On the District Line Tube, one of the seats you can look out of the window. Just after 8.30 this morning. A clear and very cold day. Commuting has few pleasures, but this was one of them.
On the District Line Tube, one of the seats you can look out of the window. Just after 8.30 this morning. A clear and very cold day. Commuting has few pleasures, but this was one of them.
On 29 and 30 December, my wife Kath, our good friends Jon and Maggie, and I walked the Thames path, from its source in Gloucestershire, not far from Cirencester. We took a train to Kemble and got a cab to a lay-by not far from the source. We walked to Cricklade and stayed overnight there, at a hotel/pub called The White Hart. I’d recommend it.
Day one was beautifully sunny and freezing cold, with just a hint of mist in the air, which turned to fog as the evening drew in. Day two was full fog, which never really looked like clearing, until we came to the end of our walk, at Inglesham, a few miles from Lechlade. Thames path is a bit of a misnomer along the stretch we walked on day two, as you’re diverted away from the river for quite a few miles. Apparently you regain the river at Lechlade, where it is also starts to look more like the mighty river of Oxford, Reading and London.
It was a wonder to view the river in its infancy and the surrounding scenery was very beautiful. There’s a selection of photos here to give you a feel. If you can, try the walk yourself sometime.
This is the source! That unprepossessing pile of stones marks the spot. Sometimes there’s water in a pool. But clearly the action is taking place underground.
First view of the river. The combination of the cold, the sun and the kinetic energy of the water led to the mist seeming to rise from the river. Should be in Iceland!
There is beauty in small things…
Near Ashton Keynes the river winds through a series of gravel pits. I loved the colours as the sun went down.
The mist began to form again.
Day Two. St Mary’s church in Cricklade is the oldest Catholic church, still in use as a Catholic church, in England.
It was a little warmer, and everywhere the frost began to melt.
I feel an Impressionist painting coming on…
That’s all folks!
Either side of Christmas two more of our much-loved popsters died. It’s becoming a habit. It will probably continue, because if the likes of myself are in our late 50s a lot of our old favourites are going to be older. But let’s celebrate the joy they brought to us.
Rick Parfitt was in Status Quo. They were the ultimate three chord boogie band. But they did it better than anybody and they rocked hard in their heyday. They were the first band I saw live. So they have a special place in my heart.
George Michael made his name in Wham. I can’t claim to have been a massive fan, but you couldn’t resist the pop hits. As a solo artist he made some mature classics. But he gave up serious recording and performing too early. With his passing we are celebrating music that stopped before the 21st century. That in itself is a small tragedy.
The best thing I thought I could do was to repeat the passages from my book. “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. They both featured, because they both mattered.
Rick Parfitt and Status Quo
Leicester de Montfort Hall introduced me to concert-going. My first was Status Quo (the source of my other letter to Sounds: proclaiming their greatness). This was an amazing concert. Quo had a golden period in the early-to-mid seventies, when they rocked hard. Dead simple, but hard. They had the hits, like “Caroline” and “Paper Plane”, but it was the seven minute rock-outs like “Roll Over Lay Down” that really did the business live. Relentless four-to-the-bar riffing; I read not so long ago that Rick Parfitt eventually got RSI from playing the same three chords so often. Could be a myth, but it feels right. The entire crowd moved as one. From the front row I looked back at the people on the balcony and feared for their safety, as the foundations moved up and down to the rhythm. I have never seen its like again. Quo really was a simple, denim clad pleasure, rock’n’roll at its purest. The dividing line between rock and cockney pub band was fine, and eventually they fell over into the latter. But circa ‘75, as we were head banging to “Down, Down”, they were the real thing.
George Michael and Wham
…Which brings us on to Wham. Or is that Wham! ? Now, calling them New Romantics in terms of musical influences would be pushing it – there wasn’t a trace of Bowie or Roxy, and not even that much of the girl-or-boy ambiguity that distinguished the look of the New Romantics. Glamour, yes, but wholesome: Bay City Rollers or Beach Boys would be closer to the mark, at least at the start. But the pop-soul trait was similar, and the big hair, and the celebratory videos. Modern, shiny pop, celebrating the important things in life, like clubbing. It was infectious and inescapable if you listened to the radio and watched TV. I enjoyed the early singles and bought a few of them, like “Wham Rap” and “Club Tropicana”, though only on seven inch – didn’t need the extended dance versions on twelve. I went off them a bit when they started having No 1s like “Wake Me up Before You Go Go” and “Freedom” which were just a bit too formulaic for me; but I did like the 1984 Christmas single, “Last Christmas”. I cannot defend this. It’s a cloying tune with a cloying video with happy people skiing and cavorting in the snow. But I love the tune, simple as that.
Wham continued into 1985 and 86 and had a couple more No 1s; but from 1984, the solo George Michael – the singer and songwriter – began to emerge. His was a more sophisticated, adult sound – not better, but different, and built to last. Through the rest of the eighties and into the nineties he made records from time to time that were hard to resist. “Careless Whisper” was the first and best. No 1 in 1984, a beautiful ballad. I have a memory from a bit later, when I lived in a flat – my first purchase – in Ealing, around 1986. When I was on my own, I used to leave the radio on as I went to bed, with a cassette also running. When the cassette clicked off, after 45 minutes, the radio would turn off as well. One night it didn’t work and the music stayed on. I half woke up at some point and dreamed I was listening to “Careless Whisper”. It sounded fantastic, the most moving song ever, in semi- dreamland. It seemed to last forever.
I was listening to it… it was on the radio. When it ended I stirred and turned the radio off. The end of the dream-but-not-dream. It was etched on my memory, the subconscious, forever a favourite tune: a tune from dreamland.
George Michael has made some great pop music over the years. Erring on the adult, the sophisticated, the sensitive cover, the quite-like-Elton-John. His encounters with the police, the drug issues, are well-documented. They are of no great interest to me. I’ve bought a fair few George Michael CDs for Kath, but I do like them myself. But, but, there’s a feeling that he could have done more, still could do. He’s got an amazing talent for melody, a great voice, an engaging presence. From time to time he has shown real flashes of originality. I’d love to see him – and hear him – break out of his current inertia and really show us all that the best is now and in the future. Let’s wait and see…
Well, we never got to see with George, but the outpouring of grief and affection on social media shows what he meant to a lot of people. Rick Parfitt was in a different world – the rock’n’roll world. And he and his band were one of the best.
RIP Rick Parfitt and George Michael.
In such a politically traumatic year – the year of Brexit and Trump – and a year of many horrors, including Aleppo, the murder of Jo Cox MP here in England, the killings in Berlin just the other day, what place is there for music?
A bigger place than ever, I’d say. We need music to help express the feelings we find hard to articulate. Music brings joy, love, escape, discovery, celebration, reflection, togetherness. The good things about humankind.
And 2016 has been another wonderful year for music.
I accept my music world doesn’t really encompass the truly popular, with one or two exceptions. I got a post on Facebook from Spotify recently which listed the 40 most popular songs of the year. I was familiar with most of the artists, but had only heard two of the songs. That’s partly because my children, as they grow older, don’t force me to listen to Capital Radio in the car, and I don’t need to make playlists for youth club parties. And my staple listening is BBC 6 Music, which plays my kind of music. Latitude alerts me to one or two rising stars in the pop world, but I’m out of touch with the big sellers. It took long enough, but it had to happen.
But, but, there has been so much great music in my world too. My Top Ten of 2016 gives a flavour. I want to take three themes from that comment above about what music gives to us: discovery, celebration and reflection. And then a tribute to some of the departed. It has been quite a year for departing.
Time was when I bought most of my music on the strength of written reviews. Now it’s much more either hearing it on 6 Music or experiencing it live at the festivals I go to. This year, as well as Latitude, I went to End of the Road. Both were brilliant, highlights of the year.
Let me just list the performances at those two festivals that I absolutely loved.
Chvrches – The National – Slaves – Courtney Barnett – Let’s Eat Grandma – Pumarosa – Roots Manuva – Lonely the Brave – Mura Masa – New Order – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – David Rodigan’s reggae show – Adam Buxton’s tribute to David Bowie.
The Shins, Teleman, Amber Arcades, Dilly Dally, Eleanor Friedburger, Margo Price, Blue House, Field Music, Younghusbands, Laura Gibson, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, The Big Moon, Savages, Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts, M.Ward, Bat for Lashes, Feels, The Blind Shake, Thee Oh Sees, Joanna Newsom, Teenage Fanclub.
Latitude pointed me to Pumarosa, who I saw at the Village Underground in Shoreditch in October. I’m sure they will be big, when they’ve released an album. It confirmed, too, the promise of Let’s Eat Grandma, two young women who mix prog and dance and all sorts of other things together in a bizarre but highly entertaining way. And Slaves confirmed the awesome power of their music in a rip-roaring show in the 6 Music tent. A highlight.
But it was End of the Road that really led to discovery. When Jon G and I decided to go, I remember looking at the line up and thinking, I hardly know anyone on this list. But there were so many good bands. It revived my indie muse, for sure – and pointed me towards some music of great beauty too. Amber Arcades were wonderful – and now have my top album of the year, “Fading Lines”. The voice of Josienne Clarke, echoing across the Garden Stage, was a truly moving experience. Dilly Dally and The Big Moon were raucous fun and I saw both of them at the Scala later in the year. They were both full of the essence of rock’n’roll. Savages were awesome as their set got going, and singer Jehnny Beth surfed the crowd magnificently. And maybe best of all were The Blind Shake and The Oh Sees who played wild rock’n’roll that was just out of this world. Go and see either of these bands if you can. You don’t need to know their music beforehand. They just overwhelm you with their riffs and energy there and then.
Two bands who were at End of the Road that I didn’t see have become favourites since, helped by a great double CD compilation that Rough Trade put together of bands appearing at the festival. Julia Jacklin and Whitney. Jon and I saw them both at Koko in Camden in November. One of the gigs of the year.
There’s nothing like coming together and seeing your favourite bands. Celebrating their music, singing along, even, dare I say it, shedding a tear from time to time. Latitude gave us Chvrches, The National and New Order. I’ve followed Chvrches since they started. I love their sound. The voice of Lauren Mayberry is a wonder. I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in March and they were awesome. But they were even better at Latitude. They are now a brilliant live band. Lauren really gives it some. And the bass lines at Latitude… rib-crushingly powerful. The best. The National were wonderful, and singing along to “Pink Rabbits” was probably my next best moment after Chvrches. New Order took a while to get going, but when we got the hits, like “Blue Monday” and Joy Division’s “Love Will tear Us Apart” at the end – well, what can you say?
Special mention has to go to David Rodigan’s history of reggae show in the early hours of Sunday morning too. A couple of hours of pure celebration, dancing and singing along to some of the greatest music ever. Just amazing.
End of the Road was mostly about discovery, but the very last show of the festival for me was Teenage Fanclub and they played most of their great songs from the classic album “Grand Prix”. I was tearful with joy (aided by beer) – and maybe regret – that this was the last show, throughout the concert.
But it wasn’t just the festivals. I saw Massive Attack twice, the best being their show at Brixton Academy in February. Forebodingly magnificent. In October, in an act of pure nostalgia for my teenage years, I saw Bad Company at the O2 Arena. They were terrific, but sadly, guitarist Mick Ralphs had a stroke soon after. I wish him well. Wolf Alice were fantastic in March, at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town. That gig cemented my feeling that their album “My Love is Cool” was one of the best of 2015. In the early months of 2016 I played it more than anything else. I went down to Brighton to see Lindi Ortega in February, promoting her latest album, “Faded Gloryville”. I loved the show. Of course I did! And I got to tell her afterwards as she signed my ticket. Aaaaah… And Augustines’ farewell London show at the same venue as Wolf Alice was uplifting. Here’s hoping they change their minds and continue. A very fine band.
But there were two concerts which rose above everything else. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Radiohead at the Roundhouse, where they played the first five tracks off their magnificent album “A Moon Shaped Pool” (No 2 in my 2016 chart) straight off and got a hugely positive reception. After that it was a wonderful mix of old and new, ending with “Paranoid Android”. Never to be forgotten. And then Bruce at Wembley. What can you say? Three and a half hours of pure celebration, emotion, rock’n’roll. A journey through his whole canon. The best, the Boss – as simple as that.
This year I didn’t come across quite as much of that beautiful sad music – the thing I called Duende in my book. But Julia Jacklin gave me some of it in her lovely album “Don’t Let The Kids Win”. Listen to a track like “Motherland”, or “LA Dream”. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker certainly did the business at End of the Road, where the music was just Ben on guitar and Josienne with her extraordinary voice. But on record, where there was more production, with violins, horns, all sorts of things, a bit of the impact was lost, I felt.
There were other lovely songs that need to be remembered this year. Whitney’s “No Woman”, which became an anthem at their Koko show; Blue House’s wistful “Ear to the Door” – a still-in-love-really song. Amber Arcade’s Annelotte de Graaf sang with a dreamy wistfuIness that was a big part of the appeal to my No 1 album “Fading Lines”. I continued to listen a lot to Daisy Vaughan’s delicately beautiful album “Light on our Limbs”. But there were no live sightings as far as I could tell. Sing to us Daisy!
And I rediscovered Kacey Musgraves’ album from 2013, “Same Trailer, Different Park”. Talk about country heartbreak! And defiance – fighting against expectations. The spirit of Bruce – like Lindi. Straight to the top of the list. And the best song of all was the closer on the album, “It Is What It Is”. Two people in limbo, not sure whether they are together or not. Both lonely, and Kacey singing come back, you don’t have to stay. So heart-wrenching, sung so tenderly.
It formed part of a small epiphany…
Every Thursday morning during term time I go into a school in Hammersmith, where I am also a governor, and read for half an hour with a pupil with some kind of reading difficulty. Normally dyslexia. It’s just half an hour, but over the weeks as you work with one person, you really can see the confidence build, practising reading or comprehension in a completely non-judgemental environment. I find it incredibly fulfilling, one of the most important things I do.
When I leave the school at around 9 o’clock and head into work, I feel a buzz, feel uplifted. That sense of helping someone to learn, to gain confidence, is something else. It’s why I have such admiration for teachers, who are trying to do this day in, day out, all day. I do half an hour a week!
And just recently I left feeling really good about a session I’d just had, where we made real progress. I always joke to myself that it’s downhill all the way once I get into work. I got onto the District Line and managed to get a seat. I pulled out my book, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run”. If you read my review of the book, you’ll know how brilliant I think it is – searingingly honest, hugely insightful. I’d got to the place where the Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, had died, and Bruce was paying tribute. It was incredibly moving, but also inspiring.
So the reading with the pupil, the reading with Bruce… I was soaring, sitting there on the District Line. And then, on my iPod playlist, on came “It Is What It Is”. Oh my God! My eyes just welled up. I wiped them as discreetly as I could, but wondered whether the woman sitting opposite had noticed. I avoided eye contact. But really, I didn’t care, because it was such a beautiful moment.
And music was the trigger.
Oh yeah, my book
Can I go through a review of 2016 without mentioning “I Was There – A Musical Journey”? Well, obviously not! A labour of love, put together over eight years or so. My story, told in music. It’s now published, on Amazon and Kindle. I like to think it’s a good account of the music of the last fifty years, as long as I liked it. There’s a bit of my life in there, but it’s mostly a celebration of the music. Like Lindi Ortega sings, if the music wasn’t flowing through the blood in my veins…
And departed heroes
We lost two of the greats this year – David Bowie and Prince. Many would add Leonard Cohen. I respect that; it’s just that I’ve never listened much to his music.
Bowie is up there with Bruce, Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Van Morrison, The Clash, Radiohead, Massive Attack and U2 as a favourite artist of all time. He straddled so many genres, influenced so many other bands. I struggle to say what my favourite album is because there are so many candidates. Maybe “Station to Station”, but what about “Diamond Dogs”, or “Ziggy Stardust”, or “Aladdin Sane” or “Low”? A genius, an inspiration.
Prince straddled the genres too. He was rooted in funk and soul, but came closer than anyone to perfecting the fusion of rock’n’roll with soul. The 1980s were his heyday, when his imagination ran riot and he made a succession of great albums: “1999”, “Purple Rain”, “Parade” and “Sign o’ the Times” the best, I’d say. He lost his way in the 90s and beyond, with disputes with record companies and pretty much everything; but he stayed true to his muse when playing live. I was fortunate enough to see him at the Roundhouse with Third Eye Girl in 2015, and he was truly awesome. In the end an entertainer more than a pioneer – I always wondered why he didn’t experiment more with electronic sounds – but an entertainer like few others. And a huge influence on today’s R&B and rap music. Just listen to the great new artists like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean and tell me you don’t hear some Prince in there. It’s obvious!
So Prince and Bowie are gone. But their music lives on.
And so to 2017
I would expect Pumarosa and The Big Moon to do well with their debut albums. But it is tough these days. I really wish Gengahr well with their second album – I saw them play quite a few new tunes in November in Shoreditch and they were good.
And already I’ve got a whole load of gigs lined up: Amber Arcades, Cabbage, Julia Jacklin, Underworld, ABC (blast from the past!), Car Seat Headrest, Moonlandingz, Bryan Ferry at Hampton Court (M&S picnic and champers beforehand, no doubt!). Can’t wait!
2016 was awful in many ways, but brilliant in others. And music of course was on the credit side. And always will be…
So here’s to 2017 in music.
The Tate is a few minutes walk from my office, and I popped down there this lunch time to take a look at the exhibition of the shortlisted artists for this year’s Turner Prize. The prize is for artists under fifty and recognises their work over the year, not just what is exhibited at the Tate. It tends to attract controversy in the media, because the art is generally unconventional. The cry goes up that it’s not art, a waste of time and money, etc, etc. All of which is nonsense, of course.
This year’s winner was Helen Marten, who is originally from Macclesfield. The Tate blurb declared that “Her collage-like gatherings of objects and images have a playful intent, creating poetic visual puzzles that seem to invite us into a game or riddle”. Yeah, OK….
I enjoyed the show. For me it was art as fun, entertainment. Thought-provoking, because you ask yourself, what is the artist trying to achieve here? And visually arresting at times. Of the four artists on show, that certainly applied to my favourite, Anthea Hamilton. I liked her brick wallpaper and suit, the images of a London sky – and of course The Bum, officially known as “Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)”. The said Italian designer had planned something similar for a doorway on a New York apartment block. Strangely, it never happened. Judging by the comments on the notes pinned to a board (see later) The Bum (or Butt) was the star attraction. No surprise – you couldn’t but smile.
The other work which I found striking was Michael Dean’s “United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016”. It is £2o,436 in pennies, minus one penny, to symbolise being below the poverty line. Its physical being makes you think hard about that. One wag in the comments said he’d chucked an extra penny onto the pile, so it was enough! I don’t doubt a few have been nicked too.
A few photos and then a selection of the comments that people left.
This one summed up quite a few!
Gotta agree with this.
Clearly appealed to young kids. That is good!
I felt I had to say something. I reverted to my list tendency.
A foggy day in London Town
Had me low and had me down
I viewed the morning with alarm
The British Museum had lost its charm
How long, I wondered, could this thing last?
But the age of miracles hadn’t passed,
For, suddenly, I saw you there
And through foggy London Town
The sun was shining everywhere.
So many people have sung this wonderful Cole Porter song. I love the Ella Fitzgerald version. Whenever it’s foggy or misty in London it comes into my head…
A week or so ago I walked up to Ealing Broadway to catch a train to work, as the Piccadilly Line was so dire. The mist was just being burned off as I wandered through Lammas Park, my local.
Blue House are a London band featuring James Howard and Ursula Russell, who both sing and play guitar. Their debut album, “Suppose”, was No 8 in my Top Ten of 2016. Jon G and I saw them at End of the Road and couldn’t miss the chance to see them again in London. The venue was St Pancras Old Church, not far from the station. Apparently the site of the church is one of the oldest in Christianity here in England. The original church may have dated from Saxon times and there were even Roman elements in the original walls. It was reconstructed in Victorian times and has had a few refurbishments since, including after the Second World War. The church hosts quite a few gigs – I almost went there once before when Daisy Vaughan was due to play a rare show, but the concert was cancelled because the lead band had had all their equipment stolen on a US tour.
It’s a lovely church, but not that well-equipped for rock concerts. Blue House have a fairly gentle sound, especially on record, but they do get the electric guitars going at times. So why they chose this venue for a flagship gig, I’m not sure. The stage wasn’t that well-lit – hence the quality of the photo (which was the best one!), as I had to resort to the iPhone. My camera wouldn’t focus without the flash and I didn’t want to use that.
The band got off to a great start with my favourite track, “Ear to the Door”. The sound was a bit murky though – they didn’t have the quality of speakers that they had at End of the Road. We got a decent selection from the album, with “Hot Air Balloons” a predictable highlight. It’s one of the songs that gives them a chance to rock out a bit, which they do very well.
But then they turned to tributes to David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. We got two excellent Bowie covers – “Sound and Vision” and “The Man Who Sold the World”. Great choices! Then there were three Leonard Cohens – unless one of them was a new song of their own. Leonard Cohen was one of those people I never really got around to listening to, so the covers didn’t resonate with me. They were nicely done, but, I felt, an odd way to finish the concert. There were quite a few of their own songs they didn’t play – including their own wonderful Bowie tribute, “January the Tenth”.
So I really enjoyed the gig, but it didn’t wow me as much as the End of the Road performance did. Everyone was sitting down politely too. Churches, with their seats in neat rows, don’t exactly encourage rocking!
We had a nice touch at the end. There had been a guy behind us who talked a bit of football with us when Jon was checking half time scores before the show started. Afterwards, he revealed himself as the father of Ursula. He said they would have a new album out in the spring, which will better than the first. Well, it will be pretty damn good then!
A fine band, who didn’t really do themselves justice tonight; but I’ll be there for the next London gig if I can. No doubt about that.