100 Essential Books – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

images

swansong

This is sublime.  A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem.  You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  

 In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of a unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends.  The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery.  They turned against him and he never got over it.

 I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.   Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!

 Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal.  Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal.  His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered.  The women themselves would mean more for the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.

 In the supporting cast are everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones.  I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre.  We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54.  Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In True Blood”.  The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.

 But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success.  Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.

fivestars 

Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018.  The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.

Advertisements

100 Essential CDs- Number 99 – Various Artists – More Rock N Roll Love Songs

images

More Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1991)

rocknroll

With the run down of A-Z artists complete on my 100 Essential CD lists there are still 14 spaces.  These are for the various artists compilations I play the most.  With these it is important to know what tracks can be found on the CD so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog.  I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Sat at 99 is a double CD released in 1991 on the Dino Label with forty tracks largely by American artists.  These are the big names that dominated the charts in the late 50’s and early 60’s before the British Invasion and the Beatles ended most of their careers.  There’s a few that don’t quite fit into the category.  Title-wise its also a tad misleading as its broader than it suggests with my favourite tracks being those who fit more into the doo-wop and girl group categories.  There are some rock n roll classics in there as well.  There are many compilations which focus on this era including the very successful “Dreamboats And Petticoats” series but for me this mini-series which was preceded by Rock N Roll Love Songs has just about everything to give me a blast of nostalgia some dating  from before I was born and where the world seemed a much simpler place.

Track Listings 

CD1

1.Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers (1965) (UK #1- 1990, US#4) – The CD kicks off with one of the most successful chart songs of all time.  Back in 1965 the “Brothers” Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield got to a middling #14 in the UK as the follow-up to their anthemic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”.  The song had previously been a number 2 1955 hit for Al Hibbler (US#3) and had reached the UK Top spot the same year for future mum’s favourite DJ Jimmy Young.  So a familiar song choice which might have explained why it under-achieved first time round.  The quality of the vocal performance here lingered and when Al and Jimmy’s version had been long forgotten the Righteous Brothers were deemed the perfect addition to the 1990 movie “Ghost” which explains its resurgence and the number 1 UK placing 25 years after its release.  The song had originally started off in a long-forgotten movie “Unchained” (hence the title which is not referenced in the lyrics) but after its Swayze/Moore association it has eased itself into the canon of popular music standards and has since topped the UK charts two more times  for musical thespians Robson and Jerome and Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates.  The Righteous Brothers have the definitive version.  It’s one of their best tracks (but not their best as the bombastic “Lovin’ Feeling” and “Ebb Tide” both do more for me.)

rocknroll2

2. Dream Lover – Bobby Darin (1959) (UK#1, US#2)

3. Bye Bye Love – Everly Brothers (1957) (UK#4,US#2)

4. Everyday – Buddy Holly (1957)

5. Then I Kissed Her – Beach Boys (1967) (UK#4)

6. One Fine Day – The Chiffons (1963) (UK#29, US#5)- These girls were good.  Three hit singles in the UK and each one of them was a first-class representation of the girl group sound and yet they are largely forgotten today.  Here on this Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition they are probably at their very best.  There’s also great piano work from Carole King herself in evidence here.   The Chiffons were four girls from The Bronx, Judy Craig, Sylvia Peterson, Patricia Bennett and Barbara Lee and became one of the biggest acts on the Laurie label.  During their hit period the girls were plagued with the financial problems which beset many of the artists of the era.  Probably best known now as being the subject of a court case when George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarizing their US chart-topper “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord” in a bizarre sound-alike scenario (to me there are so many songs that sound far more identical than these two did to one another that got away with it).

rocknroll3

7. Three Steps To Heaven – Eddie Cochran  (1960) (UK#1) If taken literally this is rather a morbid choice for a UK posthumous single released less than a month after his death aged 21 killed in a car crash in a taxi coming back from a show at The Hippodrome Theatre in Bristol.  The heaven Cochran aspires to here in his self-composed song is getting a girl to love him rather than the pearly gates itself.  For someone who grew up with the number 2 1975 version from Showaddywaddy it is surprising to hear just how good the vocal performance on the Cochran original is.  Who knows what he would have gone on to achieve?  In the UK this was his fifth UK Top 30 hit.  His last singles chart appearance was in 1988 with a re-issue of another of his biggest hits “C’mon Everybody”.

rocknroll4

 

8. Under The BoardwalkThe Drifters (1964) (US#4)

9. Sweet Nothin’s – Brenda Lee (1960) (UK#4, US#4)

10. Stand By Me- Ben E King (1960) (UK#1 (1987), US#4)

11. Blue Moon – The Marcels (1961) (UK#1, US#1) – Certainly not unique in being a young doo-wop group adopting a song from a previous generation, in fact there are a few more examples of this on these CDs.  This Pittsburgh group certainly hit the big time with a version of a Rogers and Hart standard which dated from 1934, but it is impossible to hear subsequent versions without being aware of the Marcels (a group named after the hairstyle The Marcel Wave) and the thrilling doo-wop vocal arrangement from the very first notes of the bass voice Fred Johnson.  There’s a great lead vocal courtesy of Cornelius Harp which helped it top charts on both sides of the Atlantic for Colpix Records.  That familiar introduction was largely lifted from the group’s cover of “Zoom” by The Cadillacs.  In the spring of 1961 it really looked like The Marcels had arrived.  They continued to mine the hits of the past and scored one more US Top 10 hit with another song from the 1930’s “Heartaches”. In the UK only their version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” made any impression but they continued with “That Old Black Magic”, “Over The Rainbow” “My Melancholy Baby” until their original takes began to seem hackneyed and which overshadowed songs especially written for the group.  By the time the Beatles came along the Doo-wop craze had passed by.

rocknroll5

12. Leader Of The Pack – Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#3 (1972) US#1)

13. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters (1958) (UK#1,US#1) – Another mining of the Great American Songbook The Platters turned Jerome Kern’s 1933 song into an absolute tour-de-force.  This was largely because of lead vocalist Tony William’s outstanding tenor.  A group unusual in its time as it featured both male vocalists and a female Zola Taylor, who was married to lead “Teenager” Frankie Lymon which resulted in court action concerning his estate following his early death.  The Platters were there at the start of the rock n roll boom as they appeared with Bill Haley in the game-changing movie “Rock Around The Clock.”  This track was their only UK and last of their four US number 1’s and perhaps only overshadowed by their “The Great Pretender”.

rocknroll6

14. Little Darlin’ – The Diamonds (1957) (UK#3, US#2)

15. Who’s Sorry Now – Connie Francis (1958) (UK#1, US#4)

16. I’m Gonna Be Strong – Gene Pitney (1964) (UK#2,US#9)

17. It’s Only Make Believe – Conway Twitty (1958) (UK#1,US#1)

18. Dedicated To The One I Love – The Shirelles (1961) (US#3)

19. Come Go With Me – The Del Vikings (1957) (US#4)

20. I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos (1959) (US#11)

CD2

1.That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly (1957) (US#1)

2. Runaway – Del Shannon (1961)  (UK#1, US#1)

3. Only Sixteen – Craig Douglas (1959) (UK#1)

4. Blueberry Hill – Fats Domino (1956) (UK#6,US#2)

5. Save The Last Dance For MeThe Drifters (1960) (UK#2, US#1)

6. Crying In The Rain – Everly Brothers (1962) (UK#6, US#6)

7. My Boyfriend’s Back – The Angels (1963) (US#1) – This girl-group classic topped the American charts but only attracted lowly sales in the UK.  The song speaks to the teenager in all of us and seems almost as relevant today in the world of internet trolls.  Somebody’s been scorned and bad-mouthing and when the boyfriend returns there is going to be trouble as he aims to save his girl’s reputation.  It’s fascinating in that it’s only half the story- we are never sure if the girlfriend is completely blameless (I’ve always suspected not).  There’s great handclaps a good lead vocal from Peggy Santiglia  and a hey-la hey-la refrain which always makes this a great listen.  The Angels never bothered the UK charts but this trio from Orange, New Jersey scored four Top 40 hits in total in their homeland and disbanded in 1967.

rocknroll7

8. Sea Of Love – Phil Phillips & The Twilights (1959) (US#2)

9. Come Softly To Me  The Fleetwoods (1959) (UK #6, US#1)

10.When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge (1966) (UK#2 (1987) US#1) Later than most of the tracks on this collection it fits in because it was another track (like the Righteous Brothers and Ben E King) which became revitalised in the mid 80’s UK nostalgia boom.  This had done better the first time round than the other tracks as in the year of its release it topped the US charts and got to number 4 in the UK.  It was a television ad for Levi’s jeans which reignited Percy’s career over 20 years after its release.  He reached the Top 40 four more times in his homeland and once in the UK.  He continued to record and perform live and died in 2015.

rocknroll8

11. Halfway To Paradise – Billy Fury (1961) (UK#3)

12. ‘Til I Kissed You – Everly Brothers (1959)(UK#2, US#4)

13. Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) – The Shangri-Las (1964) (UK#14, US#5) – Both of the Shangri-La’s UK hits are featured on “More Rock N’ Roll Love Songs” and this one is absolutely bonkers.  The emotions are cranked up to breaking point,   the anguish about the death of “The Leader Of The Pack” seems quite tame in comparison to this overblown track which never seems sure which song it wants to settle into.  The Shangri-Las sound had a street toughness which has made their reputation resonate over the decades.  Two sets of sisters The Weiss’ and identical twins The Gansers from Queens New York knew how to do melodrama.  It doesn’t end there.  If you like these two tracks “Past Present And Future” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” are certainly on a par with what we have on show here.

rocknroll9

14. Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa -Gene Pitney (1963) (UK#5,US#17) I grew up with this record.  It was one of a handful of singles we had at home until I started to use up all my pocket-money on seven inch vinyl in the mid 70s and may have even been my introduction to the work of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  I love the story behind this song of the man who can “never go home again” due to a dalliance en-route.  Gene Pitney is never better than he is on this, even a version by the legendary Dusty Springfield which made it onto her essential “Silver Collection” pales by comparison.

rocknroll10

15. The Single Girl – Sandy Posey (1966) (UK#15, US#12)

16. Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart – The Coasters (1958)

17. Stupid Cupid – Connie Francis (1958) (US#14)

18. Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton (1961) (UK#1)- John Leyton was a young British heartthrob actor who someone had the good idea (and it would happen again and again over the decades) to make him a recording star.  A TV acting part as a pop singer helped as it meant that the song could be performed on the show. Mad genius producer Joe Meek was at the helm and it was written by Geoff Goddard, a regular Meek collaborator and this chilling track which combined a galloping rhythm with a haunting disembodied female voice topped the UK charts even though it was banned by the BBC at the time.  Four more Top 30 hits followed and he can be seen cropping up in films in the period.  He kept up with the music and was continuing to perform as he approached his eighties. In one of the more bizarre song combinations of all time Bronski Beat and Marc Almond teamed it with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and “Love To Love You Baby” and got to number 3 in 1985.

rocknroll11

19. Soldier Boy – The Shirelles (1962) (UK#23, US#1)

20. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#9) – Far be it for me to question the great Aretha Franklin’s presence on any compilation but this does seem a little out of place here.  1967 seems a long way from 1957 and the tracks by The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.  This blistering soul performance makes it feel very much of the next generation from the one represented here on the other 39 songs.

So forty tracks eleven of which topped the charts in either the UK or the US and even though if not always to my taste there really isn’t a filler track here.  This makes it an essential CD release which I play regularly when I want to sing along to tracks from a more innocent time.

More Rock N Roll Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.49 new and from £0.67 used.

Lethal White- Robert Galbraith (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

lethalwhite

Why exactly do people read the crime novels J K Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith? Is it for the intelligently crafted plot and the satisfaction of the tying up of the interweaving threads of a detective novel? I suspect not, they are read more for the dynamics between the two main characters, private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott both here on their fourth outing.

If this is the case then this lengthy work will delight as there is more relationship than crime plot going on here. I was very happy that it picks up where “Career Of Evil” (2015) left off, at the wedding of Robin and her disappointing fiancé Matthew. Cormoran had stumbled into the wedding proceedings leaving the “will she/won’t she?” aspect very much in the air last time round and here in a Prologue the story we all wanted to read about is resumed. I’m not plot spoiling by saying the wedding goes ahead but given the circumstances the marriage might not last that long. I applaud JK Rowling for beginning the novel at this point.

Following this Prologue we fast forward a year and Strike’s agency is doing well after its high profile cases featured in the previous novels and some of the work is having to be shared out to sub-contractors.  Robin and Cormoran get involved in a blackmail scenario involving a government minister with Robin going undercover at the Palace Of Westminster.  Strike is perturbed by a distressed visitor to his office with a tale from the past which may be linked to the blackmail attempt. The plot simmers along nicely and I do think the balance between a character led narrative and any actual action works well and would please more of her readers than it would disappoint. It’s a long time before an actual corpse makes an appearance and the whole thing is a lot less gruesome and more understated than in the last two novels. I can appreciate this balance as for me the more plot-driven second novel “The Silkworm” (2015) is the weakest of the four and both through her writing and the TV adaptations the two main characters are so strong that I found myself really relishing the scenes when they are together.

This book achieved somewhat mixed views on publication mainly concerning its length. I actually found that there was enough to keep me from grumbling about its number of pages. It could have been tightened a little but that is the case for most books which come in at over 600 pages in a hardback edition. On reflection, I feel I should have cared more about the “whodunnit” aspect of the novel, this is crime fiction after all, which is why this is not quite up to “Career Of Evil” standards but it is a close run thing as we are provided with another highly enjoyable read. “Career Of Evil” was more effective in ramping up the tension. I feel also that Strike’s London has come across stronger in previous novels but this doorstep of a read certainly shouldn’t put people off this series of novels and those that have read the four will be eagerly anticipating the fifth- myself included.

fourstars

Lethal White was published in hardback by Sphere in September 2018. The paperback edition is out this week on 18th April.

The Taking Of Annie Thorne – C J Tudor (2019)

 

anniethorne

I read C J Tudor’s critically acclaimed debut “The Chalk Man” (2018) earlier this year.  It was a book that became a word of mouth hit and I realised I was missing out when I saw it appearing on a number of “Best Of The Year” lists.   I really liked the tense atmosphere she created throughout and the touches of horror and these aspects are all present and correct in her second novel.

I began this as an exercise in listening.  A free month’s trial for Audible was initiated when I saw this was available so soon after publication.  It is narrated by Richard Armitage who has a very listenable voice and despite me never being successful at committing to audio books (Susan Hill’s slim “The Printer’s Devil Court” being the only one I’ve managed to listen to all the way through) I was determined to let Tudor’s easy approachable style be read to me.  I was enjoying the narration very much but it all just takes too long.  I don’t have ten hours listening time and because audio is new to me I have to really concentrate on it (of course, being male means multi-tasking and doing something else whilst listening is out of the question!).  I was also having to take notes at the end of every chapter, realising how much I must flick back in a physical book to check things.  I did, however, get well over half-way through and then I discovered a hardback copy in the library.  I did try to resist but couldn’t so checked it out and finished it off.  (I’ve also just cancelled my Audible trial- once again I’ve tried and been found wanting.)

The novel is set in the ex-mining village of Arnhill in Nottinghamshire, a location similar to where the author grew up.  Like “The Chalk Man” there are two time zones, a present day narrative and one set in 1992 when the main protagonists were in their teens.

There’s a grisly opening of a discovery of bodies in a cottage (which certainly spooked me listening to it) then it settles into a plot where Joe Thorne returns to Arnhill and engineers himself a teaching post at his old school.  He has come back in an attempt to put to rest trauma in his past- the disappearance and eventual death of his eight year old sister which occurred when he was fifteen.  The combination of the crime novel and horror is not as balanced as it was in “The Chalk Man” with the latter taking precedence.  Horror writing gives the text an openness which the crime novel with its demands to be tied up neatly to provide a satisfactory experience tends not to do.  The unexplainable horror touches comes from the old pit itself which has a history of being involved in disappearance and death and which commands a dark presence over the plot.

 If anything, the tale here is darker than “The Chalk Man”.  There is the odd flash of humour but this is generally black, bitter and barbed.  This has the effect of not making this novel seem as multi-layered nor as rich as its predecessor where the language felt more vibrant and less on one level.  Also readers who need to like their characters will struggle as not even main protagonist Joe comes across as having that many redeeming features.  There are aspects to the plot, particularly with regards to backstory events in Joe’s adulthood that seem underwritten and not as convincing.  As a result I did not feel as drawn into this world as I had with “The Chalk Man” but this is still an involving read, showing once again the author’s skill with tension and building up a creepy atmosphere.

threestars

 

I read the Michael Joseph published hardback version of “The Taking Of Annie Thorne” which was published in February 2019.  In the US it has been published as “The Other People”.  A paperback version is due to be published by Penguin in July 2019.

Line Of Duty – BBC1 (2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

line of duty

I was a bit late to the party with this, which I can now acknowledge as one of the best ever police dramas on British TV. I don’t know how the first few series passed me by and it was really only when the fourth series starring Thandie Newton started gripping the viewers of “Gogglebox” and picking up awards that I realised I had missed out on something special. Thanks to Netflix which has had all the series available to view I have caught up, bingeing on episodes (unusual for me) because I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened.

I’m glad I watched this first episode of Series 5 before Friday’s “Gogglebox” as this was heavily featured with the sofa-sitters open-mouthed at the twists, even on occasions when even I’d rumbled what was going on, they were shouting at their TVs in amazement at the proceedings.

Since the last series which first aired in March 2017 writer Jed Mercurio’s profile has really ascended due to his gripping of the nation over 6 successive weeks in the late summer with “Bodyguard”, a huge ratings hit, but this is very much his bread and butter work, a less showy, superbly plotted and scripted tense hour which is a great antidote to the general cosy feel of Sunday night TV.

Its main quality is its sheer unpredictability which over the five series has seen astounding plot developments no-one could possibly see coming, major characters bumped off and the best scripted police interviews ever. AC-12 is the department set out to investigate police corruption and its three leading lights prove a tight ensemble which is another hallmark of the show.

 

Neither Vicky McLure as Kate nor Martin Compston as Steve are especially familiar to viewers in other roles and so fit in perfectly as the young guns in the AC-12 department overseen by Adrian Dunbar as Hastings.  Compston is particularly excellent as the tenacious but increasingly world-weary Steve whose position in the Department we’ve invested in since the very beginning.

The opening twenty minutes or so are always essential in a Mercurio plot (remember the bomb  on the train in “Bodyguard”?).  It’s often a big set piece out from which ramifications continue to rumble for the whole series.  Here there is a hijacking of a lorry stuffed with drugs under police guard and one of the perpetrator’s actions towards an injured officer causes questions to be asked.  There is a leak somewhere and AC-12 are out to plug it.

Plot threads from previous series are picked up efficiently.  Member of the team and series regular Maneet was seen in a couple of compromising situations in the last series before taking early maternity leave.  Now back at work suspicions have not gone away with astounding consequences.  Almost everyone would have been caught out by at least one of the three or four major twists in this opener and it is this which is likely to keep the 7.8 million (making it the most watched TV show of the year so far and registering its highest ever viewing figures) who tuned in for the first episode on the edge of our seats on a Sunday night to find out what this superior television event has in store for us.

fivestarsLine of Duty Series 5 is shown on BBC1 on Sunday evenings at 9.00pm. The first episode was transmitted on 31st March and is currently available on the BBC I-Player.

 

A Stranger City – Linda Grant (Virago 2019)

strangercity

I read and enjoyed Linda Grant’s last novel “The Dark Circle” back in 2o16.  It was set largely in a TB sanatorium in a post-war Britain very much on the cusp of a modern age as the richly drawn characters awaited developments which would cure them and allow them back into the society their illness had removed them from.

 The author’s latest places us into contemporary London where change is also anticipated and it is not good news as the city awaits the effects of Brexit.  It is a disorientating time in the city for the characters and becomes increasingly so as deportation trains begin to rattle through the night, “illegals” are held in prison ships and one sequence set in a dis-located part of London feels like Alice down the rabbit hole.

 This shifting uncertain London shimmers in the background of a plot with a mystery story at its heart.  A suicide off London Bridge by an unidentified woman occurs on the same evening a documentary maker witnesses conflict between a man and an Irish woman on a train.  This woman, a nurse, also disappears but the power of social media ensures she is identified and cannot stay missing for too long.  The contrast between the two in the same location leads the film-maker to produce a television programme in an attempt to uncover the dead woman’s identity.  The people caught up in this story are the main protagonists of the novel.

 As in the last publication characterisation is here a strong point, although the shifts of focus means that the reader is kept on their toes.  Nothing feels totally secure in Grant’s London as the novel shifts, undulates and unsettles throughout.  The real and the fictional blur from a character caught up in a terrorist incident on a London bridge to a nation where the tiniest error on paperwork can lead to expulsion from a country keen to rid itself of those it feels no longer belongs.  Concealing oneself in an attempt to fit in and disguise are themes developed within the novel.

It is very well written and feels more complex than “The Dark Circle” but is every bit as readable.  There is a freshness in the language which makes it feel it is produced  by a writer with a definite finger on the pulse.  It is another solidly impressive, intelligent work from this author whose reputation continues to grow.


fourstars
 

A Stranger City is published by Virago in hardback on  2nd May 2019 .  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache – Martin Aston (2016) – A Rainbow Read

rainbow

breaking

Treading similar ground to Darryl W Bullock’s “David Bowie Made Me Gay” (2017) this was published first and is subtitled “How Music Came Out”.  It’s an exhaustive study of LGBTQ+ music and musicians from the 1920s to the present day.  Martin Aston, who was written books on Pulp and Bjork is a celebrated music journalist and has certainly carried out his research here.  I chose to read it to give an alternative viewpoint to Bullock’s study and it does feel more global in its outlook as we move to the present day where you can sense Aston’s greater enthusiasm for the subject matter and an attempt not to leave anyone out which can make it feel, at times, sketchy.

 Although in this work there are probably far more names and the scope is wider I did prefer the Bullock book which feels more of a celebration.  There’s more of the author  within that work right from the title onwards, Aston’s feels more objective throughout and makes little comment on the quality of the music- good or bad.  Whereas I finished the first publication with a strong sense of wanting to discover some of these trail-blazing artists I finished this one with a sense of being overwhelmed and being bombarded with too many names.  Also oddly, Aston’s title references a Northern Soul favourite by Johnny Johnson and The Bandwagon who have no part to play within the text.  I’m sure there could have been more relevant song titles to use.

 But, and as the more academic work, this has a significant part to play in the recording of LGBTQ+ history.  Aston seems stronger on trans artists and in unearthing the obscure from a 50s lesbian Rockabilly Group the Roc-A-Jets who barely made it out of Baltimore, to 60s Brit-pop singer Polly Perkins, touted as a rival to the Dusty/Cilla/Sandie triumvirate but now best remembered for her role in ill-fated BBC soap El Dorado.  I may be wrong but I don’t recall these artists getting as much focus in Bullock’s book and there are many others like this.

Thinking about the two books I considered which would be the one I would most likely read again for pleasure and the Bullock work has the edge.  I think some kind of playlist suggestions or select discography from what really excited Aston or what he thought most significant would have made this seem more personal, especially as in this age of Spotify it would be so easy for readers to rediscover the obscure.  This is, however, a valuable examination of the development of an important aspect of LGBTQ+ culture.

threestars

  Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache was published by Constable in 2016.

100 Essential CDs – Number 58– Will Young – The Hits

images

The Hits – Will Young (19 2009)
UK Chart Position – 7

willhits1

It might seem odd to those of you who have been following my Essential CD recommendations that this particular artist has three albums within the listing putting him on a par with some real Titans of popular music when he can be considered as just  a singer coming from a TV talent show who hasn’t so far achieved the worldwide success of some who followed this route and doesn’t possess the big voice, big image or formidable creative talent that those who appear more than once on my Essential CD recommendations tend to have. So, the question may very well be: Why do I like Will Young so much to feature three of his albums on my list?
willhits2

First and foremost it’s the voice which has a warmth and sincerity which makes every listen an enjoyable experience. It’s also his unwillingness to compromise in an industry full of compromises. I believe both in his music and his belief in it. He chose a route to stardom which could have placed him very much into a pop puppet role but he has managed to forge his own identity in a way in which others that have come after him have failed to consistently do. As much as his music, however, it is what Will Young stands for and his decision to come out at the height of his fame within a market which was aimed towards young girls who would consume his music with the hope that one day they could be Mrs Will Young.

willhits3

It’s easy to forget, now that the world has moved on as much as it has because of people like Will what a decision this was. It happened right at the start of his career when his debut single “Evergreen” was at the top of the charts with an interview given to the News Of The World. This kind of revelation had largely been to this point as a result of “outing” by the press who couldn’t help but resort to sniping and bringing in “gay shame” and “twilight worlds” and “double lives” From the same section of the pop industry Boyzone member Stephen Gateley had largely been coerced to come out as the story was going to be run by the tabloid press anyway, and he had the other band members as support rather than being a solo artist. Will’s response was refreshing, telling a major newspaper not known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles; “For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I’m gay and I’m comfortable with that. I really don’t know what the fuss is about.” And with this statement the world shifted a little bit.

willhits6

The BBC News website had a forum as to whether readers thought this announcement would affect Will’s career. It makes interesting reading 17 years on. Just a couple of snippets; Rachel from the UK said “Keep buying his records everyone; let’s keep him at number 1 because he certainly is!!” Johnny G from Leicestershire made an attempt at a prophecy “Now he’s had his number one I give him precisely three more weeks of fame before his second follow-up single fails to make the top 40 and he is forgotten forever.” Erik gave a viewpoint from South Africa “Hello people wake up! Grow up and get with it. Reading some peoples comments on issues like that makes me often wonder, with what people really concern themselves.” Julia saw herself as a representative for the “young disappointed female fans” which are mentioned frequently with her comment; “Girls buy all the records and girls don’t fancy gay men. Boy George was an exception just because we liked his makeup”. (I love that one!) There are the inevitable “I’m not homophobic but….” This was a big comment board and the gist of it was that people didn’t think it mattered one way or another which must have been an eye-opener for the popular press who certainly at that point considered it did matter and also the record industry itself who was all for keeping gay artists in the closet in case it damaged their sales. There were more voluntary revelations rather than forced outings in the years to come.  Even the more conservative America where it seemed to matter a great deal caught up when a decade after Will’s announcement Adam Lambert, best known here as some-time front-man for Queen became the first out gay artist to top the US album charts.  Now, at long last, within mainstream pop music at least, we seem to be at the point that it doesn’t matter and recording artists are free to make statements regarding their sexuality without the media furore it would have traditionally caused and I think we have Will Young in the UK to thank for this.

willhits7Will with “Strictly” dance partner Karen Clifton

Not everything has been golden for Will, he has made some decisions which were a little off, most particularly his decision to do “Strictly Come Dancing” and then pulling out after what seemed like a hissy fit over comments made by Head Judge Len Goodman, the circumstances of which as reported by the popular press did make him seem that he just wasn’t going to play if he wasn’t going to win. Not all his acting roles have made the impression anticipated, although he certainly won critical plaudits for a role which seems perfect for him in stage productions of “Cabaret” playing the part made famous in the movie by Joel Gray.

willhits5

As a vocalist he has provided me with enough joy that he deserves a greatest hits package on my Essential CD listing alongside his first two studio albums “From Now On” and “Friday’s Child”. I have gone for his first hits compilation from 2009 released after his first four studio albums and which reached number 7 in the UK charts. I probably could have just as easily gone for the later 2013 “The Essential” which reached number 15  but I don’t own that one. That was a parting of the ways compilation with his record label. “The Hits” is better for me in that it is a mid-career retrospective. It says things have been good for the past seven years but there is still good stuff to come.

willhits8

Obviously there is going to be an overlap with the first two albums which had been rich in hits so I’m largely discounting the first six tracks which I have dealt with elsewhere. That still leaves us with six tracks spread evenly between “Keep On” and 2008’s “Let It Go” together with the hit collection staple, the two new bonus tracks one of which was released as a single. That track “Hopes And Fears” became his least successful single to date and did not trouble the UK Top 40.  It isn’t exactly vintage Young written by two members of Phantom Limb who supported him on tour.  The other original track “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” which has Will in his tender, vulnerable mood and has a great opening line “Romeo would still be breathing/If it hadn’t been for love“.  Obviously it was decreed that a more uptempo single was a stronger choice to launch this album, but for me this is the better of the two tracks.

willhits9

There are some notable omissions on this album.  It seems strange that someone would put out a Hits compilation and not include songs which reached number 1, but that probably would have  given an undue bias to the earlier stages of his career so on this album there is no “Long and Winding Road” his chart-topping duet with Gareth Gates nor one side of the multi-million selling debut double A-sided single, the very likeable “Anything Is Possible” .  His 2002 number 2 double A-sided single is also represented by one track the stronger “You And I” rather than “Don’t Let Me Down”.

willhits10

Studio album number three “Keep On” kicks off with perhaps his rockiest track to date 2005’s “Switch It On” which got to number 5 which showed his willingness to diversify but it is a little one-dimensional to me, despite some good rhythm work.  I feel more at home with the other tracks chosen from this album the deliciously tender “All Time Love” which as a single got him back into the Top 3 for the last time to date.  A song rich in melody with a convincing performance could still charm the British singles buying audience in 2006.  Just as good is “Who Am I” which once again brings back the songwriting skills of Eg White who wrote his best track “Leave Right Now”.  This is written in collaboration with singer/songwriter Lucie Silvas, an under-rated performer in her own right.  As the third single release from this album it perhaps was too much to expect this to be a vast hit but it actually became the first Will Young single not to make the Top 10 when it stalled at number 11 but that is certainly not a reflection of the quality of the track.

willhits11

2008’s “Let It Go” has three tracks selected for this album the mid-tempo gem that is “Changes” which boasts a great build into the chorus and is full of a stirring optimism with a great vocal performance.  It was the hit track of the album and reached number 10 as the lead single. I really don’t know what happened with the other two single releases from this album as they both underachieved with “Grace” getting a number 33 placing and the title track missing out on the Top 40 for the first time in his career.

willhits12

Following the release of this album fans responded very positively a couple of years later when 2011’s “Echoes” gave him his third number 1 album despite not being as strong as what had gone before.  This feat was achieved again with his latest album “85 Percent Proof”  released on the Island label.

wilhits14

And just this week the announcement was made that Will was back with a new single, with another of his top  quality stylish videos which have been so much a part of his career, once again not one to shy away from the controversial Will adopts a series of disguises, a sailor, a biker, a businessman which might make it sound like a twenty-first century Village People but it’s not tacky even though within each of these disguises he strips!  The single “All The Songs” will be his first release on the Cooking Vinyl label and will be followed by album number 7 “Lexicon” due in June which should I imagine see him back in the upper reaches  of the charts.  In the meantime he has been involved in an impressive podcast, which actually got me listening to podcasts, “Homosapien” which he presents with Chris Sweeney.  Not bad for a boy from a talent show who many predicted would be a five minute wonder, eh?

 

The Hits is currently available from Amazon in the UK for£2.75 and used from £0.20.  In the US Amazon have it for $11.98 and used from $1.08.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

The To Be Watched List 2 – A What I Will Be Watching Review

watchingQuestion_mark

 

 

 

Yesterday the Rugby Six Nations drew to a close with Wales victorious.  One of only two annual sporting fixtures I watch (the other being Wimbledon) this has dominated my viewing over the last few weekends meaning that the time on Saturday and Sunday I normally spend catching up with what I haven’t watched during the week has not happened and my Sky Box is beginning to groan under the weight of unwatched shows (well, it’s got up to 60% full and things start to get stressful when it creeps up more than that).  So either I’ve got to start deleting or settle down and get that percentage down.

sixnations

 So for today’s blog I thought I’d do something I did way back in  July 2017 and explore what I will be watching in order to reduce the Sky Box’s waistline rather than focus on something I have already watched.  As preparation I looked back to that previous post of nearly 20 months ago and was surprised to see that not much had changed.  The focus of that post was me falling asleep in the first episode of Series 7 of “Game Of Thrones” which I had planned to review and with Series 8 imminent here is the confession, I haven’t watched any more.  I have the whole series sitting in the Planner, including the episode which caused such a deep slumber because I will have to revisit this again right from the start to have any chance of knowing what is going on.  Hopefully, the escalation of publicity for Season 8 will prompt me to watch the previous seven episodes.

game of thrones

 

Also, I note that I was working my way through two series I had on series link and here things haven’t improved.  I might have got through series 5 of the likeable enough Sherlock Holmes reboot “Elementary” starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu but I now have ten unwatched episodes of Season 6.   The situation regarding “Hawaii 5-0” shown on Sky on Sunday evenings is even worse.  It’s a show that’s not quite limping along but almost so I am now watching it in small doses, which is probably why eighteen episodes over two series have built up.  It’s still happily recording them each Sunday but perhaps at some point soon I will need to pull the plug on this.

elementary

 

I’m a good one for watching first episodes as soon as they come out and then stalling with the rest of the series.  I haven’t yet made up my mind about W’s “Flack” a London set drama dealing with a PR company protecting the reputation of celebrities starring child Oscar winner and ex-Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood”, Anna Paquin.  It’s one of those US/UK productions that end up seeming a little odd to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, but I’m only a couple of episodes behind so I’ll stick with it.  I’m also not sure what to make about BBC 2’s “Motherfatherson”, surprisingly starring Richard Gere.  I’m really not sure where it is going and it wasn’t Gere who lit up the screen in the first episode  but Billy Howle as his tortured son.  The first episode ended up in a hospital scene with what looked like a brain tumour operation so I really can’t guess how the series is going to pan out.  It has the similar stylish feel of BBC1’s flawed “McMafia” but this is written by Tom Rob Smith, a British crime novelist of great repute who did excellent work penning “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” and the odd but fascinating “London Spy”, so I am certainly going to continue with this.

tomrobsmithTom Rob Smith

And then there’s “Finding Neverland: Michael Jackson And Me” which was spread out on subsequent nights into two parts by Channel 4.  I watched the first part and found it so disturbing and it gave me nightmares.  I know I should watch the second part but haven’t got round to it yet.  At this stage I really can’t put my impressions into words.  I can’t help but recall the cultural shift which happened in this country following the revelations about presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile which I struggled to sum up after reading the chilling exceptionally researched book about the man, “In Plain Sight” by  Dan Davies (2014) .  Here again, it feels like something we knew about and yet chose not to believe or ignore.  The impact of Michael Jackson on our popular culture is huge, the almost erasure of people like Savile, Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris from our cultural pasts was possible because they did not have celebrity to the magnitude of Jackson’s.  Sales of Michael Jackson’s records have grown in the UK since this programme was shown so this is a complex issue that I’m not going to be able to deal with in a paragraph, especially as I have only watched half of the television programme that has caused these developments.

 Hopefully, I will be less disturbed by two further music biographies.  “Mariah: The Diva, The Demons” was shown on Channel 5 on their Mariah Carey night before Christmas and promises to be a dramatised bio-pic focusing on 2000-20001 where Mariah bludgeoned her career to bits by performing in the movie “Glitter”, which I’ve seen and don’t think it’s as bad as it was made out to be.  It was gloriously tacky, and I’m hoping that this bio-pic will be too, but it’s also long which has put me off it up until now.

teddyTeddy Pendergrass

 I’ve been reading quite a bit about a documentary which had a limited cinema release a few week back which sounds right up my street, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me” examines the life of the extraordinary vocalist from Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes and his subsequent solo career dogged by tragedy.  It was shown on Sky Arts last night.  I suspect here too there will be revelations I will find challenging.

dynasty1

 And once I’ve exhausted the Sky Planner there’s always Netflix , where I am still working my way through “Dynasty” where I’m about to begin Series 2.  This is a show which has got better since my review of the first episodes probably because the character of Fallon Carrington is so sparklingly played by Elizabeth Gillies and has taken a more central role as the series has progressed and “Riverdale” which has lost any sense of fun it had and become increasingly dark, but still watchable.  Also Netflix is adding episodes weekly to the latest series of “Rupaul’s Drag Race”, which hasn’t yet had the magical spark of the last season of “All Stars” and I’m also one episode in to creepy stalker drama “You”, but I suspect here I might not last the distance.

Who says there’s nothing on television nowadays?

 

100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

images

jesskidd

I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

fivestars

Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.