Archive for the ‘songs’ Tag

Join Hands 11.11.1918-11.11.2018

In 1979 I went to see Siouxsie & The Banshees playing at Hammersmith Odeon – it remains one of the best gigs of my life. Just before the tour half the band had gone AWOL so new musicians had to be drafted in including Budgie on drums (formerly the token man in The Slits, one of my favourite drummers – Stewart Copeland considers him one of the most interesting drummers for his “very economical and offbeat” playing, that offbeat being what I most like about him) and John McGeoch on guitar (formerly of Magazine). That tour marked the release of the LP ‘Join Hands’. The hands joining are those of four bronze WW1 Tommies on the war memorial between Horseguards Parade and St James’s Park (the Guards Memorial) – I passed it regularly when I was working at Channel 4 and it always brought me back to that music and excitement. The LP opens with the tolling bells of a 2-minute track called Poppy Day.

In the same way that Punk (especially The Clash) introduced me to reggae, through this track it introduced me to the First World War poetry of John McCrae, a typical example of the less known poets who emerged in the Great War, the one-hit wonders and offbeats. McCrae was a high-ranking Canadian army doctor serving on the Western front. In Poppy Day the resonant bells give way to the distinctive driving guitar wailing of The Banshees and then just a few short lines, delivered in a distorted Siouxsie voice:

In Flanders fields
The poppies grow
Between the crosses
Row on row
That mark our place
We are the dead…

I don’t think McCrae is credited for the lyrics which are very close to the opening of his In Flanders Fields, in fact every word is derived from the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Siouxsie & The Banshees filtered out the patriotic and the warmongering/cheerleading to open their record with the zombie or heroic or haunting dead, we don’t know which. What we do know, two years after the Silver Jubilee and the Pistols’ God Save the Queen (the Fascist regime), with rubbish piling up in the streets of strike-bound London, is that these dead were neither glorious nor patriotic in the establishment way.

The band were inspired not only by the chaos and crapitude of the late 70s Home Front but also by conflict witnessed on their suburban Kent TVs, particularly in Iran. (Plus ça change).

siouxsie and the banshees join hands vinyl record album LP cover design

Siouxsie_and_the_banshees_Join_Hands_war guards memorial

The LP cover was extracted from this shot – L to R Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitar), Siouxsie Sioux (vocals), Kenny Morris (drums) – before McKay and Morris went AWOL

Banshee stalwart, bassist Steven Severin in the wake of watching the two minutes of silence in memory of the war dead on TV on Sunday 12th November 1978 explained about Poppy Day: “We wanted to write a song that would fittingly fill that gap”. On the inner sleeve of the record (which sits still in the room just below me, alongside its vinyl sisters The Scream, Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse) beside the lyrics of the song is specified (with echoes of John Cage): “2 minutes of silence”.

So here we are on Sunday 11th November 2018, 40 years after Severin watched that broadcast, 100 years after the world watched that bloodbath, that futile wiping out of a generation, and we are still all struggling to join hands. The irony of The Banshees brooding in the studio while recording this masterpiece of an LP and splitting up in its aftermath is as nothing to the irony that we mark this centenary at a time when the world’s international institutions are being deliberately dismantled, Europe re-fracturing and the zombie voices of patriotism, nationalism and fascism wailing more discordantly than John McKay’s guitar. We are the Dead. We are turning in our graves row on row between the poppies.

siouxsie and the banshees paris 1980

Reinforcements arrive: L to R John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums), Siouxsie & Steve – Paris (1980) where 70 world leaders are arriving this morning to mark the centenary of the Armistice including Macron (accordion), Merkel (tuba), Trump (mouth organ) and Putin (triangle)

 

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Something Is Happening

highway 61 revisited photo session bob dylan bobby neuwirth LP cover

Highway 61 Revisited photo session (New York 1965)

Just listened to a music podcast called ‘Is It Rolling, Bob? (talking Dylan)’ in which two actor blokes (Kerry Shale and Lucas Hare) talk to a journo bloke (David Hepworth) about a song & dance man, Bob Dylan.

It is a lot better than ‘Stalking Time for the Moon Boys’ in which two TV blokes (David Baddiel and Tim Hincks) talk to various other blokes and each other about a song & dance man, David Bowie. But it’s still not great. Entertaining enough if you’re keen on your Dylan.

One interesting fact I picked up was that Dylan named himself not after Welsh poet D. Thomas (which I’d believed) but after Marshall Dillon in some TV cowboy show (‘Gunsmoke’). Dylan as lifelong cowboy makes a lot of sense.

A question they asked David was how did you first come across Dylan. Got me thinking.

As a six year-old, just allowed to go by myself across one road to the newsagent (Eric & Mavis’s or perhaps it was the previous incarnation), I bought myself a fold-out poster magazine. I got it home expecting it to fold out to reveal a hippy rabbit (Dylan of ‘Magic Roundabout’ fame). Instead it was an unprepossessing bearded bloke with a guitar. A disappointing first encounter.

When I first fell under Dylan’s spell was having one of those Moments listening to ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. I’d heard bits & pieces of Dylan during my childhood, listened to him a bit at uni through friends who were advocates (but I still had my Punk head on). But it was listening to this track on ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ when the light went on. It was the Surrealism of the lyrics that really grabbed me – I’m not really a lyrics man but the words made their impact, above all the non-rational, dream-like nature of them. I was in.

This moment lead directly to my ending up with a son called Dylan (who looks at times a little like the Big Man of this vintage).

IMG_2051

highway 61 revisited bob dylan bobby neuwirth LP cover

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
Sometimes it’s really good not to know what it is – just let it sink in and brew up.

List of Lists

I’ve been thinking about updating some of the lists that punctuate this blog (usually around Christmas when I’ve got a bit of time on my hands and am in a playful as well as reflective mood) so I’ve gathered a few here by way of preparation…

Best Songs

Best LPs

Best Song Lines

Magical Musical Moments

Inheritance Tracks

Best British Films

Blasts from the Pasts (musicians)

Bowie

Doing the Box 1 (singles)

4 Tracks really worth a listen

I’m thinking of doing next a Best Movies list and revisting Best Songs.

Songlines #7: Soul to Squeeze

Songlines is a project I’ve been doing for some years (in fact, decades!), recording the answer to the question

“What song or piece of music means the most to you and why?”

from all kinds of people. I am now expanding it to video as well as audio – way back when it started on one of these:

old fashioned dictaphone

No. 7 is a very moving contribution from Morgan.

The Song: Soul to Squeeze

The Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Reason:

The Song Performed:

And here are the previous Songlines on Simple Pleasures part 4 (these are just a small selection of the Songlines to date)

1 Hammertime

2 Dayenu

3 She Moved through the Fair

4 Rain Street

5 The Blues

6 Born to Run

 

4 for 66 (Happy Birthday David Bowie)

 

One Bowie

One Bowie

Two Bowie

Two Bowie

 

To mark that special Londoner David Bowie’s 66th birthday today and the release of his new single Where Are We Now? here are four of his best ever songs:

  1. Unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed (Space Oddity) – the height of his hippy phase and I’m a sucker for the blues harp
  2. Life on Mars? (Hunky Dory) – from intimate to epic in the space 3’52”
  3. Station to Station (Station to Station) – a journey and a half of electronic, stereoscopic, systematic, hydromatic, goodbuzzin’, cooltalkin’, highwalkin’, fastlivin’, evergivin’ self-dramatisation
  4. Aladdin Sane (Aladdin Sane) – more madness, this time with crazy plinking, the perfect soundtrack to teenage chaos
Three Bowie

Three Bowie

And now a line or two from each:

  1. It must strain you to look down so far from your father’s house
    And I know what a louse like me in his house could do for you
  2. Sailors fighting in the dance hall
    Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
    It’s the freakiest show
  3. The return of the Thin White Duke
    Throwing darts
    In lovers’ eyes
  4. Clutches of sad remains
    Waits for Aladdin Sane

My last Bowie adventure is here at Heddonism

Four. Four Bowies make a bunch - and so do many more.

Four. Four Bowies make a bunch – and so do many more.

Bitter Crop

The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.

Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.

With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”

Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):

 

Update 19.xi.11

Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one

Shelter from the Storm

get bornWalter Pater, the art and literary critic much admired by Oscar Wilde, wrote that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I read that as other arts striving for the direct impact music has on the heart and spirit without recourse to any physical medium and being able to by-pass the intellect. Much though I love music I’ve never tended to listen to the lyrics of songs in a coherent and systematic way. Phrases and lines emerge over time in their own way and hook themselves into the brain.

I was jogging along yesterday morning listening to a podcast of the evergreen Desert Island Discs when a Bob Dylan song came on and a line really resonated for me as a perfect expression of what women mean to men. When I got home and sat down in front of my machine for the first time that day I whacked the line into Quotables for posterity – and to look at it on its own for a moment.

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Not particularly poetic. Quite ordinary really. But in its context perfect and to the heart of the matter, to the matter of the heart.

So I felt inspired to pick out 10 great lines from songs that are worthy of the condition of music, that have the resonance and penetrative power of the supreme art. I tried being strict about one stand-out line per song only (only cracked once with a couplet).

1. Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm (1974)

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

2. John Lennon, Oh Yoko! (1971)

In the middle of a cloud I call your name

A powerful yet simple expression of romantic love.

3. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More (1977)

If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me

Song lyrics straining to capture Love (is there a theme emerging?)

4. Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (1966)

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky

This could be love or drugs that’s fogging Jimi’s brain – either way it’s a great line.

5. The Clash, Garageland (1977)

Back in the garage with my bullshit detector

A spirited (spirit of Punk) response to an early bad review (of a gig with The Sex Pistols at Islington’s Screen on the Green): “The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”. [Charles Shaar Murray – what did he know?]

6. Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)

Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Reckon there’s a load of philosophy buried in this couplet.

7. David Bowie, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969)

As I am unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed

Loved this phrase for a long time, the “somewhat” is just what’s needed to throw it off kilter.

8. The Doors (Jim Morrison), The Wasp (1968)

Out here we is stoned – immaculate

One of those lines that throws a word into a whole new light.

9. John Coltrane, Acknowledgement (1964)

A Love Supreme

Sometimes you don’t even need a whole line or clause – this is a transcendent chant. They’re the only words in this track and all the more striking for that.

10. Well, why don’t you add this one? What song words do it for you?…

[I’m treating this as a work in progress – going to be putting some more bath time into it]

UPDATE 11.ix.11

After some more bath-time reflection here are some other stand-out lines, plus some picked out by commenters below that strike a chord with me too:

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Oh My God (2001)

I slept with Marilyn she sung me Happy Birthday

Magazine, Song from Under the Floorboards (1980)

I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin

The Passenger, Iggy Pop (1977)

We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides

Marvyn Gaye/Dick Holler, Abraham Martin and John (1970)

Has anyone here seen my old friend Martin?

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (2011)

England’s dancing days are done

You seem confused by your own ideals

You will not be able to stay home brother

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

It took it 3.5 billion years to decide that you live just where you live [it = the universe]

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