Neil Sheasby’s had quite a year this year. Not only has Stone Foundation gone from strength to strength (without even releasing a new album), but he’s become an author with the first volume of his memoirs, “Boys Dreaming Soul” hitting the bookshelves this year. When the call goes out for High Fives contributions, Neil’s always one of the first to reply, which is why he’s always at the top of the list when we publish. Here are Neil’s thoughts on some of the things that have crossed his personal horizon in 2019:

 

Touring

I never thought I’d be saying this but I appear to have re kindled a passion for touring over the past few months. Gigging and touring are two separate beasts, the gigs I can handle, in fact it’s fairly obvious to anyone who comes along to see Stone Foundation that it’s an enjoyable experience for us all, there’s certainly no going through the motions routine in evidence. Usually though that 90 minute release upon stage is sandwiched between endless hours of travelling & hanging around, but alas you barely get to see anything of the destination except for a hotel room, dressing room and a stage (I’ve been to Hamburg six times and I still couldn’t tell you anything about it except there’s a decent kebab house opposite The Mojo Club) 

Anyway, at some point over the past twelve months I have begun to appreciate and embrace my time spent on the road more. We began the year by doing a gruelling jaunt across Germany & Spain, the gigs were fantastic but the miles we had to put in, especially zig-zagging all over Espana were undeniably exhausting (I think the promoter had routed our tour by throwing darts at a map).

However, whilst this almost literally killed me off, the subsequent dates back here in the U.K. felt as though it was a bus trip up to Baddesley Ensor. A doddle in comparison. The summer tour of forests supporting Paul Weller was a bona fide high, not just hanging with him but the crowds! Wow! What a reception we received too. It felt like another corner turned, the bar once again raised and our music making a connection with folk who’d never seen us before. I loved every second of it and to add to my enjoyment even more I got the opportunity to take my son Lowell out on the road with us and for us both to share what unfolded was indeed a real solid bond. 

Our most recent tour reaped the benefits of this exposure and I’d go as far to say that the November gigs were some of our best yet, certainly the most enjoyable for us all. I’m now looking forward to a new decade, new challenges, new chapter and lots more new music. I’m buoyed and excited for the future. 

 

Page Turners

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m an avid reader of music biographies, I don’t even have to really appreciate the subject’s career; I’ll pretty much read anything music-related (Phil Collins, for example) 

I think there’s been some great page-turners of late. I really enjoyed both the Brett Anderson books (whose music I could take or leave), Will Birch’s fine assessment of Nick Lowe and enjoyable biogs from Elton John, Debbie Harry & Andrew Ridgeley. 

Obviously it was also somewhat of a landmark achievement for me to finally get my own book “Boys Dreaming Soul” published and into print this year. I’m glad I decided to put it out there as the response and reaction to it has been humbling. I’m considering following it up but it’s just a case of assigning the time to do it as it’s a fairly hefty project to take on but enjoyable and cathartic nonetheless.

 

Music

I think it’s been an exceptional year for new music. If I remember correctly last year I told you how I was embracing Spotify playlists and all I was discovering via that medium, and that has just continued to turn up so much new incredible music and artists. 

The Colemine label is excelling in great new soul music and even established contemporary labels such as Daptone have spread their wings somewhat with releases by artists such as Doug Shorts. I thought the Michael Kiwanuka album was another winner too, a proper listening experience from start to finish. Durand Jones and The Black Pumas also showed a way of presenting soul by avoiding the cliches. 

In other areas I really enjoyed albums such as Nick Cave’s latest and the Lucy Rose LP that came out at the beginning of the year. 

 

Vision

I recently watched The Irishman. I’d read mixed reviews, mainly bemoaning its length but all those movies were three hours plus (Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino etc…) I’m not sure people have the patience or attention span they used to; I guess we have social media to blame for that? I found the film kind of emotional to witness, with what will surely be the last hurrah for the greatest actors of our  generation; De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and even Harvey Kietel all under the genius direction of Martin Scorsese.What a journey and what an incredible collection of talent, the likes of which we will never see again. I thought Pacino in particular was amazing. 

The Joker was also a masterclass in acting, I caught it at the cinema and it blew me away. A great intensity to Joaquin Pheonix’s performance. It’s fantastic to see an upsurge in thought provoking and challenging movie making. 

 

The Beautiful Game

I can’t say too much about this subject because I’ll end up cursing their season again but I have rekindled my love and passion for football over the last few years (I’m not sure it ever dwindled to be honest), it’s mainly due to Leeds United’s turn of form under the guidance of Bielsa, he’s a maverick and a visionary but most of all he’s a hell of a lot of fun, right down to the bucket he rode in on. 

I sincerely hope this is our time, the city is rocking and buzzing with optimism, investment and finance to make the giant leap into the premiership is all in place, it would be heartbreaking to fade away again post-Christmas and return to the merry go round of a managerial circus and also lose this incredible crop of young players. It’s the hope that kills you eh? 

I’m also catching a few Adders games when I’m not touring with the band and that non-league action still enthralls me. If you haven’t witnessed an away game in Burbage on a freezing cold Wednesday night in December, clutching a Bovril then you haven’t lived…

Ghosts of DownloadThe last album by supergroup Blondie to be considered an outright classic was 1979’s wall of sound and words of steel “Eat to the Beat”. Two more albums followed that and continued the trajectory that started three records earlier in 1976 and then, following serious illness and drug problems, everything went quiet for the group for a very long time. Lead singer Debbie Harry pursued a prolific but unpredictable solo career and seventeen years after Blondie’s dismal 1982 “The Hunter” album, 1999 finally saw the return of the group with the successful but sporadic “No Exit”. Two more albums eventually came after this and post-eighties, post-new wave and post-disco (the first incarnation) Blondie had become an odd, nostalgic beast. Without a doubt Debbie Harry was one of the most charismatic, self-possessed and dazzling front women that pop music has ever borne witness to or is likely to again. Iconic in the truest sense, Harry and the boys will be forever be a part of Andy’s authentic Pop Culture and a slew of wannabes shall it seems, forever follow. Interestingly “Ghosts of Download” comes with a pointless, bonus CD of re-recorded versions (albeit marginally -- re-created to sound identical to the originals is a more honest description) of their greatest hits which, bar 1999’s surprise hit “Maria”, do not go beyond the band’s 1980  ‘Autoamerican’ album. Undermining the new material somewhat  and also demonstrating how long it’s been since the band has been successful on any kind of measurable level, it just reinforces the question -- is there any reason for Blondie to keep releasing new material some thirty-five years  plus after their debut release? Based on the evidence here, the answer is maybe not straightforward but is still probably a forgone conclusion.

“Ghosts of Download” is produced by Jeff Saltzman and long-term band member Chris Stein and that is part of its problem. Whereas 2011’s “Panic of Girls” was a studio and live band album and had a handful of dynamic and hungry tracks, “Ghosts of Download” has been made using isolated computers. Files being passed backboard and forward finally being mixed together to bring some cohesion, it suffers from sounding compressed and airless. This is a shame as there are some good songs here, ones that instantly appeal and others that take a bit longer. “Rave” in particular sounds like a less muscular “Atomic” and the gleaming verses of “Take It Back” feature Harry at her most exuberant. “Take Me in the Night” and the lyrically bizarre and thrusting “Can’t Stop Wanting” from the deluxe issue all feature Clem Burke’s dominant and recognisable drum patterns and are tracks that certainly bring to mind classic Blondie tracks while never quite matching them.

The duet about bi-sexuality with Beth Ditto “A Rose by Any Name” starts well and sees Harry, who is in fine voice throughout, contained within a cool, detached and metallic soundscape but it loses some ground come the chorus which sonically at least, sounds dated and ill thought-out . Blondie have always had a tendency towards reggae and, in more recent years, Latin American and Spanish music and this is again in evidence here. The lilting “Backroom” is effectively boisterous and Colombian band Systema Solar and Los Rakas appear on “Sugar on the Side” and “I Screwed Up” respectively but neither track is an obvious highlight. “I Want to Drag You Around” has a complex, snaking melody, some sitars and is haunting and memorable and “Make a Way”, another well-constructed song, is the most contemporary and commercial-sounding song here but one that needs some help realising its full potential. “Mile High” is a thin, silly EDM attempt at a Katy Perry song and “Relax”, the Frankie song, is not Blondie’s best cover version -- split into three distinct if not distinctive musical parts with each progressively worse than the one before.

Blondie’s tenth and possibly last studio album continues their pattern of post-eighties, hit and miss, occasionally brilliantly eccentric, scattershot songs with Debbie Harry’s nonchalant and still effortless presence overseeing proceedings. “Ghosts of Download” is maybe more frustrating than their other recent work because the better material here, which becomes a casualty of the naive and stagnant production, sounds unfinished and demo-like for the best part. “Rave”, “Take Me in the Night” and “I Want to Drag You Around” are tracks that, although good here, could have been much better. Blondie clearly have the drive and motivation to make new and, on occasion, experimental music so why not work with other producers who could take their sound into a more modern, interesting and cohesive direction? Maybe it’s too late now; the group’s relevance is impossible to regain but this doesn’t mean they have to be relegated to the role of a heritage act. If this is their last recording, then it is still very much worth a listen and particularly if you are already a fan which is probably why you’re interested in the first place. “Ghosts of Download” is still a Blondie album after all, sadly not one that ranks alongside their best but then who ever really thought it would be?