dimanche, décembre 31, 2006

Cocteau Twins and More

'If music be the food of love, play on, Cocteau Twins'

By Arifa Akbar

They are regarded by their fans as modern poets but artists from the Cocteau Twins to Antony and the Johnsons will soon set their music to the words of the greatest bard of them all.

Antony Hegarty, lead singer from the Mercury Prize-winning Californian band, Antony and the Johnsons; Liz Fraser, a member of the 1980s post-punk cult act, Cocteau Twins and Natalie Merchant, from 10000 Maniacs, will feature among more-classical music acts which have been selected to compose contemporary sounds to run alongside a Shakespearean sonnet.

The artists are picking their favourite sonnets to set against the music of a chamber orchestra, the soprano, Anna-Maria Friedmann, and the tenor, John Potter. But Shakespearean purists should be braced for innovative "re-workings"of the poems, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Opera North, which commissioned the work.

Liz Fraser, who is known as much for her shyness as her ethereal compositions, has remained elusive about her offering. Organisers say that she may well "turn up with her sonnet on the day".

Hegarty has narrowed his choice down to five favourite sonnets set against a gospel choir, including sonnet 23 which reflects on "an imperfect actor on the stage" to number 71, which begins by telling a lover "no longer mourn for me when I am dead".

The sonnets - chosen from a total of 154 14-line poems - will be spoken to the audience by a RSC actor followed by the artist's "response" to the sonnet. Deborah Shaw, the director of the Complete Works festival, said the artists had received a "free brief" to do as they saw fit. "They can either set their response to music or they are free to rework aspects of the overall piece.

"I started off thinking it was just going to be a sort of cabaret and started asking various artists and then discovered the Opera North had been thinking of a similar project. The artists will not definitively be performing on the evenings but will be writing for the orchestra and singers," she said.

Merchant, the lead singer from the iconic US Indie act, has picked sonnet 73, which begins, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold, When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold", and is traditionally linked to a series of other sonnets in which Shakespeare reflects on his own mortality and the ravages of time. The Romanian violinist, Alexander Balanescu, has opted for sonnet 43, which reflects on the poet's disturbed mind after the anguish of betrayal, while Gavin Friday, the Irish film score composer, also intends to participate.

The results of Shakespeare "re-mixed" will be showcased in a production called Nothing Like the Sun at Stratford-upon-Avon's Courtyard Theatre on 24 and 25 February before it tours across the regions in March 2007.

The initiative is part of the Complete Works festival, launched this year, in which companies from almost every continent will perform every Shakespeare play. It will travel to Nottingham, Manchester, Gateshead and Leeds in March next year after its two-day performance in Shakespeare's birthplace.

The original concept behind the project came from the renowned British composer and curator of the project, Gavin Bryars, who will lead the second part of the event after the compositions of the "guest" artists have been performed, by setting a series of seven sonnets to music.

Bryars, who was born in Yorkshire, began as a jazz bassist before working with John Cage in the United States, and subsequently collaborating with several composers. His first major work as a composer was The Sinking of the Titanic, in 1969, originally released on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975.

Dominic Gray, curator for Opera North, said the artists were free to choose to work with only a limited number of instruments such as the guitar and percussion, but hoped they would also utilise the classic ensemble instruments including the violin, cello, and clarinet.

"They will be very identifiable from their styles but we must remember they are writing for a classical ensemble. There has been a crossover of serious musicians who work at the pop end to also work at the classical end. For example, Johnny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, is the composer in residence for the London Sinfonieta, and Gavin Bryars collaborated with Tom Waits some time ago.

"The brief is to set the sonnets to music, whether they will repeat lines or take some out we will have to wait and see," he said.

The five guest composers have all worked with Bryars before and the end result is intended to straddle the pop, contemporary and classical music genres.

The project was announced as Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, spoke of future plans for the company, including the possibility of taking the Complete Works to the United States.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

mardi, décembre 26, 2006

That was Halloween

Bat For Lashes, Bush Hall, London

By Luiza Sauma

It's Halloween in west London, and the streets are crawling with well-spoken witches and werewolves, clutching cans of lager. Inside the grand, Edwardian enclave of Bush Hall, vampires and grim reapers hang out by the bar. Could there be a more perfect setting or a more suitable date for Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, to air the psychosexual fairytale pop of her recent debut album, Fur and Gold? If the heated anticipation of the crowd is anything to go by, certainly not.

Fur and Gold has been something of a sleeper hit among music fans of a broadsheet bent. (Nothing wrong with that, of course.) Perhaps the other-worldliness of Khan's music, which pitches somewhere in between Kate Bush, Björk and the Brothers Grimm, provided a much-needed respite from a tired indie scene - but there was something about Khan herself, resplendent in gold war paint and Indian head-dresses, that stirred our curiosity. It's no surprise to learn she has a degree in Music and Visual Art; in the netherworld of Bat For Lashes - and as with all the greatest pop stars - both hold equal importance.

Khan is all smiles and giggles as she takes to the stage to the tune of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You", dressed like a skeleton, with her trademark gold headband and painted, glittering cheeks. Her trio of female musicians - who take turns at the viola, guitar, percussion, autoharp etc - are similarly attired, like a band of hipster fairies. Backed by visuals from The Wizard of Oz (my favourite film of all time), they launch into "Horse and I" whileDorothy's house is swept up by a tornado and away to the land of Oz. It's a neat juxtaposition: in the song, a horse wakes a girl from her sleep and carries her off to a fantasy land - which is exactly where Khan transports her audience until the end of her set (when Dorothy goes home, along with the rest of us).

Despite the Bush'n'Björk references - which are all too lazy, but actually do apply - Khan is her own woman. Her emotive, haunted voice is a thing of wonder, sore throat and all. She may hit those high notes just like the Icelandic queen of pop - particularly during the tumbling voodoo of "Trophy" - but she's also funnier, more fantastical and far more loveable. (That's not to say she's better - let's not get too carried away.)

Her childlike enthusiasm is infectious, as she points out her favourite bit in The Wizard of Oz (when the dead witch's feet shrivel up), starts singing the filthy first verse of Peaches's "Fuck the Pain Away" and playfully asks us to make "some ghoulish sounds", "since it's the night of the living dead". Bush Hall howls back in unison.

More importantly, she's got the tunes to back it up, from the kooky trip-hop of "The Wizard" (see what she did there?) to the tribal call and response of "Sarah", where the beat is created by Khan slamming a wooden staff to the floor, like some glamorous witch doctor. And music snobs may scoff, but her cover of Bruce Springsteen's lusty classic "I'm on Fire" strips this most macho of songs to its bare, bloody bones, transforming it into a languorous, female paean to desire.

All in all, Natasha Khan is shaping up to be a classic pop weirdo, with a heritage that takes in the aforementioned B'n'B and also, at times, Bowie and Bolan. Her ever- increasing coven of fans waits with bated breath for her next move.

l.sauma@ independent.co.uk

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

jeudi, décembre 21, 2006

Gimme some truth

John Lennon

Paul MacInnes, Wednesday December 20, 2006

Guardian Unlimited

John Lennon
Lennon was a "former member of the Beatles singing group" say the FBI. Photograph: AP
The last of the classified documents compiled by the FBI on the behaviour and beliefs of John Lennon have finally been made public today.

For years the subject of speculation and official requests for their release, these 10 documents were withheld on the grounds that they could cause "Military retaliation against the United States". Now they are in the public domain, some are struggling to work out what all the fuss is about.

"The content of the files released today is an embarrassment to the U.S. government," Jon Wiener, the writer who has been campaigning for the papers to be made public since 1981, told the LA Times.

"I doubt that Tony Blair's government will launch a military strike on the U.S. in retaliation for the release of these documents.

Today, we can see that the national security claims that the FBI has been making for 25 years were absurd from the beginning."

The revelations contained within the documents (all of which can be seen here) are hardly on the level of the Da Vinci Code.

Compiled in 1972, they reveal that Lennon, a "former member of the Beatles singing group", had "encouraged the belief that he holds revolutionary views" and that some of the evidence for this behaviour can be found in "his songs and other publications".

By way of further evidence, the documents go on to record his meetings with Tariq Ali, then editor of a Marxist magazine - Red Mole - but observe that despite several attempts by Ali to elicit funds from Lennon to support a Marxist bookshop "no sum has been paid by Lennon for this purpose".

There is also reference to Lennon's drug use. A previous UK conviction for cannabis was at the centre of attempts to have Lennon deported from the United States where he was resident at the time. To add grist to the mill, one of the memos observe: "A second confidential source, who has furnished reliable information in the past, advised that Lennon continues to be a heavy consumer of narcotics".

27.04.2005: 'A black John Lennon - why not?'
08.12.2006: The US vs John Lennon
09.11.2005: John Lennon's complete solo work goes online
27.03.2003: John Lennon's childhood home opens to public
09.10.2002: John Lennon's killer denied parole
24.10.2003: DVD: John Lennon, Lennon Legend

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

lundi, décembre 18, 2006

Oh my goth

Back in black.

Goth has risen from the dead - and the 1980s pioneers are (naturally) not happy about it. By Dave Simpson.

The Guardian

The Horrors
'As goth as a daffodil in a yellow kitchen' ...
Julianne Regan on the Horrors. Photograph: Dave M Bennett/Getty

The Faversham, a pub close to Leeds University, is a brightly decorated bar, popular with lawyers and office workers. But a couple of decades ago it was the very heart of goth. The Fav, as it was known, was where goth's dark lords, the Sisters of Mercy, would hold court, and where black-clad students who had enrolled at the university or Leeds Polytechnic to be close to their heroes would go in the hope of some goth stardust rubbing off on them. "Heads would turn the minute we walked in," remembers Gary Marx, the guitarist who founded the Sisters with singer Andrew Eldritch. "People wouldn't literally throw themselves at our feet, but it was close."

Goth has returned to cast a long and dark shadow over rock music this summer and autumn. In August, the NME put the Horrors on the cover - a London band influenced by the Cramps who look like five grinning death's-heads. Other new acts such as Betty Curse and Dead Disco have put out CDs, and two compilations have claimed to bring together goth's forefathers. Goth has even reached the mainstream. Victoria Beckham and Colleen McLoughlin have recently dabbled in "goth chic" - faces made up to look pale, black lacy clothes and deathly nail varnish - though it's hard to imagine the Beckham and Rooney households rocking to Betty Curse, let alone the forgotten bands of the first wave of goth. It's a dramatic revival: barely a year ago, London's goth hangout, the Devonshire Arms, was saved from closure after a nationwide appeal to goths to boost its business.

The original goths seem unnerved by the return of their cult. "I read this thing that described Russell Brand as 90% goth," says an appalled Julianne Regan. The singer with All About Eve, she admits to "exploring" graveyards despite being in her 40s and is thus "guilty as charged" of being a goth. "I thought, 'Don't they mean 90% twat?'"

And the Horrors? "Pure NME Camden wankery. As goth as a daffodil in a yellow kitchen."

Oh dear. So what is goth anyway? And how did a dead cult become, well, undead?

Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees - who always maintained they weren't a "goth band", but were nevertheless a pivotal influence on the black-clad bands of the 80s - insists it's important to distinguish between "goth" and "gothic". "Gothic", Severin says, describes the bleak, dark music being made by Joy Division and also the Banshees around 1978-79. Severin admits his band pored over gothic literature - Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire. But "goth", he says, has connotations of "people in purple lipstick running off to Whitby". According to Severin, the prototype goth band may have been the Velvet Underground - "intense, feedback-driven songs and macabre subject matter" - although Bauhaus's 1979 single Bela Lugosi's Dead is now generally credited with starting the genre.

Initially, it wasn't called goth. In February 1983, NME lumped together several mostly forgotten bands (Southern Death Cult, Sex Gang Children, Brigandage, Specimen, Blood and Roses) and tagged them "positive punk". Meanwhile, Marx fondly remembers tabloid hysteria about "suicide pact kids killing themselves listening to Sisters of Mercy", an eerie precursor of a story the Daily Mail ran only last month warning of the "threat to our children" posed by goth and emo (although they're two different cultures).

Most of goth's enduring musical cliches were laid down by the Sisters, who lived together in Village Place, a stone's throw from the Faversham. Marx (formerly Mark Pearman, before a name switch fooled the DHSS, as was) had come to Leeds from Hull, attracted by gigs by the likes of the Fall and Gang of Four. His co-conspirator was a languages student who decided that the name Eldritch (meaning "wizard") carried more mystique than his own Andrew Taylor. Eldritch has often claimed the Sisters/ goth phenomenon was his immaculate conception, but Marx admits at least some of it was fluke.

Yes, Eldritch had the band's logo (a dissected head surrounded by a pentacle, which he had adapted from Gray's Anatomy) before they had even played a note. But according to Marx, the characteristic doomy goth sound only emerged when the Sisters added Craig Adams, a child piano prodigy. Adams was "running from his past", says Marx. "He turned up with a fuzzbox on his bass and wanted something brutal, relentless." A £60 drum machine (nicknamed Doktor Avalanche) replaced Eldritch's early bashes on drums. When the "wizard" concealed his less-than-Sinatraesque vocals with reverb, goth's defining sound was complete. The Sisters namechecked MC5 and Motorhead in interviews and caused a "considerable reaction" within a music press who had been frothing over Haircut 100.

Eldritch became thought of as a poet of doom, fond of dark pronouncements. But Marx admits that there were no black candlesticks at Village Place. In fact, even the goth look was partly happenstance: wearing nothing but black meant the band could put all their washing in one load. In fact, in early photos the Sisters looked "nondescript, like students", but that changed when Marx realised his check shirts looked silly next to the leather jackets worn by Eldritch and Adams in homage to the Ramones. Once Marx also adopted black, a uniform was born.

The enduring image of the Sisters live is of four black stetsons poking out of dry ice: a cross between Once Upon a Time in the West and horror flick The Fog. That, too, was an accident. Guitarist Wayne Hussey, who joined in 1983, recalls that the band had been touring America in a minibus and one night he got so drunk that he fell asleep on Gary Marx's shoulder. Marx then "threw up in his sleep all over my head. The venue wouldn't let me in 'cos I had sick in my hair. So I went across the road and bought a hat - and that's where the look came from."

Around the country, others realised black could have benefits above and beyond its ability to conceal stains. Alien Sex Fiend's Mrs Fiend (she is literally Mrs Fiend, having been married to the band's Nik Fiend for 28 years) remembers a disastrous photoshoot when a green light wiped out all her make-up.

"I looked like a fucking corpse, but not in a good way," she remembers. After that it was "black, the blackest you could find". Home-dyed clothes and hair horrors proved equally striking: "People said, 'Excuse me, dear. Have you been electrocuted?'"

Early goth was largely a provincial movement: the Sisters in Leeds, Bauhaus in Northampton, the Cure in Crawley. The London scene congealed around the Batcave club, associated with bands such as Alien Sex Fiend and Specimen; there, boys and ghouls rubbed shoulders with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and Nick Cave. Mrs Fiend remembers "fetish gear, Victorian clothing, girls with their tits out. One night the DJ played the Sex Pistols and for the first time, everyone sat down. It was obvious that no one was interested in continuing what had gone before."

Goth spread rapidly - fans visited the Batcave or Leeds Phonographique and then set up their own clubs - and a sense of community developed. Goths formed bands with each other, slept with each other, copied each other and recorded with each other: Severin collaborated with the Cure's Robert Smith as the Glove. The Sisters' Merciful Release label helped soundalike bands such as the March Violets and Salvation, which Marx suggests was a hangover from the self-help culture established by Leeds bands the Mekons and Gang of Four. The "suburban Siouxsie" clone became a peculiar feature of 80s Britain, and whenever the Banshees toured in Latin American or Mediterranean countries, Severin notes, they noticed Siouxsie had become "a role model for dark-haired women".

Goth could be silly, but many bonded through genuine alienation. Regan admits she was "introspective and depressed" and sought solace in darker music. "Mentally ill?" she considers. "Some of us."

Another glue binding the scene together was drug use. Goth is virtually the only youth movement not identifiable with a single substance, but Regan admits that it was "very wild. It started with snakebite and a laugh and ended in psychosis for some. Luckily, I was a sissy."

"All my friends took drugs," admits Hussey. "I used to put speed in my coffee." Initially, drugs enabled the guitarist to mask a natural shyness, but eventually his character transformed. He began the 80s quietly reading Rimbaud and ended them fronting the Mission, whose wine-spilling, cartoon image was almost Carry On Goth. "We made buffoons of ourselves in public," he says, "but it was endearing for a lot of people."

It didn't last. Hussey vividly remembers standing on a railway station platform and seeing two girls in Stone Roses T-shirts. "I knew something else was coming."

In the 90s, goths all but disappeared as dance music became the dominant youth cult. The movement went underground and fractured into cyber goth, Christian goth, industrial goth, medieval goth and the latest sub-genre, zombie goth. Around the world, however, goth hit the mainstream. Goth crossbred with electronica and heavy metal in the form of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. While the music of Nine Inch Nails owed more to the industrial-influenced music of Throbbing Gristle and Ministry, their subect matter (murder and trauma) and style (head-to-toe black leather) were unmistakably goth. Marilyn Manson, meanwhile, fused Alien Sex Fiend's electro-goth with Alice Cooper's theatrics and went to the arena circuit. In Germany, the industrial-techno-metal sextet Rammstein took much from gothic horror, and Hussey says his mother often tells him how much the cult Finnish band HIM sound like the Mission.

And now it's hip again here.

Goth will exist in one form or another as long as young people are alienated and fascinated by death. Mrs Fiend expresses anxiety that goth could turn into an off-the-peg fashion style. However, Severin is darkly optimistic.

"They read French novelists. They've gone into it with a complete passion and I don't blame them," he says of the new goths. "I've always thought there's room in pop for different languages, one of them being an exploration of the blacker side of human nature. There's nothing to be afraid of in the dark."

Five goth classics

Bauhaus: Bela Lugosi's Dead

The 1979 single that invented the genre overnight. In an atmosphere of unease, Peter Murphy eulogises Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula with a cry of "Undead! Undead! Undead!"

Available on Crackle - Best of Bauhaus (4AD)

The Sisters Of Mercy: Amphetamine Logic

This stark, driving track defines the Sisters' oeuvre and sums up Andrew Eldritch's cod-vampiric lifestyle: "Nothing but the knife to live for."

Available on First and Last and Always (Merciful Release)

The Cure - A Strange Day

The Cure were always more of an alternative pop band than 100% goth, but A Strange Day's melancholy sees them fitting into the genre.

Available on Pornography (Fiction)

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry - Walking on Your Hands

The Leeds-based Lorries, originally a typical if moody indie band, adopted goth cliches such as flanged guitars for this thrilling 80s nightclub staple.

Available on The Gothic Box (Rhino)

Siouxsie and the Banshees - Night Shift

One of the darkest cuts from the album Juju: a harrowing groove that explores street prostitution.

Available on JuJu (Polydor)

· The Gothic Box 3CD/DVD set of early goth is out now on Rhino. Blue Sunshine by the Glove has been reissued by Universal

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

lundi, décembre 11, 2006

Pinochet at last dead

Protests, parties after Pinochet's death.

By Gideon Long

Reuters Photo: Demonstrators yell slogans against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in downtown Santiago, December 10, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters)

The body of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose government killed thousands during his 17-year-rule, was taken to a military college in the capital Santiago on Monday after his death sparked violence, tears and celebration.

Pinochet, who polarized Chile during his 1973-1990 dictatorship and spent his old age fighting human rights, fraud and corruption charges, died on Sunday.

He suffered a heart attack a week ago and, just when he appeared to be recovering, his health suddenly deteriorated, doctors said.

News of his death prompted an outpouring of emotion in Chile where, a third of a century after he swept to power, Pinochet's legacy is still hotly disputed.

More than 5,000 people took to the streets, the Interior Ministry said. Some mourned a man who they say saved Chile from communism while others reveled in the death of South America's most notorious Cold War dictator.

Some demonstrations turned violent, and military police used tear gas to disperse anti-Pinochet protesters who tried to march to the presidential palace, a potent symbol for many Chileans since it was bombed during the 1973 coup which brought the general to power.

After the protests ended on Sunday, police said 24 officers were injured, and the interior ministry said several protesters were arrested. Bonfires burned on the capital streets, some of which were littered with rocks, barricades and debris.

"I would like to issue a call tonight for families to take responsibility for their youths, for their children, so that they don't go out to demonstrate and don't get involved in acts of violence," Interior Ministry under-secretary Felipe Harboe said in a statement.

At around 1:00 am (0400 GMT), Pinochet's body was driven from the hospital where he died to the military college in preparation for his funeral on Tuesday.


The government, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a survivor of Pinochet's torture chambers, said there will be no official mourning and the former dictator will be given a military but not a full state funeral.

Outside the college, around 600 Pinochet supporters paid their respects as the body was driven past in a gray van with blacked out windows. Many waved red, white and blue Chilean flags and sang the national anthem.

More than 3,000 people died in political violence under Pinochet's rule. Some 28,000 people were tortured in secret detention centers and hundreds of thousands of Chileans went into exile, many never to return.

Pinochet was accused of dozens of human rights violations -- and more recently of tax fraud and embezzlement related to $27 million stashed in foreign bank accounts.

But he was never brought to trial before his death, as his defense lawyers argued he was too ill to face charges.

(Additional reporting by Manuel Farias, Monica Vargas, Rodrigo Martinez, Antonio de la Jara and Pav Jordan)

samedi, décembre 09, 2006

The rock'n'roll shrines

The demise of rock venues: Feel the electricity in the room.

CBGB, the Marquee, the 2i's coffee bar... Fiona Sturges asks what turns an ordinary club into a rock'n'roll shrine.

This past weekend, one of the bastions of punk rock ceased to exist. CBGB, once the epicentre of the New York punk scene, closed after 33 years, marking the end of a long-running dispute between its founder, Hilly Kristal, and the venue's landlords.

This grimy club in the Bowery district, notable for its leaky toilets and warm beer, won its place in rock mythology when it became the stage for the emergence of a generation of era-defining bands that included Television, The Ramones, Blondie and The Patti Smith Group.

CBGB isn't the first hallowed rock venue to bite the dust in recent years, and it won't be the last. The Astoria in London, a stronghold for both up-and-coming and established bands, is facing closure after being bought by property developers. The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh faces a similar fate.
Smaller venues, too, are being hit with new restrictions on capacity, resulting in fewer punters and reduced profits.

Few go down without a fight, however, with campaigns, often launched by bands who played there as well as ordinary punters.

You could argue that such nostalgia is misplaced. Music is about people and talent, not bricks and mortar. If The Ramones hadn't set up camp at CBGB, they would have found somewhere else to play and the history of punk would be much as it is. Similarly, had the Cavern Club in Liverpool not existed, it's safe to say that The Beatles would still have made a bob or two.

But association can be a powerful, not to say lucrative, force. The Cavern Club remains a monument to the Fab Four and is now part of guided tours of Liverpool - in spite of the fact that the original club was closed by the council in 1973 and a car park now sits in its place.

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a mecca for old-time country and the site where a teenage Elvis played his first gig, is a major tourist draw; it has even spawned a theme park down the road. The New York Apollo continues to cast a spell over music fans; trademarked as the place "where stars are born and legends are made", it launched the careers of black performers from James Brown to Lauryn Hill and remains Harlem's top tourist attraction.

Certainly, there are venues that, through name alone, can bestow a certain kudos on bands. An act is considered to have arrived if it has played Madison Square Garden in New York, for instance. Conversely, an era-defining performance from an artist can elevate a club's status from little known to legendary - think Hendrix at the Fillmore, The Doors at the Whisky a Go-Go, Bob Marley at the Rainbow.

In the city of Newport in Wales, the nicely seedy club TJ's (named for its owners, the late Trilby and her husband John) gained infamy in the Eighties and Nineties, principally because it was where Nirvana's Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. Underground US bands from the pre-grunge era would eschew London venues to play a UK gig at the down-at-heel venue.

The Manic Street Preachers and most acts from the Welsh alt-rock scene of the Nineties learnt their craft at TJ's. The Stone Roses spent five years ostensibly recording their Second Coming album up the road at Rockfield Studio, but featured cherubs from the bridge a few yards away from the club on the album's cover, a clue to where they'd been hanging out. Iron Maiden once tried to gatecrash a local bands' night there, and an unimpressed Trilby, a woman not to be messed with, flung them out on to the street. The place, many will say, went downhill when the venue was revamped and smartened up.

The 2i's Coffee Bar was the place to go in 1950s Soho and its sign declared it "famous" and "home of the stars", but its role in nurturing Britain's rock'n'roll scene came to be overlooked after The Beatles, Stones and Mod era rose to prominence. Only last month, the site (now a trendy bar/eaterie) was given the recognition it deserved, 50 years on, in the form of a plaque proclaiming it the birthplace of British popular music. In its tiny, sweaty cellar, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard & The Shadows and a host of other 1950s idols were either discovered or launched their careers in the tiny booze-free basement, in a haze of cigarette smoke, espresso fumes and sheer adolescent excitement, which would contravene every health and safety and licensing law nowadays. Even Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore started out in the 2i's Junior Skiffle Group.

London is littered with buildings, from crumbling cinemas to damp basement dives, which have played host to seminal musical moments. The 100 Club in Oxford Street is one of the most famous venues in the capital, although you wouldn't know it from the outside. In 1976, this innocuous basement hosted the first punk festival, featuring a series of then-unsigned bands including Siouxsie and The Banshees, the Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols. Such is the venue's cachet that it is now one of the most popular locations for secret gigs, with everyone from the Stones to Paul Weller using it to road-test new material.

But there comes a point, surely, where a venue's history becomes irrelevant. That notorious London temple of rock, the Marquee Club, has shifted location five times since it opened its doors in 1958, making it legendary in name only. After six years in Oxford Street, it moved to Wardour Street where it stayed for 25 years, hosting shows by The Who, David Bowie, Cream, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Bowie called it "the heartbeat in terms of what was happening in the British music scene". But recent efforts to keep the name alive have not met withsuccess. After four inglorious years on Charing Cross Road, it moved to Islington and was relaunched by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. The venue shut just four months after opening. The following year it was back in Leicester Square, this time lasting 14 months before closing down.

Paradoxically, while venues such as the Marquee struggle to keep the legend going, touring has become an increasingly rewarding business for major-league acts. Sales of the Stones' back catalogue barely keep Keith Richards in Jack Daniels, but the band are among the biggest earners on the live circuit. Madonna achieved record profits on her Confessions tour this year, netting more than £100m in ticket sales alone. No wonder, then, that stadiums and arenas now attract the most investment.

But is the quest for bums on seats coming at the expense of individuality and atmosphere? In aping their American counterparts, British arenas are increasingly notable for their bland homogeneity, closer to sports stadiums than old-school rock dives. Meanwhile, middle-capacity venues from Bristol to Glasgow have come to rely on corporate sponsorship to stay afloat.

While the companies that pour money into music events would argue that they are giving a much-needed financial boost to the live scene, musicians and fans complain of lost independence and music being reduced to a mere product. Certainly, preserving atmosphere in a venue festooned with corporate banners and overpriced merchandise can be difficult.

Perhaps this is why artists seem on a permanent quest to find new and interesting environments in which to perform. Lately, gigs have been held in forests, on boats and even on an oil rig. Rather than opt for the traditional secret gig, Badly Drawn Boy has just announced he will be showcasing material for his new album in a fish-and-chips shop.

The demise of our older rock venues could be attributed to a demand for higher standards, of course. It's no accident that many of the UK's more intimate clubs are known as "toilet" venues. Poor or non-existent air conditioning, combined with sticky floors and rubbish sound quality, can make for a mediocre night out. Back in the day, at full capacity, the humidity inside the Cavern Club would cause condensation to gather on the ceiling and drip on the heads of punters, while the heat at the Marquee repeatedly caused Jimi Hendrix's guitar to go out of tune.

On the other hand, music fans might well argue that dripping ceilings and heat are all part of the rock'n'roll ritual, along with crowd surfers (you can't beat a good boot to the head), flying beer bottles and the pervasive odour of sweat and stale beer. After all, who wants to watch the latest rock sensation sitting on a cold plastic seat and clutching a paper cup? If you do, perhaps it's a sign that your gigging days are behind you and it's time for the pipe and slippers.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

jeudi, décembre 07, 2006

Babyshambles live in Newcastle

Babyshambles, Carling Academy, Newcastle.

Nick Hasted

Morning breaks for Pete Doherty with the news of another court fine for the drug use that has delayed this latest UK tour.The fans are rewarded with a show that turns back time, stripping away the tabloid infamy, the Kate Moss soap opera and the self-destruction, to reveal the Doherty who, with The Libertines, inspired a generation of musicians.

You can see the difference as soon as Doherty walks on, bang on time and soberly suited. This tour was delayed to give him more time to deal with his addiction, and the drifting zombie of some previous gigs is gone. Instead, after a wry word of thanks for "justice" in his latest court cameo, it's straight into "The Blinding", which, with "Pipedown", forms an explosive opening, a statement of intent from Doherty the fit, focused bandleader. Conducting drummer Adam Ficek and tossing his titfer into the crowd, he is all whirling, stick-insect limbs. It is only with the new "Sedative" that the murmuring, introspective Pete reappears, for a song that seems to see his notorious life from the outside. "He was my hero," he sings sadly. "What's he like now?"

When a Union flag appears from somewhere, Doherty slips in a heartfelt snippet of "The White Cliffs of Dover", then begins his own English anthem, "Albion".Its list of place-names also allows Doherty to list half the towns in the North-east; though Sunderland's mention goes down like the Titanic, it puts every place he visits at Albion's heart.

"There She Goes (A Little Heartache)" and "Beg, Steal or Borrow" are among the new songs that address Doherty's recent travails. As he lines up with new guitarist Mick Whitnall and bassist Drew McConnell, Babyshambles seem more than ever a going concern. When they don't have to cover for Doherty, they are a tight, relentless rock unit, built on ferocious guitars and whip-crack drums.

Yet it is The Libertines' "Time for Heroes" that recalls Doherty's early, romantic promise. "I cherish you my love!" he bawls, perhaps to his old band- and soulmate Carl Barât. The song gives off a feeling of community regained.

A possibly ironic cover of The Stone Roses' "I Wanna Be Adored", then old single "Killamangiro" bring what's left of the house down. Then "Can't Stand Me Now", the Libertines' song about their drug-fuelled dissolution, finishes things. Its sentiment - "It's the worst it can possibly be" - is for tonight, at least, turned inside-out, into an affirmation of possible, fragile, better days ahead.

Touring to 13 December (www.babyshambles.net)

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

lundi, décembre 04, 2006

Jarvis Cocker

'Does music still matter? Yes ... and no!'

Jarvis Cocker, guest editor, sits down with a cast of famous friends to discuss pop in the 21st century, iPods and selling baked beans

The Observer

Setting the scene

Jarvis: I've been asked to edit the Observer Music Monthly, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about what music is for. Now that sounds a stupidly vague question. But I'll explain why I'm posing it and why you've kindly agreed to join me here in Dublin. It seems as if music is everywhere these days: on TV, in hotel lobbies; it's inescapable in modern life. But is it being used for its correct purpose? Is there a correct purpose? I've made a list, which I'll read out. Music can be for:










To start with: advertising. I don't live in England any more but I came back the other day and was watching telly and that Johnny Cash song came on ['Hurt']. But it was advertising Nike trainers, and that struck me as being a particularly inappropriate use of music.

Nick Cave: I personally find that offensive. Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' was used for a car ad. I used to drive around in my car when I was 19 screaming that song, and it had an anti-establishment purpose. For it now to be appropriated by the advertising industry ... I think that's fucked. I don't know what situation the people who have written the music are in, if they need the money or ... I'm not trying to take the moral high ground but I wouldn't allow my music to be used in that way.

Jarvis: Do you get offers?

Nick Cave: Often. There's a song called 'Red Right Hand', and a sanitary napkin company back in New Zealand wanted to use it, which was tempting ... but that was the closest I've ever come. You do get an enormous amount of money waved in front of you, more money than you make anywhere else in the industry, and all you have to do is say yes ...

Paul Morley: In the early 1980s New Order were offered huge amounts of money to do adverts and they would just say no, and then a soft drinks company in America offered them £200,000 to re-record 'Blue Monday' and eventually they gave in. But the only way Barney [Sumner] could sing it was to have '£200,000' written in front of the mike stand, so he could see that while he was doing it.

Nick Cave: People have been married to my music ... and I just don't think it would be very cool for them to switch on the TV and 'The Ship Song' comes on a Cornetto ad or something.

Anthony Genn [the Hours]: 'The Ship Song' for P&O Ferries!

Antony Hegarty: Artists have to make their way through and support themselves.

Paul Morley: I do think it's fascinating that 25-30 years after these pieces of music had a meaning to people who felt so passionate about what they stood for, they're being used to sell something. I think that's what you mean when you say music is everywhere now. Twenty-five years ago, when we were beginning our little lives in this world, music was oddly marginal and, oddly, it meant something, and now it has become a commodity. People of a certain age find it very bewildering. All those things we thought were important ... they've been co-opted by the capitalist world to give what it has to sell the illusion of hipness and cool, so that the whole world feels as if they're in on the revolution and that they're hip and they're cool. But the meaning of it has been sucked dry.

I blame Busted. Before Busted there was no guitar music anywhere; it had been wiped away by pop groups and by Pop Idol ...

Nick Cave [quietly, to Beth Orton]: Who are Busted?

Jarvis: They were a boy band but they played guitars so they were like an indie boy band.

Paul Morley: It was as if all the boy bands and girl bands had wiped away the illusion of coolness created by the record industry, so they had to rehabilitate the illusion of cool. So a boy band, who would usually sit on stools like a bunch of Val Doonicans, held their guitars to kind of signify they were in rock. And after that came a flood of guitar bands - as if it was 1983 again, but without the politics. It was just that that kind of music by now felt comfortable enough for the mainstream. So that's why I blame Busted.

Jarvis: I think you're putting a big burden on their shoulders there. But I agree that post-punk has been revived with none of the ideology. It's been reduced to style.

Beth Orton [to Nick]: What about rap?

Nick Cave: Well, with punk, people were embarrassed about the money you could make, whereas with rap music it has been the other way round. It's about wearing the right brands, it's very much about advertising.

IPods: Good or bad?

Jarvis: Who's got an iPod around this table?

Everyone puts up their hands apart from Mary Margaret O'Hara and Antony Hegarty - although, reluctantly, he admits to owning one

Jarvis [shouts at him]: So why aren't you admitting to it then?

Paul Morley: People are starting to collect music in the same way that they collect stamps. People who weren't really interested in music as such are now worried about whether they've got 15,000 songs, and I think that's had an interesting effect ...

Nick Cave: That's rather cynical. Surely there are kids that are listening to stuff that they might not have otherwise. My kid is listening to all sorts of music, a far greater range of music than I listened to, actually, because I'm still pretty blinkered.

Paul Morley: Music has opened up so people can grab whatever they want whenever they want it, which is fantastic, but the music industry is trying to shape and control what's happening. I find the little white box and the little white wires of a company trying to control the decisions we make sinister.

Nick Cave: But they're not really succeeding.

Anthony Genn: Because kids are downloading music from Limewire for free. And getting away with it. If I sit on the tube opposite 10 people now, seven or eight of them will be listening to music, and that can only be a good thing. I don't know what they're listening to, but ...

Jarvis: It could be dangerous.

Beth Orton: Why could it be dangerous?

Jarvis: Because they're not taking notice of where they're walking.

Nick Cave: But they might be taking notice of something more important than where they're walking, which is music.

Antony Hegarty: I've got a question about whether that radical diversification of people's interest in music threatens the same kind of community that music used to create 20 years ago. If it's mobilising people in the same way, if people are creating soundtracks that are so utterly personalised. Whether it yields the same results in bringing people together, especially counterculture-wise

Jarvis: Well, I think that if you can use music on a tube journey to blot out reality, it's a good thing ...

Nick Cave: Which is one of the things that music is for, surely.

Jarvis: ... but it is a very solitary experience wearing headphones. And you choose what is on your iPod and you choose what you listen to. You can say it's empowering because you create your own environment but perhaps it is stopping people talking to each other

Nick Cave: The kids - well, I don't know that much about the kids - but the kids I know seem to be really connected with music nowadays. They share music and turn each other on to different music and it seems healthy.

Antony Hegarty: I agree that people are really into music, but I wonder how connected it is to reality ...

Nick Cave: Do you think things should be connected to reality?

Antony Hegarty: Well, I think people have retreated into themselves. People feel alienated by the big picture, and people have retreated into a personal universe as a means of survival. I don't think a lot of people are interfacing with the big picture in a way that they may have done 25 years ago. In the way that punk tried to have a dialogue with what was going on in the world. A lot of kids today might be listening to an obscure artist from the 1950s instead..

Jarvis: It's true that we haven't had music connected to a social movement for quite a while. Not since acid house.

Paul Morley: But it might be that those things are over now, that we're moving into a different set of realities. The next generation might be entering into something that we can't possibly recognise. It might be that punk, acid house and those movements were a part of time, and now that's over and something new is coming that we can't see.

Mary Margaret O'Hara: I went to a show the other night, a band called Hot Chip, and they were great.

Paul Morley: We're all spoilt for great music at the moment, because everything that's ever been is instantly available and there are some fantastic representations of everything that's ever been available from a lot of new groups.

Nick Cave: Are there?

Paul Morley: I think so. Hot Chip are a great unexpected hybrid.

Anthony Genn: If you go down to Hoxton on a Friday night, there are thousands of people going to see live bands. There are people creating their own scene and it's exciting.

Paul Morley: Well, they can create their own scenes because they know how to: they've got so much to refer to and appropriate. But those scenes seem quite cosmetic.

Mary Margaret O'Hara: They probably don't believe that, though. They're still trying to find their way, and a way of being different among everything that's on offer. There's so much nowadays and nobody trusts what is bad or good, and everyone's suspect in a way. Before you could tell what was bad and good, but it's like no one trusts what is good or bad any more.

Beth Orton: Most people want something to matter again.

Back in the day

Anthony Genn: What was the first concert you ever went to?

Nick Cave: Deep Purple, when I was about 15. Deep Purple, Manfred Mann and Free; it was a triple bill in Melbourne.

Mary Margaret O'Hara: The Beatles, and then Bob Marley.

Paul Morley: T-Rex.

Nick Cave: You liar!

Paul Morley: T-Rex, Manchester Free Trade Hall. Twelve shillings.

Beth Orton: The first band I really remember was the Fall at the Norwich Gala House, when I was 12.

Antony Hegarty: I don't remember ... I'm too ashamed to admit it ... I can't ...

Everyone: Come on!

Antony Hegarty: It was Duran Duran.

Anthony Genn: Mine was The Stranglers in 1981.

Jarvis: I think mine was The Stranglers as well.

Antony Hegarty [mortified]: Mine was the worst ...

Anthony Genn: People are freer to make music than they ever were. Even in the days of punk, someone had to pay for you to make a record. Now you can download software to make your own music. Twelve-year-old kids make bands and they have their MySpace sites, and it sounds alright, man.

Antony Hegarty: My friends [the group] CocoRosie went to Brazil to play a concert, and their music isn't distributed in Brazil but there were 2,000 people there singing along; they knew all the words. But their record isn't even in the shops in Brazil!

Should music be shrouded in mystery?

Paul Morley: What about if everyone gets involved? Everyone has an opinion nowadays on everything, everybody has a blog. What if everyone made music? Doesn't that ruin the point of it being essentially something magical, if everyone does it and it just reduces it to the point of filling the shelves with baked beans.

Mary Margaret O'Hara: The best thing is to be connected but you also want to stand slightly apart ... sorry, I'm rambling.

Paul Morley: No, that was good .... What I'm saying is that if music becomes so democratic that everyone can do it, then surely it loses some of that mystique of being something that only some people can do.

Jarvis: I don't know about that. I mean, there might have been fewer people making music 30 years ago, but there were still a lot of crap bands. There have always been bad bands.

Beth: Not as many as there are now, surely

Jarvis: Probably proportionally, yeah.

Antony Hegarty: It kind of reminds me of another era when everyone made music in their kitchen. When music was almost like a family experience, or a local experience.

Nick Cave: It takes a talent to be able to sit down and write a hit. You're catchy [to Jarvis], you can do that.

Beth Orton [to Anthony Genn]: You're catchy.

Anthony Genn: The flu is catchy!

Paul Morley: But going back to the beginning of the conversation, lots of people form bands now as if it's a career choice they're making. Because of certain TV audition shows, and the materialism of hip hop, you can actually envisage a career in pop music now, whereas back in our day, you would just make a song at a time, and go from week to week. The thrill of playing a gig and you never knew when or where it would end ...

What makes people create?

Beth Orton: Ultimately - this is my hippy self talking here - but ultimately, it's a desire to create akin to having babies. I was talking to someone about this yesterday and it's like, 'Why is that so many men are artists and writers?' It's because we all have a desire to make and create, it's part of our nature and, for me, it's about connecting to that nature and that eternal other side ...

Nick Cave: What happens in the market, I don't consider it, downloading and all that. For me what music is for is very much a selfish thing. All I know is that I have to do it on a regular basis or I don't operate correctly. What happens with the records and the history of the thing: I feel I have absolutely no control over that, and I'm not even interested in it personally. It's just very much a selfish act of going in there and ...

Beth Orton: Connecting with beauty ...

Nick Cave: It's just an act of survival. To go in there and have that feeling, which is incredibly addictive and doesn't really go away. Whether it's with lyrics or whether it's with the music itself where you feel something happen, some change of body chemistry that happens when you actually make music and a few musicians actually play something together and it's like, 'Shit, that's really good' and you get lost in the moment and everything else is just unimportant. And for me that is what music is for ...

What I mean to say is we can talk about where music is going but we don't really know where music is going and there might be some wonderful stuff that comes out of this. That's what it's about and what it has always been about. That's not to say what I do is good or bad, it's just that it has this effect on me that I don't get from anything else. I don't get it from playing with the kids, I don't get it from my wife, I don't get it from anywhere else.

I guess that's why I was getting upset at the start when we were talking about advertising, because it seems a very cynical betrayal of that moment, of that precious, almost religious experience.

The other thing about music that I really like ... when I was kid there was no real information about music. You got a record with a cover - and you didn't really know much about the band - and you put the record on and stared at the cover and that's pretty much all the information you had, and these people were heroes. They were mysterious, heroic people ... And the internet and everything else has taken a certain amount of that away.

The mystique is disappearing. Now that might be a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, I don't want to know everything. I want the people I really love to remain difficult to get to.

Jarvis: Really, the detail about people's lives isn't that important.

Nick Cave: Anything that anyone has to say outside making a record isn't that important. You get a record and you think this is pretty cool and then you read 15 interviews and you're like [pulls face] .... And there are some very big bands [who operate] like that.

Paul Morley: I guess what we're saying is that more and more is being written about music and less and less is being said.

Jarvis: What I'm saying is music is becoming more mundane, because it surrounds us so much, it's no longer something that tears through modern life, it's something that is the part of the fabric of modern life.

Beth Orton: It does all go in cycles, so after a period of heavily manufactured music, something else will come again. If we think that our instincts are being messed with, we will return to the source.

Jarvis: I think we've established the distinction between the artistic process and what happens afterwards to it. I suppose as long as people don't allow what happens next to affect the first bit, everything will be alright.

Who's who

Nick Cave

An author, screenwriter and creator of classic albums such as Kicking Against the Pricks and 2004's Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.

Paul Morley

OMM's critic-at-large is also a celebrated author and one-half of the group Infantjoy.

Beth Orton

The contemporary folk singer released Comfort of Strangers, her first album for four years, in February.

Mary Margaret O'Hara

Publicity-shy Canadian songstress and creator of 1988's classic cult album (and her only full-length LP), Miss America.

Antony Hegarty

The New York-based voice of Antony and the Johnsons, winner of last year's Mercury Prize for the extraordinary I Am a Bird Now.

Anthony Genn

Front man of hot new band the Hours, whose first single 'Ali in the Jungle' is released this month on Polydor.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

mardi, novembre 28, 2006

Girls Aloud interview

Girls Aloud: 'We're not little kittens'

Girls Aloud confounded critics with a string of Top 10 hits.

James McNair talks to them about songwriting, sexy shoots and celeb boyfriends.

They came out of reality TV, but Girls Aloud have confounded their critics with a string of Top 10 hits. James McNair talks to them about songwriting, sexy shoots and celebrity boyfriends.

Love them or loathe them, pop stars hot-housed on reality TV shows continue to appear. Whoever wins The X Factor this year, however, would do well to emulate the success of Girls Aloud. Created on ITV's Popstars: The Rivals in November 2002, the group were a reminder that team selection can be as important as the music where lucrative pop is concerned. In cherry-picking a redhead from Runcorn, two blondes from Ascot and Derry, and two similarly pretty brunettes from Newcastle and Bradford, Popstars' creators were mindful of the "catch-all" template that proved so fruitful for the Spice Girls. Give every boy his "type" and every young girl a look they might aspire to, runs the theory, and you've one hand on the prize.

Such savvy groundwork - together with some decent songwriting - was undoubtedly a factor in Girls Aloud scoring a Christmas No 1 with their debut single "Sound of the Underground". Three studio albums followed between May 2003 and December 2005, and now, less than four years since the band's inception, Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh have released a greatest hits package, The Sound Of Girls Aloud.

While a "best of" CD seems decidedly premature, career years are as dog ones in pop's fickle universe. Besides, as Cole points out, Girls Aloud have packed a lot in thus far. Their 13 consecutive Top 10 hits, for example, constitute a feat unsurpassed by any other girl group. Such are the indignities, some moan, that the reality TV-moulded Girls Aloud have wrought upon Diana Ross and the Supremes, and, erm, Bananarama.

Today, I meet Cheryl Cole (née Tweedy) and bandmate Walsh at Highgate Studios in north London. Cole - pink tracksuit, hotel-issue slippers, occasional use of the "F" word - is the most vocal, while Walsh - mustard Sixties-style coat, black jeans, homely Lancashire accent - comes on like a younger, shyer Melanie Sykes. Both girls are poised on high stools with legs crossed, their sparkling eye make-up clearly the work of trained professionals. They are aware of their beauty, and to meet their gaze is to be temporarily disarmed.

Cole is quick to defend the reality format that spawned Girls Aloud, pointing out that for every hopeless fantasist that sees such programmes as a fast track to wealth and fame, there is a hardworking "diamond in the rough" for whom such shows are a lifeline. "It's definitely a great opportunity," agrees Walsh, "but I was naïve about how gruelling it would be. The first two weeks of the band, we slept about three hours a night and even today, we were up at quarter to six."

"Tomorrow it's 4am," adds Cole. "We've got to get ready to lead the Harrods Christmas parade. I'm not complaining or anything; the Spice Girls had to work twice as hard as we do because they did America and the whole shebang in no time. When I was sitting next to Victoria [Beckham] at the World Cup, she was like, 'Are you sure it's all right for you to be here? Shouldn't you be doing a gig or something?'

"Another time she said, 'We were just like you lot, Cheryl: five random girls auditioned and thrown together.' The only difference was that the Spice Girls were groomed and media-trained before they came out, and we had to do all that in the spotlight. It was like selling your soul to the devil."

And what of Girls Aloud's comparative longevity? How have they survived in a market where careers last about as long as a Popsicle? "I think it's a mixture of things," says Walsh. "It's partly the quality of the songs, and the fantastic relationship we have with our producer Brian Higgins and his main songwriter, Miranda [Cooper]. We connect with our material and we always try to bring something fresh to our performances. People have to be wowed by your new look and your new sound, otherwise they're not willing to buy the records." "We've always had a bit of an edge, too," adds Cole. "We're not little kittens who just sit there and purr. We have strong opinions."

Credibility, one realises, is the commodity that most manufactured pop acts would give their eye teeth for. The boy band that plays its own instruments; the girl group that writes its own songs - both gain a slighter higher rung on the ladder of authenticity. For Girls Aloud, though, being poptastically successful seems to be enough. Though they and their band mates have dabbled in co-writing, both Cole and Walsh are comfortable with the fact that their job is primarily to sell what others have crafted. But don't dare belittle their half of that quid pro quo. "It would be a shame if someone like our producer Brian Higgins went unnoticed," says Cole. "He can't sing a note and he definitely couldn't front 'Love Machine' or 'Biology'. Those songs would never have come to light if it hadn't been for us."

"It infuriates Brian when people say bad things about us not writing our own songs," adds Walsh. "He's like, 'I couldn't have this kind of success without you and the whole team of people around us.' The way we look, the way we are as people - all of that inspires Brian to write. We just sing bits and pieces of the songs and he builds the music around us. Our vocal performances are a big part of the song, though."

What about choosing the songs they record - do they have much say there? "The songs go to our A&R man," says Cole. "He chooses his favourites and then it's kind of up to us to pick from them. But we're not naïve about the process, and we don't always know what's best for us. We hated 'Love Machine' when we first heard it, but then it was a huge hit and we were forced to eat humble pie.

"That's why you have a record company and a manager," Cole continues. "You have to let them do their job. Look what happened with the Spice Girls when they sacked [manager] Simon Fuller. It all went tits-up."

Jokes about how fetching such an eventuality might look aside, things have yet to go "tits-up" for Girls Aloud. Even E4's fly-on-the-wall documentary Girls Aloud: Off the Record seems to have worked in their favour - and this despite Cole's regular mini-tantrums. Some of her outbursts are archived at YouTube.com; one of the best sees her flip out when faced with the challenge of climbing a steep hill in stiletto heels. "Does anyone actually care that we're going to be at the highest point in Greece?" asks Cole, arms outstretched imploringly. "It smells of shit here."

"I watch it and go, 'That's Cheryl - that's how she is'," smiles Walsh. "But other people go, 'My God! She's a real moaner!' Cheryl just talks everything that she's thinking, but if you don't know her you're not in a position to judge her. The best thing about doing that show was that we've got six months of our lives logged for when we're older, and I know we're going to appreciate that. We went to Australia. Who knows if that will ever happen again?"

"People said I was complaining all the time," laughs Cole, "but a lot of it was the way they edited the footage. They make it look like you can only be bothered to climb five steps when you've actually climbed 5,000."

Despite reality TV's double-edged sword, Girls Aloud clearly have the people's vote - and that of some of their fellow pop stars. Arctic Monkeys have covered "Love Machine", Lily Allen has said she'd like to look like Cole, and the girl group's appearance in the forthcoming Oasis documentary Lord Don't Slow Me Down should help their visibility in 2007.

The cameo came about when the girls stumbled across the Gallagher brothers while working at the same studio, Cole's less forward band mates goading her to make the introductions. "Noel went, 'Our kid! Come on out - it's Girls Aloud!'" laughs Walsh. "We had our photo taken with them - it meant a lot to me coming from their neck of the woods." Given that Liam Gallagher is married to Nicole Appleton, one quarter of rival girl band All Saints, this is all very intriguing, of course. Who knows - perhaps the Girls Aloud footage will end up on the cutting-room floor.

Still, what of their own relationships? With Cheryl married to Ashley Cole, Nadine dating Desperate Housewives actor Jesse Metcalfe, and Kimberley seeing Triple 8 singer Justin Scott, the reportedly single Sarah Harding must feel a certain pressure to bag a celebrity of her own? "It's not really like that," says Cole. "It's more about trust and finding someone who likes you for yourself, not being in Girls Aloud, someone who supports what you do, but isn't intimidated by it." Like Ashley? "Exactly!"

What's his favourite Girls Aloud song? "When he joined Chelsea he had to sing a song to the other players as a kind of team-bonding thing, and I printed him out the lyrics for 'The Sound of the Underground'. He didn't go for it, but I know he really likes that song."

From the twanging, almost Monkees-like pop of "Love Machine", to the fabulously melodramatic, cod R&B-imbued "Biology", Girls Aloud have "fronted" (to use Cole's term) some great pop tunes. Not (quite) for nothing has their producer Brian Higgins been called a Phil Spector for the 21st century. Still, as Higgins and his Xenomania production house team also pen tunes for Sugababes and others, and competition for the cream of their crop is fierce, Girls Aloud's greatest hits collection is peppered with cover-versions.

Last Christmas, your scribe found himself in the somewhat embarrassing position of being genuinely moved by their take on The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You", though, in my defence, I'd have to cite its limpet-like adherence to the arrangement of the fine, Chrissie Hynde-penned original. Make no mistake about it: Girls Aloud can carry a tune.

Throughout today's interview, one of Cole and Walsh's PR bods has been perching on a nearby stool, a lifeguard ready to wade in if necessary. Recent spats with Boy George and aforementioned rivals All Saints - together with persistent, but untrue rumours that Harding is leaving Girls Aloud - have led to a line of questioning that the group would rather avoid. Much more pressing, it seems, is plugging "I Think We're Alone Now", a cover of the Eighties Tiffany hit with which Girls Aloud hope to secure this year's Christmas No 1. "The higher it gets, the better the album will sell," says Walsh, "and ultimately that's what we're trying to promote."

The girls have filmed a video for said song in which the storyline sees them attempt a heist at a Los Angeles casino. It's being billed as a "fans' choice" video, since customers of 3 Mobile can download three different denouements: "shocking", "funny" and "sexy". No prizes for guessing which will prove most popular.

Of course, only a fool would deny that the girls' sex appeal - as milked in promotional videos, calendars and regular shoots for FHM and the like - is a huge factor in shifting their CDs. As in 2005, this year the aforementioned magazine featured all five Girls Aloud members in its "100 Sexiest Woman" list, but on the surface at least, Cole (sixth, down from second), and Walsh (66th, down from 44th) seem unaffected by any tensions these ridiculously arbitrary rankings might spark.

Boy George, on the other hand, is currently a source of great irritation, largely because the singer recently called Girls Aloud and their music "vile". "I knew George didn't like us from the moment he walked in the room," says Walsh, choosing her words carefully, but her ever-feisty band mate is more colourful. "While we were playing our arena tour Boy George was sweeping shit off the New York streets," says Cole, her silver-painted eyelashes sparkling. "He's bitter that he's not succeeding and we are."

Download the 'fans' choice' video for 'I Think We're Alone Now' via 3 Music until 15 November (www.three.co.uk)

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited