Top of the Pops and Me

In 2011, the BBC started repeating old episodes of Top of the Pops. Initially, they were showing one episode a week, as close as possible to thirty-five years after the original broadcast (starting with shows from 1976). More recently, they’ve been showing two episodes a week, so we’re currently in early 1983.

I’ve been watching them avidly since they started, but I’ve been even more interested in watching them over the last year or so – since the repeats hit October 1981. That’s because that’s when I moved to London to go to university and I started to watch fewer and fewer episodes as I, increasingly, had better ways to spend my Thursday evenings. So I’m seeing many of these broadcasts for the first time.

Over the summer of 1982 I pretty much stopped watching completely. I managed to get myself elected as Social Secretary at City University and many of my evenings were spent running gigs, discos and various other entertainments for the students.

I’ve written before about a couple of things that happened while I was Social Secretary (here’s me being threatened by the lead singer of Bad Manners and here I am booking Marillion at the start of their first major tour) but recent episodes of Top of the Pops have reminded me of a few other incidents.

There was the time that I was mildly censured by the London Student newspaper because I had booked Toto Coelo for a Christmas Party. Or the time I booked the Hee Bee Gee Bees (featuring Angus Deayton and Philip Pope) and ended up inviting Philip Pope back to a hall of residence party[1].

A few recent episodes of Top of the Pops have featured Blue Zoo singing “Cry Boy Cry”. I’m not sure I realised what a big hit that was. They played a few gigs at the university – including a “Blue Party Night” at a hall of residence where I painted my face blue, using dye that took days to get out. And I’m pretty sure that they were the band I cancelled when I was offered the Marillion date I mentioned above.

But a recent Top of the Pops reminded me of the biggest mistake I made while I was Social Secretary. I turned down the chance to book Culture Club.

To be fair to myself, no-one had heard of them when I was offered them. Well, no-one who wasn’t really in tune with the London music scene. Of course, you could say that someone who was running entertainment for a London university should really be in touch with the music scene. And I’d have no answer to that.

But when their agent called to offer me the gig, I hadn’t heard of them.

They were just about to start a tour and wanted somewhere to play a warm-up gig. Back then (and, I suppose, it’s still true now) bands used to like using student unions for warm-up gigs. Student unions were like private clubs – you couldn’t get in without a union card. Acts could get their performances right without making fools of themselves in front of the general public. That was how most student unions got most of their decent acts.

So Culture Club’s agent called me and offered me a warm-up gig for their first national tour. And I turned them down because I had never heard of them.

I thought that was the last I would hear of it. But I was wrong. A few months later, at the end of October 1982, they made their first appearance on Top of the Pops. I think this is it (warning, a few seconds of Jimmy Savile at the start of this clip).

Of course, these days we’re all used to seeing Boy George on the telly. But in 1982, this wasn’t the case. It was a sensation. He was all over the tabloid front pages the following day. People talked about it for weeks. Instantly, everyone knew who Culture Club were.

Oh, and the date that I had been offered for the warm-up gig – it was, of course, the day after this Top of the Pops. If I had taken the booking, it would have been a great night. I would have looked like someone who really had his finger on the pulse of the music scene.

Instead, I’m the man who turned down Culture Club.

[1] Although looking at the dates, it seems more likely that this was during the previous year – when I was just a member of the entertainments committee.

2016 in Gigs

Sunflower Bean

Time for my traditional round-up of the gigs I saw in the previous year.

According to Songkick, I saw 39 gigs in 2016. That’s the lowest number since 2012 (when I saw 36 – but had the excuse that my leg was in plaster for six weeks and I didn’t get out much).

Let’s start with the disappointments. I left two gigs at the interval. I had wanted to see Marc Almond for a long time, but when it finally happened it was all just too torch song for my tastes. I’m told the second half was much better.

Then there was Barclay James Harvest (or rather, John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest – the two surviving members of BJH both have their own touring version of the band). Sometimes going to see an act for the first time for thirty-five years isn’t a good idea. They just didn’t hold my interest the way they did back in the early 80s. When they took an early interval (after only half an hour on stage) I ducked out. I hope the second half was longer.

I didn’t leave, but I thought the Björk show at the Hammersmith Odeon was pretty disappointing too. I think I’m in a minority there though.

I only saw two bands twice – Sunflower Bean and the Magnetic North. And this might be the first year in living memory that I didn’t see any members of the Carthy clan playing.

I ticked off four more acts in my “acts from my youth that I never got round to seeing” list – Toyah, ELO, ABC and the Human League. I already have a ticket to see ABC again.

Usually, Amanda Palmer gets a free pass onto the top ten list, but in 2016 I only saw her as a special guest at a Jherek Bischoff show that didn’t quite make the cut.

Here, in chronological order, are the ten best gigs I saw in 2016.

  • Sunflower Bean – the first show (at the Dome) just trumps the second (at the Scala) proving once again that smaller venues are better. I reckon 2017 will be your last chance to see them in a smallish venue. That’s them in the photo.
  • SOAK – I’ve loved SOAK since I first saw her support Chvrches a couple of years ago. And live, she gets better and better.
  • ELO – Yes, incredibly cheesy, of course. But great fun. They have so many fabulous songs.
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – This was the night they played Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships. Not really their best-known material – but the fans loved it.
  • Laura Marling – You can’t go wrong seeing Laura Marling play whenever possible and this show was no exception. I already have a ticket to see her in a couple of months time when she launches her new album.
  • Belle and Sebastian – Only the second time I’ve seen them, but they are now a must-see. This show had them playing all of Tigermilk. I’m seeing them again in 2017.
  • The Orb – The Orb playing all of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. What’s not to like?
  • The Magnetic North – The show at RIBA was the second time I saw them in 2016. Their new album, Prospect of Skelmersdale is even better than their debut and I highly recommend seeing them live.
  • ABC – In the first half, they played random hits along with selections from The Lexicon of Love II. But in the second half, they played all of The Lexicon of Love. Everyone in the audience knew every lyric and sang along with gusto. It was sublime.
  • Christine and the Queens – What an awesome act. One of the best live performances I’ve seen for a very long time.

I’ve just deleted Marianne Faithful and The Staves from this list as it was too long. Other shows bubbling outside the top ten include Barenaked LadiesSt. Etienne and Hannah Peel. It’s mark of the quality of the shows I’ve seen this year that I haven’t found space for SavagesPixies or Billy Bragg.

And let’s spare a thought for acts we’ll never see performing again. I will alway regret never seeing Prince live and it’s over twenty years since I saw David Bowie play. But of all the talented musicians who died in 2016 I think it’s the two Leonard Cohen shows I saw (in 1993 and 2013) that I will treasure the most.

There are “year in gigs” posts for every year since 2011.

Listening to Leonard

Leonard Cohen

Over the last week, I’ve re-listened to all of Leonard Cohen’s albums in chronological order. And, most importantly, I’ve rated them.

  1. recent_songsRecent Songs (1979)
    Sorry, but this is the one that I really didn’t get. In “Humbled in Love” it contains one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs, but the rest of the collection really doesn’t do it for me. The received wisdom is that this was a major return to form following the rather dodgy Death of a Ladies’ Man – but I can’t see it. If I wanted to play someone an album that reinforces the stereotype of Cohen songs being depressing dirges, then this is the one I’d choose.
  2. leonardcohendearheatherDear Heather (2004)
    I’m generally a big fan of Cohen’s more recent albums, but this is an exception. I don’t actively dislike it in the way I do Recent Songs, but It’s very rare that I’ll choose to listen to it over any other Cohen album. There are some flashes of Cohen’s dark humour here, but you have to go looking quite hard in order to find them. And then there’s that version of “Tennesse Waltz”. I’m really not sure what to make of that.
  3. leonard_cohen_you_want_it_darkerYou Want it Darker (2016)
    This was released just a few weeks ago. And it’s only so far down the list because I haven’t listened to it enough to really know how much I like it. As with Bowie’s Blackstar, the fact that it was released so close to Cohen’s death means that it will always be linked to that tragic event and will inevitably be seen as his farewell to his fans. On listening to it this week (for what may have been only the third time) I enjoyed it. If I revisit this list in a few years, there’s a good chance that it will be higher.
  4. leonardcohenpopularproblemsPopular Problems (2014)
    Another album that I really haven’t given the attention that it deserves. To be honest, I’m surprised to find it came out two years ago. It seems like only a few months. I don’t know the album well enough to recognise particular songs, but while listening to it this week I was pleasantly surprised by how familiar it sounded even though I can’t have listened to it more than half a dozen times.
  5. leonardcohenoldideasOld Ideas (2012)
    It’s astonishing to me how productive Cohen became in his final years. There’s an eight year gap between his previous album (Dear Heather) and this one. But then he releases this, Popular Problems and You Want it Darker all in quick succession. It’s like he’s determined to get as much material as possible out there before the end. And like the other two albums in this loose “trilogy” I don’t know it particularly well. I suppose I should count myself lucky that there are still three more Leonard Cohen albums that I need to listen to a lot more.
  6. songs_from_a_roomSongs from a Room (1969)
    From Cohen’s last three albums, we leap back to the beginning of his career. This was his second album and it built on the success of Songs of Leonard Cohen. It opens with one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire”, and closes with the impressive run of “You Know Who I Am”, “Lady Midnight” and “You Know Who I Am”. First albums can be a fluke. But a follow-up of this quality marks you as a real talent.
  7. new_skin_for_the_old_ceremonyNew Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
    By 1974, Cohen is firing on all cylinders. Many of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs are on this album – “Chelsea Hotel #2”, “There is a War”, “A Singer Must Die”, “Who By Fire”. Only the closing “Leaving Greensleeves” strikes a slightly jarring note.
  8. leonardcohentennewsongsTen New Songs (2001)
    How do you follow an album like The Future? In Cohen’s case, the answer is you go away for nine years (five of which you spend in a zen monastery) before surprising your fans with a great new album. Songs like “In My Secret Life”, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “Here It Is” are as good as anything he ever recorded. This album is often overlooked, but is well worth investigating.
  9. various_positionsVarious Positions (1984)
    Another largely overlooked mid-career album. Or, rather, it would be if it wasn’t for one single track. This is the album that includes “Hallelujah”. I used to believe that it was impossible to record a bad version of “Hallelujah”. But that was when only talented people like John Cale and Jeff Buckley had discovered it. Now I’m not so sure. There are plenty of other great songs on this album too though. The first track, “Dance Me to the End of Love” was the usual opener to Cohen’s live shows.
  10. songs_of_love_and_hateSongs of Love and Hate (1971)
    Back to the early part of Cohen’s career. This was his third album. It didn’t move much from the successful formula of the previous two albums, but that’s no bad thing as that still makes for a great album. In “Famous Blue Raincoat”, this features my favourite Leonard Cohan song, but there are other great songs too – including “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, “Diamonds in the Mine” and “Joan of Arc”.
  11. death_of_a_ladies_manDeath of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
    This is likely to be controversial. Not everyone likes this album. Cohen himself is on record calling the recording a “catastrophe” and he only ever played one song from the album (“Memories”) in concert. But I like it. I think that “True Love Leaves No Traces” and “Paper Thin Hotel” are two of the loveliest songs that Cohen ever wrote. Ok, “Fingerprints” is a bit cheesy, but surely it’s impossible to listen to “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” without smiling.
  12. songsofleonardcohenSongs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
    There are very few debut albums as good as this one. Even almost fifty years after it’s release, most of Cohen’s best-known songs are from this album – “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”. And the songs that aren’t so well-known are just as good – I’m particularly fond of “Stranger Song”.
  13. im_your_man_-_leonard_cohenI’m Your Man (1988)
    When I first discovered the joys of Leonard Cohen, this was his latest album. And it was completely different to the other examples of his work that I had come across (things like Songs of Leonard Cohen). This was certainly different, but it was just as good – perhaps even better. I immediately loved things like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” but later on the less immediate songs also gripped me. “Tower of Song” is now on of my favourite Cohen songs.
  14. leonardcohenthefutureThe Future (1992)
    This was the first album that Cohen released whilst I was following his career; the first of his albums that I bought as soon as it was released. And it’s a nearly perfect album. It’s hard to choose a favourite song. The title track is great. “Democracy” and “Anthem” are both wonderful songs with lyrics that really resonate. And I will always love “Closing Time”. I would recommend this album to anyone. If you don’t love it then your musical taste needs serious recalibration.

This is all purely subjective of course. And if I made the list again in six months time, it could well be completely different. What do you think? Have I put you favourite Leonard Cohen album high enough?

2015 in Gigs

Chvrches - Tufnell Park Dome

As has become traditional round these parts, it’s time for my annual review of the gigs I saw last year.

I saw 48 gigs in 2015. That’s up on 2014’s 45, but still short of my all time high of 60 in 2013. I saw Chvrches, Stealing Sheep and Paper Aeroplanes twice. I was supposed to see a couple of other artists twice, but Natalie Prass cancelled the second show and I couldn’t get to the second Soak show as I was ill.

As always, there were some disappointments. Renaissance really weren’t very good (I waited to hear “Northern Lights” and then buggered off) and Elbow weren’t as good as I’d seen them before. But the biggest disappointment this year has to be Bob Dylan. He was terrible. I left at the interval.

About half-way through the year, I stopped writing reviews on my gig site. I’ve put up posts with just the data about the shows and I hope to back-fill some of the reviews at some point, but I can’t see it happening soon. Hopefully I’ll keep the site more up to date this year.

So here (in chronological order) are my favourite gigs of the year:

  • Stealing Sheep – It’s been far too long since I saw Stealing Sheep, but the release of a new album brought them to London a couple of times. I’m going to do with the Chat’s Palace show as my favourite as I like smaller venues.
  • Laura Marling – This was simply astonishing in every way. I was completely spellbound thoughout this show. Almost certainly gig of the year.
  • Soak – If there’s any justice in the world, Soak is going to be huge. See her in intimate venues while you can.
  • Amanda Palmer – There always has to be an Amanda Palmer gig on the list. It’s the law.
  • Chvrches – Another act I saw twice. The small album launch show at the Tufnell Park Dome just pipped the huge extravaganza at Alexandra Palace.
  • Heaven 17 – Another band I’ve started seeing whenever I can.
  • Garbage – Sometimes, seeing bands decades after their peak can be a little disappointing. That certainly wasn’t the case for Garbage.
  • John Grant – First time I’d seen John Grant. I hope it won’t be the last.
  • Fuzzbox – Another act from my youth who made an impressive return.
  • The Unthanks – I’ve been meaning to get round to see the Unthanks for years. I’m glad I did. I’ll be seeing them again as soon as possible.

Gigs that fell just outside of the top ten included Julian Cope, Suzanne Vega, Paper Aeroplanes and Smoke Fairies. Oh, and the Indie Daze Festival was great too.

I already have tickets for a dozen shows in 2016. I’m particularly looking forward to ELO in April and seeing the Cure for the first time for far too many years in December.

2014 in Gigs

Slightly later than usual, here’s my overview of the gigs I saw in 2014.

I saw 45 gigs in 2014. That’s 25% down on 2013’s 60 (which is my current record). Letting it drop below an average of one a week is disappointing. I’ll have to try harder this year.

I saw both Martin Carthy and Chvrches three times in 2014 and Annie Eve twice. Martin Carthy is definitely the artist I’ve seem most since I’ve been keeping track of such things. And it’s the first time for many years that I haven’t seen Amanda Palmer. But that’s only because she didn’t play London in 2014 (well, she played one small gig at the British Library, but I didn’t hear about it until it was far too late to get tickets).

What was less than impressive. Well, my review of Yes at the Albert Hall upset a couple of Yes fans. And Eddi Reader wasn’t as good as the previous time I saw her. But, in general, the quality of things I saw was pretty high. Perhaps I was being more picky and that’s why I saw fewer shows.

Anyway, here (in chronological order) are my ten favourite gigs of the year:

  • Haim – Haimwere on my top ten list from 2013. I saw them again early in 2014 and they were just as good.
  • Chvrches – I saw Churches three times. I’m going to choose the Somerset House show as my favourite. Because I was standing about five rows away from the stage.
  • Annie Eve – I saw Annie Eve twice. I think the first show (at the Lexington) was just better, but only because the Lexington is a much better venue than the Borderline. I’d love to see her play somewhere like the Union Chapel.
  • Rick Wakeman – Something a bit different here. Rick Wakeman playing all of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Very cheesy. Very pompus. Very wonderful.
  • Lorde – Lorde couldn’t be more different than Rick Wakeman! But this was probably my favourite gig of the year. I can see myself enjoying Lorde shows for many years to come. Coincidentally, Lorde was also the support at the next gig on the list.
  • Arcade Fire – I had wanted to see Arcade Fire for a few years. This show was every bit as overblown and wonderful as I hoped it would be.
  • Hazel O’Connor – Another complete contrast. 80s legend playing a low-key show in the pub at the end of my road. Wonderful stuff.
  • Kate Bush – Probably on everyone’s list. For all the obvious reasons.
  • Tunng – Always love seeing Tunng. And this career retrospective show was great.
  • Peter Gabriel – And another stadium show to close with. I was astonished to find out that it was twenty years since I saw Peter Gabriel. It certainly won’t be another twenty until I see him again.

As always, there were shows that were unlucky to fall just outside the top ten list. Special mentions should go to Paper Aeroplanes, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lisa Knapp and Banks.

Right, so what’s happening this year?

2013 in Gigs

According to Songkick, I saw 60 gigs in 2013. That’s quite an improvement on my previous record of 50 in 2011 and well past 2012’s rather disappointing 36. Songkick have stopped doing their excellent “My Year” feature, so I don’t have quite as many facts and figures at my fingertips. If they don’t do something similar next year, I might need to reimplement it myself.

This was the year that I started a separate blog about the gigs I go to. I started it early in June, but I’ve also added stub entries for a number of earlier shows.

As always, there were a few unimpressive shows. In particular, two old prog rock bands – Caravan and Camel – were both rather dull. And both MGMT and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band were massive disappointments.

So what did I like? Here, in chronological order, are ten gigs that I really enjoyed.

  1. My Bloody Valentine – I had never seen them before and had given up on ever seeing them. But, suddenly, they were back with a new album and a tour. I’m proud to say that I got through the whole show without resorting to ear-plugs.
  2. James – I bought a ticket for this largely because Echo and the Bunnymen were supporting and I had never seen them. They were great, but I’d forgotten what a fantasitc live band James are. It’s got to be twenty years since I saw them. I won’t be leaving it so long next time.
  3. Billy Bragg – I saw Billy Bragg twice this year. Both shows were great, but I think the atmosphere was better in the Union Chapel. This was also the show where he played all of Life’s A Riot as a second encore.
  4. Leonard Cohen – There are very few people who can tempt me to the O2 arena (probably London’s most soulless venue). But Leonard Cohen is one of them. Any year with a Leonard Cohen gig in it is a very good year.
  5. Amanda Palmer – Amanda Palmer is the only person who has been on all my annual top gigs lists. And if you’ve seen her live, you’ll know why. She always puts on a sensational show.
  6. David Byrne & St Vincent – As soon as I heard that David Byrne and St Vincent were making a record together, I knew that the tour was going to be unmissable. And I was right.
  7. Annie Eve – Annie Eve was  the only person I saw three times this year. And I hope to see her many more times in 2014. My favourite show was her EP launch show at Old St Pancras Church. But she’s always well worth seeing.
  8. Tunng – I saw Tunng twice this year. They were on top form both times, but I think I just preferred the second show when I saw them at Heaven.
  9. Heaven 17 – I thought this was just going to be a standard Heaven 17 show, but two things made it stand out. Firstly, the support was Scritti Politti. And secondly, Heaven 17 started by playing forty minutes of old Human League songs. It was a fantastic night.
  10. Haim – Something new to end with. I’ve been playing Haim’s first album pretty much non-stop since it was released. And they were even better live. I’ve already bought a ticket to see them again next year.

It was really hard to choose just ten gigs for this list. There were plenty of others that were just outside the list. So here’s an honourable mention for Sinéad O’Connor, Serafina Steer, Sigur Rós, Edwyn Collins and The Polyphonic Spree.

It was a great year for gigs. And next year is already shaping up to be just as good. I already have tickets to see Haim, Arcade Fire, Chvrches and a dozen other shows.

What great live music did I miss this year? What do you recommend for next year?

Three Tom Robinson Gigs

I’ve been thinking about Tom Robinson recently. There’s an anthology of the old Tom Robinson Band recordings coming out on Monday and on Tuesday I’m going to see him at a show celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of Power in the Darkness. But this has all got me thinking about the first three times I saw him play. They were three very different gigs.

Ipswich Gaumont – 10th April 1979

Growing up in north Essex, the Ipswich Gaumont was nearest place that we could see mid-level bands. I went there many times between 1978 and 1981 (at which point I moved to London and going to see bands became much easier).

This was one of the dates on the tour to promote the Tom Robinson Band’s second album, TRB Two. Somewhere I still have the programme from the tour (really just a double-sided print folded in half) – I should find it and scan it in.

I don’t remember much about this gig. And what I do remember is probably slightly mixed up with a gig from this tour that was broadcast on Radio One at about the same time. I recorded that broadcast (in the time-honoured manner of putting a microphone next to the radio and glaring at anyone who dared talk) and listened to it a lot over the years. I only lost it when I threw away all of my cassettes about ten years ago. I believe that the “Wycombe Town Hall” gig that is included on the new anthology might be the same broadcast. I’m looking forward to hearing it again.

That was the only time I saw TRB. The next two gigs were very different. I can’t even remember for sure the order I saw them in.

Islington Folk Club – Summer 1982

I was living in a City University hall of residence in Islington and when I heard that Tom Robinson was playing at a folk club just round the corner, I couldn’t believe it. I was sure it couldn’t be the same Tom Robinson, but I went along just in case.

And, of course, it was him. This was the first time I became aware of Tom outside of TRB and the performance was very different to the previous one. Tom played a lot of songs that I heard for the first time that night and now know well. In particular, I remember 1967 and a cover version of Walk on the Wild Side.

I can find no mention of this show anywhere on the internet. I don’t think I dreamt it, but I’d love to have some evidence that it actually happened. Was anyone else there.

At the time I was social secretary at The City University. So at the end of the gig I approached Tom and asked if he would be interested in doing a similar show at the Students Union. He suggested that I should contact his agent. I did that, but the agent didn’t seem at all interested in finding Tom gigs so nothing ever came of it.

Bloomsbury Theatre – 1982(?)

It was certainly a theatre in Bloomsbury, but I’m not 100% certain of the name. This was a very strange night. Tom was playing support for The Passions (remember I’m In Love With A German Film Star?) but there was another support act which was a one-act play. There may have been some comedy involved too. I don’t really remember Tom’s set. I think it might have been the first time I heard Atmospherics.

This page on The Passions’ web site at least confirms that something like this did happen. It says:

Next came the question of how to promote the album. For some long forgotten reason the band were unwilling to tour at that point and so together with Cairo Management came up with the idea of doing a week of variety shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre in central London instead. ‘New Variety’ or ‘Alternative Cabaret’ was taking off at the time with the CAST theatre group running shows at pubs across London. Quite how a band such as the Passions fitted into this concept is puzzling to say the least. However the idea was followed through and acts were booked including a strange little play about someone who lived inside a sofa, the band’s friends Kevin McNally and Veronica Quilligan (who acted as comperes in addition to performing comedy sketches) and Tom Robinson.  The show was booked for five nights and apart from the first night, ticket sales were abysmal so the band pulled out after only two shows. As a result of this the band were sued for loss of earnings by the theatre group performing the strange play.

I guess I’m lucky that I saw one of the first two shows. Was anyone else there? Can you share any more memories of the night?

After that I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw Tom play. But it was a lot. Largely at festivals or at his annual gigs for fans. It’s been a while since I saw him though. I’m really looking forward to seeing him on Tuesday.

The Beatles

Still catching up on classic albums. Here are my thoughts on The Beatles by The Beatles (that’s the album we all know better as The White Album).

Some Historical Context

I was six when this came out. I don’t remember it being released, but I have vague memories of singing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da when I was young. I probably got it from the Marmalade version that was in the charts.

The first I can remember really being interested in The Beatles was when all of their singles were re-released in 1976. I remember deciding that I preferred The Stones to The Beatles. I still think that The Beatles are overrated. But this is definitely amongst my favourite Beatles albums.

The rest of this post will be written as I listen to the album. Oh, and for the first time in this series, it’s a double album.

The Songs

1. Back in the U.S.S.R.

One of the all-time great album openers. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but something about it makes this a great song. It’s short too – less than three minutes. Of course, the basic idea of the lyrics is ripped off from the Beach Boys.

2. Dear Prudence

Another great song. One of Lennon’s best, in my opinion.

3. Glass Onion

Another good one from Lennon. Pretty strange lyrics; talking about a number of older Beatles songs.

4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

As far as I’m concerned, this is the album’s first mis-step. We’ve established previously that I’m not a big fan of reggae and this childish white man’s reggae is even worse. I mentioned above that I remember singing this when I was a child. The “when I was a child” is key there.

5. Wild Honey Pie

This is really dreadful, isn’t it? I really don’t know what McCartney was thinking. Mercifully short though.

6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

I should hate this too. It’s really childish. But something about it makes me smile. Not Lennon’s finest hour though – by some considerable distance.

7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The best thing that George Harrison ever wrote. This is fantastic.

8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun

This is ok. It’s not great, but I certainly wouldn’t skip it. End of side one.

9. Martha My Dear

Side two starts with McCartney trying to write a music hall style song. It really doesn’t work.

10. I’m So Tired

This is more like it. Lennon sings the blues. Brilliantly. I think my Lennon/McCartney bias is showing in this review.

11. Blackbird

The guitar on this is quite pretty. Still not a particularly interesting song though.

12. Piggies

When I was 14 I loved this. Now I think it’s embarrassing. Hard to believe it was written by the same person as While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

13. Rocky Raccoon

Terrible.

14. Don’t Pass Me By

Ah… Ringo. This is pretty simplistic stuff. but I really like it.

15. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

Another one that I enjoyed a lot when I was about 14. Hate it now.

16. I Will

And finally McCartney proves that he can write something simple and effective. It’s not outstanding, but it works.

17. Julia

This is one of my favourite Lennon songs. I don’t understand why it’s so obscure. Hardly anyone seems to know it. End of side two.

18. Birthday

A rock birthday song really shouldn’t work. And, yet, somehow it does.

19. Yer Blues

Love this too.

20. Mother Nature’s Son

Hate this one.

21. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Ambivalent about this one. It’s ok. Nothing special. Ridiculous lyrics.

22. Sexy Sadie

Originally entitled “Maharisha”, this is about Lennon’s disenchantment with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I quite like this, but it’s not one of his best.

23. Helter Skelter

Another of the album’s classic tracks. Surely everyone loves this. From the initial guitar thrash to Ringo’s “I’ve got blisters on my fingers” it’s brilliant. And, bizarrely, it’s a McCartney song.

24. Long, Long, Long

When I’m listening to these albums, there’s always at least one track I don’t remember. And this is it. I don’t remember it because it’s just average. It’s written by George Harrison and could be an obscure album track on any of his solo albums. End of side three.

25. Revolution 1

This is controversial. It’s the same song as the rockier version that was released as the b-side to Hey Jude – that’s the version that everyone knows. This is a mellower acoustic version that isn’t to everyone’s taste. I like both versions though. In my more “Che Guevara” periods I’ve spent hours discussing how, in this version, Lennon changes the line to “if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in”.

26. Honey Pie

Another horrible McCartney effort.

27. Savoy Truffle

And this is another distinctly average song from Harrison. Whoever wrote a good song about a recipe? Oh, MacArthur Park, I suppose.

28. Cry Baby Cry

This is ok. Nothing special. Side four really isn’t very good.

29. Revolution 9

Why did Lennon think it was a good idea to submit an eight minute sound collage for inclusion on the album? Why did the other members of the band approve it? Perhaps they were short of material. I didn’t listen to this all the way through.

30. Good Night

No. This doesn’t really do it for me at all. Not a great way to end the album.

In Summary

Not as good as I remember it. There’s actually a lot of filler there. But it does have half a dozen or songs that are as good as anything The Beatles recorded. Perhaps it would have been better as a single album.

2012 in Gigs

Here’s an overview of the gigs I saw in 2012. I saw 36 gigs during the year. That’s quite a lot down on 2011, but that’s partly because I broke my leg and didn’t go to gigs for six weeks.

I saw some larger gigs than in the previous year. I saw Radiohead, The Killers and Elbow all at the O2. In all cases the bands were great, but the venue is horrible. I also went to Hyde Park to see Paul Simon, which was definitely one of the highlights of the year.

I think that I didn’t see anyone more than twice last year. But there were at least four acts that I saw twice – Antonio Lulić, Alessi’s Ark, Tegan and Sara and Suzanne Vega. I saw Tegan and Sara on two consecutive nights – their own headlining gig at the Forum and then supporting The Killers the following night.

I saw more than my fair share of unimpressive gigs. In particular, Dexys and Sparks (both, coincidentally at the Barbican) were two hugely disappointing shows.

Here, in purely chronological order, are the gigs I enjoyed the most in 2012. I wanted to list a top ten, but I couldn’t get the list smaller than twelve.

  • Sinead O’Connor – Haven’t seen her live since a Finsbury Park Fleadh about twenty years ago and I was worried that she’d be a bit rubbish. But she was so good that I’ve already booked to see her twice this year. Her latest album is really good too.
  • Suzanne Vega – As I mentioned above, I saw her twice during the year. I think the first one (playing acoustic in the Union Chapel) was just better than the other (with a band, playing the whole of Solitude Standing at the Barbican). But they were both great nights. She’s definitely now on my list of people to see whenever I can.
  • Amanda Palmer – An Amanda Palmer gig is always awesome. This gig at Village Underground was no exception. Her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, is great. It’s a shame that she has cancelled her 2013 tour because a close friend is really ill – but I completely understand why she did  it.
  • Paul Simon – It was the 25th anniversary of the Graceland tour and Simon got together as many of the original band as possible. This was a fantastic evening.
  • Kathryn Tickell – Something a bit different. Kathryn Tickell’s show pulls together lots of music and talk from her native Northumbria. It’s low key, but enthralling.
  • Kate Rusby – How has Kate Rusby been making records for twenty years? This show, celebrating that fact, was all kinds of amazing.
  • Amy Macdonald – This was a bit of a surprise. I knew I quite liked Macdonald. I’d bought her first two albums. I’d even listened to them a few times. So I bought a ticket on a whim. I’m glad I did, because this was a great night. I’m going to see her again at the Palladium later this year.
  • The Divine Comedy – The day after the Amy Macdonald gig I was back in the same venue for Neil Hannon’s 42nd birthday party. This was the second Divine Comedy gig I’ve seen and they’ve both been fabulous. I must really start listening to more of their records.
  • The Magnetic North – I saw Hannah Peel playing as part of two bands this year. She’s in John Foxx’s new band The Maths, but I much prefer The Magnetic North. I don’t know if this is a permanent band. So far they’ve recorded one album, inspired by Orkney, which they played at this gig.
  • Beth Orton – Since I got back into going to gigs a few years ago, Beth Orton has been top of my list of people to see. And to finally see her in a venue as lovely as the Union Chapel was incredible. This is probably my gig of the year.
  • Stealing Sheep – I saw Stealing Sheep four times in 2011 but for various reasons I missed most of their London gigs in 2012. So I was really determined to get to this gig at the Bush Hall in December. It was a year (almost to the day) since I had last seen them and it was really interesting to see how much they had improved in that time. I mean they were great to start with, but now they are phenomenal.
  • Antonio Lulić – Yes, Antonio is a friend, but even if he wasn’t I’m sure I’d still consider him one of the best live acts currently playing the circuit. At my local pub (which is also one of my favourite venues) he put on a great end of year show where he played for an hour. And the whole set is available to stream from SoundCloud.

Classic Albums 2012

I thought it might be interesting to have an index of the classic albums I reviewed in 2012. So here it is.

Album Artist Rating
A Night at the Opera Queen
Highway 61 Revisited Bob Dylan
The Harder They Come Jimmy Cliff
The Specials The Specials
LemonJelly.ky LemonJelly
Led Zeppelin 4 Led Zeppelin
Nevermind Nirvana
Machine Head Deep Purple
System of a Down System of a Down
Let it Bleed The Rolling Stones
Songs of Faith and Devotion Depeche Mode
Rumours Fleetwood Mac
The Joshua Tree U2
Green REM
OK Computer Radiohead