FEATURE: Bigger Picture: Why Now Is the Time for a Music Television Revival

FEATURE:

 

Bigger Picture

sss.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: @lifesimplyrocks/Unsplash 

Why Now Is the Time for a Music Television Revival

__________

WHEN I was writing about…

szz.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: @jmvillejo/Unsplash

the thirty-eighth anniversary of MTV last month, it allowed me the chance to revisit a station/brand that had some hard times and, yes, there were problems. Not only was MTV’s regency fairly short-lived, but it took a while to get off the ground. How broad was it, and can one overlook its exclusion of black artists in the early days? Depending on how you see MTV in the history of music television, one cannot argue against the fact (the station) provided these big music videos and, for many of us, it was essential viewing. When MTV launched in the 1980s, it was a curious concept and music television has evolved since then. I have written about the lack of music T.V. shows and stations on now and, after every occasion, I am no closer to finding an answer. Once was the day when we had CD:UK and Freshly Squeezed. We had Pop World from 2001 and 2007; The Tube ran from 1982 and 1987 and, if you do your research, you can uncover so many different music T.V. shows that catered to those hungry for the latest news, big performances and features. Even though it is off the air at the moment, Later… with Jools Holland seems to be the only real music T.V. show on now. Think about where artists perform when they need to promote music. Laughably, cooking shows like Sunday Brunch are doubling up as ersatz music platforms.  

I think the industry is as packed, varied and hungry as ever and, because of that, are we saying the only way to discover new acts is on the Internet or at gigs? Granted, the advent and growth of social media and streaming means we do not need to rely on music T.V. to discover artists. We have great radio stations so, in this digital age, is the idea of a music T.V. show old-fashioned and obsolete?! I think that is on the lips of every T.V. executive and broadcaster when they are asked about the lack of music T.V. shows. It would be quite expensive to mount a regular series and, considering the calibre of artists one might need to attract, is it worth the trouble? I have read feedback from artists – when I post similar articles – that asks why, in 2019, there are virtually no music T.V. shows. At certain points in history, we have seen three or four (or more) shows run that offers something slightly different. Now, as the Internet takes over, more and more people are sourcing music on their phones/laptops. The convenience of that is wonderful but there is more to music than new releases and the latest news. So many acts, established and new, rely on the rigours of live performance; playing so many venues in order to get noticed and appreciated. T.V. shows like Later… with Jools Holland allow people to discover artists they might not have been familiar with.

gf.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: @glenncarstenspeters/Unsplash

For me, I love the show because it retains the charm and simplicity of older brands like The Old Grey Whistle Test but has a very modern feel. I use the Internet a lot to get my music fix but feel that, when it comes to engaging my attention, T.V. is best. I like to relax and watch T.V. and I think that would be a perfect opportunity to bask in some musical goodness. In terms of budget, maybe the BBC and ITV would not be able to finance a properly big show but, with the likes of Netflix broadening and expanding, there is that chance to bring people in. In this feature from 2008, MTV was put under the microscope. Ratings were declining and the station had to respond:

In the 1990s, the channel evolved. It proved to be a powerful platform for a new breed of video auteurs, who exploited the burgeoning acceptance of the music video as an artform. The likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Hype Williams cut their teeth on pop videos before graduating to Hollywood; many of them won recognition at that other famous cash cow for the company: the high profile MTV Video Music Awards, which again expanded into non-music territory with a raft of spin-offs. The awards continued to hog headlines this week, when at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles two presenters (the actors Seth Rogen and James Franco) pretended to smoke marijuana before giving a gong.

PHOTO CREDIT: @frankokay/Unsplash 

MTV claims that, despite the overall fall in viewers, over the past year it has gone some way to reversing its decline in viewing figures, and that while MTV Flux was justifiably canned, interactive elements have been incorporated into all its channels. MTV UK's director of television, Heather Jones, says: "We are still very much part of the cutting edge. We have a host of live music events which we are behind this summer, and are bringing the Europe Music Awards to Liverpool. And I would say that online, our video streams are up”’.

Eleven years later, the fortunes of MTV are rock-bottom and the music T.V. landscape is barren. Against stiff competition, there is that concern regarding financial loss and potential ratings. One of the problems with the Internet is the fact many of us get caught in a loop and fall into routine. Even if you are hunting down the best new tunes, there is a limit and, as I said, many of us will listen to the same tracks. Maybe a show like Jools Holland’s is a bit restrictive in the sense it is live performance and interviews. Its popularity and longevity suggest there is a healthy appetite for that format but, as we have so much information and options at our fingertips, a new music T.V. show needs to be more ambitious. I shall try and not repeat myself but, with many people bemoaning the decline or music T.V. and artists in need of somewhere to get their music heard (beyond cooking shows!), we need to cover a lot of bases.

I can understand the reticence of stations when they are quizzed about music television. Budget and potential popularity and important considerations and there is limit room on the schedules. I think it would be impossible to revive the glory days of music T.V. but there is a demand that is going unsatisfied. Live performances would not need to be reserved for big acts and those we are all familiar with. A blend of the bigger and underground would provide gravitas and provide invaluable exposure for artists who can prove their live chops – and give viewers a chance to discover something fresh. I think a weekly show would be best because a once-monthly show seems a little slight. You could have a few performances that cover different genres and artists – like a new Alternative band on the same bill as Madonna – and it would be good blending the classic with contemporary. I have not even mentioned the best-known and popular music T.V. show in this country: Top of the Pops. So many I know want that to be revived but I think one could have the best of that show in a new format. The variation of acts and the studio audience element; mix that with MTV’s music video aspect and introduce a series of new artists each week. There is music news to consider and endless scope for features. The brilliant classic album series have died out and I used to love watching them. You can have documentary segments that cover a range of subjects – from Hip-Hop sampling to Pop’s changing sound – and you would have a balance of the entertaining and educational. 

 PHOTO CREDIT: @namroud/Unsplash

It is a bit sad the T.V. landscape has changed so much through the years. I don’t like the idea of music being completely funnelled into the Internet and there is a lot to be said of a show that unites family and friend and ticks all the boxes. Even if it was an hourly show every week, so much could be crammed in. One can still get new music and news from the Internet but a T.V. show would help broaden tastes and give us artists/information we might not have otherwise unearthed. I do think a music T.V. show that covers the spectrum but has its own personality would prove popular. There are definite benefits to streaming and radio but T.V. shows can produce original content and featured you will not get anywhere else. Giving artists a small screen stage to perform on means they can reach a wider audience and allows those who cannot get to gigs a chance to see these acts. The budget would not necessarily be huge…and I think, with T.V. and online promotion, a healthy audience could be built pretty quickly. I can emphasise with stations and bosses who must think about the time, trouble and money needed to create these shows; the loss and issues faced if they prove unpopular or underwhelming. It would be a blow, but I think we need a music T.V. revival. It doesn’t need to be loads of shows but, if you can get one excellent format off the ground, other shows will follow.

It means we could make music – beyond gigs – more communitive and get us away from laptops and phones (I know the T.V. has a screen, but music T.V. shows could be watched and allow us to converse). The artists who could benefit from exposure would be immense and bringing back features like classic album series would introduce iconic albums to a new generation. T.V., as I said, gives this big platform to music; one that is powerful and can reach around the world. With some excellent features and a memorable format, a T.V. show could happily thrive alongside the current options – such as the Internet and radio. Artists no longer have the option to perform on T.V. and music is becoming less sociable and Internet-based. If a network like Netflix did a bit of research and spent some time concocting a fantastic concept, I think it could kick-start a new wave of music T.V. I do genuinely miss music T.V. and the pleasure of having all your needs and tastes catered for in a single show. Those days are gone and, in a vast digital jungle, I think a great music T.V. show would provide a shaft of life and breath of fresh air. Stations are reluctant to take gambles and do not understand the importance of music T.V. I do not abide by the notion the Internet has usurped music T.V. entirely: there is a space for both and, with more musicians on the scene than ever, a real desire from fans and artists themselves. I do think money and ratings cloud opinions and holds back conversation. It is important that a new show succeeds and is worth investment but, at the same time, networks need to consider the benefits (of a show) to music fans, labels and artists. Many stations are concentrating on a narrow focus and concern whereas they need to look at…            

 PHOTO CREDIT: @byfoul/Unsplash

THE bigger picture.

FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Nineteen: Debbie Harry

FEATURE:

 

Female Icons

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Part Nineteen: Debbie Harry

__________

THERE is only one installment to go…

ccc.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Debbie Harry with Andy Warhol/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

in my Female Icons feature but, before concentrating on that, I want to talk about a remarkable artist: the iconic lead of Blondie, Debbie Harry. In terms of artists who have inspired others, you have to mention Harry. Born on 1st July, 1945 in Florida, Harry was adopted at the age of three months by gift shop owners in Hawthorne, New Jersey – she was born Angela Tremble but renamed Deborah Ann Harry. Prior to getting into music, Harry worked a variety of jobs – including as a secretary, a waitress and go-go dancer. One could not accuse the young Harry of lacking ambition. I do wonder whether Harry’s life will be put to the big screen as she is long-overdue a cinematic outing. There was division when Kirsten Dunst was rumoured to be playing Harry in a biopic:

The singer Debbie Harry has leapt to the defence of the actress Kirsten Dunst after fans of the singer accused the Hollywood star of not having "the edge, quirkiness or charisma" to play Harry in a planned biopic.

Dunst received a torrent of abuse from fans of Harry, lead singer of the group Blondie, who claimed that she lacked both the necessary acting and singing ability to play the 1970s icon.

Dunst was forced to declare publicly that she had received the singer's blessing for the role following campaigns to revoke the casting on internet message boards. "Debbie chose me for this role so anyone who disputes this can take it up with her," said Dunst, who recently starred in Spider-Man 3. She added: "I'll work hard on this character because she is the coolest women of all time."

Harry moved to quell the controversy by speaking out for the first time about the casting. "[Kirsten] is a really sweet person," she said. "I've met her a couple of times and hung out with her socially”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

That was over a decade ago and, with the music landscape crying out for someone like Debbie Harry, I think it would be great to at least have a documentary that explores her early life and pre-Blondie days. I guess one has some of the younger Harry alive in bands of the moment but, to be fair, none touch the command and cool of the Blondie icon. By the late-1960s – after working in a variety of jobs – Harry started working as a backing singer. After doing backing for The Wind in the Willows, Harry began working with the future Blondie member, Chris Stein (guitar). They were part of The Stilettoes and then Angel and the Snake. Whilst these incarnations were good experience, it was not overly-fruitful. Stein and Harry then formed Blondie – so named because that is the cat-call Harry received after dying her hair blonde –, and they started to gather a reputation around New York. This was a time of liberation, rebelliousness and Punk. Whilst a lot of the bands prominent in the Punk era were all-male/fronted by men, Blondie’s female lead added new dimensions and possibilities. Whilst there were other female-fronted Punk acts, Debbie Harry is a pioneer and someone who was as tough, accomplished and stunning as any male artist of the time. With her inimitable style and captivating voice, Harry soon became a Punk icon. In terms of her style and looks, there are many iconic examples.

Her thrift-store look was, in a way, re-adapted and adopted by 1980s artists like Madonna but, back when Blondie started, Harry was striking out and catching the eye. This article looks at Harry’s various looks; casting a special eye on her T-shirts:

Debbie Harry has always been known for her effortless thrift-store style t-shirts, and this “Andy Warhol’s Bad” tee is easily one of her most iconic. Although Harry and Warhol’s connection to each other extended far beyond the swirling letters of t-shirt. “I bumped into Andy on Broadway and 13th street and said hello and we chatted about everything. I suppose this is how we met and our friendship grew from there,” Harry has since said. “He was very softly spoken and used a funny Polaroid portrait camera. Andy was part of our legacy and our future.” An early pop art image of Harry by Warhol from 1980 has recently been sold for a cool $5.9 million”.

I will talk more about Blondie’s albums but, in terms of attention and popularity, the band found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1979. Harry provided an irresistible lead: her cool persona and sexuality, mixed with a street-sassy look, meant the band sky-rocketed. There was a difference between Harry the band leader (‘Blondie’) and Harry the woman – something the band were keen to point out. In a year when albums by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell; Eagles and Steely Dan were collecting huge kudos, Blondie arrived on the scene.

Maybe there was a sense of foresight regarding Punk’s explosion; maybe the band struck a chord at the right time but, in 1976, their debut seemed to capture a spirit and common thread. Critics were keen to laud the eponymous debut. Maybe the grittier sound would come on later albums but, on their debut, there was a definite energy and momentum, tied with a New Wave sound that would be popularised and augmented by groups such as the Go-Go’s. Producer Richard Gottehrer had worked with artists of the 1950s and 1960s, so it is no surprise there is an element of that in Blondie’s debut – melted and mixed together with Punk shades and effortless cool. The reviews for Blondie’s debut were positive. I want to quote AllMusic, who reviewed the album retrospectively:

If new wave was about reconfiguring and recontextualizing simple pop/rock forms of the '50s and '60s in new, ironic, and aggressive ways, then Blondie, which took the girl group style of the early and mid-'60s and added a '70s archness, fit right in. True punksters may have deplored the group early on (they never had the hip cachet of Talking Heads or even the Ramones), but Blondie's secret weapon, which was deployed increasingly over their career, was a canny pop straddle -- they sent the music up and celebrated it at the same time.

So, for instance, songs like "X Offender" (their first single) and "In the Flesh" (their first hit, in Australia) had the tough-girl-with-a-tender-heart tone of the Shangri-Las (the disc was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who had handled the Angels ["My Boyfriend's Back"] among others, and Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich even sang backup on "In the Flesh"), while going one step too far into hard-edged decadence -- that is, if you chose to see that. (The tag line of "Look Good in Blue," for example, went, "I could give you some head and shoulders to lie on.") The whole point was that you could take Blondie either way, and lead singer Deborah Harry's vocals, which combined rock fervor with a kiss-off quality, reinforced that, as did the band's energetic, trashy sound. This album, released on independent label Private Sound, was not a major hit, but it provided a template for the future”.

If some bands need to transition and get into their stride a little down the line, they need to take tips from Blondie. I know Chris Stein, Gary Valentine (bass guitar); Jimmy Destri (organ, piano and various instruments) and Clem Burke (drums) were responsible for a lot of the magic but, in my mind, Harry is the combustible element that makes the music pop. X Offender and In the Flesh are thrilling, original tracks that showcases all of Debbie Harry’s personality sides and elements in one.

Maybe it was a case of bringing out a ‘difficult second album’ but, before Parallel Lines, there came Plastic Letters. For the most part, individual members of Blondie wrote songs – mainly Stein and Destri –, and there seems to be less of Harry’s voice in the mix, in terms of songwriting. In vocal terms, one can hear strides and developments, but I feel the band would hit their first peak later in 1978. It is amazing to think that the band released two albums in 1978 (Kate Bush-style!); at a time when Punk was very much in-vogue, Blondie released Parallel Lines. Plastic Letters was a bit of transition: it was the last produced by Gottehrer and Blondie met producer Mike Chapman whilst playing in Australia. Chapman was encouraged to produce Blondie’s next record because there was a feeling that his eclectic nature and experience would take the band in a new direction. Harry, ever the leader and strong figure, was against the appointment of Chapman as producer. Blondie were very New York in terms of sound and personality; Chapman was Los Angeles and West Coast. Maybe it was a feeling that these two camps would clash or Chapman would lack the strength and passion the music required – perhaps setting them off in a Yacht-Rock direction?! After he played them back Heart of Glass and Sunday Girl – two of the band’s biggest hits in embryonic form –, Harry’s caution subsided.

I will bring in a review of Parallel Lines because, as we know, 1978 was a pretty damned cool year for music! The likes of Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Bruce Springsteen and The Jam were owning the charts…and Blondie blew them all away! I think 1978 is a year that gets associated by Punk, but it was Blondie who made the biggest impact. The band chemistry is incredible but, again, it is the personality and beauty from Debbie Harry that makes each and every song essential. Despite the brilliant music, the working relationship between producer Chapman and the band was not always cordial. The band, apparently, were difficult to work with and, although he praised Harry and was in love with her voice, there was this feeling she was very emotional and moody. Maybe this is an impression that lasts to this day: a very cool human being but someone who is a little distant or harder to crack. Maybe there was a lack of work ethic at times; maybe personalities did clash but, as a body of work, Parallel Lines is one of the defining albums of the 1970s. There is debate as to which Blondie album is best. In terms of the impact, brilliance of Harry’s lead and the feeling one gets, Parallel Lines is their defining moment. This is how Pitchfork assessed the album:

The swift move from the fringes to the top of the charts tagged Blondie as a singles group-- no shame, and they did have one of the best runs of singles in pop history-- but it's helped Parallel Lines weirdly qualify as an undiscovered gem, a sparkling record half-full of recognized classics that, nevertheless, is hiding in plain sight. Landing a few years before MTV and the second British Invasion codified and popularized the look and sound of 1980s new wave, Parallel Lines' ringing guitar pop has entered our collective consciousness through compilations (built around "Heart" plus later #1s "Call Me", "Rapture", and "The Tide Is High"), ads, film trailers, and TV shows rather than the album's ubiquity.

Time has been kind, however, to the record's top tier-- along with "Heart of Glass", Parallel boasts "Sunday Girl" and the incredible opening four-track run of "Picture This", "Hanging on the Telephone", "One Way or Another", and "Fade Away and Radiate". The songs that fill out the record ("11:59", "Will Anything Happen?", "I'm Gonna Love You Too", "Just Go Away", "Pretty Baby") are weak only by comparison, and could have been singles for many of Blondie's contemporaries, making this one of the most accomplished pop albums of its time”.

PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Warhol

Blondie would go on to create other genius albums, but I think Parallel Lines tied together all their promise and genius into one record. This article explains how Harry shone and the band managed to quiet those who doubted their worth:

Widely regarded as Debbie Harry and company’s signature disc, Parallel Lines also succeeded in silencing the harshest of critics, with notoriously cranky Village Voice writer Robert Christgau even proclaiming it to be “as close to God as pop-rock albums ever get”. However, while the record has long since earned its stripes as one of the high-water marks of the post-punk era, its stellar success was by no means a given when the band embarked on the sessions with producer Mike Chapman in June 1978.

Housed in an iconic – and instantly recognisable – sleeve shot by photographer Edo Bertoglio, Parallel Lines was first released on 23 September 1978, receiving almost uniformly good reviews. Blondie’s adoring public were also in no doubt the band’s time was at hand: after singles ‘Picture This’ and ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ ripped up the UK Top 20 and, in February 1979, Parallel Lines shot straight to the top of the UK charts, Harry and co played a sell-out UK tour which descended into Beatlemania-esque chaos when the band were mobbed by thousands of fans at a signing session at Our Price Records on London’s Kensington High Street.

Fittingly, it was the genre-defying ‘Heart Of Glass’ which provided Blondie with their first UK No.1 in January 1979, but this time round the band’s success in the UK, Europe and Australia was mirrored by their commercial performance in the US. Indeed, with a further push from Stanley Dorfman’s iconic promotional film of the band performing the song at chic NYC nightspot New York New York, the timeless ‘Heart Of Glass’ soon became Blondie’s first Billboard 100 chart-topper and the record responsible for turning the band into bona fide superstars”.

Relentlessly hard-working and riding the crest of a wave, Blondie marched on and released Eat to the Beat in 1979. At the time, there was nobody cooler and more alluring than Debbie Harry. She was this alluring and edgy lead; a style icon and a voice that instantly inspired the senses. Eat to the Beat contains some of Blondie’s best work: singles Union City Blue and Atomic are instant classics! Harry, again, shines on the album but there was a sense that the pace and demands were affecting the band.

Drugs were making their way into the studio and relationships were strained. Even though Eat to the Beat is a magnificent work, Blondie were unable to keep the momentum going with 1980’s Autoamerican. Barely taking breath between released and touring, there is a radical sense of change on their 1980 album. Aside from Rapture, there are few songs that stand out - it is clear that the band were in need of some time to breathe and recharge. 1982’s Hunter was another lacklustre affair…it would be another seventeen years until they recorded another album. I always have a lot of admiration for bands who can split and then come back together. I recall listening to Blondie as a child and being struck by the power of Debbie Harry and the quality of the songwriting. Maybe it took a few years to really get into the band but, when I did, I was hooked and absorbed as much as I can.

At the age of sixteen, I got to witness Blondie’s return. Led by the terrific single, Maria, No Exit is a fantastic album that is as eclectic as their earlier work. In terms of critical acclaim, reviews have been mixed since Blondie came back with No Exit. 2017’s Pollinator is their most successful and complete post-hiatus/break-up album. In this review from The Guardian, it is clear that the band had lost none of their golden touch

It doesn’t bode well when formerly prolific bands reach for outside songwriters, but a cast stretching from Johnny Marr to Sia to Charli XCX and the Strokes’ Nick Valensi have helped recreate Blondie’s classic late-1970s band sound, albeit with a modern sheen. Clem Burke’s trademark machine-gun drumming propels songs with teasingly familiar big hooks and earworm choruses.

Four writers – including TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek – collaborate on Fun’s Chic-style disco-funk. However, the old Chris Stein/Debbie Harry partnership contributes excellent opener Doom Or Destiny, sung with Joan Jett. Love Level has a glorious pop brass riff. Already Naked and When I Gave Up on You find Harry at her most warm and emotional.

One or two songs drop the ball, but the Dev Hynes/Harry-penned electro shimmer Long Time shares the DNA of Sunday Girl and Heart of Glass. The 71-year-old singer’s tales of youthful “racing down the Bowery” are wonderfully evocative, as Blondie rediscover their Midas touch”.

I am not sure whether there is any more Blondie material planned in the coming years. I hope we have not seen the last album from them. When it comes to inspiration and enduring icons, there are few like Debbie Harry. Artists like Madonna, Shirley Manson (Garbage) and Cyndi Lauper cite Harry as an influence. Listen to music now and you can feel and hear Harry’s D.N.A. in some many places! Debbie Harry’s much-anticipated biography, Face It, arrives on 1st October and you can pre-order it here. I cannot wait to read the book and, as Harry turns seventy-five next year, we are still learning so much about her. From the timeless songs to Debbie Harry’s incredible cool and fashion, there is still nobody like her. Before finishing up, I just want to bring in a final feature:

Debbie Harry went on to pursue a solo career as singer and actress, encountering another distinctive artist in the form of H. R Giger, the Austrian master of biomechanics and designer of the creatures in Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Giger’s grotesque Gothic art graced the cover of Harry’s debut solo album KooKoo in 1981—he worked with an airbrush to enhance Harry’s photograph and clothed her in a bodysuit painted head-to-foot in the video for her single Backfired.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Blondie eventually reformed and toured, and Debbie Harry, now aged 74, continues with a solo career. The first 368-page volume of her biography, Face It, is published by HarperCollins in October, featuring a cover photo taken by her bandmate and boyfriend Chris Stein in New York in 1979, overlaid by punk-inspired black and gold hieroglyphics drawn by graffiti artist Jody Morlock.

In many ways a Day-Glo shadow of Marilyn Monroe, connected through Warhol to the glorious past of Hollywood, Debbie Harry’s image remains iconic of the ‘80s, and of an art world fascinated by celebrity, surface appearance and the fleeting nature of fame”.

Maybe we will get more Blondie music in the future but, regardless…Debbie Harry’s legacy and reputation is sealed. Since this exciting and fresh band came along in the 1970s, Debbie Harry has been in the critical gaze and under the microscope. She remains so engaging, fascinating and unique. As a woman, a fashion icon and an artist, the sublime Debbie Harry is…

IN THIS PHOTO: Debbie Harry in New York in 1985/PHOTO CREDIT: David Michael Kennedy

SUCH a force of nature.

FEATURE: X Marks the Spot: The Unique Tours of Madonna

FEATURE:

 

X Marks the Spot

IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna 

The Unique Tours of Madonna

__________

IT is hard to think of a time since her debut album…

when Madonna was inactive or took a rest. I was born the same year as Madonna’s eponymous debut album (1983) and was instantly seduced. I have written about her from several different angles and assessed quite a few of her albums. This year has been pretty eventful. In March, Like a Prayer turned thirty and, the month after, Madame X was released. Some say Madonna’s fortunes and critical acclaim has waned since 2000’s Music and, in terms of her status as an iconic live performer, does she have the same pull and magic as she did in the 1980s and 1990s? It is true Madonna’s music now is very different to what it was in her peak – the mid-1980s to the late-1990s –, but that is no bad thing. Madame X is a very modern-sounding album and one that brings in a few different collaborators. I quite like the album and feel she has returned to form. For an icon who has been performing and recording for nearly four decades, one would expect Madonna to have slowed or taken some time off. I think it is her love of the people and her connection to the stage that keeps her driven; the chance to bring her music to the people and make that connection. I wanted to discuss Madonna’s live shows because she is currently touring Madame X.

NME, in this article, tell the story:

The singer, who turned up an hour late, played a lengthy set which laced tracks from her recent album with classic hits from her backcatalogue at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn.

All fans were asked to lock their phones in an airtight container before the show to stop them filming the gig.

Of the hits, Madonna performed ‘Vogue’, ‘La Isla Bonita’, ‘Frozen’, ‘American Life’ and ‘Like A Prayer’. She finished up with recent single ‘I Rise’.

Madonna’s setlist was:

‘Dark Ballet’
‘Human Nature’
‘Vogue’
‘I Don’t Search I Find’
‘Papa Don’t Preach’
‘God Control /Rescue Me’ (outro)
‘American Life’
‘Batuka’
‘Fado Pechincha’

‘Killers Who Are Partying’
‘Crazy’
‘La Isla Bonita’
‘Sodade’
‘Medellin’
‘Extreme Ocident’
‘S.E.X [Interlude]’
‘Rescue Me’
‘Frozen’
‘Come Alive’
‘Future’
‘Crave’
‘Like A Prayer’
‘I Rise’

Last month, Madonna postponed the start of her Madame X Tour as a result of technical setbacks.

Two of the first three dates at Brooklyn’s BAM Howard Gilman Opera House — originally scheduled for September 12 and 14 — were moved back to October 10 and 12.  A further show on September 15 was cancelled.

As well as the US dates, Madonna will play a 15-night residency at the iconic London Palladium in February 2020.

In a four-star review of ‘Madame X’, NME’s El Hunt described the record as “bold, bizarre, self-referential and unlike anything Madonna has ever done before”.

There are a few interesting points regarding the new tour. Apart from the technical setbacks and delays, as you can tell from the NME review snippet, Madonna’s new set is just as bold as past tours.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna

It is not like she has decided to go acoustic and confined herself to a very routine and boring show: Madonna in 2019 knows how to create a spectacle and bring her album to life! The persona of Madame X is intriguing but, in a sense, Madonna has cast herself in different guises since the beginning. It is obvious how much Madonna loves performing and the effort she puts in. The setlist above shows that Madonna wants to put some classics in and please the fans, but she can ably balance that with the brand-new material. The theatrics, spectacle and emotion projected at one of her gigs is captivating and, aged sixty-one, there is no slowing the Queen of Pop. What is interesting about the Madame X tour is the upcoming London shows. The London Palladium is an interesting choice of venue and, whilst it will sell-out pretty quickly (if it hasn’t done already…), there is a certain intimacy behind that choice. It is clear she wants to startle and amaze with shows but do so with a sense of intimacy rather than grandeur and pomp. Through the years, Madonna has redefined live performance and produced some of the most influential and memorable tours ever. Look at the Blond Ambition World Tour – the third tour from Madonna – that was launched to support her 1989 studio album, Like a Prayer. Madonna is turning heads now but, on the Blond Ambition World Tour, her blend of Catholic symbolism/imagery and provocative choreography made headlines.

We learn more about the tour in 1991’s Truth or Dare, but it is clear Madonna defined the Pop spectacle. So many artists since then owe a debt to Madonna. The costumes and the choreography; the designs and gravitas of this world-famous performer at the centre…it was a revelation and huge step forward in terms of what a Pop concert could be. Collecting millions of dollars and still one of the most popular tours ever, there is so much to unpack. The Blond Ambition World Tour enraged catholic bodies and groups as, during the show, male dancers caress and there is a sense of sexual liberation and openness. Madonna was breaking rules and pushing boundaries, that is for sure – what ever great artist should strive to do. Not only did the dance and themes of the show inspire and influence but the fashion on display – including the conical bra designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier – is iconic in its own right.

There is debate as to which Madonna tour defines her best – it is clear the Blond Ambition World Tour takes some beating. Look back at other tours and, on every occasion, she has reinvented herself and produced something unique. The Who’s That Girl World Tour of 1987 saw Madonna take on Europe and Asia; her second tour supported True Blue and Who’s That Girl? and it was a big affair. A confident, multimedia affair, the tour utilised better choreography, big screens and a larger space. It was a definite spectacle and sign that the approaching Queen of Pop was stepping into a league of her own.

1993’s The Girlie Show arrived at a time where Madonna was courting as much controversy as popular focus. 1992’s Erotica album and her Sex book did stir up more than their fair share of division and any other artist might have retreated or backed off in terms of what a live show contained. This being Madonna, she was not about to let her fans down. I think the best Madonna tours are defined by a conviction and confidence; using the stage to defy critics and dazzle crowds. In 1993, Madonna’s Mistress Dita persona (from Erotica) took to the stage and, alongside her, there was cabaret, burlesque and celebration. Once more, with a runway projecting from the main stage, Madonna was, literally, seeing how far she could go and not being confined in terms of set-up, themes and delivery. Into the twenty-first century, one would imagine Madonna would do something a little smaller-scaled or relaxed. Instead, the majesty of the stage beckons and, with her Madame X persona, she gets to create this new and exciting world. Madonna has always stepped out of what is expected and confined and done her own thing. Think of the Confessions Tour of 2006 and the spectacle witnessed. From performing Live to Tell whilst hanging on a mirrored cross – again, the Catholic church was displeased! – to putting on two lifts, two runways and a turntable platform…we are talking millions of dollars!

A couple of years previous, for her Re-Invention World Tour, she gave fresh life and importance to her American Life (2003) album with stunning costumes and set designs. Madonna spun riffles and sung on T.V. steps; there was a military-cum-cabaret look and the whole show as head-spinning and dizzying! Various sources have their own opinion regarding her best live performances but, even when the show is a bit average, there is always something special; an angle or moment that lifts it up. Even now, into her fifth decade of performance (or maybe longer), Madonna is breaking rules and standing out. She has banned fans from using mobiles at her shows - and she is still blowing people away. I shall leave you with a review from The New York Times from 18th September, 2019, regarding her Madame X tour:

“Unlike jukebox musicals or “Springsteen on Broadway,” Madame X is a concert focusing on new songs and the present moment. In other words, Madonna is still taking chances. She will reach arena-size attendance in only a handful of venues on the eight-city tour, but with much longer engagements; the Gilman Opera House holds 2,098, and she booked 17 shows there, through Oct. 12. Onstage, “selling” a selfie Polaroid to an audience member who happened to be Rosie O’Donnell, she claimed, “I’m not making a dime on this show.”

SSSS.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna

By the time Madonna had completed just the first two songs, she had already presented an epigraph from James Baldwin — “Artists are here to disturb the peace” — that was knocked out onstage by one of the concert’s recurring figures, a woman (sometimes Madonna herself) at a typewriter.

Gunshots introduced “God Control,” which moves from bitter mourning about gun deaths to happy memories of string-laden 1970s disco, while Madonna and dancers appeared in glittery versions of Revolutionary War finery, complete with feathered tricorn hats, only to be confronted by police with riot shields. “Dark Ballet” had Joan of Arc references, a montage of gothic cathedrals and scary priests, a synthesizer excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Madonna grappling with masked dancers, until cops pulled her off the piano she had been perched on. The signifiers were already piling up.

The songs Madonna chose from her past were mostly exhortations and pushbacks, sometimes coupled with direct political statements. She sang part of “Papa Don’t Preach,” reversing its decision to “keep my baby,” then spoke directly about supporting abortion rights. Dancing while surrounded by video imagery of pointing fingers, she revived “Human Nature,” which already testified — a full 25 years ago — to Madonna’s tenacity and determination to express herself uncensored. When it ended, her daughters Mercy James, Estere and Stella were onstage, and the singers and a full-throated audience shared an a cappella “Express Yourself”.

From the 1980s through to the present time, Madonna has redefined live performance and, if you can, go and see her in London. She is getting some great reviews from a fantastic album (Madame X); proof that the unchallenged Queen of Pop is a live force…

LIKE no other.

FEATURE: A Legend from New Jersey: The Boss at Seventy: The Ultimate Bruce Springsteen Playlist

FEATURE:

 

A Legend from New Jersey

ioiooi.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Bruce Springsteen 

The Boss at Seventy: The Ultimate Bruce Springsteen Playlist

__________

THE world will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Bruce Springsteen

of The Beatles’ Abbey Road on Thursday (26th September). Whilst we all come together to mark an iconic album, it is worth remembering that, a few days before (on Monday), it will be Bruce Springsteen’s seventieth birthday. I think all of us have some exposure to The Boss and his music. I have not heard all of his latest album, Western Stars, but I was brought up on his classic records. Born to Run (1975) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984) are stone-cold classics and albums that anyone can listen to at any time and connect with. Springsteen is an artist who, since his 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., has inspired generations. He is one of the greatest artists who has ever lived and, as he turns seventy, I think he deserves a lot of love and acclaim. Many will be revisiting his best albums, but I thought I would try and put together a seventy-song playlist that is ‘ultimate Springsteen’: a selection of his greatest cuts that show what a master he is. The Boss’ music is, apparently, pretty risky when you are driving - such is the thrill you get from it! Springsteen has inspired so many artists and some of our favourite groups owe him a debt. To pay tribute to a true music legend, here is a seventy-song playlist that shows why…  

THE Boss is truly the boss!

FEATURE: The Immortal Shot: The Beatles' Abbey Road at Fifty: Celebrating an Iconic Cover

FEATURE:

 

The Immortal Shot

sddsds.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty: Celebrating an Iconic Cover

__________

IF you are lucky…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Abbey Road, taken on the morning of The Beatles’ album cover shoot on 8th August, 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

you might create one brilliant album cover in your career! I am thinking of bands like Nirvana (Nevermind), The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) and Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon), who often appear in the ‘best album covers ever’ list - and it is hard to argue against. These artists can be proud of that but, when you think of The Beatles, they can claim to have THREE album covers that are iconic and timeless – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968) and Abbey Road (1969). There is debate among fans as to which of that trio stands out most. Of course, one simply has to tip their hat to the genius cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the gamut of famous faces that appear. It is amazing to think how The Beatles progressed as a band between 1965’s Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver. Along with this leap in sonic endeavour and ambition came a more artistic approach to their covers. Look at the covers pre-1966 and, largely, it is the band snapped quite simply. Maybe that reflects the music they were producing: simple, classic Pop albums do not necessarily require hugely illuminating and complex covers. When they started pushing the studio and splicing sounds, their covers became more eye-catching and inventive. If Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dripped with effort, thought and a lot of focus, Abbey Road’s cover has a charmingly casual and of-the-moment vibe.

aaa.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

Paul McCartney sketched how he wanted the cover to look but I think, were it too posed, it would look weird and unnatural! Very few shots were taken, and it is amazing we got the shot we did; the band looking casual but in perfect step. The Beatles Bible talks about the day the cover was shot and how it all came together:

All four Beatles gathered at EMI Studios on the morning of Friday 8 August 1969 for one of the most famous photo shoots of their career. Photographer Iain Macmillan took the iconic image that adorned their last-recorded album, Abbey Road.

Iain Macmillan was a freelance photographer and a friend to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He used a Hasselblad camera with a 50mm wide-angle lens, aperture f22, at 1/500 seconds.

A policeman held up the traffic as Macmillan, from a stepladder positioned in the middle of the road, took six shots as the group walked across the zebra crossing just outside the studio.

The Beatles crossed the road a number of times while Macmillan photographed them. 8 August was a hot day in north London, and for four of the six photographs McCartney walked barefoot; for the other two he wore sandals.

Shortly after the shoot, McCartney studied the transparencies and chose the fifth one for the album cover. It was the only one when all four Beatles were walking in time. It also satisfied The Beatles' desire for the world to see them walking away from the studios they had spent so much of the last seven years inside.

oo.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

Macmillan also took a photograph of a nearby tiled street sign for the back cover. The sign has since been replaced, but was situated at the corner of Abbey Road and Alexandra Road. The junction no longer exists; the road was later replaced by the Abbey Road housing estate, between Boundary Road and Belsize Road”.

Given the simple beauty of the cover, it is easy to replicate – through the years, scores of people have copied that shot outside Abbey Road. Although it is not the same spot The Beatles used in 1969, one cannot resist doing a version of Abbey Road. This hugely important album turns fifty on 26th September, and you just know scores of people will be striding across zebra crossings, in fours, doing their spin on a genius cover. I bet every artist on the planet was green with envy when that cover came out. Something that simple looking so brilliant! Maybe it is the aura The Beatles projected or the fact there was something symbolic about them walking as they did. Maybe it represented them walking away from the studio; perhaps it is them all together but separate. When Abbey Road hit shelves, there was the famous ‘Paul is dead’ theories that circulated. Many thought the cover’s image was the band leaving a funeral. In front, Lennon is dressed in white (as a religious figure); Starr was dressed in black (representing the undertaker) and George Harrison was in denim – sort of playing the gravedigging role.

ooo.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

As McCartney was bare-footed is out of step with the others and holding a cigarette in his right hand (he was left-handed), many assumed it was an imposter; maybe a sign that he was dead. I am not sure whether McCartney planned the image like this; whether he wanted people to view the band as leading their own funeral procession, but it is clear people have read a lot into the cover – and, of course, Paul McCartney is very much with us! The first time I saw the cover, aged about six or seven, I liked the fact The Beatles all had different clothes on. If there was uniformity, then it would have clashed with the zebra crossing and wouldn’t have resonated. Each band member has their own style and, for my money, John Lennon edges it in the fashion stakes! Artists since have tried to create an album cover as iconic with so little effort. I cannot think of anything since 1969 that has grabbed the eye and stayed in the mind quite like Abbey Road’s cover. I am hoping to put out another Abbey Road feature before the big day, but I just HAD to feature the stunning cover. It is one of the best ever and, as I have mentioned, sent heads spinning with conspiracies and speculation. In fact, as we can see from this article, there are even more ‘clues’ regarding the supposed (premature) demise of Paul McCartney:

The license plate

In the background we see a Volkswagen Beetle with the plate "LMW 28IF" Conspiracists claim this to mean that McCartney would be 28 if he were alive. (Nevermind the fact that he would actually have been 27 if the rumor were true.)

nh.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

The police van

Parked on the side of the road is a black police van, which is said to symbolize authorities who kept silent about McCartney's fatal fender-bender.

The girl in the blue dress

On the night of McCartney’s supposed car accident, he was believed to have been driving with a fan named Rita. Theorists say the girl in the dress featured on the back cover was meant to be her, fleeing from the car crash.

Connect the dots

Also on the back cover are a series of dots. Join some of them together and you can make the number three — the number of surviving Beatles.

Broken Beatles sign

On the back cover, we see the band’s name written in tiles on a wall and there’s a crack running through it. Of all the symbols, this one turned out to be the most meaningful, and sad. Although the release of Abbey Road was followed with ample evidence that McCartney was alive and well, what the public didn’t know was that the Beatles had secretly broken up. Abbey Road would be the band’s penultimate studio album, and the group would call it quits only a year later”.

There is so much to unpack, investigate and adore when it comes to Abbey Road. It was the final album the band recorded, and they gave us, perhaps, their finest effort. There is debate where Abbey Road falls in the rankings regarding musical quality; in terms of that arresting cover, I do not think the band bettered that. Maybe Abbey Road is not the absolute best cover ever, but it must be in the top three, surely! Whether you are hooked by its coolness and simplicity or go into the conspiracy side of things, one must marvel at its sheer brilliance! There was rumour The Beatles were planning another album after Abbey Road; that they had a bit more to give. I am not sure what changed their mind, but it is sort of heartbreaking thinking…

WHAT could have been.

 

FEATURE: Sisters in Arms: An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIV)

FEATURE:

 

 

Sisters in Arms

ttg.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Sasha Sloan 

An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIV)

__________

AUTUMN begins next week…

pl.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: ZSELA

so this will be the last summer edition of the All-Female Playlist. Although the weather is still pretty warm and summer-like, I think we have to accept the fact the days will draw in and the weather will get colder. That is okay because, taking us through the weekend, here is a brilliant selection of female-led jams. From the more soothing cuts to summery Pop, right the way up to Metal…there is something in here for every music-loving soul! Have a listen to the assorted tracks and I just know you’ll discover great new artists. This is one of the most varied playlists I have put out in a long time and so, as I big farewell to summer and prepare to welcome in autumn, here are some tracks that end the season…

zxzxz.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Georgia

WITH some truly memorable songs.

ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

____________

Chaos ChaosTheaters

GazelWalk on Land

vbvvb.jpg

Marina KayeTwisted

bbb.jpg

Folly RaeOver Me

Four of DiamondsEating Me Up

ljhu.jpg

OvercoatsLeave If You Wanna

xxx.jpg

Sasha Sloansmiling when i die

c.jpg

Sinead HarnettNo Pressure

76676.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Ciara Mc Mullan

New PagansCharlie has the face of a saint

PHOTO CREDIT: Nat Enemede Photography

Kobra and the LotusWe Come Undone

Jorja ChalmersSuburban Pastel 

Pieta BrownOnly Flying

PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen

Samantha FishDream Girl

Princess NokiaSugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)

zzz.jpg

Violet DaysINK

Chastity Belt - Ann’s Jam 

Hope WinterWild

xccx.jpg

Lauran HibberdShark Week

GeorgiaNever Let You Go

Lauren TateMiss American Perfect Body

ww.jpg

Sinead O BrienA Thing You Call Joy

hgh.jpg

Tove LoMateo

lo.jpg

beabadoobeeI Wish I Was Steven Malkmus

cc.jpg

Ina Wroldsen - Haloes

0909.jpg

Soccer Mommylucy

ll.jpg

Anna ClendeningIf I’m Being Honest

xx.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

ZselaEarlier Days        

gf.jpg

Charlotte Day WilsonMountains 

Hanne LelandThe Nights I Can’t Sleep

zxx.jpg

Daniela Andrade - Ayayai

998.jpg

LaMeePillow

FEATURE: The September Playlist: Vol. 3: Old-Age Metal and Modern Discovery

FEATURE:

 

The September Playlist

IN THIS PHOTO: Brittany Howard/PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Ryan Anderson/Contour by Getty Images 

Vol. 3: Old-Age Metal and Modern Discovery

___________

THIS is a good one…

IN THIS PHOTO: Liam Gallagher/PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Beard

for music, as there are some really interesting tracks among the pack. Not only has Brittany Howard released an album, Jaime, but there is material from Liam Gallagher, Field Music; Princess Nokia and Stormzy. I am blown away by the sheer range and depth of music this week; I actually think it is one of the most interesting weeks for music in a very long time! Have a listen to the tracks below and I know there is going to be plenty in there that will catch your attention. In this warm and pleasant weather, I think music has a really important role. 2019 has been such a strong year and, with each passing week, the tunes get hotter and stronger. This is evidenced in this week’s…

zx.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Princess Nokia/PHOTO CREDIT: Alberto Vargas

EXCELLENT cuts.  

ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

_________

PHOTO CREDIT: BucketHead.Media

Brittany Howard 13th Century Metal

Liam Gallagher Now That I’ve Found You

Field Music Only in a Man’s World

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Schmelling

Perfume Genius Eye in the Wall

PHOTO CREDIT: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Stormzy Wiley Flow

Princess Nokia Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)

Ezra Furman Thermometer

Another Sky Capable of Love

Soccer Mommy lucy

Alicia Keys, Miguel Show Me Love

blink-182 Pin the Grenade

Tom Tripp These Days

j.jpg

Will Joseph Cook The Dragon

aaaa.jpg

HMLTD LOADED

Tove Lo Sweettalk My Heart

Benjamin Francis Leftwich - Elephant

m.jpg

Caroline Polachek So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings

The Cinematic Orchestra Wait for Now

BENEEGlitter

Sofi Tukker Ringless

iuuiiui.jpg

beabadoobee - I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus

oopppo.jpg

Hootie & the Blowfish Miss California

GRACEY Fingers Crossed

Wildwood Kin Time Has Come

Four of DiamondsEating Me Up

mmm.jpg

Georgia Never Let You Go

Sasha Sloan smiling when i die

fff.jpg

Keane Stupid Things

AJ Mitchell Down in Flames

Mariah CareyIn the Mix

Russ CROWN

ccc.jpg

Folly Rae Over Me

zzzz.jpg

Kobra and the LotusWash Away

FEATURE: Modern Heroines: Part One: Laura Marling

FEATURE:

 

Modern Heroines

22.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Hollie Fernando for The Line of Best Fit

Part One: Laura Marling

__________

THE idea behind this feature…

aaaaa.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

is to acknowledge and investigate the best female artists in music right now. I am winding up my Female Icons feature, and it has been great writing that. Now, as I look to those women who are shaping up to be icons of the future, I am compelled to look at Laura Marling. In my opinion, she is one of the most original songwriters on the planet. I have been following her since the debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, in 2008 and I was instantly hooked. Marling is twenty-nine now so, to have created such a confident and assured album eleven years ago, it kind of staggers the mind! Laura Marling is one of those artists who, I feel, has never dropped a step! Her albums are always received well, and her songwriting is incredibly strong. In terms of overall acclaim, maybe Alas, I Cannot Swim does not get the same affection as her later albums. Even so, that brilliantly husky and captivating voice recalls artists from the 1970s such as Joni Mitchell; there is a maturity and grace to her songwriting that one cannot find with other artists. With songwriters like Feist and Duffy gathering a lot of attention in 2008, maybe Marling struggled in that sense. Whilst her music is much more intriguing and accomplished, it was a year when eyes were pointing elsewhere. It was clear that, from her debut, Marling was something different.

When speaking with Jude Rogers in 2008, Marling’s songwriting, approach and sources of inspiration were uncovered:

"No, no, seriously," she goes on. "Take another look. My songs are not pretty. They're what I call optimistic realism." She tips her head impishly. "Some are depressing, and I have depressive sides to my character, like most people, but I'm always telling myself to look on the bright side."

In a music scene teeming with talented young women, Marling stands apart as quite possibly Britain's most promising singer-songwriter. She's not a soul-influenced ingenue like Adele or Duffy, nor a pop performer in the style of Lily Allen or Kate Nash (with whom she has toured), but an accomplished performer in the folk vein. In fact, she manages to make folk feel modern. Her bold, dark songs recall Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, yet remain her own. She has already notched up a Glastonbury performance and, hilariously, was refused entry to her own gig at a London venue for being too young - so she busked outside instead.

She gets a lot from books; her favourite authors are Jane Austen and the Brontës. "They're always made out to be so sweetly romantic, but they're not - they're brutal. I love the way you can fall in love with a piece of literature; how words alone can get your heart doing that." She admits to struggling with some writers, and pulls two books out of her bulky handbag to make her point: James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and comedian Russell Brand's autobiography, My Booky Wook. "The Joyce is really interesting, but guess which one I've been reading today." She raises an eyebrow theatrically. "It's really well-written, though!"

For someone so young, Marling writes convincingly about breakdowns, tough emotions and sex. Her characters are strong, fighting to protect the people they hold close. One song on the album, Night Terror, contains a particularly affecting line about a lover having a nightmare: "I roll over and shake him tightly and whisper, if they want you, well, then they're gonna have to fight me." Marling admits the songs are personal, but will divulge nothing more. "It's just stream-of-consciousness stuff, really. And like everyone else, my consciousness has dark, jagged parts. Especially when it's four in the morning and something's happened and you have to write about it".

Laura Marling has released six solo albums – and one as part of LUMP –, and I think she has grown stronger as time has progressed. That is evident on her 2010 album, I Speak Because I Can. The album sees Marling looking at the roles of men and women in society. Marling approached the album from a first-person viewpoint, but we do not hear many songs about Marling’s thoughts and personal life – the album is more observational and poetic. Various songs are inspired by literature – Devil’s Spoke: Homer’s Odyssey; I Speak Because I Can: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad -, and the standout from the album, Goodbye England (Covered in Snow), was compelled by a family walk by a church in the winter. Marling’s second album is a more developed and nuanced work; perhaps she was finding her true voice. In this review from The Telegraph, they pay tribute to a darker, deeper songwriter:

 “The new Marling is darker and more sophisticated. She opens proceedings with a drunken, midnight maypole dance of a song. Devil’s Spoke builds from a shadowy portrait of pastoral loneliness into an increasingly frenzied, banjo-spun romance ending with lovers “eye to eye, nose to nose/ripping off each others clothes in a most peculiar way”. Whereas so much music coming from the “nu-folk” scene sounds like nature recollected in safety, by the glowing fire of some Olde Taverne, Marling’s sounds starkly exposed to the English elements. Her songs are simple yet complex, weird but quotidien like hedgerows – twisted, full of thorns, fruit, life and death. You can hear a thrill at the savagery as well as the sweetness of our landscape in the unflinching alto that sings: “I’ll never love England more than when covered in snow.”

Many of the songs struggle with Marling’s conflicted yearning for both traditional monogamy and unfettered independence. “I tried to be a girl who likes to be used,” she sings on Goodbye England, “I’m too good for that/ There’s a mind under this hat.” Elsewhere she gazes back into Greek mythology for female companionship, addressing the marriage goddess Hera and conjuring the spirit of Odysseus’ patient wife Penelope. I Speak Because I Can is my favourite release of the year so far – and certainly an album worth sailing home for”.

The sheer majesty of the songwriting is breathtakling! For an artist so young, one is staggered by the intelligence and wisdom of the songs. That may seem patronising but, back in 2010/2011, there were few songwriters who displayed the same sort of brilliance as Laura Marling. I still think she is our finest songwriter and someone who, as I said, changed skin and incorporated something new into every album. 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know is my personal favourite. The songs came together after she completed her I Speak Because I Can tour of 2010. This was a period of isolation and, perhaps, loneliness where Marling spent time in cafes reading books; working on crosswords and scribbling in notebooks. That images seems quite romantic but (it was a time) when Marling was transitioning and figuring things out. Marling wrote and worked on the songs long before she brought them in for her band.

lo.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Ian West/PA

Her first couple of albums were more collaborative, in the sense she was working with the likes of Charlie Fink and knocking songs into shape with others. Given the fact the material was written the way it was, it is not a surprise to hear that Marling wanted to get the sound just right before she approached the musicians. The album gained hugely positive reviews – Marling has never received a bad review -, and this is AllMusic’s take:

 “Marling's vocal affectations, which are ultimately charming despite their frequent Joni Mitchell-isms, are far more apparent this time around, especially on the album’s first three tracks, all of which showcase a fervent singer/songwriter with a fiercely independent spirit who’s tempered by a strong familiarity with her parents’ record collection. That said, it’s a syllabus that’s been ingested and honed rather than spit out and glossed over, and most of the time, Marling makes a great case for all of those Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson comparisons. Brimming with life and lush with spanish guitar, rolling banjos, summer of love chord changes, and moor-bound tales of love gone bad, A Creature I Don’t Know is ultimately triumphant, due in great part to Marling's magnificent codeine voice, which sounds like it’s been pouring out of the radio for five decades, especially on stand-out cuts like “Sophia,” “The Beast,” “My Friends,” and “All My Rage.” Three albums in, the young singer/songwriter sounds brave and confident yet breakable and guarded, and while A Creature I Don’t Know may not be the bolt from the blue fans and critics were hoping for, it’s most certainly storm born”.

Marling gave a few interviews to promote the album – Marling is selective about who she speaks with – and, in this feature with The Guardian, we learn more about the time around A Creature I Don’t Know’s creation and Marling’s growing confidence:

The period of isolation, writing and demoing the material alone, as well as working out the vocal arrangements before she played any of the songs to her band or her producer, were reflective of Marling's growing self-assurance. "It was quite an interesting way of doing it," she says, "because it allowed me to put my stamp on it before anybody else put their stamp on it. With the first two albums – Charlie [Fink, lead singer of Noah and the Whale and Marling's ex-boyfriend] produced Alas I Cannot Swim, and it's as much his album as it is mine, and with I Speak Because I Can, the style of the drumming and the bass playing is very much a representation of the characters who were playing on that album, and Ethan [Johns, the producer] stepping in as well. This time I thought: 'Well, I've got the confidence now, and I know what I want it to sound like, so before anybody else gets their grubby mitts on it, why don't I put my stamp on it?'"

Marling's burgeoning confidence is also a reflection of a young woman increasingly at ease with her status. "I think earlier on I was trying to prove I was a songwriter," she says. "But now I really struggle with the idea of referring to myself, or someone referring to me as an artist. It makes me shudder a bit. But then there's some parts of me that would like to proudly say that I'm an artist … I just wouldn't ever want to use it anywhere in between." She laughs. "One day, in retrospect maybe I'll say: 'I was an artist once upon a time… '"

Work on Once I Was an Eagle started as early as 2011; songs such as Master Hunter and Pray for Me were imagined before the release of A Creature I Don’t Know. Rather than produce a cast of characters or have various angles, there is a simplicity and focus to Once I Was an Eagle. Written in three tunings – moving from more uplifting songs such as Saved These Words to darker tones on Take the Night Off, for instance -, we see a central figure push away the naivety of love before embracing it once again. Once I Was an Eagle saw Marling move from working with a band and stripping things back. With Producer Ethan Johns and cellist, Ruth de Turberville, the album was recorded in Bath over the course of about ten days.  In this interview with Under the Radar, Marling talked about her change in process.

"For the last two records we'd done all the tapes live with the band, and I wasn't recording with a band this time, so I sat down and played the record start to finish," she says.

Once I Was an Eagle also evidences Marling's continued growth as a guitarist, with her playing leaning more toward the blues and her guitar work more to the forefront. Much of this was influenced by her newfound obsession with late '60s/early '70s music.

"I pretty much only listened to music made between 1969 and 1972," she says. "In that era, guitar was becoming a kind of masculine extension, kind of hedonistic. I found that Captain Beefheart rhythms and Creedence riffs and things like that, they do something for me."

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Marling also demonstrates a continued willingness to examine issues such as feminism and women's roles. Though she has written about these topics since her Mercury Prize-nominated 2008 debut, she still is not convinced she has any definitive answers.

"One of my great pleasures in life is that I'm constantly being proved wrong and feeling more and more naïve, which is actually a quite liberating feeling," she says. "I find that women's lib and femininity and equality are very touchy subjects and need to be approached with a lot of care. In my mind, there are infinite answers and opinions on those things and I enjoy exploring them. I haven't come to a conclusion on them yet".

This sixteen-track album is packed with evocative moments and truly arresting songs. The set of reviews that greeted Once I Was an Eagle were the strongest to date. Small wonder when one considers the variation in You Know, Master Hunter and Devil’s Resting Place! One is totally engrossed in the music and, in my opinion, Once I Was an Eagle is one of the finest albums of this decade. 

The most-recent two solo albums from Marling, again, have seen her move in different directions. There were attempts to write music for an album after Once I Was an Eagle, but Marling was not happy with the results. Short Movie eventually came about, but not before Marling took a few months off from music. Given the fact she was touring heavily and producing albums fairly regularly, one can forgive the songwriter for needing time to recharge and rest. Marling was living in Los Angeles at the time and Short Movie reflects the spiritual and mystical aspects of the city; Marling found inspiration and, in a first, produced the album herself. Short Movie is a different beast in a number of ways. Oddly, it is the first album not to have a six-syllable title; she also added in a bowed electronic guitar sound to give the album a sound akin to background noise – maybe trying to project the sound of a short film in an urban environment. Isolation and loneliness raise its head on Short Movie; the idea of seeming separate in a city like Los Angeles. Tracks like Don’t Let Me Bring You Down reflect how cities like L.A. can have negative effects. That is not to say Short Movie lacks compassion and warmth: it is a varied and wonderful record that finds Marling digging deep. In fact, a few songs are taken from experiences Marling had in different parts of America.

It is an itinerant album and one that boasts so many powerful moments – the Hurricane Sandy-inspired False Hope is one such example. Reviews were positive once more. NME provided their take on Short Movie:

Yet while there's a Yankee bloom on the English rose, 'Short Movie' isn't an outright volte-face. Warning well-meaning boys of the perils of falling in love with her is a recurrent theme of Marling's. She revisits it on 'Warrior', whose sighing rebuke of "I can't be your horse anymore, you're not the warrior I'm looking for" makes it clear that her priority is walking her own path, not making someone else's easier. 'Strange' is blunter still: "Should you fall in love with me, your love becomes my responsibility and I can never do you wrong... do you know how hard that is?" She often tempers candour with moments of sweetness, but even 'How Can I', for all its wistful talk of "riding up mountains, turning corners in our lives", has the spectre of impermanence hanging over it; the song ends with Marling, "going back east, where I belong", alone.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

More than anything else, it's that restlessness, that fear of becoming too comfortable or complacent by staying in one place, which seems to define Marling. There's no overarching narrative to 'Short Movie' - it plays out like a series of vignettes, of moods and moments, people and places - but there is a sense of a journey completed, with a hard-won wisdom at the end of it. Marling is her own protagonist - flawed, like anyone else, but utterly compelling all the same”.

I shall round things off but, in 2017, Marling released the majestic Semper Femina. It is my favourite album of 2017, and I was struck by the differences between this record and Short Movie. The first track I heard from the album was the single, Soothing. It is seductive, breathy and magnificent - a very different sound to what we were used to. I want to bring in a couple of interviews Marling conducted around the time that reveal quite a lot. When speaking with The Guardian, she talks about her attitude to having her picture taken (and image in general):

Notably, the record’s tendency to look at women – lingeringly, lovingly – extended to Marling herself. “I think probably a big part of this album was me needing to love myself, which is a bit cringe to say.” Indeed, Nouel sees Marling’s gaze refracted back towards herself. The album’s title, which roughly translates to “always woman”, is an abbreviation of a line from Virgil: “varium et mutabile semper femina” – woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing. In the song, Marling applies the epithet to both her and Nouel, in a luxuriant whirl of feminine connection and reflection.

Marling originally decided to embark on a career in music to “prove a point – that I could if I wanted to. I was sick of people trying to take my guitar away from me even though I was good.” Yet even after years of prodigious success – record contract at 16, a formidable back catalogue by her mid-20s – her instrument still gets prised out of her hands, with helpful colleagues telling Marling not to “worry about playing the guitar, I’ll play the guitar”.

One gaze Marling feels no ambivalence towards, however, is that of the camera. “I think I’m pretty, but I fucking hate having my photo taken,” she explains. “On this album campaign, I was like fine, I’ll do a private photoshoot, and I’ll get 10 images and give them to all the papers and that’s all. And then every paper wants their own picture and they threaten you with ‘We won’t cover you if you don’t’, and that’s crazy. I’ve got much more important things to do than have my photograph taken.”

In an industry where Instagram accounts, clothing lines and flamboyant pregnancy announcement pictures seem as much a part of an artist’s oeuvre as their music, Marling’s rejection of the image-hungry zeitgeist feels palliative. As does, in a world of ear-splittingly abrasive production and knowing popstar posturing, her preoccupation with the acoustic guitar and the introspective mood it facilitates. Marling describes herself as an introvert. “I think it’s why I don’t relate to a lot of extroverted music, most of what’s in the charts,” she says. “Because a lot of my experience on the planet is in my brain. Maybe I’m lacking in experience and rich in thought, which is not necessarily useful”.

In a great interview with The Line of Best Fit, Marling discussed gender and roles; getting to the heart of the album and its inspiration:

 “Taking ownership of her gender, she concluded that her masculine and feminine traits need not remain mutually exclusive. “I think I would have got to that eventually,” she nods, as we ponder the depths she has scoured to reach such a conclusion. “It’s something to do with the societal effects of my upbringing, that I found it not obvious. I found it difficult to manage, through no one’s direct fault. But yes, that is exactly what I was exploring, my internal relationship to my central self, which doesn’t really have a compartmentalised gender, it’s more like two gases that intertwine.”

This realisation revealed a flaw to Marling early on when writing Semper Femina. Poised to explore femininity and female relationships in each of the album’s songs, she realised halfway through writing “The Valley”, the first song written for the album, that she had naturally started writing as if she was a man rather than a woman with masculine characteristics.

“It was a lightbulb,” she says. “I was like, this sounds like a man going to rescue a woman. At first I thought, yes, OK. Sometimes you do reflect yourself as fantasy in a song. But then I was like, no. This is not me turning around fantasy. This is me…this is me”.

Semper Femina is the last studio album from Laura Marling and, having covered such ground through the years, one can understand if she waits another year or two before considering her next endeavour. She is not even thirty and, so far, she has already released more world-class albums than most artists do in their lifetime. It must be a bit scary knowing that there is such universal love and expectation; maybe Marling will never receive a bad review, but one feels Marling is more concerned with the quality of the music and making sure she makes albums that are true to her. Before talking about her latest studio effort, I wanted to track back her Reversal of the Muse project/podcast from 2016. It is a powerful and fascinating examination of the role of women and how, in this day, there is still inequality and a lack of women in certain sectors of music. This article gives you more details:

 “Reversal of the Muse’s focus on the structural limitations of the industry comes at a time when women are still a rarity on the technical side of music. It’s estimated that less than 5 percent of music engineers and producers are female, and only six female producers have ever been nominated for the prestigious Producer of the Year, Non-Classical award at the Grammys.

iioo.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Hollie Fernando for The Line of Best Fit

The ways in which women’s contributions in general are often overlooked in the music industry come up frequently in the podcast, including in one episode featuring the British musician Marika Hackman. She talked about feeling frustrated when the coverage surrounding her 2015 debut full-length album focused more on her model looks, clothing, and friendship with Cara Delevingne, than on the merits of her music. Elsewhere on Reversal of the Muse, guests dissect the “boy’s club” that is life on the road, which ultimately leads to a discussion of how women are expected to behave, and more specifically challenges the notion that a woman must always be “sweet”.

Reversal of the Muse is a series that is as relevant now as it was a few years ago. I think a lot of those in power (in music) could learn a lot and take guidance from it. If you get chance to listen, then go here and you can hear the episodes. Completing my look at the sensational Laura Marling, one needs to look at her most-recent incarnation: as one-half of the terrific LUMP. The duo consists Marling and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay. Their eponymous debut came out last year and, as you’d expect, reviews were hot. The duo has a natural chemistry and it was great hearing Marling in a new context. She did briefly work with Noah and the Whale before her first solo album, but LUMP is the first time she paired with another musician in such a collaborative and equal way.

Before concluding, I want to bring in an interview Marling and Lindsay gave with NME, where they discussed their collaboration:

For a project as dreamy and cerebral as LUMP, its birthplace is an improbable one. On 11 June, 2016, Laura Marling and Tunng‘s Mike Lindsay met for the first time at a bowling alley inside The O2, while the former was supporting Neil Young on his UK arena tour. Just two days later, the pair were in the studio recording what would become a 32-minute collaborative album, and within the week Marling had recorded all her parts.

What did you like about each others’ work when you met each other?

Laura: “I’d been a Tunng fan – and early on in my career we’d intersected a couple of times but never really met. I didn’t know Mike was one of the main men behind Tunng.”

Mike: “I’ve been a fan of Laura’s for a long time. I have a memory of us playing at Cambridge Folk Festival together back once upon a year, and being blown away. I also saw her playing at Hop Farm Festival in 2010 and was quite impressed with the whistling… ‘Devil’s Spoke’ was a favourite of mine for a long time. It was just really nice to be able to meet Laura and ask to do something together”.

Laura, you mentioned Kate Bush’s singing voice in a recent interview. Was that someone you were wanting to channel?

Laura: “Not consciously. I was surprised by that, actually, because I’d never consciously thought about a singing style, or emulating someone else’s. Obviously I was brought up on Joni Mitchell, so that’s how I learnt to sing. It was Mike’s direction actually – you had a few things in mind for what you wanted my voice to do, that you’d heard me do before, I guess?”

Mike: “Yeah – but actually, listening to what we’ve ended up with, I’ve never totally heard you do some of the things that you’re doing on the LUMP record. You go through all ranges of your vocal capacity and it changes from song to song. It’s quite special.”

What’s the future of LUMP?

Mike: “I hope there’s a future of LUMP… I guess we’ve gotta give him the right cuddles. Or her. See what the whispers are.”

Laura: “See how he takes to touring. Might not like it.”

Mike: “One step at a time. But I’m really enjoying it so far, we’ll see what happens.”

What about in your own separate capacities? What are your future plans with music?

Mike: “Tunng has got a new record coming out at the end of the year, which will be the original line-up for the first time since 2007. That’s quite exciting. This has been a wonderful way of getting back into sonic experimentation, and now there’s a Tunng record as well. That’s enough for me, really, this and that.”

Laura: “And I’m just this. I’m always writing, I always write, but there’s usually a point where I feel like I’ve turned a corner and the last record has ended. I haven’t turned that corner yet I don’t think – I’m still in ‘Semper Femina’ mode”.

Let’s hope there is another LUMP album, given the reception their debut received. Two years after Marling’s last solo album, I hope 2020 brings new material from her. She is one of those songwriters who does not rely on the pomp and build-up you get with others; teasing material and endlessly releasing singles. Instead, Marling is more traditional and is keener for us to hear the album and enjoy it as a single body. She is a wonderful artist and one who, annoyingly, gets better and better with each album – are there no limits to her talent?! I have ended this feature with a career-spanning playlist that demonstrates just how amazing and varied Marling is. One of the most imaginative, compelling and engaging songwriters in the world, you just know Marling will produce music…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Laura Marling with Mike Lindsay (LUMP)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Spotify

UNTIL her final breath. 

FEATURE: The Good Vibes Playlist: Part One

FEATURE:

IN THIS PHOTO: Girl Band/PHOTO CREDIT: Girl Band/Getty Images

The Good Vibes Playlist: Part One

__________

RATHER than put together a ‘ones to watch’ list out…

zzz.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Black Belt Eagle Scout/PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Cass

that looks ahead to next year, I thought I would collect together some rising artists into a playlist that helps us transition from summer into autumn. There is a lot of great music out there at the moment and, in the following two parts, I will try and unite as many great acts as I can. In this opening selection, I feel there are some sizzlers that will keeps us warm and lifted but there are some songs that definitely gives us a sense of comfort and calm. If you need to be lifted and are also looking to check out some terrific artists along the way, this is the selection for you. Have a spin of the playlist and I hope there is enough in there to keep you satisfied. Things are pretty stressful in the world right now and I do think we all need a bit of guidance, escape and strength. These fantastic artists are guaranteed to…

IN THIS PHOTO: Sports Team/PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren Maccabee

GIVE us all the good vibes we need right now.

____________

FEATURE: Plenty Great About Britain and Ireland: Is 2019’s Mercury Prize Shortlist the Strongest Yet?

FEATURE:

 

Plenty Great About Britain and Ireland

7.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: slowthai is among the favourites to win this year’s Mercury Prize for his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain/PHOTO CREDIT: Crowns & Owls 

Is 2019’s Mercury Prize Shortlist the Strongest Yet?

__________

TOMORROW is the day we will find out…

IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES are hotly tipped for Joy as an Act of Resistance/PHOTO CREDIT: Charlotte Patmore 

who walks away with the converted Mercury Prize. Every year when the shortlisted artists are announced, there is division and consternation. Inevitably, there are albums and artists that do not make the cut that, perhaps, should have. One cannot include every artist given the fact only a dozen albums can make it onto the shortlist. I think it is hard to draw a line but, the fact there is so much debate goes to show how many strong British and Irish albums arrive each year. One could argue a little flexibility is in order regarding the number of acts nominated; maybe widening the shortlist to fifteen or even taking it up to thirteen. Even then, one feels there will be some lauded albums that are not included. Come tomorrow evening, we will know which of the twelve nominated acts takes the prize (the ceremony will be hosted by Lauren Laverne). It is exciting to speculate and, as soon as the winner is announced, people will take to social media. At the moment, it seems like slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain (more on that later), IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance and Dave’s PSYCHODRAMA are leading the bookies’ race; Anna Calvi’s Hunter seems to be a public favourite that is in with a great shot. One cannot discount The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, black midi’s Schlagenheim and Cate Le Bon’s Reward. I will nod back to some memorable years from the Mercury Prize but, when we look at the albums from this year, there is so much passion and ambition in display. If the past few years have been mixed and not quite as inspiring as one had hoped, there are no gaps and cracks in 2019.

So strong is the field that we can mix potent and eye-opening albums from Dave, IDLES and slowthai alongside a wondrous album from Anna Calvi – Hunter is the third album from Calvi and the third time she has been nominated for a Mercury (she has never won one). The favourites have been presented and pitted, but those further down the bookies’ rankings are much stronger than previous years. Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1 is a tremendous album that is more electronic and varied than previous efforts from the band – they have stated Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 2 will have more bangers on it. I think newcomers Fontaines D.C. could shock with Dogrel. It is such a rich album from the Dublin band and easily nestles alongside IDLES, even though the two bands cannot be that easily compared. Little Simz’s GREY Area is another release that shows how strong British Hip-Hop and Rap is right now. In past years, the likes of Loyle Carner and Kate Tempest have been shortlisted, but I think the trio of Dave, Little Simz and slowthai are the strongest Hip-Hop/Rap acts we have ever seen! Maybe it is the changing political situation but artists in Britain and Ireland are reacting with incredibly strong and powerful music. Every year sees less popular albums included but, whereas some years have had a few weak albums in the pack, Nao’s Saturn and SEED Ensemble’s Drifftglass are fantastic.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz is one of the strongest voices in Rap and Hip-Hop right now/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The benefit of being on the shortlist is increased attention and a boost in streaming figures so, although these acts are unlikely to win, they will already be seeing the benefits of nomination. Naturally, the Mercury judges cannot include all the great British and Irish albums from the past year and open the door for all genres (there has been criticism that, once again, Metal has been excluded). Not only is 2019’s shortlist packed with variation and a mixture of newer acts and established musicians but, as this article explains, politics and social awareness are at the top of the musical agenda:

From the top of its carefully-mussed hair to the tip of its trendy boots, the latest shortlist for best British or Irish album of the past 12 months rates as one of the most politically and socially engaged, and outraged, in the Mercury’s 27-year history.

Patriarchy-toppling rockers Idles share the podium with “voice of forgotten Britain” rapper slowthai and take-no-prisoners rhymer Little Simz. Streatham grime champ Dave brings us frontline reports of police violence against the black community. Foals ponder the irreversibility of global warming. Happy clappy singalongs are entirely absent.

Each of these artists is, in their own way, a light in the dark. Their music provides crucial illumination as we seek to negotiate the age of proroguing PMs, tweeting tyrants and climate change.

This year’s hopefuls are, by contrast, throwing open the shutters and rushing to meet the world head-on. Even the preening pop stars on the list seem to understand something has changed – that, as artists, it is their duty to stand up and be counted. Matty Healy of The 1975 is coming out swinging. His band’s third album, A Brief History of Online Relationships, muses on the horrors wrought by social media and smartphone addiction”.

If you need a reminder of the artists and albums in the running this year, there is a great podcast series that introduces you to them. Even though she is seen as an outside shot this year, few can overlook Cate Le Bon’s excellent Reward. It is one of those albums that received some big reviews and would be a favourite in any other years. This article from The Evening Standard, they caught up with Le Bon and what she thinks of her chances (she also mentioned how, if she wins, she’ll buy herself some tools!):

“This time, finally, the 36-year-old, born Cate Timothy in Carmarthenshire, is nominated in her own right for Reward, which was released in May. While so many musicians are on an irreversible downward trajectory by album number five, Le Bon’s is a career high. She traded the folky musings of her earliest work, and the spiky electric guitar of her last album, Crab Day, for beautiful keyboard lines and a surprising amount of saxophone. Meanwhile, her composed singing voice, often reminiscent of Nico’s deadpan delivery for The Velvet Underground, has never sounded lovelier.

When I catch up with her, she’s under no illusions about her chances against the bookies’ favourites, rappers Slowthai and Dave, and the punk band Idles — never mind the better-known Foals and The 1975. She’s a dark horse at 16/1, and finds it strange to imagine that someone at William Hill might have been thinking hard about the potential of her sonic quirks and esoteric lyrics. “It’s weird to quantify it numerically, because anyone could win,” she says in a slow, thoughtful tone. “But I guess, in a way, the nomination is enough. I kind of forget there’s a winner at the end of it all. It seems irrelevant”.

It is a hot field this one and people will be predicting right down to the wire. I think it will be between IDLES and Anna Calvi myself but many are tipping Dave and slowthai. The latter has been discussing the nomination and chatting about his masterful debut album:

Congratulations on being nominated for the Mercury Prize. How does it feel?

Ecstatic. It means the world to me. I'm not good at articulating how things like that make me feel - but it makes me feel like I've got daisies in my stomach. I'm nervous and shy.

For people who haven't heard Nothing Great About Britain, what's it about?

It's about community. It's about remembering the people around you, and remembering that's what makes this place great.

Things like gentrification, they're trying to push all the communities away and we're losing that sense of togetherness - which is the thing that actually makes Britain great. Or any place in the world great. We all have to work in unison to make things better.

How far into the future have you planned?

I've got my next two projects, definitely. I've got the concepts and I've got the ideas and I've got the titles. I've even got names of songs and the messages. It's all there - I just have to go in and do the work.

Everyone's telling me I should bask in the moment and absorb it - but I want to push forward”.

IN THIS PHOTO: Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. impressed with their debut album, Dogrel, earlier this year/PHOTO CREDIT: Molly Keane

Great debuts from Dave, slowthai and Fontaines D.C. are standing alongside huge artists like IDLES and Anna Calvi. Since its inception in 1992, the Mercury Prize has highlighted the best of British and Irish music but, as always, there is a debate as to whether the award is rewarding those who deserve it most. Are big artists worthy of the prize money and will it benefit them as much as it does the rising acts who could use it for their next album? I think the prize comes with a cheque for twenty-five grand, and that will make a big difference to a new artist. Wolf Alice won last year for Visions of a Life and one can imagine it has allowed them to add new layers and elements into a future album. Regardless of whether the Mercurys is about the best album or should be aimed to elevate independent artists, this year must stand out as one of the strongest. Back in 1992 – when it started -, U2 and Primal Scream were in the shortlist (the latter won for Screamadelica). 1994 was pretty strong, as you’d imagine, and Blur and The Prodigy were among the favourites; but, in a shock, M People won for Elegant Slumming. Every year of the 1990s has seen at least a few less-worthy acts shortlisted. 1995 is, to me, the strongest year of the decade whereas 1997 is the most diverse – the Spice Girls, The Prodigy AND Radiohead on the shortlist is pretty nuts!

kjjk.jpg

This century has seen some marvellous albums nominated but, as mentioned, no year is immune from more than a couple of weak bets. 2004 had the great Amy Winehouse and The Streets nominated, but there was also flimsy fare from Joss Stone and Jamila – the overrated Franz Ferdinand won that year with their eponymous album. 2008 was a pretty solid year but, as decades go, I think this one has been stronger than the last. There have been some blips through the decade – 2010 had Mumford & Sons on the list; 2017 had Ed Sheeran! – but the biggest challengers to this year was 2016. Jamie Woon, Radiohead and David Bowie (posthumously nominated) sitting with Bat for Lashes, ANOHNI and Skepta (the winner with Konnichiwa)…that was quite a year! Even then, I do not think there was the same magic and potency that we have in 2019. Maybe it is the climate we are living in and how artists have responded, but I do reckon 2019 is one of the strongest years ever – maybe in the top-three, but one has to marvel at the selection! This year’s favourite, slowthai, named his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, and he is referring to politicians and the fact that this island of ours has little to shout about right now. That might be true in terms of politics and our place on the world stage, but our artists are doing us proud. No matter who wins tomorrow, cliché as this sound, everyone is a winner and should be very proud. Every year has a weak album or two, but this year is without much fault. It might be hard to top this year’s best but maybe 2020 will be even more impressive and solid! That would be something special but it is clear, unlike some years, the Mercury Prize is backing the best of British and Irish and has got things right. Such is the strength of competition this year, I do not feel we can rely on bookies and assume we know who will win. The dozen nominated acts cannot rule themselves out or think they have it in the bag because this will go…

RIGHT to the death.

FEATURE: No Shame: Is the Music Industry Doing Enough to Protect Female Artists from Sexual Assault?

FEATURE:

 

No Shame

IN THIS PHOTO: Lily Allen in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Katie McCurdy for GQ

Is the Music Industry Doing Enough to Protect Female Artists from Sexual Assault?

__________

THIS is, sadly, something we have to ask a lot…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

as there seems to be no end to sexual assault claims in the music industry. Some might say it is impossible to stop all forms of sexual inappropriateness but, given the severity of some of the cases, it seems like it is too easy for men in power to get away with some truly horrific abuses. Not only are women in music subjected to abuse and assault from men in power: fans and fellow musicians are also culpable. I have been moved by the news that Lily Allen was subject to an attack back in 2016 – I should say ‘alleged’ but there is no reason for her to lie or embellish. Here, in this BBC article, we learn more about the story:

Lily Allen says her record label has not taken any action after she told them she was sexually assaulted by an industry figure.

Allen told The Next Episode podcast she spoke to a Warner Music boss last year about the alleged attack in 2016.

A label spokesman said: "We take accusations of sexual misconduct extremely seriously and investigate claims that are raised with us."

The BBC understands the alleged attacker continues to work with Warner.

While the singer says she never reported the alleged attacker to the police, she believes "most of the music industry knows who it is".

Allen says the sexual assault took place on a work trip to the Caribbean in 2016.

She told The Next Episode she had been at a party with a record industry executive before heading back to their hotel.

"We got to my hotel. I couldn't find my room keys. So he was like, 'Well, why don't you sleep in my bed while I go and get the keys or whatever.' So I passed out in his bed.

"I woke up and he was in my bed naked slapping my bum."

She said she could feel him trying to have sex with her.

"I made a decision, I didn't want to go to the police. I didn't want to make a fuss and I wanted to keep it quiet.

"I remember thinking about his mum and how she would deal with the news that her son was a sexual predator and I was prioritising everybody else in this situation except for myself".

Allen has been signed to Warner since 2013, although she's currently working on her last album for the label.

She said she wanted to speak out about her alleged attack in order to protect other artists in the industry.

"I would feel awful if I found out that somebody much younger and more vulnerable had had a similar experience that could have been prevented," she said.

She believes her alleged abuser may be around other young female artists and said: "It's my responsibility just to let some people know that this incident happened."

Warner Music said it found Allen's allegations from 2016 "appalling" and said: "We're very focused on enforcing our Code of Conduct and providing a safe and professional environment at all times."

You can hear the full interview on the BBC Sounds podcast The Next Episode”.

It is horrible to think what she had to endure but, as I said, her situation is not unique. The fact we have big artists like Lily Allen speaking out will give others the courage to come out. There are articles that lay out music fans’ experience of sexual assault and how so many young women have been affected. There is advice for any musicians affected, but it seems that, from the fans to huge artists, we have a problem that is not going away. I know most managers and label bosses are decent and this debate only applies to a certain few. One cannot monitor and police every female artist but it seems, in Allen’s case, she was sort of brushed off; this feeling she would not be believed and, even as she has revealed her side, there are some on social media who have been dismissive and cruel. Obviously, the assault damaged her career and affected her profoundly. Anyone who has been through such an ordeal will be able to emphasise with Allen and (explain) how harrowing it is. I hope Allen is okay now but, one wonders, did that incident derail her career to the point of no return?

Allen did release an album, No Shame, that was critically acclaimed and received a Mercury Prize nomination. She is still on the scene but one wonders whether Allen can trust labels and industry bosses. Given the fact that we have seen multiple cases of sexual assault/abuse through the years, does more need to be done right now? Festivals who have reported sexual assault claims are changing, but it seems more difficult to transform the entire music industry from the roots up. It seems that there is a general problem regarding attitudes towards women. Social media is invaluable when it comes to raising awareness and shaming those who perpetrate sexual assault but I think labels need to start getting more involved when artists report attacks. There seems to be this rather ho-hum attitude in some corners; a dismissive and apathetic blind eye that is causing massive damage. When it comes to festivals, they are taking measures – reducing the sale of alcohol and making them safer spaces for women – but we need a culture shift where offenders are called out and artists are given appropriate support. Allen must have felt scarred and isolated when she approached her label and received very little in the way of support. Some might say calling the police is the logical first step but, as we have seen from the news, whilst cases of rape and sexual assault are up, the number of people being charged is down. Why would an artist like Allen go to the police if there is a chance the case will be dismissed or marked as low priority?!

 PHOTO CREDIT: @kj2018/Unsplash

We do need to start from the ground up and ensure cases of sexual assault are highlighted. I know there are laws against naming those who are alleged attackers in these cases but I wonder if calling out those who commit such acts would send a message out and deter others. Labels like Allen’s need to be more proactive and step up. It seems like there is almost an expectation things like this happen and we cannot avoid sexual assault; that women are exaggerating and it is no big deal. What sort of message is this sending to the next generation of female artists and music personnel?! We know there is sexism that is preventing so many women from being given a larger platform; throw into the mix we have to read worrying reports of artists being assaulted and it is clear immediate action needs to happen. Lessons are not being learned and the industry needs to accept the fact it is not doing enough. There are steps being made. At the end of 2017, the Stop18 campaign was launched - The Stop2018 campaign was launched to coincide with an edition of the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show, in which a number of women working in music both on and off stage – including Chloe Howl, Yasmin Lajoie and Michelle de Vries – discussed their own experiences of sexual harassment and abuse in the music industry – and set out some clear objectives – as we can see from this article:

“…First, that the industry’s trade organisations – possibly via UK Music – set up a safe place “where anyone working in the industry can speak in confidence knowing that they will not be the ones who have to suffer repercussions”.

Secondly, that “all music companies rethink their strategies, and stop working with individuals and other companies who exhibit any predatory or bullying behaviour, whether it be an employee, an artist, a producer, or a manager, a lawyer, a publicist or an agent or anyone associated with the business, however powerful and successful they may be”.

Thirdly, noting that pay inequality helps contribute to a sexist culture within companies, the campaign says it is “calling for women to be paid the same as men and to receive the same benefits in the work place. We want to see an end to the common practice that when men and women are hired at the same time, the man is often given more assistance and offered better opportunities to advance their careers – we want to see women offered the same promotion opportunities as men”.

And finally: “We are calling for an end to managers and labels telling artists they need to wear provocative clothing or to flirt with executives to be successful”.

Concluding, the founders of the Stop2018 campaign write: “Above all our hope is that 2018 is the year that bullying, misogyny, sexual harassment, assault and rape in the music industry stops. We want the business we all love so much to become a safe place for everyone to work”.

 The past couple of years has seen a reduction of sexual assault and harassment in some areas but I still think women are being let down; not given enough respect, support and power when they are subjected to abuse.

p9.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: @drew_beamer/Unsplash

More discussion needs to happen but, above all, those in power need to start talking with their artists and hearing them out when they come forward. It is positive seeing changes and measures brought in at festivals and venues but there is still an attitude persisting that assumes women are exaggerating or they need to flirt a bit to get ahead – maybe a feeling that industry men and those who carry out attacks are beyond reproach and justice. Let’s hope 2020 is a year where, across the board, women are given more rights, oxygen and support. Festivals are trying to be more gender-equal and reduce sexual assaults; venues are improving security and surveillance and social media means that those who do carry out attacks are not safe and have nowhere to hide. Clearly, we still have a way to go - and it is a real shame artists like Lily Allen have their careers damaged because they do not feel trusted and heard when they come to their labels. I guess things will get better over time but, in the here and now, there is a real problem. So many women throughout the music industry have had to ensure sexual abuse, assault and inappropriateness and it is always heartaching to hear. With every case that comes to light, it is evident that…

nnmmn.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: @drew_beamer/Unsplash

A lot more needs to be done to make women feel safe.

FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: India.Arie – Acoustic Soul

FEATURE:

 

Vinyl Corner

ju.jpg

India.Arie – Acoustic Soul

__________

YOU get these albums that are overlooked…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

and deserve retrospective acclaim. There are a few great Neo-Soul artists around at the moment – including Jamila Woods –, but it is a style of music that is desperately missed. I think the world would benefit from the sort of brilliance and uplift the genre offers. In a scene where there is a lot of processed Pop and Post-Punk rawness, Neo-Soul has a sunniness that is hard to ignore but it also allows artists to go deep and talk about something important or political. The Colorado-raised India.Arie was born into a talented family. Her father was an NBA player whilst her mother was a Motown singer who opened for Stevie Wonder and Al Green when she was a teenager. The fact is India.Arie grew up around a lot of music. She travelled a lot and there was always singing and dancing in the family. It is hardly a surprise India.Arie decided to get into music and was inspired at a young age. One can only imagine those early days where she was being exposed to great Soul and Motown records. Above all, there would have been this positive spirit and togetherness that fed into her psyche; affected her debut album and made it such a classic. Acoustic Soul was released in 2001 and was nominated for seven Grammys in 2002. There have been some big snubs through the years but, in one of the biggest snubs ever, India.Arie lost in every category.

One could allege there was a racial component at work; showing an ignorance or, at the very least, not understanding the power and importance of Acoustic Soul. This oversight affected India.Arie and it took her a while to recover. She realised that she had to make the music she wanted to, rather than what people expected of her. What gets to me is how anyone can ignore and sell short an album as brilliant as Acoustic Soul! Maybe she got snubbed at the Grammys because, in 2001, there was nobody like India.Arie about. R&B groups like Destiny’s Child were providing a more synthetic and processed form of music whereas India.Arie gave the world this more natural, musical and diverse album that was less about going in hard with big choruses and more about letting the music unfurl and get into the heart. One cannot deny the legacy of the album and the fact that it has influenced modern Neo-Soul artists. I have had the song, Video, stuck in my head for days – I am not sure how it got in there but I am not going to let it out! I would encourage people to buy Acoustic Soul on vinyl because it sound tremendous and is a perfect album to get lost in. Video is a song about self-acceptance and not having to compare one’s self to women in music videos. I have found an article from 2017 where they highlight India.Arie’s brilliance and discuss her words of empowerment:

India’s empowering words are critical in a world where too few women recognize their worth. However, not even this queen herself always practices what she preaches. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Arie disclosed that when she released uplifting tracks like “Video” she felt anything but self-love. She revealed that the messages she conveyed to embrace who you are were affirmations for how she wanted to feel.

Despite her confident exterior, India Arie truly struggled with self-doubt. She told Oprah, “Your real job in the world is to be you. Comparing yourself to other people […] I think that hurt me more than anything.” Arie was never the prom queen or considered the “it girl,” so she felt out of place in the music industry. However, she also revealed in her interview that she can now confidently say that she loves herself wholeheartedly.

In one of her latest songs, “I am Light,” Arie sings, “I am not the voices in my head. I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside, I am light.” Her lyrics now go beyond an affirmation. They are proof of her inner growth. India Arie gives us a model of how we want to feel, but also acknowledges that truly loving yourself is a lifelong process. Basically, we are all queens even if we don’t feel that way right now”.

That embracing of self-love and worth is something we need to see more of today. There was a lot of positive music out in 2001 but I think Acoustic Soul was so different to anything else that meant it caused a real sense of excitement when it arrived. Video is a compelling and simply staggering song and has a great video; one which sees India.Arie, with guitar in hand, walking in an idyllic setting and accepting who she is; what makes her happy and how special she is.

I remember hearing Video when it came out as a single and I was instantly taken aback! It still sounds so engrossing and it is a song that gets into the head and compels you to sing along. That is not the only golden track on the album. Singles Strength, Courage & Wisdom, Brown Skin and Ready for Love are exceptional and, with India.Arie co-writer on almost every album track (Part of My Life is the exception), she puts her heart and personality into every song. It is no surprise that Acoustic Soul went down a storm with critics. It was so different to anything else and showed an alternative to the R&B and Rock of the day. In 2005, NME had their say:

At a time when R&B seems divided into two large camps – the synthesized, albeit accomplished, commercialism of the likes of Destiny’s Child, Sisqo and Craig David et al; and that sprawling mass of experimentation and urban cool known as Nu Classic Soul that, unreasonably, umbrellas everyone from D’Angelo to Jazzyfatnastees – India’s organic combo of acoustic symphonics, naked drums, the frankness of hip hop, and a voice borne of soul in its purest, most spiritual sense, stands out as a kind of sweet liberation.

‘Acoustic Soul’ delivers itself like a prayer. Lyrically, it makes a religion of blackness. A shrine to black femininity. To roundness and loveliness regardless of material worth in the audacious opener, ‘Video’; to brilliance and honesty in the guitar-wrapped ‘Back to the Middle’; to love and bravery in the elegant ‘Ready For Love’.

Many other crusaders come to mind: Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, Roberta Flack – women with the blues tangled up in their hearts, who bind stoicism with sensuality, who create spaces, and will always, always do their own thing – no compromise. ‘Acoustic Soul’ is a formidable and deeply artistic debut”.

qaq.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

AllMusic highlight the fact that Acoustic Soul, whilst it does look to the past, was a very modern record – and still sounds alive and meaningful today:

As one of the most promising neo-soul artists yet to emerge in the past few years, India.Arie casts her lot with the best artists of her label's storied history, playing deeply introspective songs laced with glistening acoustic guitar, churchy organ, and smooth, supple beats. When she name-checks those artists no longer with us that she claims as influences (Ma Rainey, Miles Davis, Karen Carpenter, Charley Patton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Donny Hathaway, etc.) in three separate interludes, you have no doubt she is looking back as well as forward, even going so far as to invoke Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." But Acoustic Soul is at its best when the arrangements are deliberately modern. And despite the uniqueness of being a guitar-based R&B album, it is Arie's thick, sandy voice that shares star billing with her exceptional lyrics. Betraying youthful vulnerability while at the same time projecting strength, confidence, and uncanny insight for a 25-year-old singer/songwriter, Arie wraps herself effortlessly around the deep, funky sensuality of "Brown Skin," and stands tall in defiance of pop-fashion expectations on the irresistibly catchy "Video." The uplifting "Faith, Courage, Wisdom" rides along on a euphoric chorus, and the plainly autobiographical "Back to the Middle" recounts an emotional and spiritual coming of age. Without the many concrete references to the great R&B music of the past, Acoustic Soul would be a purely modern gem, but as Arie is determined to pay her debts up front, it's much more, and that is admirable”.

Subsequent albums have not proved as popular as Acoustic SoulVoyage to India (2002) and Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship (2006) are interesting records but received mixed reviews – but every album since Acoustic Soul is fascinating and worthy of investigation. Back in February, India.Arie released her latest album, Worthy, and it gained some positive reviews. There is not the same attention at her feet as there was back in 2001 but, at a time when there is division and the rights of black citizens in the U.S. are being overlooked, it seems Worthy is as important an album as Acoustic Soul. When speaking with Billboard, she talked about the album and what led her into the studio:

Fast-forward to the aptly titled Worthy. Recorded in Nashville, which India.Arie currently calls home, the album finds the singer reuniting with executive producer Aaron Lindsey, longtime creative colleagues Shannon Sanders and Branden Burch plus new collaborators Joel Cross and Chuck Butler. Showcasing Arie’s ever-evolving and compelling perspectives on love, life and humanity, the 16-track set’s noteworthy selections include Caribbean-vibed first single “That Magic” (No. 6 peak on Adult R&B Songs), “Steady Love,” “In Good Trouble,” the title track and the inspirational “What If,” an emotion-packed tribute honoring social activists from past (Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks) to present (#MeToo).

Was there a pivotal moment that led you back into the studio to record Worthy?

I don’t know if I’ve ever had moments where I’m like okay, let’s get started. That’s because I’m always working on the next record in my heart somewhere. Even when I [almost] quit that one time. This one just started slowly taking shape with Aaron and I writing songs. Then I met Joel Cross, another songwriter, and we wrote a lot of songs. At a certain point I was like, “I’m ready to start putting these together into something.” And it turned into Worthy.

How would you describe India.Arie then versus now?

The India of “I Am Not My Hair” was searching for how to be empowered and free. She knew she had it inside of her but a lot of things were blocking it. The India of today has achieved freedom and empowerment; maybe earned is the right word. I also earned the respect of myself. I like who I am, even in the hard times, and it’s coming across in my music. The “I Am Not My Hair” India used to completely fall apart. Like “I quit; I’m moving to a whole other country. I’m out.” Today, I’m like, “Oh I had a hard day, but oooooh I got to sing.” I see the joy in all the things I get to do now because I’m doing it the way that I want to do it. All of my life my mom has been saying that happiness is a choice. It used to drive me nuts. I’d be like, “If happiness was a choice, everybody would just be happy.” The India of today understands what she means now”.

I am glad the phenomenal India.Arie is still releasing music and looking ahead. It has been overlooked to an extent but I think people need to look back and see where she came from. Acoustic Soul is such a moving, inspiring and nuanced album that means, after just one listen, the songs will ingrain themselves in the brain! In the lyrics for Video, India.Arie talked about not being like the women in music videos and being true to herself. It would have been a shame if she changed her looks to fit into a commercial scene; the fact she remained natural and pure made the music world…

SO much richer.

FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Eighteen: Tori Amos

FEATURE:

 

Female Icons

Part Eighteen: Tori Amos

__________

WITH only two more features after this…

aaa.jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Miller Mobley

it has been interesting and revealing featuring iconic female artists. I have learned a lot and got to dig deeper into their lives; what drives them and what makes them stand out. Many people debate whether certain artists should be seen as icons. The definition is subjective but, if you look at the seventeen artists I have already featured, there is no denying their importance and legacy. Before arriving at the final two instalments, I want to include an artist who has inspired a lot of modern artists; whether in terms of being bolder with their lyrics or more experimental – everyone from Lady Gaga and Joanna Newsom, in some form, owe a small nod of thanks to Tori Amos. There are some out there who would also note how Tori Amos herself owes a little debt to another female icon, Kate Bush. For sure, there are similarities but one icon can inspire another. I think there are a lot of differences between Kate Bush and Tori Amos. I think Amos’ lyrics are definitely her own: there is no way one can easily compare the confessional and emotional offerings from Amos to Kate Bush. Like all the other Female Icons features, I will end with a career-spanning playlist but, to start, it is worth going back to the beginning. I often wonder why artists like Tori Amos are not played more on radio. In fact, there are a lot of inspiring female artists who do not get their music aired enough; a slight that needs to be corrected by radio stations.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I digress but, to be fair, maybe Tori Amos’ music is a little raw and challenging for a lot of the more commercial and conventional stations. When one does hear a Tori Amos tune on the radio, more often than not, it is Cornflake Girl – sometimes Crucify gets a play but there are many other tracks that deserve some respect. I think artists like Amos have had a definite influence on modern-day songwriters who stray away from cliché subjects of love and are much braver with their lyrical content. We shall come to that. Tori Amos was born on 22nd August, 1963 and, from an early age, it was clear music was her passion. There is no doubt Amos was born for music and that was her path. She bonded with the piano as a child and began composing her own pieces very young; she won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute at the age of five – making her the youngest person ever to be admitted. There is debate as to why she was expelled at the age of eleven but, apparently, there was some ‘musical insubordination’ – perhaps Amos was too confined and frustrated by the rigidity. Although Amos is a solo artist, she did spend a brief time as the lead of the 1980s band, Y Kant Tori Read. Despite the cool name and the fact the band covered topics like feminism and politics in their music, the band shone briefly but brightly.

It was a definite bridge from Amos’ childhood teaching and her debut solo album. With her father’s help, Tori Amos’ demo tapes accrued as a teenager were sent to record labels. Atlantic Records took a shine to Amos and signed her. Even though there was a deal on the table, Amos knew she needed to move to L.A. to pursue her dreams and get the recognition she desired. The opportunities of the city called and Amos responded. Amos moved to L.A. by 1984 and there was a period of transition where Amos was finding her feet and readying for her debut. She signed a six-album deal with Atlantic Records. There was disappointing regarding Y Kant Tori Read (the band’s eponymous album) and there was a bit of a hurdle regarding the recordings that followed. The label was itching for a new record by 1990 and the early recordings sent to the label were met with rejection. With the help of the likes of Steve Canton and Dan Nebenzal (among others), Little Earthquakes took shape. Maybe Little Earthquakes’ cover did suggest some illusion to Kate Bush – a similar pose and look – but the subject matter on the debut was deeply personal and moving. Personal struggles, sexual alienation and sexual assault were the subject of songs. It is a record that has darkness but there is undeniable beauty and transcendence. One cannot listen to Little Earthquakes without being affected and moved.

From the stark and brutal Me and a Gun to the gorgeous Winter, there are few debut albums as compelling and moving as Little Earthquakes. The album was a commercial breakthrough and performed well in the U.K. charts. The progress of Little Earthquakes was a bit slower in the U.S. – a nation that were not used to artists as unique and unconventional as Tori Amos -, but songs like Silent All These Years helped her progress. It is a remarkable album and one that was acclaimed and praised on its debut. I have selected a couple of reviews that illuminate the depths and diversity of Tori Amos’ debut. In this review, AllMusic made some excellent observations:

But Little Earthquakes is no mere style-setter or feminine stereotype -- its intimacy is uncompromising, intense, and often far from comforting. Amos' musings on major personal issues -- religion, relationships, gender, childhood -- were just as likely to encompass rage, sarcasm, and defiant independence as pain or tenderness; sometimes, it all happened in the same song. The apex of that intimacy is the harrowing "Me and a Gun," where Amos strips away all the music, save for her own voice, and confronts the listener with the story of her own real-life rape; the free-associative lyrics come off as a heart-wrenching attempt to block out the ordeal. Little Earthquakes isn't always so stomach-churning, but it never seems less than deeply cathartic; it's the sound of a young woman (like the protagonist of "Silent All These Years") finally learning to use her own voice -- sort of the musical equivalent of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia.

That's why Amos draws strength from her relentless vulnerability, and that's why the constantly shifting emotions of the material never seem illogical -- Amos simply delights in the frankness of her own responses, whatever they might be. Though her subsequent albums were often very strong, Amos would never bare her soul quite so directly (or comprehensibly) as she did here, nor with such consistently focused results. Little Earthquakes is the most accessible work in Amos' catalog, and it's also the most influential and rewarding”.

Pitchfork covered Little Earthquakes in 2015:

Amos’ solo debut, though it was rarely talked about this way, was similarly radical—an alternately flirty and harrowing work that juxtaposed barbed truths against symphonic flights of fancy. It was lyrically nuanced and harmonically sophisticated exactly when grunge moved rock in a raw and brutish direction, which made her achievement even more striking. Amos was early Queen, early Elton John, and early Kate Bush with Rachmaninoff chops. Decades after prog-rock’s peak, her technical perfection was particularly shocking in the virtuoso-renouncing '90s: Not even Elton could tear into a song both vocally and instrumentally while staring down attendees with a Cheshire Cat grin.

For the outsider women and gay men who initially propelled Amos’ success, this hard-won message served as a clarion call, and they embraced her as if uncovering the challenging and most vulnerable parts of themselves. Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Sinéad O'Connor, and the Indigo Girls had already begun to reach the same flock, but Amos—by virtue of her sexual intensity and subject matter—instantly commanded a bond only rivaled by Madonna, whose eroticism peaked just as Amos arrived”.

I will not cover all of her albums but I wanted to highlight a few more that warrant examination. Little Earthquakes arrived at a time when Nirvana were ruling music; it would have been strange going up against them for chart glory. By 1994, the landscape had changed and Amos’ career was about to rise. There were some who were unkind about Under the Pink but, for those listening hard enough, the differences were noted. Amos sounded more confident and her music was bolder; the production was different and there was more in the way of accessibility. Cornflake Girl is the big hit from the album and a breezier, more hummable song than we were used to – even if the subject matter talked about female genital mutilation. Pretty Good Year and God are as fine as anything on her debut but, on her second outing, there is more diversity and range. Amos was bringing in new influences and sounds – there is a touch of Reggae on Cornflake Girl – and the lyrics, to me, are more nuanced and powerful. In this review, Pop Matters noted the changes:

Far from Little Earthquakes II, Under the Pink sounds fresher and fuller than its predecessor these days: more artful in its arrangements, more assured in production, hinting at Amos’s wilder experiments to come. And yet for all its modernist flourishes -- the twitchy electric guitar-work in “God”, the jazz and reggae-influenced gait of the immortal “Cornflake Girl”, the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year” -- Amos’s second album feels like her most classical work, pre-Night of Hunters, at least. Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches the abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images of her writing.

Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal are to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink”, Amos emerges with haunting tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle’s" paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress", the refrain of which “I believe in peace, bitch” sums up the album’s riveting ambivalences. The most extraordinary track, though, remains the closing “Yes, Anastasia", a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at a coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” Amos sneers: a challenge to herself and to the listener”.

1996’s Boys for Pele found Amos producing solo for the first time. The album contains expanded instrumentation and the lyrics are denser and more poetic. That did divide some critics but showed Amos was unwilling to settle and was finding fresh inspiration. The lyrics, as you’d expect, were extremely personal but the album is not as heavy as you’d expect. Amos did receive some flak regarding the lyrics and her taking production control. She responded by claiming the music had so much subtext and critics were being unfair. You can see her point. Maybe Boys for Pele was a little different to what was happening in music in 1996, but you listen to Boys for Pele now and it really stands up. It is actually one of her most rewarding and challenging works that, it seems, critics did not give enough time and attention to. I want to bring in a review from AllMusic; written in 2015, it seems time has allowed the album to breathe and resonate:

Boys for Pele is the harshest and most challenging work in Tori Amos' catalog. However, it also stands as the most cathartic, nourishing, and artistically thrilling of her career. Birthed in the wake of a devastating breakup, Pele is a sprawling ode to the feminine, conjured in a whirlwind of pain that forced Amos to embark on a quest into the dark unknown to find the fire within that had been snuffed out by the men in her life.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

After her breakthrough confessional Little Earthquakes and the delicate impressions of Under the Pink, Amos struck out on her own for the first time, unfettered and uncompromised. Pele would be her debut at the helm as sole producer, a control she would maintain for the rest of her career. With that power, Amos was free to exorcize the demons as she saw fit. She did so with new additions to her arsenal: a harpsichord, brass flourishes, a choir, labyrinthine lyrics, and a pantheon of spirits summoned in the Louisiana bayou and the Irish countryside. It was a jarring shift”.

I love Boys for Pele because it contains the exceptional Professional Widow. The eponymous heroine, many say, refers to Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994) and the song was given extra punch when it received remixes from Armand van Helden and MK. If one or two of Tori Amos’ 1990s albums divided critics, one listens to those records and marvels. 2001’s Strange Little Girls saw Amos covering songs written by men; given them a female perspective. 2017’s Native Invaders is her most recent album and one that received positive reviews. I wonder whether there is another album coming from Tori Amos soon because, over twenty-five years since her debut album, Amos remains essential and utterly engrossing.

Not only is her music inspiring and original but Amos is someone who provides wonderful interviews. I will bring in a couple before rounding things off. Amos spoke with Stereogum when promoting Native Invaders in 2017. Timely now as it was then, Amos was asked about the environmental themes on the album:

 “STEREOGUM: I know this record has an environmental theme. It’s a very important topic. But it can be a dry topic. How do you turn that into songs that people will actually enjoy listening to, and will resonate with them, and not just, “The icebergs are falling, people, pay attention!”

AMOS: Well, exactly. Nobody wants to be preached at. I’m a preacher’s daughter and the granddaughter of a missionary teacher, my father’s mother. Nobody wants to be preached at. I think that’s always the struggle. Sometimes there are songs that are written for every album that you think are, to steal your line, “dry.” Or it doesn’t have the right story.

STEREOGUM: So you have to figure out how to make it work?

AMOS: It sounds simple. It is that basic: trying to track it down and make it work. Hunting for those things can lead you down many dead ends.

STEREOGUM: There was a story in New York Magazine a couple months ago that said, “We are very close to Earth being uninhabitable if we don’t change our ways.” As a person studying the environment, do you get overcome with despair or do you feel any hope, at all, for humanity still? Big question.

AMOS: Really big question. I have a lot of faith in Mother Earth. I don’t know if we’re going to make it. I think she will make it. I don’t know. Dinosaurs. They did pretty well.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, they had a good run”.

The second interview I want to source from is with Vulture. Amos talked about her relationship with the audience and the artists who inspire her:

How has your relationship with your audience changed over time? You have famously obsessive fans.

I know that right now, in a cultural moment of great trauma, people are ready for songs that talk about in-depth emotions and issues. Let’s put it this way: There’s always going to be pop music, but in times of tragedy people turn to certain songwriters who have layers to their work.

jjj.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Paulina Otylie 

Who have those songwriters been for you?

Leonard Cohen — a big one. Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. Joni Mitchell.

Do you draw different things from the men and women who’ve influenced you?

The fact is, like I said, that there are not a lot of women singer-songwriters having the level of success that the men are. The guys are endless. The women are not. I know that’s not a direct answer to your question, but it’s a subject I really started wrapping my head around four years ago when I was making Unrepentant Geraldines.After making three classical-influenced, experimental albums between 2009 and 2012, on 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos returned to her ’90s style of more-stripped-down instrumentation — primarily vocals and piano. That’s when I was underwater in the depths of menopause. I realized that I had to pull on some serious energy from deep within my being and also from the earth itself; by sheer will I had to become a force of nature.

Tina Turner was a force of nature in her early 50s. So was Nina Simone. Our industry, though, doesn’t value women songwriters that are 50 and over. There’s ageism, and certainly men aren’t going to write the stories my generation needs to hear. Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Cher — they’re not a parallel with alternative-pop singer-songwriters. They’re amazingly talented entertainers and actresses, but they’re different than what I’m talking about. Country music seems to be open to having mature women tell their stories. You’ve got Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire and others. But in the alternative-music field where I came from, there aren’t many of us. Patti Smith is out there. We’ve got Stevie Nicks. There are some, but not many, and it’s not a coincidence.

For anyone who doubts Amos’ importance and influence, there are articles that discuss her magic. She is a phenomenal artist and one who I hope will create music for many years to come. It is artists like Amos who have paved a way for women and have pushed music forward. In terms of songwriting, you can feel artists who have taken her to heart but there is still nobody as striking as Amos when it comes to subject matter. Her voice intoxicates and her compositions envelop you and bring you into the music. Who knows what lies ahead for Amos but one thing is clear: the music she has already given the world is among the most personal, spectacular and memorable of all time. Many might dismiss that notion but have a listen back through her albums and you will be stirred and affected. Tori Amos is an icon for sure and an artist who deserves a lot more radioplay than she gets. She came into the music world with Little Earthquakes and, before long, this beguiling songwriter was creating…

MASSIVE tremors.

FEATURE: 21st Century Breakdown: My Favourite Album of the Century (So Far)

FEATURE:

 

21st Century Breakdown

My Favourite Album of the Century (So Far)

__________

I have seen a lot of buzz on social media…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @sethdoylee/Unsplash

because The Guardian have run a feature that unites their one-hundred favourite albums; those records that highlight the brilliance of this century (so far). Although we are not even a fifth of the way through this century, we are ending a decade and looking ahead to 2020. For that reason, many will be reflecting on their favourite album from this decade, at the very least. Maybe Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2011) would scoop that honour…or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). In terms of considering the finest albums of the century to date, that is pretty tough! I love Kate Bush’s Aerial (2005) and, in fact, I could put together a list of one-hundred and the order would change all the time! I agree with most of the albums included in The Guardian’s feature and, aside from the order needing a bit of a rejig, there are plenty of belters in there! Maybe Kate Bush’s Aerial would scoop the honour when it comes to the best album of this century. It is definitely high up there and, when thinking about the record I would crown as the best, one stood out because of its emotional importance and meaning. Before getting there, The Guardian explained why Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black is at the top of their list:   

 “Certainly, it could not prepare the listener for Back to Black: nothing about Frank suggested that its creator was going to make a genuinely epochal masterpiece. Something had happened to Amy Winehouse in the three years that separated her second album from her debut: skinny, covered in tattoos, dressed like a cartoon of a 60s girl-group member – complete with a vertiginous beehive modelled on that of the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector – she was almost unrecognisable. The lyrics of its lead single suggested that whatever had happened wasn’t good – no one pleads with you to go to rehab if your life is in perfect shape – but the music was so ebullient you could easily overlook that.

Back to Black is an exceptionally forlorn 35 minutes: the closest its mood of self-loathing and hopelessness comes to a resolution is Addicted’s bitter line about how marijuana “does more than any dick did”. But it says something about the skill of her songwriting and the arrangements that it is so easy to listen to. What Winehouse had to say was despondent and troubling, but when her voice soars on the chorus of Tears Dry on Their Own, or the intro to You Know I’m No Good sashays out of the speakers, it doesn’t feel like hard work. Even its bleakest moment, when the title track collapses into a funereal thud and Winehouse keeps disconsolately repeating the word “black”, comes wrapped in gorgeous vocal harmonies and strings.

A rare instance of critical acclaim chiming with public taste, it sold millions. It may well be the most influential album of the last 20 years. The immediate effect of its success was a wave of artists obviously working in her image. Female vocalists made retro soul-influenced music, replacing Winehouse’s troubled unpredictability with something less volatile and more marketable: earthy everyman good humour or cute kookiness. Adele was by far the most successful, but at one point there seemed to be dozens of them, all filling the void created by the fact that Winehouse was increasingly unable to play live, let alone complete another record (as the posthumous Lioness compilation revealed, she recorded virtually nothing in the final years of her life, taping only two songs for a projected follow-up). Winehouse’s vocal style became a kind of all-purpose pop template, its idiosyncrasies reduced to a series of slurred, prematurely aged tics intended to signify emotional authenticity. Nearly 15 years on, you still can’t move for twentysomething men who sound like ravaged blues shouters and twentysomething women trying their best to channel Billie Holiday”.

zx.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes in June 2001/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I can appreciate what is being said and, in my view, that 2006 album is phenomenal. I would spend ages debating my top-hundred list but, in terms of importance and place – if not necessarily my favourite as such – I would put The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells at the top of the list. I can think of albums by Dizzee Rascal and Kendrick Lamar that hold a lot of power but, personally, it is White Blood Cells that sticks in my mind the longest. I discovered the duo when I was at university in Cambridge back in 2002. I was unfamiliar with them until them (I had heard bits but not a whole deal) and was introduced to them by the Membership Secretary at the Cambridge Footlights, Tom Tilley. We have not seen each other for years, but he was an important part of my time at university. I was actually at Anglia Ruskin University but had always wanted to be part of the Cambridge Footlights. It was a hard transition because I was not from the same world and background as a lot of the people I was around. It was great being part of an institution and club that has seen everyone from John Cleese and Stephen Fry pass through. It was pretty exciting but, for a long time, I wondered how to fit in and whether I would succeed – I performed a few times and went to various social events.

Tom was a useful guide and friend and, before long, he was bringing the music of The White Stripes to my attention. I think the first he played me was their eponymous debut of 1999 but, soon enough, I was being made aware of White Blood Cells. That album arrived in July 2001 and I was not that aware of the Garage music of Detroit (where the duo were from) at the time. It was only a year until Elephant came around in 2003; considered the best album from The White Stripes. I was not used to music like that and, up until that point, it was a lot of Rock and Alternative stuff. The White Stripes provided something a bit gritty, lo-fi and captivating. I was raised around Grunge but The White Stripes managed to mix melody and tunefulness with rawness and scintillation. White Blood Cells came out in a year where everyone from Radiohead and The Strokes were releasing sensational albums. It was a heady and creative time for music and, in a broad landscape during a heady year, The White Stripes were doing their own thing. The sixteen-track third album from Jack and Meg White is a step up from 2000’s De Stijl and is so varied! Songs switch from the very short to longer; there is so much going on and such confidence and chemistry from the duo. From the brilliant and compelling opener, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, to intriguing and unusual This Protector, White Blood Cells hits me. It is one of those albums where there are no weak tracks.

The energy and wonder barely lets up. The first four tracks off of White Blood CellsDead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Hotel Yorba; I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman and Fell in Love with a Girl – are brilliant. Hotel Yorba has a charming skip and catchiness whereas I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman makes you smile with its images of Jack White trying to keep his cool. Fell in Love with a Girl is a sub-two-minute blast that one can recall every word to – and it has that great video from Michel Gondry (who would work with the band a lot through their career). Expecting and Little Room are transition songs to the mid-way point. The former is snarling and chugging whereas Little Room lasts under a minute and has Meg providing her most fervent drumming whilst Jack yodels as he discusses this mysterious room in a song that makes you wonder what is being said; what we are imagining and where it derives. The rest of the album mixes gorgeous songs such as The Same Boy You’ve Always Known and I Can Learn with rippers like I Think I Smell a Rat and The Union Forever. There are many standouts. Aluminium is a gargling, robot-like song that is from another planet; We’re Going to Be Friends sounds like it could have come from Sesame Street whilst Now Many has a sway and hook that belies lyrics that have darkness to them.

I remember setting time aside away from studies to listen to the album. I popped the C.D. in and let the tracks cascade and affect. I was instantly startled by how memorable the tracks were. The diversity and sheer scope was staggering but there was no big production layers and a load of musicians: it was Jack and Meg tackling everything, laying it all down in Memphis over a few days. That is another that amazed me: just how quickly the album came together! The duo never took more than a few days for most of their albums – the earliest ones at least – and you can feel that urgency and energy in every moment. Bands today would take months to record an album as bold and brilliant as White Blood Cells. The fact that these two musicians (formerly married; Jack White claimed they were siblings to avoid any press intrusion) produced such an amazing album in a few days is mind-blowing. Although there is not such a thriving Garage scene now – compared to the late-1990s and early-2000s at least -, The White Stripes’ third albums not only inspired them (to produce something even bigger) but is has resonated with artists through the years. It is not surprising to see White Blood Cells has gained a lot of huge reviews and plaudits. Here is AllMusic’s assessment:     

 “Despite the seemingly instant attention surrounding them -- glowing write-ups in glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Mojo, guest lists boasting names like Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson, and appearances on national TV -- the White Stripes have stayed true to the approach that brought them this success in the first place. White Blood Cells, Jack and Meg White's third effort for Sympathy for the Record Industry, wraps their powerful, deceptively simple style around meditations on fame, love, and betrayal.

099,,.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes playing at John Peel's home in 2001/PHOTO CREDIT: Sheila Ravenscroft 

 As produced by Doug Easley, it sounds exactly how an underground sensation's breakthrough album should: bigger and tighter than their earlier material, but not so polished that it will scare away longtime fans. Admittedly, White Blood Cells lacks some of the White Stripes' blues influence and urgency, but it perfects the pop skills the duo honed on De Stijl and expands on them. The country-tinged "Hotel Yorba" and immediate, crazed garage pop of "Fell in Love With a Girl" define the album's immediacy, along with the folky, McCartney-esque "We're Going to Be Friends," a charming, school-days love song that's among Jack White's finest work. However, White's growth as a songwriter shines through on virtually every track, from the cocky opener "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" to vicious indictments like "The Union Forever" and "I Think I Smell a Rat." "Same Boy You've Always Known" and "Offend in Every Way" are two more quintessential tracks, offering up more of the group's stomping riffs and rhythms and us-against-the-world attitude. Few garage rock groups would name one of their most driving numbers "I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman," and fewer still would pen lyrics like "I'm so tired of acting tough/I'm gonna do what I please/Let's get married," but it's precisely this mix of strength and sweetness, among other contrasts, that makes the White Stripes so intriguing. Likewise, White Blood Cells' ability to surprise old fans and win over new ones makes it the Stripes' finest work to date”.

Eighteen years after it was unleashed into the world, White Blood Cells sounds so fresh and keeps bearing rewards. We were still getting used to the new century and there was a lot of change happening in music from 2001-2003. Look at movements and artists who came and went; the terrific albums that were released during this period and the sheer quality! When I found The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells in 2002, I fell in love with the album and was compelled to listen back to their previous two albums. The duo would become bigger in the U.K. but it was D.J.s like John Peel who helped give their music a bigger voice here. In the press, they were often portrayed as being quite elusive or odd. I remember a few of the photoshoots around 2001/2002 and these pale-faced artists who, as I said, pretended to be brother and sister. None of that really mattered but it was interesting to see these guys in their black-white-and-red clothing, playing this brilliant music without the flash, celebrity and crutches so many other artists possessed. They were a breath of a fresh air and I was suitably ready when Elephant arrived in 2003 – recorded at Toe Rag Studious in London and, to many, it is their finest hour. The Guardian’s feature has got many people thinking about their favourite albums of this century.

I admire the fact The Guardian selected Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black as their top choice. It was her thirty-sixth birthday yesterday – Winehouse died in 2011 aged twenty-seven – and Winehouse’s masterpiece sounds utterly heartbreaking. Whilst we wish she was still around, we can take heart in the fact she was with us long enough to release such a timeless album. For me, there are a lot of great albums that would be in my top-hundred of this century but, for personal reasons, White Blood Cells tops the list. It still gives me shivers now and makes me think of a time in life when I was embarking on new challenges and trying to find my feet. This album alone did not make life easier but I developed this passion for The White Stripes and they gave me such strength and comfort. I listen to White Blood Cells now and the songs still sound so gripping and exciting. I get transported and lifted when listening but there are so many emotions at work; one needs some serious time to really get to grips with the album. I know we are less than a fifth of the way through this century but it is interesting to think which albums of the past twenty years have made the biggest impact on you. A fair few other albums were near the top of my list – including Kate Bush’s Aerial and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner -, but there is the one that, for me, has that…

SPECIAL edge.

FEATURE: Symphony in Blue: Why Radio Stations Need to Look Past Kate Bush’s Hits and Dig Deeper

FEATURE:

 

Symphony in Blue

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush/PHOTO CREDIT: Gerard Mankowitz 

Why Radio Stations Need to Look Past Kate Bush’s Hits and Dig Deeper

__________

THIS feature applies to other artists…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Walter - WireImage/Getty Images

but it is especially true of Kate Bush! One does her music on the radio from time to time and, whilst it is really nice when a song of hers is played, you do tend to find the same ones feature. I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music most of the time and, when they play a Kate Bush track, it is usually from Hounds of Love. There is no problem with that! The album turns thirty-four on 16th September and it is the critical darling. The songs the station play tend to be the bigger hits from the first side – Hounds of Love, Cloudbusting and Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God). They are well-known songs, and all defined by a certain energy. They are successful and recognisable, but I wonder why tracks such as The Big Sky (on the first side) and tracks from The Ninth Wave (the conceptual, second side of the album) are not played more. Maybe getting away from the album altogether is a better idea because, like many stations, there is a reliance on it. Stations are pretty broad regarding legends such as David Bowie, The Beatles and Joni Mitchell but, when it comes to Kate Bush, there is a certain fear. Sure, Wuthering Heights and The Man with the Child in His Eyes (The Kick Inside); you’ll hear Wow (Lionheart) now and then; maybe Babooshka and Army Dreamers (Never for Ever); perhaps This Woman’s Work (The Sensual World) will come up. Bush has released ten studio albums – her last/most-recent, 50 Words for Snow, in 2011 – and there is plenty of great material on each record!

I do think every iconic and inspirational artist deserves having as many of their songs played on radio as possible. Whilst it not possible to play every single track from Kate Bush – not all her tracks will go down a storm -, I do wonder why radio stations tend to focus their energies on particular albums/songs. Even from The Kick Inside (her 1978 debut), there are songs that do not get aired often – including Moving and Room for the Life. Lionheart opens with the majestic Symphony in Blue and contains the stunning Kashka from Baghdad. Delius (Song of Summer), The Wedding List and The Infant Kiss from Never for Ever do not get a showing. The Dreaming is a divisive album but, unlike most artists, the tracks are at least interesting and original! It seems radio gravitates towards hits and so, in the case of The Dreaming, we never hear Leave It Open, Night of the Swallow or Houdini played – a song, I contest, that is one of her very best! Though Hounds of Love is well represented – a little too much so in the case of some stations! -, the second side does not get the same love as the hits-packed first half. Life post-Hounds of Love is not exactly fruitful in terms of airplay! The Sensual World turns thirty on 16th October and it seems like the perfect excuse for stations to dust off the record and play some of its tracks - one doubts whether that will happen!

Even though albums like The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes divide people, both contain some incredible songs – I especially think The Sensual World is underrated and gets some unfair stick. Moments of Pleasure and Rubberband Girl are great tracks we should hear more of and, when you cast forward to 2005’s Aerial and 2011’s 50 Words for Snow, between them, there are tracks that have not been played on the radio…but they definitely have legs! Kate Bush is that classic albums artist that, like The Beatles and other acts who cannot be reduced to singles, sees only a selection of her songs played. She will not be too bothered herself. She has said in interviews how she does not listen to her old stuff and rarely hears her music on the radio. So many of us consume music through streaming and that creates its own issues. Those unfamiliar with Kate Bush’s catalogue will play the most-played tracks from Spotify – including Hounds of Love and Wuthering Heights – and might not necessarily delve any further. So many of us are guided by radio and, if they only play a small selection of her tracks, how many of us are going to spend some time with her albums as a whole?! There are articles like this that rank her songs and order her singles but, again, there are notable omissions when it comes to radio playlists!

I am not the only one who has noticed a ‘preference’ when it comes to Kate Bush’s songs: when I post (online) why stations focus heavily on certain tracks, it does garner reaction. Bush’s albums are so rich with variation, emotion and story; so many tracks that buckle the knees are, sadly, reserved for those who know where to look or have her albums. Any Kate Bush airtime is wonderful – one must not grumble! – but, by playing the same tracks, it suggests they are the only ones worth hearing. It is something I have noticed across the big BBC stations and so many of the big players. Maybe independent stations are more adventurous and wide-ranging, but they are an exception. In fact, even when we think of huge artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, are their albums opened up and played? I understand radio stations are in a hard position: they need to play what is popular (i.e., a hit) and they might not necessary be au fait with an artist to make suggestions that deviate from the well-trodden path. Maybe there is a wider issue where stations are a little skeptical about playing album tracks, in case people turn their noses. Sure, if we hear a song like Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), it resonates and makes us feel happier, but there is something a little depressing hearing the same songs played over and over.   

As the world awaits an eleventh studio album from Bush – there are no plans; but let’s hope something comes next year, perhaps -, it would be a welcomed treat hearing more of Bush’s music featured on the radio (in terms of variation and breaking from the norm). I was hooked on Bush’s music very young and explored her albums from then on but, as I said, as so many of us are using streaming services rather than buying music; do we just skim through albums or play songs we are more familiar with? Kate Bush’s lyrics are so revered and extraordinary; her voice and music are unique…so many great songs are not seeing the light of day. I keep saying how something is better than nothing; it would be worse if no Kate Bush music was played (rather than just singles and bigger hits) and, in fact, stations like BBC Radio 6 plays Kate Bush pretty regularly. Every year, we celebrate her album anniversaries and laud a songwriting genius. Only a small percentage of her tracks get played on the radio, and I do hope that changes soon. There is no real expert knowledge needed: Bush is a surprisingly engaging artist and there are few of her songs that lack appeal – maybe some of the longer numbers from 50 Words for Snow would be naturally excluded. I will end things here but, going forward, I would make a plea to radio stations to be bolder when it comes to Kate Bush. Sure, play the hits but also consider tracks such as Houdini, Symphony in Blue and Mrs. Bartolozzi (from Aerial); maybe a blast of The Big Sky or Get Out of My House (The Dreaming). When you do immerse yourself into Kate Bush’s vivid and eclectic world, you’ll find that waiting for you are some truly…

FANTASTIC revelations.

FEATURE: Behind the Screen: Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians

FEATURE:

 

Behind the Screen

IN THIS PHOTO: Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson was subjected to trolling, online abuse and body shaming, pushing her to attempt suicide/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians

__________

I may have addressed this before…

but I do feel like social media is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, one can share their music and thoughts and, largely, receive positive feedback and connection. One can only imagine what modern life would be like if we had to return to the pre-Twitter/Facebook days. Maybe this is a more common issue with Twitter and Instagram but, more and more, we are having to read about musicians – and people in every field and walk of life – subjected to trolling and cruel insult. This subject is always relevant but, following the broadcast of Little Mix star, Jesy Nelson’s documentary, Odd One Out, it shows how online abuse and trolling can affect someone like her. One would look at her life and success and think that, actually, here is someone who looks happy and enjoys a comfortable life. That is the perception we have of the famous. As her documentary explores, she had to face some very troubling abuse and the toll it had on her was life-changing. The Guardian explain more in their review:

She was barely 20 years old. She talks candidly about how this onslaught chipped away at not only her self-esteem, but her sense of who she was. She can barely watch footage of herself from that time, or look at pictures. She had been happy. As Jesy from Little Mix, she was miserable, constantly questioning herself and struggling with what sounds like an eating disorder. Eventually, she attempted suicide.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

This is a personal story and Nelson is clearly still dealing with the suffering she endured as the target of such horrible online abuse. She has a cushion over her lap as she is interviewed. She worries how she looks.

There is a sense that this documentary is part of the therapeutic process; she is not on the other side of the bullying yet and, at times, that makes it difficult to watch. Her mother talks movingly about how much she wishes she could have her pre-fame daughter back. Her bandmates are frank about how her insecurities, amplified beyond common sense or rationality, can make her “a bit of a nightmare”. Her boyfriend Chris Hughes, himself a product of the fame factory (in his case, Love Island), wishes she could be more comfortable in her skin. Even in the present day, glammed up for a video shoot, she refers to herself as “a fat, ugly rat”.

It is troubling reading these words and wondering what it must have been like for Nelson! There is no justification for such slurs and comments and, in an industry where we put so much pressure on artists, life is hard enough without having to endure such disgusting remarks. Not only will the documentary help bring about awareness, but it will resonate with other artists. Before asking whether we need to do more, Nelson spoke about her plight and how, yeas later, she is in a better place:

“…At about 1am, a member of The X Factor team found Nelson crying alone and asked why she was so upset. A couple of days later, she was asked to explain again – on camera. She didn’t want to do it. “They told me it wasn’t recorded, and it was.”

A few weeks later, the clip of Nelson in tears over “a few nasty comments” was broadcast before Little Mix’s performance, the reality TV playbook of “sad piano” switching to upbeat pop music when Thirlwall comforts her: an uplifting moment of girl power. From then on, that was Nelson’s public narrative.

After the clip presented her as Little Mix’s weakest link, the abuse snowballed. “It was like as soon as people knew that it was really affecting me, they wanted to do it more.” Nelson had been bullied at school, to the point of stress-induced alopecia – “but this wasn’t playground stuff”.

She was shocked by the cruelty from adults – some clearly parents. “Obviously everyone sits in their living room and will see someone on TV and make a comment. But to actually pick up your phone and go: ‘I’m going to make sure this girl sees it’ – even if they didn’t think I was going to see it – you have no idea the effect that one comment will have.”

Nelson became “obsessed” with reading criticism. The praise didn’t register. “It only got worse when I got Twitter. And that led to the Daily Mail, and reading the [below the line] comments – the worst you can read about yourself. It was like I purposely wanted to hurt myself.”

“I had a routine of waking up, going on Twitter, searching for the worst things I could about myself. I’d type in the search bar: ‘Jesy fat’, or ‘Jesy ugly’, and see what would come up. Sometimes I didn’t even need to do that, I’d just write ‘Jesy’ and then I’d see all the horrible things. Everyone told me to ignore it – but it was like an addiction.”

poop.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Talking to other young people who have experienced online abuse made her feel less alone. “A lot of people think ‘stop moaning’, but until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to understand – and it doesn’t just happen to people in the limelight. There’s so many people struggling with social media and online trolling. People need to know about the effects it has.”

The turnaround in five years, she agrees, is remarkable: now, as Little Mix work on their sixth album, Nelson is less conscious of her weight, her appearance, what she’s eating – even what is being said about her. To shoot the documentary, she returned to Twitter, and discovered some new slurs. “I didn’t even know some people said that about me, but it’s because I don’t look for it – and also, I. Don’t. Care,” she says, leaning forward in her chair”.

I do sincerely hope Nelson is in a better head-space now and that she is being guarded. I do wonder how many other musicians around the world are having to face such abuse. Music is so much about image, especially for women, and there are corners of the Internet where trolls fester and there is nothing but hatred. Big artists will always receive more kindness and positive words than negative – it is always the cruelty and abuse that cuts deeper than anything else. The fact we have social media, in many ways, is good. We can express ourselves and share fantastic music with the click of the mouse. The worst aspect of social media is the fact anyone can have their say and do what they like.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @mxsh/Unsplash

I know how hard it would be to detect trolls and make sure they are banned but, with artists pushing themselves to the point of suicide (and beyond), does more need to be done?! I think anyone caught attacking artists need to be banned and, when we do see someone struggling, labels need to do more. It seems like, in the case of Jesy Nelson, she had to keep a lot of her hurt to herself; maybe fearing her career would be compromised if she was open. I do think there is too much pressure on artists to look a certain way and, if they are natural and like you and me, they are pushed down. It is odd to see real and natural people like Nelson attacked; people we can relate to and are closer to us than anyone in music. Is it a case of people forging their own self-loathing and insecurities onto artists? Maybe trolls want their artists to be plastic and super-skinny and, when we see deviation and something separate, they create hostility. The anonymity social media provides means there is no real down-side when it comes to abuse. I think platforms like Twitter need to be tougher. Charities like the Samaritans do sterling work; maybe messaging trolls and making them aware of the impact of their words would help them change their ways, perhaps? A lot of work is being done by social media companies to reduce trolling and abuse but only it only takes a few comments to make a huge impact.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @priscilladupreez/Unsplash

I do not think we understand the damage abuse can cause. Most of us do not face it but, even if you do and are thick-skinned, it still takes its toll. Artists are being trolled about their looks, weight and music and this should not go unchallenged. There have been articles published that ask how we can reduce trolling and protect people – from musicians to children – and ensure social media and the Internet is a safer and nicer space. Maybe, as I said, it is hard to police and enforce laws where anyone caught trolling is banned. Some might say that is severe and, as we are entitled to free speech, where do we draw the line – is it okay to attack people like Donald Trump and Piers Morgan (yes!) and not musicians. In a lot of cases, you get celebrities and politician stirring things and stepping out of line, but I guess we need to apply rules to those who abuse them. I think there is a big difference between attacking artists without provocation and the reaction controversial figures receive when they say something divisive or foolish. There are so many artists who do not come forward or speak out because of the pain or a feeling that, if they do, they might be judged. Trolls are, in essence, bullies - and it is not something that should be tolerated. I think we need to draw guidelines up when it comes to trolling because there is a gap between innocuous or misconstrued comments and plain offence. Let’s hope we will see fewer cases of trolling and abuse against musicians because, even if one is not aware, those words typed from the protection of a computer…  

aaa.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: @stefanspassov/Unsplash

CAN cut deep!

FEATURE: The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty: Is This Album Their Finest Hour?

FEATURE:

 

The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty

uu.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

Is This Album Their Finest Hour?

__________

BEFORE the fiftieth anniversary of Abbey Road

 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

I will put out a couple more features – this one included. On the actual day, I will try and get something online that sort of says it all; a feature that wraps everything together. I have already explored The Beatles’ final album (recorded not released) from various angles and, before I write a feature on the iconic cover, I want to be more general and ask whether Abbey Road is their finest moment. The pecking order does seem to change over time - and it is interesting to see which albums rise and fall depending on time. There was a time when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was considered king. In fact, that album will always be in the top-three spaces but, if we look at the overall quality and memorability, can we say that 1967 release is their best? Certainly, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is important, iconic and hugely influential. I will talk about a few other Beatles albums (that could be seen as their best) but, according to reports, Abbey Road was not intended to be the last thing they recorded:

"And, in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take," the Beatles harmonized on the penultimate song of their last album, Abbey Road. But a new tape shows the band wanted to add to the equation. The story of the band is well-known even to the most casual Beatlemaniac and the common mythology maintains the group went into the studio fully intending to record a proper farewell. But the tape, found by Mark Lewisohn, captures the band planning further output, according to The Guardian.

The tape was made Sept. 8, 1969, two weeks before Abbey Road was released. It captures a band meeting between John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Apple headquarters in London’s Savile Row. It was recorded for Ringo Starr, who was in the hospital getting checked for intestinal issues. The subject was the band's next album and a possible single for they could get ready in time for Christmas”.

It would have been fascinating to see a follow-up to Abbey Road; them stepping firmly into the 1970s. Maybe it was just idle chat and speculation on their part - but it is good to know the band were not broken and resigned to calling it quits after they finished Abbey Road. I digress. There are three other albums I could consider Beatles’ best – as could most fans, for that matter. I have argued how Abbey Road is their most important album, but I do think it is one of their very best. Definitely, when we look at the rankings, Abbey Road has always been very near the top; that album that rarely fluctuates and falls out of favour. I think that is down to the importance of the record and the fact it is such a complete, rich listen. The other albums that challenge for supremacy are Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1967) and The Beatles (‘The White Album’, 1968). I think, when it comes to quality and completeness, Revolver is the closest challenger to Abbey Road. The psychedelia and experimentation; the genius of the material and the fact The Beatles had hit this new vein.

Maybe the band were reacting to the times or were particularly in-sync…one cannot argue against the notion that Revolver is one of the greatest albums ever. From the breezy-yet-angered George Harrison salvo, Taxman, to the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolver is masterful. Like Rubber Soul, there is such variety on offer. There are the jauntier efforts from McCartney (Got to Get You into My Life and Good Day Sunshine) but he always makes the heart stop with Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere. Lennon is not to be outdone with I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Tomorrow Never Knows. Ringo Starr’s drumming is phenomenal throughout and he provides a great vocal turn on Yellow Submarine – a song that effortlessly fits alongside Here, There and Everywhere shows The Beatles were not messing around! I cannot fault Revolver but, to me, Abbey Road, as of now, is higher in my mind; it seems more powerful and stronger. Maybe that is because we are preparing for its anniversary, but I find myself returning to Abbey Road for several reasons – I shall come to that soon. The Beatles’ eponymous double album of 1968 is another that, whilst strong and hugely impressive, does not fascinate me as much as Abbey Road. I love the fact The Beatles released this scattershot, sprawling album that has everything on it! The Beatles is an astonishing work that, again, contains so many moods and stories. I think there are too many weaker tracks and I need to be in a particular mood for the album.

I think the battles for the best Beatles album comes down to Revolver and Abbey Road. There are so many reasons why Abbey Road remains so intriguing and popular. In this feature, some great points are raised:

What is it that makes Abbey Road a masterpiece? Well, the breadth of the musical vision, the sheer scale of the band’s collective musical imagination, and the audacity of it all, at a time when The Beatles were coming to the end of their time together.

And then there are the two George Harrison masterpieces, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’; both rank alongside the best songs the band ever recorded. Of the former, uDiscover’s Martin Chilton, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says “it’s almost impossible not to sing along to” – and he’s right.

‘Something’ is sublime, the perfect love song and John Lennon’s favourite track on the album. Often prior to performing it in concert, Frank Sinatra would describe it as “the greatest love song ever written” (while also erroneously saying it was his favourite “Lennon and McCartney composition”).

Abbey Road is far greater than the sum of its parts, a record that, more than any other Beatles album, stands the test of time when played as a whole. It is not an album to cherry-pick tracks on random play – this is one to put on, to luxuriate in ‘Come Together’, and to finish with a smile on your face as Paul sings about Her Majesty being “a pretty nice girl” on the closing, “hidden” track”.

Fans have their own reasons why Abbey Road is their favourite…but I think there are so many layers to the album. The songs on the first side – Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – are so varied and you have the epic Something against the sillier Maxwell’s Silver Hammer; ending with the intense and hypnotic, I Want You (She’s So Heavy). If the first side is pretty special – and it is! – then the second tops it! Opening with Here Comes the Sun, you are beckoned in; Because takes you into a dreamy otherworld, whilst You Never Give Me Your Money starts the medley – or ‘The Long One’ as I have seen it called. This medley alone is a reason why Abbey Road remains so cherished and popular. Listen to how it flows from You Never Give Me Your Money to the completely different Sun King; it then changes gears for Mean Mr. Mustard before continuing with another Lennon composition, Polythene Pam. It is amazing how the band switch from the personal to ethereal; to the Lennon-written character songs and then back to McCartney’s personal/true song, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – about a fan who actually tried to get into his home.  Macca took most of the credit for the side two medley and, to be fair, his fingerprints are more over Abbey Road than Lennon’s – who was involved in a crash around the time. 

The songs weave together sublimely - and they are all pretty short. There is more consistency for the second half of the medley (Macca’s songs taking prominence) and Golden Slumbers goes into Carry That Weight. The End is that brilliant (sort of) finale that has the immortal line: “And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love/you make”. The End, ironically, gives us the first Ringo Starr drum solo - just as the band were spending the final days in a studio together. Her Majesty is a lovely hidden track and, at the time, hidden tracks were rare – Abbey Road has a lot of firsts and talking points. A brilliant album with two different sides, Abbey Road remains as compelling now as it did in 1969. I have read comments from people who feel the album sounds dated now and has lost its magic – I can never agree with that assertion! There is that ages-old debate as to which Beatles album is the best. I think Abbey Road edges Revolver, perhaps, as there is the quality of the music...AND the iconic cover! The fact there is a medley, a hidden track and, yes, the odd wobble (most of us skip past Maxwell’s Silver Hammer!) that makes it such an essential and interesting album. The fact of the matter is Abbey Road was the final time The Beatles played in the studio. It is the last big anniversary when we will have surviving Beatles in the world – their debut, Please Please Me, is seventy-five in 2038 and it would be optimistic to think Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be around then! – and Abbey Road keeps surprising you and offering new sides…fifty years after it was released into the world! Many will argue against Abbey Road being the best Beatles album but, as we prepare to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on 26th September, we can all agree Abbey Road is a…  

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

MAJESTIC swansong.

FEATURE: Sisters in Arms: An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIII)

FEATURE:

 

 

Sisters in Arms

zx.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Sampa the Great/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes/NME 

An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIII)

__________

IT is just over a wee until autumn starts…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Lilla Vargen

so this will be the penultimate summer playlist of 2019. The sun is out this weekend and it is a great opportunity to enjoy some great songs. I have collected together the best female-led tracks of the week – one or two are a little older than the last week – and I hope you enjoy. There is so much variation on show and exceptional quality; a real spread of music that gets into the head and lifts the spirits. This is another great week for music and one where you will be engrossed and hooked. Have a listen and I am sure you will agree there is much here to enjoy. As we bid farewell (almost) to summer, we are going out with…

A bang and a spark.

ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

____________

SIIGHTSShoulda Been

After Eden (ft. Yoga Girl)She’s a Church

n.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Deb Fazin

Death Valley GirlsDream Cleaver

PHOTO CREDIT: Mats Bakken Photography

Ora the MoleculeWhen Earth Took a Breath

ii.jpg

Bianca BazinPerishing Heart

vgfgf.jpg

Angel OlsenLark

PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica Challis

Lucy DacusDancing in the Dark

PHOTO CREDIT: Natalia Mantini

Kim GordonAir BnB

PHOTO CREDIT: @tomoneillphoto

Lilla VargenWhy Wait

vbvb.jpg

Au/RaStay Happy

Emily BurnsMy Town

vcvc.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Ying Ang

Sampa the GreatGrass Is Greener

Annie Taylor17 Days

aa.jpg

Gabrielle Aplin - Kintsugi

b.jpg

Ella Henderson Glorious

Karen Harding, Wh0I Don’t Need Love

Claire ErnstEasy on You

Hailey WhittersDream, Girl

vcvcv.jpg

Julia MichaelsIf You Need Me

Your SmithWild Wild Woman

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Benge

STRAIGHT GIRLUgly

aa.jpg

FKA twigs, Futureholy terrain

HalseyGraveyard

GRACEYEasy for You

kjjk.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: @grace_pickering

RobinsonDon’t Say

Grace Ackerman - Blood Draw

Nina NesbittBlack & Blue

FEATURE: The September Playlist: Vol. 2: Fathers, Angels and an Air BnB

FEATURE:

 

The September Playlist

7.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Green Day/PHOTO CREDIT: Press

Vol. 2: Fathers, Angels and an Air BnB

___________

THIS week is one where…

IN THIS PHOTO: Kim Gordon/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

some massive artists are mixing alongside some pretty cool contemporaries. In terms of the big-hitters, Kim Gordon, Green Day and Sam Fender are shouting proud; there is a collaboration from Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey; Angel Olsen, Hayden Thorpe and Charli XCX have released new material. It is a busy week and, as I say, there are some pretty cool artists who have brought some awesome material to the fore. To get the week kicking and lit, make sure you have a listen to the great assortment of songs! It is a top-quality mix and one that you need to have in your ears. The weather might not be reliable but, with some pretty epic tracks out this week, it will be…

IN THIS PHOTO: Sam Fender/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE least of your worries!  

ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

_________

tyyt.jpg

Green Day Father of All…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Miley Cyrus/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey - Don’t Call Me Angel (Charlie’s Angels)

PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Bee

Kim Gordon Air BnB

Sam Fender You’re Not the Only One

opopo.jpg

Lucy Dacus Dancing in the Dark

ff.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Yvan Fabing

Camila Cabello Liar

Angel Olsen Lark

Charli XCX White Mercedes 

PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Rose

Michael Kiwanuka - You Ain't the Problem

Hayden Thorpe Full Beam

PHOTO CREDIT: Vanessa Heins

Leif Vollebekk - Transatlantic Flight

mnmn.jpg

FKA twigs, Future holy terrain 

The Snuts - Maybe California

IN THIS PHOTO: Mahalia 

Mahalia (ft. Ella Mai) - What You Did

zzz.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Howard Wise

Moon Duo Eternal Shore

Metronomy Sex Emoji

yyy.jpg

Wallows - Trust Fall

opopo.jpg

Belle & Sebastian Safety Valve

nmn.jpg

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - A Dream Is All I Need to Get By

IN THIS PHOTO: slowthai

Denzel Curry, slowthai Psycho

PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren Maccabee

Sports Team Fishing

Dave Professor X

PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes/NME

Sampa the Great Leading Us Home

PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake/The Observer

Kate Tempest People’s Faces (Streatham Version)

Pumarosa Heaven

PHOTO CREDIT: Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Weezer The End of the Game

Au/Ra Stay Happy

PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Ray Davidson

Halsey Graveyard

Des’ree Don’t Be Afraid

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Almeida

AJ Tracey Elastic

cc.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Ejiro Dafé

Kojey Radical Cashmere Tears

Wildwood Kin All on Me

FEATURE: That De La Soul Acronym: Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?

FEATURE:

 

That De La Soul Acronym

99009.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Janette Beckman

Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?

__________

I think there are periods in music that do not…

bb.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul, circa 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

get the credit they deserve. Some movements come and go; others sort of stumble on for years but, when it comes to the Daisy Age (the term was coined by De La Soul: it stands for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’), I think we need to re-examine; people do not understand how influential the Daisy Age was. There are those who says, in the late-1980s, it distilled Hip-Hop and provided a too flowery, soft and jokey version. At a time when we had bands such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. penning these fired-up, political and vastly important songs, there was a movement emerging that took a more peace-and-love, pacifist approach; the need for us all to come together and create some love. My mind is on the Daisy Age because there is an excellent compilation available that brings together some of the finest tracks from the time. It is a fascinating period of music but, as Bob Stanley writes, the Daisy Age bloomed for a brief time:

It wasn’t really a movement, barely even a moment, but the Daisy Age was an ethos that briefly permeated pop, R&B and hip hop. The name was coined by Long Island trio De La Soul; they claimed D.A.I.S.Y. stood for “da inner sound, y’all”, but then De La Soul said a lot of things. Playfulness and good humour were central to their 1989 debut album, which cast a long, multi-coloured shadow. The 90s, it promised, would be a lot easier going than the 80s.

In Britain, the timing for De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” couldn’t have been better. The acid house explosion of 1988 would lead to a radical breaking down of musical barriers in 1989. Just 18 months earlier, snobbery had been so rife that Bomb The Bass’ ‘Beat Dis’ was faked as a US import (pressed in the States, then imported back) to get club play; by the summer of ’89, however, something as previously unhip as Chris Rea’s ‘Josephine’ could become a dancefloor hit and indie veterans Primal Scream would be reborn as space-seeking Sun Ra initiates and still taken seriously. Ecstasy was largely responsible, of course, and its associated look – loose clothing, dayglo colours, smiley faces – chimed with the positivity of rising New York rap acts the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, both at the heart of a growing collective called Native Tongues.

What was so new about De La Soul’s sound? Previously, sample material for hip hop had been almost exclusively taken from 60s and 70s soul and funk, especially from James Brown and his extended family – Bobby Byrd, Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, the stuff of purists. The freewheeling collage of “3 Feet High And Rising” gleefully raided the non-U catalogues of Billy Joel and Hall & Oates; soul heroes Wilson Pickett and the Mad Lads were now abutting such unlikely material as the Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’ and French Linguaphone lessons. The Invitations’ sweet, Drifters-like ‘Written On The Wall’ provided the hook for De La Soul’s first single ‘Plug Tunin’’ which, along with follow-up ‘Potholes In My Lawn’, referenced “the daisy age”. With the album including a cover of Bob Dorough’s ‘Three Is The Magic Number’ from Schoolhouse Rock – a song every American kid knew from Sunday morning TV – the essence of Sesame Street was everywhere.

By 1989 hip hop had made major inroads in Britain with rock fans (via Run DMC) and pubescent teens (the Beastie Boys), while NME writers had voted Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” the best album of 1988. Still, it had an air of exclusivity, with Tim Westwood its mirthless UK gatekeeper. De La Soul were also fans of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC; they were fans in general, and threw their love of music into the blender, giving more time to melodies and mind-expanding samples while most contemporary rap records still revolved around the biggest sounding beats.

Above all, De La Soul were welcoming. They had grown up with their parents’ eclectic musical taste, a TV culture grab bag, and black radio stations that played Hall & Oates and Steely Dan alongside the Spinners and Brass Construction. They had also attended the same high school as producer and Stetsasonic member Prince Paul who, intimidatingly, was two years above them. He knew their faces but it wasn’t until he heard a demo of ‘Plug Tunin’’ that he realised they were all on the same wavelength; working with their rough sketch, Paul added a sample from Billy Joel’s ‘Stiletto’ into the mix.

As hip hop rapidly became a bigger commercial concern, rights owners smelt money and – for the rest of the 90s – made sample clearance unfeasibly expensive. Robbed of their pick-and-mix approach, some Daisy Age-era acts moved towards consciousness and a jazz-leaning live feel, which down the line would lead to the rise of Arrested Development, and beyond them the Fugees and the Roots; meanwhile, on the West Coast, the gut-churning violence and misogyny of Dr Dre’s “The Chronic” took rap to a whole new commercial level. Neither direction, sadly, would involve much use of Sesame Street, Turtles samples, or magic numbers”.

There are some interesting points Stanley raises. Although the literal Daisy Age movement faded relatively quickly, you can feel its influence and importance. It mutated into other genres and inspired a whole wave of artists. Maybe the Daisy Age couldn’t last through the 1990s as it was not as explosive and charged as traditional Hip-Hop; maybe the modern version of the Summer of Love, in Hip-Hop form, was viewed with cynicism.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Brand Nubian/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Certainly, as genres like Grunge took off, Daisy Age music seemed to be out of step. I have a lot of love for that time and pioneers such as De La Soul. Just compare their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989 with albums such as Pixies’ Doolittle. There were fun and uplifting records in 1989 from the likes of Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), Madonna (Like a Prayer) and The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses) …but nothing like 3 Feet High and Rising! I love the fact artists could offer a colourful, sample-rich alternative to the beat-heavy music of the time. Now, when we are more divided and tense than ever, is there anything in modern music that provides much relief and lift? There is some great Hip-Hop and Rap around right now – nothing as potent and exceptional as we saw in the late-1980s -, but there is little to contract the heaviness and truth. That might sound weird, but we do not a lot more joy and togetherness. Again, will the modern age sniff at a scene that promotes harmony and humour?! Maybe so. One reason why a new Daisy Age might struggle to blossom is because of one of the bedrocks of the original movement: samples. Look at some of the artists on the Daisy Age compilation – A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Queen Latifah -, and there is such richness and layers! One of the problems, even back then, was getting clearance to use samples.

Could a Daisy Age exist now; a time when it is so difficult to afford samples and get that legal clearance? This article from 2013 in The Atlantic posits a link between a decline in Hip-Hop’s standard and the diminishing role of samples:

It’s notable, for instance, that at the same time sampling was curbed by new copyright enforcement, we also witnessed the sunset of rap’s “golden age,” a time when dropping socially or politically engaged lyrics didn’t automatically relegate artists to “the underground.”  As someone who studies and teaches about hip hop (and who’s been listening to the music for 25 years), I'm not sure that’s a coincidence.  After all, sampling provided an important engagement with musical and political history, a connection that was interrupted by Grand Upright and the cases after it, coinciding with a growing disconnect between rap music and a sense of social responsibility.

That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.”  The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification.  But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content:  “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.”  When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves”.

Whilst it might be difficult to have quite the same sound as back then, I do feel there is a chance for revival. Rather than go through estates and artists to get clearance for samples, we have technology now to create so many different, disparate sounds. I think there is a general lack of positivity in modern music and, in my view, the Daisy Age’s greatest impact was promoting a more affirmative, enriching style of music. I think it will be gradual, but there is a definite window right now; maybe a combination of the Daisy Age and the second Summer of Love, both taking shape around the same sort of time (roughly) – even if the scenes in which they were representing were very different. I listen back to the music of the Daisy Age (dates vary to exactly how long the movement lasted) and there is not this hopeless nostalgia: rather, there is this real feeling that, in 2019, a modified replication could survive. Whilst we might have to compromise in terms of samples used, the spirit and infectiousness of Daisy Age songs remains to this day. I do not think there is anything like this happening in Hip-Hop today – the genre is weaker because of that. Whilst there are definite benefits of re-purposing the Daisy Age for a today that is need of sunshine, there are pitfalls and obstacles.

Its founders, De La Soul, soon had to distance themselves from the Daisy Age and this image of them trying to reviewing the 1960s’ vibe – their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, of 1991 continues its skits and samples, but extinguish notions of the Daisy Age and mainstream Hip-Hop. In this feature/interview, we learn why De La Soul quickly moved away from their debut album’s sound:

 “De La Soul’s dreams came at a price. Aiming to be more thoughtful than gangsta, the trio had coined the term Daisy Age, short for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’. With the Daisy Age name and the debut album’s dayglo floral sleeve, it was quickly commonly accepted that Posdnuos, Trugoy The Dove and Maseo were all about flower power. “Daisy Age was about opening everything up,” says Maseo. “But it overshadowed our music, because we were interpreted as wanting to copy a certain time in the 60s. That whole Woodstock thing, it was everything we knew nothing about. I appreciate how and why it happened, but it wasn’t the correct interpretation of our music’s soul. De La has always been about hip-hop. It’s not about daisies or the hippy era. We were doing hip-hop our way”.

I can understand, perhaps, why De La Soul wanted to move on from their debut, but one cannot deny the impact and effect it had. Artists like them played with sound and textures; they filtered into the 1990s and undoubtedly had an impact on so many other artists. I think music is weaker for lacking anything as captivating as the Daisy Age. I think it would be possible to rekindle some of the flame. Listening to the new Daisy Age collection and one is still hooked by the songs. They bring something out of us, make us feel better and resonate deep. It would be great to return, however briefly, to…

A better time.