Saturday, 22 July 2017

Ruth's Refrigerator 1990 -1992

Songs, albums, European tours all happened with the band Ruth's Refrigerator. I don't quite know how it all came together but it provided an excellent side project during a time when there were no other members of PO! to play gigs or plan anything significant.

Ruth's Refrigerator l-r Terri Lowe, Ruth Miller, Blodwyn P. Teabag, Alan Jenkins, Robyn Gibson
Main man, Alan Jenkins was in cult 80's band The Deep Freeze Mice and he put out records by various obscure artists. He wrote a letter to me after hearing the flexi on John Peel and invited me to his flat in Leicester to talk about him putting my song 'Appleseed Alley' on a compilation. Then he invited me to sing on some recordings and a band was formed. Before long we were writing songs and drinking lots of very strong coffee.

Alan Jenkins was always intriguing and fun to work with. We had a connection without talking much or touching or anything like that. One of the best aspects of playing music with other people is the spirit of play. Writing songs with a like-minded person creates a world-in-a-bubble that stretches time. Alan and I both liked a songwriting challenge. We would take a title and each write a song to go with it, or we'd take a guitar to the corner of a room with 20 minutes to come up with a song. Sometimes we'd choose a random phrase from a book or newspaper: "When it comes to being a lollipop person..." and both write a song.  "Gosh what a lot of umbrellas" was another like that.

Gro Harlem Brundtland Wants Some Fish

In putting together an album and a tour, Alan gathered various musicians that we were both linked with: Terri Lowe, Blodwyn P. Teabag and Robyn Gibson. We recorded versions of each other's songs, swapped the singers around and brought out clarinets, accordians and all sorts. The title 'Suddenly a Disfigured Head Parachuted'  was chosen in the style of the game consequences with each band member selecting and writing a word on paper. Alan's manic artwork and sleeve notes are very amusing. 
Now reissued :

The best days were probably those where Alan and I just did songwriting, but it soon evolved into group evenings and happenings. There was a soup dinner party where we had five different kinds of soup - all eaten from paper bowls because Alan didn't like washing up. Between 1990 and 1992, I had the greatest of times, although there was a distinct awkwardness between Alan and Terri Lowe of PO! They were very different musically, creatively, socially and in terms of work ethic. This culminated in an end-of-tour argument about whether Terri should have been paid extra for driving the van, and he decided to leave. Since  there was now a chance to do more with my own band, PO! I finished with Ruth's Refrigerator but subsequently missed the creative challenge and friendship that I had lost. 
Ruth's Refrigerator l-r Ruth Miller, Blodwyn P. Teabag, Alan Jenkins, Robyn Gibson, Terri Lowe

During my time in Ruth's Refrigerator, I wrote a few songs for the group, including:

  • Gosh What a Lot of Umbrellas
  • She Lies in State
  • My Head's on Fire
  • The Lollipop Person
  • Exit ....Pursued by Bear

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

What is indiepop? Is it a world of girls?

At an indiepop festival, a friend asked me,
 'Is that the theme? Do all indiepop bands have to have females in them?'
My answer?
'No, you don't have to have females for a band to be indiepop; it often just seems to happen like that.'

Getting to basics, indiepop has three core elements:

  1. The punk ethic that anyone can form a band and be listened to.
  2. A joy and wonder in the world reflected in tuneful, often simple songs.
  3. Small-scale media publicity via word of mouth, fanzines, blogs, podcasts and mixtapes.
The toy industry's idea of an 'indie-girl'

Being male or female has nothing to do with these; it's just that indiepop doesn't set itself up as a boy's club. Women and girls may feel more willing to have a go within this genre, feeling that their ideas are welcomed. I guess that the child-like joy and wonder thing often correlates with middle-class decency and romanticism, which is why so many indiepop bands look like a bunch of lovely young primary school teachers. It's also probably why so many Japanese people like it.

But the actual sound of indiepop is a wide spectrum; it can be grungy and garage-y; there is sexiness and politics and mad humour at times and sometimes it's wistful and sparse. In these modern times, there's less self-deprecation on stage, but it's still there on a good/bad day. There seem to be lots of bands with couples in - and having a band together with your mate is a sweet and fun thing to do.

Last year, I loved it when my band PO! played Indietracks festival and there were so many bands with female musicians playing; often as front people but also many drummers, bassists and so on. Having a gender balance makes music more civilised whilst also being super exciting. So yes, indiepop is a world of girls, but only because so many other genres are weirdly macho.

What's also great for me is the generosity and loveliness of audiences. Those floppy-haired boys who collected and followed indiepop seem just as sensitive and spirited twenty years later when they're balding and bespectacled.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Is there a female guitar style?

This is a ridiculous question. How could there be a female guitar style? People are people. There's no female way of eating, or sleeping, or going to the toilet.... hang on a minute.

The proportion of female to male guitarists is tiny; there are very few females whose playing is considered noteworthy. I think there's two issues going on.

1. Confidence
2. Lack of ownership

I'll start with lack of ownership. Modern guitarring is usually about churning out lightning-speed blues runs. It needs a lot of practice and a strong wrist. Boys are often more dedicated to putting in the time with this kind of activity.

The hobby/collector/trainspotter mentality runs through guitarring, too. The memorising of names that could be lorries or amplifiers ACs and JCs, the discussions about the merits of digital, analogue, diesel. I find that my memory doesn't tend to hold these numbers and letters easily. BUT I DO KNOW WHAT I LIKE.

I won't even mention the guitar as penis thing because that's just ridiculous. But maybe also slightly relevant.

I am always pleased to see some girl or woman playing really great guitar in the traditional male style. I often see them on Facebook - some 14-year-old marvel doing something the Americans call 'shredding'. It's absolutely brilliant. It would be particularly brilliant if the girl has chosen this style for herself and has no musical family members. Often though, I suspect there's a proud dad in the background who has transferred all his technique to the next generation.

Here's a couple of female jazz guitarists playing at a London jazz club; look at the comments though - it's not rampant sexism, just a bit of male sneering at Deirdre Cartwright, who inspired me on the TV programme Rock School.

There probably isn't a 'female style of driving', but the fact that so many women drive, and that there are female driving instructors means that there's a broad range of driving styles. Some drivers are more cautious, more empathetic, slower. I don't race my car and I hardly ever sound my horn. That's not a female style of driving, but I bet more women drive like that.

So could there be a female guitar style? Before Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Elvis there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her rhythmic gospel blues picking is a wonder; she played her own style and influenced many male musicians who went on to make playing guitar a speed race and a noise competition.

One way that women have made a guitar-playing impact is with alternative tunings -like Joni Mitchell. I respect this and think it does seem like truly female playing.

But what made me want to play were the female post-punks; the Raincoats, The Slits, The Mo-Dettes, Delta 5. They had the cack-handed technique like the punk boys but their creativity was fabulous and very female.

Lesley Woods from the Au Pairs was another role model for me and I'd often be down the front at gigs watching her playing more than her singing.

So some women have made certain styles of playing guitar their own. The other big factor is confidence. I still believe that I am a rubbish guitarist because I cannot churn out a Claptonesque party piece or play the theme to Top Gear or that snooker music.

And just as women in every area of professional life believe they are not good enough, so we leave guitarring to the boys because more of them have the self-belief as well as the wrist action. But if you can conquer the confidence gap, it doesn't matter what you're actually doing. People just want to see you play with passion. Let's have some more female guitarists.

I write this because today, for the first time ever, I went into a music shop and tried out a guitar amp. Despite playing in bands for years, I have never had the courage to play in this arena of male virtuosity and hard rock judgement. Today I felt very brave and I did not care what the five men in the shop thought of my playing.