Sexploitation titleOk, I admit it, we’re a bit late out of the blocks with this one and the reason we’re finally reviewing “Sexploitation” is that Anna-Christina from Lilygun pointed me in the direction of Star Scream; good spot A-C, as ever. Songwriter Adam Lightspeed fronts the band mixing guitar and keyboards with lead vocals and the trio is completed by Natalie Cherry (bass and backing vocals) and Sky London (drums and percussion). With that particular line-up, you probably won’t be too surprised if I tell you that Muse is acknowledged as a major influence. The album is dotted with references to a wide variety of styles and eras, stitched together with such skill, style and unpredictability that the end result is a unique collage.

The album opens with the camp theatricality of “Roseblood (Weeping Willow)”, a seedy, sordid tale of exploitation in the skin trade and an arrangement which echoes the Sensational Alex Harvey Band from the early 70s. “Die on the Floor” is another reference to the 70s, fusing a Marc Bolan vocal style with a Sweet stomp and maybe even a bit of early Giorgio Moroder to set the scene for the rest of the album.

When the playing and the dynamics are this good, it’s easy to focus on the music at the expense of the lyrics; if you do, you’re only getting half the picture. Adam is obviously a writer who likes a bit of wordplay and it comes through in some of the titles: the riff-monster “Harlot’s Web”, “Frightmare” and the stomper, “Kill me Kate”. And it doesn’t stop at that; there are some clever turns of phrase in the lyrics as well; how about ‘knight in shining Armani’ from “Frightmare”, and my favourite portmanteau word for the week ‘conspiranoia’, from the hard-riffing glam satire of the current music scene, “Death Shower Scene”. I suspect they ordered in extra kitchen sinks for that one.

Towards the end of the album there are three songs linked by the theme of transgressive or dysfunctional relationships. The trio starts with “Kill me Kate”, progresses through “As the Earth Dies Screaming” with its very effective use of loud-soft dynamics to “Heart of Ice (Falling Out of Love)” which builds by adding instrumental layers for each verse. For once Adam’s voice isn’t on the ragged edge throughout and in the opening verses there’s a hint of Stephen Duffy’s voice (remember him?).

The album’s third and fourth songs also share a theme both poking fun at the faces, the alpha males and females at the forefront of any scene. “Break the Night” is probably the album’s most heavily Muse–influenced song, particularly the vocals and the guitar solo, while “Scenester” pulls influences from everywhere. The song opens like the Clash version of “Brand New Cadillac”, has a breakdown with manic left to right percussion panning, a second breakdown for live audience participation and a guitar solo which would fit perfectly on a Joe Meek record and a crash ending. What more could you want?

The more reflective moments are all towards the end of the album, starting with “When Crimson Lips Spell Murder” which makes good use of dynamics before ending with a delicate string quartet coda. The final big production number, “Obsession”, is built around a sequenced synth riff which loops almost throughout the song, while a piano hook on top adds to the over-the-top Muse feel of the song. The album closes with the stripped-back “The Girl Who Was Death” (just acoustic guitar, strings and some lovely harmonies) and a lead vocal which sounds a lot like Greg Dulli.

“Sexploitation” is an album that grips you because you just don’t know what’s coming next; imagine throwing a lit match into a box of fireworks and you’re about halfway there. The influences are all very transparent but they’re woven so subtly into the rich and contrasting fabric of the songs that they seem to belong there. But it isn’t just about big guitars and thunderous drums; the band use dynamics really effectively and the lyrics are actually worth listening to. In a world of manufactured pop pap and over-hyped ‘next big thing’ acts (did someone mention Royal Blood) this album is a reminder that the real talent is still out there.

Available now from Amazon, iTunes or the band’s website.

Finding the Spirit coverIt’s been a busy year for Stone Foundation. The album “To Find the Spirit”, released independently in March 2014, made a significant impact on the indie charts as the band’s live following increased with their own gigs in Europe and Japan and support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys. With radio support from Craig Charles on 6 Music and endorsement from the Modfather himself, things have been looking pretty good for the band this year. So, how do you keep that momentum going? Well, a few gigs with soul legend and SF collaborator, Nolan Porter, and a DVD as a more permanent memento, would probably do nicely. The gigs have come and gone and the DVD, “Finding the Spirit”, was released on 21 July.

So let’s just rewind a little bit here; Stone Foundation is a bunch of guys from the West Midlands (an area more renowned for heavy metal, to be honest) which formed around the nucleus of Neil Jones (guitar and vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass and backing vocals) around ten years ago and developed into a classic soul/r’n’b lineup (and by r’n’b I mean Stax and Atlantic, not Jay-Z and Beyonce) with the addition of drums (Philip K Ford), Hammond organ (Ian Arnold), sax (Gary Rollins), trombone (Spencer Hague) and trumpet and latest recruits trumpet (Gareth John) and congas/percussion (Rob Newton). Stone Foundation operates completely outside what’s left of the mainstream music business. On the band’s website, the imagery of the biography is equal parts gang/team and an almost religious evangelism; if you’re thinking early Dexys and The Clash here, then you’re pretty much on the money. Personally, I’m more drawn to the idea of a collective than a gang; the band’s a very tight unit, but they find like-minded contributors outside the unit willing to help promote the manifesto, including writer Paolo Hewitt, Specials’ bass player Horace Panter (who contributed the artwork for “To Find the Spirit”), and videographer Lee Cogswell.

Lee has put together “Finding the Spirit” (described as “a collection of films”) which pulls together various strands of the band’s work over the last few years, combining music videos, a documentary of the 2012 collaboration with Nolan Porter (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), a track-by-track exploration of “To Find the Spirit” with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, and a record of Stone Foundation’s 2014 Japanese tour (“Tokyo 2014”).

“Keep On Keepin’ On” mixes interviews with the two Neils and Nolan Porter with live footage from The Musician in Leicester and London’s 100 Club and some lovely studio footage of the recording of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” featuring Nolan’s lead vocal; it’s a familiar (but still welcome) story of an artist whose career has been resurrected by the UK Northern Soul scene, but this time with some help from contemporary musicians. The film captures the relationship between Nolan, the band, and their collective audience perfectly, particularly in the footage from The 100 Club.

The track-by-track breakdown of “To Find the Spirit” is enlightening and informative; the interviews with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby give a genuine insight into the way the album came together while emphasising the part played by fate or the collective spirit. The cameos played by Carleen Anderson and Andy Fairweather-Low were arranged through friends of friends, “Don’t Let the Rain” started with a bass riff and a string sound from Ian Arnold’s new keyboard, and the original inspiration for the album and the song “Child of Wonder” came from a prose piece by Paolo Hewitt. It’s surprising to hear that there were question marks over whether “Crazy Love” had a place on the album; thankfully, common sense prevailed there.

“Tokyo 2014” is a collage of impressions from the brief Stone Foundation Japanese tour earlier this year superimposing quick clips of the band meeting their fans over a live soundtrack which includes a particularly raw version of the Booker T and the MGs classic “Time is Tight” by a Japanese band called The Tramp. The technique of using quick cuts between short video clips conveys the feel of continuous motion while the entire piece emphasises the devotion of the band’s Japanese fans.

The final section of the DVD is a compilation of Lee Cogswell’s videos for the songs “To Find the Spirit”, “Bring Back the Happiness”, “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” and “Hold On”. “To Find the Spirit” opens with a quick reference to the Dexys debut album, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” as the lead character tunes across the static of a radio dial before leading into an aspirational story which is shot through with visual and audio Stone Foundation references. “Bring Back the Happiness” plays under a father/son reconciliation story featuring Andy Nyman (who featured in the hilarious Channel Four show “Campus” and “Peaky Blinders”) and newcomer Ben Finlay, who was spotted dancing at a Stone Foundation gig. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” is a very clean black and white (and silhouette) video of the individual band members featuring multi-screen effects, and “Hold On” is a fairly straightforward studio piece featuring Andy Fairweather-Low guesting on backing vocals. You can have a look at the videos here.

By any standards, this is a very high quality piece of work; if you take into account the fact that this venture has no music business backing, then it’s absolutely exceptional. Lee Cogswell has worked across a variety of styles, including documentary, interviews, live footage, reportage and music video to produce a cohesive piece of work which enhances his own reputation while documenting the rise of a band with an absolute commitment to fulfilling its own agenda. It’s more than a just a souvenir, it’s a lovingly-crafted insight into the workings of a group of people who are making music for all the right reasons. The band is also appearing in a special session recorded for the Craig Charles funk and soul show on BBC 6 Music this Saturday (August 9).

This DVD is worth buying for its musical and visual quality, but also because the people responsible for the creative input actually see some financial reward for their efforts.

Out now. Available from Lee Cogswell.

So it’s time to move on to the second half of the seventies and the early eighties and we start off with the P-word.

AM – How did you react when punk came along then?

PB – Loved it; I actually loved it and weirdly I wanted it to do what it wanted to do because up to that point my heroes were not punk at all and the very antithesis of punk. I wanted it, because I would have been about seventeen then, leaving school, and just starting to think about playing music in pubs and got a band together; well, actually, I got a duet together with Martin Gore (yes, that Martin Gore) and we were trying to write songs. He liked, I don’t know who he liked, I think it was Simon and Garfunkel at the time and he did like Sparks and David Bowie. I liked David Bowie but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t trust him which now, I think, was probably wrong, but I didn’t get the idea that superficial and chameleon-like was his theme. At the time I thought ‘I don’t believe he really means this’ and at that time it had to mean it and that meant a lot to me and I was probably wrong and Gore was probably way ahead of me on that. So we wrote songs which I tried to make melodic and soulful and he wanted to make strange and weird. I taught him how to play guitar and he was a better guitar player than he is, well, what he’s ended up as. We were writing some interesting songs at the time and we went out as this strange band and the punk happened, halfway through this band.

I had hair like Marc Bolan at the time and he had a bubble-cut but we found ourselves on these punk bills. I’d started writing a few songs as well, so I found myself as a solo person on these punk bills for no reason whatsoever because I had nothing to do with punk musically but I liked the fact you could play somewhere and there was energy there and I started listening to other people who were playing and I thought I’ll have a listen to this, so I went along to see some bands. I saw The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Talking Heads when they first came over, I saw The Clash once and there was a big fight so I didn’t hear much of The Clash, but that wasn’t the point in a way. I tended to like a what went on afterwards in the post-punk era; I got really well into that because there seemed to be room for bands like Television and The Fall with some of their lyrics which, at that point, were suddenly taking over for me and I went from trying to write songs like James Taylor with three words in them to two chords and “War and Peace” over the top of them; “Ulysses” or something like that, but then there were bands that that was feeding into at the time like The Fall. I certainly got heavily into The Fall and the more experimental bands but I would still listen to “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu and then go home and listen to “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” by James Taylor because I think that’s what it’s about; they’re not dissimilar in the sense that the person who’s responsible for the music does what he wants it to do. There’s too many categories, in a way.

AM – I know Television, “Marquee Moon”, everybody claims now that it’s always been their favourite album and at the time…

PB – They’re fucking lying; I tried to get everyone into that and a couple of people got it, but for once the rabid NME press was right about this.

AM – For me it’s still one that I’m happy to get the vinyl copy out and stick it on the turntable.

PB – It is actually an album I can listen to at any time and that’s a rare thing. Sometimes, even your favourite albums you think ‘I’m not in the mood for that’, but I can be depressed, I can be happy, I can be whatever, but when Television comes on, that’s it.

AM – So, that was punk, what about what came after that.

PB – Punk was exciting and I was involved in the energy of it; everywhere you went there were gigs. I sounded like Leonard Cohen at that time but anything went and that was the beauty of it. I wore flares and had long hair at the punk gigs I did and it was, sort of, ok. You’d get comments, but that was sort of the point; wait until Dexys Midnight Runners sing about ‘you’re so anti-fashion, wear flares”. You could do anything you liked, it was sort of Dadaist spirit. It was very early on when the fashion thing kicked in, the Kings Road punks, and it was weird because I felt like I’d transcended that because I hadn’t changed. I didn’t even cut my hair so I was like David Crosby amongst the punks.

AM – So presumably when the synthesisers kicked in that wouldn’t really have been your thing.

PB – When the post-punk thing happened, I used to like some of the bands that became known as Krautrock, Can, Neu and the newer ones as well, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Einsturzende Neubauten who were pure noise and distortion and the English versions of that like Cabaret Voltaire; I loved all of that. I thought there’s a synth thing going on and Martin got into it, so he buggered off and did Depeche Mode. Suddenly it turned into this really twee pop with no substance. I don’t hate pop music but I thought, with everything he knew, and the stuff he liked, I thought he would have gone towards Throbbing Gristle rather than this thing that happened, which seemed like it was going to be over in five minutes. For all I know he’s now a multi-millionaire and I’m sitting in a pub in Leigh.

AM  It’s a general thing that innovations like that come along, people make really good music and then somebody grabs bits of it for the mainstream and just dilutes it.

PB – That’s always happened. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been anywhere if it wasn’t for The Byrds; fabulous as that was, I’d rather hear Dylan. I’m probably alone in the world in preferring “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan to the Hendrix version, even though I like Jimi Hendrix. I’m alone, even Bob Dylan said it’s a better version.

AM – Dylan’s songs have been interpreted by a lot of people; are they better versions or are they different versions?

PB – They’re different versions. Sometimes you can say they’re better versions but the thing I always try to get away from is ‘Dylan’s a fabulous songwriter and an icon of the twentieth century but he can’t sing’. So that means that if Judy Collins or some such does a version of “Idiot Wind”, it will be better, de facto, because she can sing. I could not disagree with anything, outside of UKIP, more vehemently than that. Bob Dylan and Sinatra are probably the best vocal stylists of this millennium. The reason I say that is because you try to play a Bob Dylan song and sing it and not sing a bit like Bob Dylan, not phrase it like him. The same with Sinatra, once you’ve heard “You Make me Feel So Young”, you try and sing that differently. Put your own slant on that; you can’t.

AM – I play and sing badly but I try Dylan songs like “I Shall be Released” and it’s always going to sound like Dylan.

PB – The Band did that; they’ve got some great singers in that band, and it sounded like Dylan; they couldn’t change the phrasing at all. You can sing it in a bland way or you can over-sing it; my worst nightmare is that I’ll wake up and “Positively Fourth Street” is covered by Mariah Carey. She would do it and you can guarantee you would have a queue of people saying ‘Oh, at last this song has been realised by a true singer’, but I would hunt her down and you’d see me on the Six O’Clock News if that happened.