Category: Ramblings

A tribute to Keith Flint

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I don’t quite know how to process this. It has been announced this morning that Keith Flint, the unmistakeable singer in the Prodigy, has passed away.

The Penguin has tears in his eyes. The Prodigy are a band of almost unrivalled brilliance in my mind. One of the greatest live acts in the world; a band who helped to make dance music pre-eminent in the album and singles charts, as well as headlining festivals around the world. The blend of energy, rock, punk, dance – of various forms – and yet more energy appealed to fans of so many types of music.

I remember my mum buying Fat of the Land. It’s never great when your parents are cooler than you – well, one of them at least, my dad stopped following popular culture in 1977 – and whenever she drove home you’d hear her long before you saw her, so loud was the album blaring out. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was a seminal album for lots of people, but for me it was a gateway into a world I never wanted to end.

The first festival I ever went to was Leeds Festival in 2002. The Friday night had three major acts playing, with the Offspring and Guns and Roses either side of the Prodigy. I think about that set every week. The band were struggling at the time, having toured for years and struggling to get on. But for a 16 year old fan seeing them for the first time, it was absolutely magical. The energy. I’ve never seen a crowd bounce in unison for so long. The tunes. The bass. It was unforgettable.

Maxim would scream ‘where the fuck is Leeds?’ and we’d go crazy in response. Keith Flint would swagger around the stage, delivering the words to songs that were now part of our DNA. I don’t know if any manager looking to put a band together would ever think of bringing those three men in the same room; but their chemistry was undeniable. They leave a live crowd reeling, but desperately wanting more. It was absolutely addictive.

Which may explain why I’ve been back to see them so many times. I’ve lost count of the exact number, somewhere around ten. My first solo trip to London in 2004 involved watching them at Brixton Academy. There was the hilarious time they headlined the second stage at V Festival and – according to the rumour that went around – refused to go on stage unless the volume was turned up. The main stage headliners the Scissor Sisters had to apologise for the bass that kept wafting across. That was the gig where I’d said I was going to take it easy; then the riff to Their Law started and I was on the third row by the end of the first song. I’ve had my phone stolen at one of their gigs, and didn’t notice because the crowd were bouncing so much. You always came away with sore ribs and legs, but smiling from ear to ear.

Flint was not the music man. On some Prodigy albums he wasn’t even involved in the recording. But he was the heart and the ethos of the band. The stage got a little more electric when he came on. He embodied the attitude of the band and it was his face that became synonymous with their mainstream success and number 1 singles.

I’m so very sad right now that I won’t get to experience it again. But I’m so very grateful for what he did. He made a young kid from Yorkshire fall in love with whatever he did. And I hope he knows how much I – and so many others – appreciate that.

The O2 Arena – Serious questions to answer

the-o2-london-infoI wasn’t intending to blog today, but last night’s Massive Attack gig at the O2 Arena in London prompted a lot of thoughts and emotions. This post will be followed by another which is more focused on the gig and the band, but first I want to address the venue.

The O2 Arena has been running gigs in North Greenwich since 2007. I’ve seen some of my favourite gigs and artists there; Nine Inch Nails, Gorillaz, Madonna, Rihanna, Fleetwood Mac (four times), Prince, Marilyn Manson, Justin Timberlake, Rammstein. So many great memories.

I’ve always considered the O2 to be a necessary evil. It’s a big indoor venue – the second biggest in the country – and with that comes upsides and downsides. But I’ve always accepted the latter (most notably queues/delays to get home, iffy sound quality) because it’s close to home and attracts the biggest acts in the world.

I haven’t been to the O2 for nearly a year, and the experience last night was one of the worst I’ve had at a gig anywhere. It has somehow managed to turn itself into an anti-music venue.

Like almost every ticket purchaser, I received an email in advance stating:

In a separate email, we were advised to allow a little extra time:

The Penguin did, but still found himself joining a queue of hundreds – if not thousands – of people with standing tickets that snaked it’s way around the arena nearly back to the entrance of the building. For anyone who is familiar with the O2, that’s a bloody big queue.

Now I realise that post the attack on Manchester, there are serious issues for venues to consider to ensure the safety of people attending. But the stupidity of this system must be abundantly clear to anyone with a modicum of common sense. The music arena is one tiny section in the middle of the complex; there are shops, restaurants and huge concourses where you can roam – and where we were forced to queue – without being searched.

Is a system that compresses lots of people together – creating serious issues with flows of people in the process that resulted in someone getting knocked over – in an area where people aren’t searched safe? In the name of security, have the O2 not made their venue a more dangerous place?

[as an aside, the Penguin worked in a building that was of the highest security level for many years, and whatever measures were put in place were considerably less ridiculous than what we went through last night]

That’s before we get to the inconvenience of the system, the angst it created for fans – this writer included – who were worried they were going to miss the start of a set they’ve been waiting for for months. A number of people were visibly fuming at the situation.

But the strange thing is that Massive Attack played for around 90 minutes, playing pretty much the same set they’ve played on all of this tour. They came on at 2115, and I rather suspect they always intended to. So for those who arrived early – and who were expecting a long set, given it was meant to start at 2030 – felt let down by the band, harming their experience of the gig. For those who were stuck in the queue outside, the anxiety certainly harmed their experience. In short, everyone was annoyed one way or another.

So who gave the instruction to tell fans it was an 2030 prompt start? If, as I suspect, it was the venue, then they’ve seriously undermined a band performing in their venue and pissed off plenty of fans in the process. Are Massive Attack aware – and comfortable – with how the fans have been treated? Is this something the O2 are regularly doing to acts? Lying to fans on behalf of acts playing there because they can’t get a queuing system that works?

I wish I could stop there. But there’s a lot more. We were told in an email not to bring bags, and certainly not large ones. So why were there people in the standing section of the gig with giant rucksacks? So large that the people wearing them don’t even notice when they knock a drink out of other people’s hands? The venue aren’t even enforcing the stupid rules they’re making such a song and dance about.

And then we come to the bars. Of which there are very few if you’re in the standing section. Queuing for twenty five minutes for a drink is not particularly good fun, especially at those ludicrous prices. The bars that are there have half the number of staff they need to keep things moving quickly. Does anyone from the management of the venue actually attend any of their events as a punter? I seriously doubt it.

Since I last visited the O2 have introduced an ingenious ‘recycling’ scheme, which I hasten to add is not optional. If you get a drink, it has to come in one of their new reusable cups, for which you pay £2 for the pleasure. The cups are annoying to hold, but who cares about that?

The ‘best’ bit is that to redeem the £2, you have to queue at the end of the gig. When they’ve seemingly halved the number of staff at the bars, adding twenty minutes to your evening. The people in the queue at the end of the evening were laughing at the O2’s claim it was for recycling – because if it was they’d go out of their way to make it easier to sort – it’s just another way of bringing in a few more quid, and it stinks.

Finally, we come to the queue to get home. I understand the O2 gets a lot of visitors, but it seems like every time I go to a gig there they’re surprised that so many people want to get the tube home. There’s never any order, any barriers. There’s one person with a megaphone. People just calmly walk round the Long way and skip the queue. It’s chaotic and – probably given my comments above – a security hazard.

This was more of a rant than I’d hoped, but the O2 has now gone from being a necessary evil to a anti-music fan venue. Terrible organisation, ridiculously OTT security, stressful queuing, impossible to get a drink quickly and a nightmare to get home from. Oh and it’s crazy expensive. Maybe we just have to put up with it. Maybe they don’t care because enough people are going that quality is very must the servant of quantity. Or maybe they need a few more people to make them aware that it isn’t acceptable.

I’ve spent thousands of pounds on tickets for events at that venue. I very much doubt I’ll ever do so again. I’ve got tickets for one more event at the venue, and if it’s anything like it was last night I’ll never be going again. And I’d advise all music fans to do the same.

O2 – feel free to respond to any of the points above via email: astralpenguinsmusic@gmail.com

Hello to the new readers / how it works around here

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A very brief post this morning, simply to say welcome to those who have found this blog in the past few weeks, and a thank you to those who have gotten in touch (say hi on Twitter or drop me an email: astralpenguinsmusic@gmail.com)

The Penguin works in a bit of a cycle. On Monday I post the This Week playlist, which is a selection of the songs I’m listening to at the moment and enjoying.  Then on Tuesdays-Thursdays I post some of the songs that have really caught my attention – and affection – in our Track of the Day selections.

On Sundays I post the A List, which is our weekly chart of the best top 10 songs around right now. It’s super geeky and there are silly rules (like songs only being allowed on the chart for 3 weeks) but I think the quality of the music on there speaks for itself.

Fridays and Saturdays are often a little quiet, although I intend to change that. There are also other features that pop up every now and then, but that’s more to do with when the Penguin has both an idea AND free time. Which is not always. I have to go fish for food and check on my very successful biscuit business.

Anyway, that’s just a guide to how it works around here. It’s all about music and passion, and hopefully you’ll discover something you’ll like along the way. And if I’ve missed something and you have a tip, drop me a line on the email above.

Ramblings: peak excitement levels for new albums from The Twilight Sad, Foals and the return of Bombay Bicycle Club

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One of the exciting things about January is that every music publication gets to run two lists, the new(ish)/lesser known artists they think will be big in the year ahead and the list of more established artists that are set to release new material and albums in the coming year.

In truth, the ‘breakthrough star’ lists seem to be losing a lot of their appeal and ‘guaranteed hit’ status (pure speculation on my part, but I’d guess this decline is through a combination of how we consume music nowadays and how social media has changed how we interact with and receive information from artists directly. Plus there’s about a million of those lists now, which inherently makes them less impactful).

Similarly the album lists are often preempted by the – now very early – announcements of major festival headliners (case in point, I was discussing albums coming up with a friend the other day and he said ‘Tame Impala are headlining Coachella, so I assume they’ve got something new coming out’)

Bu leaving that aside, I could barely hide my excitement when I went through the list(s) of acts with new material this year. Two acts I really admire (The Twilight Sad and James Blake) are releasing new material on Friday. The year’s not even three weeks old and we’re getting stuff from critically acclaimed and adored artists.

The Twilight Sad 

I’m particularly looking forward to The Twilight Sad release, partly as they made my favourite song of last year but mostly because I think they suit the LP format beautifully and rarely make a wrong step on their albums.

They have done a phenomenal job on Twitter creating a buzz for the release. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band create momentum and excitement in such an organic way; they and their fans are building up to Friday as a real key milestone for an underrated band. And the initial reviews certainly seem to indicate that the buzz is worth it.

Foals

The band I was originally going to centre this post around is the mighty Foals. They went big on a teaser last week for their new material that had rock and indie fans everywhere salivating. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost is the name of the new album, and it will come in two parts, one in March and the other in the autumn. They must have a lot of faith in the albums to give it that title, it’s a reviewers dream to have something like that if an album – particularly a double album – isn’t very good… 

I’ve been a fan of Foals since I first heard 2008 single Cassius on Zane Lowe’s Radio 1 show. They sounded unusual and brilliant, and their singles became highlights whenever they were released. But the other side of the coin was that they seemed a sloppy live band. I remember watching them on TV (it was probably a Glastonbury set) and it sounded pretty rough. Yet their albums seemed to continue getting stronger, and I thought 2015’s What Went Down was a very good album – with a monster single of the same name – that was widely overlooked.

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In fact I thought they were ready for big festival slots, they were a band who had honed their live set into something wonderful – I saw them at Wembley Arena and they were absolutely fantastic – and they had enough big songs to justify top billing. Yet the big festivals didn’t quite agree. Glastonbury put them on the Pyramid stage below Muse, which I think was very much the wrong way round. Leeds and Reading did give them a headline slot, but as co-headliners alongside Disclosure. Certainly not a bad set of slots, but they deserved to be up there on their own.

And now we come to their new album(s), and I’m at peak excitement levels. The little teaser they’ve put out is impressive, and I keep my fingers crossed that this is the album that lands them on the top of the British music scene.

Bombay Bicycle Club

Speaking of fantastic bands, I lost my shit yesterday when I saw the news that Bombay Bicycle Club are back together and making new music. They were one of my favourite bands in the world when they went on hiatus (I saw their last tour three times) and I think music has missed their contributions. Seeing that they’re back together was my favourite moment of 2019 so far.

Until next time ….

Ramblings on Chaka Khan, new headphones and Peter Frampton

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Well the blog is back up and running after our first track of the day of 2019 was posted last night. I spent some time on Sunday trawling Spotify for music released in 2019 (early January is understandably not the easiest time to find new music) and I was pleasantly surprised to find Chaka Khan’s new track. I seem to recall she had a pretty bad time after Prince died, with a stint in rehab involved, and I thought she’d stopped recording music until I heard last year’s Like Sugar. On the back of these two solid tracks I’m looking forward to her forthcoming album.

Over the weekend I was given my final Christmas present, a pair of swanky Sennheiser Bluetooth headphones. I usually spend the Christmas period listening to random music from the 60s and 70s but didn’t get the chance this year as we were away. But I’ve been enjoying blasting out Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music (I listened to Jealous Guy earlier today and had completely forgotten how brilliant that track is) and many others to give the new headphones a whirl, and I’m fast falling in love with them.

Speaking of music from the 60s, over the weekend my dad was playing me some tracks his covers band are currently rehearsing. On Saturday he played me Peter Frampton’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I love the original – which I had no idea until about an hour ago featured Eric Clapton – and I really like the Frampton version as well, which was recorded as a tribute to his friend George Harrison. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s well worth a listen.

I’ll be back with another Track of the Day later, but in the meantime here’s a bit more Chaka Khan to kick start your day.

Back from the dead

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It has been 623 days since I last blogged on Astral Penguins. By way of a brief explanation, things got very crazy around Easter of last year professionally and personally, and time was no longer my friend. I had to stop doing a lot of things I enjoyed; listening to new music and blogging were both victims.

 

New music has always been an addiction. I love hearing a new artist for the first time and getting to know them through their work. I love seeing them develop and – hopefully – achieve the success that their work merits. I’ve been following new music with a religious fervour since I was fourteen, and few things in life give me greater pleasure than sifting through hours of music.

 

Not long ago I read a book about Radio 1 in the 1990s and one of the anecdotes was about John Peel, a man I considered a hero and someone who – along with Zane Lowe, my parents and my friends – was really responsible for expanding my musical horizons. The book detailed how Peel used to listen to dozens of tapes of new music in his car, and he ‘filed’ the good ones by throwing them down in front of the passenger seat, and the shit ones got tossed on the back seat. Every few days he’d come out with a bag and collect them all up.

 

I don’t have John Peel’s skill for judging new music, but I hope I share that same passion. We may no longer have cassettes, but I have playlists and an Excel spreadsheet to keep me on track. I keep searching for what I consider to be the perfect song.

 

From April onwards last year, I listened to very little new music. It was the first time in my adult life where I was without its company, and it really didn’t feel right. In January I decided I needed to get back into the game, so I fired up Spotify and Excel and fell back into the habit that I love.

 

My Spotify wrapped tells me I’ve listened to 6,097 different songs this year, or 40,086 minutes, or 668 hours, or 28 days. Which is quite a lot. My Excel spreadsheet tells me that of the 6,097 songs, 4,317 of them were new singles (I assume the rest were a combination of EPs, old and new albums and old songs I dipped back into). You can draw your own conclusions about the strength of my social life at this point…

 

Which leads me to here, and to now. You see, I’ve really missed blogging. I miss trying to describe how a song makes me feel, or writing about an artist I’ve just discovered. I’ve thought for a long time about if it is worth it, and I think it is. So Astral Penguins returns.

 

In the next few days I’ll be posting my top 50 tracks of the year, which I’m excited to share. I’ll also be disagreeing with the vast majority of the end-of-year best album lists (the 1975 album was absolute dross, don’t believe the NME hype) with a few selections of my own.

 

There’s another thing I’m hoping to do over the Christmas period as well. A few weeks ago, my dad asked me what 10 albums had most influenced my music taste. He’d been asked the same question as one of those stupid things that parents post on Facebook, but it’s a question that has lingered since then, and I have a provisional list that I’d like to flesh out. But there’s a decent chance I’ll be drunk and/or too full to write anything over Christmas, so I’m not promising I’ll actually get it done.

 

Anyway, that’s enough for now. Here’s to the resurrection of Astral Penguins.

Ramblings: on blogging, The XX, IDLES and Secret Cinema (Moulin Rouge)

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There were four things I feared when I started Astralpenguins:

  1. I wouldn’t enjoy writing it
  2. People would react negatively to such a weird collection of music
  3. I’d run out of music that I liked and therefore end up plugging music I wasn’t that keen on
  4. I’d run out of time/energy to keep it updated.

Well the fourth of those concerns came about around the middle of March. Work, personal admin and commitments conspired to take my time away. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to write the blog, it was that I didn’t have time to listen to music at all.

And yet, here I am. On the other side of a strange couple of weeks. I’ve had a blog post in my mind for a fortnight that I don’t really feel is worth writing in full anymore, but it revolved around two gigs I went to – with Gig buddy Matt – on consecutive nights.

The first was seeing The XX at one of their Brixton shows, absolutely smashing it. It was a total pleasure from start to finish watching that band – a band that I’ve loved since I first heard them on the radio around 7 years ago – stand triumphant in front of their hometown crowd.

I have to be honest, I was on such a high from The XX that I feared for the following night’s acts. I even considered not going. But boy am I glad I did. First, some history: one of the ways I check out new bands is from the email lists of various venues I like; they email out a list of acts who are playing soon and then I listen to the music of the bands I haven’t heard of before.

Back in the summer of 2015 I received an email from Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen advertising a band called IDLES. They had one EP on Spotify, and it was – from memory – pretty solid indie rock. Tickets were c. £5 and I thought ‘why not?’ – I even persuaded Gig Buddy Matt to come along. We were in for a surprise…

The band had somewhat changed their sound since that EP, eschewing indie sensibilities for a considerably more brutal punk sound. The audience was sparse – probably around 40 of us – and the band were intimidating. They looked like they’d be cobbled together in some sort of prison rehabilitation programme; all pent-up rage channelled – mostly – through their instruments. The lead singer jumped off the stage and paced around the audience, who visibly recoiled.

They were, in short, rather brilliant. The kind of band you need to see; full of eccentricities and chemistry, yet always bordering on an explosion. They were supported on that night by a 2 piece called John (which, they helpfully point out, is a terrible name for a band, as you can’t find them on Google). I’m delighted we spent the £5 – it’s one of those gigs we still talk about with joy and laughter.

And then late last year, something unexpected happened. Radio 1 started championing IDLES. They were getting radio play, invited in for live lounge performances … it gave them a level of exposure they’d previously lacked. And so they returned to London (Moth Club) a couple of weeks ago – once again supported by the once again excellent but totally un-google-able John) with a considerably bigger crowd.

What hadn’t changed is their spirit. The punk ethos, the chaotic live show, the humour… it was there. They were fantastic. If you haven’t seen them, don’t hesitate. This is a band who have worked incredibly hard to get themselves to this stage, and their live show is, right now, one of music’s most provocative experiences.

There is one other thing I wanted to mention from the past week. My favourite film in the world is Moulin Rouge (closely followed by Die Hard) and at the moment in London an organisation called Secret Cinema are hosting their version of screenings of the film. Essentially Secret Cinema try to recreate the magic and ethos of the film by bringing elements of it to life. My other half bought me tickets for one of their screenings (performances?) for Christmas, and we excitedly went along last Sunday.

I’m loathe to write anything resembling a review of the night, but the top line is that I thought the whole thing was atrocious. Lacking creative direction, artistic merit or a sense of how to add value to something that is already pretty much perfect, it is one of the worst cultural experiences I’ve had in London. I can only suggest – if you are thinking of going – that you avoid it. Better to sit at home and watch the film; it’s better than the second rate am-dram drivel you’ll experience at the Secret Cinema experience, and it’ll save you from shelling out for the ridiculously overpriced tickets, drinks, food and costume.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. Back soon – and I promise to stick to music from now on.