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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The Crapsons to Cygnus Vismund Cygnus

COMPARED with a lot of what has gone before over the past year, sleeping on a sofa with ready access to hot water, clean, flushing toilets, electricity and hot food without building a fire is a major luxury.

Even if going to bed each night generally starts by fighting with a large black Labrador over the prime spot (generally in a losing cause) – still far easier than blowing up an airbed which, by the end of our African adventure, needed topping up throughout the night.

IMG_0046
My roomie

Heading back to the real world has not been a complete culture shock – we were sort of eased back in by increasingly frequent beds over the closing weeks when even the electricity, if not the wi-fi, became (sort of) reliable – but it has taken some readjusting back to life at home.

Not helped by living in a state of limbo (a word which has appeared in my vocabulary over the last couple of months, along with, for some reason, mate. Where did that come from?) and still out of a bag until my future becomes a bit clearer.

Homeless, jobless and largely rootless on my return from Africa, it was time to throw myself on the kindness of others – my sister and her family homing and feeding me for the last two months, my old firm taking me back on a freelance basis, originally for the odd day, then supposedly for three days a week which very rapidly became five or six days.

My bank manager is eternally grateful.

That state of limbo (see, keeps popping up) is nothing new. It has sort of existed, in some form or other, for more than five years.

Since first quitting work in Cardiff to go travelling early in 2010, there’s never been a sense of permanence in my life. It took a bit longer than originally planned, but there was always another lengthy trip looming on the horizon.

It was supposed to be London to Sydney in 2012, but that one fell through (unused Indian and Nepalese passports sit in my old passport) and something similar always looked favourite before the Trans Africa grabbed my attention. And never let go.

SAM_0299
About to pop something in the oven

But at some point heading down West Africa – there was a lot of time to sit and think on the back of the truck – the decision was made that after reaching Cairo, it was time to head home and stay put for a while. Put down some roots somewhere familiar and get back to the career which was put on hold in Cardiff, working with some form of thought to future progression, rather than to future travel plans.

Not that travel is off the cards. Doubt there will be another trip of anything approaching this length, but the spotlight will switch to more shorter journeys – allied with a determination that at least one weekend a month will be dedicated to doing something, going somewhere, even if it is just following Gloucester to an away match. If nothing else, need to fit them all into annual holidays and as many lieu days as can be racked up (once the freelance gig is switched to something more permanent..

There’s plenty more American trips on the list, the remaining 11 states to tick off, Route 66 to drive and more soaking up of the familiar in Boston, New York and elsewhere. Further afield, there’s a few more sofas to be slept on in Australia and New Zealand (although that one will have to wait at least a couple of years), while Cape Town and more time in the rest of South Africa head the list of spots for an African return.

And Europe is, relatively speaking, on the doorstep.

For now though, the focus remains on life back home – settling on something more secure for work, somewhere to live and taking control of my life, rather than relying on the kindness of others.

And, of course, making the most of those little things we take for granted but which became more of a luxury the longer we were away from home.

SAM_0532
Handy for digging, not that good for cover

Not that we minded being without – bush camps with a total lack of facilities, other than a shovel, were one of the mainstays of the trip and one most us relished, at least in the dry – but it is nice to have constant electricity you can rely on not to cut out constantly (one poor musician in Calabar, Nigeria, never made it through a single song without it cutting out on him), wi-fi that doesn’t take an age to load each page and showers. Hot or cold, we really didn’t mind after a while.

Cold beer and hot pies have to appear on that list as well, but top of the list has to be proper toilet facilities.

Some of the toilets we encountered – when there were any at all – were the stuff of nightmares, but when you’ve got to go…

And while the current night-time trip to the loo may involve trying to let sleeping dogs lie and not let cats through the door to start chaotic pet wars, that pales into insignificance to rooting around for a head torch and picking your way to a suitable spot.

At bush camps, that suitable spot (for the boys at least) was often just round the back of the tent. At campsites, whether you risked that or made the trip to the toilet block generally came down to whether there was a security guard with a gun in the vicinity.

But back to the familiar it is and, for me, that means back to the A-Z trawl through the contents of my iPad.

Picking up where it left off 12 months ago, the first job was to complete the final furlong through those starting with C, which took us from Pulled Apart By Horses to The Mars Volta and through the 2,000 mark (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles).

Fittingly, it was back to a lot of hugely familiar songs and artists – Crash by The Primitives, Creep by Radiohead, Creme Brulee by Sonic Youth, Crocodiles, Crystal Days and four versions of the The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen, Cruisers Creek by The Fall, The Crystal Lake by Grandaddy, Cut Your Hair by Pavement and Cuyahoga by REM.

And that’s another long journey which can continue as normality returns…

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The Boy Done Wrong Again to Broken Household Appliance National Forest

A LATE change of travel plans put me in a sweltering New York for July 4, 2010, having opted to leave the dwindling number of my overland travel companions still in Boston.

Back in Boston, my former colleague, housemate and fellow traveller Nick was heading out on an Independence Day pub crawl in the company of a Birmingham City fan he had bumped into at our hostel sporting a vintage Whitesnake T-shirt.

My night ended looking after an emotional Aussie somewhere in Brooklyn in the early hours, way too late considering the time a hire car was due to be collected.

Nick’s night ended with him getting married.

Not immediately. This is not the tale of an Englishman abroad waking up to find he had stumbled drunkenly into an all-night wedding chapel with a girl he had just met.

But four years on, Nick and Sufia – the girl who had serenaded ‘Whitesnake’ the night before, recognised the same T-shirt 24 hours on and struck up a conversation with the English bloke at the bar – tied the knot this month.

The Big Moment
The Big Moment

After plenty of transatlantic comings and goings, red tape and a crash course in visa requirements, they became a married couple in Charleston, South Carolina, which turned up the heat, humidity and enjoyment to the maximum.

Charleston is one of those American cities built on its past with a well-preserved historic region.

Some of those cities seem to seal off such areas hermetically and appear to feel just being old (by US standards) makes them historic without worrying too much about whether anything happened to put them in the history books. Almost like staying in a US history theme park.

But Charleston genuinely does offer history and a striking downtown area, which also manages to come across as a living city – helped by a healthy student population – and provides plenty to see and do before and after dark, without constantly feeling ye olde touriste guide is going to pop up to tell you about somebody born on this spot that nobody outside the state has heard about.

It is also an ideal spot for a select group of transatlantic guests who gradually congregated as the wedding week went on, reaching peak numbers for the ceremony itself.

Headline News
Headline News

And so, for any locals paying attention, a growing number of Brits could be seen sweating their way around town under the blistering sun, making full use of the hotel lobby’s soothing air con and bottomless supply of fruit-infused water, puzzling over a mysterious quacking noise, leaving their bag in a taxi (safely returned), losing their wallet while shopping (not returned), falling asleep in a bar (two of those last three may have been the same person), testing out the best way to eat eggs in a range of breakfast spots (don’t ask for them dippy), convincing barmen to plug their phone’s music into the PA, confirming that all the bars closed at 2am and, for more than one of us, sleeping off the after effects of the rehearsal dinner as the main build-up to the wedding.

There may even have been some salsa dancing at some point, but that’s as blurry as many of the selfies which were taken.

Which all paved the way for the wedding itself, an early evening, outdoor affair in the grounds of the 19th Century William Aiken House, home to the ceremony and the initial celebrations as US and British cultures came together (one seems more comfortable in front of a camera and audience).

The evening moved on – until that seemingly magical 2am Charleston cut-off – at the adjoining American Theater, an old-style converted cinema which hosted a live band which provided the soundtrack to a memorable evening and the backing for the would-be singers to climb on stage, including the bride’s version of Don’t Stop Believing backed by her new husband on drums.

A lovely way to round off a wonderful week before, over the space of the next few days, goodbyes were said and we headed off, either home or to a brief bout of further travelling.

My second week took me down the coast (of which more in a later post) to Savannah, Georgia and, via a figure of eight, up to Wilmington, North Carolina before heading back to a flight home from Charleston via Newark and a rather fortuitous upgrade to business class (again, more to come).

The soundtrack to that second week contained the customary frustrations of US FM radio – no sooner have you found a station worth listening to than it fades out and you have to go searching for something else.

My iPod supplied a welcome break from all that but not with the A-Z challenge, which took a break for the fortnight after reaching 1,200 with Broken Household Appliance National Forest by Grandaddy.

SophtwareIt’s a great track, but it is one of those which somehow sounds so much better when listened to as part of the album which gave birth to it, in this case the excellent Sophtware Slump.

One of the tracks which popped up just before heading up was The Boy With The Thorn In His Side by The Smiths, which also appeared late one night amid a slightly indie 80s playlist which mixed with those mysterious quacking noises on a rooftop bar in Downtown Charleston. Great company, great music, great setting.

The Cure popped up multiple times (both on the rooftop and out on the road), as did Echo and the Bunnymen (rooftop only) and they both appeared on the A-Z with, respectively, Boys Don’t Cry and two airings of Bring On The Dancing Horses.

Belle & Sebastian kicked off this section and reappeared with their classic The Boy With The Arab Strap (now safely reclaimed from ubiquity from its spell as the theme for Teachers), while Paul Simon popped up both solo (The Boy In The Bubble) and alongside Art Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water also covered by Johnny Cash.

An excellent little run also included three versions of Bring The Noise by Public Enemy, two of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop, Breed by Nirvana, the guilty pleasure which is Brilliant Mind by Furniture and three outings for Brassneck by The Wedding Present.

Which seems fitting.

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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.

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