Six of the best: Karl Whitney | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Sunderland author Karl Whitney launches his new book, Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop on 27th June at World Headquarters. The book follows Karl as he embarks upon a journey to explore the industrial cities of British pop music, starting at the derelict site of the old RCA record plant in Washington, Tyne and Wear. We’ll leave Karl to tell you more about the book and his favourite things as he reveals his six of the best.

I’ve just written a book called Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop. It’ll be out on June 27th and I’ll be launching it that night in World Headquarters nightclub on Carliol Square. It’s a fitting location in which to launch a book that’s about music and the physical space in which it is produced or consumed: venues, recording studios, record shops, vinyl pressing plants. The book is about successful regional scenes – there’s a chapter about Newcastle, its bands and venues – and maverick individuals who produced the pop music that had the nation dancing throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, but it’s also about the wider contexts – deindustrialisation, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, post-war immigration to Britain – and how they shaped the music.

Best Album – David Bowie, Hunky Dory (1971)
In 2015 I heard that there had been an RCA record pressing plant in Washington, Tyne and Wear, and that it had been visited by David Bowie when he had signed to the label in the early seventies. The record plant was cutting edge, designed to press high-quality vinyl quickly. A former employee told me that, when Bowie visited, people were told to stop what they were doing and were shepherded into the canteen – a room with sleek automated coffee makers and microwaves – where they watched Bowie cut a cake to celebrate his signing. The remains of the plant are clearly visible on satellite pictures of the area – it’s near the car park of Washington’s B&Q – so I went there to have a look. All that’s left is some flooring through which trees and weeds sprout, but people use the area to walk their dogs and some skateboarders have set up ramps at one end. Hunky Dory is important too because of its connection to Hull, one of the cities I visited for the book. Many Hull musicians moved to London – as talented performers from regional cities often did – to try to make it. The guitarist Mick Ronson had tried his luck, but ended up living in a mansion run by a religious cult off Park Lane, so returned to Hull and got a job with the council as a gardener. He was mowing grass in the middle of a dual carriageway when he was recruited by a friend for Bowie’s band. After a couple of rehearsals he ended up on a radio session with Bowie – you can hear that he immediately added another layer of grandeur and skill to Bowie’s band. Bowie’s backing band The Spiders From Mars were all from Hull: Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey.

Best Single – The Beatles, ‘In My Life’ (1965)
In my Liverpool chapter I explore the south of the city, guided by The Beatles’ songs. I’ve been interested in the song since reading Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head, which describes the composition and recording of every Beatles song. The early drafts of ‘In My Life’ included incredibly specific references to Liverpool – especially public transport like bus routes and ‘the Dockers’ Umbrella’, as the seafront overhead railway was nicknamed. Up until then the band had been trading in songs that were universal. Why the turn back towards Liverpool? Was it nostalgia, an effort to reconsider their roots, a chance for a wildly successful band to remember where they had come from? Perhaps these highly specific references to Liverpool were too much of a leap at that point – the recorded version excised them – but these deleted places fascinated me. (One of the draft lyric sheets is now in the British Library, and was recently displayed at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.) As it turned out ‘In My Life’ planted the seed for later work that explored the same area: the by turns chirpy and dark double-A sided single ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the acid-fried pan-northern concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Best Book – Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain. (Penguin, 2017)
I’m Irish, and in 2013 moved to the north-east to live. As an immigrant you spend a lot of your first few years trying to make sense of your own experiences and trying to work out how you fit into the wider culture. On reading this book recently, I learned that there’s a long history of immigrants trying to get their heads around Britain, and that there are many dark moments in the twentieth century that foreshadow the kind of hostility immigrants experience right now in the UK. Wills, the daughter of a woman who left West Cork in Ireland to move to Britain, doesn’t pull her punches as she examines the history of immigration in the UK. As my musical journey around Britain progressed, I came to examine the influence of immigrant culture on popular music – reggae, bhangra, Irish folk – and to think about my own relationship to the country I was writing about.

Best Street – Grafton Street, Hull, HU5 2NP
Grafton Street is a short walk south of University of Hull, a street of what look like mostly rented terraced houses. It’s where Paul Heaton of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South made his home in the early eighties, and he continued to live there for much of his career. When The Beautiful South’s ‘A Little Time’ reached number one in the charts he went to celebrate in the Grafton pub. An Old Grey Whistle Test documentary visited The Housemartins on Grafton Street, where the band did their best to create the impression of a Monkees-like arrangement in which they lived and worked together. Prior to moving to Hull, Heaton had hitchhiked around Europe and been impressed by the welcome locals extended to him in France and Germany. He had grown up in Sheffield and missed the sense of community he had enjoyed there, so wanted to replicate it in Hull. You get a sense that Heaton wanted to find a purpose, to engage politically and culturally, and he found that in the terraced streetscape of Grafton Street, running for election, performing benefits to support the miners’ strike and forming two groups that would top the charts.

Best Film – Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque, dir. Joann Sfar (2010)
When I think about the way musicians are depicted on film, I think of two genres: documentaries and the biopic. The former is frequently a dogged approach to pinning down the grubby truths behind the myth; the latter can try to adopt realism but often opts for flights of fancy instead. Many of the greatest pop stars are self-made, more myth than reality, their careers a determined and sustained escape from ordinariness. Increasingly rock biopics are embracing fantasy as a way of capturing the essence of pop stars (the Elton John movie Rocketman is the latest) but I feel that Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg does it best, retelling the life of French pop genius Serge Gainsbourg using fantasy elements like a talking cat and an alter-ego whose features are exaggerated – big nose and ears, long claw-like fingers – played by the actor Doug Jones. Being a Gainsbourg biopic the music is fantastic too.

Best Radio Show – John Kelly’s Mystery Train, RTÉ Lyric FM
John Kelly’s Mystery Train is an eclectic collection of jazz, blues, pop, rock and world music presented by, to my mind, the best broadcaster in the UK or Ireland. Why is it so good? The music, certainly, but there’s also a comforting aspect to it that’s a result of Kelly’s ability to draw you in, to give the listener the feeling that he’s chatting directly to you. There’s a warmth that feels genuine. The closest analogy would be John Peel, but, although his taste is dizzyingly wide, Kelly tends more toward the melodic than the obscure (although one of Kelly’s Christmas favourites, Bahamian Joseph Spence’s near-atonal deconstruction of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, certainly pushes the boundaries.) On a personal level, as an Irish person living in the UK, the show is a connection to home. But it’s more than that. It’s one of the most enjoyable musical educations you can get.

Karl Whitney’s Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on Thursday 27th June. That night, Karl will be in conversation with author Harry Pearson (The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble Through North-East Football) in World Headquarters on Carliol Square East, Newcastle NE1 6UF from 7pm. Entry is free and all are welcome, just sign up to indicate attendance through the Facebook event page.

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