Friday, 28 November 2014

'BRITISH FOLK ART'

(Stop the presses! Still on at Compton Verney in Warwickshire until 14th Dec)


“Here in Britain... [we] are more concerned with the great country house and its contents, and the indigenous culture of the ordinary people has until lately been largely disregarded.”
- James Ayres, 'British Folk Art', (1977) as quoted in this exhibition

(Reader, can we pretend I posted this directly after the Comics Unmasked exhibition, as originally intended? Things might even make some sense that way.)

Against All Authenticity

On my blog page devoted to visual arts, I casually bundled together folk art, outsider art and comics onto one group term. A bundle which perhaps needs unpicking, and this could even be a good place to start.

The connections are there, clearly enough. Folk art and comics are scarcely interchangeable. But, particularly before comics contained credits and came to be built around a fan base, there's a fair measure of overlap. Characters and motifs can leap from one to the other, such as cartoon waster Ali Sloper reappearing on a piece of embroidery here. And they align still closer when you get to the way 'proper' art treats them. Mostly they exist as fodder to be 'Lichtensteined', the act of appropriation from them becoming a sign of a great artist's individual genius.

But something happens along the way, where all those appropriations finally reach a critical mass and the source material itself finally reaches the curators' attention. It's like taking so many fish from the water that finally the river changes direction. The Tate have made a point of spinning this show as the first major gallery exhibition of folk art, like the villagers have finally broken into the great country house and left their muddy prints on the fine carpets. Which puts it several years behind their foray into comic art, something perhaps significant in itself.

Like folk music, folk art may suffer the most from its seeming friends. At it's worst it's merely part of the heritage industry. The patronising “it's so quaint” becomes the inevitable flip side of “aren't we so modern?” But let's keep the focus on how it fits into galleries. If its so often marginalised without ever quite being excluded, that may contain a logic of sorts. Folk art is taken to be the childhood or perhaps even the subconscious of art, something vibrant and unmediated, the creative hand untroubled by the brain, the doodle before it became the picture. Which of course is pretty much the way rock fans can regard folk, blues or any of its other cousins.

This can sometimes be expressed in the most celebratory of terms, how 'free' folk art is and so on. But it's like talking about how women can be so intuitive or how black people can be so emotions – its taken to be because at heart they're so irrational. Like all such apparent flatteries, what it actually does is corral – makes folk art into a mere adjunct or preparatory step towards other, more developed and sophisticated, styles of art.

Whereas it's 'freedom' is actually a matter of it playing by an altogether different set of rules. It's true that folk is too broad and amorphous to be seen as a movement in art, but that's because it's actually a meta-movement, like Romanticism or Modernism. It doesn't lack traditions or conventions, it has whole sets of them. So many that they can sometimes clash.

The exhibition opens with the words “folk art is an elusive, contradictory and contested term”, and a firm undertaking not to try and pin it down any further. This is effectively the curators throwing up their hands and saying all the works contained herein were labelled folk before we got here, so the management can't be held accountable. Which is exactly the correct approach to take. Attempting a clear-cut definition for folk art would be a classic fool's errand. Things are always going to blur around the edges, the ducks never lining up in a row.

Much of the impetus towards definitions, you can't help but suspect, comes from canonisation concealed as semantics. People try to build a club house which admits their mates while keeping out the riff raff. True, a whole lot of people make a living marketing kitsch crap under the label 'folk' which might more honestly be called 'folksy'. So the righteous sternly decide to exclude anything tainted by commerical production from the label. But then you would also exclude many fine things from this exhibition. You'd need to strike out, for example, anything Alfred Wallis painted (see 'Blue Ship' (c.1934, below) after the moment Ben Nicholson discovered him.


But there's a neater solution. Just be straight up about it. Just like the stuff you like. The folk art which appeals to me isn't the whole of folk art. But then neither is the Modernism I like the entirety of Modernism.

Not only does it resolutely refuse to build up any definition of folk art, at times the show seems keen to break down any lingering notions you might have that such a definition might exist somewhere. It would rather test the borders of the term than obsess over the 'authentic'. We're shown (with, you can't help feeling, some glee) 'An Exact Representation of the Game of Cricket', a naive-looking Eighteenth century work now known to be an early Twentieth century forgery. Its like the aim is to disgorge you at the end feeling like you now know less about folk art than when you first went in. Which is – and I expect you are ahead of me here – exactly the right approach to take.

So instead of a historical overview the show promises “a series of encounters with different sorts of object that already have a history as folk art”. Which is in itself probably very folk. The hang is refreshingly disorderly, piling works up on walls rather than arranging them in neat numbered lines. They're patched and juxtaposed according to broad themes, but from there we're pretty much left to make up our own minds about them. Rather than the usual respectfully neutral cream the walls are bedecked with deep colours – luscious greens, salmon pinks, vibrant yellows.

Placing these works on the walls of the Tate inherently involves wrenching them from their original context. There is no way around that. But this slightly haphazard arrangement allows them to feel at least a little at home, like transplanting plants but leaving some of their home soil around their roots. The result is that folk art becomes presented as something bright and simple-seeming, but inherently inderminate, awkward, slippery and even self-contradictory. Lovers of precision, enter at your peril.

That's Art, Folks

Fools rush in, however, so let's abandon the curator's sensible caution and look at what underpins folk art. If there's no fixed and discernable style, there may be at least a set of recurrent features which can be noted...

Folk art is perhaps most associated with it's naïve qualities. Black Adder once famously jeered at Baldrick “to you the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people”. And it often feels like folk art responded the same way when its refinements rewrote the basic rules of art. Which is to say not at all. The folk sky just carried on being opposite the folk ground. We may see it this way because we still see folk art through the prism of Modernism, which saw in it a route back to the primitive. It seemed a way to escape all those Renaissance conventions, which had become so entrenched they'd stopped seeming like conventions and were now almost inimical to seeing.

Whereas in fact, something stranger is afoot. The Renaissance had happened before most of these works were made. No small number of them are from the Twentieth century. So, and perhaps unsurprisingly, perspective isn't unknown - but its rules are considered to be eyepoppingly optional, often followed and then not in the very same picture. In for example 'The Hunt' (Anon, c. 1780) the huntsmen are seemingly placed behind the house in the composition, yet are its height. It may look pecuilarly haphazard, some strange hall of mirrors. But that's because we're missing something more central to folk art.



The very first two works we see are a collection of trade signs – keys, locks, shoes and hats inflated to gargantuan size, like Monopoly counters for giants (above). Of course they weren't originally designed to be shown in such close proximity, though they may well have once lined a street. However they're placed next to the Bellamy quilt (1890/1, detail also above) by Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Alice Springnall, and the similiarities become striking. If only one is actually a mosaic, both take that form. They're accumulations of iconic objects, either placed on the surface in patterns or with a scene standing behind them - like a theatre flat.

Objects are often sized according to the relative significance rather than their physical size or place in the composition. (Notably, within themselves, figure are normally proportionate.) James Williams' Patchwork bedcover (1942/52, detail below) for example shows a human figure interacting with animals, all of which - even the giraffe – are squashed into equivalent size to him. Gravity also can be treated a little like this; some figures and objects hugging the ground, paying due reference to Isaac Newton, while others seem free to merrily float. It's all a reminder that it was those Renaissance rules that brought the trick to art, not the other way around.


Another frequent feature is the incorporation of text within the frame. As the images are so often icons and symbols anyway, there isn't the same requirement to separate them from text as there is in more 'representational' art. In for example 'Three Sober Preachers' (Anon, c.1860, below) The text doubles as parchments hung on the wall behind them, something within the scene, and as speech balloons, commonly thought of as floating spectrally above the characters' heads. The words are there to represent the Preachers as much as the objects on the table or mantlepiece. Similarly, those oversize shop signs were often literally a substitute for words, in times when not necessarily all your customers were literate. (And when not all shops could afford glass for their windows, with which to display their wares.)


And put these elements together and what graphic elements in today's world do they most resemble? Maps, of course. And maps, or at least works in some interchange between maps and aerial views are everywhere. There's 'A Birds Eye View of Market Street, Wynondham, Norfolk' (c. 1850), 'The Farm Called Anrolds in the Parish of Stapleforth Abbey' (c. 1790) or 'Eastwood's Crown Brewery' (FL Carter, 1898, below), though there's no need to stop counting at three. Of course these are not the dispassionate measuring devices of Google maps. They work more by a kind of sympathetic magic, owning a depiction of something and owning the thing itself came to be associated. Maps were power totems rather than handy street guides.


Another prevalent, if not ubiquitous, feature is the extemporised use of non-art materials. George Smart's 'Goosewoman' (c. 1840, below) was one of many works he made of scraps left over from his primary business as a tailor. Smart then sold the pictures as a secondary business. Waste not, want not, after all. At other times, 'boody' or broken china becomes an art material. (With a look that's almost proto-Dada.)


However, while folk art's recycling of what might otherwise be waste or scraps can often seem creatively utilitarian, in other times it seems to actively embrace the juxtapositions. We can see a giant key made from wood without much of a problem. For to function as a key, that's not a part of its purpose. It exists to be a symbol in the wider world. Yet with those same shop signs there's some wilful games played. Some shoe signs are wood, while others are essentially giant shoes, made from leather, lace and nails. While elsewehere in the exhibition we encounter other purposefully non-functional objects, papier mache meat or leather Toby jugs. There's a bone violin made by a French solider imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (1797/1814), which seems little short of a Cubist guitar. (I preferred this image to the bone chicken used for the poster image, but alas couldn't find a shot of it on-line.) Which might lead on to the next point...

Strange Goings On

More nebulously, less consistently but perhaps more importantly there can be an uncanniness to folk art. Jesse Maycocks straw effigy of King Alfred (1961, below) feels almost like a totem of the old weird Britain, even if it was created in 1961. Its making is clear-cut and foregrounded, the undisguised twine holding it together, the nails for eyes and so on. Yet it looks more than a mere effigy, it has a strangely life-like quality. Its as if made to be a prop in some fantasy film, designed to come to life. It couldn't look more straightforward yet it doesn't resolve in the mind, can't be assigned a category. It's a work which reflects an animistic world-view, where crops could be personified in figures such as John Barleycorn. The King and the land are so associated as to be almost as one.


Even after the arrival of Christianity, this animism continues to lurk. With the tendency towards icons, signs and symbols its less concerned with depciting things than capturing the spririt of those things - spirits it then arranges in symbolic maps. Folk art retains something of primitive times, when artworks were magic objects more than something decorative. In some ways its therefore naïve to call folk art naive, or at least in the literal sense of the word. It a piece of folk art seems to lack, for example, perpsective that's less to do with a failing than its having a different purpose.

This leads to a feeling of 'unheimlich' or strange familiarity when we look at folk art, something often taken up by British Modernsists, such as Paul Nash. Rather than use art to extend our knowledge or experience, it instead pulls the rug away from under us – defamiliarises us from what we thought we alreay knew, our own home turf.

It's tempting to note this strangeness and file it with the unfamiliarity of outsider art. Yet While I enjoyed the British Pathe film 'The House That Jack Built' (1958) of “English eccentric” Jack Punter's building of his outsider art envrionment, particularly when the patronisingly enthuseastic voice-over pronounced it “do-it-yourself gone mad”, it seemed the one time the show made it's margins too elastic. Overlaps there may be, but there's important distinctions between folk and outsider art.

The glue that sticks folk to outsider art is of course their mutual tendency to use naïve forms. But, as argued after the 'Art from the Margins' exhibition, when we talk of outsider art as a style rather than a form of production we're often talking about the depiction of compulsivenss – obsessive detail, heavy use of repetition etc. This can appear in folk art, such as the bone chicken and violin of the French prisoner of war. (Most likely because he deliberately chose a 'long haul' project to while away his detention.) But folk art doesn't need to have this element. It's not there, for example, in those shop signs or ship figureheads.

At its epitome (or more accurately nadir), the fetish for outsider art falls for the notion of the outsider genius, who has escaped impregnation by their surrounding culture and is instead in touch with a timeless spirit. Of course that's too silly for words. Outsider art is more often about creating a micro-world the artist can control which is... well... outside of this one, while folk art is about objects which exist in the world. And while the culture around folk art may have fallen from familiarity to us, this is through the distancing effect of time. As the show itself says, “traditional crafts express communal feelings and beliefs”. It's a quite separate, perhaps even contrary, thing to the private mythologies of outsider artists. With folk art, we're the outsiders.

While several works on display here were effectively produced comunally, its a series of old photos of folk events and rituals that most bring this element home to you. (For example a Well Dressing in Tideswell, Derbyshire from 1979). Ironically, these are placed in the same room as the Jack Punter video. But my personal favourite – not just of these photos but one of my favourite items from the whole exhibition – is a 1984 photos of an old lady from Sheffield. She's in her 'Old Horse' costume, yet the photo's taken not at some folk celebration but at home. As she sits in front of her TV the box of the black-and-white set, the dull carpet, remind you of the sheer drabness of the Eighties. Part of the bizarreness of the juxtaposition is that neither element now seems familiar to us, it's one other country at odds with another.

Such photos mostly remind us that those old masks and costumes held no magic transforming powers. In a classic case of existence preceding essence they did not create the communities that used them - they grew out of them. The masks and costumes have their significance, they're indicative of place and culture. But they mostly signify that people were willing to gather and parade together in the first place. The masks and costumes sit upon a social glue. And glue, once set, becomes invisible, leaving only the objects its bonded. The very word 'folk' means 'people', but in a sepcific sense - of community rather than an atomised mass.

No Folk Remedies

It is of course easy to slip into romanticising folk art. Particularly when surrounded by today's art market, with bling-encrusted works created solely to reflect the good taste of their super-rich purchasers, folk art can seem its very antithesis – like a folk remedy, something which can make it all better. But romanticisations should always be suspected. Folk art is not a demonstration of how nice everything was in the good old days, because that's something it was never intended to be and besides they weren't. Mourning the mirage of a lost innocence will only leave us feeling more marooned in the age of the selfie.

It's not communist art, in fact in many ways its almost the definition of conservative. To misquote 'League of Gentlemen' at times it looks very much like British folk art for British folk. When you see works featuring the 'Blackamoor', a kind of compound savage made by mixing together stereotypical African, Turkish and American Indian features, there's a tendency to try and conceive of these as abberations (“they didn't know better then” and so on), exceptions to an art that was in general unifying. But that merely leads to the question, how is it unifying? In naïve art people very often are what they do and that is all. Fisherman fish, farmers farm, they're not intended to have any other existence. Agency is slaughtered on the altar of custom.

And to blithely talk of folk art as “the art of the people” is to throw up a misty-eyed haze that often obscures its actual production. We shouldn't forget that craft industries are still industries, that much of this stuff was produced not out of great naïve bursts of untrammelled creativity but to client requirements in exchange for cash. (Those oversized shop signs should be big enough to batter that idea home.)

But folk art is comparatively 'free' in two ways in that it escapes two associated traps that we have – its art that isn't based around individual self-expression and it has little or no concept of intellectual property.

Folk art doesn't necessarily have to be made anonymously. There'd be no harm done if we were to find out who made this work or that. But neither do we need to know. If a recently discovered unsigned Fauvist painting were found (in many ways stylistically similar to folk art) it would be a loose piece in the puzzle, a stuck-up nail. Experts would rush to attribute it, so that everything might settle again. The artist is the hook which allows us to slot the painting in place in the world. Consequently, art buffs come to spot different artists' styles like food and drink bores learn to discern the taste of different wines. Recognition alone becomes a signifier of taste. I do this myself all the time, often on this very blog.


Whereas any piece of folk art, as soon as created, effectively becomes common property. Anonymity, where it occurs, universalises. And attribution, where it occurs, is often incidental. It's not about what makes the artist special or different, in the way that even (perhaps especially) outsider art is. Its inherently a piece in the bigger picture. Each individual work becomes like a leaf on a branch, attached to a trunk, itself part of the wood. You need to see, to coin a phrase, the wood for the trees. This is found at its most literal in the room devoted to ships' figureheads (example above) and trade signs, which comments “all have bene transformed. A feature of not just these but of much folk art is the repainting or remaking by many hands over time”. With the de-emphasis on individual expression comes the corresponding de-emphasis on the definitive work of art.

But beyond that, anonymity... well, it anonymises. And, particularly in our self-fixated culture, that can be a destabilising force. The political group Anonymous currently have some cultural traction, probably well in excess of their actual numbers, for that very reason. Similarly, when the indicia of exhibitions cease to be handholds, festooned with reassuring names, dates and contexts, expertise deserts us and we are left on our own.

And this lack of interest in individual expression, this group focus is the reason folk art can appear so bountifully creative - because its inherently a commons rather than an enclosure. Folk culture works like open source software; the fact that anyone can get their hands on it makes it stronger, more vibrant, more adaptable. Everything created is just added to the feast, able to inspire everything else. Compared to folk art the bohemian antics of Modernism can seem mere weeds, springing up sporadically and transiently. While those sweeping, snaking branches of folk art stem from the deepest roots.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

“FROM MY BLACK SPITFIRE TO MY FUNERAL BARGE”: KATE BUSH'S 'LIONHEART'


”I don't care what I see outside. My vision is within! Here is where the birds sing! Here is where the sky is blue!”
- 'A Room With a View'

Just as the big splash of Kate Bush returning to live performing has subsided again, the time seems ideal for a belated post about her. (I will almost certainly be late for my own funeral. In fact, if I should be there now please let me know via the mailing comments.)

'Oh England My Lionhearted', to give the song its full title, appeared on Kate Bush's second album in '78. As with many of her early songs, Bush is not thought to look back on it favourably. But at the time it not only gave the title to it's album, the lyrics got the personalised handwritten treatment while all about them were typescript. The inevitable embedded YouTube video (below) makes it look like she saved the song for her encore. At the time, it mattered to her.

In the clip Bush is sporting a pilot's uniform. For the song takes the perspective of a Spitfire pilot, shot down over Wartime London. But from there, as you might well expect from a Kate Bush song, things start to get strange...

“The soldiers soften, the war is over
The air raid shelters are blooming clover”

Highly melodic, the song lives in the juxtaposition between that kind of pastoral imagery and the knowledge of the destruction of war. Notably the Spitfire is coloured black when they were normally camouflage green. (Did they even make black Spitfires?) No matter, this blackness allows it to become the funeral barge, while the flowers and blossom of the garden of England become the garlands and wreaths which decorate it.

The reference to war being over might suggest the crashing plane has somehow time warped to somewhere the other side of VE day. Seen this way, the song revolves around the paradox of the soldier who fights for peace. Fighting a war he never wanted, he has become a sacrifice to a peace he will only ever get this glimpse of. (He's presumably been shot down during the Battle of Britain, the main air battle over London, which happened in 1940.)

And one of the appealing elements of this interpretation is that it places the bucolic dream England not in the past but the future. “Dream England” songs are virtually a sub-genre by now, but they normally overlap with state-of-the-nation songs. Think for example of June Tabor's 'Place Called England' or the Waterboys' anti-Thatcherite parable 'Old England' with it's refrain “old England is dying”.

But what about Peter Pan stealing the kids in Kensington park? Where does that fit this narrative? And yet the line does seem to match the haunting music, which Bush described as “madrigally”. All too often songwriting is talked about in terms of the writing, with scant notice paid to the fact this writing comes to us in the form of a song. Unusually for a modern song, 'Lionheart' has no real bass parts. Instead there's Bush's high-pitched voice, some high-pitched piano, a high-pitched harpsichord and even-higher pitched recorders. It's music which couldn't do more to sound ethereal, to suggest at the immaterial.

...all of which might suggest the pilot is not fast-forwarded to the future, but transported into a spirit world. Bush punned on the Fairy King name Oberon on the later track 'Cloudbursting', and things here have something of a 'Midsummer Night's Dream' feel – of another world alongside ours, separated only by a permeable membrane.

Yet that's probably not really it either. The ending makes it clear the pilot doesn't end up in this spirit world, like some pastoral happy hunting ground. He's “in your garden” but “fading fast”. He just perceives if, before being taken aloft. (The final line, with its reference to the gathering shepherd, is an unusually Christian image for Bush.)

Moreover, quite mundane images appear among the more esoteric stuff, such as the flapping umbrellas on rainy London Bridge. And take the reference to “wassailing”. These days we tend to take the term as a reference to singing carols, but she specifies the context is an apple orchard. It's the tradition of singing the fruit into bloom. Similarly the Thames is compared to Shakespeare, but described as itself a “river poet”, flowing like stanzas.

How about this? The pilot crashes in his contemporary London. He probably grew up there, the smog-ridden streets and rainy bridges over-familiar to him. But in his last few minutes of life he sees things the way they always were. To paraphrase Huxley, his doors of perception are given a bit of a wipe.

Crucially, it's not a song about passing into some pure Platonic realm where flowers smell sweeter, but about the interconnections. Notably, Bush sings about the natural and constructed landscape, the Thames and the Tower, interchangeably.

“Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in
And keep the tower from tumbling”

...is perhaps the key couplet to the song. Most tourists to London learn the popular tale - should the ravens fly away from the Tower, the building will fall and Britain with it. (These days they’re kept captive with clipped wings, so we’re probably safe.) The superstition may originally have been based on the perception that, prior to the invention of flight, climbing a tower was the nearest a human could ever get to a bird’s perspective.

But of course its continuing popularity is because it acts as a kind of a fable. Why would a mighty tower need a few birds to stay up, rather than just acting as a perch for them? Because it suggests a symbiosis between the human and natural worlds, that however big we build our towers we remain dependent on nature. The tower stands for the physical world and human body, with the ravens/ hearts as the spiritual - and each is contingent on the other.

For ultimately, its a song about the thing its made of - language. Language is not a mere labelling system for the physical world, a signifier to hang on the signified. We don't just look at the landscape, we impose language upon it, we inscribe it with meaning. The world out there enters into an inter-relationship with the world going on in our heads. Language and reality are conjoined, perhaps each is just one side of the other. (As Bush later sang, in the self-same track she punned on Oberon, “just saying it could even make it happen”.) The garden of England, the rolling landscape of patchwork fields and summer lawns we like to imagine, it mostly just exists in our imaginations. But language allows us to connect it to the real world. That's how we do it – that's how we make home into home. We just need to be reminded sometimes that's what we're doing.



Late addendum! My old mate, and knower of such things, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, contacted me on Facebook to say there were black Spitfires. But as these weren't launched till after the Battle of Britain, where air combat became a nocturnal affair, I was sort of right. In a gormlessly literal sort of a way.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

THE POP GROUP/ MOGWAI/ ANTEMASQUE (GIG GOING ADVENTURES)

THE POP GROUP
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 25th Oct


I had wondered if, after so recently seeing Hawkwind again, this would be another guilty pleasure gig – an old post-punk band reforming to perform tracks from a classic album. After all, last time I saw Mark Stewart he was glaring down the lens of a BBC4 documentary to firmly state “punk isn't about asking forty-something old blokes what punk is”. Moreover, the Pop Group were the walking, talking definition of music as an unstable element. They were like a Hadron collider - throwing together their heady cocktail of punk, funk, dub, noise and more, just to see how it all combusted. Reproducable? I'm surprised it was ever captured in the first place.

Then again, as the reformed band put it - “let's face it, things are probably even more fucked now than they were in the early Eighties, and we are even more fucked off.” (I offer fulsome apologies, of course, for their use of that inappropriate word 'probably'.) And perhaps more to the point this was my first and, for all I know, only chance to see so legendary a band.

Simon Reynolds famously pointed out that Public Image were able to take up the essence of dub without the cliches, so avoiding sounding like the usual clod-hopping white-boy imitators. And the Pop Group, all self-styled 'funketeers' before the dawn of punk, are similarly able to plug into funk. Some of the most laid-back music suddenly sounds agitated, sharpened into a weapon, but like it had been intended to be played that way all along.

At times the rhythm section sound so tight you can hardly conceive they go back to inhabiting separate bodies afer the show. But then seconds later they can sound engagingly ungainly; you're never sure if they're cleverly deconstructing the music they'd only just been throwing out or just breaking apart. (Back in the day, they could be provocatively vague about that in interviews.) And those opposites crash together most in the figure of frontman Mark Stewart, gargantuan yet ungainly. As he rages and punches the air he's like a combination of an apocalyptic blood-and-thunder prophet and care-in-the-communty type suffering an attack in Tescos. (All of which does also mean that, if you listen back to those classic albums, they can be maddeningly uneven. The silver lining has a cloud.)


Of course the curse that normally befalls bands isn't that they get worse but that they get better. They become tighter, more professional, and lose the looseness – the unstable elements that had made them so idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Had I seen them back in the day, would I think the same of them? Probably, but I hadn't so I didn't.

Hilariously, with echoes of when Half Man Half Biscuit played against Culture Shock, anarcho-punk surviors the Mob are playing across town this very night. It's like those old oppositions will never die. The anarchos forever portrayed post-punk as the music of posers and empty aesthetes, playing with gestures and taking polariods of themselves while Babylon burnt. While they sang about a laboratory animal they'd just liberated, we sang about a book we'd just read.

Yet, while I'm in no position to tell you how the Mob sounded, I simply can't imagine a band more impassioned and committed than the Pop Group. Almost the last thing Stewart says is that the gig's put on in association with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, before launching into the classic 'We Are All Prostitutes' for the encore. Yet, lyrically, songs could be defiant calls to arms or dread warnings, but they both sound similar. Stewart's shrieks and yelps were always a far cry from bold, declammatory statements. The band's prevalent theme was not so much revolt as tribulation, the chaos to come. (“Our children shall rise up against us.”) At their best they were a band you couldn't fail to be absorbed by, yet they seemed innoculated against the idea you could follow them. Like the lyric from 'She's Beyond Good and Evil', there's no antidote for them...

No decent footage from Brighton, so here's something from Manchester. (With a very cool backdrop...)


...and speaking of 'Where There's A Will', this this is something of a gem. Back-in-the-day footage from Belgian TV, with the band showing a somewhat... deconstructive approach to lip-synching...



MOGWAI
Brighton Dome, Sun 26th Oct


At times, I confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Mogwai. Their epic soundscapes can seem no less than soaring, as if looking down on straight song structure from a majestic height. Yet it can also sound expansive yet arid, portention at the expense of substance, cinemascopic in width yet screen-thin in depth.

One way to look at them might be as the counterbalance to Sigur Ros. When catching Sigur Ros live, I became quite insistent their music shouldn't be portrayed as “merely some kind of template, a big cavernous space onto which the listener can project what they want to imagine”. A description which ironically does seem to stick to Mogwai, so often used in soundtracks. Put their music on top of almost anything and it would most likely magnify it. Sigur Ros may be like a Romantic painting, and indeed live they used quite bucolic nature imagery as a backdrop. While Mogwai come with a gleaming bright lighting rig that borders on abstract art.

They pre-load the set with some of their softer material, and to be honest nearly lost me at that point. They seemed a shadow of their former combustible selves, and I came to long for some fire in the bellies of those guitars. Plus, while I'm quite happy for their tracks to include the human voice, conventional lead vocals don't seem to lend to their strengths at all.

From there, thankfully, guitars started to spark up and more sonic variation appear. One track, unusually foregrounding keyboards, had the prog-meets-arcade-game ring of Goblin. For another the band lined up at the front of the stage for a wall of fuzz guitar. But one with the sweetest of tunes held within it, like a butterfly in a bottle.


And yet once the noise arrives it came to be the quietest parts which spoke the loudest. There's something to those stately tempos, like they're the antidote to the modern world of just-in-time economics. (Slow being the new fast, and all.) There are those who dismiss the band as ponies with one trick – dynamic contrast, setting up the noodly kindling of a track to toss a guitar explosion in midway. Yet, for example, '2 Rights Make 1 Wrong' is almost a spiritual for us unreligious types, combining the genuinely hymnal with a kind of Christmas-lights twinkliness. (Maybe they're one of those bands you really should see on a Sunday.) But it took set-closer 'Mogwai Fears Satan' to sum it all up. Yet there is a guitar outburst mid-way, but the loudness is there to enhance the quiet parts rather than the other way around. It's the sonic equivalent of looking at a colour field painting, music to bathe in. The guitar notes sounded so delicate they were almost dissolving as they reached your ears.

If I didn't like everything they did... well, I don't like everything that Mogwai do. But when these guys get good, they can get very good indeed.

Talking of 'Mogwai Fear Satan'... (Alas it cuts before the end. And at times the camera can't capture the full range of sound. But surf YouTube and that would seem to be the general rule.)


ANTEMASQUE
Concorde 2, Brighton, Monday 13th Oct


Antemasque are a successor band to legendary American hardcore outfit At the Drive-In, featuring vocalist Cedric Bixier-Zavala and former bassist Omar Rodrigues-Lopez, now on guitar. ATDI were like the featherweights of hardcore, balancing out the piledriver heavyweights like Black Flag or Nomeansno. (Maybe Fugazi were the welterweights. I am probably reaching now...) Their tracks were writhe, wiry and dynamic, capable of taking unexpected moves. Had you been foolish enough to try and wrestle one, you'd have been held to the floor before you knew it.

Music Emissions called them a “chaotic balance of adrenaline and intellect”, which seems about as close to pinning them as anyone's likely to get. Though commonly dubbed 'post-hardcore' they were more like a hardcore and an art rock band somehow happening at once – Sonic Youth and the Ramones as conjoined twins.

Yet, though a keen ATDI fan who never managed to see one of their frenetic live shows I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to see either of the earlier successor bands, the Mars Volta or Bosnian Rainbows, when they came to town. Which, judging by the relative size of venues, was a common choice. They seemed to have all the intellect yet a deficiency of the adrenaline, taking things in a jazzier, proggier direction which left me less than keen to follow.

Not so this time.


Yet if I'm here because Antemasque are back to the patented ATDI sound, in a way that could bring its own set of problems. Not having been in the room at the time I can't offer any special insight, but its notable the band split soon after hitting their creative peak with the acclaimed 2000 album 'Relationship of Command'. Perhaps they simply figured their work here was done. As Omar himself has commented “if you're not moving forward, you're stagnant. And that's no way to be”. Which left me initially apprehensive of Antemasque sounding a bit apres.

Notably, however, they play no ATDI tracks and seem keen to strike out on their own. Truth to tell their trajectory may well be the opposite direction to the Mars Volta, straying more into conventional rock territory. Guitar solos start to creep in, and at times you hear the echoes of Led Zeppelin. Watching Cedric's unmissable wild mane in mid-toss, whereas once it resembled the MC5's Rob Tyner now its starting to look like Robert Plant. Now as the record shows I love Led Zeppelin as much as the next music fan, and besides its more a raw Sixties sound than stadium rock they're channelling. But my feelings are mixed as to whether its a sound Omar and Cedric should be straying back to. It can at times feel like avoiding stagnation via reverse gear. Perhaps significantly they've reverted to the world of singles, releasing no less than four in the month of April.

Yet overall, if they don't match previous heights they're still coming up with damn fine tracks put across with no small amount of conviction. And their lack of adherence to the old sound is made most unmissable by a lengthy trance-out soul track, the sort of thing Van Morrison went in for in the Seventies. Turning up late in the set like beamed in from elsewhere and featuring Cedric uncharacteristically cooing, it was about as enthralling as it was unexpected and swept the whole of us away. It suggests perhaps than rather than old-timers living in the shadows of past glories, Antemasque are a new band still forming their sound. I would tell you the name of it if I knew myself.

This isn't it...



Coming soon! Probably more music stuff...

Saturday, 8 November 2014

'NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR'


Contunuing our series on SF from classic British TV. After looking at Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier's work on the pioneering BBC TV SF series 'Quatermass', we shift to their adaptation of 'Nineteen Eight-Four'

You could be forgiven for regarding Kneale and Cartier’s choice of follow-up to the successful 'Quatermass Experiment’ as an eccentric one. While much of the early part of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is given over to a man writing a diary, this later develops into scenes of him reading a book. It’s central question is not whether the totalitarian regime will catch dissident Winston Smith, which is rather assumed to be a foregone conclusion, but whether it can get inside his head and make him love Big Brother. As the old saying goes, you can’t photograph thought. So how do you dramatise thoughtcrime?

In fact the BBC had bought the rights to the book very shortly after publication, and Kneale and Cartier had quite distinct advantages over other adaptors. Though working a good six years after the novel’s publication (in 1954), they perhaps found it easier to reproduce the spirit of the book than the later versions. The Jewish Cartier had to flee his native Austria after the Nazi take-over, and lost family members to the Holocaust. Which, somewhat needless to say, might well have sharpened his feelings about totaliarianism. However, despite this dramatic sequence of events, it would have been more his later experiences in Britain that informed this adaptation.

Though the novel takes place in a scenario of perpetual war, Orwell wrote it after hostilities were over. And, like many others during theat period, he had become convinced that it had stratified the possible outcomes for history – into socialism versus totalitarianism. Hence his book is still steeped in ration-book austerity, the smell of boiled cabbage and ‘careless-talk’ style paranoia. (Aspects of it now seem dated to us, such as the Anti Sex League. They stopped trying to censor sex a long time ago. In fact nowadays it’s their favoured ruse to try and sell us shit.) Kneale, and to a lesser extent Cartier, would have been similarly steeped in such a spirit. Rationing, for example, did not end until shortly before the programme was broadcast.

Added to which, they perhaps had the advantage of irony. Orwell had based Smith’s work at the Ministry of Truth on his own experiences at the BBC, and prophesised the widespread adoption of TV (or ‘televisor screens’). Producing an adaptation not just for the BBC but on television therefore gives proceedings both an edge and a fillip. (It’s perhaps a peculiarity of British society that such apparent contradictions empower artworks as often as they emasculate them. As cultural commentator Martin Barker has argued, the best children’s comics of this era were produced for the most conservative publisher – DC Thompson.)

Perhaps more importantly, television of this time was by necessity ‘talky’. Though the programme begins with one matte painting of futuristic horror, any attempts to ‘sex up’ this cautionary tale would have run into an intractable Anti Sex League of budgetary constraint. If Orwell wrote long passages of conversation to explain the concept of ‘newspeak’, that’s exactly what is put up on the screen.


Admittedly, the sheer interiority of the book still causes problems. There’s an early point where Smith joins in a workplace chant of “we love Big Brother.” His thought voice then gets overdubbed – “I hate Big Brother.” You can see what they’re trying to convey, the way our own thoughts can take us by surprise. But it feels clumsy, even if we’re to accept that this is the first time Smith ever thought such a thing. Similarly, if typically for the era, the acting frequently veers to the melodramatic.

Nevertheless, the adaptation commendably displays both a feeling for and faithfulness to Orwell’s book. It may well be the best filmic representation of the book and certainly eclipses Michael Radford’s version (released, with typically limpid literal-mindedness, in 1984).

Of course Kneale is too smart a writer to attempt to literally hold up a book before a camera. Though I last read the book a long time ago, I was still struck by a number of large and small divergences. Take for example the scene where Smith is called to his neighbours’ flat to fix the sink, which is used to demonstrate the party’s effect upon the young. In the book he is challenged by the son with a toy pistol. Told at school to watch out for spies the children are now playing at this, using it as an outlet for their bullying instincts. (“Like the gambolling of tiger cubs who will soon grow into man-eaters.”) In the TV version they are led by the daughter who is in earnest in challenging Smith. Like Abigail in 'The Crucible' she is old and smart enough to have worked out that such claims give her power, that adults can be taken away merely on her word.

This also places a more sinister twist upon a later scene where she denounces her father. From the book we assume he must be ‘guilty’ of his thought-crime, in this version it’s more than likely she set him up. But this altered version is most likely to be in itself an adaptation, taken from a very similar scene in Brecht’s ’Fear and Misery in The Third Reich.’ (Cartier would go on to adapt Brecht’s ’Mother Courage’ in 1959.)

However, the deeper and more problematic alterations are to the political aspects of the book. Though, as in the book, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ Goldstein is depicted as resembling Trotsky, the adaptation’s main approach to the politics is to leave them out. As in the book, this tension is conveyed through Smith’s relationship with Julia. While Smith sees their affair as a springboard towards political rebellion, Julia sees it as their rebellion – they love each other and not Big Brother, and that is enough. (It would be interesting to know how, with homosexuality then still illegal, a contemporary gay audience responded to their clandestine affair. Smith’s description of his joyless, businesslike marriage sounds almost like a ‘beard’, while Julia’s ability to “tell” deviance equates to ‘gaydar’.)


Orwell’s own stance could be said to be ambiguous, implicitly siding with Smith’s political yearnings but then making his denouncing of Julia into his breaking point. But the adaptation almost explicitly suggests that Smith’s notions of rebellion are chimerical, and that Julia is right in her first instinct to shun contact with the underground.

It’s reminiscent of another Julia from contemporary fiction. In Waugh’s ’Brideshead Revisited’ (1945), Julia Flyte breaks off an affair with Charles Ryder because it would be “ a rival good to God’s”. Things are merely inverted here, for this Julia, for here that is the precise reason for going ahead. In Kneale and Cartier’s hands, ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ becomes almost a secularised theological story, all about their love versus the love for Big Brother. Kneale and Cartier have not done anything so crass as to turn the book into a love story with a political background. But they have set up a story which counterposes love against politics, rather than one politics against another. Love ceases to be a form of freedom buts something paramount, and their affair holds the stage to itself.

There are a number of factors which could have led to this. One of these is the already-discussed interiority of Orwell’s novel. Goldstein’s book, for example, is quoted from only scantly and becomes more a totem than a source of political information, while Smith’s diaries are collapsed into the four words “I hate Big Brother”. The love story was simply easier to dramatise, a more attractive target.

Another might be the six years that passed between book and adaptation, in which a newly forged post-war consensus appeared to make Orwell’s political predictions obsolete. (We got neither the predicted fully fledged totalitarianism nor socialism but, in a very British fudge, bits of both.) But ultimately, you can’t help but reflect that Kneale was a less political writer than Orwell and was consequently less engaged by the political themes.

Does this matter? In one sense, no. Kneale is free to adapt the work as he sees fit, which includes shaping it to his sympathies. (As a fan of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’, which borrows highly liberally from Orwell's original, I could hardly claim otherwise!) But, in another, yes. In an incident both famous and infamous, a group of right-wing MPs submitted a Commons motion effectively condemning the BBC for broadcasting such a programme. (Though, in a piece generally suggesting the show's controversy to have been overstated, Oliver Wake debunks any suggestion this motion ever reached debate stage.) Less well known, if admittedly covered by Wikipedia, is that amendments and counter-motions were drafted to defend broadcast, which included the following: "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play Nineteen Eighty-Four’ are already in common use under totalitarian régimes.”

Like the saying goes, with friends like these... As mentioned when covering Atilla the Stockbroker's song 'Down On Airstrip One', written on the cusp of that auspicious year, Orwell had gone from prophet to hostage. Perhaps it even started with that very motion. If he hadn't deigned to write the book the British establishment wanted him to, it just needed reflecting in their distorting mirror. Fear what's over there coming over here! Pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain...

Of course, on a prosaic level, the counter-motion's words are correct. But they could not be further removed from Orwell’s purpose, which was to demonstrate how easily Britain could slide down such a road – how far, in many ways, it was already along it. Though Big Brother himself may resemble Stalin, adding to the antipathy between Orwell and Stalinists, the book is quite explicitly located in a Britain locked in with an American superpower. So thickly is the book steeped in Britishness, that even the most cloth-eared adaptations tend to retain this setting. This version even starts with the description of “one man’s alarmed vision of the future, which with dangerous ease might be brought about”.

(For that reason I would half-seriously suggest that the adaptations most true in spirit is the 1979 Dead Kennedys track 'California Uber Alles', which uses collage-like black humour to insert Orwell's dystopia into their contemporary California, where “the suede denim secret police... come for your uncool niece”.)

But that afore-mentioned opening matte painting shows the pyramid-like Ministry of Truth towering over familiar London landmarks such as Big Ben. Perhaps the problem is partly hindsight becoming a slippery slope. It’s impossible for us now not to see in it the germ of Dalek spaceships in Trafalgar Square, and all those so-familiar images of alien invasion. By sidelining Orwell’s politics, and centering the theology-of-love question, Kneale and Cartier have left the door open to such readings. This is unfortunately the most common way for the book to be read today, which in short is to mis-read it.

However, despite that serious but single failing, ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a compelling and effective piece of drama which is both more effective and far more faithful to Orwell’s vision than most subsequent versions. It's doubleplusgood!

Friday, 31 October 2014

MONSTERS VERSUS ALIENS (THE LEGACY OF 'QUATERMASS')

This concluding installment of our overview of the influential BBC SF series 'Quatermass' is considered slightly less unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition


It can't really be doubted that British TV science fiction started with a Q. In fact it’s almost a cliché to talk about 'Quatermass’s founding influence. A recent BBC series on the subject telegraphed this by calling itself 'The Martians And Us', borrowing a line from ’Quatermass and the Pit.’ (In much the same way as a documentary on music and fashion felt obliged to take its name from David Bowie.) Well ’Blake’s Seven’ fans may want to cover their ears now, but such a statement really means we’re talking about a baton being handed to ’Doctor Who’.

Kneale, who could be irascible, was defensive about the shows which took his prototype into production – and ’Who’ in particular he regarded as stealing his thunder. (Despite offers, he steadfastedly refused to write for it.) Indeed Derrick Shewin, Pertwee-era ’Who’ producer, has openly acknowledged the influence of ’Pit’ in particular upon the 'The Daemons' (1971). Not to mention 'Image of the Fendahl' (1977) or even the more recent 'The Satan Pit' (2006), also almost direct copies. And you know what they say about once being happenstance, twice co-incidence and three times enemy action. The Third Doctor and the Brigadier's relationship, a current of the Pertwee era, made them less feuding cousins to Quatermass and Colonel Breen.



But let’s look at the slightly wider picture...

In both, our protagonist represents the open mind - set against the closed mind of military or government types. Quatermass is always trustingly talking to journalists, while bureaucrats try to hush him up. Science fiction becomes an arena where we may battle not just against bug-eyed extras but between the best and the worst in our nature.

When Quatermass insists in ’Pit’ that we must “outgrow the ancient destructive urges in us” or “this will be their [the Martians’] second dead planet” he hit upon not just the concept but the very title of the Daleks’ first appearance. Consequently, adversaries are seldom defeated by might alone, if at all. Both shows contain a huge emphasis on sacrifice – victories are rarely full and never bloodless.

However, it’s also true to say that ’Quatermass’ set a bar that ’Doctor Who’ often struggled to step up to. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare three series by the same author to a production-line brand, particularly when one was aimed squarely at adults while the other had to stretch to appease a general family audience. But this is nevertheless the case. From the opening image of a space rocket crashing into an East End street, Kneale understood that the extraordinary was contingent upon the ordinary. With it's police boxes materialising on alien landscapes ’Doctor Who’ would seem to have picked up this lesson.

Or did it? Time and again ’Who’ reverted to familiar stand-in Nazi storylines, even in its better storylines such as the already-mentioned ’The Dead Planet’ (aka ’The Daleks’). Though closer to wartime and continually referring to its bomb-site residue, ’Quatermass’ never took anti-Nazism for a theme. In a historically authentic detail, ’Experiment’ makes one of the rocket group a German - Dr. Ludwig Reichenheim. But while the script might make some play of his ‘sinister’ German accent, Reichenheim is not just one of the good guys - the whole ending comes to be predicated upon his goodness!

The black-clad policemen in ’QII’ are continually referred to as “zombies”, but never once as Nazis - despite their robotic manners and autocratic killing sprees. (In fact the Camp Committee is full of ‘careless talk costs lives’ posters, more reminiscent of the Allied side of the War.) But perhaps most telling is Colonel Breen in ’Pit’, who hopelessly clings to the insistence the alien object is some left-over Nazi plot, a falsehood he clearly finds more comfortable than the truth.


And this detail leads us to an important distinction, perhaps most neatly summed up as monsters versus aliens. The ‘monsters’ in ’Doctor Who’, though theoretically alien, are always reducible to human foibles and hence are always explicable in human terms. The Daleks represent megalomania and paranoia, the Cybermen conformity and so on. There is an almost compulsory scene where the Doctor confronts them by counterposing human values to the error of their ways. Clanking pepperpots aside, they tend to be humanoid. Of course they have our shape – they're our shadows! Think of the first New Who story, 'Rose', when the character most needed re-establishing - and how the Doctor demanded to “seek audience with” the week's enemy.

Indeed the figure of the Doctor, essentially both human and alien, acts as a necessary bridge and familiarising force. He's always able to explain to his companions that the guys who have just showed up painted green are in fact Kleptons who are there to try and shoplift the Earth in order to get it through Galactic Duty Free, thereby representing the human sin of avarice, or whichever. The fact that he theoretically isn't human is just used to emphasise the supposed universality of human values.

But a rule of ’Quatermass’, which got entrenched more and more deeply as it went on, is that there can be no direct communication between human and alien – the alien always stays alien. However ceaselessly the ordinary and extraordinary are juxtaposed they never mix, they are inherently held apart – like oil and water.

The motif of an alien not as humanoid or pepperpot-shaped but as shapeless recurs throughout the series. It starts with the growing transformation of man into vegetable, finally losing all semblance of humanoid form, then continues through the churning things in the domes in ’QII’ and the pre-Mysteron swirling lights in ’Pit’.

‘Pit’ is perhaps central - the aliens induce something ‘buried’ within us, but themselves are not only inexplicable - their very presence is enough for us to lose our capacity to comprehend altogether. Then in the fourth series the aliens don’t appear at all, but remain merely supremely unknowable. As Mark Fisher comments: ”[Their] purposes remain sublimely, unfathomably opaque, like their physical forms. Anything we ‘learn’ about them is conjecture, inference, speculation. They are light years away from us. In every sense.” These other-worldly creatures are closer to Lovecraft’s other-dimensional demons than to 'Doctor Who's more straightforward morality play.

Let's end on a question- how do you get to be good? Aspiring to would seem a good start. ’Experiment’ at one point parodies ray-gun shoot-up sci-fi sprees, with a faux-film about Space Captain Dallas and his obliterator gun. The swipe was perhaps a little sweeping. (The Shakespeare-based ‘Forbidden Planet’, for one counter example, was made at a similar time.) But the desire to distance itself from such pulpy fodder was genuine and not entirely unearned.

When 'Quatermass' instigated small-screen SF in the UK it insisted on some basic rules – it should be done intelligently, take seriously both its nature as SF and its capacity to comment on current events, and it should be aimed at a general audience. It should ideally come with a thick streak of black humour. If most of what followed was to miss this bar, few fared worse for having such a bar to aim for. Even 'Who', which could more shamelessly plunder the cliches of space opera and horror, often felt some obligation to do something with those cliches once they were pocketed and brought home. In short, after 'Quatermass', even some of the failures failed better. Every now and again, reputations can be deserved.

Grateful thanks, as ever, to ‘Redsock’

Coming Soon! “And now it is nineteen-eighty-four…” (Actually, something else is probably coming sooner)