My blog has been going since July 2010, with a mix of pieces about music, following a lower-division football team (Mansfield Town. OK, non-league now), travelling on London Underground, and one (so far) customer service nightmare.
If you’ve been reading, thank you, especially if you’ve commented either on or off the blog. I’ve introduced a new feature called Songbook. This is a series of short appreciations of individual songs rather than of musicians or bands – some of the things that would be on my iPod if I had one. I’m also hoping to add a few interviews with people whose music means a lot to me.
So that’s the plan, and it will keep going for as long as I’m enjoying it!
OK, I feel bad about this. There’s a woman travels on the Victoria Line, probably other lines too. The evidence of my eyes and nose is that she has ‘accommodation issues’ and ‘personal hygiene issues’, probably related. She spends time sleeping on the tube. Today there are severe delays, and the platform is heaving. I get down to the end where the front of the train will stop and hope for the best. I’ll be lucky to get a standing space, let alone a seat. The train arrives. God be praised! The carriage that lines up in front of me is virtually empty. I get on and sit down, spread out my paper and relax. Not for long. The stench is overpowering, and it’s clear why this carriage has been virtually evacuated. Oblivious, and draped across two seats, the lady sleeps on, occupying far more space than she strictly needs. Next stop I get out and squeeze into the next carriage, pressed up against the aftershave and rancorous perfume of the working population of Finsbury Park. The artificial smell is foul, but at least purchased.
I became aware of Jonathan Kelly’s latter pair of albums relatively late. Waiting On you, made with his band Jonathan Kelly’s Outside, and the valedictory Two Days In Winter, came out in 1974 and 1975 respectively, when Kelly’s career in the music business was on the slide. The main factors in his decline seem to have been a lethal mix of drugs, disillusionment, bad management, diminishing commercial success and, ultimately, the lack of a record company that would release any more of his music.
A friend who, like me, appreciates Jonathan Kelly’s music, knew the two records and told me cheerfully that they “weren’t very good”. Intrigued, I bought them in their new format as a double-pack of CDs, played them and disagreed. I’ve listened many times since and now love them as much as the two ‘solo’ Kelly albums ‘Twice Around The Houses’ and ‘Wait Till They Change The Backdrop’. Waiting On You, in particular, with its light funk and beautiful, soulful singing is, despite its imperfections, a great record, with memorable, heartfelt songs I’ve grown to know very well.
One of the delights of a Jonathan Kelly record comes even before you hear a sound. Scanning the track listing you see some great, tantalising titles. Who is Rabbit Face? What were Yesterday’s Promises? Where, if anywhere, is Sensation Street? And how does one make it lonely?
After Waiting On You’s undistinguished opening track, Making It Lonely emerges quietly from Kelly’s plain voice/piano introduction. It’s a stunning first verse, with a gorgeous, unpredictable, descending chain of chords and a bold, arresting opening line: “I’ve grown so dependent on you”. You’re hooked in immediately by this naked expression of the insecurity of being in love, and by Kelly’s warm, vulnerable voice – that gentle vibrato on “I spend all day waiting at the window” is pure McCartney.
The chorus explains the title, as the singer accepts, even revels in, the loneliness his love has caused – “Making it lonely for myself, no I don’t need nobody else”. The song’s finest moment, though, is wordless. It’s the chilling middle eight, where a glorious key change is accompanied by a truly sublime, simple guitar solo.
Lyrically very evocative of its time (1974, when women in pop were ‘baby’ or ‘girl’), the whole song brings to mind Carole King’s Tapestry, in its predominance of the piano, the subject matter, and the sheer quality of songwriting. Yes, that good. There might be a few bits of performance that wouldn’t have got past the quality control department of, say, Steely Dan (Messrs Fagen and Becker wouldn’t have accepted the bass guitar and piano left hand being so far out of synch, for instance), but even these faults have a certain period charm.
The first time I heard Making It Lonely I played it continuously for several hours, and only moved on because I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. Its wonderful Sunday afternoon melancholy was addictive, and now I often play it late at night, either on the CD player or on my guitar. But singing along I can never match Kelly’s individual phrasing, however well I think I know the song.
The mystery of Jonathan Kelly’s Outside is how he could attract musicians of such quality (Chaz Jankel, a future Blockhead and Snowy White, later of Thin Lizzy, were in his band) and fail to achieve commercial success. Maybe, knowing the strange practices of the music business and fickleness of the record-buying public, not such a mystery after all. And in many ways Jonathan Kelly didn’t give himself the best chance. You can absolutely sympathise with his career choice, though. Longing to play in a band, and deliver the kind of dancy, jazzy-funky soul music of his musical heroes, people like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Herbie Hancock, the more he strove to achieve his artistic aims the further he left behind the folk audience who wanted to hear the old songs, acoustically delivered.
I’m left wondering how Warner Brothers, according to an interview on Jonathan Kelly’s website, reckoned his voice wasn’t up to it when they were considering him for their label. If he ever gives lessons in not singing very well, I’ll be first in the queue.
Waking up in some outpost of north London with the sun streaming through your window on a burning July day, getting up quickly, radio on, out of the house, the short walk to the station, rippling trees, warm air, people smiling, the feeling that today something’s really going to happen. Down the stairs into the cool basement of the earth, and onto a train that’s not yet sweating with the crowd. Fifteen minutes later, I’m being carried back up to the ground, blinking into the sunlight as part of the mass, looking around at the vivid summer wonder of the streets and parks of central London with the privileged eyes of a tourist. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
It should be that you see lots of famous people on the tube. There are plenty of people who travel by tube, and surely enough of them are famous. But you don’t. Because famous people can afford to travel more slowly. I’ve seen Jeremy Bowen, Evan Davies (on an escalator, holding court to some bored acolyte), and best of all, John Cole. John Cole was my hero, and used to be Political Editor for the BBC. You’d see him standing outside the Houses of Parliament in his special herringbone overcoat, holding forth in his Ulsterman brogue about the issues of the day. And now he’s sitting opposite me, in a sparsely populated carriage, reading a book about politics. How appropriate. Do I talk to him or respect his privacy? Would he like to know about my admiration for his work? Would he appreciate my impression of him? “This is Jaaan Coooole, reporrrting from Westminstorrr. Now baaack to you in the studio Petorrrr.” Before I can decide he gets off.
Like many others I fell for The Chameleons in the early 1980s – quite by chance, but that’s the subject of another story. Along with those many I followed them with a passion, even sleeping outside one cold spring night in Leeds when there was no late bus back to Teesside after their show.
By the time their third album, Strange Times, came out The Chameleons had built up a huge, devoted live following, had signed to Geffen and looked set for world domination on the scale of U2 or Echo And The Bunnymen. It never happened, and they probably never wanted it to happen. Like many bands on the verge, they were actually on the brink, and personality conflicts, the death of someone very close to them, and possibly a general feeling that they’d run their course led to their split a year later.
The rough-hewn emotion, even desperation, that runs through The Chameleons’ music and knowledge of the time that it was made (the early 1980s) gives their music a darkness and an intensity no-one has matched before or since. It felt, and was, real, different from the fabricated gloom which served as the currency of many bands of that era.
The characteristics of their sound are easy to pin down: two inventive guitarists whose complementary lines weave in and out of each other, giving the music a suppleness and fluidity to match its rhythmic power; the monumental, muscular drumming of John Lever; the bounce of the bass guitar, and the gruff, passionate voice of its player, singer Mark Burgess. How four apparently ordinary blokes from Middleton, Manchester, conjured up such a sound, such beauty and majesty from their hands and voices, is a happy musical mystery.
I don’t hear a weak song in the three albums from The Chameleons’ original, pre-split, incarnation. I love them all, and the one that means most to me is Childhood, from Strange Times. It’s a song I can never listen to in isolation – I have to hear the whole album, and Childhood comes near the end. Of all The Chameleons’ albums Strange Times is the bleakest – the sound of a man, or maybe a band, on the edge of collapse, its monochrome grimness almost oppressive. There are moments of light and love along the way, but the album’s magnificence is in its sense of doom and struggle. And then Childhood comes, its joyous sound like a shaft of sun streaming through a stained glass window. By the time it arrives I’m emotionally exhausted, which is why investing the best part of an hour in waiting for a single song always feels like a very reasonable deal.
The hazy, shimmering opening, with its swirl of characteristically Chameleon guitar, and Burgess’ yelps and wordless singing usher in the band, with that wonderful sprung rhythm they had patented. Lyrically Childhood is unusual for The Chameleons. Their normal subject matter was a kind of generalised, human-condition-related angst, but Childhood deals with the everyday, citing local places (“My life is a Milbury’s home on Hereford Way”), mortgages, weekend routines like cleaning the car, and the importance of keeping that connection with your past (even in the bleakest, strangest of strange times “you have to hang on to your childhood”) – whilst still moving on (“open your eyes or stay as you are”).
Two great verses and a middle eight, and then a glorious epiphany of an ending, this huge belt of chorus after chorus after chorus taking the song to its finish.
It’s a wholly unsentimental song about the past – reflection, affection, but no nostalgia. And then, balance restored after the album’s long emotional journey, one more track – the heartbreaking, valedictory instrumental I’ll Remember. And you do.