era of 'Thriller' and during the regrettable ascendancy of Kid Creole, would touch. There were occasions during their first event that they were loudly booed, but then they gave Simon and I our own slots, so we shut up. Offbeat did around two or three nights per term. Momentum gradually built during the year and by its end we were getting a dedicated, if modest, following. Gates were respectable, but not spectacular. Mark and Dougie’s philosophy was that if a record was good, then people would dance to it. As quickly as they could fill a dance floor, they could empty it. And not care. They were almost heroic in their indifference to audience reaction. It was one of their many admirable qualities. In response to the booking of largely crap bands on campus – this was year when Lanchester Poly [latterly known as Coventry University] ruled in that sphere – the boys booked, in the late autumn of 1984, a trip to see a small, but not yet very popular beat combo, R.E.M., at Leicester University. It may not seem much to relate now, but then it was a characteristically imaginative and enterprising thing of them to do. For some reason, which must have sense then, though it makes little sense now, every event ended with the playing of R.E.M.’s ‘Don't Go Back to Rockville’. In 1985/86 the others had graduated. I was still a postgraduate and the boys allowed me to continue using the name, so myself, Debbie MacDonald, Simon Rosenberg, and a few other children of John Peel, continued the pattern of the previous year. We didn't have elected officials or titles like President etc, given our lefty bias, because if we had mine would have probably been 'bloke who tries to prevent the record boxes from falling off the bus seat on the way from/to Coventry'. The new collective turned Offbeat into a vehicle for music that we loved, predominantly indie music, with jingly jangly guitars to the fore. It was more mainstream, in many ways, than the previous year, but even so there was still only a minority following among the student population. Mostly we used what was then called the Elephant's Nest ‐ the room right and the top of the building, anyway ‐ as the venue. We got full houses for every event, including one with a band called Mighty Mighty, currently residing in the where are they now file.

SIMON ROSENBERG (Copresident 198688):
I became involved in 1985 while Adam and his future wife Debbie McDonald/King ran it and then I was President in 1986, and jointly with Gabriel Sterne in 1987. Actually you call us Presidents but we were more of a left wing cooperative built on love and mutual understanding and Gramsci's third edict, except Debbie always wanted to play obscure stuff while Gabe and I understood the value of the crowd on the dancefloor. We ended up falling out over Debbie playing Test Department And The South Wales Miners Choir at 11:50 just after we finally got the 6 people to dance to Velocity Girl (which I would say is my ultimate Offbeat song along with Bigmouth Strikes Again) – and the ethics of being given 50 quid by the Student Union to spend on records. Where are those Wedding Present 12 inches now?

 There was lots of good music to play and the dance floors were always full. I know that it wasn’t me that got the Wedding Present twelve inches. I also know that every Offbeat we did was great fun. I once got to play the full version of The Wild Swans’ 'Revolutionary Spirit' and got to say into the microphone "fades in", a la Peely, at the beginning of the record. We never lost money, in fact there was always a healthy balance after every event. I left in 1986 and Simon, Debbie and co continued to run it as a flourishing concern. Clearly Offbeat continued to flourish and never faded out. Mark, Dougie and Simon will be pleased to hear that.

SIMON ROSENBERG (Copresident, 198588):
 Our Offbeat was right in the middle of the 80s, still drunk on that punk and more importantly post‐punk DIY ethic. It was all about being different and standing out from the mainstream. To this day, I still have never heard a Led Zeppelin record, preferring some 2 minute, 1 chord energy rush. I'm thinking Dead Kennedys for some reason. We were indie. But indie really meant independent. It wasn't a genre, it was a way of life. It was off beat! So we had an unspoken duty to ‐ in the words of our 1988 favourite, That Petrol Emotion's ‘Big Decision’ ‐ Educate, Agitate, Organise! We were forever educating campus beyond Michael Jackson and Wham! by playing obscure jewels like Mighty Mighty who we liked so much we booked them as our first band. Whether the 5 people who were in attendance at Ele's Nest on a cold November evening in 1985 appreciated this, I cannot say. As far as the agitation bit went, we were all (and still are) as far as I know into all the left‐wing causes of the day ‐ Anti‐Apartheid, Amnesty, Trade Union fights ‐ and so we came up with this brilliant idea of holding benefit gigs and then asking bands to play for free. This allowed us to approach some of the major names of the day, none of whom, I'm afraid to say ever made it big – which to me symbolizes the futility or importance of what we were doing. But you can't imagine what a big deal it was for us to get a reply from the Woodentops’ manager to our request for a benefit gig. We were organised, no doubt. Going around campus delivering information to every Offbeat member about our next Offbeat night. Such dedication, such a lot of time on our hands. No Facebook groups. No internet. We also came up with brilliant ideas for marketing to promote our nights and our gigs – though we never called it that but I know what it is now I'm a proper grown‐up. My genius idea was to put posters up in places you weren't allowed to but places that I knew everyone we cared about would see them over the 2 hours or so the poster would be up. I loved the thrill of standing in the library lift and then suddenly sticking my poster on the wall while everyone stared at me. And it worked, our membership increased and our nights started to sell out. And then of course there was the music. In my time 1985‐ 88, it was mainly jingly jangly guitar – ‘Velocity Girl’ (Primal Scream), the Mighty Lemon Drops, ‘Like an Angel’, The Weather Prophets ‐ early Creation, you know. The Smiths obviously. New Order. And in those early years, stuff from our adolescence like Teardrop Explodes, Buzzcocks and Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins. Then in 1987, just as we had gone from 10‐people nights to selling out every evening, the more left‐leaning amongst us wanted to play more hip‐hop and house and for a while I knew all the words to Eric B and Rakim's ‘Paid in Full’ just as I knew Teenage Kicks. However, for reasons I still don't get, no one would dance to the hiphop/ house stuff and we would fill the floor with ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’ and empty it with Pump up the Volume. This I think is the saddest thing because the best thing about music is the mixture of styles and genres (cue Happy Mondays/Stone Roses era) and I find it so boring and dull these days to listen to bands that sound like we played them at Offbeat in 1986. Sorry Franz Ferdinand, the Cribs, the Kings of Leon and 1000 others. Everyone says that music was best when they were young. I was just fortunate to be young in a great and truly creative era. 

There's loads more, including some truly amazing posters in the full 'zine, so keep your eyes peeled for that when we find a place to host it.

Big love,

Alex x

Monday, 2 May 2011

Favourite Album: The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday

HELLO! Welcome to Offbeat’s brand new blog. We’ve decided to kick off by running through each of the exec’s favourite album of all time, and as President I am FIRST UP how exciting. So here we go.

I’ve picked the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, their second album, released in 2005, for many reasons. First and most important is that whenever I’m asked, I say this album. And it’s the truth – I may have listened to other albums more, I may not have grown up with it, it’s perhaps not a ‘cool’ choice – but it IS my favourite, I can sit down at pretty much any time, in any mood, and Separation Sunday will match that mood, and the 40 or so minutes of it will go by in almost seconds.

I find it pretty much impossible to talk about music on any theoretical level, and sometimes I feel guilty talking about all these complicated, groundbreaking records as I can’t even read music, let alone understand it, except on an emotional basis. Which is good in a way, as almost all of the Hold Steady’s albums are based on filtering deep, interwoven and pop-culture filled narratives through old, almost recognisable guitar riffs, the music itself not particularly experimental, in fact purposely NOT so I think. But anyway – the album itself. THS have an underlying, rather ambiguous narrative through every single one of their songs, which on the first few listens seems to be just about being AMERICAN and LONELY and DRUNK and ON DRUGS and THROWING IN OCCASIONAL LITERARY REFERENCES. Which in itself is still rather amazing, and a lot of the time the lyrics work on a more anonymous level, a lot of the events and feelings Craig Finn sings about (aside from being American, I guess), well, I’VE felt them, and experienced them.

But then (well it took a while for me) it hits you, that certain characters keep coming up, and these characters seem to be going to the same places, and the countless biblical references all start to tie together and you realise that over their something-like sixty song career the Hold Steady have been telling a very individual story, sketching little pieces of lives then revisiting a certain event two, three or four albums later. And importantly, it’s a FANTASTIC story, about a good-girl-gone-bad called Hallelujah (or Holly as Finn eventually calls her), who gets caught up in “some complicated things”, falling in love with the drug dealer Charlemagne and then gang member Gideon, and Holly’s kinda the heroine and kinda Jesus and kinda Judas too. There’s so much going on, even just on this one album, which tracks her descent into addiction and basically being a MESSED-UP-GIRL and then the last song’s a resurrection scene (this band does maybe the best album closers of any artist EVER). But it’s nowhere near as simple as this and her ‘rebirth’ is pretty much a hollow gesture and no-one’s any happier than where they started but ANYWAY I could write for hours about the story but I won’t.

One of the things I like most about both the Hold Steady and about the story they tell is how there’s a focus, how (and I know it sounds silly) there’s a SCENE, a musical scene, a community of people and bands that all come together around certain art and how the music isn’t just something you hear in the background, but an active part of life, and it has specific connotations and MEANING and stuff, it’s something to be a part of, whether it’s the 90s hardcore scene that Finn places his characters or the ‘Unified Scene’ who obsess over the Hold Steady and follow them across the world, who’re probably bigger fans than I. But this is one of the things I love about Offbeat at Warwick, how it’s a group of people with similar personalities and taste who’re thrown together and then suddenly they’ve become your best friends and some of the best moments of your life have come with this disparate group of people, all because something so ambiguous a label as an “indie/alternative music society” has brought you together into an actual something. And this is what I hope will continue to happen while I’m President, that the little scene we’ve got going will continue to go and grow, and that new people will come in and find the most amazing, interesting people, and they’ll end up sitting on each other’s floors listening to old records and falling in love and it’s all because of MUSIC.