Archive for category Music
The release of Sgt Pepper’s Hearts Club Band, fifty years ago today, is one of those moments in musical history. So much has been written about the album over the years since. But this personal account, from Mike Press, is for me the perfect tribute to Pepper, to what it meant and what it means, and to the power of music. Thanks, Mike, for letting me share this.
My Mum, my Dad, Sgt Pepper and me – Mike Press
Unusually, I remember exactly what I was doing 50 years ago today at around 6 pm.
It all began with She Loves You.
My Dad ordered it in advance of its release and picked it up from the Record Room in St Albans on his way home from work on the day it came out. And he did the same with every Beatles’ release up to the White Album. It was a family ritual. Part of this same ritual was that we would play the new record over and over at least six times as soon as he got home (to be honest, it was six with a single and at least twice with an album). She Loves You was a revelation, in part because after we’d played it half a dozen times he says “right, shall we play the B side now?”. THERE’S A B SIDE??? You mean they actually give you another song for free? I was stunned with both the concept and the clear generosity of the recording industry, which was perhaps one reason that I gave them so much money in return over my extended adolescence. In this case the B side was even better than the A side.
Thursday the First of June 1967 was just another school day at Fleetville Junior Mixed Infants. We were coasting down towards the end of our primary schooling with the first year of Grammar School just a few months away. Dad and I had been Beatles fans since their first hit. He bought all the records, which we played relentlessly the day they came out, and every so often he’d say “fancy a Beatles’ session?” and we’d play the whole lot in one go. These sessions often drove my Mum to distraction. Mind you, she had a far better grasp of the interpretation of the lyrics than either of us did. When she first suggested that Ticket to Ride was about the Isle of Wight ferry I remember us firmly dismissing this as the overly literal interpretation of a geographer. When John Lennon was asked some years later what the song was about he replied that it was about a friend who ran away to the Isle of Wight.
He drove home from London and stopped by the Record Room, a small shop on Chequer Street run by Mark Greene. Donovan, The Zombies and others reckoned that his was the best record shop outside London. Back then we didn’t have chain stores, we just had people who loved music who simply wanted to share it, and make an honest profit in the process. He knew his music, did Mark, and over the years a fair bit of my pocket money went over his counter. He sold records, and around the corner his brother Sol ran the town’s drapery business, both playing up their Jewishness to give their shops a real character and passion for what they sold. Mark had a humour that was so deadpan that you often weren’t sure if he was quipping or just naive. Like the time a couple of years later I went in to buy John and Yoko’s first album. He scoured the shelves, went down to the cellar, was clearly rattled that somehow it had been misfiled, and then shouted over to his assistant “Mac, I can’t seem to lay my hands on Two Virgins.”
So the old man got home from Mark’s shop with a record in a brown paper bag.
I distinctly remember taking the record out of the bag. It was the most beautiful and wonderful object I had ever held. This was no album cover. As you opened the then unique gatefold sleeve, it suggested opening a door into something unearthly and wonderful. A front cover which immediately engaged my Mum and Dad into a competition on who they could recognise, a back cover with – again uniquely – all their lyrics, and the inner gatefold with the fabs in all their acid drenched glory. Then there was the insert of cutouts, and the inner sleeve, normally white, which was presented in washes of pink.
My Dad took out the record, placed it on the platter, lowered the needle and we listened.
Well it was twenty years ago today…
I simply cannot describe the sense of wonder, of illumination that I experienced as we listened. The next week Kenneth Tynan in The Times described it as the high water mark of human civilisation. At the time people suggested that he was perhaps over egging it a bit, but in retrospect I think we can probably all agree that he’s broadly right. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa and the the Brandenburg Concertos – if not actually just a wee bit better. The sixties were a rollercoaster for all of us, but especially when you were a child. From She Loves You to A Day in The Life. Four years. Culture has never moved with such a frenetic pace or passion.
It was a record that was liberally peppered with wonderful characters, all vividly portrayed. There was Billy Shears, the Sergeant’s bandmates, Rita being tempted with tea, the girl meeting a man from the motor trade, the poor guy who didn’t notice that the lights had changed. And to this very day every time I meet somebody called Henderson I have to bite my lip not to ask how Pablo Fanque is.
I remember my dad saying many years after that first listening that Day In The Life was the best song of the century – and he was a Sinatra fan. Phil Collins said that the song helped him to learn how to drum, because of Ringo’s complex fills – so there is a downside to the album after all. But my first listening of it I remember as a surreal, cinematic experience.
We got to the end (and of course the enigmatic final groove). He didn’t need to ask. Flip over, and back to the start. And again.
That record taught a ten year old to always push the boundaries, to break rules, to take people on journeys, to turn people on, to try to be the best you can be. And with the encouragement of my folks that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.
Nothing musically has ever bettered that evening with my Mum, my Dad, Sergeant Pepper and me.
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)
I’m very conscious that I’ve watched very few of the series which are getting the Best Of accolades from the quality press. Some of them are sitting on our BT Vision box waiting to be watched, others we didn’t catch on to until they were underway and so are now waiting for the repeats.
Some of what we did watch was old stuff, the crime series that circulate on the Drama channel or ITV3, of which the best was undoubtedly Foyle’s War, for its meticulous attention to historical detail and the wonderful, understated central performance by Michael Kitchen.
We came late to the Scandi party, having missed The Killing altogether, and caught up with the Bridge only on the most recent series, but did enjoy Follow the Money (financial shenanigans), Blue Eyes (politics and right-wing terrorism), Trapped (murder, human trafficking and a heck of a lot of snow). And whilst we wait for Spiral to return, we saw its late lamented Pierre being an unmitigated shit in Spin.
We enjoyed the latest series of Scott & Bailey, Shetland and Endeavour. But the prize here goes (again) to Line of Duty. Vicky McClure and Keeley Hawes were both formidable and the tension brilliantly ramped up.
The Returned returned. Series 2 was as full of mystery and atmosphere as Series 1 and thankfully did not feel the need to offer tidy solutions. It left loose ends, but in a way that suggested the cyclical nature of events rather than anything that could be resolved by a third series.
Orphan Black’s penultimate series was as always thrilling and funny and complicated, with Tatiana Maslany triumphantly playing multiple roles, with such confidence and subtlety that I still occasionally forget that it’s all just her.
The Walking Dead ended its last season on a horrific cliffhanger, and the opener was pretty grim as well. I have doubts about the series – it is inevitably repetitive: our group finds what looks like a haven, the haven is compromised/invaded, a few of our lot are offed, a few new bods tag along, and on they go to the next apparent haven. The big shift is that as the series have progressed, the greatest danger is no longer from the walkers, since their behaviour is predictable and the survivors have developed effective tactics for defence and despatch, but from other more ruthless survivors. This is interesting territory (the walkers themselves are pretty dull, after all), but I’m not convinced by the way the writers are handling the current storyline. And they’ve shown a worrying tendency to make people act out of character, to do utterly stupid things that they know are utterly stupid, in order to move the story along. So, the jury is out, but I will be watching, whatever.
We also thrilled to The Night Manager, London Spy and Deutschland 83, and to the latest adaptations of War and Peace, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
The A Word was wonderful – I know that parents of autistic children had some quibbles, particularly about the way in which children who are ‘on the spectrum’ so often are shown as having special abilities, like Joe with his encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s pop, which is not always the case. But this was the story of one child, and his extended family. The performances were superb, the writing subtle and nuanced, and the image of Joe marching down the road, earphones on, singing ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ or ‘Mardy Bum’, will stay with me for a long time.
Raised by Wolves had a splendid new series, and then was inexplicably and inexcusably cancelled. Still hoping that Caitlin Moran’s crowdfunding project gets sufficient support to bring it back.
Normally my TV of the year would include Doctor Who, but we’ve had a hiatus this year, and will have to wait till Christmas Day for the special, and then 2017 for a new series (and a new companion). Meanwhile there was Class, on BBC3, which got off to a promising start, but as I’ve only seen 3 episodes so far, all comment and judgement is reserved until we’ve caught up.
At the theatre this year we saw two Stage on Screen performances at the Showroom – the Donmar Warehouse production of Liaisons Dangereuses, with Dominic West and Janet McTeer, and Anthony Sher’s magnificent and heartbreaking Lear.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen at the Lyceum Theatre in Pinter’s No Man’s Land were deeply unsettling as well as darkly funny.
And we saw a glorious reimagining of The Duchess of Malfi, transported to West Africa, as Iyalode of Eti.
Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre – Andrea Chenier, Giordano’s French Revolution tale of loyalty and revenge and love. And a glorious Puccini double bill – Il Tabarro, and Suor Angelica.
Of course there was Tramlines, about which I have rambled euphorically already. There was also Songhoy Blues in a Talking Gig, performing (and talking) after a showing of the remarkable documentary They will have to Kill us First, about the repression of music in Mali by Islamist extremists. Malian music is something else I have rambled euphorically about, and Songhoy Blues in particular.
Two gigs in the Crucible Studio, the first under the auspices of Sheffield Jazz – The Kofi Barnes Aggregation, a collaboration between two splendid, but very different, saxophonists. And the Unthanks were as spinetingly and goosebumpy and lump in the throaty as I could have imagined, whilst being, in person, down to earth and funny and delightful.
Of course the year began with, in the space of just a couple of days, hearing the new CD from a musician whose music has been part of my life since I was a teenager, and then learning of his death. David Bowie is far from being the only important musical figure to pass away this year – indeed, that great gig in the sky is looking pretty crowded now, with Prince, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, Pete Burns, Prince Buster, Gilli Smyth, Alan Vega, Dave Swarbrick and George Martin, to name but a few, rocking up over the course of the year. But Bowie was the one who meant the most to me.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately. Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.
Do his lyrics constitute poetry? I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art. I don’t think there is any absolute answer.
Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung. On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them. To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are. The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems. R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on. On the page though, all that is lost.
So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.
Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs. Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse. Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition. Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’, the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’… Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.
Take ‘Hollis Brown’. The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that. Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.
Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….
On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’. And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game. I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.
Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…
Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind
which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’
Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles
That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties. And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:
I aint saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun
Would treat a father so,
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, ‘No’?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages, suggests a link to King Lear:
Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.
and to the Vietnam war:
In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that
in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.
So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever. Seriously? The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really dispute that Dylan has done that? His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’ name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.
And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand? In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘. He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that. Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.
As is the case right now. From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words. An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.
So who knows? And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?
Tramlines. A concentration of musical joy into one exhausting, exhilarating weekend.
We saw 18 bands – could have fitted in a few more, perhaps, and certainly there were so many more that we wished we could have seen. But heavens above, what we did see…
The sheer variety is one thing. Even limiting ourselves to a cluster of City centre venues, we went from indie pop to instrumental jazz to hypnotic electronic trance to grunge to ska to bluesy soul.
Only two bands were known to us, and both of those only through previous Tramlines. Nordic Giants‘ visceral post-rock with accompanying films left us stunned last time and no less so this year – we stumbled out of the City Hall ballroom and took refuge in the Cathedral for Beaty Heart’s psychedelic drum pop.
And we went back for more from Allusondrugs, having been blown away by their urgent psych-grunge with accompanying manic leaping about and flailing of locks a couple of years back. Still just as potent, and the venue enabled the more fearless members of the audience to hurl themselves about with abandon too, joyfully thudding into one another, and screaming out the words. The bass player – and his bass – surfed the crowd too at one point.
Saturday afternoon means the World Stage, in the Peace Gardens. The sun shone for us all and the music was infectious and energetic. Steel City Rhythm‘s reggae fusion featured mad ska dancing and we all danced too, albeit with rather less energy and agility. And Danish band Whiskeyordnen turned up in dapper suits (jackets were soon discarded) and delivered what they variously describe as Worldtheaterjazzfunkrock, Chaoslounge, Fusion, Technojazz, instrumentally tight and delightfully engaging.
Sheffield Cathedral has always been one of our favourite Tramlines venues. It’s not just the deliciously transgressive feeling of sitting on the floor of the Cathedral drinking Moonshine (this year sitting just behind a dude in a Antichrist Bootcamp t-shirt…), it’s that, with the right band, the acoustics become part of the performance. Most bands playing there for the first time are very powerfully aware of the nature of the place, the associations it has and the atmosphere that its architecture creates. This year the music seemed especially well fitted to the venue.
Mt. Wolf, Meilyr Jones, Beaty Heart, Dan Mangan, King Capisce all played with it in various ways, allowing subtle or soaring vocals to resonate, rhythms to echo, and harmonies to multiply. Meilyr Jones at one point abandoned the stage to swim across the stone floor, still singing. And Dan Mangan too left the stage and the amps and performed for us as we sat on the floor around them. The finale was Moon Duo, whose space-rock sounds were accompanied by a light show playing hypnotically across the Cathedral stone work.
What I’ve found myself unable to do this year is to pick one absolute, no real contest, stand-out moment. We didn’t see a duff band this year, and that wasn’t achieved by playing safe. With the two exceptions noted above, we knew nothing about the bands we chose to see, other than the brief (and often enigmatic) blurb in the programme. We took a punt on them, and were rewarded with performances that were at the very least enjoyable and engaging, and at best exhilarating, engrossing, moving and intoxicating.
Throughout the weekend, the city was suffused with music. It seemed to be spilling out from every doorway, every venue packed, the vibes, or so it seemed to us, joyous, positive and inclusive. There’s lots to be anxious about just now. We know that the city is not as united as it seemed to be, as we flitted between gigs and street food emporia. We know too that the aftermath, a sea of cans and bottles and general debris, will not look so lovely and will take a heck of a lot of clearing up. But if we can be united in music for a weekend, dancing together in the sun, that gives me hope. We walk back to the road, unchained.
The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played our songs and felt the Yorkshire sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven
Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day
Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love
upon a white balloon
And fly it from
the topest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same
We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained
“The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.”
(David Bowie, Memories of a Free Festival)
Our Tramlines 2016 was:
Friday 22 July
Leadmill: Northern Adolescence, Gramercy Park; Cathedral: Mt Wolf, Meilyr Jones
Saturday 23 July
Peace Gardens: The Unscene, Steel City Rhythm, Bell Hagg Orkestar, Whiskey Ordnen; Cathedral: Dan Mangan; City Hall: Nordic Giants; Cathedral: Beaty Heart
Sunday 24 July
Crystal: Starkins, Allusondrugs; Peace Gardens: Sushi; Leadmill: Reflektor, Hot Soles; Cathedral: King Capisce, Moon Duo
PS Early Bird Weekend tickets for Tramlines 2017? Sorted.
To celebrate Glastonbury weekend, check out the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn. “When there is violence in the world, you have to make more beautiful music, and make it more intensely.” Music in exile becomes a kind of homecoming.
We don’t know what impact there will be from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on refugees and asylum seekers. We can be certain, however, that people will continue to flee war and persecution, and that those who get here, by whatever routes, will continue to face bureaucracy, prejudice, detention and destitution. So the work of charities who dedicate themselves to campaigning and fundraising and organising to support them will continue to be vital.
Assist Sheffield is one of those organisations.
ASSIST Sheffield is currently the only Sheffield charity focused on destitution among asylum seekers.
- To provide accommodation, food and support for asylum seekers in Sheffield who are in conditions of need, hardship or distress
- To advance the education of the public, and other statutory and voluntary organisations, in order to assist the inclusion of asylum seekers into the wider community
- To raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers in our city
Who we help
We help asylum seekers whose initial claims have been rejected, and who are therefore destitute.
We only give support to people who can demonstrate their situation.
Unfortunately, we cannot support everyone who needs help. We prioritise those who don’t have any other means of support from friends or family, those who do not have somewhere safe to sleep or regular access to food and those who are particularly vulnerable, for example because they are unwell, elderly or pregnant.
If you can, support this work by donating or volunteering.
Saturday 25th June
Rudio, by Lucy Haighton
A ‘meet and greet’ movement based workshop.
NB: This workshop will take place in the Adelphi Room at The Crucible Theatre (55 Norfolk Street)
The Art of Migration Showcase, featuring Bashar Farhat (poet), Mina Salama + Special Guest
Performances from a vibrant mix of talented regional artists with migration and refugee backgrounds. Commissioned by Arts on the Run.
Puppetry Worskhop, by Vertebra Theatre
Exploring immigration through puppetry!
Silk Road, by Incomplete Collaboration
Migration explored through poetry, sound and art.
Eastern Europeans for Dummies, by There There
Brutal beginners guide to Eastern Europeans.
Tanja, by Strawberry Blonde Curls
Locked up. Shipped around. Sold as sex.
Finally, I get to do my Desert Island discs. Kirsty Young appears to have lost my contact details, but no matter, because this year the 24 Hour Inspire featured a pop-up radio station, and I was asked to choose 6 tracks, a book and a luxury, and to talk about them with interviewer Chella Quint.
But how to pick just 6 tracks? It would not, realistically, have been easier if it was the BBC 8. Or even 12, or 20… Not when music has been such a huge part of life, not when it matters so much.
Listening, as I often do, to contributors to Desert Island Discs, I can see a range of different approaches to the task of selection. Some take the biographical approach – linking the tracks explicitly to key points in the life story they are describing. This is interesting, and enriching to the biography, but it may mean that the music doesn’t stand up in its own right, and has purely nostalgic value. Some just pick 8 tracks they kind of like – but you can tell in this case that music is not a passion, not an obsession but a pleasant accompaniment to other things. They have not agonised about those choices, they haven’t felt as though they have personally betrayed the artists who don’t feature in the final cut. That’s fine, but I can’t be like that.
When music really, really matters, the problem is not finding 6 or 8 or however many tracks, it’s finding a rationale for selecting for this particular purpose, on this particular date and time. That’s how I come to terms with it – on another day, in another context, I could and likely would have an entirely different set of tracks. So, what was my approach this time?
First off, I wanted to be able to say something about each track. Not just, this is brilliant, I love this, listen to this bit (although in a normal music-listening context there is a lot of that). But something about why it matters to me, how I encountered it, what it does to me. Secondly, the context. It’s the 24 Hour Inspire, so the music I pick has to be something that moves me, challenges me, disrupts me, inspires me.
Even outside this particular context, I can’t be doing with music that is merely pleasant. It has to move me – that can mean intellectual stimulation (a Bach fugue, for instance, or much of European postwar ‘classical’ music), emotional impact (much sacred music, even though I’m a humanist, and a host of songs that for some reason – lyrics, context, something in the tune, something in the vocals – make me well up or want to punch the air), physical effect (heavy grungy sounds, infectious dancey sounds, music that makes me move my feet, my hips). These are not mutually exclusive categories, of course, as my choices will demonstrate.
TRACK 1: SONGHOY BLUES – SOUBOUR
There had to be music from Mali. Because that’s where so much of the music I love was born – think Muddy Waters, think Hendrix – before it was transported across the oceans on the slave ships, asserted its power as it blended with the folk music and hymn tunes it encountered in the Americas and then made its way back home again.
Songhoy Blues grew up listening to the rich Malian tradition, and griots such as Ali Farka Toure – and to Muddy Waters and Hendrix. You can hear all of this in their music. I’ve written previously about some of the reasons why I feel such a strong emotional connection with West African music, and about the other powerful dynamic in contemporary Malian music – the resistance to the murderous jihadist bigots who invaded the north of the country, and banned football and music, inflicting brutal punishments on those who failed to comply. Songhoy Blues’ sound is joyous, a powerful riposte to the bigots, a reminder that the ‘grey zone’ as they call it is full of colour, full of melody, harmony, rhythm, full of beauty and warmth.
And this year of all years, there had to be Bowie.
TRACK 2: DAVID BOWIE – SUFFRAGETTE CITY
This one goes back to my first encounter with the Star Man, which I wrote about on the day his death was announced. It’s not necessarily my favourite ever track but it’s deeply significant as the start of a relationship that has continued throughout my teenage and adult life, and will continue, despite his death, because all of that music is still there to enjoy and explore.
Crimson were part of my teenage years too.
TRACK 3: KING CRIMSON – RED
I’ve always said that Red was my favourite album from the 70s manifestation of the band, and often said that ‘Starless’ was my favourite track on that album. But for desert island purposes, Starless would be so wrong. It could actually feature in a ‘songs that must never be played during a lonesome, marooned and possibly hopeless sojourn on a desert island’ list. Instead I picked the title track, a grungy heavy instrumental that I always loved, that I remember listening to, drinking cheap cider, sitting on the floor at my boyfriend’s house, and rocking out.
Kirsty MacColl would have to be with me on the island.
TRACK 4: KIRSTY MACCOLL – FREE WORLD
I imagine she’d have been great company in person – certainly the musicians she collaborated with talk about her with enormous affection and warmth, but also respect. She certainly deferred to no one – Johnny Marr tells a lovely story of her taking Keith Richards to task for getting something wrong on the guitar, and Keith accepting it meekly… Kirsty’s songs can be funny, poignant, sharp (sometimes all three), her voice is gorgeous, and she’s one of a number of women in rock/pop music who have managed to make their own rules, to do things their way, against the odds. This song makes me want to punch the air and change the world.
Another voice of rare beauty – actually one of the loveliest voices ever, anywhere:
TRACK 5: SAM COOKE – A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
This song is heavy with the hope and the hopelessness of the early sixties civil rights movement – people holding on to the possibility of change whilst being confronted daily with implacable hostility to change. I think of that – but I also think of the fact that an African-American currently sits in the White House, and for all the injustice and inequality that remains, for all the entrenched prejudice, things can and do change. I would never have believed, twenty years ago, for example, that gay marriage would be legal in so many parts of the world. And for all that there are still so many places where to be gay is to be outside the law and in danger of violence, it happened without that much fuss here, and in other countries, in the end. Even outside the social justice activist world, most people seemed to say, tacitly or otherwise, good on them. I have to remember and have faith that every time things seem hopeless, that a change IS gonna come.
And finally to the least well-known track of my six.
TRACK 6: FLOBOTS – WE ARE WINNING
The Flobots are hard to pin down – the highly political lyrics, spoken and sung, are backed not just with guitars and drums but with viola, cello and trumpet and the effect is intense and powerful. This track is marvellously idealistic, optimistic, hopeful. We are Winning. It doesn’t always (often) feel like it, but it’s something to hold on to, something to keep you keeping on. It speaks to my belief that what we do matters, precisely because this world is all there is. As Joss Whedon put it, in Angel: “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do. Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” And there’s a particular pertinence in these lines in the context of an event that celebrates learning, teaching and research: There is a war going on for your mind. If you are thinking, you are winning.
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
Resistance is victory.
Defeat is impossible.
Your weapons are already in hand.
Reach within you and find the means by which to gain your freedom.
Fight with tools.
Your fate, and that of everyone you know
Depends on it.
Selecting my six tracks might have been tricky, painful even. I feel I owe a personal apology to so many artists I love but have left out, and if I were to do this again (I ‘m more than willing, guys) I could easily come up with another six, and another, and another…
But these felt good. The 24 Hour Inspire is all about inspiration (obviously), and I feel inspired when I hear these songs. I feel energised, and optimistic, and I want to dance, and to punch the air and change the world. I hope at least some of the songs will affect at least some of you in similar ways. I’ll add the recording of the interview when it’s available. Meantime, enjoy!