This is where I post about music: concert reviews, album reviews, and anything where I feel I have something to say.
There are a few things worth noting. One is that I embarked on a project to write about this history and music of Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter. You can find an index to this work on a separate page here; it is also referenced in a post below.
You will also find a fair amount of content on David Bowie and Bob Dylan, two other enthusiasms of mine
I was fortunate to get a late ticket to this mainly solo Elvis Costello concert, on the campus of Warwick University near Coventry.
Why Warwick? Costello remarked that he had played there before in the early 70s, at the Student Union, under the name Rusty (probably a duo with Alan Mayes).
I have seen Costello perform on a few occasions but not for several years. I was re-enthused after reading his book, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which I loved. (If you follow the Amazon link above you will find my review, or you can read it on this blog).
What follows are a few jumbled impressions the morning after.
The venue is delightful, small enough that everyone gets a good view, though the sound was not great from where we were sitting; it was a bit echoey making the lyrics indistinct at times, though it improved as the evening went on (or I might have adjusted to it).
There was a short opening act from Larkin Poe – two sisters from Atlanta, Georgia, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, with guitars and harmonies. I enjoyed the set, though they said they found the audience a bit too British and restrained.
After a short break Costello came on. Apologies for blurry picture! He was wearing a suit with an open neck and looked his age, but in a good way: affable, not pretending it was forty years ago, slightly hunched a lot of the time, but in very good voice as he kicked off with a fast and powerful rendition of Lipstick Vogue.
He talked a lot between songs and sounds just like his book – even to the extent that I wondered if the book had been dictated. I actually enjoyed his patter as much as the songs, but then I loved the book too: stories from the road, reflections on his father and later his grandfather, sharp remarks about politics and our failure to learn the lessons of history. There are reasons for his anti-war stance.
There was a lot of talk; but a lot of songs too. I’ve copied the set list below, and there were 30 songs, with plenty of hits and plenty of less usual numbers as well. Had I been nearer the front I might have shouted for Indoor Fireworks; but I think most fans will have heard what they wanted to hear.
The set was dominated by a huge “television” on which we saw video to accompany the songs, a trick which worked pretty well. I’m pretty sure we also saw Costello’s father Ross MacManus performing, as well as some stills of his grandfather Pat MacManus.
Some of the highlights for me were Shipbuilding, performed from the piano; an energetic Watching the Detectives and an impassioned She.
After 17 songs we thought the concert was nearly over but not so. The first encore was six songs with Larkin Poe, including Pads Paws and Claws, Clown Strike, and a song called Burn the paper down to ash sung by Rebecca Lovell which I think is about the perils of tobacco.
After that we again thought it was all over, but no, Costello returned in his TV and sang Alison followed by Pump it Up.
Then it was back to the piano for Side by Side and I Can’t Stand up for Falling Down, followed by a reminiscence about his granddad, injured in the first world war by someone who did not know him, said Costello, and later reduced to busking in the economic depression of the 1930s.
By this time there really seemed to be some rapport with the crowd and I got the impression that Costello enjoyed the atmosphere.
An emotional Good year for the Roses followed by (What’s so funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and it really was over.
I am a fan of course but this was a great concert for me. Costello is to my mind one of the great songwriters as well as being an unashamed entertainer. Last night we got a wonderfully varied performance with everything from journeys back to the punk era (Pump it Up) to the more reflective songs of a man looking back on a long career of watching the world.
Lipstick Vogue I Can’t Turn It Off Mystery Dance Accidents Will Happen Ascension Day Church Underground 45 Oliver’s Army Shipbuilding – on piano A Face In The Crowd – on piano Walkin’ My Baby Back Home Ghost Train She The Woman Makes The Man Watching The Detectives It’s Not My Time To Go You’re Wondering Now
Encore 1 Pads, Paws And Claws – with Larkin Poe Love Field – with Larkin Poe Clown Strike – with Larkin Poe Burn The Paper Down To Ash – with Larkin Poe, sung by Rebecca Lovell Vitajex – with Larkin Poe, EC on ukulele That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving – with Larkin Poe
Encore 2 Alison – inside the TV Pump It Up – inside the TV Side By Side – on piano I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down – on piano Jimmie Standing In The Rain – including Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? Good Year For The Roses (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding? – with Larkin Poe
“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.
A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.
It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousey hair
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is no where to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.
What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:
This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.
Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.
Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”
In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”).
The original song, entitled Pour Moi (“For Me”) was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful”).
Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near its end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up (“Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual”) and is in bed before she returns. “All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual”. They make love but he is “playing at pretending”.
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party (“a fool”), meets a girl, falls in love (“a clown and an angel so much in love”), but the joke “turns stale” and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a “sour time”.
“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.
“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.
“Inspired? It was more revenge.”
“Life on Mars?”, while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.
Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship “a godawful small affair”, one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.
Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up “a cow” and whatever that means it is not flattering.
The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.
The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being “writ again” as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:
2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, “look at those cavemen go”, and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.
Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.
Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.
Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.
David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars
“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”
“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”
When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:
“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.
“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”
Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.
What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:
“To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney.”
Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:
I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.
I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:
The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.
However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from “on” to “Mars”. Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.
Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete 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.
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.
I was broken-hearted when David Bowie died in January; but grateful that he left us with one of his finest works, the album called Blackstar or possibly just ★.
I had pre-ordered the CD but soon realised that I would have to get the vinyl. The cover design is different. The CD has a black star on a white background.
The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.
The cutout hole is like a wound, no coincidence. The fragmented star symbols below spell Bowie. Great work from designer Jonathan Barnbrook.
As a piece of art it is beautiful and powerful, as an album cover it is highly impractical. The cutout star shape is easily bent when you shelve the record, and the transparent plastic inner sleeve is not ideal for protecting the vinyl.
I have even heard it suggested that this is deliberate, the fragility of the package echoing the fragility of life.
In addition there have been quality control issues. Some reissues have a horrible soft PVC inner sleeve that clings to the vinyl and seems to damage it, causing swooshing noises. Others are just rather noisy. You are doing well to get one that plays perfectly on both sides.
I am on my second copy and it is not perfect, but what I found most surprising was how much better it sounds than the CD.
Play Lazarus: the vocals are more real, the bass more dramatic, the wind instruments more sonorous and eerie.
I am curious about such things, and made a 24/96 digital copy of the track. It still sounds better than the CD, though something is lost in the copy. One reason – probably the main reason – is that the CD is “brickwalled”, that is, compressed for maximum loudness at the expense of dynamic range. Here is the view of the Lazarus track on CD in Adobe’s Audition CC:
And here is the vinyl:
That CD waveform is tragic; all the wide dynamic range of which CD is capable wasted for no good reason.
The vinyl is better in part for technical reasons; you cannot max out vinyl in the same way.
It is also intriguing to see frequencies above 30K in the vinyl (not that you can hear them).
Still, the bottom line is that it does sound better, especially if you hear the vinyl directly.
Recommended, despite the fragility and imperfection of the medium.
In January 1972 I started at a new school. I had enjoyed pop music on the radio but it was here that I gradually became aware of things called albums, records with other-worldly sleeves and amazing propulsive music. I wanted them.
It look a while to get a record player of my own so I started with cassettes – taping everything I could find.
In April 1972 a single was released, Starman by David Bowie. It was catchy, it was extraterrestial, it was about listening to the radio at night (just like I used to do), it was about letting the children boogie, I loved it.
Moving on to the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie became special to me. Looking back I am sure it was because I felt a bit of a misfit and Bowie’s music and image was about acceptance and celebration of oddness, as well as exploring sexuality in ways that were appealing and mysterious to innocent young things like myself.
I kept the faith through Bowie’s ch-ch-changes, Ziggy Stardust’s retirement, the fractured world of Diamond Dogs, the strangely downbeat David Live, the funk of Young Americans, train noises and Earl Slick’s frantic guitar on Station to Station, sombre electronica on Low, and then the unforgettable “Heroes”, love in the shadow of the Berlin wall.
Bowie had his difficult middle period for sure, but was always interesting. He was an actor as much as a musician and one of the acts he performed was himself; with Bowie the difference blurs.
His work shows a deep interest in what it means to be human; he’s content that the madmen “are just as sane as me” (with all the ambiguity that implies), his writing on outer space is also about inner space because if you imagine yourself “out there” you have nothing but yourself for company.
Bowie had huge artistic courage. I much regret not seeing his 1995 “Outside” tour when apparently some audience members walked out because he focused on his dark new material and not greatest hits.
That said, I was fortunate to see Bowie in concert on several occasions, starting with Earls Court in 1978, and including Milton Keynes Bowl 1983 and (most memorably) Nottingham’s Rock City in August 1997.
Some Bowie memorabilia from my attic
This last was the closest I got to the man, playing in a small 1,500 capacity club venue and standing fairly close to the stage. He performed a long set with many of my favourites, the darker side of Bowie, starting with Quicksand from Hunky Dory “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought” and including I’m Afraid of Americans, Fashion, Fame, Under Pressure, White Light White Heat, and much of Outside.
Late period Bowie is more of an acquired taste than his early years but rewarding. I found The Next Day in 2013 moving and when he sang “Where are we now” of course I was transported back to my schooldays and asking the same question of myself.
Bowie was reclusive in his later years, especially after being injured on tour in 2004, and lived quietly in New York.
Today’s news brought the news of his death, “after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer” according to his son Duncan.
This means that he composed his just-released album Blackstar in full knowledge of his illness and perhaps anticipating departure.
The song Lazarus, accompanied by a New York musical of the same name, seems particuarly to the point.
“Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below Ain’t that just like me?
This way or no way You know I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Now, ain’t that just like me?”
Other lyrics on the album have new significance today, like these from Dollar Days:
“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to It’s nothing to meet, it’s nothing to see I’m trying to I’m dying too”
Bowie made his ending an artistic moment and one that is not without hope – Lazarus rose again after all – but also, like all his best work, full of ambiguity.
I still remember my first encounter with Elvis Costello’s music. It was the John Peel show on the radio of course, the song was Less than Zero, and I found it captivating: distinctive voice, catchy melody, and above all words that were evocative, mysterious and vaguely menacing even though I didn’t fully understand them. I snapped up the album My Aim is True when it was released a few months later and have been a fan ever since, following the twists and turns of his career from punk rock to R&B to country to collaborations with jazz, classical and hip-hop musicians.
Costello is an amazing wordsmith and songs pour out of him, such that many of his B sides and outtakes are more than equal to the best work of many others, a characteristic he shares only I think with Bob Dylan – who makes a regular appearance here as they encounter each other and end up performing together on a number of occasions.
Now this is his book, 36 chapters (plus postscript) and approaching 700 pages. It is an excellent read, presuming you have some time for the man or an interest in the music scene of the last forty or so years. Writing in short pithy paragraphs (just as you would expect) Costello tells the story of his life, his bands, his writing, his father Ross MacManus who was also a singer, girls girls girls, and along the way recounts many entertaining and often alcoholic incidents of life on the road.
The rhythm of the book is somewhat staccato and the sequence of events is only loosely chronological – that is, there is more about his earlier years in the first half of the book, and more about his later years in the second, but he constantly jumps back in forth in time making literary counterpoints. His habit of ending an anecdote just when you thought it was getting going can be annoying; but he is never dull.
It would be an interesting exercise to rearrange, or attempt to rearrange, the book into chronological order, but I don’t fancy doing it with my printed copy.
There are black and white photos interspersed throughout the book; they don’t look great partly because they are printed on paper designed for text. In addition they have no captions. A shame.
Costello writes a lot about his father, and in some ways the book is a tribute to him. He writes of his statement a couple of years ago that he would give up making records, which at the time he said was about spending more time with his children. “The real reason was that I needed time to imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father. Watching him listen to music was irreplaceable to me,” he says. Such passages are where Costello shows most emotion.
One good reason to read the book is for insight into Costello’s songwriting. Some songs are described in detail, often including how they were influenced by or borrow from existing music, and how the words came together. One of my favourite passages (since I am a fan of both) is a conversation with Dylan:
“One night Bob Dylan said to me: ‘U2! How could they do that to you? How could they take your song like that!
“It took me a moment to know what he was talking about, and a moment more to realize that he was putting me on. But then, U2’s ‘Get on your boots’ was probably to ‘Pump it up’ what ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is to Chuck Berry’s ‘Too much monkey business’.”
Costello is a performer and the book is in a way a performance; I wish it were less so, but perhaps if so it would be less entertaining.
There is a sharp side to Costello which occasionally goes too far. He writes of early days with Stiff (the independent record label responsible for his first releases) and the threat of being paired with another singer, “a horrible little git called Eric, who’d stumbled into the office with a single decent song.” Did he have to say that?
One thing which comes over powerfully though is his love of music and absolute belief in its importance. Of music he says, “There is no superior. There is no high and low. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to choose, you can love it all. Those songs are there to help you when you need them most.”
That in the end is the great thing about Unfaithful Music and disappearing Ink; it will inspire you to go back to the music, both from Costello and from others, and perhaps even to go beyond your comfort zone and explore some artists you may have missed or dismissed. He did.
This is among the most enjoyable music books I have read; recommended.
Dylan is a man of many moods. If you are looking for Dylan the folk singer, Dylan the prophet, Dylan the protestor, or the electric Dylan of Highway 61 revisited, you may not find this album to your taste. Instead, we are transported to the fifties, Frank Sinatra and the pensive small hours of the morning. Dylan is soulful and languid, singing standards from another era, songs of autumn, songs of night. The music is melodic, slow and recessed; the mood is reflective, the voice is tour-weary but tuneful (for Dylan) and articulate; Dylan has taken a lot of care with this album, nothing is thrown away, nothing breaks the mood, and the lyrics are full of meaning; even though others wrote them down, he makes them his own.
These are the songs of a man who has been everywhere, done everything, and has nothing left to prove. It feels like he is singing for himself and allowing us the privilege of listening in. Sometimes he is confessional; “I know I have sinned, I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,” he sings in Stay with Me; and “Show me that river, take me across and wash all my troubles away” in a magnificent performance of Lucky old Sun at the close. These are songs of yearning; “if my one wish comes true, my empty arms will be filled with you” he croons in Full Moon and Empty Arms.
As a Dylan fan of many years, and one lucky enough to have seen him perform on many occasions, I love the album. It is different but not different; as ever, he follows his artistic instinct, never mind what others think. “Let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown …. don’t you remember I was always your clown, why try to change me now?” he sings.
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.
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.
It’s more fun to compute
Trans Europe Express
Tour de France
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Musique Non Stop
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”