Searching for a meaning: A dozen songs about places I love

Songs always become linked to specific locations in my head – be it the first time I heard it or the person I was with at the time. But others have a head start. Here’s twelve songs about places I love.

1. The Parachute Men – Leeds Station

Like any level-headed and popular fourteen year old circa 2004 I used to bulk-buy NME compilation tapes from the late ’80s. They were full of serviceable janglepop songs such as this one which took on some significance after I spent a bitterly cold November night on the Leeds Station concourse while trying to get home from a British Sea Power gig. The platform clock is still burnt into my retinas after watching it tick through every second from 2am to 5am. All the while this song rattled around my head as I attempted to sync it with chattering teeth.

I guess their thought process went something like: “Right lads, our career’s on the up but we need a hit. Let’s record a song that speaks to the ordinary man…yeah, just sing about an incredibly grim 1960s transport hub.”

2. The Fall – Edinburgh Man

Yeah, Yeah, so you did the grating, painful, challenging stuff. Then you met Brix and went pop. And now you find that the North-West has become the coolest place in the music world. So what do you do if you’re Mark E. Smith in 1989? Bugger off to Leith and knock-out well-produced albums that feature approximations of actual singing. [See also: Bill Is Dead.] The ultimate Salford resident wrote one of his best songs about a love of the Scottish capital.

It’s one of my favourite places: tenements cascading down the volcanic rock, wide streets that suck in light and astonishing views around every corner. Sit on top of Calton Hill and listen to this while taking in the Forth Rail Bridge, the Scott Memorial and Easter Road and attempt to understand how the city fits together.

[Watch Mark talk about the city]

3. Half Man Half Biscuit – The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)

Nigel Blackwell celebrates unloved Britain better than anyone else – and did it two decades before anyone started writing quirky off-piste travel pieces about alternative destinations. There’s endless songs to choose from:  “We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune” is my rural upbringing in musical form while “Mathematically Safe” is both the greatest love song ever and has a reference to the Cumbrian monastic village of Cartmel.

But to have a song that includes a shout-along advertising slogan about a small Peak District settlement? A place that’s mainly notable for the overwhelming stench from the nearby Parma Violets factory? That’s good going. Altogether now, “No Frills! Handy for the Hills! That’s the way you spell ‘New Mills’!”

[For a better quality studio version try Spotify]

4. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – It’s Grim Up North

York. A64. Slipways. Driving. Passed Test. M62. Pounding music. Service station. Leeds. Batley. Dewsbury. Change the CD. Cleckhuddersfax. Over the damn. Under the bridge. Lanes divide. Stott Hall Farm. Up. Summit. Down. Milnrow. M60. Bury. Salford. Manchester.

Are all in the north. I like driving up north.

5. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner

…and I like travelling all over the place. One of the world’s worst earworms, a creature that winds its way around your brain for hours as you hum it under your breath and only punctuated by the odd subconscious shout of “Radio On”. It’s the soundtrack of movement and of pushing on towards the destination. It worked when I was singing it with Tommy Ogden as we pounded along a seemingly endless stretch of the beautiful Pennnine Way. And it worked when I was driving to Torquay on a Friday night to watch York City lose.

6. Elbow – Station Approach

That feeling of being away for a few months and then being overwhelmed by the comforting embrace of home – finding you can walk the familiar city without thinking and recognise the streets through your soles.

Pull into Piccadilly station, look over to the Star & Garter and recall being chucked out at 3am, give a nod to the crumbling Victorian Fire Station on your left, head down the approach ramp past the bloke hawking copies of the M.E.N., turn right onto the cobbles past the Golftorium (“Manchester’s leading Indoor Golf Bar, Pictures of Stella only £9”) , head over the Rochdale canal where Britain’s industrial dominance began, go into the Jolly Angler pub where there’ll be a pint of Hyde’s at £2.20 and Granada Reports on the TV. Sit down.

7. Pulp – Wickerman

I’ve always had a propensity for wandering around ruins and jumping around abandoned industrial sites. Jarvis is talking about a trip through the heart of Sheffield but it applies to any area where industrial waters sink and rise, railway arches cross over the path and flecks of resilient wildlife appear amongst the shopping trollies. To me it’s walking the grubby paths around Gorton industrial estates that transform into the gentrified towpath around Jutland Street, then heading past the Gay Village where rentboys once used the unlit route to supply their wares and on past Castlefield towards the endless new flats in North Hulme.

8. Billy Bragg – A New England

A song I’d always liked but never adored, until I had the briefest of chats with Billy Bragg. He told me that he’d spotted the “two shooting stars” that inspired him to write the song while walking past the Chemistry block at my old school. The same place where twenty years later I’d had my first kiss by the fume cupboard extractor fans. Oh, the youthful taste of sulphur dioxide…

9. Iggy Pop – The Passenger

I’ve written about my love of Berlin before and this always puts me in the mood for trundling over the S-Bahn rails from Warschauer Straße to  Zoo Station with a bottle of Beck’s Green Lemon.

10. Pet Shop Boys – King’s Cross

Way before JK Rowling inadvertently wrote about the wrong London Terminus I found King’s Cross magical. It was the portal into the foreign country of London, a bizarre place full of strange accents and odd people that was well removed from North Yorkshire. The annual trip down with my parents was a big event and there was a real thrill as the emerged out of that long tunnel, past the gas holders and pulled into King’s Cross.

We’d be off to visit some attraction or meet some friends but the station was amazing in itself. The enormous engines that carried us down would be lined up at the buffers, humming under the great canopy. And it was an impossibly busy place with people rushing in every direction, accompanied by the clackety-clack of the old departure board that rattled through every possible station – Leicester, Lincoln, Luton – before finally reaching ‘York’ and revealing our platform.

A few years later I discover King’s Cross was essentially a crap area full of prostitutes, drugs and poverty. Way to go, Neil Tennant.

11. Saint Etienne – Teenage Winter

One of the most underrated pop groups writes a misanthropic monologue full of regret, love and non-League football. Yeah, I’m in for descriptions of real people; of changing habits and dying communities.

Gary can’t believe the Claremont Road pitch is going to be covered in executive housing /He talks about the Newcastle game, Boncho’s debut, / but Tony can hardly hear him.”

It’s from a vaguely concept-album entitled “Tales from Turnpike House”, a name that meant nothing to me until I was wandering around Islington last month and saw said building, a prominent tower block stuck in no-mans land by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Beautifully mundane source material for perfect pop songs.

12. Malcolm Middleton – Ryanair Song

Aka the “One that’s basically about me”. The beautiful and wonderful developments that enables us to fly around the world also screws us up – it allows us to grow attached to things that should be beyond our reach. Because you CAN fall in love with people in different countries, because you CAN pop over to Stockholm to catch up with old friends, because you CAN just about afford an away day to see a gig in Berlin… because you can, I did.

Which condemns you to a life playing hard-ball with Ryanair. I’ve taken around forty flights with them in the previous eighteen months. It’s become a mundane, dopey ritual to head around Europe in search of new thrills. Grab the five pound flight, turn up wearing seven layers of clothes and push on through to the other side.

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IoS: Let undergraduates into All Souls

The Independent on Sunday subs are at it again. It’s not on the same scale as last week’s wanky balls incident there’s another inadvertant slip in the photo caption. Though it’s just a bit of bad luck.

Above a fairly standard article regarding the lack of University entitled ‘Limits on student numbers must be lifted, say heads’ they’ve plonked a nice picture of an Oxford College.

It’s just shame that they chose All Souls College, probably the only University establishment in the UK that hasn’t got around to recruiting any students in the last couple of centuries.

As for the caption, if record numbers are applying to such institutions then it’s no suprise that so many are getting rejected. Exclusive research for This Is Pop reveals that 10/10 applicants can’t find All Souls on their UCAS form.

It does inadvertantly raise the point that there is the ability to squeeze a few more students in Oxford. All Souls currently grants recognition to two Oxford grads a year, allowing them to join around eighty other academics in reaping the rewards of this elaborate, £236-million endowed dining society high class educational establishment. If we all have to do our bit to help the educational crisis they could probably increase their intake by, say, 50%. To three.

Incidentally, the new look IoS is worth a read if you get a chance. A nice alternative to the slightly po-faced Observer and the rabid anger over at The Sunday Times.

[All Souls did debate becoming ‘just another’ Graduate-only college in the late 1940s but John Sparrow fought off those who questioned any use of educational funds for this strange instituion, instilled some real academic rigour and let Isiah Berlin carry the college’s name. Due to some clerical quirk I was taught there last term. Got strange looks every time I walked in, on account of being under fifty.]

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Illustrations: Summertime

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Illustration: Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan

Drawing of the amazing Luke “Ming the Merciless” Flanagan, mayor of Roscommon, for Scope Magazine.

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Frank Sidebottom: Gone

I’ve been trying to explain to some fellow Uni students why the death of Frank Sidebottom really matters. Most of them turn off after the opening “so this bloke wore a papier mache head and was the funniest act you’ve ever seen…” gambit. They ask why? What was the point? If he’s so famous, why have I never heard of him – and why was he still playing half-empty pubs?

Strangedays, here we come.

The back story needs explaining and then immediately forgetting: Chris Sievey, a resident of suburban Manchester, created the character of Frank Sidebottom in the mid-80s. Frank was a dreaming teenage boy who lived with his mum and wrote ‘fantastic’ pop songs that mysteriously ended up being stolen and taken to the top of the charts by other, far more successful musicians. A variety of characters, including Caroline Aherne’s Mrs. Merton and Little Frank, were on hand to help with his burgeoning career in fantastic show business.

About as good as it gets. One of the Happy Mondays and David Soul join Frank to cover The Fall. Who else could get away with this?

Chris was utterly committed to his character. The head never came off in public and the cheeky, doomed Frank was fully integrated in the culture of Manchester.  While Frank chaotic presence was became an accepted part of the region’s fabric, Chris Sievey himself was a non-entity and  all interviews were done in-character.

One of my favourite Frank memories was walking down Deansgate during last year’s Manchester International Festival. Frank was standing in the window of Debenhams, painting in his characteristic style. Acrylics were flying around this expensively designed windowspace, splashing on the flat screen TVs and only six of us were watching. But almost every person that walked past looked up, commented something like “eh, it’s Frank Sidebottom!” and headed on with a smile on their face. The show went on in style before Frank legged it as fast as possible.

– A pleasingly bizarre tribute on Radio 2 news

There are other occasions. I twice held my birthday party at his irregular gigs at York City FC’s social club, enjoying some of the funniest nights of my life as this bona-fide comic genius put everything into performing for a half-full bar. His terrible covers of the eighties pop canon, the half-time raffle (“fantastic tickets only 99p”) and crowd involvement were funnier that anything I’d ever seen. Sure, it was knowing and post-modern but he was no smug comedian – he got a crowd of football fans to throw away their inhibitions, jump up and start ‘dancing like a horse‘. Frank really cared about putting on a fantastic show. The jokes were always the same but they never got old.

Why? Who cares.

And that’s got nothing on the wonders of the afternoon spent taking Frank’s “Magical Timperley Tour” on an open top bus around his home town. Cath Aubergine’s fantastic tribute has more on one of the most memorable days of my life.

If you don’t know Frank then there’s better places to start than here. Jon Ronson’s brilliant introduction gives you a sense of the chaos. This video is a fairly good start and a YouTube search will give you hours of fantastic material. There’ll be a lot more written in the next few days, talking of his uniqueness and the campaign to get one of his songs into the charts.

Chris, at a loose end, sketched the character of Frank, recorded a terrible version of Anarchy in the UK with Casio accompaniment, and sent it around the major record labels with a covering letter that began: “Dear X, I’m thinking of getting into showbusiness. Do you have any pamphlets?”

Someone at EMI found this funny enough to invite him in. He arrived, dressed as Frank, and as he walked in the A&R man asked: “Have you been in showbusiness for long?”

Frank looked at his watch and replied: “10 seconds.”


Chris had other strings to his bow. He worked as animator, producing an award-winning episode of Pingu and had a brush with fame in early 80s band ‘The Freshies’ – the Frank character was originally invented to be their ‘Number One fan’. I first came across him after a music teacher convinced my friend to cover their near-hit “I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk” at a school concert.

The rest of the audience was a stunned. But to my mind it was was the funniest thing I’d seen, completely out of place amongst the earnest singer-songwriters and classical musicians. I tried to track down the song but instead found a ZX Spectrum game that Sievey had coded after leaving the band. Entitled ‘The Biz’ it was a simulation of the music business in the mid-80s, full of horrendously bad humour and massive coding errors. I loved it and spent most of my GCSE revision time trying to hype imaginary bands to the top of the charts via John Peel sessions before losing it all in a sour deal with EMI and being reduced to playing the Oxford Apollo.

He was way ahead of the curve, trying to beat technology by combining music with  computer games. The original format required you to record the b-side of a cassette single onto the Spectrum which, assuming the various blips and beeps had transferred into the memory, would then allow this twisted game to be played.

I can’t think of a better tribute than digging out a copy – click here to play it online. There’s also a rare interview with Chris ‘as himself’ available online, talking about the game and an amusing look at the weird background to its development.

But for now, adios Frank. You really were fantastic.

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Interview: Robyn

Robyn is a 10/10 sort of popstar: underrated but utterly brilliant. A constant presence on the radio without getting on your nerves. And she’s got class. In the electropop supermarket she’d be a succulent M&S Sunday Roast. Sorry…did you just choke on that metaphor? Then have a listen to her latest single ‘Dancing on my Own’. It’ll sort you out:

I went to interview her in autumn 2007, just after leaving school. The deal was: meet Robyn in the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road in Manchester. She’d give me ten minutes of her time and then we could all trot off home. Instead we kept talking and this scruffy, fresh faced student ended up being taken out for dinner by a gorgeous Scandavanian pop star that looked like an ice pixie and switched between chat about Madonna and Marx. At this point that I developed a misguided idea that all university would be like this.

The version here is cobbled together from a piece written for Manchester’s Student Direct paper and a longer transcript that wasn’t used. So it doesn’t really flow and the questions are a bit stodgy…but have a read. It won’t hurt.

If you haven’t got Body Talk Part 1, Buy it. But now, on with the interview with “the most killingest pop star on the planet”.

Continue reading

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Gameboy USB Drive

Welcome to This Is Pop, where aesthetics always triumph over function.

In this vein, I’m happy to announce the launch of our first range of boutique products. We’ve taken a selection of original Gameboy cartridges and turned them into USB drives.

The classic Nintendo plastic cases now come with a little USB connection at one end. We’ve tested it on a selection of Macs and Windows PCs and it works just fine.

In addition to being a fully functioning data stick for transferring files between computers, they come pre-loaded with a selection of classic Gameboy games to play on your laptop. These games don’t even need installing – so can be played whenever work gets too boring and on any computer you can find.

It’s available to buy from This Is Shop! at an introductory price of £15. (We’re really not making any money on them.)

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