My Pop Life #96 : Climb On Board – Labrinth

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Climb On Board   –   Labrinth

Something tell me I’m almost there…

When was the day the music died ?   Not the Buddy Holly plane crash – For you I mean.  Or did it just fade away ?  How exactly do you ‘keep up’ with what’s going on ?  Maybe it doesn’t really matter to you.   Isn’t it strange that we all have a magic year of music which coincides with our 13th-14th birthdays?   Mine is 1971 – almost every song from that year makes me go weak at the knees.   So perhaps there is a year when we disengage with music, and our own peculiar musical taste is set in stone.   I find that my taste is growing all the time and – some people do this –  I actually do try to keep up with “what’s going on” – but in a filtered way of course.   For example – I was immersed in the punk and post-punk scene in London, but probably ignored the funk music, the metal, the folk music of that time.   I was similarly enamoured with hip hop from 1987-1990 and almost literally bought everything, but as a result ignored much of the pop and rock music of the late eighties (did I miss much?).   And as the years roll by, how do we stay in touch…?  Do we even want to…?  Should a 50-year-old man be listening to Radio One ?  Why not ?

If you have young people in your life, music becomes current naturally – if they live in your house you will hear the latest thing whether you want to or not.  My own musical curiosity has not dimmed at all over the years, and from time to time I do listen to Radio One, especially in the evenings if I’m in England, or even online.   I still read reviews of new music : Pitchfork, The Guardian, Quietus, anywhere.   I still chase music down, whether on Youtube channels, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp.   People send me stuff.   I follow up on leads.   I keep my ears open, generally.   But it is impossible to stay abreast of everything, even if that were desirable.   My relationship with music comes partly from repetition – listening to an LP over and over again, becoming obsessed with it, having to hear it at least once a day.  I still have those moments, but not so often.  Now – songs will still grab me, and I like to listen to them over and over.  Everything Everything still do that for me, three albums in.  Kanye West still does that for me.  And Labrinth certainly does that for me.

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I first heard this track Climb On Board by Labrinth inside my own house, played by my nephew Thomas Jules to one of his friends Paul.  They both loved it in a way that I immediately understood.   I really liked it too.   We played it again, then I ordered the LP Electronic Earth and it arrived a few days later.   It was summer 2012, I’d just shot Inspector George Gently with the rather wonderful Martin Shaw in Durham, and I’d taken the rather fantastic Diana Quick to dinner and talked shop.    I was now embarking on another round of the sitcom Him & Her for BBC3, where I played Her Dad.   My wife – or Her Mum – was one of my regular acting partners Marion Bailey – I think this was our fifth or sixth job together – not always married, but people who like her also like me, apparently.

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Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani were Him & Her, while Ricky Champ, Kerry Howard, Joe Wilkinson and Camille Coduri were the other regulars.  They became my family for four years, finishing in 2013 with The Wedding.  I did eight episodes in all.  It was a Great Gig, all directed by Richard Laxton, all written by Stefan Golaszewski, I’m immensely pleased and proud to have been a part of this series.

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Climb On Board is electronic music, 21st century British music.  It uses a drum and bass beat, auto-tuned vocals, synthesised riffs and chords and dubstep rhythms and breaks.  It is massively confident without being lyrically too clever.  It’s probably about drugs.  The middle eight is thrilling, and my favourite piece of the song (as so often with a Beatles or Motown track).   But there is another interesting feature which is the almost continuous conversation going on in the background – I haven’t managed to decode all of it but at one point you hear him saying “one step two step three step…whoah!” which presumably references 2-Step, the original name for the child of UK garage dubstep.   The idea being that Labrinth has gone beyond his roots in 2-step, gone beyond even 3-step.   The middle eight confirms that this is no idle boast.   The LP Electronic Earth has a large number of high points – this is track one, other hits include Earthquake which is tremendously powerful in a live context, Beneath Your Beautiful with Emeli Sandé providing the lead vocal,  Express Yourself (taking on the famous song from Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band) and Sundown which is a take on Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

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Clearly Labrinth is a major talent.   Born Timothy MacKenzie in North London, he and his eight siblings formed a band called Mac9.   His big breakthrough came when he hooked up with South Londoner Tinie Tempah and produced, and sang the vocals “Let it rain, let it pour away…” on the huge hit single Pass Out which reached number 1 in 2010 and won best British single at the Brits the following year.   Labrinth and Tinie Tempah collaborated again on the single Frisky, shortly after that Simon Cowell signed Labrinth to Syco his record label.   Labrinth remains the only non-variety-show winner on Cowell’s label.    Tinie Tempah returned the favour and dropped in to spit some lyrics on the single Earthquake in October 2011.   Electronic Earth was released in March 2012.

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Jenny and I saw him and his band performing live at The Brighton Centre on Feb 13th 2013 when Plan B was headlining and Rudimental was supporting, with nephew Thomas singing all the John Newman parts.  It was needless to say a rather splendid night.  Rudimental and Thomas smashed it as they always do – not that I take it for granted, ever – Labrinth played keyboards, lead guitar, pushed buttons and sang and was very impressive, and Plan B was doing the whole “She said I love you boy I love you so…” LP (Defamation Of Strickland Banks) with a cracking band and dancers!    I saw Labrinth again later in 2013 when Rizzle Kicks (old friends, long story) played Shakedown Festival in Stanmer Park and Labrinth was supporting.  He was excellent once again.

So now I look out for his new stuff – the last single Let It Be was very different to anything off the drum and bass style of Electronic Earth – more like new school soul music, or church in space perhaps, and it also featured a brilliant video.  Which I appear to have imagined since it has disappeared from the web.  But the new album looks like it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

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As for what’s new in 2015 – I couldn’t tell you since I’ve spent much of my music allowance time (strictly policed!) on this blog.   But early indications suggest that Natalie Prass, Kendrick Lamar and East India Youth might be pushing Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke and Everything Everything for that coveted Album of The Year Award.   Awarded by me.  Of course !  Unless the new LP from Labrinth : Take Me To The Truth knocks them all into a cocked hat !   Whatever that means !  Apparently we’ll find out on October 16th 2015.   In the meantime, we have this :

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My Pop Life #71 : Song For Sharon – Joni Mitchell

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Song For Sharon   –   Joni Mitchell

…I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin

Big boat chuggin’ back with a belly full of cars
All for something lacy
Some girl’s going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy…

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The first Joni Mitchell song I heard was Both Sides Now – but sung by Judy Collins –  “…it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all…” It was 1968 and I was living in a small village in East Sussex with my Mum and two younger brothers.  We had Radio One on all day.  It seemed like a sad song.

The second Joni Mitchell song I heard was Stardust – but sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young – “…we are stardust we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”   It was 1970 and unbeknown to me I was in the last few weeks of my idyllic village life.  It was a wise song, biblical yet green, and also rather yearning.

The third Joni Mitchell song I heard was Big Yellow Taxi – sung by Joni herself – “…they took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em..”  It was 1970 and she sounded like a teenage girl, but she was already on her 3rd album.   I was 13 and billeted with Pete Smurthwaite and his Mum Sheila in Lewes since we’d got evicted from the village house for not paying rent.  This song was an eyes-open description of a catastrophe.

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The first Joni Mitchell LP I bought was Court and Spark in 1974 with its brilliant title track, the thrilling Raised On Robbery, the swooning Help Me and the stunning Free Man In Paris  “…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”.    I was in Hailsham,  had a new young sister, and I was a late-flowering 16-yr-old glam-rock hippy.  Joni was urgent, caustic, clever and brilliant to mine ears.

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LSE 76-79.  “Blue”  The masterpiece.  Much later, in the 90s this would become one of mine and Jenny’s top LPs, top five listens that would go on the turntable, or later the CD player on a daily basis – All I Want, Carey, A Case Of You, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard.   The shapes of those songs, of those melodies, the sense of a fully-formed musical genius spilling out her feelings is a pure joy.   Jenny sang A Case Of You for Amanda Ooms at a Bohemia Special Birthday Party one night in Brighton – acapella – and years later Glen sang “River” one Christmas at a Brighton Beach Boys gig at The Old Market accompanying himself on piano.  Two magical moments from a magical LP.

And over the years I’ve filled in the dots, bought The Summer Of Hissing Lawns, For The Roses, Clouds, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Taming The Tiger, Ladies Of The Canyon and Herbie Hancock‘s 2007 album The River which is a jazz tribute to her music.  There is a wonderful depth to her music, both lyrically profound, often startlingly honest, and the music itself, rhythmically loose and swinging yet played with such crisp feel by Joni herself and the amazing musicians she assembles to play her creations.  Every album is worth examining, plunging in, submerging, re-emerging refreshed and moved.

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No song of Joni’s touches me more deeply than Song For Sharon, from the 1976 LP Hejira.  It’s very much set in New York City, opening on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening verse. She sees a wedding dress in a shop window, and this triggers an 8-minute meditation on love and marriage, success, family and dreams.

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Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty
Because as soon as this ferry boat docks
I’m headed to the church to play Bingo
Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks

That’s a pretty astounding lyric, using the double meaning of “fleece” but she tops it in the next verse, talking about gambling with her heart :

I can keep my cool at poker
But I’m a fool when love’s at stake
Because I can’t conceal emotion
What I’m feeling’s always written on my face

There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street
I went in to see her as a kind of joke
And she lit a candle for my love luck
And eighteen bucks went up in smoke

Joni is laughing at herself here and goes on to talk about leaving her man behind at a “North Dakota Junction” and moving to the Big Apple to “face the dream’s malfunction“…why don’t her relationships last, why isn’t she married ?  The song, admitted by Mitchell to be written whilst on cocaine, fades in and out of her past memories, to her present on the Ferry, to her reactions to a woman friend drowning herself and the depression that then flooded in, and the advice from those around her on how to cope.   Then she’s back in teenage Canada again:

When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown

And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything

So Sharon is her childhood friend, and is married with children and a farm.  Joni has never settled down.  The contrast for Joni is stark and she explores it further, deeper…

And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
– Chasing dreams –
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans

He showed me, first you get the kisses
And then you get the tears
But the ceremony of the bells and lace
Still veils this reckless fool here

Joni is alone, and it seems to her, terminally so.  She actually had been married in 1965 to Michigan folk singer Chuck Mitchell, just after giving up her out-of-wedlock first child for adoption, (Little Green on “Blue” is about this girl) but the relationship had lasted less than 16 months.  After her affair with Graham Nash of The Hollies she hooked up with David Crosby and then others but none of these affairs took root.    Sam Shepherd, Jackson Browne, Don Alias, none of them could couple with her restless spirit, so evocatively captured in the swooning backing vocals and sexy rolling shuffle of the rhythm guitar, played by Joni herself throughout the winding sinuous storytelling of Song For Sharon.   The song is, in its unfolding of doubt and longing, its honesty and questioning, a masterpiece.  Or should that be mistresspiece ?  Her mother suggests ecology to counter the blues but –

Well, there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want right now
Is find another lover…

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Last summer, 2014, Jenny’s older sister Marlyn came to visit us from Grenada where she is lives as a nun and teaches teenagers.  Or more accurately, a Franciscan Sister Of The Sorrowful Mother.   We were sub-letting in Washington Avenue at that point, and I slept on the sofa for ten days.  One day we took the ferry from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass) to Wall St, walked down a few blocks and boarded the Staten Island Ferry which is a giant yellow edifice towering over Battery Park and facing due south.  It is a free service, run by the City and runs 24/7.  From it, you get the most impressive views of Downtown Manhattan receding, and it chugs right past the Statue Of Liberty too, and Ellis Island.  Marlyn, Jenny and I had a little walk along the Staten Island shore, saw the 9/11 Memorial and then took the ferry back, Joni Mitchell’s beautiful clear voice singing through my head all the way across the harbour.   Marlyn is a beautiful woman, so open and sweet-natured, not heavily promoting her faith at all, but supported and strengthened by it.  We laughed a lot during her visit.

There are two versions of Song For Sharon below – the original from Hejira, stunning, eternal, majestic, then below that a live version from Wembley 1983 with an entirely different arrangement, no backing vocals, rocked-up, bold, brilliant.

…It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction…