Trailblazers of Conscience Songs

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Below is the link for the second episode of Trailblazers I recorded for Sky Arts. It’s about songs of conscience or, as Billy Bragg says in the programme, the “kind of music that says something other than ‘I’m great, you’re shit. Do you like my socks?'”.

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The Trials of Trailblazing

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As much as I love interviewing people for my books, I find transcribing the recorded interview excruciatingly painful at times. The reason for this is not because of the attention to detail required in undertaking such a time-consuming task, but the process necessary to ensure accuracy. The recording can be unclear at times, meaning I have to listen to the same few seconds over and over before I am certain of what has been said. In doing so, listening to my part in the conversation is often unavoidable. Now, despite what some may say, I really don’t like the sound of my own voice. You can imagine the panic I felt last Friday, when I received an email saying the first of the 80’s music programmes I had recorded for Sky Arts earlier this year, Trailblazers of Nuclear Protest, was being aired that evening. Recorded voice and face. Yikes!

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Photo: @Keithredhead68 on Twitter

Not having Sky TV, I was unable to view Trailblazers when it was broadcast, and had no idea what the finished product would be like. However, returning home late on Friday evening to a number of encouraging messages and tweets, I was eager to watch it, even if it meant peeking through my fingers when I came on screen. Thanks to being sent a link by OMD super fan, and fellow contributor to the programme, Neil Young I was able to so last night. I am so glad I did.

Set against the soundtrack of my early teens, the show detailed the very real threat of nuclear war during the Eighties, and how that threat manifested itself in the lyrics of some of the best known songs of the decade. Featuring recollections and observations from a number of the era’s leading influencers of music, including Trevor Horn, Ranking Roger and Billy Bragg, it was exactly  the kind of show I would choose to watch myself. I am incredibly pleased to have been part of it.

The series is set to run for a further two months, and goes out at 9pm Fridays on Sky Arts. I will also make an appearance on TrailBlazers of… Songs of Conscience (29th July) and New Romantics (12th August).

To watch Trailblazers of Nuclear Protest via Neil’s link click here.

The Age of Apathy?

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Growing up in the Eighties may have meant listening to some of the best music ever, often whilst wearing some of the worst fashion ever, but it also meant having an awareness of and an opinion on what was happening in the world. It wasn’t only what we saw on John Craven’s Newsround or, as we got older, the “real” news. Sometimes, events reached our consciousness without us even realising, via the music we were listening to. Whilst the lyrics of Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” and Billy Bragg’s protest song “Between The Wars” made the subject matter of the songs very clear, how long did it take us to realise that Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” and Nik Kershaw’s “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” were about nuclear war?

Regardless of how we knew, the fact is that we tended to have a fair understanding of the issues of the time and, dare I say it, actually cared about them. Whether it was war or strikes, apartheid or famine, local issues or international affairs, we knew enough to know whether something was right or wrong, and when it was wrong, we wanted to change it. So what’s happened to that generation of kids who didn’t only think they could change the world, but who went ahead and brought about some of the biggest changes in living history?

I was saddened, but not really surprised, by the lack of response to a Facebook status I posted recently. Linking to a report about the fact that, on average, one Nepalese worker dies every other day, whilst working in Doha on World Cup-related construction, I had commented about the indignity with which the bodies of these men were then returned to their families. The news report had shown family members wheeling the coffins of their relatives out of the airport, across two baggage trolleys, as the authorities had made no other arrangements. Shocked that these men were being treated no better than excess luggage, I had asked “where is the dignity and humanity?”. With only three acknowledgments to that post, I wonder more so now.

We live in a world where information and news are more easily accessible than they have ever been, so ignorance cannot be the reason for lack of interest. Neither can it be that it’s too difficult to make yourself heard. Gone are the days wPoll Taxhen the only way of having a voice was mass protest, or raising a petition by physically traipsing around gathering signatures, both of which I had done by the age of 14. At the end of 1984, I had organised and submitted to Downing Street a thousand signature petition against VAT being charged on the original Band Aid single, and the following year taken part in a protest march against the Channel Tunnel being built. Being part of a like-minded crowd, shouting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out! Out! Out!”, as the Prime Minister arrived just feet away not only gave this teenager a sense of belonging, but a sense of purpose too.

As it turned out, neither petition nor protest was successful, if judged on their outcomes, but both helped to strengthen my beliefs that you should never be afraid to stand up and be counted, and that there is indeed strength in numbers. I don’t think I am alone in those beliefs today, just that somewhere along the way priorities seem to have become skewed. When Jeremy Clarkson lost his job at the BBC earlier this year, over a million people signed an online petition calling for him to be reinstated. Around the same time, only half that number of signatures were gathered for a petition to “save the NHS”. Similarly, little more than a week before my post was met with underwhelming apathy, my Facebook newsfeed had been awash with comments and opinions on Sepp Blatter and FIFA corruption. So, it’s not that people don’t care, just that focus needs adjusting.

What’s the answer? I honestly don’t know. I’m not suggesting we take to the streets in mass demonstration every single time we feel strongly about an issue – that part of me departed around the time that Ben Elton stopped referring to “Mrs Thatch”. But surely we can find time in our busy lives to consider what is happening behind the headlines and scandalmongering, and act on what really matters to us? I understand that this happened on social media, which often equates to videos of fluffy kittens and ridiculous selfies (both of which I confess I’m guilty of posting), but surely social media should also be a reflection of our wider social lives? This is no different to discussing current affairs down the pub, or a friendly debate on the latest hot topic, is it? Although, if our current affairs are what is happening between the cast of TOWIE, and the latest hot topic is who’s between the covers of “Heat” magazine, then I guess we’re all doomed!

I am really interested to know what everybody else thinks about this; whether I’m alone, stuck in an 80’s nostalgic timewarp of beliefs, or whether there are others out there who still care and believe that we can make a difference, who will restore my faith in this race that’s supposedly human.

Mighty MacColl’s Merry Christmas

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One of the very few regrets I have in life is that I never got to meet Kirsty MacColl, before she met her untimely death on 18th December 2000. One of my favourite songwriters, with wide-ranging musicality (compare “They Don’t Know” to “My Affair”) and lyrical genius (“Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!” being my favourite), I’ve always felt it an unfair reflection of her talent that her highest charting solo single release was “New England”, written by Billy Bragg. Her best known self-penned number, “There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”, may be catchy and fun, but offers only a glimpse of her versatility and creativity. If your knowledge of Kirsty’s material stretches little beyond this, then treating yourself to her “Kite” album will show you what I mean. It is nearly Christmas after all!

Of course, it is at this time of year that we hear the lovely Ms MacColl singing alongside The Pogues’ Shane McGowan. “Fairytale of New York” is not only my favourite Christmas song, but its video features my teenage crush, Matt Dillon, dressed in a police uniform. So, as an early Christmas present to myself, and to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, here it is…