Friday, 14 July 2017

I know you're with me, it's a point of pride

The line is from a song by The Walkmen called 'In the New Year'.

The Walkmen are my favourite band, have been for a few years (although for most of those years they've been on hiatus, thankfully there's been a fair bit of very good solo material).

I'll write a little about the line and the lyric, but it will turn into a more general paean of praise to the band and their singer, Hamilton Leithauser.

They're a band of certain dichotomies and tensions, and I think this line is a good example of that. There's bravado and humility, power and hush, control and fury, humour and passion, introversion and extroversion, all on top of each other.

The line is typical of many Leithauser writes and sings - he has won, but he's not complacent about his success. 'In the New Year' is a song about a new love, a hard-earned love, where the singer has been patient, has waited for his chance - he's happy now but not taking anything for granted.

I like the honesty in this line, the self-awareness of seeing romance as, in part, personal achievement. There's another song from their next album called 'Victory', which, to me, is a bit of a companion to this song, as well as one called 'We Can't Be Beat' on their last album 'Heaven'.

So much machismo and bravado is bluster, and often that bluster completely lacks charm and subtlety. Here, the doubt and contemplation is never far from the surface.

I also particularly love that in the context of the elegance and confidence with which the band carry themselves on stage - I like the idea of a band of well-to-do young gentlemen making songs of humility and uncertainty.

Centre stage is Leithauser. I first saw him from a great distance, just for a few minutes, at Benicassim in about 2006 - I couldn't really hear the band, I didn't know any of their songs, and I just remember being struck by his height and the slight ungainliness of his movements.

I've seen them quite a few time since then, and I regularly watch clips of their gigs on youtube. Genuinely, nothing cheers me up on a weary day like watching a clip of The Walkmen.

This one, of 'In the New Year', is one of my favourites. This is an extraordinary piece of singing.  He sings with his whole body, throws himself into the biggest notes in order to hit them. It hardly needs saying that most rock singers don't hit notes like this in live shows.

When he's attacking the song, he sometimes looks down, bouncing the notes off the ground, but then, on the really high notes, he looks up to the sky, as if he's opening up a straight path from his toes, through the body, out of the mouth, up to the roof.

It's not like a lot of big voices, it's not round and fruity, it's not showy, it's lean, even thin sometimes - it's somehow or other the missing link between Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Freddie Mercury. It allows for a song to be louche and then desperate in a very short space of time.

I'm going to finish with another clip. I was there for this one. This is the second time I caught sight of them. By this time, I had heard their most famous song 'The Rat' but nothing else. It was at All Tomorrow's Parties in 2010 - it was late afternoon/early evening.

The setting was a bingo hall in a Butlin's in a Somerset seaside town. I drifted in a few minutes after they'd started. I was looking forward to 'The Rat' and, pleasingly, they started playing its astonishing intro only a few minutes after I arrived.

But then, disaster! Just as he was about to start singing, silence. Something blew. The band apologised and walked off stage, saying they hoped they'd be back. The break was about 10-15 minutes. They returned to the stage.

Everyone's a little nervous. They start 'The Rat' again. This is when this amateurish footage begins.

So bear all that in mind - they're in a bingo hall in Somerset in April, it's late afternoon, they're playing to a festival crowd rather than their own fans, the equipment is dodgy and could go any time, they're playing their biggest song cold.

This is, I think, when I fell in love with the band. What could have been a massive letdown became a triumph.

I mean, it's a bit rough, atypically rough. But 'The Rat' is a bit of an atypical song for them anyway. Wisely, they never tried to repeat it.

Their sound is more often distinct and wistful, rather than compressed and furious. On some of their best songs, like 'Angela Surf City' and 'All the Hands and the Cook', it's somewhere in between.

Either way, I'm going to keep banging the drum for them.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Hey buddy! Hey! You! buddy! I'm talking to you, buddy!

Here are a couple of little things. I wrote them. They're here. They don't set the world on fire, but why not, after all.

An Englishman first called me “buddy” in 1996
When I worked in a hotel, taking lazy men their drinks.
This portly gormless fellow was clearly set on congress -
Through largesse, he’d impress his doleful would-be conquest.
I brought them food a-plenty, a bottle or three of wine.
“Thanks, buddy” he said awkwardly, and put his hand in mine,
Cool as clammy cucumber, sweetening my pot
With cash to burn, he hoped she’d yearn for someone he was not.
Now marked as his accomplice, my gratitude was key,
Glancing down with good will at the cut he offered me.
His paramour (as yet unsure of her potential beau)
Looked grimly at my thin smile, already in the know.
My palm could hardly hide the harm of this incongruous sum
He spoke like an American but he did not tip like one.


The world is full
Of gaffes we’ve made
Which mattered not
Thank god

The world is full
Of half-baked puns
That crashed and burned
Or not

The world is full
Of money paid
On sunny days
For lemonade

The world is full
Of swallowed thoughts
And bitten tongues
Unwritten dreams
And hollow hopes

The world is full
Of immigrant
To idiots

The world is full
Of money made
By cunning blades
From lemonade
On sunny days

The world is run
By American golfers
Shooting the breeze
Appreciating your time
Having mercy
Thanking the lord
Playing it straight
Respecting the rules
Part of the club
Selecting their club
Of choice.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Musical Music Musing

I've had two separate posts lined up but actually think it's better to join them together.

I've been listening to a lot of songs from musicals lately. I think a few years ago it might have embarrassed me to say that a little - as part of the general "putting away of childish things" in adulthood, I disdained the musicals that I'd been taken to when I was young.

I think there's still a limit to how much I can put up with - my friend Michael put it best when he used to mock this speaky-singy exchange from Miss Saigon; "I'm gonna buy you a girl" - "No you can buy me a beer". That hammy conversational singing by British actors putting on an American accent didn't, for a long time, appeal to me all that much (memories of going to see Miss Saigon also not helped by getting a migraine and being sick in taxi on way home when I was 11) ...

But saying "I don't like musicals" is, of course, just stupid. You don't like Singin' in the Rain? You don't like Mary Poppins? You don't like Over the Rainbow or Ol' Man River? The songs of Cole Porter or Jerome Kern? West Side Story? Stephen Sondheim?

Sondheim is the prompt for this. Down the years, as I've tried to find out about and listen to popular songs as much as possible, as it's been almost an obsession, there'll have occasionally been people whose view I respect pointing me in a certain direction, and I've kind of "banked" the suggestion for a later point - it happened with Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, Tindersticks amongst others - and it happened a few times with Sondheim. Smart, musical people telling me how brilliant he is, me acknowledging it but just thinking it wasn't for me right now.

But I think I'm there now.

Though there aren't quite as many of his songs in popular culture as other great writers of musicals, obviously I've heard quite a few of them before. But I just had a sudden urge to listen to Being Alive a week or two ago, and I haven't stopped listening to it since - apart from when I've been listening to other Sondheim songs.

I mean, it's still got a lot of that speaky-singing, hasn't it, but it's all rather brilliant.

But, as I said, I've been warming to musicals for a while now. I've had cause to revisit the music of my childhood a fair bit, as we've a tiny dancer to entertain. And there've been quite a few enjoyable film musicals recently.

I wonder if film musicals hit a lull because of how thoroughly pop songs became integrated into modern films. You could have songs in people's heads, songs in the background, bands performing etc without any need for the film to be an actual musical. Songs are central to many of my favourite films, without them being musicals.

But now they've definitely made a comeback - partly film audiences have probably got over the cynicism, and also clever film makers have found ways to make them work without seeming dated.

Lately, I've watched Once, La La Land, Sunshine on Leith, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Enchanted, God Help the Girl, Begin Again, Jersey Boys, as well as a few other older ones. They work for me to varying degrees.

I loved La La Land, I must say. I loved Emma Stone's performance of Audition (The Fools Who Dream). I wonder about that, compared to Anne Hathaway's performance of I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables, which I found all together too much.

To me, it's about how much artifice we can endure. Pop songs are artificial by their nature, the greatest soul songs and heart-rending ballad, even Nick Drake doing Black-Eyed Dog, even Kurt Cobain doing All Apologies, it's still a performance. But we can, generally, let that go and feel it is "real" if we don't see the strings holding the performers up, just like in a film, our brains are allowed to forget it's acting when it's really good.

But Hathaway acts too hard - her character's dying, she's singing, whispering and roaring, she's retching, she's made up to look wretched, how can you not add that all together and go "That's Anne Hathaway! She's an extremely healthy and radiant young actress trying to win an Oscar!"

Whereas, whether by accident of design, I think they dealt with that artifice rather well in 'La La Land'. Audition (The Fools Who Dream) is thoroughly fake - Emma Stone's character breaks into a big show tune at her breakthrough audition, 3/4 of the way into the film. But we've already dealt with "reality". Right at the start of the film, her character Mia is on the way to another audition, and they show her in it, and she's brilliant, she acts the fuck out of it, only to be rudely interrupted. I feel like we're slyly being told "yes, this is Emma Stone, the excellent actress, playing an aspiring, failing actress, yes, this whole film's fake, go with it, see she's brilliant in real life, and hold on to the idea that she's brilliant in the film, too. It's important".

Then there are scenes of various other cringeworthy auditions, her not getting parts, but you don't forget how good she was in that first audition. So she doesn't have to overact the big setpiece - we know she's brilliant at acting. She can just sing the song without breaking any spells. We can deal with this level of fakeness.

Well, that's my take on it.

Now, moving on to the second (shorter) part of this blog. I remember a line (or rather a misheard line) from a very theatrical favourite of mine, Rufus Wainwright - from his song I Don't Know What It Is, he asks the questions "Is there anyone else who's too in love with beauty?", but for some reason, I've always heard it as "Is there anyone else who's still in love with music?" and I've had that line buzzing around my head for years.

I love that question - sometimes it feels pertinent - when I'm moving from album to album, song to song, in love with music and song, and it feels hard to convey that joy to the world, it feels like my generation loses that obsessive love for music a bit (I certainly feel it when running quizzes, where people's lack of musical knowledge sometimes can shock me).

Anyway, I thought about the songs, in the last two or three years, I've utterly loved, not just liked or appreciated. I try and stay on top of everything, listen to all the new stuff from the cool new bands and the hip-hop and all that, but falling in love with a song is a little different. I like the new Vince Staples album, but there's nothing I'm in love with on it. Or the Fleet Foxes album.

Perhaps there will be on time, but actually the small number I've really obsessed over, which I haven't been able to get out of my head, in recent times, reveal a more sentiment edge than I'd always care to admit.

Here they are:

Being Alive - Company
Girl in Amber - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) - La La Land
Lean on Me - Bill Withers
Gimme Some Lovin' - Spencer Davis Group
A Whole Lot Better - Brendan Benson
Maria - West Side Story
King Kunta - Kendrick Lamar
Moon Song - Karen O and Ezra Koenig
Fourth of July - Sufjan Stevens
Dollar Days - David Bowie
Night 52 - Christine and the Queens
Angela Surf City - The Walkmen
Sign of the Times - Jamie T
Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney
Love Love Love - Mountain Goats
Love Anyway - The Waterboys
Trellick Tower - Emmy the Great
Severed Crossed Fingers - St Vincent
Rise to Me - The Decemberists
Marry Me Archie - Alvvays
My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
Pa'lante - Hurray for the Riff-Raff

There's no particular dividing line, I think those are the songs which have buzzed around my head and not removed themselves for ages, for the first time in the last two or three years. I guess not all are that sentimental!

But, anyway, I have one final thing to say. I know this whole blog is all about putting music into lists and categories and setting limits sometimes, but actually, hopefully, it's overall purpose is the opposite.

Don't fall out of love with music. Don't draw lines (though I know that sometimes it is the people who draw lines that love music the most). There's no upper limit to how many bands you can love, and there's no upper limit to how many great songs they've done.

I don't count Mountain Goats, or Girls Aloud, or Katy Perry, or Barry Manilow, or Bill Withers, or Mark Kozelek amongst my very favourite artists - I've never seen any of them live - but they've all got at least five songs, if not more, I could listen to over and over again.

Whether it's show tunes, futuristic hip-hop, indie rock, whatever, stay with the music. Don't waste time not listening to music.

Somewhere in my head is some idea of how the song can be everything. I wrote this long poem a couple of years ago about all manner of things (sometimes I'm not sure what), and I like the last few lines - something about the power of the song:

This is how it ends:

Redemption last was mentioned as a choice
On Christmas Day after Joe Strummer died -
Two ancient cultures held each other’s gaze
Just long enough for monsters creeping past.
Now, all the guys on t-shirts must be dead,
Can we recall their names? Erm, No We Can’t!
Can hope and change survive unspecified
Unrealistic, self-destructive cloud-
high expectation? Hell, no! No, it can’t.
Is music still impossible to tame?
Do songs still burst beyond all vain attempts
To break them into pieces and to chain
Them to campaigns and then to list all their
Devices and to judge precise demand,
To number them and edit them and tell
Them they’re not good enough, to playlist them
And subjugate them, wed them to a cause
Unwanted - one nation under a groove,
And two turntables and a microphone
And three chords and the truth, and four young men
From Liverpool who went and shook the world?
What was the last folk song? The last elite
Liberal folk song to take the world to task …
The last great anthem wide-eyed youths collect
To sing in protest at injustice? You might
Have missed it, look it up online. Alright,
So what, it’s not your music anymore –
These summer children scowling in defiance,
These skills you never learnt nor ever would.
This folk age may come to a bitter end;
Young punks are more alive than first assumed.
Fierce independence is now prized above
Those other values wasted on the age –
The most compelling hangover from hope
Might yet renew what looked to be expired.
So how did we get here? Someone explain,
Someone who’s not been two giant steps behind
At every turn, who saw it all the way
And welcomed progress out of more than fear,
Eventually, of being left in the dark.
My friend, it is, again, a numbers game,
A game that shifts one second to the next –
A sequence ever changing far beyond
a commentator’s poetry by rote.
I learnt a song when I was still a child,
Not quite a folk song, whatever they say,
I’m happy with its answers even now.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Misspent Youth

This is usually a music blog but this next post's not really about music, though music will play a part - particularly singing.

Music often triggers nostalgia but, for me, it's not the songs I deeply cherish that have that effect, rather it's songs which I listened to repeatedly at one time, most likely on the radio rather than through choice, and have hardly or never listened to since; songs like Wouldn't it be Good by Nik Kershaw, Sleeping Satellite by Tamsin Archer, Tattva by Kula Shaker - I've heard them all recently and completely lost my place in the present.

This is, I suppose, because the songs are indelibly associated with one specific time, so I'm instantly transported to that time, rather than the song having a life of its own through its presence in my head over many years.

True nostalgia is a wondrous, often misappropriated concept. Nostalgia is not just remembering the past, it's not just those TV list shows, the awkward jocularity of "wasn't that shit", "wasn't that great" ... it's about pain, it's about loss, it's about something you'll never be able to get back - it's rough etymology is "pain when thinking about home" - it's more akin to homesickness than just taking a trip down memory lane.

I want to write with a hint of nostalgia - nostalgia in the sense described above - because this is going to be about a life I lived with almost no connection to that I live now, the details of which are, in one sense, very easy to see myself involved in, but at the same time, relate to a person with a wholly different understanding of life, a wholly different way of interacting and attempting to communicate.

I'm asking myself why I'm writing about this at this moment. When I consider who I am now and the persona I have (to the extent that I have one), it's above all about my life at home and the people in it, then my work in quizzes, then watching sport, pop music, films, political feelings, writing as a means to process all of the above and keep my brain from seeing things only in terms of quiz questions (!), being online all the time, checking my phone too much, keeping fit when I can, my local small-town environment. My physical state and the aging process also plays a part in my self-definition, worrying about the world going forward, lots of daft little stuff as well - and really, the funny thing is, none of that is what was most important to me back then, apart from, I suppose, watching sport and listening to pop music a little, but even then, less so than now.

So I know the answer. I'm writing it now because I don't want something precious to be lost.

I'm going to write about being a teenager - a specific part of it. Teenage nostalgia has, of course, been a rich seam for film makers for a long time (Stand by Me, The Last Picture Show, Dazed and Confused etc) - but, as yet, if I'm not mistaken, there are not that many early-90s nostalgia trips - by which I mean, a film where the clear intent is for a modern film maker to implicitly or explicitly glorify and mythologise growing up in that era. There should be.

It's perfect for such treatment, because the early 90s was the last time teenagers grew up without the capacity to capture each moment with a photo, so the memories we have are just that, memories - memories enhanced, distorted, mutable - not documents which are impossible to ignore. Sure, there are a few documents too - a few photos, letters, the music, diaries maybe, items which ground memories in truth and also spark 1000s of linked images. There are not 1000s of emails, texts and photos. The mind has to do the work.

It's the last era that can look like something different from the cold hard truth.

So,  bearing that in mind, what I'm writing about is bathed in a golden glow, elevated to a special place in my consciousness.

Not that I think of my teenage years as a whole like that, anything but. It was shite, a lot of it. A lot of not getting on well with people, being a twat, watching bad telly at home on a Friday night, thinking everyone else was out having fun, awkwardness, blandness, meanness, watching EastEnders and thinking it was good, not to mention all the usual teenage existential and concrete crises. Not all golden, a lot of grey.

But golden is there, I cannot deny it. It's there in a few places - it's there because my school was by Hammersmith Bridge and that's nice on a summer's day, it's there because of cricket, and sometimes football, it's there because the first few times you get drunk without puking your guts up (I was about 50/50 hit rate) are fun, it's there because of getting into pop music, it's there because I lived with my family who were nice people.

But, it's there, primarily, I think, because of this strange thing, this thing I've left it until this far into this post to mention, that I've hardly ever mentioned in this 8 years and innumerable words of blog, that I hardly ever mention in conversation, that is anathema to how I exist now. It's there because of faith. Or, specifically, Christian faith and its practice.

The strangest thing ...

I'm not a Christian now, I haven't been, depending on how I define it, since I was somewhere between 17 and 20. I'm not an agnostic, nor do I really think I "lost my faith" (in terms of losing something that could possibly have been retained). I'm pretty unromantic about that side of it these days. I came to a satisfactory conclusion, over a period of years, about the likelihood of any god, let alone the Christian god and, by the time I was about 23, I was completely happy with that. I haven't doubted since, not a tiny bit. I feel generally better for it.

But I was a Christian for those teenage years, and not in a woolly way, I was a proper one. Those years - 13 to 18 - are pretty fundamental for something to loom so huge and then disappear to nothing.

Yet there are several contradictions here. I am now cynical, indeed contemptuous at times, about Christianity, yet I look on that time with great fondness. I don't believe any of it anymore, but I'm enormously glad I went through it. I don't practice in any way, but I think that experience of faith had a more positive effect on my character than anything else at that time.

I feel the need to write about it, to give it dignity in my own mind. I haven't decided yet whether I will seek to encourage anyone to read this post or not - whether I do will dictate to a large extent how it's written - if I imagine a readership, I'll probably play it safe, cynical and concise, but if I feel I'm writing for myself, I'm sure I'll go on a bit - god, I'll go on a bit -  but I may actually do justice to the experience. If I do, I'll use words which no longer have a natural place in my vocabulary - like fellowship, grace, communion, contemplation. I'm troubled by writing about this. I'm troubled that the voice of the person I am now will keep intruding, or that it won't, I worry that I'll over-contextualise, politicise, under-romanticise. I want to romanticise.

So here goes with that.

It was, firstly, the singing, above all. Singing like I'd never heard before. The sound of 140 young male voices launching their voices into hymns which for years, to me, had just been undistinguished time fillers. Now, each hymn had character and meaning. These boys, they sang the words like they meant them.

That was when I first felt like this was something to show off - look what I've found, here in a school chapel in a field in Dorset on a still summer's evening.

I had no expectations. I was 13, in between the prep school and the main school - I'd only decided to go at pretty short notice because my mother suggested it might be a good way to get to know a few more people. The St Paul's School Christian Union Summer House Party 1991.

I wasn't a deep thinker then. I was sporty, precocious but naive, facetious, beginning to be wounded by the fact that I would not be, as I had thought for my first few years of my life, master of all I surveyed. I was probably the least cool boy in West London, too, though, hey, weren't we all?

Nor was I a Christian. I'd given it very little thought for a while. Educated in Catholicism when a small child, the churchy stuff at school between the age of 8 and 13 had kind of washed over me. After those first 10 days at Clayesmore, I was now a Christian. Again, I can't say it was a big leap of faith, a big spiritual awakening. At that stage, it was just, "This is great, these are Christians. Hence, I'll be a Christian".

That's often how it works. That's how they get you. That's what my cynical voice would interject now. If you're reading this with that voice yourself, I totally understand, it's here with me all the time too.

But hear again, I'm 38, I'm a person capable of utter contempt for almost everything, I reject religion in all forms, I question and feel guilty about every aspect of my privileged upbringing, I'm often tortuously compelled to pick over the bones of every word, every sentence, every thought, for the wider social context, yet there is no massive regret and negativity in how I think about this experience as a member of this boys' club, this patriarchal proponent of an ancient superstition, this bastion of elitism. There's only fondness.

It was a place of kindness. The top-down mood was of kindness and warmth, and it spread. Cross words and conflict were rare. That's not to say my own character was instantly transformed. One of the bittersweet elements of this detailed journey into a past rarely touched in recent years, is realising that if anyone there was a dick, it was me. Not once, but on several occasions over several years, I've remembered times where someone should really have slapped me/told me I was a little arsehole/told me to grow up/put me in a box for a few hours/suggested I look somewhere else for a summer holiday. But they didn't. They nearly always stayed kind.

But it was not an anodyne kindness. It was not that brand of bland, do-gooding English Christianity so easy to mock. As a 13 year-old, to be suddenly, unambiguously welcomed into a club of clever, funny, sarcastic, talented elders was quite something. Even as I look back and remember the people, most of whom I haven't seen for over two decades, I recall someone else, then someone else with a brilliance to them - people who had a spark then and would go on to be something - some are teachers and doctors, some are writers and actors, some are film makers and journalists, some are priests and charity workers, some are academics and musicians, some are mathematicians, none are carpenters' wives...

To start with, it was almost overwhelming. There were years of overlapping in-jokes you had to get up to speed with quickly. There were rules, games, odd bits of terminology, there was spontaneous outbursts of communal singing all the flippin time. It wasn't really explained, you just picked it up.

And there was sport. Thank you lord. Heaven for me was this - competitive cricket-like sport called podex in the morning, casual sport all afternoon, some tea, a bit more casual sport, then a bit more organised sport in the early evening. With individual racket and table football competitions to be fitted in alongside that. It's the sport, I think, that creates the clearest image in my head.

I haven't mentioned yet, but Clayesmore was beautiful. A public school with extensive grounds by the village of Iwerne Minster, Dorset, overlooked by Hambledon Hill, the 19th century main school building was a grand stately home. There were fields, there were trees, all green and yellow, all the best of idyllic England in high summer. It was like suddenly being let loose on the set of Mansfield Park ... and turning it into a massive sports complex.

It was ok to be competitive - not too competitive but fairly competitive - each day I sported myself to exhaustion - table tennis, padder tennis, touch rugby, podex (cricket/rounders-like, won't explain), cricket, football, tennis, swimming, croquet - just take your pick. Organised games, spontaneous games, wherever you looked, all day. I know the sport was meant to be about fostering teamwork and good spirit etc. I'm not sure I need to see it that way - for me, it was always just pure sport, but the fact it contributes so heavily to these memories says enough. There are still games of football and touch rugby, padder tennis, shots I hit, shots I saw, that I treasure. God was definitely in the sport, man.

God ... right, for the elephant in the room up to now. I'm finding it hard to write something which was real and now isn't. It's often what us unbelievers don't understand, just can't get to grips with, about people of faith. To believers, it can be a real, tangible thing that exists in the world, that you feel and see and hear. If you get that feeling, if you experience god, you'll go to any lengths to explain how that might be (or rather, sometimes, you won't).

I wouldn't say I understood anything about how I might go about feeling god's presence (I'll be using lower-case henceforth, as a deliberate personal choice, just to be clear) to start with - I think maybe it took me a few years. But gradually, I came to a sense of  something there in the small moments, in the poignancy, in the friendships, in the sounds and the rituals.

It wasn't all sport. There was a daily service, there were talks, there were regular biblical discussions, there was time for prayer and opportunities, first thing and last thing, for individuals to share specific ideas and thoughts. Prayer is a weird thing, isn't it, especially in the light of the way we live now? I think I went into it with the same attitude I have again now - as an awkward silence within which I'm very likely to burst out into spluttering, embarrassed laughter.

But, over the course of those years, I got the hang of prayer in all its forms - how to sound dignified and serious when praying out loud, how to stay calm and confused when others' prayers are a bit funny, how not to think of football, and, gradually, how to be silent, how to listen, how to keep my mind still, how to let my mind wander, how to consider myself and consider god.

At the end of the evening service, there was silence, and we'd all just gradually leave at our own speed. To start with, I'd be one of the first to leave and a bit baffled as to why anyone would hang around when there was still a bit of daylight for one last bit of cricket. I'd sometimes stand outside the chapel looking at people walking out looking thoughtful and pious 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes later. Hmm, extra piety points ...

But the stillness of prayer gradually became a part of my daily routine - I mean, I'm quite sure a few times I stayed behind to make myself feel godly and impress on other people just how serious I'd become, but I genuinely felt I was talking to god and being heard.

I'd also begun to read the Bible and other works of popular Christianity, I'd engage fully on discussion where I'd previously been merely disruptive and facetious, I'd give considerable thought to what it meant to live as a Christian in the world. It mattered the most to me then. Honestly, amidst all the things any self-respecting teenager ought to be thinking about, that was genuinely my main concern. What an idiot ...

The Christian Union was not prescriptive or doctrinal - certainly not straightforwardly so. Indeed, it made a big thing of being open to everyone in the school (a boy's school) - there were Anglicans, Catholics, there were plenty of agnostic and non-believers, there were also Jewish boys and Muslims sometimes.

Other faiths were respected, other paths to the top of the mountain, as it was put. So what was my path to the top of the mountain (which I was never to reach)?

Well, looking back now, I don't think there is too much to be ashamed of in what I believed, quite the contrary. Though I say the CU was not prescriptive, and had a place for all manner of beliefs and practices, I think, overwhelmingly, the mood that came across was of an open-minded, liberal kind of belief system - I don't remember anyone being anti gay marriage or anti women priests or too hellfire and damnation-y. I don't remember too many people who took every word of the bible as scripture.

Equally, I don't think it was all that lightweight and woolly - we talked of the atonement, we talked of sacrifice, we talked of how to live the good life, of what were worthwhile professions, of our sins and our pride, amongst many other things.

I'm quite sure it had a huge effect on the person I am even now. I tried to remake myself a little in those years. To take away the ghastly pompous show-off I pretty blatantly was and rebuild. In the end I, arguably, merely rebuilt as a slightly different kind of pompous show-off, but, you know, I think there was some improvement.

Also, I do wonder how much it affected me politically. To some, religion is highly conservative, to some the CofE represents a kind of gentle ineffectual liberalism, but the vision of Jesus that stuck to me was definitely that of a socialist firebrand, the man who destroyed the temple, who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, all that stuff.

This is one of the main questions I ask myself even now - would I have been left-wing anyway, or did Jesus make me left-wing? Are my "principles", whatever they are, still informed by my understanding of the gospels. I had reached the conclusion that no, I put my stamp on my faith because that's the kind of person I'd have been, anyway. Right now, I'm not so sure. Thanks JC, you've a lot to answer for.

I developed for myself a fairly severe personal set of ethics - something that would eventually be pretty impossible to live by. I sometimes wonder if it was the high standard I set for living a Christian life that contributed in part to my faith failing. Did I subconsciously ask, "is this what it takes? If I'm going to do this, it's got to be serious, and I just don't know if i can or if i want to ..." Perhaps, that's something. Amongst other things.

My faith hit a high point in my last year of school, when I was by this point one of the leaders of the CU. I mean, I give myself credit, I was taking this shit seriously. I was volunteering, I was going to church every week, praying every day, I had arranged a gap year where I went as a guest of the church to Kenya (not a missionary, I hasten to add, there was no sense of converting anyone. They were perfectly well converted).

During that year, I had what one might call an experience of the holy spirit. The kind of thing I think I'd been asking/praying for all along. A physical demonstration within me of god's spirit, a rushing, overwhelming certainty. Even now, as I write this, it's a little harder to explain away than a few other things. But explain it away I do and I can, for what it's worth. The human body is funny. The mind plays tricks.

Immediately afterwards, I felt certainty, though. A certainty I'd never had before. Again, I wonder if that certainty was part of my undoing. Certainty passes, and when certainty passes, you have to hold on to confidence. And mine wavered.
Just a few weeks later, I still remember, I was reading something as innocent as an interview in a music magazine, I think it was with a band called The Longpigs, and something or other someone said suddenly hit me in the guts with my first ever, "No, it's not true, is it, none of it's true, there are better explanations for everything ...". I'd lived with doubt all along, I'd not been a blind believer, but I'd never had that crushing sense of an opposing certainty before.

I fought it. Very hard. For a few years. I flitted between renewed attempts at faith and greater doubt. The next year abroad now looked very daunting - I was nervous enough about going to a strange country to live without electricity and running water, but now, what was the purpose of my going? I was under false pretences. I'd have to lie to my hosts, just when I needed to be true to myself, it would be horrendous (as it happened, I lied a bit to start with, but gradually less, which was a bit awkward, but better).

The group through which I organised that gap year were quite evangelical - I was significantly confronted by people whose Christian faith was different than mine - who believed all of the Bible, who were so thankful, lord, and just wanted to praise you, lord, and just seemed to be talking fucking gibberish a lot of the time. And the songs were fucking awful.

That was not what I needed at that time. I didn't need to be regularly thinking "this is a whole load of hokum" in my crisis of faith.

Like I said, that wasn't the end of it. There was still the odd return to the fold. I even went to church quite often long after I'd given up any pretence at belief - I suppose for some hint of that sense of fellowship, of community and also of stillness.

But I never got back what I'd had for those five years. For me, now, I think my nostalgia, my active sense of loss, is not about the faith, it's about the experience, the comradeship and the innocence.

And the singing. Gosh, the singing. Firstly there were the hymns - the classics from the old songbook like Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, My Song is Love Unknown. You'll have heard them 1000 times, but never heard them sung like that, I swear.

And the other singing - one of the daily rituals, known as Sing-Song, a nightly congregation round the piano. I'm not sure I always enjoyed it that much. It was sometimes cheesy as hell, and there would be a bit too much swaying and eyes shutting in the front row sometimes. There was a bit too much of "this is the fun one, but hey, this is a serious one" ... but there was some great singing (solo and communal) and, above all, I think it added to my love of the song - the folk song and the protest song and the kind of song people can sing together. The kind of song that changes the world. It was the first time I sang a Bob Dylan song - Blowin' in the Wind - albeit not much like Bob Dylan sang it.

I've done my best to remember every song we ever sang there - i'm sure I've missed plenty - you get the idea - silly songs, children's song, folk songs, protest songs, religious songs, show tunes, changes of mood, all stuff designed for 100-odd voices to sing together.

  • You are My Sunshine 
  • Seek Ye First
  • Ol' Man River
  • What a Wonderful World
  • The Wild Rover
  • The Gypsy Rover
  • Streets of London
  • All My Trials
  • Blowin' in the Wind 
  • I Believe 
  • We Shall Overcome 
  • We Shall not be Moved 
  • Jerusalem
  • Inch by Inch
  • Teddy Bears' Picnic
  • John Brown's Body
  • Swinging on a Star 
  • Let it Be
  • Life is ...
  • Banks of the Ohio
  • Molly Malone 
  • Alouette 
  • Siffler Le Train 
  • Animal Fair
  • Kumbaya 
  • Yogi Bear
  • Camptown Races
  • Bridge over Troubled Water
  • You'll Never Walk Alone
  • Underneath the Arches
  • Green Grow the Rushes
  • Mack the Knife
  • It's a Long Way to Tipperary 
  • Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head
  • Pack Up your Troubles
  • Swimming
  • Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes
  • Rise and Shine
  • Day is Done
  • One Man Went to Mow

It's all a strange vision of what it is to be a teenager. What's missing from the standard teenage reminiscences? - girls, drugs, booze. It seems all the more remarkable in retrospect how all those teenage hormones were managed so seamlessly. I've found when I tell people about it that they are a bit querulous and that, to them, it sounds a bit a) cultish b) jolly hockey sticks c) ancient Athenian. But it wasn't. That wasn't the environment. It was refuge from the loss of innocence. It was grounded, but separate. At least, that's how I experienced it.

As the years passed and I had more of an organisational role, I of course saw that it wasn't all that innocent. It was extremely well organised, even calculated. The older folk who were being kind to younger lads to their face were taking the piss out of them in private (hell, I did!).

There were cheeky cigarettes in the woods and illicit trips to the pub, there were internal politics and personality clashes.

But, you know, you'd worry if there weren't. They were good people. There are so very many from that time I have some good memory of, people I'd trust implicitly even now.

My foul apostasy disqualified me from carrying on with it in any kind of organisational role. I felt a dreadful sadness then, I really did. But I was ready to move on, In my late teens and early 20s, I spent a lot of time with the connected PHSP charity - it was more grown-up, less idyllic, there were a lot more drunken arguments.

Even that, and the connections I made there, has begun to fade from my memory a little. I'm sure it'll get its own blog post some time soon.

As for this one, it would have been great to fill it with photos, but I guess the point is that I don't have any, apart from in my head. I'd be amazed and impressed if anyone's got to the end of this. I think I ended up somewhere between reserve and going all in.

I don't know how well I've done what I intended, how much I've communicated the sheer joy of those House Parties - the sketches by properly funny people, the running jokes, the elaborate parlour games, the quality of the sport sometimes, the ambling through the countryside, the trumpet playing in the moonlight, the custard, the team names, the match reports, the gradual descent from cleanliness, the reading the tabloids, the drinking fizzy drinks, the pop songs that were the soundtrack to each dormitory (that first HP of 1991 is indelibly connected to Right Said Fred's I'm Too Sexy, by 1993 it was the Manics' La Tristesse Durere - talking of the passing of innocence), the talks by seriously good orators, the cups of tea, the sunburn and tired feet, the friendships. No TV, no mobile phones, no laptops, no income tax, no VAT. Nostalgia.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The real London

I only wrote this poem a week ago, but already it seems horridly out of date. My intentions were good, my feelings were honest, but I read it back this morning, and nearly every line accuses me of missing the point, of bowdlerizing the city I love, insensitive to its deeper truths. It's a London leaver's work - I wouldn't have written it like that if I still lived there, I think.

Grenfell Tower is the London that non-Londoners (and plenty of Londoners) don't understand. When Kensington and Chelsea shockingly went Labour last week, we all said, "see, even the richest folk are voting Labour now", but that wasn't it. There are two sides to Kensington and Chelsea. It's true of much of London. Wealth within touching distance of poverty.

I used to play football there - firstly at the Westway Sports Centre, under the Westway (which is the centre of the relief effort), then later on some little 5-a-side pitches right in the shadow of Grenfell. I can't say I ever really noticed it. It was just another high-rise. I tended to keep my head down and enjoy my football.

It was edgy round there - not worryingly so, but it was the kind of place to keep your wits about you. Kids from the estate playing on the next pitch as we played - various people are remarking about the grief they're feeling now, as if someone in the family has died. I suppose different people will have different reasons for this - it was so close, people Londoners will have walked past, worked with every day. But too many of us forgot about them.

I forgot about them as I romanticised Trellick Tower, West London's most notable brutalist tower block. "Look at Trellick, isn't it strangely beautiful". I never gave a thought to the less striking Grenfell, and I only occasionally dwelt on the people inside the tower, rather than the tower itself.

I forgot about it when I defended gentrification - gentrification is only defensible when it makes some significant attempt to carry everyone with it.

With this most awful event - what feels like the most awful event in our city's memory - maybe we can glorify and elevate the people of the tower, the people too long forgotten. Already the potted biographies of the missing remind you of the immensity of every life - the 1000 perils they might have already got through, the imagination, the graft, the goodness, the unbearable sadness now.

There's a lot to be said about it, there's a lot being said. We all know there's a big scandal waiting to be fully unearthed. I don't want to go on too much. Maybe it will change the way we all think, that's all.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

London loves

I've been thinking about that there London this week. Five years since I've lived there, and maybe it feels a little less like my home than it used to, but not that much.

Here's a photo I took of the Shard rising up behind The Tower of London - I'm crap at photos, but you get the point ...

I quickly wrote the following about London this week ... sometimes it doesn't feel like it, but London gives back what you put into it.


When London loves back,
The glow of centuries’ labour
Sparks ten million hearts
On a summer evening.

London, from on high, is all
Parks, hospitals, football grounds, churches,
Dotted with oddities
Of architects ancient & modern,
Ringing with ghostly choirs of
Filth & fury.

No city's so unplanned
And fantastical, purer
Than symmetry, with so many
Centres and shelters from the storm.

London, on a good day, is
Six hundred square miles
Of festival, is
Six hundred square miles
Of everything in the whole world.

London lies dormant,
Then bubbles with hopes,
Simmers with ridiculous clashes
Of untameable tribes,
Of sacred and profane,
Lost in lucre, envy and both.

Even tube trains come alive sometimes,
Embarrassed to look up
Then wild-eyed and glorious
Like a karaoke booth,

When London loves back,
A hipster’s allowed to be
just another lost boy
Who’ll wait his turn
For a fair price,

Raise his lips to the sky
On a riverside path
And breathe his own air
For a second,
And it’s cool.

London, fresh with Fuller’s,
Feels safer than any statistic
Or any sadistic prick
Can ever tell you otherwise,
Feels like every freedman’s fiefdom.

No other city contains so many towns,
defending their own honour,
nor hides so many battles raging
A few layers beneath,

No city so Irish or Polish
Or Ghanaian or French
Or whatever you are, whatever you want to be,
No city so godless
Or ecumenical.

No other city feigns indifference
Quite so democratically
But loves you back sometimes,
And lights up your heart.

No exile from London
Doesn’t, once in a while,
Wake awash with the sounds and the smells
Of the permanent city
And smile a prodigal smile.

I can tell, when I hurry back,
Assume my London glare, my London shuffle,
My home’s not
Forgotten me and my
Vain attempts to measure it,
I can tell it knows it owns me
And I owe it still, and always.


And here's a playlist about London, but the joy of London ...

Upfield – Billy Bragg
London – Benjamin Clementine
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Galang - MIA
London Pride - Noel Coward
Up the Junction – Squeeze
In the City – The Jam
Itchycoo Park – The Small Faces
The Sights and Sounds of London Town - Richard Thompson
For Tomorrow – Blur
Electric Avenue – Eddy Grant
Rudie Can’t Fail – The Clash
Trams of Old London - Robyn Hitchcock 
A Rainy Night in Soho – The Pogues
Brompton Oratory – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
22 Grand Job – The Rakes
Blue Piccadilly - The Feeling
Dreamy Days – Roots Manuva
At the Chime of a City Clock – Nick Drake
Time for Heroes – The Libertines

Monday, 8 May 2017

Supersonic / Touch the Sky

I'm just going to hitch a couple of minor thoughts together in the same post, one's about Oasis, one's about Kanye West.

I watched the Oasis documentary from 2016, Supersonic - it was the early hours, I could have watched a few other films I need to catch up on, but for some reason I watched that.

It was a good work. It avoided the cliches - didn't mention Blur or Cool Britannia or Blair or Britpop. It didn't go past Knebworth in 1996. It gave the band some meaning - not all that much, but a bit.

It gave context, did show the sillier, lighter more childish side of Liam Gallagher, while not disguising how toxic the atmosphere around the band must have been (bullying, sackings, breakdowns etc though not for the two protagonists).

I can't say it has made me think about or listen to the band in a new light. I listened to Definitely Maybe today - it's still exactly what it always was, no more, no less.

But the thought I took away, which I've thought about before in the context of a few other bands, is that moment, if you're just a guy who's got a band together with their mates, and you're hoping for the best but no great expectations, when the guy you've been told writes the songs plays you something he's been working on, and you go "Hang on a minute, this is something, we've got one here!" The nervous delight you must feel.

With Noel Gallagher, when he joined his brother's band, he played them All Around the World (in 1992, well before they broke and five years before it was released). Well, now, it's a bit of a lump of a song, hardly one of their classics, but just hearing the ambition, the way with melody and universal sentiment, the sudden nudge "we might all get rich off this guy", it must be quite something.

Stevie Jackson talked about the same thing when he first heard Stuart Murdoch's songs - he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Of course, it doesn't happen like that all the time, in fact it probably rarely happens these days when rock bands hardly have any successful songs which make them rich. Still, a nice moment to imagine.

On to Kanye. Kanye at Glastonbury in 2015, specifically. Two years ago - perhaps I've been making my mind up all this time what I thought about it (I only watched it on telly, I should add).

There's a fierce determination amongst the indie music press to anoint Kanye West as the great genius of the age. He tells us how long he spends on an album, what a genius he is, what an artist he is, and a lot of people go along with it. His albums are always near the top of end of year polls.

I'm quite a fan, mainly of the album Yeezus, but quite often I'm sure I'm missing something, but I think that Glastonbury album confirmed for me that, no, I wasn't.

When the songs were good, they were great, but the more I think about it, the more of a profound exposing disaster the set was.

A lot of people complained that it was just one man jumping around on the stage to a backing track, with no real music being created. I can partially forgive that, but it does suggest that either didn't see the point of, or was unable to, show that he could orchestrate his music to an even small degree. I mean, I'm sure he could ... and that's not the point, sure.

But what the show demonstrated was his huge lack of judgement, his complete failure to understand what would work in a wider context - a challenge which most artists who do the main stage at Glastonbury, even if its not their natural territory, meet a lot more successfully.

Arrogance might be a part of it. Arrogance on its own is fine, if arrogance leads to the right calls. But thinking the Glastonbury audience would think him getting on a crane for 10 minutes was awe-inspiring, or thinking singing along badly to Bohemian Rhapsody would hit the mark ...

And that's how I felt about his next record really. Just a bit of a poorly judged mess. Kanye West doesn't have to be hated or loved, he can just be a bit shit sometimes.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Great Works of the Alt-Country Middleweights

I've used the term "alt-country middleweights" (sadly not one I coined myself) several times on this blog down the years, and each time the post has received almost record low pageviews - so here goes again. Something about the term must be utterly offputting to the casual reader.

But I persevere - because Alt-country middleweight is, despite feints towards eclecticism, my abiding taste in song, and very fine it is too - all those American men and women now in their 40s who really know their way round a song - this is the apotheosis of Uncut music.

It's a loose term, and I've been loose with it in compiling this list of what are my own 25 masterworks of the genre. Is an alt-country middleweight defined in their weight category only against other alt-country artists? Surely Wilco would be alt-country heavyweights if so? But none of these have ever sold more than a few 100,000 records, none of them are really household names, so I let'em all in.

Are they all really even vaguely country? No, not at all. I only excluded blatantly urban bands and artists like The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, The National's midwestern roots just about let them in.

And it's very personal, there's no pretence at objectivity - the likes of Smog, Gillian Welch, Giant Sand, Mark Eitzel, Felice Brothers, Low, Yo La Tengo would all feature heavily for others.

But these, looking back, are 25 albums I've loved wholeheartedly across a period of almost two decades. I've allowed only one per artist. Wilco, as you no doubt know, would probably have four of five albums if not.

No particular order at all. Too many men, really. No Newsom - somehow a whole different genre, though she's as country as some of them.

Micah P Hinson and the Gospel of Progress
A one-off, aided by The Earlies, a raging, brooding melodrama with some epic sounds which lent themselves well to Hinson's doomy growl. Key tracks: Don't You, Patience
Lapalco - Brendan Benson
A perfect album of power-pop from a class songwriter. Not a song out of place. Key tracks: Tiny Spark, Eventually
Nashville - Josh Rouse
A world-beater in a different world, the definitive alt-country middleweight. 1972 has equally great songs, but is more pastiche, this is the perfect Rouse collection, a lovely cohesive album. Key tracks: My Love Has Gone, Sad Eyes
The World Won't End - The Pernice Brothers
More utter perfection, a chamber-pop summer swoon, which you well know contains my favourite song of all time. Key tracks: She Heightened Everything, Bryte Side
Nixon - Lambchop
Soulful and funny, Kurt Wagner switches between croak and falsetto to devastating effect. Curtis Mayfield and Johnny Cash rolled into one. Key tracks: Up With People, You Masculine You
Benji - Sun Kil Moon
Grumpy misanthrope tells it like it is. Personal vignettes told with humour and pathos, one of the best albums of the last few years. Key tracks: Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, Ben's My Friend
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
What can be said? An altogether great, triumphant album, a career highest of highpoints amongst many. It's great when you communicate ... yeah. Key tracks: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jesus Etc
Alligator - The National
Still my favourite National album, and not as urban as their later works (still, who am I kidding that it's anywhere near alt-country). Monstrous drama and great drumming. Key tracks: Mr November, Abel
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley
An album to fall in love with, flies between indie-pop, balladry, soul, folk and a country stroll. The best songs Jenny Lewis wrote. Key tracks: I Never, More Adventurous
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning - Bright Eyes
Mainstream but not too mainstream, this album contains a couple for posterity. Key tracks: Lua, The First Day of My Life
Cease to Begin - Band of Horses
One of the best of those archetypal Neil Young voices, a fantastic collection of rock songs with slight country tinge and great guitars. Key tracks: No One's Gonna Love You, Is There a Ghost
The Shepherd's Dog - Iron and Wine
Beautiful allegorical story-telling, cleverness and hushed beauty abounds. Key tracks: Resurrection Fern, Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Queen of Denmark - John Grant
Formerly of the Czars, big-voiced hero makes grandly bitter heartbreak album with the help of Midlake. Key tracks: Sigourney Weaver, Queen of Denmark
Van Occupanther - Midlake
One of the best of the lot, a world of its own, a nostalgic sad unrepeatable epic of an album, pastoral and mystical. Key tracks: Roscoe, Branches
Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
Almost the definitive alt-country album and probably still Adams' best work. All the tricks. Key tracks: To Be Young (Is to be Sad, is to be High), Come Pick Me Up
I Am Shelby Lynne - Shelby Lynne
Very country, doused in southern soul. One of the best singers going, a heady album: Key tracks. Your Lies, Dreamsome
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Almost too big for this, what an incredible sound they made when they came out, the coming together of all the sounds, almost too clean at this stage but still glorious: White Winter Hymnal (check out Josh Tillman hatching his wicked plans at the back), He Doesn't Know Why
Something More Than Free - Jason Isbell
Formerly of Drive-by Truckers, a beautiful recent collection: Key tracks: The Life You Chose, To a Band That I Loved
American Band - Drive-by Truckers
The first time I really fell for this band (though their song Danko/Manuel is also a pretty definitive song of the genre). Music to unite a divided country. Key tracks: Ever South, What It Means
The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Folk-rock-country-prog, or whatever, this glorious mad collection is their finest moment. Sons and Daughters, man, Sons and Daughters Key tracks: The Crane Wife 3, Sons and Daughters
A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson
Great when a country artist goes alt. Key tracks: Welcome to Earth (Pollywog), In Bloom
Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
Bit of a toss-up between this and Matthew E White (who produced this album). Combines country and southern soul Key tracks: My Baby Don't Understand Me, Violently
Stereo/Mono - Paul Westerberg
One of the godfathers of alt-country and americana, and one of the great voices, this is my favourite solo collection of his, a ragbag, messed up little masterpiece with more stinging lines than most folk ever think of. Key tracks: Baby Learns To Crawl, Only Lie Worth Telling
case/lang/veirs - case/lang/veirs
A modern supergroup, and one of the best albums of 2016 - just chose this over a Neko Case solo album. Key tracks: Song for Judee, Best Kept Secret
The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy
Well, if i'm going to have this, I should have Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips, I suppose. Well, shoot, too late now. Uncomfortably beautiful masterpiece. Key tracks: He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot, Underneath the Weeping Willow

I've tried to choose live tracks where possible, just because, you know, that's more fun, albeit some of them are well ropey.

Anyway, these are some of the cosmic geniuses of modern music. At festivals, we used to play a game when we saw an game of saying "We'll have to formulate another one" whenever we saw an extravagant beard. Well, there were a lot of other ones formulated to these sweet, check-shirt, beardy sounds

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hey Henry, can you hear me?

Returning to writing about specific lyrics, here's a nice simple one.

The Decemberists are not known for being a simple band, though. They've released seven full albums and they're acclaimed for highly literate, theatrical, lengthy stories in song, 8 minutes of The Mariner's Revenge Song, the 11-minute Crane Wife 1 and 2, the hour long concept album of The Hazards of Love. Glorious conceits, an acquired taste which gradually became more and more successful.

The frontman Colin Meloy has enjoyed an alternative career as an acclaimed children's author - as he sings in one of the band's finest songs The Engine Driver "I am a writer, writer of fictions ...". And, so he is. Not that poignancy is entirely absent from his lyrics, but it's a long way from confessional. I'm pretty certain there is not a single confessional moment in the first 5 Decemberists album. It's all a wonderful hoot.

The sixth album is 'The King is Dead'. The third song is 'Rise to Me'. A slow, grand tune. The first verse is about mountains and rivers, their permanence and strength. There's nothing really unusual in terms of Decemberist songs.

Then the start of the next verse ...
"Hey Henry, can you hear me?
Let me see those eyes
This distance, between us
Can seem a mountain size
But boy, you are gonna stand your ground
They rise to you you'll blow them down
Let me see you stand your ground
They rise to you you'll blow them down"

A man who has not given one little thing away in several years of successful recorded music, then this ... Henry is his son with autism.

It's just a gut punch, a completely unexpected moment of naked communication. It never fails to move me. Even without the context, it's a moving song, about nature, about strength, about love and parenthood.

Like Brief Encounter, or the solitary tear moving slowly down the cheek of the stoic, it's moments like this, rather than regulation emotional splurges from the usual show-offs, which are the most moving.

Songs can and should stand alone, but the nature of song allows real life to intrude, and with powerful effect. I've been loving 'Nobody's Empire' by Belle and Sebastian too recently, the most autobiographical and triumphant song Stuart Murdoch's written.

There are so many ways Colin Meloy could have slightly hidden the context of this song, but he had no intention of doing so "Hey Henry, can you hear me?" Without second-guessing him too much, surely he wrote this, so far out of his songwriting comfort zone, to burst out, to genuinely achieve what the question is asking. We're almost eavesdropping, but he's letting us.

Anyway, here's a live version.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Voices

I started thinking about who my five favourite voices were, and it inevitably turned into a list of 100 voices. What can you do?

Whether we like a singer is one of the most subjective things imaginable and also pretty much a sine qua non for fandom. The voice just stops a lot of us at the door of certain artists. A lot of people find that with Bob Dylan, I'm led to believe. I feel the same way about Bono and Mariah Carey. I can't imagine deriving pleasure from listening to them sing, even if they're, in the former case, emoting their head off in front of a highly proficient band with some perfectly well-written songs, or in the latter case, very technically accomplished.

Still, there are some singers who take the scope for subjectivity away a little - not many people don't like to listen to Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin sing. Some voices are just great.

So, I'm making a list, vaguely along the lines of voices of the last century, people with unique and influential voices, unforgettable, powerful, definitive, expressive, unmistakeable.

These are all voices I love (sometimes more than I love their music), apart, perhaps from Elvis Presley, but really it would just be silly not to have him in this list.

In some cases, these are combined voices.

It turns out the list doesn't contain many of my favourite artists, eg Stuart Murdoch, Gruff Rhys, just because it's not necessarily the singing that elevates what they do, they make the voice work beautifully to deliver their songs, but it's not as such the voice that stops you in your tracks. Also, no Joanna Newsom, not quite, even though her voice does stop you in your tracks.

The list isn't in order of how much I like them, but vaguely chronological - I suppose you can trace the history of how popular songs have been delivered through this list of voices. It's ended up being pretty old-timerish and rolling-stoney, hasn't it?

  1. Paul Robeson
  2. Billie Holiday
  3. Louis Armstrong
  4. Ella Fitzgerald
  5. Hank Williams
  6. Odetta
  7. Judy Garland
  8. Frank Sinatra
  9. Julie Andrews
  10. Johnny Cash
  11. Nat King Cole
  12. Elvis Presley
  13. Jackie Wilson
  14. Roy Orbison
  15. Joan Baez
  16. Sam Cooke
  17. Bob Dylan
  18. Ronnie Spector
  19. Diana Ross
  20. The Beach Boys
  21. Marvin Gaye
  22. John Lennon
  23. Aretha Franklin
  24. Van Morrison
  25. Steve Winwood
  26. Simon and Garfunkel
  27. Steve Marriott
  28. The Temptations
  29. Tina Turner
  30. Dionne Warwick
  31. Dusty Springfield
  32. Merle Haggard
  33. Nina Simone
  34. Joni Mitchell
  35. Crosby Stills and Nash
  36. Janis Joplin
  37. Levon Helm
  38. Mavis Staples
  39. John Fogerty
  40. Stevie Wonder
  41. Barbra Streisand
  42. Glen Campbell
  43. Scott Walker
  44. Al Green
  45. Sandy Denny
  46. Jimmy Cliff
  47. Michael Jackson
  48. David Bowie
  49. Tom Waits
  50. Minnie Ripperton
  51. Bob Marley
  52. Roberta Flack
  53. Bill Withers
  54. Freddie Mercury
  55. Karen Carpenter
  56. Emmylou Harris (and Gram Parsons)
  57. Debbie Harry
  58. Joe Strummer
  59. Annie Lennox
  60. The Proclaimers
  61. Kevin Rowland
  62. Jon Bon Jovi
  63. Michael Stipe
  64. Morrissey
  65. Whitney Houston
  66. Paul Westerberg
  67. Axl Rose
  68. Frank Black
  69. Chuck D
  70. KD Lang
  71. James Dean Bradfield
  72. Kurt Cobain
  73. Eddie Vedder
  74. Jeff Buckley
  75. Beth Gibbons
  76. Lauryn Hill
  77. Liam Gallagher
  78. Snoop Dogg
  79. Thom Yorke
  80. Ghostface Killah
  81. David McAlmont
  82. Eminem
  83. Jeff Tweedy
  84. Lucinda Williams
  85. Beyonce
  86. Ryan Adams
  87. Robyn
  88. Andre 3000
  89. Guy Garvey
  90. Jenny Lewis
  91. Karen O
  92. Martha Wainwright
  93. Jim James
  94. Neko Case
  95. Hamilton Leithauser
  96. Amy Winehouse
  97. Ben Bridwell
  98. First Aid Kit
  99. Laura Marling
  100. Kendrick Lamar

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The streets groan with little Caesars ...

or, in full,

The streets groan with little Caesars,  Napoleons and cunts 
With their building blocks and their tiny plastic phones Counting on their fingers, with crumbs down their fronts 

from Darker with the Day, the last track on No More Shall We Part, the 2000 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Up until this year's extraordinary Skeleton Tree, I'd say that No More Shall We Part was my favourite Nick Cave album, closely followed by The Boatman's Call. One of the many things those albums have in common is Nick does a lot of walking.

No More Shall We Part is a very walking album. Darker with the Day begins "And so with that, I thought I'd take a final walk" ... he's just walking around, saying what he says.

It reminds me of running - running in the sun around Tooting, Wandsworth, Clapham Common, in the rain and snow around Sevenoaks, around Ashford and Willesborough.

Even on my best days, when there was a great big sun smiling down, I'd run with hatred and loathing, I'd run as if every amateur, dilettante, hack, cowboy, clone, little Caesar, Napoleon and cunt was my sworn enemy.

It can make one feel special, walking or running through the world, observing and thinking you and Nick Cave are the only ones who realises it's a world of hacks, Caesars, Napoleons and cunts, but, of course, everyone else is thinking it too. This is hardly one of Nick Cave's most insightful lyrics, but it's the sheer deliciousness of the juxtapositions and the annunciation which makes it such a joy. Cunts, he said. Oh, yes. To this stately, mournful tune, cunts. 

And then there's delight in the next two lines - the bit about crumbs down their front reminds me of a bit in Stewart Lee's latest Comedy Vehicle about Rod Liddle having food down his front. Sadly, it's not on youtube or anywhere, so you've either seen it or you haven't, there's no way to describe it.

So, it's been a shit year for good things, the left has lost, let's be honest, the balance has tipped and the window of hope has closed. We're back in some dark ages and they may be the darkest of the lot.

But there are still marvellous master craftsmen like Cave and Lee, there's still great joy in self-righteous loathing, sometimes I don't think I'd swap that for all the hope in the world ...