Tuesday, 30 September 2014


This northern sky that roofs our industrial city - this glorious celestial carpet - it's haunting, breath-taking, apocalyptic, ever watchful.....but it cannot be captured except in a moment, ever transitory except in memories. You feel the sky, you wonder, sometimes you understand as evening creeps into night and dawn slides majestically into a brilliant new day.

When I moved from London to Manchester I became hypnotized by the skyscapes I came up against. Often they seemed so dramatic, so awesome that I would stand in the street and stare and wonder why the London sky didn't seem to move me that way. I don't know the answer but I love to watch the heavens - sometimes in silence, sometimes with a sound-track.
This blog is dedicated to the soundtracks that speak to me in to me under this northern sky.
In other words this blog will contain my musings on music. I plan to also art, culture, literature, politics and philosophy, anything that excites me, or anything that just needs saying!

Recently, I finished writing a biography on a group of Manchester based musicians called Haven - a long, but worthwhile ride and I'm currently weaving together the fabric of my first novel that I hope will be a beautiful thing when it can be presented in fluttering colour to the world! I hope this will be completed by the end of this year....watch this space!
If and when I have time to spare I'm available for writing press releases, articles, or commentary on interesting people/events . Contact me if you feel I may be the right person to conjure up the magical text you need.  I'll also review records, live music, books, plays & films with pleasure if I feel passionately enough about it & my schedule allows it. Check with me if there's something you would like me to review. I don't live alone under this sky so I also invite other writers to come and share their words and images if the impulse is there!
Much of my review work is for Pennyblackmusic but time permitting, I will also review things here on Under a Northern Sky.
I'm also co-editor of Terrible Beauty (a Manic Street Preacher's fanzine). No, there aren't enough hours in the beautiful day or night!

Music is nourishment for the soul and has enormous power to heal as well as entertain and inspire. This feeling underpins the majority of my writings.
To contact me please email

Friday, 24 January 2014

Northern Sky Watch......Push the Sky Away --- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

This powerful, yet delicate collection of songs, tinged with darkness but bathed in an odd white light have been sitting uneasily with me for the past week or so. That doesn't mean they are not enjoyable and is no reflection on the merit of this outstanding album, but it is an uncomfortable record and not a world I feel inclined to linger in for too long. The sound is sparse but with a rich and evocative vocal like Cave's you don't need a great deal of furniture. And in fact, Push the Sky Away in its entirety has the feel of unfurnished rooms, white walls, blank canvases, along with the occasional ambiguous shape shrouded in white sheets. That's part of the discomfort, you're aware something is lurking but it's a largely unseen danger, a shadowy presence that follows and watches - though occasionally unleashes a torrent of holy and unholy imagery that pulls you to both open and avert your eyes. I think, in the end, my impulse is to look, to see, to be aware.
This album is very much about seeing, not necessarily judging or touching - but acknowledging what is there, or was there, even: "They've dismantled the funfair/and shut down the rides/and hung the mermaids from streetlights by their hair". These lines speak of the destruction of our landscapes as much as the killjoy antics of governments, as well as the oppression and sexual objectification of women, pulling them from the freedom and sanctuary of the sea and using them as senseless artefacts.You don't need to know Nick Cave resides in Brighton to detect the sea-side town backdrop to much of this record. You can smell the spray beating against promenade, hear the beat of the tide, the endless ebb and flow in the hypnotic, relentless riffs on songs such as Jubilee Street and Higgs Boson Blues.
These two songs are the masterpieces on the album for me, though each track is a tidy piece of intrigue, and there is much quivering beauty lapping against the shores in both Warren Ellis's sensitively attuned multi-instrumentalism and Cave's mythical lyrics and intimate delivery on the album as a whole.

In an age of dumbed-down soundbites, it's gratifying to hear such poetry on a record in 2013.

Jubilee Street' may or may not refer to a street of this name in Brighton. There are Jubilee Streets all over the country so choosing a name like this is immediately both universal and localized as well as possibly being a nod to the Queen and Country to "practice what they preach". The Brighton street of this name now houses the new modernized library and some fancy coffee shops and restaurants. The place Cave is singing about delves into what lies beneath apparent respectability. The song depicts prostitution and obsession, hypocrisy and guilt. Ultimately it appears to lead to either transcendence, or some kind of out of the body experience - or possibly death "’I'm transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing/I’m flying, look at me/I’m flying, look at me now" I'm not sure that this song really ends – rather - it just seems to lose consciousness and hang overhead… Only to return to haunt itself a few tracks along with Finishing Jubilee Street. Here, the narrator seems to be Cave (because he says in the first line that he's just finished writing Jubilee Street) so it appears to be him rather than the character in the original song, though boundaries are blurred right through the record, in time zones, in people, in where the sky ends. This narrator falls asleep and awakes from a peculiarly vivid dream of a girl called Mary Stanford.

I get the impression this has some bearing on a historical reality - a real person but from a bygone age who has visited him in a dream. There seems to be a jumbled story that can't fully be grasped as is often the nature with dreams but the message seems to be that the sky will devour "my children" so we need to "push the sky away". Whether this is metaphor or a fable or a dream is not clear but it sheds some light on the album's title, the opening track about the trees with pleading hands trying to hold off the invasion of the sky, and the strange underlying current the songs all seem to possess, a disconcerting kind of lullaby quality that rocks you to sleep but not necessarily to sweet dreams.

Photo: Syd Sheldon

The epic Higson Blues is the penultimate track. "I can't remember anything at all" Cave commences before embarking on a strange journey involving the devil, Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana and presumably the enigmatic Higgs Boson particle which may or may not exist and does it matter anyway? Cave's voice is literally dripping with jaded summer exhaustion, he groans his way through the dust and confusion and the song ends where it started with his inability to remember anything at all. This is where it feels very inviting to slip into amnesia but I don't think this album will let you do that. You may fall asleep but you will wake up with another puzzle. And so it goes on.

Even when your stereo is silent, this album will find a way to inhabit your head. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are back and though the sky feels ominous, it's too compelling not to watch this extraordinary album unfurl.

Originally published with Mudkiss Fanzine 2013


Musings on The Messenger - Johnny Marr

The Messenger has arrived! With screeching breaks, breakneck speed, speed-dial immediacy.....this record is absolutely bursting to tell you all about it. It's like an excited friend returning from some crazy trip, sitting up all night to share their stories & images - and for you to fill them in on what's been going on around town while they've been away - in the pauses. Since time began, messages have been an exciting and vital part of the human experience, from smoke signals to morse code, we've found ways to connect with each other, to deliver the news, good or bad, urgent or trivial. And today, it's easier than ever to transmit our messages. We've got so many formats, it's mind-boggling. There's a real danger and it's often the case, that frequent messaging degenerates into something quite meaningless. When we're drowning in messages from advertising, social media, billboards and buses something usually has to speak to us personally to get our attention. This album manages to do that in twelve lively snapshots which coalesce together to create a buoyant body of work that IS something to grab your attention!

Johnny Marr is the master of the major AND minor chord, he can assume the role of orchestra conductor as comfortably as he can jam with a bunch of street musicians down on the corner - if that's what he feels inclined to do. His enduring, full spectrum career demonstrates his flexibility and refusal to be pigeon-holed by genre, place or time. Yet, something about this record does have the feeling he's come full circle and is re-connecting with various incarnations of himself so he can really pull it all together, to neither disown his past nor glorify it but to simply integrate his many layers and lives of sonic existence. The past is audible in this record, in the music, the production and the delivery but the future is equally inherent in the mix, in the lyrics which grapple with technology, celebrity and identity. The sentiment and the vision look forwards at times, remain neutral at others and nod to history in the same breath, simply acknowledging, never wallowing.

Opening track 'The Right Thing Right' proclaims from the very first chime that this is an upbeat affair. There's an infectious energy that demands you get on your feet, run round the block or at the very least bang your desk if you're trapped in some godforsaken office somewhere. Each track has a definitive semi-abrupt end, a full stop, a message that is sent and received rather than lingering in the ether. Marr has always had an incredible sense of timing and throughout this album you realize that every beat is as intentional as every space between. There's an absolute symmetry and precision to the tracks, even the more jarring and insistent numbers like 'Word Starts Attack' and 'Upstarts' hit the nail on the head with just enough bangs to make the picture hang. There's nothing superfluous or self-indulgent about this album. It knows where it's going and it arrives on exactly the right frequency...the dial is tuned in perfectly. The sound is sharp and smart. This is perhaps exemplified on title track 'The Messenger 'which despite the intricate nature of the melody possesses a clean crystalline quality, a mystery about both message and messenger, a meandering, intuitive wander that could lead anywhere.

New Town Velocity floats onto our radar like a blue sky after a misty shower. It's a kind of rites of passage number, leaving school, opening up to life and all its possibilities in a world without uniform and rules. There's a beautiful sense of motion in the song and it absolutely demands to be played when out walking or driving - watching the world, seeing the sunshine hit the trees and feeling that dazzle of sun and shadow. It feels impossible for me, at least, to listen to this song and not visualize urban scenes and dreamy motion.
'Upstarts' the first single to be lifted from the album contains a healthy dose of defiance and anarchy. In fact, the spirit of punk pervades this album. Marr has always maintained a kind of outsider stance. Despite being revered as the legendary guitarist that he is, he is essentially a private person who refuses to toe the line or rest on his laurels. Many will say this album sounds like The Smiths. Here and there it truly does. Some may see this as a happy accident – some as a deliberate decision to return to roots. For me, it’s neither one nor the other. This album demonstrates a man at peace with his past but in love with life and each new day. Music’s always been my favourite medium for messages and there’s a multitude to decipher here. Decode in your dreams, dance without dictionary or diagram!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bringing it all back home...to Brooklyn - Nell Bryden at the Ruby Lounge, Manchester - 31st January 2013

No frills, no fuss, no fillers, no gimmicks….Nell’s band are settled snugly on the stage in the darkened lounge – Nell steps smilingly on board to join them, diving straight into the punchy paen What does it take? Straight away the tone is set for the night “I know we got along, my heart is never wrong,” she affirms and there it is – the decision to listen to the heart, to trust the gut. This night is full of guts and hearts. The red rose garland (heart-shaped) that drapes the microphone is the only splash of colour in sight but burns all the more brightly against the stripped down feel of the performance. This floral mandala spells passion, romance, empowerment and perhaps more than anything, vibrancy. Nell Bryden exudes an exhilarating life force that will not be contained and will not be oppressed, in spite of the pain, the loneliness and challenges that are thrown on her path. She faces each one, looking it squarely in the eye. Feeling each one, she blasts it to pieces with a pure shower of cleansing emotional release through her music tonight.

The last time I saw Nell she had tumbling blonde curls, a majestic mane, her crown and glory, you could say. Tonight I saw Nell with no hair at all. Both pictures are equally beautiful. As has been well documented in the press, Nell developed alopecia quite recently. I have to say, the Nell that stood on the stage tonight was perhaps the most real and heartfelt I’ve ever seen her. Strangely, she managed to be vulnerable and invincible at the same time. It sounds like a clichĂ© but by losing her hair it’s as though she found a vital part of herself, her real, true, honest to the bones self. Not that Bryden has ever been anything but an authentic performer but it was a delight to see somebody so comfortable in their own skin, with no pretensions and no games on the agenda. Truly for her - there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and she embraced that so fully it was hugely inspirational. A message for all of us, it’s safe to be yourself….for how and who else can you truly ever be?

I first came across Nell around 6 years ago when she dropped by the Blue Cat CafĂ© touring her first record. Straight away it was clear how serious she was about her music, how in love with her guitar and her vocation she was. Vocation may sound like a funny word but this woman does give the impression she’s been called by some ancestral, deep rooted need to use her beautiful voice to wash away the aches of human existence, to turn it around into something magical and exciting. On one of those nights, I remember Nell asking me for a whiskey before she went on stage – or was it when she came off? Transatlantic confusion can occur where whiskey is concerned and I can’t remember which tipple we settled on but I do remember thinking the way she drank one measure of unadulterated whiskey somehow matched her straight-talking, direct approach to life. Again, no fuss, no fillers, no frills – just the real thing. Perhaps that simile also applies to her magnificent voice. Like whiskey, it can be smooth, matured and seamless – or, it can be rousingly raw and penetrating, making you cough as you swallow – hitting you right THERE ... again!

So, tonight, Nell is promoting her new album Shake The Tree but the set list constantly dips in and out of her expanding back catalogue, delivering a perfect pace of variable tempo and pitch. One of the things that really stood out for me tonight was the power of her poetry. A musical talent she undoubtedly is but she’s been doubly gifted as a priestess of the pen. The shockingly knock-out chorus of Fingerprints demonstrates this “Your fingerprints are still on my heart” – what an evocative metaphor for having your heart stolen and squeezed! Many of the songs are punctuated by Nell’s banter. Full of wit and anecdote, she’s very in tune with her audience who unnerve her a little by being too quiet. I agree we were, but I think it’s because we were so enthralled by her songbook. This is the last night of her tour and she admits she can’t wait to get back to New York having been on the road for months. Going home, missing home, losing people and places and also returning to them, are a common theme in her music. She slips through dreams, oceans and echoes with a gracefulness that glides you along beside her. And that’s the thing, you really do travel with her, through the chilly, nocturnal streets of Brooklyn, the parched paths of the Middle East, the dust, despair, even danger that sticks to the soles of her shoes, we can trace those patterns she paints with each inhalation.

The show closes with the Shake The Tree, preceded by Nell’s motivational invitation to everyone to go shake their own tree. As she says, you can wait for the fruit to fall and see and accept what you falls in your lap (if anything) – or you can shake that tree, reach for your soul’s desire. In other words, it’s about following your dream, making it happen, making it matter, and making it mean something. Nell Bryden at the Ruby Lounge meant something. Something beautiful, precious and ALIVE! As delicate as a quivering raindrop on of a petal on the rose, but as blooming and beautiful as a whole rose garden. Wake up and smell the sweet perfume!

Originally published with Mudkiss Fanzine (for more pictures visit Mudkiss or Mel's photography site Mudkiss Photography

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

New Dawn Fades (The Story of Joy Division) by Brian Gorman - Review by Mary - Lass O'Gowrie - 15 July 2013

Brian Gorman’s intriguing new stage play is built around the story of the band Joy Division..This is the glue holding the piece together but interestingly, it’s an ethereal kind of glue leaving crevices and cracks wide open for a procession of peripheral figures to enter the space, some hoveringly, some more startling and incongruous – like the Roman general, Agricola – though quite honestly, even he, rubbed shoulders quite seamlessly with the characters occupying the centre space. But of course, not even those central characters are operating in present time. This play dances skilfully with the notion of time, it’s passing, it’s pausing, it’s swirling and repeating, but it’s as much about time as place. We’re showered with a litany of dates and place names, historical, current, disappeared and returning.

So, fittingly the premiere happened on Ian Curtis (lead singer of Joy Divisions birthday) in a location directly opposite the site of the old Factory records offices (now Peter Hook’s factory club). Entering this red-brick, quintessentially Mancunian setting felt just right. As Mel and myself waited for the later performance we saw the audience file downstairs from the earlier showing. Some were in tears, some who had known Joy Division and associated characters in real life. It can’t have been easy to sit through a performance as intimate as this having connections with the real people involved, but perhaps one of the things this play also demonstrates is that we are all connected, through time and space and place. The past is but a breath away, the future can be glimpsed poking around corners if we adjust our vision, the present is strangely nebulous and on that sultry July evening it truly did feel that time zones and spirits were intersecting on multi- levels in the tiny upstairs theatre at the Lass O' Gowrie

Some may say, a stage-play about Joy Division is superfluous. After all, we've had a stream of films and documentary about the band in recent years. In a sense these are ready-made, recognizable characters to anyone with an average general knowledge of Manchester’s musical history. We've got a colourful entourage and a moving, gripping story that should translate to the stage without too great a difficulty I assumed. Though somehow, I knew in advance this was a production worth creating and was intrigued to discover what Gorman and director Neil Bell were up to. I wasn't disappointed. From the minute we took our cramped seats in the theatre and stared at the bleakly set stage, there was an immediate sense of both claustrophobia, nostalgia and an endearing kind of awkwardness and confusion. This is the spirit of the band and the times they lived in. I don't know how different the experience would have been in a larger venue but that feeling of being hemmed in and held back, so inherent in the sound of Joy Division was palpable. The characters played out their scenes with such urgency and passion it felt like the walls might burst open at times and dispel some of this pent up frustration.
So, the characters in a sense arrived ready- made as I said, but that's no recipe for success if they aren't fully inhabited and brought to life. The whole cast, each and every one of them stepped into the shoes of each soul with an uncanny fluidity and conviction. I'd rather not single out names because all were authentic and impressive but I have to say that I was continually both amused and captivated by the revolving door set of cameos performed by Sean Mason. From Martin Hannett to Dr Dee (Elizabeth the first’s advisor) and Paul Morley he joined the dots between much of the action. Andrew Michael Grogan who played Stephen Morris did this too, hopping effortlessly out of Stephen and into such figures as Pete Shelley whose encounter with Ian was nothing short of hilarious. The lynchpin was, of course, Tony Wilson, played by Lee Joseph. Who else could be more suited as narrator than a Granada news reporter? But he was more than that. The Wilson character also took on the quality of some sort of time traveller or seer, a camp historian weaving tales and building bridges and stepping in and out of the action without missing a beat.
Barney and Hooky (Sean Croke and Guy Wills) were loveable and completely believable. Ian Curtis is an enigma, a legend, an icon to many and to climb into his skin is no easy ride. Due to his tragically short life we don't have as much information about Ian as the rest of the band or characters but even watching a short piece of footage of Curtis gives a lasting impression. Michael Whittaker turned Ian into a flesh and blood being again for this night and gave it everything. His singing (and dancing) eerily became more and more attuned to the real singer's voice and movement and I was glad to see he played Ian with a mix of playfulness, charm and passion as well as the inevitable angst. Natalie Perry contributes a strong and spirited performance playing a vulnerable and confused Deborah Curtis, trying to make sense of the disintegrating landscape around her, finding little support from the all-male crew on the seemingly sinking ship. The music business can be a cruel world and the insanity of that life is captured up close and personally in the production tonight. Oh and Rob Gretton (Giles Bastow) WAS Rob Gretton....it was all alarmingly real.
I'd rather not divulge too much more of the detail of the play as my hope is it will move on to a longer residency at perhaps a slightly bigger venue when this sold out run of three nights concludes. Let's just say, this is an experience you won't easily forget. In one scene when Ian was scribbling in a note book I became aware of the sound of a train (a real, not phantom one) trundling along the tracks from Piccadilly to Oxford Road behind the Lass O' Gowrie, a reminder of just where you are., right in the heart of the city of Manchester. After watching this play, you will quite likely find yourself examining the earth under your feet, seeing if you might be standing on the remains of some defunct historical landmark. Watch also which ghosts may be propping up the bar when you come downstairs....

Originally published with Mudkiss Fanzine. Photos by Melanie Smith.
To read Mel's interview with playwright Brian Gorman click here

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Blitzing the Ritz - Johnny Marr - Manchester Ritz 23 March 2013

By time I arrive at the snow sprinkled Ritz, the devoted throngs have gathered and eyes are fixed on the stage as though awaiting some kind of messiah. Johnny Marr’s album may be called 'The Messenger ' but he’s not here to preach, he’s here to make music, to share with us an inspired selection from his colossal back and current catalogue. As each song flashes before me like a prolonged thunder and lightning storm I’m once again bowled over by the absurd amount of talent this man possesses.
Kicking off with 'The Right Thing Right,' I’m instantly pulled straight in. A major rock and roll river’s just burst its banks! This song punches you in all the right places and tickles you playfully in others. 'Stop Me If you Think You’ve Heard This One Before 'follows so swiftly I can barely register the fact that I’m hearing one of my favourite Smiths songs live. What struck me immediately is how naturally Marr inhabits the vocals. He manages to do the exact same thing when shortly after he sings Electronic’s 'Forbidden City'. He’s not trying to sound like his singing/lyricist partners but it feels like he crawls into a space in their head and almost channels their words as though he’s just playing yet another instrument – it doesn’t feel at all strange to hear him sing either Smiths songs or Electronic songs. It feels right, it feels good!

Johnny Marr is a showman without being ostentatious or over-bearing in any way. He cuts a smart, clean look, stylish and totally in control of the sizeable dynamics operating on that stage. He talks about the Ritz being a bit of a special place for him as it was the venue where the Smiths were first officially exposed to the world. There was a whiff of nostalgia and local folklore in the air for most of the night. It was kind of inevitable with five Smiths songs in the set and Marr referencing local street names and summers gone by. 'The Queen is Dead' sounded huge and dangerous and as relevant as the day it was written “Past the Pub that wrecks your body/And the church all they want is your money/the Queen is dead, boys and it’s so lonely on a limb.” Hearing the words coming out of Marr’s mouth somehow underlined to me how much he has and does go out on a limb. He’s never toed the line, he’s never done what’s expected of him (other than consistently create incredible music).
photo: Melanie Smith
Johnny Marr encapsulates freedom for me, freedom from the past, freedom to create your future and so despite the echoes of yesteryear that were reverberating against the grand old walls of the Ritz there was a sense that he was also exorcising the past, dragging it up and letting it be witnessed as the amazing beast it is, as was certainly the case with 'How Soon is Now'. It felt as though an enormous underground current was dragging us back and forth, engulfing the entire audience in the wailing, discordant energy that track contains. But there was no clinging to this beast, he conjured it up and let it go! But, for me, what was truly exciting about this night was the vibrancy of the Messenger tracks. 'Lockdown' was a pinnacle point in a set of standout points –the sea-side town song, the frustration, boredom and creativity all crying out together in a blast of cold, sober promenade wind. The mania and obsession of 'I want the heartbeat' surely got everyone’s cardiac system pumping hard and fast was contrasted beautifully by the bereft, searching sounds of 'Say Demesne'.

To take this tour on the road, Marr has employed a tight and talented crew, with Jack Mitchell’s powerful drumming providing a steady framework and James Doviak’s deft touches on keyboard and guitar complementing the work of the main Magician. Iwan Gronow handled bass duties admirably and also contributed some pretty harmonising with the main Magician.

I loved the theme of rebellion and dissent that ran through the set. We had 'Upstarts', 'The Queen is Dead ' and a cover of one of the best covers of all time The Clash's 'I fought the Law'. Even if the law won in theory, Johnny Marr won tonight. The crowd worshipped him, with grown men professing their love in no uncertain terms. What’s not to love? He’s a true, inspirational hero and I don’t use the term lightly. And lightly or intensely, he knows what to do with a guitar and he knows how to have and give a good time – a REAL good time!

Originally published with Mudkiss Fanzine. To see more photos visit the Mudkiss site and Mel's photography site