Thursday 31 May 2012

John Cooper Clarke on the BBC

Evidently... John Cooper Clarke 

Documentary which records and celebrates the life and works of 'punk poet' John Cooper Clarke, looking at his life as a poet, a comedian, a recording artist and revealing how he has remained a significant influence on contemporary culture over four decades.

With a bevy of household names from stand-up comedy, lyricists, rock stars and cultural commentators paying homage to him, the film reveals Salford-born Cooper Clarke as a dynamic force who remains as relevant today as ever, as successive generations cite him as an influence on their lives, careers and styles.

From Bill Bailey to Plan B, Steve Coogan to Kate Nash and Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner to cultural commentators such as Miranda Sawyer and Paul Morley*, the film reveals the life behind one of Britain's sharpest and most witty poets - a national treasure.

For the past four Sundays, John Cooper Clarke has been warming up the Punk Britannia season with a weekly show on BBC 6 Music. Punk Britannia is a season of specialised programming across BBC Four and BBC Radio 6 Music marking 35 years since punk's heyday in 1977, which exploded across the country during the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

Available on BBC iPLayer until Monday 11 June, so get it while it's hot...

* Oh boy...

Barack honours Bob

Bob Dylan's a hit at the White House

 Bob Dylan, who once wrote that "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked", has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

Fifty years after one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters released his debut album, the 71-year-old was awarded the prize in a ceremony at the White House, recognising his "considerable influence on the civil rights movement in the 1960s" and his "significant impact on American culture over the past five decades".
Other recipients included former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, former astronaut John Glenn and Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York: -

Things We Said Today
Military Madness
The Needle and The Damage Done
There Stands The Glass
Mind Your Own Business
I Don't Want To Talk About It

A booze-fuelled night with several drunks in the audience. One over-served individual made it his business to sing between acts doing songs by Paul Robeson (Ol' Man River) and The Bonzo Dog Band (Hunting Tigers Out In India). Amayyyzing!

Wednesday 30 May 2012

John Cooper Clarke: 'It's diabolical how poor I am'

He was a seminal influence on punk, a ferociously funny performance poet. Over martinis, John Cooper Clarke tells Simon Hattenstone why he's back

Simon Hattenstone

John Cooper Clarke is pleading with the photographer. Not outside, please. It's windy and the great punk poet is worried about his barnet. "I'm 63 and need all the help I can get. It's not that I think I'm some matinee idol. Quite the reverse. It's damage limitation." He's still got a touch of the young Bob Dylan about him, but these days he's more likely to be mistaken for the raddled Ronnie Wood.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Clarke was huge, in a cultish way. (Snap, Crackle and Bop, his most successful album, reached 26 in the charts.) He was a lab technician at Salford Tech when he began performing his verse, backed by a folk group, the Ferrets. His poems were about everyday life: package holidays to Majorca where "the Double Diamond flowed like sick", and the fact that you'd never find a nipple in the Daily Express. They were smart, rude and angry ("The fucking weed is fucking turf/ The fucking speed is fucking Surf," goes the magnificently dystopian Evidently Chickentown – although the recorded version, which once closed a grim episode of The Sopranos, had "bloody" instead of "fucking").

Then he disappeared – lost to heroin. "I didn't write for at least 10 years." No records, no books and no money. The decades ticked by. But now he's back: DJing on Radio 6, appearing in the new Plan B film Ill Manors, gigging a lot and – most importantly – writing poetry. Tonight, he is the subject of Evidently ... John Cooper Clarke, a documentary kicking off BBC4 and Radio 6's Punk Britannia season. Clarke was a seminal influence on the punk movement, and might well be its most enduring. In the documentary, Steve Coogan says: "If I'm talking to someone and go, 'D'you know John Cooper Clarke?' and they say, 'Oh yeah, he's a genius', I'm then, 'Good, you've saved me a lot of time.'"

Clarke is having his photo taken and I'm staring at him: toothpick legs, 28-inch waist, huge hair, polka-dot cravat and matching handkerchief. Was he rich in the old days? "No. I ain't waving the victim flag, but considering the massive impact I've had on British culture, it's fucking diabolical how poor I am." What does he mean? "Everybody that read one of my poems went off and wrote poetry. They said that about the Velvets, didn't they? They didn't sell many records, but everybody that saw them formed a band." He looks at the photographer. "Make me look handsome, David. I know I've fucked you around and you hate my guts, but please. Please. And not just good for me age. Good." He laughs loud and the sun bounces off all the gold. How many gold teeth does he have? "About half a dozen. Honest, I'm worth more dead than alive, Simon. He he he he he he!"

We sit down and order drinks at the Heights, a bar 15 floors above London's West End. "Dirty Martini, a couple of blobs of olive oil over the top. Good for you, keeps you regular." People can't keep their eyes off him. He starts talking – about anything and everything, from how we were all happy under Harold Wilson, to how the Ramones were every bit as good as the Beach Boys, to the genius of Chuck Berry. "He's got cheekbones you could hang your coat on. Very handsome man. Greatest lyricist in rock, obviously. You read the lyrics and you're just singing the song. Every beat is spoken for. It's a tragedy he's remembered for My Ding-a-Ling."

And now he's on to the movies: from the gold fever of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to the improvised genius of John Cassavetes. He's an encyclopaedia of 20th-century culture, with added jokes. Most apparent is his joy in language – forever mixing and matching unlikely words, sounds and ideas in a voice tough as Tarmac. Does he know everything about everything? "I know everything about movies. When my ma went shopping, she'd stick us in the Rialto and say, 'I'll pick you up on the way home.' There were half a dozen cinemas within a quarter of a mile. That was my babysitter, the movies."

A woman walks up to us with a camera. "Can I have a photo, please?"

"Yes, of course," he says.

"Say cheese, Ronnie. Hey, I used to be a Wood before I was married."

"All right darlin', take care sweet'eart," he says in his best Cockney. He looks at me as she leaves. "It doesn't cost you nothing, does it?"

I ask what he did all those years he wasn't writing. "It was a feral existence. I was on drugs. It was hand to mouth." Has he still got track marks? He lifts up his sleeves. "No, I've got no veins left."

One story about this period was that he had hooked up with Velvet Underground singer Nico. It's only partly true, he says: they were living together in Brixton, but not as a couple. Ach, that's disappointing. He smiles and says that's everybody's response. "Who wouldn't like to think you were with one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world, official – and that was in the day of Brigitte Bardot and Julie Christie."

Did Nico ever make a pass at him? "Well, we were junkies so it doesn't really come up. It's not a physical world. It's just not a sex drug, heroin. You just don't get round to thinking about it." Do any junkies have an active sex life? "I've known it happen. Yeah, but not guilty. Ha ha ha ha!"

How close did heroin come to killing him? "Well, you go into a clinic and they tell you: 'You would have died next week if you hadn't come in here.' I never felt it to be true. If you're shooting up junk, you're a bit cavalier. You overdo it and have to be brought back into the land of the living, but I wouldn't say you embark on a career of drug addiction in order to kill yourself. It's driven by the pleasure principle."

Does he miss it? "Oh yeah, course. A lot of times I remember it as fabulous. But I can't do that and have the life I have. And I ain't gonna sink the ship just so I can feel a bit better. If I live 'til I'm 80, I fully intend to reacquaint myself with the world of opiate drugs. I think it's ideal for the elderly. It should be there for the asking. If you're over 70, you should be able to go and say, 'Just give me some diamorphine and I won't mither you any more.'"

Clarke grew up a Catholic and still has faith. "People who believe in God are happier than those who don't. I've never met a happy atheist." He lives in Essex with his French wife of 22 years, Evie; they have a daughter at college. It's not his first marriage, but he won't tell me how many times he's been married. "Let's gloss over that. I don't want to sound like some tragic Hollywood type. I'm a romantic." He pauses. "I don't like the idea of deflowering an unmarried woman."

Instead, he tells me how he and Evie met, on Friday 13 November, and how they bonded over Baudelaire. "I had this translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. I love Charles Baudelaire. Him and Shakespeare are the only people I think are better than me. I swear to Christ, I think I'm better than every fucker. When I finally met the wife, languages were her thing. So I said, 'Is that a good translation?' And she said, 'I couldn't imagine a better translation.'" And that was that.

He says he has never felt so content, not least because he's writing again. Now his poems tend to be more to do with ageing and mortality. Inevitable really, he says: so many people have died around him (including Nico, in 1988). "Increasingly, I have to deal with bereavement. I could go to five funerals a week. But that many vol au vents isn't good for you. He he he he he he!"

Time for another martini. "Cold, not tepid this time, please." Underneath his shades I can see a pair of pale blue eyes. Next he enthuses about John and Pauline. Prescott. "That time he took that 100-yard trip in the Jaguar and the green fascists took him to task and his answer was: 'Pauline had just had her hair done.' Every working-class geezer knew where he was coming from. He is the last politician with integrity. Have you seen pictures of him as a young man, all quiffed up, in the Merch [Merchant Navy]? He was a good-looking fella. Tony Blair or John Prescott? OK, take the piss out of John Prescott if you like, but who would you rather wake up next to: Pauline or Cherie? Pauline looks like Elizabeth Taylor at her peak. What a goddess. Beautiful!"

He shows me his notepad – full of word puzzles and half-completed poems. He never stops these days, he says, and tells me about his latest work in progress. In the past, he has proposed that, for National Poetry Day, all human affairs be conducted in rhyme, with the exception of the emergency sevices. But now he's decided there need be no exception. He grins. "You go to the doctors, the doctor says, 'I understand your question./ Now here is the answer./ It isn't indigestion./ You have stomach cancer.' To which you reply, 'My imminent estrangement/ has come as quite a shock/ I'll make the relevant arrangements./ Thanks for the information, doc.' What d'you think of that? It's good, isn't it? It could even bring a much-needed smile to the cancer sufferer's face."

He falls about laughing. "I thought of it on the way in. How good is that? Ha ha ha ha! Terrific, kid. Terrific."

Aliens on Screen - Part II

Again: Mark Kermode's choice.  My own list would have to include Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Thing From Another World (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), although the remake (1978) is also good - and if I wanted comedy, I'd include Alan Arkin's faux alien from Simon (1980).
Mars Attacks (1996)
'Aack aack ack ack aack!!' Little green men go on a diminutive killing spree in Tim Burton’s bonkers alien invasion gem, inspired in equal measure by the weirdly collectible Topps trading cards and the notoriously terrible movies of Ed Wood. The result is a delirious joy, like Plan 9 from Outer Space remade with a massive budget and a star-studded cast. Memorable moments include Lisa Marie’s face falling away to reveal a grinning green alien skull beneath. But like all space invaders these Martians have a weak spot – in this case, the sound of country yodelling, which makes their heads explode

The Thing (1982)
When John W Campbell Jr’s story Who Goes There? first came to the screen in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, its alien FX famously stretched to the sight of James Arness dressed up as 'a big carrot'. Years later, the advance of latex technology enabled John Carpenter to explore the shape-shifting aspects of the story in his head-scrambling – and at first sorely underrated – classic The Thing. The result is a fiesta of exploding dogs, toothy chest-cavities, melting limbs and (most spectacularly) a severed head that sprouts giant scuttling spider legs, prompting the movie’s most quotable line: 'You’ve got to be fucking kidding!'

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
'Klaatu barada nikto!' Handsome Michael Rennie and his giant silver robot Gort, whose metal face shoots powerful rays, presented the scary but benevolent face of aliens in the 50s, bringing the human race’s technological advancement to a halt in order to warn Earthlings of the dangers of their newfound knowledge. The Christ-like overtones of the central character have exerted an unearthly pull on wannabe messiahs ever since; Ringo Starr cast himself as Klaatu on the front cover of his 1974 album Goodnight Vienna, while Keanu Reeves employed his trademark 'barely human' face in a recent rubbish remake

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Nic Roeg cast David Bowie as the spaceman who comes to earth after seeing him in the documentary Cracked Actor.
Bowie inhabited the alienated 'space oddity' to the full, resorting only briefly to 'space lizard' makeup, but more generally relying upon sheer charisma and a British accent (plus, of course, his famously mismatched eyes) to suggest he was not of this world. Cover photography for not one but two of his subsequent albums featured Bowie as starman Thomas Jerome Newton: Station to Station and Low – the latter containing original music intended for the film

The Rocky Horror Picture Show(1975)
As the 'sweet transvestite' Frank-N-Furter, from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, Tim Curry remains the most lusted-after space alien in the history of cinema – a vision of interstellar haute couture in glam boots, stockings and spangly corsets on a mission to encourage the people of earth to 'give yourself over to absolute pleasure'. A flop on its release, the film version of Richard O’Brien’s campy stage musical became the definitive cult movie, drawing legions of fans who dress up as their favourite characters and engage in rowdy 'audience participation'. Let’s do the time-warp again!

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Tonight's setlist

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

I Need Lovin' Too
Love Song
I'm Just A Loser

Another eclectic evening at the Waggon with many & various musical styles including a capella.

One lovely song completely ruined by the sound of a police siren - the perils of open mic nights!

Aliens on Screen - Part I

I have to say in advance, much as I usually respect Kermode's opinion, I'm not a great fan of some these choices...

The 10 best screen aliens – in pictures
With Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus set to land on 1 June, here are 10 others in the fine tradition of cinematic extra-terrestrials

Mark Kermode
The Observer
27 May 2012

This Island Earth (1955)
Few creatures typify the classic ‘bug-eyed alien’ stereotype better than the marauding lobster-handed ‘mutant’ seen terrorising Faith Domergue in publicity images for This Island Earth. Sadly, budget and time constraints meant he was only properly mutant from the waist up – the planned ‘weird alien legs’ were ultimately reduced to mere silver trousers on screen.  The perennial favourite gave us a race of high-foreheaded brainboxes from the planet Metaluna. Their elevated hairlines would inspire the TV ads featuring the Tefal scientists, who briefly usurped the Cadbury’s Smash Martians as icons.

The Blob (1958)
Perhaps the most spectacularly simple space alien ever conceived, this gooey, gelatinous mass was originally backed by church groups who had been bamboozled into believing that its adventures were a Christian morality tale (sinners got glooped while the righteous endure).  Starring a young ‘Steven McQueen’, this 50s classic featured special effects achieved by dropping slime over dimensionalised’ photographs and then filming it falling off in reverse.  Simple but brilliant. The Blob even had its own catchy theme tune, co-written by Burt Bacharach.

Alien (1979)
Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett first got the idea for their chest-busting xenomorph after reading about wasps that paralyse their prey to create a living food-sack for their spawn.  Pulsating eggs, leaping face-huggers and giant beasties with extending mandibles and acid for blood followed, as director Ridley Scott and Swiss artist HR Giger redefined the face of alien predators for years to come.  Later instalments suggested the shape of each particular alien was defined by its host (human in parts one and two, a quadruped in Alien 3), upon which subject Prometheus may shed some light – or not!

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg describes his melancholy masterpiece as ‘my most autobiographical movie.’ It tells the story of an anxious boy from a broken family (the dorector struggled to cope with his parents’ divorce), who forges a bond with a lost alien desperate to ‘phone home.’ Critics marvelled t the universal sympathy ET inspired in audiences despite an appearance regularly likened to a ‘walking penis.’ Powered by puppeteers, complex animatronics and (in some sequences) a dextrous performer walking on their hands, ET also famously employed the voice of actor Debra Winger to help create his extra-terrestrial croak. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The actual form of the aliens in Kubrick’s epochal masterpiece is never revealed, but their presence is signalled throughout by the appearance of a mysterious monolith.  Originally described in Arthur C. Clarke’s short story as pyramid-shaped, it appears on film as an enigmatic oblong that functions variously as a teacher, an interstellar alarm, a star-gate and (ultimately) some form of rejuvenating deity. What it all means remains a mystery, though many have observed that the measurements of the monolith closely resemble the upended dimensions of a CinemaScope screen.  Spooky!

Saturday 26 May 2012

Simon Armitage - Poetry in Motion...

Poetry in motion: exploring Simon Armitage's new Stanza Stone trail in West Yorkshire – audio slideshow
The brooding natural landscape of West Yorkshire has inspired writers for centuries. Now poet Simon Armitage has left his mark on the countryside by carving six verses into rocks along the 47-mile Stanza Stones Trail. He tells Kevin Rushby how keen-eyed walkers might spot a seventh 'secret stanza' and reads from his poem Mist.

Stanza Stones is an imaginative collaboration between Simon Armitage and Ilkley Literature Festival. Writing Britain features over 150 literary works, including many first-time loans from overseas and directly from authors: sound recordings, videos, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawings - as well as manuscripts and printed editions.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York (with Ron): -

Bye Bye Love
The Boxer
Love Hurts

A busy night with loads of turns - including an amay-zing set by Dave Ward McLean.

Monday 21 May 2012

Robin Gibb RIP

Bee Gees star Robin Gibb does aged 62 after cancer battle

The music world was in mourning today after Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees died aged 62 following a lengthy battle with cancer.

21 May 2012

The British singer and songwriter sold more than 200 million records and notched up dozens of hits with brothers Maurice and Barry during a career spanning more than half a century.

With their trademark falsetto close harmonies, the trio helped turn disco into a global phenomenon with hits including Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever, which featured on the soundtrack of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta.

His family announced his death yesterday prompting an outpouring of grief from fans and fellow members of the music industry.

Broadcaster Paul Gambaccini described the musician as "talented beyond even his own understanding" and "one of the important figures in the history of British music", while stars including Bryan Adams and Mick Hucknall also paid emotional tributes.

A statement released by relatives said: "The family of Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees, announce with great sadness that Robin passed away following his long battle with cancer and intestinal surgery. The family have asked that their privacy is respected at this very difficult time."

Gibb had surgery on his bowel 18 months ago for an unrelated condition but a tumour was discovered and he was diagnosed with cancer of the colon and subsequently of the liver.

He fell into a coma last month after contracting pneumonia and was given 10 per cent chance of survival but astounded loved-ones with his recovery, “beating the odds" just days after doctors said he "was in God's hands".

Gibb’s twin brother Maurice died of a heart attack in 2003 following intestinal surgery, while his younger brother Andy, who was not part of the Bee Gees but a successful singer in his own right, died in 1988 from heart failure at 30.

The Bee Gees' hits catalogue, which also includes Massachusetts, I've Gotta Get A Message To You, Lonely Days, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart and How Deep Is Your Love, led to their induction into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Gambaccini said: "Everyone should be aware that the Bee Gees are second only to Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriting unit in British popular music.

"Their accomplishments have been monumental. Not only have they written their own number one hits, but they wrote huge hit records for Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Celine Dion, Destiny's Child, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, the list goes on and on.

"What must also be said is Robin had one of the best white soul voices ever. He was singing lead on his first number one when he was 17, that was Massachusetts."

Many people took to micro blogging site Twitter to pay their respects.

A statement posted by Sony Music said: "Rest in peace, Robin Gibb. Thanks for the music."

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott wrote: "Just heard about Robin Gibb.

"A good friend, a brilliant musician and a man who turned all of us into wannabe Travoltas!

"Rest in peace Robin."

Canadian rocker Adams was also among the stars paying tribute, saying: "Robin Gibb RIP. Very sad to hear about yet another great singer dying too young."

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Beautiful Game...

League One - Robinson slams Smith attackers

MK Dons boss Karl Robinson has branded Huddersfield fans who attacked Alan Smith "embarrassing".

The unsavoury scenes unfolded following the Dons' 2-1 victory at the Galpharm on Tuesday, which was still not enough to prevent the hosts progressing to the League One play-off final with a 3-2 aggregate advantage.

Smith had scored a late consolation goal but was soon swept up in a pitch invasion and had to be rescued by police after being attacked by fans.

Robinson was quick to point out it was a minority who turned violent, but was nonetheless shocked at the treatment Smith, a former Leeds player, received.

"It was embarrassing," said Robinson. "The Huddersfield fans were magnificent and had this place rocking but it's one or two muppets, that's all it is. He got spat at, kicked and punched.

"Smithy was fine. He's used to that sort of atmosphere but I don't think he's used to being attacked. That's not acceptable to me.

"He's fine, but you get worse than that. I've been brought up in Liverpool!"

Hardly one of the country's foremost practitioners of the beautiful game, but this is a bit much. Maybe they were just stunned he had actually scored! Still, we'll be shot of him this summer...

Donna Summer RIP

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York: -

The Price Of Love
Medley: Devoted To You/Maybe Tomorrow
Sea Of Heartbreak

Another night of eclectic music. Some great stuff from Simon Snaith, Colin Rowntree and the amay-zing Mark Wynn, who wrote a song in front of us about his trip back from the smoke on a Megabus. Yeah amay-zing.

Post-show there was a bit of an unplugged jam featuring Mind Your Own Business and The Boxer.

At closing time I was asked if I had any experience of table football, so - after 40 years absence from the game - I proceeded to the Stone Roses pub for a few games. They had no malts so I had to make do with brandy. Any port in a storm!

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Donald Fagen remembers Levon Helm

Levon Helm: 1940 - 2012

During the last few years, whenever possible, I've played in the rhythm section of Levon Helm's band at his house/blues-joint up in Woodstock, N.Y. I was literally grandfathered in: Levon's daughter Amy, who has two boys herself, is also daughter to my wife, Libby. Amy, a terrific singer, has been central to the Midnight Ramble since it's inception.

On those Saturday nights, I had a great sightline over to Levon, straight across the top of the Steinway. When he was into his groove, with that left shoulder pulled down, wailing into the boom mic on his right, I couldn't take my eyes off him. I couldn't figure out how he could keep that thuddy, cycling pulse so even, making every fill and roll, and yet sing so well at the same time. He made all those machines - the sticks, the skins, the pedals, the cymbals, even the microphone - into living extensions of his own body. Without ever sounding mechanical, he always put the downbeat in that sweet spot. Locking in with Levon was the easiest gig I've ever had.

Towards the end, before each show, he was trying everything possible - inhalers. steam and whatever - to get his damaged larynx loose enough to sing a few tunes so as not to disappoint the folks. The fact is, when he walked out on stage and sat down at the kit, his percussive excellence and iconic presence were more than enough to satisfy most all the paying customers. His family, his old bandmates Robbie and Garth, the Ramble band and crew and several generations of fans around the world - we're all missing him.

For a time, Levon was also stepfather to Fagen's wife's son, Ezra Titus, who died tragically in 2009.  Ezra's description of growing up with Levon in his memoir, A Miraculous Recovery, can be found at the link above.

Last night's setlist

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

Love Song
Long May You Run

The complete opposite of last week - a packed house with an influx of musicians from Nashville, Tennessee. So time was tight (as in Booker T) and folks was restricted. One poor guy only got to play one song near the end.

Monday 14 May 2012

Paul Buchanan

Paul Buchanan: 'I felt lost after The Blue Nile'.
It's taken Paul Buchanan eight years to get around to recording his first solo album. And, he says, he never imagined anyone would hear its fragile songs

Graeme Thomson
Thursday 10 May 2012

Sitting in a cafe a stone's throw from his flat in Glasgow's West End, Paul Buchanan looks out the window and sighs. "When you're feeling particularly lost the last thing you admit to yourself is that you're lost, but looking back, I felt rotten. Terrible. It wasn't the best of times, but the action of making the record was helpful."

Elegantly grey and almost terminally self-effacing, Buchanan is feeling "emotionally tired". After 30 years in The Blue Nile, the Glaswegian trio that elevated romantic yearning to a superior art form, at 56 he is about to release his first solo album. Reflecting his pain at the sudden death of a close friend and the almost unfathomable disintegration of the band he always believed was "for life", Buchanan is the first to admit that Mid Air "isn't all singing and dancing". It is, however, a truly special record, consisting of 14 brief, beautiful songs built around the fragile nexus of his immaculately emotive voice and soft piano, with the occasional daub of textural colour.

Though musically more muted than the Blue Nile, Mid Air negotiates the same precarious high wire between euphoria and melancholy, realism and fantasy. On one song, Buchanan has "starlight in my suitcase"; on another, he returns to that cinematic dream country "high above the chimney tops". Writing the album, he would gaze from his kitchen at 3am, see the lights still burning in the windows of neighbouring tenements, and wonder why everyone was still up and what they were thinking about.

The sense of isolation was in direct contrast to the way the Blue Nile operated. On their first two albums in particular, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1982) and Hats (1988), Buchanan and fellow bandmates Robert Bell and PJ Moore were "a group of real friends, truly democratic". They wanted the songs "to be better versions of us – of everything. We wanted to make pictures, so we tried to remove ourselves from the fabric of it, to get out of the way of the music." He laughs. "I'm not sure why we gave ourselves such a Herculean task…"

By the release of their fourth album, High (2004), the dynamic had changed. Aptly, the band that famously never did anything in a hurry fell apart in slow motion. There were no fist fights, no screaming matches; instead, everything gradually drifted to a halt. The phone stopped ringing. Nobody was organising rehearsals. Although he was hurt, Buchanan was aware that "it had been going that way for a long time. You can hear it. We could all hear it. To me, High is a stoic record – it sounds like we were trying to stick with each other and do our best to survive. Some of the unfettered joy had gone. Some kind of magic had slipped away from us, and some of the hope that we started out with. We adhered to each other until we had finished the record, but maybe individually and collectively we weren't as happy as we had been."

A couple of years after High, Buchanan toured and Bell was part of the band. Despite the odd "bump in the road" the pair remain friends, but there has been no contact with Moore for several years. Buchanan – who readily admits he can be "pesky" – remains baffled. "Neither of us has seen PJ for God knows how long. I'm sure he has his reasons, but I can honestly say Robert and I are blissfully unaware of them. He's super-talented and I care about him, but I've left it alone for the best." Does he hope for a rapprochement? "It's not cut and dried. The right thing to do as people would be to get together again – even if we then say goodbye. That's my vague hope. It probably won't happen, but I know that contributing to that unit was me at my best."

Engineered by the son of Blue Nile producer Calum Malcolm, Mid Air was mostly recorded in Buchanan's flat, working "civilised hours" over a couple of years. Half-joking, he likens the process to Ted Hughes's "sacred trance": the songs appeared almost by accident while he was "banging away" in an attempt to come up with something for Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who had approached him to collaborate on her – as yet unmade – solo record. "Shirley is lovely and I really wanted to get what she wanted, but nothing came out of it in the end. It was only when I looked back I thought, I've got all these little things that I've just noted and put to one side."

He was writing from emotional necessity rather than any commercial impetus. "At no point did I think I was making a record. It never occurred to me that anybody else would listen to it. Looking back, that was a great thing. That unselfconscious quality becomes more elusive as you go on making music, so it's nice to be brought back to that very simple expectation. It was almost like starting out again. I wasn't deliberately making a record of fulfilling a contract. There's a joy and innocence in that."

The Blue Nile famously laboured over their records: four albums in 22 years is hardly a prolific batting average. Mid Air, too, comes a full eight years after High. Buchanan says he has no problem coming up with material, so why does the process take so long? "You work and work and work and have the life that you have, and once in a while, sometimes once in a decade, you see a few things you've got and think, yes, that's authentic. You try to stay true to that little moment whatever the costs." Such is the distance, it seems, between simply writing songs and chasing starlight.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Donald "Duck" Dunn RIP

Bass player and songwriter Donald "Duck" Dunn, a member of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame band Booker T. and the MGs and the Blues Brothers band, has died in Tokyo. He was 70.
Dunn was in Tokyo for a series of shows. News of his death was posted on the Facebook site of his friend and fellow musician Steve Cropper, who was on the same tour. Cropper said Dunn died in his sleep.
Miho Harasawa, a spokeswoman for Tokyo Blue Note, the last venue Dunn played, confirmed he died alone early Sunday. She had no further details.
Dunn, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1941, performed on recordings with Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many others, and specialized in blues, gospel and soul. He played himself in the 1980 hit movie "The Blues Brothers."

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