Sunday, 28 June 2015

Red is the colour of the new Republic

I remember once having a conversation with my good friend Monmarduman about music. Which is why I found it funny to see him posting all about some crappy heavy metal festival he went to recently in France. I quite like Slash as it goes, he was the best bit of Guns & Roses, particularly the hat, and inspired a bloated second Manics album that in turn spawned the reaction to it that is The Holy Bible (the best Manics complete work - but more of them another time).

But apart from jazz, the one and only form of music I could never abide was heavy metal. It's a long story, with a few nuances to it. But there are two main reasons. The music is shite and the lyrics pathetic. Only joking. It's just not my cup of tea.

But this conversation, well it did have a bit of a point to it. In Myers-Briggs terms, my comrade (he'd love being called that) is a "Thinking" type, whilst I am a "Feeling" type. It's not what you think. But in so far as it affects our musical preferences I think it makes the meaning of songs far more important to me, than him.

Which brings me on to The Men They Couldn't Hang. Mainly from Southampton, not exactly a hotbed of political activism, but musicians from a long English folk tradition, combined with a few seventies/eighties punk influences thrown in for good measure. They had a few minor hits and bobbed about on the fringes of the charts, but to all intents and purposes, they are a not a mainstream act.

But always great live. I had the pleasure of seeing them again last year, after a long absence, and of chatting to Phil "Swill" Odgers in the foyer of the small venue afterwards. A lovely man, even when slightly pissed. Swill I mean.

Back in the eighties I had seen them play a blistering set at my University, and the blend of politics, guitars and folk was something really different, and made quite an impression on me. Their best album in my view was "Waiting for Bonaparte" and contained my favourite track of theirs, "The Colours", a story of the 1797 Naval Mutiny off Spithead and the Nore.

Obviously there are latter-day parallels. But even the most hard-hearted latter-day cynical Management Consultant would have to admit it takes a certain knowledge, intelligence and thoughtfulness to write a song like that. Even if you think the music is shite and the lyrics are pathetic.

Friday, 19 June 2015

At first you never notice then the years go flying by

Oh Kirsty. Many of our music heroes have gone - Curt Cobain, Joe Strummer, Stuart Adamson to name but three. But Kirsty's death was just so awful, run over by a speedboat off the coast of Mexico in slightly dubious circumstances, saving her son's life in the process. Just as she was coming into her musical prime too, with much to look forward to.

For many people she is a slightly quirky minor pop artist that made a couple of offbeat hits in the early 80s. True followers luxuriate in the lush inventiveness of the latin-influenced Tropical Brainstorm. Most people remember her duet with Shane MacGowan and the Pogues (who nearly made my top ten by the way, not with Fairytale, but with "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge").

But my favourite album of hers is Kite, as much for the sound of Jonny Marr's guitar combining with the acerbic lyrics and stories as for anything else.

For years I set myself goals, targets, objectives. I used to have dreams, but most of those are illusions brought about by deluded thinking on my part. But something shifted in me when my parents died, that brought me back to this song, "Tread Lightly". Because although the song is about looking to your hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow, it's pitched as if they will never happen.

And that can't be right, especially not now. So now,  I  feel that I need to have something that's just for me, in whatever I do. Even if no one knows about it, because I will carry those hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow always. You should too.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

It took me a dictionary, to find out the meaning of unrequited

Billy Bragg is one of those artists that seems to polarise opinion, you either love him or hate him. He is probably the most overtly political singer in my top ten, although it's a close run thing. He is not the most melodic singer to have ever recorded, not is he the most subtle of writers. And although I do love a lot of his political songs, it's one of his most sensitive works about love, or more accurately, unrequited love, that makes it into my top ten.

I was not a confidant teenager when it came to girls, so "The Saturday Boy" really struck a chord, pun intended, when I first heard it in my early twenties. Put aside all your preconceptions, your polarised views of his politics, and (as the Bard of Barking himself says in this recent live rendition), go back and connect with your adolescent memories.

This is poetry, whatever way you look at it.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Opens up my soul and torches up a fire inside of me

I first saw the Waterboys at Milton Keynes bowl, supporting U2 in one of those festivals that is only allowed to happen if it's pouring with rain. 1985 I think it was, I remember being slightly surprised that so many people thought it was a good idea to take all their clothes off and slide down the slopes of mud, stark naked. I think drink may have been involved. Or something stronger.

They were a pretty good live band, and I was impressed enough to go and buy their album - "This is the Sea". A blend of expansive loud rock, with some sensitive touches and good, sound eco-politics. Greenpeace I think. But at that stage, thee was nothing to really make them stand out for me. And it had their biggest hit "The Whole of the Moon" which everyone remembers.

Then Mike Scott moved to Ireland, chucked out most of the band, recruited Steve Wickham (who had played the scratchy violin riff of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"), and a whole host of other folk musicians. What followed was two of the best folk-rock crossover albums ever. I'd always had a penchant for folk music, I think it's that link into my rural past! Seriously, I love the way that folk can seem all nice and cute, but actually contain a sharp message, be it about love, politics or something else.

I can see a pattern developing in my choices, because I chose "When Ye go away" for the top ten, it's just so sad, but also a great example of the Waterboys music of this period. And it's not one that has been covered by a pale modern-day imitator and passed off as authentic. It's an album track, so few have heard of it, I like that too. It also contains the line, "somebody left his whisky, and the night is very young". Make of that what you will.

I was due to see them again in 1989, at the heart of that Fisherman's Blues tour, but missed it because my girlfriend of the time was too sick to travel to Cambridge, where the gig was. I'm sure my unsympathetic and grudging reaction was the start of the end of our relationship. So the song echoes that too because essentially it's about the transience of love.

Mike Scott is of course is truly bonkers, and has gone on to make some fantastic stuff. I've seen him a few times since that aborted attempt, and he has always been highly accomplished and put on a great show. Including abusing the audience at times, which I particularly like. But I don't think he topped that period, his best. And this song, is for me, the best of that best.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Their lies wash you down and their promises rust

Do you think all 15 year old boys are angry? I was, angry about almost everything. That bit is quite normal. I was angry with my parents, for being parents.  I was angry with teachers, in a typical middle class passive and silent way. I was angry with the boys that bunked off school, had fights in the playground (I know there is a contradiction, it doesn't matter, there is no logic in a 15-year old's life)and got the affections of the girls I secretly and silently fancied.

But I was also quite angry with Margaret Thatcher and the bunch of Tory filth that accompanied her efforts to dismember the welfare state and destroy our manufacturing base. Maybe I didn't articulate it quite like that then, but I didn't need to because I had Paul Wellar to do it for me.

I'd been quite into a lot of early punk, but the arrival of the Jam in the late 70s, at the time when my teenage rebellion was entering its most interesting psychological phase was a Godsend. Although of course I was angry with God too. If he'd existed, or I'd realised it was a bourgeois construct.

Was that usual? To be politically interested and engaged at that age? I don't see it in my son, and he's nearly the same age as I was then. Ooh, rebellion's not what it used to be.

So the next one in the top ten list is their finest hour. I'd even say it's Paul Wellar's greatest ever musical creation. The vituperative and scathing nature of the message are encased in a wonderful English understatement, and again, the guitar sound is just superb. The message is simple, but no less powerful for that, and more relevant now than ever. We could do with a few more angry middle class schoolboys these days.

I bought the single with my brother in Woolworths one Saturday morning, and it came with a free copy of another of their records, as was the custom in those days. I think my Dad was with us, and I hope he made some disparaging remark about their look, or some such. I definitely didn't want to like the same music as him. Or was it the other way around?

I never really rated them as a live act, so here is the studio version.  A great video too. And of course all the rebellion, the middle-class guilt, the angst, well, that took years of therapy to unravel. But I got there in the end so I'm sure you don't need me to do it for you.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

If you could feel how I must feel

Big Country. The Crossing. The album that really spurred me to work hard and get the A levels I needed to get into University. So I could leave home. A big influence on the teenage me, that album. It worked too.

But when I came to pick my top ten favourite songs of all-time ever, it's not one of those tracks that I chose. Not an album track at all.

Wonderland. I listen to it still and it means something different. Every day. Like all the songs on the list it complements the others on the list. It is also musically brilliant. How could a guitarist like Stuart Adamson not produce something as flawlessly brilliant every time he picked up his guitar. I have not an ounce of musical ability in my body but I know a musical genius when I hear one.

Just listen to  the first 80 seconds of this. And in his younger days there was a joy to him, almost.

Such a sad demise.

But Wonderland. Lyrically poetic, and of course it's about loss, so I would love it. The first time I heard it blaring out of the speakers in the Union Bar, it spoke to me of how Uni wasn't quite, or even close to, the nirvana I was expecting.

Later it spoke to me about the loss of idealism, hope, even youth. Now it reminds me of my parents.

I don't know what it was really about, I don't want to know. I just want to wallow in the searing edge of Stuart's guitar and his soulful lyrics. You can search YouTube for a studio version, but as with most Big Country music, the live versions are the best.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

I tried to stretch my mind but I just got my body wrecked

This is a tale of hubris, which is also my favourite abstract concept. I'm keen on hope, enthusiasm and love, but I think hubris is so much more educational than all the optimistic stuff.

To be clear I'm the owner of the hubris, although that recognition may mitigate it and make it less hubristic, I'll bow to the philosophers amongst you on that one. A month after my last post, and my first 400km Audax, I attempted my second. In between I have not been idle. Work busy, yes. Home life busy, of course. Inside of my head its usual whirl of random and pointless chatter, naturally.

I have also done a fair amount of cycling. In fact in May I did more in a calendar month than I ever have before, 972 miles. Lots of km. Big events, short commutes.

But you know me, I can do anything can't I? That I set my mind to, I persist, don't give up. I thought that I could actually get up at 6AM on Friday, do a full day's work, off the back of a busy week with not enough sleep, then off to the Blackdown Hills for a 10.30PM start followed by 400 km.

Ever wondered about your own limits? Just keep pushing and you will find them.

But to begin with I thought I was going to get away with it. Outside the Half Moon Pub in Clayhidon, a gathering of 40 or so audacious riders set off down the lanes towards Tiverton on a quite beautiful night.

I'd added a couple of spoke reflectors to my wheels, my dynamo was purring like a cat that got the cream, and we all rode together to Tiverton, 25km in an hour, for the first control.
Maybe it was a coincidence, but looking back on it, I take it as some kind of cosmic warning, as I left the town I very narrowly avoided a bus pulling out on me at a roundabout when I was already halfway round it. I know it's easy to talk about near-misses, but this was one of those times where I went from "silly idiot" to "what is he doing" to "I hope he stops" to "he hasn't seen me" to Fuuuuuuuuuck" in about half a second. It's amazing how adrenaline makes you pedal faster because he missed me by inches. In the moment, I thought I was a gonner.
It may not have been an omen, but the adrenaline certainly helped spur me up the Exe Valley, and I continued to make good time up to Wheddon Cross and down the other side to Minehead. It was getting cold though, as I had seriously underestimated how chilly night-time riding can be over Exmoor and beyond, even if it is June. Summer, remember?
It was also slightly surreal to be in the front room of a Minehead house as two delightful ladies doled out hot tea and coffee to random Audaxers all looking slightly dazed.
The next section was also pretty fast, as a tailwind, a pretty strong one too, blew me all the way along the A39 to Bridgwater and out the other side. Even at 4AM there were still loads of people about, and I didn't linger, heading off into the lanes of the levels towards Glastonbury, where I arrived just as dawn was breaking. The night-time ride had been magical. Despite the cold it had been a clear night, so the stars were at their best, augmented by a wonderful 3/4 moon. At one point a white owl swooped back and forth across the road as I cycled underneath it. Special.  
But as I swung away from Glastonbury it all just fell apart.
I had got progressively colder and colder through the night, but now I was going slower and slower as well, so I popped into Tesco for something to supplement my own supplies. But I was also starting to feel sick, and found it almost impossible to keep anything down. My ITB (the muscle-like structure on the outside of the leg) had been hurting me since Tiverton, and I must have adapted my pedalling style to compensate, for now my knee was screaming in pain. (it's still very sore and stiff as I write this. Although I'm not typing with my knee, I'm not that clever).
I stopped a couple of times to take photos, and tweet my progress, as well as changes to sunglasses, despite the cold and the wind it was turning into a very sunny day.
But with all the accumulated aches and pains, it wasn't much fun. I decided to climb up the Mendips to see if that would help shake things up a bit. It did, but not in a good way. The climb out of Dinder is a tough one, I have done it a few times, but I have never seen the road rise up and down, nor get strange swirly patterns in my vision as I did so. This struck me as being the effect of all that sleep deficit, and though I could nap for a short time, I instinctively knew I needed more.
I carried on to the A37, and stopped for five minutes to decide what to do. I had done 98 miles, with a further 162 ahead of me. I was exhausted, and beyond my deriving any enjoyment from the event, or the pain of the niggles, I was now also worried about falling asleep as I rode.
I decided to bail and head back to Clayhidon, meaning 40 miles into the wind to my car. It took me four hours, although that did include an unsuccessful attempt to get food into me at McDs in Street, and about 30 minutes asleep in Othery churchyard. (it's a great spot for a snooze on a sunny day). Loads of breaks, and painful progress. The final ascent back up to the Blackdowns has me at 797 out of 811 on Strava, mainly because I had to stop five or six times, through sheer exhaustion.
So there you have it. I did about 220km in the end anyway, not a bad overall average speed, or total time. But I didn't get the Audax points. In hindsight it was the right decision and has certainly set me thinking about how I can rein it back without compromising all my goals. I slept for 5 hours when I got home and I'm still tired. But I think there is a deeper and different level of tiredness lurking in me somewhere, one I would be wise to pay heed to, before I do myself some serious damage.
I am not as tough as I would like to think I am.