Caught by the River

Radio On

Andy Childs | 10th November 2013

A pick of recent radio highlights by Andy Childs.

I can’t imagine I’m on shaky ground when I offer the opinion that Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ is one of those rare rock songs that, for anyone discovering rock music in the 60s and 70s, has come to almost define the genre and effortlessly demonstrates how a simple, basic three or four chord, barely articulate exultation of lust and longing can encapsulate the very essence of what rock music was meant to be about. If all that sounds implausible or contentious though I would suggest a listen to Gloria and Me (Archive on 4 : Radio 4 : Sat Nov 2) in which the programme’s presenter, Irish novelist and journalist Glenn Patterson, with the help of Mickey Bradley of The Undertones, makes a compelling case for the huge impact and influence the song has had on would-be garage/punk bands the world over and it’s enduring legacy as the pre-eminent cover song of choice. The Doors, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Johnny Thunders, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and perhaps most notably The Shadows of Knight and Patti Smith are but a few of the artists who have paid homage to the song that the late, lamented rock writer Paul Williams called “one of the most perfect rock anthems known to humankind”.

But it’s the inspiration to try and emulate the effect that the song had on successive generations of rock bands that is the core subject of this programme. There is some interesting background on the formative years of Irish rock music, fuelled by the blues and R&B and propelled by the rejection of traditional, safe Irish show-band music. The 18 year-old Morrison wrote ‘Gloria’ whilst playing a residency in Hamburg with The Monarchs in 1963 and of course recorded his definitive version with Them, although surprisingly it only first saw the light of day the following year as the b-side to ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. 1964 was however the first year of ‘music with attitude” for Irish music. Not that we hear a lot of it. For whatever reason a lot of Radio 4’s music-related programmes are actually light on music and at this point in the proceedings I would have liked to have had even a brief reminder, and I’m sure the uninitiated a taster, of what all the fuss was about. What we get instead are some tantalising snatches of archive interview material with Van Morrison, including a previously unheard and barely audible restaurant chat with young Rolling Stone reporter Cameron Crowe, during which, somewhat uncharacteristically, Van appeared be comfortable with the idea of successive generations of bands perpetuating ‘Gloria’s’ claim to be one of his greatest, if not greatest, songs. Later on a 38 year-old Morrison understandably claims not to relate to it at all although as the conclusion to the programme testifies, he can still be moved to play it ‘live’. At an hour long with very little music there is predictably a degree of padding including an inconclusive diversion in which Patterson attempts to learn how to play ‘Gloria’ presumably to try and convince himself how easy it is, but by this time my attention is wavering and I am casting furtive glances at my record shelves wherein lie Patti Smith’s mighty re-invention of the song and in many ways my favourite version. I’d recommend listening to this programme with your favourite version of ‘Gloria’ close at hand.

If ‘Gloria and Me’ is half an hour too long then this month’s Book Club (Radio 4 : Sun Nov 3) at 30 minutes is half an hour too short. Under discussion is Matthew Hollis’ remarkable life of the poet and critic Edward Thomas – Now All Roads Lead To France. Like many readers I suspect, Thomas’ life and work was first brought to my attention by Robert MacFarlane’s typically sensitive and erudite essays, and having read Matthew Hollis’ book and a fair amount of Thomas’ own poetry and prose I was looking forward to hearing Mr.Hollis talk about his book and answer the sort of informed and intelligent questions from the audience and presenter James Naughtie that have made ‘Book Club’ required listening. I wasn’t disappointed. Matthew Hollis is as eloquent as he is enlightening and his precis of Thomas’ life – his years toiling as a critic, his meeting and friendship with Robert Frost, his depression and difficult family relationships, his early attempts at poetry, and his fateful decision to enlist for active duty during the First World War rather than follow Frost to America – all this is discussed and put into context with great economy and style. But the subject matter and Mr.Hollis himself deserves more time to impart the full beauty of Thomas’ poetry, his importance to poetry in general, and the poignancy of his life and early demise. The point about ‘Book Club’ is that one reads the book in question before listening to the programme so that one’s engagement with the discussion should be immediate. It should also allow a more in-depth appraisal and appreciation than a scant half hour provides.

Listen to Book Club on the BBC iPlayer.