November Music #3

November 2005 – “The fast rise and fall of the South” LP by The Kingsbury Manx

This blog post is slightly different to my normal blog posts. Regular readers will realise why pretty soon. New readers are recommended to read some of my other more conventional posts – possibly the two previous November Music posts. Thanks for reading, folks

There’s a few aspects of Tim that I’ll never forget. His North London accent, his cheeky phrases that somehow slipped into the vocabulary of my wife and myself, and his date of birth which was 8th December 1980. I’m not likely to forget that one in a hurry. My wife first met Tim through a church trip – our church supported an organisation called Teen Challenge which helps young people with their addictions – usually drugs or alcohol – and a group of TC ex-addicts went on a trip to Big Pit, a coal mining museum in Blaenavon and my wife went along and that night was talking about this really “in-your-face” Londoner. We attended a few other meetings and saw Tim a few more times and knew that he was looking for a place to stay in Newport, so we offered to take him on as a lodger in our spare room and he moved in around September 2004.

He was 24 when he lived with us and had had quite a life already for such a young age. We never found out much of the full story but he’d not had a good start to life and had slipped into a life of drug addiction and crime around his home town of Watford, so much so that when he was first incarcerated a local policeman said that there was a distinct drop in the crime in the area – he’d been a one man crime wave. He’d been through Teen Challenge’s centre in Swansea and was now clean of any addictions, and part of the agreement we made with him to stay in our house was that he had to remain clean at all times – no cigarettes, no booze and definitely no drugs. We had a ‘three strikes and out’ rule and he agreed to that. He moved into our spare room and we redecorated it for him and he made himself at home there. He also made himself known in our church too – he joined the worship team as a singer and was a forceful personality on stage there. I was one of the two guitarists in the worship team and it would frequently turn into a battle of divas in rehearsals between Tim and whoever was leading worship – sometimes Maria and sometimes Gary. They each had their own styles of worship – Maria more traditional and worshipful, Gary more contemporary Christian rock – and as de facto “musical director” I had to adjust the musicians to what they each wanted to perform. Throw Tim into the mix as well and there were fireworks. Arguments and sulks were normal in rehearsals and usually I had to sort them out.

Tim settled quickly in our house and we made him part of the family – he was invited to family meals and outings. He was a charmer and everyone loved him – he really was the archetypal cheeky chappy. He had a job working at TC’s local office and had a good relationship with the pastors in a couple of local churches. He wanted to learn the guitar so I gave him some lessons and we bought him a lovely electric guitar starter set for Christmas and he was pleased as punch with it. Tim came with baggage though. There was his past, and there was his benefactor. This benefactor had financed Tim’s progress through Teen Challenge and offered advice to him which was frequently at odds to where we were trying to guide him. Around February 2005 his benefactor took him to Hong Kong for a few weeks and when Tim returned he spent a night in Watford before coming to Newport, and my wife and I knew something wasn’t right. He went straight to bed, sweating and shaking and said he had flu and jetlag. We suspected it was something else he’d had – a hit of heroin probably- but he strongly denied it. But once he’d had a taste again he returned to his old ways. I found some tobacco and rolling papers in his room and had a row with him about it – we were both anti-smoking and it was one of the conditions of him staying with us that he didn’t smoke – indeed it had taken a long time to find an insurer for our house with him (an ex-criminal remember) as our lodger and our premiums were sky-high and they had stipulated no smoking, so I was furious with him. Another time not long after this we were in church rehearsing and halfway through a song he ran up to me, said “I’ve got to go, I’m meeting Steve, I’ll see you later” and as he spoke to me I could smell alcohol on his breath. He came home late that night, breaking his 9pm curfew, and was steaming drunk, trying to kick our front door down when we wouldn’t let him in. In the end he slept on the duvet that covered our rabbit cage under our balcony behind the house.

That was about the final straw – that was his third strike and we gave him notice to leave. I helped him find a flat not far from where we lived and his benefactor offered to pay his rent and help him, while we thought Tim should get a small job to pay his way and try and keep him straight. On his own Tim returned to his old addictions and we tried our best to help him, suggesting he go back into rehab or disentangle himself from his benefactor but that didn’t happen. One night in September 2005 we visited his flat and he was so drunk and out of control that he tried to smash up our car and he damaged his hand by punching a wall in frustration and ended up in hospital that night and had his arm in a sling for weeks. We knew there wasn’t much more we could do by now. We’d seen items from his flat – the TV his benefactor bought, the old hifi I gave him, his guitar we’d bought for him for Christmas – appearing in Cash Converters, and he had moved from our church to another local one and was trying to find his way into their trust – we warned them but they didn’t listen, and they too were fleeced. Autumn darkened and my wife became pregnant with our child and now I had to protect them, so with sadness in our hearts we started to disassociate ourselves from Tim because he wasn’t just a danger to himself, but also a danger to the three of us.

—————–

Around the start of October 2005 I saw on the internet that YepRoc Records were issuing a new album by The Kingsbury Manx called “The fast rise and fall of the South” and if you ordered early they’d give you a three track CD with some album demos on it. I loved The Kingsbury Manx and believe they are my favourite band of the 21st Century. Their albums and songs have been with me and helped me through some good and bad times too, so I was more than a little excited. Not having much of an internet presence at the time, I asked Paul from the Cloud Minders to order it for me and I picked it up from his house on Wednesday 2nd November. He’d ordered it early enough to get the demos CD too, which was cool. I remember the day well because I took the day off work so I could set up the sound system at our church for a special musical evening. I played the LP about four times during the day so I was at that lovely point where the songs were just starting to establish themselves in my mind, certain lines and melodies were sticking.

And what an album it was. Their previous album “Aztec discipline” had been good but not brilliant. There had been a slight line-up change, the addition of keyboards and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. When it did work it was wonderous. The opener “Pelz Komet” was like having three songs thrown into one (like “Defecting Grey” by the Pretty Things, a favourite single of mine) and impressed me so much that I wrote to Tom Robinson’s 6music show to ask him to play it in his “Great LP openers” section – and he did too. “Dinner bell” has a special place in my heart, not just for it being a beautiful song but for the memories of the first time I heard it, but I won’t go into that here. If the best songs from “Aztec discipline” were combined with all of the “Afternoon Owls” EP it would have been a killer album. It was three quarters of a good album then. Between that LP and “The fast rise…” there was another line-up change, one of the singer / guitarists left (at least that’s how I understood it) and a member of Wilco helped with the production, and there was a new clarity to their sound, a delicious mix of acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, organs, mellotrons and more. It all sounded so natural.

The album opener “Harness and wheel” sets the parameters for the rest of the album – tricky time signatures and rhythms played with swing and ease. Someone is having troubles and the singer is sympathising – “We understand where you’re coming from – that’s what I heard…”. The song is lovely, there’s a kind carnival fun fair atmosphere, aided by a delightful Hammond organ part that emerges during the middle of the song. That’s one of the things I love about the album, the little details within the songs. And the “That’s what I heard… We understand where you’re coming from” repeats over and over, a vocal round digging into my brain. “And what fallout” is another odd time signature which seems to fall over itself – 5/8? – and there’s this little distorted noise to introduce the solo, with some vibraphones in the background too. It sounds like it shouldn’t work but it does. Details, details and more vocal rounds. “What a shame” is a slow piano led waltz but with words of a conversation between two lovers with a trumpet solo in the middle. Again, details. “Zero G” is like a slow motion film of a flower opening, organ and guitar gently strumming with drones – “We have us our own understanding”. Secret codes and secret moments. “I000 B” – and yes there is a reason for such an odd song title – could be Coldplay, if they were good. And American. The song rolls along gracefully and could be a single. The lyrics are enigmatic, intriguing images – “There’s likely sinners swimming together now”, “Can’t you tell the world’s moved on?” – and once the singing is done, there’s mellotron flutes entering (have I mentioned that “Village Green” era Kinks seem to be an influence? I’m thinking the flutes on “Phenomenal cat” here. And on the inner sleeve a member of the Manx is seen perusing the gatefold sleeve of the “Lola” album). Then the band let go and jam on a riff, getting noisier and looser. “Snow angel dance”, “Greenland”… How many times can I say ‘delightful’? The former has more tricky time changes but they flow naturally into each other and the lyrics hint at bitterness but who’s to say? It’s all over within two minutes but there’s so much melody packed into those 120 seconds to shame most other bands. “Greenland” is a “land of temptations and sleep deprivations” and is washed in Leslie-tone organs and dreams of escape.

“900 years” is another favourite – a simple piano, bass guitar and organ, with some guitar strums too, and layers of harmonies and “bom bom bom” vocals. And words that sound daft but work in the context of the song. “They lied to me, don’t let them tell you how it’s going to be” is one of those perfect opening lines which set up enigmas. “Aren’t you the one holding on for something you won’t have?” also struck a chord with me. “Ruins” speeds past in a blur with one of those lovely ascending vocals the Manx throw into their songs from time to time and very Simon and Garfunkel acoustic guitar parts, then a groovy little coda with little piano and guitar notes. Details details. “Nova” is more considered – some lovely phased electric piano and organ, and an instrumental chorus which falls over itself. Actually I may have neglected this song a bit, this is better than I remember it. By now I’m usually in a hurry to get on… That slow psychedelic coda to “Nova” works well too. (That’s a trick the Manx would repeat to great effect on their latest LP from earlier this year.) “Oh no” is about kitchen appliances coming to life and people hiding from them. Yes really. You probably couldn’t tell though. “Animations”… OK this needs a new paragraph.

“Animations” is one of my favourite songs ever, and it’s so simple yet hard to describe. A mid tempo lope with an easy ascending chord progression, but such a gorgeous melody and arrangement during the verse – acoustic guitar and banjo, on a base of organ, with little piano additions, drums held in check for the verse then it all kicks off with a simple smack of the snare drum, and the instrumental chorus begins and there’s a spring and a bounce and the roof is raised and I just feel like dancing and smiling. But that only lasts for one repetition before the second verse, similar to the first, then the chorus returns and it’s just as joyous as first time, and this time the gorgeous chorus goes on and on only with more instruments added – more mellotron strings, more guitars, and such a splendid single hit of a crash cymbal (at 2:57) for no real reason. Oh God this song is so good. It takes a lot – and I mean A LOT – to make me dance but this song always gets me up. I’ve played it at home, on headphones on journeys, in kitchens where I’ve been cooking and every time it has put a smile on my face and a spring in my step. And yes I have danced around a few nursing home kitchens to this song. AND I DON’T CARE. It is a joy and a pleasure to hear this song and it is like an injection of endorphins into the system. Have I done this song justice? Probably not. The album closes with “Ol’ Mountainside”, a song with more enigmatic lyrics – “We’re such a lonely blind quartet”? – but still wonderful, and the song stretches out as another jam as a strange keyboard shrieks and threatens to take over the song. A curious end but a fine one.
If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a list of my top 20 favourite albums, “The fast rise and fall of the South” would be in there. And even if someone didn’t put that gun to my head, that album would still be there.

—————–

So back to where we were on that day in early November. I’d played the album a few times while setting up the sound system for the music evening in the church. I’d expended blood, sweat and tears to set up a PA system that was useable by a number of different acts, from Gary’s full band to solo singers with backing CDs and others. The usual PA at the church wasn’t that good so I’d worked hard to get it all sorted by around six pm. The mixing desk had no reverb on it so I’d patched in one of my guitar effects boxes to overcome that problem, and I was quite pleased with that. At that point Gary walked in with his own PA and proceeded to set it up, telling the other performers they should use his system and ignoring all my hard work of the previous hours. I was absolutely gutted and spent a little time kicking the wall in the toilets. At that point the chorus of “Harness and wheel” came back to me – “We understand where you’re coming from”. I felt a little better, taking comfort from the song, and ended up singing that line all evening. I ran Gary’s PA and kept it all going nicely. We had a good crowd turn up for the music evening and my wife came along, looking tired as she was starting to feel the effects of her pregnancy.

And Tim turned up halfway through the evening. He was roaring drunk and in no fit state to do anything. Nobody was expecting him to be there, but everyone was shocked and distressed by his demeanour and behaviour. He was loud and aggressive, shouting at people and being utterly boorish. After insulting one of the elders of the church, a few of us had had enough and we escorted him out of the building.

A few days later he turned up at my father-in-law’s Bonfire Night party. I’d walked there straight from work, still listening to the Kingsbury Manx LP and it was now settling into my system. It was a good evening, there were plenty of people at the party, the fireworks were fine and that evening started the tradition of catherine wheels getting stuck and setting his fence on fire. And Tim was there too, sober and on his very best behaviour and very apologetic for what had happened a few nights previously. Oh and he’d spray painted his hair dayglo green. That was one of the last times we saw him.

Over the next few months we saw less and less of Tim. He left Newport before our son was born, heading back to Watford. He left his flat in a terrible state and with a huge outstanding balance to pay. His benefactor was still trying to guide his life, but even he couldn’t control Tim. We lost touch and we would hear stories from other people about his whereabouts – he was on the streets in Watford, he’d been caught stealing from shops in Bristol, he was in Cardiff. Sometimes we would receive letters from him, alongside forms to arrange visits in prison. He admitted that his benefactor had been a terrible influence on him, and he had had heroin that one time returning through Watford. We pleaded with him to return to rehab but he seemed too proud or stubborn to go back there Around 2010 the letters stopped, and we’ve no idea where he is or what he is doing. But I still think of him and wonder where he is – whether he is alive or dead or somewhere in between. In the words of Bob Wratten then – where are you now? Wherever you are I hope you are happy and I hope that life is being good to you.

God bless you Tim, wherever you may be.

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