Do you want Friars with that? – Dessert

What better way to round off a multi-course musical banquet than something sweet, uplifting and not too heavy?

Everybody knows that one of the best and most enjoyable rituals of a live gig is the false ending followed by the (almost) inevitable encores, and naturally Marillion were only too happy to oblige. Being a Friars gig, there was no way they could sneak out of the building before delivering a rousing rendition of Market Square Heroes, their very first single from the dim and distant days of the early eighties. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are local bylaws compelling them to play it whenever they set foot in the smallish town where it all began. Although it’s undoubtedly the most famous song about this unlikely musical mecca, Steve Hogarth did remind us that Bowie himself also

Charlie from David Live

tipped his hat to the very same square in the first line of Five Years.

Maybe it was because Marillion had played a mere forty-five minutes, or maybe it was the joy of going home early that gave Steve the energy to launch himself into the air with such gusto and abandon during the shouty bits of the song that launched them. Whatever the cause, he looked and sounded like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

Naturally we were all awaiting the finale, which most of us figured had to include a Bowie number. My money was on Starman, which kind of fitted into the whole idea of the day.

Well, we did get a Bowie number, but not the one I’d imagined. Mind you, that hardly mattered less as the first unmistakable chords of Heroes filled the theatre, the sound rising to the rafters and somehow lifting us all with it.

I never saw Bowie play live, but as all the musical contributors piled onto the stage and Charlie from David Live took the microphone, it was as though the spirit of the great man himself had returned for one final appearance. I’ll remember the way my hair stood on end for many a year to come.

Dave & Sue Stopps

Naturally, it was only fitting that both Dave and Sue Stopps were cajoled onto the stage for their own personal, and hugely deserved round of applause. After all, it was their hard work, dedication and persistence that brought us all together in the creation of the world’s first, most dramatic and easily the most memorable monument to one of this nation’s most enduring musical talents.

As the music faded and the atmosphere dissipated along with the audience, many of us stopped beside the Earthly Messenger to reflect on what the past has given us and what the future may hold. If I’m honest, I think we also lingered to drink up the last dregs of that wonderful atmosphere, in a brightly lit place where we set aside our squabbles to create something very, very special.

I like to imagine we all fell asleep feeling just a little bit heroic that night, and I like to believe we deserved it too.

Just for one day.

Images courtesy of Alan Jones

Do you want Friars with that? – The Main Course

With the Dung Beatles and John Otway having set the bar incredibly high, there was a sense of palpable and growing excitement as the tech staff busied themselves preparing for the hugely talented Howard Jones to take the stage.

Now I can’t have been the only one who had the image of a big-haired, bat-sleeved eighties keyboard wizard etched into his memory, so I doubt I was alone in my surprise when that techno minstrel’s stripped down, almost lounge scale set up began to take shape. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, I’d expected banks of preassembled equipment to be wheeled onto the stage to deliver old favourites and new experiments. However, time waits for no man and so I confess my curiosity was piqued as that middle-aged but still very recognisable musician took to the stage behind a single keyboard, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and some kind of new-fangled, multipurpose percussion pad.

Howard Jones Alan Jones crop
Howard Jones

Whether conscious or not, Jones’ stripped down performance was a reflection of both the change and continuity experienced by most of his now older and hopefully wiser audience. In the same way that the concrete brutalism of Jones’ heyday has been reshaped and remodelled, so his musical expression has adapted and evolved to blend in perfectly with its environment. Gone are the artificial colours and flavours of his synthesised eighties concoctions, replaced by a warmer, more organic and holistic musical output. All the old favourites were there, but reimagined in a more carbon-neutral and less overbearing package. Not too loud, not too abrasive; not too shrill and guaranteed not to upset anyone from anywhere. Yes indeed, Howard Jones’ extremely competent and very watchable performance was a true reflection of the world in which we now live.

Perhaps it was selfish of me to expect to hear those synthpop classics in their original forms, but none of us can choose where we come from. In the end, I’m a child of concrete, fluorescent light, smoking indoors and no internet to tell me what I should be outraged about next. Howard Jones put on a great show and I’m glad to have been there. I just wasn’t expecting his music to be wearing carpet slippers and a safety helmet.

That’s how I found myself in a reflective kind of mood as the applause faded and the techs returned, this time to clear all available space for the imminent appearance of the mighty Marillion.

For anyone who’s never seen this legendary live band, a Marillion gig is best summed up as a masterclass in the studied application of musical power as opposed to the blunt-force assault of mere volume alone. With only a small handful of line-up changes over the decades, Marillion are unquestionably one of the slickest, tightest and most respected live acts anywhere in the world today. While many others have burst brightly and disappeared just as quickly, Marillion have remained a constant and extremely well disciplined star still burning brightly as they approach their fourth decade in music.

Their performances are the stuff of musical legend, whilst their relationship with an intergenerational fan base is one of the closest of any band to its audience. Indeed, after their short run of chart success in the eighties, Marillion turned their back on chasing mainstream success, and by doing so they built themselves one of the strongest and most fanatical followings in music today.

Naturally, being the world’s premier touring prog rock band, the big joke was how many of their ridiculously long tracks they’d manage to shoehorn into a mere forty-five minutes. I confess I was curious to see how they’d handle such a restriction on their usual running time of two hours plus.

Steve Hogarth Alan Jones crop
Steve Hogarth

With a stripped down stage and few of the usual whistles and bells that accompany a successful live act, it was kind of refreshing to see the guys cram so many old and new favourites into such a short space of time.

The crowd went crazy when the perennial Easter made the cut, and we were all treated to Steve Rothery’s legendary guitar solo that features so prominently on that decades-old track. It was wonderful to hear Afraid of Sunlight once again, a firm favourite of mine.

As ever, Steve Hogarth was in fine form, leading many of the uninitiated to wonder just how such a big and clear noise can emanate from someone who sounds so much bigger than he really is. That precocious and seemingly ageless vocal talent has earned him the affectionate nickname of Windy Shrimp in some quarters.

I’ve actually lost track of how often I’ve seen Marillion play across the years, but their gigs never grow old, never get tired and they never look or sound like they’re just going through the motions. I’ll wager they picked up a few new followers at the Bowie Benefit that night.

All in all it was an amazing evening, and we were full to bursting with four delicious and very different musical courses. At the end of the night came the question that springs to every restaurant patron’s mind as the plates are being cleared away…

Have I got room for dessert?

Images courtesy of Alan Jones Photos

Do you want Friars with that? – The Starter

Don’t mind if I do, and lay it on thick while you’re at it!

What better dish to compliment the world’s first David Bowie statue than a double helping of local music talent? With no less than four top quality acts donating their fees to the statue fund, my musical taste-buds were already tingling as I took my seat in Aylesbury’s impressive Waterside

The Dung Beatles

Theatre.

I don’t like to fill up on starters, but as this was a special occasion I decided to just go with the flow. Besides, it’s downright ungracious to refuse a course when the chef’s showcasing his skills for free.

First up were the Dung Beatles, and if I’m honest, I can’t say my expectations were all that high. After all, it’s another Beatles tribute band, which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Now it may be heresy to say so, but I’ve never been a massive fan of the Fab Four. Maybe that’s because I’m a child of the seventies and eighties, but I figured I’ve heard pretty much everything a tribute band could offer the boys from the Cavern Club.

I wondered just how wrong my preconceptions were as I counted a grand total of nine onto the stage. My interest was especially piqued as I saw the four piece brass section take their places, not an occurrence you see all that often in tribute bands. As the first crystal clear chords chimed out, I realised I was hearing a well-oiled and carefully calibrated machine clicking effortlessly into gear. These guys could really play, and they’d clearly been practicing…a lot.

John Otway

Never before have I heard such bold tribute choices as Sergeant Pepper and The Walrus. The Dung Beatles have clearly set out to be so much more than just another Beatles band, and they’ve succeeded completely. They were as tight as a drum and sounded so damned good that I think I can finally understand what all the fuss is about.

As I said earlier, I’m not a massive Beatles fan, but I’ll sure be seeing these guys again, given half the chance!

The first act had left me in a buoyant mood as I eagerly awaited the appearance of the legendary John Otway. The last time I’d seen one of Aylesbury’s favourite and daftest sons was at the Wellhead, which means I’m talking in decades here. So I wondered if time had changed both him and me enough to make the experience a little less scintillating in middle age.

I needn’t have worried really. If anything, the man who got famous for falling over on telly was even more daft, amusing and unsettlingly perceptive than he’s ever been. That same old self-deprecating humour hid the same old insight and sensitivity this professional jester often slips into his songs. It’s easy to miss if you’re laughing all the time, and I think he plans it that way.

Never one to let life get too serious, Otway regaled us with his old stories and firm favourites like his hilarious rendition of Blockbuster and, of course, his Cumbrian dad’s Space Oddity was a no-brainer for such an occasion. One of my most enduring memories of that whole special day was of my other half laughing for a full half hour straight as John reminded us that music and mirth make good bedfellows.

Like all good starters, both acts were finished just as I was getting a taste for them, but I was far from full and eagerly anticipating the main course as the funniest man in rock left the stage to raucous and heartfelt applause.

The Thin White Duke’s Shadow

At last the big day dawned, cold and bright.

After all the hype, the uncertainty and the tireless campaigning of Sue and Dave Stopps, the world’s first statue of the late David Bowie was finally revealed, in the seemingly peculiar setting of Aylesbury’s market square.

That Sunday afternoon was the culmination of a long fundraising and planning campaign to have this legendary musician’s cultural contribution honoured in bronze, and also to highlight this market town’s significant yet unsung contribution to modern music.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the story, the legendary venue of Friars Aylesbury is where Ziggy Stardust made his first appearance here on Earth, while the Spiders from Mars were born in the long-demolished dressing room.

This was all before my time, although that early wave of live music legends cemented

The Earthly Messenger

Aylesbury’s unlikely reputation on the gig circuit, ensuring I had easy access to a whole host of brilliant and innovative acts when my turn came around. Looking back now, I sometimes find it hard to believe just how lucky I was.

Like so many sons of this small but sparkling jewel in Britain’s musical crown, I was only too happy to answer the call when the appeal was launched to honour one of this nation’s most remarkable, innovative and enduring musical performers. Although I’d never had the privilege of watching Bowie perform live, I gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to preserve and promote this legend’s legacy after his premature passing.

So that’s how I, along with a crowd of other sponsors, musicians and well-wishers, ended up standing under the arches beside Aylesbury Crown Court on that chilly spring morning.

There’s often good reason to criticise local authorities as obstructive and bureaucratic, but Aylesbury had gone all out on this one. The Market Square, already immortalised in Marillion’s debut single, became a musical focal point once again as the air shimmered with an LED archive of Bowie’s timeless videos and live performances. Local rockers the Callow Saints put in a terrific performance to entertain the crowd, but with the great man never far from the stage, it wasn’t quite clear who was supporting who. It’s really something to be headlining from beyond the grave.

There was an expectant air as we huddled beneath those arches, staring at a custom printed cover all set to reveal the Earthly Messenger to the waiting world. As the clock struck two, both Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Howard Jones tugged on the string…and nothing happened. It’d worked flawlessly during rehearsal, but that’s showbiz for you. I’m sure David was having a rueful chuckle somewhere in music heaven.

The applause rose quickly, and I joined in as I realised I wasn’t looking at a single image of the great man, but several. Ziggy Stardust floated, in the air, somehow suspended in time as the Thin White Duke looked on, finally at home with himself and his accomplishments.

A sweeping bronze chorus line of Bowie’s other incarnations spiralled across the wall behind, reminding the world of the master performer’s constant creativity and re-invention.

Sculptor Andrew Sinclair explained how he wanted to capture as many faces of Bowie as possible, as his long and varied career meant that his identity was forever shifting in the minds of his audience. How we remember him often depends on the time and place we first crossed paths, be it on the turntable, through the radio or the internet.

Speaking of the internet, social media went crazy of course, with comments both for and against the Earthly Messenger raging back and forth across Facebook and Twitter, the forever homes for malcontents and could’ve-beens. Some bright spark has already defaced this privately funded endeavour with a political message about homelessness, and I’ve read several online rants about wasting public money. However, they are all wrong. This project was funded entirely by a group of people who wanted to honour one of the twentieth century’s most recognisable men. Clearly some in this world are just too embittered to endure anything that isn’t about them. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get as famous as David Bowie but you’re just not talented or creative enough. Your ill-informed, pinch-faced scribblings are easily erased.

As for me, I think Bowie’s memorial is as bold and striking as the man and his music had always been. He was never afraid to take chances both with his image and his reputation, and I think that pioneering, risk-taking spirit is expressed perfectly in this unconventional dedication to that most unconventional of pop icons. Really, it could not have been otherwise.

I for one am extremely proud that my name will forever be seen in the Thin White Duke’s shadow.

The Music of my life 1970-1974

Hello everyone, and welcome to the first in a series of blog posts listing my favourite album for each year of my life (so far).

This initial entry is perhaps the most tricky as it’s clearly retrospective. Nonetheless, a rule of this series is that I own and appreciate each of the albums listed.

1970 – Death Walks Behind You by Atomic Rooster

This album was born in the same year as yours truly. Like much music of that time, it anticipates the still-developing prog rock era while also echoing the dying chords of the bold and experimental psychedelic movement. Tracks like Seven Lonely Streets and Vug could easily be mistaken for early Pink Floyd, while the unsettling artwork was perhaps a portent of the turbulent decade to come. Like all great music, it doesn’t beg to be liked, and this uncompromising stance is vindicated with a wonderful classic rock experience.

1971 – Hunky Dory by David Bowie

Never one to follow convention, while popular music was pushing the boundaries of what an album could be, Bowie was already anticipating the post-punk and new romantic movements which weren’t as yet a glint in the record company’s eye. With a track listing boasting the incomparable Life on Mars? and the almost sixties sounding Oh you Pretty Things, Hunky Dory is a hint at the creative flexibility and self re-invention which were the enduring hallmarks of Bowie’s long career. It still lifts and gladdens my heart to hear this album more than four decades after its first release.

1972 – Close to the Edge by Yes

In a similar vein to Atomic Rooster, Yes still retained an echo of sixties psychedelia in their fifth studio album, while Jon Anderson’s folk minstrel voice instantly evokes the smell of wood smoke and ancient fireside tales. Close to the Edge is a true prog rock production, with the title track weighing in at over eighteen minutes. Some of the solos and instrumentals might be regarded as self indulgent, but that’s kind of missing the point. This was a time when rock musicians really began to spread their wings and demonstrate they were every bit as creative and talented as their classical cousins. Yes were one of the bands leading that charge, and Close to the Edge is a glorious background for any gathering of good friends, good food and fine wine.

1973 – The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

So much has already been written about this iconic album that there’s really very little to add that hasn’t already been said. Boasting by far the most famous artwork ever to grace a record sleeve, Dark Side of the Moon is perhaps the single most important creation of an age when the ascendant album was king. Although not my personal Floyd favourite, it’s nevertheless an essential component in music enthusiast’s library. It truly deserves its place in my all time rundown, and I’m sure it would feature in hundreds of thousands of similar lists.

1974 – Autobahn by Kraftwerk

Yet another album from the 1970s which is still discussed, debated and listened to today. The 22 minute title track continues to divide opinion, with some commentators referring to it as a “soundscape” as opposed to a music track per se. Either way, this groundbreaking (largely) electronic offering appeared at exactly the right time to flourish as the album continued to supplant the single as the serious music fan’s preferred medium. Perhaps less user friendly than Pink Floyd or Yes, Kraftwerk began their rise first to music stardom and then to cultural artefact with this brilliant production. Put it on the turntable, spark up a French cigarette and follow that concrete road to a bright and orderly future of mass transportation and increasing automation.

All in all, the years 1970-1975 contain a disproportionate number of albums and artists that are still played, debated and celebrated to this day. This period was a golden age for musical and production creativity which has never been matched. It represents a quantum leap forward in the way popular music was created, consumed and understood at a cultural level.

The worst part about this period was the fact that I wasn’t old enough to experience it first hand. My best memory of this time was being taken to the barbers, the place where I first encountered those exotic musical creatures with long, lustrous curls, trimmed beards and lovingly groomed moustaches. Mysterious beings from a world I could not yet fully understand or appreciate. Looking back, I’ve come to realise that despite its obvious problems, in many ways those years were more culturally liberal and socially honest than our current state sponsored and ruthlessly policed pluralism.

Next time I’ll look at the years 1975-1979, and my dawning realisation of a cultural and political world outside of myself.