Sunday, 30 October 2011

I never met John Peel... but he did send me a postcard

Tomorrow night, Pete Townsend delivers the inaugural Peel lecture under the title: Can John Peelism survive the Internet?

There's something disconcerting about Peel being suffixed to anything so conformist as an ism. Almost a 'Yes, we're all individuals' moment. But if time really has changed how we view music and culture to such an extent that those of us who value the individual, the leftfield or just plain odd need an ism to unite us, then it might as well be Peelism.


You could call it downsizing, but that would imply an element of choice. Renting the box-room in a house in Elmstead Avenue, Wembley, October 1991 was entirely a financial necessity. By the time I’d wedged in a single bed and flimsily built wardrobe, that was it. Metropolitan and Jubilee Line trains clattered down the tracks at the bottom of the garden from around five in the morning to the last at gone midnight. There were few silent hours, even the small ones.

I’d spent the best part of the previous year blowing most of what cash I had on staying in my own flat. Idiotic perhaps. Hindsight made it clear: throwing three-quarters of my monthly earnings down a rent sized hole with the affable Noé Glasman (NW6 letting agent of repute) lining his pockets was a wrong ‘un. I moved to Wembley to pay off debts, save a little, make a new start and, although I didn’t know it then, to share a kind of chaos with three National Film School students. Allan from Grangemouth shared his appreciation of decent whisky, great British film, Nick Cave and stories of growing up next door to Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. Eric from Neath gave me the makings of a great vegetarian chilli and Michael Nyman through his walls – always the same piece, or at least it sounded like it. Farai, recently arrived from an altogether different kind of chaos in Harare, was wild-eyed, nocturnal, and played my hi-fi – installed by spatial necessity in the living room – at impossible volumes, often when he came in at two, three and four in the morning. I had an early start and a daily commute to central London.

I was reading a lot of post-war British poetry, notably Philip Larkin. Probably not a great choice in retrospect. I was haunted by Mr Bleaney: “Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook/Behind the door, no room for books or bags - ” Unsurprisingly, those themes of life lived for the most part in small, borrowed rooms found their way into my own writing. The world seemed to be imposing its own script with an insane soundtrack. I bought a Walkman/radio and some cheap earphones and on week nights, rediscovered the John Peel show, blocking out the other racket for sounds that I (or rather Peel) had chosen. Sometimes I would fall asleep before the end, drifting off to My Bloody Valentine or Ride or some anonymous house track, but always with Peel’s familiar, laconic tones granting free entry to a late night sonic sanctuary (p67 of the 1988 NME guide to journo-guff).
“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don't have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.’” John Peel.

Enrolling on an Open University Arts Foundation course that summer made perfect sense when I had time, space and at least some control over my surroundings. By October in Wembley, I was drafting essays by hand on trains, or at night, then typing them up in the office after work with the cleaners for company. The essays scored well and I started to think about applying for full-time courses. I plucked up courage and showed Allan some of the poems I’d written. He read them and passed them to a writer colleague. A few weeks later they came back with comments. In extremely polite, semi-constructive language, he told me they were rubbish. I read them again. He was right. I started again. I watched Allan and Eric – they were working jointly on a film project – and how they developed the script, nailing the story scene by scene, with each line of dialogue carefully nuanced, each word earning its place. I started work on a new poem, Electric Lullaby.

Things moved on and towards the end of 1998, the world, at least my little corner of it was a very different place. I had finished and passed a degree in English, Writing and Publishing in 1995 and if I had learned one thing, it was that I was not, and never would be, a poet. I’d given it a blast though, accumulated a huge stack of work in folders, files and notebooks in the process. Some poems were more ‘finished’ than others and I collected a few that I liked for longer than five minutes and worked on them, eventually deciding to self-publish a short collection under the title Electric Lullaby – although I pulled the poem itself at the last minute. Something about it not quite working in the cold light of day – a bit too up its own Larkinesque alley for its own good.  

I had fifty booklets printed, simply, cheaply and gave most away. I set about tracking down the addresses of people who had inspired me and sent them a copy. They felt like messages in bottles, sent out simply to see what might happen. I posted copies to, among others, Spike Milligan, Tony Benn and, of course, John Peel. Those are the ones I remember, because they all wrote back. Peel’s was the last response I received: a picture postcard of Ali Farka Toure which arrived early in 2000.

Publishing Electric Lullaby was an act born out of the notion that if you have a creative idea, it’s worth pursuing. It doesn’t have to be mainstream or have the edges smoothed off, or the surface noise cleaned away. If Peelism means anything, it means just do it.  So, as Pete Townsend delivers his keynote speech looking at the current state of music media tomorrow night, I’ll be grateful that John Peel was there to inspire me, and that he still does.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

BOOK NEWS: Frank's Wild Years

Looking ahead to the March 2012 launch of Frank's Wild Years, here's a sneak preview of the book cover. An understated little number in matt black, it's the latest in a long line of great Caffeine Nights covers designed by the estimable Mr Mark (Wills) Williams.

For further information about the book, the launch and a newly installed author profile, visit the Caffeine Nights website.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

THE CHORDS: I Remember You, Don't Think I Don't Now

The Chords circa '79: Chris Pope, Brett 'Buddy' Ascott, Billy Hassett, Martin Mason 
The first time I saw The Chords I was a 16 year old mod at Orpington Civic Hall in August 1981. The Chords were everything I thought a band should be - young, vital, fast and with something to say. Within a month, they’d split. Tagged Jam wannabes by a music press that cooled quickly on the mod revivalist tag once art school boys went west and did the make-up and Dorothy Perkins look, the Chords dropped into the world of occasional appearances on compilation CDs. The band's main writer, Chris Pope, toured with his own outfit trading on a sprinkling of old Chords songs and newly written material.

Cut to a murky night in Sheffield last year. I’m 200 miles from London and the reformed Chords are in town at the Leadmill. Judging by the Omo glow of newly purchased white Fred Perrys in the crowd, I’m not the only one here taking a trip down mod memory lane.  And when the Killermeters, the evening’s other survivors from my (revival) generation take the stage for the support slot, I find myself having second thoughts about the whole thing. A nostalgia trip for its own sake is a pretty hollow event at the best of times and there’s something a bit tired about the Killermeters. More PK50 than SX225.
When The Chords take the stage, you sense it could go either way. But here’s the weird thing: as the gig goes on, the band steam into each song like it’s the last time they’ll ever play it. Pope and Hassett give the angsty suburban kick of songs like Maybe Tomorrow, Something’s Missing, and Now It’s Gone a twenty-first century relevance I hadn’t seen coming. The Chords always majored in great power chord choruses and sentiments that took the best aspects of Weller's social comment songs and made them their own in a string of great singles like In My Street. Chris Pope’s arrangements – in some cases re-arrangements – breathe new life into the familiar. Thirty years on and by the time the band encore – A British Way of Life and a rousing, inevitable So Far Away (Billy Hassett gets a smack in the mouth from a mic-stand and still manages to come back bloody-lipped and smiling) I swear the band and most of the audience are looking ten years younger.
Nostalgia’s an odd thing, but the truth is, if music is relevant now and if it matters now, it transcends criticism that it’s just looking over its shoulder. It's the same criticism the NME et al made back in the day. But that night The Chords gave us a reminder why they were always worth much more than the revival tag allowed them. And, in the process, proved themselves a band capable of being relevant in the here and now.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

BOOK NEWS: Frank's Wild Years

As some of you will be aware, publisher Caffeine Nights autumn publications have been re-scheduled for spring 2012. This means that we won't be seeing Frank's Wild Years until next year. As with any delay, there's an upside: this one mainly in allowing more preparation to go into the marketing campaign and getting review copies out in good time.

The unexpected haitus has also given me an opportunity to contribute shorter fiction to a couple of exciting projects: the Off the Record e-book collection put together by Guilty Conscience blogmeister Mr Luca Veste, and the redoubtable Mr Paul Brazill's Brit Grit 2.

As well as the short stuff, I'm taking a saunter down Turnpike Lane N8 and into the scuzzy underworld of conspiracy with DI Mark Lomax on a re-write of my novel The Paradise Man. I'll also be working through a stack of research and new interviews and bringing together the threads of the Ted Lewis biography.

Finding ways to make a living as a freelance writer will be the focus of an MA Masterclass I'm delivering to unsuspecting students at Sheffield Hallam University on 7 December. I'll be pitching in with some practical pointers as to how the MA Writing can work for creative freelancers in the precarious world of publishing and arts funding.

In the meantime, a track from the Frank's Wild Years playlist:

'FRANK' postcard designed by Paul Davy at Davyart