The importance of deep roots

Plant in desert showing deep roots under the ground

As the years go on, it becomes clearer and clearer that the ups and downs of living life can feel a bit like a plant trying to survive in the desert. While it can be pretty sunny a lot of the time, the conditions can also be quite hostile a lot of the time and when the weather comes in it can feel pretty challenging to keep going.

This is where you realise the importance of having deep roots to keep you going through everything life has to throw at you.

I was really lucky to have the pleasure of a late lunch with three schoolfriends the other week, two of whom were in my class at primary school. (And primary school was decades and decades ago for me….)

As life blows through, like the changing of the seasons, then people will come and go through your life. Some people will be very special for a particular moment or place in time. Some will stay, some will go far too soon. Some people leave an indelible impression while others will be the flotsam and jetsam of your memories, passing through and moving on before you realise.

But the sheer magic of having people you can turn to, who have been on so much of life’s journey with you cannot be understated, particularly when the conditions around you are challenging. It felt so wonderful to have people around me who’d been around through thick and thin, who accept me just as I am without having to put on any sort of show or defence, who made me feel safe and secure without even having to ask.

This is a really special gift and one to be utterly cherished. Even though I’d not seen one of my friends for five years, when we got together it was as if we’d all seen each other yesterday and it was an utterly splendid time.

All four of us had been in the same biology class back in the 1980s and as the afternoon rolled on it struck me – if making your way through life is like being a plant in the desert, then one of the best ways to survive is to make sure you have deep, strong roots. And for that, I’m very grateful.

Make Love Your Goal – a case for the greatest love song ever

Love has been at the heart of popular music since way beyond the birth of pop in the 1950s, probably way beyond the days of the folks wandering around with lutes in the 1350s.

There may well be as many different perspectives on love as people who have ever walked the earth, maybe more as we all pass through different stages at different times, but there are shared experiences as we go through love’s journey. I’ve always loved The Who’s I Can’t Explain as a great starting place – lots of The Who’s early material captures the puzzling mystery of early love quite nicely (and certainly helped me through those difficult teenage years).

But all this said, there’s nothing like that astonishing feeling when you first fall in love, when you open up the flood gates and are swept along by it all. I can still feel and picture it strongly and I firmly advise all of you to hold it close to your heart, no matter how far time has taken you from the last moment you felt that way.

This magical – but scary – feeling is captured comprehensively and sensitively by Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love, it’s complicated mix of religious and pharmaceutical imagery capturing the sheer force of when you first fall in love. On reflection, it probably needed a gay Liverpuddlian to construct and deliver a song of such drama, passion and power, complete with both religious and pharmaceutical allusions.

The rollercoaster thrill of falling in love is all there. Holly sings of the feeling that “ay… feels like fire..” that is “rushin’ an, rushin’ inside of me” describing it as “the force from above, cleaning my soul… love with tongues of fire…” He also steps back to share why pure love is so important to the people it touches “…dreams are like angels, they keep bad at bad, love is the light scaring darkness away…”

Wrapped around this is the wonderful altruistic streak that comes with falling in love, where you want to use this amazing power you suddenly feel to enhance and protect your special person (think I’d do Anything from the musical Oliver!). It’s the feeling where you wish you had superpowers that you could use to defend the one you love “…I’ll protect you from The Hooded Claw keep the vampires from your door…” and to take this power to its very limits “…when the chips are down, I’ll be around with my undying, death defying love for you…..” Quite something!

And then when you fall in love (and should you fall in love again) the power of the experience wipes the slate clean, erases all memories of previous disappointments and loss and provides the energy and inspiration to grasp the opportunity with both hands and jump in wholeheartedly “….This time we go sublime, Lovers entwine, divine, divine. Love is danger, love is pleasure. Love is pure, the only treasure….”

In only five minutes Holly and the boys capture the essence of this unearthly power “…a force from above…” and how truly falling in love feels as energising as being hit by lightning, but in a positive way. The telling of this pure and powerful experience is all the more remarkable given that Frankie Goes to Hollywood made their name with the seedy sexual charge of Relax!

Amidst the thousands and millions of songs about the various experiences around falling in, out and over love – the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the frustrating and annoying – nothing manages to capture the electrifying magic of falling in love, the purity and warmth, the hopes and dreams quite like The Power of Love.

What alternative do any of us have when faced with something this wonderful and magical? “…Make Love your goal!…”

Sea glass

If I were a better writer than I am, or maybe a different one, then I’d be able to write a powerful poem or song about Sea glass.

If you’re not familiar with it, Sea glass is those little multicoloured gems of glass that you find on beaches, the kind of thing that excited five-year-olds can call “special treasure” – but actually come from the power of the sea working its magic on discarded bottles.
What struck me was how, in so many ways, we are all like Sea glass. Aak any teenager and often we can end up feeling quickly broken by life, our sharp edges visible for all to see and making us hard to handle.
But actually, once the tides of life roll us up and down the beach of existence often enough, then the worst of these edges can disappear. Not only that, but as we keep being rolled and rollled and rolled, we can end up polished by events.

So, as Michael Stipe advises us, “hold on” and the years may take the broken pieces and burnish us through events into something that people can see sparkle and treasure as something special.

Love – the beginning and the end

What happens when you walk away from the big relationship in your life, the one that people know you and love you for? This was the challenge for John Lennon in 1970 when his divorce from the Beatles was public and he had to answer the question ‘what next?’

By 1968, John Lennon was in a bad way. He’d been the acknowledged leader of the biggest band in the world, regularly performing to thousands. But now the adulation of the audience was gone, replaced instead by expectation, the hard work of the studio and doing something in all the time between.

While his marriage to Cynthia was on its last legs and then finally collapsed, John had found the love of a good woman – to be the love of of his life – famously inaugurated in a long weekend together in John’s home in Spring 1968.

Despite the lift that Yoko brought him, the pressures of life – and of past traumas – got to John. He and Yoko descend into a whirlpool of heroin use, further distancing himself from the big relationship of his life to date, that of Paul and the boys in the band.

Wind forward to December 1970, with the Beatles divorce announced and behind him, John Lennon gives us his first post-breakup solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

This album was remarkable for the level of confessional writing, particularly for someone as much a part of the public fabric of life as John Lennon. It’s a heartfelt and emotional set of songs that make you as listener feel like you’re sitting in on a long and deep psychotherapy session. It can be quite a challenging listen at times. (Esteemed music critics have used the word ‘harrowing’ multiple times in their reviews).

In the middle of all this angst sits one of Lennon’s finest love songs – simply titled Love. With a simple and sparse piano and acoustic guitar backing and lyrics of almost childlike simplicity, Lennon sets out the wonder and optimism of love “Love is you, you and me. Love is knowing we can be.” Amidst the darkness and challenges of the rest of the album, Love shines out as an optimistic jump into a bright future, and is probably one of the finest feats of songwriting that he ever pulled off.

Step forward another 10 years and the big question now is can a middle-aged man write about the power and passion of love in a convincing and compelling way? Can someone who’s devoted their time to “baking bread and raising babies” say anything new and meaningful about the rollercoaster ride of love?

With arguably the last song he ever wrote, John Lennon pulled off another triumph with the touching and beautiful Grow Old With Me.  Taking inspiration from a poem by Robert Browning (which he’d seen quoted in a made-for-TV movie about a baseball star) he crafts a wonderful picture about the marvels of passing the days with the one you really love.

“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be…” he starts, warming to the theme of the marvel of togetherness before concluding “… whatever fate decrees, we will see it through for our love is true…”

John and Yoko had worked on the song with the aim of getting it onto Double Fantasy, but had decided they wanted to take the time to get it right so decided they’d work on it for their next album. John wanted the song to be “a standard, the kind that they would play in church every time a couple gets married.” Sadly, fate had something else in mind and Lennon was shot dead before the song could progress beyond the demo stage. The song finally found light on the Milk and Honey album and was one of the songs in the collection marked ‘for Paul’ – that became the final Beatles singles worked up during the Anthology sessions. Sadly, Grow Old With Me was rejected by McCartney and the others at the time as ‘needing too much work’.

A final version of the song was given an orchestral arrangement byBeatles Producer George Martin, at Yoko’s request, providing a heartfelt coda to the greatest love of the man who brought love to millions through the power of music.

Listen to the songs here


Grow Old With Me

Three songs about… Domestic Violence

It’s probably safe to say that the subject of Domestic Violence is probably about as far away from the She Loves You/I Want To Hold Your Hand axis that lies at the backbone of modern pop music. But the ability of songs to capture and convey complex emotions is quite remarkable.

The plotline of ‘…Boy meets girl, Boy falls out with girl, Boy turns to violence to express his anger and frustration…’ doesn’t sound much like the recipe for a hit machine, and writing political material is so unfashionable nowadays. However there are still enough artists out there who know when something needs saying and recognise the power of music to teach and explain. But how do you tell the story?

Hidden away as the B-side of New Order’s 1987 smash True Faith, their song 1963 performs the interesting trick of mixing dance melodies with dark themes to tell the story of “a love affair when the love is gone” while also highlighting the problem of repeat offending by the perpetrators of domestic violence. There’s a real cinematic feel to the song, particularly as the Hitchcockian strings come in from the “Johnny, don’t point that gun at me” chorus through to the tragic end of the song. Powerful and evocative.

If 1963 captures the feel of a thriller film, then Billy Bragg’s Levi Stubbs Tears would probably be a kitchen sink drama – gritty and emotional in different kind of way. This time the song isn’t told by the victim but about the victim – making the point that while broken bones may well mend with time, the emotional scars will not. And sometimes what can hurt the most is to be on the receiving end of an attack from someone you thought loved you. Or as Billy put it “though they stitched her back together, they left her heart in pieces on the floor”. The other nice message is about the redeeming power of music, with the victim taking solace from the Four Tops with the lovely bridge in the song explaining “Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong Are here to make everything right that’s wrong. Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too, Are here to make it all okay with you.”

Susanne Vega’s Luka looks into the victim’s mind from different perspective, focusing on how they often deny what has been happening to them when asked. “I walked into the door again, If you ask that’s what I’ll say – And it’s not your business anyway”, once again demonstrating that, often, the emotional damage caused through domestic violence can be even more pernicious than the physical injuries and that our ability to sometimes deny the worst behaviour of those we love can be a harmful thing.

If you, or someone you know, needs help to tackle domestic violence there is more information and links to a number of resources on the NHS website

Listen to the songs here


Levi Stubbs’ Tears


The most psychedelic album of the 1960s…

When you’re looking to pitch the most psychedelic album of the 60s, there are a few obvious starting places, such as the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album (though worth noting that the Beatles themselves described Revolver as their ‘LSD album’).

Where you probably wouldn’t look is from a manufactured-for-TV group producing high pop songs for pre-teens. It would be like expecting Westlife to produce an album like [Radiohead’s] Kid A. But that’s what the Monkees did with amazing skill with their album (and film) Head.

Dolphins from the introductory sequence to the film Head

In what has to be the most amazing commercial suicide note in history, what was America’s biggest pop group (eg US best selling album of 1967) managed to alienate both their huge pop audience (by going all counter-cultural and ‘strange’) and the counter-cultural set (by being the ‘manufactured’ Monkees – or the ‘prefab-Four’ as their critics dubbed them).

If psychedelia is all about challenging your senses, perceptions and preconceptions and taking your mind to an entirely different place, then what the Monkees achieved with Head is a much greater jump than Sgt Pepper – after all, people expected the Beatles to be ‘strange’ by then, particulary with John Lennon telling listeners to ‘turn off your mind relax and float downstream’ at the end of the last album.

Enlisting then-unknown Jack Nicholson to bring together and shape the script alongside the producers of the TV show, took the film to a whole new dimension – jumping from the ‘slightly surreal’ of the TV episodes to ‘seriously-out-there.’ This time the boys weren’t fighting Scooby-Doo style villains to get the girl, they were battling against the military-industrial complex, the commercial constraints of sponsorship and studio system – and the restrictive cliche that The Monkees had become on them as individuals.

Alongside this, the album itself was independently crafted as a complementary, but separate, endeavour to the film itself – taking apart songs and snippets from the film reassembling and rearranging them to form a creative product with a life and spirit of its own.

Lulling you into a psychedelic summer with the wonderfully trippy Porpoise Song, the album aims to mess with your head with Ditty Diego (War Chant) which goes from ‘Hey Hey we are the Monkees…’ (so far so familiar) to ‘…a manufactured image with no philosophies…’ (did they really just say that? It’s like a magician telling you how their trick is done, or Reynard the Fox spilling his guts all over the stage.

Continuing the mix of clips of found sound, clips from the film, with some great little tunes – and rearranging these to form a piece that stands on its own without needing the film at all.

And as a piece-de-resistance, the original LP came with a shiny plastic coating whose mirror finish let you put your own face on the album cover – and caused all manner of chaos at the cover printing plants – years before Factory even contemplated sandpaper record sleeves – with the covers setting fire to the presses.

So if psychedelia is all about challenging your perceptions, preconceptions and sense of reality – taking you to a different place – then Head has all of this in spades, while sounding and feeling like the real thing. The challenge is made all the greater as it comes from a made-for-TV boy band who have dared to rip apart their fabricated world with cynicism and vision.

So leave your outdated notions at the door, check your head (as the American’s would say, and settle down to a real classic of its genre.

If you’re looking for a reason…

I spend my days collecting smithereens. I find them on buses, in department stores, and on busy pavements. At restaurant tables I pick up the leftovers of polite conversation. At railway stations, the tearful debris of parting lovers. I pocket my eavesdroppings and store them away. I make things out of them.  Roger McGough