Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Taking over the asylum

(Warning: Contains spoilers and cod-literary criticism…)

Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ begins with the arrival on a subdued, orderly mental ward of Randle McMurphy, freshly discharged from the Pendleton Farm for Correction. Immediately the reader is pitched into a battle of wills between the fiery and irrepressible newcomer and Miss Ratched, who rules the roost through subtle and insidious bullying and who, challenged for almost the first time, knows she must do everything she can to retain her authority over the ward and the inmates. The ebb and flow of power between the two adversaries is the novel’s sustaining drama.

Miss Ratched wastes no time in reminding McMurphy of the rules and astutely analyses him as a “‘manipulator’” – and, sure enough, he soon proves himself as adept as his opponent at influencing and cajoling the malleable minds around him. His influence, though, is benevolent; having duelled with Harding over who’s the ward’s “‘bull goose loony’”, he coaxes him into admitting the truth about their fear of Miss Ratched and her tactics, and then sets about encouraging and teaching them how to slowly regain the dignity of which they have been systematically stripped.

When McMurphy first arrives on the ward, he is dismayed to find the environment joyless and constrictive: “The air is pressed in by the walls, too tight for laughing. There’s something strange about a place where the men won’t let themselves loose and laugh”. By contrast, he is immediately identified with laughter: “Even when he isn’t laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing – it’s in his eyes, in the way he smiles an swaggers, in the way he talks”. In this sense, the novel reads like a fictional embodiment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, according to which laughter is an inherently subversive force often targeted at authority figures which helps to unsettle the status quo. In many ways his greatest achievement is organising the rowdy boat trip which culminates in a collective and unselfconscious laughter that becomes elemental, ringing “out on the water in ever-widening circles, further and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave”.

But, as some critics have pointed out, the carnivalesque inversion of the status quo is only ever temporary, and McMurphy, leading by example, has to take whatever punishment comes his way. Even when subjected to electroshock therapy, he has to maintain a mocking bullishness for appearance sake: “‘When I get out of here the first woman that takes on ol’ Red McMurphy the ten-thousand-watt psychopath, she’s gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars! No, I ain’t scared of their little battery-charger’”. But there’s a discernible note of disingenuousness, of protesting-too-much, in his defiance, and the struggle gradually takes its toll.

Despite having never seen the film, the banner on cover of my copy declaring “Now a magnificent film by Milos Forman” and the picture of Jack Nicholson meant I simply couldn’t read McMurphy’s lines without hearing Nicholson delivering them. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the lack of red hair, I’d almost have thought the part of was written for him. “’Doctor’ – he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his forehead, and holds out both arms, open and honest to all the wide world – ‘do I look like a sane man?’” Honestly, could anyone else have played him?

McMurphy may be the novel’s most dominant personality, counterbalanced by Miss Ratched, but we actually experience events through the eyes of a third character, half American Indian Chief Bromden, whom both the institution authorities and the other inmates have incorrectly assumed to be deaf and dumb. Of course, this makes him the perfect observer, a neat fictional device that enables Kesey to have him be privy to private conversations in the Nurse’s Station which he can absorb and report.

Bromden is far from being a conventional omniscient “external” narrator, though; not only is what he describes filtered through his own subjectivity (Miss Ratched is to him “Big Nurse”, for instance), but it soon becomes evident that that subjectivity is rather disturbed (this is a mental institution, after all). He suffers from vivid nightmares and a terror of sinking into “the fog” which billows from vents in the walls, and is constantly paranoid about the operations of what he calls “the Combine”, the shadowy figures who control the ward and the world outside.

But there is method in the madness and what appear initially as the unreliable, hallucinatory and paranoid aspects of Bromden’s account gradually emerge as a warped version of the truth. The (metaphorical) fog represents the braindead, undignified stupor to which Miss Ratched has reduced them all, while the novel as a whole endorses rather than undercuts Bromden’s conviction that “the ward is a factory for the Combine”, a place where society’s misfits are sent to learn conformity even if (like McMurphy and Harding) they don’t genuinely suffer from mental illness.

From an artistic point of view, the biggest difficulty with choosing a first person narrator like Chief Bromden is to ensure that the novel keeps realistic pace with the character’s mode of feeling, if not necessarily mode of speaking. In this, Kesey proves himself masterful, alchemically creating prose which is often lyrical and arrestingly evocative using the base metal of simple unaffected language. Here’s Bromden’s memory of his encounter with a girl at a cotton mill when a young man: “Her fingernails peeled down my hands and as soon as she broke contact with me her face switched out of focus again, became soft and runny like melting chocolate behind that blowing fog of cotton”. Bromden may suffer from hallucinations, but his vivid visualisations of the scenes before him lends the novel much of its power; when an aide is summoned by Miss Ratched, for instance, he observes: “Frost forms in his hair and eyebrows. He leans farther forward, but his steps are getting slower; he’ll never make it”. In other words, as a narrator Bromden doesn’t so much limit what Kesey can do, but actually gives him licence to be more creative.

Perhaps the most affective (and traumatic) passages to read are those during which Bromden is subjected to electroshock therapy; the prose fractures, sentences are jolted out of sequence and coherence is temporarily lost. Kesey was writing from personal experience, having not only worked as an orderly in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital (essentially a mental institution) but also voluntarily underwent electroshock therapy and drug treatment. The novel gives the lie to the pronouncements of “that fool Public Relation man who’s always clapping his wet hands together and saying how overjoyed he is that mental institutions have eliminated all the old-fashioned cruelty: ‘What a CHEERY atmosphere, don’t you agree?’”; this, Kesey says, is how a so-called civilised society deals with those who can’t (or refuse to) conform to its behavioural norms. It’s not hard to see how or why the anti-authoritarian Beats took their cue from him.

However, tempting though it is to laud ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ as an ultimately uplifting tale concerned with nothing less the liberation of the human spirit, unfortunately that’s only part of the story. Leaving aside the casual racism inherent in Bromden’s attitude to the “black boys”, an attitude which the novel’s hero McMurphy echoes, the truth is that Kesey is only actually concerned with the liberation of the male human spirit.

The system – Bromden’s “Combine” – which oppresses the inmates and against which, with McMurphy’s encouragement, they kick is characterised not as usual as the Man but as the Woman. The ward is somewhere where men are sent to get “fixed”. The sexual connotations of the word are hardly accidental, given that Miss Ratched is labelled a “ball-cutter” by McMurphy, and that when Rawler cuts off his own genitals and bleeds to death, Bromden wonders: “What makes people so impatient is what I can’t figure; all the guy had to do was wait”. Women damage and emasculate men, the novel seems to say, while Miss Ratched and the other female nurses are themselves restrictively desexualised by their position and uniform, as illustrated by the contrasting appearance of the prostitute Candy: “all any of us could think of was that she was a girl, a female who wasn’t dressed head to foot like she’d been dipped in frost”. Even she, the novel’s one real positive image of femininity, its one female free spirit, is little more than a sexual object to stir the dormant libidos of the men, and the means by which (in crass teen movie fashion) Billy can lose his virginity and thereby overcome his stutter.

To describe McMurphy as being “like a bull in a china shop” when he first arrives on the ward is particularly apt; not only does he upset the established patterns and routines, but he is an aggressively male character, repeatedly asserting his own virility and sexuality. It is no coincidence that when he finally assaults Miss Ratched, he tears the front of her uniform, exposing and resexualising her. After the attack, “Some of the men grinned at the front of [her new uniform]; in spite of its being smaller and tighter and more starched than her old uniforms, it could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman”. Her power over the inmates is no more, and the superbly written ending is undoubtedly incredibly powerful – but the heroism and rightness of McMurphy’s struggle and his final violent act is (in spite of Kesey’s apparent authorial endorsement) certainly more questionable than it perhaps first appears.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Paramount comedy


Simon Amstell, it has to be said, is an annoying git - a naturally talented entertainer from off of the telly capable of making a roomful of people laugh themselves stupid, and just 26 years old. He doesn't look a day over 18.

Amstell made his name by being splendidly rude in interviews with pop muppets and puffed-up indie egos alike on C4's 'Popworld', something which made him the obvious choice to step into Mark Lamarr's shoes when the greasy 50s throwback gave up his job hosting 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' (sample comment since he's got his feet under the desk: "Amy Winehouse's likes include Kelly Osbourne and the smell of petrol. I quite like matches. Let's do lunch"). But he started out as an out-and-out comic, and this August will see the baby-faced, tousle-haired streak of impudence returning to the Edinburgh Festival as a stand-up.

He makes no bones about this being a preview, a run-through what is still very much a work in progress. We're "not an audience, more a focus group". When jokes get an enthusiastic response, he grins and ticks them on his piece of paper; when punchlines fall flat, they get a line through them.

As is so often the case (following the unwritten stand-up's dictum "Be funny about what you know"), Amstell's subject matter is drawn from personal experience which means the staples of relationships and personal foibles (such as having learnt to juggle as a child). But having been caught up in Asian tsunami gives him licence to serve up some fantastically bad taste material about the British fear of committing social faux-pas even in a disaster situation (the best portion of the set), and his day job means he can also get laughs by slipping in allusions to Daniel Bedingfield and the installment of '... Buzzcocks' during which he got Preston of The Ordinary Boys to storm off the set by reading out of Chantelle's book.

Not an unmitigated success, then, though certainly not too far off. But what follows is a masterclass.

You probably wouldn't guess it from his mastery of the material and the fluency and control of his delivery, but Stewart Lee is also road-testing a new show for Edinburgh.

In 2004, after a few years away, he turned up to the festival with 'Stand-Up Comedian' - and, as the choice of title might suggest, it was a bold declaration that the comedian-cum-novelist-cum-critic had returned to his true vocation. Zeroing in on Americans, Ben Elton and Gary Lineker's "velvet owl face" and wrapping up with an extended version of the much-loved routine about the tributes to Princess Diana left outside Kensington Palace, the show (available here) is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

The following year Lee was back in the Scottish capital with the self-deprecatingly named '90s Comedian' (DVD here, courtesy of the lovely people at Go Faster Stripe), part personal mission to make jokes that Joe Pasquale couldn't steal and part cathartic crusade to respond to his experiences in the wake of the controversy surrounding 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. With that out of his system, and fatherhood having crept up on him in the last few months, would we see a more mellow figure before us?

In short, no.

This new show was originally called 'March Of The Mallards', as Lee explains, in direct response to the American Right who appropriated 'March Of The Penguins' for their own ends, claiming that the penguins' monogamous relationships and close-knit family units are nature showing us how to live morally. Mallards, you see, reproduce by gang rape and have also been known to indulge in (he relishes the phrase) "homosexual necrophilia"...

Realising he didn't have enough mallard-related material to spin out over a full hour, though, Lee plumped instead for a more familiar-sounding title, '41st Best Stand-Up Ever!'. Taken from his position on recent Channel 4 list programme '100 Greatest Stand-Ups', stalled just outside the Top 40, "it's both humble and arrogant" and allows him free rein to ruminate on his favourite subject, comedy itself - and indeed the show kicks off with a long segment on Tom O'Connor. If you think all that sounds a bit tediously and self-regarding, then you'd be very wrong - Lee is very often at his funniest when trying to pinpoint with that characteristically relentless attention to detail exactly what it is that makes something funny.

Lee is as prepared to mock himself, detailing the embarrassment of going to WeightWatchers, as he is others (Russell Brand, Stuart Maconie, his mother). Most of his vitriol is saved up for "the 20 or 30 people who run TV" and Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn. The latter is attacked as part of a segment about the Suffolk serial killings and that most unsacred of cows, political correctness, which, for its sheer genius, is most probably the bit destined to live longest in the memory. It isn't spoiling the show in any way to mention that other subjects include the potato peach aphid and the possibility that Carphone Warehouse and online lingerie site BeCheeky.com might be "the fronts for racialist organisations".

And, as befits a comedy theorist, it's not just about the material itself; it's also about the way it's packaged, about the deliberate pace and structure (there's a big difference between deliberate and laboured, whichever Independent critic labelled him the latter), about the language in which it's framed and about the intellect that stands behind it all. No wonder Time Out suggested it's worthy of winning the Booker Prize.

No pen and paper for Lee - either the show's very nearly complete and he's only reminding himself how to stay on stage (it's tiny, and he accidentally steps off mid-flow on at least two occasions) or he's sufficiently confident in himself and his material not to crave or even need the audience's explicit approval.

Obviously, that could be a bad thing in someone who is ultimately paid to entertain people, but with Stewart Lee you know you can feel confident that wherever he takes you it'll be inspired. Hence the show's conclusion: a man, stood on stage with a soft toy balanced on his head, in complete silence.


Lee's recent Guardian article on "non-PC" comedy

SWSL interview with Lee from March 2006

SWSL review of Lee's novel 'The Perfect Fool'

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Feel good hits of the 24th July

1. 'Mammoth' - Interpol
2. 'Sweet Love For Planet Earth' - Fuck Buttons
3. 'Rapture' - Monarch!
4. 'Feed A Cat To Your Cobra' - The Icarus Line
5. 'Heavydale' - Kling Klang
6. 'Glasgow Mega Snake' - Mogwai
7. 'That Great Love Sound' - The Raveonettes
8. 'Medication' - Spiritualized
9. 'Asmodius Arise' - Miasma & The Carousel Of Headless Horses
10. 'Brassneck' - The Wedding Present

Utterly predictable, really, that after being initially lukewarm to the Interpol album - not least because of the lyrics - I still can't stop listening to it (at the expense of other recent purchases like QOTSA's Era Vulgaris and The Icarus Line's Black Lives At The Golden Coast). I've been earworming pretty much every track - 'Scale', 'Rest My Chemistry' and 'Lighthouse' being exceptions. But is it a great album? Probably not.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

SWSL Supersonic 2007 Diary

Three weeks on from Glastonbury, and I'd just about washed off all the mud - time for another festival...

Supersonic is a world away from Glastonbury. Organised by the Capsule girls Lisa and Jenny every July since 2003, it's now a Plan B endorsed two day event running from 9pm to 3am on the Friday and 4pm to 3am on the Saturday which takes place at the Custard Factory in Birmingham. While there are art exhibitions, a handful of stalls and a theatre space screening short films in association with 7 Inch Cinema, Supersonic is primarily a music festival, and an avant-garde / experimental / leftfield one at that, of the sort which appeals to those for whom All Tomorrow's Parties has become far too commercial.

So, no danger of encountering pissed-up Kaiser Chiefs fans in jester hats, then. I hadn't even arrived and I was enjoying it already...

Friday 13th July

Pleasantly fed and watered (or rather lagered) in Cafe Soya - OK, let the festivities commence...

Hang on a minute, this isn't right. Supersonic is an INDOOR festival. It's supposed to be the festival the British summer simply can't ruin. And yet here we are, Kenny and I, queuing up for admission in the pouring rain, soaked through before we've even heard a note...

We walk around the "pool" (drained to create a standing space for the Outside Stage, which is unused tonight) to discover they don't serve anything on draught in the Medicine Bar. Hmm. A bottle of Becks it is, then, at £3 a pop. So, what’s going on on the Medicine Bar Stage?

In the land of the person who likes thunderous Black Sabbath powerchords melted down to a gooey sludge and then stretched out as far as they’ll possibly go in a haze of drone and feedback, MONARCH! are king. In my land, though, they don't quite rule - instead they're at best third or fourth in line to the throne, partly because the concept is better than the reality and partly because the French quartet’s petite frontwoman Emilie is painfully underused, screaming unintelligibly at intervals and turning the pages of her notebook at others as if to emphasise each passage of noise is a different song. Just as I'm thinking that I know a man who'd be loving this, I spot him down at the front - no surprise, really, given that he put them on in Cardiff at the beginning of the week. A question for you: are bands of this ilk who wear earplugs like school bullies who can dish it out but can't take it?

FUCK BUTTONS (Kitchen Stage)? Well, with that name it would be rude not to. The Buttons, as they're possibly known to their more genteel fans, are Bristolian duo Benjamin John Power and Andrew Hung who seem to have taken the super-distorted conclusion of Aphex Twin's 'Windowlicker' as their starting point. Their densely textured electro scree is occasionally underpinned by beats either synthetic or pounded out on a stand-up drum by Power, and overlaid with washes of droney synth, the twinkle of keys and even (yes) hints of melody - 'Sweet Love For Planet Earth', on their MySpace page, is as good an indication of their stock-in-trade as any. But, above all, they're so loud my ears actually start to get hot - it's a wonder the floor-to-ceiling glass wall doesn't shatter. Despite not appearing entirely satisfied with the sound, Power is later very complimentary about the set-up and the festival as a whole, and although Fuck Buttons aren't everyone's cup of tea, for me they've set the bar pretty high and their album, due out in October with Mogwai's John Cummings at the helm, is on the shopping list.

Hurrah - the Kitchen bar serves pints! But it comes with an enormous head, and when I ask for it to be topped up, it's handed back frothing over vigorously with a snide "Enjoy your ice creams". Hmm, definite black marks against the bars. Down in the pool, Nate Young and Mike Connelly of Wolf Eyes chat to friends and punters alike - perhaps their ferocious stage image really is just that.

Given the city in which Supersonic takes place, it's fitting that we're only three bands into the festival and are already witnessing the second to pay very obvious homage to four of its most famous and influential sons, Black Sabbath. KLING KLANG (Medicine Bar Stage), who call Mogwai's Rock Action label home, may have chosen the name of Kraftwerk's studio for a moniker and a barrage of synths may be their weapon of choice, but the "riffs" and rhythms are pure Iommi. There's nothing novelty about it, though, despite the presence on stage of a full-on pair of ear defenders, and the likes of 'Heavydale' have me nodding away vigorously and the bassist from Monarch! enthusiastically throwing devil signs stagewards. A timely reminder that not all Scouse bands are scally chancers with pictures of Lee Mavers pinned to their bedroom walls.

Kid 606 has kicked off on the Kitchen Stage, but we decide to stay put and try to secure some space in the cramped Medicine Bar for Wolf Eyes. First, though, nature calls - and I discover that there's a toilet attendant. C'mon, this is a FESTIVAL, man!

My first experience of WOLF EYES (Medicine Bar Stage), in April this year, was something of an exercise in endurance. This time I'm prepared, but in the event the extreme noise trio have significantly less impact - on me, at least - because they're just not as ear-shreddingly loud (though I wouldn't go so far as to say they're actually tame or toothless). Mike Donnelly is even more hyperactive, shaking his head furiously from side to side until it becomes a blur, but Nate Young is less of a presence than before, and John Olson, newly shorn but still wearing the same AC/DC T-shirt, spends more time punching the air than adding to the aural violence with his homemade bass. Their innate cartoonishness is more evident and, by saving up their crowdpleaser (albeit one called 'Stabbed In The Face') until last, they even suggest a willingness to pander to convention. I wondered beforehand whether I could survive Wolf Eyes for a second time, and by the end the answer is a definite yes - and with a surprising amount of disinterest, too.

For many punters the night's still not quite over - but for me, flagging from my early start to the day, it is.

Saturday 14th July

A pint in the Wellington having assuaged my irritation at having spent an afternoon battling against the crowds in a hot, sunny city centre and traipsing from shop to shop, I'm once more ready for action. Time to return to the fray...

No queue today, when of course sod's law would have it that the weather is glorious. I arrive to the sound of black-clad improv collective STRINGS OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Outside Stage) stirring themselves to a mighty roar, but it's what's going on inside and who's just started up on the Medicine Bar Stage that's calling Kenny and I.

Turns out that it's not really what I'm expecting at all. Supporting Acid Mothers Temple in Cardiff last November, Rick Tomlinson aka VOICE OF THE SEVEN WOODS filled the Point single-handedly, sampling himself to great effect to build up carefully and intricately layered folk-noir. This evening, though, he's stood up, wielding an electric guitar and aided by two accomplices on bass and drums, and is thus a completely different proposition. The songs, though retaining a dark edge, are more about finding and locking into a groove than establishing a mood. At first it's a bit disorienting, but once the recurrent basslines become more pronounced the trio seem to shift up a gear and by the end I'm not missing the solo incarnation of the band at all.

So where's the bar that's selling cans of Red Stripe, then? Asking someone would be too easy, of course, so off we wander. No luck, though we do stumble upon Rooty Frooty and its rapidly-diminshing stock of chilled Samuel Smiths organic lager, a bargain at £3.50 in comparison to the normal bar prices of £3 for a bottle of pisswater like Budweiser.

Underneath the railway track for my first visit to the Arches - not home to Mitchell's Autos but a large empty warehouse or light aircraft hangar equipped with a bank of amps and a stage which is at least as big as the main Outside Stage. Sadly, MIGRANT are not the act to see on it. The Capsule website may be effusive about the way they "generate a sonic landscape of shifting soundfields which encompass sparse electronic soundbeds, languid tone drifts and abrasive digital broadcast storms", but in reality it's three people (one of whom, Nicholas Bullen, was a founder member of Napalm Death) hunched over their laptops with incredibly serious expressions on their faces. The music may be an "interaction" between the trio, but there's nothing in the way of interaction with the audience, mostly sat on the floor with precious little to look at other than Julian Cope, who is stood just in front of us.

By contrast, CALVADOS BEAM TRIO (Medicine Bar Stage) are a real discovery. Admittedly the, er, threesome probably don't win any prizes for originality - though I hear less Slint and Tortoise in their complex math rock and rather more undeservedly forgotten Brits Billy Mahonie, one-time Dischord favourites Faraquet and even Cardiff's own Truckers Of Husk. But, buoyed by a partisan home crowd, they are focused and impeccably tight without ever allowing Migrant-esque levels of concentration to paralyse their faces and conceal the fact that they're having a whale of a time. They claim to only have six friends on their MySpace site - well, they've got a few more now...

On my way around the pool I run into Pete, busy demolishing a burger fresh from the barbecue. Something to keep body and soul together, at least - he's been on the go since the Metal Symposium started yesterday evening in Walsall, and, having opted not to duck the late night last night, had the pleasure of witnessing Otto Von Schirach, clad in a wrestling suit, entertain the hardy survivors into the early hours. TUNNG appear on the Outside Stage, and we go our separate ways.

For me, it's back to the Arches to catch the tail-end of a band who, in terms of sheer presence and spectacle, are the antithesis of the one that preceded them. Featuring members of Guapo and Cathedral, MIASMA & THE CAROUSEL OF HEADLESS HORSES - as the name might suggest - look like face-painted extras from 'Sleepy Hollow' who regularly gargle blood in between performances as Aleister Crowley's house band. The bowler-hatted keyboard player in particular is somewhere between an undertaker and a corpse. There are unsettling echoes of traditional Eastern European music in their melodramatic instrumental rock, and whoever came up with the idea of screening 'The Wicker Man' on mute while they play should be congratulated, 'Asmodius Arise' reaching a feverish pitch just as events on Summerisle are doing likewise. The ghoulish quintet suffered so many cancelled gigs earlier this year they began to think they were cursed - thankfully for us, this one went ahead.

I'm alcoholically slumming, reduced to drinking Magners out of a plastic pint pot - with Rooty Frooty having been cleaned out of its Sam Smiths stock, it's the best value beverage on offer. And to think, the Anchor and its marvellous reserves of Thatchers Cheddar Valley (aka "the orange stuff") is little more than a stone's throw away...

Ever fantasised about an unrepentantly vicious punk band fronted by a bloke who - with his preposterous 'tache, white vest and braces - looks a bit like Freddie Mercury playing a Prohibition-era gangster and who launches stringy globs of spit skywards when he's not emptying every last bit of air from his lungs into a microphone? BEESTUNG LIPS may just be for you. Memorably describing themselves on their MySpace page as "the wet spot in your bed and in your brain", they're even more in-your-face than Wolf Eyes - and that's some achievement. The Capsule girls not only believe in them enough to put them on, but have also (in conjunction with Southern Records) put out their album Songs To And From An Iron Gut. You certainly need an iron gut to withstand the punch they pack.

I emerge into the fading evening sunlight feeling distinctly violated to find that Tunng are still not through administering the Outside Stage crowd with their dose of polite folk. It's not that they're bad - but what is it with them, Midlands festivals and being out of sync with whatever else I've just seen?

With Tunng finally gone, it's time for more local heroes, this time on the Outside Stage. The Pryke-approved MODIFIED TOY ORCHESTRA, playing at their "spiritual home" (this, after all, is their third consecutive appearance), do exactly what it says on the tin, creating cute and quirky electro-pop with specially-customised children's instruments (it's called "circuit bending", apparently). They're the brainchild of Brum sound artist Brian Duffy (he's the one fondling the Barbie doll) but Laurence Hunt of Pram and Mike Johnston of Plone are also among those stood in a line behind their keyboards in suits and matching pink shirts and ties ("Primark's finest") like Kraftwerk fresh from performing best man duties. 'Freeno And Olaf', about the forbidden love between two different species of cuddly toy, gets the warmest reception, but I can't help but feel they would be more interesting and effective if they cut back on the tweeness and novelty factor and instead used the tools at hand to make something altogether darker and more disturbing.

Smoking ban schmoking ban. That's obviously David Yow's perspective on things as he lounges on an amp at the side of the stage, contentedly chuffing away while his bandmates Matt Cronk (guitar) and Paul Christensen (drums) bash through a song without him. In fact, QUI (Arches Stage) used to perform without the former Jesus Lizard frontman and serial microphone abuser all the time, until he joined up late last year, the product of their union being the album Love's Miracle, due out in September on Mike Patton's Ipecac label. There's a heavy blues edge to some of the songs, but Yow's old band, the Melvins and Black Flag are the most obvious reference points, and certainly with 'I Love You' I completely miss any romantic undertones amidst the unhinged squall to which it takes me some time to get attuned. Yow, meanwhile, pleads for the return of his passport which he suspects he may have handed to someone the previous evening: "Otherwise I'll be stuck for the rest of my life in your pathetic little country". He winds up the set by telling a joke over the top of the music, muttering something about someone walking into a bar and then something else about not wanting any salad before the guitar and drums cut out, leaving him saying to a silent room "I'm only here to fuck the monkey". If you know the rest of the joke, answers on a postcard...

Not quite from the sublime to the ridiculous - but CHROME HOOF (Outside Stage) certainly fulfil their side of the bargain. Ridiculousness is their raison d'etre. I've waited for a lot of things in my time, but I can't honestly say I've ever found myself waiting for a marriage of Black Sabbath and Parliament as performed by a collective of indeterminate size wearing what can only be described as mirrorball cowls and featuring (amongst others) Cathedral bassist Leo Smee, a glamorous funk vocalist called Lola and an interpretative dancer. As entertaining as it is, though, the spectacle can't detract from the fact that musically it's something of a marriage of inconvenience, and Kenny sways me into wandering off in search of somewhere where the grass is greener.

Not in the Arches, unfortunately. OM may be comprised of two "founding members of legendary doom pioneers Sleep", but that and what we hear of their music - brooding stoner rock without the all-important guitars - isn't enough to sustain our interest, not least because we're aware that it's one-in-one-out for the main area and neither of us wants to miss the headliners. It's not an entirely wasted trip, though - we at last discover where the elusive bar selling Red Stripe has been lurking and duly seize the opportunity to refuel.

Back inside the main area after a fairly quick queue alongside Qui guitarist Matt Cronk, I finally get the opportunity to introduce one West Midlands blogger extraordinaire to another over badly-poured beers. Sadly a third, RussL, is proving even more elusive than the Red Stripe bar. He's not in the toilets, that's for sure - though Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite is, chatting to a Joe Strummer lookalike wearing bright red braces. Their exchange is in Glaswegian, so I catch every tenth word before wishing Stuart well as he disappears backstage.

And so to the band who, above all others, got me scrambling to buy a ticket. MOGWAI, by now practically a household name (or at least they would be if after every trailer or segment of TV footage they soundtrack they got visibly credited), are by far the biggest headliner in Supersonic's five year history. Long pursued by Jenny and Lisa, they've been every bit as elusive as the Red Stripe bar or RussL, but at last they're here, and John Cummings appears to have grown a Mogwai beard especially for the occasion. Which makes what follows all the more disappointing. Don't get me wrong - Mogwai on a bad day are still worth ten times most bands on a good one, and they probably still wind up being my favourite act of the weekend. Opener 'Superheroes Of BMX', 'Ratts Of The Capital', 'Hunted By A Freak' and insanely heavy closing duo 'Glasgow Mega Snake' and 'We're No Here' (the former described as "our fast song", in response to the earlier shout of "Faster!" from the crowd - "At least I hope it wasn't 'bastards'", quips Stuart) are among my personal festival highlights. But there's no escaping the facts: it's not loud enough, there's a perceptible lack of enthusiasm emanating from the stage (I'm loath to say it, but it's almost a going-through-the-motions) and the setlist is a real oddity - no 'Mogwai Fear Satan', no 'Like Herod', no 'Xmas Steps', no 'Summer'. This, after all, is a band who only four years ago thought nothing of rounding off a set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with 'My Father My King', their 25-minute-long interpretation of a Jewish hymn, and who witnessed Sonic Youth kick off a headlining set at a festival they curated with an unreleased half-hour-long song called 'New Drone'. Surely they could have jettisoned the likes of 'Travel Is Dangerous' and taken the opportunity to take more risks (a full-length 'Stereodee', perhaps?), safe in the knowledge that we would be a more receptive audience than normal?

While Kenny and Pete decide to stick around for Duracell, my batteries are nearly dead so it's goodnight to Supersonic 2007 from me.

* * * * *

So, it was loud, but only Fuck Buttons really turned it up to 11, and I made it through still able to hear myself think. As ever, writing this review has reminded me of all the bands / acts I missed, either through clashes or foolishness: SUNNO))), Kid 606, Shit And Shine, Pharaoh Overlord, Oxbow, Crippled Black Phoenix, Bela Emerson, Esquilax, Jazzkammer... Perhaps next time, eh?

And there will be a next time, despite my occasional disgruntlements.

No doubt in response to gripes much like my own, Lisa and Jenny have made clear on the Capsule site that the bar arrangements were out of their control - but it's something that could certainly do with being looked at. I'd hope a move away from the Custard Factory could be avoided, but quality beers and a greater range of food outlets (as well as more toilets) would be very welcome if the same number of tickets is to be sold next year. If that means a price hike, then so be it - I think most festival-goers would agree that £35 for the two days is stupendously good value, and that charging £50 certainly wouldn't be unreasonable if the extra money went at least partly on improving the facilities.


RussL's write-up of the event

Pete's collection of Supersonic-related links

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Mercury Music Prize 2007 nominees: some questions

1. Is there really such a dearth of good new British music that Favourite Worst Nightmare can be among the contenders?
2. Wouldn't it be ace if Bat For Lashes won?
3. The Young Knives' Voices Of Animals And Men - not quite consistent enough, or worth an outside bet?
4. Klaxons? KLAXONS?!
5. The View?! You're 'avin a laugh, aintcha?!

As for Maps, reading that his music "has been compared to My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualised" is enough for me to want a taste...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Know Your Enemy

"Our Love To Admire won't do much beside inspire more fan blogs devoted to Banksian poesy. A grotesque example of luxury hardened by luxury, Our Love promises as much decadence as its Econoline van spare tire cover art ... For those interested in such things, Our Love to Admire shows an advance: now they ape New Order's Movement, surely that combo's most static and dullest album".

Alfred Soto's Stylus review of Interpol's new album may be spiteful and jaundiced - but it's also a rather entertaining read, as most spiteful and jaundiced assassination jobs are.

Not that I agree, though - now on its fifth or sixth spin as I type, Our Love To Admire is slowly growing on me. It has to be said, though, that there's not a great deal in the way of development and Paul Banks clearly hasn't been listening to the hoots of derision that have greeted his lyrics in the past. "Tonight I'm going to rest my chemistry"? "You wear those shoes like a dove"? 'No I In Threesome'? Dear oh dear...
Quote of the day

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."

A gem from Rudyard Kipling that I came across last night while watching an episode of Marcus Brigstocke's BBC series 'Trophy People' for which he immersed himself in the world of the very serious Scrabbler. A bit of a glimpse into a world I could have been inhabiting myself had my online Scrabble addiction not been thwarted by a dodgy internet connection...
Poster of the day

No, not part of a new hard-hitting Friends of the Earth campaign, but a 1943 propaganda poster by Weimer Pursell. It seems the US government wasn't always so environmentally unfriendly...
A cuppa a day keeps the doctor away

Tea is a life-giving elixir, apparently. Still not as good as coffee, is it, though? (I realise this is tantamount to disavowing my Northernness...)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On the buses

When I was living in Cardiff, I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work - perhaps not the nicest stroll scenery-wise (down Carlisle Street, along Sanquhar Street, over the Magic Roundabout and then along Atlantic Wharf), but certainly an enjoyable awakening on a crisp February morning and almost an hour's worth of exercise every day to boot.

These days the bus takes me practically door to door - convenient, yes, but it means I barely get to stretch my legs before getting down to a day's work. What's more, the reliability of the service in the morning leaves something to be desired (it can turn up pretty much any time between 8.10am and 8.30am), the timetable determines when I leave work and the bus always overcrowded on the way home.

But if bus travel has one advantage over Shanks' pony, it's that I get at least half an hour's reading time a day - which has meant that, after a long period of sluggishness, I've been galloping through books at a swift pace and with renewed enthusiasm, making significant inroads into my stash of still-unread tomes.

The only problem is that I'm struggling to keep up on the reviewing front - you know me, going without a review is just not an option. There are already four books waiting to be the subject of posts, and I'm a handful of pages away from finishing a fifth, Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'. So, you can expect more literary and not-so-literary thoughts soon...
Poem of the day

A new semi-regular feature, perhaps, depending on how pretentious I'm feeling...

In The Birchwood

I had always wanted to shoot myself
and so perhaps it was inevitable
that one day I would find a gun in the birchwood
flick back what I took to be the safety catch
and launch my brain.

The neurons set off immediately
in all directions, reminding me
how often I had needed to be in two places at once,
how I had envied worms in their neat ability to divide
and divide again.

Here there and everywhere I lay,
half wishing some part of me
had survived to help with the clearing up afterwards,
or keep an eye on gathering foxes
and frighten the crows.

Although it was odd to be inside out
in such cold weather
a hat would not have made much difference then,
and mine sat upside-down on a tree stump
filling with snow.

Kate Bingham, from the collection Quicksand Beach.

... to Lloyd Jones and my old colleagues at Seren, in light of the news that Jones' second novel 'Mr Cassini' has been named the 2007 Wales Book Of The Year! That makes it back-to-back successes for Seren - and they also had poet Christine Evans among the shortlisted writers for her collection 'Growth Rings'.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Reasons To Be Cheerful Part II

Over two months since making the move from Cardiff, I've finally now spent my first weekend here in Abingdon. Which means that the new series of the Reasons To Be Cheerful feature - for which I'll be seeking out, stumbling upon and writing about all that's good in and around Oxford - can commence, and with a double bill too...

#1 - The QI Building

Perhaps it's a sign of age, but there's very little I enjoy more these days than uncorking a bottle or two of red wine and plonking myself down in front of 'QI'. Often very funny, the panel-show-of-sorts hosted by Stephen Fry is never merely quite interesting - even if precious few of the fascinating facts revealed on the show actually lodge themselves in my memory for use at a later date.

So, when it came to choosing a first port of call in Oxford on Friday night (traditionally 'QI' night), we were always going to gravitate towards the QI Building. Situated on Turl Street, just off Broad Street and appropriately enough within a stone's throw of that repository of centuries of knowledge and scholarship the Bodleian Library, the programme's HQ comprises a private members' club with restaurant, a cafe-bar, a vodka bar and a bookshop which, they proudly state, is "not organised according to any well-known bibliographic principles, but according to a broad theme that encourages browsing and serendipity".

Ravenous after a day's work, we both tucked into QI Burgers liberally topped with bacon and Swiss cheese, and accompanied by salad, gherkins, chunky chips and homemade aioli. £10 might seem steep, but I can assure you it was worth it - and in any case it's good to know you're helping to pay the wages of the elves. Not even a large photo from the show of Jeremy Clarkson apparently simulating sex between two cuddly toys could put me off my food. (This is just one of many - unsurprisingly, there are plenty pictures of Alan Davies showcasing a range of amusing facial expressions.)

What's more, between 5.30pm and 8pm Mondays to Fridays it's happy hour. £2.50 for a delicious mojito (loads of mint, not too much sugar) or caipirinha, and £2 for a bottle of Erdinger? Let's just say it got the night off to a very good start. Perhaps next time Fry'll be there, and we can buy him a glass of sherry as a token of our appreciation.

Now then, the Balderdash & Piffle Building must be round here somewhere...

#2 - Pieminister

If you made it as far as Sunday in the even-more-exhaustive-and-exhausting-than-usual SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary, then you'll know that one of my highlights of the day was following up a friend's recommendation and sampling the wares at the Pieminister stall near the Jazz World Stage.

So imagine my delight when, in the course of researching the company, I discovered that, though Bristol-based, they have an outlet in Oxford...

The instant we stepped off the bus on Saturday lunchtime we were eagerly hunting out the shop, located in the Covered Market just off Cornmarket Street - not hard to find, and just one of numerous fantastic shops / stalls selling everything from fresh fish, fruit and veg, speciality milkshakes and gourmet sausages to T-shirts, shoes and bags.

It's not the largest place, so there was a short wait for somewhere to sit, but before long we were tucking into our pies, served up with mash, gravy and (in Jenni's case) minty mushy peas, grated cheese and crispy fried shallots. Every pie is handmade and filled with locally-sourced free range meat and fresh veg, and the range is mouthwatering.

After some deliberation I plumped for the Mr Porky I regretted not having at Glasto (West Country pork, smoked bacon, shallots, apples, leeks, Somerset cider and sage) while Jenni opted for one of the more unusual combinations, the Matador as raved about by Swiss Toni (steak, chorizo, olives, tomato, sherry and butter beans). And the pastry is almost as good as the fillings...

Satiated, we wandered off round the shops trying to work off a malingering hangover induced by the previous night's cocktails and pints of Old Rosie in the Turf Tavern - not easy when the whole city centre is overrun by infuriating infestations of Spanish and Italian schoolchildren intent on causing mischief or at very least getting in the bloody way.

But we were back there later in the day, though, so I could pick up three chilled pies to bring home - a Minty Lamb, a Chicken of Aragon and a Thai Chook. (The former's short stay in the fridge lasted until this evening...) While we were there, we took advantage of the afternoon offer: buy a piece of cake and get a free coffee. Jenni's chocolate and hazelnut brownie, stodgy and rich, was perfect - and no pastry in sight...
Blogwatch: in brief

Congratulations to Pete, whose various high-quality blogging ventures have drawn him to the attention of the Custard Factory, whose website he'll now be redeveloping and running.

Meanwhile, Mike was invited to give a talk on blogging at the Lowdham Book Festival and, disappointed not to have got through the second half of his material (focused mainly on the relationship between blogging and book-writing), has reproduced his notes on Troubled Diva.

No sooner had Lord Bargain returned from Glastonbury than he was rubbing shoulders with the stars again, having what turns out to be a night to remember...
Feel good hits of the 9th July

1. 'Medication' - Spiritualized
2. 'Motorcycle' - The Rumble Strips
3. 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above' - CSS
4. 'Tomorrow Is Already Here' - Stereolab
5. 'Trophy' - Bat For Lashes
6. 'Nosebleed' - Maximo Park
7. 'An End Has A Start' - Editors
8. 'Beat Connection' - LCD Soundsystem
9. 'Soul Assassins' - The Kissaway Trail
10. 'You Said' - Semifinalists
Quote of the day

"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

Douglas Adams in 'The Salmon Of Doubt'.
Newspaper headline of the day


Now if that isn't the plot for an episode of 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace', then I don't know what is...

Friday, July 06, 2007

SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary

Knew I'd get there in the end...

Here it is, in order:


Same time next year, then...
SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary

Monday 25th June

(With photo courtesy of Dan.)

It's STILL raining. Seriously, this has to be the most consistently awful weather I've experienced at Glastonbury yet. Everything is sodden, including the end of my sleeping bag. For Jenni and I at least, it really is time to pack up and go home.

We've been standing in the queue for the shuttle bus back to Castle Cary for over three quarters of an hour and hardly advanced an inch. Our plan to catch the 9.52 direct to Cardiff has clearly been foiled. To make matters worse, the rain is lashing down, there's no shelter whatsoever and we're both soaked to the skin and feeling as though hypothermia is just round the corner. As stewards wander around dishing out pink blankets to those in need as though we're refugees displaced by war, The Stooges' 'No Fun' reverberates in my head. But people's patience and good humour in the face of adversity here always astounds me, and I'm cheered by a group who perform a kazoo-and-vocal version of 2 Unlimited's 'No Limits'.

We're on the bus! A big cheer goes up as we lurch off in the direction of the station, the site not even visible in the rear window because of all the steam rising off our drenched clothes.

We fall through our front door, three trains (one of which was bound for Cardiff but was cancelled in Bristol) and a taxi later. It's been brilliant, it's been emotional, it's been drunken but right now there's only one thought in my head: I'm going to wash that mud right out of my hair...

* * * * *

And that's just about it!

Keep your eyes peeled for Q's Glastonbury Review special, which I gather features Kirsten and Laura aka the Smurfettes on p.16. Infamy at last, Kirsten...

A final round-up of Glasto links etc:

Swiss Toni: Write-up / Earworms / Gastronomic review

Lord Bargain's write-up

Andy Pryke's posts and photos (scroll down)

Sarah's photo set

Hen's write-up

Charlie Brooker's take on his first Glastonbury for the Guardian

... And finally, from the comfort of his own mud-free armchair, Mike's fantasy Glastonbury

Thursday, July 05, 2007

SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary

Sunday 24th June

(With photos courtesy of Sarah, Swiss Toni, Jenni and Dan.)

For fuck's sake. Awakened by rain again, this time pretty heavy. Spirits dip for the first time.

It's stopped, so we emerge to survey the scene. The mud has worsened to the point that hardly any grass is visible, pools of water have gathered on all our chairs and one of our two gazebos has buckled and collapsed on a couple of tents. Rob confesses that upon waking up "a small part of me didn't want to do this anymore".

We reflect on the previous evening's carnage. Jenni suggests that "having a can of beer probably actually reduced the volume of alcohol in Martin's bloodstream". Owen adds that Martin's transformation "was like evolution backwards" - and certainly his drunkenly graceful slide off his stool was a very literal return to the primordial slime. Chris, meanwhile, is in no position to comment, having passed out while walking...

Kirsten and Laura's faces beam out at us from the pages of the Glastonbury Daily on account of the fact that they spent all of Friday dressed as Smurfettes.

Jenni buys a copy of the Observer purely for the rain mac, while my bacon sandwich gets soggier and my coffee more diluted. Off to the John Peel Stage...

... where we bump into Swiss Toni, Lord Bargain, Sarah and Hen and an impromptu bloggers' convention ensues. Lord B enthuses about Tiny Dancers, whom they've just seen for the second time in two days, while Swiss Toni, photoblogging the event for the BBC, can't resist a quick snap of the bloke reclining in a yellow dinghy afloat the mud lake outside the tent, apparently without a care in the world.

By rights, THE NOISETTES should be performing on the other side of the site - after all, Shingai Shoniwa once used to perform burlesque as part of the Lost Vagueness crew together with a woman dressed as a swan whose routine culminated in her laying an egg out of - well, you know, there. Apparently they're fresh from touring the US with Bloc Party and The Maccabees (as well as a late night slot in the Leftfield Tent the previous evening), and judging by Shoniwa's get-up they took a detour via Bootsy Collins' wardrobe. As a heavy garage blues band fronted by a black woman, The Noisettes are forever destined to be compared to The Bellrays. What they lack in truly memorable songs - scorching single 'Scratch My Name' and bizarre punk rock sea shanty 'Pub Life' aside - they more than make up for in impact, and in Jamie Morrison (not to be confused with sub-Blunt wet blanket James) they boast a Proper Drummer ie one with massive hair, a beard and a black AC/DC T-shirt who sets about his kit like it's done him a particularly heinous wrong.

Alas! My pen has stopped working! Potential disaster is averted, however, by Graham, who is on hand with a replacement.

Here to give The Long Blondes a run for their money in the conceptual perfection stakes, and putting Southend on the musical map in the process, are THE HORRORS (John Peel Stage) - five tight-trousered, painfully stick-thin and pallid waifs, each one a figment of Tim Burton's imagination made flesh, playing Cramps-influenced organ-heavy garage rock. Vocalist Faris Badwan, whose already-ripped T-shirt deconstructs itself further during the course of the set, obviously styles himself on Joey Ramone (the Ramones references aren't just visual - see 'Sheena Is A Parasite' and its Chris Cunningham directed video for proof), while black-eyed organist Rhys 'Spider' Webb, looking every inch like Clint Boon's evil alter ego, struts the stage and pretends to hang himself from the mic stand by his neckerchief. Disappointingly, though, even allowing for the poor sound, I'm inclined to agree with the naysayers that they're style over substance. Not even their cover of Screaming Lord Sutch's 'Jack The Ripper', the opening track on debut album Strange House, or their obstinate refusal to leave the stage when ordered off by the gnome-like compere, who subsequently looks very angry, can succeed in really winning me round. Less rocket from the crypt and more sparkler in the back yard - a shame, because it's all so promising.

Just time for another short jaunt up the hill to the bar before the next act...

THE RUMBLE STRIPS (John Peel Stage) were always destined to suffer the fate of all white bands whose songs feature liberal amounts of brass but who give ska punk a judiciously wide berth - namely, that of being compared (usually unfavourably) to Dexys Midnight Runners. Charlie Waller's vocals do little to discourage the comparisons, either. But at least they have the good grace to aspire to being the young soul rebels of 'Geno' rather than the cod-gypsy oiks of Too-Rye-Aye, and with the sun out and songs like 'Girls And Boys' (no, not that one) and 'Motorcycle' (take a look at its brilliantly simple video) in their repertoire, they really ought to be entertaining a far bigger crowd than this on the Pyramid Stage. I'm certainly not the first blogger to whistle that particular tune, though, Pete Ashton having done so when he saw them during the Going Deaf For A Fortnight gigging marathon way back in November 2005.

At this point we decide to drag ourselves away from the John Peel Stage, shortly before The Rumble Strips' erstwhile tourmates The Young Knives appear, and try the Jazz World Stage for something completely different. In some respects it's a decision I regret. TINARIWEN may be "Tuareg rebels who used to go into battle with guitars on their back", as the Guardian Guide reports, but their measured desert blues, while well-crafted, seems a bit muted and colourless after a while. The setting doesn't help - unlike the other stages, the "grassy area" in front of Jazz World Stage has no natural contours, and is instead completely flat (or would be if it wasn't for the muddy potholes everywhere). To think, I'm missing the likes of 'The Decision' and 'Loughborough Suicide'... Nevertheless, we console ourselves with pints of the driest scrumpy known to man bought on the way past the Burrow Hill cider bus (last day special offer of £5 for two pints? It'd be rude not to...) and then, on Dan's recommendation, a pie from Pie Minister (see what they done there?). My Chicken of Aragon is absolutely delicious, and at just £4 represents better value than anything I've eaten all weekend - but I can't help wishing I'd noticed the Mr Porky which Jen tucks into, together with a liberal lump of mash. And we weren't the only ones blown away by how good they were...

My very first visit to the Pyramid Stage since the music began in earnest two days ago. To be honest, I'm here watching the MANIC STREET PREACHERS more because I've never seen them before than because I actually expect them to be much cop, and our late departure from the Jazz World Stage and brief refuelling stop at the cider bus mean we miss both 'You Love Us' and 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. But they're belting out 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' as we arrive, and it's quickly followed by perhaps their spikiest single 'Faster' - all together now: "I am an architect, they call me a butcher / I am a pioneer, they call me primitive / I am purity, they say I'm perverted...". Sadly, that's as much as we get of The Holy Bible. Mercifully there are only four songs from the last three albums and nothing at all from Lifeblood - 'Imperial Bodybags', Send Away The Tigers' barbed commentary on the Iraq war, is a return to form while the album's first single 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough', a duet between James Dean Bradfield and The Cardigans' Nina Persson, is passable, meaning I only have to grin and bear 'Ocean Spray' (a real clunker) back-to-back with dreadful new single 'Autumnsong'. Otherwise, it's a well-chosen greatest hits set: 'Everything Must Go', 'From Despair To Where', 'If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next' - only the Manics could have written a song about the Spanish Civil War, burdened it with a name like that and taken it to #1... Bradfield, audibly out of breath between songs, claims he's pissed off his one trademark move - the hop-on-one-leg-while-spinning-around - has been stolen by someone on 'Stars In Your Eyes', but there's barely a peep from Nicky Wire, and certainly no repeat of his infamous declaration of '94 that "Somebody ought to build a bypass over this shithole". Bradfield dredges up memories of that performance, though, dedicating 'Motown Junk' to Richey James, who "was hammered before the gig, during the gig and after the gig", before the whole field joins in for the final flourish of 'A Design For Life'.

Such are the crowds and conditions that The Go! Team on the Other Stage are definitely out. We're joined by a couple of Smurfettes, but the escalating mudfight behind us and (more significantly) the imminent arrival on stage of Kaiser Chiefs - who have the gall to interrupt The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'April Skies' with their intro music - has me scrambling to get as far away as possible.

Oh look, there's the cider bus!

Ricky Wilson, these are the lengths you're capable of driving me to - I'm in the sodding Circus Tent. The first act we see is actually very good - a seriously talented acrobat balancing on chairs who encourages some audience participation (not quite the stage invasion of the Stooges set, but never mind). But then there's a very average duo looking every bit like a husband-and-wife combo in garb borrowed from Torville and Dean, and then a godawful Australian woman called Shirlee Sunflower - I refuse to honour her with the title of "comedian". I can't take any more and make a quick exit. At least it was a juggler-free zone for the duration of my brief visit.

The pen I borrowed from Graham has stopped working and I'm having to carry around three hours of festival observations around in my increasingly fuzzy head, so I stagger past a bizarre mechanical dinosaur being restrained by a man at Trash City in search of somewhere that might sell me a pen. To my great surprise, they turn out to have some at the nearest convenience shop, and to my even greater surprise I find myself stood behind Bill Bailey in the queue. Naturally, unlike most of those around I can't tell from his appearance whether he's been here all weekend. As I walk off he is trying to pacify a small child - his own, I hope, because if it's someone else's then they may be permanently traumatised by that vision looming up at them through the dusk and drizzle. Incidentally, the pen still doesn't work, and I belatedly arrive at the conclusion that it's the paper that's wet.

Answering a call of nature near the Leftfield Tent, I hear the announcement on stage of another Glastonbury stalwart, BILLY BRAGG, performing his second set of the day. Bragg is as quintessential a part of the festival as Michael Eavis, mud and men wandering around the Stone Circle trying to sell you magic mushroom honey, so naturally I wander over. Sure enough, 'Sexuality' and 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' are welcomed like old friends, while a new song tackles the paradox of restricting freedoms in the face of the terrorist threat while preaching the virtue of democracy. As ever with Bragg, though, it's far from po-faced, as he complains about the mug of tea he's been made and expresses his disinterest in the recently-concluded race for the Labour deputy leadership. I don't stick around long enough to find out whether he performs 'Unisex Chip Shop', but I know a man who probably will later on.

There's no chance I'm going to make it across to the John Peel Stage to catch part of The Gossip's headlining set, so I might as well stand here on the road, way out left but with a slightly elevated view of the Pyramid Stage, and enjoy THE WHO with another pint of appley goodness. The Q produced programme has led us to expect "guaranteed whirling dervish on guitar, anthems, explosions, snarling expressions, general jumping about and all manner of attitude". What we actually get is old men playing a song called 'My Generation' with about as much vim, passion and gusto as their grandparents can currently muster. It just sounds so wrong. Pete Townsend goes as far as some crowd-pleasing windmill arm, but he might as well be waving a white handkerchief in his hand while doing it - it's as flat as my cider. Only 'Who Are You' and 'Pinball Wizard' leave a genuinely lasting impression, and the fact that the set-closer is an acoustic track performed by just Townsend and Roger Daltry called 'Tea And Theatre' says it all - and throws into further relief just how good The Stooges were last night.

In an attempt to wring out the last drops from this year's festival experience, I stop on the way back to the tents to take in the conclusion of CORINNE BAILEY RAE's set on the Jazz World Stage. For someone whose debut album reached #1, her crowd is pitifully small, and, much as I try, I struggle to find anything of interest in her insipid coffee-table soul other than the strength of her voice and the mystery of what happened to the girl who once used to front L7-inspired fempunks Helen.

The rain continues to fall, and I opt not to head over to The Park to catch Gruff Rhys' second solo set of the weekend, mainly because he's due to be at the Green Man Festival later in the summer. 'Skylon' certainly sounds good from where we're sat attempting to start a fire, though.

It's too miserable to wander up to Stone Circle, and there's the prospect of an early morning start to come, so it's one last can of lager before bed.

Bands or performers I would have liked to have seen in an ideal world but missed due to clashes / rearranged running orders / the elements / my own sheer laziness or stupidity: The Young Knives, The Go! Team, The Gossip, Beirut, Gruff Rhys, Mica P Hinson, Euros Childs, Tunng, Cold War Kids, The Marley Brothers, Bill Bailey, Jeff Green

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

SWSL Glastonbury 2007 Diary

Saturday 23rd June

(With photos courtesy of Sarah, Rob, Owen and Jenni.)

Showers, and not of the hot, cleansing kind. A lie-in it is, then.

I gingerly slip on yesterday's jeans caked with cold, wet, squishy mud. Perhaps it's time to crack out the wellies - this, for me, is a festival first. I console myself with breakfast in the form of a large bag of pork scratchings. Can't help thinking that seeing The Pipettes on the Pyramid Stage would have had more nutritional value.

It's back to Cafe Tango, the scene of Thursday night's experimental lager-and-vodka punch (and a punch it certainly was - to the side of the head, with knuckledusters on). This time it's all much more sedate. Slurps of restorative coffee are accompanied by three men dressed as chefs playing a Weird Al Yankovic cover of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It'.

Doves frontman Jimi Goodwin - possessor of what would be a fine festival beard if it wasn't permanently resident on his chops - wanders past in the direction of the backstage area. Surely he must be both deaf and blind to be oblivious to the charms of THE LONG BLONDES (Other Stage), one of the most conceptually perfect bands to grace this year's festival. Steve Mackay produced the Sheffield quintet's debut album Someone To Drive You Home, and it's not hard to trace Pulp's influence in both the archly raised eyebrows and suggestively seedy undertones of their effortlessly slinky new wave pop songs. They're equally at home writing tales of bitter envy and frustrated sexual desire (take the singles 'Giddy Stratospheres' and 'Weekend Without Make Up', for a start) as songs inspired by paintings in the Tate which reference Czech literary titan Milan Kundera ('The Unbearable Lightness Of Buildings'). And in Kate Jackson, today resplendent in best red frock and towering heels, they have a magnetic presence up front. OK, so the conditions today don't suit them, and there's a bit of a mid-set lull (too many slower songs), but why hasn't everyone gone mad for them? I'm scratching my head. At least the excellent new song about guilt - an even more perfect take on Parallel Lines era Blondie - suggests they've got plenty more in the arsenal.

By contrast, BIFFY CLYRO are a band with an ardent following I've never been able to comprehend. Does anyone need another poor man's Foo Fighters, now that Dave Grohl's mob have become their own poorer selves? In truth, the trio make a convincing start, administering an effective shock to the system, but the twitchy QOTSA riff of 'Who's Got A Match?' from new album Puzzle marks the beginnings of a slackening-off which results in my attention wande ... ooh look there's Stephen Merchant from off of 'The Office' and 'Extras', all 6ft 7ins of him. (Turns out he's here in his capacity as a DJ on Radio 6.) The Scots are responsible for perhaps the most bizarre onstage comment of the whole weekend, though; one commends us for not allowing the weather to stop us having fun, before another adds, "When everyone here dies, God'll give us all a handjob or something". Er, right - best play another song, and quick...

£6 exits my festival funds in exchange for an enchilada crammed full of enchilada, jalapenos and spicy guacamole. Not exactly a wise move given the state of the toilets, but what the hell.

Where's Andy? Oh, he's just left the Other Stage to see politico-folksters Seize The Day. A shame as CSS (or Cansei De Ser Sexy if you're not into the whole brevity thing) are right up his street. Oh yes, the Brazilian nuts are here to bring the party, fronted by a woman called Lovefoxxx (not, one assumes, by her parents) who strips out of one multi-coloured catsuit to reveal another underneath, dances like she's copying an exercise video, loses her headband in attempting to crowdsurf and finally bids us farewell in a tiny high-pitched voice having inhaled one of the helium balloons with which the stage is festooned. Who needs The Flaming Lips anyway? Their persistent, playful electro-pop isn't quite all it's cracked up to be, I don't think, but their bastardised / mashed-up version of L7's 'Pretend We're Dead' brings a smile to my face and set-closer 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above' is a stroke of genius (even if by rights it should be 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above 1979', pedantry fans...), which approximates how Blondie probably sound in James Murphy's head. Yep, that good.

After that particular injection of fun, though, it doesn't take long for the comedown to set in. I'm waiting for KLAXONS (Other Stage) to impress me - and I wait and I wait. They're on stage, in case you're wondering - it's not just a long set-change. I cannot for the life of me fathom what's got everyone so excited about them. Being "nu-rave" pioneers seems to consist of peddling some very ropey non-descript Bloc Party knock-offs with the odd car alarm effect chucked over the top of it, and having a drummer who looks like the bloke from Kajagoogoo. 'Golden Skans' is half-decent, but even then that's purely for the vocal line, while they don't even have the good sense to finish with 'It's Not Over Yet', their not-exactly-radical reworking of Grace's 1995 club hit. By far the largest Other Stage crowd of the day are lapping it up, though, feeling the very definitely chemically-enhanced love from the stage, declared between every song in a risible "You're my besssht mate, you are - you all are" kind of way. Near us there is a man who has been enthusiastically blowing a whistle and waving a glow stick throughout. In his excitement at being invited (along with all the rest of us) to a barbecue at Jamie Reynolds' place, he drops his wallet into the mud. I enjoy a moment of Schadenfreude.

'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above' is proving itself to be an earworm of the most tenacious kind.

BABYSHAMBLES (Other Stage). Can I be bothered to even feign interest in Pete Doherty's scabby rag-and-bone-man fag-end-in-the-gutter indie, at the way he keeps making eyes at Kate Moss at the side of the stage, or that Lethal Bizzle has just strode on stage? Nah. I've got much better things to do, like trudge over to the John Peel Stage...

... where I get my very first taste of BAT FOR LASHES. Paradoxically, it's precisely because Natasha Khan is so unusual, such a singular talent, that so many other artists are routinely evoked when critics try to get a handle on her and her otherworldly music - Bjork, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Kate Bush. And of course that's why none of the reference points go anywhere near to doing her justice. Songs like 'Trophy' (which today is sadly lacking the backing vocals of Josh T Pearson, ex Lift To Experience) are cleverly fashioned out of keyboard, chimes and handclaps, but it's Khan's hauntingly rich and resonant voice that stands out even more than her headdress, a siren call drawing us willingly closer and closer to the dark whirlpool, the water rising over our heads...

But, unfortunately, owing to the scheduling, it's a spell I have to snap out of. For back on the Other Stage the sun is out (yes, really) and MAXIMO PARK are here to entertain us with some taut, wired tunage straight outta Geordonia. "We haven't got balloons or special guests, just some songs we think you might like". Paul Smith may be unhappy about being unable to hear himself, but he doesn't let that sour the occasion, leaping and high-kicking his way around the stage with that bowler hat from which he seems inseparable these days somehow staying perched atop his head. Meanwhile those behind him do an excellent job of reminding me why their debut A Certain Trigger was one of my favourite albums of 2005. To this end 'Now I'm All Over The Shop', 'The Coast Is Always Changing' and of course 'Apply Some Pressure' are all especially rapturously received by one increasingly inebriated individual jigging about near the vegan falafel stall. What's more, they also convince me I really ought to pay a good deal more attention to second LP Our Earthly Pleasures; 'Nosebleed' and 'Karaoke Plays' in particular benefit from live performance, though 'Books From Boxes' continues to seem a slightly strange choice of single and I'm a bit mystified as to the absence from the set of arguably the album's most anthemic song, 'Sandblasted And Set Free'. Still, it's an otherwise unmitigated triumph.

The rain may have stopped a few hours ago but the mud is still deep and sloppy, and I find myself reflecting on the fact that my wellies may just be the best £1.50 ever spent. (Yes, you read that right - £1.50, snapped up by Jenni from a clear-out in Wilkinsons on the eve of the festival.) Meanwhile, the song going round and round in my head is 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above'...

The dark is descending, so let lugubriosity reign! Following on from the success of The Back Room, EDITORS (Other Stage) have a new album, An End Has A Start, to promote. Slick singles 'All Sparks' and 'Blood' both make early appearances, and from the new record 'Escape The Nest' is particularly strong, but they find themselves performing for a crowd which has dwindled dramatically since Klaxons left the stage. They've done themselves no favours with the timing of the new release, either, as it coincides almost exactly with Our Love To Admire, Interpol's return to the fray; in a straight head-to-head battle of the transatlantic black-clad Joy-Division-influenced gloomsters the New Yorkers are always likely to emerge victorious, even if hamstrung by Paul Banks' legendarily awful lyrics. They're certainly not bad, but after around half an hour of what increasingly comes to seem like pseudo-profundity (witness that album title, for starters) my limbs are itching for animation.

Thankfully !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk, don't you know) are close at hand, a short squelch and slide away in the Glade. It's fair to say they're a revelation. Rather like LCD Soundsystem, they show Klaxons up for the half-arsed charlatans they really are and in the process lend further credence to my old belief that North Americans, far from being scum, very often make music that is significantly superior to that of their British counterparts. Lairy party animals bounding about the stage, hammering out the funkiest of beats with force and conviction, whipping up an ecstatic (in both senses of the word) crowd into a sweating, frenzied mass through a combination of swirling visuals, aggressive strobes and climactic whistling synths - THIS would actually merit being called "nu-rave", if it hadn't become a debased and derogatory term.

Klaxons might be flavour of the month at the moment, but they would do well to take note of the vagaries of fashion. In 2002 and 2003, in the wake of The Strokes' Is This It, you couldn't move for garage rock bands, all taking their cue from The MC5 and THE STOOGES. And yet, only a few years later, the latter, headlining the Other Stage, draw a disappointingly small audience. For many, the lure of The Killers' glossily superficial synth-driven pop-rock has proved too strong - more fool them, because what those of us who stick around witness is something quite spectacular. The Stooges may be getting longer in the tooth, but for someone like me who would argue they're the best punk band ever to exist on either side of the Atlantic there's no shortage of evidence to call on, '1969', 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' and 'TV Eye' following each other in quick and thrilling succession. Their self-titled debut album was released shortly before the Rolling Stones' cataclysmic Altamont gig in December 1969, and The Stooges were in many ways just as representative of the death of the hippy dream - a dark, violent howl of rage. Needless to say, then, that they're completely at odds with the peace 'n' love Glasto vibe, a point underlined with 'My Idea Of Fun', the cartoonish first single from new album The Weirdness: "My idea of fun is killing everyone". Guitarist Ron Asheton is quietly business-like in his Hawaiian shirt, while ex Minuteman Mike Watt is a gurning madman on bass, his back up against the speaker - but it's really all about one James Newell Osterberg. He may have turned 60 (yes, SIXTY) earlier this year, but Iggy Pop is still an absolute loon, a wild-eyed streak of long hair and sinew writhing about on top of the amp within a couple of songs, a medical marvel upon whose naked torso a lifetime of self-destructive behaviour is written. And inevitably it's he who is responsible for the set's defining moment, urging security to allow a fan who has vaulted the barrier up on stage during 'Real Cool Time'. Soon, the bewildered stewards are overrun, and by the end of a splendidly ironic 'No Fun' the entire stage is full of revellers, the band no longer even visible. When the song finishes, Iggy discovers there isn't even room for him to clamber back up. Confusion ensues, everyone wanting a moment with him, but security and a minder fending them off with arms and mic stands. Eventually, the stage clears, and the show goes on - and, against the odds, gets even better, with Funhouse saxophonist Steve Mackay appearing for '1970' and 'Funhouse' itself. Iggy slips on the mud from someone's welly and crashes to the floor but picks himself up for an encore of 'Not Right' and a second helping of 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' before they disappear into the night, leaving us to reflect that hell has very definitely been raised.

I'm sharing Graham's 8% wine (it tastes a bit like Ribena gone wrong, if you're wondering) when a friend calls. He's been watching the highlights on TV and is raving about The Stooges - and that's when it really hits home that tonight we've seen something that will go down in Glastonbury legend, even if it does mean that they won't be invited back. How many people who opted to see The Killers can say that?

Perhaps in homage to Iggy Pop, some of us have spent the day doggedly pursuing a course of self-destruction. Witness, for example, Exhibits A, B and C...

My sleeping bag is calling - and STILL 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above' refuses to leave my head...

Bands or performers I would have liked to have seen in an ideal world but missed due to clashes / rearranged running orders / the elements / my own sheer laziness or stupidity: The Pipettes, Patrick Wolf, You Say Party! We Say Die!, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Guillemots, K'naan, Phil Nichol, Jeremy Hardy, Simon Munnery
In mourning

I'm in mourning. Glastonbury this year was at times like trench warfare, and there are always casualties in war. In this case, the casualties were my trusty festival boots.

Already more than three years old when they were pressed into service at my first festival, Reading in '96, they were veterans of numerous campaigns including the two terrible Glastos of '98 and 2005. I can't think of many festivals I've been to when they haven't seen any combat (All Tomorrow's Parties in 2000 at Butlins being an obvious exception). I was very attached to them - though on occasion that was because I couldn't bear the thought of taking them off and instantly exterminating all flora and fauna within a mile radius.

In truth - and I'm ashamed to admit it - it wasn't even really this year's Glastonbury that finally did for them, but my own neglect. They survived the Friday, muddied but unbowed, and only perished after the return to base. I left them out to dry in Friday evening's sunshine, but then forgot to take them in - and by the time I remembered about them on Saturday afternoon they'd had a thorough soaking in the downpour, were full of water and smelt even less fragrant than normal. At the time we were in the middle of clearing out our house, and they wouldn't have been welcome at our new place - so there was little option but to lay them to rest.

So, they didn't quite die face down in the mud for me, but they might as well have done.


The Glasto diary continues tomorrow, I promise...