Favourite albums 2022
Although the pandemic is still a live concern, the easing of restrictions earlier this year instigated a slew of new releases, with performers finally dropping and touring albums that had long been on the back-burner. Summer festival season resumed after the hiatus, Glastonbury 2022 starring a mix of headliners new and veteran - Bille Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, and Paul McCartney. Here's just a tip of the iceberg of fabulous music that has helped boost mental health after lockdown (not to mention tanking economies and Putin's tanks).
Related blog: Favourite albums of 2021
Keith Levene: post-punk trailblazer
Keith Levene, 18 July 1957 – 11 November 2022
In the early 1970s, 15-year-old prog fan Keith Levene was blown away after watching Yes play five consecutive shows at his local arena, the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. So much so that he decided not to go home at the end of their stint, instead blagging a job as a roadie. But Levene was to seal his place in rock 'n' roll's history books later that decade, not for polishing Alan White's cymbals, but co-founding not one but two of the most influential bands that emerged during the punk revolution of the later 1970s: The Clash and Public Image Limited.
Before the former had played any gigs, Levene and fellow guitarist Mick Jones were hanging around London venues on the lookout for potential bandmates. Catching pub rockers the 101ers at the Nashville Room in April 1976, supported by fledgling 'punk' band The Sex Pistols, they weren't taken by the band's set of rockabilly-tinged R&B. But they were by the 101ers charismatic frontman, Joe Strummer. Joe himself had been mightily impressed by the support band, recognising a brash new musical style that made his own group sound dated. Later, Keith invited Joe to spearhead his and Mick's new venture. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Levene performed at The Clash's inaugural shows and co-wrote 'What's My Name,' eventually included on their first album. Although he recognised their potential, commenting in his autobiography, I WaS a TeeN GuiTariST 4 the CLaSH!, "Everyone knew the Clash would make it," he departed before the groundbreaking long player was released. Two years later, The Sex Pistols had imploded and John Lydon was eager to pursue his next musical project, Public Image Limited. Keith Levene became their first guitarist, his unique style signposting a radical change in direction from punk's raw power chords to something much more dynamic.
As he said, "Once I got good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like any other guitarist. I didn’t go out of my way to be different. I just had an ear for what was wrong. So if I did something that was wrong, i.e. made a mistake or did something that wasn’t in key, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.”
PiL's stellar debut single, the eponymous 'Public Image,' released in October 1978, was driven by the killer delivery of Levene's arpeggio guitar, John Lydon's sardonic vocals, and Jay Wobble's thundering open E-stringed bassline. The album that followed, Public Image: First Issue, similarly showcased that riveting combination of Levene's chiming fretwork over Wobble's dub-heavy rhythms. The follow-up album, Metal Box consolidated the innovative sound, with Levene exploring even more otherworldly sound effects.
Although he left PiL, he went on to produce music and released several solo albums. When he passed away on 11 November, aged 65, close friend and author Adam Hammond tweeted: "Our thoughts and love go out to his partner Kate, sister Jill, and all of Keith’s family and friends. The world is a darker place without his genius. Mine will be darker without my mate."
I share my birthday, 18 July, with Keith Levene. If I also shared a modicum of his guitar-playing brilliance, I'd be happy.
37 years ago today, I listened to the future (about being mesmerised by Keith Levene during PiL's first live UK television performance).
The Clash: the legendary debut: the 40th anniversary of their first album.
Changing Room; transforming lives
Instigated by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, The Changing Room piloted at Hibernian FC in 2018 with one aim: to promote men's mental health and wellbeing through the power of the beautiful game. Statistically, it has been revealed that males feel less comfortable opening up about mental health issues present and past. The Changing Room - a 12-week programme using football as the common passion - is intended to provide an environment where fans of various clubs, with unique but common histories, can feel encouraged to open up about what they have been through.
At Easter Road Stadium the 12-week course has included a 'walk and talk' around the pitch perimeter, a walking football match, a guest speaker (former Hibs player/manager Yogi Hughes), and weekly get-togethers fuelled by coffee and refreshments in the ground's Famous Five stand. Similar sessions were rolled out by SAMH at Heart of Midlothian on the other side of the city, and subsequently, senior clubs across Scotland.
On October 25th, the inaugural 'Alumni' event was hosted at Hampden Stadium in Glasgow. Representatives of Changing Room programmes from Hibs, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Rangers, Aberdeen, Dundee United, Greenock Morton, Montrose, St Mirren, and many more clubs, convened to celebrate having completed the 12-week course. Speakers included SAMH and club coaches, and former Hearts, Rangers and Wigan Athletic centre-half, Andy Webster.
This get-together was hugely successful, with speakers and participants unanimous about The Changing Room being cathartic and inspirational: open discussion and sharing stories is a key aspect of recovery and continual wellbeing, and the general destigmatisation of mental health. Individuals who have lived through diverse challenges, covering a range of psychiatric/psychological issues, can gain confidence through empathy and understanding. The 12-week programmes have also provided participants with access to a community of new friends and confidantes that can be tapped into on an ongoing basis.
I sometimes tweet clippings from my Sounds magazine archives, and recently posted a piece from 13/5/78 featuring “the woefully under-rated Newcastle post-punk band, Punishment of Luxury.” At the time, I loved Punilux and their unique, idiosyncratic quirkiness. Their imaginative soundscape melded punk with elements of proggier rock, underpinned by wonderful lyrical imagery, delivered in a manic performance style alluding to their origins in English fringe theatre. A semi-autobiographical novel I wrote in 2009, featuring my personal experiences of psych wards and the post-punk music that coaxed me back towards stable mental health, was entitled ‘BrainBomb’ (after a frenetic Punilux B-side).
This led to various exchanges on Twitter, not least getting introduced to Gary Alikivi, a North East English filmmaker/photographer. After explaining about the influence of Punilux on my writing, Gary was kind enough to share some links to his excellent website. The many eclectic projects documented include captivating photo archives documenting life on South Tyneside and interviews with authors like John Orton, whose 2022 novel He Wears a Blue Bonnet, set after Cromwell’s victory over a Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar, gives insight into how POWs were treated in 1650 (many were sent to the New World colonies but 40 survived the notorious Death March over the border, arriving in ‘South Sheels’ to work in the salt panns).
Another interview was with artist Peter Dixon and writer/poet Keith Armstrong, who co-founded Northern Voices Community Projects in 1986 “to give people who are denied a voice a platform to express their views and experiences of living in the North East.” Keith has been a prolific writer celebrating everyday life in Northumbria, while Peter’s striking work caught my eye because he is the graphic designer behind some of Punilux’s seminal single and album covers. Peter got involved with the band after designing background scenery for The Mad Bongo Theatre Company led to singer Brian Bond making contact. He went on to meet Neville Luxury (guitar, vocals) and drummer Red Helmet. Their debut single ‘Puppet Life’ (Small Wonder 1978) was reviewed in Sounds by none other than Bowie and Marc Bolan’s producer Tony Visconti, who described Peter’s sleeve as sick (in that adjective’s original rather than contemporary context!)
‘Puppet Life’ was reviewed in Sounds by none other than Bowie and Bolan’s producer Tony Visconti, who described Peter Dixon’s sleeve as sick (in that adjective’s original rather than contemporary context!)
Gary’s website covers and extensive range of articles he has blogged about the film, music, culture and social history of North East England. He waxes lyrical about potency of music for uplifting spirit (a theme running through my own work like the legend inside a stick of Blackpool or Spanish City rock). “The adrenalin rush of the thunderclap from Icelandic football fans. The guitar intro to Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers. Kurt Cobain’s anger on the Nirvana anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Particularly impressive is his photography. Included is an archive of nearly 2,000 photos displayed on the South Tyneside History website, including Haven Point, Mill Dam, The Word, Seafront, Holborn, Market, North Marine Park, and many more. These arresting images highlight the ever-evolving face of South Tyneside over the decade from 2010-2020. You can easily lose yourself for a while as you head down a mesmerising rabbit hole of everything from ancient shipwrecks and the North Sea churning off Sandhaven to more prosaic shots of architectural renovations. This site is well worth bookmarking.
Keith Armstrong website: http://keithyboyarmstrong.blogspot.com/
Peter Dixon website: https://www.peterdixonart.com/
Gary Alikivi website: https://garyalikivi.com/
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkW7F_6t-GNVMCYLT4BNHfg
Interview with Peter and Keith: https://garyalikivi.com/2019/05/15/pressing-issues-with-peter-dixon-keith-armstrong/
The power of music: https://garyalikivi.com/2018/10/25/sounds-alive-and-the-power-of-music/
I came across a recent Twitter post by Marc Riley, formerly of The Fall. He’d retweeted a link to a Guardian article by Daniel Dylan Wray, entitled Bring that beat back: why are people in their 30s giving up on music?, questioning why so many of his friends preferred wallowing in nostalgia to listening to new music.
Marc is one of my favourite R6 DJs because he so effortlessly balances playing classics (everything from Bowie to Beefheart) to championing new acts. Earlier this year, his show’s opening tracks featured Iggy Pop and The Stooges seminal proto-punk anthem ‘TV Eye’ from 1970’s Funhouse segueing into 2021 psychedelic punk gem ‘I, Moron,’ by The Lovely Eggs from Lancaster, on which Iggy provides backing vocals. As R6 DJ and fellow Man City fan Mark Radcliffe once stated: “Never get too old to listen to something new!”
Wire, who were playing post-punk music long before most of their contemporaries were even punk bands, have released 17 studio albums in 45 years, the most recent Mind/Hive, being released on their PinkFlag label in 2020. Throughout their eclectic career they have steadfastly refused to rely on past glories. If you want to hear them play '12XU' you'll have to dig out their first album, the B-side of their debut single 'Mannequin,' or the compilation album, The Roxy London WC2.
Noel Gallagher has castigated Radiohead for experimenting with 'difficult' electronic soundscapes rather than playing variations of 'Creep,' and Harry Styles for releasing songs without writing middle eights for them. UK Subs, 999, Chelsea, Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, and many other names recognisable to anyone who bought Sounds magazine in the late 1970s are still drawing crowds at 'punk festivals' in the 2020s. Roxy Music are embarking on their 50th anniversary tour later this year. And can you imagine a world where The Rolling Stones stop touring? The potency of nostalgia is a constant.
But surely one of the most incredible aspects of music is whether based on Western music's octaves of eight, seven-note scales (typical of Middle Eastern music) or pentatonic scales of five (traditional Chinese music), there are finite notes available. Yet this source material has allowed the creation of everything from Beethoven to The Beatles to Bowie to whatever song is currently bobbing around someone's head at this precise moment prior to being jammed, fine-tuned, then recorded at some point in the future.
Another post-punk legend, Mark E Smith, once put it to a heckler on The Fall's seminal live album Totale's Turns (Rough Trade, 1980): "Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah? Well, don't make a career out of it." So many performers have achieved career longevity by doing just that.
There will always be a place for nostalgia, but it's moving on and exploring the possibilities that ensure music remains so vital to the human spirit. What I love about BBC Radio 6, whether you're listening to Marc Riley, Mary Anne Hobbs, Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne, Iggy Pop, Tom Robinson, Craig Charles, Guy Garvey, The Blessed Madonna, Stuart Maconie et al, is that you are just as likely to hear something you've never heard before, but which might just blow your mind, as a track you're hearing for the Nth time. (Although listening to Captain Sensible's incendiary bassline introing 'Neat Neat Neat' on Craig Charles' 'trunk of punk' will always lift the spirits, Nth time or not.)
Difficult or catchy; rock or dance, here's just a snippet of the many acts I've been introduced to by this essential radio station:
Warmduscher, White Denim, Fat White Family, David Holmes, Floating Points, Crows, Life, Shame, Wesley Gonzalez, Ghost Power, Tame Impala, Father John Misty, Arlo Parks, Cat Power, Mattiel, Lucy Dacus, The Big Moon, Big Thief, Flossing, Courting, Simian Mobile Disco, Japanese Television, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, M83, B.C. Camplight, Broken Social Scene, Working Men's Club, NewDad, Anna Calvi, Anna B Savage, Anna Phoebe, Kelly Lee Owens, Thundercat, Porij, Porridge Radio, St. Vincent, Teleman, Jane Weaver, unloved, The Lipschitz, Bessie Turner, The Bug Club, Yot Club, Jon Hopkins, Katy J Pearson, Pale Blue Eyes, The Oh Sees, Animal Collective, LoneLady, Max Cooper, Mitski, Yard Act, Wet Leg, English Teacher, Dry Cleaning, Penelope Isles, Sharon Van Etten, Sports Team, Metronomy, Port Sulphur ...
Music is the most subjective artform of all, and musicians will always be compelled to consider fresh ways to express themselves, through innovative variations of those stock eight(ish) notes. That list in the previous paragraph. As the late, great Mark Hollis of Talk Talk sang in 'It's My Life' ... It Never Ends ...