Category Archives: Features

Folk Song Friday: The Grey Funnel Line

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The finest ship that sails the sea
Is still a prison for the likes of me
But give me wings like Noah’s dove
I’ll fly up harbour to the girl I love
Here’s one more day on the Grey Funnel Line

Listening to The Grey Funnel Line, you would think that it had been around for centuries. The story of a sailor, alone at sea, desperate to return to his lover on land is timeless, however the song is actually less than 60 years old. Cyril Tawney was just 16 when he joined the Royal Navy (or the Grey Funnel Line as it’s known among sailors), and this was last song he wrote before leaving the Navy 14 years later. Since then, the song has been covered by a wide range of high profile artists, from June Tabor to Emmylou Harris, but I’m yet to hear a version which encapsulates the wistfulness of the song as much as Ed, Will and Ginger’s version (above). In his notes on the piece, Tawney describes it as ‘a straightforward song about a sailor leaving home and the loved one’ and it’s this simplicity that makes folks songs like this so great.


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The BRIT Awards and the Age of Beige

January is a funny old month for music. Following on from the turgid Christmas songs and end of year lists that December brings, January presents a confusing mix of ‘ones to watch’ lists and award ceremonies. Earlier this month, the nominations were announced for the 32nd BRIT awards. What was originally created to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee by recognising the best of British music during her reign, has now evolved to become one of the biggest nights in the British entertainment calendar. From Jarvis Cocker’s legendary stage invasion during Michael Jackson’s performance of ‘Earth Song’, to the ongoing feud between Robbie Williams and the Gallagher brothers, the BRIT Awards are now as much about celebrity tiffs as they are about music.

The 2012 nominees suggest that this year’s awards are even less concerned with the music. Rather than celebrating the cream of British music, this year’s nominees list reads like a who’s who of what the Guardian’s Peter Robinson called ‘The New Boring’, citing Adele’s performance of ‘Someone Like You’ at last year’s awards ceremony as the beginning of the age of beige.
This year’s ceremony looks to be more ginger than beige, with Ron Weasley doppelganger Ed Sheeran leading the pack with four nominations, closely followed by last year’s Critics’ Choice winner Jessie J who is up for three awards. The winners are supposedly decided by a panel of a thousand industry experts, however this year it could be argued they simply consulted the Trending Topics on Twitter and picked the most popular artists at that time. While mainstream pop acts such as Adele and JLS dominate the list, there has been an attempt to include more credible acts like Mercury award winner PJ Harvey and music veteran Kate Bush in the proceedings. While this is admirable at a time when reality shows are consistently churning out manufactured acts, it has also highlighted the ignorance of those involved; Wisconsin indie-folk group Bon Iver may be wondering why they’re up against acts such as Bruno Mars and David Guetta in the International Male Solo Artist category.

Perhaps the only way to shake proceedings up this year is for David Cameron to duet with Ed Sheeran on a Big Society rap.

A potted history of the BRITs

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-from Issue 245 of Epigram

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Then I saw his face – now I’m a Belieber*

‘Beliebers’. The word alone makes you sick in your mouth a bit, and that’s before you even see the masses of Abercrombie and Fitch-wearing teen and tweenage girls, screaming about a questionably-coiffured 17 year-old Canadian boy. It’s hard not to be moved by poetic lyrics such as ‘baby, baby, baby, ohhh. Like, baby, baby, baby, nooo’, and presumably this is how Justin Bieber has acquired nearly 10 million followers on Twitter and 11 nominations for the 2011 Billboard Music Awards. In short, Bieber Fever has taken the world of the teenage girl by storm. You are showing your age if you haven’t seen Bieber’s 3D documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and perhaps this is why he incurs the wrath of the non-Beliebers. Like Hitler and George W. Bush before him, Bieber’s Wikipedia page is padlocked due to the high levels of vandalism it has suffered from, whilst one group of haters famously hijacked a vote asking where he should visit on his world tour, with North Korea winning.

Critics of Bieber may sniff at his age, youth and popularity, and say they will all fade with time, until he is nothing more than a slight childhood memory, like Hanson or Atomic Kitten. Maybe, or maybe not. The fact that Donny Osmond is still in the public domain is testament to the fact that some people never quite get over their youthful infatuations. Back in primary school, the rotund shiny-faced school nurse was still completely enamoured with Cliff Richard, years into her middle age. We would rush in from the playground with our grazed knees and elbows, and leave the welfare office feeling queasy, having been forced to stare at half naked pictures of Cliff, white-toothed and brown-torsoed, whilst Ms Fellows applied antiseptic to our war wounds. It wasn’t simply a case of a few posters tastefully mounted above filing cabinets either, it was a shrine covering an entire wall, made up of both official and unauthorised Cliff calendars from throughout the eighties and nineties, along with tour adverts and other assorted merchandise: a lesson to all of us that we must one day grow out of our Boyzone crush, or face the consequences.

‘Beatlemania’ is a word often bandied about when talking about hysterical fans. The word even features in the Oxford English Dictionary, indicating just how widely the band and their fans affected British culture. Whilst the idea of being followed by leagues of adoring fans must have been exciting at first, the Beatles are a perfect example of just how thin the line is between super fan and stalker. In the space of a fortnight in December 1999, George Harrison was the victim of two stalker break-ins; the first at his Hawaiian estate, where the burglar helped herself to some frozen pizza, the second a far more sinister attack, where an assailant, apparently ‘sent by God’, broke into the singer’s Oxfordshire home, and proceeded to stab him seven times with a kitchen knife, before Harrison’s wife intervened and hit the intruder with a lamp. Mark Chapman is possibly the most famous celebrity stalker, having murdered John Lennon just hours after meeting him and his family.

Whilst phenomena such as Beatlemania and Elvis Presley tend to be credited with the birth of the wild adulation of musicians, perhaps the first instance of such devotion actually dates back to the Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt. Throughout the mid-1800s, ‘Lisztomania’ swept through Europe. An eccentric and highly expressive performer, Liszt was a sort of rock star pianist oozing sexual magnetism as he swished his long hair about whilst hammering the piano keys, causing his audiences to go wild. Female fans were particularly enthusiastic, with one particularly keen lady rescuing one of Liszt’s discarded cigar butts from the gutter, and having it encased in a diamond encrusted locket. Other instances of Lisztomania include women collecting the musician’s coffee dregs and turning Liszt’s broken piano strings into bracelets.

So what causes people to become so enthusiastic about their favourite musicians? It seems that the majority of idolised musicians are male, with large female followings, who either want to be their wife or their mother, or possibly both. Whilst peer pressure must be responsible for a chunk of Bieber’s fans, thousands of girls across the globe live with the knowledge that they are the love of Justin’s life, if only he knew. More enticing yet is the image of a troubled rockstar, such as Pete Doherty or Kurt Cobain, needing to be saved by their one true love. This obsession with celebrity and the concept of flinging yourself at a complete stranger is embarrassingly juvenile, however, if a certain Mr Timberlake is reading, and is bored with Hollywood floosies and looking to settle down, he knows where to find me.


*Whilst I would love to take credit for this excellent headline, pats-on-the-back and messages of love should instead be directed to Jon Bauckham, Music Editor of Epigram, who is the true Belieber.

This article is from the final issue of Epigram 2010/11. To read the rest of the Music section, click here.

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Blue, Eurovision and the Return of the Man Band

Photo: Ian West/PA Wire

Now that the Easter holidays are over, and the Royal Wedding has been and gone, there’s really only one thing left to look forward to in the upcoming weeks of revision and exam hell: Eurovision. Instead of the leering Andrew Lloyd-Webber hosting some half-hearted televised audition process, called something cringingly outdated like ‘Making Your Mind Up’, this year, somebody came up with the excellent idea of recruiting noughties boy band Blue to fly the flag for Great Britain. You remember Blue; they sang that song ‘All Rise’ full of bad law puns, and somehow persuaded both Stevie Wonder and Elton John to duet with them. Their latest offering sadly lacks the hallmarks of a great Blue song, namely, the half-way rap, as heard in classics such as ‘Fly By II’ and ‘All Rise’.

“It’s because Simon’s cut his plaits off”, says my flat mate Leanne, an authority on Blue’s resident rapper ever since he kissed her on the cheek in 2003, “without the plaits, he can’t rap”. We can only hope that the live performance of ‘I Can’ in Dusseldorf will feature the characteristic stage moves we’ve come to expect, from the Anthony Costa head nod, to the knee-lifting dance routine, not forgetting the timeless throw-back-your-head-and-think-of-England high note from Lee Ryan.

Blue are just the latest in a long line of nineties/noughties band reformations. 2006 saw the return of Take That, a band so popular, the government had to set up a nationwide helpline to console heartbroken fans after the band split in 1996. Their return could have been a disaster, and for those who are not fans of their music, it was. Despite the absence of wild child Robbie Williams, who was busy drowning in an addiction to Xanax and Lucozade in L.A., the four-piece took the nation by storm. Abandoning the cheesy dance routines the band had embraced for old hits like ‘Never Forget’ and ‘Relight My Fire’, they returned as a fully-fledged man band.

The video for the first single from their album Beautiful World, ‘Patience’, saw the band in the roles of singer, roadie and geography teacher, as they dragged microphone stands around the Icelandic countryside, with the aim of reaching a craggy cliff top and belting out ‘just have a little patieeeence’ to an audience of steaming geysers. Since then there’s been no escaping them; if they’re not on the radio, they’re in Marks and Spencer modelling menswear, or in the background of a Morrisons supermarket advert. Williams finally rejoined the band for their sixth album, Progress, which became the fastest selling album of the 21st century, and despite earlier concerns, he is supposedly now writing another album with the band, so may well be, um, back for good.

Perhaps the worldwide economic downturn has been the greatest incentive for musical reunions. Pop stars are notoriously big spenders. Elton John famously spent £293,000 on flowers one year, whilst two members of JLS racked up a hefty bar tab of nearly £7000 in one night, just a year after competing in The X Factor. For this lifestyle to be maintained, musicians need to keep churning out hits, and this is possibly the reason for the abundance of has-beens releasing new material.This phenomenon is not exclusive to this side of the Atlantic either. American heart throbs Backstreet Boys are currently on tour around the US with New Kids on the Block, despite the members being neither ‘boys’ nor ‘kids’ any more, however it seems unlikely that ‘N Sync will follow suite whilst Justin Timberlake continues to have success as both a musician and Hollywood star. Even ancient band The Monkees are reforming this year for their 45th anniversary, despite the fact that they have staged a number of revivals since 1980s.

Whilst arena tours are the manufactured pop groups’ comeback venue of choice, summer festivals are the place to find recently reunited rockers. Last year, Reading and Leeds Festival saw the return of both Blink 182 and The Libertines, the latter causing such excitement that their sets had to be stopped part-way through to control the crowd. This year sees the return of defunct glam rockers, The Darkness at Download Festival, whilst Pulp, who have been on hiatus since 2001, are playing at a number of European festivals ranging from T in the Park to Exit Festival in Serbia.

Sadly, not all reunions have been such a good idea. Queen reformed in 2005, even though their legendary front man Freddie Mercury had been dead for 14 years, whilst All Saints’ reappearance in 2007 was a massive flop, with their third album Studio 1 only just scraping into the Top 40 in the week it was released. The Spice Girls also failed to conjure any lasting interest when they reformed in 2007, although Jennifer Saunders is apparently penning the Spice Girls musical; another treat to look forward to whilst you sweat it out in the exam hall. In ‘I Can’, Blue prophesise ‘We’re not the first ones to be divided/won’t be the last to be reunited’, but if 5ive, Another Level or Daphne and Celeste are reading, please don’t bother.

The Eurovision 2011 Final will be shown on BBC 1 on Saturday 14th May at 8pm.

Jedward will be battling Blue for Eurovision victory on behalf of Ireland.

-This article is from Issue 238 (9.5.11) of Epigram. You can read the rest of the Music section here

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The Poster Boys of Folk Singing for Their Supper

English folk music has long suffered from an image crisis. Unlike its Irish counterpart, which is enshrined in the country’s national identity, it was at first seen as the unsophisticated music of the peasants, before briefly enjoying a period of popularity in the 1960s and 70s. These folk-heroes inevitably aged and became the socks-and-sandalled weirdy beardies that folkies are thought of today.

But this is of course, all rubbish. Every couple of years or so, the weekend newspapers get into a frenzy over a vaguely attractive male musician who falls somewhere within the folk genre, and will crown him “the poster boy of folk”. Recent victims saddled with this title include blonde hair, blue eyed, part-time Shakespearean actor Johnny Flynn and Seth Lakeman, who headlines the Bristol Folk Festival at the end of April.

Johnny Flynn

Unlike Lakeman, who has been touted on every television programme from BBC Breakfast to the Sharon Osbourne Show, Ed and Will are much harder to stumble across. In 2006, the two friends left their homes near Faversham in Kent and embarked on a journey to Cornwall, with the intention of sleeping beneath the stars and singing for their supper. In the meantime, they have become expert foragers, recorded an album with their friend Ginger, and written about their expeditions on their blog, Seeing them live in a church porch, busking in a town centre, or in a pub garden, you cannot fail to be moved by these troubadours.

Bradford Songs

If sea shanties are more your thing, look no further than Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, who also feature in the line up at the Bristol Folk Festival. A recent resurgence in an interest for all things naval, thanks to a certain Mr Depp and friends, has helped this band of ten fishermen, coastguards and lifeboatmen cast their net wider than their native Cornwall, and they currently feature in the Young’s fish adverts. In the summer months, they can be found gathered on the harbourside in their small Cornish fishing village, entertaining tourists and locals alike as the sun sets. It was on such an evening that a holidaying music executive heard the singers, and promptly offered them a £1 million record deal. Whilst this is impressive, to experience the true magnitude of the group you need to hear them live in the open, wind whistling around them, with the smell of sea salt in the air.

Bellowhead, who also headline the Bristol Folk Festival, are “the best live band you’ve never heard of” according the Evening Standard. An odd collection of instruments ranging from squeeze box to saxophone by way of some Ikea cutlery makes their music a mixture of folk, brass band and world music. Their repertoire is equally diverse, from tales of women performing abortions on themselves to rollicking sea shanties, but all material adheres to founding members John Spiers and Jon Boden’s single rule: it must have its origins in old English folk song, but the tunes and arrangements should be their own. The energy of the band’s live performances is unparalleled, and they expect the audience to put in as much effort as they do. So whilst they sing about life at sea, gig-goers will be hoisting the riggings and scrubbing the decks.

Though more mainstream artists such as Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons have helped to bring new listeners to the genre, it is in the live domain that folk music comes alive. There’s nothing quite like walking into a cosy country pub and finding a group of wizened old musicians in full swing, inviting fellow drinkers to join in. Though folk may never be accepted as cool, it is the music of the people. So whilst the majority may sneer at the f-word, its curators will continue to maintain it for generations to come.

-from Issue 237 (21.3.11) of Epigram. You can read the rest of the Music section here.

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