Underneath The Ivy

Since I saw the video for ‘Wuthering Heights’ on Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop when I was about 13, I’ve always loved Kate Bush – and I’ve just spent a solid day reading Graeme Thomson’s fairly new unauthorized biography ‘Under the Ivy’ while on holiday.

I found the book to be extraordinarily insightful into Kate Bush’s canon of work – clearly the author is a devoted fan  — but it’s also quite an infuriating and frustrating book in many ways.  The Bush family and close friends operate a bizarre sort of omerta – keeping a level of privacy that is so obsessive that it was only an indiscretion by Peter Gabriel two years after the event that put the news that Kate Bush had become a mother into the public domain.

So despite this book being the exact opposite of a hatchet job, there’s no co-operation from anyone in the Bush family or anyone in their direct sphere of influence – they speak but through the author’s incredibly diligent researching of contemporaneous press interviews, which themselves became more opaque with the few interviews to promote ‘Aerial’ as likely to discuss her home baking as any musical influences.

Although Thomson has interviewed many in the outer orbit, including record company executive, musicians, dancers and so on, one has the impression that their stories are not exactly candidly told. Only record producer Hugh Padgham admits to his time working with Kate Bush as not necessarily the most amazing and wonderful.

It’s a shame because the overt narrative of the book leaves many questions (such as what caused Kate Bush to break up with Del Palmer, her boyfriend of 15 years) but there are various suggestions that the author and interviewees know a lot more than they will share with the reader . The nearest the author gets to shedding  light on the reason behind the obsessive privacy is in reference to Bush’s requirement for complete editorial control over an edition of the BBC’s 2009 programme ‘Queen of Pop’– ‘sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly it is that she’s afraid of’.

There’s a clear divide between the biographical detail, where the author is very keen to couch his words in a way calculated to be diplomatic and not to cause offence, and his comments on the music, which are rather opinionated  — he’s not afraid to say a track’s rubbish – even though he might be wrong (I think ‘Experiment IV’ is fantastic and I wish I had a copy). It’s almost as if the fairly brutal trashing of some of the discography is a proxy substitute for having his hands tied by non-co-operation and libel laws – ‘I can’t say what I think happened in her life story but I’ll damn well say what I think about the music’.

He takes something of the Ian MacDonald view (as in the book about the Beatles – ‘Revolution in the Head’) that there’s an arc in an artist’s career, peaking in the middle. As McDonald tended to bend the argument that Revolver and Sergeant Pepper were the apogee of the Beatles’ career then Thomson cites ‘Hounds of Love’ as the apex of Kate Bush’s.

I agree that ‘Hounds of Love’ is a fine album and one that has quite personal associations for me as its innate Englishness helped me deal with the culture shock of moving to California at the time it was released.

However, looking at the songs on the Kate Bush back catalogue, not so many of my favourites are from ‘Hounds of Love’. I made a playlist of my favourite tracks from the six of her albums that I had close to hand on ‘CD’ (excepting  ‘Lionheart’ and ‘The Red Shoes’) and found the following:

  1. ‘The Kick Inside’ has seven: ‘Moving’, ‘The Saxophone Song’, ‘The Man with the Child in his Eyes’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Feel It’, ‘Oh To Be In Love’, ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’ (the latter three make a stunning sequence).
  2. ‘Aerial’ (6): ‘King of the Mountain’, ‘A Coral Room’, ‘Sunset’ (mainly the first few seconds ‘Could be honeycomb’ – what a beautiful phrase), ‘Somewhere In Between’, ‘Nocturn and Aerial.
  3. ‘The Dreaming’ (5): ‘Sat in Your Lap’ (genius), ‘Pull Out the Pin’, ‘Suspended in Gaffa’ (ditto), ‘Night of the Swallow’, ’Houdini’.
  4. ‘Hounds of Love’ (5): ‘Running Up That Hill’, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘The Big Sky’ (especially the 12” version – ‘That cloud looks like industrial waste’), ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Hello Earth’ (possibly her second best melody)
  5. ‘Never for Ever’ (4) although it should get extra for its absolutely extraordinary cover art: ‘Babooshka’, ‘Delius’, ‘The Infant Kiss’ (her most stunning melody – it goes into unimaginable directions, rather like the lyrics), ‘Night Scented Stock’.
  6. ‘The Sensual World’ (3): ‘The Sensual World’ (IMHO her best track ever for multitudinous reasons), ‘Rocket’s Tail’ and ‘This Woman’s Work’.

Had I had considered ‘Lionheart’ then I’d certainly include ‘Wow’, ‘Symphony in Blue’, ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ and, probably, ‘Hammer Horror’. I’d also want to have ‘December Will Be Magic Again’ on any playlist at any time of the year (‘See How I fall’) – the only version I have is an 80s remix on a compilation with some detestable bongos added.  There are also a number of excellent B-sides like ‘Passing Through Air’, ‘Lord of the Reedy River’ and ‘My Lagan Love’.

I’d be tempted not to include anything at all from ‘The Red Shoes’ – any album with Lenny Henry on it really can’t be taken seriously, even if it is by Kate Bush – although, at a push, ‘Constellation of the Heart’ is quite jolly.

So my arc doesn’t have a pattern much at all – maybe a rollercoaster pattern in very quickly ascending the heights at the start, then dipping a little, building some more momentum, then plunging erratically into the doldrums before straightening out a little and levelling into some consistency towards the end. But what a ride!

Right Over the Top

Oddly enough I’m a great fan of chillout electronic music — at least the types that remind me either of classical music or 70s/80s disco. I’ve got quite a number of compilations — mainly Ministry of Sound. It’s amazing how often this sort of music is heard as the backing for television programmes — ‘Hayling’ by FC Kahuna was on the Panorama programme about Battersea Dogs’ Home last night.

The French seem to do well in this sort of ambient electro-chillout music — Air, who’ve made some superb tracks like ‘All I Need’ and ‘La Femme d’Argent’ are perpetually played in the background on TV — usually in irritating ten second bursts.

One that’s grown on me quite a bit is a track called ‘Kilometer’ by the interesting French artist Sebastian Tellier. It’s off an album called ‘Sexuality’ and a quick look at the video for the track (see below) shows the name is no co-incidence. I found quite a strange interview with ‘cult Parisian composer/producer’  on the Time Out website in which he comes out with quotations like ‘I’m very happy to live in the sexual society! Ha ha ! Because I love to watch and I feel very okay with the naked body of a woman, and so I want to kind of say thank you to all the people for sex…Before, I did some ’70s-type records, but I don’t want to have ’70s sex. Too hairy.’

Kilometer is a fascinating video but the version of the track used is a bit slow and uninteresting compared with the faster 70s disco pastiche that is on the Ministry of Sound Chilled II compilation.

It’s very visually interesting as he looks as hairy as a Dulux dog himself in the video — a sort of French Demis Roussos with sunglasses. The video itself is so over the top it must be a complete parody of the idea of the French louche love god — Tellier is enjoying the company of many young ladies who are parading around in their underwear — there are ample shots of womens’ bottoms. It’s a The dancing hot dogs surely and the toothpaste mean it cannot be serious.

Best Albums of the Last 30 Years?

‘My arse,’ as Jim Royle might say.

Radio Two listeners are having to pick the supposed best album of the last 30 years out of the motley list below. Maybe the list is selected from only the people who can be bothered to turn up to receive the award at the Brits? It’s difficult to imagine a bigger bunch of crap — who on earth shortlisted this rubbish? In many cases the album isn’t even the best that the artists concerned has made.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head – Coldplay: they might be a decent band if they got a singer. I thought ‘Viva la Vida’ was ok but most of Coldplay is pretentious whining — cock rock for middle-class students.

No AngelDido: this is actually a very good album and balances the pop influences of Rick Nowells (Stevie Nicks, Belinda Carlisle) with the trip-hop influences of her brother’s band Faithless. At least with names like Dido and Rollo, they had to admit they were posh — not kids off da street like most middle-class musicians. Because of inverted snobbery by middle-class music journalists the only people who were allowed to admit they liked Dido were those who had impeccably ‘street’ credentials — like Eninem, who knew a good tune when he heard one.

Diamond Life – Sade: this one is good too. It has the mark of a good album in that some of the non-single tracks are equally memorable as those that got in the charts. It’s got a lot of period charm.

Hopes And Fears – Keane: I don’t know anything about this one or Keane, in fact, apart from their song ‘Spiralling’ was ok.

What’s The Story Morning Glory – Oasis: a load of over-hyped, third-rate bombastic imitiations of Beatles tracks

No Jacket Required – Phil Collins: unbelievable — ‘Face Value’ was genuinely an album of its time with a single that has endured (even if the drumming gorilla didn’t save Cadbury’s). ‘No Jacket Required’ was loveable geezer Phil at his showbiz worst.

The Man Who – Travis: I’m the man who can’t remember anything about Travis, let alone their supposedly brilliant album

Rockferry – Duffy: OK but largely a throwback to the 60s in musical style — is imitating 40 year old music something that makes the best album of the last 40 years. At least it isn’t Amy Winehouse.

Urban Hymns – The Verve:I bought this on cd when it first came out, listened to it once and then never bothered again. Good opening tune but wasn’t it derived from the Rolling Stones?

Brothers In Arms – Dire Straits: like the Phil Collins selection, not their best album — they did some decent stuff a few years earlier but this is stadium formula bloat-rock.

Seems like whichever nerd put the shortlist together selected their favourite album (probably Keane or Travis) and then put it up against a load of other dross to ensure it wins — while milking Radio Two listeners for phone votes. It will be interesting to see how the women artists compare. I think anyone with any independent taste should organise a Rage Against the Machine campaign to make Dido’s ‘No Angel’ the top album of the last 30 years. It’s certainly the best there but that says everything about the competition.

I’ll try and think of my own list.

‘I Grew Up Watching This’

So said ‘shocked’ BBC Sports Personality Winner of the Year 2009, Ryan Giggs, in his genuinely unrehearsed speech. Ironic then that most of the generation that will succeed Giggs were growing up watching the X-Factor on ITV. What sort of values the X-Factor implants into impressionable minds we might not know until it’s too late, when any genuine creative talent in this country has finally been snuffed out. The lessons of the X-Factor seem to have been predicted by the Pet Shop Boys song ‘Opportunities’ nearly 25 years ago — ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.’ In fact the principle of grooming some nice boy singer to croon other people’s songs pre-dated the Pet Shop Boys by another 25 years — it was the way ‘Tin Pan Alley’ worked up until the early 60s when the Beatles broke the mould (at least for the next 40 years or so) by both writing and performing their own material. How ironic then that who should pop up on the X-Factor final but Paul McCartney. I was quite pleased to see him — at least two of the songs were performed by the person that wrote them. I would doubt whether any X-Factor winner will ever write, or more to the point be allowed to write, their own material. It was quite nice to see McCartney performing live on the biggest TV show this year but it throws up an interesting question — was Paul McCartney unwittingly bookending the era of innovative pop music that he largely started?

The most annoying thing about the X-Factor is the ridiculous hysteria in the audience. The sound mixers on the programme must realise that the judges rarely contribute anything other than vapid platitudes so the whooping and yelling of the idiots in the audience is mixed high. I speculated whether audience members for the X-Factor had to take an intelligence test and only those that failed it would be eligible for tickets. This is unlikely to be true as the pass mark would need to be set so low that only people who had yet to learn to hold a pencil would have a realistic chance of getting tickets . Whoever manipulates the audience seems to be peddling the absurd New Labour notion (especially in the context of a talent show) that everyone’s a winner and everyone deserves to win and be praised by the judges. If everyone could win then there would be no show — that’s the whole point of it. It seems to be an extension of the Blairite Lady Diana ‘People’s Princess’ self-conscious emoting.

It was odd for Giggs to be selected for the shortlist this year — he must have been coming up for a lifetime achievement soon anyway. However, he showed in his speech that he did have a real personality — a far more genuine set of comments than those rehearsed with PR advisers in advance.

Mancy Deadmau5

I love Deadmau5’s song ‘I Remember’ and I found on the web that there’s a version of the video that features a bunch of Mancs and some seedy locations in Manchester. It’s all about planning a rave, which is not really my thing at all, and has some obnoxious Mancy character in expostulating about counter culture values. Maybe it’s meant to be a bit of a period piece from the 90s. The music is so good it could come from the late 80s.


I was just checking on Gary Numan’s birthplace — after Antony correctly challenged my Essex assertion (maybe it was his later association with Shakatak that confused me). I found that Gary Numan was yet another famous musician born in 1958. This year produced a pretty impressive collection of musical luminaries who came to prominence in the late 70s and dominated music well into the 90s between them. Most people will probably know that Michael Jackson was born in 1958 but so was Madonna — and, my favourite, Kate Bush. The rather nice Belinda Carlisle was also born then. A similarly disproportionate number of well known actors and rather nice actresses were also born in 1958: Annette Bening (American Beauty — the film with the best soundtrack ever?), Holly Hunter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon,  Michelle Pfieffer and Sharon Stone. There are bound to be a lot more but I can’t find anything better on the web that lists people by birth year than this. I suppose it was probably a big year demographically but that probably doesn’t fully explain the distibution. It’s a bit like the huge number of famous people that come from Rochdale — Cyril Smith, Gracie Fields, Anna Friel, Bill Oddie, Andy and Liz Kershaw, Steve Coogan (sort of — he comes from Middleton which is in the metropolitan borough), Don Estelle, Lisa Stansfield, Kieron Prendeville (of That’s Life), John Virgo — and plenty more. Bizarrely, I found on Wikipedia that there is a novelist called Nicholas Blincoe who apparently comes from Rochdale. This is a very unusual surname and so I think it must be someone whose family I knew of as a child — they lived about 200 yards from me next door to one of my friends. If it’s the same family then I didn’t know the children too well as they went to the private school. I may have to look his books up on Amazon.

How Northerners and a Few Essex Boys Changed the Music World For the Better

There was a great 90 minutes of nostalgia on BBC4 last night — an account of Synth Britannia — the story of electronic music in the late 70s and very early 80s (the fantastic track list is on this page). The origins of the movment and their inspiration in terms of novels, films and Kraftwerk was all very interesting but the best bit was when some of the musicians started talking about their iconic records and demonstrating the synthesizers actually used on the record. Dave Ball from Soft Cell played ‘Tainted Love’ (one of the candidates for best synth track ever) along with the electronic percussion that makes the record still so memorable (there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to when it comes in). He spoke in a bluff Yorkshire accent and talked about coming down to Soho with Marc Almond like a pair of country hicks.

One remarkable aspect of the bands featured was they overwhelming came from two regions — northern industrial cities and Essex. Liverpool had OMD, Manchester Joy Division, Leeds for Soft Cell, Sheffield the Human League and Heaven 17. Essex produced Gary Numan and Yazoo/Depeche Mode.

Numan was the subject of some revisionist history — Andy McCluskey from OMD said it was a scandal that Numan’s career was effectively cut short by press sniping. Numan himself admitted he was not a particular sociable person and this may explain his faux pas in openly supporting Thatcher in the 80s. Many more bands completely embraced Thatcherism in their desire to ‘make lots of money’ but were smart enough to maintain a left-leaning image as a sop to the music press. Apparently the established bands like OMD and the Human League who were struggling to get in the charts were a bit put out that ‘Are Friends Electric’ steamed in to number one in 1979. Listening to it now, they shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s probably still the best synth track ever although it has guitars and acoustic drums. The drumming is the making of the track IMHO — a fantastic relentless sound that complements the mechanical synth lines.

I have a soft spot for the Human League and it was good to see Phil Oakey talking about how they made some records. Apparently they had the first Linn drum in the country and put it hurriedly on ‘Sound of the Crowd’. It was interesting to see how Suzanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall had aged. I always preferred Joanne (the dark one) but she now looks like one of the panellists on ‘Loose Women’. Suzanne still looked quite good, albeit with lots of make up and an extravagant hairdo. 

Martyn Ware (or was it Ian Craig Marsh) from Heaven 17  described how he was motivated to outdo the Human League, having been fired by them (Phil Oakey said something about not turning up to a photoshoot). Dare and Penthouse and Pavement were apparently recorded simultaneously in the same studio — Human League by day and Heaven 17 by night. I love both albums and Dare is probably the best album as it has two classic tracks (‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’) and the rest are pretty strong too. Yet Penthouse and Pavement has a fantastic redolence of place and time — although I didn’t really get to know the album until a couple of years after it was released. The title track of the album seems to reflect the 80s political point of inequality and contrast (hence Penthouse and Pavement) in its musical arrangement: descending piano chords and dance beat contrasting with the rambling woodwind soundg synth introduction and Glenn Gregory’s laconic vocals — ‘Sweat my youth away’. Breathy female vocals and the fast percucssion give a contrasting sense of urgency to the chorus.

As with the Electric Dreams technology programme, the music in Synth Britannia — and particularly ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ show what a huge societal change occurred in the 1980s. The cover of ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ anticipates the arrival of the yuppie culture — and the Essex types took the title of ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’ literally — despite the group’s ideological standpoint being to look back to the industrial society of the north — out of which this music was created in the first place.

Electric Dreams — Why Spreading Jam on CDs Was Such A Bold Step Forward

I watched the second in the series of ‘Electric Dreams’ on BBC4  — on the 80s. The programme on the 70s last week was quite shocking in its accurate depiction of the spartan lifestyle people in this country led at the start of the 1970s — twin tub washing machines being quite a novelty and teasmades being at the cutting edge. One point the series seems to be making is that change is quite discontinuous: in retrospect there seem to be periods of relative stability and then a few years when huge changes happen. One of these times seems to be the late 70s until the mid-80s — co-incidentally when some great music came out.

The 70s seemed to be way back in history whereas by the end of the 80s they’d got computers, CDs, videos and so on which means most of the entertainment and music options were pretty similar to what people use today (if not the actual technology). It’s only mobile phones and the Internet that would seem to be the big innovations to come. Everything seems to have changed with Thatcher coming in which, whatever one’s opinion of her, certainly was quite disruptive. 

There were some classic pieces of footage — Cliff Richard looking very creepy in the ‘Wired for Sound’ video (perhaps he’s just not confident at roller skating?) and the totally absurd Sinclair C5 (I remember when BBC Nationwide built up to its launch describing it as a car). Particularly pleasing was the demonstration of the amazing properties of the compact disc which were shown by spreading honey and pouring coffee  over the disc — before cleaning it off and putting it in the machine. (Not sure it was the great Michael Rodd though.) Great selling point should you be the sort of person who wants to plaster your breakfast all over your music collection before playing it! Anyone under about 30 must be completely mystified why this test was carried out. (For any youngsters watching this, it’s because spreading jam on a vinyl record would irreparably break it — though it still doesn’t explain why someone would want to do it.)  

They picked some fantastic tunes for the soundtrack — more unusual ones than in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ — and it’s listed on the iPlayer page. I’d not heard ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants for a while. ‘Quiet Life’ by Japan always sounds so reminiscent of the era. Not heard much either is ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Rockwell (surprising as it has Michael Jackson singing). From later in the decade music included ‘System Addict’ by Five Star, ‘Good Life’ by Inner City (which I think is fantastic), ‘True Faith’ by New Order and ‘Pacific State’ by 808 State which, oddly, is also on a Ministry of Sound Chilled compilation of music for modern youngsters that takes in tracks up to 2008. It goes to show how maybe things have changed less than the intervening period than they did in the few years before and what a fascinating time the late 70s and early 80s were to grow up in.