David Bowie - Blackstar

Like many people, I was having breakfast this morning when the news that David Bowie had died flashed up as breaking news on the different digital devices dotted around the flat. I couldn't believe it. How could it happen now? It was only last Tuesday that I'd heard John Wilson talking about the new Bowie album Blackstar on BBC Radio's Front Row. At the time I'd made a mental note to listen to the album when it was released on Friday 8th January to coincide with the singer's 69th birthday. Then, after I'd listened to it, I remember thinking that it needed a closer listen. So early on Saturday morning I lay in bed with headphones on, listening to the whole album. And for the rest of the weekend I had the songs spinning round in my head, especially Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can't Give Everything Away. And now I'm being told that he's dead? It sounds like a hoax. But then the one line news alerts start to get longer and more detailed and it becomes clear that it isn't a hoax - it's real.

I wrote to my friend John Howlett and said how Bowie had always had impeccable timing - leaving an album for his fans and then dying a couple of days later. In one statement I read, Brian Eno, who had worked with Bowie many times over the years, said: "David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him." How true.

My friend John replied to my message saying 'You’re the first person who came into my mind when I heard about Bowie.' It's hard to say just how much influence Bowie had on me over the years. I remember being told to listen to Hunky Dory when it first came out in 1971 and loving it. And I can still remember seeing the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album in the shop window of an Edinburgh record shop and thinking this was something totally new and different. I went to the Ziggy Stardust concert in Edinburgh and immediately started writing songs that sounded a bit too much like wannabe Bowie songs.

Another friend asked me today if I'd ever met him. I wish I had. I went to mime classes with Lindsay Kemp and sold tickets for his Turquoise Pantomime on the High Street in Edinburgh. Bowie had studied mime with him. I was introduced to the songs of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill and fell in love with them as Bowie had done. I read William S. Burroughs and loved the idea of cutting up and re-assembling song lyrics as Bowie often did. And I loved songs that were theatrical. I'm sure we would've found something to talk about.

Bowie also appeared on the pages of iT's for Teachers magazine in various classroom activities and on the cover of one of the final issues coinciding with the 2013 exhibition David Bowie Is at the V&A in London.

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer wrote today: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

When a singer dies we usually have old songs going round in our heads. There aren't many artists who can fill your head with new songs just hours before they pass away. 

We're almost there

For various reasons (including one of those landmark birthdays that come round from time to time), this summer I ended up with a brand new 12-string Ovation guitar, a new microphone, two rather nice monitor speakers and a couple of audio interfaces to be able to connect everything to my computer and iPad to record some new music. It's a long way from the two-track reel-to-reel tape recorders I used when I first started writing songs, adding harmonies by bouncing from track to track.

The array of sounds and effects on GarageBand and Cubase helped to make my first musical attempts both exciting and overwhelming at the same time. The first two pieces of music I came up with were a song that I'mstill writing lyrics for and 'We're Almost There' which isn't really a song at all. After I added the line 'Wake up. We're almost there' and the sound effects of the cars passing on the motorway, I remembered a video I made in Mexico City.

The trip to Mexico was part of the research we did for Beyond. We visited a lot of schools there and met some amazing teachers. Most of the schools were out of the city and we spent hours driving from place to place. I thought the network of roads in and out of Mexico City werespectacular with its two levels. It reminded me of an old Tractorial Base song called 'Underneath the Overpass'. Anyway, I made a couple of quick videos in order to keep a record of it. I tried setting 'We're Almost There' to the video and it fitted almost perfectly.

Anyway, I'm hoping to be able to spend more time making music, writing some new songs and recording some old ones. I'll keep you posted...

20 ways to use a song

One of the great things about the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona last weekend was the group work. At the start of the conference we were assigned a group and a room for the group to meet in. Having to spend part of the time completing tasks in groups gave everyone the chance to get to know other people they probably wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise and share the conference experience. In one of the final group sessions, conference speakers went from group to group, answering questions about the talks they’d given or anything the group members wanted to ask. As I went from room to room, it was interesting to see how the different groups wanted to talk about different things. I was asked about writing material, self-publishing, the story of iT’s and whether or not it was true that I’d once been a rock star. Another group asked me about using songs in class. ‘What’s the best way to use a song?’ they asked. I remembered that I’d once written a piece about using songs for the magazine so I promised to include it here.

The article makes reference to a song I wrote called ‘Pepe’s Song’. You’ll find it in the songs section at this site. At the end of the article you’ll also find a link to download the song and a complete lesson plan that uses the song. The lesson includes teaching notes and printable worksheets with illustrations by Piet Luethi (see above) who was also at the conference last weekend. So apart from getting to know new people, it was a great opportunity to see old friends again. Here’s the article ...


20 ways to use a song in the classroom

Here are 20 different things you can do with a song in class. Next time you want to use a song, choose the task you think suits it best. I’ve used some lyrics from the first verse of a song called 'Pepe’s Song'. Please note that this song includes references to crime and drug use. Check to make sure the themes are appropriate for your students before using it. You’ll find a link to download the song and a lesson below. You can also listen to the song here and read the complete lyrics here.

Pepe emptied his pockets
Had no money for the train
Stood on the crowded station concourse
Thinking – I’m never ever going home again

1. Take out the verbs and list them at one side. The students then put them into the correct place and correct tense. Or remove some of the more interesting vocabulary and encourage students to speculate on what the missing words are. Then listen to the song.

2. Make two copies of the lyrics and create an information gap activity. Student A has the text: "Pepe emptied his __________ ". Student A has to ask student B "What did Pepe empty?" to complete the text. Student B then has a missing word to find etc. Then listen to the song.

3. Before showing the complete text to the other students, choose 6 or 7 words from the lyrics and write them on the board: Pepe, pockets, money, station, never, home etc. The other students then speculate about what the song is about. Give them the whole text with the 7 words missing. Can the students place them correctly? Then listen to the song.

4. If the song has a strong story, cut up the verses (or the lines in a verse) and ask the students to put them into the correct order. Students then check the order by listening to the song.

5. Cut the text down the middle. Leave the first halves of lines as they are but jumble the second halves. Students have to match the half lines and build the complete text. They check their work with the song.

6. Ask the students to translate the lyrics into their own language. This works particularly well with songs that have bad lyrics! When the translation's done, play the song.

7. Write comprehension questions using the song lyrics as you would use any piece of text. Where was Pepe standing? On the station concourse etc. Finally, listen to the song.

8. If the song contains a lot of obscure vocabulary then create a dictionary activity. Remove the obscure words and write a sentence for each word. Half of your sentences use the words correctly and half incorrectly. The students use dictionaries to find out whether or not the sentences are correct. They also discover the meaning of the words which they will be able to place in the text. Finally, listen to the song.

9. If you don't want to use the song lyrics then there is often other reading material you can use that is linked to the theme of the song or the artist. Play the song while they are doing the work.

10. If the song tells a story then ask the students to predict what happens next or what happened before. Why does Pepe want to leave home?

11. If the song includes an interesting situation you can role play a scene from the song or use the other students' speculations (see 10) as the starting point for a role play.

12. Perhaps there's a writing link in the song such as a letter. In this case maybe Pepe left a note for his parents at home. The other students can write the note.

13. Your students can write about the artist or the theme of the song. They can also write a blog post or tweet about the artist. In both these cases, the song is an excuse for other work.

14. If you're very lucky then you might be able to use the song to look at some specific language. Songs are a good way to learn new or difficult language because they stick in the mind and are not easy to forget.

15. Use the song to start or end a discussion a discussion on a particular theme. In this song there are lots of themes to talk about. Maybe there's a song related to something you're working on in the course book. 

16. Song lyrics usually include rhyme. Copy the text and take out one of the rhyming words. Other students think of possibilities and check with the song. Or play the song, pausing the track before the rhyming word. The other students then speculate.

17. If there's a video for the song then maybe you can use it without doing any work on the actual song at all. Write visual questions for the others to answer during or after the video.

18. If the song has a video that isn’t well known, get the students to listen to the song and come up with an idea for a music video. They could create a storyboard for a video and then compare their ideas with the actual video. 

19. Ask your students to react to the song. What do they think of it? Encourage students to ask each other what they like or don't like about the song. Don’t forget to give your own opinion.

20. A listening activity! Write 3 questions on the board based on the lyrics of the first verse. The other students listen to the first verse (they don't see the text) and answer the questions. Go through the song in stages and only listen to the whole song at the end.

Finally, why not use the song for background music. Play it while you are doing some writing or group activity. Playing music while students are arriving for class or doing certain tasks is a great way to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere.

Follow these links to access the lesson plan for Pepe’s Song:

I'd never been to Athens

When I first moved to Spain a long time ago, people would sometimes ask me what I missed most about life in the UK. I would usually say 'the radio'. Back in the mid-80s, the only UK-based station I could listen to in Spain was the BBC World Service which I never really liked much. I wanted the dramas, news programmes, documentaries and quiz shows from Radio 4 and the music from Radio 3. Of course things have changed since then. First came satellite TV which included UK radio stations and then came the Internet.

Today, apart from being able to listen live to radio stations from around the world or use various catch-up services, I can subscribe to podcasts and have programmes automatically downloaded to my audio player to listen to whenever I want. Now, when people ask me what I miss most about life in the UK, I usually don't know what to say.

All of which brings me (in a roundabout way) to Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I regularly listen to. It doesn't come from the UK but from NPR (National Public Radio) in the US. According to its blog, NPR's entertainment and pop culture round-table podcast 'features spirited discussions of movies, books, television, and nostalgia.' The show is basically a group of people talking about fun things that I'm interested in. And each podcast ends with a segment called 'What's making us happy this week' in which the presenters talk about something that's making them happy that week - it could be a new album, a project they're working on or a sports event ... anything.

I borrowed the question to ask the teachers at the IP Conference in Athens last weekend as part of a talk I gave on life skills: 'What's making you happy this week?' It's an example of the kind of question you could ask students when they come to class. You know how students often arrive to class in a bad mood because they've had a bad day or have a problem at home or have just argued with their best friend? Asking a question like this can help to make students aware that there are always reasons to feel good, even if they’re just small things. If you do something like this regularly, it not only makes your students feel better, they'll be more receptive in class. Positive thinking.

At the talk, I let the teachers know what was making me happy this week... Many years ago I co-wrote a series of ELT songs for the Cambridge English Course with Jonathan Dykes. One of the songs was called Brighton in the Rain. The song practised the present perfect and there were two versions - one with all the lyrics and one with all the past participles removed. The students had to provide those past participles. The first line of the song was 'I've never been to Athens' and the music was a pastiche of a Greek folk song. Anyway, I've been singing that song for years and the first line had always been true for me. I'd never been to Athens - until going to the IP conference. So being in Athens was what was making me happy this week.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talks. If you're interested in hearing the song then follow the link below. I apologise for the music but would like to point out that that I love Greek music - thanks largely to my brother-in-law who lived in Athens and has a large collection of Greek music. He also suggested I visit the Acropolis Museum. I'm glad I followed his advice. I can't wait to go back again ...

Listen to Brighton in the Rain

2001 memories

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is back in the news with its new digital re-release being shown in London this weekend. The BBC Film Programme dedicated a special edition to the film which you can hear here. As part of the programme, they asked listeners to share their memories of the film. I have several memories that go right back to 1968 when the film was first released.

For some reason I was on a trip to London with my father. I must've been thirteen at the time. I remember sitting in the circle of the Casino Cinerama cinema and Roy Orbison sitting in the row in front of us. The film had a huge impact on me. It wasn't just the visuals which were amazing but also the music. As soon as we got back to Edinburgh I bought the original soundtrack LP. I remember it being in mono and being jealous of a friend who had a stereo copy.

I spent hours listening to Also sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube, imagining journeys into space. I also remember trying to make sense of György Ligeti's pieces which were slightly more challenging at the time. And I think I wrote a space monologue to read over the Gayane Ballet Suite.

When I moved to London a few years later, I ended up sharing a flat on Hampstead Heath which I discovered belonged to Keir Dullea, the main actor in the film. He was living in the States at the time. It was an amazing flat. One afternoon a few people came round and when someone mentioned whose flat it was, one of them turned out to have been an ape in the film.

A few years later I wrote the music for a musical based on the life of James Dean. It was staged at the London Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre) which had been the cinema where I’d seen 2001 all those years ago. I only discovered recently that Keir Dullea had worked with Sal Mineo (who’d appeared with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). He was probably working with him while I was living in his Hampstead flat.

I’ve seen the film several times since then. The last time was at the Sitges Film Festival in 2008. It still looked amazing on the big screen and remains my favourite science fiction film and possibly my favourite soundtrack album.

Awesome Mix Vol. 1

We went to see Guardians of the Galaxy on Friday. It was a fun movie with a lot of humour, some great visuals, and an amazing soundtrack. In fact, last week the soundtrack album reached number one in the Billboard 200. The album, which is called Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is a compilation of songs from the 1970s that includes Moonage Daydream by David Bowie and I Want You Back by The Jackson 5. At the start of the movie we see the hero Peter Quill as a boy listening to I'm not in Love by 10cc on his cassette player. It's one of the tracks on a cassette compilation that his mother gives him shortly before her death. Peter is then abducted and taken into space, growing up to become an interstellar adventurer also known as 'Star-Lord', still taking his cassette player and his mother's mix tape, labelled 'Awesome Mix Vol. 1', with him wherever he goes. The mix of retro music with a space adventure isn't new but it works so well here.

Depending on your age, you may or may not have made your own awesome cassette mixes in the past. I made a few and was also given a few over the years. We tend to think of cassettes as an inferior audio format but the other day I was amazed to discover that a song which sounded so clear and bright on my iPod was originally from a cassette that I'd transferred to digital. (I went through a phase a few years ago when I transferred all my old vinyl albums and cassettes to digital as well as the old reel-to-reel tapes of my songs.)

The modern equivalent of the cassette mix is the playlist but somehow a digital playlist can't beat the fun and excitement of the other contemporary option - shuffle all. With a choice of around 8,000 tracks on my iPod from the past and present, from a wide range of genres, I'm always amazed at how tracks seemingly selected 'at random' can often fit together so well, creating a totally unique awesome mix. It happens often and is even more satisfying when one of my own songs appears sandwiched between David Bowie and Joni Mitchell! Of course, the shuffle option can get it very wrong at times and totally destroy the atmosphere you'd wanted to create. But that's part of the fun.

The random option fits the times we live in so well when we tend to think in terms of tracks rather than albums even after artists have tried so hard to create 'an album' with the perfect running order of songs.

In spite of having access to so much music online, I do wonder if young people today get to hear as wide a range of music as I did when I was growing up. The shuffle option can only really come into its own when it's shuffling a wide range of music from Mozart through Miles Davis to London Grammar and the theme from Thunderbirds. If it's simply shuffling a single genre then there isn't much scope for discovering how apparent opposites can work so well together.

As for Guardians of the Galaxy, there's an Awesome Mix Vol. 2 cassette compilation to look forward to. Let's hope the  movie sequel will manage to maintain the random feel of the current movie. Shuffle all ...

First night reviews

Each morning, after a first look at the Spanish newspaper, I download my daily UK newspaper and look at the First Night Reviews section. I think I do it partly to keep in touch with what's going on in the theatre in the UK and also out of habit.

Back when I was trying to make a living writing music for plays in London, opening nights were special. They always started earlier than other performances so that the critics could get their reviews written before the next day's edition closed. This was in pre-internet, pre-computer days so we're talking typewriters and telephones.

Then there'd be the long wait for the papers to appear on the newsstands. I'd buy all the papers and go through them, checking to see if there was a review and then checking to see if there was any mention of the music. I think the best review I ever got was from Jim Hiley writing about The Children´s Crusade in Time Out who wrote: 'And the music by singer/songwriter-to-watch Robert Campbell, is bloody marvellous'. And the worst review? Maybe Frank Marcus writing about Dean in The Sunday Telegraph: 'Robert Campbell will not cause sleepless nights to Stephen Sondheim'. Actually, there are other review for that show that hurt even more!

The thing is, when you read theatre, film and TV reviews in newspapers, there are always positive and negative reviews. You expect it. You can agree or disagree with reviews but you know that the reviewer is giving their opinion.

As an aside, you never know when theatre reviews are going to appear in Spanish newspapers. There doesn't seem to be a tradition of first night reviews and when reviews do finally appear, it's usually after the show's closed. Could there be a connection?

Anyway, when I edited and published iT's for Teachers magazine, we had a regular book review section called First Impressions. The idea of the section was for a team of magazine contributors to give their first impressions of new ELT titles. I naively thought that this meant we could give positive and negative opinions, always stressing that they were first impressions and not in-depth critical reviews. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After we printed one particular negative review, it was implied that we were going to lose an important advertiser. For a small independent magazine, losing a major advertiser can be a major blow. So from then on, we decided that we'd only review titles we felt positive about. If we didn't like a book, we'd simply ignore it. 

I got to thinking about reviews this week because the first two reviews of Beyond have just appeared in the EL Gazette and Business Spotlight. It would be good to read some more in-depth reviews that aren't afraid of being critical (or saying how amazing the course is!). But for the moment, these are welcome...

EL Gazette review of Beyond

EL Gazette review of Beyond

Business Spotlight review

Business Spotlight review


Only Lovers Left Alive

There's a scene towards the end of Only Lovers Left Alive in which Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)  stand outside a bar in Tangier, listening to Yasmine Hamdan sing 'Hal'. Eve says she'll be famous one day to which Adam replies: 'She's too good to be famous.' or words to that effect.

I've been waiting to see this Jim Jarmusch film since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in 2013. It took its time getting to Barcelona. And when we did manage to sit down to watch it at the Floridablanca cinema, the projector decided to pack in. Ticket price returned, we tried again a few days later at the Verdi. Going to the cinema these days can be such a depressing experience when there are only a handful of you there. A couple of weeks ago we went to the Icaria cinema and there were plastic bags over broken seats and no-one noticed that the film had started without any picture. But I can't help it - I love going to the cinema. And watching Only Lovers Left Alive on a big screen in a near-empty session felt very appropriate. A bit like Adam and Eve driving down those desolate Detroit streets.

Anyway, the film took me back to my early days in Barcelona when most of the V.O. films were shown at the Casablanca or Capsa cinemas (both now closed). Jim Jarmusch was so much a part of that period: Stranger Than Paradise (1984); Down by Law (1986); Mystery Train (1989). I think I saw them all at the Casablanca.

I wasn't disappointed by Only Lovers Left Alive. The IMDB summary reads: 'A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.' How could I not love it?

Tilda Swinton was the perfect vampire and Tom Hiddleston was great as the depressed musician. He reminded me of Mike Sheppard, bassist, guitar player, engineer, and third member of Tractorial Base. The egg boxes on the wall of Adam's room, the Revox reel-to-reel tapes turning, and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush where we wrote and recorded most of the Tractorial Base demos.

The egg boxes on the wall, the Revox and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush.

So I've added Welcome to Tractorial Base to the Tractorial Base album. It's really three songs linked together. It lasts more than 8 minutes but it'll give you an idea of how mad and exciting things were back then.

Lou Reed played here

There was a nice piece by Suzanne Vega in today's Times about Lou Reed and how he'd changed her life. She mentions the Berlin album and how she'd been listening to it on the Sunday afternoon in August 1984 when she wrote the song Luka.

I've been thinking a lot about the Berlin album over the past few days. It came out in 1973 when I was an eighteen-year-old would-be rock star living in a flat in Belsize Park. The album had a huge impact on me and is probably the reason I wrote so many depressing songs over the next few years. (Listen to On the Other Side of Town and you'll see what I mean.)

1973 was an amazing year. Look at the albums that came out that year and ended up in my record collection: Foreigner (Cat Stevens), Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player  (Elton John), Pin Ups and Aladdin Sane (David Bowie), Band on the Run (Paul McCartney & Wings), There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Paul Simon), and Berlin, of course.

But it was an amazing year for other reasons. I wrote the music for my first show, The National Youth Theatre production of The Children's Crusade. Written by Paul Thompson and directed by Ron Daniels (and featuring one Dan Day-Lewis in the cast) it was a life-changing experience. Soon after I met Stephen Lipson who had such an influence on my music. He turned up on my doorstep after answering an ad in Melody Maker for someone to help me perform some songs I'd written for Jonathan Marshall's A Wet Winter Night's Dream which was the Christmas show at the Bush Theatre that year. We also performed it at Brixton Prison but that's another story...

A few months ago I attended my uncle's funeral in London and by chance stayed at a hotel in Belsize Park. I couldn't resist walking down Lambolle Place past the flat where so much happened in such a short space of time in 1973. 'It was very nice'.

The flat in Lambolle Place.

The flat in Lambolle Place.