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Jonathan Beckett - Vinyl Stories

  by Dave Goodwin

published: 22 / 12 / 2016

Jonathan Beckett - Vinyl Stories


Dave Goodwin in 'Vinyl Stories' makes another epic delve into the world of vinyl as he raids Moscow Circus' lead singer/songwriter Jonathan Beckett's record box and finds Echo and The Bunnymen, REM, The Blue Nile and other twelve inch treats

Critical Hippo had been together just three weeks when they played their first gig at The Garage in Nottingham in January 1988. They were formed just over the border in Long Eaton and, after changing their name to Moscow Circus and then Stigmata, the band moved to Nottingham in May 1988. They played several more gigs at venues around the city before disbanding in 1989. They then reformed in 1990 as Bloodsugar and continued to gig at venues around Nottingham such as The Narrowboat and The Newshouse before splitting once again in 1991. A long way away from that in January 2008 the band reformed to play a fortieth birthday show for two of the band members, and shortly afterwards Moscow Circus received their first ever US radio play when their 1989 song 'Princess Rainbow' was featured on a show in California. The band themselves comprise of Jonathan Beckett (guitar and vocals), Martin Haddelsey (keyboards and vocals), Peter Temperton (bass guitar) and Tom Parratt (drums), and they have just released the album 'Resounding' which I suppose you would call it the band's debut album, although it consists entirely of songs written in the 1980s. It has been released on the group's own Echolocation records. It was recorded at Hypersmonsonic and produced by Tiago Querioz who also plays additional guitar. For this month's journey delve into a prized record box we spoke to Jonathan Beckett: "I first started collecting records in early 1981, when I was 12 years old. I was already listening to both the Chart Show and John Peel on the radio, and was becoming fascinated by a variety of music by both well known and more obscure artists. The first obstacle to overcome was that there was no record player in our house, as my mum and dad didn’t own one. Luckily, my uncle was upgrading to a new music stack system, and so I got his old music centre with a record deck, turntable, and speakers. The next problem was affording to buy records. I can’t remember when my pocket money went up from 50p a week to £1 a week, but I did regularly buy singles and (less frequently) albums from 12 years old onwards, so I suspect it may have gone up to £1 a week by then. Singles were normally either 99p for a current release, or 49p for an ex chart single. The ex chart singles were of course perfect for a kid on pocket money, and so most of my singles collection from the early to mid ‘80s was built up in this way. The first single I ever bought was ‘Once In A Lifetime’ by Talking Heads. I was delighted when I found it in the bargain bin of Gilberts in Long Eaton (a hardware shop which had a small record section) in a card picture sleeve, for only 49p. The first albums I bought (most likely with Christmas money from relatives) were the first two OMD albums. I was playing catch up with these records, as they were both released in 1980. I loved both these albums, and I still do today, 35 years on. However, the approach I have decided to take for Vinyl Stories is to choose five albums which I first owned in their year of release, between the ages of 12 and 16. So some of my very favourite albums of all time have been omitted, as they do not fit this criteria. Examples of these would be Unknown Pleasures and Closer by Joy Division, which I did not hear until 1982 (I hadn’t started buying records when they were released). Also Marquee Moon by Television, possibly my favourite album of all time, but one I didn’t hear until a decade after its release, when I was 18 years old. Other favourite albums that didn’t fit the criteria I have chosen for this article are Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, Forever Changes by Love, Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk, Fear Of Music by Talking Heads, Talk Talk Talk by The Psychedelic Furs, Neu! 75 by Neu!, Workbook by Bob Mould, Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart, Shoot Out The Lights by Richard & Linda Thompson, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, Systems Of Romance by Ultravox, Entertainment! by Gang Of Four, Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, I Often Dream Of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock, The Man Machine by Kraftwerk and Revolver by The Beatles. These are either albums that I didn’t hear in their year of release, or albums that I heard in their year of release, but when I was older than 16. It’s not an exhaustive list - there are many more records I could have chosen. Finally, here are a few albums that I did hear in their year of release, between the ages of 12 and 16, which I could easily have picked instead of the five albums I did end up choosing: Flip Your Wig by Husker Du, Fried by Julian Cope, Architecture & Morality by OMD, The Golden Age Of Wireless by Thomas Dolby, Movement by New Order, Wilder by The Teardrop Explodes, Sons And Fascination by Simple Minds, Feline by The Stranglers, English Settlement by XTC, and Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits. Again, this list is not exhaustive, although naturally there are a lot less albums from which to choose here than in my “all time” list. ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN - HEAVEN UP HERE The very first album I owned at the time of its release and which still I love today is Heaven Up Here by Echo And The Bunnymen. I bought the album soon after it was released, when I was 12 years old. I can remember that it was £3.99, although I can’t remember where I bought it from. I would buy new records mainly from Unitapes in Long Eaton, or maybe HMV in Nottingham. I had not yet discovered Nottingham’s legendary (and now very sadly defunct) independent music shop, Selectadisc - that was to follow when I was a few years older. I was fascinated by the cover of Heaven Up Here, which features the band in silhouette, their backs to the camera, standing on a beach at water’s edge, looking out to sea, with seagulls hovering over their heads. On the back cover, the men are gone, leaving the sand, sea, sky and gulls. The colours are deep, bruised blues. As a child, I was very drawn to the sea (as many children are), and this cover brought together my love of that environment with my burgeoning obsession with music. Although there is a song called ‘No Dark Things’ on Heaven Up Here, to my 12 year old mind, the music contained within the grooves of the record was fashioned from the same, deep, bruised blues as those featured on the album cover. The first song begins. Called ’Show Of Strength’, it starts with a needling guitar figure, propulsive drums, and a prominent bass guitar. A hint of exotic percussion, and a high, winsome lead guitar. Then the song kicks in, and a creamy, low lead guitar (E-bow?) prepares the ground for the plaintive vocals. I think of Heaven Up Here as a mood album. It may not be the strongest Bunnymen album in terms of songs alone (live, these days, they lean very heavily on their debut Crocodiles, and also on Ocean Rain), but it has a very powerful and evocative atmosphere. Also, it was the first Bunnymen album I ever heard, which may be why it occupies such a special place in my heart. I also discovered a few years ago that Will Sergeant (founder member and lead guitarist) considers Heaven Up Here to be his favourite Bunnymen album. I was delighted when I heard this, because Will is a big musical hero of mine. I should also mention that, in 2010, Will contacted me to tell me that he loved one of my songs, ‘She’s A Vampire’. I was utterly delighted about this, as it was so encouraging and empowering to receive validation for my writing from a musician who I respect and admire so much. KRAFTWERK - COMPUTER WORLD I got Computer World by Kraftwerk for Christmas from my mum and dad in 1981. I can vividly remember sitting under the Christmas tree, listening to it repeatedly on a pair of those huge painful headphones that clamped your head like a vice. I was 13 years old, and had little or no idea what a computer was. But you have to bear in mind that this was nearly 15 years before the dawn of the internet age for the general public. So you would have to say that when Kraftwerk made a concept album about computers, and sang of a ‘Computer World’, they were remarkably prescient. Prior to hearing this album, the only songs I knew by Kraftwerk were ‘Pocket Calculator’, from the Computer World album, ‘Computer Love’, also from the album, and ‘The Model’, their song from 1978, which was on the other side of the ‘Computer Love’ single. As well as knowing next to nothing about computers, I also knew very little about Kraftwerk, and so this album was very mysterious to me. It is also possibly the first time I had heard “pop songs” sung in anything other than a British or an American accent, with the notable exception of Abba, who sounded identifiably Swedish. Kraftwerk sounded more German than Abba sounded Swedish, however, which made the whole thing seem even more exotic and otherworldly to me. I had no idea that with their 1978 album The Man Machine, Kraftwerk had developed the idea of themselves as automatons, even going so far as to have clones of themselves made, albeit more ‘Showroom Dummies’ (another song by them, from 1977’s Trans Europe Express) than genuine, functioning robots.. So I could not understand why the band appeared to look more plastic than real on the cover of Computer World. This made the whole thing seem even more mysterious to me. I was also unaware that Kraftwerk had been a huge influence on OMD, The Human League, Depeche Mode, and all the other synth pop bands I loved during the early 1980s. It should have been obvious, perhaps, but as a 13 year old kid, this music just sounded so different from the British synth pop bands I knew and loved. I wasn’t yet old enough to join the dots and realise that Kraftwerk were the synth poppin’ daddies of them all. But I did know instinctively that there was something very significant and special about them. THE BLUE NILE - A WALK ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS Fast forward a couple of years to April 1984, and A Walk Across The Rooftops by The Blue Nile. I was now 15 years old, and my musical tastes were diversifying. I still loved synth pop, and what is now called post-punk, but I was starting to listen to more music that didn’t fit into either of these categories. The Blue Nile are a good example. Although there are synthesisers on the record, in no way could this be described as synth pop music. For a start, most of it is too slow and reflective. There is a world weariness and a melancholy to the overall sound that suggested a world far removed from that of my 15 year old self. The lyrics spoke of cityscapes at night, lost youth, old men and women in the rain. Although I already loved a lot of music with introspective, thoughtful lyrics, The Blue Nile seemed different, somehow. You got the impression that they had been around a bit longer, had lived a little before they made this, their debut album. And it has really stayed with me. Paul Buchanan’s voice is a thing of rare beauty, and although some of the sounds place the album very firmly in the mid-’80s, the quality of the songs lifts A Walk Across The Rooftops beyond these associations, and makes it timeless. The Blue Nile went on to make three more albums, but never bettered this one, although their second album Hats ran it close. In recent years, Paul Buchanan has released a solo album called Mid Air, which features pared down compositions for piano and voice, and a sense of stillness and reverie that takes a song like ‘Easter Parade’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops to its logical conclusion, as close to a vanishing point as is possible within the confines of what might still be called “pop music”. JULIAN COPE - WORLD SHUT YOUR MOUTH This is a very interesting one for me. I was already a huge fan of The Teardrop Explodes, the band with which Julian Cope first found fame in the early 1980s. After two wonderful albums (their third album, shelved because the band were splitting up, was finally released in 1990), Julian embarked upon a highly idiosyncratic solo career, and although he has made many fine records during the course of this career, none for me are better than his first two solo albums, World Shut Your Mouth and Fried. Both released in 1984, I bought them both upon release, and could have easily talked about either here. But there are some specific things about the sound of World Shut Your Mouth which made me think it might be more interesting to discuss this album. Both World Shut Your Mouth and Fried were recorded after Julian retreated from the bright lights of Liverpool, and holed up in his native Tamworth, with his new American wife Dorian, who he had met while on tour with the Teardrops in the US a couple of years previously. A suburban backwater on the outskirts of Birmingham, on the border of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, Tamworth is also on the edge of some very pleasant Midlands countryside. As a 15 year old boy just starting to write his own songs, the idea that Julian Cope had left the music scene in Liverpool to return to Tamworth was intriguing to me. I think my subconscious belief was that all great music was made by bands living in cities, and the music industry was something unreachable for me, as a lad from the East Midlands, living in a small town where very little of note happened. But Julian Cope relocating to Tamworth and continuing to make records suggested something different to me, namely that you didn’t need to be part of a city music scene to make great music. On Julian’s second album Fried, he referenced Midlands place names in some of the lyrics, and was photographed for the cover in the countryside outside Tamworth, admittedly while wearing a giant turtle shell on his back, which made it very peculiar to him. But all the same, the whole Midlands thing really resonated with me. Something else which had great resonance for me was that Julian was using a little Casio MT40 keyboard on some of his songs, which was the same keyboard I was using to write my first songs. I became aware of this a year before World Shut Your Mouth was released, when Julian did a session on the John Peel show. As an avid Peel listener and a huge Teardrops fan, this was a real event for me. I can clearly remember hearing the Peel Sessions version of ’Head Hang Low’ - one of the songs that would end up on World Shut Your Mouth - and recognising both the reedy tones of the keyboard, and the dull thud of one of the preset drum patterns. This was fascinating and empowering for me, that one of my favourite musicians was using the same little keyboard on which I was learning to write songs, to record a session for John Peel. I was equally amazed the following year when World Shut Your Mouth was released, and Julian was still using the keyboard on the album versions of his radio session tracks, and on some other songs too. Although the Casio drum machine was largely replaced by live drums, it still made an appearance on one song, and the reedy keyboard tones were recognisable throughout the album. The Midlands connection and the little Casio keyboard, coupled with the fact that I was already a huge fan of Julian’s work with the Teardrops, made World Shut Your Mouth a pivotal album for me. R.E.M. - FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION/RECONSTRUCTION OF THE FABLES Fables Of The Reconstruction was the first R.E.M. album I bought in the year of its release. I didn’t cotton on to them until 1984, and didn’t start buying their records until this one was released in 1985. Everything about this album was mysterious to me. First, the cover. You can’t tell for certain which is the front cover, and which is the back. There are small pictures of the band on one side, but they are the kind of photos you would normally get on a back cover, or an inner sleeve. Then, there is the title. On one side, it says Fables Of The, and on the other, Reconstruction Of The. So, what is the title of the album? All in all, there really isn’t much to choose between each side of the cover. Next, there is the issue of where the sleeve opens to access the inner cover and record. Whichever side of the cover you decide is the front, the opening is in the “wrong” place. It is either on the left, or at the top. And the inner sleeve is similarly disorientating. The song titles are not listed in the same order as they are on the actual record, and there is a title which is not on the record at all. Some of the information is printed sideways, and as with the outer sleeve, the opening for the record appears to be on the wrong side. So, suitably confused, you arrive at the record itself. Even then, things are as clear as mud. Firstly, there is no “side 1” and “side 2”. There is “A Side”, and “Another Side”. Next, one side is called “Fables Of The Reconstruction”, and the other side is “Reconstruction Of The Fables”. Blimey, they really aren’t making it easy for us, are they? Next, the titles. ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’, ‘Maps And Legends’, Driver 8’, ‘Old Man Kensey’, ‘Kahoetek’, ‘Auctioneer (Another Engine)’, ‘Wendell Gee’. As with the cover, there is something inscrutable and cryptic about them. Then, the music. ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’, the opening song, begins. A discordant guitar riff, and the first of many indecipherable vocal lines. And we’re off, into one of the most enigmatic and elusive albums of the mid-‘80s. The album is full of arcane references to obscure and intriguing characters and places. The lyrics feel like a secret code, and I scour the inner sleeve in vain for a clue, a key to understanding the whole thing. However, I am actually quite happy for it to remain a mystery. I suppose this is what keeps me playing the album again repeatedly, to try and decode it, while realising that I won’t be able to. And, of course, the music is great. R.E.M. are an excellent band, and the playing is fantastic throughout. The sound is fairly sparse and austere: just guitars, bass, drums and vocals, without many overdubs. Although R.E.M.’s trademark harmonies mean that the sound is never overly empty. I can clearly remember that I used to listen to this album at dusk, as this seemed to be the most conducive time to fully appreciate the strange, unfathomable charm of the record. It created such a powerful atmosphere, especially when listened to at this liminal time of evening. In October 1985, two days before my 17th birthday, I went to see R.E.M. play at Nottingham Rock City on the Fables tour. It was the first gig I’d ever been to at Rock City, and walking into the dark, unfamiliar club for the first time only added to the mystery of the whole Fables experience. And R.E.M. fully lived up to my expectations. The club was only half full, and so I managed to get to the front fairly easily. They played most of Fables, and although the sound wasn’t brilliant, it was an amazing experience. To cap it all, at the merch stall afterwards, I discovered that the tour programme was very cheap, and also fantastic quality, with lots of pages and dozens of pictures. So I bought a copy, and I have it to this day. It is the perfect accompaniment to one of my favourite albums of all time. One last thing that I should mention here: after being so immersed in this wonderful album, and attending a date on the Fables tour, I was so convinced of R.E.M.’s greatness that I repeatedly told my girlfriend at the time that they were going to be one of the biggest bands in the world. She was not a fan at this time, and she did not agree with me. And bear in mind that R.E.M. at this point were a small band, playing modest sized venues like Rock City. And it was the mid-‘80s, when nearly all of the most popular music was extremely shiny and polished and used a lot of new technology, not guitar, bass and drums. So it must have seemed an outlandish idea to suggest that they would achieve massive worldwide success. But, of course, I was right, and I had forgotten all about it, until said ex- girlfriend reminded me of my prediction earlier this year. And, I have to say, I felt rather smug!"

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