Monday, August 10, 2020

"The north of England really felt black and white in those days"

My native Newcastle was remarkably well served by documentary photographers in the 1970s and 1980s - just think of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in Byker, Chris Killip in Wallsend and South Shields, and Tish Murtha in Elswick.

When Mark Pinder returned to his home city in 1987, he moved into Scotswood, to the west of Murtha's Elswick, and began documenting what he found: an area crippled by a combination of industrial decline and Thatcherite policies.

In Pinder's words, the resulting images chart "the historical, political and economic changes that my home region has undergone", and as such were always likely to be of interest to Craig Atkinson of Cafe Royal Books. Newcastle West End: Elswick To Newburn certainly looks like a worthy addition to the imprint's treasure trove of a back catalogue.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Reading festival

By common consensus, it seems, White Rabbit - the music-focused Orion imprint established by Lee Brackstone following his departure from Faber - got off to a real flyer with the publication of Mark Lanegan's Sing Backwards And Weep. It's been followed up with Remain In Love by Talking Heads' Chris Frantz, and the latest announcements suggest that there will be no let-up in the pursuit of Brackstone's vision of "a list that is expansive, experimental and commercially ambitious".

Legendary BBC Radio One DJ Annie Nightingale's memoir Hey Hi Hello is on its way, as is a book by Casey Rae on the significant impact of William Burroughs and his work on music and musicians. Arguably most intriguing of all, however, is Harry Sword's Monolithic Undertow. This excerpt gives a fascinating flavour of what promises to be an ambitious history of musical drones that connects the dots between cosmology, religion, mysticism and Melvins.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Back on the beat

Part of the post-lockdown return to something approaching normality, personally speaking, is once again being on reviewing duty for Buzz and experiencing the delights of discovering artists of whom I was previously entirely ignorant.

In truth, I wasn't entirely unaware of Daniel Blumberg, having enjoyed his band Yuck - but his solo material belongs to another universe entirely. As the work of a singer-songwriter working within an improv space, On&On is a fascinating record, and set me on the path of investigating its predecessor Minus and coming across this spellbinding performance of the track 'The Bomb' on Later....

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Cover versions

I don't suppose ace "avant-garage spelunkers" Clinic have often found themselves rubbing shoulders with members of GWAR and Slipknot, but then these are abnormal times. What the three bands have in common is the fact that they're all experienced mask wearers, and so are ideally placed to dispense advice to those of us adjusting to the new reality. The Liverpudlians are particularly worth listening to, given that their customary stage attire consists of surgical masks and scrubs.

Needless to say, none of the musicians quoted in the Spin article have any time for anti-maskers' bullshit. Blothar the Berserker - who points out that masks also come in handy for armed robberies and concealing your ugliness - is aggrieved at the fact that ignorant behaviour is likely to delay GWAR's return to the stage, unless policy changes soon: "It's hard to convince the government you're an essential worker when what you do is stand onstage and play music and shoot a bunch of blood everywhere and strangle people to death." More's the pity.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

"What you see on Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg"

Anyone in any doubt as to the truth of Kiri Pritchard-McLean's claim that the stand-up circuit is "a Takeshi's Castle of pervery" should read this article by Rachael Healy. Canvassing the comments of a whole range of female comedians and industry insiders, the piece offers jaw-dropping and utterly damning evidence that the problem is not just a few male bad apples but institutionalised and endemic sexism that makes stand-up an unsafe space for women.

Comedy clubs shouldn't need to have anti-harassment policies or codes of conduct, and there shouldn't need to be mentoring schemes specifically for women - but it's clear that that need both very much exists and is urgent.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Discontent providers

There's no disputing that streaming has totally changed the face of the music industry. But Daniel Ek seems to have let that power and influence go to his head, if his recent interview with Music Ally is anything to go by.

Put simply, the Spotify CEO claimed that any musicians who now find themselves struggling or unable to make a living from their art are either stuck in the past, clinging in vain to the idea of being able "to release music the way it used to be released", or plain lazy: "[I]n this future landscape, ... you can't record music once every three to four years and think that's going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realise that it's about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans." In other words, the problems lie with the artists rather than with Spotify or its ilk.

Needless to say, Ek's comments have been met with considerable anger. One of the best ripostes has come from Zola Jesus, who (like many others) bristled at his astonishing ignorance of/disregard for the creative process and his arrogant view of artists as merely content providers whose output he can monetise.

Sure, there are some musicians who do indeed (to use her words) "have no muse to serve but the marketplace", but many (most?) would no doubt rightly refuse to be lectured by a jumped-up tech bro - especially one who can shoot himself spectacularly in the foot at point-blank range. By pointing out that many artists' incomes are suffering due to tours cancelled as a result of the pandemic, he was presumably trying to remind musicians of their financial dependence on him, rather like a domestic abuser might do to their victim - but, as Zola Jesus noted, instead he only underlined the damaging impact that streaming has had and the fundamentally exploitative nature of platforms like Spotify.

Monday, August 03, 2020

"The value of compassion"

As a riposte to Annunziata Rees-Mogg and anyone else inclined to "lecture [other people] paternalistically about how you would be better at being poor than they would", Jack Monroe's - entitled "You Don't Batch Cook When You're Suicidal" - is pretty good. But then, unlike Rees-Mogg, she has actually had the benefit of experience - not that "benefit" is the right word to use about finding yourself at the mercy of austerity politics and forced to feed yourself and your child on £7 a week.

Monroe's message is simple: "poverty and privilege are largely accidental" but patronising, judging and (in the case of Rees-Mogg and many politicians) depriving the most vulnerable - "those whose lives are entirely beyond your experience and comprehension" - is a deliberate choice. And an unforgivable one.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Scream called out

When it was announced on Monday that Mancunian singer Denise Johnson had died, there was an immediate outpouring of grief and tributes to her as both a performer and a person on social media. Conspicuous by its absence was any response from the band with which she is most closely associated, Primal Scream, despite the fact that she was a member for several years and made a significant contribution to Screamadelica.

When the tribute finally did come, a full day later, it struck many people as lacking the warmth that might have been expected. However, Terry Christian - yes, that Terry Christian - was moved to more than mere bafflement, launching an entertainingly vicious offensive against the band for the tone of the message and the way they treated his friend: "Luke warm bullshit. You fucked her over like the money grubbing snides you were. Gillespie couldn't even look her in the eye in London 18 months ago. Without her you're just a 2nd rate pub rock outfit ... not even shit on her shoes." Ouch.

The only problem with his argument, though, is that Primal Scream were "a 2nd rate pub rock outfit" even on an album that featured Johnson's vocals (Give Out But Don't Give Up)...

Friday, July 31, 2020

"I really wanted to take back power in a celebratory way"

Competition for the title of the greatest living Geordie is stiff, but Nadine Shah is most certainly a contender. Not only has she released another knockout album in the shape of Kitchen Sink, but she also makes for a great interviewee, both forthright and funny.

In a recent chat with Jude Rogers for the Guardian, she talked about the pleasure of interrogating music journalists, having 8,000 copies of your new record delivered to your flat in error, how its cover art was inspired by Abigail's Party, and making an album that discusses subjects that some people (particularly men) might find discomforting: "If anyone takes offence to anything on Kitchen Sink, they're the one with the problem, not me."

Sonically, Kitchen Sink is slinky and seductive - but lyrically, it has real claws (and wit). While 2018's Holiday Destination was a more obviously big-picture political album, its follow-up finds Shah offering more intimate and personal reflections on the everyday tribulations of women the world over and defiantly resisting social expectations.

It would certainly have merited the Mercury nomination that Holiday Destination got, but none was forthcoming - which prompted the self-confessed Mercury obsessive to sound off on Twitter, only for her tweets to be deleted without her consent. It wasn't a bitter moan/rant about being snubbed personally, though, and she admitted that the judging process is fair - her point was that the prize should recognise and support commercial underdogs and emerging talent rather than give a credibility boost to bigger outfits no longer in need of the leg up.

In Shah's world (and mine), Richard Dawson would have got a nomination for 2020, and I'd also have liked to see Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs' Viscerals - an album that's probably been my most played through lockdown - get the nod of approval. But there is at least some North-East representation on the list, with Lanterns On The Lake's understatedly epic Spook The Herd in with an outside chance. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"It's just people partying and I like a good party"

Ian Weldon wouldn't be everyone's ideal wedding photographer, but there's no doubt that he takes memorable photos of happy couples' big day. Not for him patiently posed portraits or painfully stylised images that could be flogged to wedding magazines or image libraries; instead, he goes behind the scenes to capture the sometimes mundane, sometimes messy, often hilarious reality.

Monday, July 27, 2020

"Without such places our community is dead in the water"

Barely a week goes by without me banging on about the importance of small independent gig venues. So, for a change, here are a few others doing it - from Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods to Johnny Marr, Bill Ryder Jones, Richard Dawson, Steve Lamacq and Nadine Shah, who talks about finding "her people" within their walls and how "they light a fire in my belly".

The points they raise and the arguments they make really should be obvious, but it seems not, given the paltry £2.2 million of emergency funding allocated to the sector by the government. More may follow, but - as the Quietus' Fergal Kinney explains - it absolutely needs to if countless vital performance spaces aren't to go to the wall. Making ends meet was tough enough before lockdown, but it's nothing compared to the desperate situation as we emerge gradually (as possibly temporarily) from what Lias Saoudi of Fat White Family has referred to as "the music business nuclear winter that is Covid-19". Make no mistake: social distancing measures are without doubt the greatest threat to the sector's sustainability.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

High notes

Having recently read Viv Albertine's Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, I wasn't remotely surprised to see the former Slits guitarist's book first in Fiona Sturges' list of recommended music (auto)biographies. It's brilliantly written, astonishingly candid and, as Sturges says, "a corrective to the reigning punk narrative where men are the creative geniuses and women the bit-part players".

Of the other featured books, I've only Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, which I loved despite not being a Dylan nerd. Pauline Black and Patti Smith's memoirs certainly sound worthy of investigation, and there's another ringing endorsement for Mark Lanegan's Sing Backwards And Weep, which from the excerpts and reviews I've read is even more unstintingly frank than Albertine's book.

To Sturges' selections, I'd add Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett aka E from Eels, in which he hilariously/poignantly recounts his unusual path to adulthood and fame - including his complex relationship with his father, quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, which was the subject of the brilliant documentary Parallel Universes, Parallel Lives.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Austin powers

It's often said that politically conservative historical periods or environments are conducive to the creation of great art and a vibrant counterculture. There's some truth to it: after all, if there aren't any pricks, who or what are you going to kick against? But that does also downplay how draining and potentially dangerous it can be to be an outsider artist - just listen to Viv Albertine of The Slits talk to Loud And Quiet's Stuart Stubbs about the challenges of being a self-styled punk in late-1970s London.

Imagine, then, being the gay frontman of a hardcore punk band not in New York or LA but in 1980s Texas, a state whose "local conditions" - according to photographer Pat Blashill - included "racist cops, the KKK, Reagan America conservatism, and the born-again Christian wackos". Hats off to the Dicks' Gary Floyd and the Big Boys' Randy "Biscuit" Turner for having the guts to do what they did.

The Dicks and the Big Boys both feature in Blashill's new book Texas Is The Reason: The Mavericks Of Lone Star Punk. The most maverick of the lot, of course, were Butthole Surfers - no doubt it's them that Blashill particularly had in mind when talking about the "wild and unhinged" music to which the time and place gave birth. Michael Azerrad's exceptional Our Band Could Be Your Life is worth buying for the chapter on them alone.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Extravagant inanity"

Personally speaking, the most offensive thing about what Andre Spicer calls "business bullshit" - or, to use the term Molly Young borrows from author Anna Wiener for this Vulture article, "garbage language" - is the way that it masquerades as a mode of communication while actually having the precise opposite function. It's a means of being deliberately obscure and obtuse, of making yourself and your job seem important while making anyone unable to speak or understand the language feel inadequate.

Spicer has argued cogently that such talk is actually a damaging blight on business, something that Young also hints at in claiming that "the point of these phrases is to fill space" and that many people's working day would be significantly shorter if everyone had to talk plainly. Interestingly, she identifies the contemporary office surveillance culture as one explanation for the rise of meaningless corporatespeak: "In an environment of constant auditing, it's safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you're caught and required to defend yourself."

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Drone logic

Forget minstrels from the Middle Ages and Donovan's late-60s hippie guff. "A hurdy-gurdy", says Jennifer Lucy Allan in a fascinating piece written for the Quietus, "sounds like medieval Sunn O))); like a parade come to collect you for the eternal hot licks of the underworld; like a squall of wraiths; like a horde of horrifying troubadours in animal heads singing your sins; like the wheezing exhalations of the pained geologic earth itself."

Exaggeration? Not really - not if you listen to the drone compositions she recommends by experimentalists France and Keiji Haino. Be warned, though - they may drive you insane.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Adult entertainment?

I'm sceptical of the concept of live albums at the best of times - there are so many factors that mean a record can never really hope to come close to approximating or recreating the gig experience (more's the pity, in the current context).

Which meant that, despite being a fan of Japandroids, I wasn't hugely bothered about checking out Massey Fucking Hall even before I read Pitchfork's review, which argues that the LP strips the band of their "wild utopian energy" and instead leaves them sounding "reliable and downright professional". That's surely something that no one who's had the good fortune to witness them in the flesh would want.

Admittedly, my love for the duo is less ardent than it was when I first clapped ears on them a decade ago. Back then, songs like 'Young Hearts Spark Fire', 'Younger Us' and 'The Nights Of Wine And Roses' really struck a chord - fist-pumping punk rock anthems for late twentysomethings/early thirtysomethings already nostalgic for a youth that they were still desperately trying to cling on to.

Ten years on, and I understand Jeremy Gordon's argument that Japandroids are "the most embarrassing band I love the most", and especially his comments about their lyrics being "cornily overwritten" and "reify[ing] all the facet of rock 'n' roll mythology that I've grown increasingly distant from in my adulthood".

Like Gordon, though, I'm not about to renounce them. The thirst for that nostalgia for youth hasn't gone away, after all - it's arguably got stronger, and been supplemented by a nostalgia for the halycon days of late-night house parties and ATP festivals to which Japandroids were the soundtrack.

Excuse me while I stick on Post-Nothing, crack open a can and feel all the feels.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

History repeating itself

Like so much else, best-laid plans for this year's EYE Festival have fallen casualty to coronavirus, but thankfully the two-day event is still taking place, albeit virtually.

Among the scheduled speakers is Vanley Burke, who, when recently asked by the Guardian to select a favourite image from his archive for a feature on leading black photographers, chose a 1972 picture of a march in Birmingham. Its selection at a time when worldwide protests against racism and police harassment are once again in the news just goes to show how little has changed, sadly.

Indeed, Burke is sceptical that they ever will, at least as long as the damaging myth of British colonialism as a civilised and civilising force is perpetuated. Perhaps the toppling of Edward Colston's statue was a sign of progress to cling on to, though.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"There really was no show like that that we ever did again"

I've written about Sonic Youth's January 1985 performance in the Mojave Desert before, prompted by a Dangerous Minds article - but this new piece by Daniel Dylan Wray has the added bonus of incorporating recollections of the gig from someone who was not only there but was also one of the select few people not to be totally out of his mind on acid: the band's guitarist Lee Ranaldo.

Under the name Desolation Center, promoter Stuart Swezey had previously put on al fresco desert events featuring Einsturzende Neubauten and performance art provocateurs Survival Research Laboratories, so on paper a four-band bill that also featured the Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Perry Farrell's Psi Com didn't look quite so extraordinary.

It was Sonic Youth's West Coast debut, though, and the sheer novelty of their particular mode of aural attack and those freely circulating 500 tabs of LSD meant that it went down in legend, and rightfully occupies a place in the Guardian's 20 Iconic Festival Sets series.

Ranaldo refers to the whole event as "completely guerrilla style" and "an anything-goes situation" with "an element of danger" - in other words, a total contrast to the "sanitised" corporate festivals of the present day. I wonder what Swezey and the attendees would make of the Virgin Money Unity Arena?

Monday, July 13, 2020

Laugh or cry?

If the outlook for live music is bleak, then it's arguably even worse for live comedy, with a survey suggesting that 77 per cent of venues might shut for good within a year. The impact of the pandemic has caused stand-ups' mental health to suffer, and many are finding themselves with no choice but to leave the industry just to make ends meet.

The government may have belatedly announced a £1.57 billion bailout for the arts, but there are fears that live comedy will miss out, with prestigious big-hitters like the Royal Opera House hoovering up hefty chunks of the money. Those fears are understandable, given the historic lack of support for the sector. When local comedian Mike Bubbins claimed on Twitter that he was once told to sell his act as one-man theatre rather than stand-up if he wanted access to arts funding, I thought he was joking - but sadly it seems not.

One positive is the creation of the Live Comedy Association, who carried out the survey and have launched the #SaveLiveComedy campaign. No doubt inspired by the success of the Music Venue Trust, the LCA will hopefully have similar joy in representing the interests of all of those involved in the industry and applying pressure to ensure that stand-up isn't neglected.

As with music, grassroots venues and intimate spaces with tiny stages are vitally important - without them, there wouldn't be any comedy industry to speak of. And like music, comedy is far more accessible and egalitarian than other sectors of the arts. If the LCA's pleas aren't heard, the consequences could well be catastrophic.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

"Punk rock, rock & roll, attitude, intensity, ferocity"

Brian Eno famously said "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." First hearing the Stooges' Fun House almost had the exact opposite effect on a young Henry Rollins - as he recalls in an article for Rolling Stone to mark the album's fiftieth birthday. When he finally got round to listening to the LP after much insistence from Black Flag bandmate Chuck Dukowski, he couldn't comprehend the context of its creation: "I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor and trying to figure out why I was even going to try and be in a band."

Rollins' attempt to put the experience into words is fantastic: "It's like discovering carbon. It's like the first time you go, 'What's that?' 'It's called rain.' 'What's this?' 'Water, drink it.' You come upon a truth that's so large ... It was like someone hit me with a pickup truck."

Personally, I'll always have a very soft spot for the Stooges' debut, because that was how I first encountered them, but Rollins is right that it's the sound of "a young blues band who can kind of mam out when they have to". Fun House is in a different league - not least because of the involvement of saxophonist Steve Mackay, who supplies the "greasy lightning" that means "the whole thing goes bonkers".

Rollins may not initially have been able to give any thought to the way the record was made, but he certainly had to in the course of compiling the liner notes for the remarkable new super-deluxe reissue that consists of 15 LPs and two seven-inches. Overkill, perhaps? On the contrary, he insists that it reveals a band at the absolute top of their game in single-minded pursuit of rough-hewn perfection, hammering through the tracks to get the best take without any studio trickery.

Meanwhile, rock critic Simon Reynolds has also been writing about Fun House, and about the journey Iggy Pop took thereafter. He flags up the fact that the album - "inarticulate blurts of lust and unrest blasted out in rampaging noise at once primitive and avant-garde" - was totally out of sync with the prevailing trends and mood and so was actually far from well received upon its release. Hats off to the British writer who dismissed it as "a muddy load of sluggish, unimaginative rubbish heavily disguised by electricity". History has proven otherwise.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Dividing lines

As bad as it might sound, my wife and I are desperate to spend less time with our son. Don't get me wrong - in terms of family activities and togetherness, at least, lockdown has actually been very rewarding for us. But today's announcement that - barring any significant developments - children will be back in school in Wales five days a week from September was a much-needed boost, a light at the end of the tunnel for parents with full-time jobs who, like us, have suddenly found themselves with substantially more work to do and substantially less time in which to do it. God knows how any couples with more than one kid have coped.

In this, as in many other respects, Wales has lagged behind England in the easing of lockdown restrictions. I won't pretend that this hasn't been an occasional source of frustration, or that I haven't been envious of the ability of those just across the border to travel further than five miles for some weeks. But that doesn't detract from the fact that the Welsh Government's approach - cautious and sensible - has been the right one, especially in comparison to what's been going on in Westminster.

The way the Tories fuelled the "Super Saturday" narrative at the same time as stopping sharing daily statistics on coronavirus deaths and testing was bad enough - though not quite as egregious as their policy of lifting restrictions and appealing to "common sense", thereby absolving themselves of all blame for any flare-ups and inviting the media to demonise the general public rather than the politicians responsible for making the decisions.

First Minister Mark Drakeford - the calm, steady head from whom the Welsh Government have been taking their lead - has been driven to describe trying to deal with his counterparts in the UK Government as "an utterly shambolic experience". His handling of the situation seems to have been the exact opposite - measured and rational - and has (encouragingly) been met with public approval.

As Jude Rogers noted in a recent Guardian article, one of the (perhaps) unexpected consequences of coronavirus is that it has led to a surge of support for Welsh independence. It's not hard to understand, though, really - who in their right mind would want to be ruled by Johnson and his bunch of cynical, catastrophically incompetent clowns amid a global crisis?

All of which puts Drakeford in a bit of an awkward position. He can say that while he hopes to have "strengthen[ed] people's confidence in devolution", independence would be "cutting ourselves adrift" - but, by doing his job well, he appears to be inadvertently furthering the case for something to which neither he nor his party subscribes.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Deceit and disgrace

What a difference a day makes.

On Monday, it seemed as though Kasabian, in announcing Tom Meighan's departure from the band, had hung him out to dry: "Tom has struggled with personal issues that have affected his behaviour for quite some time." Fast forward less than 24 hours, when the news broke that Meighan had been found guilty of a "sustained assault" on his ex-fiancee Vikky Ager in the presence of a child, and the exact opposite looked to be true - that the band were trying to protect their former singer by implying he had substance abuse or mental health issues in a way that elicited an outpouring of sympathy and support for him.

In a badly worded follow-up statement ("There is absolutely no way we can condone his assault conviction" - er, you might want to drop the word "conviction" there, lads...), the band have since claimed that their hands were tied by legal restrictions and blamed Meighan for not admitting to the reality of the situation in his own statement on the split.

Nevertheless, that initial tweet still looks like a cynical attempt to limit reputational damage and control the narrative. Among those duped by the message were fans, fellow musicians and the NME, who reacted by published an absurdly glowing article that described Meighan as "charming, upbeat, amenable, welcoming" and "riveting and utterly relatable", stated "We're rooting for you" and concluded with a list of sources of mental health support. Needless to say, the piece was subsequently pulled by the no doubt horrified editor and swiftly replaced with a straight news item.

Despite the incident occurring on 9th April, Meighan was still effectively on promotional duty on behalf of the band in late June, talking to Sky News about plans for Primark Scream's seventh album, insisting that the band were "still solid" and (perhaps most appallingly) declaring "My lockdown's been pretty amazing, actually". What's more, as the Guardian's Michael Hann revealed, only last week Meighan was still apparently intent on "a last little cash grab" by advertising "video meet and greets for £45".

I could go on - about the connection between coked-up ladrock and toxic masculinity, about how Meighan and the band have perversely assumed victim status, about the way Meighan escaped with just community service for committing domestic abuse - but I'll leave it there. Fuck the lot of them, quite frankly.

Monday, July 06, 2020

An open secret

The heatwaves of May and June had many of us dreaming of one of the numerous beaches for which Wales is quite rightly renowned: spectacular vistas, inviting surf, golden sands stretching as far as the (mind's) eye can see. Few will have pictured the scruffy foreshore in the shadow of the water treatment works off Rover Way in Cardiff.

Splott Beach may not feature in any adverts or guidebooks, but paying a visit has been named top of the list of 20 things to do in the area by a local website - and not without good reason. If it's a "secret", as is often claimed, then it's an open one - the subject of a (not entirely complimentary) 2017 Wales Online feature and a 2019 photographic exhibition in the Senedd. Perhaps it's best described as a place that's continually discovered anew.

Certainly, there's something about squeezing through the metal gate and wandering down onto the black grit to survey the brick-strewn beach and the channels cut through the estuarial mud that makes you feel like an intrepid explorer. It's an alien landscape, one that - at the height of coronavirus lockdown - seems particularly post-apocalyptic, as though you're picking your way over the ruins of a lost civilisation. And, in a sense, you are: the rubble and piles of solidified metal slag are all that's left of the vast East Moors steelworks, which closed in 1978 and was demolished shortly afterwards. The beach is a graveyard for the skeletal remains of South Wales' heavily industrialised past.

Little wonder, then, that Jon Pountney - the photographer behind the Beachcombing exhibition - was drawn to the place. It's a prime spot for engaging in what he refers to as "horizontal archaeology", the study of human history through the examination of what lies on the surface of the earth rather than beneath it. Just as the strata of accumulated sediment in the cliffs at Penarth, Lavernock Point and Southerndown are rich in fossils, so is the bank at Splott Beach layered with man-made relics, gradually exposed by the elements and curious treasure-hunters. One wonders whether, hundreds of years from now, the enormous tractor tyre slowly sinking into the ooze will be as exciting a discovery as the prehistoric footprints found on the mud flats further up the coast at Goldcliff.

The fact that Splott Beach is essentially built of detritus renders the concept of an organised litter pick faintly ridiculous, albeit well-intentioned. The tradition of treating the site as a dumping ground continues to this day - we squeeze past a fly-tipped fridge to get down to the foreshore and return to the Rover Way layby to discover a beige bathtub has just been generously donated to the verge.

Those with a hankering for more conventionally scenic coastline would be advised to travel further to the north east, past the Celsa steelworks and beyond the mouth of the River Rhymney. From Wentloog Avenue, a winding track takes you down to the shore and the Wales Coast Path, which runs across the top of a wide artificial grassy bank towards Newport. Even there, though, the birdsong cannot completely drown out the noise of traffic on the A48, and you occasionally find your nostrils assailed by the smell of burning plastic as well as of sea air.

In any case, there are good grounds for arguing that Splott Beach has an aesthetic appeal all of its own. For local resident Tamsin Stirling, it's an archetypal "edgeland", a fascinating liminal space between city and country and between land and sea. In the words of poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, edgelands are "complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard" and are always in transition. The grass growing atop the slagheaps and the seaweed clinging to chunks of masonry are testament to nature's ongoing reclamation of the landscape. Stirling's pet project is to catalogue the different bricks she finds, but in many cases the action of the sea has erased the name of their manufacturers, smoothing off edges until they resemble Barbara Hepworth sculptures.

When Owen Williams described the beach as "a peaceful, awful place with huge potential" on Twitter last month, highlighting Barcelona as evidence that "things can be different where the will exists", his comments were met in some quarters with irritation and exasperated eyeball rolls. Uncritically deploying the language of corporate development and opportunity, he raised the spectre of a significantly more substantial clean-up operation than that conducted by the Keep Splott Tidy volunteers.

The proposal to relocate the Museum of Military Medicine to Cardiff Bay recently reignited debate about the insensitive top-down redevelopment of the area in general, which displaced the multi-ethnic communities of Tiger Bay and replaced them with soulless chain restaurants and identikit, overpriced yuppie flats in the name of progress. Hopefully, Splott Beach will be spared a similar fate. Whether Williams likes it or not, its smashed bricks, concrete blocks and scrap metal are just as much a part of Wales' history and heritage as the spectacular petrified forest off the coast of Ceredigion.

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

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Corporate takeover?

As good as it is to see my home town taking the lead, if the future of live music is a sterile, heavily branded corporate picnic on a racecourse, then - as with drive-in gigs - I think I'll pass.

And yet, in the continued absence of any kind of government bailout, it's hard to see how the nation's live music scene can survive without significant corporate sponsorship of this sort, even if the industry's super rich were to dip deep into their own pockets.

The Tories' lack of support for the creative industries remains both utterly baffling and infuriating. I wouldn't have expected the spineless, self-serving philistines to have any inkling of what music means to people, but surely the enormous contribution that it makes to the economy speaks to them in language they understand?

Thursday, July 02, 2020

"Punk before punk existed"

I knew the Shangri-Las were the leaders of the 60s girl group pack, standing out from the crowd by singing about heartbreak, leather-jacketed bad boys and street culture. But I didn't know they'd been hailed as a significant influence on punk by Joey Ramone and played a gig at CBGBs in 1977 backed by a band featuring Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daughterty of The Patti Smith Group. Oh to have been there for that.

And now I'm bingeing on their hits when I really should be working...

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Crime scenes

"Who are the goodies and who are the baddies?" It's a question my son often asks me when we're sat in front of a TV programme or film, and one that betrays an innate human desire for clearly defined and simplistic moral narratives. Reality, of course, is much messier than that - something underscored by the crime photographs taken by Life magazine staffer Gordon Parks around the US in the late 1950s.

In this Atlantic article prompted by the publication of a new book showcasing the images, The Atmosphere Of Crime, former Life editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro emphasises the significance of Parks' use of colour film as a very literal means of suggesting that nothing is black and white. The book's editor, Sarah Meister, argues that the pictures paint "a more nuanced view of crime than had ever been captured in photography before that".

Parks humanises or obscures those who have fallen foul of the law while simultaneously shining a forensic flashlight on police work and procedures. In this respect, and in the way that (in Meister's words) "he understood that crime wasn't just about a criminal but about economic circumstance, about the way neighborhoods are constructed, the way police officers are told to do their jobs", Parks' series feels like a series of stills from a prequel to The Wire.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Press under pressure

Towards the end of May, the Guardian's Laura Snapes took the temperature of the UK's music publications and (perhaps surprisingly) found some signs of good health, even in the midst of a pandemic that had eradicated their revenue base overnight. From Q, which appears to be enjoying a new lease of life, to smaller magazines that are (or were) managing to stay afloat in their own specific niches, she flagged up the way in which many now have closer relationships with both readers and musicians, creating a mutually enriching community.

A month on, and unfortunately the picture looks significantly bleaker, as grim reality truly sets in. Q may have got a temporary stay of execution, with editor Ted Kessler and his staff having feared the worst when producing the most recent issue, but others have been less fortunate. Take Mixmag, for instance, the print edition of which is now on pause, with the loss of all of its staff. Likewise the print edition of John Robb's Louder Than War, "on hiatus for the foreseeable future".

Crack and Loud And Quiet were already fighting for their survival by seeking support in the form of subscriptions, and a similarly urgent appeal is now being made by Stereogum, which escaped its corporate shackles earlier this year only to find itself torpedoed by coronavirus. As part of the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign they've launched, you can buy a Save Stereogum album featuring covers performed by a who's who of Noughties indie-rock royalty.

Finally, spare a thought for Ronan Munro. July would have marked the 300th issue of Nightshift, his magazine tirelessly championing the Oxfordshire music scene - an incredible achievement. For a publication built around its listings and live reviews sections, as well as a free one wholly dependent on advertising, coronavirus is a fundamental existential threat.

I'm certainly not alone in hoping fervently that Nightshift - and the other publications and websites mentioned above - can survive, but, with the return of live music in a recognisable form still largely a pipe dream, hope is pretty much all we have at the present moment.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Party hard

The Hacienda may have gone down in legend as the beating heart of Madchester's acid house scene, but - as this illuminating article by the Guardian's Fergal Kinney reveals - things really kicked off elsewhere in the north west. The football team that Jack Walker's millions built put Blackburn on the world map by claiming the Premier League title in 1995, but Kinney argues that its place in music history should also be assured thanks to what happened a few years earlier.

In the late 1980s, the abundance of abandoned mills and empty warehouses made the town a perfect spot for illicit raves fuelled by a desire for hedonistic escapism, a dose of hippy idealism and a spirit of youthful working-class rebellion. Thatcherism inadvertently created the economic conditions and environment in which the scene thrived - quite literally, as its godfather Tommy Smith observes with pleasure, recalling a party in "a large warehouse that formed part of the Conservative government's enterprise zone scheme - designed to provide a space for budding entrepreneurs and industry in low-employment areas".

As also made clear by Jeremy Deller in his excellent documentary on acid house, Everybody In The Place: An Incomplete History Of Britain 1984-1992, there was a political dimension to the partying - a firm two fingers up to the establishment through the creation of an alternative space founded on principles of community, solidarity and accessibility.

Of course, it couldn't last. Between the hardened criminals who muscled their way in and a concerted police crackdown, Blackburn's rave scene was crushed out of existence quicker than it had sprung up. Kinney's article and the Acid House Flashback archive will hopefully go some way to ensuring that its cultural significance will be more widely recognised.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Stand-up's dirty secret

Stand-up, Kiri Pritchard-McLean has noted, is "having a calling it out moment". She labels it a "moment" quite deliberately, because it's sadly likely to be a passing fad, "forgotten as soon as the next Twitter hashtag challenge comes along". Evidently, however, a sustained outing and condemnation of entrenched sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours (and the comics who express and enact them) is required.

The fact that the comedy circuit is "a Takeshi's Castle of pervery" and that sexual harassment and exploitation have been rife on the comedy circuit for so long is not because women have failed to speak up - female comics have had their own "whisper network" for sharing information. In any case, the onus shouldn't be on the victims to publicise the problem and take steps to solve it. On the contrary, things will only improve if men start to take the issue - and women's testimonies - seriously by scrutinising their own behaviour and calling out the misdemeanours of their male colleagues rather than refusing to believe ill of their friends, closing ranks and branding courageous whistleblowers like Pritchard-McLean as difficult troublemakers.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

"A glowing, thrilling realm of communal feeling"

My first Glastonbury, in 1998, was a formative experience. I'd already had my teenage mind blown by Reading in 1996, but Glastonbury was another thing altogether. Sure, the torrential rain and apocalyptic mud required serious levels of mental fortitude and cider consumption, and meant that I missed all of the Friday night headliners (most prominently Portishead) hunkered down in my tent hoping to stave off hypothermia. But the setting, the atmosphere, the sheer scale of the site and an extraordinary Sunday Pyramid Stage line-up (Tony Bennett, Sonic Youth, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and finally Pulp) under sunny skies meant that I left Worthy Farm determined to return - and I did, every year between 2000 and 2011.

Jude Rogers had her youthful Glastonbury epiphany three years earlier. She's written about it in an article for the Quietus - and, beautifully, about the joy of festivals and live music in general. It's a joy of which we've currently been robbed, but she remains determined not to get downhearted and defeatist: "It's made me realise how bonding with others in person - both friends and strangers - is something we should never ever again take for granted. It's made me realise that connecting and disconnecting from the world is a powerful modern malaise which needs to be conquered. ... We may have to reconstruct our communal realm of feeling out of the rubble of an unsupported, devastated industry, too. But there are too many of us who care about that realm to let it go, to let it die, for it to be lost forever." Now if you'll excuse me, I've got something in my eye...

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The work is our history and should be seen"

Back in early May, I echoed Teju Cole's comments on the joy of photobooks, and particularly "the aesthetic appeal of their materiality". I did also note, however, that these qualities inevitably make building up a library of such publications an incredibly expensive business, as well as one that demands a lot of shelf space.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Cole is Craig Atkinson, the indefatigable driving force behind Cafe Royal Books. The prolific publishing house, whose praises I've previously sung, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Creative Review's Rebecca Fulleylove spoke to its founder about his mission and philosophy.

"I've never liked fuss or decoration, or embellishments", Atkinson told Fulleylove - what is infinitely more important to him is simply ensuring that the images are widely accessible. British Culture Archive has developed a significant web presence and reached out through social media, before trialling a physical exhibition and developing plans for a permanent gallery. Atkinson, by contrast, felt that the best means of achieving his objective was through publishing zines, which are "cheap, easily postable, multiple, disposable and collectible".

His focus on "getting the work seen" is motivated by a passionate conviction that documentary photography "is one of the most active, important, underrepresented and forgotten genres of photography", having been "pretty much neglected by galleries and museums". Here in Cardiff, the establishment of a permanent space for photography in the National Museum Wales following a sizeable bequest from David Hurn's personal collection, and the subsequent development of a Photography Season, suggest that things might be changing for the better locally, at least - but the efforts of Cafe Royal and British Culture Archive are nevertheless much needed,

In most cases, Atkinson publishes work that has been submitted to him, rather than reaching out proactively, which means that he is regularly discovering new and exciting photographers and images. Don't be tempted to send him the fruits of your lockdown project, though. In another recent interview, he said, "I'm not interested in those right now. In 15 to 20 years, if humans still exist, they will be more important."

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Peace and quiet

Today would have been the day I would have been travelling down to Glastonbury for this year's festival - if I'd had a ticket, that is. I haven't been to Worthy Farm for nearly a decade, and life has changed immeasurably since that last visit in 2011 - but that doesn't mean that looking at other people's personal photographic memories of the festival hasn't thrown fuel on the fire of my desire to go again one day. It doesn't take much, to be fair - certainly much less than watching Angel Olsen's Park Stage set from 2017 or a hugely enjoyable return to the Proper Festivalling game with Green Man last year.

There's a small, quite bitter part of me that's glad Glastonbury is having an unscheduled fallow year and won't be alive with the sound of music this weekend. One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that those of us who suffer from a chronic fear of missing out, particularly during the summer months, can be reassured by the knowledge that everyone else is too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The final curtain?

Ordinarily, it would have been nice to have spoken to playwright Gary Owen about the art of the monologue and the experience of seeing his latest work performed by actors of the calibre of Michael Sheen and Lynn Hunter - but inevitably talk turned to the pandemic and the dark shadow it's casting on theatre in general. His prognosis for the future of the sector is extremely bleak, but unfortunately not without reason - and it's being echoed elsewhere too.

Monday, June 22, 2020

'Sunday' supplement

Back in 2017, in response to Thurston Moore's last LP (Rock 'N' Roll Consciousness), I wrote that there were "signs that the young punk is starting to become an ageing hippie" - albeit one who "wears it well".

Three years on, and it's safe to say that the transformation is confirmed by his descriptions of new single 'Hashish' as "an ode to the narcotic of love in our shared responsibility to each other during isolation", and of the forthcoming album By The Fire on which it features as "a gathering, a party of peace" containing "songs as flames of rainbow energy, where the power of love becomes our call".

That's one way to react to "a world on fire", I suppose, but his claim that we live in "a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression" comes across a bit like the ramblings of a sixth-form stoner compared to the urgent calls to arms from the likes of Algiers. What would the twenty-something hardcore fan have made of it?

Don't get me wrong, I like 'Hashish' a lot - but then so I should, given that it's hardly a radical reinvention (unlike, say, Kim Gordon's latest album). Indeed, as commenters on this Stereogum article have pointed out, the track and particularly the vocals bear more than a passing resemblance to Sonic Youth classic 'Sunday'. No doubt I'll enjoy the album, but it would be an ironic shame if creativity is finally starting to desert Moore just as he's making a point of its political value.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Rage against the machine

"We all dance into the fire", sings Franklin James Fisher on Algiers' There Is No Year, a record that I described in a Buzz review as "a complex, righteous, soulful LP both infuriated and fatally fatigued by the failed state that is the US". It's little wonder that a band who have long been outspoken about racial injustice should have plenty to say on the subject since the murder of George Floyd caused the tinderbox situation to explode.

In an article for the Quietus, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Mahan writes about the symbolic significance of tearing down statues and the urgent need to acknowledge "the twin killing engines of global colonial finance capitalism and white supremacist violence". Only by doing so, and recognising they are "so insidious and entrenched", can we begin to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racial inequality and violence.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

At The Drive-In at the drive-in? No thanks

If drive-in gigs are the future, then I'm not sure I want live music to come back. The whole concept seems ludicrous - even without the important detail that "pets will also be disallowed".

At the same time as Live Nation were announcing this initiative, Rolling Stone were reporting on a leaked memo that makes clear that the company is attempting to shift financial burden and risk to performers. It's doubtful that Neko Case's reaction to the revelation was unique among artists, and it certainly gives the lie to any suggestion that they're motivated by a love of live music rather than protecting profit margins and keeping shareholders happy.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"All soaring optimism and poignant nostalgia"

Prompted by the death of Vera Lynn, the singer who made the song famous, Luke Turner's Guardian article on 'We'll Meet Again' is a fine piece of musical archaeology. His excavation strips away the grime accreted since it was first recorded in 1939, uncovering the "perfect three-minute pop song" underneath.

The grime in question is the jingoism and "toxic nostalgia" that the song has been bent to serve, the "romantic view" of the Second World War that "has become weaponised in the construction of the myth of a plucky Britain, fighting alone against Nazi foes" - in other words, the exact same things that have fuelled the sense of superiority and exceptionalism that brought about Brexit. Needless to say, the piece and its author have been lightning rods for gammony ire since it was published.

"Like all perfect pop songs", Turner notes, "'We'll Meet Again' became something more than itself". In that sense, the song's meaning was always going to mushroom, and in some ways that would do it a disservice. The grime can only be stripped off temporarily, not permanently; its wider cultural significance cannot be completely ignored. That's not to say, though, that tracing how a song has been appropriated, writing its post-release biography, is a pointless exercise - far from it, as Turner's article proves.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Corporate takeover

While a privileged background shouldn't automatically devalue someone's creative and artistic pursuits, neither should it be a virtual guarantee of acclaim. In an excellent article for the Quietus, Ed Gillett laments the attention lavished on Housekeeping, the London-based DJ collective with "absolutely deranged levels of privilege", whose new "almost incomprehensibly boring" EP Faces is "notable only for its steadfast refusal to challenge even the tamest cliches of mainstream club culture".

In truth, though, the problem is not so much what Housekeeping sound like as the insidious trends that they represent. Gillett is much less concerned with the music and much more with "the social and economic environment in which it's been produced: one in which ostensibly underground music is increasingly co-opted by people whose wider interests serve to destabilise the very cultures they claim to champion".

In Housekeeping's case, this is most obvious in the conduct of member Taylor McWilliams' development company Hondo with regard to long-standing tenants who stand in the way of their proposed reshaping of Brixton Market. Gillett's article compellingly joins the dots between neoliberal capitalism, gentrification, privilege, corporate clubbing and the subtle erasure of dance music's roots in queer, black and working-class culture.

What to do about the subtle but damaging combined effects of these forces, though? One solution, Gillett suggests, may be to pursue the idea of "interdependent" (as opposed to "independent") music: "co-operative ownership of platforms, local DIY support networks insulated from the rapaciousness of global capital or online content churn, and collective resistance to the sinister intentions of the streaming industry". However, the first step should simply be "to make these questions more visible" - something that his piece certainly achieves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Just for laughs

As demonstrated by recent developments regarding particular episodes of Fawlty Towers, League Of Gentlemen and Little Britain, there appears to be a heightened sensitivity to what is and is not appropriate within comedy, and a consequent reappraisal of much-loved series of the past. Which makes Noel Gardner's re-evaluation of Blue Jam - a show he fanboyed over when it first aired (on Radio 1, of all places) 22 years ago - particularly timely.

As students in a Nottingham house share, my friends and I developed a Friday midnight ritual of huddling around the radio in the downstairs bedroom, luxuriating in the weirdness and invariably howling with laughter - albeit laughter not so much in the dark as in the pitch black. That Blue Jam was a comedy (and a frequently hilarious one) is a point worth emphasising - as Gardner observes, "an uninitiated listener could be forgiven for scarcely recognising it as an example of the form".

But even we "initiated listeners", who had gorged ourselves on Chris Morris' previous projects The Day Today and Brass Eye, were occasionally left floored at what we were being invited to laugh at - even without the benefit of distance and perspective. To say that some of the sketches assaulted good taste would be an understatement. It's no surprise to learn, for instance, that Julia Davis was seriously uncomfortable about playing her role in 'Unflustered Parents' - it was unsettling enough as a member of the audience.

What set Blue Jam apart from its predecessors was the lack of obvious satirical focus or targets, of moral purpose or ethos. Gardner argues that "you do imagine that writing something which wasn't expected to have a point would have been a freeing experience at the time", but that meant that the show's shock value could then only be framed as being for its own sake, or at least only to provoke laughs. Gardner does an admirable job of setting aside his youthful ardour and carefully assessing sketches like 'Little Girl Balls' that felt slightly troubling even at the time.

What Blue Jam does share with On The Hour, The Day Today and Brass Eye, though, is a "sort of linguistic japery" - evidence of its creator's ability to get "heavy absurdist mileage from minor adjustments to what we see as conventional turns of British-English phrase". I do, however, bristle at the suggestion that Morris should be held responsible for "that dismal style of compound swearing" exemplified by the insult "cockwomble" - that's a reassessment too far.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Unreal life

Some people are documenting the abnormality of daily life under lockdown through the medium of photography. Others are doing so through words. There can't be too many doing both, let alone doing both as adeptly as Jon Pountney. Here's a choice passage from his diary: "Within an empty human environment of streets and houses staring glassily on, traces of people become strangely poignant. Randomly rejected shoes, jackets and even litter become important moments in a landscape seemingly abandoned. I’ve started walking the back lanes, where litter lingers, and people are less precious about presentation; these hinterlands reveal a hundred tiny stories about lockdown. Snatches of conversation, news bulletins and music mingle and reassure. There are still people here. But they just can’t be seen."

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Full of the fecundity of life"

If you're in need of a lockdown pick-me-up - and let's face it, who isn't? - you couldn't do any better than Benjamin Myers' The Offing. A stark contrast to his equally brilliant previous novel The Gallows Pole (a gripping, bloody tale of criminality and rebellion), the book is a bracing, uplifting, perfectly formed summer read - and I'm not just saying that because he had some kind words for my Buzz review, honest...

Friday, June 12, 2020

Revision lesson

The next time you see or hear someone bollocking on about "erasing history", please direct them to this Guardian article by Charlotte Lydia Riley, who - by virtue of being a historian rather than a grumbling gammon - is actually worth listening to on the subject.

Her piece points out, with commendable clarity not to mention restraint, the fundamental irony in that position - namely, that "this country's relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering - it is a series of silences from the past". What the toppling of the Colston statue and other recent protests have done is to amplify some of those silences - much to the annoyance of those who buy into the whole Rule Britannia Union Jack bunting bullshit.

If the complaint is that pulling down statues means history is being rewritten, though, Riley is happy to concede. After all, history isn't a monolithic, unchanging entity; as she puts it, "The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present". Not only is new evidence continually emerging; so too are new theories. It would be very odd indeed if we weren't constantly rewriting history. That one's view of the past inevitably changes depending upon one's vantage point was made abundantly clear in this episode of A Timewatch Guide on Roman Britain that we watched the other night, which traced how understandings and interpretations of the period have shifted dramatically over the decades.

But back to Riley's article, and her argument that many British people are simply ignorant of "the dark side of imperialism". As long as that remains the case, positive change will remain a pipe dream, and the damaging myths of Britain's benevolent colonialism will perpetuate - damaging not only because they erase the suffering of the colonised but also because they continue to fuel a sense of exceptionalism evident with regard to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

What's needed in the long term is a history education that actually tackles the issues head on. In the meantime, though, iconoclasm will do: "Every time a statue comes down, we learn a little more."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Forward thinking

Opportunities to mix business with pleasure don't come along that often, so you have to be prepared to grab them with both hands. When Mark Daman Thomas asked if I'd offer some feedback on a book chapter, I was delighted to be able to use my, ahem, professional expertise in a non-work context, with respect to a subject I'm passionate about - so it's fantastic to see that the volume, The Future Of Live Music, has now published.

For obvious reasons, it's a subject that is currently on many people's lips - indeed, the context has shifted dramatically since the book was conceived and the chapters were written, to such an extent that you might reasonably ask whether live music has a future at all. As a result, Mark's contribution - "Digital Performances: Live-Streaming Music And The Documentation Of The Creative Process" - is infinitely more relevant now than it would have been only a few months ago. Live-streamed concerts are no longer merely a potential avenue for exploration but a necessity for any artist with the urge to perform rather than just release music.

It was great just to play a (very) small part in the chapter's development, but Mark was kind enough to send a copy of his band Islet's excellent new LP Eyelet by way of thanks. Needless to say, it's thoroughly recommended - here's Simon Tucker of Louder Than War to explain why.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The end of the line?

Of all the Cardiff music venues I would have anticipated being under threat at the present time, Tramshed certainly wouldn't have been top of my list. And yet its future is "in severe jeopardy" - not due to coronavirus closure but due to planning regulations submitted by its own landlords.

DS Holdings are proposing to build a four-storey building on the land that currently performs an essential role as Tramshed's car park. With no alternative provisions for cars and tour buses set out in the plans, the venue is warning that its continued operation simply wouldn't be feasible. Even if the parking issue was to be resolved somehow, the suspicion is that Tramshed would be vulnerable to noise complaints from nimby newcomers who move into the neighbouring building and would likely suffer the same fate as the Point (and nearly Fuel too).

As a result, Tramshed find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge their own landlords and encourage others to do the same. You can register your objection here or, if the link still isn't working, by emailing and being sure to quote the reference code (17/01744/MJR).

Tramshed's commendably measured statement praises DS Holdings for "bringing new life into disused buildings and invigorating the surrounding area" - but a second phase of gentrification almost invariably follows the first, in which that "new life" is cynically used as a selling point and simultaneously snuffed out, because culture doesn't pay as well as corporate development.

Tramshed fulfils a vital role within the city's ecosystem and I've enjoyed numerous incredible evenings there over the last few years, starting with the Fall/Bo Ningen double bill in February 2017. As others have pointed out, if Cardiff Council allows Tramshed to die - as it has Buffalo, the Transport Club and (most egregiously) Gwdihw before it - then it makes the capital's self-proclaimed status as a "Music City" even more laughable.

Monday, June 08, 2020

"A lens on to a glamorous demimonde"

The Guardian's rundown of the 100 best UK No. 1s came to a conclusion on Friday, with 'West End Girls' claiming top spot. While it wouldn't be my pick, Pet Shop Boys' debut single would certainly be right up there, and Laura Snapes did an admirable job of justifying its position: "[not] so much social commentary on London's burgeoning yuppie class as ... impressionist marvel, in which lust, naivety, disco and opaque references to Lenin rush by as if caught in the reflection of a bus window".

Her piece wasn't merely convincing, it was also informative - primarily because I had no idea that an alternative version had been released earlier and largely flopped. That was one of the things she asked Neil Tennant about in an accompanying interview. The singer also spoke of his initial embarrassment about the rap sections, and defined the song as being "about escape into the city at night, which is emblematic of pleasure".

For Tennant, though, 'West End Girls' isn't even the best British No. 1 by a Boy band - his vote would have gone to 'Good Vibrations'.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Speech impediment

"Every few years I like to have a pause-laden conversation with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields", the Guardian's Alex Needham tweeted recently, promoting his piece on their latest encounter. You wouldn't think it of a man who has released one album containing 50 songs and another containing 69, but Merritt, with his "laconic baritone", seems to be right up there with Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis in terms of how unwillingly he answers questions - but I for one am grateful to Needham for putting himself through it once again.

This time Needham managed to engage Merritt on everything from his unusual upbringing ("on a Tibetan Buddhist commune in Vermont, where music was forbidden") to his taste in song lengths (on new album Quickies, there's nothing longer than two minutes and 15 seconds), his genius for song titles ('You've Got A Friend In Beelzebub', anyone?) and how he damaged his hearing by "standing too close to the circular saw being scraped across corrugated metal" at an Einsturzende Neubauten gig in the 1980s.

Merritt certainly isn't coronavirus' biggest fan. He's had and recovered from it himself, and lockdown is far from ideal for a songwriter for whom the creative juices only flow when he's in a bar "one-third full of cranky old gay men gossiping over thumping disco music". He even speculates that its impact on scheduled tour dates "may have simply ended my concert career".

One thing's for certain, though: unlike other musicians who should know much, much better, you won't find Merritt singing the praises of the president any time soon, or those who put him in the White House and may yet keep him there: "In reaction to Donald Trump's suggestion that people ingest disinfectants, Howard Stern suggested that there should be a Trump rally in which his supporters drink disinfectants and, quote, all drop dead, unquote. I admire Howard Stern for being able to say these things and keep his job. I also completely endorse that sentiment."

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Bad move

Plans for a military museum down at Cardiff Bay were announced last year, but it was the unveiling of the architect's images this week that really seemed to cause a stir - and not only because of the loss of public green space.

The Wales Millennium Centre and the odd exhibition in the Pierhead Building aside, the Bay is a bit of a drearily corporate cultural wasteland, so a development of this sort would in some ways be welcome. But moving the Museum of Military Medicine lock, stock and barrel from its present home in Aldershot (where it has a clear connection to its location) to Cardiff makes little sense - and indeed seems insensitive at very best in light of the fact that the Butetown History and Arts Centre (BHAC) was forced to close its doors a few years back and is currently without premises.

In response to an enquiry from Bethan Sayed MS, prompted by public concern, a representative of the Museum of Military Medicine has insisted that the history of the local area and its people will be reflected in the exhibitions, pointing out that they are working with The Heritage & Cultural Exchange, custodians of the BHAC's archives.

However, in view of the Bay's recent history, and in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened awareness of the injustices and erasures that non-white people experience on a daily basis (including here in Wales), overriding objections and making yet another top-down imposition on the area would provoke entirely justifiable anger.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The shows must go on

Another day, another festival cancellation. The organisers of Dials may have had little option but to pull the plug on this year's event, but it's a great shame given the hard work that had evidently gone on behind the scenes (the line-up is to be revealed shortly as part of the commitment to promoting new artists) and the fact that it's always a fantastic day's entertainment. Refunds have been processed automatically, but I'd encourage any former ticket-holders who are able to do so to donate to Solent Mind, the charity to which festival profits go.

Nevertheless, as Rich Collins of Cosmic Carnage argued when I interviewed him a few days ago, the business of booking gigs can't stop. We all desperately need something to look forward to. In my case, that means rearranged Cardiff shows for Holy Fuck and Therapy? (19th January and 10th May respectively).

Meanwhile, festival organisers are also looking to the future. Primavera 2021 boasts a typically stunning bill: Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr, Beck, Shellac, Napalm Death, Einsturzende Neubauten, Iggy Pop, Fontaines DC, Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, The National, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Shame, Idles. Closer to home, Rockaway Beach has a fascinating assortment of artists booked for January, including Futureheads, Fat White Family, Sink Ya Teeth, Imperial Wax, Big Joanie and The Vaselines.

If, as the author of that Breaking Glass piece says, putting together festival previews in the current context involves "a certain amount of trepidation", then that's obviously all the more the case when it comes to planning festivals in the first place. Hats off to those fearless souls armed with sufficient conviction, courage and (let's face it) optimism to think that they will happen. In comparison, buying a ticket hardly constitutes taking a risk at all.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

A twist in the tale

So much for novels that appear to have predicted the coronavirus pandemic - what of those set in the present day that were works in progress before it struck and are now having to be substantially rethought and reshaped? The Guardian's Alison Flood has spoken to a host of authors whose best-laid plans have been at least disrupted and at worst thrown into complete disarray.

As Holly Watt notes, there's a real dilemma: "It feels odd to be writing about people hopping on trains or popping to the pub, but focusing on Covid might make it date hideously. But if you don't mention it, it is the massive elephant in the room." Even trying to imagine what life might be like in three months is extremely difficult. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid anachronisms - one being taken by many authors, it seems - is to shift the setting to the recent pre-pandemic past or an alternative present.

An arguably more significant challenge is highlighted by Sarah Vaughan: "I can't make my characters exist without interaction. While, for instance, I can edit out cheek kisses because this may no longer seem the norm, my characters need to meet, to row, to fight, to make love - and in a thriller, to murder. There will be insufficiently little exciting plot, in other words, if they can't interact as they did pre-Covid." In this view, the pandemic is threatening fiction's very machinery, the devices that writers often rely on to create a story.

However, coronavirus is also likely to prove to be a source of literary inspiration. As much as "balcony romance" Love In Lockdown sounds like awful opportunistic tripe, there can be no doubt that the crisis has brought individuals into (socially distanced) contact with others with whom they previously had no interaction, and put ordinary people into unexpected and extraordinary situations. Such is the stuff of fiction.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Jesus, Krist

It remains utterly incredible - and profoundly troubling - to me that that thin-skinned, power-crazed fascist apologist is spouting his inflammatory rhetoric and throwing his toddler tantrums not on the political margins but from within the Oval Office. What's even more appalling, though, is that his behaviour - most recently, demanding "domination" over aggrieved Black Lives Matter protesters and ordering police to fire teargas and rubber bullets at those inadvertently standing in the way of a grotesquely cynical photo op - is still being received approvingly by large numbers of Americans, including some who you would have thought (or hoped) were decent and rational.

Quite how anyone - let alone a former member of a celebrated punk band - could claim that in his Rose Garden speech yesterday Trump "knocked it out of the park" is beyond me. And yet, according to Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, the president's words were laudably "strong and direct", aimed at defusing the tension and violence. This, despite the fact that Trump barely alluded to George Floyd and glossed over police brutality and endemic racism entirely, preferring instead to threaten to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would permit the use of the US military against the country's own people - and despite the fact that, as he spoke, only a few blocks away, police were actively demonstrating just how much of "an ally of all peaceful protesters" he really is.

When Novoselic - who went further, muttering about "leftist insurrection" - was subsequently called out for his comments by disbelieving fans, he insisted that his Facebook page "is not a parody account - and certainly not a partisan echo chamber. I prefer to think for myself thank you." He appears to have mistaken rank stupidity for bold independence of thought.

It pains me to say it, but it seems my generation's Smiths now have their Morrissey.