Monday, 27 December 2010

MY LIFE AS DESCRIBED TO ME BY OTHER PEOPLE (2)


"This neighbourhood looks to be pretty good, 
I think I'll take this one."
- Jeffrey Lewis, 'Artland'

The second in a (hopefully) finite series whose title should really finish "...by the same person."  Finally in the new flat, ending one momentous task and... uh... replacing it by another (elbow bumping against unpacked boxes as I type). For the following month or so, normal service should not be assumed...

Saturday, 18 December 2010

“THAT’S IT – YOU CAN GO!” – RIP CAPTAIN BEEFHEART



 At some point back in the early Eighties, my juvenile self was idly watching the tepid ‘Pop Quiz’. To my total surprise, they suddenly announced a Captain Beefheart video. Copied below, this was the title track from his final album ‘Ice Cream For Crow.’ Having heard of him by reputation, I started watching properly... and was soon transfixed.

I had no hold on it whatsoever. I didn’t know whether I was watching musical pioneers or a gang of crazies who had been unaccountably handed a record contract. (Come to think of it, it would be no use asking me that question now.) But it was the start of what I would quite literally describe as a love affair.

Many describe the man as a maverick, a John the Baptist whose Jesus never showed up, to be respected more than listened to. But for me he was always central. His work did so much to define the way I saw music – trampling genre distinctions, simultaneously rootsy and experimental, recklessly innovative and above all infectiously fun!  “I play music”, he commented. “Too many work it.”

Sadly, the man died yesterday aged 69. The obituary cliché “there will never be another like him” can finally be put to a genuine use. To lose both Beefheart and Ari Up within three months is no less than tragic...

This isn’t a bad primer guide to his music.


Friday, 17 December 2010

FOUR EYES WAXES ON THE ZINE SCENE...


During last Saturday’s Zine Fair at Brighton’s Cowley Club, Lorna Stephenson (who I don’t think I’d met before) asked if I’d answer some e-mailed questions for a college project of hers. I replied, and asked if I could repost my answers here...

”Your name/ artist name/ no name depending on how you'd like to be referred to.”

Gavin Burrows. Sometimes 4 Eyes. Or even The Artist Formerly Known As Gav, when I was taking the piss out of Prince.

”The name of your zine/comic. ”

Mostly, I write a comic called ’The Plot Thickens’, though I also worked on a collaborative comic called ’Rocket Science’ and had something else produced under the title ’All Flee!’ I also write a blog about comics, films, music, politics and anything else that comes into my head - at lucidfrenzy.blogspot.com. (Are blogs related to zines? Maybe that will be one of the later questions.) My comics "presence" (as I believe the PR men call it) is pretty pitiful, really, but some stuff is up at www.buzzcomic.com.

”How would you describe your work?”

Satirical stuff, usually a twist on popular culture or subculture of some kind. I love that point where satire and absurdism overlap. I often compare my humour to ’The Simpsons’, as a reference point most people have heard of. But unlike ’The Simpsons’ I don't use the same characters every time. I would probably save a whole lot of time and effort if I did.

”How long have you been involved in producing zines/comics, how often do you produce one?”

This is the point where I sound old! First started writing to (mostly) comics fanzines over 25 years ago. Then a little later I produced my first comic, an anthology of various people's stuff. I gave it the appendage "the dyslexia of post-literacy." I can't remember why, now. I did it because I'd seen other people doing it and figured, why not me?

Can I sneakily avoid answering the second part of the question? I haven't actually produced a new comic for about two years!!!, though I have kept the blog updated during that time. Blame time pressures, day jobs etc! Also the upsurge in the number of zine events have in a weird way impeded my productivity! The weekends are the time I have to create new stuff, and lately so many of them have been taken up by attending some event or other. It'll probably flip to the other extreme - I'll finally produce the next issue and there won't be anywhere to flog it any more!

Actually I don't think it’s a problem if your comic or zine is infrequent so long as it's not a continued story, or you haven't been telling all and sundry it's going to have a strict monthly schedule. It's a bit like going to the gym, people start out saying they'll go twice a week, find they can't keep it up and stop altogether. You're better off figuring out the level that's best for you.

”What's your favourite zine that's not your own and why?”

I do read zines but more often comics. Paul Rainey's magnum opus ’There's No Time Like The Present’ has just concluded, that was good. I’m looking forward to reading it all through, when I get the chance.

”What do you think zines can do that mainstream press can't?”

Two things. First is accessibility, you can do a zine whereas you can't do mainstream press. And you can do your zine on whatever interests you. Mostly people don't make zines on what Katie Price is up to, because that subject's adequately covered by the mass media. (Perhaps even over-adequately.)

Second is the zine scene, the combined effect of all those zines, but I see that's a question asked later on.

We live in an age of mass-production where all the stuff that's supposed to express our individuality is actually just crap bought off the shelf. Like clothing... That shirt that's "so you'", there's tens of thousands of others exactly like it. So having something hand-made like a zine, that a small group or maybe one person made because they wanted to, that makes for a refreshing contrast, a little token that suggests at a different world. I like it when people decorate and personalise their zines. The guy at the stall next to me today had a comic with an empty speech balloon on the cover. When someone bought one, he'd fill in the balloon with something specially for them.

”Why do you produce your zine?”

I honestly can't not do it. It's simultaneously a grand folly and a bad habit, like a cross between the roof of the Sistine Chapel and biting your fingernails.

”Would you say there is a zine subculture, and if so, what's it like?”

There's a whole bunch of zine cultures (the comics scene, the punk zine scene, the travelogue zine, the special interest zine and more). What works best is when they intersect, and unintended consequences ensue.

I find my comics sell better at zine events than comics ones, because they tend to attract a more open-minded crowd - and not just people who want to complete their collection of Image titles and have no interest in anything else. That's been happening more lately, partly just down to individuals. Paul Stapleton, who organised things today, is a comic artist and musician. Edd Baldry, one of the organisers of the London Zine Symposium, produces comic strips, but also used to do a punk fanzine, and gets involved in political activity. 

Sometimes, though, it works the opposite way. It can become very egocentric, like everyone just wants to defend their bit of turf. Someone will come up with some ill-considered piece of invective, like "every punk band formed after 1990 is a mindless copycat of the original, and true punks should boycott their gigs." Then someone else will come along and say "no, it's the old punk bands who were around before 1995 who all sold out and thereby stopped the revolution happening, they should all be boycotted." And the inevitable pointless slagging match ensues between two meaningless extremes. You know the old Fugazi song? "Everyone's talking about their home town scenes/ And hurting people's feelings in their magazines/ And you want to know what it all means?/ It's NOTHING!"

Everyone has the right to their opinion. But anyone who thinks that only their opinion counts is simply a jerk.

”What process do you go through to produce your zine?”

I just do it really! With the comics I normally write quite a full script, with all the dialogue and everything broken down into panels. Though I've done it different ways... so many people had asked me if I wrote the script after the art was drawn, that one time I purposefully did it that way!

I like that collaborative aspect. The artwork comes back and, even if the artist's mostly kept to the script, it's never really the way I imagined it. They've normally added some dimension to it that I'd never thought of.

Lately though, I've had a shortage of artists to work with. Everyone's just so busy! I'm trying to get round that by drawing more stuff myself. The main disadvantage to this is that I can't actually draw. But then why let something like that stop you?

”Would you mind expanding on how there has been a growth in the number of zine events recently: Since when has their been this increase in popularity been happening (due to the internet, even?)? What impact has the internet had on the scene?”

Let's take those two in one. When people look into a scene from outside, there's a natural tendency to try and see the imprint of the outside culture upon it, preferably some big cultural shift like the internet. After all, what's going on inside is a closed book to them! But the ebbs and flows of scenes are largely due to inner, totally micro reasons. The simple explanation is it's been like a spate of parties. Someone throws a party, someone else goes, has fun and figures they should throw their own party. The thing snowballs from there.

There probably has been a shift in the wider culture, though, with niche marketing, broadcasting being replaced by narrowcasting and all the rest of it. Perhaps that's how comics and zines became cool instead of nerdy. It used to be that, for example, you never saw women in comic shops. But there was a high number of women behind the stalls at the Cowley Zine Fair, maybe not half of the stallholders but getting on for it. (You may have kept more of an eye on this than me.)

There's no doubt the internet has given things a fillip. I used to print off a paper zine of my thoughts and musings, then carry piles of them to social events. It was unwieldy, expensive and like casting seeds - you only had so many and some would doubtless fall on stony ground. Migrating to a blog site cut out most of those obstacles overnight. (In fact it became too easy and I concentrated on that at the expense of the comics, but never mind that!)

However, with comics there's something appealing about a physical object - the comic itself is an art object, like a painting or sculpture. The package is part of the experience. With music it doesn't matter much if you listen to it on a CD or stream an MP3. With a comic it feels right to hold it in your hands.  I'm not against on-line comics but think they should make use of the uniqueness of the medium they're in, not just host a load of pages originally designed for print.

”Would you describe the self-pub zine and comic scene as being well known about or still very underground?”

Dunno. It's like asking a fish what the pond looks like from outside. I only know it from the inside.

”What would you say to someone who is thinking of starting their own?”

Now is probably the easiest time to do it! Low-run printing and copying is achievable like never before, there's the net through which to meet people, shops and distros. There's on-line and book guides, but the best way to start is to just start. Don't wait for genius to strike. You'll figure out what you want to do and how it works for you as you go along.

The one big downside, however, is the corporatisation of the high street. Brighton was once stacked with independent bookshops, now (with one remaining exception) there's just book supermarkets. But then again it's that desultory, clone-town backdrop against which your zine will glimmer like a glimmering thing...

Monday, 13 December 2010

AXEING THE EDUCATION MAINTENANCE ALLOWANCE – THE CRUELLEST CUT YET!


Yet another action against education cuts – that may not sound like news any more. But today's is specifically over the Education Maintenance Allowance, and I’m wondering how many people will find that a new term.

Now you, me and anybody with a functioning brain cell is against the ConDems tripling tuition fees to pay off their banker cronies. (Particularly when they’re cutting education budgets at the same time, effectively making students pay more for less.) But the total scrapping of the EMA has seen less press attention. It’s a classic example of the cultural bias of the media, populated as it is by middle class types fixated upon career paths.

Yet, from scanning banners on those same news clips and from other anecdotal evidence, the EMAs been at least as big a deal to the demonstrators. Many of the more regular schoolkids won’t have imagined ever going to Uni in the first place, but were reliant on the EMA as an alternative to flipping burgers. A paltry sum, tapered but maxed at £30 a week, it enabled kids from less privileged backgrounds to attend college or sixth form. Though barely enough to cover transport and subsistence expenses, it was still enough to make education an option.

Lecturer Sally Hunt has commented ”withdrawing the EMA will hit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.” Or, as one kid commented to the BBC, “we’re from the slums of London. Take away our EMA and what’s to stop us becoming drug dealers?” The facts back him up more firmly than any smooth-talking spin doctor. A recent NUS poll suggested that almost two thirds would have to quit college if the grant goes. Actually, make that when...

The frequently uttered ConDem claim that stoked-up tuition fees won’t discourage poor students, already absurd, is thereby made a total non-starter. If kids can’t afford to attend Further Education, how in the world will they ever get to Higher Education?

This grant is being abolished by a Cabinet of millionaires who would spend over £30 on lunch without thinking about it. Its negative effects aren’t some unfortunate side-effect of some “tough set of decisions” that had to be made, they’re the very point of the axeing. It’s a blatant act of class war against the poor, presided over by a Bullingdon toff who only wants to see oiks when they’re serving him his frappuccino. The subliminal narrative is that the working classes are only suited to servitude.

But the sheer size and scale of the protests, often self-organised by young people with no previous political experience, give us a different narrative. It’s no surprise to see them clamped and attacked by uniformed goons. It’s no surprise to see any act of resistance portrayed as mindless hooliganism. These actions aren’t just heartening to see. They embryonically suggest at a world beyond our lords and masters...

Sunday, 12 December 2010

CHARLIE SAYS...


"The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions of modern peoples is their national debt."
 - Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1

Thursday, 9 December 2010

CINE-CITY 3: FLEURS DU MAL/ LES AVENTURES EXTRAORDINAIRES D’ADELE BLANC-SEC

The final post from this year's Cine-City Film festival


FLEURS DU MAL (FLOWERS OF EVIL)
(Dir. David Dusa, France)

During the brutal suppression of the popular protests in Iran, Anahita is sent to the safety of Paris. Upon arrival she meets Rachid, and this film ensues...

Rachid, it would seem, likes to dance. Quite a lot. There are points where you can’t help but feel that his gyrations sum everything up. There’s long scenes of him leaping, looping and body-popping around the Parisian geography, and amid all this apparent effortlessness you sense a film straining too hard to be hip, technophilic and contemporary.

But if there's not much of a point beneath this freneticism, perhaps there's a point to it. As the film opens, Rachid wakes up, sees a traffic jam outside his window and promptly googles “traffic jams” - a search which ends up with him surfing into reading about Iran. It’s like the free association that crosses your brain as you’re waking up, only externalised onto a screen, as if inner and outer worlds are crossing.

Similarly Dusa frequently intercuts between scenes, not as some deliberate calculated act (like in Eisensteinean montage) but more like the random way the mind will flit between subjects. Sometimes a Parisian scene fades into Iran, then back into Paris to continue as if the interruption had never been. We surf through life. At the core of us there isn’t a core, just a jumble of impulses and associations. Rachid becomes exasperated by Anahita compulsively checking events back in Iran - “you’re here, but you’re not really here either!”

But which way do we take this? Is Anahita an ambassador of the young Iranian experience, or an example of the stateless rootlessness of the globalised generation, wirelessly disconnected while update-fixated? At times you wonder whether Iran isn’t simply there as something for her to worry about. Certainly its politics are presented alternately as inscrutably complicated and a simple revolt of youth against the uniforms.

Of course the role of the net in the Iranian protests was interesting, throwing up new ways in which the censoriousness of a controlling regime can be challenged. (Though much of the media excitement at the time was down to the patronising realisation that Iran was more modern than Afghanistan.) But that’s not really the subject of this film, and it doesn’t have to be. Our problems start when we begin asking what is the subject of this film...

The prevalence of brand names is interesting in itself, particularly as it’s not easy to work out whether they are being deliberately foregrounded or not. Facebook, YouTube and Twittr come across as the geography of this generation, the place they hang out in the way the swings, the park and the football field were to mine. (And films which insist on sticky-back-plastic euphemisms for corporate tags are annoying.) However, it is notable that the theocracy in Iran is up for questioning while the ubiquity of these tags is simply a given.

There’s plenty of Sixties films which were so zesty and zeitgeisty that they still feel fresh today. At times this film conjures up a similar feeling, as if it’s so of it’s era it just can film itself to make its points. But, like watching a series of YouTube videos, it doesn’t necessarily build into an overall picture. Or if its aim is simply to evoke that feeling, then wasn’t YouTube doing that already?

Ultimately the film’s upside is simultaneously its downside. It’s too embedded to work as reportage, too of its time to say too much about it. Veering on becoming its own subject, it’s like a Doctor who’s not sure he’s carrying a sickness or a cure, but won’t stop doing his hospital rounds for long enough to check himself out.

And now, as they say, for something completely different...


LES AVENTURES EXTRAORDINAIRES D’ADELE BLANC-SEC (THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC)
(Dir. Luc Besson, France)

”This pterodactyl business is getting out of hand. It could be the anarchists, up to their tricks.”

Perhaps the highest compliment I could pay this film is that it’s all apparently being made up as it goes along. Luc Besson’s adaptation of a Jacques Tardi comic passes in a whirlwind of pterodactyls, ancient Egyptian artifacts, big game hunters and other spirited nonsense.

The result isn’t exactly tidy. (One subplot isn’t resolved until half-way through the end credits, as if only just remembered.) But when there’s always fresh pieces being thrown up into the air, who cares where the discarded bits fall behind us? And fortunately, its not just as exuberant and restless as a child’s game, it also takes it’s absurdity as seriously. Though there’s gags all the way through, and it wears its heart lightly, there’s no post-modern nudging and winking.

The Belle Epoque era isn’t just nicely realised, it’s probably crucial. Stories like this never work in the present, they need that sense of innocence, of a time when you could pay the rent by adventuring alone. There’s a telling scene where an automobile driver complains his way is blocked by horses and carts. We picture that era as the point where the past and present collide, where mummies could still yawn and reawaken, and glorious sparks could ensue. A pterodactyl hatched and flying down modern Fifth Avenue is another cheesy monster movie. One flying down the Champs Elysees of century-old Paris is oddly fitting.



There’s one substantial caveat, however, to all this rip-roarin’ fun. I must confess to having only read the comic series sporadically, when some of it was serialised in 'Cheval Noir’. But even that glancing peek was enough to suggest that the whole thing would work even better as an animation. The film makes a good fist of capturing the look and feel of Tardi’s world. Characters look like Tardi characters. (Though the feisty Adele is transformed into a much more normative delicate creature, played by Louise Bourgoin.) But Tardi’s linework, his style is integral to the sense of him, just as essential as the timbre of an instrument is to a piece of music. Tardi’s rough-hewn but characterful line is like a twanging banjo, re-transcribed here to a string quartet. Yet some of us like twanging banjos...

Of course you might as well complain about the English weather, or the banks not paying back the money they borrowed off everyone, as any of this. The deal seems done that we could get a whole lot more comics adapted into films, and some of them would even be quite good, but they all had to be live action...

 

Sunday, 5 December 2010

CINE-CITY 2: MASKA/ LE QUATTRO VOLTE

The mid-section of three posts from this year's Cine-City Film festival

MASKA (MASK)
Dir. Quay brothers, UK/Poland

It’s perhaps the greatest tribute to the Quay brothers that, while their works are so often literary adaptations, it’s almost impossible to picture the written source while watching them. They feel so completely transformed into something visual, by the time they’re done it’s almost like transubstantiation.

Several regular Quay tics were notably absent from this new half-hour short. There was less of their typical depiction of hermetic environments, which often suggest at figures attempting to break free of cabinets which they are just cogs in, puppets flailing at their own strings. Instead another common theme, the questioning of identity, was driven to the foreground in what became an almost Pinnochio-like tale of nature versus nurture. (Certainly, one way to read it would cast the Quays as the central character’s begetter.)

After my enthusing over the Quay retrospective two Cine-Citys back, it should be clear I am something of a convert. However, I did find the editing style employed here elliptical to the point of being flickering. You could see why they’d done this. In a deconstruction of identity, to present the characters through clear-cut held shots might have ‘fixed’ them in our minds when they should stay fluid. But it was perhaps over-done, making events difficult to follow.


LE QUATTRO VOLTE (THE FOUR TIMES)
Dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy

This languorous slice of naturalism has precisely one thing in common with the surrealistic ’Maska’, the very things which make it work make it hard to write about. It’s simply too filmic to translate easily into words...

It’s set in rural Calabria, Southern Italy, with such sparing dialogue they don’t even bother to subtitle it. A crude but roughly accurate tag for it would be the antidote to The American – for the locals here are not a picturesque backdrop but very much the subject. Described in the Cine-City guide as a “quasi-documentary”, it at first looks and feels just like a regular documentary. And in fact it sticks rigidly to that look. Many of the animal scenes must have been shot as they happened, captured rather than scripted. It offers nothing or no-one who might resemble a character, and demonstrates us cycles and processes rather than serving up plotlines.

Yet it soon changes in feel. It’s only ever slightly sliding away from pure realism. Yet that faint taste becomes the thing you chase. While the final section follows the process from tree-felling to charcoal-burning, it also interrupts this chain of events with a surprising detour (which I won’t reveal here). Scenes and images, though simple in themselves, imprint themselves upon your mind.

...but from there a great black hole opens up which this review then falls into, for I was almost entirely unable to catch up with this under-taste, to glean what purpose this film was putting itself to. Instead, I merely sat there and watched it like some novice!

The title suggests the four seasons, which we certainly cycle through. (Though ’The Four Times’ seems to have only three stories.) This review sees in it “the story of one soul that moves through four successive lives.” Cine-City claim it to be “derived from a Pythagorean text identifying man’s nature as mineral, vegetable, animal and rational.” I can just about see how the first works, but not the second. Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps that perplexing quality is just there to pull you along, like Cocteau’s cabinet.

Given this style and subject matter, it is less than likely to get a major multiplex showing. But it is very much worth seeing if you come across the chance...

The only trailers I could find have the voice-over in Italian. Again, I’m not entirely sure that matters all that much...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

CINE-CITY 1: THE AMERICAN/ RARE EXPORTS - A CHRISTMAS TALE

The first of a series of posts on this year's Cine-City Festival


THE AMERICAN
Dir. Aton Corbijn, USA

This film is named after the lead character. If that’s actually a name. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma played by George Clooney. George, you see, is an American. Only not in America. Which is deep. Or that sort of thing, anyway.

Who knows who he is or what he does? Even he seems to have forgotten. So he travels from Sweden to Italy. Maybe he’s hoping to bump into himself so he can tell him. Instead he meets a priest. We wonder if the priest is a plotline. It feels like we could do with one by now. But instead, the priest is Significant.

George hires a prostitute to fall in love with him. She does, but she brings her gun. Which is a plotline. Oh wait... no, it isn’t. She gets her kit off. Only... you know... artistically. Then Sweden catches up with him even though he is in Italy. From that point the film carries on just the way it always has...

Overall, there is murder, intrigue and rumination on what it means to be George Clooney in Italy with very little dialogue. Sometimes there is symbolism. (Is that deep? Probably.) Mostly, though, there is landscape porn. Poor people turn out to make a charming backdrop.

Things end badly. Which is deep. But kind of inevitable, seeing as things have been going badly all the way through.


RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE
Dir. Jalmari Helander, Finland

Sheer gormlessness on my part led to me missing the beginning of this, so I can’t offer a proper review. But... a black Finnish horror comedy where the Devil is awoken from the deeps. Except the Devil is actually Santa.

I mean, what’s not to like?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

WORDS THAT GIVE CHEER



"After two chaotic student protests in the space of a fortnight, the question police will be asking is: who are the new rebel leaders? The unfortunate answer for them is that there are none."
The Guardian today

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

DOCTOR WHO ANNIVERSARY



It was forty-seven years ago today...

(Of course 'Doctor Who' hasn't been broadcast continually since 23rd November 1963, and there's been whole periods when it's been on the air when we've collectively wished it wasn't! But when it's been good it's been very, very good... so may the good Doctor have many more faces!)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

FURTHER GIG-GOING ADVENTURES: !!!/ SUN ARAW


!!!
Concorde 2, Brighton, 3rd November

We could start by calling !!! (aka Chk Chk Chk) punk-funk, except they’re not entirely enamoured of the term. “It’s always a bit upsetting when you set out to do something original and someone can just put a simple label on it,” Nic Offer laments. Perhaps the frontman protests too much. You can, after all, belong to a genre without being generic. And yet, slapping down the term as if it explains everything, as if it’s a formula not a tag, can conceal the spectrum going on within.

“Any two-dimensional tags and comparisons with bands like A Certain Ratio were poorly misjudged,” claims Ian Roullier in the same interview. Ironically, I saw A Certain Ratio in the self-same venue less than a year ago, and can’t see comparisons to them as damning. There were certainly similarities between the bands, even down to their line-up. (Both had a black woman providing backing vocals, something about which does strike me as slightly creepy. Like they’re saying, “look, an honest-to-God black person, with their sense of rhythm and everything!”)

But it’s true that there’s also important differences. There’s something essentially British about A Certain Ratio, wrapping funky rhythms with their post-punk cool like a baked Alaska. !!! are definitely hot! And despite so many American bands who drank deeply from Gang Of Four (everyone from the Chilli Peppers to Fugazi), that influence doesn’t really fit !!! either. (A cocktail of punk and funk, in roughly equal measures.) The guitar often echoes the clicky licks of Talking Heads and, while the comparison’s far from exact, the expanded Heads of Stop Making Sense might make a better comparison. They sound too darn funky for other analogies to fit. They’re like punks playing funk, infecting the music with punk energy. (Some punks persist in thinking theirs is the only music with urgency and vitality. That ain't necessarily so! It just happens that here it is...)

The venue seemed oddly half-full, especially given the well-received show they gave only a few years ago. This didn’t dampen the band’s ardour, but perhaps led to a little overcompensation. Offer perhaps pulled the trick of vaulting down into the audience once too often, as if trying to convince us we were at a smaller and more intimate venue than we were.

Last time he seemed something of a tranced-out Jim Morrison figure, looking at something beyond the room. (He passed out at the show’s end, and a sheepish colleague had to come back out to explain there wouldn’t be an encore.) This time he was more an entertainer, parlaying with the audience, coining silly dances.

It was a good enough gig. But I guess I liked the Jim Morrison figure better.



SUN ARAW
Hector’s House, Brighton,18th November


Sun Araw is Cameron Stallones when working solo from Southern Californian psychedelic trancers Magic Lantern. Nope, I’d never heard of any of this either, but something attracted me to the flier given out at the recent Melt-Banana gig, enough for me to check them out on-line.

A sound-bite description might be ‘dubby electronica meets surf guitar, with a hefty side-order of psychedelia’. But let’s go for something a little more poetic... Imagine the echoes of some long-gone beach party, the bongos and guitars caught on the breeze, drifting in and out with the waves - but passing through time instead of space, and never quite fading out. The travelling has distorted them, mixed them with an undercurrent of everything that’s happened subsequently.

What’s attractive is the way the music builds on the residue of the past to do something new, without being mere postmodern pastiche. Surf’s not being referenced from inside some ‘ironic’ quotation marks, like a hipster sampling something he found in a yard sale, a curiousity he’s actually disconnected to. Instead it’s assumed to still be bleeding into the present. The result is an elegy for a world half-forgotten... or perhaps entirely forgotten, and we’re now just wrapping a cargo cult around its echoes. The present is often seen as a barrier to tapping into past music, something to unlearn in a fool’s quest for authenticty. Here the interplay is the focus.

The palindromic name suggests this two-way perspective between past and present. Forwards it sounds like a sun greeting, chanted in some Tahitian dialect. Yet backwards... well, just try it backwards.

I did, however, wonder how such music might come over live.

I’m still kind of wondering.

A small and irregularly used venue, Hector’s rather rudimentary sound system did present problems for the sonic spread. Stallones abruptly stopped the first attempt at a track, pronouncing it “not cool”. And, middle-aged as I now am, I did at times find his hipster-slacker persona grating. (Though I warmed to his description of going down to the sea before his set, as if drawing on its power.) Nevertheless it was enthralling to watch the layers built up before your eyes - each element almost ludicrously simple, but combining into a rich mosaic. And those dubby lines can’t help but stir an audience to movement...

A film archivist by day, Stallones is influenced by visual art. While I’m not too taken by the VR gadgetry which seems to accompany most of the vids on YouTube, perhaps such evocative music would be enhanced by looped videos. (I’m guessing this lo-fi act couldn’t easily take such a thing on the road, but it would be a sight to see...)

Though the winter setting for this video is almost audaciously wrong, it does convey the free-floating quality of the music with admirable simplicity. (As well as remind me of the classic Pere Ubu description of “dub housing”.) It also accentuates Stallones’ comparison here of his music to long-take, deep-field filming.




I’m slightly hesitant about posting this gig snapshot, as the sound quality was better than reproduced here. But it does show the layers in creation, and maybe give a sense of verite...


Saturday, 20 November 2010

YARBLES! A CHILDREN'S TREASURY OF MARK E SMITH VERSE


I'm not quite sure what it is that makes this site so compelling, taking lyrics the inimitable Mark E Smith wrote for the Fall and combining them with quaint old children's book illustrations. Smith's lyrics are often beguiling, screeds which hint at a sense that is just at this moment beyond you. Similarly, this combination isn't really the intentional juxtaposition so familiar (and tiresome) a feature of collage... the two things really belong together somehow! Just like his lyrics, I keep coming back to it...

(Not sure whether the site's generated a lot of traffic or just has a low bandwidth, but it was down earlier today. If you find you can't open it, it is worth persevering...)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

SWANS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES CONTINUED)


(Brighton Concorde, Oct. 27th)


Since abandoning my original punkish intransigence against seeing reformed bands, my life has become much more complicated. When you stick to the defiant but simplistic notion that all reunions suck, you’re not likely to be disappointed. After all, if the gig did turn out to be great, you weren’t there to know what you were missing. This way, you need to intuit who’s re-raising the mantle and who’s simply cashing in.

In some ways it’s not so bad if you never saw the band back in the day, as you’re taking up your one chance to take them in. But I did see Swans (in or around ’87) and have a blistering memory of being part-entranced and part quite genuinely scared. Frontman Gira seemed fully psychotic, in a trance fury, playing out frenzied rituals as if he was only just about managing to rein his demon-unleashing into the medium of music. He radiated the weird energy of someone you’d instinctively avoid on the street. I can vividly remember punters staking out the back of the hall, where things felt a little safer.

In those early days, they epitomised more than any other band the negativity of the New York Noise scene. They weren’t dystopian in some broad socio-political sense, so much as aggressively nihilistic. Inside and against a genre dedicated to Saturday night release, to letting it all out, they’d pound at their sound with single-minded intensity - like all the sentimentality had to be scorched away, until we were left looking at the bare structures of power and domination which underpinned society.

Listening to their relentlessly crashing chords, at levels of volume so excessive that shows were often stopped, was like being clubbed by sound. Their very relationship to their audience felt almost as abusive as the ones they took for their subject matter.

Their stripped-down sound was almost literally one-note, which proved to be first a boon but soon an albatross. You go to extreme places to explore them, but fools rush in to build hotels there, rather than find their own routes. Pretty soon, there was a slew of bands in their wake, like a horror movie spawning a hyper-inflation of ever-more-excessive sequels. Nihilism had become the next hipster fad, ‘transgressive’ the most tedious word in music and the result was shock fatigue. (It’s notable that the majority of decent No Wave bands were exceptionally short-lived.)

Swans, however, sidestepped these diminishing returns by broadening their sound from the earlier barrage of brutality. Rhythms remained edgy and angular, but became more unsettling than all-aout assault. Gira’s voice became as much intonatory as declamatory. Jarboe joined as the Brix Smith of the band, whose tremulous voice steered them to more melodic waters. However, unlike many industrial acts (who they in some ways felt akin to), they never actually abandoned that underlying sense of brutality so much as set it in a more ceremonial context. They still sounded like getting clubbed, only this time it was like it was happening inside a cathedral.

Indeed, to follow this narrative, you might well have to have heard the sheer darkness of the early years, just to spot the cracks of light they allowed to pass through their black-bellied clouds. Gira would now hint in his lyrics at some kind of redemption. As Cracked Machine put it: “in the early days...Gira's intention was to create a music so loud and overpowering that it would destroy his body. The final Swans incarnation were every bit as powerful but transcendence of the body was the goal, a far loftier and more difficult aim than mere destruction.”

However, it often seemed that the price of embracing the all was the need to extinguish the self. (I’ve used the picture of Gira above because of its shifting Francis Bacon quality, as if it’s a figure trying to shake off its own form.)

Following dissolution in ’97, this reformation comes shorn of Jarboe. This set consequently cuts out the whole middle of their career. It’s the early battering-ram songs which reappear - but entirely reworked, their once-spartan nature fleshed out. Rather than running some nostalgia revue for nihilists, this is an outfit that can’t get old even when they’re being old! (Gira has often commented that “when we do old songs...they’ll be completely reinvented in ways that have very little to do with the originals.”) While I’m yet to hear the current album, I’ve read reviews which have suggested the new songs are already being reworked – a cool development if true!

I must here confess to not being as familiar as I might with Swans’ end-days, or Gira’s later and more song-based outfit Angels of Light, so apologies if this supposition is off-beam. But more recognisable songs (perhaps more akin to Angels of Light) were often nested inside the vast (and more Swans-like) soundscapes, described by Gira as “huge vistas of music.” Where once blow was laid upon blow, now there is truly very little telling what is coming next. Gira directs the band through these changes with firm and decisive gestures, more gangmaster than conductor.

They open with a lengthy drone and tubular bells pattern, held until you’re heavily trancing off, whereupon they kick in with a sonic assault. Partly this dispels the overworn “hello Wembly” gig-opening for something more ceremonial, but there’s more to it. It marks out a measuredness to the fury which makes it all the more compelling. They’re not like red hot anger, striking out blindly and knocking things over, but white hot anger – glowing with menace, iridescent but calculating.

It was also interesting to compare Gira’s stage personality across the two occasions. While I’m still fairly certain I wouldn’t pick a fight with him, this time around he’d thank the audience and occasionally crack a smile. He even cheerily signed CDs and chatted to punters after the show! It may be that, having parted company with major labels rather acrimoniously and now self-releasing, he has a quite compelling need to press the flesh a little more. Or perhaps he’s just reached an age where he doesn’t feel the need to be ‘in character’ all the time. But I’d like to imagine all those years of releasing demons have worked out for him somehow...

As John Hillcoat predicted, this year has been a little thin for decent films. Be thankful, then, that there’s been so many stellar gigs! I have more to attend, but it’s doubtful that anything coming up will rival The Ex, Brian Eno, Wolf Eyes or this dose of the reinvigorated Swans.

Compare and contrast! First, the band back in the days of nihilism-served-neat...


...and then... a slice of that opening number(not from Brighton but the same tour)...

Monday, 8 November 2010

BOOKMARK THIS, COMIC FANS! THE RETURN OF SWEET 'FA'!


Middle-aged comic fans –rejoice! Youngsters – catch up on what you’ve been missing! For the late, lamented ’FA’ comics zine has now undergone an online rebirth! (Check out http://comiczine-fa.com.)

Though the zine pre-existed the editorship of Martin Skidmore (then labouring under the lame appendage ‘Fantasy Advertiser’), it was during his ’84-’89 tenure that things took off! Martin extended the zine’s range from superhero and fantasy comics to as many forms as the pagecount could carry, upped the quality of writing and increased the circulation in one fell swoop. (His only significant error was to publish my youthful rantings. Fortunately, these were written under a long-dropped pseudonym so I can now deny all knowledge!) Back then, ’FA ‘ truly was my guidebook! I literally couldn’t list all the creators I discovered purely because ’FA ‘ told me that I needed to...

My only counter to this cheering would be to note that these are different times. Believe it or not, but back then debate raged over whether comics were an artform at all! (Which, as we always argued, was like asking whether apples were fruits or not.) Meanwhile, though associatedly, critical writing over comics (instead of mere fannish exultations) was rare.

Yet contributor Peter Campbell opens his first piece to remark on “the journey over the last twenty years where the perception of comics has changed from the point where they were routinely made the objects of denigration ... to their current status where they have infiltrated the mainstream, are regularly reviewed in the broadsheets, and no book shop can be without its graphic novel section.”

But victory can bring yet more battles. It was so much easier to shine in those duller days. Whether FA can still set the bar remains to be seen, but I for one will be keen to find out! Favourites of mine already up include Andrew Littlefield on a recent Schultz biography and the aforementioned Peter Campbell piece on ’Raw’.

Disclaimer! I may, if time allows and Martin’s standards are slack enough, write again myself for ’FA’ at some point or other. (So you can call this whole screed advertorial if you choose...)

More reminiscences by me on the FA days of yore here...

Friday, 5 November 2010

“I CALLED THIS NUMBER THREE TIMES ALREADY TODAY”: FURTHER EVIDENCE OF THE GODLIKE GENIUS OF JONATHAN RICHMAN DISCOVERED


”Look, just tell me why don't ya...
...if I'm out of place."

Ironically, it wasn’t the underwhelming experience of seeing Jonathan Richman live but the YouTube clip Mike Taylor posted to my Comments, that had me listening to his music all over again.
While Richman may be best known for songs of childlike exuberance, the early Modern Lovers sang as ably about teenage awkwardness – not ramped up or shot through with wish-fulfillment, but that state of bedroom incomprehension at the world nailed straight. The love songs are all wanna-be love songs, chronicles of hopeless crushes, the girlfriend in ’Girlfriend’ about as accessible as the Cezannes in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

This song, ’I’m Straight’, perfectly captures that pained befuddlement over seeing girls going for somebody else - oblivious to the fact that I’m such a nice guy. The music perfectly matches the words, vulnerable, hesitant, fractured yet repetitive, and at exactly the same time compellingly catchy. Almost every note sounds out of place, which is why it all ultimately fits together so well.

Despite the “three times already” opening you know this is only a phone conversation in his own mind, ”I've watched you walk around here” leaving you wondering whether he’s ever spoken to the girl he’s singing about. “Now look, I like him too” is so absurdly moderate a line as to be hilarious, but also absolutely accurate. And the way it builds into a chorus (“tell the world now”) while losing not one whit of its outsiderness... genuis!!!

The custom-made video’s pretty fitting too, with the period setting, the insistent looping of the petty scenes echoing the repetition of the lyrics. (The poster comments “I wanted to put this song up as my facebook status.”)