… And Took the Road for Heaven in the Morning

    In a way it was surprising that Shane MacGowan survived this long, considering his noted and dramatic habits. But it’s still sad that he’s died.

    I count The Pogues as one of the bands I’ve seen live most of all. The only other one that comes close would be The Fall, and either could be the winner. Goes back to 1985, either way.

    The Pogues were vey much a band of supremely talented musicians and songwriters. But Shane was the driving force. What they did was to meld punk with Irish folk music. The former, of course had helped me through my adolescent years and would remain a lifelong love. The latter: well, I came from a Scottish Catholic background, so it was pretty familiar, between Scottish folk and Irish songs sung at Celtic matches.

    So on the instant that I first heard them — certainly on Peel, and probably ‘Sally MacLennane’, I’d say — they clicked. There was no learning curve, no adjustment to this new sound. It was just there, it belonged, as if it had always existed.

    The Pogues may have been inevitable, but Shane was a genius. And his songs, as I wrote when Phil Chevron died were steeped in death imagery.

    I’ll leave you with a couple of excellent screen grabs from Twitter (where, just to note, as I write, ‘Sodomy and the Lash’ is trending under a ‘food’ heading, which is just beyond weird.

    First, this excellent mashups of the day’s deaths of noted figures:

    A tweet saying 'i'll remember Shane MacGowan for his staid, unflashy fiscal stewardship during the late New Labour years, Henry Kissinger for his wildcat drinking and visionary balladeering, and Alastair Darling for his crimes against the people of Cambodia and Laos'

    And this typically topical ‘Fairytale’ reference (even if it does misspell his surname):

    A tweet saying 'fair play to shane macgowen for tapping out exactly one day before the fairy tale of new york discourse starts  RIP'

    So it goes.

    Suzanne on the Stage

    To Cambridge, on Thursday just past, and to the Corn Exchange, to see Suzanne Vega. My one-word review: spellbinding.

    I had never been to the Corn Exchange before (to be honest I’ve rarely been to a gig — especially an indoor gig — outside London these last thirty-six or so years). But it’s one of those places that feels slightly legendary to me, because I’d see it listed among the tour dates in Sounds or NME back in my youthhood.

    Turns out it’s a lovely, clean, modern venue, with Old Speckled Hen on tap. We were seated in the balcony (on the balcony?), which was fine.

    And as to Ms Vega: I’m not steeped in her work, so the fact that she essentially played a ‘Greatest Hits’ set was ideal for me. She even explicitly said, ‘I’m gonna play some of the well-known ones early, so people don’t worry that they won’t get them.’

    This after she’d opened with ‘Marlene on the Wall’, followed by ‘Small Blue Thing’.

    She had one accompanying musician, a guitarist called Gerry Leonard, who has worked with Bowie, among others. He was great, making heavy use of those sampling/looping pedals, making him sometimes sound like three or four players at once.

    So, like I say, the whole thing was spellbinding. Suzanne Vega on Stage

    Twenty Years Without Joe

    I missed posting this yesterday, what with one thing and another. Twenty years ago yesterday, the 22nd of December 2002, my friend Tony texted me and the other members of our then-band, Burn, to the effect:


    Strummer’s dead.

    I was at work, and immediately googled for the story. Joe Strummer, dead at 50 from an undiagnosed heart defect. We didn’t hear the reason at once, of course.

    I wrote The Death of a Hero at the time. Not much has changed, in some ways. I still play his music, both The Clash and his solo stuff. I sometimes wonder what he’d have to say about the times we live in now.

    Hard to imagine he’d have been 70 this year. Such is life, and death.

    I was listening to The Specials yesterday because of the sad death of Terry Hall, of course.

    I was mildly distracted by this text early in that Guardian report:

    The pioneering 2 Tone band rose thanks to the support of Joe Strummer,1 who invited them to support the Clash live,2 and of BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

    While not wrong, it ignores the fact that The Specials were bloody brilliant! The piece does make that clear later, to be fair, but it seems slightly the wrong way to weight it.

    I also listened to some Fun Boy Three, and they were far better than I remembered, too, both with and without Bananarama.

    1. For whom there’s a big anniversary tomorrow. ↩︎

    2. I wish I’d seen The Clash on that tour, though. ↩︎

    Next Songs, Elon Musk, and Joe Strummer

    Since Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been confirmed, there has been a lot of chatter about free speech. Musk, we are told, describes himself as a ‘free speech maximalist’, and there are fears that he’ll have Twitter reinstate the accounts of Trump and other white supremacists.

    But I’ve been thinking about Joe Strummer.

    More specifically, I’ve been wondering why his ‘The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was popping into my head so often. It wasn’t a problem: getting an earworm of a song I like doesn’t bother me. But I wondered what was triggering it.

    I can often work out why I get a song in my head. I knew, for example, why I often had The Clash’s ‘The Prisoner ' in my head through the summer. The words ‘The Prisoner ' are written on the whiteboard in our kitchen, along with the titles of the other serieses we’re watching.

    And in fact I sing ‘The Prisoner’ every time I hang out the washing, owing to its line referring to ‘hanging out the washing and clipping coupons and generally being decent.’

    It clicked today, though. You know how — if you’re an old-school album listener (or just old) like me — when you play an album, one track’s ending often triggers the expectation of the next? So that, when you hear a song in isolation, on a playlist or on the radio or something, and the wrong song plays next, it can be quite jarring?

    The song before ‘The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ on Rock Art and the X-Ray Style is ‘Techno D-Day’. Joe’s celebration of illegal raves ends with the line, ‘And this is about free speech!’

    So it turns out my head was just playing the next song whenever the phrase came up.

    Wednesday Night is Music Night

    God, I have missed this so much. Live music FTW.

    I get emails from the Joe Strummer Foundation . The most recent one told me that their artist of the month for September was someone called Gemma Rogers. I hadn’t heard of her, but was interested when I read that she’d had an album launch at Paper Dress Vintage. That’s a place just down the road from me on the Narrow Way. It used to just be a second-hand clothes shop, but now it’s more, I guess.

    Anyway, the thought that she might be a local piqued my interest, as well as the JSF recommendation, so I gave her a listen, and liked what I heard a lot.

    She was booked to play at a place called Folklore, on Hackney Road, so I thought, why not? In support was Gabi Garbutt and the Illuminations , who I saw once a few years back, because Sean Read, whom I know from round these parts, was producing them and playing in the band. Back then. Not anymore. Not tonight, at least.

    Going to a gig in a small venue? No big deal, right? Except… this is the first gig I’ve been to since I saw Glen Matlock. At the end of February 2020.

    It felt like quite a step.

    But after a bite to eat across the road, we made our way in through forbidding, castle-like doors. Inside is a smallish bar area, and a classic pub backroom. The stage made of two layers of forklift pallets topped with hardboard. It was smoky. Visually, it was like being back in the eighties. But of course, it was stage smoke-machine smoke. Exactly why it filled the air before anyone had taken to the stage escapes me.

    Unless it was to show the lasers. It looked like this:

    A pub back room with a low stage set up for a band. Laser beams criss-cross the smoky atmosphere.
    The back room of Folklore Hoxton

    Anyway, Veronica Bianqui brought her Hollywood-fuelled LA tones to Hackney Road. Though it turned out she had been on the bus with us down from Clapton.

    Veronica Bianqui on stage
    Veronica Bianqui on stage

    I probably enjoyed Gabi Garbutt’s performance most of the three. Because at times? At times they sounded a bit like late-period Clash.

    Gabi Garbutt on stage
    Gabi Garbutt on stage

    They sounded. Like. The Clash. Combat Rock-era. I think it was mainly the bass player sounding a bit like Paul Simonon. Whatever, I can pay no higher compliment. No higher compliment can be paid.

    But Gemma Rogers was also great, with the singalong of ‘Rabbit Hole’ being the highlight. Not often you get the band applauding the audience.

    Gemma Rogers on stage
    Gemma Rogers on stage

    But yes: I had missed it so much more than I realised. Just getting together in room with a hundred or so people, while others make rocking sounds up the front? How could I have forgotten?

    The Title of The Smiths' Third Album

    I’m a republican, but you’ve got to acknowledge that old Queenie had a good run. Apparently the direct descendent of Mary, Queen of Scots, which I didn’t know.

    My favourite story about her is the one about the landrover and the Saudi crown prince.

    The weirdest thing about the change of monarch for me? The King’s Speech is an Oscar-winning movie, not something to ignore on Christmas Day.

    Cold Winter Morning

    I was never a huge Meat Loaf fan, but I always liked Bat Out of Hell, and of course enjoyed him in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So I’m saddened to hear of his death.

    I’ll be playing Bat Out of Hell today.

    Pour One Out for Joe

    Or maybe that should be ‘flame one up for Joe’, considering his preferences. It’s the anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death today. Nineteen years. I still miss him.

    Get Back to Christmas

    We subscribed to Disney+ last night, so that we could watch Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. I had thought it was going to be a movie, but it turns out it’s a miniseries: three two-hour episodes. The second drops today, and the third tomorrow.

    It’s built from hours of footage that were recorded for the Let It Be documentary back in 1969. I remember watching that once and being disappointed by it. The main problem was that it was presented as a fly-on-the-wall thing, but the fly was aurally challenged.

    In other words, you couldn’t make out much of the chatter between the guys. That, almost as much as hearing them rehearsing and working on the songs, was kind of the point.

    If you were making a documentary like that today you’d probably have all the band members wearing microphone packs, as the participants in reality TV shows do, so that what they said would make it to storage. Back then, though, even if that had been practical,1 it was far from obvious that the individual Beatles would all have complied. Plus we’d want to hear from Brian,2 and Mal, and Glyn, and the other George, as well as John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

    That’s a lot of microphone packs. So of course, the original producers relied on ambient miking. It’s fine when the speaker is near one of the vocal mics, or when they’re right under a boom, but otherwise… well, as I say, Let It Be was a frustrating experience.

    However, technology has come a long, long, way in the succeeding fifty years. Every word in this is clear as a bell,3 undoubtedly with the help of modern digital audio editing. It’s slightly ironic to note that one of the first things the band say is that the place they’re working in – a warehouse in Twickenham – is acoustically bad. An odd choice of a place in which to work on writing and performing songs.

    Anyway, as of the cliffhanger ending of episode one, this series is fucking amazing! Totally brilliant!

    But only if you’re a fan. If you only take a passing interest in The Beatles, or (weirdly) none at all, you probably shouldn’t waste your time on this.

    The Disneyfication of Christmas

    Disney have made a genius move in launching this when they did. We will be far, far, from the only people who took out a subscription to watch this, with the intention of cancelling it after a month.

    A month. What’s a month after yesterday, the 25th of November? Oh yes.

    All those subscriptions that are due to renew on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? So many of them won’t be cancelled, either just to have things to watch over Christmas, or to keep the kids happy, or because people will forget with everything else going on.

    I don’t mind, I’ll probably try to catch up on some of the newer Marvel and Star Wars stuff, of which there is just far, far, too much now, in my humble opinion.

    But there’s not too much Beatles.

    1. It wouldn’t, because they would have had to be wired microphones ↩︎

    2. I don’t know what I was thinking here. Obviously Brian Epstein was dead by 1969 and isn’t in the film. My thanks to Tony for pointing this out. ↩︎

    3. The odd line is given a subtitle, but I think those are more about Scouse accents than inaudibility. ↩︎

    Songs and Singles

    You’ve probably heard a song off an album – you’ve heard the album, maybe a few times, but it’s just kind of washed over you, not really made much of an impression – you hear a song, maybe on the radio, maybe some random or curated playlist, and you go. ‘Wow! What a great song!’ And then you realise it’s from that album, the one that washed over you.

    That’s what singles were for. Still are for, since they’re still released, though it’s not quite the same.

    I just had that experience with Radiohead. Kid A never made much of an impact on me, but when I turned BBC 6 Music on tonight, a killer track was playing. Steve Lamacq back-announced it. He was playing the whole album, and the track was ‘The National Anthem.’ I knew Kid A had a track of that name, but it had never really got to me. But there, now, tonight, it was just amazing.

    A similar, if inverted, effect is when the album is so good that it kind of drowns out a brillant single. I can only think of one example of that at the moment. If you cast your mind back (assuming it goes that far) to when The Jam released ‘The Eton Rifles,’ it was an incredible song.

    But Setting Sons is such a good album that I hardly notice ‘The Eton Rifles’ on it.

    Anyway. Singles. Yes.

    Jonathan Richman and the Handwritten Interview

    Great story about interviewing Jonathan Richman, by writing a letter to him and receiving one back.

    ‘Jonathan doesn’t use the internet, email etc. and has never owned a computer or cell phone.’

    – Oscar Zambuto, An interview with American music legend Jonathan Richman – all in handwriting

    Though he does have an assistant who can say that.

    Mark E Smith (Co-)Wrote a Screenplay

    A screenplay by Mark E Smith, cowritten with Graham Duff? Sounds like it could have been great:

    … Smith was an unexplored writer of strange fiction. Duff sums up the narrative of the film: “Essentially, the Fall are trying to record an EP at a studio on Pendle Hill, while the surrounding countryside is at the mercy of a satanic biker gang and a squad of Jacobites who have slipped through a wormhole in time.”

    – John Doran, Satanic bikers, time portals and the Fall: the story of Mark E Smith’s secret screenplay

    Never made, sadly, but it’s coming out as a book: The Otherwise: The Screenplay for a Horror Film That Never Was.

    ‘New single by Belly': not what you expect to see on your phone in 2021. Thanks, MusicHarbor.

    However, as I wrote in ‘Colliding Names,’ back in October, this is a different performer with the same name. The Wikipedia article tells us that ‘our’ Belly are active again, though.

    A Year Passes Like Nothing

    It’s exactly a year since I last went out to an event.1

    I referred to ‘being out on a cold, virus-infested night’ to see Glen Matlock in Leytonstone, and it seems really weird now that I did it.

    What were we thinking? Gathering together in a small hall, where people were singing and shouting. And not a mask to be seen! Masks? who had masks? How would we have drunk our beer while wearing a mask? You probably wouldn’t have been let in if you had turned up wearing a mask.

    Although I had good social distancing at the start, when I was almost the only one there.

    Memory, eh?

    1. I actually thought it was on the last day of February 2020, which was the 29th, not the 28th, making it hard to hit the exact anniversary, but my blog and calendar both tell me I was wrong. ↩︎

    Xstabeth by David Keenan (Books 2020, 29)

    Following on from number 27, then, we have David Keenan’s latest novel. Again we’re in a kind of magic-realist setting, without any obvious magic. In St Petersburg a young woman lives with her father, who is a failed or fading musician. The daughter – who is the viewpoint character – starts a relationship with her father’s friend, and gets pregnant. She keeps all of this from her father.

    Her father, meanwhile, puts on a show at which he performs some seemingly-otherworldly music. He starts to believe that it was actually created by some sort of mystical entity called Xstabeth.

    For reasons that escape me at the moment they go to St Andrews,1 where they get involved with a professional golfer. The ‘tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event’ that I referred to in the earlier note happens from this side too, but you’d only notice it if you’d read The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.

    The novel is presented as if it were an academic work about a novel calle Xstabeth, by someone called ‘David Keenan,’ who killed himself by jumping from a tower in St Andrews. So there are cod-academic sections or extracts between the chapters.

    It’s all very meta, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I totally understood it. The strangest thing about it, in some ways, is the use of punctuation. Almost the only punctuation used is the full stop. But that doesn’t just mean he’s avoided using commas and semicolons, and constructed appropriately short sentences. It reads as if he wrote it with conventional punctuation around dialogue and so on, and then replaced every other mark with the full stop.

    For example, consider this:

    This is singular. He said. This is music that cannot be repeated. This is music that can never be toured. This is music that can never be applauded. I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted Applause. Awkward applause. Uncomprehending applause. But still. Applause. What is the sound of one audience member clapping. I asked him. He laughed. Yes. He said. Yes. Yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music. He said.

    A more conventional way to punctuate that and lay it out, might be:

    ‘This is singular,’ he said. ‘This is music that cannot be repeated; this is music that can never be toured; this is music that can never be applauded.’

    I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted applause; awkward applause; uncomprehending applause; but still: applause.

    ‘What is the sound of one audience member clapping?’ I asked him.

    He laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music,’ he said.

    There are, of course, other ways you could present it. As an experimental way of presenting text, it’s interesting enough. I found it intruded, in that I constantly noticed it; but not so much as to be annoying. Though there were places where it was slightly confusing. I paid particular attention to it because we recently discussed ways to present dialogue on my course.

    1. Still needs an apostrophe. ↩︎

    Honestly, it’s great: I love the fact that I can stream all the albums in the world for one flat monthly fee.

    I just wish that so many of them didn’t end their titles with ‘(Expanded Edition)’.

    Or at least that the ‘Original Edition’ was there too.

    The soundtrack for today starts with Earthquake Weather. How can Joe Strummer have been dead for eighteen years already?

    I know, that’s just the way time works. The music lives on.

    Colliding Names

    A few years ago I wrote about how I was notified about the wrong band called (The) Nails. In that case the names were different, though only by the subtle presence or absence of the definite article. Things have got even more confusing recently.

    I have an app on my phone called Music Harbor (sic). The idea is, you give it access to your music library, and it notifies you of forthcoming releases by artists you already have tracks by. It sometimes throws up some oddities, like people I’ve never heard of just because they’re ‘featured’ on something I have. But mostly it’s pretty good. It’s how I know that Bruce Springsteen has a new album coming out in a few days, for example.

    A few years back I heard a track called ‘Bass Down Low,’ by someone called Dev. I liked it, both musically and lyrically. I mean, it’s not profound, but ‘I like my beats fast and my bass down low’ is a sentiment I can get behind.

    So there was a new track by Dev out today. However, the guy rapping on ‘El Erb’, is not, I feel sure, Dev, the female singer & rapper of ‘Bass Down Low.’

    It’s also a scunner of a name to search for, what with it being an abbreviation for developer, the TV show, and Google completely owning the .dev top-level domain.

    Multiple people with the same name: it’s a problem. It’s why actors have Equity names, I guess.

    Still, there should be no problem with the early nineties Scottish indiepoppers Bis, right? Who’d have thought they’d be back with a new single, this long after ‘The Secret Vampire EP’?

    No-one, it turns out. This Bis is someone else (and his single ‘Streets’ is also nothing to do with The Streets).1 It’s also hard to search for, not least because it’s an abbreviation for several different organisations. I even used to work for a company called BIS.

    I don’t think the English language is running out of names, but if you’re planning on using a short one as your professional persona or brand, you probably want to check out whether or not someone has already used it in your field. Though it’s not always that easy, as I’ve noted.

    There’s even a music magazine called Clash, which has nothing to do with The Clash.

    Still, ‘Sugar sugar kandy pop/Push it down and pull it up,’ as I’m sure we can all agree.

    1. Shit, and I’ve just found out he was murdered last year. ↩︎

    It’s funny when you hear the DJ on BBC 6Music saying, ‘I borrowed some records from the John Peel Archive’; and then you realise it’s Tom Ravenscroft. ‘I got some records from my dad’s collection’ doesn’t sound quite so… distinguished.

Older Posts →