A Phantom Band is for Christmas, not just for life

[A little off topic, this one, but on a subject close to my heart. In the unlikely event that you’re missing my food-related warblings, check the last few back issues of The Leither magazine, if you haven’t already.]

phantoms strange friend

A few weeks ago, my favourite band in the world had all their instruments and kit stolen from their tour van after a gig in Lille.

This would be a hefty enough hoof to the knackers of any musician, but that it should happen to the Phantom Band seems particularly harsh (and not just because they’re magnificent, although they are). They’re a six-piece band, and a relatively tech-heavy one at that. Every guitar, amp, keyboard and twiddly bit in that van will have been scrimped and saved for, in part from the meagre income that comes with being a non-stratospheric band in 2015, and in much larger part from the day jobs that allow them to make their music in the first place. This photo they posted on their website shows the final, horrible calculation.

phantoms cash

Most cruelly of all, this is the second time in little more than a year that they’ve had all their stuff nicked. The upshot is that they’ve had to pull all their scheduled shows for the rest of this year while they work out what the hell to do next. If they decided to give the whole thing up as a bad job, I’d be gutted, but I’d fully understand it.

If you’re not familiar with the Phantoms, or with the economic realities of making music, none of this may bother you. After all, you might think, if they were really that good, surely they’d be selling enough records to pay for a few new guitars; and if they’re not, then nothing lost. And anyway, what were they thinking, embarking on a tour of Europe without a full time security guard and a comprehensive insurance policy? (If you really want to know the answer to that last question, just ask any skint touring musician – and stand well back.)

And in response to the first point, I’d respectfully suggest that the music business is not, and has never been, a meritocracy. A leg-up from a wealthy record label, influential promoter, prominent critic or X Factor judge will always be thousands of times more effective than years of writing, recording, releasing and touring. As a result, the charts continue to be populated with a largely arbitrary mixture of the good, the average and the irredeemably dreadful; and much of the best music you could ever hear, you probably never will. And unless they’re remarkably resilient, the people who make that brilliant music are only ever a scathing review, sparsely attended gig or cowardly theft away from questioning why they bother.

Yet you’ll never convince me that a band as commercially huge as Radiohead, or as critically worshipped as the Velvet Underground, is anywhere near as good as the Phantoms; because to my ears they’re not, as my iTunes “times played” stats will emphatically testify. And while I’m here, Rozi Plain is better than Kate Bush, Withered Hand is better than Bowie and eagleowl are better than the Beatles. That’s the joy of personal taste: you can disagree with these statements as much as you like, but you can’t disprove them.

When news broke of the Phantoms’ misfortune, the response from their fans was swift and heartfelt: hundreds of messages of support to the band; concerted but fruitless social media appeals to track down the missing equipment; and even talk of a crowdfunding campaign to help replace it. Hopefully the public reaction will have been a source of some solace to them. If nothing else, it might have brought home the point that every time they play, whether that’s to 500 in Glasgow or a few dozen in Weston-super-Mare, there’s someone in the room who truly believes they’re watching the greatest band in the world.

But, gratifying as it may be, knowing you’re loved doesn’t buy you a drum kit. And while the crowdfunding idea has a certain appeal – I’d be more than willing to contribute, given the disproportionate amount of pleasure I’ve had from the 60 quid or so I’ve spent on their albums – I’d imagine the band has mixed feelings about asking loyal fans for what would effectively be a handout.

So as an alternative, here’s a radical idea – a touch retro, I admit, but it might just work. Why not…buy their records? More specifically, why not take away all your Christmas shopping stresses by simply getting everyone Phantom Band records for Christmas?

Buy an LP for your mum, a CD for your big brother, a digital download for your wee cousin who doesn’t really get the concept of a music player that’s larger than the palm of his hand. And when your great auntie Mabel asks why you’ve given her an album of vaguely obscure Scottish indie/folk/electronica/Krautrock, when she’s always been more of a Vera Lynn woman, explain that it’s to broaden her horizons, promote the arts and support a worthy cause (i.e. helping the Phantoms buy a new bass pedal and/or a few well merited pints). If pushed, encourage her to think of it as a musical equivalent of adopting a goat for her through Oxfam.

At worst, you’ll get a few grumbles from confused friends and relatives, and a handful of records gathering dust in a corner before finding their way to a nearby charity shop – which in turn might help some extra folk to discover them. At best, you might just recruit a few new Phantoms fans – and if they could convert a few people, and the people they convert could convert a few more, then the first ever Phantom Band stadium tour might not be too far away. (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

So head to the Chemikal Underground website or the Phantoms’ online shop, and you can improve the lives of your friends and family, and support a band that more than deserves it, without so much as shifting your arse off the sofa. Or if there are other under-the-radar artists that you’d rather support in the same way, by all means buy everybody their albums instead. Believe me, they’ll appreciate it.

Or, as a cheaper alternative, you could just carry on listening to their music on Spotify instead, secure in the knowledge that if another 10 million people would only do the same thing, they might just about be in a position to buy a couple of new guitars.

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Calling All Curmudgeons

Featured

Kiss me

Christmas is a time of joy, peace and goodwill to all men.

If you agree unreservedly with that statement, you might not want to bother reading on.

If, on the other hand, your spirits sink on that day in mid-September when all the shops simultaneously fill their shelves with all manner of Christmas tat, and only really recover on Twelfth Night when the tree finally comes down – leaving in its wake a deadly sprinkling of pine needles and shards of shattered bauble – I’d like to suggest a way to inject just a tiny bit of joy into your otherwise dismal festive period.

Get cooking.

Why? Well, I can give you three extremely good reasons.

Avoiding relatives

You’ll recognise the scene. It’s late morning on Christmas Day. Auntie Hilda, who’s been on the sweet sherry since 9.30, is already slurring her words and has taken to hanging around in disconcerting proximity to the mistletoe. Little Eddie, high on a cocktail of Irn Bru and a whole bag of chocolate coins, is in the living room, flailing away wildly with the light sabre his parents so prudently bought him for Christmas. If the telly survives the onslaught, it’ll count as a bonus. And Grandpa’s flatulence is already so noxious that you shudder at what might happen once sprouts are introduced to the equation.

Given a free choice in proceedings, what you’d really like to do is retire to your room with a good book and an enormous whisky, and stay there until sometime on Boxing Day when everyone’s finally buggered off. But you can’t do that, or you’ll be roundly decried for being the miserable git you so obviously are. So you have to grin – or at least grimace – and bear it.

Unless…unless…

Take on the role of Christmas chef and you can guiltlessly avoid all this. Better still, you’ll amass a load of brownie points as you selflessly toil away, magnanimously refusing all offers of help (but graciously accepting all offers of drinks). Your family and guests will be universally grateful for your efforts – and they don’t have to know that peeling three pounds of spuds represents unimaginable bliss by comparison with having to sit through another microsecond of Uncle Derek’s golfing anecdotes.

Music

I really can’t emphasise this one enough.

I don’t mind a Christmas carol or two. Very occasionally, I might even catch myself singing along to one. On the scale of festive assaults on the ears, they rank right at the bottom.

Worse – much, much worse – are the Christmas “hits”. These are the songs that have tormented you every time you’ve made the mistake of turning on the radio or setting foot in a shop over the past six weeks: Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Mariah sodding Carey. And worst of all (apart from Cliff, obviously): Paul McCartney and Wings.

(N.B. The above link will take you directly to the offending song. You should only click it if you utterly despise yourself – or if you have some sort of aural S&M fetish, with a particular focus on the “M”.)

It beggars belief that the man responsible for some of the finest pop songs of all time could have vomited up this particular festive “classic”. Despite your most determined efforts to avoid it, sheer repetition causes its hideously jaunty melody to burrow its way into your brain, until you wake up screaming on Christmas morning, incapable of thinking of anything else. The Frog Chorus would be better than this, or even – and I don’t say this lightly – Mull of Kintyre.

Simply having a wonderful Christmas time? My arse.

So this Christmas, my playlist will comprise the likes of the Phantom Band, Camera Obscura and Withered Hand, performing songs that have precisely naff all to do with Christmas. And if someone swans in and tries to put on “The Most Depressingly Generic Christmas Album in the World…Ever!”, I shall hack the CD to pieces with a meat cleaver, take out the offending relative with my patented Sprout Cannon, and put Leonard Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat on repeat until dinner’s ready.

(I do appreciate that there are some honourable exceptions to the horrors of Christmas music – but even Fairytale of New York begins to grate after the 237th listen. So the only Christmas songs permitted under my watch come from Slow Club – but to be honest, they could write songs about management accounting and still sound bloody fantastic.)

Control

Finally, being the Christmas Day chef gives you one further vital benefit: control. You can make the meal exactly as you’d like it.

Granted, there might not seem to be all that much room for originality in the Christmas meal, given all the compulsory elements.

But even if the core ingredients don’t leave you much room for manoeuvre, there’s still a surprising amount of scope for innovation, and for catering to your own tastes. So if you’ve a particular distaste for massively overboiled sprouts – and to be honest, why wouldn’t you – you can shred them and stir-fry them with pancetta and chestnuts until crisp and glorious.

And if the turkey normally turns out dry and miserable, and you’re left munching through its depressing leftovers, in the form of sandwiches and curries, for days afterwards, why not try a variation on Chicken à la Gran.

Cut the crown (the breasts and breastbone) away from the rest of the carcass and just cook that for Christmas Day. This spares you the conundrum of trying to keep the breasts moist while the legs cook through. And you’re bound to have ordered far too big a turkey, just as you do every year, so nobody’s going to go hungry.

The legs and other sundry bits can then be put to whatever use you like, making a far nicer Boxing Day meal than the usual Leftover Surprise. I’ve had particular success in the past by jointing the bird (don’t worry if this is somewhat haphazard) and using the pieces, backbone and all, to make a turkey equivalent of coq au vin.

Lastly, since we’re on the subject of control, may I remind you about the art of stopping. If everything seems to be happening too fast, and you’re losing track of the various pans, just turn off the heat for a moment and replan. The turkey (or other roast dead thing of choice) will sit very happily on the worktop, lightly covered in foil, for as long as you need to finish off the veg and gravy and get those f***ing roast potatoes to crisp up. And even if the meat ends up a little cooler than planned – that’s to say, stone cold – some hot gravy, strategically poured, will ensure that nobody’s any the wiser.

Ho ho ho

Lastly, a confession.

It might not be obvious from what I’ve written here, but I really enjoy Christmas.

That doesn’t mean that everything I’ve said so far is a lie – simply that it can be read with either a positive or negative spin. And as I’ve given you the negative spin at some length, here’s the positive one. An opportunity to cook Christmas dinner to your exact specifications, and to the delight of your friends or family, while enjoying many a festive eggnog and listening to all your favourite music, – well, what’s not to like?

Merry Christmas!

Kiss me happy

(N.B. Photographs are the copyright of Don Wheeler Enterprises. The No Recipe Man takes no responsibility for the extent to which they may frighten small children.)