Last night I went with a friend from work to Wilton Music Hall, in East London, to hear some words and music in perfect harmony. Talking of harmony, the last time I went to Wilton Hall was to see the Staves in 2015. It was still being refurbished then; it’s looking great now. Tonight was an event hosted by One Track Minds, who bring artists, comedians, journalists, musicians, and even politicians together to talk about a song that changed their lives. I say even politicians, because they need to approach anything they do outside their own sphere with caution, given the general public attitude towards them, and the media scrutiny. But one of the stars tonight was a politician.
I found the evening fascinating, moving and inspiring. Well I would, wouldn’t I, given my love for music? And it’s wonderful to hear other people articulate their version of that same passion. Their story. There were six speakers, who gave introductions of varying lengths before their chosen song was played. This is what we heard…
Jenny Offord is a sports journalist, who turned to her trade after the 2012 Olympics, having been a civil servant for eight years. She took the risk and followed her dreams. She spoke passionately and amusingly about the way society moulds girls and young women, denies them opportunities. And her song was one I hadn’t heard before, by Beyonce, called “If I Were a Boy” off her “I am…Sasha Fierce” album. An uplifting start.
Next up was a young poet, Antosh Wojcik, who spoke incredibly honestly – and poetically – about his battles with the “dooms”, and how different people react to him when he is afflicted. His musical choice was an electronic piece by Flying Lotus called “Tiny Tortures” – the sort of music you can just lose yourself in.
Last on before the interval was Guy Pratt, a musician and latterly a comedian. He has played bass with many of the greats, including Pink Floyd, Bowie and Roxy Music. He described a holiday from hell as a teenager with his family – in fact three of the speakers recounted family holidays. There’s a theme here – these experiences are etched on our memories. In Guy’s case, he was at one point lying on a bunk bed, recovering from having tried smoking with an “evil” cousin. He noticed a cassette player nearby and pressed play. A song came on, all jittering synthesisers, throbbing bass, strident guitars and, at the end, an Irish violin. He was mesmerised, and at that moment knew what he wanted to do with his life. Be a musician. And the song? “Baba O’Reilly”, the opener on the Who’s 1971 album, “Who’s Next”.
As we listened to the song, it occurred to me, for the first time, how much Bruce’s “Jungleland” owed to “Baba O’Reilly”. We spoke briefly to Guy in the bar after the show. I mentioned this and he said he’d been at an awards show in the US last year and Bruce had publicly acknowledged that very connection. Well, there you go.
After the interval it was the turn of Harry Michell, an up and coming actor and comedian. He recounted the moment, aged 10, when he discovered Paul Simon, on a cassette in the car with his Godfather, on a family holiday. “You can Call me Al” was the big tune for him, and gave him the irresistible urge to dance. Fast forward to the end of his time at Cambridge, when he met a guy called Ed and they became good friends. One day, nursing post party hangovers, they revived themselves by dancing to “You Can Call Me Al”; the pain forgotten, and the friendship cemented. Last night Harry regretted Ed couldn’t be there due to work commitments… and then suddenly he was there. I think it was a genuine surprise. Ed took the stage and they danced to the Afro beats of “Al”. It was the most celebratory moment of the show – everyone clapping along, amused by the dance moves. A real laugh.
The person who had to follow this was the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq. She won the seat in 2015, taking over from Glenda Jackson. She had a fairly small majority, but like so many London Labour MPs who had been worried about losing their seats, she won this June with a massively increased majority. For her this gig was a challenge that no others faced. The anti-politics and the risk of being misreported always loom large for any politician. But she did really well. Because of her honesty and sincerity. She admitted her fears. She talked eloquently about the stories her constituents came to her with, and then switched to the personal. The battles she faced as a young, Muslim woman in British politics. The barriers to aspiration. The stereotyping. Echoing a lot of what Jenny Offord referred to in a different context. Her determination to overcome the barriers really came across, as she warmed to the task, and, I think, sensed the audience was with her. Her song, which reflected the sense of determination and aspiration, was “Piano Man” by Billy Joel.
My work involves working with politicians. The majority are good people, committed to doing their best for their constituents and their country. Past events have tainted them all, and social media is relentlessly negative. But still people want to do the job, for the best of reasons. And tonight we saw a politician who deserves support for what she is trying to achieve.
And that left us with Mark Thomas, the radical comedian, the hard core protester. His talk was pretty in-your-face, intense. The early part focused on his father, who Mark described as “the rudest man in South London”. And it got worse than that! It felt almost like a catharsis. Eventually we moved to another holiday from hell – six people in a barge on a canal in Coventry! By this time Mark was a punk, with bondage trousers, the lot. He described how his shows of emotion had softened his father a little, and how he got a pass from the holiday to go back to London to see Ian Dury, supported by the mighty dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was a song off LKJ’s album “Forces of Victory” that Mark chose to play. “Want Fi Goh Rave”. Great stuff. Brought me back to the best musical time of my life – punk, new wave, reggae. A voyage of discovery which never stopped. I wrote about it all in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“, which is available on Amazon.
In the bar afterwards, we got into a conversation with Mark, as he came by on his way out. I said how much I shared his love of punk and reggae, and he asked me to name my top five punk tracks! Never easy to do on the spot, because there are so many candidates. But we agreed that “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” by The Clash is as good as it gets. And then agreed vehemently about the greatness of Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts, who both featured in his talk, as well as the Pistols and, of course, LKJ.
After he left, I thought, here’s a guy who is a successful and well-known comedian who takes the trouble to stick around and talk to people he doesn’t know, because they share a love for the same music. I salute him for that.
So, a great evening of talk and music. There was another event with different people tonight, and it comes back in August. Meanwhile, there’s a session at WOMAD. I’ll be getting back for the August gig, if I can.
Of course I also got thinking about what my song and story would be. I think it would have to be about the night I first heard “Racing in the Streets” by Bruce Springsteen on the radio, in the darkness of my bedroom, back home during the holidays from university. The moment when I knew what Bruce’s music would mean to me – forever.
You can read about that in my book, too.