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Smell The Smoke

From execution songs and Elizabethan lilts to Amy Winehouse and Blur, Paul Du Noyer 's latest book is a capital gain, writes Lew Baxter

Published on July 22nd 2009.


Smell The Smoke

THERE'S a memorable nugget of observation in music writer Paul Du Noyer’s fabulously readable ramble through the canyons and canons of London music. One which will hopefully quell the endless provincial squawking about how Liverpool doesn’t take proper advantage of the Beatles' legacy.

Mr Du Noyer – who can rightfully claim to have a firm grasp on the subject, being Liverpool born, an adopted Londoner by choice and a veteran music journalist – declares that the capital probably had as much influence, if not more, on the Fab Four.

I realised that all of London identifies with the coster traditions, just as all of Liverpool identifies with dockers and seamen

But instead of wailing Help! or Yesterday, take a peek at Du Noyer’s verging-on-the-scholarly tome, In The City: A Celebration of London Music, which should help dispel the yokel stance on such matters.

And before the hackles rise, remember that Du Noyer also penned the equally fact-packed Liverpool Wondrous Place, which is a very fine - and affectionately undertaken - compendium of the city’s musical heritage.

Indeed, there are various references to the Beatles and their meandering around the capital in his engaging, latest literary output.

But as the author commented rather wryly, only Paul McCartney hung around London; the other three cleared off pretty sharpish to hunker down in leafy suburban enclaves.

To the streets of London, thus, we now must turn our heads and hence open our minds. And for those who can never tire of that city’s vibrant attractions and venalities, Du Noyer has bundled together a cluster of glorious tales, music from Elizabethan traders and public execution songs and The Beggar's Opera, while travelling leisurely by lute, and by lyric, from the Middle Ages to music hall, and onto Madness, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, in his search for the wellspring that gives London its swing.

"I love walking through London – and Liverpool – to get the feel of life. I am a great rambler through city streets, and each has a sense and awareness of its history,” he comments.

He concurs that it has involved a certain level of academic toil. “A bit of board and gown had to be done. The more I thought about it the more I realised I had to go for the lot, through the ages. I spent two years working on it full time while doing a bit of freelancing,” he says.

“I’ve been in London over 30 years - he’s now 54 - but have always kept in contact with Liverpool and these days I am back and forth regularly,” he says. In fact he keeps a place in each city, and while in Liverpool Paul hangs out in a flat in One Park West.

“I have views across to the Albert Dock and I’ve always – like most Liverpudlians - had a fascination with the sea, particularly as my dad, Tony, was in the Merchant Navy,” he says.

Du Noyer was born in Anfield, into a large Catholic family, within a tug’s hoot of the docksides, but brought up in Maghull.

“After I’d written the Liverpool book I thought about what to do next. And the subject was right under my nose. I wanted to pack in as much as I could but it is only possible to cover a tiny fraction. There will be people complaining that I’ve missed out a lot,” he adds.

Nevertheless, the pages are crammed with anecdotes and recollections from his own musical background in which he has probably interviewed anyone of note, in a career that has embraced New Musical Express to editor of Q magazine, founding editor of Mojo and now associate editor of The Word, where he was on the launch team.

The book obviously covers the antics of the Stones, the Kinks and the whole coterie from Bowie and the Bonzo Dogs to Chris Barber and the Clash, Spandau Ballet and naturally the newer princelings such as Damon Albarn and Dizzee Rascal.

And his - kindly - assessment of Marc Bolan, the self-styled cerebral hippie guru of the Tolkien variety, as just a tough, little, working-class Cockney kid, encapsulates Du Noyer’s scrupulous approach.

That a bloke from Liverpool should assume the mantle of musical archivist for London might rankle some but he has no qualms: “I’ve got more perspective on what makes London tick as an outsider,” he says.

After the Salesian High School in Bootle, 18-year-old Du Noyer trundled off to London to attend the London School of Economics, picked up a decent degree but then found himself irrevocably drawn to the sounds of the city and was soon writing for NME; in the early 1970s Julie Burchill-Tony Parsons days. Some qualification. However, it's not all plucked from memory

“A lot of the information I have picked up in 30 years as a music journalist," he explains. "But I have done specific interviews for the book, and spent a lot of time in dusty libraries doing historical research.

“I was a purist," he adds, "and tried to do it without the internet. I think we are losing a lot of knowledge through this medium,” he added (Liverpool Confidential was left out of this talk).

“I also found charity shops a good source of material and Oxfam in Bold Street is a real gem,” he added, revealing that on one such trawl he found a secondhand biography of David Essex, which established the oft derided singer’s place in the pantheon of pop.

Du Noyer comments that the more he dug into the old archives the more he found fascinating. His revelations about the costermongers who were East End fruit and vegetable traders, and whose progeny include the pearly kings and queens with their buttons and bling along with today’s barrow boys, is a joy among an array of gems.

“I realised that all of London identifies with the coster traditions, just as all of Liverpool identifies with dockers and seamen,” he said, recalling with fondness long hours poring over old tracts in the reading room of the British Museum, the British Library or in his local library in Putney.

The text is peppered with Du Noyer bon mots far too numerous to detail but one is worth reporting: “One evening in the May of 1966 the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan convened in Dolly’s Club in Jermyn Street. In a way this must have been the Yalta Conference of its age,” wrote Du Noyer. Sparkling and intelligent stuff.

* In The City: A Celebration of London Music, by Paul Du Noyer. Virgin Books Hardback £18.99.

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