Blog on the Tracks

Writer/reviewer Simon Sweetman covers music for The Dominion Post and North And South. He cares far too much about music, and the list of bands he loves is far longer than the list of groups he has shown no love.

Your first musical instrument

02:22am 28 Jan 2015

SIMON SWEETMAN

My first musical instrument - not counting a toy drum-kit (which I can only just remember) - was a recorder. I had to have my own recorder - made a special case for it. We drove over to Napier one Friday night. It was a big deal. Got a recorder. And a special case for it. You see, we were being forced to learn the recorder at school - and the horrible music teacher had a bucket of communal recorders (I've told you that part of the story before, see) and I didn't want to share spit with others back then - not in that way. So I was one of a handful of students that turned up with their own recorder.

I doubt my parents ever felt like they recouped the investment. I didn't make it much beyond Three Blind Mice. B-A-G and all that. Actually that was all. I recently found the play-along beginner-recorder book that was bought for me with the instrument and its special case. It had one of those flexi-disc records you tore from the page. That's long gone - but I still have the book. Drums

My first (proper) drum kit wasn't a lot better. I mean, I was grateful for it - I loved it. But it was a pretty huckery thing. Second-hand kit, I was 12 years old, had been "learning" for just a few months. I was into it. Although my meat-head uncle decided to have a go on it later that Christmas morning and tore the floor-tom skin right away. That was gutting at the time, but obviously it was replaced, an easy fix. Didn't feel like it would be on the day though.

It had a stencilled "Keep It Country" logo with a hat and guitar drawn in on the bass drum. I loathed that. Took the front head off straight away. Now I'd kill for that bass drum - and that logo. The floor tom was brand new, sparkly, shiny red - it didn't match the rest of the kit. I still have the floor tom. It's in good-enough condition.

The kit had one cymbal, with rivets. It sounded like a garbage tin lid. Again, I'd love that now - but back then it wasn't what I had been hoping for.

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Art-Prank: The cover-album folly

06:57am 27 Jan 2015

SIMON SWEETMAN

One of my strange near-obsessions is finding out about track-by-track cover-albums; if I find out that a band - even a pack of nobodies - has recorded their version of a classic (or interesting) album originally recorded by someone else then I want to hear it.

I may not like it - as was the case with a truly horrific version of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks recorded as live-album by a band called Mary Lee's Corvette. But I still want to hear it. With A Little Help From My Fwends

I'm fascinated by the motivations to take someone else's full piece of work - the album, rather than just a single, a particular song - and recast it. 

There are song-by-song recreations that aim to come close to the original and there are full-album covers that are trying to ignore the musical language of the first recording; trying to tell a new story.

Then there's the album covered as folly. An art-prank, something like Camper Van Beethoven's version of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album - I'm sure the Camper guys love the songs, but they didn't make this album for Fleetwood Mac fans. At least, not intentionally.

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Andrew Fagan and The People

10:12am 26 Jan 2015

SIMON SWEETMAN

I'm excited about Andrew Fagan's current tour - it started before Christmas, then a few days off and now back into it. Wellington will see the final show in fact.

I'm very lucky to be part of the bill - I'll be playing some classic Kiwi tunes, some of my favourite records, before the show and during the between-sets interval.Andrew Fagan

It's an honour.

Fagan was the first rock'n'roll frontman I knew about in New Zealand music. I remember watching him - watching The Mockers - on the New Year's Eve TV specials when I was a kid, also on the RTR Countdown-type shows (occasionally), and of course the hits were all over the radio.

I thought he was terrific - great songwriter, great singer, but this presence...a frontman, the man selling the sound, stealing the show, owning the stage.

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When the headliner is the weakest

11:26pm 22 Jan 2015

SIMON SWEETMAN

Perhaps we've talked about this already - I'm sure we have, but hey - have you ever been to a gig, particularly a double-bill sort of gig, where the headliner gets blown off the stage by someone on the undercard? 


The reason I'm asking is because it's been a while since I remember this happening. But it does happen. And the reason I'm asking this question today, this week, quite apart from being stumped for a topic is because I've been thinking about this - a couple of times - in recent days.Kanye

I raved about Nas - because it really was a great show; my third time seeing him, but my first time seeing the full Nas show. The first time I saw him was great, he should have been the headliner, he was over here on a double-bill as the opener for Kanye West. And in going to see Nas' Illmatic show on Sunday night there was a lot of talk about previous concerts, about whether he'd deliver. It was never in doubt for me - if you've beaten the headliner when you're on further down the bill, the opener, then of course you're going to nail it when you're the main attraction. Where Kanye bumbled about and delivered absurd monologues in his robotic-slur (and inferior material from his weakest album) Nas delivered the best songs from across his career, never missed a line, never put a foot wrong.

I was also remembering the first time I saw Bob Dylan. It wasn't great. I've since seen him a couple more times, both shows were better than that first time - but it was the first time. And I was enough of a Dylan fan to feel grateful to even get a shot to see him. But Patti Smith played a set before him that first time and it was better than what Dylan offered. Smith was pumped, no way was she playing just the hits - she didn't really have any hits as such anyway. But she was determined to build her own show, do her own set, album highlights, new material, songs she hadn't played in a while - a bit of free jazz-inspired clarinet honking, some punk gobbing. Dancing barefoot, revelling. Bob and Patti

Dylan's humdrum coasting was no comparison to the grab-the-moment effort from Ms. Smith.

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Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio

06:16am 22 Jan 2015

SIMON SWEETMAN

I was recently talking about how disappointing it is when you read a music bio that is weak, particularly when it's about someone whose music you dig. Well, I also read one of the very best music books recently - and I hadn't known about the book previously; found it the very best way, browsing a friend's shelf. 

Right through high school I was a massive Lou Reed fan - I read three Lou Reed bios, all of them interesting, two of them very good. And then on into university I read books about The Velvet Underground including John Cale's autobiography (I was sold on it by a review that Chris Knox had written) and then more recently a John Cale biography. I thought I'd run out of Lou/VU books...

I've watched most of the documentaries and biopics too - including anything related to Andy Warhol and his Factory. But I had never really read anything about Nico.Songs They Never Play on the Radio

And so when I saw Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio on a friend's bookshelf I had to borrow it. It then sat next to my bed for a few months last year and right at the end of 2014 I decided to rip into it. It's not a long book - but it is fascinating, beautifully written, a tragi-comic tale.

Songs They Never Play on the Radio was written in the early 1990s by James Young. He had been the keyboardist in Nico's band in the 1980s. It's his memoir rather than any sort of Nico bio - but it tells plenty of awful and ugly truths about the music industry, about the particularly cruel (self-inflicted, self-flagellating) and deeply unglamorous slow-but-quick fall of this icon.

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