Ten years ago this week my first solo music release, a seven-inch single called ‘Everything I Do is Gonna Be Sparkly‘, was issued on a brand new label called Atomic Beat Records. It’s hard to overstate the difference this made to the way I thought about my music, direction and self-belief.
After my old band The Regulars split up in 2002, I drifted for a while. I played one or two solo gigs, in a desultory, uncommitted sort of way. Then Sam Metcalf, who ran Tasty fanzine and promoted a few gigs, started to book me to play in Nottingham, and occasionally Leeds. I made a lot of new friends through the Bowlie online community, who were full of support and love.
When some of those friends formed ABR and put my record out, I was galvanised and clarified in my purposes. It was an incredible statement of solidarity and faith, which I immediately set out to repay by charging up and down the country playing little popshows – to meet people and have fun, but also to sell the record for ABR and make sure they didn’t lose hundreds of pounds on it.
Doing this confirmed to me that it was still worth my while to make music, that I still had something which a few people might want to hear. I’m as grateful today as I was ten years ago to the three lovely people who started up Atomic Beat Records and illuminated my way. Here are ten of the high points they set me off towards.
December 2007: ‘Sparkly’ Makes The Festive Fifty
Pop fans of a certain vintage fondly recall the Festive Fifty – an annual fixture on the John Peel show whereby listeners voted for their favourite tunes of the year. Indeed, many still have cassette recordings of it, year after year, squirreled away in their cellars (and when I say many, I mean “hopefully not just me”). After the passing of Peel, the flame was kept alight by Dandelion Radio, whose listeners voted ‘Everything I Do is Gonna Be Sparkly’ to number 37 in the 2007 Festive Fifty. If you’d told my 15-year-old self that, he’d never have believed you. And he was naive enough to believe Morrissey wasn’t a racist.
February 2008: They Played My Song on Radio 1
It’s the middle of the night on Britain’s premier pop radio station, and DJ Mr Rob da Bank spins a certain indiepop platter released some months previously on the Atomic Beat label. I say ‘spins’ – but rather than play the vinyl, the BBC has ripped it to CD to play on the show. Either something is lost in that translation or my super lo-fi home production ‘skills’ have run up against their limits. The sound goes distorty, Rob has to apologise after the track, and I wake up the next day to find I am still not appreciably famous. Still, I managed to write another song about the whole episode a few years later, so it wasn’t all for nothing.
February 2008: Not Getting Married Because The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Soon-to-be-quite-famous New York indiepoppers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart cross the Atlantic ahead of their own single for Atomic Beat. I join the line-up for their first two UK gigs – an ecstatic, sweaty Saturday night at the Betsey Trotwood in that London and an intense Sunday at Sheffield’s Red House. It’s so much fun and exhilaration that, despite the end of my participation as an artist, I follow the tour to Nottingham on the Monday as a fan. There, the Manhattan Love Suicides and Horowitz complete the loudest line-up in the history of indiepop. The Pains get lost on their way to the post-gig party at Janey’s flat, so while we’re waiting for them to show up, we write a song about them, and serenade them with it when they finally arrive at something approaching three o’clock in the morning.
In a curious autobiographical footnote, it is because of this tour that I remain unmarried to this day. Towards the end of 2007 my partner and I experienced some kind of brainstorm and decided to get hitched. The only weekend our preferred venue was available, however (it was the signal box at the Midland Railway Centre), coincided with the arrival of the Pains in the UK. A little later we recovered our senses and couldn’t be bothered with a wedding after all. So that was that.
April 2008: The Myspace War Is Over And I Won
“You’re a musician and you haven’t got a Myspace? What? Why?” Ten years down the line it’s hard to imagine how transgressive, or at least perverse, my choice to abstain from this particularly ugly digital medium seemed to many. In the end I grew so tired of answering that question that I wrote a song to do it for me. The song became a minor internet hit in Germany and for a time I was known online as “the Myspace Fucking Sucks Guy”. This was shortly before Myspace was overtaken by Facebook for web traffic in April 2008 and later sold for less than one tenth of the $580million Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp had paid for it. By March 2017 it had crashed to 3,178th most popular site on the web. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
March 2011: Singing With An Orchestra In A Library
Less than one year after the Tories slimed their way back into government, the case was already having to be made that libraries were actually a good thing and we should have them. Organised to do precisely that by Matt from the band A Fine Day For Sailing – who played a stunning set on the day – Read & Shout! was a brilliant all-dayer at West Norwood library in south London. Early on during the event I performed with The Sweet Nothings, then duetted with Emma Hall from Pocketbooks on a Pains of Being Pure at Heart cover, backed by A Little Orchestra. The feeling of singing over strings and woodwind was remarkable. It was like sleeping in a four-poster bed. Considering neither of us had been able to practise with the orchestra, and Emma and I had just run through the song a capella in a cupboard an hour before we sang it for real, it didn’t go too badly.
August 2011: The Best Gig Ever
In the indiepop community, ‘Blue Monday’ isn’t the third Monday of January: it’s the day after the Indietracks festival. From time to time a popshow takes place on that day, to make it more worthwhile for bands travelling to play the festival from abroad – and to ease the return of delicate fans from Indietracks to normal life. There are several Sweet Nothings shows I could’ve included in this list, but the one at the Red House on 1 August 2011 is scientifically proven to be the Best Gig Ever.
On tour for most of the previous week, our performances have improved to an extent that astonished us. With, inevitably, only five or ten punters turning up and a slot on the main indoor stage at Indietracks now behind us, the pressure is now off too, and we play better than ever before or since. The other three bands are on world-class form and crucially, as Jeremy later describes it: “I’ve NEVER seen a crowd at the Red House go so absolutely batspit mental”. Crowd is possibly overstating it, but the rest certainly isn’t.
December 2015: Being On A Helen Love Record
They say to never meet your heroes. They’re talking complete arse. In July 2013 I met Helen Love. A couple of hours later I was on stage with her at Indietracks, firing off an actual, real glitter cannon at the end of her set, and wondering how the rest of my life was ever going to live up to it. The answer comes a couple of years later, when Helen makes a Christmas song called ‘The Townhall Band’ and asks me to do a guest vocal on it, alongside actual real pop stars like Andrea Lewis from The Darling Buds and Tim Wheeler out of Ash. I didn’t just dream it – look, here’s the video!
July 2016: We’re Never Going Home
I was happy when my first solo LP The Glass Delusion came out in 2013, and I still think it’s a good set of songs. But the follow-up album makes me proud in a way nothing else has. From its creator’s perspective, We’re Never Going Home is sheer creative fulfilment. It’s got different instruments, like a piano, a banjo and a mandolin. It’s got field recordings and found sound, like the ghostly resonance of Firsby station, and the River Don in the middle of the night while I was drunk. It’s got a track with no singing, a track with no instruments, a country music pastiche, and a poem recorded on a hill on a Scottish island. Thanks to Marianthi, it’s got stunning design and packaging too – proving that a CD can be a beautiful object. I’m still chuffed to bits with everything about it.
July 2016: The Viking Thunderclap
The release of We’re Never Going Home was accompanied by an especially joyous and unusual sequence of gigs. Playing in the concourse of Sheffield railway station was a particular highlight. And the ten years since ‘Sparkly’ was released have coincided closely with the ten years of the Indietracks festival. When I performed there on a steam train in 2013 it was pretty special. But when the entire audience (shortly after I’d made some of them cry) joined in a reprise of the spectacular Viking thunderclap ritual made famous a few weeks earlier by Iceland supporters at Euro 2016, it took us to a whole new level and bestowed vindication for the entire 25 or 30 years I’d been making music. Just remembering it while I’m writing this is making me feel quite emotional all over again.
December 2016: Can You Hear The Grimsby Sing?
I’ve had a few emotional moments at Blundell Park down the years. Right up until the end of last year, these related exclusively to watching the football there. In December 2016 I find myself performing, with other Grimbarians, at a night of words and music celebrating the culture and identity of our town and football club. It’s a unique and eye-opening event which points up the surprising breadth and depth of creative talent among the Grimsby Town FC fan community. It’s also lacking an input to play my backing tracks, so I just say what the hell and go a capella on ‘Golden Goal‘, the song about my dad. I’m not sure it’s a great performance, but it’s sweetly apt – taking place just a few metres below the place where I first stood with him to watch Grimsby Town play, on the terracing of the old Barrett Stand, all the way back in 1979.
Stoke is Important
Many times during this decade of sparkly I have taken myself to watch and play popshows in the city of Stoke-on-Trent. There’s not much of an indiepop scene there, but the shows kept happening because that’s where Pete Bowers lives, and he’s one of the indiepoppest people you could ever wish to meet. So Pete would put the gig on, and we’d go, and not many people would turn up, and we’d go home. If indiepop followed the rules of classical economics, or of the music industry, these shows would never have taken place. A rational agent would not invest finite time and capital in a venture that guarantees virtually zero return.
But that’s just it. We’re not rational. So we go back again and again. We’re here because we are indiepop, because we love pretty tunes and noise and also precisely because we’re standing against the vicious dictates of the music industry and the logic of capitalism. And because there may only be six of us here but in the absurd small hours we feel a devotion to our principles and a love for one another that are something approaching ferocious. And because, as unlikely as it may sound, there is scarcely a more sublime and relevatory sensation in the whole of human experience than walking out into a drizzly weekday morning in a strange suburb the morning after sleeping on someone’s floor on the night of a sparse and wondrous popshow. And because we like going for a popshow curry.
Stoke is the absurd, magnificent expression of why we do all this in the first place. I’ve been doing it for ten years, and so many other things have happened, and I feel dead on my feet most of the time but if you’re staying with me for the ride then I’m not stopping any time soon. See you in 2027. You’ll find me on the front row, because there is only the front row.