Mellow Yellow…

What are sodium lights? They’re the yellow street lights that are ubiquitous in the UK and are gradually being replaced in Liverpool (I don’t know about other cities) with white ones.

This burnt-yellow light is a big part of me. As a teenager I hung around after dark on street corners drenched with it. In adulthood I have walked home from nights out countless times in the strangely narcotic yellow atmosphere. I never thought about it until recently. Why does it have to be yellow? I don’t know but it has a magic of its own. Not exactly cosy. Quite artificial. Industrial. But somehow romantic.

I remember as a kid there was a park in Sheffield where you could look down on the entire city and see the whole city’s twinkling orangey-yellow lights. They mapped out the street patterns and merged in the distance like a galaxy of sweets. We have the same in Liverpool on Everton Brow.

The sodium lights of a nearby city or town are a comfort to the night-time driver as they are glimpsed from the motorway.

The other magical thing about sodium lights is that they change colour slowly as they warm up. I remember playing out on the streets in my childhood, seeing a whole street light up at dusk and the lights gradually go from pink, to orange to Lucozade yellow as the night fell.

Now certain streets including mine have had their sodium lights replaced. Presumably they are not inefficient enough (god save us from the evil of inefficiency!!) It’s happening all over the city, probably the whole country, with white light flooding much more area than before. As a result, some of the quaint, odd character from the suburban British street is being lost.

It all seems to me part of a kind of gradual increase in the brightness of our night-time world. Look back to old films and you see a gentler world of interior gas lamps in houses, streetlights shrouded in fog and phone boxes lit with a soft glow. Nowadays a violent brightness is creeping everywhere. Under the relentless pressure of ‘safety’ concerns and 24-hour retail we are turning the night into the day.

Technology is already leading to an over-stimulation, with continuously flashing sources of electronic light, but the built environment has a similar effect. Electronic billboards blaze across obikeur cities, while ATM machines have recently got a lot brighter, as have the interior lighting on buses which I find unbearable. It’s like having your retinas scoured. I know I sound like an old man complaining about the way the world is, but I really feel this is an unstoppable process where designers and engineers will not be happy until they have eliminated night-time darkness altogether.

I asked a female friend about the safety arguament for brighter lighting. She said “Well, it just increases the fear doesn’t it? If you play up to the idea of the night being dangerous then it will be. We need to create more trust not less”

Night is the flipside of day, with its own special atmosphere to cherish. It’s the time when we we recharge; and even if we are active, we can avoid being over-stimulated.

The delights of a stargazing are increasingly becoming impossible in cities, as the wash of artificial light drowns out the fainter heavenly objects.

I would like to keep the sodium lights burning, and leave a little mystery and atmosphere in the night. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Caving In…


It was Christmas Day and my step-mum had just given me a present – a DVD of the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. As I studied the cover she told me:
“They were talking about him on Radio 4. They’ve reassessed his life and career…you like him don’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve heard about this film. it’s supposed to be quite good”
“it’s thirty years since he died…”


“Er, Nick Cave’s not dead as far as I know” I said “He released an album just last year I think…”
“No” she said indignantly “they interviewed his sister…”
“Nick Cave is definately alive” a family member asserted.
Then the penny dropped.

“Do you mean Nick Drake?”

She didn’t seem sure, muttering something that was lost in the present-opening kerfuffle around us. But I wasn’t about to dwell on the mistake.
“…it looks really good anyway!” I shouted reassuringly.

I’m not into Nick Cave. I respect him but I’ve rarely managed to enjoy any of the pieces of his work that I’ve been exposed to. I’m slightly frustated by that. He’s one of the people I should like. The lyricism, the careful crafting and the mysterious image all put him in the category of bona fide legend. But Nick Cave has a similar effect on me to Leonard Cohen. There’s something about the way he puts chords and melodies together that I find kind of suffocating. There’s hardly any harmonic colour in there.

On Boxing Day my actual mum asked me what presents I’d recieved at my Dad’s house the day before. I mentioned various books and wooly items then:
“Christine gave me this DVD. It’s the Nick Cave film…we can watch it if you want”
“Ok, maybe…” she said “…what else has he been in?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he does much acting, not that I know of…”
“Leaving Las Vegas. I saw him in that”
“You’re thinking of Nick Cage, mum”

I put the film on and I liked it. We follow Cave through a series of presumably average days – rehearsing with his band, looking through photos with the staff at his archive (everyone has an archive, right?…) and driving around Brighton, where he lives. In these sections Cave randomly picks up a series of famous friends, incuding Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, for chats about life, art and celebrity.
The whole thing is linked by Cave’s lugubrious voiceovers, discussing his life and work. Here he is on the recording process:

“I love the feeling of a song before you understand it. When we’re all playing deep inside the moment. The song feels wild and unbroken. Soon it will become domesticated, and we will drag it back to something familiar and compliant, and we’ll put it in the stable with all the other songs. But there is a moment when the song is still in charge and you’re just clinging on for dear life, and you’re hoping you don’t fall off an break your neck or something. It is that fleeting moment that we chase in the studio.”

Wise words, Nick. It’s nice when you’re in the studio with people who understand what you’re chasing – that razors edge between spontaneity and finesse. By the way, I always liked “Into My Arms” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” – the one you did with Kylie. A few more like that and I’ll probably give in and like you.

My Ten Best Points…

Cultural end-of-year lists are so fucking smug. They’ve already started appearing, and I’m having to avoid the Sunday papers where cultural hacks declare which books, films and albums were the most essential. What a lot of great shit I’ve missed (as usual).
There’s nothing wrong in theory with writers looking back at their personal highlights, but in practice looking over these lists always makes me feel lazy, un-cultural and basically skint. I’m usually lucky if I’ve heard a couple of the year’s “best albums” or seen many of the films. The year’s best music gig? I was probably busking outside.
It’s all very well for Mark Kermode to appraise the hundred or so films he’s seen in the year and boil them down the ten best; he doesn’t have to shell out a penny. Cinema tickets are nudging ten quid these days, and that’s before you’ve made it past the popcorn and Ben and Jerry’s without hemmoraging another fiver. I don’t need to be reminded of all the arthouse classics I can’t talk about.
The best-of-year book lists give me a similar feeling of cultural failure. If only I had the time and application to keep abreast of the latest literary sensations. I’m a slow reader and the lack of anything I recognise on the lists just makes me feel distinctly low-brow. If I didn’t get around to them when they were the ‘hot new read’ I probably never will.
But these lists are not just there to make us feel like philistines; they also have a commercial function. A decent ranking in the end-of-year lists can turn an overlooked book or album into a must-buy christmas gift.
Let’s face it, though nominally independent, arts journalists are as much a part of the marketing machine as the billboard poster. Critics, who get sent pre-release albums and concert tickets, are just the unofficial wing of the advertising campaign.

Often it doesn’t matter if reviews are positive, all the industry cares about is pushing the product into the public conciousness. However, writing favourably about an author, singer and actor means that agents are more likely to grant a journalist inteviews with said star. Meanwhile, with their end of year lists, critics get to bolster their position as cultural connoisseurs, compiling the canons of our times.

The arts pages that specialise in this vanity are really for a small section of metropolitan luvvies with the means to hoover up whatever cultural product they fancy, whether it’s HBO box sets or tickets for the royal opera house. For those of us in the zero-hours trap or the boho bum category, there is much more adventure. Old stuff. Second-hand stuff.
My year’s cultural highlights included reading Herman Hesse’s Siddharta (1922), as well as downloads of BB King’s Live at The Regal (1964) and Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993).
The arts press has nothing to say about the pleasures of exploring a second hand bookshop or dancing to your mate’s band in a sweaty basement. My idea of a cultural life isn’t just being a recipient for the never-ending stream of over-hyped new content being funnelled at us.

Despite this, I have managed to think of a few things that came out this year that I liked, so I can flag them up and feel like an arts journalist.
Album of the Year: Kurt Vile – Walkin on a Pretty Daze*
The American songwriter dashes off a folk-rock classic with his trademark stoned nonchalance. It’s got the attitude of Lou Reed and the sensitivity of Neil Young.


















Book of The Year: Sylvain Tesson – Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in The Middle Taiga
The journal of a Frenchman who retreated to the Siberian forest for six months to read and contemplate the wilderness. Full of philosophy and love for nature.
















Film of the year: Pride

Based on a true story, a group of gay Londoners raise money for striking miners in 1984, go to visit their Northern pit village and forge an unlikely bond. Flawlessly done, feel-good, moving and inspiring.



Gig of the year: Me, doing poetry at a night called the Secret Cabaret in Liverpool. I performed “Checkout Girl” and “Careless Wispa”, and according to someone who was there, I absolutely smashed it. I agree.

TV moment of the year: Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s interview with Richard Ayoade on Channel 4 News. A hilarious five minutes as he deconstructs the arts interview.

Theatre event of the year: I didn’t go to see any plays, sorry.
*ok, I’ve just found out this was actually released in 2013, but that’s still pretty current for me!

Ok, here’s the first in a series of posts about seminal moments in musical TV history. To be more specific, they are about various times in my life when I happened to see something that blew my mind, my heart, and generally left me in an exhilarated heap on the living room floor. This happened several times in my young life; and the occasions were often influential on my musical self.

Let’s start with BB King. It was July 1986 and like most people in the UK, and the world probably, I was watching the Live Aid concert on TV. Early on, BB King appeared with a performance beamed from a gig he was playing in Holland. I had already heard of him but as soon as he started playing I couldn’t believe that a guitar could make that noise.

His playing is so intense, but sparing. He contributes to the groove like a player in James Brown’s backing band. His voice is like the well-worn larynx of a southern gospel preacher with a fondness for rye whisky, roaring and barking the blues.

At the end of the first number ‘Why I have the blues’ he dazzles with some raw jazz phrasing that has been burned into my memory since I first saw it. I recorded the concert on a cassette tape recorder pushed against the TV speaker and those few seconds are my favourite part of the gig. It’s the slightly overdriven tone he uses here that really exites, combined with spiciest fretwork ever.

Here I may be controversial – on many of BB’s recordings he uses a completely clean tone that sounds annoying after a couple of verses. His playing is always at its best – like here – when it’s gritty and gutsy.

I went to see him the year after. The size and presence of the man is extraordinary. He had everyone at the Sheffield Octogan in the palm of his huge hand, with the call-and-response crowd skills he shows here. The trumpet player from this clip was there as well, still waggling his head around in a frankly worrying fashion – an unconventional brand of blues headbanging


Here’s a new acoustic tune. I couldn’t be arsed to make a video for it so I put together a slideshow of some pics that seem to suit the tune. See if you can name any of the famous people. If you’re a Liverpool resident, maybe you spot yourself!


One of the compensations of winter is donning a nice, cosy wooly hat. There’s nothing like the snug feeling of those knitted sheep fibres embracing your cranium. But for me and many others, these items are more than just a way to keep warm. Woolen headgear has played a role in subculture for many years. It’s time to celebrate beanie bohemia.


I remember when I first began to wear a wool hat inside as well as outside; I was seventeen and playing drums in a band. My image was starting to become important to me. At family gatherings some elderly relative asked me: “Thomas, why are you wearing that wooly hat? Are you ill?” I snorted at the question. I could have said “Actually, I’m referencing Mike Nesmith in The Monkees, as well as various thrash punk bands – it’s a style thing, ok?!” but I merely grunted “”cos I want to”.

mike nes

Wool hats were all around me, on the heads of off-duty psychobillies, indie kids and punks, usually in black. We got from the Army Surplus Stores and called them ‘Bob hats’ for some reason, although who Bob was remained a mystery.

Some people used to roll them so tightly that they resembled a carbonised Danish pastry of the back of them head. I thought this looked stupid, and used to pull mine down to just above the eyes.


At that time a coarse knitted wool hat was reminiscent of dockers, builders and anyone out on a picket line in winter. Like the donkey jacket, it was a way to express solidarity with the working-class. The early look of Dexy’s Midnight Runners was based on New York longshoremen.














But there were unplanned associations too. I remember walking into a grocers’ shop with my black hat on in on the late eighties and being called a terrorist. At that time the IRA was still engaged in it’s bombing campaign in mainland Britain and newspapers regularly featured the faces of IRA members or suspects on their front pages. They always seemed to be in black wool hats.

Seattle’s chilly climate created the grunge look in the early 90’s, with padded shirts and often woolen hats, which were now known as beanies. Rock acts now had their branded beanies, which were welded to the heads of their fans. It became common to see gangs of drunken eighteen year-olds at music festivals, sweating and lobsterised in the mid-day sun, still refusing to take off their black wool headgear.

One thing that can’t be left out here is the influence of knitted rasta hats. From Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to the extreme of Don Letts’s giant hat in recent years, this version of the wool hat is basically a bag to store your dreads in.


Bob with fine dread container

Bob with fine dread container


Gradually, this influenced the mainstream, who began to see that there was something kinda cool about a bit of excess baggage on the back of the head, even if you didn’t have anything to put in there.

This was probably the origin of the baggy beanie, an extra long version where the excess was left to hang at the back of the head like a flap. This looked ok unless the wearer happened to have a small head, in which case the flap looked ludicrously long – like Wee Willie Winkie’s night cap.

Unfortunately the baggy beanie quickly became commodified; available in grey from Top Man, worn by bodybuilders in espidrilles; and referencing nothing, except maybe an elephant’s piss-flap.

Beanies in their various lengths have also become the baldies’ savior. Outside the workplace, they are the 21st century version of a combover. The Edge, guitarist of ageing rockers U2, having tried bandanas and stetsons, has run out of options and has been trapped in a beanie since about 1990.

More recently, hipsterism has rehabilitated the bobble hat. During my youth I was phobic about bobbles, as I was about buttons and peas. A bobble hat was the symbol of a trainspotter, rambler or anyone untroubled by the vagaries of fashion. But twenty-first century style will suck anything into it’s orbit. Now bobbles are de rigeur and increasing in size. Even I have softened my stance; the hat I am currently wearing has a modest bobble.

This winter and indeed next summer, wear your hat with pride – you are in a fine tradition. And give thanks to the sheep that made it all possible.


In the mid-eighties every pop record had to have a saxophone break in it. From ‘new romantic’ acts like ABC to global stars like Whitney Houston, chart singles would almost inevitably feature a screeching tenor sax in the middle section.
Seventies pop songs would often feature a guitar solo, but punk changed all that. Guitar virtuosity became taboo and outside of heavy metal, you would rarely hear any twiddly fretwork.

In the eighties, something a bit more elegant was considered neccessary to enhance a pop single, something with no associations of blokeish self-indulgence. The saxophone was a classic, expressive sound redolent of jazz and fifties rock’n’roll. In time they became the signature of a bland formula, but a good eighties sax solo sounded like fizzing champagne spilling out of a just-opened bottle; it was the ubiquitous cherry on the top of pop. And they looked pretty good too…

Once dance culture hit in the late eighties, saxes were out. The minimalist worship of the beat banished instrumental grandstanding of any kind; now the middle section usually featured a rap. By the late eighties there must have been scores of proffessional sax players struggling to pay the rent.

But anyway, back to the eighties and one of my favourite ‘lost’ bands. The Blow Monkeys (fronted by one Dr Robert, who resembled a vampiric Mr Punch Doll) had four albums and eleven singles in the UK charts from 1986 and 1990. I’m not sure how popular they were around the world – maybe you can tell me.

This soulful, heart-tugging tune from 1986 was their second single. It’s got a gorgeous chord structure, lush backing vocals and yes! A sax solo. This was their biggest hit and it always sends me somewhere special.


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