Concrete and fumes

Have you heard of extreme picnicking? I’m told that some people like to ensue picturesque hillsides and secluded romantic coves to eat al fresco surrounded by concrete and fumes. There’s also extreme ironing, in urban myth, legend and Sun page seven features, where the cosy front room and old black and white film is tossed aside so people can flatten creases out of their shreddies surrounded by concrete and fumes.

The occupy movement must therefore equate to a form of extreme camping, pitching up not next to a cow pat in a damp field but in the centres of the World’s capitalist bastions, surrounded by concrete and fumes. It’s fitting then, that possibly the World’s most extreme band are showing full solidarity with those tent cities in Wall Street, London, Barcelona and round the back of the Flapper in Birmingham.

For were there a musical force that was all about life surrounded by concrete and fumes and exhorting you to be ethical above all it’s Napalm Death. So with a new album—Utilitarian—about to stencil itself upon brutalism everywhere I spoke to Barney Greenway to see if a heavy rock band imbued by fumes and musically concrete (if not musique concrète) can help change the World.

Occupy is all about communication, as Barney says “you need a multi-location attack, people in their homes…at all levels of society to engage. It can’t just be about people reading about the camps in the newspapers”. But communication is hard: sometime because of the oligarchical media because and we’re across an echoing Skype connection. That said, Barney’s points are the sort that you feel he’ll often make twice for impact as well as to make sure I can hear him.

“We know about the equality gap around the World and Birmingham’s a part of that. Naplam has been proven to resonate with people musically and ideologically. There’s past evidence. You are lead to believe that you just should accept stuff…there are matters of great social injustice and you’re expected not to react.”

Napalm and Barney certainly are not ones to do what’s expected.

“Whatever effect we have is always going to be under the auspices of the band talking about things…which has always fallen into place, we’re not a choreographed band, it’s spontaneous.”

Napalm have been going for some thirty years and the last twenty or so with Greenway up front, they invented a genre. The local council are waking up to music’s heritage in Birmingham, and the ‘Death—as fans probably call them, I’m sure—feature heavily in an exhibition about the history of heavy metal. I assumed that this must make them feel like under-pressure elder statesmen. But Barney says “Not at all…I certainly don’t feel any pressure from anyone outside.”

In fact the new LP seems to exist somewhat apart from the music industry, from any scene, from everything but what the band are thinking and feeling about. “to be totally honest, I’ve been out of the loop a bit…I’ve had no chance to check out what’s going on with music.”

“I find it hard to, you know, micro-analayse Napalm. We’ve got all these albums and one journalist might ask about the differences. We’re all these kinds of things, we’re not just a grindcore band, we’re not just influenced by metal. w’ere not just influenced by abrasive punk, there’s lots of other things besides. Every Napalm album sounds different, so I’m told, but in a good way. That’s a good place to be I think.”

“I tend to see an evolution after the fact…you think ‘is this better than the last album?’ and it’s only after the fact that you have time to think…it’s worked.”

Barney’s favourite track on this album is ‘Everyday Cocks’, which seems to work by being everything—or almost everything Napalm Death ever are all at once. And has a rude word in the title, which is another thing I think I’ve grown to expect.

“It’s one that encapsulates everything for me. It’s a really obtuse track, some of the chords on there aren’t really conventional. It has a real creeping slow aspect to it and then it goes mental and fast. It also has a sax break…everything in one track.”

The music is important, but I get the feeling that Barney at least can’t separate that from the World at large and nor should we want him to:

“I’m just showing solidarity basically…other bands should.”

This piece originally appeared in Fused.

Two years is a long time in politics

When I returned to the Labour fold and joined the party a few months before the 2010 General Election it was party through fear, partly through duty, but mainly because I thought there was a real opportunity that it could be reclaimed from the New Labour years and start representing the people again. People I trusted trusted Gordon Brown, and the alternatives were too awful to contemplate.

That said the tipping point of joining rather than just voting was because I didn’t want to vote Labour: I had no confidence or trust in the sitting MP that a boundary change had forced upon me. By accounts he was a lifer, remote from his constituents and out of touch. Had the coming election nationally been anything but close I’d have marked my cross next to the semi-independent community focused candidate that looked like she might win. I wanted to vote for her, but didn’t want to be responsible for a situation where we got a tory government by one MP, and not Labour in my constituency. I figured that my membership might offset my ballot-box slip somehow, save my coincidence.

As it turned out it wasn’t that close, neither locally or nationally. But, being a member in opposition felt like the right thing to do. I delivered leaflets, did a little phone canvassing and a little door knocking and was rightly pleased when in the next council elections our man overturned a Liberal majority with a significant one of his own. It might have been national tides that turned the ship but there was a real feeling that the local party was working hard on the ground and really cared. At this point I was as taken with the democratic system as I think I’ve ever been—despite a really disappointing result in the Alternative Vote referendum, an opportunity as I saw it for more representative politics.

I’m fond of quoting that the UK always has a more right wing press than the electorate—there are always more papers supporting the tories than Labour even when the left(er) party wins big in elections. I suspect that if you asked most people about policies in simple terms, and presented real alternatives, most people would be more left wing than any government we get too. Certainly any we’ve had since 1979. So while it felt right to be in the most likely opposition, each failure to control or challenge the dominant shock doctrine narrative by Ed Miliband and his team made it difficult to see what you were working for.

Another referendum offered more hope.

I’d met MP Siôn Simon a few times when he was a creative industries minister, he was trying to look at ways to help the local media through the ‘internet transition’ and I was on the fringes of the local blogging scene that was one possible prop for keeping some news going. He was engaging, engaged, and—you could tell—above all looking for the right solutions to the problems he was tasked with. So when, after the election, he talked to me about the problems of reaching people and told me that he really thought there was an opportunity for change I believed him and believed in him.

That change he said, could be driven by an elected mayor for a city like Birmingham. A position that would have to be backed by a mandate, a leader that would have no choice but to campaign on a manifesto upon which they would be judged. Direct accountability to the people, direct scrutiny by an engaged media, high-profile and with an ability to be strategic. I was sold, and it looked like it was going to happen.

Over the last two years I’ve been variously working on things for Siôn and the non-partisan Yes to a Mayor campaign. The amount of free time I had to volunteer on both ironically helped by the “austerity” cuts the tories disproportionally heaped on poorer areas like Birmingham and on the third sector—reducing my freelance work considerably. I’ve not worked as hard as some others, but I’d like to think I’d made a contribution. To what, maybe, is a more difficult one as ‘we’ lost last week (not by as large a margin as was being reported, but lost all the same).

What’s the main disappointment for me is perhaps the insight it gave me into just how hard change is and seemingly will always be under the current system. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, which is understandable—but turkeys don’t talk 364 days of the year about the need for a dry-fowl-meat based religious feast.

Vested interests within the existing party machines are the ones with the access and the voices to the media—which disappointingly went for ‘balance’ (presenting voices from both sides) instead of neutrality (where they could exercise independence and question the arguments on both sides). The main arguments that we heard in the press against the chance for change were all easily researchable and refutable by experienced journalists, but they were all too often let through with a “no campaigners say…” and no challenge. It’s too late to go through them now, but I will anyway as it’s now a pavlovian response:

A mayor would not have cost more than the current system of a council leader and a chief executive, roles which the announced candidates promised to combine. In Leicester, the nearest comparable city the mayor took a salary smaller than Birmingham’s current council leader’s allowances.

The powers of a mayor were defined, in the act of parliament that brought the referendum into being. Extra powers could be negotiated, which in theory they could be for a council leader—if one side was a ‘pig in a poke’ the other was too.

The electorate cannot in practice—whatever the theory—get rid of a council leader. Forget the past, look at the situation currently in Birmingham—a clear Labour majority of councillors that is certainly not likely to change in fewer than the four years a mayor would have—whatever they do and however they perform in the eyes of anyone who cares to look.

Not being challenged on these is the equivalent to the current government not being challenged every time they bring up the ‘cutting the deficit’ line. Statisticians have proved that the cuts are making the deficit worse, in real and structural terms—but time and again that’s not mentioned and the cutters are allowed to dominate the narrative. And for some reason the opposition are too scared to challenge—maybe it comes across as too negative, maybe there is something about the media that they know which means this fight is lost and it’s better for them to move the debate on.

And that’s the crux of it: better for them.

It’s so unusual to see anyone in politics really commit and to do something that might not have benefits for their coterie of contacts. Essentially the party system seems to draw people to compromise for power and not to compromise for good. Siôn’s decision to stand down as an MP to campaign for change in Birmingham always struck me a a courageous decision—not for him the bet hedging of certain other people who were maybe, or maybe not, in favour of real change but would quite like the power if it was available.

And he bravely stuck to talking about the truth of the size of the problems: areas of the city are very deprived, with high—especially youth—unemployment, unacceptable infant mortality. Do you need more? Will rearranging the deck chairs change that? I doubt it. Was that not the line that the media wanted to focus on? Maybe not, but in sea of platitudes and apathy it stood out for me and I was proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Yes campaign bravely tried to rise above politics, and I think that may have contributed to the downfall—often seeing it sidelined in events in favour of people the media already knew about (the BBC WM debate for example had formal ‘no’ people on the panel but no ‘yes’). That presented the argument as a political struggle when maybe it should have been one about opportunity. Some honourable councillors and people involved in the political machines saw that opportunity, but I’m afraid my suspicion is that most didn’t as they were clouded by fear about their own positions and interest.

There were honest people on the ‘no’ side too, but those ‘leading’ it dragged it down some dark paths.

The theory of Overton windows has always stuck me as interesting—it states that there’s only a limited section of the political continuum that’s acceptable mainstream debate at any time. Anything outside it seems too radical to be considered. Decades of right-ist spin seems to have dragged the window to a point where the absurd views of the Taxpayers Alliance are given credence and unions of workers are not—even by the leaders of the workers’ party.

And that’s sad. But more than sad, it’s life and death for countless people in Birmingham, the UK and the World.

I’ve had a brief glimpse of the opportunity as well as a ringside seat at the way the status quo protects itself.

It’s time to be honest, to be open, to be radical. It’s time to challenge obfuscation and apathy as well as disinformation and dishonesty. That can be dragging the window back to the left, or it can be just not letting nonsense past.

Each time you hear someone parrot a political line, think. And if what they say is not true, respond like that. Tell people, bore them stupid.

Reposition the narrative to change.


This was previously sitting out of place on my ‘work-ish’ blog.

Captain Hook

Peter Hook is a man concentrating on retaining control over his own history, but first he’s got a few other things to do.


“Hi Peter,” even over a not wonderful mobile connection I could tell it was the laconic low-slung bass icon himself. “it’s Jon Bounds to do the interview.”

“Yes, right… would you mind calling me back in five minutes? I’ve got to pick the wife up.”

“Sure, no problem.”

To kill time I make a cup of tea and take the dog outside for a wee. I’m staying at a very well turned out holiday flat at the base of the Shropshire hills. It’s perfectly placed for me to indulge my AE Housman poetic fantasies—in a modish leather-look jacket and Adidas hi-tops of course—but without a garden that the brown and white dog sharing it with me can just pop out to unaccompanied.

I’m breaking a conspiracy of silence here, not all interviews with rock gods are conducted over gin-soaked weekends on tour in uptown New York. Not all interviewers fly out first class and share hotel rooms and VIP sections with their quarry. We may strive for intimacy, but get maybe twenty minutes on the phone. I’ve not seen Lady Gaga go to the toilet. I had to carry a plastic bag for a poop scoop around the corner in case doggy number ones turned more solid outside Terry Jones’s Travel in Church Stretton. Trying to get that intimacy—or at least a bit of matey bonhomie—I tell Peter what I’ve been up to when I call him back.

“It’s nice that we’ve got normal things to do isn’t it? Picking up the wife, taking out the dog…”

“I always have loads of normal things to do Pete, I’m not a rock star.”

You get the impression that Peter Hook has lots of normal things to do too, and giving humorous, affable, honest and conspiratorially indiscreet interviews is one of those. In fact I’m pretty sure that he’s given enough of those to fill the pages of this magazine many times over, but you never tire of hearing them. The man has many stories to tell and tells them well, it’s how others may tell them that is concerning him right now. He’s just finished writing a book called Inside Joy Division, which tells the story of being inside Joy Division. Being one of only three living people that could really know must give him the insight to do that, and it’s a story not well told and that’s been he feels passed over by the others and not given enough time.

“When we started we didn’t have luxuries like a camera… it’s been hard to find photos, not like with New Order.”

“We started New Order the Monday after Ian [Curtis]’s funeral…Bernard didn’t like the intensity of Joy Division which is why he doesn’t like playing those songs.”

“Our manager Rob Gretton held a wake for the band and he said ‘don’t worry Joy Division will be big in 10-15 years. That was the was he put it to say that the music would last forever.”

At the moment Hooky’s new band The Light is playing Joy Division albums in their entirety. And it seems to be going well, despite what he says was a cynical reaction when it was first announced (there were some “sarky barbs”, which sounds fantastic in that familiar North West burr).

“I thought it would be just fat 50-year-old blokes that came to see us, but it was 19-year-olds and I thought ‘wow, the music lives on’. The themes are the same as ’77… I wrote it so I’m biased but there’s still an appeal.”

I ask him if that’s something to so with the country being in a similar state now to that which it was then: I’m thinking something about the unemployment, the distrust of authority, the cold. I’m thinking mainly of the cold as it snowed unexpectedly last night and despite my tea I’m still not warm, I can see the grey sleet sliding down the hillside roads.

“I don’t think so, I’m not sure. The appeal of the music hasn’t changed. Also it isn’t nostalgia, it’s not a tribute band. Doing the LP as a whole gives it purity. I’ll leave that to the likes of Joy Revision. It’s got credibility, we’re not pretending to be Joy Division. Not like the others pretending to be New Order.”

“People remember the records but not the band. I was listening to the records and thinking what a genius [producer] Martin Hannett was—the records are sort of a cross between Joy Division and Martin Hannett. Joy Division live were much more raw, post punk.”

Yesterday we took a rough path straight up a hill near the Long Mynd, it took not minutes to get to a point where civilisation vanished. If you look the right way you can see not human invention before the sun breaks your sight over the horizon. If you look the other way, there’s a golf course; flattening, landscaping, commercialising what was once a force of nature. It’s the course designer’s take on reality. We’re most of us lucky that no-one feels ownership of our pasts, but if you’re part of cultural history you don’t get that protection due to lack of interest. I mention that Peter is the only person I’ve ever talked to that I’ve seen being played by actors in two different films.

“Ha. I didn’t recognise myself in 24 Hour Party People. It was obviously a comedy, they wanted to make Carry on up the Factory and they did. The funny thing was that Ralf Little who played me had worked a lot with my ex-wife so you’d think he’d have picked up a few tips.”

“It broke my heart watching Control. Anton wanted to bring out the tragedy, he’d known us for a long time. I knew he’d get it right.”

The end of May marks the 30th anniversary of the Hacienda, and it must be built. Again. By many other people, in clubs around the country and even in museums. The V&A are to host a ‘facsimile’ recreated by original designer Ben Kelly, but Peter and friends have a more fitting tribute perhaps.

“The Hacienda is coming back. The people that own the flats that are now where the Hacienda was are letting us have the car park for one last rave. I wasn’t sure, but I was told. You’ve got to do something for the 30th, you might not be around for the 40th.” You don’t get the impression he had to be persuaded too hard.

I get the feeling that Peter Hook is enjoying being in control of his own story, he tells it well and in many media. Only a couple of days later I’m sitting round a friend’s kitchen table and being shown a spatula bearing the scrawl “Happy Beating! Peter Hook”. Hooky, king of bass, guardian of history, autographer of kitchen implements. The past is safe in his hands.


This has been previously published, in Fused.

Thatcher, my part in her downfall

I’ve asked my mum to see if she can dig an old photograph out of the suitcase she and my dad keep under the spare bed. Back from the days of prints and scattered negatives, of 24 exposures and using up the end of the roll. It’s a shot of my sister—then about nine or so—on a day trip to London.

It was a very rare short break, just me, my mum and sister as my dad couldn’t afford the day off work and we did ‘all the sights’, or at least the Tower of London and the bridge. The picture was taken in Madame Tassauds, and shows a young blonde girl in a denim dress planting a knuckle sandwich on to the image of our then Prime Minister. I recall us thinking that it would be a great photo to show Dad, that he’d be proud. He laughed, some months later when we eventually got the prints back from the chemist’s.

I don’t recall any security at all, at any point as we went round. We certainly weren’t accosted for disrespect, trespass or criminal damage. It was a more open age, where you could get closer to things. But I really don’t think it was unexpected, or maybe something the staff were quite tolerant of. As an ex-employee of the museum tweeted last week, it turns out that in the late eighties, spitting on the waxwork wasn’t uncommon: instead of a playful little snapshot, our kid might have caught something disgusting.

This is just one reason why I’m not buying the accusations that the country has changed, become nastier in the years since Thatcher left office. It’s just one reason that I’m sure that outpourings of dislike and distaste, of memory and desire, aren’t manufactured or memetic. There aren’t people going with the flow, this is anger.

I was just about four when Margaret Thatcher took office, and my sister hadn’t yet been born, so by the time we were desecrating her effigy we’d known no-one else in power and knew that the blame for most of what made people we loved unhappy was laid at her door.

I remember changing schools when I was about five, and no longer getting those warm bottles of milk at break time. They were replaced with the option to pay 5p a week to have a plastic beaker of squash before going out onto the scrubby, crumbling, concrete to kick stones in lieu of balls. I knew this was the fault of the ‘milk snatcher’ and took this with the easy resignation that young kids do; I had no clue whether this was a real person or a slightly more evil version of the fabled Humphrey that was responsible for the disappearance of milk on TV.

I knew that she made Dad angry when she came on the news, and I knew that after his redundancy the anger was worse, and the amount of time he had to watch the news was increased. In fact I can’t remember a time when the feelings engendered by the government or the establishment in general weren’t distrust or anger.

I sat on plastic chairs in a decaying sixties building as my dad waited to sign on, with no hope of anything but a few quid to keep us going for another fortnight. I remember him going through to the other side of the frosted glass and us waiting amongst the—mostly—men who were a combination of angry and sad I haven’t seen for some time. I’ll admit I’m starting to see that again, in the eyes and social media statuses of people. It’s a lack of control and a divorcement from power of any kind.

Because what the Tories took away from the poor in the eighties was hope. Now translated by the Blairite heirs to her legacy as ‘aspiration’, it’s what you have none of when you can’t do anything about the situation you’re in. Working harder or longer isn’t an option when there are no jobs. No matter how much work there might have been, monetarism and Thatcher ensured there were no jobs. And we were supposed to ‘get on our bikes’ and fight others in the same situation for the scraps that there were.

When our car, a green Ford Escort Mark I, was stolen from outside our house one Saturday evening (leaving my mum to accuse my dad of hiding it so we didn’t have to go out on a day trip the next day) we couldn’t ever hope to replace it. We didn’t get another car until I was about fifteen, we walked or got the bus everywhere for eight years. On the day Prince Andrew got married we walked five miles into the centre of Birmingham, to a place Dad knew we could get a cheap part for our broken washing machine, and then walked back. If there were street parties, we didn’t pass any.

My primary school was a small C of E near Handsworth Park in Birmingham. The day after the main night of rioting in 1985, we were let out of school early. The air was full of excitement. We weren’t scared: this wasn’t violence against the people that lived there but against a system that offered no hope.

It was the legacy of no after-school sports, or football teams, because the teachers were on permanent work-to-rule after their profession had been demonised and the system was cut to ribbons. If the British got worse at football in the years following the Thatcher reign, how much of that was for a lack of organised games for kids and the selling off of every available facility in the years that followed? No hope, there was nothing to do.

I was just really starting to understand politics in 1992, enough to despair when Labour again failed. No-one you knew had voted for them—and in Perry Barr, one of the largest Labour majorities in the country that really was the case, rather than people voting Tory and being too ashamed to admit it—but they still ruled you. There was no hope, there was nothing we could do.

Every TV programme, every pop singer, every comedian was with you in a grim solidarity. How could people watch Spitting Image and still vote the bastards in—we knew they’d done nothing but feather their own nests. To understand, and especially to begin to understand, politics at that time was to instil an impotent rage inside you. The fuckers always won.

So, when the symbol of all that anger was deposed in 1990, we were happy. But it wasn’t our victory and still nothing changed. Jobs were still perilous, control was still lost.

And when the party that caused all the damage went, there were still those of us that were wary of what ‘our’ party was becoming. “They’re promising nothing.” and in the end, what they delivered was almost more of the same.

So, last week was, and tomorrow is, an opportunity for closure. There’s a release of all of that impotent rage. The rage is for the most part directed against the effigy, the caricature. Thatcher was frozen in time when she left office, her form crystallised as the figurehead of every bit of control the working class had had stripped away from them over the last thirty years.

Once taken by force and violence, those same dignities are now peeled away like onion skins by chubby-faced pernicious plutocrats. And that they’ve told us how to feel, tried to deny us this rage, has made it every bit more violent. They are the real targets, and the powerful image of Thatcher in full pomp is the cypher for that rage. Not the elderly woman she became, nor the mother, daughter or wife—but the harsh, uncaring symbol she happily personified to a whole generation.

After Wednesday, I hope the rage hits its targets more accurately: the system and people that bring us ATOS, workfare, bedroom taxes, vile hate and division, turning class against itself in aid of nothing but the pockets of their coterie of school chums. And I hope that hope can return. If so, she will finally have been able to do something to ‘save Britain’.

Ding Dong, Society is Dead


Yes, it’s childish and puerile, sexist and disrespectful. And apart from being all of that the Daily Mail is angry. Angry that Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack has swung into the charts, by some sort of campaign by ‘the left’.

The song is childish (or at least high-pitched) too, and anyone buying it to make a political point is childish too. They know that and, like booing George Osbourne at the Paralympics, the British public have a remarkable history and humour of childish protest. It works so well as it’s not easy to debate against—we both get covered in jelly and ice cream and the kids like it. I also doubt that being respectful is in the minds of anyone at this point.

And, yes, the use of the gender specific insult is sexist. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable.

Oh and, yes, most people who are buying it are probably to the left of Margaret Thatcher politically—but then most people are.

But, they aren’t doing it en masse by an orchestrated campaign and they aren’t all doing it for the same reason. It’s 1000s (and only that many seeing how few sales it takes to get a song into the charts these days) of different decisions for different reasons. It’s a true meme, evolving as it passes through people’s heads—there are those who wouldn’t have dreamt of supporting it getting pissed off by the pious who would tell them not to and clicking ‘buy’ with abandon. In the full knowledge of how they don’t have the heights of moral ground they could otherwise.

There isn’t a single point where this idea comes from, it’s a simple idea and a very well known song. That’s why it isn’t Shipbuilding, or Tramp the Dirt Down—or any number of better, and more politically correct, choices—a campaign on Elvis Costello’s behalf would have failed, people who didn’t know or like him wouldn’t have bought the track, no matter how cheap or easy. A playground ditty got traction.

Some haven’t thought about the sexism, it’s society’s job—if it still exists—to educate them.

Some don’t have huge encyclopaedic knowledge of music or social history—likewise.

Some, like me don’t agree with the song choice, but agree with the protest. And we’ve bought it because of who it pisses off, we make compromises like that when battling an ideology.

Excuse me if I go a bit Mark Steel for a moment, but the use of the group term ‘The Left” is dangerous. It’s as dangerous as any grouping and labeling of disparate people. The Left—it’s me, Billy Bragg, Caroline Lucas, Castro, Tony Blair, a woman from no 42 who once voted SDP, and Dan Hodges all meeting every Wednesday in the Pig & Whistle on Lug Trout Lane. Seven o’clock, back bar, knock on the side door and ask for ‘Attlee’. I did miss last week’s meeting, I was out picketing the local grocers. The Left decided in my absence to pick a song & campaign on it, sent message of solidarity to striking miners in Guam and shared a bag of pork scratchings.

Castro wanted dry roasted nuts, but he lost the motion on a simple show of hands.

The King and I — my Elvis Marathon.

Pleased to have one less thing in common with the Wonder Stuff, I do love Elvis. I love the hillbilly cat and the jumpsuited entertainer, and to prevent disillusionment I find it fairly easy to avoid watching the films — it’s not as if they are in heavy rotation on our mainstream channels these days. A love for the King is an isolating love these days. Elvis has become a rubber hat and plastic sunglasses, a jumpsuit and a remix opportunity. Elvis has become, like every dead musical artist worth remembering, a tribute and moneymaking sinkhole.

And I’m as much to blame as anybody, I own an officially licensed Blue Hawaii Hawaiian shirt (see what they did there?), an ‘Elvis pig’ (in mitigation, a gift), and book-after-book both scurrilous and fanboy. But I love the King, it’s where me and Chuck D part company (“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”) and one of the few touchstones that I’m sure I would have with bum-sex comedian Frank Skinner (who paid silly money for a shirt that may have belonged to EAP).

It’s a love based on the iconography as much as the music, the belts and glasses as much as the sultry vocals, That’s The Way It Is as much as the Carson show and really; ’75 as much as ’56. We’re around the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley, and if there’s anything more undignifying than “dying on the toilet” it’s Elvis Week 2010. A week long excuse to bombard fans with emails for inglorious tat: Jailhouse Rock Flip Flops, the Elvis Hot Sauce Sauce Gift Set (including Elvis Don’t Be Cruel Hot Sauce), the Elvis and Dale Earnhardt Fantasy Race Car Magnetic Guitar Bottle Opener and left over Elvis Week 2009 Golf Balls. But, there’s still the music. In October a new Elvis Complete Masters 30 CD set is being released at the paltry sum of about £573.78 plus shipping, containing all 711 master recordings and a hundred or so rarities — no better way to make sure that it’s the music that matters.


I couldn’t justify a pre-order for that, but I could beg and borrow all studio recordings released to date—and I can listen to all six hundred and ninety-eight of them in order. I could do the listening bit as I was ill with a stodgy cold and home alone as my other half was away to visit friends for the weekend—had she have been in situ there would have been no chance of getting through it in a sitting. A ferociously opinionated music fan, Jules has banned many of my favourites from play in her presence, mainly what she calls “wimpy indie music” (The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Black Box Recorder amongst them) but my recent obsession with listening only to covers of the Stones’ Satisfaction didn’t go down well either.

So I did, I loaded them all into iTunes, ordered by recording date as best as I could, from 1953’s My Happiness to 1976’s recording of Way Down (a posthumous Number One in the UK in 1977). That’s 1.2 days according to Apple. I started at 1pm on a Saturday, with intentions of attempting it in one go.

I wasn’t actually sure what I was attempting: it had something to do with sorting out my reactions to Elvis, something to do with wanting to make my own mind up on all those film soundtracks and deciding if the early years and the Vegas years were the same guy in anything more than physical body. Also, it was there, er, they were there, a mountain of Memphis to drag myself up with the use of ropes and crampons.

The foothills are easy, and seem so far in the past: the first couple of recordings were self-financed, are scratched beyond repair, and seem odd song choices if they really were presents for the venerated mother Presley. They, and almost all Elvis songs are based on love—romantic love to start with, then there’s the love of God, you sometimes have to look past the hard headed metaphors (cows, lots of cows early on. And moons). It’s not until Old Shep, 53 songs in for me and the King that there’s anything other than the birth of rock and roll. We’ve passed the echoing inventions of Sam Phillips, heard the bass slapped and the snare ratted, we’ve heard Elvis’s voice buckle country music out of recognition and into something dangerous and now it’s time for the dog. I’m a huge fan of epic, maudlin, Elvis whether it’s lost love (ooh loads), society’s ills (In The Ghetto), eternal damnation (all of the gospel recordings by implication) or a dead pooch.

In the fifties we get the templates for almost all of Elvis’s later output, and much of everybody else’s too — there are times, especially in the first big rush of success (Tell Me Why, 61 songs in) in 1957 where the material available to band isn’t anywhere near good enough. The vocals hold it together, and it’s a relief when the gospel recordings start they have a depth and sound less old—by virtue of sounding ancient to start with— than (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear (1957, 76 songs in) et al.

Could anyone of a similar pop standing (not that there is anyone) pull this off today? Could a major star change tack and record such openly religious music? Even 80s Dylan struggled with a Christian phase, maybe a chart-y soul singer could have a go but it’s unlikey that anyone would have the guts. It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) (68 in) has a wonderful oo-ee-oo at exactly 1:39.

It’s a while ’til we hit real movie detritus, but recordings from Jailhouse Rock offer a deathly foreshadowing of that which is to come—poor lyrics and simple melodies. It’ll get worse, but we’re okay for a while. What was Elvis in jail for in Jailhouse Rock, are these the stylings of an innocent man—did he just want to “stick around” to “get [his] kicks”? Forget this for a while, I tried to. Like I tried to forget that I’d made a terrible error at the Asda before starting the marathon and bought sugar-filled Pepsi rather than the similar looking caffeine-and-sweetnered Pepsi Max, a mistake that may well have lead to my dozing off later during a particularly one-note run of soundtrack sounds.

Crawfish from Kid Creole (122 songs in) was, I thought for a while, a new piece of non-metaphoric Presley. Was it the forerunner of the first few Beatles songs to leave that basic love/sex pop fascination—a song as dirty as this about a fish would have been way ahead of its time. Further reading or actual listening to the words revealed the crawfish to be ‘little Elvis’, and I was disappointed. By this stage I was keeping a tally of odd metaphors, three about cows, four moons (three of them blue) but this the first fish. I lost count eventually while looking for Elvis Firsts—and as I was so excited to find the classic ‘Elvis Talky Bit’ so early. Are You Lonesome Tonight (1960, 155) is the one with the “someone said the World’s a stage” line and is the most famous and best time that the King drops out of character, turns directly to you and solves your problems.

It finishes on the line “and then came act two” and that’s a good a point as any to really hit the long dark movie years of the soul.

Everyone knows that Elvis movies start okay, with proof that when given the right roles (young punk singers in the big city, not too much of a stretch) there is acting talent, and songs that mostly wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘proper’ albums. Everyone knows that the  movie business was eventually what killed the King, that Colonel Tom loved the film deals and the art could go hang. Everyone can point to Elvis’s Greatest Shit the in-no-way official compilation of the biggest musical atrocities and say that it’s almost exclusively from the movie years. Song of the Shrimp (Girls! Girls! Girls! 1962, 279) Old MacDonald (Double Trouble 1966, 411), and Dominic (Stay Away Joe 1967, 485)— a song about a shag-shy bullock—prove that.

But everyone is wrong. A bit.

Without exception, unless I was hallucinating on Onion Ring-style corn snacks, every film contains at least one great recording—the single from the album if you will. I started to save details of these lesser spotted flashes of ’56: Black Star (from Flaming Star 1960, 164) is county cowboy Roy Rogers done right, Charro! (Charro! 1968, 489) is the title track from his only non-singing role film and has a Joe Meek-eque production that really works.

In the days of limited media access, it’s frightening to think that the films were the only way you’d glimpse your favourite artist, and the awful soundtrack albums with terrible artwork. There no wonder that a whole pop and rock tradition built up while he was away. I took many an opportunity to pop to the toilet around this time.

The bad-film era does give us the first real batch of those gospel classics—enough to keep me going until the promised land of 1968. The ’68 special is, by some, held up as Elvis Presley’s last great work, but I find it a rehash of stuff that had gone before. Necessary to cleanse the palette perhaps, but nothing new recorded around this time has any great worth, we really do need to wait for the full big band sound to get into place before he becomes great again. I’ve been listening for over 24 hours now (I did drop off, but restarted at last remembered song) and I’m aching for the big sound of the Vegas years.

He can sing anything by this point, it’s all in place—band, producers, strings, horns, the Jordanaires. The only way it can go wrong is the song. When the song is right—I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water (1970, 570)— it’s perfect. When it’s wrong l’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen (1971, 615) it just doesn’t work.

Elvis is making me cry with regularity now, no-one hits a note of drunk self-pity better and even when you’re not inebriated you can remember those pissed moments when the only man that can understand how wronged you are is Elvis Aaron Presley. Well, him and Him. For we get that gospel thread back at this stage.

I spent most of my time at this point musing not on lyrical content, for Elvis is long past hiding behind anything the truth (whoever is writing) is laid bare, but on how Elvis is very much a religious figure. If my experience is coloured by the traditional Irish household I first heard Elvis records in, then perhaps that’s it. I see the EAP, JFK, and the Pope as the parts of a Catholic trinity almost as holy to people in the late seventies as the ‘real’ one. It’s something to to with the redemptive power of song, the way in which Elvis confesses every  sin—all borne through love—powerfully and honestly. Though they are others’ words, it’s Elvis’s truth. The greatest interpreter of song and emotion ever.

It takes Elvis 690 songs before he has a knock at Danny Boy (1976, 690) and it breaks the spell a little. Drawn in to the religiosity and expanse, I’m not buying that sentimental guff and it’s obvious that his heart isn’t in it.

Way Down (1976, 698) picks me up—despite containing the lowest note sung by a human on a recorded release by J.D.Summer— it’s a fitting end. I still love Elvis.

I tweeted throughout the experience at @elvismarathon, an archive of the Tweets is here.

A Spotify playlist of my ‘discoveries’ is here.