Rock music

My summer of love with God’s gift

When the author and podcaster Viv Groskop first visited Ukraine, she travelled there from Moscow, on a long train that ran eventually beside a field of sunflowers. They were, she recalls in her lovely and modestly scaled memoir, like a ‘blast of sunshine screaming: “Welcome to Ukraine! You are no longer in Russia!”’ The year was 1994, and Groskop had been in the former USSR for a little under a year. A modern languages undergraduate at Cambridge, she had decided to take her year abroad in St Petersburg. Until she got there, she had barely thought of Ukraine. It was one of a bunch of newly independent states; it hadn’t

Tiananmen and the Tang: the rise of rock in China

35 min listen

Every protest needs an anthem, and for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, ‘Nothing to My Name’ by Cui Jian became that emblem. Cui was one of China’s earliest rockers, taking inspiration from the peasant music of China’s northwest and fusing it with the rock ‘n’ roll that was beginning to arrive in the country. It put rock music – and the Chinese interpretation of it – under the national spotlight. On this episode I talk to Kaiser Kuo, host of the China Project’s Sinica podcast, who also happens to be a founding member of Tang Dynasty, one of China’s earliest and greatest rock bands. We talk about how a China

Spiky, sticky, silly: interviewing Van Morrison

Q: ‘How would you define transcendence?’ A: ‘Well, how would you define it?’ I interviewed Van Morrison last year. (I’m fine now, thanks.) While the exercise wasn’t quite the near-death experience of industry legend — he was polite and accommodating, if not always exactly forthcoming — it got sticky at times, as the above exchange illustrates. Let’s call it a solid 6.5 on the Lou Reed Scale. Morrison, who turns 75 on the last day of this month, was formed in an age when a people-pleasing public persona wasn’t essential for musical success. In rare interviews, he engages with informed questions about music but refuses to indulge in the game

The old monster Elton John appears charmingly self-deprecating

I don’t care for Elton John. A cross between Violet Elizabeth Bott and Princess Margaret, his temper tantrums are legendary, whether asking fans on to the stage to dance and then screaming at them not to get so close, or demanding that an employee do something about the blustery weather keeping him awake. They say you get the face you deserve after 50, and he looks every inch the bitter old busybody who divides his time between twitching the curtains and gossiping over the fence about the behaviour of those younger and prettier than himself. He has now become drearily bound into the liberal establishment — see his recent puffed-up

Nick Lowe is that rare phenomenon — the veteran rock star who improves with age

It is to Nick Lowe’s everlasting credit that in May 1977, a few months after David Bowie released the album Low, Lowe issued an EP entitled Bowi. Appearing on Stiff Records at the height of punk, the record contained ‘Marie Provost’ (sic), an account in two and a half minutes of the unhappy life and bizarre death of the silent movie star Marie Prevost: ‘She was a winner/ Who became the doggie’s dinner,’ chorused a heavenly choir of multi-tracked Lowes. Surfing on the New Wave, as Stiff Records’ slogan had it, Lowe followed Bowi with an LP called Jesus of Cool in the UK and Pure Pop for Now People

Real rock

Last weekend, in a pleasant park outside Maidstone, a most unusual rock festival took place. For one thing, it was a rock festival. Despite ‘rock festival’ being a common term for any live music event featuring multiple artists taking place outdoors, there are very few actual rock festivals any more. There are festivals for specific forms of rock — the metal events Download and Bloodstock — and there are festivals that have a few rock bands amid everything else. But not festivals that feature a broad range of bands, all of whom can be called ‘rock’ — hard rock, prog rock, country rock, blues rock. For another, there was the

Music and revolt

On 13 August 1977, a demonstration by the National Front was routed in the streets of Lewisham by thousands of anti-fascist activists. The latter’s elation palled, however, when they saw the evening news frame the event as a battle between rival extremists. Among the critical voices were Labour’s deputy leader Michael Foot and the Daily Mirror, which branded the anti-fascists ‘as bad as the National Front’. The NF’s opponents learned a valuable lesson at remarkable speed. Just weeks later, they launched the Anti-Nazi League at the House of Commons, with Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain on the steering committee and a medley of celebrity supporters that included Iris Murdoch, Brian

Beat it

Here’s a tricky quiz question for you. What word completes this sentence from a BBC4 documentary on Friday: ‘The world as we know it was created by the…’? The answer, bizarrely enough, is ‘backbeat’ — because the documentary in question was On Drums… Stewart Copeland!, in which the former Police percussionist took a fiercely drum-centric view of well, more or less everything. This was a programme, for example, that compared Elvin Jones’s stick work for John Coltrane to Moses’s parting of the Red Sea; that attributed the Beatles’ success largely to Ringo; and that put forward Dee Dee Chandler as one of the key figures of 20th-century global history. So

The birth of minimalism

The Spectator is responsible for many coinages. One of the most significant came in 1968, when an article by our 24-year-old music critic, Michael Nyman, appeared with the headline ‘Minimal Music’ (reprinted below). It was a wry joke about music that was more experimental than strictly minimal but it stuck and a musical style that, whatever you think of it, has rarely been matched in influence or reach was born. Walking home from the Fugs’ concert, organised by the Middle Earth at the Round House last week, I was shocked by the 4 a.m. silence — by its awesome superiority to a lot of modern music, and by its unfamiliarity.

The road not taken | 25 October 2018

In the 1970s, when Mark Kermode first picked up an instrument, the UK record business was a very different place. There were five weekly music papers — NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and Disc. Around 15 million people tuned into Top of the Pops every Thursday; Radio 1 reached more than 20 million listeners a week, and chart 45s could sell 500,000 copies. Today, the idea of schoolchildren saving up their pocket money to buy the latest single feels as if it has long since gone the way of other formerly popular activities such as stamp collecting and origami. The times, as Dylan almost remarked, they’ve been a-changin’. ‘As

I’m never happier than when an arts show on TV is cancelled

I am, to paraphrase myself, ‘a freethinking middle aged rock ‘n’ roller, still on the toilet circuit hoping it’s a good walk-up.’ Actually, unless I live to be 99 the bit about being middle aged is rather optimistic. Tomorrow it is my half century birthday, but today I hit the road with my Scottish tour manager Jim bound for Ramsgate – Brexit central control. Kent seaside towns are where it all happens: Ted Heath, satanism, Charlie Hawtrey cottaging in maritime pubs. Time stands still in Kent. It’s a very 21st-century kind of place. I am booked on a short tour of the UK to celebrate the release of a new

Mourning glory

  On the face of it, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds aren’t exactly a natural fit with the O2. Cave’s songs range from the thrillingly cacophonous to the quietly lovely. But with their recurring themes of death, violence and religion, and a muse that rarely leads Cave in the direction of the mainstream, very few have ever seemed particularly arena-friendly. And that was before his latest album, Skeleton Tree, which forms the basis of his current tour — and which Cave completed after his 15-year-old son Arthur died falling from a cliff in Brighton. Cave has warned against seeing the album as a direct response to the tragedy, emphasising

Northern rock

A fortnight ago, the debut album by a young British guitar band entered the chart at No. 6. You might have expected to see this pored over with some interest by the press, for whom the search for the New Arctic Monkeys, the New Oasis and the New Smiths has long been a matter of urgency. Instead, you will scour the daily newspaper arts pages in vain for mentions of the Sherlocks, and you won’t fare much better looking at the specialist music magazines. According to the self-anointed tastemakers of British pop, they might as well not exist. That’s because the Sherlocks are representatives of a growing trend in British

The National: Sleep Well Beast

Grade: A– There are plenty of websites where fans try to discern, without any success, what in the name of Christ The National are actually singing about. Thousands of words have been expended on just one — rather lovely — song, ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, from the album High Violet. The answer is, they’re more often than not singing about nothing. They’re just nice words that sound good next to each other. It’s euphonious gibberish. The Cincinnati boys are back doing the same stuff with their first album in four years. The lead single is entitled ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, which may be the most pretentious and pompous

Arcade Fire: Everything Now

Grade: D+ Well, this is truly awful. Perhaps the worst album by a major band since Mardi Gras by Creedence Clearwater Revival back in ’72. And that’s a lot better than this pompous, trite and at times desperate drivel. Their first album, Funeral, was quirkily anthemic and packed with memorable tunes. The second — Neon Bible — reminded me, chillingly, of Echo and the Bunnymen outtakes. The decline has continued apace. This time, Daft Punk have stapled on some bangin’ beats in an attempt to make the band seem hip. This stratagem has not worked. It makes them seem like dads at a rave. They still plough that post-punk early-1980s

England Lost/Gotta Get A Grip

Two songs in which Sir Michael informs us that he is distressed by both Brexit and Donald Trump. Released with, according to the 70-year-old singer, ‘urgency’: he can see that we are in trouble and was naturally anxious to help us out. The first, ‘England Lost’, is at least redeemed by a soupçon of wit. Jagger explains that he went to see England play football but that they lost, and he got wet in the rain. But it then turns into a sort of state of the nation thing, by the simple addition of an apostrophe and the letter ‘s’. England’s lost, he bemoans, and chucks in an incoherent allusion

His dark materials | 3 August 2017

Randy Newman is already struggling to keep up with himself. His dazzling new album, Dark Matter, was written before the changes of the last year, and no matter how pointed and current some of it is, there’s something missing. ‘There was a newspaper article that said Donald Trump is like a character in a Randy Newman song,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think there were any real people like the guy in “Political Science” or “My Life Is Good”. But he’s close.’ He’s had a bash at something for the Potus. ‘I just had an idea for a Trump song,’ he says, sounding rather like Yogi Bear’s rather smarter brother. ‘But

A genuine oddity

The most compelling pop singers in music right now — at least in the branch where pop singers still play guitars — were on stage last week. The 1975, fronted by Matty Healy, finished the tour in support of their second album, a US and UK number one, with a headline show at the Latitude festival, the chosen spot for recreational drug-taking by kids who have just finished their GCSEs. Ezra Furman played his most prestigious London show yet, appearing at the Barbican as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations of his label, Bella Union. Healy and Furman are very different — the one a genuine popstar, the other off

Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar

Boy is she fat, and getting fatter. I realise this is something we’re not meant to mention when talking about Beth — but it’s kinda the elephant in the room. Literally. And I worry about the lass. These days she makes Mama Cass look like Edie Sedgwick. Of course, we should accept her as she is — a lesbian-identifying, very hefty babe from good ol’ down-home Ar-kin-saw. Her difference, then, is part of the schtick, breaking the mould, etc. — and that’s just fine and (Jim) dandy, providing something palpably ‘different’ actually emanates from the stuff she does. That the proud revelling in difference is not merely a cosmetic exercise

Car trouble

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is an action, heist, car-chase film that is said to reinvent the action, heist, car-chase film. But as you can’t have an action, heist, car-chase film without action, heists and car chases, you may wish to ask yourself: how much do I like action, heist, car-chase films in the first instance? And that’s the bottom line, I suppose. This action, heist, car-chase film is also about the soundtrack, as the story is told through the… ears? of Baby (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver who doesn’t just enjoy music, but needs it. He rarely takes his earbuds out. He can’t perform unless he’s listening to Blur, Beck,