Monday, May 25, 2020

Read it and weep

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

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

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

(Thanks to Craig for the link.)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

"He never got to be shit"

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Behind the facades

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

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

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

(Thanks to Jon for the link.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Peak Nasty Party

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2020

No stranger than fiction

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

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

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

Sunday, May 17, 2020

User error

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

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

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

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

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

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Capturing coronavirus close to home

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2020

On the margins of rock history

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

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

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

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

(Thanks to Kev for the link.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Live left to die?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Jolly fucker baker

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 11, 2020

Survival instinct

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Little Richard, big legacy

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

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

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Picturehouses

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

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

Friday, May 08, 2020

Back to the future

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Holiday snaps

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

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

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Sounds of the city

Cities And Memory may have been running for five years, but the project has really come into its own in the last couple of months - for obvious reasons. Stuart Fowkes - a fellow former Nightshift writer who also happens to be behind Oxford's excellent Audioscope music festival - set out to collect field recordings from urban areas around the globe, but could surely never have imagined the present moment: "a really unique time when the world is sounding like it's never sounded before", he told the Guardian's Lanre Bakare.

Traffic noise - both on the roads and in the skies - has plummeted, but our cities aren't completely silent. Even a deserted Times Square at the height of New York's coronavirus crisis hummed with "an air-conditioning drone". As Fowkes noted, "One of the few positives from this situation is that people are starting to reconnect with nature a little bit and starting to notice the sounds that are usually drowned out around them". Stop to listen and you'll hear what he means.

Monday, May 04, 2020

"Quiet consolations"

Published in late February, Teju Cole's article in praise of photobooks as a source of solace couldn't have been much more timely. Who among us isn't currently recoiling from the horrors of daily reality and trying to escape to their metaphorical happy place?

For Cole, even "brief immersion" in the pages of a favourite photobook "provisionally repairs the world". As sequences of pictures rather than individual shots, they reveal "not only what something looks like but how someone looks". Indeed, it is the sequencing of the images that makes a photobook "truly special": "Look at this, the photographer says, then look at this, then look at this one. All books are chronological, but the feeling of being guided, of being simultaneously surprised and satisfied, is particularly intense in photobooks." (Sequencing, it's worth noting, is also precisely what makes Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment - a book about photography, rather than of photography - so good: the echoes, connections, parallels and contrasts that he teases out from one image to the next.)

Of course, the selection and arrangement of photos is important in an exhibition too, and you could argue (as, for instance, David Hurn has of Bruce Davidson) that contact sheets also give an insight into the way a particular photographer thinks. But Cole argues - in terms that this former book production editor readily understands - that great photobooks owe much of their power to the aesthetic appeal of their materiality: "the paper; print quality; stitching and binding; the weight, colour and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and colour balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book; even the smell of the ink!"

There's a certain irony in preserving a series of fleeting, ephemeral moments in a form that revels in the joy of the tangible and the physical, and, as Cole acknowledges, the high production values of the best photobooks make them prohibitively expensive for many people (as well as commercial suicide). Certainly, limited funds and space are why there are far fewer photobooks on my shelves than I'd like.

Writing the article in mid-February, Cole probably couldn't have foreseen that coronavirus would soon close exhibitions and galleries and that mass consumption of photographers' work would take place even more overwhelmingly on screen. Describing immersing yourself in a photobook as "an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world", he claims that looking "at a sequence of pictures on a digital device [is] to indulge a poor facsimile like frozen pizza, instant coffee or artificial flowers." Sadly, it looks like a facsimile that those of us without the means or room to accumulate extensive photobook libraries are going to have to get used to.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

"The language's future is in our hands"

In Huw Stephens' documentary Anorac, ageing folkie Meic Stephens declares "There is no Welsh rock scene in reality" - a claim that is effectively rubbished by the comments of all of the other interviewees and by the film as a whole. Further evidence comes in the form of this Vice article by Rhys Thomas, for which he spoke to Ani Glass, Welsh Music Prize winners Adwaith and Stephens himself, amongst others.

Thomas (or at least his sub-editor at Vice) may have strayed into the realms of hyperbole in titling the piece "The Unstoppable Rise of Welsh-Language Music", but there's no denying that the current situation is healthy and encouraging.

Where once bands like Super Furry Animals felt the need to switch to English to be able to make a living (Cian Ciaran refers to hitting "a glass ceiling"), now there seems to be greater interest in making and consuming Welsh-language music. Thomas suggests that this is at least partly the result of compulsory Welsh lessons in the nation's schools, while Breichiau Hir's Steffan Dafydd looks beyond the border, arguing that "there's a more global reach possible now than before".

There's also an increasing self-confidence, both within the Welsh-language music scene and the nation as a whole. Alluding to the "Cool Cymru" label affixed to Welsh cultural products by the London-based media in the Britpop era, Libertino Records' Gruff Owen says "I don't think we're waiting for anyone to consider us cool anymore. We're just doing it for ourselves."

A bright future lies ahead, then? I really hope so - but at the same time I'm fearful that that adjective "unstoppable" might be tempting fate. While the forces of globalisation have made it easier to discover and enjoy Welsh-language music wherever you are on the planet, they also often bring about precisely the sort of long-term cultural homogenisation to which Rhys Mwyn refers when he talks about "McDonald's everywhere", whereby differences are not celebrated but erased.

And in more concrete terms, the fact that coronavirus will have (and indeed is already having) a devastating impact on live music is particularly problematic for a scene whose artists are reliant on grassroots venues. Carmarthen, where Libertino are based, lost its main venue the Parrot at the end of 2018, and other spaces will undoubtedly be shuttered as a result of the pandemic. All the more reason to get behind the Save Our Venues campaign.

Friday, May 01, 2020

"I'm a photographer. I take pictures"

Always keen to give credit to his influences and those from whose expertise and wisdom he has directly benefited, David Hurn has admitted his considerable debt to Bruce Davidson. When he heard that the US photographer was coming to the UK in 1960 for a two-month assignment for The Queen magazine, Hurn eagerly volunteered his services as an assistant - and was shocked to discover that Davidson was only a year older, which inspired him to up his own game. From the American, he told a packed audience in Cardiff in February, he learned the value of patience and perseverance, the art of shooting series of pictures rather than taking individual images, and the necessity of a good-quality pair of shoes capable of withstanding a lot of wear.

Over the course of that relatively short visit, Davidson created a stunning portrait of the nation at a particularly interesting point in its history. Speaking to Huck's Eva Clifford in connection with an exhibition of the photos in London earlier this year, Davidson said: "It was a time of transition, especially in London. Since it had been seriously bombed it was rebuilding and people were recovering from the trauma of war. There was a sense of fragility, but there was also a strong, emerging youth culture coming forward."

However, like Hurn, Davidson mostly made his name taking pictures in the country of his birth, focusing particularly on the marginalised, people who were not usually considered suitable subjects for photography (youth gangs in Brooklyn, for instance, and those at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s). Like Hurn, he sees himself merely as an acute observer of life. Like Hurn, he readily concedes that good fortune has helped him along the way (in his case, getting to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris and then, spotting him on the street in New York, finding himself invited into Magnum's inner circle). And like Hurn, he is now in his advancing years, able to reflect back on a long and distinguished career and an impressive body of work.

One invitation to do so came in June last year, in the form of an interview with the New Yorker's Chris Wiley, during which Davidson memorably described himself as "an outsider on the inside". Not only does Wiley's article reveal how he first fell in love with photography and offer insights into some of his most celebrated series, Jonno Rattman's accompanying images grant the nosy reader a tour of his New York apartment, with its ramshackle furniture, copious archives and makeshift-cum-permanent bathroom darkroom.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Honesty: the best policy?

As The Slits' Viv Albertine observed during her Midnight Chat with Loud And Quiet's Stuart Stubbs, the problem with plucking up the courage to write a warts 'n' all autobiography is that you find yourself forced to revisit the most troubled periods of your life not just once but repeatedly. Committing traumatic incidents to paper inevitably arouses media interest, and playing the promotional game requires you to talk about them even if you'd much rather just forget and move on. Judging by the "painful" nature of the first of his two interviews with the Guardian's Jude Rogers, it's a lesson that Mark Lanegan was in the process of learning.

Not that Lanegan was exactly enthusiastic about the idea of writing a memoir in the first place. "So many times I wanted to stop writing the book", he told Rogers, "but I had an obligation." That obligation was partially to the publisher who had paid him an initial slice of the advance, but predominantly to his friend Anthony Bourdain, who had pressed him to write with "a level of honesty beyond what you'll be comfortable with for it not to be some crappy rock autobiography". When Bourdain committed suicide in 2018, Lanegan knew he had to see it through.

Sing Backwards And Weep, by all accounts, honours Bourdain's advice - an unflinchingly candid account of an early life lived on the wrong side of the tracks. Lanegan's salvation was that distinctive voice - "magnificent, heavy and gnarly" in Rogers' words - though he also owes a debt of gratitude to Courtney Love for funding the rehab that helped him on the path to getting clean. A poignant gesture, given that Lanegan is evidently still wracked with guilt for not answering the phone to Love's husband Kurt Cobain on the day he shot himself. Personally speaking, it's a shame to see his disdain for Screaming Trees spelled out ("I basically had to stay in a band I didn't like in order to make money to support my drug habit"), but it was already an open secret. Regardless, Sweet Oblivion and Dust still stand up as two of the best records to emerge from grunge-era Seattle.

What is interesting in light of Albertine's comments is Lanegan's conviction that writing the memoir will ultimately lay things to rest: "[It] means I won't have to answer any questions any more. If anyone wants to know what this experience was like ... it's all there." Maybe, after the current round of press interviews is over, he'll be proven right.

But if that gets you excited at the prospect of a sequel, picking up where Sing Backwards And Weep leaves off (in the late 90s), don't hold your breath: "I wouldn't put myself through that again."

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"A bleak, edgy beauty"

Despite being a lover of coastal walks and seaside vistas, I've never set foot on Splott Beach, and indeed have never had any inclination to do so. Like many Cardiffians, I imagine, I've always found the whole concept of Splott even having a beach laughable.

But that started to change a couple of days ago, when I came across this Twitter thread by Andy Williams. His images captured it and the surrounding environs in a good light, bearing out the truth of his comment about the area's "bleak, edgy beauty". I was reminded both of the very similar and curiously striking landscape in and around the Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve (reclaimed industrial land and mudflats, over which buzzing pylons and the Severn Power Station tower) and of Ann Drysdale's book Real Newport, in which she achieves the considerable feat of making the muddy banks of the city's tidal river seem aesthetically attractive.

Stepping onto the beach itself, Williams took pictures of some of the "half-buried old bricks" that litter the sand, "stamped with the names of long-gone Welsh industrial ghosts". As he readily acknowledged, though, he isn't the first to be fascinated by the shoreline detritus - local photographer Jon Pountney began his Beachcombing project on "this hinterland" in 2015.

Pountney's pictures immediately put me in mind of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's series The Coal Coast, which I had the good fortune to see at the Baltic in Gateshead back in 2003. The gallery referred to Konttinen's work as "a kind of post-industrial fossil hunt", so it's no surprise that Pountney - a self-confessed enthusiast of what he calls "horizontal archaeology" - might have been drawn to the same subject matter. That images from Beachcombing were exhibited in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay last year is somewhat ironic - reminders of the coastline's industrial past put on display at the heart of an area where urban planners have sought to efface all such traces.

Pountney and Williams' pictures, like those of Konttinen, vividly underscore the impact of human activity on the natural environment - but imply that such post-industrial landscapes needn't be merely seen in negative terms as "spoilt". Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps, and Splott Beach won't win any prizes - but it's suddenly leapt up my list of places to visit post-lockdown.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Surviving the quiet

You really do have to feel for grassroots gig venues. Facing a host of threats to their very viability well documented here and elsewhere, they received a rare boost early in the year with the announcement that their business rates were to be halved. That news, coinciding with the start of Independent Venues Week, gave hope that their importance to the cultural ecosystem might belatedly be acknowledged. But any tentative optimism has since been obliterated by the cataclysmic impact of coronavirus, a challenge to trump all others.

It should come as no surprise to learn that, as someone who regularly writes about the vital role that such spaces play and the difference they make to people and communities (most recently with respect to the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and the old Station in Newcastle), I'm lending my support to the Music Venue Trust's Save Our Venues campaign.

It's estimated that well in excess of 500 venues are in serious danger of permanent closure. Frank Turner, who has repeatedly made the case for the value of grassroots venues, has helped to save the Joiners in Southampton with proceeds raised from a live-streamed gig, while the crowdfunding target set by its South Coast near-neighbour the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth was achieved in less than a day, with additional donations now going into the central campaign fund. But many more venues remain in difficulty, including (for instance) the Lexington and the Windmill in London and, closer to home and my heart, Clwb and the Moon.

And inevitably it's not just venues that are at risk of going under - deprived of the advertising revenue they need to survive, many music magazines and websites are also staring into the abyss. Loud And Quiet is one of the best around - but the announcement of an annual subscription package is being billed as their last roll of the dice.

Here's hoping as many publications and venues as possible can pull through - because ultimately the health of the nation's music industry is not just all about the music, maaaan.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Disposable heroes and hypocrisy

Last week, I noted that the uncharacteristically optimistic outlook adopted by Guardian columnist and habitual doommonger George Monbiot on the current crisis was out of step with the prevailing view that "coronavirus is actually exacerbating existing inequalities or at least throwing them into sharper relief". This article from the New York Review Of Books is a powerful illustration of precisely that point.

Maeve Higgins outlines how the pandemic is laying bare the "systematic inequality" within the US, with thousands of workers who are taxpayers and whose labour is taken for granted finding themselves denied any form of federal support because of their undocumented status. As she makes clear, the decision to dehumanise them and leave them without a safety net is politically motivated rather than economically justifiable.

"Perhaps", she suggests pointedly, "this nation, founded on the unpaid labor of generations of enslaved people, can never quite give up that ghost". It's hardly surprising that that might be the case, though, given that "President Trump himself subscribes to America's founding myth of self-made prosperity, trumpeting his own achievements without ever acknowledging the endless train of workers that have made his livelihood possible throughout the years, including undocumented housekeepers making his bed and grape pickers at his organization's vineyards".

Of course, the "grim irony" is that these are the people currently propping everything up. In this country, too, most of those proving essential to the continued functioning of our infrastructure are among the poorest paid and least secure. Clapping for key workers is all well and good as a means of showing popular support - but it would be much better if the general public pushed for the social, political and economic changes that would result in such workers' roles being deservedly recognised and rewarded, and stopped backing the party responsible for ensuring that they aren't.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

There is power in a union

The Flaming Lips/Deap Vally team-up may have been a half-arsed waste of time for the bands and the listener alike, but other equally unexpected recent(ish) collaborative efforts have been significantly better.

As someone who has devoured anything Marissa Nadler has put out since her enchanting performance in the Sunday lunchtime hangover slot at Shellac's ATP in 2012, I was eagerly anticipating the fruits of her partnership with Cave In's Stephen Brodsky. And sure enough, Droneflower is a special record.

'Dead West' may be close to one of Nadler's own dusty, dusky ballads and Brodsky clearly had a hand in naming songs 'Space Ghost' and 'Morbid Mist', but it's an LP that sounds like a genuine collaboration rather than a solo project for one or the other of them. 'For The Sun' is deliciously ominous, 'Watch The Time' channels Pink Floyd, the closing take on Morphine's sweetly bitter 'In Spite Of Me' is inch-perfect - but the centrepiece of the album in every way is their cover of 'Estranged', the pompousness of Guns 'N' Roses' original transformed into a beguiling lament. Even more remarkable, though, is the fact that they've made Phil Collins' 'In The Air Tonight' sound like a lost track from the sessions for Low's Trust.

Meanwhile, when it was announced that Ty Segall was teaming up with Black Pus aka Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt under the name Wasted Shirt, the results were guaranteed to be fast and furious. Sure enough, Fungus II is by and large a blur, Chippendale's drumming whipping the most prolific man in music into an even more frenzied performance than normal. That said, the album's prime effect has been to send me back to Segall's superlative Manipulator, to prompt me to catch up on some of the records I've missed out on since then (especially 2016's Emotional Mugger, which spawned this stupendously good KEXP appearance) - and to feel the (surely inevitable and imminent) cancellation of this year's Green Man even more keenly.

And finally there's a get-together that passed me by. "Supergroup" might be a much abused term, but the cap fits when it comes to Charnel Ground, whose members are mainstays of Yo La Tengo, Come, Codeine and Oneida. 'Jimmy' and 'The High Price', the first two tracks on their self-titled 2018 release, are reliably out-there noise improv amp-melters, the latter collapsing and coalescing before your very ears. But 'Playa De Ticia' is a playfully breezy soul/sole-tickler of a tune and 18-minute-long closer 'Charnel Ground' has the warmth and quiet insistence of recent YLT material, bassist James McNew and drummer extraordinaire Kid Millions handing Chris Brokaw a stage on which to perform charmingly modest pyrotechnics.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Friends reunited

Write about what you know, they say - and Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (then Jessica Stevenson) certainly did that in creating Spaced. They were both twentysomething aspiring creative types living in London at the time and, as Hadley Freeman notes on meeting them, the characters they created for themselves and Nick Frost were thinly veiled self-portraits.

Reflecting on the series two decades on, Freeman rightly flags up its influence on what followed in terms of "absurdist film homages", "playing with film and TV conventions" and "the mundanity of reality played against the grandeur of fantasy". To that, you could add the sparky dialogue, the sharp and deliberately-made-visible editing and the absence of a laughter track. Spaced may not have made a successful transfer across the Atlantic, but, as director Edgar Wright observes, some of the best US sitcoms of recent years "look quite Spaced-y".

The show was also ahead of its time with respect to gender equality. In Tim and Daisy, it had both male and female leads, with the latter's role not defined in relation to the former: "She is just as funny, and game - and useless - as the men."

What about 20 years on, though? Does Spaced still hold up? It certainly still feels brilliantly conceived, written, performed and directed. That it served as a springboard for the stellar careers of all involved is no surprise.

But, despite Pegg's claim that it doesn't feel dated in relation to Friends, time has moved on. As Freeman points out, the prospect of a procrastinating wannabe writer and a struggling comic-book artist living in that house now seems as absurd as some of the humour. Wright, meanwhile, acknowledges their good fortune in having "snuck in just under the line" - it's inconceivable that a bunch of youthful unknowns would be given the freedom and resources to make a series as fresh and unconventional as Spaced, especially one that was then handed a prime Friday evening slot on Channel 4.

The series had personal resonance too, having aired when I myself was a twentysomething moving from house-share to house-share, getting by on the cheap and harbouring creative career ambitions. The characters and the context felt familiar, and the meta humour and cultural in-jokes were our currency too. We, like them, "were Generation X". Two decades later, with my circumstances very different, it doesn't quite connect in the way it once did.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Paperback writers

For some people, lockdown is not about posing in front of your bookshelves - it's also an opportunity to actually tuck into a few unread tomes, or even to invest in more.

There have been several threads recommending good music-themed reads initiated by the likes of the Quietus, 1p Album Club and the Welsh Music Podcast, while all-round good egg Tim Burgess - not content with bringing people together through his Twitter Listening Parties - has invited a clutch of writers including Dave Haslam, Ian Rankin and Pete Paphides to suggest some of their favourites.

Two of them are books that have been read but are awaiting review round these parts: Viv Albertine's Clothes Music Boys and Stuart Cosgrove's Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (I'm also intending to pull together a few thoughts on Mark E Smith's Renegade at some point). In an attempt to provide a public service, below are links to reviews of the music books that I have actually written about:

Carrie Brownstein - Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl

Deborah Curtis - Touching From A Distance

Bob Dylan - Chronicles: Volume One

Luke Haines - Bad Vibes: Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall

John Harris - The Last Party

Nick Kent - The Dark Stuff

Andrew Mueller - Rock And Hard Places

Simon Reynolds - Rip It Up And Start Again

Jon Savage - England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock

Four others off the top of my head that I've read and would endorse but haven't actually reviewed include Tony Wilson's 24 Hour Party People, David Browne's Goodbye 20th Century: Sonic Youth And The Rise Of The Alternative Nation, Mark E Everett's Things The Grandchildren Should Know and especially Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 - now available as an audiobook featuring Jeff Tweedy, Sharon Van Etten, Jonathan Franzen and Slipknot's Corey Taylor as guest readers.

Unfortunately, I'm bogged down attempting to juggle full-time work and childcare/home schooling so won't be making much headway with my to-be-read pile, which contains a number of other music-related titles: Richard King's How Soon Is Now?, A Hidden Landscape Once A Week (edited by Mark Sinker), Alan McGee's Creation Stories, Bob Stanley's Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop, infamous Motley Crue biography The Dirt, Steve Turner's The Man Called Cash, John Lydon's autobiography Anger Is An Energy and Alex Ross' doorstopper The Rest Is Noise. Feel free to suggest where I should start - though I suspect I'd need to muster up some strength to tackle the latter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"I don't know where we actually felt we belonged"

Earlier this month, writing about Kim Gordon sitting in for Iggy Pop on 6 Music, I began by noting how she and her fellow members of Sonic Youth have never been shy of enthusing about the band's influences and their own individual passions, thereby opening fans' ears to artists they might well not otherwise have come across. Bush Tetras are a case in point. From the moment Thurston Moore singled out their debut 7" EP 'Too Many Creeps' as one of his favourite 38 songs of all time in a 2014 feature for now-defunct mag The Fly, I was hooked.

Sonic Youth's musical debt to the band - New York-based pioneers formed by guitarist Pat Place after she left James Chance's more volatile and uncompromising no wave outfit Contortions - might not be immediately obvious, but listen to 'Too Many Creeps' and there's surely no denying that Gordon borrowed Cynthia Sley's "I don't wanna" for 'Kool Thing'. Bush Tetras' wider influence and impact is also beyond dispute - it was prominently discernible in LCD Soundsystem and the brief Big Apple-centred punk funk boom of the early noughties and has been rightly recognised in relation to feminist punk. And all of that despite the fact that they didn't put out a full-length record until 1997, nearly 20 years after forming, having been on hiatus between 1983 and 1995.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the release of 'Too Many Creeps', Audrey Golden has spoken to drummer Dee Pop for Louder Than War. Their conversation covers everything from the New York club scene of the early 1980s, the hair-raising story behind Bush Tetras signing to Ed Bahlman's 99 Records (which also released music by Glenn Branca, ESG and Liquid Liquid), Bad Brains being pissed off because they "did not want to open up for women", Pop's recollection of playing the Hacienda with The Gun Club while recovering from alcohol poisoning, why the experience of recording that 1997 LP (Beauty Lies) led to a second hiatus, and the difficulties of bridging gaps when members' music tastes sharply diverge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Social security

I usually approach a George Monbiot column with a mixture of caution and dread. Not because he's habitually wrong, but because there's often a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric to wade through - and when you do, the grim truth laid bare makes for depressing reading. So you can imagine him taking a perverse pleasure in reflecting on the current crisis and delivering an uncharacteristically upbeat piece that dwells on the ways in which the pandemic has illustrated "the unexpectedly thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid".

The sheer number and variety of public community initiatives he cites is undeniably impressive, as is their global spread. Yet the prevailing consensus - at least as far as I'm aware - is that coronavirus is actually exacerbating existing inequalities or at least throwing them into sharper relief, and the claim that "there are no neoliberals in a pandemic", and there is therefore no such thing as disaster capitalism, would be given short shrift by Naomi Klein.

For once, though, I really want to believe (not just get a nauseous gut feeling) that Monbiot is right - that his assessment of the present is valid and his optimism for the post-pandemic future isn't wildly misplaced.

Of course, the column was written three weeks ago, so he may have changed his mind since then...

Monday, April 20, 2020

"So much more than a band"

Happy 30th birthday (for yesterday) to Repeater. Fugazi's debut full-length LP remains a cult classic, incontrovertible evidence (as Angus Batey argues in this 2015 piece for the Quietus) that they were "forging something new" and well on their way to becoming one of those bands who - in the words of the Minutemen's Mike Watt - "could be your life".

That said, for me Repeater sounds very much a stepping stone, a route marker pointing the way towards something more exciting and innovative. Nothing will sway me from thinking (or knowing) that their third album In On The Kill Taker, released three years later, is their masterpiece. I've claimed as much before, when endorsing the retrospective reappraisal written by Jason Diamond of Pitchfork, and am doing so again in the course of directing you to the site's Liner Notes feature on an LP whose aggression and ambition are beautifully balanced.

Wherever you stand on the relative merits of their records, though, the truth of Batey's conclusion rings true: "They never broke up, just like they never sold out: and they remain the one band you feel for sure will never let you down."

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The art of self-representation

There's always a reason to be wary of those who claim to be giving a voice to the voiceless - however noble and well meaning their intentions might be. More often than not, that voicelessness is imaginary; the real problem is that the voices of the marginalised simply aren't being heard. The solution, then, is to amplify those voices rather than indulging in potentially patronising ventriloquism - or, to put it another way, to allow the marginalised to speak for themselves rather than presumptively speaking on their behalf.

Working in Handsworth in Birmingham in the late 1970s, Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon were determined to counteract the undeservedly negative media depictions of the suburb, but were also acutely aware of the need for sensitivity and the awkwardness of their own positionality. As Bishton says, they were outsiders "conscious of being white photographers in a very multicultural area."

When the trio came across an article in the magazine Camerawork, the solution seemed obvious: a pop-up studio on the street outside their house/creative agency, where locals passing by could stop and take their own picture by clicking a cable-release button. Standing in front of a plain white background and free to choose their pose and expression, the participants had complete control over how they wanted to be represented. Meanwhile, by restricting their involvement to setting up the equipment and checking framing and focus, Bishton, Home and Reardon were not photographers but facilitators.

The project proved a great success, attracting a diverse array of participants truly representative of the area and producing some tremendous portraits - as visitors to the anniversary exhibition at the city's MAC last year can no doubt attest.

Reading Sacha Lehrfreund's comment "You get the sense that people are thinking: This is mine, I have ownership over this image, and I'm relevant and important", I recalled something Gayle Rogers mentioned about the Workers Gallery's recent Art Box on Tour initiative. Apparently, some of those who saw the photos and learned of David Hurn's career and status were initially bemused as to why he might be interested in taking pictures of Valleys people and communities. Bishton, Homer and Reardon - like Hurn - clearly believed that everyone was a deserving subject, and saw the value of photography as a means of convincing people of their own self-worth.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Don't stand so close to me

For someone used to going to an average of at least two gigs a month, the current drought is excruciating - and the prospect of live in-the-flesh concerts not returning in earnest until autumn next year is truly horrifying. It's only been a few weeks, but already the mere idea of congregating with a bunch of strangers in a darkened room - let alone barging into them as fluids (sweat, spit, beer) fly - seems unimaginable. Right now, I'd happily go and see a Toploader tribute band, or pay £100 for wankers to chat all the way through a favourite artist's set.

But what of the possibility of socially distanced gigs as a way of resuscitating the sector? As strange as it might sound, they're already a reality in Sweden, where gatherings of up to 50 people are still allowed - and NME's Derek Robertson has been along to a couple to see how they work.

Overall, his impressions were positive, and both the venue owner and the punters he spoke to saw such shows as offering a vital lifeline to enable the club to keep operating (as well, presumably, as financially benefiting the bands).

But surely having 40 people in a 350-capacity venue isn't economically viable in the long term, even if the awkward logistics could be worked out. (Table service in the Moon?!) Much as I want to believe that live music will be back with us before long, I fear we could be in for quite a wait.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Outsider art

In an article on The Conversation prompted by the defacing of a new Banksy, legal scholars Mark Thomas and Samantha Pegg leave aside the tired old question of whether graffiti is art, and instead consider rather more interesting ones. Who owns graffiti - the artist, the owner of the structure on which it's displayed or the local community? Is graffiti criminal damage if it actually increases rather than decreases the value of the property? And if graffiti is itself criminal damage, can it be criminally damaged?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

"Like a love affair, in a way"

While the Manics' 'Let Robeson Sing', from their 2001 LP Know Your Enemy, doesn't actually reference the African American star's connections to Wales, it takes its title from a book that certainly does. And for his biography of Robeson, No Way But This, Jeff Sparrow explored the strength and depth of those connections - which blossomed from a chance encounter with striking Valleys miners singing on a London street into an unlikely but long-lasting relationship.

Evidently, the miners not only benefited materially from Robeson's support, but also politically and psychologically. Yet, as Sparrow makes clear, this was a case of mutual affection and admiration. The famous singer and actor - ostracised in his home country as a black man with left-wing sympathies, and equally (if less explicitly) in so-called "respectable" English society - found succour and strength in the companionship, solidarity and resilience of those who earned a living down a pit rather than on a stage.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Central Station

Chris Killip evidently had a knack for seeking out and documenting north-east subcultures. In the mid-1980s, not only did he photograph the tough lives of those who survived by gathering seacoal on the fringes of the North Sea, but also the frenzied moshing of anarcho-punks at the Station in Gateshead.

Formerly a police social club, ironically enough, the venue was a focal point, source of identity and place of escape for local youth. Originally published in zine format and now as a Steindl book, Killip's images are, in Sean O'Hagan's words, "a vivid record of a time, place and scene that has since attained a near mythic status in the musical history of the north-east". The building itself may have gone, but you can still smell the sweat, hear the noise and experience the violently joyous/joyously violent energy in the pictures.

Killip admits that there's a difference in style from his other work, but insists that The Station is nevertheless "part of a continuum - the decline of the industrial north-east at that time". And sure enough, when he talks about the Station as a refuge for "the ignored, the overlooked, the dismissed" in "Thatcher's Britain", the connection with the hardy seacoal collectors is obvious.

Monday, April 13, 2020

This is love

It's unfathomable to me that people might be ignorant of or indifferent to PJ Harvey (as Kim Gordon's selection of Uh Huh Her's 'Shame' on her recent stint sitting in for Iggy Pop underlined, even her less feted albums and tracks are special) - but for those who are, the Guardian's Jude Rogers has put together a brief beginner's guide.

There can be no disputing where to start - 2001's Mercury-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is bold, bright, fresh, accessible and unapologetically lustful, "one of the best albums ever made about the madness and intensity of new love". Equally, it's hard to disagree with Rogers' suggestion that To Bring You My Love should be among the next three records on the agenda. I'm not convinced by the other two, though. 4-Track Demos ahead of Dry and Rid Of Me? A head-scratcher. The spectral goth-folk oddity of White Chalk over Let England Shake's powerful and poignant commentary on war and empire? Surely not.

In truth, though, such quibbles are inconsequential. Her entire back catalogue - including her most recent release, 2016's The Hope Six Demolition Project, a Polly-Jean-does-politics record that Rogers not unjustifiably describes as "a little simplistic and patronising" - is worthy of investigation.

What are you waiting for?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Eyewitness accounts

These days the Daily Express is an odd little rag, inconsequential in comparison with the Daily Mail and the Sun, but equally horrible and frequently more batshit. Once upon a time, though, it not only had significant stature but also the foresight to offer employment to a young freelance photographer called John Downing, who had just finished an apprenticeship with the Mail. He went on to be named British Press Photographer Of The Year on no fewer than seven occasions - and this Guardian gallery of images shows why.

Over the course of his long and distinguished career with the Express, Downing was sent on countless assignments to war zones and took pictures inside a Ugandan prison and in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. All photographers need the odd slice of luck, and he was certainly fortunate to be on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the IRA bombing of the Tory party conference in Brighton in 1984.

Interviewed by journalist Kim Willsher, who covered Chernobyl with him, Downing selected this picture of rebel soldiers in Afghanistan as his best. The composition is astonishing, as is the end result, thanks to his improvisation and ingenuity - though this being the pre-digital era, "I had no idea if it had worked until I got back home and developed the film". Equally good, though, are the images of pensioners being rescued from flooding in Surrey in 1968 (I love the way that, even amidst the drama, one is lighting another's cigarette) and of the nurse restraining a Bangladeshi child for vaccination (which says more about aid work, well-meaning white saviours and colonial relations of power than text ever could).

Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Downing died on Wednesday - and so Bluecoat Press' recent publication of Legacy, a crowdfunded book that collects together his finest work, was especially timely.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Support network

As the old saying has it, necessity is the mother of invention. Everywhere you look, the coronavirus crisis has given birth to new community groups, new online spaces, new ways of working, new business models, new channels for performing/disseminating and consuming cultural activities. Sometimes these are clearly only temporary arrangements - hastily established and makeshift, working well enough to get by until a semblance of normality returns. However, others were things arguably needed before the pandemic hit but accelerated by its arrival.

Take Bookshop, for instance: a US-based online platform explicitly set up to support independent bookshops and booksellers rather than to crush them out of existence (hello, Amazon). The idea, essentially, is that the responsibility for processing online sales is outsourced, with copies going straight from a wholesaler to customers. Indies benefit by not having to have a smart, comprehensive website, through reduced inventory costs and through staff not having to spend time processing and packaging orders themselves.

That said, it's worth pondering whether Bookshop rather misses the point of why people choose to buy independent in the first place. When I ordered a copy of Ben Myers' The Offing from Mainstreet Books recently, I very much enjoyed the quality of service, the personal touch and the feeling of supporting a business in the most direct way possible - things that (you would imagine) might be lost if indies were all to jump into bed with Bookshop and rely on centralised processing and distribution.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Disappearing acts

Before Boy Azooga brightened up lockdown by releasing their feathersoft, fluffily psych cover of 'UFO' (complete with 'Sabotage'-indebted video set in and around Cardiff), I must confess to having never heard of Jim Sullivan. It turns out his is a fascinating story: an LA-based singer-songwriter who recorded a couple of albums and befriended Hollywood stars but who in 1975, beset by alcoholism and marital problems, decided to try his luck in Nashville, only to disappear off the face of the earth before reaching Music City.

Learning the details, I was instantly reminded of Connie Converse, the subject of a song on Ramshackle Tabernacle, the 2017 LP from one of my favourite Oxfordshire bands The August List. Converse, a singer-songwriter who lived and played in and around New York and Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s, found herself disillusioned and depressed in the early 1970s, and so in 1974 - the year before Sullivan - left home in pursuit of a new life. Whether she found it, no one knows - she was never heard of again.

In an odd quirk of fate, both Sullivan and Converse were driving Volkswagen Beetles when they vanished. One for the conspiracy theorists, perhaps. What I do know, though, is that it's inadvisable to spend long reading through Wikipedia's missing persons lists late at night - quite a downer, I can assure you.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Murder in miniature

A 60-something divorced heiress who revolutionised the world of forensic science by building doll's-house-scale crime scenes? Let's be honest, Frances Glessner Lee sounds more like a character in a Charlie Kaufman film than a real-life pioneer - but Bruce Goldfarb's new book 18 Tiny Deaths is a genuine biography rather than a work of fiction.

As this Atlas Obscura article underlines, her dioramas - painstakingly (and expensively) crafted and exquisitely detailed - were not only astonishing creations from an artistic and aesthetic perspective but also vital educational tools, designed to train rookie investigators how to carefully and methodically assess the scenes that confront them.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Lockdown libraries

While you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, what about judging a person by what's on their bookshelves? Coronavirus has meant that we're currently confronted by a constant stream of politicians, pundits and celebrities talking from the sanctuary of their own homes - many of them positioned in front of an array of tomes that looks suspiciously artful.

As this Guardian article suggests, Dominic Raab has been perhaps the guiltiest culprit, pictured with a selection of doorstop volumes that seemed calculated to give him some gravitas and authority. Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, certainly couldn't be accused of failing to put her money where her mouth is and enthusiastically support Scottish writers.

I'm partial to a carefully curated collection of books myself but can avoid any accusations of "doing a Raab" on the grounds that the shelves behind my head are completely empty, and will remain so as long as competing working-from-home and childcare/home-schooling commitments keep me from finishing painting them. Well, that and the fact that my laptop's camera is bust.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

All yesterday's parties

I was reminded today that it's 20 years to the day that I pitched up at a Butlins for what was the first official ATP weekender. And what a weekend it was.

Astutely curated by Mogwai (whose Stuart Braithwaite really didn't deserve to be joshingly heckled by so many people when he was playing in goal in the inter-band five-a-side tournament), the bill delivered at every turn: a first UK performance from Sigur Ros, who seemed to have been beamed in from another dimension; ... Trail Of Dead at the peak of their destructive, pre-prog powers; Super Furry Animals sharing tracks from Welsh-language LP Mwng (the featured album for #Tim'sListeningParty last night); Shellac on brutal form, with Steve Albini playing the role of misanthropic stand-up ("What's orange and looks good on hippies? Fire").

One minute we were playing a painful game of football on the beach with a leaden basketball, and the next we were watching Godspeed You! Black Emperor weave dark magic while shoulder to shoulder with John Peel, or stood in the professional photo pit snapping pictures of Sonic Youth with a £20 camera as they played what must have been one of the most esoteric, obtuse sets of their career (it kicked off with a half-hour-long drone song that didn't feature on the album towards which they were working, NYC Ghosts & Flowers).

A wet-behind-the-ears student journalist, I corrected the press rep when she mistakenly offered me an Access All Areas pass rather than a photo permit and then spent much of the rest of the festival kicking myself - though in truth the backstage area must have been largely deserted because all of the artists seemed to be milling around watching each other. It was a festival as much for the bands as for the fans, and the lack of division between the two was revelatory.

In our chalet, the TV aerial was defective, a handrail came off the bathroom wall with minimal persuasion, there was a constant procession of ants across the carpet and screeching of seagulls outside, and two of us were forced to sleep top to tail in a fold-out double sofa bed in the lounge. But, to four scruffy oiks used to the collapsed tents, mud lagoons and trenchfoot of Glastonbury, it was unimaginable comfort and luxury.

And so began a serious love affair - albeit one that, primarily for financial reasons, I didn't rekindle until 2008. It remains a terrible shame that it ended the way it did.

Making a connection

At the present moment, the idea of literally reaching out to people seems totally alien - social distancing is the watchword. And yet community - local, spiritual, virtual - is proving to be more important than ever.

Which is a roundabout way of mentioning that I recently spoke to Gayle Rogers of the Workers Gallery about a tremendous initiative that saw a set of images by renowned photographer David Hurn taken out on a tour of the area in which they were shot. Hopefully it won't be a one-off - and hopefully, once freedom of movement returns, I can actually pay the Workers a visit.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Broken Britain

(Below is a preview I wrote for Buzz for Richard Dawson's gig at the Bunkhouse in Swansea, originally scheduled to take place in exactly a month's time. The show may be off, but the piece serves just as well as a review/endorsement of the songsmith's latest album.)

2020 is, by any measure, a remarkable record - one on which Richard Dawson shoves a thermometer up the UK's arse and delivers a damning diagnosis. It's a country where flood defences are inadequate, the homeless are savagely assaulted and anti-immigrant vitriol is spouted on the streets, mental ill health is endemic and racist hate crimes go unpunished; where austerity policies have brought front-line civil servants to breaking point, haunted by the knowledge that they're routinely failing those they're supposed to help ('Civil Servant'); where the grindingly repetitive work and exploitative, target-driven, zero-hour-contract culture of late capitalism has homeward-bound wage slaves feeling "There's nothing left of me" ('Fulfilment Centre').

Other keenly observed dramatic vignettes find the eccentric Geordie storyteller addressing the personal rather than the political, to bleakly poignant effect: on 'Two Halves', a schoolboy footballer is distraught at having disappointed his dad; on 'Fresher's Ball', a father cries in the car after dropping his daughter off at university; 'Heart Emoji' is an Arab Strap-esque tale of infidelity exposed.

A musical avant gardist with a soft spot for a chorus, Dawson remains a man-of-the-people folk artist in the sense that his narratives champion the underdog, punching upwards, clinging tightly to the hope that (as 'Fulfilment Centre' has it) "There has to be more to life than killing yourself to survive".

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Radio gaga

I've said it before but I'll say it again: Sonic Youth were an incredibly important band not only in terms of what they produced but also in terms of what they promoted. With their own music, they turned generations of fans on to everything from hardcore punk and no wave to improv and musique concrete - and with their signposting on record and in interviews, they directed devotees to discover the work of legions of other artists.

Thankfully, that hasn't changed with the band's demise, with Thurston Moore talking through his 38 favourite songs of all time, chatting to Fucked Up's Damian Abraham about his musical inspirations and most recently opening an experimental music shop; Lee Ranaldo revealing his 13 favourite albums in conversation with the Quietus and inviting people to check out what's in his Amoeba bag; and now Kim Gordon taking the opportunity, while filling in for Iggy Pop on 6 Music on Friday night, to pay tribute to some of the artists and songs she holds most dear.

Make no mistake, her playlist was extraordinarily good from start to finish. The opening sequence - The Fall's 'Gut Of The Quantifier', Nina Simone's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne', an out-there Alice Coltrane track and The Stooges' 'Ann' (well, it was only polite) - set the standard sky-high and it never really dropped.

Television and DNA you could have predicted - likewise Neil Young, represented by the incredible 'Cortez The Killer'. But there were also some stone-cold classics (My Bloody Valentine's 'When You Sleep', Mazzy Star's 'Fade Into You'), underappreciated gems ('Shame' by PJ Harvey, 'Something On Your Mind' by Karen Dalton), a smattering of tasters from the leftfield (Islaja, Brigitte Fontaine singing "The earth is a cake" in French) and several tracks that have given me the prod I shouldn't really have needed to investigate particular records further (Heron Oblivion and solo LPs from Nico, J Mascis and Eleanor Friedberger).

It wasn't hard to understand what Gordon heard and liked about Talk Normal - and why she's employed members of the band in her own. And while her selection of tracks by Cardi B and Charli XCX may have raised a few eyebrows a while ago, it helped to make more sense of last year's debut solo LP No Home Record - which, in turn, meant that I enjoyed the work of artists I'd previously assumed wouldn't be for me.

The Aimee Mann track was dull, and I took an instant dislike to Stina Nordenstam's artful mangling of 'Purple Rain' - but just two duds in a two-hour tracklisting was pretty good going.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Window frame

It's often said that the secret of good portrait photography is a close and intimate relationship between subject and snapper. In this respect, Chiara Mac Call's latest project is unusual, in that in the current circumstances physical intimacy (at least) is impossible. Her portraits of people in lockdown - shot through windows and doors - emphasise both interpersonal distance and the value of photography as a communicative act.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Remote working

It was a grim irony that 1st April brought the news that the UK comedy circuit desperately didn't want to hear: this year's Edinburgh Festival has been cancelled. The impact of the cancellation, and of the coronavirus pandemic generally, on up-and-coming talent looking for a break will be significant. Even before the Fringe announcement, a number of well-established comedians, including Richard Herring, Sara Pascoe, Lee Mac, Robert Webb and Dawn French, had been prompted to contribute to a crowdfunding pot in recognition of the fact that the long-term health of the industry depends on fresh new voices.

This British Comedy Guide article summarises much of the fall-out, as well as detailing some of the ways in which comedians are keeping themselves busy: Alex Horne adapting Taskmaster for lockdown; Go Faster Stripe and Mark Thomas teaming up to appeal for donations to the Trussell Trust in return for free downloads; the Stay At Home Festival, a fundraiser coordinated by Robin Ince and the Cosmic Shambles Network (the live episode of Ed Gamble and James Acaster's Off Menu podcast, with Richard Herring as the guest, was a shambolic delight). Closer to home, Mike Bubbins, Elis James and Steff Garrero have teamed up to establish the Socially Distant Sports Bar.

For some comedians, though, the present situation is pretty much business as usual because they already do much of their work online. Take Alistair Green, for example, a seasoned comedy writer but someone who is now really making a name for himself with character comedy short-form videos filmed on his phone. Or Michael Spicer, whose Man Next Door series won him Chortle's Internet Award for 2020. Spicer noted that his victory was "proof that messing around at home is a lifestyle worth embracing" - it's now a lifestyle we're all having to embrace, and one that might throw up a few new social media comedy heroes.

If nothing else, coronavirus lockdown has already given us Matt Lucas revisiting George Dawes' duet with a baked potato and revealed the identity of Train Guy's Geoff Linton - yeah, THE Geoff Linton...

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Taking centre stage

In the 11 long years since I saw Sky Larkin - touring in support of their modestly great first LP The Golden Spike at the Bullingdon in Oxford with a youthfully exuberant Pulled Apart By Horses in tow - Katie Harkin has certainly kept herself busy, mainly by playing other people's songs, not least with a dream assignment performing as part of Sleater-Kinney's live show. It's no surprise that her solo debut, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Buzz, instantly charms with its smart, subtle indie rock.

Other featured albums in April's round-up include new releases from Pearl Jam, The Orb, The Necks and Porridge Radio. Milk Teeth's debut and Less Of Everything by Es are certainly ones I'll be checking out.

People and place

Some photographers prefer to shoot unpopulated natural landscapes; for others, a fascination with people is the primary motivation for taking pictures. What I like about these images, displayed at a pop-up exhibition in London back in December, is that the four photographers - Nicola Muirhead, Celine Marchbank, Lynda Laird and Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz, who have formed a collective called Isle - all clearly have a strong sense of place but also of the human within, behind and beyond it, even if there are no actual people to be seen.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Relationship problems

Major businesses and industries can be the making of a city or town - but they can also be the breaking of them if they spiral into decline. This BBC article by Jenny Norton is much more than simply a gallery of ruin porn photos of Kadykchan. It explores how and why the remote Russian outpost went from being a relatively vibrant place to a completely abandoned ghost town in the space of little more than two decades, and what it has meant to those who made a life there.

Kadykchan's sorry story is compared and contrasted with that of Kirovsk, another Russian town a mere eight time zones away, which has faced similar problems but has clung on, still dependent on a single industrial giant but trying to diversify and find new and alternative sources of sustenance.

Both Kadykchan and Kirovsk might be in Russia, but, as Norton points out, monotowns can be found all over the world. Detroit is of course a glaring example, its overreliance on the car industry the cause of its rapid development and disastrous downfall, and you have to wonder what might happen in a place like Sunderland if Nissan were to choose to pull out as a result of Brexit. The manufacturer is continuing to invest for now, at least - but question marks remain over the long-term future of the factory that is a significant generator of local jobs, both directly and indirectly.