Madonna doing a special set at her 2016 Raising Malawi fundraiser, Miami Beach
Madonna's back with defiantly blonde ambition!
My recent Observer piece on Madonna's new Celebration tour
As she celebrated her 65th birthday Madonna announced the start of her rescheduled Celebration tour, which will kick off at London O2 Arena on 14 October. The greatest hits show commemorates the 40th anniversary of the release of her self-titled debut album, and four decades as one of the most vivid, confrontational and imaginative female artists in the music industry.
Seven weeks ago there were rumours Madonna’s tour might be cancelled when on 24 June, in the final stage of rehearsals she was taken into intensive care with a serious bacterial infection. Those close to Madonna felt she had been driving herself too hard and she was advised to rest, but she didn’t stay down for long. ‘My first thought when I woke up in hospital was my children. My second was that I did not want to disappoint anyone who bought tickets for my tour,’ she said in an Instagram post on 30 July. ‘Thank you to all my angels who protected me and let me Stay to finish doing my work!’
Determined not to slow down, Madonna recovered and is now scheduled to perform 78 shows throughout North America and Europe, finishing in Mexico City on 24 April next year. She has displayed that resilient strength since the start of her career, when as an irrepressible dancer she arrived in New York from the suburbs of Detroit, ricocheting through clubland with ambitions to become a major star. ‘I was running around with her demos to the industry. I kept saying, She’s gonna be bigger than Blondie. Nobody got it. The reaction was “too disco”. It was 1981 and after the disco thing,’ former manager Peter Casperson told me in 2018.
But by 1982 she was signed to Sire, part of Warner Records. When Casperson asked label head Seymour Stein if he liked Madonna’s music, the latter said: ‘I don’t know about her music, but I love her look.’ It was that look – a combination of East Village punk meets freestyle Danceteria – that led to her dominating fledgling MTV as video pioneer. From the beginning she had a knack for capturing the zeigeist. ‘When we heard (first single) Everybody we thought it was just another throwaway dance diva,' writer and anthropologist Wendy Fonarow told me. 'But when we saw her – unwashed, stringy dyed hair, lacy fingerless gloves, lots of bangles and scraps of clothing – we were hooked. She was dressed in the same way we were. We weren’t Madonna wannabes, it was a reflection of what was going on in our club culture.'
Many of us have grown up with Madonna and watched her evolve through a dizzying array of pop personae, from the Like A Virgin ‘Boy Toy’ to the sculpted muscles and pink bustier of 1990’s Blond Ambition tour, to the pre-Raphaelite locks and techno trance of 1997’s Ray of Light album, to the scary eye-patch and reggaeton of Madame X in 2019. She has been a cultural touchstone, inspirational as a woman who stood for sexual empowerment, seemingly unaffected by the need for social approval. She seems more relevant than ever this year in the summer of Barbie, Beyonce’s Renaissance tour, Taylor Swift’s Eras shows, and a female-centred pop culture. In the same way there is the gleeful deconstruction of hyperreal femininity in Barbie, Madonna knew how to position herself within the power matrix of the 1980s music industry, asserting control over her image, her music and business affairs whilst critiquing a patriarchal narrative that regularly sidelined or ignored female musicians. Madonna also helped set a template for women in music. Both Beyonce and Swift acknowledge her influence. It was only this March that Swift broke the record Madonna set for highest number of people in attendance at a concert. Madonna had 63,000 at her 1987 show at Los Angeles's Anaheim stadium. Swift entertained 75,000 in Glendale, Arizona.
Madonna’s tour is well-timed in a peak year for live music, with record levels of gig-going after the end of the pandemic, and billion dollar grossing tours from artists as varied as Beyonce, Elton John, Harry Styles and Bad Bunny. Madonna had been working on a biopic about her life, but became restless and shelved it in January to get back on the road. ‘I’m a creature of the stage. That is my happy place,’ she told Variety.
The release last summer of dance compilation Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones, showed her ability to create compulsive pop hits, but Madonna’s strongest card is as a live performer. This is where you experience the full creative force of her personality. Stand-out stage moments over the years include the Japanese style anime horror of 2001’s Drowned World, where she sang Frozen dressed in a kimono with 40-foot arms, or intoning Live To Tell stretched on a giant crucifix of mirror tiles on 2005’s Confessions tour, or the masturbation sequence of Blond Ambition, when she performed Like A Virgin. ‘That number got frenetic near the end. She was simulating a climax, so I decided to have fun and help her along a bit with strobe lighting,’ her lighting designer Peter Morse told me. ‘She laughed at that. With her you can try anything.’
Although luminescent live, offstage Madonna is a complex feminist heroine who can be awkward in her communications. Her social media presence, for instance, is at times baffling, like the Instagram image of her last December in a black lace balaclava, chewing a riding crop. And some were confused by a crypto-world NFT image last May of her giving birth as the "Mother of Creation" with robot centipedes emerging from her vagina.
There has been media backlash against her cosmetic surgeries, particularly her appearance at the 2023 Grammy Awards, with one unkind fan trolling online: ‘Madonna looks good for her age…if her age is (a) 2,700 year old vampire.’ She hit back, accusing her critics of ‘ageism and misogyny’, ridiculing the notion that she should grow old gracefully. Her look is at times so deliberately bizarre and extreme it becomes a radical anti-beauty statement. She has a constant urge to perform, to push and stretch herself beyond comfortable boundaries, and it is as if the flat, fragmentary world of social media cannot contain her.
Onstage Madonna has a place for her restlessness and room to expand. It’s where she makes sense as an artist and it’s somewhere she can be herself. One of the most touching moments during her Madame X show at London Palladium in 2019 was when, suffering intense hip pain, she abandoned any pretence at being the bionic woman. ‘I need to sit down,’ she said, taking a chair and trading quips with the crowd. At that point we saw her as fallible and utterly human. It’s that ability to turn each setback into a strength that makes her a survivor, and in the end, such an enduring icon.
- Lucy O’Brien’s biography Madonna: Like An Icon is out now.
LEAD SISTER: THE STORY OF KAREN CARPENTER
My new biography reframes her tragic but amazing life and legacy
When the Carpenters first toured Japan, a magazine mistakenly referred to Karen as the 'lead sister' of the band.
This designation stuck and Karen liked it so much that she had a T-shirt custom-made with the slogan, which she wore while ferociously drumming on the band's 1976 world tour.
The term also sums up the approach of this biography: an in-depth re-evaluation of a dynamic, pioneering woman, who, despite struggling with her mental health, created some of the most sublime pop music ever made.
To order a copy go to:
Rough Trade: tinyurl.com/tvx648yr
And for tour news please check out
MEET BIG JOANIE, JOYFULLY DECOLONISING LONDON’S DIY PUNK SCENE
“I was getting interested in black feminism and intersectionality. But I was going to black feminist meetings and feeling like I couldn't talk about punk, and then in punk spaces feeling I couldn't be myself as a black woman. I knew I wasn't alone in thinking this,” says Stephanie Phillips, lead singer/guitarist of Big Joanie, whose compelling feminist sistah punk has been building and blazing since their debut album Sistahs was released in 2018.
A self-confessed “teenage music nerd”, Wolverhampton-born Phillips listened to everything from Destiny’s Child and R&B girl groups to Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand. She picked out Bikini Kill riffs on an acoustic guitar before moving to London and buying an electric guitar with her student loan. From there her songwriting took off, with a personal, looping lyrical approach inspired by Kristin Hersh. “I liked the way her lyrics would flow, and they could also stand on their own.” After two years in riot grrl-band My Therapist Says Hot Damn, Phillips felt frustrated at her songs not being used and decided to create her own group.
At a meeting drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone noticed Phillips’ Raincoats tote bag, and they immediately connected. Along with Keira Coward-Deyell as the first bassist, Big Joanie emerged from a collision of influences. Rooted in the DIY scene around Decolonise Fest, a London-based music festival co-founded by Phillips, Big Joanie ridicule the assumption that black musicians are only influenced by other people of colour. “You’re just influenced by anyone creative,” says Taylor Stone. “My favourite drummer is John Bonham from Led Zeppelin.”
The daughter of house DJ Iron Mike, Taylor-Stone discovered Nirvana at 14, and once she moved to London from “a very Kidadulthood council estate in Kettering”, developed a love of ‘60s psyche, hardcore punk, and Deep Elm records’ bands like Planes Mistaken for Stars.
After two acclaimed EPs on queer/riot grrl label Tuff Enuff, Estella Adeyeri (also of Witching Waves and Charmpit) replaced Coward-Deyell on bass. Big Joanie recorded their debut album with producer Margo Broom (Goat Girl, Fat White Family), and were looking for a deal when one night they played a gig with Dutch anarcho punkers The Ex. “We got off stage, went into the crowd and heard someone say, ‘Oh, guys, that was great.’ We turned around to see this massively tall person,” recalls Phillips. “It was Thurston Moore.”
Sistahs was the first release on Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s Ecstatic Peace Library label. “They believed in our music and were never prescriptive,” says Adeyeri. “They gave a lot of support for what we've done already and made it clear that it deserved to be getting out there.” Since then Big Joanie have signed to Kill Rock Stars in the US, and supported Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney and St Vincent on UK dates. “We were thrown in the deep end, but it went well and made us think about our sound on that scale,” says Taylor-Stone.
That ambition resonates through their new album Back Home, a blend of driving guitars, clattering electronic drums and taut, poetic lyrics. According to Phillips, it reflects different ideas of home, “whether that’s in the UK, back in Africa or the Caribbean, or it’s just in the mind.” Home is where they feel secure. “A space where you can be free and just be yourselves.”
Dionne Warwick interview
Here is my exclusive interview with the soul legend, for The Express (March 2022)
Dionne looks back on 60 years at the top of the music business…
As she prepares for her last UK tour, Dionne Warwick admits she’s going to miss Britain. The soul legend, who is now 81 years old, has been performing in the UK since she was barely out of her teens. “I’ve been coming to England since the early 60s. England has always embraced me, always been very kind to me, and supported my music. I’m looking forward to getting there and seeing all my friends,” she says Dionne Warwick.
Looking perky over a Zoom call from New Jersey she assures me, though, she is not quitting the business, just “taking it a little easier.” In fact, far from slowing down, she’s still active and engaged, drawing in a whole new audience with her sparky Twitter account and appearing on the US versions of shows like The Masked Singer. “What a joy that was, so much fun”, she said of her 2020 appearance as ‘Mouse’ in the third series of the US show.
And that’s more than she can say about her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice back in 2011. The way that panned out clearly still rankles. “A joke, that show was an absolute joke,” she sniffs. “That’s all I have to say!”. It’s clear she is no fan of programme host Donald Trump. She was so keen to escape she demanded that he fire her in Episode 4. “I don’t even refer to him,” she adds. One of the most successful female artists of all time, with over 56 singles in the Billboard Hot 100, Dionne has survived six decades in the business with her elegance, poise, and wry humour intact.
Recently nominated for a second time to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Dionne (Ms Warwick to her staff) laughs uproariously when I suggest that she should have been inducted when she was on the list of nominees last year. “I say it all the time…it happens when it’s supposed to.”
Her enduring status in pop culture is rooted in the 1960s soul music explosion, when as a New Jersey high school girl she would get the bus into Port Authority in Manhattan and sing backing vocals on the hits by artists like Ben E. King and The Drifters. By then the Brill Building era was in full swing, where songwriting teams such as Leiber & Stoller and Goffin & King worked like a production line, creating so many hits that the studios were always busy and musicians were constantly in work. “It was my senior year in high school, I was getting ready to go to college, so it was a wonderful way to earn money. When you walk in a room and you’re doing background work behind The Drifters. C’mon…You’d hear them on the radio all the time. Standing in the same room as them? He-llo!”
At the centre of a soul sorority who were much in demand, Dionne grew up singing gospel with her sister Dee Dee and aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney). Dionne’s approach, though, was subtle, and it took a while for her talent as a lead vocalist to shine through. She didn’t belt out teen anthems like many of her peers, she looked for the nuances in more mature songs about love and heartache. Her big break as a solo artist came when she met Burt Bacharach in 1962. “He asked me if I would do demonstration records of songs he’d been writing with Hal David.” One of those demos, ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ended up becoming a Top 20 hit, and marked the beginning of one the most successful combinations in pop history, with global hit singles like ‘Walk On By’, ‘Say A Little Prayer’, ‘Do You Know The Way to San Jose’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.’
Referring to “Bach/David/Warwick” in the third person, Dionne says, “We were known as the triangle marriage that worked.” What stands out in these songs is the cool sophistication of her tone, allied with a deep emotional resonance. She puts a lot of that down to Hal David’s lyrics. “Words are very, very important to me. I’ve always thought, I don’t want to say anything that isn’t pleasant or that has no meaning. I was fortunate in working with Hal David – I never refer to him as a lyricist, he was a poet.” She also enjoyed Bacharach’s inspired alchemy. “Musically, that mad man Burt Bacharach, you had to march to his drum or not at all. But fortunately I was studying music education in college…and we were all like a wonderful puzzle that fit.” With her contoured yet flowing gowns, Dionne also became a 60s fashion icon and role model, exuding a kind of ethereal elegance. Along with Motown’s The Supremes, Dionne was a new symbol of black aspiration in an era marked by civil rights protest and social change.
Unfortunately this extraordinary run of hits dried up when Bacharach and David stopped working together in the 1970s, and Dionne’s career suffered. Warner Records didn’t know how to market her without the Bacharach/David dream team. “The little box they wanted to put me in, my legs wouldn’t fold up enough,” she recalls. Feeling exasperated, Dionne contemplated giving up music and becoming a teacher instead, but music mogul Clive Davis persuaded her to join Arista. “You may be ready to give up the industry,” he said, “But the industry’s not ready to give you up.”
In 1979 she returned to the Top 10 with ‘I’ll Never Love This Way Again’, a song produced by Barry Manilow. “He’s like my kid, I love him,” she says. ‘He’s an incredible musician. Very, very sensitive.” After that she became the muse for a number of songwriter/producers, including Barry Gibb who produced her 1982 album Heartbreaker. The Bee Gees wrote the title track, and spent most of the time in the studio making her laugh. “The three of those guys in the studio was hilarious, I think we laughed more than we sang.” She also remembers recording with Isaac Hayes, who took a fatherly interest in her. “Most people looked at him as the black Moses, more of a sex symbol than anything. But he became my big brother, saying things like, ‘You can’t go out with that guy’, ‘You have to eat dinner.’ I'd say, ‘You like my father? Leave me alone!’”
Dionne famously said that she has never depended on a man financially, and since her divorce from actor/musician William Elliot in 1975 (a marriage which produced two strapping sons, David and Damon), she is seen very much as her own woman. It’s that sense of independence that propelled her around the world in the 80s and 90s with her Warwick Foundation, an AIDS charity she set up after seeing so many of her friends die. “AIDS started decimating the entertainment world. We were losing so many people within my industry – singers, dancers, hairdressers, make-up people, lighting people, engineers. I felt an obligation. We have to get rid of this ugliness. Just like with Covid now, we had to get rid of it.”
Although the foundation was later dissolved, Dionne was a leading figure in the fight to raise AIDS awareness, and she, along with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, raised over $3 million dollars for AIDS research with their 1985 benefit single ‘That’s What Friends Are For’. She has also worked hard as Goodwill Ambassador of the Food & Agriculture Organisation at the UN, in the battle against world hunger. “It’s incredible to be able to bring people to a point where they can feed themselves. Let’s teach you how to plant a potato. And once it grows you can bring it out of the ground and boil it and fry it.” It seems that as Dionne has grown in stature as a singer, she has also developed her role as an educator, and possibly a politician? “I’m not into politics,” she says firmly. “I’m very careful about the words I give to your listening ear. Politics I don’t think really cares that much!”
She is similarly careful when asked about Cilla Black. For many years, the story went that Dionne didn’t like her songs being covered in Britain by other artists, and was miffed that Cilla had a hit with Anyone Who Had A Heart before Dionne could release her version in the UK. None of that seems to matter now. “Yeah. She did. And Aretha Franklin also sang Say A Little Prayer. And Dusty Springfield sang Wishin’ And Hopin’. That’s what we do.” Dionne beams graciously.
- Dionne’s One Last Time tour starts on May 30th at Southend Cliffs Pavilion and runs throughout the UK until July 1st.
RICHARD CARPENTER: PIANO SONGBOOK
Richard revisits the Carpenters' biggest hits with new interpretations
Inspired by his recent solo piano rendition of I Need To Be In Love on Japanese TV, Decca UK asked Richard if he would like to re-imagine more classic Carpenters’ tracks in the same way, as ‘music to relax by.’
For someone who likes to turn everything into a lush, fulsome production, this was a challenge. However, he has created solo piano renditions that are more than just relaxing – they are wholly new interpretations. The opening medley, for instance, moves from the rolling chords of Sing to the simple, pared-down melody of Rainy Days and Mondays. He explores the luxuriant flow in For All We Know, before switching to a very measured, almost sombre Close To You. It is as if each song is being deconstructed as a source of memory and reflection. Included here is a restrained, Satie-esque reading of their finest hour, Yesterday Once More, a jaunty Top Of The World, and a sweet, lullaby version of The Rainbow Connection – a song from the 1979 Muppet Movie which ended up as an outtake from the Carpenters’ 1981 album Made In America, and then on their 2004 collection As Time Goes By.
In the sleeve notes Richard says with self-deprecation, this is music to sleep by. But, ending with an elegiac reading of Only Just Begun, this songbook is more a tender, loving tribute to the sister he lost.
KATE HAVNEVIK: LIGHTSHIP
Fourth album of glacial, skittish pop from Norwegian singer-songwriter
Kate Havnevik has always been good at inventing intimate dreamscapes, though her last two albums (2011’s You and 2015’s &i) strayed a little into the more normal tropes of Netflix-drama style soundtracking. Lightship shows her returning to a more personal, experimental approach, with collaborator Guy Sigsworth (Bjork, Madonna) enhancing and accentuating her choral delivery, quirky textures and shimmering, skittering melodies.
Her voice drifts like an urgent whisper over warm cello, chiming handpan drums or with bell-like clarity over driving percussion – Dream Her To Life, for instance, and Zamami, featuring Talvin Singh’s busy electronic tabla, have a crackling, transformative power. She sings cryptic songs of love and hymns to the landscape, as if she is both communing with nature’s sprites and coaxing out her artistic self.
Photograph - Spencer Lloyd
Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras
The sudden tragic death of Bush Tetras’ drummer Dee Pop in October gives this release great poignancy. Since 1980’s spare, sparse manifesto Too Many Creeps, Bush Tetras have created a wilfully eclectic fusion of post-punk and discordant downtown disco, continually inspiring other musicians but rarely getting their due. This compilation – including 80s tracks produced for Stiff by Topper Headon, heavy 90s alt rock with Nona Hendryx, and more recent work with Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Hole) – does them justice, showing the evolution of the band from the scratchy, erratic noise funk of early days to the more assured rolling riffs of the 2010s. One of the most compelling tracks is included as a digital bonus - the Henry Rollins-produced Cutting Floor. Previously unreleased, it captures the band in a 1996 session, at their most defiant and defined.
Photo by Danny Kasirye
LAURA MVULA's third album channels SOS Band with stratospheric pop
Born in 1986, Laura Mvula jokes, “I came out of the womb wearing shoulder pads.” Moving away from the lush neo-soul and gospel-delia of her first two albums, on Pink Noise Mvula pays homage to the 80s, starting with a much more stripped-down, percussive synth sound. Tracks like Church Girl and Conditional are deliberately unrelaxed, using post-disco electro to symbolise the constriction of heartache and lockdown. But her 1980s are not just located in austere bass loops – in the dramatic, dreamy orchestration of Magical, the shifting keys of What Matters (featuring Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro), and the revelatory feel of Before The Dawn, there’s the glorious sophisti-pop of bands like Blue Nile and Prefab Sprout. Here her vocals are less hemmed in by the muscular electro-funk she’s created. Mvula is a gifted arranger with a distinctive cri de coeur, and this is where she soars.
The Breakup Monologues
The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak - my review of Rosie Wilby's brilliant new book
In 2011 comedian and podcaster Rosie Wilby was dumped by email, and this spurred her to conquer the devastation of heartbreak by seeking to understand it. With this part memoir, part investigation, Rosie explores how break-ups can be empowering, enabling us to learn about ourselves and make better relationship choices. Drawing on everything from in-depth psychological research to meme-speak, Rosie writes with warm self-deprecating wit and insight about conscious uncoupling, ghosting and finding The One.
What’s hilarious, according to the psychology, is that The One could actually be anyone – provided you are ready and accept that perfection is imperfection. Laced throughout is Rosie’s own personal journey through love, breakups and makeups, with a cast of characters I’d love to hang out with – like The Bisexual Comedian (go on Rosie, who was it?), the Boozy Ex-Girlfriend (she sounds fun), and the Girlfriend (she’s a keeper).
Daphne Oram and her Oramics machine
Sisters With Transistors
A film celebrating the unsung heroines of electronic music.
‘Composers were traditionally old, dead white men – but electronic music gave you the freedom to define any world you wanted,’ says Laura Spiegal, the New York composer whose 1986 Music Mouse instrument was one of the earliest forms of music software. Along with artists like Delia Darbyshire in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Pauline Oliveros at the 1960s San Francisco Tape Music Centre, and Eliane Radigue, who studied music concrete with Pierre Schaeffer before creating her own beautiful analogue synth-scapes, Spiegal was a vital part of the evolution of electronic music. This Modern Films doc, narrated by Laurie Anderson with rare archive, in-depth interviews and experimental sonic textures, is like an extended meditation on those pioneers. One of the most memorable scenes features Daphne Oram painting on filmstrip and coming up with a prototype for MIDI. One to watch again and again.
Photo credit: Nic Chapman
Songwriter and ‘sound carrier’ hits her stride with psyche space pop and a new direction
With its spare Prince-style guitar riffs and loping bass funk The Revolution of Super Visions, lead track from Jane Weaver’s eighth solo album, comes across like a broadcast from the Mothership. “Do you look at yourself and find nothing?” Weaver sings, cool, keening and gently sardonic. Basting her targets (inequality, addictive social media, and “the toxic masculinity of world leaders”) in a mix of oscillating grooves, new wave synths and a subatomic pulse, Weaver has created her finest album yet.
Weaver incorporates the fat, fuzzy sounds of vintage instruments like the mellotron and marxophone, or the warm woodwind of the bombarde, with shimmering pop. Her work has always been driven by her curiosity and is non-aligned to genre, going where the music leads her. As a result her success has been a slow-burn, from the lo-fi indie of her solo debut in 2002, to the spectral folktronica of The Fallen By Watchbird (2010), to the acclaimed kosmiche sound of The Silver Globe (2014) and her last offering, 2017’s Modern Kosmology. That curiosity led to her setting up the Bird label (an offshoot of Twisted Nerve) and releasing more obscure records by female artists, like folk compilation Bearded Ladies, or 1612 Underture, featuring Maxine Peake delivering a spoken word poem about the Pendle witches. It has fuelled assiduous crate-digging for Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers label and given Weaver a bank of samples, such as the whirring electronics of an 80s French new wave band on stand-out track Sunset Dreams.
Despite her experimental edge, Weaver says, “I always have to try and get a song in there.” Flock bears this out. Each track is a combination of the cosmic and the deliberate – like the hypnotic Modern Reputation, propelled by free jazz and Broadcast-style ambient pop, or Pyramid Schemes, with flute and electronic drone entwined in a humorous dancefloor bump n’ grind chug. What interconnects these songs is Weaver’s unearthly voice. Some lines are delivered in deadpan low tones (“You cannot see I won’t be bought off/Quit bothering me”), but when she hits the high notes her voice has an airy sublimity, as if floating on currents of altered consciousness. Shifting from future funk stomp to sonorous, drifting cosmic keyboards, this album is about opening up the third eye, a subtle re-programming for the ‘new normal’ age.
Weaver’s early influences – Pink Floyd, ELO, disco, Kate Bush and Hawkwind – are are all here, like ghostly traces at a space rock party. One to which I’m sure we are all invited.
Q&A Livestream with Skin from Skunk Anansie
Special online event hosted by Rough Trade
To celebrate the publication of Skin's memoir IT TAKES BLOOD & GUTS, I'm doing a live stream Q&A with her for Rough Trade on 13th October, 7pm. We'll be talking about how we wrote it, and the stories that emerged - from Brixton to the Splash Club in Kings Cross to Glastonbury, to 90s Britpop, to meeting Nelson Mandela...to crossing boundaries...on so many levels!
Do join us - it would be lovely to raise a (virtual) glass! Tickets via link, include a signed copy of the book + p&p. XX
The Strangest Of Times
Dark ambient jazz that perfectly captures our times
The Third Law of Motion
Colliding bebop style free jazz with dark ambient, The Strangest of Times are a perfect illustration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion - that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. On their debut collaboration, Martin Slattery (Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros and The Hours) and Jon Thorne (Lamb) have captured the current mood of extreme, vertiginous politics and spiritual searching. Slattery’s skittering drum beats and bass clarinet combine with Thorne’s warm double bass on filmic tracks like Crowning Thieves and The Strangest of Times Part 1. Recorded over four days in Narcissus Studios and mixed by Flood (PJ Harvey, Sigur Ross), this album has a compelling beauty. Stand-out track Duality, for instance, moves from electronic dissonance to Slattery’s sax drifting in a strange, otherworldly soundscape. The ideal soundtrack to 2020.
- Check out Bandcamp.com to listen & buy a digital copy.
Holly Holden Y Su Banda
Gorgeously expressive Latin soul
Holly Holden sings songs of rich, restrained drama with a voice that is gorgeously expressive. A musician from London and member of the feisty feminist Deep Throat choir, she is now based in Mexico City, and has been making Latin-influenced tracks for a while – from the spare Cuban soul of her solo debut in 2012, to the Tropical Soul EP she recorded as the Y Su Banda electric trio with guitarist Frank Clarke and drummer David Beauchamp in 2017.
With Green Guava she has created a sensual, emotional journey through 12 songs that contemplate the tug of love, courage, and independence. Holden weaves in Spanish and English words with ease, particularly on the title track, which is inspired by the lilting Ilanera music of Columbia and Venezuela and composed on a cuatro. Shades of London seep through, in the dub breakdown of To Lose, or the scratchy soul of Tu Lloraras, an anti-love song with stabs of synth brass.
With her global beats and warm, burnished tone, Holden is a vibrant antidote to lockdown blues. Check out her website – she does some pretty nifty artwork too.
SKIN: IT TAKES BLOOD AND GUTS
Skin and I have been working on an alternative story of the 1990s
It wasn't all Britpop y'know. There was diversity and musical and cultural collisions, and Skunk Anansie, fronted by a shaven-headed black woman singing fierce rock, embodied the future. Over the past three months, during lockdown, I've been working with Skin on her memoir - talking over Skype while she is holed up in New York. We've been close friends ever since I went with the band to LA as a music writer for VOX magazine in the mid-1990s (see photo!)
Hers is an AMAZING story - going from a poor working class childhood in riot-torn Brixton to headlining festivals around the world, singing with Pavarotti and meeting Nelson Mandela.
It will be published this October by Simon & Schuster. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE!
Interview on Dusty
'It's only now you realise how much Dusty had achieved'
Duncan Seaman from the Yorkshire Post interviewed me recently about my Dusty book. He also asked about my time living in Leeds in the 1980s, working as Music Editor of Leeds Student and going to some amazing gigs. I remembered seeing Iggy Pop at Leeds Union, and one of Spandau Ballet's first dates at the X Club. They were very slick and had extremely white socks.
For the full text, follow the link:
DUSTY: THE CLASSIC BIOGRAPHY
She's coming out, again...
Here she is. 20 years on from her death, Dusty Springfield is still one of the UK’s best loved female artists. Despite all her hits she was an outsider, pushing to create sounds that hadn’t been heard before, and hiding her sexuality at a time when lesbianism was taboo…
My book has over 70 interviews with musicians, friends and lovers who knew Dusty. In updating this new edition, I am struck by how much she achieved as a female pioneer, and feel so glad that I got the opportunity to interview Dusty herself. She was funny, self-deprecating and honest, with a unique perspective on the pop industry that spawned her.
Praise for the first edition:
'Excellently researched and a bloody good read' MELODY MAKER
'Provocative and deadly accurate' TIME OUT
You can order a copy via AMAZON, or Michael O'Mara: https://www.mombooks.com/book/dusty/?imprint=1
Bob and me
Talkin' about Dusty Springfield: the late, beloved Queen of UK pop.
Always great to have a chat with BBC London's ROBERT ELMS. Here's the 'Listen Again' link for our conversation about my new updated biog, and Dusty's torments and transcendent moments.
HELEN MCCOOKERYBOOK: G*R*E*E*N
Songs for the head and heart. Americana and divine comedy.
Helen McCookerybook makes a compelling sound on her Gibson guitar, creating a set of songs that gently mock modern life and ways of loving. Ex-frontwoman of Brighton punk band The Chefs, and creator of that fantastic rockabilly meets Doris Day creation Helen & The Horns, she has a deft way with Americana - twisting country styles, eerie cabaret and showtunes together. On her latest album she is nudging out the toxic (‘A Good Life With a Bad Apple’) to welcome in uplifting thoughtery (‘Rainbow of the Colour Green’). Though accompanied by such luminaries as Vic Godard (guitar), Gillian Wood(cello) and Karina Townsend (jaunty sax), the arrangements are subtle, allowing Helen’s voice to soothe and soar. She also has a dark Victoria Wood style moment with the song ‘At The Bathing Pond’, which, incidentally works well live, with full crowd participation.
For CDs and further info: www.mccookerybook.com
Madonna’s 14th studio album fuses political intent with world pop disco...here's my MOJO review in full
Madonna has always worked well one-to-one, and after her hip trap-inspired singles with Quavo and Swae Lee and the reggaeton dalliance with Maluma, she has saved the best for last. The real treat on this album is Madonna’s vivid, dramatic work with Mirwais. They send the disco ball spinning on French house tracks like God Control and the very fine I Don’t Search I Find, while Dark Ballet is rococco brilliance, sounding like a deranged Nutcracker suite.
Where 2015’s Rebel Heart seemed like a record made by committee, this album reflects Madonna’s life in Lisbon – laid-back, curious, and intensely creative – absorbing influences ranging from percussive Morrocan ganawa to melancholy Portuguese morna. The pace plods on some mid-tempo tracks, but overall this is a personal, politically charged mix of dark thoughts and good vibes.
DUSTY DAY 2019
I closed my eyes and counted to ten
Delighted to have met wise warrior and songstress JULIE FELIX at the Dusty Day in April...celebrating DUSTY SPRINGFIELD's birthday...and helping to raise over £4000 for the Royal Marsden charity.
I've updated my Dusty book, with a new edition in August. Watch this space...
Madonna in the studio with Pat Leonard's daughter Jessie, 1988.
LIKE A PRAYER
My Guardian feature celebrating Madonna's Like A Prayer album, 30 years on. Including rare new interviews with producers Pat Leonard and Stephen Bray
March 1989, I open a large record envelope and a waft of patchouli oil hits my nostrils. Inside is the new Madonna album. The cover art features hippy beads and her crotch in jeans. This image is a nod to her mother, a devout Catholic of French-Canadian stock, who covered up their Sacred Heart statue when a woman came round the house wearing zip up jeans. “In Catholicism you are born a sinner…the sin is within you the whole time,” Madonna said at the time. Dedicated to the memory of her mother Like A Prayer explores the impact of her Catholic girlhood, disappointment in love and transformation of self. Compared to the sugar sweet True Blue, this is a startling reinvention.
During recording, from September 1988 to January 1989 at Johnny Yuma studios in LA, Madonna was at the worst point in her marriage to Sean Penn. She had filed for divorce the previous year, but was spending time with him trying to work things out. “I remember some days she wore sunglasses all day in the studio,” recalls Leonard, “She was going through very hard times.” Making the record, however, was her salvation. After the bouncy grooves of 1984’s Like A Virgin and the upbeat celebration of her love for Penn in True Blue (1986) Madonna was in a more introspective mood. Penn had an explosive temper, and as their marriage foundered amid constant fighting, her career hit a stale patch with professional flops Shanghai Surprise, the film she starred in with Penn, and Who’s That Girl, a comedy heist movie with a patchy soundtrack. Madonna found a focus for her divorce madness in the new album.
“We knew she was going through a lot of personal stuff. We were friends, and I knew that she was channelling all that emotion into the music. It was going to be a much more personal record for her,” recalls Donna De Lory, who, along with Niki Haris, sang backing vocals on the album. Madonna had just turned 30 and approached the studio like a confessional. “She was writing songs that were very truthful,” says Bray. “She has an interesting relationship with fear in that she compartmentalises it and then it comes out in her ferocity of personality. True Blue was about feeling romantic and wanting to be unabashed about love. Then she changed chapters. ‘Things didn’t work out the way I thought.’ That’s how Madonna processes fear, in Freudian pop writing - free association turned into pop songs.”
In the 1980s Bray and Leonard were Madonna’s main creative collaborators. Michigan-born natives like her, they had strong ideas and worked hard, which she respected. Leonard pushed Madonna to create songs that were intensely emotional experiences. “We were like yin and yang, polar opposites, and that can bring out your best, most committed work,” he says. “We built a chemistry.” They first met when he was her musical arranger on the Like A Virgin tour, and she chose him to produce True Blue and Like A Prayer. “We argued a lot during the recording sessions, but one day she held up the True Blue album cover and said, ‘Whose picture is that?’ The more feisty conversations stopped there!” he recalls.
The title track marks a pivotal point in Madonna’s career. In dismantling old Catholic patriarchial messages she created a concept album, moving from pop stardom to artistry. The video – which depicts Madonna kissing a black saint and dancing in a field of burning crosses – fuses the sacred and the profane in a boldly provocative way. “I came in with the music, the gospel influence, and Madonna added the words,” recalls Leonard. “The protest against the church came later in the video. But it’s a testament to the weight of the song that this vessel could hold it. When we wrote it, it felt like being on fire.”
“It’s a song that explores the word ‘prayer’,” says Andre Crouch, leader of the Los Angeles Church of God choir singing on the track. “Madonna wanted something very churchy, so I tried to blow up what she did and make it as powerful as I could.” Madonna encouraged everyone in the studio to surrender themselves to passionate abandon. “It was an out of body experience,” says bassist Guy Pratt, whose improvisatory solo is a high point of the track. “As I was playing Madonna was going, ‘Guy, more! More!’ By the fade I had run out of licks and had to go back to the beginning again. It’s amazing having that bassline on that song.”
Madonna moves from the declamatory Like A Prayer to the quiet, tender ballad Promise To Try, where she addresses her mother and the impact of her death. Leonard recalls: “I played the piano and she sang. She was right at my shoulder, next to the piano, with no headphones. The record button got pushed twice.” Much of the album was recorded as live, and Leonard maintains this is why it still resonates now. “The songs were built around chord progressions and melody, and it was a more personal process, not the product of big songwriting teams. What listeners are responding to is the energy of the performances in the room.” Oh Father, for instance, an emo-style ballad about her troubled relationship with her dad, was recorded with top flight musicians including drummer Sugarfoot Moffet and brass arranger Chuck Findley. “I had nine people in the room. Madonna said, ‘Why all these people, does it make a difference? Do we have to do this?’ I said, ‘It’s not going to be painful, it’ll be fun,’” says Leonard. He admits now that the sessions weren’t always fun. “I had managers checking in, and the record company checking in, asking to hear stuff. I was sitting in the hot seat, having to sell it to everybody.”
He knew they were creating something unique from their own “strange little aesthetic”. Rolling Stone magazine came into the studio one day, asking what radio stations Leonard and Madonna listened to. “We don’t listen to any,” they both said.
“Really? How do you know what’s going on?”
“We decide what’s going on,” said Madonna.
Recording the track Love Song with Prince scored hip cred points, but ironically the whimsical assemblage of guitar parts and overdubs is one of the album’s weaker moments. Bray says he was asked to work on the track, but felt over-awed. ‘I am the biggest Prince fan, but to be honest I was too shaken. This was before I discovered Beta blockers – I wasn’t emotionally ready,” he says. “It’s one of my few regrets in life that I said, ‘Nah, you guys don’t need my help.’ I’d have made it prettier and brought some lushness to it.” Bray was excited to work with Prince’s guitar sounds on the funky Sly Stone homage Keep It Together. Although upbeat, there was real tension in this exploration of sibling rivalry. “Madonna was getting out some of the complications about family and her success,” recalls Bray.
The album’s darker tracks are balanced by moments of childlike innocence, like Cherish, which became a global Top 5 hit. It features Madonna, Haris and De Lory singing together with ebullient energy. “We worked on it until we were really tight,” says De Lory. “Madonna knew exactly what she wanted and how to break it down.” Haris remembers that they made a good team on the Who’s That Girl tour, and brought that vibe into the studio: “We tried to enrich rather than embellish her sound.” For De Lory, the Like A Prayer sessions were personally inspiring. “Madonna was like the big strong sister who doesn’t put up with stuff from the guys. As a producer she lay down boundaries. I loved seeing that – it gave me an example of how I could be strong too.”
That strength is most evident on the Stephen Bray-produced track ‘Express Yourself’, which has since become a feminist anthem. “We didn’t invent feminism, but this was a call to action. Madonna is an incredible example of a woman saying, ‘I’m doing this my way,’” says Bray. He compares her to Daenerys in Game of Thrones, emerging from the fire. “This was an extremely cathartic song for her. In love you get burned, but it doesn’t destroy you. I’ve become even more proud of the song in recent years. What’s horrifying about A Handmaid’s Tale is how frighteningly current that feels. That’s not a dystopian fiction, it’s happening politically. To have co-written a song about telling one’s truth and demanding to be treated as an equal and as a partner – I couldn’t be more proud.”
• Patrick Leonard’s forthcoming abum, a re-imagining of Madonna songs entitled Bring The Circus Home, is eagerly awaited by fans.
• For Donna De Lory’s new album Here in Heaven go to donnadelory.com.
- This piece was first published in The Guardian, 30.03.2019
DAYGLO: THE POLY STYRENE STORY
Celebrating a female punk icon
I'll be talking to Celeste Bell (Poly's daughter) and writer Zoe Howe about their vibrant new book Dayglo at London's Rough Trade East on 28th March, 7pm. There will be a DJ set by Tessa Pollitt of The Slits (yay!) and book signing.
Girls will be boys and...
Provocative Big Mouth conversation with my favourite people
How do you express masculinity outside the male body?
What is gender fluid pop?
On 23 September I had an amazing chat with writer/broadcasters Sian Pattenden, Miranda Sawyer and Andrew Harrison, on BIGMOUTH, the pop culture show on SOHO RADIO. We talked Madonna, Christine & The Queens, Suede and more...
Tune in: http://po.st/BGMitunes
Me and me books
REVIEWS for Madonna: Like An Icon
What they been sayin'
‘Arguably the best book about Madonna to date…If you only buy one book about Madonna, please make it this one.’ Classic Pop magazine *****
‘Classy overview…peppered with singular observations… Like an Icon is more focused on how Madonna executed her art than on devoting all of its time to rehashing gossip-page dirt—a welcome respite from the usual way women in music are covered.’
Pitchfork.com (Top of their ‘Best Books about Madonna’ list)
‘A mighty volume’ Mail on Sunday
’Enduring superstar gets the biography she deserves’ Mojo ****
‘O’Brien goes beyond the shimmering surface of Madonna’s pop persona to explore the often dark and intense forces motivating her as an artist.’
Matt Cain, author of The Madonna of Bolton
‘O’Brien captures Madonna’s music in the context of her personal life and her cultural landscape by extensive interviews with those who are close to her. No stone is left unturned in this comprehensive guide to one of the greatest pop icons of our time.’ The F-Word
MADONNA: LIKE AN ICON is back!
Bigger and better than ever before...
Excited to announce my updated biography MADONNA: LIKE AN ICON is out NOW!!
Order your copy here: https://amzn.to/2qSQIdx
This new edition is published to coincide with Madonna’s sixtieth birthday, and 35 years in the music business. On August 15th 2018 she will be sixty years old. She has had a huge impact on popular music, influencing everyone from Lady Gaga to Beyonce to Rihanna and Britney Spears.
First published in 2007 and translated into 13 languages my book was the first to fully explore Madonna as an artist and musician, featuring over 70 original interviews with friends from her Michigan high school, her clubbing days and beyond, plus musicians, film directors, dancers, producers, choreographers, and songwriters.
The new edition features:
• fresh interviews,
• new Introduction
• two new chapters
• a whole new photo section.
I explore how Madonna has spoken out against Donald Trump, performed onstage with Russian feminist band Pussy Riot, built projects in poverty-stricken Malawi, directed two feature films, released two albums (MDNA and Rebel Heart) and done three global tours – and she is set to release her 14th studio album. “People say I’m controversial. But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” says Madonna. “Michael is gone. Tupac is gone. Prince is gone. Whitney is gone. Amy Winehouse is gone. David Bowie is gone. But I’m still standing. To the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell — your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today.”
‘A mighty volume…’ (Mail on Sunday)
‘Enduring superstar gets the biography she deserves’ (MOJO)
‘If Madonna is your Elvis you will devour Lucy O’Brien’s definitive biography; not only can she write properly, but her book is objective, immaculately researched and illuminating’ (Irish Examiner)
‘Lucy O’Brien’s measured and comprehensive profile takes a look at her extraordinary life to date, focusing on the cultural impact she’s made…’ (The Good Book Guide)
‘British rock journalist Lucy O’Brien seeks to go beyond the fastidiously cultivated image and get a glimpse of the woman behind the veil. She uncovers some fascinating, often shocking, nuggets…’ (Irish Independent)
‘An illuminating study of a complex, iconic woman, covering her life, her relationships and what motivates her as a woman and an artist’ (Sainsbury’s magazine)
REVIEW OF VIV ALBERTINE’S NEW BOOK: TO THROW AWAY UNOPENED (FABER)
Clothes, Music, Boys was a ripping rollercoaster of a yarn through ‘70s punk, from shooting up with Johnny Thunders to giving Johnny Rotten a blow job. It was also about the feminist power of a girl group, in all its complexity, rivalries and headlong creativity. If you expect Viv’s new book to be more of the same though, think again.
Viv hardly touches on The Slits in her devastating story of family love and estrangement. It’s a gripping whodunnit worthy of Patricia Highsmith – only it’s true. After her mother died Viv found diaries written by each of her parents that revealed secrets she never knew about, but which gave insight into dark family history. With this book Viv has really found her voice as a writer. It is very punk – rigorous, spare, original…and in places also VERY funny. I also like the juxtaposition of tightly dramatic prose and fuzzy, black and white photographs of buildings and boxes and torn notebooks.
I highly recommend this as a summer read; one that will leave you wanting more.
Small Town Girl
TRACEY THORN'S NEW ALBUM, RECORD (UNMADE ROAD), REVIEWED
It’s 1984…you’re on the dancefloor at Heaven with your head in the bass bins listening to 'Let The Music Play'. Someone sings and you realise it’s you.
Tracey Thorn was one of the first female rock memoirists to celebrate the ‘small story’, the one that hadn’t yet made the male rock canon. She grew up reading male music journalists and absorbed the idea that they somehow defined the story. ‘I read their version of events, like the post punk band that are important are Joy Division. Yeah, I liked Joy Division, but I liked Young Marble Giants better,’ she told me recently. ‘I had a different version and other people said, “Yeah, yeah, me too!” So I realized it wasn’t just me.’
This album could be the small story writ large, the pulsing electropop soundtrack to her fine memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. From the teenage boys who just wanted the ‘girly girls’, to the new wave guitar that became a great substitute, to the demented sea shanty of ‘Babies’ and the warm, wild abandon of ‘Dancefloor’, Tracey visits life moments with clarity and poetry. ‘Sister’, a nine-minute anti-Trump epic with Warpaint’s rhythm section and Corinne Bailey Rae vamping gently in the mix, is the cherry on the top of these 'feminist bangers'.
Most affecting, though, is the folk drone of ‘Smoke’ – like Fairport meets dark disco. This tells the story of Tracey’s family, 'who came from the wide flat fields to the rolling smoke', and how, even though she grew up a suburban girl, it’s London that is in her blood. It might be a place that has 'gone wrong', that’s been bought and sold, but it has an elemental energy and is the place she feels truly accepted.
Resonant with comic detail and soulful intent, this album should make those 2018 Best Of lists. And thank Heaven for that.
To the heart of the nightmare: Madonna's Ray of Light revisited
Ray of Light is Madonna’s Dark Side of the Moon – a study of ego, mental disintegration and the fear of death.
Here is my Quietus review in full!
In February 1998 Madonna’s new album was literally a ray of light in stodgy UK charts made moribund by the Britpop comedown (Oasis’ Be Here Now, Stereophonics, Charlatans, et al), and industry hits like the Titanic soundtrack. In the US it wasn’t much better, with Celine Dion and Garth Brooks at the top. The only other women on the album chart were Spice Girls, All Saints and Aqua, so unsurprisingly Madonna saw off the competition with aplomb. With its icy electronica and pulsing beats, Ray of Light appeared as the pick-me-up for rave generation. It marked Madonna’s maturity as an artist, brought the MOJO demographic on board, and signalled to the world that a so-called pop bimbo can break down the barriers of that pop/rock divide.
However, it hadn’t been an easy journey, and despite its sunny title the album is a voyage into the darkness and terror of grief. Like Dark Side of the Moon, it is an elegaic study of ego, mental disintegration and the fear of death. Pink Floyd’s epic drew on ‘70s psychoanalysis, R D Laing and the divided self, while Ray of Light captures the ‘90s zeitgeist with its references to Kabbalah and the subconscious. Dark Side uses the sun and moon as symbols of life and death, while Ray of Light revolves around the duality of sea and sky. Both albums require the listener to go the whole journey to get the full effect.
The album came at a crucial time for Madonna. After the high octane success of the 1980s, her 1990s were testing and difficult. Slut-shamed over her Sex book and the Erotica album, Madonna engaged in angry attention-seeking exercises like saying “fuck” 13 times on Late Show with David Letterman. She had lost confidence, and the tentative R&B of 1994’s Bedtime Stories felt like marking time. Veering off into musical theatre with the Evita project took her into safe MOR territory, but, ironically, rather than turning her into a 1980s pop has-been, those strenuous theatrical songs sung with a full orchestra gave her voice depth and tone. By then Madonna was in her late 30s and re-evaluating life, casting around for answers in study of Yogic philosophy. The birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996 knocked out some of that infamous ego, so that when she returned to the studio in 1997 for the Ray of Light sessions she had discovered a more intense, personal voice than the so-called “Minnie Mouse on helium” of earlier years.
Ray of Light was created in old school prog rock fashion – with mainly one producer, over a period of months, in an intensively collaborative process. “She produced me producing her,” said William Orbit. Recorded in a modest studio in an unfashionable part of LA, the album was intentionally un-industry. Early sessions with Babyface were shelved, and Madonna’s longtime producer arranger Pat Leonard was sidelined in favour of an awkward English eccentric whose hardware kept breaking down. Although Orbit’s perceived amateurism made her nervous, Madonna knew from his dancefloor remix of 1990’s ‘Justify My Love’ that he could create the futuristic tone she craved. With Bassomatic’s Set The Controls for the Heart of the Bass, and the rave anthem ‘In The Realm of the Senses’, Orbit had already declared an interest. Kabbalah and new motherhood opened Madonna’s mind, but it was the alchemy between her and Orbit – his trippy underground vibe and her willingness to experiment, that triggered her transformation of consciousness. With Ray of Light they created the sonic space and musical textures for the sparse poetry that’s embedded in her songwriting. Previous hit-driven albums, with the exception of moments on Like A Prayer and Erotica, hadn’t allowed room for that potential to emerge. For the first time she could express herself in-depth.
Madonna did her background reading – everything from JG Ballard to Anne Sexton to Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspirations here – and did lengthy songwriting sessions with Leonard and Rick Nowells (“her lyric writing was poetic and intelligent,” the latter says, “she knows how to channel a song”) before she set foot in the studio. Once there, little Lourdes was installed in a playroom, and Madonna focused on the tracks that would eventually piece together a story. “I traded fame for love/Some things cannot be bought…Now I find/I’ve changed my mind,” she sang on opening track ‘Drowned World/Subsitute for Love’. The apocalyptic dreamscape of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World sets the tone. From there she moves into ‘Swim’, a low-slung electro song where Madonna delves into the religious themes of her pop past as the Sin-eater, carrying “these sins on my back”. ‘Ray of Light’ then provides a giddy moment of reawakening, with Orbit pushing her to sing a semitone higher than her comfort zone in order to stretch out that sense of hedonist abandon. This is the song, with its accompanying Jonas Akerlund video – all speeding lights, winking urbanscapes and fast motion skies – that relaunched her career, that married techno beats to cranked-up oscillators and wall-of-sound pop, and begged the question, did Madonna drop a tab?
The ecstatic moment melts into the addiction, obsession and dirty bass distortion of ‘Candy Perfume Girl’. Boy, girl, boy, girl, it’s all candy, it doesn’t matter. Aimless distraction gives way to the ghostly anime of ‘Skin’, a truly chilling track with Madonna’s voice gliding over the top of feverish psychedelic chaos, trying to catch something she can’t reach. In the same way that Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’ used a proto acid house pulse and electronic effects to create a feeling of unsettled angst, so Orbit’s pulverising techno suggests a dissolution of self. By the sweeping chorus of ‘Nothing Really Matters’ Madonna has found a way to slough off the feral, fame-hungry mindset that drove her to the top of the 1980s music industry, but which no longer serves her. “I lived so selfishly/I was the only one/…I realised that no one wins,” she sings in a moment of revelation. A sanskrit chant links into the desolate suffering of ‘Frozen’, Madonna’s big ballad ‘Us And Them’ moment. All of them pile in – from Orbit and Marius De Vries’s shifting dynamics and glacial production, to Leonard’s aching arrangements, to Chris Cunningham’s manga-inspired video depicting her as a witch goddess swooping through desert plains – perfectly capturing the sadness that kept her heart locked down.
Although Madonna’s sound is usually demarcated by simple verse/chorus pop logistics, she is also good at unresolved yearning. From as way back as 1984’s ‘Borderline’, she knows how to defer, to anticipate, to wish for, but with no resolution. The songs ‘Learn To Say Goodbye’, with every word carefully annunciated, and ‘To Have And Not To Hold’, with its brooding bossa nova beat, bear this out. She is nearly there, caught in a state of tension. There is a brief flowering of mother love with ‘Little Star’, a skittering reflection on her baby daughter. But this, eventually, is what gets her in touch with her own mother and the source of her pain.
‘Mer Girl’, the final track on the album, is Madonna’s ‘Brain Damage’, that moment when the lunatics are on the grass. Having travelled through psychological soundscapes, here she is in a nightmare with a hallucinatory black sky, running through the rain with matted hair to a place with “crawling tombstones”. In the same way that Gilmour and Waters worked with the spaces between notes, Orbit’s ghostly glitches and fragmented synths give way to silence, and Madonna’s voice drops to a cracked little-girl whisper: “I smelled her burning flesh/Her rotting bones/Her decay.” And it’s that image of her mother, buried alive, that makes Madonna realise what she has been running from all these years. “When she recorded that in the booth, we sat in silence, our hair standing on end,” Orbit said.
Resisting the urge to tie it up with a neat transcendent finale, Madonna finished the album there, without resolution, “still running away.” As in Pink Floyd’s closing ‘Eclipse (“everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon”) she acknowledges that even when everything seems all right the dark side will haunt you. That refusal to create a happy ending is what makes Ray of Light a masterpiece, and why it won four Grammys, and why it is in all those canonical ‘Best Of’ lists. It wasn’t an album made by committee, in five minute blocks by songwriting teams. Like Dark Side of the Moon’s crisis of post-war masculinity and madness, this was a painful rebirth, calibrated with emotional intelligence and electronic precision. All you create and all you destroy indeed.
ADVENTURES IN THE MUSIC PRESS
When the Inkies were king (and queen)
It's debatable whether there was a Golden Age for the music press, but on NME in the 1980s we interviewed everyone from JG Ballard to Martin McGuinness (when he was in the IRA) to Run DMC. My 'Youth Suicide' cover story has become one of the most collectible issues on Ebay. Kurt Cobain even had it pinned to his bedroom wall.
Before the shareholders noticed, we covered a lot of ground in terms of pop, politics, feminism and youth culture. It wasn't just about music. It was never just about the music.
I'll be discussing this with Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde, and former Melody Maker writers Jon Wilde and Andy Darling. Do join us for conversation and music on THURSDAY 1st FEBRUARY, at the Nightingale Room, Grand Central, Brighton. (£10 tickets via Eventbrite.co.uk).
OH BONDAGE: UP YOURS!
Inventing a new language...
Female participation in subculture is often ignored or undocumented – yet women innovate and shape the future of music scenes in countless creative ways.
I'll be chairing this LOUDER THAN WORDS panel with award winning cultural producer CHARDINE TAYLOR STONE and film-maker CELESTE BELL. Chardine’s work is inspired by her experiences as a Black British working class woman who found her voice through punk and rockabilly. In May 2017 Chardine won the British LGBT Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to LGBT+ life’. And Celeste, former frontwoman for Madrid band Celeste Dos Santos & The Tabloid Queens, is currently making a film about her mother, punk icon Poly Styrene.
After reading a scholarly article that claimed former female punks have no interest in the subculture that spawned them, in I put up a Facebook post asking any 1970s female punks to get in touch. Overwhelmed by the response, I'm feeding this research into a chapter for a forthcoming book.
This panel explores feminism, subculture, and creating a new visual and musical language! More info:http://louderthanwordsfest.com/2017-programme-of-events/
WHEN THE WALLS OF THE CITY SHAKE
The record that did it for me
When song mobilises a generation.
I remember how 'Free Nelson Mandela' stopped us in our tracks. I was a staff writer for NME at the time, and this record gave the Artists Against Apartheid movement an acute focus. It engaged the heart, head and feet.
Also, Buffalo Springfield's 'For What It's Worth'. Originally released in 1966 in response to the counterculture clashes on Sunset Strip, it quickly became a symbolic protest anthem...gaining renewed resonance after the Kent State University shootings in 1970.
And what about a female protest anthem? I'd say Tori Amos' 'Me And A Gun' is chillingly relevant, especially after the Weinstein scandal and ME TOO campaign.
I'll be talking pop and politics with Daniel Rachel (author of Walls Come Tumbling Down), Dave Randall (Faithless guitarist and author of Sound System: the political power of music), and LGBT activist Chardine Taylor-Stone at LOUDER THAN WORDS festival, Manchester, November 12th.
The UK has a rich history of pop music leading the vanguard against discrimination and oppression - Rock Against Racism / Sexism in the late Seventies, Red Wedge in the mid-Eighties, #GrimeforCorbyn in the modern age - the panel trace a revolutionary history and challenge the audience to debate ‘Music changes the world’.
Come and join us!
Tea's up! Left to right: Glen Matlock, Pam Hogg, Johnny Hopkins, Rhoda Dakar
PAM HOGG: I hated fashion with a vengeance
The punk designer at 'Punk. So What?' conference, Southampton Solent uni
Wearing gigantic shades and a Teddy Boy drape jacket, PAM HOGG told a crowd of rapt students: 'The greatest gift you have is your individuality.' She made us think about that enduring punk concept DIY, and what it actually means. For her it is about the 'joy of making', of customising old suits or shirts or skirts or just random pieces of cloth, of taking the designs she has in her imagination and turning them into clothes. She made us see clothes as a way of connecting people, as a conversation, and as creative expression. Clothes, you understand, as opposed to fashion. 'I hate fashion with a vengeance,' she says. '"Trendy" makes me want to vomit.'
Pam makes every garment herself, which is probably why, by her own admission, she gets ill. She's pure. She works to her own standard and in her own time. She talked about how inspiring the 1980s Blitz club was ('the energy of it was insane!'). And she finished by stating, 'No one should look like anyone. You don't have to look like anything.' This was liberating indeed.
And former Sex Pistol GLEN MATLOCK crowned the day by performing an acoustic folk version of 'Pretty Vacant.' Why not?
Sounds From Faraway Towns
PUNK. SO WHAT? conference, Tuesday October 3rd
70s punk was a truly democratic, localised movement, with each town expressing its own creative revolt. On Tuesday, October 3rd I'll be discussing my experience playing in an all-girl band on the Southampton scene, with The Membranes’ JOHN ROBB, at the Southampton Solent university's ‘PUNK. SO WHAT?’ conference. Other panels include Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock, Bodysnatchers' singer and ska legend Rhoda Dakar, subculture academic Lucy Robinson, and the designer Pam Hogg. It's a DON'T MISS day. FOR MORE INFO: http://solentmusic.com/punk-so-what-conference/
Nick Broomfield Interview
Nick Broomfield changed his customary guerilla hand-held camera style for something slower and more elegaic on his latest film Whitney: Can I Be Me.
Check out my Quietus interview with the acclaimed film-maker Nick Broomfield (link here, and in full below).
Every so often director Nick Broomfield applies his hand-held, investigative style of film-making to a music industry story, building a provocative narrative around controversial figures, as he did with Kurt and Courtney (1997) and Biggie and Tupac (2002).
What’s compelling about these documentaries is the way Broomfield places himself at the centre of the film as a slightly puzzled, frustrated character, tracking oddball interviewees with his furry mic down dead ends and cul de sacs, occasionally turning up gems and penetrating insight.
For Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ he took a different approach. He had access to hours of unseen footage from her 1999 world tour shot by film-maker and video director Rudi Dolezal. The archive included rare interviews with Whitney’s personal assistant Robyn Crawford and her mother Cissy. Broomfield used these alongside original interviews with Arista publicist Ken Reynolds, close friends, and her longterm bodyguard David Roberts to create a picture of a sensitive, defensive, vulnerable woman. In a way, it is a more conventional music doc, telling a powerful story of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, her astronomical rise, and the complicated relationship triangle between Whitney, Robyn and swingbeat star Bobby Brown. It also covers her drug addiction and tragic death in 2012 at the age of 48.
What’s beguiling about Broomfield’s approach is his combination of awkwardness and singlemindedness, something that Louis Theroux has developed in his presenting style. It’s reassuring somehow that in person Broomfield is the same character on screen - thoughtful, chatty and a bit boyish, despite his 69 years. He has clearly been touched by Whitney’s story, and wants to talk about what he sees as her insurmountable struggles.
Your film has a feel for that claustrophobic backstage life – the hotel rooms, the dressing rooms, the tourbus. It’s a small, hermetically sealed world. And ironic that despite mass audiences, at the top level that world is so small.
Nick Broomfield: So small. And they don’t want to let anyone else in. They don’t want to explain their existence. Whitney had to sing her heart out to thousands of people, and afterwards she just wanted to slop out in a track suit or muck around with Bobby.
You haven’t put yourself at the centre this time, or showed the process of film-making. Why is that?
NB: For a long time the film wasn’t working. The first cuts had more of me in them, but there wasn’t enough of Whitney. The emotion wasn’t there. When we started putting Whitney into the film – her voice, her emotion – we saw the whole thing through her eyes and it became her film. It was very much more moving, and I became wonderfully irrelevant. In fact I was positively interfering with this film we were constructing. The BBC, who commissioned the film, wanted more of me, but I just took myself out completely. They said, Not only have you ignored our notes, but you have gone in the opposite direction. Then they saw what we were going for and were supportive.
With access to close friends and some of her inner circle, what were the rules of engagement? Was there pressure to whitewash difficult areas, like her lesbian side?
NB: Not really. I don’t think there has been a film yet with so much about Robyn. My film is a very accurate depiction of a friendship that started very young; these two were inseparable. They lived together and undoubtedly were romantically involved. Suddenly the media found out and harassed her. She didn’t want to deal with it and the record company I’m sure were, ‘You can’t be a lesbian.’ Whitney was very with Robyn. She had a loving, supportive relationship that enabled her to be as strong as she was for as long as she was.
Do you think her relationship with Bobby Brown was genuine?
NB: I do actually. I think she was very funny, and a prankster. She just wanted a laugh and a good time and Bobby Brown was exactly the same. He had a similar background, he was outrageous. She was endlessly amused by him.
In making the film what did you learn about the 1980s music industry?
NB: I think it’s amazing there was a black and white division, and a whole notion about crossing someone over from the black to the white division. That is so weird, such segregation, such a racially bigoted country.
For people who grow up in a place like Newark (which has actually got worse) it is so hard. The schools are terrible and it’s hard to get out of there. Whitney’s enormous success was a way out. Not only did she get her family out and her friends, but other people as well. She had to take this entourage of 50 people with her, wherever she went. She was generous enough to do it. Whitney paved the way for the Rihannas and Beyonces, but paid such a massive price for it.
Thinking of Whitney, Prince, Michael Jackson and George Michael (Madonna seems to be the only ‘80s superstar who has survived), do you think the 1980s music industry was a high risk environment? Was there no safeguarding?
NB: Some people were super together and had a real business sense (eg Mick Jagger, Bono). They had a vision of themselves and how to survive it. But it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do and I think they are the exception. They know what they want from it as opposed to being controlled by it.
It’s like trying to control a huge juggernaut.
NB: Yeah! I think although Whitney could have been a lot more powerful, she didn’t know how to be that person. Part of the problem was she never wrote her own music or controlled the music she sang. For some reason she remained dependent on the record company and didn’t really empower herself.
She was so young, only 19 when she set the template. Clive Davis (Arista A&R) was a father figure, and her mother Cissy controlled her.
NB: She tried hard to get away from them and didn’t succeed.
Do you think Robyn was her gatekeeper?
NB: She was, for a long time. But it was hard to be her gatekeeper when Bobby Brown was around. The two of them were so lunatic together; they’d do whatever. Their consumption of everything (drugs, alcohol) was off the charts. Robyn just about managed to keep things together, but it was difficult. She was the one who still had some influence.
It did seem that once Robyn was out of the picture Whitney was much more vulnerable.
NB: There was no hope really. Whitney left upstate New York to get away from her family, and went down to Atlanta to be with Bobby’s family, who were pretty wild. Things got a lot worse down there.
What surprised you most while you were making this film?
NB: How funny the real Whitney was, what a prankster, how down to earth. She was a lot of fun to hang out with, rather than this remote beauty onstage.
She could also be combative, particularly with journalists.
NB: Part of being a prankster is that you are. I’m sure she could be quite stubborn. She was opinionated and she clearly didn’t know how to deal with the press. She was her own worst enemy sometimes. People would ask a question she didn’t want to answer and she would be downright rude back. Rather than a smooth PR machine to pour syrup over everything, which is what you need, she would get really upset and outraged. That was understandable. She was a singer, not a PR agent. Past a certain point she became fair game and wasn’t respected.
She was the American princess who strayed. People were unforgiving and didn’t understand her trajectory. She was having a real problem being this ‘pop star’ person. She couldn’t find a way of saying, I’m not that person, this is me. She’d have to tell Clive Davis to take a running jump and disassociate herself from the record business. She’d have to take on her whole family. They were all making a fortune off her and having a very nice lifestyle. It would be a Herculean task to break free from that, and would require someone who was incredibly aware of themselves. She didn’t know how to take her destiny and make it her own. She could never be the big person. She became smaller and smaller, and retreated more and more. There was this fabulous person who had all these great plans, she was the New Jersey girl with incredible chutzpah, but she ultimately didn’t have that power, she didn’t know how to make that jump.
You’ve become known for making investigative, experimental films. What do you see as the future of music documentary?
NB: I think it’s massive. There is such an inbuilt audience for that kind of thing. They have to be told in a way that is different – it can’t be another boring old biopic. Music documentaries are hard to tell, but I think they’re an amazing vehicle to look at racism, our attitude to sex, the way we judge drugs. There’s the ability to get a big audience because of these incredible, iconic, charismatic people. You can look at a number of issues – the challenge is to make sure you choose something that has all those issues. Popular music is like a mirror of culture, of who we are.
Miki Berenyi, Emma Anderson and Phil King are back on board. Photography by Lush.
US Tour, September 2016
Widely considered the best band in the ‘shoegaze’ revival, Lush are currently doing a vibrant, sold-out tour of the US – they played their first NYC show in twenty years on 14 September, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
I caught up with Miki today to hear about how the US tour is going. ‘We’ve played two New York shows. I had a fucking great time last night especially. The Terminal 5 crowd was amazing, really enthusiastic. I loved it! We added Nothing Natural and Lost Boy to the set. That's 17 songs in the main set - longer than we ever played back in the day. I guess gigs are more expensive now and you feel you have to give people their money’s worth!
We have Tamaryn supporting again. We had such a great time with them on the west coast shows, we decided to keep them!’
The band are touring the US and Canada until 27 September, when they play Portland. They have been going from strength to strength. I saw them at the Camden Roundhouse in May, and then again recently in St Malo (see review).
Lush at La Route Du Rock. Photography by Malcom Boyle.
Lush – La Route du Rock, St Malo – 14th August, 2016
Sublime Dream Pop in North West France
Lush were near the top of the bill at this summer’s La Route du Rock, Brittany’s biannual music festival. The baroque tones of beatnik vamp singer/songwriter Julia Holter provided a good warm-up for Lush’s spacious pop.
Kicking off with the shimmering chords and rich harmonies of ‘Deluxe’, they captivated the crowd from the start. Lush’s strength lies in the way they fold jagged edges and minor chords into the mix, switching with ease from wall of guitar to sardonic pop to plunging soundscape.
They played material from all their albums, skipping from ‘Kiss Chase’ and ‘Hypocrite’ to ‘Out of Control’, the lead single from their current EP. One of the high points was a majestic, moving performance of ‘Desire Lines’, their music reverberating around the festival site as the sun was setting. Another key moment was ‘Ladykillers’, Miki swinging with her guitar and insouciant vocals, Emma cutting in with brilliantly timed responses, and Justin and Phil locked into a defiant groove. ‘I was playing with Chris’s old snare drum,’ Justin told me afterwards, pleased that he could incorporate a flavour of the late Chris Acland’s style in their new sound.
Miki’s between-song banter has become a feature of their live shows. At St Malo she burst out, ‘I’m really sorry about Brexit. None of us here voted for it!’ The crowd seemed bemused. ‘Thank you Lush. I’m so glad you are here,’ called out a girl from the swathe of fans at the front of the stage.
Lush play with concentration, immersion, taking all the floating voters with them. They finished with an emotional, epic ‘Sweetness and Light’, its shifting time changes and ethereal guitar defining the night.
Wivien Goldman (1979). Photography by David Corio.
Vivien Goldman Resolutionary (Staubgold)
NY pop professor revisits her punk past with some luminaries
Now based in New York, teaching at the Clive Davis Institute and writing her blog, Vivien Goldman gets back into the musical fray with a collection of her early songs (from 1979-81).
Vivien has always had a great way of getting people together, and with these tracks she created a post-industrial playground of dub, punk, reggae and electronic vibes with key collaborators. For the ‘Dirty Washing’ tracks ‘Launderette’ and ‘Private Armies’ George ‘Aswad’ Oban plays fluid, funky basslines, Keith Levene scratches out avant-guitar and Adrian Sherwood creates a dark dub soundscape. Vivien sings feminist polemic (“If you can’t get a hard-on get a gun”) and domestic bathos (“I wanted ten pence for the drier/You needed board and lodging.”)
Included here is her work with The Flying Lizards, classy jazz interlopers centred around the nucleus of David Toop and Steve Beresford. They had a huge hit in 1979 with ‘Money’, making shiny, deranged pop that accidentally went mainstream. Vivien didn’t sing on ‘Money’ but her silky voice glides over the funky dub of ‘Her Story’ and ‘The Window’ (which features Viv Albertine on angular guitar).
The collection concludes with songs Vivien recorded in Paris as the multi-roots ensemble Chantage. She works instinctively, her vocals weaving around steel pan lines and Jerry Malekani’s Zairean guitar. Annie Whitehead and Deadley Headley play joyful brass, and a young Neneh Cherry is on backing vocals. This is where Vivien really hits her stride as an artist. It’s a shame the CD stops there. Any current stuff will be eagerly received!
Promarty at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Photography by Beth Sather.
Promartyr – Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London – 14th July, 2016
Detroit garage rockers decimate Bethnal Green...
Framed onstage by tinsel and a giant pink heart, Protomartyr brought their gritty, ground-stamping Detroit work ethic to Bethnal Green and a rapturous crowd. With his dry lyrics and dead-pan delivery, vocalist Joe Casey is the perfect counterpoint to the rococo melodies and driving rhythms of the rest of the band – particularly Alex Leonard’s rigorous drumming.
Now onto their third album, Protomartyr make you think of post-punk cousins like Pere Ubu, Wire and of course, The Fall, but they still have their own defiant thing. It is gloriously emotional and self-flagellating. They mostly perform tracks from their latest album The Agent Intellect, and the high point is an epic version of ‘Pontiac ’87’. This song starts with an image of the Pope celebrating mass at the Detroit Silverdome – now a semi-abandoned football stadium – and ends with an existential reflection on friendship and change. “There’s no use being sad about it,” chants Casey, with the crowd joining in, “What’s the point of cryin’ about it.”
A rousing end to a brilliant evening. More London dates to follow this year, and I’m hooked.