Monday, 22 November 2010

Electric Eden

Rob Young
ISBN 978-0-571-23752-4 Softcover. 664 pages

German visitors to these shores in 1900 famously referred to England as “the land without music”. Rob Young’s achievement in this superb book is to show how wrong they were. His topic is folk music and its transformations. The result is an alternative cultural history of the twentieth century.

His epic story takes us from the first wave of folk song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams) to the more politically aware age of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd. Each generation builds on, yet reacts against the one before. Lloyd respected Sharp’s work but was fed up with watching dances by “prancing curates in cricket flannels”. MacColl wanted “no nightingales, no flowers” in his songs. He collected the “songs of toil” to be sung to “the accompaniment of pneumatic drills”. Come the late 60s, this radicalism gives way to the political quiescence of the guitar-toting hippie generation: now it was okay to sing about flowers – flowers have ‘flower power’. By the end of the book the Incredible String Band have been updated by a current generation raised on trip-hop and electronica.

Always a battleground for competing ideologies, ‘folk’ emerges as a perpetual act of revival and renewal. Themes recur, continuities are emphasised. We envisage the future, in William Morris’s terms, as time travel to a utopian past. We use new technologies – the gramophone, the electric guitar – to revitalise the old. We create songs that record our imaginings of secret gardens or of rural havens away from the city’s roar.

Electric Eden is enlivened with stylish character sketches of musicians from Peter Warlock to Vashti Bunyan. If the argument is occasionally lost among a mass of detail, that only confirms that this is a book of encyclopedic ambition.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bridget St John

A Pocketful Of Starlight – The Best of Bridget St John (CHERRY RED RECORDS, 2010, CD)

The late 60s and early 70s were a great period for female singer-songwriters in Britain. None was more versatile and consistent than Bridget St John. An early signing to John Peel’s Dandelion label, she made three albums for Dandelion and one for Chrysalis which, like those of her contemporary Shelagh McDonald, are of their time but also transcend it.

This is Bridget’s personally selected ‘Best Of’ and it’s a cracker. Her wistful, husky, very English, voice dominates every track, supported by some deft guitar finger-picking. Moods swing from the optimism of ‘Fly High’ to dreams of escaping urban pressure in ‘City Crazy’ and ‘A Day Away’ (the latter adorned with delightful chirruping woodwind), while her stylistic range can accommodate the rocky jamming of ‘If You’ve Got Money’ as well as the chanson manner of ‘Yep’. I’d forgotten how close she was to John Martyn; he turns up as second guitar on several tracks and she delivers luminous, poised readings of two of his songs, ‘Back To Stay’ and (solo from a Peel radio session) ‘The River’. I was less convinced by the one recent track included here, 2001’s ‘The Hole In Your Heart’, suspecting a hint of sentimentality – but that’s small beer beside eighteen tracks of no-longer-buried treasure.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Rosamond Lehmann

Does the impulse to create alternative worlds take characteristically different forms in fiction by men and women? We might provisionally call these ‘utopian’ and ‘allotopian’ (from Greek allos + topos, other place.) A very rough distinction, if it be admitted at all, as there are, undoubtedly, ‘utopian’ fictions by women (e.g. Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and, perhaps, ‘allotopian’ fictions by men.

Utopian fiction by men (from Thomas More to H.G. Wells) typically presents an ‘engineered’ world, an elaborated construct of town planning, legal systems, technological innovation, eugenics. In women’s writing a more subjective tradition prevails, born of frustration with the obligation upon women until very recent times that they adapt themselves to their environment without expecting to influence it or shape it. This ‘allotopian’ tradition was always dismissed by male historians and critics. Thus Frank Manuel, noted historian of utopianism, reading the Duchess of Newcastle’s Description of a New World (1666), found in it a utopia ‘so exclusively personal’ as to border on the ‘schizophrenic’, a ‘solipsistic manifestation’ which could never be a ‘shared dream’ and thus join the ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’.

I detect the ‘allotopian’ impulse in Rosamond Lehmann’s work – thinking especially of her first and last books. In Dusty Answer (1927), Judith Earle, ‘hot for certainties’, believes finally that she has rid herself of the ‘futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best.’ Not a ‘solipsistic’ conclusion, but probably a misplaced hope, for, in Lehmann’s novels, her heroines’ striving for autonomy is always thwarted by the enfeebling effect of external realities. By the end of her life Lehmann had discovered ‘worlds within worlds’, astral planes of alternate reality, inaccessible to ordinary senses, where the dead, her young daughter among them, come to life (The Swan in the Evening, 1967). Conscious that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’, she is consoled by a visionary world. From the vigorous responses of her (predominantly female) readership one might conclude that she was tapping a ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’, not by the proposed re-engineering of given reality but by depicting, through fiction, a ‘voyage in’ to self-knowledge and by intuiting, through autobiography, an alternate reality between the interstices of everyday life.

Above: photo of Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) in the 1920s from the Frances Partridge archive

Monday, 8 November 2010

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening: A New Musical (London, 2009)

I seem to be in a minority of one, but I don’t ‘get’ this show.

I have the sense that the authors have taken two historically determined phenomena and yoked them by violence together. On one hand there’s Wedekind’s original play, a daring presentation of coming-of-age in late 19th century Germany, where adults conspire to keep adolescents in ignorance of their own sexual awakening. On the other we’re treated to a rock concert, using a musical language which has developed since the late 1950s alongside the invention of the ‘teenager’ and the unfolding of the ‘permissive society’, a language which expresses the knowingness of our sex-saturated culture.

Duncan Sheik (composer) has said that what he dislikes about conventional musicals is that ‘one minute the characters are talking, the next minute they’re singing; and a moment later, they’re talking again’. So he and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) conceived their songs as ‘interior monologues’, voicing ‘the thoughts and feelings of each character’s private landscape’. Fine. But why, then, in their ‘private landscapes’ do these repressed Wilhelmine Germans become 21st century Americans, vaulting round the stage like American Idol auditionees, emoting in the language of MTV, complete with anachronistic references to stereos and telephones? The answer, I presume, is that they are meant to embody the timeless tribulations of adolescence. Yet ever and again the structure militates against that.

We have a scene of Prussian authoritarianism in the schoolroom where boys chant Latin and are beaten by their masters for minor infractions, something so remote from the atmosphere of a modern American high school that the gorge rises when the boys whip microphones out of their high-collared jackets and launch into a heavy-rock anthem, ‘The Bitch Of Living’ – ‘this is so not life at all' . Are they historically determined figures or are they timeless avatars of adolescence? The authors seem unsure. In one interview composer Sheik has said that ‘these are children who ultimately are going to be parents of Nazis.’ Meanwhile lyricist Sater tells another interviewer that rock music is ‘the place where kids for generations have found release from unformed anguish’. Well, guys, correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall rock music playing a decisive role in the rise of Nazism.

Or take the opening scene. In the play, Wedekind constructs this very carefully to introduce his theme of adult hypocrisy. We have what at first sight looks like a ‘modern’ situation. A daughter is arguing with her mother over the length of her dress – the girl wants it short, the mother says it’s too short. So far, so 1966 (et seq). But, unlike her mini-skirted descendant, Wendla isn’t laying claim to some ‘teenage’ fashion; she isn’t carving out a special peer identity to distinguish herself from the parent generation. She wants to remain a child and doesn’t want to be an adult if it means wearing long dresses. The mother tells her daughter it’s time to adopt adult clothes but, as we learn in a later scene where she deflects questions about pregnancy, isn’t prepared to arm Wendla with the information she will need to function as an adult. This dialogue is truncated in the musical script and we move into Wendla’s ‘private landscape’ where she sings ‘Mama who bore me’, even though the text will establish that the girl has no idea where babies come from.

Still, what do I know? The night I saw the show (at the Lyric Hammersmith) the audience was packed with young people who seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. The young principals were excellent and the choreography (by Bill T Jones) is stupendous. Heck, I even liked some of the songs. I’m sure Spring Awakening could make great musical theatre. All Wedekind’s plays leave room for music. With his anti-naturalist style, there are always jagged edges that could be smoothed, gaps between scenes and styles that could fill with music. But probably not this music. Now I’m off to google Christina Paulhofer’s production of Franziska (Staatsschauspielhaus, Hannover, 2003) – rewritten by Thea Dorn as ‘an elaborate pop theatre spectacle of mixed styles’. Wish me luck.

(Photo by permission of Delfont Mackintosh.)

First published on the Frank Wedekind MySpace page.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mumford & Sons

I sense the start of a Mumfords backlash, so it’s a good time to take stock…

Mumford & Sons sound like someone you’d expect to find in Yellow Pages. A firm of monumental stonemasons, maybe, or long-distance haulage contractors. In fact, they are not a family firm at all, even if their brand of infectious bluegrass-tinged folk appears so organic that they might have sprung fully-formed from some musical dynasty in a dustbowl state. In truth, they are four gifted young Englishmen from the London area whose live shows are selling out wherever they play (I know – I’ve tried booking.) Shortlisted for the BBC Sounds of 2009 Poll alongside such media darlings as Florence & The Machine and Little Boots, Mercury Prize nominees in 2010… Heck, the Mumfords even duet with the sainted Ray Davies on his latest album.

Formed in late 2007, they came together originally at the Bosun’s Locker, a now defunct cellar bar on the King’s Road where Marcus Mumford and banjo-playing schoolfriend Winston Marshall were promoting country nights. The two hooked up with another old friend, Ben Lovett on keyboards, and after adding Ted Dwane on upright bass, they had a band. And what a band! Their debut album, Sigh No More, released in October 2009, is an impressive record of how far they’ve come in a short time but could never quite convey the manic energy of their stage presence. A typical M&S number begins quietly, then builds into a catchy, rollicking hoe-down as Marcus takes lead vocals and guitar duties while somehow managing to play bass drum and tambourine with his feet.

Last year, the album release imminent, I snatched a few words with the band’s amiable frontman as they were on the road from Newcastle to Aberdeen. How did they find their sound, I ask. All four band members have a broad range of musical tastes, he tells me. Ted Dwane is “into blues”. Winston Marshall is “all about bluegrass music”. Ben Lovett shares a love of jazz with Marcus. As for Marcus himself, he admits to “lots of guilty pleasures” but singer-songwriters come high on the list. “When we came together,” he explains, “we found ourselves bringing together bits of those influences. But we’re developing. I don’t think we’ll ever stay in the same place for too long.”

Marcus has obviously had his moments with music journos who slap labels on what they do, so I skirt this issue with caution. “We’re not really ‘new’ folk,” he says. “We’re just copying everyone else. I wouldn’t really claim to be very original. People try and compliment you by labelling you in one way and actually it’s the most offensive thing they could say. Meanwhile they think they might be giving you a label you wouldn’t like and it’s exactly what you want!” His favourite description of the band was “London hillbillies”, yet “a lot of people would see that as an insult!”

It was my nieces who first told me about the Mumfords, long before the bandwagon got underway. It’s important to know what twenty-somethings are into, and I respect their tastes and thank them for the early “heads-up”. But if I’m honest, I don’t really think these boys are the great white hope of British music. Flicking through the current NME, I read that the likeable Marcus has just been anointed one of the “50 coolest people in music”. Yup – this is the point where I usually disembark from any bandwagon I happen to be travelling on.

Over on the fRoots forum there’s been a long-running and sometimes enlightening discussion of the Mumfords’ case, prompted by the editor’s assertion that he’d never give them house room in his journal, because they have no “roots in a tradition”. “Coldplay with a banjo”, peddling “epic faux-downs” – sums it up. I, too, find something inauthentic about their work, suspecting that it was all done a lot better forty years ago. And I’m puzzled by the fey religiosity of their lyrics. I wish now I’d asked Marcus what he means by “grace”, a word that occurs in more than one song. If I’ve got St Paul right, this is the notion that God’s forgiveness is not dependent on human virtue, but rather on a free outpouring of divine love for the human race, regardless of our moral rectitude or turpitude. Is that what we’re jumping up and down to?

Part of the above first appeared in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Soho Square 2010

Every year, on the Sunday nearest her birthday, family, friends and fans of the late (and very great) Kirsty MacColl gather in Soho Square, London, to remember her. It’s a spot immortalised in her song ‘Soho Square’ and there’s a bench with her name on it. I went this year for the first time, and I shall certainly go again. Sitting on a bench (not the bench) before the start, I got into conversation with a friendly young man who turned out be Jamie Lillywhite, one of Kirsty’s two sons. Somehow I expected him to be “clothèd all in green O” (“Two, two, the lily-white boys”) but I held back on that witticism, which I’m sure he’s heard a million times before. He’s in the music business, I learned – managing young star Ellie Goulding.

After the gathering at midday, everyone repaired to the Phoenix Artist’s Club round the corner to toast Kirsty’s memory and sing her songs. This year, the tenth since her life was senselessly cut short by a maniac in a powerboat, was rather special, culminating in an all-star tribute gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire in the evening. I’m reviewing the gig for a certain publication, so I won’t say any more now except that it was top-notch, with Alison Moyet perhaps the stand-out among many highlights. Everyone on stage seemed to be having a ball – or, as compere Phill Jupitus put it, “We should do this every fucking year!” Let’s hope they do. Musical directors Pete Glenister and Dave Ruffy were hinting as much at the end. Here are some video clips from an unforgettable night. (In the final number look out for the wonderful Jean MacColl, 87 years young, rocking away at the back of the stage.)

Mary Coughlin, ‘Bad’
Billy Bragg, ‘Free World’
Billy Bragg, ‘A New England’
Alison Moyet, ‘Head’
Alison Moyet, ‘Walking Down Madison’
Brooke Supple, ‘England 2 Colombia 0’
Catherine Tate, ‘In These Shoes’
Kim Wilde, ‘They Don’t Know’
Andrea Corr, ‘They Don’t Know’
Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine, ‘Dear John’
Amy Macdonald, ‘Tread Lightly’
Amy Macdonald and Dave Ruffy, ‘Fairytale Of New York’
Phill Jupitus and ensemble, ‘There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop…’

On the Absolute Radio channel on YouTube there are seven interviews with the performers.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Sam Sallon

Fresh from supporting Rodrigo y Gabriela on tour, along comes Sam Sallon on a wave of expectation.

As a teenager he was listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg, Prince, David Bowie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“just the coolest band”), none of them much resembling the thoughtful singer-songwriter style he has now developed. At gigs people tell him he reminds them of Cat Stevens or Jackson Browne or Paul Simon: “People who don’t write music think there’s nothing odd about going up to a musician and telling them who you sound like to them. They say it because it’s a compliment, comparing you to someone they like”. Sallon is clearly flattered by all this, but also, I suspect, a little fazed. Probably because he worked out his own solutions to musical problems and only started listening to these big hitters when the comparisons came rolling in.

At school Sallon learned trumpet. Now, however, the guitar is his weapon of choice. Over the years he has finely honed his finger-picking style. I asked him who his guitar heroes were, expecting a roll-call of the acoustic maestros of the last fifty years. Instead, I learned that he’s largely self-taught and his style self-invented. His earliest songs, like ‘Keep Moving’ and ‘Give’, written when he knew little about technique, can be played with two fingers. Later he progressed to using five, until he realised you don’t need the little finger. “Along the way I’ve come up with some nice happy accidents!” he reflects. David Watson, the sharp-eared producer whom Sallon namechecks with reverence, helped him refine his style by listening to other guitarists who achieved similar effects but with less effort.

His technique requires acrylic false nails, the ‘Sallon talons’, which he has renewed every three weeks at a local shop. “I don’t meet many other people who do this, but it’s the closest I can get to a natural extension of the hand.” The manicurist may suspect him of being a ladyboy, small children may be afraid to shake his hand, but his girlfriend “doesn’t mind” and the thin, tough nails enable him to maintain the sharp, clear tone he wants.

“What keeps me up till 3 in the morning with friends is trying to get some sort of handle on life,” Sallon tells me. The outcome of those late nights of existential rumination is a bunch of songs in a highly melodic, aphoristic style, free of pretension. Each one is “more of a question that’s being asked than a statement being made,” he explains. “When I sing them I do feel that there’s a sense in them, and it’s not always the same one each time”.

He cares more about the songs than about any way of recording them. So he encourages remixes of his work. “Some people say they only listen to electronica,” he says in bafflement. Well then, fortunate that Edmund Squeeze has remixed ‘You May Not Mean To Hurt Me’ as electronica, which Sallon hopes will take the song to an audience he wouldn’t otherwise reach.

His debut album, One For The Road, is set for release later this year – by which time he expects to have “all of his ducks in a row”, as he puts it. At a superb gig at the Luminaire in Kilburn, North London, I heard him run through the entire material accompanied by the musicians featured on the album, including string section. It’s sounding good to me and I confidently predict this young man will be playing the festival circuit near you before the year’s out – with his ducks neatly in a row.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)


"It’s nice to be nice", a thoroughly British call for mutual respect, is the motto of TalkAwhile, the acoustic music forum. This friendly online discussion board was originally brought together to discuss Fairport Convention and Fairport’s annual Cropredy Festival but nowadays it’s much expanded to take in other artists and the festival scene as a whole. Steeleye Span, Ralph McTell and Pentangle get sections of their own, along with Fairport. But, with over 3,000 members, discussions roam widely across music and popular culture in general. Few things are off-limits, except personal abuse.

Visitors can read all the threads, but to post you need to register. Easily done – and well worth doing – although with the site hit by up to thirty spammers "and other low life" each day, the moderators have needed to put sensible precautions in place.

Here I’ve met some seriously well-informed people – music fans and practitioners, united by a passion. The new joiner (or "newbie") who starts a thread about Fairport’s work in 1967 may be surprised to find past or present members of the band chipping into the discussion. Past threads are archived and searchable once you’ve joined and logged on, so that the whole Forum doubles up as a sizeable database of knowledge.

Although the Forum is international, I detect a vein of very British humour running through it. Irony abounds (albeit flagged up with emoticons); old hands demonstrate The Importance of Not Being Earnest (well, not too earnest). Some threads have made me laugh out loud: a discussion of "gay folk" brought out the comedians while, I think, making clear that homophobes were not welcome. (Yes, "The Imagined Village People" really is a great name for a band..!)

There are other features. "YouTube Clips of Interest" is an early-warning system for must-see videos. Rest assured, if lost treasure ever turns up on film, someone from TalkAwhile will be first on the case. "Musician Talk" is a place for practising musos to swap tips about amps and tablature and guitar tunings. Other sections allow members to publicise upcoming gigs and album releases. The "Hancocks", named after one of the Board’s founding fathers, is an alternative to the BBC Folk Awards, taking in such categories as "All Round Good Egg Folkie". At intervals, noted musicians guest on the Forum for a month, answering questions from members online. Recent guests have included Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey.

And the sense of community is palpable. Some lovelorn swain who’d met a girl at Cropredy but failed to get her phone number started a "lonely hearts" thread. The communal search for "Emma from Brighton" went on for weeks. I wonder if Emma ever knew all these nice people were looking for her?

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Nick Drake tribute

Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, Barbican Hall, London, 22 January 2010

Fame is but a fruit tree,’ wrote Nick Drake. The motif was picked up in the sylvan stage décor of entwined branches, and Green Gartside (ex-Scritti Politti) gave us his breathy version of ‘Fruit Tree’ early in this tribute gig curated by Drake’s erstwhile producer Joe Boyd. Drake’s fame has indeed ramified into every corner of our musical life. Many in the sell-out audience weren’t even born when Drake died in obscurity in 1974.

Vocalists took one number each. Krystle Warren was feisty in ‘Time Has Told Me’. With four other soloists as backing, Teddy Thompson delivered a rambunctious ‘Poor Boy’. Robyn Hitchcock was wonderfully mannered in his acid-rock take on ‘Parasite’. Meanwhile, Vashti Bunyan, with her little-girl voice, struggled to assert herself in ‘Which Will’ and Kirsty Almeida swished her gypsy skirt distractingly through ‘Cello Song’.

With his four decades in the business, Joe Boyd must have an address book to die for. Over the years so many high-calibre people have name-checked Drake as an influence. I’ll be honest – given these facts, I found the line-up of soloists a tad underwhelming. Perhaps only Nick Drake can sing Nick Drake. For me the real virtues of the night lay in the band and orchestra and their opening out of Drake’s complex guitar parts. In a eulogy, Boyd paid fitting tribute to the much-missed Robert Kirby, whose delicate arrangements were brought to life here. The house band was anchored by Danny Thompson, the one person on stage who’d actually played with Drake. His double bass rightly prominent in the sound mix, he duetted with the brilliant jazz pianist Zoe Rahman as she switched effortlessly from Debussyan arabesques to free jazz stylings reminiscent of Chris McGregor (piano-player on the original ‘Poor Boy’ recording). Their chemistry, in a number like 'One Of These Things First', shows where the Drake industry should really be heading.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Michele Ari

"I wanted to perform for people. That much I knew. Any time I’d see a performance, I found myself with a great feeling of longing and belonging. I knew it was what I should be doing." This is American singer Michele Ari explaining how she became a musician. At a recent gig in Chicago someone asked her, "How do you just get up there and perform like that?" Ari, who, by her own admission, had just executed "a few rolls on the floor and other moves unbecoming of a lady", had her answer ready: "I don’t think about it. I’m here to have fun. If I think about it, if I worry about the possibility of looking stupid, it’s all over."

Ari takes her inspiration from the late 70s and early 80s, music she finds "unique, rebellious, spirited and forward-thinking": Elvis Costello, Blondie, Patti Smith, The Clash, The Damned. "Give me Psychedelic Furs, Kate Bush, Robyn Hitchcock and I am content and inspired," she says. "They all just resonate with me lyrically, musically and in style, ideals and attitudes. They are all ‘different.’ There’s nothing cookie cutter about any of them. Creating music that is not ‘faddish’ or could soon become irrelevant is important to me." "Faddish" and "irrelevant", in Ari’s book, means someone like Tila Tequila, the MTV reality show starlet.

Many of her fans are old punk rockers, who tell her that she fills a void in today’s music. "When I look around for contemporaries I struggle to find them". There is a classic directness, a renunciation of artifice in her work, which perhaps explains why her first album 85th and Nowhere was recorded to analogue and mixed to digital, just like Buena Vista Social Club. She likes things "a bit primitif", as she puts it. That debut recording, described by Ari as "a love story from start to stop, cover to cover and inside and out", attracted attention in the UK – though sadly we have yet to see her tour on this side of the Pond. She believes there’s more acceptance of left-field artists in Britain than the US, hence her fanbase here. I was drawn in by one song on the album, ‘Nevermind’, and its opening lines: ‘Woke up in last night’s make-up, wearing last night’s dress’. "It’s definitely a song about loneliness," she admits, "a bit of madness and the downward slide you can go on when you lose your integrity in a futile pursuit".

She’s lived all over – Florida, Chicago, Atlanta. Now she’s based in Nashville, but not because she’s on a Country music jag: "There’s a lot of music going on here every night of the week. So, if you need to get out and get some juices flowing it’s very easy to do. It’s a place for me to hang my hat, hone my skills, find musicians to work with and places to record, all of which I have done and am doing. In that way being here has affected my own music because it’s rich with the resources that I need."

Ari’s feelings about Britain are reflected in a couple of songs on Mal a’propos, her new EP: ‘Atom Bombs’ and ‘Transatlantic Love Affair’. The new work she describes as "cleaner than 85th. It’s more pop and punk, though not a blend of the two". On ‘6 a.m.’, the opening track, she seems to be heading for rock-disco territory, another retro genre.

As for that French title, which she translates as "out of place"… Is that how you feel, I asked, like you don’t fit in?

"24/7. Don’t you?" was her comeback.

Photograph by Richard Call

Michele Ari on Bandcamp

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Frank Wedekind in English

‘Exclusively Independent’ is an Arts Council-funded scheme aimed at bringing independent bookshops and independent publishers together. A worthy cause, if ever I heard one. Initially based in London bookshops, the scheme has been so successful it is now featured in a number of outlets nationwide. A novella I translated from the German, Wedekind’s Mine-Haha, was one of the featured titles in the last promotion. I was asked to describe how I stumbled across this text.

At the heart of a forest lies a mysterious girls’ boarding school, cut off from the outside world by a great wall and barred gates. Within, a group of youngsters gather round a small coffin, from which emerges a new pupil, Hidalla…

Frank Wedekind (1864–1918) has always fascinated me. He seems like a man born out of his time. You look at photos of him taken a hundred years ago singing self-composed songs to his own accompaniment and you think of Bob Dylan in his grizzled later incarnations. So it was fitting that I was led to Mine-Haha by one of the grandes dames of rock’n’roll, Marianne Faithfull. In her latest volume of memoirs she writes about Wedekind’s strange novella, speculating on similarities to her own upbringing among the Braziers Park community and regretting that it had never been translated into English. Here was my cue. I had already translated Franziska, one of Wedekind’s lesser-known plays, for a production at London’s Gate Theatre, so I was no stranger to his bizarre world. What encouraged me is how others feel at home there too. As I worked on the text, I discovered Innocence, the beautiful French film version of Mine-Haha. Then the Broadway rock musical Spring Awakening opened in London; not my cup of tea (I’m more of a Sondheim man) but young audiences went wild for it. In summer 2009 Lulu, Berg’s opera based on two Wedekind plays, was revived at Covent Garden. And as I write, Wedekind has just hit the London stage yet again, with emergent director Anna Ledwich bringing her adaptation of the Lulu plays to the Gate Theatre in June.

In Mine-Haha, his most substantial prose text, Wedekind rehearses the concerns of his dramas – childhood, education, sexual awakening, the status of women – in concentrated fairytale form. I think its time has come.

Frank Wedekind on MySpace

First published on the Exclusively Independent Blog

Rufus Wainwright biography

Kirk Lake (ORION) ISBN 978-0-7528-9838-4 Hardcover. 291 pages

The family is a perfect incubator for talent. It can also be a prison from which we struggle to escape all life long. Rufus Wainwright, flamboyant offspring of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, has experienced both sides of this conundrum.

Kirk Lake’s new biography of the star does rather more than it says on the tin. It’s actually a family biography, with Rufus at the centre (which is undoubtedly where he wants to be). Loudon emerges in unflattering light, though the picture is no harsher than the self-portrait he paints in his own lyrics. Martha struggles in her brother’s shadow until grabbing the attention she deserves. They all write disobliging songs about each other, criticise (and envy) each other’s work, then they all gather on stage at Carnegie Hall for a Christmas truce. It’s fiercely competitive, but out of this "algebraic equation" (Martha’s phrase) comes superb work from every family member, and Rufus’s is some of the best.

Lake demonstrates how Wainwright’s sense of difference as a gay man in a mostly straight business fuels his music. From the off, his frame of reference (show tunes, cabaret, opera) was way outside what his rock’n’roll contemporaries were doing. Out of his skull on crystal meth, convinced he’s a great artist, he pushes himself to the experiential limits because great artists thrive on unhappiness. All this would be insufferable hubris – as hubristic as his determination to recreate Judy Garland’s 1961 stage act – were it not that he probably is a great artist.

Lake’s perceptive analyses of individual albums make you want to go and seek them out and his control of detail is enviable (who'd have thought, for instance, that bassist Pat Donaldson relocated to France to become a professional clown?). The footnotes may beckon you down obscure literary byways but the focus always remains sharp in this impressive biography.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Olivia Chaney

Singer Olivia Chaney is on a distinctive musical journey and, increasingly, people are sitting up and taking notice. I’ve caught this lady four times in the last year and every time she’s doing a different show. One month she’s mezzo-soprano soloist in a new classical piece from the Camberwell Composers’ Collective; the next she’s combining Monteverdi, Joni Mitchell and English traditional songs in a Topic Records anniversary concert on London’s South Bank. I asked her how she weaves together these different musics: "In my solo shows I’m trying to point out that they’re not disparate. Although I’m pretty analytical about what I do and trying to carve out a sound, it does come naturally. It’s actually a lot to do with taste – that’s the music I love."

Chaney grew up in Oxford picking out tunes on the piano and playing boogie-woogie with her dad, an academic. "I’ve always been an improviser, before I learned to read music". Happily, that spontaneity wasn’t lost during the formal training she received at the Royal Academy and the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh. You get the feeling that she thrives on dissolving one genre into another. She believes passionately that "it’s important to break down barriers and reach as big an audience as possible".

Latterly her journey has taken her back to English traditional music, via people like Bert Jansch who rediscovered it in the ’60s. "I wasn’t popping down to Cecil Sharp House as a teenager," she admits. "I grew up with the revivalists. But I’d like to think that my projects, the collaborations with other musicians, the solo concerts are about searching for some sort of ‘purity’ which is inherent in traditional songs, the ones that survive." Directness, immediacy, timelessness: these are the qualities she prizes in folk music. With eyes tight shut as she accompanies herself on harmonium, she seems deep inside the song, where lesser singers merely skim the surface.

At music college she felt pressure to produce a big operatic sound, but in some repertoire "it didn’t feel natural enough, ‘me’ enough, honest enough". Despite acquiring some pretty high-profile admirers in the classical world, Chaney still frets over the question: "Are they going to hate how I’m ‘folkifying’ everything?" She needn’t worry. In an environment where drum’n’bass star Goldie gets premiered at the Proms, even the stuffed shirts of the classical establishment are loosening their ties.

She is about to embark on her biggest venture yet: a world tour with electronica and trip-hop pioneers Zero 7. "Someone recommended me," she explains. "Surprisingly, they’re huge fans of what I do, my solo singing. They pride themselves on being eclectic: Henry Binns [one half of the band’s core membership] has very open ears to sparser, more traditional stuff." She hopes to bring something more direct and earthy to their sound but recognises "it’ll be a fascinating challenge to maintain my identity and my artistic search within quite a ‘poppy’, commercial thing."

Meanwhile her own songwriting has been put on hold. She’s so steeped in the singer-songwriter genre (Dylan, Neil Young, Sandy Denny are all high on her playlist) that she’s a bit intimidated by what’s been achieved by others. "A friend of mine once said, ‘If you try and be original, that’s exactly the time when you won’t be’." So she’s waiting for the songs to come as naturally as the leaves to a tree. Doubtless some will find their way onto the solo album she plans to start recording shortly. Expect to see guest contributions from her numerous collaborators over the years, a colourful range of musicians spanning early music, jazz and folk.

Oh, and did I mention that Ms Chaney has just made her professional acting debut in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre? The poet Lorca described life as "a giant labyrinth of intersecting crossroads"; Chaney’s life as performer seems to be just that.

Olivia Chaney official website

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) Nov/Dec 2009

Judy Dyble CD

Talking With Strangers (BRILLIANT/FiXiT, 2009, CD)

The original vocalist of Fairport Convention, part of the loose assemblage around Robert Fripp that would become King Crimson, one half of Trader Horne: you can’t mistake Judy Dyble’s clear, very English diction. She was never going to be a torch singer, but on this album she brings to perfection her talent for the miniature. Julianne Regan, Jacqui McShee, Celia Humphris (yes, she of Trees) pitch in too – and that’s just backing vocals. Fripp supplies ‘soundscapes’ and sundry guitar parts. Although the contributors were scattered around the world, thanks to smooth production you’d think they were in the same studio.

Several tracks impress, but Dyble leaves the best for last. ‘Harpsong’, checking in at over 19 minutes, is a résumé of her career to date, the eclectic style mirroring her successive incarnations. Starting in her gentlest pastoral vein, it opens out into a free-form instrumental jam reminiscent of early Crimson, all distorted guitar riffs and wailing saxes, before the first verse returns, now with past tenses updated to present, as if her life’s come full circle. The lyrics, clearly autobiographical, reference Sixties hedonism, her long sabbatical from music as she diverted into librarianship, bereavement, and her welcome return to performance. ‘So much music fills the air, and I’m still busy growing,’ she sings: Dyble’s optimism is heartening.

Judy Dyble on the Web

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Marianne Faithfull at St Luke's

Live at LSO St Luke’s, London, 18 February 2009; broadcast BBC Four, 24 April 2009 (photo by John Chase)

Still beautiful at 62, Marianne is in town to promote her new album Easy Come, Easy Go. She’s recording a TV special before an invited audience and I’m flattered when an invite comes my way.

The audience is packed with industry people and BBC staffers, not enough of her friends and loyal fans for her taste, and she seems nervous, taking a while to connect. A huge jib camera sweeps over the audience, at one point threatening to brain a musician who forgets to duck. “It will all come together,” she assures us midway through. And it does.

‘The Crane Wife’, a cover of The Decemberists, builds to an ominous crescendo. On ‘Solitude’, a homage to Billie Holiday, she uses that lived-in voice to smoochy effect. ‘Hold On, Hold On’ is about a “very naughty girl”, we’re told, and Faithfull should know. An instrumental of ‘Mack The Knife’ – hats off here to the soloist on musical saw – seguës into ‘In Germany Before The War’. Her “decadent moment”, she calls this. Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home’ is a laid-back encore.

Sometimes she has to glance at the sheet music; sometimes she messes up, requiring a retake. But, hey, this was the first public outing for mostly new material, so we forgive. Backed by a versatile 11-piece band and in the presence of producer Hal Willner, she is most confident on her older numbers – the scabrous ‘Why D’Ya Do It?’, the punky ‘Broken English’ and a reconstruction of the original Sixties arrangement of ‘As Tears Go By’.

“We’re all still here,” she muses, gazing out into the audience, as if amazed at her own survival. So many have fallen by the wayside but Faithfull, rejuvenating herself continually by working with younger musicians, remains defiantly of this moment.

First published in
R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

John Lennon biography

ISBN 978-0007197415 (hc)/978-0007197422 (sc) Hardcover/softcover. 853 pages

Does the world need another Beatle book? Well, it needs this one, surely the most important since Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head.

At the outset anyone but the most committed Lennon anorak fears information overload. The story begins with the moment of John’s conception "on the kitchen floor" at Newcastle Road, the detail barely relenting until the last five years of his life (skated over in a mere sixty pages). But then you realise Norman’s goal is a kind of real-time biography. By merging what will later be recognised as events of seismic importance in his subject’s life (first meetings with Paul, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Yoko) under a wealth of quotidian and possibly expendable detail, the effect is to reconstruct a life as it is lived, in all its messiness. Benefit of hindsight is applied only sparingly, but tellingly: John’s manic, audience-baiting acrobatics in Hamburg are rightly seen as ‘punk’ sixteen years ahead of the game.

Norman is a fluent writer. Despite its girth, this is an easy read. Avoiding the flashy overwriting so typical of rock biography, he sketches in, often with humour, the marginalia of Sixties showbiz – I love Larry Parnes’s stable of pseudonymous crooners, ‘Marty Wilde’, ‘Vince Eager’, ‘Billy Fury’ – while never losing sight of Lennon’s evolution from troubled child to angry young man to contented house-husband. Magisterial.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Mary Epworth

Mary Epworth seems like a woman whose time has come. But it was only when she put together a new outfit recently, the Jubilee Band, that things started moving her way. Their debut single, ‘The Saddle Song’, attracted the attention of Radio 2’s Steve Lamacq and earned serious airplay. Described by Mary herself as a "pub shanty", the track is both the perfect example of a resurgent folk-inspired English rootsiness and a calling card for a distinctive new voice. A lop-sided march, somewhere between a wedding procession and a funeral cortege, it gets into your head like a Kylie song but – important difference – you don’t feel guilty about humming along.

For several years Mary was gigging around the North London/Home Counties circuit; she provided backing vocals for The Broken Family Band and The Sweeney and fronted Hannah Fallen and Bambino, but the breakthrough eluded her. So she concentrated on refining her writing: "I think I’ve spent too long being a backing vocalist or playing second fiddle, so I’ve got something to prove with my writing". The results will be obvious on her long-gestated debut album, scheduled for spring release. When we meet up in a London pub, I ask Mary why she has held off so long. "I think I was still not quite happy with being whatever my own strange mixture ended up being. I was too concerned with whether it was going to be ‘psych-folk’ or whatever".

Genre labels clearly don’t bother her now. "I’ve always had some kind of weirder songs and then some more straight, classic-sounding songs, like ‘Heal This Dirty Soul’ or ‘Ray Of Sunlight’, and I’ve always been unsure how these things would fit together on an album. But I think now I’ve come to terms with it". Her songwriting reflects her restless curiosity. One demo, ‘Come Back To The Bough’, which I took for a quirky love song, is apparently inspired by Frazer’s Golden Bough: "I’m a big lifelong subscriber to Fortean Times, so I’m really interested in fringe science and also folklore".

Her music draws on her enthusiasm for psychedelic West Coast harmonies – she listens to a lot of ‘sunshine pop’ – and filters it through a southern English sensibility. Shirley Collins is an inspiration; she also loves the acid-folk noodlings of neglected bands like Forest. "I’m just always looking. I’m never really that interested in contemporary music, so I’m always exploring back". Over the years friends have given her mix-tapes. Will Twynham, her bassist, producer and significant other, is an "obsessive record collector." What excites Mary are "the unsung people. There’s always some amazing album that nobody’s talking about from 1971. There’s always more!"

I sense in her what literary critic Harold Bloom called the "anxiety of influence". In a global supermarket of sounds, with eighty years of recorded music on the shelves, she has to emancipate herself from the past and find her own voice. "If I listened to more of something, maybe I’d just be a straight-ahead clone," she reflects. For years she didn’t listen to any other female vocalists. "When I was younger there were a lot of really bad female singer-songwriters about, so I sort of ended up resenting all of them". Then she discovered the Shangri-Las, which got her into female singers. But still "if I feel that somebody is kind of similar to me, then I don’t like it sometimes. Because I’m afraid of being too much like them."

She’s passionate about Gypsy music. Since her teens she’s worked with Moravian singer Ida Kelarova. "She runs workshops where she uses traditional Slovak Gypsy songs, and it’s not like teaching singing, it’s almost like teaching a gospel method where you learn a song and you learn it phonetically. You don’t know what these words mean and you’re taught how a song can be the vessel for whatever you want to express. If you’re actually emotionally engaged when you’re singing, that’s an extremely beautiful experience". Just as there are perils when white men sing the Blues (or blue men sing the Whites), so Mary is suspicious of Western Europeans who do "fancy-dress" Gypsy. "When you’ve seen little 6-year-old kids who can play guitar, violin, every instrument to virtuoso level, it’s really mind-blowing. I love it so much but I wouldn’t even dream of being a pretend Gypsy band". In her song ‘Six Kisses’, by way of homage, she slips in a couple of lyrics in Romany but – she laughs – "nobody ever spots that".

In December 2008 Mary was a guest soloist at the Sandy Denny tribute in London, where she caught the eye and ear of Guardian reviewer Robin Denselow. "It increased people’s awareness about a thousand fold," says Mary. "An amazing night, and a big honour. Already so much has changed." The smart money says there are more changes ahead for Mary Epworth.

Mary Epworth on MySpace
Photo by Andrew Batt

First published in
R2 (Rock’n’Reel)


A couple of years ago, over on my other blog, I wrote:

I have a plan, long in gestation, quixotic in ambition, to found a new popular music magazine. It will carry articles combining documented facts with biographical insights, broad cultural context with precise (but not forbiddingly technical) discussion of words and music and their interrelations. In its field of view it will accommodate makers of music and consumers and every mediating jobsworth and technology that comes between them. But though it dares to inhabit the no-man’s land between Brixton Academy and the Oxbridge academy, it won’t be all serious. Provisionally, this magazine, I call it Brush on Drum, adapting a favourite line from one of my favourite artists, Laura Nyro: ‘A rush on rum / of brush and drum’ (New York Tendaberry, 1969). Is anyone with me?

Well, times are perilous for magazine launches, but I thought I’d make a start by laying out some of my own wares; and that’s what you’ll find here. I hope you like it.

(By the way, the header photo shows The Bookhouse Boys, whom I plan to write about shortly.)