Friday, 27 July 2007

The Pogues>Summer in Siam

The Pogues have written some fantastic songs, not least 'Summer in Siam' from the album Hell's Ditch (1990). How they managed quite such an impressive output with the chaotic Shane MacGowan at the helm is to their credit. Like many creative individuals, staying on the straight and narrow is rarely a prerequisite for producing quality art. You have to question, though, how can someone who looks... well, so rough... produce such a great version of 'And the Band Played Waltzin' Matilda'?

The irony of a now religiously-convinced teetotaller discovering this beautiful song on the occasion of his first legal pint of lager, wouldn't be lost on MacGowan who was brought up a strict Catholic before adopting a hedonist lifestyle. I must confess I was already a Pogues fan, so I didn't go through any conversion process that night in the Munro pub in Villars, Switzerland on my 17 birthday (drinking limits are earlier in Europe). What stood out, however, was the way the whole pub went quiet when 'Summer in Siam' came on the juke box (how on earth it got on the playlist I'll never know). Admittedly it was complete 'euro-drivel' that normally blared out from the speakers, but there's just something about that song that transports you into a heavenly world.

Ask MacGowan and this is all he can come up with about it: ' I write simple songs that people can sing along to. Like, there's no point explaining what 'Summer In Siam' is about...' Shane rolls his eyes skywards in exasperation, '... because the bloody thing's about what it says it's about.' Hmmmm! Not that helpful - but who cares what it is really about, it's a fantastic song and when I hear it 'Then all I really know Is that I truly am.'

PS If you can work out the lyrics from the song then you're more attuned to the singing of a drunken man that I am. Easier just to check here...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Bob Dylan>Ain't Talkin'

Trying to decide on a Bob Dylan track to include here, is like trying to decide which Shane Warne delivery was his best. Was it his first ball in Test cricket to remove Mike Gatting or the one that got Andrew Strauss in the 2005 Ashes? Or was it... and the list goes on from one great moment to another. Such is the way with genius. In Bob Dylan's case, should it be something from his early period - 'The Times They are A-changin'' for example, a song that gripped a generation? Or rather 'Like a Rolling Stone', perhaps his definitive song? What about something off Blood on the Tracks (1975), often the critics' choice album or one from his 'Christian phase'? When it comes to faith and Dylan, 'pick a song, any song' would probably work.

In May, my Dad and I stood in the same room as Bob Dylan. OK, it was a big room (Wembley Arena) and there were 10,000 others there, but it was still the same room. As he walked on stage I wondered why it had taken me so long to go and see him. I happened on the delights of Dylan, aged 14, whilst scouring my uncle's record collection on holiday. Twenty years later, I finally made it. It wasn't too late, but there was a distinct feeling of 'how much longer can he do this' about it. With his hat pulled low over his face and his back almost to the audience, for two hours he was sensational - but not a word was uttered except to introduce the band at the end and then it was just names.

It seems that for whatever reason, Bob 'Ain't talkin'' (you need to listen to the song yourself for clues about why this might be). Or as the chorus to the song from last year's Modern Times (2006) goes, 'Ain't talkin', just walkin'. And here we come to the crux of the matter for me. When it comes to matters of faith there is far too much talking and precious little walking that happens. For me, having listened to Bob's sermon-song and seen him living it out in Wembley, I've decided to imitate him. Sure words will get us somewhere, but actions will get us further.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan>Nothing Without You (Tery Bina)

Nusrat, the late Pakistani Qawwalis singer, is my first entry of 'devotional' music. I must admit, ashamedly, that I'd never heard of him until earlier this year. How I wish I could turn back time - to have discovered his music earlier, to have perhaps had a chance to see him perform at one of his legendary London concerts. See what I missed in the video below.

Nusrat is a singer in the Islamic Sufi tradition. Millions of South Asian Muslims see him as the greatest singer ever. He walks firmly in the traditions of the great thirteenth century Persian poet, Rumi, whose verse speaks of love and God and demonstrates a side of Islam that few non-Muslims are even aware exists and many hard-line Islamic traditionalists believe is not Islam at all. Listening to Nusrat, I find myself exposed to the same God I read about in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. His voice and passion transcends what I actually hear.

Nusrat doing 'neat' Qawwalis live is amazing but some of his recordings for a western audience are also stunning. And so the song I have chosen is 'Nothing Without You', a song about the love between a man and a woman from his album Mustt Mustt (1990). It's almost as if it's been lifted straight out of Songs of Songs - both a celebration of sacramental love between human beings and an allegorical representation of the love between God and humankind. If and when I enter heaven I expect to hear a sound like that of Nusrat's improvised section in the middle of this song. Hear the live version here.

Sisters of Mercy>Torch

In 1990, in a small village in Switzerland, a Saudi prince introduced me to The Sisters of Mercy. For the next 3 years they became one of my favourite bands, forming the backdrop to my early days at university and the overiding influence of my uni rock band - Drag (yes you did read that correctly. And no, we didn't wear it when playing live.) We even did a cover of their mysterious 'Alice.'

The track 'Torch' off the album Floodland (1987) became a great favourite, best played late at night in the pitch dark. This is when The Sisters come alive - the hallmark of a truly great goth band. I like this song, not just for it's biblical imagery, but Andrew Eldritch's voice, which has such brooding qualities. At times it sounds more rock-opera than goth-rock but somehow it works, and every time I hear it my soul lifts.

Incidentally, in 1993 I saw The Sisters live at the NEC in Birmingham. Not one to usually enjoy standing out from the crowd, it was a strange choice I made in wearing a white t-shirt to the gig. Other than the girl in the wedding dress, I was the only one not wearing black. Thank goodness there was a lot of smoke.
Listen to The Sisters legally here...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Bruce Springsteen>Thunder Road

Sometimes it's the spirit of a song rather than the lyrics that sets my spiritual pulse racing. The Boss' 'Thunder Road' (1975), from the album Born to Run, is in this mould (not that the lyrics aren't fantastic, because they clearly are). It was my friend Pete who reminded me recently of what a great song this is. There are other songs that have the same effect if I'm in the right mood: Doves 'Pounding' is another good example (and is surely modelled on 'Thunder Road'), and pretty much anything by The Strokes.

Bruce Springsteen has travelled with me for years. I remember being gathered around the record player with my Dad and Brother for a first listen of Tunnel of Love (1987). The brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) formed the soundtrack to my paper-round in the school holidays. And as for 'Streets of Philadelphia' - can there be a more perfect 3 minute pop song?

'Thunder Road', though, like much of Springsteen's work, just screams out the desire to go somewhere else, to do something more, to break free. This is hope for the ordinary person on the street. The track builds, until Clarence Clemons' saxophone solo just lifts you to a higher plain. This in my opinion would make a great funeral song!

Monday, 16 July 2007

Rufus Wainwright>Going to a Town

This is the first of many songs for me that inspire, challenge, motivate and encourage faith. I've deliberately chosen a challenging one first-up. It's Canadian Rufus Wainwright's 'Going To A Town', second track off his excellent 3rd album - Release the Stars (2007). His previous albums, Want One and Want Two, contain various gems and I'm sure another of his tracks will feature at some point.

Because the refrain of 'Going To A Town' contains the line 'I'm so tired of America', it's been suggested that this is about the war in Iraq. Actually, Rufus Wainwright's lyrics (and music) are rarely that obvious. This is no protest song about war - it's a protest song about something even more insidious - small minded thinking (such things are the root cause of war). Take a look at the song's video and you'll see this is about Rufus Wainwright and his own journey 'home'. It's full of Biblical imagery.

This song convicts all those who judge others and write them off. I imagine in his mind are narrow minded conservative Christians who claim they know exactly who are God's chosen ones. To be frank, I feel just as Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by making a Samaritan the protaganist of his parable about loving others, so here the words of wisdom come from the mouth of a man despised by many Christians simply on the basis of his sexuality. The last word goes to Rufus: 'Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved? Tell me.'

Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town lyrics