My favourite music video of 2014: Liars — “Mess on a Mission”

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What modern music will endure?

We’ve been having a splendid time on Facebook suggesting albums which we think we’ll still be listening to in 20 years, amid a morass of manufactured and shrill digital pop pap. I’ve embedded the thread here – care to join in?

Blissed out in the Theatre Royal

They say (well, I say, at least) that the music you listen to in your teens is the music that stays with you the longest, but this effect is so pronounced that even music you didn’t know you were listening to remains wedged in the lizard brain, impossible to shift. When I was at my most musically aware, it seemed that every girl I knew had a copy of Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain, and every one of them was a little bit in love with Roddy Frame, the skinny genius from East Kilbride who’d essentially recorded it. Aztec Camera never quite resonated with me back then: too smooth, too mellow, too (ahem) girly at a time when I liked my music exciting, spiky and chest-beltingly robust.

Or so I thought. Fast forward three decades (three decades!) and I get an email from a very old friend saying he’s got a ticket to the 30th anniversary concert for High Land Hard Rain, and would I like to go? I’ll admit that the venue – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, of all places – was at least as intriguing as the talent, but I said yes without hesitation. And I’m very glad I did.

Roddy Frame is two years older and about four stone lighter than I am. He’s also modest, gentle, very funny and still so ferociously talented that those of us who play a little bit of guitar were breaking our own fingers by the end of the gig. Roddy played a small solo set to start, and then we were into High Land Hard Rain itself.

Song after song washed over me, played beautifully and all of them wistfully familiar. Some I recognised straight away, others took me a while, but all of them reminded me of quiet evenings in bedrooms in Kent with cigarettes and beer, talking about the future and planning the coming weekend’s parties. The lyrics of the songs seemed to be bravely hopeful and blissed-out; none of your postmodern ironic distance here, thanks very much.

People – most of them women – sang along to the songs, and the old theatre did begin to feel like the biggest bedroom in the world, full of your best mates. I really did have a huge soppy smile on my face the whole night. It might have been the wine. It almost certainly wasn’t just the wine. These songs had crept under my skin and waited there for thirty years to be rediscovered, like old friends you didn’t know the value of when you had them.

So thanks, Tim, for the ticket. Thanks to those old friends – most of them girls – who shared High Land Hard Rain with me back when music was the most important thing in the world. And thanks Roddy Frame for such a delicious evening of modest brilliance.


Heritage Rock done right

Luke Haines has an attractively nasty little song on his album Off My School At The Art School Bop. It’s called Heritage Rock Revolution:

It’s an effortless skewering of the rock heritage industry, and includes the lines I love rock ‘n’ roll, I hope it never dies, Put it in a time capsule, And bury it alive.

Now, young Luke is a year younger than me. So he was approaching forty when he wrote those lines. I wonder if that was relevant? I wonder if he was raging at his own musical tastes, like a homophobe enraged by his own sexuality? Because since I turned forty, my attitude to heritage rock has done the equivalent of a handbrake turn in a Ford Granada estate, drifting gently in a huge semi-circle to face the opposite direction.

These days, I can’t get enough of the stuff.

Last night I experienced the purest form of this particularly insidious narcotic: more than two hours of The Who at the O2. In the company of my son, who is experiencing a lot of this stuff the first time around. Backed by a ridiculously good band, the two remaining Whovians banged out a passionate, committed and epic version of Quadrophenia, and then finished the set off with as perfect a set of stadium rock standards as there is in existence: Who Are You, Pinball Wizard, You Better You Bet, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Two weeks ago, I went to see the Specials at the Brixton Academy. Same thing with a better beat and sexier dancing. Heritage Rock. A shared memory of something magnificent.

I once did some work with Grazia magazine, and in the editorial meeting one week I pointed out how so many of the fashions were essentially facsimiles of stuff from twenty years before. ‘It all comes round again, doesn’t it?’ I said. To which one very bright young thing replied: ‘Yes, it does. But there’s a rule: you can only wear it once.’ This is the exact opposite of music.

Over a beer ten years ago, a friend once asked me ‘if you had to choose between listening only to music recorded up until now, or only to music recorded from now on, which would you choose?’ I adopted a Luke Haines sneer and said the latter, of course. The future was all about possibility! Something truly great might come along! Why would you turn your back on that?

Ten years later, I’d like to change my answer, please.

The people who stare at bands

This is a tale of two gigs which took place last night. One I went to and one I didn’t.

The gig I didn’t go to was Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine at the Brixton Academy last night. I’ve seen Carter half-a-dozen times now, and have even met Jim Bob himself (who turns out to be as nice a person as you’d expect from his lyrics and his tweets and now his very funny novels). Carter gigs involve a lot of jumping up and down and shouting and singing and generally throwing beer around. They are, needless to say, enormous fun, as this fan will attest:

The reason I didn’t go this time was because the opportunity came up to see someone I’d never seen play live, who’s rarely on these shores and whose concerts are famed for their intensity: Lucinda Williams.

That’s right: Lucinda Bloody Williams. The High Priest of Heartbreak herself. She played the first of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, and she was everything I’d been led to believe. Her voice was as clear as glass and as knowing as a New Orleans madam. Her band was tighter than Ginger Baker’s drum skins. And her audience….


We sat there in our serried ranks, not making a squeak during the songs. As she moved the set on – from low-pitched, sad ballads to the enormous boogying footstompers of the encore – we sat. We clapped between songs. We were glared at if we whooped. We stroked our chins and hugged our wives and generally behaved as if we were watching Kramer vs. Kramer and not one of the most potent live acts in the world.

And heaven forbid if any one of us should get up and dance.

At the end, a few of us braver souls stood and applauded and even whooped a little. I looked behind me when I stood, and there was a row of people: quiet, still, not even clapping. Just watching.

I suppose some of this is inevitable. People get older, and now more than ever those people want to watch the same music they enjoyed in their 20s. Big acts like Lucinda Williams aren’t going to tour England’s smaller venues, where it’s still possible to have a whisky and a bit of a boogie.

But I think there’s something else going on here. During the gig, Lucinda spoke about how wonderful the sound was in the Festival Hall. And it was, because the Hall’s built for symphonic music; when you shove the harsher and simpler acoustics of a rock band in there, they’re bound to sound amazing.

But the downside is that audiences then sit and watch music that was meant to be stood up and danced to. And they do it with this ponderous attentiveness which has as much in common with a traditional rock gig as ELO’s Rockaria has with Monteverdi.

So please, Lucinda. Next time you come to England, pick a big hall with a bar at the back and a sticky floor. Make it smelly and draughty, with toilets your mother would weep at. Pile up big cabinets on either side of the stage to make up for the awful echoing sound. And then play. And watch us dance.

That way, I won’t go home with one thought in my head: Should have gone to Carter.

A very strange piece of music

Like most middle-class males of my age in Britain, I grew up with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was 12 when the radio version came out. I was 13 when the first book was published, and 34 when the final one came out. I was 15 when the TV version appeared. I was 39 when the movie version came out. And I was 34 when we lost Douglas Adams. Sometimes I feel like Hitchhiker’s is some kind of cultural childminder, watching over my development and careful of my towel.

And music being what music is, the trigger for nostalgic thoughts of Adams and Hitchhiker’s is always that theme tune. The strange minor-key banjo, the jaunty strings, the development from quiet to drama within seconds, the endlessly flexible use to which it can be put. I’ve always loved it so, so much. And last week I discovered I knew nothing about it at all.

I knew Bernie Leadon wrote it. I knew he’d been in The Eagles in their first incarnation. I’d always thought this was kind of interesting, and wondered how the BBC had persuaded an American rock god to write the theme for their little series.

Except of course he didn’t. Because the truth I discovered last week was this: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy theme tune is an Eagles song.

Apologies if you already knew this. I did not know this. I am genuinely amazed by it. What an extraordinary mixture of heritages: a gawky middle-class boy from England writes a sardonic, witty and inventive spoof of science fiction, which is turned into a radio and TV series by similarly gawky and middle-class boys from the BBC, and to introduce it they find a piece of music by a band who by then were the byword for west coast rock pomposity and excess. And somehow they find the one piece of music that band recorded that sounds like British prog.

But listen to it. It’s amazing. It’s a six-minute prog rock track inserted into an album by a folk-rock band who were already breaking sales records. Imagine Leadon bringing it into the studio.

“Ok, guys. We’ve got love songs. We’ve got rockers. We’ve got a bit of country. But I want us to consider a six-minute banjo orchestration that, six or seven years from now, will be chosen as the theme tune for a British sci fi comedy.”

Maybe they were too out of it to notice. But applaud Leadon’s brilliance – first for writing and recording it, then for getting it on an Eagles album. And think of Douglas Adams putting that Eagles album on his turntable, seeing the title ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’ on the track listing, sliding the needle over to it, and then…. mind blown.


Picture credits:

Douglas Adams: by Michael Hughes from Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Leadon and Glenn Frey: from Wikimedia Commons



You couldn’t run a mud bath

I have this image of John Giddings preparing for an April walk in the Lake District. He packs flip flops, sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts, smears on the sun cream and looks forward to the ice cream. Then he arrives, and remembers that England is a temperate island on the warpath of every Atlantic weather front there is.

Who is John Giddings? He’s the man who brought you this:

In other words, he “organises” the Isle of Wight Festival. At which I had the great fortune to spend two windswept, mud-lashed nights over the weekend.

You’ve read the stories by now. You’ve seen the photos of attractive young girls covered in mud in the newspapers, smiling through the horror. What you haven’t seen is the crush for the toilets, of which there were hardly any (the toilets to the left of the main stage brought me my most terrifying crowd experience ever, not quite Hillsborough but chest-clenchingly panic-stricken none the less).

You haven’t sat in a car for nine hours on the Isle of Wight’s gridlocked roads – which were gridlocked entirely because the festival organisers made no provision for waterlogged car parks after the wettest month in living memory. Nowhere at the Festival – not in the car parks, not in the campsites, not in the main arena – was there a single piece of metal or plastic sheeting or even a bale of straw, the last defence against mud at the smarter, older, wiser Glastonbury. I didn’t take my car, but a great many people did. A lot of them spent Thursday night either stuck on a road, stuck on the mainland or (most horrible of all) stuck on a ferry going round and round, unable to get into the gridlocked terminals.

Think about that for a second: massive car ferries, stuck out at sea, unable to dock. Because of a music festival.

We travelled on foot, taking the hovercraft from Southsea, arriving at Ryde just after 4pm on Thursday, expecting to find a bus to take us six miles to the Festival. We found instead a 200-metre long queue, and no buses. “They’re coming,” we were told. “But the roads are gridlocked.” We waited two hours, and eventually got on one. It went a mile or two up the road.

And then it stopped.

Over the next two hours, we moved maybe 500 yards. So, with about three miles to go, we started walking through the wind and rain, and finally arrived as darkness was falling. Every campsite seemed to be full, until we were lucky enough to find an empty one opening (no signpost, no advice, no communication).

I spent two days there. The act I most wanted to see, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, were fantastic. So were Elbow. But as the crowds thickened, the main arena became a morass of sticky, fetid mud. The low point (after gridlock, rainy walk, muddy campsite, etc. etc.) was the walk back to the campsite on Friday night – thousands of people squelching through gelatinous mud, their boots coming away, falling left and right, Dante’s Woodstock.

On Saturday, I fled, to a house party in Somerset with beds, baths and good company. My two companions, hardier than me, left it another day and got back to London on Sunday.

Thousands stayed, and I’m sure many of them had a good time. There seems to be a significant constituency of festivalgoers who take misery as being part of the experience, who can cope with anything as long as there are enough drugs and drink. These people tend to be young and, on the surface, a bit mad. Personally, I can think of better ways of spending my weekend. And nothing makes me more irritated than organisers who take this kind of easygoing persistence for granted, and in consequence do little or nothing for those attending. An older American woman who was stuck on the same bus as us kept asking: “Why aren’t they doing something? And why isn’t anyone complaining?”

Well, indeed.

As for me, I will never, ever attend a Festival organised by the people behind this festival. I’ll go to Latitude, Glastonbury and even V, because I know those places make provisions for wet weather. To all those living on the Isle of Wight who had their lives disrupted by what is, when all’s said and done, just a music concert – I’m very sorry. I hope you get as sincere an apology from the IoW Festival itself.

Marley’s women

To the Ritzy in Brixton during rain-soaked yesterday, to see the Bob Marley documentary. It’s a lovely piece of work, a little long, but soaked in genuine love for its subject. In fact, its adoration is a little heavy at times, but there’s a useful counterpoint to it in the film itself, in the shape of the remarkable women in Marley’s life.

As we know, there were a lot of women in Marley’s life, from the girl down the street in Trench Town to the daughter of the dictator of Gabon (both of them are interviewed). But time and again there are women in the film who either tear up a little at his memory (like the extraordinary German nurse, now in her 80s, who looks like a little girl again when she recalls his time in the clinic in Bavaria) or who look at the adoring filmmakers (most of whom, I’m guessing, were middle-class Brits with an extensive collection of vinyl) with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile, not saying what they are thinking: “He’s a God to you, but to us he was a man, and like all men he was on occasion a pratt.”

Rita Marley has a half-smile throughout the film, as if in possession of secret knowledge that makes the whole film a huge joke.

Rita Marley


Cindy Breakspeare, the former Miss World who became Marley’s girlfriend, described evenings on 1970s English trains frantically scrubbing off make-up in time to meet Marley in the accepted Rasta fashion, hair covered and no make-up.

Diane Jobson, Marley’s lawyer, is the most sardonic of all of them, still with her hair covered and still without make-up, saying of the assassination attempt on Marley and the subsequent concert and adoration: “What more do Jamaicans love than a man who just survived a gunfight?”

And finally, the achingly beautiful daughter, Cedella Marley, who makes a poignant contrast to her brothers Ziggy and Jacob. They tell male stories of Bob the footballer, Bob the runner, Bob the competitor; she aches of abandonment and resentment, unwilling to understand a father who adopted a world but left family after family behind.

The film has some cheesy but still powerful stuff over the closing credits, showing people from dozens of nations singing Marley songs. As we filed out, I took a look at the audience. Black and white, old and young, male and female. Cedella notwithstanding, you can’t say the guy didn’t make a difference.

Kipling, ships, miners and memories: The Unthanks at the Tabernacle

Last night with my good mate Dan to see the Unthanks at the Tabernacle in West London. It was a very different gig to the normal moshy raucous things we attend; if you’ve never heard the Unthanks, there’s some links at the bottom of this post, but in their “raw” state they are two Geordie lasses, Rachel and Becky Unthank, with raw-but-pure voice backed by a pianist, a fiddle player and a guitarist, and they sing their own arrangements of found and modern folk songs. For me, they provide the most genuine route back into some of the ordinary voices of the last 200 years; for instance, their song The Testimony of Patience Kershaw was written from official testimony by a woman miner in 1842. Lost, abandoned and desperate women are the most common voices; see Here’s The Tender Coming, in which women describe their painful separation from men pressed into naval service.

It was a beautiful concert, in a beautiful setting, the Tabernacle old and creaking with the movement of those on the balcony. During one song, which the two lasses sang without a microphone, the place sounded like an old ship making its way through heavy waters. My highlight of the evening was when all five of them sang, without amplification, a rendering of Kipling’s The Heavy Steamers, which got me thinking again about trade and empire and the ordinary people back home, themes which ran through my book The English Monster. Here’s the poem:

“OH, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,

With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas? ”

“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,

Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.”


“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,

And where shall I write you when you are away? ”

“We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver.

Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”


“But if anything happened to all you Big Steamers,

And suppose you were wrecked up and down the salt sea?”

“Why, you’d have no coffee or bacon for breakfast,

And you’d have no muffins or toast for your tea.”


“Then I’ll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers

For little blue billows and breezes so soft.”

“Oh, billows and breezes don’t bother Big Steamers:

We’re iron below and steel-rigging aloft.”


“Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,

With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through.”

“Oh, the Channel’s as bright as a ball-room already,

And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe.”


“Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,

Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?”

“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,

That no one may stop us from bringing you food.”


For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,

The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,

They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers

And if any one hinders our coming you’ll starve!”

I can’t find an example of The Unthanks doing this online, which is probably as it should be. Go and see them do it in the real flesh. All I’ll say is they replace Kipling’s assertiveness with a real sense of longing and obligation. It’ll stay with me a long, long time.

The Unthanks home page

The Testimony of Patience Kershaw (MySpace)