Bastard Son of Dean Friedman to The Bell

AS well as a meander through my musical tastes over the past three decades or so, this journey through my iPod is demonstrating how much the way we listen to and collect music has changed.

Now it is almost exclusively digital, although off to my left are two tall CD towers packed with what we were told at the time was the unbreakable future of listening to music.

The CDs now largely sit gathering dust, all but a discarded few sitting in the iPod we are wandering through that sits neatly in my pocket, while under the desk is a much smaller collection of vinyl.

Records are much more desirable than a digital file or a CD, complete with sleeve designs, liner notes and an inherent coolness. Shopping for vinyl was so much more fun, flicking through rack after rack and emerging with your chosen offering in a proper bag, as opposed to soulless CDs on glistening display stands – once you have found your way past the discounted DVD box sets.

But that was only a short stint in my music-buying past, having not had a record player until well into my teens – the only access being to my Dad’s (strictly off limits) and my sister’s (who was never keen on me using it).

Without any records to call my own, there was also very little to play as neither collection which went with them is likely to be replicated on my iPod.

So for most of my teenage years, the music came in the form of tapes, either on one of the “portable music systems” my Dad managed to win by selling enough of the maker’s power tools (we also had a huge collection of plastic sponsored pint glasses) or, latterly, a string of Walkman R.I.P.Walkmans.

Look at them now and they look antique and positively huge next to an iPod, but the arrival of my first Walkman was an amazing moment – although maybe not for my parents, who didn’t realise my insistence on cranking the volume up making sure the stereo is far from personal on cheaper headphones in the back of the car.

Still have no idea if it actually did anything, but my first Walkman came complete with graphic equaliser, while a later one had a radio. It fell apart and was huge, but it had a radio.

Totally Bitchin' Recording 1987The dawn of the Walkman also heralded the pre-holiday selection of what music to take, the chosen few – supplemented by a couple of compilation C90s – tucked into my hand luggage in an old washbag.

And the cassette collection also saw the dawn of my compulsion to store my music in alphabetical order (the DVDs to my left are exactly the same while the bookcase is broken down, in the main, into categories. Then A-Z).

But the need to alphabetise – in stark contrast to the way everything else is arranged, or not, in my life – at least stems from a practical reason.

The cassettes were stored in a growing number of briefcase-style boxes by the side of my bed, each with its own spot so they could be found while lying on the bed with my headphones on in the dark.

Back in the early days, there were not that many so remembering the order was easy, but it was well into the third box before the plan started to fall apart – even with new arrivals changing the positions – but by then there was a record player and a new source of music.

Which cassette was first is not quite so clear. The first two, bought with my own money, were The Hurting by Tears for Fears and The Jam’s Snap, just not sure in what order – back in the days when buying an album involved saving up pocket money.

Tears for Fears haven’t made it to the digital age, but The Jam are dotted through my collection with their parting shot Beat Surrender cropping up in this latest section, which takes us from (more) Half Man Half Biscuit to a new arrival from First Aid Kit.

We also had Begin The Begin by REM, from the first album of theirs to sit in those cassette boxes. Life’s Rich Pageant was bought, on special offer, one Saturday from the basement at Boots, back in the days when they sold music, and sparked a journey through their back catalogue which provided a huge part of the soundtrack to my life for the next decade and beyond.

R.E.M. MurmurIt was not a total leap of faith. Closing track Superman had filled the same role on a C90 provided by my brother-in-law – back in the days when he was just my sister’s boyfriend – which provided introductions or widened my knowledge of the likes of Sonic Youth, Husker Du, The Replacements and a whole generation of guitar bands which will pop up with varying regularity before we get to Z.

Not on that tape, but another key part of that teenage soundtrack (possibly the key part before slightly edged aside by REM) were Echo and the Bunnymen, who popped up with Bedbugs and Ballyhoo. Possibly their last great song, there were two versions by the whole band and one live rendition from Ian McCulloch.

There were other vintage classics with Behind The Wall of Sleep by The Smithereens and Being Around from The Lemonheads, some Bees and Beetles (one of each from Warpaint) and a couple of new discoveries.

Behind A Wall from Blood Red Shoes was a discovery worth revisiting (acquired amid a recent downloading binge) and took the 750th spot on the list, courtesy of being shunted back a few places by another bout of downloads which included the new album by First Aid Kit. The Bell suggests that too is worth a longer listen.

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Want versus Need

THAT great philosopher and lyricist Nigel Blackwell once sang: “There is surely nothing worse than washing sieves (With the possible exception of being Garth Crooks)”.

Poet and philosopher Nigel Blackwell
Poet and philosopher Nigel Blackwell

The Half Man Half Biscuit singer has a point, particularly the bit about Garth Crooks, but let’s flip it to be more positive – there is surely nothing better than crossing things off a to-do list.

A quick discussion in the office unearthed the fact that several of us delight in drawing up and crossing off lists – more than one of us admitting to adding things we had already done or started, just so we could enjoy the feeling of accomplishment of drawing a line through it.

To-do lists have become a key part of my life over the years, mainly in an attempt to replicate my organised work self away from the office, when outside distractions and a “why do it today when you can put it off until tomorrow?” attitude have taken precedence.

Worse than washing sieves
Worse than washing sieves

Deadlines have always helped sharpen the focus at work – them becoming a diminishing part of a journalist’s life has done little to help an industry fighting for its future – and that has always been an excuse to put things off until the last minute. My mind seems to work better under the pressure of a ticking clock.

And the clock is ticking to my next major deadline – November 4. Departure date for my 10-month trip around Africa.

There are three lists guiding the way towards that date – the Trans-Africa list, a kit list and my master to-do list – plus another one for a supposed writing and print schedule for this site. Let’s just put that one down as a target to work towards.

The master list details pretty much every facet of my life – work rota, bills to be paid, appointments, travel details, Gloucester rugby fixtures (the important stuff), jobs to do and anything that pops into my mind.

It can be accessed pretty much anywhere and continually amended much easier than the daily lists which first appeared in the build-up to my last major bout of travelling. On the downside, it makes it a lot easier to cut and paste a job to another day (writing this article has been shunted back constantly over the last couple of weeks).

Busy workingThe kit list as it stands will probably require a second truck to transport all of my stuff around for 10 months. For the moment, it is more a list of pretty much everything which could be taken and, at some point, will need to be gone through in detail and split into two distinct groups – what I need and and what I want.

The latter has won out in the limited items bought or looked at so far – a shiny new MacBook Air definitely falls into the want category, but there are enough cogent arguments to shift it towards the need column, while the Variant III sleeping bag quilt and pillow both come under the need heading, but on a fact-finding trip to Nomad’s Bristol shop flashed up “want” in front of my eyes.

At the moment, the Africa list remains in the background and deliberately so.

There’s a lot on there – things to buy, questions to be answered, things to sort at home, jabs and medical advice to be sought, a flat to be cleared, more things to buy, visas to be obtained (thankfully just a couple before departure) and much, much more – but for the moment, it has been pushed onto the back burner.

That’s deliberate, bar a few things which needed doing early (a shiny new passport, complete with enough empty pages for the visas needed for starters), the plan was always to backload things, at least until after a friend’s August wedding in South Carolina. Then it all gets serious.

A few days off at the start of July – either side of the Edinburgh stag do – will get the ball rolling seriously (suggest talking to my doctor and bank might be a good idea), backed up by a week before jetting off to Charleston, but that last couple of months will see some fairly frenetic activity.

In fact, my to-do list following the Oasis Overland open day early in September, when that kit list will be slashed to the bare minimum, and, particularly, for the second half of October – after leaving work – is already more detailed than it is for next week.

But for the immediate future, and last few months, two things have dominated.

First has been sorting out my house in Cardiff, which provided an unexpected addition to the list when my tenants – installed during my last big trip from London to New York overland four years ago – announced they were not renewing the tenancy.

Their departure, coupled with the state in which they left the house, has provided some unexpected work and expense, not to mention shuffling of the to-do list, but bar a few bits of paperwork (and buying a new bed for the second bedroom) it looks as if that is all sorted and the issue of how to pay my mortgage while travelling around Africa in a big yellow truck without eating too heavily into my savings is sorted.

The second major issue has been sitting around on the to-do list for ages and now needs to stop being shunted down the list as it is overtaken by time restrictions, other distractions and laziness.

Getting fit and losing weight has been one of the priorities since first booking this trip and it now needs to take precedence.

Judging by the way most of my trousers are starting to fall down, the weight has started to come off but it is very early days and there’s a lot more to come. Attempts at eating better – weening myself off Coke for starters – needs to step up to a proper diet.

The fitness regime has been less successful. There’s the standard excuses not to go to the gym – just don’t have time etc – mixed with a bad back and, in recent weeks, what my osteopath put into layman’s terms as tendonitis of the patella.

But that won’t do any more. Attempts to walk a bit more – even parking further from the office each day – are just the first step and a prolonged return to the gym cannot be put off any longer. There’s even a bike sat in my shed in Cardiff which might finally get an airing.

Getting fit has passed from the want to need column and the clock is ticking. Starting now.

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Ballad of Helenkeller and Rip Van Winkle to Basic Space

And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say: “Haven’t you heard? Rik is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!”

JOURNALISTS have a strange relationship to death. Do not believe all you read, we are not all heartless monsters who simply don’t care, but the reaction to news of people dying could often come as a bit of a shock to outsiders.

Timing plays a big part – as does just how desperate we are for a front page splash.

Can’t remember too many cheers when news of a death broke (certainly not to rival the ones which greeted the news of Piers Morgan being sacked at the Mirror, but we were in the pub so there was some liquid amplification), yet there has definitely been  a few clenched fists of triumph and strangled cries of “YES” as the search for a big story comes to an end.

That sounds terrible and in nearly quarter of a century in this job – albeit largely watching on from the safe distance of the sports desk or a step removed on subs – dealing with delicate situations and grieving relatives has (almost) always been handled with the utmost sensitivity.

But when news, as it often does with celebrity deaths, breaks close to deadlines, practicalities take over with the job of presenting the story to the best of our ability in a very short time.

My first experience of this came when news of then Labour leader John Smith collapsing at his home broke perilously close to morning deadline (back in the good old days when evening newspapers were put to bed on the day they hit the news stands).

Hurriedly, as we dug around for scant information, two front pages were created – one of which would never see the light of day and one of which could well be totally out of date before it even reached the printers. Time for reflection or sorrow had to wait until after that edition had gone (the sad final news arriving just before deadline).

News of both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret broke moments after the South Wales Echo’s Saturday night sports edition – the Pink – had headed off to the printers, although we managed to stop the presses (the only time I have managed to shout that in action down the phone) long enough to at least get them on the front of some copies.

Time was not much of a factor as a young reporter on New Year’s Day 1995.

Nursing a hangover having just wandered in during the afternoon to wrap up the holiday sporting action, there were only a couple of us kicking around the Gloucester Citizen office when a photographer wandered over to the sports desk (the duty reporter was out) and suggested putting Ceefax on (that ages this tale).

The top story was simple: “Fred West Found Dead In His Cell”.

Any hopes of a quiet afternoon were instantly dispelled as the phone burst into life. Over the course of a few hours, my role started as the sole source of contact to chasing down reporters across the country, digging through the archives and, eventually, the one who gets sent out to look for food.

Most celebrity deaths are not that dramatic, but at least a couple of them produced a common newsroom response – silence, followed by journalists working out from their colleagues’ reactions as to who had the recently deceased in the office’s version of a Fantasy Death League.

Once common in newsrooms, Cardiff’s version was known as the Coffin Club and involved picking a 11-strong line-up governed by strict criteria, complete with a mid-year transfer window – whoever picks the most celebrities who die over a year scoops the pool.

The black humour involved fits in well with journalism and you did not want to be in my team in one of two winning years when a record seven of my picks shuffled off this mortal coil – the winnings paying for one of the predecessors of the iPod we are currently working our way through.

In all those years, however, a few deaths have prompted a stunned silence and not prompted much in the way of joking for a while (one eventually sparked a lot of joking, but it took a little while to recover from the news).

The first was John Peel, which rocked a newsroom largely populated by blokes of a certain age, while the other came this week with the news of Rik Mayall’s premature demise.

Mayall was, as much as Marr, Morrissey, McCulloch or any number of jingly-jangly indie guitar bands, a huge part of my teenage years.

Twelve years old when The Young Ones first aired, it was instantly the talk of the school – trouble was, it just wasn’t on in my house. My mum had heard about this show and there was no way we were going to watch it.

Until, several weeks into the run, she was out for the night, my Dad was upstairs working and there was nothing else on my elder sister wanted to watch. The TV choice was mine and what it showed was something which had me wide eyed with astonishment.

Party remains one of the finest episodes and although half of the gags went straight over my head, it was unmissable from that point in. He was ours, something our parents just did not get. Yes, there was a lot of nob and fart gags, but it was performed with such energy and refreshing vitality.

Eventually, worn down by a succession of Rik impressions – complete with snorts – and endless quoting, my mum caved in and eventually sat down to watch an episode. Disgusted as she was – remember her being appalled by Vyvyan eating a dead rat – she was also enamoured by this electric presence and, for years to come , “Hands Up Who Likes Me” could reduce her to giggles.

It now looks bit dated at times, but can still happily sit down and rewatch old episodes of The Young Ones when they pop up, just as the music which soundtracked that time (roughly as mainstream chart stuff was being shunted aside for more alternative fare) still crops up encouragingly often.

The latest run through my iPod – from The Moldy Peaches to The XX  – features a few from roughly that era. Four versions of Bankrobber (one by The Clash, two live from Joe Strummer and a cover by someone called Hawksley Workman), Barbarism Begins At Home by The Smiths and three versions of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by The Pogues (who also managed to upset my mum).

The journey from Ballads… saw John Murry’s lovely Ballad of The Pajama Kid pop up twice either side of another track due to two different spellings (Pyjama), while we careered through a great little bar crawl – Barefoot by The Cadbury Sisters, Barfruit Blues by The Hold Steady, Barney (…And Me) by The Boo Radleys, Barstow by Jay Farrar (who saw live the night before England won the Rugby World Cup, meaning it is all a bit hazy) and Bartering Lines by Ryan Adams.

It all would have added up to a glorious run of tracks if it was not soundtracking both Mayall’s death and Hereford United being kicked out of the Conference into… well, who knows at what low level they resurface in some shape or form

Not a good few days.

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B+A to Ballad of Climie Fisher

FOUR years ago, this day was spent journeying through three US states.

It kicked off going to bed on a big green bus in Seattle, Washington (while listening to Nirvana) in the early hours, breakfast was on the road somewhere in Oregon and much of the day was spent in the Redwood State Park, California.

Golden Gate Bridge - Somewhere in there
Golden Gate Bridge – Somewhere in there

The evening was spent celebrating my 40th birthday in fairly riotous fashion in the town of Arcata while the mist that swathed the Golden Gate Bridge as we arrived in San Francisco the following morning was somehow in keeping with the state of my head.

Four years on, 44 has arrived with my head in a better state, bar being a bit bunged up from hayfever which meant it started far too early, albeit in my own bed (listening to Radio Five Live). Breakfast was in Cheltenham, while much of the afternoon has been spent sat tapping away at this laptop and my shiny new present to myself, which comes complete with an Apple logo on it. The evening promises much of the same.

Things have changed a bit over the past four years.

And they promise to change again – next year’s birthday will be in… well, not sure, but somewhere in east Africa. Possibly Tanzania or Kenya as a 10-month trek around the dark continent enters its last couple of months.

Wherever completing another year happens, this leisurely saunter (or long trek – opinion dependent on the quality of songs which pop up on my iPod) from A to Z will still be going strong. At the current rate, we will be somewhere on songs beginning with G…

It’s all making 10 months around Africa look like a bit of a sprint.

It also means we are very much still in the foothills, having just began the road through B, which started with B+A by The Beta Band and has been dominated by songs beginning with four words.

Baby… took up all of a journey to Cardiff and a couple of trips to the tip, Back… a very loud journey back to Gloucester with Bad… taking over the daily commute to and from Cheltenham (which goes to show when and where most of the required listening goes on) before this section ends with the beginning of a run of Ballads.

The Baby… section – which managed to include Babylon’s Burning by The Ruts blaring out on one trip to the tip to dispose of the detritus left lying around my house by the departing tenants – was, to be honest, not the most thrilling run of tracks.

It had its moments – Baby from Warpaint or Baby Missiles by War on Drugs, although not sure that was really worth three versions back to back – but was largely forgettable.

Thankfully, it got back on track as we moved into Back…, which all kicked off with Back At The Farm by White Denim, who also sent me off on a major detour from the direct route from B to C.

White_Denim_-_Corsicana_LemonadeTheir Corsicana Lemonade album popped up towards the tail end of last year and convinced me to stump up for a couple of tickets to see them in Bristol and wave one of them under my brother-in-law’s nose as his Christmas present (mine in return was one to see Half Man Half Biscuit).

But it rather dropped off my radar in the intervening months and so the A to Z trip had to be abandoned for a rapid reacquaintance. Not that rapid – we got an extra nine day’s grace as the delights, commercial and otherwise, of an appearance on Later… forced a postponement.

And was it worth the wait? Well, yes. Probably.

They pack some good songs – particularly the wonderful At Night In Dreams, which appeared in the last post – and are all fantastic musicians, particularly the bewildering drummer. The lead singer comes across as the love child of Marcus Brigstocke and Richard Ayoade while the guitarist and bassist, stood resolutely on the opposite side of the stage, appear to have come straight out of central casting for two diverse, stereotype figures you might find in a southern bar.

They are good, but they really need to realise not every song has to be drawn out beyond its natural boundaries – for almost the last hour, you are convinced this just has to be the final song as they cannot keep drawing bigger and bigger climaxes and jams out of each track. Oh yes they can.

Back to the Backs and classics from two of the keys bands which soundtracked my teenage years (and much of the last three decades, to be honest) – Back of Love by Echo and the Bunnymen, sung very loudly (twice) on the journey back across the Severn, and the beautiful Back To The Old House, the finest entry by The Smiths yet.

Bad… was, well, better than the name implies. Courtesy of an influx of new songs to my iTunes, Bad Habit by The Foals (a band which have yet to really grasp my attention) took the honour as number 600, just ahead of Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess by Half Man Half Biscuit.

And then we got Bad Romance. Yep, the song by Lady Gaga, which sits a bit incrongruously here. Especially next to Half Man Half Biscuit, although perhaps that’s her next wacky costume.

It’s just not by her, it’s an acoustic cover version by a young unsigned American called Juliana Richer Daily who first popped up on my laptop during a search for a version of Wake Up by Arcade Fire to use above a promotional video in my previous life working for a travel firm.

Not only does she do a fantastic version – one of several great covers on her YouTube channel – she has moved from Upstate New York to Nashville and is about to release her first album.

And people have accused me of being obscure.

Which all brings us to the end of this section with the start of the surprisingly long Ballad of… run which took us as far as more Half Man Half Biscuit and Ballad of Climie Fisher.

Just remember, “Fisher hates gravel, Fisher hates shale”…

 

 

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There Are No Stupid Questions… Oh Wait

RATHER unfairly – at least in some cases – Americans have been saddled with a reputation for being less than familiar with the world outside their country. Or even their own state.

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography,” wrote Mark Twain.

Having spent a night in a bar in the border town of Niagara, chatting to two barmaids who had never left their home state, let alone country, despite living their whole lives a few miles from Canada and access to one of the world’s great natural wonders, he perhaps has a point.

NiagaraBut in other places, similar conversations – particularly in Boston, for some reason – have left me feeling inadequate as a local or two was far more informed about Europe, Britain and, weirdly, Tony Blair than my knowledge of their home.

It is also unfair to slap this criticism on Americans alone. Just watch a geography round on Pointless to see how little the average Britain knows about the world around them – even ones who reckon themselves intelligent enough to appear on a TV quiz show.

Whatever our national traits, one weakness so many of us seem to share is the ability to check in our brains along with our luggage (or even earlier in some cases), which can make airports both hilarious and frustrating places to spend any time.

Don’t believe me? Then check out these two links.

The first is entitled Why Americans Should Never Be Allowed To Travel – genuine questions asked to travel agents.

And, just to stop anyone on the other side of the pond getting too cocky, try this from 101holidays.co.uk – Are These The Most Stupid Trip Advisor Reviews?

 

 

photo by: Lima Pix
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