Interview: Steeleye Span….”there’s nothing sweet about us”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 21, 2014 by Johnnie


Originally published on

Old school indie fans will know that any animated pub discussion about The Fall inevitably degenerates into reminiscence about that band’s almost innumerable personnel changes – the legendary whipping boys and girls who did their best before falling foul of Mark E. Smith’s iron thumb, and which particular line-up was the best.

A similar discourse could easily be undertaken among folk aficionados about English stalwarts Steeleye Span, who are celebrating their 45th anniversary with a couple of Irish dates. Since their inception in 1969, Steeleye’s membership has been graced with a succession of musicians who themselves have become part of folklore: Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings, The Pogues’ Terry Woods and influential English folk revivalists Tim Hart and Martin Carthy, to name a few of their alumni.

Singer, founder member and virtuoso spoons-player Maddy Prior may not quite be Steeleye Span’s answer to Mark E. Smith – she had some time out from the band herself between 1997 and 2002 – but her sweet-tonsilled contribution to the best of the electric-folk band’s many and varied artworks make her the closest thing they have to a mainstay. ‘Steeleye Span is like a bus,’ she once explained. ‘It goes along, and people get on and get off it. Sometimes the bus goes along the route you want to go, and sometimes it turns off, so you get off.’

In many ways, the anniversary is just another milestone for Steeleye, as they have an album to promote. Released last year, their 22nd LP Wintersmith is based on Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series of Discworld books, proving that even 45 years on, they’re still looking for unusual sources of inspiration. Continue reading

Talk about pop music, talk about pop music…

Posted in Music on February 14, 2014 by Johnnie

Music criticism is no place for the squeamish

Over the past decade, I’ve found that being a music critic of any repute requires a thicker skin than most musicians could dream of owning.  Putting an opinion out there, into the vast muddle of public irritation and apathy, requires a lot more gumption than people might think.  On the face of it, it’s a relatively simple thing to do but that doesn’t mean anyone can do it.

Criticism is not just about having an opinion. If that was the case, Twitter would be the go-to place for all culture. Obviously, I’ve heard, and been assaulted by, the cliché that opinions are like arseholes, but in my experience not everyone has a genuine opinion.  Arseholes are plentiful.

I began writing music criticism because I had a neurotic notion that by articulating, distilling and delivering my critique, I could somehow help to improve the medium. Even just writing that down, it looks like an arrogant notion but it was my springboard, my reason for bothering. I thought I could make a difference. I set about trying to destroy laziness, ridicule the stereotypes, denounce the derivative, promote the underdog, unearth the creative and shine a light on shaded genius. Continue reading

New Year, new list of ill-conceived, unachievable goals – or not

Posted in Advice, Favourite Publications, Words on January 12, 2014 by Johnnie

Sic itur ad astra

Every Sunday, I sit on my favourite armchair for approximately seven minutes (an unscientific average) and feel truly excited and inspired by the possibilities within my grasp. There’s a reason why this happens. I have flicked through my favourite sections of the Sunday papers for those seven minutes, made a mental reminder to return to my favourite parts of those sections, noted anything new or surprising that should get my full attention later, become unnecessarily lost in new fashion trends, and then I put it all down, knowing that other things require my immediate attention: usually work deadlines, grocery shopping and breakfast. Yet, as I set about those tasks, the nuggets of culture and indulgence I glimpsed for those few minutes remain snapping, crackling and popping in my head, filling me full of optimism and belief – a personal, silent thrill of assurance that everything I used to think was inevitable and just around the corner in life really are there for the taking.

Then work starts, each line of it pricking my enthusiasm with its own individual fishing hook, until my soul is perforated and dragged down, and my optimism bleeds and flows, halal-style, into the gutter of drudgery. Sunday morning begins as the tremulous launch pad of impending greatness, but soon darkens and creeps into Sunday afternoon, which begins as the precipice beyond which lies the piercing stalagmites of Monday and the soul-sapping, inspiration-dampening week ahead.

It’s a little bit like New Year’s resolutions: the gusto and bluster of those inebriated self-promises generally withers and dies within a few seconds’ exposure to reality, routine and the supermarket crisp aisle.

So, in 2014, I’m going to set myself some better, more realistic goals. Healthier, happier, more fulfilled. That’ll be me.

Here we are, then: Continue reading

Snacks Bygraves

Posted in Food & Drink, Grave News, Sort-of-News on April 22, 2013 by Johnnie


A pleasant cup of tea?  Then I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates.

For a blog with the preoccupations this one has, how pleasant to find that a quaint tea room has opened in the quiet surroundings of Deansgrange Cemetery in South Dublin. In a place I like to visit often, this is a very welcome addition to the local area.

Rumours of “a tea room in the graveyard” has circulated for some time; I’m never sure where these start and how they get around but it was quite enticing. For years I’ve thought it would a great idea – how morbidly jolly, munching themed snacks in the shadow of tombstones, like a kind of permanent Hallowe’en. Then I thought, no, locals might find the notion a little lugubrious. And then I recalled that it’s apparently an Irish tradition to visit cemeteries on Christmas Day to remember departed relatives as part of the celebration – ‘Ho Ho Ho’ indeed.

Here it is, then: a (so far) nameless tea room, in a newly refurbished office building just inside the main cemetery gates.   Continue reading

The overdue burial

Posted in Favourite Publications, Radio, TV, Words on April 21, 2013 by Johnnie

new lifeIn the grand scheme of things, embarking on a Facebook ‘friend’ cull is no big deal. Things change, people move on, acquaintances are fleeting and you’re essentially doing others a favour by ever-so-slightly lightening their burdens. You know the people who don’t ‘like’ anything you say, you know the people who probably ‘hid’ your updates some years ago. Basically, the people who can’t be arsed with you.

All you’re admitting is that, perhaps like your own sad, failed pop career or other youthful crush, clinging on to the past and trying breath life into its sagging, rotting cadaver is a pointless and tragic exercise. You need to move on, break the chains, and rejoice in hearing the Looney Tunes-style whistle as this particularly uncomfortable baggage falls off its cliff edge and moments later makes a satisfyingly distant thud. Continue reading

Trying a medium for sighs

Posted in Strange phenomena on April 4, 2013 by Johnnie

medium rare

I’m being menaced from the other side. Ghosts are haunting my inbox and after my money.

It’s my own fault. In my anxiety to win a silly online prize (the sort of thing Michael Parkinson sends you free if you subscribe to a 50+ life insurance plan), I stupidly said ‘yes’ when asked if I would like a ‘free’ horoscope. Where’s the harm, I thought? If it’s positive, it’ll put an optimistic bounce in my step; if it’s negative, I’ll dismiss it as the workings of a crank.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember what it was about, apart from the fact that she said she knew I’d had it tough lately but there was a pot of money around the corner for me. ‘Tara’ (for it was ‘she’, photo of the ‘model’ who represents her below) signed off as my ‘devoted friend’, asssuring me of her utmost attention at all times. Amazing, a ‘free’ fairy godmother, I thought. Then promptly forgot all about it.

But then the menacing started. Continue reading

Marr, Morrissey and the notion that comebacks don’t work

Posted in Grave News, Heroes, Music, Unwanted Comebacks, Words on April 2, 2013 by Johnnie


Last week, as I write, this blog and its beloved went to see Johnny Marr play at that lugubrious Dublin venue, The Academy. For anyone in their 40s who had seen The Smiths in their heyday (i.e. any point in their brief career), it was an extraordinary experience.  Johnny Marr has finally settled back into his skin, reclaiming his role as the guitar hero of a generation and the man behind some of the most delightfully crafted chord sequences ever created. He not only has a fine solo album, The Messenger, out, but he’s now merrily playing some of those old greats like it was the most natural thing in the world.

And really, it should be the most natural thing in the world. They’re 50% his songs.

The ‘surprise’ (and, really, we should have had more faith) is just how natural it is for him to play – and for us to hear.  His former sidekick Morrissey has been playing the same songs on and off for nigh on 20 years, as he was the voice and the melody we had all known and adored on those records. However, it was but a bar or so into Marr’s rendition of ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ (the second song of his set) that it becomes obvious what we’ve been missing all these years – hearing those songs played properly. Continue reading