Guerilla train singing

Commuting is a strange activity.

The journey in has become an opportunity to catch up with friends around the world, using the wonders of modern technology (I am still trying get my head around that – sitting on a train to Fenchurch Street and chatting away to a friend thousands of miles away as if they are the other end of the carriage). The journey home is an opportunity to order my thoughts, perhaps write a personal email or two or, if I have a drunken, leering prat next to me, to pretend I am asleep. (Just occasionally, it is a good chance to catch up on sleep!) The tube is often a hassle, people pushing and shoving and I try to lose myself in a Blackberry Sudoku.

Commuting has its own routines and, with iPods, Kindles and iPads becoming a part of the regular commuter armoury, we become very defensive our own little worlds and find intrusions into it intensely irritating. (Is it irrational for me to be extremely wound up at people eating fast food on late evening trains – something which strikes me as an unnecessary intrusion into my nasal cavities!).

I don’t know if it is our traditional British reserve, but we get very suspicious of the stranger who starts talking to us as we journey together to another place.  I’ve had that reaction, too, which is odd, as I’ve always enjoyed public transport abroad precisely because people seem much happier to talk on buses, trams and trains.  Let’s face it, Jonathan Harker would have been in a lot more trouble with The Count if he hadn’t struck up conversation with the Transylvanian locals in his horse-drawn carriage.

Every now and then, though, something happens that makes me smile, shakes my reservations and reminds me how much fun it can be to lose our inhibitions and be a little more human and a little less robotic.

A friend shared this link with me – and I am sharing it with you.

Well done, Adam Street Singers. If they need tenors, perhaps I’ll join…

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The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – A tribute to Ennio Morricone

One of my favourite films, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is one of those timeless Westerns I can watch again and again. The third in the Dollar Trilogy, it’s currently rated fourth on the Internet Movie Database in its poll of users’ top 250 films. I can’t believe that doesn’t have at least something to do with the stunning music of Ennio Morricone, as well as Clint’s bad-ass avenger The Man With No Name.

One group which has taken his music to heart is The Spaghetti Western Orchestra who have become renowned for their re-interpretation of his classic Western themes. If you missed them at the Proms this year, take a look at the clip below.

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Hair, leather, rock and metal – another guilty pleasure

Raking over the embers of last night’s bonfire I was blasting Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid at full volume. I suddenly realised how much I still love that totemic rock metal. Bombastic tunes, cheesy lyrics and shock rock videos, that whole rock and metal scene was as significant a part of my growing up as video gaming and roaming round Langdon Hills pretending to be a secret agent. Or cowboy. Or ranger.

I’ve taken to hiding behind the leylandii that shield the bees to do my Wembley Stadium gigs (sod the Arena, aim high, I say),  belting out the lyrics to Snakebite or Might As Well Be On Mars as I put on my bravura combined air-guitar and vocalist performance.

So here are some of my favourites.

Guns N’Roses are the band that blew me away as a kid. I couldn’t believe I was buying a record that was so damn daring, with its shock art cover and warning stickers. I bought it in Woolworths of all places and legged it home like I was carrying contraband. In 1991 I got to saw them live on their Use Your Illusion tour, 31st August 1991 at Wembley Stadium, just before the UK release of the double album. Nothing’s touched it since and the thrill of hearing Welcome To The Jungle live still makes me tingle when I think about it. Now… What about that reunion tour?

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I was first introduced to Alice Cooper by an old Liberal I used to nip round to see after school. He was the sort of guy that had the broken carcasses of electronic items from CD players to TVs and old computers stacked around the room. I remember how, one day when I turned up to play the latest Amiga releases, he had a flickering old VHS playing: Alice Cooper’s 1976 Welcome To My Nightmare concert film. It wasn’t until Trash and Hey Stoopid that I really got him. Feed My Frankenstein, which was featured in the 1992 film Wayne’s World, has one of the sleaziest guitar breaks in the world ever.

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Cycling down to see my mate Jon, there was only one song to be listening to: Whitesnake’s Still Of The Night. For a pair of hormonal teenagers, there really was nothing quite like David Coverdale, owner of the biggest double entendre in rock, rasping out “In the still of the night, I hear the wolf howl, honey, sniffing around your door…”

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I don’t mind admitting that Iron Maiden scared the life out of me. Eddie, their giant skeletal mannequin used to creep me out. But as is the way with rebellious teenagers, even politely rebellious ones like me, the sheer cool of wearing t-shirts with a grinning cadaver on the front won out over the potential for scary dreams. From Paul Di’Anno’s spikey howl on tracks like Phantom Of The Opera and Murders In The Rue Morgue, to Bruce Dickinson’s wail on Number Of The Beast, Aces High and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and even Blaze Bayley’s brief interlude (formerly of Wolfsbane), Maiden are iconic metallers capable of blasting out fist-pumping anthems year after year. Fear Of The Dark is a particular favourite…

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Waiting back stage for a school production in 1988, covered in pancake and eyeliner, Pete, the dodgy aloof rocker type, came up and slipped me a tape: “Listen to that. It’ll blow you away.” That was my introduction to arguably one of the best metal records of all time: Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche. After the wired-to-the-moon bombast of the likes of Hawkwind, concept albums were on a bit of a downer amid the likes of Poison, Bon Jovi etc. Mindcrime was different. A visceral, stark story of madness, revolution, drugs, sex and death it was the most exciting thing I’d heard (since the last most exciting thing I’d heard). Seeing them live at the Hammy O (Hammersmith Odeon) was one of the high points of my 1980s rock metal epiphany.

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There was another band who was rarely far from my Aiwa Walkman in the 1980s and 1990s. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I was when I learned that Def Leppard were from Sheffield in the UK (!). They should have been American as far as I was concerned. It’s only with hindsight that I realised it was a badge of honour to have a British band that could sound like a seriously big-ticket US stadium band. I only ever bothered with Pyromania and Hysteria. Perhaps someone will tell me if I missed out…

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So that’s it for now. When I am feeling braver, perhaps I’ll post my favourite tracks from W.A.S.P., Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction and Manowar.

But not today!

Poems, Prayers and Promises… Do they still write them like this?

I have an eclectic musical taste that roams the genres and I can find myself listening to anything from Finzi and Mozart, to Counting Crows, The Jayhawks, Guns N’Roses, Linkin Park and Sick Puppies, all via the Pet Shop Boys, “Ibiza dance” and Lady Ga Ga. Not forgetting of course Led Zeppelin, U2, Nightwish, The Village People etc etc…

Nothing gets to me though quite like John Denver and there is one album in particular that defines him for me: Poems, Prayers and Promises.

It was his fourth album and every song is an acoustic musical masterpiece (except “The Box”, Kendrew Lascelles’s stunning anti-war poem, read with genuine agony by Denver on the last track of side two). His beautiful tenor soars and swoops, occasionally tinged with a spine-tingling melancholy, and the lyrics are homely, humbling and thought-provoking without being trite.

Perhaps it is because it is the first non-classical record I heard Mum and Dad play that it means so much to me. Perhaps it is because it conjures safe memories of lying on the carpet in pools of dappled sunlight, thinking that days like that could never end. Perhaps it is because it has been the soundtrack to many a long car journey to Cornwall. Or perhaps it is because its calm simplicity lets me find my centre, even in the hardest times.

John Denver died in 1997. What a beautiful legacy to leave.

From “Poems, Prayers and Promises”

The days they pass so quickly now

Nights are seldom long

And time around me whispers when it’s cold

The changes somehow frighten me

Still I have to smile

It turns me on to think of growing old

For though my life’s been good to me

There’s still so much to do

So many things my mind has never known

I’d like to raise a family

I’d like to sail away

And dance across the mountains on the moon

I have to say it now

It’s been a good life all in all

It’s really fine

To have the chance to hang around

And lie there by the fire

And watch the evening tire

While all my friends and my old lady

Sit and watch the sun go down

And talk of poems and prayers and promises

And things that we believe in

How sweet it is to love someone

How right it is to care

How long it’s been since yesterday

What about tomorrow

What about our dreams

And all the memories we share

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The fabulous Paloma Faith at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

It’s rare for Em and I to have the time or energy to go out in the week.

Every now and then, though, browsing around the net late at night, you stumble across something at exactly the moment you need it. At a pretty low point, I noticed Paloma Faith had added an extra concert to her sold-out two-gig finale at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I snapped up a pair of tickets to the very last night of her month-long UK tour.

I don’t think I had been to see a gig in Hammersmith since I saw Queensrÿche on their  Operation: Mindcrime tour in November 1990 (remember that, Stringbean?).

There was something of a hiatus in my concert-going between 1991 and 2009.  I left off with Guns and Roses at Wembley Stadium on 31 August 1991 and resumed with a Jazz Café turn by the brilliant Mark Olson and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks on 12 May 2009. That was quickly followed by 14 May 2009’s stunning turn by Counting Crows at Wembley Arena. The review in The Times didn’t do it justice.

So going to see Paloma Faith was part of my on-going campaign to ensure I don’t slip back into a nineteen-year bad habit of not enjoying live music.

Hammersmith is a great part of London. It feels edgier and grubbier and more alive than the museum space of Westminster, a feeling heightened by a sharp March wind, soft rays of light from a setting sun and the collision of sharp scents – ozone, grilled and spiced meats, exotic tobacco and patchouli.

In a confident gig-going frame of mind I led Em purposefully through the streets of Hammersmith, having chosen to get out at Goldhawk Road tube station (I didn’t even know there was a Goldhawk Road tube station until we were sitting on the District Line at 6.15pm!). Having a pretty good head for directions, I found the Empire quickly and we joined the queue, feeling a little smug that we had found the place with little fuss. Unfortunately, I found the wrong queue, and on reaching the door we stepped out of the one for the stalls and joined the back of the one on the other side of the building for the upper tier.

It was well worth the wait.

The concert opened with Josh Weller, an indie popster with the most incredible hairstyle who previously collaborated with Paloma Faith on the single It’s Christmas (And I Hate You). His band were tight and their songs polished, though most of his set was ruined for me by the woman behind who insisted on talking (read shouting) to her friend through the entire performance (it was nearly a Jack Reacher moment). It was refreshing, too, to see a support act talking so fondly about the head-liner – he clearly has a huge amount of respect for his headlining colleague.

When Paloma Faith finally appeared, a few minutes after 9pm, we roared our approval.

I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this was her first UK tour.

She had energy and confidence and polish in spades, each number note perfect and delivered with phenomenal passion. With a dry and kooky sense of humour, she was backed up by a band of extraordinary talent, who were able to heavy-ify and disco-ify her songs according to Paloma’s mischievous wishes. Introducing her songs with a humorous and relaxed delivery, she was beautifully blunt about the journalist who had accused her of insecurities for highlighting her influences, saying she simply believed in saying “thank you”. She then launched straight into a superb rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless The Child.

And how did she bounce around the stage in what looked like four-inch heels? That is definitely a girl mystery.

If you know her debut album, Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?, you’ll know that each song is a creative juxtaposition of melodic even jaunty pop and haunting, occasionally heart-breaking, lyrics. For Romance Is Dead she selected a gentleman from the audience to serenade, hamming up her weary resignation to a love-life of plastic flowers and greasy fingerprints. Later, She poignantly reminded us of the loss of her friend that inspired My Legs Are Weak.

At the very end, closing the formal set list with Play On, and teasing her audience over the possibility of an encore as only someone with a working knowledge of burlesque could do, she had, by dint of omission, left us in no doubt as to her final number – the sing-along pop anthem New York. As the band struck up and Paloma pointed her mic to the audience for the sing-along choruses, it was great to know we were indeed at the start of something beautiful.

I was reading tips recently on how to write reviews and an “expert” writer cautioned would-be reviewers against describing something as “brilliant” or “fantastic”.

Well sod that.

It was a fantastic night out and Paloma Faith was simply brilliant. She will play on for a long time to come – and we can be grateful for that.

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Music video madness with OK Go

Music videos are close to an art form in themselves, mixing very different media to startling and stunning effect. The band OK Go have had some fun with their latest for their song “This Too Shall Pass” and I thought it worth sharing here, in case you’ve not picked up on it elsewhere.

If you are interested in the way they put it together, they have a second video in which they discuss making it:

There are also some interesting articles on OK Go’s video on LA Times blog pages, Buzznet and Alt Press.


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Musical genius – Mumford & Sons #music

“Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine”

It’s been a long time since I have been floored by a new album. There are few things more incredible and satisfying than that moment when, hearing the swirl of passionate chords and melodies,  you realise you are listening to something truly magnificent.

As a youngster I would spend hours in Parrot Records in Basildon (now gone), flicking through the vinyl until something caught my eye. I would then race home to record it to cassette so I could play it though my headphones and drown in the sound and forget the sheer painful horror of school. Some nights I would jump on my bike and race down to Stringbean’s place and share the latest discovery I would jump on my bike and race down to Stringbean’s place and share the latest discovery over a game of Speedball on the Amiga (you still out there somewhere, mate?). All the rage and passion and anger and hope of growing up, refined in music.


And somehow, as the years pass, those moments become rarer.

I downloaded Mumford & Sons from Napster because I liked the snatch I heard on the television. Hauling myself into town earlier, I thought I would give them a listen. After four songs I went straight to the counter and bought it – even though I already had a download.

I felt I owed them.

With a sound that is Counting Crows meets Simon & Garfunkel meets The Jayhawks, with a dash of The Dubliners thrown in for good measure, their ability to soar from melancholy to riotous celebration and back again,  the honesty in their sound and lyrics, and their relentless energy are the most refreshing things I’ve heard in years. Each song is a poem,  reflecting on love, loss, faith or yearning, set to blindingly good tunes. Listening to Marcus Mumford’s aching vocals and you’ll be reminded of Adam Duritz and Paul Simon.

Today I was afforded a special gift: a chance to experience again that heady sense of discovery, depth of passion, tug of emotion, passion and rage that I felt as a youngster.

Treat yourself.

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