Cherry blossoms always remind me that it’s time for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast. This might seem like a strange association, but some of my best memories of early May are connected with my Van Morrison bus tour, cruising around east Belfast on behalf of the festival, listening to the guy’s music while the gardens and roadsides are rich with the pink of the seasonal petals.
This year’s tour has been held over due to work commitments, but I’ll never forget that first tour, when we parked the coach at the corner of the Beersbridge Road and Cyprus Avenue and we all walked through the tunnel of trees, gobsmacked in the sunshine. We were effectively in the middle of his greatest inspiration.
But what is the best season for a Van song? In the track ‘Cyprus Avenue’, the leaves are falling one by one, so I guess it’s an Autumn setting. But the same vista is revealed in ‘the Healing Has Begun’, when his girl is wearing her Easter bonnet and the song virtually blooms before you. I’ll go for that vision every time.
I never tire of that sight, and I often take considerable detours in my daily journeys to bring myself back to that wonderful place with the music, the colour and the magic.
Nazis are not cool. Even Brian Ferry has realised this. We hope that David Bowie has outgrown his fascination with Hitler, while Sid Vicious and his swastika are mouldering in his grave. Rock and roll is by nature a libertarian form – it aims for freedom and co-existence rather than prejudice and final solutions. The same goes for jazz, which is why Adolf Hitler tried to ban it. He was a marching band kind of a guy.
Back in the mid Seventies, an organisation called Rock Against Racism arrived. It was supported by The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band. It involved Steel Pulse and Elvis Costello and it tried to give music a sharp agenda. In part, it was a reaction against Enoch Powell and his “rivers of blood” speech about the apparent perils of immigration. It was spurred on by an Eric Clapton remark that seemed to support this little Englander view. Whatever, RAR was a crucial element in my youth – fostering the idea that music can involve politics, protest and social responsibility.
And while the Nazi supporters are still lurking out there, Rock Against Racism is still alive. It now organises gigs under the banner of Love Music Hate Racism. And given the appalling prejudice in Northern Ireland just now, it’s important to make a noise here.
Tonight, Love Music Hate Racism will stage an event at the Speakeasy Bar in Queen’s University Belfast. Bands such as the Olympic Lifts, The Ultra Montanes, Spree DJs, and a series of MCs and turntablists. It will be preceded at 7pm by a debate in the nearby Beech Room, with input from student leaders, unions and politicians. The collective message is simple: Nazis and Fascists are no fun.
It was twenty years ago this June when I stood in Abbey Road studios, elbow-to-elbow with Paul McCartney, thinking about the anniversary of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Even for a case-toughened music lag like myself, that was a cool little occasion, as the trumpets blared, the stories unfurled and we caught some of the wonky-eyed flavour of 1967.
Now here comes the 40th anniversary. The Beatles trainspotters and nostalgia merchants will urge us to buy into the myth again. People will insist that it was the greatest album ever made, that was a western landmark, the most unifying event since the Congress Of Vienna.
Really? Well maybe if it didn’t contain the dour George Harrison track, the mawkish wibble of ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and the badly-realised try at a sustained concept. It’s a terribly over-praised album. Remember, the release was preceded by an impeccable single, ‘Strawberry Fields’ / ‘Penny Lane’ that outscores everything on the long player. And if you’re measuring it against other Beatles albums, The ‘White’ album and ‘Revolver’ are surely better.
While we’re thinking about 1967, let’s remember that an Ulster artist called David McWilliams left his signature there with a winsome, literate song, ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’. He was a big hit on pirate radio and a couple of his albums made the top 40. But David, who died in 2002, never really made the big time. Indeed, during the making of the TV music doc, ‘So Hard To Beat’, we couldn’t find the archive or the wherewithal to give David his credit. In hindsight, we should have tried harder.
Hopefully, some fans will be raising the McWilliams name this summer. There is talk of a tribute record and perhaps even a live event. His reputation could do with a little help from his friends.
Wednesday night, Oxford Street, and the spirit of rock and roll hangs over the warm London night. Tim Wheeler and Ash have just finished a set at the Virgin Megastore. Down at the 100 Club and The Damned are recreating the birth of punk rock. Meantime at the Metro, an act from Strabane is making a noisy claim.
They’re called Kharma 45 and they play rock anthems with robust beats. The two singles, ‘Ecstasy’ and ‘Where’s Your Spirit Man’ are not afraid to rave in the tradition of Faithless and Underworld. Given that rave was the last original youth culture, 20 years ago, this isn’t such a bad place to start.
But when we see them in this hot little basement, it’s the rough edges of the music that charm us best. The machines are secondary to Glenn’s squalling voice and the roar of Peter’s guitar. An approving audience of fans, industry heads and tourists are into the scheme. The hope, of course is that they can all tell their kids that they had the foresight to witness future music legends in a tiny joint.
Apparently Kharma 45 signed a very substantial deal with Warner Records, possibly the biggest since U2. I don’t necessarily know if I want that kind of expectation hanging over my head, but you can probably live with it. The challenge right now is to keep playing those gigs, to inspire their congregations and to place their urban hymns in the order of service.
They play The Limelight, Belfast, May 6. Check out the bands’ myspace site here.
William Crawley recently used his BBC blog to ask what books we should send to our new political leaders in Stormont. Some exceedingly heavy tomes were suggested, and in response, I’ve decided to burn a CD compilation for the people up on the hill. Here goes:
1. Bob Dylan – ‘God On Our Side’. Pretty simple reason for this. The dangers of combining patriotism and religion. Every side reckons it has a divine mandate to kill and discriminate. Really?
2. Stiff Little Fingers – ‘Alternative Ulster’. Because we could all do with one of these.
3. The Clash – ‘Death Or Glory’. Power, corruption and lies.
4. Pat & Nipsy (aka The Fools) – ‘Don’t Fight With Me’. Local boys make a magnificent case for passive resistance. With a great tune to match. The national anthem we deserve. Check it out here.
5. Radiohead – ‘Electioneering’. It’s a dirty business.
6. Terri Hooley – ‘Laugh At Me’. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.
7. Sly Stone – ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’. Prejudice stinks. Great music prevails.
8. The Specials – ‘It Doesn’t Make It Alright’. See notes for (7).
9. U2 – ‘Please’. Soundtrack to the agonizing peace process, Nineties style. Lest we forget.
10. Primal Scream – ‘Movin’ On Up’. We wanna have a good time. We wanna get… represented.
Any other suggestions?
I keep promising to whittle down the collection of old-fashioned albums, but it’s too painful to go far. By now, I’ve reconciled myself to not having the same release on CD and vinyl, but come on –
who’s gonna part with their precious, full-size sleeves of Iggy, Ziggy and Patti? So a degree of duplication is permitted and gatefold albums have a special emotional attraction, even if the contents have not been played in ten years.
As a practicing radio presenter, this process is doubly interesting. Long-lost records can suddenly appear, demanding their appearance on the playlist. So yesterday’s rummage has delivered some lovely tunes from the Bulgarian Voices, The Rockingbirds, Big Joe Turner and the mighty Plush.
It’s also been a good season for new releases, including Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, Kings Of Leon, The Watson Twins and that tasty Joni Mitchell tribute. Consider them all ready for the Friday, 10pm slot on Radio Ulster.
We’ll also have a very special guest in Stella Chiweshe, an icon of Zimbabwean music, the Queen of the mbira. She’s been working and recording here with Gabriel and Wilson from Talking Drum, who’ve taken a detour from Harare to Belfast, and seem to like it here. Which is a great bonus for the show and ultimately, a boon for us all.
I have this terrible vision of Madonna at Wembley on July 7, singing ‘Ray Of Light’, wearing a white trouser suit and gazing compassionately to the heavens. She’s the big draw at Live Earth, the music industry’s conscientious bid to save us all from global warming. Her concert ends with a massed choir, bellowing out ‘Like A Prayer’ as Maddy holds her finely manicured hands aloft. James Blunt and Phil Collins are shaking their tambourines and Al Gore wipes away an oceanic tear.
I wish I had the generosity in my heart to think otherwise. Maybe it really will make a difference as this musical cavalcade rolls across seven continents, getting the urgent message out there. But like many others, I’ve seen too much hokum and vanity in the entertainments business, often dressed up as piety. My feeling is that music works best when it comes from a counter-culture and not from the mainstream, with all the compromises that comes from the latter.
Wouldn’t it be better to have a special day of contemplation and locally organised events – projects that didn’t involve air fares, generators, lighting rigs and massive amplification? Or would that get in the way of a fat spectacle?
There’s a production line in some infernal factory that’s turning out troubadours by the yard. Each of them has a weedy, trembling voice. The vast majority have sunken cheeks and a sprig of facial hair. They have acoustic Martin guitars and biographies that stress their sorrowful lives, their dysfunctional families, their fatal love affairs. They have suffered, and now it’s our turn.
They’re called James and Paolo, Scott and Ray. They can bleat for Britain. They apparently represent the most precious feelings, the apogee of jazz freedom, the most expressive beats of the heart.
But really, aren’t they rather feeble, sorry-livered and generic? I would advise anyone who ever buys one of these irksome little releases to head directly to the wellspring. Wouldn’t they prefer some Nick Drake, Tim Buckley or Fred Neil? People who were originators, not some fifth generation warblers? What about Karen Dalton or David Ackles, or even a taste of Paul Simon? And by rights, everyone should now have a copy of ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, the ultimate in jazz-soul meanderings.
Tomorrow, I will review Jack Savoretti on Radio Ulster’s Saturday magazine. Sorry, but he’s rubbish. I don’t really want to go there, but it’s been strongly suggested that I do so. I told presenter Kim Lenaghan that it’s really not my bag, that these puny guys don’t move me. “There can never be enough sensitive guys with guitars and emotional songs and cute facial hair,” she says, emphatically.
So am I too much of a bloke to get it?
Fifteen years ago, I fell in love with a book. I was browsing through a mom and pop store in Toronto when I spied ‘A Day With Wilbur Robinson’ by William Joyce. The illustrations were classy and the humour was perfect. I made an impulse buy and then returned the next day to empty the shop’s stock for friends.
Essentially, it’s about a boy falling in with an eccentric southern family. There are inventors and astronauts, jazz-loving frogs and precocious belles. Drawn in the coolest art deco style, it’s like The Great Gatsby doing the wild thing with Dr Doolittle.
The book has served my three kids well and led us on to other William Joyce works such as Dinosaur Bob and George Shrinks. The writer, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, feels like a family friend. Occasionally I google his name to find other books, and more recently, to uncover his film connections with Disney.
Last night, the Bailie tribe went to the cinema for ‘Meet The Robinsons’. We were rather worried that our favourite book would be turned into some dumb product. And sure enough, the visuals have been simplified and the characters all have that bug-faced Disney look that passes for cute. And what’s yer man Jamie Cullum doing as Frankie the frog?
But William Joyce’s vision has somehow survived, so we left smiling and reassured. The book still rules, of course, but the movie will do.
I wouldn’t class myself as a paid-up Paul Weller fan, but I let out a private cheer when he started rubbishing The Police. Maybe the guy was being childish for gobbing on a photo of Sting, but still, old habits die hard. It all goes back to the punk era, when poseurs were rejected and credibility was all.
And The Police certainly weren’t credible. They liked jazz music, for heaven’s sake. And they all had form as jobbing musicians with careers and dull back catalogues. Suddenly they went to the barbers, lashed out the peroxide and started singing in silly Jamaican accents (as in “Roxanne… pud out dee red liiht”). What was there to like?
And let’s not forget ‘Invisible Sun’ as one of the most risible comments on the Northern Ireland situation. The guy rhymed “armalite” with “rest of my life”, and made a suitably grainy and “sincere” video of our cultural wasteland. Cheers, pal.
Sting’s last album was a preposterous collection of Elizabethan lute music. He knows no boundaries of shame, no feature that’s beyond the realms of his preening self-regard. So the Police have been recommissioned, and those awful old songs have been exhumed.
It makes you want to spit. On your side, Weller!