Monday, July 06, 2020

An open secret

The heatwaves of May and June had many of us dreaming of one of the numerous beaches for which Wales is quite rightly renowned: spectacular vistas, inviting surf, golden sands stretching as far as the (mind's) eye can see. Few will have pictured the scruffy foreshore in the shadow of the water treatment works off Rover Way in Cardiff.

Splott Beach may not feature in any adverts or guidebooks, but paying a visit has been named top of the list of 20 things to do in the area by a local website - and not without good reason. If it's a "secret", as is often claimed, then it's an open one - the subject of a (not entirely complimentary) 2017 Wales Online feature and a 2019 photographic exhibition in the Senedd. Perhaps it's best described as a place that's continually discovered anew.

Certainly, there's something about squeezing through the metal gate and wandering down onto the black grit to survey the brick-strewn beach and the channels cut through the estuarial mud that makes you feel like an intrepid explorer. It's an alien landscape, one that - at the height of coronavirus lockdown - seems particularly post-apocalyptic, as though you're picking your way over the ruins of a lost civilisation. And, in a sense, you are: the rubble and piles of solidified metal slag are all that's left of the vast East Moors steelworks, which closed in 1978 and was demolished shortly afterwards. The beach is a graveyard for the skeletal remains of South Wales' heavily industrialised past.

Little wonder, then, that Jon Pountney - the photographer behind the Beachcombing exhibition - was drawn to the place. It's a prime spot for engaging in what he refers to as "horizontal archaeology", the study of human history through the examination of what lies on the surface of the earth rather than beneath it. Just as the strata of accumulated sediment in the cliffs at Penarth, Lavernock Point and Southerndown are rich in fossils, so is the bank at Splott Beach layered with man-made relics, gradually exposed by the elements and curious treasure-hunters. One wonders whether, hundreds of years from now, the enormous tractor tyre slowly sinking into the ooze will be as exciting a discovery as the prehistoric footprints found on the mud flats further up the coast at Goldcliff.

The fact that Splott Beach is essentially built of detritus renders the concept of an organised litter pick faintly ridiculous, albeit well-intentioned. The tradition of treating the site as a dumping ground continues to this day - we squeeze past a fly-tipped fridge to get down to the foreshore and return to the Rover Way layby to discover a beige bathtub has just been generously donated to the verge.

Those with a hankering for more conventionally scenic coastline would be advised to travel further to the north east, past the Celsa steelworks and beyond the mouth of the River Rhymney. From Wentloog Avenue, a winding track takes you down to the shore and the Wales Coast Path, which runs across the top of a wide artificial grassy bank towards Newport. Even there, though, the birdsong cannot completely drown out the noise of traffic on the A48, and you occasionally find your nostrils assailed by the smell of burning plastic as well as of sea air.

In any case, there are good grounds for arguing that Splott Beach has an aesthetic appeal all of its own. For local resident Tamsin Stirling, it's an archetypal "edgeland", a fascinating liminal space between city and country and between land and sea. In the words of poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, edgelands are "complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard" and are always in transition. The grass growing atop the slagheaps and the seaweed clinging to chunks of masonry are testament to nature's ongoing reclamation of the landscape. Stirling's pet project is to catalogue the different bricks she finds, but in many cases the action of the sea has erased the name of their manufacturers, smoothing off edges until they resemble Barbara Hepworth sculptures.

When Owen Williams described the beach as "a peaceful, awful place with huge potential" on Twitter last month, highlighting Barcelona as evidence that "things can be different where the will exists", his comments were met in some quarters with irritation and exasperated eyeball rolls. Uncritically deploying the language of corporate development and opportunity, he raised the spectre of a significantly more substantial clean-up operation than that conducted by the Keep Splott Tidy volunteers.

The proposal to relocate the Museum of Military Medicine to Cardiff Bay recently reignited debate about the insensitive top-down redevelopment of the area in general, which displaced the multi-ethnic communities of Tiger Bay and replaced them with soulless chain restaurants and identikit, overpriced yuppie flats in the name of progress. Hopefully, Splott Beach will be spared a similar fate. Whether Williams likes it or not, its smashed bricks, concrete blocks and scrap metal are just as much a part of Wales' history and heritage as the spectacular petrified forest off the coast of Ceredigion.

(An edited version of this article has been published on the Buzz website.)

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Corporate takeover?

As good as it is to see my home town taking the lead, if the future of live music is a sterile, heavily branded corporate picnic on a racecourse, then - as with drive-in gigs - I think I'll pass.

And yet, in the continued absence of any kind of government bailout, it's hard to see how the nation's live music scene can survive without significant corporate sponsorship of this sort, even if the industry's super rich were to dip deep into their own pockets.

The Tories' lack of support for the creative industries remains both utterly baffling and infuriating. I wouldn't have expected the spineless, self-serving philistines to have any inkling of what music means to people, but surely the enormous contribution that it makes to the economy speaks to them in language they understand?

Thursday, July 02, 2020

"Punk before punk existed"

I knew the Shangri-Las were the leaders of the 60s girl group pack, standing out from the crowd by singing about heartbreak, leather-jacketed bad boys and street culture. But I didn't know they'd been hailed as a significant influence on punk by Joey Ramone and played a gig at CBGBs in 1977 backed by a band featuring Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daughterty of The Patti Smith Group. Oh to have been there for that.

And now I'm bingeing on their hits when I really should be working...

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Crime scenes

"Who are the goodies and who are the baddies?" It's a question my son often asks me when we're sat in front of a TV programme or film, and one that betrays an innate human desire for clearly defined and simplistic moral narratives. Reality, of course, is much messier than that - something underscored by the crime photographs taken by Life magazine staffer Gordon Parks around the US in the late 1950s.

In this Atlantic article prompted by the publication of a new book showcasing the images, The Atmosphere Of Crime, former Life editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro emphasises the significance of Parks' use of colour film as a very literal means of suggesting that nothing is black and white. The book's editor, Sarah Meister, argues that the pictures paint "a more nuanced view of crime than had ever been captured in photography before that".

Parks humanises or obscures those who have fallen foul of the law while simultaneously shining a forensic flashlight on police work and procedures. In this respect, and in the way that (in Meister's words) "he understood that crime wasn't just about a criminal but about economic circumstance, about the way neighborhoods are constructed, the way police officers are told to do their jobs", Parks' series feels like a series of stills from a prequel to The Wire.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Press under pressure

Towards the end of May, the Guardian's Laura Snapes took the temperature of the UK's music publications and (perhaps surprisingly) found some signs of good health, even in the midst of a pandemic that had eradicated their revenue base overnight. From Q, which appears to be enjoying a new lease of life, to smaller magazines that are (or were) managing to stay afloat in their own specific niches, she flagged up the way in which many now have closer relationships with both readers and musicians, creating a mutually enriching community.

A month on, and unfortunately the picture looks significantly bleaker, as grim reality truly sets in. Q may have got a temporary stay of execution, with editor Ted Kessler and his staff having feared the worst when producing the most recent issue, but others have been less fortunate. Take Mixmag, for instance, the print edition of which is now on pause, with the loss of all of its staff. Likewise the print edition of John Robb's Louder Than War, "on hiatus for the foreseeable future".

Crack and Loud And Quiet were already fighting for their survival by seeking support in the form of subscriptions, and a similarly urgent appeal is now being made by Stereogum, which escaped its corporate shackles earlier this year only to find itself torpedoed by coronavirus. As part of the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign they've launched, you can buy a Save Stereogum album featuring covers performed by a who's who of Noughties indie-rock royalty.

Finally, spare a thought for Ronan Munro. July would have marked the 300th issue of Nightshift, his magazine tirelessly championing the Oxfordshire music scene - an incredible achievement. For a publication built around its listings and live reviews sections, as well as a free one wholly dependent on advertising, coronavirus is a fundamental existential threat.

I'm certainly not alone in hoping fervently that Nightshift - and the other publications and websites mentioned above - can survive, but, with the return of live music in a recognisable form still largely a pipe dream, hope is pretty much all we have at the present moment.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Party hard

The Hacienda may have gone down in legend as the beating heart of Madchester's acid house scene, but - as this illuminating article by the Guardian's Fergal Kinney reveals - things really kicked off elsewhere in the north west. The football team that Jack Walker's millions built put Blackburn on the world map by claiming the Premier League title in 1995, but Kinney argues that its place in music history should also be assured thanks to what happened a few years earlier.

In the late 1980s, the abundance of abandoned mills and empty warehouses made the town a perfect spot for illicit raves fuelled by a desire for hedonistic escapism, a dose of hippy idealism and a spirit of youthful working-class rebellion. Thatcherism inadvertently created the economic conditions and environment in which the scene thrived - quite literally, as its godfather Tommy Smith observes with pleasure, recalling a party in "a large warehouse that formed part of the Conservative government's enterprise zone scheme - designed to provide a space for budding entrepreneurs and industry in low-employment areas".

As also made clear by Jeremy Deller in his excellent documentary on acid house, Everybody In The Place: An Incomplete History Of Britain 1984-1992, there was a political dimension to the partying - a firm two fingers up to the establishment through the creation of an alternative space founded on principles of community, solidarity and accessibility.

Of course, it couldn't last. Between the hardened criminals who muscled their way in and a concerted police crackdown, Blackburn's rave scene was crushed out of existence quicker than it had sprung up. Kinney's article and the Acid House Flashback archive will hopefully go some way to ensuring that its cultural significance will be more widely recognised.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Stand-up's dirty secret

Stand-up, Kiri Pritchard-McLean has noted, is "having a calling it out moment". She labels it a "moment" quite deliberately, because it's sadly likely to be a passing fad, "forgotten as soon as the next Twitter hashtag challenge comes along". Evidently, however, a sustained outing and condemnation of entrenched sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours (and the comics who express and enact them) is required.

The fact that the comedy circuit is "a Takeshi's Castle of pervery" and that sexual harassment and exploitation have been rife on the comedy circuit for so long is not because women have failed to speak up - female comics have had their own "whisper network" for sharing information. In any case, the onus shouldn't be on the victims to publicise the problem and take steps to solve it. On the contrary, things will only improve if men start to take the issue - and women's testimonies - seriously by scrutinising their own behaviour and calling out the misdemeanours of their male colleagues rather than refusing to believe ill of their friends, closing ranks and branding courageous whistleblowers like Pritchard-McLean as difficult troublemakers.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

"A glowing, thrilling realm of communal feeling"

My first Glastonbury, in 1998, was a formative experience. I'd already had my teenage mind blown by Reading in 1996, but Glastonbury was another thing altogether. Sure, the torrential rain and apocalyptic mud required serious levels of mental fortitude and cider consumption, and meant that I missed all of the Friday night headliners (most prominently Portishead) hunkered down in my tent hoping to stave off hypothermia. But the setting, the atmosphere, the sheer scale of the site and an extraordinary Sunday Pyramid Stage line-up (Tony Bennett, Sonic Youth, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and finally Pulp) under sunny skies meant that I left Worthy Farm determined to return - and I did, every year between 2000 and 2011.

Jude Rogers had her youthful Glastonbury epiphany three years earlier. She's written about it in an article for the Quietus - and, beautifully, about the joy of festivals and live music in general. It's a joy of which we've currently been robbed, but she remains determined not to get downhearted and defeatist: "It's made me realise how bonding with others in person - both friends and strangers - is something we should never ever again take for granted. It's made me realise that connecting and disconnecting from the world is a powerful modern malaise which needs to be conquered. ... We may have to reconstruct our communal realm of feeling out of the rubble of an unsupported, devastated industry, too. But there are too many of us who care about that realm to let it go, to let it die, for it to be lost forever." Now if you'll excuse me, I've got something in my eye...

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The work is our history and should be seen"

Back in early May, I echoed Teju Cole's comments on the joy of photobooks, and particularly "the aesthetic appeal of their materiality". I did also note, however, that these qualities inevitably make building up a library of such publications an incredibly expensive business, as well as one that demands a lot of shelf space.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Cole is Craig Atkinson, the indefatigable driving force behind Cafe Royal Books. The prolific publishing house, whose praises I've previously sung, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Creative Review's Rebecca Fulleylove spoke to its founder about his mission and philosophy.

"I've never liked fuss or decoration, or embellishments", Atkinson told Fulleylove - what is infinitely more important to him is simply ensuring that the images are widely accessible. British Culture Archive has developed a significant web presence and reached out through social media, before trialling a physical exhibition and developing plans for a permanent gallery. Atkinson, by contrast, felt that the best means of achieving his objective was through publishing zines, which are "cheap, easily postable, multiple, disposable and collectible".

His focus on "getting the work seen" is motivated by a passionate conviction that documentary photography "is one of the most active, important, underrepresented and forgotten genres of photography", having been "pretty much neglected by galleries and museums". Here in Cardiff, the establishment of a permanent space for photography in the National Museum Wales following a sizeable bequest from David Hurn's personal collection, and the subsequent development of a Photography Season, suggest that things might be changing for the better locally, at least - but the efforts of Cafe Royal and British Culture Archive are nevertheless much needed,

In most cases, Atkinson publishes work that has been submitted to him, rather than reaching out proactively, which means that he is regularly discovering new and exciting photographers and images. Don't be tempted to send him the fruits of your lockdown project, though. In another recent interview, he said, "I'm not interested in those right now. In 15 to 20 years, if humans still exist, they will be more important."

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Peace and quiet

Today would have been the day I would have been travelling down to Glastonbury for this year's festival - if I'd had a ticket, that is. I haven't been to Worthy Farm for nearly a decade, and life has changed immeasurably since that last visit in 2011 - but that doesn't mean that looking at other people's personal photographic memories of the festival hasn't thrown fuel on the fire of my desire to go again one day. It doesn't take much, to be fair - certainly much less than watching Angel Olsen's Park Stage set from 2017 or a hugely enjoyable return to the Proper Festivalling game with Green Man last year.

There's a small, quite bitter part of me that's glad Glastonbury is having an unscheduled fallow year and won't be alive with the sound of music this weekend. One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that those of us who suffer from a chronic fear of missing out, particularly during the summer months, can be reassured by the knowledge that everyone else is too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The final curtain?

Ordinarily, it would have been nice to have spoken to playwright Gary Owen about the art of the monologue and the experience of seeing his latest work performed by actors of the calibre of Michael Sheen and Lynn Hunter - but inevitably talk turned to the pandemic and the dark shadow it's casting on theatre in general. His prognosis for the future of the sector is extremely bleak, but unfortunately not without reason - and it's being echoed elsewhere too.

Monday, June 22, 2020

'Sunday' supplement

Back in 2017, in response to Thurston Moore's last LP (Rock 'N' Roll Consciousness), I wrote that there were "signs that the young punk is starting to become an ageing hippie" - albeit one who "wears it well".

Three years on, and it's safe to say that the transformation is confirmed by his descriptions of new single 'Hashish' as "an ode to the narcotic of love in our shared responsibility to each other during isolation", and of the forthcoming album By The Fire on which it features as "a gathering, a party of peace" containing "songs as flames of rainbow energy, where the power of love becomes our call".

That's one way to react to "a world on fire", I suppose, but his claim that we live in "a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression" comes across a bit like the ramblings of a sixth-form stoner compared to the urgent calls to arms from the likes of Algiers. What would the twenty-something hardcore fan have made of it?

Don't get me wrong, I like 'Hashish' a lot - but then so I should, given that it's hardly a radical reinvention (unlike, say, Kim Gordon's latest album). Indeed, as commenters on this Stereogum article have pointed out, the track and particularly the vocals bear more than a passing resemblance to Sonic Youth classic 'Sunday'. No doubt I'll enjoy the album, but it would be an ironic shame if creativity is finally starting to desert Moore just as he's making a point of its political value.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Rage against the machine

"We all dance into the fire", sings Franklin James Fisher on Algiers' There Is No Year, a record that I described in a Buzz review as "a complex, righteous, soulful LP both infuriated and fatally fatigued by the failed state that is the US". It's little wonder that a band who have long been outspoken about racial injustice should have plenty to say on the subject since the murder of George Floyd caused the tinderbox situation to explode.

In an article for the Quietus, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Mahan writes about the symbolic significance of tearing down statues and the urgent need to acknowledge "the twin killing engines of global colonial finance capitalism and white supremacist violence". Only by doing so, and recognising they are "so insidious and entrenched", can we begin to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racial inequality and violence.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

At The Drive-In at the drive-in? No thanks

If drive-in gigs are the future, then I'm not sure I want live music to come back. The whole concept seems ludicrous - even without the important detail that "pets will also be disallowed".

At the same time as Live Nation were announcing this initiative, Rolling Stone were reporting on a leaked memo that makes clear that the company is attempting to shift financial burden and risk to performers. It's doubtful that Neko Case's reaction to the revelation was unique among artists, and it certainly gives the lie to any suggestion that they're motivated by a love of live music rather than protecting profit margins and keeping shareholders happy.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"All soaring optimism and poignant nostalgia"

Prompted by the death of Vera Lynn, the singer who made the song famous, Luke Turner's Guardian article on 'We'll Meet Again' is a fine piece of musical archaeology. His excavation strips away the grime accreted since it was first recorded in 1939, uncovering the "perfect three-minute pop song" underneath.

The grime in question is the jingoism and "toxic nostalgia" that the song has been bent to serve, the "romantic view" of the Second World War that "has become weaponised in the construction of the myth of a plucky Britain, fighting alone against Nazi foes" - in other words, the exact same things that have fuelled the sense of superiority and exceptionalism that brought about Brexit. Needless to say, the piece and its author have been lightning rods for gammony ire since it was published.

"Like all perfect pop songs", Turner notes, "'We'll Meet Again' became something more than itself". In that sense, the song's meaning was always going to mushroom, and in some ways that would do it a disservice. The grime can only be stripped off temporarily, not permanently; its wider cultural significance cannot be completely ignored. That's not to say, though, that tracing how a song has been appropriated, writing its post-release biography, is a pointless exercise - far from it, as Turner's article proves.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Corporate takeover

While a privileged background shouldn't automatically devalue someone's creative and artistic pursuits, neither should it be a virtual guarantee of acclaim. In an excellent article for the Quietus, Ed Gillett laments the attention lavished on Housekeeping, the London-based DJ collective with "absolutely deranged levels of privilege", whose new "almost incomprehensibly boring" EP Faces is "notable only for its steadfast refusal to challenge even the tamest cliches of mainstream club culture".

In truth, though, the problem is not so much what Housekeeping sound like as the insidious trends that they represent. Gillett is much less concerned with the music and much more with "the social and economic environment in which it's been produced: one in which ostensibly underground music is increasingly co-opted by people whose wider interests serve to destabilise the very cultures they claim to champion".

In Housekeeping's case, this is most obvious in the conduct of member Taylor McWilliams' development company Hondo with regard to long-standing tenants who stand in the way of their proposed reshaping of Brixton Market. Gillett's article compellingly joins the dots between neoliberal capitalism, gentrification, privilege, corporate clubbing and the subtle erasure of dance music's roots in queer, black and working-class culture.

What to do about the subtle but damaging combined effects of these forces, though? One solution, Gillett suggests, may be to pursue the idea of "interdependent" (as opposed to "independent") music: "co-operative ownership of platforms, local DIY support networks insulated from the rapaciousness of global capital or online content churn, and collective resistance to the sinister intentions of the streaming industry". However, the first step should simply be "to make these questions more visible" - something that his piece certainly achieves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Just for laughs

As demonstrated by recent developments regarding particular episodes of Fawlty Towers, League Of Gentlemen and Little Britain, there appears to be a heightened sensitivity to what is and is not appropriate within comedy, and a consequent reappraisal of much-loved series of the past. Which makes Noel Gardner's re-evaluation of Blue Jam - a show he fanboyed over when it first aired (on Radio 1, of all places) 22 years ago - particularly timely.

As students in a Nottingham house share, my friends and I developed a Friday midnight ritual of huddling around the radio in the downstairs bedroom, luxuriating in the weirdness and invariably howling with laughter - albeit laughter not so much in the dark as in the pitch black. That Blue Jam was a comedy (and a frequently hilarious one) is a point worth emphasising - as Gardner observes, "an uninitiated listener could be forgiven for scarcely recognising it as an example of the form".

But even we "initiated listeners", who had gorged ourselves on Chris Morris' previous projects The Day Today and Brass Eye, were occasionally left floored at what we were being invited to laugh at - even without the benefit of distance and perspective. To say that some of the sketches assaulted good taste would be an understatement. It's no surprise to learn, for instance, that Julia Davis was seriously uncomfortable about playing her role in 'Unflustered Parents' - it was unsettling enough as a member of the audience.

What set Blue Jam apart from its predecessors was the lack of obvious satirical focus or targets, of moral purpose or ethos. Gardner argues that "you do imagine that writing something which wasn't expected to have a point would have been a freeing experience at the time", but that meant that the show's shock value could then only be framed as being for its own sake, or at least only to provoke laughs. Gardner does an admirable job of setting aside his youthful ardour and carefully assessing sketches like 'Little Girl Balls' that felt slightly troubling even at the time.

What Blue Jam does share with On The Hour, The Day Today and Brass Eye, though, is a "sort of linguistic japery" - evidence of its creator's ability to get "heavy absurdist mileage from minor adjustments to what we see as conventional turns of British-English phrase". I do, however, bristle at the suggestion that Morris should be held responsible for "that dismal style of compound swearing" exemplified by the insult "cockwomble" - that's a reassessment too far.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Unreal life

Some people are documenting the abnormality of daily life under lockdown through the medium of photography. Others are doing so through words. There can't be too many doing both, let alone doing both as adeptly as Jon Pountney. Here's a choice passage from his diary: "Within an empty human environment of streets and houses staring glassily on, traces of people become strangely poignant. Randomly rejected shoes, jackets and even litter become important moments in a landscape seemingly abandoned. I’ve started walking the back lanes, where litter lingers, and people are less precious about presentation; these hinterlands reveal a hundred tiny stories about lockdown. Snatches of conversation, news bulletins and music mingle and reassure. There are still people here. But they just can’t be seen."

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Full of the fecundity of life"

If you're in need of a lockdown pick-me-up - and let's face it, who isn't? - you couldn't do any better than Benjamin Myers' The Offing. A stark contrast to his equally brilliant previous novel The Gallows Pole (a gripping, bloody tale of criminality and rebellion), the book is a bracing, uplifting, perfectly formed summer read - and I'm not just saying that because he had some kind words for my Buzz review, honest...

Friday, June 12, 2020

Revision lesson

The next time you see or hear someone bollocking on about "erasing history", please direct them to this Guardian article by Charlotte Lydia Riley, who - by virtue of being a historian rather than a grumbling gammon - is actually worth listening to on the subject.

Her piece points out, with commendable clarity not to mention restraint, the fundamental irony in that position - namely, that "this country's relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering - it is a series of silences from the past". What the toppling of the Colston statue and other recent protests have done is to amplify some of those silences - much to the annoyance of those who buy into the whole Rule Britannia Union Jack bunting bullshit.

If the complaint is that pulling down statues means history is being rewritten, though, Riley is happy to concede. After all, history isn't a monolithic, unchanging entity; as she puts it, "The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present". Not only is new evidence continually emerging; so too are new theories. It would be very odd indeed if we weren't constantly rewriting history. That one's view of the past inevitably changes depending upon one's vantage point was made abundantly clear in this episode of A Timewatch Guide on Roman Britain that we watched the other night, which traced how understandings and interpretations of the period have shifted dramatically over the decades.

But back to Riley's article, and her argument that many British people are simply ignorant of "the dark side of imperialism". As long as that remains the case, positive change will remain a pipe dream, and the damaging myths of Britain's benevolent colonialism will perpetuate - damaging not only because they erase the suffering of the colonised but also because they continue to fuel a sense of exceptionalism evident with regard to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

What's needed in the long term is a history education that actually tackles the issues head on. In the meantime, though, iconoclasm will do: "Every time a statue comes down, we learn a little more."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Forward thinking

Opportunities to mix business with pleasure don't come along that often, so you have to be prepared to grab them with both hands. When Mark Daman Thomas asked if I'd offer some feedback on a book chapter, I was delighted to be able to use my, ahem, professional expertise in a non-work context, with respect to a subject I'm passionate about - so it's fantastic to see that the volume, The Future Of Live Music, has now published.

For obvious reasons, it's a subject that is currently on many people's lips - indeed, the context has shifted dramatically since the book was conceived and the chapters were written, to such an extent that you might reasonably ask whether live music has a future at all. As a result, Mark's contribution - "Digital Performances: Live-Streaming Music And The Documentation Of The Creative Process" - is infinitely more relevant now than it would have been only a few months ago. Live-streamed concerts are no longer merely a potential avenue for exploration but a necessity for any artist with the urge to perform rather than just release music.

It was great just to play a (very) small part in the chapter's development, but Mark was kind enough to send a copy of his band Islet's excellent new LP Eyelet by way of thanks. Needless to say, it's thoroughly recommended - here's Simon Tucker of Louder Than War to explain why.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The end of the line?

Of all the Cardiff music venues I would have anticipated being under threat at the present time, Tramshed certainly wouldn't have been top of my list. And yet its future is "in severe jeopardy" - not due to coronavirus closure but due to planning regulations submitted by its own landlords.

DS Holdings are proposing to build a four-storey building on the land that currently performs an essential role as Tramshed's car park. With no alternative provisions for cars and tour buses set out in the plans, the venue is warning that its continued operation simply wouldn't be feasible. Even if the parking issue was to be resolved somehow, the suspicion is that Tramshed would be vulnerable to noise complaints from nimby newcomers who move into the neighbouring building and would likely suffer the same fate as the Point (and nearly Fuel too).

As a result, Tramshed find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge their own landlords and encourage others to do the same. You can register your objection here or, if the link still isn't working, by emailing and being sure to quote the reference code (17/01744/MJR).

Tramshed's commendably measured statement praises DS Holdings for "bringing new life into disused buildings and invigorating the surrounding area" - but a second phase of gentrification almost invariably follows the first, in which that "new life" is cynically used as a selling point and simultaneously snuffed out, because culture doesn't pay as well as corporate development.

Tramshed fulfils a vital role within the city's ecosystem and I've enjoyed numerous incredible evenings there over the last few years, starting with the Fall/Bo Ningen double bill in February 2017. As others have pointed out, if Cardiff Council allows Tramshed to die - as it has Buffalo, the Transport Club and (most egregiously) Gwdihw before it - then it makes the capital's self-proclaimed status as a "Music City" even more laughable.

Monday, June 08, 2020

"A lens on to a glamorous demimonde"

The Guardian's rundown of the 100 best UK No. 1s came to a conclusion on Friday, with 'West End Girls' claiming top spot. While it wouldn't be my pick, Pet Shop Boys' debut single would certainly be right up there, and Laura Snapes did an admirable job of justifying its position: "[not] so much social commentary on London's burgeoning yuppie class as ... impressionist marvel, in which lust, naivety, disco and opaque references to Lenin rush by as if caught in the reflection of a bus window".

Her piece wasn't merely convincing, it was also informative - primarily because I had no idea that an alternative version had been released earlier and largely flopped. That was one of the things she asked Neil Tennant about in an accompanying interview. The singer also spoke of his initial embarrassment about the rap sections, and defined the song as being "about escape into the city at night, which is emblematic of pleasure".

For Tennant, though, 'West End Girls' isn't even the best British No. 1 by a Boy band - his vote would have gone to 'Good Vibrations'.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Speech impediment

"Every few years I like to have a pause-laden conversation with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields", the Guardian's Alex Needham tweeted recently, promoting his piece on their latest encounter. You wouldn't think it of a man who has released one album containing 50 songs and another containing 69, but Merritt, with his "laconic baritone", seems to be right up there with Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis in terms of how unwillingly he answers questions - but I for one am grateful to Needham for putting himself through it once again.

This time Needham managed to engage Merritt on everything from his unusual upbringing ("on a Tibetan Buddhist commune in Vermont, where music was forbidden") to his taste in song lengths (on new album Quickies, there's nothing longer than two minutes and 15 seconds), his genius for song titles ('You've Got A Friend In Beelzebub', anyone?) and how he damaged his hearing by "standing too close to the circular saw being scraped across corrugated metal" at an Einsturzende Neubauten gig in the 1980s.

Merritt certainly isn't coronavirus' biggest fan. He's had and recovered from it himself, and lockdown is far from ideal for a songwriter for whom the creative juices only flow when he's in a bar "one-third full of cranky old gay men gossiping over thumping disco music". He even speculates that its impact on scheduled tour dates "may have simply ended my concert career".

One thing's for certain, though: unlike other musicians who should know much, much better, you won't find Merritt singing the praises of the president any time soon, or those who put him in the White House and may yet keep him there: "In reaction to Donald Trump's suggestion that people ingest disinfectants, Howard Stern suggested that there should be a Trump rally in which his supporters drink disinfectants and, quote, all drop dead, unquote. I admire Howard Stern for being able to say these things and keep his job. I also completely endorse that sentiment."

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Bad move

Plans for a military museum down at Cardiff Bay were announced last year, but it was the unveiling of the architect's images this week that really seemed to cause a stir - and not only because of the loss of public green space.

The Wales Millennium Centre and the odd exhibition in the Pierhead Building aside, the Bay is a bit of a drearily corporate cultural wasteland, so a development of this sort would in some ways be welcome. But moving the Museum of Military Medicine lock, stock and barrel from its present home in Aldershot (where it has a clear connection to its location) to Cardiff makes little sense - and indeed seems insensitive at very best in light of the fact that the Butetown History and Arts Centre (BHAC) was forced to close its doors a few years back and is currently without premises.

In response to an enquiry from Bethan Sayed MS, prompted by public concern, a representative of the Museum of Military Medicine has insisted that the history of the local area and its people will be reflected in the exhibitions, pointing out that they are working with The Heritage & Cultural Exchange, custodians of the BHAC's archives.

However, in view of the Bay's recent history, and in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened awareness of the injustices and erasures that non-white people experience on a daily basis (including here in Wales), overriding objections and making yet another top-down imposition on the area would provoke entirely justifiable anger.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The shows must go on

Another day, another festival cancellation. The organisers of Dials may have had little option but to pull the plug on this year's event, but it's a great shame given the hard work that had evidently gone on behind the scenes (the line-up is to be revealed shortly as part of the commitment to promoting new artists) and the fact that it's always a fantastic day's entertainment. Refunds have been processed automatically, but I'd encourage any former ticket-holders who are able to do so to donate to Solent Mind, the charity to which festival profits go.

Nevertheless, as Rich Collins of Cosmic Carnage argued when I interviewed him a few days ago, the business of booking gigs can't stop. We all desperately need something to look forward to. In my case, that means rearranged Cardiff shows for Holy Fuck and Therapy? (19th January and 10th May respectively).

Meanwhile, festival organisers are also looking to the future. Primavera 2021 boasts a typically stunning bill: Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr, Beck, Shellac, Napalm Death, Einsturzende Neubauten, Iggy Pop, Fontaines DC, Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, The National, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Shame, Idles. Closer to home, Rockaway Beach has a fascinating assortment of artists booked for January, including Futureheads, Fat White Family, Sink Ya Teeth, Imperial Wax, Big Joanie and The Vaselines.

If, as the author of that Breaking Glass piece says, putting together festival previews in the current context involves "a certain amount of trepidation", then that's obviously all the more the case when it comes to planning festivals in the first place. Hats off to those fearless souls armed with sufficient conviction, courage and (let's face it) optimism to think that they will happen. In comparison, buying a ticket hardly constitutes taking a risk at all.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

A twist in the tale

So much for novels that appear to have predicted the coronavirus pandemic - what of those set in the present day that were works in progress before it struck and are now having to be substantially rethought and reshaped? The Guardian's Alison Flood has spoken to a host of authors whose best-laid plans have been at least disrupted and at worst thrown into complete disarray.

As Holly Watt notes, there's a real dilemma: "It feels odd to be writing about people hopping on trains or popping to the pub, but focusing on Covid might make it date hideously. But if you don't mention it, it is the massive elephant in the room." Even trying to imagine what life might be like in three months is extremely difficult. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid anachronisms - one being taken by many authors, it seems - is to shift the setting to the recent pre-pandemic past or an alternative present.

An arguably more significant challenge is highlighted by Sarah Vaughan: "I can't make my characters exist without interaction. While, for instance, I can edit out cheek kisses because this may no longer seem the norm, my characters need to meet, to row, to fight, to make love - and in a thriller, to murder. There will be insufficiently little exciting plot, in other words, if they can't interact as they did pre-Covid." In this view, the pandemic is threatening fiction's very machinery, the devices that writers often rely on to create a story.

However, coronavirus is also likely to prove to be a source of literary inspiration. As much as "balcony romance" Love In Lockdown sounds like awful opportunistic tripe, there can be no doubt that the crisis has brought individuals into (socially distanced) contact with others with whom they previously had no interaction, and put ordinary people into unexpected and extraordinary situations. Such is the stuff of fiction.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Jesus, Krist

It remains utterly incredible - and profoundly troubling - to me that that thin-skinned, power-crazed fascist apologist is spouting his inflammatory rhetoric and throwing his toddler tantrums not on the political margins but from within the Oval Office. What's even more appalling, though, is that his behaviour - most recently, demanding "domination" over aggrieved Black Lives Matter protesters and ordering police to fire teargas and rubber bullets at those inadvertently standing in the way of a grotesquely cynical photo op - is still being received approvingly by large numbers of Americans, including some who you would have thought (or hoped) were decent and rational.

Quite how anyone - let alone a former member of a celebrated punk band - could claim that in his Rose Garden speech yesterday Trump "knocked it out of the park" is beyond me. And yet, according to Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, the president's words were laudably "strong and direct", aimed at defusing the tension and violence. This, despite the fact that Trump barely alluded to George Floyd and glossed over police brutality and endemic racism entirely, preferring instead to threaten to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would permit the use of the US military against the country's own people - and despite the fact that, as he spoke, only a few blocks away, police were actively demonstrating just how much of "an ally of all peaceful protesters" he really is.

When Novoselic - who went further, muttering about "leftist insurrection" - was subsequently called out for his comments by disbelieving fans, he insisted that his Facebook page "is not a parody account - and certainly not a partisan echo chamber. I prefer to think for myself thank you." He appears to have mistaken rank stupidity for bold independence of thought.

It pains me to say it, but it seems my generation's Smiths now have their Morrissey.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Chaos theory

Like Hannah Ewens, myself and millions of others, promoter Rich Collins is desperately missing live music. For an article for Buzz, I spoke to the man behind Cosmic Carnage about the joys of gigs, the short- and long-term impact of coronavirus and the raffle he's organising to raise much-needed funds for the two venues that play host to his shows, the Moon in Cardiff and the Windmill in Brixton.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Withdrawal symptoms

For an incorrigible gig-goer like myself, this love letter to live music makes for painful reading: a succinct summary of what makes it so special and why online performances can never be a remotely adequate substitute.

As the article's author Hannah Ewens says, it's precisely because live music "is so contingent on other people and their physical presence" that it may be one of the very last things to return in the aftermath of coronavirus. All we can do is what she suggests: cling on to the belief that "there is a future where I'm half-cut, watching some artist - a band, literally any tolerable band - at a soulless O2 Academy with an irresponsibly oversized-and-priced two-pint special in each hand". At the present moment, I wouldn't even care if they were tolerable and the pints were Carling.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

"Consequences matter"

(The world doesn't really need someone else sounding off about the issue, but still... I've been absolutely incandescent for the last week and need to get this off my chest for my own sanity.)

The thing that infuriated me most about the Dominic Cummings affair wasn't that he flagrantly flouted the lockdown rules - rules that he himself helped to set.

It wasn't even that he then stubbornly refused to do the only decent thing: apologise and resign.

It was the barrage of nonsense, obfuscation and literally incredible lies that he deployed in brazenly insisting that he didn't in fact break the rules, thereby gaslighting the public to add gross insult to injury - and then it was the way that Boris Johnson and Tory ministers parroted his bullshit, claimed he'd satisfactorily explained his actions and urged us all to move on.

Let's be clear: this is about much more than just Cummings, a shadowy unelected puppet-master with a grotesque sense of personal privilege and entitlement. It's about how Johnson and his government have been prepared to trash scientific guidance and (without doubt) sacrifice lives just to save the skin of a single adviser. And, as James Butler has made clear in a searing piece for the Guardian, it's symptomatic of "the sheer openness of political cynicism" and of a system that seems to be corrupt to the core. How can we continue to have any faith in democracy when its representatives can act with impunity and spout blatant lie after blatant lie safe in the knowledge that they can get away with it?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Who's that girl?

One of the many lockdown projects yet to be achieved round these parts is finally - three and a half years after we moved in - getting pictures old and new up on the walls. Several recent purchases first need framing: a flyer-sized copy of a Sonic Youth gig poster designed in signature style by Jason Munn; prints by photographers Robin Weaver and Peter Mitchell; and a large signed poster of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's Girl On A Spacehopper, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the Amber Collective, of which she is a key member.

The famous image, taken in Byker in 1971, instantly evokes the free-spirited independence of youth, and pays testimony to the ability of children to bring light and life to the most mundane and drab of settings. Konttinen's camera permanently suspends the girl in mid-air, ensuring she never has to come back down to earth. Here she talks about the circumstances in which the picture was taken, and the mysterious identity of its subject.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"Endearingly understated"

Steve Buscemi is the sort of actor whose mere presence makes any film worth watching, but he's not someone you often read about or hear from out of character - which is why I enjoyed his interview with GQ writer and New York neighbour Gabriella Paiella.

Here's her memorable description of her lunch date: "At 62, Buscemi has spent a lifetime playing lunatics and weirdos, outcasts and oddballs, his wiry frame a guitar string thrumming with rage or taut with the deep discomfort of simply existing in the world. The crown jewels of his visage are his heavy-lidded blue eyes, one of the most recognizable sets in the business, which can jut out maniacally or drown in subdued sorrow. When he pulls off his black baseball cap, I'm struck by how muted and relaxed his features are, as if they've all agreed to a nonaggression pact."

Buscemi might be a big-name movie star, but in person he's evidently anything but. His background as a firefighter has been well publicised (though not by him) - not least because, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he instantly put himself forwards to help out former colleagues and fellow New Yorkers. That he comes across as unassuming and unfailingly modest - or that it was he who was anxious about meeting Phoebe Waller-Bridge at an awards ceremony, rather than the other way around - is no surprise.

Strange to think that if he hadn't been hit by a bus as a child, we may never have seen him on our screens - it was the compensation that covered the cost of his acting classes and helped him to find his real calling.

Top of the top of the pops

Way back in 2005, as we edged closer to the 1,000th No. 1 single since the UK charts began, I joined other music nerds in ranking my top 100. Fast forward to 2020, and the Guardian is publishing its own list, with the contributions canvassed from its sizeable pool of music writers.

Yesterday, they reached #9 in the countdown: ABBA's 'Dancing Queen', which topped the pile for me - a judgement I very much still stand by. Jude Rogers' accompanying piece outlines the song's genius, as well as its reception and cultural impact. The comments from contemporary Creem and Sounds critics unable to deny its brilliance reminded me of Pitchfork's retrospective review of the album on which it appeared, Arrival, by Simon Goddard, who hailed it (quite rightly) as "one of the greatest pop records ever made".

Scanning the Guardian's list, it's interesting (and occasionally horrifying ) to see which chart-topping singles from the last 15 years appear to have assumed iconic status and which older tracks might be fading in popularity as the decades pass. If it was down to me, for instance, Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love', Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' and Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' would all be placed a lot higher. The latter is described not unjustifiably as "completely inexplicable" - but it's certainly not as inexplicable as the fact that 'Old Town Road' is perched at #19...

Monday, May 25, 2020

Read it and weep

The observation, in this article on small-scale radical presses, that "the current crisis in publishing is not in itself a publishing crisis - yet - it is a crisis of distribution" chimes with my own anecdotal evidence from within academic journal publishing. While coronavirus is undoubtedly affecting submission rates, the peer review process, turnaround times and modes of production, its biggest impact is currently on means of delivery. Unable to guarantee that hard copies will be reliably transported and safely received at institutional and academic addresses, some publishers have taken the understandable decision to stop printing.

At a time when many people are consuming far more books than they normally would, radical publishers - described by the article's author John Merrick as "in many ways the cultural and intellectual lifeblood of the industry" - are experiencing a dramatic drop in sales. The hope for such publishers, and academic publishers generally, is that a recovery will come when distribution improves and bookshops and universities reopen for business. But, of course, that depends on there still being a market - and, with higher education institutions staring financial meltdown in the face, and budgets likely to be slashed and numbers of students and staff both reduced, it's hard to see where salvation will come from.

Merrick argues for the need for internal cultural change as well as external intervention, concluding that "the coming few months will be decisive for the future of the book trade". The signs don't look good.

(Thanks to Craig for the link.)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

"He never got to be shit"

I don't suppose many people would have had Ian Curtis down as a prankster fond of "really puerile, childish" practical jokes like "putting jam on the car door handles". But, talking to Mark Beaumont for an Independent feature marking the 40th anniversary of Curtis' death, Stephen Morris is determined to dispel some myths and paint a truer portrait of the singer: "The one thing that really upsets me about the general perception of Joy Division and Ian in particular is that he always comes across as a morose, depressed individual, a tortured artist, where he was anything but. We joined a band to have fun and that was what we were doing. He was always having a laugh, he told terrible jokes."

Their former bandmate, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, talks of the real Ian Curtis in equally surprising terms - as a "wonderful kitten of a man" who was "very, very likeable". Morris and Hook agree that their frontman was a passionate and driven individual, though, and that he became a completely different person when he stepped onto a stage. Morris refers to him as "this force of nature", while Jon Savage - author of recent Joy Division oral history This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else - describes the dramatic transformation from a punter's perspective: "He puts himself into this state and it's completely riveting to watch because you don't know where it's going to go, it's quite dangerous and it was in fact dangerous to him. Every gig was different and Ian was, in a way, burning himself up."

Such was the intensity of their music that Curtis' bandmates often had no idea what he was singing about. On the odd occasion when the words were decipherable through the din, though, they recognised Curtis was a special lyricist - even if they didn't realise he was giving vent to his own feelings rather than voicing those of characters he'd created. This was, Morris and Hook agree, symptomatic of their tight-lipped northern masculinity, and the cause of some sadness and regret, for Morris at least: "Towards the end, afterwards, and particularly nowadays, I sometimes wonder if I ever knew him at all, because he went through writing all those lyrics and I honestly thought they were about somebody else, and afterwards, sitting down and listening to Closer, you think, 'Fucking hell, how did I miss this?'"

While Hook seems to have been selfishly aggrieved by Curtis' suicide ("Playing [Joy Division's] music is fantastic because it gave me back something that I had so cruelly taken off me, which was Closer"), Morris sees it as a strange kind of blessing: "For me the great thing about Ian is that he never got to be shit."

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Behind the facades

Many a photographer has headed to Detroit with the intention of capturing its fading glory and sharp decline. The approach taken by Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese was different: publishing a selection of images found lying around inside the city's abandoned and crumbling buildings.

The pictures themselves are profoundly unsettling, both in terms of their content and their condition. The commentary provided by this American Suburb X editorial is perfect in flagging up the human tragedy that is all too often ignored or forgotten by those (myself included, at times) guilty of romanticising the ruins: "The majestic decay of lavish theaters, incomprehensibly large car plants, and skyscrapers of former luxury are not to be found here. Instead there is loss on a human scale and a price paid in wreckage, decay and human blood. The beauty of this collection is in the physical degradation of images, which act as companions to and reflections of the city's precipitous decline, and the assaults on the quality of life possible in such an environment."

The editorial continues: "It seems that Arcara and Santese realized that their own photographs, no matter how strong, could never equal the beauty and power in these remnants of lives lived and impacted by a city that is imploding." Like Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon in Handsworth in the 1970s, they appear to have understood that sometimes the best thing a photographer can do is to keep his or her camera in its case and instead let subjects speak for themselves (albeit unwittingly, in this case). Rather than framing images, their role was to frame the collection and bring it to wider attention.

(Thanks to Jon for the link.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Peak Nasty Party

The Guardian's Lucy Mangan perhaps summed it up best, in a response to Priti Patel: "You and your party are a piece of fucking work, lady. A piece of fucking work."

Of all the incomprehensibly grotesque things the Tories have done since getting back into power in 2010, little can rank as highly as the decision to push through their Immigration Bill at a time of national crisis when supposedly "low-skilled" immigrants are among those literally putting their lives on the line so that the country can continue to function. To do so - and, moreover, to crow about it - at the same time as designating them key workers and urging the public to clap for carers working in an NHS starved of funds by the Tories themselves is the absolute height of obscene hypocrisy.

The term "low-skilled" should be consigned to the bin - it simply means "low-paid", but is used as a crude means of discriminating between "good immigrants" and "bad immigrants". What matters is merely what they have to "offer" - which, in the Tories' language, is purely financial. The implication, of course, is that immigrants sponge off the state, taking more from the country than they give back - a myth that bears no relation to the facts, and one that has been fundamentally exposed by the current crisis, in which thousands of immigrants are proving critical in propping up our economy. The only justification for continuing to pursue the Immigration Bill, it seems, is small-minded and self-sabotaging xenophobia.

The impacts of the bill will be devastating and wide ranging (for instance, it constitutes another savage blow to the head for the UK's live music industry at a time when it's already on its knees). Patel's claim that "We're ending free movement to open Britain up to the world" is absurd Orwellian rhetoric of the highest order - by removing the freedom of EU citizens to move here and also of UK citizens to move to the EU, the Tories are cutting us off. It's the whole Brexit project in a nutshell: mistaking pathetic, jingoistic insularity for proud independence.

If there's a glimmer of hope, it's that the move may be out of step with public opinion. In a recent poll conducted for the thinktank British Future and King's College London's Policy Institute, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that "the coronavirus has made me value the role of 'low-skilled' workers, in essential services such as care homes, transport and shops, more than before" - with only 9 per cent disagreeing. Perhaps even traditional Tory voters are finally waking up to their bullshit and ready to give them the boot when the opportunity next arises.

Monday, May 18, 2020

No stranger than fiction

What does it feel like to have written and published a novel about a deadly global pandemic shortly before the emergence and spread of coronavirus? "Unnerving", Lawrence Wright admitted in an interview with the Guardian's Adrian Horton. "It was meant to be a warning cry, when we weren't buffeted by all this dire news. Whenever I open the paper it feels like I'm reading my own book. It's weird."

The End Of October predicts much of the current situation, but Wright modestly refused to take the credit. Instead, he attributed his supposed prescience to the opinions of experts he gathered during the course of a typically diligent research process, as well as to "lucky guesses".

And what of the novel's marketability? "There are going to be a lot of people who aren't emotionally ready to read this book", he said. The mere thought of doing so makes me flinch - not least because, on the evidence of Horton's article, it sets out in horrific detail how much worse things might still get.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

User error

"Spotify should pay artists fairly": a complaint/rallying cry you hear often from artists themselves, as well as many others - myself included. But what does that actually mean? In an article remarkable for its clear and sober analysis of the key issues, Stuart Dredge of Music Ally sets out to correct some misconceptions and consider how musicians could be better recompensed.

First and foremost, he points out that "Spotify doesn't pay artists or songwriters directly. It pays labels, distributors, publishers and collecting societies, and they then pay musicians" Neither does it pay per stream; in fact, artists receive a share of a royalties pool based on the service's overall streaming figures.

Your knee-jerk reaction, like mine, might be to see these as pedantic if technically correct observations on a business model that allows Spotify to act in a weaselly way. However, for instance, Dredge's first point helps to draw attention to the fact that the levels of payment received by artists are at least partially determined by the contracts they have with the various middlemen - in other words, something over which Spotify has no control but the artists, to some extent, did at the point they were drawn up and agreed.

"The key question to focus on", Dredge contends, is "how Spotify can increase the size of its royalties pool". While the company could arguably pass a higher proportion of its earnings on to artists, the main way in which this increase could be achieved is by raising more revenue from consumers - whether by bumping up the cost of a subscription (which, let's admit it, is incredibly low given the wealth of content to which it gives you access) or enticing/forcing many more free users to switch to the paid model. Dredge doesn't spell it out, but there's an uncomfortable truth to be confronted here (one I've previously hinted at myself) - namely, that if artists are being unfairly paid, then the behaviour of so-called music fans is at least as much to blame as unscrupulous corporations and middlemen.

There have been other mooted solutions - a larger share of streaming royalties or user-centric models, for instance - but, as Dredge underlines, these bring with them their own complications and headaches and raise more questions than they answer. Ultimately, the takeaway from a refreshingly calm and nuanced piece is that the onus is on us consumers to change our ways as much as on Spotify to change theirs.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Capturing coronavirus close to home

As a photographer driven by the desire to document the world around you, what do you do when that world shrinks? Or, as Cardiff photographer Glenn Edwards put it in a recent WalesOnline article: "This most important, horrendous story in our history was unfolding in front of our eyes but we couldn't see it, only the consequence of it, but somehow we had to record and capture the story for future generations, for history, but how?" It's a question implicitly asked by the Guardian in this article, featuring 11 photographers' responses to lockdown.

For many, the pandemic's impact has been devastating. Nadav Kander is not alone in finding that "all my projects and the work I had just absolutely evaporated". But for Newsha Tavakolian, it's imperative that photographers don't despair and down tools but instead try to kindle and pursue their creative urges: "If I can say one thing to other photographers and artists, it's that they must act before this lifestyle becomes normal. Now is the best time to do projects, because everything is new. You've got to capture that before you lose your appetite."

There are obviously severe limitations on the sort of projects that are achievable, but that isn't stopping people from (for instance) taking portraits from outside windows looking in or (like Edwards) from inside windows looking out. Only a small handful of photographers, such as Murdo MacLeod, have had access to hospital wards and been able to chronicle the horrors of life and death on the frontline; the vast majority have been stuck in and around their homes, forced by the circumstances to focus on the minutiae, "the consequence".

However, for Alys Tomlinson, at least, it's been a revelation: "After the lockdown is over, I'll probably look more towards stories around me. In the past, I've never felt that inspired by what's on my doorstep, but you don't have to go to the Amazon or Antarctica to make interesting pictures." Perhaps lockdown is making us all keener observers of our immediate surroundings.

Friday, May 15, 2020

On the margins of rock history

This article on the late Little Richard by Tavia Nyong'o, while not a wholesale corrective to pieces like Bob Stanley's, certainly presents a fascinating alternative thesis. In Nyongo's view, "Rock 'n' roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him". As the title of the article has it, he was simply "too black, too queer, too holy" to fit neatly into rock critics' cut-and-dried frameworks.

For example, the widespread dismissal of Little Richard's religious phases, Nyong'o claims, was not necessarily a matter of the music lacking intrinsic merit but perhaps more "motivated by the artist's own declaration that his gospel records and ministerial career represent a recantation of his wild and wayward life as a rock 'n' roller; the prodigal son's return". In other words, critics were stung by the way in which Little Richard undermined the foundational narratives of the genre, especially having been at other times an enthusiastic exponent of excess - because those foundational narratives were what their own careers were built on.

Perhaps the major contribution of Nyong'o's piece, however, is the way in which it dispels the myth that Little Richard came from nowhere. On the contrary, he evidently stood on the shoulders of others before him - "transgressively queer performers of a bawdy, sped-up blues" who, like "the black publics they performed it for, were overlooked by a generation of white male critics and collectors eager to fetishise the rural: Robert Johnson standing at a lonesome crossroads in the Mississippi Delta". As is so often the case, it seems, an artist universally lauded as a pioneer - so much so that he earned the titles "The Originator" and "The Innovator" - was actually pioneering only insofar as he brought niche underground culture into the mainstream.

"Only" is perhaps the wrong word, though - to do what Little Richard did is fraught with risks, not least the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted by those appointed (whether by others or by themselves) as cultural guardians. Despite pointing out Little Richard's debt to his forefathers, Nyong'o doesn't downplay the musician's enormous significance as a supremely subversive figure even in the supposedly subversive world of rock 'n' roll.

(Thanks to Kev for the link.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Live left to die?

And so the news we really didn't want to hear has come to pass: Green Man has been cancelled, just two days after the plug was also pulled on the Reading and Leeds festivals. In truth, the writing has been on the wall for some time and it was only a matter of when, not if, the announcement was made - but that doesn't prevent me from moping. Last year's event marked my long-overdue return to the realm of Proper Festivals and was an absolute blast, and this year's bash promised much - not least a first opportunity to see Ty Segall in the flesh.

The organisers are promising that the festival will return in 2021 and have made clear that all tickets will remain valid. If, like us, you're in the fortunate position to be able to do so, please do show your support by holding on to your ticket rather than requesting a refund.

I'm trying to avoid dwelling on the depressing news stories, but sometimes it's hard not to. The fact is that a sector that was valued at a record £1.1 billion as recently as November is now staring apocalypse in the face, with a reported 98 per cent of the members of the Association of Independent Festivals lacking the insurance to cover cancellation in the case of a pandemic.

If there's a tiny glimmer of hope, it's that live music lovers are clearly doing what they can, with many choosing not to seek refunds - but sadly that will not be enough. Government bailouts are urgently needed in the form of loans and furlough funding (and changes that ensure wider eligibility) - but it remains to be seen whether the live music industry's pleas will be heard amid the general clamour for emergency financial assistance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

"I'm a key worker - I literally work with keys"

While there's no shortage of new comedy being made during coronavirus lockdown and posted online, there can't be many sitcoms that have made the transition from TV to the internet, let alone done so successfully. I found Channel 4's Stath Lets Flats to be a little hit and miss (even if the hits were brilliant), but this short lockdown special is absolute perfection from start to finish, from Dean's reference to "that tiger dickhead", and Carol Collins testing her Zoom audio, to Katia explaining that scuttling is her preferred form of exercise.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Jolly fucker baker

As concepts go, baking with Jason Williamson is definitely one to be found on Alan Partridge's dictaphone. And yet, somewhat unexpectedly, it turns out that the Sleaford Mods wordsmith is an avid cake creator who in an interview with the Quietus' J R Moores has described the pastime as "really therapeutic".

That said, the quotes are unmistakeably Williamson and, as the opening paragraph puts it, the article runs through "the kind of baking advice you don't get from Mary Berry". Take, for example, his guidance on the fine art of mixing: "You can't be twatting about with these things. My ex-brother-in-law once asked me, 'How do you do it?' and I said, 'The key is not to kiss the cunt.' Don't kiss it. Don't show it any affection. Show it no mercy. Mix it. Get those ingredients in. Bang! Bang!"

He's wrong about cookies, his alter ego Baking Daddy is a bit unsettling and there really is such a thing as too much icing - but I'm with him on the stressfulness and aggravation of attempting to make cakes with your children: "My wife calls it 'Baking With Hitler'. I start getting really, really irate because they're going, 'Let me roll it.' I'm like, no. Fuck off. Get out. 'Let me do that!' No. Get away from it. You're just going to mess it up. 'Let me stir this.' No, you can't. It's a bit of a fascist situation when the kids get involved. I just lose it."

In fairness, Alan, Tony Hayers is more likely to go with Baking With Jason Williamson than Baking With Hitler.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Survival instinct

Lord Of The Flies has exerted a powerful grip on the popular imagination ever since its publication in 1951 - so it's little wonder that a similar real-life scenario, discovered and subsequently recounted by Rutger Bregman in his book Humankind, has garnered a great deal of attention since this excerpt was published in the Guardian on Saturday.

There are significant differences between the fact and the fiction. While William Golding's novel paints a bleak and unsettling portrait of "the darkness of man's heart", tracing the swift descent of the marooned children into vicious savages, the six Tongan schoolboys stranded for more than a year on an uninhabited island in the mid-1960s all worked together for the communal good, displaying remarkable resourcefulness to survive in adverse conditions.

In the article Bregman openly admits that he needed to challenge the apparent truth that stands behind Lord Of The Flies - that humans are inherently selfish - if the thesis of his book was to have any credence. The Tongan tale fits the brief perfectly.

Indeed, perhaps a bit too perfectly. As consoling as Bregman's positive reading is, author Sarah Perry is among those who have taken issue with it: "doesn't the fact that a group of Tongan boys NOT raised in toxic imperialist private schooling made a better job of survival than Piggy and Ralph sort of prove Golding's point"? Bregman quotes the comment of the naval officer who rescues the castaways - "I should have thought ... that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that" - but (in the excerpt, at least) fails to acknowledge the implicit indictment of a specific set of cultural values rather than of humankind as a whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Little Richard, big legacy

"Little Richard and Florian Schneider gone in a week. The touch-paper for the whole damn 20th Century." So said Suede's Mat Osman on Twitter, and he's right. The man born Richard Penniman was not nicknamed "The Innovator" and "The Originator" for nothing, a showman with serious stage presence, and a fundamental influence on the Beatles, David Bowie and Prince among many others.

And yet, as Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley has underlined in his tribute to the "ultra-sexual force of anti-nature", Little Richard made plenty of missteps along the way - not least the decision he made in 1958, at the peak of his powers, to renounce rock 'n' roll and become a preacher. Thereafter, his career  - blighted by regular religious relapses and serious drug addiction - was "a neverending succession of comebacks". Some were moderately successful, but he never really recaptured the form of his 1950s heyday.

Saturday, May 09, 2020


Personally speaking, I'm missing gig venues and restaurants much more than cinemas, but there's certainly something to be said for the communal experience of watching a film together with lots of others at the same time and in the same physical space.

That's the motivation behind the Windowflicks initiative in Berlin, which involves films being projected onto the sides of buildings for the benefit of the city's residents, who watch out of windows and from balconies - thereby bringing a new more literal meanings to the term "home cinema" and "the best seat in the house".

Friday, May 08, 2020

Back to the future

Not for the first time, the death of a musician has left me cringing in shame at my own ignorance. Last week, it was pioneering Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen; this week, it was Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider.

While I have a rough working knowledge of Kraftwerk, I'm certainly not as familiar with their records and history as all of the tributes to Schneider suggest that any self-respecting music fan should be. (I'd particularly recommend Jude Rogers' for the Quietus, incidentally - complete with references to his shopping trip for asparagus with Iggy Pop and Mute's Daniel Miller buying his vocoder at auction.)

Plenty of bands develop a distinctive sound, but how many can justifiably claim to have invented or at least inspired whole genres? Kraftwerk's adventures in electronica may have spawned everything from synth pop to techno and hip hop, but what's struck me most over the past couple of days is their impeccable punk credentials.

After all, this is a group who were derided or dismissed by uncomprehending rockist critics but who determinedly did their own thing regardless. As their British TV debut underlined, they embraced a DIY ethic, dispensing with "recognisable" instruments in favour of devices they'd made themselves, thereby making a far more radical break with the past than first-wave punk ever did.

That that debut should have come on the BBC's Tomorrow's World is extraordinarily apt, given that what at the time might (must) have seemed to many ears like esoteric and bizarrely alien experiments in sound have come to shape large swathes of the contemporary musical landscape.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Holiday snaps

One thing's for sure: holidaying at Butlin's Skegness in 1982, as captured by photographer Barry Lewis in a new book, looks to have been a lot different to staying at Butlin's Minehead in the depths of winter for an ATP 30 or so years later. More family fun and Redcoat-inspired japes and less Japanese noise rock and late-night/early-morning chalet poker sessions with Steve Albini.

That said, Lewis' comment about every guest in 1982 seeming "determined to enjoy themselves to the full, whatever the weather" certainly rings true to my experience...