Thursday, 14 December 2017

2017 Music

Righto, time for my annual music rundown. As usual, it’s worth pointing out that I’m not a music journalist so a) I don’t get the time to listen to everything and b) I really haven’t a clue what I’m talking about … but, you know, I do my best.

The last two or three years before this one all produced, in my view, at least a couple of “masterpieces”, truly great, wholly fulfilling albums. I don’t think there were any this year, but there were lots of very enjoyable ones, and even more good songs.

I’ll start with one of those previous masterpiece-makers, Kendrick Lamar. This year’s ‘Damn.’ was pretty much as acclaimed as 2015’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ but didn’t engage me nearly as much. Whereas TPAB had several moments and songs which made you stop in wonder at his virtuosity, for me, although ‘Damn’ is very solid and enjoyable, the only absolute stand-out is ‘Duckworth’, the last track. Many disagree with me. And, in any case, something like Damn, stylistically different, less overtly ambitious, was probably just the right way to follow up a behemoth like To Pimp a Butterfly.  But it did also contain the first great mistake of his career … the words “featuring U2”. Just kidding but not. I doubt Kendrick ennui will set in just yet, though. He really does strike me as (potentially) the greatest rapper that’s ever lived, though I’m a bit out of my element there … (Element, there)

Having said that, I was listening to a lot of hip-hop for the first half of the year – everything else felt like a bit of a desert. That changed as the year went on, as more of the indie rock’n’roll big-hitters of my young adulthood returned to the fray.

But, then again, how many of them produced their best work? I felt that a lot of folk who were making wonderful music 10 years ago were making ok music this year … Fleet Foxes, members of Midlake, Franz Ferdinand, Grandaddy, Band of Horses in the “supergroup” BNQT, The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, The Shins, Iron and Wine, British Sea Power, the New Pornographers … I mean, it was nice to have it, very nice in some cases, but in pretty much every case it felt like diminishing returns to me.

I’ve seen LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream near the top of a few of this year’s Best of lists, but I was a bit exhausted by it. And the best song on it, Call the Police, owed a lot to All My Friends. I mean, if anyone’s allowed to rip off All My Friends, it’s LCD Soundsystem, but it just reminded me what a monolith that song is. I kind of wanted everything else on the album to sound a bit like All My Friends too (which it didn’t) but also wanted them to come up with some new form of greatness. Maybe they did. Some people thought they did. There were other good songs, but I thought a lot of the songs drifted grumpily and not as many lyrics stood out as I’d have hoped. Still, you know, pretty good …

As for Arcade Fire, they’re a rum bunch, eh? I said earlier in the year that they were the new Coldplay (in a bad way) but really they’re a bit more like that lost Manics period at the turn of the century, when they had a brief run of pretty terrible albums full of ideas that sounded great on paper, with great titles and political import, horribly executed. Thankfully, the Manics recovered and had a lot of greatness and good will in the bank already, but, to me, Arcade Fire have only one properly executed album and a few other good tunes. I mean, there are some decent tunes on Everything Now, not least the title track (why not rip off ABBA, everyone else has done it?) but not enough, and really, that Infinite Content bit is the worst section of recorded music ever created, and kind of annuls anything decent on the album anyway.

OK, I’ll be positive before I’m negative again. The St Vincent album, Masseduction, is great. Another smash. My only downer on it is that it’s a bit backloaded. The real heart and heft is in the second half, I could skip a few of the earlier tracks. But New York and Happy Birthday Johnny … beautiful …

Another album I’ve loved is The War on Drugs’ ‘A Deeper Understanding’. Which is funny because when their last album ‘Lost in the Dream’ was one of the critical hits of 2014, I tried but just didn’t get into it at all. And in some ways, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ was just more of the same, but more so, but this time it was just what I needed – in fact, you could say it reignited my dwindling love of rock music. Obvious to say it, but just shows how much supposed “judgement” comes down to mood and circumstance. Anyway, windswept/epic/driving rock/big production/atmospheric/homage etc ….take your pick.

I actually preferred it to the National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ which I didn’t think I’d be saying. Though it was a big success, for me the National were slightly the victim of their consistency on this one. Probably my least favourite of their last five albums – I felt like there were too many hooks but they weren’t particularly strong hooks, and I felt almost all of the madness and the seediness was gone, as well as the grand swell of emotion. I mean, it’s still a strong album. I just love the band so want them to shake the world.

Fleet Foxes/Father John Misty – in the end, wasn’t really sold on either album, but I think Josh Tillman’s voice really sets my nerves on ends, whereas Robin Pecknold’s, and the accompanying harmonies, remains a thing of beauty, so I’ll take the Foxes, even when trying a bit too hard and being a bit confusing, every time.

But talking of rock music, how long since there was a great British rock album? I mean, look, I know I’m getting old, but I’m not really missing out on something, am I? I was perusing my lists of favourite albums over the last few years, and apart from Blur and Teenage Fanclub, which hardly counts, I have to go back to the last Arctic Monkeys album for anything vaguely youthful, and they hardly count either.

Is there still room for a band to come out like Doves, not for kids but not too middle-aged, fully formed on arrival, capable of going big but not earth-shaking? Just a really good British rock band. I mean, Elbow are in the same bracket … I confess I quite liked the Elbow album, I always do, though it only ever gets a couple of weeks of listening from me, and this one was even more soporific than usual … he can always pick out some lovely lines though.

... I’m not that middle-aged, as I say, I was listening to all that hip-hop and the r’n’b for a while. Jay-Z … well, that’s middle-aged hip-hop. I enjoyed his conscious, confessional, humble good guy act on ‘4.44’ – the fact is he remains a master rapper – just the smartest guy in the room with the neatest lines, and an ever-arresting frame of reference and candour. The music was unflashy but very enjoyable too.

Of the younger guns, I quite liked Tyler the Creator and Vince Staples – the latter is another real craftsman, but he didn’t blow my mind at any point on ‘Big Fish Theory’ – it seemed a little unambitious to me – but I guess that’s his gambit – no bullshit. Fair enough.

I really enjoyed his song – Ascension - on the Gorillaz album ‘Humanz’ too. I’m a little baffled as to the lukewarm reception Humanz got. Seems like Albarn’s too much of a good thing at the moment, but I thought it was really great – have enjoyed it more as the year’s gone on – maybe a few tracks too many, but his tribute to the great boybands of the early 2000s, ‘Busted and Blue’ was a particular favourite (sorry, horrible niche joke). But, yeah, I reckon if this had been the first Gorillaz album or by a new artist (not that a new artist could have gathered the array of guest stars) it would have been acclaimed as a tour de force.

There was a good Noel Gallagher collaboration in it too, and whaddayaknow, decent music by both Gallaghers. I mean, Liam Gallagher got knocked into some pleasant shape. Good for him. And that Noel Gallagher single is a hoot. He remains quite the most flagrantly derivative writer though. Everything, like, every second of his whole album, sounds like something else. Weird to even be mentioning them really. Back to what’s coooool.

Erm … protest music. Protest music is always cool. So I’ll start with my favourite song of the year. Let’s kill the unbearable suspense. ‘Pa’lante’ by Hurray for the Riff-Raff is by far my song of the year and in fact my favourite song for many years.

It’s a pretty simple song, a New York Puerto Rican protest song with a structure a little similar to ‘A Day in the Life’ – it’s a song for the times, a song to give cynical people a sense of purpose, it’s a marriage of the personal and the political, it’s a call to the lead singer Alynda Segarra’s family and compatriots, but really it’s a call to anyone. She sings, sings like hardly anyone ever sings, with her whole body and being – like Janis Joplin or the Proclaimers (don’t laugh …) or Kurt Cobain. It’s fiery and anthemic and what I’ve been listening to over and over again all over. The album from which it comes, ‘The Navigator’ is pretty great too – maybe the magnificence of ‘Pa’lante’ unbalances it for me a tiny bit, but that’s churlish.

Another great protest album is by Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black, a joy of an album, which feels like the apotheosis of her extended collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – every song is angry, humane and exuberant. Tweedy also produced another of my albums of the year, a self-titled work by American folksinger Joan Shelley. I preferred them both to the latest Wilco album.
Talking of protest, Joan Baez wrote a song called Nasty Man – it was a bit of fun. And Bob Dylan did a triple-album of Frank Sinatra covers….

All I wanted from you this year, boss, was not a triple-album of Sinatra covers. I loved the first Sinatra covers album. Put up with the second. But this one. Didn’t listen to it. Did not. Shan’t. First of your albums I haven’t listened to. I listened to the Christmas album. And the Christian albums. But not this. You can still write, dude. Clearly you can. You can still operate. The production, the sound, the arrangement of these covers albums is rather lovely. Come on, do a protest album. Be a sport, point your finger, steal from the papers, do your most protesty protest songs. I mean, I know it’s ludicrous to expect anything from a 76-year old multi-millionaire contrarian plagiarist, but, damn, if Bob Dylan did an album of protest songs for the Trump age, my heart would jump for joy.

But anyway, enough of that old dude. I’d say the young’uns have won the year by a long way.
Still young Laura Marling, six albums in, the most consistent songwriter in Britain. Each album she does I hope might be a full-blown classic, and there hasn’t really been one yet, but Semper Femina is definitely one of my favourite two or three of hers, a low level concept album full of marvellous songs. I think this one reminded me more of Joni Mitchell than anything else she’s done.

Also reminding me of Joni Mitchell but in a different way was Lorde on her album Melodrama. This is my album of the year. It is a collection of exceptional pop songs – “bangers” or “choons” as I believe they’re called – with lyrics that are astute, funny, poignant, entirely believable. It is an unrelentingly enjoyable album. Lorde is a pop artist but I’m quite sure if she released a stark acoustic album it could also be a classic. When I said there were no masterpieces this year, this was closest. I only think she could do something even better next time.

Another Antipodean album full of great tunes was I Love You Like a Brother by Alex Lahey – much more guitary and lo-fi, just a refreshing bit of powerpop, a little like Courtney Barnett but less droll.
Who else was great? Phoebe Bridgers and her superbly-titled debut Stranger in the Alps, Valerie June’s The Order of Time, Margo Price, American country star, bettering her debut by a long long way. Allison Crutchfield, Waxahatchee, Aimee Mann, Lydia Ainsworth, Tara Jane O’Neill, an awful lot of good albums by female singer-songwriters this year.

And Taylor Swift? Don’t know yet. I don’t think the world needs me to listen to the Taylor Swift album. I did listen to Ed Sheeran’s album, though. Reassuringly awful. But that Harry Styles single, which I managed to avoid for most of the year, I just listened to it, it's threateningly enjoyable, isn't it?

I thought Sampha was a good winner of the Mercury Prize – there are a few lovely songs on his album ‘Process’. Stormzy’s album I found ok, very listenable, a pretty blatant and successful pitch for mainstream success. I only recently listened to the J Hus album ‘Common Sense’, which, especially in the first half, is a real blast. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Loyle Carner’s ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ is also a tremendously warm and endearing album, but, though it’s not an album, Dave’s ‘Game Over’ EP is the real standout from UK hip-hop this year. I’m thinking there is a major star going to emerge there. His flow, his insight, his storytelling are a complete breath of fresh air.

I've only just listened to the Moses Sumney album 'Aromanticism' properly - really striking, lovely songs, a voice notably similar to David McAlmont.

Another album I’ve really liked lately, despite the dreadful name and the fact I don’t really like “ambient pop” is the self-titled work by Cigarettes after Sex, which is very melodic and surprisingly biting.

Right, I’m just rattling off the names of acts you may or may not believe exist now. Here’s the only bit anyone’s going to read...

My Favourite Albums of the Year

  1. Melodrama - Lorde
  2. The Navigator - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  3. Humanz - Gorillaz
  4. MASSEDUCTION - St Vincent
  5. If All I Was Was Black - Mavis Staples
  6. The Order of Time - Valerie June
  7. A Deeper Understanding - The War on Drugs
  8. 4.44 - Jay-Z
  9. Semper Femina - Laura Marling
  10. Joan Shelley - Joan Shelley
  11. Goths - Mountain Goats
  12. Process - Sampha
  13. Yesterday's Gone - Loyle Carner
  14. All American Made - Margo Price
  15. Aromanticism - Moses Sumney
  16. Stranger in the Alps - Phoebe Bridgers
  17. Damn. - Kendrick Lamar
  18. Cigarettes After Sex - Cigarettes after Sex
  19. Common Sense - J Hus
  20. CTRL - SZA
  21. Sleep Well Beast - The National
  22. I Love you Like a Brother - Alex Lahey
  23. Big Fish Theory - Vince Staples
  24. Crack-Up - Fleet Foxes
  25. Little Fictions - Elbow

My Favourite Songs of the Year 

  1. Pa'lante - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  2. No One Know Me Like the Piano ... - Sampha
  3. Happy Birthday Johnny - St Vincent
  4. Duckworth - Kendrick Lamar
  5. Only God Knows - Young Fathers
  6. Green Light - Lorde
  7. Nouel - Laura Marling
  8. Call the Police - LCD Soundsystem
  9. New York - St Vincent
  10. Ascension - Gorillaz ft Vince Staples
  11. Liability - Lorde
  12. Astral Plane - Valerie June
  13. Bagbak - Vince Staples
  14. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness - The National
  15. We Were Beautiful - Belle and Sebastian
  16. Question Time - Dave
  17. Marcy Me - Jay-Z
  18. Everything Now - Arcade Fire
  19. Strangest Thing - The War on Drugs
  20. No CD - Loyle Carner
  21. Smoke Signals - Phoebe Bridgers
  22. Sign of the Times - Harry Styles
  23. Chained to the Rhythm - Katy Perry
  24. Fireworks - First Aid Kit
  25. How I Met My Ex - Dave
  26. Dum Surfer - King Krule
  27. Quarrel - Moses Sumney
  28. Heatstroke - Calvin Harris
  29. Nothing Not Really - Laura Marling
  30. Holy Mountain - Noel Gallagher
  31. Common Sense - J Hus
  32. Hot Thoughts - Spoon
  33. The Story of OJ - Jay Z
  34. Chanel - Frank Ocean
  35. Heartbreak (Wild Hunger) - Hamilton Leithauser and Angel Olsen
  36. Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds - Mountain Goats
  37. Undercover - Kehlani
  38. Man's Not Hot - Big Shaq
  39. To Know Your Mission - Jens Lekman
  40. Untouchable - Eminem
  41. Hopper - Paul Weller
  42. There's a Honey - Pale Waves
  43. Living in the City - Hurray for the Riff Raff
  44. Mildenhall - The Shins
  45. Perfect Places - Lorde
  46. Do You Still Love Me? - Ryan Adams
  47. Fool's Errand - Fleet Foxes
  48. A Million Miles - BNQT
  49. Kindling - Elbow
  50. To Hold and Have - The Dears

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

No Prime

This is called No Prime. It's not about numbers

No prime
You’ll have no prime. Or, if you do
You’ll be one of a blessed few
Whose health complements happiness,
Whose beauty rises when you’re free
To live and love as you had hoped.
I had no prime. The best of me

Is now, or then, or soon, perhaps,
though my mind is prone to lapse,
my gut to grow, my legs to ache,
rogue hair to sprout, rough skin to dry
yet I am in a place called home.
Life was no better; nor was I.

You see, I never had a prime –
There was no glowing, golden time
When I was strong and smart and brave
And had a healthy sense of calm
Which kept me steady when alone.
I never harnessed looks and charm

To win and climb, to earn my fill,
To bite down hard, to buy a thrill.
That age renowned to grant such gifts
Was seldom fruitful - there’s the truth.
Above all this, I’d have you know
prime is not synonymous with youth.

I have been fast, I have been bright,
I’ve drunk and danced on through the night.
I’ve laughed, I’ve sung, I’ve been acclaimed
For feats of body and of mind,
But each triumph stands distinct, alone.
Never were all the gifts combined.

Now, there are some, it’s true and clear,
Who have that all-embracing era,
When, wholly, they are at their best.
But, envy not this heightened state,
This aristeia, this so-called “zone”,
And envy not its bearers’ fate

For when it’s gone, it’s sorely missed.
Each grace ceases to exist,
Where, for others, grace is staged.
Each new thrill takes us by surprise.
We have no prime, but gladly know
A steady life of staggered highs.

Friday, 1 December 2017

12 About Boxing

I wrote these because my favourite boxer, Miguel Cotto, is having his final fight. It's also, and more appropriately, in my sport blog, but I've put it here too.

One second, clear and cautious, a machine of war unstinting,
I recharge my eyes uncornered, of one chain with fists unflinching,
Picking spaces, prizing windows, opening wounds with dread precision,
I’m a knife and I’m a cudgel, I am living every second

And the referee is weighing what’s humane and what is brutal,
I’m the truth this sucker paid for, I’m his point of last refusal,
He can smell my fierce indifference to his pain’s humiliation,
There will be a new world champion, any second, any second …

One second, a contender, just outworking, never thinking
Of the next fight, just reworking combinations neverending,
Never cornered, always stabbing, never pounding, sword and scalpel,
Neat and frightening, treading closer with each second,

And one second of three minutes of twelve rounds of one life’s vigil
I’m the boy with no defences who needs something to take pride in
I’m the first parade of power to incredulous oppressors,
And the first flash of bravado in the haze of adulation

This one second, the next second, I am glancing as I’m thinking
That the referee needs to step in, I’m forgetting this man’s record
For recovering from a beating, I’m not looking as its right hand
Takes a long last flight, takes one second…

The night Miguel retreated, sunk down to his knee,
His face a sorry shocked defeat of bloodied shame
He lost his prime belief – his own invincibility -
A truthless game of swollen tongues and stolen belts
Is not for heroes; pride and preening manliness
Fail the eyes – the eyes will see just what they need,
They’ll dwell on foul false idols, flaunting warrior deceits.

Pa’lante, Miguel Cotto, for the final time, pa’lante,
There were no better men than you
At this blighted playground con
We’re wrong to love and wrong to judge.
Pa’lante, Miguel Cotto, you’re free to go,
A better man than every man who beat you.
Miguel Cotto took a knee to reconfigure dignity,
An unwitting protest against the way
Brute force lost all humanity.

Boxing’s faux nobility, a myth to mask its savagery,
Is a potent painful allegory for the plague of masculinity.
Hidden behind “consent”, a plethora of ethics bent
Fix the path of its contestants to unwitting acquiescence.
Some boxers’ post-fight hugs conceal the panoply of drugs
They’d employ to further maim a man who doesn’t know the game.
To some, there is no limit nor a hint of a misgiving
to the extent they’ll kill their spirit to make a mockery of living.

Now I’ve got a minute, ok I’ve got a minute
Which is where is
They’re waving at me, now I’ve got a minute
I’m a winner, what’s the noise, sixty seconds is a minute,
It’s not long, I am seeing red, I’m a tomato can, I’m a champion,
I’ve a minute, I’ve a minute, 40 seconds,
Bring the water, bring the salts,
Who is this guy, fuck my head hurts, fuck my legs aren’t my legs,
They are strong legs, I’ve strong legs, I’m the winner,
I’ve one minute,
What round is this? Who is this guy?
What’s his record? Should I beat him?
Should I quit now? I’m a winner, 30 seconds,
Should I be sick, fuck that stings, man,
I can see him, he looks tired, I feel finished, he looks tired,
It’s a minute, now I’m breathing, now I’m breathing,
I’ve felt worse and I can do this, 20 seconds,
Legs aren’t ready but the head is,
I got caught hard but I’ve felt worse,
I’m a winner, he looks tired, 13 seconds, I’ll be ready.
Am I ready? Should I quit now? Can I still punch?
Just eight seconds of the minute … can I stand up?
I can stand up. I’m not quitting.
I can see straight. I can think straight. I can punch hard.
No more seconds. I don’t need them. I’m the winner.


The cutman loves
Each fighter he rescues
From bloody disaster

The fighter loves
The cutman for all the
Pain his touch delivers

In the furnace
His tender, steady hand
Earns its share of the purse

A swab, a towel,
An endswell and jelly -
The tools of a master.

All of a sudden
You’re oh so much stronger
You’re thudding your gloves through my splintering guard
Twelve months ago
I old-manned you in sparring
Now I can’t stand the power you’ve so rapidly learnt
I know that they’re saying
I’ve aged overnight
But both of us know how you’re hitting so hard.
I won’t say a thing
Which could pause my last paycheck
But I hope you count carefully what you haven’t earnt.

The seventy-two minutes I have spent
In proximity to this stinking beast
Will feed my children till they’re old enough
For me to’ve washed off the filth of the game.

Just thirty-six more and we’re set for life,
Or one, if he starts slow and I luck out,
If I can sneak round his low-slung left hand,
And spare us both passage into the swamp.

He gets in my face like he means it, God,
Some pricks are really born to the business.
How did I let him beat me the first time?
Don’t answer that. I know. That’s the problem.

And he’ll hug me and bang on about respect,
And they’ll chunter about the warrior code.
And I’ll shower every hour till I forget
What I’ve done for the money and against whom.

Tomorrow I’ll smell his sweat for the last time.
The day after that I can redefine
My existence as distinct from this contest
Of his mindless will against my foolish pride.

Twelve fights on the night, seven or eight televised –
Bristling big-time heads bending
 to be singled out in the front rows.
Back stories, rivalries, mixed minor celebrities
Toughening up for winter, unsure
 of the pros and their protocol.

It’ll kick off. Everyone knows it’ll kick off.

Heads will be turned and seats will be ripped out,
One of the fighters will briefly be lost
To the job of a lifetime,
A wrong step away from feeling it all.
There’ll be family men in feral Fred Perrys
Free with the fever to participate,

Decrepit judges with unique perspective
Primed that they’ll need to make a quick exit,
Shuddering wives reconsidering their lives
Begging for the paradox of cowardice.

There’ll be big men in black polos,
Shoving theatrically
To protect the last people who needs protecting.
Of the twelve fights on show, a couple will shine
And the rest will just roll out as expected
Well-paid lambs will dance, then crumble
On cue, no fools, safely tough and short on skills,
Years since they had their last proper rumble.

And the champ … the champ … the one they’re all there for,
With just the right weighting of charm and menace,
Will do his job well, then be humble, so humble
So brutally wise to the science of promotion.
Ten thousand tonight will double in six months,
Small hall then large hall then arena then stadium –
No need to hurry that trip ‘cross the ocean …

The fight game - where anything could happen
And usually doesn’t. No one calls fix.
They all know the script.

I heard about the boxing lives
And how they came to pass
In pride and in violence,
With love and with bloodlust,
a blast of guts and colour.
The last punch came so fast
Sometimes, and sometimes took forever.

Edwin Valero was nobody’s hero,
He stalked and he strutted,
Wild and destructive,
He killed then he died
Unfulfilled, underwritten,

Smokin’ Joe Frazier went to Manila
And fought close to death with his ugliest foe,
Seconds away from winning the day,
Compassion broke through;
his coach Eddie Futch
turning his champion into a quitter,
judged that Joe had taken too much.
The grudge of the century was settled against him.
Joe died belligerent, belittled and bitter.

Arturo Gatti, fight fan’s fighter,
Purist’s savage, fearless dream,
highlife highlight, bloodbath brother,
Hall of Famer, taming history,
Stand and Trader, Thrill and Thunder,
Million youtube tributes later
Lost to a grim hotel-room mystery.

Benny Kid Paret paid with his life
For a slight that Emile was unable to pardon.
A referee, afraid that he’d start a riot,
Let punch after punch be unfurled and unanswered
And death cast a curse on each man at the Garden.

Touch gloves with a thud
And a gun in a glance,
Lock eyes without fear
There’s no chance
That you’re here
And I’m not.
Touch gloves, it’s a trap
There are bombs in my fists,
It’s too late to escape,
Through your wrists,
Through the tape
You feel it.

The boxers came from everywhere and ended up everywhere.
They came for the sport or the art or the battle.
They embraced you and defied you all at once.
They spat as they kissed then made up then opened old wounds for bigger paydays.
They were family men from the mean streets and the school of hard knocks who defied the clich├ęs.
They studied maths, every second.
They were fragile and fearless.
They loved the attention.
They shrunk and expanded.
They were never what you expected, they were shadows of their former selves.
They were fat men with fast hands or skinny men with hands of stone.
They had to learn the hard way, and they were cowards if they were knocked out and came back.
They were given chance after chance, because they all knew there was no disrepute.
They lied to themselves.
They had levels and limits, nearly every one of them.
They were born and made and that couldn’t be faked.
They had an untransferable set of skills.
They always pretended they hadn’t been hurt when they’d been hurt so that was the biggest giveaway going.
The most ridiculous was the bravest.
The most balletic was the nastiest.
The hardest-living lived the longest, and the most self-destructive took his natural ability the furthest.
So many redemption songs ended in crucifixion.
Some lived with the reality of what they’d done, some didn’t.

Saturday, 25 November 2017


I mean, this is pretty self-explanatory. Fun to write, so I hope you like it.

Context is the casualty of the constant “oh, humanity”s
Of the cohort of the Pharisees of the folk age.
Concepts like cold sanity fade in heated faux humility
In the cloth-eared cloistered malady of bespoke rage.
Constrained by their fallacies come a thousand fraught apologies
From a hundred caught-out Socrates in the courtroom.
Consecrated effigies made for bonfires of false vanity
Feed the hungry, maddened Manichees’ lost proportion.
Concern turns to calumny just as fast as last week’s amnesty
On poor broken panicked Salomes fades to nowhere.
Content created casually makes a martyr far more rapidly
Than the lately feted banishee can manoeuvre.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Sparsiones erint

I wrote this a few days ago. The title really was the first Latin phrase i learnt, for some reason.

Suddenly, I remembered it. It really took me aback, sent me a little chill.

So I wrote this immediately.


Sparsiones erint were the first words that I learnt
In the language of the cruellest empire then to blight the earth.
Sparsiones erint was the least that they could say
To keep the plebs from riots on a bloody, sunny day.
Panem et circenses were the satirists’ words that stuck
To show that Roman nobles gave enough – just - of a fuck
To stop the city burning with the rage of the oppressed;
“Your fate’s blanket mistreatment, but we will mistreat you best”.
Sparsiones non erant in Grenfell Tower that night -
“Sprinklers, oh no sprinklers, no, the borough’s budget’s tight.”
Twenty centuries’ progress – “it looks wonderful from here,
Hail this bright, nay, veritably sparkling veneer.
Flee the madding crowd in your redecorated Babel –
We’ve noted your complaints but we’re quite sure it’s strong and stable.”
Progress is just cladding, it’s a venal, vile word,
A silencer, a smiled threat to the now – and then - unheard.

Both Sides, now and always

So I'll start by saying this.

Being left-wing, to me, means thinking better of left-wing people in general. Meaning I generally like them more, I generally think that there aren't always two sides to the same story and that we all want the same things in different ways. Meaning I think, on balance, left-wing people are likely to be kinder, more thoughtful, more tuned in to social issues, more caring about inequality, all of those things.

These are either life's truths or life's illusions. I think they're life's truths.

I believe the whatabouttery that persists in modern political discourse mainly serves the right. I believe they relentlessly distort the arguments, draw false comparisons, to conceal this blatant truth. It puzzles me if ever left-wing people don't think like this, to be honest. You're being too fucking fair, I think. What's even the point of being left-wing if you don't think that?

But ...

and here's where my illusions were long ago shattered ... there is an area where this is, depressingly, but pretty obviously, not true.

For decades, my reading matter has included a large chunk of popular social history and biographies of "heroic" men - icons of civil rights, of rebel music and of the left - the likes of Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, John Lennon, Marlon Brando, film guys, Hollywood innovators and protestors, Bowie, more political figures like Mandela and Kennedy, you get the idea.

Now, there are some who have never really been held up as paragons of virtue, like Dylan, De Niro, etc. Their work is what it is - one couldn't really say they have sought to be or ever really been treated as secular saints.

But there are others like Robeson, say, Strummer, and others, who get spoken about in revered terms and I went into reading their biographies with high hopes that they might be different from the rest.

But no.

The fact is, the universal, cliched, truth about these men who changed the world is their transparent and impossible-to-conceal bad treatment of women, their sense of entitlement and hypocrisy, that they got to have their cake and eat it. There was always a little woman at home who was expected to behave herself while they got in with doing great things and having whatever they want.

Any naivety I had about that disappeared quickly, but I was always a bit disappointed. I'm not a moralist, but there was always a double-standard and a cruelty.

And, look, there's a big line between what the likes of Weinstein are being accused of and someone just being a trifling, good-for-nothing type of brother, but, in the sense that clearly these men felt like they could always have exactly what they wanted, it's part of the same mindset.

And very few of these books were hatchet jobs. The writer's affection for the subject was often transparent. If what I was reading was the best way to spin it, one often imagined that the truth might have been worse (particularly when it came to Hollywood ... that was where i had the hardest time, initially, reckoning the liberal politics of some of these dudes with their utter arrogant disregard for their wives and girlfriends).

Life's illusions. I truly, truly think the better of left-wing people - maybe it's what I need to keep my world in order - but that impression stops short when it comes to casual and not-so-casual personal misogyny.

I'm not saying anything that everyone doesn't know, but people on the left trying to make political capital out of "our sex offenders aren't as bad as yours and we deal with it better" are getting nowhere fast.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017


This blog's hardly short on words about Jeff Buckley, but, still, a little over 20 years after he died, I want to write a little about the song 'Grace'.

'Hallelujah''s a bit of a shame really, because any Buckley fan knows that's not the half of it. The title track from his only full album is the masterpiece, and I don't think that's really been acknowledged enough.

Perhaps until now. When I looked it up this week on youtube, I saw to my glee that the song is being studied now for GCSE music. That's cool.

Quite a piece of music to study. Where do you start? Riff? Bassline? Lyric? Vocal melody? Coda? Probably ...

I watched the official video, and that prompted me to consider Buckley in context - making a video, maybe the record company hopes it will get on MFTV - a mid-90s rock guy, maybe like The Gin Blossoms or Deep Blue Something or Hootie and the Blowfish or Dave Matthews.

Not the legend of Buckley, just some mid-90s rock guy who never quite made it.

And, look, some of those moves, they're similar to everything we've come to hate, every narcissistic pretty boy rock boy really meaning it, and all the voices that have come after, all the good and godawful before and after, soaring tenors and squawking howlers - Freddie Mercury, David Coverdale, Axl Rose and James Dean Bradfield, metal singers, then Muse and Coldplay, Damien Rice, James Blunt and the Darkness and John Mayer or whomever, they're all in Buckley territory. All trying to do it, nearly all failing horribly.

But really, to me, there's Buckley doing Grace and then there's everything else.

The intensity, the way he uses his mouth and his whole head, again, we've seen it so many times in so many irritating ways since, but we've not heard anything like this again. He does that because he needs to, he's making a range of noises far beyond other singers.

There's so much more here than on Hallelujah, which is controlled and spooky and pretty. 'Grace' is mental, it's possessed. I've never heard anyone else sing like this. No one. There are other singers in pop music who are his equal, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and ... (other names escape me) ... but even they, I'm not sure they're quite capable of this.

The rage ... the madness ... the echoes ... the marrying of different styles of singing, sometimes within single notes...

In terms of the song itself, it was actually the King Creosote cover which really helped me get to grips with it - one of the cleverest covers I've ever heard - he tames the untamable, and turns its into a sweetly eery folk ballad.

Then again, there's this ...
which tells you plenty that I can't!

Monday, 23 October 2017

My Very Favourite Dances About Architecture

I just read an enjoyable book called 'Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music' by Michael Robbins.

I consequently made a list of my favourites book about music, the ones which really got me thinking what the whole thing was all about.

Michael Robbins writes with great authority on both poetry (which is his profession) and pop music, yet his view and his frame of reference is often completely different from mine. And in compiling this list, I realised how many of the supposed classic books on pop music I haven't read, though I've read a considerable amount on it.

There's a time when you're young and you read a lot and you think you might have time to read everything ever, so you put off this and that, and then you reach a time when it's hard to read one book in an aeon and you think "bugger, I'll never read all those books, I should have read faster when I was younger (oh, hang on, it's just now I'm just mainly reading shit about the same shit over and over again I find on the internet)".

The same is slightly less true of pop music itself. I've devoted myself to listening to pop music and I'm still at - sometimes I think I really will listen to all of it, all of it that matters. But then Michael Robbins comes along with his completely different frame of reference, and I realise that's not possible either.

Anyway, here are my favourite 20 books on pop music (in truth, there might have been more Bob Dylan books, I've read an awful lot of good Bob Dylan books, but I thought two would do for this list). There are lots of other good ones ... these are in no order ...

  • Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music – Michael Robbins (ESSAYS)
  • Chronicles Volume 1 - Bob Dylan (MEMOIR)
  • High Fidelity – Nick Hornby (NOVEL)
  • 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs: Dorian Lynskey (HISTORY/ESSAYS)
  • The Commitments – Roddy Doyle (NOVEL)
  • A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day With the Clash – Johnny Green (ROAD DIARY)
  • 45 – Bill Drummond (ESSAYS/UNCLASSIFIABLE)
  • On the Road with Bob Dylan – Larry Sloman (ROAD DIARY)
  • White Bicycles: Making Music in the 60s – Joe Boyd (MEMOIR)
  • All the Madmen: Barrett, Bowie, Drake, the Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and the Journey to the Dark Side of English Rock – Clinton Heylin (HISTORY/ESSAYS)
  • The People’s Music: Selected Journalism – Ian MacDonald (ESSAYS)
  • This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco – Garry Mulholland (ESSAYS/COMPENDIUM)
  • I'm a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock 'n' Roll – Ruth Padel (ESSAYS)
  • The Secret Life of the Love Song: Nick Cave (LECTURE - I'm not entirely sure I've ever seen this written down, but, in my head, it's become something of a sacred text)
  • The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records - Stuart Maconie (HISTORY/ESSAYS)
  • Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet – Patrick Neate (HISTORY/ESSAYS)
  • Stuart Sutcliffe’s Lonely Hearts Club – Pauline Sutcliffe (BIOGRAPHY)
  • The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock – John Harris (HISTORY)
  • A Bit of a Blur - Alex James (AUTOBIOGRAPHY)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (NOVEL)

And, while I was it, here are my favourite 15 books on sport. I could take it up to 20 but the last 5 would also be cricket and boxing. I think cricket and boxing are the most literature-worthy books, and plenty of people agree with me, but still, I think a list of 20 would over-expose my bias ...

  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami (GENERAL MUSINGS/MEMOIR)
  • Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino – Tony Cascarino and Paul Kimmage (AUTOBIOGRAPHY)
  • The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse (SHORT STORIES)
  • Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (1996) (ALMANACK)
  • A Cultured Left Foot: The Eleven Elements of Footballing Greatness – Musa Okwonga (ESSAYS)
  • War Baby: The Glamour of Violence: Kevin Mitchell (BIOGRAPHY/ESSAYS)
  • Night Train: The Sonny Liston Story – Nick Tosches (BIOGRAPHY)
  • Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing – Donald McRae (HISTORY/BIOGRAPHY)
  • The Cricket Match – Hugh de Selincourt (NOVEL)
  • Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (NOVEL)
  • Beyond a Boundary – CLR James      (HISTORY/PHILOSOPHY)   
  • In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens – Donald McRae (BIOGRAPHY)
  • A Lot of Hard Yakka: Cricketing Life on the County Circuit – Simon Hughes (MEMOIR) - only just beating Phil Tufnell's What Now? when it comes to engaging memoirs by Middlesex players of the 80s and 90s ...
  • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero – David Remnick (BIOGRAPHY)
  • Raging Bull  - Jake LaMotta (AUTOBIOGRAPHY)