Saturday, 8 January 2022

Fascination: the enduring legacy of David Bowie

We’re barely eight days into 2022 and I’m already blogging about David Bowie. Sue me. But with today being what would have been The Dame’s 75th birthday, and Monday the sixth anniversary of his death, the propensity for Bowie to still surprise and provide compelling cultural fascination shows little signs of abating.

Just this week Variety revealed that the Bowie estate has sold his entire publishing catalogue - more than 400 songs (including 111 singles and 26 studio albums) - to Warner Chappell Music, the Warner entertainment conglomerate’s music publishing division - for figure estimated to be “upwards of $250 million” (it hasn’t been officially disclosed). The deal drives on the current boom in rock’s biggest names monetising their recordings, following Bruce Springsteen selling his catalogue to Sony for an eye-watering $550 million, and Bob Dylan’s similar agreement with Universal for an equally colossal $400 million.

With the Bowie deal WCM has got its hands on some of the most revered albums of the rock era, encompassing Bowie’s studio output from 1968 right up to Blackstar, released just two days before his death. It also includes both the less well received Tin Machine releases and the ‘lost’ album Toy, which was released in full yesterday as a three-disc package (a single-disc version appeared in November as part of the Brilliant Adventure box set). 

“All of us at Warner Chappell are immensely proud that the David Bowie estate has chosen us to be the caretakers of one of the most groundbreaking, influential, and enduring catalogues in music history,” WCM’s CEO Guy Moot said in a statement. “These are not only extraordinary songs, but milestones that have changed the course of modern music forever. Bowie’s vision and creative genius drove him to push the envelope, lyrically and musically - writing songs that challenged convention, changed the conversation, and have become part of the canon of global culture.”. 

For its part, a representative of the Bowie estate hailed Warner as “capable hands” adding: “We are sure they will cherish [the catalogue] and take care of it with the greatest level of dignity.” That, though, comes with some risk. The entertainment industry has a history of precious bodies of work transferring to corporate ownership with mixed critical results. Disney’s assumption of the Star Wars brand, expanding its universe with myriad spinoffs is still to win over the audience beyond the established fanbase of George Lucas’s 1977 creation. Likewise, there are concerns that Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, and with it the James Bond films, will see the imperious cinema property diluted into a similar sprawl as the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.

What might, to some, be surprising about the Bowie deal is that he was, in life, very particular about his work, maintaining tight control over it. Curiously, what isn’t included in the agreement with WCM is the ‘first’ album titled David Bowie, the record released in 1967 which appeared on Decca’s Deram imprint. That album firmly reflected his then-interest in theatrical, Anthony Newley-style whimsy, rather than either the prevailing beat pop of the early ’60s or the emerging progressive sound that manifested itself that year most profoundly with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

One of the songs recorded for Deram was The Laughing Gnome, a still-divisive song amongst fans, with purists refusing to accept it is a ‘true’ Bowie song. They prefer to regard it as a childish novelty beloved of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s Junior Choice, along with The Runaway Train, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) and Tubby The Tuba. That, though, simply defines it by association. It is something of a novelty, for sure, but deserves its place in the total Bowie canon, something I know that rock star Steven Wilson wouldn’t disagree with. In his forthcoming autobiography Wilson claims that receiving the 1973 reissue of The Laughing Gnome for his sixth birthday inadvertently planted the seed of his own Bowie fandom. I would agree, especially as Wilson and I received a copy each for our respective birthdays, courtesy of my parents (we were born a week apart, were neighbours and childhood best friends). You can read more about this in March when Steven Wilson: Limited Edition Of One is published by Little Brown.

Part of what Wilson and I absorbed about Bowie, subliminally at first, was his breathless, relentless, restless search for something new, something different, something else. That’s what Warner Music has bought into. Not one of those 26 album is a replication. Not even the Tin Machine entries lack something adventurous. Amongst the many valid superlatives used to describe Bowie’s career, “visionary” crops up again and again, along with a profound sense of individualism. “He spent his whole life trying to empower people, and I think that’s what he would have continued to do,” the V&A’s Geoff Marsh told Dylan Jones for a posthumous gathering of Bowie’s friends, recounted in September in The Times. “He once said in an interview that ‘I’m doing this for me’, i.e. he was doing what he was doing because that’s precisely what he wanted to do. And he spent his entire life encouraging other people, especially the young, to do the same.”

Bowie was, of course, rightly lauded for “pushing the envelope”, to reuse that horrendous cliche. WCM’s Moot is correct in describing Bowie as inspiring those “not only in music, but across all the arts, fashion, and media”. To that add technology: in 1999 Jeremy Paxman interviewed Bowie for the BBC’s Newsnight, asking him about digital technology. “The potential of what the Internet is going to do to society - both good and bad - is unimaginable,” Bowie told a visibly sceptical Paxo, who responded: “It’s just a tool though isn’t it?” “No,” Bowie replied, with wry disdain, “it’s an alien life form [laughs]. Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here.” He then continued, presciently: “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying. The actual context and state of content is going to be so different to anything we envisage at the moment. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.  It’s happening in every form. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.”

Picture: BBC Newsnight

The year before, Bowie launched his own Internet service, BowieNet. It was, at the time, ground-breaking: for a monthly fee, members got their own davidbowie.com email address as well as  exclusive access to audio and video recordings. They could also participate in chat rooms, which Bowie himself often popped up in. At the time most other stars’ websites were pretty dry affairs, but not Bowie. It was, one user recalled, the first attempt to create an Internet community around an artist. He even used it to crowd-source ideas for new music, with the track What's Really Happening? later appearing on the Hours album. 1995’s Outside drew on a bespoke software application called Verbasizer, into which Bowie typed in different sentence which were then randomly selected and turned into the source of new songs. Four years later Bowie participated in Netaid, a streamed concert that drew an online audience of more than two million, then a record. His enthusiasm for his own online venture waned as the 21st century dawned, and Bowie’s much publicised health issues in 2004 saw him effectively withdraw from public life.

This week’s Warner deal is not, though, the first time that Bowie’s music has been monetised. In the mid-1990s a scheme was devised by his financial manager to sell asset-backed securities, nicknamed ‘Bowie bonds’, which paid out a share in future royalties for 10 years. Another deal, with EMI, saw Bowie sell bonds on the back of royalties from the albums he’d released between 1969 and 1990, but the venture suffered from the music industry downturn in the early 2000s. Even that was something Bowie had predicted in 2002, when he told the New York Times that music would become “like running water or electricity”. He’d foreseen the rise of streaming, with the meagre returns for artists we now know about, and its impact on physical media sales.

All of these exercises serve as a reminder that pop music is rarely as altruistic as either art or ‘just’ an entertainment medium. Business, as The Beatles found to their cost, often gets in the way. But while the Bowie estate’s deal with Warner Music is another chapter in the posthumous commercialisation of his career (which has generated a steady stream of box sets and special editions over the last few years), it shouldn’t do anything to fundamentally change either the Bowie legacy, or this fan’s fascination with it. 

There will also be plenty more to come from it, too, in the weeks and months ahead: later this month the 2022 Sundance Festival is expected to premiere a new Bowie film by Brett Morgan (whose credits include The Rolling Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) which pulls together previously unseen live performance recordings, with Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti providing music direction. And then, next month, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars making their live debut, at a long-defunct pub which once sat less than three miles from the house I was born in. Kismet, again. 2022 promises to be another busy year in the enduring legacy of the late David Robert Jones from Brixton - and me and my wallet can’t wait. 


Monday, 3 January 2022

New year, new problems, old story

Picture; Facebook/Chelsea FC
The moment when, four minutes before the end of the first half of Chelsea’s encounter with Liverpool yesterday at Stamford Bridge, the two young lads sat immediately in front of us had had enough and slouched off to the East Stand bar to watch the remainder of the period, said it all about the home side’s performance at that point in proceedings. 

Chelsea had been as insipid as I’d seen them in recent weeks, despite this being Liverpool. I utter the Merseysiders’ name with a degree of vituperative disdain. Because we have form. History. Go back to the 1970s, when Liverpool had a regal air about them, such was their domination of English and European football. Chelsea were in the doldrums, especially as the 1980s came close, partly the result of dire finances and partly the result of just not being very good. 

To the pre-teen me, fixtures between Chelsea and Liverpool was Subbutteo made real: Blues and Reds. Liverpool were, as Manchester United were to become in the ’90s, lauded without question. To this end, the residual rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool - or, at least, their fans - should have fizzled out years ago. But it keeps appearing, like niggling bouts of gout. I’ll spare the lengthy list of flashpoints, but it would include Chelsea beating Liverpool in May 2003 and pipping them to a Champions League (which also swung Roman Abramovich’s towards the West London club), and then the pyschodrama between José Mourinho and Rafa Benitez when in the blue and red corners respectively (skirmishing that took a perverse turn when Benitez became Chelsea’s interim manager and then went and won them the Europa League). If you dig back into my blog post archive you’ll find a longer essay about the Chelsea-Liverpool back-and-forth. 

Brought back up to date, Liverpool arrived in SW6 yesterday with its manager buried away, self-isolating with Covid, and Chelsea dealing with Romelu Lukaku giving an unauthorised interview to Sky Sports Italia, in which he appeared to question manager Thomas Tuchel as well as his own future to the club that paid Inter Milan £97.5 million in the summer to take him off their financially-troubled hands. And so, there was an air of unsettledness about Tuchel’s team as the game kicked off, Lukaku not even on the bench, and they found themselves 2-0 down by the 26th minute. There were plenty around Stamford Bridge carrying an ominous sense of foreboding as Liverpool threatened to run riot. 

It wasn’t just a case of it looking unlikely that Chelsea would get back into the game - a two-goal deficit at this level, and Chelsea’s form going into the game not inspiring much confidence - but the mood around the club had been progressively souring in recent weeks. A familiar story, too: I’ve lost count of how many times Chelsea have gone into the Christmas period looking suddenly shaky, followed by the arrival of a new manager by March. In fact the pattern this season has been almost identical to that 12 months ago when the wheels came off (or were forced off) Frank Lampard’s tenure, prompting Tuchel’s appointment and a near-miraculous revival that saw the Blues win the Champions League by May.

In the first third of this season Chelsea were being mentioned - or at least muttered - as being genuine title contenders, with an imperious defence anchored by the age-defying Thiago Silva, a goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy who seemed to stop everything, and a dynamic attack that saw wingbacks Reece James and Ben Chilwell vie with the recognised forwards for goal-scoring. Tuchel had steadied the ship at the back in his first few months, but the Chelsea backline had become increasingly vulnerable in recent weeks. Throw in a giant hole in midfield left by the mercurial N’Golo Kate, out with injury, and Mateo Kovacic, out with Covid, the spotlight soon shone on both a leaky defence and an ineffective attack, itself bereft of Lukaku due to injury and then a bout of Covid himself.

So, when squad numbers in the 60s and 70s start appearing on the bench, drawn from the Under-23s, things started to look worrying around one of the most lavishly-equipped teams in European football. You had to, though, afford Tuchel some sympathy, as you do any Chelsea head coach. A Chelsea manager is expected to deliver a trophy a season, but it’s hard to see where one will come from this term, given that Manchester City are running away with the Premier League, retaining the European Cup looks even more unlikely than it did a year ago, and the Carabao and FA cups, which continue this week, progress at a time with Chelsea both depleted and seemingly demoralised.

But hold on. While the lads from seats 109-111 in Row 19 of the East Stand Upper were supping their half-time beers a few minutes early yesterday, Chelsea defied the odds and clawed back two goals. Two good goals, too, especially Christian Pulisic’s 46th-minute equaliser. Come the second half and we were treated to one of the most entertaining 49 minutes of football I’ve seen this season. No more goals, sadly, but that didn’t matter. And it wasn’t just Chelsea, either - we had a proper ding-dong. A brilliant end to ridiculous Christmas football scheduling, which has seen clubs play every two or three days just to satisfy home TV audiences gorging themselves on Quality Street and turkey sandwiches.

Picture: Facebook/Chelsea FC
The question is, what happens next? Wednesday’s Carabao Cup tie with Tottenham will prove another test for Tuchel’s team, though it’s more than likely that next Saturday’s FA Cup Third Round tie at Stamford Bridge against Chesterfield will provide a runout for the fringe players and Under-23s rather than any of the first team regulars. Because with them, Tuchel has other challenges to address, and they’re the kind of challenges Lampard encountered at this same point a year ago - players that should be delivering that weren’t. Admittedly this time the German has more injuries to contend with, but this is where he will have to dig deep, as he did when he first came on board at Chelsea. He will not just draw on available resources but have to organise and inspire. Where they deliver is another matter entirely, given where Chelsea sit in the grand scheme of things. But like it or not, the job falls to Tuchel, who has demonstrated more than adequately that he is someone Chelsea would be mad to jettison at the first sight of trouble, as they do so often when it seems that the silverware cabinet is looking unlikely to welcome any additions this season.

Football is fickle. Go back just six weeks and Chelsea were six points clear at the top of the Premier League. They’d also just put Juventus to the sword in ruthless fashion, and in a spell of games when, at various times, they’d been without the likes of Kante, Havertz, Werner, Mount, Kovacic and Lukaku - players any side would kill to have on their books. But it was during that Juventus game that Ben Chilwell ruptured his ACL. The left-sided wingback had been key to Chelsea’s progress from simply being a good defensive side to one that could prise open opposition defences. 

Now, only an act of God or a spectacular collapse will give any of the chasing pack hope of catching up with City. But that shouldn’t mean Chelsea can’t finish the season with something to show for their quality in the run-up to the December collapse. Their Carabao Cup tie with Spurs is a semi-final, putting them only 360 minutes away from a trophy, even if it’s not the one they’d most like. They’re still in the Champions League, and without gilding the lilly, they’ve defied the odds - even against the Bayerns of this world - before. They probably shouldn’t even be defending champions based on last season’s form if we were to be honest. And if we’re counting competitive opportunities, next month Chelsea take part in the Club World Cup. 

Mindset will be the fuel that drives them. Tuchel doesn’t just have to organise Chelsea and select the right combinations and formations of available players but also instil in them the verve that sometimes makes all the difference. It’s a confidence that, yesterday, was lacking in Christian Pulisic’s atrocious miss early in the game while odds-on to score, but was there in spades when he volleyed the ball up into the top right corner of the Liverpool goal. Tuchel was handed something of a poisoned chalice when he took over at Chelsea on 26 January last year. He wasn’t just replacing another doomed head coach, but the club’s record goal scorer, Lampard. To some fans Tuchel had risen without trace; Google filled in the blanks but his recent history at Paris St. Germain suggested another European technocrat and a troublemaker too. A year on there is a strengthening relationship with the fanbase which also reflects what he is contending with. 

Twitter and radio phone-ins, the great modern sounding boards of public opinion, have appeared to back his decision yesterday to drop Lukaku from the matchday squad, not just drop him from the starting line-up, and you could conclude from the way the team responded to going two down to Liverpool that the punishment of a recalcitrant teammate didn’t have any detrimental effect on team spirit. 

Picture: Chelsea FC
The Lukaku saga isn’t over, however. ‘Clear the air talks’ might straighten things out, but the last thing Tuchel needs right now is an agitating player. Most fans, though, appeared to support Lukaku’s exclusion from the Liverpool game, concluding that maintaining leadership and discipline trumped appeasing a star ego. Amongst pundits there was a mixed view. Darren Bent tweeted: “I understand Lukaku has done wrong and should be punished appropriately but leaving him out of the squad today for one of the biggest games of the season, when your [sic] still trying to stay in the title race and his form in the last 2 games seems extreme. What's people's thoughts?”. Michael Owen coyly wrote: “If reports are accurate, it’s a huge decision from Tuchel to leave Lukaku out of today’s squad. But in the long term interests of the club, it’s a good one. No player is more important than the club and while being employed by someone, you can’t speak out like he has.” 

Graeme Souness was characteristically uncompromising, branding Lukaku’s comments in the Sky interview as “ridiculous”, “disrespectful” and “enormously“ damaging to Chelsea, adding that it was the behaviour of an impetuous 19-year-old rather than a senior player at 29. “I can't tell you a worse thing that a player can do at this moment in the season,” Souness added. “To come out and say basically, ‘I don't want to be here, I don't want to play with [these] players’ and how that damages Chelsea going forward, it has to.”

So, what happens next? Today, Tuchel and Lukaku were meant to have “talks”. In his post-match comments yesterday Tuchel attempted to play down the issue. “It’s not Chelsea-like [for Lukaku to say what he said in the interview] but it’s also not the worst thing in the world.” “[It is] not the first time an interview out there causes some noise nobody needs. But we can handle it. I don’t feel [it was a] personal attack. On Saturday, new statements [came out] and it got too big, too much noise, and we lost totally the focus of the match.” 

That last statement is the salient point. Lukaku has provided an unwelcome distraction just as his team was having to deal with injuries and Covid absences. Given the way their energy and concentration was noticeably exploited by Liverpool’s first two goals, you could easily say that the Lukaku distraction had an immediate effect. But, then, the way in which Chelsea fought their way back into the game, equalised and then went on to match Liverpool in what would end up being a satisfyingly enjoyable draw (even if it did allow Manchester City to open up an even bigger lead), suggests that no player is greater than the club he plays for.

Picture: Chelsea FC

We’re not yet at the stage of Lukaku leaving Chelsea. He’s ceainly not going to leave in the January window. There’s no guarantee, either, that he will move on in the summer. Inter can’t afford to buy him back, anyway, which is why they sold him in the first place. But the player must also remember that Chelsea managed to win the Champions League without him, on the back of a nervous few months that had seen another manager ejected. But we shouldn’t be naive. Player power (yes, you, Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rüdiger...) played its ugly part, as it had with José Mourinho, André Villas Boas and even Antonio Conte, all victims of uppity strikers. One hopes that cool heads prevail within the Chelsea hierarchy now. There’s no denying that a slump has occurred over the last six weeks, and while injury and Covid have played their part, the squad hasn’t been decimated so wholesale. Each week Tuchel has managed to send out players with first team credentials, albeit augmented by untried youngsters on the bench, just in case. Pundits might be tempted to revive talk of Tuchel’s tempestuous demise at Paris, and who knows if he is a changed manager now. But after some misgivings at first, largely the result of the how Lampard was displaced rather than anything about the incoming head coach, Tuchel has mostly proven to be an inspiring manager. Easily one of the best in the world. Chelsea would be mad to dispense with his services now, but you wouldn’t put it past Roman Abramovich and his capricious management philosophy. To boot, we’ve long grown used to Chelsea’s fire-and-hire cycle, largely because it seems to have worked. 

Judging by the way Stamford Bridge sang Tuchel’s name in the opening and closing minutes of yesterday’s encounter with Liverpool, the first time I can recall this season at home, he has certainly won over the faithful. We have, though, been here before…

Monday, 20 December 2021

Bella forme: architecture’s urban rock stars

Picture: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

I have, on this platform, devoted vast quantities of words to the aura of actual rock stars and the impact of their work, rather than their reputation. Heck, I even named this blog and its predecessor after David Bowie. Almost most of this devotion is the result of the visceral enjoyment of music, as unquantifiable and subjective as that is (Stairway To Heaven might grab you by the balls as equally as it might bore another rigid. Bohemian Rhapsody could well be the most exhilarating six minutes of your life, or it could be the most ridiculous). “I know what I like,” is and should be the philosophical approach to any art form. I bristle at any opinion that takes a superior view of one thing over another. It really doesn’t matter if you enjoy it and someone else doesn’t. Good art is supposed to be divisive. Pop music, photography, sculpture, painting - it’s all the subject to the same individual opinion as architecture. 

35 years ago Prince Charles drew fire for describing a proposed National Gallery extension as a “monstrous carbuncle” at a speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects on its 150th anniversary, providing further evidence of the prince’s then-growing tendency to speak out on pet peeves. It was at the time considered an audacious attack on modern architecture, especially as Charles was largely at the event  to ceremonially doff his titfer to the profession. Instead, he sparked a continuing debate about modernity, leading to inevitable whinges about the legacies that contemporary architects were creating (i.e. anyone veering away from classicism). Notably, Ahrends Burton Koralek’s proposed addition to the National Gallery never materialised.

The reason I bring this up is the death, announced over the weekend, of Richard Rogers - Lord Rogers - part of that triumvirate of rock star architects comprising (Lord) Norman Foster and Renzo Piano who, apart from being great friends and frequent collaborators, made something more out of architecture than simply functional building design. Their work is the creation of monuments to vivid creativity more than merely envisaging rectangular boxes for people to dwell, work in or visit. And yet, collectively and individually, they’ve done more to challenge and enrich contemporary cities than any amount of urban planning. Not always, it must be said, to universal acclaim.

Picture: AEG UK

Of the Rogers/Piano/Foster trio, I’ve probably experienced more of Rogers’ work than any of the others. Indeed just on Saturday night, as his family were processing news of his death, I was at the O2 Arena in Greenwich watching Squeeze and Madness on stage while ruminating on the incredible structure of what, at first glance, looks like a giant tent. 

The Millennium Dome, as it originally was known, was designed by Rogers. It, too, drew the ire of Prince Charles’ aversion to modernism, once calling it a “monstrous blancmange”. Built to celebrate the dawning of the 21st century at a cost of more than £1 billion, it was frequently derided for its cost but also its extravagance as, essentially, a seemingly temporary attraction to celebrate the progress of time by being built in the very place where Greenwich Mean Time was introduced in 1884 (for those who know the area, the Dome/O2 Arena was built on the site of the old Greenwich gas works, at which the father of Squeeze’s Chris Difford worked all his life). But that hasn’t stopped it being one of Europe’s best - and biggest - event venues (and, latterly, a retail centre), which provides a spectacular sight for anyone flying west out of London City Airport, made a memorable appearance in the opening sequence of the Bond film The World Is Not Enough, and several times a week shows up prominently in the EastEnders titles. Some might say Rogers did the job he was brought in for. Even by his standards, however, the Dome was not his most strident creation. 

That probably still falls to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a building that never failed to fascinate me from the outside as much as its inside when I lived in the City of Light and would frequently walk past it on the way to a nearby shopping district. The building, with its exoskeleton of pipes and what looks like permanent construction scaffolding, was to Paris what punk was to classical music. Paris doesn’t really do modernity (the La Défense financial district was punted north-west of the Périphérique ring road for a reason...). So, in the early 1970s when the process began to design a building in honour of former president Georges Pompidou, the eventual design that Rogers and partner Piano came up with was (and, to some extent, remains) as Marmite as it gets. 

Picture: Amélie Dupont - Architecte: Richard Rogers & Renzo Piano

“Bold” doesn’t even cover the dazzling, colourful and distinctly industrial paean to adventurous thinking, which inevitably drew accusations of consecration from conservative Parisians and snobby critics alike. “Paris has its own monster,” wrote Le Figaro, “just like Loch Ness”. Vindication followed after it opened in 1977, becoming one of the city’s most-visited attractions, drawing seven million people in that year alone - the year of punk, it shouldn’t be forgotten - more than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre combined (and in marked contrast to the art contained therein). The thing with the Pompidou Centre is that once you get past the avant garde exterior, it serves a practical purpose, providing space for art, music performances and a library. How very liberté, égalité, fraternité. We’re back to rectangular boxes again, but with a clear difference. 

It’s this combination of the practical and the fanciful that fascinates me about the likes of Rogers. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and Terminal 4 of Madrid’s Barajas Airport are buildings I have spent plenty of time in, sometimes with the freedom to take it all in, at others in a desperate rush to get from check-in to gate. But on no occasion have I ever felt like I was encased in a box. Indeed, without succumbing to hyperbole, these aviation hubs have more than a sense of wonder about them. This is where the jury of the 2007 Pritzker prize, architecture’s most prestigious award,  praised Rogers for his “unique interpretation of the Modern Movement’s fascination with the building as machine,” calling out his transformation of buildings that “had once been elite monuments” like museums “into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.” 

Cities are where Rogers made his mark, along with Foster and Piano, whom he regarded as brethren, with a shared vision for high-tech architecture that took cues from machinery and technology more than the shaping of stone. All born in the 1930s, they took their influences from the post-war world, in Rogers’ case the ultra-modern house designs of 1950s Los Angeles, which he visited after graduating from Yale (where he first met Foster). Collectively, they transformed  London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and other cities with a similar outlook. “He is my closest friend, practically my brother," Rogers once said of Piano in a Guardian interview, acknowledging - jokingly - how the Italian behind London’s Shard made him one of “the bad boys.” Foster is another, with his stunning designs for the new Wembley Stadium, Apple’s new space-age HQ in California, and the glass dome addition to the Reichstag in Berlin.

You could argue that architecture stopped being sexy in the 1960s and 1970s, just as rock’n’roll was becoming so. Of course, this is a gross generalisation, just as there was as much naff music in those decades as there was era-defining material. What Rogers and his cohorts achieved, as they got to work on urban skylines in the ’80s and ’90s, was the transformation of ‘boxes in the sky’ into something memorable, fascinating even, something to marvel at before entering, and then on leaving, looking back at and marvelling once more.

Today, London’s skyline is still the topic of furious debate, as you peer upstream from Tower Bridge at City Hall and The Shard to your left, ‘The Cheesgrater’, ‘Gherkin’ and ‘Walkie Talkie’ (of which Rogers was not a fan) to your right, even if they controversially obscure Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s defining symbols. But one thing you can’t say is that the capital has disappeared “under a welter of ugliness”, as Prince Charles branded modern architecture in a 1984 interview around the same time as his RIBA speech. He also spoke of the “mediocrity of public and commercial buildings, and of housing estates, not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning”. The irony of Charles’ statement is that these were the very environments that spawned some of rock music’s greatest moments. Transforming them, Rogers - along with Foster and Piano - have injected the sort of progressiveness to architecture that The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Bowie brought to rock. An enduring legacy, in other words.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Banks statement

© Simon Poulter 2021

As a statement of the somewhat bleedin’ obvious, digitisation has changed everything. Want that new album? Amazon will have it on your doorstep by 1pm tomorrow (though there’s no guarantee it won’t have been nicked by 1.30…). Can’t be arsed to go out to the supermarket? Don’t worry, your groceries will come to you! And as for banking, well, you can do all that with your thumb and your iPhone while perched on the sofa. 

Digital technology, the Internet and, specifically, the smartphone, have transformed modern life beyond all recognition, but along with it - and these last couple of years have brought this into sharp focus - have increasingly made our high streets look threadbare, with retail chains disappearing online (or disappearing altogether) to be replaced by the ubiquitous coffee outlets, charity shops and fast food outlets. In many towns, the banks that were once local community fixtures - and in a large number of cases are even listed buildings due to their heritage - have been repurposed into pubs, restaurants and even homes.

Digital commerce has also led to a reduction in cash being used. Before COVID-19, its use in the UK was in decline, according to the Bank of England, which found that only 23% of all payments in 2019 were made using cash, down from close to 60% a decade earlier, as debit cards and digital payments became more commonplace for everyday purchases. Withdrawals from bank machines have dropped to less than £100 million a day, which sounds a lot, but not for a country of 67 million people. The pandemic has seen cash usage fall even further, as people work from home, shop online and continue to hold concerns about handling paper money. On average, people now go to a cash machine less than twice a month, down from three times a month before the pandemic hit, according to the ATM operator Link. All of this reflects the banks’ progressive retreat from our high streets. Five branches have been closing for good every two working days since 2015, and last week it was announced that TSB plans to close another 70 of its locations, leaving just 220 remaining next year, down from 536 only a couple of years ago. 

For many - but not all - online banking has changed the traditional consumer banking experience, and the move to cashless, contactless payments - especially during the pandemic - has made the idea of entering a bank branch to grapple with an inadequate ballpoint pen on a chain and quaint old paying-in slips seem archaic. But that doesn’t mean that cash hasn’t disappeared altogether, and nor does it mean that people have stopped writing cheques. There are still legitimate trades that only take cash (or, at least, prefer it), and just this month I received a cheque from the DVLA for a car tax refund. So where do you go to pay all that in?

© Simon Poulter 2021

Like everywhere else, our local high street has been gradually losing its banks over the last few years. Once it was resident to all the main clearing banks and building societies, but the Barclays and Santander (which, as Abbey National, was where I held my first ever savings account) have gone and in February the Lloyds will join them. For cash, along the half-mile stretch of our high street there are machines outside NatWest, HSBC (when it works - that one has been out of order for three weeks) and Nationwide, plus one inside a Tesco Express and another outside a convenience store at the opposite end.

According to recent research by the Mail On Sunday, the biggest clearing banks have closed down 2,766 branches over the last five years - a decline of 36% - and those that remain are increasingly staff-free, relying on indoor self-service machines for most transactions with a single employee to help out with any questions. Gone are the days of having a conversation - difficult or civil - with your friendly local bank manager. According to the Mail, Barclays and HSBC have been closing staffed counters for their combined 32 million customers in the UK, leading critics to say this is all part of a cost-cutting exercise intended to drive up online operations. All very well, but even in 2021, not everyone is online. Like my 92-year-old mum, who still writes cheques. It’s not just people like her: there are those who aren’t familiar with technology, or have physical impairments, such as blindness, which makes the use of technology near impossible, and welcome the ability to speak to someone face-to-face.

That’s not to say that digital banking isn’t a good thing, for those who can access it. I’d be happy if I never received another paper statement again (and it’s still bizarre that one bank I use still issues paper communications as a default, unless you switch it off). But clearly there are, still, situations which require the ability to speak to an actual human being. Given the time it often takes to wade through multiple levels of menus when you try and call a bank, you can’t fault people for wanting to do their banking old-school, and walk into a bank branch to speak to someone behind inch-deep armoured glass. Research for Consumer Intelligence recently found that, in a poll of 1,027 adults, nearly half preferred a face-to-face service, countering the argument that banks put up that people prefer to do their banking digitally. As with all aspects of the retail economy, COVID-19 has impacted banking, but according to the Financial Conduct Authority, many banks’ opening hours haven’t been restored to pre-pandemic schedules. One in three still shut at 3pm, which has also been cited as part of the effort by banks to push customers online.

I suppose, though, I should consider myself lucky to live near a high street that at least still has some bank branches: increasingly, rural communities aren’t so fortunate. Even worse if you live in the Falkland Islands, where the only cash machine in its capital, Port Stanley, is due to be closed down  in the coming weeks.

Picture: ING

While banking has become increasingly dehumanised in the UK, digital banking hasn’t totally taken over elsewhere. I recently went to Amsterdam to sort out some personal banking issues which had to be resolved in-person (don’t worry - I don’t operate a drug or diamond business on the sly. This is a legacy of having lived in the Netherlands for almost ten years). The Dutch have been one of the most digitally-advanced nationalities on the planet, and seemingly introduced online banking long before anyone elsewhere. But not being Dutch, and no longer living in the country means that when communications break down, and a measure as simple as changing my postal address needed to be finally taken care of (having been prevented by more than a year of pandemic-induced travel restrictions), the only option was to sort it out in person. To their credit, my two banks - ABN AMRO and ING - treated me well, not the least of which being that my appointments were conducted in fluent English (gratefully appreciated, given my atrocious Dutch language skills), with friendly but business-like staff taking care of me. And the bank branches in Amsterdam that I visited were smart, modern, comfortable and attractively designed. Welcoming, even.

Even if we accept that banking is adapting - or reacting - to the digital revolution, not every bank is retreating to the virtual world completely. In Italy, the Ligurian regional bank Banca Carige is introducing what it calls “NextGenBranches” that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but run entirely by computers. Each branch features plush-looking workstations at which customers can plonk themselves down and conduct all their banking, from opening new accounts to applying for credit cards and loans, and even getting mortgage advice via a video links to a human adviser. Scanners, printers, card readers and other tech enables other types of bank interaction. From a customer point of view, this is all about convenience and modernity, but you can’t help feeling that it’s another nail in the coffin of the banking sector being a career choice,

Auriga, the company behind the Banca Carige concept, is even talking about rolling out these desks in other locations, such as supermarkets. In the UK, too, banks are also looking at setting up banking facilities in other retail settings. Fintech business OneBanks has developed a pop-up ‘kiosk’ that can be installed almost anywhere instantly, requiring a single staff member to supervise its use, but it also uses a combination of a smartphone and a traditional bank card to work. Three OneBanks kiosks have been installed so far in Co-op branches in Scotland, in towns without any traditional banking outlets, and the company plan to install another 150 within the next three years. And, despite dwindling numbers of high street post offices, some of the major banks are believed to be evaluating installing mini branches inside postal centres, probably in lieu of them closing main branches in town centres.

Perhaps we can be reassured that local banks aren’t going to completely disappear for good as digitisation continues, but there’s no ignoring the fact that banking is dwindling. On top of the elderly and digitally disenfranchised, there are still the very real needs of small businesses to be taken into account, enabling them to pay in cash takings safely, which often can’t be facilitated by hole-in-the-wall machines which have cash limits and security risks, although banks are considering the introduction of new machines that can handle larger sums. That said, machines can go wrong and, despite the banks’ best intentions, can and do get hacked. Perhaps George Banks, the constipated financier father in Mary Poppins, was onto something when he encouraged his son Michael to bring his tuppence into the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where it “will compound”.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Getting back to when they really were Fab

At risk of appearing late to the party, I’ve finally found the time to consume all eight hours or so of Peter Jackson’s sumptuous Beatlesfest, Get Back. You’ve surely heard about it by now: the first part appeared on Disney+ last Thursday, with parts 2 and 3 released progressively over subsequent days, and given its collective length it’s been quite a challenge to find so much time to indulge it. 

Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m not trying to confect an image of a busy urban sophisticate with little room for frivolities like a mammoth documentary about a pop band, but you find anyone with so many spare hours with which to sit exhaustively through as much 52-year-old footage of musicians sitting around smoking and strumming. 

That last statement, however, fundamentally misses the point of Jackson’s incredible project. It also brushes aside the justifiable deification of the four musicians themselves, but I’ll get to that later. Because Get Back transcends any experience or expectation you may have of a music documentary. It is more than a biopic, more than a concert film, more than a retrospective. It is, perhaps inadvertently, a near-forensic examination of a band, but conducted through the narrowest of apertures - just 29 days in January 1969. 

To this end, it is no more than a blood sample drawn over the course of one month in the entire lifetime of The Beatles, so it shouldn’t be construed as an attempt to tell their story in its entirety. It's like carbon dating an oak tree by a tiny sample of one of its rings. But in capturing even a brief window of time in The Beatles' history, Get Back depicts the state of a band that would, officially, split up just 15 months after Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot the original footage, 56 hours of which have been distilled by Jackson down to the eight.

From one angle, it depicts the mundanity of life in a band (there are plenty of shots of Ringo Starr watching on while John Lennon and Paul McCartney finesse a new song, reflecting the famous Charlie Watts quote about life as the Rolling Stones’ drummer comprising of five years’ work and 20 years spent hanging around). From another angle, Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras capture the dynamics between the quartet. There is the still-symbiotic relationship between Lennon and McCartney, with one scene depicting them discussing leadership of the group, the seemingly unspoken hierarchy that relegated the younger George Harrison to a lesser writing role, and the older Starr to, at times, merely making up the numbers (which isn't true, but there goes another well established Beatle trope).

In this mix we see Yoko Ono, rarely not at Lennon’s side, and studio visits from Linda (Eastman, as was) and a delightful cameo from her daughter Heather. Maureen Starkey and Pattie Boyd, then wives of Ringo and George, also make appearances. They provide, somewhat, glimpses of normality, of domestic maturity in stark contrast to the screaming adulation that met the formerly fresh-faced Mop Tops with their cherubic smiles, bum freezer suits and polite bowing after each number. Now, they’d become shaggy-haired men in the second half of their 20s (Lennon was 29 at the time), with kids and a collective business interest, Just seven years separate these two images.

Picture: Apple Corps Ltd

In case you’ve missed the memo, or have been self-isolating to hermit-level media avoidance, the premise of Get Back is that it depicts the band supposedly writing, rehearsing and recording what was meant to be their eleventh studio album, while - perhaps not explicitly - opening themselves up to the possibility of live performance again. It opens on 2 January 1969 with the band assembling at Twickenham Film Studios where, on a chilly, cavernous 7,500 square-foot sound stage (the same space where they had earlier made Help! and A Hard Day’s Night) they sit in a semi-circle and attempt composition in a ‘live‘ setting. But the atmosphere appears febrile, not helped by the cold of the studio, with Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras and microphones picking up every comment, every sideways glance, with unrestricted access.

To some extent, the exercise was envisaged as a tentative return to the live performances they’d given up at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966. That had left them jaded, but the net result was that concentrating on work as a studio band alone focused The Beatles on what is now considered their most creative, free-wheeling phase, which led to the critical high of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the childishly enjoyable Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, their retreat to India, the supposed ‘grown-up’ step of forming Apple Corps, and then the eclectic brilliance of The Beatles, better known as ‘the White Album’.

As Get Back captures, Twickenham proved to be unfulfilling, even if there is oodles of output (and embryonic snippets of songs that would eventually find their way into solo repertoires, such such as Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Harrison’s All Things Must Pass). However, Twickenham established the principle of returning to a more stripped-back rock sound, with a simpler set-up in the film studio - Lennon, McCartney and Harrison sat in a semi-circle, Starr completing the arrangement, with guitars plugged into amps. No embellishments. But, as transpires, there’s an uneasy vibe, which culminates in Harrison standing up and declaring “I’m leaving the band,” and walking out muttering “I’ll see you in the clubs.”. The remaining Beatles respond by going for lunch. “We may as well get in Clapton,” jokes Lennon uneasily as they return to work, unwittingly and ironically referencing the-then hottest British guitarist who would eventually fall in love with, and marry, Harrison’s wife Boyd. 

Productivity shifts up a gear when they leave south-west London and reconvene in Mayfair, in the basement studio of 3 Savile Row, their ‘corporate’ headquarters. Harrison returns (Savile Row was his condition for doing so, along with the inspired addition of augmenting their sound with keyboard player Billy Preston, who not only relieves any residual internecine tension, but adds soul to the music, giving it a looser feel).

That, then, is ultimately what Get Back is about: the music. Before our very eyes, we get a unique insight into the gestation of what would much later become the Let It Be album. We see and hear McCartney inadvertently strum the opening chords to the song Get Back on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, and he and Paul spar gently over various attempts to arrive at the line “Jo Jo was a man who thought he was a loner…”. But what’s even more remarkable is that we are ultimately watching something of a failure. Even after the work at Savile Row had ended, the album ended up on the back burner, and here might lie the source of the popular belief that it was a process beset by acrimony.

Much myth and falsehood has been generated about The Beatles’ demise. Even now, Fabologists debate the sequence of events and who said what to whom during the denouement. There is, though, little-to-no traces of true discord in Get Back. If anything, it depicts the dull normality of life in a band making records. No wild and crazy drug and booze-fuelled sessions - just endless cigarettes, and copious trays of tea and toast. Band members turn up for work in the morning, break for lunch, go home in the evening. They chat, they joke, they play endless arrangements of their songs, adopting Goon-like funny voices (Peter Sellers makes an awkward appearance in the Twickenham scenes) and lark about with much the same banter you find in any office. There are tedious repeat attempts at playing songs, with arrangements being tweaked and phrasing adjusted, interspersed with impromptu jams of rock’n’roll standards like Twenty Flight Rock and the ribald Liverpudlian folk song Maggie Mae. Even when looks are cast at each other, the body language suggests nothing more sinister than the mild irritation of disagreeing with a colleague over how a PowerPoint presentation might be structured.

Picture: Apple Corps Ltd

In fact, amid the clouds of cigarette smoke, the Fabs looked like they were having fun. Towards the end we see the infamous rooftop concert, staged at 3 Savile Row in lieu of an earlier plan to perform the new songs at an open -air show on Primrose Hill. The performance is, notoriously, interrupted by fun-free PCs Ray Dagg and Ray Shayler (other christian names were available in the 1960s to Met officers…) from West End Central nick to shut down what a couple of local numptys had branded a breach of the peace. It marks the end of The Beatles as a performing entity, but you can see in that footage of them, carefree and taking them back to Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller and Liverpool’s Cavern almost a decade before.

If there were cracks, Get Back doesn’t really depict them. But something was up. Glyn Johns was given the task of assembling the album from the combined Twickenham/Savile Row sessions, but things started unravelling. The album was abandoned (although the single Get Back was released in April 1969). Four weeks after the rooftop concert the band reconvened at Abbey Road, to make the record that would take that studio’s name. In the orthodox chronology, Abbey Road became the final album to be recorded by The Beatles, but the product of their work in January 1969 would eventually be released in May 1970, nominally one month after McCartney had declared himself out of the band. To boot, the tapes Johns had worked on had been handed over to Phil Spector to ‘re-produce’, adding elements that McCartney would eventually strip out with the Let It Be…Naked album released in 2003. Some - me especially - will maintain that it’s the better album as a result.

There is, though, probably more to The Beatles’ end story than Jackson’s epic captures. John Lennon, for example, had brought in the New York businessmen Allen Klein to manage the band’s affairs, against McCartney’s knowledge. Klein gets no attention in Get Back, which leads to some suspicion of Apple Corps’ creative control over the project. Then again, Get Back is not about the break-up of The Beatles. either. Ultimately, it’s a snapshot (albeit a gargantuan one) of 29 days in January 1966 when the Fabs got together and produced music of a richness and longevity that can be enjoyed almost as new today. We get to appreciate, through raw, unedited scenes, unencumbered by voiceovers or cutaway interviews, just what John, Paul, George and Ringo brought individually to the band, arguably dispelling some of the convenient, cartoon-like tropes that we’ve conditioned into accepting down the years. That Lennon was the caustic rocker, that McCartney was the benign, anointed one, that Harrison was the ‘Quiet One’ with the uncanny gift for song, and that Starr was that drummer’s cliche, the class clown who sat at the back and didn’t get involved. 

Get Back shows them all in a much more engaging light: Lennon was cool and surprisingly warmer than we’d expected (his interaction with the young Heather McCartney is delightful, as is Ringo’s). McCartney was and is blessed with a unique ear for melody that comes out with The Long And Winding Road and his improvised Get Back riff. You see how Harrison contributed far more than the few songs that made it onto the albums, but you also see a somewhat diffident soul. Starr was (and could still be) a remarkably exquisite drummer, capable of fills and improvisation equally as good as the more lauded tub thumpers of the rock era.

“We only think we know The Beatles,” director Peter Jackson recently told Uncut magazine while discussing the project. “We’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night and Help! We’ve seen them perform on stage in The Cavern [Club] and Shea Stadium. We’ve seen interviews or press conferences. When you think about it, those are all performance situations.” Get Back, he says, presents things differently. “When they don’t know they’re being filmed you are getting a 100 percent pure look at the real guys, which doesn’t really exist on film, particularly, anywhere else.”

Pictures: Twitter/@TheBeatles

Ultimately, Get Back is a masterclass in music making. The Beatles are or were musical deities, and over the 29 days Jackson has condensed into his film, even the most seasoned fan will come to appreciate their music even more. I won’t, though, leave it just there. Because the other thing about Get Back is that it shines a light on the accelerated timeline that The Beatles’ career ran on. When they walked into Twickenham Film Studios on the second day of January in 1969 it was less than seven years since Love Me Do. Seven years. Don’t know about you, but I wasn’t all that different in 2014 to how I am now. But in October 1962, The Beatles’ music, their haircuts, their suits, everything was in stark contrast to the beards, long hair and maturity of the men seen approaching their 30s in 1969. 

Paul McCartney and his daughter Mary at the London premiere of Get Back
Picture: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Disney 

Stretch their timeline to its full extent, and just ten years, more or less, separates their formation in August 1960 and McCartney’s announcement in April 1970. Ten years in which they evolved from chirpy beat poppers into prototypical rock stars, a transition that, arguably, enveloped the most remarkable library of popular music that the genre has ever experienced.

51 years on, we’re getting to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, what a band of brothers The Beatles were. You could argue “So what?”. Five times more years have elapsed since they split up as they were together. But the influence The Beatles have still today is almost immeasurable. Some misanthropes will still dismiss them as purveyors of children’s songs, but in the grand scheme of things, their body of work remains beyond comparison with anything past, present and, probably, future. Get Back is not the key to understanding that bold statement, but over eight utterly engrossing, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck hours, it goes a long way to reinforcing it.

The Beatles: Get Back is streaming now on Disney+

Friday, 26 November 2021

David Bowie: the Brilliant Adventure

This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time that I offer you, dear reader, thoughts on another posthumous David Bowie release, but since the old girl’s untimely demise on 10 January 2016 there hs been no shortage of reminders of why, musically, he was one of the most intriguing figures of the rock era. It’s an interest that inevitably appeals to the committed fan like me, but also provides the opportunity of discovery to those who’ve hitherto been indifferent throughout the six decades in  which Bowie spent time in recording studios.

Cynics will argue that the box sets and remastered reissues are exercises in reselling what's already been bought, but within each new package marketed since Bowie’s death there has usually been something to justify the outlay (always a tough ask - pricey editions of classic albums, offering alternative mixes and outtakes barely different from the established tracks rarely bring anything new). For some of us, of course, no justification is required, but the latest package - the fifth in a series of retrospective gatherings of original and live albums plus extras - is genuinely enticing. 

Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) covers a period in which Bowie had to compete with Britpop, a not always fruitful exercise, despite his exalted status and the fact that many of that era’s bands were consciously doffing caps to the very era from which Bowie sprang forth. Brutally, he simply wasn’t  fashionable any more. That extraordinary run of albums, from Hunky Dory to at least Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) meant nothing. By the time the 1990s came along, David Bowie was simply another middle-aged rock star, one of those superannuated Live Aid veterans with nothing new to say. In fairness, the albums that comprise Brilliant Adventure would never match the creative zenith of the 1970s, but they don’t come up short for eclecticism - as did, frankly, every album he had committed to tape. What confounded critics at the time was there appeared to be an attempt by The Dame to look relevant, with the drum’n’bass of singles like Little Wonder suggesting cultural appropriation. The truth is, being the music magpie that he was, Bowie had always drawn influence from whatever genres took his fancy.

And so, Brilliant Adventure - which includes the albums Black Tie White Noise, Outside, EarthlingHours and the Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack - skips through a varied palette, from conventional pop to rock, electronica and other more ‘urban’ sources. They also reflect a maturing and, at times, more reflective Bowie, celebrating his marriage to Iman, and starting to loosen any residual hangups that may have been lingering about Being David Bowie. That is also reflected in Bowie’s live performances at the time, reflected on Brilliant Adventure with the terrific live album recorded in June 2000 at the BBC Radio Theatre in London as a companion to that year’s legendary Glastonbury headline performance. It was originally only available as a third disc in a limited-edition version of Bowie At The Beeb, which contained featured BBC sessions from the ’60s and ’70s. Notable to these live sets in 2000 was the breadth of ‘classic’ Bowie songs from his imperious phase, reflecting a relaxed reconnection with the big hits from that time that he’d try to move away from.

But the big draw of Brilliant Adventure is Toy, a semi-mythical album of new versions of songs from the very beginning of Bowie’s career, reworked by the singer and the touring musicians he was working with as the new century began. Recorded shortly after Glastonbury, the album was originally intended to be released in 2001, but the record company decided against it, for reasons probably best explained by them at the time. Returning to and revising early-career material is nothing new: Nick Mason put together his Saucerful Of Secrets outfit with Gary Kemp, Guy Pratt and others to perform the music of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, shedding remarkable light on the band’s early psychedelia with surprisingly current impact. Toy follows a similar philosophy, featuring new interpretations of tracks first recorded between 1964 and 1971, when Bowie was - pun intended - toying with a variety of musical styles, from Anthony Newley-style vaudeville to beat pop. 

He consciously returned to this era in 1999 when he appeared in an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and resurrected the frenetic Can’t Help Thinking About Me, the first time it had been performed in 30 years. This inspired the idea for Toy, taking his then-stage band (which included Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick, Mike Garson and Sterling Campbell) into the studio and playing the old songs ‘live’, selecting the tracks with the best takes for the album. “The songs are so alive and full of colour,” Bowie said in 2001. “They jump out of the speakers. It’s really hard to believe that they were written so long ago.” 

Despite his enthusiasm, the Toy tracks didn’t appear until 2011 when they were leaked online, but from today we get to hear them - for most of us - for the first time. Toy is not revelatory: it may be a ‘lost’ album, but the songs are ultimately and obviously not new. But they do represent a phase of Bowie’s life that I have taken inordinate pleasure from, when he was happy in his own skin, happy in life, and comfortable with his legacy.

“I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio,” he wrote at the time Toy was originally due to be released. “I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” That in itself indicates the carefree nature of Toy, seemingly - and, simply - having fun, a notion that rock stars, and especially rock stars with Bowie’s history - are not normally known for. For those weaned on Let’s Dance, Heroes, Life On Mars?, The Jean Genie, Changes and more, only the utmost completist will already be familiar 1967’s Silly Boy Blue, the groovy I Dig Everything from 1966, or the cover of Here Comes The Night recorded in the early 1970s. It still gives some sense of hearing new music. Even if it’s new-old music.

You could argue that, like 1973’s Pin Ups album, a stop-gap of questionable covers, retreading old material was nothing more than an exercise in rehashing but, at risk of sounding blinkered, it doesn’t feel like that. As his statement suggested, he was really having a laugh, the side of ‘Brixton Dave’ that has endeared him to me almost as much as the music. After the Toy sessions there were two more new albums, Heathen and Reality. And then, on the German leg of the tour for that last album, Bowie abruptly disappeared from view amid health concerns, only resurfacing, seemingly out of nowhere, with the incredible The Next Day in 2013, and then the semi-mystical event that was Blackstar, released on Bowie’s 69th birthday. Two days before his death.

Toy might, then, have a sentimental value, as all of the posthumous releases have. But it does plug a hole in our knowledge of David Bowie’s work. It certainly doesn’t feel like a scraping of the barrel, but it hardly represents a collection of missing gems. “Toy is like a moment in time, captured in an amber of joy, fire and energy,” says co-producer Mark Plati, who worked closely with Bowie in the 1990s. “It’s the sound of people happy to be playing music.” And he adds: “From time to time, he used to say ‘Mark, this is our album’, I think because he knew I was so deeply in the trenches with him on that journey. I’m happy to finally be able to say it now belongs to all of us.”

Toy is released today as part of the Brilliant Adventures (1992-2001) box set. An expanded three-CD edition, Toy Box, will be released on 7 January next year, the day before what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday.



Friday, 19 November 2021

Call the bank manager: it’s new release Friday!

I wouldn’t be the first and probably not the last to say the music industry is totally out of touch, but that this particular Friday falls shortly before most people’s monthly payday, means that many bank accounts are currently running on fumes. Which calls into question the scheduling of a whole slew today of blockbuster albums. I’ve counted at least ten, including the likes of Adele’s unimaginatively-titled 30 (for which vinyl pressing resources have reportedly been consumed, allegedly causing production problems for everyone else). 

I’ll spare you any further consideration of the Adele album - you’ll be hearing enough of it until she releases 35 or 40, or whatever will be her next maudlin confessional - and instead cock a learned ear to the new offerings from Elbow, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Sting, simply because they’re the three of today’s release tsunami that actually interest me.

Elbow - Flying Dream 1

As regulars to this blog will hopefully recall, barely two months ago Elbow dished up an evening of sublime comfort food listening with what was, for many of us at the Hammersmith Apollo, the first gig in almost two years thanks to the pandemic. It was, in any case, the perfect return to gigging, delivered by one of the UK’s finest live acts, anchored by their avuncular lead singer and a set of trademark “soaring” singalong anthems that have brightened many an outdoor summer festival. The set included a cameo from this new album in the delightful What I Am Without You. It gave a glimpse of the somewhat album’s somewhat warmer direction than 2019’s Giants Of All Sizes  (and a song vaguely reminiscent of Clive Dunn’s Grandad…) Dream 1 completes this evolution with what can only be described as an absolutely gorgeous album, a cosy, comforting duvet in a winter’s morning that comprehensively taps into Elbow’s undoubted craft for tenderness, both musically and, inevitably, in Guy Garvey as principle lyricist.

Garvey is a core part of Elbow’s “value proposition”, to use an excruciatingly wanky marketing phrase. His immensely likeable persona pours forth from his words and those mellifluous Bury tones that adorn his delivery on radio and TV outings. But it would be wholly wrong to depict Elbow - and Garvey’s presence - as a schmaltz act. They’ve just come up with a formula that allows for melodicism, romantic escape and, yes, even a prog rock sensibility. Flying Dream 1 has the not original precept of being a lockdown album (as, it would appear, are most examples of the current slew), but comes from a performance premise, having been recorded live at Brighton’s Theatre Royal while it was shut to audiences during the pandemic. Of course, all recordings are “live”, but here is an old-fashioned approach, harking back to the days before endless overdubs and, latterly, the digital recording of entire albums on iPhones. Bruce Springsteen’s recent Letter To You was thusly done, and it gives an immediacy without any excess ambience due to the venue. Perhaps, though, it’s what makes Flying Dream 1 sound tight and efficient, genuine even, painting beautiful landscapes about love (The Only Road), hope (After The Eclipse), childhood (Calm And Happy) and the tenderness of the title track. Inveterate romantics might be, as I write, beating a path to their local record emporium/streaming site to wallow in Adele’s latest collection of mawkishness, but as I become ever more reflective myself and, just a little soppy as I prepare for marriage, I know which album I’d rather be immersing myself in. And Flying Dream 1 is its name.

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raise The Roof

Like Peter Gabriel, it’s still impossible - annoyingly, perhaps - to separate Robert Plant from the band he fronted many years ago, despite both putting considerable distance between the outfits they once fronted more than 40 years ago. It shouldn’t be necessary, in both cases, considering the bodies of work they’ve generated in the decades since. In Gabriel’s case, singer and group parted company, albeit amicably, and in Plant’s, the entire enterprise ground to an abrupt halt in the wake of its drummer’s misadventure-fuelled death in 1980. But with an uptick in Led Zeppelin activity, as their seminal fourth album recently reached its 50th anniversary, with the obligatory box set reminding everyone of rock’s most archetypal viking marauders, it’s hard not to be drawn on Plant’s legacy as the honey-tressed stage god. 

If, though, I could be afforded further licence to compare Gabriel and Plant, their post-band careers have followed similar paths, with both finding their groove in music drawn from a more eclectic palette of cultures than the pop, blues, soul and rock that fuelled their youthful ambition. Plant, in particular, has tapped authentically, post-Zepp, into Americana, reaching a particularly credible, Grammy-hoovering high in 2007 with Raising Sand, his first collaboration with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. Working with roots authenticity’s go-to producer T Bone Burnett, Raising Sand shifted in impressive quantities, demonstrating an audience acceptance of a music form that Plant has approached passionately and with credibility as a solo artist, digging deep into a version of the blues that his Earth-conquering old vehicle at their core. The formula is reapplied by Plant and Krauss on their follow-up, 14 years later. With Burnett once again overseeing things, Raise The Roof continues where its predecessor left off with a delightful stroll through covers of bluegrass, rockabilly and folk, each balanced by Plant’s gentler singing side (no screaming "Valhalla!" here) and the more arguably more authentic rural voice of his junior partner, raised in small-town Illinois. 

Aided by a cast of faithfull sessioneers, Plant and Kraus work through a terrific hour’s worth of rug-cutters, including a lively reworking of Lucinda Williams’ Can’t Let Go (on which Williams appears herself), and a somewhat darker interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ The Price Of Love. Americana has found its way into British folk in many forms over the years, and here the duo take on the late Scottish folkie Bert Jansch’s Don’t Bother Me, with Krauss rather than Plant taking point (he reciprocates on Go Your Way by Anne Briggs, one of the legion of British folk stars to emerge in the late ’60s and early ’70s (along with John Martyn and Sandy Denny) who became huge influences on early Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page in particular. Speaking of which, a pleasantly courageous cover of Jimmy Reed’s High And Lonesome by Plant and Krauss has an almost prog rock feel, due to its use of a mellotron to add a string canvass very different from the original’s boogie. There’s always, in my mind at least, a thin line between the various American roots music forms, be it blues or bluegrass, country or western (“We got both kinds!” to quote Bob of Bob’s Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers), but what you get with Raise The Roof is a loving nod to these genres without ever falling into parody of cultural appropriation. As we come closer to this year’s end, it’s already a very strong candidate for inclusion in the end-of-annum lists.

Sting - The Bridge

Lastly, we come to an artist with whom I go back a long way. Not in any personal capacity, you understand, but the second album that I ever bought with my own money was Reggatta de Blanc by The Police. Come to think of it, Sting falls into the same category as Gabriel and Plant, having once been the focal point of a recording unit for only a handful of years, before going solo, in Sting’s case with the release of The Dream Of The Blue Turtles in 1985. I slavishly bought its follow-ups before the law of diminishing returns started to kick in. Like many a mainstream artist in the upper quartile of superstardom, Sting basically became boring, to me at least. I was never fussed by all that tabloid tattle about tantric activities, or the perma-smugness of a wealthy man with his own Tuscan vineyard and one of the most envious lifestyles in pop. It was just that his music stopped doing anything for me, which is not the case with those other two frontmen who went on to do equally interesting things with the longer branches of their careers.

Which is why The Bridge is a bit of a punt. Will it reconnect me with Sting’s songcraft? Will it provide me with something new and engaging? Actually, it does, with a breadth of styles encompassing pop and rock, the jazz his solo career has frequently embraced and even folk and electronica. Songs like the opener, Rushing Water, even hark back to The Police in their pomp, while the genuinely tender lyrics of the lively (if slightly MOR) If It’s Love and For Her Love (vaguely reminiscent of his Shape Of Your Heart from 1993’s Ten Summoner's Tales) draw on a reflective, romantic side that Sting has always been able to call on with heart, when not busy trying to demonstrate the contents of his bookshelf with pretentious references to Jungian philosophy and Shakespearian sonnets. The Book Of Numbers shows that Sting can still rock out, while the electronic beats of Loving You - arguably the album’s highlight - evokes a contemporary feel, with a distinctly dark soulfulness. He has, in the past, looked slightly twattish for his collaborations with hip-hop artists and the appropriation that entails, but here, Loving You gets the balance between modernity and intrigue absolutely right.

Amazingly, The Bridge is Sting’s 14th solo album, and while it lacks some of the edge of his earlier career, it’s entirely enjoyable, even if it falls, musically, into a category of records that will inevitably find their way into the Christmas stockings of grannies, bought for them at the Asda checkout. Yes, that puts The Bridge in a similar cadre as the likes of Coldplay and Ed Sheeran (and obviously Adele) but without wishing to sound ageist, you can’t help but feeling that Sting has earned the right to be so preeminent. As much as Sheehan, in particular, gets regularly feted, Sting has just fired off a warning reminder that he is still an absolute master of this stuff. As David Crosby demonstrated earlier this year with his masterful For Free, not all pop chops fade with age. Sting, who turned 70 in October, has shown, too, that age is not only just a number, but if you apply yourself, continuing to write and record new music long after the teenage posters have been torn down doesn’t have to be an exercise in mediocrity. Sting, consider me back! 

                                                                                                                                               

Monday, 8 November 2021

Hey-hey Mama: 50 years of proper Rock and Roll

I don’t know what your memory of 1971 is, but mine’s pretty hazy, mostly because I was 4. But, as David Hepworth’s terrific tome 1971: Never A Dull Moment argued, it was a pivotal year in music - even more so than my own birth year, 1967 (for music, you understand) due to its profound confluence of significant album releases. 

1971 was the year that saw the long playing record, in old money, find its place as one of the major artistic mediums, alongside books and cinema. There had been albums before, of course, and ground-breaking ones, too, like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper, that had made ‘album artist’ a thing in its own right. But 1971 generated an  unprecedented slew of milestone releases, including David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, The Who’s Who’s Next, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Carole King’s Tapestry, Elton John’s Madman Across The Water and at least 20 more that played their part in defining not just the year but the decade itself (for a more comprehensive list and examination of Hepworth’s book, here’s my post from when it was published).

50 years on, one of those albums stands out, arguably more than any of the others: Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. Colloquially known as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, the officially untitled record could - should, even - be described as a touchpoint for classic rock as a genre. A bold claim, I know, but within its eight distinct tracks, over a run time of 42 minutes and 34 seconds, it remains a remarkable piece of work by a band that, with it, truly hit their stride. Yes, it contains Stairway To Heaven, a song worthy of discussion all on its own, but within its octet of tracks lies a breadth of hard rock (Black DogRock And Roll), ballsy stompers (Misty Mountain Hop) and those rooted in traditional blues (When The Levee Breaks), mystic, 12-string folk (The Battle Of Evermore, Going To California) and pastoral country references. It’s legacy extends well into its 50-year history, too, with John Bonham’s distinct drums - captured by virtue of the cold, damp stairwell of the Hampshire country house they recorded it in (latterly sampled and used by seemingly everyone, including the Beastie Boys and Beyoncé. 

“It’s like there was a magical current running through that place [Headley Grange] and that record,” guitarist Jimmy Page recently told Mojo’s Mark Blake. Like it was meant to be. Perhaps this comes somewhat from Page’s singular vision. The former teenage guitar prodigy from Epsom, the third of that remarkable trio of Surrey sons to join The Yardbirds (after Eric Clapton had handed the six string reins to Jeff Beck, who in turn handed them to his friend Page) had largely been the architect of Led Zeppelin, the band renamed from The New Yardbirds in 1968. 

Their first three albums had built their profile and credibility on both sides of the Atlantic, riding the post-Beatles wave for British bands with a harder rock tendency in parallel to the early progressive bands that were coming through at the turn of the decade. Notably, Zeppelin built their reputation through, largely, word of mouth and electrifying live performances at events like the Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music and relentless touing in America, playing legendary venues like Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York and its counterpart Fillmore West in San Francisco. 

Notably, too, they had deliberately shied away from releasing singles, the primary promotional vehicle of the pop era. This defiance of convention would remain with Led Zeppelin to the band’s abrupt end in 1980, brought about by Bonham’s untimely death. But in Zeppelin’s fourth album, this belligerence found a particular outlet, led by Page’s own wariness of the way the music industry dictated things, leading to the record being as intentionally enigmatic as the band’s reputational rise had been unconventional. 

For a start, the album would go untitled, a notion obliquely referred to in This Is Spinal Tap by the band’s insistence on releasing Smell The Glove with an all-black sleeve and no lettering. While that was a gimmick, Page had another intention: “I didn’t want anyone, including Rolling Stone, making a judgement before they heard the music,” he told Mojo. “I wanted to prove our music wasn’t just selling because of our name.” 37 million album sales may have proven his instincts to be correct, but that wasn’t how Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary boss of Atlantic Records saw it, telling the band it would be “professional suicide” to not even have the band’s name on the cover. “We weren’t backing down,” Page recalls.

So, for a band that had been feted on both sides of the Atlantic as the Second Coming, Led Zeppelin IV arrived with anonymity, not just lacking cover text, but also photographs of the band anywhere in the album artwork. Instead, the front cover featured a 19th-century agricultural oil painting singer Robert Plant came across in a Reading antiques shop, while the rear featured a drab Birmingham tower block, an attempt to highlight themes of urban and rural living. In place of band pictures, Plant, Page, Bonham or bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones. Instead, Page came up with the idea of the quartet being represented by four rune-like symbols. “That whole cover was a Jimmy and Robert production,” Jones has said, somewhat sniffily. “I didn’t quite get it myself.”

Page’s own self-designed symbol, ‘ZoSo’, has itself been a source of much debate, with some pointing to the guitarist’s apparent interest in the work of occultist Aleister Crowley as being its inspiration. Collectively, however, the entire approach of IV’s graphic design is probably just one of those rock band gimmicks which, in 1971, meant that anything went and record company marketeers couldn’t say no. Conventions of album design weren’t broken as few had yet been established. “It’s not something to be questioned or dissected,” Page said of the artwork in his interview with Mojo. “Like the album, it was something that was just meant to be. You listened and made up the pictures in your own mind.”

Which brings me back to Stairway To Heaven, a song commanding a cultural mythology all of its own. As Bohemian Rhapsody is for Queen, Led Zeppelin were so much more than this one song, but Stairway will always be their opus, regarded for it’s sheer expanse and complete defiance of pop tradition. Stairway will also never be regarded as a pop song, but that’s what makes it’s lasting endurance even more extraordinary. It was also, famously, never released anywhere as a single, and yet it has received close to three million plays on American rock radio, according to official figures (it was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the US in the 1970s. By a more contemporary measure, it has been streamed more than 600 million times on Spotify. 

To some extent, too, Stairway is the quintessential early ’70s rock album track, and one that - whisper it - comes closer to prog rock than blues-rooted heavy rock. Broken into three sections over its eight minutes, Stairway commences  with the pastoral, arpeggiated A-minor chord so beloved of guitar shop wannabes everywhere (remember the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign from Wayne’s World?), rolling into a folkier groove before rocking out in the final third, Page committing an excoriating solo to it with his vintage Telecaster (a Yardbirds gift from Beck). While this structure clearly creates the attention, its lyrics - penned by Plant while, apparently in a bad mood - have been the subject of intense debate. “Depending on what day it is,” Plant once said, “I still interpret the song a different way - and I wrote the lyrics.” The general consensus is that the “lady who's sure all that glitters is gold” is about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out - badly - that life is meaningless and she wouldn’t get into heaven. Beyond that, Stairway is no more profound than the product of a band at the peak of their chutzpah indulging in the early ’70s penchant for album tracks that got a tad widdly-widdly. 

Jimmy Page has suggested that when Zeppelin started working on the song in October 1970 it was envisaged as being as long as 15 minutes (still quite brief compared with some examples of the prog genre, such as the 23-minute Supper’s Ready by Genesis), with a construct built on a mystical story that leads to a romping climax. Rumours about hidden satanic messages, contained in reverse-recorded passages, have led to some with too much time on their hands to suggest that Stairway was the Devil’s work. Page’s flirtations with the work of Crowley haven’t helped, either (he did, to be fair, buy Crowley’s house near Loch Ness, which only added to the association). Plant has wisely dismissed the suggestions in pragmatic terms. “There are a lot of people who are making money [out of these suggestions],” he has said. “If that's the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.”

While, though, there is some sense of Stairway being something of a millstone for the surviving members of the band, its place is rock music history hasn’t been lost on them, least of all Page: “I thought Stairway crystallised the essence of the band,” he told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It had everything there and showed the band at its best - as a band, as a unit.” Page called it a milestone for the band, and remains proud that it was never released as a single, a point that only adds to its enigma and its lasting significance. That, though, hasn’t indemnified Stairway from critics (even Plant once said in an interview with Q magazine: “If you absolutely hated Stairway To Heaven, no one can blame you for that because it was so pompous” (he has also branded it a “wedding song”). 

Its appearance on Led Zeppelin IV drew no shortage of accusations of being pretentious and bloated. For a song so eulogised now, it wasn’t always so loved by the music press, but then again, they were never the most receptive audience to anything deemed progressive in the early ’70s (although, in my experience, even the most pro-punk/anti-prog journalists all had plenty of art rock in their record collections…).

With John Bonham’s death in 1980 Led Zeppelin came to an abrupt halt. Plant, Page and Jones were persuaded to play at Live Aid five years later, using both Chic drummer Tony Thompson and Plant’s friend Phil Collins on drums (Collins and Page have since traded barbs, with the latter saying the drummer was unrehearsed, and Collins suggesting the guitarist was somewhat out of it on the day. Stairway To Heaven closed the 30-minute set, which also included Rock And Roll and Whole Lotta Love. The song was performed again in 1988 at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert, with Jason Bonham playing drums. The performance wasn’t great, with Plant even managing to forget some of his own lyrics. A better rendition appeared - for the last time - in 2007 when Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham Jr agreed to play at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute at London’s O2 Arena, the final time Led Zeppelin as a band performed on stage. Stairway was a part of Heart’s tribute set in 2012 at the Kennedy Center Honor show, attended by Barack Obama and intended to take a hat off to artists who’d made an important contribution to American culture (the only other British recipients have ever been Cary Grant, Sean Connery and Paul McCartney).

When it was released on Monday, 8 November, 1971 Led Zeppelin IV went to Number 1 in the UK, only narrowly missing out on the top spot in the US. It is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of the classic rock era, and you can take from it what you want in terms of its legacy. It wasn’t Zeppelin’s first and it wasn’t their last, and certainly wasn’t the only memorable entry in 1971’s lengthy parade of classics. But with so much of the music produced that year, it was the work of a group of young men for whom anything went, creatively (though as numerous biographies have revealed, the same could be said of Zeppelin’s touring antics). Unlike today’s somewhat over-curated, packaged pop, it comes from a time when bands had licence to do what they liked, and weren’t dictated to by popular taste or the need to appeal to radio airplay algorithms. Led Zeppelin IV can also be broken down into the individual DNA of the four proponents - the very people depicted by the inner sleeve’s runes - in so far as it draws, in different degrees, from all the different musical interests Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham had at the time - blues, rock, folk, heavy rock and more. “I think that was the beauty of the players, of all of us, that maybe the style went over here, and then over there, and we could cut it wherever,” Plant told Mojo. “But we were in a really fluid creative place.” 

That manifests itself in the album’s eight tracks: in Black Dog’s riff; Rock And Roll’s nod to the musical revolution of the 1950s that set everything in train; The Battle Of Evermore hippy-dippyness (enhanced by Sandy Denny’s co-vocals); Stairway To Heaven’s sheer audacity; the bonkers groove of Misty Mountain Hop, Four Sticks’ rhythmic veracity; the wistful beauty of Going To California; and those signature, pounding drums of When The Levee Breaks, which consciously made the genetic link between original Delta Blues and hard rock. 50 years on, what it lacks in the innovations of more revered albums like Sgt. Pepper before it, or The Dark Side Of The Moon which followed two years later, over 42 minutes it remains an utterly compelling album. 

These days albums seem designed to be dipped in and out of, with tracks extracted for streaming playlists rather than complete, start-to-finish playback. Led Zeppelin IV, over its eight tracks, defies that. It’s also, by the way, much, much more than that one song that closes Side 1.