A song about Grenfell

My band, Stadium*, is releasing two more EPs this month: one political, one festive. The various download links should go live in a couple of days.

I’m very, very proud of these records. I think they include some of the best songs we’ve ever written, and some of the best lyrics I’ve ever scrawled, so I’m going to post about them over the next wee while.

I want to start with one of the simpler songs, 72.

This is from our overtly political EP, Bring The Good Times Back. I wrote it in anger and sadness a few months after the Grenfell Tower disaster, which killed 72 people; the story that emerged is one of residents’ fears being ignored for more than a decade – in one of many lows, the council threatened one blogger with legal action for suggesting that the tower was a fire risk – and of lives sacrificed to cost-cutting and the removal of so-called “red tape”.

Grenfell was the result of multiple political decisions. Choosing flammable cladding because it was £2 cheaper per square metre. Choosing not to spend money on sprinkler systems. Choosing to cut fire stations and firefighting staff. Choosing to ignore the fact that the building did not comply with building regulations. Choosing to ignore twelve years of warnings from residents.

I wrote the song before the official inquiry began, singing that “soon you’ll conclude no-one’s to blame / no-one’s ever to blame”. I think I was too optimistic. The inquiry’s early findings have been deliberately leaked and spun to try and pin blame on the fire service, and Tory MPs have suggested that the people who died did so because they weren’t clever enough. Even at my most cynical I never expected anyone to try and blame the dead.

I write songs like this when I can’t find any other outlet for my anger and sadness about terrible tragedies. I’m under no illusions that the people I’m writing about will ever hear it, let alone be haunted by it like I think they should be. But I think that if you have a voice it’s important to speak out, no matter how small your audience may be. Grenfell wasn’t a natural disaster, a tragedy nobody could have predicted, a one-off event from which no lessons can ever be learnt.

The survivors and bereaved families of the Grenfell Tower fire have a website, Grenfell United, where you can find out more and help support their battle for justice.

Love and you will be loved

It’s world kindness day today, which is a great excuse to post one of my favourite Kurt Vonnegut quotes:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I wrote a song about it several years ago (the piano was played by my brother, who’s now in Stadium* with me). The vocal’s a bit ropey but I still love the song.

“Oh, the sickening greed”

Former Smiths singer and current racist Morrissey appears to have reached a new low: the man whose latest look was wonderfully described on Twitter as “a member of the EDL who’s come to creosote your fence” has found a new way to fleece his long-suffering fans.

I was a fan of The Smiths back in the day; they were a very important band for me, and for many other misfits. It’s been a shame to see his career since that band ended acrimoniously: I can’t think of many artists who’ve shat on their own legacy with such enthusiasm for so long.

The latest example comes from his current tour, where Moz has been doing something that’s really unusual for him: he’s been turning up to the gigs. And when he does, you can buy mementoes from the merch stall such as signed vinyl LPs for a whopping $300.

You might think “wow. $300 is a ridiculous amount of money for a Morrissey album, even a signed one.”

They’re not Morrissey albums.

You might think “Okay. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for a Smiths album.”

They aren’t Smiths albums either.

They’re Lou Reed’s Transformer, Patti Smith’s Horses, Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Morrissey isn’t connected to any of them. He just likes them.

To be fair, they’re all great albums. And they’re just as great, arguably even greater, when they haven’t been signed by a racist and cost about £20 on vinyl from your local record shop.

I’m not sure who’s more deluded. The person who thinks their signature on someone else’s album makes it 2,000% more valuable, or the super-fans who will presumably buy some of them.

I’m a fan of Fangirls

There are two kinds of music. There is music for boys, which is good music. And there is music for girls, which is bad music.

It’s not true, of course. But it’s a sadly common belief.

When teen girls get upset at the breakup of their favourite band, we mock them. When the boys mourned Bowie, we devoted entire arts sections to their emotional pain. Kurt Cobain is deified and his widow, who wrote one of the greatest rock albums of their era, is damned. One Direction fans are silly little girls; Radiohead fans are cerebral music mavens.

This is not reserved for corners of the internet. Friends of mine have been told by supposed grown-ups that their musical taste is stupid and rubbish because they like pop. It’s music for girls! Ewwww!

I listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of gigs, and the greatest musical experiences of my life have involved listening to music for girls in the company of ecstatic female fans. There is an incredible joy to sharing a concert by The 1975 with ten thousand teenagers, dancing to Bananarama with two thousand middle-aged mums or having a soulless shed made magic by a few thousand glittery girls and a farewell show by Girls Aloud.

All of this probably explains why Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. It’s about female fans of rock, of pop and of dance music, and it’s one of the warmest, most empathetic and fascinating books about any kind of music that you’ll read.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

From Beatlemania in the early 1960s to the Directioners and Beyhive of today, female music fans have long driven the objects of their affection to the dizzying heights of life-changing fame. But marginalized fan groups are never given appropriate credit. Frequently derided, their worlds and communities are self-contained and rarely investigated by cultural historians and commentators.

Yet without these people, in the past, records would have gathered dust on shelves, unsold and forgotten. Now, concerts wouldn’t sell out and revenue streams from merchandising would disappear, changing the face of the music industry as we know it.

In Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture, journalist Hannah Ewens is on a mission to give these individuals their rightful due.

What I liked about Fangirls is that it doesn’t patronise its subjects. It doesn’t make value judgements about the music the young women and non-binary people listen to; it’s about the euphoria, the camaraderie and sometimes the sadness of being a music fan.

Fandom is a powerful, extraordinary thing. It can be all-consuming, something we discover just at the time of our lives when we need to feel part of something bigger and accepting. It can help us define who we are – to this day there are particular T-shirts I can see complete strangers wearing and think, “oh yeah. One of us.” – and it can help us find friendship and connection when we’re struggling to do either in the rest of our lives. It’s a joyous and often profound thing, and Fangirls treats it as such.

Freelancers deserve protection from abuse too

Sexual harassment is primarily about power: it’s perpetrated by the people who have it against the people who don’t. So it’s deeply saddening but not surprising to see the results of a Musician’s Union study into sexual harassment in the music industry. It’s a huge problem.

It’s not just that the music business is still horribly sexist, although too much of it is. It’s also because the music industry, like most creative industries, is staffed primarily by freelancers. That inevitably creates a power imbalance that some people are keen to exploit: tell anyone and you’ll never work in this town again.

The MU wants the Equality Act’s workplace protections to be extended to cover freelance workers as well as staff. There’s a petition here.

How to make the world a slightly better place

I went to see Richard Hawley at the Barrowland Ballroom last night. The Barras is rightly known for being one of the world’s best music venues, and I go there a lot. But until last night I’d never been as me because I’ve been scared of doing it.

So that’s what I did last night.

Moving swiftly past the fact that there are far too few women’s toilets, the whole evening was a textbook example of how to treat people with thoughtfulness and respect. Every single person I dealt with – security staff, stewards, bar staff – was a credit to the organisation: friendly, helpful and treating me according to my gender presentation without any hesitation whatsoever.

At the merchandise stall I got an abject lesson in how to be a complete badass who makes the world a slightly better place.

I was looking at the T-shirts and asked the woman what sizes they had. Now, I’m there as me but I’m hardly Audrey Hepburn. How do you answer without making any assumptions?

Here’s how:

“These come in two versions: the women’s cut is smaller and quite fitted; the men’s is a lot roomier. I’m wearing the women’s in size XL, and as you can see it’s quite a small fit, but I often wear the men’s and roll up the sleeves. Which one do you think you would like?”

I don’t know who you are, merchandise lady, but you made my night.

The gig was pretty good too.

It’s not just the headliners who are stuck in the past

A company has analysed the gender balance of various UK festivals. The best was Latitude, which achieved a gender balance of 48.1% women; next up was Glastonbury, with 44.6%.

And then there was Download, home of superannuated rock bands whose commercial and artistic peaks happened decades ago.

14.4%.

That’s all performers. Female artists or bands?  2.9%.

Here’s what the poster looks like with the male acts removed.

Pathetic, isn’t it?

It gets worse.

According to festival booker Andy Copping “women like watching bands more than being in them. They just haven’t felt inspired enough to pick up a guitar or be the singer of a rock band.”

There are lots of reasons why women aren’t on big festival stages, but not feeling inspired isn’t one of them. Sexist bookers, on the other hand…

“Hold me love me or leave me high”

One of my musical heroes and a contender for the title of Most Beautiful Man In Rock, Michael Stipe, has released his first solo record. The song, Your Capricious Soul, is the welcome return of one of the most extraordinary voices in music.

Your Capricious Soul – Michael Stipe from JMSPROJ on Vimeo.

I can’t be unbiased about Stipe. I know his voice is a love/hate thing but I’m firmly in the love camp: I could happily listen to him singing the phone book and I’d probably be in floods of tears throughout. As the singer in R.E.M. he was responsible for some of the most important music in my life.

Here’s an example: Walk Unafraid, from the mid-2000s. This is the live version; on record it’s more focused and to me, more powerful (and here’s a bonus: a great cover of it by the excellent First Aid Kit).

The lyrics are stunning.

Imagine listening to this as a closeted LGBT+ person:

Everybody walks the same / expecting me to step the narrow path they’ve laid… how can I be what I want to be / when all I want to do is strip away these stilled constraints / and crush this charade / shred this sad masquerade? / I don’t need no persuading / I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up / and walk unafraid

I made the mistake of playing the song in the background as I started to write this, so of course I’m blubbing now. Don’t even get me started on The Wrong Child.

Walk Unafraid is a really important song to me. It’s what I hear in my head when I’m scared, when I’m pushing out of my comfort zone yet again to do something that makes my heart race. Sometimes it’s all I have on my side.

If I have a bag of rocks to carry as I go / I just want to hold my head up high / I don’t care what I have to step over / I’m prepared to look you in the eye / look me in the eye

I miss R.E.M. so much. I like a lot of bands, but I loved R.E.M. They had a magic to them, a magic that really connected with me in a way other bands don’t. You’ll hear the influence sometimes in the guitar sounds I use or the way I sing some lines.

I only got to see them live once – my second attempt was spoiled because I was in hospital getting back surgery. When they broke up eight years ago I was absolutely devastated: their latter albums might not have been as incredible as their earlier work, but every one of them contained some genuinely beautiful songs – and of course, every one of them featured Michael Stipe’s unique and beautiful voice.

I doubt they’ll ever reform, but if they ever do tour again you really don’t want to get between me and the ticket office.

Introducing the band

Stadium* band photo

 

With all the drama lately I completely forgot to mention my band. Now a three piece, the first EP by Stadium* – Some People Are Inconvenient – is out now.

Here it is on Spotify.

Here’s the EP on iTunes. And here’s the link for Apple Music.

Google Play is right here.

Do you prefer Deezer? It’s here. The link for Tidal is here. Napster is here. For other services including Amazon, MediaNet and iHeartRadio, step this way.

You can order digital downloads in the format of your choice, or get it on CD, from Bandcamp here.

More news, gigs and other things to follow soon.