My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Yet another musical interlude this week….

Reflecting on last week’s blog, I attempted to compile a list of my Top Ten concerts of all time – no mean feat, given 40+ years of attending gigs. And like any such list, if you ask me next year, or even next week, the choices would be different. So, here they are.

Image sourced from Songs Smiths

#1: Joy Division, Electric Ballroom, London, August 1979

Not the best gig I saw them play (that was at The Lyceum in February 1980, where they previewed “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), but my first live encounter with Joy Division. It’s now 40 years after the release of their debut album, “Unknown Pleasures” (one of the most influential albums from the post-punk era), but I can still recall the power of this particular performance. (It was also the first time I had seen any of the support acts – see poster, above – all of which have continued to be part of my chosen listening.)

#2: Talking Heads, Electric Ballroom, London, December 1979

The tail end of the “Fear of Music” tour (one of my favourite albums of the ’70s), and also one of their last performances as a 4-piece band. Captured for posterity via a mixing desk recording, the concert was also notable for an early performance by a relatively unknown U2, with additional support by the 2-piece OMD (plus Winston, the reel-to-reel tape recorder).

#3: Pixies, Mean Fiddler, London, April 1988

Incredible, visceral performance, and their first gig outside the USA. It felt like the cream of London’s independent music scene turned up, scarcely imagining they would witness a piece of rock history. Finishing with their version of David Lynch’s “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” from “Eraserhead” was a nice touch after the intensity of the previous hour. (A live version recorded a few weeks later on that same tour was released as part of their first EP.)

#4: New Order, Glastonbury, June 1987

My first (and last?) time at Glastonbury. Typical of an English summer, it had rained for days before the event, turning the festival site into a mud bath. There was even a temporary lake, where the anarcho-hippy-punks took pleasure in creating sculptures out of abandoned vehicles, and then setting fire to them, as a tribute to The Wicker Man… Into the midst of these night-time neo-pagan ceremonies appear New Order, at the height of their electronic powers, complete with laser show. Also captured on album (without the lasers).

#5: Elvis Costello, Glastonbury, June 1987

Glastonbury that year was also the setting for a captivating performance by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, who were at their peak after a 10-year run of (mostly) classic albums. After testing the patience of even his long-term fans with a lengthy solo set (including a particularly overwrought version of “I Want You”), Costello pulls off a major coup by whipping off the stage backcloth, revealing the waiting Attractions, and leading them into a storming version of “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, followed by a cover of Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

#6: Bjork, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Hong Kong, February 1996

I’d seen The Sugarcubes in the wake of their minor hit, “Birthday”, but soon lost interest in their music after that. Bjork as a solo act was a whole different phenomenon. On this tour, she pushed the electronic side of her music, as featured on her second album “Post”. If there was any doubt about her status as a global star, towards the end of this concert she was joined on stage by Goldie who presented her with the Brit Award for Best International Female Artist, which she had won for the second time.

#7: Kraftwerk, Metro Nightclub, Melbourne, January 2003

Ahead of their first new album in 12 years (17 years, if you exclude “The Mix” re-workings), in January 2003 Kraftwerk began touring again, after a hiatus since the late ’90s. As part of the warm-up for their Australian summer festival shows, they made this one-off club appearance, complete with their new stage design. This tour led to the spectacular “Minimum-Maximum” live album and DVD.

#8: R.E.M, Hammersmith Palais, London, October 1985

Three albums into their career, and R.E.M were still treating audiences to a wealth of carefully curated cover versions, revealing their influences and their personal tastes. This concert was no different, including tributes to Marlene Dietrich, Aerosmith and Television (although I wish I’d also seen the previous night’s gig with covers of Tom Jones, Creedance Clearweater Revival and Golden Earring).

#9: Tindersticks, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, November 2002

Tindersticks are a sublime live experience, as evidenced on their numerous concert recordings. I’d managed to see them early on in their career while I was still living in London, so it was a pleasure to experience them in the relative intimacy of my local pub, the Corner Hotel in Richmond, on what was possibly their first Australian tour. (If anyone knows of a recording of this gig, please let me know….)

#10: Low, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, June 2006

Low were a band I stumbled on by accident, when I bought a copy of their first album shortly after I moved to Hong Kong at the end of 1994 – I didn’t have any music with me while my stuff was in transit (and I was having withdrawal symptoms), and the album sleeve looked intriguing. It’s still one of my favourites in their catalogue. I recall they played a stunning version of “Monkey”.

Next week: Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night


The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

Another musical interlude this week.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Hall, one of the best venues for live music, thanks to its acoustic design and sonic ambience. I have seen a number of events there – chamber music, jazz, vocal, electronic, avant garde and contemporary classical – and the sound quality is invariably superb. Not all the programming works (a few of the support acts I have seen feel like they are trying too hard – maybe the sense of occasion has overwhelmed them?), but it’s a valuable addition to Melbourne’s cultural landscape. In recent months, I have seen a number of singularly powerful concerts, but each of them very different.

First was Julia Holter, who for me is one of the most interesting and more compelling singer-songwriters of the current era. I had seen her on her previous Australian tour (at a club venue), but I was still unprepared for her latest performance at the Recital Centre. Although she composes and writes all her own songs, Holter relies on the interplay between her close-knit band of backing musicians to give dynamic life to her music, as she leads and plays keyboards from the front. Her singing voice is a particularly striking instrument, and unlike many of her contemporaries she doesn’t “over sing”. She avoids the annoying habits of histrionics and over emoting, or resorting to vocal gymnastics and sterile vocalisations that many singers deploy to compensate for a lack of depth, warmth or soul. Rather she lets her natural and sometimes low-key voice stand in its own right, and when unleashed in the space of the Recital Centre, it really fell like she was “playing” the venue, as an extension of herself. At one point, just as the band launched into another song, Holter stopped abruptly – turned to the double-bass player and asked, “Wait, was that really the F?” because she thought he had come in on the wrong note. Despite being a seasoned performer, it seemed that she had never really “heard” her own music that way. It was clear that this experience inspired her to go even further, but there was nothing forced, contrived or artificial about her performance.

Next came Grouper, probably the most introverted live performer I have ever seen. As a solo artist, Grouper clearly does not fully relish being the centre of attention. The stage was already very dimly lit as she come out to perform, but she immediately asked for the lights to be dimmed even further. Using piano, guitar, electronics and effects Grouper proceeded to play a continuous series of mainly instrumental pieces, with no audience interaction or between-song patter. This was live music as pure performance. It was also incredibly soporific – OK, so I was a bit jet-lagged, but it was like listening to music designed to put you to sleep, and I’m sure I was not alone in the audience in drifting off. There was a palpable stillness in the auditorium that we rarely experience in our “always on” and digitally intermediated world. It was also (ironic?) confirmation that we need these sorts of experiences to recharge our own batteries.

Finally, Hauschka played a non-stop sequence of pieces for prepared piano and electronics – for around 80 minutes, despite suffering his own jet-lag, he mesmerised with the intense but fluid dynamics of his playing style, complemented by some simple but highly effective lighting design. In complete contrast to Grouper, he prefaced his performance with a 10-minute spoken introduction, where he commented on the ways he deals with life on the road as a musician (including the jet-lag), the context for his recent work, and his gratitude that on a previous visit to Melbourne, he made a chance encounter that changed his life for ever, as it launched his career as a soundtrack composer – and in that regard, putting him on a par with Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But what is also appealing about his performance is that, notwithstanding its impact, it is modest, understated, and above all authentic – with none of the faux-authenticity that many folk, rock and soul performers have to seem to resort to.

The Melbourne Recital Centre has the ability to reveal the “true” performer, while giving rise to a type of performance that only succeeds when it is natural, honest and not contrived, forced or inauthentic.

Next week: My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Sometimes it’s OK to Meet Your Idols

This week’s blog forms another of my occasional musical interludes.

I went to my first rock concert in the mid-70s. Since then, I have probably seen several hundred live performances; at one time in the 80s, I was going to as many as 3 or 4 gigs a week. I have also had the opportunity to meet a large number of professional musicians – mostly from the UK independent music scene. While I don’t particularly subscribe to the notion that you shouldn’t meet your idols or heroes (simply because I don’t see musicians in that light), I’m generally more interested in the music than the person. Admiration for and appreciation of the work is how I would characterise my love of music. So it was something of a departure when I found myself talking to Robert Forster, co-founder of The Go-Betweens, after one of his shows during his recent Australian tour.

During those alternative 80s, while I was living in London, The Go-Betweens (along with fellow antipodeans The Triffids, Nick Cave, The Moodists, The Scientists, Ed Kuepper, The Chills, The Apartments, The Bats and Jim Thirlwell) were regulars on the UK concert circuit. I first heard The Go-Betweens via a semi-obscure 7″ single they released on a minor Scottish label in 1980. But it wasn’t until they released the song “Cattle and Cane” in 1983 that I really took any notice, and started to see them whenever I could when they toured London.

Through some friends who worked in the music business (and who used to put me on guest lists, get me backstage passes, or give me promotional copies of records) I vaguely recall being in a bar after one Go-Betweens gig, and having a drink with Grant McLennan. Another time I saw them perform a “secret” gig in a tiny North London pub, where they were mysteriously billed as “The 16th Century”. I even have a bootleg cassette of a concert I attended in December 1985, which previewed many of the songs from their breakthrough album, “Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express”, released the following year.

After The Go-Betweens split in 1989, I didn’t keep up with either Forster’s or McLennan’s solo work, nor the records they made when they reformed the band in 2000. But I often revisited that first body of work, especially the albums “Before Hollywood” and “Spring Hill Fair”, which are still my favourites.

Fast forward to 2019, and there I was in the audience at Meeniyan Town Hall, in South Gippsland. Around 200 people filled this tiny venue, which has an amazing sound-system, enjoying Robert Forster and his band play songs from his recent solo albums, as well as some less obvious choices from The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue. It was a great performance.

After the show, as we filed out through the foyer, my significant other prompted me to buy some merchandise, have it signed, and meet the artist. I talked about the times I’d seen The Go-Betweens in London during the 80s, and Robert was gracious and charming. He even posed for a photo, and encouraged me to get that bootleg cassette out again (“that was a significant show for us”).

So sometimes it’s OK to meet the artists and musicians whose work you enjoy.

Next week: The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall


Manchester, so much to answer for….

I spent most of the festive season in and around Manchester, once a focal point of the industrial revolution (and the home to dark satanic mills), now a city that is as much about technology and culture (and the location for MediaCityUK). Plus, it’s a city that takes its hedonism very seriously, a place where a table is simply something to dance on…

Manchester Town Hall – photo by Mark Andrew – image sourced from Wikimedia under Creative Commons

I have had a direct connection with Manchester going back nearly 40 years. Prior to that, Manchester for me was probably defined by its famous football club (and that other one), Coronation Street (the world’s longest-running television soap opera), and the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now one of the few remaining sources of objective news coverage).

Then, in the late 1970s, Manchester started producing some of the most innovative music in the wake of punk. Manchester was the home to cutting-edge bands, labels, producers, designers, writers and fanzines – many of which outshone the best of what even London had to offer at that time. Record labels such as Factory, New Hormones, Object and Rabid helped launch the careers of Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Ludus, Malcolm Garrett, The Passage, James and even Jilted John; while bands like The Fall, Magazine, The Frantic Elevators and The Distractions (plus fanzine City Fun) all added to the colourful mix. Then came New Order and The Smiths, followed by the Hacienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the rest of the Madchester era (as brilliantly told in the film “24 Hour Party People”).

So Manchester’s cultural output from that period has definitely shaped and informed a lot of my musical (and reading) choices. Just before Christmas, it was announced that musician and lyricist Pete Shelley had died. Along with Howard Devoto, he formed Buzzcocks, who inspired many other bands and independent labels with their debut 1977 release, the Spiral Scratch EP (also one of the first UK punk records). Their appreciation of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Odilon Redon, and writers like Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gogol meant that (along with many of their contemporaries) they made music that was not just about 3 minute pop songs. Plus, these literary influences prompted me to seek out those Penguin Modern Classics – much more interesting than my high-school set texts….

Every time I visit Manchester, I’m also reminded of the wry sense of humour, and the general tendency towards gritty resignation (along the lines of, “If you can’t laugh about it, you may as well give up now”).

One example – while checking my luggage in at the airport, I had the following exchange with the staff member behind the counter:

ME: “How are you today?” (it being a very early morning during the festive season, and goodwill to all people etc.)

THEM: “I’m full of it”

ME: “Full of the joys of Christmas?”

THEM: “No, the flu”

Another example (see opening reference to tables) – a quotation from Mark Twain, appearing in a public art gallery, had been modified to read:

“Explore, Dream, Disco…”

And as if by way of reinforcement, for Christmas I was given two books, essential reading for anyone wanting to further their appreciation of Mancunian (and Salfordian) pop culture – “The Luckiest Guy Alive” by John Cooper Clarke, and “Messing Up the Paintwork – The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith”.

The late Mark E. Smith, founder of The Fall (and no relation to the band The Smiths…) led  a group famous for its longevity, its voluminous discography, and its revolving door of musicians. In reference to the latter, he once said:

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

Next week: Startup Victoria – supporting successful founders