Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
LYR April 2023 Credit Katie Silvester
Nine Songs
Simon Armitage

Taking in his love of The Fall and why Steely Dan are supreme, the Poet Laureate talks Ed Nash through the pivotal songs in his life.

16 June 2023, 13:00 | Words by Ed Nash

There’s something inherently daunting about interviewing a Poet Laureate. First and foremost, their command of language will certainly eclipse your words by a country mile. Secondly, they’re a poet and you are anything but. However, this is Simon Armitage, and he isn’t your typical Poet Laureate.

When we log on to our call, Armitage’s profile picture pops up and he asks me, “Would you like me to put my camera on?” I tell him that would be great, partly because it’s easier to talk when you can put a face to a voice, and partly because I’m curious to see what a Poet Laureate’s study looks like.

When his camera comes on, unsurprisingly the walls are crammed with bookshelves. The first surprise though, is that he’s grinning. Poet Laureate’s, from Ted Hughes to William Wordsworth, are notorious for their seriousness and intensity, but then again, neither of them juggled the title of being the nation’s preeminent poet with DJ’ing and being in a band - although the idea of what Ted Hughes fronting a Post-Punk band singing “The Thought Fox” would have sounded like is a tantalizing prospect.

The only previous Poet Laureate to embrace a musical career was Sir John Betjeman, who released a record in 1974, Banana Blush, that he subsequently disowned. Armitage’s musical output as LYR, completed by Richard Walters and Patrick J Pearson, is a different entity altogether, a natural fit with his love of both poetry and music.

As they gear up to release their second album, The Ultraviolet Age, on which Armitage takes a splendid dig at Donald Trump on “Presidentially Yours” and the explores the loneliness of isolation on “The Song Thrush and The Mountain Ash”, he finds himself in the unusual position of having to multi-task planning a tour and his work as a poet.

“We've been doing LYR for about seven years now. It started fairly low key, a bit of a side project of one-off pieces, and then we got a record deal, and it started getting a bit more earnest” he explains. “It's been so liberating, I really love the guys I’ve been working with and it's opened up this other field of creativity for me. It's been fantastic.”

Before he decided to become a poet full time, in his youth Armitage dabbled in the world of music, fronting a punk band with the suitably literate name of Tess and the D’urbs. “I sang and I found it pretty terrifying actually. I just talk on the LYR records and that's our USP I suppose. And I'm very comfortable with that, this is very in tune with what I do, it feels like a very natural fit.”

Given Armitage’s experience reading his own poems in public, I ask if he gets stage fright when he performs with LYR? “I wouldn’t say I get nervous, but there's a lot more thinking involved, you can’t do it on autopilot. The issue with the band is there are so many variables and I'm not used to that, the variable is usually me and I can control all that, if there's a problem, it's my fault and I usually know how to fix it.

"With the band, there's a lot of tech, there’s other personnel. The venues differ enormously, sometimes it's a festival, sometimes it's a church, and you never quite know what's going happen.”

When it comes to how he chose his Nine Songs selections, Armitage tells me he thought long and hard about them, and rather than going for an overarching theme, he decided to pick a clutch of songs he loves.

“I was trying to think of songs that are important to me, for different reasons. Some are very personal, some have an historic relevance, and others are just songs that I like. But I think in some ways they’re representative of the range of stuff I like. There was no theme stringing these songs together, other than quality, I would argue.”

We take in stories of Armitage’s youth, wandering around his village in an overcoat, his experiences as a DJ, and how hearing a song for the first time can have an indelible imprint, giving the listener the power to recall exactly where and who they were. But ultimately, Armitage’s Nine Songs are about an ongoing fascination with music, and as we wrap up, he says, “I love talking about music, this was a pleasure.”

“Memories Can't Wait” by Talking Heads

When Fear of Music came out in 1979, that was a big sea change for me. I had caught the tail end of punk and I’d been really energised by all that, but I was getting to 16, 17, and I wanted something else.

I wanted something more artful, something more introspective than just that kind of punk sloganeering and energy. I think Talking Heads, and maybe Joy Division, were the first places I ever found that. There was this otherness about it, which I think very much appealed to the late adolescent Simon Armitage, trying to be moody and melancholic, walking around the village in a big overcoat.

BEST FIT: I did exactly the same with The Smiths.

I loved that art school rock feel about it, you can't quite categorise it. That album still seems incredibly vital to me, and I think it’s their best album. It's exciting, it's moody, it's enigmatic. And that song particularly, as it goes through its formula and then moves up into this really ecstatic finish at the end.

It's the song that I keep saying to LYR, ‘We could do this as a cover’, because it's got a fair bit of talking on it. The band are at least 20 years younger than me, so their musical references are very different, but I'm working on them.

Could you bring the menace? You’re a very gentle speaker, and that's a really menacing song!

I can do menace, that’s why I switched the camera on!

“Always Trying to Work It Out” by Low

I can hardly talk about this song without getting upset, they mean so much to me as a band. We were supposed to be on the same bill as them at Krankenhaus Festival up in The Lakes last year and it was going be this incredible personal highlight for me. And then of course, Mimi got ill again and died sometime later.

I've always been interested in that ‘less is more’ approach in music - what is the maximum you can get out of a piece of music with the minimum input? And they've always seemed to be a band that can do that - personnel wise, the instrumentation, it’s all very sparse. But in later albums they really started to up the production and effect elements. And this song, and lots of songs like it, particularly on the last album, is this incredible beauty mixed with this - which to some people - is quite offensive feedback.

We played at Rough Trade East a couple of weeks ago and someone came into the green room and said, ‘What music do you want on before you play?’ And I said, ‘Put that last Low album on.’ They were playing it really loud, and I thought ‘Oh God, this sounds really harsh’. I mean, I love it, but some people find it quite challenging.

They’re the epitome of what their name says, that Lo-Fi approach, which is anything but empty, the songs are so full, and so pretty as well. I know this after being in the studio more, that the more you chuck at it, quite often you’re just going backwards, things get suppressed and squeezed out. It’s trying to clarify and burnish all the little aspects of everything, rather than putting more and more in. They’re an amazing band.

It’s very domestic as well, very every day, very commonplace stuff that they write about. Even that phrase, “Always Trying to Work It Out”, they find a lovely, humble beauty in it.

BEST FIT: Was it hard to pick just one of their songs?

Yes, it was Impossible. I’ve got everything they’ve done and I put my finger on the first one, but that is particularly gorgeous track.

“Sodome and Gomorra” by Misty In Roots

When I was at college we listened to a lot of reggae, so this is ‘81 to ’84, and there was a guy in the next flat who had a huge reggae collection. I went to a concert which was for the dissolution of the GLC, which was in the middle of Jubilee Gardens in London, I think there's a big hotel there now, around the back of The London Aquarium.

We’d gone up from Portsmouth in a minibus for the day and it was quite a famous concert, there were riots that day, and a lot of skinheads turned up. Billy Bragg was playing, Hank Wangford, The Smiths and Misty in Roots. That was the only time I ever saw them, but music was very, very tribal then and who you affiliated with, who you subscribed to, seemed vitally important as a measure of your identity, so it was a big deal for me seeing them that day.

BEST FIT: Do you think that sense of identity through music has changed since then?

I don’t know what the equivalent would be these days, wearing a football shirt or something like that? It felt subversive that you liked all these bands, that most people didn’t just dislike, they'd never heard of them.

I remember John Peel once describing the album this track is from, Live at the Counter Eurovision 79 - it was recorded in 1979, in Belgium - as the greatest reggae album of all time, and Peel used to play a lot of reggae. I don't like live albums very much, I usually steer clear of them, but this album captures something that sounds very special about the evening atmosphere.

Quite a lot of the tracks are biblical with their references and this one is as well. The whole thing makes for something very spiritual and sacred, and I’m not a religious person in that way, but it's incredibly captivating and moving, and it's got this fantastic sort of swell about it.

It's a difficult album to get hold of, I don't think it's on Spotify or anything, but if you can, pick up a copy of the vinyl. It's a very special album.

“Now I Know” by Comsat Angels

Comsat Angels were one of those late ‘70s, early ‘80s wave of New Wave bands. I remember seeing them in Portsmouth when I was at college there and U2 were supporting them, it was at the Locarno Ballroom.

They lost their way a little bit, they were on Polydor, and it was that moment when a lot of indie music was becoming quite popular. There was probably pressure from the record company to put out more poppy records and do videos, if you think of the way that The Bunnymen and bands like that went.

But their first album Waiting For A Miracle is really good, it's very raw. The second album Sleep No More I think is one of the most underrated albums I've ever heard, its dark, gothy, sinister, heartbroken. And this song, “Now I Know”, is from the next album called Fiction, which is a little bit softer edged, but it's still got all that haunting and brooding. They’re songs about personal relationships but at a very subconscious level.

At that time, what you wanted was your favourite bands to have no success at all, you just wanted them to be yours, but they didn't want that (laughs). They wanted to be famous the world over and very wealthy, I'm sure. The Comsat Angels delivered all that for me, they were Northern, they were gloomy. I was in Portsmouth at the time, and I was very homesick so they were very significant for me through those first three albums.

I have a theory that if you wait long enough, all the big bands will eventually come and see you (laughs). It's proved correct to a certain extent, we've got a venue in Holmfirth called The Picturedrome, I've seen a lot of bands there who were way too big for that venue a long time ago, but now they play a really good show there.

“Garden” by The Fall

BEST FIT: I was wondering if you’d pick a song by a Mancunian band, given your love of The Smiths and Joy Division, but you’ve chosen a song by The Fall.

More than anything, The Fall have been my band of choice. I don't wear T-Shirts with band names on, but if I did, I’d wear a Fall T-Shirt, I think. I was with them their whole existence, through all of their iterations.

I’ve just written an essay about them for Kevin Cummins book of photographs of The Fall, which covers their entire lifespan. It's difficult to sum them up - irascible, impossible to bracket - they don't sound like anybody else, and quite often they don’t even sound like The Fall.

You’d think they'd gone away, or they'd become so peculiar, and then they’d come back and make great albums again. I like lot of late Fall as well, the real connoisseurs prefer the very early stuff.

“Garden” is pretty early, it's on Perverted by Language, so I think that'd be mid-‘80s. It's one of those amazing and weird Fall songs that has a spy / ghost / dystopia / Sci-Fi, narrative (laughs). He reads a letter from somebody halfway through and there's this really peculiar, biblical argument being put forward. But I love the drumming in it, and it’s quite a sparse track for them as well, a little bit like "Noel's Chemical Effluence" and tracks like that.

It's impossible to pick a Fall track that’s representative of them, but I do think Perverted by Language is a really strong album, it's got "Eat Y'self Fitter” and “Smile” on it. “Garden” is really paranoid as a track, and I think they do paranoia really well. I imagine that he wrote the whole thing after trying to sneak down to Oddbins for some booze for his breakfast.

Mark E. Smith was described as a poet and he was quite dismissive about that, he had this mix of being very cocky and really intelligent.

He was very articulate, in a very fragmentary way. It's all very disrupted, you don’t quite ever know what point he’s trying to make. He's a great observer of social trends, quite often in very witty one-liners.

I saw them play live when Extricate came out, they added Wah-Wah guitar to the song “Telephone Thing”, as if to say the Madchester of the time music was easy, and 'Here’s How it should be done.'

I love that record, and later albums, like Imperial Wax Solvent, I thought that was great, Fall Heads Roll, Country on the Click. I never get tired of it. I keep coming back to it, and it's still feels really energizing and inspiring.

“Rinse & Repeat” by Riton ft. Kah-Lo

I don't know anything about the person or people who made this song, and I think that's the point. Sometimes I want to like the music and not really have any relationship with its creators, it’s just a particular song.

I love dancing and I DJ every now and again. I love watching people getting up to dance and this track rarely fails. There's something very elemental about the noise of it and the beat, it feels quite pagan in some ways. It's not a record I've ever investigated very much, but I've played it hundreds of times.

I remember once I was DJ’ing and I put this on and a very cool young woman, who had a kind of cool London rockabilly vibe, walked past and nodded as if to say, ‘Great track,’ and I thought ‘I've hit the button there.’ (laughs)

BEST FIT: Did you feel cool in that moment, with a hipster nodding at your choice of music?!

I felt justified. (laughs)

I didn't know you DJ’d.

Well, I play records. I wouldn't say I DJ. I do it at a couple of festivals every year and it's an amazing feeling when people want to dance. I'm doing it again this year at a festival called Timber in the Midlands, the DJ area is in a glade in the woods and the DJ booth is a tree house.

The second year I did it was just after England had beaten Ukraine at the Euros in 2021. The final whistle went at nine o'clock and everybody was in a really fantastic mood. Everybody had just come out Covid and had been locked in the house for three years. You could tell that people wanted to go nuts and it was great stuff; a big loud sound system, lights, rain dripping through the trees, people down to their bare chests, it was great.

I've always thought I'd like to do a Fall disco. I think there are enough Fall tracks that you can move to. I don't know who would come, it wouldn't be a great wedding proposition.

“Silhouette” by Julia Holter

Have You in My Wilderness is a beautiful album. I didn't know much about her at the time, but they started playing it a lot on 6 Music, and this album is really special.

I've always been really attracted to music and songs that have a structure you can't quite predict, that have a different formula. And that track, particularly towards the last minute or so, goes off into this seraphic, ecstatic, flared sound. I presume it’s a synthesiser of some kind, but you couldn't have anticipated that in the early phases of the song.

I very much associate this song - and it's completely coincidental really - with the time my daughter was doing her GCSEs in Halifax and I used to drive over every day to pick her up from school. There was always that apprehension about how she thought she'd gotten on in the exams, and I wanted something to get my mind off that. So I completely equate this album and this track with sitting in Tesco’s car park in Halifax, waiting for her to come out of school.

That's one of the things I really love about music, it attaches you to the places where you heard it and that becomes part of the memory. There's no way the people who made the music could ever have anticipated that.

It's a bit like reading a book and your memory of that book is partly formed by where you were at the time, you can remember certain rooms, certain views and the temperature by where you were on the page.

This song always triggers this memory of my daughter at a younger age and maybe because it's a female artist, and there's something quite angelic about that track.

“Gaucho” by Steely Dan

I've never liked jazz, I'm not a jazz fan at all, and there is something a bit jazzy about Steely Dan, but I love Steely Dan.

They’re some people's reference point for naff, which I've never really understood. I do quite a lot of stuff with Guy Garvey and I remember him curling his lip up at them at some point and I was amazed because I thought he’d love Steely Dan. He probably does now, actually.

When I was about 15, I illegally joined a record club by pretending I was 18. You had to pay 50p a week and I bought their first album, Can't Buy a Thrill. Growing up in a village at that time, you didn't have access to information about anything, and because that album was so good, I assumed it was a Best Of, and that they'd been around for 30 years. I think they’re brilliant and that song is very, very moving.

Again, when I listen to it, I don't know what it is, but there’s something really powerful about it, the saxophone and the lyrics. I think it's about prejudice, somebody has been described as an of out-of-towner and there's somebody articulating an argument against him for being Mexican or not fitting in.

It’s got a lovely phrase about “elevator shoes” and I quite often look down in an elevator to see what shoes people are wearing, to see if they’ve got elevator shoes on. I don't know what they are, but I haven’t seen them yet.

It's a very smooth track, it's got a lovely flow to it, it’s very mellow but there’s something quite sad about it as a song as well. It’s beautifully done, and they’re amazing musicians.

BEST FIT: Do you think that's why they’re seen as being a bit naff in certain quarters?

Yes, possibly, and also, for my generation, we never appreciated proficiency. If you could play an instrument well it was a bit suspicious. We liked all bands that were amateur, shambolic and shuffling, and that's what made their sound so different. Bands like The Fire Engines or Bogshed, that uniqueness came out of incompetence really. And nothing about Steely Dan is incompetent.

I'll take whatever rotten fruit is thrown my way about Steely Dan. They are supreme. And they’re named after a mechanical dildo!

“Primitive Painters” by Felt

This is an incredible song. Felt were a lot of people's favourite band that never really made it. Amongst my group of friends, they’re one of our favourite bands, we still talk about them a lot and we still look out for interviews with Lawrence. I can’t believe the person who's doing Go-Kart Mozart and its various other varieties these days is the same person who wrote “Primitive Painters” or “Riding on the Equator.”

It’s that combination of shimmering guitar, his talky/singing voice and then Liz Fraser’s voice in addition to that, and I absolutely love Cocteau Twins. Quite often these kinds of collaborations don't work, but this one absolutely does. As a one off, it's a glorious record.

BEST FIT: I remember when this song came out and I thought the title was really clever, but I had no idea what it meant.

Yes. What does he mean by that?

I should have asked him when I did a Nine Songs interview with him, which was a fascinating experience.

I talked about wanting bands to be unknown, I think Lawrence, more than anybody, wanted to be a famous pop star. Was that your impression of him as well?

We were sat in his flat and he played most of the songs on his record player as we were talking about them. I couldn’t but help admire his resilience, he’s been trying to make it for over 40 years.

There was an interview with him in The Idler last month, and he's got all kinds of compulsions. I even remember back in the day when somebody went to interview him, where visitors had rules with the toilet and he was always wiping the table after people had left their coffee cups, he had a cleanliness phobia.

But those 10 albums are a great monument to songwriting and musicianship. I saw them quite a lot in the ‘80s, and people were always spellbound by the noise they made. They were a great band.

Why do you think they didn't make it? I have a theory it was because the original guitarist Maurice Deebank left the band.

And then he went live in a monastery!

Martin Duffy joined the band after that, and they released an instrumental Jazz album.

I love Duffy’s organ playing, they did Train Above The City, which was kind of a lounge, cocktail album wasn’t it? Lawrence always said the reason that they didn't make it was because John Peel once said the title of their first album, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. Peel was God then, what he said carried such weight and Lawrence always said that it killed them.

I don't think that can be true, because they went on making records so many years after that. Loads of people I know think they're an amazing band and their body of work is something to behold, but they didn't cut through.

The Ultraviolet Age is released 30 June on EMI North

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