Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mix Tape


At my work leaving do last Summer, I fell into conversation about music with two friends and colleagues. The beer had been flowing and I was cracking on about rock music again. I was waxing lyrical about the variety and depth and bombast and subtlety and light and shade and emotion and power of heavy metal in particular.  Jenny and Naomi looked at me blankly. They were steadfastly unconvinced. This was clearly not how they saw the genre. 

I said would come up with a playlist that would demonstrate the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal; and highlight the sweeping variety and complexity of the best of the movement.

It’s only taken me 9 months and a worldwide pandemic. And they will almost certainly have forgotten that conversation. But I've been on a mission. Here at last is a post about the origins and growth of hard rock and heavy metal as it matters to me. An electronic mix tape of 29 tracks.

Forgive me a nerdy note, before we go further. For definitional purposes, this list includes both heavy metal and hard rock. This is bold step. Purists the length and breadth of the land will be sucking their teeth and shaking their heads in bemusement. This is because hard rock and heavy metal are traditionally regarded as having different roots. The former comes through a twisted lineage of Afro-American blues to spawn electrified boogie and swaggering rhythms from the likes of Led Zep and Deep Purple to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Heavy Metal is regarded as having a classical source, taking scales and structures typically found in classical music to create power, drama, changes of pace and theatrics, evidenced by bands from Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Tool.

The reason I’m lumping together these two sub genres of the all-encompassing ‘rock’ beast is that they have more in common than they have in contrast. Take Black sabbath, widely (and rightly) regarded as the first true heavy metal band, are on record as saying they evolved their sound through the blues. Or take Motorhead who played loud, fast, aggressive, in-your-face music redolent of the finest heavy metal: Lemmy always regarded his creation as ‘just a rock n’ roll band’. This is the point. Stylistically they are tied together by a reliance on loud, distorted guitars, built on chunky riffs, underscored by driving and dense rhythms.

Having argued the rationale for creating a generic theme for this mix tape, I’m now gonna pull it apart and highlight various constituent elements and trends. This is a personal journey towards enlightenment for non-believers. As such, I don’t expect these ramblings to go unchallenged.

Origins

The Kinks – You Really Got Me (1964) 
What better jumping off point can there be? This catchy 2-minute-15-seconds wonder with its chant-like chorus was a smash hit and launched a long career. Ray Davies wrote the song, but the most important element for our story is the riff. Ray’s younger brother Dave created it by slicing up the speaker cone of his Elpico guitar amp and poking it with a pin. The resulting dirty, fuzzy and raw sound was the birth of that bedrock of hard rock and heavy metal, the beautiful powerchord. And we are away.

Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze (1967)
Hendrix was a true original. His indelible stamp on popular culture covers many facets. For this list, we are most concerned with the way he took the guitar to places it had never before been taken. By making feedback, distortion and wah-wah exciting; and by putting his amps through the wringer to play at terrifying volume, Hendrix booted open the door to new music. This was not yet hard rock or heavy metal – Hendrix was far too diverse to be constricted by such narrow concepts. But he had shown the way.    

Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues (1968)
American rockers Blue Cheer, fresh out of San Francisco played thunderous, psychedelic, LSD-inspired blues rock. They have been credited with pioneering the heavy metal sound. Though in my view, they provide important stepping stones along the way rather than the fully formed medium we have all come to know and love.



The pioneers

Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker (1969) 
Zep’s second album is where things really come together. It is an intense and gritty slab of hard rock. Moving up a gear from their debut, Jimmy Page introduces a compelling riff on ‘Heartbreaker’ that twists and burns in the second half of the track. Robert Plant’s cacophonous, spine-tingling vocal became the new benchmark for rock frontmen. The band went on to scale the heights with a series of million-selling albums, but this remains their heaviest work. 


Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970) 
Birmingham, June 1970 : The moment that Heavy Metal was born. Thunder, rain and the tolling bell in the first few moments of this seminal track give way to Tony Iommi’s colossal, ground-breaking riff and doom-laden lyrics, to which the incomparable Ozzy Osbourne gives life and death. These were defining moments in rock ‘n’ roll and I make no apology for the verbosity. Though nothing is ever truly original. The time changes on this masterpiece echo a classical composition and some of those bass runs and drum weaves are drawn from a jazz/blues inspiration. But never mind all that. Just luxuriate in the thick-as-treacle opening notes.



Deep Purple – Speed King (1970) 
Purple had been trotting out prog rock fodder that might not have created too many waves until a double line-up change presaged a new direction. Perhaps sniffing what was going on in Birmingham, new recruits Ian Gillan on vocals and Roger Glover on bass, added to Richie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics to create the ‘In Rock’ masterpiece. The riff/rhythm that kicks ‘Speed King’ into life just after the organ intro is electrifying. And yet the track brings a more polished, more accomplished sound in comparison with Zep or Sabbath. Nevertheless, together, these three bands became the unholy trinity of British hard rock and heavy metal. This band's legacy runs deep, as we will see. 


Queen – Stone Cold Crazy (1974)
OK, Queen had many more strings to an impressive bow than mere hard rock. But there is no doubting the crunchy, distorted, driving guitar and theatrical delivery of much of their early work. On this track, Roger Taylor is properly shovelling coal behind the drums, giving traction to Brian May's express riff. The energy is electrifying and plenty have cited this as a touchstone for thrash metal that came 10 years later. When you have spare 2m16secs, check out Metallica’s cover of this. On discovering Queen’s early work a few years after its release, I found my erstwhile missing link between pop and metal. 


Rainbow – Stargazer (1976)
Richie Blackmore, having left Deep Purple at the height of their powers, formed a new band with the diminutive, leather-lunged singer Ronnie James Dio. Rainbow, with Dio’s influence, cast a new hard rock sound, often featuring ambitious musical passages, orchestration, classical influences and lyrical themes of mysticism, magic and fantasy. Dungeons and Dragons for rockers. Later incarnations of the band took a more commercial sound. ‘Stargazer’, however, weighs in at a hefty 8 minutes and 26 seconds and is from their early and best period. It is a predictable choice for this list, but simply too good to exclude. The track features the most thrilling drumming I’ve heard on any rock track, bar none. Cozy Powell was a genius.  


AC/DC – Overdose (1977)
The legendary Aussie rockers have been cornerstones of hard rock for generations. Flying in the face of punk, it was 1977’s ‘Let There Be Rock’ album that solidified their powerful, raw, infectious, boogie-hard rock. The band is currently a pale imitation of this period, dishing up  thin material and pantomime renditions of the classics. To remind ourselves of the vitality and thrills of this band at their best, indulge in the razor sharp barbs of guitar on the intro, giving way to a simple, dirty, electric riff so tight it constricts your breath. 


Motorhead – Overkill (1979) 
The embodiment of hard lived, hard played rock ‘n’ roll. Motorhead delivered uncompromising, high-octane music played at a furious pace and maximum volume. Fronted by anti-hero Lemmy and his hoary vocals; and powering the band with distinctive bottom-end bass tuning, there was no mistaking their sound. No-one else has come close to the swagger and swing produced on cuts like this. I agonised over which track to pick. 'Ace of Spades' is the one everyone knows and loves. Indeed it would be my funeral song choice. 'Overkill' gets the nod here because its not so obvious and yet beautifully captures their sheer relentless approach. I loved ‘em. 

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance (1982)
The metal genre – however imprecisely defined – was spawning myriad bands who were regularly puncturing the actual charts with sonic mayhem. 1982 saw Judas Priest perfecting their sound around screaming guitars, superfast rhythms and ear-shattering vocals that - however extreme - was finding commercial success. The approach inspired a host of others who went on to establish speed and power metal. The incomparable Priest had already proved more than influential in creating the outrageous leather-and-studs image of heavy metal that stuck like clichéd superglue for decades. This track is typical of their hypersonic mid-80’s output. Pin back your lugholes.  


Melodic hard rock

If British acts had set the early metal and hard rock pace, by the mid-70’s US acts had picked up the baton and splintered it into new sub-genres. Alice Cooper, Kiss and Aerosmith were leading a groove-laden, image-rich brand to whom later glam metal bands owed a significant debt.

Down towards the border, Southern rock made its first appearances, spilling out of Allman Brothers musical territory to fuse metal, boogie and a sprinkling of country to produce rich, bluesy chugs. Blackfoot, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mollie Hatchett were the ring-leaders. Stateside also pioneered the AOR sound at the softer end of the rock spectrum with pop-infused soaring melodies gloriously laid down by class acts like Boston, Journey, Styx, Foreigner (only half American!) and many others. But these are sub-genres that my mix tape can’t embrace. Mainly because it’s my list and I get to choose.

One sub-genre that easily makes the list is melodic hard rock which peaked in the 70’s and 80’s with a clutch of bands forming a solid backbone of classic hard rock.

UFO – Pack It Up (And Go) (1978)
UFO are my favourite band of all time. Flying slightly below other bands who achieved greater commercial success, UFO typify the genre and were the band that opened my eyes to the boundless energy, emotion and drama of brilliantly constructed and delivered classic hard rock when I was nothing but a snotty-nosed kid. ‘Pack It Up (And Go)’ is spikey, unpredictable and ahead of its time. And just listen to Schenker’s lead guitar work here, spraying shards of rock dust across everything. A genius at the peak of his powers. 


Whitesnake – Fool For Your Loving (1980)
Another Deep Purple link, of course. David Coverdale fronted the band after Ian Gillan’s departure and then left himself to form Whitesnake. Coverdale has re-invented the band many times, but this track comes from their breakthrough album, ploughing a fertile furrow of heavy blues rock. Coverdale's vocal is rich and mellow. Guitar twins Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden cook up a sumptuous sound. Ignore the soulless remake of this from 1989 with different musicians. This one is the real deal.


Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning (1983)
This lot were torch-bearers for classic/melodic rock with a string of hits and a distinctive sound based around twin-lead guitars. This track comes from their final studio album and wouldn’t be many people’s pick as a classic Lizzy tune. But I love the energy that new guitarist John Sykes brought to the band at this point in their career. It’s also heavier and more dense than anything they had previously recorded, and yet still 24-carat Thin Lizzy with a lush keyboard undertow and brilliant, precise vocals from the incomparable Phil Lynott. 

The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal

Old rockers like me cling on the vitality and youthful zest brought by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) like old punks hang on to the raucous anarchy of gigs at The Music Machine. Punk was partly responsible for NWOBHM. Disaffected working class young white males were throwing together underground bands to play metal injected with a new aggression and intensity.

So many bands and great music came out of that period, which ultimately heralded hard rock/heavy metal’s most sustained commercially successful period.  The big hitters are those that inevitably make this mix tape, given the brief I’m working to. Nevertheless, honourable mentions go to Samson (there at the very start), Raven (uncompromising), Tygers of Pan Tang (whose debut album ‘Wildcat’ is a massively underestimated work of bristling power), Diamond Head, Angel Witch…too many others to mention. 

Iron Maiden – The Number Of the Beast (1982)
Iron Maiden swept all before them with a string of top-selling albums in the 80’s. Driven by Steve Harris’s vision and hitting a settled line-up, 1982’s Number of the Beast brought a polished sound harnessed to the band’s dynamic energy. It paid dividends with big hits in the singles chart without losing authenticity. NWOBHM had entered the mainstream.  This was an exciting time to be alive.


Def Leppard – Rock! Rock! (Til You Drop) (1983)
Sheffield’s biggest export since electroplated steel makes the list because of their first three albums and not for very much afterwards. ‘Pyromania’ was the turning point and its massive sales in America prompted a further shift towards an overwrought lush sound. The follow up album ‘Hysteria’ went ballistic, but left me cold. In amongst the radio-friendly melodic stuff creeping in on Pyromania, there are a few nuggets that remind us where the Lepps came from. ‘Rock! Rock! (Til You Drop)’ remains a great track. 


Saxon – Princess of the Night (1981)
Even Barnsley’s finest had a wobbly bit when they tried to embrace melodic rock and then had a go at power metal for a while. Thankfully, there is oodles of their driving, raw, monster-riff heavy material with which to keep ourselves pumped. ‘Princess of the Night’ is the opening track on ‘Denim and Leather’. They played this when I saw them live last year for the first time in about 15 years. They still deliver the goods like they mean it. Authenticity is everything, especially when you are smashing out an anthemic chunk of powerhouse metal laced with nostalgia for a train. Who says there’s no sentimentality in heavy metal?   


Thrash

If this list has been unashamedly biased towards Brit metal thus far, there’s no doubt that the next seismic shift was led by the US. Thrash metal was taking hold. Whilst the sub-genre owed a debt to NWOBHM, as well as punk and British stalwarts like Motorhead and Judas Priest, thrash was a Stateside game changer. In fact the UK has not been at the forefront of hard rock/metal innovation ever since.  Thrash was a pimped up ride along an extreme highway, typically dealing in ramped up aggression, fast tempos, percussive rhythms, down-tuned guitars and supersonic shredding solos.  

Thrash bred a whole extended family of derivations embracing doom, death, black, speed, avant-garde and all points in between.  I’d moved to London by this time and was to be seen down the Marquee Club on many a Friday night soaking up a mixed bag of the thrash family with increasingly ridiculous names like Testament, Carcass, Obituary and Deicide. Infact I almost hogged the spotlight one night during a Bolt Thrower gig whilst attempting to stage dive. Jo-Anne Bench, the band’s bassist, had to stop playing to help haul my inebriated self on to the stage. An eventual stylish swan-dive into the pit did nothing to restore my credibility.

Metallica – Welcome Home (Sanitarium) (1986)
First, last and always. Well may be not the very first, but Metallica were breakout thrashers and the only ones to achieve sustained global mainstream success. Their early albums, whilst suffering some lightweight production, can lay claim to definitive early thrash sounds rich with time changes, dramatic pauses, acoustic segments and drama alongside the crunching riffs. ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ comes from ‘Master of Puppets’, one of the greatest thrash albums of all time. I saw them on this tour shortly before bassist Cliff Burton died. A virile Anthrax were the support band. My life and my hearing were never the same again. 


Anthrax – Medusa (1985)
I saw lot of  Anthrax and Metallica back in the day and loved their live shows. Anthrax never quite mastered the depth of Metallica’s material and their later flirtation with hardcore rap was a cul-de-sac I wasn’t prepared to follow them down. The first clutch of albums were really technically strong though, and very tight. ‘Medusa’ from ‘Spreading The Disease’ was a live favourite.

Megadeth – Sweating Bullets (1992)
Dave Mustaine established Megadeth as the vehicle for his music and explosive guitar playing after he was kicked out of the founding Metallica line up. The output is patchy, but the band’s influence cannot be denied and so they make this mixtape. ‘Countdown to Extinction’ is a later album and ‘Sweating Bullets’ is a more sophisticated offering.


Glam and sleaze

At the same time as thrash was hitting its high water mark, glam metal was sweeping all before it. You might hear the term ‘hair metal’ to describe this period. It was never a term used at the time and is an after-the-fact media invention with no validity.

Against my better judgement I’m gonna have to include some glam in this list. Simply because in it was everywhere. Alice Cooper, Kiss, Van Halen, Bon Jovi and their kin have a lot to answer for. Glam metal’s flashy clothing, ridiculous hair, misogynistic/over-sexed lyrics and focus on style over substance stuck in my craw. Some of the music was a bit shallow and the brand kept getting re-invented and watered down. And yet some of the music, when the image noise can be filtered out was, let’s face it, catchy, fun and, well, OK.  

Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel the Noize (1983)
History pretty conclusively shows that the movement really began with Quiet Riot’s Metal Health album – the first Metal collection to top the Billboard Hot 100. The single ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’ secured massive rotation on MTV and ushered in a whole new era of video-powered sales. In a neat touch of symmetry, this single is of course a Slade cover, the original Glam kings from 1972. 


Motley Crue – Smokin' in the Boys Room (1985)
Motley Crue were the undisputed loud, rude, hedonistic and vaguely androgynous leaders of the Glam Metal circus. They lived larger than life: manslaughter trials, celebrity girlfriends, dodgy home movies and frightening amounts of chemical abuse. They started out as metal, but by ‘Theatre of Pain’ had pretty much set the glam template. 


Guns N’ Roses – Nightrain (1987)
Often lumped in with glam, Guns N' Roses actually had a very different vibe. They were a gritty and raw band and the music was refreshing, harder and bluesier in comparison with glam. Guns N’ Roses had dirt under their finger-nails and sleaze in their veins. In Slash they had a brilliant guitarist and in Axl Rose, a compelling front man. The band were full of energy, rage and frustration. Ingredients for powerful hard rock that connecting with people. They burned so brightly, had legions of dedicated fans and we thought they were the future. The freewheeling ‘Night Train’ comes from their incandescent album ‘Appetite for Destruction’. The band was never this good again. 


Grunge

Crawling out of Seattle and given wings by the Sub Pop label, grunge wiped glam and sleaze off the charts. Grunge is ostensibly a hard-wired distortion of metal and punk, shot through with fuzzy indie tones to keep things mysterious. Lyrically, there was a lot of navel-gazing going on: social isolation, disaffection, betrayal. Grunge was commercially successful. Nirvana, led by the troubled Kurt Cobain captured the mood of a generation. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots all found success with variations of the same zeitgeist.

The sounds hit a sweet spot for me and a high water mark was Nirvana’s set at Reading in August 1992. Cobain donned a blond wig to lead the band though a wild, explosive set whilst we were spattered in the mud and rain. Mudhoney, Nick cave and L7 also made a significant contribution to an outstanding, memorable day. That was Nirvana’s final gig in the UK. Less than 18 months later, Cobain ended his life with a shotgun shell.  

Nirvana – Breed (1991)
Nirvana's Nevermind hit number one in early 1992 and suddenly Guns N' Roses looked pretentious, impressionistic and flabby. Built around a warped, wired riff this is Nirvana’s sound at its scary best. In the spare lyric, Cobain is expressing fears about starting a family.


Mudhoney – Let It Slide (1991)
Less commercially successful than other bands around at the time, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ was nevertheless at the heart of the grunge sound. ‘Let It Slide’ was a perfect three-minute advert. I have it on limited edition mud-coloured vinyl. A collector’s item. Probably worth at least a fiver.  


Pearl Jam – Last Exit (1996)
By 1996, Pearl Jam had diversified their sound and ‘Vitalogy’ has an eclectic mix of material. Vocalist Eddie Vedder had begun contributing guitar as well and this gave the album a different dynamic. Tracks like ‘Corduroy’ and ‘Whipping’ were typical of their early canon; whereas the immediate ‘Spin The Black Circle’ and the selection here with its scintillating, insistent drum beat giving way to a grinding riff are more direct and punky. Great album. Great band.


21st Century metal

By the turn of the century, grunge had pretty much had its day. With a couple of notable exceptions (step forward Pearl Jam), bands had broken up or faded from view. However, their influence can be seen in some of the acts that followed: post-grunge bands like Creed and Nickelback; and the newly christened nu metal, shorn of indulgent solos, such as Korn and Limp Bizkit.

And the scene has subsequently fragmented more than ever. We see myriad spiralling and cross-over influences that have given rise to even more sub-sets. Metal and hard rock loves its labels and pigeon-holes, but where do you go next after neo-classic, alt, nu, industrial, groove, stoner and sludge?

I’m an old rocker and as this mix tape reaches 2020 it is running in to a sandbank of fusion and hybrid sounds that I can’t always dig. Linkin Park have been one of the biggest metal bands on the planet for a good few years this past decade, with their fearless blending of rock, metal, hip-hop and electronic themes. But I just don’t like ‘em. So they don’t make my list! 

Nevertheless, here’s a trio of bands that have made their mark over the last 20 years. I’m not under the skin of the genre like I used to be, when as a teenager I’d be twitching with anticipation at every new twist. So there’s no deep analysis here, just a recognition that through bands like this, metal and hard rock has the power to reinvent itself, quicken the pulse and keep connecting.

Slipknot – Duality (2005)
A band that keeps pushing the boundaries with their nine-musician (count ‘em) line up bringing turntables, switch-hit vocal styles and aggressive, discordant power plays.


Rammstein – Rammlied (2009)
Combining elements of industrial, techno and gothic metal, Rammstein harness booming, operatic vocals with grindingly heavy guitars, sweeping keyboards and a massive rhythmic drive. All Till Lindemann’s vocals are in German, adding a layer of harshness to the mix. Live shows are an epic pyrotechnical extravaganza. I saw them at Wembley Arena ten years ago,  sat several blocks back from the firestorm on the stage. My eyebrows have only just grown back. 


Alter Bridge – Dying Light (2020)
Let’s hear it for classic metal. I’m a big fan of this band. Myles Kennedy is a gifted vocalist and Marcus Tramonti an underrated axe-smith. Together they have created some powerful, layered, intense, soaring, heavy, hard (and soft) music. The future is safe.



That's a wrap!

The 80’s and early 90’s were the golden age for the metal and hard rock. NWOBHM progressively became just BHM and those fledgling bands joined older, more established hard rock and metal acts who were still shifting mega units and packing venues. Old school metal, hard rock, mainstream thrash and glam metal was lacing the charts and filling the airwaves. Every set from the 1990 Castle Donington Monsters of Rock festival headlined by Whitesnake was broadcast live on Radio 1. It’s impossible to think of this happening now. Grunge re-invented the genre at the start of the 90’s and the groovy times rolled on. We had never had it so good. 

In the consciousness of non-believers, we’ve fallen away from those glory days of 25 years ago. But that suits me, really. I’ve always quietly revelled in thought of rockers as outsiders, bucking the popular trend, swimming upstream…There is a clan feeling amongst us. As Johnny from Rock Candy magazine puts it, “We had so much in common. We talked the same language. And it didn't matter what you looked like. Everyone was welcome if you loved the music. It was a natural home for outsiders and misfits.”

So there we are. Long live rock n’ roll.  And outsiders n’ misfits. And kebab n’ chips.

Jenny & Naomi, I hope you made it this far. Twenty-nine tracks. This is my metal and hard rock journey, but it’s your mix tape. 

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Thanet innit?

“Oh, this will be a good year”, said Mrs A.

1970? I doubted it. Paul Gambaccini was bigging up the likes of Pickettywitch and Judy Collins in a post-Beatles, pre-Glam edition of Pick of the Pops. A dead zone for music. A Dark Age akin to the Romans leaving Britain. A void filled by drivel like Brotherhood of Man and Peter, Paul and Mary until we were saved by the 1066 watershed of T Rex and Slade. (I offer you the Ladybird guide to both popular music and medieval history...)  

Picketywitch in their pomp

Radio 2’s long running chart retrospective was filling the car with pap as we headed to the coast for some fresh air. Mrs A knew every word of every song, whilst I was bleating on about the shallow quality and inane content. Even Elvis let me down. I’d never heard ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ before, but what a cast iron crock of indigestible sentimental soup that is. The chorus saw me with my head in my hands: ‘Daddy, you've still got me and little Tommy/And together we'll find a brand new mommy’. Even Helen winced. “OK, so this isn’t his finest moment.”

Coronavirus was by then beginning to take grip of the country. We could see snippets of evidence with our own eyes. For instance, the roads were suspiciously quiet. I can’t recall the M25 ever being so tame in the middle of a Saturday. Mrs A was worried that we would get to our destination before the 1970 chart reached its zenith. I was not.

This was the weekend before the Cheltenham Festival and I was constantly expecting Coronavirus to result in its cancellation. Italy had already entered lockdown. Events elsewhere were being cancelled. It was only matter of time, surely. Those few days before the year’s horseracing fiesta are always distracting. A mix of fevered expectation combined with stress about the targets/chances of fancied horses causes a strange, short-lived brain impairment, the symptoms of which are Festival Tunnel Vision and Festival Babble. The event’s potential pandemic-induced impediment was making these symptoms worse. There are many other much weightier and deadlier reasons why Covid-19 is devastating, but in the week before Cheltenham I was pretty much impenetrable to all of them except the one that might impact on my week of horse racing.

A trip to the seaside was a bit of light relief. As Mrs A tapped her foot to ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ by Steam, and then ‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue, I wondered what she would make of the Airbnb I had booked in Broadstairs. More distractedly, I also wondered why both those tracks had been covered by Bananarama in the 80’s. I speculated that Keren, Siobhan and the other one that no-one can remember, sat down to plan their next ditties in one of the three houses they had bought together on the same street in north London. One of them undoubtedly said, “I know! Let’s just pick one chart from a week at random and cover everything in the top 10!” And that’s what must have happened. 7th March 1970 was that chart and over a number of years, they released their covers. Only these two became hits, obviously. I guess the other bilge failed to trouble the scorers.   

Bananabarmey
Back to the evening’s accommodation. I had failed to book a fine hotel overlooking Botany Bay, north of Broadstairs, because they had no pet-friendly rooms left. Undaunted, I found a couple of town centre Airbnb gaffs that would happily host us and our hound. One place stood out. All the reviews used words like ‘quirky’, ‘individual’ and ‘eclectic’. Excellent, I thought as I snapped up a bargain with Janice, the host. We would soon realise that the website’s gallery didn’t come close to portraying the real vibrancy of Janice’s abode, but they were nevertheless enough to spook Mrs A. Too late, I’d already booked. She shared the listing with Daughters 1 and 2 who were suitably horrified by pics of the ‘busy’ décor, floor to ceiling shelves packed with ceramic bric-a-brac and walls crowded with framed art.

We hit out-of-town shopping centre traffic west of Ramsgate as I was marvelling at the insight and philosophical depth of Peter Noone’s insipid vocal on a 1970 Herman’s Hermit hit. Cop this wisdom: ‘Years may come/Years may go/Some go fast/Some go slow’. Genius.

The traffic snarl up meant Mrs A got her wish. We were parking up in Broadstairs as Gambaccini gave an undeserved build up to Lee Marvin’s gawd-awful chart-topper from that forgettable week, a dirge-like, teeth-grating rendition of ‘Wandrin Star’. I rested my case and indeed Mrs A had nothing to say.

Although, funnily enough, she found her voice again when we entered  the cottage. Descriptions of the place emptied our collective thesaurus: unusual, eccentric, peculiar, idiosyncratic, characterful, disturbing…just plain weird. 



But the place was fantastic, imaginative, funny, unique and out-of-the-ordinary as well. I couldn’t decide whether the shelf packed full of Virgin Mary statuettes was more troubling than the inflatable moose’s head fixed above our bed. Or the papier mache mer-man hanging in the bathroom more unsettling than the black and pink floral wallpaper. It was a real house though. Janice lived there when she had no bookings, so it felt homely, comfortable and cosy. There was no telly, so we necked red wine and played Scrabble, overlooked by a ghoulish portrait gallery. I lost. Again.



Broadstairs offered up all the fresh air we craved, and plenty more besides. The coastline between Ramsgate and North Foreland is particularly attractive with chalk cliffs shot through with streaks of sandstone giving way to half a dozen coves and inlets filled with the golden sand you only see in filtered holiday brochure pics. Viking Bay is at the foot of the town’s main street, lined by hotels, houses, shops, restaurants and pubs that give a fair impression of a well preserved Victorian resort.

Back up the hill and past the train station, we stumbled upon a fantastic pub, carved out of a stone flag-floored stable, serving real ale and cider straight from barrels piled up behind the bar. I’ve added Broadstairs to the list of seaside towns I’m trying to persuade Mrs A that we should move to.





On Sunday we popped over to Whitstable, another fine Kentish town on my list, and joined our friends there for lunch. More lung-fulls of fresh air. Whitstable bay is just so photogenic.


By the time the Cheltenham Festival kicked off on Tuesday, the Coronavirus death toll was creeping up and the level of confirmed cases was on the march. Attendances were down at Prestbury Park each day. Watching on telly at home, the Festival party looked increasingly like a last hurrah before an inevitable lockdown. I joined the racing crew in the Barley Mow on Gold Cup Friday for our traditional session of punting, drinking and making merry. Top day.

I didn’t go the Festival this year, but still had a week away from work to immerse myself in every twist and turn of the action. So hitting a crowded pub felt like breaking my own self isolation after a week of social distancing. In hindsight, we had probably absorbed some of that Cheltenham final stand feeling in a gung-ho sort of day. Possibly not the wisest move.  

For the record, I had a shocking festival. Backing horses that found new ways to lose, from grinding to a standstill up the hill to getting short-headed in a last furlong dog-fight. And most galling of all, an unseat from jockey Jamie Moore when miles clear. His horse Goshen managed to lock together his off-front and off-rear shoes for a stride when stumbling through the final hurdle. A cruel and freak incident, bringing down my Festival-saving four-timer with the jockey.

Bacchy and the Fantasy Festival winners' whisky round
And then another Saturday and another car journey. This time to meet our friends Fay and Adrian  for a dog walk-pub-lunch. Over a pint and a robust plate of ham, egg and chips, Adrian fixed me with an inquisitive demeanour and said “So let me get this right. You booked a cottage in Broadstairs packed full of strange art without telling Helen first. And then you took her to a pub in a stable that didn’t serve red wine? How are you here to tell the tale?” I had no answer, but offered to make myself available for any assistance they needed with future accommodation bookings.


On the way over I insisted we had The Planet Rock Years on the radio. Gambaccini had been kicked into touch since his woeful picks the previous Saturday. Mark Anthony was digging 1975. Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd. That’s better.

Stay safe all.








Thursday, 5 March 2020

Back in the saddle


Nuca, our Romanian mongrel with a hair-trigger nose that detects grilled sausages at 200 paces, is sniffing Spring in the air. She’s been careering around the garden with unhinged, mad-March enthusiasm and tucking in to new shoots of grass like they are gourmet treats. I smell the changing mood too; and I’m sharing something of her wild passion. Not sure it’s the weather though… Cheltenham is nearly here.

Festival preview nights are all the rage up and down the land right now. They have become an established part of the build-up: well-oiled panel pundits spouting dubiously informed views and rumours in front of eager, equally lubricated punters, before moving on to the next venue on the next night. Entertainment is the name of the game rather than cast-iron info. The skill is in winnowing the odd grain of valuable wheat from the wind-blown chaff.

The Barley Mow festival pack had its own preview evening on Monday. Our level of inebriation would rival your regular ‘professional’ preview gathering, and indeed the quality of knowledge on offer was equally variable.  

Matters got off to a poor start when a stranger casually joined us at our table and sat down with his beer as if he belonged there. Turned out he did. He won our prestigious, fiercely competitive Fantasy Festival trophy last year. Apparently I’d had a long chat with him on Gold Cup Day in that very same venue about various exploits at the Festival. I had, I gathered, heartily congratulated him on his win.

How we laughed. He’s a lovely fellah and took my total absence of recall with a pinch of salt. Piecing together the dregs of that day last March, it seems my memory faded from the point that Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup with a chunk of my bank wagered at 16/1. Everything after about 3.50pm was lost in a bitter-and-whisky fuelled celebratory blur. I don’t remember the results of the subsequent races, or who I was drinking with or how I got home. Or the reception I received when I got there… The level of obfuscation only became clear on Monday night when I had absolutely no recollection of meeting this chap before. At all.

I was not alone. He went to the bog for a leak and I quickly said to Nick,

“Christ, I can’t remember him at all! What’s his name?”

“No clue” shrugged Nick. “Is he one of Bryn’s mates?”

“I think it’s Tom”, offered Nev.

“No, don’t call him Tom!” pleaded Colin. “It’s definitely not Tom. We’ve met Tom before in the Jugged Hare”

This went on for some time. Poor behaviour, really. Bacchy helped. The Fantasy Festival is his competition, after all. We worked out he was Danny’s mate. And he’s called Joseph. Now I’ve committed this to text, I’m bound to remember.

So, you’ll be wanting tips and rumours from the Barley Mow preview evening massive, I expect. Here are the highlights:

  •     My new pal Joseph has a cracking ante-post voucher of 10/1 on Shiskin for the Supreme, after he scribbled the name into his little black book following a bumper romp last year. This good punting.

  •     My best outsider is Rouge Vif at 16/1 for the Arkle, struck after I cashed in an earlier bet on the same horse at 33/1 on the basis that I didn’t think he’d make the race. This is bad punting.

  •    Tim’s best bets of the week will all run at Wolverhampton. This is barely punting at all.  

Elsewhere, Colin was roundly vilified for his nap of the meeting, Clan Des Obeaux to win the Gold Cup. No-one else thinks he will get home. I copped some flak for putting up Epatante in the Champion Hurdle, though I genuinely fail to see why she can’t spank a pretty poor field. Bacchy had Honeysuckle to win a packet in the Mares Hurdle. At that point, she still could have been re-routed to the Champion Hurdle, leaving him potless. However, she was confirmed for the Mares the very next day.

Nick produced a scrappy bit of folded-over A4 printed with the rules of Bacchy’s famous Fantasy Festival competition. Underneath he’d written the names of 16 ludicrously short-priced types he planned to enter into the comp.

“I did some research!”

“What, Racing Post? Or do you use At The Races?” I was impressed.

“No – I just did a comparison of all the tipster sites”.

“Ah, so not actual form research, or anything, then?”

“What do you take me for?!” Cue mirthful roll of the eyes.

On leaving the pub, Nev, Bacchy and myself meandered down Strutton Ground. Nev pointed out the bookies where he landed a spectacular three-figure Gold Cup exacta back in the day. Emboldened with ale, I confidently claimed that I stood a fair chance of bagging the triple crown of fantasy competitions this season: cricket (already won); 12 To Follow (leading) and Fantasy Festival (launching Tuesday).

Nev was having none of it. Within a nano-second he goes, “£50 says you don’t.” I politely declined. He smashed me out of the park alongside my bullshit bravado.

I’m not going to the Festival this year. I’ll miss the roar before the Supreme and the atmosphere that you just don’t get anywhere else. Nevertheless, the keen anticipation is the same. I’m hanging on to every refresh of the Oddschecker ante-post pages to see if my fancies have survived five-day forfeits.

Non-runners do for my Festival portfolio what Coronavirus has done for cruise holidays. Speaking of the ‘C’ word, as I write it feels just about odds-on that we’ll get the fully fledged Festival next week. But with every passing day of hysterical reaction to new cases, the doubts persist.

If fears win out and the event is cancelled, Mrs A has already asked (…demanded…) that I arrange to be somewhere else next week, please. The prospect of me moping about the house all week, bereft of a horse to back, fills her with dread.

Maybe I’ll tramp the hills with the dog in search of that elusive Spring.  




Sunday, 15 December 2019

Sports Review of the year 2019

Gareth Thomas is sluicing through horizontal rain and lashing winds on a 500-mile errand to deliver this year’s SPOTY trophy to Aberdeen. Epic stuff, raising serious dosh for some fantastic Sport Relief projects. I think they’ve missed a trick, though: stick a pizza hot-box on the back of his quattrocycle and surely it’s a Deliveroo sponsorship opportunity? Oven-ready, you might say. You can have that one, Boris - hope it blisters your lips.   

I’m not really here to give more ether-space to BoJo’s self-serving deceit. Instead I have an overwhelming need to shed the lead-lined cloak of despair that’s been draped over my shoulders since Thursday. Time to lighten the mood. Gareth’s journey reminds me that this has been a superb year of sport. One that’s worth a personal reflection here – albeit with less glamour and glitz than the Gary and Gabby show - because I won’t be lucky enough to enjoy another as much as this for a long time to come. 

Cricket is the only place to start. Specifically England’s heart-racing, nerve-shredding World Cup Final victory. Actually, no. Tennis is the only place to start. Specifically Djokovic’s history-making, record-breaking Men’s Final win. That both these monumental slabs of sporting endeavour played out on the same day and reached their breathless climaxes within minutes of each other is remarkable. 

Tennis gets my headline billing because I was there, alongside Mrs A, in the rafters of Centre Court, gripped by a rejuvenated Roger Federer repelling Novac Djokovic’s onslaught. I had never been to the Championships before, never set foot inside the courts, never mind watch the final of one of the Nation’s great sporting events. Mrs A enters the public ballot every year and has done pretty well for early round tickets, although she has missed out totally on plenty of tournaments as well. This February we were offered Men’s Final tickets. It felt like winning the lottery; and at a stroke silenced my cynical bleating about the best tickets in these ‘open’ ballots being creamed off by corporates and insiders. 

Remarkably, Mrs A’s business partner Steve bagged two tickets for the final as well. What odds? Too big even for my value punting principles. I would have scoffed at the chances of that ever happening. So much so that the four of us briefly wondered if we had been the victims of a sophisticated scam. 

Of course, the other consideration had been who would accompany Mrs A? In those previous years, she had gone with a shifting cast of friends. I had not been amongst them. ‘Erm, who will be your Plus-1, my darling?’, I had uttered on more than one occasion.  I was on best behaviour for flippin’ weeks.

Poncing around The All England Club was a hoot, ticking off the sights and then the four of us necking gin & tonics under hanging baskets, lounging on wicker chairs (with cushions!) and generally doing cats-that-got-the cream impressions. 

Mrs A is a die-hard Federette, and the scenes in our house on the preceding Friday when Rog won his semi-final were bordering on unseemly. Watching him in the Final was pretty much a sporting nirvana for her. It was indeed the dream match up.  

The two icons traded blows for hours and the balance of power ebbed and flowed with more regularity than the queues at the strawberry-and-cream stall. 

Federer had two chances to win in the fifth set on his own serve. Did he choke when lobbing what should have a crisp winner down the line tamely into the tram lines? possibly. That last set became a feat of endurance and stamina. Conversation around us turned to the possibility of a tie break – ‘…didn’t they bring in a new rule this year?’, ‘Is it a tie-break at 10-10?’ Well, 10-10 came and went and the sluggers on Centre Court carried on their prize fight. I was exhausted watching them. We reached 12-12 before the umpire announced the tie break. The fifth set had seen enough games for full sixth. This was the first Wimbledon singles final to be settled in this way. 

There is nothing like live sport and despite England’s Cricket World Cup Final taking place right then up the road at Lord’s, I had stayed in the moment in south London, determined to enjoy the spectacle. Sure, a few people around us had been updating us with the score regularly and there was some on-going low-level banter, but I wasn’t hanging off my sport app every few seconds waiting on ball by ball coverage. That would have been wrong. 

Yet at about the same time the tie-break began, the already fevered atmosphere round us went up a few degrees more with news of developments at Lord’s. ‘It’s gone to a Super-over’…. ‘what the fuck is a super over…?’ and such like. Having watched the IPL in the Spring, I was able to offer some clarification. ‘Yeah, one over, one bowler, you can lose one wicket, most runs wins.’ ‘Oh, Ok. Not fewest wickets lost then?’ came one reply. ‘Shhhhh, can’t you see there’s a game of tennis going on’, came others. 

Djokovic made short work of the tie-break, winning 7-3. The match set a new record for the longest final ever staged. Four hours and 57 minutes. Mrs A was gutted for big Rog, but he had left nothing behind today. An amazing match to have seen. 

Only as we were descending the stairs after the presentations did word spread that England had won. We met Steve and Di in a garden bar and picked over the events, washed down by Stella Artois and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police Force band from the bandstand. Steve had initially wanted to avoid the cricket result to watch it later. But there was no chance of that. The bar and grounds were buzzing with incredulity over matters at Wimbledon and Lord’s. This was a great day to be a sports fan. This is why we love it. 

That Sunday had been the apex of a stunning and sometimes challenging week. On the Monday we had travelled down to Southampton and had a night out with Daughter No 1 in advance of her graduation the next day. Proud, proud family moment. On the Wednesday I was in Deptford for a day of gruelling interviews recruiting to a Charity Director post, locked in a hot, humid, fractious room all day. 

All the while my mate and colleague AK and I had been having some heavy to- and fro- about the possibility of acquiring tickets for the England/Australia World Cup semi at Edgbaston on the Thursday. I had been very keen, but the prices were rising fast and I had all but ruled myself out – partly cost and partly logistics. AK had just missed out on some legit resale tickets because of IT grief and now he was negotiated some less-legitimate resale options. At one point he thought he offered up a pair for a reasonable price and then found out they were for the Old Trafford semi! On the eve of the game, a couple more sources hove into view. I couldn’t resist any longer and with time running out, we two, plus two of AK’s pals bought five tickets at more than double face value in a batch of two and three. The sellers wouldn’t split them. We would have to sell one or find someone else to come with us. In the event neither happened. I reckon we paid over £250 all in. Eye-watering for a tight-wallet like me. 

Was it worth the price? Every last penny. Undoubtedly. The day provided England with a thumping, ruthless win. The game was an absolute stomp, played out before a febrile crowd who never tired of singing ‘Sweeeeet Caroline….so good, so good, so good’. Mrs A, how I love that woman, had dropped me over at South Mimms service station at some brutal time in the morning, for AK to pick me up on the trip to Brum. Paul and Curtis were already aboard. There’s nothing like the banter before a big game between four grown men who sub-consciously revert to excitable teenager mode, jabbering wildly and making rubbish jokes. Or was that just me?

Arriving at the Edgbaston outskirts, we were up against the clock.  Curtis spotted a couple of young men ushering vehicles into a car park for a tenner a pop. We didn’t have time to mess about, so we drove in, dished out the brown-back and lined up the Astra adjacent to the other rows of saloons. We jumped up, gathered our stuff and then realised that this was less asphalt car park and more of your actual civic park. As in Birmingham City Council recreation space, onto which these Edgbaston entrepreneurs acting on no-one’s authority but their own, had just invited us to park for a straight tenner. We counted up the cars, shrugged and grudgingly chuckled at this neat bit of business. We also did a quick calculation that concluded there would not be enough wheel clamps in the city to do all of us…

After a bit of AK-led cloak and dagger, the four us were able to sit together in the Eric Hollies stand, where the atmosphere was typically raucus all day. Archer and Woakes were roared in, Warner and Smith were crucified, and Root and Roy was serenaded. My cricket expertise unravelled faster that an Archer missile: 
-       “England are poor chasers”, I said. They ran down the target of 224 with 8 wickets in hand, at over 7 runs an over with Jason Roy crashing 5 maximums. 
-       “Rashid needs to come off, he’s getting pulverised”, I said. He took two crucial, momentum-jarring wickets in his next over.
-       “Smith’s bang out of form in this World Cup”, I said. He knocked up 85 easy runs, before a sensational piece of work by Buttler ran him out.

The car was still there and clamp-free when we returned. We all tried (and possibly failed) to keep AK awake at the wheel on the homeward leg. I’d finally run out of crap banter, having hit the buffers in my attempts to offload onto them some Wimbledon Mens Singles Final tickets I’d happened upon. Don’t tell Mrs A. Another stunning ‘I was there’ day in a once-in-a-lifetime week.

There were more golden moments of cricket nectar to hoover up in late Summer. As if a World Cup was insufficient, we had an Ashes series in which to indulge. The scorebook tells you that we failed to win back the urn, but a hard-fought draw was miles better than a series defeat. Stokes has had quite a year. It should be enough to lift the SPOTY gong tonight. But his 135 not out to win the Third test – back at Edgbaston - was the best individual performance I’ve seen anywhere all year. All decade. Words really do fail when something as extra-ordinary as that innings happens. Proper tingle-y.

Mrs A and I had been at a family celebration in Halifax and drove over to spend the rest of the August Bank Holiday with my Dad. The weather was superb and we had toyed with the idea of going out for the afternoon. And then the Stokes show began in earnest. Dad and I were hooked to the telly, broken only by me running outside to update in gabbling tones a mildly curious (at best) Mrs A. I don’t get back home as much as I’d like and being with Dad to cheer England over the line was special. 

A few weeks later, Bryn and I had tickets for the Sunday, 4th day of the 5th Test at the Oval. Until a few days before, it was uncertain whether we would get any play. I had an additional concern borne of enthusiastic participation in Keith’s stag do the very night before. We came through on both counts. The Ashes had gone, but we had a great chance to level to series. The day went almost perfectly to plan: a baking hot September day; quick England runs to set up the Aussies chase; and then regular wickets to keep them on the back foot.

I say ‘almost perfectly’ because Matthew Wade’s tenacious century took the game late into the day. Bryn had tickets to see Muse that night over at the O2. He cracked at about ten-to-six with three wickets left to take, and bolted for the exit. Inevitably, they fell almost the moment he left. In fact he was barely out of the ground when Matthew wade departed LBW and the spinners cleaned up in the next three overs. ‘Don’t ever tell anyone I left early, Davoski' texted Bryn. Quick as a flash, I replied, “No worries, mate. Your secret is safe with me”. 

Just one final cricket footnote. I won our Fantasy Cricket League this year. The comp has been running for over 20 years now, but I hadn’t got my hands on the trophy for about a decade. This may be the last outing as Nev is refusing to look after the stats anymore. The thing doesn’t work without his genius touch. Anyway, if it is to be the last renewal, I’m glad I was at my cocky, insufferable best in May at the Epsom Oaks meeting when I told both Nev and Bacchy that I would be winning the League this year, no question. I am obviously not going to enlarge here on all those other rash predictions that did not come to pass. It’s my blog after all. 

Which brings me to horseracing. Having rattled on for about four pages, this glorious sport gets only one unworthy paragraph. But I’m running out of time. The Cheltenham Festival, the Oaks meeting and the Sandown Tingle Creek meeting were the undisputed highlights. Top events in the company of some great, loyal, long-standing mates. I had good Cheltenham and Oaks betting campaigns. In the Barley Mow I may have been the only one cheering home Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup; but at Epsom there were many shouting for Annapurna (Oaks) and Defoe (Coronation Cup). These all came in at big prices and I do love celebrating a value winner. Outside these  glorious moments, the punting has been average to poor and I’m enduring a shocking run at the moment. It was nice to get out to some quieter venues during the year, too: with CB-D at Lingfield and with the fam at Southwell. Let’s here it for the gaff tracks! 

What else? Well, I loved watching the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup and there were some stand out moments in the World Athletics, bizarrely held in Doha. Dina Asher-Smith and KJ-T were superb. But if there’s any justice, Gareth Thomas is powering up the A80 to Aberdeen right now with the trophy and a couple of slices of Pepperoni pizza for Ben Stokes. For my money, he deserves it for his World Cup performance; for that Edgbaston innings; for rebuilding his career after public order offences; and for shouting down some of the worst gutter-press reporting about historic family news I’ve ever seen. 

Speed ye well Gareth.