Lovelondonscenes 172 – The Battersea Power Station station

On Monday 20 September an extension to the London Underground Northern Line opened. A short one, south of the river, travelling south-west from Kennington to a spot not too far from Battersea Power Station. With the one intermediate station, Nine Elms. This is an area in which a lot of development has been taking place over the last few years, primarily the construction of luxury tower blocks, many of whose flats are probably lying empty much of the time. They are investment opportunities, a safe haven for foreign capital, as much as somewhere to live. No surprise then, that in 2012, Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, described the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea opportunity area as “the greatest transformational story in the world’s greatest city.” Donald Trump didn’t agree. In 2018, he described the location of the new American Embassy as “lousy”, “horrible” and “off location”. Ok, so it’s not exactly Grosvenor Square, but it’ll have a great view of the river, there’s a big Waitrose nearby – and now there’s a tube line!

More established residents of the area include New Covent Garden, the fruit and vegetable wholesale market, and, of course, Battersea Dog’s Home. But the main feature, around which an ecosystem of shops, restaurants and bars is slowly developing, is Battersea Power Station. The power station is one of London’s iconic buildings. Music lovers will remember it featuring on the album cover of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, along with the floating pig. It wasn’t a functioning  power station for all that long. Construction began in the 1930s and was interrupted by the second world war.  It was completed in 1955, but was decommissioned in two phases, in 1975 and 1983, by which time it was a Grade II listed building. Over the years there were endless plans for alternative uses – including at one point becoming the footballing home of Chelsea FC – but none came to fruition and it remained empty until it was acquired by a Malaysian consortium in 2012. Since then, the structure of the building, which was in poor condition, has been restored and it is being redeveloped internally to house – guess what? – flats, offices and shops. Apple has plans to move in. The nearby waterfront and railway arches have already been revitalised. I can recommend Battersea Brewery under the arches, which serves excellent craft beers and unfiltered lager. We don’t have a pathway all along the river to Vauxhall Bridge yet, but hopefully that will come when the development is completed, which is due in 2022.

The tube extension is a key part of the redevelopment of the area. It’s the first extension of the tube since the Jubilee Line in 1999. We will have the delayed Crossrail 1 – the Elizabeth Line – soon. Next year? That will be our version of the Parisian RER, running west to east. A second line, north to south, has been shelved for the time being, for post-covid financial reasons – and, I’m sure, the Tories’ intention to starve London of future infrastructure funding as part of its “levelling up” programme. We still await signs of the positive elements of that programme – it’s mostly bluster at the moment.

But hey, we’ve got the Northern Line extension, and Battersea Power Station is nearly ready! Here are some photos from Tuesday. As you can see in one of them, I wasn’t the only one snapping away. As you can also see, the photographers were mostly men of a certain age… old geezers with time on their hands.

The internal architecture is very much in the style of the Jubilee Line extension. I like it.

External views.

Last, a few shots from the walk down to the waterfront, which takes about 10 minutes.

These last two from the waterfront.

 

 

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Sportsthoughts (168) – Premier League predictions for 2021-22

So, less than a week since the Olympics finished, and only 33 days since the European Championship final, the Premier League is back! And it starts tonight with a fixture that has me torn. My second team, Arsenal, away to my local club, Brentford. The mighty Bees, back in the top division of English football for the first time in 75 years. And with a shiny new ground, sandwiched between Kew Bridge and Gunnersbury Park, with a lovely view of the M4 flyover. It’s a nice ground, actually – I went there the other day with my friend Tony, to watch the Bees take on West Ham in a pre-season friendly. The Irons cruised to a 1-0 victory, which made me feel quite optimistic about the new season; but read on…

Let’s look back briefly at my 2020-21 predictions.  I got the top two right; Man City and Man Utd. Not a lot of people did, as they were so fixated on Liverpool. I had them fifth, thinking they might be found out and would focus on the Champions League. As it happens, I was almost right – they just snuck back into the top four in the last week of the season. They did well to do that after a horrendous run of home defeats in the first months of 2021. Injuries wiped out their central defence, and with that their wide and pressing games went out of kilter. They showed tenacity in getting back to some kind of form late on. I had Chelsea third; they came fourth, and were lucky that Leicester imploded in the last two games. Still, they did win the Champions League! That was City’s to win, but Pep fell prey to overthinking again and put out a team with no defensive midfielders. Chelsea took advantage then shut up shop. Quite a turnaround after sacking Frank Lampard in January, when the club were ninth in the league.

I got plenty wrong of course. Spurs did not make the top four under Mourinho – in fact he got the chop in April, days before Spurs played City in the League Cup final. They flashed brightly in the autumn, topping the league in December. They came down with the Christmas decorations. Arsenal were even worse than I expected, and ended up eighth. I had Sheff Utd at tenth, after their excellent first season back in the Premier League. They couldn’t score goals and finished bottom. Conversely, I didn’t fancy Aston Villa to avoid the drop after surviving by the skin of their teeth in the preceding season – they finished a creditable 11th. But maybe the biggest surprise was the excellent season enjoyed by my team, West Ham. I had them twelfth – they finished sixth, only two points behind Chelsea in fourth. If only Declan Rice and Antonio hadn’t been injured in the run-in… Credit to David Moyes and his coaching team for instilling a resilience and discipline in the team which we’ve not seen since…when? 1986? (The year we came third – our best ever season). There was attacking brilliance too, especially after Jesse Lingard arrived in the transfer window. And the reward? Thursday evenings in the Europa League!

Anyway, enough of last season, how about the new one? Can we look beyond Man City, especially if they add Harry Kane to their squad, as well as Jack Grealish? It’s not fair! I think Grealish is a great footballer – I wish Gareth Southgate had used him more in the Euros, especially the final. But will he make that much difference to City? It just gives them yet another attacking midfield option to go with De Bruyne, Foden, Sterling, Mahrez and Silva. Like I said, it’s not fair! Kane, on the other hand would give them a nailed-on goalscorer, someone who can be relied on to be at the end of all those brilliant crosses and cutbacks. He could be the final piece in the Champions League jigsaw – except that PSG now have a forward line of Mbappe, Neymar and Messi! Like I said…

It will also be intriguing to see whether City adapt their game to revolve around Kane, or whether Kane has to become just another of those fluid attacking midfielders. The former, surely. He has also been quite injury-prone in recent years, as has De Bruyne. Could that hold City back? And will other teams figure out how to put their defence under more pressure? Chelsea showed how in the Champions League final. I’m going to take a punt on that happening, with City’s focus even more on the holy grail of the Champions League. And I am going to say Chelsea for the title. Tuchel has already transformed the team; he now has the goals of Lukaku at his disposal. 115m euros is a lot of money for a player you had on your books as a youngster, but if he helps win the league it will be deemed worth the investment. I heard an interesting discussion on the BBC Football Daily questioning whether Lukaku has the pressing game which Tuchel will want; and there is the memory of his sluggish performances for Man Utd before he went to Inter. But I suspect he will deliver for Chelsea and provide the focal point that they sometimes lacked last season. Their main weakness may still be the centre of defence: while Thiago brought much needed calm and experience last season, he is getting on.  But I’m banking on their midfield and attacking riches restoring the title to Stamford Bridge.

Liverpool haven’t invested all that much yet, but they will have Van Dijk as well as Gomez back in defence soon, if not right at the beginning of the season. And they have spent £36m on French centre back Ibrahima Konate. This should be the trigger for the other parts of the team to get back to their best. Salah and Mane have both had proper pre-seasons, though will they both be off to the African Nations cup early in 2022? I think third – but with less angst this time – is where they’ll end. As for Man United, they have bought Varane to improve the defence, and Sancho to provide yet more speed in attack. But can you win the league with a central midfield of McTominay and Fred? Fourth, I say.

Right now it feels like the gap between those four is getting bigger, though Leicester have been top four for much of the past two seasons, before falling away at the end. Questions for them include whether Vardy is still a goal-scoring machine (though Iheanacho really came on last season) and how they will cope with the loss of Fofana, who has broken his leg. I think there is a case for Arsenal clawing their way back into the top six, with the youthful talent at their disposal. And Ben White will shore up the defence. It could all still fall apart though. Jury’s out on Spurs, with the future of Kane unclear, and some doubts about Nuno as a manager. I’m assuming they will slip further, to make room for Villa, who have spent well again – losing Grealish was a major blow, but they have brought in Buendia from Norwich –  and Leeds, who looked better and better as the season went on last time. They have crazy levels of pressing compared with all other teams, but are fit enough to keep it going.

Down the bottom, I can’t see Watford surviving and there have to be doubts about Norwich and Brentford. I’m assuming Norwich, who won the Championship by a mile, have strengthened their defence since the last venture into the Premier League. Selling Buendia wasn’t great for them, but they seem to have good attacking options. I think they may have learned lessons from last time and will survive. As for the Bees, much will depend on Toney’s goals. I just don’t know whether they have the quality to last 38 games against the teams they will face in the Premier League. They have good spirit and pass the ball well these days. Their fans will love just being in the elite. Could they surprise everyone? I’m going to give them my sentimental vote and predict 17th. But I’m not all that convinced. If Norwich and Brentford stay up, that means two of the more seasoned Premier League teams will face the drop. I’m going for Burnley and Wolves. I just sense that time is running out for Burnley, while Wolves slipped quite badly last season and have lost their manager. Is the Portuguese experiment unravelling? They will have striker Jimenez back – they really missed his goals last season. But can he be the same player after that terrible head injury? I wish him luck. Crystal Palace are a team I often tip for relegation. They could be anything under Patrick Vieira. I have them staying up, which could be the kiss of death.

That leaves us with West Ham. A magnificent sixth last season. No Lingard now – at least not yet – but Benrahma has been in scintillating form in pre-season. I have three concerns at the moment. First, will Declan Rice move before the window closes? Chelsea or Man United would be likely destinations, though I think he could do a great job for Liverpool too. It will be a major loss for us if he goes. Second, can Antonio stay fit? We really need some reinforcements up front. Maybe the Czech connection will bring Schick – who starred at the Euros – to East London. Third, do we have the squad depth to cope with the Europa League fixtures? For these reasons, I have my doubts about whether another sixth place, or better, is realistic. So I’ve gone for a respectable if slightly disappointing tenth. We need some serious investment in new players, or some really good youngsters coming through. I’m not sure if either is forthcoming.

So, in summary, these are my predictions. Feel free to disagree. I know some who will!

Champions: Chelsea. 2. Man City. 3. Liverpool. 4 Man Utd. 5. Arsenal. 6. Aston Villa. 7. Leeds. 8. Leicester. 9. Tottenham. 10. West Ham. 11. Everton. 12. Newcastle. 13. Brighton. 14. Southampton. 15. Norwich. 16. Crystal Palace. 17. Brentford. 18. Burnley. 19. Wolves. 20. Watford.  

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How do you know when you are finished? Reflections on Frank Bowling and the arts in general

I was in Bristol for a few days last week with my wife Kath. Exploring and enjoying that great city. On Friday morning we spent a bit of time in the Arnolfini art gallery down by the waterfront in the centre of Bristol. The quay where the statue of Edward Colston met its watery end last year. We were at the Arnolfini to see the Frank Bowling exhibition, Land of Many Waters. Frank Bowling is an abstract painter who was born in 1934 in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana. He moved to London in 1953 and for many years moved between studios in New York and London. Now 87, he is still painting in his South London studio, and this exhibition is a collection of paintings from the last decade. He had a major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019, which I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of times.

Bowling’s work is vivid, engaging and yes, very abstract. The titles, which are often related to family and memory, get you thinking; but mostly it is down to your imagination. You make what you will of the array of colour, of shapes which emerge and then disappear in the whirl of images that jump from the paintings. There is a variety of paints, materials and found objects splashed across the canvasses. Slashed or sprayed or even poured – the techniques are as various as the materials. Bowling himself has said that his abstract works are more imagination than memory: the idea of a view rather than the view itself*. The use of colour is central in his work. Again, to quote him: colour affects the eye and heart, physically and metaphorically, more directly than any other single element in painting.

Now, a sceptic might say to all of this, obviously colour is important. It’s a painting. And what’s all this stuff about the idea of a view? A view is a view. Well yeah, like Brexit is Brexit. Remember that one? Let’s just say there are many interpretations – of Brexit and even more so, abstract art. In fact there are as many interpretations as people – indeed more, as we might see something differently every time we look at it. It’s called perception.

So, quite a lot of this was going through my head – not the Brexit bit, I just came up with that – when I overheard a couple of people, students perhaps, discussing Bowling’s work and art in general. One of them said something which really struck me at that moment. She said,

The thing about this art is, how do you know when you are finished with it?

Yes, I thought. That works on so many levels. When are you sure what something means to you. Are you ever sure? Is there anything actually to be sure about? And what about the artist? How did Frank Bowling know when a painting was finished? If a painting is an idea of a view, rather than the view itself, then when is the idea finalised? Can it be? Is the room for just one more bottle top somewhere? Could you do with just a little more green in that patch of red? What are you trying to say, and will it be different tomorrow?

For the next few minutes in the gallery I went round taking photos of some of the paintings – the whole and then details. At each level you can concoct a different story. I’ll take just one example, a painting called Witness, from 2018. It’s more figurative than many of the works, as there’s something in it that could be taken to be a fence. Maybe those are tree trunks in the background – it is set in or inspired by Guyana. The middle detail has a suggestion of bodies just in front of the maybe fence. Or is that just me trying to see something concrete in an abstract flow? Was the witness a witness to a massacre? I’ve no idea. I doubt it. But the word witness, and perhaps my awareness of colonial history, especially while in Bristol, brought that briefly to mind.

And there are all sorts of objects embedded in this painting. A close look suggests lollipops. Why? And how did he know when to stop adding lollipops? Why not just one more? Maybe he ran out, maybe he got bored. Maybe he thought, I have said enough in this painting.

This question of when to stop changing or refining something isn’t confined to abstract art. It’s in all art. JMW Turner was known for constantly fiddling with his paintings: in the film Mr.Turner (2014) he is depicted at one point altering a painting when it was already on display at the Royal Academy. He was embroiled in competition with Constable at the time. You read about a lot of musical artists who just can’t stop adding sounds and re-recording as they make an album – it can add years to the creative process. Others like to bash them out in one or two takes – Nick Lowe was known for that as a producer on Stiff Records in the 70s. I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that you probably have your best ideas on the first or second go. It’s an approach I’ve adopted in my own novel writing. I hear about people who regard the first draft of a book as little more than a skeleton, something to be rewritten endlessly. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I’ve found that most of my first draft is better than anything I come up with later. Obviously I correct grammatical infelicities, and occasionally realise that there’s something that couldn’t have happened because of something else I wrote earlier. And maybe second time around I think of the adjective I just couldn’t conjure up first time. But generally I’m with Nick Lowe – don’t waste too much time on very marginal gains. We are not talking international cycling here.

I suspect that, for most if not all artists, there is never a moment when you think, I have achieved exactly what I set out to do. And when you have been working on something for so long, it will have become familiar to you. You can become bored with it. It is time to hand it over to the viewer, the listener, the reader, who will encounter it for the first time and, if you are lucky, experience some of the excitement and wonder that you may have had when you covered the last corner of the canvas, or recorded the last song, or typed that last full stop – before you went back over all of it again.

I was listening to a podcast while out on a walk yesterday. It’s called Locklisted and is an offshoot of the excellent Backlisted podcast, in which books from the past are discussed in depth by the two regulars, Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, along with a couple of guests. In Locklisted, they and producer Nicky Birch get together to discuss their recent reading, music, films, all sorts of things. They were talking at one point about the joy in sometimes not really knowing what a book is about, what Andy called the zone of uncertainty (I’ve been in that zone recently, reading Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet). John built on that point by relating it back to the artists. He quoted the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades: if a painter knows what he is going to paint, he’s an illustrator.

That’s brilliant, I thought. And it took me back to the Arnolfini: if he doesn’t know what he is going to paint – not precisely, anyway – then how does he know when he is finished with it?

The never ending circle.

 

* The two quotes from Frank Bowling are taken from the Arnolfini’s guide to the exhibition – which helped me navigate my zone of uncertainty! The four photos are from paintings in the exhibition – the first I don’t know the title of, but conveys that sense of water and flow and colour, I think. The other three are aspects of the painting Witness, as described in the piece above.

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Latitude 2021

 

Hey boy, hey girl,                                                                                                                              Superstar DJ,                                                                                                                                            Here we go!

Yes, it actually happened. Latitude 2021. It seemed unreal as we drove up to Suffolk on Wednesday afternoon. Latitude was happening. After 16 months without live music, save for the online variety – and credit to all those musicians who put on some brilliant shows from their homes and studios and empty concert venues – we were heading for four days of music, music and more music, made by people, real people, standing a few metres away from us. From famine to feast. And yes, there have been many more important things to worry about over those last 16 months as covid and the necessary restrictions blighted all our lives; but music, like all the arts, is so important to how we live our lives beyond the basic, how we express ourselves as human beings. Latitude signalled a return, not only to music, dance, comedy, art, poetry, literature, debate, theatre and all the other pleasures on offer, but to being fully ourselves.

Jon and I went up on Wednesday and stayed overnight in a village called Campsea Ashe, which is near Wickham Market – in fact Wickham Market railway station is located there. We had a couple of beers and some very good food in a pub called The Duck – worth a visit if you are ever in the area. Up early on Thursday, for a half hour drive to Henham Park, the location of Latitude. The car park was open from 8am they said. We got there at 8.15; and hearts briefly sank as we saw the length of the queue already outside the entrance to the campsite. Those vaccine and lateral flow test checks were clearly holding things up badly. Then relief, as we realised the gates hadn’t opened yet! And it all worked very smoothly; we were soon heading for a prime spot by a big tree and marking out a space that hopefully we could hold on to for our group – friends and family – who numbered thirteen in all. We pitched various tents – or, I should say, Jon did – and put up bunting in a German towels-on-the-beach style. It just about worked; and by mid-afternoon everyone was present and correct and enjoying the sunshine.

So, on to the music that I enjoyed this year. As ever there were clashes, which meant I had to miss out on bands like the Staves, Goat Girl and Sons of Kemet. But I hope to see all of them either at Green Man or End of the Road later in the summer. A number of artists also had to pull out at short notice because of covid – they included Fontaines DC, Arlo Parks and one of my recent favourites, Billie Marten. But that still left a rich variety of talents, drawn almost entirely from the UK and Ireland this year because of travel restrictions and other factors.

There was no Lake Stage this year – the organisers haven’t really explained why. A real shame, as it was a great venue for new bands and one you’d often pass by, leading to some of your most spontaneous discoveries. Celeste was one such example in 2019. But there was no shortage of discoveries as you’ll see…

Thursday 22 July

There was more entertainment than usual for Thursday evening this year. Jon and I headed over to the main site at 6 o’clock. There was already a buzz about the place as we neared the Writers’ Bridge – crossing that bridge every year is the moment that you feel you have returned. And that feeling was more special than ever this year.

Our first show – my first since Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton on 12 March 2020 – was William the Conqueror at the Trailer Park stage, which had replaced Solas. You could describe the band’s sound loosely as Americana with a leftfield twist. They are a trio fronted by Scotsman Ruarri Joseph. I didn’t know a lot about them, though I liked a track called Quiet Life off 2020 album Maverick Thinker, which got a bit of airplay on BBC 6 Music. Needless to say they didn’t play that one! But I liked the JJ Cale-influenced sound, and the punchy bass lines from Naomi Holmes. And a couple of songs in, it hit me, as Ruarri went into a guitar solo. I was in a crowd listening to live music again! I felt a tingle down the spine and a tear in the eye. William the Conqueror will stay in the memory, not so much because of their music, but because they were the first.

We went on later to another new venue, located in the Faraway Forest, a part of the site to which we rarely venture. The home of cabaret and hippies and Zen… and small dance sites belting out the techno, rather incongruously. It was called The Outpost rather appropriately, and was a low rise tent, with room for a couple of hundred people. We were there to see Lizzie Reid, a singer-songwriter from Glasgow. I’d heard a few of her songs on 6 Music and checked out her recent EP Cubicle. They are delicate, somewhat downbeat songs and Lizzie struggled to project them on the night. She wasn’t helped by the booming techno beats in the background. I’d happily see her again though, in a more propitious setting.

Afterwards, I went on my own to the Listening Post – the renamed (again) spoken word tent. It turned out to be my only visit, such was the music on offer. It was to see my favourite contemporary poet Luke Wright, a Latitude regular. I’d been extolling his virtues as a trenchant observer of modern life to my companions, but was quite relieved I’d failed to persuade any of them, as Luke was performing a collection of new poems based on Victorian characters, in the ballad form of the time. Very clever and densely textured. Still engaging, but perhaps only for those who knew him from his previous work.

A couple of beers followed with a few of the gang in the new bar, the Tap Room, located on the site of the Lake Stage, and what was to become the meeting point for the rest of the festival, with the demise of the Danish bar, which had been great over the last few years. Still a choice of Carlsberg Pils or Carlsberg Export though. How does the advert go? Probably the only beer in the world…

Friday 23 July

The “general campers” have been pushed even further away from the amenities and the main site this year, to make even more room for the posh tents, camper vans and families. You can see the demographic that Latitude is trying to attract, but fortunately this entirely commercial approach isn’t yet reflected in the curation of the music, which still ranges far and wide. The result of our location meant that it was a one mile walk to the showers – much better this year – and the Co-op, which became even more vital for breakfast material this year, as many of the old favourite stalls near the camping areas seemed to have fallen by the wayside (quite possibly because of the Co-op, though just as likely, the pandemic). So that was a two mile walk around 9.30 each morning – come to Latitude and get fit!  Over the four days, the health app that comes with the iPhone tells me I walked 36 miles. Helped offset the diet of Carlsberg I guess.

After breakfast, with Rick, one of our regulars, supplying the cups of tea to go with the Co-op egg and bacon sandwich (not bad) and assorted fruit (excellent), Jon and I set off to see the Goa Express at the Sunrise Arena, in its usual place In The Woods. (The band write their name in upper case.) I had them down as Britpop revivalists, but there was a bit more to them than that. They had a really fresh, jangly sound, very much the sort you associate with Liverpool through the ages, starting with you know who… A good reference point would be The La’s, that band who have influenced so many, even though they only made one, rather under-produced album themselves. Who doesn’t love the song There She Goes? The band are from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, which is a bit of a creative hotspot at the moment. Check out their recent single Second Time. It’s a lovely melodic thing that raises the spirits. Indie guitar music is not dead!

I checked out Lucia and the Best Boys on the BBC Sounds stage (which I shall call the BBC tent) next. We’d seen them, just as Lucia, in 2018 in the Alcove. I rather liked them then; this time the songs felt a bit overblown. I stayed for most of the show, before meeting Jon for a beer and then heading back to the Sunrise for Lucy Blue. She’s an up-and-coming Irish singer from Dublin. I liked her songs, which reminded me a little of Maisie Peters (see later), with a bit more electric guitar. One to watch. Next was the tail end of Wille J Healey’s show in the BBC tent. He makes an enjoyably retro rock sound that appeals to generations old and new. But this was just an interlude before we made our first visit to the main stage, the Obelisk, to see Maisie…

Lucy Blue

It’s hard to believe Maisie Peters was playing the Obelisk, and in mid-afternoon. She has a strong following and has been getting plenty of airplay on Radio One for recent songs like John Hughes Movie and Psycho. But she was playing Solas in 2019 (although she was already capable of selling out Shepherd’s Bush Empire that year too). I first came across her early in 2019, after reading a very complimentary article on the Line of Best Fit website, which asserted that she was making the best “observational pop” of 2019. I checked out her back catalogue on Spotify and was quickly taken with the songs. Singer-songwriter pop, written from the perspective of a young woman – boys are unreliable at best – with lovely melodies and sharp lyrics. Those observations that Line of Best Fit mentioned. All sung beautifully. A timeless sound. She was prolific during lockdown, releasing a string of excellent, confessional singles that reflected, but also rose, above the times. There are more collaborations now and you can tell that leading producers are involved, with some of those ubiquitous dance-pop sounds becoming more prominent. A debut album is imminent.

I was at the Shepherd’s Bush concert with a friend, who didn’t know Maisie’s music beforehand. She loved it. The show was a triumph and demonstrated that while the songs might be created in the bedroom, they were made to entertain. And the performance at the Obelisk confirmed that. It was Maisie’s first live show for two years, but she was straight out of the blocks with a set that brimmed with confidence. She mixed “old” favourites with the recent singles and a couple of songs from the forthcoming album that hadn’t been performed before. For me, highlights included the relentlessly upbeat Adore You, the samba-lite groove of Sad Girl Summer and a rendition of the ballad Feels Like This which tugged at the heartstrings. That was the first Maisie Peters song I ever heard. The two latest singles went down a storm with the crowd, John Hughes Movie closing the set. Psycho was apparently written with Ed Sheeran, though it also owes a debt to Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe. Maisie is clearly going places.

After Maisie, most of the group went off to see The Snuts at the Sunrise, but I stayed at the Obelisk to see Beabadoobee. Real name Beatrice Laus.  She played Green Man in 2019 and was on the Sunrise at Latitude, but I’d never got around to seeing her, despite some positive reviews. Her music is on the slacker/grunge part of the musical spectrum, though when I listened to it on Spotify I found it a bit lightweight in comparison with the 90s version. But I liked the recent single Cologne and she’s a fellow west Londoner, so I was curious to see how she would fare on the Obelisk stage. The answer was very well! The music packed a real punch, with some good grungy sounds. More Smashing Pumpkins than Nirvana, but definitely in the spirit of that era. There was a bit of singalong pop with her early single Coffee, which was very popular with the crowd. Glad I stayed, though I’m told the Snuts were pretty good too.

Strategy came into play at this point. Jon and I were both keen to see Wet Leg and Chubby and the Gang in the Alcove, but we’d encountered big queues earlier for a singer called Gabby Rivers. (We gave up on that one.) The Alcove isn’t that big anyway, and I think there were some restrictions on numbers for safety reasons this year. So we decided to go the concert before that – Sinead O’Brien. No problems getting in for that, but it was difficult listening. She talks/sings to a fairly repetitive beat and guitar scrawl. Let’s just say, it wasn’t my thing, or Jon’s. But it meant we were in place for Wet Leg, described recently on 6 Music as the Isle of Wight’s best kept secret! They have only released one song, the incredibly catchy Chaise Longue. But there is a buzz about them in the music industry and they have signed to Domino records, label of the Arctic Monkeys, amongst others. The Alcove was full when they began, with a lot of people left outside. Wet Leg are two women, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, backed by three hirsute blokes, who laid down a tight, infectious beat throughout. Rhian Teasdale sings and couldn’t stop smiling, in contrast to her droll vocals. The songs were fast and danceable, with lots of Strokes-like guitar. And of course they left Chaise Longue until the end. What a reaction! Pure bouncing joy and everyone singing along to the refrain, revelling in the daftness of it all.

Most of the Wet Leg crowd left at that point, and a rather gnarlier group assembled for the next band, Chubby and the Gang. I was really looking forward to this one. I’ve heard a bit of them on 6 Music, courtesy of Steve Lamacq, ever the upholder of indie and punk. They bring to mind the Clash colliding with Dr Feelgood and speeded up. Signature tune All Along the Uxbridge Road, a shouty tribute to the road that cuts through outer west London, from Uxbridge, via Southall, Ealing and Acton to Shepherd’s Bush. As an Ealing resident I have to love this. Live though, it wasn’t so much punk and pub rock as Motorhead played at double the speed. It was brutal! Chubby – aka Charles Manning-Walker (suspiciously posh) – posed at the front, one foot on a monitor, bottle of what looked like Jack Daniels in the other, bawling out the lyrics indecipherably. The guitars thrashed, the bass and drums drove the music on at supersonic pace. Chubby, when not singing, looked on with a menacing pride at the crazy moshing taking place in front of him. Like all the bands on the Alcove this year they played a straight half hour, even though they were the headliners. And to be honest, much as I loved this, it was enough. It was exhausting just to watch! Jon and I reeled out at the end, exhilarated, but heads spinning. Buzzing from the combination of Chubby and his gang and the brilliant Wet Leg. Strategic mission accomplished. We could now enjoy headliners Wolf Alice on the Obelisk…

Wolf Alice have been one of my favourite bands of the last few years. I’ve seen them five times, twice previously at Latitude as well as at the O2 Kentish Town, Alexandra Palace and the Roundhouse. Their first album My Love is Cool was a brilliant collection of catchy grunge-pop. Album two, Visions of a Life, was an epic revisiting of 70s rock, with some modern pop hooks. And number three, Blue Weekend, continues the journey into a grandiose pop with the occasional rock fling. They performed a great short set at the Stone Circle at the Glastonbury 2021 live stream, buffeted by the wind. And now, they were headlining Latitude. The trajectory is ever-upward. And yet… still coming down from Chubby and the Gang, both Jon and I found the set, which did cover all three albums quite well, just a little bit…tame. Very slick, superbly presented, a band at their peak. But I got slightly bored at times in the middle of the set. We were a bit of a way back, so that the screens were the best way of watching, but I think the element of detachment was the Chubby effect. At the end I thought, I need to process this one later. And yes, it was really good, one of the highlights of Latitude. Towards the end, I loved the rocking revival of early single Moaning Lisa Smile; and the rendition of Last Man on Earth at the end was beautiful and epic, a crowd-pleaser for years to come. In the future I’ll forget that Chubby and the Gang blew them out of the water at the time. And I can’t wait to see them again at Hammersmith Apollo in January 2022…

Ellie sings The Last Man on Earth

Saturday 24 July

We’d been lucky with the weather so far – a mixture of sunny and cloudy, but no rain. We were expecting a wet weekend, but the forecast for today had changed, and if there was to be rain it would come late on. Sunday looked nasty though…

We sauntered up to the Obelisk to catch a bit of Supergrass. The place was packed, the busiest I’d seen so far. A lot of people buy day tickets for Saturday, and I think most of them set up camp in the Obelisk arena and stay there most of the day.  Supergrass were perfect for the occasion and duly churned out their 90s hits, culminating in “Pumping on Your Stereo” and the evergreen “Alright”. An upbeat start to the day. They were followed by Sports Team, late replacements for Alfie Templeman. Very late replacements: they’d been playing Margate the night before and got a call at one in the morning to ask if they could do a set at Latitude at 2 o’clock that afternoon! And here they were, putting in a very lively shift, singer Alex Rice bouncing all over the stage. Sports Team divide opinion a bit, mainly because they went to Cambridge University and Alex is quick to voice his opinions on all sorts of topics. They were also nominated for the Mercury music prize for their debut album Deep Down Happy, which accentuated the sense of privilege. Their jerky indie is a poppier version of Squid and can be a bit annoying if you listen to more than a couple of songs. But credit to them, I thought they put on an energetic and entertaining show today.

After Sports Team, there was no-one we had in mind to see, so when in doubt, see what’s on at the Sunrise. It rarely lets you down. Next up was an Irish singer, Orla Gartland. The blurb in the programme referred to her “existential pop”. Wikipedia said she’d made her name singing cover versions on YouTube. It seemed worth a go. And by the time she started the place was heaving. She was given a rapturous reception by the mainly youthful audience, most of whom seemed to know all the words to her songs. The Sunrise comes up with surprises like this from time to time, and it’s a reminder that there’s a world of music out there that you just know nothing about. Her songs were pretty standard rock/pop with occasional slashes of angry guitar amid the Taylor Swift-style choruses. (Example: I did it to myself.) But the atmosphere was great and we stayed for the whole show. That meant we missed most of Lava la Rue in the BBC tent. She is part of a west London music collective playing that melange of R&B, hip hop, dance and jazz which is pretty popular right now. Takes me back to the 90s – the Rebirth of Cool and acid jazz vibe – and I love it still. Will have to try to catch her somewhere else.

Orla Gartland

We stayed in the BBC tent for the next artist, Holly Humberstone. Another up-and-coming singer songwriter; but on this evidence she really stands out. She began with her electric guitar, reminding me a little of Julia Jacklin, but worked through a range of instruments during the show. Some of her songs were straight ballads, but most had some kind of dance beat, as befits the modern era. She engaged really well with the crowd, prefacing each song with a story of how it came about. And then there was the voice – beautifully expressive. I wasn’t familiar with her songs beforehand, but a couple that stood out were Falling Asleep at the Wheel, and one I later identified as The Walls are Too Thin. A fine performance, which made Holly Humberstone my number one discovery of Latitude 2021.

Back to the Sunrise next, for a couple of shows. First up were Sorry. I really liked their recent single Cigarette Packet, which was a punchy bit of electronic indie. But that didn’t seem to come through this evening. The music didn’t seem to take hold and my attention wavered. You couldn’t say the same about the next act, Working Men’s Club, fronted by the precocious Sydney Minsky-Sargeant. The band hail from Todmordon in West Yorkshire – the same area as Goa Express and another great recent band, the Orielles. Must be something in the West Yorkshire water! There’s a bedrock of New Order in the band’s sound, but more punch and a lot more guitar. There’s an element of the Fall too, especially in Sydney’s vocals. They played the Lake Stage in broad daylight in 2019. They were good then; they are outstanding now, with a superb 2020 debut album, eponymously titled, to work from. Tracks like “John Cooper Clarke”, “Valleys” and the lacerating “Teeth” come across brilliantly, with their hammering beats and swathes of synth, peppered with bursts of searing guitar. Sydney prowls while guitarist/synth player Mairead O’Connor sits or stands eerily still, with a stony face. The perfect foil. Lights glare in the dusk, giving the Sunrise a claustrophobic feel. Working Men’s Club have a real presence. One of the best new bands, and one of the very best performances of this year’s Latitude.

After the exhilaration of Working Men’s Club, we were in the perfect mood for the Chemical Brothers. The Obelisk crowd buzzed in the darkness as 9.30 approached. Would they start with…? They had to. They did!

Hey boy, hey girl…

The frames of slimmed down Michelin Men, glowing red, danced and somersaulted across the screens. Lasers shot out of eyes. The visual assault on the senses was as powerful as the relentless beats that had a lot of the crowd dancing (I tapped my toes with a bit more vigour than usual, but Jon and his son Louis were giving it some!). It rained a little during the show, but no-one seemed to notice. Apparently there was even some lightning, but it couldn’t compete with the Chemicals’ light show. I didn’t recognise many of the pieces, but old favourites like Galvanize were snuck in here and there, and the whole thing ended with a pounding Block Rocking Beats. That pretty much sums up the show – the block truly rocked. In 2019 we had the awesome spectacle of Underworld to finish our Saturday’s entertainment. Chemical Brothers came to Latitude in 2021 and carried the baton with aplomb. Who will be next?

Sunday 25 July

I woke up at around seven expecting to hear the rain hammering against the tent. There was nothing but a light breeze. I checked the BBC forecast – there rain was pushed back to the evening and the percentage chance was quite low. Maybe we were going to get away with it. And we did. A beautiful, warm, sunny day for the most part. We got lucky.

And ten of us were raring to go for the first show of the day on the Obelisk at the unusually early time of 11.30: none other than Bill Bailey! What a great way to start the last day. Bill only has to walk on stage and pull one of his bewildered faces and I start to crack up. I think most of the adults in the crowd felt the same way. I was hoping for plenty of music amid the jokes, and he didn’t disappoint. Highlights included the intro to Stairway to Heaven played on a collection of tinkling bells and a walk around an imaginary house growling his location, while accompanied by some of his trademark death metal riffs! (Ok, you had to be there…) It was quite a short set – only about 40 minutes – and it flew by.  But I’m sure it put everyone in a good mood for the rest of the day.

After Bill, I got myself a beer and settled on the grass to watch Self Esteem, the musical project of Rebecca Lucy Taylor. She was standing in for Billie Marten, sadly missed in my case. Thankfully there’s another chance to see Billie in the festival season, at Green Man. She’s doing a show in London in September too. I don’t know the music of Self Esteem that well, but I have picked up on its confessional nature, exemplified by recent single, I Do This All the Time, which got a lot of airplay on 6 Music. The show was quite dancey too, with Rebecca and accompanying troop dressed in black as they executed their moves. I think I could hear the odd Madonna beat in there. It seemed a bit lively for the lunchtime sunshine, but credit to her, she came in at late notice and put on a greatshow. I need to explore her music properly.

After that I wandered over to the Sunrise for Irish band Just Mustard. They’ve been around on the fringes for a couple of years now, but this was the first time I’d seen them live. I was really impressed. I suppose you could categorise their sound as modern shoegaze. There is a wall of distorted guitar over which Katie Balls’ vocals waft gracefully. The Cocteau Twins came to mind, but to sum them up I’d say it’s the Cranberries meets My Bloody Valentine. And that is all good! This show really woke me up – I loved those howling guitars and the sweet relief of Katie’s voice. Definitely a band to get to know better.

I met up with Jon at the Tap Room after that and we decided to go over to the Obelisk for James Vincent McMorrow and enjoy the sunshine for a bit. I must admit I was thinking of another three worded singer, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, who we’ve enjoyed at Latitude before. Never mind, JVM was a perfect accompaniment to an hour’s basking in the sun, with his lightly soulful songs, mostly sung in a falsetto. I’m not familiar with his music, but plenty of the crowd were. I liked his version of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. And he finished with an excellent bluesy number. I liked his summery shirt too!

A pleasant interlude, but it was time to shake off the summer torpor. We had planned to stay on for the Kaiser Chiefs, but it was a 45 minute wait, by which time we would probably have zoned out altogether. Also, the Kaisers would eat into Nubya Garcia’s set, and she was essential viewing. So we decided to forgo the delights of I Predict a Riot and Ruby and take a punt on Liz Lawrence at the Alcove. It was a good call. She has a lively indie-pop style which makes you want to move your feet. The Alcove wasn’t full, but the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic – she has a loyal following. It was an upbeat half an hour which primed us for this year’s final straight, starting with Nubya Garcia at the BBC tent. Nubya is an amazing saxophonist and a central figure in London’s new jazz scene. She had a successful lockdown, releasing her debut album Source, which is an essential listen, exploring not only jazz, but her musical roots – the influence of reggae and African sounds is very evident. The show was an absolute dream, taking you to a higher place. Her sax-playing is exquisite and she had a superb band backing her, including Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards. Joe had headlined in his own right at the Alcove on Saturday. This was a pure indulgence of a show, a real joy.

We stayed in the BBC tent for the next band – something of a contrast! Those rowdy south Londoners, Shame. They put on a brilliant live show as ever, really engaging the crowd. It was a shame – no pun intended – that they clashed with Bombay Bicycle on the Obelisk for the first half hour, as the tent was only half full until reinforcements arrived after BBB finished. Not that it made a jot of difference to Shame’s performance, which was as full-on as ever. Singer Charlie Steen didn’t take long to pull off his shirt and launch himself into the crowd. And it was great to hear One Rizla near the end – that one has a real tune! I loved it – though possibly not as much as Jon, who disappeared to the front when Louis, Gab and Mark arrived from BBB. Steady on, old chap, don’t want to do yourself an injury!

A change of vibe for the last show: one I’d been looking forward to all weekend. Enough to miss the excellent Sons of Kemet. I’m talking about the strangely wonderful Greentea Peng. I love her music: the ever present influence of reggae and dub, the smoky, jazzy vibe, the distinctive woozy vocals. And the bass lines, oh my god, the bass lines! They snake around the melodies, ready to pounce. The recently released debut album Man Made is a summer delight – so relaxed on one level, biting on another. You get echoes of Grace Jones, Erykah Badu and even Sade, but Greentea Peng is a real one-off. The Sunrise was the fullest I’d seen it all weekend; a young but not teenage crowd, a lot of women. Shoreditch transported to a Suffolk wood! It was cooooool. And then there was me and Jon! Well, we do our best to keep up…

And what a performance it was – all those vibes I mentioned above and more. And sung with a smile by Aria Wells – for Greentea Peng is she. That was something I’d wondered about – would she affect that same aloofness as Grace Jones? She looks like she could. But not a bit of it. She was a down-to-earth London girl, just celebrating being let out to perform her songs again. Echoing the Beastie Boys, her song Jimtastic Blues combines a pulsating bass line with a familiar refrain: you’ve got to fight for your right to party. The young crowd sang that one back to her with gusto – you could feel the relief all around. The band were immaculate, perfectly delivering the required vibe. There was dub everywhere, including a few minutes of an instrumental when the echoes truly reverberated from the speakers. The bassist was so good, letting the music flow, deploying his double bass on quite a few of the tracks. The word that always springs to mind with this music is languid. Nothing is forced; everything grooves, Aria herself included, as she paces right to left, left to right. The set ended with two of her best known songs, Hu Man and then that perfect summer song Mr.Sun (miss da sun).  That one ran on for a while, as the band improvised and even let the guitar rip for a spell. It was all glorious. Maybe the best show of the weekend – it certainly felt like it at the time.

We met up with Louis, Gab and Mark afterwards for a couple of drinks. They’d been to Sons of Kemet and loved it. Nubya Garcia had joined the band on stage. Nubya and the incredible Shabaka Hutchings on the same stage – awesome! We looked back on the weekend – so many high points. But most of all we all felt so lucky, so privileged to be at Latitude after everything that has happened over the past 16 months. Maybe it will only be a brief respite, maybe it will signal that much hoped-for return to normality, or what now passes for it. Who knows? But at least we will have Latitude 2021 to savour. Never to be forgotten. When music once again came to the rescue, and we became ourselves again…

A Postscript

On Monday evening, back home, Jon texted me and Louis to ask what was the one song that summed up our Latitudes. He chose Wide Open by the Chemical Brothers. Louis went for G.S.K by Squid, though he was sorely tempted by The Last Man on Earth by Wolf Alice. I could have gone for that last Greentea Peng song, Miss Da Sun; but it had to be the song that jumped out immediately I thought about it. Of course it was Chaise Longue by Wet Leg. A moment of pure, unabashed fun in the Alcove.

Is your muffin buttered?                                                                                                              Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?                                                 Excuse me.

Here’s the video.

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Reflections on Bob Dylan as he turns 80

Today is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. The troubadour, the poet – with his Nobel Prize – the spokesman for a generation, even if he didn’t see himself that way. And now one of the great survivors, still playing, touring and making albums. His 2020 work, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released to great acclaim. It included a 17 minute epic called Murder Most Foul which mused on the assassination of President Kennedy amongst other things – something he didn’t do in the 60s, at least not directly, when he was the great protest singer. The album’s lyrics are full of allusion and historical, literary and biblical references, as you would expect from classic Dylan. The music is pretty basic, rooted in blues and old time jazz, if I recall. I say recall because I only ever listened to the whole thing once. I found it hard going to be honest, a bit of a dirge. Some of the lyrics were pretty trite. Sacrilege to say so, but the main effect of listening to Rough and Rowdy Ways was to send me scurrying back to the 60s classics.

While I’m in sacrilege mode – the effusive praise will occupy the rest of this piece! – I went to see Dylan and his band at Wembley Arena in 2017. It was the first time I’d seen him perform live – a gap in my musical experience, to be sure. It was awful. I seriously considered leaving half way through – not helped by the fact that I had toothache – but thought, I can’t do that, it’s Bob Dylan, one of the greatest artists of all time, one of my favourites of all time. I stuck it out. The music was a combination of honky tonk blues and barely recognisable versions of a few old favourites. Now I knew he reinterpreted his songs – nothing wrong with that, they’re his songs and it keeps them and him fresh. But this was outright destruction! Back on the tube, heading home, I took refuge in a Dylan selection on my iPod – the best of the best. The concert hadn’t affected my love for his music, which was a relief.

I don’t think anything could affect my love for the music of Bob Dylan – or at least that part of it which, to me, represents all that is great about him. It’s a lot of the canon, but not all of it – I don’t really go much beyond the mid-70s in terms of his original music, though the retrospective Bootleg series, which began in 1991, has been a source of discovery and delight. I wrote about Dylan at some length in my book  I Was There – A Musical Journey*, which I published in 2016. I thought I’d reproduce the piece here, which I wrote in 2011 (there’s a reference to Dylan being 70). You can tell it’s ten years ago – there’s a reference to MP3s, but none to Spotify!

In summary, my journey into the music of Bob Dylan began with Desire in 1976 and I soon discovered the wonders of Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde at university. But my immersion in the 60s classics began in earnest in the 80s when I had started work and had enough money to go on a voyage of discovery. My favourite album remains The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, but there is some stiff competition. Read on if you have the time. If you know the music of Dylan well I’d be interested in what are your favourites; if you don’t I hope you might get some pointers about where you might start…

One of my early plunges [in the 80s] was on Bob Dylan.  The poet and troubadour.  The man who told the story of the sixties – somewhat against his will.  The man who was a massive influence on Bruce amongst others.  It was time to understand.

 Of course I was already familiar with quite a lot of his music.  But now it was time to fill the gaps, buy up the catalogue.  I really got going when I lived in Putney, in 1981-82.  There was an Our Price on the High Street towards Putney Bridge.  I must have done wonders for their profits that year.  I can still remember coming out of there with “The Times They are a Changin’”: the bleak grey cover, Dylan with cropped hair. I was full of anticipation, and even trepidation, about what I was about to hear.  Blimey, it was all a bit heavy, a bit depressing, after the first play. Not one to brighten up the weekend. I never did really get into that one, after that initial reaction. But there are so many others which became fundamental to my life in music.

 My first recollection of Dylan, other than hearing things like “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio, was listening to the album “Desire”. The album came out in 1976 and someone in the Johnson’s sixth form used to bring it in to the prefects’ study.  It was an album full of stories. The leading track was “Hurricane”, a tale of injustice against a boxer called Rubin Hurricane Carter, who had been convicted for murder. It set the tone for the rest of the album.  Dylan extemporising, the guitars embellished by violins and soulful choruses. In the prefects’ study, it was the overall vibe that struck me – not that many tracks stood out at the time. The one that did was the last song on the album, “Sara”.  Even to a seventeen year old metal soon-to-be punk fan, it was a beautiful, melancholy tribute to a woman that clearly he loved deeply.  Later I discovered that this was made around the time that their relationship was breaking up, which makes the song all the more poignant.  God knows what Sara must have felt listening to it.  The price for being the partner of an artist of the greatest renown, I guess.

 I mean, fancy having “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” written for you – in the Chelsea Hotel – and the whole world knowing.

 I love “Desire” now, with its tall and mystical tales, and the harmonicas and violins and the harmonies sung by Joan Baez.  It’s a rambling wild west of an album, and Dylan on the cover looks like he could have been out there in a frontier town in the 19th century.  “Isis” sums up that vibe, with the man who marries and loses the woman called Isis and finds himself on a mission to make easy money.  Of course it all goes horribly wrong; but somehow Isis reappears, the mystical child.  Weird and wonderful, simple music, Dylan weaving one of his fantastical tales.

 That’s the thing I really learned about Dylan when I learned to play guitar. The music, at least in terms of chord structures, is mostly quite easy to play.  The songs are often simple, skeletal. But the way they are delivered – the grating voice, the rasping harmonica and the poetry, the phrasing – take them to another level.  A truly sublime level. You find yourself thinking, how did he come up with that?

From “Desire” I moved on to “Blood on the Tracks”, its predecessor from 1975. I bought it at Univ, probably on a recommendation in NME, or maybe from a friend; I can’t now remember. It was a beautiful album: a work of stunning melancholy, so poignantly sung and played.  It started with the brilliant “Tangled up in Blue”, the wistful story of a lost love and dreams of recreating it.  A story of drifting from place to place, tangled up in the memories of her, whoever she was.  The album was said to be about Dylan’s separation from his wife, Sara. He denied it, even said it was based on Chekov’s short stories. But you could feel the pain throughout, as his voice rose and fell; simple musical arrangements allowing the voice, with shards of sad harmonica, to tell the tale.  It was an album to be listened to all the way through, to feel the moments of optimism amongst the despair, and to experience the shock of “Idiot Wind”, when those tender and elliptical reflections suddenly turned into full-on anger and spite, Dylan spewing out the words.  In isolation, there wasn’t that much enjoyment to be had listening to “Idiot Wind”. In context, it was a crucial and brutal moment in the outpouring of emotions that ran through the album.

 Allegorical it might be, but was that somehow about the same person that he stayed up in that Chelsea Hotel, writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for? The full circle, to be sure.

 My favourite songs on the album, along with “Tangled up in Blue”, were “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello”.  “You’re a Big Girl Now” began with a lovely minor key guitar intro and ended with a wistful harmonica solo, in keeping with the emotions of the song. The song felt like a love letter, aching for a reconciliation, each verse peaking midway with a cry of oh, oh as if the pain of reflection was too much.  “If You See Her, Say Hello” was less hopeful about getting back, but hanging on to that shred of memory: hoping she’d look him up if she had the time.

 Again, the music was gentle, simple: almost off key guitar, an organ mixed right into the background, barely perceptible, but adding depth. And the voice, the quivering, desperate voice. This was grown up music, music I barely felt ready for.  But I felt I understood.  The voice and the lyrics told the tales, but so too did the music.  As ever, you could feel through the music. 

“Shelter from the Storm” was another beautiful, gentle tune, with enigmatic lyrics. It felt like it was a tale of a man wracked by a turbulent life seeking solace with a stranger, a temporary thing. Balm to the wounds. But then there’s a verse about taking too much for granted, a wall between them.  So maybe it’s more than I thought. Who knows?  The wonder of Dylan: so much to be read into the words. Room to create our own stories.  Just writing this, I find myself paying more attention to words than for anyone else I’ve written about, even Bruce and Elvis.  He is the poet, no doubt about it, and I haven’t even got onto the sixties yet!

 It’s fair to say that I have only ever bought one book of rock star lyrics in my life, and it is “Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-2001”, which was published in 2004, by Simon and Schuster. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny.

 It wasn’t long after my introduction to “Blood on the Tracks” that I had my “New Pony” moment, along with Bruce Springsteen singing “Racing in the Streets”, as I listened to the radio at home. “Street Legal”, the album, was good, but not quite in the class of the previous two. My thoughts turned more to the classic past, and that started with “Blonde on Blonde”.

 There’s a famous interview with Dylan from 1978, when he talks about “Blonde on Blonde” as when he got closest to the sound he heard in his mind. He describes it as a wild mercury sound.  What a great phrase. It could mean so many things, but there’s something metallic, precious, unpredictable, untameable.  “Blonde on Blonde” met all those standards.  I bought it when, ‘78 or ‘79? Undoubtedly because the NME, and so many artists interviewed in the paper, referred to it as one of the great albums. And the cover looked great: a fuzzy photo of Dylan with scarf. And it was a double album, and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” took up the whole of side four. That’s just something that you could never get in the MP3 age. There is no side four. Only, huh, that last track’s really long, click on something else. I don’t mind; there are so many plusses in the way we listen to music today. And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” sounds just as great if you hear it on shuffle. You just don’t have that sense of its place, its isolation.

 So where else to start but side four?  Well, maybe side one and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 “? Where everybody must get stoned!  I wasn’t all that bothered about that first time around. Whereas “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” entranced me: the poetic relentlessness of it, the forensic detail, metaphorical, obscure, but clearly an obsession … that all-nighter in the Chelsea Hotel. A simple guitar beat, a little piano, Dylan’s voice twisted but tender. Almost reading out the tributes and observations; melancholy, but like so much of the best melancholy, truly uplifting. And at the end, a harmonica break that encapsulated that wild mercury sound. A flourish that somehow captured and embellished the sentiment of the song, a delicate thread of despair.

 Which is why it had to be the last track: it would have been downhill all the way from there if it had been at the start, no matter how good the other songs were.  “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is one of those songs which occupies a different dimension to anything around it.  A different time and space.

 The whole album was a new, almost daunting experience.  This was Dylan as I’d never heard him before. “I Want You” was familiar; but even that, a simple love song with a lovely clipped guitar, sounded a bit… weird. It was the voice, Bob Dylan in full effect. A half-talking, quarter-crooning, quarter-rasping sound, rising and falling in unusual patterns. Sliding here and there like wild mercury. I was captivated.

 The songs were like abstract paintings, the lyrics like wild brushstrokes which didn’t immediately seem to connect with each other. But they were really distinctive, with phrases leaping out at you hither and thither.  Now, for someone who doesn’t worry too much about lyrics as long as they’re not really bad, this was most definitely a new experience.  Everything revolved around the words. Even when they didn’t make a lot of sense.

 “Visions of Johanna” was my favourite, after “Sad Eyed Lady”. It had all that abstraction, and the weirdness of voice, and the silver sound of the harmonica drifting in and out; and everything came back at the end of each snaking verse, to those visions of Johanna, haunting the singer and the song.  I still haven’t got a clue what it’s all about – Mona Lisa with her highway blues and all that – but it remains entrancing, enveloping.  You can make up your own story, conjure up your own visions.

 There was a lot of blues on this album too; skewed blues, Dylan blues.  “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Obviously Five Believers”, “Temporary like Achilles”.  The latter was basically just a bar room blues, but it had that voice, stretched out and loaded. The emphasis in the oddest of places. This wasn’t what they taught you in music lessons. But it made perfect sense in a Dylan song.

 And “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. What could it mean? What was Shakespeare doing in the alley speaking to a French girl who knew the singer well. Why did the preacher have headlines stapled to his chest? What were the Memphis Blues?  What was Mobile? I dunno, there was a great rumbling country backing, a soothing organ sound, and a story.  Fragments of an adventure, things not quite right, misfits at every turn.  And the Memphis Blues again and again.

 Yeah, I could see why “Blonde on Blonde” was always rated as one of the top albums ever, back in the seventies.  Dylan had invented his own rules and no-one else has ever sounded anything like that.  Even though the music was just your electric country blues with a twist. No, it was the voice and the words, those wild, random, pulsating words.  About nothing and everything.  Poetry.

 And so, in those early eighties, credit card at the ready, I headed back to the years which have to be regarded as Dylan’s greatest. Having established a singular identity, he wrote the songs that defined American folk music, and then picked up his electric guitar, offending the diehards, and made the definitive electric country rock’n’roll blues. Culminating in the surreal patterns of “Blonde on Blonde”.  Between March 1963, when he released “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and June 1966, when “Blonde on Blonde” emerged, he made seven albums, each one a classic in its own way. I swept them all up – and the debut “Bob Dylan”, which was mostly covers –  and absorbed the evolving Dylan vibe.  The three that stood out most for me were “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”.  I got into them in reverse order: I was travelling back in time. 

 “Highway 61 Revisited” was an obvious place to start, because it had one of the great, iconic rock songs on it: “Like a Rolling Stone”. The song ascended, through layers of guitar and keyboard and spiteful lyrics, to that amazing crescendo when Dylan scowled and demanded to know how it felt to be on the way down. On your own, no direction home. I’m sure you know the words.

 You’ve heard it so many times, but it’s still spine-tingling, as the harmonica launches in to finish off the refrain.  It’s a song that must have inspired a young Bruce Springsteen.  There’s an umbilical link to “Born to Run”, I’m sure.

 From “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Tombstone Blues”, a speeded-up blues with the same surreal lyrics that characterised “Blonde on Blonde”.  I loved this song from the start.  As ever, you could just be bamboozled by the lyrical fragments, or form your own picture.  I had this picture of adolescent isolation, hopelessness… in the kitchen of all places, with the tombstone blues. Sulking.

 Because I’d heard “Blonde on Blonde” first, and had it for maybe three years before “Highway 61 Revisited”, the latter felt to me like a dry run for the former.  I’m not so sure now.  Many would say that “Highway 61 Revisted” was the better album, hitting the same spots, but more concise, more focused.  But still with enough time for the rambling final song, the precursor to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the brilliant “Desolation Row”. It had a faster tempo than the snail-paced “Sad Eyed Lady”, and a pretty Spanish guitar sound, and wasn’t about the one person.  In fact, it’s hard to say what it was about. Another abstract musical painting.  Something about losers; a cast of oddities, contemporary and historical. A reflection of the milieu he was operating in? Who knows? It was an epic.

 “Bringing It All Back Home” feels like the coolest Dylan album of all time.  It’s partly the cover: a drawing room scene, as viewed from inside the camera; blurred borders and a clear inner circle, with Dylan, cool as you like, in the foreground with a grey cat, blues and soul albums to his side, and an elegant dark-haired woman in a red dress with a cigarette, reclining behind him. Dylan’s previous album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” pokes out behind her; a copy of Time magazine, with President Lyndon B Johnson on the cover, rests at her elbow.  And loads of other stuff.  Framed in white, with Dylan’s name in red and the album title in blue.  The music had to be good with a cover like that. And surely it was. The album kicked off with the buzzing rock’n’roll beat of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with Dylan reeling off the slogans, a call for rebellion. There’s a famous film of the song – not sure you’d call it a video in those days – with Dylan peeling off a succession of storyboards with the song’s slogans on them.  It’s great imagery, conveying the intent of the song brilliantly. Insouciant and strident at the same time.  So knowing and so ahead of its time. The riff was derived from Chuck Berry, I think; and in turn, Elvis Costello adapted it for “Pump it Up” on “This Year’s Model”.

 The album was divided into an electric side and an acoustic one.  The first side had a couple of love songs, “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, with lovely, tinkling guitar and just a little bit of the surreal lyricism.  “Maggie’s Farm” was a tale of escape and became an anthem in the UK in the 80s for the opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the union movement. And then there was some of Dylan’s distinctive blues.  Side two, the acoustic side, was awesome.  “Mr Tambourine Man” may be compromised by becoming the song of choice for a million buskers, but that’s because it’s a song of great resonance as well as being dead easy to play.  “Gates of Eden” had a yearning sound and lyrics that railed against corrupt society and, well, lots of other things. And then it got even better.  “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was an extraordinary piece, a subdued diatribe against pretty much everything, but with that alright Ma refrain which spoke of an inner turmoil – it felt like Dylan talking to himself. It’s a raw, bitter song, exploring the inner depths, with some memorable lines, like the revelation that even the US President has to stand naked.  And the last shot that sums it up, turning the personal into the universal, when Dylan muses his fate if they ever saw his thought-dreams.

 The album ended with a tender, anguished song about loss and renewal, one of Dylan’s best: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. He’s on the brink, singing at the top of his range, crying out the lyrics, which of course don’t always make sense. I mean, what has a reindeer army got to do with anything?  Yeah, well, it’s Dylan. It’s all what you make it.  There aren’t many songwriters that treat you to so many images, so many possibilities that let your imagination run free… as well as providing a damn good tune.

 And then the journey back in time took me to what became my favourite Bob Dylan album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”.  Remarkably, only his second album, after a debut which was mostly covers of folk and blues, Woody Guthrie to the fore. A year or so later, in May 1963, Dylan had transformed into the spokesman for a young generation disturbed about the way the world seemed to be heading.  This was the time of the nuclear stand-off between the USA and USSR; the time, I imagine, when people most feared that the world might just slip into the third world war. The war to end all wars.  And end a lot more besides.  The Cuban missile crisis was in October 1962.  I was three, so I have no memory of it; but I can imagine the fear of what next.  In my adult times I guess 9/11 in 2001 was the closest to giving us that same sense of foreboding.

 “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was a mix of protest songs and the blues and the love songs and what was just going on in Bob Dylan’s head.  It wasn’t quite so surreal lyrically as later albums, but the signs were there.  The first song I hit on combined the Zeitgeist with some grade A weirdness.  It was “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. The talking blues was a device that Dylan used quite a lot in his early days.  A simple guitar motif and a lot of talk-singing.  Live, a real chance for improvisation, I would imagine. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” was the song that introduced me to the talking blues, but another element of Dylan’s lyrics too – a real sense of humour. It was a song about a dream about life after the apocalypse, told to the psychiatrist. It’s full of brilliant lines, funny and scary at the same time.  There’s one verse that links to another of Dylan’s preoccupations, the anti-communism, the reds under the beds philosophy that had gripped America. That was the subject of another talking blues which I first heard on the official bootleg series which started in the early nineties.  It was called “Talkin’ John Birch Society Paranoid Blues”. It was an amusing song about a man who is so worried about Communists that he joins the John Birch society. And searches for them everywhere, even the toilet bowl.  He’s worried about the red stripes on the American flag, American presidents… even himself.  Killing with comedy.

 “Talkin’ World War III Blues” rambles on, musing about Cadillacs and record players and telephone operators, until the doctor interrupts to tell him he’s been having the same dreams. Except Bob Dylan wasn’t around…

 I love that.  Just imagine the simple guitar picking, the nasal deadpan delivery… and the putdown. Didn’t see you around.

 There were so many songs that I loved on this album.  Some as soon as I got it, others in time. “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” is one of the Dylan classics: a break up song, but softened by the gentle, simple backing.  I like playing this song on my guitar.  It’s not too difficult, and has a lovely sequence of chords, majors (happy), minors (sad), sevenths (launchpads). That’s about as technical as I get on music. There’s something essentially optimistic about the song, and that combination of chords is behind it.  “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another song with a post-apocalypse feel, whether or not that was the intention. It’s prescient too, a theme tune for the environmental concerns that have taken on such force in the 2000s. There’s a relentless rhythmic repetition to it, which conjures up a feel of nightmare. I first heard it as a Bryan Ferry solo venture of course, so I have this rather confused take on the song, as the Ferry version, almost by definition, made it arty, more detached; but I think Dylan’s raw vision has won out in the end. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” again feature the spectre of war, and the military-industrial-political complex with such a stake in the Cold War conflict.  “Blowin” in the Wind”, like “Mr Tambourine Man”, has acquired a busker-cliche image, but what a great song, really. The words, the melody: so simple, and yet so powerful.  That’s why it resonates.  

 Then there were the more personal, Bob Dylan songs.  From the pastoral “Girl from the North Country”, which drew on the old English folk tune, “Scarborough Fair”, to “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, a tale of passing years, and “Corrina, Corrina”, which was a cover, but a lovely wistful blues with a loping guitar in the background.  It sounded like a song about a girl that Bob really cared about. While writing this piece I’ve been playing “Girl from the North Country” on my guitar.  The chords are easy: G to B minor (wistful) to C and back to G.  Not so easy to sing with my range – I strain to hit the peak of that B minor line. But what beautifully simple words that convey everything you need to know about the hurt and the unextinguished love. Take the second verse, where the singer implores whoever he’s addressing to make sure she’s warm enough in the howling winds of winter. Not only does it tell you all you need to know about the harsh climate of the Northern Mid-West – Dylan’s home state is Minnesota – but it’s so affecting, with all the love in the world poured into that concern for her, so far away. Such a simple expression that tells you everything. Gets me every time.   

 Ah, it’s a wonderful album from start to finish.  A joy in itself, but also with a real sense of Dylan on the journey to greatness.  If the peak was “Blonde on Blonde”, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was the first step into the uplands. And it had a great cover: Dylan arm-in-arm, with a girl, his friend Suze Rotolo. Hunched up and happy in the cold, in the middle of a slush-covered New York street. His home turf. With a really cool orangey-brown suede jacket, the like of which I spent years trying to find.  Never quite managed it, but I’ve got one these days which kinda does it for me.

 In those early eighties, I stopped at “Blonde on Blonde” going forward. And then, on the Dylan timeline, I picked up again with that seventies listening:  “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, “Street Legal”. The latter album, despite moments of brilliance, was getting gospelly, which didn’t suit Dylan; or more to the point, didn’t hit my Dylan buttons. And then he got born-again religion. It wasn’t too well-received in the papers I read – NME to the fore of course – and I lost the contemporary connection for a while.  It wasn’t until “Oh Mercy” in 1989 that I got interested again in the modern Dylan.  And to be honest that was because of the rave reviews and the teaming up with producer Daniel Lanois, who’d done brilliant things with U2 and latterly with The Neville Brothers. There was this spacey sound to his works, which allowed Dylan to breathe, and to extemporise.  Whether it was an escape from the previous few albums I don’t know, because I’ve never got around to listening to them. But I think it may have been a bit of a liberation. 

 The making of “Oh Mercy” features in Dylan’s first volume of autobiography, “Chronicles”.  He evokes the atmosphere and scenery of New Orleans, where the album was made, beautifully. The steaminess, the lushness, the cemeteries, the mystery… and the blues; everywhere the blues, and soul and myriad musical forms.  One time he escapes from New Orleans, with his wife, on his ex-police Harley Davidson, to ride the surrounding country, to clear his head.  There’s a bizarre and rather disturbing encounter with a shop keeper called Sun Pie, a homespun philosopher who foresees the coming of the Chinese and the survival of the fittest.  Dylan tells it all with clarity and foreboding – he turns down an invitation to stay for dinner. 

 It’s interesting that the final product did have that spaciness in the sound – and a New Orleans sultriness – because Dylan tells a tale of frustration in his book about the making of the album.  Somehow what is in his head doesn’t connect with Lanois’ musical approach without a lot of effort on both sides.  It’s fascinating to read of the struggle, as well as the goodwill and mutual appreciation, and then to listen again to the album. It’s an education.

 Then, in my rather wayward Dylan journey, in 1994, I discovered the return to Dylan’s folky roots, which accompanied his retreat from live performance and spokesman-for-a-generation status after his motorbike crash in July 1966. The catalyst was an Elvis Costello album of covers called “Kojak Variety”.  It was a good album, a bit of a breather for Elvis. One of my favourite tracks was “I Threw it all Away”, a plaintive little song about, basically, taking a love for granted… and throwing it all away.  I saw it was by Bob Dylan and needed to find out more.  So I bought the album it was on, “Nashville Skyline”. It wasn’t just folk, it was country.  It was a gentle, heartfelt album. Dylan’s voice was totally different to the slurred radical of “Blonde on Blonde”.  It was pitched higher: vulnerable, kind of… normal. The songs were pretty conventional too, but the best had a stirring quality. “I Threw it all Away” really felt that way; “Tell Me That it isn’t True” was fragile bewilderment; and the reprise of “Girl from the North Country”, with Johnny Cash, had two great singers straining to hit the notes, which made it that bit more poignant. And then there was “Lady, Lady, Lay”.  One that makes all the Dylan Best Of’s.  I’d heard it plenty of times on the radio.  It’s a beautiful, laid back, but many-layered song that wistfully implores the lady in question to stay a bit longer. Before I ever really listened to the lyrics beyond the title, I could sense the longing and the impending regret.  A wonderful tune. 

 I picked up “John Wesley Harding” around the same time.  I always thought of it as the follow up to “Nashville Skyline”, but actually it was the first post-motorbike-crash album, released in December 1967.  It had a similar feel to “Nashville Skyline”: a bit less of the country twang, and the songs not quite as distinctive – except of course, “All Along the Watchtower”. The song that Jimi Hendrix took and made his own: a guitar anthem. It’s impossible to listen to Dylan’s original without thinking about what it became.  I think Dylan even said Jimi’s was the definitive version.

 The other music that Dylan made in this late sixties period was with The Hawks, who’d worked with him on his tours in 1965-66 and were pretty involved in the making of “Blonde on Blonde”. They later became known as The Band and made some great music in their own right: albums like “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band”.  Their classic songs included “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and some tunes they wrote with Bob Dylan” like “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”.  The latter two were also on “The Basement Tapes”, recorded in 1967, and one of the legendary bootleg albums until it got an official release in 1975.  I bought the CD twenty years later! It’s an album which feels a bit unfinished, but sounds as if Dylan and the band (The Band…) were having a great time, exploring American music, rock’n’rolling. There’s a lot of humour in the lyrics, a good vibe flowing through it all.  I like things like “Please Mrs Henry” and “Million Dollar Bash”, which go by in a flash.  They were never going to be massive hits, but they show Dylan just being himself, amongst friends.  A feel-good album.

 I’ve got another version of “The Basement Tapes”, a bootleg of the bootleg, or something like that. Courtesy of a good friend, Paul, who is a bit of a collector of such things. The CD has what must be an early version of “Quinn the Eskimo”, also known as “The Mighty Quinn”.  The song became a No 1 hit for the British group, Manfred Mann, in 1968, and features now on all the Dylan greatest hits albums.  It’s an upbeat pop tune – not Dylan’s speciality – and it is now a regular sound at The Stoop in Twickenham, when the Harlequins rugby union team are playing. Sometimes Manfred Mann, occasionally a hard-rocking version by a Swiss band, would you believe, called Gotthard. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Quins for a few years now, and “The Mighty Quinn” is our celebration tune. And we’ve had a few good times to celebrate.  Funny to think it came from those sessions when Dylan was escaping from what he had created, but still wanted to make music…

 The Dylan story continues to this day.  Still touring, still making music, still celebrating music – he has a US radio show that takes people back to the roots of the music he loves and the music that today lives in the same spirit.  He is the ultimate troubadour.  Over the past decade, he has made a few albums which have received critical acclaim: “Love and Theft”, “Modern Times”, “Together through Life”, all exploring the roots of the music that made him what he is.  Each time the voice sounds that bit more frail; but the passion is still there. I’ve bought them all, listened a few times, and then, I have to say, switched back to my old favourites. But I really respect what he is doing.  Music is his lifeblood, singing is his trade, and he’ll do it until the day he dies.  A true hero.

 The legacy has been enhanced by a series of “Bootleg” albums that started in 1991, with a five album box set that strangely comprised Volumes 1-3 of the series. It was a beautifully-packaged set with a classic mid-sixties Dylan photo on the front cover: the punky hair, the Ray-Bans, blowing into the harmonica. The music ranged from early stuff to the eighties Christian period.  It’s when I first heard “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and there was a lovely Irish sounding piece called “Moonshiner” which I’d never come across before.  Overall the music was interesting, in a completist sort of way, rather than amazing.  Maybe because it ranged over such a lengthy period the impact was lessened.

 The next few volumes focused on single concerts. Volume 6 has one from 1964, with Dylan at his acoustic peak. Highlights include a wildly expressive version of “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, a sharp-as-hell “John Birch Society Paranoid Blues” and a song I previously hadn’t heard, called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”. Why and what’s the reason for? cries Dylan.  Davey Moore was a boxer who died after a fight. Who to blame? Not I… say the referee, the manager, the gambler, the writer, the fighter, the crowd and sundry others. Dylan rattles off the denials, in a sinister monotone. It’s a gripping tale and a mesmerising performance. Throughout, Dylan’s voice is at its most expressive: pitched high, almost shouting, spitting out the words at times.  He’s joined by Joan Baez for a few songs at the end. It’s an odd combination, the rasp and the warble. Doesn’t totally work with only the strummed guitar as backing: the voices need to be playing off different things, not just each other. But I can imagine it was amazing being there, seeing and feeling the two of them together. 

 Volume 4 is a concert from 1966 in Manchester, when Dylan had gone electric and some fans weren’t happy.  It’s the scene of the infamous Judas cry and Dylan’s reply, I don’t believe you… you’re a liar, before launching into a visceral “Like a Rolling Stone”.  Volume 5 took in live performances from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, with Joan Baez, amongst others.  It featured songs from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”, as well as some of the sixties classics, often heavily re-worked.  A really good selection.  And then Volume 7, released in conjunction with the 2005 DVD, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home”. What a great film – Dylan interviewed about his roots, his early days and his sixties heyday, with live footage that captures the moment brilliantly. The CD goes right back, with home recordings of Dylan playing at being Woody Guthrie, his main man, and a touching “Song for Woody” from his early studio efforts. You understand…

 In 2004, Dylan’s first volume of autobiography was published.  “Chronicles, Volume One” it was called.  Of course, being Dylan, it wasn’t chronological, but went back and forth through time.  And completely missed out the heyday. It concentrated on the early days, really telling you where Dylan came from, personally and musically.  He’s brilliant on the flashes of light that truly helped to form his distinctive style. Woody Guthrie and the blues singer Robert Johnson take pride of place, with the moments that Dylan first discovered them vividly, excitingly described. He pays tribute to the various folk singers that he played with in New York, people like Dave van Ronk, and is enthralling about the way that a production of Brecht and Weill songs unleashed his imagination, making him think ever more creatively about the structures and characterisation in songs. 

 And I like the bit when he describes listening to a folk musician called Mike (not Pete) Seeger in a New York attic in those early sixties when he was finding his way.  Dylan is so moved by the brilliance of Seeger, his musical virtuosity.  He knows he could never compete, and realises he therefore has to invent his own rules, his own music.  It’s part of the transition to writing his own songs. The rest is history. Thank you Mike Seeger!

 He’s fascinating too, on how he was trying to make music in the late sixties with “New Morning” and then “Oh Mercy” in the late eighties, as I’ve described earlier. There’s a tremendous honesty about the whole thing: the struggles he sometimes had in realising his vision for the songs, his desperation to get away from being seen as the spokesman for the sixties generation. (A tiny bit of me asks is he protesting too much here, maybe rewriting history just a little; but I don’t think so, given the openness with which he tells his tale.) His prose is like the lyrics to his songs: sometimes (but not often!) a straight story, other times almost random musing with flashes of great insight, memorable phrases, extraordinary recall of detail.  Maybe he kept a diary, or maybe he’s just got that eye and memory for everything. The richness and detail of his lyrics suggest he’s just got it all.

 I’ve been re-reading Volume One of “Chronicles” as I write this piece. Even though the periods in his life that he writes about hardly overlap with the times he made my favourite music, the insight into Dylan the man and Dylan the song writer have really heightened my appreciation and understanding of all his music.  More artists should write books like this.    

 There’s no sign of Volume Two.  I hope he’s working on it.  I hope he takes us into the magical period from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” to “Blonde on Blonde”.  And I hope he takes us on the journey through “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. Some of it might be painful, I guess; but I’d love to hear what really lay behind all that great music. I’d like to know what he was thinking of when he wrote “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. What was he hearing when he strove for that wild mercury sound? I’d like to know if or how he managed to record “Blood on the Tracks” without breaking down.  How did he see through the tears when he sang “You’re a Big Girl Now”? I’d like to know what he was dreaming when he dreamt up “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and how he and Johnny Cash got together to sing “Girl from the North Country” with such tenderness. I’d like to know how he has kept the passion and the energy, still reinventing himself at age 70.  Because we can all learn something from that.  I’m sure he would say, be true to yourself, follow your dream. And don’t stop dreaming…

* “I Was There – A Musical Journey” is available on Amazon. Click here. It tells the story of the music I have loved from the early 70s until 2016. It includes delving back into the sixties, to rock’n’roll and some of the jazz greats.

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A Thames Journey: (7) From Hampton Court to Kew

Glide gently, thus forever glide,                                                                                                            O Thames! That other bards may see                                                                                                  As lovely visions by thy side,                                                                                                                As now fair river! come to me.

Those words are from William Wordsworth’s 1790 poem Lines. They were written on the banks of the Thames at Richmond, through which we pass in this seventh instalment of the Thames Journey. The tidal river, which begins at Teddington Lock, does more than glide at times – it positively surges. There is brutality in its beauty. But there is certainly beauty.

Looking downstream from Hampton Court Bridge

We have reached the part of the river with which I am very familiar. I have cycled and walked along its length many times over the years. For that reason, as well as the fact that I live in West London, there are many more memories and reflections that come to mind than in previous episodes. So the length of the river covered in each remaining episode will be shorter than those that went before. The journey in this section is about 11 miles. Maggie, Kath, Jon and I did walk this exact stretch one time, on 2 July 2017. We hadn’t been planning to – the intention was to get a train to Henley and walk to Marlow. But when we reached Ealing Broadway station we found that most of the trains had been cancelled. We swiftly concocted a Plan B and walked down to Kew Bridge for a hike upstream to Hampton Court Bridge. More recently – last November in fact – I did most of the walk in reverse, accompanied by my good friend Dave,(a resident of East Molesey) as far as Kingston. A lot of the photos are from that recent walk and others I have been doing in Brentford, Kew and Richmond over the last year. The Thames has been a boon in lockdown.

Riverside near Kew

This is a prosperous part of London, particularly on the Surrey side, which for the most part of this journey is the eastern side as the Thames snakes northward, before it lurches southward at Brentford/Kew. In days gone by, before the suburbs extended to these parts, they were holiday destinations and the site of great palaces and ornamental gardens. Hampton Court is one of course. Henry VII built his palace near Richmond, named after his earldom in Yorkshire. Richmond was merely Sheen before that. There are grand houses and gardens at Ham, close to Richmond; Strawberry Hill, Marble Hill and Orleans House near Twickenham; and Syon Park, by Brentford. And of course, the finest gardens of all are at Kew. We’ll come to some of these as we go along.

Let’s start with a few pictures of the walk from Hampton Court to Kingston. It’s interesting how a riverside location often encourages imaginative architecture. A combination of wealth and, perhaps, a sense of freedom?

Looking back to Hampton Court Bridge

Open house

Approaching Kingston. The Italianate church is St Raphael’s

Kingston Bridge

View upstream from the bridge

Dave and I saw a lot of cormorants on the river that day. Apparently the fishermen are now complaining that they are taking too many of the fish! The good thing is that there is obviously a plentiful supply of fish, which shows that pollution levels are much lower than they used to be.

Kingston is a bit of a concrete jungle in its centre, with a punishing one way system, if I recall from the days when I had to drive there with my son Kieran for birthday parties at a leisure centre where they could run around and shoot lasers at each other. But the riverside is serene, and like all river settlements, it is rich in history.  Kingston is where they used to crown kings back in Saxon days, including Alfred the Great and the wonderfully named Ethelred the Unready.

Until 1729, when Putney Bridge was opened, Kingston Bridge was the only solid crossing of the river between London Bridge and Staines. That’s remarkable. But then this area was mostly countryside with a few villages, and ferries would have been operating in many parts. A wooden bridge existed at Kingston from the 12th century. While the bridges had to be replaced quite often, having one gave Kingston a great advantage as a market town. That may be why Charles I gave Kingston a charter which prevented any other market from operating within a seven mile radius. I assume that no longer applies. The bridge was also used between 1572 and 1745 for the practice of “ducking”, whereby a beam was attached to the bridge from which dangled a chair which was used to immerse “scolds” in the river. According to Peter Ackroyd, these were women who used foul language, “nagged” their husbands or slandered other members of the community. The last victim was the keeper of the King’s Head alehouse in Kingston, who was ducked in the presence of 2 or 3,000 people. Blimey.

The current bridge was opened in 1828, replacing a bridge that had partly collapsed due to a severe frost. Prior to that there had been disputes about who should pay for the repair of the increasingly dilapidated structure. That has resonance today, as Hammersmith Bridge remains closed while the council, Transport for London and the government argue about who should pay for vital repairs, which could cost £45m. 

Just downstream of the bridge, as the river runs north, lie Canbury Gardens – a respite from the concrete. There are attractive views of the river and prosperous Hampton Wick on the other side. In summer the yachts come out to play. I remember many years ago, while cycling down here, being surprised to see what looked like a regatta. Continuing the boating theme, Kingston is also the starting point for Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, in which they row upstream to Oxford and back to Kingston. There have been many film and TV adaptations of the story. The one I remember affectionately is the 2005 TV series in which three comedians, Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Brian and Rory McGrath took on the rowing duties. Wouldn’t mind watching that again. Or maybe I should read the book!      

It is not long before you reach Teddington Lock, a huge complex of three locks and a weir. It marks the boundary between the tidal Thames and the rest of the river. A little further downstream there is a boundary stone that designates the boundary between the Environment Agency’s jurisdiction of the river and that of the Port of London Authority. Why this is at a different point than the tidal/non-tidal demarcation I have no idea. And I must admit I’ve never noticed the stone. I shall have to look out for it on my next venture up to these parts. The three locks cater for boats of different sizes, including one for the large barges which used to ply their trade up and down the river. The lock was very unpopular with local fishermen and boatmen when it opened, and the first lock keeper was provided with a blunderbuss – bayonet attached – to deter irate punters!

These shots are from my walk in November 2020, unless otherwise indicated.

The full works

Looking back upstream as I approached the lock

Family outing July 2017

Footbridge from the Teddington side, October 2011

And the Surrey side, nine years later

View from the bridge, October 2011

The large lock

As the river bends eastward we reach the curiously-named Eel Pie Island, with Twickenham on the north bank and Ham on the south. There are houses and streets, but no cars. Until the footbridge was opened in 1956, the island was reached by ferry. In the 60s it had a musical reputation: the Eel Pie Island Hotel was a home for the blues as well as a venue for up-and-coming artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Rod Stewart and David Bowie. This part of London remains a centre for blues and jazz. The hotel closed in 1969, briefly reopened, and was burnt down in 1971. The island, also known as Twickenham Ait, was named after a dish served on the island from the 16th century. Henry VIII was apparently fond of the odd eel pie – no surprisse there. The hotel was opened in 1830, and the island was a popular picnic spot in Victorian times. It is mentioned in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby. Today, as Peter Ackroyd wrily notes, “The island is now the insular home for a somewhat eccentric community”. I’ve never got around to crossing the bridge onto the island, but from the towpath on the Ham side in the summer, you can see and hear the parties on the balconies and the riverside gardens. Does Pete Townsend still live there? Did he ever, or was it just that he owned the Eel Pie Studios on the Twickenham bank? Never mind – I like to imagine that in one of those large houses he’s jamming with his mates still.

A glimpse of Eel Pie Island from the Ham side, November 2020

The Eel Pie island footbridge, Twickenham side, October 2011

The bend at the river at this point means that while Twickenham is slightly upstream from Richmond, Twickenham Bridge is downstream of Richmond Bridge. Think about it! Twickenham was first mentioned in writing in a charter of AD 704 according to Ackroyd. It may mean land by a river fork. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, liked the place. Ackroyd quotes him as saying it was “so full of beautiful buildings, charming gardens, and rich habitations of gentlemen of quality, that nothing in the world can imitate it.” On the other hand, a Frenchman once remarked to one-time resident Alexander Pope, the renowned poet, “All this is very fine, but take away the river and it is nothing.” Ackroyd adds, “This is perhaps accurate.” But it’s also something of a tautology: wherever the Thames flows it defines the place. How couldn’t it?

These days, Twickenham is best known for its rugby stadium and for being the headquarters of English rugby union. The stadium, surrounded by suburban housing and supermarkets and the A316 dual carriageway which morphs into the M3 and heads south-west out of London, is a rather ugly and cold brute of a building. The seats are squeezed tightly together. But when 82,000 braying rugby fans are in full voice, there’s quite an atmosphere. My favourite moments there have been watching Harlequins, the local rugby team whose stadium, the Stoop, is on the other side of the dual carriageway. They play the odd Big Match there, and won the Premiership final in 2012 – the highlight of the nine seasons when Jon and I were season ticket holders at Quins. Those seasons were lit up by the brilliant New Zealand fly half Nick Evans, who retired from playing at the end of the 2016-17 season. He’s on the Quins coaching team these days. I wrote this tribute to him on my blog at the time.

The maestro

Switching to the Surrey side of the river, the approach into Richmond is truly a wondrous thing. You pass Ham House on your right and then behold the river widening and bending, lined with trees, which give way to the meadows which rise up to become Richmond Hill. The hill is lined with grand buildings, the most notable of which is the Royal Star and Garter Home for disabled military personnel. The home was built in the early 1920s – there was a hotel on the site before that – and remained in use until the early 2010s, when it was sold to developers, for conversion into apartments. The view of the river from the top of the hill is spectacular too. It was the first view to be protected by an Act of Parliament, in 1902. There is a viewing terrace, which holds a special place in my memories, as it is where, on a warm and sunny October day in 1990, Kath and I had some of our wedding photos taken. Our reception was held at the Richmond Hill Hotel, on the other side of the road.

The next few shots are all from November 2020.

The river bends into Richmond. Star and Garter, background right

Ham House

Petersham Meadow and Hotel, Star and Garter

Looking back upstream into the sun

The view from the top. February 2021.

As I noted earlier, Richmond wasn’t Richmond until the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. It was known as Sheen – not to be confused with Sheen, as we know it today, beyond Kew. I suppose it was West Sheen to Sheen’s East Sheen. Where that left Kew, I don’t know. Henry VII was the Earl of Richmond – in Yorkshire. But he wasn’t a Yorkist, unlike Richard III, whom he deposed. Confused? Read on… He took the throne in 1485 and was king until his death in 1509. What Hampton Court is to his son Henry VIII, Richmond is to Henry VII. His non-London home – London was essentially the City and Westminster in those days. Kings of England lived on the site of Richmond Palace, which lies between the river and Richmond Green, from as early as 1125 when Henry I was on the throne. Richard II was the first to make Sheen his main residence in 1383. Henry VII built a new palace on the site after the wooden buildings which were there before burnt down. Mary I – Bloody Mary – honeymooned at the Palace with Philip of Spain. Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned there briefly, but returned as Elizabeth I and spent most of her time there. She died in Richmond in 1603. The Palace met its demise in 1649 when it was sold by Parliament (in the days of Oliver Cromwell) for £13,000. Over the next ten years it was largely demolished, so there is little, if anything to see today.

Richmond is one of the most desirable places to live in London, with house prices to match. No doubt Pope’s French acquaintance would say it was nothing without the river, and it is certainly one of the loveliest places along the Thames. The bridge is the centrepiece. It was opened in 1777, and is now the oldest surviving bridge in London. It was designed by James Paine, who went on to design bridges over the Thames at Chertsey, Kew and Walton. It is so harmonious with its surroundings – it has an understated elegance, I think. It’s often gummed up with traffic of course, but attempts to widen it have been resisted. The nearby Twickenham Bridge, which is a rather utilitarian construction, was opened in 1933, partly to take the pressure off Richmond.

Richmond Bridge in November 2020. If you look closely, you can see the White Cross pub behind the bridge – see next paragraph.

The riverside at Richmond is a great place to hang out, especially in the summer. But beware two things: it gets very crowded, and parts of it flood at high tide! The pathways down by the White Cross pub become impassable – unless you want to go barefoot, or are wearing wellies. I remember popping into the pub for a lager during a bike ride along the river a few years ago (just the one!). I locked my bike up against some railings along the river, got my pint and sat there in the sun. The river began to encroach. By the time I’d finished my drink, my bike was in six inches of water. Shoes and socks off to retrieve it!

Summer scene, June 2015

High tide, February 2021

Let’s venture over the bridge briefly, into St Margaret’s. Along Richmond Road, until we reach Sandycombe Road, a suburban side-street. Here we find Sandycombe Lodge, designed and lived in for a while by JMW Turner, the great painter. I strolled up there the other day – for the first time. I must admit I was expecting something grander – Palladian, with stucco walls perhaps. There is a certain elegance to it, despite its modesty; and I suspect the interior is where you see Turner’s artistic eye most. It’s closed at the moment of course, but I’ll be taking a look around sometime in the future.

Turner is one of the great painters of the river, maybe the greatest. Ruskin said of Turner’s relationship with the Thames that, ”He understood its language.” I think I know what Ruskin meant, after watching its ebb and flow so often over the past year – and after walking its length. The river is constantly telling its story. Turner lived much of his life near or alongside the Thames: he was born in Covent Garden, a pretty rough place in the 18th century; and died in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, rather more salubrious. At other times he lived in Brentford (where he went to school in his youth) and Isleworth as well as St Margaret’s. A river-dwelling West London lad – I can relate to that!

Back to the river, and a little further along – best walked on the Surrey side – we reach Twickenham Bridge, and just beyond that, Richmond Lock. It’s the last lock on the river – or the first, depending on which way you look at it. It was officially opened in 1894 by the Duke and Duchess of York. After a major refurbishment in the 1990s, it was re-opened by the current Duke of York…

The main purpose of Richmond Lock was to regulate the tidal flow so that the stretch of the river between between Richmond and Molesey (near Hampton Court) wasn’t impassable to boats at low tide. Too much of the water drained away downstream, so three large sluice gates at Richmond Lock prevent all of the water making its passage to the sea. Whether that also contributes to the flooding in Richmond at high tide, I don’t know. But it seems a possibility.

Twickenham Bridge first. Two more shots from November 2020. The first is taken from near Richmond Bridge: the railway bridge comes first, then Twickenham.

These first two photos of Richmond Lock were taken on Tuesday this week. The tide was going out, so the sluice gates were up. 

The footbridge was shut for part of 2020 for some further refurbishment. It cost half a million. But it’s back now, which is great, as it’s the point I’ll often walk upstream to along the Surrey side from Kew Bridge, before heading back on the other side, through Isleworth, into Syon Park and then into Brentford and along the Grand Union canal on the way home. It wasn’t too inconvenient to walk a little further to Twickenham Bridge and cross over there while the footbridge was closed, but the latter is much nicer. There are no cars roaring by.

The next couple of photos are from February this year. I liked the way the water’s surface had a black and white effect as it rippled at high tide and reflected the low sun. There’s a bench I often sit at by the footbridge on the Surrey side. I get out my flask of tea and sandwiches – how old geezer is that? Still, the option of popping into the pub has been lost to us for most of the past year. Anyway, one of the swans in the photo got pretty interested in what I was eating and came close. I thought taking a snap right at that point might be ill-advised! 

The next two are from a misty December day in 2016. I would have been cycling in those days.

And this photo was taken right by the footbridge one lovely April day in 2012. I’ve always liked the way it signals revival – and hope.

Before I describe some of that walk home, I’ll stay on the Surrey side, as I want to share some photos of the natural beauty along the towpath. To start we have the Old Deer Park running alongside the river, heading downstream. Back in the days of Richmond Palace, these were the palace grounds, and there were deer inhabiting them. The deer are now in Richmond Park, the palace is long gone and Old Deer Park is shared by London Welsh rugby club and Royal Mid-Surrey golf club. There’s also a monument on the towpath marking the meridian line, which was used to calculate the time before Greenwich Mean Time. In the park there’s an observatory and some obelisks, built in the time of King George III, which helped to make those calculations.

The gap marks the meridian line, with an obelisk directly in line

The observatory is in the background

I love the riot of plant life along this stretch of the river. Between the Old Deer Park and then Kew Gardens there runs a channel of water, with all sorts of trees and undergrowth thriving in it. It is endlessly fascinating, almost jungle-like. And on the other side of the towpath, there is a lovely array of flowers on the river banks – and below the banks, revealed at low tide, a tangle of tree roots in thick mud. Not quite swamp, but the next best thing. And if you zoom your lens into the rippling water around all of this, you get the most beautiful patterns. Here are some photos to give you a sense of what I mean.

The undergrowth changes character with each passing month, as we move through the seasons.

Beginning with the lushness of summer – July 2020.

The colours of Autumn – October 2020.

 

The bareness of winter, with remnants of snow – February 2021.

And on the river bank, a tangle of roots and branches that are often submerged.

 

Across the river, Isleworth and then Syon Park come into view. Isleworth in general is unremarkable, but the old village, down by the river, is rather lovely. Much of the riverside is obscured by the woods on Isleworth Ait, but they relent just as the London Apprentice pub and All Saints church make their appearance. The pub is over 500 years old. Its name comes from the times when apprentices rowed up the river from the City on their annual day off. One day a year! Turner lived nearby in his thirties and was a regular. In our Quins-going days, and once we no longer needed to take the kids by car, Jon and I liked to walk to the Stoop via the London Apprentice, where we’d have a pint and watch some of the lunchtime football on the TV. The tower of All Saints dates from the 15th century; the rest of the building is modern. The waterfront here has the largest gathering of swans I have seen on the river. It’s a popular spot with families and young couples, especially at low tide, when they can walk onto the river bed to feed the birds. At high tide, on the other hand, the road can become impassable, as the river laps up against the garden walls of the church.

The best views of Isleworth village are from the other side of the river. The london Apprentice is the darker building towards the left of the picture.

Expecting food!

Two aspects of Isleworth Ait.

The little-known River Crane enters the Thames at Isleworth, just upstream from Isleworth Ait. It’s a river that winds its way unassumingly through Isleworth, Twickenham and Hounslow, skirting Heathrow airport and giving its name to an area called Cranford before you reach the source at Hayes, near the Grand Union Canal. It runs past both Twickenham Stadium and the Stoop, unnoticed by the match day crowds. I’ve tried walking along different parts of it a couple of times, but you never get far before the path becomes blocked, one way or another. Like many of the tributaries of the Thames in London it remains a well-kept secret.

River Crane just before it meets the Thames

Just around the corner from All Saints lies the entrance to Syon Park. There’s a long straight road up to the car park and the garden centre. A meadow lies to the right of the road, with a footpath on its right. That takes you past the centrepiece of the park, Syon House. Set back in carefully tended gardens, it is the home of the Duke of Northumberland. It was built in the late 16th century on the site of Syon Abbey, which, of course, had been destroyed during the reformation. The Abbey had the last laugh though – Henry VIII’s body was kept there overnight, on its way from London to its resting place in Windsor. The coffin lid burst open that night and dogs feasted on the dead king’s bones!

Syon House from the river

And from the park  

Syon Park was also the site of Battle of Brentford in 1642 during the first phase of the English Civil War. It was around the same time as the battle of Turnham Green in Chiswick, which resulted in the Royalists withdrawing to Oxford. The Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, under Prince Rupert, who drove their enemies into the Thames. Another battle may have taken place in Brentford in Roman times. It is one of the points along the Thames which lays claim to being where Julius Caesar and his troops crossed the river into London during his second invasion in 54BC.

Such excitement has rarely troubled Brentford since, though the local football team is making a strong push for promotion from the Championship to the Premier League, having just missed out last season. In 1712 the poet John Gay, in an epistle to the Earl of Burlington, described it as:

Brentford, tedious town,                                                                                                                    For dirty streets and white-legged chickens known.

Apparently King George II liked Brentford because it reminded him of his home town of Hannover – dirty and ill-paved. There were wharves at Brentford, for trade with London, from early times. In the 17th century barges took cargoes of bricks, fruit, and fish downstream, returning with, amongst other things, horse manure for fertiliser. There was a Dung Wharf. Perhaps this contributed to the town’s reputation. A large dock was completed in 1859 and only closed in 1964. Brentford is where the Grand Union Canal meets the Thames (as does the River Brent, which joins the canal in Hanwell). It runs between Brentford and Birmingham and is connected to a number of other canals, including the Regent’s Canal in London, the Oxford Canal and the Leicester Line. The London to Birmingham line was formerly known as the Grand Junction Canal and fully opened in 1805. Brentford was able to take advantage of the trade that took place along the canal, linking that to downstream London. Of course, with the development of the railways and then the roads, that trade diminished. Brentford’s days as an upstream port were numbered.

The docks and other riverside areas today are a mixture of repair yards, warehouses, the odd pub, an artistic community located on a small island, and housing developments – lots of housing developments. These are mostly apartment blocks, often located around marinas. There is still a huge amount of building going on. The social infrastructure – the cafes and restaurants and shops – still have a way to go to match the residential developments: but the future, post-pandemic, is looking bright. What could really seal it, in my view, is a footbridge over to Kew Gardens. That could really be a boon for Brentford, and it might encourage more people to go to Kew Gardens on foot rather than driving.

If you detect some local knowledge here, a personal interest, you’d be right. This is very much local territory for me. I live in Ealing, but on the border with Brentford, which is part of the borough of Hounslow. It’s a twenty minute walk down to Brentford High Street, another few minutes to the Thames itself. I’ve always spent a fair bit of time cycling and walking in the area, but during the past year it has become an almost daily occupation. My lockdown life.

The first three photos are from February 2019, at low tide. There’s another ait near Kew Bridge – after which the pub One Over the Ait is named – and the channel on the Brentford side dries up almost completely. 

Contrast this last photo with one taken from a similar position at high tide, July 2020.

On the left of these two photos is the back of the Waterman’s Arts Centre – a rejoinder to that disparaging comment from John Gay. The Waterman’s is a centre for independent cinema, theatre, music and the visual arts. It opened in 1984, with a concert by Ravi Shankar in the theatre. Bands and DJ’s often perform in the open space that also functions as the bar and restaurant – you can get good Indian food there. The DJ Gilles Peterson coined the term Acid Jazz while playing a gig at the Waterman’s in the 80s. One of my fondest memories of the place is of the Christmas pantomimes which our kids used to love going to when they were little. Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, all the usual themes. With just the right amount of ribald humour for the adults.  

In the background of those last two photos you can see a tower. This was the old pumping station, which supplied water to the residents of West London from 1838 until 1944. It is now the London Museum of Water and Steam, and is a rather fascinating place. The children loved it as there is a little steam railway that goes around the waterworks. We went on that many a time!

If you take the steps down from Kew Bridge on the Brentford side, there’s a lovely spot to gaze downstream. You can then take a secluded path, passing by the One over the Ait, where in summer the fuschias bloom. This caught me by surprise when I first encountered them last summer. The first three shots in this batch are from July; the last, in glaring sunlight, was taken in August.

One December day, knowing it was going to be sunny, I got up early (for me) to catch the sunrise down by the canal and the river. 

Brentford Dock Marina

This is where the canal opens out into the Thames

Hopping back over the river, but via Kew Bridge rather than that imagined footbridge, let’s linger in Kew Gardens before ending at the bridge itself. And Kew Gardens is a very nice place to linger. The Royal Botanic Gardens, to give them their formal title, were founded by Princess Augusta in 1759. Born in Gotha, Germany, she became Princess of Wales when she married George II’s son Frederick. She developed the exotic gardens which had been created by Henry, Lord Capell of Tewkesbury. The proximity to Richmond Palace meant that many noblemen had settled in Kew in Tudor times.

In the mid-2000s, I once had an interview for the role of CEO at the Royal Parks Agency. It went pretty well, though I didn’t get the job. At the end of the interview someone asked me what my favourite London park was. I thought about it for a moment and said, “Kew Gardens”. Thing is, it’s not one of the Royal Parks. I knew that, but thought I’d be honest. Not a good idea! Still is my favourite though: such an array of beauty – the gardens, the ever-changing, multi-hued flowers, the amazing greenhouses, the lakes, Rhododendron Dell, and the bluebells in Spring. It’s a peaceful place – no cars, bikes, dogs. It’s large enough to lose yourself in and there are facilities and activities galore if you have children to entertain. At the far end – following the river downstream – the vegetation is wilder, and that’s where Bluebell Dell is located. Swathes of violet amid the greenery – a joy to behold. I wrote a blog about the bluebells back in 2012. It followed one about my ten favourite air guitar songs of all time. That was the one where I had thousands of hits and gained a lot of new followers, after it was put on WordPress’s front page. What my metal-loving new followers made of the bluebells I don’t know. Bit like telling those interviewers that Kew Gardens was my favourite London park…

Here are one or two photos from Kew Gardens, taken over the years. The glass works are the work of the American sculptor Dale Chihuly, and were exhibited all over the park in 2019, including in the Palm and Temperate Houses. Art and nature in harmony. Always a feature of Kew Gardens – and so true of the Thames too.

Bluebell Dell, May 2011

The Palm House and some rather striking flower beds, May 2015

The Great Pagoda, May 2015

Rhododendrons, May 2015

Autumn colours, October 2016

A proliferation of colour, October 2016

The Hive was created in 2015 for the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo, but found its way to Kew in 2016. It hums with the sound of bees from a nearby real hive, while lights inside glow to the vibrations of the bees – in the key of C! 

April 2017

The Chihuly glassworks were photographed in June 2019. 

And so we reach the end  this episode of the Thames journey – at Kew Bridge.

The first bridge at Kew was opened in 1759, the same year as Kew Gardens was founded. Perhaps not a coincidence. It was built by Robert Tunstall of Brentford, who previously owned the ferry that operated across the same part of the river. It’s a spot where the river is executing a 90 degree change in direction, from north-east to south-east. The current bridge was opened by King Edward VII in 1903 and was named after him. That name didn’t stick though – it’s Kew Bridge, pure and simple. The traffic is a nightmare most of the time over the bridge – the junction on the Brentford side is particularly bad. But the views of the river up and downstream are lovely, and you can walk down to the river bank for an eye level view, watching the water lapping up the steps at high tide. Sunrise and sunset can be a special time too, the snarling traffic above you forgotten.

From the Kew side, October 2011

Brentford side, high tide, July 2020

From Strand-on-the-Green, December 2020

And just to finish, let’s talk about Brentford FC – the Bees – again for a moment. They have just built a new ground just up the road, sandwiched between the A204 and the A4 – the Great West Road – with the M4 flyover looming overhead. Lovely! On one level the new stadium looks like a giant version of my local Waitrose in West Ealing, but I’ve had a sneaky peak inside as I walked down Lionel Road South and it looks great. So much better than dilapidated Griffin Park, rising out of the terraced houses (though it did have a pub on each corner). The fans haven’t had many opportunities to go there yet, because of lockdown, but if they get that promotion, it’ll be a lot of fun watching them there in the Premier League. Come on you Bees!

There’ll be another football team featuring in the next leg of the journey – Fulham FC – as we travel from Kew to Putney. Coming soon…

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My Top Twenty Albums of 2020

2020…

A year to forget in so many respects. But a year in which the music didn’t die, despite all the restrictions put on it. Quite the opposite in fact – without the solace and inspiration of music all the madness would have been even harder to face. Musicians – and venues – have suffered badly, their livelihoods snatched away. But many of them have responded magnificently, finding countless new ways of performing and recording – and involving their audiences. The spirit of music lives on.

We all knew lockdown was coming by the end of February, if not earlier. The sense of foreboding grew. At the same time, it didn’t feel like the time to retreat from celebrating music – it felt more like the last chance. In the week before lockdown I went to two great events: the 6 Music festival at the Roundhouse on 8 March and the brilliant Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton on 12 March. I relished both and hoped that things might be back to normal in time for Latitude in July. Some hope! Now we are left hoping that all the festivals won’t be cancelled in 2021; but realistically I can’t see social distancing rules being disapplied by then, even with the rollout of vaccines. Best not to raise the expectations too high.

In the run up to lockdown and in its early phases I found myself drawn to old favourites – the classics. A lot of Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, Radiohead and, of course. Bruce Springsteen. Led Zeppelin and U2 too. Back to basics, I guess. They seemed real, reassuring. Unusually, I found it hard to get too excited by new sounds. That indifference didn’t last long – thanks to BBC 6 Music more than anything. Lauren Laverne, Mary Anne Hobbs, Tom Ravenscroft, Gilles Peterson in particular. And the mighty Iggy Pop, on his Friday evening Confidential show. Some of their influence can be seen in my top twenty this year, with electronica and jazz featuring more than usual.

Jazz – and all its variants – really embedded itself in my listening in the summer and beyond. It was partly a response to some of the new music I was hearing – with the aforementioned Moses Boyd in the vanguard – but also the result of a rather large playlist I compiled on Spotify, which ranged from the absolute masters like Miles and Coltrane to the new jazz movement in London and elsewhere, which is so exciting at the moment. In between, I went back to a lot of my 80s and 90s soul, rap, electronic and funk favourites, which had jazz inflections. Gilles Peterson was an inspiration then, as he is now. I called the playlist Allthatjazz, and it’s public if you want to give it a listen at johnsills. I find it the music for all occasions in lockdown life: reading, writing, chilling out late at night, walking… and just dreaming.

At the halfway point of the year I wrote a blog called 40 from 2020, with an accompanying playlist, which featured tracks that I’d really liked up to that point. On the whole I didn’t really connect them with albums – and many were stand-alone tracks. That, of course, is a growing feature of recorded music today, where people stream single tracks rather than whole albums a lot of the time. In fact, you could say that having a list of best albums of the year is rather archaic. But those lists that people compile in December still feel important and exciting to me – and I still discover a lot of new music through them. 6 Music, Rough Trade, the Guardian, Loud and Quiet, Line of Best Fit, NME, Pitchfork… I devour them all. There’s some consensus, but a huge variety too. Just as there should be.

And so here is my top twenty. The top four picked themselves, though I did change my mind about the order from time to time. Below that, the rankings are pretty fluid – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks prevaricating, altering, bringing in new candidates, re-listening to make sure. The benefits of not working! I’m pretty happy with this list – at least until next week…

Top Twenty Albums of 2020

  1. Folklore by Taylor Swift
  2. Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
  3. Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen
  4. Untitled (Black Is) by SAULT
  5. Sixteen by Four Tet
  6. Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
  7. Dark Matter by Moses Boyd
  8. Lianne la Havas by Lianne la Havas
  9. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC
  10. To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth
  11. Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975
  12. Source by Nubya Garcia
  13. Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad
  14. There is No Other by Isobel Campbell
  15. Color Theory by Soccer Mommy
  16. Some Kind of Peace by Olafur Arnalds
  17. Home by Hania Rani
  18. A Dark Murmuration of Words by Emily Barker
  19. Wu Hen by Kamaal Williams
  20. The Main Thing by Real Estate

My No 1 choice, Taylor Swift’s Folklore, came out of the blue at the end of July. I loved it from the moment I heard The 1 and Cardigan as I was out walking – and then it grew on me even more! It’s the ultimate lockdown album: reflective, wistful, nostalgic, full of love and regret. The songs are beautifully, simply constructed and the lyrics full of clever twists as well as being heartfelt. She made the album with Aaron Dessner, the guitarist from The National, and there’s a duet, exile, with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Esteemed company, for sure; but this album is all about the inner Taylor Swift. An album I return to, again and again.

And Taylor has just sprung a follow up, Evermore, on us! More of the same on first listen. One to absorb in the coming weeks.

Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song is both introspective and outward-looking. Apparently she was coping with a difficult break up as she composed the album, and some of the lyrics reflect that; but there are also musings about the environmental catastrophe that faces us. All this is wrapped in layers of electronica, some floating dreamily, some banging out the beats and heavy bass lines. The album begins with a fascinating interpretation of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (which she just calls Arpeggi) and the standard never drops. John Cale provides a lugubrious vocal on Corner of my Sky (The rain, the rain, the rain, thank God the rain…) It’s a wonderful, absorbing mix of sounds and feelings, and I really can’t wait to see her perform it live.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You was another one that seemed to spring from nowhere. And what a joy it is! Bruce has reassembled the E Street Band and taken the time machine back to the 70s, to his glory days of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There are three tracks, too, that he wrote as a young man – now recorded for the first time. Janey Needs a Shooter – that title should be on Greetings from Asbury Park! This album has power, passion, anger and a sense of pure celebration. It’s nostalgic – that theme again – and reflective of the passage of time. Bruce is now 71, and he can still bawl out the rockers. A remarkable album from a remarkable man.

And so to SAULT and Untitled (Black Is), one of two albums this collective released this year. This is a breathtaking piece of work, a symphony of protest, anger, hurt, defiance and pure soul. It’s an important album, symbolising resistance to the oppression of black people everywhere. Rough Trade made it their No 1 album of the year and called it the What’s Going On of our time. I don’t think that is an exaggeration – it has some of the same despair, bewilderment and sense of redemption. It’s an album that demands to be listened to from start to finish, though there are also outstanding soulful tunes like Wildfires and Miracles that can hold their own in any company. Essential listening.

These four albums stood out, but the supporting acts were pretty special too. And again they reflected the times. One thing I didn’t have this year was the summer festivals, which always point me to a wealth of new music, some of which then makes it into my end of year selections. That perhaps explains the relative lack of indie guitar music in the twenty this year. The only two that really meet that description are Fontaines DC and Good Sad Happy Bad. It took me a while to appreciate A Hero’s Death fully, as there’s little of the vibrancy of the band’s brilliant debut from 2019, Doggerel. These songs are long, darker, more subdued. But the layers reveal themselves after a few listens and the depth of the songs become clear. A brooding masterpiece. Shades starts with rather lo-fi, slightly quirky indie and then plunges into a psychedelic cacophony that I find captivating. There are elements of Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine, and a wild saxophone which recalls The Stooges’ Funhouse. I haven’t seen this on many end-of-year lists, but I don’t know why. It’s weirdly brilliant.

I guess you could call Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy indie, though sensitive singer-songwriter might be a more accurate description. Songs of angst, love, disorientation and a lot of that sensitivity. Beautiful voices to heighten the effect – and a real pop sensibility. Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher is rightly receiving a lot of end-of-year plaudits; Sophie Allison, the singer behind Soccer Mommy isn’t quite so in the spotlight; but her song Circle the Drain is an absolute indie-pop classic. Her album Color Theory is, like the Fontaines album, a real grower. Real Estate are another band who are bracketed as indie; but to me this is something else: a modern take on classic West Coast rock. Naturally, therefore, they hail from the East Coast. Rather like the band they immediately reminded me of when I first heard them: Steely Dan. The Main Thing is an album to wallow in, and take yourself back to the sumptuous 70s. The lush melodies, the harmonies, the guitar breaks… it’s Can’t Buy a Thrill!

Jazz, as I noted earlier, has formed a big part of my listening this year, so it’s no surprise that there are three, arguably four, entries from that genre in the twenty. Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter is a musical masterclass that soaks in the sounds of young London as well as the influences of the jazz masters. His drumming is sensational – and it takes me back to that last pre-lockdown concert. Nubya Garcia’s Source is aptly titled as she and her band explore the roots of the music that has influenced them: the sounds of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and, of course, London. She is an inventive and subtle saxophonist and this album is pure pleasure. Kamaal Williams is a producer, keyboard player and drummer, though what drew me most to Wu Hen was the richness of the saxophone on tracks like Pigalle and Mr Wu. This is the cool sound of London. Lianne la Havas has been around for a while, but I’ve never really got into her music until I heard her self-titled album this year. It’s a beautifully soulful, jazzy collection. There’s a lot of pain in these songs – Paper Thin for example – but they are suffused with warmth and fellow feeling. Love and Affection you might say. Like Kelly Lee Owens, Lianne has covered Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. Rather differently of course; but put the two together with the original and you get a real sense of what a great song it is.

I’d like to recommend, too, a tremendous jazz compilation called Blue Note Re:imagined, which does exactly what the title suggests. It features many of the stars of that new jazz and soul movement, including Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, Alfa Mist, Poppy Ajudha, Jorja Smith and Yazmin Lacey. Listen to this and feel the groove.

As days drift by without much shape or form in 2020, and with lots of time for reflection, electronica, ambient music seems especially well-suited to the times. It’s good to listen to when you are writing, or even working, which I still do occasionally. Four Tet’s Sixteen was perfect for the circumstances, with its loops and beats and washes of aural colour. I transported myself to Iceland for Olafur Arnalds’ atmospheric soundscapes. Some Kind of Peace is a thing of windswept beauty. There’s more beauty in the music of Hania Rani, a Polish pianist, whose recorded music has some similarities with the gentler side of Nils Frahm’s compositions. Home is an entrancing album, as was its predecessor Esja. It’s thanks to Mary Anne Hobbes for the introduction. All these albums feel at one with nature, something I could also say about Emily Barker’s A Dark Murmuration of Words. Emily is an Australian folk singer who settled in England many years ago, but still feels the tug of home. I’ve loved her music for a long time, and this album is something of a return to her roots. There’s a beautiful simplicity in it, a reverence for home and for nature. A reverence and fear – as Emily sings, Where Have all the Sparrows Gone? Isobel Campbell’s There is No Other touches on environmental themes too, but its appeal is in the lush, wistful, dreamy ballads. There’s something deeply soothing about this album, and Boulevard is one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard all year. Imagine yourself once more in that Parisian café, watching the world go by. It’ll happen one day…

That leaves me with two idiosyncratic and fascinating works: To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth and Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975. Jehnny Beth is the singer with the awesome Savages. This is her first full solo venture. There’s a lot going on on this album. There are songs that ring out Savages-style, but there are beautiful, wistful ballads too, and a whole load of off-piste sounds in between. As befits Jehnny, there is a real intensity to it; and her French roots are more discernible than they are in Savages. I heard an interview with her where she said that she was very affected by the death of David Bowie as she made this record and listened to his final masterpiece, Blackstar. She said to her collaborators that she wanted To Love is to Live to sound like it was the last record she was ever going to make. I get that. Notes on a Conditional Form is what you might call singer Matt Healy’s flawed masterpiece. That’s what we always liked to call double albums that would have made great single albums in years gone by. I’ve never really listened much to the 1975, though they were pretty good at Latitude a few years ago. But I read the reviews of this album, some of which were rather critical, and I thought it sounded interesting. And it is – very! It’s a journey through the history of pop, rock and dance since the 80s and a very entertaining one. You’ll probably only listen to the Greta Thunberg track once though…

I’ve made a playlist with three or four songs from each of the albums in this top twenty, which is at the end of this post. With added extra…

As I observed earlier, it’s really not all about albums these days, and I’d like to mention four artists who have been favourites through the year, but have so far only released EPs and tracks. I think they are all gearing up for albums in 2021, so there’s something to look forward to already! Biig Piig is the stage name of Jessica Smyth, who is from Ireland, but is based in West London and spent a lot of time as a child in Spain – she sings in Spanish occasionally. Her jazzy soul-rap really caught my imagination after I first heard the track Switch on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Recommends show (although Switch itself is not typical of her sound). I’ve played her collected works a lot since then – so much that many of the tracks found their way into my Spotify Wrapped! Arlo Parks is another young Londoner. She’s been getting a lot of praise for her soulful, introspective ballads. There’s a darkness to a lot of them – Black Dog, for example – but a cool beauty. Sade, Lianne la Havas, Joan Armatrading might all be reference points. And she does a great version of Radiohead’s Creep. Maisie Peters, from Brighton, has had a few mentions on this blog in the past. I like her thoughtful, intelligent, touching, catchy pop songs; and she has been productive during lockdown with four excellent singles, my favourite of which is called, appropriately, The List. That’s a list of all the things she needs to stop doing. Very lockdown. Rather different in style is Greentea Peng, whose striking voice and fusion of soul, rap, reggae and jazz beats makes for a very distinctive sound. I guess there’s a bit of Grace Jones about it – and her. I think she could be destined for great things.

There are four songs from each of these artists on the playlist, plus four other tracks, simply because they are too good to leave off. Three are lovely ballads: Hallelujah by HAIM, The Roving by Bonny Light Horseman and the gorgeous, optimistic In a Good Way by Atlanta’s Faye Webster. I think she might have fallen in love! And just to show I still like a bit of rocking, Freya Beer’s Dear Sweet Rosie packs a good old-fashioned punch. Thanks to 6 Music’s Marc Riley for that one.

There’s a song on Bruce’s album called House of a Thousand Guitars. It’s my favourite track. I played it six times in a row while out on a walk the other day. It made the world feel like a better place – as did the nature around me. It’s something of a call to arms, a reminder of the redemption in music, which is one of Bruce’s perennial themes. Whatever shit gets thrown at us, we’ll always have the music…

Well it’s alright, yeah it’s alright,                                                                                                  Meet me darlin’ come Saturday night,                                                                                              All good souls from near and far,                                                                                                    We’ll meet in the house of a thousand guitars.

Here’s to 2021.

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A Thames Journey: (6) From Marlow to Hampton Court

In this leg of the journey we move from the picturesque countryside of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to the suburban outskirts of London. It’s a walk of around 33 miles, which we did in four stretches – the last of which was two years after the first. No sequentialism round here! A couple of the walks were upstream, but as before, I’ll sequence the photos in a downstream direction. The headings likewise.

Marlow to Maidenhead, 3 April 2016

This was one of the upstream expeditions, Maidenhead to Marlow. Around 7 miles. It was the second walk in our journey, and for reasons I can’t now remember, Jon wasn’t able to come along. It was just me, Kath and Maggie. He completed it later, of course.

I wrote about the bridge at Marlow in part five of the journey, but not All Saints Church, which nestles by the river. From the towpath side you get a good view of the church. The current building is a Victorian construction, completed in 1835. The old church dated from the 11th century, but it was undermined by centuries of flooding. The spire collapsed in 1831!

Just out of Marlow, you come to Bourne End, where you cross a bridge to the other side. You are soon in Cookham, another Thames town with an ancient heritage. We didn’t linger on our journey, but there are two megaliths in the town, the Cookham Stone and the Tarry Stone. Peter Ackroyd ventures that the latter may have been a meteorite. That would have made it sacred. An abbey was established here by AD 716, and a Saxon parliament, the witenamgot was held at the site of the Tarry Stone. Cookham is perhaps best known these days for having been the residence of the artist Stanley Spencer. Many of his paintings depicted the town, sometimes in biblical settings.

At Cookham the Thames path veers off the river for a while, and ascends a hill. We approached from the opposite direction. I remember the path up that hill being the steepest we encountered on our Thames journey. There are some lovely views towards the Thames – and Lulle Brook in between – from the top.

Across the river is Cliveden House: these days a grand hotel (with its garden opened to the public) but a place with some interesting history. It was initially constructed in 1666, as a residence for George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. It had various owners of the years, including the wealthy political family, the Astors. In the 19th and 20th centuries they entertained the great and good – and not so good – here. A riverside retreat on the Cliveden estate called Spring Cottage featured in the Profumo affair in 1963, when the Conservative war minister John Profumo was involved in a scandal involving the model Christine Keeler and an osteopath (really) called Stephen Ward, who had links with the Russians. You may have seen the 1989 film Scandal about the affair. Anyway, it wasn’t the first spy scandal of the era, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, undermined by the whole business, resigned later in 1963, citing ill health. This part of the Thames, easily accessible from London but nicely secluded, has featured in all sorts of dodgy goings-on over the years: remember the equally notorious Medmenham Abbey and the Hellfire Club in part five? A retreat for the rich; and where there’s money…

The last word on Cliveden House, though, is that it has a connection with that great TV series of the 1960s, Thunderbirds. My obsession as a young schoolboy. I was delighted to read in the Cicerone guide that Cliveden is the home of Lady Penelope!

And then Maidenhead. Today, its image is rather staid – it is the parliamentary constituency of ex-PM Theresa May after all. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the name derives from the head of a maiden saint, one of eleven thousand virgins martyred with St Ursula at Cologne around AD 383. An alternative suggestion is that it comes from maegden hyth – a landing place for maidens, which, in days of yore, meant an easy place to land. Cookham, in its orginal form, meant boat place. Not surprisingly, the main towns on the river were located where it was easy to come onshore and establish the necessary infrastructure for trade.

Not quite sure where the next two photos were taken, but not far from Maidenhead. The third is just upstream of the road bridge, which in turn is just upstream of the railway bridge.

Today, the thing that interests me about Maidenhead is that railway bridge. This was built by Brunel and was completed in 1839. It heralded the age of steam-powered trains. It was a daring piece of architecture – even today it has the longest and widest flat brick arches in the world. Sceptics predicted it would collapse as soon as trains ran over it. One person who was enthralled by this was the artist JMW Turner. One of his great later paintings, from 1844, is Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts a train travelling over Maidenhead railway bridge.  At this time, many of his works had become more abstract in the way they dealt with colour, light, shade and objects. They were hugely ahead of their time, and many contemporaries hated them. Rain, Steam and Speed is a perfect example. The painting is part of the National Gallery collection, but has been lent to Tate Britain for its exhibition Turner’s Modern World. This opened just before we went back into lockdown. I managed to see it a couple of days before everything closed down again. It’s a brilliant exhibition. If you are in London or nearby, do try and catch it when we re-emerge into the light.

This photo is a shot of the reproduction of Rain, Steam and Speed that I have at home. On the left of the picture is an outline of the road bridge. The real Maidenhead is somewhat less dramatic!

Maidenhead to Windsor, 26 August 2018

This is another stretch that we walked upstream. It rained for almost the entirety of the walk, which was about 7 miles. We had all the requisite rain gear and it held out pretty well. But we were drenched on the outside. The abiding memory is going into a DIY store in Maidenhead to see if there was a café for a warm cup of tea, just after coming off the river. We stood inside the building with the water dripping off us, forming pools on the concrete floor. Needless to say, there wasn’t a café – not there or anywhere else on the way back to the station. We admitted defeat and took a train back to Ealing, damp and thirsty.

My diary tells me that there was some lovely countryside along the way, but it wasn’t a day that made you want to get the camera out of the bag. We stopped near Bray for our lunch – under the M4 bridge to be precise! It had the virtue of being dry. Something of a contrast in style to the nearby Waterside Inn, owned by the Roux family, which has three Michelin stars.

Bray is associated with its vicars in Tudor and Stuart times, who were known for their frequently changing religious affiliations, as England’s monarchs swung from Catholic to Protestant and back again. Being on the wrong side could mean burning at the stake. The civil war and Oliver Cromwell further complicated matters. One vicar, in the Tudor era, is said to have responded to accusations of being a turncoat, a changeling, with the riposte:

Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this – to live and die the vicar of Bray.

Sounds like a good strategy to me.

Al fresco dining

Windsor to Chertsey, 17 April 2017

This was a longer stretch – 11 miles plus, downstream. We began from Windsor station, and were soon walking along the Home Park. Windsor Castle loomed in the background. The Queen’s residence, and an impressive sight. William the Conqueror built a castle on the knoll of chalk that rises here. Peter Ackroyd speculates that, being artificial, it may have prehistoric origins. William’s castle was rebuilt by King Edward III between 1360 and 1374. Hundreds of local men were “impressed” to do the building, against their will. Slave labour, basically.

Just upriver from the centre of town lies Windsor racecourse. There has been racing in the area since the time of Henry VIII, but the Royal Windsor racecourse began holding meetings in 1866. It has become best known for its summer evening meetings, typically on Mondays. You can get a train to Windsor Riverside station and then a boat from there to the racecourse. I used to go quite often in years gone by, when Kath’s law firm hosted an annual trip up there. We spent most of the time sipping champagne by the marquee, snatching glimpses of the racing on a TV screen. The live racing was quite hard to see, but you had a punt and experienced the roar of the crowd as the horses raced to the finish. Always a jolly evening out.

On the opposite side of the river lies Eton, home to England’s most famous public school. Which, for any overseas readers, means private school. The school that has given us David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson in recent times. I’ll say no more.

Old Windsor lock

Just past Old Windsor we came to the place I was most looking forward to seeing on this walk: Runnymede. Famous as the site where King John, in 1215, met his barons and signed the Magna Carta. While a lot of the text is devoted to the detailed concerns of the day, there are also some timeless expressions of individual rights and justice which remain on our statute book today. Our current government would do well to remember them when they talk about passing legislation which would allow them to ignore the rule of law, international or otherwise. The site commemorating the Magna Carta is simple but inspiring. Nearby there is a memorial to John F Kennedy. Both remind us that there is better way of governing than that we have experienced in the UK and the USA over the past four years. Fingers crossed that political events in both countries over the past couple of weeks do portend some light at the end of the tunnel.

By Bell Weir lock, just down from Runnymede

Soon after, we were in Staines. Home of comic character Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) and indie band Hard Fi, whose 2005 album Stars of CCTV painted a grim picture of hand-to-mouth suburban life. And what else? We weren’t expecting much. In fact, the passage of the Thames through Staines lends a rather more affluent perspective; and there is, again, a rich history. The name comes, most likely, from stones, which may have been part of a megalithic monument, and later marked the boundary of Chertsey Abbey’s lands. As Peter Ackroyd drolly comments, “The site is now a roundabout beside Staines Bridge.” Nearby is another stone, the London Stone, which marked the limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction of the river between 1197 and 1857. The Lord Mayor of London used to visit Staines annually to touch the stone with a sword. Don’t ask me why.

Staines is located at the confluence of the River Colne with the Thames. It is thought to have had a river crossing before Roman times. There was a Roman town here, called Ad Pontes (by the bridges). The current bridge opened in 1832, a little upstream of its predecessors. It was designed by John Rennie. Staines used to be the limit of the tidal Thames, which is presumably why the London Stone was located here. The locks downstream, notably Teddington, which we shall see in the next instalment, have changed that.

Staines Bridge

The Swan, by the bridge. Stopped for a drink here

Church of St Peter, by the river

Modern living, bungalow ranch style…

We ended the walk at Chertsey. It was quite a long walk from the bridge to the station. We were blissfully unaware that Chertsey was the site of the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, from the 7th century AD – or I was, anyway. Ackroyd writes that it was “ravaged” by the Danes and rebuilt by King Edgar in 964. It, and Chertsey, thrived until Henry VIII’s reformation did its worst. Some of the stone was taken down to Hampton Court and used for the palace there. The present bridge dates from 1785. The first was constructed in 1410 and was maintained by the abbey.

So much of the history along the Thames centred on the great abbeys and their religious orders, as we have seen. Henry VIII destroyed it all.

Chertsey Bridge

Chertsey to Hampton Court, 2 April 2018

Quite often, before we finished our journey with three walks between Inglesham and Farmoor (see part two of this journey) we reminded each other, we haven’t done Chertsey to Hampton Court yet. I can’t say that I recall being excited by the prospect, but it had to be done. It was a good bit of exercise, and the Thames always has its compensations. It was another dull grey day when we completed this stretch. There had been a lot of rain, and there was a bit of flooding. Peter Ackroyd says that Chertsey has the last of the Thames’ “water meadows”. So it was a fairly unremarkable walk, but the destination was splendid, even if it didn’t stand out on the day.

Looking downstream from Chertsey bridge

Walton Bridge, opened in 2013. It had five predecessors.

I think this is West Molesey – it’s all a suburban blur

The area around Hampton Court bridge is rather lovely. Just recently I met my friend Dave for a walk downstream. He lives in East Molesey on what we might loosely call the south side of the river. The photos below of Hampton Court bridge are from that day. On the day of the walk I’d given up taking photos, on account of the damp greyness of everything.

A glimpse of the palace, through a fence. The grounds were shut.

Hampton Court Palace is, of course, the focal point of the area. It is a magnificent building, with some lovely gardens, all beautifully maintained. It was the home of the ogre Henry VIII, and I have no wish to dwell on that. Instead, I want to celebrate one of its present uses, at least before the pandemic, which is to host concerts in the summer. They take place in one of the large quads, and it is a wonderful setting – as long as it is not raining! We have had some great moments there over the years: Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry solo (twice), Lisa Stansfield, Ringo Starr, and best of all… Kylie! That was in June 2019, and it was an amazing evening. There are a few photos below, but for a longer account of a fantastic evening, have a read of the blog I wrote about it at the time.

So, we are at the end of this leg of the journey. But before I finish, I’d like to mention a French restaurant in East Molesey, on Bridge Road, called Le Petit Nantais. I have had many an awesome meal there, especially the seafood spread, which I, with my good pals Dave, Jon and Tony, enjoy before heading for our annual summer trip to Sandown races. Washed down with the finest of white wines. The host, JP, is a true Frenchman, passionate about rugby, as well as food and wine. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area – when we are allowed to indulge in such pleasures again. In the meantime, there is a good delivery service, Dave tells me.

June 2016 version

Next time, in part seven, we head down to Kew, moving inexorably towards the heart of London.

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A Thames Journey: (5) From Cholsey to Marlow

This, the fifth of my Thames Journey series, covers a 36 mile stretch of the river, which we covered in three walks in 2016 and 2017. It’s a part of the journey where the river does a 180 degree turn, heading south then east, then north, before turning east again. Bending and twisting all the while. The Chiltern Hills lie to the north and as the land rises we have some of the most spectacular scenery along the river. There is some of the most spectacular wealth too.

Cholsey to Tilehurst, 30 May 2016

We picked Cholsey to start this leg because it had a railway station. We finished at Tilehurst, just before Reading, for the same reason. I’m not sure quite how long the walk was, as the Cicerone Walking the Thames path guide divides up this stretch of the river differently, but I’d say around 13 miles, give or take a mile. It felt long! Partly because we walked past Tilehurst towards Reading, then changed our minds and doubled back. Can’t quite remember why now. I think it was a pretty featureless stretch and we decided Reading station was a bit too far.

We made our way down from Cholsey station to the river and headed downstream. The first landmark was the Beetle and Wedge pub in Moulsford. I’d been there for dinner many years ago after a trip up to Oxfordshire for the annual reunion I have with some of my friends from university. The food was pretty good, as I recall. We just stopped outside for a tea break this time.

Looking upstream from the Beetle and Wedge

The lone tree

The walk along the river towards Goring was pleasant: meadows and clusters of trees. The village of Goring, twinned with Streatley on the opposite side of the river, dates back to ancient times. The church is from the 13th century. The Icknield Way and Ridgeway cross the Thames at this point. We stopped for lunch at a pub, which I think was the John Barleycorn. I recall having a rather nice pie and a couple of pints, which took me a while to walk off! 

Cool house!

This is Gatehampton railway bridge, just downstream of Goring. 

About half way between Goring and another pair of villages, Whitchurch and Pangbourne, you divert off the river path and head uphill. There were some lovely views.

We descended into Whitchurch. The iron bridge there, painted white, was opened in 1902, and is one of two remaining toll bridges on the Thames. The other is Swinford Bridge, which featured in part three of this journey. Pedestrians have been able to cross the bridge for free since decimalisation in 1971; for vehicles the cost is 20p! We crossed over into Pangbourne, named after the River Pang, which joins the Thames at this point. Pangbourne is today best known for being the home of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, for the last eight years of his life (he died in 1932). The adventures are inspired the river in this part of the world.  A little further downriver, Mapledurham House is thought to be the model for Toad Hall. I knew nothing about this when we walked this stretch, so all I have is a photo of Mapledurham Lock!

Whitchurch

The toll bridge at Whitchurch.

More lovely scenes as we headed out of Pangbourne towards Mapledurham. With thanks to Jon for the photo of the goose patrol.

Mapledurham Lock

Tilehurst to Henley, 1 May 2017

Eleven months later we returned to Tilehurst to walk the next stretch of the river, to Henley. This was one of the most picturesque of the journey – once we had got past Reading! In fairness, once we had left Tilehurst, where we were walking along a fairly narrow path enclosed by a high railway embankment, the Thames Side promenade was quite pleasant. Caversham was opposite, recently connected by a footbridge called the Christchurch Bridge, after the meadows on the Caversham side.  It opened in 2016. There was a competition to name it in which one of the popular choices was De Montfort bridge. That’s a name I tend to associate with Leicester, but nearby Fry Island is known for being the site of a duel in 1163 between Robert de Montfort and King Henry II’s standard bearer, Henry of Essex. The latter was accused by the former of dropping the royal standard in a battle with the Welsh. A duel ensued, in which De Montfort triumphed. Henry of Essex was taken to Reading Abbey where he recovered from his wounds. Thereafter he became a monk!  

 

Evidence of Reading as a town dates back to the 8th century. Peter Ackroyd offers three possible sources of the name: the settlement of Reada, a Saxon leader who invaded the area; the word rhea, which means river; or redin, which is fern. My money’s on the Saxon leader. It was an important trading and ecclesiastical centre in the Middle Ages, with the Abbey at its centre. It suffered in the Civil War and was the scene of the only significant battle on English soil during the 1688 Glorious Revolution. The iron and brewing industries grew in the 18th century, and later it became well known for biscuits! Today it has become a major centre for high tech industries, taking advantage of its good transport links and proximity to London. And, of course, there is the Reading Festival, the biggest music festival after Glastonbury, and teamed now with a parallel event in Leeds. It has gained a reputation in recent years for being a post-GCSE gathering for all the 16 year olds; but it started as the National Jazz Festival in Richmond, London in 1961. It settled in Reading, next to the river, in 1971. By the mid-70s it was the main rock festival in the UK. I recall putting Reading fourth in my university choices for the sole reason that it was the home of the festival! But I have never been, having only started going to festivals in my 50s. I think I’ll stick with Latitude, End of the Road and Green Man now. Here’s hoping they’ll be back in 2021, but it may be a close call.

Soon after the Christchurch Bridge we came to the point where the River Kennet joins the Thames. That brings back memories for me and Jon. In the summer of 2013, in blazing heat, we cycled from Reading to Bath along the river and the Kennet-Avon canal, stopping overnight in Hungerford and then Devizes. It was a great adventure, quite arduous in places, but with some wonderful scenery and some interesting encounters. I wrote a piece about it at the time, which still gets quite a few hits to this day. See the link above.  

We passed by Sonning and Shiplake as we made our way to Henley. Sonning is another Saxon settlement – Sunna’s people – though there is a history of earlier settlements too. Shiplake means the stretch of water where sheep are washed. Tennyson married there and Orwell lived there as a boy. There is a college on the banks of the river, a private school. We didn’t know this as we approached. There was no-one around and it seemed possible to walk through some of the grounds. So we had a little look. Maybe it was half term. 

Sonning Lock

Led Zep alert!

Shiplake College

Close to Henley we came upon Marsh Lock and weir. It is an impressive construction, and the surrounding houses are equally striking.

The view of Henley as you approach is rather beautiful. The church tower looms over the town. The bridge is much admired  – compared in the past with those of Florence. The church itself seems to date from the early 13th century; the tower was built around 1550. Henley means high wood or old place. Today it is best known for its regatta. That began in earnest in 1839; but before that Henley was the location for the early boat races between Oxford and Cambridge universities. The first was in 1829, starting from Hambledon Lock, downstream of Henley. Soon after the race began the boats collided, and it had to be re-started. Oxford won.

We arrived in Henley and felt like some refreshments. We came across the Chocolate Café, on Thameside, upstream of the bridge. Highly recommended if you are ever in Henley and want to stop for a tea or coffee. The cakes – chocolate and otherwise – are sumptuous!

Henley to Marlow, 8 October 2017

This was another attractive stretch of the river. Just out of Henley we came upon Temple Island, which is the starting point for races in the Regatta. The Temple was originally a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court, an historic house, and was designed by architect James Wyatt in 1771. Today it is owned by the Henley Regatta and is both a place for grand functions and a nature reserve. Presumably the nature reserve has the upper hand at the moment.

Further downstream there was a brief diversion from the river bank, slightly uphill. From that vantage point we could see the distinctive white buildings that were originally part of Medmenham Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1201 under the ownership of Woburn Abbey. It was closed in Henry VIII’s purges, but not destroyed. It took on a number of lives after that, most notoriously when it became the venue for the Hellfire Club in the mid 18th century, a group of establishment figures who met to indulge in activities frowned upon by polite society, including “obscene parodies of religious rites.” Today the place is in more discreet private ownership. I didn’t know any of this at the time – it looked to me like it was probably a conference centre. This part of the world is conference centre land – easily reached from London, but a world apart.

Nearby Danesfield House, up on the hill in the next photo, is now a hotel. Way back, the site may have been a hill fort, occupied by the Danes. In the 20th century it was owned for a while by the RAF and was an intelligence centre during the Second World War.

Marlow means low and marshy ground. It has suffered from floods – the worst in recent times was in 2014. The approach from upstream is quite similar to that of Henley – the bridge and the church tower standing out. The bridge is relatively recent by local standards – opened in 1832. It was wooden before that. The architect, William Tierney Clark, modelled it on Hammersmith Bridge, a place dear to my heart, as a later episode will expound upon! He went on to design the bridge that connects Buda and Pest in Hungary. Now, that is something special.

Compare and contrast…

Hammersmith

Budapest – way back in 2006

That’s it for this part of the journey. In the next episode, we will creep towards the outskirts of London, where the Thames grows mighty and tidal.

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The Last Track

I was listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on BBC 6 Music the other day. She was about to play an Autechre track, which will be the last piece on the forthcoming album. She said she often listens to the last track on an album first. Various listeners responded on social media to say they did that too. It made me think, why would you do that? Or more precisely, what is it about the final tracks on albums that makes them so interesting?

Before I ponder further on this vitally important question – in the midst of covid, Brexit and the US presidential election – I need to acknowledge that this may be a generational thing. Listening to an album the whole way through, in sequence, may not be standard practice anymore. Or maybe generational is the wrong word. It’s the technology – it just tempts you to listen to standout tracks, the ones you’ve read about, or had recommended, or heard on the radio. It’s so easy. Stick them on a playlist and move on. Listen to a whole album? Too much hard work.

But it pays dividends when you do, because even now, the musicians making albums are putting their hearts and souls into these constructions: telling a story, their story. And the end of a story is always an important moment. With a book or a film or a play that is just stating the obvious. So why not an album too?

So, the last track on an album is always significant – let’s agree that and ask in what ways. I think there are a few possibilities. First, there are sometimes songs so epic they have to come last – anything following would be diminished, a trivial afterthought. Second, there might be a song that is just very different to the tone of the rest of the album. It might be experimental, a pointer to the band’s future direction. Or something that the artist just wanted to say, even if it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Third, it may be something that has real personal or political resonance for the artist, which, in turn, is transmitted to the listener.  Fourth, it might be a comedown song, a respite after the frenetic activity that went before. And fifth, it might just be the end point of a narrative, a story. In past days we might have called it the last act of a concept album.

All these things overlap, of course, but let’s look at a few examples in each category.

The epics

When I thought about this a whole load of classics came quickly to mind: “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan (which took up the whole of side four of “Blonde on Blonde”), “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (ignoring the brief national anthem), “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin… but wait a minute, “Stairway” was only the final track on side one of Led Zep 4. Since the age of the CD that just makes it track four of the album. How wasn’t it the last song? That honour went to “When the Levee Breaks”, which is pretty epic in its own right. These are all totemic songs, the artists at the height of their powers. The songs crank up and just keep going. They blow your mind when you first hear them, and most other times too. How could anything else follow?

Sometimes things do though.  Think of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” on “OK Computer”, which I used to think of as their “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it first came out. It’s track two on the album. Typical perverse Radiohead! Another one is “Marquee Moon” from the album of the same name by Television. One of the greatest songs of all time in my view. The guitar playing remains hypnotic to this day. It’s another one like “Stairway to Heaven” – the closer on side one of the vinyl. And continuing to disprove my theory, Bowie’s epic “Heroes” nestles in the middle of what was side one of the album. Maybe if he’d known it would be the anthem that signalled the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989…

 The odd ones out – or maybe not

 Initially I was thinking this category was about songs that presaged new directions for a band. But then, thinking about examples I couldn’t come up with many. One might be “Essex Dogs” by Blur, off their eponymous album, which marked a change in direction by the band in any case. “Essex Dogs” was the weirdest thing on the album, and confirmed that Britpop Blur was no more. Perhaps a better description is the odd one out.  An interesting example from last year is “Dublin City Sky” by Fontaines DC, on their debut album “Dogrel”. A great album, full of three minute rushes of poetic punk pop, evoking their home city of Dublin. But nothing evokes it like “Dublin City Sky”, in which the afterburners come off, the acoustic guitars come out and singer Grian Chatten sounds like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. It’s a song from the heart which somehow sums up all that has gone before, but in a very different style. Another Irish band, U2, took things a step further with the last track on their brilliant album “Zooropa”, which I regard as one of their finest. It’s their most Bowie in Berlin-sounding album, their most electronic. But then they go and stick a Johnny Cash collaboration called “The Wanderer” on the end. I can’t think why. Because they could, I guess. I just hope Mary Anne didn’t listen to that one first!

Another striking example in this category is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, which is the final track on one of his later albums, “Uprising”. It’s notable for its resonant lyrics, but also because it is just an acoustic strum. There is no reggae beat, from the king of reggae. And yet it has become one of Bob Marley’s most celebrated songs. Because of the political and spiritual resonance of the message.

One more in this category, courtesy of Louis Grantham, son of my friend Jon, and fellow festival-goer. The three of us have had a lockdown game going where we take turns in choosing a theme and then each of us comes up with a song that fits. Yesterday I suggested best last track. Louis selected “Take It or Leave It” from The Strokes’ 2001 debut “Is This It?, the album that heralded an indie revival. A suitable message for the last track of such an assertive album. But he also mentioned “Love, Love, Love”, the final word on the Murder Capital’s “When I Have Fears”, which was my album of the year in 2019. It’s a dark and dynamic album; and the title of that last track, and to some extent the music, seems out of synch with the rest of the album. But as Louis says, on one level it provides a possible answer to the angst of the rest of the album – though a somewhat ambiguous one – but on another it makes you asks questions about what went before. And as a result, it leaves you wanting more.

The personal and the political

Immediately, in this category, I thought of songs like “Sarah”, Bob Dylan’s paean to his ex-wife which closes “Desire”, one of his mid-70s classics; and “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, which brings the intensity and anger and celebration of “Born in the USA” to a reflective end. But I want to focus on songs of Stina Tweeddale that bring the three Honeyblood albums to an end. In each case they are unlike any of the songs that came before, so they could have featured in the previous category. Musically they are fairly simple, lyrically they are heartfelt and self-questioning. There is an internal dialogue taking place in Stina’s head which finds its way into the music. The closer to Honeyblood’s debut album of the same name is “Braid Burn Valley”, which is a park in South Edinburgh near Oxgangs, where Stina grew up. I’m not sure whether this song is autobiographical, but it feels like it. She is losing herself in the wilds of the park, pondering a love lost, and possibly a violent ending to the relationship. The song begins wistfully, picks up brutally as she sings of another f****** bruise and goes silent. Then a simple piano refrain emerges as she sings of a shooting stars and happier times. You are left wondering about the pain. She returns to Oxgangs for the final song of the magnificent second album “Babes Never Die”, called “Gangs”. Don’t let your fear keep you here, Stina intones. Self-explanatory you think, but is she addressing herself or someone else? She left for Glasgow, where Honeyblood is based, but does your hometown ever leave you? Not in Bruce Springsteen’s case – see above. Honeyblood’s third album is “In Plain Sight”. Musically, it is more varied and less guitar-based, and perhaps lacks the raw emotion of its predecessors. Until the last track, “Harmless”. With its simple piano motif, it resembles the last part of “Braid Burn Valley”, but for the feeling it emits it could have been called “Helpless” rather than “Harmless”. Stina is baring her soul and it doesn’t sound like she is in a great place. If you like the final song to leave you asking questions, in the way Louis describes earlier, Stina definitely obliges.

Straddling the personal and political, and in a rather self-reverential way, are the Clash in their first two albums. 1977 debut album “The Clash” is, for me, the greatest of all punk albums, an impassioned call to arms. It had everything an 18 year old armchair rebel could have asked for! Written mostly in the third person, the band turn to themselves in the last outburst. We’re garage band, we come from Garageland!  Raise those fists! They are less triumphal on second album, “Give ’Em Enough Rope”, having experienced the ups and downs of fame and the music business. “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” is addressed to their followers and the messages are mixed. The music business isn’t great, but it’s better than working in the factory.

Two other favourites from the late 70s got darker and more political in their closing statements. One was The Jam, with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, which closes their third album, “All Mod Cons”. The album was already getting pretty edgy with “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street; “Down in the Tube Station” really finishes you off!  It reeks with paranoia and right wing violence. Not a nice place to be. This was Jon’s choice for a closer, and he’s right to say how often you thought about this song when you were travelling back on the tube late at night. Note the past tense in these upended times. Equally dark, though not quite so direct, was Elvis Costello when he ended his tour de force “This Year’s Model” with the sinister “Night Rally”. After the personal disgust that threaded its way through the album, Elvis turned outward and political for the denouement, and left a nasty taste in your mouth. Great song though.

The comedown

After the party, the comedown. You look back at what went on and survey the wreckage. And hold on to the good memories. One of the best examples of this that I know is “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift, the last song on 2017’s “Reputation”. It’s a brash, even bombastic album, where Taylor really went for the R&B/dance sound. It worked brilliantly and was sensational live. But all good things come to end and “New Year’s Day” really did sum up that after-party feel. It’s a lovely, rather touching song, and gave us a pointer, though no-one could have expected it, to the beautiful lockdown symphony that is “Folklore”. More of that another time.

One of my favourite bands of the last ten years are Glasgow’s electro-indie-pop champions, Chvrches. Their second album, “Every Open Eye” signalled a move to a more pop-orientated sound (and look) after their brilliant debut, “The Bones of What You Believe”. It was mostly bangers until they reached the conclusion. “Afterglow” has you dreaming as Lauren Mayberry’s beautiful voice wafts around you. It was no surprise that the band lit the roof of the Albert Hall with a starry night sky when they played “Afterglow” there in 2016.

I have to mention another Bruce song here. It’s “New York City Serenade”, the final piece on his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”. A true masterpiece – album and song. The album has a variety of moods, but the penultimate song is the rousing “Rosalita”. A celebration of love, hope and rock’n’roll, and still a staple of Bruce’s live shows. After that where do you go? Well, as I said under Epics, that might be where you end. But Bruce had other ideas. He played his ode to New York, to midnight in Manhattan, to all the losers and the chancers and the dreamers. Starting jazzily, with some lovely acoustic strumming and then a mellow wall of sound, Bruce extemporising, before it all falls away again. One of my favourite Bruce songs, and the one I chose as my final song in our challenge.

Radiohead rarely do anything conventional, but they do have a penchant for the comedown song at the end. And they are all tunes of real beauty. From the ethereal “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” on “The Bends” to “True Love Waits” on most recent album “A Moon Shaped Pool”. And on the journey, “The Tourist” soothed the soul at the end of “OK Computer” while “Videotape” was weirdly mournful on “In Rainbows”. Things got weirder on “Kid A” with “Untitled” and woozily jazzy on “Life in a Glasshouse” from “Amnesiac”. Every Radiohead album takes you on a ride you weren’t expecting – they give you some time to reflect at the end.

The last act

Some albums tell a story. It may be from beginning to end, it may just occupy part of the album. But there is a distinctive narrative. It’s something that David Bowie was attracted to, especially in the first half of the 70s as he went through various personas. Ziggy Stardust was one and the Ziggy album ended with great melodrama as Bowie sang “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It wasn’t long before Ziggy was left behind. “Diamond Dogs” was even more of a concept album. The dystopian city with rats as big as cats. With overtones of Orwell’s “1984”: we love you big brother. And it ended with the disturbing but insanely catchy “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. What could it all mean? It wasn’t wholesome.

Two of the great soul artists had stories to tell that ended with songs that have resonated through the years. Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On?, a cry of anguish and bewilderment at America at the beginning of the 70s, began with the beguiling lament of the title track, drifted through meditations on the times, sought solace in God, but ended with the most powerful protest on the album: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. What an incredible song – and what a groove.  Stevie Wonder’s story was about love. Lost love, despair, self-realisation, recovery and then hope. All in three songs: “Blame it on the Sun” – but my heart blames it on me – “Looking for Another Pure Love” and the uplift at the end, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”. Anyone going through a break up should listen to these songs and take solace from the final message.

So where does the story end? Where else but “The End”? The last song on that amazing suite of songs that occupied side two of the last album the Beatles recorded (though not the last they released). “Abbey Road”. That stretch of music from “Because” to “The End”. The Beatles’ parting shot.

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make

Yeah, man!

Except there was a hidden track.

Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say

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