Monday, April 19, 2021

Silent discos

Personally speaking, it's painful to even contemplate the music venues I love sitting empty and quiet rather than packed and reverberating with noise. But photographer Marie Staggat was fascinated (if also appalled) by the thought, to the extent that she ventured into more than 40 Berlin clubs to capture them "with their lights off, revealing forlorn spaces, cloaked in shadows and a heavy, profound silence".

The pictures have been published in a book called Hush: Berlin Club Culture In A Time Of Silence, with text contributed by writer Timo Stein, who spoke to those who work at the venues about how the shutdown has impacted their lives. The publication will hopefully draw attention to the plight of the cultural sector, and proceeds will be donated to help those affected to navigate this extremely difficult period - so at least some good will come of a project that is in many ways deeply depressing.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Rock and Grohl

Dave Grohl has become something of an enigma. The former Nirvana drummer is widely hailed as the Nicest Man In Rock and has continued to talk a very good game (see, for instance, this 2009 episode of Amoeba's What's In My Bag?), and yet Foo Fighters haven't made a decent record in over two decades and he seems to be as happy contributing to cack like Mick Jagger's coming-out-of-lockdown anthem 'Eazy Sleazy' as he was to Queens Of The Stone Age's mindblowing set at Glastonbury in 2002, on the eve of the release of Songs For The Deaf.

It's impossible to watch his episode of Reel Stories without loving the guy, though. Presented with a series of video clips by Dermot O'Leary, Grohl talks animatedly and enthusiastically about everything from the formative experience of seeing Kiss on TV in 1976, to the rollercoaster ride that was Nirvana (a first live TV appearance, on The Word; what turned out to be their last UK show, at Reading '92; Kurt Cobain's tragically premature death), to gradually finding his feet as Foo Fighters frontman, to his band's transformation into stadium rock behemoths.

The teenager playing drums at basement parties with Mission Impossible never imagined he'd one day end up writing songs with Paul McCartney or performing for the president at the White House, and it's to his credit that he appears to remain genuinely amazed at how things have panned out. As he says in response to the clip of a thousand citizens of Cesena simultaneously performing a cover of 'Learn To Fly' in 2015, "These moments show the reach of music and the connection that it has with people that you've never met or that you don't know or that are thousands of miles away".

Grohl claims that he rarely has an opportunity to pause and reflect, but in truth he's been doing a lot of looking back lately - whether in the company of O'Leary, chatting engagingly to the equally humble and affable Brian Johnson of AC/DC or in the form of Instagram posts just to keep himself occupied during lockdown. The latter have paved the way for a memoir entitled The Storyteller, scheduled for publication in October, but before that he's releasing another documentary, What Drives Us, about the ups and downs of life on the road in the back of a van. The trailer's here (and looks promising), but the beginning of the Johnson interview also give a flavour.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Top marks

Congratulations to Craig Easton on being named Photographer of the Year in the 2021 World Photography Awards. He scooped the top prize in the Portraiture category for Bank Top, a joint project with writer and academic Abdul Aziz Hafiz that sought to complicate media myths of segregation in Blackburn. 

As Easton told the Lancashire Telegraph, "Northern Britain is the absolute epicentre of Britain's wealth for me in the Industrial Revolution. The fall of that and the colonial projects and all of those things are all evident here now and these stories need telling. So I am absolutely delighted that this allows me to tell the story." That story shows that the picture is far more complex than some would have us believe, and that - as in the case of Nick Hedges' photos for Home - the local residents are the unfortunate victims of greater forces beyond their control. Bank Top depicts a deprived area, but also one whose inhabitants appear keen to face down misrepresentation and assert their own existence before the lens with a measure of defiance and pride.

The judges rightly recognised that this was very much not just a collection of photographs connected by location. On the contrary, Chair Mike Trow said the award acknowledged "the intent, dedication and understanding" behind Bank Top, and its "moral weight" - the sort of weight that might hopefully come to bear on those in a position to change both perceptions and the material reality.

In this respect, it's exactly the sort of "long-form work made within communities" that Jim Mortram is looking to promote in his new capacity as a member of the Side Gallery's Curatorial Advisory Group. As the photographer behind Small Town Inertia, he's well equipped to assess such work and would no doubt agree wholeheartedly with Easton's statement that photography is "all about documenting society. I see myself as much of a historian and as a photographer making work that will be looked at in generations to come, I hope."

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

"It's fascinating to see what she sees"

As an adult, life under lockdown has been bewildering enough - so how must it have been for young children, suddenly deprived of school and contact with friends and family, losing some of their formative years to a global pandemic?

A new photography exhibition by Megan Wood opening today at the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir gives a six year old's perspective on things. By way of a preview for Buzz, I spoke to her dad, documentary and portrait photographer Dan Wood, about her first steps in the artform, what the project reveals and what she has planned next.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Table manners

With pubs and restaurants in England reopened for food yesterday, Guardian food critic Grace Dent offered a timely "refresher course" on behaviour and etiquette. She summed it up as "show up on time, be nice, tip your server" - things that you would hope would not need saying, but the sad truth is they really do.

Turning up (even if late) is the very least you can do. No-shows were the scourge of the industry before lockdown, and will be even more disrespectful, damaging and downright infuriating as restaurants try to get back on their feet. Hopefully, the prospect of being "punished for eternity in the afterlife by Satan himself playing 'Show Me Love' by Robin S on a very out-of-tune accordion" might curtail that egregious practice.

And then there's being nice. Just because you're paying for a service doesn't give you the right/entitlement to behave obnoxiously. We found that going out for dinner with another couple became so unbearably uncomfortable, because they were so inexplicably demanding and rude to serving staff, that we simply had to stop. If everyone had just a little experience of working in restaurants or cafes - or in the service industry more generally - then there would be a greater understanding of what that environment is like and therefore (you would hope) more empathy and courtesy.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Bones of contention contentment

It took us a while to get our act together sufficiently to arrange a Kapow Ribs delivery, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Despite ordering every savoury dish on the menu, we managed to devour everything in one sitting save for the half-rack with the wild garlic, sour honey and toasted sesame seed glaze, which made for a decadent weekday lunch. Stuff your novel writing and language learning - that's one of my proudest lockdown achievements.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

'X' appeal

With Working Men's Club announcing a gig at the Globe on 8th November, there's a very real chance that the first band I see in a venue post-coronavirus will also be the last band I saw before lockdown. New single 'X' is an instant hit, picking up right where their superb self-titled debut left off.

Here's main man Syd Minsky-Sargeant in a joint interview with Lias Saoudi of former tourmates Fat White Family, conducted by novelist Rob Doyle, in which the pair talk about independent venues, post-gig partying with "a next-level psychedelic ranger" who "started going full flat earth on us", and Lias' experience of being showered with someone's ashes during a gig.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Travelling back in time

Writing about Glenn Edwards' photo zine on the A470 for Wales Arts Review, I compared Wales' answer to Route 66 favourably to "the more photographically feted A1 - a flat, monotonous artery offering views of little more than rubbish-strewn verges, grubby truckers' caffs that time forgot and former Little Chefs converted into sex shops". I'll admit I was overegging it for effect - I've written elsewhere about my enduring fondness for the road that in my childhood was the passport to pretty much anywhere.

That was in the course of promoting Peter Dench's series Britain On The Verge. This time, it's to direct you to an article about the project that inspired Dench's post-Brexit roadtrip (as well as Jon Nicholson's jaunt, the result of which sits on my bookshelves), Paul Graham's A1: The Great North Road.

It's a familiar tale: labour-of-love work made by a youthful artist obsessed with his medium, met with disinterest, only to gradually gain acclaim and assume significant cultural status over the ensuing years. Shot in the early 1980s, Graham's wonderful pictures - of grubby truckers' caffs and Little Chefs, incidentally - helped to convince other documentary photographers that they needn't artificially restrict themselves to black and white. 

"I think 1980, it's further away than it sounds", Graham told Huck's Zoe Whitfield. "You look at [the photos] and realise: wow, that was a different era." And yet I'd suggest that they capture the A1 perfectly - a road caught in a timewarp, more of a memory lane than any motorway.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Live or let die?

For musicians, the return of live music evidently can't come soon enough. The same goes for us fans. And thankfully the prospect of that happening doesn't look quite as distant as it did. But unfettered optimism is misplaced - in reality, the picture still looks horribly bleak, as the Guardian's Katie Hawthorne has underlined.

First and foremost, there are the enormous challenges posed by social distancing restrictions, likely to remain in place in some form for a good while yet. The owners of large venues and the promoters who book their shows are warning that reduced-capacity crowds will make their businesses unviable, while grassroots spaces face the additional logistical headache of ensuring that social distancing is even possible. To those problems you can add gig pile-ups and having to continually reschedule tour dates.

And that's not even to begin to consider the absolute clusterfuck that is Brexit, the consequences of which would have been devastating even if we weren't trying to crawl our way out of a pandemic. British artists are finding themselves in complete limbo, left in the dark, unable to make plans for European tours with any degree of confidence or to understand what financial and logistical hoops they might need to jump through to play in each country. As John Robb puts it, "On a business level it's a nightmare, but on a cultural level it's a disaster".

The solutions to the current crisis are as obvious as they are urgently required: clear guidance and financial support. But given that responsibility for providing both falls on this despicable, venal, catastrophically incompetent Tory government, the likelihood of a comprehensible and properly resourced roadmap for the recovery of the live music sector seems slim.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Recipes for success?

Let's be very clear: I would never willingly hand over money to a Nestle-owned company calling itself Mindful Chef. But we had a voucher that needed to be spent (a thoughtful and well-intentioned Christmas gift), and it was an opportunity to try out a weekly recipe box from a firm that has blown up big-style in lockdown. You can find out how we got on with it here.

An addendum: thanks to an administrative error (mine), we've unwittingly become repeat customers - and without the voucher, the cost REALLY stings...

Friday, April 02, 2021

Margin Walker

As disappointing as it was to miss out on Buzz reviewing duties for the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album (has the time ever been more ripe for them to release a record?), if I hadn't, I probably would never have discovered Ryley Walker. His latest LP Course In Fable treads a fascinating line between prog, folk and the jazzy post-rock sound for which Chicago and the album's producer John McEntire are renowned.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"I'll never grumble about sound checks again"

"I hope people miss live music as much as performers do." I would have probably said that they do (or I do, at least) in response to Chris of Christine And The Queens - until I read the Guardian article in which she was quoted. Now I'm not so sure.

Take Anna Calvi, for instance, for whom performing live is absolutely integral to her sense of who she is: "I'm such a different person on and off stage. On stage, I'm much more confident and fearless. Off it, I'm quiet, soft-spoken. It's been strange only being one half of myself for the past year." Rufus Wainwright implicitly agrees: "There's a duality that occurs for a person when they go up and perform - I think they really become themselves in a lot of ways, when they're true to their art." And as Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius poetically puts it, "Playing live is how I feel like I'm in the world. I miss feeling like a real person and not just a quilt of ideas." For Calvi, as for Samuel T Herring of Future Islands, performing is a means of feeling truly free, while Chris sees the stage as an "outlet ... emotionally, physically - it's a catharsis I need".

Live performance is evidently not a solitary pursuit or a one-way process, but instead a genuinely reciprocal experience founded on an intimate relationship between artist and audience. Nile Rodgers apologises for sounding like "an old hippy", but it's hard not to get misty-eyed at his comments: "Music is about people coming together from all situations, positions and philosophies, creating this powerful, unified force. We need that now more than ever. I tell you, seeing people from the stage enjoying themselves reassures me that life is good and that people are good. It's amazing to experience how much love people can have in one place." Herring also craves "that human interaction, celebrating the joys of life", while lockdown hero Tim Burgess rightly notes that the success of his Twitter listening parties exemplifies "how desperate people are to connect through moments of music together".

In less abstract terms, musicians often rely on gigs to roadtest material before recording it, and for many it must be a profoundly unsettling experience to have created new music and sent it out into the world but to be deprived of the opportunity to witness its impact on listeners and audiences first hand. Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor talks about his love for the "feedback on a huge scale" that only a show can give, while Herring claims that Future Islands "don't feel our albums are a final release - the release is sharing it with people in a live setting".

Let's give the final word to Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite: "[W]hen things open up again, I'm looking forward to watching some really noisy band melt my face. It's been too long." Amen to that.

Monday, March 29, 2021

"The camera was an extension of her"

Like all good photographers, Tish Murtha took her camera everywhere she went. However, as her daughter Ella recently revealed, this wasn't just so that she was ready and able to capture anything that caught her eye: "She started carrying the camera with no film in it to protect her on the street."

It's a reminder of the tough environment in which she lived and worked - as well as of the general hazards of simply being a woman in public. Like Nick Hedges, she was an activist: "she wanted to change and to fight the good fight. The way that she could do it and make her voice heard was with photography." But unlike Hedges, she belonged to the community that she was photographing: "She was one of them, this was her world, and these were her people. She documented it from the inside." Hedges' work was for Shelter and social change, but there are certainly other photographers who, in Ella's words, go on what amounts to "a poverty safari" in the name of art and profit.

Ella was speaking to Daniel Dylan Wray for a Huck article about Paul Sng's proposed film exploring her mother's life and work, which has comfortably surpassed its initial crowdfunding target. For Ella, Tish will be both a poignant personal tribute and a means of inspiring others to believe in their own talents regardless of their background or circumstances: "I'm doing this film for her but also for every other working-class kid with a dream."

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"I feel like none of us are ever going to make a record like that again"

From one album celebrating a milestone anniversary to another. While Stone Temple Pilots' Tiny Music was released to an uncomprehending reception, at least it got a reception. By the time Spiderland saw the light of day, in March 1991, Slint had already split up. There was no promotional tour or media campaign, and - despite a rabidly enthusiastic "ten fucking stars" Melody Maker review written by their former producer Steve Albini - the album seemed destined to sink without trace.

It didn't quite turn out like that. With its minimalist ethic, focused intensity, spoken-word vocals and shifting tension-and-release dynamics, Spiderland has since been recognised as a classic, effectively kickstarting not one but two genres: math rock and post-rock. Not even another almost universally feted record released in the same year, Nirvana's Nevermind, could claim to have done that. Even more remarkably, it consisted of just six tracks, most of which were worked on repeatedly over a couple of years by four unlikely-looking rock stars in their drummer's parents' basement.

In an engrossing in-depth interview, Rolling Stone's Hank Shteamer spoke to the quartet - Brian McMahan, Dave Pajo, Britt Walford and Todd Brashear - about a record that he lauds as "an unclassifiable triumph of rock moodcraft", McMahan brands "totally some nerd dude music" and Pajo describes as "just a snapshot of youthfulness: the romance and the despair and the laughter".

It's common knowledge (at least to those who know the album) that its instantly recognisable and widely parodied cover photo was shot by friend of the band Will Oldham, but I hadn't realised that he was in the lake with them while trying to take the picture, and they were all out of their depth and treading water. Shteamer's article also considers Spiderland's diverse musical influences (Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, what McMahan calls AC/DC's "very hard, mechanical, rock & roll boogie"); explains that 'Don, Aman' is an anagram of Madonna, whom Walford was listening to a lot at the time; covers the crippling stress that reluctant frontman McMahan felt at having to record vocals; and reveals the fact that one of the respondents to their call for a female singer was none other than PJ Harvey.

Right, off to watch Breadcrumb Trail...

Thursday, March 25, 2021

"Effortless pop savvy and staggering musicality"

Of all of the albums to get the 25th anniversary treatment, Stone Temple Pilots' Tiny Music ... Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop seems like an unlikely candidate. At the time of its release, the record was much maligned both by the critics (including Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, who encouraged troubled frontman Scott Weiland to kill himself) and also (as I recall) within my circle of friends, raised on a steady diet of grunge. But, reappraising the album a quarter of a century onConsequence Of Sound's Bryan Rolli argues that "[n]ot only does Tiny Music mark STP's tragically short-lived creative zenith, but it remains one of the most stylistically adventurous albums of the grunge era".

He makes a reasonable case for that bold claim, too. While the band's debut Core hasn't aged well - it's like a chunkier, clunkier version of Alice In Chains' Dirt, or a much chunkier, clunkier version of Pearl Jam's Ten - second LP Purple remains, for me, their best record. But Rolli is right that Purple's successor is their most diverse and ambitious album - take 'Big Bang Baby', 'Art School Girl' and 'Lady Picture Show' as a three-song sample - and therefore arguably also the most interesting.

It's debatable, though, whether Tiny Music can be said to truly belong to the "grunge era". Only at the very end of the article does Rolli acknowledge that by 1996 grunge was "already withering". In fact, it was pretty much dead in the water by then, and so the band's eagerness to "take such exhilarating creative risks" - the nods to Bowie, The Beatles and even bossa nova - was probably prompted by a desire to flee the sinking ship.

Sadly, as sharply declining record sales show, it was a journey that many fans were unwilling to make. While Stone Temple Pilots are still a going concern (albeit without Weiland, who was fired in 2013 and died of an accidental overdose two years later), what Rolli refers to as "a thrilling, genre-hopping opus" effectively became the band's creative tombstone.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Glasgow kiss

Part of the appeal of photographic portraits of cities is recognising places you know and love - but, despite growing up less than three hours away, I've somehow never been to Glasgow, so I bought a copy of Douglas Corrance's new Cafe Royal book Glasgow 1970s-1980s purely on the strength of the pictures.

In any case - unlike (say) John Bulmer's book on 1970s Manchester, also published by Cafe Royal - Corrance sought to capture the city's character not through its architecture or urban landscape but through its people: shopkeepers, football fans, marching bands, tea-drinking pensioners, protesting students.

The cover image - a young lad in the street, his face obscured by an enormous pink bubblegum bubble - is a homage to Raymond Depardon. Or at least you assume it must be, though the French photographer's pictures were taken for but never published by the Sunday Times Magazine - presumably Corrance saw them at some point.

The bubble brings colour to the otherwise almost monochrome scene, seeming to serve a purpose. For Depardon, Glasgow in the early 1980s was not grim but "exotic", and Corrance too portrays it as a vibrant and colourful place (if a little rough around the edges).

Arguably most revealing is the choice of centre spread: a ginger-haired girl in pink sweatshirt and mustard cardigan, grinning directly at the camera, stood in a tenement-lined street. "I hate snotty-nosed pictures of street kids," Corrance told the Guardian's Tim Adams. "That wasn't the reality. Those tenement streets had a bad name, but as buildings, the Glasgow tenement was one of the finest designs ever made for city living. And they just pulled most of them down." Suffice to say he has a very different perspective on them than fellow photographer Nick Hedges.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

"If you think it's society's problem you will never, ever change football"

For a fan of the beautiful game, Gareth Thomas' recent interview with the Guardian's Donald McRae makes for grim reading. The former Wales and British Lions captain, now a vocal campaigner on homophobia in sport and HIV awareness, suggests that little has improved within football - or within men's football, at least  - since Justin Fashanu's day: "You might want to perceive that football's evolved but the reality is that nobody could say you would be free from abuse if you came out."

Gay Hibs supporter Ross Hunter is more positive, arguing in an article published last year that "the environment for homosexual players is undeniably more welcoming that it ever has been" - but he still acknowledges the existence of an ingrained homophobia on the terraces, where "abuse of all kinds has traditionally come with the territory".

Hunter notes that, "while the policies against homophobic language remain as stringent as that against racism, the reality of enforcement is different". For Thomas, it's critical that the formal legislation on racist abuse is extended to cover homophobia - something that seems like an obvious move, and something for which he's been pushing for years, only to find himself repeatedly banging his head on a brick wall.

As with responding to and eradicating racism, meaningful change has to start at the top. Thomas is quite understandably exasperated by FIFA awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar, countries that are openly hostile to LGBT people - a decision that makes the organisation's positive initiatives seem like merely token gestures.

And yet, as Thomas' own experience proves, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that homophobia is also rife - if less overt - at home. And it still exists on pitches as well as in stands. It's up to everyone to call it out: the authorities, players and management and backroom staff, the media - and supporters like myself.

Friday, March 19, 2021

"It was the world I knew but it was very different"

When life gave William Doyle lemons (work-in-progress songs lost thanks to a terminally fucked hard drive), he was able to make lemonade in the form of Great Spans Of Muddy Time - likely to be the only album released today, and possibly ever, that takes its name from a quote from avuncular Gardeners' World host Monty Don.

Not for the first time I submitted a review only to instantly feel as though I may have done the record in question a disservice. The nagging suspicion that I just hadn't quite got onto its wavelength was compounded by subsequently reading its creator's Baker's Dozen feature for the Quietus - an enormously helpful guide to where Doyle was coming from that I wish I'd discovered and digested before sending off the write-up.

It's without a doubt one of the best Baker's Dozens to date - not only for the featured albums but also for the way Doyle talks about them. Taking the most revealing and interesting approach by choosing records "that have had a significant impact in the direction of my life", he repeatedly conveys the thrill of hearing or witnessing something that absolutely blows your fucking mind (Talking Heads' Remain In Light, and its opening track 'Born Under Punches' in particular; Factory Floor live) in a way that really resonates.

Michael Jackson's 'Give Into Me' was a formative influence not for Slash's solo but for the feedback at the end, "the first non-musical musical sound I'd ever heard", while Bjork's Homogenic actually seemed to make the world a different place, inspiring him to feel able to "make something beyond my means". In discussing Microcastle, a personal favourite of mine, Doyle manages to put his finger on what makes Deerhunter so special in a way that I never have: "They seem to understand texture like no other guitar group of their time ... Deerhunter understand the trajectory." And talking about The Fall's Grotesque, he offers an articulate defence of the value of listening to music that you initially find difficult: "[I]f you can hold onto that thing that you find jagged and unpredictable and almost distasteful at times and yet have a totally transformative experience with it, then you're absolutely fucking winning."

The intensely personal attachment he has to certain songs and albums comes across particularly strongly. When his dad was killed in a tragic accident, Radiohead's Hail To The Thief "absorbed a lot of my grief": "It wasn't like it was exaggerating the pain of the moment or anything, it just felt a space to live in." I think we all know what he means when he talks about "the really special records [that] just come down as a rope ladder from heaven".

Thursday, March 18, 2021

No home comforts

Sitting on my desk awaiting dissection for months has been a copy of This England, inherited from a house clearance. Published in 1966 by the National Geographic Society, it's a lavish, highly illustrated coffee-table guidebook written by visiting American writers for the benefit of an American readership. As such, it paints a picture of the nation as a place of pomp and ceremony, of rich history and tradition, of Shakespeare, rolling countryside and picture-postcard villages.

The title of the opening chapter alone, "Pageant Of A Storied Realm", would be enough to sexually arouse the most impotent of gammony Brexiteers, as would the breathless Foreword, written by the Society's then president and editor Melville Bell Grosvenor. Here's a sample passage: "You may bask in the cheer of a Lake District inn, shiver in the ocean winds at Land's End, explore cathedrals, castles, pulsing cities, lonely moors - all packed into an area smaller than Wisconsin. You may stroll cobbled lanes where half-timbered houses lean on one another in the slumber of centuries, sip tea in humble homes 'crushed with their burden of thatch', and sleep, as I have, in cottages whose honey-hued stones seem to grow from the soil. A light shines through an arrow slit in a crenellated wall - and you realise this is no museum. Many a castle is an Englishman's home!"

What both Grosvenor and the book itself completely ignore is that many an Englishman's home was not a castle. In the same year that the National Geographic Society tome was published, the charity Shelter was founded. Two years later, in 1968, photographer Nick Hedges was commissioned to document the appalling slum housing that was blighting lives from Glasgow to London via Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The resulting images, now collected together in a Bluecoat Press book called Home, present an alternative reality, a vision of a very different country to This England - and a glimpse into the sort of "humble homes" in which Grosvenor never slept or sat sipping tea.

I spoke to Hedges about the motivations behind the project, about its subsequent impact and legacy, and about the process of putting together the book. The extraordinary images - stark, sobering and haunting - are available to view on his site.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Your future: our clutter

Thanks to Matt Charlton for managing to make me feel both old and angry. "Should you get rid of your CDs?" he asks in a column for the Guardian. This question simply does not compute for someone who not only continues to buy them but has also recently had shelves built in the living room to accommodate the collection.

Having been born between the vinyl booms, my first format love was cassettes - but most of my music is on disc. Sod the suggestion that they're "inherently unlovable". They might not have "the richness or tactile nature of vinyl, or the kooky, Urban Outfitters irony of tapes" (!), but they're what I've grown up with, and there's something satisfying about pulling a box off the shelf rather than clicking a button, and having an inlay booklet to flick through while you listen. They're more affordable than records and don't come with all the hipster wankery.

At least Charlton ultimately advises against a clear-out, on the grounds of sentimental value and the instability and likely transience of streaming services - both sound reasons in my book. But for some of us (a minority, admittedly...) CDs are not merely "scratched little time capsules" - and we're not interested in holding onto them only in the hope that they might one day mount a comeback.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Unsafe space

I've written about sexism and misogyny within the music industry before, in connection to Erick Morillo and Phil Spector, but Tamanna Rahman's BBC Three documentary Music's Dirty Secrets: Women Fight Back - reviewed here for Buzz - was nevertheless sobering and alarming viewing in underlining the scale of the problem. It isn't a case of a few bad apples; it's a case of an environment in which abuse and harassment are not only tolerated but actively enabled.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Reel cool and pyramid schemes

This week saw the loss of two men who, in their own indirect and very different ways, have been absolutely critical in shaping my musical tastes and experiences - neither of whom I previously knew by name.

Most obvious is Lou Ottens, the Dutch inventor of the compact cassette tape, who has died at the age of 94. As the joke doing the rounds goes, at least he got to C90.

I grew up in the cassette era - after the first vinyl boom and before CDs (in which he also had a creative hand) took over. My first music purchases were on tape, and so many of my absolute favourite bands I initially discovered and fell in love with through homemade cassette copies of classic albums: Nirvana (Nevermind), Sonic Youth (Dirty), Mogwai (Ten Rapid), Low (Secret Name), Fugazi (In On The Kill Taker) and Jane's Addiction (Ritual De Lo Habitual), to name just a few. Ottens also effectively invented the mixtape - as enjoyable to make and give as to receive, and a regular source of new delights.

I wonder what he made of the resurgence of the cassette in recent years. Perhaps he would have been bemused but also pleased that a format that once looked obsolete has actually outlived its creator.

And then there's Bill Harkin, the architect creator of Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage, who has died at the age of 83. Harkin really was a visionary in the sense that the concept apparently came to him in a dream - but the reality, first erected for the 1971 festival, was rather more prosaic, constructed out of metal scaffolding and plastic sheeting bought from the cattle market in Taunton.

Harkin's version was replaced in 1981 and is now in its third incarnation, and there wasn't even a Pyramid Stage at all on my first visit to Worthy Farm in 1998 - and yet its iconic and instantly recognisable design is just one of the things that make the festival feel so unique. A beacon in the landscape, it's played host to some of my favourite festival sets. Catching sight of its skeleton across the fields from our holiday cottage in March 2019 brought serious pangs of homesickness. Ten years away has been too long.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Burying the truth

I'll be honest. What drew me into watching The Dig was also precisely what left me feeling somewhat disappointed by it - namely, a pre-existing fascination with Sutton Hoo and a familiarity with the story surrounding the excavation of its famous ship burial. The problem was undeniably that I knew too much and was unable to simply sit back, accept or ignore the fictionalised aspects of the film (and the John Preston novel from which it was adapted) and fully enjoy it.

My own interest stems from my seven year old's passion for all things archaeological, and especially Anglo-Saxon. His dream holiday destination was not Disneyland but Sutton Hoo, so when circumstances allowed at the very tail end of August last year, we booked to stay a week onsite in Mrs Pretty's home itself, with views over the burial ground. And therein lay the first irritation: the film's producers decided to use a different and much grander country pile than the (relatively) modest Tranmer House, for no apparent reason.

The Dig's central character is not landowner Mrs Pretty (a somewhat miscast Carey Mulligan) but local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown - a humble, loyal, quietly spoken and stoical man played with aplomb by Ralph Fiennes. The film sets out the case that his insightful work and dogged persistence are deserving of significant recognition - as, indeed, does the visitors' centre at Sutton Hoo and all of the National Trust literature. And yet that representation sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside his portrayal in an episode of Time Team about a Roman villa in Ipswich, in which he comes across as someone with a disorganised and damagingly cavalier approach to excavation. In The Dig, the attitude of the professionals - and Oxbridge type Charles Phillips (the excellent Ken Stott) in particular - towards Brown is presented as patronising, arrogant and snootily superior, but Time Team suggests that maybe they were right to look down their noses at his methods.

Conversely, The Dig plays down the qualifications and experience of Peggy Piggott (Lily James) in portraying her as merely the naive young wife of one of Phillips' team - something that, rather oddly, led the right-wing tabloids of all things to cry sexism. As Jamie Jeffers of British History Podcast has noted in the course of delivering a similar verdict on the film, arguably even more problematic is the erasure of Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff: "It's believed that they produced the first colour photographs of an archaeological excavation in England, and thus they made history with their work. But instead of giving them their due, these two groundbreaking women were replaced by the fictional hunk-a-hunk-a-burning love, Rory."

As this implies, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and Peggy seem to feature chiefly to supply a romantic storyline, especially in view of the fact that the relationship between Brown and Mrs Pretty never goes beyond platonic, despite early hints that it might. I remain bemused by this apparent determination to shoehorn in some love interest (even to the extent that it detracts from the dig itself), as though all of the raw materials that the novelist and the screenwriter already had to work with (an archaeological discovery of enormous national significance, the clash of classes and cultures, the ominous threat of the outbreak of a Second World War) were somehow considered insufficiently dramatic and in need of embellishment.

And yet, all that said, I'm wary of sounding like one of those bores who moans about a dramatisation simply because it misrepresents real-life events, and of giving the impression that watching The Dig was nothing but an ordeal. It wasn't - far from it. Taken on its own terms as a piece of art, the film is a beautifully shot meditation on history, culture, mortality and legacy, and one that I'd happily recommend - though possibly only to those who would come to it in blissful ignorance...

Monday, March 08, 2021

Rave apes

Nearly four years on from seeing Part Chimp at Clwb, my hearing has just about returned - only for them to reveal that they'll be back with a new album in June. Drool is an apposite title, as it's pretty much all anyone is capable of after surviving a PC set.

The announcement prompted JR Moores of the Quietus to catch up with main man Tim Cedar about everything from playing at extreme volume, almost accidentally having two bassists and switching from Mogwai's Rock Action to Joe Thompson's freshly founded Wrong Speed Records, to Ringo Starr and whether noise rock is just nu-metal in disguise. The interview also features this absolute pearler: "Where would we be without worms? We'd be fucked, mate. We would be fucked."

Saturday, March 06, 2021

"I can't connect with my imagination"

Last June, the Guardian's Alison Flood reported on the impact that COVID-19 was having on the nation's novelists. Back then, in light of Sarah Vaughan's comment "I can't make my characters exist without interaction", I suggested that "the pandemic is threatening fiction's very machinery, the devices that writers often rely on to create a story". There was, though, some hope that the exceptional circumstances might provide some creative inspiration.

Does the picture look any better nine months on? No - as Flood found, it actually looks worse.

Part of the problem, for Linda Grant, is that this is "a once-in-a-blue-moon example of every writer being affected by exactly the same situation". Rather than being inspired, she's found herself "completely cut off from material": "I felt I was forced into this interiority, when there was no exterior, no outside to engage with. You don't have those overheard conversations on buses, there's no stimulus. It's just a sea of greyness, of timelessness." Creativity doesn't occur in a vacuum, no matter how inventive and ingenious the author. Many of us sense that our social skills have atrophied in lockdown, so it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that writers feel the same way about their powers of observation.

There are other issues, too. Avoiding getting distracted by domestic chores is a challenge familiar to anyone already used to working at home, but, for those with young children, simply finding an opportunity and a place in which to work is now a significant difficulty.

In the article, Natasha Solomons talks about "spaces" more generally: "those moments when something opens up inside you - a pause, a breath. But there are no spaces now." As this suggests, not having sufficient headspace is also an issue. William Sutcliffe refers to "pandemic fatigue" - something that I suspect we're all feeling, but something that is certainly not conducive to creative endeavours.

Sutcliffe doesn't seem inclined to self-pity, though: "Of all the people to be complaining about not being able to work, writers feel like the strangest group, because compared to everyone else our lives have changed the least. It's interesting to see why it's pushed so many off kilter." Yes - and it'll be interesting to see how quickly (or, indeed, whether) things right themselves when circumstances improve.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Evolutionary fervour

The Guardian's Alexis Petridis began his review of 2017's Modern Kosmology - one of those write-ups that, if you're reading it having already heard the record, has you nodding in agreement at the end of every sentence - by noting: "There is something both odd and immensely cheering about the arc of Jane Weaver's career. For whatever reason, you don't get many artists hitting their stride after 22 years and eight albums." That arc has continued with her new LP - and it is just as "odd and immensely cheering" as it was four years ago.

Flock has been billed (not unjustifiably) as the work of an outsider artist making a decisive stride in the direction of the mainstream, but still feels familiar in the way that it offers further evidence of what Petridis described as "her ability to alchemise her dusty source material into pop music". Album closer 'Solarised' is arguably the most intriguing and significant track, a sad banger that sets controls for the heart of the dancefloor and hints at further evolution to come. Certainly, the silver globe in the title of her 2014 album is starting to look less like a Hawkwind allusion and more like a reference to a mirror ball.

Anyway, here's my review of Flock for Buzz.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Towers and tombstones

Incredible - and profoundly depressing. No sooner do I post about grassroots music venues being obliterated to make way for accommodation than I have to do so again.

Here in Cardiff, the Rapport family and the Draycott Group appear to be duking it out to see who can be the most dastardly. The former bulldozed Gwdihw and the rest of Guildford Crescent and are hoping to erect a 29-storey tower on the land, while the latter are proposing to demolish Harlech Court, home to Porter's, and replace it with what would be the tallest building in Wales.

Aware of the outcry, Cardiff City Council leader Huw Thomas has offered a defensive response, claiming that because the building is privately owned, the council's hands are tied. In a sense, yes - but they'll have the power to accept or reject the plans when those are formally submitted, and previous form suggests that the developers will ultimately win out once again.

What the council can do, he argues, is to answer the venue's call for help "to find a suitable empty building that does not sit under the cloud of possible demolition or redevelopment". But how many of those are there left?

The bottom line is that Cardiff now has too many blocks of flats and too few gig venues. What's the point of providing yet more apartments when it comes at the cost of the very spaces that make the city centre an attractive place to live?

Monday, March 01, 2021

Doctoral studies

Creative people aren't often shy about sharing and promoting their work, so it's unusual when someone with a particular talent hides their light under a bushel - or, in the case of Robert Blomfield, in a shoebox.

Though Blomfield was, strictly speaking, an amateur photographer in the sense that he had a professional career in medicine and only took pictures in his spare time and for his own amusement, that label seems unjust and belittling when you pore over a small sample of his work.

Much like David Hurn, he was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and driven both by a desire to capture his surroundings (most significantly in Edinburgh in the 1950s and 1960s) and by a fascination with people, describing photography as "a form of love". Also like Hurn, he had a keen eye for observation and felt that artifice was unnecessary: "I didn't need to set the stage, the stage set itself. All I had to do was take the photo."

Comparisons can also be drawn with Vivian Maier - but Blomfield does seem to have printed many more of his pictures, suggesting some interest in sharing them with others. His work also began to get wider exposure and recognition during his lifetime rather than posthumously, with an exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh in 2018/2019 and, most recently, a Bluecoat Press book. As sad as his death in December was, it's nice to know that he lived long enough to see a copy.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

"We just can't let it go"

Cowley Road has long been the main hub of Oxford's music scene, but it looks as though it may soon be the only one. With the Cellar already gone, the future of the Wheatsheaf - the city centre's only other remaining venue - is now in serious doubt. As for the Lamb & Flag, the threat comes in the form of development plans for student accommodation.

The Wheatsheaf is exactly the sort of grassroots space that every city needs. Down a narrow alley and above a pub, the unpretentious upstairs room has played host to countless musicians (including Oxford heroes Foals and Supergrass), providing a perfect platform for local acts finding their feet and honing their craft as well as a welcome stage for cult outfits just passing through.

Unsurprisingly, the outcry in response to the conversion plans has been as loud as some of the gigs I've enjoyed within the Wheatsheaf's four walls. As Nightshift editor Ronan Munro sees it, this is a critical battle in the culture wars, at least as Oxford is concerned: "these venues are undervalued and overlooked. Nobody cares. People talk about heritage and culture but that doesn't just mean old buildings, it's about the places where things are created - and the Wheatsheaf is the last bastion of un-gentrified Oxford city centre."

Like others, he's called on the authorities to intervene: "The city council needs to support small venues and grassroots music." It's an oft-repeated call in places other than Oxford - including here in Cardiff, where concrete actions have failed to follow fine words and where, in the last week, it's been announced that an already razed gig venue is set to be replaced with a 29-storey block of flats. It's also a call that must be urgently heeded everywhere if we're not to emerge from lockdown into a cultural wasteland.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

"Totally surreal"

Massive congratulations to Mogwai for scoring a UK #1 album. Not words I ever thought I'd type, to be honest - certainly not when I first encountered them, at the Marcus Garvey Ballroom 22 years ago, when 'Like Herod' terrified anyone of a nervous disposition and the wooden dancefloor vibrated like there was an earthquake during 'Mogwai Fear Satan'.

Nice to contribute to the good guys winning for once, having ordered a CD copy from Spillers - as the Guardian point out, it was the Official Charts Company's valuation of physical sales over streams that meant As The Love Continues finished above Conflict Of Interest.

The latter's creator, MC Ghetts, took to the streets of London in a tank in a bid to boost sales. It's a promotional strategy that might have been recommended to Mogwai by old friend Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, but instead they went down the more conventional route of amassing a groundswell of support online. In these fuckawful times, it's been heartening not only to have a new Mogwai record to enjoy but to see so much love for them on social media, with Low, The Cure, Warren Ellis, Arab Strap, Alex Kapranos, Blanck Mass, Manic Street Preachers, Limmy and even Elijah Wood backing what ultimately turned out to be a successful bid for the top spot.

Even those with whom they've had less cordial relations over the years have sent their best wishes. Credit to Damon Albarn for rising above those infamous "Blur: Are Shite" T-shirts and congratulating the band on this most improbable of achievements.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Papa, do preach

"Don't forget, Maximo Park's 7th album, and 5th 'return to form' in a row, is out tomorrow!" joked frontman Paul Smith on Twitter yesterday. The difference is that Nature Always Wins really is a gem. 

The first six tracks - from fantastic opener 'Partly Of My Making' to the spiky 'Ardour', featuring vocals from Penetration's Pauline Murray - are as strong as anything they've ever done. The birth of Smith's daughter has, appropriately enough, resulted in a creative renaissance, and several songs give voice to anxieties about fatherhood and feelings of total disorientation that are very familiar. "What does the modern world mean to me?" Indeed.

In a very strong week for album releases, the Buzz review round-up also includes reports on records by Blanck Mass, Julien Baker and Lost Horizons, the most recent musical project of former Cocteau Twin and Bella Union label boss Simon Raymonde.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

"He writes like he is seeing things for the first time, every time"

In the wake of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's death, how will he be most fondly remembered?

As not only a fervent believer in the idea that literature (and poetry in particular) should be accessible to all, but as someone who actually put his money where his mouth was and took a stand against intellectual snobbery by founding a bookshop dedicated to paperbacks? City Lights soon became the heartbeat of countercultural San Francisco and - as even the most fleeting of visits demonstrates - the now legendary store still retains some of its magic today.

Or perhaps as an early champion of the work of the Beats, and especially as the foolhardy/savvy publisher who dared to take a risk on Allen Ginsberg's Howl? That risk wasn't merely financial - the poem's purported obscenity saw him arrested. But it also generated huge publicity and, after he was acquitted, he told the Guardian's Colin Robinson in 2015, "the floodgates were opened. People ... were able to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropics, Jean Genet, and so on."

For David Keenan, though, Ferlinghetti's most significant legacy is his own work. The novelist's personal tribute, published on The Social's site, is both rhapsodic and powerful: "Ferlinghetti makes me want to LIVE. His work, his ethos, his example, sounds a resounding yes to all of the yes to be had. His books point you out, once more, into the world, and it is made new, as it always truly is, by Ferlinghetti's wonderful command of beginner's mind. He writes like he is seeing things for the first time, every time, which really, you know, is the truth. Everything is new and risen up and blushing in its perfect moment, and Ferlinghetti's poems point to this again and again, the virgin ground of eternity is the map of his poetry."

Here he is, sat in City Lights' editorial office, reading 'The World Is A Beautiful Place'. That closing line about the "smiling mortician" strikes an even greater blow now - and yet, Keenan observes, "Lawrence Ferlinghetti will live forever, because poetry says so".

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Punk and persistence

Stewart Lee's documentary King Rocker was intended to give its subject Robert Lloyd the attention and recognition Lee feels the idiosyncratic Nightingales frontman deserves - so it must have been a bit of a blow when coronavirus put the kibosh on nationwide cinema release. Thankfully, the story of Lloyd's curious career on the musical margins - one characterised by stubbornness and stoic self-belief - still seems to have found an audience via Sky Arts. Here's my report for Buzz.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Fun girl two

At primary school, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward hatched a plot to break each other's ankles because plaster casts and crutches were a sure-fire way of causing a fuss and attracting attention in the playground. "When this proved unsuccessful we realised we'd just have to find other ways of getting noticed." Forming a peerless, record-breaking pop group (together with Siobhan Fahey) turned out to be a much sounder bet - as their joint memoir Really Saying Something underscores.

Like so many bands, Bananarama began in the bedroom, with two kids taping songs straight off the radio and singing along on a mic. By the time they were teenagers, Dallin and Woodward were "immersed in an unashamed mixture of disco, funk, glam, arty rock and punk”, eagerly lapping up everything from Roxy Music, T-Rex and David Bowie to the Sex Pistols, Parliament and Donna Summer. Dallin describes discovering Blondie as a life-changing experience; Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Siouxie Sioux and Viv Albertine (the latter "anarchic, rebelling against every female stereotype") were exactly the "positive female role models" that she (or any girl) needed: "Seeing other women achieve great things is inspiring and helps you to envision that potential in yourself."

At the age of 18, in 1980, the pair left home for the bright lights of London - and set out on a journey that effectively traced the contours of the 1980s musical landscape. Before long, they were partying with the peacocking Blitz Kids, bouncing between house parties and club nights, and hanging out with their punk heroes Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon. For a while, they even lived rent-free above the Sex Pistols' old rehearsal space on Denmark Street, still owned by Cook and Jones - a damp hovel that came complete with graffiti by John Lydon, a pair of Sid Vicious' bondage trousers, a cupboard stuffed with branded Sex Pistols stationery and, according to Dallin, "a giant Bambi, from the video for the song 'Who Killed Bambi?', which I ended up using as my headboard".

At the time, Soho was very much the capital's vibrant, edgy heart, and evidently an incredibly exciting place to call home in your late teens and early twenties. Really Saying Something captures the buzz and bustle of the area, but towards the end of the book Woodward sounds a brief wistful note, reflecting on the depressingly inexorable and all-consuming force of gentrification: "I can't imagine teenagers these days being able to have a similar experience to the one Sara and I had. I know development and modernisation are inevitable, but it would be a shame to lose the last vestiges of character that Soho has managed to cling onto."

This tacit admission of good fortune is telling. While Dallin and Woodward undoubtedly worked hard, luck also played a major part in their success. There was also no grand plan, at least as Really Saying Something tells it - they were just two party animals with a lust for life who found themselves swept along for the ride and became pop stars by accident. Time and again, at opportune moments, they came into contact with people who helped to propel them to greater prominence.

First, of course, there was Fahey, whom Dallin met at the London College of Fashion, the duo instantly bonding over a shared love of Patti Smith, Joy Division, Soft Cell and Talking Heads. For the trio's first performances as Bananarama, at Club Left, they had Vic Godard and Subway Sect as their backing band. Debut single 'Aie A Mwana' was co-produced by Cook, who also played drums, and found a fan in the form of John Peel, who gave it crucial radio play. Terry Hall, who had seen Bananarama in the pages of The Face and bought 'Aie A Mwana', invited them to contribute to Fun Boy Three's 1982 single 'It Ain't What You Do It's The Way That You Do It' - cue a first appearance on Top Of The Pops, "looking shifty and awkward ... performing on what had been the most influential TV show of our young lives". Hall and fellow Fun Boys Neville Staple and Lynval Golding duly returned the favour by appearing on Bananarama's cover of The Velvelettes 'He Was Really Saying Something', and suddenly the big time beckoned.

'Cruel Summer' was the single that broke them in the US, resulting in a surreal moment when Mike Tyson, sat on the bonnet of his limousine outside the Sunset Marquis in LA, serenaded them with their own song. They also had the distinction of being the only women (with the exception of Shalamar's Jody Watley) to appear on the 1984 Band Aid single 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' At the recording session, they gravitated towards Paul Weller, as an equally "low-key" star, and found Status Quo "great fun" - but looking back Woodward is more struck by the fact that "[o]f all of the pop artists there were in Britain, there were no female lead lines on the record".

Bananarama had been working with production team Jolley & Swain since their debut album Deep Sea Skiving, but their third, True Confessions, featured two collaborations with a rival hit factory. Stock, Aitken & Waterman were still upstart newcomers at the time (so much so that Dallin often referred to them as "Waterman, Stock & Aitken" in interviews), with Dead Or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' their only big hit to date. But Bananarama's version of 'Venus' by Shocking Blue - an old favourite from the very early days of the band - changed all that, topping charts around the world. Not that it should be taken as evidence of SAW's Midas touch, though - as Dallin and Woodward point out, the producers were scarcely less resistant to the idea than Jolley & Swain had been, and the cover's existence was solely due to the band's persistence.

That success spawned a follow-up album of pure, unadulterated, hi-NRG pop, Wow, that effectively established the SAW sound. Each single was accompanied by increasingly sophisticated choreography devised by future Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli, whose services to aviator shades, impossibly tight shorts and baby oil can be appreciated in the TOTP performance of 'I Heard A Rumour'.

Remarkably, Bananarama had never properly toured - as Dallin explains, "With the advent of MTV, the record company didn't really think touring was necessary, realising it was easier to send pop artists off on promo tours armed with their latest videos rather than the costly alternative of putting them on the road" - but the decade ended with a globetrotting jaunt that wound up back in London at Wembley Arena. It's incredible to think how it started for Dallin and Woodward - as two wide-eyed, penniless teenagers living in a mouldy shithole, being taught how to play the bassline to The Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' by their landlord Steve Jones, and dreaming of releasing a single sung in Swahili.

By the time that first tour finally took place, Fahey had already departed, her commitment to the band strained to breaking point by her relationship with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and consequent move to LA. Her replacement Jacquie O'Sullivan lasted three years and one album (1991's Pop Life, recorded with another of Dallin and Woodward's early-80s acquaintances, Youth of Killing Joke) before she too left, sick of still being seen as the new girl.

That might have been the end for Bananarama, were it not for the fact that the band were founded first and foremost on the friendship between Dallin and Woodward. It's an alliance that has seen them through some turbulent times, has survived their geographical separation (Woodward having fled the madness of London for the quiet of Cornwall in 1994) and very much endures today - as Really Saying Something attests. Perpetual press references to Bananarama's "80s heyday" must be hurtful given that they've continued to record and perform as a duo over the last three decades (though a guest appearance in ITV's Benidorm in 2011 suggested that they're also able to laugh about it).

2019 turned out to be a momentous year: a new album, a triumphant first appearance at Glastonbury and some intimate "An Audience With..."-type gigs that offered fans the opportunity to ask questions. The record, In Stereo, saw the Smooth Radio staples returning to their punk/DIY roots, in the sense that it was self-released: "Essentially, Keren and I were our own record company and management. For us, though, it turned out to be the perfect way to operate, leaving us in complete control of the product and its exploitation and retaining full ownership of our music.” 

Those fan Q&A sessions got them reminiscing and the idea of a joint memoir was born. The publishing contracts were signed immediately before coronavirus shut everything down, so the book was written in lockdown. For someone digesting it in similar circumstances, the giddy whirl of wild nights out, far-flung adventures and unexpected encounters offers vicarious thrills, especially in the early chapters. There is, however, a limit as to how much the cooped-up-at-home reader can take, and the mention of the time that Dallin and Woodward were among the 20 mates that George Michael flew to Richard Branson's Necker Island on a private jet for a fortnight's holiday is likely to result in some eyeball rolling. That said, they retain sufficient self-awareness to see that Really Saying Something makes it seem as though their lives have been lived in the perpetual pursuit of pleasure, Woodward explaining: "It certainly wasn't every night of the week, but it would be challenging to fill a book with 'stayed in, cooked a meal, ate the meal, watched TV and went to bed'."

Serious subjects aren't entirely swerved - there are chapters dedicated to the dearly departed George Michael and Keith Flint, for instance. But, given Dallin's acknowledgement of "the sheer embrace and love from the LGBTQ community throughout our career" and their immersion in the scene, it's surprising to find that references to the devastating impact of AIDS on that community during the decade with which Bananarama are most often identified are conspicuous by their complete absence. (Maybe this is just my own post-It's A Sin hypersensitivity, though.)

Similarly, for a sharp, smart and sustained critique of the sexism and misogyny ingrained in the music business, you'd be much better off reading Kim Gordon's Girl In A Band or Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Dallin's hero Viv Albertine. That said, Really Saying Something does contain some interesting reflections on their struggle to be seen as credible artists, on ageing within the industry and especially on motherhood. For Dallin, having a child "was heaven, a return to innocence" - a pleasure just to be able "to focus on something other than Bananarama." For Woodward, however, motherhood came unexpectedly a few years earlier, in 1986, and was perceived as an irritating inconvenience by some of those in the band's orbit. Becoming a parent didn't curtail her partying and relentless working schedule - she says she was "afraid to entirely give in to motherhood as if it were some kind of weakness" - but she implies that, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it should have. She also notes that her bandmate wasn't exactly understanding: "As sympathetic and supportive as she'd been when I found out I was pregnant, her mantra now was 'You're only pregnant, for God's sake, you're not ill!' ... Her attitude certainly shifted when she was pregnant a few years later, when she refused to travel after six months - no early mornings, late nights and traipsing around America during a heatwave for her."

Such hints of tension between the pair are both fleeting and extremely rare, however. Dallin and Woodward pass the narratorial baton back and forth simply because Really Saying Something is a collaborative memoir. They're singing from the same hymnsheet - unlike, say, Motley Crue in The Dirt, in which the same structural device is used to give each band member the opportunity to present his own biased, half-remembered recollection of the same events, with the truth lying somewhere in between.

Perspective is critical to the diplomatically worded passages about the split with Fahey. At the time, it was evidently acrimonious, but time has largely healed the wounds and, when the trio reunited for a tour in 2017, "it felt like a long-lost sister had returned to the fold". Inevitably, the circumstances of the original line-up's demise came up in conversation. For Woodward, "[t]he thing that struck me was that Siobhan's perception of what had happened was in stark contrast to mine. She has her version of history, which is different from the one Sara and I remember. I don't think that will ever change, and I don't think it matters any more." Dallin also writes about perspective, though in a different sense: "There's a big difference in what I felt at the time and what I feel in retrospect. It's obvious that people grow and change and want to move in different directions, but at the time we had been living in each other's pockets for so long that it felt monumental."

By their own admission, Dallin and Woodward have also grown and changed. Briefly mentioning her depression in the early 90s, Woodward observes that "we hadn't really taken time out to discuss how either of us was coping mentally". It's surprising to learn that, despite being lifelong friends, it's only in recent years that "we talk about how we're feeling personally and emotionally".

For the most part, though, Really Saying Something refuses to dwell on the deep stuff. It's less candid soul baring and more breathless, gossipy recollection - the lively tale of two women lucky enough to find themselves living out all of their teenage fantasies in the company of a colourful cast of characters. No opportunity to cram in a namecheck is missed - the book features everyone from Boy George, Shane MacGowan, Sting, Noel Gallagher, Keith Richards and Lemmy to Delia Smith, Andy Warhol, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, the Queen of Thailand and (yes) Robert De Niro. (He kept them waiting, in case you're wondering.)

In the final chapter, Dallin comments: "This is the only job I've ever had and I realise how fortunate I've been." And with good reason. After all, it's not everyone who - together with her best friend - not only gets personally invited to Prince's club in Minneapolis but also stands in the VIP area next to the great man while watching the dancefloor fill to one of their own records.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Psyched out

I took a little while to warm to it, but Hey Colossus' Dances/Curses has barely left the stereo since my copy arrived in the post. I always find track-by-track breakdowns of records by their creators fascinating reading, and this one - a guided tour of a beast of a double album in the company of Paul Sykes and Chris Summerlin - is no exception.

Particularly interesting are Summerlin's comments on the overall sonic philosophy of the record: "I can only speak for myself here but it feels like there was an unconscious decision made somewhere along the line to try and avoid any aural 'signifiers' of what you might call 'psych' music, if you like talking genres (which I don't). ... I feel like if anything even slightly started straying into that 'cosmic' territory it was canned on the spot." The results, he suggests, are songs that have "those same transformative qualities associated with psychedelic music but using a language that is economical and earth-bound" - which is as good a description as I've read yet of Dances/Curses' distinctively muscular and lean yet transportive and nuanced sound.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Murals, morals and money

When, back in October, Banksy enlivened a wall on the corner of Rothesay Avenue and Ilkeston Road in Nottingham with an image of a young girl hula-hooping with a bike tyre, I wondered whether, from the perspective of the building's owners, it might turn out to be more trouble than it was worth. Now we have an answer: it wasn't any trouble, and proved to be worth an awful lot. The solution was simple, and - it seems - one that has been used before: simply remove the section of wall altogether and flog it to a gallery for a small fortune.

So much for my old street being home to the work of an internationally renowned artist, then. When the image first appeared, Jasinya Powell wasn't the only local resident to react positively, commenting: "Nottingham needed something like this." Her response to its removal? "It's capitalism at its finest - it's all about the Benjamins at the end of the day."

Buyer John Brandler has inevitably claimed that the move was necessary for the sake of preservation, while, according to the Evening Post, the owner was frustrated in their attempts to donate the artwork and will be gifting the proceeds instead. But the way things have panned out for the area and the community - with a piece of ostensibly public art passing into private hands - still leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Documenting the documentarian

Paul Sng's new film Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche isn't even officially out yet and he's already announced plans of his next one: a celebration of the life and work of documentary photographer Tish Murtha.

The two projects have much in common, at least on the surface. Both promise to be personal tributes to pioneering artists from the perspective of their daughters, Celeste Bell and Ella Murtha respectively. Bold, fearless and independently minded, Poly Styrene embodied the spirit of punk. Tish Murtha, meanwhile, secured her place on David Hurn's Documentary Photography course at Newport College of Art by famously (and influentially) declaring "I want to take pictures of policemen kicking kids", and went on to rail against the militaristic ideology of the youth jazz bands she photographed in her native Newcastle, which she saw as crushing "any spark of individuality". The pair would probably have got on well.

Given that Murtha has only really started to gain the recognition she deserves since her death in 2013, anything that publicises her extraordinary work is to be welcomed - and in Sng, whose previous work includes a film about Sleaford Mods and a subsequent book of portraits entitled Invisible Britain, her story will have a sympathetic, sensitive director.

Monday, February 15, 2021

From playlist to blacklist

BBC 4 documentary Britain's Most Dangerous Songs: Listen To The Banned is a mildly diverting chronicle of the various things that have got Auntie's knickers in a twist, lyrically speaking: sex (of course), drugs, politics, youth/alternative subcultures and product placement.

Since I submitted my Buzz review, musicOMH and fellow Nightshift scribe Sam Shepherd has commented that "it's a bit telling that all these 'dangerous songs' are at least 30 years old" - but is this an indicator of a lack of "strong voices in music", as Sam suggests, or of the national broadcaster following an increasingly liberal editorial line? Discuss.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Unique selling points

If you're a business and want to advertise your wares to passers-by, you can use neon signs and billboard-sized posters - or you can go much further and operate out of premises actually designed to look like what you sell. Welcome to the weird and wonderful (and largely American) world of "duck architecture", as it was branded by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Unsubtle, sure, but also imaginative, witty and eye-catching, the buildings in this gallery make for an infinitely more interesting roadside view than identikit McDonalds or Starbucks.

(Thanks to Darran for the link.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

High and dry

Reflecting on the devastating effects that Brexit is set to have on the British music industry, Colin Greenwood has written a personal piece for the Guardian about the formative influence that touring Europe had on Radiohead.

What is clear is that for them (and, I'm sure, many other bands) it was never just about making money - most important were the opportunities to connect with different audiences, immerse themselves in other cultures and forge new friendships. Those opportunities are now set to be denied to young musicians trying to make their way in the world and unable to foot the bill or negotiate the bureaucracy.

His concluding comments are particularly resonant, and deserve to be quoted in full: "My country's music is great because it scorns borders and boundaries; it is a great patriotic source, a force of confidence, joy and shared passions. I am proud of my country and all the music it has exchanged with the world, and I am sure that pride is felt across all ages and cultures in the UK. It is the antithesis of the culturally pinched nationalism that is Brexit, and its diminishment would deprive us all."

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Keeping up with the Joneses

No sooner had Bwydiful shut up shop beside Victoria Park in Canton than another burger establishment stepped in to fill the vacancy. It took me a while to get round to sampling Ansh's wares - but, given the involvement of master butcher Oriel Jones, the high standard of the fare was practically guaranteed. Here's my review for Buzz.

Monday, February 08, 2021

"I don't think Elton could sing 'In League With Satan'"

What (I think) started out as a brief oral history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) compiled for the Guardian has, it seems, spiralled into something much larger, with writer Michael Hann recently revealing he's finished a book manuscript for publisher Little, Brown called Denim And Leather.

I seem to recall Hann saying at the time of the article how much he'd enjoyed seeking out and listening to the movement's key protagonists - including Saxon's Biff Byford, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott and Cronos of Venom - tell the story in their own words. Indeed, he gathered so much material that he later pulled together a longer article for the Quietus, complete with tales of drummers falling asleep behind their kits to scupper attempted Kiss covers, sparsely attended alfresco gigs illuminated by car headlights and Venom's ill-advised experiments with homemade pyrotechnics.

Far more often derided than celebrated, NWOBHM lasted longer than the first wave of punk, drawing on its energy and giving birth to countless bands - not least enduring metal legends Iron Maiden. Those who shared their memories and reflections with Hann made clear the critical importance of infrastructure to its popularity. Without venues in which to perform it, labels willing to risk releasing it, club and radio DJs willing to champion it and music journalists willing to give it coverage, NWOBHM would never have taken off. A valuable point to remember at a time when the industry's whole ecosystem is under (yes, I'm going to use that word) unprecedented strain.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Lamb to the slaughter?

Oxford and I had our differences, but we grew closer as the years drew on and if there's one thing guaranteed to make me homesick for the old place, it's the thought of its pubs. At present, the opportunity to be in any boozer at all would be gleefully seized with both hands - let alone to be tucked away in a snug corner of one of the city's many marvellous hostelries on a cold, dark, dismal winter evening.

For that reason, Madeline Odent's recent Twitter thread giving a guided tour of the best establishments was a bittersweet read. On the one hand, it brought back memories of many a good night out - but, on the other, it was a painful reminder of the fact that they're all currently out of bounds.

If I was to quibble with Odent's selection, I'd ditch the Head of the River (poor overpriced drinks selection, trading on its location) and probably also the Turf (largely a honeypot for gormless tourists - if they can find it, that is) and include more of the pubs a short stroll from the city centre (the Gardener's Arms, the Royal Oak and the Bookbinders in Jericho, the Port Mahon on St Clement's Street).

But, setting aside any such minor gripes, the thread alerted me to the news that the future of one of Oxford's institutions - the Lamb & Flag in St Giles - looks to be under serious threat. The pandemic has of course had an enormous impact - but it's hard to believe the claim of its owners, St John's College, that it's "a loss-making business". Perhaps the more telling comment is that the pub "is not part of [the college's] core charitable objectives". Maybe not - but it's certainly one of the jewels in the city's crown when it comes to old-school boozers. Surely a solution can be found to keep it open?

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The time is now?

Writing last week on their recent introduction of a tariff on small-scale live-streamed gigs, and the subsequent barrage of criticism, I concluded: "It remains to be seen whether PRS will accept they've made a major blunder and do the right thing, or whether they're content to continue kicking good men and women while they're down."

Thankfully, common sense has indeed since prevailed and the PRS have backtracked, announcing that they have listened to what they euphemistically refer to as "feedback from songwriter and composer members" and agreed to make the necessary licences free to obtain.

The fact remains, though, that the original decision was taken without appropriate consultation and against the wishes of a great many of those whose interests the organisation supposedly serves.

PRS wasn't mentioned in Tim Burgess' article on how music is "broken", published by the Guardian yesterday, but it might as well have been. Brexit and the pandemic have both dealt heavy blows to the music industry, but he focused predominantly on "the elephant in the gloom": streaming, and the fact that artists aren't being paid fairly for their recorded output.

Burgess sees the current moment as an opportunity for a "great reset", for reflection and decisive change: "now, with everything else on hold, we have time to sort it, right? If a whole generation of musicians goes to the wall, no one wins." I'd love to share his optimism, but the pandemic in particular is making disparities worse in so many other respects, and to date there's been little evidence of any willingness among politicians or tech giants to recognise and alleviate the plight of anyone in the music industry - in fact, quite the opposite.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Harmonies in his head

Many of us suspected that the death of Pete Shelley in 2018 would spell the end of the Buzzcocks. Not so, it seems. In a Baker's Dozen piece for the Quietus, Steve Diggle - the yang to Shelley's yin - reveals that not only did he receive the frontman's blessing to carry on but also that he's continued writing new material in lockdown.

Diggle's selection of records that shaped him as a musician is a veritable who's who of rock from the 1950s to the 1970s: rock 'n' rollers Little Richard ("very animalistic", "very punk in a way") and Chuck Berry ("the stylised one"); the best of British in the form of The Beatles, The Who, David Bowie, The Kinks and Rolling Stones (whose "funky, groovy" song 'Fingerprint File' inspired 'Why Can't I Touch It'); American heavyweights Bob Dylan, MC5 ("the Godfathers of punk rock really, along with The Stooges") and The Velvet Underground ("a bit of a blueprint ... for us"); Motown superstars Stevie Wonder and The Supremes (Diggle memorably describes the opening of 'Stoned Love' as "like an orgasm"); and punk contemporaries The Clash, of whom he was both a friend and a fan, and whose 'Complete Control' he claims is "like putting your fingers in a plug socket". That would serve as a fair description of his own band's songs.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"A deliberate dive into an abyss"

 As #harshwritingadvice trends on Twitter, here's a recommendation from DBC Pierre: "Leap before you look."

With his 2003 Booker Prize-winning debut Vernon God Little (reviewed here), the author decided just to "get all the words down, see how they tasted and adjust them". The task then was to "get over the gibberish and look", finding a way to edit, develop and shape those words into something that worked. When he did so, he discovered that "the seeds were already there in the blur of the pages, so I dug them up, extracting each one into a document of its own to expand in isolation". In that way, he treated the emerging novel like "a contraption that could be polished piece by piece".

It's sound advice for those who feel compelled to write in a strictly linear fashion and agonise over the finer detail of each and every sentence before moving onto the next - myself included.