Review: Happy Mondays – Excess All Areas – by Simon Spence

Happy Mondays

This is the third Simon Spence book that I have read. He is a very talented music journalist from Manchester with a taste for documenting, wild, stylish cultural movements that have emerged from the Madchester craziness. Excess All Areas covers perhaps the most successful and innovative band to have ridden the early acid house craze that swept the nation in the mate 1980s. With the charismatic Shaun Ryder heading up the band, a true hedonist, a notorious substance abuser, it was always difficult for the true Happy Mondays to translate through the myriad web of journalists who tried to document them. Ryder, much to the annoyance of most of the musical backdrop of the band, Paul Ryder (Bass), Gary Whelan (Drums), Paul Davis (keyboard), Mark Day (Guitar), Mark ‘Bez’ Berry (dancer), got into a habit of blagging the press and feeding them over the top exaggerations of the band’s history and exploits. In hindsight, this was pure marketing genius and led to much of the mystery and notoriety that paved the way for success. However, it sifting all the bullshit, has made the writing of this book that much more difficult for Simon Spence. The early days of a relatively privileged middle class upbringing contrasts with the bunch of Manchester council estate ‘scallies’ they tried to portray themselves as. Sure there was petty crime and shopflifting etc. but nothing serious, although perhaps the addition of Bez to the group was actually verging on real true life crime as he obviously was up to the neck in it as a youngster and quite obviously expanded his mini empire quite a lot under the guise of being part of the band…. Manchester Giants, Factory Records and Tony Wilson picked up the band and signed them which paved their way to success following the ilk of luminaries Joy Division and New Order and allowing them direct access to one of the UK’s most influential music venues, the Haçienda. It all happened at just the right time for this band, as the cultural rebellion against failed Thatcherism took hold of the UK’s disillusioned youth masses and expressed itself in the ‘Acid House’ movement. Ecstasy-fuelled, fashion shifts, mass movement and gathering of people in raves, parties and festivals, vast increase in polydrug clubbing and mainstream ending of anti-drug taboos. A lot of this movement was driven by DJs and the Mondays’ uniqueness was that they became one of the first genuine rock/dance crossover groups, who embraced the lifestyle and tried their best to incorporate the new music technology into traditional guitar-based rock. They were definitely pioneers in this sense and for me their link up with Spectrum’s Paul Oakenfold and his studio partner Steve Osbourne, was absolutely critical. Early days there was a struggle for financial success and Factory mismanagement of funds and artistic decadence led to much poverty. Heavy use of narcotics: cocaine, crack, heroin and ecstasy, was where a lot of the cash ended up. Bez and Shaun often boasted of being ecstasy dealers and there presence in the Hacienda’s E corner was much felt. The struggles of professional music led to relationship breakdowns and the loneliness of single life manifested in some serious drug addictions, mainly Shaun’s heroin addiction. This was all brutal and eyeopening to read. You always felt a little sorry for the band and as you read want to really have been giving them all a big cuddle, but maybe that’s just the ‘E’ talking…. Success eventually came with four critically acclaimed studio albums. They threatened a US breakthrough but never managed to follow the likes of Depeche Mode in emulating this, often short, late bands sets and excessive tour partying contributed to this failure. However, in the UK they were a huge band and record sales were good. The music press looked after them very well. Melody Maker, NME et al supporting most of the early stuff and shooting them on many front covers. At one stage, after Princess Diana, Shaun Ryder was the second most publicised celebrity in the UK. The legendary Barbados crack cocaine binge / studio session is covered although I wanted to hear a more complete tale of the actual detailed goings on of this debacle. Ultimately the band fell apart due to the multitudinous variety of industry pressures. However, the positive note is that they continued to rock on and as I write this my tickets have just arrived for their Nov 29th gig on their latest Greatest hits tour, where they will be doing an event at my Student Union at Cardiff University. Can’t wait for that, nor to get to grips with Simon Spence’s next offering.

Review: Altered State – The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House – by Matthew Collin

altered state

I’ve already read a Matthew Collin book – This is Serbia Calling – so I was chuffed when I stumbled upon this work, a history of UK dance music culture. As a DJ and Promoter for 24 years I’m quite aware of a lot of the history of dance music in the UK. This book, however, filled in many of the gaps, and was a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening read. The well known story of how acid house culture came to the UK via Ibiza’s Summer of Love where Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold and Trevor Fung experienced the delight’s of Alfredo weaving magic on the White Isle and brought back their ideas to the London clubscene, is a familiar tale, often recited religiously in club culture publications like Mixmag. The author gives a comprehensive account of the beginnings and it was great to hear the true story and what bliss these guys must have experienced. Shoom, Spectrum and the Milk Bar launched successfully and the early adopters were soon welcoming new ‘Acid Teds’ and a hippy revival based on lush house electronica began to hit the mainstream. The book looks at London and Manchester in detail as well as exploring some of the less likelier destinations of UK club culture like Blackburn and later the countryside free party and rave movement. The study of the fracture of dance music into its various sub-genres and the movement of people that followed each branch provides much analysis and we see Warehouse parties, techno anarchists, drum and bass division and later the emergence of new genres like speed garage, grime and dubstep. The book focuses a lot on the role of narcotics in this new ascendant youth culture. The critical importance of ecstasy (MDMA) to the whole movement which eventually led to a massive increase and normalisation of drug culture across the country, with polydrug use becoming popular and clubbers and ravers exploring acid (LSD), cocaine, heroin, ketamine, amphetamines and the various different types of cannabis. It’s amazing how much anti dance music propaganda was spread by the media. Governments were scared and there was a great deal of legislation set up to counter the whole movement. Enlightened masses were a danger to the establishment and the whole culture was seen as an alternative political situation. The long-running battles between promoters, DJs and the UK Police was interesting and it was noted by Police fighting the organisers of parties that these people ran their operations like military units and were very effective at getting their events into successful fruition. I don’t think I’ve read a better and more comprehensive book on the history of dance music in the UK, and whereas the initial boom period may now be over, dance music is certainly in the mainstream day to day lives of the UK to this day and will be for a long time into the future. I think that it is important and inspiring to learn about the history of the greatest mass cultural movement, in my opinion, that emerged in the twentieth century.

Review: The Life and Lines of Brandon Block by Matt Trollope

brandon block


I was a DJ myself back in the 1990s and although I never played alongside Brandon Block, I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times. Once, on his father’s birthday in a London bar/club, I had just got out of one of my early mental health hospital stints and I think Brandon was in recovery…. I asked him for some advice and told him about my experiences and he gave me some real pointers about how to deal with my situation, probably moreso than any other professional who works in this industry has given me. Read this book and you read a tale of horror. People believe that DJing is glamorous and fun, but just get stuck into Brandon’s revealing, heartfelt story, and you will immediately see the pain and suffering that comes your way in the murky world of dance music performance. After all the early breaks, once the scene got into full swing and Brandon Block had established a growing reputation, he was pretty soon stuck into an ounce a day cocaine habit. He’s a personality DJ in house music, meaning not that he chats and laughs while playing – his sets are pure banging party rocking professionally done same as may other at the top of their game. Brandon likes to party too much and his notoriety led him well astray. I loved hearing how he began the whole Space Terrace and his fame in Ibiza alongside Alex P is pretty much unrivalled out Ibiza way. The whole Flying and Charlie Chester story was really interesting even if it broke apart slightly. He seems a down to earth good guy, a victim of his own success. Some of the mental health battles after drug addiction took its toll really hit the nail on the head for me. A lot of the venues and clubs were very familiar as indeed many of the characters. The clubscene fraternity is only but a village, even in its global stretches that it reaches nowadays. The 3 gigs a night blasting around the motorways and hitting lines of coke at every red light when the traffic stopped. All seemed absolutely necessary to continue to deliver the acid house that this Big Name DJ believed in. In latter years Mr Block did his fair share of charity work, feeding back into drug rehabilitation centres as a qualified counsellor. He is lucky to be alive and this tale is something that anyone aspiring to enter life as a professional DJ should be reading. Good luck with the rest of your long life, Mr. Brandon Block. Looking forward to Part 2.

Review: Mister Good Times by Norman Jay MBE

mister good times

I was lucky enough to be a warm up DJ for Norman Jay back in the 1990s in The Cross Nightclub, London and I think I was billed on a couple of other events with him. He was a great DJ, I remember him once, in Ministry of Sound, having a full glass of drink topple on the bar decks where he was spinning from the above balcony and Norman, lightning quick just kept the music rolling and not even a skip of the needle. The book is divided up into several unique sections. The first part covers Norman’s Good Times sound system at Notting Hill Carnival which is for what he has been most famous. The whole logistics of such an event is well detailed enough for the professional DJ to thoroughly enjoy and learn from and to any reader the whole politics and excitement and logistics of such a fun event must be enlightening. The book covers Norman’s childhood, whereby he was brought up in Ladbroke Grove, West London to Windrush Caribbean immigrant parents, both of whom seemed very hardworking and supportive and keen to give their family the best start to life. The book discusses a lot about how being a black DJ was defined during the early years of the deck revolution. For me, a highlight was Norman’s journey to New York, where he learnt the best of what would be culturally exported from the USA to British streets. Norman Jay’s love for Tottenham Hotspur football club is covered in detail and during the excitement of terraces and the emergence of the hooligan years it is great reading of times past and the fun and frolics of being a serious football fan. For me, as a Liverpool fan it was truly disturbing to read about racism at Anfield back in the 1970s. Growing up in the John Barnes era of Liverpool, for me I always felt that we were a progressive club when it came to racism which is still a fight in the beautiful game to this very day. I really wanted for the book to keep running once it hit the years of house music. The warehouse parties with Judge Jules thrown across London were particularly interesting, the funniest moment in the tale, when the Met Police tried robbing all the takings from the promoters and Judge Jules and Norman hid under raincoats, pretending they were drunk. The chapter on big time club DJing moved too quickly for me. I really by this stage of the book wanted it to continue for at least double the length it was. It’s the best book I’ve read from a DJ to date and is testament to the Queen’s recognition of Norman Jay as our culture’s first recipient of the MBE. It inspired me to crack on in my chosen career and I can truly relate to a lot of the wisdom and knowledge contained therein. A Must read for anyone with an interest in DJing and Nightclub culture.

Review: Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus

Soldier SpyI initially bought the second book in this series, I Spy, but on learning that this volume preceded it I thought it apt to try this one out first. It’s not a huge book and is very accessible. The autobiographical account of a soldier from the streets, recognised for his unique skills and recruited to the frontline of British domestic terrorist services as an MI5 agent. Tom specialises in urban warfare of the 21st century. Surveillance and counter-surveillance operations are detailed. Sometimes an overuse, I felt, of the Alpha-Bravo codes that gets a bit confusing to a non-specialist, these operations span a variety of different cases across the UK, in MI5’s daily battles to preserve national security. We go from standard fighting Islamic terror cells, to murky traditional cold war -esque battles with traditionalist Russian agents, trying to steal military technologies on a vast scale from UK businesses. Tom isn’t frightened to mix it up, smashing hell out of a copper as part of his cover in an IRA pub in Scotland makes interesting reading. In the background of his flat out work where often he doesn’t even get to piss or eat, this brave young soldier tries to switch off at the end of the day and is a family man, on the pittance wages MI5 pays their employees he is left with the typical British task of every day workers of paying off mounting debts and grappling with mortgage etc. Eventually, the book sadly crumbles away with Marcus’ post traumatic stress difficulties getting the better of him ultimately ending in a medical discharge from the service. I feel it is MI5’s loss and not his really and hope he makes some nice dollar off producing decent readable material for years to come.

Review: Viva La Revolución by Eric Hobsbawm

viva la revolucion

This is my first venture into respected leftist author, Eric Hobsbawm’s work. The book was compiled after the author’s death in 2012 and is a collection of his writings on Latin America after he spent over forty years passionately exploring the continent. The essays have a deep focus on the poor masses of the populations, the peasants, the guerrillas, the indigenous natives. Latin America is at a crossroads between Third World poverty and Western modernity. A mainly homogenous tongue (ie. Spanish) unites the continent and the erosion of old colonial privileged elites has led to the people gaining much power at the bottom rungs of society. there are detailed chapters on Castro’s Cuban revolution, the fallout of ‘La Violencia’ and ensuing FARC civil war conflict in Colombia, and the progress of pure democratic socialism in Allende’s Chile. Hobsbawm can microanalyse peasant conditions in remote Peruvian altiplano villages yet never loses track of the underlying general political picture. The burdens of colonialism and unfair international political relationships are often seen as a root cause for lack of development. The author always maintains an optimism for the disaffected masses who he protects with intellectual rigour, even if in many cases the reality of the actual situations and future prospects are often futile. This book will form a great reference tool for my university essays on Hispanic Studies and I hope that I can continue to explore Eric Hobsbawm’s other wide range of literary material.

Review: Atatürk – The Rebirth of a Nation – by Patrick Kinross

Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was from humble beginnings. He lived through a critical period of Turkish history, witnessing the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and making it possible for the modern secular, Western-focused nation state of Turkey to phoenix itself from the Ashes. Atatürk was a military man and although very lucky, his innovative and dedicated intellect assisted in him being Turkeys only undefeated senior commander during World War 1 and their last bastion of defence as plunderers tried to savage the imperial remnants of the Ottomans. A weak caliph and a corrupted government, led for quite some time by leaders of the Young Turks, were features that led to Atatürk’s politicisation. Eventually, after a civil war, he would set up a new Anatolian capital in Ankara and slowly tried to seep away power and influence from the decadence of Constantinople or Istanbul. Atatürk, was a workaholic. It left him little time for family. He was dependent on alcohol and this would eventually cause his premature death. As power grew within him he could often display treachery towards his old friends and allies, and it was in Atatürk a certain sense of ego that caused some of the more irrational yet adventurous moves in both his career as a soldier and later as a global politician. The man was undoubtedly remarkable and is one of the most colourful and indeed successful people from the early twentieth century. To this day in modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s legacy lives on.