When you reach a certain stage in your life you can see from here to there. Maybe it’s a road that stretches out in front of you as a straight line, maybe it opens up to you as one of the Great Plains,but there’s no denying it, the horizon, it keeps getting bigger. You can’t fight it nor can you change it. It just is what it is and I know how it goes. There’ll be more phone calls in the middle of the night, there’ll be more goodbyes. There’ll be more tough decisions and more days when you have no idea how you ended up here at all. And when you look back the only thought you have is; What was I thinking? I was so in over my head.
But here we are, there’s nothing to it. Don’t think you’re special, don’t think it hasn’t all happened before. And if I get any notions you know what I do? I crank it up high. I fill it up to the brim. I polish my discarded dancing shoes. It goes something like this: To the left – step one, step two, and together. To the other side, do it with me now…step one, step two and …together. And then I press restart.
It was one of those typically English summer evenings when the air was thick with roses and the sky burnt a pink horizon. There might have even been a fox screeching somewhere. I was sitting in front of the television sipping a gin & tonic as the sun went down over Glastonbury. Or it could have been Reading, hardly matters, I do festivals like most other middle-aged people do. Sitting comfortably. 1975 took to the stage and I remember thinking: Now there’s a band of 4 scrawny kids from Birmingham playing just the kind of infectious rock’n’pop that will end up directly on to the pages of this blog. So here it is, 1975 with their biggest hit “Girls”. That night spent in front of a sea of festival flags coincided with me finishing “31 Songs” by Nick Hornby, a book of essays based on his favourite songs. The book is kind of like this blog, except way better. (National Book Critics Circle Award winning better in fact.) In the beginning of the book he makes it clear he does not want to write about songs as memories. No walks down memory lane about what he was doing when Rod Stewart was asking if he was sexy on the radio. (Kids, look it up, it’s a song. I was in Italy and it was the summer of ’79.) Whereas I definitely don’t filter the songs here through memories either, reading “31 Songs” made me realise I definitely filter a lot of songs through a decade. Ironic as Matt Healy & Co are called 1975 but seriously, does anyone else hear Howard Jones on “Girls?” Or do I have a box of 80s crayons and I just keep colouring in?
I cannot sleep. Kate Bush is wading a dream. Slow motion worlds falling. Transcending. Love floating. Tears hiding. Memories rising. Future shifting. Softly, softly, feet don’t touch the ground. I close my eyes and I keep falling. Falling with the music drifting. I know all about snow. Stinging my face. Out of the grayness. Coming at me as I spin. And my mother is there, waiting. The music repeats in circles. Stirring undercurrents like engines. Repeating like the heart. I almost catch it…and then lose it again. Then I feel it reverberating. Dimming, fading…gone.
Kate Bush cannot be explained. She defies words. Convention does not apply. Tomorrow she returns live on stage after 35 years. This is what happened to me when I plunged in to “Snowflake”, the opening track on 50 Words for Snow. In the middle of the night, I could not sleep. Then I listened. Your words may not be the same as mine. And there lies the beautiful mystery. She always knows where you want to go.
One thing La Roux decidedly isn’t is young, foolish and green (it’s a touching lyric in her new single Let me Down Gently). It was five years ago La Roux won a Grammy, had world-wide hits with In For The Kill and Bulletproof and was a red-headed Annie Lennox re-incarnate with an 80s new wave quiff and a sound to match. Then it all went silent. For f-i-v-e years. It’s a touch of self mocking irony the new album is called Trouble in Paradise. For La Roux it seemed to be a case of be careful what you wish for. After the success of the hit filled debut album, Elly split with her songwriting partner, (the other part of La Roux, Ben Langmaid) suffered debilitating panic attacks and lost her ability to sing. As she says in an interview with the Guardian: “I thought my career was over.” Whatever those troubles were, they seem a long-lost memory now. Elly Jackson is back! And she is just as seductively Annie, although a bit softer in the emotionally charged Let Me Down Gently. The tone is muted, but the spirit is as blazing as the red bullet of hair charging through the foggy moors in the elegant video. I heard someone describe Let me Down gently as forlorn, but I don’t hear the sadness. Only courage in the face of inevitability. He has already decided to leave.
Jamie Cullum is Britain’s biggest selling jazz artist of all time. I was one of the millions seduced by his pop pixie looks and accessible white T-Shirts and jeans demeanour and I saw him live at Royal Albert Hall. He is a demon at the piano. He tickles, slams, bangs and creates runs like I’ve never seen before. But he also holds the quiet in the palm of the audience, inhabits the sound. His new album Momentum is perhaps a bit more poppy than his previous efforts. If you listen carefully you can hear a little Coldplay here, a bit of Rhianna there (“Save Your Soul” has a definite Rhianna-esque eh-eh-eh moment) and even some Ed Sheeran troubadour confessionals at the guitar. But tagged at the end are the real bread and butter of Jamie’s craft, the heart and soul of Momentum, the live Abbey Road sessions. This is my Sunday evenings, kicking back with a glass of red in my hand. Old Cole Porter standard “Love For Sale” travels with a “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson) groove. “Pure Imagination” is a slow dance in the middle of the room. “Sad, Sad World” brings in the beautiful Laura Mvula and my hands involuntarily conduct an invisible emotion. When Jamie hits the “let it fall” notes I notice recoiling back, almost pushing away from the power. The most compelling music has a physical reaction.
If there ever was a band that was born to make the rousing anthem for the London 2012 Olympics, Muse was always going to be it. Stadiums were going to vibrate with their wall of sound, sea of hands was going to reach for the skies in unified rapture of sport, music, love and understanding, voices were going to sing in unison across the globe… and then Muse delivered a rock’s answer to Wagner. A pompous and nebulous piece all about “survival and revealing strength in front of human race”, which made it sound less like a celebration of human spirit and more like some small alien dictator rubbing his tentacles together plotting the earth’s demise. So, not so many sing-a-longs then. To be fair, “Survival” as the track was indeed called, was part of Muse’s 6th album The 2nd Law which according to Matt Bellamy was “Christian gangsta-rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”. (Say what now?) Remember when Muse was ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ sexy-sleazy-funky and most of all…fun? The fifth release from The 2nd Law, Panic Station is more like it in my book. I’m glad humour is back on the menu, and I’m not even referring to the monster-mash of a video where Bellamy struts in red feathers on the streets of Tokyo and all sorts of comic book creatures plight the horizon, but the music itself has found its hot slammin’ groove again. In a twitter Q&A to promote The 2nd Law, one owl eared fan ( not a derogatory comment about some poor Muse fan, but owls have the sharpest hearing in the animal kingdom) said Panic Station sounds a bit like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and the band answered the song was a tribute in some way as it reminded them of their youth, which of course Michael Jackson’s music was a part of. So the eclectic influences and the inter-galactic stadium shattering stomp is still there, only now with a singable chorus. And they brought the sexy back, yeah!
I’m nothing but captain obvious so I have to admit, at first I went for the hair. Look at it. It’s towering, defiant, stubbornly juddering forward, in a hurry to go somewhere and determined to get there before Daley. The first track I ever caught on Youtube began with conversations. The kind that go on in every bar on any given night, voices exaggerated by drink, points getting lost in the noise. I thought this is going to be one of those awful mobile phone jobbies where the music shrieks, the bar beats down the vocals and nothing else happens but a bad headache. What befell was a voice that should not happen in this gray little island of ours. That voice belongs to the gritty streets of the eastern seaboard, owns the universe, has written the book of stages and God forbid, should be kept out of the grubby little hands of A&R executives forever. Listen to this, whether you’re a man or woman, I dare you not to melt. After two long years since I fell in love with”Pretty Wings”, finally a bona fide radio single is ready to take over the airwaves. Jessie J is lending her pulling weight on “Remember Me” to help kick some proverbial doors open and that hair remains as adamant as ever. I sometimes wonder what they put in the water over here, for these freewheeling and quirky brilliancies of nature to happen.
If you walk down Great Queen Street today, what you’ll find is a relatively quiet street in the West End with a perfunctory Starbucks and a nondescript Italian restaurant chain. Stop in front of number 4 Great Queen Street, and there are no blue heritage plaques, (buildings of historical value can be awarded a ‘blue plaque’ by British Heritage) or exulted scribblings by zealous fans like on Abbey Road in North West London. I am surprised, for number 4 Great Queen Street is where the 80s were born. The fishnets, the neon make-up, the New Wave music, the big hair and the ruffled shirts, they all started with a group of flamboyant kids in the late 70s and early 80s gathering at The Blitz Club (the most famous ‘Blitz Kid’ being Boy George) who were also known as the New Romantics. The club had its own house band, 5 working class lads from Islington who pounded away on a small basement stage night after night, shaping the look and sound of a decade. There were always flashier bands in the 80s, some with bigger worldwide pop appeal but none more integral in my opinion than Spandau Ballet. ‘Round and Round’ did not make much of a dent in the charts in 1984, but in its sweet simplicity it was always my favorite, and sounds just as poignant to me today. And Martin Kemp’s icy blue eyes… I could still drown myself in those.
Somehow America still validates us. Since the British Invation in the mid 1960s, we’ve used “breaking America” as some sort of yardstick for greatness. “But couldn’t break America” is also an eternal coda to a career that got lost in translation, no matter how illustrious back home (I’m talking about you, Robbie). Past few years have been very good to British artists on the US charts of course. Wether it is because we’ve all homogenized (What, Taio Cruz is British?! As my buddy Christian exclaimed) or because popular culture has fragmented into million little pieces where nationality or time zones mean nothing, this week’s music news have been about Ellie Goulding entering the Billboard Top 10. “Lights” came out in the UK in 2010, charting at number 49. Funny how something catches the funny bone on the other side of the Atlantic without making many waves here. I thought I liked “Lights” before I heard Fernando Garibay’s (the man behind Lady Gaga) remix. Now I can’t get enough of the damn thing! This whole glam dance treatment is hypnotizing!
Trouble viewing the video? Click here
On a day when most of the country is experiencing Jubilee hangovers literal or metaphorical, it seems rather presumptuous and self-centered to tie in a very pedestrian music blog to the biggest celebration the nation has seen in hundreds of years. When I first heard the song “Sing” written for The Queen’s Jubilee by Gary Barlow (Take That) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (known for his musicals like Phantom of The Opera) I was left completely underwhelmed by their conventional “schmaltzy” song including an oh-so-predictable children’s choir. (What did I expect them to create for an 86-year-old monarch? Drum and bass?) In fact for a few months now, I have been so underwhelmed by most music in general I have taken an unofficial break from this blog as I have felt there is nothing left for me to say. My existential music crisis aside, this weekend when the country settled in for 4 days of celebrations and rain, I caught the documentary of the making of “Sing” on television. To create the record, Gary Barlow travelled to all corners of the Commonwealth to find the voices and instruments that would complete the patchwork of music representing The Queen and her reign of 60 years. Not professional musicians or stars, but ordinary people with extraordinary gifts. And what I was completely swept away by, was the unbridled joy that came through these people. The happiness music brings them and the elation they share with the world around them. There are no top 10 lists nor stylists or entourages, but merely drums created from rubbish as in the case of the Nairobi Slum Drummers or a voice so celestial as in the case of the aboriginal singer Gurrumul, that it lifts the song to whole new astral heights. So, whilst I get over myself and my very literal Jubilee hangover, this weekend reminded me what this blog is all about. It’s all about joy.