A Song For The Week: The Sea

The Sea

When Fotheringay’s self-titled album was released in 1970, Sandy Denny was already arguably the pre-eminent British folk singer of the time. Denny had spent the best part of the last three years with Fairport Convention, contributing to some of the finest folk music ever recorded. Their albums ‘Unhalfbricking’ and ‘Liege and Lief’, both from 1969, are benchmarks in folk rock that have few equals.

By the time Liege and Lief was completed, Denny had felt it was time to move on from Fairport Convention. Liege and Lief featured more traditional tunes than previous albums, and while Sandy loved these songs, she had spent the last five years singing other people’s songs and was keen to explore new territory. Denny had already shown glimpses of her burgeoning songwriting skills, in particular the exquisite and oft-covered ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. A solo career beckoned, but Denny wasn’t quite finished with life in a band.

The band Fotheringay was named after Denny’s song of the same name on Fairport Convention’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ album, which was in itself inspired by Fotheringay Castle. The band was made up of Denny, Trevor Lucas, Gerry Conway, Jerry Donahue and Pat Donaldson. While a genuine band, Fotheringay was very much Denny’s vehicle, and as such she contributes four of the eight tracks on their debut album (and the only one released in her lifetime). She also co-wrote ‘Peace in the End’ with Trevor Lucas.

‘Fotheringay’ is a stunning album and a great leap forward for Sandy Denny as a songwriter. Two tracks stand out amongst the albums many gems, both written by Denny. ‘Nothing More’ is one of the best songs Sandy would ever write, but for me it is ‘The Sea’ that remains Fotheringay’s crowning achievement.


Photo: Linda Fitzgerald-Moore

For the most part, ‘The Sea’ conveys a sense of raw and beautiful power, the ocean as an enigmatic but undeniable force. Denny wrote the song in the first person, so the singer becomes the sea, embodying its mysterious nature. The words often tease, test and taunt us:

“Do you ever wonder? You don’t know

You’ll never follow and I’ll never show”

And later:

“You laugh at me on funny days, but mine’s the sleight of hand

Don’t you know I’m a joker, a deceiver”

Sandy’s songs often have a distinctly autumnal tone, warm remembrances of the best of times, but always an awareness of how happiness can be fleeting and often elusive.

This autumnal quality is best heard in Sandy Denny’s voice. Sandy’s voice had a strength and purity that would overflow with such life-affirming joy, and at the same time expressed a vulnerability that could be heartbreaking but was always extraordinarily touching.

We see both of these sides of Sandy in ‘The Sea’:

“Time? What is that? I’ve no time to care.

I’ve lived for a long while nearly everywhere”

Sandy sings of time as if she has the wisdom of one who has an eternity of memories to call upon, and the joy and abandon of one who constantly lives in the moment. In the next line we are reminded of the inevitability of our own mortality:

“You will be taken, everyone

All you ladies and you gentlemen”

What could have been a dark and damning portent is transformed by Denny’s voice – she sings of ‘you ladies and you gentlemen’ with a warmth and gentleness that is calming beyond measure.

We see these counterpoints throughout the song, an ebb and flow that reflects the mystery of the sea and how it can overwhelm us whilst cradling us to its heart at the same time.

I feel I should also highlight Jerry Donahue’s wonderful guitar on this recording. His playing complements Denny’s voice with a wonderful clarity.

Here is Sandy speaking of the song to Melody Maker in 1970:

“Whenever I sing The Sea I think about a particular beach in Wales where I sat late at night, rather sad, a long time ago when I was about 18. It was almost like watching Cinerama as the sun went down.

“I began to think how powerful the sea was, and I even got a little morbid, thinking about what it would be like to swim out and just drown.

“The sea seemed to become a sort of person, like a mind, and that’s what I have tried to convey, the power of the sea.”

As sad as this memory is, I understand the sentiment. For so many of us, modern life acts to distance us from nature. When we are lucky enough to experience moments where we do feel connected to the natural world, it can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. I think that is what Sandy experienced that day and later expressed in her song. We know that such beauty and power can be destructive, but we are drawn to it nonetheless, seeking a connection to something elemental and even spiritual in essence.

There is a timeless quality to ‘The Sea’ which I think is apparent in so much of Sandy’s music. The song is now 43 years old, but it sounds like it could have been written yesterday, or a hundred years ago. I still listen to the song a lot, and I sometimes imagine Sandy sitting on that beach in Wales all those years ago. She is sometimes smiling or laughing and often sad, but always, always singing.

Alas Mel Smith

Mel SmithIt was with great sadness that I learned on Sunday of Mel Smith’s passing at the age of just 60. It came as quite a shock to those (myself included) who were unaware of his recent health issues. Smith had suffered from various afflictions, notably gout and a severe case of pharyngitis. He’d also taken an accidental overdose of painkillers in 2009. Mel finally succumbed to a heart attack on July 19th.

I hadn’t seen or heard much of Smith in recent years, but will always have fond memories of his wonderful comic collaborations with Griff Rhys Jones. I was too young at the time to fully appreciate ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, Mel Smith’s breakthrough TV show, working with the (at the time) unknown Griff, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson. Mel and Griff then moved on to their own sketch-based comedy series, ‘Alas Smith and Jones’. I was only 10 or 11 when ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ first screened and was only learning of the joys of British comedy. The sketch format wasn’t anything new, and it could be a bit hit and miss at times, but like life there is a fine line between success and failure in comedy. For the most part however, ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ was extremely well written, beautifully performed and wonderfully, wonderfully funny.

Smith and Jones were perfectly matched, both equally adept at playing the straight man or the fool. The highlight of the show was the recurring ‘talking heads’ piece, a simple conversation between Mel and Griff, shot in profile and with minimal cameras. There was always a loose theme to each discussion, but it was really a chance for both performers to one-up each other in comic stupidity. You can see the tip of the hat to their comedy forebears, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Pete and Dud sketches. In an ideal world we might have seen all four conversing over a pint or two, a sort of dunce’s tag team death-match. OK, perhaps that happens in my ideal world.

In addition to Smith and Jones’ comic timing and acting ability, Mel had one of those malleable faces which could make you laugh just by looking at it. My favourite example of this was Mel’s brilliant “Night Thoughts” parody. Go to 7.19 in the link below:

Here’s another of my favourites from ‘Alas Smith and Jones’. The football theme may not be familiar to all but is close to my heart, while the humour is certainly universal:

My favourite sketch of Mel’s was a spoof on homemade community television,  the show being something along the lines of ‘DIY for the Homeless’. I don’t  have a clip for this one, despite a quite extensive Youtube search. If anyone knows of this being available online, do let me know. I would love to see it again. Mel and Griff appear as two drunk, vaguely Scottish tramps, hosting their own show in which they are supposed to give out handy tips and words of wisdom on the art of homeless living. Instead they constantly interrupt each other and forget what they are supposed to be doing. At one point Griff tries to instruct his audience in the art of making a ‘wee bundle’, one of those collections of odds and ends that the homeless will sometimes carry around with them. Years after I saw this sketch I was working in a bookshop and noticed a bag of what looked like rubbish lying next to one of the bookshelves. With all the best intentions, I went to remove it, only for a slightly dishevelled but well-spoken old man to tell me off quite sternly for attempting to take his belongings. It dawned on me what the bag was, but a colleague of mine was quite confused. ‘That’s alright’ I said, ‘it’s just his wee bundle’. I don’t think I’ve seen a more bemused look than that on the face of my colleague. Somehow I don’t think my laughter really helped though…

Episodes of ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ (later shortened to ‘Smith and Jones’) aired more sporadically by the ’90s, but it was always a treat to see the show whenever it screened. Mel was also a talented director, and I can highly recommend his directorial debut, “The Fall Guy”, starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum.

There’s little doubt Mel’s performances on these classic shows will be available for all to see for as long as there is interest in them, which I’m sure will be a long, long time. Despite this, Mel’s passing feels far too soon. For those of us who grew up watching shows like ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Alas Smith and Jones’, it is almost like a part of our youth went with Mel when he died. He will be greatly, greatly missed. I don’t think anyone could have paid tribute to Mel better than Griff Rhys Jones, his friend and comic partner of 35 years:

“To everybody who ever met him, Mel was a force for life. He had a relish for it that seemed utterly inexhaustible.

“He inspired love and utter loyalty and he gave it in return. I will look back on the days working with him as some of the funniest times that I have ever spent.

“We probably enjoyed ourselves far too much, but we had a rollercoaster of a ride along the way. Terrific business. Fantastic fun, making shows. Huge parties and crazy times. And Mel was always ready to be supportive. Nobody could have been easier to work with.

“We never had an argument about which part we should play or how we were going to do something. We never had an argument, in fact. We loved performing together. He was a very generous and supportive actor. We had a good deal of fun.

“Mel was not a pressure person. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. And he was a brilliant actor. But he never took himself or the business too seriously. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”

After The Thrill is Gone: A History of The Eagles

The Eagles“It wasn’t for the money, at least it didn’t start that way” – Certain Kind of Fool

It has been said many times that history is written by the winners. After watching “History of The Eagles” you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d been watching the Glenn and Don Show. Looks like we have a winner – make that two. This history isn’t so much written as smashed in your face and rammed down your throat. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Eagles, in fact I’ve been a fan since I was 15, a good 25 years now. This just wasn’t the story I was expecting or hoping to see. What I saw was The Eagles as viewed by the band’s all-conquering leaders, Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Part of me gets this and accepts it. The band is a different entity now, perhaps it needed to change to survive. Frey and Henley took the band to its greatest commercial success, so perhaps they are entitled to present the band’s story their way.

As a fan however, this is a big and bitter pill to swallow. In the 25 years that I have listened to The Eagles I have come to realise that my appreciation and perception of them has changed completely. The band I loved initially is the one you see in the doco, an endless supply of hooks, harmonies and monstrous hits. As I got older however, and my musical palette broadened, I started to appreciate a different side to The Eagles. I went back to those first three albums and found a band with four then five more or less equal parts, all adding great musicianship to terrific songcraft. Yes, they weren’t perfect, they were still learning. I liked that they weren’t perfect, and I liked that the band members were all different – it made them much more interesting, and gave much more breadth and variety to their songwriting.

My favourite of these early albums was their third release, “On the Border”, from 1974. Unfortunately, all we really learn of this period is the introduction of Don Felder to the band. The first two albums get a little more coverage, most of the focus being the band’s lukewarm relationship with producer Glyn Johns. Frey in particular clashed with Johns over what the band’s sound should be. Johns saw The Eagles as perfectly suited to country rock, with the emphasis very much on a laid-back country vibe. Frey thought The Eagles could and should be far more rock n’ roll. Frey does his best Johns impression when quoting the producer: “You’re not a rock n’ roll band. The Who is a rock n’ roll band, and you’re not that”. Johns may not have been the right fit for The Eagles but he did produce two terrific albums with them and I think he was right in this instance. For all their twin guitar attack during the peak of their success, no one ever labelled them as a great rock n’ roll band. At worst, they created or at least perpetuated what became known as ‘corporate rock’.

The best example of the Johns period is the performance at the BBC in 1973. It is fascinating to watch the group dynamic during this performance. Frey and Henley had yet to exert control over the band, and to a casual observer it would be easy to think that Bernie Leadon was the band’s leader. Leadon’s musicianship is astonishing and he shows it off to the full, and in doing so he often pushes the sullen Frey into the background. Not surprisingly, we see very little of this footage in History of The Eagles. We see very little of Leadon at all, and even less of Randy Meisner. Leadon at least gets to tell the story of how he left the band, telling Frey he needed to ‘chill out’ and then proceeding to aid him in this by emptying his beer over Frey’s head. Leadon then goes on to say how it may not have been the best way to make his point…bet you enjoyed it though, Bernie.

Meisner is seen even less than Leadon, and again most of his air time relates to his exit from the band. Like Leadon, Meisner had seen the power shift within the band, and the day to day demands of being an Eagle finally got to him. Meisner never really got his due, both as a singer and songwriter. As great as songs like “Hotel California” and “Desperado” are, if The Eagles have one genuine masterpiece then it is surely “Take It To The Limit”, and no one could sing it like Randy. Sadly, when he finally got his moment in the spotlight, it all became too much for him. Every show became like Russian roulette when it came to the song. Apparently Randy felt he couldn’t always pull off the high note at the end of the song and would sometimes refuse to sing it. To be fair to Frey and Henley, I can’t blame them for pushing Randy on this. Many people, myself included, would have gone to one of their shows for that song alone. Hell, he could have sung that one note and I would have been happy. To play a set without “Take It To The Limit” would have been unthinkable and unacceptable.

Once we get to the Hotel California phase you can begin to see the writing on the wall. Joe Walsh, bless him, arrives and tries to loosen up proceedings. In this respect he has more success off-stage than on, but you can’t blame him for trying. For all the fun he had partying with the likes of Keith Moon, the toll it has taken is clear in his interview. For all that, Joe is thankfully still with us, unlike Keith.

With The Eagles back catalogue now available on Spotify, I took the opportunity to have another listen to the Hotel California album. What struck me was how heavy and bombastic much of the album sounds. When I finally got to Randy Meisner’s lovely “Try and Love Again” I almost felt like a drowning man getting a reprieve. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a reminder of what the band had once been. I still love listening to the song “Hotel California”, but mainly for the intro and Felder’s solo at the end. Felder’s playing was integral to so much of The Eagles sound, it is hard to imagine the band without him.

The film moves from the party days of Hotel California to the decline of the band during the production and promotion of “The Long Run”. Timothy B Schmit replaces Meisner, and contributes probably the best and certainly the coolest song on The Long Run with “I Can’t Tell You Why”. By this point Felder was very much on the outer with Henley and Frey. Things come to a head during one performance, and we get to hear Frey and Felder posturing and mouthing off between songs. By this stage it is fair to say that everyone is beginning to look like an asshole and you can see why Leadon and Meisner wanted to get off this ride.

Part Two of History of The Eagles continues the Glenn and Don show. To be honest, I was surprised that a Part Two was even necessary. What takes 3 hours could have been covered in 30 minutes, an hour at most. Instead we have to sit through Frey and Henley’s sporadic solo output in the ’80s. We even get clips of Frey’s ‘acting career’. Really, Glenn? It was Miami Vice – enough said. From there we get a 2 hour view of a 20 year victory lap. We see more of Don and Glenn and less of everyone else, except for the third musketeer and partner in crime, Irving Azoff.

The one point of interest in Part Two is the firing of Don Felder. In essence, Don thought his value to the band wasn’t being recognised. Frey and Henley thought otherwise. Frey and Henley won and Felder was gone. Don was always going to lose this battle, he was fighting for a place in an Eagles that ceased to exist around 1975. Most bands don’t have a democratic set-up, and The Eagles were no different. What is sad in this instance is that it is clear this was a business decision, not a musical one. Frey almost sounds triumphant when speaking of it – another win for Eagles Inc. Conversely, Felder (almost in tears at one point) clearly misses the music and yes, the people too.

When did The Eagles become a business instead of a band? I’m sure Frey and Henley would argue that it is still about the music, but anyone who has listened to “Long Road Out of Eden” would know better. Henley and Frey sound (and in Frey’s case look) increasingly like corporate fat cats. It is suggested at one point during History of The Eagles that The Eagles wanted to be Crosby, Stills and Nash. I can certainly imagine Frey and Henley wanting to be like ‘Captain Manyhands’, Stephen Stills. Stills’ personality, talent and ego dominated CSN, but Stills would never have been as effective without the counterbalance of Graham Nash, a calming influence and a mediator. The Eagles never really had someone who could fill this role, and in my opinion, as a band they paid for it dearly.

Perhaps one day we’ll see a more balanced history of The Eagles, but I don’t expect to see it anytime soon. In the meantime, History of The Eagles is what we will have to take, albeit with a rather large grain of salt. I’ll finish with a reminder of how wonderful Frey and Henley could be and perhaps an omen of what they would become:

Same dances in the same old shoes
Some habits that you just can’t lose
There’s no telling what a man might use,
After the thrill is gone

The flame rises but it soon descends
Empty pages and a frozen pen
You’re not quite lovers and you’re not quite friends
 After the thrill is gone

What can you do when your dreams come true
And it’s not quite like you planned?
What have you done to be losing the one
You held it so tight in your hand well

Time passes and you must move on,
Half the distance takes you twice as long
So you keep on singing for the sake of the song
After the thrill is gone

You’re afraid you might fall out of fashion
And you’re feeling cold and small
Any kind of love without passion
That ain’t no kind of lovin’ at all, well

Same dances in the same old shoes
You get too careful with the steps you choose
you don’t care about winning but you don’t want to lose
After the thrill is gone

One of Frey and Henley’s best and most underrated songs. The truth laid bare.

One of the hidden gems on the Desperado album. Leadon’s playing on this is sublime – turn up the volume from about 4.20 to see what I mean.

A beautiful breakdown of Felder’s playing on “Hotel California”. If you don’t think Felder is essential to The Eagles sound, watch this and imagine someone else playing it.

Randy’s finest moment, and The Eagles’ true masterpiece. If you’re looking for ‘the note’, again, go to around 4.20

Carroll: King For a Season?

Andy CarrollIn September last year I wrote a post about the arrival of Andy Carroll at West Ham United and the cloud of uncertainty surrounding his future. At the time Liverpool had agreed to loan Carroll to West Ham for the remainder of the 2012-2013 season, with the option to sell permanently at season’s end. Last week we finally saw the conclusion to this chapter of the Carroll saga when it was announced that Carroll had signed a deal to make his move to Upton Park permanent. Carroll penned a six year contract (with the option of another 2 years after that) for a deal worth around £15-17 million – West Ham’s most expensive signing by some margin, eclipsing the 11 million spent on prising Matt Jarvis from Wolves.

In my earlier post I raised three concerns regarding Carroll’s (then loan) signing. I had hoped that these issues would have been resolved by now, but there is still much to ponder over at least 2 of these issues.

The biggest concern I had turns out to be the one thing that seems to have been resolved without too much drama – money, or more precisely the lack thereof. West Ham has never been a club overflowing with cash, so to see the club’s owners agreeing so readily to such a heady sum as £15-17 million came as something of a shock, especially when added to the amount paid for Jarvis. Messrs Gold and Sullivan do have deep pockets and have invested a great amount of their personal wealth in the club. They have earned the respect and loyalty of most of the West Ham fanbase, but it is hard not to feel at least a little nervous when such a huge amount is spent on a single player. Despite this, there is no doubting that a signing like this is an indication of the club’s growing ambition, and that is something to be commended.

The second concern surrounds Carroll’s commitment to the club. On a surface level this seems to be a non-issue. A six year contract would indicate that Carroll has enjoyed his brief stay at the Boleyn Ground and is committed to a long stay. Scratch beneath the surface however and there is still a lack of certainty about where Carroll’s long term commitment lies. Carroll had always made it clear that he saw his future at Anfield and wanted to prove that he could succeed as a Liverpool player. Once it became clear that Carroll did not feature in Brendan Rodgers’ plans (and never would), Carroll’s options became limited. As good a player as Carroll was at Newcastle, he did not convince at Liverpool and while impressive at times with West Ham, had not done enough in his limited appearances to attract any wealthy suitors. My feeling is that if Newcastle had agreed to Liverpool’s £15 million price tag, Carroll would have chosen them over West Ham and would now be back on Tyneside. Liverpool had every right to try and recoup as much as possible of their sizeable outlay on Carroll, but the reality is they were lucky to get any takers at that price. Once West Ham and Liverpool had agreed terms there was nowhere else for Carroll to go.

So how committed is Carroll to what is essentially his third choice club? The jury is still out for me. Carroll has shown he has a professional attitude and does work well with Sam Allardyce. His close relationship with captain Kevin Nolan has also been a key factor in keeping him at Upton Park. This is all well and good for season 2013-14. All going well, Carroll will have a top campaign and score the goals we expected from him last season. With a bit of luck he may even make the England World Cup squad. What then? I might be perceived as being a mite cynical, but it would not surprise me if Andy started looking further afield at some bigger clubs. Unless West Ham overachieve and qualify for Europe (even then it would be the Tiddlywinks Europa League) I can’t see Carroll putting down roots at the Boleyn Ground or the Olympic Stadium. I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

Carroll and NolanAll of this may be moot if the final concern of mine rears its ugly head: INJURY. Carroll spent much of last season on the sideline, and though I have read numerous articles stating that he is not injury-prone, the evidence suggests otherwise. Two fairly major injuries last season were exacerbated by the heel injury sustained on the last day of the season. Just like the earlier injuries, what appeared to be a relatively minor knock will now keep Carroll out for the entire close season and quite possibly the start of the new Premier League campaign in August. Carroll is not the sort of player who can slot back in after an injury and pick up where he left off. He needs plenty of match time before he can get back to the level expected of him. At this rate we could be looking at September or even later before we see Carroll at anywhere near his best. In the meantime the search is on for another top striker to partner/back up Carroll. Carlton Cole has been released and there are hints that Maiga and even Vaz Te’s positions at the club may not be certain. Top strikers are few and far between so I’m not holding my breath for anyone of real note. If nothing else they’d better be as tough as teak because there is no way they can afford to be injured with Mr Carroll on the scene.

There is always a lot of speculation at this stage of the year, so my concerns may come to nothing in the end. On the other hand a whole new set of problems may arise…such is the life of the football fan. The close season makes football fans a little crazy, mainly because very few people really seem to know what is going on, and those that do keep their cards very close to their chests. It is never less than entertaining however, and I think most fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Let the madness ensue!

Andy Carroll scores against West Bromich Albion, March 2013. More please Andy!

Reflections on the Season: A Job Well Done

Andy Carroll BubblesWith another Premier League season now over, I thought it a good time to reflect on an uneven but ultimately successful season for West Ham United.

The season finished on a high note with a win at home against relegated Reading. Although 4-2 sounds comfortable enough, at one stage a 2-0 half-time lead had evaporated and Reading were right back in it at 2-2. A couple of late goals did the trick, but the win became harder work than it should have been. The score could have easily been double what it was, such were the number of chances created.

In players like Mo Diame and Matt Jarvis, West Ham have brought in genuine playmakers with the vision to create scoring opportunities from just about anywhere on the field. Both took a while to settle (Jarvis was also out injured for some time) but they showed their value over a long season. Opportunities are one thing, goals another. Of those there were too few. It is an indication of the club’s lack of forward stocks that the leading scorer for the club was Kevin Nolan with 10 goals. Nolan is an attacking player, but you would expect to see a striker at the top of the goals scored ledger. Andy Carroll was the best of the rest with 7, most of those goals coming in the latter part of the season. To be fair to Andy, injuries curtailed what looked like a promising season for the loanee from Liverpool. When match fit, he did look the goods and was always a handful for opposition defences.

As a loan player, Carroll was certainly worth the investment, despite limited opportunities. Sam Allardyce has made it clear that the club wants Andy on a permanent basis. Terms have been agreed with Liverpool, so now it is up to Andy whether he wants to stay. Messrs Gold and Sullivan have indicated how important Andy is to their plans, but if he does agree to stay, will the club get its money’s worth? The season has only just ended and Carroll is already injured, out of action for at least 6 weeks and quite possibly longer. Injury is part and parcel of modern sport, but Carroll does seem to be less than robust.

All this remains to be seen but in the meantime the club has dispensed with the services of Carlton Cole, a striker who performed creditably and with great loyalty over 7 years. Carlton isn’t the player he was but can still produce quality performances and could still have offered enough experience to justify a one year contract extension.

Despite a lack of goals, there was plenty to be positive about this season. Establishing yourself in the Premier League is no easy feat for a newly promoted club, and West Ham can be happy with their 10th position. They never once slipped into the relegation zone and produced some outstanding team and individual performances.  Highlights for me were the win over Chelsea (of course!) and the closely fought draw with Manchester United in the FA Cup. There were hard-earned away wins over Newcastle and Stoke, as well as a memorable 3-0 thrashing of Fulham in September. This was the fans first look at Andy Carroll, and despite not scoring he had a huge influence on the outcome of the match.

Winston ReidThe player of the season was Winston Reid, no question. A solid player last season, Reid rose to a new level in 2012-13. Defensively he was consistently strong and decisive, and from this came a confidence which spread to the rest of the defence despite key injuries to George McCartney and James Tomkins. Such was Reid’s growth as a senior member of the side, he was given the captain’s armband on more than one occasion. He deservedly won West Ham’s player of the season award. Other standout performers were newly signed Mo Diame and (particularly in the first half of the season) Kevin Nolan. There were a number of cracking goals scored, but the best for me was the little seen Modibo Maiga’s goal against Southampton.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the worst performances, but the loss to a poor Aston Villa was disappointing, as was the hammering at Sunderland. Arsenal inflicted a 5-1 defeat, but they can do that to the best of sides. The most memorable losses were those to Liverpool and Spurs, if only because they could so easily have been victories. The Spurs loss in particular was gut-wrenching, not least because they have made a habit of snatching improbable wins at West Ham’s expense. Bale’s goal was terrific (as was he) but that doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow.

Overall, it is hard to be too critical of season 2012-13, particularly when compared to West Ham’s previous outing in the Premier League. If Premier League history has taught us anything however, it is that the second season is often the toughest. West Ham discovered that in 2007, and it took a miracle by the name of Carlos Tevez to save them. There are promising signs for the future though – Allardyce is an astute if unspectacular manager, and he knows how to get the best out of his players. He will need to bring a few more good ones in for next season, particularly up front.

The biggest cause for optimism this season happened without a ball being kicked. After a drawn out legal battle involving 3 football clubs (Leyton Orient? Really?) and several false dawns, West Ham finally won the right to call the Olympic Stadium their home ground from 2016. As sad as it is to say goodbye to The Boleyn Ground with its rich history and wonderful memories, the Olympic Stadium move is critical for the club’s future. Without it comes footballing and financial uncertainty. With it comes a bigger stadium (and increased revenue), world class facilities and an opportunity for the club to attract bigger investment. With investment comes security, and while money isn’t the cure-all some would make it out to be, without it any club’s ambitions will always be limited. While West Ham fans have their feet firmly on the ground (we’ve learned we have to after so many falls!) it would be foolish not to have an ambitious eye on the future. Few West Ham fans would want to see the club become the ugly juggernaut that is Manchester City, but consistent top 10 finishes, good cup runs and the odd European campaign are not too much to ask for.

We still have a few seasons of football before that however, starting with a fresh Premier League campaign in August. Here’s hoping it continues the positive mood at the club. What better way to start than by confirming the permanent signing of Andy Carroll. Fingers crossed….come on Andy!

A Song For the Week: Sail Away

Sail Away 02I had three songs in mind for this post. Strangely enough, they share a common theme – the sea. Being a New Zealander (and an Aucklander in particular) I have spent most of my life surrounded by the ocean. In this instance however, what draws me to these songs is the response it elicits from songwriters and musicians alike. On one level or another we all still have a strong connection to elemental forms, and water is as potent an element as any. It is therefore no surprise that so many artists have tapped into this universal wellspring.

I will come to the other songs in due course, but I want to focus this week on “Sail Away” by Rick Roberts. Sail Away appears on Rick Roberts’ debut solo album, “Windmills”, released in 1972. Roberts was fresh from his time with The Flying Burrito Brothers, where he had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Gram Parsons. Roberts brought more of a folk rock sound to the Burritos, further removed from the group’s country roots which Parsons had founded the band upon. While the band began to fade, Roberts was coming into his own both as a writer and performer.

“Windmills” has a very relaxed feel, as if everyone involved was simply playing music for the sheer enjoyment of it. The songs and performances are all the better for it. There are a number of superlative tracks, but for me “Sail Away” is the standout song. Roberts tells his story as if it was an old fashioned folk tale, giving the song an authentic touch almost without the listener realising it.

“Sail Away” is a love letter but also a farewell. Stories of the sea often tell of sailors and the choices they make between the love of a woman and the lure of the sea. The scene is a departure – hard decisions have been made, final farewells are being said. It is a gentle parting, both the man and woman trying to spare the other’s feelings:

Still he tells her it is not goodbye,                                                                                       She knows he is only trying to spare the sorrow of the word goodbye                                So she in turn spares him her crying

And if she feels the pain, it cannot be seen

The pace of the song captures the feel of the ship and the ocean. One can easily hear the guitar, drums and piano acting as ship, sea and wind. There is a deliberate pace and movement that mimics the ship’s departure on rolling seas. Roberts’ guitar is soothing, almost hypnotic in its rhythm.

Both sailor and lady stand helpless, watching their lives drift apart. The reverie is only broken by the lady’s desperate plea:

Man of the ocean, man of the sea                                                                                      She said ‘Do you ever dream of me?’

Almost as if in response to this, our sailor turns his focus to his duties and his gaze to the horizon, away from her:

So hoist the mainsail boys, I think it’s time we were away                                                  The wind is coming up, the tide is turning on the wave                                                        The sailor bends his back and shuts his eyes                                                                      All his dreams now are fading

Roberts is careful to emphasise key words as a reflection of the mood – ‘sorrow’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘(fading) dreams’ appear several times. Both protagonists finally accept their parting with grace, if not a touch of regret. Roberts gives both a moment of realisation and finality:

All his dreams now are fading                                                                                                   It’s not the last time he will say goodbye                                                                               He turns his back on the lady

And for her:

So she vows there’ll be no sorrow                                                                                      And if she feels the pain, it cannot be seen                                                                     There’ll be another ship tomorrow

As if to affirm the courage of their convictions, Roberts sings for each a touching, achingly beautiful “So sail away“. All energies are now lent to departure:

Sail away, sail away, sail away!

The wind rises and Jane Getz’s gorgeous piano carries us to the horizon and beyond.

“Sail Away” is given greater poignancy by the fact that it was born out of experience. The song was inspired by Rick Roberts’ relationship with Michelle Wood, whom he met in Amsterdam. The album title “Windmills” was also inspired by her, and such is the impact she had on Rick, the album is dedicated to Michelle.

I like to call songs like “Sail Away” intimate epics – it tells a moving and extremely personal story on a stage of great breadth and majesty. Roberts wrote many great songs (including the wonderful ‘Colorado’) and went on to terrific success later in the decade with Firefall, but I don’t believe he wrote a better song than “Sail Away”. It is a beautifully written song, and for me, a masterpiece.


Remembering Pete

Pete Ham

Photo: Barry Plummer

But don’t you worry you love of ours,

They look like weeds but they’re really flowers

And they’ll soon be gone

– Dennis

This Saturday April 27th will mark Pete Ham’s 66th birthday. All birthdays are special, but this one has extra significance as Pete will be honoured in his home town of Swansea with the unveiling of a special heritage blue plaque at the Swansea Railway Station on Ivey Place. There will also be a tribute concert that night honouring Pete as well as The Iveys and Badfinger, featuring former members of both bands, notably Ron Griffiths, David Jenkins and Bob Jackson.

Like most of his many fans I can’t be there to celebrate Pete, so I thought I might write a few words of appreciation to try and show what Pete’s music means to me. What started out as a few words of thanks grew into something bigger, as it alway does when I write about something that is so personal to me.

The profound impact of Pete Ham’s music upon me was instantaneous. There was no gradual appreciation of his songs through repeated listenings. Many of the musicians I have come to love or admire have taken time to move beyond the head to the heart. This is almost impossible with Pete. His music is so direct and so personal that it is like giving the listener an ultimatum – let me into your heart or let me go. It is essentially that simple for me, there is no middle ground.

The lines that begin this piece are from the song “Dennis”. I chose these lines because for me they capture a feeling that runs through all of Pete’s music. The first line is comforting, reassuring. One of the great strengths of Pete’s writing is his tremendous sense of empathy. There is never any hint of a lack of conviction, and because of this there is always a solidity to his songs, a defined and constant backbone.

The second line reflects the beauty that Pete saw in the world – there was always light amongst the darkness. This darkness was ever present, however. The tone of the final line “And they’ll soon be gone” is a constant in Pete’s songs. I would call it autumnal, but it is almost too ominous to give it such a gentle label. It is almost as if these songs are bursting with life but so fleeting that they move from summer to winter without skipping a beat. You would be forgiven for thinking that all of these shadows would cast a pall of gloom over the music, but Pete never allows things to go that far. If there is a dark edge to these songs it is the prettiest darkness, deep and rich; warm not cold.

If there is one song that shows this best, it is “We’re For the Dark”. It is my favourite song of Pete’s, and I have come to realise, is my favourite song, full stop.

Tell me the day and I’ll set you free, what you wanna be
Show me the way and I’ll let you see what you do to me
Well, it’s not enough to live
If you’re gonna take, then you have to give
We’re for the dark, baby, you and I

As always there is a great unknown in that dark, but that is the point, and what makes the adventure worthwhile. When Pete sings “We’re for the dark, baby you and I”, you feel like behind that he is saying ‘and that’s OK if I’m with you’, that life is full of ups and downs, light and dark, that it is human to feel this way. At times Pete can come across as an Everyman, which may be a bit of an unfair label. Perhaps it is better to call his music Human, in the best sense of the word – heartfelt and genuinely compassionate.

I remember hearing Levon Helm speaking of the late, great Richard Manuel. He spoke of how Richard would raise a glass and say ‘Spend it all’. There were no half measures with Richard, and you heard that in his singing. He put himself on the line to make great music, and it came at a cost. But what music. You will never hear anything so beautiful and heartbreaking as Richard singing “Whispering Pines” or “I Shall Be Released”. Pete made music the same way. There is a leap of faith that must be made with this kind of music, an emotional investment that most music today is too scared to demand of its audience.

Artists like Pete and Richard Manuel are forever tied up in their tragedy, but I think it is unfair to view them this way. Their music more than speaks for itself, and would do so regardless of the tragedies that befell them. It may be easy to say this in hindsight, but I truly believe this to be the case for all great musicians. It is only a shame that the list is so long – for every Pete and Richard there is a Tom Evans, Nick Drake or Donny Hathaway.

This week is always a bittersweet time of year, there are now so many anniversaries of great musicians passing. It is even more so with Pete, as his death occurred a mere days before his birthday. My thoughts are with Pete and his family this week, and will be especially on Saturday, as I’m sure will be the thoughts of all his fans around the world.

Thank you Pete for the wonderful gift you gave to all your fans. Paul McCartney famously once said “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. For me, this never applied to you, Pete. You gave far more than you ever took.