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.