Tag Archives: rock music

World Radio Day 2012

And so it’s World Radio Day. It surprised me that this exists, to be honest – radio is something that we take for granted, part of the background noise of day-to-day life. And yet there’s more to it than that – heck, my favourite song (Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’) starts with the image of a girl on a doorstep listening to Roy Orbison on the radio, ‘Only The Lonely’ hissing and crackling because the reception in Mary’s house isn’t all that great. It’s a moment of scene-setting that perfectly evokes Bruce is singing about. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

My favourite radio-related story is the famous tale of how Orson Welles panicked America with his adaptation of The War of the Worlds. What’s less known is that there were copycat panics following radio broadcasts in Ecuador and Chile. That was back in the day, of course, when radio ruled and TV was still in its infancy. Radio was the trusted medium, let into everyone’s home, and while that role now belongs to 24-hour news channels, radio is still king in other territories – our cars, for instance, or our offices. My morning commute is soundtracked by Kerrang Radio; there’s nothing like starting the day with a howled singalong to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ or ‘With Or Without You’. Music is a fundamental part of our culture, and despite iTunes and Spotify, radio is still a fantastic medium for getting music out there – the shuffle function on an iPod still isn’t as good as radio at hitting us with songs we haven’t heard for ages, and radio stations with a commitment to promoting unsigned bands will still have an edge on getting that music out there, simply through weight of audience numbers. After all, radio is a medium that the UK does really well – heck, the BBC channels alone, especially Radio 4 and the World Service, support this, but that’s before we get onto the talent involved in local stations.

(And isn’t podcasting basically DIY radio?)

My other favourite radio-related story is how some of the earliest celebrities working in the medium were ventriloquists like Edgar Bergen and Peter Brough. I guess you couldn’t see their lips move… And yet, this is another example of radio’s power – its ability to engage the imagination. Because if you’re listening to a ventriloquist on the radio, you can fill in the gaps for yourself – the skill of the performer, his interaction with the dummy. The script may be the same for everyone, but the performance in your mind’s eye is unique.

(That’s probably another reason for the War of the Worlds panic.)

The intimacy of radio grows out of this, I think; bigger music fans than I talk about lying under the sheets at night listening to crackly broadcasts from pirate radio stations. I remember messing around with the Long Wave dial on my first proper stereo and picking up mysterious transmissions in French and German – sure, they were probably just a regional late-night phone-in show, but it proved there was a whole world out there, with radio stations and music and opinions, not just information culled from the Weetabix Wonderworld Atlas.

(Actually, that just fired another radio memory – staying up later than I should and listening to the Midnight Line phone-in on Beacon Radio. People who sounded like me, only talking about subjects I was only vaguely aware of, like conspiracy theories and Marxism. There’s a fantastic tribute to the show here.)

(And it all ties in to my other other favourite radio story – number stations, Cold War era transmissions just broadcasting numbers for no officially acknowledged reason.)

Sure, radio entertains the world but it also enchants it – the moments when an unexpected broadcast breaks through the static as you’re driving at night, or when your favourite song kicks in just as you drive towards the sunrise. Television lacks the ability to do this – it lacks the ubiquity – and so does the Internet, which is getting too tailored to our preferences, hurting its potential to surprise.  Radio still has a place in our world, because it’s not so much what it delivers, it’s how it delivers- music spun out of air and bringing a world into a teenager’s bedroom.


Yet Another 12 Blogs of Christmas #1: It’s cliched to be cynical at Christmas

Okay, so technically ‘the 12 days of Christmas’ refers to the period leading from December 25 to Epiphany, but it would feel weird to still be blogging about Christmas on January 6. I’m also a day late for this little series to end on Christmas Day, so I’m going to have to play catch-up at some point.

Anyway, the first post in my Twelve Blogs of Christmas is a tribute to the second best Christmas pop song ever recorded, ‘It’s Cliched to be Cyncial at Christmas’ by Half Man, Half Biscuit. It’s not one of the well-known ones, failing to rub shoulders with Slade and Wizzard and the Pogues on compilation CDs. This doesn’t matter, as it’s fantastic and a triumphant riposte against all the Scrooges out there.

At the same time, this post was also inspired by a post writter by my friend Sudge, who comments on the difficulties of a worldview based around cynicism. I agree with that – there comes a point when cynicism becomes boring – not actually serving any purpose and becoming a form of hipster irony. The minute you start putting imaginary quotation marks around everything is the moment you stop believing in, well, the importance of believing in something. It’s also the minute cynicism becomes dull. “Now how did I guess/You were going to express/Your disdain at the crane/With the bright fairy lights”, sing HMHB. It’s an expression of boredom against the sort of person who’d bitterly inform a kid that there’s no Santa under the guise of ‘telling it like it is’.

(As someone pointed out on Twitter earlier this week, who let the sort of person who tells it like it is define what IT is? Half the time they’re spouting misinformed bobbins anyway…)

There’s something about this that’s heightened at Christmas – it’s easy to sneer at the idea of, say, peace on Earth, but if you’re going to be cynical about it, at least let that move you to eye-popping fury at the injustice of it all. Anger at injustice is more likely to motivate change than ‘irony’. And why not be sincere at this time of year – it’s about celebration, giving gifts, peace on Earth, God reaching out to humanity, joy to the world and unrepentant sleighbells. We may do our best to turn it into a feast of unrestrained consumerism, but it’s boring to moan about that before going out to buy a new iPhone – better to let annoyance at capitalist hijackings prompt a reappraisal of what it’s all about. Maybe if we stopped being cyncial and actually tried to believe in the possibility of peace and love and joy, something might be achieved…

“Make a noise with your toys
And ignore the killjoys,
‘Cos it’s cliched
To be cynical
At Christmas.”



Tramps Like Us… On Born to Run and Karaoke

I’ve never ridden a motorbike.

To regular readers of this blog, that won’t come as much of a surprise. I nearly had to ride one once, back at university when a biker friend and I thought we were going to have to hunt down the people who were screwing up an assignment for us. Fortunately I didn’t own a helmet and so the hunt was cancelled.

And yet, earlier this week, I was sitting on a car park, listening to Kerrang Radio and loudly singing along to a classic motorbike song. Because somewhere along the line, Born To Run has become my juhachiban, my favourite karaoke song.

It’s easy to see why – frankly it’s an amazing song, full of evocative imagery, epic guitars and the most iconic “1,2,3,4!” you’ll ever hear. It might not be my favourite Springsteen song – that’s Thunder Road – but it’s the one I sing the most.

But while I’m admitting that, I should also admit the song’s a little alien to me – not only have I never been on a motorbike, but there aren’t many mist-shrouded beaches and looming amusement parks in Dudley either. And yet when Bruce and I duet, it’s four minutes of joy, for me if not for my audience. Why?

Simply put, it’s a song about freedom, and that’s a theme of universal import. I grew up a shy child, scared of talking to my own shadow, awkward, over-weight and quiet, and while adulthood has forced me to get over most of these, I still suffer from a lack of confidence at times.

And yet one day, some friends and I were playing Rock Band, and I picked up the mic and I’ve never looked back. And the point of no return was when I instinctively did a fist-bump as I yelled “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes…”, because that was the moment I learned that it didn’t matter how silly I looked or how out-of-tune I was, what mattered was that I was having fun. And if you don’t have fun because someone thinks you look stupid, well, something’s gone wrong somewhere.

And, if that’s the case, maybe it’s time you walked away from the naysayers, cranked up your iPod, and sang a song about liberation and freedom and hope. And then sing it again.

Only louder.

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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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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