Sunday, October 18, 2009

Prize Marra

On a mildly surreal drive up the M6 into the Lake District on Friday night, my old friend Andy Victor and I were discussing the state of popular music.  Andy - a terrific songwriter himself - commented that the internet is increasingly allowing excellent artists to gain access to their audiences without relying on the traditional distribution and promotion channels.  The downside is that it's probably even harder for talented musicians even to make a decent living, let alone become rich and famous (though the best ones rarely did that anyway).  The upside is that it's liberating artists to make the music they want to, without having to chase the elusive phantom of 'commercial success'. 

Not entirely by coincidence, this conversation took place on our way to a performance by the Scottish musician, Michael Marra.  For those of you who haven't heard of Marra (which I'm guessing will be most of you), he's a terrific songwriter.  His subject matter is quirky and, for the most part, very Scottish (very Dundonian, actually) but his songs are witty, moving and beautifully melodic.  His voice is, I suppose, a bit of an acquired taste, but I acquired it years ago and now it's a major part of his charm.  His influences range from Bob Dylan and Randy Newman to Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser, but he's very much his own talent.  He's also, as he demonstrated on Friday night, a superb entertainer, his excellent songs linked by a delightfully dry and meandering Scottish wit. 

Marra's too idiosyncratic ever to trouble the mainstream too much, but he carries on ploughing his unique furrow - writing songs, fiction and musical plays, releasing a CD every now and then, performing.  He has an excellent website which enables him to keep in touch with his audience (and from which you can buy CDs and downloads if you want to find out more).  Friday's performance was in a village market hall in Cumbria.  We eventually arrived after negotiating not just the usual Friday motorway traffic but also, bizarrely, a police roadblock on the B road just outside the village (we speculated that they were holding back the hordes of fans).  The organiser, who didn't herself know Marra's work,  was slightly bemused that we'd driven all the way from Manchester (or, in Andy's case, Nottingham).  After she'd seen Marra perform, she understood why. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

Zevon Handed

The late Warren Zevon is, of course, the crime-fiction fan's songwriter of choice.  Not just because he was a terrific songwriter (though we was) but also because he was such a fan of the genre himself.  He was a huge fan of Ross Macdonald, co-wrote songs with the likes of Carl Hiassen and Thomas McGuane, and was friends with James Crumley, Stephen King, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman and Ridley Pearson.  I'd always had him pegged as a hard-boiled type, but at one point in his journals he even enthuses about a forthcoming Barbara Vine book.  He had ambitions to write crime fiction himself.  It never happened, but we get a flavour of what might have been in countless of his songs. 

And the favour's been returned.  Hiassen and many others have referenced Zevon's music in their books.  'Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead' and Christopher Brookmyre's debut 'Quite Ugly One Morning' borrowed their titles from Zevon songs. 

I mention all this because I've just finished reading I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (another song title that was borrowed for a film, this time by Mike Hodges, incidentally), a biography of Zevon, written by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon.  On the whole, I'm not a big fan of rock-star biographies.  My impression is that despite (or, more likely, because of) the drugs and debauchery, the life and thoughts of rock-stars tend to be pretty dull.  But Zevon, for all his brilliance as a writer and performer, was never quite a rock-star.  His work has a mercurial genius, but always occupied an awkward space somewhere between mainstream and cult.  And in his earlier years, when albums like Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy might really have pushed him to stardom, he was too busy putting the 'hell' into 'hellraiser'. 

But all of this makes a fascinating read.  Shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2003, Zevon asked his ex-wife to write a biography that would tell the whole truth about his 'dirty life and times'.  Unsure how to approach this daunting task, Crystal Zevon interviewed Zevon's friends, relatives and associates and compiled what turned out to be a quite extraordinary oral account, beautifully constructed and always gripping.  It is, in any case, a remarkable story.  Zevon's mother was a Mormon and his father was a small-time gangster.  Zevon learned to play on a piano that his father literally won in a poker game.  As a musically-gifted teenager he visited Stravinsky at his home in Hollywood.  He moved from California to New York to become a folk singer, with some initial success, and ended up as musical director for the Everly Brothers.  Well, you probably get the picture.

Zevon's first real success came with the Warren Zevon album, a mordant, witty chronicle of LA life which, unlike much from the mid-1970s, sounds just as good thirty years on.  His growing success, however, coincided with a descent into a spectacular alcoholism.  Even on the scale of celebrity excess, Zevon's was something quite startling.  It's even more remarkable, in hindsight, that he managed to pull himself back from it and spend the last 17 years of his life (at least up to his diagnosis with terminal cancer) completely sober.  It's worth adding that Zevon is one of the few popular musicians whose later recordings (Life'll Kill Ya, My Ride's Here and the post-diagnosis The Wind) are easily a match for the work of his supposedly prime years. 

Zevon comes across as a consistently paradoxical figure - nightmarish and impossible to live with, but inspiring a weird loyalty in many of his friends and associates.  It's a cliche to suggest that bad behaviour is a fair price to pay for genius.  It's also untrue - many true geniuses have managed to live perfectly stable lives.  But it might be that Zevon's particular gifts, like those of Scott Fitzgerald, were the recompense the fates allowed him in return forthe chaos of his daily existence.

One small afternote.  Each chapter of the book begins with a quote from a different Zevon song.  I was finishing reading it the other night while listening to Zevon's 2000 album, Life'll Kill Ya.  Just as I reached the opening of the chapter 'Ourselves to Know', I found myself listening to Zevon singing, in precise co-ordination, the words that were printed in front of me.  If you make a pilgrimage, Warren reminded me, 'you take that holy ride yourselves to know'.  Whether Zevon ever really got to know himself, I'm still not sure. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

Farewell to Sleccy

We all know these aren't good times for retailers, whether you're Woolworth or Murder One.  But I was sad to see yet another casualty of changing times, which also closes one more small doorway back into my youth. 

The legendary Nottingham record shop, Selectadisc, is apparently due to close at the end of the month, after more than 40 years.  This article suggests that 'if you're from Nottingham and you really love your music, there's a good chance you've got at least one story about an amazing find or favourite album you picked up at Selectadisc'.  Well, that's true enough.  I went to school in Nottingham and a large proportion of my old vinyl collection was purchased there - everything from Pete Atkin to the Clash. 

I guess, like the demise of Murder One (which, I'm delighted to say, is continuing in its on-line incarnation), this is probably a symptom more of changing times and technologies than of the recession.  And, as this article suggests, the news isn't all bad. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

But where's Trumpton?

One of the wonders of the internet is how much effort some people (who arguably have a little too much time on their hands) put into providing on-line materials that most of us might deem not strictly necessary.  I've written on here before about my fondness for the fine Birkenhead band, Half Man Half Biscuit.  Now it appears that an enterprising soul called Stuart Vallantine has produced a Google map detailing every location (and there are many) mentioned in their songs. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In the bleak midwinter

I don't suppose January is anyone's favourite month, but for me this year's has turned out to be, in some ways, even more depressing than usual.  In quick succession, we've lost a number of individuals who, at various points, played a significant part in my cultural life.  The first was Patrick McGoohan.  I was too young to see The Prisoner on its first outing, but as a teenager I was transfixed by a repeat showing.  It struck me then, and it still strikes me now, as an extraordinary piece of popular television - pretentious, perhaps, but with an imagination and daring that seem largely to have disappeared from UK television.  Even a series like Life on Mars seems rather pale by comparison. 

The second loss was that of John Updike.  As a teenager and undergraduate, I read endlessly (I still do, but somehow the impact isn't the same now).  At the time, it seemed as if the US was where the real action was - I subsequently learned that there was plenty of action going on over here as well, but usually with fewer pyrotechnics.  And the writer who made the most impact on me, along with the very different Thomas Pynchon, was Updike. Updike, more than anyone, seemed to write about a world I recognised, albeit refracted through a dazzling prism.  The Rabbit books remain, I think, the finest chronicle of ordinary, middle-class America in the 20th century.  

The deaths of McGooghan and Updike were, I suppose, not entirely unexpected.  Neither perhaps, in a different way, was that of the singer-songwriter John Martyn, but somehow it still came as a shock.  Martyn's was anything but an abstemious lifestyle, and stories of his drinking are legendary, and yet one half-expected him to go on forever.  His early albums were one of the soundtracks to my adolescence, and his music remains as glorious as ever.  One can speculate forever about whether Martyn's addictions were a necessary condition of his talent.  Martyn thought they were, but then of course he would.  The truth is probably that his talent and his excesses were simply all part of one complex personality.  The relationship between them was perhaps not a causal one, but a more restrained figure might never have explored the distinctive musical territory that characterises his finest work.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Primates and problem chimps

I was slightly startled yesterday to find, in the Daily Telegraph of all places, an article on the great Half Man Half Biscuit, perhaps the finest band ever to emerge from Birkenhead.  Even more bizarrely, the columnist Sam Leith made a (possibly slightly desperate) attempt to align them with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  I couldn't quite follow the argument, and my understanding is that Dr Willams's tastes tend more towards early Incredible String Band.

Nevertheless, it's always pleasing to stumble across a HMHB fan (another is the former English cricket coach, David 'Bumble' Lloyd).  I've been an admirer of the band from their early days, but in recent years I've gradually come to the conclusion that their leader, Nigel Blackwell, is one of our finest living songwriters.  We fans are a small but select group, with our Joy Division oven-gloves and our biro-scrawled slippers (if this is incomprehensible to you, I'd suggest a look at the HMHB website), but we do our best to spread the word.  The Biscuits, as no-one calls them, are playing a rare gig in Manchester in January and I expect to be there. 

The only crime fiction link, I'm afraid, is the title of their latest CD, shown above, which might appeal to Martin Edwards, author of the excellent Lake District Mysteries...

Monday, October 6, 2008

The definition of cult success

One of the joys of the internet is that, if you'll pardon the expression, it facilitates serendipity, bringing together unexpected collisions of people and topics.  Regular readers of this blog (if any exist) may recall that I've written on here before about my enthusiasm for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James.  It's often a surprise for people to discover that Clive James, as well as being a poet, critic, novelist, broadcaster and controversial crime fiction critic, is also a song lyricist of some distinction.  Atkin and James made half a dozen fine albums in the 1970s, before abandoning their musical endeavours while Pete went off to make his name as a radio producer and Clive went off to become Clive James.  Then, a decade ago, thanks to the efforts of one Steve Birkill is setting up a superb website devoted to their work, they began writing and performing together again. 

The serendipitous aspect of this is that a few days ago, in my posting for the Carnival of Criminal Minds, I made reference to David Hepworth's blog.  The following day, Mr Hepworth unknowingly repaid my attention by referring to a podcast he'd just recorded with the aforementioned Messrs Atkin and James.  Better still, you can download that podcast here.

I should add that Pete and Clive are currently doing the rounds promoting a newly-available CD, Live in Australia, which is a recording of the two of them performing, well, live in Australia.  If you want a taste of their earlier work, Pete Atkin has recently released an excellent re-recorded selection of the best songs from the sadly unavailable 1970s albums, Midnight Voices.  Both CDs are available from Pete's own Hillside Music, as well as from the usual sources. 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

For Pete's sake

I've mentioned the music of Pete Atkin on here before, and I've also mentioned his excellent new CD, Midnight Voices, which is re-recording of many of the best songs he wrote with Clive James (yes, yes - the crime critic) back in the 1970s.   I should therefore tell you that the CD is now officially released (though it's been available from Pete's own Hillside Music for some time now) and is getting good coverage is places as diverse as The Word and The Times

Pete's also performing, with most of the band who play on the CD, at the Stables in Wavendon on 4 April. 

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Poguetry not going through the motions

We didn't intend it, but it seems now to have become part of the Christmas ritual.  Since The Pogues started performing together again a few years back and instituted their annual Christmas tour of the UK and Ireland, the run-up to Christmas (which I understand used to be called Advent) now includes mandatory attendance at their Manchester gig. 

In previous years, the concerts have been held at the Manchester Arena, which I'd describe as the most soulless venue in the UK except that numerous other similar arenas compete eagerly for that title.  This year, they'd moved to Manchester Central, which isn't exactly intimate but does have the great virtue of being unseated.  In that environment, it's not difficult for several thousand well-oiled Irish Mancunians (and others) to create a party atmosphere. 

The Pogues attract a bizarrely mixed constituency of punks (good to see that the UK Subs are back on tour), Irish or those of Irish descent (many of whom looked as if they'd have been just as happy as a Dubliners or Furey Brothers gig), and those like me who are just of a certain age and grew up with the music.  But a manically good time was being had by all.  And it's always fascinating to be the one sober person (well, one of two - my teenage son was with me and also uninebriated) in a room full of semi-drunks. 

For some reason, The Pogues had decided to give us Mancunians an additional exclusive treat in the form of a support set from Billy Bragg (as well as one from The Holloways, a fine young band featuring what can only be described as punk fiddle).  Mr Bragg was on good, crowd-pleasing form, and I'm sure was immensely satisfied to be able to dedicate 'Power in a Union' to the Police Federation (who, for those outside the UK, are currently threatening to ballot for the right to strike, which carries a certain irony for veterans of the 1980s miners' dispute...).

And The Pogues were the best I've seen them.  It's always been slightly startling that the ramshackle bunch I first saw twenty or more years ago have somehow transformed into an extraordinarily tight outfit.  But in previous years they've sometimes tended to come across as their own tribute act, churning out the familiar hits.  Last night, they became a real living band again.  Maybe it was the venue.  Maybe it was that Shane Macgowan actually did virtually all the singing (in previous years, perhaps in deference to Shane's, um, delicate health, he's tended to do a couple then hang over to Terry Woods or Phil Chevron or Spider Stacey to do one - this year, partly due to Phil Chevron's sad absence through illness, he sang all but a couple, and very well, too).  Maybe it was that they were prepared to take some risks and move away from just the obvious stuff - three songs in a row from 'Hell's Ditch', for example.  Anyway, for me, it came to life. 

But, as always, it was a slightly haunted party.  There was the ghost of Kirsty McColl, drfting through 'Fairy Tale of New York' and Bragg's 'New England'.  And the ghost of Joe Strummer lurked mischievously throughout - Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves' playing over the PA, The Holloways' version of 'Bank Robber', Bragg's excellent new 'Old Clash Fan Fight Song', The Pogues' familiar use of 'Straight to Hell' as their intro music...  An Irish tradition, I suppose, partying while the dead breathe over your shoulders.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ukulele Panic Buying

Nothing to do with anything, but I was cheered by this story in today's Guardian newspaper.  Loudon Wainwright sang that those 'four strings of nylon/Always put a smile on/My face', and reckoned that if we could only get all world leaders playing the ukulele this would be a major step on the road to world peace (I recall that Tony Blair was subsequently photographed playing one but I'm not sure whether this is a tactic he's deploying in the Middle East).  Anyway, children taking up the ukulele must be an unalloyed good thing.  Except for the worrying news that it's led to a national ukulele shortage...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Midnight Voices

A little while ago, I mentioned on here a remarkable concert I'd been to at Bristol's St. George's Centre, featuring Pete Atkin backed by a superb jazz trio.  For those who don't know (which is most of the world), Atkin is one of the great misplaced musical talents.  He's been writing songs with Clive James - and one is always obliged to add, yes, that Clive James - for more than 30 years.  He made half a dozen albums back in the 1970s, was swept away by the emergence of punk, and went off to make a very successful career for himself as a radio producer. 

Then, about ten years ago, thanks to the efforts of uber-fan Steve Birkill (who runs Atkin's superb website), he re-emerged, performing, writing and recording.  Since then he's recorded a collection of songs that he never got around to recording the first time round, a CD of entirely new Atkin/James material, and a live CD taken from a superb two-man show that he and James performed across the UK and Australia.  But his 1970s CDs, after a brief re-issue a few years ago, are now sadly unavailable.  So Pete's now taken the very wise step of re-recording a selection of the best of that material with the excellent band who performed with him in Bristol (and a few other people).  

If you can forgive Mr James for his controversial comments on crime fiction (well, nobody's perfect), you might find it worth giving a listen to songs and performances which really are like no-one else's.  The new CD, Midnight Voices, is officially released in the new year, but it will very shortly be available to those in the know though Pete's own Hillside Music shop, as are all the other recent CDs mentioned above.  

And just to give this a vaguely crime fiction twist, possibly my favourite of Atkin/James's songs, 'The Faded Mansion on the Hill'  (which is on the new CD), although apparently written about Sydney, could easily be about Chandler's LA.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pete Atkin

Another digression down the by-ways of my interests, but never mind.  I mentioned a while ago on here an impending gig by Pete Atkin, a sadly underrated songwriter who writes songs with the more famous Clive James (controversial critic of crime fiction).  The concert, which took place last night in Bristol's splendid St George's, was noteworthy because it constituted Pete's first performance with a band for some three decades. 

And a quite stunning performance it was.  Pete was backed by piano, double-bass and drums (and his own acoustic guitar).  Some of the songs - most originally recorded in the 1970s and only sporadically available on CD - were radically reworked, others just given a delightful polish.  But the effect was to give a whole new sheen to the wit and craft of James's lyrics, to the strength of Atkin's distinctive melodies and, above all,  to Atkin's understated brilliance as an interpreter of the songs.

I'm sorry only that most of you missed it.  But the good news is that Pete's taken the opportunity to re-record a selection of his greatest misses with this band and other equally gifted musicians, so there should be a new CD in the new couple of months.  Details will no doubt appear here