Sandtimer Selects : The B-52s – ‘Legal Tender’

As live performances continue to be off the table for Sandtimer or, indeed, most bands across the world, releasing new music has started feeling a bit abstract. Without being able to get a group of people sitting in a room and focussing in, musicians are entirely dependent on the limited attention spans of millions of people browsing on their computers or phones- a good deal of which are also relying on the same device for an entire day’s work as well as the lion’s share of communication with their friends and family. It is not an ideal situation. After publishing our latest album Running In Sunlight at the end of last year, we’ve been writing and (remotely) recording some music that departs significantly from what we’ve done before. But it feels way too early to share, particularly as the new material is geared towards a live setting, and we will need to have a serious think about how to proceed with a future release.

In the meantime, what can a musician do? One thing I resolved to do a bit more of during this time and from now on was writing- about being a musician and about music- and maybe sometimes about life in general.

Anyway, here’s the first of a (hopefully) weekly blog about songs we like called ‘Sandtimer Selects.’ At the end of the post is a playlist with any music added to this category so far as well as one or two of our own tracks.

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It was a dark and dreary winter day in the UK’s second lockdown, some time in November. I walked to the local Co-Op to get a few things we’d run out of. A song I’d not heard before came on the Co-Op radio*. The message, a call to ‘roam around the world’ gave me a much needed lift and, when I got back to my flat a few minutes later, I searched the lyrics, found it and listened to it about five times in a row.

That song was ‘Roam’ by The B52s. It’s such an uplifting, concise song and is full of energy, optimism and escapism- three things that the continuing crisis really saps, if you were fortunate enough to have them before. The way Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson alternate between unison singing and some quite adventurous harmonies makes the dual vocals a fundamental part of the song rather than just a decorative feature.

It took me a few weeks to get round to listening to more of their stuff but, as I started delving into their catalogue album by album, it was an enlightening moment. Unusual, angular chord progressions, unique guitar tunings and deft, driving rhythms underpin the open and carefree vocal delivery of Wilson and Pierson. Fred Schneider’s spoken, often quite comedic vocal bark adds to the humour and jollity that the band seem to embrace. I do really enjoy the song ‘Love Shack’ but don’t think it represents the full depth and breadth of The B52s compared to some of their other music.

The song that I keep coming back to above all others is Legal Tender from the album Whammy. A haunting synth pad creates chiming harmonies, underpinned by motorik style drums and pulsing electronic bass. The guitar chords, when they appear, are beautifully sparse, marking out just the first and fourth beats. The structure of the song is quite hard to pin down- verses lead into what feel like choruses but then turn out to be more verses- and the phrase lengths have their own logic which probably wouldn’t make much sense on paper.

There’s almost a feeling of slight wistfulness created by the moves between major and minor, but a sense of hope too. It’s a song about printing counterfeit dollar bills. Somehow, though, it transcends that specific theme to more widely represent rebellion and resilience- someone learning to thrive in a system that is not working for them.

The video is entertaining and quite endearing. At 2:01 you also get a passing hint as to how Ricky Wilson tuned his guitar.

The song also kind of reminds me of Mario Kart 64- I don’t know why this is or even which level (Toad’s Turnpike? Rainbow Road?) but it is a positive association in my brain.

* I don’t know how the Co-Op curate their radio playlist but they seem to nail it- mostly good pop songs which have all too often faded into obscurity and which are uplifting without being saccharine.

RS

Happy New Year

A year is just a four digit number that helps organise time and chart seasons, but as we cross the invisible line into 2021, we send best wishes for the new year to you and thanks for all your support and friendship over last year.

2020 was difficult. It reminded us of the importance of compassion, kindness, friendship and connection. The song we’ve linked to below is our track ‘New Year Morning’, which I wrote on another January 1st a few years ago while freaking out about the future. It’s both anxious and hopeful. Happy new year!

https://song.link/s/4efnGeuGFVHTMMb815eg1M

The remembering self at the end of ‘the year of Covid-19’

As this ‘blog’, which is still finding the meaning for its existence, is supposed to be about music, I will reference a story recounted by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast And Slow. A man listened to a record of his favourite movement from his favourite symphony, performed beautifully by a world class orchestra. He sat there with his eyes closed, soaking in every note, overcome with emotion.

Near the end of this exquisite piece of music, there was a massive scratch on the record which cut through every frequency and gave the listener the shock of his life. When discussing it afterwards, he reported that he’d been enjoying the symphony until it was ruined by this horrible interruption. Even though he’d experienced 15 minutes of bliss, the 16th minute caused him to discount all of it. 

(A song to ponder this post to:)

It’s human nature to do this- to retrospectively cast memories in the light of what happens in the end. If an interview results in you getting the job, you will perhaps remember the hints of a rapport being established, the ease with which you relayed your experience and suitability for the role. If that same interview ended in rejection, the things you will think back on are those awkward silences- ‘did I overshare a bit?’, ‘did I laugh too loudly at that joke?’ and so on.

It’s an age-old conflict between the remembering self and the experiencing self- the two ‘selves’ that Kahneman talks about. Most of our experiences are defined by the narrative imposed afterwards by our remembering selves. We often forget to count the experiences that ran against that narrative.

The reference in this article’s title sums up the problem our ‘remembering selves’ now face, when ‘2020’ becomes shorthand for ‘the year of Covid-19’. It’s a year where personal difficulties and, for huge numbers, tragedies, have been manifold. Personal triumphs have been difficult to achieve- and have felt generally insensitive to celebrate- even as everyone sees another year added to their age.

I cannot think of a year of my life in which the significant elements of its trajectory – a formative trip, a musical opportunity, a new friendship, a relationship – would have been unaffected by Covid. I would’ve had no idea of what I’d missed so wouldn’t know what to catch up on. This is very much the situation for most people right now: being on hold, not knowing what they’re doing right now in a Covid-free parallel universe, and not knowing where to start when society returns to normal. How can you make up for lost time when you don’t know what was meant to happen? Given that I’m a musician, for whom one random conversation or backroom gig could be the thing that transforms my career, these questions loom large in my mind.

Walking back from the supermarket, lugging an assortment of very random shopping on a grim December evening (have the winter blues ever set in so quickly as this?), I saw the boarded up shops, the masks, the grim, stoic expressions, and it hit me, for the hundredth time this month already, just how horrible this all is for everyone. The solidarity of this shared gloom- the fact that we might now joke with our colleagues or friends about our own dilapidated emotional states like we would about the weather- provides little of the comfort one might have assumed.

There is a defeatism in writing off an entire year, but I can feel myself doing it already. It’s generally felt like a video game- challenging enough in itself- that has frozen. All the challenges that were there lie ahead but there’s nothing you can do to tackle or even prepare for them. You change the channel and the news is on with its incalculable tragedy; you change it back and the video game is still frozen. That’s in the best case scenario that you are not directly experiencing that tragedy yourself.

How do you deal with your own instinct to write something off completely?

Joyful summer reunions and long anticipated changes of scenery that you can’t quite believe are real; strengthened bonds of friendship and family forged over crap internet connections; Charlie Brooker making another ‘Wipe’ episode and good TV in general; the moment you think you’ve discovered an exercise routine you might actually stick to! There have been good moments, but trying to tease them from the shackles of this year is a daunting task. It is worth attempting, though. The remembering self doesn’t actually remember everything– sometimes you have to remind yourself of the experiences that don’t fit the prevailing narrative in order to salvage the good stuff.

Just now, I tried counting out on two hands anything that really leapt out as a ‘good memory’ this year. There were more than enough things, and they chipped away at the overarching gloom of this year enough to cheer me up a bit.

RS

NEW ALBUM: Running In Sunlight

It’s time to launch our second album, ‘Running In Sunlight’, released 27th November.

We recorded this one last year, putting the finishing touches (and an eleventh hour song!) on in early 2020, even doing a bit of lockdown-based collaboration in the late stages of production.

Running In Sunlight – album artwork by Simon Thomas, Photini Knoyle and William Thomas

The record is, in contrast to our first one ‘everything is on hold’, almost entirely acoustic-based with more stripped back instrumentation. The smaller scale production perhaps made the songwriting process a bit more impulsive and stream of consciousness, and I think that has led the music and lyrics to a different kind of place- maybe slightly stranger at points and more straightforward at others.

At the end of 2020, the songs now feel more relevant than they did last year, with many of the subjects we’ve explored – societal division, climate change, the warlike rhetoric of politicians and the precariousness of creative endeavour – being highlighted by all that’s happened this year. But I hope the album has a wider meaning than that. The songs are an attempt to resolve inner conflicts and find some kind of beauty in the feeling of powerlessness this world can often inflict on its inhabitants.

We are releasing this album digital-only on the excellent site Bandcamp. If you are a health worker we are giving out free download codes.

[clears throat]

You may, however, notice the absence of the full album on Spotify, Apple, Amazon and pretty much anywhere else. It’s unlikely to be a permanent decision, but is fully intentional. As a band with a small profile, there is a very limited impact to any kind of stance we take (to the extent that it almost feels pompous pointing this obvious fact out). But “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”.

There’s journalism around the subject and several burgeoning movements, such as Tom Gray’s #BrokenRecord campaign, but the fact remains that a music track currently needs to be played around 2,760 times on Spotify to earn you an hour’s worth of the UK Minimum Wage. This works out as requiring 46 people a minute to press ‘play’ on your track. Don’t forget to divide that revenue between all the people who were involved in creating it.

If you walked into a record store and bought a local musician’s CD, you’d reasonably expect about half your cash to go towards reimbursing them for producing it and for the joy that music would bring you in future, with the shop taking the remainder. If the person at the cashpoint casually told you that 99.99% of your money would be redirected towards Ed Sheeran because, ‘well, he did make us the majority of our revenue this month!’, you might think about going to a different shop next time.

This collective accounting system is currently how Spotify works and there is no reason why it has to be this way. As individuals, we subscribe to streaming platforms so we can listen to the artists we like. A decent and fair proportion of the revenue they take from us should be going to the artists we individually choose to listen to.

Anyway, enough about the release format. We hope you enjoy the songs.