Thursday, September 28, 2023

Three years of Music Therapy

Music Therapy started out as a bid to be better mates with Neil Summers.

Me and Neil have always got on well and we bonded over the untimely death and musical life of Mark Hollis, the driving force behind the band Talk Talk.

I came up with the initial idea, Andy Hoyle at Tameside Radio gave us the green light, and Neil came up with the genius name.

Music is therapy isn’t it? 

Our show started during the second lockdown, on a Sunday night, with both of us at the time mildly dreading elements of our working lives.

We were convinced there are plenty of other people out there in the same boat, for whom Sunday night held an uncomfortable dread.

Music Therapy was always for them, something different, not too taxing, but ultimately uplifting.

Our first hour was usually full of nostalgic disco, Europop and a genre of music I never even knew had a name - sophisti pop.

I just thought it was the things I liked - bands like the Style Council, Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, early Simple Minds, Roxy Music and lots of Talk Talk. 

The second hour we quickly christened bean bag blowpipe hour, typified by proper chilled out tunes you might imagine yourself listening to as you drifted off in Ibiza with your toes in the evening sea listening to the music of the iconic Cafe del Mar.

I’ve got plenty out of doing the show for the last three years, mainly a deepening of our friendship, but also an appreciation of whole new types of music and artists I never knew existed, from all over the world.

Neil also introduced me to mates of his like Blossoms, DJ s like Luke Unabomber and Justin Robertson and opened my ears to the magic of Colleen Cosmo Murphy, Leo Zero and Jason Boardman, who have in turn continued to curate incredibly inspiring sets of music that touched our souls.

I’ve taken a deeper interest in new music and had my eyes and ears opened to creative geniuses from the past who may well have passed me by had I not made such an effort with the show.

We are far from musical snobs though. 

Early on, Neil said our show had to have no such thing as a guilty pleasure. There must be no artist who was off limits. 

I wasn’t sure he meant that until the second week when he added Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits and something by Phil Collins. 

Trust me, in my snooty musical upbringing there is nothing as uncool as those two, and yet I had always secretly loved Romeo and Juliet. Lifting that cloak of snootiness, and appreciating a beautiful song for what it is, was a game changer for me.

Since then we’ve found a golden thread of glorious music from unlikely sources. AD/DC, ELO, Status Quo, Queen, we even did a Gothic special and dropped over 100 versions of True Love Will Find You In The End, which became our mental health anthem.

We’ve also been resolutely proud of being from Manchester, but without resorting to the increasingly tiresome nostalgia fest of banging on about what went on in a certain former yachting showroom on Whitworth Street, even though both of us were regulars at different stages of our lives. 

Along the way we’ve shared these with our loyal band of listeners all across Tameside and beyond. The power of technology and the internet means we have been able to prescribe our regular musical fix to Middle East, North America, Italy, France, Australia and Mexico.

So that’s it now. We’ve done three years at Tameside Radio and have called time on the regular Sunday slot. Alex Cann and John Dash have happily left the door open for us to come back and do other things in the future, but while we’re both up for doing other things together, we’ve also got to concentrate on some of our other creative projects for the time being.

It’s been amazing, thanks for listening, look after each other out there.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

John Niven's O Brother might be his best book yet


One of my favourite fiction writers has just published his best book yet.

The twist though is it’s not a novel, or a screenplay, of which John Niven has earned fame and riches, but a true life harrowing account of the most dramatic event in his life; the death of his younger brother Gary in a hospital in Ayrshire in the west of Scotland in 2010.

O Brother is astonishingly well written, a breathtaking and pulsating roller coaster. But here’s the thing that I really didn’t expect; it’s also really very funny in parts.

In no way is it a misery memoir, but it succeeds on so many levels because it weaves in so many themes about families, class, culture and the chaos of modern life. 

Before his writing career took off John Niven was a talent spotter for a record label, which provided him with the raw material for his outstanding breakthrough novel Kill Your Friends, the rip roaring tale of 1997 Britpop excess, which I bought for my son Joe as part of his essential reading list for studying the Music Business at University.

In that era Niven (as he’s popularly known) notoriously turned down the chance to sign Coldplay and Muse, thinking the world already had one Radiohead and didn’t need another. Instead he backed Mogwai to the hilt, but also Gavin Clark of Sunhouse, one of my absolute favourite British singer songwriters, but who was (to put it politely) way before his time and out of step with the crazy Britpop times.

I‘ve seen John do author events before, but last week at Waterstones in Manchester an packed audience including Badly Drawn Boy, heard John and the writer Dave Haslam open up about the book and the process of writing it.

I asked him a couple of questions and had a chat to him at the end.

Honestly, I could have listened to him all night, but as we were chatting after he’d signed my book I looked over my shoulder and saw a queue of about fifty people glaring at me and quietly urging me to jog along.

I think that such was the familiarity and accessibility of his writing that it feels like getting back in touch with an old pal.

It’s clearly not just me he has that affect on. A few years ago I took the eldest son to see him with the writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie and like the latest event, was a brilliant evening, full of great stories about the music business, the film industry and the dire state of the world. But we were at the back of the queue that night and had to bail as people really wanted to talk to him. 

That night I took home a copy of Niven's novel, Kill 'em All, the follow up to Kill Your Friends in that particular comic universe, which I really, really enjoyed, but I described as like a band cashing in on a greatest hits tour before getting back to the studio and banging out another classic.

The novels before that one had been getting progressively more ambitious and expansive, Straight White Male and No Good Deed, really impressed on me how he'd progressed as a writer - observant, dark, but not without sensitivity. 

Yet seeing him up close backed up the point Stuart Maconie made - how can this affable, kind, funny man I have before me, who I know well, create a dastardly character with such an authentic and believable inner narrative as Stelfox?

It’s the writer’s skill. Having a good ear, as the late great Martin Amis put it. 

He spoke at the event last week about the writer’s desk being the place where he has time to think and reflect, in the way religious people pray. An outlet for contemplation, but also to replay back at the world as observed by the writer’s eye and ear.

There’s a passage in O Brother where he describes taking out his notebook in the bathroom of the hospital having just witnessed Gary’s demise and recorded all the details.

Here’s a line I have written myself on more than one occasion: this is John Niven's best book and marks his real growing maturity as a writer.

Music Therapy column from the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle