2014: The Sleeve Notes

December 11th, 2014

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This is the 26th year I’ve made a best of year compilation (with cover photo – Season’s End tomatoes – and track veto from my partner, Sue), on cassette and, since the turn of the century, on CD. Since 2010 I’ve put the tunes on the net (copyright holders, I’ll remove on request, these are a promotional tool only up for a short time etc etc). I have friends who do the same, though none have lasted the course (plaudits to Jon & Veronica for the longest continuous run). Those friends who still get a cd might want to look away until theirs arrive. Some compile two cds, but I’ve always restricted myself to one, thinking enforced brevity the best way to ensure quality.

1. Young Fathers – Get Up If one single thing justifies the existence of the Mercury Music Prize, it’s this year’s win for the Young Fathers, who I’d never heard of. Their album is ebullient and original, taking hip-hop somewhere new. Earlier today, I got the spot to review the band when they make their Nottingham debut on May 26th, only to have to pull out when I realised that I’m teaching that evening. But I’ll probably buy a ticket (only a tenner) and catch as much of their set as I can anyway. This is the catchiest tune on the album, a great way to start the CD.

Young Fathers – Get Up (Radio Edit)

2. Mary J Blige – Therapy For reasons best known to Mary, she debuted new songs on Later months before her London Sessions album came out. I ended up watching her astonishing performance of this one four times. The raw lyric – hardly matters if it’s autobiographical or about, say, Amy Winehouse – make it a brave song to kick off an album with. And it tells such a striking, involving story that I was shocked, when it finally did come out, last month, to find that it’s only three minutes twenty seconds long. A soul classic.

Mary J Blige – Therapy

3. Spoon – Do You? I came slightly late to Spoon, in 2005, but have followed them closely since, even managed to see them twice, despite their aversion to touring the UK. They Want My Soul is another really good Spoon album. Is it as good as Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction? Time will tell, but this track is yet another catchy corker, with that pleasing Lennonesque rasp in Britt Daniels’ voice.

Spoon – Do You

4. Ronika – 1001 Nights Skip to the post below for more on Ronika, who we saw supporting the Human League this week, making a strong debut at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. I’ve been a fan since Mike Atkinson introduced me to her at the Bodega Social two or three years ago, and took a bunch of people to her album launch there this summer. Named after much missed Nottingham music store, Selectadisc, which was one of my top haunts from 1976 until its closure a few years ago, the album has an embarrassment of riches to choose from (it also features my old mucker Charles Washington on one track, as did the Bodega gig). Search Siren was my initial choice but, after Tuesday’s gig, Sue insisted on this disco thumper, making it the last addition to this year’s CD. No argument here.

Ronika – 1001 Nights

5. Mark Ronson feat Bruno Mars – Uptown This number entered the charts at number one yesterday, released by public demand I gather, and is so ubiquitous that I don’t need to post it, do I? Oh, alright then. Shades of Prince in another classy disco-thumper. Did I tell you I saw Prince from close-up in Leeds earlier this year?

6. Hello Saferide – I Forgot About Songs New album The Fox, The Hunter and Hello Saferide has no release date in the UK and is only available as a pricey import or download, but it’s well worth seeking out, nonetheless (thanks to Scott, for pointing out its existence). That this group haven’t appeared on the best of year CD is down to my constantly playing catch-up with them. I was intrigued by The Quiz and knocked out by its glorious double A side I Was Definitely Made for These Times so immediately started playing catch-up (including Annika Norlin’s work in Swedish, as Säkert!). You could, if you want, define some of their work as twee. Sure, there’s an element of adolescent innocence to these songs, but they’re also quirky, observational and, most of all, life affirming. This song more or less sums up why I make an annual best of year cd.

Hello Saferide – I Forgot About Songs

7. Leonard Cohen – Samson In New Orleans There’s some debate about the quality of Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. One music magazine had it in the top three albums of the year. In others, it barely scrapes the top forty. Old Ideas, his wonderful comeback, was my favourite album of a couple of years ago, easily Cohen’s best since Recent Songs or even I’m Your Man. Two years is a short gap for LC, and while this album is really good, it’s not great (at least, not by his standards). This track, however, is quintessential Cohen. I must confess that, to my surprise, I’ve listened to his son Adam’s new album at least as much as Leonard’s. But it’s an odd listen. Adam has explicitly embraced his dad’s legacy and there are times when he sounds so much like the Leonard of Songs From A Room, 45 years ago, that it’s scary. My favourite song on We Go Home, ‘Fall Apart’ addresses this whole area and is a fascinating listen. Originally it appeared on our CD directly before his dad, but Sue vetoed its inclusion (along with one by John Fullbright; ‘too many miserable songs’). Here it is, anyway.

Adam Cohen – Fall Apart

Leonard Cohen – Samson in New Orleans

8. Sleaford Mods - Middle Men I’ve had a couple of drinks at a Christmas do, so really oughtn’t to be writing for publication, but the condition feels entirely appropriate for Sleaford Mods, the band of the year (a year in which I’ve seen them three times, all great, but stonkingly superb at Spanky Van Dyke’s in September). They’re from Nottingham, near enough, and I first wrote about them over two years ago. Jason Williamson writes about contemporary society with a bile and passion that has found its moment. I love the way this starts as one industrial sound, immediately shifts into another and throws in an entirely pointless ‘New Labour!’ at the beginning and end to confuse yet sharpen its portrait of dead end drinkers in Sherwood, where I happen to live. And the Wilko’s mention. Class. I’d say more, but I really need to get some food down me.

Sleaford Mods – Middle Men

9. Drive-By Truckers – The Part Of Him After the brutal yet apt transition from Cohen To Williamson, this is more a shift in genre than of content. Paterson Hood’s story is about ‘an absolute piece of shit, to tell the truth, but he never told the truth to me’. DBTs hardly toured this album in the UK. Shame. Their last Nottingham gig, six years ago was terrific, and I’ve since travelled to Birmingham to see them – one of the great live acts. Is this about a real person? Hood’s written about politicians before, notably George Wallace.

Drive-By Truckers – The Part Of Him

 

 

The Human League & Ronika, Nottingham Royal Centre December 9th 2014 (Post review)

December 10th, 2014

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33 years after Dare, The Human League retain their core members, Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, supplemented by additional members who’ve been with them longer than the 80’s version of the band lasted. People come expecting a well oiled machine with all the hits plus a couple of recent songs. I’ve never known them disappoint.

There’s one surprise tonight, though: their choice of opening act. Nottingham’s Ronika is doing the whole tour. Her updated 80’s pop/disco sound couldn’t be better matched to the main act.

She comes on with ‘Ey Up, Nottingham!’ Wearing Adidas shorts and dark sunglasses for her RCH debut, she’s become more confident since I last saw her at the Bodega in early summer. Her banter with the crowd is relaxed, and includes a dedication to the much mourned music store, Selectadisc, that she’s named her debut album after.

Sunglasses off, she introduces her tight band as Hot Tap, Cold Tap and Smooth Basin. The last three numbers, in particular, are killer: Automatic, 1001 Nights and Search Siren. The latter concludes ‘Don’t Let This Be Over Too Soon’, but, sadly, after half an hour, it is. It’s hard for the sharpest pop act to break through in an overcrowded market heavily focussed on youth, but this tour will earn her a lot of new fans.

If you think Nottingham music is currently in the ascendant, think back to Sheffield 33 years ago, with ABC, Heaven 17 and the all conquering Human League. The League’s backing band come on to the staircase set and crack into the opening beats of Mirror Man, one of their biggest hits. The sound is great. Then something happens that I’ve never seen here before. The whole stalls are on their feet before the band even take the stage.

Phil Oakey is in futuristic shades while Susan and Joanne are in white, hair up, each looking like the Goddess of Nemi. The shades come off after Sound of the Crowd. It’s followed by two strong songs from their recentish album Credo, with Heart Like A Wheel in between. The ‘girls’ leave for Seconds, returning with a costume change for a trio of songs from Hysteria: The Lebanon; the often under-rated Life On Your Own (Phil and Susan argue over its chart position and Phil gets it right: 16); and Louise. The inclusion of the latter, sadly, always means we won’t get their best ballad, Human.

After that, it’s big numbers all the way, including Love Action, Open Your Heart and Fascination. The three leave the stage for a costume change, and during the next song’s extended intro, even the entire upper balcony gets to its feet. The song is, of course, their only number one, Don’t You Want Me.

First encore is the traditional early number. This time, The Path Of Least Resistance, from Reproduction (which I failed to recognise!). The 80 minute set concludes with a resplendent Together In Electric Dreams. Nottingham Lace (OK, Adidas) met Sheffield Steel and we all went home happy.

The Human League – Mirror Man

Ronika – Search Siren

Madness, Nottingham Arena, Dec 4, 2014

December 5th, 2014

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A very slightly extended version of my review for the Nottingham Post.

This is the opening night of the ‘All For The M.A.D.H.E.A.D.’ tour, which Madness warmed up for with a weekender at the seaside town of Minehead. Despite their London roots, the seaside feels like Madness’s natural home. These are songs made to be pounded out on a pier, or played through a dubious sound system on a fairground ride (though tonight, happily, the arena sound is superb). They’re the quintessential English working class band, with shades of The Beatles and The Kinks.

Support comes from Scouting For Girls, doubtless brought on board to please those accompanying their parents. I arrive in time for a cover of Wings’ Live and Let Die, presumably aimed at those parents. Sung horrendously out of tune, it goes down like the proverbial lead balloon. Things pick up with catchy number one This Ain’t A Love Song. Then they announce their last number, yet play three more, climaxing with pleasant, poppy debut She’s So Lovely.

Madness have been together for 32 years (not including the six years they took off from ’86-’92). Recently, trumpeter Chas Smash left to pursue a solo career. Two saxophones mirror the video backdrop and meet in the middle of the stage. They’re closely followed by the rest of the nine piece group and Madness launch into Night Boat To Cairo. An appropriate opener, given that a good third of the crowd sport red ‘Ali Baba’ fezes. The band charge into Embarrassment, which sounds as good as when it came out. Shut Up works a treat.

The first half of the show follows a rough pattern of hit followed by lesser known song. A fine My Girl, for instance, is followed by recent My Girl 2. A lovely The Sun and The Rain leads into the promising new The Last Rag and Bone Man. That they’re still writing new songs is key to this group’s longevity. You never feel like they’re going through the motions. The light show and use of video is top class throughout.

Hits get more frequent. After Los Palmas Seven, Suggs says ‘Let’s Go Back In Time’ and we’re into their exuberant tribute to the ska star who gave them their name, The Prince. Shut Up is splendid. The only bum note comes at the hour mark, when the guitarist is given the stage to play Highway To Hell. It goes down about as well as Live and Let Die did.

There’s no room for melancholy masterpieces like Tomorrow’s Just Another (Grey) Day, Yesterday’s Men or Michael Caine. All numbers they did last time I saw them, in the final phase of their first incarnation, on 1986’s Red Wedge tour (in support of Neil Kinnock’s Labour party). Pity, but this is Christmas: House of Fun and Wings of A Dove make for one big party. Baggy Trousers is even better, their signature song Our House transcendent. A corking It Must Be Love brings the main set to a close.

Then they’re back with that original nutty sound: One Step Beyond and, of course, Prince Buster classic, Madness, as much fun as when I first saw them play Nottingham, 35 years ago (at UoN’s Portland Building, on a double bill with the now forgotten Merton Parkas). A loving cover of Papa’s Got A Brand New PigBag and they’re gone. Long may they run.  Full setlist.

Madness – Shut Up

 

A Tram Called Alan

November 7th, 2014

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Yesterday we launched Nottingham’s attempt to become accredited as a Unesco City of Literature. I chair the board of the company set up to do this, which is a great honour, and a pretty daunting job. It was an even bigger honour to be asked to speak at the launch of Nottingham’s newest tram, named after the great Alan Sillitoe. Many of the guests at the launch were able to attend the naming ceremony at the Forest tram stop, chosen for the spot’s significance in Alan’s work. When we were done, we took the tram into the market square for the launch event at the Council House. 5.30 was too early for some, but there will be video of the whole event on the Nottingham City of Literature website. Sue took some photos, above. And here’s the speech I gave, after a fine introduction by the Sheriff, Councillor Jackie Morris and a lovely speech by Cllr Dave Trimble.

We’ve chosen to name the tram in this spot because here is almost exactly the site of a long, pivotal sequence in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – the film and the book. In both, there’s a great Goose Fair scene set on the Ghost Train. It should be pointed out that, while Alan wrote the screenplay, he simplified events for it. In the film, Arthur Seaton is only seeing one married woman, and gets beaten up for his trouble. In the novel, it’s a pair of sisters, Winnie and Brenda, who he’s carrying on with. Both their husbands are right here, at Goose Fair, when they spot Arthur with the pair of them, one on each arm. He’s pursued but narrowly gets away – for a while.

I bought my copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at a second hand emporium on the boulevard down there, thirty odd years ago, after finishing at the University of Nottingham. It was set in the Radford streets I’d come to live in, still very recognizable in the early 80’s. A lot of them, but by no means all, long gone now. In my first job, at a Nottingham school, I used to teach Alan’s short stories to fifteen year olds. Tough kids, quite often, who weren’t that keen on reading, so I’d read The Ragman’s Daughter out loud to them. It’s a long story, takes at least 50 minutes to read aloud, but they were always engrossed by it, by the power of Alan’s words, his storytelling skills and his brilliant depiction of the city we all knew so well. I’m sure loads of other teachers were doing the same thing, and not just in Nottingham, because we had a special schools edition of Alan’s early stories.

These days, I teach at Nottingham Trent, our other great university. The final lecture for all of our first year English literature and creative writing students is one I give on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. At the end of it, I ask them to do some writing about Nottingham and the Market Square, where we’ll soon be heading on the tram. Then they go off to a seminar where they investigate the artistry, intelligence and complexity that went into Alan’s portrayal of Arthur Seaton and his world. Those students come away knowing that they’re living in a real city of literature, one that Alan Sillitoe will always be an integral part of. And, from tomorrow, the can travel to their lectures on a tram bearing his name.

Over the years, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Alan. He was always keen to support Nottingham writers, both me and my students (here I adlibbed a mention of Nicola Monaghan, who was standing nearby and whose The Killing Jar Alan was keen on). One of the first things he said to me was ‘this city will take care of you’, and he was right. This city does take care of its writers. It honours them, as we are honouring Alan today, and it supports them, in all sorts of ways. Many of us want to give something back, and that’s why we’re here this evening. To celebrate Alan and to celebrate Nottingham. We know that we’re a truly international city of literature and we’re going to prove that in our bid to become a Unesco Creative City of Culture.

It’s a great honour to stand here with Alan’s family. His wife, the great poet Ruth Fainlight, will be unveiling the name plate in a few moments, but first I’d like to introduce Alan’s son, David Sillitoe. David, so glad you could make it.

 

David then made a great, short speech before handing over to Ruth for the unveiling. I hope it’ll be online soon.

The Specials & Sleaford Mods: Rock City debut 31/10/14

November 2nd, 2014

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Last week, The Pop Group, this week, The Specials. Sleaford Mods might be the hottest band in Britain (too cool to even enter the Mercury Music Prize), but it doesn’t stop them playing support to their heroes.

This is their first time on the main stage at Rock City and they fit. Jason Williamson’s, nonchalant ‘up yours’ attitude is a direct descendent of Terry Hall’s sour persona. Andrew Fearn’s bearded, beatific presence lightens the mood. The Specials’ Too Much, Too Young could be a template for the Mods’ aggressive descriptions of modern life’s scummier side. Jason’s intense performance in which, for once, he actually introduces the songs, wins over the early crowd with numbers liked Tied Up In Nottz, Tiswas (as played on 6Music at breakfast) and closer The Wage Don’t Fit.

Two and a bit years ago, the emerging Mods supported another great post-punk band, Scritti Politti, at the Rescue Rooms. In January, they headline there. On this evidence, they could soon headline Rock City, too.

Tonight is the second night of The Specials’ tour and their Rock City debut. Is it really six years since they announced their reunion? Joyous delirium greeted their 2009 reunion show in Sheffield. They played the main stage at Glastonbury two months later. Since then, Nottingham has had an arena show and Neville Staple has left due to ill health. That aside, this line-up has been together longer than the original band’s four year run. No new album has appeared. Hardly surprising, since songwriter Jerry Dammers wanted nothing to do with the reunion. Sometimes, tonight, Terry Hall looks like he wishes he wasn’t here either.

It has to be said that the first half of this show is a little off. Tunes like Double Barrel and the Clash’s Janey Jones get us in the mood, but dubby opener Ghost Town (too early!) never takes off, its ‘people getting angry’ lost in mike problems. After Friday Night and Saturday Morning, Hall lets rip at someone in the crowd because, it seems, he hates halloween. Pearl’s Cafe, with its ‘all a load of bollocks’ refrain, seems to sum up the mood. (It later transpires that there were, indeed, sound problems, as explained in Horace Panter’s facebook blog, which is also interesting on what it’s like to play Rock City.)

Rat Race begins and quickly goes wrong. Funnily enough, when the song restarts, the night turns into a great Specials gig (‘I think we got away with it’, Horace wrote). Terry leaves the stage for Lynval Golding to give us Why? When Hall returns, he makes a crack about Halloween Club before Nite Klub. At one point, as he turns his back on us, I even spot a smile on his face.

Dawning of a New Era, Do The Dog, Monkey Man, Concrete Jungle, they’re all there. Gangsters is the show’s highlight and Too Much Too Young the classic closer. Guns of Navarone leads into Enjoy Yourself for the encore. Terry makes a crack about the 10pm curfew, tell us what’s on the telly, then finishes the 90 minute set with the inevitable You’re Wondering Now (‘what to do now you know it’s the end’). By the end, it was a bit special.

 

The Specials return for a second Rock City show (without Sleaford Mods this time) later this month, but it’s long since sold out.

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2014: The Sleeve Notes
This is the 26th year I've made a best of year compilation (with cover photo - Season's End tomatoes - and track veto from my partner, Sue), on cassette and...

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