Category Archives: exhibitions, books and music culture

Review: The Clash – London Calling exhibition at the Museum of London

Moving out of London four years ago if I find myself at a loose end for a couple of hours on my visits to the capital these days I often try to fit in an exhibition. And as far as music lovers go there have been plenty to choose from in recent years, giving me opportunities to enjoy the Stones and Pink Floyd exhibitions, not to mention the exhibition on late 60s counter-culture ‘So You Want a Revolution?’ at the V&A and the ‘Rebel Sounds’ exhibition on music in war-zones at the Imperial War Museum. For that archetypal London band, the Clash, though there can only be one venue. So in the lull between Christmas and New Year I found myself getting a tube to the Museum of London to check out the ‘London Calling’ exhibition.

At first, seeing all the information panels about the band in 1979 and I thought I’d started at the wrong place. Other band exhibitions I’d seen always tended to feature some ‘early days’ displays – but then it dawned on me that the entire exhibition was dedicated to celebrating the Clash’s era-defining London Calling album rather than the entire band’s history. Released in December 1979 the exhibition celebrates the album’s fortieth anniversary. Ah, it all makes sense now!

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It’s a small, compact exhibition taking up just a single gallery at the museum but it’s packed full of memorabilia: Paul Simonon’s smashed-up bass and Joe Strummer’s notebooks along with lyrics, stage gear, photographs and artwork. The latter looms large. With an album cover as iconic as this they absolutely go to town on the familiar pink and green typeface (borrowed from Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album for RCA) and grainy black and white photos. There’s a nice little section on album producer, the late Guy Stevens, whose insane approach to production on the early Mott The Hoople albums so impressed Mott mega-fan, Mick Jones.

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You don’t really need more than thirty minutes or so to take it all in but it’s an insightful exhibition that’s well worth taking a look at – and it’s all completely free.

The Clash: London Calling exhibition runs until 19th April 2020

https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/london-calling-40-years-clash

 

2019 in Darren’s music blog – the ten most popular posts of the year

I wish everyone a happy New Year and give my special thanks to all those who have visited (and hopefully enjoyed) Darren’s music blog during 2019. Looking back over the year, here are my ten most popular blog posts from 2019. A bit of a 70s theme going on here as we look at icons of glam rock, heavy rock, folk rock and punk rock…

1. Live review: Giants of Rock, Minehead 25-28 January 2019

The sixth annual classic rock weekend at Butlins including Eric Bell, Scarlet Rebels (pictured above), Geordie and Oliver-Dawson Saxon. Full review here

2. Live review: Mott The Hoople ’74 at Shepherds Bush Empire 27/4/19

If this tour is to be the final chapter in the ballad of Mott the Hoople it serves as a fitting end to the career of a wonderful, unique and utterly, utterly irreplaceable band. Full review here

3. News: All change at The Sweet

With little creative input from me I simply endeavoured to keep fans rapidly updated on changes in the band by publishing the band’s official statement. Full post here

4. Six recently revived rock bands that are turning out to be dynamite

Focusing on Atomic Rooster, Lindisfarne, Geordie, Satan’s Empire, Rock Goddess and Towers of London. Full post here

5. Live review: Steeleye Span at St Mary, Ashford 13/4/19

Lining up alongside Maddy Prior are Julian Littman, Andrew Sinclair, Roger Carey, Liam Genockey and Benji Kirkpatrick. Talented players all, they bring a fantastic assortment of instruments, sounds and techniques with them, not to mention a rich array of voices. Full review here

6. Live review: Slade at Concorde 2, Brighton 21/9/19

Dave Hill is, of course, Dave Hill. Eccentrically-dressed as ever: a diminutive figure bouncing all over the stage, delivering the familiar solos and holding the whole thing together. Full review here

7. Interview with Andy Scott ahead of Sweet’s 2019 UK winter tour

The new line-up, the winter tour, the split in the early 80s, keeping in touch with Steve Priest and Rock Against Cancer I was delighted to have a long chat with Andy. Full interview here

8. Live review: UFO at Shepherds Bush Empire 4/4/19

Yelling along to ‘Doctor Doctor; and ‘Shoot Shoot’ as the guys come back on stage for an encore seems a fitting way to say farewell to a band whose music I’ve been enjoying for almost forty of their fifty years. Full review here

9. Steeleye Span at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 21/11/19

A second trip to see Steeleye Span this year and a second review that seemed to rack up the hits. Full review here

10. Live review: Glen Matlock headlines Hastings Fat Tuesday 5/3/19

A bona fide rock ‘n’ roll icon. Performing in the pub. Free entry. On a Tuesday night. It can only be Hastings Fat Tuesday. Full review here

Here’s to 2020!

Best wishes

Darren

 

 

 

Review: ‘Rebel Sounds’ exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London

Walking into an exhibition and hearing ‘Teenage Kicks’ blasting out at full volume as you step through the door is probably not the typical visitor experience at the Imperial War Museum – but my trip coincided with the museum’s ‘Culture Under Attack’ programme. With a free day in the capital and browsing possible exhibitions I might take a look at I happened across the IWM’s ‘Rebel Sounds’ – one of three concurrent exhibitions that form the Culture Under Attack season.

The exhibition is intended to illustrate how music can be a force for resistance and rebellion – even under the most desperate of circumstances. From undercover jazz nights in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, to the burgeoning cross-community punk scene in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, to Serbia’s underground B92 radio station challenging the violent nationalism of the  Milošević regime in the 1990s, to the artists making a defiant cultural challenge to Islamist extremism and its ban on music in modern-day Mali – the exhibition is testimony to the power of music to lead us out of darkness.

The exhibition is not a particularly large one and it focuses solely on the four snapshots in time and place listed above. However, while I’ve seen far more extensive music exhibitions with a far bigger range of exhibits, few have left me feeling as moved as this one. A wonderful celebration of the beauty and determination of the human spirit, even in the grimmest of times, this exhibition is well worth a visit. What’s more it’s completely free of charge, as is access to the other two exhibitions in the series – one looking at how British museums and galleries protected works of art from destruction in the Second World War and the other examining the destruction of cultural heritage during times of conflict, whether a deliberate strategy or collateral damage. And, of course, if you still have time to spare after that there’s all the usual tanks and medals and wot-not to see.

Rebel Sounds – part of the Culture Under Attack programme runs until 5th January 2020. Entrance: Free

https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/rebel-sounds?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIk6ayrZCw5QIVB7LtCh0IVQK1EAAYASAAEgJARfD_BwE

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Folk-rock: DVD review – Merry Hell ‘A Year In The Life of Merry Hell’

Evolving out of an ad-hoc reunion of 90s folk-punk band, the Tansads, Wigan-based folk rockers, Merry Hell, have been making a decisive impact on the UK’s folk and festival scene over the past nine years. With several albums under their belt they now come at us with a DVD. Titled ‘A Year In The Life of Merry Hell’ it’s a documentary that follows the band between February 2018 and February 2019 – and when we say documentary it is very much a carefully-crafted film worthy of the name rather than a video of concert footage with a few dressing room interviews tacked on to the end.

Made by the band themselves and produced, directed, filmed and edited by Merry Hell fiddle player, Neil McCartney, it’s a fascinating insight into this tightly-knit band of close family members and long-term friends.

We see the band on the road – at festivals and backstage at various venues – but we also see individual members at home, in pubs or visiting some of their favourite places. We get to hear about musical influences (punk, Susan Vega, Nick Drake and hymn melodies…) but we also get to hear about literary influences, too. Orwell looms large, and not just for Wigan Pier, either.

Engaging, funny, moving, and highly personal, as band documentaries go ‘A Year In The Life of Merry Hell’ stands head and shoulders above many films about far, far more famous musicians. In fact, I’d go so far as saying that even if you’d never heard of Merry Hell and you had zero interest in folk rock, this documentary would still be compulsive viewing for the warm and very human portrayal of its subject matter.

Released: September 2019 

http://www.merryhell.co.uk/

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Related reviews:

Album review: Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’

 

 

Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.

Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.

Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.

While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.

The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.

First published in 2017

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An afternoon spent with Dame Evelyn Glennie – Eastbourne College Theatre 14/4/19

Last Sunday I was privileged to host an afternoon of music and chat with Dame Evelyn Glennie in Eastbourne’s College Theatre. Beginning to lose her hearing at eight and deaf since the age of twelve this did not stand in the way of Glennie becoming one of the world’s most renowned percussionists. It was clear from our talking just how much her school environment played a pivotal part in this. This was not some generously-resourced specialist academy but a community school in Scotland. One where teachers happened to have a burning passion for nurturing creativity and one where something like a hearing impairment was not going to be a barrier to participating in the school orchestra. Glennie’s passion was nurtured and supported – indeed we had one of those people who played such a role in the audience for the event. Of course, being a full-time solo percussionist was not even a career that had previously existed but Glennie set about successfully inventing such a role for herself and remains an inspiration to many.

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She memorably played at the 2012 Games and during the course of our chat she talked us through some of the creative process that led up to that performance, not to mention the excessive degree of secrecy that was required from those chosen to take part in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. She also revealed that there had previously been an approach to play at the Athens Olympics in 2004. However, a change in artistic direction led to the commission being dropped. She had just told the audience that no creative collaboration is a failure even if it doesn’t quite work out – it’s always a learning experience. What, I asked her, was the learning experience in this case? Was she able to re-apply some of her original ideas for the London Games a few years later? No, she told us. The learning was far more about dealing with bureaucracy and as a result of that, she asserted, she was better equipped for that when the London Games came along several years later.

Audience questions there were many. What did she think about percussion as a form of healing? Had she ever considered collaborating with a visual artist? Where does she keep her instruments? What advice did she have for young performers?

And, of course, we had some wonderful, rich and deeply fascinating demonstrations. An array of instruments filled the stage. We were given a wonderful performance on Glennie’s prized marimba, for example. However, one of the most unexpected demonstrations came courtesy of several children’s wind-up musical boxes gaffer taped together. Setting them off one by one the first couple sounded entirely as you would expect. Once four or five were all going off together the effect was something quite different – and spectacularly sinister. She also talked us through some of the commissions she’s been given for film and TV soundtracks and gave us a demonstration of the waterphone and the evocative sounds that can create. (Check out Evelyn Glennie’s blog here for more of an idea!)

We ended the afternoon with a real treat as Glennie performed a piece of music called ‘Halo’ on an instrument called the hang. This is a relatively new instrument – think two woks welded together to make a kind of flying saucer shape with a few dents in it.

The effect was quite mesmerising and gave us a spectacular finish to a fascinating and thought-provoking afternoon. Certainly, we all came away thinking more about how we listen and how our bodies react to sound.

 

https://www.evelyn.co.uk/

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Live review: The Story of The Blues at The Printworks Hastings 21/3/19

Tonight’s The Story of the Blues tells the tale of one of Black America’s most celebrated and influential contributions to popular music through a combination of archive film footage, spoken narration and live performance. Put together by Hastings’ own Green River Blues Band, the town’s Printworks venue is absolutely packed out for them.

Having a fascination with this genre, both in its original country blues acoustic format and its later electrified form (not to mention the influence it had on both American rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and the British beat groups of the 60s) this was always going to be a must-see for me as soon as I saw it advertised. I was a little worried that if the band didn’t quite get the tone right that, however accomplished they are as players, we might end up with something that ends up being over-romanticised and shall we say a little saccharine Opening with Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit ‘Working On The Chain Gang’ I thought we may be at risk of going down this route but any notions that they might not pull this off are soon dispelled. Narrator Jonathan Linsley talks us through the early roots of the blues starting with the shameful brutality of the slave era and the spirited songs of defiance that arose from that. The film footage that plays on the screen behind reveals a highly moving montage of images, from the almost impossible to absorb images of slave-sale stores on US high streets through to footage of some of the heroes of the emerging blues scene in action. The six-piece Green River Blues Band deliver a passionate and skillfully-played set taking us through early songs like ‘Take This Hammer’ and ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’ through to later songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Between songs narrator, Jonathan Linsley gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the performers like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson.

After a short interval and the band are back one stage, the acoustic guitars now being replaced with electric. Now we move later into the mid-twentieth century, the band presenting us with timeless classics like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. Of course, though these remain well-known classics today by the 1960s many of the songs, and certainly many of the performers, had fallen into obscurity – until, of course, picked up, adapted and re-popularised by a bunch of middle-class white boys on the other side of the Atlantic. The show touches on this and clearly this was the entry-point for where the blues came into the lives of the guys on stage tonight.

The show celebrates the songs and those who created and performed them while pulling no punches in terms of the poverty, the hardship and, often, the brutality of the environment that the blues sprang out of. A moving and passionate celebration of the genre the biggest surprise is possibly that this is not some slickly-produced show that regularly tours the country but that tonight is strictly a one-off, put together out of love with all profits going to a local good cause.

If the Story of The Blues were to be rolled out beyond a one-off night in Hastings Printworks, however, I am absolutely certain it would find appreciative audiences in many venues. The Story of The Blues is a genuine triumph for those who put this together.

https://www.facebook.com/Greenriverbandpage2016/

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Bernie Tormé 1952-2019: a true guitar legend

I first became aware of Bernie Tormé as the colourful high-octane guitarist with Gillan back in 1981 when I was 15, when the band’s cover of ‘New Orleans’ was zooming up the charts. Bernie’s utterly distinctive, fuzzed-up, glam-punk, hard-riffing, rock guitar was as much an intrinsic part of that band’s sound as Ian Gillan’s vocals.

A year or two later I caught Bernie live couple of times with his post-Gillan outfit Electric Gypsies for two incendiary gigs at Clouds in Preston. The second of these gigs led to my first meeting with the man himself. A small group of us hung back after the gig and I was to discover what a warm-hearted and engaging man this was. This was someone who took the trouble to chat to a bunch of half-pissed teenagers, who joked around with us but who took our questions seriously and seemed genuinely moved by our enthusiasm. And that night Bernie signed my copy of Electric Gypsies for me – which I still have.

Fast forward thirty-odd years and, following a couple of equally incendiary gigs at London’s Borderline, the indefatigable Peter Cook put me in touch with Bernie and I ended up being approached by him to do the PR for his Dublin Cowboy album. A few months ahead of the release date I’d been gearing up the publicity for the launch of the crowdfund appeal. However, such was the unwavering support and love coming from Bernie’s fans, that the funding target was reached in less than nine hours on day one. It was a joy to work on the campaign for the album and I saw at first-hand Bernie’s sincerity and generosity in the way he engaged with fans. Dublin Cowboy deservedly attracted some great reviews and Bernie gave some great interviews but when I sent my invoice for the amount we agreed at the end of the campaign he emailed me back to tell me to alter the invoice because he wanted to pay me more.

A generous, warm-hearted man as well as a wonderful, unique musician and a superb showman, Bernie Tormé will be greatly missed by many. A true guitar legend.

Darren Johnson

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Film review: ‘Bachman’ new rock documentary on guitar legend Randy Bachman – released 26 March 2019

If you’ve admired the music of Randy Bachman but you don’t know too much about the man himself beyond “the guy who was in Bachman Turner Overdrive”, “the guy who was in the Guess Who before that”, “Canadian” and, perhaps, “Mormon” – and are keen to find out a little more then this new 78-minute documentary by FilmRise could well be of interest. Scheduled for release in DVD and digital formats on 26th March it tells the story of aspiring young Winnipeg musician through to seventy-something rock legend still out on the road performing.

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Never one for the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle and, in his own words, “not a party animal” there’s certainly none of the how-I-made-it-through-years-of-debauchery-and-came-out-the-other-side-alive narrative nor, given that Bachman is living a very comfortable life and clearly enjoying what he does, is there an Anvil-style struggling-against-the-odds-in-the-face-of-rock-n-roll-adversity tale. Through the interviews with Bachman and his family, as well as rock royalty like Neil Young, Peter Frampton, Alex Lifeson and BTO bandmate Fred Turner, you do start to get a feel for what makes Bachman tick, however. A common thread running through many of the talking head segments is just how driven Bachman was and how focused his life has been on the music. It’s telling that in spite of his having converted to the Mormon faith prior to his first marriage, one of Bachman’s musical associates asserts in the film that his “spirituality is rooted in the guitar” above anything else. And we find out Bachman loves guitars – an awful lot. In one scene the film crew accompany Bachman to a storage facility and we find out just how much he loves guitars as he opens up a seemingly infinite collection of guitar cases and exhibits one instrument after another.

Although Fred Turner appears in the film I was perhaps expecting it to delve a little more deeply into the on-off musical partnership between Bachman and Fred Turner. However, it must be stressed that this is very much a film about Randy Bachman – the man, as opposed to Bachman Turner Overdrive – the band. Nevertheless, it’s a very watchable documentary and, at 75, it’s heartening to see Bachman still performing music and still being driven by it.

“BACHMAN” will be available on DVD, to stream or download on iTunes, Prime Video and Google Play on 26th March 2019.

Book review: ‘Look Wot They Dun! – The ultimate guide to UK glam rock on TV in the 70s’ by Peter Checksfield

Rather than another biography giving an overview of the various glam acts of the 1970s ‘Look Wot They Dun’ is basically an encyclopedic directory that methodically lists all the TV appearances of numerous bands associated with the glam era throughout the 70s. Fifty different acts are covered in all, with the appearances for each in turn listed chronologically.

As much as I am fascinated by this era and as much as I will always love bands like Sweet and Slade and T. Rex, I must admit when I first picked up this book I wasn’t sure whether there would be enough in it to sustain my interest across a whopping 286 pages. However, I soon began to get engrossed, reading some of the fascinating little snippets and insights that accompany many of the entries. In one of his earliest TV appearances, Elton John, for example, is wearing “a horrible outfit of faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved orange T-shirt and a sleeveless striped cardigan” prior to the emergence of the flamboyantly-dressed larger-than-life character of later appearances. The Sweet’s Andy Scott had a run of appearances on Opportunity Knocks in late 1966 in an outfit called The Silverstone Set, we learn, several years before finding fame with the glam rockers. And Mud’s first TV appearance, back in 1968, is on the Basil Brush Show while David Essex’s first appears some two years earlier on the Five O’clock Club.

Indeed, although the book is presented in catalogue format and lacks an explicit overarching narrative there are, nevertheless, obvious patterns that begin to emerge across a significant number of bands. First we see tentative appearances on scratchy black and white shows during the 60s beat boom (Marc Bolan and David Bowie/Jones on Ready Steady Go, the aforementioned Andy Scott on Opportunity Knocks etc.) Then we fast-forward a few years and see those same people bedecked in glitter and glam hamming it up on Top Of The Pops in the period 1971-1973. Then by around 1974 we mostly see the glam bands to start putting away the bacofoil and the glitter and opting for a more conventional rock star jeans-and-leather jacket or cool-white-suit look. Then, finally, in many of the cases we see the number of entries for TV appearances steadily declining as the second half of the seventies draws to a close.

Though I would have welcomed a bit more by way of narrative thread, the book nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into how one of the most visual musical genres of the twentieth century projected itself on to our TV screens. And as an invaluable reference tool I’m sure ‘Look Wot They Dun’ will be something I’ll be going back to again and again.

Published: February 2019

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