James Blake, The Mercury and the future

Yesterday I heard a pundit talking about who might win the Mercury Prize. He mentioned James Blake in passing, not as a ‘proper’ contender like Bowie, but he said something interesting. Blake’s music could only have been made now, he observed. If you’d heard this music twenty years ago, he said, it’d have sounded like the future.

And that’s the thing. There’s great music all over the place –  Kwes or Goat or the riotous gloaming released by Blackest Ever Black to mention three off the top of my head. Naturally, there’s also a tonne of music that is just repeating what’s been done before, like a legal high with a molecule or two moved around. But something has changed.

I remember Martyn Ware talking about artists looking backwards instead of forwards. Imagine, he said, if Human League had made music that sounded like it came from two decades before – music from the 1950s? They’d have been laughed out of Sheffield. Everyone was looking ahead, using new technology and making sounds that propelled them out of their reality into something more adult, something further ahead: the future. The future was shiny, bleepy, better.

But is anyone making futuristic electronic music now?

No. Because there’s no point. There’s an understanding, even if we haven’t clocked it overtly, that the future is going to be worse than the past, or at least more complicated and probably more difficult and that’s not the easiest thing to turn into a tune. Futurism was about transportation and a belief in eternal growth, not reality. Derrick May and Juan Atkins made electronic music as a spaceship, a transporter, a time-machine that could move them forwards and outwards.

Congratulations to James Blake on his Mercury, and to everyone making music that doesn’t sound like the past or like the an outdated version of future. Forward the Now-ists!

Eine Kleine Musik

My friends at RBMA Radio have been locked away in a Berlin back room for over three weeks now, serving up ten hours of radio every day. I’ve come for the last two weeks of the pop-up radio station, which has turned a Kreuzberg Italian cafe into a musical magnet of sorts.

Berlin has become the central location for a  generation of artists who sit broadly within the descriptive realm of electronic music – which means a lot of local treasure. Even if it’s a lot of highly internationalised local treasure.

First day I was here I met Morphosis, aka Rabih Beaini who runs a label called Morphine. He is reissuing the work of a musician called Charles Cohen, who was one of the few people who used very early synthesisers, particularly those made by eccentric innovator Don Buchla. This was music made for experimental dance or theatre performances, but it sounds an awful lot like the music that Detroit musicians like Mad Mike, Jeff Mills and Derrick May would make some years later. Even the titles resonate with those of classic Motor City techno. Dance Of The Spirit Catchers is a Charles Cohen piece, but is interchangeable with UR titles like Hi-Tech Jazz or Journey Of The Dragons. The music is gorgeous.

Young Turks did a takeover of the station for the last two hours of the day, and included an interview with FKA Twigs. The music has a quality that marks her out as an innovator: it doesn’t sound like anyone else. Much is made of her distinct visual flair, which like the music, is confident, beguiling and seriously original. This is well worth a listen.

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A couple of days later we had a two hour special from the Hotflush label, who brought along one of their artists, Recondite. He’s a seriously serious man, both sartorially – all blacks and greys and minimalist glasses – and sonically. We played some of his music and talked about it, on air, in-between plays. On one, he described the music as coming from the perspective of a hawk, circling high up, seeing everything. He makes lovely music but should also be writing hard-edged, brutalist nature novels, like a Berlin-drenched Knut Hamson or Cormac McCarthy.

Leisure System, or more specifically Ned Beckett, came in yesterday. They run parties here in Berlin and have morphed over eight or nine releases into a record label, too. The thing they do really well is breadth, bringing together musicians as superficially distinct as Objekt and Gold Panda, and picking up brand new artists like Hubie Davison, like musical Manta Ray, scanning the ocean floor for buried treasure.

The final entry is for some music of the mouth. Yes, I got myself some classic Berlin fast food in the shape of gemuse kebap from Kottiwood, just down the road from where I’m staying at Kottbusser Tor. Yes boss!

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End Of The Road review 2013

Mostly, festival reviews are a bit pointless for those who didn’t attend. So I thought I’d try and do a bit of a round-up that makes sense, even for people who didn’t make it down to Larmer Tree Gardens for the loveliest weekend of the year.

It’s a good time for girls in bands

From Deap Vally to Warpaint to Rachel Dadd, female musicians were everywhere – and not just playing bass or singing. It seems that finally, it’s normal for women to play drums, or indeed whatever they want.

I had an interesting conversation earlier in the year with electronic music producer Patrick Pulsinger on this subject. He thinks that it’s the best time ever for girls to make music, and that this shift will be great for music too. His take is that the fact girls can just buy kit online, and can work it out for themselves without having to be embarrassed or intimidated by blokes in kit shops or music shops, is revolutionary. I think I agree.

Here are Warpaint playing a new song at EOTR on Saturday night.

Talking Heads songs sound great with a brass ensemble behind them

David Byrne did a headline set with St Vincent, playing the gorgeous songs they released on Love This Giant interspersed with some Talking Heads classics. The show was equally gorgeous, with the songs set to charming doll-dance choreography which saw Byrne and Annie Clarke flanked by a line of brass players. Even the Euphonium player was dancing, which must have been some feat. Naive Melody, aka the greatest love song ever written, sounded particularly beautiful in a Wiltshire field.

I couldn’t find any YouTube clips of this show, probably because the crowd heeded Byrne’s show opening exhortation to put down the devices and dance. But here’s one from elsewhere on the tour.

The food was almost as good as the music

I ate a blackcurrent and honey frozen yoghurt from the Hedgerow Deli that was like Bo Ningen on my tastebuds. Honestly, I know what John and Greg are on about now. Then there was the maple-smoked pulled pork and beans, and the two types of paella. I could actually do a whole festival review just on the food. Mmmmmmmmm.

Bo Ningen 

You can tell how amazing they were because no-one filmed them on their phones and put it on YouTube. OK, so that might be an exaggeration and no doubt untrue but that’s how it felt. The 15 year olds at the front lapped it up, as did the 50-something couple standing in front of me who declared it ‘completely awesome’. A very cool-looking middle-aged lady went up to the lighting guy afterwards and congratulated him on how he lit up the stage. She was right. When Yuki descended into the crowd and played his guitar upside down, or when Taigen swirled his guitar around like a hawk-handler might swirl meat, lighting guy was right there, picking out the best bits. They’re playing again soon. I advise you to go.

Here they are earlier this year at the 100 Club.

People who go to End Of The Road are proper music fans

EOTR is populated by proper music fans, whether they’re teenage kids or a fifty-something lady in a Patti Smith T-shirt, or festival regular Big Jeff who everyone seemed to know from bands on stage to kids wandering past the Rough Trade store. They’re all equal because they’re all into it. It’s surprising how surprising this is.

I’ve already got my ticket for next year.

Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican

Some things I learned from the Creat_ED ‘unconference’ at The Barbican.

1. Creat_ED exists because of an absence, that of Learning Without Frontiers. When the latter was cancelled, Creat_ED popped into existence in a foundational example of doing. You can read more about the genesis of the event here.

2. An ‘unconference’ is quite like a conference, but more democratic. In the case of Creat_ED, this meant a room up on the fourth floor of the Barbican, looking out into the jungly centre of the conservatory, where we were encouraged by host Eylan Ezekiel to comment, share and do.

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3. The opening speaker Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino made an interesting point that learning. It is, she said, ‘a community’ and spoke about some of the people who’d schooled her. It made me wonder: is it possible to curate your own teachers outside of the people you encountered at school? If I think about the people who really taught me something I’d include my dad, my Primary School teacher Mrs Skinner who got us dissecting lambs eyes (it was the ’80s, you could do stuff like that), and the music editor at Select Magazine who took to me to one side and explained exactly why my album reviews weren’t really working.

4. Deschamps-Sonsino also introduced us to her lovely Good Night Lamps. These are internet connected lamps that comprise a big lamp and little lamps. When the big lamp is turned on, the little lamps turn on, too. They’re designed to allow families, particularly those that live in different countries, to keep in touch, and it’s a very cute idea. Harpist and music educator Stephanie, who was sitting next to me, pointed out that the lamps would equally be useful to people who collaborate remotely. Musicians, for example.

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5. She rocketed through a number of other very cool items that could be described as part of the internet of things. These include the Little Printer which dispenses you cute receipt-sized, personalised printed content from your friends or through the apps you’ve selected on your phone and Molly, which gives you a gumball every time you get a retweet.

 

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6. Fred Garnett was one of the people who spoke up after Alexandra’s talk. He said we needed to move away from pedagogy – the act of teaching – and into heutagogy and andragogy. This involved some furtive googling on my part. The former means ‘self-determined learning’, the latter is about how to engage with adult learners. Follow Fred @fredgarnett to find out more.

7. Second speaker was Simon Raymonde, founder of Bella Union records and one-time bassist with Cocteau Twins. Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires remains one of my favourite records ever, but that’s beside the point. Raymonde started his talk with a tune by Bella Union’s John Grant, ‘GMF’. It’s safe to say that the average conference doesn’t involve playing songs which have a prominent use of the word ‘motherfucker’.

He told the story of how Midlake nursed John Grant back into physical and musical health through the making of his album Queen of Denmark and went on to cover the digital transformation of the music industry, and why people should be asking themselves ‘did I do something today to help a creative person?’. Then he ended on John Grant’s ‘Glacier’ which played all the way through to the final resonant note.

8. Stevyn Colgan was the third ‘provocateur’ or speaker. He joined the Met police after drunkenly signing a bet with his dad that he couldn’t last six months and ended up staying 30 years, eventually as part of the Met’s Problem Solving Unit. He told a though-provoking story about an estate in Scotland which had two football pitches for the kids, on either side of a dual carriageway – one of which wasn’t being used, and one of which had become a magnet for problems. He and his colleagues realised that there were actually three sets of kids – small kids who just wanted to kick a ball about, medium-aged kids who didn’t want to play with the small kids, and older kids who wanted to do their own thing. They solved the problems by spending £25 on white paint and creating two smaller pitches. Crime went down accordingly. The police, he said, are always focused on solving crime, when they should be focusing on the prevention of crime. “The people who know why a problem happens are the people who are causing the problem but no-one will talk to them because they’re the ‘bad guys”

 

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9. The Wall of Do was a space to share thoughts and requests, and had some good ideas on it. These included taking students out to Fab Labs and MakerSpaces, asking how to inculcate learning habits and loads more that escape me, but that fed into the afternoon’s workshop sessions.

 

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10. Creat_ED was all about risk, agility and making connections. There should be more like it.

#cultureclash

Last Wednesday was a momentous day. Obama was re-elected. Celtic won against Barcelona. And grime collective Boy Better Know beat Annie Mac, Major Lazer and reigning champs Channel One at the Red Bull Music Academy Culture Clash.

I jest, slightly.

Culture Clash was more than just an awesome night of sound entertainment, and I’ll tell you why. First, it’s the full and final confirmation that the British iteration of the Jamaican dancehall soundclash has been fully revived and revitalised. Secondly, it tells you a lot about the power and forward motion of grime. And thirdly, much like in the ‘90s when rave music was all over the charts, it means our current crop of teens are getting schooled in UK street-up music, which bodes well for the next generation of British musical hybrids – and indeed for British culture and society in general. Mainstream society might not recognise it as such but this is art.

The original Jamaican soundclash was a development of the way liquor store owners set up speakers outside their shops to bring in more custom. This turned into dances as we understand them: outdoor musical events where American R&B, and then new Jamaican music was played to appreciative crowds at loud volume. Rivalries ensued between competing sounds, which eventually turned into the soundclash, where two systems would be placed facing each other with the crowd inbetween and would take turns to play sets, with the people deciding the winner through the volume of their appreciation.

In the UK, it shifted and changed. It wasn’t possible to hold dances outside and most of the year it’d be too cold anyway. So the dance moved into community centres and the clash moved with it. Two sounds at either end of places like Pountley Hall, showing off their selections and their ‘specials’, big songs that had been re-vocaled by the artist to ‘big up the sound’ or diss a rival. I don’t know exactly when the soundclash died out in this form but it must have been at the point that single sound dances run by dons like Aba-Shanti-I or Jah Shaka took over, so perhaps the late ‘80s.

In the interim, there was silence. Well, that’s not exactly true. Soundsystem culture swung into the DNA of every new hybrid of UK street music since Lovers Rock, coursing through our version of house music, jungle, garage, grime and dubstep. But there was no clash apart from the grime MC battles so memorably recorded on the Lords of The Mic DVDs or perhaps in the shadows of the MCs waiting to get on stage at grime raves like Sidewinder determined to outdo the previous performer, or perhaps even in the idea of the b2b where two DJs would play together, five tunes on, five tunes off.

In November 2010 as part of the London Red Bull Music Academy (of which I was part – I’ve hosted interviews at the Academy since 2002) the clash was revived. DMZ, Metalheadz, Trojan, Soul II Soul went head to head in a supersized four-way clash at The Roundhouse. I’m easily pleased by this kind of thing but this was a night to convert even doubters. This was high-octane musical collaboration and abrasion at it’s finest. Metalheadz had Goldie dashing about on stage, DMZ frontman Sgt Pokes insulted everyone, Trojan drew for the original style dub reggae and Soul Jazz mixed up the selection. Metalheadz won. The following year four different sounds (reigning champions Metalheadz, dub specialists Channel One, Soul II Soul and Skream and Benga) stepped up with similarly energetic effects – and Channel One reigned supreme. This week, the whole thing moved up a notch or two. It was at Wembley, there were 7,000 people there including a swathe of 16-18s allowed by the lowering of the entrance age and the participants came from Radio One (Annie Mac’s AMP stage), from LA, with hitmaker to the stars Diplo aka Major Lazer, reigning champions Channel One and grime dons Boy Better Know. I hate to sound smug, but my money was on BBK right from the start because who knows better about battle styles than London’s grime MCs?

I’ll post some footage when it’s up.

BBK’s powerful, hilarious, no-holds-barred final round and eventual win says a lot about the healthy state of grime. Wiley is all over the charts and is packing out his Eskidance raves. Elijah and Skilliam’s Butterz empire has shifted instrumental grime into hyper-loaded jump-up rave territory but with brilliant tunes that nod to early grime instrumentals like Musical Mobb’s Pulse X and multiply them. JME’s ‘chatty policeman’ series on YouTube, where he films himself being (repeatedly) stopped and searched has many thousands of views. Grime is national, multi-ethnic and as open to ladies with the right flow as it is to the thousands of boys who step up their literacy by writing and practising bars every lunchtime. If the government wants to explain recent rises in literacy (according to NASUWT, not Michael Wilshaw) it might want to thank grime rather than the counterproductive literacy curriculum which gets results despite of rather than because of its impact.

So who’s for next time? There are some big names who have not yet entered the arena: David Rodigan; Jamaica’s multi-winning Stone Love team; the aforementioned Butterz; Lemon D and Dillinjah’s Valve Sound; a UK garage sound headed perhaps by revivalist DJ Oneman… this thing could run and run. And hopefully, it will.

Jay-Z, Nas and the Illuminati

An argument broke out yesterday down at LIVE Magazine, the youth-run website, magazine and Youtube channel where I work as editorial mentor. It all started because someone said that they couldn’t even look at Rihanna because of her ‘illuminati ways’ and before we knew it a 45-minute debate broke out across the banks of Macs.

Jay-Z wears illuminati clothes. He knows what he’s doing. He’s controlling the youth – he’s a big man, how could he not know what he’s doing? The illuminati run everything. They run politics and banks. Everything is organised, nothing happens by chance, and devil-worshipping illuminati are controlling hip hop in order to control the youth. Frank Ocean denying its existence only makes him more guilty. The only exception, it seems, is Nas – and if I told you why I’d have to kill you.

This is a discussion that comes up at least once a month and it’s done so for pretty much the entire five years I’ve been involved with LIVE. It’s perennial and perennially depressing because conspiracy theories alienate young people from democracy. What’s the point in voting when the illuminati really run everything?

There’s also a shadow of anti-semitism that runs through all illuminati rumours. I was reminded of how wrong these things can go (as if you need any reminding, with Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria and a terrifying ramp of examples of ethnic massacres) by that lovely long-haired Scottish man who does TV history shows and looks like that bloke that used to be Robin Hood in the ‘90s. He talked about Viking incursions into Britain a thousand years ago – and how in retaliation, King Ethelred ordered the slaughter of all Danes living in the country. These were just normal people. Danes who’d been living in England for generations. They weren’t Vikings, they weren’t a threat, they weren’t running anything or trying to control the population. They were Danes… actually, they probably thought of themselves as English, with Danish forefathers, and they’d been brutally cut down whilst running away, with the sword marks visible on their bones and skulls a thousand years later. Hatred, and in the worst cases, death is what really waits at the logical conclusion of the illuminati idea.

The world is way too complex for over-arching conspiracy theories to be true, although that doesn’t negate the reality of powerful people manipulating crises, currency and communities for their own personal profit. That’s not a conspiracy – that’s abuse of power.

Conspiracy theories are widely circulated through Youtube films that review film, music and even the Olympic opening ceremony through an illuminati prism. This is no longer just the domain of people who spend their evenings stuffing their lungs full of high-grade skunk. Ten years ago, as my twitter friend Tramshed3000 pointed out, only Wu Tang fans and arcane book geeks were into conspiracies. So why now? Conspiracies are a comforting blanket when faced with real disempowerment, unemployment, widespread anti-youth messages in the media, racism and a serious lack of autonomy – no-one asking people what they want for their schools or their jobs or their lives. I’m with Bonnie Greer, who made a speech entitled ‘yet the young lead’: maybe then conspiracy theories would dissolve back to the edges rather than the bizarrely central position they currently occupy.

Now, honestly, can someone explain why Nas isn’t illuminati? And ‘because he doesn’t worship Satan’ doesn’t count…

XL Recordings Documentary on BBCR1

The BBC are broadcasting a documentary about XL recordings tonight. It’s made by the extremely talented Becky Jacobs and is well worth a listen as Richard Russell’s label is one of the most influential we’ve ever had, right up there with Island, Factory and Rough Trade.

XL started out as a hardcore breakbeat label born out of the acid house explosion, releasing the music people started making when the Roland 303 acid bleeps faded out and breakbeats took over. They were there when Prodigy did their first gigs at rave chaos-pit Labyrnth and that signing bankrolled the label for the whole first phase of their life. Happily, and unlike other label heads, they chose to spend the money on more music rather than a big diamond watch and a Boxster.

There’s a million things you could say about XL: the way they shifted to bands in the early 2000s; the finely-tuned radar-ears that allowed them to sign Dizzee on the back of the I Luv U white label and allowed them to release Boy In Da Corner in all it’s pristinely raw-from-road honesty; the genius of re-releasing the first two White Stripes albums and getting Jack front and centre of their newly-expanded internationalist roster. And that’s only the half of it. All record labels go on about only releasing music they like but either a) some of them are lying or b) some of them like horrible music. XL have remained like that music loving person you know: slightly arrogant but pretty much right about everything, and hallelujah for that.

If you were to ask me which labels are doing the same thing now, I’d have one answer. The Rinse family of labels, events and radio. They’re connected to the roots of their culture in exactly the same way XL were, and to a pretty large degree, still are.

One way of ensuring that you stay relevant is to focus on the roots, not fruits of a culture, and XL are definitely in camp roots.

Info here.

Andrew Weatherall at Festival Number 6

I had the pleasure of hosting another conversation with Andrew Weatherall, this time at Festival Number 6. There was a sizeable crowd to see him, and there were laughs from the off – and some good heckling from a Glaswegian Love From Outer Space regular. Weatherall is always impressive and I could probably write reams and reams about why he’s so influential, but instead, I’d just like to leave you with a tiny nugget, right from the end of the session. We’d been talking about his BBC6Music radio shows, and specifically, the one where he played the music that made Screamadelica, a show that featured tunes from Can, ACR, Prince Far I and Isaac Hayes. What, I asked, might be on a show that explained the music that makes him right now? 

I’m paraphrasing but the answer is perfect, because it explains why he’s still as relevant now as he was when he and his pals started Boys Own back in the late ’80s. “I value authenticity over originality.” 

Or to put it another way, come as you are. 

 

 

You can see my interview with him at last year’s RBMA here.

Primal Scream, Port Meirion and Freedom of Speech

Primal Scream’s set at Festival Number 6 last night was unexpectedly impressive for a number of reasons: their epic showmanship, the way Bobby Gillespie makes the tambourine look completely rock n roll and the ten minutes of feedback, loops and retina-burning strobes at the end, for example.

The thing that really stood out for me, though, was about two tracks in. Bob was standing in the front of the stage, still skinny in black. “Clap your hands if you fucking hate the Royal Family” he said, banging the tambourine. And then he repeated it, a few minutes later.

Now I’m not saying I agree with him, because I’m towards agnostic when it comes to Mrs Windsor and family, but I admire his total and utter lack of self-censorship and it made me scan through my mental list of my favourite bands and DJs. Who else would say this in public? I came up with a sum total of zero. No-one.

And disagreeing with the monarchy’s only a minor thing really. But where are the people who are prepared to speak their minds? And how have we ended up in a situation where self-censorship is rife, even among our marginal music-makers?

I heard an interesting argument about this from Index On Censorship. “What’s more important,” they said. “My right to say what I want, or your right not to be offended?”

Basically, we need more people who are prepared to say what they think – and we all need to do a whole load of getting over ourselves. We’re adults in an adult democracy and we are allowed to have opinions even if other people will disagree. We some more Voltaire, who wrote ‘Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write’.

So next time someone offends you – say thank you. It’s a reminder that we live, more or less, in a free society.

There were loads of other brilliant things about Festival Number 6, but you’ll have to wait for that. I’m off to bed.

Banned! Music and The Opening Ceremony

You knew that last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be musically special when the first minute included Elgar, The Jam, the Eton Boating Song and Fuck Button’s ‘Surf Solar’, as the camera tracked from the source of the Thames down to the Olympic Park.

Fuck Buttons!

This is, by definition, the most mainstream event on the plant, and Fuck Buttons are there, right at the start as a wild and wonderful flag-waving celebration of what is real and wonderful about our world. Not built-by-numbers pop hits, but by a gorgeous, brutal piece of Andrew Weatherall-produced synth noise, a ‘Glider’ for this decade.

Underworld, who masterminded the soundtrack to the ceremony, subverted everything music is supposed to do at a showcase event like the Olympics. Instead of broadcasting pop hits that were built with profit in mind, or that smooth out the rough edges of life into a lowest common denominator average, they took the music not underground, because these were predominantly pieces of music we all know and love, but back to the margins, where all the most interesting things begin.

Along with the aforementioned Fuck Buttons, whose name is censored down to a more acceptable F Buttons on TV and radio, the show also included at least five pieces of music that were either banned at the time of release or that had a controversial relationship with the establishment. There was not just one Sex Pistols track, but two, starting with God Save The Queen and culminating with the pogoing punks with big heads going mental to Pretty Vacant, a song whose chorus is usually sung along to with particular focus on the last two syllables of the final word.

You can only imagine what David Cameron made of it. #savethesurprise? Ho ho, yes!

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ was intended by ZTT label co-founder Paul Morely as ‘an assault on pop’, an overt recognition of the band’s keystone reference points of sex, war and religion. Let’s not forget that the original ads for the release featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and leather vest and were accompanied by the legend ‘All The Nice Boys Love Sea Men’. As well having all the requisite rub points for an AIDS-bombarded youth, it was an awesome piece of pop music that cost producer Trevor Horn a reported £70,000 of studio costs.

Then there’s Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, the most commercial tip of an iceberg that started with hardcore and rave and their early shows at Dalston’s rave-mine Labyrynth and wheeled through jungle before ending up with the freak-faced hardcore pop of ‘Firestarter’. The video was banned by the BBC on the laughable basis that it might encourage arson.

I could go on, about the brilliant use of Underworld’s ‘Dark and Long’ (also used to soundtrack Renton’s worst hallucination in Trainspotting) or how grime was celebrated and showcased, or about how the athletes walked into the stadium to the sound of The Chemical Brother’s ‘Galvanise’ or about the twitter query that maybe, had the KLF organised the opening ceremony? (answer: there would have been a damn sight more blood and burning if they had) or just the whole, fantastic honesty of the thing. But instead, can I just say a heartfelt thank you to whoever let Danny Boyle and Underworld do whatever they wanted. It was an emotional, political, musical riot.

Just imagine, we could have had Gary Barlow in charge.

Fuck Buttons pic: mehan jayasuriya

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