Friday, January 30, 2009

john martyn

Ah, sad to hear that John Martyn has died. 'Solid Air' is a beautiful record.

There's a nice tribute to him over at the Guardian, where Erwin James recalled the time when Martyn played a Prison show which he saw. Like all of James' writing, it's rather beautiful.

John Martyn was on top form – he seemed to go into his own dream world as he played through his set, many of the songs the majority of us were hearing for the first time. And then something magical happened. He put down his Strat and called for an acoustic six string. The band slunk back to the shadows. "Some of you may know this song," he said. Then taking a deep breath he steadied his voice and sang, "May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold, May you never make your bed out in the cold…" His signature song, the classic made famous by Eric Clapton's Slowhand cover, but most truthful when sung by Martyn himself. Until that moment we had been a rowdy bunch, revelling in our entertainer's onstage revelry, relaxing in the ambience of the music, chilling, dreaming. But suddenly Martyn was singing directly to each and every one of us: "Well you're just like a great strong brother of mine and you know that I love you true/You never talk dirty behind my back and I know there are those that do/ Won't you please, won't you please, won't you bear in mind, love is a lesson to learn in our time/Won't you please won't please won't you bear in mind for me … "

Those lines meant so much to us, among us the down, the defeated, the betrayed and the betrayers – an anthem for relationships, a hymn to friendship and love. "And you're just like a good close sister to me and you know that I love you true/You hold no blade to stab me in the back and I know that some do…" The words could not have been written for a more needy audience. As he sang, the depth of our exposure was near tangible. Even Crusher looked like he was going to cry. When he finished we stomped, yelled, whistled and cried for more. But with lock-up upon us there was no time for encores. Martyn bade us farewell with a giant, rasping, "Keep on rockin' brothers!" And then we filed calmly out of the gym and back to our cells, feeling for a while like members of the human race once more.

The next day the gym cleaner found Martyn's big mineral water bottle. It stank of vodka – that made us howl. No wonder he was on such good form. Thank you John. Wherever you are now, I hope you have a hand to hold.
Over at his website, Graham Coxon recalls Martyn fondly, too:

i last saw john martyn at the mojo awards when i gave paul weller an award. it was a mass photo of all awardees and awarders (?) backstage somewhere in front of a big sheet of backgroundy paper and it was hilarious. i was next to paul who wouldnt stop having his beer in shot and was talkin in swear words to jerry dammers who was grinning and answering in swear words and not taking the slightest bit of notice of the photographer who was trying in vain to get all these tipsey musicians to pay attention and watch the birdie.. i was leanin on john's wheel chair which was under the control of phil collins and trying not to stare at him. every time john held out his hand a boy would appear and slap a drink in it. john was laughing his head off and swinging his head around to everyone and chattin the fraff...
i saw him in real life around 3 times and each time he seemed to be red faced and out of control with glee and mischief and making everyone else the same way. he was very funny indeed..
well the last time i saw him i thought "christ this man is amazing, how long will he be around for?...logic says he shouldnt even be here now! does he have this much energy?.....will i ever see him again?....will i ever see him play again?... no one plays the guitar like him.....he is a one off, like davy graham and jeff beck and nick drake and pete townshend...i have to shake hands with him and say"

"hi john just want to shake your hand and say how how much...i..." by which point john has taken my hand in his huge and very warm hand, shaken it heartily and has continued to fall about in his wheelchair laughing at me like a loon.....amazing....lovely...

when i talked to danny thompson, who plays upright bass on many of the songs on my new album, about john he said that when they went to pubs together in the 70s before they drank a drop they would give the barman £200 and say "ok..thats to pay for the damage we are going to cause tonight"
Click here for one of Martyn's characteristically marvellous performances.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

semi-educated losers

There's an interesting article on the Guardian website today by Emily Bell, who after digesting the latest Stephen Fry podcast, agrees with him that language pedants are a pain in the arse. This is difficult reading, in part, because I'm instinctively quite pedantic about incorrect usage. That said, I agree with both Fry and Bell for the most part, as the errors that upset me are largely straightforward - people writing 'loose' when they mean 'lose', putting their apostrophes in the wrong places; and I'm actually pretty relaxed about spellings and meanings evolving, as long as those meanings don't become muddied. That's just part of what language does.

Anyway - interesting piece. Here's Fry's two cents:

The worst of this bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs.

How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don't like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven's sake avoid Shakespeare who made a 'doing word' out of a 'thing word' every chance he got. He 'tabled' the motion and 'chaired' the meeting in which nouns were made verbs.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

squirrel in st anne's well gardens

gordon brown's worst enemy

The measure of a good politician is often that his decency shines through whatever he says and does, even if one is minded to disagree with him. Frank Field is a public intellectual who is frequently on the opposite side of the argument to me, a politician whose dogged principles mean that he is often infuriating and counterproductive, undermining fellow Labour politicians and siding with political enemies, backing free market policies or supporting immigration caps, but I've always found it hard not to respect him, even where it's been hard to listen. A religious man, a moralist, a believer that the 1950s represented a golden era, Field is nevertheless exactly the sort of man we need in politics; someone to raise unwelcome arguments, to air grudges, to fight for the underpriviliged - something he is always prepared to do.

There was a fascinating, irritating, inspiring interview with him in the Sunday Times magazine this week - it's worth a read. I particularly liked this section:

As we settle into our seats, Field tells a bizarre story, speaking volumes about the singular and eclectic nature of his career. Two nights before Mrs Thatcher lost office in 1990, Field — convinced few Tories had the guts to tell her the game was up — decided to visit Downing Street and tell her himself. “For some extraordinary reason, I used to have — and still do — a good relationship with her.”

Informed that the PM was busy, he settled in a waiting room. After a while Norman Tebbit entered: “Frank, what do you want?” “I’ve come to tell the PM she’s finished. I suppose you won’t let me see her.” Shortly afterwards, Mrs T herself appeared, “trembling”, recalls Field, “as I imagine people do when told they have inoperable cancer.”

Field found her a chair. “Frank, why have you come?” she asked in quavering tones. “I’ve come to tell you that you are finished. I’m not discussing fairness, Prime Minister, I’m discussing the options. You cannot now go on a top note, but you can go on a high note.” He told her that Michael Heseltine, who was leading the drive to unseat her, was vacuuming up MPs’ support in the race to be her successor. “Oh, Mr Heseltine is a dreadful bad man,” she said wearily. Field urged her to get her candidate in the race, and when she asked who that would be, said: “It’s obvious, Prime Minister. It’s the person you’ve promoted to all these offices — John Major.”
Elsewhere there's lots of other interesting things. Try as I might, I can't help but admire Field.

Mrs T (it’s interesting how often her name crops up) once told him her main regret was that the very rich in Britain had not become philanthropists on the scale of America’s super-rich. Field would tax them “till the pips squeaked” unless they “voluntarily” gave away chunks of their fortunes. He believes both rich and poor have been sapped by the collective nature of British society. Leave it to “them” has become a crippling national watchword.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

owl parliament

I've got tickets to a stupid number of gigs coming up over the next few months, but this one deserves a particular mention, not just for the lovely name and gorgeous graphics on its website, but for the awesome line-up. A one day, all-ages festival at the Union Chapel in Islington, Owl Parliament will feature sets from Laura Marling, Peggy Sue, Jeffrey Lewis, Herman Dune and Johnny Flynn, as well as Mechanical Bride, Planet Earth, We Aeronauts and Stars of Sunday League. That's a pretty amazing bill, don't you think.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Just watched Obama's inauguration on the news; what an incredibly moving sight. A million people today will write a short note about Obama, by text, by email, on a blog or a facebook status update, or ring a friend, a parent, to express joy at his becoming President. It makes writing about the inauguration hard, because nothing I could say could, on its own, add up to or intimate the collective happiness that so many across the world are feeling. That is what is important. That and the fact that we now have an American president whom we like, whom we - perhaps naively, but perhaps not - trust.

Friday, January 16, 2009

beautifully mannered

This article, by Andrew Roberts, is a wonderfully bonkers bit of writing, and well worth a read. Titled 'History will show that George W Bush was right', it's an incredible, fawning tribute to the outgoing President, by a historian whose reactionary ideas have been well-documented. It's no surprise to find him so keen on Bush, and the arguments he makes in the first few paragraphs are familiar, even plausible in places, although I fundamentally disagree with most of his conclusions. Whatever, the article only really flies off into the stratosphere when Roberts describes Bush as a:

"charming, interesting, beautifully mannered history buff who, were he not the most powerful man in the world, would be a fine person to have as a pal".


no more runways

Quite apart from the climate-related issues, Alex Thompson (of More4 news) made an excellent point about the foolishness of the government's decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow, in last night's Snowmail message.

He wrote:

Forget all the green stuff. It is simply this. The aviation business is contracting, not expanding, because of the current bust. Fact. If bust becomes boom more people travel, more people burn oil. Oil's a diminishing resource, so the price goes up. So fewer people travel because fewer people can afford it. So in a bust aviation contracts - and it will in a boom as the oil runs out. They're sunk either way. So who needs bigger airports?

That may be a pithy summary, but it's a very accurate description of a very straightforward - but often misunderstood - argument.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

plane down in the hudson

Just reading some reports coming through about a US Airways passenger jet coming down in the Hudson River in New York. Reports very slow, but it sounds like a small accident, rather than a disaster - or something more ominous. Early days, but it's undeniably a legacy of 9/11 that whenever you hear of anything like this, you just freeze, hold your breath, and hope not. Will we always feel that way?

Update: it was a small plane, and the passengers are reportedly stood on the aircraft's wings, waiting to be rescued, so it looks like it's nothing terrifically dramatic - in fact they're suggesting that the crash may have been caused by the plane, flying at low altitude, colliding with a flock of geese. Extraordinary.

also rans part two

Okay, so I've already done one quick round-up of the first bunch of records which fell just outside of my top ten of 2008, so here's a quick follow up concerning the second set.

The year started with the release of an album which pretty much everyone seemed to be excited about: British Sea Power's Do Your Like Rock Music. It seemed to have everything going for it; great lyrics, an interesting concept, and a big, full sound which recalled The Arcade Fire. It also contained a set of songs that everyone could imagine sounding great at the summer festivals. I'm not sure that in the end BSP fully lived up to these high expectations, but it was a pleasure watching them get some deserved attention (and an appearance on Countryfile!). DYLRM was a good – if not great - album, and it contained three superb songs: 'Canvey Island', 'No Need To Cry' and 'Open The Door', heartbreakingly lovely all.

It's maybe not surprising that the songs I've highlighted above were rather quiet compared to the album's more bombastic tracks, for that follows a trend I can’t escape in 2008. Another band that impressed me, Desolation Wilderness, made a lovely, sun-kissed record, White Light Strobing, which was drenched in echo and sounded like a cross between a quiet My Bloody Valentine and Galaxie 500. It was the perfect definition of a grower, a slow, precise album that got better and better as the winter drew in. Sometimes records don't need to blow you away to win a place in your heart; I've no doubt that the Deerhunter record was better (and it was really lovely) but I preferred this.

I liked the Shearwater record too. They made an very natural, elegant contribution with their ornithologically-minded Rook, a mature, piano-led album made notable by Jonathan Meiburg's clean, pure, almost operatic tenor voice. It was a very pastoral, wistful and beautiful art-rock record – like Radiohead covering Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. And Brighton MA made another record that might have escaped me if I hadn't for some reason come back for subsequent listens after initially being unimpressed. Their Amateur Lovers does nothing more than run with the spirit of Bob Dylan, Wilco and REM, but it does so in a quietly transfixing way, making for a sturdy, world-weary yet enigmatic album.

This year seems to be the year that the indie fraternity really fell for folk, surrendering to a series of young, serious and often gorgeous singer-songwriters, many of whom seemed capable of playing broadly traditional music, imbued with delicacy and vulnerability, without sounding old-fashioned. Contributions from Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have been much lauded (and deservedly so) but they didn’t top my listening; I was rather more taken with records by Brian Borcherdt, who is otherwise best known for being a member of Holy Fuck, and whose Coyotes was a very tender, quiet and beautiful album, The Dodos, whose Visiter combined wistful Americana with unpredictable melodies reminiscent of the wonderful XTC, and Noah And The Whale, who made a tasteful, enthusiastic anti-folk album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down; the only flaw of which was a propensity towards a transatlantic accent on the part of Charlie Fink, and a bit of youthful precocity that made them sound overly serious. Iceland's Hjaltalin and Sin Fang Bous both turned in sweet, tuneful indie-folk LPs that are well worth a listen, too.

Best of all the non-top ten folk stuff, was an album by an artist I discovered by accident: Talons. Released on the small Bark and Hiss label, Songs for Babes is made up of 12 lo-fi, bedroom-recorded paeans to girls, and is beautifully packaged into a delightfully presented record complete with sleeve notes which provide delicate graphical representations of each track's arrangements. It's a deeply personal record – although my favourite moment occurs halfway through 'Juice', when the song pauses for a brief, celebratory run through the chorus of Steely Dan's 'Deacon Blues'. Songs for Babes is the record that fell just outside my top ten, and comes highly recommended. You can pick up a copy here.

Finally, a mention for two more stunning, stately grown-up records. 2008 was the year I finally admitted that Elbow are a great band, and their Mercury Prize win was richly deserved. The Seldom Seen Kid is a terrific record, full of sadness and joy, memorable melodies and beautiful lyrics. And I've been wrong all these years. So there you go. On the other hand, I've been right all along about the Go-Betweens, so it was no surprise to find Robert Forster turning in another immaculate album, although it somehow felt more important than usual that he did so this year, following the early, tragic death of Grant McLennan. The Evangelist is in some ways a sorrowful record as a consequence, but Forster remains a peerless songwriter – dry, ironic, detached, and yet also deeply moving.

Right, This series of posts has dragged on far too long. Tomorrow I’ll post my top ten of the year, and we can move on.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

hipster reading

For reasons I shall not go into, there is a copy of Vice magazine in my flat, which I was reading before I left for work this morning. All articles in Vice magazine, as you will know if you have ever picked one up, are about ketamine parties in Parisian slums, or gangsters getting tattoos in prison, so I was unsurprised to find myself glancing at an article titled ‘How To Buy a Gun: from the Milano Mafia’. I was glancing at it just before I left the house, as I was doing up my shoelaces. I read the following sentence with some surprise.

"We still need the gun, but it’s too early. There’s a change of plan: we’re going to Beppe’s place, to prepare the cuts he’s going to sell tonight. In his basement, Beppe takes a coffee can, full of beans. But something is strange. They don’t smell like coffee. In fact, they’re pure cocaine, pressed. Beppe cleans about 10 beans with vinegar, then he crushes them and mixes them with mannite, the cutting agent, resulting in about 40 baggies ready to be sold"
Blimey, I thought. Fancy that. I picked up my bag and left the house, shaking my head as I wandered down the hill. Who’d have thought it? I mean, I know they cut drugs with other things, but… Live and learn.

Half an hour later I was sat on the train, troubled. Is it possible, I think to myself, that I misread that article? I’ll check when I get to work. So I do. Happily, it turns out that Vice magazine archive all their articles, so it took just a moment to locate the piece and correct my mistake. Mannite. They cut the drug with mannite. I’d misread it.

I’m a bit disturbed that for a good half hour I was prepared to believe that cocaine is cut with Marmite.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

new year in paris

Sam and Laura live just south of Montmartre, on Paris's most dogshit-strewn road. It doesn't sound like a glamorous address, put like that, but they have a lovely flat, just off Barbès-Rochechouart (the site where the first shot of the armed French resistance was fired), not least because Paris is such a walkable city and their location puts them right in the middle of things. We spent much of the period over New Year circling the nearby streets, admiring expensive produce in Patisserie windows, or, as often as not, walking off a hangover.

New Year, is, of course, the purpose for being there in the first place. It is shortly before midnight, and Ant and I have sealed off the lounge for our own private disco (noting that the Crass mix of 'Yeah' by LCD Soundystem is just the best dancing song EVER). The rest of the flat throbs with conversation, and at some point a decision is made that we should clamber up to the top of Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre's beautiful Catholic basilica, to watch the fireworks exploding over the city, launched in one year and landing in the next. The basilica is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Paris, so it feels like a real privilege to have the option of heading there. Interestingly, Sacré-Cœur is made of travertine stone, which constantly exudes calcite, apparently, which ensures that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution. True to form tonight it is hauntingly pale against the black sky, like an undimmed apparition seeing in the new year.

We pile out of the flat and begin climbing into Montmartre, although we don't really need to do much climbing at all as most of us board the Funicular up the hill, which tonight, like the Metro, is free, and enjoy watching Dan Chequers and Ant run up the stairs to beat us to the top. They succeed, impressively, for we find them at the top smiling and scanning their eyes excitedly round the vista, something we swiftly join them in. We're at the roof of Paris, and although it's shockingly cold, the collective good spirits of the huge crowd of people cheering and yelling seem to warm us through. It's a crowd which seems to be comprised of hundreds of small groups, so there is a constant multi-lingual chorus of voices calling out to people who have been separated in the throng.

We find a suitable vantage point, Sam happily taking on the role of group leader, pounding through the crowd with one arm raised. We glance at each other, amused. It appears he wants us to follow him. We do. Finally settled, we encounter a slight problem. It's hard to ascertain exactly when 2009 actually arrives. There is no collective countdown, no organised display and countless contrasting times on our mobile phones.

We wait a while, confused, before Sam finally shouts "Right, I've had enough of this", and ejects the cork from his bottle of champagne. Hooray, we shout, and cheer and kiss and swig from the bottle, and over the next few minutes pockets of friends scattered over the hill do exactly the same thing. Some fireworks are loosed, zinging over Montmartre at precarious angles, and at some unspecified point, to our delight, the new year begins. Kier has brought a tray of Ferrero Rocher which he begins dispensing to the crowd; I glance at Dan, who is visibly wincing every time Kier manages to miss a chance to give one to a pretty girl. He reminds me of the football fan whose foot moves involuntarily in the stands, playing every kick.

Afterwards we wind through Montmartre's narrow streets and end up in Sam and Laura's local, where it's many hours before, shattered, we return to the flat and, sobered by the walk, pick up the drinking again.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

fun with lego

What a joy it was playing with Lego again this Christmas. It's been many, many years since I last played with the toy, and I took great pleasure in putting together, in a variety of permutations, a little spaceship at Sam and Laura's flat over New Year.

It was fun enough for me, Dan and Chequers to spend about twenty minutes ogling the varied sets available in Gallerie Lafayette the next day, everything from lovely little Volkwagon Beetles, Spaceships, Fire stations and, of course, the Eiffel Towel itself. The range takes in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and doubtless countless other alternatives. We drooled at them unashamedly, blocking the view of eager Parisian infants stuck behind us. In a moment of excitement, Chequers swore that he would buy one of the expensive 3 in 1 models once he returned to Brighton. I hope he does.

And invites me round.

Monday, January 05, 2009

also rans part one

Like a lot of bloggers, I’ve been beavering away trying to put together my list of the best records of 2008, and now that I’ve done so I’m immediately struck by how safe my choices are, so I thought a post or two might be needed to discuss some of the other brilliant and sometimes unpredictable records I’ve fallen a bit in love with over the last 12 months.

A lot of stuff this year seems to have been heavily influenced by the less fashionable bits of British music in the 1980s - the stuff that until now people have left well alone. Although I don't like many of the influences, it seems to have worked out nicely, whether it's Vampire Weekend channeling Paul Simon, The Wave Pics recalling the minor-chord riffs of early Dire Straits, or the two bands that sprung out of 2007's best band, Field Music.

2008 saw two wonderful albums by both of them. ‘Sea From Shore’ by David Brewis's School of Language added distortion and collage to the perfect prog-pop of his former band, while the self-titled album by his brother'sThe Week That Was took the ultra-melodic instincts of Field Music even further, and channelled almost to saturation point the big drums and gleaming production of mid-80s MOR pop, recalling Peter Gabriel and Genesis along the way. An odd set of influences, but a remarkable couple of albums.

School of Language - Rockist (above)
The Week That Was - Scratch The Surface (below)

A trio of impressive electronic records, meanwhile, seemed to be driven by similar impulses: the Windsurf album, ‘Coastlines’, recalled Tangerine Dream or Steely Dan via a Parisian nightclub, making for a sometimes cheesy and frequently moving concoction of synthesised driving music, which seemed perfect for listening to while pootling around Brighton in the drizzle.

M83’s excellent ‘Saturdays = Youth’ also built on 80s sounds to create a warm, if retro, dance record which bears repeated listens - it's denser and more fashionable, but still an odd record, full of delightful moments.

Oddest of them all was Max Tundra’s near-bewildering ‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, which was a cacophony of intricate synth pop, electronic beeps, double-speed bursts of melody and autotuned vocals that seemed to reference everything from 1970s TV theme tunes, the art-rock of XTC, the heavily ironic Momus, the pure tones of Scritti Politti and the insanity of Squarepusher. Most detectable, once again, was the note-perfect, deeply unfashionable jazz-rock of Steely Dan – but just weird, weird, weird. I hated it on first listen, and am fast falling in love with it.

I fear I’ll never understand it.

Staying with electronic stuff, I didn't listen to a lot - but I loved Claro Intellecto’s chilly Ambient techno, which reminded me of early Autechre, and 2562’s lovely ‘Aerial’ stood out as the only dubstep album (apart from the ‘Soundboy Punishment’ comps) which didn’t disappoint me; much-lauded albums by The Bug and Benga did nothing for me in 2008. A lot more fun was Zomby’s terrific ‘Where Were U in ‘92’ which took the joyful spirit of rave and distilled everything that was good about it. It was not a serious record - and all the more serious for it.

Elsewhere, I was as impressed as ever by the latest genius offering from Roots Manuva, whose albums get better and better, as well as Kail’s brilliant, explicit, hilarious hip hop concept album, ‘True Hollywood Squares’, which is not for the easily offended but is superbly original. Black Spade’s ‘To Serve With Love’ was another good rap record, soulful, intelligent and understated.

Roots Manuva - Again and Again (above)
Black Spade - She's The One (below)

Lastly, a real winner and a late discovery in 2008 was Color Cassette’s short, lovely album of laptop blips, folk and post-Penguin Café mini-orchestration. If you’ve not heard it, it’s a charming, gentle work of art perfect for lulling one into waves of daydreams. I’m dimly aware that the fact that this was closer to a place in my top ten than Portishead’s genuinely thrilling, astounding ‘Third’ is a grave injustice, but the fact is that I listened to it more. Perhaps you should buy both.

OK, that’s part one of the also-rans. The rest to follow shortly, followed by my top ten of the year. Thanks for staying with me this far.