Flash Says…

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


This year I’ve resolved to see lots of live music, so on a whim I booked myself into the annual fan party of my favourite BBC 6Music DJ, Tom Robinson. He would be performing his 1978 Power In The Darkness album in its entirety.

I’d forgive you for not being familiar with the music. Tom has had three hits: 2-4-6-8 Motorway (which I fondly remember my dad singing to me, along with Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), War Baby, and Glad to Be Gay. All of them good, but none of them within the last 30 years. It is the latter song which really chimed with me when it was sung live.

I played the album in the car en route to the gig, as a reminder for me and a quick education for my husband. It led to an interesting discussion about when cultural references will date music – inspired by the song Grey Cortina. My view is that the style of music will often date the song more than the reference – look at Fat Bottomed Girls / Bicycle Race for example – but in any event, this chat kept us occupied until we arrived at the venue.

The audience seemed to be full of old punks – men in their 60s with short bleached hair, wearing denims and union flag clothing – in fact I would have assumed they were politically far-right and felt threatened by their presence, sitting on show at the front in a wheelchair, were it not for the reason that we were all there to come together over this protest album. That taught me a lesson in not judging on appearance. Watching these men dance, badly but unselfconsciously, made me realise the importance of being confident in who you are and not worrying about other people’s perception.

In fact, that was the key message I took home. Glad To Be Gay is something of an anthem, the gist of which is a sarcastic disbelief that people could be attacked for their sexuality, especially by British police who are the “best in the world”, held together with a sing-along chorus that unites everyone.

As I listened, the words hit home. References to being “beaten unconscious and left in the dark” made me recall a family friend, a soft-spoken, gentle and kind man, who once turned up at our house with his face having been brutally bruised. My parents told me he was walking through the park when nasty people hurt him. I was too young to understand about sexuality, and I was given the simple explanation that there are some bad people out there… but now I think I understand what happened. And I am appalled.

By the time I attended secondary school, I knew I was bisexual. I had an expensive private education where nobody dared to do anything other than demonstrate heterosexuality. Girls were expected to obsess over a favourite from the rugby team. Boys even had wanking competitions in their dormitories. But I knew I was different – exchanging love poetry with one girl, and signing up to try croquet because a friend’s cute sister would be there in a short sports skirt. These were never things you could discuss openly, but of course it happened. Nobody could be honest about who they were, unless they were 100% straight, joining in the macho games of daring “fingerfucks” in the back of the minibus on school trips, chalking off their conquests for everyone to see. Pity the poor girls who were proud to have been abused in this manner, and thought they were somehow cool.

Fast forward through school and university… A few weeks into my first proper job, I made a visit home. Inevitably I was asked whether I was seeing anyone at present? My reply – that I’d just had a wonderful weekend with a really lovely girl – was welcome until I said the word “girl”. Suddenly it was made clear that we would never speak of this again, and such conversations were not welcome. I’m sorry? I happened to sleep with a girl – a gorgeous, fun, sensitive girl, for what it’s worth – and because of her gender the topic is infra dig? Suddenly I felt choked, and not allowed to be “me”. Yet this can only be a small version of what my gay and lesbian friends experienced. It felt that being gay was good enough for my friends (of whom many happen to be LGBT*) but somehow it was not good enough for me. Things may have moved on since Tom penned his anthem, but it seems that some people still feel threatened by the concept.

In some ways, I can see a parallel between sexuality and disability. Not because of everyday discrimination and judgement – although that does happen – but because “normal” people often make the assumption that we (disabled people) will surround ourselves with people who have a difference which attracts attention and then decide “I must have what they’ve got”. Or even worse, “I want what they’ve got” – some inadvertent sort of Munchausen’s Syndrome. Even medics often tell us to distance yourself from other people with disabilities so as not to be drawn in to that world, as if it will be unhealthy – but when you feel alienated or are lying awake in the small hours, with pain or conflicted thoughts, the only relief can be friendship from someone who understands exactly how you are feeling. It doesn’t work like the bigots assume – perhaps something will chime with you and make you realise “yes, this is how I am!” but if it’s not what you already carry within yourself, it won’t happen. People who can share experiences, sympathy and solidarity are good for us, not leading us astray! And that applies whether you are disabled, gay, trans* – or in any other social group. It is an insult for people to assume we can be “turned”.

Coming back to the gig: as I described, it was full of all sorts of people, though most appeared to be older men with denim, tattoos or union flag clothing. The kind of people who would intimidate me in any other situation. But I had misjudged them. Here we were, all fans of Tom Robinson’s music, chanting along in solidarity: “Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way, hey! Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way.” Everyone joined in – my husband, children, everyone in sight. There was a shared feeling of understanding, and support – and it felt good. Finally I felt I belonged, and that as a group we could take a step forward.

I am glad to be gay. Are you?

As a keen and regular gig-goer, I’ve seen a range of artists at all stages in their career – from their first gig at a local social club, to world famous stadium-fillers. However, I think there are some dos and don’ts that all musicians would benefit from remembering, so I present:

A gig-goer’s top ten requests:

1. Tell us who you are.
Ideally, tell us when you come on stage, remind us about halfway through, and remind us again at the end who you’ve “been”. Ok, if you’re the headline act at a gig on their own tour, chances are that you won’t need to remind us, but if you’re anyone else – a support act, or ANYONE at a festival – please do. Apart from anything else, if I’ve enjoyed your music, I want to know who I should be looking out for on twitter and soundcloud.

A good example: at a recent Leisure Society gig, there were two support acts. The first, Alessi’s Ark, didn’t announce themselves at all (I only knew their name because my husband got his phone out and went online). The second act, Paper Aeroplanes, told us who they were at the start, middle and end – and that was great, because I thoroughly enjoyed their music and wanted to look them up as soon as I got home.

2. Don’t change instruments between every single song.
Ah, this is another one for Alessi’s Ark. The flow and the mood was completely spoilt by Alessi leaving the front of the stage, swapping guitars, then telling the sound man “can you turn on the acoustic lead please?” all the time. I understand that you think some songs sound better on one instrument, others on another. Perhaps one is tuned down a semitone, or there’s some other reason for wanting to use it. The thing is, I didn’t care about the tone of the instrument, I cared about the gist of the song. Save specific instruments for recordings – just get out there, get some momentum going, and blow us away.

(I’d have some sympathy for bands that perform several songs on one guitar, then swap for the rest of the set. Especially if they have a roadie (or a mate) ready to help them exchange as quickly as possible, and some good patter to kill the time while they plug in and, if necessary, check tuning. But don’t waste your performance time – and ours – by traipsing to collect a different instrument every 3 minutes. It really kills the mood.)

3. Give us something to remember you by – a momento.
Perhaps that’s a free CD or USB stick, perhaps it’s a flyer with a link to a free download. I’ve seen all of these at gigs (or even handed out in the queue beforehand) and appreciated them all. Well, except for the bloke who stepped on my hand to steal my freebie CD at a Pitchshifter gig. But that was hardly the band’s fault.

4. Know where your marks are, where the lights will be, and work within that area.
It is really frustrating when someone steps out of the light – or steps off the stage altogether. Yes, it might bring you closer to the front row of your fans, but unless you’ve got an on-the-ball lighting engineer, and you’re being followed by a cameraman whose feed is being projected to a screen on stage, you’ve now alienated the thousands of people NOT in the front row. Scroobius Pip, Wembley Arena, April 2012 – I’m talking to you.

5. Spontaniety? Plan it.
Another note for Scroobius Pip. If you are going to be “spontaneous” – whether genuinely spur of the moment, or something you actually planned – think it through. Yes, I know that is the antithesis of spontaneity. But let’s be fair, Scroob – when you left the stage and didn’t know how to get back on, the situation went from amusing to a shambles very quickly. Poor Dan le Sac had to keep the beats going, not knowing how long before you’d join him again, or whether you’d got lost.

At the same gig, Beans On Toast announced that he’d always wanted to crowdsurf, and asked the audience to ferry him. The moment was only slightly lost while he emptied his pockets first, then made arrangements for a friend to rescue his phone from the stage before he departed…

6. Know what the hell you’re singing.
Sounds obvious, right? Now, I understand that sometimes in the heat of the moment, words are forgotten or the wrong note is struck. And some gigs are deliberately intended to try out new songs. That’s all fine. But again I’m reminded of Beans On Toast, who began a song he’d “just written that morning”… and after a couple of shaky restarts, stopped after the chorus because that was all he had. The song was unfinished! Sure, bring new music to test out on the audience, but make sure you’ve completed it first. And ideally you should know how it goes. We want you to sell it to us!

7. Talk to us – but don’t bore us.
I enjoy a bit of interaction between the artist and the audience. Whether I’ve never heard of you, or I’m a die-hard fan, I like to hear “this song is special to us because…” or “I wrote this song about…” so long as it adds something or gives me a feeling of empathy for the writer. It gets a bit wearing if you get on your soapbox or drone on for too long, though (naming no Pete Townshends) – just introduce the song, give us a reason to connect with it, then get on with letting us appreciate the music.

If the situation can handle it, a little humour can be fun too. I saw Tom Williams & The Boat at an Olympics themed festival, and was cackling as every song was “written with Jessica Ennis” or “inspired by Tom Daley”. It took a reference to Claire Balding before the drunk Brazilians next to me started to question whether Tom was serious! And this showed me that beneath the sombre lyrics, Tom has a playful side.

8. If you’re not going to have an encore, tell us.
I might have been waiting for the final song to swig the last of my beer, put my camera down, and stand up and boogie. (Or perhaps I would like to escape before the hoards trample me…) So if you’re about to play your last song, please announce it. The vibe of the finale is usually fantastic, and it’s a shame to spoil that with crowds expectantly calling for an encore, holding something in reserve, only to find the house lights come up. We want to say thank you and goodnight to you in style!

9. Have a good, clearly defined, camera policy.
Obviously the policy itself will depend on the situation. For some bands (like Nine Inch Nails) it’s great that they liaise with venues so we can be admitted with whatever kit we like, as long as we don’t use tripods or obstruct anyone else’s view. The fan-made DVDs (check out “This one is on us”) are fantastic, and really authentic reminders of amazing live shows. Other bands might be playing a more intimate gig and not mind snaps but just don’t want flash going off in their faces, nor being confronted with DSLRs. Whatever the situation, please think about it, and then convey it to the venues and the fans, so that the audience know what they are permitted to do and can decide whether to add to their enjoyment in this way, or leave their camera at home.

(It goes without saying that if you’re in the audience, don’t be a dick and block someone else’s view. Ever.)

10. Don’t be late!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the support act or the main attraction, please don’t be late to start or finish. If you’re the support, and your slot starts late, that’s unfortunate. But the majority of the audience aren’t here to see you, and nobody will appreciate being made to wait for the main act. If you ARE the main act, that doesn’t give you the right to act like a queen. Did you see the outcry when Justin Bieber was 90 minutes late onstage? The thing is, I’m sure you’ll play your full set anyway (even if you’re at a festival that incurs fines from the council for overrunning) – you’ve planned and rehearsed it, everyone’s there for you, so why not?

Well, some of us have trains to catch, or work in the morning… Live music is a passion, but unfortunately for most people it’s a hobby and not everyone can afford to stay late. Those who can? You’ll find them by the stage door, let them in afterwards for a chat and an autograph if you want. But for everyone who has to get back to reality, PLEASE run to time!

I realise some of these points may be controversial, but others are just common sense, yet bands often ignore them. What else should artists be aware of?

A week or so ago, I went to hear a musical icon – and my favourite DJ – talk to a group of students from Goldsmiths’ College. Tom Robinson (he of 2-4-6-8 Motorway fame, also Glad To Be Gay and War Baby) explained how there was no better time to make music. His talk was scintillating and took us from when our grandparents first discovered music, on through his 30 years in music, and to the present day.

One of his messages was that if you are going to write music, you need to do two things; lower your standards, and raise your standards. By this, Tom meant that you should make sure you churn out lots of completed songs – get into the habit of finishing them (even if you feel, half way through, that it is rubbish) as skills come with practise. Every nth piece of work will be worth hearing, but you need to go through producing the others in order to get to the good one, and be ready to make it.

In terms of raising your standards, it is so easy to make music at home and/or on a budget that our ears are swamped. Don’t push everything you write – wait for that one amazing track (as Tom put it, an OMFG song) and then that is the time to promote yourself.

It was a fascinating talk which touched on many other points, and I was privileged to grab a word with Tom afterwards (he shares my views on making cover versions – they should add something new – but also opened my eyes to how a good cover could be used to win over an unfamiliar audience in a live set).

His words also got me thinking. Any skill needs practise. This is evidenced by the way that I am (re)learning French on my phone via the DuoLingo app – if I leave it for a few days, my scores have slowly ebbed backwards, forcing me to recap. And similarly, I haven’t been writing articles nearly as much as I intended.

Back in June, my life changed. I adopted a wonderful, super-intelligent, labradoodle puppy called Commodore. I thought that I would spend a few weeks getting him housetrained and sorted out with basic commands, then he would lie next to me during the day while I typed away… just as my greyhound used to do. Ah – no such luck. For the first few weeks I resembled my friends with new babies – puppy cradled in one arm (holding a toy or treat for him in front if his face) while I tried to write or type with my free hand. A few weeks later and this tiny puppy was a hulking dog that can easily take over a three seater sofa. Yet he still needs my attention. “Hey mum, I’ve DONE that, what’s next?” He’s so quick. I’m teaching him loads of skills, in the hope that he can become some kind of assistance dog, or at least save my energy by opening and shutting doors by himself! Thus I spend my day training him, or walking him, or playing with him, or grooming his gorgeous but significant poodly coat, or just holding a bone for him to chew while I check email with my other hand. I get a few hours at my desk every week if I’m lucky – before, it was a few hours every day. So that’s why what used to be a weekly – oh ok, fortnightly – blog has become one that is rarely updated.

I was also guilty of the problem which Tom highlighted. As with my songwriting, I’d been saying to myself “That isn’t of a high enough standard, so I will bin it, or start it again when I have more time and inspiration.” The result? Nothing was produced.

Tom’s words hit home. So now I intend to blog whenever I get the chance. I already have a few dozen subjects drafted, but many of them went out of date before I got around to giving them life. Lesson learned.

So, future articles might not get quite the attention to detail that I would like to give them, nor the multiple careful reviews before I hit the button to publish – but… my blog is back!

Thank you, Tom. If the standard is lower than before, at least it is better than never writing at all. I shall hold out for the nth article to be a success.

Storm Thorgerson is one of the artists I admire most highly. He is known for creating amazing cover art on albums, particularly those of Pink Floyd, but he worked with a very wide range of musicians. When I heard of his death in April, I was struck by the strength of my sadness and sense of loss – given that this is not someone I ever worked with, and that I am just a “fan”.

I wanted to say something to mark the occasion, but the words didn’t come to me. Then this evening I received an email newsletter from Storm Studios. Normally written by Storm himself, this time it came from his friends and colleagues. They described how they laid him to rest this week, “in sight of Karl Marx and his friend Douglas Adams”.

I instantly wrote an email in response, which I will share here by way of an acknowledgement of his loss. It is probably not the best tribute that I’ve ever written, but it was spontaneous and genuine.

To all at Storm Studios:

Thank you so much for this beautiful email.

I was everso sad to hear of Storm’s death.

I admired his work for many years – before I knew who had created these stunning and moving images on the covers of my favourite albums, many of which I’d borrowed from my dad’s record collection as a teenager.

In recent years, “Taken By Storm” was on my Amazon wishlist until a relative kindly bought it for me.

In 2011, I saw that Storm was speaking at the British Music Experience, and on a whim snapped up tickets. I am not desparately well myself but was determined to attend. Storm’s character was instantly clear, such an intelligent man, highly entertaining but also very perceptive. I was delighted to win a set of his postcards on the night, and for him to sign my copy of his book. Both remain treasured possessions.

It’s funny how much of an impact he made. From hearing Storm speak, I knew I would have liked to chat with him and get to know him, although I’m sure he could have been a taskmaster at times! I am also a huge music fan and his images were revolutionary, speaking to me through difficult teenage years right up to the current day. It was awesome to hear how he set up the photographs rather than merely creating something in Photoshop… my favourite has to be the Division Bell artwork, where both the music and Storm’s images spoke to me.

So I found myself shocked and surprisingly upset when I read of Storm’s death. I didn’t know he had cancer, although it was clear at the BME talk that he wasn’t perfectly well; I was frustrated to find someone in the disabled toilet when I needed to use it, only to see that it was the man himself. I was tonguetied, but in any case it’s not kind to bother someone when they just want to answer a call of nature! I think I muttered something to his female assistant about how excited I was to be there and how I loved his work; something anyone could have said, but I did mean it.

I am so very sorry for your loss; Storm made a huge impression upon me, when I am only a fan who didn’t actually know him at all. Your newsletter was moving and sad, but appropriate, and it was lovely to receive such a personal note from people who knew Storm so well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with his followers.

I wish you all the best in continuing with Storm Studios. And I will be looking out for The Gathering Storm later in the year. Storm was one of a kind.

Why would a self-professed atheist like me join a hymn singing marathon? Read on to find out how I spent my weekend…

A twitter friend is the organist of a local church. When she announced a 30 hour “hymnathon” to raise money for organ repairs – singing every hymn in the New English Hymnal – it caught my imagination, as someone who loves choral singing. But I didn’t yet know exactly which hymns the book contained. I signed up anyway, and invited my friends to be “organ donors”. Kathryn wrote an article explaining why it was so necessary to restore the instrument she played.

My research told me that the original English Hymnal was edited by my favourite composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams – himself a non-believer. This had been superceded by the New English Hymnal in 1986.

On Friday I wheeled myself through the door of St Andrew’s. I’d been afraid of a reverent “bless you for coming” but instead the atmosphere was light and informal. I was told about the free food for singers, and invited to buy raffle tickets. I greeted Kathryn, observed the notes for singers (sing in parts as you wish, but in unison for the last verse) and took my place, ready for the three hours that I had volunteered, and promised to my sponsors.

At one point there were as many as 7 of us… at other points it was a duet, and the other girl happily said “I’ll follow you” but I was sight reading… *gulp* – and of course part singing went out the window! Luckily nobody criticised my growling! I am now familiar with ALL the hymns of Easter, Ascension and most of Pentecost. I particularly enjoyed Now The Green Blade Rises, an interesting tune and words that symbolise spring and new life.

Parishioners were present at all times so we had a small audience, which was nice. They were encouraged to sing too, which surprised my husband when he arrived 45 minutes before I finished! (I think he busied himself with his phone.)

Time flew by, and my voice began to tire. At last my three hours were up, and I left – Kathryn still flitting about between singing, playing, and greeting!

On Saturday, I felt a need to attend the finale (pictured). It was partly a wish to see things through, and also a desire to see which hymn had “won”; sponsors had been asked to name their favourite hymn, and whichever took the most money would be used to close the event. I slotted into position, this time next to twelve other singers and a second organist, to learn that there had been a tie. Jerusalem (which my atheist supporters had backed) took the same amount as Be Thou My Vision (obviously significant to others). We sang them both.

And that was it! Kathryn had done a fantastic job organising (and was still speaking coherently after 30 hours) and I was delighted to see that the event had been welcoming to believers, atheists and agnostics; to people of all ethnicities, gender and ages; and made me feel an important part of proceedings. Surely this is the point, speaking as an outsider, if a church is to remain current – it must represent everyone in its parish and make them all feel comfortable to be there. Maybe I’ll pop into the church’s cafe in future.

The total on Monday morning was £5k. Not bad for a handful of musicians, two dozen singers, and other volunteers. But the total needed is £25k, so the fundraising goes on!

My part is over. Now it’s your turn – if you’re able to support the hymnathon, please go to my JustGiving page and give what you can afford. I know that any contribution will be valuable in supporting choral singing within my community.

Last year I won a ticket and goody bag to the British Music Experience, at London’s O2. On the last available date I decided to go along – after all, it was free! The normal entry fee is £10 which I would normally consider rather steep – there are many excellent museums which have no entry charge – but the BME’s main sponsor has guaranteed to give away 15,000 tickets in the first 3 years, so you too may get lucky. If I hadn’t won a ticket (in a competition which appealed to my musical geek) I may never have considered going – and would have missed out on an enjoyable and memorable experience.

You enter (and leave) the BME through the shop – first entering a cinema room to watch Lauren Laverne give an overview of what’s on offer. Uh-oh, I thought – I’m suspicious of any museum which has to tell me how to navigate. In the event it boils down to “you can visit any room, in any order”. The merits of your “smart ticket” were explained – there are swipe points throughout the museum so you can tag items you enjoyed – which seemed a bit unnecessary, other than as a means of downloading videos you’ve made in the interactive exhibits.

I decided to make a beeline for a period which interested me – 1970s – and then work forward to see how this music had influenced bands up to the current day – then if I had time, go back and see how the sounds of the 1970s had in turn been affected. Seemed simple, and it worked quite well (I had plenty of time for sections which were quite detailed, and didn’t mind hurrying through a brief overview of jazz and skiffle. That said, it was nice to see Humphrey Lyttelton’s trumpet.)

Each room was different, but with generally similar features. Rooms were well balanced – the earliest one covered almost two decades of the post-war era, whereas there could be a couple of rooms spanning a decade where there was a lot going on.

I had assumed that I would simply be viewing display cases of concert outfits and wrecked guitars, while a video played in the background. I was wrong – it was far more interactive than this, with the opportunity to go into depth on many subjects. For example Table Talk, where you pick up headphones and watch videos about how Live Aid came about, and other topics; and Rock Galaxy where you pop different singles on a turntable, while learning about which genre of rock they covered (folk-rock, punk-rock, psychedelic-rock, prog-rock, etc.) and see how they all come together. In addition to these hands on displays, every room had a large screen with a console where you could scroll through snippets of news from that era, to understand the political background of the music you were hearing.

British Music Experience goody bag and smart ticket
Goody bag (and contents) and smart ticket

The benefit of my smart ticket became clear – how often have you found yourself enthralled by an item at an exhibition, trying desparately to absorb everything about it? This system meant I could swipe my ticket and move on, knowing that it was “banked” for later, which in practice merely served as a list of starting points for google. However, it was useful to remind me of a few tracks I hadn’t really known and wanted to learn about, rather than forgetting about them as soon as I walked back into reality – such as “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac. If I’d taken part in any of the “video booth” exhibits, I could have used my ticket to download my film clips at home.

The BME really appealed to my enthusiasm for music, with a suitable depth of information, although some people might simply enjoy seeing the Spice Girls’ outfits and watching the big screens. Whatever your interest, you will probably enjoy the exhibition – although it might not hold children captivated for long. It was an interesting place to explore; easy to become absorbed in the exhibits, and I realised afterwards that I didn’t once hear a song I disliked! In fact I’ve started to realise that, with the exception of some Scandinavian artists, I could do without most non-British pop music. Certainly I feel I could manage without America’s contribution – although one display, Atlantic Crossing, demonstrated how their styles have influenced us, and vice versa. The BME also reminded me, with pride, of how many global acts are actually “ours”.

I was too engrossed in the “edge zones” to spare more than a few minutes on the central section, but I noticed that the attractions in this area seemed to be aimed at families and either had a queue (one booth to record yourself dancing, another which simulated being on stage) or were not of much interest to me (display of record and tape decks, or the hometowns of certain artists).

Closing time approached and as I left I collected my goody bag and was quite impressed – a BME branded record bag containing pen, mousemat, badges, travelcard holder, and one of those handy keyrings that doubles as a £1 token for supermarket trolleys. Given that I had enjoyed the last 90 minutes and then received some useful items (a couple of which I’d considered buying) this had been a very good prize.

I wish I hadn’t waited to visit: I could have passed another couple of hours if I’d heard every video or tried all the exhibits – and for that reason I would recommend that visitors go on a day off rather than trying to cram in a trip after work. Having explored most of the material, I don’t feel a need to go back in the near future – maybe I would if a new section was added? That said, I have already snapped up tickets to one of their events later in the year, and I’ll take the chance to catch up on a few extra Table Talks when I return. If you have any interest in music, or just fancy a different kind of museum – then the BME is well worth visiting.

The British Music Experience’s website is http://www.britishmusicexperience.com/