Friday, 18 December 2015

2015 Music

Well, this, by and large ...

Having said that and noted the truth in it, I did consider opting out of my usual rundown on the year's music, not because of the sheer banality of the enterprise, but more because I was slightly disappointed at how closely my own favourites do conform to the usual suspects you'll see in various critic's polls.

So easily is it possible to track critical consensus on various ratings sites that I sometimes wonder, especially through the prism of 20 years of taking on music journalists' scores and opinions, whether I even have a personal, pure response to music any more.

And, this year, as it happens, there was pretty significant consensus from music critics as to the Number 1 album of the year: To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar. And, unusually, this album received not only vast critical acclaim but also achieved considerable sales, being one of the 10 best selling albums of the year in the USA and a Number 1 here.

But not the best selling album of the year. No, we know what that is. Perhaps any attempt to provide a brief survey of popular music in 2015 without talking about Adele's 25 is absurd, but that's pretty much how it has to be with me. I haven't listened to the Adele album, nor am I likely to. I note the stats, this remarkable and rare dwarfing of  a culture by an individual entity, like Harry Potter and the publishing industry. McDonalds and fast food, Hoover and hoovers. The first week her album was Number 1 it sold more than the next, what was it, 86 put together? Coldplay, supposedly the biggest band in the world, can't top her this week,  can't even get close despite it being her third week in the charts.

Oh yes, people like Adele. Adele will have sold multiple times more than all the people I'm going to talk about put together many times over. But not for me. I remember hearing her first single Hometown Glory before it came out, highly recommended, and I just instinctively, immediately, didn't like her tone or diction and have never been able to get past that, and still can't.

Daftly, then, one of my favourite albums of the year is 'Divers' by Joanna Newsom. I appreciate I am in a minority to find Adele's tone and diction more of a hindrance to musical enjoyment than Joanna Newsom.

Adele's '25' may be a masterpiece. I'll never know as I'll never be able to give it fair listen. 'Divers' may be a masterpiece. I can't quite decide. It suffers only by comparison in my mind to its predecessor, 'Have One On Me', which I consider pretty much the greatest collection in modern song. 'Divers' has affected me somewhat less than 'Have One On Me', but I'd still say it's the album I've listened to and re-listened to and enjoyed the most this year.

Newsom is at the forefront of modern singer-songwriters, almost all female, shaping songs into new forms with literacy, imagination and virtuosity which adds to, but does not overshadow, the simpler pleasures in the songs, all the time ducking reductive descriptions like "ethereal", "elfin", "delicate" etc.

Sleater-Kinney might not be described as ethereal, elfin or delicate. Their comeback record 'No Cities to Love' was probably the rock album I enjoyed most this year - short, sharp, serious and anthemic. It came out early but nothing really topped it.

Likewise, Natalie Prass' debut self-titled album. One of those records where the first review of an artist unknown to me got me thinking "Hmm, I like the sound of that" - 8 out of 10 times the album in question is a little disappointing after that, but in this case the very first song 'My Baby Don't Understand Me', alerted me to the possibility this might be a classic. Sad and soulful, incredible brass, string and woodwind arrangement, understated but memorably tuneful, it turned out to be the best song on the album, though the rest was not far behind.

In fact, if I were to pick one, 'My Baby Don't Understand Me' would be my favourite song of the year, just ahead of Sleater-Kinney's 'Hey Darling'.

The good thing about this newfangled streaming business is, of course, that you get to listen to everything, to give things a spin you wouldn't necessary spend a tenner on because it's not particularly your preferred genre, just to see whether the reviews and the hype are true. But equally it means they can be quickly disregarded in the way that a significant investment wouldn't allow. So, I think "what I ended up listening to most" is the fairest test of what my favourite albums were.

[I don't know if other people find this with streaming but, for me, it's meant I've almost always been listening to albums all the way through, as opposed to a lot of buying individual songs or creating playlists very quickly from my favourite songs on albums which is what tended to happen in my 8 years on iTunes].

I listened to 'To Pimp a Butterfly' just to see what the hype was about, really. I wasn't a big fan of the Kendrick Lamar tunes I'd heard from his last album. I knew it was going to be far too long (almost 80 minutes), far too jazz, far too smug. Yet I have listened to it more than anything else apart from Joanna Newsom this year. It has gradually but entirely won me over with each listen.

Until a couple of months ago, I was thinking, it's great, but it could lose 15 minutes, but now I've given up even that line of resistance. It seems very much like the greatest hip-hop album I've heard, like the hip-hop album to convert non-fans, like a genuinely major work for good in the music world, like Bob Dylan, The Clash, Public Enemy. He's ahead of you at every step, answering your objections, questioning his own motives, funny, then angry, then showing off, then stealthily virtuoso. It's bristling with great tunes and great arrangements, with surprises and slogans, it'll be hard for him or anyone else to top.

If there was another masterpiece this year, I think it was 'Carrie and Lowell' by Sufjan Stevens - it couldn't be much more different than 'To Pimp a Butterfly'. Singularly focused rather than expansive, about half the length, as free of showing off as you can possibly imagine. Just a collection of songs about something very sad, short on the flair that Sufjan (no relation to Cat) is often associated with.

It contains many devastatingly sad songs. Almost two decades ago, prompted by the a section in the book 'High Fidelity' which talks about pop/rock music's dearth of songs dealing with death, I got it into my head to search out the saddest songs in the canon. I made tapes and tapes of sad songs. Aah, happy days!

Well, sad songs have a new reigning and undisputed champion. 'Fourth of July' by Sufjan Stevens is the Gennady Golovkin of sad songs - polite, composed, understated, deceptively cheery, unostentatious, it slowly corners you, traps you and decimates you, leaves you collapsed and destroyed. Well, maybe. It's pretty sad, anyway.

What else? Lots of bands and people I've always liked released records, some to more notice and acclaim than others. Blur's 'The Magic Whip' was fairly delightful, albeit hard to make a conclusive decision on. It kind of tricked the listener by being so back-loaded. The first few times I listened all the way through I left with the feeling it was a classic, so strong was the impression the second half made. But the first half is, truthfully, a bit average. I don't know how many Blur fans will have listened to the first half thinking "well, ok, it's nice to have them back and it is at least Blurry" only to be so pleasantly surprised by the run of top-class Blur songs in the second half - My Terracotta Heart, Pyongyang and Ong Ong ticked all the Blur boxes and no mistake. Overall, I'd definitely put it among the top half of Blur albums and that's good enough for me.

You might have heard that one, but probably not 'Kablammo!' by Ash, which passed without trace .. - but if we're talking mid-90s bands still doing what they're good at really well, I say 'Kablammo!' was 'The Magic Whip''s equal. If you remember Ash fondly, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Idlewild, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, The Decemberists, Stornoway, Squeeze, Bob Dylan, Paul Weller - people I like who did stuff this year which was fine and good without changing the world.

Roots Manuva, Wilco, My Morning Jacket ... people I like who did very very enjoyable albums.

Belle and Sebastian - a band I like who, for me, came out with their first genuine stinker this year. They're just trying to make a type of music they're not that good at making, and they've been doing that for too long. Lost a bit of hope in them.

Bjork's 'Vulnicura' is a fabulous album. I'm quite a late convert to Bjork, but this album, like most of the best of this year (apart from Kendrick Lamar, whose album rambled all over the place) had a discipline, a focus, a concentrated emotional centre. Wonderful music, not for the faint-hearted.

I'd also say, if you like the kind of thing (which I don't particularly) Public Service Broadcasting's The Race for Space is a really fun record - kind of prog storytelling about the space race which is a little bit like being in a cool teacher's primary science class.

Well, I had some big theory that I was going to try to formulate, about how popular song has now become a primarily feminine form, and I was going to posit several specious reasons for this. Thank goodness for everyone, I won't be doing that. Maybe the next years most of the best albums will be by chaps, anyway. Can't wait for the new Howard Jones album to blow the opposition away.

My favourite 10 songs, I think ...
  1. My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
  2. Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney
  3. Fourth of July - Sufjan Stevens
  4. King Kunta - Kendrick Lamar
  5. Time, as a Symptom - Joanna Newsom
  6. What Went Down - Foals
  7. Ong Ong - Blur
  8. London - Benjamin Clementine
  9. All Your Favourite Bands - Dawes
  10. Damn It All - The Staves
My favourite albums
  1. Divers - Joanna Newsom
  2. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar
  3. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
  4. Carrie and Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
  5. No Cities to Love - Sleater-Kinney
  6. Vulnicura - Bjork
  7. The Magic Whip - Blur
  8. If I Was - The Staves
  9. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett
  10. Bleeds - Roots Manuva
But these were also divertingly pleasant and interesting to listen to

On Your Own Love Again - Jessica Pratt
Kablammo! - Ash
Have You In My Wilderness - Julia Holter
The Waterfall - My Morning Jacket
Short Movie - Laura Marling
Art Angels - Grimes
Bonxie - Stornoway
Every Open Eye - Chvrches
What Went Down - Foals
Star Wars - Wilco
Eska - Eska
At Least for Now - Benjamin Clementine
Blood - Lianne La Havas
Love Songs for Robots - Patrick Watson
In Colour - Jamie XX

and, actually, quite a few others.

Generally, nearly all those who've been my favourite people in all music - eg Super Furry Animals, Bob Dylan, Wilco, Blur, Joanna Newsom ... did something or other this year. Watching the Furries was my favourite musical experience of the year, and hopefully they'll record something and that'll be the best album of next year.

I've listened to less chart pop music this year than usual (I usually try to stay on top of it for work as much as anything else) which I think is probably a good sign. Obviously Uptown Funk was, before Adele, the overwhelming hit of the year, and now it seems like there are lots of other things trying to copy that formula - well, there are worse things chart pop can sound like.

But, above all, I have this vague sense that songs and albums are just getting better, for some reason, whatever that means. That this is some kind of golden age for the artistry of the whole thing, across different genres. It's easy not to think that, especially if your favourite thing has generally been guitar bands, which mine has, because it's not guitar bands making the best songs and albums right now. But that might change next year.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

We Hate Hank?

 ... no we don't.

We rather like him, anagram fans.

Ethan Hawke is one of those actors, like Richard Gere, say, or even Hugh Grant (though on a totally different level), who has thinkpieces written about him, because he's not just an actor, he's a representative of something, he's a story within a story.

You're never totally totally sure that he's excellent (although, with Hawke, you're pretty certain) but that doesn't really matter.

Looking at his filmography,  I've seen 12 Hawke films. I like nearly all of them. I love a lot of them.

Some might say he's lucky that, by his association with Richard Linklater, he's part of some truly great, transcendent cinema. But Linklater's just as lucky. It's the Scorsese/De Niro of our age.

Hawke seems nearly always to be playing some version of himself - that's rather the point. A young man growing up on film, from Dead Poets' Society to Before Midnight and Boyhood. He's nearly always some kind of "good", some kind of "hero", albeit he's annoying and insecure, selfish and error-prone. A sweaty, geeky, neurotic normality combined with sharp intelligence.

He plays an author, an absentee father, a guy who's marriage to a beautiful wife breaks down, he plays imperfect and pretentious.

He's not completely unrecognised (I'd thought he was) he has writing Oscar nominations for work on the 'Before' trilogy, a couple of Best Supporting Nominations for Training Day and Boyhood.

I caught a scene from Boyhood on TV yesterday - it kind of summed so much of Hawke up - it's early in the film, it's when he takes his kids bowling and he's telling Mason he doesn't need the sidebars - life doesn't give you sidebars. He's telling the kids their mother is "a piece of work" in the most affectionate way imaginable, he's explaining his absence, swearing and donating to the swear jar. It's one of many wonderful scenes in the film. You don't know at this stage if he's going to be a shitty dad or a great one, but you hope it's the latter, and so it turns out to be.

Because of his authorship and his role in the writing of the 'Before' films, but also just because of how he is, I watch so much of his scenes thinking he's truly giving the audience something of himself.

With the wrong actor, that might be awful, but it's what makes him great.

I know a couple of film fans who initially weren't charmed by Before Sunrise because, basically, Hawke's character was too annoying, but as the three films progress, they were won over, as they realised that was almost the whole point.
The character of Jesse and Celine are just about the truest you'll ever come across in film - it can make other so-called realistic scenes quite hard to watch afterwards.

What are my favourite five Hawke movies, counting 'Before' as one, which is a bit of a cheat.

Dead Poet's Society
Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight
 .... Hmm, then it's a bit of a toss-up, but I think I'll go for Reality Bites, for old times' sake.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

My Favourite 101 Songs

I do all these lists, don't I, but it's been over five years since I actually told you what my favourite songs are. No arsing about with pretence to objectivity or strictures or structures.

Here they are. There is some small structure. I thought "Since I last made a list of My Favourite 100 Songs five years ago, what have been my favourite songs within that time?" So not just this second and not throughout my whole life either. I looked at what I'd listened to most, thought about what had consistently thrilled me in the various contexts I listen to music, and then knocked this together in no time at all.

If you follow the blog, there are few surprises. There's plenty that was here last time. It's depressingly lacking the kind of eclecticism I'd be compelled into if I was doing anything but expressing a preference for the very cream on the top of the 100s of 1000s of songs that have passed through my ears.
  1. In California - Joanna Newsom
  2. The Rat - The Walkmen
  3. All My Friends - LCD Soundsystem
  4. Going Underground - The Jam
  5. Ice Hockey Hair - Super Furry Animals
  6. Hey Lover - Dawes
  7. Isis (Live) - Bob Dylan
  8. Losing You - Randy Newman
  9. I See a Darkness - Bonnie Prince Billy
  10. My Girls - Animal Collective
  11. La Tristesse Durere - Manic Street Preacher
  12. Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen
  13. The First Day of My Life - Bright Eyes
  14. Emily - Joanna Newsom
  15. Bryte Side - The Pernice Brothers
  16. The Only Living Boy in New York - Simon and Garfunkel
  17. St Patrick - James Yorkston
  18. The Good Intentions Paving Company - Joanna Newsom
  19. Lean On Me - Bill Withers
  20. So Long Marianne - Leonard Cohen
  21. From the Morning - Nick Drake
  22. Slaveship - Josh Rouse
  23. My Wandering Days Are Over - Belle and Sebastian
  24. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - Bob Dylan
  25. Doo Wop (That Thing) - Lauryn Hill
  26. Love Anyway - The Waterboys
  27. Between the Wars - Billy Bragg
  28. Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher - Jackie Wilson
  29. Hey Darling - Sleater Kinney
  30. Grace - Jeff Buckley
  31. Dry the Rain - Beta Band
  32. Angela Surf City - The Walkmen
  33. Northern Sky - Nick Drake
  34. People Ain't No Good - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  35. Be My Baby - The Ronettes
  36. We Can Work It Out - The Beatles
  37. Steady Pace - Matthew E White
  38. There She Goes, My Beautiful World - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  39. Heaven - The Walkmen
  40. Snow is Gone - Josh Ritter
  41. Rise - Josh Rouse
  42. The Trapeze Swinger - Iron and Wine
  43. Trellick Tower - Emmy the Great
  44. A Case of You - Joni Mitchell
  45. Mr November - The National
  46. Let's Make This Precious - Dexys Midnight Runners
  47. Mississippi - Bob Dylan
  48. Sons and Daughters - The Decemberists
  49. Make Your Own Kind of Music - Mama Cass
  50. The Mercy Seat - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  51. Idiot Wind - Bob Dylan
  52. Holes - Mercury Rev
  53. Fire in My Heart - Super Furry Animals
  54. Fight the Power - Public Enemy
  55. Olympian - Gene
  56. Floating in the Forth - Frightened Rabbit
  57. America - Simon and Garfunkel
  58. A Rainy Night in Soho - The Pogues
  59. 14th Street - Rufus Wainwright
  60. She's Your Lover Now - Bob Dylan
  61. Sweet Jane - The Velvet Underground
  62. Chicago - Sufjan Stevens
  63. Massive Night - The Hold Steady
  64. This is a Low - Blur
  65. Funeral - Band of Horses
  66. The Weight - The Band
  67. When the Haar Rolls In - James Yorkston
  68. Don't You - Micah P Hinson
  69. American Trilogy - The Delgados
  70. Redemption Song - Bob Marley
  71. Family Affair - Mary J Blige
  72. Like a Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
  73. Jesus Etc - Wilco
  74. Chin High - Roots Manuva
  75. Wake Up - Arcade Fire
  76. $1000 Wedding - Gram Parsons 
  77. Carey - Joni Mitchell
  78. Sunshine on Leith - The Proclaimers
  79. Billie Jean - Michael Jackson
  80. Moon River - Audrey Hepburn
  81. Faster - Manic Street Preachers
  82. Severed Crossed Fingers - St Vincent
  83. Sweeping the Nation - Spearmint
  84. Round Eye Blues - Marah
  85. Sweet Thing - Van Morrison
  86. Jackie - Scott Walker
  87. My Baby Don't Understand Me - Natalie Prass
  88. I'm Gonna Make You Love Me - The Supremes and the Temptations
  89. Misunderstood - Wilco
  90. Out on the Floor - Dobie Gray
  91. Dreamy Days - Roots Manuva
  92. Little Baby Nothing - Manic Street Preachers
  93. Dancing On My Own - Robyn
  94. Scottish Pop - Spearmint
  95. How - Regina Spektor
  96. Rise to Me - The Decemberists
  97. Galveston - Glen Campbell
  98. Oxygen - Willy Mason
  99. Be Not So Fearful - Bill Fay
  100. Instant Karma - John Lennon
  101. Gimme Some Lovin'   -  The Spencer Davis Group

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Those same streets

I write about music and sport here. I love these things and I've bored many a person trying to say that they're not just parts of life, they're the most important things in the world. I really think that. Now more than ever.

It's understandable for people to think otherwise. It's understandable because often our joys and pleasures seem separated from the business of life and death. People who don't love sport think people go to football matches to care far too deeply about something for a couple of hours as an escape from their real lives. It's a view. It's not how I see it, but it's a valid view.

Likewise, the songs and the gigs and the festivals we love can seem like a hermetically sealed place of magic and wonder. While we're there, we're free. But, some might say, its not real, it's not the hard stuff.

And we get so cross about our rivals, our Arsenal FC and Australian cricket team, and we love the bands we love, and look down on the others - we go, pah, the Killers, pah One Direction, I wouldn't waste money going to see them.

I'm sure you know where I'm going. My blog can be hermetically sealed, I try to avoid any public reaction, whether here or on facebook, to anything of the wider world. It's not more important, I say to myself, it's just more boring, and also I've fewer fun and interesting thing to say about it.

So. I've seen everyone reacting in their different ways on social media to what happened in Paris on Friday, and I didn't think I'd join. People were very quickly finding ways to disagree with how each other were responding, what was appropriate, what wasn't. It's what we do, these days. It can be exhausting, annoying, occasionally amusing.

A lot of people cried "hypocrisy" and mentioned the 100s who die elsewhere every week. But it's never a numbers game. If it were, if people cared equally about each untimely death, we would not get through a minute without crying.

Modern history contains a few events which have been unusually unsettling for me. I speak for me. But the list is probably shared with most other people of my age who grew up in a city. I may have spent my whole life being treated like, and also cultivating the image of being, a bit of an oddball, someone who thinks slightly different things, but I'm really not so different.

I love going to restaurants, pubs and bars, I love football and other sports, I love live music, I love the hum of a great city on a good night out. Those things, they're just the best, aren't they?

And we have taken them for granted. We have. Those have been our safety net. And now, maybe just for a while, maybe for longer, they won't feel so safe.

That's what they want, obviously. I don't know much about them, but the news and the thinkpieces tell us they're an anti-culture millenarian death cult, a joyless version of what we decadent city folk would think a living hell. They're destroying sites of ancient culture in the Middle East, they'd try to destroy modern culture.

We're going to have to take a few deep breaths in order to get on with it. I've not been in Paris for a while, not been to the Bataclan, am not a fan of Eagles of Death Metal,  not been to the Stade de France or (I don't think) the bars and restaurants which were attacked. But I've been to other great cities, other great gig venues, seen other great bands, been to other great stadiums and been to other great bars and restaurants. Most of us have.

Are we hypocrites because we feel strongly that it's our life which is under attack? No, not hypocrites. Can this lead to a siege mentality, and a retreat to our larger tribe? Well, it can, it can, but these great cities, they don't let that happen for long, not if you've got your head screwed on.

I don't want to romanticize and mythologize the lifestyle of the Londoner, the Parisian, the New Yorker. We know those cities have their problems. But what is true that you see people who are totally different from you every minute of every day there. Different but not that different. And that's what makes it great.

I've taken to writing poems again lately. I hope this isn't crass.

I count the difference with precision,
Find new foe in every phrase
And stripe, each eyebrow raised
Lends me a new subdivision
To lean myself limply against.

We walked the same, or similar, streets,
With different step and colour scarf
Wincing at each misjudged laugh
making sure we didn’t meet
with no harm done or meant.

I offer now my quiet and gentle scorn
For your beautiful lives lost,
Affront held without cost
and just as casually forsworn –
this gift we shared, our very best.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Fame is for the few

Righto, so here's another thing. You could say it's from the perspective of being someone who loves cool stuff and is a bit obsessive about the details of it, and spends their working days and nights finding out exactly the living, breathing, working world knows about stuff, cool and otherwise, and generally getting ground down by how depressing that is.
This is the kind of line I deliver ...
"Yes, we all know that as an Adele song, but that's the original ... no it's not Louis Armstrong  ...  no, not Michael Bolton  ... it's Bob Dylan (small cheer). Very well done to the three teams that got that..."

I'm perhaps a little disappointed by this. I had a killer first line, I think (though I've gilded the lily there a little) but then I think it's often just couplets, just punchlines. Anyway, maybe you disagree.

The flow does work,  I promise, though you may have to be a bit flexible ...

Right, it needs a name  ... remember the name ...


Fatal fame is for the few, whatever Andy Warhol said
To Valerie Solanas as his holy torso bled.
Now even Lili Taylor’s just a footnote to a star –
A face, but not a name, of rarely rewatched cinema.

The fruit tree’s sprouting wildly, constantly, inedibly
And not one bright but tasteless plum will leave a legacy
Like Achilles, Moses, Iron Man or any other figure
Lucky to be connected with a name that’s even bigger.

When Lou Reed died, the radio did play Who Loves the Sun –
so the sixty-seven folk who formed a band could bask as one
in their hard-won separation from the standard frame of reference
and the 7 and growing billion who could not tell the difference.

The purpose of the practice of the pedant – to correct -
Is futile, if its underlying goal is not respect
For the labours of the undersung, deserving, at the last,
to break free from blithe errata of the clinically unarsed.

Bob Dylan makes a quiz question by virtue of Adele
Deigning to judge which lumpen ballad’s dull enough to sell.
A roar, a point for glory, is this a new fanbase cracked?
Our survey says the surface is the only point of contact.

Festivals raise cult heroes back to that one big stage
Where bearded bubbled revellers can mourn a bygone age
When talent and adventure earned reward, renown, repeat -
All tomorrow’s parties lit by yesterday’s conceit.

Even if you bleed charisma, tingle with clear-eyed ambition
Death is not a guarantee of fitting recognition.
On the day Joe Strummer died, the DJ followed Train in Vain
By asking if we’d hear such a distinctive voice again.

Death invades relentlessly this rock and rolling news age
And instantly the tributes pour from every user’s web page.
They tweet a name they half-know but they do not mourn the man,
Knowledge at our fingertips is shared history down the pan.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

A post about lists about songwriters

OK, so I'm almost sucked back into the habit of reducing everything to some ludicrous competition based on my own underqualified views ... but not quite.

I saw Rolling Stone magazine's list of the Greatest 100 Songwriters of All Time and immediately thought I'd be able to do a better one. But, thankfully, in this case "doing a better one" means not doing one, just talking about how unutterably rubbish their one is. Got it?

So this was the point along the path of the illusion of objectivity and judgement I could not kid myself into crossing.

At least with "Songs", "Albums", "Footballers" etc, one has an actual complete product to judge if you're so inclined. You see the thing and you say whether it is good. Whereas you do not see or possibly understand the process of songwriting, you just get the product.

There are so many parts of judging a "songwriter" which are unknowable. Who did what? What role did the producer play? What effect has the singing and playing had on our assessment of what was "written"?

And, of course, the term Songwriting is biased against people making certain kinds of music. Who is a songwriter? Fatboy Slim? Is Dr Dre a songwriter? Is Brian Wilson only half a songwriter?

You get my laboured points ... I'm taking the high ground now but of course, despite all these points, I nearly did have a go at making this list, it just got too silly.

It didn't take me long to be bothered by the Rolling Stone list. I looked for one name - Damon Albarn. Nowhere to be seen in the Top 100. That was sufficient for me.

Of course, one can just point out that Rolling Stone is catering to its demographic, and why would it do anything else? But it's just a bit depressing. I hope, if you ever read my lists, it comes across that the "truth" of it all is a wonderful and hopeful thing I haven't progressed to a state of grasping yet but I'm trying my best to get there in a fair-minded way which takes into personal bias and the things I don't understand. Well, it probably doesn't come across, but I promise, it is a bit like that.

What I mean is, if you crunch the numbers on the Rolling Stone list, you find (taking into account partnerships),

There are
90 Men 16 Women
71 White Songwriters 29 Black
81 North American 3 European 15 British and Irish 1 Other
and, if you ask me, worst of all
84 whose main work was pre-90, 16 post-90 (and I was generous about this, eg Madonna was called post-90).

How ghastly that something to do with rock'n'roll is so conservative and deathly. British music of the last 25 years was represented solely by the nebulous "Radiohead"  (who, exactly, in Radiohead?).

OK, after all that, and promising i'm not actually going to do a list, what would one try to take into account if such a list needed to be made?

-Is one classic worth 10 quite good songs?
-Are their fine songwriters hidden inside dodgy bands/dodgy voices?
-Are we to judge it as they used to judge ice dancing, on artistic impression combined with technical merit?
-How does Joni Mitchell stack up against Pete Waterman?
-What's the most important bit of the song?
-How far back would we go?
-How would we define and limit what a song is?
etc etc

Of course, there are probably many many masterful songwriters who've never been heard of, who've quietly worked as ghosts behind the scenes for many years, just as their probably a few stars acclaimed as songwriters whose role in the creation of songs is actually rather limited.

You should check out the Rolling Stone list, it's really depressing

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats

I've become determined, all of a sudden, to become more accomplished at writing verse, so I'm going to use this blog to that end for a while.

I decided to write six poems about Sonny Liston. I thought they might end up being about an imaginary Sonny Liston, but they're mainly on the real Sonny Liston or tangents from that.

You need a soundtrack to read these poems and I'll supply one.


Night Train - James Brown
Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats - Chuck E Weiss
Sunny - Morrissey
Love Love Love - The Mountain Goats
Song for Sonny Liston - Mark Knopfler
Glenn Tipton - Sun Kil Moon
We Didn't Start the Fire - Billy Joel
Rumble in the Jungle - The Fugees
Babe I'm On Fire - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Don't Feel Right - The Roots



And a brief bibliography

Night Train (aka The Devil and Sonny Liston) - Nick Tosches
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times - Thomas Hauser
King of the World - David Remnick

So, here are the poems
  1. The Ballad of Sonny Liston
  2. The Long Arms of Tommy Hearns
  3. If God Judges, He Surely Judges Like This
  4. The Sonny Liston Appreciation Association
  5. The Night Train
  6. I’ll Write a Book About Sonny Liston


A man was born they know not when
Of stone and hate and power
The same man died they know not how
They know not at what hour.
The man was Charles L. Liston
Or Sonny as he’s known,
Though he grew up as no one’s child
And died disgraced alone.

The yellow-shirted bandit,
nicknamed by the police,
He roamed through old St Louis,
disturber of the peace.
Sonny robbed, he mugged and burgled
Although the sirens wailed.
That juvenile delinquent boy
became a grown man jailed.

A priest said that kid Liston
He looks like he could swing.
He may not read, he may not write
But he’ll fit in the ring.
Well, Sonny was a natural,
He crushed each man he hit
They put him straight in with a pro –
Two rounds and the pro quit.

Sonny left the jail house fit and
Ready for the game.
Golden Gloves brought triumph
And growing local fame.
His exploits got him noticed
By every suited hood.
It took him up the ladder,
But not for lasting good.

Cops kept their eyes on Sonny,
Then put him back inside,
He got out and left for Philly
And would not be denied.
He beat every contender,
Too strong, too mean, too hot.
They tried to stall him in court but
At last he got his shot.

Even President JFK
Begged the Champ to win,
"This Liston’s bad for business,
Discredits his black skin."
But Patterson had no answer
To Sonny’s fierce left hook.
In Fight 1 and in the rematch
One round was all it took.

He went back to Philadelphia
Pleased and proud as hell,
Stepped off the plane to blank silence -
Sonny’s face just fell.
He dreamed once he became the champ
He’d earn a bit of praise,
But they could not forgive Sonny
His sullen, doleful ways.

This big mouth from Kentucky
Came for Liston’s crown
So brash, at last Sonny was not
The most loathed man in town,
But Cassius owned the talent
And the tide of history.
Not to say Sonny’s collapse
Does not remain a mystery.

Cassius became Muhammad Ali,
Liston was forgotten -
A chapter to be written off,
Regrettable and rotten.
Sonny’s life was swallowed up
Into crime and drugs.
The champ became just one more of
the underworld’s paid thugs.

So ignored was Sonny Liston
In Vegas living Hell
No one noticed for a week
He’d heard his final bell.
At the grim delayed discovery
Gleeful rumours spread -
Mishap, suicide or the mob
Needed their stooge dead?

That was the end of Sonny Liston,
Who never stood a chance,
A victim of his own great strength
And tragic circumstance.
He never had the love, the glory,
Never got the money
But those who know, they know full well
No one hit like Sonny.


I fixed a fight in sixty-eight for Joe Gallo,
So I was told.  I made the calls, I picked the round,
I ruined a young man’s life for fifteen thousand flat.
I managed Sonny for a year, made no attempt
To halt his fall. I bought him blow, I kept him low,
I told him Clay wouldn’t take the calls I never made.
 I never killed a man myself, but never saved
A life where lives, by straight words whispered, could be saved.

I live less than one thousand miles from Vegas now,
Could drive there in one day if needed, but going back
To Vegas is the last thing I would ever do.
The last big fight they gave me, I already half knew
My half-remembered face would not be seen again
In Caesar’s or the Grand. I bet on Hands of Stone
To flatten Tommy Hearns, cut off his skinny legs.
Duran was punctured, flopped head first to ground in two,
It felt like Hearns was drilling me through - you’re next, punk,
This ain’t your night, this ain’t your life, you’d better run,
But know these arms will catch you up by round fifteen
And know my sting’s like nothing else you’ve felt before.

I watched Hearns-Hagler pay-per-view, a hotel room
In dark New York; a few blocks over from the court.
 As Tommy flailed half-drunk and bust, all bets were off,
I wished I could go back. You pull out now, dumb fuck,
They’d say, those lucky clowns who trapped their willing rat,
You’ll wind up in a shallow grave, whichever way.

This farmhouse in Montana is no place for me
To watch what little boxing is on free-to-air
These days, to watch my back, to turn each corner, look
With bloodshot haunted eyes for Tommy Hearns’s jab.


A cricket player, seventeen, obsessed
With justice from on high, a foolish soul,
A decent bat, vice-captain of his school,
this dusty 90s summer afternoon,
A motley travelling team of men descend
Called Incogniti, inexplicably.
The boy recalls five years before, the same
Assorted bunch of bulky bearded blades
And bowlers brought their bonhomie to Barnes –
While he, yet then, obsessive cricket fan
Spent happy hours outside the fence, or, bliss!
within the scorebox, watching, keeping note,
Recalls a little ball of spinning wiles,
All jokes and tricks behind his lefty wrist,
His name was Liston, written in the book,
His chirping team mates called him Sonny Boy.
Those five years later, “Sonny” Liston, much
The same in look and wits, returned with his
Anon’mous band of braggarts, there to teach
These boys a lesson – cricket for grown men.
What’s in this name, the boy he feared the worst,
The day was long, his play was off, his own
Left arm refused to yield to his command.
His mind laid traps but only for himself,
The men set in and dug themselves a score
To strike concern within these youthful hearts.
As wickets fell, the boy had feet of clay –
His usual role as rock beyond today’s
Loose, fretful mindset. Duty called with dread
Death rattle, nonetheless. A day to save!
But Sonny Liston had a different plan –
Deceptive loop and, to left-handed bat,
That dangerous spin away which needs sharp mind.
No ball came near the middle of his blade –
An ugly sequence of embarrassed prods.
At last, the misery appeared to end –
A nick, thank god, looped to the hands of slip.
But no, to ground. This toil must carry on.
Come on, then, boy, let’s fill them with regret.
Bed down, stick in, your form will sure return.
But no! Another edge looped up to hand!
Good god! What chance! Another gift disdained.
And then, the boy, had he been of sound mind
Would sure have counted up his lucky breaks,
As he had managed countless times before,
Re-energised and saved the blessed day.
This time, a different monologue prevailed.
You don’t deserve to be here anymore –
It’s time to place your fate before your God –
When next this Sonny Liston throws it up,
Then charge and swing, and if you should connect,
The day is yours, the Lord lends his support.
It seemed like such a good plan at the time.
A looped leg-break, the feet move down the track,
A lofted drive, a sightscreen to be cleared …
Was the idea … the truth was more prosaic …
Head in the air, feet stranded out of crease.
The end of that. The Lord has picked his side.
Suffice to say, his team was unimpressed –
Repeatedly “responsibility”
Was uttered coldly. But the boy, by now
Perversely proud, would not apologise
that sporting justice meted from on high,
in Sonny Liston’s portly guileful form,
was best accepted, even best embraced …
this stance, no doubt, you’ll be surprised to hear,
met even more lukewarm of a response.


Che Guevara, Brian Lara,
Desmond Tutu, Adrian Mutu,
Iron Maiden – should have stayed in
No one thinks the same as me.

Cotton Traders, Oakland Raiders,
Guns ‘n’ Roses, Edwin Moses
Pulp, Oasis – smug, dull faces
No one wears the same as me.

England rugby, Scotland rugby,
I can’t mingle, so much Pringle,
Endless gilets, boredom relays
Am I the only member-to-be

Of the Sonny Liston Appreciation
& Admiration Association
Sonny is the Man for me,
But I’m his only fan, sadly …


I boarded the night train in dark grey Perth
Weary and wired to find that my berth
Was not in a bed nor cabin my own
But a seat in a carriage with persons unknown.
“Facilities” intoned the guard with louche spite
“extend to a bar and your own reading light”
Small blessings determined I should make the best –
“this night may not offer me glorious rest
But there’s smooth ale for drinking and tough words to ponder,
A life to uncover then a mind to let wander.
I’ve a bio to read about old Sonny Liston
Destroying whomever he laid his right fist on”.
Sonny would train to the sound of James Brown
Singing out loud the name of each town –
“Carlisle! Penrith! Preston! Runcorn!”
Sonny’s huge shadow getting its funk on …
Three hours in after three cans of Deuchars
I’m dreaming of Gretna and thinking ‘bout Leuchars,
frontier town shoot-outs and old sons of slaves
never receiving the ovations they crave,
never beloved and never set free
to stay on their feet against Clay nor Ali,
never the liberal’s civil rights dream,
Too rough, too exploited to fit with the theme
Of King and Baez, of Johnson and Dylan -
Whoever the foe, this Liston’s the villain.
Five hours have past, my drunk eyes are stinging
I hear the night train but James Brown’s not singing,
It’s the low southern blues haunting my ears,
Sonny’s cornering me – “time for the final arrears”
The baleful visage of a man born for pain,
Beating against the sides of my brain.
“I’m parched, Sonny Liston, get me a drink
And I promise I’ll change the way people think
about bad Sonny Liston, unsolved mystery,
ghost of the night train, pariah of history”.


Sonny Liston found a way to turn hate into love;
Death did not defeat him like Muhammad’s phantom punch.
He might well not believe it if you told him of the songs
And books written to save his soul long after he is gone.

I’ll write six poems about him just to tell him someone cares
About the misbegotten, vilified and easily led.
There’s no worthwhile 20th century if Sonny is erased,
The light will shine upon him, though too little and too late.

I’ll write six poems for Sonny Liston, making one for every round
He lasted with Ali on the grim night his life fell down.
History needs it villains, but those villains need a break -
Sonny Liston’s afterlife need not be marked with shame.

Line the streets of Philadelphia ‘cause it’s Sonny Liston Day.
History’s been rewritten and his reputation saved.
All around St Louis I hear crowds of people shout
God save Sonny Liston, you can’t keep a champion down.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

A folk age

This old blog's been hobbling along for some time now. For a year or so, in both this music blog and the sport blog, I've been feeling a little dissatisfied and wanted to come up with something of a bit more substance.

The times I've had a structure and an idea to work through have been the most fulfilling, and lately I've just been either making lists of songs or finding ever more elaborate ways of giving my underqualified opinion on something or other.

All well and good, but the vanity in me has wanted to come up with something I can take a little pride in.

At the very start, the blog involved lists of songs and poems based around the same subject, with varying degrees of success. That finished in 2010, and, coincidentally or otherwise, I haven't written many poems at all since.

But, in relation to the blog, the idea to write something solid and fitting has been growing on me. I decided I wanted to write something quite long, something of the mini-epic, and to take in various subjects I've written about in the blog. Going from there, I decided I'd have to write in iambic pentameter. I've written in pentameter before, but back then I never really felt it was my friend, that it was too limiting, but for this new task I felt I needed that discipline.

I determined to write with more discipline than I had before. I never took more than a couple of hours to write a poem when I was younger, and only occasionally edited. It was a young person's way of writing, a haphazard call for occasional inspiration with mixed results.

This time, whatever the result, I wanted to have a more adult approach.

So, this is what I've done. I've taken as a starting point the words that most commonly are used to describe my taste in music (he likes folk, he likes indie), thought around the meaning of those two words, and come up with this.

A folk age

A folk age of scarce skill and little fire
Crept, in a strange hysteria, to screen
Disquieting these sombre missionaries
Returning weary, bloodied, to the hearth.
What land is this, that we left in safe mind
And cold hands? If it turned, it turned so slow, 
With cautious squint slipped over rose - scratch rose -
Sepia-tinted beige NHS frames.
Those eyes are weeping now. Weeping for what?
This mind persuaded far too easily
To heed the measured words of a sell-sword
Who led by dissembling he could be cut,
The first and gravest deal maker, thenceforth
Upgrading and outsourcing to no end.
We met to share before we’d made full count
Of what we were free and prepared to lose.
So, lost it’s been - for freedom and for shame,
So lost and safe to shed our privacy …
Or dignity, as if that were a ruse.
But how did we get here, you ask again,
Where folk songs find a new voice and create
The most unlovely karaoke stars
reshaping flames of lurid campfire storms,
where hieroglyphs of hate stunt, poison, mock
all hope of quietly impressive growth?
There were, of course, impasses, no, even more,
Outbursts of humour, harmony and harps
In bingo halls and country parks alike,
That strange uncertain union of glee
Released from shuffling feet and stumbling fast
O’er midnight branches laughing wildly at
The most unlikely icons newly framed
In sweating glade, afoot on burning lake.
They’ll say it’s gentrifying at its worst,
They’ll say, those miseries who made it so.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how
It could have made a difference far beyond
The natural footsoldiers left behind.
Perhaps we were waste, mere collateral,
An occupation for dissenting hearts –
To revel, not to fight, until too late.
And what to fight, and how? For most, half-blind,
Soft moving targets virtually cry out
To bear the declawed fury that just serves
As catnip for a foe now long escaped –
I see your virtue and I raise contempt.
Your so-called folk songs aren’t the people’s now,
Your protest is an empty selfish bawl.
The happy guilt of postcolonial bliss
Expired, a short-lived na├»ve liberal’s dream,
In patronising charitable frauds
And aid gifts that declined to decompose.
It’s hope, irrational hope, that breeds disgust
At calm pragmatic suited ex-firebrands,
It breeds the endless scuffling of the good
And their intent that good’s uncompromised
Or it’s no good at all.  In hope they live.
Reared into the great independent age
Of visionaries, proud of their mistakes,
First ghastly apparitions from the deep
Washed golden, then, by Olympian gods,
For brief but long-remembered glory days,
who ruined themselves for art, for Channel 4
Voxpops on documentaries way too late
To make the difference that they think they made,
Though it was beautiful, they do recount.
Exact timelines are harder to agree –
So many tribes, with valid claim to paint
Some key ekphrastic scene in what may be
The final epic worth a silver tongue,
Discount the other. How this story needs
A chronicler of independent soul,
Who’ll write and rewrite, true to their one task,
The grand expanding history of pop –
And how it never really stood a chance.
Nowadays, the people’s songs sound like they weren’t
Written by living people, at least not
The kind you’d dream of ever giving love.
Democracy moves further from the will
And the consensus of the feverish
Hive mind, all impotent petitions for
The daily stigmatising of some Christ-
Forsaken sniper, who’ll ascend in time.
So where did these Eumenides descend
From? Not one single tear was shed between
‘50 and ’97, then dams burst far
And wide at once, feeding the soil where sprung
In time, this wild poisoned incontinence
Of empathy, all sharing, caring more.
And not a single person died between
’45 and ’2001, then each
New death was marked by gathered epitaphs
Of deeply saddened sad machines, so quick
To tap out tides of grief; if not, then rage.
Some barbs, impossible now to delete,
Wound and affect more than the next last post
Aggrieved of Tunbridge Nowhere up-in-arms
Fired to eviscerate some long-way-down,
All shorn of poise, all decontextualized.
No trumpet lends such screeds new dignity,
No still small voice is heard above the storm.
No man or woman waits, ablaze in time
For pale blue origami promises
in airmail’s grand adventure, long withheld.
Oh time, how do you fill so easily?
I miss your tricks; now, I prostrate myself
Before the ticking strap, relentlessly
Informing and returning to the game.
I miss the doubts, not knowing what I thought
Or what I ought to think, or what the folk
Without coherent thought might know so well.
It is, in fact, a numbers game, just not
The one I planned for. X-hit wonders click
And click the clock to scattergun renown.
Those hard-earned stark statistics stand and fall
By show of thumbs, and those about to die
Have no direction nor an emperor to turn
to raise respectful yet resigned salute.
We loathe and glorify the fight at once,
We crucify dissenters, then deplore
The crucifixion. Numbers keep us safe,
But not as safe as remote solitude
Puts armour on this folk age chorus line.
And Dikaiopolis, this sleeper cell
Of jovial loathing, makes obtuse demands
revering some lost Angles’ language, claims
the common tongue is his and his alone,
this simpering rhetorician’s puppet toad.
And oh, the chorus howls and boos and laughs
And oh, it claims and counterclaims anew
And cites new sources, mobilised to stamp
Its modern expertise into the ground,
Promoting condemnation for its sins
While earmarking forgiveness to forget.
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.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Lost Albums

You often hear about Great Lost Albums, and often they're not that great, and not even that lost. I suppose music journalists and record companies have to find new ways to interest themselves, so every few months there's some reassessment or reissue which deserves a place far above the standards in the pantheon.

I can't even begin to remember all the lost classics I've sought out and been disappointed by. Equally, there are plenty of gems.

Now, bearing in mind the moniker means nothing really, I'm going to list a few albums which might have been either re-issued with some hoo-haa, might be in some household name's discography an retrospectively proclaimed to be greater than their more acclaimed work, or some little thing which was bobbling on for years with no one paying much attention and then suddenly everyone was talking about it.

I've been thinking about this because I've lately been listening to a couple of Van Morrison albums which have always been fairly well acclaimed but have been out of print for more than a decade and so only possible to get for a fair penny (I even tried to get them via Amazon only for my order to prove fruitless). Anyway, they've lately been re-issued, so I finally got to listen to them - St Dominic's Preview and Veedon Fleece - and you know what. they're flipping awesome, both deserving a place alongside, or at least near, Astral Weeks and Moondance.

When you've followed music magazines as closely as I have over the last two decades, it's quite rare to encounter what used to be the greatest joy - discovering the wonders of the past. Between the age of 15 and 30ish, my life was a relentless quest to track down every classic album, starting with Sgt Pepper's and Pet Sounds, all the way down. I've written before about my organised approach, scanning the lists, the Top 500s etc. I bought whatever my money would allow, so gradually put my library together. iTunes was, of course, initially, a boon, but eventually, I found more and more, there was still plenty that was new and exciting, but there wasn't that much that was old and exciting.

"Lost classics" were more and more duffers, and sometimes they were they same lost classics that had been rediscovered 10 years previously.

And, anyway, critical consensus is not bulletproof, but it's not bad. The most acclaimed albums quite often are the best albums.

None of these are really lost anymore. That's the point. Bear in mind I'm the last person who should be making this list as I tend to be profoundly unadventurous.

Here are some albums, with brief summary

St Dominic's Preview - Van Morrison - ACES
Veedon Fleece - Van Morrison - ACES
Pacific Ocean Blue - Dennis Wilson - PAH
Smile - Brian Wilson - SHOULDNA BOTHERED
On the Beach - Neil Young - NO CLUB TROPICANA
Don't Stand Me Down - Dexys Midnight Runners - ALMOST TOO MUCH, BUT GREAT
It's So Hard to tell Who's Going To love you the Best - Karen Dalton GUESS YOU HAD TO BE THERE
Diamond Day - Just Another Diamond Day NICE
Songs for Beginners - Graham Nash BIG WINNER
L'Amour - Lewis PUZZLING
Bill Fay - Bill Fay SWEET
Loaded - Velvet Underground - GRRREEAT
Moby Grape - Moby Grape  DECENT
Odessey and Oracle MAGIC
Carl and the Passions/Sunflower/Holland/Surf's Up - The Beach Boys ESPECIALLY SUNFLOWER, PRETTY GREAT
Nico - The Marble Index MOT FOR ME
Paris 1919 - John Cale  NOT QUITE UP TO THE HYPE

Those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. I'll try adding to them. Nothing's lost now, as I said, it's just albums which had a bit of a retrospective attempt to elevate them and whether I agreed with that elevation.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Three More Tapes

Well, these are good, aren't they?

Both of the first two lists were inspired by  what I consider Simon and Garfunkel's two finest songs - listening to Simon and Garfunkel in New York (whither we travelled by plane, naturally inspiring the third list).

Songs about Musicians.

I love The Only Living Boy in New York so much. There's much ill-informed conjecture about the dissenting relationship between Simon and Garfunkel - just listen to this song, who cares about the rest? This and So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, but this in particular. Songs as they were splitting up, but so sweet and heartwarming.
These are nearly all pretty  fabulous, these songs. Writing about their peers brings out the best in songwriters.

The Only Living Boy in New York - Simon and Garfunkel
Cast No Shadow - Oasis
Diamonds and Rust - Joan Baez
Boulder to Birmingham - Emmylou Harris
American Pie - Don McLean
Mr Tambourine Man - Bob Dylan
A Case of You - Joni Mitchell
Hey Lover - Blake Mills
Chuck E's in Love - Rickie Lee Jones

Chelsea Hotel No 2 - Leonard Cohen
William It Was Really Nothing  - The Smiths
Nobody Loved You - Manic Street Preachers
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes: Crosby Stills and Nash
Killing Me Softly With His Song - Roberta Flack
Master Blaster - Stevie Wonder
The Boy With the Arab Strap - Belle and Sebastian
It Just Is - Rilo Kiley
Eternal Flame - Joan as Policewoman

Songs about searching for America

America - Simon and Garfunkel
Fast Car - Tracy Chapman
Look Inside America - Blur
Me and Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin
Thunder Road  - Bruce Springsteen
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Bob Dylan
Idaho - Nerina Pallot
Waitress Song - First Aid Kit

To Ohio - The Low Anthem
Horse With No Name - America
Going to a Town - Rufus Wainwright
Return of the Grievous Angel - Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris
Bandits - Midlake
The Hudson Line - Mercury Rev
On the Road Again - Willie Nelson
Rattlesnake - St Vincent

Songs about Planes

Daniel - Elton John
Leaving on a Jet Plane - John Denver
This Flight Tonight - Joni Mitchell
Lucky - Radiohead
The Take Off and Landing of Anything - Elbow
Plane Crash in C - Rilo Kiley
Fire and Rain - James Taylor
Back in the USSR - The Beatles

Come Fly With Me - Frank Sinatra
Winterlight - Clearlake
Mighty Wings - Kenny Loggins
Flight Attendant - Josh Rouse
I'm a Pilot - Fanfarlo
Jetsetter - Ed Harcourt
Jet Lag - Brendan Benson
Paper Planes - MIA

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Background Noises

I've got a fair few things to run through, it might be a little unstructured and unfocused but so be it. There may be a few links and ideas within, we'll see.

I'm going to write about the four gigs I've been to since the last gig I wrote about, which was the Super Furry Animals, supported by the Magic Numbers, in May. That was amazing - the best comeback gig by the band I consider the best in the world. I couldn't top that, but everything since has contained considerable highs and also considerable food for thought.

So, first, on 3rd June, I saw the Replacements supported by You Am I at the Roundhouse.
Next, on 20th June, it was Blur at Hyde Park supported by many different acts.
Then, bit rogue this, 17th July at the Marlowe Studio, Canterbury, it was From the Jam supported by The Parkas. More on that later.
And finally, this Tuesday 8th September, it was My Morning Jacket supported by Dawes at Shepherds Bush Empire.

I don't really know where to begin. I'll begin with the supports. Support bands are a fascinating aspect of the whole gig culture, aren't they - thankless or career-changing, complementary or clashing.

First of all, the Magic Numbers were super, just as you'd expect really, a quality band a bit past their commercial prime reminding you that they're rather good and have some nice tunes, putting you in the right kind of mood for the main event.

In a sense, You Am I were the same deal, but because they're relatively unknown in the UK (they're big in Australia), there was probably more at stake for them. They were pretty electric, and you truly believed that the Replacements had inspired this collection of scuzzy tuneful skinny punks and changed their lives. It was a perfect support act, only falling down by almost outshining the main act.

Blur at Hyde Park was, support-wise, a a disappointment, both when I found out the line-up and in reality. When we saw Blur in 2009, there was Florence and the Machine and Vampire Weekend amongst others - definite added value. This time, though there were multiple stages and a festival feel, the only act I was enthused by was Roots Manuva and he was on a different stage to Blur, just before them, so in order to be in a good spot for their spot, I could only watch half his set. On the main stage, the biggest supporting names were Drenge, The Horrors and Metronomy - three perfect examples of the range of sounds within the category "Modern British bands which I can't stand to listen to". I had no interest and didn't feel any strong connection with Blur either. Metronomy's tinny doggerel floated away weakly on the breeze.

Blur were ace, of course, though in Hyde Park the ground doesn't shake like you'd wish it would. Their new album is a real winner, bonus treats were Badhead and He Thought of Cars, Albarn is an odd and powerful machine.

Anyway, legacy is what I want to talk about. I didn't feel Drenge, the Horrors and Metronomy were part of Blur's legacy, perhaps I'm wrong. Those acts didn't make sense to me, they were just acts on the bill, not part of the Blur experience.

Now, the next gig is all about legacy. Let me first explain how I came to be watching From the Jam eg Bruce Foxton from the Jam and some other dude filling in for Paul Weller. We bought tickets to see Stewart Lee at the Marlowe, couldn't go because it was the day we moved house, so were able to transfer and the only thing that fitted in date-wise was this slightly odd concoction. A certain sense of embarrassment and trepidation to be seeing this half-version of a band which will never actually get back together again.

I saw Paul Weller on TV on Glastonbury and thought, hmm, maybe that's more like what I should be doing.  By quirk of fate, I've never seen Weller, and I'll never see The Jam, of course. Considering his place in my musical life, that's amiss. I've become less ambivalent about him in recent years, now his run of dodgy late 90s albums is behind him and he's escaped that odd word "dadrock" with his considerable experimental streak. I mean, he makes pretty fucking odd records these days. Good for him.

There was a 2 hour documentary about The Jam on TV last week, too, with contributions from all the main players and innumerable Jam fans including the likes of Paul Abbott and Martin Freeman, who probably made the most sense about the importance of The Jam and what it was to be a mod.

I've never been a mod, never could have been really, I'm too messy, I eat too much, and my head's too big. I probably should have tried, considering I became such a Jam devotee as a teenager. Funnily enough, it makes more sense to me now - though I could never go for the look (though my Fred Perry collection increases) in terms of breaking it down to "seeking out and loving stuff that's new and cool, having rules and standards for your taste" I suppose my approach to music etc is not that far away.

And as Freeman said, the Jam, ok, they never broke America and they were never for everyone, but if you look around the streets of Britain, their influence is clear to see. Working-class men  in their Fred Perrys, those haircuts, the scooters etc, the Jam are at the very heart of that, even 40 years on, more so, I think than the Who and the Small Faces.

And, of course, they had great, great songs. I'll never not think that. Such unusual, unique songs like Down in the Tube Station and Eton Rifles, Precious and Funeral Pyre. Well, I got to hear a lot of those songs, in a room full of working-class men with feathercuts and Fred Perrys, and it was odd, but it was the real dude doing those real bass lines, albeit not quite the right singer.

And the support was interesting, mod teenagers with twee lyrics and nice harmonies, born out of time really. The Parkas, they were called, of course. I'm sure there have been many many more young mod bands called The Parkas. I wouldn't necessarily expect to hear from them again, but you never know.

There was a certain similarity to the support for My Morning Jacket, a California band called Dawes. A clean, derivative band with a pair of harmonising brothers, not very near the idea of modern cool. I love Dawes, funnily enough. I long ago answered the "Awful or Awesome" question with them - their songs are lush, their musicianship is something to behold. Mike, who I was with, was a doubter but was quite close to being sold by the end.

My Morning Jacket are a much heavier, much weirder trip, of course, but they were both part of the same circle, that's the great thing ... that's the bit I'm trying, unsuccessfully, to tie together in this whole blog. The Replacements, Blur, The Jam, those are massive bands in the history of rock'n'roll who stand with a lineage and a legacy which those gigs fulfilled with varying degrees of success.

With My Morning Jacket, it's a different matter, they're not, as such, at the top of the triangle, they and Dawes are not far from being on the same level, and there are many superficial differences. The guest at the show, for both bands, was the much-maligned Mumford of his Sons. Because all three frontmen, Marcus Mumford, Jim James of MMJ and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes were brought together for 'Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes', along with Elvis Costello and Rhiannon Giddens, to collaborate on bringing unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics to life. Cool project, and a really nice album, actually.

My Morning Jacket are the furthest realm of the Bob Dylan triangle, a psychedelic heavy-rock band in some ways but truly an Americana band - Jim James seems to collaborate with everyone - he was in Monsters of Folk with Conor Oberst and M Ward,amongst many others. He went on tour with Dylan himself along with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Richard Thompson, a tour called Americanarama. If you start making links between all these modern American artists, it's rather fabulous - Tweedy, in particular, is one who's at the heart of so much, enabling so many others, setting up a festival, producing Mavis Staples, Bill Fay, Richard Thompson.

What do we call all this? Folk music? Real and true living folk music, still changing, bringing together every strand from different strands and different countries? Maybe, not quite, I don't know.

The music I'm into gives me a warm glow sometimes, though, when I feel that just by liking it, buying it, seeing it, I'm part of something, part of something with meaning, that's not for everyone, that can't be for everyone, but is special for those it is for.