Sunday, 14 December 2008

Get Behind Me, Santa!

Seven Festive Favourites

Our modest Christmas tree is illuminated, a few presents have been bought and so far I've eaten two mince pies this month. If you're not feeling festive yet these seven songs should help.

MP3: Sufjan Stevens - Get Behind Me, Santa!

This is from Stevens' Songs For Christmas box set. Not the greatest Christmas song of all time but certainly the one with the best title.

MP3: The Blind Boys of Alabama - Last Month of the Year

The Blind Boys' Christmas album contains more hits than misses and starts brilliantly with this track. This is usually the first festive song I play each year and for much of December Jo has to out up me constantly asking, "When was Jesus born?".

MP3: The Blind Boys of Alabama w/ Tom Waits

The Blind Boys have covered a few Tom Waits songs so it makes sense that he guests on this. Plus, his growl is perfect for preaching. (For those who care about these things, Danny Thompson plays double bass on this track).

MP3: Tom Waits - Silent Night

Recorded for a 1989 charity compilation, SOS United, I'm not sure that this version of Silent Night works as a lullaby.

MP3: The Staple Singers - Who Took The Merry Out of Christmas

I love this song. Like so many Staple staples it's full of righteous anger but remains utterly joyful.

MP3: Low - Just Like Christmas

A Christmas song that isn't actually about Christmas but does have plenty of sleigh bells with nods in the direction of Phil Spector. Perfect.

MP3: Captain Beefheart - There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage

What can I say? Certainly one of the strangest Christmas songs ever recorded. You can find it on the Captain's Spotlight Kid album.

Happy Christmas! As usual please leave a comment with your thoughts on yte tracks. For an even more interesting collection of Christmas songs I recommend a visit to Big Rock Candy Mountain - twang, truckers and tinsel abound.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Mark Olson & Gary Louris

A belated response to their Union Chapel show last month

I have an awful lot to thank Mark Olson and Gary Louris for. Their band, The Jayhawks, were my first Americana heroes and in the fifth form I wore out my cassette of their album Hollywood Town Hall. That record, along with a photo of Evan Dando wearing a Gram Parsons t-shirt on a Lemonheads sleeve, were the chief ingredients mixed in the crucible that formed my love of '' (whatever that is/was). Sadly I never got to see Louris and Olson sing their wonderful harmonies together on stage. I think The Jayhawks played in London the day before my English A-level so that was a no-no. By the end of 2005 Mark Olson had left the band.

Since then I've seen both the Louris-led Jayhawks and Mark Olson perform plenty of times but I never thought I'd ever get to see the pair play the songs together that first set my musical taste on a twang trajectory. I'd heard rumours that Louris and Olson had recorded a new album together and at Dingwalls last year I asked Mark Olson if a tour was likely. He was optimistic; I was excited.

And so to a 19th-century Gothic church in Islington a few weeks ago...

Watching two middle-aged blokes with acoustic guitars isn't comparable to seeing a band in their youthful prime but the fantastic reaction to songs they wrote together like Settled Down Like Rain and Over My Shoulder proved that I wasn't alone in being overwhelmed by both nostalgia and enormous affection for the men in front of the pulpit.

Thankfully, a lot of the songs on their new album, Ready For the Flood, are pretty good. They're certainly more Simon & Garfunkel than Gram & Emmylou but you can imagine tracks like Bloody Hands being worked up into full-on country rockers.

Unless you're a Jayhawks fan of old this I can't imagine this reunion would mean much. Perhaps the tracks below might convince you otherwise. Let me know.

MP3: The Jayhawks - Sioux City

MP3: The Jayhawks - Settled Down Like Rain

MP3: The Jayhawks - Over My Shoulder

MP3: Mark Olson & Gary Louris - The Rose Society

MP3: Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Bloody Hands

Related Posts
Mark Olson - Dingwalls, 17 October 2007

Related Links
Mark Olson - MySpace

Gary Louris - official site

Buy This Music

The Jayhawks: Amazon | 7digital
Mark Olson & Gary Louris: Amazon
Mark Olson: Amazon | 7digital
Gary Louris: Amazon | 7digital

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Random Thoughts on an American Holiday

Years ago I saw Greg Proops do a routine at the Edinburgh Festival where he suggested that the British should celebrate Thanksgiving as much as his countrymen. Instead of being thankful for breaking bread with the Natives we should be grateful for saying “fuck off” to the Puritans. I don’t know. If Benjamin Franklin’s dad had stayed put in Northamptonshire we could have claimed the lightning rod and the glass armonica as English inventions.

I enjoyed my first Thanksgiving in America in 1995 while working as a volunteer at a children’s home in South Carolina. My lasting memories of that meal are candied yams (disgustingly sweet) and one of our most foul-mouthed charges surprising me with a lovely speech about what he was thankful for. He later told me his seemingly heartfelt words were all “bullshit”.

Two years later during my university exchange to Wisconsin I spent Thanksgiving with my fellow American Studies exiles in a very cold Chicago. Instead of the traditional turkey we found an excellent, empty Indian restaurant and ate curry.

My only other Thanksgiving in the USA was at a friend’s parents’ house in small-town Minnesota. I bought Carter Burwell’s score to Fargo just so we could play it while driving past the Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd.

If you want a wonderful musical accompaniment to your Thanksgiving today I recommend tuning into my favourite American radio station WNCW. You’ll hear lots of great songs about food and at noon (US Eastern Standard Time, 5pm UK time) they will play the full 18:34 minutes of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice's Restaurant Massacree, just like they do every year.

The only explicitly related Thanksgiving song in my collection is Dan Bern’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A wonderful stream of consciousness that takes in Michelangelo, the Pope and Men at Work. Enjoy!

MP3: Dan Bern - Thanksgiving Day Parade

Friday, 7 November 2008

Thank You George W Bush

What Have The Neo-Cons Ever Done For Us?

While the only tears I'll shed as George W Bush leaves the White House will be ones of joy, I am grateful for Dubya's contribution to my cultural life over the last eight years. These are just five things we wouldn't have had without W.

1. Journeys With George
Although Alexandra Pelosi's fly-on-the-press-corp documentary is as much about the media as it as about Dubya's presidential bid I think it offers as compelling an argument as any as to why Bush 'beat' Gore in 2000. During the 18 months Pelosi (daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy) spends on the campaign trail, the Texas governor comes across as amusing, charming and even, occasionally, quick-witted. Before Iraq, Guantanamo, Enron, Katrina... here was a man you'd want to have a beer with (although he, of course, would order a Diet Coke).
Journeys With George - official site includes clip
Amazon: Journeys With George DVD
Variety: Journeys With George review

2. Dan Bern - Talking Al Kida Blues
A song I doubt has ever been played on the radio. To me it sums up perfectly the Bush regime's response to 9/11 in all its perversity.
MP3: Dan Bern - Al Kida Blues

3. The West Wing
The fantasy White House drama began while Bill Clinton was still in charge; Martin Sheen plays a Democrat president who'd never get caught with his pants down. The series arguably hit its stride though when Bush entered the Oval Office. As well as wish-fulfillment for Democrats, it also offered a critique of the real president, most notably in the guise of Bartlett's first Republican challenger, the less than bright Governor Richie.

4. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Like the West Wing, the Daily Show began life before the Fiasco in Florida but there's no doubt that having Bush in White House has been the making of the programme. Not only has Dubya supplied a rich mine of comedy gold but the Daily Show has also brilliantly skewered the TV coverage by Fox News et al of his presidency.

5. Team America: World Police
Who'd have thought that Hollywood's most entertaining response to the Bush Doctrine and Axis of Evil would involve a bunch of Gerry Anderson cast-off puppets?

Finally, while on the subject of toys, what better way to remember the Bush years than with one of these dolls. He says 17 phrases and batteries are included. Also available are Top Gun Bush and Turkey Dinner Bush. I imagine prices will come down shortly.

As usual, please leave your own additions to the list in the comments below.

Related posts
Pundits versus the BBC - election night spats
Jimmy Carter - A Tribute in Song
Super Obama - getting out the geek vote

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Pundits versus the BBC

McCain Not The Only Loser on Election Night

Without access to CNN, Fox News or Al Jazeera I stayed loyal to my employer on US election night and watched the BBC's coverage. A revolving A list of pundits including Christopher Hitchens, Ted Koppel, Simon Schama and David "Axis of Evil" Frum joined David Dimbleby to watch Barack Obama became president.

It was not a broadcast that always showed the BBC at its best. Dimblely was crotchety throughout, bizarrely referring to Pennsylvania as the "Big Potato" early on, going off on a self-confessed "rant" against America's election process, and best of all, at 4.50am, suffering this wonderful put-down from Gore Vidal.

That was not the evening's only conflict either. Former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton won our "most loathsome pundit" award and had this to say after Rajesh Mirchandani reported in from Colorado.

There were a number of other low points - Eddie Izzard being asked how the Obama victory would affect his "industry" springs to mind. If you watched any TV coverage of the night, post a comment with your own highlights and lowlights.

Related posts
Jimmy Carter - A Tribute in Song
Super Obama - getting out the geek vote

Monday, 3 November 2008

Jimmy Carter: A Tribute in Song

Last Saturday's Times placed Jimmy Carter at a lowly number 32 in their comprehensive list of America's greatest presidents (Honest Abe was Top of the Pops, Dubya tied with Nixon at 37).

I've always had a soft spot for Jimmy though admit it might be because I find the phrase "peanut farmer turned president" as amusing as Carter's admission to Playboy that "I have committed adultery in my heart many times".

I'm cautiously optimistic that Barack Obama will win today's election but am worried that Barry might suffer the same presidential fate as Jimmy. Both campaigned on fairly liberal platforms; both hoped to oust a hated, criminal Republican regime; both faced an energy crisis and chronic inflation... But what happened when Mr Carter went to Washington? In brief, the nation turned against him and elected Ronald Reagan by a landslide four years later.

Anyway, enough of the politics, I've only written this to share Blue Mountain's classic tribute to the great man from their 1995 album Dog Days. Enjoy. And if you have a vote, please use it wisely, the rest of the world wants to think kindly on our American cousins once again.

MP3: Blue Mountain - Jimmy Carter

Related links
Blue Mountain on MySpace

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Super Obama

Barack Obama's geek appeal

As a fan of both Barack Obama and the Man of Steel I was delighted by last week's revelation that the presidential hopeful is actually Superman.

The speech in New York, which also referenced Mad magazine icon Alfred E Neuman, was obviously a well planned attempt to appeal to any comic geeks still unsure who to vote for. It's an aspect of the campaign that's received little press coverage but Obama has been building his geek credentials for some time.

The photo of Obama posing in front of the Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois was taken two years ago. Fans of Superman and Barack Obama can show their allegiance to both by buying these badges. There were also lots of rumours before this year's Comic-Con in San Diego that Obama would make an appearance. He didn't but celebrated comics artist Alex Ross unveiled this print that referenced his own Superman artwork.

However, my favourite Obama geek story of the campaign is not Superman related. Apparently when Barack spotted Leornard 'Spock' Nimoy at an event he greeted him with the Vulcan salute. Now that's nerdy.

Related link
Obama at Alfred E Smith Memorial dinner - full speech; more good gags at McCain's expense

Related posts
Man of Steel Memories - my Superman recollections

Rock'n'Roll Jesus

It's one of rock'n'roll's most worn-out cliches that the Devil has the best tunes. But as this selection highlights, Jesus has his fair share of great songs too.

MP3: Neutral Milk Hotel - The King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two & Three

There's something slightly menacing about this song, the second track on Neutral Milk Hotel's masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over Sea. In fact, I've found that singing the opening aloud after a few pale ales does indeed scare people.

MP3: The Broken Family Band - Walking Back To Jesus Part Two

I remember seeing the BFB some years ago and singer Steve Adams saying that their next record would be all covers of their favourite songs about Christ. As it turned out Jesus Songs only had one cover, Neutral Milk Hotel's King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two & Three. The other songs aren't all about the Lord either though this one is.

MP3: Jim White - If Jesus Drove A Motor Home

Jesus is never far away in Jim White's world. If you've never seen his wondrous film Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, stop reading and purchase or rent the DVD immediately. You will not be disappointed. I'm sure I've read that the Jesus in this song is actually a real person in White's old hometown of Pensacola, Florida.

MP3: Woody Guthrie - Jesus Christ

The most obvious example of Woody Guthrie's combination of Christianity and socialism. See also Christ For President on Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg & Wilco's superb album of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs.

MP3: Tom Waits - Chocolate Jesus (introduction)

MP3: Tom Waits - Chocolate Jesus

Like Jim White, there are no shortage of Jesus references in Tom Waits' songs. It was a toss up between this and Jesus Gonna Be Here, but I opted for Chocolate Jesus to share the humorous preamble. This version is from VH1's Storytellers in 1999. Note: Wikipedia has a fascinating article about Abba-Zabas (see also Captain Beefheart).

MP3: Hayes Carll - She Left Me For Jesus

At Hayes Carll's recent gig at the Luminaire the Texan seemed genuinely surprised by the enthusiastic response that met this wry song. He might even have called the assembled baldies "heathens". There's a nice acoustic version of the song on the Later... with Jools Holland website by the way.

Here endeth the lesson. I hope you enjoyed the songs. As usual, comments and suggestions for further listening are most welcome. Amen.

Buy These Artists
Neutral Milk Hotel: Amazon | 7digital
The Broken Family Band: Amazon | 7digital
Jim White: Amazon | 7digital
Woody Guthrie: Amazon | 7digital
Tom Waits: Amazon | 7digital
Hayes Carll: Amazon | 7digital

Sunday, 5 October 2008

I'm Your Fan, Part 1

Every band pays tribute to their favourite artists with cover versions but only a few take hero worship to the level of writing new songs about their idols.

These are songs by artists I like about folks they like, plus tracks by the people that inspired them. Tomorrow I'll post some more, all with a Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan connection.

MP3: The Rockingbirds - Jonathan Jonathan

MP3: Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers - Roadrunner

Roadrunner is one of the greatest songs ever written in my opinion and Alan Tyler evidently thinks so too. I love the way The Rockingbirds' track pays tribute to Jonathan Richman lyrically and musically.

MP3: Camera Obscura - Dory Previn

MP3: Dory Previn - Stone For Bessie Smith

I must admit I'd never heard of Dory Previn before buying Camera Obscura's great album Let's Get Out Of This Country. The song's not really about the American songwriter but does contain the lyric, "How I adore you Dory Previn/ I turned you up to 11 for the band’s ears to bleed". The Dory Previn song I've posted is actually another tribute - to Janis Joplin.

MP3: Rodney Crowell - I Walk The Line (Revisited)

MP3: Johnny Cash - I Walk The Line

Rodney Crowell's tribute to Johnny Cash would be a good song even without the guest vocal from the Man in Black. Asking Cash to sing was a risky move. The track was recorded in 2001, nine years after Crowell was divorced from Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne, although from what I've read JC seemed to be more annoyed that his ex son-in-law had changed his melody. The version of I Walk the Line is the original Sun single.

Enjoy the songs, let me know what you think, and please suggest any others. Tomorrow there'll be more including Dan Bern, Tom Russell and Bob Dylan.

Related Posts

I'm Your Fan, Part 2

Buy These Artists

The Rockingbirds: Amazon

Jonathan Richman: Amazon | 7digital

Camera Obscura: Amazon

Dory Previn: Amazon | 7digital

Rodney Crowell: Amazon | 7digital

Johnny Cash: Amazon | 7digital

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

This Round's On You

Six More Drinking Songs

A few week's ago I posted half a dozen songs about booze. In reponse a few people suggested their own favourites, so here they are - plus one more of mine. (Apologies to Sam Jordison, I tried and failed to find a copy of your suggestion, The Dubliners' Jar of Porter. It would have been a nice tribute to the owner of folk music's greatest facial hair).

MP3: Half Man Half Biscuit - There Stands The Glass

Last time I posted Webb Pierce's 1950s country standard There Stands The Glass. One of the Sam's alerted me that Birkenhead's finest recorded a version of the song for an Andy Kershaw session a few years ago. You can hear that whole set at the HMHB website.

MP3: Ryan Adams - The Bar Is A Beautiful Place

Ryan Adams is a frustrating bugger. One minute he can write wonderful songs like this, the next he's in full thrall of his pal Phil Lesh and indulging in horrible Grateful Dead influenced noodling.

MP3: Arab Strap - Here We Go

Suggested by the anonymous Bartleby fan (reveal yourself!), this is a vomit-strewn piece of Glaswegian miserabalism. Choice lyric, "How'm I supposed to walk you home/ When you're at least 50 feet ahead/ 'Cause you've walked off in a huff/ And I'm that pissed I can't remember what it was I said."

MP3: Tom Waits - The Piano Has Been Drinking (live)

There are no shortage of Tom Waits tunes on this blog but that's no reason not to share another one. Martin suggested this classic from Small Change, but to keep things interesting, this is an inebriated live version from a radio appearance on New York's WNEW in December 1976.

MP3: Uncle Tupelo - I Got Drunk

Before my friend Amy swore off booze forever she went on a road trip around Scotland that involved a lot of Uncle Tupelo on the car stereo. With her boyfriend Ed at the wheel, Amy played a game that involved swigging from bottle of whiskey whenever Jeff Tweedy or Jay Farrar mentioned an alcoholic drink. No wonder she went teetotal.

MP3: The Gourds - Gin and Juice

I recently lent a friend the brilliant Rough Trade Shops Country compilation which includes this hilarious cover of Snoop Dogg's paean to booze and bitches. If a Snoop Dogg song can sound country then maybe his own recent foray into C&W wasn't so unexpected.

There you have it. Dust down your favourite glass and enjoy the songs. And, as usual, please let me know what you think and suggest any more. ¡Salud!

Related Posts

Six Pack To Go - another half dozen boozy songs

Buy & Hear These Artists
Half Man Half Biscuit: |Amazon | 7digital | eMusic

Ryan Adams: Amazon | 7digital | eMusic

Arab Strap: Amazon | 7digital | eMusic
Tom Waits: Amazon | 7digital | eMusic
Uncle Tupelo: Amazon | 7digital | eMusic
The Gourds: Amazon | 7digital | eMusic

Thursday, 18 September 2008

1600 Sunset Blvd

The White House in Hollywood

BBC Four had a great double bill of programmes this week about Hollywood's representation of the US president that I'd recommend any American Studies graduate or West Wing fan fire up the iPlayer to watch while they're still both available.

In Dinner with Portillo, the former MP chows down with the likes of Joe Klein, Peter Biskind, Republican speechwriter Lisa Schiffren, and journo Kurt Anderson (who gets enjoyably animated as the fine wine flows) to discuss "the enduring conflict between America's liberal Hollywood dream factory and its conservative heartland values" (which would have been a good dissertation subject).

Jonathan Freedland's President Hollywood begins by looking at how The West Wing's writers effectively ran the current presidential campaign in 2005 when they pitted a charismatic non-white Democrat (Jimmy Smits) up against an experienced Republican maverick (Alan Alda). It then argued that JFK and Nixon have provided the archetypal templates for fictional do-gooder and malevolent presidents respectively.

I was surprised by some of the omissions from the discussion of fictional presidents though. You'd have thought, for instance, that Barack Obama's favourite on-screen Commander-in-Chief would get a look in. Despite having The Contender director Rod Lurie as a contributor there was no mention of President Jackson Evans in the programme.

Jeff Bridges doesn't quite play the Prez as if The Dude got the keys to the Oval Office but it's not far off (I even vaguely remember a bowling scene).

The most Nixon-esque president I've seen in recent years was also absent. President Charles Logan from 24 is not only a weaselly criminal in the classic Nixon mold, he even has Tricky Dicky's hangdog expression down pat.

Another 24 prez who got less mention than you'd expect was President David Palmer, which is surprising since actor Dennis Haysbert has publicly stated that he thinks his portrayal of a stately black president may have paved the way for Barack Obama in the eyes of many Americans.

There are plenty more - Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! springs to to mind as someone I'd like to see in office - so who are your favourite Hollywood presidents? And if you've seen either of the programmes I mentioned, let me know what you think of them too.

Related Links

Dinner with Portillo: American Elections Special

President Hollywood

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Read All About It!

Stupid News For Stupid People

*Rant Alert!*

Until last week I was unaware of the Daily Gossip section of the NME's website. It's mainly dedicated to what Amy Winehouse may or may not be up to, but at the end of each day's 'news' story there's also a mind-numbing digest of pop star sightings as reported by our glorious Red Tops.

The tabloids' endless fascination with racist thicko Jade Goody is just the most obvious proof that they have a disturbing definition of newsworthy but I was genuinely surprised to see that the following items warranted column inches.

  • The Ting Tings singer Katie White "hasn't cooked for months" (Daily Mirror).

  • Leona Lewis wore a selection of purple outfits on the set of her new video (The Sun).

  • Adele swigged pints of beer and wine at the Mercury Prize ceremony (Daily Star).

  • Alicia Keys asked for ketchup with her fries at the Marriott Courtyard, New York (Daily Mirror).

If your brain has not melted and you really want more of this nonsense, I've just noticed that the NME has another section called Tabloid Hell. Reading it might make you stupid.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Six-Pack To Go

Half A Dozen Great Songs About Booze

I watched Martin Scorsese's phenomenal Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home again last night. One of my favourite moments near the start of the film, when Bob's recalling the music that affected him growing up, is the clip of Webb Pierce, the best-selling country star of the 1950s, singing his Number 1 hit There Stands The Glass.

MP3: Webb Pierce - There Stands The Glass

I'd never heard of Pierce before seeing No Direction Home. Dressed in classic cowboy couture, he cuts an impressive figure and sings in a distinctive voice that Scorsese felt warranted subtitles. But what's most remarkable about the clip are the song's lyrics. This is the first verse: "There stands the glass/ That will ease all my pain/ That will settle my brain/ It's my first one to day". Even in the often maudlin world of country music, I'm not sure you'd get away with that today, let alone get to perform it on mainstream TV. This clip from the Grand Ole Opry is what's in No Direction Home.

In a culture where every beer bottle advises us to "drink aware" songs about boozing are less popular than they once were. By some distance. The excellent blog Barstool Mountain is solely dedicated to tipsy tunes, mainly of fine vintage, and last year compiled an impressive list of the Top 100 Drinking Songs of all time.

One of Bob Dylan's most enjoyable Theme Time Radio Hours was the episode about drinking. The best song I'd never heard of from that show was by a 50s R&B group called The Clovers. Their 1951 Number 1 hit One Mint Julep blames boozing for much more than a regrettable one-night stand: "I’m through with flirting and drinking whiskey/ I got six extra children from a-getting frisky".

MP3: The Clovers - One Mint Julep

Another song Bob played on his show portrays the darker side of the demon drink. Loretta Lynn is famous for her forthright lyrics and this song is pretty self-explanatory.

MP3: Loretta Lynn: Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)

Townes Van Zandt was a man who liked a drink. While in hospital to detox in the 90s a doctor told his third wife Leanne, "If anyone ever tries to dry this man out again, he will die." I know alcohol had an horrendous effect on Townes and those who loved him but I still find this song incredibly funny.

MP3: Townes Van Zandt - Talking Thunderbird Blues

People do still write songs about drinking. Carolyn Mark is a Canadian singer-songwriter I first supporting Po' Girl at the Borderline some years ago. I don't mind a Muscadet or a nice Sauvignon Blanc but I still love this song.

MP3: Carolyn Mark - The Wine Song

The Felice Brothers are a proper modern-day boozing band. Joanne and I saw them support Justin Townes Earle in Nashville on our honeymoon. They wobbled near us, hammered, during the opening act and their subsequent set was full of songs of drunken violence like this one.

MP3: The Felice Brothers - Whiskey In My Whiskey

Whether you're tea-total or salivating at the thought of your next lager I hope you enjoy the songs. Please leave a comment to recommend your favourite drinking tunes.

Beer Fact: Jax beer was brewed in New Orleans between 1890 and 1974. The old brewery off Jackson Square is now a touristy shopping centre but the sign on top of the building still evokes its boozy past.

Friday Round-Up

My favourite links week ending 12 September 2008

Photo of the Week

The picture above is of Salt Lake City in the 1950s that I found via my friend Dave Varley's delicious account. It's one of a dozen or so vintage photographs of American cities taken by a chap called Charles W Cushman that are posted on a forum about skyscrapers. I recall that buying booze in Salt Lake City is not straightforward.

News Item of the Week

"Laureate bemoans 'thankless' job" is a wonderful headline. In a surprisingly honest interview Andrew Motion has said that being poet laureate has been "damaging" to his work and moans that the Queen "never gives me an opinion on my work for her". He'll be spending Christmas in the Tower then.

Obituary of the Week

Farewell then Jack Weill. I hadn't heard of him either but do have much to thank him for. He invented the cowboy shirt. This is my favourite part of the Economist's obit: "When Reagan declared once that America had become a service economy, Mr Weil wrote to him complaining that “where I come from in southern Indiana, servicing meant when you took the mare to the stud.” Reagan gently pointed out to “Jack” that things were less simple in Washington."

Bob Dylan Item of the Week

The video for Bob's 'new' single Dreamin' of You is available to watch on It's noteworthy mainly for featuring Harry Dean Stanton.

New To Me Music of the Week
My brother-in-law Kev emailed me during the week to ask if I'd heard of The Gaslight Anthem. I had not. They are four fellas from New Jersey who evidently are big Springsteen fans.

Funniest Link Forwarded To Me This Week

"Rod Stewart Apologises For 30 Years of Crap Music". Not before time.

Online Listening of the Week

NPR's World Cafe is streaming five songs by the brilliant Felice Brothers recorded live at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Justin Townes Earle, who coincidentally we saw play with the Felice Brothers in Nashville on our honeymoon, recorded a Daytrotter Session this week which you can download in full.

Video of the Week

My colleagues Lucy and Sarah produced a great site for the Mercury Prize. You can see videos of all the nominees, both from Wednesday's award ceremony and from the BBC archive, as well as highlights of previous years' events. This is who I hoped would win, 2008's token folk act, Rachel Unthank & The Winterset.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

SFX, Drugs & Rollerskates

Taking Off With Hawkwind

Last night I did something I've been meaning to do for some weeks. I watched a BBC documentary about 70s space-rockers Hawkwind I recorded last month. Until yesterday I knew nothing about the band other than they had a rubbish name and Lemmy had been among their number before he formed Motorhead. If you're equally ignorant, the All Music Guide nicely sums up their marijuana-scented essence:

Any sci-fi fan with long memories probably remembers those 1970s DAW paperback editions of Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery novels, with their images of heavily armored, very muscular warriors, carrying large swords and standing against eerie land- and starscapes. Take that imagery, throw in some terminology and names seemingly lifted from the Marvel Comics of the era (The Watcher, etc.) and particle physics articles of the period, translate it into loud but articulate hard rock music, and that's more or less what Hawkwind is about.

Psychedelic guitar wig-outs would be banished to my Room 101 and I watched the programme more because a colleague described it as a real-life This is Spinal Tap rather than to learn more about Hawkwind's music. On that score I was not disappointed.

Hawkwind were obsessed with space-fantasy. Their allegiance with Michael Moorcock was more than inspirational; he wrote some of their lyrics. (The writer tells a lovely anecdote about introducing Arthur C Clarke to William Burroughs at a party. The scientist and Beat prophet got on famously). To hear the band recall their 1972 Space Ritual tour makes it sound like an audio-visual display to rival the final scenes of Close Encounters. Sadly no video exists, but Lemmy suggests that you can approximate the experience by dropping five tabs of acid, spinning the double live LP, getting out some oil and projecting it on the wall.

Lemmy was involved in many of Hawkwind's most Tap-esque incidents. While touring the American mid-west he wandered off, out of his mind, later to find himself abandoned by the rest of the band. He then hitchhiked across Michigan to meet his band mates. The next day he was busted for drugs going into Canada and fired. Lemmy and Hawkwind's Dave Brock tell the story most animatedly in this clip from another programme.

My favourite piece of nutty behaviour recounted in the programme involves sax player and Egyptoligist Nik Turner. He was fired from the band in 1976 for playing over other people's solos but re-joined in the early 80s. He memorably describes one of Hawkwind's appearances at the Stonehenge Festival where he wore a skin-tight bodystocking and careened around the stage on rollerskates. Turner thought this was the height of performance art. His band mates disagreed and he was soon fired again.

The documentary is full of these tragic drug-fuelled anecdotes. It's also fascinating about the Ladbroke Grove hippy scene of the 60s and 70s and makes some bold claims about Hawkwind's music: they were electronica pioneers and pre-empted punk and acid house.

I've got nothing against old music, I just prefer it played on a mandolin rather than a Mellotron. There weren't enough songs in the programme for me to make an educated assessment of Hawkwind's music but I still suspect it's not my cup of tea. Though that would probably change if, like most of the band's beverages seemed to be, it was spiked with PCP.


My friend Wayne, who DJs the brilliant Uptight night at the Albany on the last Saturday of every month, emailed me after reading this. He said they've played Hawkwind's cover of Gimme Shelter on more than one occasion. I looked it up and it turns I actually have a copy on a 2002 freebie compilation from Uncut magazine. Wayne suggested it sounds a bit like early Spiritualized. See what you think.

MP3: Hawkwind - Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)

Related Links

Hawkwind: Do Not Panic - the BBC doc

YouTube: Hawkwind Doc - of course it's here to watch

Hawkwind - they're still at it; this is the official site

Space Ritual - Nik Turner and other former Hawkwind members' band

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Guillermo del Toro: A Life in Pictures

Watch Bafta's Q&A With The Mexican Director

A few months ago I went to one of Bafta's Life in Pictures events with Guillermo del Torro, the Mexican director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy. Bafta have now put 30 minutes of highlights on their website and if you're a fan of Del Toro, his films or creative swearing it's well worth watching.

He talks with the critic Jason Wood about his early filmmaking attempts in Mexico, his battles with Weinsteins over his Hollywood debut Mimic, his visionary work on Pan's Labyrinth and of course his new film, Hellboy II.

I'd previously seen Del Toro at a Q&A following a screening of Pan's Labyrinth and was struck by how joyfully profane his language is. This man has a wonderfully foul mouth. One of my favourite moments at the Bafta event (sadly cut from the video) was Del Toro's response to an audience member's question about his forthcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. The director conceded that it was a big task, especially since he'll be working with and following in the hairy footsteps of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. He likened this relationship to marrying a widow: "You have to respect the memory of the husband but you know that at some point you're going to have to fuck her". Nicely put.

The event concluded with a peak at the Hellboy 2 trailer. I enjoyed re-watching the first one on TV on Sunday and I'm looking forward to seeing the new one tomorrow. From the trailer it does look like our hero gets besieged by Pan's Labyrinth extras and Luke from Bros. I can't wait.

Related links

Guillermo del Toro: A Life in Pictures
- watch the event
Guillermo del Toro Films - fan site

Bafta Events - almost all are open to the public

Monday, 18 August 2008

Radio On!

Five BBC Radio Shows To Listen To Between 10am-1pm

Photo: barb_ar @ flickr

The silver lining of the George Lamb shaped cloud that hovers over BBC 6 Music's mid-morning schedule is that I've been forced to search out new delights for my pre-lunch listening.

Before Lamb's controversial appointment my work-day radio habit was Gideon Coe between 10 and 1 before tuning into my favourite American station, North Carolina's WNCW, for the afternoon. With 6 Music's live output during the morning no longer to my taste these are the five shows I'm listening to most on the iPlayer.

Gideon Coe

George Lamb's brilliant predecessor now has a graveyard slot but thanks to the iPlayer it's possible to listen to his three-hour evening show in the same morning slot he used to occupy. I think Gid's become more of a duffer with his nightly show and I imagine him presenting it wearing slippers.

God's Jukebox with Mark Lamarr

This superb Radio 2 show is broadcast at an even more unsociable hour than Coe's. Few people seem to like Mark Lamarr an in individual; he often comes across as arrogant and rude. There's no doubt that he has excellent musical taste though and his enthusiastic, eclectic picks from the 50s to the present day are the nearest I've heard to the musical education I've had from Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour.

Marc Riley

Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley's nightly Radio 1 show in the early 90s was the first programme that really hit me as genius radio. While his erstwhile colleague gets comfy at Radio 2, the man Lard continues on 6 Music in much the vein as he's always done with wonderful session guests and surreal non sequiturs.

Guy Garvey's Finest Hour

My 6 Music pal Jane tipped me off to the Elbow front-man's weekly radio show. His band have always struck me as dull but behind a mic I was immediately won over by Garvey's Mancunian charm. Evidently we have similar musical tastes and as a musician Garvey gets much more out of his guests than most other DJs. Perfect in every way.

McClean's Country

Another co-worker, Rory, suggested that Ralph McLean's Friday night show on Radio Ulster would warm my twang-loving heart. He was right. If I was a DJ I'd imagine my playlist would be remarkably similar to McClean's - a mix of quality new Americana like Hayes Carll and Cherryholmes and the non-cheezeball end of the country spectrum: Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, Tones Van Zandt and the like.

Related Posts

In Praise Of... Gideon Coe

Related Links

6 Music - Gideon Coe

Radio 2 - Mark Lamarr's God's Jukebox

6 Music - Marc Riley

6 Music - Guy Garvey's Finest Hour

Radio Ulster - McClean's Country

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Seeing Double

When Two Films Are Better Than One

I've not bought an issue of the BFI's film mag Sight & Sound for years but this month's cover feature on double bills caught my eye. Watching two films in a row is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend four hours and I was intrigued by what they'd recommend. S&S likes to wear its arthouse credentials on its sleeve and the critics and cinema programmers they've asked to select dream double bills drop names like Frank Bozage, RD Pestonji, Dusan Makavejev and dozens of other filmmakers I've never heard of.

There are some recognisable films in the list though. Mark Kermode picks The Wicker Man and Don't Lock Now. Western expert Ed Buscombe pairs The Searchers and Rio Bravo. The American critic Graham Fuller goes for "episodes from the same demented dream" Apocalypse Now and Aguirre Wrath of God. I'd have gone behind the scenes of Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog movies instead and shown Hearts of Darkness, the brilliant documentary about the horror of making the Vietnam nightmare followed by Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's insider's view of the twin madness of dragging a boat over a mountain and working with Klaus Kinski to make Fitzcaraldo.

Here are four more of my perfect matches. Leave a comment to share your top twos.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) & The Band's Visit (2007)

In the first film an insane band of Finns try to live the American rock'n'roll dream. In the second an Egyptian police band experience extreme culture shock on their tour of Israel.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance (1962) & Lone Star (1996)

John Sayles' film about the truth behind past events in a small Texas town seems like a deliberate riff on the famous line from John Ford's western, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

The War Room (1993)& Bob Roberts (1992)

Two documentaries about American political campaigns - one fact, one fiction. Without much access to Bill Clinton, the Pennekabers focus on the equally charismatic James Carville and youthful sidekick George Stephanopoulos. Apparently Tim Robbins refused to release the soundtrack to his spoof doc because he was worried that its satirical songs would actually be used by right-wingers.

Salesman (1968) & Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

You wouldn't think films about salesmen would be gripping but these are both favourites of mine. There's something quite tragic about the men in the Mayles Brothers' doc as they try to flog bibles door-to-door in Florida. There's even more tragedy (and quotable dialogue) in the David Mamet classic.

So, there you have five double bills that I'd joyfully sit through. Is it a decent list? What would your selections be?

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