Slow Train Coming – apocalyptic glee and abandoned adoration

It was forty years ago today (or last Tuesday anyhow) that Bob Dylan unleashed on the world the stream of invective, religious chauvinism, misogyny and racism that is Slow Train Coming, the first of his born-again albums.  All these years later, Slow Train is still shocking and enthralling in equal measure; much against my better judgement, it’s one of my favourite Dylan albums.
Mark Knopfler’s guitar has rarely sounded better than it does casting shimmering chords and arpeggios around the punchy backbone of the Muscle Shoals Horns and Pick Withers’ drumming. Helena Springs and Dylan’s future wife Carolyn Dennis provide backing ballast to Dylan’s voice, which sounds unusually clear, lively, committed.
Most of the good stuff is on the first side. The loping Gotta Serve Somebody sets up the album’s basic Manichean thesis – the world is divided into the godly and the wicked, and you gotta choose your side. Three tracks later, the belligerently swaggering title track pours scorn on everything from food surpluses, to OPEC, to Alabama road safety regulation.
But it is the tracks that these two sandwich which draw me back to the album time and again.  Dylan starts Precious Angel thankful for his damascene conversion, but swiftly moves on to excoriating those who remain unredeemed. Then he switches to a chorus – “Shine your light, shine your light on me” –  that is sparkling and joyous, a sincere riposte to the woozy gospel posturing of Shine a Light on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St a few years earlier.
One of the song’s joys is the way that, over six minutes, the pace picks up and Bob Dylan’s voice audibly warms and becomes more enthusiastic. By verse two, he directs his attention to his immediate circle:
“My so-called friends have fallen under a spell;
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, ‘Well all is well’.
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die?”
The pay-off stings like a slap in the face – talk about throwing shade – and the lines are sung with almost indecent glee. Dylan has not found a friend in Jesus but rather a harsh avenger.
The next track, I Believe In You, is very different in tone. Rather than triumphantly overseeing the apocalypse, Dylan is himself cast out, persecuted for his beliefs, for his love. The song mixes divine and secular imagery, sometimes seeming to address itself to a one-night stand, sometimes to an absent lover, sometimes to a forsaking deity. “Don’t!” – twice Dylan pleads not to be abandoned, his voice contorting into the yelp of wounded animal. Few Dylan songs sound so raw and direct, so adoring, with some of the eroticised longing that early medieval hymns direct at the bloodied body of Christ.
It’s the sound of someone utterly convinced of his righteousness, in love with his own new-found passion. It is as captivating as it is horrifying.

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London Sounds

[Originally published in OnLondon, 13 November 2017]

Richard Brown is research director at think tank Centre for London and before that he worked for Mayor Ken Livingstone and on the transformation of the Olympic Park. So he knows this city. He also knows a few of its tunes.

Why don’t we sing about our city? Writing here recently, Westminster North MP Karen Buck observed how few songs celebrate London, when so many reference postcodes, districts or neighbourhoods, from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street to Wiley’s Bow E3.

Given London’s uneasy relationship with the rest of the UK, the capital may simply be reticent, loath to sing its own praises. Like a tall person at a party, London stoops to blend in. Also, as discussed at a recent Centre for London seminar, London identity is a slippery concept; many Londoners identify far more closely with their neighbourhood than with the unexplored miles and unknowable millions of the metropolis.

Newcomers are less coy about celebrating the city, still conceiving it as a singularity, rather than as the patchwork of places that residents navigate, and it is striking how many “London” songs are written by new arrivals or even in anticipation of arrival. One of the earliest, Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me, was written before he arrived in Tilbury on the SS Empire Windrush as it brought the first wave of West Indian migrants to London in 1948.

The Smiths’ London is about the journey south from Manchester, and the Pet Shop Boys’ song of the same name depicts the Eastern European migrant experience. The Pogues’ early hymns to London, including the bleary Dark Streets of London and the boisterously offensive Transmetropolitan, were written from an adopted stance of London Irish rootlessness. Even two of the best-known London songs – The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and Ralph McTell’s Streets of London – were originally composed for other cities, Liverpool and Paris respectively.

But many more songs are unambiguously about London, while never naming the city. Karen Buck picks out her erstwhile constituents The Clash, whose songs are an A-Z of punk reference points, but Woking imports The Jam were also prolific in the key of London: In The City and Strange Town celebrate the giddy excitement and the nervous alienation of coming up from the suburbs, while Down in The Tube Station at Midnight and That’s Entertainment take a more jaundiced view of late 1970s London, and its “smell of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings”.

When I arrived in London in the 1990s, punk was long gone, except for postcards of theme-park mohicans on King’s Road. Alongside St Etienne’s electric ballads and Pulp’s class satires, Underworld’s early albums are powerfully evocative of London at that time. In Dirty Epic, sounding like a blissed-out Iain Sinclair, Karl Hyde invokes “the sainted rhythms of the midnight train to Romford”, capturing the queasy hedonism of London clubbing as acutely as Soft Cell’s Bedsitter or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls did in the 1980s.

The capital looms, even when unmentioned, over all the later phases of Britpop, when Oasis, Pulp and Blur abandoned their regional roots to celebrate the capital’s offer of sex, drugs and existential angst, and – as 2000s war clouds gather – is a powerful presence in Damon Albarn’s subsequent work with The Good The Bad and The Queen. Songs like The Libertines’ Time for Heroes, and Plan B’s Ill Manors chart London’s history as a centre for protest and of rage. They don’t mention the city by name, but they don’t need to. Where London is mentioned, in Lily Allen’s LDN or Elvis Costello’s London’s Brilliant Parade, it is sardonically or even bitterly.

Even among these anonymous appearances, as the backdrop for stories of love and hate, success and failure, positive portrayals of London seem sparse, as Karen Buck argues. We don’t rhapsodise the city; even Noel Coward’s elegant wartime London Pride is a casual and minor key ode to a “grey city, stubbornly implanted, taken so for granted for a thousand years”. But perhaps that’s right: London’s glitter, so keenly serenaded by new arrivals, soon loses its lustre. It is replaced by a deeper, more clear-eyed but less articulate attachment, even a quiet sense of tainted civic pride, which infects and informs whole genres of music.

You can follow Richard Brown on Twitter and read more of his work on London via here.

In the valley of the shadow of Blackstar

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Listening to David Bowie\’s Blackstar, the weekend it was released, I pondered how unusual it was to hear an album devoid of context or explanation.  No interviews, live performances, chat show appearances, just a 40-minute album and the echo chamber of critics\’ assessments. It was exhilarating but slightly disorientating.
24 hours later, of course, all that had changed.  Rather than being stripped of context, the album was suddenly overwhelmed, freighted with news of its creator\’s death, a death that had been anticipated throughout the recording process, though surely never expected to follow so swiftly after the album\’s release. 
The fact of Bowie\’s terminal illness is not so much a black star as a black hole, threatening to draw in and annihilate everything in its orbit.  Just as Station to Station is Bowie\’s \’cocaine album\’, The White Album is the Beatles\’ \’break-up album\’, or Here My Dear is Marvin Gaye\’s \’divorce album\’, Blackstar will forever be Bowie\’s \’death album\’.  It will be the one thing, the only thing, that everyone knows.
That\’s understandable but a bit of a shame.  It risks painting David Bowie as Grandpa Simpson, stalked by death at every turn (a simile that is really an excuse to show one of my favourite clips).  
But Blackstar is actually one of the best (the best, in my current view) of Bowie\’s late albums – rich and rewarding repeated listening.  There seem to be playful references to the First World War, 1984, nadsat, the Titanic, polari, and sly humour, even in Lazarus, where Bowie sounds like he is relishing the bathos as he intones, \”I was looking for your…ass.\”
And a morbid tone is not unusual, for Bowie or other rock stars in their autumn years.  There\’s plenty of death in The Next Day, released in 2013: \”Here I am, not quite dying\” begins the defiant chorus of the apocalyptic title song, and the elegaic Where Are We Now? picks up the theme as Bowie walks the dead through the streets of Berlin.  Bob Dylan went through what sounded like a terminal phase in the 1990s. Time Out of Mind, recorded when he was 56, was stuffed full of references to mortality (\’Trying to get to heaven before they close the door\’, \’It\’s not dark yet, but it\’s getting there\’, to pick two).  Since then, Dylan has moved on, and his more recent albums spend less time contemplating his own death, and more time gleefully planning his enemies\’ (see Paid in Blood on Tempest). And the dour tone of REM\’s 1992 Automatic for the People gave rise to endless rumours that Michael Stipe was terminally ill.
None of which is to belittle the sheer weight that impending mortality brings to bear on Blackstar, nor the unparalleled achievement (which sounds wrong, but I can\’t immediately think of a better word) of releasing something so complete so close to death.  But it\’s far from the whole story in an album that sounds by turns doleful, cryptic and almost indecently celebratory.

Control – can London play the right devolution tune?

[Originally published on LSE Policy Blog and Democratic Audit UK]

The Government’s sporadic and asymmetric approach to devolution reminds me of a story about the pioneering Mancunian music producer Martin Hannett. When Joy Division first presented themselves at his studio in 1979, Hannett told them to start playing, and then retreated into a cupboard, shutting the door behind him. The bewildered band played on for a few minutes, before sending Ian Curtis, their singer, to knock on the cupboard door and ask Hannett what was going on.

“You just carry on playing,” Hannett replied. “I’m staying in this f*cking cupboard, till I hear something I f*cking like, then I’ll tell you.” The Mayor of London and the boroughs have been playing devolutionary tunes since the London Finance Commission was set up in 2012, but are still awaiting any signal of Government approval.

Some omens have been promising. Last November, on the eve of the London Conference, there was a major devolution announcement. New powers would be devolved – over housing, planning, skills, health and social care – to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, headed by a directly-elected Mayor.

At the Conference the next day, discussions were animated: what did the ‘Devo Manc’ announcement mean, had London been left behind, how could the capital catch up with the vanguard of the Northern Powerhouse? On a panel that afternoon, Greg Clark MP, then Minister for State for Cities, said that London shouldn’t wait to be handed more powers on a plate, but should come forward with tangible proposals, as the Greater Manchester authorities had done and as other city-regions were doing, for our own ‘city deal’.

What has happened since then, or indeed since the London Finance Commission’s report was published in May 2013? On fiscal devolution – the power to set, vary and collect taxes – the London Finance Commission proposed devolution of the full range of property taxes (including stamp duty, capital gains tax, council tax and business rates), and the relaxation of borrowing controls.

The current priority for London government is full control of business rates, enabling local authorities to vary the regime to incentivise growth in particular areas and sectors. As Government has already legislated for local authorities to retain a share of business rate growth (50 per cent generally; less in central London and other areas seeing exceptional growth), you could argue that the principle has been conceded, though there is little sign of appetite for more comprehensive fiscal devolution – to London or other English cities – from Whitehall.

The experience of Manchester and other cities suggests that administrative devolution of other powers and budgets may be more fertile territory. The Greater London Authority and London’s 33 local authorities have been working together, through their ‘Congress of Leaders’, to develop proposals for devolution.

The emerging proposals are presented as part of a package of public service reform; that is to say, as necessary enablers for more efficient delivery of public services in London. They will be submitted to the Government’s spending review this month, in the hope that changes will be announced in the Autumn Statement. The proposals cover:

  • devolution of budgets for employment support for long-term unemployed people;
  • tailoring further education and skills provision to London’s needs;
  • devolving budgets for business support, including for export promotion and SME growth;
  • giving London government a lead responsibility for co-ordinating the criminal justice system;
  • measures to improve co-ordination between health and social care, including new joint commissioning arrangements, borough-based allocation of budgets and devolution of capital budgets and assets; and
  • more flexibility on housing, including on local authority borrowing powers and cross-boundary deployment of s106 payments.

The case for these measures is strong, not least given the resilience and adaptability that local authorities have demonstrated during the years of fiscal austerity. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already indicated that he wants to devolve skills budgets to London, and to give the Mayor more economic development powers, and city devolution has a more powerful champion following Greg Clark’s promotion to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But it’s hard to get a reading on the direction of government policy, not least as progress towards health devolution – the biggest prize for London in terms of potential for better joint working with social services – has been slow-paced in Manchester. The cupboard door remains closed.

And there are other factors that may slow progress for London in particular. The argument that London already has enough powers is relatively easily dealt with. As the London Finance Commission argued, devolution to London should be alongside, not at the expense of, devolution to other cities. If London can meet its own housing and skills needs, for example, it will put less pressure on other UK cities.

Politics may be a more serious obstacle, as London approaches an election year. The Government may want to see what sort of mayor London elects in May 2016, before doing an extensive deal on devolution (though this is not in any case likely to involve the Scottish-style devolution being proposed by Labour outsider Gareth Thomas).

But the biggest stumbling block for London devolution, apart from Whitehall’s innate inertia and reluctance to cede control, may be sheer complexity. The city deals announced to date have placed a premium on effective governance, with a directly elected mayor being superimposed on joint working arrangements in Manchester. London already has a directly elected mayor, of course. In fact it has five, including not only the Mayor of London, but also the mayors of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. In addition to these, there are 28 council leaders, and the City of London’s august structures. Scrutiny in the London Assembly, and in each borough, enriches this heady mix.

So London’s governance arrangements are significantly more complicated than the ‘first among equals’ mayoral model proposed in Manchester, and likely to be adoptedin other English city-regions, despite the new joint machinery proposed to oversee devolved services (while retaining several ‘sovereignty’ over existing services). There is also growing appetite for more powers from London’s sub-regional partnerships – a third tier of governance. South London Partnership has established a formal joint committee to lobby for and exercise more powers, and similar groupings in other parts of London are pushing for a stronger subregional dimension to devolution.

All of which may suggest that – 50 years after London’s boroughs were established and 15 years after the Mayor and Assembly were elected – London’s governance is beginning to show its age. The Greater London Authority has accrued significantly more powers than were originally envisaged, and more of these are direct (for example, on housing, land and planning) rather than strategic roles.
For their part, the boroughs strongly resisted the suggestions floated by Ken Livingstone for their merger into ‘superboroughs’. But an emerging voluntaristic subregional geography suggests that they see the need for something that sits between one metropolis and 33 sovereign subdivisions, recognising that skills, employment, housing and health are no respecters of administrative boundaries.

London’s leaders and mayors have been galvanised by the potential for devolution to develop a powerful consensus for public service reform. As they play on, hoping that Government will hear a tune it likes, perhaps more radical thinking will be needed to secure the devolved powers that the capital needs.

Different drums

Michael Hann’s ‘top ten’ in the Guardian prompted me to re-listen to The Lemonheads’ cover of ‘Different Drum’.  With the giddying potency of cheap music, it transported me back to a surprisingly distant age. 
‘Different Drum’ was written by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, and was originally a hit in 1967 for Linda Rondstadt’s folk-rock band, the Stone Poneys.  The Lemonheads covered it in 1990, cloaking its chords in the same grunge-pop sensibility that they brought to ‘Mrs Robinson’ a couple of years later. 
The song is pretty archetypal 1960s fare, a belittling brush-off to a lover who wants to pin the free-spirited singer down, redeemed by a woozily beautiful chord progression.  Rondstadt\’s version is mildly subversive in that it is sung from a woman’s perspective, but the sentiments are all of their time.
But what struck me when I first heard The Lemonheads’ version, and what still resonates today, is the fact that singer Evan Dando didn’t try to flip the genders back.  Over squally guitars, he sings:
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m knocking,
It’s just that I’m, I’m not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me.”
It seems crazy to think how thrilling that sounded 25 years ago.  Yes, the (extremely handsome) Dando was rebuffing another man’s advances, but he was doing it gently, with slightly patronising affection not disgust.  What would now probably be twitter-ed out of court as borderline homophobic then felt like an incredible advance.
It may well be that legendary stoner Dando just couldn’t be bothered to switch genders, but his self-penned song, ‘Big Gay Heart’ (a slightly ham-fisted hand of friendship) suggests that he was trying to make a point, as was Kurt Cobain when he excoriated Nirvana’s homophobic and sexist fans, or sang “What else can I say, everyone is gay” on their last recorded track in 1993, as were Sonic Youth when they released ‘Androgynous Mind’ in 1994. 
It all feels absurdly marginal today, but these details seemed important then, like pin-pricks of light shining through the gloom.  Homosexuality may have been legal, but it felt furtive.  Society wasn’t networked as it is today, and gay pubs and clubs were faintly forbidding shuttered-off enclaves.  Even the Pet Shop Boys were theoretically straight, until Neil Tennant came out in 1994.
Many young gay people have always been lonely, and probably still are today, despite the establishment straining every sinew to be accommodating.  But it felt particularly alienating 25 years ago to be a provincial young gay man who wanted to be at ease with his sexuality, but couldn’t cope with the cultural baggage that seemed to come with it.  Before Rob Halford exposed the demented homoeroticism of metal culture (and before I discovered the long-closed Bell in King’s Cross), the choice looked plain: be gay and learn to love disco, or simulate straightness and stay indie.
Looking back, it’s clear that these were always false choices (in terms of music if not sexuality), but they felt fundamental at the time.  That’s why my memories of those small gestures of empathy from the godheads of grunge still have such force today, and why I spent long hours perusing the pages of Melody Maker to pick up gay overtones in lyrics, gay-friendly attitudes from musicians, anything to bring my worlds together.

When the music\’s over

Originally posted on Londonist 24 June 2015

As the annual exodus to Glastonbury begins, recently-published research reminds us that live music is about a lot more than wellies and sun cream. Wish You Were Here, published by UK Music, shows that London generated more than £660m income from music tourism last year, supporting nearly 5,000 jobs. The UK leads the world in music exports, and London is the proving ground for many of the artists who will be shuttling round the international festival scene this summer.

But, as London grows, are we choking the ecosystem that gave the sector such strength? Pressure is mounting on venues across the capital. The Astoria was lost to Crossrail, Soho’s 12 Bar Club and Madame JoJo’s to redevelopment, the Bull and Gate to a gastropub, the Foundry in Shoreditch to a chic hotel, the Luminaire in Kilburn to high spec apartments. Other venues, like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, remain under threat.

But development pressure is not the only challenge. The Night Time Industries Association, which represents gig venues, bars and clubs, this week launched a report arguing that the licensing regime is anachronistic, or even atavistic, holding on to outdated myths about binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled crime, and viewing the night time economy as a risk to be regulated, not as a source of creativity, income generation and global soft power. Madam JoJo’s, for example, was shut down after a violent incident (though its demolition was already planned by the freeholder).

Is there space, NTIA asks, for a more constructive dialogue between venue owners, the police and licensing authorities, rather than the current battle against the night? Who should be responsible for managing the behaviour of revellers once they have left bars and clubs? Should licensing look at benefits as well as risks? How does the liberalisation of a 24-hour tube link to a clampdown on late licences? Does London really want to be a 24-hour city?

The issues that NTIA is grappling with reflect our uneasy and Janus-faced attitude towards the transformation of our city. We revel in the late-night opening and myriad clubs that are available to us when we are in our 20s, but then tut at the vomit-stained pavements and late night racket that they generate as we get older. We move in for the night life, but we stay for the peace and quiet.

This tension came to a head in the long battle between ‘megaclub’ Ministry of Sound in Elephant and Castle and a developer working on an adjacent site. MoS opposed the planning application, as it expected new residents to object immediately to noise levels, and force the nightclub to turn it down or simply shut down. The development will now go ahead following agreement of additional sound-proofing for the flats and acknowledgement by all parties that current sound levels can continue. But clubs are also going or gone in Vauxhall, at Farringdon, at Kings Cross — in all the once-marginal and permissive locations where hip clubland credentials sowed the seeds of sanitisation.

To be fair, there’s always been some churn in London venues, and middle-aged men like me need to be cautious about rosy-tinted nostalgia for their old haunts. Some of the venues I remember fondly were decidedly grotty, fully meriting their designation as the ‘toilet circuit’ (Kilburn’s Luminaire, which had an eccentric policy of treating punters like human beings, was an honourable exception).

And London’s nightlife is of course finding new hotpots – from Dalston, to Stratford, to New Cross.  But the loss of small music venues from inner city streets, and of clubs from its fringes, could be seen as faint warning signals that London is losing something — the diversity that makes a world city, the grit that creates pearls, the rich soil that supports shoots of creativity.

Poets, politicians, beauty queens and cooks

I don\’t seem to have put much up here recently. Normal service will be resumed presently.

In the meantime, here is one of Nick Asbury\’s \’corpoetics\’ – poetry assembled from the airy and conceited twaddle that infests corporate websites:

KPMG

I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.

I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.

I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.

What am I?
I am the best.

Reproduced without any permission, but please go and buy the book, and enoy other features on the Asbury blog, such as distinguishing the names of Fall songs from tax avoidance scams. Harder than you think.

Nothing can stop them?

It\’s good to see that Saint Etienne have offered to write a song for London 2012. SE are the quintessential London band, and What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? their unsentimentally-filmed elegy for the Lower Lea Valley\’s vanishing grimescape is well worth watching.

But, based on the evidence to date, their bid to craft a 2012 anthem is doomed to disappointment. From Barcelona to Beijing, understatement has rarely been an Olympic theme. London\’s bid was buoyed along by mannered M-People caterwhauling, and our contribution to the closing ceremony at Beijing was a faintly embarassing attempt to distill the essence of \’Cool Britannia\’ (remember that?), while ticking appropriate boxes. Red double-decker bus, as seen in establising shots in every film from Goldfinger to 28 Days Later? Check. Old white man from once-important rock band? Check. Inoffensive young black woman from talent show to counterbalance said rock dinosaur? Check. Global brand/footballer type person? Check.

I hope I\’m wrong, and there may still be a lot of suprises before the 2012 opening ceremony, but I am afraid that Saint Etienne\’s music, while not always my cup of tea (too winsomely Heavenly Records, if you know what I mean), is too subtle, too particular, too crafty and crafted, to fit into the bizarre, homogenised world of Olympic culture and bombast.

Glas at least half full

You have no reason to be interested, but I\’m in two minds about Glasvegas.

There\’s a lot to loathe. Songs about missing children, stabbings, playground fights and absent fathers suggests an unhealthy level of lachrymose. To be blunt, it sounds like the laddish, beer-spilling, tearful sentimentalism reminiscent of Oasis. And I don\’t mean the good bits of Oasis.

But there\’s a lot to love too. The music – feral, echoing drums, churning guitar chops, and full \’wall-of-sound\’ production – is curiously compelling. James Allan\’s vocal delivery proves this heady mix. His voice lilts, raps and yelps, in proper Scottish (\’Flowers and football tops\’ sounds somehow less trite when rendered as \’Flou-aas \’nd fitba torps\’). At times, his words spill out on the off-beat, like some anguished mixture of the Proclaimers and Eminem.

And the lyrics have the capacity to surprise. \’Geraldine\’ – which starts out sounding like a love song but ends up as an ode to a social worker – is a one-trick pony, but this nag rocks like a Lipizzaner. There aren\’t enough people hymning social workers. These are people who undertake one of the hardest jobs in the world, perpetually making judgements that could result in their demonisation as little Hitlers or negligent liberals. They hold the physical and mental health of some of our most vulnerable citizens in their hands. They deserve more songs.