Blog Archives

When Sinéad O’Connor Challenged Kenny Everett

As we get ready to go to press in GCN with my interview with Sinéad O’Connor, something I’ve been waiting many years to do, I’m posting this amazing moment from Ireland’s Late Late Show in 1989, when she took gay star Kenny Everett up on his support of Margaret Tatcher, who introduced the abominably anti-gay Clause 28. Watch from 2:00 in.

Review: Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss’

Sinead O'Connor

Throughout the ups and downs of her career and personal life over her past 27 years in the music business, Sinéad O’Connor’s key strength as a singer and songwriter has been unflinching honesty about her own complex personality and background, and her willingness to openly go to a place of true vulnerability that few artists would have the courage to face, let alone sing about. That’s why it’s disappointing that the press release accompanying her eighth album of original material, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, says that only the opening track is autobiographical. “These days I don’t write autobiographical songs, beginning with the last album and continuing with this one, I write character songs – these are characters that don’t in any way represent my own personal experience,” Sinéad says.

While her sophomore album in 1990, Am I Not Your Girl? propelled O’Connor to global stardom, it is the two albums that followed it, Universal Mother (1994) and Faith and Courage (2000), with the Gospel Oak EP (1997) in between, that stand out as the artistic peaks of her recording career. All featuring idiosyncratically forthright songs that challenged the inane mediocrity of pop music during the decade that meaning forgot, these albums ultimately came to cathartic conclusions for a lone star not afraid to bare her inner demons, and thereby spoke deeply to fans about their own catharsis.

While 2012’s How About I Be Me and You Be You? may have featured ‘character songs’, it wasn’t pointed out. The album was a return to form after the disappointingly inscrutable Theology (2007), and while some tracks were obviously ‘story songs’, the overall effect was revelatory.

Knowing that eleven of the twelve tracks from I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss don’t in any way represent Sinéad’s own personal experience sets it off at a disadvantage. After the smart, witty, acerbic, autobiographical ‘How About I Be Me?’, which takes the Irish media up for branding her ‘crazy’, Sinéad melts into ‘Dense Water Deeper Down’. A rehash from her 2003 collection of rarely heard tracks, She Who Dwells…, it’s a masturbatory fantasy, but given the subject matter, comes across as unusually flat, as does the supposedly sexually empowering follow-up, ‘Kisses Like Mine’.

‘The Voice of My Doctor’ brings us back to familiarly fiery and enjoyable O’Connor territory. A thumping guitar-stomp, reminiscent of PJ Harvey in energy and tone, it’s about a woman taking revenge when she discovers the man she’s sleeping with is married. ‘Harbour’ moves from meditative to raging, but its ascendance is marred by over-production. Indeed much of the album sees Sinéad’s voice multi-layered until its power is dulled rather than buffed up.

‘James Brown’ moves into playful territory. Half-Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’, half-James Brown’s ‘Get On Up’, its combination of sweet and sexy is pulled off with aplomb.

I’ve given up believing that ‘8 Good Reasons’, the album’s best track, is a ‘character song’. We’re supposed to trust that a lyric like: “You know I love to make music/but my head got wrecked from the business/everybody’s wanting something from me/they rarely ever want to just know me” isn’t speaking from Sinéad’s personal experience? The song, in which a woman contemplates suicide but chooses to live for those she loves, including a new man in her life, has the essential recipe of confusion, anger, despair, vulnerability and liberation that earmarks a great Sinéad O’Connor song. It’s followed by the album’s first single, ‘Take Me To Church’, a track about the healing power of self-love that lives up to the album’s catchy-pop ambitions.

 

 

After a song about self-perservation, the bleak, fearful and haunting ‘Where Have You Been?’ explores an insecure woman’s instinctive gut reaction to the alienation she sees in her lover’s eyes.

The album’s final track, ‘Streetcars’, stands out, not only because of its lyrical beauty, but because it’s the only song that pares back the production to allow the strength of Sinéad’s vocal abilities to shine through. With its reference to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and its theme about separating love from desire, spiritual love from emotional love, ‘Streetcars’ is a transcendent finisher in true O’Connor style.

The themes at play here may be about love and desire, but it is only in this final inning that Sinéad’s imagined character puts her earthly obsession with men aside for higher things. Otherwise I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is an album that very much sees women through the lens of their relationships with men, and they are often controlled by those relationships. Interesting stuff from a woman who has been a vocal proponent of her right not to be circumscribed by other people’s, and particularly men’s opinions since the day she first stepped on a stage with her shaved head and Doc Martens.

Perhaps in writing from an imagined persona’s point of view, Sinéad has connected to and revealed a part of herself we’ve never seen before.

 

 

A without the BBA: Reading between the lines of Agnetha Fältsgok’s BBC Interview

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In the 31 years since ABBA split up, Agnetha Fältsgok has avoided or made light of questions about her time with the world’s second bestselling band of all time. But last week, during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Frontline, she opened up at last about the highs and lows of the superstardom she eventually shunned. Or so it seemed.

 

 She talked about breaking up with Björn, about how difficult it was for her to be on the road, about the experience of singing The Winner Takes It All – the song her ex-husband wrote about their divorce. But at the same time, she said nothing new at all.

 

These are well-known, rehearsed facts about Agnetha and ABBA. Although it seemed as if she was baring all, she wasn’t telling us anything new at all. But then John Wilson tried to get beneath the surface story. He asked her if she’d be going back to Stockholm for the opening of ABBA: The Museum on May 7, to which she replied:

 

 “I’ll still be here in London, I’m afraid.”

 

Wilson sounded shocked that she wouldn’t be going and then asked: “Would you like to sing in public together again, the four of you?”

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Agnetha gave a soft laugh and then said: “I think we would like it, but I don’t think that we’re going to do it because we have our separate lives now, we are much older, and I can’t see a reason why we should do it, really.”

 

Wilson wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You must wonder what it would be like of the four of you got together in a room, and just to hear what happens in the air when the four of you sing,” he said. ‘You don’t think that will ever happen again, even in private?”

 

“No,’ said Agnetha. “I don’t think so.”

 

 ABBA do reunite in my novel, Knowing Me Knowing You. It’s a dream that may never come true, but at least with fiction we can try to write between the lines. Between the lines of Agnetha’s interview there was a very different story going on.

 

It’s hard to match up what she said earlier:  “I think we would like it”, with her flat, firm refusal to even broach imagining singing in a room privately with Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, which leads me to think that her excuses for not getting back together – separate lives, too old, no good reason – are yet more surface statements, and Agnetha isn’t letting anyone in at all.

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Her new album is simply titled ‘A’, a direct reference to her initial being used as part of ABBA. She’s taken it back, and it’s as if she’s saying that although ABBA still retain their epic popularity, her initial will never be linked up to B, B and A again in real time.

 

 There’s a mystery at the heart of this that may never be made public, but you can’t help but wonder if Agnetha’s lack of enthusiasm isn’t somehow linked to the other A in ABBA. 

 

What to call it? The Journey Towards a Book Title

I originally came up with the concept for my new novel while cycling in Dublin (often my ideas come while biking, there’s something about the rhythm of it that makes my thoughts flow). I remembered a story I’d written for a comedy newspaper I produce every now and then for my family, about my youngest brother who as a teenager was big into Eminem. The story said that he was spotted coming out of an Abbaholics Anonymous meeting.

Suddenly I had it. I would write a book about an ABBA fanclub who reunite to go to Stockholm to see an ABBA reunion concert. I would call the book Abbaholics Anonymous.

I pitched the idea to my publishers, who liked it, and so the long and hard work of writing Abbaholics Anonymous began.

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Cut to a year and a half later, when my second draft was finished, and my editor says she wants to have a meeting. Nobody in the publishing house likes Abbaholics Anonymous as a title, she tells me over coffee. Can’t we call it something else?

I argued hard. I thought the title was comedic and would leave people in no doubt about the subject matter, but my editor argued that the book was about so much more than just an ABBA fanclub and an ABBA concert. They were just the hangers on which the full wardrobe of the novel were hung.

Eventually I had to agree. I let go of Abbaholics Anonymous (although I did keep the phrase part of the novel itself) and started casting around for a new title. It wasn’t easy. I looked through the ABBA catalogue over and over again, but nothing was jumping out.

The the publishers suggested The Day Before You Came. But I felt the song was too obscure, that only diehard ABBA fans would instantly remember it looking at the cover. I wanted it to be more instantly grabbing.

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My editor’s instincts were spot on, in one respect. ‘The Day Before You Came’ is not only ABBA’s masterpiece (to my mind), but it has a real sense of story to it. As a title it suggests a past, present and future – the hook telling the browser that something interesting is going to happen in the course of this book.

Voulez Vous? “No,” said my editor. It’s too 1970s sexual.

Thank You For The Music? “No, it sounds like an ABBA biography.”

S.O.S.? “No, it sounds like a cry for help.”

I had suggested Knowing Me Knowing You early on in the process, but we both dismissed it because it was once the catchphrase of Alan Partridge, and people automatically delivered back comedic “Ah ha!” at the end.

But then one day I was driving to Sligo, my hometown (and where the teenage sections of the novel are set) and ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ came on the radio. I listened to the lyrics and found that they fit my story in so many ways.

It’s a book about love lost and found, friendships that have fallen by the wayside, and what happens in the aftermath of people’s lives. In it my characters get to rekindle romance and friendship 30 years after the summer they were feeltingly friends, and in a way it’s a book about knowing another person, really knowing.

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When the cover designs for the book came through, it was Knowing Me Knowing You that stood out by a mile. It was perfectly right. I saw it in a bookshop, staring out from the shelf at me the other day, and thought: Abbaholics Anonymous? What was I thinking?

 

 

How The President Got ABBA Tickets

There’s another story doing the rounds about Abba reuniting, with Agnetha rowing in to say she wouldn’t be adverse to doing a charity concert. In Knowing Me Knowing You, they reunite to do a concert for Unicef, and my characters all go to Stockholm for the concert of a lifetime. Writing it was like writing a dream come true for me. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was see ABBA in concert. The nearest I ever got was going to ABBA: The Movie in the Savoy Cinema in Sligo, Ireland on a rainy summer’s night, but even then my excitement was so much, I could hardly eat the whole day beforehand. (I guess that’s called the ABBA diet.)

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ABBA came to Ireland in 1979, when I wasn’t nearly old enough to go to a concert, so my parents wouldn’t hear of it. And anyway, the tickets sold out instantly and then became like gold dust. On the day they played, the then President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery, went on the most popular radio show of the time, The Gay Byrne Show, and appealed for tickets so his daughter could go to the show. She had a pair by 5pm.

My friend, John, who lived in Limerick (I didn’t know him at the time, we only met as adults) remembers this, and remembers how disgusted he was, that the President would be able to use his power to get tickets like that, and when you think about it, Mr Hillery was being very cheeky indeed.

I hope his daughter enjoyed the show. And maybe, if Bjorn, Benny Agnetha and Frida ever get back on a stage together, myself and John can go and see them play!

Christmas Heaven

I’m a Christmas song-aholic. This one is my favourite. It features in the very last paragraph of The Forced Redundancy Film Club. Melancholic, nostalgic, heaven!