Book of Brilliant Things - Five things we’ve loved this month - January 2023
It's the (second) return of the "book of brilliant things" blog - random new albums, old albums and news that's tickled the fancy of Back In Black(heath) this month (month, rather than week seems much more manageable!)...
1. Surrender - Bono's autobiography
There is a great joke my friend Matt told me - "What's the difference between Bono and God? God doesn't walk around Dublin thinking he's Bono". It's a killer joke, because no matter how great the music he has made is and how many worthy causes he has championed, Bono is quite annoying. Indeed, reviled in many, many quarters.
It's a feeling I have been guilty of myself (not walking around Dublin thinking I am God, or indeed Bono). But I have defaulted to slagging him off (dodgy tax affairs, self-righteous preaching, God-bothering etc etc). Yet, when this book came out, I knew I would want to read it. He is a great raconteur and has led an amazing life. And it would be interesting to hear his side of the story.
As a teenager, U2 were very important to me. I am a second-generation mick (now with newly acquired Irish passport), with my father from Limerick and mother from Sligo. But I am also a south-east Londoner (Ok, I was born in Kent and grew up there, but my youth was spent in SE postcodes, as is my adult life, so this is home). I was never sure if I was English or Irish. Growing up, everyone we knew was Irish or Italian. I went to a Catholic school until I was 11. Attending a Protestant grammar school soon got rid of my illusion that most people were Irish - and often I (and others) got a kicking for having an Irish surname, especially after some terrorist atrocity or other. My protestations that we did not support any of this really didn't matter. Haters gotta hate. These days I default to feeling I am more Irish than English - having spent lots of time back there with my folks, and now they are passed, looking to maintain as many connections to them as I can. Plus Brexit has left me very disillusioned by the land of my birth.
So Bono and his band are caught up in my confused feelings about my identity. My second gig was bunking off school to see U2 when I was 17 at Wembley Stadium with three friends, all siblings and whose parents were from Cavan. U2 gave us an identity and we felt more Irish because we loved them so much. The gig was astonishing (why wasn't this my first gig, instead of Isle of Wight pop-slap bass-funksters Level 42? It would be so much cooler). The gig cemented a lifetime love of those 80s albums, even turning a blind eye to Bono's shocking mullets and some truly terrible dress sense.
I saw them again on the Zooropa tour, a stunning, mind-boggling show, which even had Salman Rushdie come on stage (a very brave thing, given the fatwa that had been issued, brought more into focus by the recent attack on the heroic author). Sadly, the less sad about the Pop tour the better, and I have utterly failed to see them again (and despite my Bono reservations, I'd really like to).
The book, as I suspected, is a cracking read. It isn't chronological, instead using 40 songs as jumping off points to discuss periods of the narrator's life. It works well, the songs sometimes having a very direct link to the content (I Will Follow and his mum; others are more tenuous). Throughout it's candid, honest, self critical, and very funny. Bono has lived, and is nonchalant in the extreme about his name dropping. But it's tender and gentle as he discusses his wife and their 40 plus year relationship, touching as he discusses his mother's death when he was 14, and candid and honest about the difficulties with his father.
It goes into huge (and very interesting) detail about the various campaigns he has championed, and the pragmatic and less world weary approach he has brought to AIDS and Third World Debt campaigns. And it's clear, he has brought some cool and attention to causes and made a difference. It's also great that he faces up to the tax criticisms that he and the band have levied at them - it's a shame he doesn't apply the same detailed analysis and more of an explanation to this. Needless to say, we don't get the answers or a real justification and it still leaves a bad taste - but does the good he has done outweigh this? I don't think so. Did I think we would get a full explanation? Nah. But I really admire the pragmatism he seems to bring to his faith, and his cynicism about mainstream religions - that's a ship I can get on board with as a (col)lapsed Catholic...
Anyway, it's a cracking read, I'd give my right arm to see his show on Broadway when we are in New York in May, but the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive, so that seems unlikely. So I'll settle for digging out Boy and remembering what a fabulous album it is, blasting Achtung Baby and I might relent and give the album they foisted onto my iPod a few years ago a fair listen, rather than kicking against this rather intrusive bit of marketing...
2. Big Joanie, Ghum and Fraulein live at The Garage
First gig of the year was a cracker, with my favourite discovery of last year, playing their biggest headline gig in London. Having first seen them last October (Big Joanie, Central Library, Coventry, 22 October 2022), this is my third date with this fabulous black, feminist punk/indie outfit.
Fraulein open, playing a tight set of PJ Harvey fronts The White Stripes songs - it was good, but not as good as that sounds. But I will keep an eye out to see how they develop. Much better was London-based post-punk band Ghum, again another all female group. They play music with a strong Siouxsie influence, along with a dash of Joy Division. I bought the new album, which is cracking and they are definitely worth seeing again.
As we wait for the headliner, we spot Miki Berenyi of Lush is here. Miki is a long-standing crush of mine, as well as the author of the book I am currently reading - her fantastic memoir (Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success). The book is a cracking read and a review will follow when I finish it. I want to say hello, but I always feel an arse (about myself, rather than this being some declaration of a groping fetish...I'll leave that to the awful protagonists of Lush's Ladykillers). So I refrain from interrupting her evening, but she remains super-cool, and it's great seeing her out supporting up and coming acts. She's a proper music fan!
Then Big Joanie take the stage to a rapturous welcome. They are so down to earth, friendly, woke and proud and grateful for all the love in the room. And there is a lot. The little venue is rammed, it 600 capacity reached. Their set focuses on new album Back Home, playing ten songs from this, and indeed the stage is very much where they seem most at home. Primal, loud, melodic, pounding, fresh, political, challenging, bruised, bruising, feminist, harmonies, shouty, riot-grrrl meets girl-group, grungy, stuttering, nervous, confident, Spector-esque surf-rock.
And at £11 per ticket, great value in these costly times. They finish with In My Arms, one of my favourite songs from 2022. Go and see them if they play your town, this band have so much potential and are kicking hard against the man. We need Big Joanie.
3. Gaz Coombes' new album - Turn The Car Around
After a few years touring with his alma mater, Supergrass, that's now come to an end and Gaz is back focusing on his ever-improving solo career. Many of the songs on this, his fourth album, are familiar having seen him last November road-testing them live (see You Wear It Well - life after Britpop - Gaz Coombes and Tim Burgess live in London, November 2022).
The new album continues his four year solo progression, though this is a more considered, less experimental album that its predecessors. I like it a lot - though not as much as Matador, his second outing (Raging Bull – a look back at Gaz Coombes’ Matador). Sonny The Strong is the sad tale of a failed boxer, full of sadness and regret, Long Live The Strange is dedicated to all the people he's met through gigs and music, Feel Loop (Lizard Dream) screeches along to squalling guitar breaks and lumbering drums, Not The Only Things is a touching late night song for his daughter.
It's lovely, but I hope he gives album number five a bit more of the experimentalism of the first three. Still, this is great. And I am glad he hasn't copped out and made another cash-in Supergrass album - fair play, he's better solo.
4. Siouxsie returns!
I was never a big banshees fan as a teenager - I loved Cities In Dust and their cover of Dylan's Wheels On Fire. But with only so much Saturday job money to go round, they slipped down my radar. But over the years, I have picked up various albums and understood how amazing they were, but especially how ground-breaking Siouxsie was.
I missed Banshees reforming in 2007, and again missed her solo shows a decade ago, something I always regretted. So when I got an excited text from my friend Paul saying she was playing the last night of Latitude, there was no hesitation - we were going.
What will she play? No idea. Has she a new album out? It's not clear. But whatever she does, it will be interesting. That she is not top of the bill though is a head scratcher for me...
5. Low-Life - New Order
The New Order reissue train trundles out again for the start of the year, with a beautiful boxset of their third album, Low-Life. This and Power, Corruption and Lies, its predecessor, regularly vy for my favourite ever album (see New Order - Power, Corruption and Lies (and sneezes and chat up lines)).
Low-Life has snuck ahead again, as I digest the live films, accompanying 12 in singles and an album that has no bad tracks. It's all killer, no filler. Power, Corruption and Lies was them getting comfortable with their new, more electronic sound and finally making the break with the shadow of Joy Division. Low-Life was them getting comfortable, playful (the frog sounds on The Perfect Kiss) and country ballad of Love Vigilantes.
I bought it first time around in Woolworths in Crayford, buying the beautifully packages cassette, and later the vinyl album to get the tracing paper sleeve, which was beyond cool. It's the first album I had bought on both cassette AND vinyl. Little did I know that CDs, CD reissues and now vinyl boxsets were all coming to rob me.
I remain in the minority it seems, by still thinking its sixth track, Sooner Than You Think is its finest moment (see Twitter poll quote) and the extra CD comes with a never heard longer version of this track, which is marvellous. The live DVDs showcase was a brilliant (if erratic) live act they were - not polished, but given the primitive tech they were using, they were groundbreaking. Poor Mrs JO'B will have a lot of New Order to have blasted away of the next few weeks...and if you are coming for dinner, you can expect 1985 to dominate the stereo...
See you next month, stay safe, x