Our house

In 41 years I have lived in 16 houses. And never once given thought to the people who were there before me. At least, not until I moved into my current home in Friedenau. Because one of the former residents was Rosa Luxemburg.

To my embarrassment, possibly shame, her significance passed me by for the first year or so. I’d noted the memorial in the street outside – a modest iron structure stood amid a bed of red rose bushes – but never taken the time to wonder who the woman in the black-and-white photograph was. Only when walking home with a German friend did her importance strike home.

‘Rosa Luxemburg lived here? Wow.’

His faced conveyed awe, admiration; so much so that, once inside, I asked my German wife who she was, why she meant so much. As I listened, new connections dawned: with the square that takes her name in Berlin’s city centre; with the memorial outside the zoo, marking the point where her body was thrown into the Landwehr canal, a hundred years ago this week.

Berlin is a city where you are unable to escape history. No trip to see the clear waters and huge skies at Wannsee can pass untainted, knowing what occurred in the houses on the opposite bank. Any walk around the Museumsinsel is now spent looking for the bullet holes that pock the building walls; once they’ve been pointed out, they’re impossible to overlook.

And this history is found everywhere. At the end of our street is a Schuttburg, one of Berlin’s rubble mountains that provide the few elevation points in this horizontal city. Outside our door, near Rosa Luxemburg’s memorial, are the Stolpersteine that silently remember two others who were taken from our house and murdered: Gertrud and Leo Friedländer.

None of these would have been in place when Rosa Luxemburg was here; nor would the swastika we found marked on the ceiling of our cellar, a painted reminder that the place you call home does not dictate your politics.

Every month or so, a tour party calls at our building, wanting to see the place where she lived. They carry that familiar look of awe and admiration that I now understand and share.

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A good introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s life is Red Rosa.

 

 

 

Track 26: Goldfinger, Ash

1977, 1996

I had a friend in Sheffield.

Mike and I had much in common. We both liked beer. We both liked football. That’s usually enough for two 18-year-old males to bond.

Mike was a one-paced-but-gritty central midfielder for my football team, the hilariously titled David Mellor’s Football Task Force. Think Steve Stone, or Mark Noble in today’s money. And he was a reliable drinking companion for Monday nights glued to the early days of the Premier League, on its new home of Sky TV.

More nobly, Mike accompanied me on cold, underwhelming trips to watch our respective football teams play in the small towns around Sheffield. If Swindon were away at Chesterfield, I knew who to call. And to return the favour, I would begrudgingly tag along whenever Palace were playing nearby.

barnsley-143463_1280It was on the way back from an incident-of-any-kind-free 0-0 draw at Barnsley on a dull grey November day (I am yet to be convinced Barnsley has any other type of day) when Mike shared a pearl of wisdom that I cherish to this day.

“We’re probably not going to keep in touch after university” he said, with curmudgeonly insight that defied his 18 years, “but I’ll always give you a thought when Swindon are mentioned on Final Score.”

Mike, you see, kept a mental list of people – friends, associates, randoms – who he associated with one club. Quickly I realised I had my own list, which persists to this day. For Aston Villa, it’s Andy, my friend Julia’s boyfriend (now husband: he even checked the Villa score between the speeches at their wedding). Scunthorpe are Christopher Davis, the son of my dad’s church warden; he’d never been there, he just picked them just to be different. Stoke City are Matthew Cubley, who turned up one day at my primary school without warning and left six months later. His was the first Northern accent any of us in darkest Wiltshire had ever heard, meaning we treated him with Elephant man-eqsue curiosity for the first few weeks.

It also works for bands. If it’s the Super Furries, I think of former housemate Gordon. Should Ben Folds Five make a rare appearance, then it’s Charlotte. With the Doors, I think of my brother. And change the radio station.

And if it’s Ash – see, we always get there eventually – then I think of Mike. Even before we got to football, we talked music. He revealed his love of Ash on the first night we met. And, as we sat around our one-pound pints in the hall bar, I drunkenly shared my own Britpop secret with him.

I didn’t like Ash.

The music, that was fine. Great, actually. They even pulled off that rare trick of having album tracks better/as good as the singles.

No, it was the mocking, goading, taunting title of their (officially) debut album which grated.

1977.

The year Tim Wheeler was born. Also the year I was born.

And that’s what hurt. He may as well have called it ‘I’m not even 20 and I wrote this: what the feck have you done with your miserable life, eh? EH?’. Wheeler might claim it’s a Star Wars reference, but we all knew that’s what he meant.

Time heals. I’ve mellowed now. I’m seeing Ash in Berlin in a couple of weeks and will look them in the eye as an equal. For I too have now achieved. Has Tim Wheeler written a book that reached #2 in Amazon’s bestselling snooker-related titles? No, he has not. Not according to Wikipedia, anyway.

So I can listen now to 1977, revel in its glorious energy, my cheeks no longer burning with shame and jealousy and fury. I’ve even smoked a Henri Winterman cigar. Without coughing.

The pints will cost considerably more than one pound, but I will raise a couple of them to Mike. Who – just as he predicted – I haven’t seen or heard from since university.

Top three Ash songs:

Ash 1997

Gig review: The Vaccines

Festsaal, Berlin, 26 October

It has taken me nearly a decade to see the Vaccines for a second time. An unwelcomely long wait; that first time, in a cramped, clammy, crowded underground bar on Hamburg’s ‘mile of sin’, they blew me away with their energy, vim and talent. So much so that nothing – not my cold, my age, or my five-week-old baby – were going to stop me from getting to this gig.

IMG_2263After the support trooped off – keep a beady eye out for the excellent whenyoung, especially the brilliantly coiffured drummer – on they came. The first thing that strikes is that they have, not unreasonably, got older. The straplings of the Reeperbahn have filled out, swaggered up, even grown in number.

The second, though, is the curious stage dynamic. While three of them dive straight into full-on rock bluster, bassist Árni Árnason and keyboardist Timothy Lanham more closely resemble people waiting patiently for a library to open, all planted feet and middle-distance stairs. Oddly, the imbalance works; their reticence leaves room for their more energetic bandmates to do their stuff. And while the supremely gifted lead guitarist Freddie Cowan, dressed in tight-white T-shirt and jeans, would splice seamlessly into any rock band from any era, it’s inevitably singer Justin Hayward-Young who draws the eye.IMG_2265

A little too much on occasion. There’s an overdose of knowing points into the crowd, and on occasion his stage posturing veers dangerously close to school musical (over)acting – although credit is due to anyone who tries to swallow a whole mic live on stage. And these are minor niggles; overall, he’s the perfect frontman, with the voice to match the strutting.

And songs this good demand a little strut. The Vaccines don’t hang about, racing hyperactively through the set, their surfer-tinged and Joe Meek-dappled early hits expertly interspersed with tracks from the new album, with ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band‘ standing out. Old and new dovetail neatly, and they’ve blended in nice touches of country rock, even a little Eighties disco – foretold by their stage entrance, all glitterballs and ‘Dancing Queen’ (reclaiming that song for a merciful nation from May’s awkward clutches).

Yet it is the anthemic old favourites that reveal the band at their best. ‘Wetsuit’, ‘Post Break-up Sex’ and ‘If You Wanna’ sound especially glorious, meshing brilliant guitar/drums work with memorable lyrics about adolescent insecurities and sexual frustrations that – allow me to reach for my Britpop crowbar briefly – are up there with the best of Pulp. So soaring are they that even the bassist is jiggling away by the end.

After that Hamburg gig, the Vaccines became my favourite band to have come around after I officially got old. By which I mean, when I stopped going to gigs simply because they’re gigs; I now only venture out for bands I know I’m going to like.

I knew I was going to enjoy the Vaccines, and they didn’t get close to disappointing. They even omitted ‘Wolf Pack’, meaning I got to moan on the way home about how they hadn’t played my favourite song, thus establishing my status as a long-term fan.

All in all, a perfect night out.

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Track 13: One To Another, Charlatans

Tellin’ Stories, 1997

Career-wise, I’m lucky. When not wasting time in coffee shops or reading about Liverpool’s latest match/transfer/injury, I write about environmental issues. Subjects that I care about, and which (usually) interest me. I even travel to exotic places on occasion,  once sleeping in the President of Mali’s exclusive suite (he wasn’t there, just to be clear).

But more often than I’d like, when I eventually sit at desk and prise open laptop, boredom sets in swiftly. I’ll spend today doing what I did yesterday, and what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Typing, reading, flicking over to Twitter, making more coffee …

Repetition is a fundamental element of any job, of course. It might be more stimulating to do something fresh each day, but it wouldn’t work in practice. How would you feel, sat in the dentist’s chair, if the person in white with the sharp metal things casually mentioned that this was the first time they’d extracted wisdom teeth? How reassuring would it be if a pilot stopped you as you boarded the plane, asking if you knew what any of the buttons did? Even in ultimately pointless professions, it rarely ends well to let just anyone turn up and have a go for the day. Loris Karius provides painful proof of that.

Is it the same for musicians? They live a life many of us would greedily assume: headlining festivals, trashing hotel rooms, the occasional spot of devil worship. But does all this hold an endless, unbreakable thrill? Do they, too, get bored with having to do the same thing day after day?

Charlatans 1999Earlier this year, I went to see the Charlatans with my good friend and musical guru AJ. I utterly love the Charlatans and, in the run-up to the gig, dug out all their CDs to refresh my memory of their genius. Among other things, this indulgent evening reminded me that I love ‘One To Another’ more than any of their other works of brilliance. And when, shortly after arriving at the venue, AJ managed to get hold of a setlist from their merch stall, I knew for certain they would be playing it.

But as we waited for the band to arrive, I wondered: do they still love it? However many times I’ve listened to the song, they have done so a thousand-fold times more. And they have sat through the rubbish versions too: the shitty early demos, the rehearsals gone wrong, the aborted soundchecks. Surely some of its majestic sheen must have worn over the years?

And the Charlatans have been around for many, many years. They were there before Britpop, and have endured, largely without respite, since its demise. There have been solo side projects and new members added – but the core of the band have been hearing their songs for close to three decades now. That’s a long time to be strumming the same chords.

The lights dimmed; tendrils of smoke crept across the stage. On they came, to heartfelt, grateful acclaim, and set about doing what they do. And, as the setlist had promised, before long that oh-so familiar keyboard-heavy intro kicked in. The crowd became giddy, like a kid who hears the doorbell ring, heralding the long-awaited arrival of a much-loved family friend … but was the friend as pleased to see us?

Martin Blunt hunched over his bass, fretting over frets; Tony Rogers thumped his keys with righteous fury; Tim Burgess leant far out from the stage, his peroxide haystack bobbing with each beat, his arms reaching into the worshipping crowd that chorused back every word he sang.

Do they still enjoy playing it?

It certainly looked that way.

AJ’s top three Charlatans tracks:*

* He would have opted for ‘One To Another’ but I wouldn’t let him. He wanted that stated on record, though.

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The station café

All writers need a place to write. A place to muse, pontificate, edit, scribble, procrastinate. Or to weep silently over the latest rejection email (it’s all part of the process, right?)

My own desk-away-from-the-desk is a small café by a suburban station in Berlin. It’s handily located between my flat and my daughter’s kindergarten, making it the perfect stop-off on the way back home, when I’m too exhausted/despondent to open my emails, or need a creative kick. I call in two or three times a week. And I’m not alone in making it my usual haunt.

Another regular is the old man who arrives pünktlich at five to nine each morning. He always has an espresso (most of which he leaves) and sits outside to enjoy a thin, dark cigarette while flicking through the Berliner Morgenpost. He has an immaculate moustache and a smart beige jacket which he is wearing religiously, even in this current mid-thirties meteorological madness.

One morning I said ‘hallo’ to him once, reasoning that he must have noticed me there and we should at least acknowledge each other. He didn’t reply; didn’t even look up.

I haven’t tried again.

A late-forty-early-fifty-something couple also stop by most mornings. They always sit by the kitchen and never waver from their chosen breakfasts – him a croissant and cappuccino, her mint tea with a muesli and yoghurt bowl – and they both read separate papers. They rarely speak to each other, but more often than not embark on a passionate, mid-food embrace. Tongues and everything. Yet they turn up in separate cars. Are they a couple? If so, why do they arrive from different directions? Are they having a secret affair? I’m no expert, but surely going to the same place each morning isn’t the most inconspicuous way of carrying on?

I would be too nervous to ask what’s going on, especially in fumbling German, but I don’t want to. It’s more intriguing not to.

I’ve been going there for five years now to write down ideas, cross them out again, read magazines, kill time. In all that time, the owner has never smiled once; never asked my name, never offered hers. But a few weeks ago, we had a breakthrough.

“Hallo, kann ich bitte –“

“Latte macchiato, oder?”

She knows what I drink. I no longer have to order. She even knows not to bring the gluten-laden complimentary biscuit I can’t eat. She still doesn’t know my name and is unlikely to ask at this stage. But it matters not: I’m now officially a regular. Welcomed – however begrudgingly – into their little corner of the city.

It would ruin it if we all started talking to each other.

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Track 8: Country House, Blur

The Great Escape, 1995

I’ll admit it: I’m reluctant to blog about Blur. Are there any words left to write? Stuart Maconie penned over 270 pages on them and, even now, their albums continue to be picked over in search of new meaning (they’re responsible for the current state of Britain, apparently).

It’s even harder to come up with a new angle from which to approach their rivalry with Oasis, which culminated in their most notorious moment. Every last element of the Battle of Britpop, from Alex James’ triumphant T-shirt to whether the video to ‘Country House’ finally pushed Graham over the edge, has been picked over many, many times. There’s very little flesh left on that carcass.

All I can offer is an opinion. And I have one. But first, let’s summarise the key facts for those very, very few who have somehow missed them (while still finding their way to a Britpop-gazing blog).

The Battle of Britpop took place in the summer of ’95 when ‘Roll With It’ and ‘Country House’ were released during the same week. The general conclusions are that: (1) Blur won the battle, but Oasis won the war; (2) this summer marked the high point of the era, after which things began to unravel with gathering speed; and (3) both songs were shite.

Whether you agree with the first point depends entirely on when your cut-off date is. There’s little doubt Oasis went on to dominate the rest of the 90s, but their albums were increasingly poorly received (and indeed poor), whereas Blur produced some of their finest work after the turn of the century. The second point is revisionism; no one was saying any such thing at the time, but it’s quite acceptable to surmise, with hindsight, that the summer of ’95 was the peak of the bell curve of hype.

It’s the third conclusion that I disagree with, though. ‘Roll With It’ is by no means a classic, falling a long way short of Oasis’ finest work, and the bland, pointless lyrics are a disappointment after the scintillating opening chords. But it’s a perfectly listenable three minutes, even two decades on. You’d never request it from the DJ, but wouldn’t much mind if it came on. It’s solid, six-out-of-ten stuff.

Blur 1994 v2

By contrast, I genuinely like ‘Country House’. It’s not Blur’s most brilliant tune, admittedly, and I’ve little time for prominent brass in pop (only the Beatles really get away with it). The lyrics, though, are several cuts above much of the mindless dross that clogged up the charts back then. It tells a story, albeit a slightly sneering one, and that made it a refreshing change from another wailing self-centred lament about rejection.

It was even educational. At seventeen, I hadn’t heard of Balzac; I didn’t know what it meant to have a fog on your chest. Blur opened my mind to new concepts. I’ve still never read any Balzac, but at least I’ve heard of him and can nod sagely when greater minds debate him in smoky coffee shops (which is how we pass the time here in Berlin). I owe that to Colchester’s second-finest exports (after oysters).

Revisionism is at play here, too. No one said either track was rubbish at the time. The tsunami of excitement the singles created might explain that to an extent, just as they partly excuse with the unanimous five-star reviews of Be Here Now. But hype alone wouldn’t protect a truly dire song from instant condemnation, and certainly not two.

No, people dismiss both songs now due to the lingering regret that this era-defining head-to-head clash wasn’t, say, ‘Girls And Boys’ going up against ‘Live Forever’. The subsequent disappointment has resulted in an overly critical eulogy for both songs.

So, I am prepared to take a controversial stand here and write it out loud: both songs are good. Not great, but good.

But then I liked The Phantom Menace, so maybe my opinions should be treated with extreme caution.

Top three Blur tracks:

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Gig review: The Orielles

Monarch, Berlin, 8 April

I love Britpop, so I listen to 6Music. Because I listen to 6Music, I hear about fantastic new bands. And because I live in Europe’s self-appointed capital of cool, most of them pass through Berlin at some point. So far, so good. Except the Orielles are playing at Kottbusser Tor. Not so good.

Kottbusser Tor is exactly the sort of place I would have loved when I was twenty (roughly the age the band members are now). The streets which branch off the central roundabout overflow with drinkers spilling out from the many and varied bars that occupy every other building. In between are the too-many-to-count restaurants selling cheap(ish) food from all corners of the planet, which ranges from the edible to the delicious. The brickwork of the huge facades on the corners are coated with graffiti as high as the spray can will reach. Some of it’s even quite good. There is, more often than not, a smallish mob protesting passionately about something or other. And should you need drugs, the dealers meet you on the steps of the U Bahn station (unless they’ve been moved on by the Polizei, in which case you’ll have to head to Görlitzer Bahnhof, one stop further).

But I don’t need drugs. And I’m no longer twenty (double that, in fact). In among this picture of young urban hedonism, I can  see its other side: the broken glass that coats around 90% of the ground; the homeless people of whom there are far too many for the capital of Europe’s wealthiest country; the blood stains on the pavement, too numerous to be from just one fight. I worry about what I will do in a few years when my daughter wants to head to Berlin’s edgier districts such as this one, a place that leaves me feeling grimy whenever I visit.

The venue doesn’t help. Monarch is on the first floor of a desperately shabby building, and while I can’t actually detect the scent of urine in the stairwell, it’s exactly the sort of stairwell that people do piss in. I climb the steps quickly to find the door locked. I’m the first one here, and I’m too early. Very, very uncool. I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, I’m too old for all this. The book I’ve brought to read on the train also seems to mark me out as someone who shouldn’t really be here; I’ve become one of the sad old muso bastards I used to laugh at, lurking at the side, trying to fit in.

It eventually opens, and fortunately there are various free mags about the city’s music scene; I can keep the novel hidden safely away in my pocket. As it slowly fills, I’m relieved to see I’m not the only oldie here. And, three ciders later, the band come on. As they push through the crowd that is now packed into the Monarch’s cramped confines, they look nervous (or maybe they’ve just come up that stairwell) and, with no support band, they have to warm us up by themselves. But they don’t need support: they are straight in the zone from the first jangling chord, the first thumped drumstick, and stay there throughout a short but hugely enjoyable set.

The music is a refreshing mix of styles: echoed vocals reminiscent of the Sixties girl groups, rhythms that nod towards Franz Ferdinand’s early material (especially the change of signature on ‘Sunflower Seed’). They also know their way around a cowbell. Overall, their sound reminds me of the Raveonettes’ first album, which can only be a good thing. Oh, and Sidonie B Hand Halford has a very funky pair of red trousers. Not many people can get away with red trousers so effectively.

They’re chirpily engaging company, too; guitarist Henry Carlyle Wade promises to put everyone present on the guest list for their next gig in Berlin, and also invites us to come and say hello afterwards. I decline the offer; being over forty, I’m obviously worried about train connections on a Sunday night and the need for an early start the next day. But as I descend the almost-certainly pissy stairs and head into the blood-and-glass-flecked streets of north Kreuzburg, I’m grateful to live in a city with so much live music. I hope I never get too old for it; to do so would mean missing out on nights like the Orielles have just put on. I’ll keep on coming. But when I start paying to leave my jacket in the cloakroom to avoid the hassle of having to carry it, it’ll definitely be time to call it a day.

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Photo (c) Paul Hudson / Flickr. Note, it’s not at Monarch. My phone ran out of battery and I don’t like taking photos at gigs.