Thursday, 9 December 2010


Following the release of their award winning single ‘Wires’, Athlete shot to fame. To date it remains their most recognised song. That’s not to say they weren’t already acknowledged artists. Their debut album Vehicles and Animals itself was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and a platinum seller, not a bad feat at all from a new band struggling for a foot hold in an increasingly hard music climate to break into.

Following the commercial success of their second album Tourist (which headed the UK Albums Chart in the first week of its release in 2005), it seemed they were destined to be subject of slate from music critics and general snobs. Like many bands before, and many bands in the future, they were unable to turn their commercial success into critical acclaim and have indeed been chucked into the group of bands merely described as ‘middle-of-the-road’, joining the likes of Starsailor and Keane.
Brig Music caught up with drummer Steve Roberts who feels the criticism was unjustified. “Every album we’ve tried to do something different and we’ve attempted a different sound but I don’t think a lot of people choose to see that”.

Perhaps the biggest change in sound between albums was between that of their debut album Vehicles and Animals to the more sombre Tourist, it also gained significantly more radio time. There was a much lighter electronic bubbly sound surrounding the Mercury Music Award nominee Vehicles and Animals which they’ve never since be able to replicate successfully.

It was a big change in attitude from the press. In just four years following the success of Vehicles and Animals which did seem to get a balanced response from public and press. Fresh sing-along indie tunes such as El Salvador and Westside, neatly accompanied by an electronic vibe throughout the album did offer a lot of promise for their future. However, following the release of Tourist which saw them being viewed as one of many British ‘bland’ bands, they’ve never been able to detach themselves from it, and seem happy enough not doing so.

Their previous two albums, Beyond the Neighbourhood and Swan Song have seen single success with ‘Superhuman Touch’ and ‘Hurricane’ generating radio air time, however, there’s very little deviation from the sound. Catchy three minute sing along choruses have become their forte and ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ appears to be the ideology they’ve adapted.

This does bring into question the ambitions of such bands that seem content to plod along the middle of the road making the most of what they can produce. They’re latest release is a collection of their all their singles between 2001 to 2010, which is currently being accompanied by a nationwide tour to promote it. It must be said however, that due to pressures from record label’s accountants, many bands are rushed to produce marketable content, something Roberts was critical of. “It’s a fact of matter that once your on the accountant’s spreadsheet, then you’re always under pressure to release new material – which has been the downfall of many bands in the past”.

The band have however achieved significant success State side, an achievement many more renowned bands haven’t been able to boast. The ability to crack the States is something that has evaded the likes of Oasis and many others, however isn’t an easy thing to do. Roberts said, “it’s very different from being successful in Britain. For starters, it might take you a couple of weeks to play a nationwide tour in the UK, in America it could take you several months to cover. You’ve then got to worry about gaining airplay on significantly more radio stations than in Britain”.

Despite their apparent inability to escape the shadow of their previous successes, they still put on an impressive live show, which does brag an atmosphere of enjoyment and gives off a vibe of a band enjoying what they’re doing.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Does Aid Work?

Over the last 50 years, over $3trillion has been ploughed into Africa and its development. It remains the only continent to have become poorer in the last three decades. Based on this fact alone, it’d be easy to say ‘aid’ simply isn’t working.

We live in a culture dominated by theories that donating to Africa will help solve their problems and stop their plight. Western aid, given from a sense of pity, is very difficult to challenge. How can you fault someone who tries to help you, especially when our first experience of aid resulted in such a positive outcome (The Marshall Plan in 1945)? Unfortunately, when it comes to Africa, things are never as simplistic as they would be anywhere else – in fact, Zambian author Dambisa Moyo argues aid essentially disadvantages Africa, and with good reason too.

In her book ‘Dead Aid’ she essentially two major reasons aid in Africa doesn’t work.
Unlike other historically successful aid interventions like the Marshall Plan, aid in Africa will always be needed such is the extent of the problems, therefore its continually in need clearly making development unsustainable.

Perhaps most importantly is the fact aid money often doesn’t go into productive causes and consequently corrodes the incentives system in many African countries (Ethiopia and Uganda, for example). Aid is essentially "free money"; therefore, governments do not see the need to generate revenue by growing their economies. Why work with local entrepreneurs when you can always go cap-in-hand to beg the white man stemming sustainable development. As the old saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In this context, should you continue to feed African governments, they’ll continue to take, knowing they’ve got cod for dinner all week.

The aid-driven development model, as Ms. Moyo argues, has not and will not deliver economic growth. The money is simply misused by governments. Her solution? Stop donating. It seems like a shocking heartless response however it would teach many governments to become more self-reliant and use what money they have more sustainably. The major downfall of her solution is that the short-term consequences of this would simply be catastrophic. The effects would be that the less advantaged and most under privileged would certainly lose out and many deaths would occur across the whole of Africa.
Aid has created something of a vicious circle. Because governments simply assume there will be a continuous stream of aid trickling into their pockets, many chose to neglect developing and sustaining many social services – leaving charities to pick up the slack. Similarly to aid, this also can have a negative knock-on effect as governments won’t address this issues in the future a third party is attending them.

There are other solutions all of which have pros and cons. Donating to charities that directly do grass roots work in Africa is often a very productive use of funds, however, you often have to accept only a percentage of your money will go towards what you’ve donated to – and the rest might seep into the corrupts hands, the question is, is it worth accepting that so that someone disadvantaged might receive the majority of it? This again comes back to the ‘Dead Aid’’s solution to simple turn the tap to stop aid trickling into Africa. But then who really loses out?

A very complicated complex argument, which still has no flawed solution I’m sure you’ll agree!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Alive and Kicking

Sub-Sahara Africa is the poorest region in the world and was ravished by the HIV/AIDS virus. The only continent to have become poorer over the last three decades, Africa suffers from mass unemployment. 64% of Zambia’s 12 million population earn less than the equivalent of one US dollar a day – which in turn causes a whole series out various problems relating to social development. However, there is one organisation that is determined to offer its workers well above minimum wage in good working conditions. Alive & Kicking is a football (and netball and volleyball) production enterprise, offering disabled and HIV/AIDS infected workers the chance of decent income and an escape from their desperate situations. I came to find out about Alive and Kicking through the two Sport NGOs I’m working with out in Zambia. EduSport and Sport In Action both purchase their footballs from Alive and & Kicking. Our equipment cupboard at the house is packed to the rafters with their products. Each ball proudly displays their logo, a warning of the dangers of malaria and their real signature, the writing ‘Against child labour’ around the ball’s air supply. A massive fan of their ideals and interested to find out more, I managed to organise a meet with their Managing Director, Chad. We spoke for a while, about Alive and Kicking, and also about the IDEALS project I was proud to be apart of. Each stitcher has the aim of making 3 balls a day – which doesn’t sound a lot, but Alive and & Kicking balls are of the highest standard. Even in the terrains of the compounds the IDEALS students operate, the Alive & Kicking balls are hard wearing and do not fall apart – something more famous production company’s products could be accused of. I sat with Chris, one of the stitchers (pictured below). He told me about his average day at the stitching centre, located at ZamLeather, Zambia’s biggest producer of leather.

All of the stitchers seemed to enjoy their job and enjoyed a good standard of living, all of which is of course relevant to the country in which they live. It was a pleasant environment to be around and seemed nice enough to be working in. There was a good atmosphere and additional activities were encouraged by the management. The workers were very enthusiastic about their work football team, playing every Saturday morning in a league. There are reasons to remain optismistic – since their company’s birth, they’ve created over 150 jobs for Africans. Despite their American managing director, they stay true to their roots boosting of the fact their products are: made by Africans, in Africa for Africans on their company t-shirts. Through their work, they’ve targeted over 40,000 children with the intention of educating them about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. They’ve distributed over 300,000 footballs, netballs and volleyballs all together. You can order personalised footballs or organisations such as EduSport and Sport In Action can have a specific design for their required desires. Or you can simply buy or donate balls from their online shop. Friend of EduSport, a UK charity supporting the work of EduSport last week created a formal partnership with Alive & Kicking. Supporting their work and ordering ten footballs for their Go! Sisters world series to be held next year, Friend of EduSport are more than happy to give Alive & Kicking business.

Made in Africa, by Africa, for Africa – Alive and Kicking.

You can find out more about Alive and Kicking on Twitter (@ballsforafrica), Facebook ( or their website (

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Day I Caught A Bus To Meet Simon Fowler Of Ocean Colour Scene

To be published in Brig, March edition 2010

The Day I Caught A Bus To Meet Simon Fowler Of Ocean Colour Scene

In 1998, Stirling Castle was just one of thirty-six stops on Ocean Colour Scene’s arena tour of Britain. Their arena tour became the biggest selling arena tour of any UK band in that year.

They played three consecutive sold out nights in the grounds of the castle off the back of the unexpected success of ‘Moseley Shoals’ and ‘Marchin’ Already’ on the way to becoming one of Britpop’s greatest gems.

Six studio albums later and twelve years on, the band returned to Stirling to play the Albert Hall whilst promoting their latest album ‘Saturday’.

As I waited patiently through the Birmingham act’s sound check to meet with Simon Fowler, lead singer of the band, the significance of their latest tour struck me.

In a world of declining CD sales and ever youthful chart topping acts, here was one of the 90’s best discoveries, 21 years after their emergence, in the words of fellow ‘Britpoptorian’ Liam Gallagher just ‘f**king havin’ it”.

Although their three consecutive sold out nights at Stirling Castle might have epitomized the height of Ocean Colour Scene, when reminiscing, it certainly wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in their eyes.

“What I do remember is when we got there is that we were bitterly disappointed. I don’t know what we had imagined, but when you playing Stirling Castle, what you are actually playing is Stirling bloody car park! I don’t know if we thought we’d be playing ram parts or what!”

Despite this, the gigs marked what had been a dramatic change in fortunes for a band that just eight years prior, had been dropped by their record label and forced back onto the dole.

Things had originally started out well for the band with the release of the single ‘Sway’, however, when their record label was bought by the larger company Phonogram, conflicts sparked.

At the time, Phonogram were looking for their singed artists to be conforming to the then popular Madchester music scene which had been fronted by bands such as the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.

It was here that issues arose as the band had their own ideas they wanted to pursue, leaving their debut album a culmination of directions.

The album was critically and commercially deemed disappointing and the band fell into disrepute with Phonogram, leaving them with little to work towards and no outlet to project the songs they were writing.

However, there was never any doubt in the mind of Flower that they would eventually make the break through and 1993 saw the year it all changed for Ocean Colour Scene.

Paul Weller invited the band a support slot on some dates of his tour and then asked OCS guitarist Cradock to play on one of his singles. He later asked Fowler to accompany him with the vocals on his album Wild Wood.

This was the start of something big for the Birmingham band.

“He (Paul Weller) was a huge influence on us in the fact that he gave us confidence and made us realize we had more than just a hobby. Steve (Craddock) has been playing in Paul’s band since 1993 and I was the support act”.

With the money made by the support slot and Fowler and Cradock’s income, they were able to finance an outlet for their music.

Noel Gallagher, then lead guitarist and backing vocalist of a working-class Manchester band known as Oasis, was wrongly cited by the media to giving the band their break through when he invited the band to play a support slot on their tour as they exploded onto the Britpop scene having heard a tape of the band.

However, when I quizzed Flower over the early days of the band, he was quick to attribute any success to Chris Evans and Paul Weller.

“Chris Evans broke the band, it was almost 100% down to him. When we went on that tour with Oasis, no one came to watch us at all. Chris made us record of the week two weeks in a row and got the Radio One morning show and that was it. The album went in at number two (in the charts) and stayed there for 6 months”.

Although Flower was in little doubt the band would eventually make the break through onto the scene, he admitted the success of Moseley Shoals was unexpected.

“It was a complete surprise. We were making it for a Japanese label called Ponycannon and it fell threw at the 11th hour. There was only 15,000 albums made”

With songs such as ‘The Riverboat Song’, and ‘The Day We Caught A Train’, it was never impossible for people not to sit up and notice the band.

By the end of 1996, Moseley Shoals had sold 1.3million copies in Britain and the rest as they say is history.

The band went from strength to strength, following up their initial success with ‘Marchin’ Already’, and playing a supporting role at Knebworth in front of 250,000 people, a now iconic moment in British music.

The band have since added another six albums to their discography and still turn out to strong crowds.

Although the Britpop era made famous by the likes of OCS and co is but a lingering memory, the band’s popularity hasn’t wavered as they recently added a second night to Edinburgh Picture House having sold out so quickly.

In a career that’s spanned 21 years, produced six studio albums, seen the band play the likes of Knebworth and headline Stirling Car Park, it’d be hard to pick a particularly high point, but Fowler did his best.

“The Albert Hall (London, not Stirling!). Top of the Pops should have been one of our highlights but it wasn’t. The others mimed and I had to sing it live. We got there about 10.30am to sound check and then basically everyone else got off their face whilst I had to nervously try not to drink more than two pints. There’s about forty people in the audience and all your childhood dreams are crushed in front of your eyes!”

Fowler had just one piece of advice for hopeful musicians.

“Don’t listen to anyone older than you!”