If you want to treat yourself or someone close to you to who’s a music fan to something interesting for Christmas, then we’ve got a few ideas for you. There are books, an album and a very interesting merchandising idea.

Sound of the Sirens merchandising – I love Sound of the Sirens. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood are incredibly talented writers and performers, but there’s a lot more to it than that. They attract like-minded people into their orbit and create friendships between fans from all over the country. They also have some interesting ideas about merchandising. Selling mugs is fairly standard, but why not take it a stage further and sell tea towels with a picture of the band. And what a great strapline: “Wipe your mugs with our mugs”.

 

“Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life” (book) – Wilko Johnson – Wilko has put together a memoir/autobiography that covers more than forty years in the music business, success, failure, cancer diagnosis and recovery, and coming to terms with his status as a legend. It’s a great fly-on-the-wall insight into the workings of bands and the music business and it’s well worth reading. I had a bit of a shock when I realised that the Solid Senders bass player who I had photographed in 1977 in Dundee was the same person I photographed playing bass in Phil Burdett’s band in  Southend last year. Small world.

“I Knew You When” (album) – Bob Seger – Another one of my teenage heroes who’s still around and still relevant. This album came out of the blue; his 2014 album “Ride Out” had the feel of an album that was closing out a career and it might have been his swansong but for a tragic event. His old friend from Detroit, Glenn Frey, died earlier this year and this album is largely inspired by their friendship. Sometimes it’s right in your face (the album cover, for example) and sometimes it’s a bit more subtle – the title track is classic mid-tempo Seger with no names mentioned, but it’s obviously about Glenn Frey. It’s sad that it took such a tragic event to kickstart the album, but wonderful to hear a hero still so fired up about social issues.

“Going on the Turn” (book) – Danny Baker – It’s the third volume of Danny Baker’s memoirs, covering events to the present day, including his battle with head and neck cancer and high profile local radio sacking. He’s a natural writer who always manages to find a unique twist on even the most difficult subjects. It’s a life-affirming book and it’s all based in the area I’m working in at the moment, which gives it a nice personal touch. It’s a great read.

“Some Fantastic Place” (book) – Chris Difford – There’s a link to the previous book; Danny Baker went to the same school as Chris and their careers have touched at many points. I’ve always been a massive fan of Squeeze and this is a fascinating insight into the fraught relationship between Chris and Glenn Tilbrook. He doesn’t try to pretend that he’s perfect (far from it) and the book’s all the better for that. The only criticism (if you’re a geek like me) is that it would have benefited from some more rigorous fact-checking. It’s still a fascinating read.

 

Chris Difford TitleThere’s only one band I’ve seen more often than I’ve seen Squeeze (answers in the comments box if you think you know who that is) and one of the interesting things they have in common is that they don’t have a precious attitude about the recorded versions of their songs. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have always been willing to try new arrangements; I must have heard half a dozen different versions of “Goodbye Girl” over the years and I never heard one I didn’t like. On this tour, Squeeze is basically Glenn’s band The Fluffers plus Melvin Duffy and they all play on the new album “Cradle to the Grave”; each member brings their own particular contribution to the overall sound. Simon Hanson is the archetypal drummer, full of energy and charisma, while his rhythm section partner, Lucy Shaw, dominates the right side of the stage with electric bass, double bass, ukulele and backing vocals. Stephen Large adds keyboards (including accordion and melodica) and Melvin Duffy plays just about anything with strings, including pedal steel and Weissenborn guitar. They’re all wonderful players (and singers) and add layer upon layer of instruments and vocals to the live sound.

But what about Dr John Cooper Clarke as support? Well, he’s promoting his new album “Anthologia” and the idea of supporting a band’s nothing new; he did it hundreds of times during the punk era. Nearly forty years on, it still works; there are no musical rivalries between bands to worry about and JCC’s mix of manic recital and laconic links and gags is a perfect way to warm up for the Squeeze hometown gig. The old favourites are there, “Beasley Street”, “Evidently Chickentown” and “Twat” (including verses which weren’t in the original) as well as newer material like “Beasley Boulevard” dealing with the gentrification of inner cities. There’s more chat between poems than in the past and it’s usually hilarious, offering a novel and skewed perspective on everyday life. There’s the occasional stumble in the motormouth delivery, but that’s forgivable and he leaves the audience well and truly ready for the main event.

After an intro from Danny Baker, the set begins with Glenn Tilbrook wandering on stage while playing some intro music which morphs into “Hourglass”, with one of the catchiest of many catchy Squeeze hooks. As you might expect from two people with the experience of Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the set is perfectly paced, seamlessly weaving three-quarters of the new album in with the old classics and a few surprises. There’s a double hit of nostalgia on this tour as well, because the “Cradle to the Grave” material is set in the early seventies and a few of the songs are already familiar to the audience.

The quality of the band and the range of instruments they play allows for an incredibly varied set musically and visually; everyone sings and they’re able to vary the dynamics of the set by having the entire band along the front of the stage (and even into the audience) a couple of times for a more intimate acoustic feel. The performances are all absolutely spot on but there’s a hugely contagious enthusiasm at play as well. Everyone on stage is having a great time, and who wouldn’t, working your way through some of the finest pop songs ever written. There’s even a couple of non-originals too; The Tom T Hall classic “Harper Valley PTA” gets an energetic run through while Chris takes a lead vocal on a laconic version of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”. As for the hits, “Hourglass”, “Is That Love?”, “Another Nail in my Heart”, “Tempted”, “Pulling Mussels from the Shell” and “Up the Junction” are all fairly close to the originals while an intimate hits section in the middle of the set has a zydeco version of “Slap and Tickle”, an acoustic version of “Goodbye Girl” with congas, and stripped back acoustic version of “Black Coffee In Bed”.

Hearing those catchy, inventive melodies and clever but under-stated lyrics again is a reminder of the importance of this band to a whole generation in the UK, evoking a time when life wasn’t necessarily better but it was a lot simpler and the soundtrack was superb. You still have five chances to see them on the UK leg of their tour and “Cradle to the Grave” is available now as well. This might just be the time to re-acquaint yourself with two of British pop’s finest writers.

And here’s a coincidence; the only band that I’ve seen more times than Squeeze has two members who are big fans of Chris and Glenn. Who could they be?

 

 

Every year there are hundreds of music-related books published, mainly biographies or autobiographies and they range from the very serious to the completely frivolous and from very well written to ‘see me after school’. These might not all have been published in 2014, but they were all on this year’s reading list. These books are all highly recommended if you’re interested at all in the background to the tunes you listen to or bands you go to watch, or even if you just want scurrilous anecdotes about sex and drugs. I’m making no attempt to rank these because they’re all so different, so, in no particular order:

Isle of NoisesIsle of Noises” -- Daniel Rachel

This is the serious one. It’s a series of interviews with famous (mostly) British songwriters which explores the ways in which songwriters work. It’s incredibly well researched (even some of the artists point that out) and obviously a labour of love for Daniel Rachel; if you have any interest at all in how songs are written, this is a great read. Don’t expect to discover the perfect songwriting method because you discover very early on that everybody writes differently. The writers being interviewed cover a wide range of styles ranging from the Sixties to the present day, so the scope of the project is enormous. Every time I meet someone who’s read it, we compare notes about which songwriter comes over as the most pretentious.

Clothes etc“Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys” – Viv Albertine

The stories from the punk era alone would make this worth reading (guitarist in The Slits, friend of Sid Vicious and girlfriend of Mick Jones) and there are plenty of tales of bad behaviour, but the latter part of the book tells us much more about Viv Albertine and her struggles to have a baby, to beat cancer, to survive a failing marriage and to take up guitar again and re-invent herself as a solo artist (her album “The Vermilion Border” was released in 2012). If you need confirmation of the entrenched sexist attitudes of the music and publishing businesses, you’ll find it here.

Chapter and Verse“Chapter and Verse” – Bernard Sumner

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than attempt to address some of the claims made by Peter Hook in his two books, but Bernard obviously feels hurt by some of the things that have been said and wants to let the public hear his (and New Order’s) version. The terse prose style is a stark contrast with Hooky’s “man-down-the-pub” delivery; there’s no grandstanding and a lot of self-deprecation in this memoir. Bernard seems to have a genuine affection for his ex-bandmate (and friend) and the over-riding impression the book leaves is of puzzlement at Hooky’s recent actions. The only jarring note is the inclusion of a transcript of a hypnosis experiment with Ian Curtis; I’m not sure why it happened in the first place, and I’m not sure why it was published. Other than that, a good read.

Man on the Run“Man on the Run – Paul McCartney in the 70s” – Tom Doyle

Tom Doyle has correctly identified a gap in the market for a book dealing with Paul McCartney’s immediate post-Beatles life (Peter Doggett’s “You Never Give me Your Money” focusses on the financial shenanigans of the period and the breakup of the relationship with John Lennon) and, perhaps surprisingly, he got Macca’s full co-operation with the project. Although there are some anecdotes which are excruciatingly embarrassing for the subject, there’s still a nagging little doubt that he’s manipulating the project at times. What the book clearly shows is that during that period, Paul McCartney’s decision-making was inconsistent and sometimes bizarre (trying to take a huge amount of dope into Japan, for example) and that he has a need to control situations and these two things, singly or combined, are the cause of most of the incidents covered. It’s a fascinating read, although it’s still not clear whether he’s man running away from or towards something.

Going Off Alarming“Going off Alarming” – Danny Baker

This is the second volume of Danny Baker’s memoirs and, unsurprisingly, the written Danny Baker sounds very much like the radio and TV Danny Baker. He uses the preface to explain why he won’t be writing a misery memoir and the introduction to explain the reason for the wonky chronology between the two books (after the first book was published, friends and family reminded him of stories he’d left out, including being shot up the arse in Bermondsey). It’s a romp through the crazy world of Danny Baker up to the point where he was sacked from “Pets Win Prizes” and is full of hilarious, mainly self-deprecatory anecdotes about his domestic and professional life. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and it entertains throughout.

You should have realised by now that I would get the last word on this one.  We’ve had some varied and interesting selections from our regular team and from several guest contributors.  Many thanks for that to Billy Ray Martin, Dean Owens, Lilygun, Skye Edwards and Steve Jenner.  As well as all of the great music we’ve highlighted on MusicRiot, we’ve also seen a great selection of books about music and music-related subjects so, in no particular order, here are my favourites from 2012.

“Going to Sea in a Sieve” – Danny BakerProduct Details

I realise that Danny Baker is a bit like Marmite: he tends to provoke strong reactions.  If you already like Danny Baker, this is a must; his writing style is very conversational and he has some wonderful stories to tell from a career stretching over 40 years in the music and media industries.  The real beauty of the book is that none of the anecdotes seem to be overplayed; if anything, he seems to play down stories of meetings with Elton John, pre-success Queen (which is hilarious) and Michael Jackson.  I’m already looking forward to the next volume.

“Mind the Bollocks” – Johnny SharpProduct Details

There’s a link to the previous book here; both were written by ex-NME writers, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Here, Johnny Sharp (who wrote for the NME as Johnny Cigarettes) skewers pretension, hype and plain drug-induced nonsense in a book that’s absolutely overflowing with schadenfreude.  As a counterbalance to stabbing his former colleagues in the back, he’s not afraid of exposing himself to ridicule where it’s deserved, which adds to the overall credibility of the book.  Interestingly, one of the so-called facts torn apart by Sharp was the article from “The Word” in 2010 claiming that the charts were now dominated by stars who had been privately educated.  It’s ironic that Billy Bragg used this so-called fact in his John Peel lecture for 6 Music recently.

“Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America” – John Jeremiah SullivanProduct Details

This is a fascinating series of essays which are mainly, but not exclusively, observations on some of the more interesting nooks and crannies of popular music including perceptive pieces on Christian Rock festivals, Michael Jackson and Axl Rose.  Moving away from music, Sullivan discourses on reality TV, how he dealt with his brother almost dying of an electric shock, smoking weed in Disneyland and rogue palaeontologists and anthropologists.  His point of view is always more or less skewed and always entertaining.

“Unknown Pleasures:Inside Joy Division” – Peter HookProduct Details

Having read Hooky’s first volume of memoirs “The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club”, this was always one to add to the library.  Hooky, like Danny Baker, writes in a very conversational style and is incredibly honest about his own mistakes, particularly in the events leading up to the suicide of Ian Curtis.  When he isn’t dealing with tragedy, however, he’s hilarious in a very readable, self-deprecatory style.  I’m already looking forward to the next instalment dealing with New Order.

“Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream” – Neil YoungProduct Details

OK, I admit it; I’m a Neil Young fan.  I read the Jimmy McDonough biography, “Shakey”, which Young didn’t authorise but didn’t actively obstruct but left it feeling slightly let down, so the idea of an autobiography grabbed my interest from the start.  The experience of reading the book is a bit like a Neil Young guitar solo; you never know where it’s going next, but you know it’s going to be interesting.  He intersperses autobiographical material with enthusiastic promotion of the various technology projects which he’s developing, including the Lionel model railway, the environmentally friendly Lincvolt car and the Pono high quality music player.  In an age of jaded superstars, it’s great to hear someone being enthusiastic about his projects and constantly reiterating his love for family and friends.  You finish this book feeling that you actually know something about Neil Young and that’s the mark of a good biography for me.

All of these books are worth reading if you want to know a little more about what lies behind the music and the headlines from the viewpoint of people who were actually involved.  You might also want to have a look at Carole King’s “Natural Born Woman” and Pat Long’s “The History of The NME”.

Have a great New Year.