Tag Archives: music

In Memory of Sophie Lancaster

I wrote this a while back, on the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. As today would have been Sophie Lancaster’s birthday, I thought it was worth a repost.

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.

PS. It’s just occurred to me that this story has thematic links with Deborah Bryan’s excellent but heart-rending posts on bullying over at The Monster in Your Closet…

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In Memory of Sophie Lancaster

I wrote this a while back, on the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. As today would have been Sophie Lancaster’s birthday, I thought it was worth a repost.

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.

PS. It’s just occurred to me that this story has thematic links with Deborah Bryan’s excellent but heart-rending posts on bullying over at The Monster in Your Closet…

Musically Impoverished

Don’t you just hate it when you have an epiphany? They’re so inconvenient.

If you’re a UK resident above a certain age, you can’t fail to be aware of John Peel and his legacy as probably the most important DJ and champion of new music this country has produced. When he passed away seven years ago it felt like the nation had to stop to take in the news, which is why he’s currently trending on Twitter, not just in the UK but worldwide. Mention Peel’s name and it won’t be long before people start talking about their favourite obscure bands or the rituals of music, compiling mix tapes or listening to pirate radio under the bedcovers.

But that’s my epiphany. I don’t have stories like that.

Sure, I listened to radio in bed, but it was the late night phone-in on a local commercial station. I like music, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not a fan. I never played records backwards to listen to hidden messages. I never sneaked into a rock club to have my mind blown by some crazed frontman. I can’t remember what albums most of my favourite songs appear on. I’ve been to some great gigs, but giving my cash to U2, REM and the Foo Fighters isn’t exactly supporting obscure acts.

I guess I’m just not proactive enough, which probably won’t surprise anyone. The music I like seems to find me somehow, either through a soundtrack or a throwaway comment on a message board or an interesting article on a blog somewhere. I hate the concept of The X-Factor, it being human bear-baiting in the service of turning art into a throwaway commodity, but I’m not exactly fighting the power. I downloaded Rage Against The Machine a couple of Christmases ago, but that was ever so slightly hypocritical of me.

Reading this back, I sound almost guilt-ridden – I’m not. Music is a big concept, and we all take different things from it. I like music that tells a story, and in that sense I’m more interested in lyrics than chord progressions. I’ve blogged about why Thunder Road is my favourite song, and it’s mainly about the story, the evocative imagery, the links to a mythic American landscape. My favourite poem is my favourite poem simply because the Waterboys turned it into a song. I gained a new appreciation for ‘Jerusalem’ because Billy Bragg emphasised its radical roots, while Grandaddy’s The Group Who Couldn’t Say pretty much nails the stagnation of 21st century cubicle dwelling.

For me, music is a soundtrack, a tapestry, a way of enhancing and weaving a story. (I’m also a Christian, and so music has an important role to play as worship – a significant chunk of the Bible is, after all, made up of songs, and while I’ve just said how I’m more of a lyrics man, there’s a part of me that wishes we could hear the original music that David played when he confidently walked through the valley of death, when he felt abandoned by God. I guess that’s another example of music helping us to express something that often feels, well, inexpressible.)

And yet doesn’t that speak of the importance of discovering new music, new ways of expressing life? That’s where I think I’m missing out. I mean, just because I love Terry Pratchett’s books, doesn’t mean I’d ignore Neil Gaiman, yet I’m content to have that limiting attitude when it comes to music. It feels wrong, and all the fond memories of Peel that are appearing across the internet are just reminding me of my musical poverty. Maybe I should take the hint.

So I guess this becomes a question – what’s your favourite obscure song? And, perhaps as importantly, where did you first hear it?

 

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When The Night Has Come: A tribute to Stand By Me

The world, so they say, has become a smaller place, networked and and virtualised, a village the size of the globe. This is, I guess, a good thing, for the most part anyway, but only willful blindness would stop us from noticing that something is missing. Maybe it’s the way people listen to their iPods, isolated in a musical bubble; maybe it’s the way people – myself included – are almost surgically attached, cyborg-like, to their smart phones. Somewhere along the line the world got closer together, and we reacted by retreating into our personal space. It’s ironic when you think about it.

Back in October 1960, on a Thursday long before anyone had really dreamed of iPods, a song was recorded. Based on an old spiritual and some verses from the Bible, ‘Stand By Me’ made Ben E. King’s name as a solo performer. It’s a gorgeous song, with a bassline that you never forget leading you into an almost mythic dimension – even in the depths of darkness, even if skies and mountains fall, loyalty and love are still possible, now until the end of the world.

Anyway, those Bible verses I mentioned? They’re from Psalm 46:2-3:

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way,
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.”

Fear’s something that we see a lot of, in tabloid journalism and cab driver conspiracy theorie, and it defines us more than we’d like to let on. Asking us not to fear may sometimes feel like asking us not to breathe, but it doesn’t have to be like this. We can unite, talk, sing songs, tell stories around acampfire lit to ward off the darkness. We can stand together – you, me, friends, families, lovers, God – stand together and not be afraid. We may have to turn off the iPods and put down the smart phones to engage with the people, the communities, the world around us, but it’s worth it.

“Whenever you’re in trouble
Won’t you stand by me?”

Happy birthday, Ben E. King.

Happy Birthday Bruce Springsteen!

20110923-124007.jpgI wrote this a couple of months ago, but as today is Springsteen’s birthday I thought I’d give it a repost. Many happy returns Bruce!

I’m not young any more, at least not in the teenage sense, and I’m not from small-town America. I wasn’t raised with a crackly second-hand radio playing oldies in the background, I was never fated to take a soul-destroying job with the town’s only real employer, and I never really had a dream in which a Chevy was the archetype of freedom and escape.

Photograph by Jon Sullivan

Maybe all those things are particular to the States, a mythic landscape of cars and jukeboxes and highways stretching far into the horizon, where you escape under cover of night, driving away from your destiny past strange roadside attractions and travelling salesmen selling snake oil and lightning rods.

It’s a storybook world, of course, and one that’s fairly alien to me, coming from the UK and driving a Vauxhall Corsa. But it’s somehow attractive, and may explain, at least partly, why my favourite song is my favourite song.

Thunder Road was released in 1975, the opening track of Springsteen’s Born to Run album. Now, I’m one of those people who likes music but has no pretensions of being a fan; I can’t recite liner notes, I don’t have an opinion on the vinyl vs CD vs MP3 debate. But some songs just stick with me; Thunder Road, the story of an anonymous suitor trying to convince his girlfriend to leave town with him, is one of them. A big part of that is because it’s so evocative, the first few lines describing familiar sounds (doors slamming, Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely playing on the radio) and enchanted sights (“Like a vision she dance across the porch…”) before presenting a dystopian future for the two of them – worn down by a town that doesn’t give a damn about their dreams or achievements. There’s a way out, but they have to leave, now, because tonight is their last chance, the sort of night where time conspires to stand still just long enough for Mary to be serenaded into a better future than she’d ever find in this deadbeat town. The song starts with a piano and harmonica, gradually building and becoming more insistant, and by the time the sax kicks in you’re just about ready to case the Promised Land yourself.

(Then again, I also love Badly Drawn Boy’s cover version, which somehow makes it all sound more British – to me, the narrator is a teenager on a Council estate somewhere, trying to win back his girlfriend by the use of a second-hand Casio keyboard and a car with the P-Plates still attached. It’s smaller and less epic but the story still works.)

Ultimately the song is about hope, and maybe even redemption: no matter your circumstances, there’s an escape route. Life can be better, tomorrow can be different, you’ve just got to cut loose the things that are holding you back. It’s late, but you can still make it if you run. That’s a powerful message, one I guess we all need to hear at various times, when we’re feeling lost, trapped, worn down.

There’s a follow-up song, less hopeful, called The Promise. I must have heard it but I’m avoiding a re-listen. I don’t want to know what happens next; I don’t need to know that, one day, Mary and the song’s narrator will be struggling with divorce or redundancy or cancer. Sure, that’s reality, happily ever afters are often left behind in the dust, and yet…

For me Thunder Road ends with them driving away forever, streetlights giving way to stars, car always moving through that liminal zone between the edge of town and the open road, happy endings forever up for grabs. And I’ll look out the window tonight, offer up a prayer for the Big Man and wonder if, somewhere out there in a small town a continent away, Mary is standing on her doorstep, deciding whether to stay or go.

I hope she gets in the car.

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