“Anyone know the name of the woman singing on that Stan track on the Eminem album?”
“Will Coldplay be able to follow up Parachutes?”
“Do you think Daft Punk’s One More Time is influenced by Eiffel 65?”
But the one I remember most clearly was with Steve Lamacq, then the host of the nation’s premiere new music showcase, The Evening Session. I’d bumped into him in the studio corridor at Radio 1 and sought his validation on a matter that was taxing me at the time.
“Steve, what do you reckon to At The Drive In? Worth the hype?”
“I think they might be you know. Could be the new Nirvana if they get it right.”
At The Drive In didn’t get it right. In fact they got it about as wrong as possible. Not Gary Glitter wrong, but ‘Libertines to the power of Bedingfield’ wrong at least. Today they are less likely to be mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana than Daphne & Celeste.
Rewind to 2000 and At The Drive In are, in the minds of the majority of new music fans, going to change the world. Managing the enviable trick of an appearance that had neither contemporary nor precedent, their truly enormous dark hair placed them in an ethincally unplaceable no-mans land perfectly allied to their upbringing in El Paso, Texas. Sonically and rhythmically they were simultaneously at the cutting edge of hardcore, thrash, punk and even prog. Which sounds like a wince-inducing musical cocktail of the most pretentious type, but yet again they pulled it off. Lyrically they were from a school of abstraction that was as beguilingly confounding as it was poetically quotable; “Intraveneously polite” the singer pleads on Invalid Litter Department “It was the walkie-talkies that knocked the pins down, as her shoes gripped the dirt floor in a silhouette of dying”. I’m not sure even his band knew what he was on about.
In fact, when their defining fourth album, Relationship Of Command hit shops and Napster in September 2000 ATDI could get away with anything. How much could they get away with? Their lead singer was called Cedric, that’s how much.
Five months later they were done. Traditional rock cliches abounded, but also new and innovative ways to piss away their legacy followed. Drugs? Oh yes – crack and heroin in the main from all accounts. Tour bus crash? Of course, and ‘musical differences’ too, along with ‘artistic differences with their label’. The latter squabble being centered around the release of their ‘radio record’, the aforementioned ‘Invalid Litter Department’. As their gigs were widely – and correctly – described as the best on the planet at that time, their label had cut together a live performance video. To their fans, their supporters and to MTV this seemed a shrewd move. Not to the band it didn’t, and they insisted on replacing it with their own visuals. The audience and TV networks demanded technicolour fury and strobe-lit guitar intensity, but the band felt something else was appropriate, a six minute black and white documentary about the murder of teenage girls in Jerez to be precise. You can’t knock their intergrity, but you’d struggle to approve of their commercial wisdom.
Signed to the Beastie Boys vanity Grand Royale imprint, home of such pricey hipster clunkers as Sean Lennon and Ben Lee, the label was already in its death throes when singer Bixler and guitarist Lopez were first reaching for the opiates. Worse was to come, when they reached for the delay pedal and embraced reggae that was as heavy as their mood. Imagine the disappointment on the faces of the post-punk crowd gathered for this new band’s debut London performance as the visceral guitar gymnastics were replaced by something akin to the sound inside Lee Perry’s head. The resulting output, ‘De Facto’ was described by the New Musical Express as ‘Like the worst dub reggae band at a Battle Of The Worst Dub Reggae Bands concert’. For once the publication was not overstating it.
So with no label to champion their past, and no decent music to maintain their present, their infamy swiftly waned. They’d gone from ‘must-see’, to ‘should’ve seen’, to ‘don’t see’ within the space of a year. It was a masterclass in self-sabotage. For the fans that were left, the love they felt for this band was to be tested further still.
If JK Rowling unveiled a radical new literary direction, let’s say she started writing political biographies, and then said that actually she’d never enjoyed the kiddy magic books much, how would the Pottermaniacs feel? This was the challenge Bixler and Rodriguez Lopez posed when they released the extraordinary prog-jazz-flamenco-rock masterpiece De Loused In The Comatorium under their new alias, The Mars Volta, in 2002. Can you still love that which the musicians you admire now disparage? Can you like both bands, and both styles? It was a decision, no-one wanted to have to make, so no-one did. The majority of the audience just shrugged and moved on to another band.
At The Drive in reunited in Spring 2012, and on the 28th August the band played what they described as ‘the final date of the Relationship Of Command tour’. Ten years prior they were a compellingly note-perfect tornado of a band. Ten years later, with the exception of Bixler, they barely moved. Lopez was so static during his playing of some of rock’s most jagged and volatile alt-anthems it bordered on satire. After everything else that the fans had been through it was going to take something ingenious to further tarnish the band’s reputation, but ever the innovators they managed it. It almost made you want to applaud.
And if it hadn’t cost people 40 quid a ticket they might have done just that.
Chris and Simon have been busy in the studio again, and wanted to share this new recording with you. Entitled Twenty Thousand Roads, it’s an homage of sorts to Gram Parsons, based around a loop of one of his most recognisable lyrics. Hope you like it – have a listen, comment and share if you feel inclined, then read on below if you’d like to help us make a video for it!
We thought it would be fun to get you guys involved in making a simple slideshow-style video for Twenty Thousand Roads. All we need is a photo of your favourite road – could be the one you live on, a stretch of black top you just really like, anything really – and we’ll edit them all together into a montage of vanishing points from (hopefully) all corners of the world. Don’t worry if you’re not much of a photographer; the one above (of Pontcanna Fields in Cardiff) was taken on a smartphone and spruced up in Instagram with the Lo-fi filter. Hipstamatic is also pretty good – using one of these photo-sharing apps will help give a uniformity of tone and aspect ratio to the final piece.
When you’ve taken your photo – ideally a symmetrical ‘vanishing point’-style one like the Pontcanna Fields snap above (but please don’t get run over, will you?) – either post it to the Missing Parsons Facebook page by clicking Photo above the ‘Write something …’ box, or email it to us using the Contact Us link in the sidebar over there. Tell us who you are and where you took the photo. Send several if you like – who knows, we might even get the full complement of 20,000! – and we’ll do the rest. Thanks for getting involved, and please share this post with your photo-blogging friends! MPx
Dear Townes: we recorded this, er, ‘interpretation’ of If I Needed You with love. Chris sang, played guitar, and wobbled a wobbleboard. Simon also sang, played bass, twiddled knobs and wrote some computer code enabling him to play the theremin using a Wii controller, which is a thing that kids do nowadays instead of going out to play. Sorry about the autotune – there’s this guy called T-Pain now and it’s all his fault. Anyway, hope you like it. Listen to it on your celestial headphones if you can – sounds better that way. Happy Birthday Townes, we miss you.
Taking us slightly but unashamedly off piste from our usual bloggings on music and travel, Joe has written a tribute to his MotoGP hero Marco Simoncelli, who sadly died yesterday in Malaysia.
There is a code that motorcycle fans use to describe racing accidents. ’A crash’ generally means that the rider walked away. ‘A bad crash’ means they are probably in the medical centre. And ‘a really bad crash’ means that a human life is in the balance. This morning, as New Zealand rugby fans cheered and the boom of celebratory fireworks crackled through the Auckland night, I received a text from my friend Lee; ‘Simoncelli. Sepang. Really fucking bad crash’.
Marco Simoncelli, the brave, handsome, funny, thrilling motorcyclist had died during the second lap of the Malaysian MotoGP. His bike was sliding away from him through a corner when it suddenly resumed traction, veering at terrifying and unavoidable speed into the path of two other bikes. Either impact could have proved fatal. Somewhere in the incidents’ milliseconds Simoncelli’s helmet came off. He lay motionless on the track, his distinctive halo of hair lying flat and still amidst the tyre marks.
The majority of motorsports stars are best viewed ‘in character’. Leather clad, helmet on, visor down. In their impenetrable suits they become the anonymous immortals we so want them to be. The true greats however need little more than their eyes to communicate with the lenses watching them as they wait on the track. Pop up the perspex and there’s Ayrton Senna or Valentino Rossi, speaking to every viewer without needing to say a word. Yet place a driver – or rider – near their machine without the superhero outfit, and the lunacy of their sport becomes far too real.
As the commentators struggled to describe what had happened, everyone saw the same thing. Marco Simoncelli was missing his helmet. We knew what that meant.
Riders know that motorcycle racing is dangerous. Their crews, their sponsors, their friends and their parents know it. In the years that they have worked to reach the premiere class of MotoGP they will have lost teammates and competitors. No matter what the results of qualifying, death sometimes finds a place on the grid.
And today, at Corner 11 of the Sepang International Racing Circuit death found Marco Simoncelli. Despite the efforts of the medical staff and the prayers of his friends, at 4.56pm local time, it took him.
SuperSic was not to every riders’ taste. (You say his nickname ‘SuperSitch’ by the way – like so many things in life it sounds better when given the proper italian pronunciation). His riding style was so wonderfully full-on it could have been devised by a 1950s screenwriter. Heart-on-his-sleeve? Yes. All-or-nothing? Absolutely. On-the-limit? Of course.
Witness Marco at Silverstone earlier this year. He is racing nobody really, but still riding so hard that a pool of standing water throws him from his bike. He hurtles over two hundred metres at massive speed, yet manages to stand up at the end with the composure of a seven year old executing a knee slide across the kitchen tiles.
In a sport where many are ‘cool’, he was the coolest. In a risky sport, he was among the riskiest. Which made the public love him as much as many of his fellow riders were exasperated by him. Competing against such natural talent can be infuriating. To beat him on the track only to find him the natural star of the post race ceremonials probably didn’t endear him either. Such things sadly no longer matter.
Marco Simoncelli will never again taste victory champagne, nor will his hair shake in the wind from the top step of the podium. His big eyes will not smile at us from within the snug confines of his helmet. His glove won’t wave at us as he waits for the race to start. His sport will miss him, and so will we.
On a day when New Zealand lifted the Rugby World Cup for the first time since the infant Sic was learning to walk, few outside of the motorcycle fraternity will remember Marco’s passing. I will, and I happen to think you should too.
So when the Webb Ellis trophy is next held aloft spare a thought for the man who should be 28 years old, bashing fairings, rattling cages, grinning, chattering, and thrilling. And the time after that consider the 32 year old who should be contemplating retirement. And beyond that, well it’s folly and pain to imagine I suppose.
Joe Harland, currently resident in Barnes, West London, blogs about his experience hanging with the Marc Bolan fan(atic)s on the anniversary of his death last week.
‘I climbed up it once,’ said John Peel, pointing west towards the sunset silhouette of Glastonbury Tor. We were at Glastonbury Festival, the longest-running and best-loved in the UK. ‘It was the year of the first festival,’ John went on. ‘Marc Bolan and I decided to climb the Tor. When we got to the top we sat down, and Marc said: “When do you reckon it was built, John?” I had no idea, but I wanted to sound smart, so I said “Er, 1359 I think.” Marc walked around the tower, came back and sat down again. “There’s a plaque around the other side. You were a year out. It was 1360.”’John smiled to himself as he remembered, staring into the middle-distance a little longer. Then he glanced toward the Brothers Cider Bus at the bottom of the Pyramid Stage field. ‘Time for a drink.’
I’d like to say we raised a glass to Marc’s memory whilst I eloquently interrogated John about T. Rex and their shared role in shaping a 1970’s pop music landscape that was the artistic opposite of the bleak British social backdrop it accompanied. But I can’t say I did. We probably talked about the merits of pear cider, or the perfect time to play Status Quo in a DJ set.
That pretty much starts and ends my second-hand experience of Marc Bolan, except to say that on the night he died the sirens of emergency vehicles attending the car accident on Barnes Common awoke – amongst others – an old man sleeping in a dusty back room of a nearby Victorian flat. For ten minutes he watched the strobing of electric blue police light through the trees before heading back to bed.
My Grandfather was not what you’d call a music man. Living as he did so close to the ‘Bolan Tree’ it was not uncommon for him to encounter a lost fan looking to pay their respects. By the early eighties however his age and shaky grasp of popular culture was baffling pilgrims who came looking for the memorial, only to be told in no uncertain terms by this kindly local expert that ‘Just down the road is the exact spot where Jimi Hendrix died.’ When my Mother finally corrected him he was genuinely surprised. ‘Well you can understand the confusion can’t you?’ he reasoned by way of explaining away the mistake. ‘They both had curly hair.’
On September 16th this year, Marc Bolan’s deathaversary, I got up at six, strode past bleary-eyed businessmen and commuting cars to what is now listed by English Heritage as the ‘Marc Bolan Shrine’. I thought I would be the first of the visitors. Not so. Due to my trademark lack of proper research it turned out I was pretty much the last.
Purple Pied Pete from Preston has been coming to the Bolan Tree every year for the last thirty four. ‘I still live in the Seventies y’see.’ I could see. The fifty year-old man sitting in front of me was a ringer for nineties Pete Postlethwaite facially, but the glittering purple glam rock jacket and Bolan t-shirt belonged to a pre-Thatcher Britain I was too young to remember. ‘Cost me my marriage did Marc. It really did. And when we divorced she said she were going to smash all my Bolan records unless I agreed to sell the house.’ He took a gentlemanly sip of his champagne and went on: ‘They’re worth about eight grand the records are. But I wouldn’t sell ’em for a million pound.’ Which seems reasonable. If your entire life has been devoted to a single cause in the way Pete’s has, selling your records would be like selling your faith. And, as televangelists like to say, faith is a hole that no amount of money can fill.
Sunflower is a comparative newcomer. She started coming in 1996 to watch the sun go down, to have a drink, to chat about Bolan, and to mark in a quiet and kind way another lap of the sun without him. ‘Sometimes something magical happens. He died at five am, and last year at that exact time the tree lit up and – okay there’s probably a lot of them around here – but a fox peered around it to say hello to all of us.’ This is considered evidence not of sunrise and a burgeoning vermin issue, but of Marc’s presence, as FOX was the number plate of the ill-fated car he died in.
But why do they come to where he died anyway? Tradition holds that you more usually pay your respects at gravesides rather than the place of passing. Not least because otherwise hospital wards would be knee deep in wreaths and mourners all year round. ‘It’s because.’ Pied Pete pitched in, “this is where his soul left his body. And we think it’s still here don’t we?’
‘Definitely,’ agreed Sunflower.
Which makes the Bolan Tree rather unusual in the ghoulish realm of rock death sites, in that it marks not folly, but misfortune. It’s not Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, it’s not an LA drug-scoring underpass or old graffiti’d old bedsit. It’s a tiny spot cared for by passionate, obsessed, and infatuated fans of possibly the only man who ever made a Gibson Flying V look good. Odder still is the way that some people choose to leave their message for the ‘Cosmic Dancer’; they write on hubcaps and stick them to the tree that put a terminal halt to Marc’s mini, and to him. Hazard warning triangles would seem more appropriate.
Bill Hicks once questioned why Christians wore crosses, reasoning that the last thing the Almighty would want to see on his return to earth is gilded miniature replicas of the means by which his previous visit was rather painfully terminated. ‘That’s like wearing a sniper’s rifle in memory of JFK,’ he concluded. Which is why rock sites tend not to be littered with the specifics of their heroes passing. The Cobain family home is not, to the best of my awareness, knee-deep in heroin needles and shotgun cartridges, nor is the swimming pool where Brian Jones failed to surface surrounded in snorkels and inflatable armbands.
Pete and Sunflower don’t care. The early morning sunlight is warming their tired faces, the champagne is pepping their spirits, and as they pack their wares away their satisfied smiles speak of people who have no doubt they’ve done the right thing by their man. And I wander off realising that contrary to my previous belief, obsession isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it can in fact be rather wonderful.
If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on. Something terrible has just happened, possibly involving the death of the queen or an untold number of her subjects. If you’re a fan of ambient and chill-out music, try watching the rolling news with subtitles on and the radio turned up – you may never hear Chris Moyles play so perfect a selection of Ibiza sunset moments ever again.
Radio stations, especially big ones like BBC Radio 1, the UK’s national pop network, are prepared for bad stuff happening: it’s called ‘obit procedure’. When a catastrophic news story breaks, such as the death of a royal family member, each network has an audience-appropriate mix of obituary music on standby that will ‘reflect the mood of the nation’, as the internal BBC documentation has it. As Music Producer for six years in the early noughties, my job at Radio 1 involved selecting the playlist and programming music for the daytime shows – Scott Mills, Sara Cox, Jo Whiley, Mark & Lard and Chris Moyles. In times of crisis this meant finding music that young people like, but which won’t be too noisy or upbeat or just plain offensive when something awful happens. It’s harder than it sounds.
Chill-out music is fail safe because it tends not to have lyrics to trip up on before you’re even out of the blocks. As long as the mood is sombre and vaguely reflective-sounding, you can be confident with an instrumental piece about not offending anyone – for example by failing to consider that line ‘catch you when you fall’, just as news arrives of Prince Andrew’s demise in a horrific helicopter accident. (Every music programmer has a horror story about playing a ‘howler’ like this. Mine came in 2002 when, scanning artists and titles in the music logs immediately following the Potters Bar rail disaster, I deemed Overload by the Sugababes sufficiently inoffensive to be played out of the news. My forehead hit the desk just as the chorus chimed in: “Train comes, I don’t know its destination. It’s a one-way ticket to a madman situation.”) While the terrace at Pacha might seem like an odd vibe to recreate during times of national tragedy, having a good hour’s worth of harmless, lyric-free tunes to hand buys you time while you work out what to do next.
But nothing could have prepared us for 9/11. During advance obit preparations I had scrupulously considered every lyric of every song, rejecting any and all references – literal or metaphorical – to death, crashes, explosions and natural disasters, before settling on the final list. Even the most innocuous lyric takes on a sinister undertone heard in obit mode. Dido’s insipid and cheerless pop ballads make her perfect obit fodder, right up to the point when you realize White Flag – “I will go down with this ship” – might sound a tad insensitive in the wake of a ferry disaster. So how exactly do you prepare for the world’s worst terrorist atrocity? How, to coin a phrase, do you imagine the unimaginable? You don’t.
Shortly after 2pm London time on September 11th 2001, I received an email from a friend – Al Hamer of Sweet Billy Pilgrim – instructing me, and presumably everyone else in his pre-Twitter address book, to “turn the TV on. NOW.” I flipped to BBC News 24 as TV sets blinked on in unison around the open-plan office, and watched in dismay as the second plane hit the South Tower. Mark Radcliffe was on air from Manchester at that time – a relief under the circumstances because, though the Mark & Lard staple was toilet humour and unbridled sexual innuendo, Radcliffe was a radio veteran who could switch into serious broadcaster mode at the drop of a hat. In the 2.30 news, an audibly shaken Claire Bradley reported that two airplanes had hit the Twin Towers, with a BBC commentator speculating that it could be a terrorist attack.
The song we played out of that first news bulletin is now lost in the ensuing frenzy; I’m not sure I even want to know. But I can be mercifully certain, since we had not yet received instructions to go into obit procedure, that it wasn’t Haunted Dancehall; given what we now know about the martyrdom aspirations of the 9/11 hi-jackers, Sabres of Paradise might be the most inappropriate artist we could possibly have marked the moment with. What became abundantly clear within moments of the story breaking was that our carefully laid obit plans were hopelessly inadequate. This wasn’t a national tragedy or royal death; it was bigger and more terrible by several orders of magnitude. The radio response, somewhat perversely given the dreadful scenes already being repeated on television, demanded a lightness of touch, not mawkishness or mourning.
At 3pm, just as the full horror of the atrocities was beginning to unfold, Radio 1’s most talkative presenter went into the studio with nothing to say. Chris Moyles, then entertaining millions in the afternoon drivetime slot with a daily repertoire of bum gags and fart jokes, rightly took the view that today called for a different kind of show: “Let’s just play music and I’ll throw to the news between songs.” Under any other circumstances this would literally have been music to my ears; programming for a personality jock like Chris is a kind of tug-of-war: at one end of the rope, a presenter who wants more talk and less music; at the other end, a Music Producer loudly pleading from the production office upstairs that he “play a fucking record” whenever a link (talky bit) entered its eleventh minute. By this process of attrition, the ‘clock’ for Moyles’ show – a kind of template by which all radio programmes structure each hour – had come to contain far fewer songs than those of other presenters.
Generally music logs are delivered to programme teams around 24 to 48 hours in advance of broadcast, allowing producers time to write any relevant editorial content into their scripts. Suddenly, just minutes before he was due on air, Chris needed twice the number of songs he normally played, every one of them screened to account for the sensitivities of the unfolding catastrophe. The first thing was to remove all songs that hit the wrong tone musically. Out went anything too jiggy, too banging, too edgy or too poppy, which didn’t leave much to play with – this was Radio 1 after all. Next, lyrics: Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve – out. Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl – out. U2’s Elevation – out. Within fifteen minutes of going to air, Moyles had played every song in what remained of his first hour.
By now Alex Donelly, my boss and Radio 1’s Head of Music, had come down from his upstairs office to manage the music response and lend a hand with the programming. A Dunkirk spirit emerged as the search for suitable music became more frenzied. We would interrogate the database for any ‘Mood 1 or 2’ songs (all music is graded in this way for radio, from very sad to very happy, in order to create an evenness of sound), feeding minidiscs into two hi-fi stereos in tandem as a final check before they went downstairs. Suddenly that throwaway lyric – ‘catch you when you fall’ – became menacing and real when people were literally falling out of the New York skyline, and nothing like it could go to air – even if it meant playing Zero 7 for the third time this hour. At one point we were delivering playlists with only one or two songs cued up in the studio, with a lot of air still to fill.
That evening, slightly stunned to find that it was still going ahead, a handful of us attended the Mercury Music Prize, in which PJ Harvey collected the first of her two awards, for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Improbably, she was on tour in Washington DC at the time. Holed up in her hotel room, she accepted the award by telephone; we leaned in close as Zoe Ball presented the award, the better to make out Polly’s soft, West Country lilt haunting the dancehall of the Dorchester Hotel: “It’s been a very surreal day. We can see the Pentagon from our window.” Chillers of free wine and champagne sat untouched on the tables in front of us.
It went on for days. Hitting the right tone remained the toughest challenge, as much for presenters and producers as for us, the music team. Even the next morning it was difficult to judge the mood of the nation, as the guidelines demanded we do, so we took our cues from the talent, who had a direct line to the listeners. Just when do you get back to ‘normal’ after something like this, and what role should Radio 1 play in making that happen? When do phone-ins, competitions and knob gags go back in the script? When is Bootylicious fair game again, and when does Have A Nice Day by Stereophonics stop sounding wrong? Musically we needed a kind of intermediary stage, one that would gently lift the national mood rather than yank the listener out of the doldrums and demand they feel fine again. We needed uplifting, anthemic guitar songs with shiny production and contemplative but hopeful lyrics that would bridge a gap between chill out and jiggy. We needed Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic. The days following September 11th 2001 may be the only time I have said this, but thank God for Coldplay.
A quick post to share some Missing Parsons music news. Have a listen to new tune ‘My Little Sister’ below and, if you feel moved so to do, let us know what you think. This one’s a Simon Kilshaw creation, and we think it’s pretty special. (Best enjoyed on proper speakers or headphones. Please listen responsibly.) We’re posting it as an Audioboo, which is the latest addition to our size-13 social media footprint. You may have seen the odd Boo in recent audio blogs. If you Boo yourself, follow us here for occasional fun-for-your-ears.
Also, with the 14th Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull coming up in Waycross, GA on Sept 23rd, it’s time once again to invite all you lovely folks down to say hello. Jay Farrar is headlining a fabulous line-up of acts, including our favorites Honey Blue and Abby Owens. There’s no band performance from us this year, but Chris will be joining Nate Nash and Marc Andress from Honey Blue for some Louvin Brothers action during the tribute set for Charlie Louvin, who passed this year. We’ll post a firm time when we have one.
And if you see anyone wearing a Missing Parsons t-shirt, please stop and say hi – we love to meet you lovely people in person when we can! Or drop us a line by email or on Facebook, Twitter etc. – the links are all over there in the sidebar to the right – and let us know if you’re planning on coming down.
Sad day. We lost a very dear four-legged friend and family member. Lily the Weimaraner was a special dog – faithful and loving, mischievous, with schnuggles at the ready whenever they were needed. She may also be the only Weimaraner named after a Bob Wills song. One thing we’re sure of: she’s the only dog whose misadventures were recorded for posterity by Joe in Live Fast, Die Young (ironically, because she lived slowly and died mercifully old), reproduced here as a little thank you for all the good times:
I was having a lovely dream about flying a Harrier jump jet. Piloting a jump jet is not easy, especially when your co-pilot leans in close and licks your face with her tongue.
Another lick. I woke up to a chilly Charleston morning on a blow-up bed apparently determined to tip me onto the floorboards of a wooden house warped into a Riddler’s lair by years of barometer-shattering humidity. Chris was asleep on the sofa, Courtney had left for work, and her dog, a sturdy but friendly Weimaraner by the name of Lily, seemed to want to go somewhere. Presuming that she needed the doggie toilet I took her downstairs, opened the front door and watched in horror as she whipped by my right leg and ran into the road.
‘Car!’ was all I could squeak as a red Nissan, sun-bleached pink, raced towards her.
Ohshitohshitohshitohshit. I’m going to have to tell our generous host that we’re grateful for your hospitality, we’ve enjoyed your company, and we’ve killed your beautiful pedigree dog. (And while we’re getting it out there, Chris is thinking about playing his guitar at you.) The car braked, the bonnet dipped, the rear springs rose, and with a nonchalance which said ‘I know what I’m doing, you plum,’ Lily skipped out of the way with so little time to spare that she left a sliver of drool on the bumper.
I ran over, unsure whether to chastise or kiss her. She must have thought I was going for the full snog, because she glanced left and ran like only big dogs can, out of sight in this city I didn’t know.
I ran in the direction she had, looking for evidence of four-legged intrusion – upturned bins, startled children, that sort of thing. Nothing. I walked around, practising the conversation in my head. It was an improvement on the first scenario, but not a big one.
‘Hi Courtney – there’s good news and bad news.’
‘What’s the good news?’
‘I didn’t kill your dog.’
‘And the bad?’
‘I lost her. Do you fancy a go on my mate Chris?’
After nearly an hour of searching I slunk dejectedly home. There I would tell Chris what I’d done and we would get in the car and go, leaving a note of apology on the door. I walked into the living room. Chris was snuggled up on the sofa with Lily watching the Weather Channel.
‘Been for a run?’ he asked.
‘Er, yeah, sort of.’
‘It’s going to be a beautiful day. Breakfast?’
Lily looked up at me with a mischievous glint in her eye, and growled a little growl that sounded disquietingly like a laugh.
R.I.P. Lily Dale Connor-Price, 17th July 1998 – 5th Sept 2011.We’ll miss you.
As an album of Christian music outsells Beyonce and Lady Gaga down under, now seemed like a good time to audio-blog my experience earlier this year discovering Australia’s fastest-growing Pentecostal mega church – Hillsong.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard may be a confirmed atheist, but if the Australian music-buying public is anything to go by, she’s a tad out of step with her electorate. You might say she’s not singing from the same hymn sheet. God Is Able, an album of contemporary Christian music released by the stratospherically successful Hillsong mega church in Sydney, recently debuted at number three in the Australian chart, becoming the tenth album of Christian pop to reach the Top 10 there since 2002.
And Hillsong has broken America without so much as breaking a sweat. Last year its youth ministry house band, Hillsong United, went in at number two on the US iTunes album chart, just behind Eminem. If it’s true that the music industry is in its death throes, then nobody told Hillsong.
Hillsong Music is the ‘resource arm’ of Hillsong Church, a local Pentecostal ministry in Sydney which began in 1983 with a congregation of forty-five, and which now boasts a membership of 21,000, an annual conference attracting 28,000 faithful attendees, and a growing international footprint with churches in London, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Kiev. In 2009 Hillsong London celebrated ten years of worship in the capital with a service at the O2 London Arena. More than 14,000 people attended.
Needless to say, any church funded by a ‘dynamic music label’, as its promotional materials describe it, is foursquare into the realms of ‘non-traditional’ financing models. But Hillsong is no traditional church. It is ministry with marketing strategies and corporate visions, communion by focus group, where clergy are CEOs and pastors head up ‘creative teams’. Services take place in ‘state-of-the-art worship centres’, where chancel is jettisoned in favour of multimedia ministry and PowerPoint presentations. Hillsong London’s website, whose front page features a group of smiling twenty-somethings in chic winter wear, bears closer resemblance to a Gap advert than a call for cash and congregation. And possibly taking a leaf out of Scientology’s book, Hillsong now looks to the power of celebrity to spread the gospel, recently hosting an ‘Evening with’-style event in which tele-survivalist Bear Grylls talked of Everest expeditions, alligator wrestling and the ‘quiet strength’ of his Christian faith. Jumble sales and church roof appeals it is not.
Masterminded by founders and senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston (no self-respecting mega church is seen dead these days without an alliterating husband-and-wife team at the helm), Hillsong’s brand of ‘prosperity theology’ found a hungry market in Sydney’s affluent, conservative Baulkham Hills district during the 1990s. ‘Health and wealth gospel’, popular with Pentecostal churches in America at the time, proved an elixir for middle-class Christians in prosperous, suburban Australia, as the success of Brian Houston’s book You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan For Your Life attests. Spiritual health and material wealth go hand in hand, says Houston; humility and sacrifice are not unimportant, but nor should the faithful be ashamed of material success.
And Brian should know. In the last year for which figures are available, Hillsong’s annual earnings were in the region of $60m, roughly half of which came from its congregation. Because record sales aren’t the church’s only source of income; tithing – such an archaic-sounding word among all that corporate speak – is still a vital component of Hillsong’s revenue streams. Houston admits to a personal package of $300,000 a year plus company car (Bobbie’s salary is undisclosed), but his company Leadership Ministries Inc – ‘the entity through which Bobbie and I conduct our broader ministry’ – bought two waterfront properties from the couple shortly after the company was set up in 2001. Let’s hear Brian conducting his ministry for a moment, for it is a thing to behold:
And it’s very much a family business. Joel Houston, Brian and Bobbie’s son (and incidentally a spit for Westlife’s Brian McFadden), leads the creative team behind Hillsong Music, the multi-million dollar hit machine that powers the operation. He is also the singer in Hillsong United, a ‘next generation praise and worship’ outfit which has released a new album every year since 1999, making Prince look positively idle. Churning out mostly live albums recorded at services and conferences, the Hillsong Music stable is so prolific that just as one release reaches the end of its chart life, another is waiting in the wings to take its place. Evidently the received wisdom in the music industry – that live albums don’t sell – doesn’t apply to Hillsong either.
They’ve done their homework, too. If it felt like Snow Patrol were following you around for three years from 2006, it’s because radio stations and music television channels the world over were banking on audience research which decisively crowned ‘Chasing Cars’ as the stickiest song of the noughties by a country mile. Hillsong, if you can imagine this without wincing, sounds like Snow Patrol singing from a prayer book. And in case you’re tempted to seek out this music for yourself, be warned. For the purposes of journalistic thoroughness I’ve listened to more than my fair share of it the past few days (you’re welcome); it’s marginally less excruciating than chewing tinfoil.
Contemporary Christian music – CCM to its friends – is changing the market in other ways. For All You’ve Done, the first live worship album to debut at number one in Australia, drew widespread whingeing from disgruntled record labels, upset that almost all its sales rang through the cash registers at Hillsong’s annual conference. It’s hard to know which is more telling – the pointless display of sour grapes from the mainstream music industry, or the fact that sales at a religious conferencecan outstrip the buying power of an entire nation. In 2007 Hillsong hit the headlines again, amid accusations of ‘vote stacking’ in the Australian Idol talent quest. Idol issued a formal, on-air statement refuting the allegations, although four of the eight finalists – Matt Corby, Tarisai Vushe, Ben McKenzie and Daniel Misfud – did in fact turn out to be from the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, of which Hillsong is an affiliate. Idolatry – 1, Idol – nil.
On Christmas morning last year, finding myself with a few hours to kill before barbecued turkey and trimmings with my Sydney hosts, I went to see Hillsong for myself. I should state for the record that I’m an atheist humanist, and justified my godless sneering on grounds of journalism (I was researching a book). But I still felt like a frightful interloper, a joyless clown en route to a children’s party with the sole intention of popping balloons, stealing party bags and calling the birthday boy names. Worse, I was a freeloading interloper arriving on the Hillsong courtesy shuttle service.
So to ease my conscience I vowed to be the perfect houseguest, making every effort to participate, in as far as I could do so without compromising my principles or seeming to take the piss. If there was singing, I would sing. If there was hugging, I would hug. I drew the line only at praying.
Arriving at the church – sorry, worship centre – I was welcomed into a cavernous modern atrium by a model-pretty hostess bearing glad tidings and armfuls of Christmas candy. Dean Martin sang Winter Wonderland over the speaker system. Free lattes and valet parking were available to all comers. All good, clean fun so far. Being slightly behind schedule I pressed on past the crèche and headed straight for the main room. (And if ‘main room’ sounds a tad super-club, it’s not so far off the mark.) Five enormous TV screens flanked a wide stage, upon which Hillsong stalwart Robert Fergusson was already in mid-flow, hammering home the prosperity gospel as the gifting envelopes went round, and encouraging us to be as ‘extravagant’ with our money as God is with his love:
Then two incredibly happy men appeared and invited all the kids onto the stage to show and tell what they got for Christmas.
“What did Santa bring you, little fella?” beamed Happy Man number 1.
Little boy: “An iPod Touch.”
Whoops and clapping from the audience.
“And what about you?” said Happy Man 2, turning to another little boy.
“A remote-controlled car.”
Happy Man 1: “Well, we’ve got some great prezzies to give away today, for the big kids as well as the little kids. But first we’re crossing live to our Hills campus, where our senior pastor Brian Houston is going to say a few words.”
I’ll say this for Christmas at Hillsong: that’s an ambitious technical feat they’re pulling off. All this ‘crossing live’ felt like Live Aid – it was terrifically exciting. As the Hills service appeared on the screens behind, another show and tell session was finishing up across town. A third happy man was talking about prezzies for big kids and little kids, and then Houston himself was striding back and forth across the stage in front of foot-high chapter and verse, a bible in his hand and a flesh-coloured Madonna-mike clamped to his cheek. Swap the bible for an iPad and he could have passed for Steve Jobs unveiling his vision for the exciting next phase of the company.
He launched into some impassioned stuff about Emmanuel – punctuated with fists in the air about his GRACE and DIVINITY – which I confess was where I started to tune out. It’s not that I wasn’t listening, just that a sort of glazing over took place. The same thing happens when I listen to evangelical preachers on the radio, which I often do. It’s a little like listening to the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 – fantastically hypnotic, but utterly incomprehensible unless you’re in on the lingo. Very often the welcome end result is blissful slumber.
So what did this godless impostor make of Christmas at Hillsong? Was it the riot of divinely sanctioned conspicuous consumption I had feared? Not quite, but it wasn’t far off. Did the kiddywinkles have fun? Probably. Did it feel like congregation? Emphatically not – it was spectacle from start to finish. And that’s what bothered me, if I was bothered at all. It was a show, with high production values and a high impact soundtrack available in the foyer on your way out. If I was going to ‘get’ any kind of worship, then it should have been this. But Hillsong was more awards ceremony than gig – more exclusive media event than inclusive musical or spiritual experience. The live link ups were impressive and fabulously next generation, but in the end the action was always happening somewhere else. I needn’t have worried about ruining the party, because in more senses than one, I wasn’t invited.
It struck me that, right now, the opulence of Hillsong can only work in Australia, seemingly the only economy untroubled by debt, deficit or the danger of default these days. Anywhere else – including, ironically, America – the extravagant giving, the showing and the telling would seem a tad inappropriate. Shuffling out of the auditorium, I made my way by courtesy shuttle to my Christmas lunch engagement, where I handed a Transformer to my hosts’ going-on-three year-old as I walked in the door. He was thrilled of course, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in order to truly enter into the Christmas spirit, I should have splashed out on an iPod Touch.
Friends of long standing will know how desperate eager we have been, since Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America was published in the UK last year, that it should become available in the US. It’s a book about rock and roll America, after all. Many kind souls have responded to our repeated begging appeals for help in making that happen.
So we’re thrilled to be able to tell you that your hard work has paid off. Our little tribute to GP in book form – a tale of two men on a coast-to-coast search for the soul of American music – will be available in bookstores and interweb sites everywhere on that fine continent from 1 April 2012! It’s a little way off, but we hope you’ll agree it’s worth the wait. (If you can’t wait until next year, or you live in the UK, you can always buy it here.) And you can be quite sure we’ll be reminding you again nearer the time. Quite sure.
As always, thanks for your support and encouragement. If LiveFast, Die Young is new to you, go here for some blurb about it, or watch this video of Chris and Joe reading the prologue:
For now though, we’ll leave you with some words from nice people who have already read it:
“A thoroughly enjoyable ride through the American musical wilderness. Live Fast, Die Young brings out the inner geek in every rock and roll dreamer.” Zane Lowe, BBC Radio 1
“Heart-warming and hilarious … Bill Bryson meets Nick Hornby.” Country Update Magazine
“Not only a joy sui generis, but also – and better yet – a joy to be shared by reading aloud. Mere satire is cheap; the blood in these pages is more authentic than any Nashville approximation of Americana.” Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones
“A book that shows how your obsessions can shape and change your life. Excellent.” James Dean Bradfield, Manic Street Preachers
“I howled myself silly. But like me, readers of Live Fast, Die Young will find their aching sides soothed by the heart-warming rhythms of mutual and musical harmony pulsing from two human hearts at their best.” Diann Blakely, Harvard Review, BookPage, Nashville Scene
“The thinking man’s Dumb & Dumber.” Mike McCormack, Universal Music Publishing