Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Review: Mike Skinner, The Story Of The Streets

Photography by Rod Doyle - http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/gallery/2012/mar/25/story-streets-mike-skinner-picture

'Looking back now, I can see that I was in the grip of a strange paradox - knowing that things were always going to be the same, and never going to be the same, at the same time. On the one hand you've achieved all you've ever wanted; on the other, you've lost the hope of a different and better life than wishing you could achieve that goal used to give you. And now you've got to try and do the whole thing again without that extra edge your innocence of how little difference it was going to make used to give you' - Mike Skinner, The Story Of The Streets



As you've seen from my antics on here, I spent most of the summer reviewing records and gallivanting round festivals. However, when I did have a bit of downtime, my family and I went on a trip to Spain. A week of all inclusive food and alcohol is all well and good, but there's only so much lounging by a pool with a Pina Colada that you can do. With that in mind, I saw the week away as an excuse to do some reading.

The Story Of The Streets was a birthday gift from my brother, who knows just how enthralled I am by Mike Skinner and the whole world that surrounds his music. Obviously it was Original Pirate Material that has gone down in musical history for cementing his legacy as the first person to pull off the hybrid of garage music with  lyrical wit and social observation more befitting of indie, about ten years before it's time, but I love pretty much all five of his records. His tales of 'sex, drugs and on the dole' were always written with humour but a bleak realism - my personal favourite Blinded By The Lights is incredibly haunting and melancholy behind its beats. I can openly say that drugs are something I have never experimented with and never plan to try, but the alienation and disorientation he feels within that club is something I can understand and relate to without knowing exactly what it feels like to try ecstasy myself. There's wonderful magic in storytelling of that power, and again in the more formal storytelling he does here.

Speaking as an ex literature student, it's a literary triumph firstly because it is written in such an accessible way, perhaps the most logical musical biography I have ever read. Although he refers to outside anecdotes at several points, the book is structured via a principle he calls  'a design in five parts' - in this case, referring to his five records. There is The Inciting Event (Original Pirate Material), Climax (A Grand Don't Come For Free), Crisis (The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living), Progressive Complications (Everything Is Borrowed) and lastly, The Resolution (Computers and Blues).  It allows you to follow the story cohesively from the very beginning, letting the reader dip in and out at will. The chronology also makes for immense satisfaction as you can visibly track his steps towards the familiar bits that any fan will know to be coming, such as the success of  A Grand Don't Come For Free or his Mercury Music Prize nomination. 

In terms of content, the life that Mike Skinner has had so far is a long and accomplished one, but what he reflects so well here is the lesser known low moments. The Story Of The Streets tinged with sadness at many points, but his candour and self deprecation elevates it out of the realms of self indulgence. If anything, he shrugs off potentially life shattering battles against epilepsy, gambling and depression with a remarkably straight talking attitude : 

'When it comes to ways of coping with depression, I'm not really British and I'm not really American. I don't think you should just go to the pub and get on with it. But neither do I think that constantly talking about your problems on TV whilst taking anxious sips from a glass of water is the right way to go. (After going to see a therapist) once you find out that the person you're talking to has treated Amy Winehouse, you feel quite relaxed about the fact that nothing you're going to come up with is likely to shock him'

 You get the impression that this book is something he has wanted to write for a long time, a sort of therapy in itself. But I also get the impression that only now, with The Streets all wrapped up, does he truly understand himself enough to put pen to paper in a cohesive sense. I imagine there was something quite cathartic about having been able to write this book, get so inside yourself and then be able to step away from it and know your entire musical life is held within it. Some of the comments he makes about the human form and being a musician make such sense to me that I often found myself audibly exhaling or laughing to myself, wondering how nobody has said such things before. Indeed, even when he is being faintly ridiculous it's hard to argue with some of his logic. There's a line I particularly like there (no pun intended): 'the combination of house music and ecstasy was certainly pretty hard to beat as far as I was concerned. we're talking about a drug that causes a chemical change in your brain to make you feel intensely happy, and it is logical that this is a good idea.'

It sounds clichéd,  but the most important thing that strikes me about The Story Of The Streets is that you realise that Mike Skinner is far from the genius he is painted to be. His career is a series of commercial hits and commercial misses (I love Everything Is Borrowed as a record, but I can understand how it didn't do so well in terms of sales), struggling with attempting to recreate the passion of his first record without losing himself along the way. I deny any Streets fan to listen to Original Pirate Material in full the same way now knowing that it the vocals were recorded entirely in a cupboard, using duvets as sound insulation. Knowing these details add grit and realism that you simply wouldn't here confessed so readily these days. 
Take for example, the biggest revelation of the book. Most people who have only fleetingly encountered The Streets will know Mike for one of two songs: Fit But You Know It, or more likely, Dry You Eyes. Herein lies the bit you may not have known. As he puts it...

'You often hear it said that we don't have any taboos left in this country, but I can name at least two. One is our inability to criticise the basic principle behind the NHS. The other taboo is the idea that any aspect of creativity can be taught and learnt rather than divinely decreed.'


Put simply, Mike confesses that his two biggest singles (commercially speaking anyway), were written after studying songwriting manuals, studying the art of what makes a good song. This is an admission that I'm sure will sit poorly with certain Streets purists, those who claim that music should come from divine inspiration, not a three hour workshop. But if anything, I kind of like it. It's honest. It proves that he is a hard worker, and wanted The Streets to be the best they could possibly be. To borrow the metaphor he uses when talking about  meeting P Diddy, it's like seeing the Wizard behind Oz - a music fan who made the music he wanted to hear because nobody else was, but then came to struggle with the attention when it turned out other people liked it too.


'If you're going to create something that captures people's imaginations, it has to be new; it can't have existed before. No-one can say I didn't do that with The Streets. There is one aspect of my body of work in that incarnation which i'm proud to think of as reasonably unprecedented. And that's the fact that not only do all my albums sound like they were made by the same person at every level of the writing and recording process, you couldn't say that any one of them is more Mike Skinner than any of the others.'

But who is Mike Skinner? I wouldn't say I am any closer to knowing the answer than I was before I sat down by the pool and opened this book. But to paraphrase his acknowledged influencees Arctic Monkeys, I now know what he is not. The Burberry sporting, drug guzzling wideboy is an elaboration of the music press, and what is left is a sharp, intelligent man who knew when it was right for him to Turn The Page.


The Story Of The Streets is out on Bantam Press now.







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