My favourites, Reviews

Album Review – “Out of the Silence” by Dare (1988)

DARE
My CD copy of the original “Out of the Silence”

A true story of my time at hospital radio, Lancashire’s answer to Bon Jovi and the early days of physicist Brian Cox.

Sometimes, listening to a song or an album just brings it all back.

This week, I have been listening to an album that was released 30 years ago, and although I don’t play it as often as I should, this record means a lot to me. This year, rock band Dare have recently re-recorded their debut, Out of the Silence (for reasons I’ll go into later) and released it as Out of the Silence II.  In addition to being a review of the original album, this article is the story of how I first discovered that album because it wasn’t via the usual heard-it-on-the-radio / read-about-it-in-a-magazine route.

Back when I was at university, I used to do volunteer work for Oldham’s hospital radio station, Radio Cavell. In addition to walking the halls of the hospital, visiting wards, talking to patients and taking their requests, I got to present shows on the radio. One day, I went down the stone steps that led to the underground studio to discover that a signed copy of a new album by the band Dare had been left by the turntable. Five moody guys photographed against the backdrop of a wintry looking reservoir stared back at me from the cover and at this point, I didn’t have a clue who the band was or why the album had been left in the studio.

The odd thing about this album was that it had been signed by the band. This sort of thing doesn’t normally happen at a small provincial hospital radio station. Whilst I was killing time before a show that night, I put the vinyl on the turntable and rather than playing it from the start, I dropped the needle on track 2, “Into the Fire”. The bizarre logic behind this decision was that Bryan Adams had released an album of the same name the year before (his last decent album if you ask me, but that’s another story). Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting much, but what I heard blew me away. A perfect piece of keyboard-driven melodic rock. Playing a few more of the songs, I could hear that this was right up my street. I ended up playing a few songs from the album on my hospital radio shows. Who knows – I may have been one of the first DJs to play Dare!

After a few questions to other members, the reason for a signed copy of the album became clear: Dare was a local band and if I remember correctly, one of their partners was currently in hospital (I never found out if this last bit was true).

A bit more investigation and scouring the music magazines of the time (remember kids, this was way before the internet) revealed that the band was led by Mancunian Darren Wharton, ex-keyboard player with legendary rockers Thin Lizzy, who had teamed up with local guitarist Vinny Burns to form Oldham’s answer to Bon Jovi. Unbelievably, given the trajectory that his career has taken since, the keyboard player with this outfit was one Brian Cox – yes, the Brian Cox, better known these days a physicist and TV star!

I’ve waffled on enough now about how I discovered the band and where they were from, so what about the music? Well, the opening salvo of “Abandon” and “Into the Fire” is an incredibly strong start to an album that doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. Guitars blaze, keyboards swirl and Darren Wharton’s raspy vocals set the tone perfectly. I remember thinking at the time that the rock songs I was hearing were every bit as good as those by other outfits who were some of the biggest bands in the world at the time (Bon Jovi, Van Halen, plus a whole host of US bands, Swedish rockers Europe, Yorkshire’s Def Leppard etc.)

For me, the thematic core and heart of the album runs from tracks 5 to 7. Even now, “Under the Sun” conjures up such an emotional feeling. Vinny Burns’ stunning guitar paints a desolate picture, sounding like something unleashed from a Pink Floyd record. With its moody keyboard textures, it’s a perfect example of a slow-build song that explodes into life with crunching guitars and Wharton’s powerful voice. An epic in every sense of the word.

Next up is “The Raindance”, a joyous celebration of a song that features a jaunty keyboard motif. I love the lyrics here: “There will always be tomorrow / There will be another day / And our hearts will still be singing / And the sound will show the way” and when the background vocals kick in during the third verse and chorus, it’s truly uplifting.

Track 7, “Kind of Spades” is a tribute to the late Thin Lizzy legend Phil Lynott, who had died two years earlier. On the new recording of the album, there is an extended coda to this song that really makes it shine, but of course, the original is still a fabulous and moving song.

The whole album is the perfect mix of rockers, ballads, poignant songs and brilliant moody atmosphere. Not bad for a band from Oldham / Manchester. Listening to a recent interview with Darren Wharton, he explains that the original recording Out of the Silence is owned by a record company that has no interest in promoting Dare, and whilst I still prefer the original recording, I can understand the band’s reasons for wanting a new version that gives them more control over its promotion and distribution.

Another thing I remember about Out of the Silence was that I had to wait until January 1989 to get hold of a CD copy – how times change! Later that year, Dare supported Europe at the Apollo Theatre in Manchester, and although it’s many years ago, I remember them putting on a fabulous and energetic show for the home town crowd.

I’m glad to report that Darren Wharton and Dare are still going strong, with guitarist Vinny Burns having returned to the fold. You can read more about the band here:-

https://www.darebandofficial.com/

 

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

My favourites, Reviews

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

 

P1050657
The book that started it all

 

Like songs and albums, I find that books work like a time machine, the mere mention of an author or title taking you back to the time and place where you first discovered a wonderful story. I can clearly remember buying a book to take on holiday to Mallorca in 2005 and getting lost in the pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. Thirteen years later, I have just finished the final book in the series, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. Rather than write a review of this final book, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about the series as a whole. I hope that readers who are familiar with the story will enjoy reading this overview and, even better, I hope that new readers might discover the series through my post. For this reason, I will keep my review free of major spoilers.

The Books

First, a summary of the books in the series (publication dates are for the English translations):-

  • The Shadow of the Wind (2004)
  • The Angel’s Game (2009)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven (2012)
  • The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2018)

The first book, The Shadow of the Wind, introduces us to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is such a delicious concept to avid readers and writers alike. The novel opens in 1945, when we meet the main protagonist, a young boy named Daniel Sempere. His father, owner of the Sempere & Sons bookshop, takes Daniel to visit the aforementioned Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is a hidden library in the heart of Barcelona’s old town. But this is no ordinary library – it is a labyrinth of seemingly impossible geometry, with endless twisting passages in which one could get lost. It is presided over by an old man named Isaac, and it seems that access to the library is reserved for a select group of people – Daniel’s father being one of them. Furthermore, visitors are invited to select one book from the library, and to take it away, making it part of their life.

Selecting a book titled “The Shadow of the Wind” by an obscure Spanish author named Julián Carax, Daniel does just that. Years later, his continuing obsession with Carax leads him into the mystery that lies at the heart of the novel. Along the way, he teams up with a beggar named Fermín, who has a secret past of his own – and a villainous nemesis in the form of Inspector Fumero, a torturer for the fascist regime. Fermín ends up working at the bookshop, and as Daniel’s quest to discover the truth about Julián Carax gathers pace, changing his life forever, Fermín fulfils the role of Daniel’s confident and side-kick.

The Angel’s Game is set in the decades before the first book, this time focussing on author David Martin, a writer of sensationalist pulp fiction, who yearns for work in a more rewarding literary field. He accepts a lucrative commission from a mysterious Parisian editor, Andreas Corelli, and whilst working on this project, David moves into an abandoned house in Barcelona. At this point, David begins to feel that he has made a Faustian pact, and as the story progresses, his life begins to unravel, causing the reader to question whether everything that David describes is as it seems. We also see how Daniel’s story interleaves with that of the owner of the Sempere and Sons bookshop, thereby making the link to the first book.

P1040927
Parc Guell (from my visit in May) – mentioned in the books

The Prisoner of Heaven is a curious entry in the series, mainly because of its page-count. At less than 300 pages, it is significantly shorter than any of the other books in the series. It does, however, contain the core of the story around which all the other events revolve – concerning a group of prisoners held in Barcelona’s Montjuic Castle after the Civil War. At times, the story is reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Shawshank Redemption. This is a brilliantly told, and at times harrowing account that provides some further layers of story that help make sense of the events in The Angel’s Game, calling into question the reliability of some of what that earlier novel’s main character, David Martin, narrated for the reader. It also sets up what is to come in the final book very nicely. Naturally, Daniel and Fermín are involved, but to say how would spoil the plot.

And so, to the final piece in this epic jigsaw, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. At more than 800 pages, this is by far the longest book in the series and, given its structure, it could well have been separated into two volumes. The consequences of the events recounted in The Prisoner of Heaven begin to catch up with the main characters. Whilst the start of the story jumps back many years, with Fermín telling Daniel how he arrived in Barcelona, the vast majority of the first half of the book introduces us to an intriguing new character, Alicia Gris. Alicia’s connection to Fermín is revealed at the start of the book, but for a large part of the story, we see Alicia’s work as a police agent as she works on a case involving the disappearance of one of the characters that first appeared in The Prisoner of Heaven. As the action moves from Madrid to Barcelona, Alicia’s story meets with that of Daniel and Fermín, and the epic story arc reaches a dramatic conclusion.

Before getting into what makes Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books so compelling, no review would be complete without mentioning the wonderful work of Lucia Graves, who translated all of the books from their native Spanish to English. (How about this coincidence: her family moved to Mallorca when she was three – interesting that that was where I first read The Shadow of the Wind on holiday!)

P1040884
Montjuic Castle (as seen from my telephoto lens when I was in Parc Guell!)

Analysis

Where do I start in assessing this modern masterpiece? Well, it’s right up there in the list of best book series I’ve ever read, and The Shadow of the Wind is in my top three books of all time. It can be enjoyed as an absorbing standalone novel in itself, but in fact, it is merely the set-up for a brilliantly constructed story arc. As already noted in this article, I read the first book thirteen years ago and the other books in the intervening period. Earlier this year, I re-read the first three books in preparation for the final instalment, and the connections are much clearer when you read them so close to each other. Little details that become lost over the years are sharper in the mind and make The Labyrinth of the Spirits all the more enjoyable thanks to the refresh.

Both the Sempere & Sons bookshop and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books are key locations in the puzzle that binds all of the various story threads together. Early on in the narrative, as a young Daniel reads the book that he has pulled from the most unusual of libraries, he compares the structure of the story to a Russian doll, with their ever-smaller dolls hidden within. This is a brilliant metaphor for the way in which Zafón’s tale unfolds. Like the books that follow, The Shadow of the Wind uses the idea of stories with a story. Over the course of the books, we have large sections of past events narrated by some of the characters that we meet. These sojourns are not mere paragraphs, but at times, comprise many consecutive chapters that take us away from the main protagonist’s current situation yet almost always have a bearing on their (and the reader’s) understanding of how these past events shape what is to come. In the hand of a lesser writer, this technique could come across as lazy info dumping, but in Zafón’s case, the vignettes are so beautifully crafted, and described in such wonderful prose, that every page is a joy to read.

The characters that populate the books are equally meticulous. From the inquisitive Daniel who kicks the whole thing off, to the damaged writer David Martin and the femme fatale, Alicia, they each bring something different to the ensemble. Best of all is Fermín, a gregarious character who doesn’t shy away from giving anybody and everybody his opinion on subjects as far-reaching as all aspects of love and romance, food (serrano ham and sugus sweets seem to be particular favourites), drink, politics and any number of other subjects. Fermín, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm who leaps off the page, is the one who keeps Daniel going, and later Alicia, when they start to flag in the face of the adversity.

It sounds like a cliché, and it’s mentioned in most reviews of the series that you will read, but Barcelona, in all its gothic glory, is as much a character of this series as any of the people who live there. Zafón’s description of the architecture of his home city, particularly the legacy of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, its parks and trams, little cafes and alleyways, the abandoned mansions, the brooding presence of Montjuic Castle, and the weather that hits the city as it rolls in from the sea is at once vivid and evocative. It marks out his story as being truly unique – not being set in more popular literary locations such as London, New York or Paris.

The shadow of The Spanish Civil War hangs heavy over the events and characters that are described in these books. As an Englishman born years after the conflict ended, it’s impossible to know how deeply the war affects Spaniards, but if this fictional account is anything to go by, I would imagine that the scars run deep. Spain is a wonderful country to visit these days, as many Brits do in their thousands each summer. But beyond the beaches, there is a fascinating history and rich culture in cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Bilbao and plenty more. It’s hard to believe that it is only just over 40 years since the fascist rule of General Franco ended in 1975.

I’ve read somewhere that Carlos Ruiz Zafón has said that he would never sell the film rights to this series – he has turned down several offers from Hollywood – stating that it should remain solely a literary adventure. Whilst part of me would dearly love to see the characters of Daniel, Fermín, David Martin, Inspector Fumero and Alicia brought to life on the screen, I can see where the author is coming from, and you can only applaud his stance. The story works brilliantly in written form, and whilst I’m sure there are some great directors and screenwriters out there who could do the books justice, this is essentially a story about books and writers and the imagination of readers; it’s easy to see how some of that magic would be lost in the transfer to the big, or even small, screen.

P1040960
Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (form my visit in May)

Final Thoughts

As a writer, it would be impossible not to be influenced after reading such a monumental piece of work. Whilst my prose may not match up to that of Carlos Ruiz Zafón (who’s could?), I would like to think that I’ve captured that sense of excitement and danger in the dark mystery of long-buried secrets being unearthed by my protagonists in my novel, Monkey Arkwright. On my re-read of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle, I was struck by how my fascination with Zafón’s intricate plot may have been running through my subconscious during my writing – not major plot points, of course, just little things like a mysterious old book here or an abandoned mansion there.

Whilst not every reader is familiar with the streets of gothic Barcelona, anybody who appreciates an engrossing story that is well told will find their patience rewarded in spades by this thrilling series of books. At its heart, it’s a story about writers and books that tangles the reader up in a web of intrigue, but there are also elements of detective noir, mystery, romance and plenty of horror – it pretty much has everything.

Thanks for reading my blog article. If you’ve read one or more books in the series, I hope that my summary will resonate with you and that you’ve enjoyed revisiting The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve not read this wonderful series, I absolutely implore you to go and pick of a copy of The Shadow of the Wind and start reading.

 

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

My favourites

Film Review : Coco

Coco is the latest collaboration between Disney and Pixar, and whilst it’s been on general release in many countries since the end of last year, it’s only just turned up in the UK. I’ve been excited about this film for a while now, given that its theme is based on the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead.

For those not familiar with the Day of the Dead, it is a time where families gather in graveyards, covering the tombs of their dear departed with happy photos, candles and colourful flowers. The idea behind this occasion is that people celebrate the lives of their relatives, remembering the good times from their lives and to ensure that although dead, they are not forgotten. If I have misrepresented the idea, apologies, I am no expert, but this is how I understand it.

This is the set-up for Coco, and the ideas behind the Day of the Dead are nicely sketched out in the film’s opening segment. We get to meet twelve-year-old Miguel, and learn the reason why music is banned in his family: his great-great-grandmother’s heart was broken when her husband abandoned her to pursue a life in music. This is far from ideal for young Miguel, given that he wants to grow up to be a musician like his idol, the late Ernesto Del la Cruz (think a Mexican Elvis – complete with white suit, love songs and iconic movie appearances).

Miguel’s visit to the land of the dead starts when he steals a guitar from De la Cruz’s mausoleum, and the would-be musician must return home before dawn or face becoming the land’s latest permanent resident. He can’t get home unless he receives a blessing from a dead ancestor, and teaming up with dead musician Hector, he sets out to find a way home.

Coco is a triumph of animation and music – you’d expect nothing less from a Pixar film. The film is full of jaw-dropping vistas, like the marigold bridge linking the land of the dead with the real world, the palatial residence with the shimmering blue guitar-shaped swimming pool or the simple wooden jetties that Hector and his fellow forgotten souls call home. In recent years, we’ve come to expect a hyper-real level of detail in our animated characters, and Coco more than passes muster in this respect; I often found myself gazing in awe at the textures of Hector’s skeleton face. The songs complement these vivid scenes nicely, and if this was all that Coco had to offer, it would still be a very good film. What makes it truly outstanding is the story that unfolds against this stunning melange of colour and sound; the writing is both exceptional and original, keeping the viewer gripped until the final emotional scene. In an age of never-ending sequels and tired remakes, prospective screenwriters should be forced to watch films like Coco to see how a good story should be told.

I mentioned Día de Muertos at the start of this review, but this is not the only Mexican tradition that the film pays homage to. It showcases traditions such as the marigold-strewn ofrendas (altars), alebrijas (fantastical colourful creatures made out of paper mache or carved from wood), the skulls (calaveras) that are symbolic of the celebration are everywhere in the film and one character even wears the iconic green shirt of the Mexican national football team.

P1000929

I read with interest that Coco’s director, Lee Unkrich, got the inspiration for the film during a family visit to Walt Disney World’s Epcot centre in 2011. I have visited the pyramid that hosts the Mexico pavilion many times, so I can see where he is coming from – above is a photo of the market stall displaying the painted skulls that I took last year.

I can’t recommend Coco highly enough – it’s flawless on a technical level and it’ll take one hell of a story to outclass this masterpiece when the “best of the year” lists are drawn up in December.

My favourites

Book Review – Kings of the Wyld

pixabayCC0 - books

This is a bit late for the usual slew of “end of year favourites” blog posts, but the best book of 2017 was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.

Despite the fact that I write Young Adult books, the genre that I enjoy reading most is fantasy. I grew up reading traditional fantasy series such as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Magician by Raymond E. Feist, but in the last decade or so, I’ve enjoyed the new wave of fantasy writers. Authors such as Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss and Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie, take what’s good about traditional fantasy, and through a combination of brilliant characterisation, upending the tropes of genre, injecting new ideas and perhaps most importantly, liberally sprinkling this heady stew with a grim sense of humour, produce stories that feel both fresh and exciting.

Nicholas Eames does all of the above with his brilliant debut novel, Kings of the Wyld, and then adds a whole new element that I’ve never seen before: he compares the life of a band of adventurers with the life of a rock band on tour! Whilst this sounds like it might be an ill-judged mash-up of styles, the author manages to pull this intriguing concept off with remarkable style in a thrilling tale that wraps up neatly but leaves you hungry for an encore.

Crammed together in a world where resources are scarce, humans and monsters don’t get along too well, so it’s up to “bands” of fighters/wizards to get together and go on “tour”, killing Dungeons & Dragons-style monsters, and in the process, make a name for themselves.

We see the story through the eyes of Clay Cooper, a middle-aged former mercenary who’s glory days are long past, now living the quiet life with his wife and daughter. But when former bandmate Gabe turns up on his doorstep, pleading for his help in rescuing his own daughter from a monstrous horde in a distant city under siege, Clay must make a decision. When Gabe announces that “It’s time to get the band back together,” I can almost hear the opening salvo of power chords in my head, because surely there will be a film or TV adaptation of this book, complete with a classic rock soundtrack? But for Clay, Gabe and their bandmates, it means that things are about to get interesting.

So, Clay and Gabe set out to round up the other members of their former band, Saga. But they know that this won’t be an easy task as many of their former bandmates have unresolved issues with each other, and this first part of the book is an absorbing read. It’s well written, with the author developing his main characters nicely as we are introduced to the various band members. Clay is a brilliantly-realised character; an old-timer who knows that times have changed and views the life of modern bands through jaded eyes. The fact that modern bands do city-to-city tours and fight monsters in arenas, rather than the traditional method of going out and hunting them down in the wild, is just one of the areas explored from Clay’s cynical perspective, and the author does a great job of making this, and similar grumbles, both entertaining and informative. We get Clay’s thoughts on rival bands from yesteryear, ruthless agents and up and coming bands who don’t take their career seriously enough – I can almost hear AC/DC’s It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock & roll) playing in the background at this point.

Here’s a typical Clay Cooper thought:-

Clay had lost count of the times he’d bumbled his way through a messy brawl, only to hear a bard convince a crowded tavern it had been the greatest, most glorious battle ever waged between man and beast.

There’s plenty of spot-the-rock references going on; the band’s wizard is called Moog (surely a reference to the 1960s analogue synthesizers), Clay’s home town is called Coverdale and there’s even a minor character called Neil The Young! Despite all the laughs and rock-related crossover, the book still has time for some genuinely touching moments. I particularly liked the Ettin (a two-headed giant if you’re not familiar with D & D or monster myths); each head has a different name and the characters of Gregor and Dane – one blind, the other describing their ugly surroundings to his brother as if the world were all sweetness and light – are written with a warmth that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a monster.

Whilst the book is not perfect – one of our heroes suffers a major setback near the end of the book that, for me, didn’t have as heavy a consequence as it should have – it’s one that I heartily recommend. The main characters are superbly written, and most of the supporting cast is right up there with them. There’s plenty of laughter along with some serious emotion as well, and despite the humour, the story plays out with the right level of gravity that you’d expect from a blood and guts fantasy tale. If you like fantasy, or rock music or D & D, or Spinal Tap, then there’s a chance that you’ll enjoy this book. If like me, you are a fan of all of these, then this is a book that you’ll love.

It’ll be interesting to see if Nicholas Eames can keep the bandwagon rolling with the second book in the series, Bloody Rose, which is published later this year.

You can read more about the author and his work at https://nicholaseames.com/

My favourites

RIP Tom Petty

pixabayCC0 guitar

If you’re a generation or two older than me, I guess that you’re used to saying goodbye to your musical heroes. Whether that’s Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or Roy Orbison, then you’ll be familiar with the feeling that somebody who’s music has enthralled and entertained you for many years is no longer with us. The death of somebody famous doesn’t come close to losing a family member or friend of course, but you are aware that something has changed nonetheless. When it’s a famous musician or singer, it does come with the consolation that you’ve got all those wonderful records that have seen you through good times and bad over the years.

On 2nd October this year, American rock legend Tom Petty died, aged 66. Legend is an overused word in many fields, musical and otherwise, but you won’t find many who’d argue with the use of this label in Tom Petty’s case. His music is often grouped together with other American singers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, setting their everyday concerns and social commentary to rock music that was both entertaining and insightful in equal measures; Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp being the other major notable exponents of what was termed heartland rock. More often than not, Petty’s music spoke of typical boy-girl relationships and was often straightforward and unfussy – but none the worse for it.

The debut album by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers landed in 1976, just as punk was sweeping the musical landscape. Whilst their music has its roots in 1950s rock & roll and 1960s rock, their jangly three-minute tunes paid just enough homage to the past, whilst exhibiting a tough streak that made them acceptable to the punk crowd. Their third album, 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes, is arguably the band’s masterpiece; a set of songs that refines the sound of their first two albums, that thanks to the production of Jimmy Iovine, still sounds great when compared to albums made decades later.

The appeal of Tom Petty’s music is not just in his brilliant songwriting, but is in part thanks to the quality of his bandmates; guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench regularly added memorable touches to Petty’s best songs. The Heartbreakers recorded four albums before Howie Epstein replaced bassist Ron Blair in 1982. The core line-up then remained in place until drummer Stan Lynch quit in 1994, and just before Epstein’s death in 2003, Blair re-joined the band. This sense of continuity is one of the features that made Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers such a special band.

In 2007, director Peter Bogdanovich made what is, for me, the best music documentary of all time; Runnin’ Down A Dream is an in-depth four-hour look at the career of Tom Petty. Starting from his Florida roots, the film tells the tale of Tom’s rise to prominence, featuring a stack of interviews with the man himself, his bandmates, producers, managers, road crew and fellow artists. There are, of course, many highlights; the live performance clips, the stories behind the songs and albums, how his videos made such an impact on MTV in the early 80s, the fallouts, his battles against the big record companies and various other events in his life. I could fill a whole blog explaining why I love this documentary so much, but just let me pick out a few highlights.

First up, the legal battle that Tom and the band had with their record company during the making of Damn The Torpedoes. The original recording contract that Tom Petty signed years earlier was automatically transferred to MCA when they bought his distributor in 1979. Fueled with righteous anger that such a move could happen without his say-so, Petty continued to record his album, getting his guitar tech to hide the tapes every night so that if he was questioned by lawyers, he could honestly tell them that he didn’t know where they were. Despite the fears of his bandmates and production team that the career-defining music they were recording might never see the light of day, Petty was prepared to risk everything in the stand-off with the execs. He eventually filed for bankruptcy to make his contract with MCA null and void, and thankfully, the music-buying public finally did get to hear his masterpiece.

Having been through several years of legal wrangles and finally escaped with his reputation and recording career intact, you’d think that Tom Petty would be happy to keep his head down and stick to recording great music. Think again. He was further enraged when in 1981, his record company tried to use his next album, Hard Promises, as a way of pushing through higher record prices. MCA planned to include Tom Petty in their “superstar pricing” range; which meant selling his album at $1.00 more than the standard record price. Yet again, Tom stood his ground and MCA backed down.

In addition to his albums with The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty found time to record three solo albums during his career and even released a couple of albums with supergroup The Travelling Wilburys. By the time that the Wilburys were formed, Tom Petty was twelve years into a recording career that had seen him become one of the most popular, well-known and well-respected artists of his time. Part of me wonders how Tom felt about only being the fourth most famous member of the Travelling Wilburys; featuring as it did, rock and roll legend Roy Orbison, Beatle George Harrison and Bob Dylan! ELO frontman Jeff Lynne completed the quintet. But he loved his experience with the Wilburys; that much is obvious when you listen to his interviews on the subject and watch the videos of their recording sessions.

Petty picked fellow-Wilbury Jeff Lynne to produce his first solo album in 1989. Full Moon Fever is my favourite Tom Petty album, packed as it is with one brilliant song after another, including the mesmeric “Free Fallin’”, one of his most memorable songs. The opening acoustic chords and anthemic chorus never fail to make the hairs on your arm stand on end, nearly thirty years after its original release. Despite its status as a solo album, Full Moon Fever features contributions from fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein. As with all of Tom Petty albums, solo or otherwise, Campbell’s contribution is significant – he even co-wrote some of the tracks.

It’s fascinating to listen to the thoughts of Petty, Campbell and Tench in the Runnin’ Down A Dream documentary. Like producer Jeff Lynne, Petty and Campbell were fascinated with the craft of making a record; Petty asserts that nobody cares how a record is made, but that they only care what the finished product sounds like. They were happy to go along with Lynne’s approach of recording many different pieces, and then layering them together to build up a full sound. Benmont Tench was less enthusiastic; he laments the fact that he was told to turn up, play his piece and then leave, instead of recording the track as a full band playing in the studio. I tend to sympathise and agree with his view, but given the astounding quality of the songs on Full Moon Fever, there’s no doubting the fact that Lynne’s approach has its merits.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have released two albums this decade – 2010’s blues-influenced Mojo, and in 2014, the back-to-basics Hypnotic Eye. These albums show a songwriter and band still at the height of their powers; they certainly don’t sound like a bunch of washed-up has-beens, and whilst it’s a shame that we won’t get any more albums, this comment sounds a little churlish given the depth and quality of their recorded output over the past 40 years.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise when I say that Tom Petty is one of my favourite artists, and there’s no doubt that I’ll be playing his music for the rest of my life. He was a brilliant songwriter with the ability to craft memorable songs that had great hooks, jangly intros and codas, superb musicianship and sing-along choruses. RIP Tom, and thanks for the music.

I’d like to finish this article with a personal Tom Petty Top 10.

  1. The Waiting *
  2. Free Fallin’
  3. Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
  4. Refugee
  5. Jammin’ Me
  6. First Flash Of Freedom
  7. Love Is A Long Road
  8. Runnin’ Down A Dream
  9. It’s Good To Be King
  10. You Tell Me

 

 

 

 

 

My favourites, Writing

My favourite authors – #3 Joe Abercrombie

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have seen that my previous post was about Scott Lynch. In that post, I noted that Lynch’s debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora, rekindled my interest in the fantasy genre. Even before I’d finished reading that novel at the back end of 2006, I was looking for another in the same genre. Joes Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself popped up in one of Amazon’s recommendation features, so I promptly ordered. I received it through the mail and put it on the bookshelf, ready for me to read in the new year.

Now, in my previous post, I’ve already stated that The Lies of Locke Lamora is my favourite book. So, you might be able to appreciate the thoughts that I was experiencing every time I saw The Blade Itself sitting on the bookshelf; on the one hand, I was excited to discover new fantasy books, but at the same time, I was preparing for the inevitable let down that I felt would surely follow as I moved from a masterpiece to what was just the next book sitting patiently on my shelf. It is to Joe Abercombie’s immense credit, and testament to his exquisite writing, that not only was The Blade Itself not a disappointment, but he produced the first in a series of books that I consider the finest series of books that I have ever read. (See, I’m very careful how I categorise my favourites! I’m allowed a favourite book and then a favourite series.)

The Blade Itself is the first book in “The First Law” trilogy and tells the tale of a disparate group of characters, each of whom become involved in the political and military machinations sweeping their world. First up is Logen Ninefingers, also known as “The Bloody Nine”, a famed barbarian warrior from the north. He’s physically imposing and is certainly not a man that you’d want to cross. Yet Abercrombie writes his character as a man trying to mend his ways; Logen has seen so much violence that he comes to realise that there must be a better way to live. Next up is Sand dan Glokta, formerly a colonel in the army. But following his capture and subsequent torture by a brutal enemy, he has returned to the Union a broken man. Far from slinking into the shadows, Glokta has now assumed the role of torturer in the Union’s Inquisition. The main point-of-view characters are rounded out by Jezal dan Luthar, a shallow and selfish young noble, who’d rather be out drinking and gambling with his mates than training for the annual fencing contest.

What makes Abercrombie’s work so special is his characters; I’ve never read books where the characters leap from the page quite like they do in his stories. Each of the three main characters is markedly different; these are not just cardboard cut-outs that you could find wandering through any work of fantasy. They’re memorable; they have memorable traits, unique thoughts, different ways of talking, and there’s absolutely no danger of confusing one character with another. Given that Abercrombie is a Lancastrian, I’d like to think that Logen and his fellow Northmen speak with broad Lancashire or Yorkshire accents. I’ve read somewhere that they may represent the Scots in the real world, but either way, Logen and friends give the impression of hard men who don’t suffer fools gladly. Despite cutting his teeth in the wilds of the north, Logen is painted as a bit of a philosopher, regularly thinking things through and trying to break away from the violence of his past. Jezal’s self-centred approach to life is beautifully evoked and it makes his progression through the trilogy all the more enjoyable, including a surprising twist. It’s probably quite a surprise to Jezal as well.

Best of all is Inquisitor Glokta, perhaps the most cynical character ever committed to paper and absolute gold in terms of what the reader gets out of him. Bitter and crippled, he shuffles his way through the trilogy dispensing sarcastic gems aplenty as he carries out his grim duties, all the while battling everyday issues such as trying to eat with his ruined teeth or walking down a set of steps with a gammy leg and painful back.

“The First Law” is a proper trilogy; the first book followed by Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument Of Kings to complete a single epic story. These books were followed by another three standalone novels set in the same world. The beauty of Abercombie’s work is that he brings minor characters in one novel to the foreground in a later story. I’ve already commented on how good his characters are, and this praise is not limited to the A-listers. Even the members of his supporting cast are brilliantly observed; Friendly, an ex-convict who is obsessed with numbers, being a personal favourite.

In 2014 & 2015, Abercombie wrote a separate quickfire Young Adult fantasy trilogy before capping a productive decade by returning to the world of “The First Law” with a collection of excellent short stories in 2016. He is now writing a new trilogy set in the world of “The First Law”, and I for one can’t wait to see what he’s going to come up with. He’s said on his blog that he is aiming to draft out all three books before publishing the first; the logic being that the publication schedule for the entire series will be regular. In a genre where the wait between volumes can seem like an eternity, I think that this approach should be applauded. It would be nice to have our favourite writers delivering quality books every year, but as Logen Ninefingers would probably say, “You have to be realistic about these things.”

My favourites, Writing

My favourite authors – #2 Scott Lynch

Back in the days when I was in school, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons, and this led me to books in the fantasy genre. I enjoyed series by authors such as Raymond E. Feist and Terry Brooks, but in the years that followed, I gravitated more towards espionage thrillers by authors such David Morrell, Craig Thomas and Daniel Easterman. Then, at the back end of 2006, I became aware of a debut fantasy novel that was getting pretty much universal acclaim from all quarters.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch single-handedly rekindled my interest in fantasy novels, and the fact that well over half of my reading time is spent in this genre these days can be traced back to the purchase of this wonderful book. It’s the first in the, ahem, “Gentleman Bastards” series and tells the tale of a group of con artists robbing the rich folk who reside in the city of Camorr.

So, what makes this novel so good? First, the city of Camorr itself is based on a medieval Venice, complete with miles of canals and all manner of elaborate buildings. Lynch brings his city alive with all the sights, sounds and smells that you’d associate with such a place. The story gets off to a Dickensian start, with the young orphan, Locke Lamora, being taken in by a Fagin-like character who teaches the young children in his care the art of stealing; simple distraction and street theft techniques. In an echo of what is to follow, Locke proves himself adept at such activities and quickly demonstrates that he is a cut above your average street urchin. The story really takes off when Locke meets up with his next mentor, Father Chains, and some of his future comrades in his Gentlemen Bastards band. I don’t want to give too much away for those that haven’t read the book, but suffice to say that from here, the stakes are increased as the story progresses through the years.

Scott Lynch presents The Lies of Locke Lamora in an interesting way; the heart of the story is Locke and his band of brothers pulling off an elaborate con, but every few chapters, we get a short segment of backstory in which we learn about certain key events and characters from Locke’s past. Whilst this sounds like it might be jarring, trust me, it isn’t, and I love the way that Lynch cleverly segues from the present to the past and back (or is that forward?) again. It’s masterfully done and even produces one the books laugh out loud moments when transitioning from a grave warning in the past to an I-don’t-care-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway-and-what’s-more-I’m-going-to-hit-them-twice-as-hard moment in the present (if that makes any sense). The novel is laced with a black humour that readers of a cynical disposition will enjoy, and as if all this wasn’t enough, the novel features delicious plot twists and left-turns that I certainly didn’t see coming.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in a planned seven-book series. It was followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies in 2007 and then The Republic of Thieves in 2013. Both these books take Locke’s story forward, whilst conjuring up wonderful descriptions of the world that he and his friends inhabit, in Lynch’s trademark style; his writing is simply superb. Like many readers around the world, I am waiting with baited breath for the forthcoming novel The Thorn of Emberlain. Scott Lynch has suffered with health issues in recent years, and this has caused delays in the publishing schedule, so I’m not entirely sure when the next book will be available. However, the signs are good that it might be sometime in 2018, but when a writer is this good, I’ll more than happily wait however long it takes for the next instalment.

It may be a fantasy, but it’s not fantasy that follows the usual tropes associated with the genre. I’ve recommended this book to several people over the years, and most of them love it. This includes a friend who is absolutely anti-fantasy, so I consider that high praise indeed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is quite simply the best book that I have ever read.