A Good Man Is Easy To Kill to Great

THERE are certain key questions in life you can use to age most people. Favourite Bond, favourite Doctor Who, favourite children’s programmes.

Anything that depends largely on what you grew up with.

And for those of us with a music obsession, particularly anything involving vaguely miserable young men peering through their fringes and teasing jingly-jangly or feedback-ridden noise out of guitars, you can add favourite era of the NME.

Anyone who suggests anything from this century is downright wrong as it increasingly veered towards glossy Smash Hits territory. Nope, you definitely have to go back to the days when the ink from that week’s Morrissey cover came off on your fingers.

Will listen to arguments that the hip young gunslingers of the late ’70s was some form of golden age – it did give us Danny Baker after all – but you have to go about a decade later for my era of choice.

Had started to dabble in getting my fingers inky every Wednesday – will argue journalism has never been the same since the days of picking a copy fresh off a press on the premises and half of it coating your hand – in the early to mid-’80s as my NME-reading formative years.

But my weekly habit took hold in the second half of the decade, a golden age reading the musings of Stuart Maconie (who still colours my musical education on 6Music, given the chance off work), Andrew Collins, and Steve Lamacq among others, under the editorship of Danny Kelly.

Those golden years lasted into the 1990s until Steve Sutherland took over the editor’s chair and there was a large turnover of writers.

Stuck with it for a good few years – there weren’t many other options to read or find out about this sort of music – but it was not the same.

If memory serves, gave up buying it (Christmas issues and its best of the year lists apart) when working in Newport, opting to it on the health reporter’s desk and read his copy every Wednesday.

Bizarrely, the person on the next desk would end up working on the NME news desk. Around the time they were pushing Starsailor as the future of guitar music. Not sure we can blame him for that.

The golden age was well and truly over. By the time they had bestowed almost God-like status on The Libertines, it was time to sever all ties.

Have picked up a couple of the free editions it became, but quickly worked out why it was normally left on the piles outside HMV.

But it was still a sad – if inevitable – day when news came through that it would no longer exist in print. Both for music fans and anyone with any sort of affection for the printed word that cannot just be scrolled up and down.

Apart from the writing, arrived at the NME at a good time musically. They were still in thrall to The Smiths (largely understandable, frequently overkill), but it was also in the wake of the C86 collection and the heyday of the indie guitar music which has soundtracked much of my last three decades and coloured large chunks of this A-Z journey through my iPod.

Could be wrong – it was so long ago, remember it largely in black and white – but pretty sure The Wedding Present’s classic George Best album was bought on the back of reading all about them on a train to and from a university open day.

Maybe less time reading the NME and listening to the music, more time reading and writing stuff for my school work and one of those open days might have turned into an actual place at university.

Although suggest most of my time would have been spent  doing exactly the stuff which stopped me going in the first place – Cardiff was my first choice, largely because it had the best line-up of gigs on a visit.

The fortunes of print journalism and indie guitar music have suffered in the intervening years, bludgeoned by the dual rise of the internet and any number of interchangeable landfill guitar bands who… there really is no way of finishing this thought without drifting off completely into things were better when I was a lad territory.

Inevitably there were various generations of indie guitar bands as we careered closer to the end of G in the alphabetical journey through my iPod from Beulah to They Might Be Giants.

There was, equally inevitably, Wedding Present (Granadaland, live and studio) from the golden age to Starsailor (the passable Good Souls), who have possibly unfairly become slightly the poster boys of the indie decline.

And we had some possibly surprising frequent visitors with four tracks from Thee Oh Sees, three from Iron & Wine and two apiece for The Beatles (remember them?), The Mark Lanegan Band, Speedy Ortiz and The National (so nearly, and unfairly, lost among the pile of The… bands showing the lack of originality which dogged guitar bands for a while).

Ryan Adams, as inevitable as The Wedding Present, joined the frequent visitors with Goodnight Rose, Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard and, with The Cardinals, Gracie, representing the drift towards Americana that replaced the reliance on NME-approved guitar fare.

Rival Schools barely fitted that mould, off somewhere to the flanks with Good Things, while Paul Simon is a classification of his own. By rights, he has always been probably a bit Radio 2 friendly to fit in with the standard NME reader, but some people rise above such prejudices and Graceland was a very welcome visitor.

Pixies hardly fit the four white boys with guitar template for an indie band, but hark back to that golden age with Gouge Away, as do Prefab Sprout.

Steve McQueen remains one of the era’s great albums, Goodbye Lucille #1 (or Johnny Johnny if you prefer) the sole survivor of Paddy McAloon’s supposed attempt to write an entire album of songs with the same title.

Sure the NME would have approved.

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Girl From The North Country to God Save The Queen

Production journalist, endangered species, traveller, blogger, Gloucester rugby & Red Sox fan, indie kid turned melancholic Americano. Views partially obscured
@robglaws – Twitter profile

THE endangered species reference in my Twitter profile was partly a joke, partly a response to the latest round* of journalism redundancies and partly because… well, it’s true.

Anyone who spends their working life dealing with print rather than digital news these days can be excused for feeling like a dinosaur.

And if there was any doubt, somebody told me just that.

It was supposed to be a few drinks with old mates, back in Cardiff. It just happened to coincide with a leaving do at my old paper, so the old mates were supplemented with a fair few of a newer generation of journalists.

And many of them have known little else than a digital first approach to reporting the news (or at least whatever gets the requisite hits), so perhaps should have expected explaining my role in producing a physical product would provoke a question along the lines of ‘what’s it like to be a dinosaur?’.

The person involved was escorted to the bar for even more refreshment and those of us who have worked through the digital revolution from print deadlines to web hits were left shaking our heads and muttering something along the lines of forgetting more about journalism than he had learned.

But his words stuck with me. Is that the way the new breed look at those of us left in print only? Is that the way the powers that be see us when any future cuts are made? And are we really little but a relic of an era long gone?

Would certainly hope my skills do not consign me to extinction. Those skills learned over the years and views on journalism hewn through battles to hit deadlines and many an evening over a few beers when we all would have made top-class editors. Not even averse to producing something on a website…

There’s certainly a place for those skills, be it reporting or subbing whatever the platform they appear on. Best practice is just that, whether you are trying to tell an accurate, well-written tale on paper or on screen.

It is not for nothing we send out a weekly style guide to our reporters.

Or that reports are appearing of one newspaper operation that has come up with the novel idea of employing people to check copy before it goes on the website.

Employing subs, imagine that.

There is one aspect of my life where the dinosaur tag does sit pretty comfortably. Watching television.

It may seem odd to many people, but my viewing habits are largely based on the TV schedules.

Programmes sit unwatched for weeks, often months, on my recorded list (still refer to it as videoed or taped), even series that have had me gripped for a few episodes before missing one for some reason.

And the same is true of my Netflix subscription. There’s a lengthy list of (reasonably) carefully chosen films and programmes. Just rarely get round to watching them.

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something right about the pace and routine of watching a series in weekly instalments rather than in one or two binges (usually late at night).

Even when there’s nothing on – Tottenham v Rochdale and the inane witterings of Robbie Savage (the personification of the trend to celebrate the inept) in the background is as good a reason to tap away here rather than delve into the delights of Netflix.

And if there’s one thing guaranteed to stop me from choosing that glittering box set, it is being told by any number of people that ‘you just have to watch it’.

Which is why that present of the first few series (that’s series, not season – one for the style guide) of Breaking Bad remains unwatched on DVD and Netflix.

And the box sets which will get me rambling in evangelical fashion (The West Wing and The Wire) were first watched, usually late at night in both cases, on TV and repeatedly on DVD. Not long completed a trawl through both terms of President Bartlet and the streets of Baltimore provided refuge on the journey around Africa.

But maybe times are changing. The dinosaur may just about be catching up with, well, catch up.

Long way to go on Game of Thrones (still in series two as keeps vanishing off Now TV, picked up on a free offer that seemed a good idea) and could well wrap up the first two series of the excellent Detectorists in the next few days – somehow only caught excerpts on initial showing.

And finally got round to watching Stranger Things. It took a while – the first episode watched before the second series had even started before watching every episode over the course of several weekend evenings.

Very good it was too and suggest the third series will be watched as it happens. Or somewhere close.

While much has been written about the music of Stranger Things as a bit of a nostalgia fest, not sure many of the 1980s offerings on the latest stroll through the A-Z journey on my iPod were to be heard on our visits to Hawkins (although an awful lot of my ’80s nostalgia does involve Winona Ryder).

Don’t remember too much by The Smiths (Girlfriend in a Coma), Half Man Half Biscuit (God Gave Us Life and Give Us Bubble Wrap) or The Wedding Present (four versions – live, Peel session, acoustic and original – of the still wonderful Give My Love To Kevin) soundtracking things the right way up nor upside down.

The latest section took us from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to… well, more Neil Young and Crazy Horse (well, the Sex Pistols’ song of the same name to be totally honest but the neatness appeals). and spanned the decades beyond the 1980s – from The Beach Boys (God Only Knows), the Pistols through Blur (Girls & Boys) and Black Box Recorder (Girl Singing In The Wreckage) to last year’s Travel Marmot album of the year by Public Service Broadcasting (Go To The Road).

But the two highlights came from the mighty John Grant. Impossible to pick which of Glacier and GMF to include on the playlist, so they are both there.

Enjoy. Just be aware, GMF does stand for what you think it might.

Been called worse.

  • *Not the last
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The Enemy to Everybody Knows

THE last entry’s diversion from the direct A-Z route through my iPod, travel and the standard ramblings of this blog into politics and the point of protests elicited a range of responses.

It was largely positive and addressed some of the key points raised from the opening weeks of President Trump’s stay in the White House (and wherever he has popped off for a long weekend playing golf) .

So let’s address those key issues one by one.

  • The Queen Is Dead is the best Smiths album. This one has been argued at length over  more than a few pints and, whatever the merits of their eponymous debut album – its most common competitor – as a complete work from start the finish (the mark of a truly great album), The Queen Is Dead cannot be beaten.

Hatful of Hollow does have its supporters (including one very welcome regular reader who stated its case again) and it is a selection of excellent songs.

But that’s what it is rather than a coherent body of work or a studio album meant to be treated as such.

Let’s not get started on The Bends v OK Computer.

  • President Trump’s dismissal of somebody who dared to disagree with him over his travel ban as a ‘so-called judge’ brought to mind a certain type of person equally as keen on sharing their opinion while trying to silence any contrary ones – the local newspaper letter writer.

Nowhere else do you see the phrase so-called used quite so often – so-called councillors (regardless of any election result), so-called expert (well, yes… that’s probably why they were quoted, it’s a way of avoiding fake news), so-called doctor (yep, seriously had that one a lot) and so-called journalist, especially in the midst of complaints about something not included due to legal reasons (what with all that so-called legal training people don’t seem to accept journalists go through to distinguish them from the keen amateur).

My favourite of all the letters placed on pages (or consigned to the trash) over the years was the one which escalated through a list of so-calleds until it hit pay dirt by describing someone as a so-called person…

Fake news indeed

  • This blog will not fall into the same lack of respect with somebody’s title, it is not Trump it is President Trump. Fascist, loofa-faced, shitgibbon yes (to quote Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach), but always President. President Fascist, loofa-faced, shitgibbon.

He did, after all, win an election. Which brings us to…

  • The response which has become common place to anyone expressing a contrary opinion to the one which won any vote since last July – you lost, get over it.

Since the Brexit referendum (and if we are going to have another referendum, can it be to vote against the word Brexit?), it has become the standard response to anyone less than pleased by the outcome and unwilling to just shrug their shoulders and disappear.

To which the standard answer is no.

Elections, referendums, any vote are a snapshot in time. Yes one side usually wins on that day and we should work to smooth over any differences and work together to make that electoral decision work.

But it does not mean voicing opposition is ruled out by the result – UK elections come with the bonus of appointing an official opposition (of varying degrees of usefulness). One of the great things about living in a democratic nation and lands of the free is that it is positively encouraged, as opposed to stamped on in so many places.

A fan of President Trump

Refer you back to the last post and how voicing a contrary view is stamped upon in so many parts of the world (as witnessed by those looking over their shoulders and talking in hushed tones while sharing details of everyday life in Zimbabwe) while standing up and making your voice heard has proved far more effective a weapon of lasting change than violence over much of the last century.

And just because we don’t like the result does not mean we are necessarily trying to overturn it – yes, you won, most of us accept that, but who says we can’t have a say on what happens next? Especially when nobody can agree what winning actually means.

  • One final question which came from the last post: Will I be visiting America while President Trumpgibbon is in office?

The answer was swift and simple – yes. Why not? Especially now Sweden seems to be off the travel list.

Having given it more thought, however, it is not quite that simple and why it was asked makes sense.

But whatever the thought processes and reasons for not going under President Trump, they are outweighed by a couple of simple facts – it is, despite so much of what we are seeing on the news (fake or otherwise), a wonderful country crammed full of friendly, welcoming people.

It has lured me back time and again over the last decade or so on a series of holidays and journeys that have taken in 39 states (some more comprehensively than others) and there is so much unseen in the quest to complete the set – more on that to come in the next few weeks.

There are two weeks booked off work this summer and the long-awaited planning for my next trip is starting to look Stateside – where and how depends on what remains in the bank account when the final damage of my run-in with the taxman (thankfully, given this morning’s final form filling, almost over) is assessed.

Fenway Park, Boston

New ground into some of those 11 remaining states? Revisit some of the places which deserve more time? Or let the Red Sox schedule decide (basically, back to New York or Boston)? Possibly, given the early flight prices, a combination of a couple of those.

Whatever the choice, there’s no intention of boycotting President Trump’s USA. That’s if they let me in.

And if you need any greater argument of why it is a country worth visiting, just try some of the music from that part of the world which punctuated the last section of the A-Z on my iPod from Roy Harper to Ryan Adams, who sneaked in behind Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (from just over the unwalled border) having previously dropped in with two versions of English Girls Approximately.

We had some REM, albeit with Everybody Hurts – one of the handful of their songs which is really well known but which is nowhere near their best, although it is another which gave its name to a blog post – Ernest Borgnine by John Grant (no video as they all come with a very long and very rude intro) and Enfilade from At The Drive-In’s career highlight Relationship of Command (I’ll be the hyena, you’ll see…).

And, mixed in with quintessentially English moments from Harper,  The Jam (Eton Rifles) and Half Man Half Biscuit’s Evening of Swing (Has Been Cancelled), we had my current obsession Drive-By Truckers’ tale of immigrants making a new life for themselves in America.

Which seems fitting.

  • One last point… that’s it for the politics, at least for now. Hopefully for a while, but that may be in the not so large hands of others.

Back to the normal bobbins next time.

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Cassandra Geminni: A Tarantism to Charlton Heston

SIX months after this part-epic, part-ludicrous journey through my iPod began and we have reached a biblical landmark – the momentous number 1,539.

History has largely ignored the figure 1,539 – the most interesting things which appeared to have happened that year are the first horse race at England’s oldest racecourse, Chester, Henry VIII contracting to  marry Anne of Cleves and Hernando de Soto introducing pigs into North America.

And 15.39 is normally about the time in the office when people start looking at their watches and wondering if another cup of tea is really enough to get them through to the end of the work day.

Whether he is wearing a vest is unknown...
Whether he is wearing a vest is unknown…

But on this A-Z musical odyssey, Stump took the revered number 1,539 spot with their quirky 80s indie classic Charlton Heston which marks – at least until some more tracks are added – the 10,000 to go point.

(The landmark almost went, and perhaps technically does, to the equally-deserving Charlotte Street by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – and who can go against a song with the opening line “I was looking for a rhyme for the New York Times”? – but Cedarwood Road from the unwanted new U2 album sits up in the cloud, appearing only in faded grey in my iTunes and not at all on my iPod. And long may it remain that way.)

When this journey started, there were 11,235 tracks sprawled out in front of us and quick calculations had it taking a minimum of two years.

Since then, 304 non-U2* tracks have been added – it has been a fairly barren spell in terms of buying music, although expect a bit of an influx of new stuff in the six weeks before departing for 10 months on the road in Africa, when it is all likely to go very quiet on that front.

And that two-year minimum looks incredibly optimistic. With the current rate equating to roughly 3,000 tracks a year, that comes in close to four years – although there’s some long days on the road plugged into my headphones lying in wait for the next year.

So what other lessons have we learned over the past 1,539 tracks?

First, there’s a lot of stuff on my iPod which has passed me by, been ignored, somehow forgotten or simply overlooked. It has been great to rediscover tracks and their accompanying albums or to hear, sometimes for the first time, stuff which has been downloaded but ignored in favour of other new music picked up at the same time.

The majority of the A-Z journey has taken place while driving, while listening at home has then been the chance to investigate the stuff which has pricked my fancy along the way.

Sadly, there is also some stuff which has me shaking my head as to how it got there (although, slave to the rules, it has to be listened to).

Hence, The Cave by Mumford and Sons made it into the latest batch of tracks, courtesy of a brief (and mistaken) early thought they may be worth listening to during the loading of the iPod for a previous journey.

Perhaps not the place for Mumford and Sons. If anywhere is...
Perhaps not the place for Mumford and Sons. If anywhere is…

Annoyingly, as my laptop somehow became the main source of music, it seemed to be one album which several members of our group requested – although the elderly Russian woman in the carriage next to us on the Trans-Siberian railway seemed to have some taste when she complained about it being played too loud. Or at all. Hard to say.

The second lesson is that it is a mistake to look ahead to see what is coming up.

If there’s nothing that catches your eye, the whole thing can become a bit of a drag as you just try to get through the apparent barren spell. But if you spot one or two classics in the middle distance, they always seem to be a little bit further away than you thought and you are too busy waiting for them, rather than taking in the musical scenery as it hoves into views.

Besides, the song you have been waiting for will be gone far too soon. Far better to sit back and let it come as a pleasant surprise (that is when a working knowledge of what is in my collection has not already provided a few big clues as to what lies ahead).

The third discovery is that there’s a strange sort of “are we nearly there yet?” mentality which comes into play as you near the end of each letter.

The final 100 or so tracks become a bit of a burden as excitement grows for a brief arrival at the next destination and the fresh impetus provided by heading out on to the path through the next letter.

And the final lesson is that, six months in, this remains a good idea. It’s been fun, providing a real focus to my listening habits, as well as triggering plenty of memories and tales to tell in this blog (although really should start writing some of them down).

The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta

A previous attempt to do this – on a much smaller iPod and, with it, much smaller collection – hit the rocks when the five-song (A-E) Cassandra Geminni suite by The Mars Volta somehow blocked the road ahead.

For some reason, listening to this great block from the experimental half of the great At-The Drive In (who popped up in the latest section with Catacombs) seemed like too much of a task and the whole thing ground to a halt.

But this time, the whole chunk Geminni experience passed on a drive to work and we headed through a largely vintage section from acts we have seen before – early REM with Catapult, Sonic Youth from their best spell with Chapel Hill, The Lemonheads with Ceiling Fan In My Spoon, the mighty Sugar with Changes, Ceremony from New Order and The Wedding Present’s fine cover of Cattle and Cane (for some reason, no sign of The Go-Betweens’ original).

The Smiths’ just missed out on number 1,500, an absent e meaning Cemetry Gates had to slot in behind Cemetery Polka by Tom Waits, while we had two outings for The Cure, Charlotte Sometimes and The Caterpillar.

Both Cure tracks took me back to my teenage years – when they were one of the few bands the disparate musical clans in our sixth form could agree to listen to – but for all of The Caterpillar, my mind was occupied by a snatch which sounds remarkably like Light & Day/Reach For The Sun by The Polyphonic Spree.

We’ll get there. Eventually…

*Just as this paragraph was being written, I Will Follow by a very young U2 (ie back when they good) came on the radio. Why couldn’t they just leave that early stuff as their legacy?

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The Boy Done Wrong Again to Broken Household Appliance National Forest

A LATE change of travel plans put me in a sweltering New York for July 4, 2010, having opted to leave the dwindling number of my overland travel companions still in Boston.

Back in Boston, my former colleague, housemate and fellow traveller Nick was heading out on an Independence Day pub crawl in the company of a Birmingham City fan he had bumped into at our hostel sporting a vintage Whitesnake T-shirt.

My night ended looking after an emotional Aussie somewhere in Brooklyn in the early hours, way too late considering the time a hire car was due to be collected.

Nick’s night ended with him getting married.

Not immediately. This is not the tale of an Englishman abroad waking up to find he had stumbled drunkenly into an all-night wedding chapel with a girl he had just met.

But four years on, Nick and Sufia – the girl who had serenaded ‘Whitesnake’ the night before, recognised the same T-shirt 24 hours on and struck up a conversation with the English bloke at the bar – tied the knot this month.

The Big Moment
The Big Moment

After plenty of transatlantic comings and goings, red tape and a crash course in visa requirements, they became a married couple in Charleston, South Carolina, which turned up the heat, humidity and enjoyment to the maximum.

Charleston is one of those American cities built on its past with a well-preserved historic region.

Some of those cities seem to seal off such areas hermetically and appear to feel just being old (by US standards) makes them historic without worrying too much about whether anything happened to put them in the history books. Almost like staying in a US history theme park.

But Charleston genuinely does offer history and a striking downtown area, which also manages to come across as a living city – helped by a healthy student population – and provides plenty to see and do before and after dark, without constantly feeling ye olde touriste guide is going to pop up to tell you about somebody born on this spot that nobody outside the state has heard about.

It is also an ideal spot for a select group of transatlantic guests who gradually congregated as the wedding week went on, reaching peak numbers for the ceremony itself.

Headline News
Headline News

And so, for any locals paying attention, a growing number of Brits could be seen sweating their way around town under the blistering sun, making full use of the hotel lobby’s soothing air con and bottomless supply of fruit-infused water, puzzling over a mysterious quacking noise, leaving their bag in a taxi (safely returned), losing their wallet while shopping (not returned), falling asleep in a bar (two of those last three may have been the same person), testing out the best way to eat eggs in a range of breakfast spots (don’t ask for them dippy), convincing barmen to plug their phone’s music into the PA, confirming that all the bars closed at 2am and, for more than one of us, sleeping off the after effects of the rehearsal dinner as the main build-up to the wedding.

There may even have been some salsa dancing at some point, but that’s as blurry as many of the selfies which were taken.

Which all paved the way for the wedding itself, an early evening, outdoor affair in the grounds of the 19th Century William Aiken House, home to the ceremony and the initial celebrations as US and British cultures came together (one seems more comfortable in front of a camera and audience).

The evening moved on – until that seemingly magical 2am Charleston cut-off – at the adjoining American Theater, an old-style converted cinema which hosted a live band which provided the soundtrack to a memorable evening and the backing for the would-be singers to climb on stage, including the bride’s version of Don’t Stop Believing backed by her new husband on drums.

A lovely way to round off a wonderful week before, over the space of the next few days, goodbyes were said and we headed off, either home or to a brief bout of further travelling.

My second week took me down the coast (of which more in a later post) to Savannah, Georgia and, via a figure of eight, up to Wilmington, North Carolina before heading back to a flight home from Charleston via Newark and a rather fortuitous upgrade to business class (again, more to come).

The soundtrack to that second week contained the customary frustrations of US FM radio – no sooner have you found a station worth listening to than it fades out and you have to go searching for something else.

My iPod supplied a welcome break from all that but not with the A-Z challenge, which took a break for the fortnight after reaching 1,200 with Broken Household Appliance National Forest by Grandaddy.

SophtwareIt’s a great track, but it is one of those which somehow sounds so much better when listened to as part of the album which gave birth to it, in this case the excellent Sophtware Slump.

One of the tracks which popped up just before heading up was The Boy With The Thorn In His Side by The Smiths, which also appeared late one night amid a slightly indie 80s playlist which mixed with those mysterious quacking noises on a rooftop bar in Downtown Charleston. Great company, great music, great setting.

The Cure popped up multiple times (both on the rooftop and out on the road), as did Echo and the Bunnymen (rooftop only) and they both appeared on the A-Z with, respectively, Boys Don’t Cry and two airings of Bring On The Dancing Horses.

Belle & Sebastian kicked off this section and reappeared with their classic The Boy With The Arab Strap (now safely reclaimed from ubiquity from its spell as the theme for Teachers), while Paul Simon popped up both solo (The Boy In The Bubble) and alongside Art Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water also covered by Johnny Cash.

An excellent little run also included three versions of Bring The Noise by Public Enemy, two of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop, Breed by Nirvana, the guilty pleasure which is Brilliant Mind by Furniture and three outings for Brassneck by The Wedding Present.

Which seems fitting.

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