Archive for October, 2012

Songs from the north-east

22 October 2012

I just came across an old notebook with a playlist in it, left over from a trip a few years ago to Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of England. It seems a shame to waste it. My family comes from the region, so I have a particular interest; here’s my top eight records, in no particular order, from the north-east.

Alex Glasgow: Vol 3/Now and Then. Perhaps more than any other single individual responsible for popularising the north-east’s repertoire – both the folk songs and the 19th century broadsheet songs – during the folk revival of the ’80s and the ’70s, while also adding some classics of his own, as in his work with Alan Ayckbourn, which resulted in songs such as Close the Coalhouse Door and When It’s Ours. Vol 1 & 2, also available on a single CD, with far more of his own songs on it, is also worth a listen.

Thomas Allen and Sheila Armstrong, Songs of Northumbria. The two classically trained singers have collaborated on a couple of records of Northumrian songs, accompanied by orchestra and choir. I’ve chosen Volume II because it has Lambton Worm on it, a song with a particular family meaning for me, which was, incidentally, once utterly murdered in a version by Brian Ferry.

Kathryn Tickell, Back to the Hills. I first learned of the Northumbrian bagpipes tradition through Kathryn Tickell. This record is recorded in modest locations around the region with the traditional fiddle player Willie Taylor.

Northern Lights, Airplay. Folk and jazz collaborations are often unfortunate. This one, commissioned by the Sage Centre in Gateshead, with the concertina and Northumbrian pipe player Alistair Anderson and the jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead, and an accompanying band, is not.

The Animals: As, Bs, and EPs. Newcastle’s contribution to the ’60s R&B boom. The animosity between the band members seemed to force its way into their performances, which was probably a good rather than a bad thing. And I liked the way they adapted the blues songs they were covering to match the local geography: Gonna Send You Back to Walker, for example, started life in the US as Gonna Send You Back to Georgia, but loses nothing (even gains something?) in the translation. When they sing We Gotta Get Out of This Place you get the impression they mean it.

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, The Bairns. The north-eastern tradition keeps renewing itself, as the Unthanks recent run of fine records demonstrates. The Bairns is a fine collection of songs which captures some of the distance and desolation of the region.  Their third, Here’s The Tender Coming, after they changed name (to The Unthanks) and lineup, which came out after this playlist, is even better. The Unthanks are currently one of the most interesting and inventive folk groups in Britain.

Field Music, Tones of Town. Spiky but subtle Sunderland post-punk. (Their latest record, Plumb, has been nominated for the Mercury Prize this year).

Alistair Anderson, Islands. The only musician who has squeezed in twice. partly because this record has on it a suite inspired by the Farne Islands, south of Lindisfarne, which are home to thousands of seals.

There’s others of course. I’m a fan of Republica’s song Ready To Go, which Sunderland used in the Peter Reid years as a theme song when the players came onto the pitch. I could be persuaded that Kathryn Tickell’s earliest records sound fresher. And some post-punk fans would press the claims of The Futureheads over Field Music. Certainly their strangely compelling a capella record Rant would probably have forced its way on if I’d done this playlist last week.

The photograph of Lindisfarne is a Creative Commons image from Wikimedia. 

Nosing out the Armstrong scandal

14 October 2012

Perhaps it’s coincidence that the two journalists who have pursued Lance Armstrong most assiduously – David Walsh and the former professional cyclist Paul Kimmage – are both Irish. Kimmage has been a vocal anti-drugs campaigner since his landmark book A Rough Ride was published in 1990. The Sunday Times settled a libel case with Armstrong out of court (in the libel-friendly English courts) after the paper published extracts from Walsh’s French-language book, LA Confidentiel. M’learned friends are revisiting that case as I write; and I imagine that publication of USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision‘ will open the way for an English-language edition, or an update of his book From Lance to Landis.

Despite all the leaks, the USADA report, which runs to 200 pages with another 800 pages of affidavits by way of an appendix, is eye-watering. There’s a line in Matt Rendell’s book, Significant Other, written about and with the US Postal domestique Victor Hugo Peña, where Peña says of Armstrong, in effect, that while all professional cyclists live the abstemious life, Armstrong does it more than anyone else. The same turns out to be true of drug abuse.

A profile of David Walsh in the current edition of the UK Press Gazette, explains why Walsh became curious about Armstrong:

What first piqued Walsh’s suspicion was Armstrong’s reaction to an article by a young cyclist named Christophe Bassons, in which the Frenchman claimed the top riders were still doping.

“Armstrong bullied him and hounded him out of the race,” says Walsh. “My feeling at that moment was that a clean rider wouldn’t have done that. It was pretty obvious to me that Armstrong was doping – not from any evidence I had but from the way he behaved.

“I think if anybody had been applying cold logic at the time, they would have come to the same conclusion.”

That was in 1999, and Bassons (along with the former US Postal soigneur Emma O’Reilly who talked to Walsh for LA Confidentiel) is one of the unsung heroes of the Armstrong affair. When Armstrong did something similar to Filippo Simeoni, another critic from inside the peleton, five years later, more suspicions were aroused. (As an aside, Armstrong’s line as an enforcer of the omerta within the peleton on drugs use is an interesting application of game theory: the correct strategy is the maximum level of personal threat to the edge of the law).

Anyway, I worked as a journalist myself at the start of my career, and I thought that Walsh’s observation was a fine example of what’s sometimes called journalistic ‘nose’ – niggling away at something that doesn’t quite fit until the underlying story reveals itself.

It’s clear, now, that one of the reasons that cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has been so irritable about the USADA investigation is that now the evidence against Armstrong is public, their own complicity is visible. The former President Hein Verbruggen was on the offensive this week with a fine line of bluster. But of course, like Armstrong, the UCI suits do their own line in bullying, pursuing a ‘shoot the messenger’ strategy in the Swiss courts. Floyd Landis has just lost a libel case brought by the UCI and its current and immediate past Presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, and Paul Kimmage is being sued by the same trio for comments in an interview with Floyd Landis published in the Sunday Times, because, says the UCI, “Mr Kimmage had made false accusations that defamed the UCI and its Presidents, and which tarnished their integrity and reputation.” (The full transcript of Kimmage’s interview with Landis can be read at NYVeloCity).

Kimmage, unlike Landis, is contesting the case. Vigorously. (The UCI hasn’t sued the newspaper, which speaks volumes for their approach: and some of the legal affidavits about the UCI in the documents released by USADA with the Reasoned Decision seem pretty tarnishing, which may give the court at least a pause for thought).

You can show your support for Kimmage by contributing to his defence fund, started on the cycling site NYVeloCity, which is at $60,000 as I write. There is, inevitably, an expletive laden Downfall parody online, of the moment the UCI learns of the defence fund. But increasingly, in the wake of the USADA documents, the UCI and the two Presidents look like the losers here, no matter what the outcome in the courts. Given the extent of the evidence that USADA has pieced together, they’ll have to choose if they want to be taken for fools or for knaves.

This cartoon of Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen is from the cycling commentary and satire site cyclismas, well worth visiting for its coverage of the Armstrong affair and other things cycling, and it is used with thanks.

Seeing Carmel

7 October 2012

The singer Carmel was big in the mid-to-late ’80s, and although I jumped at the chance to see her again this week in London on a mini-tour that also took in Stockton-on-Tees and her home town of Manchester, I was worried that I might be disappointed, that her voice might not have held up. I shouldn’t have been; as soon as she launched into her first song, I could hear that her tone and control were as fine as ever.

As she sang ‘Jazz Robin‘, a mix of scat and jazz, I couldn’t help think that there weren’t many singers in Britain who could achieve the same vocal effect. Looking back, she should have been bigger than she was; British promoters (and record shops) found her mixture of pop, soul, blues and jazz hard to categorise. She was bigger in Europe, where there is a tradition of the chansonnier. Perhaps shrewdly, her last record was a collection of Piaf songs.

At the Islington Assembly Hall on Wednesday, accompanied by a versatile and sharp young band, she performed songs from across her catalogue, rolling back the years. There was venom in ‘I’m Over You‘ and soul in ‘Bad Day‘. Her version of the much covered ‘It’s All in the Game‘ deserves to become a landmark. At times, at risk of seeming overblown, some of her phrasing reminded me of Dusty. Let’s hope that someone recorded it, or one of the other shows.

The Drumfire label has reissued her first six records with new photographs and liner notes, along with the obligatory (and welcome) bonus tracks. We should cherish singers with Carmel’s voice and talent. In her case there is still time.