David Bowie – Absolute Beginners (1986)

“Absolute Beginners” is a love song. Therefore it should come as no surprise that today’s blog is primarily about the power of love (yes, feel free to either start singing either the Jennifer Rush operatic power ballad or the Frankie Goes To Hollywood festive epic, depending upon which now is winning for dominance inside your head).

I’m posting this as Sal and I celebrate 25 years as a married couple (not forgetting the that we have actually been together for 31 years as a couple following the historical events of the 6th March 1986 at legendary Newport nightspot, Lazers Nightclub, Stow Hill, Newport), and are embarking on our own silly week of celebrations just because we bloody well can.

“Absolute Beginners” is our song. It was released on 3rd March 1986, just as we were getting together (with the invaluable assistance of friends from both sides who could see that something was going on between the two of us). Yes, it involved me pulling her off a chair and causing a slight back injury. Yes, it involved some serious decisions about what to wear. It also involved finding ourselves in the centre of a bar fight with the result of a table full of drinks getting tipped over us. Ah, the power of romance, eh?

As the single tracked up the singles chart, it seemed to perfectly match the heady rush of that initial burst of falling in love – it only reached number 2 (which in retrospect seems to equally perfectly capture the perfectly imperfect nature of our personal history together, but more of that later maybe). It is perhaps one of Bowie’s greatest love songs, and certainly qualifies as perhaps the highlight of his entire post-“Let’s Dance” 80s output… unless you happen to be a fan of Tin Machine (but let’s not open up that particular container of worms).

Ready for some romance? Here goes:

 

It is practically perfect as a love song.

“Absolute Beginners” was written as the title song for the film of the same name, itself based upon the book of the same name that was written by Colin MacInnes and set in the jazz revolution of 1950s London, telling a story of young love in the midst of race riots and teenage rebellion. Bowie had been approached by the director of the film, infamous Sex Pistols associate Julian Temple (who had directed the long form video for Bowie’s single “Blue Jean” from the disappointing “Tonight” album), to write the title song and only agreed upon condition that he was cast in the film as the “villain” – advertising executive, Vendice Partners.

The film was expected to be the British cinematic event of 1986, featuring such acting talent of the new starlet Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, James Fox and Steven Berkoff mixed in with such British music luminaries such as Sade, Ray Davies (of The Kinks) and Ed Tudor-Pole (of Tenpole Tudor). It flopped. Not only did it flop, it was was also critically beaten about the head until it suffered traumatic injuries – which was sad because it was not entirely the terrible stinker of a film that it was made out to be at the time. It suffered from such extreme hype that it was never ever going to live up to expectations. You can get it on blu-ray and dvd depending upon your chosen viewing platform. It is worth a watch.

Honestly… you can trust me.

However, I digress. Bowie’s title song sparkled and gained a life outside and unconnected with the film, including becoming “our song”:

I’ve nothing much to offer
There’s nothing much to take
I’m an absolute beginner
But I’m absolutely sane
As long as we’re together
The rest can go to hell
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
With eyes completely open
But nervous all the same

 

If you have read my blog on the Iggy Pop song “Shades”, you will already know something about my 30+years relationship with Sal, who has now been my wife for twenty five years. Our relationship has been a defining factor in both our lives, since the day that we started going our with each other when we were both sixth students in the same comprehensive school sixth form.

We have managed to continue our relationship through our university years: she lived at home and went to her local teacher training college where she did her BEd (Hons) degree so she could become a primary school teacher (although she had actually wanted to become a nursery nurse but had been told that she was too clever and should aim for teaching), whereas I went off to Nottingham for three years to undertake a degree in Creative Arts thinking that I would spin off into a life of imaginative, inspirational artistic adventure across various media outlets. Then I realised that I needed to get a “proper job” so I spent another year living in the multicultural delights of Birmingham where I did my year of teacher training on a PGCE course, whilst Sal moved to Aldershot to start her career as a primary school teacher. We lived in Hampshire for a while, then we moved to Bridgend in South Wales where I worked as the only drama teacher in a tiny secondary school in the devastated mining valleys, before we moved down to Newquay where we have made our home now for twenty years, and have raised our two boys.

Has it been easy?

Is it ever?

Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can’t shake
Oh, we’re absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you’re still smiling
There’s nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We’re certain to succeed

 

We both felt like rejects during our teenage years, and very little has really happened to change that feeling of not fitting in either with the way that society tells us we should be living our lives, or what we should be doing with our time, or all the other combined pressures that can be brought to bear upon individuals – you know the phrase “death by a thousand cuts”?. Yeah, I think society operates like that.

We found strength in each other, even though people were surprised when we initially became a couple because we were quite unlike each other in terms of personality – Sal was a very quiet and quite introverted character who was passionate about dance and art and all things musical theatre, whilst I had gained a bit of a reputation for being a class clown and constant performing idiot which is not really surprising considering that I had my own passions about theatre and art and music. People were surprised as we were considered to be polar opposites: she was quiet to the point of almost hardly ever saying a word whilst I would be egocentric to the point of almost possibly never shutting up.

Time has brought us closer to each other in that she now has loads more confidence, and comes across with much more self-confidence (although I know that Sal would say that she feels as insecure as she always felt back then), and I’ve seen her grow through a couple of career changes including standing for election as a county councillor. On the other hand, I have quietened down to the point of being extremely quiet and now take much longer to take decisions to speak coz I believe that it needs to be worthwhile or it is probably best not to say anything, even though many of my students would probably say I still have an excess of character (but that is part and parcel of the job – you’ve got to make it interesting and engaging other wise you and the students might as well bugger off home if they are not interested enough to actually attempt to do some learning).

We still feel like it is us against the world – sometimes this has been good because sometimes the world has conspired to fuck things up for us. Sometimes it has not been good because there have been times when perhaps we may have made our home too much like a castle to protect our family. You can only look back on things with the benefit of hindsight and decide that there may have been a better or simply different way of dealing with things. We both have regrets, and that is good – I don’t trust people who say they have no regrets.

Oh let’s do a live version for a minute…

 

So do I have any words of wisdom gleaned from 25 years of marriage, and 31 years of being part of a partnership? Not really.

My eldest boy has been in a committed relationship for several years now and they have a wonderful two year old daughter – they are doing things their way. Not the way I would have done things but I can’t say for definite that I know my way has been the right way – because they have been times when I’ve felt that it wasn’t. I went to university, got a well paid job and then had to cope with all the stresses and struggles that come with the life of working in education. The only thing that I ask is that they do what they believe if right – to bring up their daughter in the way they feel is right, and to earn their living in the way they feel is right, and to treat people in the way they feel is right.

I can put my hand on my heart and say that I tried my very best to always do what I thought was right – most of the time. Hey, nobody is perfect.

If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Could laugh at the ocean
Just like the films
There’s no reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It’s absolutely true

 

So happy anniversary to us – we are treating ourselves to whatever we bloody well feel like, because we have worked hard and not given up even when things turned to shit and life became really fucking hard… because that’s what you do when you love somebody – you don’t give up on them, and they don’t give up on you.

That will be the story of the next 25 years, if we are lucky enough to live long enough to see our 50th wedding anniversary. I fully expect to see difficult times ahead. I also fully expect to see good times filled with fun and laughter.

Fuck it – have another live version

 

So if you are lucky enough to find “the one” – that special person who is your soul mate, treasure every single aspect of that experience (even the shit times) because I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without her.

Where’s the champagne and the hot tub?

 

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Christine and The Queens – Tilted (2016)

One of the saddest signs of getting older (yeah, that’s the polite way of saying old) is when you stop giving a damn about what new music is being released, and what exciting new musicians are creating brilliant new styles of music and sound out there in the weird and wacky world that we call home. It happened to at some point in the 2010s… or it might have been earlier… I think.

To be honest, I can’t really tell you the point that I stopped actively exploring and caring about hearing new music. I can’t remember a specific day when I remember saying “screw that new sounding stuff”. I don’t know whether it was to do with the rise of online streaming services rather than listening to the radio (which I sadly do less and less these days than at any previous point in my personal history). I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision to stop looking out for new artists and new genres or something that just crept upon me entirely by accident. I think it was probably a slow decline and surely was something that became less and less important in my life as I found myself listening to less radio.

Why? Well, I see radio DJs as guardians of the mystical portal to new music experiences through the decisions that are made when it comes to deciding what music to put on playlist (and what music to leave off). I wonder what amazing and mind-blowing songs I missed during the 70s, 80s and 90s because DJs decided not to include them in their playlists. However, at least decisions were made that resulted in new music being played that got me into countless artists across countless singles and albums and countless musical movements. However, with the advent of streaming services, I found myself in the position of having to make all those decisions myself – yes, they might make recommendations based upon my listening habits but it feels like the choices are more on my shoulders to click on that link or not, often based upon single or album cover image and some often spurious link with some aspect of my music collection. Oh my goodness, this is stupendously difficult. How do I make that choice of musicians that I’ve never heard of? Albums artwork? Recommended albums by whatever algorithm the streaming service uses? Random bleeding luck?

I have to confess that “Tilted” is not a song that I heard first on the radio – I know, damn this blog for a slight cheat. I saw Christine and The Queens on television. What I saw blew my mind.

This is what I saw:

 

I don’t know if it the combination of the dance choreography that was different from the usual pop choreography styling (yeah, you know that stuff that I’m talking about), the French tilt to the vocals (did you see what I did there? thank you very much) or the simple brilliance of the song? Whatever it was that was the magic ingredient, I thought that it was a brilliant piece of pop music.

Amazing!

I’ll die way before Methuselah
So I’ll fight sleep with ammonia
And every morning, with eyes all red
I’ll miss them for all the tears they shed
But I’m actually good
Can’t help it if we’re tilted
I’m actually good
Can’t help it if we

 

It catapulted Christine and The Queens (and just exactly who or what are these mystical Queens, are they the dancers and the makers of the music – and that shows a slightly sexist assumption that Christine herself is not the magical maker of the music, so apologies for that) into pop stardom, resulting in nominations for BRIT awards, and another brilliant performance at the BRIT nominations show.

 

She knows her moves.

I am actually good
Can’t help it if we’re tilted
I am actually good
Can’t help it if we
I am actually good
Can’t help it if we’re tilted

 

Of course “Christine” is not really Christine at all but in fact she is actually Héloïse Letissier – singer, dancer, songwriter and producer, and all round creative and individual free-spirit. There is reason for her “Queens” too! It was upon visiting London in 2010 that she visited some drag queen performances, and adopted the Christine and The Queens stage persona in recognition of the influence of drag queen culture upon her music (and general outlook in life), which she has described as “freakpop”, perhaps reflecting her absolute acceptance of people of all sexualities and genders (as she refers to herself as pansexual). Her initial EP releases were sung in her native French – and the original French language version of “Tilted” was actually called “Christine” and was perhaps the signature, introductory song to the concept of the band.

Even in French, which I don’t speak at all, the song remains incredibly catchy – oh, and take not of that brilliant video performance:

 

However, something extra special happened with it was decided to release an English language version of the song (although still with significant sections still making use of French, perhaps reflecting her very twenty-first century outlook upon life that refuses to be defined by simple labels).

I miss prosthesis and mended souls
Trample over beauty while singing their thoughts
I match them with my euphoria
When they said, “je suis plus folle que toi”

 

When I heard “Tilted”, I admit that I feel in love with the song (and possibly a little with the idea of Christine and her Queens), and found myself playing it many times. Yes, it has synthesised similarities with many 80s artists of my youth, but the unrepentant international nature of the song brought something additional to the mix. Was this after the EU referendum? I don’t know and I don’t care to be honest because I grew up in times when this country (and the people in it) were proud to be outward looking citizens of the world rather than the small-minded protectionist and (worryingly) increasingly racist anti-foreign zealots that seem to have taken control of so much of the hearts and minds of this once-great nation.

Is that putting it too strongly?

Well, that’s how I think and I refuse to be bullied by some new religion that suggests a single referendum is the end of debate and discussion and growth and change.

Wow – that was an unexpected direction to take…

Enjoy the bloody song:

 

Yeah, love it.

Unsurprising really considering that I grew up on Bowie’s androgyny and Roxy’s gutter glamour, and then the joy of the early electronic 80s.

Yeah, I’m pretending to be French and loving it.

So send me your suggestions for new music – I’m ready for it all again.

Thanks Christine!

 

 

Linkin Park – Numb (2003)

So here we find ourselves again – desperately sadly, it was announced two days ago that Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, had taken his own life at the age of 41. If only to emphasise the terrible sense of tragedy and loss, Chester Bennington took his own life on what would have been the birthday of his friend and inspiration Chris Cornell, who also died by taking his own life earlier this year. Both were musical icons: Cornell of the Seattle based Grunge movement (popularised by Nirvana, who also lost their lead singer, Kurt Cobain, to suicide) whilst Bennington was perhaps the emotional centre of the Nu-Metal movement (popularised by Limp Bizkit). Both battled with demons. Both succumbed to the darkest of moments.

Nu-metal was a musical movement that I struggled to get into. I bought a copy of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” album (released in 1999) purely upon the basis of one track called “Break Stuff” which seemed to fuel my then desire for some angry music, but quickly realised that it was mostly a pile of shite. As I investigated the various other bands that made up the nu-metal lexicon, I came to the perhaps unfair conclusion that much of the nu-metal music was being made by “jocks” of the variety that I had never got on with during my school years. If you are unfamiliar with the events that took place during and after Limp Bizkit’s performance at Woodstock ’99, there was violence against property and people including a number of sexual offenses.

However, Chester Bennington particularly did not fall into this “jock” stereotype. Slight of figure, often wearing spectacles, he seemed to be much closer to the image of people like Rivers Cuomo of indie-rock wimpsters Weezer. The music created by Linkin Park was perhaps (along with Korn) the best expression of nu-metal’s mash-up (hey, check the modern lingo) of metal and hip-hop inspired turntable squeeks and squarls.

“Numb” may not have been the first song by Linkin Park that I heard on the radio but it certainly was their first that captured my attention:

 

“Numb” is a great slice of the type of self-loathing rock that America seems to be so great at producing – think of Nirvana and so many of the other grunge bands like Soundgarden who targeted their punk ire at their own perceived inadequacies. If I sound a bit superior here, I don’t mean to be. When I think of British angry, punkish music, it tends to target outward sources to vent against whereas some of the best equally angry, American punkish music tends to focus inwards. Maybe this is a consequence of  the American fascination with therapy culture? I don’t know.

I’m tired of being what you want me to be
Feeling so faithless, lost under the surface
I don’t know what you’re expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow

 

When I wrote a blog about the Audioslave song “Be Yourself” in response to the tragic death of Chris Cornell, I wrote that I hoped people would use this as an opportunity to talk about the epidemic of male suicide that certainly seems to be sweeping the UK and the USA at the moment. We live in times when, according to figures released in 2015, male suicide was the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45 – more so than cancer, violent murder (whether by knife-crime or gun-crime), or heart disease etc. The current estimation is that an average of 12 men take their own lives every day in the UK – yes, that means one man kills himself every two hours on average.

So what can be done?

Well, there are organisations that are starting to try to change the culture that make it difficult for men to seek help at those darkest of moments.

I previously mentioned an organisation called CALM: the Campaign Against Living Miserably. Here is a video they have produced:

 

The statistics are really frightening, as shown in this video produced by CALM:

 

What I find truly shocking is that CALM was founded in 2006, and the figures are still at a worryingly high level now over ten years since it first started (and that is in no way intended as an excellent criticism of the excellent work that CALM does). Why? Even though people say that mental health provision deserves equal attention and provision, the reality of living in times of austerity is that people will direct limited money and resources to the areas that are perhaps the most obvious and visible or just popular to deal with. Mental health is difficult – and difficult things are often the things that are difficult to attract funding.

However, a number of other organisations are now also starting to step up and try to find the practical solutions to help men when it comes to these troubling issues. For example, there is a collection of barber shops who recognise they have a key position to be able to provide men with a forum for being able to talk about their problems. It is called the The Lions Barber Collective. Here is the link to their website:

http://www.thelionsbarbercollective.com/about-us

Then you have the “Men’s Sheds” organisation, who encourage older men to come together in a workshop style practical setting, where they can talk to each other whilst engaged in practical tasks like renovating furniture etc. The theory is that men are more likely to be open about their worries and problems when they don’t directly face other men but are able to talk whilst focused on their practical tasks, working side by side with other men (and women) who have similar interests. Here is the link to their website:

http://menssheds.org.uk/

 

I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there
Become so tired, so much more aware
By becoming this all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you

 

I know people have been deeply affected by both the suicide of Chester Bennington and the previous death of Chris Cornell. I’d like to think that I won’t be posting another blog about another middle aged musician who takes his own life but I just don’t see us getting to the heart of the issues that quickly. Particularly when you get reactions like the one posted in a Twitter tweet by Brian “Head” Welch, the 46 year old guitarist of nu-metal pioneers Korn, who described Bennington’s suicide as “cowardly”. This attitude typifies the stigma that is often a central reason why so many men will not seek help when their depression or individual demons start to get the better of them. This is something that needs to be challenged with a zero tolerance attitude. Unsurprisingly, Brian Welch deleted the tweet when it became clear how upset many people were of his attitude towards Bennington’s death.

Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?
Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control
‘Cause everything that you thought I would be
Has fallen apart right in front of you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow
And every second I waste is more than I can take!

 

I’m certain that over the next few weeks people will trawl through every single Linkin Park lyric, especially from the latest album (“One More Light”) that was only released a month before Bennington’s death. It won’t be surprising of they uncover anything as the lyrics were very open in their treatment of the anxieties felt by Chester Bennington. What needs to be examined is the larger issue of why men, particularly in their 30s/40s/50s are killing themselves in such high numbers.

We need to talk about this.

So, if you have a brother… talk to him.

If you have a father… talk to him.

If you have a husband or brother… talk to him.

If you have a son… talk to him.

Maybe that will be a start…

Take care of each other.

 

Queen and David Bowie – Under Pressure (1981)

There was a time when getting two of your favourite musical artistes of one song was like a major life-affirming events, Seriously. It was such a rare event that something like “Under Pressure” was a seismic event. Nowadays, the likes of Ed Sheeran seems to be “collaborating” with everybody – no matter who they are. Pharrell seems to be even worse, and let’s not get started about Will-I-Am. Collaborations are the name of the game these days. Does it result in brilliant songs? Well, I leave that to your artistic judgement to decide.

I believe that modern pop collaborations are a cynical market driven ploy to maximise combined fan bases to get a song maximum airplay, maximum streaming publicity and first week downloads. Like many things in life these day, I find myself hating it with a vengeance primarily because it reeks of cynical market driven forces that have managed to suck the life and joy out of just about every single aspect of living these cynical post-millennium days. Yeah, every new Coldplay album brings another collaboration. Oh, the joy is uncontained.

However, back in 1981, something magical happened – Queen and David Bowie released a single together called “Under Pressure”.

It was and still is magical:

 

Yeah, sorry that the official video is a bit rubbish but do remember that was back in 1981 when even videos weren’t really considered to be videos, they were just clips to put on Top of the Pops when the band was not going to be able to play live in the studio – and who could actually expect Queen and Bowie to do a poxy TOTP appearance? Yeah, exactly. Cool yer boots, there is a nice video that goes with the slight remix that was put together some years later. I’ve also found a couple of live versions that should generate a little excitement.

Let’s just remind yourself of one small but important piece of information that is easily overlooked in today’s mash-up collab heavy culture of today – tis bleeding QUEEN and equally bleeding BOWIE on the SAME BLEEDING SONG, INNIT!!!!

Yeah, I just needed to get that out of my system – apologies if my tiny bit of bad language offended your finer sensibilities there… I’ll try my very best not to repeat that. Phew!

As you may have guessed, Bowie was a fundamental influence upon my musical life and sense of individuality – from hearing “Starman” on the radio when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, all the ways through the art-rock Berlin years, through the mega successful 80s, and then into the artistic rejuvenation of the 90s. The fact that you could change your personal style like the much quoted chameleon that he was often described as. Bowie sound-tracked much of my early teens, along with Roxy Music, who provided a bit of glamour and style to my family circumstances of growing up in dull, beige South Wales – circumstances that were sometimes difficult and challenging in Thatcher’s Britain.

However, Queen were also a fundamental staple of my radio based musical diet back then too – anybody who grew up in 1970s cannot deny the life-changing moment of hearing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Radio 1 for the first time, or the first moment of seeing the famous video on TOTP.

So, here they were together on one single. Wow! I mean, wow!

Oh, and that song features one of the most recognisable bass-lines ever in the history of bass playing, thanks to big hair and shy talent of John Deacon. Just don’t mention Vanilla Ice.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

 

But you guys don’t want me to talk about music, do you?

No, you want an entertaining rant about something.

Here goes…

Read that fragment of lyrics again – couldn’t it easily be a song that was written now, in these difficult times of austerity and Brexit and Trump and whatever the hell comes next?

We live lives that are increasingly dominated by pressure – and that pressure seems to have grown and increased since I was a teenager growing up back in the 70s and 80s. Yeah, I remember the difficult times of growing up in the 1980s, when my dad was unemployed. I remember my parents arguing about things like lack of money back when I was a teenager, and I also remember thinking that I wanted my life to be different. Not that I wanted to become a money grabbing yuppie wearing red braces and investing in stocks and shares. No, I just wanted to have an interesting life that was not dominated by domestic chores and the wage slavery created by bills. I wanted to become an artist, or a performer, or a musician. I just didn’t want to argue about money.

Yeah, how is that for youthful idealism, eh?

I’m interested in how people manage to live a life that is completely separated from the system. I’m sure there are lots of people who live in caravans or houseboats or other such alternative accommodation choices who convince themselves they are living “off-grid” or outside the system. I’m sure that some manage to achieve this lofty goal but, unless they are living a la “The Good Life” in a completely self-sustaining manner that requires no electricity, water, sewerage etc, then I really question whether people who claim to live an alternative lifestyle are really doing so or whether they have merely managed to reduce their participation in the “shit-stem” (as described by dear old John Lydon).

I really loved the idea of “The Good Life” when I was young, the idea of not going to work and just creating a completely self-sustained way of life – growing your own crops, farming your own livestock etc. Of course, I now realise that this would require so much dedication and hard work that I don’t know whether I would have the self-discipline necessary to maintain that type of lifestyle choice. I didn’t stick with my original choice of living as a creative artist for very long. However, after maintaining a teaching career for approximately 23 years, maybe I do have that level of dedication? Feel free to put your opinions on a stamped, addressed enveloped and send it to the usual address.

Nowadays, the idea of being “alternative” seems to be not very alternative at all to be honest – whack on some tribal style tattoos and put your hair into dreadlocks, or a Mohican, or whatever and you can claim to be alternative but you can still find yourself working in bank, or whatever career choice people have decided for themselves. Even the idea of going to art college seems to lack the revolutionary aspect that it might have done back in the days when John Lennon and Bryan Ferry were art school graduates. I fully expected to turn into one of these “crusty” type art school types, living life in self-imposed financial poverty but pursuing artistic purity – however, life tends to get in the way of dreams and reality gives us a bloody big thwack around the head.

So, here I find myself, having graduated with my Creative Arts (Hons) degree in 1991 – with my mortgage and my responsible job, looking back and wondering where all this pressure has come from. I think it might be the difference between the illusion that we convince ourselves that we are in control of our destinies and the reality that everything can be lost in an instant.

Ultimately, the worst pressure is created by me.

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming, “Let me out!”
Tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people – people on streets

 

People on streets.

Damn, this song gets more and more relevant with each and every passing lyric.

People on streets – yup, the numbers of people on streets has been growing and growing in my lifetime. I can remember when it was rare to walk through a town and see a person huddled in a doorway, swaddled in layers of the warmest and most waterproof possible clothing, with cardboard and sleeping bag to provide shelter from the harsh environment.

Now, I can barely count a day when I walk through town and I don’t see “people on streets”.

Is this what we want our once glorious nation to be like?

I hope not – because it still shocks me to think that we, as a nation, allow this to happen when there are buildings lying empty.

 

Under pressure.

Yeah.

It has been a pretty pressurised year for reasons that I’m just not going to go into here – and I’m not going to go into reasons to explain why I’m not going into reasons! Those who know will know why. And I know that some of you know why! And now you know that I know – clear.

So, enough of my tangential nonsense.

Enjoy a live version from Queen at the height of their powers!

 

Here is Bowie doing his own take on the song along with the singular talent of Gail Ann Dorsey:

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (1984)

In my opinion, 1984 was a game-changer of a year. Later in the year, social consciousness would be raised to an entirely new level when Band Aid pricked the consciences of a nation, to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. In the context of yuppies, Thatcherism and the rise of consumerist culture, Band Aid was a comma that provided a much needed pause in our rush to wear red braces. However, there was another social revolution going on at the time – one that had been slowly growing since the start of the late 1970s and had been boosted in the early 80s with the advent of pop stars like Boy George. 1984 was the year when the pop charts voiced the desperate need for equality in terms of gay rights.

Bronski Beat, fronted by the helium voiced Jimmy Somerville, were instrumental in providing political impetus to the campaign for equality. There had always been a long tradition of camp in pop – whether that was likes of disco divas likes Sylvester, or the rampant individualism of the new romantics. This had been brought to a head when Boy George and Culture Club burst onto the music scene with their first single, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”, including a jaw-dropping and iconic appearance on Top Of The Pops. However, whilst Boy George was jaw-dropping in appearance, his public behaviour (at the time) remained very much in the tradition of the camp pop star shying away from confrontational statements about the treatment of gay people and homosexuality in general in favour of creating a family friendly image. This probably is most famously reflected in the much repeated quote where he was reported to say that he preferred to have a cup of tea rather than have sex.

Now I don’t want people to misinterpret me here – the influence of Boy George on the lives of countless people was huge, and I have come to admire him for his resilience and tenacity during times of personal crisis, but he was always about much more than being a gay man. Boy George’s raison d’etre was to encourage people to embrace their core personality and individuality in whatever form it showed itself, to embrace the process of transformation so any “ugly duckling” could turn themselves into a beautiful swan. Maybe Boy George’s greatest achievement was to create the groundwork that would in more recent times enable the increasing social acceptance of transgender people – even though Boy George (who was commonly labelled as a “gender bender” at the time) was clearly not a transgender person (and is not today).

What Bronski Beat did so brilliantly with “Smalltown Boy” was give voice to the often traumatic experiences of young gay men (and women too, obviously) when they decided to “come out” and be public about the truth of their sexuality – often with the results of being rejected by family and friends, and thereby making the decision to move away from home to a place where they could openly live in a culture that accepted them as an LGBT person (which would usually have to be a big city, like London, Birmingham, Manchester or Brighton, to name a few). It is a brilliantly catchy piece of pop music but it also gives you an insight into a totally different life experience – and isn’t this possibly the greatest thing that any art form can achieve, to create empathy?

 

It is one of those moments when the song and the accompanying video clip work together so brilliantly that you finish watching / listening with complete clarity about the intended meaning of the song. It is simply astounding.

You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face

Mother will never understand why you had to leave
But the answers you seek will never be found at home
The love that you need will never be found at home

 

Bronski Beat made the personal experience of being gay in 1984 into a political statement, or maybe it was rather about making a political statement about being gay in 1984 into a personal experience? They were not satisfied with just being openly gay pop stars. From their very beginnings, they were unhappy with what they viewed as the inoffensive and non-confrontational nature of contemporary gay pop stars. They wanted to be openly confrontational about the need to create equality for gay people – so much so that they called their debut album “The Age of Consent” because they wanted to change the law so the age of consent for homosexual sexual activity could be changed to be made equal to the age for heterosexual sexual activity. The inner sleeve listed the varying ages of consent for consensual gay sex in different nations around the world. At the time, the age of consent for sexual acts between men in the UK was 21 compared with 16 for heterosexual sexual acts, with several other countries having more liberal laws on gay sex.

Their more confrontational attitude was clearly exemplified by their second single, “Why?”, which forcefully made the point about the levels of violence that was often directed against people simply because of their sexuality. The same issue is presented in the lyrics of “Smalltown Boy” – it was sadly a very common experience.

Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy
You were the one that they’d talk about around town as they put you down

And as hard as they would try they’d hurt to make you cry
But you never cried to them, just to your soul
No, you never cried to them, just to your soul

 

I have never experienced this level of persecution and hatred, primarily because I’m not gay, even though I have had rumours swirled around by various people about my sexuality at different points in my life. Perhaps the closest that I have come to this is the number of slightly patronising and offensive comments that I have sometimes received (particularly back in the late 80s/early 90s) about being Welsh (usually resulting from stereotypes build up through figures such as Neil Kinnock etc.) but even that obviously does not come close the physical and verbal persecution that gay people have experienced. I’m just trying to build some empathy using the somewhat limited experiences of prejudice that I’ve had directed at me.

However, perhaps the main point of mentioning “Smalltown Boy” in the first place is to remind ourselves of how far we have come since those distant days of 1984. I would never have imagined that a conservative government would take the step who enable gay couples to get married (not the civil partnerships that were set up by the Labour Party back in the 90s) but here we are – perhaps it could be argued that the gay marriage legislation will be David Cameron’s legacy in the same way as the Northern Ireland peace process might be Tony Blair’s.

However, it has taken a very long time to get here – you have to remember that it was not even ten years ago, in 2008 to be precise, that the age of consent for homosexual acts was fully equalised with the heterosexual age of consent across the whole of the United Kingdom, with Northern Ireland being the last nation to make the equality set in law. Go back further in time and you will discover that the death penalty was actually applicable for men who committed acts of homosexual sex. When you study the story of the age of consent, and how it has changed particularly since the 1960s, it is not surprising to see why so many homosexual people feel that society has always had a problem with their sexuality. I sincerely hope that we can now say that society has moved beyond this – however I’m not so politically and socially naïve to think this as there continue to be issues with gay marriage in certain churches.

However, I’m also utterly confident that we will there and there will be full equality between people of different sexuality eventually. I have to remain positive and hopeful that people are essentially good, and want other people to be happy.

Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away
Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away

 

So watch now Jimmy Somerville with that amazing, soaring, sky scraping falsetto voice sing a stripped back piano and vocal version of “Smalltown Boy” that will, I guarantee, send a shiver down your spine. It not only reminds you of the stunning brilliance of that voice that was unsurprisingly subject of so much piss-taking when the song first came out, but it should also remind you of the haunting, tragic tone of the lyrics and the bleak reality they communicated about being gay in the early 80s.

It is stunning:

 

Isn’t that simply spine-tingling?

Yes, sometimes we need to be rightly ashamed of things that have happened either in our country’s historical past or sometimes even contemporary events such as the recent tragic fire in a high-rise tower block. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves the difficult questions of why things were ever allowed to happen. However, sometimes we also have to recognise that things have improved for certain specific groups of people in ways that we can perhaps never fully appreciate. I hope that life will continue to improve, whether this is for transgender persons or continuing to improve race relations or to tackle Islamaphobia.

“Smalltown Boy” reminds me this is possible.

 

Tears For Fears – Sowing The Seeds Of Love (1989)

Ah yes, I almost missed the 1960s. I was born in 1968 so I managed to experience two years of the heady days of psychedelic experimentation that founded the basis of so much modern music. Except, of course, that I have zero memories coz I was only a baby. Growing up in the 70s, I was continually reminded how great the 60s were supposed to be as they continued to play the likes of The Beatles on a daily basis on Radio 1, along with the newest music. The 60s were all conquering and all consuming. It took the punk generation of the late 70s to kick The Beatles out of play at least for a little while.

Tears For Fears were at the vanguard of early 80s synth-pop, releasing their first single in 1982, creating music that had a surface sheen that matched the likes of OMD, Yazoo, Depeche Mode etc but also had a slightly pseudo intellectual undercurrent. Their debut album, called “The Hurting”, was heavily influenced by the theories of Arthur Janov who had put together something called “primal therapy” in (yes, you guessed it) the 1960s. John Lennon had been his most famous patient in 1970. Just look through the song titles and you will get the flavour of the album: “Suffer The Children”, “Mad World”, “Change”. “Ideas As Opiates” is even named directly after a chapter from Janov’s book, “Prisoners Of Pain”.

“Sowing The Seeds Of Love” is not synth music based around primal scream therapy. It is the sound of a band trying to create an 80s version of The Beatles.

It also has a lovely video:

 

Yes, it is a very trendy late 80s video that is similar to the semi-animated / computer-effects laden videos that were epitomised by the likes of Peter Gabriel’s ground-breaking “Sledgehammer” video onwards (think of the likes of “And She Was” by Talking Heads, Paul Simon’s “The Boy In The Bubble” or others that I can’t be bothered to list right now). As somebody who had been a Tears For Fears fan since the first time I heard the first single mix of “Suffer The Children”, this video worried me because the of the California tans and gleaming white teeth of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith – it just seemed to show a distance of travel that now seemed miles away from my everyday experience back in rain-soaked South Wales.

However, we are heading ourselves away from the basic premise here about the weird and perhaps unwanted influence of the 1960s upon the 1980s.

High time, we made a stand
And shook up the views of the common man
The love train rides from coast to coast
DJ’s the man we love the most

 

It is important to remember that the influence of the 1960s extended beyond cultural signals such as music. It affected almost every sphere of human experience, especially politics and the social contract between the vastly differing elements of society so we didn’t blow everything up in a short lived and ultimately futile revolution as had happened in other countries.

The late 1980s was the time when I “got” politics. I had grown up in the relative leafy suburbs of a new town in South Wales, but even that had not been safe from the radical neo-liberal open market economic ideals and social experimentation that had characterisation the 80s under Margaret Thatcher’s new brand of Conservatism. My dad had been unemployed for most of the 80s, having grown up to become a relatively unqualified painter and decorator suffering from the age of DIY that had expanded under the new wave of home ownership at the vanguard of Thatcherism. I became a dedicated and evangelical performing arts student, and I had become highly influenced by the theatrical theories and socialist politics of Bertolt Brecht. Unsurprising when you consider that I was one of the “have nots” in a society that was increasingly divided on economic rather than class lines. Socialism was in my blood – and I was growing up in a time when socialism was quickly becoming a much derided idea.

Whilst not exactly an evangelical socialist anthem, certainly not of the sort you might expect from the likes of Billy Bragg or maybe even Paul Weller (in his Red Wedge years), “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” does manage to capture a sense of discomfort, dislocation and anger at the transitions taking place in society resulting from the new focus on individualism (and individual wealth accumulation) at the expense of any sense of collectivism or societal connections that had been at the forefront of the socialist movement and the previous post-war social contract (as epitomised by the formation of the NHS).

Could you be, could you be squeaky clean and smash any hope of democracy
As the headline says you’re free to choose
There’s egg on your face and mud on your shoes
One of these days they’re gonna call it the blues yeah, yeah
Sowing the seeds of love, seeds of love, sowing the seeds
Sowing the seeds of love, seeds of love, sowing the seeds

 

At the start of the decade, 80s music was seeped in sense of the future primarily due to extensive use of cheap synthesizers that had flooded the market from Japan, which had enabled creative but not technically proficient keyboard players to put together endlessly imaginative pop songs. Watch any episode of Top Of The Pops from 1980 until the end of 1984 and you will see an endless list of talent that fits into that precise description: Eurythmics, Yazoo etc. The two keyboard playing of the likes of Rick Wakeman had been replaced by the two finger playing of early Depeche Mode.

However, you then hit 1985 and pop experiences the seismic shift of Live Aid. During the first half of the decade, music had been dominated by the forward thinking optimism of new blood and the old guard had almost been effectively swept away by a tide of skinny ties, sharp suits, floppy fringed haircuts, and lots of scrap material used creatively for whatever Boy George was going to be wearing this week. I don’t remember many great singles from the likes of The Rolling Stones during this time. McCartney was putting out the likes of “The Pipes of Peace” or “Ebony and Ivory” which don’t exactly rank as his greatest musical achievements across his lifetime. Yet, it was the likes of Jagger, McCartney, The Beach Boys, Bowie, Queen, and others who had been around for donkey’s bleeding years who certainly did the best out of the Live Aid experience (especially at the Philadelphia concert which seemed laden with bands that I’d never heard of – who the hell was Joan Baez or Teddy Pendergrass or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young?).

The end result of this that music in the mid-80s took a turn towards the bland, although some might consider it a stretch to blame it entirely upon the shadow of Live Aid. Even Bowie’s mid 80s albums were generally bland commercial fair after the excellent pop-funk of “Let’s Dance”.

If I had been a listener of John Peel (yes, I don’t know either, except that I did go to sleep fairly early back then) then maybe I would have discovered a world of alternative wonders. However, I didn’t. So, as I despaired of the shite clogging up radio 1, I turned to my record library and started to work my way back into the 70s by listening to lots of early Bowie, Iggy and Roxy Music. So perhaps it was inevitable that I was priming myself for listening to new music that has perhaps what might be described as a “classic” (in other words 60s) feel to it.

Or maybe it was more simple than that? Maybe we were just surrounded by the culture of the 60s again?

Don’t believe me? Check this out:

 

Yes, thanks to that advert, my girlfriend became obsessed that I should be wearing boxer shorts and started buying me lots of slightly funny novelty patterned boxers to wear. It took me a long time to adjust coz I had never worn boxers before – I’d spend a comfortable and nicely supported lifetime in briefs thanks. Oh well, that’s fashion for you I suppose.

This fondness for the 60s found itself popping up in music all over the place. Lenny Kravitz would base his entire early career upon recreating the vibe of the 60s rock/blues thing. “Sowing The Seeds of Love” owes an obvious debt of gratitude to The Beatles – a far cry from the synth modernism of “Mad World” or even “Shout”. UK underground culture, whilst enjoying a new wave of wildly futuristic music in the form of Acid House and the entire warehouse party / rave culture, could not entirely resist this warmly nostalgic feeling as it found itself being christened as “The Second Summer Of Love” by the likes of the NME (desperate to create another youth movement after their peak years during the punk movement).

Indeed this 60s nostalgic vibe would find itself mixing with dance culture in unprecedented ways as we started to see a new wave of bands who were clearly influenced by both, such as The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays who both led a charge towards Madchester and the so-called baggy scene (as epitomised by the flared jeans and baggy hoodies that were favoured by the increasingly style free hordes who worshipped at the alter of baggy). This was a long slow burn that would eventually lead to the creation of an even more celebratory music and style culture (heavily influenced by the 1960s) that would dominate the UK scene in the mid-90s: Britpop.

Politician granny with your high ideals
Have you no idea how the majority feels?
So without love and a promised land
We’re fools to the rules of a government plan
Kick out the style, bring back the jam, yeah, yeah

 

Perhaps it was due to the cultural impact of Margaret Thatcher winning her third consecutive election victory but there was a feeling of something in the air – not that I expected the charge towards some kind of socialist utopia to be led by the likes of Tears For Fears. Yet the lyrics make a clear reference to the “politician granny” that was Margaret Thatcher, whilst also calling for Paul Weller to get his head of his Style Council noodling and to re-engage with society by re-forming The Jam.

Heady stuff this political protest music, eh?

Hey, try this rather nice orchestral version from some kind of Proms style concert somewhere out there:

 

Is it me or there a bit of a weird ending on that?

Ultimately, whilst “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” dabbles with righteous political anger, it is not quite on the same level as the Manic Street Preachers who were starting to make their presence felt on the indie punk scene. It isn’t even “Warriors Of The Wasteland” by well known political activists Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

What it is is actually a call to be nicer to each other – yes, it harks back to that 60s ideal of brotherly and sisterly love. Hey man – probably not a bad idea when you look around at the shit fest of a world that we find ourselves living in today.

Oops… I almost went all political then.

The impact of the prolonged process of making “The Seeds of Love” album doomed the partnerships between Orzabal and Smith, with Curt leaving after the management of the band had been declared bankrupt with allegations of financial mismanagement of band funds. Smith was also reported to have been frustrated with Orzabal’s fastidious approach to making the album, messing around with sounds to make them as authentic to the 60s feel of the track as possible, whilst Smith was living with the consequences of his first album breaking apart.

Orzabal retained the “Tears For Fears” name, and would go on to make several albums which didn’t exactly set the world alight either commercially or critically.

However, Orzabal and Smith reunited their relationship in 2000, with the result that they released a new album in 2005 called “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending”. Did they decide to return to the early heavily synthesised sound of their debut, “The Hurting”? No. Did they decided to return to big stadium synth rock sound of mega selling opus “Songs From The Big Chair”? No.

Have a listen to first single from the album, “Closest Thing To Heaven”:

 

It seems like the 1960s still rules.

Terence Trent D’Arby – To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly (1989)

Terence Trent D’Arby was, if you remember the mid to late 1980s, considered by many critics to be the greatest soul singing sensation in a long time, the next great hope for soul music, successor to the greatest soul vocalists like Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, and the most exciting new black artist to appear since Prince at the end of the 1970s. Not much weight of expectation then, eh? All that would be too much pressure for many new artists were it not for the fact that Terence (or TTD as he liked to call himself in the third person) seemed to have excessive confidence in his own self-proclaimed genius and all round brilliant musical powers so that when he appeared with his debut album, he instantly claimed to have made one of the greatest records ever.

Some might say that he had a bit of an ego.

Under a temperamental sun
On the dark hillside of your sorrow
If there’s pain in your heart
Let it go
Just reach inside and let it go
Now dig

 

Just to put things into a bit of perspective, here is the debut single that announced TTD’s prodigious talent to the world:

 

Things might also have been helped slightly by the fact that he was also blessed with impressive genes and bone structure that made him instantly one of the most beautiful men in the world during the late 80s. Thus TTD released his debut album, stunningly called “Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby”, that featured a number of hit singles in addition to “If You Let Me Stay” (“Wishing Well”, “Dance Little Sister”, “Sign Your Name”) and the album became one of the biggest selling and critically well received of 1987. He toured. He appeared on television. He was big news.

Cue two years later, and the news filters through that TTD is going to release his second album, mysteriously called “Neither Fish Nor Flesh”. The single, with the elongated DJ baiting title of “To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly”, was apparently taught to TTD in a dream by none other than Marvin Gaye. Oh. Was this a sign that his previously somewhat entertaining ego was now well and truly out of control? Was this a sign of something darker and far more disturbing regarding his mental health? Was this simply a case of hype to the max and then let’s ladle on some more hype just to be certain? It could’ve been any or indeed all of the above.

However, what was most important to me was whether it was any good:

 

I loved it. I loved it back then and I still love it now. I loved it because it was full of soul and romantic yearning (yes, I was young and newly in love back then) and also rather pretentious (as I’m sure that all of my friends would confirm that I was more than a little pretentious at the time – hey, I was a student in the performing and visual arts, so of course I was bloody pretentious) but also I could sense a bit of tongue in cheek humour laying underneath the surface. I loved the rather “dum dum” refrain of the backing vocals, and I loved the sense of freedom that was shown by throwing whatever he fancied into the instrumentation. I love people who are prepared to show a maverick spirit to forge ahead on their own path and do what their spirit and freewill was telling them to do creatively. Prince had it. TTD showed it too.

Listen to me now
In my love garden
I wrestled with an angel
Not in a dream
Her eyes did seem
Like the grapes of the vine
Her lips were made like the gates of Heaven
Not to be missed
Made to be kissed
But not to kiss goodbye

 

Of course, the critics panned the song (and the following album) as the pretentious ego fuelled meanderings of a prodigious talent with no focus and no control, and then it sold as close to bugger all as you could possibly achieve back then in 1989.

It essentially killed off not only the career of Terence Trent D’Arby but it also had a massive impact upon the man too.

He managed to put together another two albums of equally diverse but slightly more focused epics (the equally fantastic “Symphony Or Damn” in 1993, and then “Vibrator” in 1995) which followed the same basic pattern of smooth soul, tight funk workouts, 60s inspired rock beats and the occasional stripped down piano and vocal only ballad. Each one promised a critical and commercial rebirth for TTD but the ghost of “Neither Fish Nor Flesh” would inevitably be exhumed to slap down TTD’s ego and remind everyone that he was capable of failure.

What kind of world do we live in where the boring consistency of your typical acoustic singer-songwriter of the twenty-first century is somehow seen as preferable to a person who decide to use harps, bongos, kazoos and other exotic shit in the making of music that is prepared to be brave rather than boring? Oh yes, the world that is run by people who hate anything that is not as boring and as mediocre as they are. Sorry, I forgot that the music interested is run by the likes of Simon Cowell who clearly has no interest in music.

Well screw that – I totally love “To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly” (and I equally love the whole of “Neither Fish Nor Flesh”) precisely because it is exhuberant, joyful, fun, free and (yes) utterly bloody pretentious music made by a person who might be as mad as a box of frogs… I DON’T CARE IF HE IS MAD, NOR IF HE CHANGED HIS NAME AND IS LIVING AS A MONK WHO ONLY EATS CAMEL SHIT ON A DAY WITH “X” IN IT… this music is utterly and completely brilliant and compelling and fun and serious and I am so grateful that I listen to it every so often so it can put a big stupid bloody grin on my big stupid face.

Sorry… I had to let that out.

Actually.. I’m not sorry at all. If you don’t agree with me, screw you but in a polite and friendly way obviously.

Once a flower opens
It never closes
Until it dies
And the it lies
Amongst the roses
I wanted to play her like
A black grand piano
A clarinet
A minuet
Or lyric soprano

 

Of course, the story does not finish with that marvellous rant. TTD had another dream – a dream that told him to follow independence, to stop chasing pop stardom, and start on a musical rebirth that would be based around following his singular vision without compromise to the industry of selling music “product”. So he went away and changed his name to the one that he had a dream about. Terence Trent D’Arby is now called Sananda Maitreya and he now releases music under this name. He calls his music Post-Millenium Rock. His latest release is an opus entitled “The Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords”. Yes, it is a concept album. It features a couple of Beatles songs mixed in with some 60s sounding rock and soul.

It sounds pretty similar to “Neither Fish Nor Flesh” to me, and that is not a bad thing in my humble opinion.

So let’s remind ourselves why he was considered to be “the next Prince”. Enjoy this live version, especially the one dodgy note that proves that TTD was as human as any other musician (mixed with a very funky version of “Attracted To You”):

 

I want to think that we might eventually end up living in a society where the likes of TTD are welcomed for the amazing talent they have, and are not criticised because they display behaviour that could be best described as eccentric if not perhaps a bit ego-centric.

 

Don’t get me started.

Here’s some Sananda Maitreya from “The Rise Of The Zugebrian Time Lords”:

 

Still wonderful. Still wouldn’t have him any other way.