“SONG FOR EWE”
with TOBY AMIES of
MTV EUROPE’S ALTERNATIVE NATION
“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists and music peeps beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day.
Tonight it’s the turn of a very special person in the Velvet Sheep fanzine story. A true mentor to me, the presenter of MTV Europe’s Alternative Nation that I went from watching on screen to helping behind the scenes in my very first job. A maverick, free thinking, music loving, film maker, journalist and musician who’s interviewed everyone who’s anyone in music and movies and creatively rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos, Matt Verta-Ray & Jon Spencer. Even now after all this time, he’s still an inspiration and dear friend, and he’s been kind enough to DJ at Velvet Sheep events & joined me on the wheels of steel (I had the brakes on, he was in fifth gear) as co-DJ at the Iggyfest at ICA in 2014, he also continues to introduce me to my heroes, including recently Ian Svenonius at the ATP MAKE-UP reunion gig. Without him I’d have never met Katelijne de Backer the Alternative Nation producer, or got my job at MTV Europe and gone onto have a 20 year (so far) career in TV. It’s the man of inestimably cool hair and taste without whom I’d never have heard “Satan Is In My Ass”, Mr. Toby Amies!
When I first came to London in 1995 from not far away in provincial Kent, i’d been writing my fanzine for a couple of years, but came to Uni where the action was, principally for more gigs (first being Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at the Astoria). In our student digs we got satellite TV which was a revelation especially as it featured on a Tuesday late night the visceral thrill of MTV Europe’s Alternative Nation with a man who seemed to speak my language and played videos by people like Boredoms & Beefheart. Obviously I had been aware of 120 Mins and Miles Hunt before him, but Toby was my presenter, like having your own Dr. Who he was like my Tom Baker (wears similar scarves and headwear these days too, funnily enough).
Excuse the long-ish story, this is the equivalent to my Ronnie Corbett big chair ramble. Anyhow, I went to a fairly obscure gig upstairs at the Garage because of my mates the pluggers Charlie Inskip and Wyndham Wallace soon after first watching Alt Nat. It was an edition of the “Disobey” club run by Paul Smith of Blast First. Bruce Gilbert from Wire was DJing natch (as resident DJ Beekeper), but it was also a rock & roll death themed night featuring Anthony H Wilson (now RIP himself) reading from his book suggesting that if Shaun Ryder had killed himself that the Happy Mondays would be as legendary as Joy Division. He not only read it once he read it more times than most gig-goers could stand, such was the wont of Disobey. Sub Pop noise mongers Earth also played, the death connection being that Dylan Carlson from the band’s gun was used by Kurt Cobain. He didn’t have a gun, except he did Dylan’s. Earth’s performance was noisy but most remarkable because they put down their guitars feeding back on the stacks only for them to be picked up again by randoms in the audience who went onto mangle them for at least another ten excruciating minutes. Not a great sound, but makes for great copy. It was a fairly obscure event you understand, except for those in the know – one of whom was Toby Amies, the man on the telly who wasn’t Roger Mellie.
I was lucky enough to have a rolled up copy of the fanzine in my pocket which I thrust into his hand while shaking the other off his wrist. A friendship was born.
I randomly bumped into Toby a week later near the pizza stand in Argyll Street near Oxford Circus (near one of the MTV offices) – not stalking I promise – didn’t even know what that meant then. Not only did he remember me but he mentioned he’d read the fanzine out on air that week, and was pleased to tell me he’d played the Boredoms. I was made up and promised to keep in touch.
Nearly a year later I went to post punk band WIRE’s reunion gig under the Hungerford Bridge and fortuitously Toby was there. While shouting above a 12 minute performance of “The Drill”, I asked if I could get any work experience at MTV coming as I was to a long summer holiday between my 2nd and 3rd year of Uni. Toby gave me his card and said I had to bully him on the phone to remind him as he was a bit flaky. I did as I was told, and left more and more inventive messages, in one I think likening myself to Gripper Stebson (“Grange Hill”) with a soundtrack by Shellac. Toby rang, and invited me to come in and meet his producer, the brilliant and enigmatic Belgian Katelijne de Backer who had also been the driving force behind 120 Minutes. Katelijne was ace, chilled, whip smart and spiritual and she gave me an intern job. ps. How I wished I paid attention to her advice of the time not to put so much poison in my body – full fat Coke and crap food mostly, but you live and learn.
I was thrilled to be helping to floor manage at first and then later on script write, choose videos and after Katelijne left help produce live sessions too including some ace ones by Tindersticks, Man Or Astro Man?, OP8, Radar Brothers, an unforgettable performance by K Record’s/Dub Narcotic’s Calvin Johnson…
and Cornershop on whose hit album “When I Was Born For the 7th Time” Toby & I got thanked in the credits. I was able to watch back the clip of the zine being mentioned by Toby, and countlessly compile the famous shot of Toby whacking himself with the old 50s mic into best-ofs, but better than that I was fully involved! Toby once got me onto the floor on camera to dance like crazy to ape the video to Beck’s “Where It’s At”. I also helped produce a punk special with Mark Perry of Sniffin’ Glue and was there with Toby for some memorable interviews with the likes of Keith Flint, James Dean Bradfield and the only ever live edition of “Alternative Nation” with the unintelligible interviewee oiks Super Furry Animals and a phonecall to Nicky Wire which happened as a hoover magically traversed the floor of Studio A – way before Vic Reeves ever did it on Shooting Stars. I was there on the video set with professional eccentric & Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubaten. I was also there in the loos at the NME Awards standing at Toby’s shoulder when he got the quote from Noel Gallagher that taking drugs were “like having a cup of tea” that got splashed on the tabloids the next morning. For an early twenty something it was a dream job, perhaps my favourite job ever. Going to work with Toby was always fun and surprising. Not least when he unexpectedly announced his own abdication from Alternative Nation on air during afore mentioned live episode and invited showreels in. When they flooded in we got one, that still makes us laugh to this day “Hallo!!!!!!” (you had to be there).
We never did get to do that Finland special (the Finnish institute were bang up for it and we had some great bands as friends), but we did get to play some crazy stuff that I am still fond of from the varied likes of Nancy Sinatra, Cannibal Corpse, Pan Sonic, Evil Superstars, dEUS, Bob Hund and some Mexican wrestlers playing bontempi organs and smoking fags because back then it was cool.
Toby left me his brown bomber jacket (which I always wore) and a Dries Van Noten shirt (which I didn’t) went off to the States to do a big live show with Carson Daly. He also measured Long Island. And had a band called Genius Steals. He wouldn’t kow-tow to the man, and he’d never cut that trademark hair. But he had plenty of adventures to tell.
Here is the last ever Alternative Nation show, where he gets me on for a cameo. I still look like that but with a slightly fuller face.
Together we have plenty of tales to tell, and he knows stuff about me that i haven’t said out loud very often before. Like, for instance, that I am a fan of Blur.
We’ve kept in touch obvs, and every word Toby has to say and every tune he has to play I’m interested in. He kindly DJ’d at the last Velvet Sheep live event as part of Oxjam 2008, in an Oxfam shop in Blackheath – in fairly DIY and inauspicious circumstances but still had the aplomb to drop the bomb of “Theme From Miami Vice” as his opening song. See the pic below, he looks very pleased with himself looking like a cross between Don Van Vliet and the policeman in Allo Allo who was just “pissing by the door”.
He then helped me DJ at the IggyFest at the ICA, but most recently and most famously he’s achieved an ambition to release his directorial debut in the film: “The Man Whose Mind Exploded” a touching documentary about Salvador Dali muse and fellow Brighton resident Drako Zarhazar, a man so heavily tattooed and pierced he was also a walking piece of art. During the film he started to lose his short term memory as his health deteriorated and Toby, the auteur became his friend, trying to get him to take the pharmaceuticals he needed to survive and basically caring for him as he sadly passed. The film was extremely well received, premiering at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and repeatedly playing on Film 4. It was literally a labour of love & loss, and Toby is an all or nothing person, passion personified.
Now with the film bug firmly ensconsed with the fire in his belly, Toby is now making a fictional black comedy caper/short film called “Killing Is My Living” whose Crowdfunding included the chance to have personalised tongue in cheek death threats from the film’s to-be star The Shend from cult post punk band The Cravats, and long term Toby muse from “The Singing Man” (a “Random Acts” film for Channel 4). The Shend has provided a “song for ewe” that will feature here shortly, but in the meantime I’ve waffled on too much, it’s time to go to one of my genuine all-time heroes, someone who’s embraced Velvet Sheep from the beginning and genuinely looked out for me for a long long time for which I’m eternally grateful, it’s…
OVER TO TOBE:
“Nick, Thank you very much for including me in The Song for Ewe, as a huge fan of both Velvet Sheep and shit puns it means a lot to me.
It’s been tough to pick a song, and I did not want to disappoint you.
It could have been “As Long As I Have You” by Garnett Mimms and The Enchanters, “Soulin'” by Sir Stan and The Counts or “Black Olives” by The Bad Boys, but I settled on this as it’s just lovely.
It has good Alternative Nation provenance, a collaboration between AltNat favourites Shudder to Think and MTV Europe linchpin [and disappointingly boring interviewee] Nina Persson from The Cardigans. Maybe she was having a rough day. I still don’t think bad people make good music and her voice is that of an angel’s here.
It’s one of those songs that if you have it on a mix tape, people always ask what it is, which is how I first heard it, via my lovely friend and the brilliant DJ Bonnie Thornton [who taught Mark Ronson everything he has now exploited about soul music, but that’s another story…]. So hopefully via the mighty Sheep it might make it onto some more mixes. Wasn’t that the best thing about working on AltNat together with Katelijne? We were making a mix tape for at least tens of people across Europe…”
THANKS SO MUCH TOBE. LET’S KEEP ENTERTAINING TENS OF PEOPLE! x