The17
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SEVEN DECADES – SEVEN ALBUMS – SEVEN DAYS
 
 
 
FOREWORD
 
Sunday 30 January 2011
 
Over the next seven days I will be listening to seven albums, each from a different decade that I have lived in, from the 1950s onwards. But I will get back to that later, first some background to why I am prompted to be doing this.
 
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, through the 20th-century; the evolution of recording technology seduced almost all forms of music. The fast growing free market economy in the West had one interest in music, to turn it into a product and turn the vast majority of us into consumers of that product – recorded music. We couldn’t get enough of it.
 
But come the file sharing and then the iPod / iTunes revolutions, our relationship to recorded music was fast changing. The free market economy was no longer making the same money out of it that it once could. Recorded music was losing its use. This heralded the beginning of the end for the centrality of recorded music in Western culture. This excited me. I like it when things change. It inspired me in numerous ways, mainly to instigate a choir called The17 (that is never recorded for posterity); an annual No Music Day and a number of systems as to how I should personally listen to the fast passing its sell-by-date substance that is recorded music.
 
The first system I adhered to was back in 2002. For almost a year I only listened to albums that had been released in the previous twelve months and then it had to be the debut album by whoever the artist(s) was or were.
 
Then I modified things, I would work my way through the alphabet, only listening to recorded music by an artist whose name began with a given letter of the alphabet. This was in February 2003 and the letter I was listening to that year was B, thus The Beatles, Bartók, James Brown, Beethoven, Count Basie, The Back Street Boys, Bach and many more. Suddenly recorded music had a real value for me again. If I did not listen to all of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in the next twelve months, I might not live the next 20 years before I can have a chance to listen to it again.  
 
Over the past few years, I kept this system up. But it has not been really working because I also decided to get rid of all my CDs and CD player, sell my iPod and delete my Spotify. Thus I never listen to recorded music at home or while driving. I hear it by accident, I can enjoy hearing something coming out of a shop as I walk by, or seeping from someone else’s headphones while on the bus, but that is something else altogether.
 
Then last week, I had to deal with an uncontrollable urge to experience the album Green River by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. But there was no way to sate this urge. Then I got an email from the Offline People, reminding me that I had agreed to be their guest editor for a week in early February.
 
An idea arrived fully formed. This was it – I would download seven albums, and upload the albums onto my iPhone. The albums would be from each of the seven decades I have lived in. I would get one of those things that you can slot your phone into with speakers at either side. And then starting on Monday 31 February 2011 (tomorrow), I would listen to an album a day, from the 1950s to the present decade. Then I would report back to the Offline People my findings.
 
The albums were selected at almost random. I then decided to have the title of each of these albums, turned into wall paintings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Then have these wall paintings photographed and added to the Offline People site. To have some idea of why I should do all this Haitian stuff click on the following link and read:
 
http://www.penkilnburn.com/paintings/21/claudel_casseus.php
 
So my plan may be all fine and dandy concerning providing content for the Offline People, but it does not do much regarding me being their guest editor of the week. So this is my editorial decision:
 
I invite you and any other visitors to the site, to do what I am doing and select an album from each decade from the 1950s onwards and listen to them, one for each of the seven days, starting on Monday (31 January 2011) and report back your findings to the Offline People. They will add your free ‘user generated content’ to their site for us all to read. I would also like to invite you to make any number of graffiti in your area, using the name of the album (or albums) of your choice and then send the photographic documentation of the graffiti to the Offline People and this too will be added to their site.
 
Now get busy.
 
Post Script: After writing the above, I decided to write a BEFORE section for each of the albums that I was going to listen in the coming week. Each of these BEFORE sections would briefly explore why I had chosen the album. Give a bit of context, say if it already meant something to me, or it it was just a random choice.
 
 
 
DAY ONE
Monday 31 January 2011
 
JAZZ BY SUN RA by Sun Ra
 
BEFORE
 
 
In the late 60s when I was in my mid teens, I used to have the Melody Maker delivered to my house once a week. The Melody Maker was the thinking music fans’ weekly paper of choice. It would arrive on our mat each Thursday morning. The first part of the paper that I would read would be those covering the bands and singers that I was into at the time, this could be Ten Years After or Cream or early Pink Floyd - serious music for serious young men.
 
By sometime on the Friday I would have read all of the news stories, reviews and interviews with those that I hero worshipped and aspired to be like, but that still left a good chunk of the Melody Maker unread. These unread sections dealt with Folk Music and Jazz and seeing as my mum had paid for the whole paper, I felt it my duty to read the whole paper, and anyway it was still a long time until next Thursday morning when I could get my next fix. So I would read all about these Folk legends like the Ian Campbell Folk Group and Ewan MacColl, the reviews, the interviews and even their tour dates. I would know everything there was to know about them, except I had no idea of what their music sounded like. But this did not stop me from having opinions about their last album compared to the one before.
 
As for the Jazz section, it was even more extensive. There was one particular journalist in these pages called Max Jones who would always get me fired up. After reading every word in this section, week in and week out for over two years I had a complete understanding of the history of Jazz, where all the greats stood in relationship to each other. Was the Bird greater than Miles? Would any of it been possible without Louis Armstrong? What were the differences between the band leading styles of Count Basie and Duke Ellington? Was Django Reinhardt a true Jazz great? I mean he was not American and not even black. I could discuss all of this at length, that’s if I had known anyone else interested, to discuss it with.
 
I would get excited about the prospect of Ornette Coleman coming over to Europe on tour, even though I never heard a record of his, let alone had a chance to hear him play. The thing is, with most of these artists I did have a pretty clear idea in my imagination as to what they sounded like. Over the years when I did get to hear their records, most of them, strangely enough, did sound near enough how I imagined they would.
 
But amongst all of these Jazz Greats, there was one character who was often referenced and written about, but whom I could never really imagine what he sounded like. That person was Sun Ra and his band was called The Arkestra. I don’t think there was ever an actual interview with this Sun Ra, but from what I could work out, Sun Ra either came from outer space or ancient Egypt. At the time most Jazz musicians were either dressing in rather dated looking slim lapelled cool suits or adopting a kind of black version of hippy chic. From the photos I saw of Sun Ra and The Arkestra, they were having none of this. They were dressed as if they were from a planet that the Starship Enterprise had just visited, but on a week when the wardrobe budget was particularly tight. There was lots of shinny aluminium foil and weird headdresses.
 
Although no one ever said a bad word about Sun Ra, you always got the feeling that the critics were hedging their bets. No one would ever write that Sun Ra was the greatest thing since the last greatest thing. One week in the Melody Maker, Roland Kirk would be releasing the greatest LP of the decade, the next week it would be Pharoah Sanders. But no critic would ever say that about the numerous Sun Ra albums that always seemed to be being released.
 
Then over the decades, long after the Jazz pages of the Melody Maker were dropped and even after the Melody Maker had become just the MM, and then after it had folded altogether, Sun Ra would still be referenced in interviews with musicians, and these were any kind of musicians. This was always in some sort of referential way. As if he was a touchstone.
 
And all through those decades I have never actually heard what Sun Ra sounded like. That is all about to change. I am now going to attempt to listen to his first ever album simply titled Jazz By Sun Ra. That’s if I can find a copy of it to download.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
The sky is a clear blue, the winter sun is reaching in through my windows and I am feeling good. So good, that I have decided that what I am doing this week with The Offline People will be the basis of a new score for The17. The words for this new score have just been scribbled into my notebook. They are:
 
LIFE IS LONGER
AT THE AGE OF 57
SELECT AN ALBUM FROM EACH DECADE
THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ALIVE IN
DOWNLOAD A COPY OF EACH
BUY BORROW BUT DO NOT STEAL
A MACHINE TO PLAY THESE
ALBUMS ON
OVER AS MANY DAYS AS IT TAKES
LISTEN TO ONE OF THESE ALBUMS
PER DAY
STARTING WITH THE EARLIEST
AND WORKING YOUR WAY THROUGH
 
 
Now that I have typed it up, I have decided to call it SELECT AN ALBUM and I have an idea for a prequel score to it called OPEN ALL WINDOWS, it may read:
 
LIFE IS LONG
AT THE AGE OF 53
GET RID OF ALL YOUR
RECORDS, CASSETTES, CDs
DELETE ALL YOUR MUSIC FILES
CANCEL YOUR SPOTIFY
DISPOSE OF ALL MACHINES
IN YOUR HOME
THAT RECORDED MUSIC
CAN BE PLAYED ON
 
THEN
OPEN ALL THE WINDOWS
AND LISTEN
 
Later this afternoon, after I have got back from picking up my Land Rover from the menders and then gone to Argos to buy an iPod Nano, I will have these two possible scores laid out. And if they work I will combine them with older scores LISTEN and CHOOSE and call the four of them collectively The LIFE IS Quartet of Scores.
 
 
 
 
After breakfast and getting my emails done I attempted to download all the albums that I will be listening to this week. This was a simple enough for five of them, but there was no download version of Berlin Mass that I could find, so I had to order a CD of that. Which complicates things somewhat, as I do not have a CD player to play it on and I do not want to buy one. This means I will have to go around to someone else’s home to listen to it.
 
The other album that I could not get a download of was JAZZ BY SUN RA. I somehow was not surprised. The only copy of it I could find was a second hand one that was being sold by Amazon for £192.93. I could not justify spending that much for this experiment (or performance of the score SELECT AN ALBUM).
 
Next I went to YouTube to see what they had there and typed in Brainville which, according to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_by_Sun_Ra
is the opening track of the album. It was there. And I listened. As intently as I could. But all I could hear was old-fashioned Jazz music. Nothing like it was coming from outer space or ancient Egypt. My instinct was to click it off, but I didn’t. Part of me thought I had a responsibility to you to hear it to the end and then see if the next track on the album was on YouTube as well. The compromise was that I listened to it through to the end, but that was it.
 
In actually hearing some Sun Ra, something has been destroyed for me. For over 40 years of my life Sun Ra has held this position in my imagination, which I will no longer be able to indulge in. The thing is, I was not surprised; of course it was going to sound like it did. And I also know to get the full effect of an artist, like I guess Sun Ra to be, you have to open yourself up to the whole arc of his career. As much as I have been on record in the past saying, “if a band or artist cannot say it on their first album, why bother with their second one?” I know that for a lot of musicians from earlier eras, it took them a while to hit their stride. Also it is often that the progress of an artist over two or three decades is the really interesting thing, far more than any one individual work.
 
That will do for the time being. Maybe more later if and when I get the new scores laid out.
 
 
 
DAY TWO
Tuesday 1 February 2011
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GREEN RIVER by Creedence Clearwater Revival
 
BEFORE
 
 
For a few weeks in 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival were the biggest band in the world. Or that is the way it seemed from my little corner of the world. Those few weeks existed in the late summer of that year just before Led Zeppelin Two was released. After the release of Led Zeppelin Two there was no arguing, even in our Sixth Form common room as to who the biggest band in the world was. Prior to those few weeks it had been Cream, even though they had split up some months before.
 
I was not particularly interested in Creedence Clearwater Revival, by then I was into all sorts of blues and early R&B or the more experimental progressive rock. Creedence seemed very dull fare, but my mate Peter McMahon was into them and he got all their albums as they came out. The Green River album was released in August 1969; it was them at the height of their powers.
 
For the next decade or so I never gave any thought to Creedence Clearwater Revival. But then something must have changed, in amongst all the post punk and the various strands of modern R&B that I was listening to. I can’t remember the actual point when I bought the album Green River, or what prompted me to do so, but there it was in my record collection and anytime that I was alone in the house getting on with some hammering of nails or sawing of wood, I would have Green River at top volume. The fact that I knew it to be fake music - as in these were a bunch of blokes from San Francisco making music that was somehow pretending to be music from the Bayou Country down in Louisiana - didn’t seem to matter to me. In actual fact it sounded incredibly real, stripped of all artifice as if it was coming direct from the heart of rock ’n’ roll. From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties I must have played this album more than any other, or at least as much as I played Highway 61 Revisited, but that is another story.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
I actually did not get to Argos until this afternoon. There was some problem with my credit card, but that was soon sorted and within a few minutes I had got myself the new iPod NANO, a Street Party Stereo speaker system and a set of batteries. I had texted my 16-year-old daughter to drop by my place after school so that she could set it up for me. The plan was that once she had done that I could get down to some serious Creedence Clearwater Revival listening while I finished off building my new book case and fixing it to the wall. I had bought a 14mm masonry bit especially for the job.
 
But the trouble was my daughter did not get the message as she had left her phone at home and then I had to go to a meeting on the other side of London for 5pm. And when I got there, I realised I must have got the wrong address, and the person I was supposed to be meeting was not answering his mobile.
 
Back across London and back home by 7:30, my daughter comes down to give me a hand. She soon discovers that my new iPod NANO is not compatible with my Mac that is now five years old. This means I have to listen to Green River out of the tiny speakers in my Mac. And as my Mac is not a laptop and is in my bedroom and the bookshelves that need fixing to the wall are down in my living room, I am unable to get on with the work while having Creedence filling the room all around me.
 
So I give up on doing the shelves. Instead I hunch up in my chair click on the opening track, which is also the title track, close my eyes and listen. I might not be banging or sawing or drilling while I am doing it, but it still sounds as brilliant as it ever did. Everything stripped right back, the simplest of riffs, chord changes and drum patterns, but everything working perfectly together. I could and probably have written pages about how the rock band, as an art form is one of the most perfect forms, when done right and Creedence can do it right. Maybe I should leave it until tomorrow when I will be listening to Television to really get into what makes two guitars, bass and drums the almost perfect formation for creativity.
 
Then four tracks in, my ten-year-old son, who is staying with me for the night, comes up the stairs. He is fed up with watching whatever he was watching on Channel Dave and wants to get on the computer to play online pool. I tell him he can’t, that me listening to this music and writing about it, is work. That I have to get it done tonight, there are these blokes in Paris, that are waiting for me to send them an email with what I have written so that it can go up on their website. He is having none of it. The tirade begins.
 
“Dad, it is shit. It is disgusting music. It is the sort of music that John Hirst listens to. How can there be so many shit songs in the world? I feel sorry for you that you were born in a time when you had to listen to music like this. Is this the sort of music your dad listened to?”
 
I did a deal with him; I would let him stay up an extra half an hour if he would leave me alone now so that I could finish off listening to the album. We shook on it. I got all the way to the end skipping half of Sinister Purpose, as I have always done.
 
My son then had half an hour playing online pool, where somehow he always thought the other guy was cheating if he was not winning. I have now made him a slice of toast and a cup of camomile tea, and while he sits in front of the TV downstairs, I get to write this. I guess if you were expecting me to write at length about how the music was constructed, deconstructing its meaning, taking and placing it within the context that existed in the late sixties, then you must be disappointed. Instead you get a glimpse into my domestic life on a Tuesday night.
 
Tomorrow I drive to Norwich to sort some stuff out at a solicitor’s office regarding my mum and dad’s wills, they both died in the last couple of years and we are still sorting all that kind of thing out. I would love to be driving to Norwich in my Land Rover, with the window down and Green River blasting from the speakers, but seeing as I did not get a CD that I could have played on the system, that will not be happening.
 
That will do now, he has had his extra half hour and he has got school in the morning.
 
Post Script: I have now had the two new proposed scores laid out. This is what they look like:
 
 
 
 
 
 
DAY THREE
Wednesday 2 February 2011
 
MARQUEE MOON by Television
 
BEFORE
 
 
Punk had been a long time coming, I personally had been waiting for it since September 1970 and it wasn’t until summer 1976 that it seemed to be arriving. The day the single New Rose by The Damned was release in late October of that year was a new dawn. It brushed aside all the old album orientated shite that had been clogging up rock music since 1967, or that is how I felt at the time. And at the time I long since loathed the album as a format to listen to recorded music. The seven-inch single was the perfect format for the medium of rock music as far as I was concerned. But this new dawn soon faded and was finally brought to a close when the Sex Pistols reneged against everything punk stood for by releasing their album Never Mind The Bollocks in October 1977. If punk stood for anything, it was not allowing musicians to indulge in making albums. 
 
Or that is the orthodoxy, as told by myself. The truth is somewhat murkier. At some point in ’77 I slunk into a record shop, one where I knew nobody would know me and bought an album by a band who I had never heard anything by. I bought it for the cover and the title of the album and the name of the band. Something told me I had to have this. I got it home and played it on my record player and it sounded stranger, more spindly and majestic than I could ever have imagined. The record as you will already know from the title of this text was Marquee Moon by Television. Over the next hours, days, weeks, months and years my love for this album did not wane. It was the first album by a bunch of white rock musicians I had fallen in love with since H to He, Who Am the Only One by Van der Graaf Generator back in 1969. As with Van der Graaf, I had not a clue what they were singing about, but they obviously meant it and it took me to other worlds far away from the grotty furnished flat that we were living in at the time. It was glorious in all sorts of ways. But that was then, this is a record I have not listened to in over 30 years. How will I deal with listening to it this coming Wednesday?
 
 
AFTER
 
 
And now I have just listened to Marquee Moon all the way through, without a break. Hardly even lifting my head up from my crouched position in a chair in which I have spent the last 45 minutes. In that time I just let the cascading guitar lines of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd pour over me. Whatever words I use to describe this experience will not do the record justice. In the world as I see it and experience it, this has got to be one of the best rock records ever made. Verlaine voice still cuts straight through me and I still do not have any kind of idea what he is singing about. Whatever it is, he means it as much as Otis Redding meant whatever he was singing about.
 
As a group playing together they have got to be unsurpassed. Every drum roll, every carefully positioned bass note, every sparse and interlocking riff, every fluid guitar line all of them fit together and compliment each other. And the sheer starkness of it all. No fake rebellion. No flicking the V for the sake of it. No dance beats for the folk who want to get up and boogie. No sing along choruses. And it is the same on every track. It never lets go, just keeps building the tension all the way through.
 
Why would a rock band bother forming when this record has already been made? There are the odd lines in the lyrics that reach me on this playing as they did when I used to listen to this record almost 34 years ago. “My Eyes are like telescopes... But who wants hope?” Whatever he means, I’ve got no clue, and I don’t care, but I love every word.
 
I’m going to make myself a pot of tea, try and calm down a bit, get a bit of rationality going, maybe some overview. At least it will give me time to dry my eyes and stop crying.
 
Just back from making the pot of tea. While it was brewing my oldest daughter phoned. We chatted about this and that and how it went today in Norwich and about getting my 80-year-old Aunty set up with a laptop and online for the first time. And I told my daughter  about what I am doing right now, as in writing about a record that I had not heard for over 30 years. She asked what it was. I told her. She had never heard of it. I then told her, it was one of the great records of my life. And we made arrangements about seeing her grandparent’s home for one last time before it gets sold off. And I asked her if there was anything in the house that she would like. And she said she would like the chest-of-drawers that was in their bedroom. I said I was driving over again next week in a van and I could pick it up for her. And then I told her to give my regards to her boyfriend. And we said our farewells.
 
So back to Television and Marquee Moon. The thing is, I never bothered to buy Television’s follow up album because what would the point have been? There is no way it could have been as staggering brilliant as this one. And I guess they knew it. Soon after they had released their second album, whose name I cannot remember, they split up. It was obviously the right thing to do.
 
Tom Verlaine was reckoned to be the main talent in the band; it was him that had the voice and the fluid guitar lines. I did buy his first solo album, but I can’t remember one track on it. What do you do if your greatest artistic achievement is your first one, or the first one that the public are aware of? How do you ever recover from that? I think it is bad enough for Jimmy and me having to make work knowing it is going to be judged in the context of the long shadow cast by the money burning incident. But at least we did a lot of things before we got to that point.
 
There is no reason for you to listen to Marquee Moon, because to your ears it will just sound old and boring. There will be music for you that is every bit as brilliant as Marquee Moon is for me, and if you were to play it to me, I just wouldn’t get it. That is the way things are and maybe the way things should be.
 
Tomorrow I will be listening to Echo & The Bunnymen. My working relationship with them was a very intense and fraught one. A relationship that could only last for a limited time. But one of the things that added to the intensity was that all I wanted them to make was a record that was more spine tingling thrilling and undeniably brilliant as Marquee Moon. Not one of their first three albums came close. But their fourth album – Ocean Rain, that was different.
 
 
 
 
DAY FOUR
Thursday 3 February 2011
 
OCEAN RAIN by Echo & The Bunnymen
 
BEFORE
 
 


 

This is going to be the hardest of these seven albums for me to listen to. And it is an album that I have written about at length in the story From The Shore of Lake Placid in the book 45 (Little Brown, 2000). In my mind it had always been the crowning achievement of the band Echo & The Bunnymen. It was released in 1984; I had been working with the band since late 1978 in various capacities (manager, producer and publisher). Once this album had been made and released, I had shot my load, my job had been done, it was time for me to move on and find what I should be doing next. But the truth is I have never dared to listen to the album since. One of my fears was that it could no way stand up to what I had perceived Marquee Moon by Television to have been.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
“What decade are you listening to Dad?”
“The 80s.”
“Is it rubbish like the other ones?”
“Its the worst decade.”
“Why do you bother?”
“Too complicated to go into now.”
“Whatever. I’m going over to the garages, to practice my fast in swinger.”
 
That was Flint, just back from school; I was about a third the way into The Killing Moon, which would have been the first track on side two, when it was vinyl. Then it was track five on CD. Now it is whatever you want it to be. Even though all the tracks have arranged themselves alphabetically on my iTunes, I have ordered them, as they would have been on the original vinyl. And I am not bothering with any of the bonus tracks.
 
Before Flint came in from school, I had been able to shut out the rest of the world and just get totally into this album, at a level that I do not think I have ever been able to before. I know I was the one responsible for putting the strap line ‘The best album in the World’ on all the advertising for Ocean Rain, but I guess I was too wrapped up in it all at the time to have any overview of its artistic worth. And now it is to woven into my own myth to know what its worth is artistically (or in whatever other way worth can be measured).
 
For all of what would have been once side one, I was trying to get into being inside the head of a 17-year-old lad in 1984 listening to this album, alone in his bedroom, with the curtains closed. He is from Solihull, in the West Midlands.
 
And there is no denying it, from the mindset of this lad that I am imagining to be, it has got to be the best album ever recorded. I was able to make sense of the words for the first time. Not that I had ever really listened to the words before. Every part was working together. Every part was as if they had been handed down by God. Every other album that would have come out that year would have paled into insignificance. U2, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, even The Cure would have sounded pompous and shallow at the same time.
 
But once Flint was back from school, even though he has now gone out to practice his ‘fast in swingers’, whatever they may be, I am not able to get back into the head of that 17-year-old lad from Solihull.
 
Instead I try to get into the head of an NME journalist at the time reviewing the record; I put three words down in my notebook – MONUMENTAL, MAJESTY, HARROWING. I tried to think of something that one of those French philosophers that NME journalist would sometime quote, might say. But I could not even remember names of French philosophers, let alone remember some quotes. Or the names of any of the journalists other than Nick Kent, but he probably was not writing for the NME when Ocean Rain came out. Then I tried to remember what else was happening musically in the UK at the same time as Ocean Rain, that is from other than the bands that I have already mentioned above. But everything I could remember was dull and dreary, especially all the London stuff. All that the Face used to celebrate, everything that went on at the Wag Club. And all the clothes and the haircuts and the dances. There are all these people that I now know who are in their late 30s, who can never get enough of celebrating the 80s. For me it was the dullest and most trivial of the decades that I have ever lived through.
 
Then I tried to bring myself back to listening to the album. And I am listening to the drums and the bass and I am thinking about Pete and Les playing together. Beautiful smiling Pete. Pete who could always be relied on. Pete who could always see the other side to the argument. But Pete who lost it and went to New Orleans and never really came back. But that was all after Ocean Rain. I wonder what he would look like now if he had lived. He would almost be 50 by now.
 
Since writing the book 17, I seemed to have stopped having weekly bad dreams about working with the Bunnymen. It has been some years since I have had a dream, where I would meet Pete down a back street, and he would come up to me and tell me he was not dead, that he had just disappeared for a while, until the time was right for him to come back again.
 
And again I bring myself back to the album and this time I am hearing Will’s guitar parts. Where did he get them from? I mean when I first started working with them he could hardly strum two chords in time, but within a few months he was winning ‘best guitarist in the world’ section in the weekly music paper’s annual polls.
 
But Mac’s voice is just triumphant; there is no denying its complete superiority to every other voice that you would hear on a modern record at the time. And I used to take it all for granted. But to quote one of his own later lyrics “Nothing lasts forever”, even the five minutes, twelve seconds of the title and last track on the album begins to fade. “Harbouring my darkest thoughts.”
 
All I am left with is the thought, what will this record sound like in another 26 years time? Will anybody care then? Does anybody care now? Does it matter if they do? Is it time for me to get down the green grocers at Newington Green to get my bi-weekly supplies of fruit and veg’ and should I be getting a chicken from the butchers for tonight’s supper? For tonight, I have three of my children staying with me and they thought what I cooked for them on Saturday night was shit.
 
 
DAY FIVE
Friday 4 February 2011
 
BERLIN MASS by Arvo Pärt
 
BEFORE
 
 
After the end of The KLF there was no way that I wanted to ever hear any popular music again in my life. I was done with it. Instead of listening to pop music I would find myself listening to the sounds that I could hear coming in through the open window from my cottage – wind, birdsong and those sorts of things. Sounds that I could enjoy without having to deconstruct.
 
I had also started to imagine choral music in my head, much of which I have written about in the book 17 (Beautiful Books 2008). Since I had sung in school and church choirs before my voice broke, choral music is something I have always had an affinity with, but buying albums and listening to them at home was something that I had never wanted to do. But at sometime in the 90s I became aware of the music of the still living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I guess I must have heard it on BBC Radio 3, which I was listening to quite a lot back then. I loved the seeming simplicity of his music and of course its spiritual depth. Berlin Mass is something I have only ever heard on the radio, never in concert and never had a recording of. Since going public with The17 back in 2006, I have stayed clear of listening to Arvo Pärt, maybe out of fear that it would influence me too much, or maybe out of the greater fear, that I would think that what I was attempting to do with The17 was worthless compared to him, I would give up.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
In the post this morning arrived a package from Amazon. I guessed it would be the Berlin Mass CD. On opening it, I realised that in my BEFORE section, which was written a few days ago, I made a fundamental mistake and almost a downright lie. In it I wrote that I never owned a recording of it. This was wrong, not only had I owned a recording of it, it is a recording that I have played more than any other recording that I have owned over the past twenty years. I do not know where or when I bought it and I do not know how I had forgotten I had owned it.
 
In the early 2000s my mother had a severe stroke, I would drive from where I was then living in Buckinghamshire, to Ipswich where she was in hospital and back every day for the first two weeks. This would have been a round trip of over five hours. Then when she was back home in Norwich, I would drive over to her’s once a week. On all of these journeys I would listen to this CD. In fact the CD is not called Berlin Mass, but Berliner Messe and not only contains the Mass but a couple of other shorter compositions. All the pieces are performed by Elora Festival Singer and Orchestra and it is released on the Naxos label.
 
What is true in my BEFORE piece, is that I have not listened to it since early 2006, when I first started to go public with The17. As I do not have a CD player in the flat, I slipped the CD into my Mac to listen to it through the crappy speaker inside, like I have been doing with all the other recordings I have been listening to this week. 
 
I then laid myself down on the bed, closed my eyes and waited to give myself over to the music. I am tempted to use words like sublime to describe what I was listening to and what I was feeling, but that would be wrong. I wanted to completely empty my head and just hear the voices, but it was impossible. Outside I could hear the window blowing; the buses pulling up and leaving from the bus stop outside my flat; the school children laughing and shouting on their way home from school.
 
After sometime, I opened my eyes and stared at the sky outside of my window. The sky was grey but I could sense the clouds being blown across it. Seagulls were wheeling about in the wind. Where have these seagulls come from? When I first moved here four years ago, I cannot remember there being seagulls, there was always the flock of pigeons and the squabble of sparrows that lived in the hawthorn tree across the road. But now the pigeons have to battle with the seagulls for the contents of the discarded kebab boxes and crisp packets. As for the sparrows, they have disappeared altogether.
 
I closed my eyes again. This time I was able to get further into the music. Into the space between the voices, listen to the unshifting drones of the bass singers at the bottom. The use of pentatonic clusters as chords. The shifting from the minor into a major for the ending Amen of one particular piece. And I could hear exactly why I found the work of Arvo Pärt so inspiring. Why I let it inform and guide me in what I wanted to do with certain elements of The17. And why it was a good thing for me to stop listening to him once I had actually started to go public with The17.
 
Then my mind started to drift again. Over the last couple of weeks I have had a number of offers to appear on TV and Radio programmes, all of which I have turned down. One was a BBC Radio 4 programme called the History of the Prank; another was to appear on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, they were going to do a wealth special, in fact I saw some of it the night before last. The third was to be a guest on Channel Four’s new satirical programme called 10 O’clock Live with Jimmy Carr, David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne. The last one came in yesterday, it was another one on Radio 4, it is a show called The Museum of Curiosity presented by Dave Gorman. They wanted me as one of the guests. Its a ‘knockabout’ show, where the guests indulge in clever banter and then come up with a clever ideas as to what they would like to put in this Museum of Curiosity, no matter how conceptual or impossible. It being radio everything is possible.
 
This particular email had started by telling me what a fan of my work the producer of the show was, but nearer the bottom I was being told I would get paid £315 for doing it, and this was non-negotiable and everyone gets the same and how it is a very popular show and gets booked up with guests very fast. I scanned the names of those that had done it – Brian Eno, Kate Aide, Phillip Pullman, Jonathan Miller were there, amongst the more obvious light entertainers (Bill Bailey, Alan Davies). These are all people with reputations and successful careers. People respected for what they do. So why is my response to want to not only turn it down, but some how wince at the whole idea of being on such a programme? Maybe I am just ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’ by snubbing such offers. I mean who gives a fuck if I am on these shows or not? No one will applaud me for not doing them. And if by doing them my profile was to rise, then that surely gives me the platform for doing other things? I even had an idea of what I would like to put in the The Museum of Curiosity; it would be my Soup Line. By putting that in this conceptual museum, and discussing it on air with a few hundred thousand Radio 4 listeners listening, would give the Soup Line far more legitimacy than anything that I could do by writing about it on every blog-site on the internet. And of course one still has to earn a living, week in week out, month in month out, year in year out, the bills keep coming, the mortgage needs paying, the kids need feeding and clothing. Fuck, I have just remembered that I have not paid my road tax yet, and it ran out on the 31 December and the insurance is due on the Land Rover this week, then if the base rate goes up, my mortgage will go way up.
 
But then I remember that I am listening to Arvo Pärt, and somehow it all makes sense again, listening to this music reminds me why doing any of those TV or radio programmes would be the worst idea possible. I kept listening to the end, holding onto the very last note as it seeped away and I could once again hear the school children outside and the wind blowing and I opened my eyes and saw a seagull wheeling high in the sky.
 
 
 
DAY SIX
Saturday 5 February 2011
 
THE FAME MONSTER by Lady Gaga
 
BEFORE
 
 


 

I love everything about Lady Gaga. I could write page after page why my love is so profound and shallow at the same time. She single handily re-lit my love of girl pop. But in reality all that I have been exposed to by her are the singles Bad Romance, Telephone and Alejandro. On YouTube I have watched the videos, and her peformances in concerts and on TV shows dozens of times. The idea that Lady Gaga has had to make such a dreary art form as an album somewhat lets me down. But that is not going to stop me looking forward to listening to The Fame Monster album next Saturday. At the very least, it will give me an excuse to write about all the ways that I love her.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
I started things all wrong. Sometime after 7am this morning, when the grey light of dawn was still creeping across the sky, I was diligently ordering the Lady Gaga songs on my iTunes, so I could listen to them in the same running order as they appear on The Fame Monster. Once that was done I double clicked on Bad Romance and I was away. Before even the first note struck, I knew I was going to be listening to one of the greatest pop records ever made and definitely one of the best two of the last decade. But as the music started and I was listening to the sound of Gaga’s voice and I was trying to think of things to write down in my notebook. Words that would impress you, by me seemingly to sum up the times we have been living through. But those words did not come, even though I had my pencil in hand and note book open. Instead my mind kept drifting. I kept thinking about the new version of Brighton Rock, which I went to see last night. In my 20s and 30s I had been a huge Graham Greene fan. When I heard that there was going to be a remake of the film version of Brighton Rock, but they were setting it in Mods & Rockers era Brighton (1964) instead of the 30s, I thought it a travesty. But the film was brilliant; it captured all the imaginary menace of Brighton that exists in the book. The lad that played Pinkie was far better than what I remembered of Richard Attenborough playing him. It was only after seeing the film and bumping into a couple of people in the street who we knew, that they reminded us he had played Ian Curtis in Control. He was great at that as well.
 
But none of this has got anything to do with Lady Gaga and by now we were into track two, Alejandro, which is a track that I am not that bothered about, sounds bland to my ears. Then the mind was off drifting again. I was staring out of the window at the cherry tree and the two hawthorn trees across the road. They were dark and bare, but in a few weeks the blossom will be bursting from them. Although still early February, there were already numerous small signs that spring was about to leap. Next week, I will do my annual giving away of 40 bunches of daffodils to complete strangers. This year I am planning on doing it in Birmingham.
 
Back to Gaga. How come my mind keeps drifting? Over the past couple of years, I have known that I could have written volume after volume about her, but this morning nothing. Then I realised what I was doing wrong. Listening to an album by Lady Gaga is totally the wrong way to engage with her genius. It is only after Monster, Speechless and Dance In The Dark drift aimlessly by, that I knew what I should be doing. I should be watching clips of her on YouTube. I start with Bad Romance again. The first thing that I notice, before the clip starts is that 341,354,598 people have watched it before me. This figure alone is enough to be the subject of a doctorate. There is no point in me describing the video; you will have already seen it. There is no point in me trying to dissect it like I am some post-modern philosopher, which would only do it a disservice. What I can tell you is that a friend of mine who has a daughter, who cannot yet walk or talk, is addicted to watching this video on YouTube over and over again. And then there is my now 14-year-old daughter, who for a few months last year worshipped everything about Lady Gaga, but this video was the pinnacle. She was everything that every modern young woman in the world could aspire to be, in some weird parallel universe. There is no way that I can get into the head of a 14-year-old girl, but I can imagine watching this video must make them feel pretty empowered.
 
After watching Bad Romance, I decided to watch all the videos for all her singles, in order, starting with Just Dance. Just Dance has 131,991,656 plays. It is the one where she is a teenager at a teenage house party and she is off her face and she does not know what the song is called but she does not care ’cause all she wants to do is just dance. The perfect song and video to start her career.
 
Then she goes more upmarket with Poker Face and the pair of dogs. This one only has 63,470,230 views.
 
I skip Eh Eh, I never liked that record, it’s a bit lightweight, almost Katy Perry territory. But I can like Katy Perry as well sometimes.
 
Next up is Paparazzi; it was when I first saw this video that I fell under the spell of the idea of Lady Gaga. When I first realised there was this girl out there in the world of pop, who had created her whole universe. A universe that seemed to be about nothing more than escapism but at the same time seemed to be about everything in world right there and then.
 
Then Bad Romance again for good measure. By now the viewing figures were up to 344,130,883. That means it has 2,776,284 more views since I watched earlier this morning. And it is this video that is the epoch defining one. The one that people in 200 years time will be watching in the equivalent of their art history lessons. For those that just see her as a piece of meat being exploited by men are missing something huge. She is one of the very few artists working in the mainstream of culture today, without compromising anything. She totally and completely understands her medium and she is total mistress of it.
 
And what makes it even better, is that you can see that she is basically a pretty plain girl under all the costumes and make up. A weak chin, a big nose and no great body to speak of. But she does not let any of that get in the way of her presenting herself as the ultimate woman in the world right now (or whenever it was a few months ago).
 
Then she pushes things even further. The video for Telephone took things into a different place altogether. Not futuristic but still a parallel universe. And with Beyoncé as well. As far as I was concerned Beyoncé was the only other female artist working in the world pop today that came close to Gaga and here they are on the same record and in the same video. And again there is no point in describing it. But if you have forgotten it is the one where it starts with her in the women’s prison and Beyoncé turns up to pay her bail and off they go like Thelma and Louise. It has many highlights, but the two sartorial ones are the costume made from nothing more than SCENE OF CRIME tape and then the one where she is wearing shades made from half smoked cigarettes.
 
“You have been very a bad girl. A very, very bad girl Gaga”, Beyoncé tells Gaga and Gaga replies with the line “Let’s go far, far away from here”. What more perfect lines could not exist?
 
Then for the last of these videos, I click on Alejandro. For me this video does not have the substance of the previous two, and the song itself is somewhat bland. But I am not in the majority in thinking this, as it has got 122,226,198 views compared to the measly 104,849,894 views that Telephone got.
 
I dread to think what you might think my love of Lady Gaga might say about me. It might sound defensive, but it has got nothing to do with lusting after her young flesh. At the same time as saying that I acknowledge that she can only do what she is doing because she still is in her first flush of adulthood, when everything is fresh and new.
 
What Lady Gaga might do in the future does not particularly hold any interest for me. I may enjoy the videos from her next album, but I will not be disappointed if I don’t.
 
Yet with certainty I can say, that for the 45 minutes or so I was watching these six videos, my mind did not wander once. And if you consider that I may have seen them dozens of times before, I think that is pretty...
 
Is there any way that I can compare the experience that I get from Lady Gaga to what I was getting from listening to Berlin Mass yesterday? I don’t think so. That said, given a choice, I would far rather have the music of Arvo Pärt in my life than the music of Lady Gaga. But that is not a choice I need to make.
 
For a few weeks last year, Jimmy Cauty and I were in agreement that the only thing that could tempt us back into pop music would be to work with Lady Gaga. Jimmy even ventured the thought that he was surprised that she had not telephoned us yet.
 
 
 
DAY SEVEN
Sunday 6 February 2011
 
I’M NEW HERE by Gil Scott-Heron
 
BEFORE
 
 
These introductions are getting shorter and shorter, I guess it is probably to do with the fact that my ten-year-old son keeps badgering me to come and watch him practice bowling (cricket not ten pin). As for choosing this album over and above the thousands that must have been released in the past 13 months, is not out of some great yearning to hear it again. I have never owned a Gil Scott-Heron recording in my life. I would be hard pushed to name an individual track, other than The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. As much as I spent the early 70s listening to lots of black American music of all sorts of genres Scott-Heron never seemed to feature. Maybe it was too right-on for my tastes. The thing is, I thought the Fame Monster had been released in 2010, thus it was going to be my album for this decade, but checking the facts on Wikipedia put me straight. 
 
I spoke to my colleague Cally, about this. He often tries to inform me that there are great albums being released all the time, some by artists considered to be long past their sell-by-dates. Cally told me without hesitation that the greatest album to be released since the beginning of the current decade is I’m New Here by Gill Scott-Heron. I am looking forward to this week of listening to and writing whatever I write. 
 
Now I will get out to the garages across the street where my son practices his bowling.
 
 
AFTER
 
 
In the summer of ’71, I bought the new album by Howlin’ Wolf. I had heard numerous songs by Howlin’ Wolf over the last couple of years on the Mike Raven R&B show on Radio 1. I liked these Howlin’ Wolf songs, he sang with every bit of intensity as my other favourite blues singer Muddy Waters. This new album of his was getting rave reviews, and it featured some of the songs that I had already heard on the radio and loved. The album was called The London Howlin’ Wolf Session, the title should have warned me, but I was too eager to get it home and listen to it. But when I got it on the record player in my bedroom I was not only confused, but totally disappointed and I guess I felt cheated. What I had bought was not the Howlin’ Wolf that I had been hearing on the Mike Raven show; those songs had been recorded in Chicago in the late 50s or early 60s, in the Chess studios with the Chess house band. The tracks on this London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, although sung by the same man called Howlin’ Wolf, had been recorded the previous year in London, with a bunch of English rock aristocracy. It totally lacked any genuine atmosphere, and was undoubtedly worthless shite. If I was the sort of person that wanted their money back, I would have wanted my money back, but I knew I was the one that was stupid. It said London in the title not Chicago. On the front cover it credited the musicians as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. I knew this before I bought it. It was my fault. 
 
The thing is, this was not the first time I had made this sort of mistake. In the previous year, I had bought another album that had got rave reviews, by a bluesman who I was into via the Mike Raven Show. This album was called Indianola Mississippi Seeds by BB King. This album had not been the complete disaster that The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions had been. But it was nothing like I hoped it would be. It too was a modern recording featuring a whole bunch of white session musicians, and it was produced in LA by Bill Szymczyk who was later responsible for producing all the big hits by The Eagles. And that sound is about as far as you can get from the sound that I was wanting from BB King.
 
Over the decades I have seen this sort of thing happen time and time again. Revered aging musicians seduced into studios by young hipsters to make an album. An album released to glowing reviews, but when I hear it I am only disappointed. And I don’t blame the revered aging musician for being tempted by the young hipsters. We can all be charmed into doing all sorts of things that maybe we should not be doing. And anyway who am I to be so high and mighty - have I not been guilty of the same sort of thing in the past?
 
When John Lee Hooker, in the twilight of his years was experiencing chart action with his album The Healer, why should I, or anyone else, begrudge him that late flowering commercial success? But there was no way was I going to want to hear it, let alone buy it.
 
Then of course there were those Johnny Cash albums that Rick Rubin did. They were feted by all sorts of people, but to my ears had nothing to do with the true Johnny Cash, the one that walked the line, and had gone to Folsom Prison.
 
But these I know are my prejudices. And say more about me than the musicians or records in question.
 
Now the thing is when it came to listening to I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron, I had none of these prejudices at the ready. I had no preconceptions regarding what I was going to be hearing. The main reason for my lack of prejudices was because I had never been a fan of Gil Scott-Heron in the first place. As I said in the BEFORE section, I would have been hard pushed to name one other tune of his other than The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
 
This morning, while my youngest son was down watching Sky Sports, and my two teenage girls were still sleeping, I got down to the job of listening to I’m New Hear. The opening track, On Coming From a Broken Home sounded brilliant. Lyrically it was incredibly moving and seeing as all six of my children have grown up in broken homes, it was going to hit my guilt button. But it was not just the words and Scott-Herron’s voice that sounded good, it was the strange and eerie backing track. It sounded exactly what you would like him to sound like in 2010 or 2011.
 
But track two, a cover of the Robert Johnson classic Me & The Devil Blues, was a total disappointment. Why is he doing a Robert Johnson song anyway? Next up was the title track that began with an acoustic guitar riff.  When Scott-Heron came in it was sounding ok, but lyrically it was not sounding like him.  Then it hits the bridge and he starts to sing over a couple of chord changes that no black man would have ever chosen. Now I know I am on dangerous territory here, and no way do I think music should be segregated, but sometimes you hear things that don’t sound right, a bit forced. And yes that can be good; breaking boundaries can always be good. But this was sounding as if someone was getting Gill Scott-Heron to do things that were not his doing. 
 
I stuck with the next few tracks, but although I liked the sound of his voice all old and gruff and fucked, when he was trying to sing, carry a tune, it did not work. And I liked the words, especially one track called Running. I could identify with that one. The sentiment being, that it does not matter how far you run, you can never run far enough that you can get away from yourself. But it was the production that was getting to me. And to be honest, there seemed to be something in what Scott-Heron was doing, that made it sound like he did not give a fuck, and not in a cool way.
 
The final track was a reprieve of the opening track On Coming From a Broken Home. This again was very good. But overall, the feel of the album was very much a whitey boy record, with an ancient and much revered black man providing the front. 
 
On putting the title into Wikipedia, I find that the album has been produced by a Richard Russell. And seeing as his name was highlighted, I clicked on it and got the Richard Russell page. And there I learnt he is the man behind the London label XL Recordings where he has been responsible for some of the great records of the past couple of decades. Especially the Prodigy classics and M.I.A. anthems. But suddenly it is all making sense. Richard Russell, I guess became a fan of Gil Scott-Heron’s early work, wondered what he was doing, had the where-with-all to track him down, make him an offer he could not refuse, get him in the studio, make this album, release it and... well whatever happens after that.
 
And why should I be giving the holier than thou take on all of this?  Its just a record and why should I think myself so this, that and the other just ’cause I have banged out a load of words on a keyboard? That is what used to piss me off about journalists. They could have all these grand opinions about things, but they never had to put themselves on the line.
 
I have now taken a bit of a break from the writing to download Gil Scott-Heron’s first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.  The opening track is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Listening to it now, it is as potent and pertinent as it would have been in 1970 when it first came out. Who, running his own record label, would not want to track down the man that recorded that track, to find out what he was doing now and see if he could make a record with him?
 
Tomorrow, I will take a break from listening to recorded music, but on the day after, I will get back on YouTube, or whatever, and find the rest of the tracks that I did not listen to from Jazz By Sun Ra, and listen to them all in order and with due respect.
 
One last thing, I recommend you listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised right now.
 
 
 
BACKWORD
Monday 7 February 2011
 
And today I do not have to listen to anything other than the world around me. And I don’t have to write in my daily report. So what am I doing?  I am feeling guilty that I did not listen to the entire Sun Ra album. So right now I am attempting to listen to all the tracks on it, on YouTube. But not all the tracks are there, so I am listening to some tribute band play some of the tunes. The quality of the film is not so good, but from what I can work out, it looks like a bunch of Oriental musicians dressed up as the Arkestra doing their best in front of a none-too-ecstatic audience.
 
The other thing that has been playing on my mind is that I did not chose any of the R&B music that I have loved down through the decades to play. When I take into account that there are three very traditional rock bands in there covering the 60s, 70s and 80s, it seems very unbalanced.
 
But then my favourite R&B musicians were never album artists. They were always at their best on singles. The albums were just compilations of assorted tracks that were released over a number of years. Or albums that were just thrown together to cash in on a hit single and not a genuine artistic statement. 
 
Then I remind myself this was not supposed to be some true reflection of my all time favourite records, but just an almost random selection of albums. I kind of like the idea that if I were to do it again next week, there would be seven different albums by seven different artists. Maybe I will do this again sometime in the future. You should have a go at it and send your findings into admin@the17.org and we will get it up on the site where I guess we will have this lot.