Monday, January 25, 2021

Videos killed made the radio stars

As is often noted, the internet moves in incredibly mysterious ways. No sooner has TikTok helped to propel sea shanties to popularity than it's done the same for a song by a bunch of Glaswegian art-rockers who released one studio album in 2001 to precious little popular or critical acclaim and split up the following year. Spotify streams for Life Without Buildings have skyrocketed - not, of course, that that will translate into an unexpected windfall for the band's former members.

As a middle-aged man baffled by modern life on a daily basis, I won't even pretend to understand what TikTok is (what's wrong with YouTube?) or what the teenagers' videos are about - but I will thank them (and this Guardian article by Jennifer Hodgson) for finally inducing me to listen to a band who had been on my radar for some time. However it finds its way to your ears, 'The Leanover' is worth hearing.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"His goal from early on was to introduce the whole world to each other"

I love house parties. Despite the anxiety resulting from the potential for calamity and chaos, I love hosting house parties. But I can't say that I'd be happy to host one every week for more than 40 years. Credit, then, to the late Jim Haynes, who did just that.

As Vicky Baker explains in an article for the BBC, the American had already lived a colourful, globe-trotting life before settling in Paris in 1969 and inviting complete strangers into his flat for dinner every Sunday night. The gatherings were his way of promoting a hippie vision of peace, love and understanding - of intercultural, international communication and of a world without borders. As Baker puts it, "He led the way in connecting strangers, long before we outsourced it all to Silicon Valley".

Fair play to him. I couldn't face the regular invasion of personal space or the tidying up.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Glastonburied

"We're so sorry to let you all down", wrote Michael and Emily Eavis in announcing "with great regret" that Glastonbury is off again and those fiftieth anniversary celebrations will have to be deferred for another year. The decision to cancel was enforced, of course, so no fault of theirs whatsoever - but it's worth remembering that it impacts not only punters and performers but also strikes a devastating blow for those who work behind the scenes making it all possible, whose livelihoods have completely evaporated.

Unsurprisingly, the news has prompted calls for more financial assistance for the music industry - and dire warnings of what might happen if it doesn't materialise. As UK Music chief executive Jamie Njoku-Goodwin told Music Week, "Without more government help, there is a real risk that some of our world-leading music scene will disappear forever."

Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals was also quoted in the article: "Considering its global cultural significance as the largest greenfield festival in the world, of course Glastonbury can set the tone, especially in terms of public confidence in festivals going ahead this year." Clearly its sheer scale makes ensuring compliance with COVID-19 guidelines particularly challenging - but the cancellation certainly doesn't give me much faith in the prospect of getting to go back to my happy place this summer: sitting watching bands on the Green Man Stage in the late-afternoon August sunshine, cold beer in hand. I've ordered some of their branded brews, but they won't taste the same.

At least we have the Festival of Brexit to look forward to in 2022, though, eh? Given the way that the Tories have totally (and seemingly vindictively) shafted the music industry over visas, I can't see musicians queuing up to contribute to the festivities, can you?

No change

By rights, I should love Osees (Thee Oh Sees, Oh Sees etc etc) and maybe one day John Dwyer will finally win me round. But Metamorphosed - an imbalanced curio at the end of a lengthening line of LPs - isn't really the release to do the trick.

Friday, January 22, 2021

"A pernicious infamy"

As understatements go, describing spousal abuser and convicted murderer Phil Spector as "flawed" was right up there. As editorial decisions go, suffice to say it's not one the BBC should be particularly proud of. At least they had the decency to swiftly change their article about his death and subsequently issue an apology, I suppose.

For the Guardian's Laura Snapes, Spector's enduring legacy is not the famous "wall of sound" production style or the drumbeat on The Ronettes' 'Be My Baby', but "music industry abuse going unchecked because the art is perceived as worth it - or worse, considered 'proof' of wild and untameable genius". She argues that he "created not just a sound but the enduring paradigm of the exploitative music svengali whose work is too lucrative for him to be held to account, his victims little more than unfortunate collateral".

The long list of men who have followed in his footsteps proves her point - that a reverence for artistic talent and/or a preoccupation with commercial interests regularly results in turning a blind eye to unacceptable behaviour, the victims of which are all too often women.

Snapes suggests that perhaps the solution lies in "a more collectivist view" that abandons what Jen Calleja has called "the cult of the individual" and instead acknowledges the fundamentally collaborative nature of the creative process. In doing so, she adds an extra dimension to Calleja's case for recognising the input and work of others rather than giving (or seeking) sole credit.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

"The new dawn blooms"

While politics (and life in general) at home may continue to be a total shitshow courtesy of the relentlessly incompetent, self-serving Tories, there is at least better news across the pond, with the Tango Toddler and his cronies evicted from the White House and someone unsympathetic to Nazis and capable of composing a coherent sentence moving in.

As suggested by 'The Hill We Climb', the extraordinary poem that Amanda Gorman performed at the inauguration ceremony, America seems like a nation groggily waking up from a four-year-long nightmare. Joe Biden has wasted no time whatsoever in getting down to the challenging business of undoing the damage that Trump caused, and no doubt there will be difficult days and weeks ahead - but at long last it feels as though there's reason to be hopeful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

We're not gonna take it

As satisfying as it is to see Leave-endorsing chump Roger Daltrey with egg all over his face, having previously insisted that Brexit had nothing to do with "the rock business", we should remember that the circumstances that have led to his humiliating change of tune are not to be celebrated: a political act so heinously harmful to the British music industry that it looks deliberate and calculated rather than yet another instance of crippling incompetence.

Leaving Daltrey aside to stew in his own hypocrisy, it is at least pleasing that mainstream musicians of the stature of Ed Sheeran and Elton John are supporting the petition demanding visa-free tours of the EU. After all, they're not the ones who stand to suffer the most, relatively speaking - but they do potentially have the clout to help make the plea heard, even by the cynical, cloth-eared culturephobes in government.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Tribute acts

Musicians might not be able to tour the nation's venues, but Gigwise can - metaphorically speaking, at least. In a recent article, an assortment of contributors have written "love letters to our independent venues" - those that form the beating heart of the nation's industry.

Cardiff is (inevitably) represented by my regular haunt Clwb Ifor Bach, whose expansion plans are understandably on hold, while there are also tributes to the Night & Day and the Deaf Institute in Manchester, the Thekla in Bristol and the Chameleon in Nottingham - all places I'd love to see a gig. To be honest, though, I'd love to see a gig anywhere at the moment - any cavernous, characterless box plastered in corporate branding and serving up lukewarm cooking lager for £5.50 a pint, surrounded by gormless, chattering numpties.

That's partly why the article - presumably intended as a celebration - was actually a painful read, for me at least. It was a tiny sample of all of the venues up and down the country whose doors are currently shut - many of which, in all likelihood, will never reopen. Here's hoping that none of these tributes end up being eulogies.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Troubles-gum

Simon Young's new biography of Therapy?, So Much For The 30 Year Plan, is one of many books on my current wishlist - not least because I loved them for most of the first decade (the brilliance of 1994's Troublegum in particular remains undimmed) but have largely lost touch with them for the last two and so would be intrigued to know what they've been up to.

In a Quietus article marking the book's publication, Eamon Sweeney has taken an interesting angle, focusing on how the band's origins in conflict-torn Northern Ireland shaped their identity and on how they managed to rise above and escape the sectarian violence.

It's not clear whether this is a significant thread within the book itself, but either way it made me think of Paul Ferris' The Boy On The Shed, which I read last year. Much more than merely the memoir of a failed-footballer-turned-physio, the early section of Ferris' book contained some fascinating and often moving insights into what it was like to grow up during the Troubles.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Weirdo rippers

Pom Poko hadn't exactly passed me by, but in truth I'd never fully followed up on the glowing recommendations of friends who'd had the pleasure of seeing the Norwegians live. More fool me. New album Cheater is an invigorating blast of freedom to alleviate the lockdown tedium of a January that is even more January-y than normal.

Also reviewed for Buzz this week are solo records by former Efterklang frontman Casper Clausen and Chris Brokaw, previously of alt-rock luminaries Codeine and Come.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Seasidelined

As someone working in the creative arts, it must be galling to accept/win a commission and deliver on the brief, only for the results to be rejected. That's what happened to photographer Michael Bennett - a decision that seems even more bizarre when you consider the quality of the photo series he produced in 1979 in response to a commission from the Mostyn gallery in Llandudno.

Assigned the task of capturing "the melancholy of seaside resorts out of season", he did just that - only to discover that they apparently didn't want the "reality, grit and detail" that makes the images so striking.

The episode was compounded by the fact that the gallery then commissioned Bennett to submit a second set of photos taken in the summer, but felt that those too were not good enough to form a solo exhibition.

Thankfully, the two series have now effectively been rediscovered and reevaluated thanks to a speculative submission to the Turner Contemporary's exhibition Seaside Photographed last year and then the article on the BBC site. Wider exposure and recognition of their worth was both deserved and long overdue.

(Thanks to Jon for the link.)

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Spineless and spiteful

I know that by now I shouldn't be remotely surprised by anything the Tories do. I know that. And yet the revelation that they not only rejected the EU's offer of visa-free tours for musicians but also had the sheer gall to blame the EU for the decision beggars belief.

For an industry already on its knees, this is a staggering blow - a petty, pathetic consequence of the government's pig-headed pursuit of "sovereignty" (whatever the fuck that actually means) by ending freedom of movement for all.

Given the enormous contribution of the music sector to the UK economy (compared to that of the fishing industry, just to pluck an example from the air), it's not so much a case of shooting yourself in the foot as amputating your legs at the hip. It's also further proof that the Tories' war on culture is very real.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

"Imprints of life"

Abandoned buildings are honeypots for photographers, but how often do they really pay close attention to the finer details? Former council flat inspector Chris Walsh did, documenting discarded toys and the marks on walls left by removed furniture and pictures. The resulting images offer glimpses of the lives and identities of those who've passed on - hopefully to somewhere better, but often not.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

Apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic records - so it was cheering (in a perverse kind of way) to learn that Nick Cave has a new album called CARNAGE in the can.

Much as I've liked the last three records (Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen), they've all been muted and contemplative, and I've found myself praying for a return to the blood and thunder of the Bad Seeds' earliest releases and the period from No More Shall We Part until the second Grinderman album.

Probably best not to get hopes up just on the strength of that title, though - it sounds as though it's a collaboration with Warren Ellis rather than the full band. Plus, having experienced the disappointment of a Yo La Tengo album called There's A Riot Goin' On, I should have learned not to get too excited.

Cave's revelation that a new album is on the way came at the end of a Red Hand Files post about his experience of coronavirus and lockdown, which turned into a poignant, powerful ode to the joys of live music from the perspective of a performer: "There is a terrible yearning and a feeling of a life being half-lived. I miss the thrill of stepping onto the stage, the rush of the performance, where all other concerns dissolve into a pure animal interrelation with my audience. I miss the complete surrender to the moment, the loss of self, the physicalness of it all, the feeding frenzy of communal love, the religion, the glorious exchange of bodily fluids - and The Bad Seeds themselves, of course, in all their reckless splendour, how I miss them." Whatever it is, that first post-pandemic gig is going to feel amazing for performers and punters alike, isn't it?

Thursday, January 07, 2021

(We don't need this) fascist groove thang

If a world going up in flames in so many different ways is giving us anything, it's confirmation that a number of musicians really are the awful people many of us have long suspected them of being.

The pandemic has seen cantankerous, boorish interviewee Van Morrison taking aim at scientists in a trio of anti-lockdown songs and teaming up with legendary racist Eric Clapton for another, while Ian Brown's conspiracy theorist jibberings on Twitter have suggested he's swapped his bucket hat for a tinfoil one.

And now it's Ariel Pink's turn to out himself as a prick - or at least do so more visibly than ever before. The enormously overrated yacht rocker was present for yesterday's extraordinary storming of the Capitol, though has since claimed he was only there to show support for Trump "peacefully".

As the NME have reported, though, Pink has form for self-consciously provocative and contrarian statements, and continuing his public endorsement of the tango fascist is just another example. It's more than six years since he insisted to the Guardian's Rhik Samadder "I'm not that guy everyone hates", but he's still doing a terrible job of proving it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

"Such a wonderful success, and yet an abject failure"

"If you can remember the '60s, you weren't there" - or so the saying goes. You might imagine the same would be true of the Hacienda - yet Daniel Dylan Wray somehow managed to round up enough people with memories of the legendary Manchester club to be able to assemble a decent oral history for Vice. Even more remarkably, one of them was Bez.

Another - Factory Records partner and famed graphic designer Peter Saville - talks effusively about how, largely with money generated from records sales following Ian Curtis' death, architect/designer Ben Kelly transformed a vacant former boat showroom into "the only nightclub space that I've ever been in that looked better in daylight". He also acknowledges, however, that the Hacienda's vastly over-budget design and decor initially baffled and bemused local youths, revealing to the Factory crew that "there was a sort of middle-class intellectual conceit around the idea of the celebration of industrial culture". (A fetishisation that, incidentally, continues today - see Working Men's Club...)

From the outset, the club adopted an unusually inclusive policy as regards clientele and music. DJ Dave Haslam describes it as "a very enabling experience" and a place characterised by "passionate, endearing amateurism". Conventional management strategies and even turning a profit were never much of a consideration - instead, the Hacienda was what Saville calls "a socio-cultural benevolence to the young people of Manchester".

Nevertheless, it initially struggled to attract big crowds, barely scraping by until everything changed with the explosion of acid house and pills and the birth of Madchester. Those halcyon days couldn't last, of course. There followed guns and violence, with the club at the centre of turf tribalism - not helped by Tony Wilson actively inviting a gang from Salford to run the door... Yet even then DJ Paulette recounts a different, unfamiliar story - of the "really lovely, non-aggressive environment" of the pioneering LGBT club night Flesh.

You might have expected the interviewees to have shot 24 Hour Party People down for its representation of the place, especially as the set was constructed through internet research rather than paying for Kelly's help. Yet Kelly himself says he was "absolutely gobsmacked" at an "amazing job", and Bez too describes it as "uncanny". Perhaps most telling, though, is the anecdote from the venue's former bar manager Leroy Richardson: "I was on set for the film, and stood near the bar as I normally would have been, and Bernard from New Order came up to me and asked for a drink. I had to explain to him I wasn't working there." The Hacienda may be no more, but it clearly lives on on celluloid.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Wild at heart?

The Broadmarsh was on a downward spiral even when I was still living in Nottingham, more than 15 years ago - and now the tatty and obsolete shopping centre is no more. According to City Council leader David Mellen, its long-overdue demolition presents "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine a significant space right in the heart of one of the country's core cities and build a new vision for urban areas following the coronavirus that is people centred and green but also leads to jobs and housing, improving quality of life".

So far, so sound-bitey. But the plans put together by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust and local landscape architects Influence do genuinely merit being described as "radical": not just an identikit, sanitised urban park of the sort you might find anywhere/everywhere, but wild woodlands, wetlands and meadows.

Mellen's mention of coronavirus is significant. Before the pandemic, the area - very central, and a short stroll from the train station - would no doubt have been prized as ripe for conventional development into shops, offices or flats (or, most likely, a combination of all three). But COVID-19 looks set to catalyse a general and seismic shift in urban living, working and shopping habits/trends, which presumably means that the value of the land has plummeted - and, consequently, that the Trust's proposals stand a much better chance of becoming reality.

There are obviously barriers still to be overcome. But pursuing these plans would be a way for the City Council to demonstrate concrete commitment to their green ambitions, which include making Nottingham the UK's first carbon-neutral city. The creation of wild space would also transform Nottingham city centre into a more desirable place to live and work - and thereby help to mitigate against the anticipated drop in urban property/land prices.

Like many others, I'll be watching developments with interest.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Coronavirus and the creative urge

At the end of a horrific year, Nightshift editor Ronan Munro focused on "one crumb of positivity - the fact that music is still being made and still being played". Even in the desperate circumstances, musicians' apparently irrepressible urge to create - whether as a means of responding to and seeking to make sense of events, or of blotting out reality and instead finding distraction, comfort and escape - certainly is "something well worth celebrating".

In a statement to promote his new album By The Fire, Thurston Moore described the contents as "love songs in a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression". So it makes good sense that he should be the host of an episode of the BBC's Music Life podcast on the experience of making music during the pandemic. Joining the characteristically excitable Moore - who even at the age of 62 does still have what one guest called "the elf gene" - are musician friends Brix Start Smith (formerly of The Fall, now of Brix & The Extricated), Rachel Aggs (of Sacred Paws, Shopping, Trash Kit and more) and Stephen O'Malley (best known as a founder member of Sunn O)))).

All three guests lament how coronavirus and consequent lockdowns have robbed them of what they hold most dear about music. For O'Malley, it's travelling and meeting people, which Moore acknowledges is very often a catalyst for creativity; Aggs enjoys the feeling of collaborating together with others in the same physical space; and Smith values the connection with a live audience and a sense of presence above all else. O'Malley has at least had the opportunity to taste the largely forbidden pleasures by performing to reduced-capacity audiences in France - an experience that he describes as intense and emotional and for which he is profoundly grateful.

Smith admits to not taking much inspiration from politics, but for Moore there is an increasing "responsibility" on musicians in terms of providing what he terms "a politics of pleasure". Aggs offers the sharpest insight: "It's a bit of a luxury to be able to step away from politics in your work." As a queer female person of colour, she insists that "those identity things are always going to be present in what I do", arguing that "just existing, making noise, taking up space - that is political".

It's just a shame that the podcast feels so short - given the range of participants and the subjects touched upon, it could have comfortably been double the length without losing the listener's attention.

(PS Rachel, you've got the Chelsea Light Moving backstage pass because you supported them with Trash Kit at the Village Underground in London in June 2013. I should know - I was there. Fantastic gig it was, too.)

Friday, January 01, 2021

Spirit of independence

Let's start the new year with a good news story.

Back in May, when the effects of the first lockdown were already being felt, 60 per cent of small independent publishers were concerned that they would be out of business by the autumn, highlighting the crucial role of booksellers and literary festivals in their fortunes. But, against the odds and through a combination of innovative initiatives, emergency funding, crowdfunders, public support and sheer perseverance and hard work, most have survived - and some, such as Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose, have actually thrived. With another lockdown now in place, though, there's no room for complacency and indie presses continue to operate in incredibly challenging conditions.

At least the publishing industry can count on the support of an unlikely evangelist for the joys of books. East 17's Tony Mortimer had never actually finished a novel until last year - but once he started reading, he told the Guardian's Tim Jonze, he just couldn't stop. Mortimer sees reading fiction as "pure escapism" - something that many of us, having got through 2020 by burying our noses in books, can well understand.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

That was the year that was

If you can bear to revisit the global news stories of the last 12 months rather than simply banishing all thought of them, then there are some powerful and extraordinary images in this BBC selection showcasing the work of news agency photographers.

Who, at the turn of the year, could have foreseen that people would soon be embracing loved ones while separated by a plastic sheet, or that a metro train would be prevented from plunging of a raised platform by a sculpture of a whale's tail?

Of all of the pictures in the selection, my favourite is of a man diving off Stari Most into the River Neretva in Mostar as part of an annual competition. Photographer Damir Sagolj's timing is absolutely perfect, making it look as though the competitor has achieved the impossible and taken flight, soaring horizontally high above the heads of the spectators, rather than about to plummet down to the water below.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

"Not just something that we hear, but something that we feel"

When Jennifer Lucy Allan attended the 2013 performance of Foghorn Requiem, a composition that saw the Souter Lighthouse Foghorn backed by three brass bands and an assortment of ships at sea off the coast of the North East, it was a revelation. She had long been a foghorn fan, but this sealed the deal.

In a programme for BBC Radio, Allan succeeds in making what might seem an obscure and esoteric subject utterly fascinating. For her, foghorns don't merely have a rich resonance in sonic terms, as the creators/projectors of short blasts of low, droning whalesong sounding out across the waves. On the contrary, for many people - whether used to life by/at sea or not - they conjure up deep-seated feelings and memories: of adventure, of safety and danger, of comfort, of yearning, and of childhood.

Today, foghorns no longer perform any practical function, having been replaced by satellite navigation systems, and so are falling into obsolescence and silence. Allan's programme is a surprisingly moving eulogy for a large-scale musical instrument that, without the preservationary zeal of fellow enthusiasts, is in danger of disappearing altogether. As such, it serves as a tasty appetiser for her forthcoming book The Foghorn's Lament, due to be published by White Rabbit in May.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Creative control

Sometimes I wonder how much appeal self-reflexive fiction holds for readers who are neither writers nor literature students. Still, as one of the latter (some time ago) who still occasionally harbours fanciful notions of one day being the former, I'm automatically inclined to find such novels fascinating. Michael Frayn's The Trick Of It and Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal are much more than merely books about the nature and art of writing - but, when I read both in reasonably quick succession this summer, their similarities with regard to self-reflection seemed to leap out.

Frayn's is, without a doubt, more obviously a meditation on writing and the creative act. Comprising a series of letters written to a friend and fellow academic in Australia by a male literary critic whose life is devoted to the study of a single female author, the novel begins in a lighthearted fashion: playful and ostentatious witticisms, comic caricatures of university colleagues and a performative combination of mock-coy confessional, arch self-cross-examination and titillating detail that compromises the narrator's reliability.

As the book unfolds, though, it asks a serious question of the academic: when it comes to the subject of your critical interest, how close is too close - sharing a bed? After a romantic liaison, one thing leads to another and the unnamed letter-writer is united with the fictional novelist in marriage, initially lording it over his rivals at having "cornered the market, as it were". But his boastful pride soon descends into torment and paranoia when his wife starts writing a novel based on his own family. As fiction develops from fact "like mouldy bread growing fur", the tables are turned and he is profoundly disturbed at finding himself to be the powerless subject, the omnipotent author's plaything.

Heller's Booker Prize-winning novel Notes On A Scandal is in many respects strikingly similar. What starts out with a series of marvellously vivid, snobbish and bitchy portraits of schoolteachers from the perspective of their staffroom colleague Barbara Covett slowly reveals itself to be a kind of low-key psychological thriller, an unsettling insight into the dangerous and damaging real-life impacts that obsession and fiction can have.

When new member of staff Sheba Hart embarks upon an affair with a pupil, Barbara offers what appears to be a sympathetic ear. But while Sheba allegedly finds it "helpful ... to describe it all, exactly as it was", it emerges that in what she calls her "diary" Barbara is doing nothing of the sort, indulging in creative fantasy rather than faithfully transcribing truth. A particularly notable example of an unreliable narrator, the self-confessed loner is endlessly judgemental towards others, delusional and self-justifying with respect to her own actions, and motivated by a sinister lust for power and control that compels her to treat Sheba like a character in a story, to be moulded and manipulated.

"What you've really wanted", says Sheba bitterly towards the end, "is ... material." It's a painful lesson that Frayn's letter-writer also comes to learn, about both himself and his wife.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bad Good Moon rising

The pandemic, in conjunction with the alarming disappearance of a number of grassroots gig venues in Cardiff in recent years (Buffalo, Gwdihw, the Transport Club), had me fearing the worst for the Moon in particular. The fact that they changed their name of their Twitter to Is The Moon Back Open Yet? didn't help - the longer the answer has been "No", the more painful it's been.

So their Christmas email brought genuine festive cheer: news of renovations (flooring, toilets), improvements to the facilities (stage, lighting, projector and screen, air conditioning, seating) and even the transformation of a storeroom into a kitchen (complete with "a proper coffee machine") that will be serving vegan food by day and what they're calling "Music Community Suppers" by night. There are certainly worse sources of inspiration for a venture like this than the Night & Day Cafe in Manchester's Northern Quarter.

It's all been made possible thanks to a very timely injection of funding that has also helped them to look after staff and freelancers during the shutdown. Decent folk that they are, they also made a point of acknowledging their good fortune and directing readers to other less lucky venues in need of financial support.

All in all, a very welcome update offering light at the end of a long, dark tunnel and the prospect of one of my favourite little gig spaces in the UK not only surviving but thriving.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pop art

"I'm a naive self-taught artist that just paints the greatest hits of stuff I like." It's not like a former rock star to be modest and humble, especially one who seems to have found a second calling in life. But, on the evidence of this BBC profile, ex-60ft Dolls drummer (and near-neighbour of ours here in Canton) Carl Bevan has been taken aback by the response to the results of his decision to swap sticks for brushes.

This is presumably in part because his foray into painting has first and foremost been for personal reasons - a means of coping with the end of his musical career: "Finishing music was painful as it was my life but art quickly filled any void so I didn't miss it." As for so many people, he says that continuing to have an outlet for his creativity has been invaluable: "Painting has been amazing for my sanity, especially in lockdown."

Whatever the personal motivation for and benefits of his new pursuit, though, Bevan has clearly struck a chord with others, given how quickly prints of his pictures have sold out. Not bad for someone who claims to feel "like a caveman who has just discovered fire".

When it came to choosing one of his paintings for our wall, it wasn't much of a decision. A tribute to Cardiff gig-goers' Mecca Womanby Street entitled Gareth Bale, I Will Never Forgive You For Dempsey's? I was instantly sold.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Swimming against the tide

I can't think of a much worse job than having to wade through the fetid slurry of fake news, deliberate disinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories and patiently set out the reality. But to be relentlessly vilified, harassed and threatened for doing so? No thanks. It's a hell of a burden for the BBC's Marianna Spring, "a 24-year-old woman with a normal life", to have to cope with - as she recently made clear in an article for i.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Club classics

I've listened to pitifully little new music in 2020 for various reasons (see yesterday's post) so don't feel as though I've got a sufficient evidence base from which to put together end-of-year lists that would mean much. However, that's not going to stop me from naming my favourite album of those I've heard - and, fittingly enough, it's the self-titled debut from the very last act I saw live before coronavirus intervened.

Rarely can a band have been so evidently shaped by the geographical location of their birthplace than Working Men's Club. Todmorden is equidistant from Manchester and Yorkshire, and they're a perfect confluence of influences: Mark E Smith vocals, post-punk gloom, dead-eyed Steel City disco, Hacienda/Factory Records graphics, a good dose of Northern grit and punch.

Every song is a killer - from the thumping 80s acid house of opener 'Valleys', a reminder that rave culture is alive and well in the sticks; through 'White Rooms And People', with its soaring synth-pop chorus, and 'Be My Guest', which throbs with menace like The Big Pink backed into a corner; to the blissfully expansive motorik shoegaze of 'Angel'. It's essentially everything Primal Scream have ever tried to do, all in a single album, and done better.

If you were being extremely cynical, you might suggest that the album is a retrogressive confection designed to push all the buttons of middle-aged music writers (hello!), and as such was always likely to generate a lot of frothing comment and column inches. And yet it's all so well executed that Working Men's Club is that rarest of things: a much-trumpeted record that not only fully deserves the hype but actually exceeds it.

Much has been made of the fact that Working Men's Club have grown up in public, having signed to Heavenly at a precious age, and the band effectively made the dramatic transformation from Joy Division to New Order before even releasing a record. There's more growing to come, for sure, but given that thus far they've been master of all trades, not merely jack, whatever direction they choose to take next seems guaranteed to excite.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Losing his religion?

I've written fairly regularly about the consequences of the pandemic for musicians and other music industry professionals - most recently in connection with the December issue of Nightshift. But what about those on the other side of the fence, so to speak: music consumers, with whom I can most closely identify?

In an article for the Quietus, regular contributor Daniel Dylan Wray gives an insight into - and attempts to make sense of - COVID-19's impact on his listening habits. "If anyone else has had a strange, strained and discombobulated relationship with one of the things you hold most dear to you during this tumultuous turd of a year", he says, "then fret not, you're not alone." An avowed obsessive, he admits that music has largely failed to fulfil its usual role as a source of sustenance and comfort, leaving him feeling jaded rather than energised.

Thankfully, though, he's gradually learned not to feel guilty at the unfamiliar disinclination to have new music on constant rotation and instead started to enjoy the silence: "This sense of letting go and embracing the disconnect, and subsequent void, allowed a gentle reset to take place."

I can't say that this particularly struck a chord personally - I'm not a 24/7 music listener at the best of times, and music has continued to be a reliable pick-me-up - but the principal reason that Wray posits to explain his own experience did ring true. He points out that the means by which to discover new music are normally legion, as are the physical spaces in which this discovery takes place. In 2020, however, "that process has been hacked down to nothing more than sitting in front of a computer screen at home. Reducing it to an utterly interchangeable and homogenised experience with everything else we do sat at home in front of a computer screen: emails, admin, meetings, online banking, Zoom quizzes, shopping etc."

We weren't far into lockdown when it dawned on me that I make the vast amount of my discoveries through going to gigs - which didn't bode well. And like Wray, I have had little enthusiasm for spending even more time online than I already do in pursuit of new sounds - not least because I often find the fact that there is so much instantly at my fingertips daunting rather than liberating, not knowing where to start. Add to that not being a habitual radio listener and trying to fit a dramatically increased workload around homeschooling and you have a recipe for hearing very little new.

My one saving grace has been a steady stream of review commissions for Buzz (courtesy of Wray's fellow Quietus contributor Noel Gardner), which has introduced me to a bunch of great albums, some of which I almost certainly wouldn't have come across otherwise (Fuzz, Late Night Final, Daniel Blumberg, Meilir, Young Knives, UniformThe Lemon TwigsAnna von Hausswolff, Gwenifer Raymond) and one that really had to be heard to be believed (William Shatner). Without that lifeline, 2020 would have undoubtedly been even bleaker.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Out of shot


Coronavirus lockdown restrictions had a profound impact on many - if not most - photographers. With international travel curtailed, the countryside largely off-limits, events cancelled and intimate interpersonal contact forbidden, best-laid plans and work-in-progress projects had to be shelved, and a shift of focus was needed. As was underlined by a Guardian feature published in May, not all were disheartened. On the contrary, for some, this presented an opportunity to experiment and innovate, while for others it was revelatory in bringing them to a more sensitive appreciation of their immediate surroundings.

By contrast, Jon Pountney barely had to break stride, immersed as he already was in documenting the world outside his window. I reported on his Treforest/Pontypridd-based lockdown project back in June, and now he's joined a number of other Welsh photographers in self-publishing his pictures in zine format.

To a large extent, it feels as though the publication simply picks up where his Chapter exhibition Waiting For The Light left off - most obviously in the way in which natural light suffuses and enriches the relatively mundane scenes he shoots (fence panels and garage roofs, the underside of bridges, the forlorn and mangled skeleton of a shopping trolley rusting in a river), but also in the images' depiction of a manmade landscape devoid of people.

As Pountney wrote in his diary, "There are still people here. But they just can't be seen." That comment reappears at the heart of the book's introduction, and it's true that while humans are absent, signs of humanity are abundant. For instance, a lost jacket dangling from the branch of a leafy tree serves to symbolise both how we use and impose ourselves on the natural environment and how, this year, we have largely had to hang up our coats and stay indoors.

As commonplace as some of the scenes are, there are also hints that we have been (and indeed still are) living through extraordinary times: a roadside religious shrine rather comically cordoned off with green tape and traffic cones; a wall-mounted postbox whose "OUT OF SERVICE" message resonates with deeper meaning; the warning "Keep out or COVID will get you and you will die" scrawled chillingly in chalk in a child's hand on a sunlit wooden gate.

In one image, billboards stand empty except for the tattered remnants of old posters, a symbol of the profound disruption that the virus has caused to the machinery of global capitalism - but also, given that "Brexit" is about the only word the viewer can make out, a reminder that a desperate situation may yet get worse and that as a nation we are on the verge of self-isolation out of choice.

However, collectively Pountney's pictures do not depict a 28 Days Later/The Road-style hellscape; neither are they suggestive of a photographer who harbours the sort of anti-humanist "nature is healing" fantasy couched in environmentalist terms criticised by Luke Turner. Towards the end of the book, human figures start to appear: a masked man stood with his back to the camera, viewed through the railings of a metal fence; hoodied teens spied across a grassy hillock; the soles of a pair of crossed feet belonging to a sofa-lounger, seen through a street-level window. Perhaps most significant is an over-the-wall shot of a family's backyard barbecue, which suggests that for many of us (though, admittedly, certainly not all) invaluable human social interaction has continued in confinement, behind closed doors and beyond the prying eye of the camera lens.

The final image - of a shop window sign - is particularly powerful. "We are closed", it reads, before adding "We will see you soon." An unremarkable cliche, perhaps - but in the context of the collection, and at a time when we've been plunged back into lockdown, one that offers confident and comforting reassurance of the repopulation of public spaces and the return of normality.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Rock on

I've already wished Rock City a happy 40th birthday once - but I'll happily do so again (prompted by this article by Neil Heath for BBC Nottingham) out of respect to a venue that has meant so much to me.

It's a landmark anniversary that feels as though it should be national rather than merely regional news. As for Richard Selby, quoted in Heath's piece, Rock City was undoubtedly an "epicentre" for me between my arrival in the city in September 1997 and leaving for Birmingham seven years later.

The article is a trip down memory lane, bringing the sights, sounds, smells and stickiness of the floor flooding back - from queueing past the burger van and shitty short-lived sports bar RKOs to get in, to watching the sweat dripping off the mirrored ceiling of the Disco 2 dancefloor, unwisely sampling the rancid offerings of the upstairs "food" bar, bouncing off Big Wendy (who always wore a tank top to show off the knife scar on her shoulder) in the main room moshpit, and waking up worse for wear on the steps outside at 4am to discover that some wag had tied my shoelaces together.

"Everyone remembers their first gig at Rock City", Heath says - but I'll admit I had to consult this list and still can't be sure. I definitely recall seeing execrable ska-punk band (is there any other kind?) Snuff there in March 1998, but have a feeling I was at the Deftones gig the month before, having missed out on their previous visit just four months earlier. By that point, several months into my studenthood, I was already a seasoned Saturday evening pilgrim - but I'd already foolishly spurned the opportunity to see Spiritualized, Fridge, Motorhead, Gary Numan, Faith No More, Unsane and Daft Punk. In fairness, finances rather than foolishness may have been the stumbling block...

Even more embarrassingly, I can't even remember my last visit. I saw Elvana at the Rescue Rooms next door in September 2017, but wish I'd also witnessed their Rock City debut the following autumn. There would be a lot of vicarious pleasure to be taken in watching your friends headline a place that's so close to your heart.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Natural healing - but for whom?

Back in May, I approvingly quoted Stuart Fowkes, the man behind the Cities And Memory project, who claimed in an interview with the Guardian's Lanre Bakare that we were living in "a really unique time when the world is sounding like it's never sounded before". Mercifully, though, neither he nor I went as far as saying that this, and other alleged evidence of a return to nature in our cities, was an unequivocally Good Thing to be celebrated.

As Luke Turner has pointed out in an excellent essay for Unsound Festival, recently republished on the Quietus site, seeing coronavirus as positive for the environment is profoundly problematic: "I remain troubled by the ease in which (largely white, middle-class) people felt happy to share their joy at a perceived change in their surroundings thanks to a pandemic that was not only disproportionately killing people of colour and those with disabilities, but also wreaking economic havoc that would put the most vulnerable in society at risk."

In a piece that discusses the intersections of environmentalism, politics, class and race in a way that pushes his book Out Of The Woods further up my must-read list, Turner traces the long history of ecofascism and flags up worrying signs of its (re)emergence in the present moment, noting how easily a concern for the environment can slip into an extreme misanthropy deliberately and selectively directed at certain sectors of humanity.

Fowkes told the Guardian that "one of the few positives from this situation is that people are starting to reconnect with nature a little bit". Turner agrees - but is careful to point out that such (re)connection is easier for some than for others, due to the urbanised society in which we live and the profound inequality of access to quality outdoor space. Here in Cardiff, we've constantly reminded ourselves how helpful having a garden was during the height of the spring lockdown, and how lucky we were to have so much parkland within walking distance of our front door. Many millions of people were not so fortunate - and, with the nation plunged into another lockdown and the days now at their shortest, they once again find themselves denied the restorative benefits of the outdoors.

There are, however, signs that things are changing, and Turner concludes by clinging to a positive vision for the post-pandemic future: "If access to green space is no longer a privilege but a right to be enjoyed by all, we start to chip away at the separation between the human and 'nature' that is at the root of environmental destruction and the climate crisis."

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Annual appraisal

With no gigs to preview or report on, it sadly made little sense for Nightshift to continue to publish during coronatimes. Let's face it - a global pandemic is just about the only thing that would have stopped Ronan from championing the good and savaging the bad. You can't keep a good man down, though, and he couldn't resist bringing the legendary Oxfordshire music mag back this month for its first issue since April to run through the annual Tracks Of The Year list.

He recognised, too, that the end of the year was a good time to take stock and ask many of those involved in the local music scene for their reflections on COVID-19's impact. In the issue, venue managers, festival organisers, studio owners, promoters and retailers talk about the acute challenges they've faced - with the overriding sentiment a desperate hope that live music can return in a financially sustainable way soon. Musicians, meanwhile, speak about how they've coped - the running themes being remote collaborations, scratching the live itch with streamed sets and solo projects that they wouldn't otherwise have had the time or opportunity to pursue.

It's fitting, then, that Young Knives should have scooped the Track Of The Year accolade with 'Sheep Tick', from the bonkers LP Barbarians that I had the pleasure of reviewing for Buzz in September. Brothers Henry and Tom Dartnall have kept themselves busy - and fans entertained - through the year with their splendidly eccentric Caravan Sessions online gigs.

As Ronan says, the list - this year expanded to 30 tracks from the usual 20 - underlines the "one crumb of positivity these last few months - the fact that music is still being made and still being played, albeit remotely. It's something well worth celebrating, as well as a reminder of what we're missing." Here's to the resilience, resourcefulness and creativity of all of those involved in the music scene in Oxfordshire and further afield, and to the hope of better things in 2021 - including Nightshift's permanent return to action.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Keeping it real

While it was a disappointment that Lanterns On The Lake didn't pick up this year's Mercury Prize, it wasn't exactly a surprise either - and in a way, it's nice to be able to continue championing the underdog by giving their releases glowing reviews. Hot on the heels of Spook The Herd, their fourth album and the one that secured the Mercury nomination, their new EP The Realist is another understated gem.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Corking news

A very welcome development for those of us who've found sustenance this wretched year in regular deliveries of alcohol: Cardiff has a new wine merchant, Wine Fiend, specialising in natural and biodynamic wines. I spoke to Dean Euden, the man behind the business, about the pandemic push that gave him the shove he needed to branch out on his own, treating yourself over the festive period and his plans for 2021.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Hope is important

Musicians are often the worst judges of their own work, but that certainly can't be said of J Willgoose. The Public Service Broadcasting man is repeatedly bang on the money in the press release for A Wonderful Hope, the debut album from his new side project Late Night Final - so much so that it was very tempting simply to quote verbatim in the course of pulling together a review for Buzz.

"I made this whole album picturing a dance tent at 4am or a room late at night, full of people, movement and warmth and all the joy that that can bring" is a perfect comment on a record that was crafted in lockdown isolation using digital instrumentation but that celebrates the power of human contact and communality.

Friday, December 11, 2020

New age millennial magic

Last year, the prospect of not going to a gig for nine months would have seemed preposterous and unthinkable. And yet the Working Men's Club show on 20th February was the last I'd been to - until Wednesday, that is. Big thanks to Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard for getting me back in the game (kind of).

As someone for whom gigs are (as for Jude Rogers) "a glowing, thrilling realm of communal feeling" dependent on physical presence and proximity, I can't say that streamed shows had held much appeal at all. But credit to the Buzzard boys for tempting me to break my duck with the promise of new material performed in the grand setting of Cardiff's Portland House. It didn't disappoint.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Conservation and conservatism

You've got to feel for the National Trust, dragged into the culture war for (in the words of Peter Mitchell) "daring to understand its mission as to help us understand history, rather than supply us with fantasy".

As Mitchell explains in an article for the Guardian, the organisation's "major crime was to have produced a report in September that examined Trust properties' relationship to the slave trade and colonialism". Not especially contentious, you would think - but try telling that to foaming-at-the-mouth Telegraph columnists or the so-called "Common Sense Group" of batshit right-wingers.

Let's be clear: such a report should be welcomed. Visiting Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire nearly three years ago, I was discomforted by the lack of recognition given to those who actually used to work there, and even more so by the troubling silence over the provenance of the Curzon family's fabulous wealth and possessions. It seemed that visitors were simply expected to be awed and amazed by the opulence and not ask any awkward questions.

However, in recent years there have been very welcome signals that significant changes are afoot. Take, for instance, a trip to Tyntesfield near Bristol last year. Each display board presenting information on an aspect of the house also gave an insight into the harsh realities of life in the guano trade, the means by which its most famous owner William Gibbs made his fortune. The property was literally built on shit - but also on the backs of Chinese indentured labour.

And yet now, with depressing inevitability, the Trust finds itself accused of pursuing a "woke agenda" simply for seeking to acknowledge how power, privilege and wealth were accumulated. Right-wing commentators are attempting to stir up the same sort of backlash among more conservative members that followed the organisation's programme of events celebrating LGBT history.

Mitchell is right to draw a connection to this summer's statue protests. The familiar charge is that the Trust are rewriting history and (metaphorically) desecrating monuments that are a symbolic source of national pride. In actual fact, its accusers are incapable - or, more accurately, unwilling - to dissociate the preservation of physical structures from the perpetuation of damaging myths. These patriots fervently believe in the greatness of Great Britain but refuse to face up to the foundations on which that greatness was constructed.

The Trust has a vital role to play in educating the nation about our past - but now the thinly veiled threats of slashed government funding suggest that it may be punished for attempting to do so. And that prospective loss of income, together with the catastrophic financial impact of COVID-19, threaten to further impede the organisation's ability to continue such work in the future.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Beauty is in the eye of the beer-holder

"Is modern beer branding alienating potential customers?" asks Matthew Curtis in this article for Beer52. It initially struck me as a curious question. I'm not someone who is (or at least likes to think of themselves as) easily swayed by packaging rather than product - but I can't deny that can design has regularly seduced me into purchasing certain craft beers while perusing Pop'N'Hops' shelves or webshop. When faced with such an incredible array, surely it's only natural for the non-aficionado to judge the metaphorical books by their covers (at least partially)? In that respect, then, the design can attract rather than alienate.

However, Curtis is concerned that prioritising artwork over text risks making the most important details (beer style, ingredients, ABV) illegible or inaccessible - a fair comment. Furthermore, he argues that an emphasis on eye-catching bespoke designs for individual beers may be detrimental to breweries' attempts to establish a recognisable brand - something likely to be vital for long-term survival in a competitive market.

In these terms, I'd argue that Howling Hops have struck exactly the right balance: visually arresting designs without compromising on overall brand identity or clarity of textual information. While taste, quality and value will always be the key factors, this is another reason why their mixed cases have been making regular trips from Hackney Wick to my doorstep this year.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Flight mode

Spotify routinely arouse the ire of musicians, but recently they seem to have upset a lot of users too by declaring their most-listened-to genre to be something called "chamber psych". If you tried to define what that label might mean, you could certainly do worse than point to Meilir's debut LP In Tune, out today.

In the last year and a half or so, I've had the pleasure of reviewing albums by Daniels O'Sullivan and Blumberg for Buzz. In Tune is in a similar vein, pushing the pop envelope in the direction of the avant-garde.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Bloody hell heaven

How better to mark your birthday than with a blow-out steakfest at Pasture, the latest foodie attraction at the top end of Cardiff's High Street? Be warned, though: while it does cater for the non-carnivore, it's not for the squeamish.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Feel good hits of the 1st December

1. 'Mary-Christ' - Sonic Youth

At the time of Goo's release, 'Mary-Christ' was probably Sonic Youth's most concise, direct statement to date - a clear signpost towards Dirty. Having not listened to Goo in an age, I'd forgotten how fantastic this song is, overshadowed perhaps unfairly by both 'Dirty Boots' and 'Kool Thing'. I'd also forgotten how the album sadly falls away from 'My Friend Goo' onwards - albeit culminating in the spectacularly good 'Titanium Expose'.

2. 'Skeleton Key' - The Coral

With the benefit of hindsight, it's remarkable how The Coral ever found themselves tangled up with the likes of The Libertines in the pages of NME - and disappointing how they soon slid into solid, respectable songsmithery. The exuberant, joyous eccentricity of their debut is best encapsulated by the Beefheartian stomp of 'Skeleton Key'.

3. '2 Kindsa Love'/'Flavor' - Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Massive thanks to Stevie Chick for introducing me to this beautiful chaos, which he declared on Twitter to be "among the top 3 televised musical performances of all time". One watch and I was powerless to disagree.

4. 'Forecast Of Rain' - Bob Mould

As someone who discovered Bob Mould through Sugar rather than Husker Du, I'm probably predisposed to prefer the more melodic material on Blue Hearts - though that's not to say that the whole LP isn't an exhilarating fury-fuelled ride.

5. 'Never Understand' - The Jesus & Mary Chain

I came to The Jesus & Mary Chain late, some time in the late 90s, having already had my life-changing musical epiphany courtesy of Nevermind - but one listen to this and it's not hard to comprehend how Psychocandy, which recently celebrated its 35th birthday, turned numerous impressionable teens' worlds upside down.

6. 'Raindrops' - The Besnard Lakes

The Canadians may have broken off with Jagjaguwar (it seems), but the typically sublime 'Raindrops' and the title of the forthcoming album of which it's a taster, The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings, hardly hint at any other radical departures. Which is a relief - we need their proggy balm more than ever.

7. 'Clean Kill' - Coriky

Is there anything that would tempt Fugazi out of hibernation? Dischord's 40th birthday, perhaps? Probably not - and in truth it hardly matters now that Ian MacKaye has reunited with Joe Lally in Coriky and, together with Amy Farina, the pair have picked up exactly where The Argument left off.

8. 'Hell For Certain' - Gwenifer Raymond

Gwenifer Raymond is such an extraordinarily accomplished guitar player that you start to wonder whether she's done a Robert Johnson and sold her soul to the devil at a crossroads, this song title an acknowledgement of the fate that lies ahead. Second album Strange Lights Over Garth Mountainwhich I recently reviewed for Buzz, is one for fans of The August List.

9. 'Delco' - Uniform

Anyone who's heard Uniform's latest LP Shame will have no trouble at all in believing that Michael Berdan's scream has the power to alarm his neighbours.

10. 'Motor Away' - Guided By Voices

"I've always been overwhelmed by the amount of releases there are", admits Cedric Bixler-Zavala in his excellent episode of What's In My Bag?, explaining why he was a latecomer to Guided By Voices. Same here, Cedric. But 'Motor Away' - his favourite track on Alien Lanes - seems as good a place to start as any.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Match of the deity

A bouffant-haired world superstar making a dramatic and unexpected move to an unfashionable club starved of success based in a city that lives and breathes football? A player whose arrival was met with mass hysteria and who subsequently went on to rouse the sleeping giant and achieve god-like status among supporters? You'll have to forgive this blinkered Magpies fan for watching Asif Kapadia's superb documentary film Diego Maradona and seeing strong parallels between the Argentine's switch to Napoli and Kevin Keegan signing for Newcastle.

That said, Keegan grew up in Doncaster, not the slums of Buenos Aires; he arrived on Tyneside in the twilight of his career, rather than in his prime, and only inspired promotion back to the top flight, not his club's first ever title wins; and he never became reliant upon the Camorra for cocaine - as far as I know, at least.

Asked about the film by the Guardian's Tim Lewis in 2017, when it was still in production and some way from release, Kapadia said: "In my mind, this is the third part of a trilogy of child geniuses and fame, and the effect it can have, and what they mean to their country and what they mean to people. Again, another person in various ways who felt like he was fighting a system". The director's two previous subjects had been Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, and the finished product certainly realises that vision.

The football footage amply illustrates the dazzling skill, sublime close control and low centre of gravity that enabled Maradona to glide past opponents as though they weren't there - his World Cup Goal of the Century strike against England in 1986 the most obvious case in point. Little wonder that frustrated defenders regularly felt the need to remind him of their existence with kicks and elbows - including in that quarter-final (something that Sun-reading meatheads and gammony England keepers still foaming at the mouth about Maradona's first goal that day would do well to acknowledge).

When he subsequently referred to "the hand of God", he wasn't necessarily implying divine intervention. After all, he had a sizeable ego by this point, and was already well on the way to becoming a deity himself in Naples, bringing the Serie A trophy to the city for the first time at the end of the following domestic season.

But it couldn't last. Kapadia's film traces Maradona's subsequent fall from grace, which was sealed in 1990 when Argentina knocked Italy out of their own World Cup on penalties in Napoli's Stadio San Paolo - the Argentine having made the fatal pre-match misjudgement of overestimating the country's north/south divide and urging Neapolitans to support his national side rather than their own.

Maradona emerges as the archetypal tragic hero, a central protagonist who was both beset by circumstances beyond his control and the victim of his own flaws and weaknesses. Trapped within a pressure-cooker environment in which he was burdened with expectation and treated like public property, he cracked, succumbing to the temptations of drink, drugs and sex in the pursuit of respite and escape.

Personal trainer Fernando Signorini talks about a split personality: Diego as a kid with insecurities and Maradona as the character he had to create in order to cope "with the demands of the football business and the media" - not to mention the fact that he had been supporting his whole family since the age of 15. In its depiction of a fragile individual thrust into the intense glare of the spotlight, the documentary is undoubtedly a sympathetic portrayal, paying scant attention to the collateral damage his behaviour and addictions caused (not least to his partner Claudia Villafane and their two children). It's hardly the first biopic to be guilty of such generosity towards its subject, though.

Maradona's rise-and-fall story follows a familiar narrative arc and is in many ways an easy one to tell and to sell - but, with the aid of judiciously selected archive footage and some insightful commentators, Kapadia does so with skill and style.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Dividing lines

As a friend pointed out, actively choosing to digest a book about Brexit demands a robust constitution and a masochistic streak. And yet reading Jonathan Coe's Middle England - the winner of last year's Costa Prize - actually proved to be (somewhat unexpectedly) an escapist pleasure. After all, the state of the nation in this unashamedly state-of-the-nation novel, which concludes in 2018, looks markedly less desperate from the perspective of 2020. It's almost enough to make the reader feel nostalgic for those pre-pandemic days. But then "nostalgia is the English disease", we're told - and a prime cause of the mess we're now in.

Middle England sets out to explain how we got to this point. Opening in 2010, the novel moves elegantly across the years before and immediately after the EU referendum, adeptly tracing how fault lines became fractures and everything gradually span out of control.

The story is told through the lives of fictional characters (some of whom, such as central protagonist Benjamin Trotter, are resurrected from Coe's previous books The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle) set against a backdrop of real events. There are, however, points of contact between personal narratives and the bigger picture, most notably in the form of Doug Anderton (a left-leaning political commentator living in a multi-million-pound Chelsea house - the transparent embodiment of the metropolitan liberal elite) and his girlfriend Gail Ransome, a Remainer Tory MP.

Everywhere you look, relationships are strained to breaking point and personal divisions open up, often directly due to Brexit - between parents and children, between couples, between children's entertainers. (The fracas involving two feuding clowns is just one of the book's many laugh-out-loud comic scenes. Others include a crackpot conspiracy theorist trying to find a suitable shed at a garden centre in which to pitch his book to a prospective publisher; a painfully awkward sex scene that would win the Bad Sex Award if it were given for bad sex rather than bad writing; and a Teflon-coated Tory spin doctor, who has spent most of the book using words like "bantz", referring chummily to "Dave" and coming up with vaguely familiar soundbites like "People have had enough of intellectuals", losing the plot in spectacular fashion and confessing to the party's post-referendum behind-the-scenes omnishambles.)

The deftly handled plot and the way the narratives are interwoven underline Coe's immense skill - but therein, at least in part, lies the novel's problem. Middle England is a balletically orchestrated work of fiction about an incredibly messy situation that we're all still living through, the full consequences of which are as yet unknown. Unlike real life, a book has to have an ending, and, in keeping with the novel's structural imposition of order on chaos, the author chooses to bring it to a suspiciously neat conclusion - one that feels like a cop-out, evidence of wishful thinking.

Afflicted by the "English disease" himself, Coe's sentimental yearning for a metaphorical Middle England lost as the nation has become increasingly polarised is perhaps understandable. But it means that progressive identity politics - represented in the figure of Anderton's misguidedly militant teenage daughter Coriander - are treated as unsympathetically as the rapacious ghouls who run right-wing think tanks. As Guardian reviewer Sam Leith succinctly put it, "this is a great big Centrist Dad of a novel", one that implicitly preaches moderation, understanding, compromise, consensus. And at the end the tumult of our recent history, there in the background all along, is blotted out in favour of fictional fancy that will comfort some (Coe included) but ring false for others.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The weighting game

"What's the heaviest music ever made?" That's the question that Dom Lawson gamely attempts to answer in the latest Solved! column for the Guardian.

Sunn O))) feature heavily (pun intended), as anyone who's seen them live would have anticipated - and as they no doubt will in Harry Sword's forthcoming history of drone, Monolithic Undertow. Similarly, the inclusion of Swans was a given - again, not something I can argue with, having experienced Michael Gira's mob in the flesh (albeit in recent years rather than at the terrifying peak of their powers in the 1980s).

Lawson points out that heaviness isn't simply a matter of volume, defining it instead as a combination of "atmosphere, intent and an almost primitive physicality". For that reason, the holocaust section of My Bloody Valentine's 'You Made Me Realise' - still by some distance the loudest thing ever to assail my ears - doesn't qualify.

For me, it's not a purely sonic quality, either. In addition to Lawson's terms, there is for me - for want of a better word - often an emotional dimension (Exhibit A: Johnny Cash's cover of 'Hurt'). And, at the risk of coming across as the sort of person that Lawson caricatures as a pseud, claiming that "silence is the heaviest sound of all", Low and Codeine are two of the heaviest bands I can think of.

(Incidentally, the accompanying Modern Toss cartoon reminded me of the Mogwai gig in April 2006 that inspired our circle of gig-going friends start referring to "brown noise" - like white noise but so loud that it results in involuntary bowel evacuation...)

(Thanks to Kev for the link.)

Monday, November 23, 2020

The art of collaboration

The coronavirus pandemic has enforced separation and solitude on so many people, and in doing so underlined the inestimable value of interpersonal connectivity and collaboration - which makes this article by author and translator Jen Calleja all the more timely.

Taking aim at the myth of the "unique genius" or "special maestro" who creates in splendid isolation, Calleja makes clear that no artist works "in a vacuum" - neither the Romantic poet nor the bedroom producer. On the contrary, even if they don't obviously stand on the shoulders of giants, they nevertheless benefit in more subtle or prosaic ways from the direct or indirect influence and assistance of others - those who help to make an intellectual or material context conducive to their creativity. Such support and inspiration - "scaffolding" - should not only be given credit where it's due, argues Calleja, but actively celebrated.

I was particularly struck by the mention of her partner's pamphlet DIY As Privilege, "where he discusses how the concept and moniker of do-it-yourself culture masks the support structures that are taken for granted in the production of DIY music". Within artistic and particularly musical circles, it is true, DIY is so often seen as an uncomplicatedly good thing - evidence of laudable determination and defiance apparently against the odds. It's at least partly for this reason that, for instance, Dischord is such a revered record label - one that has developed into a vital support structure itself.

Perhaps, though, we should pay more attention to the ways in which doing it yourself is only possible thanks to privilege, always contingent on a conducive climate. DIY musicians, for instance, inevitably have interconnections and an infrastructure that they rely on. And - going further - perhaps we should note (with some discomfort) how neatly DIY culture's explicit ethos of fierce individualism and self-reliance maps onto the neoliberal ideology to which it is often claimed to be opposed.

The arts are currently under unprecedented threat, and creative people find themselves portrayed as indolent hobbyists. A crude caricature, to be sure - but, sadly, one that is in danger of becoming true as circumstances conspire to ensure that more and more avenues are closed off to those without the socioeconomic means to access them. Now, more than ever, it seems vital for artists to recognise that it isn't a level playing field, to check their privilege and be honest about "the apparatus of their creativity", and to come together in a spirit of solidarity and collaboration rather to continue to venerate what Calleja calls "the cult of the individual".

Saturday, November 21, 2020

"We started and continue to exist on the fringe"

Happy (almost) milestone birthday to Dischord. As is clear from this Guardian article recounting its history, for the last four decades, the label has been a model for how to operate with ethics and principles in an industry in which such things are in desperately short supply - and for what can be achieved with passion, determination and sheer bloodymindedness, even if that involves holding multiple other jobs and salvaging scrap cardboard from bins to refashion into record sleeves.

It was something of a coup that the article's author Daniel Dylan Wray was able to secure contributions from the usually reluctant Ian MacKaye - but without them, the piece would be much the poorer. After all, Dischord's history is inextricably intertwined with MacKaye's musical career - the label was set up to release music by his first band Teen Idles, and subsequently put out records by Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens and most recently Coriky. Pride doesn't come easily to a famously humble musician, but he has every right to allow himself some satisfaction at Dischord's longevity and legacy: "If you strike a bell and 40 years later people can still hear the ring, then that's something."

A footnote: I didn't know Pussy Galore had a song called 'Fuck You, Ian MacKaye', apparently a critical commentary on the perceived cliqueyness and humourless puritanism of the hardcore/post-hardcore scene around Dischord. The fact that Pussy Galore's Julie Cafritz ended up forming Free Kitten with Kim Gordon in 1992 at almost exactly the same time that MacKaye contributed guitar to 'Youth Against Fascism' on Dirty makes Sonic Youth seem even more like the alt-rock bridge builders that they undoubtedly were...

Friday, November 20, 2020

"A true maverick force and an inspiration for contrarians everywhere"

As Brian Eno once said, The Velvet Underground's first record sold poorly - at least at first - but everyone who bought a copy started a band. Likewise, the Sex Pistols' gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 is widely cited as a catalyst for punk and so much of what has come since. So it's interesting to read Stephen Morris of Joy Division and New Order quoted as claiming that "Punk rock started because in every small town there was somebody who liked Hawkwind".

My knowledge of the band that gave Lemmy his leg up is pitifully limited - though less so after devouring this article by Joe Banks, which is presumably a boiled-down version (and delicious taster) of his book Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground - Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia.

Banks makes what at face value certainly seems like a compelling case that "Hawkwind were one of the most revolutionary bands to come out of Britain in the 1970s", connecting them not only to punk but also to the bad trip flipside of the flower power 1960s and the krautrock scene in Germany, and arguing that they were pioneers of both the culture of raves and free festivals and of space rock. All things considered, it's a wonder - and a source of shame - that I'm not far more familiar with them already, really.

Just watching the footage of the performance of 'Silver Machine' that was screened on Top Of The Pops in 1972 is incredible. How many tiny minds must have been blown...

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The times they were a-changin'

Thanks to Cafe Royal Books for two fantastic new additions to my photobook shelf: John Bulmer's Manchester 1970s and Chris Killip's Shipbuilding On Tyneside 1975-1976 (plus John Walmsley's Anna Scher Children's Theatre North London 1972, thrown in as a very generous bonus freebie).

In his recent contribution to the Offline Essays series, Sites Of Struggle And Photography, Paul Cabuts commented that "photographs are a great way for us to engage with our social history" - a view that should be abundantly obvious, you would hope, but one that is certainly borne out by Bulmer and Killip's books.

As Raymond Depardon did in Glasgow a few years later, Bulmer captured "a city that has disappeared": women in housecoats and slippers sweeping rubbish into the gutter, the organised chaos of overstocked Open All Hours-style local shops staffed by stern-faced men with moustaches, kids playing on boarded-up streets, semi-demolished industrial buildings (back when they were simply swept away rather than converted into upmarket apartments). As in Depardon's pictures, there are occasional flashes of colour amid the gloom, but these are muted, and the key image starkly juxtaposes an advertiser's idealised vision with the grim reality. Not especially subtle, but enormously effective.

As the self-confessed (if inadvertent) "photographer of the English de-Industrial Revolution", Killip, meanwhile, documented not a city that has disappeared but an industry in the process of disappearing - and, crucially, the devastating impact of that disappearance on the local community and landscape. For this reason, the images of the ships under construction (staggering though the scale of those vessels is) are not the most striking thing about the book; on the contrary, it's the way that it's bookended by pictures of the same street less than two years apart - snow-covered and almost chocolate-boxy in the first, abandoned and derelict in the second. "Prepare for revolution" reads the graffiti on the wall - nothing, unfortunately, could prepare Wallsend and South Shields for the loss of their lifeblood.

Monday, November 16, 2020

You should have been nice to me

Of all of the awful things to unfold this year, Morrissey being dropped by his record label doesn't rank particularly highly. In fact, it doesn't even rank at all. For Moz, though, the development is "perfectly in keeping with the relentless galvanic horror of 2020". Not one for overstatement or overreaction, is he?

His latest album, released in March, was titled I Am Not A Dog On A Chain. Well, he's certainly no longer on a chain, so he should be happy. Whatever happened to "I'm OK by myself"?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

When a child is born

As part of The Future Is Female in 2017, Islet member and festival curator Emma Daman Thomas organised a panel entitled More Baby In My Monitor Please, which saw her joined by Gwenno and Lisa Jen Brown of 9Bach. The result was an engaging, thought-provoking and often eye-opening discussion of motherhood from a musician's perspective.

Three years on, and the topic remains something of a taboo. Credit, then, to Jude Rogers for her recent piece for the Quietus, for which she spoke to music-making mums Gazelle Twin and Saint Saviour (or Elizabeth Bernholz and Becky Jones, as they're known to their own mothers). Like the festival panellists, Bernholz and Jones talked frankly about the enormous impact that having a child has had on their lives, their mental health, their creative processes and their music.

What was perhaps most striking was Bernholz's admission: "In my naivety, I thought I'd start to make really nice, gentle soft music after having a kid. Actually, I became noisier, and more aggressive and more mad. ... It was a shock to me how much rage motherhood ignited in me." Interestingly, Jones experienced the exact same thing, attributing it to "the resentment that my freedom as a person had been taken away". For Bernholz, "it was something about control. You're suddenly faced with this new person and you have no control over what happens to them and how they behave." Both sentiments are, I would imagine, familiar to many if not most parents, musicians or otherwise.

I use the word "parents" deliberately. As Gwenno, Daman Thomas and Brown pointed out, how often are male musicians subjected to the same lines of questioning? It was refreshing to read Peter and David Brewis of Field Music talking about not only the songs that fatherhood had inspired but also the significant challenges that it posed, precisely because it's so rare. If these issues are only ever raised with female musicians, then there's a risk of perpetuating the damaging notion that parenting is primarily a woman's responsibility. Here's to more men being quizzed about how childcare impinges on their creativity and put on the spot about whether they feel guilty or judged for jetting off on tour and leaving their little ones behind.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"The dark side of our urban revival"

How does it feel to be seen as the guru of gentrification, which was (and indeed often still is) hailed as the salvation of ailing urban centres, but is increasingly viewed as a malignant force that actually exacerbates inequalities? That, essentially, was the question that Oliver Wainwright put to Richard Florida in a somewhat combative interview for the Guardian.

Florida's blueprint, as outlined in The Rise Of The Creative Class, promised much, not least because it valued creative types as change-makers and economic drivers rather than dismissing them as infantile hobbyists who should give up their pipe dreams and retrain to get a proper job. As Wainwright notes, however, ultimately gentrification has "proven to benefit the already rich, mostly white middle class; fuel rampant property speculation; displace the bohemians he so fetishised; and see the problems that once plagued the inner cities simply move out to the suburbs."

Florida bluntly insists "I'm not sorry. I will not apologise. I do not regret anything", but judging by his other comments - and his new book The New Urban Crisis - he does. What got lost along the way - and what continues to elude many excitable councils and planners - was the fact that gentrification could be fundamentally exclusionary. I love a good farmers' market or artisanal coffee shop as much as the next white, middle-class man, but clearly they're not for everyone.

To his credit, Florida admits, "I realised that we need to develop a new narrative, which isn't just about creative and innovative growth and clusters, but about inclusion being a part of prosperity." A laudable ambition, to be sure, but - Wainwright implies - one that The New Urban Crisis doesn't flesh out in any detail. It's a challenge that cities the world over urgently need to address, with or without Florida's guidance.