Levi Stubbs Tears

I’ve been a Billy Bragg fan since I saw him at the Portsmouth Guildhall in ’86 and I’ve terrorized my family and friends by singing his songs ever since.

Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy

My best Billy Bragg memories include teaching Train Train to Dylan when we lived in New York. He was only a year old and he used to finish the chorus for me “Train! Train!…Hurry bring my baby back again!”.

Brewing Up with Billy Bragg

I was cornered by an Old Etonian and an Old Harrovian for singing There is Power in a Factory  in the showers at BRNC Dartmouth. They’d never met a Labour supporter before.

Talking with the Taxman about Poetry

The night before I was due to see Billy at the Guildhall, Rob and I saw him being arrested on the Nine O’Clock News for breaking into the nuclear base at Greenham Common. Billy was released in time though and he was brilliant. Ted Hawkins was his warm up act and I bought all of Ted’s albums too.

Levi Stubb’s Tears is one my favourites and I’ve wanted to learn it since I got my first guitar. This is the first song I’ve recorded in a couple of years and I’m a bit rusty. Was fun to play though.

I decided that the song needed a bit of a video to go with it so I spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering through Flickr’s Creative Commons gallery looking for images and cramming them together in iMovie (iMovie sucks).


Songs Without Love

I was wondering what songs are about. Most of them are about love of course but what about the other ones?

Terry Gross had a dude on the other day who wrote songs about a bomb that went off his train carriage on the way to Machu Pichu. Abba won the 1974 Eurovision Song Context with a song about Waterloo. Are there any other songs about weird topics?

I haven’t done a fun science project for a while and I need to learn about the latest versions of Ruby & Rails & Elastic Search & D3 & Hicharts. I also want to dabble in some NLP stuff—sentiment analysis; classifiers; that kind of thing.

Here’s the TODO list:

* Grab every top 100 song since Al Martino in 1952.
* Grab all the lyrics to all the songs.
* Build a word cloud for each song.
* Build a word cloud for each week/year/decade.
* Do cluster analysis to find interesting topics.
* Write a classifier that can figure out what each song is about (love, war, bombs, whatever).
* Plot how that changes over time.
* Do sentiment analysis to see if songs are happy or sad.
* Plot how that changes over time.

The results will be here:


If you know Ruby (or want an excuse to learn) fork my repo and play along.


I need to get this finished by next year. The year after that at the very latest.

They are the waters of March, closing the summer… and the promise of life… in your heart.

My new favourite song is Águas de Março. Pandora found it for me in my “Mas que Nada” playlist where it is sung by four or five different performers so I get to hear lots of different versions. This one – with Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim – is the best version by a mile.

I was surprised to see how upbeat and happy they are in the video (I am watching it for the first time with you) as I had very different interpretation in my head.

When I first heard the song, I took it to be two lovers exchanging sweet nothings across a shared pillow but after hearing it over and over I had to go google the lyrics to find out what it was really about. Wow. That was a shock.

First of all, I had no idea the song was so famous and important. I thought I had discovered a hidden gem and was the only one to enjoy it. How was I to know that I was the very last person in the world to hear it? [OK, OK. The second to last one.I heard it before you did! – Ed] I am very familiar with Antonio Carlos Jobim and love his music but I had never heard of Elis Regina (which made Gilles laugh out loud). I have since made up for lost time and now she’s a favourite too.

Águas de Março - Elis Regina e Tom Jobim
Águas de Março – Elis Regina e Tom Jobim

Secondly, the lyrics… wow. I was way off.

É pau é pedra
É o fim do caminho
É um resto de toco
É um pouco sozinho…

É um caco de vidro
É a vida é o sol
É a noite é a morte
É um laço é o anzol…

É peroba do campo
É o nó da madeira
Caingá, Candeia
É o matita-pereira…

São as águas de março
Fechando o verão
E a promessa de vida
No teu coração…

Wikipedia tells me that Jobim wrote a completely separate set of English lyrics and I don’t know how much they correspond with the Portuguese lyrics [If only we knew someone who speaks Portuguese! – Ed].

It is wood, it is stone
It is the end of the way
It is the rest of a bole
It is a bit in loneliness

It is a shard of glass
It is life, it is sun
It is the night, it is the death
It is the tie , it is the hook …

It is peroba do campo
It is the knob in the wood
Caingá, candeia
It is matita-pereira

They are the waters of March,
closing the summer…
and the promise of life…
in your heart.

Now I know that the song is about the passing of summer (March is at the end of summer in the southern hemisphere) I hear the song as a wistful reminiscence of beautiful ways and a mournful expectation of the winter to come. For me now, it’s a song about loss. Perhaps the loss of youth and the approach of our autumn years. But then I see Tom and Elis having a fine old time on the video and am more confused than when I started. I have no idea what the song is about.

Before I finish, I’d like to say a couple of things about Mas Que Nada, the song that started all this.

Like most of the northern hemisphere, I was introduced to this wonderful song by Ronald and Co’s delightful romp through the airport during the ’98 World Cup.

And reminded of it by Ronaldinho and Friends, Joga Bonito-ing it up eight years later… which brings me to my second point about Mas Que Nada.

Someone needs to stop the Black-Eyed Peas from covering other people’s music. They peaked around Shut Up (which I used to sing as a duet with my then nine year old daughter) and Hey Mama! and everything they have sung since then has the consistency of mushy peas and I’d rather they didn’t turn other people’s great songs into mush.

The chances of anything coming from Mars

It has come to my attention that there is a whole continent of people who have never listened to Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds. This is a crime against humanity.

The War of the Worlds is the very pinnacle of that mountain of great concept albums that defined the 70s and it’s the best of the rock operas. The opening chords – Dun dun daaaaa – still give me chills 30 years later and I can’t read a EULA without looking over my shoulder for the Martian in a giant tripod trying to kill me with a death ray.

For those who have not yet had the pleasure, War of the Worlds begins with Richard Burton’s sombre narration, reading the opening lines of HG Wells’s masterpiece.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century
that human affairs were being watched
from the timeless worlds of space
No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized
as someone with a microscope studies creatures
that swarm and multiply in a drop of water
Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets
and yet across the gulf of space
minds immeasurably superior to ours
regarded this Earth with envious eyes
and slowly and surely
they drew their plans against us.

Then the overture introduces the haunting theme of the album.

When the Martians arrive on Horsell Common, we journey with the narrator as he meets a series of unlikely characters – David Essex’s artilleryman, Phil Lynot’s parson and his wife, played by Julie Covington – and each character tells their story with a song.

My favourite is Spirit of Man, a duet in which the parson’s wife tries to persuade her now-crazed husband that humanity will find some reason to survive.

There must be something worth living for!
There must be something worth trying for!
Even some things worth dying for!
And if one man can stand tall
There must be some hope for us all.
Somewhere, in the spirit of man.

Your music collection is but an empty shell if it doesn’t include this album. Fix that now! (don’t get the abridged version).

Do yourself a favour though. This is not background music. It needs your full attention. You need to sit alone with headphones in the almost dark, peering at the album’s gorgeous artwork, let the story wash over you and imagine those Martians in their fighting machines bringing civilization to an untimely end.

The chances of anything coming from a Mars are a million to one.

But still, they come.

My Second Rant About Playlists

Rhapsody’s service has been spotty recently so I thought I’d try Spotify to see if it is all it is cracked up to be. And the verdict is…

…it’s OK.

But like every other music app I have ever tried it doesn’t do one the thing I want a music player to do.

I want to listen to music that I like.

Spotify excels at playlist management but I don’t want to manage playlists. I want to listen to music.

Here’s a reminder of why playlists suck:

Playlists are very seductive at first. You think Oh yes. I’ll build me a playlist with all my favourite songs. But then, after the third time you play it. You start thinking Oh man! This again!? I’m gonna build me another playlist. Then I’ll have two.

Before you know it, you have hundreds of playlists called things like Early English Folk (I) and Early English Folk (II) and you are spending all your time managing your playlists which, by the way, is exactly what the people who make the playlist managers want you to be doing.

I had a go at writing my own Rhapsody client a couple of years back but dropped that when a) Rhapsody started suing everyone who used their API to build apps and b) Rhapsody made an iPhone client that didn’t suck.

My dream didn’t die though and I am still in the market for an app that will play music I like. Here’s how it will work.

I search for some music, say, Gogol Bordello and play some “Top Tracks”.

I hit the button “Play more stuff like this” and it’ll find some Firewater or The Pogues.

After a while, I get bored with gypsy punk and play some Mediaeval Baebes instead. When it gets to Gaudete, I’ll tell it to play more like this and it’ll drift over into some Steeleye Span or some Fairport Convention.

When I use the app a few days later, I won’t need to tell it what to play because it will already know what I like. But, if I want to hear 23 versions of John Barleycorn I can do that too (this is where Pandora falls short).

Is there an app out there like this? Maybe someone has done something on top of the Spotify API? Don’t make me write it myself!

D’you ever wish that you were better informed?

The News of the World began Murdock’s journey to media domination nearly 40 years ago. Let’s hope it ends it too.

We always knew you were shit. But we never knew you were this shit.

It says here that the unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud
That we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy

Those braying voices on the right of the house
Are echoed down the street of shame
Where politics mix with bingo and tits
In a strictly money and numbers game.

Billy Bragg. Poet.