Seven Day Challenge

WAS nominated recently to take part in the Facebook Seven-Day Musical Challenge – picking a song each day for a week that means something to me.

Opting to steer well away from any sort of ‘best of…’ list, my choices were a sort of musical journey through my life, both personal and my musical life (although the two are pretty much entwined.

The A-Z blog is on a bit of a pre-Christmas hiatus (of which more in a couple of catch-up posts before a few changes – on and offline – in the year), so to fill a bit of a gap, here’s a version of those seven days…

Day 1

Once had to do a top 10 for my old newspaper to fill a hole just before a Christmas deadline. One of our celebrity columnists failed to deliver, so it fell to a distinctly non-celebrity columnist – albeit the column in the weekly sports result paper or the stand-in when someone was on holiday – and my entire music collection went out of my head.

Doubt if too many of that 10 would make any such list now, but this one would.

Echo & The Bunnymen were my band, my first gig (well, sort of) and my fashion gurus (hence me stealing my grandad’s old, long overcoat, which had very deep pockets to hide pint glasses in for the walk home from the pub). Accelerated my NME-inspired descent into an 80s indie ghetto.

Will gladly argue (and have, many times) that the second half of Ocean Rain is the most perfect run of songs on any album. This is oft-overlooked amid the other classics, but it’s my favourite…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zbdy8eidI0

Day 2

Second one sort of surprised even me, but part of a key role in my musical development when the teenage me was listening to a solid diet of British indie.

My sister started going out with some bloke (who she later married) who made me a C90 that threw in plenty of domestic indie, but also opened the door to American guitar bands, which I ran through gladly – The Replacements, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Red Guitars, Husker Du and some lot from Athens, Georgia, among others.

Could have picked almost any of the tracks (still have that tape somewhere), but stayed nearer to home.

A few years later, used to make my own C90s for a mate and his wife for each of my regular trips to London. On one of them was this and lead singer Pete Astor, who years later ended up as a friend of my mate with their sons in a band together (Let’s Wrestle). Also fulfils my jingly jangly quotient.

Day 3

This one sort of links on from the previous day when my indie ghetto started to be stormed by American guitars (red or otherwise).

Last track on that C90 was Superman by REM, a band I’d heard of but knew nothing about – hearing Superman, thought you could decipher all their lyrics.

They went on to be the biggest band of my late teens and beyond (pretty much till Bill Berry left when it all went a bit awry) and they produced, from Murmur to Green, possibly the greatest run of albums of any band.

Also pointed me in the direction of many other bands and an American road trip just had to stop off in Athens.

Could have chosen any number of tracks, but Life’s Rich Pageant was first up for me and, hey, I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract…

Day 4

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, school was finally behind me, university drifted out of reach (something to do with spending a bit too much of the previous couple of years in the pub or listening to loud music, rather than doing any work) and, eventually, my career in journalism got off to a start just before my teens ended.

Music was still centred around jingly jangly indie and American guitars and the regular Banana Club live nights at the Gloucester Guildhall (at one of which they shot the video for EMF’s Unbelievable), before the real onset of grunge (take it or leave it) and the largely forgettable onslaught of Britpop.

And there was this lot. Still one of the finest albums, still one of my loudest gigs (quiet, loud, quiet, loud, very loud – second only to Sugar, who so nearly made the list) and soundtrack to an awful lot of memories.

Day 5

The bit when it gets a bit emotional. We’ve done musical education and the 80s, time for the only entry from the 90s. But this one is timeless.

There had to be a bit of Billy Bragg in there, a constant since the mid-80s – trying to work out if seen him live in three or four different decades.

My favourite song of his changes, The Saturday Boy, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, The Short Answer… the list goes on. Even some of the stuff he did with Wilco. But none matches the emotional punch and resonance of this one.

Have written a few times about the background to jacking in a good job (twice) to go travelling because you never know what might happen if you put off living. Get paid to organise words into a meaningful order, but never managed to put some of those personal feelings as well and as powerfully as this.

Day 6

Having hung around in the ’80s for a while, it’s straight from the early ’90s into the new millennium and the discovery of a new obsession.

First stumbled across Ryan Adams on an Uncut magazine free CD and tracked down a copy of Heartbreaker – spent an entire afternoon reorganising and cleaning a kitchen in a shared house, just so I could listen to it over and over again. I

t was not only discovering Adams, it took me on a road that saw indie replaced by (to quote a friend after he’d been listening to my iPod) ‘melancholic Americana’ as a mainstay of my collection.

Day 7

Final part brings us not quite up to date, but a song which formed a huge part of the soundtrack of the last year or so.

The last song always had to be one that soundtracked my travelling years as we head into time to settle down and concentrate on the career (and bank balance) for a while.

There’ll still be travelling, but shorter trips more often rather than long adventures around much of the globe or Africa.

Those trips have largely been soundtracked by playlists set up before and could have provided any number of nominations.

But Sufjan Stevens wins out (just edging Carissa by Sun Kil Moon) as he soundtracked two trips, this one the most played of 10 months on the road in Africa. Who said travelling had to be happy?

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Date With The Night to Deado

BACK in the early days of this blog, an appearance by Echo and the Bunnymen prompted a recollection of my first proper gig (excluding, on musical grounds, being taken to watch Culture Club a few years earlier).

As well as triggering my teenage obsession with the Bunnymen (which still surfaces reasonably regularly and had me wallowing in the peerless B side of Ocean Rain just a few days ago), their Songs to Learn and Sing tour stop-off at Gloucester Leisure Centre was also the first live experience for actor Simon Pegg.

That confession also came with a recollection that those of us who were likely to don long black overcoats and spend hours dissecting music and lyrics by, to quote John Peel, ‘white boys with guitars’ were not overly well-served with live music on our doorstep in Gloucester.

SongsToLearnAndSingWhich is what prompted a bit of a telling off.

Still stick by that assertion, but a long-time friend who appears to be a relatively loyal reader (which rather narrows it down somewhat) was at a lot of those same gigs and remembers it rather differently.

She reeled off a list of gigs she had been to at the same venue – several of which had totally passed me by, either through lack of attention or some musical snobbery – and it was fairly impressive.

It was just compiled over the best part of a decade when those of us compiling a soundtrack to our teenage lives could have done with far more regular live outings and somewhere to see smaller, newer bands we had read about in the NME but were never going to fill the large box which was the sports hall at the Leisure Centre.

We eventually got one in the shape of Gloucester Guildhall – the old Mayor’s Parlour where generations of city children had assembled for their one invite to the annual Christmas Party, converted into an arts centre – which provided regular Friday night live music as my teens rolled towards an end and beyond (there’s a story about EMF and their video for Unbelievable, but we’ll get to that at some point, never mind an argument with the keyboard player of a minor indie band during their set).

And the Guildhall still offers an eclectic mix of live music and somewhere which needs frequenting a bit more often.

It also offers something the Leisure Centre never could – decent sound.

Far from flawless (but who needs Carnegie Hall at small live venues), but certainly much better than that echoey box – built for badminton and five-a-side football, not music – with the sound bouncing back off the walls end echoing around the walkways above.

Had no idea of this at first (certainly not as the Bunnymen were luring me into their web -warren?), but as my musical knowledge (and, let’s be honest, snobbery) took hold, it became ever more noticeable.

Didn’t stop me enjoying some great gigs there, mind.

Pixies
Pixies

And very near the top of the list of gigs there lie the Pixies. Suggest only The Smiths and the Bunnymen are alongside them in the top echelon (Radiohead took their place among my top gigs at later outings, not supporting James).

Pixies stand alone, however, as they got round the sound problems by being just so bleeding loud. And the word bleeding is used advisedly.

The only bands that can compete on volume are the Red Hot Chili Peppers (seen rather accidentally and who had to be loud in the vastness of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium) and Sugar, who seemed much louder but it was in a much smaller venue. Basically rather like being upstairs in a pub.

In an interesting take on their trademark, much-aped sound (which is what Kurt Cobain was trying to do when he wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit), they were quiet, loud, quiet, incredibly loud.

And they were fantastic.

Apart from the volume, the fact Frank Black (or whatever name he was using at the time) came across fairly unhinged and Kim Deal was… well, Kim Deal, two things stick in my mind from that night.

Firstly, the band opened behind a curtain which dropped at the end of the first song (Cecilia Ann?) into a thunderous Allison and, secondly, one of our group lost his watch and only recovered it after my full-blooded rugby tackle on half of the mosh pit.

All this – as any regular reader knows, if they are not too busy disagreeing with any of the above – acts as a preamble to working round to mentioning the latest batch of songs on the journey from A-Z on my iPod, which is sort of the whole point.

The latest section took us from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (one of those bands which many other people seem to rate much higher) to Stephen Malkmus (who deserves to be rated much higher by many other people), via plenty of Day and Dead songs.

Among them, of course, was Pixies’ Dead (the video at the top may have tipped you off on that one) from their classic Doolittle album (which may well pop up again in the next entry, as anyone with a working knowledge of its track listing should be able to work out).

They Might Be Giants pre-show coffee
They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants popped up with a, rather different, song of the same name, while there were some more interesting Dead songs, notably Dead Letter Office from King’s Daughter & Sons (ensuring the Americana quotient was sustained) and Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.

Not just The White Stripes’ version, but also a lovely acoustic rendering from a young singer songwriter, Juliana Richer Daily.

We’ve stumbled across her before on this trip, the regular videos she used to post on YouTube having popped up on my screen when looking for a version of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up (used in the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are) to use as background music in a video and getting diverted to hers.

More established artists popped up –  The Jam’s David Watts, the Guildhall-bound Wedding Present (twice) with Davni Chasy from their Ukrainian period, The Beatles, three times, with Day Tripper, which also (minus the space) reappeared by Otis Redding, and Billy Bragg’s Days Like These and its American version.

All together now… “Wearing badges is not enough, on days like these”.

 

 

 

 

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Bonus Beats to The Boy Done Good

SOME are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them over a few beers in an Irish bar.

Well, not exactly greatness, more the role of manager for a band and the fact they are unknown to all but a select few readers of this blog – including band members themselves – suggests great seriously overplays my ability in the role.

The Mighty Badger was – and, geography, childhood issues and opportunity allowing, still is on fleeting occasions – a band producing some unique takes on well-known songs.

My first contact with them came shortly after moving to Cardiff as one of my first housemates – most notable for taping hour after hour of Jerry Springer to watch endlessly over the weekends and wearing a range of novelty animal slippers – would head off once a week to play guitar in a band.

My stay there was brief (there is only so much time you spend in your bedroom trying to drown out shouts of “Jerry, Jerry” from the main room TV), but a move across town and switch of jobs later, it came out that the new colleague leaning against the bar with me had been introduced when he popped round to visit my former flatmate.

A little more chatting and a few more beers revealed another of my new colleagues and a couple of the guys who had just joined our group of drinkers made up the band our Jerry Springer-loving guitarist had since left.

IMG_0037Over a considerable number of more beers across the following months, many of them in The City Arms, friendships were formed and my next move across Cardiff was into the drummer’s spare room.

As tended to be the case, one Saturday night found us in Dempsey’s, one of our revolving rota of different venues once we had moved on from our City Arms early evening meeting place.

And over the top of a table crowded with pint glasses came the question: “Why don’t you manage us?”

Quite what, apart from the contents of those now empty glasses, persuaded them my particular brand of no musical talent, complete ignorance of how these things worked and total lack of organisational skills made me the right person for the job, doubt even they could tell you.

But, for a while there, my role as fourth Badger (never officially been culled, but as the four of us now all live well apart, there’s not much call for that job to be revisited) involved a lot of ferrying and lugging gear around, arranging gigs (not enough of that), buying band drinks during gigs (way too much of that), persuading the landlord we were worth paying (and then handing most of if back over the bar) and sorting out the sound.

That last job was (drink buying apart) my key role at gigs and involved a crash course in twiddling knobs to see what worked (helped by a quick tutorial from one gig goer which basically resulted in me shifting amps a few inches and cranking the master knob up until the threat of bleeding ears became a reality).

Move around the gig listening in various spots, making occasional tweaks to the levels and somehow people assumed it wasn’t just guesswork – which it generally was, given that most of the tweaks involved turning everything up as loud as possible to counteract the drummer’s insistence on smacking everything at full whack.

Once the sound was vaguely passable – or everyone was drunk enough not to care – it was time to stand back, enjoy the gig and watch the reactions of those who had never borne witness to The Mighty Badger in full flow.

Nodding heads would be replaced by quizzical looks and swift conversations. Were they really listening to Lionel Richie’s Hello, the theme for Minder or Through The Barricades by Spandau Ballet played at full volume and flat out?

Generally, they were pretty well received once people realised exactly what was going on and we even branched out on a couple of tours – Nottingham, Skegness and Boston – alongside Truck (or Shit Truck as they preferred not to be called).

The essence of rock ‘n’ roll is surely sleeping in a car outside a venue in Skegness after watching a sizeable pre-gig crowd disappear along with the landlord to watch Stiff Little Fingers.

As I said, Badger sightings are fleeting nowadays, but they remain captured for posterity after a night in a studio to record the three-track Dirty Bristow EP. Sure some survive somewhere (we had boxes full of them), but we certainly shifted a fair few.

The tracks, Son of A Preacher Man apart, wouldn’t have been my choice from their repertoire and it doesn’t quite capture the live energy, but it also included Through The Barricades and Born To Run, which popped up in the latest short section through my iPod from NWA to Billy Bragg.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street BandWe also stumbled across Springsteen’s original – judge for yourself who does the “1-2-3-4” better – Born To A Family by The Go-Betweens and The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel, whose music first really entered my world watching a pair of buskers in the harbour at St Ives as a child.

Born In 69 by Rocket From The Crypt captures one of those moments in time from when it popped up on a C90, just as we turned up a picturesque valley road en route to a skiing holiday.

And Bottle Rocket by The Go! Team sparks memories of a friend’s trip to hospital after a mid-gig coming together with their bass player.

We’ll come back to that one, but let’s just say there was not much sympathy in the office when news of the incident came through.

 

 

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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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Add It Up to Airportman

WOKE the other morning to headline news of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s ‘conscious uncoupling’.

Normally, this would have been met with justified indifference and an attempt to get at least a few more minutes in bed before stumbling the into shower.

But having initially misunderstood and thought Conscious Uncoupling was the bizarre name for their latest sprog, two startling concerns hit me.

First that we were going to be subjected to acres of newsprint wasted on something so desperately uninteresting to anybody not involved and, secondly, that Martin would use his feelings for a new Coldplay album.

The first, which has happened, is just about tolerable and easy to ignore. The second – and there are warnings of a new selection of songs to creosote to – is a fearsome prospect.

There is no Coldplay anywhere on the road from A to Z on my iPod and, while the second episode has not been littered with too many sparkling highlights, it has been infinitely superior to Martin and his cohorts’ earnest greyness.

Amid a wide selection of album tracks and songs burned off compilations given away with magazines were a few first entries from major bands who will pop up regularly – just not their best.

Three of those maiden appearances came from acts at the top of my best live gigs list – Ryan Adams, Radiohead and REM.

Radiohead (Airbag) have chalked up a hat-trick of gigs from supporting James at Gloucester Leisure Centre via a big tent in Newport to a stunning appearance at Cardiff’s International Arena.

REM appeared at track number 102 with Airportman – well after Bill Berry had left and they had ceased to be a reliable trademark for quality (Murmur to Automatic for the People must rank as one of the greatest run of top-quality albums from any band).

And their gig at the Newport Centre just as they were about to become massive ranks right at the top of my list.

Haven’t counted but Adams, who leads a growing collection of Americana in this list, will probably appear as much as anyone in this blog. That’s partly due to me being a bit of a completist and Adams’ lack of quality control (three albums in one year could easily have been squeezed into one).

But when he’s good – as he was at Wales’ Millennium Centre – he is very, very good.

At least one friend of mine will perk up at the very mention of Neil Young (who also appeared with After The Gold Rush as part of a recent attempt to study a few supposed classics) and acclaim him the greatest living singer-songwriter.

My feelings for Adams are not quite that strong, but he’s getting there, even if his first entry Afraid Not Scared only fits somewhere in the middle of his quality scale.

There were more firsts from Arcade Fire (After Life), Prefab Sprout (Adolescence from last year’s surprising validation of Paddy McAloon’s talents, Crimson/Red), Sufjan Stevens (the less than sparkling Age of Adz), Sonic Youth (Against Facism from their finest hour, Dirty), Carter USM (After The Watershed – probably the only song on this list to namecheck an ex-Hereford United goalkeeper) and the Violent Femmes, who kicked off this section with Add It Up. All will return.

Other notables included …And They Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead (Aged Dolls), who provided an answer in my favourite round of University Challenge.

The question required four clueless students to identify the three famous people after which the songs played were named after – Sylvia Plath by Ryan Adams, Einstein A Go Go by Landscape and Mark David Chapman by Trail of Dead. They got none, two of them will appear later in this list.

Annoyingly, Jeremy Paxman declined to say the band’s full name.

And so we rattle along to the end of this section and the end of the first 100 tracks. The honour of that landmark went to Wilco with a live version of Airline To Heaven, hot on the heels of the version they did with Billy Bragg as part of the Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie project.

So that’s 100 down (and another two, to be honest), just 11-odd thousand to go.

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