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Welcome (back)

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!

I Think It’s All Over

I’ve often wondered what it means to follow a football club. Of course, I know what it means to me – a bit more of a commitment than some frippery like a career, or marriage, say. No, it’s the actual qualification as a fan that puzzles me – are you one because you say you’re one, or is there some litmus-like test which identifies you as such: dip me in the solution, I turn yellow so I’m a Stag.

I once worked with someone who everyone knew was a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter (his life at that point amounting to slightly short of forty years). We were aware of this because he’d discuss the game on a Monday morning, talk knowledgeably about the players, say things like “What we really need right now is a right-sided midfielder”…but not actually go to any matches. Pressure of work, often at weekends, other priorities. I, however, who’d started supporting Mansfield Town on moving to Nottinghamshire, and was an ever-present, home and away, for several seasons, was somehow not quite the real thing, but a Johnny-come-lately fairweather friend. He was a true supporter, blue and white through and through, whereas I was some kind of mercenary rent-a-fan who at any moment might transfer his affections to Barnet, or Manchester United.

Then there were all those Labour men who wore their adherence to their team like some kind of badge of ordinary blokedom. Everyone had to support someone as proof of normality. Thus we needed to know that Alistair Campbell was a passionate Burnley fan, as if it somehow made him any less of a bastard. Gordon Brown was big on Raith Rovers, scoring points on local allegiance whilst marginally addressing the utter weirdness factor. I’d really rather they’d all hated the game than each having some adoptive football club grafted onto their dysfunctional personalities.

Andy King once said a wise thing at a meet-the-manager-and-ask-him-awkward-questions evening at Mansfield. Addressing some prickly poser about the long-term direction of the club he said: “You lot, you’re the club. Me, the chairman, the players, we’re just passing through.” It’s true, but even players build up an affinity for a club if they’re there for more than a couple of seasons. And when they finally move on they “always look for x’s result first” where x is the club they’ve recently quit for a better deal. It’s a cliché that fickle fans have adopted too.

In a way I envied my friend with his no-commitment, free-as-the-wind approach. He never had to worry about everything going sour. His supporterdom was all in his head (he would say genes), a virtual equivalent of his birth certificate, rather than being measured in hours, (hundreds of) pounds, freezing temperatures and (thousand of) miles.

The last time I saw Mansfield Town play was at Brentford in August 2008, our final season in the Football League. On relegation to the Conference, the better players were sold off, and by the end of our first non-league season I only recognised the name of one player, Nathan Arnold (‘Nay-Nay’ as I’d learned his nickname was). I’d read about some of the others – players who’d dropped down from the ‘real’ league to play for a club who tried to match their lack of ambition, old hands desperately reviving their careers and giving it one last shot, and promising youngsters on their way up. By the time Dave Holdsworth departed as manager, he had seen some 60 new players into and out of the club, like the keeper of some wildly-spinning revolving door of transfers and loan deals. I’d look at the team list in the Sunday papers and think “And who the hell are you?”

Like the sentimental (or dishonest) ex-player, I still look for their result first – well, after looking at the Premiership scores which I already know from the previous night’s Match Of The Day. But when someone asks me who we’re playing on Saturday, I usually couldn’t say. Some Cambridgeshire village in the Blue Square something-or-other league. Hufton? Hickston? Never been there, anyway.

Am I still a fan? I don’t really know. I don’t think I support anyone else, anyway. And if anyone asked who my team was I’d still say proudly ‘Mansfield Town’. But does that make me any better than Alistair bloody Campbell? Probably not.

Obscene And Heard

One of the things about supporting a small club in a lower division (OK, the bottom division) is that you spend a lot of time standing on terraces in small grounds. And one of the advantages of this is that you can actually hear a lot of the specialised language spoken by the practitioners of the beautiful game. Or, at this level, the OK-looking in a good light and after a few drinks game.

Before the new ground was (nearly) built at Field Mill I’d perch against a barrier near the halfway line for maximum exposure to the advice, instructions and expletives of manager Andy King. This was always entertaining as King enjoyed good rapport and plenty of banter with the home fans, and not only concerning his rapidly disappearing thatch.

Old Trafford may be awesome, but with Alex Ferguson about five miles away from most seats you can barely see his back, let alone hear what he is grunting through his chewing gun. 2,500 people, on the other hand, can’t make a lot of noise, and often, especially during moments of the greatest ennui, they can actually go very quiet.

So when Cardiff were trying to find a way past slow-moving, granite-hewn, one-man wall of defence Brian Kilcline, you’d expect them to vent their frustration in verbal form. You might hope for something as cultured as a piece of Match Of The Day-style analysis from someone called Alan – maybe ‘right, lads, pull him out of position and we’ll exploit the space between Kilcline and the other centre back, and flood forward into the yawning gap that opens up’. (Cue on-screen graphic of a shaded square shape.) Instead, at one of those moments when the whole ground simultaneously decided to go silent, we heard the echoing yell ring out “Get fucking Kilcline”. A much simpler methodology, drawing an ironic cheer from the crowd, who knew that Cardiff had got the wind up. I don’t think they ever did manage to ‘get’ the aptly nicknamed Killer.

Adrian (‘Ady’) Boothroyd was an intelligent right back and a soon-to-be bright, embryonic manager, and it was fascinating back in those mid-90s days to see him still trying to perfect his craft. One Saturday afternoon warm-up before a meaningless end-of-season game I saw Kingy out on the pitch in his tracksuit drilling Boothroyd in a new way of imparting spin to the ball, kicking over it to increase the pace but reduce the flight. Boothroyd practised it over and over again, and I was amazed not only at King’s skill (and coaching ability) but also at the player’s willingness to learn something from the older man. King’s regular instruction to Ady during matches as he fired in crosses on his characteristic overlaps was “whip it”. So regular, in fact, that the crowd often told him before King got a chance. So here was Boothroyd, in his late twenties, learning another way to whip it.

I’ve always wished that TV football programmes would supply a lip-reader to let us viewers know what the players are saying to each other and to the referee. I know there’s a lot of ‘get tight’ and ‘second ball’, and I’m sure this means something important. Sometimes it’s easy to guess the words, but for those that don’t begin with ‘f’, it usually isn’t. At Field Mill, however, you got the full aural effect – no audio-description needed. I know that conversation with the referee often centres on his eyesight, ancestry, body mass index, hair coverage, moral standing or colour. But amazingly, I discovered at Field Mill that players don’t always curse the official. I once heard the erudite Boothroyd deliver the most considered, polite and quasi-legal challenge to a referee’s decision: “Surely not!”

Boothroyd, as a right back, would spend half the match as the closest recipient of his manager’s usually unintelligible instructions. I know that players often pretend not to hear what’s being screamed (or see what’s being mimed) by ex-playing managers frustrated by their latter-day impotence on the touchline. Often these are third-party directives to give team-mates some vital piece of news or information. Boothroyd’s default response was “I’ve told him” before running off. There’s no answer to that, as Kingy discovered.

Whilst verbal communication between team-mates is to be encouraged, it has the disadvantage that its audience includes the opposition. The number of substitutes a team can name has risen in line with inflation from one to two, to three including a goalkeeper, to any old three, to three out of five, and now three out of pretty much anyone who lives in the EU. In the days of ‘any old three’, you’d think most teams would either include a substitute goalie, or at least have in mind someone who would go between the sticks (or what Alan Hansen calls ‘the goals’) in an emergency. Not Mansfield Town, not Kingy. When Stags’ keeper was carried off in some no-hope Auto Windscreeen Shield tie, we expected a fairly swift donning of the green jersey by one of the subs or even onfield players. But no. Cue lengthy debate about who it should be, and careful appraisal of the merits of several candidates for the position before they were for various reasons discarded from the selection process.

By some mystical rite akin to puffs of smoke rising from the Vatican, the gloves were destined for the frozen hands of midfield linchpin John Doolan, the one player you wouldn’t have wanted stuck in the wrong 18 yard box. But Scouser Doolan had already blown any suitability for the task facing him by loudly broadcasting, in tones of rising panic: “But I’ve never been in goal in me life”. Oh. A bit like the “I can’t swim” confession in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The West Terrace was instantly filled with dread, and the opposition bench, sited just in front of them, with a fresh sense of endless possibilities and a hatful of goals.

Tactical instructions, like words of encouragement or abuse, can often be overheard and thus, as David Coleman used to say, ‘telegraphed’ to the opposition. Phil Stant had been a cult hero at Mansfield, largely for his 26 goals in the 1991/1992 promotion season, but also for giving every semblance of madness, and not just through his various entertaining hairstyles. His exploits and personality had earned him the nickname, probably unwelcome to most people, of Psycho. Returning to Field Mill as a Bury player, he inevitably destroyed his former club in a 5-1 win and annoyingly received a standing ovation from the home crowd as he left the pitch early. (I don’t mind sportsmanship, but that’s taking it too far.)

But at the pause for a throw-in, while an injured player was being attended to, you could hear him plot the next goal from a position near the halfway line. Then, as if watching an educational video, you could follow him and his team-mates execute those precise instructions and admire one of Stant’s four goals that afternoon. “Give it Jonno”, Stant enjoined several times (believed to be a reference to Bury player Lenny Johnrose), before outlining what Jonno should do with the ball when it had been thrown to him. (This mainly involved passing it to Stant himself and being on hand if he needed to dispose of it). Whatever the details, it worked a treat, and Psycho, displaying latent coaching potential here, himself went on to manage, albeit at Lincoln.

But my favourite piece of Stags verbiage occurred not on the pitch, but in the dressing room. No, I never got in there. Never really fancied a communal bath in muddy water myself. Characters would arrive at Field Mill and, like O’Neill Donaldson, stay briefly but remain in the memory for much longer. Cyrille L’Helgoualch was a Frenchman, and God knows how he landed at Mansfield Town. But he briefly illuminated the club with some stunning performances and one great long-distance goal against Rochdale. Before the ground was rebuilt, you’d pass the frosted windows of the home dressing room in the West Stand on your way out of the ground, and even see players’ suits hung up on pegs through the glass. Cyrille’s English wasn’t great, and probably neither was his knowledge of dodgy early 70s novelty singles. So one spring afternoon it was somehow touching, and perhaps a little bemusing to him, to hear the strains of Nice One Cyril coming loud and clear through the open dressing room windows. Yes, it had been a nice one. Just one request, if it’s not too late: let’s have another one.

Under The Ground 16: Bag Lady

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.

Songbook: Jonathan Kelly – Making It Lonely

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.

Top photograph by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

Under The Ground 15: Feeling Groovy

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.

Under The Ground 14: John Cole

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.

Songbook: The Chameleons – Childhood­

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.

The Chameleons website