“Accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief”: remembering 10,000 Maniacs

Another in an occasional series in which I recall formative experiences with some of my favourite artists.

It took me a while to find 10,000 Maniacs, but once I’d done so, they had me for life. A friend at Sussex made me a C90 with their 1987 album In My Tribe on one side and REM’s Green, released the following year, on the other. The pairing was significant, since in those days REM and 10,000 Maniacs were often bracketed together under the helpful genre of what was then known as “college rock”. Since I was at what the Americans would call college at the time, it was natural that I should gravitate towards this kind of music, having already taken a shine to such soundtrackers of 1980s British student life as Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, The The and Cocteau Twins (although not the Smiths). In truth REM never did very much for me, although the five independent albums they made between 1983 and 1987 cast an air of mystery that easily outstripped their later major-label releases. 10,000 Maniacs, however, were to become hugely important to me as the 1980s shaded into the 1990s, and remain so to this day.

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The Musical Box, Geneva Théâtre du Léman, 25 November 2016

Growing up in the late 1970s, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry between my younger brother S. and me, in music as in other areas such as sport. Whereas I, at the age of 11, was a hardcore Numanoid and Kraftwerk fan, the 10-year-old S. cottoned on at an early age to other electronic pioneers such as John Foxx and The Human League. (Not for us the dire worship of heavy metal that seemed to afflict so many of our peers at grammar school in Salisbury.) Even before that, S. was only nine when he first heard on the radio, and promptly fell in love with, Genesis’ breakthrough 1978 single “Follow You Follow Me”. At that age, and with pocket money a severely limiting factor, the extent of your appreciation for a band was measured by whether you merely bought the single or went the whole hog and shelled out for the album. If you were in the latter category, you probably hadn’t heard anything else on the album; but you were confident, based on your liking of the single, that there would be further stuff on there that you would enjoy. Thus it was that S. came home one Saturday afternoon with a copy of And Then There Were Three, if I remember rightly not only his first Genesis album, but the first album he ever bought.

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Songs out of Clay: an appreciation of Al Stewart

It seems unlikely that Al Stewart will ever play a concert in Vienna, which means I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him. But I still feel the need to write something about Stewart, since by now I’ve covered most of my favourite artists on this blog but never said a word about him, and since there are times when I feel that there is no greater lyricist and songwriter.

I can remember the first time I heard Al Stewart very well. It was in 1984 or thereabouts, in the spare room of our family home in Salisbury which I had converted into a nerve centre for A-level revision. I could never listen to music while studying, it was too much of a distraction, so I must have been taking a (not exactly rare) break from the delights of English, French and History in order to listen to Anne Nightingale’s Sunday evening request show, which was broadcast on Radio 1 in pristine FM sound quality right after the Top 40 show. This programme regularly served up a diet of smart, listenable music I instinctively liked, music that I couldn’t find anywhere else on the dial – not on daytime radio, not on John Peel and certainly not on the execrable Friday Rock Show (whose use of Van der Graaf Generator’s “Theme One” as incidental music was its only redeeming feature).

Anyway, one evening Anne Nightingale played a song that immediately made me sit up and pay attention – one of those that, when you hear it on the radio, you make sure you’re listening to the presenter at the end, because you absolutely need to know the artist and title. This song was ten minutes long, lyrically intricate, driven by mile-high acoustic riffing and a compelling air of drama and mystery. At the end of the song Anne Nightingale helpfully told us not only that it was called “Nostradamus” by Al Stewart, but also that it came from an album called Past, Present and Future. I had never heard of Stewart, but I had to own this record, and so I set off to find it – something easier said than done, since, like most of his back catalogue at the time, it was long deleted.

I can’t remember where I finally tracked down Past, Present and Future, but it would have been some second-hand record shop in London or Brighton. I fell in love with the LP instantly, and it’s still one of my top three favourite albums of all time. (The others, since you ask, are Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator and In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs – another group I must write about sometime.) My taste in music at the time was clearly heading in the direction of folky singer-songwriters, with Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega (although not Bob Dylan) both getting repeat play on my turntable. But Past, Present and Future had something that both Cohen and Vega lacked – it rocked, and it was that delightful mix of folk and rock music that really sealed the deal for me. Like no record I’d heard before, it was brimful of winning tunes, inspired guitar work and infectious, propulsive rhythms.

And the words! Rich in metaphor and clever wordplay, yet stirred by narrative drama, these were the most literate and eloquent lyrics I had ever heard, delivered in a distinctive, coolly precise voice that made you hang on every word. “Nostradamus” was the highpoint, of course, but every song on the record was a gem, from the moving and autumnal “Old Admirals” via the witty historical rollercoaster of “Post World War Two Blues”, to the towering epic that was “Roads to Moscow”. There was something uncanny about the cover as well. Wearing a three-piece suit, leaning stiffly against a mantelpiece in a room full of antiques, paintings and fine china, Stewart looked more like a young aristocrat than a musician. Meanwhile, the Old English lettering and filigree tracery reinforced the impression of the album as a historical document rather than a mere collection of songs.

Over the next few years I hunted down the rest of Stewart’s extensive and mostly deleted back catalogue in those same second-hand record shops. Modern Times, the follow-up to Past, Present and Future, was another masterpiece, and indeed I regard those albums as two of the greatest, and most overlooked, achievements of British folk rock. I eventually completed my collection with a mint condition original copy of the first, not terribly good album, Bedsitter Images, which is probably the rarest record in my possession. Each album was replete with Stewart’s unique songwriting talent, blending personal and historical narratives in songs that resonated with striking imagery, radiant melodies and that wistful, mellifluous voice. I’ve listed ten of my favourites at the end of this article, but I could easily have named a dozen others.

The first new Al Stewart album to be released after I discovered him was 1988’s Last Days of the Century – not one of his best, admittedly, but still perfectly listenable, featuring a then unknown Tori Amos on backing vocals. On the back of this record Stewart toured with a full band, giving me the chance to see him live for the first time at the Town & Country Club (now the Forum) in Kentish Town. It was a hugely enjoyable concert, featuring a generous cross-section of his songs and also, I recall, a fine uptempo version of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. Funnily enough I was wearing a Leonard Cohen T-shirt that evening, which I had purchased at his Royal Albert Hall concert earlier in the year. With a few other diehards I hung around by the Town & Country Club stage door after the show, and met Stewart for an autograph or two. He commented favourably on the T-shirt and told me a story of a time when he had met Cohen. The details of this encounter are unfortunately now lost to me, other than that the old groaner said to Al: “I’m waiting for Suzanne.”

Not long after that (in 1989, maybe), I made the short journey along the south coast from my home in Brighton for my second Al Stewart concert in the unglamorous surroundings of the Assembly Hall in Worthing. This was also a full-band show, but the only thing I can remember about it is that the bloke playing saxophone left the stage and wandered around the hall while taking his solo on “Year of the Cat”. I’d like to think Stewart played “Manuscript” that night, probably the only song in the world that namechecks Worthing, but I honestly can’t remember whether he did or not.

I saw Stewart a few more times after that (the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 among them), but these were all solo or duo acoustic shows and therefore bereft of the electric dynamics of Stewart at his folk-rock best. In fact, with the exception of a full-band show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013, I’m not sure he’s played with a proper band (meaning electric guitar, bass and drums) for years. His recent albums, since 1993’s excellent Famous Last Words, have also tended to err on the side of unplugged caution. This is a real shame, since these songs are certainly at their best with the amps turned up and the pulse of a rock beat going through them.

I’ve written this article because Al Stewart has given, and continues to give, enormous listening pleasure to me, and I wanted to set down some of my experiences of being a fan of his over the past 30 years. His songs are like no others; they are lucid, moving, clever, funny and endlessly quotable. Here, for example, is a beautiful and perfectly balanced couplet: “And had I but known last summer what I now understand/I’d have never set my foot inside this bleak and bitter land.” There are so many others, but don’t take my word for it – listen for yourself.

Ten great Al Stewart songs that are not “Year of the Cat”

“Gethsemane Again”
“Songs out of Clay”
“Nostradamus”
“Apple Cider Reconstitution”
“The Dark and the Rolling Sea”
“Rocks in the Ocean”
“Accident on 3rd Street”
“The Coldest Winter in Memory”
“Trains”
“Three Mules”

Van der Graaf Generator, Prague Divadlo Archa, 16 June 2013

A few of the things I’ve written for this blog over the years have used the excuse of a live review to tell the story of how I first became interested in the artist in question. (See, for example, the pieces on Swans, Death in June, Whitehouse, Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega, Einstürzende Neubauten and Pink Floyd.) The other day I realized that I’d never written any such thing about Peter Hammill, although he is by some distance the most important musical figure in my life, the one to whom I’ve listened over and over again through the past twenty years and more, the one who represents everything I find true and thrilling about music. It’s time to rectify that omission, so please forgive the self-indulgence. Those wishing to know what happened at Van der Graaf Generator’s concert in Prague last week are kindly requested to bear with me, or simply to skip to the end of this review.

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“Why does it hurt when my heart misses the beat?”: an appreciation of Propaganda

Andreas Thein, the co-founder of German synth pop group Propaganda, passed away yesterday, and I wanted to briefly mark his passing. Although they only made one album, A Secret Wish (the dismal post-breakup album 1234 doesn’t count, and neither does the unnecessary remix album Wishful Thinking), Propaganda were a hugely important group to me at a certain point in my musical upbringing. A schoolfriend lent me the “Dr. Mabuse” 12” (the only Propaganda music which has Thein on it) and I was completely bowled over, as much by the Teutonic glamour and sophistication that permeated its every aspect as I was by its juggernaut riffage and stingingly memorable tune. At a time (1984) when the worship of the increasingly hopeless Gary Numan that had accompanied me throughout my entire teenage years was thankfully drawing to a close, Propaganda propagated a thoroughly exciting and, more importantly, credible alternative. Bolstered by the air of intellectual cool emanating from Paul Morley’s text-heavy covers for the ZTT label, Propaganda showed me that synth pop could be as dramatic and challenging in its way as the art rock of Pink Floyd that I was increasingly in thrall to at the time. What’s more, I regarded Propaganda, with some justification, as the hip alternative to their more popwise labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who were dominating the Top 40 at the time.

Andreas Thein had left the group by the time A Secret Wish came out in 1985, but still I played the record endlessly, hooked on the effervescent singles “Duel” and “P-Machinery” as well as the widescreen epic “Dream Within A Dream”. Even more remarkably, I travelled up to London that year to see Propaganda at the Hammersmith Palais, my first ever live concert in the capital. It wasn’t a very impressive occasion, to tell you the truth. Chronically short of original material, they were only onstage for an hour or so, and wrapped things up with an encore of “Dr. Mabuse”, which they’d already played. Co-founder Ralf Dörper wasn’t even there, but a bunch of session musicians were, who were (understandably) unable to reproduce the glistening perfection of the band’s studio sound. None of this mattered to me, though. I came away from the gig clutching a Propaganda tour programme, badge and T-shirt, the latter of which I wore until it fell apart.

For all intents and purposes, then, the Propaganda story ended with the release of A Secret Wish. I’ve certainly never showed any interest in any of the group members’ subsequent activities. But I’ll always love that album (the 2010 double CD reissue, with its slew of outtakes and remixes, is the one to go for), and especially the savage beauty of “Dr. Mabuse”. Rest in peace, Andreas.

Death in June, Vienna Ottakringer Brauerei, 27 October 2011

Another in an occasional series in which concerts I’ve been to are used as a pretext to recall formative experiences with the artist in question. This is not a live review but a reminiscence, an extract from an autobiography that will never be written.

I was never a big fan of John Peel. I listened to his show, of course, as so many British people did whose musical tastes ventured beyond the mainstream. I would listen in the dark, after my parents had said goodnight to me, with my head and the radio under the duvet so they couldn’t hear. Once I listened to the whole of Peel’s Festive Fifty, and I remember Joy Division’s chilling “Atmosphere” being number 1. That puts it at 1981, when I was fourteen. In general, though, I would only listen to the start of the show at 10.00pm, when Peel would read out a list of the artists he was going to play that night over the show’s dust-dry theme tune. Most of the names meant nothing to me, and I would turn off the radio and fall asleep soon afterwards.

Indie pop, Peel’s stock-in-trade, never did much for me, nor indeed did any of the other genres relentlessly championed by the man. One night in 1985, though, I heard him play a song that made an instant and deep impression on me. It was a slow, funereal tune, with frosty bugle calls that somehow evoked images of dark, snow-covered European forests. Delivered in a strangely distant, anonymous-sounding voice, the words added to the song’s atmosphere of mystery and desolation: “Your alleyway, your terror glistens with despair/Dead meat and error, the only crown I’ll wear/From the ashes of liars grow the flowers of hope/From the steeples and spires/Hang each tear from a rope.” I was mesmerized by this song, which Peel announced as “Come Before Christ And Murder Love” by Death in June. I went hunting for it in Salisbury’s record shops, and surprisingly found it (on 12 inch, no less) in a place on Fisherton Street. The cover, with its death’s head symbol and inverted rune and the complete lack of any information other than the artist and title, deepened the mystery still further. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had just received my introduction to the British post-industrial underground, or what David Keenan was to term England’s hidden reverse – a strand of music that was to become hugely important to me as the years wore on.

Keenan’s book scarcely touches upon Death in June, partly because they don’t really fit the book’s thesis, but also because Douglas P. did not wish to be interviewed for it. The omission is regrettable, since Pearce looms large in the story of Current 93 in their pivotal years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the reasons I’ve always cherished Death in June is that I was listening to them for a full six years before I even became aware of Current 93. It was only when I travelled up to London for my first Death in June concert, at the New Cross Venue in 1991, that I encountered Current 93, who were second on the bill (above Sol Invictus, about whom the less said the better). C93 were great that night, but DIJ were truly exceptional.

Over the next few years I saw Death in June play live several times. Concerts included Charlton House in London, a chance encounter in Prague (where I had gone for a week’s holiday, and happened to see a poster advertising the gig in the window of a record shop), the Powerhaus in Islington (during which Douglas P. had a glass thrown in his face by an audience member) and, for what I think was probably the final time until last week, the Camden Underworld, at which Pearce was joined for the encore by Patrick Leagas and Tony Wakeford for a fleeting reunion of the original line-up.

Throughout that time Death in June appealed to me on a number of levels: the lyrics, the music and the aesthetics and iconography employed by Douglas P. Clearly, the project was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which sound, text and visual imagery all inform and reinforce one another. The group’s early musical trajectory sees the first post-Crisis records shading into the dance-influenced Nada! and from there to what I regard as their twin masterpieces, The World That Summer and Brown Book. These two albums, for me, capture the essence of Death in June: dark clouds of acoustic guitar, emotive flourishes of brass, atmospheric effects, driving percussion and solemnly intoned texts evoking sacrifice, kinship and heroism. Drenched in sublime and dreamlike imagery, I found this whole approach to be remarkably seductive and powerful. On the mid-period albums But What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? and Rose Clouds of Holocaust, Pearce ditched some of that stylistic diversity in favour of a more unadorned acoustic approach, with a slight but appreciable loss of impact. 1998’s Take Care & Control was weaker still, and after that I bailed out completely.

It would be remiss of me at this point not to briefly address the issue of fascism which has bedevilled Pearce throughout his career. My position is clear: I am agnostic on the question of Douglas P’s political beliefs, for the simple reason that he has never, to my knowledge, made any kind of public statement regarding them. It is, I believe, a grave error to presume to know what those beliefs may be on the sole basis of lyrics, symbolism, iconography and whatever other props have been used to label Pearce as a Nazi. Death in June is not a political project; no ideological agenda is advanced and no critique is offered. It is this lack of critique that gives Douglas P’s detractors much of their ammunition. It is a dereliction of duty, the argument runs, to simply ‘explore’, ‘investigate’ or ‘be interested in’ the history and aesthetics of fascism without making one’s position on the matter clear. Indeed, the refusal to state a position is seen as tantamount to taking up a pro-Nazi position. In other words, if Pearce doesn’t explicitly come out against fascism, then given his use of Nazi and related imagery he must be a fascist himself. It should be clear by now that I regard this argument as without merit. I neither know nor care what Pearce’s political views are; they are irrelevant to the way in which I respond to the music of Death in June.

And so, finally, to Death in June’s two concerts in Vienna last week, part of what is being touted as their last ever tour of Europe. On the first evening there was a semi-private solo performance in a restaurant, at which I was lucky enough to be one of the 40-odd people in the audience. Pearce confessed that he had never before played in such an intimate space, and there were enough fluffed lines and hesitant moments to confirm that there were a few nerves going around the room. That said, Douglas P. was relaxed enough to play several requests, including one for “Come Before Christ And Murder Love”. You can probably guess where that one came from.

Any such butterflies were well and truly banished the following night, as Pearce was joined by percussionist John Murphy for a full-scale Death In June show in the unexpected but very attractive setting of the Gerstenboden, an upstairs hall within the walls of the Ottakringer Brauerei. For someone who claims not to enjoy doing concerts, Pearce certainly comes across as a striking and powerful performer. The intimidating Venetian mask is worn for the first few songs, while he and Murphy hammer out colossal martial rhythms on the drums, summoning an aura of blank, affectless cruelty that is never quite dispelled. Elsewhere, the cavernous sound of the twelve-string acoustic guitar forms the basis for Douglas P’s exquisite horrorstruck lamentations. The performance seems to exist in a grim alternative Europe where beauty and dignity mingle physically with slaughter and betrayal. This is the troubling paradox of Death in June.

Home Service reunite, world says “Who?”

The news that Home Service are the latest group to hit the reunion trail has not exactly set the blogosphere on fire as yet. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions on the websites of those involved and the festivals where they’ve already announced they’ll be playing this summer, there’s been practically no reaction at all, which makes a brief note here all the more imperative.

Why do Home Service matter? Simply because they are one of the finest folk rock groups England has ever produced, right up there with Fairport Convention and the Albion Band. Their slim recorded output may not stack up against those groups’ in terms of quantity, but in Alright Jack and their music for The Mysteries they produced two of the key texts of the genre. And the history and line-up of Home Service is completely tangled up with those of Fairport and the Albion Band in any event. Thankfully, that history is recounted in useful detail here, so I don’t need to go over it again. The point is that Home Service represent the continuation and full flowering of the best record the Albion Band ever made, 1978’s Rise Up Like The Sun. The creative mind mostly responsible for that masterpiece was not Albion Band mainman Ashley Hutchings but Derby singer-songwriter John Tams, one of the unheralded geniuses of English music. Without wishing to devalue the contributions of anyone else, it was Tams’ work as singer and musical director, plus the superbly eloquent electric guitar of Graeme Taylor, that made Rise Up Like The Sun such a massively ambitious yet successful record.

And, needless to say, it was Tams and Taylor who carried that success into their next group, Home Service. The only occasions on which I ever saw them were three visits to the National Theatre in 2000, when they were the house band for Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries. I am so, so glad I made the effort to go to all three of those mystery plays (albeit in the wrong order, and not all on the same day – which would have been completely overwhelming). Together, they represent by far the most memorable and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. These were promenade performances, with actors and audience mingling together on the floor of the theatre, and by the end of each play everyone was dancing together to the joyous sound of Home Service, who were playing somewhere above on the balcony.

I wish I could give more of a flavour of those three wonderful evenings, but there is hardly anything to prove that they ever really took place. The plays were never filmed, but the original 1985 production, of which the 2000 production was a revival, was filmed in its entirety and broadcast on Channel 4. Those precious tapes have, however, disappeared somewhere into corporate limbo. Never commercially released on VHS or DVD, they may once have been traded among enthusiasts, but the arthouse film website of which I’m a member currently has no copies circulating. There is also, or at any rate there used to be, a CD available of Home Service’s music for the trilogy.  It’s well worth getting hold of, but it comes nowhere near capturing the ecstatic beauty of Home Service at full tilt.

At any rate, the reunion of Home Service has to be one of my most anticipated musical events of 2011. I can’t see them coming to play in Vienna, nor anywhere else in continental Europe for that matter, so a trip to England is definitely on the cards for sometime this year.

Suzanne Vega, Vienna Konzerthaus, 1 July 2010

More than any other artist, Suzanne Vega provided the soundtrack to my student years. Seeing her at the Konzerthaus brought back a flood of memories of my time at Sussex University between 1986 and 1989, memories which readers of this blog will no doubt find excessively detailed and trivial. Well, tough; I’m writing this for myself, not for you.

I first saw Suzanne (this is a first-name terms kind of piece) on Whistle Test in 1985, performing her signature song “Marlene on the Wall”. This appearance came at a time in my life when I was done with my teenage years of Gary Numan fandom and had also gone through every Pink Floyd album in quick succession. I needed someone new to be a fan of, and decided that Suzanne Vega would fit the bill, since she was clearly talented and intelligent as well as heartstoppingly beautiful. I knew nothing of folk music or the tradition that Suzanne came from, but that hardly mattered. The day after that TV appearance, I went into Salisbury and found both the “Marlene on the Wall” single and the Suzanne Vega LP for sale. As a mark of the significance I attached to this new relationship, I bought the LP.

I played that album constantly, enchanted by Suzanne’s cool and lovely voice, the quicksilver stab and glide of her acoustic guitar, the emotional precision of her lyrics and the air of calm, tender modernity she radiated. I also read numerous interviews with her in which she spoke of her musical influences, including someone I had never heard of called Leonard Cohen. It was only as a result of Suzanne namechecking Cohen that I began to investigate the music of the latter, who was to become another important figure to me as the 1980s wore on.

I was too much of a neophyte to attend Suzanne’s first British concert at the London School of Economics that month, but by the time of her next visit the following spring I had lost all such reservations. So I travelled up to London to see Suzanne play at the Piccadilly Theatre, being so in thral to my new object of devotion that I wrote down the setlist as the concert progressed, something that (thankfully) I’ve never done since. And my obsessiveness went further. With several others, I hung around outside the stage door afterwards hoping for an autograph; what they didn’t do, which I did, was to attach myself to the tail end of a small group of people who were being ushered into the theatre, clearly in some kind of official capacity. Thus I found myself at Suzanne’s backstage party, where I must have remained for all of two minutes before being thrown out.

A few months later I was at Sussex and Suzanne’s music helped me adjust to living away from home for the first time. I travelled up to London two days in a row, first to see the Cocteau Twins at the Town & Country Club (finding myself sitting next to Billy Bragg on the tube on the way there) then to see Suzanne at the Royal Albert Hall the next day. From a small West End theatre to the grandeur of the Albert Hall in barely six months; clearly I was not the only one with whom this music was striking a chord.

I bought Suzanne’s second album Solitude Standing at HMV in Churchill Square on the day of its release, and was gutted to discover when I got back to my hall of residence that my copy jumped like a trouper. CDs were in their infancy back then, and I can’t remember if this album was one of the few available in the new medium. Not owning a CD player myself, it was vinyl for me in any case. When I finally got hold of a playable copy, I found that the album contained several older songs with which I was already familiar from live performances – “Gypsy”, “Calypso”, “Tom’s Diner” – and a number of new songs that revealed a previously unhinted at depth and maturity to Suzanne’s songwriting, such as “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” and “Wooden Horse (Kaspar Hauser’s Song)”. The latter especially was a revelation, its skeletal percussion and dramatically intoned refrain of “and what was wood became alive” inspiring me to seek out and marvel at Werner Herzog’s film on the same subject. As for “Calypso” and “Gypsy”, these were some of the most rapturous stories in song I had ever heard. “Gypsy” in particular affected me deeply and, with its gentle melody and tenderly enveloping lyric, remains my favourite of all her songs. Like the first album, Solitude Standing rarely left my turntable – indeed I would often finish side 2 and simply turn over to side 1 again.

I saw several more Suzanne Vega concerts at that time, including a bizarre solo show at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre at which the support act was not a musician, but a magician. I had left it too late to get a ticket for this gig, but was determined not to let the fact that it was sold out prevent me from seeing it. So I travelled up to London ticketless and, for the first time in my life, made use of the dubious services of a ticket tout. I paid £30 for a £9 ticket, and decided that it was a price well worth paying.

There were also two gigs in my home town of Brighton. Both were unfortunately at the atmosphere-free Centre, but were memorable for a number of reasons. I managed to persuade seven or eight of my fellow students to come along with me for the first (their reactions are unrecorded). A day or two later I went to check my post and, much to my surprise, found a postcard waiting for me. “Dear Richard,” it went, “thanks for listening. Suzanne Vega.” I wasn’t quite sure why Suzanne Vega was writing to me, or how she had got my address, but as you might imagine I was rather taken by that postcard, which I immediately knew to be genuine. The answer, when it came, was rather prosaic. My American friend Jordan F., who was one of those who had come to the concert, had passed a note backstage for the attention of Suzanne, saying how much her music meant to me and how it would be wonderful if she could send me something. And, rather thrillingly, she did. Jordan, if you’re out there reading this somewhere – thank you.

I can still remember the date of the second of those Brighton concerts – 20 December 1987. I was determined to secure the best possible tickets, and took a (not exactly rare) break from studying to go down to the box office (remember those?) at the Brighton Centre on the morning they went on sale. I borrowed my flatmate Ali L’s bicycle to ride down to the seafront from our Lewes Road bolthole, and was dismayed to discover when I got there that the lock had somehow fallen off the bike during the journey. Well, that would never do. I knew I would have to leave the bike unattended at some point during the ticket-buying process, whereupon it would no doubt be spirited away by some thief. The shops weren’t yet open, so I couldn’t buy a replacement lock. So, for the first and only time in my life, I enlisted the help of the boys in blue. I accosted a passing copper, explained my predicament to him and sought his advice. He said: “So you’re wanting to leave it in this vicinity, are you?” That use of “vicinity” has cracked me up ever since; do policemen really speak in the same language as they use to give evidence in court? Evidently so. Anyway, the cop suggested I take the bike round the corner where there was a manned car park open – perhaps I could leave it under the watchful eye of the attendant. And I did indeed entrust the bike to the care of this bloke, who gave a strangely touching response to my question of whether he would be there for the next couple of hours – “well, I’ve been here for the last twenty years, so…”  In any event, I did end up being first in the queue for tickets, and duly secured front row seats despite the best efforts of a smartarse Brighton Centre employee who managed to get to the box office before I did. And the bike, since you ask, was fine.

I was back home in Salisbury for Christmas at the time of the gig, so had to travel along the coast to Brighton especially for it. For some unfathomable reason I had not taken the keys to my flat home with me, but had left them with the elderly couple upstairs for safe keeping. How I would gain access to the flat in the event that they were away was something that evidently did not occur to me, but fortunately they were at home. The gig itself not only took place shortly before Christmas, but was also the very last one of an epic European tour, leading to some side-splitting festive frolics between Suzanne and the band onstage. As for me, I nabbed a huge poster of the gig from the venue afterwards and attached it to the picture rail in my bedroom with drawing pins, since we were strictly forbidden from sticking posters up in the flat.

I think the main part of the story ends there, really. It would be another three years before Days of Open Hand came out; by that time I had left Sussex and was embarking on other musical experiences, ones in which the music of Suzanne and others like her featured less and less. I liked the album well enough, especially the limpid grace of “Tired of Sleeping” and the epic drift of “Pilgrimage”, but there was also a listless, even moping quality to some of it. Clearly Suzanne too realized that there was a need for a change of direction, since for her next effort, 99.9F°, she brought in an outside producer (who ended up marrying her, the bastard) whose use of industrial-lite rhythmic textures entirely failed to convince me. Subsequent albums, I’m sorry to say, passed me by completely.

Nevertheless, it was a no-brainer to see Suzanne at the Konzerthaus, and I even got front row seats as I had done that time in Brighton. The concert was greatly enjoyable, no doubt largely because only a handful of songs from those later albums were played. I do wish there had been a full band, though, instead of just bass (the same bass player as at every other Suzanne concert I’ve ever seen) and guitar (a bloke who seemed ludicrously unconcerned about his absurd ageing-punk hair and attire). A song like “Left of Center”, for example, suffered from being played with just bass and vocals, losing the tumbling, propulsive energy of the studio version with Joe Jackson on piano.

Between songs Suzanne was hugely entertaining, liberally throwing out anecdotes and launching into an audience-participation riff to find out what kind of person Vienna was (the not entirely inaccurate answer that came her way being “a grumpy old man”). For all her sparkling onstage persona, though, there’s a seriousness and a directness to her art that absolutely never falters, such is the clear-minded fluency with which she sings.

And best of all, Suzanne answered my silent hopes by playing “Gypsy”, a song that captivates me today as much as it did when I was a confused and lonely teenager a quarter of a century ago.

 

The Australian Pink Floyd Show, Vienna Stadthalle, 8 February 2010

Something of a guilty pleasure for me, this, but it was an evening I found impossible to resist. Pink Floyd were, at one time, the most important group in the world for me. I remember discovering them in 1983, around the time The Final Cut was released. My teenage obsession with Gary Numan had pretty much run its course by then, as Numan was still wilfully and stupidly insisting on leaving behind the electropop that had made him great in favour of long, uninspired excursions into pallid white funk. It was clearly time for me to jump ship.

I latched onto Pink Floyd as a direct result of the marketing and promotion for The Final Cut. Not having heard a note of their music (except for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”, of course), I was for some reason intrigued and attracted by the stark lowercase text on the album cover and posters, and by the general air of mystery the cover exuded. When I bought it and the needle dropped down on “The Post-War Dream” for the first time, I immediately felt that this was music I’d been waiting all my life to hear. Slow, dark, serious and strangely moving, the song made an impression on me which has never dissipated, and the whole of The Final Cut still has the same effect.

Over the next few months I doubled back and quickly devoured every single Pink Floyd album, finding in particular Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall to be every bit as mysterious and troubling as The Final Cut had been. In its glacial pessimism and its grim sense of psychological trauma, this was music for grown-ups, and listening to it made me feel less of a child than I had been before.

In the ensuing battle between Roger Waters and David Gilmour over who was the rightful owner of the Floyd legacy, I placed myself firmly in the Waters camp. As a huge generalization, vocals and lyrics have always been more important to me than music (cf. Peter Hammill). I knew Gilmour was a great guitarist, but I also sensed that most of the Floyd moments I cherished stemmed from Waters’ lyrics, concepts and sense of drama, not from Gilmour’s admittedly miraculous guitar. The contemptible A Momentary Lapse of Reason only served to confirm this, while Waters’ brilliant Radio KAOS was a record I returned to many times.

It’s a matter of great regret to me that I never saw Pink Floyd live. I sometimes ask myself who I would most like to have seen live that I never did and now never will, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall show would certainly be at or near the top of the list (Joy Division would be the other serious contenders, since you ask). Waters’ Radio KAOS show was hugely enjoyable (by a stroke of massive good fortune I ended up with tickets for the front row of Wembley Arena, and I was even the “lucky” person on whom the spotlight shone when Waters shrieked “STAND STILL LADDIE!”). The Gilmour-led affair that I snoozed through at Wembley Stadium the following summer, though, was such an abomination that I refuse to even recognize it as a Pink Floyd concert.

These, then, are some of the reasons why I ended up watching the Australian Pink Floyd Show at the Stadthalle’s Halle F (a much more pleasant venue than I’d expected, to be honest). Watching this constantly thrilling, immaculately performed facsimile, it suddenly dawned on me that this group was no less Floyd than the Waters-less (Watered down?) version of Floyd had been. OK, so it didn’t have Gilmour, Nick Mason or Richard Wright, as the 1988/1994 touring Floyd had done; but that band had those people in, and it still wasn’t Floyd. And so, apart from the fact that “Brain Damage/Eclipse” was unaccountably omitted from the set whereas no fewer than three atrocities from the Gilmour period were performed, I have no complaints.

Swans Are Not Dead

The news that Michael Gira is resurrecting the Swans name for an album and tour this year is scarcely believable but overwhelmingly thrilling. I just want to bump this piece, ostensibly a review of a 2008 solo show in Vienna by Gira, but really some kind of fumbling towards an explanation of why Swans are so hugely important and special to me. For this and other reasons, 2010 is shaping up to be a beautiful year.