The Last Ship: A Universal Phenomena?


It was fantastic news to hear this week that Sting’s The Last Ship will be touring the UK next year. After a short run on Broadway and a recent version launched in Turku Finland, this production will be especially adopted for a UK audience. Featuring fellow Geordie Jimmy Nail, I am sure it will have a significant impact in Newcastle in particular.

As many readers of this blog will know, my impetus to write my book, From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold, is because it has the same backstory as Sting’s The Last Ship. Coming from Newcastle, and being from a similar social background to Sting, I have, in many ways, also attempted to engage with my own fluctuating relationship with my hometown over the last thirty years, through writing the book. In my mind, after moving to London upon leaving Music College in 1984 and residing outside of the area ever since, Newcastle has become a place of my own idealized construction. I, like Sting, have found myself drifting in and out of my ‘Geordieness’, straddling the complex dividing line between naturally disguising my accent for both practical and class-related reasons, to feeling an intensely tribal, almost jingoistic pride of my homeland, something that has intensified as I have got older. So when Sting released the album The Last Ship a few years ago, after listening to the first few tracks, the music spoke to me profoundly. Many of the songs directly spoke to my own background, including my relationships with  family and friends, the various jobs that I undertook after leaving school, social expectations, and my hometown of Blaydon.

As I mention in the book, in the song ‘Dead Mans Boots’ in particular, it was easy for me to not only understand its content as a ‘passive observer’ (where the music has no real emotional resonance), but also for me to inhabit the song. It was easy for me to be what Alan Moore describes as the ‘possessed protagonist’, where I became the person singing the song and at times, having the song sung to me. I first experienced this in Sting’s music when I heard the track ‘Why Should I Cry For You‘ from The Soul Cages in 1991. When I met Sting a couple of years ago, he explained how this feeling some of us feel as part of our Geordie identity is almost impossible to explain in words, but I would argue that he can express these feelings via music – an expression that has frequently used to combat his writers block.


Most importantly, these feelings  and emotions are not personal to Sting – they are universal. As Joe Sharky discusses in his excellent book Akenside Syndrome, the simultaneous love and hate of Newcastle is a real phenomena experienced by many people. It is however particularly fueled when one realises the viability of any return  is indeed impossible. It is the experience of this phenomena that has fueled my own work on Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold. Although the book is about Sting, its meta narrative is about this much larger phenomena.

The meaning of the term ‘Geordie’ has been debated over many years, with historians Robert Colls and Bill Lancaster asserting that‘there is no definitive meaning to the name’ These authors provide a number of disputed meanings for the word, such as ‘a name given to coalminers’, ‘a term for the Tyneside dialect’ and ‘people born within three miles of the banks of the river Tyne from South Shields to Hexham’. Being born in Blaydon with the Tyne on my doorstep, I have often used this as a ‘right of passage’ to describe myself as a ‘true Geordie, despite the fact I have lived outside the area for years.

These ambiguities resonate with the depictions of the region by the media, which often describe it as ‘grim’ or ‘spectacular’, ‘amusing’ or ‘threatening’, ‘artistic’ or ‘unqualified’, although adjectives such as ‘grim’, ‘threatening’ and ‘unqualified’ often take the dominant position unfortunately. One need only look one of  Sting’s biographers’ depictions of his background to see examples of this narrative:

All around lay miles of drab, quarried hills, slag-heaps and allotments’; ‘How many children from a background of backstreet slums and near poverty have made it to the top in any decade this century?

Even Sting, especially in his early relationship with his hometown, had a tendency to play on this, as I have frequently done myself when romanticing how ‘tough my school days were’ However, placing these statements into context, regions such as Newcastle have to be considered ‘imagined communities’: ‘Who the Geordies are depends on who they imagine themselves to be’, with belonging’ being ‘an act of affiliation not just of birth.

As I have frequently discussed with my wife, the fact that my own recollections of Newcastle are often related to this ‘imagined north’,  does not make them any less real. Indeed it could be argued that authors such as Dylan Thomas wrote more profoundly about Wales – when he viewed it from a distance. The same is true of Sting. Having lived outside Newcastle since early 1977, Sting’s perspective on his home town can realistically be nothing but mythical and poetic, but it is this ‘imaginary North’ that continues to exert a gravitational pull on him. This North is refracted through separation, wealth, loss, travel and all that Sting has experienced over the last four decades. It is this North that he and many of us call home.

I can’t wait for The Last Ship to start

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Lost And Found: Recollecting Popular Music Memories in Merthyr Tydfil


Just to let everyone know of a great free music event that is taking place in Merthyr Tydfil on November 25th at Theatre Soar. Thanks to funding from the Being Human Festival and a  large number of external partners, this is an opportunity to experience a performance of community memories of popular music making in the town, between 1955 to 1975. But that is not all,  these memories will be accompanied by performances from Merthyr primary school children, who will reenact the original memories. Places are limited, so if you are interested, please book via this link.




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Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold Released


Well, after three years, my Sting book From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold was released last Tuesday. In order to launch the book, I did a couple of events this week in Sting’s hometown of Newcastle – where else! The first event was with Lindisfarne drummer Ray Laidlaw on the tour bus Tyne Idols.


This was a great opportunity not only to sit next to Ray for three hours listening to his amazing knowledge of North Eastern history and culture (I now know where the ‘sleezy snackbar’ is, where Lindisfarne ate ‘sickly sausage rolls’), but also to give a presentation on my Sting book at one of Newcastle’s most iconic live music venues – the Gosforth Hotel.



Many will know that Sting played in a small room upstairs in this venue, very regularly over a two year period from October 74. It is a room where many of his famous songs were nurtured and a space that is mentioned extensively in his autobiography Broken Music.This room is now fittingly called ‘The Sumner Suite’ and it was great to speak to a packed audience about Sting’s time there.


As those of you that know the space will realise, aside from the decoration – the room is largely unchanged and in my opinion deserves some sort of blue plaque recognition for its place in north east culture. It also features some cool memorabilia and artwork.

In all, this was a great way prepare for the official Launch the following day, in Sting’s hometown of Wallsend.

The official Launch took place in the new Wallend Library, literally just up the road from where Sting was born. This event had been publicised for a couple of months and was also really well attended.


The talk give me the opportunity to talk at length about the book, with a particular focus on Sting’s relationship with his hometown.  In addition to members of the public and some friends and family, it was great to also see many of Sting’s associates from the past there. These guys helped me tremendously when writing the book, so it was so pleasing and humbling that they made the effort to attend.

Sting 5

Sting 1

This was very much the ‘Wallsend’ version of the book launch, but over the coming months I am doing other talks. I already have a return talk in the centre of Newcastle in November, in addition to Bournemouth and Brisol University, all of which will have tailored talks. If you want me to do a signing, talk or interview, by all means just get in touch with me or my publishers, and we will arrange it.



So  if you want to buy the book, it is available directly via the publishers, or via amazon. Also, thanks for the plug on The Police Wiki. More news soon.

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Being Human Festival in Merthyr Tydfil: Lost Musical Histories

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I really enjoyed my talk yesterday as one of seven other projects that have been chosen to highlight some of the fantastic work taking place in this year’s Being Human Festival. The festival, taking place between November 17th – 25th,  is the biggest Humanities based festival in the UK and it is great that the hidden histories of popular music will be part of this year’s festivities. I be be posting more info as the events get nearer, so this is just a taster of what we will be doing.

This intergenerational project focuses on the relationship between nostalgia, memory and the (re)construction of ‘alternative music histories’ that have being ‘lost’. Working with both the younger and older generation in the town, the project is interested in encouraging non-academic audiences to consider questions such as the relationships between memory and how popular music making has been reported historically; how memories of engagement with local, national and international popular music activity facilitates the negotiation of individual and shared identities; and how these memories can be creatively reconstructed to resonate with younger audiences today. The research builds on the previous research of academics such as Davis (1979), Boyn (2001) and Pickering and Keightley (2015), in addition to my own previous work for the European Social Fund (2011), the Beacons for Public Engagement (2008) and my forthcoming monograph on Sting (2017).

My project is divided into three sections, that I will briefly explain below. However, before that, here are a couple of images taken from yesterday’s event at Senate House.











Event 1: Dowlais Library

Research Questions: In what ways can musical sound, photographs and other memorabilia facilitate nostalgia and memory? What is the connection between personal memory of ‘local’ popular music activities when compared to that of other community members and more official documented ‘histories’?

This one-day oral history workshop, which will be delivered in conjunction with Merthyr Tydfil Libraries will seek to answer these questions. The workshop will take place on November 17th 2017 in The John Owen Suite at Dowlais Library, with the intention of facilitating older (60 plus) community members to remember, document and record their memories of musical happenings that took place in Merthyr Tydfil between 1955 – 1975. Although open to all, the event will be advertised principally to community groups in the town. The workshop will be facilitated by dedicated ‘memory boxes’, developed in conjunction with Merthyr Tydfil Libraries, with each box containing previously unseen photographs of music activity in the town between 1955 – 1975, in addition to ‘time bank’ recordings, local newspaper scans, vintage film footage and a list of questions to stimulate conversation.

The first half of the day will focus on looking at and listening to the memorabilia, after which in the afternoon participants will be assisted in scripting their own short individual stories for recording into mp3 format. These recordings, which need to be recorded before they are ‘lost’, will be used as the impetus for events 2 and 3.

Event 2: Various Schools in Merthyr Tydfil

Research Questions: How can lost local musical memories and memorabilia of the past be relevant to young people today? How can lost local musical histories impact our individual and shared identities?

Using the recorded footage documented during Event 1, alongside various photographs/scans , this session invites school pupils (aged 15-16) in the Merthyr Tydfil area to bring ‘lost’ musical histories and memories to life via constructing a series of short dramatic ‘reenactment’ performances. These sessions will be delivered by director Peter Morgan Barnes and myself and will take place in three local schools in the Merthyr Tydfil area, between November 20th – 24th.  The final performances will be showcased during Event 3. It is the intention that these symbolic narrations, instigated by a generation who can’t remember the original events, complement the literal ones generated during activity 1.

Event 3: Theatre Soar

Research Questions: What are the lost musical histories of popular music in Merthyr Tydfil? What are the impacts of these local histories on both the community who remember them and the younger generation?

This final three-hour public event will showcase the work developed during the week of the Being Human Festival, taking place in Theatre Soar on Saturday November 25th. After showcasing the recorded testimonies alongside the archive photographic footage that inspired them, the event will then feature a series of reenacted performances by school children. After a short break, this will be followed by a short discussion about the performances, in addition to a ‘question time’ inspired interview, where I interview around half a dozen musicians who were part of the Merthyr Tydfil music scene between 1955-1975.

The great thing about yesterday’s Being Human event aside from the knowledge and general friendliness of the people who organise it, is that it offers the opportunity to place the important history of popular music making in the valleys on display. These stories are completely lost at the moment, so I am pleased to be offered the chance to address the balance. By the way, the first picture in this post is Pink Floyd playing in Merthyr in the late 1960s!

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There Are Great Guitarists – Then There Was Allan Holdsworth

I sit here on bank holiday Monday reflecting on the death of Allan Holdworth yesterday at the age of 70. I first heard of Allan in 1977 when I had just started playing music. He had a very minor feature in Guitar Player Magazine featuring his debut solo album Velvet Darkness (1977).

I immediately went out and purchased the album and from that point on music, nor my place within it, would ever be the same again. Although Holdsworth was widely quoted as hating this record, for me, it displayed his uncompromising approach to music which if anything was to get more uncompromising and brilliant as the years progressed. Having decided to look back into his musical history, my next Holdsworth purchase after this was Bundles by Soft Machine, recorded in 1975. His solo on ‘Hazard Profile’ was to be the subject of repeated listenings, mainly slowing it down so I could try and figure what he was doing. By this point I was transcribing guitar solos fairly regularly, but with Allan, his playing was always far too advanced – almost other worldly.  Although he was to mature and take his playing on to much greater heights, this solo is still one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.

I was then to go back further, listening to the first album by Tempest, recorded in 1973, in addition to countless bootlegs of him playing in London with the likes of Ian Carr’s Nucleus and John Stephens. The solo on ‘Gorgon’, displays the beginnings of his instantly recognizable style.


After realising I was ‘on to something special’, I listened to everything he recorded from that point on, and was always struck with the absolute authenticity his playing displayed. Here was a player who was only interested in music. Although with that technique he could have easily ‘sold out’ musically,  he never did – he left it to other players who tried to imitate him to do that.

I was lucky  enough to see him play several times, the first time with the band UK at Newcastle City Hall. For me, his solo on ‘In The Dead of Night’ is such a beautiful creation, featuring not just spell bounding technique, but fantastic feel and sound.

This was followed by many gigs where I had the opportunity to see him perform his own material, the last two two times at a small theatre in the Welsh Valley town of Abertillery just a few years back. As always, the music was brilliant and featured a fantastic band (Chad Wackerman on drums). What I could not understand however was why Holdsworth was playing there. Why was he not performing at a much larger venue in Cardiff? The answer is unfortunately a sad one: Great musicianship is not always rewarded by the music industry or appreciated by the general public.

Reading reports of Allan’s financial problems makes me really sad, as he has given so many musicians inspiration to reach a standard that will never be touched. Despite its brilliance, was his music too uncompromising for a critical mass to appreciate it? I don’t know the answer, but for me, he genuinely was one of the greatest guitarists who ever picked up the instrument – a totally original player who changed the conception and perception of the guitar. Although I never met him, he also seemed to be the sort of guy I would have enjoyed a pint with. In years to come I am sure historians will be talking about the guitar in terms of BH and AH (Before and after Holdsworth), in the same way they do with players such as Charlie Christian and Hendrix. To close, if anyone has not heard of him, check out the solo at the start of the footage below. We will be assessing his brilliance for many years to come.


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Memories of Merthyr Popular Music: Dai Shell

I am currently working toward putting on an exhibition in Merthyr Town Hall on the history of popular music in the town between 1955-1975. As a taster, here are a few short digital stories from ex Sassafras member Dai Shell. Dai talks about his memories of the town, his influences, moving to Cardiff, local heros and beyond.

If you have any memories to leave, please get in touch

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The State of Grassroot Music Venues: One Hand Giveth, while the other Taketh it Away


When the 2012 Live Music Act became law, I was encouraged that grassroots music could now be showcased in a venue with a capacity of no more than 200 (recently amended to 500), without the proprietor applying for a license. Although I have seen no concrete data, I am sure this development, instigated by UK Music, has had a big impact on venue owners, now not burdened by bureaucracy, giving grassroots live music a chance. However, in the case of small venue live music, this appears to be an instance of ‘one hand giveth, while the other taketh it away’. The recent spate of closures of music venues in Cardiff’s Womandy Street is an example of how common sense and most importantly the law has not caught up on the cultural significance of this important stream of the live music industry.

In 2011, I wrote a report for the Welsh Music Foundation that outlined the various ways through which  the live music industry in Wales could be developed. This ranged from suggesting ways in which stakeholders could work together, strategies for inward investment, to the Welsh language sector, to training provision needs. The results of this report were outlined at a number of places across Wales, including a session for the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff. Reflecting on this report six years later, it is really troubling to see that small venues still have significant issues with noise abatement notices. When I wrote the report, probably the most well known venue closure was The Point in Cardiff – an excellent venue that had the misfortune of being positioned too close to a block of flats, which although built after the venue’s establishment, ultimately forced its demise – as the venue owners simply could not afford the required sound proofing. As the time, we discussed that this responsibility should not fall on the venue (who in this case was in residence first) but the INCOMING PARTY – i.e. the block of flats.

The so-called agent of change principle means the person or business responsible for the  change is responsible for managing the impact of the change. This seems common sense to me. So, in the cases of flats being built near established live music venue, it would be the new developer who has to, in law, deal with any resulting issues, not the existing tenants. Although this principle is adopted in Australia and to a certain limited extent in England, it has not been adopted in Wales. Additionally, in London, the Mayor is actively proposing to recognise ‘areas of cultural significance’ for some parts of the capital, but in Wales this term does not appear to be recognised in the current Planning Policy Framework. It seems obvious to me that ‘agent of change’ needs to be adopted in Wales, not just at the level of the developer, but at the level of planning – this is where local councils come in.

My 2011 report stated the importance of Welsh Government, local councils and most importantly stakeholders from the music industry working together to find ways to encourage night time economies. One way to do this would be to work together on a Live Music Strategy for Cardiff. This has already been instigated in cities such as Sunderland in the UK and Ballarat in Austrailia, This would help the city address questions such as how to facilitate grassroots venues to work together both horizontally (with similar venues) but also vertically – with larger venues. It would also enable the city to consider not just the economic (how does Wales keep profits within Wales?), but the cultural significance of grassroots live music, in addition to how this culture relates to the identity of the places it takes place in. I could go on about this, but I think in the first instance, I would encourage anyone with an interest in live music in Wales to sign the petition for an ‘agent of change’ to take place.

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