The Birds Were Singing Of You to Black-Eyed Susie

BIT of a delay in this post as the last week or so has disappeared into a black hole – both in terms of a long run of tracks on the iPod and the way time appears to have disappeared into the abyss.

To a soundtrack that started and finished with the vintage Americana of Uncle Earl, the last couple of weeks have crammed in a stag weekend in Edinburgh, far too much time sat in the office, not enough time sat watching the Tour de France, a leaving do, the tail end of the World Cup and, perhaps inevitably after the last post, problems with my car.

Gypsy's Curse
Gypsy’s Curse

It was almost the blogging alternative of the commentator’s curse – a phrase which conjures images of being forced to listen endlessly to Andy Townsend by an angry gypsy.

No sooner had my car’s remarkable staying power been praised in writing than it decided to stop working. One minute it was fine, the next it refused to budge, like a recalcitrant horse who had just been informed it was off to the knacker’s yard (as appears the likeliest outcome for my car ahead of me heading off to Africa).

Turning the key produced nothing but a fading whirr and evidence the electrics had given in, resetting the clock to January 1, 1900 (not that the clock’s car has been right for years).

By the time the RAC man pulled up just before 10.30pm two days later – that black hole had sucked away the time until a belated call – there wasn’t even a whirr.

It took approximately 30 seconds for him to diagnose the problem – a bad cell in the battery – and relay the news that the car had been driving around with a battery which was too small for at least the 12 years it has been ferrying me about.

It had also been held in place by the same screws for all that time, several of which had got quite attached to their spots under my bonnet, ensuring the twitching curtains of the nursing home next to where the car was parked had a few minutes’ longer to watch what these two blokes were doing that late at night (well, what one was doing and what was just nodding along to while realising he had just bought a new battery for a car that was likely to reach the end of its road in a couple of months).

One side effect of the car problem – and one of the reasons ringing the RAC was delayed to avoid being called out halfway through – was the walk home from watching the World Cup final at my sister’s.

Or rather, the walk home at half-time in extra-time to provide more time to watch the highlights of that day’s Tour de France stage. The walk home that, having watched 105 minutes of goalless football, ended with my front door opening accompanied by a tweet congratulating me on causing Mario Goetze’s winning goal.

At least Andy Townsend wasn’t commentating.

Tour De France `89Le Tour has been my summer obsession since Channel 4 first started showing daily highlights in the mid-1980s – in fact, even before that when World of Sport showed a weekly lunchtime round-up.

While the crack of leather on willow may be the traditional soundtrack of summers gone by – increasingly supplanted by the great God of football – mine has long been the sounds of excitable Frenchmen, drug allegations, Gary Imlach, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (the last two of which, sadly, have seen better days).

Never has a cheese and ham toastie (ordered a croque monsieur, but let’s be honest about what it really is) tasted so good as the one eaten at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, high point of one of the great climbs of the Tour, which also happens to be the spot where a chair lift drops you off above the Pyrenean ski resort of Bareges.

Have managed to see the Tour live once, on the Champs Elysees of all places, as our arrival in Paris at the start of a few days just happened to coincide with the arrival of the Tour.

With no idea of the day’s programme or where to stand, two of us waited for hours among the crowds for repeated fleeting glimpses of the peloton as it roared past to the last of Miguel Indurain’s five victories. It was not until we got home a few days later that we discovered who had won the stage a couple of hundred yards down the road from where we stood – the Tashkent Terror himself, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov.

That French trip – which centred around Annecy, where we cycled around the lake that would later form the centrepiece of a Tour time trial and narrowly avoided a collision with a ferry on a pedalo – was soundtracked (via Walkman) largely by Sonic Youth and The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads popped up again in the latest batch of tracks with Bit Part, slipping in just after Birthday by The Sugarcubes, a song which again operated strictly to a law of diminishing returns.

Fresh and intoxicating on first hearing, it became almost ubiquitous and annoying after a while (the band certainly did a lot better) and sitting through four versions on the train to Bristol had a similar effect – sounding good on the first hearing for a long time, it had lost all of its charm by the final outing.

Biting The Soles of My Feet by Electric Soft Parade never really got the chance to become old hat, residing as it did on a CD that got stuck in the multi-changer in the boot of my car which foiled the best efforts of more than one garage to release before my then local Peugeot dealer took the whole casing out and sent it off to HQ across the channel.

Quite what the French mechanics made of  …And They Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, heaven only knows.

John Grant
John Grant

Elsewhere, the continuing journey through Bs took in The Verve (Bitter Sweet Symphony), The Jam (Bitterest Pill…), Graham Coxon (Bittersweet Bundle of Misery) and New Order (Bizarre Love Triangle) before depositing us into the long list of Black… songs.

And there has not been that much escaping from the black hole as a ray of musical light.

Pick of the bunch has been Black Belt, the first entry from the truly wonderful John Grant (probably my favourite performance from the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, albeit largely tucked away on the red button), and Black Star by Radiohead.

Honourable mentions go to Squeeze (Black Coffee In Bed), Bob Mould (Black Sheets of Rain) and Hammock’s version of Black Metallic (strangely, don’t have the Catherine Wheel original on the iPod), while Mercury Rev took us through 900 with Black Forest (Lorelei).

Bucking scientific thinking, the escape from the black hole is thankfully imminent…

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The Bell to Birds Flew Backwards

“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt…”

THAT is if Joan of Arc had a week crammed with Glastonbury (from the safety of my sofa), football, the ongoing saga of my house and bemoaning the non-working electric windows in my car. Doubt it somehow, but we both got a bit hot.

Having repeatedly fallen out of love with over-hyped, over-commercialised, over-scrutinised Premier League football, it has been refreshing to sit down, watch the World Cup and remember the drama, thrilling moments and unpredictability which made so much of the globe fall in love with it in the first place.

We'll get there, just read on...
We’ll get there, just read on…

The latest chapter in the story of my house was supposed to be the last one – it being taken off the market with three new tenants due to be moving in yesterday and taking delivery of  a new bed for the middle bedroom.

Instead, with a reference form still unreturned to the agents, the move-in date is in danger of being moved back – again – and it needed a hurried dash from the osteopath’s table in Cheltenham to Cardiff to await the bed.

And while it provided a chance to cover a fair amount of ground through the B section of my iPod – mainly through the songs beginning Big, Bill and Bird – it was another chance to regret not getting the non-opening electric windows fixed.

My car has become something of a miracle – bereft of any noticeable care for years, it has just kept going. Four years ago, it looked like it had reached its natural end, having been kept on the road up to the point just long enough to be left behind in favour of other transport around the globe.

But on my return, it spluttered back into life – eventually – and with more travels always just over the horizon, it never seemed worthwhile replacing it with a newer version destined to sit unmoving for months on end.

And while my car has kept on going as travelling plans got shunted back, it has developed a few eccentricities. There is a strange knocking noise from, seemingly, inside the glove compartment, the locks require an expert touch and brute force to open, the radio does not work (thanks to someone nicking the aerial) and the windows won’t open (major design flaw not to have a manual option).

Keep going, we're getting there...
Keep going, we’re getting there…

While that’s fine for much of the year, in the height of summer and combined with a temperamental air con system, it can make journeys a tad uncomfortable (to say nothing of the difficulties paying at toll booths or car parks).

But at least there was a good soundtrack.

This latest section has taken us from The Bell by The Villagers to Birds Flew Backwards by Doves and thrown up a few anomalies – three tracks from Patterson Hood in five entries (all from the sole album of his on my iPod) and REM’s Überlin confusing Apple’s finest engineering and appearing among the Bs.

And it also brought back memories of some long-standing pub arguments.

Once upon a time, The City Arms in Cardiff was the gathering spot for a group of journalists and friends, usually with no or little prior arrangement – we knew that from 6pm-ish on a Saturday, after the old Sports Echo had gone to press, whoever was on duty would wander round from the office to the pub and we would gradually gather, feed the jukebox, mull over the day’s results and put the world  to rights.

Faces changed, venues shifted, Fridays became the new Saturday – regardless of the fact several of us had to be up for a 12-hour plus shift on Wales on Sunday the next day – but a core group (now spread across the country, but several will gather in Edinburgh this weekend for a stag do) remained in place and, even with some truly awful smelling toilets, The City Arms was (and always will be) our spiritual home.

Some of what was discussed became a regular element in my Sports Echo column, although most of it has been long forgotten (probably for the best), but the ongoing discussions between two of us included debating the best Smiths and Radiohead albums – while he went for Meat Is Murder and OK Computer, my argument was always in favour of The Queen Is Dead and The Bends.

Nothing against his choices, both excellent albums. But both The Queen Is Dead and The Bends work, almost flawlessly, as complete works from start to finish and belong to that elite group of albums which should always be listened in that manner and never (repeat, never) shuffled.

From time to time, those arguments are rekindled via social media and, chances are, when we finally get round to reconvening in The City Arms, they will spark up again.

The Bends and Bigmouth Strikes Again popped up among the highlights of this latest section, but they were far from the only ones from artists who soundtracked the same section of my life.

Billy BraggAlong with Billy Bragg (Between The Wars), The Wedding Present (three versions of Bewitched) and The Lemonheads (Big Gay Heart), who we have stumbled across a few times, there was also Big Decision by That Petrol Emotion, an excellent track they never really got round to repeating (not that the O’Neill’s songwriting talent hadn’t flourished elsewhere).

There were also a couple of excellent newer entries from Sun Kil Moon (Ben Is My Friend) and Palma Violets (Best of Friends), while we careered through 800 with Beware Your Only Friend by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

The Prince was partly behind one of the finest overheard chat-up lines when the person responsible for him being in my collection once asked a girl “Do you want to come back to mine and listen to some miserable music?”. Remarkably, think it actually worked.

While the Big songs we have mentioned soundtracked the journey to Cardiff, the sweltering return was dominated by variations on Bill – pick of them Bill Hicks by Hamell on Trial (a bit of a discovery), Billie Holiday by Warpaint and Billy by Prefab Sprout – and Bird, most notably Birdbrain by Buffalo Tom and Birdhouse In Your Soul by They Might Be Giants.

Off to open a window…


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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.


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.


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.