America to Angel

Hey Chel you know it’s kinda funny, Texas always seems so big
But you know you’re in the largest state in the Union
When you’re anchored down in Anchorage
Anchorage – Michelle Shocked

MICHELLE Shocked’s retelling of a letter received from a friend at the heart of ‘the largest state of the union’ is one of those lovely musical rediscoveries which pops up from time to time.

It earned a place in my collection and regular rotation back in the days of tapes and Walkmen, only to vanish as, briefly, vinyl and then the shimmering new invention of CDs took over.

AnchorageBut Anchorage resurfaced to provide the most obvious of titles for a post on my London to New York blog four years ago and wormed its way onto a number of playlists which have helped it into the top 20 of the most played tracks in my iTunes collection (currently ensconced at number 17 which, must admit, came as a bit of a surprise).

And boy did she – or, to be more accurate, her letter-writing friend – get it right. Alaska is big. Over the course of a little more than two weeks, we clocked up mile after mile (more than a thousand at one point without hitting a single traffic light) into the heart of the 50th state and a brief detour over the border into Canada and it is huge. And stunningly beautiful.

Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska
Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska

Locals will proudly tell you that you can cut Alaska in half and it would still be the two biggest states (“Pissing off Texans for 50 years” was a popular slogan as they celebrated half a century as part of the union) and such were the natural wonders on display around every corner, you can (almost) forgive them for giving the world Sarah Palin.

Anchorage itself is functional. Surrounded by some magnificent countryside (but that’s pretty much a given up in that part of the world), the state’s largest city is designed to withstand the harsh winters and supply those working all around it.

It also contains one of the most remarkable bars, Chilkoot Charlies. Not too much to look at from outside or even when you first go in, it unravels itself as you head through the various different parts as the night wears on – as it seems to do endlessly under the midnight sun.

There was lots of people, there was a band playing for hours on end, there was a bloke selling pizzas in the middle of the bar at 2am and there was a bloke from Philadelphia in the beer garden who was distinctly hostile until we got into a prolonged, passionate debate about baseball. Beyond that, it was all a bit hazy.

But it left an impression, as did much of Alaska and large chunks of America as a whole – which is where this section of the iPod journey came in.

Three very different songs simply titled America kicked things off – by Howler, Laura Veirs and Simon and Garfunkel’s finest moment, which is saying something, and provider of another blog post title on that trip from sea to shining sea.

To say nothing of America Snoring by Grant Lee Buffalo (lead singer Grant-Lee Phillips used to pop up as the town troubadour in The Gilmore Girls, fact fans), American English by Idlewild, American Idiot by Green Day, American Music by The Blasters and two versions of American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem (although apparently with the same vocal delivery on the acoustic version as on the fully plugged original).

That’s all somehow apt as travelling in America and music go hand in hand. There’s something about the wide open spaces which has infused so much of the sound produced there and a string of road trips to – to date – 39 of the 50 States have always involved plenty of live music.

And any road trip has to have a soundtrack to help eat up mile after mile.

Americana has become the hip phrase for some of that music – “Country music for people who like The Smiths” according to Billy Bragg – and it is a style that is increasing across my collection, none more so than that produced by Ryan Adams, who popped up again with Amy, one of the centrepieces from his classic break-up debut album Heartbreaker.

Throw in …And Carrot Rope by Pavement and this chunk of songs was dominated by our friends over the pond.

To go with all this Americanisation, this side of the Atlantic responded in this group of tracks with three versions of the quintessentially English Anarchy in the UK from the Sex Pistols.

And it rounded off in Bristol with Massive Attack’s Angel, but only after two tracks from Boston, Massachusetts with the same title from Belly and the Drop Nineteens, gazing through their fringes at their shoes in a run through of the early Madonna track.

Along the way, we have gone past the 300 mark – all 30 seconds of And You Will Know Them… by …Trail of Dead – reached 11,000 to go and got halfway through the As.

And we thought Alaska was big.

 

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All Together Now to Amen

WHILE this blog was making the journey from one of The Beatles’ perkier (and more forgettable) little numbers to Leonard Cohen being less than perky, the music media has been dominated by two topics.

One, the reassuringly well received Record Store Day, has been worth marking. The other, the saturation coverage of Britpop’s 20th anniversary, was less deserving of such attention.

Record stores have proved landmarks for the way my life has progressed and both their and my fortunes have ebbed and flowed.

Growing up, the compact, bijou HMV was the place to head in Gloucester (Our Price on The Cross was a good place to meet outside, but carried early signs of the soulless, sanitised, sleek – and struggling – hangars which chain record stores became) and perhaps explains why music somehow still fits better with a darkened room.

The surly blokes behind the counter (always blokes) seemed to be the height of cool and a Saturday job amid the narrow aisles (both of them) and enticing record racks was the dream – certainly more than wearing brown flares and weighing fruit and veg at Sainsbury’s.

As the years rolled by, Badlands in Cheltenham became my lunchtime refuge from work and my first lunch hour after moving to Cardiff saw the start of a regular trip to the wonderful old Spillers shop. Those trips had to be rationed due to a complete inability to go in there without spending money.

Spillers, in new premises, remains among the first places to go on trips back to Cardiff but, sadly, trips to record stores are far more infrequent as digital has taken over (but their regular e-mails are always welcome in my inbox).

While Record Store Day brings back good memories, Britpop stirs less welcome memories.

It had its moments – Elastica’s All-Nighter was the 95th and, thanks to that hyphen, last of the songs beginning with All – but, as with so many ‘movements’, large chunks of it were pretty rubbish.

BBC Two had to resort to big guns Pulp, Oasis and Blur twice each to fill their Britpop at the Beeb, while not even sure the members of Powder would have remembered their contribution.

And was it ever more than just a handy marketing ploy?

Pulp were veterans of more than a decade plugging away without much success, while can you really drop the likes of Echobelly and the oft-overlooked Auteurs into any shared pigeonhole, other than being British? Not sure The Auteurs (sadly their album New Wave was left in the cassette player of a courtesy car) can even be classified as pop.

Nor can large chunks of Radiohead, often dropped in to the mix purely by dint of The Bends appearing around the same time, really be compared to Sleeper, The Longpigs (one of the better ones) or any number of long (and best) forgotten acts?

As for the big rivals which took the scene into the headlines, even Oasis and Blur didn’t have too much to lump them together into the bracket which holds them in permanent proximity.

Blur have had their moments, reinvented themselves often enough to remain interesting and will pop up from time to time throughout this journey, but the popularity of Oasis has always remained a mystery.

Well, not always. The swagger of Definitely Maybe did briefly put them well up in my affections. But, sadly, that initial swagger has morphed into the laddish pub singalong boorishness which has trademarked so much of their career. And have you ever bothered to look at some of their lyrics?

Somehow, that didn’t stop me agreeing to go to see them at the Millennium Stadium the week before Christmas. The Foo Fighters made the whole experience worthwhile, but Oasis did little to change my mind – although my presence was not as mystifying as the fact somebody thought a stadium gig in Cardiff, in December, was a good idea. It was too cold to hold a pint and several pizzas were bought, not to eat but to warm our hands.

Still, better than Ocean Colour Scene. Or Toploader. Soundtrack to Dante’s third circle of hell. Or an edition of The Naked Chef.

If Britpop is thin on the ground, there is plenty of guitars of the jingly jangly variety from the 1980s, which is where The Weather Prophets pop up in this list with Almost Prayed.

There’s been a few doubles in this section and a couple of bits of potential sacrilege – prefer Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of All Tomorrow’s Parties to the Velvet Underground’s original and, most definitely, would opt for Echo and the Bunnymen’s All You Need Is Love to four (yes, four) from The Beatles. That was a tough drive to work.

Which is the best version of the Woody Guthrie-scripted All You Fascists Bound To Lose is tougher. Billy Bragg with Wilco or Billy Bragg with The Blokes?

From the seemingly endless list of All songs and even more endless run of Beatles, we have now careered past 250 (Almost Love – Nada Surf) and are just a few tracks away from dipping below the 11,000 to go mark.

That is until a batch of new releases are added to the list tomorrow. D’oh.

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Boston Strong

“This is our f–king city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

IT is not, in the words of David Ortiz ahead of the Red Sox’s first match at Fenway Park following the bombing at the end of the marathon a year ago today, my f–cking city.

But Boston has, over the past few years, become something of an adopted second home on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was the first port of call on a maiden trip to the US – mainly because my travelling companion hailed from near Boston, Lincolnshire and was keen to see the city which carries its name – and one which instantly won our hearts.

It is a city comfortable with its place in society and history (a lengthy one by American standards) and is unusual among major US cities in that it is best explored on foot, with plenty of places to stop and break the journey with a swift – or not so swift – drink.

And, of course, it has the Red Sox, who are responsible for far too many late nights following their contrasting fortunes from afar.

We will explore Boston and my love affair with the Red Sox in future posts, but to mark this sobering anniversary, here’s an article written for the Gloucester Citizen the day after the bombing.

The shock of that evening remains, but it is matched by the delight and even pride at discovering how the city has recovered on my last visit just a few months later.

And the Red Sox winning the world series didn’t hurt.

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All My Colours to All Time

THINK it is only right to start this entry with a confession.

My first gig was not, as has been the answer to that question for more than a quarter of a century, Echo and The Bunnymen at Gloucester Leisure Centre in 1985.

No, for some reason lost in the mists of time – it might have had something to do with my sister getting tickets – it was Culture Club at the same venue a couple of years earlier. Not overly embarrassing (given my sister’s record collection, it could have been an awful lot worse), but one which has left no lasting memory except for the fact it actually happened.

For anyone growing up in Gloucester in the 1980s and without easy access to transport to Bristol, Cardiff or further afield, gigs from any act we might have heard on the radio or seen on Top of the Pops or, preferably, The Tube were rare events.

Before the advent of the Guildhall Arts Centre – previously the Mayor’s Parlour and venue to Christmas parties for generations of Gloucester children – and its Friday night Banana Club, which finally provided a home for the indie kids, just as we were laying down our raincoats and grooving while simultaneously staring at our shoes through floppy fringes, there was only really Gloucester Leisure Centre.

More often used for five-a-side football, badminton and school holiday sporting activities, acoustics in the cavernous sports hall were atrocious (the Pixies got round that by being unbelievably loud, not long before it was closed down for being unstable and rebuilt). Not that we knew that, given there was usually just one big gig a year.

So, having distanced the Culture Club experience from my mind, my first chance to see one of my bands was the Bunnymen (supported by The Woodentops).

SongsToLearnAndSingTheir singles collection Songs to Learn and Sing had just been released and the process of devouring that and rediscovering their earlier stuff we had missed in our early teens had just begun.

And at least one 15-year-old fan was hooked (actor Simon Pegg, from just down the road in Brockworth and the same age as me, listed it as his first gig, describing it as ‘extraordinary’ in the NME).

Details are hazy, but a fight broke out next to me at one point, there was a huge silhouette – spiky hair et al – of McCulloch projected on the back wall and a wonderful version of Over The Wall. But it was definitely brilliant.

The Bunnymen soundtracked the rest of my teenage years, providing a musical identity, sending me towards discovering their musical contemporaries, a penchant for long, black overcoats* and some shortlived, ill-advised attempts at aping Ian McCulloch’s haircut (too long and too much like hard work).

Many of their tracks still appear on my list of all-time favourites and, if anyone cares to listen, there is a well-honed argument that the second side of Ocean Rain (LPs, those rather larger precursors to CDs used to have two sides, kids) is about as perfect a 20-odd minute stretch of music as put down on vinyl (look it up, kids).

And they were the dominant force in this latest section of my iPod, which started out with four airings for the wonderful All My Colours – two original, two live of which one is McCulloch without his sadly depleted band mates. There is a fifth, live version, to come under its alternative title Zimbo with African drummers joining the much-missed Pete deFreitas, but that’s some way off in the final stages of this long-distance journey.

There were also two versions of early offering All That Jazz and one of All My Life from their Crystal Days four CD box set (told you, big fan).

The only other multiple entry in this section was, slightly surprisingly, All The Small Things by Blink 182.

Yes, it is slightly cheesy, a bit naff and springs from that period in music when wannabe punks seemed to believe that simply playing guitars alone was enough to make them rebels.

Still, it’s a pretty good pop song and for a while was in the running to be “our tune” in a relationship where our musical likes very rarely overlapped. Think Killing In The Name Of by Rage Against The Machine won out for that title. Just before we split up.

The major landmark of this section was number 200 – the honour falling to All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers, when All The Young Dudes (199) by Mott the Hoople and here courtesy of the Juno soundtrack would have been much preferable – while it ended on All Time by January. No, me neither, but it evidently appeared on an Uncut compilation years ago, is reminiscent of Catherine Wheel and comes complete with the sound of a band gazing at their shoes.

And, if you were wondering, there is no Culture Club to come.

* One of the overcoats proved magical in many ways. Purloined off my grandfather it was, somehow, down below my knees despite him being several inches shorter, so where it came to on him is anyone’s guess. It also came with very deep pockets, which helped smuggle more than one partially drunk pint out of the pub come the end of the night.

Sadly, it was lost at one of a string of teenage parties at Gloucester Old Boys rugby club and has never been adequately replaced.

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An Epic Journey

IT is a few weeks since my notice was handed in at work and the upcoming trip around Africa became public knowledge.

Time has been spent working, drawing up to-do lists (a master trip plan, a kit list and my regular, ongoing list, plus a schedule for this site), getting this site fully up and running again (and, annoyingly, getting back into it after being locked out) and answering any number of questions.

And not enough time (well, barely any) doing the twin aims which should be writ large in capital letters at the top of every list – get fit and lose weight.

The questions have varied from the incredulous – “What are you doing?”, “No, seriously, what are you doing? – to the inquisitive: “Where are you going?”, “Is that safe?”, “Where are you sleeping?”, “No, seriously, what are you doing?” and variations on a theme.

But one questions keeps popping up: “What are you going to do when you get back?”.

This has happened before, having followed a similar pattern ahead of the last time the urge to travel won out over the need to earn money and concentrate on a career.

Four years ago, it was a senior production role on the sports desk of a group of newspapers in Wales that was sacrificed for a London to New York overland trip and there was no answer to that question.

To be honest, the only idea was to come back and see what jobs were going in journalism, possibly back in the same office.

But the freedom of travelling seemed to fit with not worrying too much about all that and going with the flow.

And, over the past three or so years, that flow has carried me to some unexpected places before heading back into journalism and another looming trip, especially as the plan on arriving back from travel was to head off again as soon as possible – certainly not to wait this long for another trip.

Ironically, one of the main things preventing more travel was getting a job in  travel, which morphed into co-founding an overland travel company (more of which in future posts).

And that is why there is no real answer to what the plan is when the Trans Africa trip is over.

By then, the travel bug could have been well and truly cured. Or there’s another overland journey catching my eye a few months later. Or (and if any travel editors are reading, hello) this travel writing lark might actually have turned into a way to earn a living.

Or it might be time to settle down and get back to being more serious about my career. Who knows?

What is clear is that, with the exceptions of that need to get fit and lose weight, there’s remarkably little worrying me about the decision to quit my job and travelling. Again.

There were no regrets last time, as revealed in an interview with Emily-Ann Elliott from the grownupgapyear,com website on the decision to take a sabbatical or quit your job a while back, and at the moment there’s none this time.

Sure a few moments of uncertainty may pop up between now and our departure seven months today, but there’ just too much to look forward to for them to take hold in a major way.

Anyway, I’ll be too busy down the gym…

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