Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

Songs To Help Me Survive 2021

It’s a tough time out there. Auckland’s been in lockdown for just over two months now and New Zealand’s finally coming to grips with the coronavirus in the community. We’ve had great success compared to an awful lot of places, but right now we’re in a battle to vaccinate and stamp things out so it doesn’t get as bad as so many other places.

Still, like most of the last two years in this troubled world, it’s weird and stressful and I think we’re all kind of over it at this point.

In the end, when life starts to feel like a Groundhog Day of working and sleeping and walks around the neighbourhood and masks and health alerts and the increasing insanity of what feels like a good portion of the online world … well, music is one of the few things that makes sense, right?

I made a playlist nearly a year ago of Songs That Helped Me Survive 2020. For a while there, this year looked like it would be more cheerful, but it turns out this thing has a while to go yet.

But we’ve got songs, we’ve always got songs. Happy songs that remind us what it’s like to be human, angry songs that remind us it’s OK to feel freaked out and frustrated, lovely songs that remind us the grace in between the bad times. Here are some of those songs that are helping me survive 2021. I hope you might dig it too if you need a way to get away from it all.

The broken-hearted beauty of Phil Ochs

I get depressed sometimes. And like a lot of people, I listen to sad songs when I feel a certain way. And I often return to the brilliant, bittersweet songs of Phil Ochs, the gifted singer who never quite found the stardom he desperately craved. 

There’s a crystalline beauty to his early ’60s protest songs like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “There But For Fortune” or “Here’s To The State of Mississippi.” Ochs’ voice was clear and loud, and to me at least, he lacked the strident tendency of many protest singers of that era. He was angry, he was bitterly amused, but he cared and had a sense of humour. 

He had minor hits and palled around with Bob Dylan and all kinds of ‘60s figures, but never quite made it to the A-list despite his talent. He craved fame most of his life – he got a nose job when he was a teenager because he wanted to be a star. Despite being all for revolution and a fan of Mao, Che Guevara and Chile’s Salvador Allende, he was a capitalist when it came to his career. 

Ochs, singer for the people, underwent a big transformation in the late 1960s, unleashing a trilogy of superb, emotional albums that represented a quantum leap from his previous work. Produced by Larry Marks, Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape from California and Rehearsals for Retirement abandoned the guitar-based folk for ornate chamber pop and jazzy songs that turned from the outer world to the inner world.

Gorgeous epics like “Crucifixion,” “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns” or “Pleasures of the Harbor” were dazzlingly melancholy, sometimes surreal evocations of Ochs’ own mental struggles. They weren’t as perky as Ochs’ folk work, but they were glittering gems of songwriting. Ochs’ protests were now against himself. 

A lot of his earlier work is topical and may seem dated, but the sentiments of a song like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is universal, and in his best works, the 50-year-old lyrics still ring out – as he writes in “Tape From California,” “Half the world is crazy / the other half is scared,” and it’s like he looked into a crystal ball and saw the viral insanity of 2021 unfolding. 

The thing that always struck me about Ochs’ voice is the sincerity behind it. He was often hilarious, sometimes maudlin, sometimes poetic, but you always got the impression he meant it – a contrast to his friend and rival Dylan, whose best work involved a series of enigmatic masks. 

Phil Ochs cared too much, maybe. He cared about the political struggles that defined much of his career, and the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago left him shattered. The album cover for Rehearsals for Retirement was of a mock tombstone, and Ochs “died, Chicago, 1968.” 

Unfortunately, things went downhill fast for Ochs after that run of terrific but poor selling albums. He was very troubled, and never got the help he so clearly needed. His longstanding mental health issues and alcoholism got much worse, and his thirst for wider fame consumed him. He ignored calls to find treatment, lashed out abusively at family and friends, wore a gold Elvis suit, changed his name to “John Train” for a little bit and his voice was damaged in a mugging in Africa. His lyrics began referring to death more and more, and he couldn’t put a record out. The sincerity that animated his best work left him. 

He hung himself at only 35 years old in 1976, a shadow of his former self. He’d be 80 years old today, if he lived. 

Suicide never really ends. Ochs is gone, but the music, and the pain irrevocably buried in it, is still here. Like so many other musicians who took their own lives – Cobain, Elliot Smith, Ian Curtis, Chris Cornell – that fact floats, like a haze, over the music. But that doesn’t have to make every song sad. 

The broken beauty in Phil Ochs’ best songs makes me kind of happy, even when they’re kind of sad, because they’re such gorgeous things and they live on long after the man himself left this troubled world. 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand, by the way. Maybe play some Phil Ochs sometime during it.

Still trying to figure out how I feel about The Doors

Some bands find strange places in your brain. They’re ones that you like at one point, then one day wake up and are embarrassed you ever did – and then on yet another day, you decide they weren’t that bad after all. 

Everyone’s got a few of these musical guilty conundrums. Some we outgrow, some we don’t. And that’s totally cool. Everyone also hopefully reaches that point when you don’t give a flying fig for popular opinion and just try to like something because you like it. 

Of course, I’m talking about The Doors. I’ve gone through many cycles with The Doors over the years – from liking them like any teenage boy does for their leathery brooding cool, to mocking their pomposity, to finding them hugely overrated to, in these weird pandemic days, finding their songs a bit of a comfort. 

Jim Morrison was a pretentious git in many ways and paid the price by dying before he hit 27, yet he also was soaked in that elusive star swagger that’s fuelled singers from Elvis to Bowie to Lizzo. Backed by a terrific band who added heft to his hippie-god musings, he created a sound that feels both cliched and raw at the same time. The Doors always danced on the edge of kitsch and cheese, but they often would, as they put it, “break on through to the other side.”

Crank up “Riders on The Storm,” “Light My Fire,” “Crystal Ship” or “Strange Days” and you’re floating in a patchouli-scented haze of angsty mood. The Doors generally lacked a sense of humour, yet their music could often be quite funny – “Hello, I Love You” always sounded to me like the kind of thing a lounge-act singer coughs out at the end of the night, while I dare anyone but a 17-year-old to get through the hysterics of “The End” without smiling a little. 

The Doors had more than their share of dogs, whenever Morrison’s indulgences overpowered generic bar-band romps, and limp songs like “We Could Be So Good Together” or “Easy Ride” sound like parodies of the band. Their albums remain a heady time capsule of the era, with great songs mixed in amongst the dross. 

Jim Morrison died four months before I was even born, so it’s kind of weird he’s been this perpetually returning pop culture revenant. Like a lot of people, I got a bit into The Doors during the hype fest for Oliver Stone’s bombastic biopic (itself now nearly 30 years old!). I think the pendulum has swung again away from The Doors a bit, where it’s not as cool to admit you like them as it is Bowie or the Kinks or Prince. They’re so alpha-male, so unconcerned about the wider world, so, so … ego.  

I often find Morrison’s dead stoned stare kind of annoying, yet still… when the tinkling chords and thunder crashing of “Riders on the Storm” kicks in, I’m swept away. 

In a way, The Doors to me are a part of the greater problem when consuming any pop culture in an age of 24-7 hot takes – it’s hard sometimes to know what you feel and separate it from what the world around you tells you to feel. It’s the Chuck Klosterman dilemma of overthinking a song so much it starts to fray into pieces. 

Jim Morrison was the bombastic lead character in his own story, and the songs reflect that, all from the perspective of a young man full of piss and vinegar, the centre of his own personal universe, the Lizard King. It’s both the appeal and the tragedy of The Doors that Jim Morrison didn’t live long enough to come to the point where we realise we’re not the main story at all, that you’re just another human, plodding along and trying every day to make your small narrative life’s big epic. 

So yeah, sometimes The Doors were ridiculous and silly, sometimes they were sweeping, dark and profound, sometimes they were both at the same time. I think after decades of intermittently listening to them, I’m kind of finally starting to be OK with that. 

Rockwell and the pop of paranoia

Rockwell was pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder.

But for a few minutes in 1984 you couldn’t get away from his hit single “Somebody’s Watching Me.” It spun, haunted, out of radios everywhere, helped by the presence of the then-untainted Michael Jackson singing the insanely catchy chorus. It tapped into that universal phobia – “I always feel like / somebody’s watching me.

Rockwell had a niche, and he was good at it. He could sell suspicion – “People call me on the phone, I’m trying to avoid / But can the people on TV see me or am I just paranoid?” – and his songs were filled with bouncy keyboards and drum machines providing a catchy beat. For some reason, this very American singer periodically put on a dire British accent, which just added to his askew appeal.

The delightfully creepy/silly video for “Somebody’s Watching Me” features Rockwell repeatedly showering (while wearing shorts!), standing at his own grave (!!) and being haunted by strange white people. It’s amazing

The common thread coursing through both of Rockwell’s major albums was an unsparing paranoia about the world – it’s a surprisingly bitter perspective that stands out in the glossy era of ‘80s pop hits. He followed up “Somebody’s Watching Me” with another stalker anthem, “Obscene Phone Caller.” It’s another ridiculous earworm of a tune, with its heavy-breathing phone call chorus and Rockwell’s pained delivery of awkward lines like “Why did you have to pick me / out of all the people in the directory?” 

He covered George Harrison’s extremely cynical “Taxman,” and for the difficult second album Captured, his next singles were songs like “Peeping Tom” (the phone caller’s distaff cousin, I guess), “He’s a Cobra” and “Captured (By An Evil Mind).” The back cover of Captured is a kitschy delight, with Rockwell pictured shrunken down in a gilded birdcage with a giant woman staring in at him. They’re always watching him, you see. 

I spun my cassette of his album Somebody’s Watching Me an awful lot in 1984. It’s still a delightfully cheesy slab of ‘80s synth-Motown. Follow-up Captured didn’t do very well – but I bought that cassette. I might’ve been the only one. Then Rockwell pretty much vanished after putting out a third and final album that nobody ever heard of. 

I had absolutely no clue who Rockwell really was back in the day; he was like another Ray Parker Jr who had a huge hit and never topped it. Turns out he was actually the son of one of the biggest men in music, Motown founder Berry Gordy, and was born Kennedy Gordy and changed his name to avoid appearances of nepotism. Instead of a one-hit wonder, Rockwell was actually from the house of endless hits.

What was it that made Rockwell’s music so freaked out about the world around him? And why did he vanish as quickly as he arrived? Post-fame, Rockwell hasn’t had a great run of it, including some arrests and lawsuits.

“I needed to just be a regular guy, and that’s why I disappeared. I came from a king, Berry Gordy, and I’m like a prince,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. 

I always wondered if Rockwell’s background played a part in the very specifically constrained, paranoid perspective of his best songs. Was there something there about growing up the son of a rich, famous music legend that made him want to sing about obscene phone callers and peeping toms and tax men?

One of more endearingly clumsy bits on “Somebody’s Watching Me” goes, “And I don’t feel safe anymore, oh, what a mess / I wonder who’s watching me now (Who?!) – the IRS?” First single off his first album and the guy’s already worried about the government coming after him.  

I wouldn’t argue that Rockwell was some great lost legend – his voice was on the average side and his albums outside of the paranoid singles tended to be swamped by overproduced painfully generic dated ‘80s R&B. He always sounded vaguely insincere when singing about love instead of fear – for example the ballad “Knife,” in which love, you guessed it, cuts just like one. But I still have a guilty enjoyment of his two extremely tense, worried albums, where everybody is out to get you and you always feel like there’s somebody watching you. 

Am I just paranoid? Baby, in 2021, that almost feels like a prophecy. 

My favourite guitar god: Richard Thompson

My favourite guitar player isn’t a household name. 

The thing about music criticism I’ve realised over the years I’ve dabbled in it is, all criticism is fundamentally a very personal thing. You can look at something in the broader cultural context, you can use all the fancy words you want to describe it, and yet in the end you often have to go with your gut. Does this move you?

There’s many guitar players out there who I dig, whose technical mastery is next to none. You can’t ignore Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell or Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, George Harrison or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince or Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. And I like pretty much all of ‘em.

But when it comes to the guitarist who moves me the most, who evokes pictures in my brain that none of the rest do, it’s Richard Thompson I turn to every time. He is a comfort for me in troubling times. 

Thompson is not a rock god celebrity, although among a certain brand of music fan he’s certainly well loved. And for me, he’s among the most soulful of guitar players, his work reaching deep into some kind of elemental place. From his early days with folk-rockers Fairport Convention to his stunning collaborations with his former wife Linda Thompson and on to his venerable solo career, Thompson’s distinctive yearning sound is one I turn to again and again in life to get a break from the world. 

I first cottoned on to Thompson with his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, full of gently askew humour and pathos, with the cutting observations and forensic bits of detail in his songwriting that also make him one of our best lyricists. The “hit” single from that album, “I Feel So Good,” with its chorus, “I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight” – sums up Thompson’s worldview – happy, yet a bit bitter, nostalgic, yet optimistic. When I listened to that cassette I picked up at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban California years ago, I was transported to a new place. I’ve been going back there ever since.

Most of those who we think of when we think of the greatest guitar players are men, and the vast majority of them play with a very masculine, dominating swagger – picture Eddie Van Halen soloing, Pete Townshend windmilling. Swagger is a very big part of the rock guitar sound and hey, I love it, too.

Yet Thompson, unlike a lot of guitar gods, doesn’t play with a lot of ego. There’s little boasting in his sound, but instead a kind of cathartic release, whether he’s finger-picking a gentle ballad or soaring into dazzling long rides. There’s a great quote about the legendary Howlin’ Wolf attributed to producer Sam Phillips that I often think of whenever I listen to Thompson: “This is where the soul of man never dies.” 

There’s deep riches in Thompson’s catalogue over his 50-year career I never stop enjoying exploring. The heartbreaking character portraits of “Beeswing” or “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” or the explosive release of “Wall of Death” or “Calvary Cross,” where you can feel Thompson getting lost in the song’s story, his guitar jams a pivotal cog in the machine of songcraft rather than just being showy.

“I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song,” he once told The Guardian. The slow stair-stepping chord progression of “Calvary Cross,” with its building tension and release, floors me every time I listen to it, and when I dive into the never-ending joys of sprawling live versions of it. 

Look, I’m not any kind of technical music critic. I’m a listener, who’s darned clueless when it comes to the ins and outs of how gorgeous sounds are made. Hendrix made amazing, unmistakable sounds with the guitar, but how he made ‘em, I couldn’t tell you.

So with Richard Thompson, for me, it’s all about how the music hits the gut. And he moves me. 

This is not a blog post about The Fall.

I keep trying to write a blog post about The Fall, and failing.

This is not a blog post about The Fall.

The Fall were a post-punk band from industrial Manchester who were insanely prolific, yet the very definition of a cult act. Frontman Mark E. Smith stomped, snarled and muttered his way through an endless sea of clattering albums over 40 years until his death at age 60 in 2018.

For some people, The Fall are everything. For some, if they’ve even heard of them, they’re just annoying noise. 

I have a greatest hits collection, the ironically titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The first song on it is “Repetition,” and it sums up the band’s gritty ethos with the first words Smith utters – “Right noise!”

Prior to 2018, I liked The Fall, and had a couple of their albums, but I wasn’t what I’d call a super-fan. There’s people who devote a giant chunk of their lives to The Fall.

When Mark E. Smith died, I started listening to them more and more and scooping up albums any time I saw them. I often do that when someone famous dies, I go back to their work, and get a bit obsessive about them for a spell. It’s morbid but I bet I’m not the only person who does it.

The Fall has a song on their 2001 Album Are You Missing Winner? I listened to like five times yesterday. That’s not their best known or loved album, and the song, “Crop-Dust,” is probably not even in their 100 best songs. I kind of love it.

It swirls in and out like a deranged anthem from another world, distorted and spooky, hypnotic, and Smith starts barking away like a lost dog. A YouTube commenter says, “It sounds like a drunk Mark E. Smith phoned the vocal in after getting trapped inside a telephone box.” It really does. 

At least 60% of people I know would hate that song.

The late John Peel memorably summed up The Fall by saying, “They are always different; they are always the same.” 

Smith was fascinating, querulous and eccentric, but I don’t imagine I’d have liked him much in real life. In his final years he looked like a melting wax figure of himself. 

In January 2018, the same month Mark E. Smith died of cancer, I nearly died of something I didn’t even know I had. I’ve kind of divided my life since then into “before, and after.” I began listening to The Fall a lot that year, spurred on by editing news stories about Mark E. Smith’s death, and listening to 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong over and over and over. It was a weird time in my life, and the snarling chaos of The Fall seemed to help it make sense.

Every time I turned around, there was a new album to discover. There’s still a dozen or two I haven’t listened to. I like The Fall a lot, but I wouldn’t call me expert enough in their strange universe to write about the sweep of their career, of their deeper meaning. 

Music is weird because it’s like a fingerprint on your brain. The things I see when I hear Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” or Crowded House’s “Distant Sun” aren’t the things you see; the soothing void “Crop-Dust” plunges me into might just give you a migraine. 

Sometimes you want right noise, you want a secret language that you feel like only you can understand.

I listen to The Fall a lot, and I’m nowhere near the bottom yet. 

This was not a blog post about The Fall. 

Why I’m sorry I ever laughed at Yoko Ono

My first memory of Yoko Ono is of making fun of her. 

It’s unfortunate, but I remember listening to John Lennon and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy many years ago with friends, long after John was shot and killed. We all loved “Watching The Wheels,” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the other Lennon tracks, but the Yoko ones that alternated with his were… jarring. 

Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” slammed open the barn doors after the laid-back charms of album opener “Starting Over.” What was this weird, defiant prancing melody? Yoko suddenly starts screaming “Why death? Why life? Warm hearts / cold darts” and holy moses, what a mood-changer. When the song dissolves into a cackling chorus of Yokos moaning and groaning and ululating their way into a mock orgasm, we couldn’t help it – everyone listening burst into laughter. (To be fair, it is a kind of funny, chirpy song.) 

And yet. 

I keep coming back to Yoko’s oft-maligned solo work in recent years, much of which has that same fierce, uncompromising power in that same way “Kiss Kiss Kiss” bursts into the room. Yoko, more than 50 years after the Beatles ended, still gets people going. She didn’t break up the Beatles, of course, who were going to split no matter what happened. But for far too long, she’s been painted as the villain in their story. 

Yoko turned a lot of people off with the defiantly experimental Unfinished Music No. 1 and No. 2 she did with John before the Beatles even broke up. The fact the couple posed stark nekkid on the cover of Two Virgins didn’t help, and to be honest, these two albums are very odd, hard to listen to, noodling noise compared to what both did later. Appearing with John live in the late 1960s, her howling anarchy put a lot of people off. While it’s definitely intense and abrasive, 50 years on the catharsis of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” feels passionate and raw – Yoko went for it. She didn’t care what they said about her sex, her race or her boldness – she just yelled. 

The controversy around her shaped much of the reaction to Yoko’s own solo albums of the 1970s like Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling The Space. They’re less experimental than her most-out there stuff (like recording her own miscarriage), and as a result they hold up pretty well, marrying compulsively offbeat grooves with her infinitely flexible voice, a yowl one second and a croon the next.  I don’t argue that all Ono’s work was great – lyrics generally aren’t her strong point, and few singers could make lines like “We’re all blind and crippled mates / Frustrated would-be presidents of united states” work. 

These albums still dazzle with as much energy and invention as the great krautrock records of Can and Kraftwerk, her howling as passionate today as Kim Gordon and Courtney Love’s would be decades later. Listened to today, a propulsive stomp like Fly’s epic trance “Mindtrain” sounds a lot more modern than some of the stuff John, Paul and George were doing in 1971.  

Yoko pushed Lennon in uncompromising directions too, although for the most part his ‘70s work was actually far less inventive and more nostalgic than Ono’s. She and Lennon released Plastic Ono Band albums with almost identical covers and titles in 1970, but while his is part of the canon now with super-deluxe reissues, her own angrier, rawer Plastic Ono Band is somewhat forgotten.

From the very first song, a chattering, shrieking psych-freakout called “Why”, it’s an in-your-face statement that even manages to make Lennon’s stark and powerful “Mother” opening his own album feel a bit restrained. In an era filled with Carpenters and ABBA, Yoko was singing song titles like “I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window,” “Angry Young Woman” and “What A Bastard The World Is.” 

Yoko’s 88 years old now and John’s been gone for 40 years, but she’s still sharing her art and her music – her latest, Warzone, was released when she was 85! Listen to 2014’s Between My Head And The Sky, which starts off with Yoko’s patented screeches and moans packing way more power than a senior citizen rocker should. 

In everything, Yoko goes for it. Sometimes that “it” can be a bit much, but nobody would ever accuse her of holding back onstage. 

Yoko is a pioneer shunned in her own time – imagine in 1970 a Japanese woman with a very big voice daring to demand her place at the side of one of the most famous men on the planet, on doing her own creative work wherever it led and seemingly never, ever embarrassed of being who she was?

Yoko had to fight racism, sexism and Beatle fanboyism all of her life, and it still lingers to this day. The criticism back in the day was that Yoko didn’t know her place. Yoko always knew her place. Yoko’s even been pretty big in the clubs in recent years), and her spirit of independence, defiance and confidence can still be found everywhere in 2021 among brave young artists. 

Sorry we laughed at you, Yoko. 

80 things I love about Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is 80 years old today.  Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world. 

Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more. 

In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan: 

1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives. 

2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:

3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”

4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works. 

5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 

6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:

7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”

8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece. 

9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.

10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days. 

11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:

12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami. 

13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State. 

14. The sheer elegant snark of the 1965 press conference in San Francisco

15. This photo:

16. Dylan and Johnny Cash just kind of screwing around on tape circa 1970 and still sounding like geniuses at play. 

17. How Dylanologist Greil Marcus managed to make an entire hefty book out of examining a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.” 

18. Over hundreds and hundreds of performances, the “How does it feel?” refrain in “Like A Rolling Stone” never quite sounds the same twice. 

19. “What is this shit?” – The start of Greil’s infamous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait album. 

20. Dylan’s marvellous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which includes a backhanded compliment: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?””

21. This moment in the amazing documentary Dont Look Back

22. The way that nearly-lost gem “Blind Willie McTell” sounds as if it’s being sung at the bottom of a well, from a place beyond time.

23. How he barks out the song title of “Forgetful Heart” with a startling intensity that immediately makes you sit up and pay attention.  

24. The way he breaks down on the intro into stoned giggling on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Take 1” on The Bootleg Series Vol 12, reminding you he’s human after all. 

25. …“He said his name was Columbus, and I just said good luck.” 

26. I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s “born again” Christian rock period, but there are gems to be found there, particularly “Gotta Serve Somebody” in its rollicking gospel rock live versions. 

27. He says it was because he stopped smoking, but I still love Dylan’s baritone croon in the Nashville Skyline era, smoother and somehow sexier than he ever sounded again. 

28. That he has a whiskey brand called, of course, “Heaven’s Door.” 

29. This photo, and Dylan’s eyebrows in it:

30. Seeing the Academy Award Bob won resting near his piano, casually, at his gigs.

31. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, the first album of his I ever owned. It took me a while to grow into it. 

32. However, it was 1989’s Oh Mercy that became the first Dylan album I really discovered and soaked in, and the road map into a lifetime. 

33. The late Sally Grossman’s zen bohemian pose on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.

34. That Dylan legendarily got the Beatles stoned for the first time. What a punk.

35. The rumbling guitar chords and drum beats that amble in the beginning of “Thunder On The Mountain,” and Modern Times, featuring one of Dylan’s tightest bands ever. 

36. Also, the way he spits out, “I got the pork chops / She got the pie.” 

37. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in the rather muddled experimental film I’m Not There:

38. “People don’t live or die, people just float” – “Man In The Long Black Coat”

39. “I Threw It All Away” live on The Johnny Cash TV Show:

40. One of the loveliest songs he ever sang, the brittle and pained 1970 take on old folk song “Pretty Saro.” 

41. The ultimate comeback to the “Judas” insult at one of his 1966 “electric” concerts: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

42. Dylan’s white kabuki-style makeup look on the Rolling Thunder tour:

43. Watching a moron try to rush the stage during the 17-minute long epic “Desolation Row” at a 2007 concert, not exactly a song that inspires mosh pits. 

44, “And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style” is one of the great metaphors.

45. I’m a fan, but many fans know way more than me. Dylanology is kind of bottomless, and “The Dylanologists” by David Kinney is a great look at some of the most obsessed. 

46. That the “Soy Bomb” guy was briefly a thing.

47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.

48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.

49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer. 

50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times.  Whoo-ee, ride me high.  

51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory. 

52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”

52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood. 

53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”

54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”

55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right. 

56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”

57. This photo:

58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound. 

59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history. 

60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…”  few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak. 

61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.” 

62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem. 

63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour. 

64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” 

65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan. 

66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track. 

67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:

68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” 

69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing. 

70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe. 

71. …And the fact there’s actually a wikipedia page called “Electric Dylan Controversy.”

72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it. 

73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:

74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”

75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house

76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog? 

77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it: 

78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness. 

79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.

80. This: 

Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again.