2004 – American Idiot – Green Day

As Mr Zimmerman once pointed out, the times they were a-changing. For the first time, it was James who pointed me in the direction of Green Day. Of course, I’d been aware of the group but had always thought of them as a band of punk-pop pretenders playing lightweight rock ‘n’ roll, wearing artfully ripped jeans and carefully cultivated, lip-curled sneers – much like Billy Idol. I’m still not really sure where James first heard of them, though I suspect it was probably his friend Jack Cooper that will have said they were good and Jack had probably heard them on some computer game. But that’s all guesswork. Either way, we bought the CD for him and I had it on in my car. On the first few listens, it seemed as I’d suspected: almost clinical in its production and all a bit too precise for my usual taste, with no real indication that anyone was actually playing any instruments. This is precisely why I’ve never been a big fan of typical American rock. However, I gradually became worn down by constantly playing it on the way to James’ child minder (my job every morning). He particularly liked the track ‘St Jimmy’, which lasts 2mins 54secs – exactly the length of time it took to get there. At first I would turn it off and put the radio on as soon as I’d dropped him off but I eventually decided to let the CD run whilst driving to work. I found that the more I did so, the more I began to quite enjoy it. I had to admit, there were some great tunes on the album and the words were pretty hard-hitting – not at all what I expected. They were obviously angry and that fitted in perfectly with how I was feeling at work.

The Junior school had recently amalgamated with the Infants to form Roughwood Primary School and was being run by a head teacher about whom the kindest thing I can possibly say is, she was, and probably still is, an idiot. I wouldn’t piss on her if she were on fire and I’m not going to waste any more effort in mentioning her again. Needless to say, I was angry every day, but what that did seem to do (as John Lydon has often alluded to) was fuel my creative energy. I bought myself a new Takamine acoustic guitar with a view to going busking again. I never actually got around to that, but I certainly spent much more time practicing than I had done for years, as it was a joy to play.  I also decide to trade in my huge, 120 bass note piano accordion for a smaller, lighter one that didn’t give me hunched shoulders for the next three weeks every time I played it. I’m pretty sure I got stung by the shop; the one I traded in was given to me by a bloke called Malc Fox (an inspiration for me getting into “diddley-diddley music” as he called it) not long before he died and was probably, in hindsight, a top-of-the-range instrument for which I should have expected a better quality model in exchange.  Oh well, you live and learn and I certainly played the new one far more so it was worth it I guess.

I was still using my camera regularly, looking to take that perfect shot. Tracey and I went on loads of what she called ‘hippy-trips’ to various ancient sites: Wales in April, Stanton Drew in June, which also included a visit to one of our favourite places – the burial chamber known as Hetty Pegler’s Tump (what a fabulous name!) and to Swinside stone circle up in the Lake District in January. That was a strange one; the path up the hillside was shrouded in mist and it was cold, damp and dull. Suddenly, a slightly bedraggled white horse appeared on the path up ahead, seemingly from out of nowhere. We decided the circle itself was quite ‘male’ – I felt perfectly calm and happy standing inside it, but it really freaked Tracey out and she didn’t feel comfortable at all.  We left fairly quickly though I did get a few atmospheric shots. In August we managed to get a fairly cheap, but fantastic week in Corfu. We visited a few sites and hired a car for a few days but really loved spending time either having breakfast, a drink or just chatting to each other and the lovely owners at a cafe/bar called Evergreen. In the summer I went to Mexico with the family and was able to fulfil a long-held ambition of actually seeing and climbing up the extremely steep and somewhat lethal steps to get to the top of the great temple at Chichen-Itza. I went on a day trip (alone – no one else had the slightest interest in visiting the iconic place) and chatted to a few other people on the coach. However, I doubt that any of them went because it had been the central feature of the cover of one of their favourite albums of all time.

It was whilst walking along Filey beach, with a crocodile of children on a week’s residential visit, that I had the idea of photographing a series of images around a box theme: paint box, telephone box, lunch box etc. There would be six images for each theme that I would then put onto a cube. The cubes could be put into a display case and changed as and when. That formed the basis of yet another minor obsession for a few months.

James was very quickly becoming the player to watch at Wombwell and in January he was scouted by Rotherham United.  It was only later that we found out the scouts had actually come to watch another lad from Barnsley called Reece, who was playing for Royston but they were equally impressed by James as well. As ever, James took it all in his stride, obviously thrilled and probably a little nervous, but approached it with his usual quiet confidence.  The first training session was at Millmoor in the gym and was taken by a coach called Paul Toy but who in true football fashion had a nickname – Tonk. He was a large, balding bloke with a rough, barking voice who scared James to death! Coming home that night he laughed slightly nervously and said if Tonk was taking it every week, he wasn’t going again. But for as long as anyone could remember, James had wanted to be a footballer so we knew he’d keep going no matter what happened. Despite being a new lad to the squad, he fitted in perfectly and was not outclassed at all.  When asked his name, he said, “My name is James but most people call me Jimmy” – so they did. At the meeting before the actual signing took place, we were told by Youth Team Leader, Tony Morton, that football could be and probably would be, brutal; players would be released and dreams would undoubtedly often be shattered but, “if you’re willing to go through that and put your son through that, these are the terms etc…” We asked James and there was no question. Of course he’d sign.

He was able to see the season out playing for Wombwell Warriors, his ‘huge engine’ frequently commented on, he could run and run. At the end of season awards, he was given Players’ Player and Player of the Year.

With James playing for Rotherham United, as well as being a Junior Miller with a season ticket (he went to all the home games with Auntie Mo and Oliver) you might have thought he was totally obsessed with football.  I certainly spent hours with him down at Kilnhurst park, kicking a ball around, targeting crisp packets stuffed into crevices in a wall, but he also saw me playing the guitar and singing so, naturally, wanted to do that too. He for some reason came up with a simple rhyme about a pineapple (!) to which I suggested a simple tune and we recorded James singing ‘The Pineapple’ along with a full backing on my four track tape recorder.  His older mate Jack was really impressed with the results. He was learning to play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so I was ‘commissioned’ to record the drums and bass tracks for him and James to do the guitar parts and singing. In fairness it was mainly Jack but they both had a whale of a time doing it and were really chuffed with the final product.

Tracey and I managed to get down to the Carling Academy in Birmingham to see The Libertines.  I’ve obviously been to many gigs and there is always some inexplicable feeling in the air when you know you’re seeing something extraordinary; this was one of those occasions.  The Cribs opened the evening, followed by The Ordinary Boys and both were good but from the minute they strolled onto the stage and began twiddling around on their guitars, gradually building up to launching into the first frenetic song, The Libertines gave off a chaotic, shambling brilliance. It couldn’t be any further from the tight, precise Green Day album but it was very, very special.

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2003 – Get Born – Jet

 

Basic, no-frills, bar-room rock ‘n’ roll. Probably because that’s what The Rogues had been peddling (albeit with an Irish twist) for ten years now, I was instantly blown away when I heard the opening guitar riff kick in on Jet’s single, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” There was nothing clever, nothing fancy and nothing particularly new but it was an instant classic: great bass line, crunching guitars and beefed-up, classic ‘Can’t Hurry Love’ drum beat. The rest of the “Get Born” album carries on in pretty much the same, vintage rock vein with girls, booze and music being the main themes.

I kind of hoped that The Rogues showed a bit more intelligence and that there was an element of irony in just how basic we sounded but, having found out later that many people thought we were always drunk and slightly out-of-control, maybe not! We were constantly surprised that after ten years, not only were we still going but still getting really good crowds coming to see us. The High House and Snafu were pretty regular bookings throughout the year, so at first, not wanting to upset either of them, we were a bit unsure of which one to play on St Patrick’s Day. However, they did both have the same owners and during a discussion with Snoopy (one of them) it suddenly became obvious: play both. The management were up for it and left it to us to sort out the logistics. Fortunately, we had access to two PA systems, so we set one up at each pub leaving us just our instruments and a couple of small guitar amps to carry from one to the other. We played the first set at Snafu to a packed pub of people all out for a great, party night. Then, having announced our plans to do the next set up at the High House, whilst Martin sang our last song, “The Fields of Athenry” I packed my guitar and banjo up, dashed up the street, plugged in and started singing “Carrickfergus”. I played it slightly slower than usual such that by the end of the song, the rest of the band, along with most of the audience, had managed to join in. The rest of the night was one of our best ever: loud, raucous, rollicking fun. The fact that there can’t be many bands who can say they were actually playing simultaneously in two different venues was just the icing on the cake.

Tracey and I had decided, for reasons unknown (other than a flight-of-fancy) that it would be a good idea to go ice skating sometime. I’d never actually ever been on the ice (though she had when she was a teenager), but I did think it would be good to take James too so that when he was in his teens, if any of his mates suggested going, he would be confident and competent enough to say yes. Our first time was on a Sunday afternoon at Silver Blades Ice Rink in Sheffield where two things became clear to me:  1. It looked pretty cool, gliding around at great speed, twisting, turning and weaving in and out, forwards or backwards and 2. I couldn’t do it. But I wanted to learn and James was really up for it. We booked in to attend a series of lessons for beginners on Saturday mornings and each bought our own boots so we didn’t have to wear the so-called ‘Blue Wellies of Death’ that everyone could hire.

Over the summer, having been asked by coach Terry Simon, James had signed up to play football for the under 8s at Wombwell Warriors, a team in the local Dearne Valley league.  He started training on a field in Wombwell and pretty soon stood out as a talented player. The coach was a bloke called Graham Nicholas who’d just returned from coaching at a soccer school in America. The games started in late August, on Sunday mornings and they played against teams such as Dearne Dragons and Pilley Panthers – we were convinced it was the Dearne Valley Alliterative League!

On one memorable weekend, James had a fall at ice skating on the Saturday, was taken to the Children’s Hospital where he had his head glued back together (well, a sizeable gash not the whole head) then played football on the Sunday and scored three goals and was given the man of the match award. People were certainly starting to notice him, helped undoubtedly by his shock of white-blonde hair.

Tracey and I agreed to take part in the Silver Blades Christmas Ice Show which was a version of Cinderella. We had extra practices on Sunday afternoons and became pretty competent – even being able to do the dance, on ice (Lord knows, I couldn’t previously have done it on solid ground!) to The Ketchup Song, a cheesy pop tune by Las Ketchup which couldn’t have been any more different from ” Get Born” if they’d tried.

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2002 – Up The Bracket – The Libertines 

2002-up-the-bracket

To use the vernacular, the drums and bass are as tight as a duck’s arse. Which is good because everything else on “Up The Bracket” by The Libertines is so loose it’s constantly on the verge of falling apart. From the very first bars of opening song ‘Vertigo’, the guitars are trying desperately to go slightly faster than the rhythm section and often than each other. In the background there are clicks, pops and occasional chatter or shouts which makes the whole album at once full of energy and joyous abandon. The Strokes were cool, The Libertines sounded like they couldn’t give a shit about being cool, which of course is even cooler.  It was the most exciting thing I’d heard for ages and wanted to tell everyone I met what they were missing.  As was becoming the norm these days, I’d read about the band in NME and then managed to find a couple of demos on the internet – most notably the song “What a Waster” which was just full of clatter and swearing. With lyrics falling somewhere between Morrissey and Chas and Dave, they sang of ‘fucking wasters’ and ‘two-bob cunts’ whilst managing to mention The Beano and the unabridged version of Ulysses in the same breath. The military jackets and references to Albion served to emphasise the sense of Siegfried Sassoon passing poetry to a squaddie whilst calling into the gentleman’s club on the way to the boozer – so many contradictions. When the album came out, I played it almost non-stop. There wasn’t the bad language of ‘What a Waster’ but the feel was the same; clever wordplay and guitar work disguised as simple punk rock. My favourite lines are from ‘Time For Heroes’ – “there’s fewer more distressing sights than that of an English man in a baseball cap” and ‘I Get Along’ – “I get along just singing my song, people tell me I’m wrong…fuck ’em.” Exactly.

I was also feeling pretty energised with my own creativity, I think it was the result of both seeing things differently through the eyes of a little boy (James) and being inspired by Tracey, urging me to try out my ideas. I enrolled on a City & Guilds Photography course at Rotherham College of Arts and Technology so that I might have an ‘audience’ for my images. The module I really got into was the ‘Black and White Photography’ one, where every Tuesday night my colleagues and I were in the darkroom, up to our arms in developer and fixer; smells that always reminded me of our kitchen back at home when I was growing up. There is something magical about an image gradually appearing on the paper and knowing you’ve got a good one. For the final assessment piece of the module you had to say how you would exhibit your images and I hit upon the idea of building a miniature mock-up of the gallery. In the middle of the room would be a box with images of a woman on each side, giving the impression of someone laying inside it. Tracey, as ever, indulged me by being willing to pose for the photographs which were certainly original and I thought, pretty good. I achieved a Distinction too, so the assessor must have agreed with me and that was a great feeling of achievement.

Fuelling my desire to visit as many ancient stones and burial chambers as possible, Tracey and I also managed a week away in Cornwall, staying in a static caravan. We had a fabulously relaxing time, pottering around the countryside, photographing the sites and spending endless, lazy hours in small town coffee shops or drinking wine and eating Pringles in the van.

Of course, I missed being with James and, when we went to Majorca later in the summer, we played together for ages, making sand sculptures (a sphinx was the first one we did and the professional bloke making sculptures further up the beach, came and gave us some money – I think he was a bit miffed!) and throwing or kicking a ball about on the beach. We often took ourselves off to have a cold drink or an ice cream – he was such good company.

Back at home, James started going to another football school, this time down at Manvers sports centre with a bloke called Terry Simon. As well as being amazed at James’ flexibility, when he was asking everyone’s name at the first session he said to James, “Tha dunt ‘ave footballers called James, I’m gunna call thi Jimmy.” And he did. For the next ten years, his footballing name was always Jimmy. Terry used to play for Sheffield Wednesday and these sessions were used for him to signpost talented footballers to the club. James was obviously talented and was asked to go to the Hillsborough training ground once a week for an eight week period. At the end of it they told us that he was a good player but wasn’t really fast enough so they didn’t want him to go anymore. My response? Fuck ’em.

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2001 – Is This It – The Strokes

2001 - Is This It

James was growing up. Having been in the nursery at Rawmarsh Ashwood Road because it was nearer for Auntie Mo to take and pick him him up, we took the decision to move him to a school that was nearer home and so nearer to where his friends were likely to live.  Kilnhurst Primary School was the school where I knew the headteacher and so it was that in September he had his first proper day at proper school.  He came home and almost immediately fell asleep on the settee, hands between his thighs, shattered.  Happy, but shattered.

He was also into everything and collected full sets of toys with an almost obsessive compulsion.  He had sets of Digimon playing cards and figures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures, Power Rangers figures (all of them) and as for Thunderbirds, well he had everything: figures, videos, books and even a playsuit.  Tracy Island was really hard to get hold of in the shops, so I decided we’d make our own and we had a great, messy old time on the patio using newspapers and Plaster of Paris to model the basic shape. We later splodged paint on it (and the flagstones) and when it was dry he played with it for hours.  We did eventually get the ‘real’ one but he barely touched it.  I guess it was kind of an excuse for me to revisit my childhood and go up into the loft and get out a few Thunderbird toys I’d had as a kid.  We used the toys and other bits of stuff to write and photograph James’ own storybook.  He was still more of an outdoor kid, though and we spent hours at Wentworth Garden Centre kicking a ball about or in Hoober woods collecting blackberries and running down hills.

Back indoors, whilst I didn’t really understand the concept at first (and actually don’t think James did either), I did start to enjoy the Digimon cartoons on television and thought the way they ‘evolved’ was a great idea, particularly as a means to sell yet more figures!  James’ favourite characters were Agumon, Gabumon and WarGreymon but I became utterly convinced that the programme creators were people about my age, trying desperately to get in the names of things they’d loved whilst growing up, when they introduced ‘Metal Gururumon’.  Definitely a T.Rex in-joke going on there.

Also wearing their influences on their sleeves, ‘Is This It’ by The Strokes could be the Velvet Underground in its production; the drums sounding like they’re played on a budget kit, the guitars with a live, studiedly amateurish feel and the vocals which are just overloading enough to sound like a cheap microphone has been used. The whole look of the band was straight from Blondie or The Pretenders with their seemingly effortless cool in ever-so-carelessly ripped jeans and battered sneakers combined with slim-fit jackets and skinny ties.  It’s just a brilliant album full of brilliant garage rock songs played with a ramshackle sense of joy.

It was the first time I’d ever heard songs on the internet before the album actually came out.  I’d read about The Strokes in NME and had been using Napster to frantically (if extremely slowly) download every song I really wanted but had never got around to buying, before the site was closed down for being illegal.  We’d talked in the band for years about how great it would be to be able to send new songs to each other and now, it was easily doable.  I’d recently upgraded my computer to one of the new iMacs (Blueberry) and thought it was fabulously fast; it still took forever to download a song but at least I could actually do that.  The Powermac 5200 I’d previously been using just wouldn’t let me do anything much apart from a bit of very slow Photoshop manipulation and writing the stories with James.  I now, for the first time, had one of those new-fangled things called an email address too, though wasn’t really sure what good it would be as I didn’t know anyone else who had one!  As I’d been looking on the internet for songs, I’d come across a couple of things by The Strokes – ‘Hard to Explain’ and ‘Barely Legal’ and was so excited by what I heard that I copied them onto a CD writer that I borrowed from school and played them to everyone I thought might be interested.  It was, as ever for me, met with a general ambivalence and comments about it being a bit raw and unpolished – in fact everything that I loved about it.

In fact I was a bit disappointed that when the album did come out in July, the versions of those two songs were slightly different from the ones I’d played to death. The drawl was still there on “Oh momma, running out of luck, but like my sister, don’t give a fuck” (Barely Legal) but the arrangement wasn’t quite the same. However, other songs such as ‘New York City Cops’, ‘Someday’ and ‘Last Night’ with its drum track that could have been lifted from ‘This Charming Man’ more than made up for it.  It’s also a very sexy album cover.

I was able to put the songs I’d got from Napster onto a CD (the words ‘burn a CD’ came into my vocabulary) to take with me on holiday but I never could sit long enough to listen. We went back to Florida in America to visit the theme parks again.  As the kids who went were all a bit older this time, we went to have one of the ‘Character Breakfasts’ at Disney. Big mistake!  James was terrified of Winnie The Pooh and just cried and cried his little eyes out.  From then on, he clung to me whenever there was a character walking around meeting children.  He was eventually fine with Tigger, but that was it.  They must seem very big to little people.

Back at home, after his first half term at Kilnhurst Primary, in the holidays James went to his first Soccer School at Swinton.  He was absolutely in his element and came away with his first little trophy and medal for ‘Player of The Week’. A sign of things to come, ‘Is This It?’ – not yet.

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2000 – The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

2000 - The Magnetic Fields

I’ve no idea where I first heard about “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields, probably the New Musical Express, but I’m so glad I decided to get it. What could have been a chore, listening to sixty nine songs and trying to sift out the wheat from the chaff, was an absolute delight. The mostly short, witty songs, strong on melody and even stronger on lyrical genius, are often like sketches rather than fully-formed, over-produced works but that’s where their charm lies. The instrumentation is unusual, mixing synths with ukuleles and drum machines with banjos (to name but a few) and the words have the poetry-of-the-mundane that I so love about bands such as The Smiths. As soon as the singer professes, “It’s only fair to tell you, I’m absolutely cuckoo”, on the first song, you know it’s going to be good. Later on he tells us, “Well, my heart’s running ’round like a chicken with its head cut off.” One of my favourite lyrics is, “The Book of Love is long and boring, no one can lift the damn thing up. Some of it is just transcendental, some of it is just really dumb.” And so it goes on, veering between the heart-achingly beautiful and the just plain daft – exactly what being in love is all about I guess.

Ideas for my photography were coming thick and fast, making connections and following leads. Tracey and I were still on with the ‘calendar series’ of great paintings recreated, but it sparked another idea of using the empty frames from pictures and showing body parts or faces through them – a kind of living art gallery I suppose. We painted a huge piece of hardboard black, cut rectangles out of it and fastened gold coloured frames over the holes. Getting the lighting just right was the biggest challenge, as Tracey positioned herself at various (probably very uncomfortable) angles showing various body parts and I pressed the shutter. I entered one of the pictures into the January round of the Photographer Of The Year competition – theme, ‘The Body’ – in Practical Photography magazine. It’s a fairly prestigious competition, so was absolutely thrilled to gain a top twenty place and have my picture published. Of course, I entered each month after that and got nowhere but it didn’t matter, I’d had a picture published.

James had been riding his little red bike with stabilisers for a while and we’d regularly spend Sunday afternoons over at the Victoria Quays in Sheffield, looking at the ‘Rosie and Jim’ canal boats or running, riding and kicking a football around under the bridge across the far side. There are a few ‘Cadman Lanes’ in Sheffield, dating back to the time of the cutlery makers known as ‘Little Mesters’, which is what most of my ancestors on dad’s side were. One of these is at Victoria Quays, along with Cadman Bridge, so we often went there to take a photograph or have a picnic. Fortunately, he was too young to either notice or understand when, on one such occasion, we were huddled in a doorway having a bit of lunch, and two lads came past, patting their pockets and muttering about not having any change. They thought we were begging!

Having already been to his first soccer school at Wingfield (and been picked out as talented by a bloke from Newcastle), James was pretty advanced in his physical development, but I was quite surprised when, in March, we were down under the bridge as usual and he managed to ride without the stabilisers for the first time. I was so proud but he just laughed and carried on, enjoying the sensation of balance and movement. It was the day after St Patrick’s night, always a late one for The Rogues and I was shattered but, along with a great song or a new creative idea, James’ smile when he found he could do something new could always lift me up and give me a burst of energy.

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1999 – Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band – The Mountain

1999 - Steve Earle

From the opening drawl of, “M..I..C..K..E..Y..M..O..You gotta put your hat on boy. Alright, you wanna be in the band, better put your hat on…” I knew I’d found it, that new ‘something’ I’d been looking for – bluegrass music. It was at once everything I liked about music; raw, basic, live and lively. It was rock ‘n’ roll fused with country, fused with blues and folk. It certainly wasn’t new but it was new enough to me. I’d never particularly been a fan of his, but I’d heard Steve Earle being interviewed on the radio as I was on the way home from the gym one Saturday afternoon and had been massively impressed with his attitude. He told how his record company hadn’t wanted him to release a bluegrass album but he’d done it anyway, because he ‘believed in it’. He recounted how the musicians had all basically sat in a room, around one microphone and just played. And how they played! The musicianship was brilliant but never at the expense of the songs. They were lean and tight with great melodies and heartfelt words. The song they played on the radio was title track ‘The Mountain’; the line, “there’s a chill in the air only miners can feel, and there’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed” sending shivers down my spine. I bought the album as soon as possible and played it to death, telling everyone and anyone who would listen. I learnt four songs within a week and stored them in my mental jukebox for use at some later date. Years before this, my dad had bought and played me a cassette by a bloke called Buckwheat Zydeco, raving about the bum-ching beat that he loved do much. Zydeco music is very very similar to bluegrass. It did strike me that at very nearly forty years of age, I was turning into my dad!

And it was my fortieth birthday in August. It wasn’t as if it could slide by unnoticed either as the day of my birthday was the very day Britain “all went strangely dark”. It was a total eclipse of the sun, a rare occurrence in this country but which, along with James being born at the exact time the rare nacreous clouds appeared over Sheffield, made me think we were somehow linked to the skies. Everyone on the news was warning us not to look directly at the sun but, sod that, I thought. I looked. I didn’t go blind. Out on the patio, it did go unnaturally cold as the darkness grew and whilst up in the north of England it wasn’t a totally total eclipse, it was pretty spectacular.

For my ‘significant birthday’ present, Wendy paid for me to spend a week photographing the ancient stones in the Kilmartin area of Scotland. It is littered with them: standing stones, circles and burial chambers, many in alignments and often very photogenic. The stones of Ballymeanoch were my favourites and I shot them using infrared film, something I’d never tried before. I went with Martin, the guitarist in The Rogues, who had also begun getting interested in photography. We got on well and had a great time, even if we did get wry, knowing, “they must be gay” looks from the other hotel guests at breakfast every morning.

The project with Tracey had now developed into a full-blown obsession. Most weeks we’d spend a couple of hours in my kitchen as I painted her face in the style of a famous picture before photographing the result. We recreated paintings by Van Gogh, Degas and Matisse amongst others, with some vaguely emerging notion of getting twelve shots together to make into a calendar. Most of all however, it was the time spent together that was important, bouncing ideas back and forth, urging each other on to new creative heights.

The year ended with The Rogues getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to provide the backing music for a variety of singers in a New Year’s Eve review show at The Brentwood Hotel in Rotherham. After The Holy Rollers finished, Grahame had done a lot of work as musical director for a few amateur operatic societies and he’d often used us to play in shows at The Civic Theatre or the Arts College, particularly for shows such as Grease or Bugsy Malone. He knew he could trust us to be able to play most styles of music so thought we’d be perfect for the gig. New Year’s Eve always pays well for a band but because it was the millennium, it was especially good. We didn’t actually have to work particularly hard either: play a few songs, have a break while the singers change costumes, play a few more songs, have another break and so on. In many of the breaks we went off to a quiet corner with our guitars and ran through possible new songs for the band. Quite naturally, a couple of Steve Earle songs found their way into our ever-expanding set list.

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1998 – Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse, Embrace, Massive Attack

Sparklehorse 1998

It could have been the perception of circumstances, but for me, there didn’t seem to be any one really significant album this year.  There were some brilliant, glittering songs by some great artists, but again, not a whole album that I played to death.  Perhaps I just didn’t have the inclination to listen to whole albums or maybe the CD format ended the idea of two sides of a listenable length. I realise I could have just stopped playing the CD after four or five songs but that seemed wrong somehow. Or maybe other obsessions began taking over for a while.

When they heard snippets of the “Deserter’s Songs” album by Mercury Rev, friends were very quick and almost delighted to point out that maybe, just maybe, I’d grown soft, laid-back and perhaps a bit more mainstream in my musical tastes. Ha! Obviously they didn’t realise that I was also listening to albums such as “Good Morning Spider” by Sparklehorse, with the megaphone-voice and fuzzed up guitar-squall of songs such as ‘Pig’ and ‘Cruel Sun’. True, “Deserter’s Songs” is, in places, a little more wistful and gentle than usual but with song titles such as ‘I Collect Coins’ and ‘Opus 40’, it certainly isn’t mainstream and very few, (if any) songs that I’ve heard on the radio, feature solos played on a bowed saw. ‘Holes’ does and is weirdly brilliant.

I was really hopeful when I got the Embrace album, “The Good Will Out”. I loved the sparkle of the first track ‘All You Good Good People’ and the lushness of second track ‘My Weakness Is None Of Your Business’. The third song, ‘Come Back To What You Know’ begins in a slightly sombre mood but builds to a majestic, soaring chorus that quickly became one of my all-time favourites but then the rest of the album gradually got more and more disappointing and I rarely played it. We even put ‘Come Back To What You Know’ into The Rogues’ set list for a while.

Our summer holiday was two weeks spent camping in France (well, in a static caravan) and I would sing the song to James, sitting on my shoulders as we traipsed around various market places. For some reason, every time I sang the first line, he would giggle happily. I also kept him amused (or probably bemused) by singing “Hark I hear the steeple bells, they’ll all be open now” every time a church bell rang. Only I knew it was from a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band tune, everyone else just thought I was bonkers, but it became our private joke. He and I played for hours, making cardboard food to put on the barbecue which he would ‘cook’, or making sandcastles on the beach while everyone relaxed. We went on holiday with friends: Gary, the other bloke, and myself got into the habit of trying to find the cheapest possible wine we could find. In the end, sixty cents got us a box of red which we could probably have used to clean the drains! The campsite was close to Croix-de-Vie where I’d stayed with the Amizet family in my teens and we’d arranged beforehand to visit them one day. It was lovely to see them again after so long and we chatted in their garden for hours.  They were horrified to hear our exploits with wine, so Yves (the dad), gave us a very expensive bottle to prove, “just how good French wine can be.” The daughter Soizic, whom I’d last seen aged about six, was there with her husband, Jacques. He was a musician and, after talking for ages, he invited us to a gig that night with his band at a restaurant in town where I was invited to get up and sing. They couldn’t speak English at all but we played ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, showing how music absolutely is a universal language.

I did manage some time on my own, going very early in the morning to visit and photograph a couple of huge standing stones that were close by. The pictures were good – but I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with landscapes. The images that really appealed to me in all the magazines I’d started reading were portraits, but I had no one I either wanted to, or who was willing to be photographed. In July I’d been on an art training course at YPO in Wakefield with Tracey, a new teacher who’d been at Roughwood for a couple of years but whom I’d not really spoken to much. We talked, laughed and played all day; an instant connection made. After the summer I made sure we were on playground duty together and we talked, laughed and played forever. After reading a book called Painting With Words, I hatched an idea to actually paint someone’s face to resemble, as closely as possible, the picture ‘Weeping Woman’ by Picasso and then photograph it. She was immediately up for it and later in the year we did it. A new obsession began.

Tracey was also the only person I knew who’d heard the dark, pulsing rhythms of ‘Mezzanine’ by Massive Attack. It broods and threatens and contains the brilliant ‘Angel’ and ‘Teardrop’ but again, for me just gets a bit boring after a while. I needed something more: something that would come around the corner and hit me like a freight train.

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