Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, III

The fourth of these Twenties, who will come out on the top of the popular tunes I’ve been listening to in the last fortnight? Last time, in the middle of January 2016, it was Sara Bareilles with a tune from the forthcoming Broadway musical The Waitress. Will ‘Opening Up’ still be hanging around?

Find all the songs in an embedded playlist at the bottom of the page!

20 Backstreet Boys – Show me the Meaning of Being Lonely. John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s a clever examination of pop music from a journalist’s perspective. John points out the great men (sorry, it IS usually men) behind the great pop songs of my lifetime. Dan Wilson of Semisonic (and co-writer of ‘Someone Like You’) wrote a sizeable essay for the site The Talkhouse despairing the paucity of awesome tunes mentioned in the book, but I think this is pretty good, with nice flamenco guitar touches.

19 Stephen Bishop – It Might Be You. Jimmy Fallon’s power has diminished over the last few months for me, but he can still do genius things on the Tonight Show. With Stephen playing the theme from the movie Tootsie, behind him members of The Roots, Fallon himself and assorted stagehands performed a ‘School Play’ version, with unicorns, suns and skipping. I’d never heard the song, which is ruined by the production of the time, but the performance is worth a look.

18 Elle King – Under the Influence. She’s a Top 20 recording artist. Go Elle Go! Brilliant on Graham Norton’s show, where she played former Twenty number one ‘Exes and Ohs’, she came across as a superstar in the making. Her album doesn’t have many classic songs, but this, last fortnight’s number three, is still hanging around my most-played. ‘It might be criminal but I just can’t quit’ is a good line. A Grammy-winning artist next month? Could be.

17 Milos – Eleanor Rigby. I often planned to arrange the strings my own way but the arrangement here is great. In the first verse it underscores the guitar, played by a classically-trained guitarist whose move into pop music comes fifty years after this song was released to the world. Milos then trades the melody with the strings in the second verse, and it’s a lovely question-and-answer piece, a masterful display of orchestration which embellishes the original melody. McCartney’s finest? One of many!

16 Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide – Sue Me. As a birthday treat I went with Mum to the Savoy Theatre in London to see Guys & Dolls, a hit in rep and now a hit on the Strand. I knew this song, which was written before the rock’n’roll era established the shape of a pop hit (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-break-verse-chorus), and the new version is faithful to the original tune, with the rushed vocal of Adelaide contrasting poor Nathan’s “Sue me/ What can you do me” and even better “I’m a no-good-nik”. Its unconventionality marks it out from other musical standards, and is a perfect characterisation of the two of them. Sinatra sounds pretty good here.

15 Marlon Brando – Luck be a Lady. Brando snarls his way through the role of Sky Masterson (Sky’s not his real first name). The voices surround him at the end, and it feels like a musical representation of the scene, where Sky has to roll a score to get all the gangsters to the prayer meeting where his beloved is. It was the best number in the show I saw. Elvis Presley would have made a brilliant Sky, and would have delivered a better vocal. This recalls West Side Story with its horn stabs, and the melody is quirky and stands up 60 years after it was written. They still sing it in Vegas at the crap tables.

14 Kyu Sakamoto – Sukiyaki. An American number one in the 1960s, this track floats away, but the strings keep it grounded. It sounds like a kid is looking up at a balloon against the sky. Check the xylophones too! Can Japanese and Korean pop make more of an impression in the West than solely to expatriates and fans of PSY? I hope so. John Seabrook devotes an entire chapter of The Song Machine to the Asian pop industry, its production-line bands and the fact that acts cannot have boyfriends while in the band. Brutal.

13 Chris Lane – Fix. A new hit for country radio, this tune has a killer pop chorus that would actually be at home in Eurovision sung by a hot Swedish model. This tune can be a European hit, something Nashville must secretly want to happen in the next few years. Amazing production, too; perhaps Max Martin is a secret force here.

12 Stubby Kaye as Nicely Nicely – Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Done brilliantly in the West End production, this foot-stomper takes place in the meeting house of the missionaries in New York at midnight. All the gangsters have lost a dice game that meant they had to attend, and this song is the climax of a very funny scene. I know the song, but its brilliance can only be appreciated with choreography and staging.

11 Sara Bareilles – Opening Up. Down from last fortnight’s number one, but still making an impression on my ears a month since I heard it. Everything in a musical number is here, and it’s a great opening number.

10 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Blake’s back! Still ‘gonna take you for a ride, gonna getcha over there on the passenger side’. It’s ‘melodic math’, a term coined by Max Martin to describe how lyrics take second place to melody. Blake comes across as oleaginous, but maybe that is his persona; Brad Paisley seems more like someone I’d want to hang out with.

9 Jellyfish – Too Much, Too Little, Too Late. Still hanging around, down four places from number 5. Great to play on guitar, and there are so many words not usually used in pop: ‘greasepaint’, ‘collection plate’, ‘musketeers’, ‘grind’ used in the context of ‘axe to’, and the phrase ‘spare me the punchline’. Apparently the album this was from, Spilt Milk, had a troubled recording process, and ended up costing a lot more than planned; it’s worth it when tracks like this glimmer. The band split in 1994, and have never reformed.

8 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. Ol’ Brett re-enters in the 20 with this track, number 11 in the second Twenty a month ago. He performs a slower version live, but I prefer this quicker tempo, which finishes all too soon; he’s in town on February 14, playing Camden Town’s KOKO venue. I hope people go; I would sing along to this and the brilliant ‘Lose My Mind’. Harmonies still shimmer here.

7 Robyn – Show Me Love. John Seabrook’s book reminded me of Robyn, the pre-Britney Swedish popstar who had a comeback in her twenties with ‘With Every Heartbeat’. This was produced by the late DennizPop, a national hero in Sweden who took Max Martin under his wing (Martin also had a hand in ‘Show Me Love’); it’s got a great backbeat and a syrup-sweet chorus. I love the harmonic variation throughout, and that makes me replay it again and again. Check out the layering of vocals, laying the blueprint for commercial ‘contemporary hits radio’ all the way back in 1997.

6 Steve Earle – Telephone Road. I was going through some old, unlabelled CDs and leapt on this track. What a vocal, what a sound. Of course it was Steve, the closest thing alternative music has to a patron saint. In the first 20 seconds it’s got organ, chugging bass guitar and a killer first line (‘My brother Jim and my other brother Jackie/ Went off down to Houston and they’re never coming back’). Research reveals the titular road is a key street in east Houston with a reputation for having people who walk on the wild side. Harmonies on the track are by the Fairfield Four, a century-old a cappella/ gospel group from Nashville, who last year put out their first album in over a decade.

5 Milos – Blackbird. A Serbian who threw himself into classical guitar to ameliorate a life in a war zone, Milos plays the song the way it should be played. Written in India by Paul McCartney, inspired by his new mate Donovan’s finger-picking style, this is a great song for beginners to learn. Milos plays lead and rhythm on the same instrument, with some neat improvisational skills (the first time he’s used them in a career which has been rigidly note for note as it appears on the score). The whole album is fun, and it includes Tori Amos and Gregory Porter for good measure.

4 Thomas Rhett – Crash and Burn. My earworm of the fortnight, with personal pertinency. Thomas is currently doing well with his ‘Ed Sheeran goes Country’ hit song ‘Die a Happy Man’ but this one was his 2015 big smash about crashing and burning. Co-written by the mighty Chris Stapleton (soon to be Grammy-winning Chris Stapleton? Kendrick will win Album of the Year in any genre, but Chris is sewn up for Country Album). This song, either the live Opry version or the studio recording, has been on a loop in the last week for various reasons. All the same, ain’t like I’m the only one that’s in the shoes that I am!

3 Chase Bryant – A Little Bit of You. Another country music contemporary favourite, Chase is a left-handed guitarist and cherub whose grandpa backed Roy Orbison. The vocal here is powerful, even though I disliked the production aspect of the song the first few times I heard it on the Country Top 40. This proves that enough airplay will make you appreciate a pop song, even if it takes weeks! I love when the guitar drops out for a beat and a half in the final chorus, and I love his vim in the live version at the Ryman Auditorium.

2 Dustin Lynch – Hell of a Night. I actually had to stop listening to Dustin’s good 2014 album which had this as its opening track. All the songs seemed to sound the same, so rigid is Dustin’s sound, which is good commercial country music that works over 3 minutes but not over 33. The live performance of this song on the Grand Old Opry stage shows off how good a frontman he is, and I like the line ‘on the edge of wild and reckless’. This trope is much explored in commercial pop-country, but DL sells it well. His second time in the Twenty, after ‘Mind Reader’ featured in the first Twenty in December.

1 Maren Morris – My Church. Hallelujah! Amen! When a pop song comes along that tackles familiar themes in a new way, it’s worth applauding. This song takes the idea that country music is the protagonist’s church, drops in references to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and layers lush harmonies over countrified instrumentation. An early contender for the Country Music Association Song of the Year, and it’s only just gone to country radio!

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Bruce Springsteen embarks on ‘The River’ tour this winter

Bruce Springsteen is one of the only singer-songwriter-bandleaders in rock.

If you want to see a rock show, Bruce is your man. Regularly playing for three hours, taking requests from fans who hold up cardboard placards during the show, and running on ‘Boss Time’, Bruce has been inspiring young musicians in small towns all over the world since Born to Run broke him in 1975.

Influenced by Sam Moore, Gary Bonds and James Brown, he gathered a disparate group of players for his E Street Band, which toured with him between 1974 and 1985, and then again between 2002 and the present day. Two of these men have passed away in the last decade: Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons, the saxophonist, and Danny Federici, the organist.

Still touring from those of the original iteration are Garry Tallent (bass), Max Weinberg (on drums, who also played drums on Conan O’Brian’s TV show) Roy Bittan (keys and accordion) and ‘Little Stevie’ van Zandt (guitar and vocals). The brilliant guitarist Nils Lofgren and Bruce’s wife Patti Scialfa joined for the Born in the USA tour, and this lot had another Clemons, Jake, for the recent few tours since Clarence’s death.

In the hour-long documentary to promote the four-disc edition of The River, Bruce’s 1980 double-album, Bruce speaks engagingly about his process. He really wanted to make an album that his fans wanted to hear, enlisting van Zandt to produce alongside Jon Landau, and going against the type of production styles of the time. 36 years on, it sounds brilliant.

There were plenty of out-takes for The River, originally a single LP but released as a double with 20 tracks. In fact, the new box-set’s third disc is a single-disc version of the album. It includes ‘Cindy’, ‘Be True’ and ‘Loose End’, which all fall off the double-album in favour of denser songs like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Jackson Cage’. Present and correct on the single disc are ‘Hungry Heart’, ‘The River’ and the sublime ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’.

The River will be played in full in 2016 around the US, with two dates at MSG in January, and hopefully abroad. In 1981 Bruce made it to London for six dates at the Wembley Arena, then the biggest indoor venue in Britain. He had famously been shocked at the posters proclaiming him as a messiah when he came over for 1975’s Born to Run tour, which rather ruined his debut show at the Hammersmith Odeon, which has since been released on CD.

In 2010 Bruce fans could enjoy The Promise, a double-CD of outtakes of songs that didn’t make it onto 1978’s troubled Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce’s fourth album and first since his elevation to rock deity. Lawsuits, writer’s block and trouble getting the right drum sound all contributed to a tough process. The album wasn’t toured abroad, but Bruce spent 1978 on the North American road with his band, with three dates at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Bruce was approaching 30 when he worked on The River, and was trying to write a record appropriate to his age. Grown-up ballads like ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ rub shoulders with rowdy bar-room pleasers like ‘Two Hearts’, ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Crush On You’. Spread out over four sides of vinyl, it was definitely value for money, and showcased every side of Bruce, from meditative crooner to funky stomper.

The River also saw him embody characters, such as the worker of the title song and the swaggering kid of ‘Out on the Street’. There was even, in ‘Hungry Heart’, a hit song, written ‘in the time it takes to sing it’ after meeting The Ramones and thinking it’d be good to write a song for them. Unlike some songs from the Darkness sessions which he did give away (‘Because the Night’ to Patti Smith, ‘Fire’ to The Pointer Sisters), he kept ‘Hungry Heart’. At gigs ever since, the crowd have always sung the first verse before Bruce does it himself. Stats from Setlist.fm show that of The River’s twenty tunes, ‘Hungry Heart’ is the most performed, just ahead of ‘Out in the Street’ and ‘The River’. The big two are ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Badlands’.

The sound of Bruce and the E Street Band is expansive and varied. I love the big drums of The Rising, the acoustic chugging of Nebraska and the declarative musical statements of Wrecking Ball, but The River seems less like the grab for hit singles that Born in the USA was, and also less like the outlaw blues-rock of both Born to Run and Darkness. (There was a period when Bruce went synth-mad between 1987 and 2000, with albums like Tunnel of Love, but reunited with the E Street Band for tracks for a mid-1990s Greatest Hits album.)

Now aged 66, there is no real need for Bruce to go out on these tours; he’s been doing it since he was 24 and may be 124 when he stops. Fit, healthy, with kids he loves and a formidable set of earnings from his catalogue, he can afford to take retirement. But he won’t!

SaraBareilles_Kirk_2

Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, II

It’s mid-January, the Mondays are biting but music continues. Coming to mixcloud.com/blastocast this month is the Opportunity Inbox Sound of 2016, an introduction to who the big record companies will be funnelling money to, and which acts Chris Imlach and I want to see or hear.

In the meantime, here is the third Twenty. Last fortnight Elvis Presley (who would have been 81 this month if he hadn’t snuffed it) topped the Twenty with ‘Burning Love’, assisted by a massive orchestra. Will Elvis be present in this Twenty, or will someone steal his crown?

Find the link to a Spotify playlist of the Twenty at the bottom of this page.

Lots of new entries, so let’s go go GO!!

20 Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz – Bad Idea. The first of three from Sara, this one with her male equivalent, in a duet written for a Broadway show. I like the back-and-forth, what writers call ‘stichomythia’, and I like when the voices meet. As in all her songs, the chords are interesting and the lyrics fun, with lots of dramatic tension to resolve. One of the show’s more memorable songs, they’ll be humming it in the aisles. ‘It’s a really good bad idea, wasn’t it though?’ is a cute line.

19 Rhiannon Giddens – Moonshiner’s Daughter. What a voice. She’ll be a durable artist as long as she wants to be. The singer of Carolina Chocolate Drops went solo in 2014, and followed up a strong album Tomorrow is my Turn with an EP. This song, from that EP, has a very contemporary groove, and a super vocal. Rhiannon performed her song ‘Up Above my Head’ as part of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. Pure and full of character, Rhiannon’s voice leaps out here. Also recommended is her vocal expertise on ‘Mouth Music’, which is like watching a violinist improvise.

18 Virgo – In a Vision. Guardian pop critic Alexis Petridis wrote a piece about a deep house duo from 1990. I am a big fan of house music, so it was great to hear eight songs I had never heard before, each as good as the other. In a Vision leapt out, but next fortnight it could be another. Perfect music to work to, and sounds outstanding even in this Protools era.

17 Cage the Elephant – Mess Around. The mark of a good producer is that you know they’ve had a hand in the track just by listening to it. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has shaped the new album of his Kentucky frie(n)ds, the lead single from which is this, an addictive ditty that sounds like a Black Keys offcut.

16 Billie Marten – As Long As. Funny she’s at 16. As Louis Walsh would say on The X Factor before he was retired, ‘You’re 16!!!’ Laura Marling was also a teenage starlet (in 2007, which means she’s still mid-twenties!) but Billie started even earlier. I’m watching a clip of her performing an internet session in 2002, as a twelve-year-old with long hair and a purple guitar. Finally, with GCSEs out of the way, she’s ready to put a full-length album out. She’s just been one of eight acts to play a BBC showcase, having been longlisted for the Sound Of 2016 poll. Her USP is her love of alpacas, but her voice is pretty enough on its own. Every time you read about her you’ll find out Ed Sheeran liked her song ‘Bird’, but I prefer the title track of her 2015 EP, which has some yummy suspended chords.

15 Foxes – Amazing. In 2011 I went to Camden Town to see a set of bands perform ‘Breakout’ sessions. One of these performers was a girl with an acoustic guitar and a sweet voice named Louisa Rose Allen. A few months later she had become Foxes, and was a year away from becoming a staple of radio playlists by guesting on the track ‘Clarity’. In 2014 she was the musical performer at a TV recording I attended, promoting her first album. Her second one, All I Need, is now due for release, and the lead single is ‘Amazing’. If not amazing, it’s a smart dance-pop song with addictive musical E numbers. One of the album’s tracks, ‘Scar’, is a Babyface production, but will that make it to the Twenty?

14 Bloc Party – The Good News. It’s not just choppy guitars any more. Kele has matured in his songwriting, done a ‘Robert Smith from the Cure’ and recruited new band members. This song is very good, with a winning chorus and a lyric about ‘going to the water to pray’. Then comes some slide guitar and a chantalong of the title; sounds like a hit, or an A-listed track on BBC 6Music.

13 Ra Ra Riot – Absolutely. Selected by Chris Imlach for the Sound of 2016 podcast, this is a super tune with multi-tracked vocals, a fun riff and the recurrence of the title throughout the chorus. It’s a banger. Vampire Weekend fans will be sated, as will fans of Mika (whose Radio 2 show over New Year was terrific and is still iPlayerable).

12 Sara Bareilles – Never Ever Getting Rid of Me. She may pop up later, so I’ll save the precis of The Waitress for then. In brief, this is a song that bops and shimmies and will please fans of musical theatre. Some of the chords are Cole Porter-inspired, while I can imagine the lead witch in Wicked singing this in her warm-ups. The second verse is all about a cat, while the chorus is about ‘doing this right…wherever you go I won’t be far to follow’. Only after a few listens did I notice that the verse is in the key of G, while the chorus is in F, a real Porter-type chord shift that merits my applause!

11 Frankie Ballard – Young and Crazy. ‘How’m’I ever gonna get to be old and wise if I ain’t ever young and crazy?!’ Good point well made. Another one of these young men doing good things with country music, this song chugs along like a country-rock song from 1973. One of the bit 50 hits counted down in the Country Top40 Hits of the Year, this is a ‘weekend’ song dedicated to having fun. ‘I gotta do a little wrong to know what’s right’. Also includes enjambment, a run-on line, so he can rhyme ‘porch’ with ‘glory days’.

10 David Bowie – Lazarus. Bizarre, waking up at 6 and then following breaking cultural news even before it was confirmed. I listened to Bowie’s final album Blackstar on Monday morning, as millions of others did, and found it tough in places. I liked ‘Dollar Days’ but was locked into the groove of a track from the new Broadway musical. This is the track which had clues in its first verse that Bowie was not long for the world. Read my piece on Bowie, written as I was listening to BBC 6music prove it should never have been earmarked for closure, on the site.

9 Cam – Hungover on Heartache. She started the year playing the Ryman Auditorium in her home town of Nashville, after the massive success of album Untamed. ‘Burning House’ has been the hit, but the album’s full of potential ones. This one has the pop sheen of Taylor Swift’s country songs. I’m a sucker for syncopation and good melodies; this tune has both. Make it a hit!!

8 Chairlift – Romeo. From a new album released in January, Chairlift are one of those ‘Pitchfork bands’, appealing to hip music fans who like beats and rhymes. This song sounds very contemporary, with a chorus that goes ‘Put on your running shoes, I’m ready to go’, but has some fun chords to match a really driving riff played through an effects box. Chris Imlach chose this for the Sound of 2016 podcast, so if you like this, you’ll like the hour.

7 Julius La Rosa – Eh Cumpari. ‘Oh this is just ‘I am the music man!’ I shouted when Paul Gambaccini played this song as part of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ during his successful Radio 2 show America’s Greatest Hits. Julius, who just turned 86, was born in Brooklyn and was infamously sacked live on air from his job as a singer on the popular Arthur Godrey show; Gambo pointed us towards the Youtube clip of it, where Julius talks of his tyrannical and jealous boss, defying him by getting himself an agent. This song, a US ‘terrific two’, is familiar to those who loved the movie The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s a ‘smile to the face’ song in Italian whose lyrics are easy to work out: the guy says to the cumpari ‘What’s that sound over there?’ The guy replies ‘It’s the flute/ saxophone/ mandolin/ violin/ trumpet/ trombone’. The inquisitor-narrator says ‘And what’s it sound like then?’ To which Julius makes a noise with his mouth, be it whistling, ‘chinga’, ‘doo-doo’, ‘bah-bah’, adding a new instrument each time, before finishing with ‘dippity dippity dot’. It’s life-affirming, and more fun than Benjamin Britten as a guide to the orchestra for young people. Arthur Godfrey is dead; Julius La Rose is alive!!

6 Vant – Parking Lot. Guitars are dead etc, but some kids still know how to rock. Vant have built a big following through lots of live gigs in 2015, and 2016 sees them play a sold out London show under the NME tour banner. This song gets going instantly, with some talk of vampires, and reminds me of Foo Fighters and Air Traffic, the latter of whose ‘Just Abuse Me’ combines melody and power like the best work of The Hives. ‘Wait a minute cos your heart’s not in it’ is the hook, with a close harmonic interval. Fans of bands like Sloan and The Cars will find stuff to love here, the best of the four tracks put out so far.

5 Jellyfish – Too Much, Too Little Too Late. Last year I wrote a long piece on Acolytes of McCartney, singers who write melodic rock songs in the manner of Macca. One of these men is Andy Sturmer, who was a quarter of the band Jellyfish. In summer 2015 their two records, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, were reissued on CD, and I spent happy hours embracing the powerful pop and marvellous arrangements. This song, from Spilt Milk, is structured sublimely, with soft bits, Beach Boys-y harmonies and a guitar-led instrumental break. Hopelessly uncommercial in 1993, this is music made to last, and sounds so fantastic through my new earphones. This fortnight it was revealed that an ‘official unofficial’ book on the band was finally due in spring. There’s a Facebook group for it.

4 The Chiffons – One Fine Day. Well specifically Janelle Monae’s take on it, performed at the Kennedy Centre to honour Carole King. Much was made of Aretha Franklin’s appearance at the end, but Janelle’s personality can sell the dullest tune. Fortunately ‘One Fine Day’ isn’t dull, but a burst of hope and reverie that speaks across the decades. Carole wrote it as a young lady, and it is so brilliantly structured in that old New York style beloved of Mann & Weill, Neil Sedaka and Gerry Goffin. It’s stunning just how many tunes King has written, from bubblegum to torchsong, and even though she has hardly written a note in forty years, she never needed to. Tapestry remains a touchstone for young (especially female) songwriters, but her uptempo tunes, many showcased in the Broadway and West End musical Beautiful, are the sound of Young America.

3 Elle King – Under the Influence. She played ‘Ex’s and Oh’s’ at a New Year televised hootenanny in the States, where she’s preparing for her big tour over there. But fortunately RCA has made her album available on European streaming services so it was high time to investigate. This tune is what Lana Del Ray sounds like with a bit of gristle. ‘I got no defence,’ sings Elle on a track written with the same bloke who wrote ‘Ex’s’. I wrote at length about Elle for the site; take a looksee as you listen.

2 Cam – Half Broke Car. Like ‘Hungover on Heartache’ this is clever country from Cam, with lyrics that follow the Kacey Musgraves school of smart & cute: ‘A half-truth’s still a lie/ “I’ll be back soon” is still goodbye’ made me sit up and notice, but the musicality of the song, which bounces along after a delightful piano intro, keeps me coming back.

1 Sara Bareilles – Opening Up. What a confection! The Waitress is a Broadway show based on a movie I never saw, but seems topical because baking is recession-proof! Sara, whose ‘Love Song’ is one of my top pop songs of the century, has composed a set of songs which she put out last year to whet people’s whistles for the show, which starts previews in spring this year. I am a sucker for one particular chord progression – I to diminished V – and it’s present and very correct in the chorus to this song, the first song proper in the musical. “Opening up, letting the day in” is a marvellous lyric, and I am sure Sara has studied the work of the best contemporary writers for Broadway. This tops the Twenty, and is good enough to top the next!

<> at Eden Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.

The FA Cup: Romance is Alive and Well (Watford 1 Newcastle 0)

What a stodgy game.

I suppose it’s supposed to be. It’s the second weekend of January; those under the elements are shivering and drenched because it’s winter rain. Some fans shiver while branded, having spent money on Watford-monogrammed windbreakers.

I spent forty minutes hopping seats, after ensuring I bought one ninety minutes before the game. Fans queue up as I go in, because away fans have been given the entire stand, rather than just a third of it. 18,000 people on a Saturday, at 3pm, on FA Cup Third Round weekend.

One of the questions I wanted to investigate was whether or not the FA Cup was the last breath of romance in what I call Generation Live on Sky Sports. Proudly terrestrial broadcasting still holds the rights to the Cup, now sponsored by a well-known airline that services the Middle East. After a few years with ITV, now the BBC hosts rich coverage of the tournament, with BT Sport also covering games to cater to their subscribers to counterbalance their oodles of Champions League and UEFA Cup games and all the highlights and top games from Germany, Scotland, Italy, France, Portugal, Australia and Brazil. And the Conference, now called the National League.

Eastleigh, the giants of non-league football, almost beat Bolton, the financial strugglers of the second tier. On the radio on Friday night, and on television if you fancied it, Liverpool’s well-remunerated 30s and 40s (speaking in squad numbers) could not defeat the mighty Exeter City. The goal of the round was the third of the round, Lee Holmes scoring from a corner and providing a meme for fans of Everton and beyond.

The big teams in blue and red went through, Manchester United with a last-minute penalty after a front four of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Anthony Martian and Wayne Rooney could not pass Sheffield United’s stern defence. Easy wins came for Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton, Arsenal and Watford. Crystal Palace beat Southampton, and Swansea’s reserves amazingly lost at the Kassam Stadium to Oxford United.

Does it matter that Newcastle fans chanted that some players were ‘not fit to wear the shirt’? I think it mattered that Mitrovic looked like a Serbian version of Nicolas Anelka, diving and sulking and missing and moaning, and that the wingers Thauvin and Ayoze looked very bullyable.

For Watford fans we got to see Obbi Oulare, a gangly nineteen-year-old, and young Steven Berghuis, both ‘the future’ of Watford according to manager Quique Sanchez Flores. Newcastle played their best XI, and Watford were lucky that Jack Colback was injured, despite great efforts from FA Cup winner Ben Watson and reserve midfielder Adi Guediora.

The game was chess. Newcastle tried to work the ball to the wing-backs while Watford’s midfield covered and broke with pace: Jose Manuel Jurado and Berghuis ran back, while Troy Deeney and Oulare stayed forward. Often Deeney pointed to where he wanted the ball but I could remember no attack of note in the first 43 minutes from the home side, who defended expertly. As ever, Heurelho Gomes palmed and swatted everything away, two decent shots right at his throat.

Then a blessing: bad defending. Georginio Wijnaldum prodded it back thirty yards from goal, Coloccini left it, and Deeney did what he’s paid to do, with extra coolness, and right before half-time Watford had a lead they barely deserved.

The second half was pretty much all Newcastle, who usually don’t care about the FA Cup, but their season needed a boost. Their manager, a brolly-less Steve McClaren, had criticised the mood of the club in the months since he took over as manager; it may have been that he was auditioning his team for the league game in two weeks’ time. Moussa Sissoko looked pacey and excellent; Ayoze Perez has scored some goals this season and missed a big chance in the first half that sometimes would have gone in; Mitrovic did well to last ninety minutes, at one stage being talked to with Wijnaldum present for half a minute. The rain continued, as did Newcastle’s attacks, and embarrassingly they were caught offside on more than one occasion. Their fans, straining to see the other end of the pitch, were already thinking of the schlep back up to Toon.

They deserve better, but at least the owner is spending some of the money they get for treading water in the top division: £50m has bought Wijnaldum, Mitrovic and Jaanmat. Siem de Jong, injured for most of his Newcastle career, came on too late to make a difference. Kevin Mbabu, in for Colback, was fine at left wing-back, but he’s only 20 and was making his fifth appearance.

Since the poor treatment of Jonas Gutierrez, told his contract wasn’t being renewed by Ryan Taylor, his teammate, I have thought less of Newcastle. They exist, some critics have said, as a shopfront for Mike Ashley’s company Sports Direct; the stadium was, of course, briefly renamed the Sports Direct Arena around the time Newcastle were doing very well.

Remember that? It was only a few seasons ago. Papiss Cisse or Demba Ba kept scoring, fed great through balls by Cabaye. Tiote (who played against Watford) and Coloccini broke up the play, while Tim Krul was dominant in the penalty area. Half of Newcastle’s problems stem from the season-ending injury to Krul; Rob Elliot has been an able deputy, and he may have to make more saves in the league game (23 January) with Ighalo sure to return to the starting XI.

What Newcastle need is a new Geordie hero, not quite a Messiah but someone who can galvanise them. On the bench against Watford was Jamie Sterry, a Geordie-born centre-back who tweeted “I will persist until I succeed”; yet to start, he may well play before the season finishes. Other young players are there and thereabouts: Adam Armstrong, who made his first-team debut at 17, is a local lad out on loan, going great guns at Coventry, while Rolando Aarons had enough potential to play as a teenager for the first team. Still only 20, he has played for an England Under-20 side managed by former Watford gaffer Aidy Boothroyd.

With Cisse struggling and Mitrovic off the pitch more than on it, it would be super if McClaren would pick Aarons or Armstrong. Maybe next year Armstrong can lead the line; perhaps he would have finished one or two of the chances against Watford; his loan finishes on 16 January, but Coventry are going for promotion, having been upset in the first round of the FA Cup by struggling Northampton, with whom they recently had to share grounds. Their midfield now contains Joe Cole and Stephen Hunt, both former internationals, and they are back in the Ricoh Arena, doing the man whose statue stands outside the ground, the late Jimmy Hill, proud.

Coventry should not be in the third tier, just as Newcastle should not be in the second tier. I went to St James’s Park in 2009 to see Newcastle thump a hapless Watford 2-0, where the fans were happy to be winning under Chris Hughton. I remember Craig Cathcart, then on loan from Manchester United, hitting a Wijnaldum-type back-pass which led to their first goal, and I remember seeing half an hour of young Andrew Carroll. I recall Nathan Ellington, Watford’s record signing, coming on in a long-sleeved jersey and gloves.

Cathcart is a better player now, despite his slip against Tottenham that led to their first goal. With either Britos or Proedl beside him, the defence is sturdy, especially at home. The next fixtures have the potential to be tough, but Watford are in better form that Southampton (13 Jan), Swansea (18 Jan, Live on Sky Sports) and Newcastle (23 Jan). Seven points from those will set up Watford for the two league games against Chelsea (3 February, Live on BT Sport) and, so quickly again, Tottenham at White Hart Lane (6 Feb).

Before Chelsea, though, comes FA Cup round four at the City Ground. Nottingham Forest will be a stern test. Perhaps former Hornet Henri Lansbury will play; Forest can do with a good cup run to go alongside their decent league form. The romance is alive and well and there’s all to play for!

Come on you Horns!

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What did David Bowie mean?

I remember hearing Space Oddity for the first time, with its handclaps and weirdness. Perhaps I was 10 but it doesn’t matter. I love the chord progression, especially underscoring the line “tell me wife I love her very much/ She knows.”

It was the first Bowie tune I heard in a post-Bowie world. Odd, because I had the night before seen the episode of Mad Men’s final season when the moon landings are broadcast on TV. A major character passes away while Neil and Buzz are extraterrestrial. It’s a kind of metaphor, as it always is on Mad Men.

Many obituaries will be written and many heads will talk, so go to them to learn why Bowie was an iconoclast. One of the first rock’n’roll stars who dabbled in performance art, film, electronica, drum’n’bass, disco and ‘glitter rock’, it seems inconceivable that nobody aged between 15 and 55 was not profoundly sad on hearing that cancer had beaten Bowie the very week his final album came out.

But the first thought from people settling down to bed on Sunday evening in the West Coast, or those rising from their beds for a Monday morning at work, was that it couldn’t be. Not Bowie!

He made it to 69 years of age, having been ‘retired’ for a decade from live performance after falling ill on stage. Having spent the 1970s (his late-twenties and early-thirties) as one of the most fantastic live draws in rock, before succumbing to addiction and heading to Germany to recover, Bowie also seemed to have been a family man. Happily married for 23 years to his second wife, the model Iman, he fathered her child Alexandria, half-sister to Duncan (formerly Zowie) Jones, child of Bowie and his first wife Angie.

Duncan was the ‘second source’ I was waiting for. He sadly broke news of Bowie’s death to the world, after a Facebook post appeared in the wee hours of January 10. The director of the films Moon and Source Code has always been asked questions about his dad, which will be more poignant in the promotion of Warcraft. Born in 1971, Duncan told the Mail during the promotion for Source Code that his dad “really, really wanted me to learn an instrument” but he never practised. “He kept on trying and nothing was happening!”

Duncan recalled being pushed about in flight cases by Bowie’s roadies, waiting for the show to finish so he could go home. He detested being photographed: “It was like ‘Hide him!’”…me being whisked into a car before my dad came out separately.” Hanging out on the sets of films like Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth informed Duncan’s love of movie-making, as did watching A Clockwork Orange with him as an eight-year-old.

From what I read (I’m a 1988 baby), David Bowie was the man whose silver jumpsuit lit up the lives of young people in the drabness of being a kid in 1972. ‘Starman’, performed on Top of the Pops, still seems odd, a culmination of a decade of attempts by David Jones to become a new creature, but with a cracking chugging tune. That era between 1971 and 1975 produced some albums still held up as important rock records: Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane (a lad insane!) and Diamond Dogs. I also like the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the experiments of the records with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno (Low, “Heroes”, Station to Station, Lodger). All eight of those albums were recorded in the same period of years (eight-ish) that the Beatles made theirs; it’s true to say that Bowie was the Beatles of the 1970s. Peter Doggett wrote a version of the Beatle-commentary book Revolution in the Head which made this fact irrefutable. Grab or borrow a copy of a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie at his pomp.

Being young, I know Bowie more from the Best Ofs than for his ‘next trick’ phase. Among all the tributes, the music should come first. Be it the jam with Queen, ‘Under Pressure’, or the funky Nile Rodgers-produced ‘Let’s Dance’ (made when both were without a record deal!), everyone has danced, snogged or had a sort of sexual awakening with Bowie as the soundtrack.

He has hardly given any interviews since his illness, getting on with his life in New York, sometimes joining bands like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio on stage and on record; he popped up on the title track of the former’s 2013 album Reflektor. Alternative music holds Bowie in high esteem, for reasons that bands will make clear in the following few weeks: shape-shifting, chameleonic, concerned with the visual as well as the audial.

So many musicians have crossed paths with Bowie in the fifty years of his career, and from many genres. Acts like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran brought their stylish pop to the masses in the 1980s while Bowie was reinventing himself as a blue-suited Thin White Duke; as well as Queen, Eno, Iggy and Chic, Bowie worked with Lou Reed (producing the Transformer LP), guitarist Pat Metheny and Mick Jagger, although that was a one-off hit for Live Aid recorded in separate continents.

Only last week, to celebrate Bowie’s birthday, I heard Buxton’s love letter, which had been broadcast on BBC 6music on the release of The Next Day, a surprise album sprung upon the world in 2013. (The show is on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpCrIZamdQE.) At the end he said he would never want to meet Bowie but, as a guest on Jonathan Ross’s radio show, Bowie had held a mix CD Buxton had compiled for Ross’s DJ set at a Bowie event. Buxton was content with this.

The internet is a great place when its users rally together for a common good. The whole world has been touched by Bowie’s music, and with people wanting to react (as they did when Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Paul Walker died, to name three recent entertainers who have passed away), everyone is forced to stop and reflect. The key tribute was a stop-motion montage of Bowie’s looks, turning from one side to the other: so many looks, but one man’s face.

People will recall seeing him in concert, meeting him for interview, laying down tracks behind him. A new book about Bowie’s time as a lodger in South-East London in his folkie days, pre-Ziggy, will sell well, as will biographies like Starman by the eminent writer Paul Trynka. The same people who reviewed Blackstar will now be giving orations and obituaries.

“He had this ability to epitomise the moment or be just ahead of the curve,” said Trynka on the BBC two days before Bowie died. Referencing another dead rock star, “Elvis had one great explosion of creativity and that was it; Bowie had several. He’s jumped off that hamster wheel of celebrity.”

Will Gompertz, the BBC’s entertainment editor, called Bowie ‘the Picasso of Pop’, which is also true. I admire Bowie’s older tunes but those of his late period are quite good too. The Next Day had rockers like ‘The Stars are Out Tonight’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’, but also the quiet ‘Where Are We Now’. Before those, I loved ‘Little Wonder’, an odd hit from the 1990s, and other songs that found their way into the Top 40 as I listened weekly as a kid: ‘Everyone Says Hi’, ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Survive’.

Amid a lot of great pop and rock, I found his voice fascinating. It has been much lampooned but always with love, notably by Flight of the Conchords in their song ‘Bowie’ (written by Arj Barker) and by Adam Buxton in his career as a Bowie nut with a microphone. Ricky Gervais had Bowie guest in his show Extras, with a song that insulted Gervais’s character Andy, who had ‘sold his soul for a shot at fame’; on hearing the news Gervais told the world he had lost a hero. Many millions will feel the same.

Bowie’s new album Blackstar will now be heard by more than just hardcore fans; be warned, it’s tough and free-jazzy. The video to the single ‘Lazarus’, a song with a sombre saxophone melody, may have been Bowie’s last trick. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen…I’ve got nothing left to lose,” intones the singer, filmed from above writhing on a white bed with a white bandage over his face with holes cut out for his eyes. Then he is at a desk, writing something (a will?) and biting his fingernails, as expressive as he was in his twenties learning mime and clowning, which he incorporated into his stage shows. Then he stands up and dances, his final performance: “I was looking for your ass!”

When a rock star dies, history is rewritten, but even in his lifetime, and thanks to taking an early retirement, David Bowie became a paragon of what it was to be a rock star. His influence will last until the last drop of glitter is spent in the world.

David Bowie died of cancer, aged 69, on January 10, 2016

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Roy Hodgson’s Book Club: ‘#2Sides’ by Rio Ferdinand

The scene is a room at St George’s Park, England HQ, January 2016.

England manager Roy Hodgson sits down next to Gary Neville, his coach, back in England after some days in Spain for a prior engagement the first meeting of Roy’s Book Club

The door opens, and in walks Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Wayne has some time between a commercial engagement for adidas and picking up his kids from school. Harry has had this in the diary for months, which is why his form in 2015 was so good. Only England call-ups can join the Book Club.

Two minutes later, and with massive headphones in his hand, Rio Ferdinand enters. His book #2Sides is the first book for discussion in the group.

Roy: Gentlemen thank you all for coming. We had apologies from Daniel Sturridge, who is unwell, and Raheem Sterling, who has to see schools for his kids. In their place, Harry Kane has been kind enough to come by.

Harry: It’s great to be here, I’m really thankful to be handed my first start in this Book Club and I can’t wait to help the team.

Roy: It’s great to have you, Harry.

Gary: Can I just add my thanks for your appearance, Harry. It’s so good that you’re committed to the cause.

Roy: Yes, gents, thanks for hosting this inaugural Book Club. Rio, it’s great that you could postpone your doctor’s appointment for us.

Wayne: Oi oi, doctor again…

Rio: Shut up!! It’s an honour to have my memoir, Hashtag Two Sides, co-written with David Winner, as the first Book Club pick.

Wayne: I’ve written books too. I know how hard it is to get your thoughts on paper.

Gary: I didn’t need a ghostwriter for mine.

Roy: I have not written my memoir yet, but prepare for some explosive revelations…

Gary: And tips on contemporary art, right, boss? I think Sky Sports want an interview with you.

Roy: So does The Economist. And something called Copa90.

Harry: That’s on YouTube

Roy: Yes, my grandson watched it. Rio, your book is called Two Sides.

Rio: Hashtag, Two Sides.

Roy: Hashtag, Two Sides. Right. Rio, would you like to make some opening remarks about why you chose to write the memoir now.

Wayne: He needed the money!!

Rio: Classic bantz, Wazza! Anyway, yeah, I wrote the book because I knew I’d be leaving Man United.

Wayne and Gary: The greatest club in all the world.

Rio: I knew I had some time on my hands, especially in a World Cup year. So I sat down with David Winner and we wrote it together.

Roy: Yes David is one of the best journalists. Did you read his book with Dennis Bergkamp?

Harry: I did. I read all the books about strikers. Henry, Bergkamp, Jamie Carragher…

Gary: He was a striker when Jimmy GREAVES was a striker!

Harry: I think his ability to read the movements of strikers came about because he was a striker in the youth team days.

Roy: I agree, he is a class act on and off the field. Rio, did you enjoy the process?

Rio: It was bare long!! If I can I would like to read out some key passages and then ask you guys to discuss, if that’s okay?

Roy: Yes of course, Rio. Silence in the room, please…

Rio: Let me just put on my reading glasses…“I had to have discipline and desire. Kids I played with who checked out birds are now working on building sites. I was playing and I had to get a train to get to training. No disrespect to Harry Kane but kids these days are ferried to and from training by car.”

Harry: Wow, I got mentioned! Thanks! None taken. I bought my chauffeur a trip to Dubai for the holidays.

Rio: Weird place…“My motivation was always the same, I played for respect. Money was never an issue. I just wanted my teammates and the fans and the coaches to respect me.”

Gary: You and Keano had my respect at all times. Remember when I stood by you when the FA wanted to ban you?

Roy: The FA wanted to make a statement.

Gary: One that wasn’t about who slept where with whom.

Wayne: Isn’t it with who?

Gary: No it’s with whom.

Roy: It depends on the context, Wayne. I’ll explain later.

Rio: Anyway, the crowds were intense everywhere. I always tell young players I meet, “Don’t get caught up in the atmosphere, cos you’ll have had it then. The more fans for the opposition, the sweeter the victory cos they’ll have lost as well. At least for me!”

Harry: Like Theo Walcott holding up two fingers to our fans.

Rio: Precisely right, my dear Harry. Some of the players, Gary, it was just a privilege. “Sometimes I’d go up to Giggs or Ronaldo and just go, It’s great to play with you, to share a field and a shirt with you! I let Giggsy lift a trophy once even though I was captain…”

Gary: I think Ronaldo chopped two years off my career. I had to mark him in training and Wayne would just point and laugh.

Wayne: To be fair, I feel like that now when Memphis runs at me!

Gary: But Ronaldo’s different class.

Rio: True, off the pitch too. He would fly in a chef to make his food. He had his own pool. Wayne, how’s your phone mate? You would just smash them all the time…

Wayne: I’m calmer now, saving up for Kai’s school fees!

Roy: Where’s he going?

Wayne: Probably City’s Academy but don’t tell anyone.

Gary: Your secret is safe.

Roy: Wayne, would you consider punditry or management after your career?

Wayne: Dunno, boss. What’s John Terry doing?

Gary: Ooooh, don’t mention the war!

Harry: What war?

Roy: I’ll explain later.

Rio and Gary: “Don’t tell him, Pike!”

Harry: Who’s Pike?

Wayne: Isn’t it ‘whose Pike’?

Roy: John Terry was a great player, what a terrific defender.

Rio: What an awful person.

Gary: Come on, Rio, he gave you some of his chips once.

Rio: Only cos Sven told him to! Here’s what made the papers. “Ash and JT are idiots – if they’ve just said something in private we could have avoided it. Anton didn’t even hear anything JT said.”

Gary: The whole thing was appalling. I hope it never happens again.

Harry: I have loads of black friends.

Rio: It was so bad, almost the worst day of my life. My mum was stressed, bullets came through her door.

Harry: Bullets!

Rio: Let’s move on. Roy, you wanted me back in 2012 when my back was sorted! You fessed up on the tube, man!

Roy: I was getting enough stick for thinking about recalling John, but the other coaches and almost every journalist wanted me to move on, to play Gary and Phil.

Wayne: Neville?!

Gary: No Wayne, the new Nevilles! Cahill and Jagielka, our hopes for France.

Wayne: Has either of them scored fifty goals for England, eh?

Rio: Golden Boot, they should call you. Wouldn’t you go with Stones, though?

Gary: You need experience.

Rio: Oh here we go.

Gary: Our squad needs to be full of characters, and players quick enough to catch Bale and Ronaldo and that lot. Stones may play some of the games, but he won’t be helped by all the transfer talk.

Rio: Yeah but can you imagine the stick the gaffer’s gonna get if he goes with two old guys if Stones and Jones are playing well.

Harry: Stones and Jones, phones and bones…

Rio: Sounds like a hit, Harry. What about the influence pros can have? As kids we always ignored racism. We never brought it up cos we just wanted to play with older, better players.

Wayne: It was tough on the estate for the black kids. Both of them were decent lads.

Rio: Down in Peckham we were all decent lads, but the kids today are off the streets in the academies, doing work with the community, teaching little ones. Different world down there.

Roy: As a South Londoner myself I could not be happier. Apart from some of the guns…

Harry: And machetes.

Rio: Only nutters have machetes. The problems are at home. Anyway, I wish Twitter was around when I was a kid.

Roy: What is the point of Twitter?

Harry: To arrange your social life and for banter.

Gary: To follow influential businessmen like my mate Peter Lim.

Wayne: Banter. With Piers Morgan.

Rio: Banter, boss. If Twitter were around 20 years ago, I’d’ve asked John Barnes how he got so good and how he trained to be at top condition.

Roy: Very good. Frank Lampard credits his success to hard work.

Rio: Yeah, with Lamps, who worked really hard to be able to shoot from just outside the box and wasn’t a silky runner with the ball, we lost touch because he was in London with a rival club. Silly really, but maybe he’ll invite me to Manhattan so we can go to see some shows now he’s in New York.

Roy: He’s just got married, hasn’t he?

Harry: I was following it on Instagram. Ed Sheeran was there, Schofield, Piers Morgan…

Gary: Ugh.

Roy: Yes, Piers told me he introduced Frank to his wife. So that’s ONE good thing.

Wayne: Piers just wishes he could play for Arsenal.

Gary: We want Piers to interview some of the players before Euro 2016. Wayne, are you up for it?

Wayne: What, Good Morning Britain? I’ll just rinse him for ten minutes.

Harry: I’ll do it.

Roy: Yes that sounds safer.

Rio: Guys, can we focus, I’m gonna talk Barcelona, “David Villa was so crucial, him and Pedro on the wing. Messi, man, Thierry Henry told me once that Messi was so angry in training that he didn’t get a foul that when his goalie got the ball he ran back and went all the way through the other team and scored. That’s Xavi, Busquets, Pique…not your mates in the park.”

Wayne: I’d love to play with Messi, me.

Gary: I wonder how many people have played with Messi AND Ronaldo.

Rio: Tevez, mate. Pique, possibly.

Gary: I’ll do some research.

Roy: Di Maria.

Gary: Larsson. Henrik Larsson, played at Man United for a few weeks. Gaby Heinze.

Rio: Deco! Played for Portugal and at Barca. Great player.

Roy: Some of the other Argentineans…Gago, Higuain, Garay. All at Madrid.

Harry: I just googled it. All correct. I could only get Pique, boss.

Wayne: I hate quizzes.

Rio: You love them! Here’s one: what did we eat after games to get our sugar levels up?

Gary: Haribo! Wayne used to ask for the sour cherries.

Harry: That’s what SHE said.

Roy: What does that mean? Harry, tell me later.

Rio: Yeah, sweets, man. Pasta before the game, sweets after. I’d always be so hyper I couldn’t sleep till 3 or 4.

Roy: I should get Haribo to sponsor the England team.

Rio: I got a better idea, boss: bring in Glenn Hoddle. Forget what the suits say, he is a legend. “We haven’t, with respect, been as good as we were with Hoddle. He could trap a ball from thin air, he was that good. Then he talked about his beliefs.”

Gary: Venables gave me my debut, back in the Neolithic era.

Wayne: I’m too young for Hoddle, Gazza was the best.

Harry: No you were, Wayne.

Gary: Awww, get a room! What about the gaffer?

Rio: Sir Alex? He just wanted you to prove you were good enough. Does the boss do it with you, Wayne?

Wayne: I’m his captain so I’m biased, but he used to push me all the time. He’s a second father, really.

Roy: And I’m your grandpa!

Wayne: No, my older uncle, boss! Anyway, Rio, I’ve gotta get back home soon to watch some WWE with Kai.

Rio: Keep the kids close, mate. And the missus, cos you never know how many moments you’ve got left. Since I retired I’ve got my Foundation, and I’ve got Jamie Moralee as my agent. I used to have a guy to book holidays, one for property, one for investments…Then I almost got into gambling debts. Jamie’s great. He was at Watford but got into problems with lifestyle. He said a lot of footballers are dumped by agents when they retire and they just get depressed, lose it a bit because they can’t find anything to replace the feeling of Saturdays at 3.

Gary: Best feeling in the world. They should come to Salford City! They can get on the bench!! Ooh, sorry guys I’ve got a plane to catch.

Roy: Yes and I have to get a car to the match. I’ve got to watch Troy Deeney.

Harry: Bully.

Rio: Nah, Deeney’s a top lad. I’d take him.

Gary: So would I, but then you have to leave out Walcott.

Roy: Catch 22, eh, Gary?

Harry: I’d be happy to help. I’m captain of Spurs.

Roy: Well thank you for your contributions, gentlemen. I’d love to do this again.

Gary: Not until the season ends.

Harry: Not until the season ends.

Wayne: How about next month? I need distractions.

Roy: So does your club manager.

Gary: Giggsy’s waiting…

Rio: Don’t forget me!

[All exit.]

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Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, First Week

Each fortnight Blastocyst.org.uk compiles a playlist via Spotify of the only 20 songs you need for the next fortnight.

Elle King topped the first chart in mid-December 2015, but has she held on for a second Twenty?

Two other songs hold steady in the Twenty, but can the King topple King? Scroll down to find out below, and find a widget at the bottom of the page to listen to the songs as you read,

20 Chris Carmack – Being Alone. Nashville and country music makes many appearances in this Twenty, but here is something from Nashville, the TV show. Will Lexington is the heart-throb who unhappily finds himself as a gay man on campus. The man who plays him is also starting a career in the genre, writing sweet songs like this, which has a very adult-rock chorus full of yearning.

19 Kara’s Flowers – Oliver. One of many tracks on a power-pop playlist discovered through PowerPopaholic, one of many such online resources, Kara’s Flowers is led by the singer Adam Levine. The same man has put his voice to many top pop songs as the voice of Maroon 5, but none is as poppy as this one. Guitars drive, minor chords chime and there’s a sitar break in the middle. There’s also a key change!

18 Shoshana Bean – Skywriter. ‘Ooh what’s this?’ I called to Amanda when the harmonies kicked in. She’s been a vocalist with Post-modern Jukebox, the Internet stars who take pop hits and twist them inside out. This is traditional vocal pop that recalls Regina Spektor and Imogen Heap, but even better! Is the title to do with the type of person who writes romantic notes in jet spray? Will need more listens to decipher.

17 Tyler Farr – Better in Boots. Yep, another country radio hit. Tyler takes the sultry route in the verses before encouraging his girl (or guy, but probably girl) to wear some KCs. He really likes the fact that it’s Friday night (country music loves gettin’ off for the weekend), but I like the riff which recurs throughout the song. The solo is pretty good as well.

16 Dustin Lynch – Mind Reader. Another country radio hit, with pedal steel guitar, a decent beat, a good riff and a nagging chorus with some cool syncopation. The verse structure relies on “how’d’ya know”, while the vocal is contemporary and worth a listen. Doesn’t make it stand out too much from hundreds of other country radio hits, but that’s what tight formatting does.

15 The Beatles – There’s a Place. I wonder how many new streaming subscribers, throughout the array of big ones, will be sucked in by the introduction of the music of Lennon-McCartney to them. Christmas came a day early for those few who don’t own the back catalogue (some tracks, though, are like the air we breathe and are all around us), and I immediately went to the specially-compiled Spotify playlist to hear some favourites. Yet tracks from the first Beatles LP including There’s a Place sound great, and will find their way next to Justin Bieber, with any luck, on any young fan’s own Twenty.

14 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. The album’s decent but this track is still the highlight. Deserves to be a pop hit as well as a country hit. One of three tracks still in the Twenty.

13 Badfinger – No Matter What. Two men wrote Without You, the song made famous by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, but both hanged themselves within a decade. Badfinger, the band they emerged from, were signings to the Beatles’s Apple label; their song Come and Get It was McCartney’s, while their melodic pop made them the forebears of one of my fave genres of music, ‘power pop’. Twin guitars, lovely vocals and on No Matter What some sultry chord shifts, the band deserve a bigger place in music history.

12 Zara Larsson – Lush Life. Katy Perry would have killed for a track like this, the kind of music ‘bloggers’ usually like. Like Dua Lipa, this lady, a former Sweden’s Got Talent contestant, can really sing and has some songs which work with her voice. Bouncy and really Swedish (think Ace of Base with an 808 drum machine), this is the sound of pop music. It isn’t seedy or raunchy, just fun. She’s already been on a hit dance record, Never Forget You by MNEK, and this is a great start to a (relaunched) solo career.

11 The Stellas – It Wouldn’t Be This. Later in the Twenty will be a little Stella, but her mum and dad are this duo. This song, on the soundtrack to the latest season of Nashville, is a super tune with the title used as a refrain. It’s a warm love song with spectacular production, harmonies that recall (obvious but testament to their power) The Civil Wars and a pretty fine bridge. The music video is full of home-movie footage of the couple with their kids, Lennon and Maisy, who play the kids in the show. They’ve also covered ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction.

10 Tame Impala – The Less I Know the Better. I missed this track, swept up in the majesty of the two singles ‘Cause I’m a Man’ and ‘Let It Happen’. NPR Music’s All Songs Considered reviewed the year in music and spotlighted on the album Currents, choosing this track, which has the multi-tracked vocals, toe-tapping beat and marvellous synths. Saw him/ them (he makes the music himself, gets a band to perform it) at the Latitude festival and knew he was a talent, as does Mark Ronson, who got him to help out on his last album.

9 Blossoms – Charlemagne. It’s hard to be a new rock band in the city, especially when you know the first wave of guitar bands from Britain in the 1990s, but there’s something in this song. Ones to Watch, according to the NME, the Manchester band are tipped (or rather heavily supported by the industry) to break through in 2016; they sound like a band Xfm (now Radio X) would like, and they’ve already played BBC sessions for Phil ‘P-Tag’ Taggart and Steve Lamacq. This song will get feet shuffling and fans bellowing, with an earworm of a chorus, a reference to an historical figure and a vocal style that recalls a less histrionic Brett from Suede.

8 Maisy Stella & Will Chase – Have a Little Faith in Me. I’ve enjoyed watching the American TV show Nashville while growing in appreciation for the country song. This one is more traditionally pop, a duet between Will, who plays country megastar Luke Wheeler, and Maisy, the daughter of Luke’s former fiancée and former queen of country Rayna James. This song played near the end of the show’s third season, in an episode where Daphne’s school was raising funds for its music studios. The purity of Maisy’s voice, which is usually found duetting with her ‘sister’ Maddie (really her sister Lennon Stella), is stark, especially when it changes key from C to G (an unusual ‘dominant modulation’). Will, who has done Broadway shows and was in the TV show Smash, is a great harmoniser too.

7 Elle King – Ex’s and Oh’s. Number One last time, this is still a joy on every listen, especially the last pre-chorus. Perhaps some songs from her album Stuff Happens will populate the next Twenty.

6 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Hey hey, alright, Blake’s digging on me and the Twenty tonight. He even admitted the lyric was nonsense, especially ‘love you every night and day-tona’, but the more I hear it the more I celebrate its familiarity. That makes it pop music. Still in the Twenty, climbing up several places.

5 Vince Guaraldi Trio – Linus and Lucy. I had never seen this song in the context of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I watched the special, which celebrated its golden jubilee in 2015, where this jazzy tune is given two airings, the first to accompany the dancing Peanuts stars, the second to fill some time in the episode while Charlie Brown gets irritated at the friends. An American tradition in the way Wallace and Gromit is in Britain, the Charlie Brown special was uplifting, especially when Linus steps forward to recite Scripture. I heard an NPR report that said they made it all in six months, from conception to completion; I wonder how long the new Charlie Brown movie took to make…

4 Maddie & Tae – Shut up and Fish. The smartest young stars of Nashville, they follow up their satirical ‘Girl in a Country Song’ with the irresistible track that recalls the best of Shania Twain in both lyric and sound. I’m sure they grew up with songs by sassy female heroes, and they reflect it with harmonies like those of The Dixie Chicks. The syncopated chorus is smashing, the pay-off makes you laugh and the song title is a t-shirt slogan I’d be willing to sport. They’re over in London in March for the big Country2Country festival on the same day as Carrie Underwood, and I would not be surprised if Carrie brings them out for her own set.

3 One Direction – Olivia. Harry Styles will certainly go solo at some point. With 1D taking a break (Louis will be a dad, Niall may do some more caddying for his mate Rory McIlroy), I hope for a full album of Styles’ styles. Olivia is the highlight of a so-so album, with McCartney-type horns and a chugging guitar. It sounds like ten Beatles songs at once, and the chorus is smashing.

2 Anderson East – Satisfy Me. A guy who grew up with spiritual music, Anderson is the latest man whose record has been produced by Dave Cobb. A great NPR Music piece profiled Cobb, a rock guy who moved to Nashville more for the fact that music is made there than the type of music churned out. Anderson’s white-boy r’n’b will please fans of James Morrison and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Read, and this live version of his song Satisfy Me, recorded at the renowned Muscle Shoals in Alabama brings out the quality of his voice.

1 Elvis Presley – Burning Love. Radio 2 playlists can throw up annoying ditties, but in December every time this song came on I stopped to listen. His late-period hit has been reinvented as part of the orchestra-enhanced set of recordings that filled many stockings this year. I love the revitalised opening, with the descant upwards just before Elvis comes in and the deep pitch of the strings underscoring the riff in the guitar. The drums sound fresh and Elvis’s voice (taken from the original recording) is superb. Top of the Twenty.

Here’s the link to the audio:

 

The next Twenty will be published on January 17.

elle

Girls with Guitars: Elle King and Alabama Shakes blaze a trail

Can guitar-led music still make an impact?

Ask Elle King. Her 2015 album Love Stuff came out in Europe around the time that her tune ‘Ex’s and Oh’s’ made the top of the US Rock charts. The song is one of the finest guitar-led ones of recent months, with a strong lyric, stronger pre-chorus (‘They always wanna come but they never wanna leave’) and the chorus, which is strong too.

Elle – nose ring, huge eyelashes, blonde hair, red lipstick – is another female rock singer. There aren’t as many as there could be, but those who have impressed in recent years are a counterpoint to ‘indie guitar bands’ who followed in the last gasps of the big labels throwing money at trends.

Tanner Elle Schneider grew up in New York and Ohio, taking her mum’s surname rather than that of her father, Rob Schneider, from whom she learned “I don’t wanna be in movies. Rock’n’roll is more fun cos you can be drunk at work,” as she told one interview online.

Elle filmed a scene in one of the Deuce Bigalo films where she knocked on the door and caught her dad’s character watching pornography: “You’re a sick man and I’m gonna tell!!” she shouted. Her stepdad is a rock musician, which bled into the attitude of a young Elle, who was made to listen to soul singers and Debbie Harry.

Kitty Empire, critic of the Observer, imagines in Elle, seeing her at a label showcase to promote Stuff Happens in London, a cross between Dolly Parton and Beth Ditto or, better, between Meghan Trainor and Amy Winehouse: curvy and potty-mouthed, but with some pretty ace songs. Stuff Happens, has been in development since she signed a deal at 22. She released it aged 25.

Elle opened for James Bay and Modest Mouse in 2015. Previously she played before Ed Sheeran came on stage on two dates of his + tour, and there are videos online of a performance in Texas in 2013 for Paste Magazine, where she played her version of the raunchy rap song My Neck, My Back.

If anything, Elle’s development shows how cautious big labels are with their acts. I read recently that only 120 acts were signed to the big three labels in 2015, many of who started off as featured vocalists (Jess Glynne, Ella Eyre, Sam Smith and many more started in this way). The Sound of 2016, Jack Garrett, finally puts out his debut in spring 2016, but people have known about his talent for over a year; ditto acts like Little Simz, Blossoms and Shura, who have been bubbling under and will surely break through.

Elle’s album includes songs co-written by Mark Ronson and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys (‘Last Damn Night’, a tune which led to the album being delayed), Jacknife Lee (a superproducer who has worked with U2 and Snow Patrol, whose contribution is the toe-tapper ‘Make Me Smile’ that recalls KT Tunstall) and Amanda Ghost, a reputable singer-songwriter who was briefly president of Epic Records.

There’s a song in which she sings “I’m not America’s Sweetheart” over a Mumford beat. The other song written with Dave Bassett (who co-wrote both ‘Ex’s’ and ‘Fight Song’, the Number One song by Rachel Platten) is ‘Under the Influence’, which is even better than ‘Ex’s’, and will appeal to fans of Lana del Rey.

Elle isn’t the only contemporary female pop singer to break into the charts. Aside from Adele and Taylor Swift, who both co-write their material, Alabama Shakes have topped their first album with Sound & Color, a stunning set led with ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’, which matches the addiction of Elle’s best songs. Brittany Howard has the most fearsome voice in rock since Beth Ditto of Gossip, and sings confidently of love and loss. Both Brittany and Elle have studied the ‘restraint and wail’ style of Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry, while putting a lot of their personality into the live sphere. Personality is all when everyone can reveal theirs online, star or not.

Elle isn’t quite as rootsy in her style, but she plucks a banjo on some tracks and has one murder ballad-type song ‘Ain’t Gonna Drown’. In a genre-covering exercise, Elle ticks many a box in the same way Alabama Shakes do: rock, roots, Americana, pop, soul, r’n’b. The whole thing sounds like America, though.

The future of rock music as a genre is cross-pollination. Rock as an attitude is less important a mode of expression for kids today: what with Snapchat and blogs they can do it more cheaply, without instruments or amps, and their audience is the world, not CBGB’s.

Most music publications see rock music (or at least the acts they cover) as beginning with John Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows and ending with John Lennon’s death. Hiphop began its rise in the 1980s alongside MTV, when the big beast of pop and its colourful stars (Prince, Madonna, Michaels Jackson and George) brought in the new arena era. Then alternative rock knocked on the barricade and Nirvana, REM and Oasis led the charge. Radiohead inspired Muse and Coldplay, then Coldplay inspired Snow Patrol and Keane, then Simon Cowell inspired the melisma craze advanced by Beyonce, Mariah and the rest.

The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys put poetry over drums and guitars, inspiring hundreds of others. It got to the stage in about 2008 where the market seemed saturated. A couple of female-fronted bands – The Kills, Gossip, Florence + the Machine – did make an impression, but they seemed far less frequent an occurrence than the men who gobbed their way into the music press.

Then came streaming, and now everyone can hear anything at a click. The ‘music press’ dominated by those bands has now moved online, to websites like DrownedInSound and NME.com. Rock music is still here, because there are still kids who want to play like Bonzo, Hendrix or McCartney. Pop music is still here, because hormones need an outlet and Justin Bieber can’t really do anything else.

Hiphop, helped by white rappers like Eminem, is the true global musical currency. Dr Dre used his hustle to reinvent both the headphone and music radio (BeatsMusic led to Apple Music, which can only get stronger in the current climate), while his protégé Kendrick Lamar seems to be leading the charge for conscious ‘reality rap’ that Dr Dre pioneered with NWA before Kendrick was born. Mixtape culture has made stars of acts like JME, Skepta and Future, while rock musicians still have to tour the world and its festivals. Some, like Mumford & Sons, organise their own.

Yet in 2015 Melvin Benn, who books acts for Reading Festivals, said that he thinks fewer headline acts are being made. Next year at Download the big three are Rammstein, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath; in 2016 at Reading/Leeds it’ll be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Adele and Guns N Roses are rumoured to headline some of the outdoor festivals, catering to the millions who love their songs, but who are the most dynamic live performers? Young Fathers, Benn has said, are exciting him, as are Foals, headliners at Latitude (another of Benn’s festivals) in 2014, and Royal Blood, who are preparing their second album for 2016.

Wireless in Hyde Park attracted Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and those who have seen any live version of Kendrick’s ‘Alright’ know how he can hold thousands or hundreds in his hand. I am disappointed in Florence, whose voice often falters live, but more impressed with Muse, Foo Fighters and U2, who know how to put on a show. Like those three acts, Ed Sheeran has played Wembley Stadium, with only a loop pedal and Rudimental for company, catering to some of his millions of fans, but he’s off for 2016 writing album three.

Pop will always attract fans of spectacle, but rock has to work harder, since it puts attitude over spectacle and costume, usually. Iron Maiden and AC/DC have their mascots, as do the Grateful Dead, America’s resident rock band. Look out in 2016 for Justin Bieber, touring his Purpose LP, the return of Dixie Chicks after a ten-year break and, probably, Rihanna. I wonder if Lady Gaga is preparing another re-invention, modelling her career on Madonna, whose Rebel Heart tour has just ended.

There is no reason to doubt that Elle King will win thousands of fans in Europe in 2016, touring Stuff Happens, even though she’s spending most of the first half of the year in the States. She’d be a brilliant mid-afternoon festival booking. Alabama Shakes are confirmed on the card for the Hyde Park gig in London in summer 2016, just under Mumford & Sons. They are also in the running for Album of the Year at the Grammies. After the soft sounds of Beck on 2015 and the beats and rhythms of Daft Punk in 2014, it should be theirs, if not for Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar.

All the same, for fans of ‘rock’ and of Alabama Shakes, it’s worth hitting up Elle King.

elle

Twenty’s Plenty – A Fortnightly Playlist: December 2015

I am a big fan of the band The Beautiful South, and an equal admirer of the 33 1/3 series of music journalism. One day I would like to combine my passions and write a book in the series about Carry On Up the Charts, the first BS Greatest Hits album (their second hits collection, Solid Bronze, is also good, but I have a Proustian attachment to the 1994 series).

Paul Heaton, lyricist and vocalist of the BS, has for many years kept a logbook, within which he writes his top twenty tracks in any month. A fan of Northern Soul, punk and guitar music, Paul revealed his tastes in interviews to the BBC in December 2015 to promote his second album in partnership with Jacqui Abbott, the second of the female singers the BS had in their existence (1988-2005, splitting due to ‘musical similarities’).

Inspired by Paul’s idea, I started my own fortnightly countdown, ‘Twenty’s Plenty’. All songs will be in a playlist on Spotify – follow me at https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick – under the playlist of that title.

You can find each playlist uploaded fortnightly, with the first one from the middle of December 2015 here: https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick/playlist/3KScRoCclBm0NeXeBTO7KN

To accompany the playlist, I’ll add a few notes for every track here. You are welcome to create your own Twenty, in the spirit of mutual appreciation.

Here’s the first Twenty’s Plenty countdown:

20 Lily & Madeleine – Hourglass. Two young ladies return in 2016 with sweet voices; this is the lead single that landed in my inbox recently. (Send your music for consideration to helloblasto@gmail.com)

19 Tom Robinson ft Billy Bragg – The Mighty Sword of Justice. A combined age of 932 makes two members of punk songwriting’s pantheon sources of respect. Owen Jones has written a 300-page book recently, The Establishment, about a topic Billy & Tom sing about in about 260 seconds. “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor.” Brilliant track from Tom’s 2015 album Only the Now, his first since 1996.

18 Rudimental ft Bobby Womack – New Day. We The Generation is the second album from crate-digging, forward-thinking dance-music makers Rudimental, who enlist many great artists to provide the vocals. The late Bobby is in great form on one of his last performances; stay until the end of the track to hear some ad-libbing.

17 Kylie Minogue – Warm this Winter. A contemporary festive favourite, Kylie covers this and many more on her first ever Christmas album. “War-ho-harm!” is sung in a way that proves she enjoyed the experience. (Also listen out for Iggy Pop snarl his way through ‘Christmas Wrapping’.)

16 Hunter Hayes – Wanted. A multi-instrumentalist with the face of a cherub, I don’t think Nashville knows what to do with Hunter. From his first album, and released on a compilation for international audiences, this is a great, chaste ballad (“I wanna make you feel wanted”) that could have been a One Direction pop number one. The melody is of the quality of a pop standard, so I hope an A&R guy gives this to a big pop star and Hunter gets more ears off the back of it.

15 Justin Bieber – Love Yourself. I wanted Biebz to make a good song, and he’s made a few on Purpose. This one has Ed Sheeran’s paws on it, and a sweet vocal from the Canadian ensures it hit number one, displacing his own Sorry, which isn’t bad either. Listen without prejudice and you’ll be humming it on first listen.

14 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Little known in the UK, Blake has been a star of the US version of The Voice, bantering with Adam Levine of Maroon 5; he’s been in the gossip columns as the new partner of another star, Gwen Stefani, after his divorce from Miranda Lambert, but he lands here because of his country radio hit that nags at the ears and makes Blake the country music star that pop fans like. Hey hey, alright may not be sophisticated, but the melody is a winner.

13 Jonathan Groff – You’ll Be Back. More over the next few Twenty’s Plenties about Hamilton: An American Musical, this ‘British invasion’ pastiche is sung by King George III in the first act of the Broadway musical. Perfect vocal control (you’d hope so, Groff is a bankable star on Broadway and from Frozen), a singalong chorus and some humour add up to a nagging highlight.

12 Chris Stapleton – When the Stars Come Out. Mr Country Music 2015, who duetted with Justin Timberlake on a live awards show broadcast, has a wonderful voice, a wonderful wife who also has a wonderful voice, and chose the wonderful Dan Wilson (‘Someone Like You’, ‘Closing Time’, ‘Secret Smile’) to co-write a sumptuous love song with the best chorus on Chris’s US number one album Traveller.

11 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. Each US state seems to have its own country star these days. In Illinois it’s Brett, whose album is named after his home state. This song has a chorus that tops his previous country radio hit ‘Lose My Mind’, while the arrangement is perky and rootsy without sounding too much like everything else in the Country Top 40 (Listen at ct40.com to hear what Country Radio in the USA is bigging up.)

10 Donny Trumpet – Sunday Candy. I’ve been watching this series of Saturday Night Live, which inserts musical guests among Trump impressions and movie star cameos. Chance the Rapper is someone on my radar but it took this song, recorded under the DT alias, to make me see his potential. He jived, jumped, pointed to the gospel choir backing him and looked great in a cap. A superstar to those in the know, this tune has a great set of chords with a sing-song delivery.

9 Hunter Hayes – 21. Him again. The lead track of his 2015 release, a mini-album, this sounds like ‘contemporary pop country’ and is the cousin of Taylor Swift’s ‘22’. Like Brett’s song at 11, ‘21’ has a killer chorus, while the structure of the song is united in all its parts by wanting to live like “kids on the run”.

8 Sia – Alive. As performed on Saturday Night Live and on The Graham Norton Show, this is the lead single from Sia’s 2016 release. I hope she enunciates better than she did on the last album, as I am a longtime fan of hers. She only wears a wig onstage because she wants to go about her life quietly writing hit after hit. This one had Adele’s help, so it’s hit-squared. Great structure, very karaoke-able chorus and a great vocal.

7 Phoenix – Alone on Christmas Day. Netflix has been good to its customers this year – Daredevil, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones – and this festive season it brought A Very Murray Christmas to air. Bill Murray plays himself, Miley Cyrus puts her voice to its proper use (her next album will be of Adele-sized brilliance, I hope) and Phoenix, a band known to director Sofia Coppola, cover an old Mike Love song with the take-home point to ‘keep moving on’. A winner on first listen with Bill’s backing vocals, it’s bouncy and fun and an unusual addition to the Great Xmas Songbook.

6 Selena Gomez ft Charli xcx – Same Old Love. I liked Sucker, the debut by Charlie xcx, and I liked the lead single ‘Good for You’, and I knew Justin Bieber used to be romantically linked with her, but what a tune this one is. Great contemporary pop with a soft shuffle and a chorus that kicks in at the right time, Selena’s delivery prompted Rolling Stone magazine to name Selena’s album Revival one of the pop records of 2015. Must check it out.

5 Chris Young – I’m Comin’ Over. He got his start on a TV talent show, and was known to me for his poppy hit ‘Aw Naw’, but this tune is notable for several things: it helped Chris have a number one country album of the same title; it seems to be about dropping everything to stay with a girl (“to hell with the closure, save it for another time”); and the chorus comes in after 29 seconds, when you usually have to wait a minute or so. He also co-wrote it.

4 Robert Glasper – Levels. The New Yorker magazine got its biggest exposure, perhaps, in an episode of Family Guy when it was ‘revealed’ that there was no bathroom in the offices. This was unfair, as the paper is a great cultural bastion for America and its smartest city. On one of the audio episodes of the magazine’s podcast, pianist Robert plays a solo version of his cover of Bilal’s ‘Levels’, improvising around the theme but laying clear his debt to non-jazz sources. Jazz for people who don’t get jazz, Robert’s new album was recorded live at Capitol Studios, and may be my go-to ‘jazz’ album for a few Plenties.

3 Courtney Barnett – Debbie Downer. Kurt Cobain meets Jerry Seinfeld, adopts Australian child who spends a lot of time questioning existence, has gardening accident which inspires a song ‘Avant Gardener’, then records a full-length album that hovers near the top of the critics’ lists. This track, with its yearning chorus, subtly inverts the chords of the verses and chorus while Courtney speak-sings confidently. Not as punchy as ‘Pedestrian At Best’, a great favourite of mine, but really poppy.

2 Dua Lipa – New Love. Tip of the pop hat to Jessica Pinkett, creator of the Poptastic! Twitter feed and This Must Be Pop! In tandem with the BBC’s Sound Of… poll she has tipped DL for big stuff in the next year, and seems better value than someone like Pia Mia, an Instagram-popstar according to Jessica (who gets paid to find new music for popstars). I only know a few tunes, this being the smartest, and find its aesthetic appealing; it’s like Sia and Alicia Keys mentored a young singer.

1 Elle King – Ex’s and Oh’s. The tune of the month, beyond question. Number one in the US rock charts since September, featured in the trailer for the Tina Fey goes to Afghanistan film out in spring, played on US television and nominated rightly for a Grammy Award, Elle is the name on everyone’s lips. Her birth dad is comic Rob Schneider, but she grew up with a musician for a stepdad who informed her musical style. “They always wanna come but they never wanna leave” is the sassiest pay-off in the Twenty, the verse’s chords rotate in a simple way and the chorus hits like a (and here I must note that I don’t go for much simile in music criticism) slap. She’ll be compared to people like Brittany from Alabama Shakes, but her pop sensibility makes her, to my ears, like Linda Perry (‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes) or Alanis Morrisette. Watch, and listen, to Elle as she makes it in the UK in the next few months.

Hear the tracks here:

 

jj

Opportunity Inbox – Album of the Year 2015

Every December Blastocyst.org.uk discusses great albums on its audio sister site www.mixcloud.com/blastocast.

Usually guitar-based and full of music made by great artists, 2015 was full of great music made by ladies, young men and ‘male heritage brands’ like Blur and Noel Gallagher.

Neither act features here, such is the testament to other wicked sounds in 2015.

In the last twelve months, Chris Imlach and Jonny Brick greeted old friends and made new ones.

Chris saw albums by Public Service Broadcasting, Jeffrey Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, Courtney Barnett, John Grant, The Mountain Goats and Summer Camp all performed in a live setting, and enjoyed debut albums by Algiers, Gengahr, Legends of Country, SOAK, Only Real, Girlpool and Wolf Alice.

Jonny, a keen student of songwriting and the music business, was a fan of Tobias Jesso Jr, Chris Stapleton, The Bohicas, Sleater-Kinney and Colleen Green.

CHVRCHES, Hot Chip and the Maccabees also returned with bolder and even better sounds, building on their own unique musical selling points.

In this 100-minute discussion, our favourite music of 2015 is placed in the context of the Year in Music. Jonny chronicles the year’s finest sounds, and apologising for acts missing from our top 25 that made an impact on thousands of listeners, while Chris praises his favourite male singers, including Ezra Furman, Frank Turner and Tom Robinson.

Fans of pop, rock, independent singer-songwriter, lo-fi and clever dance music will find much to love in the ten ‘best’ UK, International and Debut albums of the year.

Discover sounds you missed or others you loved from the millions of bars of music. Hear tracks in full on Spotify in the ‘Opportunity Inbox Album of the Year 2015’: https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick/playlist/1nTt3hhhhFfozg8Ji2H05Q

Opportunity Inbox will return with a Sound of 2016 podcast in January.

Thanks very much to those who have enjoyed or merely listened to podcasts from Blastocyst.org.uk in 2015, and merry new year to all site users.

Hear the podcast here: https://www.mixcloud.com/blastocast/opportunity-inbox-album-of-the-year-2015-a-discussion-with-chris-imlach-and-jonny-brick/

ss

The Spook School return with Try to be Hopeful, a poptastic album of 11 tracks

Every December websites and magazines pick their top ‘things’ of the year just gone. They distil sounds, images and happenings in a list which encapsulates the arbitrary period of twelve (eleven, really) months of time.

2015 embodies happiness and sadness, as every year does. When listening to the second album by The Spook School, a band who form part of the Fortuna Pop! stable of bands who deal in uppity pop with guitars, I realised that for thirty-three minutes I was happier than I otherwise would be. You will be too.

I know the band’s drummer Niall McCamley from his days as a comic. He once told me that he wanted to make art that made people think as much as it made them laugh. He provides the killer backbeat that underlies the poppy bumblebee-type music of TSS, which makes people think and dance.

Since their debut, Dress Up, principal songwriter Nye Todd has taken hormones to make himself more masculine. Nye sung in a higher register on the killer early singles like I’ll Be Honest and History. Now he is closer in tone to his brother Adam (TSS is 50% Todd, 25% Anna Cory on bass and 25% Niall). Never has ‘an evolution of a singer’ been so dramatic between first and second albums. (He has spoken extensively about his transgender experience in 2015, not least to Rolling Stone magazine.)

The first album was full of songs made up of stanzas and solos, poetry set to music, with extended singalong endings. Much is the same on Try To Be Hopeful, but I feel there are more choruses.

The first track here, Burn Masculinity, keeps up the poesy of Dress Up, with Nye and Adam singing in unison and the others joining in on “burn burn burn burn masculinity” like on a Pixies song. The guitars are louder than on the debut, and much like Nye’s voice there seems more on the bottom end. Tthere’s quirkier instrumentation throughout, including brass and what sounds like a melodeon at one point (the keyboard you blow into).

I Want to Kiss You is the most anthemic track on the album, and the best song in the band’s career so far, pure bubblegum pop that recalls someone like bis. Its killer opening couplet (“I wanna kiss him, I wanna kiss her”) speaks to the band’s queer fanbase; the video to Binary was shot at a queer festival and features a good visual summary of the type of person who’d be attracted to TSS’s music. The second half, with the lyric (“Tell me that you’ve never felt like this before”), is another chantalong smash, but not half as great as Binary’s “I am bigger than a hexadecimal” and its accompanying “0101010101” refrain. For food-related humour, check out the I Want to Kiss You video.

Richard and Judy has a sing-song chorus and a great post-chorus guitar part that anchors the song. Like Everybody Needs to Be in Love, it is music to mosh by, which is important for a band used to playing sweaty venues – so sweaty that the bewhiskered Niall usually goes shirtless.

Friday Night has Anna’s double-tracked vocal intoning “I haven’t got the energy”, which provides a counterpoint to another great chorus. It’s one of many songs where the heart makes an appearance; the bloody vessel is the subject of the song Vicious Machine, which does a great deal in its three minutes, including a turbo-fast final half-minute.

August 17th is an understated ballad which references the friend zone. The narrator is meditative (“maybe we’re doing the right thing”), and listeners can identify with such melancholy, which also comes through on the title track. Speak When You’re Spoken To puts Adam’s vocal right in the centre of the mix (the album’s production by a member of the band Hookworms is splendid); the song ends with the TSS trademark guitar wig-out over which a listener can add the syncopated earworm of a chorus.

2015 will be many things for many people, but for TSS it’s the culmination of a few years of graft and honing their craft. Onwards into 2016, when TSS will gain more fans around the world with their poptimistic world view.

bass

Opportunity Inbox – Album of the Year 2015, Second Quarter releases

Part of the Opportunity Inbox series of podcasts, Chris Imlach and Jonny Brick pick their favourite albums of the year.

In 2013 we chose albums by Arctic Monkeys, David Bowie, Phildel, Vampire Weekend, Veronica Falls, Haim, John Grant, The Boy Least Likely To and Los Campesinos among many others. We applauded efforts by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dawes and Tullycraft. Great debuts came from Public Service Broadcasting, Haim, Laura Mvula and The Strypes.

In 2014 we agreed on Alvvays’ self-titled debut as the Debut Album of the Year, while Future Islands took International Album of the Year. The other category, UK Album of the Year, was won by Glass Animals. Honourable mentions went to Temples, Jungle, Woman’s Hour, Jamie T, Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott and Alt-J. Other great international albums included Alpaca Sports, Ballet School. Perfume Genius, Kishi Bashi, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The New Pornographers, Asgeir and Leonard Cohen.

In 2015 there have already been some contemporary classics, which we discussed in the Q1 (First Quarter of the Year) podcast which you can listen to here: https://www.mixcloud.com/blastocast/opportunity-inbox-album-of-the-year-2015-q1-uk/

Early contenders for UK Album of the Year are Public Service Broadcasting, Belle & Sebastian, Only Real, Young Fathers, Peace and Charli XCX. The Debut Album of the Year for Q1 was a brief field: Ibeyi, Circa Waves, Marika Hackman and Courtney Barnett. Well-received International Albums of the Year include The Decemberists, Purity Ring, Dan Deacon, Sleater-Kinney, Sufjan Stevens, The Do, Modest Mouse, Tobias Jesso Jr and Ron Sexsmith.

Here are some of the albums Chris and Jonny discussed, with musical accompaniment, in the Q2 podcast broadcast through Mixcloud.com/Blastocast in June 2015. Debut albums are denoted with a “(D)” symbol.

British albums

Jamie xx – In Colour (D): Never puts a beat wrong, there are euphoric moments tempered by ennui. The lead review in Mojo magazine: “the sound of someone spending a lifetime in a cave of shiny 12-inches and rave tapes”. The first set of original material under the xx member’s own name (he remixed a Gil Scott-Heron album recently), so counts as a debut.

Django Django – Born Under Saturn: thrusting pop with polyphonic harmonies building on their DIY sound and making it arena-ready. Pitchfork said it sounded too clever, but we disagree.

Andreya Triana – Giants: A great new soul singer with support from BBC Radio 2 who deserves the wide audience. Jonny heard the record in Banquet Records in Kingston and immediately wanted more of a singer who sits in the intersection of Lauryn Hill and Laura Mvula.

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense: Solid pop with an electro feel, with many hands-in-air moments. Great in fields or in sweaty clubs. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Milky Wimpshake – Encore, Un Effort!: Another winner from the Fortuna Pop label, and another band who deserve success after plugging away for a decade or so.

Drenge – Undertow: Smarter than the Vaccines, less in-yer-face than Slaves, who have both made decent rock records this quarter, this is the rock album of the quarter with loads of hooks.

Maribou State – Portraits (D): On the always ace NinjaTune label, two guys from Hertfordshire recall the slow dance rooms of clubs at the turn of the millennium. Great guest vocal spots and inventive electronic grooves make this an essential 3am album.

FFS – FFS (more members are British, but it is an international album and a (D)): The funniest album of the year, for fans of both bands. Verges on Noel Coward in places. A respectable Top 20 smash hit for the Franz Ferdinand and Sparks Alliance.

International albums

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color: The most deserved number one album America has had for a while, with production from Blake Mills there are so many leap-out-the-seat moments in the arrangements and vocals. Better than their first, and hopefully not as good as their third!

Summer Camp – Bad Love: Hooky and poppy throughout, building on their brilliant 2013 second album, which Chris felt was one of the ten International albums of 2013.

SOAK – Before we Forget to Dream: The stagename of this 18-year-old Irish lady stands for ‘soul-folk’ but comes across as the next Ed Sheeran. Haunting and confessional.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love: White rock with a soulful feel, there’s always something interesting going on, and the crooning vocal is magnificent. Critically acclaimed, and one of our top tips in the quarter.

Zac Brown Band – Jekyll + Hyde: Another number one album in America, Zac is the closest thing American music has to Johnny Cash today. With jazz, pop and rollicking country, there’s a great punnet of sounds. Chris doesn’t like the country tracks, though!

Sheppard – Bombs Away (D): Geronimo took over the world by stealth, from Australia outwards, in the last year. Bombs Away finally lands and it has many more supremely pop moments.

Shamir – Ratchet (D): A voice that can grate, but when you’re with it you want to stay to see what happens. It’s the music RuPaul would be making if he had been born in the 1990s in Las Vegas. Make a Scene is particularly great.

Screaming Females – Rose Mountain: Have been knocking around for a while, and along with Sleater-Kinney make a racket that throws in everything and the kitchen sink.

Penguin Prison – Lost in New York: Proper danceable pop that is essential for any indie disco.

Girlpool – Before the World was Big: 24 minutes of lo-fidelity bedroom indie. Pitchfork gave their release a good review, praising the simple chord cycles.

Doomtree – All Hands: A harder-edged Macklemore who spits rhymes at a frightening rate. Chris was reminded of Run the Jewels

Fight Like Apes – Fight Like Apes: From Dublin with love for pop.

Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands: Nine tracks of West Coast rock, written by a guy in his late twenties who’s muddling through. The thinking man’s rock group, with not a second wasted.

Hear the podcast, with music and discussion, at https://www.mixcloud.com/upload/blastocast/opportunity-inbox-album-of-the-year-q2/.

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“May all your favorite bands stay together”: Dawes return for summer 2015

Someone told me the other day that Britain is one of Europe’s most atheist countries. So many centuries of religion has suddenly ended up providing the country’s folk with either apathy or a lack of belief. Nietszche told us about G-D’s death, but maybe G-D had just been reincarnated.

Listening to the fourth record by Dawes, the closest thing I have to a favourite band, I was reminded of this statistic, and of the spiritual power the music of the American Pacific (West) Coast has on me. I now live with a girl from that coast, not entirely without coincidence. I’ve spent many summers fortunate enough to spend time in Southern California, but I know the state is one containing many multitudes of people, races, religions and music cultures. Everyone there seeks their own credos and ways of living.

Unlike in America, only a few million Britons go to church. I don’t visit synagogue on the Day of Rest; I spend it following football matches or reading news, while listening to records. Many other Britons do the same, and this summer a fair few will be heading to arenas, fields or parks to see sundry independent and major-label artists, or catching Kanye West on TV since only 200,000 people can be there in person.

Outdoor festivals in particular offer the same things as great football grounds do: ritual, community, performance, dancing, singing, harmony, melody and all that jazz (or metal, or indie-rock). The festival circuit may have hit critical mass a few years ago, and suffers from a deficit of quality headliners, but the big ones are still here. Alongside the massive rock festivals in Donington (Download), Reading/Leeds, Glastonbury, Hyde Park (formerly Calling but rebranded as British Summer Time) and T in the Park are more niche ones, such as Indietracks, Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion, Wales, or the End of the Road Festival in Dorset.

Or should that be Dawes-et? The band formerly known as Simon Dawes have a decently-sized following. They’ve never had a hit, and never had a song synched to a major TV show; I must have missed their song when it played on American Dad. They do, however, head out on the road every summer.

The band’s big UK indoor date is in September, supporting My Morning Jacket at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire; back home Dawes tour the US with James Vincent McMorrow, having spent much of 2014 as the backing band and support act for Conor Oberst. They also backed Jackson Browne around the time of their breakthrough second album Nothing Is Wrong. That album kicked off with Time Spent in Los Angeles, one of my Desert Island Discs, which uses dynamic, melody and harmony gorgeously and appeals to fans of country-rock and Americana, and to the other artists mentioned in this paragraph.

Dawes were big successes at South by South West in Austin last year, and have also twice been cover stars of online music weekly Paste Magazine. In the UK, the Mail on Sunday’s music writer Tim De Lisle is a vocal drum-beater for the Dawes cause. They have support from BBC DJ Bob Harris, who is a huge fan and has had them in on session for his Sunday programme. He heavily rotated Time Spent… in 2011-2, and then Most People in 2013-4. “Most people don’t talk enough about how lucky they are…” goes the chorus, one of many songs in their four-album catalogue that expresses a universal truth set to a groovy musical backing.

Notably they were the new favourite band of now-retired talk show host David Letterman; they were one of his last-ever musical guests playing recent single Things Happen and a cover of a Warren Zevon song. Zevon is the late purveyor of offbeat, lyric-driven piano-and-guitar rock, and a key influence on Dawes.

I like Dawes because I can sing the lead vocal comfortably. All my favourite bands – Counting Crows, the Beatles, Jellyfish – have vocalists who pitch the vocal in my tenor range. Taylor Goldsmith is no exception, while the harmonies land on by his bandmates – Tay on keys, Wylie on bass, Griffin on drums – are sensible and sumptuous. Taylor sings in many styles, sometimes in falsetto, other times bellowing the words from the back of his throat like Bruce Springsteen, other times still holding back uncertainly, as on Time Spent…

After a decent third album recorded with Norah Jones’s producer Jacquire King, the band wanted a sound that was closer to their live shows, and drafted in Dave Rawlings to sit behind a desk and run the tapes. Handily Dave’s wife Gillian Welch is a singer of some repute, and she adds vocals to one or two of the tracks here. The quiet ‘yeah!’ on their track Don’t Send Me Away is evidence of how comfortable the band feel in this environment, which carries across to me, the listener.

The musicianship is of the calibre that comes from playing together for almost a decade, or three decades in the case of brothers Taylor and Griffin. When I saw them in Oxford in 2012 they were on a UK tour that took in a Hyde Park set; for their 2013 visit they played gigs in clubs including the Borderline in London. In 2014 NPR Music (who streamed the new record a week before release) broadcasted their set from the Newport Folk Festival where they debuted Things Happen, the lead track from All Your Favorite Bands. They also played an extended version of From the Right Angle, about being “out on the road”, alongside songs with existing solo passages: Most People, From a Window Seat and the second album’s closing tune A Little Bit of Everything.

Dawes are one of my favourite bands because they write such an eclectic array of types of song. A typical album (the new one has nine, but typically they contain eleven) has a few anthems, a few reflective ones (Moon in the Water and Million Dollar Bill were a fine pair on the second side of Nothing is Wrong), aforementioned add-the-guitar-solo tunes and at least one Classic. On the last record, Something In Common was the closest to a Classic, changing key magnificently and unexpectedly.

The band have now played the tracks from their first record since 2009, and their sound has evolved to take into account stints learning from Jackson, Conor and Mumford & Sons. Around the time of the Mumfordsplosion in 2010, Dawes already had a killer track, When My Time Comes. My role as apostle is to tell people that the Dawes track is the equal to the sometimes-too-Christian tracks from the first Mumford and Sons album. The third Mumford album topped UK and US charts; it will be a victory for Dawes, on their own HUB label, to break the top 100 with their fourth.

Taylor Goldsmith is one of ‘those’ lyricists in American songwriting, a songwriter’s songwriter who has never dated anyone famous or been in any gossip column. His mate Marcus married a movie star, but I don’t know anything about Taylor’s love life. He tends towards the universal, mixing the concrete and the abstract while writing in the first person. Taylor is not one of the sorts of songwriters derided as confessional and mawkish; Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift may write songs alluding to beefs between former friends and stolen girlfriends, but not this Taylor.

Dawes songs speak to me as a twenty-odd male in a developed Anglophone country. No Dawes song is a party banger; they’re very much songs to drink responsibly to or, as Taylor has said in the past, campfire singalongs where there is a strong rhythm or structure to draw in eager listeners. There is a hymnal quality to Taylor’s melodies, boosted by Tay’s organ flourishes, and his meditative songs match those by songwriters of former eras.

The influence of ever-serious Bob Dylan hangs heavy on any rock songwriter. In 2014 Taylor joined T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello in setting some early Dylan lyrics to music on The New Basement Tapes. Another Dylan tune, Forever Young, is an influence on the album’s title track. Taylor has written that he wants ‘may all your favourite bands stay together’ to become a goodwill toast between friends.

Some of the album’s best lines are wry, like a Comedy Store raconteur. “If these walls could talk, I’d defer to the furniture” is the opening line of Right On Time. The song is about being metaphorically shot through the heart, as we discover in the third bridge; those who have been hurt can relate to the song, those who have put themselves through “a long and worthy sacrifice”. As they listen they can nod along to a groovy rock arrangement, and latterly realise the words are at odds with the uppity major-key feel. Right On Time is a useful illustration of what snobs would call ‘grad school’-level songwriting: we hear the words “disregarded”, “hunches”, “documented” and “investigate” and the internal rhyme “the edges of the nebula”.

Things Happen (“that’s all they ever do”) is very apt and very Taylor Goldsmith. There’s a sweet piano riff in the second verse as Taylor mentions driving to Oakland, and the chorus includes the triumphant line “Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to”. Defiance, brotherhood, friendship come to the fore. The video, with the band mucking around in costume on Hollywood Boulevard, gives lie to the band’s serious front. To Be Completely Honest, with sun-coated harmonies, seems another meditative tune whose lyrics linger over how, as the ‘universe keeps on expanding’, life on the blue planet is supposed to be a little easier.

I Can’t Think About It Now has the album’s best riff, backed up by female vocalists and a hugely uncertain tone of the lyric, which packs many syllables into each stanza as well as a brilliant image about a ‘ballet dancer breaking in her shoes’. It seems inevitable that any LA band will draw comparison with Fleetwood Mac, but the song has the same light bass-led shuffle and explosion into guitar solo that the best Mac tracks possess.

The other epic track on the record is Now That It’s Too Late, Maria, a ten-minute-long slow burner that is closer in sound to a traditional break-up song than Right On Time. I like the lyric “I was too green to be blue” as well as the bluesy guitar line that runs throughout the tune. Maybe you will too.

In his writing Taylor seems more interested generally in the start and end of love, or the attraction of it. Somewhere Along the Way has the best chorus harmonies on the album, a Dawes USP, and packs alliteration into the opening couplet (“table matters to tunnel vision”). The song laments the lost innocence and dreams of a girl who comes to the “solar-panelled hills” of Hollywood, but instead suffers a “tortured dance” in trying to meet her intended match.

Dawes, from Los Angeles, can speak well of friends who have moved to the US’s entertainment city: “Her only plan in life was getting lost” can apply to thousands who are at the centre or periphery of someone’s LA adventures. The song is brilliant, one of Taylor’s best. As a kicker, late in the song he adds the narrator in, just before another sweet guitar part kicks in.

The final chorus fades out, like a car driving towards the horizon or away from LA, or ready to return to the start of the song to soundtrack the life of another dreamer.

All Your Favorite Bands streams now. The PledgeMusic campaign at PledgeMusic.com/projects/dawes offers fans a variety of purchase packages.

kelly

It’s Coming Home! Can England Ladies Win the [governing body redacted] Women’s World Cup 2015?

Not so fast! The ‘end’ of the 2014/5 football season doesn’t exist.

Like children ‘turning’ into teenagers and then into young adults, football seasons evolve from one form to the next. The FA Cup Final may have brought the domestic season to an end, but England’s Ladies are in Canada to compete for the [football governing body redacted] World Cup 2015.

A question that will come to the mind of any Englishman of full blood in 2016 will be this: “50 years of hurt, why are we still dreaming?”

When I was eight, and getting into pop music and football, one song stood out for me. I loved the Lightning Seeds (Marvellous, Lucky You, Pure and so on), and I loved the two blokes singing “Three Lions on a shirt”. It is brilliant that, even in 2015, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner are still culturally relevant, the former through a recent stage production of his film The Infidel, about religion and Britain, and the latter through his award-winning Saturday morning radio show and presenting gig on the BBC’s Room 101 show.

Baddiel and Skinner are two of my favourite comics. Both came of age in the early 1990s; David played Wembley Arena like a pop star with his old mate Robert Newman, while Frank took his man-friendly forward-thinking act around the country after scooping the big award at the Edinburgh Fringe at more or less his first attempt. Both are now fathers and family men, and are both known for their religious upbringing, David as the man who doesn’t want to be seen as ‘Britain’s Mr Jew’ and Frank (born Chris Collins) for his Catholicism.

In 2016, we may hear a lot of ‘fifty years of hurt, why are we still dreaming?’ but in summer 2015 there is a chance that England will win the World Cup. Put aside any thought of the men’s team triumphing in Moscow or Doha; we probably won’t turn up, or we’ll send an all-black team to Russia and an all-gay team to Qatar made up of park footballers who play on Hackney Marshes, just to make a point. Greg Dyke will be assistant manager. The manager will be Louis Spence.

Women’s football is having its moment in the sun. In 1996, when Three Lions was being sung mockingly by German crowds at Wembley Stadium as they beat first England then the Czech Republic to win the European Championships, women’s football was never spoken about. Quietly, Hope Powell began managing the England Ladies team from 1998, ensuring that women’s football was promoted in schools, notably by the international team members themselves.

The England team had one superstar, who had been big in US soccer before she was signed by Arsenal, her heroes. Kelly Smith was her name, and today at least five English ladies should be household names. Other latter-day heroes have retired from the national team, including Faye White and Smith herself.

Fans of England Ladies will know that Eniola Aluko is a star striker. Her brother Sony is a Premier League player with Hull. Karen Carney is skilful and strong and great to watch, and recently revealed her struggle with depression to The Times. On the pitch, Alex Scott is solid at the back in the absence of the retired White, while Ellen White (no relation to Faye) is still England’s number nine. Rachel Yankey, of Arsenal Ladies, is also very exciting to watch; she famously played with boys while she grew up, cutting her hair and calling herself Ray! Then, as we shall see, attitudes changed…

On April 9th 2015, England Ladies played China at the Academy Stadium in Manchester City’s expensive and shiny new centre. This is important because the Manchester City Ladies play their home games in the Women’s Super League there.

The WSL was rejigged to create two division and was launched with much fanfare, and TV coverage on BT Sport, in March 2014. Outrage greeted the demotion of Doncaster Belles, whose place in the top division was taken by Man City. WSL1 was won on the last day by Liverpool, who retained the title after an exciting run-in when any of Liverpool, Chelsea or Birmingham could have triumphed. WSL2 was won by Sunderland, who pipped Doncaster. I actually saw Sunderland Ladies take on Watford Ladies in the old WSL, and was impressed by their commanding keeper and silky forwards.

All the silkier because the Watford Ladies pitch in Berkhamsted, a non-league ground, was cut up after autumn rain. From the first six games of the 2015 WSL2 season, Watford Ladies won their sixth game after only one point from five. They lost the game that had been played at Vicarage Road at the end of March in front of 1100 people, about 1000 more than who had been at Berkhamsted.

Man City Ladies, and England Ladies, play on lush surfaces. In fact, England Ladies sold more tickets for their recent friendly against Germany than the men sold for the friendly against Norway in 2014. 55,000 people took advantage of affordable tickets to see Germany conquer once again at Wembley in November 2014. Germany, who along with Sweden, Brasil and the USA are favourites for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, seemed imperious even without five first-team players. England, however, did win the Cyprus Cup, a friendly tournament, beating Canada in the final.

England beat China 2-1 in the last home friendly in England before the World Cup. The game was broadcast on the BBC’s 5live SportsExtra digital service, and listeners tuning in late would have missed the first of England’s two quick goals. They lost 1-0, possibly carrying some jetlag, against the host nation in a friendly to promote the tournament.

The Senior team’s efforts against China were overshadowed by the England Under-19s, who qualified for their age group’s tournament in Israel with a re-taken penalty. In a farce which could have been avoided if the referee had given a retake rather than a free kick to the opposition, England were penalised for encroachment in the final moments of the game proper. Because both teams were still in Belfast, the players regrouped on the day of the England Senior team’s game and justice was done. Norway had won 8-1 against Northern Ireland to secure their own qualification.

Those under-19s were not yet born when Kelly Smith made her debut for the senior team.

One could say that Kelly Smith was born five years too early, and suffered two broken legs too many. She still earned her reputation as the foremost player of her generation. With her inspirational England coach Hope Powell encouraging on the touchline and in the dressing room, Kelly raised the profile of women’s football and set in motion England Ladies 2.0, with Carney and Aluko and the rest.

“Flair players are the ones people pay to watch”, writes Smith in her memoir, Footballer, released in paperback following the 2012 Olympics. Hacking Smith and Carney and others is detrimental to the entertainment value. Like any gifted prodigy who stands out, Smith suffered from bad tackles and lax officiating.

Smith was born in Watford in the same hospital as me; unlike me, she has been awarded an MBE for her services to football (that’s the picture accompanying the piece).

Her book revealed Kelly’s pride in meeting the Queen, but also her crippling alcohol addiction, brought on by shyness, injury and homesickness. The bleak chapters come from Smith describing her time in a semi-professional American collegiate environment, away from home for the first time. Even as a child playing with the boys, teams would object to a girl in the opposition (and a more skilful one at that) and prevent Smith from doing the thing she was good at.

A teenage international, Smith has played in America twice and for Arsenal Ladies three times. Like her hero Ryan Giggs she straddles the eras, and the pair made the Olympic squad for their respective teams for London 2012. The Ladies Team kicked off the Games and current team captain Steph Houghton scored the free kick that ensured positive back-page coverage. Playing their final group game in front of over 70,000 people at Wembley, Smith had achieved her dream, which had been so distant in the 1990s when there was no professional football available for women. Now there are two leagues and women play on better pitches in matches supported by both BT Sport and the BBC.

In the 2000s the England team was mostly made up of players from Arsenal, coached by Vic Akers, the men’s team’s kitman. Smith admits that the team spirit of the international team came about from players being familiar with other players’ movements and habits from the domestic game. Through more big tournament experience, the core group of players stayed together from 2005 to 2011, through two World Cups and European Championships.

I hope that the men’s team, if not made up of players from the top six clubs, is at least formed from those who moved up the age groups together, with senior players like Wayne Rooney and James Milner passing the baton on to Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. It is a shame that there is no Team GB football team going to Rio for Great Britain in 2016, but the silver lining is that the BBC have lined up impressive coverage of the [football body redacted] World Cup 2015.

The coverage, which is on iPlayer, social media and radio, is fronted by Jacqui Oatley and Tina Daheley. Rachel Yankey and Rachel Brown-Finnis (the former England goalkeeper) are on punditry duty; Sue Smith, with the great hairstyle and Scouse burr, is co-commentator with Jonathan Pearce.

England play France on Tuesday 9 June, with an exciting Saturday evening (in the UK) game on the 13th against Mexico and then the third group game against Colombia at the stadium used in the Montreal Olympic Games. France were the team who defeated England on penalties in the 2011 World Cup, so revenge would be sweet and decisive.

It seems the winner of the all-European tie will advance as Group F winners to play Spain or South Korea, the likely Group E runners-up providing Brazil do not take lessons from their men and collapse when it matters. Not likely with Marta, the world’s best player, in their team. Second place in Group F will take on the runners-up from Group B, probably Norway unless Germany have a particularly awful tournament. Holders Japan have an easy group, and Canada is not too hot in June and will welcome every nation from June 6, where the host nation plays China.

I wish England Ladies the best for the World Cup. The men’s team lost two and drew one of their three games in Brazil 2014, so any victory would see their popularity soar. In spite of the men having games in Ireland and Slovenia in June, the real focus should be on the ladies.

Watch out for the Women’s World Cup and prepare to cheer for some talented professionals. Even without the recent problems suffered by [football governing body redacted], the women’s game has its biggest international platform in a country where girls play football from a young age.

So can England win the world cup? If Germany, Brazil and Sweden suffer, I think England will be in line to spring a deserving surprise. Fifty years of hurt may find a cure in Bardsley, A. Scott, F. Williams, Houghton, Bassett, J. Scott, Aluko, Carney, Duggan, White, Stoney, Chapman, Kirby, Sanderson and the others.

Let’s dream again!!

The FA are promoting Women’s Sport Week, June 1-7. Details of free coaching sessions can be found here: http://www.thefa.com/news/2015/may/the-fa-launches-free-month-of-girl-football-sessions-310515

http://www.thefa.com/england/womens-seniors is the place for any official news and reaction from the England camp. Look out for a piece on Bend It Like Beckham, now previewing at London’s Phoenix Theatre, in June.

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Johnny Cash, the Man in Black Vinyl

All six of Johnny Cash’s American series of album are now available on vinyl in a box set. The Man in Black can now be played on black vinyl, should you so wish. True fans of the man will already own all the recordings from the last decade of Johnny’s eventful life, so this set is aimed at completists or those who want to hear Cash as he was heard in his pomp: on 33-and-a-thirds.

I remember when the fifth volume emerged, a couple of years after Johnny’s death, around the time Joaquin Phoenix gave such an immense portrayal of a man whose outlaw spirit defined that sort of American man. It is amazing to think that before producer Rick Rubin started to get the most out of Cash’s voice, a stunning instrument, Cash was in the literal and musical wilderness. In fact, his daughter Rosanne was more successful in the early 1990s, while father John R. Cash was playing to disinterested folk bussed in by promoters.

The first American Recordings LP was Johnny and his six-string, the better to hear his growl. Later on, joined by an array of guests (assorted Eagles, country heroines) and guru-producer Rick Rubin pressing ‘record’, Cash knew that he was not making these records to make money or have something to sing on TV. Elvis Presley, dead at 42, never had the opportunity to grow old, while other rock’n’roll heroes keep on trucking. Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Chuck Berry became as famous for their private lives as much as their melding of rhythm and blues and rockabilly, which in a pre-Beatle era defined American musical culture.

I remember being addicted to God’s Gonna Cut You Down (from volume V), the folk song borrowed by Moby in Run On. I was attracted to the slave-driver rhythm and Johnny’s speak-song voice. I also liked, at various times in the last decade, his acoustic versions of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage (II), Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus (IV), Tom Petty’s Southern Accents (II) and I Won’t Back Down (III) and U2’s One (III). The greatest songs are the ones which work with voice and as little accompaniment as possible, highlighting words, melody and message. Johnny’s treatment of One, in particular, is shimmering, as is his interpretation of U2’s Wayfaring Stranger (III).

Johnny Cash released hundreds of tracks, from his own hand and from others’ hands, in his heyday between 1955 and 1971. His live performances at San Quentin and Folsom Prison show him as the outlaw’s favourite bard – this was the man who wrote “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” – but he could also be patriotic, as on Ragged Old Flag, about the Stars and Stripes.

In his twenties and thirties his voice was sharp and strong; in his sixties, when he recorded this series of tracks, he was wiser, more morose, breathier and sometimes right up against the microphone for maximum intensity. He never twangs or yodels; that was never his vocal style.

Robert Hilburn’s biography includes a section devoted to his American Recordings period where he compares the relationship of Cash and the man he called “a hippie”, Rick Rubin, to that of Scorsese and De Niro. Recording the American collection of songs, Cash overcame family issues and apathetic audiences. Indeed, Cash told Hilburn, Rick made him think that he “had a legacy after all…and even add to it.”

The key to the American series was to update Cash, not just for a contemporary audience of grunge and indie-rock fans, but for his own legacy. This was, after all, the man who became one of country music’s biggest stars, marrying June Carter of the renowned Carter Family of singers, and who made it onto the pop charts with songs about railroads and walking the line.

Trains run through the six volumes in the set: Like the 309 (V) is a Cash composition on which he sings “take me to the depot, put me to bed…load my box on the 309”; Let the Train Blow the Whistle is another original, which has the familiar ‘train on the track’ rhythm. On the first volume he de-gravels the Tom Waits song Down There By the Train. Country themes of loss and heartbreak are omnipresent too: The One Rose (That’s Left in my Heart) and Sea of Heartbreak (both II, the latter written by Hal David including the opening line “the lights in the harbour don’t shine for me”) are both rootin’-tootin’ country tunes full of mournful chords.

Volume II, titled Unchained, won the Best Country Grammy award, and was the last of the four volumes recorded and released in Cash’s lifetime. Volumes III and IV were recorded when Cash’s health was failing; he was losing the feeling in his fingers and had to wear orthopaedics to help him walk. He is unsurprisingly consumed by mortality here: Will Oldham’s modern hymn I See a Darkness and Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat are great choices by Rubin.

On Volume VI, he faithfully records Sheryl Crow’s Redemption Day. His own Meet Me in Heaven (II) is tender and worthy of being a Cash standard, while Ain’t No Grave, the title of Volume VI which was released posthumously, is underscored by chainmail percussion and a banjo.

Some self-penned songs had been deliberately left off past albums by Cash, whose 1980s output was lost amid the din of music made, among others, by acts produced by Rubin himself. Another successful act, Tom Petty, worked on the second volume, and expressed surprise when Rubin offered up Addicted to Love and Rusty Cage; the former was shouted down, the latter eventually accepted.

There are around fifteen Cash originals loitering among the standards, including the title track of volume IV, The Man Comes Around; the phrase “kick against the pricks” rolls round Johnny’s mouth like Bourbon. Robert Hilburn records how many drafts and redrafts Cash had of his ‘modern gospel’ tune.

Some songs reflect old-style Johnny, Country Boy (II) is rollicking, and is a pastiche of songs like Get Rhythm where Cash crams a lot of syllables into one line; Mean Eyed Cat is about a woman who abused Johnny’s trust, left and set Johnny on a two-minute-thirty-four long quest to win her back. Before My Time is about songwriters who used to write the same topics he has chosen: “What the old time masters had is what I feel for you.” It is even more wrenching to know that his wife, June Carter, pre-deceased Johnny by mere weeks.

It is the cover versions that most intrigue, of course. With amazing instrumental backing from top musicians, Johnny interprets songs by his contemporaries and successors, taking on Tom Paxton, Beck (a song called Rowboat where the singer calls for alcohol and a truck) and John Lennon, where he gives gravitas to In My Life, written by a twenty-four-year-old. Johnny’s interpretation of Bridge Over Troubled Water (IV) is a duet with Fiona Apple – a sort of female Cash in her refusal to play by industry rules – with added accordions to bring out the tissues and tears. The Beast in Me was written for Cash by his one-time son-in-law Nick Lowe, and is pitched very low in Johnny’s range so that he growls it rather than sings it.

His last hit of sorts was Hurt, helped by an amazing music video shot at the House of Cash ‘living museum’. “What have I become, my sweetest friend?” sings Johnny on Hurt, borrowing Trent Reznor’s self-harm anthem and enabling his own problems, including alcoholism, incarceration and drug addiction, to be reflected through his own voice. For those who know the original, with its screeds of noise, this version brings humanity to the song. It was a brilliant choice of song (which Rubin pushed for John to record), made more poignant because Johnny knew he was due up to heaven, or down to hell, soon after the fourth volume emerged.

As pivotal a figure in American music as Elvis Presley or Eminem, Johnny Cash inspired, enlightened and, in the last ten years of his life, enthralled newer listeners. The American recordings merit the new vinyl release, and satisfy a record buyer’s desire for true Americana.

vote_pops_by_bakerella

The Blastocyst.org.uk May 7 Election Day Radiothon

Welcome to the Blastocyst.org.uk May 7 Election Day Radiothon!!!

If you’re going out to vote, enjoy your democracy. Rarer than leap years, this is a once-in-five-year chance to try and influence the politics of Great Britain.

The team at Blastocyst.org.uk have put together mixes and shows that seek to entertain you and in some cases (but not all) to provide a break from the chatter about MPs and PMQs and the lack of AV and all that.

Here is the schedule, kicking off at 9am:

9am: The New Music Show, with JP – Two hours and 32 of the latest and greatest tunes, hosted by Jon Parker aka JP

11am: PressPlayOK Radio Show, hosted by Adeel Amini – Top new songs with some chatter in between from the editor of PressPlayOK.com

12noon: Ed Bond Rocks – An hour of tunes from the 60s and 70s, all intent on rocking your world, curated by Ed Bond

1pm: Hollerin Franklin’s Political Mix – Anarchic pieces of music put together in a mix by Hollerin Franklin, MC of New Urban Frontier

2pm: HERO BLOB 7D: Rise of the Jive Turkeys, by Schedel Luitjen – A half-hour of dramatic power starring everyone’s most loveable superhero

2.30pm: The Fixed Term Act LP – A Listening Party which airs Jonny Brick’s LP, recorded on behalf of Blastocyst.org.uk, available in full at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick for free and to share

3pm: Quiz Hour – Jonny Brick plays host, JP the contestant. Four rounds, one with a political theme

4.15pm: Daniel Buckley presents The Sea – A mix put together by Blastocyst.org.uk Screens Editor Daniel Buckley with tracks inspired by the water

5pm: The Cellar Door, with Chris Imlach – Blastocyst.org.uk’s Head of Music curates an hour of songs, including Three for Free and a great new cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Maybe Baby’

6pm: America’s Hits: Hidden Gems – Two hours of songs presented by Amanda McWhorter, including covers, rarities and songs you really oughta know

8pm: Hustings, hosted by Jonny Brick – Rounding off the broadcast, the site’s founding editor presents an hour of musings based on today’s election. Includes Al Murray, Russell Brand, the voice of Peter Dickson from The X Factor and some tracks from The Fixed Term Act LP

All podcasts will go out ‘as live’ at the scheduled time, and will be uploaded to www.mixcloud.com/blastocast. They will stay there in perpetuity, so if you missed a show because you were out voting then you can still catch it.

Throughout the day Jonny Brick will be on Twitter @jonnybrick promoting the day’s schedule. Please say hello, and let me know if and, if you want to, how you voted.

Whatever happens, it’s fun to find out!

Thanks and enjoy the broadcast,

Jonny Brick, Founding Editor, Blastocyst.org.uk

swift

Taylor Swift and her rise to the top of the pops

Taylor Swift, the subject of this essay from Blastocyst.org.uk, which is available in audio form at mixcloud.com/blastocast seems to be the happiest woman on Earth.

In 2014 she released the only album that sold enough copies to be certified Platinum in the same year it came out. That album, 1989, was a step forward from both the FM radio pop of Red, the country-pop of Speak Now and her self-titled pure country debut, which came out aeons ago in 2006.

Back then the Swift story was already important. She had convinced her parents to move from the East Coast to Nashville, where songs were made and when she could make connections in the music business. I remember hearing ‘Teardrops on my Guitar’ and thinking, Goodness this is pretty good. Did she write this?

She did write it. It’s one of her best songs and set the tone for her early songwriting attempts. The first track on her first album Tim McGraw is self-explanatory when you know the subject is a country star, while Our Song was a glorious ode to turning up the radio in the car to hear ‘our song’. Taylor was not yet 18 when the song became a huge hit, cracking the top 20 of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In the first few years of her career, she supported big country stars on their tours: George Strait is one of the kings of the genre, while Rascal Flatts (despite having a song included in Pixar’s film Cars) are a renowned country group who are now signed to the same label that Taylor Swift released her first albums on. (Their hit song What Hurts the Most was a 2006 country number one and Top 10 Hot 100 hit; a dance-pop cover by Cascada was a hit the following year, and the song has become a modern country music standard.)

A few years after opening for Rascal Flatts, another standard emerged, from Swift’s pen and mouth. Love Story was, and is, a simple pop song with a killer key change. Swift’s trajectory changed when the song got a pop remix; it had been number one in the US country chart for several months in 2009 and got a UK release too.

She was still mainly known in the red bits of America, where they shoot the things they eat and drink beer while sitting on a pickup truck. (That’s not racist; it’s true.)  When Speak Now came out, I heard more of her music. Typically US country stars are huge in the US but are unable to break into the UK market unless they put out a ballad. Carrie Underwood, for instance, is loved by a few people, in the country where she won a TV talent contest. Kelly Clarkson won the same contest, but went pop, or pop-rock, with her first releases.

Underwood, whose Greatest Hits emerged in 2014, has done similar, but in a very country-rock-pop way: Undo It, Cowboy Casanova and new song Something in the Water have all gained UK radio play; the last of these made the A list on Radio 2’s playlist, as part of their campaign to make country music popular in the UK.

After all, the greatest pop tunes today come out of Nashville. The greatest writers are making music over there, and record companies on Music Row, in Nashville, are primed to sell the choicest cuts to radio. A song that hits the country chart, like Need You Now by Lady Antebellum, can be covered by Cheryl Cole and Gary Barlow on British TV and send music fans flocking to pop-country albums by the great US band who are now in the odd position of being too big for the country chart, but not big enough to top the pop charts.

And this is the part where we re-introduce the lady whom Lady Antebellum beat for the 2012 Country Album of the Year at the Grammies, their second consecutive win.

Fearless was Taylor Swift’s 2008 album, following her self-titled debut. Fearless won the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year, in any genre, beating Beyonce, The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and, of course, Dave Matthews Band. The album was executive produced by a man called Scott Borchetta, whose name will mean nothing to you until you realise he is Mr Music Row. He discovered Taylor Swift and ran the label that put out Fearless called, haha, Big Machine.

Fearless’s third single, You Belong with Me, was nominated for Record and Song of the Year (two awards, don’t ask me why), while pretty ballad White Horse won the Best Country Song award. Another song that was a single, Fifteen, seems to nail down Taylor’s target market: teenage girls who, quoting the protagonists from her song Love Story, are young and after their Romeos to take them ‘some place to be alone’.

Taylor Swift is the first true pop star of the social media age. She is capable of being profiled in pop magazines, business titles and broadsheet newspapers. She has millions of people following and discussing her on social media, which are the metrics of the current era, but significantly she has sold physical music, be it CDs or tickets to her live shows.

Since her album Red, released in 2012, Swift has gone front-and-centre for the pop market, a clever thing to do if you look like a pop star, sound like a pop star and have recently moved to New York like a pop star. 2015 will see her headline Hyde Park in summer, supported by Ellie Goulding, as part of the British Summer Time series of gigs; Kylie Minogue is headlining one of the other ones on a bill that includes Chic.

Red was 65 minutes long – far too long, but then most pop records are too long – and includes a total of eight producers excluding Taylor herself. One producer is Jeff Bhaskar, who has worked with Kanye West and Mark Ronson, while another is U2’s producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, who helped make Snow Patrol sound radio-friendly. Chasing Cars is one of his.

Red, meanwhile, had seven singles taken from it, almost as many as Katy Perry or Rihanna release from their albums. Non-filler tracks on Red included the Max Martin co-write and lead single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, I Knew You Were Trouble, 22, the title track and Ed Sheeran duet Everything Has Changed. Sheeran, who slept on her couch in Nashville, is reaping the benefits from supporting her on the Red tour, and a similar piece could be written about him, the man whose songwriting talents helped him shift many, many copies of his art.

Swift, in February 2015, won the Best International Female award at the BRITs. That same week, she attended America’s version, the GRAMMYs, on behalf of her huge song Shake It off, where she was beaten by Sam Smith’s song Stay With Me. She wasn’t so fussed: in her career so far, Swift has won 7 of the 25 Grammy Awards for which she has been nominated, 20 of 44 Billboard Music Awards, 11 of 21 CMA Awards and 16 of 18 AMAs (American Music Awards). She has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, and been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, at an age before many songwriters have had their first hit.

She must be pretty good, if the industry thinks so. Yes, some awards are given because of sales and airplay and getting the music out to as many people as possible, but to win the Album of the Year Grammy at the age of 20 is something.

In 2015, three of the five nominees are women. The 2014 winner was Kacey Musgraves, who beat…Red, and whose voice is a gentler version of Taylor’s. But with songs like Follow Your Arrow, Musgraves does not write traditional country songs about the usual things, and it is worth watching to see if she follows Taylor into the pop market.

In 2014, Taylor Swift turned 25 (she’s a Sagittarius, for those who care, and was born on December 13, 1989). By that age, Paul McCartney had already written Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, and Ray Davies had written Waterloo Sunset. Amy Winehouse had recorded Back to Black and Adele, of course, had become a reclusive mother-megastar. We’re waiting for her album, rumoured to be called 25, which may sell a million copies within two weeks just as 1989 did.

Only McCartney had released at least five huge albums that crossed over from one genre – in his case rock’n’roll – to another. The Beatles defined Pop Music in 1964-6, before they invented the concept of pop stars growing up and becoming smoking, drinking, girlfriend-on-the-side rock stars. Taylor Swift did the modern Pop Thing and started her latest album with a (quite dull) track called Welcome to New York. In 1965, Paul McCartney played bass and sung on a song called Taxman (written by a 22-year-old George Harrison) all about how most of his earnings went to the Exchequer, in exchange for a nice MBE award from the Queen.

All this is contextual. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the best pop album, for many people, released this decade. It is the product of an artistic vision and a craft honed through being surrounded by good people, and a talent nurtured by Scott Borchetta; think of him as a sensible, music-loving version of the talent magnet Scooter Braun, who directs the careers of Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande, and signed up PSY after Gangnam Style.

For 1989 Swift holed up with Max Martin and a man called Shellback, the killer writing-and-production team behind much great pop music of the last 20 years. A large chunk of the album is credited as Swift-Martin-Shellback, but other writers pop up. Jack Antonoff is the fiancé of Lena Dunham, another famous New York resident, who co-wrote Out of the Woods with Swift and Martin; Antonoff also wrote We Are Young, fun.’s massive hit from 2010.

Antonoff and Greg Kurstin, who wrote The Fear with Lily Allen, worked on I Wish You Would, a fun track that recalls songs by Haim; I wonder if Swift had given their Days Are Gone album several spins while writing the record. The three Haim girls are now great friends of Taylor’s. The song is driven by a funky guitar buried low in the mix (an expert decision) and spacious drums which don’t interfere with the chorus. It’s musically one of the best tracks on 1989, and deserves to be a hit soon.

Ryan Tedder, who also co-wrote Ghost with Ella Henderson, co-wrote I Know Places and Welcome to New York with Swift and his songwriting partner Noel Zancanella. The two men wrote Counting Stars for OneRepublic, Tedder’s band, as well as Maroon 5’s Maps. Like those last two, the two on 1989 are poppy and catchy, following the template set by Swift throughout her career.

Whether all of this was planned or not, it seems that 2015 will be the year Taylor Swift takes over pop. Signed at 14 years old, her self-titled album was written by a teenager for teenagers to hear. After a few listens my favourite track is Picture to Burn, which references pick-up trucks and sounds in places like a playground jeer. The image is great: “You’re just another picture to burn”…You can’t burn Instagram pics; at least not in the old definition of burn.

Throughout the first album Taylor sings in a high alto voice all about boys and growing up. Most of the songs are mid-tempo, but Shoulda Said No is a poppy tune with a great hook.

Fearless trod a similar musical path to her debut, with more songs by a girl written with girls in mind. With the release of that record she matured to the main event, headlining big venues around America. The key single was the one which was number one in the country charts the week Fearless was released.

A sophisticated key change and a lyric inspired by Shakespeare, Love Story was streets ahead of most of her first album. I was unimpressed with a lot of Fearless, but then it wasn’t aimed at me. The title track was another single, with Taylor’s voice floating over mandolin and drum before the chorus kicks in.

Another writer may go on about how Taylor is a paragon of Modern Womanhood, about how she empowers a listener by singing about herself, a modern woman, in a world of glass ceilings and Florida Georgia Line. Instead of all that, I’ll just say that as a woman working in the arts, I admire how Taylor has piloted the course of her career. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, in comedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award, share plaudits for being great at what they do and happening to be female.

Fearless was made by an eighteen-year-old woman. It occurred to me the other day that most 18-year-old girls who were high achievers were enrolling at college, but Swift was about to embark on her first tour to support Fearless. The album was another mix of quickies and slowies, the latter including the single ‘White Horse’ and a couple of neat album tracks including The Way I Loved You and The Best Day.

On White Horse, Taylor is vulnerable, “naïve…I didn’t know to be in love you had to fight to have the upper hand”. Confused, learning about the world, figuring out that she isn’t a princess. “This is a small town, I was a dreamer…and I let you down.” It’s tender, and elegiac with the strings and brushed drums. As with the title track of the album White Horse becomes more emphatic briefly in what’s called the Middle 8, the change in melodic shape just before the final chorus. No man on his white horse (or woman, I suppose, if gender is equal) can “catch” Taylor. Life is real and gritty and disappointing…

A lot of the production is clear, giving space to every instrument and coating Taylor’s voice in pleasant harmonies.

The Best Day is a gentle tale about tough teenage lives being remedied by being curled up with friends and family. It’s very country and somewhat saccharine, but it’s a comforting song for a Swift fan. Musically The Way I Loved You (also from Fearless) is excellent – banjo, snare drums, string section, guitar solo, and another strong chorus complete with Beatles-y minor chords. There is a great vocal too, and a lyric about a boy and the “rollercoaster kinda rush” of being in love.

Without hyperbole, only Paul McCartney and possibly Elvis Costello can rival Taylor’s album-to-album consistency. David Bowie, too, is another act who surprises his followers and fans. The difference between these acts is the era they found themselves in. McCartney played the game because Brian Epstein worked him hard, Costello followed his muse and Bowie could afford to kill off Ziggy Stardust and spend the rest of the 1970s making weird arthouse rock music or ‘plastic soul’ (as he did on Young Americans). Taylor Swift’s version of arthouse is moving to Brooklyn, in New York, and partying with her friend Lena Dunham.

Taylor is a Millennial, the generation who overshares, shares online links and is presumed missing if they don’t send out a social media missive every few hours or so. Almost 25m people await her next Instagram post: a recent one starred Haim and Ellie Goulding to celebrate International Women’s Day, another was with DJ Nick Grimshaw and popstar and friend Ed Sheeran in a photo booth.

Stunningly 55m people or robots await her musings on Twitter. She has just thanked her fans for her third straight number one in the pop chart, Style, and reminded the world that 50 days from March 16 her 1989 Tour begins. She’ll be on the road playing the new hits for the first time all year, starting in May, including Style (already a hit) and Bad Blood, which is an expected future hit.

Attending pop and style awards shows, Taylor has been photographed with Kanye West and his wife Kim, crooner Sam Smith and chart-bothering friends Hozier and Ed Sheeran. And yet she takes time to do humanitarian work making her fans’ lives better. Buzzfeed ran a piece which listed (of course it did…) 21 occasions that she changed their lives. She shut a toy store to ensure every kid could choose one toy as a thank you for being in the video for Mine (the shoot took 18 hours). Ed Sheeran has said that she paints guitars for terminally ill children who write her letters. Last year she famously donated 1989 dollars to a fan to assist her student loan bill; caught on camera, the fan broke down in tears. She has also invited fans to her house for pizza and to award shows, and also to be in the Shake it Off music video.

The first single from Taylor’s first pop album, 1989, was a global smash hit. Notwithstanding that she took out copyright over the phrase “This. Sick. Beat.”, and that the record did not stream with Spotify because she could earn more money if people bought the album (which has just come out with extra tracks in a deluxe edition), it’s brilliant. Three chords, a percussive rhythm and a killer chorus with an uplifting message (“Haters gonna hate..I’m just gonna shake it off!”)

It’s hardly Tim McGraw, the first track on her first record: “When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think of me.” Taylor’s catalogue includes lots of positive tracks, including Stay Beautiful and a Place in this World.

Dear John is a fascinating track, coming midway through third album Speak Now. It’s got a scorching guitar part played by Nathan Chapman, her producer, and a biting lyric about being messed around and reduced to tears, set to a 6/8 ballad feel. “You’re an expert in sorry, and keeping lines blurry”, she sings, ultimately triumphant: “I took your matches before fire could catch me”. The track was part of her set for her second big tour, which came to London’s O2 arena in March 2011 and went on to fill LA’s Staples Center for four nights in August. In total she played to over 1.5m fans, some of whom had surely seen her show more than once.

Taylor was 21 and headlining huge arenas in America essentially as a country star. Songs like Mean and Last Kiss were played in the American shows (but omitted in the shorter European set), the former a song about how Taylor will “some day be living in a big old city”; as mentioned, in 2014 she moved to New York. Taylor ended her set with Love Story and began with another great pop song, Sparks Fly.

Sparks Fly is a better song than the weak The Story of Us, which tried too hard to be thudding country-pop for my liking, and was nowhere near as good as Love Story. Fifteen is another formulaic song, although I won’t pour too much scorn over it because it’s a song for and about 15-year-old kids at school trying to be liked and the reference to “a redhead named Abigail” is because Taylor Swift really did have a friend of that name at school. She “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind/ And we both cried”. There’s a whole story in that stanza, and Swift’s genius is to set that to melody and get to the nub of the emotion in the line. Fifteen is one of seven solo Swift-penned songs on Fearless, while others were co-written with songwriters like Liz Rose, who helped write Teardrops on my Guitar and six other tracks on her first record.

Amazingly, on Speak Now, nobody is credited with the songs apart from Taylor. Some would say this is to the detriment of the quality of songs, but hardly any musician – I can only think of Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Todd Rundgren, Prince, Stevie Wonder and forgotten pop maestro Emitt Rhodes, though I am sure there are more – has been trusted to write every note of music on their third album.

Speak Now was the ninth biggest-selling album of any genre in 2010, the second biggest-seller in 2011 and in 2012, the year fourth record Red was released, it was still among the top 50. And yet it was still classed as a Country album, being in that genre the best-seller of 2011 and third-best-seller of 2010.

I should reiterate that usually these Audio Essays have a Spotify playlist to accompany them, but Taylor Swift pulled all her music from the streaming service. Some writers noted that she did so around the time Google launched their new service, but this was coincidental. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in July 2014, Taylor wrote: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

At the end of March 2015, Jay-Z launched a service called TIDAL which costs 20 dollars a month and provides higher-quality fidelity in sound files. Along with Daft Punk, Jack White, Madonna and Beyonce, Taylor Swift has put her music on there.

Neil Young’s PONO service offers high-quality audio at a fee and perhaps every artist will one day stream their own music from a dedicated online boutique store or service, the true 360-degree experience. Finally, people can hear 1989 in a way that doesn’t mean they have to boringly go out and buy a CD, or lazily click the BUY button in a download store so that Taylor is remunerated, albeit scantily after all the reductions and advances to pay off, for creating at least two of the finest pop songs of the last few years.

You have to include We Are Never Ever Getting Back Togther and Blank Space in any discussion of Taylor Swift. Both songs were written with Max Martin, a sort of Swedish Paul McCartney who will one day get as many plaudits as McCartney or Taylor. McCartney would kill for the chorus of either of those songs, had he not written some nice ones himself.

Album number four, Red, came out in October 2012, so there was only half a year between the Speak Now tour finishing and the process for Red starting. In fact, the first single came out in August, and soundtracked summer 2012. Because she had written Speak Now by herself, she went back to co-writing (probably backed up by the finance of Sony and Big Machine) and in the end put out what I still call a too-long album.

It sold a million in a week, which albums never do any more because of streaming, yet was still billed as a country album, though the only ‘country’ thing about Back Together is the guitar loop that begins and runs through the song.

Thanks to the success of that tune, Taylor got her much-deserved UK breakthrough, only four years after I’d heard Our Song on the BBC radio show America’s Greatest Hits with Paul Gambaccini. The song went top five, blocked in its path to number one by Ne-Yo, Adele, One Direction, The Script, Pink and of course Gangnam Style. Back Together was one of the finest pop tunes of 2012, thanks to its bounce, its lyric, the attitude of its performer, the fact that it sounds like a jingle, and of course because it’s another strong anthem for the young woman.

The credits for Red are amazing. Max Martin, Dan Wilson (who co-wrote Someone Like You for Adele), Liz Rose, Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, Jeff Bhasker who co-produced the new Mark Ronson album and Butch Walker, who produced the Ed-Taylor duet Everything Has Changed. Butch has his sonic fingers over albums by Weezer, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Bowling for Soup and Katy Perry, but the Ed Sheeran song is, to be quite critical of it, treacly and bland.

Still bland, but blandness sells. Ed Sheeran got his US break, in part, by supporting Taylor on her Red tour which, oddly, featured additional support from Florida Georgia Line, an act on the border of country music and hiphop. She played most of the new record, peppered with older songs You Belong with Me, Mean, Sparks Fly and Love Story thrown in too. A fifteen-month tour played to 1.7m people, with the Australian gigs supported by great pop act Neon Trees and Australia’s 2015 Eurovision Song Content entry (don’t ask) Guy Sebastian, whom I’m led to believe is very big down there.

Her shows at the O2 arena, all five of them, were opened by The Vamps, very much a guitar-pop band whose fanbase is tweenagers between eight and eighteen. Taylor Swift is hitting that demographic with brilliant pop songs.

She’s just bought a place in New York, and already has one in Rhode Island. In fact, the Taylor Swift tax is so-called because the state of Rhode Island is putting up rates on anyone who owns additional property (ie, second homes) which has a market value over a million pounds. Need I restate that most 25-year-old women cannot afford even to make rent on a cardboard box, but Taylor Swift is not most 25-year-old women…

Following on from 15, Red contained 22, the best single released from the album, which makes reference to hipsters and friendship and being “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time”. Again, Taylor condenses a demographic into one line – stuck in the bridge of the song! In 2013, I was 25, but knew some 22-year-olds just graduating into the world of work and competing for jobs with the class of 2011 and 2012. I went back to school for no reason (well, freelance work was fallow that year) and had an idea for a book about why footballers, some of whom are my age, earn so much money even though they don’t have university degrees. I do have one; Taylor Swift doesn’t. Guess who owns their own house?

As of the end of March 2015, Taylor has put out 34 singles from her five albums. Teardrops on my Guitar went three times platinum, Our Song four times, Love Story & You Belong With Me seven times. Thanks to the movie The Hunger Games two of her tracks, Safe & Sound and Eyes Open, charted, but she had to wait until Back Together to have her first Billboard Hot 100 number one. Not bad at all for a country artist, only Shania Twain does that!

Ask anyone what they think Taylor Swift represents, people may point to her Instagram page, her great radio-friendly hits or that when she won a Grammy Kanye West got upset on Beyonce’s behalf. Beyonce is now part of the Jay-Z industry, which is a crass way to treat an artist who is innovative and released an album at the very end of 2013, a year before 1989 dropped.

As a final track on the first edition of 1989, having Imogen Heap co-write Clean is a great artistic step. Heap is not an easy artist but her work is very beautiful. It is hard to think that Taylor can top the pop anthems of Shake it Off, Blank Space or I Wish You Would. She’s friends with artists as diverse as Haim, Ed Sheeran and Jack Antonoff from Fun. It helps to have Max Martin and Mr Nashville Scott Borchetta on speed dial, and to be a bankable star on record and in the live sphere – the 1989 tour cycle kicks off soon.

I am excited to hear what Taylor does next. My mum, who is older even than me, is seeing her play a gig in Hyde Park over summer, doing all the hits. They say it takes ten years to become an overnight sensation, and it has now been a decade since Taylor moved to Nashville. Now in New York, and with millions of fans all around the world, it is not putting it too mildly that there is no bigger female popstar – including Madonna – on planet Earth than Taylor Swift.

Eddie

Eddie Argos, ‘I Formed a Band’ interview

To accompany a podcast celebrating the work of Eddie Argos and his Art Brut, and to co-incide with the imminent launch of I Formed a Band, a memoir of his life and music (with a foreword by Black Francis of Pixies), Chris Imlach and Jonny Brick came up with some questions we would really like the chap himself to answer.

He obliged, and here are his answers! 

You grew up in Bournemouth. Will Eddie Howe push the team up, or will it be a season too soon?

I don’t know anything about football! When I was growing up the Cherries were going bankrupt, and there was a lot of money collecting for them to keep the team going, it was unavoidable there were posters everywhere. I think this is actually the first time I’ve realised that the campaigning must have worked and they still exist!

What’s been the high point of the Art Brut journey so far? How was the 10th anniversary gig of 2013?

The anniversary gig was great. It was kind of amazing we’ve existed so long, so to celebrate it with loads of people at the Scala [in London’s Kings Cross] felt brilliant.

If I’m honest it’s all been high points. When we started I never thought that we’d tour the world at all, let alone for so long. All the places we’ve played and people we’ve met…it’s ace. 

Are you excited about the recent return of Pixies and, more importantly, the fact that there’s going to be a new Ghostbusters film?

Mad excited about the Ghostbusters reboot. I don’t understand people who can be down on something before it even exists. I’d rather the Ghostbusters reboot become a real thing and I get to make my own mind up about it, then it get stopped because people don’t like the idea. It’s not like it’s going to wipe out the legacy of the other films solely by existing and it might actually be fantastic.

I like the new Pixies album a lot. I don’t think bands should be allowed to reform without putting out a record, so I’m glad they finally did. For all the same reasons I just mentioned about Ghostbusters, I’d much rather art by an artist I like to exist to make up my own mind about it, than for that artist to worry about their legacy.

Who else are you excited about listening to at the moment, musically speaking?

I’m just back from SXSW [South by South-West, the hipster Glastonbury in Austin, Texas]. I was out there with my art exhibition, and I spent the whole time worrying that I didn’t like any new music as the best thing I’d seen for the whole festival was a reformed The Pop Group.

Then on the last day I saw a band called Happyness who were brilliant with great songs and personality and a sense of humour and all the things I love and also Ultimate Painting who were just brilliant. I was talking to Happyness’s manger about Ultimate Painting and we decided they were like Teenage Fanclub if they’d listened to grand Funk Railroad instead of Big Star. So those two bands restored my faith in new music.

I also really like Parquet Courts and Fidlar. I wish there had been more of that kind of DIY stuff about when we started…

Emily Kane got to no. 41, an ‘almost hit’…Did you care that it just missed the Top 40?

I always try and put a brave face on it, but of course I care.

Art Brut can be perceived as a bit of an eccentric band sometimes, when really we’re just trying to make pop music, I think getting in the Top 40 would have lent us a legitimacy that would have been useful to prove we’re not so strange.

What’s really upsetting about all that is we missed the top 40 by one sale and not only could we not afford to buy copies ourselves at the time, it was the first week that downloads counted and we weren’t registered with iTunes and the service we were using for downloads made a mistake so only half of the sales counted. We should have been in the top 30. Dammit.

The French Resistance album from 2011 was Fix the Charts vol 1. Is there a volume two to follow?

Maybe as a book or a series of educational talks. That record was a written with my girlfriend at the time and we don’t really speak any more, so I can’t see there being another record really. 

How is the move into spoken word / memoir going? Are there any big differences to your performances now you have no band behind you?

The memoir [I Formed a Band, out in May] is going really well. I was a bit worried as turning my life into a Just William book is quite a strange thing to do. So I’m very happy people got behind it.

With the spoken word it is a bit strange there being no band behind me, but I’ve always talked an awful lot onstage. The spoken word show is really a 45-minute introduction to the song Formed a Band, only I don’t sing the song at the end of it. Thinking of it that way made it a lot easier.

What are your favourite cities to play? What inspired your move to Berlin?

I like playing anywhere really, I don’t really have a favourite place. I just love being onstage. 

I’ve always liked Germany, and wanted to get the fuck out of London as I don’t like what it is turning into with all the venues shutting, everything being so unbelievably expensive etc. Berlin just seemed like the natural choice.

How much are your songs (ie Direct Hit, Jealous Guy, Pump up the Volume) based on things that have really happened to you?

Direct Hit is in fact probably the only song we have that isn’t about something to do with me, as I hate to dance. Everything else is autobiographical.

I use songwriting as therapy really, and trying to rhyme my experiences is a really good way of figuring out how I really feel about something. Also it’s very addictive to put a completely honest bit of yourself out there and see what you get back.

In a past interview you spoke about writing songs with ‘Backwards Causality’, where the point emerges as you write the song. Is that how you wrote the memoir too? If not, what should we expect?

Backwards Causality is something I only tried on the last Art Brut record, I usually have a pretty firm idea of what a song is about when I start it. Like I said I use songs as therapy really, or sometimes putting forward one half (my half, the correct half) of an argument. It was very liberating using backwards causality for that last record though, I found out a lot about myself. I’m definitely going to experiment with it again.

The memoir is more me trying to capture the excitement of being in a band on the page to encourage others to go out and start one themselves. There is a really good quote from the band Buzzcocks about how once you see your friends releasing records you realise it’s not this impossible thing, anyone can do it. I’m hoping my book is a bit like that, that people read it and see that I can be a bit of an idiot and I still succeeded on some level of being in a band so maybe they can too, and if not that it’s fun trying.

The world needs more bands. My thirst for new music is unquenchable.

For more information about Eddie’s memoir visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/eddie-argos-i-formed-a-band. 

Hear the Art Brut discussion at mixcloud.com/blastocast!

xy

x+y

People in the past have told me that I am difficult. Without getting too much into memoir, I was a difficult child, content with FIFA on the Playstation or listening to the radio while doing homework and trying to pass my school exams at the top grade.

I started writing down the Top 40 Charts in a book when I was old enough to write, and those books, which I continued up until I was 15 or 16, are among my most treasured possessions. Family holidays were, I guess, difficult: long car journeys with squabbling parents, time zones to adjust to and planes to catch. When I got to university I had my first experience of disagreeing with people. At school I withdrew, always angry on the football pitch or when I made an embarrassing mistake in Latin or Greek. Sometimes I would say to myself, Today say nothing, don’t speak until you’re spoken to, try not to fall out with anyone, be anonymous.

When I was 16 I wrote a nasty piece of satire called The Critic. In it I lampooned people who did what teenagers do: drink, meet girls, desperately find a social circle. I always stood, like a satirist, on the outside. It helped that for my last two years at school the maximum class size was 13, and a lot of those overlapped. I didn’t socialise at all because I had no money; I spent my evenings listening to music and then learning the guitar, and then when I went off to university I was ill-equipped to adjust to independent living. I spent no money, made few friends and tried as best as possible to attend every single class.

In 2008 I quit my post on the committee of FreshAir.org.uk, the university radio station. I was angry at several things – the un-PC way one member of the team referred to people with Down’s Syndrome, the lack of support I was getting for an American Election special broadcast, the eejit of a manager just getting something on her CV. I wrote a letter of resignation and withdrew into watching movies and reading books. I had few friends again and tried to keep out of people’s way. Every week, it seemed, I made a new enemy or fell out with someone. When I came back to London in 2011, I felt very lost and despite living at home and being surrounded by family, I was fumbling through my young adulthood.

I now realise I may have suffered from a mild form of autism, such as those suffered by the characters in the new film x+y, which I saw with my brother in mid-March 2015. It’s a staggering film for someone who lives inside his head most of the time. Asa Butterfield is convincing and masterful as a protagonist, Nathan, who lost his father as a child and cannot connect with his mother, Sally Hawkins, because he believes she cannot understand him.

Nathan likes things just so: seven prawn balls from the takeaway, for instance, and loosens from his mother’s grip at his dad’s funeral, running away because he has no ability to process his emotions. At school he is teased and mocked, and at home he tries to solve difficult maths problems in his bedroom. Encouraged by a teacher at his new school, Rafe Spall playing an MS sufferer and drug addict named Martin Humphrys, Nathan eventually makes the British team for the IMO, the International Maths Olympiad.

He battles through the training camp in Taiwan, and meets a Chinese girl named Zhang Mei. She is the niece of the Chinese team’s coach, who spars jokingly with the British team leader, a brilliant Eddie Marsan. Taiwan looks brilliant, and Zhang Mei and Nathan wander through the streets, with its chaotic crossing points, while communicating in a mixture of Chinese and English. Jo Yang plays the Chinese girl brilliantly, and is one to watch. About Asa we know since his roles in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Hugo; he turns 18 on April 1 so I hope he has a very nice party to celebrate.

Speaking to the BBC Films site, Asa said he spoke to people including the inspiration for Nathan, a boy named Daniel who won a Silver medal in the 2006 Olympiad and married a Chinese girl from whom he is divorced. Rafe also spoke with MS sufferers after he took on the role, and convincingly walks with a stick for a lot of the film. The verisimilitude, the true-to-lifeness of the actors playing their roles, is astounding.

Director Morgan Matthews, who gets great performances out of his cast, had documented that 2006 tournament in an earlier film of his, Beautiful Young Minds. Funded in part by BBC Films, x+y is a great film that ought to be shown in Social Studies lessons to students aged between 14 and 17. The film premiered at the 2014 London Film Festival and gained UK distribution in March 2015. The BBC’s film critic Mark Kermode liked it a lot, especially the acting performances which are “really lovely”.

Sally and Rafe knew each other from a play they performed called Constellations, which is now on Broadway with a new cast; the chemistry already exists, and the pair of them on screen are beautiful, with awkward pseudo-romantic exchanges as Julie, Nathan’s mum played by Sally Hawkins, enjoys spending time in the company of someone who understands and guides her difficult son.

The most painful parts of the movie are when the audience sees characters like Julie break down, notably one scene in the car. I also have a tendency to be harsh on people, telling them they never get anything right, so there was extra emotion in certain scenes when Nathan’s actions were harsh and disproportionate.

As for the ending of the film, set at Trinity College Cambridge, Nathan has a choice to make based on his journey, and he makes the right choice in the end. I left the cinema in tears, and with a mission to understand more about my own difficulties in communication. Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or Asperger’s, is a condition that affects the mental health of the sufferer, and seeing Nathan wandering, seemingly lost without formulas, struck me. His fellow UK squad members also had their social problems, notably one maths wizard who ends up doing damage to himself because his sense of humour doesn’t work. The Times, who ran an interview with Daniel Lightwing on March 23, have an ongoing campaign for child mental health awareness, and conditions such as ASD exacerbate depression and not reaching high targets. Support it if you can.

X+Y is still in selected UK cinemas, and is out on DVD over summer. An audio version of this piece features at mixcloud.com/blastocast as part of the second show in the new series of Blastocasts.

bay

James Blunt in a hat? James Bay’s new record is more than just that…

James Bay and the Critics’ Choice

James Bay was described by Neil McCormick, the Telegraph’s Rock Critic, as James Blunt in a hat.

His debut album was the biggest-seller of the last week of March 2015, and everyone knew it would be. This is because in January James was announced as the latest Critics’ Choice, an award given by the British Record Industry as part of the BRIT Awards. Essentially, this was the record industry saying to the public that the people who know about new acts, critics, knew that they guy was going to be number one some day.

On the strength of Hold Back the River, I applauded this. The song, co-written with Iain Archer who has worked with Snow Patrol and Jake Bugg, is gorgeous. Thanks to immaculate production by Norah Jones’s guy with the knobs Jacquire King, the song is one of the decade’s great pop songs. It moves from the second chorus to a sumptuous middle eight which ends with Joe Cocker-like delivery of the line “Let us hold each other”.

Now, popular artists do a lot of holding and staying and needing and loving. Sam Smith said “stay with me”, Emeli Sande said “you’ll find him next to me”. Above all, the best songs are about self-expression. “Don’t believe me? Just watch” in Uptown Funk; to a lesser extent, “You’re a good girl” in Blurred Lines, which spent three months on top of the American charts in 2013; “You’re gonna hear me roar” by Katy Perry and “I’m just gonna shake it off by Taylor Swift.

And yet since Adele had three number ones from 21 – Someone Like You, Rolling in the Deep, Set Fire to the Rain – the American charts have been topped by two Brits. Charli xcx sang the chorus of Fancy, Iggy Azalea’s song, while Mark Ronson plays guitar and produces Uptown Funk.

For British acts, who include One Direction, Mumford & Sons, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay, this is a pretty poor return on a song-by-song basis in the American charts, despite their success in genre charts and with full-length releases. To go back further, Viva la Vida and Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love (written by Ryan Tedder, an American) were the last British number one songs in the American Hot 100, back in 2008, before Adele’s three. So since Bleeding Love, and apart from Adele, that’s only one act (whose song was in an Apple commercial) who topped the biggest chart in the Western World and did the whole thing themselves.

Does it matter? I don’t know. Let’s return to James Bay and the Critics’ Choice.

James Bay’s record was produced by an American, unlike those of Sam Smith and Adele and Ellie Goulding and Florence + the Machine. Those acts have all been produced by Brits, either Jimmy Napes in the case of Sam Smith or the great Paul Epworth, who masterminded Adele and Florence. The Florence album, from 2008, was co-produced by James Ford, who has also worked with Arctic Monkeys, who have finally broken America with their last album AM, even if they’ve been recording in America since third album Humbug.

Ellie Goulding’s friend who produces under the name Starsmith has just produced the UK’s number one single Hold my Hand by Jess Glynne, following his work with Clean Bandit on Rather Be. Tom Odell’s producer learned his stuff from Nigel Godrich, who has worked with Radiohead and Paul McCartney among many others; Dan Grech is the man who produced albums by hot UK acts including The Vaccines and Keane, and has just produced the debut from Circa Waves, a band who recall the best rock music of the last fifteen years but were only children when The Strokes, their obvious musical touchstone, made their first record.

Odell and Jessie J have seen TV boost their popularity, the former through singing a cover of Real Love in the 2014 advert for John Lewis stores, the latter being a judge on BBC’s The Voice. Odell had a number one album while Jessie J was unlucky to put her record out while Adele’s 21 was the record of choice and was stuck behind it despite selling 1m copies within a few months. Interestingly, and like James Bay, Jessie J worked with a mix of Brits, including The Invisible Men (who worked with the supercool Noisettes), and Americans, like Dr Luke.

Does all this matter? Probably not. There is no formula for success, but money helps. James Bay has the full weight of Republic Records behind him. They’re the ones who hooked him up with a top producer and can team him up with songwriters like Iain Archer and Ed Harcourt. The latter helped write Get Out While You Can, a propulsive track which sounds brilliant and should be a future single.

The shadow songwriter world is exciting for me. I love the music of Iain and of Ed, and of Ed Sheeran too, whose collaborator Jake Gosling works on the album’s final track, Incomplete. Joel Pott of the band Athlete, whose song Wires is a fantastic song about children in intensive care, uses his ability to write great melodies for his own band in a song called Need the Sun to Break. Pott also co-wrote Budapest with George Ezra, whose manager is also the manager of…James Bay, the man whose name adorns Chaos and the Calm. And who wears a hat.

Like Ed Sheeran, James plied his strings at open mic nights. Ed did the East Anglian circuit, James played Brighton as he studied at music college alongside…Tom Odell. At the start of 2015, before his record came out, he played Late Night with Seth Meyers, debuting Let It Go to a US audience. He had played live out there, opening for Hozier, another act from over here (Ireland) doing big things over there. James has been lined up to open for Taylor Swift, a big fan of his music, in the European leg of her 2015 tour.

Bay got his break on Radio 1. I was at home working and kept hearing that song Hold Back the River, and about how James filled in for a sick Lana Del Rey in Radio 1’s month-long shows from the Live Lounge in September 2014. He played Let It Go, a song about people being who they are (“You be you and I’ll be me”).

He has professed himself a big fan of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. He takes the former’s vocal style and the latter’s love of wide open spaces. There is no track on Chaos and the Calm as good as Hold Back the River, which is about to be dropped into American audiences who are still swooning over Sam Smith. The track he used to play at open mic nights, Move Together, which was famously filmed at a performance in Kentish Town’s Abbey Tavern, is present and correct, and very nice. He can really sing, and really play, just like Ed Sheeran or George Ezra. Authenticity is key for a guy like James Bay, and for an audience wise to the Auto-tune and Twitter and self-appearance and lies.

Is this album the Album of the Year? Not by a long chalk. Sufjan Stevens’ record is, and it’ll sell ten times fewer copies than that of James Bay. Some of Chaos and the Calm drags and some tracks just waft by.

But there is real tenderness and emotion and he is a great live performer, much like Hozier or Ed Sheeran. He is certainly more palatable that the sometimes difficult Tom Odell, whose Can’t Pretend is about the only song of his I like. In fact I find all the albums by Critics’ Choice winners patchy. In truth I didn’t like Jessie J’s record at all! Nor Emeli Sande’s really, but that’s because I built it up in my head as being brilliant when it was merely average.

Every Critics’ Choice winner is an idea. Adele was a guitar-playing soul starlet before dropping the guitar; Emeli Sande had urban grit to go with her soul; Tom Odell could play the piano, Sam Smith could sing beautifully and Ellie Goulding brought the dancefloor to pop music.

As for James Bay this is serious songwriting, crafted expertly and delivered with soul. The critics are right!

Chaos and the Calm by James Bay is out now on Virgin/ Republic Records.

Unknown

Elite Player Performance Plan: The Two Pathways to the Three Lions

In which is explained the two ways to become a full England international…

At the end of March, England’s national first team once again had to answer questions asked, this time, by Lithuania and Italy. The first of these, if won, would move England closer to qualification for the 24-team 2016 European Championships. If England were to have beaten Italy, they will avenge the loss in the 2012 tournament. I was at a gig that night, realising Italy were probably the better team and Pirlo would do something to knock us out. I was not incorrect.

In 2015, England have a tremendous crop of players who play regularly for the top clubs. Exciting talents include Nathaniel Clyne at Southampton, Raheem Sterling and a fit again Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool, team captain Wayne Rooney at Manchester United and James Milner at Manchester City.

Arsenal have several excellent talents: Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs at the back, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the middle and Theo Walcott and Daniel Welbeck up front. Joe Hart is still England’s number one (Fraser Forster is helping Southampton stay high up the table, though he’s England’s second choice), and mainstays like Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines and Jordan Henderson are automatic first-team picks now.

Those in the periphery of the first team include Stewart Downing, Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley, who have all played or still play on Merseyside. Upfront the dilemma is between Saido Berahino and Harry Kane for the striker supersub role. It was certain that Rooney and Sturridge would play as 9 and 10 against Lithuania, with any of Barkley, Sterling, Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain at 7 and 11. With Sturridge ruled out, there was no compelling reason not to throw Harry Kane in for his international full debut at Wembley Stadium. He grew up a few miles away, anyhow!

In the old Steven Gerrard position is Henderson, bought for a lot of money at an age when he hadn’t really played all that much for Sunderland. With the former England captain as a mentor, Henderson is now in a position next year to captain Liverpool Football Club. Lest we forget Henderson also captained the England Under-21 side, and is respected in the game even if he is best-known for being the target of Alex Ferguson’s ‘can’t sign him, he runs funny’ jibe. He will surely step up to captain Liverpool FC in 2015/6.

Henderson is one of many full internationals who made their debut for their club sides as a teenager, and became a first-team player in the Premiership. This makes Henderson one of the best players in his age group in the country. Phil Jones was treated more favourably by Ferguson, who signed a teenage Jones from Blackburn in 2011 after only 35 senior games, mostly in the Premier League, as an 18-year-old.

Likewise Theo Walcott (Southampton, then Arsenal), who went to Germany on the advice of Arsene Wenger. He did not play but made his England debut soon after. Beset by injuries, his career runs parallel to that of Daniel Sturridge, who has played for Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool and scored for all of them.

Wayne Rooney broke in to the Everton side under David Moyes at 16 and scored on his debut against Arsenal, bending the ball round Sol Campbell and past David Seaman. A decade later, Ross Barkley was said to be Wayne Mark 2, and was fast-tracked to the first team. He is a tremendously exciting player and gets England fans buzzing, playing in the strikers and taking the ball off the defenders. Raheem Sterling, still only 20 years old, does the same, as does Oxlade-Chamberlain, who like Walcott was a teenage star from the same Southampton youth academy that brought through Luke Shaw (now at Manchester United) and Chambers. At Everton, young John Stones is now a confident first-team player, and of course Harry Kane is the top-scoring English player in the 2014/5 Premiership season. Unlike Berahino, he seems to love it when he scores goals.

Kane, and his Spurs colleagues Andros Townsend and Danny Rose, did not break into the Spurs team immediately. As is well documented, the three of them had a total of 17 loan moves (4 each for Rose and Kane, 9 for Townsend) between 2009 and their breakthroughs in the 2013/4 season, helped by Tim Sherwood’s management. Ryan Mason’s England career has started with a call-up to the squad to replace Lallana, and those of Alex Pritchard and Dele Alli may follow; the former after a great season at Brentford, the latter having been signed from Milton Keynes in January and loaned back to help MK Dons in their promotion quest under the great (future Spurs?) gaffer Karl Robinson.

Just for fun, I have compiled two squads of players. The first is made up of players who have reached the England side through various loan moves lower down the Football League.

Joe Hart is in goal. Defenders are Michael Keane, Gary Cahill, Nat Chalobah and Carl Jenkinson. Midfielders include ex-Preston loanee David Beckham, Josh McEachran, Tom Cleverley and Andros Townsend, with the two strikers Daniel Sturridge and Jermaine Defoe. On the bench are Harry Kane and Patrick Bamford, two future England internationals and recent under-21 stalwarts.

The second XI is a fast-track eleven, who became first-teamers in their first clubs and were bought for astonishing amounts of money or moved for nothing to another big club.

In goal is Watford Academy graduate David James, behind a defensive four of Phil Jones, Sol Campbell, John Terry and Ashley Cole. The midfield four is Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Raheem Sterling, who all made their Premier League debuts at 16 or 17. The two most exciting England forwards not named Wayne, Emile Heskey and Michael Owen, keep Alan Shearer out the team, and I’ll put Ashley Young on the bench too alongside Wayne Rooney.

Regardless of what happens at Wembley and in Rome, England has a great pedigree of football international, and in another piece to be found on Blastocyst.org.uk, I will look to the future and envisage a roster of players who could potentially be called up for the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in December 2022…

England v Lithuania is Live on ITV1 from 7pm on Friday 27 March. Kick-off is at 7.45pm GMT.

Dyche

Can England win the World Cup?

Below, as an addendum to this piece and a sneak preview of Chapter Four of my book, Saturday, 3pm, is a list of all the possible players who are under consideration for England’s 2018 World Cup challenge, pending qualification.

I am confident that the FA will choose Sean Dyche (pictured with a trophy) as the next England gaffer.

The 2018 roster is a squad of 30 players (3 goalies, 8 defenders and 19 midfielders and attackers)

GK Hart, Foster, Forster, Butland, Ruddy, Green, Jonny Bond, Stockdale, Jason Steele

RB Clyne, Jones, Chambers, Stones, Walker, Jack Robinson, Tyias Browning, Wisdom, Toddy Kane

CB Cahill, Jagielka, Smalling, Blackett, Tom Thorpe, Mike Keane, Dier, Liam Moore, Gibson, Lascelles

LB Baines, Gibbs, Rose, Shaw, Targett, Garbutt, Jenkinson, Fryers, Flanagan, Maguire

RM Milner, Redmond, Chamberlain

CM Carrick (who may retire in 2016 from international football), Henderson, Barkley, Delph, Wilshere, Will Hughes, Chalobah, Pritchard, Arter (also eligible for Republic of Ireland), Ward-Prowse, Tom Carroll, Forster-Caskey, Lewis Baker, Winks, Loftus-Cheek, McEachran, Solly March, Obita, Jordan Cousins, Gary Gardner

LM Ibe, Sterling, Lallana, Townsend, Lingard, Zaha, Ravel Morrison (behaviour permitting)

AM Sturridge, Welbeck, Rooney, Pat Roberts, Ojo, Shelvey, Nick Powell

ST Kane, Ings, Bamford, Walcott, Berahino, Deeney, Callum Wilson, James Wilson, Akpom, Izzy Brown, Woodrow, Afobe, Wickham, Will Keane, Andy Carroll

This squad incorporates those players likely to be playing when the 2022 World Cup takes place in Qatar. I cannot pick a squad from these players.

GK Forster, Butland, Ruddy, Jonny Bond, Freddie Woodman

RB Clyne, Walker, Chambers, Jones, Stones, Jack Robinson, Tyias Browning, Wisdom, Toddy Kane

CB Cahill, Smalling, Blackett, Tom Thorpe, Mike Keane, Dier, Liam Moore, Gibson, Lascelles

LB Gibbs, Rose, Shaw, Targett, Garbutt, Jenkinson, Fryers, Flanagan, Maguire

RM Redmond, Chamberlain,

CM Henderson, Barkley, Delph, Wilshere, Arter, Will Hughes, Pritchard, Chalobah, Ward-Prowse, Carroll, Forster-Caskey, Lewis Baker, Winks, Loftus-Cheek, McEachran, Solly March, Obita, Jordan Cousins, Gary Gardner

LM Townsend, Sterling, Lallana, Lingard, Zaha, Ibe, Ravel Morrison

AM Sturridge, Welbeck, Pat Roberts, Ojo, Shelvey, Nick Powell

ST Kane, Ings, Berahino, Bamford, Walcott, Deeney, Callum Wilson, James Wilson, Akpom, Izzy Brown, Woodrow, Afobe, Wickham, Will Keane

Before I publish my book, I hope to talk to the current England management set-up including Gareth Southgate, manager of the Under-21 side, Aidy Boothroyd who takes the Under-20 team and Sean O’Driscoll, who picks the Under-19 team.

If anyone can put in a word for me, be in touch on Twitter @jonnybrick or by email at jonny_brick@yahoo.co.uk!

In-ger-lund…

England’s spring internationals are March 27 (Lithuania at home) and March 31 (Italy away). Best wishes to England’s future number one, Fraser Forster, whose next game for his country may well be at Euro 2016!!!

Dyche

Tony Jameson: “I don’t boo Ashley Cole” and other thoughts from the comic whose life has been “Ruined” by Football Manager

This April, comedian Tony Jameson is bringing back his 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show Football Manager Stole my Life.

In between writing pieces for his storification of his recent ‘save’, as each individual game is called, he answered some questions I put to him in advance of his week-long residency in the Lounge down the stairs at the Leicester Square Theatre. Firstly, I asked how the beloved football management simulation has taught him about what matters in the game. Has his tactical awareness improved, and what about his hatred of agents, who often demand 15% of a player’s annual wage upfront?

“I genuinely (and I might be being slightly deluded here) think that FM has kind of given me, and those that that play it, a bit of insight into the way a ‘real life’ football club works. I think the more detailed the game becomes, the more you learn. What I have realised is that the game has developed at the same time as my knowledge and understanding of the game. This may be down to my age, the amount of analysis within the football world, maybe FM, but I think I understand a lot more now than I did when I first started playing the game all those years ago.”

So his many MANY hours – which he calculates in his show as several months of life – have not been wasted. Top-level football is the option I always choose – I have been Man United for several versions of the game, and Watford for others. I asked Tony if he feels that at the top level it seems, with capacious hire-and-fire foreign chairmen, that the Premier League is a real-life Football Manager save?

“It’s certainly lost something,” Tony agrees. “The Premier League is a pantomime now. I think because of some of the things we now put up with, it does begin to feel less real, so in essence, maybe it is becoming life imitating art. There’s been moments in real life where you’d think, ‘If this was on FM, I’d probably just laugh’, but it’s actually real life, and that’s quite hard to comprehend.”

What is amazing, as documented in a book all about the game authored by Kenny Millar and Iain Macintosh, is when some players in the game receive real-life acclaim purely for having been useful and cheap in various versions of the game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for instance, started one version of the game at Malmo, and when bought by a European team immediately had a £20m valuation. Tony’s own favourites are from even older versions of the game: “Mark Kerr, the best defensive midfielder you could get for £40k. What a beast. Also Nii Lamptey, the Ghanian Pele.”

As part of Mark Watson’s Marathon efforts for Comic Relief, Tony and fellow comic Sean McLoughlin attempted to go from “League 2 to Premier League Champions in 27 hours”. Sean took over at Newport County, while Tony managed Accrington Stanley. Between them they raised £300 for Comic Relief, started to smell like bins and at 6pm Tony was relieved of his post. Eventually, after several failed interviews, he took over at a Belorussian club part-time where he saw out his challenge.

Is it, I asked Tony, more fun managing teams with no money, or is it nicer to manage the top teams who have millions of liquid cash available?

“I’m really enjoying managing from the bottom at the moment. Each version I only have one saved career. I start unemployed and see where I go. It’s a lot more fun than going in at the top with the big money.

“I think this way of playing has tied in with me falling a little out of love with the Premier League anyways. I much prefer the Championship as I think that’s a great league to watch.”

As a Watford fan I agree entirely. In fact I bought Championship players when managing Manchester United on Football Manager 2015, including Cauley Woodrow, who played in real life for Fulham against Watford in March 2015. Comic and actor Jason Manford tells an onstage anecdote where he blanks Micah Richards, the former England full-back because Virtual Micah was late for training. Has Tony’s relationship with players and teams in real life been affected by their simulated cousins?

“I’ve become a Blyth Spartans fan since playing FM,” he says, in admiration of a famous non-league team who play in the North-East corner of England in Step Seven in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, which has been topped for a while by FC United of Manchester, the splinter team formed by dissatisfied fans of Manchester United. After talking at length about Blyth in his live show, Tony has by proxy become known as a Spartans fan.

“Which is great! The amount of good luck tweets and texts I got throughout their FA Cup journey this year [they took a 2-0 lead against Birmingham City in the third round and conceded three times in the first six minutes of the second half to lose 2-3) was amazing.

“I suppose on the negative side,” Tony adds forlornly, “I now dislike a lot more teams because they’ve beaten me several times on FM.” I know how he feels: I was once 4-1 up at Bolton and lost 5-4, shattering a window with a magnetic dart in frustration. In real life Bolton are massively in debt, can only half-fill their stadium which is in a retail park and (an easy punchline) have Emile Heskey upfront.

My own love of management simulations began in 1999, when EA Sports brought out a Football Manager game to rival Eidos-SEGA’s Championship Manager. I asked Tony when his own addiction or habit started; he says in his show that the game is basically “football admin, and I don’t like doing admin!”

“I think the addiction started with the first version, if I’m 100% honest. I love video games, I love football, so I guess I was definitely going to fall in love with this game fairly swiftly. 21 years later and I’m still playing and loving each version.

“The show covers my relationship with the game. It is football admin, but it’s ultimately escapism. We all think we can do the manager of our teams job better than he can, and this game gives us a tiny simulated opportunity to prove ourselves right. Or wrong.”

Rather than an addict, Tony maintains that he is one of the game’s ‘enthusiasts’. “I play out of enjoyment. I don’t claim to be the ultimate FM gamer, so I’m sure there’s people out there who’ve played more than I have. I’m just the only one who thought it might make a comedy show.”

The show did very well in Edinburgh, and Tony has played it often in the two years since he conceived the idea: talking about his life while reflecting it through pixels and spreadsheets. I asked Tony Jameson if any professional footballer has been in attendance.

“We had John McGinn who plays for St Mirren in the front row of my show in Glasgow. I made him my assistant manager for the show without realising who he was. It was only after he tweeted me after the show that I realised. He’s a nice lad.”

Other nice lads populate the stand-up circuit, including the brilliant Gavin Webster (“That man can play any venue anywhere. He’s incredible”) and Justin Moorhouse, who often appears on 5Live’s Fighting Talk. Tony deserves to be at least as heralded as those two, not least for taking the time to promote his show, Football Manager Ruined My Life, on at the Leicester Square Theatre from the 13th to 18th April at 7pm.

Finally, I wanted to ask Tony just one of the eleven questions I am examining in my work Saturday, 3pm (seeking representation…). Ashley Cole was the idea for the book, the man who is as famous for his on-field work as his off-field transgressions involving ex-wives and work experience kids. The best in the world for three years at what he did for a job – an attacking full-back for a side who competed in England and Europe, as well as for his country – I asked Tony whether or not he would boo Ashley Cole.

“I don’t boo Ashley Cole. He’s one of the modern day footballers. He made as much money as he could; married someone as famous as he could; became as famous as he could. Footballers don’t have anywhere near as much loyalty to a club as the fans ever will.

“Maybe because I’m a Scotland fan, Ashley Cole doesn’t do anything for me. He was an awesome left back in his day though.”

Scotland fan?! That’s a DIFFERENT show entirely…

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Sunny Afternoon

This piece was originally published in Spring 2015. The cast has changed, but the show remains the same. 

Quite by accident, I drove through Muswell Hill on Tuesday March 10 2015. On that day 14 years previously I became a Jewish man, standing on a platform for an hour (people were quite patient) as I sang my barmitzvah portion about priestly garments and offerings at the ancient temple. Dad was very proud, and I was sad but relieved to finish the lessons with cantor Henry Black, who led the service.

It remains probably my most significant public performance, in front of friends and family in Bushey Synagogue, with braces recently removed from my previously crooked teeth. In the intervening years, I have had a succession of social circles both Jewish and goyische, chosen a university prominent for its tiny but loving Jewish community and watched every episode of Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm. I’m a Bagel Jew; looks like a Jew, tastes like a Jew, but with a big hole where the Jewish-est bit (praying, Jewish home life) should be…

In fact, I am more touched by music and sport than by religion. Community and heroes come in musical and footballing forms. Lionel Messi and Todd Rundgren have done more for my soul than Hashem has….Even Lloyd Doyley has scored two more goals than G-D.

So I’m driving through Muswell Hill, having taken a funny turning on the way to recording The Cellar Door in Kentish Town – you can listen to it at mixcloud.com/blastocast. I discover the road called Fortis Green, with its council houses and terraced tenements, that leads to Muswell Hill at a roundabout. Ray and Dave Davies grew up here, absorbing their environment in the 1940s and 1950s that helped shape the albums they made as The Kinks, a very English group who were as wild as The Who, the Stones and The Beatles, but arguably have more classic songs than at least 2 of those bands…

Transferring after a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre, Sunny Afternoon is a musical that tells the story of The Kinks through their own back catalogue. Thanks to brilliant staging, live drums and guitar and impeccable acting, it is one of the best shows in London at the moment. Go see it. You’ll hear super songs, played live, like Til the End of the Day, written by Dave.

The plot is familiar to many rockumentaries – kids start playing, then write the first hit, then write some more, then realise the music business is all about ripping off the creators of the product, then depression and Life Decisions, then an encore with an American number one about Soho transvestites. Bish, bosh, brilliance.

It isn’t fair to single out one actor’s performance, but the show is a true ensemble piece. Yes Ray wrote the songs, and his genius was in, as he put it, writing “the atmosphere” in song; Dave was the one who invented heavy metal – the riff of Really Got Me was truly loud, louder than I Feel Fine or Satisfaction or I Can See for Miles. The show does a great job of mentioning those other three groups in passing, and the script is a terrific way to tell history through music.

As I remarked to Amanda – to whom thanks eternally for tickets – what happened in 1966 was that Sunny Afternoon was a UK number one as England’s football team won their group games and then helped soundtrack the Union Jack-filled, Rule Britannia victory parades that followed August 1966. Incidentally the Union flags did appear at Wembley, not the St George Cross as is common today. I’ll be releasing a book that celebrates English football 50 years after that 1966 triumph – everyone else will be!! – called Saturday, 3pm. I hope it sells as many copies as Sunny Afternoon did!

The stats are great. The first Kinks release was a number one, 1964’s You Really Got Me. Between that and Apeman in 1970 they had 13 Top 10 UK hits, including 3 number ones (Tired of Waiting for You was the third). Other Top 10 hits included in the show were All Day and All of the Night – beaten to the top spot by, respectively, Always Something There to Remind Me, I Feel Fine and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s song Baby Love…and a cover of Little Red Rooster by the Stones, their first number one. Where would a kid’s pocket money go!!!

The musical Sunny Afternoon plays snatches of hits including Well Respected Man (an album track and not a hit), Dedicated Follower of Fashion (actually written about Quentin Crisp, but here meant for Dave and his feather boas) and Days, which is done spectacularly as a five-part harmony and is worth the admission price for the show alone!

Dead End Street sees two members of the cast pick up trombones, while other cast members head to the corner of the stage to bash a tambourine or play one of (I counted) about 10 guitars of various sorts. Dave Davies holds a V-bird, a Fender and about five others, while Ray ends up with Rasa, a child of Lithuanians, who sings (on stage at least) with the band on all their hits. The voices in Ray’s head are well represented; it is known that Ray suffered mental illness connected perhaps to the sudden death of his sister on the day of his 13th birthday. If mental illness means you can’t function in society properly, and the trade-off is Waterloo Sunset and some of the finest pop songs of the era, then so be it. Ray Davies’s genius has a worthy monument in Sunny Afternoon.

To return to my religion theme, Waterloo Sunset feels like a hymn, a hymn to loneliness, the River Thames and the human spirit. You Really Got Me sounds like sex, and Lola is, to my mind, a better singalong than Hey Jude. Sorry, Macca!

Sunny Afternoon is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Information about the show can be found at http://sunnyafternoonthemusical.com/. To read my piece on why 2015 will sound like 1965, click around on Blastocyst.org.uk, or hear the audio version at mixcloud.com/blastocast.

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Big Hero 6

I wonder if there is a person in the world who doesn’t like Pixar movies AND Disney movies. Somewhere in a cave, maybe. In any case, when Disney bought Pixar for an awful lot of money a few years ago, it seemed a natural fit. Walt’s enterprise had chewed up and spat out John Lasseter, whose Luxo short really did completely change animation. I remember going to see a Pixar exhibition in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland in 2007 or 2008 and seeing some of those shorts. They were made on computers in the mid-1980s, even before the world wide web was opened up, and CD-ROMs were the newest toy.

By 1994, Toy Story had become the first all-computer-generated animation. There followed Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, all charming and heartstring-tugging. Disney put out the odd good movie, as did Dreamworks, who made Shrek among others. But Pixar’s movies were family affairs: Up and Wall-E were different kinds of kid’s movies. So it was no surprise that Brave, set in Scotland and sountracked by folk act Julie Fowlis, was so annoying; the first Disney-Pixar duet, it was uneven and not as good as the Disney work The Princess and the Frog, which benefitted from a score by Randy Newman, Pixar’s go-to guy for manipulative melancholy melodies.

Anyhow, come Thanksgiving 2014, Big Hero 6 was released in the US. The UK had to wait until January 2015, where it came out the week of the Academy Awards build-up. I saw it with Amanda on a weekday afternoon, where the front row had six annoying teenagers who talked loudly through the whole film. I restrained myself enough to tell them not to do it again, but those teens were louder than an entire screen room full of kids and their mums and grandmas.

I don’t like doing plots of films – see Sight & Sound’s synopsis for a full one – but Act One sees us meet Hiro, a boy genius whose brother is a science student in a lab full of nerds. Both boys are orphans and live with their aunt, who smothers them, in the city of San Fransokyo, a typically visually impressive world, one which can only rival worlds created by Aardman. An unhappy event occurs and Hiro is depressed, despite his potentially game-changing ‘microbots’ that are smaller than a fingertip.

Act Two gets murkier, with lots of plot strands, baddies, goodies, montages and a most brilliant song from Fallout Boy, Immortals, that came out of absolutely nowhere.

Act Three introduces PhD level science & metaphysics, with a soft emphasis on love, the past and kickass girls doing science like boys! My favourite of the gang is Fred, the kidult who collects figurines and comic books. He can afford to be the mascot in the Nerd Lab because his family has a lot of money, and reminded me of the dog in the film Up or Dory in Finding Nemo, or Rex from Toy Story.

In Japan, the title of the film is not the one used in the West, taken from a comic of the same name. This film is one of many forthcoming Disney-Pixar movies that use Marvel comic heroes; Disney could also afford to drop a billion dollars on securing the rights to all your favourite Marvel heroes. Anyway, in Japan the film is named after the movie’s robot hero, Baymax. The cuddly creation of Hiro’s brother is, to Robbie Collin the film critic, Disney’s most adorable character since Genie. Baymax, added Collins, “falls into the Disney tradition of elder-sibling surrogates: Pumbaa and Timon, Thumper, Baloo, Timothy Q. Mouse, Jiminy Cricket” and so on.

For reasons evident in the film, Hiro and Baymax bond, go on some crazy adventures and team up to defeat the villain, who has something to do with big industry preying on scientific advances. There are tears, there is terror, and a brilliant dramatic moment at the end where, once again, we forget about the hundreds of people who engineered that moment. Be they storyboarders, studio executives or animators, every person has made Big Hero 6 one of the best animated films of the decade.

“It’s important for the world to have this,” said John Lasseter. His desire to make Disney essential to humanity mirrors perhaps Sir Tim Berners-Lee or Sir Paul McCartney, experts in information and melody respectively. If he were English, Lasseter would be Sir John about ten times over, but because he is American he has to make do with being the Head of Disney-Pixar, with a brief to imagine and carry through to market great morality tales for big and little kids.

Time Magazine profiled the film and wrote: “There are no princesses and no Idina Menzel showstoppers, but it’s their [Disney’s] most ambitious, action-packed [film] yet.” It is certainly more action-packed than Brave, though Disney’s last three animated films have been Frozen, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled.

The two directors of Big Hero 6, Don Hall & Chris Williams, have been with Disney for 20 years, since Mulan and Tarzan, films which used myth and legend. Now Disney is using comic book heroes and digital production, rather than hand-drawn animation, and they are the better for it.

Not Sir-John Lasster told Time Magazine that “the connection you make with your audience is an emotional connection. The audience can’t be told to feel a certain way. They have to discover it themselves.” Think, perhaps, the involuntary spasms of emotion at the start of Up or the end of Toy Story 3, or the moment when Nemo is lost. We are working things out, filling in the missing pieces of the jigsaw, which is designed to precision by a cast of thousands thanks to Pixar and Disney’s experts.

In 2015, it would be hard to find a film that will last the test of time more than Big Hero 6. The big blockbusters to sweep East and West again include Johnny Depp as a pirate, Will Smith saving the world in Independence Day 2, sequels to Ted, Magic Mike and Jurassic Park, and the end of the year returns fans to the world of Bond, Terminator and Star Wars. Trailed before Big Hero 6 was Minions, the prequel to the Despicable Me series, which looks hilarious. But will it include doctorate-level physics and some deep philosophy? Fart jokes, maybe…There’s a good one in Big Hero 6, by the way!

Big Hero 6 will be out on DVD over summer, and may still be screening in a multiplex near you.

Penguins

Information on the 2015 Blastocyst.org.uk Comic Relief Radiothon

Thanks for visiting Blastocyst.org.uk. If you’re here to find information about the 24-hour Radiothon, in aid of Comic Relief, you’re in luck. Here is the information on how to donate to the cause!

I, site founding editor Jonny Brick, am raising money as part of Mark Watson’s efforts to hit £60,000. Mark is an idiot (he is in fact a Cambridge-educated writer, performer and comic) who is following his 25-hour show in 2013 with a 27-hour show in 2015.

With the help of audience members and other comics, on March 27 from 9pm until midnight the next day Mark hopes to use the power of comedy to persuade people to part with their money in aid of Comic Relief, which this year falls on Friday March 13. Typically, people wear red noses – hence, Red Nose Day – or make their face ‘funny for money’.

As of 2pm on the Saturday (17 hours in), Sarah Millican, Tim Minchin, Miranda Hart, Sue Perkins and lots of people off of Great British Bake-Off, have popped into the Pleasance Islington to help raise funds. There has been a pub quiz conducted by Vicki Coren-Mitchell, a guitar-and-voice performance by the daughter of radio host Danny Baker, a treasure hunt which involved Anneka Rice and Susan Calman being shackled to Adam Hills. Jarvis Cocker has sent apologies, and Russell Brand is trying to get Noel Gallagher along…(He’s got a record out.) Gillian Anderson shaved Tiernan Douieb’s back, and a man who was an extra on Game of Thrones is going out on 27 dates at Nando’s!

Mark wrote a post on his own website in December describing what we should do…

“If you go to www.rednoseday.com/markwatson you can get a flavour of what happened last time…They are my proudest accomplishments as a comedian, not necessarily because of the endurance aspect – which is more a gimmick than an actual achievement – but more because they’ve tended to be the best expression of what I think comedy should be like: a mad, excessive reaction to the incomprehensible business of being alive.

“You get things like Lauren Laverne hallucinating a dog, or someone having custard all over them, or a protracted (eventually successful) attempt to lure the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, or a blind date which ends up as a full-blown relationship… all difficult to accomplish in the shorter format. There are also jokes, by the way. Quite a lot. I mean, there’s time for all sorts of stuff really.

“But alongside the ingredients of surprise-celebrity-visits, Rufus Hound’s penis accidentally being seen by thousands of people, and a thin man trying to talk forever, the core component of these shows is fundraising. People – that is, comedians, but also actual people with real lives – take on challenges, either for a portion of the monstrous time period for the entire thing. Last time, Tiernan Douieb had a custard pie smashed in his face every hour on the hour, while trying to learn piano; Markus Birdman spent more than fifteen hours doing a mural of the show, which sold for around two grand; Hound famously did something unspeakable with eggs. Sanderson Jones broke the world record for the longest hug, and received a certificate on stage from a man in a suit. Alongside all this, though, there were sponsored watching-of-a-shit-film-on-a-loop, cake-making, Countdown-playing (another record), speed-dating, bath-staying-in, and a load more things. We made just over £60,000.

“This show is meant to be a vast, ridiculous collective effort. Acts of ill-judged heroism are as much a part of it as money-making…The venue will be a hub of marathon endeavours both show-stopping and inconspicuous. Anything goes.

“So, in summary.
-Get involved in this event and set up your own fundraising challenge.
-Watch it, live, by buying tickets.
-Watch it for some or all of 27 hours, online, when it happens (if you manage it all, that would be a sponsor-able feat in its own right).

“GO.”

Here, then, is the full schedule for the Blastocyst.org.uk Inaugural Radiothon, in aid of Comic Relief, subject to change.

12am Jonny Brick introduces the show

12.30am The Best of Dukes 2015 so far

1.30am Fresh Air Music, hosted by Emmett Cruddas

3.30am Hamish Kallin

5am The Hip Hop Hour, with Hollerin Franklin

6am Opportunity Inbox goes Country

7am The New Music Show, with JP

8.30am Greg Tinker

10am PressPlayOK

11am Paul McCartney

12noon Wayfarer’s Songs, by Olha Halat

1pm Lunch with JC

2pm BLOB, by Schedel Luitjen

3pm Quiz Hour, hosted by Jonny Brick with contestant JP

4pm Cheese by Request

5pm The Cellar Door, with Chris Imlach

6pm Twist and Shout by Request

7pm Race Music, with Amanda McWhorter

8pm Critical Mass, with Jonny Brick

9pm Mabbs & Justice

10pm America’s Hits: Kelly Clarkson special

11pm 30 Comics for 30 Years

Each show will air as a downloadable podcast that you can listen to ‘as live’ or ‘again’.

All shows can be found at the dedicated Mixcloud page. https://www.mixcloud.com/blastocast/ and will be broadcast as live on March 13 2015…

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Lee Price – Turning my Back on the Premier League

Lee Price decided to follow Dagenham for the 2013/4 season and wrote it all down in a book called Turning My Back on the Premier League. Born in Luton but a Man Utd supporter, Price sets out his thesis early on: “I don’t want to be a customer, a transaction, a number. I want to be a fan.”

In sum, he does enjoy supporting his local team, Dagenham, and all the thrilling hopes that come with it. What if, Price frets, a side from higher leagues spot the super Dagenham players who have been impressing him all season? His support of the underdogs when as he watches a League Two game is charming. He is thrilled that he can look players in the eye as he applauds them.

In the fourth-from-top league he notices that when goalkeepers make mistakes, they look like the low-level pros they are. Likewise, when one Dagenham player can be a football genius one moment and a “comedy genius” the next, Price found the players were more human, or at least closer to park footballers and semi-pros in the non-leagues, than the flawed geniuses (Cantona, Balotelli etc) at the top level.

In the lower leagues, lots of players live year by year, contract to contract, like labourers or footballers from the 1960s. There is no Jorge Mendes figure to negotiate a bumper payday. They play for smaller audiences, who pay less for the privilege. Down in the basement, players still dive, have stupid barnets and wear colourful footwear. They are “well versed in sportsmanship” and the trappings of top-level sport, as broadcast Live on Sky Sports.

Price is 27 and works as a features writer for the Sun newspaper, so before he was paid to go to matches he has been an avid consumer through television. He loves that Sky Sports has game after game between Christmas and New Year, a point that almost undermines his desire to be treated as a fan, not a customer. Even though his back is turned, Price sometimes looks back over his shoulder towards the top tier.

However, for all Price’s criticism of Wayne Rooney’s £15m a year contract, and the nonsense over a boy called Rooney not being able to have his name on a chocolate egg, his goal from the halfway line, witnessed by David Beckham, is a moment of inspiration that “will surely intoxicate young fans watching the game”.

Price records in his book the retirement of David Bentley, the former ‘next David Beckham’. Football became “too much of a job”, and he missed the thrill of the (Arsenal) youth team, where there was that spirit of fun. Is that spirit there today in the team of Zelalem, Akpom and other great young talents who mix with the Sanchezes and Flaminis of the first team?

Price’s book makes useful points, and he is still going to Dagenham today. The beauty of the fourth division, League Two, is that most teams can beat most others. Price is a handy advocate for the ‘more than the Prem’ aspect of the modern game, for all the book’s inconsistencies.

Grimes

Blastocyst Radiothon for Comic Relief 2015

Thanks for visiting Blastocyst.org.uk. If you’re here to find information about the 24-hour Radiothon, in aid of Comic Relief, you’re in luck. Here is the information on how to donate to the cause!

I, site founding editor Jonny Brick, am raising money as part of Mark Watson’s efforts to hit £60,000. Mark is an idiot (he is in fact a Cambridge-educated writer, performer and comic) who is following his 25-hour show in 2013 with a 27-hour show in 2015.

With the help of audience members and other comics, on March 27 from 9pm until midnight the next day Mark hopes to use the power of comedy to persuade people to part with their money in aid of Comic Relief, which this year falls on Friday March 13. Typically, people wear red noses – hence, Red Nose Day – or make their face ‘funny for money’.

As of 2pm on the Saturday (17 hours in), Sarah Millican, Tim Minchin, Miranda Hart, Sue Perkins and lots of people off of Great British Bake-Off, have popped into the Pleasance Islington to help raise funds. There has been a pub quiz conducted by Vicki Coren-Mitchell, a guitar-and-voice performance by the daughter of radio host Danny Baker, a treasure hunt which involved Anneka Rice and Susan Calman being shackled to Adam Hills. Jarvis Cocker has sent apologies, and Russell Brand is trying to get Noel Gallagher along…(He’s got a record out.) Gillian Anderson shaved Tiernan Douieb’s back, and a man who was an extra on Game of Thrones is going out on 27 dates at Nando’s!

Mark wrote a post on his own website in December describing what we should do…

“If you go to www.rednoseday.com/markwatson you can get a flavour of what happened last time…They are my proudest accomplishments as a comedian, not necessarily because of the endurance aspect – which is more a gimmick than an actual achievement – but more because they’ve tended to be the best expression of what I think comedy should be like: a mad, excessive reaction to the incomprehensible business of being alive.

“You get things like Lauren Laverne hallucinating a dog, or someone having custard all over them, or a protracted (eventually successful) attempt to lure the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, or a blind date which ends up as a full-blown relationship… all difficult to accomplish in the shorter format. There are also jokes, by the way. Quite a lot. I mean, there’s time for all sorts of stuff really.

“But alongside the ingredients of surprise-celebrity-visits, Rufus Hound’s penis accidentally being seen by thousands of people, and a thin man trying to talk forever, the core component of these shows is fundraising. People – that is, comedians, but also actual people with real lives – take on challenges, either for a portion of the monstrous time period for the entire thing. Last time, Tiernan Douieb had a custard pie smashed in his face every hour on the hour, while trying to learn piano; Markus Birdman spent more than fifteen hours doing a mural of the show, which sold for around two grand; Hound famously did something unspeakable with eggs. Sanderson Jones broke the world record for the longest hug, and received a certificate on stage from a man in a suit. Alongside all this, though, there were sponsored watching-of-a-shit-film-on-a-loop, cake-making, Countdown-playing (another record), speed-dating, bath-staying-in, and a load more things. We made just over £60,000.

“This show is meant to be a vast, ridiculous collective effort. Acts of ill-judged heroism are as much a part of it as money-making…The venue will be a hub of marathon endeavours both show-stopping and inconspicuous. Anything goes.

“So, in summary.
-Get involved in this event and set up your own fundraising challenge.
-Watch it, live, by buying tickets.
-Watch it for some or all of 27 hours, online, when it happens (if you manage it all, that would be a sponsor-able feat in its own right).

“GO.”

Here, then, is the full schedule for the Blastocyst.org.uk Inaugural Radiothon, in aid of Comic Relief, subject to change.

12am Jonny Brick introduces the show

12.30am The Best of Dukes

1.30am Fresh Air, hosted by Emmett Cruddas

3.30am Hamish Kallin

4.30am Frank Thomas

6am Opportunity Inbox – Country Music

7am JP

8.30am Greg Tinker

10am PressPlayOK

11am Paul McCartney

12noon Bob Dylan

1pm JC

2pm BLOB, by Schedel Luitjen

3pm Quiz Hour

4pm Cheese by Request

5pm The Cellar Door, with Chris Imlach

6pm Twist and Shout by Request

7pm Race Music, with Amanda McWhorter

8pm Critical Mass, with Jonny Brick

9pm Mabbs & Justice

10pm America’s Hits: Kelly Clarkson special

11pm 30 Comics for 30 Years

Each show will air as a downloadable podcast that you can listen to ‘as live’ or ‘again’.

All shows can be found at the dedicated Mixcloud page. https://www.mixcloud.com/blastocast/ and will be broadcast as live on March 13 2015… 

ken

Melancholy Melodies

Between New Year and Easter, the only main global celebration is Valentine’s Day. Over my lifetime this day – February 14th – has been seized on by product-pushers, meal-houses and dating websites as the one to target an audience of people in love. To celebrate the recent passing of the day, Blastocyst.org.uk brings an audio essay dedicated to Melancholy Melodies.

Everyone likes a party song, or a love song, or a getting ready for a party song, or a getting ready for love song. But the type of song I love is different. I call it the Melancholy Melody and, though I would not take any of these tracks with me onto a desert island, these are some of my favourite songs of all time. Just thinking about them makes my eyes water.

But why is that? What do these songs do to people, to me? I hope they inspire you to share some of your own favourite melancholy melodies with me on various social media channels. Alas, given the essay subject, please no proposals for courtship or marriage: I’m all set!

Some of you may be thinking ‘melancholy?’ In the time before medical advances, melancholy was a condition which afflicted people who looked a bit sad. Too much of a certain humour – be it bile, blood or phlegm – in your body affected your mood; so to have too much of a humour in a certain season meant you could not function properly. Think, for instance, of what happens when you have the flu, or suffer from Seasonal Affectation Disorder.

That’s what music is supposed to do: put you in the mood you were in before suffering from that ailment. Melancholy was something that Hamlet was said to have, making him moody and introspective.

A lot of songwriters today use melancholy to make money. Less crassly, they do suffer for their art. Some may put it on, or admit it years afterwards. All the songs I want to play today are songs where you can hear melancholy, or nostalgia, or regret, or suffering, or yearning, or sorrow; all of these emotions could have been put into the mouth of a character, as Shakespeare did with Hamlet, or as Doug Adams did with Marvin the Paranoid Android.

The song Someone Like You, by Adele and Dan Wilson of the band Semisonic, has sold millions of copies around the world because it soundtracks the hope that someone feels when breaking off a relationship.

The descending chord progression, matched by the melodic line of the verse, is the epitome of melancholy. I guess a definition from the nearest-at-hand dictionary would be suitable here: ‘a tendency to gloominess or depression…a sad thoughtful state of mind…from the Greek for ‘black bile’ which was one of the four humours, along with yellow bile, phlegm and blood, that made up the body before science could properly explain things…

But better to focus on the less literal meaning of the word ‘melancholy’. Or how about a literal representation of it, in the sound of Travis’ hit song Why does it always rain on me?

For some reason, when I was maturing into an adult, with a voice breaking and a heightened awareness of the opposite sex, melancholy was a big seller. Not as big as Adele but impressively so. Travis’ songwriter Fran Healy has suffered bouts of depression which he channels into his songs, and on his band’s second album, the song struck some chords with record-buyers. Whereas Bacharach and David’s protagonist in Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head pushed on through the storm, Healy is dragged down by invisible men and finds storms even when the sun is out. The bridge to the song – where did the blue sky go? – has, like the song’s title, only a hypothetical answer.

Alongside Travis came Coldplay. Writers of pop songs usually bend towards dancing, snogging or friskier activities in the bedroom, so anyone who deviates from this formula is labelled ‘confessional’. Meditative young songwriter Chris Martin started out doing open mic gigs, the natural domain of the non-commercial tunesmith, with soft songs like See You Soon and Trouble.

Perhaps no artist working in rock music today is more thoughtful or melancholy than Damian Rice. He is known for having two emotional registers: melancholy, and even more melancholy. Across the seas of Northern Europe, Swedish popstar Tove Lo summarised the term ‘Swedish pop’ for the New Yorker. The lyrics should be simple and the melody ought to be paramount, but the whole should also have “a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum.” When it comes to Swedish pop, of course, one band reigns over them all.

It isn’t just ABBA’s songwriters who were drawn to melancholy. Before them, some of the great songwriting teams of the rock era turned that emotion into melody. Witness You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, which did so well that its writers, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, joked that it bought them an apartment.

Not just because it was unusually long for a pop song, or for the orchestration on it, the song is still a classic American pop song. With its haunting calls of ‘baby’ throughout, it peaks at the chorus, which the final time is transformed from the loss of the feeling to ‘Bring Back that loving feeling’. The point of the song is the loss of emotion in the object of the song (the “you” whose fingertips are now devoid of “tenderness”, whose eyes remain open when the subject kisses her). Because of the object’s loss of feeling, the protagonist has lost his desire to go on, supplicating her on his knees and begging for that feeling to return. As the strings swell and quiver, and as the bassist Carol Kaye plonks a heartbeat, the listener is drawn into the drama.

The song works because anyone can be its subject. Whereas ABBA made much of the truth of their relationships, which songwriters Benny & Bjorn wrote into song as a sort of soap opera, the songwriters of the 1960s almost had to write songs about emotion, about the universal. In amongst the happy songs of love and the thrilling brand new dance crazes, Gerry Goffin and Carole King were not averse to the odd melancholy number.

Take Will You Love Me Tomorrow. “Tell me now, and I won’t ask again” is the pay-off, the final line, in a terrific song originally sung by girlgroup the Shirelles but later interpreted by Carole King herself in a more melancholy version. Without the swinging beat of the earlier version, the lyric is utterly naked and a little shocking. It is certainly melancholic: the protagonist has a question about the “light of love” in her object’s eyes, and spends two verses and a middle eight asking for reassurance. If the answer is “no” then the song is heartbreaking; if it’s yes, then the morning sun will greet another day of love which the protagonist is now “sure of”. As a listener, we shall never know.

That uncertainty, one which lingers unanswered, is part of the pull towards songs by confessional songwriters of the 1970s, as the separation between songwriter and singer was brought together. One man was more responsible than most when it came to melancholy, the writer of the song Yesterday, which has existed for five decades but seems eternal today.

I could have pointed to Eleanor Rigby, with its inquisitive chorus about lonely people, or to She’s Leaving Home, a tableau of the time a girl left the house she grew up in “alone for so many years”.

The most interpreted pop song of the last 50 years, Paul McCartney’s melody for Yesterday was underlaid with a string quartet arranged by George Martin. Those strings, which do nothing complex and literally underscore the lyric, have helped make this song, to me, as common as the air I breathe. I think every English-speaking person knows the words to this; its simplicity is abetted by the rhyme scheme (“far away/ here to stay”, “game to play/ hide away”). The key to the melancholy is in that “something wrong” that Paul has said, which led to the woman having to go without saying why.

Deliberate vagueness, one might argue, but effective. Musically, the melody drops back down from the chorus to the verse, from the highest note, a top F, back to the same note we started at. I remember that when this song featured in the Las Vegas show Love, I could not help crying at the universality of the song, and how deeply it affects the millions of people every year who must come across it for the first time. Imagine hearing Yesterday once more for the first time…

Jim Webb’s Wichita Lineman is another song that is loved by millions for its melancholy timbre. Webb wrote a lyric with the line “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” placed at the end of the second stanza of this song. Again, as on the three McCartney tunes mentioned above, strings play their role in bringing the melancholy feeling of the protagonist out, along with Glenn Campbell’s six bars of guitar in the middle of the song, echoed back to sound distant. Personally I find the lyrics less effective than some of Webb’s other songs – Galveston, for instance, where the protagonist looks back on the time when he wasn’t fighting a war and was with the girl he loved, and left, back home. It is literal nostalgia, which is a melancholy state of mind, because until the vortices of time and space intersect, we cannot travel back to yesterday.

By that logic any nostalgic song, from Homer’s Odyssey onwards, has trickles of melancholy. I suppose a modern nostalgic song is Home, famously sung by Michael Buble but written with Alan Chang and Amy Foster-Gillies.

As time passes, our protagonist feels claustrophobic and longs to return to the one he is “too far” from. Letters “aren’t enough”, and the object of the song did not share the same “dream” as the protagonist. The song’s pay-off is that the subject will return home (“It’ll all be alright, I’ll be home tonight”), so the melancholy only lasted the length of the song. It’s a determined sort of pensiveness, resolved by the end of the song and its G-major chord.

One songwriter who knew a resolution to her song was Amy Winehouse. In Love is a Losing Game, a song that ought to become a pop standard, Love is “a fate resigned”, a “game I wish I never played” and “a losing hand”. Even without knowing of her troubled love life with a drug addict of a former husband, these three stanzas lay bare the songwriter’s melancholy.

Sung tenderly in the style of Dinah Washington, Amy Winehouse’s words are given prominence and space in a clever arrangement where accentuated guitars duet with lush strings and a soft drum. The presence here of the F-minor chord known as the diminished fourth, the third one in every phrase of the song, is a musical device which draws out the lyric: love, for Amy and for all the listeners who identify with it, can be the opposite of bliss.

Other listeners have been drawn to songs like Let Her Go by Passenger, aka Mike Rosenberg, who had a global hit with a song with a chorus about how love only makes itself known when it is lost. Like Michael Buble’s song, there is a lyric which states that you only hate being on the road, perhaps on tour, when you feel a desire to be at home.

The film and now musical Once is an exercise in nostalgia and melancholy. Nameless protagonists, Guy and Girl, both work their way through what happens to them, he after a break-up, she trying to make money and trying to express her talent for piano. The standout song from a soundtrack full of melancholy songs is Falling Slowly: “I don’t know you but I want you all the more for that” is an arresting opening line. The imagery of the chorus of boats pointing homewards and the way a voice can be “hopeful” are underscored by a simple melody that packs a powerful punch to the tear ducts, at least it did to mine when I saw the trailer for the film. It remains a favourite film, and Falling Slowly a favourite song.

When I was originally drafting ideas for melancholy melodies, one man and his songs leapt out. Because of the wistful tone of his voice, and the often sparse nature of the arrangements, I thought Nick Drake was the pioneer of melancholy songwriting. His performances were marred by his shyness, and he alternated between happiness and despair. The preponderance of the latter mood led to his overdose aged 26 in November 1974, so it is easy to assume that he reflected his own mood in his work.

One of These Things First is a list of all the ‘things’ the protagonist “could have been”, recalling the angrily nostalgic words in On the Waterfront where Marlon Brando utters the line, I coulda been a contendah. Other Nick Drake songs that swell with melancholy are Time of No Reply and Northern Sky. The former is sadder, switching between G-major and G-minor chords to pull the listener one way and then the other. “Time goes on from year to year,” Drake sings on the former; “been a long time that I’m waiting…Now you’re here, brighten my Northern Sky” on the latter, where instrumentation (it’s John Cale on the piano) and melody are in sync.

Finally, I feel that Disney tends to copyright melancholy. Manipulating elastic emotions of children and their parents, and now grandparents, a typical Disney film hammers home the moral elements of a Good, usually American-sounding, hero or heroine: teamwork, discipline, motivation, self-belief, going to infinity and beyond.

Buzz Lightyear’s dreams, and his dramatic rescue of Sherriff Woody in Toy Story 3, are a great addition to the genre of animation; indeed, Toy Story was the first 100% computer-generated movie trilogy, making the third film so much more brilliant because we are, essentially, crying at the exploits of computer-generated toys, albeit expertly voice-acted.

For the second Toy Story film, a kick-ass female was introduced: Jesse, formerly Woody’s best friend in the toy world, is similarly discarded to a toybox. The song which highlights her feelings of being discarded and tossed aside was written by Randy Newman. A songwriter who populated his songs with characters, Newman has moved into soundtracking movies – the list runs to double figures – to add to his wonderful records of the 1970s which feature melancholy songs like In Germany Before the War and Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father.

“I’m looking at the river but I’m thinking of the sea” and “Here I am lost in the wind” are some of the songs’ lyrics. The elements outlast all of us, and Newman makes that clear in both songs from his classic Little Criminals album. Newman, of course, wrote You Got a Friend in Me for the opening credits of the first Toy Story film, a fun track that goes far beyond that scene to become a contemporary hymn for friendship.

With those two 1970s compositions in his canon, two decades later Newman could write When She Loved Me, an unbelievably sad song that I, for one, cannot even think about without remembering the emotions that overcame me at a tender moment a few years ago. I had similar feelings hearing Time of No Reply and, as I mentioned, Yesterday, when the power of the melody-lyric pairing overcame my sensibilities. I know you too have those songs, so you’re welcome to share them at the social media outlets. As you do so, note how When She Loved Me is a melancholy song where the melody and the lyrics work in a tight structure. Newmanesque, and sung brilliantly by Sarah McLachlan, embodying the character of Jessie the cowgirl.

There is one final melancholic track to note in this audio essay, whose tracks can be found in the Blastocyst Audio Essay playlist on Spotify.

Children of all ages have been crying with laughter and despair over songs like ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Love is an Open Door’. Frozen, the movie with a cursed protagonist, also featured a song that floored me when I first heard it.

For me, personal memories imbue themselves on what I call a melancholy melody. All children in countries which snow saw snowmen, perhaps built them. Because Elsa is so cursed, she is unable to build one with her sister Ana. The lyrics and music, written by the successful sibling pairing of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, take the theme of the film – how sisters are kept apart by that curse – and transfers that to the hope of one sister to go outside and play. The way the melody hangs on the word ‘why’ is very affecting, and I hope Do You Want to Build a Snowman is a grand conclusion to a discussion of melodies full of melancholy.

An audio version of this essay is available at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick. Also available in audio and print is January 2015’s audio essay on why 2015 will sound like 1965. Next month’s audio essay will focus on the woman who recently copyright phrases used on her album 1989, and who has released the finest pop album of the decade so far: Taylor Swift.

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Charli XCX – Sucker

In any work of performance or art, or even commerce or enterprise, who is the audience?

For me, when I do comedy or broadcasting, I always think of my listener as anyone at all, from my Jewish grandma to the parents of my African-American girlfriend from LA.

When you are a music star who is a major-label priority, your reach extends beyond friends and family. There’s money to be made in pop music, ever since Jewish and African-American businessmen started to market recording artists in the 1950s. Since about 2000, however, people have bought less music but paradoxically have listened to more and more often than ever before. First illegally and then legally, music fans and consumers have used the immediate access of music – from Kazaa to iTunes to Pandora Radio – to soundtrack their lives.

By 2015, a whole generation of the world’s population has, for their entire life, been able not just to wander into a record store to buy CDs but click around the Internet to discover new sounds. Since 2005, Youtube has been a place for music and video, while Apple have cornered the market for audio consumption through iTunes and the Jony Ive-designed iPod.

All this is a nice way of saying that Charli XCX is a great artist for our time. Charlotte Aitchison, who signs her emails ‘XCX’ (‘kiss Charli kiss’), is on Atlantic Records, now owned by Warner Music Group who, alongside Sony and Universal, comprise the Big Three. This year I’ll try and examine why these three groups are important and necessary to keep the world humming. Now, I’m excited for the UK release of an album by a British singer that, unusually, has been available in America for two months.

The story may be known to you: Charli was signed as a teenager and developed as a recording artist. She then put out True Romance in 2013, an album that was overshadowed by her presence on I Love It, the jingle of a song that sounded like the TV show Jersey Shore in song form (“I’m a 90s bitch” or, in the radio edit, “I’m a 90s chick”), by Icona Pop.

The song was originally put out in 2012 but had a life well into 2013. As Charli’s album tanked (in its first run it broke into the top 100 at number 85 – expect it to return to the charts in 2015), the record company who had funded it considered dispensing of her services. Then Fancy happened: Iggy Azelea’s vehicle for wearing skimpy clothes featured the most basic beat and a double-tracked vocal chorus from Charli, who pouted and preened in the video. The song was streamed and the video viewed millions upon millions of times; “I’m so fancy/ You already know/ I’m in the fast lane/ From LA to Tokyo” was one of the chorus jingles of the year. Once heard, never forgotten.

In all this time, Charli was preparing her second album. As she told Q Magazine in 2015, she had recorded a punk album, disappointed with the reaction to True Romance, but kept it in the vault. As the album that became Sucker evolved, The Fault in our Stars, the film based on the book by John Green, topped the box office in summer 2014. Charli XCX’s Boom Clap was a single released from the soundtrack, which also featured Jake Bugg, Ed Sheeran and Tom Odell. It was my own song of 2014: the chorus is incendiary and the vocal impassioned, and in a year of Shake It Off and Sam Smith, topped anything, to my ears, recorded in 2014.

The world agrees: Boom Clap was a top 10 hit in both the US and the UK. Break the Rules made radio playlists and is the second track on Sucker: “I don’t wanna go to school/ I just wanna break the rules” is the lyric set to a comedown chorus which precedes an Aviici-type dance jingle. It is in fact a SuperPopSong, written with the help of Steve Mac (Flying without Wings by Westlife) and the Stargate production team (who have crafted Rihanna’s best songs including Only Girl in the World and Diamonds). Break the Rules is aimed at the school disco, the sort of audience who went to see The Fault in our Stars, a film about cancer suffering and teenage life.

On iTunes and Spotify, in advance of Sucker’s US release, London Queen, Breaking Up and Gold Coins were released for the public. These are tracks 3, 4 and 5 on Sucker. London Queen includes several “oi!”s but references that Charli lives in LA. The song is a Nintendo jingle that leaves little lasting impression except painting Charli as lucky to be “doing things the American way-ay-ay”.

Breaking Up is two minutes of punk-pop with great guitars and, like Gold Coins, was written and produced with the help of Swedish pop writer/producer Patrik Berger, who wrote I Love It. Gold Coins, which includes lyrics about “off-shore bank accounts” and “pink champagne” and a “private jet”, is almost a checklist of materialism. Amusingly, it can be sung over the top of Royals by Lorde, perhaps Charli XCX’s closest musical competitor. They look the same, and treat the world in a similar manner. For the sake of my argument, Lorde is on Universal, a different label to Charli, and I contend that each record label has their own ‘Thing’, be it poppet, rock band or catalogue long-seller (Queen, Stevie Wonder, Weird Al Yankovic etc).

Breaking Up has a poppy feel. It starts with the second part of the chorus and heavily treats Charli’s vocal. The first line of the first verse includes the words “fucking tattoo”. The title track also contains swear words in a very radio-unfriendly way; it may as well be called “Fucker”. This is problematic.

Charli XCX has been positioned before this as a rebellious teenager, but Warner (the positioners) must appeal to all demographics. By using a rude word, either they acknowledge that rebellious teenagers swear or that Charli is saying the unsayable. Sociologically, Charli XCX is an important artist; musically and sonically, she’s pretty good too. When Boom Clap arrives at track six, you’ll agree it’s better than Meghan Trainor’s new album but not quite as fine as Taylor Swift’s masterpiece 1989.

Charli XCX has been honest and open in her interviews, unafraid to state that her ambition is to change how pop music sounds. Her voice is pretty, especially on Boom Clap, but can be feisty (as on tracks 1-5). Doing It rather lets her down; Rita Ora, with an album out in 2015 and a sexy body recently seen in Fifty Shades of Grey, appears without much meaning on a track with the lyric “do it like we’re doing it”. Ora, in fact, skipped the film’s London premiere to record the track with Charli for BBC One’s primetime chat show The Graham Norton Show where, amusingly, both were fully clothed. Rita is one of the coaches/ judges on BBC’s The Voice, so realises that any promotion is good promotion. While Charli takes off her coat for the second chorus to show her bare shoulders and midriff, Rita plays up her Saturday Night Primetime persona, a safe Jessie J-lite for young girls to idolise. Charli looks like Lady Gaga just became a backing singer for Haim. She’s pretty, is what I’m saying.

Though it has a slinky chorus that has made it a Top 5 hit, and sounds a bit like Madonna’s first albums, Doing It is a minute too long. It is produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, who has worked with Haim and Rae Morris, other great major-label female pop hopes. It is pure pop that a song sung by two women should be about ‘doing it’, about as simple a sexual euphemism as can be. To a child, ‘doing it’ can mean anything; indeed, both women “have got your back for life”. To a teenager who watched The Fault in our Stars, ‘doing it’ can mean one thing more than anything else. Smart stuff.

Tracks eight and onwards are the fresh ones to people buying the album, non-singles and non-previewed tracks. Body of my Own is great, with some quick rap-like delivery and lots of space left between the lyrics. It’s a fine contemporary song, and much better than Doing It.

Famous follows it up with more guitars in a two-chord marvel. The song was written with Greg Kurstin, one of pop’s best songwriters who worked with Sia on her last album. It’s all about living “so outrageous/ Just like we’re famous” even though at the moment Charli is just “falling down the stairs”. Is this the new American Dream, to live off the fat of the land’s record-buying public? Famous is a fun and catchy song with a whistleful post-chorus (the bit after the chorus but before the verse comes back in; ABBA excelled at these). You can sing Fancy over the top of it, so you can have two playground chants at once…

Hanging Around was written with soon-to-be-star of TV Rivers Cuomo, of the band Weezer. Cuomo specialises in spacious guitar-pop that refers to music itself: “Drums, bass, turn ‘em up loud” is the lyric on top of the ‘We Will Rock You/ I Love Rock’n’Roll’ drum beat (boom boom CLAP!). The song features a spoken-word verse too and some swear words. Fans of Weezer can imagine Cuomo singing it in his nerd-boy nasal style. I would love to see a Weezer and Charli XCX show, perhaps with Vampire Weekend appearing too.

This would not be far-fetched. Both Need Ur Luv and Die Tonight were written with Rostam from that band and Andrew Wyatt, whose voice is heard on Miike Snow’s track Animal, a fine pop song. Another member of Wyatt’s songwriting team is Pontus Winnberg, one of the Bloodshy & Avant team who themselves wrote a lot of the last decade’s fine pop songs (Toxic by Britney Spears, Little of your Time by Maroon 5, AM to PM by Christina Milian, Put Him Out by Ms Dynamite). He worked on Die Tonight, which sounds, amusingly, like an offcut from the Vampire Weekend album; you can hear traces of the band’s singer Ezra Koenig’s delivery in Charli’s own in both tracks, which are driven by the instrumental track.

Both are quite understated and definitely ‘growers’, less immediate than the album’s heavier tracks and all the better for it. “I’m going hard with all my friends” is the chorus for Die Tonight, picking up the fact that Charli is the leader of a gang, in a way: she’s Iggy Azalea’s mate, Rita Ora’s mate, and Icona Pop’s mate. Now she’s Weezer’s mate.

In brief, these tracks pair great songwriters with a great new artist, an old and tried-and-tested pop formula. The trick is repeated on Caught in the Middle, where Benjamin Levin aka Benny Blanco is the sonic force. How much time have we got for Benny Blanco? Teenage Dream and California Gurls for Katy Perry, Maps, Animals and Moves like Jagger for Maroon 5, Kesha’s TikTok, Don’t by Ed Sheeran and on and on-na-no-na-non. More people need to know who is behind Adam Levine’s reinvention!!

Charli, meanwhile, sings most of the album with herself, because her vocals are double-tracked, a brilliant production trick that also worked wonders for Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Nevermind. Need Ur Luv features Charli show off the high end of her register, proving that she can cut it vocally.

The European version of the album features a track written with Naughty Boy (La La La, Wonder and so on) called So Over You, which has some gorgeous diminished chords and a killer chorus: “I’m so over you/ Tell me baby will you ever regret me?” Red Balloon, another modern pop song that sounds too much like Mickey by Toni Basil to be original, is a neat closing track to the European version of Sucker (the US version ends on Need Ur Luv).

Conclusions abound. Charli XCX is a very important pop star because, like Taylor Swift, she can write great music and deliver it well. However, who is the main audience? Is it pre-teens who are attracted to bratty stars? Is it teenagers who need their puberty soundtracked? Is it 27-year-old writers who love a good hook and a 2000-word thinkpiece?

Whatever, the album will sell well throughout 2015 and with any luck pop radio will sound like Charli XCX, one of the first indie pop stars who teams up with guys from Vampire Weekend and guys who wrote Westlife tunes. The people pushing her to people like me – ie Warner Music Group – obviously know what they’re doing, and thank goodness for that!

Sucker is out worldwide now. Charli XCX tours the UK in spring, starting at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on March 25.