Why music writing matters

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“Writing about music is like dancing without architecture”

This quote, variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Laurie Andersen but apparently originally from comedian and musician Martin Mull (no, me neither) is often trotted out to rubbish the idea that you can explain or elucidate music using the written word.

But for me, it means the exact opposite.

What it actually means is that using one medium to describe another is very difficult but, if successful, the results can be amazing.

Well, that’s what I like to tell myself anyway.

You see, for me, writing/reading and music have always gone together.

I’m as in love with words as I am with music – always have been, always will be.

And when you can combine the two to successfully write about music, well – it’s like dancing about architecture.

Growing up, I got properly into music through music writing.

From the age of 16 when I bought my first copy of Melody Maker (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) it became my gateway into a new world.

Writers like Chris Roberts, David Stubbs, Caroline Sullivan, Andrew Mueller, the Stud Brothers (neither brothers nor, judging by their byline photos, studs) and even the eternally irritating Everett True were my guides into the wonderful, strange and frightening world of indie music circa 1988 and onwards, writing impossibly long pieces on whatever band they happened to have stumbled across in the Camden Falcon and making a workaday new group seem like the heralds of a glorious musical apocalypse which would lay waste to the likes of Rick Astley, Phil Collins and the satanic Jason Donovan.

Maker my day: a 1990 copy of Melody Maker

Their enthusiasm, passion and sheer breadth of references (an Engels quote in an interview with Shaun Ryder, a brief explanation of deconstructionism in a Birdland single review) blew me away. I was converted, even to the extent that when Stubbs proclaimed 1988 as the greatest single year in the history of music, I nodded in hearty approval.

Their words mattered. The music mattered. And the two together – well, you know the line by now.

It’s thanks to their writing that I first heard Pixies, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, NWA, Dinosaur Jr, The Sugarcubes, Young Gods, The House of Love, Ride, Primal Scream – the list goes on and on.

Of course, I absorbed their prejudices as much as their passions – C86 bands in particular were anathema, I recall – but it was the skill of their writing and their love of the music which made me want to listen to what they were describing and some of their words have stayed with me ever since.

Every time I listen to the headlong rush of New Order’s Fine Time, I remember Chris Roberts’ review describing his first listen to the track – “I want to get out and race the train to this perfect, perfect music”.

To me, these writers were just as much heroes as the musicians whose lives and work they were chronicling.

As I grew older, I became less of a slave to their opinions but never lost my love of music writing, graduating from Melody Maker to Select magazine (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) and the work of Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, John Harris, David Cavanagh and others. I vividly recall the famous ‘Yanks Go Home’ cover that heralded the start of Britpop and every time I listen to Suede’s Still Life, I remember the closing words of the Select review of their Dog Man Star album – “somewhere, many years on from now Still Life will be leaking from someone’s late night headphones”.

Brit hit: the infamous Britpop cover of Select Magazine (image courtesy of @britpopmemories)

My own forays into music writing were informed and shaped by these experiences. My undisputed finest moment in a singularly undistinguished journalism career was when John Robb quoted my Redditch Standard (miraculously, it’s still there) review of The Stone Roses in 1995 in his book The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop. Naturally, it appears uncredited but when I read that page it still thrills today.

That Walker/John Robb co-write in full

If music writing for magazines and newspapers is the pinnacle then music books are the Mount Olympus – and I just can’t get enough of them.

For purely selfish reasons, John Robb’s tome (pretty much co-written with me if we’re being honest) is at the top of the tree but there are so many other absolutely outstanding books which have kept me company over the years.

David Cavanagh’s peerless account of the rise and fall of Creation Records – My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize – is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre. I genuinely cannot recommend it enough – if you have eyes, you should read it. I was so gutted to hear of his death in 2018 as his writing is just luminous and he seemed like such a decent guy, about as far removed from the ‘Mr Writer’ cliche as it’s possible to get.

Bob Stanley’s magisterial history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah, has all the verve of his Melody Maker dance music writing and all the sparkly grit of St Etienne’s urban pop anthems and the descriptions of songs in Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance were the only reason I started listening to The Smiths, even if Morrissey wasn’t *quite* so enthusiastic about it. Sadly, Rogan is another writer who we have since lost.

Hell, I’m that sad that for me the most exciting parts of the infamous Led Zeppelin biography, Hammer Of The Gods, weren’t the salacious tales of drugs and groupies, but Stephen Davis’ bravura descriptions of Zep’s sturm und drang songs.

It doesn’t always work – Dave Hill somehow contrived to make a dull book out of the most gloryhallacrazysexycool pop star of them all in his Prince: A Pop Life – but at its finest, music writing can fuse these two apparently disparate media into a glorious whole which is more than the sum of its parts.

I think this is best seen in Pete Paphides’ Broken Greek (now deservedly the award-winning Broken Greek) which marries childhood memoir with pop chronicle to create what was easily my favourite book of last year and is one of my favourite books full stop. In trying to pin down what music means to us, how it shapes our lives, not just soundtracks them, Pete achieves something which is both genuinely profound and profoundly moving. It’s also beautifully written and properly funny – the description of Cliff Richard’s odd dance movements is worth the price of admission alone so I’ll not detract from Pete’s sales by including it here. But trust me, it is genius.

As good as it gets: the award-winning Broken Greek

However, it is here that we come to the paradox – if music writing is so good (the dancing thing again) and so many of us value it, how come it’s not selling anymore?

Pete has written recently that he came to write Broken Greek “out of a process of elimination” since the market for music writers was drying up rapidly – and that was even before the very sad demise of Q Magazine (don’t look for it, etc.)

The argument goes that pre-streaming, music writing and music critics were there to act purely as a money-saving aid: only the extremely wealthy could afford to buy any album they fancied, so we had to rely on people who could listen to albums for free to tell us which ones were worth buying.

Now that you can get whatever music you want, whenever you want for £10 a month, who needs writers to tell you what to listen to, yeah?

But for me, it’s not about that. It never has been and it never will be.

Music writing is there for a whole range of reasons and frankly, if you’re relying on someone whose normal day revolves around hanging out with musicians, heavy drinking and listening to music at ear-splitting volume in a dingy pub with sweat running down the walls for informed consumer advice, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Music writing is about passion, about love, about hate, about empathy, about understanding, about people, about personalities, about glorying in language, diving headlong into metaphors and saturating in similes and enjoying everything about the journey even if you’ve no idea where you’re going.

It’s something which is precious, which we should delight in, something we should fight for and, vitally, something we should pay for.

Just as musicians deserve a far better deal than they’re getting for the value which we get out of them, so should music writers.

This is just one of the reasons why I was so pleased to see that three former members of Q Magazine – Ted Kessler, Chris Catchpole and Niall Doherty – didn’t throw in the towel when Q closed and take up cushy record company PR jobs (which I’m sure they were offered) but kept going. They started up music newsletter The New Cue (see what they did there?) earlier this year with a twice weekly update of interviews, reviews and recommendations that not only delivers that music writing fix but also takes you down some fantastic musical avenues. Most of the newsletters are free but it’s well worth the £5 a month to be a paid subscriber. And while you’re at it, you should subscribe to the marvellous The Quietus as well.

My argument is that with hundreds of albums released every week, not to mention vast swathes of stuff on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and the likes, music writing is needed EVEN MORE than it was before.

How do you navigate your way through so much stuff?

How do you know you’re not missing out on something mind-blowingly wonderful?

How do you find out more about that fantastic track you heard on Spotify?

Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put out a Van Morrison Covid conspiracy album?

Allow me to present: the music writer.

Now, let’s get dancing.

Further reading

Some more recommended books from music writers. As with the main article, where possible the links are to bookshop.org because that way, not only do the writers get paid, so do independent bookshops:

Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

Good Night and Good Riddance by David Cavanagh

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock by John Harris

Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties by Ian McDonald

I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon by Toure

Retromania: Pop’s Addiction to its Own Past by Simon Reynolds

The Long Player Goodbye by Travis Elborough

The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery

Groundhog Day (again)

Bill Murray and friend in Groundhog Day

Like a lot of people, I have more time on my hands these days.

Some rather over-eager types have suggested this is the right time to write a novel/compose a symphony/learn Swahili/bring about world peace (delete as appropriate).

I say this is bollocks.

Ah, but Isaac Newton mapped out his theory on gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear when they were confined during the plague, they say.

That’ll be godfather of physics Isaac Newton and greatest writer to ever draw breath Shakespeare then? Both were pretty well advanced in their respective careers that we can write off these efforts – monumental though they were – as essentially just working from home. Only probably without being interrupted by three-year-olds wanting to be taken to the privy.

So what should one do when faced with additional unexpected extra time?

Why, watch telly, of course.

Having worked my way through the wonders of Tiger King (insanity on a plate) and Sunderland Til I Die (insanity on a plate but in Sunderland) on Netflix, I thought it was high time to replicate the current status of my life in cinematic form.

That’s right – Groundhog Day.

If anyone is unfamiliar with this (where have you been since 1993?) it’s about sardonic, sarcastic, jaded weatherman Phil Connors (the transcendent Bill Murray) getting trapped into living the same day – February 2 – over and over and over again.

Sound familiar?

In Phil’s case, the cause is not a terrifying global pandemic which has brought the world to its knees, but… well, here’s the thing.

There is no cause to his predicament. It’s never explained in the movie why he’s condemned to be the only one aware that he is constantly living the same day – there’s no magic creature or wish gone wrong or anything like that. He’s just there. This is one of the film’s many strengths – we’re just as much in the dark as to why he’s there as he is and, importantly, we’ve no idea how he’s going to get out.

Sound familiar?

And Phil’s response to this situation mirrors what many of us have been feeling over the past few very strange weeks.

It comes in stages:

  1. Disbelief – “what the hell?” says Phil as things start to – literally – repeat: “did you ever have deja vu?”
  2. Dread – as Phil sees the pencil he snapped the night before become whole as he wakes up at 6am, he gets the fear and spends the next few days pencil running away as reality – “I’m reliving the same day over and over” – hits home
  3. Bemusement – he visits a doctor and a psychiatrist to see what’s wrong but to no avail
  4. Nihilism – as the realisation hits, Phil ponders on what the point of his life is – “what would you do if nothing you did mattered?”. I think we’ve all been there
  5. Hedonism – “what if there were no tomorrow? We could do whatever we want” reasons Phil as he embarks on an epic orgy of gluttony, drinking, reckless driving, smoking, and robbery
  6. Contemplation – “if you had one day to live, what would you do?” Phil wonders, opening up to the possibilities in his strange situation
  7. Learning – hitting on the idea of using his additional time as a way of getting to his producer Rita (Andie McDowell, the early 1990s romcom default female lead), he starts finding all the things about her which he needs to seduce her – “sweet vermouth rocks with a twist” is her favourite drink; “I always drink to world peace” is her favourite toast, she loves French poetry so he teaches himself French. However, it is to no avail as she points out “you’ll never love anyone but yourself”.
  8. Despair – Phil decides to give up. When he’s not sitting around in his pyjamas, he’s giving world-weary pieces to camera – “it’s gonna be cold, grey and last you the rest of your life” – and when that isn’t enough he tries as many ways to end it as he can – driving the groundhog into the quarry, putting a toaster in the bath, etc

While none of us has hopefully reached stage 8 by now, I’m pretty sure we’ve done most of the others – why do you think they’ve classed off-licences as essential services? – so how does Phil (and, for the purposes of this extended metaphor, we) get out?

Firstly by admitting he’s got a problem and asking for help.

As he stuns Rita (what an odd name for a 1990s US romantic lead, by the way) by reciting the names and life histories of every person in the diner, she urges him to examine his situation from a different point of view:

“maybe it’s not a curse, it depends on how you look at it”

Realisation starts to dawn.

Maybe by concentrating on other people and not just himself, Phil can make some headway.

So he starts to not just get to know the people of the little town of Punxsutawney, but to help them out in their hour of need – fixing cars, rescuing kids falling from trees, saving a man from choking on his dinner, encouraging a couple to get married – finding that, oddly enough, this is making him not just a better person but a happier one.

And, as he wakes up in the arms of his beloved Rita, he find the curse is lifted – “do you know what today is? Today – is tomorrow!”

It’s saved from being overly corny by Murray’s fabulous performance and a wonderfully dark streak of morbid humour – “he might survive that” says cameraman Larry as Phil’s car hurtles to the bottom of a quarry. “Maybe not” adds Larry as the car bursts into flames.

But as we approach the third full week of lockdown seemingly without end, it’s a message which offers a modicum of hope.

If we act thinking about people other than ourselves – whether that’s not sunbathing and having picnics in the park or if it’s volunteering to support the NHS – then we may all get out of this OK and be different, possibly better people in the process.

How long did it take Phil Connors to break out of that one day?

Producer Harold Ramis said it was supposed to be ten years, while one blogger reckons it is precisely 33 years and 350 days.

Let’s all hope it doesn’t take us that long.

 

 

A Prince among men

Image

Prince Rogers Nelson

Prince Rogers Nelson

I hated Prince.

I loathed him to the tips of his purple high heels.

I was 12, I’d seen him accept a Brit Award accompanied by a hulking bodyguard who looked like a cross between Giant Haystacks and Gandalf and just say “thanks be to God” & then there was his Spitting Image puppet with the ludicrously long tongue and ridiculously flamboyant ruffs and cuffs.

An "ee-zeh, ee-zeh" win for Prince (and pal) at the Brits

An “ee-zeh, ee-zeh” win for Prince (and pal) at the Brits

Who did he think he was? Weirdo. Wish I didn’t keep wanting to play that Purple Rain song at the end of The Hits (rival to ‘Now That’s What I Call Music) cassette though…

Three years later I heard Sign O The Times on the radio without knowing who it was by.When I found out I was shocked. Still, anyone can have one decent song, can’t they?

Then came If I Was Your Girlfriend. Hmm. Okay, enough. I’ll try out the album then. It’s a double so hopefully there’ll be at least a few tracks on there.

It had me from the very first play. I literally could not believe one person could be responsible for all these fabulous songs. The variety of styles, the consistency of the song writing, the tunes, the rude bits – and everything, almost every note by him. “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”.

I spent a week revising for my mock GCSEs listening to that album and nothing else. The end of the week I went to my first teenage house party. It was like I’d entered a whole new exciting phase in my life and Prince was responsible.

Prince_Dirty_Mind_pic

“This? Oh, something I just threw on”

Within a few more months I’d bought every album of his I could afford and was not only blithely unconcerned he’d performed in stockings, suspenders, a thong and a raincoat, I took it as something totally normal. “Well, it’s Prince, isn’t it?”

I saw him live in 1990 on the Nude tour and almost laughed out loud at how easy he made it all look. Never before or since have I seen anyone make a guitar sound like he did and make it appear as straightforward and everyday as drinking a glass of water.

And music just seemed to flow out of him just like water from a tap – so easy and so natural. Just think of the albums from 84 to 88: Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign O The Times, Lovesexy. Outrageous.

At times, it seemed unfair on other artists, like the talent hadn’t been fairly spread around. He did his best to help out on that though – “Bangles? Fancy Manic Monday? Got no use for it to be honest? The Family? I’ve got a half decent ballad you can have if you’re interested.”

I’d be lying if I said I loved everything he did (I suspect he didn’t, which is why he kept making more and more and more records) and yes, he may have benefitted from someone who could have helped with quality control but to be honest I couldn’t care.

I feel lucky to have seen him live, lucky to own so many of his great albums, lucky to have been around at the same time as he was.

The 12-year-old me would be disgusted but I love Prince and I miss him like I cannot say.

Sometimes It Snows In April should never have had more poignancy.

RIP you crazy, sexy MF.

Good night, sweet Prince

Good night, sweet Prince

The land of the free (kick)

Tim Howard - saving football for the States

Tim Howard – saving football for the States

I can pinpoint the exact moment that the USA fell in love with football.

It wasn’t when thousands turned out in Chicago to watch on the big screen; it wasn’t when 25,000 packed into Soldier Field to watch the heart-stopping second round match against Belgium; it wasn’t even when Barack Obama phoned Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to add his congratulations and commiserations.

No.

The precise moment that proved the US finally got football was when their fans started citing the Second World War in jesting tweets about the Belgians.

References to World War Two and national conflicts therein is the default position of the true football fan. When made in the right way (light-heartedly with tongue firmly in cheek) it is one of the distinguishing features of supporting your national side. So it was absolutely priceless to see US fans doing what we here in England have been doing for decades. For me, it showed they truly ‘got’ football and were truly embracing everything this wonderful game has to offer.

It wasn’t always this way. Even after the 1994 World Cup was hosted in the US, the lingering feeling was that, enthusiastic though US fans seemed to be, they didn’t really embrace the game or appreciate its nuances.

That smug European superiority is still in evidence in some quarters (witness the tedious @usasoccerguy twitter account) but guess what chaps? This time the US is serious and I say amen to that.

I regard the US embracing football as a hugely positive thing. America has huge influence, resources and clout in all kinds of areas (admittedly some more positive than others) and having them ‘on side’ when it comes to football will make a huge difference to the game. Already, there is talk of the US hosting the 2026 World Cup, but those in the States are warning that won’t happen without changes to the way FIFA is run (see what I mean about the US understanding football?)

The States’ embracing of football is also symptomatic of the way that the US has engaged more with the rest of the world after the isolationism of the Bush years. While being able to discuss the merits of the false 9 and 4-3-3 may not stop wars, it’s undeniable that football does act as a way of bringing people together and giving them something in common to talk (or moan) about.

It also allows the US to pit itself against other nations in conflicts which don’t necessarily cause casualties (unless Suarez is playing) and indulge in the mutual mickey-taking between fans which ensues. At the moment, they can even revel in the status of the underdog in such clashes. George Orwell once referred to football as “war without bullets” and in this respect at least he was certainly right, although I think the emphasis should be on “without bullets” rather than “war”.

The other thing football does – again like war without bullets – is that it can unite a country and bring its people closer together. When work stops so you watch the match, when the flags get put out (and, in England’s case rapidly get put away again) and when you all go through the agonies and ecstasies of a game, you’re participating in a common experience which, at its best, can provide invaluable collective memories. Granted, there’s been precious few of those on these shores, but mention Italia 90 to anyone in England over the age of 30 and within 5 seconds I can guarantee Chris Waddle’s penalty miss will be mentioned with a look to the heavens. In 20 years’ time, mention World Cup 2014 to the average American and they’ll be waxing lyrical about Tim Howard’s incredible saves and how their team came back from the dead to almost equalise.

And here’s another reason why the US falling in love with football is an indisputably good thing. Sometimes you can lose a match but still end up being a winner. The gallant loser has rarely been a popular figure in US culture but the response to the team after their loss to Belgium showed that Americans were proud of their side even in defeat.

And yes, they call it ‘soccer’ but frankly who cares? The Italians call it ‘il calcio’ and no-one has a go at them for that.

Is this love going to last? It is hard to tell but the fact that TV viewing figures for the US team’s games surpassed those for the most recent World Series and some NBA matches tells a powerful story. The domestic Major League Soccer is growing in strength but, if we take the example of the English Premier League, I think the US would do best to ensure that its national team takes precendence over its domestic league. England’s performance in the 1990 World Cup helped to create the Premier League – there has been precious little reciprocal help.

The 2014 World Cup has been fantastic for so many reasons – superb games, attacking football, tension-filled games, massive passion – but perhaps its crowning achievement may have been to get the USA to fall in love with the beautiful game.

Way to go.

6 life lessons from a man of Faith

People these days seem very keen on sourcing wisdom from all manner of places to apply to modern life.

Inspired by Ross Wigham’s recent post about Sun Tzu’s Art of War on his rather excellent A Day Without OJ blog, I have shamelessly ripped off his idea come up with a version of my own.

My subject in this case is a man who stayed true to himself even in the hectic world of rock ‘n’ roll, who stayed calm despite the many challenges and incorrectly scaled models of Stonehenge which came his way.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the life lessons of Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith.

Ian Faith

Man of rock – Ian Faith

1. Speak softly, but carry a big stick

Ian is known for carrying around a cricket bat, partly as he admits because “it’s a totemistic thing” but also for more practical purposes: “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.”

2. The client comes first

In a contretemps with mercurial Spinal Tap lead singer David St Hubbins, Ian informs him: “There’s no sex and drugs for Ian, David. Do you know what I do? I find lost luggage. I locate mandolin strings in the middle of Austin.”

3. Set the parameters of your role

Following the disastrous Stonehenge episode, where a giant replica of the ancient monument ends up being in danger of being crushed by a dwarf, Ian explains how certain things are not in his remit: “Nigel gave me a drawing that said 18 inches. Now, whether or not he knows the difference between feet and inches is not my problem. I do what I’m told.”

4. Accentuate the positive

Like a good PR, Ian knows how to turn the situation around. When quizzed about whether the band playing smaller venues shows they are on the slide, Ian replies: “No, not at all. I just think their appeal is becoming more selective.” See also “I have a small piece of bad news”.

5. Warn about the worst

The flipside to 4. When record label representative Bobbi Flekman informs Ian that the cover of Smell The Glove is being scrapped for being sexist as it depicts a glove being forced into the face of a naked woman, Faith cautions: “Well, you should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove, believe me.”

6. Know when to call it a day

As things worsen, David St Hubbins’ girlfriend Jenine starts to criticise Ian’s management, arguing he needs help. The response: “You’re offering to co-manage the band? Well **** you and **** all of you because that’s it, I quit. Goodbye!”

So there you have it. Some very valuable lessons for us all to learn. Just one practical question at this point.

Are we going to do “Stonehenge” tomorrow?

Tyne View: a belated review

A writer, a photographer, a poet and a painter walk along a river…

Sounds like the start of a particularly esoteric joke, but it is in fact the premise for Tyne View, a fantastic book by Michael Chaplin which, late as ever to the party, I have only just got round to reading. Having read it, I feel the urge to recommend as many people as possible to follow suit.

As ever with the best in many fields, the book has a simple premise. In the summer of 2011, Chaplin, a writer for TV and radio for many years, together with photographer Charlie Bell, Tynedale poet Christy Ducker and artist Birtley Aris took a walk up and down the tidal length of the River Tyne from South Shields to Wylam then back down the North bank to end at Tynemouth. Along the way of this fairly leisurely paced 10-day trek they would record what they had seen, who they had met and what they had learned.

Ostensibly the project came under the auspices of the Port of Tyne, the organisation whose jurisdiction along the river matches that of the route of the walkers. Amongst many other things, Michael Chaplin is the writer-in-residence at the Port and by the evidence of Tyne View it is a match made in literary heaven.

I’ve previously been more than a little sceptical of writers or artists in residence programmes, which tend to produce either indifferent if well-meaning works of art or are fatally compromised by a heavy-handed approach by the sponsoring company or organisation who are overly keen to get their money’s worth by plastering their name all over the work produced.

Happily for all concerned, Tyne View falls into neither trap. Port of Tyne deserve huge praise for letting their man get on with things, realising that letting such a talented writer do his thing will reflect extremely well on them and their organisation and Chaplin is in positively inspired form throughout, writing about a landscape and people he clearly loves.

However, while his love of place shines through in every page, it is rare to have someone who can write so lyrically without ever lapsing into sentimentality – Chaplin’s description of listening to Jimmy Nail’s rather misty-eyed paean to the Tyne’s glory days “Big River” as “rather like eating too much chocolate” is typical of his gently robust approach.

Chaplin is also extremely adept at sneaking facts past you without you even noticing. I learned more in the 350-odd pages about the Tyne than I would’ve done in a lifetime of lectures – and thoroughly enjoyed the process too. Some of the figures involved are staggering: for instance, at it’s height, the mighty Armstrong works in Scotswood employed 78,000 people. Yes, you did read that right. That’s like one and a half St James’s Parks all working at the same place.

Another fact that comes through is what a mix Tynesiders are made up of. To the outsider, the area’s strong sense of culture and tradition may make it seem like its people have been there since time immemorial. In actual fact, its inhabitants’ ancestors came from the West Country, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Yemen and elsewhere – all attracted by the prospect of work in a thriving industrial area. The irony is palpable, yet as Tyne View makes clear on a number of occasions, reports of the River’s demise in that direction are greatly exaggerated.

The other key factor in Tyne View’s success is that although he expresses himself beautifully as a writer, Chaplin has not lost his journalist’s instinct to be nosy (in the nicest possible way) and to talk to people and get their views. Many a travel book (and this is essentially what Tyne View is) has been ruined by a writer pontificating on a scene he comes across without ever interacting with it. By contrast, Chaplin and company just get stuck in and are rewarded with some fantastic encounters as a result.

The “company” bit in this is not to be underestimated – Tyne View is a great looking book to have around as well as read. Charlie Bell’s photographs succeed not just in setting the scene and capturing the personalities of their subjects, they also make you look at familiar things in a new light – no easy trick, I can tell you. Birtley Aris’ impressionistic paintings add a timeless quality to the book while Christy Ducker’s poetic responses to the sights and sounds of the Tyne would make a very fine collection in their own right.

Add all this up and you have not only one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time but also a true work of art.

What’s more, the story does not end there. Chaplin has since written an acclaimed play inspired by the book – Tyne View was performed to much acclaim at Newcastle’s Live Theatre earlier this summer.

Once more late to the party, it had finished its run before I could get a ticket. However, moves are afoot to bring the play back next spring, fittingly to locations on both sides of the Tyne (the Customs House in South Shields and the Theatre Royal in Newcastle).

If it’s anything like the book, this time I’ll be first in the queue.

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Believe it – or not

It has become fashionable to sum up sporting passion with an occasionally slightly fatuous hashtag – #rise, #spirit, #cheese – you know the kind of thing.

In that spirit, I now present what I #believe about Newcastle United.

I #believe that our current owner simply does not give a damn about the club. That has been amply demonstrated over the past five years since he decided for whatever reason to buy NUFC.

The decision to appoint Joe Kinnear as Director of Football (still looks outlandishly stupid doesn’t it?) this summer demonstrates this more than ever. I #believe that appointment more than anything else he has done proves he has no clue, no ambition and no willingness to do anything other than try and squeeze some cash out of the club. With that and the way he has approached this summer of non-transfers, he is effectively squeezing the enthusiasm and the joy out of fans. I cannot recall seeing so many fans openly admitting they are not looking forward to this season. Another Ashley achievement.

I #believe we have good players in the squad, some of them very good players. However, I #believe we do not have enough, but I #believe a combination of a useless Director of Football and a miserly owner means we will not be signing anyone else before the window shuts.

I #believe that sadly the current manager does not know how to get the best out of those players and doesn’t know what system can do that. However, I also #believe that with JFK waiting in the wings, if Pardew goes we will end up with a much worse situation.

I #believe that this is a club with huge potential with a fantastic stadium, great facilities and the best fans, bar none. I #believe that one day someone will realise that and truly harness all that potential. Sadly, I #believe I probably won’t be around to see it any time soon.

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Time to believe? Frankly unlikely

Free Spirit

Major label band expected to be massive with next album deliver piece which garners huge critical acclaim but leaves record company angry, bewildered and frankly pretty pissed off.

Radiohead’s “Kid A”, right?

No, think again.

A good 12 years or more before Thom Yorke and company began a journey which appears, in my eyes, to have only taken them up their own backsides, a band much less heralded did something far braver – and delivered something far better.

This post was prompted by listening to Talk Talk’s 1988 album “Spirit of Eden” again for the first time in a while and being totally blown away all over again.

It’s one of those albums that’s hard to describe but so easy to fall for. Put it on late at night with a glass of your favourite tipple in hand and it feels like the world is a more complex, more beautiful yet better place (told you it was easy to fall for). Truly timeless, it’s up there with the likes of “Loveless” as an album you can never tire of and in terms of atmosphere and ethos it prefigures Sigur Ros and some of Spiritualized’s blissed-out best.

All well and good, but the question remains: how did this all happen?

Talk Talk were one of EMI’s great white hopes for the second half of the 1980s. Producing clever, catchy pop songs like It’s My Life and Life’s What You Make It, the band had made waves and chart inroads on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that EMI allotted serious amounts of cash for their next album. And this was the 1980s so serious cash for record labels was VERY serious cash.
Imagine how they felt as Spirit of Eden unfolded. Talk Talk holed themselves up in a converted church and spent months and months and months with no discernible results.

When the album finally emerged, it had little of the synth pop sound that was their trademark, instead swapping nostalgia-tinged optimism for brooding, slow-paced elegies stripped of artifice, dripping with emotion and tackling happy go lucky subjects including heroin addiction and the meaning of life. Six songs, each comfortably over six minutes in length.

Oh, and because it was such a crafted, finely honed piece of work, Talk Talk would not be touring it. Ever.

It remains one of my profoundest regrets not to have been a fly on the wall at that first album playback as the EMI execs saw their bonuses disappear in 41 beautiful minutes of sublime yet utterly uncompromising music.

Angrily trying to protect their considerable investment, EMI issued a cut-down version of I Believe In You as a single (against the band’s wishes) but it flopped. They tried taking the band to court accusing them of producing a deliberately uncommercial record, but that failed and in the end EMI resorted to cobbling together previous tracks in two “best of” compilations as the two parties unsurprisingly went their separate ways.

Talk Talk signed to Polydor and went even further out there with 1991’s “Laughing Stock”, taking Spirit of Eden’s aesthetic to greater, even free-form, lengths. It was to be their last album, vocalist Mark Hollis not resurfacing again until his 1999 solo album.

Yet it is Spirit of Eden that I just have to keep returning to. An album that came out of nowhere, albeit slowly, and one that rewards more with every listen. It took true bravery, daring and commitment to a particular artistic vision to make and, for me at least, it paid off in spades.

Now that is the true spirit of independence.

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10 reasons why we need Curtis Mayfield Day

I’ve blogged before about how Curtis Mayfield has not been given the credit and the recognition he truly deserves.

Curtis Mayfield

Giant of music – Curtis Mayfield

In that blog, I put forward the idea of making June 3 – Curtis’ birthday – Curtis Mayfield Day as a tribute to his life and work. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. For enormous influence. A brief list of artists who would not be what they are without the influence of Curtis Mayfield: Prince, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Ice T, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Primal Scream, Lenny Kravitz, Kanye West, Rage Against The Machine, The Charlatans, Sinead O’Connor.

2. For really changing the world. Most musicians start out wanting to change the world; very few do so. Yet Curtis Mayfield can truly be said to have achieved that feat. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jnr’s 1963 March on Washington, Mayfield penned the song which would go on to become the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. People Get Ready (1965) was credited by King with providing the soundtrack for the movement and was sung by marchers and campaigners as they fought for equal rights. A fascinating discussion of Mayfield’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement can be found at the C-Span video library. I urge you to watch it. Following that up, later tracks like This Is My Country and We Are A Winner were highly influential on the Black Power movement with their forthright declarations of black consciousness and pride. People Get Ready also enjoyed a second wave of influence as a building block for Bob Marley’s own anthem of peace and brotherhood, One Love/People Get Ready.

3. For telling it like it is. Mayfield was never afraid to speak his mind, even if what he said was controversial or uncomfortable. The journey which started with the call for equal rights and unity of People Get Ready and Keep On Pushing became a defiant assertion with This Is My Country (1968) and then an angry blast at complacency and ignorance on all sides with If There’s Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go (1970), a nightmarish forerunner of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. As well as addressing white-on-black racism, Mayfield was also not afraid to look at issues in his own community with the likes of We People Who Are Darker Than Blue and documenting the toll exacted by the spread of drugs in the Superfly soundtrack, itself a brilliant subversion of the movie’s laissez-faire attitude to narcotics. Mayfield never did it to shock or give more well-heeled listeners a vicarious thrill at hearing about life on the wrong side of the tracks. He did it to tell the truth. “I don’t mean to offend anybody, I just want to tell it like it is” as he explains on Curtis/Live! (1971)

4. For capturing joy on record. For all his truth-telling and soul-searching, Mayfield never lost his capacity to produce soaring, uplifting, joyous songs. Move On Up, We’re A Winner, Keep on Keepin On, No Thing On Me, Keep You In Mind – I could go on. These are beautiful, inspirational pieces which it is impossible to play without feeling better about yourself and the world about you.

5. For being a pioneering artistic entrepreneur. The history of rock ‘n’ roll and R ‘n’ B is littered with tales of appalling exploitation with artists ripped off left, right and centre. Not Curtis. He may have left high school at 14 to join what was to become The Impressions, but he was smart. Seriously smart. Angered by receiving little money for his early songs, Mayfield started his own music publishing business to ensure he got his just rewards. He was just 18. Eight years later and Mayfield ensured he had none of the problems contemporaries like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did in persuading their label bosses to let them create more complex, challenging work by starting Curtom Records with Impressions associate Eddie Thomas. This was no artist vanity project, this was a serious label. Mayfield spent a year establishing and staffing Curtom – one of the first ever record labels owned by an African-American recording artist – and signed a number of other artists to Curtom, including the Staple Singers, as well as The Impressions and then putting out his own solo work on the label. The likes of Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, P Diddy’s Bad Boy Records and Dr Dre’s Death Row and Aftermath all owe a debt to Mayfield and Curtom for blazing that trail.

6. For musical virtuosity. Curtis could play guitar. Oh boy, could he play guitar – you don’t get to be on the top 100 guitarist of all time list without being able to pull off a few licks. However, he could also play bass, piano and drums; arrange horn sections and string sections and produce not only himself but a range of other artists. Now, where did Prince get his ideas from again…?

7. For inventing the movie soundtrack album. Yes, there were soundtracks before Superfly (1972). However, Mayfield’s peerless collection of songs not only provided a vital counterblast to the movie’s ambivalent message (“it’s like a cocaine infomercial” he said, horrified at an initial viewing) it awakened interest in the soundtrack as an artform in itself rather than just incidental film music. It pushed the importance of getting a good soundtrack up the movie producers’ priority list and paved the way for the likes of Norman Whitfield’s Car Wash (1976) and the mega-million selling Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack (1977). Quentin Taratino’s canny ear for a high quality soundtrack ensures that the right songs remain crucial for any film worth its salt today.

8. For a whole bunch of awards. While the central argument of this piece is that Curtis has not received the recognition he truly deserves, he has managed to pick up a whole load of accolades. Here are a few: Top Ten Best Song of All Time for People Get Ready (Mojo magazine); two songs (People Get Ready, For Your Precious Love) in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time; Grammy Legend Award Winner (1994); Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner (1995); two time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee (for People Get Ready and for the Superfly soundtrack); 69th in Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums of All Time for Superfly soundtrack; inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Hall of Fame.

9. For classic songwriting. If the mark of a great songwriter is the number of times their work has been covered, Mayfield is right up there. Let’s just look at some of the artists who have covered just one of his songs, People Get Ready (deep breath) Al Green & Heather Headley, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Blind Boys of Alabama, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton and Cher, Dusty Springfield, Eva Cassidy, George Benson, Glen Campbell, Greg Lake, Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck and Sting, Jeff Beck and Roger Taylor, John Denver, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Maceo Parker, Neville Brothers, Paul Carrack, Petula Clark,
Phil Collins,Prince, Seal, The Doors, The Everly Brothers, The Housemartins, The Roots, The Walker Brothers, U2, Ziggy Marley. And that’s just half the list.

10. For sheer courage. On August 13, 1990 during a soundcheck for a gig in Brooklyn, New York, high winds knocked over a lighting rig, trapping Mayfield underneath and crushing his spine in three places. Whilst he survived the horrific accident, Mayfield was left paralysed from the neck down, no longer able to play his beloved guitar or any other instrument. Incredibly, he overcame these obstacles to record a final album, 1997’s New World Order. These were no ordinary recording sessions. To give gravitational power to his voice – that peerless tenor-falsetto – he was suspended by a harness during recording. Typically for such a modest guy, when the album was released, no mention of this was made.

Perhaps this last point indicates one reason why Mayfield has never got the credit he deserves – but in this and in all other nine reasons outlined here, I would venture to say it is a modesty much misplaced. Curtis Mayfield was and is a true musical giant. And it’s about time he got his contribution to music and to life truly recognised. So play your part. On June 3, play your favourite Curtis tune, bombard the radio stations urging them to play his songs and if you haven’t got one of his albums already, get out and buy one. Or two. Or three. Trust me, you will never regret it.

Keep on keepin’ on

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me for weeks. Why on earth isn’t Curtis Mayfield more celebrated?

Curtis Mayfield

Top man – Curtis Mayfield

In a world where X Factor one-hit wonders have their life stories ghost-written before they’ve had their first single out and laudatory films made about their inspiring “journeys”, what does a man who lived 20 lifetimes during the course of one career get?

According to online retailer Amazon (other, UK tax-paying retailers are available), the sum total is one book (at an eye-watering £30) and a compilation performance DVD with some interviews. Allowing for any stock issues, that is it. No big budget Hollywood biopic a la “Ray”, no bank of well-researched scholarly or fan tomes from big-name critics – in short, nowhere near enough.

In a similar vein, a tribute concert was held last year to mark what would have been Curtis’ 70th birthday. The performers included the likes of The Roots, Aloe Blacc, Mavis Staples and Sinead O’Connor. The roll call of those influenced by Mayfield stretches far, far further. For starters: Prince, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Ice T, Public Enemy and even Rage Against The Machine. In the UK, you can add Primal Scream, Amy Winehouse (long-time Mayfield collaborator Donny Hathaway was frequently cited as her favourite singer) and The Charlatans, whose lead singer Tim Burgess’ conversion to falsetto for the Wonderland album onwards was hugely influenced by Curtis.

And don’t get me started on the Obama inauguration playlist. Instead of the witless nonsense of the cast of Glee huffing their way through the utterly unremarkable Edge of Glory, how pertinent would it have been if Barack had fired up “This Is My Country” and the words “I’ve paid 300 years and more/Of slave-driving sweat and welts on my back/This is my country” had rang out? Or, in a more conciliatory tone, how could he fail to have put “Move On Up” on the playlist – a song which, it has been scientifically proved, is impossible not to feel uplifted by? OK, so the scientific part may not be factually correct, but give it a try and see for yourself.

Because Mayfield’s music matters. And his life story matters. And what’s more, combining the two would make an utterly fantastic film.

Just imagine. A young boy born in the housing projects of Chicago teaches himself guitar, piano, bass, forms his first group – The Impressions – at 16, they get their first hit when he’s just 17 and go on to major success, racking up five top 20 hits in 1964.

Yet that’s not enough for Curtis. At a time when many black artists held back from speaking out, Mayfield grasps the nettle, writing songs like the aforementioned This Is My Country, Keep on Pushin’, Choice of Colours and People Get Ready, the latter cited by Martin Luther King as one of the key anthems of the civil rights movement. Yet these are not songs that smash their way into consciousness – Mayfield clothes his defiant fist in definitely velvet gloves, ensuring their radio play so they reach a wider audience.

Going solo, he hits even greater heights – by taking some big risks.

When he’s approached to write the soundtrack to ‘blaxploitation’ film Superfly – a major opportunity – Mayfield refuses to align himself with the movie’s glamorisation of drug culture. So you get Freddie’s Dead and Pusherman rather than some easy wah-wah’d funk by numbers. You also get arguably the greatest movie soundtrack of all time.

Oh, and he also produced it.

And while the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye are battling with Motown to get boss Berry Gordy to sanction the artistic visions of Music of My Mind and What’s Going On, Mayfield circumvents this by starting his own record label, Curtom, making hits for the likes of Gladys Knight along the way.

Curtis Mayfield

Mellow in yellow – Curtis Mayfield

And on a sartorial note, has any man worn a yellow suit with such aplomb?

The saddest part of the Mayfield story occurs on 13 August 1990 when, while he is soundchecking for an outdoor concert, a lighting rig falls on Curtis, leaving him paralysed from the waist down for the rest of his life.

However, this is not the end of the story. While he was never able to play his beloved guitar again, Curtis went back into the studio in 1997 to record another album, New World Order. These are no ordinary recording sessions, however. Instead, he records the vocals lying on his back, fighting against tremendous pain with typical fortitude to do so.

Curtis Mayfield died on Boxing Day 1999. He leaves behind a tremendous legacy of fantastic songs, a genuinely inspirational life story and truly ground-breaking social activism. He is not lauded or celebrated anywhere near enough. However, there is in fact a corner of Tyneside which is forever Curtis.

Newcastle clubbing and community force World Headquarters named their own HQ Curtis Mayfield House in honour of the man. Here’s their explanation why:

Curtis made a real big difference, to millions of lives.

Curtis embodied the concept of improving people’s lives & self image through art. He also encouraged positivity, was consistently uplifting & never sold out… That’s why we chose to call our fantastic new home here, Curtis Mayfield House.

It is Curtis Mayfield’s birthday on June 3. He would have been 71 this year. I say we make June 3 Curtis Mayfield Day. Who’s with me?