Icons And Lesser Icons

Three years ago, almost to the day, I published a post titled Starman on the death of one of my musical icons. As many of you have started following me since then you may not have seen this before, so I thought I’d share it again. At the time I had intended to write a piece honouring the memory of one of the true greats of rock music and in a way I did. But it developed into one of my occasional rants. Take a look to see why, and I’ll return after to explain why this has become relevant for me again:

“Over the past two days I’ve been doing what I expect many have been doing: I’ve been playing David Bowie songs and reminding myself just what made him such a special musician. I also spent a lot of Monday watching the TV news and the various tribute pieces that were being broadcast. Yesterday, once the print media had the chance to catch up, it was the newspapers’ turn. My newspaper of choice is The Times – coincidentally, also Bowie’s choice, according to their obituary, although I’m not sure how they knew that. Yesterday’s issue came in a lovely wraparound, which featured a portrait of him with a cigarette – an image that would have been commonplace until he gave up his 60 a day habit when his daughter Lexi was born. Inside, they reproduced the lyrics to three of his most famous songs – Space Oddity, Starman and Life On Mars  – together with some more pictures of him and the album sleeves. Tastefully done, I thought, and a fitting tribute. Turning to the paper itself, there were a further twelve pages of tribute and obituary and a news story on the front page which carried onto page 2. There was also a full cover picture on the Times2 section. As I read through this I began to feel something I wasn’t expecting after the loss of one of my musical heroes: I was getting annoyed.

This feeling had begun on Monday evening, as I watched a special 30 minute programme that had been slotted into the BBC1 schedule. On the whole, this was a far better effort than Sky News had managed earlier, but there was one part that really irked me: the BBC6 Music DJ Sean Keaveny having the audacity to talk over the famous video of the 1972 performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops. For those who weren’t around at the time, this performance is largely credited with making Bowie’s career: his only previous hit, Space Oddity, had been three years earlier and Starman itself hadn’t exactly taken the charts by storm until this appearance, after which it climbed into the Top Ten. The rest, as they say, is history. So what did Keaveny tell us while he was preventing us from watching the video? Did he mention its significance to Bowie’s career? No, he told us that because Bowie had declared himself to be bisexual the fact that he put his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder while they sang the chorus made this a trailblazing video for gay power. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is there on record any suggestion that Ronson – who was married once and fathered children with three different women – was gay or bisexual, so where did Keaveny get this idea from? I guess he must have been ‘in the know’ at the time, right? Er, no, not quite: he was born two months after the record was released, so he must have been quite a prodigy! Maybe the gay community can tell me that this is indeed true, but I didn’t need Keaveny talking about it all over the video. So here it his, without his act of destruction:

The second dose of annoyance was served up for me by Caitlin Moran. I am a big fan of her writing, which always amuses and entertains me whilst being thought-provoking. Her piece in yesterday’s paper was heavy with suggestion about how important this music and its era were in her teenage years, but she was born three years after Starman was a chart hit! Of course, I won’t deny that she could have been listening to the music as she was growing up, probably because her parents played it, but to try to appropriate the timeframe for this as being part of her own youth is, to my mind, at best disingenuous and at worst, dishonest.

Why is it that whenever a rock icon dies everyone has to take their piece of him or her? The Times even gave us a comment from Tony Blair, that well known musical expert and purveyor of truth. And the music critic Charles Shaar Murray telling us that other journalists used to refer to him as ‘Bowie’s representative on Earth.’ Funny, I thought that role was played by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time friend and record producer. Whether that is true or not, it illustrates my point. The death of an icon is important for all of us who were fans, not just for those who are being paid to go into print or on screen about it and feel the need to boost their credentials. He was our icon. We all have a part of him in our memory, and we don’t need the self-appointed steamrollering over that, claiming territorial rights over the deceased and telling us what we should be feeling or thinking. I won’t be reading any more, if I can resist the temptation. Well, not until the next icon departs……”

Little did I know it that early in the year, but 2016 turned out to be an annus horribilis with the passing of several of my favourites. Look back through my catalogue and you will find tributes to Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who wrote the song which gives my blog its title, and Dave Swarbrick, of Fairport Convention who, along with Steeleye Span, were at the forefront of the English electric folk-rock genre. Then, to round the year off, came the sad news of the death of Leonard Cohen. All of these had been extremely significant to the development of my musical tastes, but only one provoked a rant. Why? The short answer is that the outpouring of grief for David Bowie wasn’t matched by the coverage given to the other three. They were all accorded a fairly full obituary in The Times which, back then, was my daily paper, but nothing like the coverage elsewhere that he received. I put that down to the fact that two of them weren’t British, so the innate parochialism of our media didn’t regard them as all that important, and Swarb was a folk musician so wasn’t considered to be of sufficient stature to merit much coverage. Sorry, my bunker mentality showed through a bit there! But the points I made in the piece about Bowie are still valid: I know that journalists and media commentators make their livings by hanging on to the coat tails of those who are far more talented and famous than they could ever hope to be, but I don’t need them to tell me what I should like, or feel, and I can certainly do without the blatant stupidity displayed by the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran!

It is probably the fact that I grew up listening to their music, but there have been other losses in the musical sphere which have been poignant for me, notably Tom Petty, whose passing I covered here. We have lost other greats in recent years: Aretha Franklin notable among them. Her death resulted in possibly the most ridiculous piece of coat tail hanging that we have ever seen:

In case you missed it at the time, those were the words of Donald Trump on the day Aretha died. Not quite the same as Tony Blair raising his head above the parapet to claim a deep and abiding love for Bowie but, in his own inimitable fashion, Trump was claiming the importance of an icon for himself – as a former ’employer’ after she sang at one of his casinos (before they went bankrupt), giving him the perceived right to claim that he knew her well. Somehow I doubt the veracity of that – but he doesn’t tell lots of lies, does he?

But what about the lesser lights of music, whose passing is barely noted by the media? Does that make the loss of them any less tragic? Where are the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran for them? Presumably they are making the decision not to bother, as no one will pay them for their opinions if many in the audience will be asking ‘who was that?’ about their subject. Yesterday, I learned of the passing of ‘Beard Guy.’ How many of you know who I mean? Mike Taylor, to give him his proper name, was a member of the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth (usually abbreviated to WOTE), who have had a fair amount of commercial success in their homeland but relatively little elsewhere – though they have a loyal following which enables them to tour worldwide.

Mike died in his sleep during the night of 29 December. He was 51, and had two children. Where was the mainstream coverage of this, outside Canada? Why did I need to be following the band on Facebook to hear this sad news? To his family, friends and fans this was no less upsetting, but I guess it all comes down to scale: far more people will have been affected by Bowie’s passing, and those of Tom Petty and Aretha Franklin, than by Dave Swarbrick or Beard Guy. I find that sad. Yes, I know that the bigger stars are more newsworthy, but don’t we all deserve to be remembered kindly for what we have done, especially when that has brought pleasure to many – but just not enough for the media to make money out of the passing of a lesser light? WOTE may not be the biggest band on the planet, but they have certainly made their mark. They first came to prominence in 2012 when they released a video of their version of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know. This went viral, and has so far been viewed more than 185 million times, plus a further 12 million when shared by someone else. So, to redress the balance a little, here in Beard Guy’s honour is that video:

I wish he had been somebody that I used to know but, in a way, he was, as I’ve watched many of their videos multiple times and think of them as ‘friends’ whose sense of humour always brightens my day. Every passing is mourned by someone, and every individual is important. We shouldn’t need paid hacks to remind us of that. Take care of your loved ones.

RIP Mike.

A #ChristmasSongOfTheDay Part One

You may have noticed that my blog’s tagline includes the phrase ‘with occasional music,’ and you may also have noticed that I have made the odd post or several on this theme. I think I’m now in the fourth year – or maybe the fifth, time flies – of posting a Christmas song on Twitter and Facebook every day in December, leading up to two on Christmas Day itself. This year, for the first time, I’m sharing them with my newish Facebook page for this blog (obligatory plug – please feel free to hit the ‘like’ button on the widget thingy to the right), as well as Twitter, of course. Last year, I began posting them here too, in several chunks rather than daily, and as it went tolerably well I thought I’d do it again. You may have seen last year’s posts: if so, I’m relying on your memory being poor, as a number of these songs have featured before! So, welcome to Part One of 2018’s imaginatively titled #ChristmasSongOfTheDay.

One of the things I try to avoid with my choices is falling back on the usual suspects. There are many very good Christmas songs which have done little or nothing on the pop charts, and those are probably more to my musical tastes anyway. So, if you’re looking for Slade, Mud, Wham etc kindly move along now – nothing for you to see here! Having said that, I do make a few honourable exceptions, and the song I’ve started with each year is one of those. This has been one of my favourites since it was a massive hit in 1970, and was written as a message against the rampant commercialisation of Christmas. Nearly fifty years later that message is just as relevant, if not more so:

For December Sundays I try to choose something reflective, maybe a little more serious than some of my other choices which, as you will see, can be a little raucous! This year, my first Sunday choice was this one, with a beautiful video to accompany it:

I’ve loved Jackson Browne’s music ever since I first heard it, around the time I went to university – 1972. You may know of him as the co-writer of the song from which my blog takes his name, and I rate him very highly as a singer-songwriter. I was lucky enough to see him play live in 2010, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and he didn’t disappoint. And yes, he did play Take It Easy!

Another longstanding favourite of mine is John Mellencamp (aka John Cougar, Johnny Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp). This was my choice for Day 3: it is a live concert performance of a Christmas pop classic and, whilst other versions have been chart hits, this one wasn’t – although it does appear on a benefit album, A Very Special Christmas, which was released to support Special Olympics International Inc. This performance is typically boisterous and features a cameo by his then three year old daughter Teddi, who rather steals the show at the end.  The ‘proud Dad’ look on his face is lovely and, thirty or so years on, I hope she is as proud of this as he clearly is:

Continuing in rowdy mode into Day 4 I chose a song and video which encapsulate all the joys of a family Christmas. Or maybe not. You may not be familiar with the Dropkick Murphys but do watch this – the song is great, and the video is a hoot:

Something a little calmer for Day 5? OK, here you go – well, to begin with, anyway. Walk Off The Earth have made their career on the back of a whole raft of very creative videos, both cover versions and their own songs. If you like this, and haven’t come across them before, you can find loads more to watch on YouTube. Again, this is a Christmas pop standard which has featured in the charts, notably in the ‘duet’ by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. WOTE’s take on it is a little different:

The final song in this selection is the one I posted earlier today. Anyone with an interest in rock/folk/pop music will be aware of the Nobel Prize winner Mr Robert Zimmerman. But you may not be familiar with the album of Christmas songs he released in 2009: Christmas In The Heart. This is one of the tracks on that album, and shows a side of him you probably won’t have seen before:

That’s all for today, folks. There are so many songs to choose from, and I’m already afraid that I’m going to have to leave out some of my favourites. Oh well, there’s always next year. I’ll be back on Wednesday with songs 7 to 12 and I hope to see you again then. Do please let me know in the comments if there are any songs you would like me to include. I’m always open to suggestions: but be warned, I can always ignore them, unless they are very good, of course!

#ChristmasSongADay – Part 4

Merry Christmas!

If you’re actually reading this on Christmas Day I applaud your dedication to the world of blogging. Either that or I commiserate that you needed to escape the family arguments, sprout-fuelled farts and general horrors that are the staple of Christmas. (I’m joking, really I am – I love Christmas, especially the spirit it engenders in us).

For this final part of my selection of Christmas songs which I shared with Facebook friends and Twitter followers, I’m covering the seven days from the 19th up to today. So that means, of course, that there will be eight videos for you to enjoy. I’ll explain later!

For the 19th I chose a version of the well-known standard The Little Drummer Boy. This was actually written as far back as 1941, by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, and the first recorded version was in 1951, by the Trapp Family Singers, once they had been coaxed down from the hills and had left the goatherd feeling lonely again. Probably the best known version is the one by the unlikely boy band of Bing Crosby and David Bowie, but I’m not giving you that one. My choice is by the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth, who have made a whole host of inventive videos both for their own music and a wide range of cover versions. I suggest that, if you haven’t heard of them, you visit YouTube and find their cover of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know – that will give you a good idea of what they get up to. And here’s another example:

On Day 20 I again went back to a traditional Christmas carol, in a modern version. This is a lovely carol and is one of my favourites, and I was spoilt for choice as to which version to share. I very nearly opted for the Civil Wars, in a live performance with just their two voices and John Paul’s guitar: it is sparse, simple and spine-tingling. But in the end I went for this one, which I think is slightly more mainstream. But, if you’re interested, I highly recommend that you seek out the Civil Wars’ version too. This is from Enya’s 2008 Christmas album And Winter Came, which also comes highly recommended by me:

For the 21st I shared a version of one of the best known carols, Silent Night. This is taken from Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. My parents bought this for me as a Christmas present in 1967, although the album was first released in 1966. We played the album on Christmas afternoon, and it was perfect for the post-lunch stupor. Until this, the final track on the album. I would imagine that many of you will know this version but, if not, try to imagine the impact this had on a first hearing, on Christmas Day, when none of us knew what was coming. Sadly, I believe the message in the juxtaposition of the news with the song is still relevant today, possibly even more so. See what you think:

My next choice, on the 22nd, was a song which, in the strictest sense, probably doesn’t really count as a Christmas song. But I included it because I think it is actually a modern day retelling of a similar story, and that’s good enough for me! I featured this one last year in my #SaturdaySongs series, so please click here if you want to find out more about what makes it special for me.

For the 23rd I also returned to a favourite, which has also been featured here before. This is the second of my choices to feature the English folk singer Kate Rusby. I mentioned before that she has now released four albums of Christmas music. This is the title track from the first of these, from 2008, and is accompanied by a lovely animation:

Keeping with the theme of ‘tried and trusted’ I chose another one on Christmas Eve which I’d chosen in previous years. But could I possibly have found anything more appropriate than this? I don’t think so…..

And so, we finally reach Christmas Day. There are still so many I could choose, but this is to me the perfect song for Christmas Day. It is the second time I’ve featured Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come Darkness, Come Light album, and I really do recommend that you listen to it if you can: it’s beautiful! My (almost) final choice of Christmas songs is this one:

That should be the end of this, right? But cast your mind back to the beginning of this piece and you may recall that I promised you eight songs today. I also said on several occasions throughout this series that I didn’t intend to feature many songs which had been pop chart hits. So far, I’ve kept that down to just the two. But there is one more I’m sharing today as a bonus. Yes, I know its only connection with Christmas is that it is set on Christmas Day. Yes, I know that the NYPD Choir has never existed. But this is a hit every year although, as I said in my Christmas Number Twos post, it has never been a chart topper. But that won’t stop me sharing it again. I leave you with my final #ChristmasSongADay

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, and have found some music which is both new and pleasing to you. Whatever you are doing, however you are spending Christmas, I thank you for reading all of my posts this year, and wish you a very