Category Archives: Pop Music

Making a song and dance

Van Morrison

Rock n roll legend


Around this time last year, I wrote a piece for The Guardian about words and music. In the article, I gave the cultural commentator Greil Marcus a bit of a pasting over his lumpy prose and pretentious views. Undaunted, the good professor is back with a new book ‘Listening to Van Morrsion’.   

It’s not half-bad. Granted, if you come looking for a listing of who played what, when, and how often, you’ll go away disappointed. The book gives an impressionistic account of the effect Morrison’s music has on the author and why this matters. It probably helps that I agree with Marcus on the strange sepulchral beauty of Astral Weeks – though there are people who take a very different view.   

Significantly, the most enjoyable parts of the book are the least conjectural. There’s a fantastic description of Morrison’s appearance at ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in 1976, looking “like a grimy Cinderella in a purple stage suit: a spangled bolero jacket, sausage pants with contrasting lace up the crotch, a green top with a scoop neck that produced what could only be called cleavage. God, you thought – where did he get this thing?”   

Elsewhere Marcus’s penchant for verbiage is given full throttle and the result is anesthetising: “The tyranny of tying anything an artist might do or say to his or her own life, to give it the weight of the real, and switch off the lights on the weightlessness of the imagination – a philistine fear of art that found its most spectacular form in the JT Leary hoax, which only seemed to convince people that while taking fiction for autobiography remained the highest form of understanding, it was worth making sure that the person whose autobiography one was plumbing actually existed – was summed up all too well by John Irvine in 1979.” Is there an editor in the house?   

The best quote in ‘Listening to Van Morrison’ – and the one which truly captures the experience – comes from Dr John: “To me Van Morrison got the most house, of anything. I was checkin’ the gig… and it was, like, the whole gig, it got the house. ‘Cause mostly, you know, it’s like famous people… But nuttin’ was like that. Nuttin’ got that much house. That was way above everything else. That was a hard act to follow.”   

That’s all there is.   

Five great books about music   

1 Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: pop from the beginning by Nik Cohn.   

Published in 1970, this one of the first, and still the best, books about the origins of rock n roll. Cohn chronicles the visionaries and crazies whose assault on the ghastly good taste of the 1950s and 60s changed the world.   

2 Tricksta: life and death and New Orleans rap by Nik Cohn.   

Thirty-five years later, our hero, poorer and none-the-wiser, pitches up in Louisiana and decides to launch a career in the New Orleans ‘bounce’ scene. Published before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, the book is an unsettling account of lives that have always been lived on the edge of oblivion.   

3 The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.   

The seemingly intractable course of 20th-century ‘classical music’, from Mahler to minimalism, is charted in crystal-clear prose. The associated web site is also a treat.   

4 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.   

Hijuelos’s novel explores the lives of two Cuban brothers (both musicians) in search of sex and success in 1950s New York.   

5. Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, by Whitney Balliett.   

The incomparable jazz critic for The New Yorker wrote in a style as elegant and thrilling as the sound of his heroes.


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It’s déjà-vu all over again

Ska Reggae

Do you remember the good old days?


When I was at college in the Midlands, the Specials crashed my girlfriends’ twenty-first birthday party.  I’ll always treasure the memory of Terry Hall skanking in my kitchen. 

The band’s continuing reunion tour has proved a tumultuous success and anyone who has missed them might want to catch the gig at the Royal Albert Hall in April, in aid of the teenage cancer trust.  Personally, I hope that they will re-release Ghost Town, perhaps featuring Dizzee Rascal who would no doubt inject his own, often overlooked, sly humour into the song’s mordant analysis of modern malaise. 

Ghost Town topped the charts in 1981 and captured perfectly the atmosphere of alienation, boredom and hopelessness of that period – the 80s weren’t all about silly hairstyles,  rah-rah skirts and John Hughes movies. It seems to me that the next few years are set to be every bit as grim as those times.  Next month in my neck of the woods, Brighton Hove and District Trades Union Council will organise a ‘March for Jobs’. Whichever political party assumes power following the general election, making sure public workers pay for the banking sector’s mistakes is going to be top of the agenda. The Trades Union Council wants to highlight local opposition to job losses and public sector cuts. 

I received another dose of déjà-vu when I saw a leaflet declaring ‘If Cameron Gets Up Your Nose… Picket The Tory Spring Conference’. In a marriage of 80s agit-prop style  and 21st century social media, something called The Right to Work campaign is calling for a mass demonstration outside the Hilton Metropole in Brighton next week. It strikes me as quixotic to picket the opposition rather than the government (especially when the opposition’s policies are vague, to put it kindly) but at least they recognise that social change doesn’t come through a Twitter campaign. 

Here, from a time of royal weddings and riots in the streets, are The Specials taking a tour through the wasteland that was London. 

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Learning to stand on your own two feet

John Lennon New York City

Somewhere Boy


“One thing you can’t hide,” sang John Lennon, “is when you’re crippled inside.”   

Never one to conceal his neuroses, from ‘Help!’ to primal therapy Lennon bared his psychic wounds for all to see. Ian Dury’s impediment was all-too palpable, but such was his force of character he turned it into a source of power. Of the two biopics about the old rockers currently doing the rounds, the Dury film is the more engrossing and candid.   

‘Nowhere Boy’, Sam Taylor-Wood’s mainstream directorial début isn’t a bad movie, just a dull one. I kept asking myself as I watched it, would I care about one more dysfunctional Merseyside family if I didn’t know that the boy would grow up to become a superstar; the answer is, not really. Perhaps over-familiarity with the story of Lennon’s childhood and adolescence has made me jaded. Paul McCartney, it seems to me, suffered equally traumatic experiences but rejected the remorselessly self-indulgent antics of his friend. He also wrote better songs.   

Aaron Johnson as Lennon is likeable but not particularly memorable. Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the oldest punk on the block, however, is almost embarrassingly excellent. He captures Dury’s swagger and self-assurance, his vulnerability and charisma – and also his implacable offensiveness. Dury quotes Lionel Trilling to his band: “Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal” and, as the film demonstrates, he cheerily filched from Max Miller, the Situationists and Billy Smart’s circus. But he was never less than his own man – even when that made him indifferent to the suffering of those closest to him. The young Bill Milner turns in a promise-crammed performance as Dury’s son, Baxter, whose chaotic upbringing has been fruitfully transmuted into a successful musical career.   

For those who have forgotten, or are too young to know, what all the fuss is about, here is Ian Dury and the Blockheads giving a blistering performance of ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ with the Clash’s Mick Jones guesting on guitar.   

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Adding elegance to punk’s passion

Marina Celeste

Marina Celeste at the Basement Brighton Photo Credit Peter Williams


One of the cherished beliefs of youth which is steadily eroded by maturity is that Pete Townsend was making sense when he wrote: “Hope I die before I get old.” Another is that if a songwriter can’t say it in two minutes with three chords the song is not worth listening to.    

I was just the right impressionable age to be bowled over when I heard ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at a friend’s house toward the end of 1976. It was snotty, crude and mindless and I couldn’t get enough of it. For the next three years I devoured every gob-inflected detail of punk, absorbing the pronouncements of Joe Strummer as if he was the most acute political commentator since George Orwell; following the Jam across the country during every tour (and even across the Channel to one memorable and violent gig in Paris); adopting every manner of frightful fashion item – although I stopped short of putting a safety-pin through my nose.     

But the ear drums can only take so much. These days the things I still listen to from those desperate days are a few Elvis Costello songs and the odd mellow reggae moment.     

So I was agreeably diverted one day, sitting in the lobby of a chic hotel, to realise that the bossa nova number wafting from the speakers was a cover version of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear US Apart’. The band was Nouvelle Vague and it turned out they had more up their sleeve – ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’ – all delivered in a sultry lounge bar style which reinvented and refreshed the originals.     

One member of the French collective that comprises Nouvelle Vague is Marina Celeste, a waif-like chanteuse whose voice is redolent of Gauloises, broken hearts and forbidden trysts by the Pont Neuf.  When she appeared at the Basement in Brighton recently I thought her style was a little cramped by the small venue – nevertheless she managed to imbue the sleazy Dead Kennedys anthem ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ with Gallic insouciance.    

Brightonians can catch her on Sunday at the Duke of Yorks. For those unable to make it, here she is duetting with Terry Hall on ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’.     

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