Saturday, July 31, 2021

Respect due

'Viewpoint' finds Ruth Bidgood looking out at a natural landscape that is at once familiar and alien: "from here / we saw it new, aslant, changed / a beauty of questioning and strangeness". The new anthology A Last Respect, in which the poem appears, is a similarly revelatory survey of the literary landscape, one that throws the lofty peaks of Anglo-Welsh poetry into even greater relief.

Titled after a Roland Mathias poem and gathering together a clutch of contemporary poets who have all won the annual prize established in his memory, the book is a fitting tribute to a tireless champion of Welsh writing in English. Equally fitting, it's published by Seren, passionate advocates of English-language writing in Wales for the past four decades.

The inclusion of Rhian Edwards' 'Skype' may be a deliberately topical nod to the pandemic and the disillusioning reality of trying to maintain intimate personal relationships digitally, but generally the subject matter is universal and weighty. The shock of parenthood verges on visceral horror in Ailbhe Darcy's extraordinary pair of poems 'After My Son Was Born'; Owen Sheers and Robert Minhinnick take us into bloody combat on foreign soil; Edwards laments her own physical decline in 'The Unkindness' ("What of this cauliflowering arse, / where are the buttocks that snake-charmed?"); Gwyneth Lewis and Bidgood are haunted by the prospect or reality of losing linguistic faculties in old age ("Words have migrated, / I forget their calls"); and the latter writes ominously of death in 'Porchlight' ("the slow approach / of that which knew her name and habitation / and would not leave without her").

By contrast, Dannie Abse's 'A Marriage' is light relief, a tender portrait of "perdurable love" that sees the poet comically recollecting illicit nocturnal visits to his lover's lodgings, avoiding a ferocious German landlady and her "anti-Semitic" pooch.

"This collection represents some of the best of Welsh poetry in English of this century", ventures Glyn Mathias in the Preface. A bold claim, to be sure, but one that is undoubtedly substantiated by what follows.

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Capturing the chaos

Sometimes photographers put themselves in the line of fire in the name of documenting a momentous event for posterity. Aiyush Pachnanda may not have risked his life in an actual war zone, but he certainly put himself and his camera in considerable danger by attempting to photograph the riotous (and embarrassing) scenes in central London on 11th July, the day of the England v Italy Euros final. Huck have published the results and you can practically smell the sweat, Stella and xenophobia.

Monday, July 26, 2021

A portrait of the portrait artist as a young man

Not for portraitist Nathan Wyburn mundane materials like pencil or paint (or at least not very often) - he's far more creative in what he chooses to work with. I spoke to him about practice, politics, teaching and his current exhibition, which is running in Cardiff's Morgan Quarter Arcade until the end of this month. Go see.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Balancing the books

When I realised a couple of years back just how few books by women authors there were on my shelves , it was the source of some embarrassment - not least because the massive imbalance had gone entirely unnoticed. As this Guardian article by Mary Ann Sieghart underlines, though, I'm far from alone in this - not that that makes it any more excusable, of course.

Sieghart suggests that many men instinctively dismiss books by women out of hand as not for them, refusing to engage with a female perspective on the world and thereby reinforcing their own blinkered male gaze. True, perhaps, though not for me. I've asked myself whether a more unconscious form of bias might have played a part, but have come to the conclusion that the sort of books I'm most frequently drawn to reading - non-fiction tomes about music - are more often written by stereotypically nerdy male obsessives.

Still, I'm now making a conscious effort to rectify things. This week's holiday reading is Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's Booker-winning novel The Discomfort Of Evening - though I'll admit to having snuck a second-hand copy of Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman's Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive into my bag too...

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Guildford (Crescent) Four

At least someone's prepared to stick up for Music City. Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard's latest single 'Crescent Man Vs Demolition Dan' - premiered at their livestreamed gig at Portland House in December - is a poignant and passionate reminder that ace venue Gwdihw and the rest of Guildford Crescent was bulldozed to make way for yet another identikit towerblock (albeit an exceptionally tall one).

Talking to Nation Cymru's David Owens, the band's Tom Rees claims that Cardiff is at risk of becoming a "culturally devoid hellscape". A tad hyperbolic, perhaps, but the truth is that - as reported here repeatedly over the last few years - grassroots music venues have been shutting down across the city under all sorts of stresses and strains.

Rees might be disillusioned about the power of protest to make meaningful change, but the single is proof that there's no harm in continuing to make a big noise about what's happening in our city. When restrictions ease and everything properly opens up again, we'll need those small community-centred spaces like Gwdihw more than ever.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Green light for Green Man

Initial reaction to the news that Green Man is going ahead this year? A brief pang of dismay, I'll admit, on account of the fact that we reluctantly gave up our tickets a couple of months back and made alternative plans. (The line-up may be significantly different to the one originally assembled before the pandemic and international travel became such a challenge to negotiate, but it's far from a disappointment - on the contrary, there are gems wherever you look, not least in the form of Saturday night headliners Mogwai. Oh to be there in front of the Mountain Stage as part of one of the first audiences to witness the material from #1 album As The Love Continues in the flesh.)

But in truth I'm delighted it's happening - for the organisers, all of the crew, the bands, the vendors (including some of the finest festival caterers you'll find anywhere) and indeed everyone involved with what is invariably a fantastic weekend. The uncertainty must have been tortuous, so here's hoping all goes well, Green Man's future is secured and we can get to go back to Glanusk Park in 2022.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rip it up and start again

Given that politicians - especially those of a Tory persuasion - have been largely deaf to the plight of musicians during the pandemic, the fact that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has recommended a "complete reset" as regards streaming revenue models comes as a very pleasant surprise. It's testament to the hard work of Tom Gray and all those who have vocally backed the #BrokenRecord campaign, for whom the findings are not at all novel: "It feels like a massive vindication. They've really come to the same conclusions that we've been saying for a very long time."

While there's truth in the argument that streaming has been the industry's saviour in fighting off the threat posed by illegal downloading, musicians who appeared as witnesses before the committee - including those of the stature of Chic's Nile Rodgers and the Mercury-nominated Nadine Shah - made abundantly clear that it is simply not working for everyone, or indeed many artists at all.

Naturally, not everyone is so enthusiastic about the report. If the BPI's plea for caution wasn't already a transparent defence of the status quo, then their insistence that musicians already get a good deal - in the face of the evidence - just underlines it. Meanwhile, Elena Segal of Apple Music had the gall to tell the committee that "it's a narrow-margin business, so it wouldn't actually take that much to upset the so-called apple cart". You suspect that artists might have something to say about narrow margins, and upsetting the apple cart doesn't look like such a bad idea.

Thankfully, it seems as though the campaigners' voices have been heard the loudest. That said, of course, the recommendations - hailed as "revolutionary" by the Musicians Union - don't count for anything unless they're subsequently translated into reality. It's nice to note that our local MP Kevin Brennan is behind a private member's bill that aims to reform copyright laws in musicians' favour so they're more fit for purpose in the digital age. No doubt, however, continual pressure will be needed for politicians to follow through, seize the moment - as Tim Burgess has advocated - and make things actually happen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Disunited kingdom

"The Euros have destroyed the Leftist myth of backward, racist England", opined Telegraph associate editor Camilla Tominey on Friday. Safe to say she spoke too soon.

Leaving aside the ridiculous assertion that "backward, racist England" is a "Leftist myth", there was a part of me that, on Friday, might have agreed with some of the sentiment in Tominey's claim. For the duration of the tournament, things did seem to have changed for the better. We did seem to have moved on. The nation was rallying around a young, forward-thinking, multiracial football team and, in Gareth Southgate, a manager who exudes empathy and decency and whose leadership skills put those of our current government to shame. The boo boys had been silenced. There was an air of anticipation, cautious optimism, togetherness.

But then came Sunday and the final. Everything had already started to turn sour well before the penalty nightmare, with pissed-up, flag-draped yobs trashing the centre of their own capital city and breaking into Wembley. This was the England of old - boorish imbeciles drunk on jingoism and xenophobia. And when the team - valiant, dogged - came up agonisingly short, the weight of pressure proving too heavy for the young shoulders of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Buyako Sako to bear, the appalling ugliness spilled onto social media.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have condemned the racist abuse directed at the players, only to be quite rightly called out for their hypocrisy - including by one of the England squad. "You don't get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as 'Gesture Politics' & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we're campaigning against, happens", wrote Tyrone Mings. Perfectly put. Whatever they might make a show of pretending, the Tories have created a political and social climate conducive to such vile behaviour. 

So the togetherness of the last few weeks was temporary, the apparent unity merely ephemeral. The fractures and fissures are once again there for all to see. That supposed "myth" of "backward, racist England" is well and truly back, having never really gone away - despite the endeavours of a bunch of brave young men who, for once, for a while, made me actually feel a flicker of pride at being English.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Whole new mess?

Angel Olsen's ability to turn everything she touches into gold is about to get its sternest test to date, with the announcement that her next release will be an EP of covers of fairly cringey 80s pop hits.

She claims "I just wanted to have a little fun and be a little more spontaneous, and I think I needed to remember that I could!" But in truth, the first taster from Aisles is hardly a dramatic departure - her hazy, slow-mo version of Laura Branigan's 1982 disco semi-classic 'Gloria' (complete with astonishing string arrangement) wouldn't have been out of place on All Mirrors.

While I can just about imagine her working her magic on three of the other tracks (OMD's 'If You Leave', Billy Idol's 'Eyes Without A Face' and even Alphaville's excruciating 'Forever Young'), the mind boggles at how her take on Men Without Hats' 'Safety Dance' will pan out. Still, if it all goes pear-shaped, then at least we've got the LPs and the collaborations with Sharon Van Etten, Marissa Nadler and Hand Habits to fall back on.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Methinks they doth protest too much

Oh the irony. All of that guff about freedom (from having to temporarily wear a piece of cloth over your face) on the very same day that "dangerous and draconian" anti-protest laws were backed by a majority of MPs. If it passes through the House of Lords, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will make "public nuisance" an offence, effectively criminalise Travellers on the grounds of trespass and give the police the authority to shut down peaceful protests if they're deemed too noisy. There is also, of course, a special section addressing the heinous crime of damaging statues.

The bill's successful passage through the House of Commons came despite the fact that the police didn't specifically demand the powers and, more significantly, in the face of opposition from a broad coalition of critical voices including human rights experts, civil society organisations, academics and even some Tory MPs (well, David Davis, at least).

It's the epitome of creeping fascism, and blood-boiling evidence of a cowardly, corrupt government seeking to insulate themselves from criticism and the consequences of their actions and policies - all while draped in an England flag and making a PR spectacle of cheering on a football team whose boots they're not fit to lick.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Science and silence

You'd think that, after the best part of a year and a half starved of the opportunity to commune with fans in a live setting, all musicians would be chomping at the bit to get back to it, and to play their part in the safe return of gigs and festivals. Not Richard Ashcroft, who's flounced off the bill for the Tramlines festival in Sheffield at the end of the month because it's been designated one of the government's pilot events.

As has been pointed out on Twitter, though, the fact that he's a COVID sceptic shouldn't come as much of a surprise - after all, he's got form for demonstrating a selfish disdain for public safety and has also gone on the record to express scepticism about the efficacy of drugs.

The announcement sees him joining the ranks of such internationally renowned epidemiologists and intellectual heavyweights as Ian Brown, Noel Gallagher, Morrissey, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Right Said Fred. Chuck in Laurence "Lozza" Fox, who's been moved to perform a song in tribute to Ashcroft's decision (no, I'm not going to inflict a link upon you), and Lee Hurst and Andrew Lawrence on compering duties and they've got a line-up for a festival of their own. Names on a postcard, please.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Change the record

At the start of last year, the conversation around sustainability within the music industry was very much focused on the environmental impact of live music. Little did we know then that the pandemic would soon solve that problem, at least for the time being.

As the BBC's Jon Donnison has reported, attention is also being paid to the impact of physical products - in particular vinyl, which is continuing to boom in popularity. As with Lego, the search is on for alternative, more environmentally friendly materials. One possible option is to use waste plastic from the sea, but it's currently a complex and expensive process and so cannot yet be scaled up for mass production. In the meantime, lighter-weight pressings are surely an easy step in the right direction.

However, Donnison makes the very valid point that records are not seen as disposable, even less so than Lego - on the contrary, they're collected, cherished and often handed down or passed on, so far less of a problem than single-use plastics in food packaging. He also points out that streaming, which intuitively seems to be a greener alternative because it involves no physical product, is actually not without environmental impacts of its own - primarily the energy required to cool the servers on which music is stored.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Private eye

An eccentric and secretive nanny posthumously unveiled as an exceptionally talented photographer after the chance discovery of thousands and thousands of negatives, Vivian Maier is an ideal subject for a documentary film. As John Maloof, the man behind the Oscar-nominated Finding Vivian Maier, says, "You always want to know who is behind the work".

The unlikely story begins with Maloof's purely speculative purchase of a box of negatives at auction. Gradually realising that he'd stumbled across something special, he set about buying up the other lots sold off at the same time. A blog displaying a selection of the images initially failed to garner any attention and Maloof had no luck tracking down their creator. But then he came across an obituary - and soon after a Flickr post linking to the blog and asking for advice received an overwhelming response, the story blew up and, having been turned down by MoMA, he staged an enormously successful exhibition at the Cultural Center in Chicago.

Maloof suggests that MoMA's rejection was motivated by a sniffiness towards amateur artists, but more significant is the ethical dimension. Galleries are instinctively wary of exhibiting work posthumously, and in this instance the person pitching the proposal was neither friend nor family. Maloof does seem to acknowledge that some would accuse him of profiting from the exploitation of someone else's art, and he also admits that the intensely private Maier "might have seen this as an intrusion".

Understandably anxious for justification for his promotional project, then, he was desperate for any evidence that she did want to share her work with the wider world but just never got round to it. That evidence emerged with the discovery that she had asked a trusted local photography shop in the small village in the French Alps in which she lived as a child to print her pictures ready for display.

So, what do we learn about the film's subject? That she was a loner and a hoarder, a compulsive collector of mementos and the detritus of life as well as a prolific photographer inseparable from her trusty Rolleiflex. As a nanny in the Chicago area, she was a socialist with a disdainful and sometimes abrasive attitude towards her employers and seized any opportunity to take pictures, even if that meant dragging the kids in her charge around the roughest parts of town (to their parents' disapproval).

According to some of those she looked after, Maier was a Mary Poppins figure with an instinctive affinity with children. But for others, her eccentricity would be better characterised as mental illness, and she had a mean streak, resorting in some instances to violence and force feeding - a darker side to her personality evident in her obsession with true crime stories and her interest in photographing the bizarre and macabre. Such is the risk of digging deep into someone's life - you may not like what you find.

Above all, Maier was zealously protective of her own privacy, despite appearing to have few qualms about using her camera lens to intrude upon the privacy of others. One interviewee recalls her saying "I'm sort of a spy", and suggests that her fondness for using pseudonyms was indicative of someone who "wanted to be someone else". She seems to have actively cultivated an air of mystery and difference, and at one point the documentary is strategically edited to show a host of former acquaintances contradicting each other to underline the fact that none of them really knew her. At the film's conclusion, it's debatable whether Maier has really been found at all.

Thankfully, though, her work was. And whatever you think of the ethics of Maloof's enterprise, surely it's better that, thanks to his tireless labour and tenacity, Maier's extraordinary images - some of them from rolls of film undeveloped in her lifetime, so never seen by the person who took them - are out in the world than languishing in dusty cardboard boxes stacked in a lock-up. They're the creation of a brilliant street photographer, a keen observer of human behaviour with the innate ability to establish an intimate connection with her subjects (even if only fleetingly for the time it took to take a picture). 

According to Mary Ellen Mark, Maier could have had the stature of Diane Arbus or Robert Frank. She may never have courted validation from the art world when she was alive, but she's been granted it in death. As Ella Murtha has said of her photographer mother Tish, "the internet has turned out to be her greatest ally". The same is certainly true for Maier - though Maloof also deserves considerable credit.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Race for the prizes

In light of all the support that Nightshift has given to bands in Oxford and the surrounding area since it first appeared (as Curfew) 30 years ago, it's heartening to see some of the scene's biggest acts - all given a leg up by the magazine in their early days - rallying round to back editor Ronan Munro's personal Project Restart.

As reported by both the BBC and NME, it's hoped that a prize draw featuring generous donations from Radiohead, Ride, Foals, Supergrass, Stornoway, Glass Animals and Young Knives will help to raise the funds necessary to get the freebie mag back up and running until advertising revenues pick up.

I've waxed lyrical about Nightshift before, and make no apologies for doing so again. It's an asset to the city, something that most local scenes could only dream of having, and I remain honoured and grateful to have had the opportunity to spout my nonsense about countless deafening nights in darkened, sweaty rooms in its pages.

At the time of writing, more than half of the targeted £12,000 has already been raised. Here's hoping that the rest is forthcoming and the mag's back to keep us informed, entertained and howling with laughter again soon.

No relation

Some albums you just get instantly; some albums take time and the right circumstances. And then there are some albums that you can be fairly sure you'll never be able to comprehend, let alone enjoy. Such is the case with The Holy Family's debut, out today on Rocket Recordings.

I don't doubt that a small but select group of people will be appreciative, and I'm also well aware that with improvisational psych like this it's very much about the journey rather than the destination, so patience and a willingness to let go of linearity are prerequisites. And yet, for me, it's a bad trip, and one of those periodic reminders that my tastes are actually a lot less leftfield than I might like to think.

Here's my review for Buzz.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Style icons

As Michael Azerrad makes abundantly clear in the most wildly entertaining chapter of his superlative book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers generally performed in little more than his underwear. Sometimes he tore off a number of women's dresses to get down to his natural state, sometimes (such as on the night that the band's soon-to-be-drummer King Coffey first saw them) he embellished the look with clothes pegs in his hair - but the fact remains that his onstage attire often consisted almost entirely of a pair of pants.

All of which just makes the news that Supreme have announced a Butthole Surfers clothing line even more bizarre.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Storm warning

"'Give A Fuck Fatigue' is an ode to the occasional dispassion brought about by the mandatory concern for every perceived injustice that happens, has happened and might yet happen that is being foisted upon the masses by super-yacht-dwelling tech barons who monetise our indignation." Take note, folks: THAT's how to talk up your new single.

I'll admit I haven't yet fallen for Tropical Fuck Storm in the same way that I did for The Drones, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin's previous outfit, but that might all change with new album Deep States. Certainly, 'Give A Fuck Fatigue' (or 'G.A.F.F.' in polite company) finds Liddiard at his lyrical best, commenting acerbically on the surrealism, horror and insanity of the modern world. Sample: "I'll take the wages of sin over the minimum wage / I'd blow myself up too, man, it's been one of them days / But I'm not a kamikaze, don't wanna die a martyr / I'm just looking for a latte and a fucking phone charger."

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Turkish delight

I suspect there are only two types of people in this world: those who love sucuk and those who just haven't tried it yet. Suffice to say that Friday lunchtime's trip to Turkish cafe Longa was a lot more pleasurable than the Euros were for Turkey.

Finding myself on Whitchurch Road in the middle of the day, it would have been rude not to pop into the relocated Pop'N'Hops to pick up a couple of cans and hear about Trev's plans for the new premises (bar area and all) as well as other welcome developments elsewhere on the street - including Alex Gooch's new bakery over the road from Longa.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Feel good hits of the 27th June

Yup, it's safe to say that Big Brave haven't lightened up on Vital. Indeed, you could make a good case for arguing that they've got even heavier. 'Half Breed' demands that you stop whatever you're doing instantly and pay full attention.

Like the rest of What Is The Meaning Of What, this track is a masterclass in the art of build and release, and makes for a spectacular ending to the album.

I tuned in to last Sunday's livestreamed Gig Buddies show to see Stewart Lee and Mclusky, so discovering Fenne Lily as a consequence was a very happy accident. 'Berlin' has the feel of a classic indie-rock slow-burner, amping up imperceptibly and breaking into the sort of climax that gets lodged in your brain for days.

Blue Hearts continues to get a lot of spins round these parts, but I do wonder whether it's not already starting to sound like the product of a particular time and place: Trump's fractured America, shortly before his ejection.

Another track that, like Big Brave's 'Half Breed', you simply can't take your eyes/ears off - though the two couldn't be much more different otherwise. Mark McCambridge is the Northern Irish raconteur who captivates the listener with tales of childhood and musical ambitions, with a twist at the end.

On the evidence of this lead single, new album Hey What, due out in September, will follow in the footsteps of 2018's Double Negative in injecting their slow, spiritual staples with blasts of noise/static that are both terrifying and thrilling. Currently weighing up the possibility of going to see them at the Trinity in Bristol next April - just over 11 years since the last time we met there.

One of those songs (and videos, to be fair) where you're not entirely sure what the hell's going on but you can't help but get into it. Battles do itchy, twitchy pop, perhaps?

I've never properly investigated Cocteau Twins, so thanks to Pat Nevin for pointing me in the direction of this early track: "You can't make a song as good as that by a fluke."

A classic performance on French TV in 1980. The red energy domes are present and correct, but the most marvellously surreal touch is Mark Mothersbaugh singing into a double-scoop ice cream and taking a lick in time with the music.

It was bugging me for ages who Jeremy Gaudet, vocalist for Canadian Sub Poppers Kiwi Jr, sounds like. Finally, after repeated plays of this track (no hardship - it's got a nice wonky Pavement feel to it, though I'm not sure about the harmonica solo), I've worked it out: Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

"Who listens to Joy Division and feels carefree?"

While I think it's fair to say that Steve Davis kept his passion for leftfield, esoteric music well hidden during his heyday, fellow cult 1980s sportsman Pat Nevin was always out and proud. There can't have been many footballers who've been de facto production assistants on John Peel's radio show and stipulated in contract negotiations that they should be substituted early doors to be able to go and see Cocteau Twins in concert.

So his Baker's Dozen piece for the Quietus was always going to be well worth a read. Dive in to read about his love of David Bowie's Low and The Fall's 'Blindness' (entirely understandable), how he and the Cocteaus' Simon Raymonde used to be regular lunch buddies, the time that Duritti Column's Vini Reilly wrote a song for him and the experience of seeing the reformed My Bloody Valentine perform live ("ear damaging" - very true). If you add in the plug for recent Libertino signees Sister Wives, he can just about be forgiven for continuing to endorse Belle & Sebastian, and for having DJed at their Bowlie Weekender...

Friday, June 25, 2021

Track record

I've recently written about the inestimable value of discovering and exploring even unpromising local sites during lockdown and also about the importance of bottom-up urban planning and design that fully takes into account end-users' needs and desires. So it was inevitable that Green Squirrel's Railway Gardens project would catch my eye.

As Hannah Garcia, one of the driving forces behind the project, told me in an interview for Buzz, it will (fingers crossed) see an area of disused land alongside the railway line in Splott transformed into a busy space home to a community hub, local social businesses housed in shipping containers, a "library of things", an outdoor events pagoda, raised beds, a pond and more.

Having lived barely a stone's throw away from the site when I first moved to Cardiff in 2006, I can understand both the need for such a space and also why local residents seem so enthusiastic and invested in the project. While the recent National Lottery windfall will undoubtedly help, further funds are still required. Here's hoping the vision can become a reality before too long.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Kit man

When I discovered that Matt Baty was (until recently) the drummer for Richard Dawson, I assumed it was just a spot of moonlighting behind a kit. On the contrary - as he told Joe Thompson of Hey Colossus in a recent Wrong Speed Records Chat, he was always a drummer until taking up singing duties for current band Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. As he explained, it's been a learning curve - primarily a matter of feeling comfortable with the exposure, being up front and centre.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Baty talked about the equally steep learning curve he experienced having set up his label Box Records, the stressful (and expensive) process of acquiring visas to tour the US, levels of ambition and wearing his trademark Newcastle Utd shorts onstage, plus records by Will Haven, Scott Walker and long-time associates GNOD. I've not lived in the North East since I was 19, and his enthusiasm for the local scene made me feel as though I've missed out.

The Wrong Speed Record Chats are fast becoming my go-to late-night wind-down viewing, regardless of whether I'm familiar with the guest. This week alone, I've found myself listening to ex-Isis man Aaron Turner talk to Thompson about the trials and tribulations of running not one but two record labels, convinced to investigate Powerage by AC/DC evangelist Anthea Leyland and nodding in reluctant agreement with Kaila Whyte (Youth Man/Blue Ruth) that the original Carpenters version of 'Superstar' is better than Sonic Youth's cover. (When it comes to 'Ticket To Ride', though, I'm firmly Team Beatles.)

Monday, June 21, 2021

The friends experiment

Returning later than planned from a weekend away unfortunately meant missing the opening acts of the livestreamed charity fundraiser in aid of Gig Buddies, organised by Dev of IDLES and held at the Exchange in Bristol - but what I did catch was well worth tuning in for.

The primary attraction was Stewart Lee's first live performance since the pandemic hit in March last year, featuring a twist on his doorstep Evangelist routine from the late 80s, a boast about having an apple in a fridge for a rider (at which he himself uncharacteristically cracked up), dating profiles and "jazz/folk cunts", some hilarious baiting of Radiohead fans and a furiously sarcastic riposte to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in which Lee suggested that statues of slavetraders should be thrown up rather than torn down. There was even the bonus of the grandad joke that never fails to leave me creased, no matter how many times I've heard it (very often at Glastonburys in the noughties).

But there was also the not insignificant presence of Mclusky at the top of the bill. Even without a crowd to riff off, they were in fine, ferocious form - opener 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' and 'Alan Is A Cowboy Killer' in particular. Falco referred to acoustic guitars as "kindling", Damien Sayell flexed his muscles with that trademark meaty bass tone, and Jack Eggleston claimed to have been bunkered down at the Exchange ever since they played their last pre-pandemic gig there. Perhaps now he can finally be allowed to go home.

And very much an added bonus was an introduction to Fenne Lily, whose graceful, wistful indie rock - in the vein of Snail Mail and Big Thief - instantly charmed me into investigating her album Breach.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Appetite for destruction

I'd come across Baking Daddy, the mildly disturbing alter ego of Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson, and was also aware that Steve Albini is a keen cook and has hosted classes (during which he plugs a steak rub made by Silkworm bassist Tim Midyett).

But I'll admit I'd be even more terrified of taking culinary guidance from Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld. After all, a man whose band used to set fire to venues and shower audiences in glass by chucking milk bottles into an onstage cement mixer probably has a fairly cavalier attitude to food safety.

That said, how dangerous could spaghetti cacio e pepe be? Plus Ronan of Nightshift was at the 1987 London gig when the Germans chose Showaddywaddy as their support act - which does suggest that, in the kitchen, Bargeld might be a bit of an alchemist, taking unlikely ingredients and coming up with inspired results.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Forward planning

Let's face it - it's been a while, so it felt particularly good to be back scouring gig listings and buying some tickets the other night. After what will be more than a year and a half without live music, who better to blow the cobwebs away than a trio of the noisiest mobs around - Hey Colossus and Gnod returning to the revamped Moon and Part Chimp back at Clwb, the venue they nearly destroyed in April 2017?

All being well, I'll also be renewing acquaintances with Working Men's Club (the very last act I saw before lockdown, if you discount a covers band in a bar on Nashville's Printers Alley), who've graduated from Clwb to the Globe following the release of their stupendously good debut album.

Before all that, though, there's the not-so-small matter of Mclusky and Stewart Lee on the same bill - yes, really. OK, so it's streamed from the Exchange in Bristol rather than in the flesh - but the line-up assembled by IDLES' Adam Devonshire for the show, which takes place this Sunday evening from 6pm, also features TV Priest, Willie J Healey and comedian Seann Walsh and it's all in a very good cause, with pay-what-you-want tickets raising funds for the Gig Buddies charity. See you there (sort of)?

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Lockdown lessons

Jimmy McGovern's grimly brilliant new series Time should be required viewing for all of those happy to proclaim that prisons are cushy holiday camps but who feel that occasionally having to wear a small rectangle of fabric over your face and nose constitutes an appalling and unacceptable affront to the liberty won by Our Brave Boys in the Second World War.

As Owen Jones has noted in a column for the Guardian, the reality of life behind bars in the UK, at least, is as violent and dangerous as portrayed on screen, a dog-eat-dog world in which punishment rather than rehabilitation is the priority. "The brutal truth", he writes, "is that mass incarceration very often means locking up people who grew up in poverty, in poor mental health and from disproportionately minority backgrounds."

His hope - and presumably McGovern's too - is that Time might just give a few people pause for thought and actually prove to be a catalyst for change. As the BBC's most watched new drama of the year so far, it's possible.

Anyway, here's my review for Buzz.

Monday, June 14, 2021

"This fucking hoax, this con job, this cowardice, this triumph for reactionary conservatism and this fucking utterly shit music"

Whatever you thought of Noel Gallagher's Sun-published broadside against Prince Harry ("an effin' woke snowflake"), without it we wouldn't have this piece by music writer Neil Kulkarni. Reading between the lines, it seems as though he's not much of a fan of Oasis.

Kulkarni's as splendidly splenetic about Britpop and the mid-90s music scene ("all that coked-up reactionary twattery ... so culturally withering and lastingly damaging") as he is about Gallagher ("rock's most famous coprophage") and Oasis ("a soupy, sexless muscle-memory rock", "grisly half-informed necrophilia", "toxic mediocrity"). It's like Taylor Parkes' anniversary review of Parklife - one of my favourite bits of music commentary ever - turned up to 11.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Table disservice

Seriously, what kind of absolute wanker looks at a hospitality industry brought to its knees by pandemic lockdowns and blithely gives it an additional kick in the head? Because that's exactly what no-show-ers are doing.

These examples are all from Suffolk, but social media indicates that the same bad behaviour is proving to be the bane of struggling businesses here in Cardiff - and so presumably also elsewhere.

If you've booked a table somewhere and are no longer able or keen to go, how hard is it to do the decent thing and let them know? I would find not doing so unfathomable in any circumstances - but it's all the more egregious when restaurants and pubs have only just been able to reopen after months of closure and are having to adhere to social distancing guidelines that significantly reduce capacity (and therefore also potential earnings).

For this reason, I'll happily defend any business owner who opts to introduce a deposit system. People clearly can't be trusted to pick up the phone and cancel, so this way businesses are guaranteed to get some kind of compensation for the booking, at least - even if it doesn't come close to covering what another party might have spent if they'd been able to have the table.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Breaking all the rules the BrewDog way

The problem with publishing a book boasting about your business model and acumen is that it can very easily come back to bite you in the arse - as BrewDog founder James Watt has just discovered.

It turns out that - according to a coruscating open letter published online by collective of disgruntled ex-employees calling themselves Punks With Purpose - the secret of his success was vacuous PR stunts, "a cult of personality", a "culture of fear" and especially a toxic working environment in which the mantra is "Growth, at all costs" - those costs including the wellbeing of those laughably referred to as the "team". At least we now know what the subtitle of his book - "Break All The Rules The BrewDog Way" - really means.

To anyone who's been a reasonably close observer of the business over the past few years, this won't come as much of a surprise.

BrewDog like to style themselves as plucky upstarts taking on the alcohol industry's equivalent of The Man (the Portman Group) - whom they once characterised as "a gloomy gaggle of killjoy jobsworths, funded by navel-gazing international drinks giants" - in a David v Goliath-type battle.

Initially, at least, I'll admit they had me fooled. But then came growing suspicion of Watt's attitude towards corporate expansion, followed by BrewDog's attempts to claim copyright infringement over others' use of the word "punk",  the aggressive bully-boy tactics of what the letter refers to as their "notoriously trigger-happy legal team", and recurrent reports of intellectual theft (job interviewees invited to pitch ideas that are subsequently used without payment). This is also a business for which "fiercely and defiantly independent" apparently means flogging a hefty chunk of the company to a private equity firm.

Personally speaking, it's the tedious self-mythologising and extraordinary hypocrisy that sticks in the throat the most. As the authors of the open letter put it, "for as long as any one of us can remember, we have never seen anything that has made us feel like BrewDog has lived the values it purports to uphold".

An ostensibly chastened Watt has responded by posting a contrite message on Twitter, claiming "Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, learn and act". Which would be all fine and well, if he hadn't initially responded in typically bullish fashion last night and his "people team" (presumably that's HR, to you and me) hadn't, ahem, invited current staff to sign a counter-letter effectively gaslighting the signatories of the original publication. Saying one thing and doing quite the opposite - true to form, at least.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

"I was trying to capture the spirit of the times"

The Premier League era has seen top-tier football drift further and further away from its traditional working-class fanbase. The so-called Big Six's attempt to break away as founder members of a European Super League and the strength and scale of the reaction from their own supporters, let alone those of other clubs, just underlined how big the gulf now is.

But fans have changed too, and those changes were afoot back in the early 1990s, before the Premier League began. When Steve Redhead set out to write about what he called "new football fans" in a book called Football With Attitude, he commissioned Manchester-based photographer Richard Davis to provide accompanying images - some of which can be seen in this Huck article and in a new publication from Cafe Royal Books. His photos illustrate the collision of youth subcultures (music, fashion and football) in the North West before working-class supporters were sidelined and TV rights and revenues took over.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Cutting remarks

The Tories cynically seizing upon circumstances to savagely slash budgets for "no justifiable economic need" (and therefore, by implication, for ideological reasons), and doing so with complete disregard for the consequences for vulnerable people, especially women and children who are disproportionately affected - we've been here before, haven't we?

At least this time around there seem to be a few members of the party who actually have sufficient compassion (and guts) to voice disapproval of the cuts - some of whom, such as former PM Theresa May, have significant standing. The rebels' initial bid to challenge the government may have failed on a technicality, but a parliamentary vote on the issue looks likely, with the support of the Speaker.

As the only G7 nation proposing such a move, here's hoping that the forthcoming summit might also help to shame the government into backtracking.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Deconstructing the man-made environment

The Bic For Her - a pen for women, naturally available in pink - may have caused offence and attracted ridicule in equal measure (including here), but it's nevertheless a depressing if unsurprising truth that things are all too often designed for men rather than for women. Time and again, the default citizen/consumer is male. Sometimes, this can even be a matter of life and death - take CPR mannequins, crash test dummies and stab vests, for instance.

There are those who have highlighted and tried to counteract that bias, though - St Vincent, for example, who has created a guitar more "sympathetic to the female form", and the Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative, who in the 1980s set out to challenge the widespread presumption of architects and planners that the urban environment should be designed with an ideal male user in mind.

Matrix's history and work is the subject of a new exhibition at the Barbican in London called How We Live Now. Some people might scoff at the idea of feminist architecture, but in truth the principles they espoused were eminently sensible for any form of design work: transparency, accessibility, consultation with end users and careful consideration of their needs and desires, rather than sticking belligerently to abstract theories or making decisions based on unfounded assumptions. Practices may be changing gradually, but Matrix's approach still has much to teach those who shape the world around us.

Monday, May 31, 2021

"I’m not where I am today to do nothing about this"

First it was Tamanna Rahman's investigation into sexism and misogyny in the music industry, then it was Ian Wright's exploration of domestic abuse and its devastating long-term impact on children, and now I've written about Leigh-Anne Pinnock's attempts to confront racism from within the "pop bubble" she inhabits. It seems I'm busy establishing myself as Buzz's go-to reviewer for hard-hitting documentaries...

Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power follows Little Mix star Pinnock as she set out to act on her growing awareness of racism both in her immediate environment and in wider society. But, as she discovers, using the platform that her privilege affords her brings backlash and results in some very difficult conversations, including with the band's label Sony and those closest to her.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

"It was like catching up over a song"

First there was the joint single (the superlative 'Like I Used To'), then came the joint interview with Loud And Quiet and with it the tantalising prospect of a joint tour. Maybe the prospect of a joint full-length Angel Olsen/Sharon Van Etten record isn't quite so fanciful after all.

Certainly, in their conversation with Tristan Gatward (which they claim is full of "all of the unfiltered awkwardness" that comes with being out of interview practice), there are enough references to projects they can't talk about yet. What they can and indeed do talk about ranges from Olsen's readiness "to have a sense of humour back ... to dance and get loose" and Van Etten's pleasure in letting others reinterpret her old songs so she doesn't have to, to their mutual love of The Velvet Underground and the horrors of vegan cheese.

(Thanks to Brad for the link.)

Saturday, May 29, 2021

"Just a book"?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by the late Eric Carle, is an extraordinary literary success story by any standards you care to name. Just 224 words long, it's become one of the world's most beloved books, translated into more than 30 different languages. One copy has been bought every minute since it was first published, back in 1969 - and at the current rate is even higher, at one copy every 15 seconds. Famously, George W. Bush named it his favourite book from childhood, even though he was 23 when it appeared.

Why, then, have Dubya and millions of children and their parents fallen in love with it? It's a question that Kate Taylor considered in a 2004 Radio 4 documentary to mark the book's 35th birthday, and in an accompanying Guardian article. She suggested (among other things) the striking visual appeal of Carle's colourful collage style; the story's use of "prediction, pattern and picture cues", vital to those learning to read; the clever device of having holes punched through the pages ("an unprecedented gimmick that turned the book into a toy"); and the foods that the caterpillar devours, all of which I recall seeming strange and exotic as a child.

Carle himself admitted to being initially bemused at the book's success: "For many years, my publisher and editor and I did not know the reason for The Very Hungry Caterpillar being so popular." He gradually came to see it as "a book of hope". Ultimately, though, it was "bread and butter to me": "It paid my rent. I truly didn't think of lasting success or anything like that. I mean, it's just a book." As Taylor noted, however, "in this opinion he is very much in the minority".

Friday, May 28, 2021


While (as I noted recently) we've quite enjoyed exploring our immediate vicinity over the last year or so, albeit out of necessity than choice, it's been a great relief to be able to escape the confines of both the house and Cardiff on a few occasions. We were particularly fortunate to get away in the small window between lockdowns towards the tail end of last year - all the more so because it involved three nights in a cottage in the woods, right by the beach on the Gower.

As this Guardian article by Steven Morris makes clear, however, the most remarkable thing about Cwm Ivy is not the woodland or the beach or the nearby cliffside caves, but the storm-damaged sea wall, which the National Trust controversially decided not to rebuild, thereby turning the low-lying arable land that it protected into salt marsh. Walking along the tree-lined track and then across the wall in the chilly November dusk to watch the tide flooding through the gap and across the fields towards the dead skeletal trees - well, it was quite special, especially after being cooped up in the city for so long.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Four to the floor

While BBC Four has technically survived the latest round of cost cutting, it's nevertheless suffered what will surely prove to be a fatal blow: being deprived of the ability to commission new content and thereby destined to become an archive-only channel. As Jeanie Finlay has argued in an article for the BFI's Sight & Sound, the consequences of the decision are deeply concerning: "It makes me wonder, where is the place for quiet films from new, unknown, diverse voices to flourish? Where might smaller, more intimate films get the chance for that broadcast moment?"

Finlay writes as someone who has reaped the benefits - getting commissioned to make an hour-long documentary for the channel in 2003 proved to be her big break. And she's right to worry. Recent music films King Rocker and Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, for instance, were aired on Sky Arts, but the former was the project of a nationally renowned cult comedian, Stewart Lee, and the latter was the latest documentary from Paul Sng, who already has several others under his belt. It's hard to imagine that channel - or many others - taking a punt on a film like Finlay's wonderful Sound It Out, about the last remaining record shop in her native Stockton-on-Tees.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A sight for sore eyes

"Having a lie down because I tried to read the Primavera poster line-up without glasses", admitted Jane Weaver. I too felt like a lie down when I saw the 2022 bill, announced today, though for different reasons - just contemplating the prospect of trying to see that many great acts over the course of 11 days (yes, really) was exhausting. Festival stamina is not something I'm short of - not even now I'm into my fifth decade - but I suspect it would be tested to the limit.

It's a commendably bold response from the organisers, who've been forced to cancel the festival two years in a row. Everywhere you look (wearing glasses advisable) there are stand-outs: Nick Cave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dinosaur Jr, Kim Gordon, Mogwai, Shellac, Yo La Tengo, Les Savy Fav, Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Fontaines DC, Beck, Beach House, Caribou, Parquet Courts, Tropical Fuck Storm, Einsturzende Neubauten, Lightning Bolt, Working Mens Club, The Jesus & Mary Chain, reformed cult heroes Pavement and Bikini Kill... Here's hoping that these best-laid plans actually come to fruition.

Monday, May 24, 2021

"Niche allure"

There's no denying that lockdowns over the past 14 months have had me yearning for the open hillsides of the Brecon Beacons or the wide expanses of Pembrokeshire beaches. And yet it's also true that we've made the most of our enforced confinement, exploring parts of Cardiff that we barely knew existed - most of which are accessible on foot from the front door.

In that respect, we're not alone - as this Guardian article attests. Many of us, it seems, have discovered and learned to take pleasure in neglected urban wildscapes: beneath flyovers, alongside rubbish-strewn waterways, next to sewage works.

Without doubt there's a kind of Stockholm syndrome at work, and people are only falling in love with these spaces through ritual visits, out of the deep human need to develop connections to place. And yet, as I myself wrote last year, there's something fascinating and otherworldly about Splott Beach - which, like Grangemoor Park and the stretch of land alongside Lamby Way, is a former dump gradually being reclaimed by nature with or without human intervention. It's also an archaeological site where you don't have to dig, part of the urban environment that - like unassuming brick walls - often rewards careful observation.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Friends reunited

Let's face it, a collaboration between Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen was never going to be anything less than utterly magnificent. Olsen can do no wrong in my eyes, and Van Etten's 2019 Green Man set was so good it completely caught me off guard'Like I Used To' pushes all of the right buttons, repeatedly, inevitably. Now for an album - please.

In the meantime, I'll console myself with Olsen's previous get-togethers with Marissa Nadler and Hand Habits (neither of which have resulted in LPs - yet) and this stunning performance of All Mirrors material on KEXP. I still can't believe my good fortune to have enjoyed it in the flesh, in Bristol, before lockdown hit.

Friday, May 21, 2021

End hits

Dystopian visions are nothing new in the world of metal/industrial music, but Gary Numan's latest LP focuses on the fact that we're already living through an environmental apocalypse - no imagination needed. Intruder is a record that (let's face it) could have been a cringey car crash - ageing LA-based rock star, whose heyday is (rightly or wrongly) seen as the early 80s, creates album inspired by 11-year-old daughter's poem and voices the earth's complaints at what mankind has done to it - but it actually turns out to be a genuine career highlight.

My review is up on the Buzz site, where you'll also find Carl Marsh's chat with the man himself, in which he talks about climate change and the anxiety that rediscovering success brings. Meanwhile, the Quietus' Alastair Shuttleworth interviewed him together with his collaborator/producer/friend Ade Fenton, the man who has helped to catalyse his creative renaissance.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Breaking the cycle

There's no disputing it's a tough watch, but Ian Wright: Home Truths ultimately offers plenty of positivity and hope - that the consequences of domestic abuse need not carry a life sentence for children caught in the crossfire, as Wright was; that perpetrators can and do recognise the damage they cause and want to change; and that proven strategies exist to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place. It's just a matter of political will and adequate resources. Here's my review for Buzz.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pole position

Huge congratulations to Benjamin Myers on the news that his novel The Gallows Pole is to be adapted for the BBC by the incomparable Shane Meadows. Quite understandably, he's not only delighted but also amazed at having been able to keep quiet for 18 months (the odd subtle little Twitter hint aside).

As the Screendaily story says, the resulting series will technically be a "period drama" in that it's based on a work of historical fiction, but don't go expecting any Georgian mansions, expansive lawns, snooty matriarchs, fluttering fans or below-stairs intrigue. The Gallows Pole tells the dark and frequently brutal tale of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a kind of Yorkshire mafia who both provided for and petrified the local community.

Reviewing the novel here three years ago, I wrote: "As a very visual and episodic novel, The Gallows Pole would seem ideal base material for a film. I'm envisaging John Hillcoat directing, a screenplay by Nick Cave ... and Paddy Considine in the role of Hartley." I mentioned Considine with the terrifying intensity of his character in Dead Man's Shoes in mind, and the perfect marriage of Meadows and material might yet mean that that particular vision is realised. Either way, it's bound to be unmissable TV.

The show must go on

Much of the focus this week has been on food and drink establishments reopening their indoor spaces for customers, and understandably so, but museums and galleries are also among those places now able to welcome back visitors for the first time since before Christmas. While some found innovative ways of putting on shows even when their doors were closed, the vast majority were forced to press pause on existing exhibitions until restrictions eased.

So it's a very happy reopening day for Side Gallery in Newcastle, for instance, where Tom Stoddart's exhibition Extraordinary Women is once more available to view in person. Now set to remain on display until 26th June, the show gathers together a selection of images taken around the world by Stoddart, a native of the North East, in his capacity as a roving photojournalist. The common theme is women showing exceptional resilience in adversity - or, in his terms, "who face up to the odds".

The photo entitled Siege Of Sarajevo is particularly remarkable: a woman in dress, heels and pearls staring defiantly at a camouflaged, gun-wielding soldier, against a backdrop of stacked sandbags. Her refusal to be a victim of circumstance is striking.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The writing's (barely) on the wall

For the past 15 years, Sam Roberts has been researching and writing about "ghost signs", which he defines as "fading painted signs" on the fronts and sides of buildings. His site is a mine of information, and now, thanks to some pandemic-related downtime, there's a book on the way - if the Kickstarter target is met.

Its subtitle, A London Story, indicates where Roberts' geographical focus lies - but ghost signs are to be found everywhere in the UK. They're vestiges of former ownership and indicators of the continual reuse and reappropriation of old buildings - and proof that history isn't only to be found beneath our feet.

On a lockdown walk from our front door last year, I was surprised to spot a former Jacob's biscuit factory in Fairwater and also the site of Samuel Chivers' Ely factory, which ceased production of pickles and jams in the 1970s.

Chivers, it turns out, had the misfortune to lose his leg in an accident with a horse and cart in 1883, but most remarkable was the fact that the amputated limb was subsequently buried without its former owner in Cathays Cemetery. Still, it was in good company - the graveyard is home to at least four other lone legs...

Monday, May 17, 2021

Points of view

It's very odd (to me, at least) that the Guardian's Tim Adams should have reviewed Geoff Dyer's new book about photography, See/Saw: Looking At Photographs, without once mentioning his previous one, The Ongoing Moment - especially as it seems to be very much in the same vein.

Adams notes how Dyer shares with John Berger an insistence on "letting the evidence of his eyes have precedence over theory" and how his personal perspectives, often reached via circuitous routes, invariably prove enlightening: "Dyer lets you eavesdrop as he feels his way toward truths, and convinces you with quiet moments of surprise when he arrives at them." That much could also be said of The Ongoing Moment.

What's more, Adams' observation that "Dyer has achieved that rare elevation as an essayist that allows him to demand all his published thoughts be preserved between hard covers" chimes with my own, reviewing The Ongoing Moment, that he's a rare example of a generalist writer capable of making invaluable contributions to a range of specialist fields - photography being just one.

Anyway, See/Saw certainly sounds worthy of investigation.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Block rockin' beats

I don't buy into the whole wellness industry shtick and am intensely suspicious of the word "mindfulness", but nevertheless appreciate both the calming influence of ambient noise and the simple appeal of building Lego. So the news that the company has released an album of music constructed using only the sound of bricks being poured out of tubs and clicked together made perfect sense.

For an article for the Guardian, music writer John Doran spoke to Lego's Head of Creative, Primus Manokaran, about the inspiration behind the project, and the pleasure and scope that it brought: "The acoustic properties of each brick was slightly different. It was like composing with 10,000 tiny instruments." Doran also considers how the results compare to other significant noise compositions over the decades, noting that the company's enormous popularity marks them out as very different from your average noise artist, whose preoccupation is usually seen as obtuse and niche.

Lego aren't the first to create music using plastic - Doran alludes to Matmos' 2019 LP Plastic Anniversary, composed entirely using plastic objects including a silicone breast implant and a police riot shield. In their press release for the album, the duo claimed that the record was an exploration of plastic's "durability, portability and longevity" - all of which help to make Lego such a good toy.

And yet, as Matmos acknowledged, those are also "the very qualities that make [plastic] a force of environmental destruction". Hence why Lego are seriously looking into alternative building materials for their blocks - and why, as Doran notes, an experimental album made using Lego bricks in a few years' time is unlikely to sound the same.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

A comedy of errors

There's something a little odd about a publication celebrating its own incompetence, but Elisabeth Ribbans' article on the Guardian's long and illustrious history of typos raised many a smirk (and a few winces) from this professional copy-editor/proofreader.

In many cases, the amusement lies in the error itself, but the phrasing of the subsequent correction is also often equally notable. There is a particularly delicious irony in the misspelling of "misspelled" not once but twice in the corrections column itself, and in the fact that the column was once entirely omitted - "due to a technical hitch rather than any sudden onset of accuracy", admitted Reader's Editor Ian Mayes, with the customary blend of sheepishness and wry wit.

"As long as humans and speed are involved in producing journalism, errors will arise", says Ribbans. Very true - I'm more inclined to cite the advent of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle culture to explain why mistakes seem all the more common, rather than embark on a Daily Mail reader's things-were-better-in-my-day grumble about declining standards.

Anyway, I'm off to form a band called Frightened Rabbi - who's in?

(Thanks to Tudor for the link.)

Friday, May 14, 2021

Driving force

Dave Grohl's new film What Drives Us should really come with a trigger warning for anyone sorely missing the simple pleasure of seeing a live gig, let alone anyone deprived of the sheer joy of actually performing. I thought I was suffering, but it's nothing compared to the existential crises that lockdown has brought on for some musicians. As Nick Cave eloquently put it in a post on his site The Red Hand Files in January: "There is a terrible yearning and a feeling of a life being half-lived. I miss the thrill of stepping onto the stage, the rush of the performance, where all other concerns dissolve into a pure animal interrelation with my audience. I miss the complete surrender to the moment, the loss of self, the physicalness of it all, the feeding frenzy of communal love, the religion, the glorious exchange of bodily fluids..." Other musicians such as Anna Calvi and Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius said much the same to the Observer two months later. What Drives Us assembles a different cast of contributors - Ringo Starr, The Edge, AC/DC's Brian Johnston, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Slash, Duff McKagan and Flea, to name just a few - but the sentiment is very much the same: live performance is a musician's lifeblood.

It's worth noting, however, that the documentary - which follows in the footsteps of Grohl's previous film projects Sound City and the Sonic Highways series - was not provoked by the pandemic. What Drives Us started out life as a celebration of the humble tour van and its integral role in music culture but, as the Foo Fighters frontman acknowledges, it soon became about something much bigger: the journeys both literal and metaphorical that bands take from basements and high school halls, through playing to handfuls of people in one-horse towns, to performing for thousands in enormodomes.

The result - if you wanted to be cynical and uncharitable - is largely a bunch of minted, ageing rock stars getting misty eyed through rose-tinted glasses about their past, while sitting comfortably in self-built studios or hollow Hollywood mansions (hello No Doubt's Tony Kanal!). (At least ex-Minutemen man Mike Watt has the decency to keep it real by being interviewed in what looks like a broom cupboard.) And yet their stories of the early days, romanticised though they may be, are engaging, and their undimmed passion for the profession that they chose (or that chose them) - and for performance in particular - is abundantly evident.

Vans do figure heavily - as the invaluable means of getting from gig to gig, of course, but also as the make-or-break space in which successful bands truly bond. "It can be both disgusting and beautiful all at once", Grohl says. "What happens in the van is the foundation of who we become." L7's Jennifer Finch talks about how the circumstances foster immaturity but also maturity (because you have to learn to live together in close confinement). Annie Clark aka St Vincent suggests that being crammed into a claustrophobic (and often nauseatingly stinky) space creates a kind of cabin fever that means that when you get on stage "you just want to freak out".

So much for what drove these artists literally - what about psychologically? A simple and fundamental desire to escape the everyday, a lust for adventure and discovery, a devil-may-care determination to hit the road and see what happens. The life of a musician represents liberation from the strictures of society and the stultifying effects of stasis. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi explains how trailblazing punk/hardcore bands DOA and Black Flag mapped out routes, connected venues and promoters and established networks across the US through relentless touring. As a member of Scream and then Nirvana, Grohl profited from those pioneering excursions, but going on tour he still felt the thrill of stepping into the unknown. The journey, he suggests, is always more important than the final destination: "The reward has to be the experience."

There are occasions when Grohl's directorial satnav malfunctions (such as a detour into former Dead Kennedys and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer D H Peligro's descent into drug addiction and subsequent recovery), and the film would also have benefitted from a firmer narratorial hand on the wheel. But for the archive photos and footage, and as an ode to life on stage and on the open road, What Drives Us is irresistible - a love letter to live music, and indeed music itself.

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

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Business as usual

There remains a belief in some quarters (usually the fevered imagination of Tory politicians and Daily Mail columnists) that universities are still hotbeds of left-wing politics - dangerous places where our impressionable young people are corrupted by being taught to think critically and question the status quo. The mass redundancies announced at the University of Leicester's School of Business - and especially the rationale behind them - should be enough to disabuse any rational person of that notion.

Take Sam Dallyn, for instance, who is being given the boot for focusing on "radical alternatives" to capitalism. Or Ronald Hartz, whose work "displays the profound questioning of the authority and relevance of mainstream management thinking". Or Simon Lilley, who simply has the audacity to conduct research from a sociological perspective. Or all of those whose work has been deemed not to "align with the school's strategy".

It's all very clumsy and sinister, but merely a particularly stark manifestation of the capitalist ethos and managerialism that now have a vice-like grip on university administration. It's also remarkably similar to the government's explicit warning to national museums and galleries if they fail to toe the official party line on "issues of contested heritage". When it comes to academia, the threat to specific disciplines and research agendas - and to academic freedom in general - certainly isn't only from the outside.