Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: music

From Protest to Subversion


There is a long-standing history of protest in popular music. In my view a lot of it does not really stand the test of time though there are many honorable exceptions – Free Nelson Mandela by the Specials stands out as one. But many of such songs age, lose their anger and are less effective at directing emotion than other more direct or personal musical forms.

What I am here more interested in, as result of something I witnessed at the weekend, is the capacity of music and other performers to subvert live broadcasts. I remember Saturday morning TV phone-ins and that high risk that there might be a set up for a profanity fest as happened to Five Star. Or the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy (though John Lydon said at the time that the real punk was the householder who was so horrified by the Pistols that he put his boot through the TV). You may also recall Jarvis Cocker’s stage assault on Michael Jackson at the Brits? A bit more impressive than hacking Corbyn’s tweets.

What happened on Sunday morning was that Andrew Marr has the PM on to discuss the European referendum and a much over-hyped social housing estate regeneration programme, which seemed from the dialogue to be yet more ideas to grow home ownership. Regular watchers will know that Marr often ends his show with live music. This week it was a new song by the venerable post-punk band Squeeze. There should have been a clue in the title of the song ‘From the cradle to the grave’ since this is a well-worn phrase in terms of the UK Welfare State. However, those naughty Squeeze boys changed their lyrics.

A new third verse added lines to the effect: ‘I grew up in a council house, part of what made Britain great, now someone is hell-bent seeking to destroy the welfare state’. You can see the action here.

First of all it was impressive because they cannot have had much warning and indeed chose such an apposite subject given the topic covered in the interview. Second, the Prime Minister seemed oblivious which made it all the more striking – I actually wondered if I had misheard till it was confirmed later.

Of course, we can be cynical about it and view it as a publicity stunt but I really don’t think so. It was rather well-targeted opportunistic subversion of the live music medium.

On this very sad day where we lost David Bowie, I was  reminded by a piece in the press that one of his many impressive acts was to twice refuse an honour from the British state – an act of subversion in itself?



Life in the old dog

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Remembering Lou Reed

It has been a week or two since Lou Reed died and only now, for what it is worth, have I had the chance to set down my thoughts on his passing.

I was, like many of my generation, a great fan both of the Velvet Underground and also much of his solo work in the 1970s. This had a lot to do with David Bowie and Transformer of course but also, strangely, Bob Ezrin’s period producing Berlin and arranging him working with Hunter and Wagner from Alice Cooper’s band on the fantastic live album Rock’ n Roll Animal.

He was the writer of many rock standards, a genuine innovator as a songwriter and one possessed a rare style and musicianship; he possessed a real intelligence about so much of what he did. Often laced with pessimism and ‘difficult’ subject matter, he nonetheless produced a considerable volume of thought provoking material but also in the end some really excellent tunes.

I think I first became aware of his new music around the time of Street Hassle and thereafter dipped into the back catalogue and followed his subsequent music thereafter. I was about 8 when ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was in the charts but it was much later that I listened to the albums of the period.

Regarding the Velvets I was always a big fan of the first and last albums and also the 3rd self-titled and rather weird collection of songs – the first after John Cale left. My favourite songs were things like Sunday Morning, I’m Beginning to See the Light, Sweet Jane and Pale Blue Eyes. Apart from The Gift and one or two other tracks, the second album never really worked for me in the same way. The Velvet Underground and Nico must be one of the greatest debut albums; just as Loaded is a classic final album, like LA Woman or The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus – both of similar vintage.

I found a lot of the solo period after the 1970s frustratingly patchy with some great songs like The Day John Kennedy Died and I Love You Suzanne mixed up with a few indifferent tracks. Still he was capable of making truly great albums like New York and (with Cale) Songs for Drella.  A relative of mine truly hated Nobody Like You so much that I still find the need to have it as a ringtone for her when she calls.

Back in the early 1990s I saw him live a few times both solo and on that strange short-lived Velvets reunion in Edinburgh. I thought it was a great night myself but had the sense that they were not too happy being there.

For those people familiar with the album New York you may recall one of the catchier songs ‘Good Evening, Mr Waldheim’.  In the Autumn of 1992, as a callow and inexperienced research fellow, I found myself as a solitary social scientist at an international housing conference in Salzburg, Austria. The conference dinner involved a Mozart string quartet and meeting luminaries. And, as you might have guessed, one was none other than the then MP for Salzburg, the former head of the UN,  Kurt Waldheim. When I heard of Lou Reed’s passing, amongst other memories, I was taken back to that surreal evening.

Of course, one is very sad to hear this news but there are so many things to remember and great music to consider. I am also really glad that his old partner, John Cale, is still working and making great music in 2013.

The Passing of Ray

When I was growing up, for me, the Doors towered over all other bands. While the youthful commitment has understandably faded, they remain special. In that context, it was very sad to hear of the passing of founder member and purveyor of their distinctive keyboard sound, Ray Manzarek. He was a lot older than the rest of the group and remained the de facto ‘spokesman’ for the Doors long after Jim Morrison’s death in 1971 – even if falling out with John Densmore (the band’s drummer) over subsequent projects and commercial ventures.

The Doors were remarkably productive, producing six albums in four years, five of which were timeless classics. Personally, I was more a fan of the guitarist, Robbie Krieger, who did some great playing (for instance: Peace Frog, Spanish Caravan, Roadhouse Blues, LA Woman). Ray Manzarek was particularly prominent on the first album and my own favourite record, Strange Days (also a great album sleeve). As the band developed a lot of what he did became more elaborate and involved (such as Riders on the Storm and the later use of Albanoni’s Adagio). He was also key to probably my favourite Doors song – Waiting for the Sun.

Ray Manzarek contributed some fantastic music in a career largely focused in the amazing period from 1967 to 1971. However, he also managed to harness Jim Morrison (at times a very challenging and unpredictable person, to put it I mildly) and together produced something unique and special, which lives on. Rest in peace.

The Return of James Williamson

I am unreconstructed when it comes to music. I have band obsessions (Teenage fan club; Black keys; Queens of the stone age; Tame impala – but also Van Morrison, Mark Lanegan, Richard Hawley, Barry Adamson and, ahem, Rumer). You don’t need to be consistent with music you like – I certainly am not. Because we are hard-wired to music emotionally, we can respond strongly and irrationally to new music by old favourites. I was really undone by Bowie’s unexpected return and the wonderful ballad revisiting Berlin (Where are we now?).

Perhaps my most unreconstructed irrational tie is to Iggy Pop, a product of listening to John Peel in the late 1970s. My first Iggy experience was, decades before Trainspotting, hearing those drums at the beginning of ‘lust for life’ and I was pretty much hooked thereafter. Iggy has always to me been consistently inconsistent – brilliant, barbarous, capable of incredible quiet genius but also some truly terrible moments of turgidity. He is famous for the early Stooges albums and of course his controlled moments with Bowie in the 1970s and 1980s (although I always liked the crazy live album ‘TV Eye Live’ the most from that time). Recently he has made two partly French language concept albums which echo the earlier mellow Avenue B – they are actually really good (honestly). Against this intellectual Iggy there is also the monster – one or two grungy tuneless albums and the Stooges reunion album (the Weirdness). Sadly Ron Ashton of the original band died recently and that seemed to put paid to touring and recording by the Stooges. And then James Williamson returned.

In my humble opinion, the very finest moments of the Ig’s oeuvre concern Raw Power, Kill City and New Values – the three albums made with guitarist, writer, arranger and producer James Williamson. He has a quite distinct guitar technique and an ear for melody that I don’t think is always so apparent in his musical partner. They fell out spectacularly around 1980 and Williamson sunk into a kind of cult obscurity (though I note that with media like Spotify you can readily trace down his post-Pop work). And then he returned and Iggy and the Stooges have a new album (‘Ready to Die’). It is an iron rule that All Iggy Pop albums are patchy and this is no exception. But there are some truly great retro moments, excellent tunes like ‘Gun’ and ‘Dirty Deal’ and, of course, guitar of a form you just don’t hear any more (not since Kill City anyway). It is instantly recognizable as a Williamson/Pop collaboration and the world is a better place for it. Welcome back.

What a great start to the weekend. And I almost got away with not mentioning the car insurance adverts.