Sunday, 30 December 2012

'DOWN ON AIRSTRIP ONE' (A SONG OF NEW YEARS PAST)



”Another New Year and too much beer
And a puke into the sea...”

It was the early hours of New Year's Day 1984, and a somewhat sozzled John Baine was walking home from a night's celebrating in Shoreham. On arriving home, he turned into his alter ego, the punk poet and musician Attila the Stockbroker, picked up his mandola and wrote the song 'Down On Airstrip One'.

“Going on about Orwell” was indeed something of a national pastime at that point. Michael Radford made a bad film version of '1984', while the Eurythmics stripped it for buzzwords and turned them into a rubbish dance number. As already mentioned on this blog, the sheer dreadness of the date was enough for the anarcho-punk band band Crass to split up. It all felt like something of a media frenzy. (Which is, you know, different to a lucid frenzy.) After all, it was common knowledge that Orwell hadn't picked the date out of some prophetic vision but as an anagram of 1948, the year he'd written the book.

But mostly it felt like misdirection. Perhaps there was no point looking for 1984 on the horizon, perhaps it had already arrived. Since the time of Orwell's writing, the world had been locked into a war between superpowers. It was just a cold war, and when it was fought it was by proxy. 'Cruise' (read nuclear) missiles had arrived at the American base on Berkshire's Greenham Common two months earlier. Many felt that Britain was already Airstrip One, America's Cuba. A handy platform on which to park it's battle gear, and a handy fall guy to take the hit should it's enemies start firing back.

Those nuclear warheads overshadowed everything, to a degree that's hard to imagine now. For all our watching apocalyptic faux-documentaries such as 'Threads' or 'The War Game' I doubt anyone could actually envisage so much destruction, it was simply too big an idea to truly hold in your head. But it became a totemic issue for all that was wrong with the world – people at the top willing to risk the end of it. I constantly wore an anti-nuclear badge through those years, which led to a fair few... ahem!... heated debates.

Yet, however prevalent the blather about Orwell, neither was there much of a shortage of songs about nuclear war. In the spirit of the times, Crass had taken to releasing compilation albums of tapes sent in to them. After listening to the slush pile for these Steve Ignorant emerged muttering “if I hear one more bastard song about Cruise missiles”, before wandering off into the night. Truth to tell, most of these songs were so turgid and worthy you started to wish for the onset of mutually assured destruction just so you didn't have to hear another one.

(Some even came to see them as a reactionary pursuit, suggesting problems didn't riddle our divided society but were confined to a few loose screws at the top. But that's a question for another time...)

Attila's number immediately outpaces the pack by not trying to sound as much like the Subhumans as possible. Those kind of pleasures were scant back then. But there's more...

On first listen, the New Year setting and the Sussex landmarks seem mere scene-setting, incidental to the main thrust of the song. In fact they're what lifts it from it's sorry company. Attila smartly roots things in the everyday, one minute singing about the over-familiar lights of Shoreham harbour, the next the end of everything.

But mostly the song works, and rather brilliantly epitomises it's era, through juxtaposing the New Year's jollity with the threat of annihilation. He sings the word “fun” more sardonically than at any other point in British history. Given the times, getting wrecked seemed simultaneously an act of bravado and the only option left, in a world so intent on wrecking itself. (In that way it's a kind of second cousin to the Specials' 'Ghost Town.') This has an extra piquancy in my case. I first heard this song live, at some Sussex University benefit gig Attila had agreed to play. And yes, at that moment I really was too wrecked to care.

Attila's posted the lyrics and some details of the song here. Though oddly, he hasn't mentioned what might be the most obscure reference for modern ears:

“And if you think your Kentish prayers
Are mightier than the gun
I'll tell you that you're dreaming
Cause the countdown's just begun”


This recounts a 1982 meeting of South Coast Against the Bomb, where the Kent contingent baulked at Sussex's insistence on more radical direct action. Some have compared this to the historic split in the First International...

...okay I made that bit up! It's really a reference to Bruce Kent, Catholic priest and then General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - a group who emphasised political lobbying and electoral support for Labour. Attila, it seems, was unimpressed.

“There's some choose civilisation
And a promise unfulfilled
And there's some choose extermination
When it's someone else who gets killed
A gesture of insanity
And a world left to the crabs
Five thousand years of history
And now they're up for grabs”


At a time when the Tories are trying to throw cash at a replacement to the Trident submarine programme just as they slash benefits for disabled people, I'd sing along with those words today. Come to think of it, I just did.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

PLEASE IMAGINE SNOW ON THE LOGO...

A very merry Christmas to all our readers!

In the spirit of this festive season, here's some more photos taken in Sicily at the height of the summer. (Flickr set here.)





Sunday, 23 December 2012

ORBITAL (MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Brighton Dome, Tues 11th Dec


Named after London's ring road, where those rave parties happened back in the day, Orbital were part of a triumvirate of Nineties acts rooted in dance music. Along with Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers, they made music you could listen to as easily as dance, and won fans in the world outside the party scene. (One of which was me.) Yet it seemed vital the way each managed to stay rooted in dance while bringing in things from outside. (I mean, I like the Prodigy as much as the next man, but they essentially swapped being a dance act for being a rock band.)

However, Orbital seemed unique even in that triumvirate. Both Leftield and the Chemical Brothers moved further into rock modes and song structures, often working with guest vocalists like speed dating to stay fresh. Orbital had precisely one guest vocalist, Alison Goldfrapp, who would more commonly chant or babble nonsense words than sing.

And instead of song structures tracks would stretch into phases and movements. Mark Riley once remarked that Television were like a string quartet who just happened to use rock instruments. Bass and drums wouldn't just provide a backdrop for some guitar fretboard stretching, every instrument would contribute to a string of overlapping, interlocking lines. Similarly, Orbital were like a string quartet with electronic instruments. Even though there was only two of them. More than anyone else, they were dance music's grown-up children.

When popular music tries to take on a greater sophistication, it often ends up falling between stools. Those longer numbers aren't really as intricate as a string quartet, while they're no longer as appealing to dance to. Orbital's greatest triumph may lie in that never happening to them, in having enough reach to grasp at both ends. In about every sense, they seemed to know which button to press. From the peeling bells of their first release, 'Chime', they seemed able to conjure up sounds which hit you at quite a primal level. And, as fitted their raving roots, the feeling they went for was euphoria. A track like 'Way Out' has the sense of Christmas carols, without the cheesiness, while 'The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair' uses a human heartbeat for it's bass line. Those who claim electronic music to be merely cold and cerebral have simply never listened to Orbital.

Instead of vocalists they featured samples, often lengthy and from unusual sources. 'Forever', for example, featured the closing speech from Lindsey Anderson's 'Britannia Hospital'. These often suggested at social and environmental issues, but were oblique more than didactic. They worked like the blurry photos in the booklet to 'The Middle of Nowhere'. The photos themselves were often simple snapshots, but the combination of the blurry filters and the emphasis thrown on them transformed them - into something allusive and mysterious.

Yet the Nineties were now some time ago, and (as doesn't occur to me until afterwards) I haven't heard a single Orbital release since that far-flung decade. Will their edge still be cutting? Unusually for the dance genre they have a reputation for wanting to play live, rather than just employ backing tapes and projections, and certainly much of the stuff I know gets reworked and rearranged here. Yet, in what seems significant, there's a noticeable move away from off-the-wall samples into more regular dancey vocals. They're as good as ever at inducing audience frenzy. But it lacks something of the lucid frenzy of old, the audacious invention.

What they were about, if reduced to a soundbite, was dance plus. It's like that plus has been eroded over time. They're still good. They're still very, very good. If this was all you knew of them, you'd probably have raved about this gig. (In about every sense.) But I'm not sure they're still great.

Interestingly, when I saw the recent Chemical Brothers concert film 'Don't Think' I thought something similar. (Leftfield haven't had a release since the Nineties, so we can't triangulate the crossfire.) Somewhere along the way, before most of us were born, popular music got given the task of reflecting and epitomising it's era. This style of dance-plus managed to do that for the Nineties superbly. But perhaps then's gain is now's loss, and what we are left with is the style rather than the substance.

In the unlikely event you haven't heard anything by them before, here'ssome YouTube vids they selected themselves. While this is the classic 'Chime' from Brighton...

Sunday, 16 December 2012

JOWE HEAD + THE DEMI-MONDE/ BORIS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)



JOWE HEAD + THE DEMI-MONDE
Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Sat 1st Dec

For anyone here who isn't a pun rock trainspotter, Jowe Head was a founder member of the legendary Swell Maps. Who, once described by Simon Reynolds as “the missing link between Neu! And Sonic Youth”, were another of the classic bands who took punk not as an excuse for the usual rants about being bored in a bus shelter but as a cue to embark on surreal low-fi adventuring. (See here for ilks of a similar nature.) Since those days, extensive research can reveal, Head has trod a fittingly wayward path and has fronted this particular outfit for the past four years. (His name, incidentally, is Brummie slang for weirdo and the band's an archaic term for bohemian.)

His attire (colourful waistcoat, feathered top hat, paisley everything else) proved a clue to what we were in for – psychedelia served with wry humour and a folkish tinge. Their website lists the influences “Sun Ra, Joe Meek, The Left Banke, Sandy Denny, Os Mutantes, The Flaming Lips, flamenco, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, The Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Hildegarde von Bingen, Velvet Underground and Nico” - which sounds like music to my ears! Accompanying him are a drummer, a cellist where you might otherwise expect a bassist to be, and a woman providing everything else. Yes, everything else – backing vocals, keyboards, xylophone, theramin and at one stage a kettle. There may even have been a kitchen sink involved for all I know, missed in the general melee.

Subject matter includes Krampus (the Bad Santa of German folklore), William Blake and men turning into fish. Or fish into men. I wasn't clear which. Which was probably the point.

Though they don't sound much like the Swell Maps, there's the same sense of eccentricity, of glorified gentlemanly amateurishness, of revelling in music as a hobby. Which has all the usual advantages. Simply by playing whatever they want, they come up with a slew of playful ideas. Of course all the usual disadvantages turn up too, and not all those playful ideas actually stick to the wall. (A version of 'Nottamun Town' was actually fairly ropey, and that's not a song to spoil.) Head's stage presence seems to epitomise all that, coming across as grinningly impish but also mildly distracted. But then again, to misquote Captain Beefheart, if not everything works that's because it's really about playing.

Not as stellar a show as the Cravats, perhaps, but a drop of the good stuff all the same.

Incidentally, it wasn't actually that dark on the night...


The Swell Maps themselves at their Peel Sessions epitome...



BORIS
Tues 4th Dec, Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton

Sometimes not knowing the rules is a handy short-cut route to breaking them. Take Japanese music. Forever reassembling Western influences in different combinations, like consignments of LPs were showing up at Tokyo docks shorn of labels and context, leaving the locals to make of them what they will. Like the bass sound from here but the drumming from there? Who's to stop you sticking them together?

Boris being a case in point. Named after a Melvins song, they apparently stem from the Japanese hardcore scene, though little of that sound sticks to them now. (Well they've been at it a good fifteen years!) Instead imagine an intersection of Sabbath's sludgy gut-level riffs, Sonic Youth's adventures in detuning and Mogwai's deranged dynamics and semi-symphonic noise sculptures. And probably other things as well, but that's the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties already thrown in the blender, so seems enough to be going on with.

These sounds are sometimes combined in unimagined ways, but also tracks take unexpected corners, develop at tangents, virtually ambush your ears with sonic assaults. You're never really sure when a track is over, except for the people clapping. Actually, I'm not sure that was much of a guide either. All of which is rather epitomised by band member Takeshi boldly sporting what 'The Simpsons' Otto called “a double guitar.” Apparently one bridge is strung as a guitar and the other as a bass, allowing for rapid-fire switching. Notably, even when they go in for the long ambient sections the audience stay with it. (Unlike my schooldays, when my headbanger classmates would always jump the needle whenever Led Zeppelin got acoustic.) Vocals appear more sparingly than is common in guitar rock, and rather than dominating tend to the intonatory.

My only caveat would be (perhaps unsurprisingly) the same as over Mogwai. There's an occasional tendency to get muso-ish which stopped me committing to it fully. Of course we don't want that punk fundamentalism that tries to insist everything has to sound like the first Black Flag album. And, true, it's a thin line between musicians doing things because they work and because they can, but still not one I like to see crossed. Yet that aside, overall this was a band boldly going, rather than just reheating the rock template for another TV dinner.

If you like this, a full one minute of Boris in Brighton...


...you'll love this. Best part of an hour from a Philadelphia set back in 2005 and probably better than their Brighton gig to be honest. It starts out with their Sabbath side very much to the fore, but starts getting really good when it starts getting spacey about half-way in...


Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

AURAL DETRITUS/ COLOUR OUT OF SPACE (IMPRO-ATTENDING ADVENTURES)



Aural Detritus 2
Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, Fri 30th Nov

Somehow, with the previous Aural Detritus concert series I managed to attend all three “cutting-edge UK improvisation strategies”. This time round, I reverted closer to type and only made the closing night. Which, needless to say, left me pining for what I hadn't heard in the other two.

Organiser Paul Khimasia Morgan commented ”more by accident than by design, tonight's performances all have strings in common”, to which I'd add all performances were relatively restrained and sparing. Both of which are of course grist to Lucid Frenzy's mill, where all-out free-jazz blurt is not the order of the day. (I can respect Ornette Coleman as much as the next man. Just so long as I don't actually have to listen to him.)

Considering cellist Bela Emerson is a local lass who performs regularly, and considering how much I've enjoyed it whenever I have seen her, I've succeded in seeing her a stupidly short number of times. This collaboration with Adam Bushell on marimba was the first time I've seen her collaborate, and I was curious as to how it would work. After all, her practise of looping and replaying her own lines effectively makes her her own built-in rhythm track.

As if acknowledging this, while still stamping on those effects pedals with abandon, she used loops more sparingly - giving Bushell space. And perhaps by result the marimba was less a rhythm track and more an active collaborator, appealing to those of us who like the way impro eschews instrumental hierarchies. At time the respective instruments seemed to be morphing into one another, Bushell descending on his bars with bows while Emerson drummed her fingers along her cello's body.

Last time I speculated that a reference to “long duration” performances was Aural Detritus' raison d'ĂȘtre. It was certainly duration which made this – it seemed to just get better and better, the collaborators throwing up new combinations like there was no tomorrow.


We were then shepherded into a smaller, bare room where we sat at the feet of Angharad Davies as she played unamplified, unaccompanied violin. Appealingly, her performance worked down rather than up. As she moved her bow further and further up her violin's bridge, the sounds became fainter and less recognisable as notes. And the less, the quieter she played, the further she pushed things to the edge of hearing, the more our ears were pulled in to what she was doing.

At points a newcomer to the room would probably have been dumbfounded as to what could be holding our attention so raptly. While we who'd been there from the beginning were committed to the path. Quietness and even silence become part of the vocabulary of music, like the way an artist can use white space in his compositions. Enthralling!

In a scene often dominated by gimmicks and gizmos, it was impressive to hear not just new but extraordinary sounds emerging from an instrument dating back to the Renaissance. In fact, so strange seemed the sounds I realised I had not the slightest idea how technically accomplished Davies was on the instrument. They could as equally have come from a complete novice as a classical master. (Though Davies' range is actually quite wide, click on some sound clips here.)

Here's something a little similar from another performance eighteen months ago, only not from Brighton and with industrial clanks as a backing track...


Up next, Dominic Lash was like Davies in a distorting mirror, playing acoustically and unamplified but more fulsomely on a double bass. In some ways he followed the same schema as Davies' set, starting out in the safe harbour of more recognisable chords before sailing straight off the chart. But the uncharted parts seemed more rudderless to me, as if he was spending more time seeking than finding. There seemed a Goldilocks point where it worked the best, as if the most abundant discoveries were at the fringes of the known. In all, a mixed set, but with high points.

Sarah Hughes (announced as “all the way from Withdean... that's Withdean!”) played zither, bows and amplified found sounds. It was one of those sets you find yourself wanting to like more than you actually did, there seemed to be more in there than was actually coming out. Her often delicate sounds sometimes fell victim to street noise, which doubtless didn't help. I would like to see her again before saying anything further.

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE
West Hill Hall, Brighton, 15th Sept & 24th Nov

Though I have a huge amount of time for Colour Out of Space, some strange curse seems to stop me writing about it. I greatly enjoyed last year's Festival, and assembled a huge bundle of notes, which I never seemed to write up until it all got far too late. (Even for me.) This year, alas, there was no major Festival but a mere two evenings at the West Hill Hall. Which is a quite gloriously inappropriate venue for such out-there music, a Church Hall whose idea of stage lighting is plonking down a couple of tasselled standard lamps from some Fifties front room. (And this bring-your-own-booze business makes a Saturday night almost affordable!)

Setting aside ever-present compere Daniel Spicer, there seems strangely little social overlap between the two events. (Perhaps I should start some rumour of a feud between the two, accusing one side of lacing the other's samplers with tunes.) There is perhaps a difference of emphasis, Colour Out Of Space can tend to noise music and other wilder affairs, often with a more performative or even confrontational edge, like a cross between a gig, a pagan rite and a Fluxus happening. While Aural Detritus events can feel closer to recitals.

Take for example Mik Quantius, whose roots are in the Cologne metal scene and performed a shamanic-style set of droney chanting, even entering the room playing a drum. By which token I should be a bigger devotee of COOS, right? Yet life is a perplexing beast and I found Quantius' set to exemplify the tendency of impro sets to lack structure and fail to spark interest. It seemed to go nowhere and take a terribly long time to not get there. For a self-styled shamanic journey, it never really left the Earth. Of these three nights, it was the restrictive and sparing nature of AD which I ultimately found the most evocative.

Yet of course it's not a competition and needless to say I greatly enjoyed many of the other performers, such as Dutch free-form noise-makers Dagora. I probably enjoyed the second night more, but alas rather uselessly lost track of who was what! (Well these boho types keep swapping collaborators and identities, they just won't stay still...) I am perhaps not quite the devotee of Adam Bohman's found sounds as others seem to be, I tend to prefer his cut-up readings and deadpan comedy routines. 

Closers King Alfred Man of Leisure (most likely named after a local Leisure Centre) displayed the variety on offer by, in this world of free-floating duos and trios, being quite definitely a band! A droney, trancey band who would make Kraftwerk sound like Guns and Roses, but a band nonetheless. They triangulated the place where Sixties garage beats, lo-fi and out-there coalesce, and then peppered us with crossfire. One track was a steal from Faust's 'Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl', but then what better place to steal from?

Postscript! News is that the full Festival will be back next year. (Hurrah!)

Niether from COOS, King Alfred Man of Leisure in action...


...and Dagora starting off from somewhere with a lot of vowels in it and heading straight for outer space...


Thursday, 6 December 2012

SOMEONE TELL GEORGIE WE'RE NOT FOR SALE!



As many others have already said, Tory Chancellor George Obsborne got so little right in his Autumn statement that he didn't even manage to make it in the Autumn. 

His claim that Britain has “a welfare system that supports out-of-worklessness" is about as correct as it is grammatical; though with weary familiarity he claims his benefit cuts will target 'scroungers', the majority hit will be those claiming in-work benefits. It's all part of the familiar put-on that the crisis was somehow caused by the unemployed or by excessive public sector pay, when it's clear it was actually brought on by the greed and stupidity of his cronies in the banks. They don't just live off our labour, they try to hold us responsible when they fritter away all the cash.

Which makes his further attempts to make a yard sale of worker's rights (first unleashed to the faithful at the Tory conference, now soon to be a law hitting you) nothing more than base misdirection. I'm not normally a fan of clicktivism. But in this case anyone who works for a living (like, you know, most of us) really should be signing this petition...

http://www.unionstogether.org.uk/page/s/not-for-sale

Disclaimer! Check Andrew Hickey's comments below about the Labour origins of this petition. Which wouldn't bother me unduly in itself. (While completely disdainful of Labour, I recognise you can't always choose your political bedfellows.) But he also warns of a high level of politically partisan spam. I haven't received anything like that yet, but shall add another update here should the situation change.

Monday, 3 December 2012

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY GETS BACK FROM IT'S HOLIDAYS...

...well actually I was in Sicily in September, but have only just got round to posting to Flickr some of the shots of sunny Taormina. Those who like this sort of thing can expect more of... um... this sort of thing...