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

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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.

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

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

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More Rock N Roll Love Songs (Dino 1991)

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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 

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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.)

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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).

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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”.

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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.

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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”.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

 

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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.

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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.

A Stranger City – Linda Grant (Virago 2019)

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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.


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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.

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

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

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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?
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

100 Essential CDs – Number 54– Will Young – Friday’s Child

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Friday’s Child – Will Young (19 2003)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Just over a year on from his essential debut album “From Now On” Will Young was back with an album that was every bit as good.  Once again it ascended to the very summit of the charts and hung around for almost a year.  Single-wise it spawned three Top 5 tracks including his fourth (and to date his last) number 1 with perhaps his best ever recording.

 Although at this time he was still on Simon Fuller’s record label the boy had certainly grown up.  Success had given Will a voice and more independence to do what he wanted and this showed as musically this is a more coherent piece than the debut.  There was a new gang on board with Will getting writing credits on 6 of the 11 tracks.  There were a team of producers behind Stephen Lipson, a long-standing established producer who had worked alongside Trevor Horn for years at ZTT records.  Lipson worked either individually or part of a team for 8 of the 11 songs here.

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Producer Stephen Lipson at the desk

 The album kicks off with its only cover version.  To this point Will had followed the commercial popstars 90’s/00’s trajectory of recording a number of cover versions (this seems to have faded nowadays.  Who needs covers  with the originals so readily available on streaming services?)  To this point he had already covered Westlife, Bobby Darin, The Doors and The Beatles but here it is only “Love The One You’re With” a Stephen Stills song which makes the grade.  The original had just scraped the UK Top 40 in 1971 (US#14).  Nine years before the release of this album Luther Vandross had also led his album of covers “Songs” with the track and got to number 31 in the chart- the tune’s highest UK placing despite being an acknowledged radio classic.  Will’s version is pacy with a big sound and a good background arrangement and features one of his trademarks, the extended bended note (there’s probably a technical term for this).  It’s a good start to the album – probably with the tracks on display here it ends up in the middle of the pack for me somewhat but it is performed enthusiastically and both his and Luther’s version are worth a listen, with I suspect Vandross having the edge.

 

Stephen Stills and Luther Vandross also loved the one you’re with

 “Your Game” is a stronger track and up there with his best.  It reached number 3 as the second single from the album helped by a very memorable video.  Like the last track it is the interplay between Will and the Gospel Choir Metro Voices which provides a highlight.  I love the fullness of this track written by Will and co-producer Blair MacKichan with Tayo Onilo-Ere.  It gave Will a Brit Award for Best British Single of 2005.  “Stronger” is a much more understated affair written by Steve Lipson and Karen Poole, the daughter of ex-Tremeloes Brian Poole and herself one half of Alisha’s Attic who had 8 Top 40 UK hits between 1996 and 2001. 

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Alisha’s Attic

“Leave Right Now” is probably Will’s finest moment.  A track which succeeds on so many levels.  A great song written by Eg White and a convincing vocal performance with a good build and another memorable video of Will fixated on us at an art gallery which is both affecting and slightly disturbing which helped it shift a few units.  It was on this song that Will moved from successful pop talent show artist to an act who Britain should be proud of.  A number 1 single which was awarded an Ivor Novello Award.  It also topped the charts in Ireland and made inroads in European charts such as Belgium, Norway, Italy and Sweden and world markets such as New Zealand and was heavily featured on American Idol getting Will recognised Stateside.

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 “Love Is A Matter Of Distance” is a gentle convincing number, with a warm vocal performance and leads into “Dance The Night Away”, a more uptempo, urgent funkier track .  “Very Kind” was co-written and co-produced by Robin Thicke who also in 2003 launched his album recording career with “A Beautiful Mind”.  Robin of course would go on to have a massive hit a decade later with “Blurred Lines” and possesses the same white soul boy feel as Will.  Here, a sweet vocal performance is boosted by good orchestration arrangement. 

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Robin Thicke

“Free” gives a composing credit nod to Bill Withers, another obvious hero of Will’s and an artist who Will was covering back in his Pop Idol days when he won audiences over with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.  I’m not sure which Withers song is being referenced here.  “Going My Way” is not one of the strongest tracks on display.  It has a contemporary acid-jazz feel but never fully reaches its stride and here I find the interplay between Will and backing voices which has been a real strength on this album a little bit annoying.  “Out Of My Mind” is a welcome uptempo club-influenced track which has the feel of Jamiroquai, which is no bad thing.

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The album closer is another gem of a track and became the third single from the album and reached number 4 some 7 months after the album became available. In its extended play here it pushes nine minutes and every single second of it works.  Once again it had an excellent video and from his performances on the videos that accompanied this album Will was able to re-establish his credentials as an actor which led to a period where both his music and dramatic performances went hand in hand.  “Friday’s’ Child” has a chunky sound and an arrangement which recalls artists such as Soul II Soul and is a totally credible strong way to round things off.  This is a track as strong musically with extended its instrumental sections as it is vocally and up there with his best and seems miles away from karaoke classics on a Saturday night entertainment show.   

With this album anyone who considered Will would just be another Saturday night pop puppet had to reconsider.  It’s a mature album with the singer at ease with himself as an artist and the type of music he was recording.  Taken as a whole, although there are stronger high spots this time round I personally give a slight edge to the debut, but there really is not much in it and both I consider essential albums. 

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Will has to date recorded another four studio albums, two of which also ascended to the top of the charts with the other two stalling at the runner-up position.  Music seems to have currently taken a bit of a back seat in favour of other interests since his last release in 2015.  The other studio albums have been strong but not in my opinion essential.  He has become an acclaimed actor, especially in musical theatre and an advocate for gay rights.  His role in the popular culture of this country so far this century is significant.

 

Friday’s Child is currently available in the UK from Amazon from £3.21 and used from £0.01.   In the US it is currently only available used from $1.51.  In the UK it is also on Spotify streaming service.

Do I Love You? -Paul McDonald (Tindal Street Press 2008)

 
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Tindal Street Press were an independent publishing house based at the delightful address of the The Custard Factory, Birmingham, with the remit initially of publishing local writers.  In the first decade of the Millennium they defied expectations by regularly getting their authors shortlisted for book awards.  Perhaps their most notable publication (especially for me who placed it in my Top 5 reads of 2014) was the 2007 “What Was Lost” by Catherine O’Flynn.

 In 2012 the company was purchased by Profile Books and sadly the three titles from Paul McDonald are no longer in print.  According to Amazon, McDonald is a course leader on Writing at Wolverhampton University who specialises in humour, and this is certainly evident in this novel.

 Minty is a 40 year old lollipop man whose life is thrown into further disarray when a television advert for Kentucky Fried Chicken rekindles his youthful interest in Northern Soul.  His  wife Hazel, a health visitor, is battling with her compulsions to weigh things and constantly look up words in the dictionary as well as coping with her liability of a husband and Kurt Cobain loving teen, Nigel, trading in drugs to boost his reputation.  A lot of humour is based on this generation clash and cultural references abound which might have dated this but actually hasn’t.  The title refers to perhaps the rarest of all the tracks which became big on the Northern Soul scene by Motown artist/producer Frank Wilson “Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do)” which is the song which provides the catalyst for the comic unravelling of the family.

 This is dark comedy with situations that should not be at all funny but occasionally are but where McDonald hits home is his incorporation of music, both the beloved Northern Soul of Minty and his friends’ youth and his son’s grunge tunes into the narrative in a very successful way.  Anyone who was into the quirky Wigan Casino centred scene of the 1970’s would get a lot from this affectionate view of rare records and grown men trying to relive their youth.  Another great strength is the characterisation who despite some pretty awful mishaps of their own doing manage to remain likeable.

 I read this quickly and enthusiastically and would certainly seek out another of McDonald’s titles the Crossroads referencing “Kiss Me Softly Amy Turtle”.  For me the humour here did not always hit home but that did not mar my enjoyment of this title.

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Do I Love You? was published by Tindal Street Press in 2008 and no longer seems to be currently in print.  Used copies can be purchased at a very worthwhile price on Amazon.

100 Essential Books – Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (2018)

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Way back in 1995 following a couple of recommendations from people whose opinions I valued concerning an author I’d heard of and never read I bought two Patrick Gale novels, “Ease” from 1986 which I thought was okay and his debut “The Aerodynamics Of Pork” (also 1986) which I really didn’t like and at that point I thought I’d probably not go out of my way to read more from this author, but the following year, after good publicity I sought out “Facts Of Life” (1995) and I was extremely glad that I did as it ended up in my Top 5 reads for that year.

Since then I have read a fair amount of Patrick Gale. This is his 17th novel (including one in conjunction with Tom Wakefield) of which I have now read nine plus one short story collection. He was back in my end of year Top 10’s with 2000’s “Rough Music” and 2012’s “A Perfectly Good Man” – a beautifully written tale of a Cornish vicar approaching retirement who encounters a tragedy involving one of his parishioners. I also really enjoyed (although it just missed out on my Top 10 ) his 2015 novel “A Place Called Winter” which attracted a wide readership and won over a lot of people (especially in reading groups where it was a popular choice) who had not discovered him before and was nominated for awards. This was a rare foray for him into the historical novel, set largely in Canada around the time of World War I. Despite being set in the distant past this was an intensely personal work as the author took his inspiration from a memoir written by his grandmother and used his imagination to fill in the gaps. Following this he turned out a well-received screenplay for “Man In The Orange Shirt” first shown as part of the Queer Britannia strand on BBCTV celebrating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Once again the personal and fiction overlapped as this was based upon an incident in his parents’ marriage.

With his reputation buoyant came this much anticipated title and after much reflection I  can say that I think “Take Nothing With You” is his best novel to date and all that potential has been building to this work which both enhances and broadens the belief that he is one of the best British living novelists. It feels like his handling of the last two more personal works have been internalised and caused him to create his most touching and affecting novel. And it goes without saying it is beautifully written.

Patrick Gale, who was a talented cello player in his youth has here created Eustace, a talented cello player in his youth who has taken up the instrument again in later life. Now passing the 50 mark he is encountering a threat to his health and whilst undergoing treatment the cello music he listens to in order to pass the time causes a reflection on his past.

The young Eustace is one of Gale’s most memorable creations, a naïve and occasionally prissy youth self-absorbed by his instrument and cello lessons but at the same time having to learn about life, coming to grips with both the doors his musical talent might open for him as well as coming to terms with his sexuality. I would say that this is Gale’s most gay-themed novel and the time feel right for him to do this. John Boyne has also seen his reputation soar recently penning a classic gay-themed novel which attracted a much wider readership than it would have done a decade before and this is also of top quality.

There is also a lot of cello playing, which I thought would put me off, as often novels about music and musicians do not work as well as they think they do but here I was fascinated. I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read. I’m happy to give this book my first five star rating this year.

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Take Nothing With You was published in hardback by Tinder Press in 2018. The paperback is due out on 4th April 2019.