Like many music fans, I was sorry to hear about Wilko Johnson and his cancer diagnosis. The music he created with Dr Feelgood was a needy awakening for my generation - a signal to return to the speed and the lurch and the ceremony of rhythm and blues. I saw him play Belfast in the summer of 2010 and he was still energised by the force. He also emerged from the Julian Temple film, Oil City Confidential, as a grinning outsider, into his astronomy and a wiser proposition since the Feelgood exit.
His post-diagnosis comments are also remarkable, particularly when he spoke to Radio 4's Front Row. "Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road, you think 'I'm alive, I'm alive' - I hope I can hang onto that.
"I've had a fantastic life. When I think about the things that have happened to me and the things I've done, I think anybody who asks for more would just be being greedy. I don't wanna be greedy."
'Back In The Night' is perfect testimony to Wilko's choppy guitar, perhaps only rivalled by 'Roxette'. What a great song it is - the story of a man who moisturises with Swarfega and who gets though the shift work on the memories of the previous evening's escapades.
Dr Feelgood - Back In The Night (Arista)
The 1975 - Chocolate (Vagrant)
Telecom - Cristina (Moshi Moshi)
Ciaran Lavery - Little More Time (Public Sector)
Johnnie Allan - Promised Land (Jin)
Nolan Cormier - He Haw Breakdown (Swallow)
First Aid Kit - Kings Of The World (Wichita)
Villagers - The Bell (Domino)
Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers - It's Not Enough (Track)
Widowspeak - Ballad Of The Golden House (Captured)
Sir Joe Quarterman - So Much Trouble (Metro)
Toots And the Maytals - Funky Kingston (Island)
Cat Power - Manhattan (Matador)
Indians - New (4ad)
Bill Kirchen - Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues (Floating World)
Ciaran Lavery - Shame (Public Sector)
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Baby (4ad)
Annabelle Chvostek - Ona (Borealis)
Ian Skelly - Firebird (Watertown)
Grace Jones - I've Seen That Face Before (Island)
Indians - Reality Solution (4ad)
Blimey, it's The Boomtown Rats. Reformed and preparing to play the Isle Of White Festival this summer. Bob Geldof, Pete Briquette, Johnny Fingers and the other fellas whose names I can't recall. It's a rat trap, baby, and their first live performance since 1986.
I was there when the Rats played their final show. It was the Self Aid concert at the RDS stadium in Dublin. Geldof wore a grey sweatshirt and looked weary. The band played after a turgid fashion - essentially a rhythm and blues combo that had chanced it into the punk caper and even got some further mileage out of being a grimacing pop act. Not too many great songs, but there are days when I'll tolerate 'Looking After Number One' and 'Joey's On The Street Again'.
I've met Bob a few times and he was top company. He laughs a fair bit, he's a raconteur with many ripping stories and he doesn't have pretensions about being a self-made millionaire. He misses the rock and roll years and is seemingly hurt that The Rats are not considered to be part of the panetheon of punk. And you know, I think he would trade much of his wealth to be in that position again, bleating out 'Banana Republic', moving like Jagger and working that rubbery visage. No harm in it, surely.
Back in 1987, Neil Hannon wrote a song called 'Remembrance Day'. He was only 17 and was still in thrall to Bono and Sting. The song was about the Cenotaph bombing and it didn't progress too far because even the author wasn't happy about how it had turned out. It was "too awful".
That wasn't the end of it though. On the 1998 Divine Comedy album 'Fin de Siècle', he chose to sign off with a track called 'Sunrise'. This was more resonant piece of art. He was singing about his early days in Derry-Londonderry, the sense of developing unease and similar encounters when he moved to Enniskillen. The 1987 bombing was alluded to, but he chose not to labour the issue.
Instead, the song deals with things being various, from place names to historical aspirations. In Neil's head, none of this matters if the aspirant is killed for the cause. Some years later, I asked him about it and he was more forthcoming about the notion of killing for a cause. "I just wanted to lay it on the line and say that pretty much nothing is worth being buried for."
'Sunrise' was released into a tentative peace process, the idea that a strange and beautiful thing was being illuminated. It was right for the time, and when Neil recently appeared at Ebrington for the Sons And Daughters concert, 'Sunrise' was reappraised, 15 years on.
Big words like plurality are still being mouthed by our leaders, but their lips are tightening and their concerns are often small-time and parochial and mean. Neil Hannon didn't need to underline any of this. There was much irony in the circumstance of the song. That's not to say that the dawn will never deliver a kiss of brightness. But perhaps we might need to sing the refrain a little louder.
Tom Petty And the Heartbreakers spent their early days perfecting the jingle-jangle template of the Byrds. They had the Rickenbacker guitar, the cosmic heartache, the minor chords and the faltering voice. They were earnest in their tribute and they also had the talent to add a few of their own ideas. Hence 'American Girl' from 1977, a song written in California, but mindful of the old days in Florida. You could argue that the song was an influence on The Strokes, particularly their song 'Last Nite'. But the most fascinating response came from Byrds singer Roger McGuinn, who recorded a version a few months after the Petty version was released. The master giving his dues to the protégées. I saw Roger onstage with the Heartbreakers at a gig in Orange County, 1989. They played 'Turn, Turn, Turn' and my heart was unutterably full.
Fats Domino - Blue Monday (Capitol)
Jason Lytle - Dept Of Disappearance (Anti)
Scott And Charlene's Wedding - Two Weeks (Critical Heights)
David Bowie - Young Americans (Ryko)
Little Green Cars - Harper Lee (Island)
William Bell - You Don't Miss Your Water (Barbican)
Yo La Tengo - Well You Better (Matador)
Birds Of Chicago - Sugar Dumplin' (BOC)
Wave Machines - Ill Fit (Neapolitan)
Roger McGuinn - American Girl (Floating World)
Purity Ring - Fineshrine (4ad)
Balthazar - Do not Claim Them Anymore (PIAS)
Marvin Gaye - Purple Snowflakes (Motown)
Bobby Womack - Love Is Gonna Lift You Up (XL)
Stornoway - Knock Me On The Head (4ad)
Billy Bragg - Handyman (Cooking Vinyl)
Calexico - Maybe On Monday (City Slang)
Robyn Hitchcock - Be Still (Yep Roc)
Best Boy Grip - Postman (white)
Aaron Neville - Let's Live (Proper)
Bettye Lavette - I'm Not The One (Anti)
David Bowie - Win (Ryko)
Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow (Noble & Brite)
Some songs are written with rousing intent. 'Alternative Ulster' by Stiff Little Fingers was an angry interruption of sectarian business in 1978 - a farewell to arms and the glorious call of the riff and the power chord. The song suggested that you could alter your native land and we want to believe that many young people took heed.
Other songs have the intent written into them. With the encouragement of Pete Seeger and a few others, a gospel song about heavenly deliverance became the shout for justice on this sphere. This evolved into 'We Shall Overcome', a song that continues to move Bruce Springsteen and many hopeful hearts.
There's a whole other range of songs that have accidentally fallen into significance. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' was a 1945 show tune that has become transcendental. Rodgers and Hammerstein would never have imagined a song about a suicide could take on such cosmic import, but hey, that's one of the random effects that popular music can invest in our souls.
Hence the rising consciousness of the Snow Patrol song, 'Take Back The City'. It was a top ten release in October 2008. At the time, Gary Lightbody called it "a love song to Belfast". It was written at a time of optimism, when peace seemed achievable, when the landscape and the creative vision of the place was being reimagined. There was a fresh script out there, better demands to make.
But circumstances in Belfast are mocking some of that. Bad economics and messy politics have taken the shine off the dream. The roads are cratered again and the helicopter blades mangle the night air. At the City Hall peace rallies, people have chosen to bang drums, to make noise, to exorcise some of the hate. It makes for a skewed kind of release.
Into this despondent frame, the sentiments 'Take Back the City' have been revived. Instead of blind hope, there is a determination to be there, now. To counter the dread with good company in town. To favour the social places that are taking a hit. And so the song has been rolling across social media and casual conversation and now is a kind of reversed anthem. Aspiring to normal, rather than extraordinary life is something in itself. It's a hashtag and a mindset. Gary Lightbody is also aware of the song's new value and seems to concur. He notes that he's "very proud our song about Belfast is being used as part of the campaign for peace and sanity".
You can pick a side, or pick a fight. Alternately, you might want to get the epitaph right.
Cajun music isn't a massive draw over here, but in Louisiana it's the vernacular for dancing, shouting and expressing the blues. Wiser people can explain the roots of the music but there's a connection to French immigrants, looking for Arcadia, getting frustrated in Canada and then settling in the American south. They maintained their language and an attachment for the accordion. Cajun has forked off into other kinds of popular music, including zydeco and the swamp pop of acts like Lil' Band O' Gold, big faves on the Monday Late Show. Meantime, a TV ad for a phone enquiry service is now using Hee Haw Breakdown by Nolan Cormier & the Louisiana Aces. That's the tune that starts with the song of a donkey braying. Why not, eh?
The Sundown Playboys date back to the Forties, and put out some fine music for the seminal Swallow label. In one of those peculiar steers, it was released in the UK by Apple, The Beatles' label in 1972. Morrissey is a fan and hopefully many of you are also partial.
Bobby Parker - Watch Your Step (EMI)
Palma Violets - Step Up For The Cool Cats (Rough Trade)
The Jepettos - Goldrush (Get Out)
Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams (PIAS)
Allen Touissaint - Soul Sister (Ace)
Christopher Owens - Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener (Turnstile)
David Bowie - Where Are We Now (Sony)
Nick Cave - Jubilee Street (white)
The Hard Chargers - Crazy About You Marilyn (white)
Sean Rowe - Downwind (Anti)
Cave Painting - Leaf (Third Rock)
Wave Machines - I Hold Loneliness (Neapolitan)
The Sundown Playboys - Saturday Night Special (Swallow)
JD McPherson - Dimes For Nickels (Rounder)
Villagers - My Lighthouse (Domino)
Bronagh Gallagher - Here They Go Again (Salty Dog)
Barry Adamson - If You Love Her (Central Control)
Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite - She Got Kick (Decca)
David Bowie - Oh You Pretty Things (EMI)
The Divine Comedy - Life On Mars (Setanta)
Sarafina Steer - Life Before Mutiny (French) (Stolen)
Lord Huron - Ends Of The Earth (PIAS)
Villagers - Passing A Message (Domino)
Marika Hackman - That Iron Taste (white)
Atoms For Peace - Judge, Jury And Executioner (XL)
Back in the early Seventies, I had an unquenched fascination for popular music. David Bowie, in particular seemed to be a flame-haired lightning catcher, promising to initiate us young people into some cosmic dimension. I used to read his sleevenotes, looking for arcane clues. In particular, there was an instruction on the 'Ziggy Stardust' back cover: "To be played at maximum volume". Myself and my mates figured that in the apparently silent gaps between songs, there were half-hidden instructions about what Ziggy really "meant". So we played the record at murderous levels and tried to hear those magical commands. One guy even claimed that he'd "got it" and just grinned stupidly when we quizzed him about it.
Forty years on and the quest continues. Broadsheet newspapers with sensible agenda are putting Bowie on the front cover and are musing about the lyrical content of 'Where Are We Now' and the significance of Potzdamer Platz, the Dschungel nightclub and Bose Brucke. Likewise with the video, which has already provoked a parody version, with Harry Hill's face superimposed over that of the enigmatic Jacqueline Humphries. There's already an arch cover version by Momus, a long-standing Dave-watcher. Isn't that tremendous? Would we ever find such intrigue with will.i.am, Taylor Swift or the endlessly pouting Rihanna?
The return of a decent Bowie song has also raised some proper music writing again. Do a search on responses from Chris Roberts, Jim Shelley and even Tony Parsons. Intellects have been roused. The singles chart is again worthy of comment. Don't be swayed by the contrarians and the grandstanding bloggers who try to provoke with drab opinions. Good people, Bowie is back among us and the papers want to know whose shirts he wears.
When I feel a bit vaporous and blue, The Triffids provide an excellent
rescue remedy. Wonderful, literate songs from Perth, Western
Australia. Delivered by David McComb, who was the equal of Michael
Stipe in terms of taut observation, even better at billowing disquiet.
Albums like 'Calenture', 'Born Sandy Devotional' and 'The Black Swan'
are personal tonics. From the latter comes 'New Year's Greetings', an
account of January on Stony Ridge, under the Southern Cross. The
weather is relentlessly hot and the boy is far from civilisation,
getting by with his good black dog and the AM radio. His old girl in
in Sydney and he's wondering how she might be, and if the city boys
might taking liberties. The string section starts to swoon and the
loneliness takes you away. Bless that man.
Charles Williams - Darling (Proper)
Villagers - Nothing Arrived (Domino)
Teleman - Christina (Moshi Moshi)
Brecht / Weill - profile
Two Door Cinema Club - New Year (Kiitsune)
Christopher Owens - Here We Go Again (Turnstile)
The Vals - I Fall (Unique)
Teleman - In Your Fur (Moshi Moshi)
The Triffids - New Year's Greetings (Island)
Villagers - Rhythm Composer (Domino)
Prince - Rock And Roll Love Affair (Purple)
Huey Piano Smith - Don't You Just Know It (Proper)
Paul Banks - Young Again (Matador)
Villagers - Grateful Song (Domino)
Lucero - Who You Waiting On (Loose)
Paul Simon - Questions For the Angels (Universal)
Patrick Gardiner - He Isn't Right For You (white)
Dexys - She Got A Wiggle (BMG)
Daughter - Smother (4ad)
Nick Cave - We No Who U R (Bad Seed Ltd)
Villagers - In A New found Land You Are Free (Domino)
Best record of the year so far is 'Christina' by a new act, Teleman. The deal is compelling love. The guy is drawn across town to meet this significant person, "who makes me to lie down". When he gets back to his own place, everything is quiet and meaningless. Without making a huge issue out of it, the song suggests that Christina is a life-changer.
There's hardly a word in the song that's longer than one syllable. There's a one finger keyboard motif and a vamped bassline that sounds like classic Brian Wilson. The second verse is same as the first, which is normally the sign of weak songwriting, but in this case it
reflects the singer's infatuation. Eventually, the song opens up a little, revealing more of that quiet rapture.
The vocalist is Thomas Sanders. He has a clipped, English enunciation that's not unlike Neil Tennant. It seems that Thomas, brother Jonny plus Pete Cattermoul are all exiles from Reading act Pete And The Pirates, which might explain the maturity of the song, that's produced to swooning effect by Bernard Butler of Suede renown. Whatever, it's a bit tremendous and certain respite from the January blues.
We lost Phil Lynott on January 4, 1986. If I was really honest I might
say that his passing was a bit of an anti-climax then. His music
seemed to have lost his relevance. His death was drawn out and
depressing. There were other Irish acts in the ascent and another
heroin casualty was essentially wasteful.
Like many others, I've spent the past 27 years listening to the music,
talking to his old friends and savoring the remarkable tales. And of
course, reassessing the life story. When I wrote the authorized
biography in 1996, I heard some things that made me feel bad about the
guy. But there were so many instances of humour, tenacity and bravado.
As the late Bill Graham once wrote, he was the Irish Elvis. He showed
a generation how to live boldly and loosely. He built a new layer on
the musical vernacular. I have a fondness for the melancholy in those
early releases, but the leather trousers were also essential.
Tonight, fans will toast Phil's achievements in Dublin, Stockholm, Los
Angeles and elsewhere. It is difficult to imagine how he might have
progressed beyond 1986 but we can supposed that he would have been a
dude, enjoying his classic status and the waves of rocking acolytes.
Belfast can take some comfort in the appearance of his mother,
Philomena Lynott at the Black Box on the afternoon of January 12.
She's be talking about the revised edition of her book, 'My Boy' and
we'll doubtless be reminded of the Phil-shaped vacancy in the music
Happy New Year! Here's the playlist that took us out of the old one. Not a bad track in there, and many that will sustain the heart into future times. I did promise bagpipes on the way to midnight and good old Rufus Wainwright obliged with 'Candles', that powerful farewell to his mother Kate that resonates across so many emotional channels.
Alabama Shakes - Hold On (Rough Trade)
Bob Dylan - Dukesne Whistle (Columbia)
Two Door Cinema Club - Settle (Kitsune)
Dexys - You (BMG)
Alt J - Something Good (Infectious)
Bobby Womack - Dayglo Reflection (XL)
Soak - Sea Creatures (white)
Jack White - I'm Shakin (XL)
Rolling Stones - Doom And Gloom (Promotone)
Villagers - Nothing Arrived (Domino)
Grimes - Oblivion (4ad)
Farriers - The Fires Burn (white)
Bruce Springsteen - Land of Hope And Dreams (Columbia)
JD McPherson - Northside Girl (Rounder)
Jake Bugg - Lightning Bolt (Mercury)
Paul Weller - Be Happy Children (Island)
Justin Townes Earle - Memphis In The Rain (Bloodshot)
Calexico -Splitter (City Slang)
Paul Buchanan - Mid Air (Newsroom)
The XX - Angels (XL)
Bill Fay - Be At Peace With Yourself (Dead Oceans)
Perfume Genius - Dark Parts (Turnstile)
Leonard Cohen - Show Me The Place (Sony)
The Two Bears - Heart Of The Congos (Southern Fried)
Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again (Communion)
Rufus Wainwright - Candles (Polydor)