Tag Archives: music

On John Wetton, And Pop Culture Death


On The Ten Worst Songs Ever Written

I have been considering what are the ten worst songs ever written. The rock equivalent of Vogon poetry. Not the truly awful songs, those written to be a one-hit wonder to amuse witless, drunk, stoned, E’d up teenagers in Magaluf, or wherever. The Birdy Song, Agadoo, Agadoo. (Is that right? You shudder still, and I can’t quite face looking it up on Wikipedia.)

Or Octopussy’s Garden, just a way of getting the drummer some composing rights. No, those songs that purport to be better, by writers who should know better, but are actually awful. Are absolute rancid dingo’s kidneys.

Probably missed out on the odd one. Or 1,760. I Will Survive? Yes, you danced around your handbag to it. But was it really empowering, as you remembered how you told your last lover to get lost? Or was it vice versa?

So the pride of place goes to the entirely blameless Peter Starstedt…

  1. Peter Starstedt: Where Do Go To (My Lovely?) Probably a nice guy. That combination of faux sophistication and dimwit reportage… “I remember the backstreets of Naples/Two children covered in rags…” Plus, extra points for that bit that goes, “Just for a laugh, Ha Ha Ha.”
  2. Charlene, I’ve Never Been To Me. “I’ve been undressed by kings, I’ve seen things that a woman is never meant to see.” The inside of a male toilet? More faux sophistication. (Dishonourable mention to Helen Reddy, I Am Woman, here.)
  3. Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. Actually, anything by Queen, save perhaps Killer Queen, which has a nice riff. Mercury was by all accounts a good guy, too, and generous with his money. No one who takes music seriously likes Queen, though.
  4. Bonnie Tyler.Total Eclipse Of The Heart. Does anyone have any idea what this woman is shrieking on about? (Dishonourable mention, that one about the woman who has just had sex for the first time. “All together in the afterglow…” “If only my first love could be my last.” Memory, thank Great Cthulhu, fails me on this one. Most people’s first experience of sex is really not worth thinking about, or writing a song about.Was that also Bonnie Tyler?) PS: Er no, Kiki Dee. Amoreuse? I literally cannot be bothered to check the spelling.
  5. The Rolling Stones. We Love You. Enough said. I used to be criticised in the 60s for preferring the Stones to the Beatles. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong. The most cynical track by a band that three decades later set new standards for money-grubbing cynicism.
  6. Starship. We Built This City. From the utopian free love, free dope, free music of Paul Kantner’s (RIP) Jefferson Airplane to stadium MOR sludge. A song often cited as one of the most irritating of all time. (Dishonourable mention, Marty Balin’s Caroline, from Jefferson Starship. “I had a taste of the real world/When I went down on you, girl.” Oh, fuck off. PS, actually this was Miracles, I am now reminded. Caroline is a marginally better song. Just about.)
  7. David Crosby. Almost Cut My Hair. Almost made a point about freedom, personal responsibility, etc. Instead, wrote rotten song. (Dishonourable mention Mind Gardens, from The Byrds, Younger Than Yesterday. A truly horrible noise, David. How did you go to this to, If I Could Only Remember My Name?
  8. Peter Tosh. Legalise It. “Legalise it. Don’t Criticise It…” Do you have anything else to say? Anything coherent?
  9. Bob Marley. Three Little Birds. Always hated this.Don’t know why. Stupid, stupid melody, damn fool lyrics. No one who was not of Marley’s stature – Exodus, No Woman, No Cry – could have got away with this.
  10. Bruce Springsteen. Downtown Train. “Now I work down at the car wash/Where all it ever does is rain…” Er, Bruce that is because you are standing under the car wash. Great songwriter, but even Homer nods.
  11. Have I missed anyone out?

On Jazz, And Love Supreme

On Bill Evans, Jazz And Heroin

I have been listening to the music of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. He was white, and brought a lyrical, almost Western classical influence to the music. He also had an awful life, dogged by repeated battles with addiction, mainly heroin.

It seems bizarre that some of the most sublime music of the 20th century should have been created under the influence of the worst narcotic known. Heroin, though, was almost as prevalent as alcohol in mid-century jazz circles.

You will almost certain have heard Evans, even if you did not realise. He plays on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz album ever, if you ignore crossover hits like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

He was best known for his work with just bass and drums – Evans pretty well invented the piano trio that has become the staple of the genre, through artists such as Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau. Go onto Spotify or YouTube and listen to Re: Person I Knew, probably one of the most tuneful compositions in modern jazz. Or Waltz For Debby.

Heroin was so prevalent that it would be easier to list the musicians who weren’t users. A number, including Evans, died of hepatitis, one of the complications of their addiction, especially when mixed with alcohol.

Charlie Parker, Chet Baker – who lost his front teeth and, temporarily, his ability to perform after a drug deal that went wrong. More modern musicians such as Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, who once ascribed his fitness to having to walk up flights of stairs in apartment blocks to reach the dealers who often lived at the top.

It is worth asking why heroin had such a hold. Some have said jazz was a black man’s music, and that as the underdog black musicians were more likely to turn to drugs for comfort – except that Evans was white, and suffered a degree of rejection when he replaced Red Garland, who was black, in the Davis band.

Some have blamed the influence of Charlie Parker, who was a demigod among musicians of his generation and seemed able to function without any hindrance from his addiction.

Some have talked about alcohol suppressing the left hand of the brain and allowing the more creative right to emerge. A good excuse, that. Some have blamed the Mafia, who after the War were able to import quantities of heroin.

Jazz musicians were on the outside of society, and were more likely to be in places where drugs were available, like the clubs where they performed. Their lifestyles were understandably different from the mainstream population. The final factor, I suspect, was that the dangers of heroin were as yet improperly understood.

A study by the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at 40 of the greatest performers from 1945 to 1960. It found that a disproportionate number had a family history of psychiatric problems, while more than a quarter were alcoholics.  It is tempting, though I suspect wrong, to see some link between mental illness and creativity.

Go and listen to Re: Person I Knew, though, and wonder how something so beautiful can be the creation of such a disordered mind.

On Marianne Faithfull

There is something deeply unedifying and ridiculous about a 70-something prancing around on stage in tight-fitting Spandex acting like a teenage bonobo. I mention no names. But it is possible for a musician to grow old gracefully.

The other night we went to see Marianne Faithfull perform at the Roundhouse. I had vaguely been expecting an evening of chansonnier-style cabaret. She came on with a band less than half her age.

She is 70 this year and not, it must be said, in the best of shape. Emphysema, hip problems – she had to sit down a lot. The performance was halted while someone found her glasses. She referred often to a lyrics prompt sheet. She sounds like a matriarch from the Raj, swears like a trooper, vapes regularly – the real thing not being allowed on stage any more – and swigs occasionally on a cup of tea. At one stage she threatens the audience with her walking stick.

She can’t sing, not that she ever could really. Her voice is a grating alto. She has a great back catalogue – Sister Morphine, As Tears Go By, Broken English, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. She has seen a lot in an at times troubled life and is not afraid to talk about. Her onstage chat is worth the price of admission.

It was an occasion more than a musical event, seeing a living legend from two rows away. Though there were those songs. I was reminded of Leonard Cohen’s last tour, the same understated manner, the same obvious affection towards her younger musicians at the start, relatively speaking, of their careers.

She went off, with some difficulty, after Lucy Jordan and did not appear for an encore. Who knows if we will see her again.

PS: at least one reader has assumed my first paragraph refers to Marianne. Quite the opposite; she is one of those who has grown old gracefully, rather than continuing to look ridiculous on stage. Her performance showed us this, the entire point of my piece. So no offence meant.

On Paul Kantner

“And our children will wander naked through the cities of the Universe…”

Paul Kantner, American songwriter, 1941 – 2016.

Paul Kantner has died. Political radical, Utopian dreamer, singer/songwriter/guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and innumerable spin-offs, he was 74.

I don’t think much of his music has made it unscathed into the 21st century. Too much a product of its time, the San Francisco counter-culture of the late 1960s. “We’re doing things that haven’t got a name yet!” Yeah, right.

But his music meant a lot to me, and a lot of other people, once.

I first came across JA, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller, in the very early 1970s. I was emerging from a difficult, dreary repressed adolescence. I have written here before how teenagers co-opt culture, music, art, fashion, as a way of finding their own identity.

That music spoke to me of freedom. Freedom to sleep with whomever one wanted, take whatever drugs one wanted, establish a community of like-minded souls and tell the rest of society to go hang. (I am reminded here of what some have written about Bowie.)

Those ideals, with the benefit of hindsight, do not bear much scrutiny. They led a lot of people down a path to squalor, chaos, addiction and death.

But Kantner believed in them. He used to leave rolled joints in telephone kiosks, in the hopes that people would try them and be tempted to adopt his lifestyle. Naive, probably. I believed in them too, once. Naive, definitely.

Some of his music survives. When I Was A Boy I Watched the Wolves has an eerie beauty, and contemporary resonance. Then there was Blows Against The Empire.

A song cycle about a bunch of people who hijack a starship and head off to somewhere, anywhere, it probably comes over today as maundering hippie self-indulgence. With some good tunes.

For a teenager already obsessed with science fiction, and seeking my own painful way out towards self-liberation, identity and free expression, it came as a powerful fantasy indeed. “Spinning out of the steel and glass/Mankind gone from the cage…

He also co-wrote Wooden Ships, with David Crosby, another song about freedom and redemption. (Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone, is one of the best memoirs of the beauty, madness and horror of those times.)

Paul Kantner, musician, visionary. RIP.

“Have you seen the stars tonight/Do you want to go up on A deck and look at them with me… We are free.”

On Rhiannon Giddens

I know I have suggested here before that blogging about music you are listening to is self-indulgent. But I have been listening to Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn, which is worth an exception to the rule. Which, yes, I know, I break all the time.

Giddens lives in that place called Americana, the crossroads where blues, country, gospel and early rock ‘n’roll intersect. Though I doubt she had to sell her soul to the devil there.

This really is one of those CDs you play, put back on again, and then play again. Try She’s Got You, one of those drop dead country ballads. “The only thing different/The only thing new/I’ve got your picture/She’s got you.” Ow.

Unusually, it is a short CD for these times, 40 minutes plus, and not a duff track on it. Spotify the above, or Up Above My Head, by Sister Rosetta Sharpe – and normally I can’t get on with gospel. Or Waterboy.

And if you told me 40 years ago I would one day be recommending an album with songs written by Dolly Parton and, er, Charles Aznavour…

Strange Days indeed.

On Bowie, Again

The Bowie backlash has begun.

Admittedly, I have only seen one piece along the lines of, what’s all the fuss about, it’s only a dead pop star whose private life didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. That was, predictably enough, in the Daily Mail. I am sure there are others.

You do not have to be a tooth-grinding reactionary, though, to wonder if the outpourings have been a little overdone, and to wonder why.

I suspect this is because Bowie, born in 1947, is the first of the stars admired by and created by the Baby Boomer generation to die of natural causes towards the end of his natural life.

I am ten years younger than him, but still part of that generation. I do not recall anything like the outpouring of grief over the death of Elvis. He was older, not an icon for those of my age, and died a raddled, obese wreck performing schmaltz on a Las Vegas stage.

John Lennon was arguably much more important than Bowie, but he was cut down in his prime, and at a time in his career when any subsequent work did not promise much.

Bowie died at the height of his renewed creativity, and at an age that, though early, is one at which some of us might also expect to pass on, having merely encountered an excess of medical bad luck rather than a crazed gunman.

He is a reminder of our mortality, for the generation that is senior enough to be in a position to mould the news and authorise or provide those blanket tributes. Including our former Prime Minister.

I am reminded of the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994. He was an icon to a younger generation of his age but meant nothing to those Baby Boomers. His death went largely unmarked in the media for several days.

On David Bowie

David Bowie is dead.

I am not going to add (much) to the acres of discussion on this, though I note there seemed to be rather more technical editing errors on R4 Today this morning than usual as the news broke.

One story, though. As I have written, my parents were never at the cutting edge of popular culture. The year is 1983, I think. We are driving through London, my father and I. Bowie has just finished the Berlin trilogy, then.

“Space Oddity” comes on the radio. My father listens. “I remember that one,” he says. “Did he ever do anything else?”

No. not really. Actually, I never liked him in his Spiders From Mars/Aladdin Sane era. Low was the first one I ever got. It sounded so deeply weird. And I was listening to awful lot of skronking avant garde jazz at the time. (Still am.)

It still sounded deeply weird. Warszawa.



On Inter-Generational Music

As Oliver Letwin has so ably demonstrated, attitudes have changed a lot over the past three decades. One way they have changed struck me again over Christmas. The generations are a lot closer.

Daughter, at most birthdays and Christmases, makes me what we used to call a mixtape, burning off 15 or so tracks she feels I ought to hear. Given her taste is excellent, and given that most of the stuff she listens to sounds awfully like the sort of thing I was listening to 30 or 40 years ago, this is always a treat.

Most of it I have never heard of. Sometimes I surprise her. Tracy Chapman, Fast Car? Got it on vinyl somewhere, dear. The Civil Wars? Yup, got that.

My parents hated pop or rock music, or any other manifestation of popular culture, with a vengeance. My mother particularly loathed it. They were brought up in the War and by the time Elvis took a walk down Lonely Street, in 1956, they had a house and a mortgage, and I was on the way.

The 60s must have seemed like a noisy party taking place next door, to which they were not invited. As a result I had to listen to my music to a background of bitter and derisive comments. “This is insulting rubbish.” No, it’s Frank Zappa, or Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin. Some people think it’s rather good. “They’re all long-haired gits. They should have their hair cut and be put to work on the roads.” (Actual quote.)

This is rather an unfair way to treat adolescents. They acquire a sense of identity from the music they listen to, the popular culture they consume, the clothes they wear. They should not have it crushed under foot.

The fact that Daughter and I can swap music and films, introduce each other to new ideas, seems to me much healthier. I played her The Smiths, The Decembrists, The National, for the first time. She makes me mixtapes. We attend, as a family, the same music festivals.

 This is probably because popular culture has been around for so long that it is inter-generational. There is the danger, as I have suggested here before, that my generation encroach on the next one, co-opt their culture and deprive them of that sense of identity. There is also the danger that people like me come over as the oldest, saddest swinger in town.

But it is a lot better than the alternative, as I know.

Anyway, here is the Christmas 2015 playlist:

Why Are You With Me/Mark Eitzel

Top Notch/Manchester Orchestra

Sweater Weather/The Neighbourhood

Small Hands/Keaton Henson

She’s So Fine/The Easybeats

Settle Down/Kimbra

Red Light/BabyQueens feat. Joker Starr

Ooh Girl/Wooster

Nests/Keaton Heston

Neon Lights/Molotov Jukebox

Milk Carton Kid/The Milk Carton Kids

Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here/Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

Geordie (Child 209)/Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer

Don’t Let It Get You Down/Johnnyswim

Christine/Christine and the Queens

Bottled Up Tight/Luke Sital Singh

No, I’d never heard of most of them either.