As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: that went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!… then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past. – Martin Amis
2024 marks 40 years of Pete Astor making records, a suitable anniversary point at which to take stock and double back on songs that first appeared on records by Astor-fronted combos such as Creation Records trailblazers The Loft and The Weather Prophets and Matador recording artists The Wisdom of Harry, as well as selections from solo albums that appeared on labels such as Danceteria and Static Caravan.
Astor’s motivation for TS&NR, as his extensive notes below make clear, is manifold. Some songs are effectively re-examined in the way one might linger over a resonant picture from a box of old photographs – connecting with the essence of a younger self. Other songs are newly recast in wiser and more reflective hues, while others simply demanded exhumation from wilfully opaque, lo fi non-production. The songs chosen are not the obvious ones - there’s no "Up the Hill and Down the Slope" or “Almost Prayed” here - but have been selected for more interesting, often esoteric, reasons.
Astor is accompanied by an estimable band of co-conspirators, evolving out of many hours spent playing music together on records and at shows over the last decade. They are drummer Ian Button, (Death in Vegas, Papernut Cambridge, Go Kart Mozart), bassist Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Soho Radio and Blow Up DJ), guitarist Wilson Neil Scott (Summerhill, Felt, Everything But the Girl) and keyboardist/ multi-instrumentalist/ producer Sean Read (Dexys, Mark Lanegan, Dave Gahan, Iggy Pop, Manic Street Preachers, Beth Orton, Chrissie Hynde…).
Together they’ve revisited these lost gems of songs in a manner that has allowed Astor to balance the way that they still make sense to him now, looking both to the future and to that big and interesting new country, the past.
Here, Pete Astor reflects on the songs he chose:
In 2005, The Loft got together again to play some shows, after a hiatus of 20 years. All that time having passed, and water and otherwise having passed under the proverbial bridge, I ended up writing Model Village to play with the band. Model villages always struck me as beautifully sad; their attempt to depict that complex and difficult thing called life in miniature by attempting to contain it in a static, idealised image of a neat, ordered world. A song seemed necessary. The Loft’s version was released in 2006 on a 7” on the excellent Static Caravan label. Since writing it the song has been in pretty much every live set I’ve played and this has meant that I think I’ve learnt to sing and play and inhabit it far better. I think because on reflection it marked a big moment of understanding and acceptance for me.
Ladies and Gentlemen was written at a particularly low ebb, around 1998 – I thought I could make myself feel better by writing a song from the point of view of a supper club singer who’s had enough and is singing out a ‘fuck you’ to the assembled diners. I hastily recorded it in the so-called ‘perineum of the year’ for inclusion on the final Wisdom of Harry album, Torch Division, in 2003. It was good to now give it the treatment I think it deserved in those bleak post-Christmas days.
I always admired songs that had only one chord and this appreciation is what must have made Chinese Cadillac arrive in 1988. For some reason, The Weather Prophets were particularly good at putting out what turned out to be our best songs on B-sides or as bonus tracks. This song appeared as one of three tracks on the other side of the Hollow Heart 12” single and told the story of the perennial showbiz hopeful, who, as Howard Devoto memorably said on the first Buzzcocks’ single, Boredom, ‘came from nowhere’ and went straight back there. Along with pretty much every scene in Spinal Tap, this wise nugget was something that always stayed with me and, no doubt, many other musicians.
Sometimes you find yourself very out of step with things that are happening around you, and I think The Emperor, the Dealer and the Birthday Boy, come from this feeling. It was originally released on Zoo on Creation in 1991. Of course, the person on the outside has decided that he is only there because the world is wrong, when the truth definitely resides somewhere else. I remember being very happy when Andrew Weatherall said to me that Zoo was one of his favourite come down albums of the early ‘90s – it was good to know that I was still around, whatever I was thinking.
A little too often, I think I reached rain as a catch-all for lots of things that might be going on. But I do like the way that She Comes from the Rain makes the gentle point that good love comes from things that might not be so great. This was the Weather Prophets single that kicked off our short tenure at Elevation/WEA, the label that Alan McGee founded to have his favourite Creation acts of the time on a major. I remember being told that She Comes from the
Rain’s first week chart position was higher than the new Elton John single. That felt very odd, but things got back to normal pretty soon after that and Elton has continued to do quite well. I always felt that there was potential for something a bit more swinging in the song, which I hope we’ve now brought out.
A true knot is something, I discovered, that occurs when a baby in the womb ties a knot in their umbilical cord. Sadly, the baby rarely survives, so Nancy True Knot is my paean to a piece of the greatest good fortune –- a true knot that remained benign. The song originally appeared an album of reworkings of folk standards taken from the Childe Ballads and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, an original composition in response to those songs, written and recorded up a hill in Broughton Water in the Lakes. Sometimes when I write a song all the fears of the getting the right version down mean it’s easier to do it as quickly as possible, which sometimes does the job but, in many cases, – this being one – the song deserves better treatment.
When I was a kid, lot of store was set by shoes that had things like animal prints on the soles – a bit like the ubiquitous little brother of the DM, the Monkey Boot, which allegedly gave younger teenagers the gift of being able to scale trees and walls more easily. Anyway, I invented a new version of this kind of footwear for the first Wisdom Of Harry single on Matador records. These were Caesar Boots. It’s great to be able to dig into the groove of this tune with Ian, Andy and Neil playing live in the room while I’m singing and playing. We needed to be in the same room for many of the versions of the songs on this record because for the endings it was necessary that I employed Ian Button’s invention of the Railway Signal Ending (RSE) where I can lift my guitar neck to signal the completion of the song that we haven’t rehearsed all the way through. There were a lot of first takes on this record!
The “twenty-four years” mentioned at the beginning of Head Over Heels refers to my age when I wrote this very open song. I grew up in thrall to Iggy and the Stooges and the way that Iggy opened himself up, and out, on stage – literally throwing himself into the performance with 100% commitment. I realised I was never going to be able to do that, but I did feel that I owed it to his legacy to at least be as emotionally open and unfiltered as I could be – not quite the same thing, I know, but I was only twenty-four! This song also appeared as Lighthouse Room on BBC sessions and the first Weather Prophets mini album Diesel River, as well as in its present form on the first full Weather Prophets album, produced by Lenny Kaye, Mayflower.
In the 1990s, I had a quiet Damascus moment when I realised that I needed to dig much deeper into the means of production of the electronic music that I spent most of my time listening to at that time. This let to making music as the Wisdom of Harry and (with David Sheppard) Ellis Island Sound. I felt the most exciting thing to do with the music we made was to put out what we were doing on the proliferation of vinyl-centred labels that were around at the time. Marsh Blues came out originally as part of a 10” album on the Lissy’s label (sometime home to the likes of Stereolab, Matmos and The Tyde). One part of what we were doing was, in hindsight, to be ideologically lo-fi after too many bad experiences in the previous decade with exploding snare drums and attempted digital perfection. But now I see that this song needs another life as a new musical butterfly!
Whenever you write a song, you of course have opinions about it in relation to what you consider your best work. In reality, the only thing that decides things like ‘the best’ are connection and time. Emblem was one song that I felt very warmly about when I wrote it in the
late ’80s, but it ended up settling in the backwaters of my Submarine album. I remember playing a house show more recently and this was one of the requests. After the show, the person who requested it told me how it had soundtracked a massive change in his life, making a profound connection for him. This was a catalyst for readdressing it on this new record.
Often the words and tunes appear long before any understanding of what they mean. Disney Queen arrived on a cold night singing and playing (as usual) with the sound turned down on my colour TV. Many years later I heard it on the radio selected by a fellow musician choosing his favourite songs – during the conversation, the DJ asked innocently why the recording sounded like it did – distorted and broken, processing seriously misused (lo-fi ideology again!). I remember thinking to myself: ‘Yes, you’re right, why?’
In the 1960s, my German grandfather visited the UK; he ran a one-car driving school in Hamburg and he loved double decker buses, which were non-existent in Europe at the time. My grandfather’s great pleasure on his visit was to see London from prime position on a red Routemaster bus, making sure he was seated On Top Above the Driver. As throughout this record I was able to revisit the songs with the help of Ian Button, Andy Lewis, Wilson Neil Scott and Sean Read which allowed me to sit inside what I’d written in a way that I felt I was able to balance the way that they still made sense to me now, looking to the future and that big, new country, the past.
Wenn der 50. Geburtstag naht, kommt es einem so vor, als würde das Leben schmaler und schmaler werden, solange bis nichts mehr übrigbleibt. Und manchmal denkt man: Das ging ein wenig schnell. In einer bestimmten Laune möchte man es auch ein wenig nachdrücklicher sagen: "Verdammte Hacke, das ging aber verflucht schnell!!!" Die 50 kommt und geht, dann die 51, 52. Und das Leben wird wieder üppiger. Denn auf einmal ist es mit einer enormen und unerwarteten Präsenz erfüllt – wie ein unentdeckter Kontinent. Die Rede ist von der Vergangenheit. – Martin Amis
2024 feiert Pete Astor sein 40. Jubiläum als Recording Artist. Ein guter Zeitpunkt, um Bilanz zu ziehen und um sich auf Songs zurückzubesinnen, die auf Platten von Combos erschienen sind, bei denen Astor der Frontmann war. Z. B. die Creation-Records-Pioniere The Loft und The Weather Prophets oder die auf Matador veröffentlichenden The Wisdom of Harry. Aber auch auf ausgewählte Perlen von Solo-Alben, erschienen auf Labels wie Danceteria und Static Caravan.
Astors Motivation für die Aufnahme von "TS&NR" ist facettenreich, wie er in seinen umfangreichen Anmerkungen erläutert. Manche Songs werden sozusagen neu erforscht, so wie man bei einem stimmungsvollen Foto, das man in einer alten Kiste gefunden hat, hängebleibt, um sich mit seinem jüngeren Ich zu verbinden. Manche werden in weiseren, nachdenklicheren Tönen neu interpretiert. Und andere mussten einfach mal aus ihrer mutwillig verwaschenen Lofi-Produktion exhuminiert werden. Es wurden nicht die offensichtlichen Songs gewählt, kein "Up the Hill and Down the Slope" oder “Almost Prayed” – es gab interessantere, oftmals esoterische Gründe.
Astor wird von einer respektablen Gruppe Verbündeter begleitet, hervorgegangen aus vielen Stunden des gemeinsamen Musizierens bei Aufnahmesessions und Konzerten in der letzten Dekade: Schlagzeuger Ian Button (Death in Vegas, Papernut Cambridge, Go Kart Mozart), Bassist Andy Lewis (Paul Weller, Soho Radio und Blow Up DJ), Gitarrist Wilson Neil Scott (Summerhill, Felt, Everything But the Girl) und Keyboarder/Multiinstrumentalist/Produzent Sean Read (Dexys, Mark Lanegan, Dave Gahan, Iggy Pop, Manic Street Preachers, Beth Orton, Chrissie Hynde ...).
Gemeinsam haben sie diese verlorenen Songdiamanten neu entdeckt – sodass Astor die richtige Balance gefunden hat, damit sie auch heute noch Sinn für ihn ergeben. Dabei blickt er sowohl in die Zukunft als auch in das interessante neue Land namens Vergangenheit.