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.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Just for kicks

If you're a photography collective wanting to grab attention, then you could do worse than naming yourselves Police Kicking Kids, after a Tish Murtha quote, and plastering your flyers around Cardiff. It certainly did the trick for me.

The collective, which publishes a zine of the same name, comprises 11 undergraduates on the Documentary Photography course at the University of South Wales. Here are three of them - Laurie Broughton, Ross Gardner and Nate Davies - talking to Gareth Phillips and Offline's Brian Carroll about how they came together, the influence of punk/DIY zine culture, how the first issue took shape and what plans they have for the future.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pay to play

Yet more unwelcome news for musicians at a time when they can least take it: thanks to PRS (in their infinite wisdom), ticketed live-streamed events are to be subject to a tariff. This will not only harm artists trying desperately to make a living during lockdown while also doing their bit to alleviate our tedium, but also the venues at which such gigs are being staged and their employees, and the charities that have been benefitting from money donated by viewers.

The move was first mooted back in the autumn and swiftly met with indignation from the industry, but it seems that PRS took no notice and decided to plough on regardless. Today's press release declaring that the fixed tariff is now a reality has been received with renewed anger - and no little bewilderment.

The Music Venue Trust, for instance, are clearly baffled (and furious) that the tariff was never mentioned during the course of their regular conversations with PRS and have called for an "informed discussion": "Unilaterally announcing ill-conceived new tariffs in a crisis is not such a discussion." 

And they're not the only ones fuming about the lack of consultation. The organisers of Independent Venue Week have issued their own strongly worded response, declaring themselves to be "shocked and appalled" at PRS' introduction of "onerous new licences". They point out that "the live music community is an ecosystem that requires everyone to thrive in order to survive" and have called for "immediate action" to reverse the decision.

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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Snake, charmer

Stylish BBC dramatisation The Serpent chronicles the crimes of a remorseless serial killer, but it's so much more than that: a meditation on identity and freedom; an exploration of self-denial and obsession; exotic travel porn; the sort of thriller that regularly gives you heart palpitations. Here's my review for Buzz.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Videos killed made the radio stars

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

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

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Glastonburied

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

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

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

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

No change

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

Friday, January 22, 2021

"A pernicious infamy"

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

"The new dawn blooms"

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

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

We're not gonna take it

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Tribute acts

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

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

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

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Troubles-gum

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

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

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

Friday, January 15, 2021

Weirdo rippers

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

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Seasidelined

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

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

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

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

(Thanks to Jon for the link.)

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Spineless and spiteful

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

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

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

Saturday, January 09, 2021

"Imprints of life"

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

Friday, January 08, 2021

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 07, 2021

(We don't need this) fascist groove thang

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Wild at heart?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Coronavirus and the creative urge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 01, 2021

Spirit of independence

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

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

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

Thursday, December 31, 2020

That was the year that was

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Creative control

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bad Good Moon rising

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pop art

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Swimming against the tide

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Club classics

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Losing his religion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Out of shot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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