Sunday, 13 April 2014

“YES IT'S A PROMISE, AND IT'S A THREAT...” - A HISTORY OF HARDCORE PUNK IN THREE-AND-A-HALF CHAPTERS


Firstly,  from the 'American Hardcore' documentary, Keith Morris and Vic Bondi “go off”...


...leads us neatly into this gloriously grainy footage of Black Flag tearing through 'Rise Above'. With, as was the way of things, ample audience participation...


Next up, a hardcore anthem if ever there was, 'Drink Deep' by the short-lived but perpetually influential Rites of Spring.(And source of our title quote.)


...and last, but by no means least, an inexplicably suited-up Minutemen playing 'History Lesson – Part II'...


Keith Morris is right of course, that was what it was. The stuff Mark E Smith called “R+R as primal scream”. But let's focus on that last clip for a second, what about the Minutemen?

“Punk rock changed our lives.” Such heady words, can they actually be backed up by anything? After all, detractors commonly claim the politics in punk songs was crude, naïve and sloganistic. Which it normally was. But, really, they're missing the point! I've often laughed out loud at the earnest imbecility of punk lyrics, yet loved the very same song.

These were songs, not political treatises. Perhaps the most classic hardcore lyric of all was by Ignition, “I know what my anger means.” Punk was a means to articulate something inside you. Punk songs did for you what spinach did for Popeye. Ther archetypal hardcore band Bad Brains formed after the singer read a self-help tract 'Positive Mental Attitude.' Like most punk stories, that's absurd – but fittingly absurd.

Since the blues days, singers and musicians had tended to change their names – McKinley Morganfield becoming Muddy Waters and all the rest of it. Those were something more than stage names, I can't imagine anyone other than his mother still called Muddy 'McKinley'. But with punk the audiences often changed their names too. Punk was a step towards self-transformation. The first step towards not accepting the world as it was - that was not accepting you as you were. From that point on the watch-words were “question everything” and “be self-reliant.” The hardcore resource guide everybody was expected to read was called 'Book Your Own Fucking Life'.

And that's what it's all about. We didn't come out of that the people who went in. It did what it said on the lid. Punk rock changed our lives.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

NOT THE LAST WORD ABOUT ALTERNATIVE TV AT ALL...

Sometimes, scary as it sounds, the rest of the internet can be slower than me.

When I posted my review of the recent Alternative TV gig in Brighton, I could find no footage of the event on YouTube. Which normally wouldn't matter much. Normally that hand-held juddery stuff doesn't give DA Pennebaker much of a run for his money, and I link to it more as evidence that the event happened. It's like all those blurry photos of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

This time, however, two separate sets of footage has subsequently appeared – and it's champion stuff! Here's a track I mentioned in my review, the epic 'Splitting In Two' complete with it's classic rolling riff. It's great the way Mark Perry looks more like he should be propping up the bar in an East End pub than fronting a classic punk band, while the drummer looks a similar thing only relocated to the shires.


'Splitting In Two' comes from their first album, 'The Image Has Cracked'. The next night, when I went to see Blyth Power, front man Joseph Porter cheekily enquired whether they'd played anything from its follow-up, 'Vibing Up the Senile Man'. Just as post-punk was like the difficult B-side to punk's catchy single, that album became notorious when live renditions of it's experimentalism were frequently rewarded by hurled beer cans from frustrated pogoers.

Porter was clearly expecting the answer “no”. Yet they did play something, they played 'The Radio Story'. For, according to the clip's poster, “the first time in a generation” – and what's more it was great! As if to underline the divergence, this is even shot from a different angle and suddenly bursts into colour.


Both awesome tracks, I think you'll agree. But, as I said in my review, the really cool thing is that one band can so effortlessly encompass both styles.

Mr. Perry and cohorts, please come back to our fair town soon...

Friday, 28 March 2014

FOCUS: WILLIAM ROBERTS



When looking at the Vorticist exhibition here in this very venue, we saw how David Blomberg's 'Mud Bath' (below) had a totemic influence on the group he never officially joined. Mostly they seem to have seen it as a step ahead from something like Matisse's 'Dance' (below below).



And, okay, you can line them up that way should you choose. But Blomberg was most likely trying to evoke the loss of self that can be generated by group frenzy. While the Vorticists too often saw in it something linear, the next footfall in the regular advance of the avant garde - the collapse of the figure into abstract angularity. If a little geometry is a good thing, then more of it must be better – right?

They drew, in short, the wrong lesson and went tilting off at the horizon line. Blomberg had pitched his painting precisely, at the point where the human figure tips into the abstract. That's what makes it so compelling and so memorable an image - that it's so stark and striking yet so hard to pin down. It hits you and then it lingers.

William Roberts, however, was not caught up in this charge. He may have gained more of an insight into Blomberg through studying alongside him at the Slade. Or the self-identifying prole may have refused to fall in line out of personal animosity with Vorticist guru (and arch toff) Wyndham Lewis. Perhaps he was simply smarter than the pack. Whichever, it ended up the same way, and he refused to fall in with the frog-march and instead embarked upon... well, let's check it out.


The earliest piece on show, 'Leadenhall Market' (1913, above), is a pencil drawing made while he was still a student at the Slade. Particularly when placed against the bold use of colour he was employing later, it would be easy to dismiss it as juvenilia. In fact, incipiently, everything's here.

The tubular geometry he would use for anatomy is already emerging. But more significant is the composition. It's calm descriptive title (almost inviting the prefix “study of...”) belies its contents, for the figures are thrown in a tumult that often seems fractious. The crowd pours into view like a raging river; faces are sometimes realised, sometimes not, as if semi-discerned under it's froth. It's almost the opposite of Jose Munoz's comic strip art, whose street figures are trapped in an alienated individualism. For better or worse, these are thrown together.

Though it's shown only through a preparatory sketch, its with 'Return of Ulysses' (1913, up top) that Roberts ceases budding and starts to flower. Actually, it doesn't even matter that it's just a sketch. There's many sketches in this room, and beside them the paintings often look like sketches blown up rather than filled in with any greater detail - the blocky faces, the thick lips, the eyes a clamped-closed line. If there's a lingering influence from Blomberg's bathers, they look as much like the graphic icons of the working man from Otto Neurath's Isotype picograms. Equally drawn from the world of graphics is the posterly look – the limited palette of deep but vivid colours.


Vorticism was almost absurdly short-lived, and by 'Athletes Exercising in a Gymnasium' (1920, above) we're already past it. If Roberts seems to be moving away from the Blomberg style, then by this point so was Blomberg himself. The figures are less bold geometric colours, and more naturalised. However stylised and transformed they may be, we can see the basis in actual people in a real space. It's almost like 'Mud Bath' decoded. Perhaps because of it's transitional nature it's not one of Roberts' best, but looks like something of a half-way house.


'The Port of London' (1920, above) is, conversely, the least Roberts-like work on show here and much more successful. Described by the indicia as “unusually a landscape composition”, the few figures are faceless and non-dominant. You can see the influence of Impressionism and it's celebration of everyday life. (Water-side scenes being of course an Impressionist favourite.) But it's an English Impressionism, of quiet business, of caps and chip wrappers, something akin to Stanley Spencer or later Edward Burra. Roberts would habitually walk the London streets and frequent its bars. And he paints the waterfront warmly, like a portrait of an old friend.


'The Cinema' (above) was painted the same year, but is based on the genre of Music Hall paintings, by Walter Sickert and others. Traditionally the genre celebrated the unruly liveliness of such popular entertainment, with a boisterous audience undifferentiated from the stage. Formally, Roberts distinguishes his cinema from such shenanigans - fencing off the silver screen into a square in the upper corner, and giving it it's own separate palette of gold and bronze.

But from there he quite deliberately undermines his own composition. A woman's head strays across the corner of the screen, the angle of her body pulling it's diagonal composition out into the auditorium. The figures mostly look to the screen, but from a bustle of different poses. They're not in the neat rows you'd expect to see in a cinema. One group sit on a bench at right-angle to the screen, while the couple on the lower left seem more interested in each other. Others amble in, even though the film is already showing. The capped, uniformed, upright figure dominates the auditorium, and looks to be some sort of usher or guard. But his arms are folded, his eyes angled up at the same screen as everybody else.

The cinema was held by some to draw a line under the Music Hall era, to mark the imposition of order. Not to Roberts. He's celebrating the crowd, its carefree, good-natured unruliness, its true nature lying unabated beneath those bureaucratic rules and regulations.

It features a device characteristic to Roberts which might at first seem paradoxical - to give each figure a unique pose while withholding any individual features. After all, this is no faceless horde but a cheery gang. But Roberts isn't concerned with the people that make the crowd up, he's concerned with the sum of parts. Roberts' subject matter was his own people – the English working class.


'Deposition From the Cross' (1926) uses a device Roberts shares with Spencer and other artists of the era - uniting not just modern and classical themes, but the everyday with the legendary. Here, despite that title, the emphasis is not on the cross but on the ladder. The figures are in modern dress and multi-racial. When you hang pictures up in a row like this, you cannot help but see a sequence to it. And unlike 'The Cinema' they're not at their leisure but at work, united in common purpose. The earlier claim that the crowd is innately untameable is now more nuanced, more muted.

Yet, while the face of Jesus is obscured, three sets of eyes triangulate upon him. Rather than being stuck on a cross, like the figure on the far left, he's handled tenderly. Again despite the title, it's ambiguous whether they're taking down or placing up his body. This is Jesus the modest carpenter's son, who belongs not to Kings and Queens but to working people.

But there's also an almost Communist reading, to file alongside the religious one. One of the paradoxes of capitalism is that our need to sell our labour is what brings us together. With common orders, wage labour gives us common purpose. Jesus could represent salvation but also workers autonomy, which had seemed so strong immediately after the Great War. Perhaps it's significant that this was painted the year the General Strike was defeated.


With 'The Art Gallery' we suddenly fast forward to 1973, and with the leap in time comes a corresponding change in style. Most immediately noticeable is the new palette. Colours are now brighter, pinks and purples, the once-dark background a mustard yellow. But the bigger shift is in the figures. Heads are no longer blocks but rounded, individualised, caricatured, like his cartoons from the '50s seen elsewhere in room.

In what must surely be a snub to Vorticism, geometric abstract artworks are thrown into the background - almost blocked out by crowd, barely space for a triangle to protrude. Unlike the screen of 'The Cinema', not a single figure looks to them - instead they look at each other or out to us. Roberts, the great chronicler of life in the streets, finds the visitors more interesting than the art. Had he been in the Tate the same day as me, he'd doubtless have found more inspiration in the crowd than on the walls.

And yet there's a trade-off. Cinemas, at least in Roberts' day, had one mighty screen in a large auditorium. While art galleries featured a multiplicity of works, making gallery-attending a more individualised experience - something reflected here. (It's perhaps a paradox of our age that, as general life becomes more closeted, modern art is becoming more installation-based or otherwise experienced collectively.) Figures are blocked together, in one heaving clump, but their body languages places them in chatting couples or family groups. If the Cinema could still be like the Music Hall, the Gallery is no longer like the Cinema. As figures grow features and gain their individuality they lose their common purpose. The two works probably reflected their respective eras.

Much of the criticism directed against Roberts (and there's plenty) is simple art snobbery. True, he sometimes gave a romanticised view of the working class, which took its subjectively as almost self-evident. But his sin was not to depict the lower orders through the necessary distancing devices, not to place them as his subject, his sin was to give them collectivity.

However, it shouldn't be denied that he could be repetitive, falling back again and again on familiar themes and devices. At its worst his work looks like Playpeople in stock sets, ready to pushed around in little dioramas. A child's eye parody of working class life, one cliché swapped for another.

I'm forever insisting that British Modernism needs bigging up, and complaining when this or that artist doesn't get a major retrospective. Whereas this time we may well have been better off with a greatest hits sampler rather than the comprehensive box set. However, while in life Roberts walked his own furrow and kept the art establishment at a firm arms-length, there is no need to keep him in such a box today. As mentioned above, there are frequent overlaps between his work and other British Modernists of the time. His contribution should not be over-stated. But it should be celebrated.

Friday, 21 March 2014

“ALL THE MOST EXOTIC PLACES” (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)


Click here for the latest Spotify playlist. There's a theme of the foreign, and how it never turns out to be as foreign as you might want it to be. (Or something like that anyway.)

Nico: Afraid
Tunng: Man In The Box
Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel No.2
Blyth Power: To Horse and Away
Asian Dub Foundation: Taa Deem
Califone: Funeral Singers
Camper Van Beethoven: All Her Favorite Fruit
Roy Acuff And His Smoky Mountain Boys: Wreck On The Highway
The Waterboys: The Earth Only Endures
Patti Smith Group: Ghost Dance
Mission Of Burma: Falling
Portishead: We Carry On
Glenn Branca: Quadratonic
Hawkwind: The Watcher (1996 Digital Remaster)

“And we are rotting like a fruit
Underneath a rusting roof
We dream our dreams
And sing our songs
Of the fecundity
Of life and love
Of life and love”

It's a strangely double-edged feeling, finding a song you're after doesn't exist on Spotify. Frustration at the consumer inconvenience, mixed with relief that not everything in the world's been Google Mapped yet, and Tom Cruise is still running around out there somewhere wearing someone else's eyeballs. I originally planned to include this track by Thee Silver Mount Zion, plus a different Blyth Power number which seems to still be entirely off the grid. Run! Hide!

Coming soon! Yeah, I know. I promised visual art posts...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

INNER CITY UNIT/THE TYBURN TREE/KODO (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

INNER CITY UNIT
The Brunswick, Hove, Sat 8th April


For those not up on the minutiae of these things, Inner City Unit were first formed by Nik Turner after he was booted out of Hawkwind back in 1980. Their sound was perhaps best summed up by the title of their '84 album 'Punkadelic'. By that point Hawkwind themselves had moved away from their freak-out space-jam origins, into New Wave-influenced numbers that even started to resemble songs. But ICU took all that further. Tracks tended to be punchy, punk or garage rock influenced, almost always single-length and packed with wry, absurdist wit. Even great bands can have their expiry date and, truth to tell, in that era ICU were actually coming up with better goods than Hawkwind themselves. Ironically, Dave Brock and Turner's legendary antagonism actually delivered for us fans!

'Bones of Elvis' was almost their mission statement, the verses a sardonic slab at music biz machinations (“No-one needs a star that walks/No-one has to pay a corpse”), the chorus a cry boldly stating their intent to get back to the roots - “We're going to raise the bones of Elvis!”

...all of which, you may note, was many years ago. But, now in his Seventies and starting to resemble William Hartnell, Turner's a good advert for growing old disgracefully. Even if his voice isn't what it was, he remains an effective front-man. And, though they only play irregularly these days (with their website not naming another gig till late July) the band remain remarkably tight. To be honest, I can find Dino Ferrari's drumming a bit plodding, but the other players excel. True there's less of a punk element than in days of yore, with something like 'Skinheads in Leningrad' not making an appearance, but that throws them further into garage rock. What came from the stage wasn't memories or re-enactments but neat energy.

They dedicate their set to ex-member and legendary Brighton character Judge Trev, who sadly died three years ago. In fact his last ever gig was for the Real Music Club, who put on this very night.

From their previous visit to Brighton, at the Hydrant (which I couldn't make for some reason)...


Those up on Hawkwind gossip may find this funny. (Tho' others will just be nonplussed...)



THE TYBURN TREE: DARK LONDON
Brighton Dome, Wed 5th March


The Tyburn Tree, for those not in the know, was actually not a tree at all but London's principal gallows. It serves as the title here for a song cycle taking “an atmospheric, sometimes shocking musical walk through the London streets and among London’s ghosts”, a collaboration between composer John Harle and Marc Almond. (Ex-Soft Cell front man. But you knew that already.)

The titular Tree was near modern Marble Arch, not that you'd know that nowadays. Indeed, it's perhaps significant that the dark old London should be celebrated now, when the city's rapidly being turned into a Johnsonite playpen for the super-rich. The cut-throats and prostitutes have been replaced by yuppies and smartphones, for better or... well actually, just for worse. And now the poor no longer fear hanging, just long journeys in from Zone 5 or 6 to their early morning cleaning jobs, perhaps London's only future (at least culturally speaking) lies in its past.
Marc Almond is great, of course. Arriving in a cassock to rapt applause, he looked uncannily like a character from a Carl Dreyer film. (Though someone told me afterwards they thought of Blackadder.) His almost uncanny ability to combine the histrionic with the heartfelt remains unabated, and he prowled the stage with something between a snarl and a leer. His post-interval appearance certainly galvanised events after the non-stick plonky jazz of the first half, where the applause was about as polite as the music. (You were better off regarding all that as the non-memorable support band, who merely happened to share all the same musicians as the main act.)
And there were highlights - 'Poor Henry' (a song about a hanging which morphs into a Music Hall singalong), 'My Fair Lady' (about slitting a prostitite's throat over an argument about change) and the spendidly titled and klezmer-like 'The Vampire of Highgate'. All three had a directness to them, like arrows shot true after first being dipped in the blackest of humour.
But ultimately all the elaborate arrangements, all the cleverness, just got between you and the subject matter - when a more direct approach might have connected. Perhaps the piece suffered by comparing unfavourably with the tonally and thematically similar song cycle the Tiger Lillies gave us in this very room only last year. But it came to feel like that most dreaded of all things, a project. Despite the highlights, despite Almond's invigorating presence, ultimately it's a souffle where it should have been one of Sweeney Todd's meat pies.
And it's become such a token of this sort of thing that Blake has to get cited. (They choose 'London' and 'Jerusalem' needless to say.) Blake is becoming for affected literariness what Captain Beefheart is to in-the-know music, the name to drop to your audience to suggest you're cultured but slightly edgy. It's like luvvies citing Shakespeare, the reverence is just displaced self-importance. Seriously, when was the last time you heard something refer to Blake where it genuinely deserved comparison to him? (Perhaps either Mark Stewart's or the Fall's versions of 'Jerusalem', both of which worked hard and inventively to defamiliarise the material.) Blake after all wrote “drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead”, and perhaps its time to let the poor old Londoner lie.
Anyway, talking about those Vampires of Highgate...
KODO: ONE EARTH TOUR
Brighton Dome, Fri 28th Feb


Kodo are described in the programme as “the taiko drummers from Japan's remote and inspiring Sado Island”. Handed to you as you went in, it went on to depict them in somewhat idyllic terms - like a hippie commune living in harmony with nature, growing their own food and making “eco-conscious furniture”. (Sideboards that remind you to do your recycling?) Perhaps that was just targeted at the Brighton demographic, and the next week they'd be in Portsmouth telling the locals they were famed for their discipline and drilling.

If so, Portsmouth might have got the more apt description. For as they started up it became clear there was something almost martial about them, clad in black vests on an unadorned stage, either playing in unison or standing stock still – as if to attention. There seemed to be two women performers out of the whole troupe. Alcohol was banned from the auditorium, as if we were all on duty.

The drum is of course a physical instrument, in a way a piano or guitar simply isn't. Something like the motorik beat of Neu! might sound gliding and effortless, but that's the exception rather than the rule. And, remote island or not, Kodo go to town on that. It would be hard to over-emphasise the sheer showness of their show. The exhilarating physicality of seeing fourteen drummers drumming, limbs a blurry whirligig of motion, makes them performers by the simple virtue of their playing. Some of the drums themselves, well over a metre across, seem so large you can hardly believe they could be carried on stage. In the best way they're an act made for DVD, rather than CD.

The first half is given over to contemporary compositions, including works by “artistic director” Tamasaburo Bando. You think of drum music as building up a head of steam, then using it to plough a groove. But these pieces, in their own words “weaved constant rhythmic patterns together with highly irregular ones”. Each segment was musically quite straightforward, but the compositions moved between them with bewildering speed, often given a visual correlative by the players leapingly changing places mid-beat. At times it almost reminded me of contemporary composers I've been to see, such as Julia Wolfe. At times, I do confess, I found myself wishing we could have stayed with some of those great grooves a while longer.

My favourite piece of the first half was the last, 'Ibuki' by Motofumi Yamaguchi, composed of openly-tuned bamboo flutes and what I took to be accumulated rim shots, building up strange skittering sounds which sounded almost like nothing else – at once earthly and unearthly. The piece was apparently “composed as an homage to all living things”. And some of the hippie spirit must have reached my seat by then, for that description started to make sense to me.

The second half was devoted to more traditional numbers, starting with a folk dance in demon masks, from back in the day when music was thought to make the crops grow. Colourful period costumes replaced uniform black. For one piece drummers played from a lying position, reproducing the way they'd perform on carts as they passed from village to village. Overall, it was perhaps the second part which appealed to me the most, as it seemed to more naturally incorporate the ritual element of seeing music being made.

Though never accompanied by anything more than those flutes and occasional outbreaks of the human voice, such was the sonic variety that you easily forgot you were listening to 'just drumming'. (Comparison to Seventies drum solos need not apply.) Even as your eyes took in the pummelling exertion, your ears registered the input simply as music. The programme described the giant o-daiko drum as “possessing a deep tranquility yet tremendous intensity”. Which would make a pretty good description of the whole night...

They were strict on filming, perhaps recognising it wasn't something that would necessarily convey on YouTube footage. So instead here's a promotional video, which hopefully gives some sense of what it would be like to see them perform in situ...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

FOUR HUNDRED STRONG! (AKA NOTORIOUSLY TARDY BLOGGER MAKES STILL-MORE-SHAMELESS APPEAL FOR AUDIENCE INDULGENCE)


Someone or other may even be impressed that this is my four hundredth post! And what better opportunity to sketch out a few plans for the near future? (Thoigh 'aspirations' may be a better term there...)

For one reason and another, I have managed to get terribly behind in my visual art reviews, to the point where I haven't managed one since May. This hasn't stopped me going to art exhibitions, surprise surprise, and the consequent mismatch has somewhat inevitably resulted in something of a backlog.

Generally, I find my visual art posts the most challenging and time-consuming, which is doubtless one of the reasons for the hold-up. But I also find them among the most enjoyable things I write. So with advance apologies for the even greater lapses into lateness that will come, I'm going to spend the next few months concentraiting on catching up.

As everything is so hopelessly late anyway, I won't be working through them chronologically. Instead I'll try batching them into some kind of thematic order. This will enhance reader enjoyment. (In my own mind.) These may or may not include Impressionism and Realism, Dada and British Pop Art, city art, Bauhaus and Surrealism, art of the First World War and adorable little portraits of kittens in a basket. (I may have made some of those up.) Plus other stuff...

But first...

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

QUOTE OF THE DAY


"If a trade union ain't gonna fight, there's no point in joining."
- Bob Crow, 1961-2014

Sunday, 9 March 2014

SIX OF THE BEST (SOME NIFTY WEB LINKS)

Me posting links to someone else's on-line 'presence' is probably less like a celebrity endorsement and more like the tail wagging the Manx cat. But never mind that. Here's six places I've discovered in recent months which I'd encourage others to check out, with recommended step-in sample entries.

Shabogan Graffiti, “the struggle in terms of the strange”, is primarily – I am not making this up - a class struggle analysis of 'Doctor Who' from the perspective of the Gallifreyan underclass. Which makes it quite possibly further up my street than my own house. From time to time it widens its remit to incorporate science fiction in general, or even the general state of politics in this rotten old world of ours. It's not normally pretty reading. It's normally insightful reading.

Pinch-me-I'm-dreaming post titles include 'Harry Potter and the Labour Theory of Value', 'Skulltopus' and 'We Are The Borgias. You Will Be Excommunicated. Resistance Is Futile'. And yes, the pieces can often live up to those inducing titles!


But I'm going to recommend 'Maximum Utility', which delves into the Cybermen and the Borg to conclude they're “a nightmare liberal capitalism is having about itself”. He's written lately ofmy blogging mojo being critically ill and lying, sobbing and wailing, in a deep dark pit.” So why don't the three or four people who actually read this stuff give him a try, and perhaps even a bit of a fillip? Every little helps.

Would anyone be insane enough to keep up a blog as eclectic yet esoteric as mine? Of course not! Well, maybe one. I'll let 'Sparks In Electric Jelly' describe it's own mission statement: “Film, music, art and literature, with a leaning towards the fantastic in all its forms, science fiction, fantasy, horror, the surreal, the Absurd, the Weird ('New' and old), the hauntologised and the just plain odd... In short, anything that sets the sparks a-crackling and fizzing through the old grey jelly.” Which sounds not so far from “induces a lucid frenzy”, I'll think you'll agree.


The take on 'A Field In England' makes a good sampler. I'd be the first to say it's both more comprehensive and more insightful than my own effort. Though the many readings he considers notably doesn't include my own - that in defeating O'Neill Whitehead succeeds only in replacing him and condemning events to repeat, not breaking the circle. (I've seen the film a second time now, but you can be sure it's one of those you always find yourself wanting to go back to again.)

Though I normally don't have much time for annotation websites, consigning them into the 'spots-trees-misses-wood' category, 'The Annotated Fall' is better than all that. By necessity it ends up explaining a whole host of references in Fall songs for American audiences. Just skip those, there's finer fare. I do find myself wishing it would break loose from the format more and pursue the lines of enquiry it's clearly keen to, but it's still one of the best Fall-dedicated websites I've come across.


For the sampler this time I'd pick the words spent over one of my favourite Fall tracks, 'Winter'. (If you don't know it check the track out here.) One day I might well spill some ink over that one myself. For now let's just remember some of those words to haunt... “I just looked round/ And my youth it was sold.”

'Blimey!' dedicates itself to “British comics from the past, present and future”. I've followed the writings of Lew Stringer, himself a cartoonist, since his 'Best of British' column in the 'FA' fanzine back in the early Eighties. Back then, the definition of an open-minded comics fan was someone willing to look at both Marvel and DC. Which made Lew like the Cecil Sharp of comics, clueing us in to the richness of our indigenous tradition.

Things are thankfully a little better today. Though we're not yet out of the proverbial wood. He complained only recently “compared to the massive amount of classic American comics material reprinted in recent years, fans of UK comics are poorly served. The 120 plus year history of British comics is gradually being forgotten (or worse, never discovered) by new generations.”


The sample this time is Emilio Frejo's art from a 1967 strip in 'Diana' based on the TV series 'The Avengers'. (The artists' name suggesting the then-common practise of sending work out to Spain.) Unlike the above examples, Lew's writing is informative more than analytical. Which is fine, for he clearly knows his stuff. But it does raises interesting questions, such as why 'The Avengers' was put in a girls' rather than a boys' comic.

And last but very much not least, Monster Brains does exactly what it says on the tin, “a never-ending celebration of monsters” in artistic form. It's truly a treasure trove of a bestiary. Curator Aaron Alfrey regularly features artists I'd never heard of before, or finds fresh samples from artists I thought I'd knew.


The most recent update as as good as example as any. I had no knowledge of Russian artist Leonid Purgyin, and look at what I'd been missing out on! His work has that unpindownable quality which often appeals to me, where it can't be neatly slotted away somewhere. Is it genre or 'proper' art? Naïve or accomplished? Cartoony or horrific? It's kind of all of them and more. Awesome stuff!

And for our sixth example, why don't we go self-service for that one? Just pick something from that sidebar there. You can't go wrong, really...

Coming soon Back to some actual posting...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

GOBLIN/ALTERNATIVE TV/BLYTH POWER (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES CONTD.)


GOBLIN
Concorde 2, Brighton, Mon 24th Feb

It's not an exaggeration to say that Goblin were for Dario Argento what Ennio Morricone was for Sergio Leone. Even if their film soundtracks worked in quite different ways. Leone's films were almost operas without the singing, with the grand sweep of the music doing more talking than the characters. In, for example, 'Once Upon A Time in the West', Harmonica's character is filled in more through his musical theme than anything he tersely utters.

But Argento's lurid and surreal horror films were more interested in atmosphere than character. So the soundtrack isn't something slapped on top, audio cues to let us know how to respond to what's happening on the screen. Instead it just keeps going, permeating the whole film - marinading it in its mood. It would be virtually impossible to imagine those films without the soundtracks, they'd no longer be the same thing. (It may even be true each needed the other. Though I love the film, their soundtrack to Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) isn't all that memorable.)

But of course, unlike Morricone, Goblin were a rock band. A band who had already produced an album before they fell into working with Argento, almost by chance. (They were due to contribute to 'Deep Red' (1975), when the existing composer walked out - leaving the job to them.) Which is significant. This was the era where the sound of a recording, rather than just the beat or melody, came to matter. Which pushed popular music and soundtracks together. Popol Vuh, for example, had a similar relationship with director Wim Wenders Werner Herzog on films such as 'Aguirre Wrath of God' (1972). And while Black Sabbath never produced soundtracks, it's notable they were inspired in both their sound and their name by the eponymous horror film.

And yet almost no band produces so split a reaction in me than Goblin. They're like chalk cut with cheese. They were first inspired by English prog bands Genesis and King Crimson. Who to my mind mark the stranger and more interesting side of prog, even if both could also have their moments of empty ostentation. There also seemed something of a Kosmische influence on them, such as the afore-mentioned Popol Vuh. (For example on the track 'Markos'. Though who can say if German underground music was even known in Italy at the time?) Plus, formally, the different nature of soundtracks could have a liberating effect. While much prog promised a breakaway from the norm, then served up standard rock tracks just with longer solos, soundtracks were a route out of such limitations.

Yet the failings of prog were always reappearing in Goblin just as they seemed transcended, with haunting sections of the most mesmeric power all-too-soon souring into regular Seventies rock-outs. And this was particularly true of their non-soundtrack albums, like they'd grown wings only to fold them away again. Though even the 'Suspira' soundtrack, surely their finest work, manages to span the sublime and the frankly cheesy.

I went to see them through the conviction that such rare opportunities should be seized. (In the original line-up, even!) But also to see if such a split could resolve itself. Which it couldn't, really. It's evident that they truly were a band first, for they provide a tight rhythm section - which could even get convincingly funky when it chose. But there were several trebly guitar outbreaks and other sections I simply waited to be over. There was, before you ask, even a drum solo.

It's notable how the soundtracks have defined them, even as a live band. They're called Goblin for one thing, despite that originally being intended as a one-off nomme-de-plume for 'Deep Red'. They perform before film clips. (Though they also served up several tracks from the non-soundtrack 'Roller'.) And, though they don't save it for the finale, its the theme to 'Suspira' which won the biggest audience cheer.

Designed as soundtracks, the pieces don't necessarily work the same way live. What can seem boundless during a film, where you're used to music appearing as a series of short excerpts, seems almost curtailed live - like a greatest hits set. And there's a textuality to the studio recordings, a seemingly endless accumulation of musical layers, that can't really be reproduced live. To see them live and up close is an opportunity. But the best way to experience their music is still through watching those Argento films.

But let's finish on a broader question. When they are good, what is it that makes them so good? Well, of course they're good at being bad. All that Satan-bothering bollocks from the likes of Venom forgets the basic rule that the Devil is supposed to have the best tunes. With it's music box element the 'Suspira' theme is seductive, like a siren call. Listening to it is like taking a soporific drug, seducing you to sleep even as you feel your alarm systems trying desperately to kick in.

You wouldn't need to undertake much research into Seventies cinema to conclude it was a decade with the taste for the supernatural. Which makes it interesting that prog is so roundly condemned as cluelessly utopian. True, the convoluted, equipment-heavy music can seem inherently techno-fixxy. And of course bands such as Yes did indulge in terrible New Age babblings.

But there was also a more sinister side to the music. As recounted, Goblin's biggest influences were Genesis (think of the twisted nursery story of 'Music Box') and King Crimson. (Have you ever heard anything more dystopian than '21st Century Schizoid Man'?) This is probably another example of history being rewritten by turncoat music journalists after punk's victory. Prog had to be seen as blissed-out to contrast it against punk's tales of dole queues. (A kind of angst the best punk rarely went in for anyway.) Goblin are sidelined from this by being portrayed as film composers rather than a band who wrote for films.

Nowadays it seems every style of music has its own dark derivative, including Dark ambient, dark cabaret, dark folk and dark easy listening. (Okay, I suppose I may have made the last one up.) Maybe a music which genuinely had it's share of darkness, back in it's original era, should get it's place in the light. (Um, maybe that should be unlight.) After all, it doesn't get much more join-the-dark-side than Goblin...

Sampled highlights. You can probably guess which track kicks off...


Seriously, you have already heard this, haven't you?


ALTERNATIVE TV
Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 21st Feb


Alternative TV are, as if we needed one, another example of an original British punk band who weren't the regressive and unimaginative force of popular caricature. (File alongside fellow recent sightings The Cravats, TV Smith and Subway Sect.)

Front man Mark Perry looked to have his official place in punk history assured, producing what's commonly regarded as the first British punk fanzine - 'Sniffin' Glue'. (Though I dare say some spiky headed trainspotter is naming some earlier effort even now.) It was punk-template enough to write it's headlines in felt pen and be named after a Ramones song. But (in his own words) “as I saw the initial punk explosion subside into a succession of third rate copyists, I wanted to have a go myself.” So he jacked the stapling in to form Alternative TV – with a sound “closer to Can and reggae-type rhythms”. The band's first release was a flexi attached to the fanzine's last issue. They've continued intermittently since, with frequent changes in personnel and even bigger nine-point turns in direction, a zig-zag of break-ups and reforms.

In their current live incarnation they offered up no short supply of classic punk - short, sharp numbers with the grabbiest of hooks. But other tracks stretched longer than the three-minute diktat, driven by metronomic riffs and frequently breaking out into instrumental sections – twin guitars clashing. Such tracks sounded like something from a long-gone free festival of the era, unhinged wig-outs accompanied by apparent stream-of-consciousness lyrics, a bizarre hybrid of declammatory recital and self-doubting inner voice. At one point Perry cheerily joined in on the recorder, not the most Ramones-like of instruments. (Back in the day they apparently had a fondness for full-on free impro, about the one direction they don't follow up on now.)

Perhaps the musical variety on show could have come from the set spanning several of their eras. But with the multi-directional approach, the best thing about it was all of it. It had both the driving force of punk and the elusive, amorphous feeling of post-punk – as if music was just to be played with, like plasticine. They played their classic track 'Splitting In Two' (“I'm splitting in two, and so are you!”), yet seemed perpetually pitched at the point the different sounds could still stay conjoined. As if they could never quite be pinned to anything, but in any second take off in other directions.

Was there ever really a time before punk being a marketing term? When it actually had something to do with imagination and freedom? It seems there was.

Not from Brighton. (You're probably getting used to that...)


BLYTH POWER
Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Sat 22nd Feb


This marks the third time I've seen Blyth Power within four years, which now eclipses the sightings I managed in those days of yore. I expect that proves something or other, but I'm buggered if I know what.

It is of course always a pleasure to hear their unique blend of folk, rock and English songwriting. With nary an undertaste of their original punk roots. Harmonies can sound so sweet as to be almost poppy. And front-man Joseph Porter's patented puckish erudition was to the fore as always.

Despite the longevity (now over thirty years), they're no spent force or nostalgia act. We were treated to tracks from their as-yet-unreleased new album, 'Women and Horses, Power and War', which Porter cheerily told us at the merch stall will be their best yet. Even on the second time of hearing, I remain taken by 'Down With Alice', a riff on Crass's 'Berkertex Bride' which looks back somewhat sardonically on our armband-sporting youth. (“Man made plans for social change/ And fraudulent social security claims.” It's funny because it's true...) Porter jokingly dedicated it to anyone who secretly wanted to do the conga at a Crass gig. The next time I try to describe Blyth Power's sound I may even use that...

Performing at Shoreham Beer Festival, they brought compere Attila the Stockbroker on stage for a few numbers. (As ramshackle as ever, this involved a band member rummaging backstage to scout out an extra lead.) And his viola added so rich an extra element you wished he could become a regular member.

I have been slowly and haphazardly working my way through the band's back catalogue. (You have to say haphazardly, for alas they have more missing episodes than Patrick Troughton.) So one day I may even write a proper, fulsome, grown-up thing about Blyth Power. It might even make amends for the last thing I did write. Which in many ways I still like, but it was something of an indulgence - chiefly bending one song to my own purpose.

This, however, is not that moment. For now, let's just link to a potted history.

Nothing on YouTube from this gig, it seems. But there is now a video not only of their Hector's House showing, but of the very track I wrote about - 'Stitching In Time'. Go figure. This version sounds like the Velvets' 'Sunday Morning', somehow. (Audience ambience at no extra charge.)


...but as this is Blyth Power we're talking about, here's a second helping. This one from back in the day, where it was actually against the law to take to the dancefloor if you weren't wearing combats or a Crass T-shirt. Posted for no better reason than this track also made it into their Ropetackle set - 'Paradise Sold'. A song about the North/South divide, what better place to play it than the South coast?

Sunday, 23 February 2014

BRITAIN'S GREAT WAR??? (WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE KIDDING, MR. PAXMAN?)


“If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied”

So wrote that infamous ultra-leftist Rudyard Kipling, after his son died during the First World War.

It's not just that they're still lying. You'd expect them to still be lying. It's how they're lying that's significant.

When Tory Minister Michael Gove made his absurd grandstanding comments about a “just war”, they led to a brief riposte from me and a debate on 'Newsnight' chaired by presenter Jeremy Paxman. (Not necessarily in that order of importance.) A TV debate of course framing it as something controversial, to be discussed according to the familiar format of aye-sayers and nay-sayers. Most of us just assumed Gove was preaching to the choir of the Tory Right, and next week he'd be back to fulminating about Reds under some different bed.

But it was then succeeded by 'Britain's Great War', a four-part documentary series presented by the self-same Paxman. Who weighed the matter up carefully, before complaining that “it's easy to laugh” at tally-ho Captains looking forward to the big push, while labelling deserters “cowards” and conscientious objectors “cranks”.

So much slaughter, how did he try to justify it all? Well, he didn't really bother, did he? The title says it all. He just took the evils of German imperialism for granted. The build-up to war was ignored, the situation in Germany was entirely reflected through British propaganda images. A mock telegram from the Kaiser was read out, all mispronunciations and expansionist drool. Paxman's dry tone told us that, to us modern and sophisticated types, such stuff seems crude – the residue of simpler times. But, in the absence of any other perspective whatsoever, we were still supposed to take it's jingoism as essentially correct. The Krauts are not like us, but mere brutes. That's why they talk so funny. Everyone knows that, don't they?

Except this rule was suddenly broken for the end of the War, when we were suddenly allowed to see inside the 'enemy' camp. To be precise, we saw civil unrest and a starving crowd setting on a horse. You know, the uncivilised behaviour we'd expect of foreigners. Not the sort of rot we'd want spreading over here, thank you very much.

The problem isn't that Paxman is a blimpish, xenophobic bigot with a continent-sized blind spot – though clearly he is. The problem is that this was presented not as a polemic or an opinion piece, but as a balanced documentary. By BBC tradition it's being framed as objective information. Back in the Sixties, we were being told, some long-haired types might have had some funny notions about the War. But now the high's worn off and we can be more sober minded.

Michael Gove was just the scout. Jeremy Paxman is the enemy advance.

Then we were back to the illusion of balance. Two programmes set up to form a debate, from a pro- and an anti-war perspective. The first, 'The Necessary War', to be presented by right-wing historian Max Hastings. The second, 'The Pity of War', by... um... right-wing historian Niall Ferguson. (Who only recently told the Guardian “the Left love being provoked by me.”) That seems to be the span of debate as far as political discourse goes today. It's a bit like setting up a debate on immigration between the UK Independence Party and the British National Party.

Hastings positioned himself alongside Gove from the outset, announcing on trailers he'd be attacking the ”'Blackadder' take on history.” He claimed without a trace of irony that “Britain must fight to uphold... the rights and freedom of small nations”. India's misfortune was to be such a large nation, then.

Because of course lined up against Germany's “aggressive and expansionist” policies were Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Belgium. Every single one of them a colonial power. Including the biggest of them all (Britain) and, by common agreement, the most repressive (Belgium). As much as Germany's ambitions were “aggressive”, it was part of the need for the recently unified country to catch up and gain their “place in the sun”, before the whole world was entirely carved up between the others. They weren't worse. They were just late.

It's often argued that the initial rush to enlist was due to people forgetting the horrific nature of warfare, after so prolonged a peace. But of course that's nonsense. There'd been peace in Europe, yes. But the same period had seen colonial wars aplenty. It was a long series of magnificent triumphs by machine gunners over spear throwers that had made war seem such a ripping yarn.

And if Hastings is siding with Gove, scratch the surface of Ferguson's argument and you get something fairly close to UKIP. It's the common Right bugbear of Euroscepticism, the crucial question is whether Britons risk being made into slaves. “The neutrality of Belgium,” he asserts, “is not self-evidently a cause worth the lives of... Britons.” Even if the result had been a continent-wide German empire, this would “simply have created something like the European Union”. Why, the underlying message states, should we let ourselves be dragged into their squabbles?


But he also tries on a more progressive hat. He's the only figure so far to ask a fairly obvious question – was the War really some German plot? And, short of some 'inside job' theory that the Kaiser was behind the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand, it manifestly wasn't. It was the tangled system of alliances that let one chance event snowball into full scale war. The cock-up theory of history triumphs over the conspiracy theory yet again.

And he's the only figure so far to look evenly at the question of the German 'threat'. And again, as soon as you do the whole scare story falls apart. As he points out “Germany was in some ways more democratic than Britain... and in every way more democratic than Tsarist Russia.” (Though this doesn't stop him complaining that the War “left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state.” Freedoms only counting at home, it seems. Perhaps something you'd expect from the author of the series 'Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World'.)

Yet that reference to democracy also exposes the limits of his thinking. It's like he imagines it all happened through the Kaiser having a secret kindly side. Against the xenophobic stereotype of order-loving proto-fascist Krauts, it was Germany which had Europe's most sizeable worker's movement. And that movement needed appeasing, through social reforms. (Though initially it was mostly marshalled into support for the War, largely by railing against the autocracy of Tsarist Russia.)

The actual underlying causes for war, beneath the spark that erupted at Sarajevo, that can wait for another time. For now let's quote Karl Leibnecht who, despite being a Reichstag Deputy in 1914, was prevented from reading out the following speech:

“The present war was not willed by any of the nations participating in it and it is not waged in the interest of the Germans or any other people. It is an imperialist war, a war for capitalist control of the world market, for the political domination of huge territories and to give scope to industrial and banking capital.”

Instead, let's focus on the immediate result of the War. Which might briefly be summarised as “good for the workers, not so good for the bosses”. A significant, perhaps the predominant, reason the war had ended had been a widespread refusal to fight. And the period that followed it saw the biggest uprisings in world history. As Dave Lamb has commented:

“There is no more promising material for revolution than soldiers returning from wars, careless to danger and accustomed to risks and to taking collective action. Peace held no prospect for them… That winter of 1918-1919 was the nearest Britain ever came to social revolution: the authorities lacked the support of the armed forces and the careerists in the TUC were faced with a similar situation in industry.”

But of course none of that penetrates. The workers and soldiers stay off stage for this debate, waiting to see whether General Hastings orders them up the hill or Kaiser Ferguson tells them to stand at ease. Even the ever-unobservant Paxman comments how post-War Britain was manifestly different to pre-war, and more akin to the place we live now. But, much like the German 'threat', he doesn't bother going into why that should be.

In fact, even the “left-wing” satires which so incited Gove mention none of this. The sole exception is the one drama - 'The Monocled Mutineer' (1986), which focused on the Etaples mutiny. And while 'Blackadder' is almost on perpetual rotation, 'Mutineer' has been re-shown precisely once, two years later. (Perhaps a handy slogan for the Tory press: “The BBC, transmitter of left-wing propaganda from 1986 to 1988, with the exception of the year 1987.”)


When Gove criticised anti-war satires such as 'Oh, What A Lovely War' (originally a 1963 stage musical) he was, true to type, railing against the Sixties. But there's something else. Even if the popular unrest that followed the War has been airbrushed from history, knowledge of how terrible a folly that war was leaves an untugged thread leading back to it. A thread that must be snipped. And as ever the way to snip that thread isn't so much to argue, but to shift the apparent centre of debate away from where it lies. A lot of clever and professional people, they sat down and talked about the First World War. And they decided it was just fine after all.

More speculatively... actually much more speculatively...

Many people pointed out that, while Gove labelled criticism of the War as “left wing”, 'Oh, What A Lovely War' was actually based on Alan Clarke's history 'The Donkeys' (1961), to the point that he even won royalties from the film version. And Clarke was not just a Tory MP, but an arch-Thatcherite once blacklisted by his own Central Office for being too right-wing. At the time, this was considered further evidence of Gove's crass stupidity. (And, we shouldn't forget, this is the man who complained that 50% of schools had been found to be below average.)

Nevertheless, maybe that shows another thread there that needs snipping. Thatcher's common origins were of course greatly exaggerated by her followers, and were to no degree shared by the Eton-educated Clarke. Nevertheless, appearances count and Thatcherism often portrayed itself as a challenge to the established order. Opportunities needed to open up for the aspirational, to those who wanted to “get on”. To Clarke, the folly of the well-bred Generals in the War was just an extreme case of careers going to the privileged rather than being open to ability. They were 'donkeys' compared to the 'lions' of the common soldiers in their lack of dynamism and bravery. But they were also 'donkeys' in the sense of being pack animals in a machine age, blimpishly attached to old methods. Notably, he characterises them as having an obsolete obsession with cavalry.

But what of today? Cameron went to election on an oxymoronic platform of 'progressive conservatism'. (Tagged by his deriders as “hug a hoodie”). When voting arithmetic pushed him into a coalition with the Lib Dems, you might have thought that would push him further in the socially liberal/economically conservative direction. In fact it's been the opposite. The widespread backbench revolt against gay marriage seems to have put him off even tokenistic forays.

Instead what we've been treated to is clear-cut ruling class solidarity – a government of the toffs, by the toffs, for the toffs. If anyone is poor today it is of course their own fault, for choosing to live on Benefits Street. But more than that, social mobility has shrunk to the point where it's statistically non-existent. Working class voters sometimes saw in Thatcherism the opportunity to start leading middle class lives. But now the middle class is effectively shrinking. As the cartoonist Martin Rowson put it, “social mobility can go down as well as up”.

Were the aspirational, with their vocational qualifications and spirit of enterprise, the Notts Miners of the voting booth? The willing saps, who would strive for promissory notes, only to see them ripped up later? Now we are in the opposite situation to the end of the First World War, where there's little if any class struggle opposition, was it not inevitable that we would then start to retreat into the society that existed before the First World War? Where one of the most primary rules was – don't question your betters.

(NB. Some of the quotes from Hastings and Ferguson come from the print version of the 'Radio Times', and don't seem to be reproduced on-line.)

Further reading for the obsessive: