Category Archives: music

The Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter Story

I’ve been a fan of first Mott the Hoople and then Ian Hunter solo since way back when. I decided to embark on an album-by-album discussion of the band and of Hunter’s solo career over on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum. I started in October 2016 and have not finished yet, but I will.

There are a couple of reasons why I have decided to repost the content here – my own content, not the entire discussion. One is that I cannot edit any old posts there so errors, additions, fixing broken links etc cannot be fixed, other than by emailing moderators. Another is that it is hard to navigate a long thread, for example if you are looking for a review of a specific album.

Therefore I’ve posted the key posts on this site. You can find an index in the first post and continue from there.

Comments are welcome, especially if you have your own recollections of seeing the band (or one of Ian Hunter’s bands).

re-examining Song for bob dylan by david bowie

I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:

Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words in truthful vengeance
Could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
Put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

You gave your heart to every bedsit room
At least a picture on my wall
And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them why they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone

Ah, Here she comes …

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Ah, Here she comes …

In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.

I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.

I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.

That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?

An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work

As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.

Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.

Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:

“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.

"I realise now he was saying goodbye."

I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.

Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.

The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.

Song for Bob Dylan

Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.

Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.

Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”

In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?

A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:

"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"

There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.

Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”

In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.

Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.

Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.

What about the final couplet:

You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?

Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather stay here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.

Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.

I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.

Final thoughts

Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.

I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.

Ian Hunter and the Rant band at the Stables, 30 Sept 2014

The Stables is a delightful small venue near Milton Keynes, and when I saw that Ian Hunter was due to play there with his Rant Band I grabbed one of the last remaining tickets.


He came on shortly after 9pm, following an energetic set from support act Federal Charm, and told us in a croaky voice that he wasn’t feeling too good. In that case he is a true star (he is anyway) since he went on to give a great performance; his voice was a little gruff at times, but hear him belt out Sweet Jane and you discover that he has no problem delivering powerful vocals when it counts.

I am a fan: I loved Mott the Hoople from the first time I heard them (it was the cover of At the Crossroads on the famous Island compilation Nice Enough to Eat); and both with Mott and on his work since, Ian Hunter is able to achieve a musical texture that is rich and evocative, as well as being able to rock out on occasion.

Hunter is a great songwriter too, coming over as an honest and thoughtful voice in an industry full of decadence and plastic.

I enjoyed every minute of the concert, even though I felt that Hunter’s voice was mixed too quiet and that the sound overall could have been better. I have not seen him perform since Hunter/Ronson days; it has been far too long.

Highlights for me included When I’m President (a more recent song), Irene Wilde performed from the keyboard, a powerful rendition of Bastard, All American Alien Boy with its sharp reflections on life in the US of A, Once Bitten Twice Shy of course, Sweet Jane and the closing medley including All the Young Dudes, I Wish I was your Mother, and a strong performance of Boy. “Genocidal tendencies are silly to extremes” – I wasn’t expecting to hear Boy (my hunch is that the lyric refers to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs) but it was great.

Thank you Ian for keeping on keeping on; it was a wonderful evening.

Kraftwerk at Tate Modern, London. Computer world. 11 February 2013

Yesterday I journeyed to London to hear Kraftwerk perform Computer World at the Tate Modern.

A cold night, and I was glad to reach the warmth of the Tate Modern. We picked up our green armbands, and 3D spectacles, were instructed that no re-admittance was possible, and move on into the concert foyer where vaguely Germanic sausages, bread, chips and mustard was on sale, along with cans of flavourless beer.

It feels like a lot of attention has been paid to the total experience. The 3D glasses are packed in an envelope specific for the evening. The programme is only a sheet of A4, but it is informative and intriguing.

“A vision of bright hopes and dark fears of the booming microchip revolution, Computer World is a serenely beautiful and almost seamless collage of sensual melodies and liquid beatscapes,” it says.


We move on into the concert space. Black pillows are handed out; essential if you plan to sit on the cold concrete floor. The hall is not huge, but it is exceptionally high. It is a relatively small crowd, and not entirely composed of middle-aged men as you might expect. The iPad-using guy next to us is 29, he says.

The concert starts at 9.00pm sharp. Everyone stands; forget the pillows then. Four men stand behind desks and barely move; the sounds of Numbers fill the hall, and 3D images pass across the screen.


The images are integral to the show. The effect is more that of an animated slideshow than a film, with many loops and repeats. The images are iconic; watching the show is like walking round an art gallery, with one carefully composed image following another.

Lead man and co-founder Ralf Hütter is on the left and does vocals; I am not sure you can call it singing. What are the others doing? Are they playing real or virtual keyboards? Running programs? Tapping out percussion? It is all part of the mystery.


Next it is Pocket Calculator. I love this song. “I am adding. And subtracting.” it says. It is about delight in technology. It is about doing things that would otherwise be impossible. It is about dehumanisation, no more pen and ink, columns of numbers, mistakes and crossings out, but just a few keys to press.


We no longer have pocket calculators so the whole thing is decidedly retro. Can you be simultaneously retro and futuristic? Apparently you can. The main car in Autobahn is a VW Beetle.

Autobahn as it happens comes rather quickly, after around 23 minutes according to my watch. That’s odd, since Computer World the album is over 34 minutes.

We did not get the whole of Computer World and I want my money back.

Well, maybe not. The concert was stunning and I would not have missed it for anything. But I was surprised.


Autobahn seemed to go on endlessly, which is as it should be of course. Then the VW took the exit slip and it was over.

Radioactivity. This song has been updated and now features Fukushima alongside other nuclear incidents like Chernobyl.


This is a disturbing song. “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me … contaminated population” The jolly melody is at odds with the subject matter, but it works; does it represent the PR machine?


Trans Europe Express. The train song is perfect for Kraftwerk. The train rushes towards us. Travel. Communication. Engineering. Cold steel. Kraftwerk.


Two songs which are particularly striking live are The Robots and the Man Machine. The Robots come first.  This is where the band performing in front of the visuals works so well. What is more true, that the robots are human-like, or that the band is robot-like?


Are we, in fact, machines ourselves, making the whole question moot?



I have skipped over a few, songs in fact which touch on the more human side of Kraftwerk’s art. After Space Lab, The Model is performed to a backdrop of black and white glamour girls, retro, unreachable.


Neon Lights is a short, refreshing interlude. The melody is stark and beautiful. If Hutter ever sings, he sings here.


A note on the sound quality. In general, good, and not ear-splittingly loud for which I am grateful. It did get louder as the concert progressed, and I felt there were times when it distorted; but improved again towards the end.

There was true chest-shaking bass at times, something you had to be there to feel.

Tour de France is rather good. We see human endeavour, more black and white footage for the retro feel, and followed by Vitamins, making a point perhaps.


Vitamins give rise to some strange 3D effects. Giant pills seem to float out over the audience, but as they fall, they fall behind the band, breaking the illusion.


The Techno Pop section is the last in the concert. There is Boom Book Tschak, and another song I think, then Musique Non Stop, just as the concert is in fact stopping. The musicians leave the stage one by one, until only Hutter is left.


He moves to the right of the stage, he bows, “See you tomorrow”. Unfortunately I will not. Then he is gone.

No encore. It is not the Kraftwerk way.

That was Kraftwerk. Repetitive, yes. Perplexing, yes. Beautiful, yes. Unique, yes.

Everything is ambiguous. Perhaps we are participating in an elaborate joke. It does not matter. Wonderful.


Pocket Calculator
Computer Love
It’s more fun to compute
Trans Europe Express
The Robots
The Model
Neon Lights
Man Machine
Tour de France
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop

Review: Nina Nesbitt and Owl City at Kings College, London

Yesterday I went along to Tutu’s, a club which is part of Kings College Student Union in London, to hear Nina Nesbitt and Owl City.

The venue was mostly great, top floor overlooking the Thames, friendly atmosphere, docked a point for terrible beer (no bitter whatsoever, let along draught). It was packed: Adam Young’s Owl City may get terrible reviews from the likes of NME, but he strikes a chord with many dedicated fans.

First up however was beautiful Scottish singer/guitarist Nina Nesbitt, who has just announced her own headlining UK tour. She has great stage presence and won over the audience with her passion, melody, strong percussive guitar and engaging personality. Highlights were the forthcoming single Boy, an earlier song called Glue, and by request an energetic cover of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. She closed with The Apple Tree from her EP of the same name. She thanked the audience for listening to her – in other words, not talking loudly and heading for the bar – saying it was a rare experience, but if she keeps up this quality she will have no problem keeping attention. One to watch.


At around 9.00pm Owl City came on to perform the last date of their 2012 summer tour. The opening was stunning: fired-up crowd, opening drums from Steve Goold, and then Young was on singing the opening number, Cave In from the album Ocean Eyes.


The sound was not great – I heard some bass distortion from where I was in the gallery – but the power and energy coming from Young, the band, and the enraptured audience was not to be denied. The music was also more muscular than I had expected, benefiting from the backing of a full band which the recordings mostly lack, and a nice counterpoint to the dreamy, introverted songs.

A key song is Umbrella Beach, which was the closing number. Something about exploring inner space. “Home is a boxcar – it’s so far out of reach,” he sings:

Home will always be here unseen, out of sight
Where I disappear and hide
I think dreamy things as I’m waving goodbye
So I’ll spread out my wings and fly


at which point Young does a marvellous Owl-like flapping motion with his arms, it sounds daft but we were transported.

I am old enough to remember being searched for cameras and recorders when going to a concert. Things are different now and everyone seemed to be making their own videos with smartphones held high. I even saw someone wielding an Apple iPad to take photographs. 


The band was:

  • Jasper Nephew on guitar
  • Steve Goold on drums
  • Daniel Jorgenson on guitar, vibraphone, “he plays everything”
  • Breanne Düren on keyboards and backing vocals


Emma Bladon Jones and Troubadour Rose at Bartons Nottingham

Last night I wandered over to Bartons in Nottingham, a newish venue in a converted bus garage – doesn’t sound promising, but it is fantastic, especially when tastefully set out with tables, candles and roses as it was last night for the second of its monthly unplugged events.


The musicians were local singer and guitarist Emma Bladon Jones along with the London folk band Troubadour Rose.


Bladon Jones was on first and treated us to an excellent set with her clear voice, sensitive songs and inventive guitar work. She played songs from her EP Life is Self Taught, a tender cover of In My Life by the Beatles, and a new song called Iris of War. It all went over well with me. She has a gadget called a loop box which lets her play a few bars and have them repeat live so she can accompany herself; seems risky but worked really well, and those moments where she experimented a bit with the sounds she could get from her guitar were highlights.

Next up was Troubadour Rose: Bryony Afferson (guitar and lead vocals), Lizzy O’Connor (banjo, mandolin and vocals) (and Gary Bridgewood (violin). Apparently the band used to be called something else, but came up with a song called Troubadour Rose (which they performed last night) and liked it well enough to rename themselves accordingly.


It is a great song, starting quietly and gathering pace, full of melody and drama, driven by Afferson’s expressive vocals, O’Connor’s sweet harmonies, and Bridgewood’s at times frenetic fiddle.

Other highlights included the two songs from the band’s single, Labour of Love and Find and Arrow, which you can hear on Spotify or iTunes.

A great evening and a shame rather few people turned out to enjoy it; but a treat for those us who discovered it.