Speeding Motorcycle

Daniel Johnston is something of a folk hero in indie circles; bands such as Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, and Kenickie have all cited him as an influence. But my first exposure to Johnston had nothing to do with music at all. Back in the mid-1990s, comic writer Warren Ellis used to write an occult comic called Hellstorm. He also had a column in a UK magazine where he talked about the letters he used to receive. One reader sent in drawings of Captain America to the title’s editor, Marie Jarvins, along with messages about how he would save her from Ellis’s foul influence. It was only years later that I discovered that the reader was Daniel Johnston.

Johnston rose to fame after an appearance in a mid-1980s MTV documentary about the Austin music scene. His first albums (made and released by himself on cassette) started showing up around America. Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain were painfully honest and emotional albums, with Johnston's songwriting skills shining through the ramshackle production and his, well, almost unique voice. This is from the first album, a song that was later covered by Kathy McCarty and used in the film Before Sunrise:

Daniel JohnstonLiving Life

Daniel's mental instability led to him being institutionalised several times towards the end of the decade, but the 1990s were kinder. There were several episodes, like the letters to Ellis, but nothing too serious. He even managed to get signed to a major label, Atlantic Records. a feat which surprised many people. One of the songs from this period can be found on the My So-Called Life Soundtrack:

Daniel JohnstonCome See Me Tonight

He was inevitably dropped by Atlantic, but he's still making records, still singing about loss, pain, and a slightly askew view of the world which often seems much friendlier and colourful than the one outside our window.

Daniel JohnstonFavorite Darling Girl

currently playing: Scissor Sisters — Laura

BORIS! BORIS! BORIS!

Last night’s Question Time, featuring a bunch of Conservative teenagers and Boris Johnston.

currently playing: Rachel Stevens — Some Girls

Quickly she came, dressed up for fame

The It Girl album cover Lie Detector Sleeper Indolent Records Released: May 1996 Highest UK Chart Position: Album Track Available on: The It Girl

At last it can be revealed. The other members of Sleeper were: Andy Maclure (drums), Jon Stewart (guitar, keyboards), and Diid Osman (bass).

Every band seems to have a lightning rod; a member who becomes the focus for all the press and PR attention. Pulp had Jarvis, the Pet Shop Boys had Neil Tennant, Oasis, always going a little bit too far, had two in the shape of the Gallagher brothers, but it was Liam who took most of the headlines. Even the relaitively anonymous New Order had Peter Hook. But Sleeper seemed to take it to another level, with the term 'Sleeperblokes' coined by the music press to describe the members of the band who weren't Louise Wener, lead singer and guitarist.

Wener was something of a gift to a music press infused with a new sense of laddism from "ironic" men's magazines such as FHM and Loaded. Opinionated, always willing to give a good quote, an avid fan of Margaret Thatcher and eager to speak out against the bands cosying up to New Labour, she was the NME's dream. Pure poison, though, for many readers and some journalists, many of whom seemed just as shocked that a girl could play guitar as they were of her opinions on sex and gender roles. A man would have been allowed to say these things without much comment being passed, but a woman? Not a chance.

Their music didn't help matters, either. There was always a sense that the band was trying to be clever; aiming for the lyrical heights of The Smiths, but never quite managing to reach them, and as a result coming across a little silly. Lie Detector, the first track from their second album, The It Girl, is a typical example of this failing, name-checking Bergman, Einstein, and the Stepford wives, While this:

she's got green eyes and she's lovely
reminds me of the 'it' girl with her lips
got an automatic license
reads all Dostoyevsky's household tips

is light-years beyond anything Noel Gallagher could ever dream of writing, it's as subtle as a bag of anvils. The sound is almost generic Britpop - two guitars, drums, and a bass, with a tiny bit of keyboard to provide spice. And yet, despite all the problems, the record somehow works; while it's not subtle, lines such as "attach her to a lie detector / watch a thousand housewives fizz and burn" and "And it took a thousand clichés just to scold her" crackle and pop in your ears as the song rattles by. It's over in a little over two minutes, making sure that it doesn't wear out its welcome. It's not the feminist statement that it sets out to be, but it's a fun pop song regardless.

My memory of Louise Wener will be forever centred on an August day in 1995. Sleeper were playing at the R.E.M. concert at the Milton Keynes Bowl, on the bill below The Cranberries and Radiohead. It was her birthday. During the R.E.M. set (being broadcast around the world), Michael Stipe called her onstage and sang happy birthday to her. The lucky girl…

Another year…

…another Grant Morrison interview. Warning: contains ideas.

A choice quote:

I still think the manga format is going to be where the big action is and that Tokyopop is currently setting the pace as far as remaking comics into something attractive to the mainstream goes - they've already got Courtney Love writing for them, haven't they, and surely she knows a bandwagon when she sees one trundling around the corner?

currently playing: Modest Mouse — Float On

Grrr...

If you saw Jeremy Clarkson’s documentary on the computer tonight, then please ignore his tirade on how the secrecy of Colossus let the Americans overtake us in the computer industry. His researchers failed to uncover the Manchester Baby, the first von Neuman architecture machine, and the very successful commercial computers that Ferranti sold based on that design. Or how Manchester invented virtual memory with the ATLAS computer, which was the fastest in the world during the early 1960s. Or how Britain still had an active independent computer industry into the 1990s. It’s fun to blame the government for its destruction and the eventual American take-over, but it’s just not true.

(I was also incensed at his side-lining of Turing, but that's another story. Yes, the engineer should have got more recognition. But Colossus would not have been made without Turing, and his work defined the limits of computability. Everything we have today stems from his theoretical work. That's why he's celebrated today; not just for his WWII effort, but for everything else he gave us, before our government chemically castrated him for the offence of liking men)

currently playing: The Beat — Save It For Later

We Were Only Links

America! Japan! We salute you!

Another weird little flash game, complete with freaky intro.

Ho ho ho.

Ho ho ho (Part 2).

And finally, are you registered to vote in Florida? Are you on this list? If so, you might want to sort that out before November…

currently playing: Call and Response — Rollerskate

So…Tired…

Michael Moore:

I don’t agree with the copyright laws and I don’t have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it with people as long as they’re not trying to make a profit off my labour. I would oppose that,

Jack Valenti, outgoing head of the MPAA:

I don’t think there’s really a single actor or director in the world who does not believe that if you don’t combat piracy, it will devour you in the future.

All those BitTorrent-enabled, here's a link to a camcorder version. Personally, I'm waiting until it goes on release over here later this month…

currently playing: The Polyphonic Spree — Light & Day (orchestral version)

Young Man!

I…I…*dies*

currently playing: Kenickie — Can I Take U 2 The Cinema?

I only wanted something else to do but hang around

Stars (reissue) coverStars Dubstar Food Released: July 1995 / March 1996 Highest UK Chart Position: 40 / 15 Available on: Stars — The Best Of…

If Saint Etienne encapsulated the sound of the big city, then Dubstar were the sound of the suburbs; sad and disconnected, wearing imitation designer clothing from the local market. The trio formed in 1993, signing to Food after they sent in a demo consisting of nothing more than a cover of Billy Bragg's St. Swithin's Day (a full version of which can be found on their first album, Disgraceful). This is their debut single, although it was also their fourth, reissued after they picked up popularity during the latter half of 1995.

Is it asking too much of my favourite friends
To take these songs for real?

Stars is about escape, and of failure. The dream of being taken away from a dreary existence in a backwater town and becoming something special. Her friends look on in quiet contempt, silently wanting her to fail, as she tries to escape through her singing. Even her lover doesn't believe that she can succeed. Perhaps she's singing on an empty stage; perhaps the stars in question are the performers, and only after they've gone out, can she venture out and practice for a fairytale ending that is never going to come.

What makes the single creepy is Sarah Blackwood's delivery. It's disinterested, sounding flat and dejected apart from the chorus, when she's fantasising about her escape. The music seems to owe a lot to ambient bands like The Orb, giving the song a very electronic and elegiac feel. The repetition of certain sound effects throughout helps to underscore the narrator's dissatisfaction with her dreary suburban existence.

If that sounds rather miserable, well, it is. But sometimes you need to hear the sadness within, and this record manages to capture a powerful frustration with reality. It also served, as this type of record often does, as a career map for Dubstar themselves. After the initial hits, the second album flopped, as did the third. The band’s working relationship became strained, and they eventually decided to disband in November 2000; the stars having gone out for them after seven years of being together.

The Future's So Bright

I’m sure there was a reason…