Monday 30 April 2012


Part one here

...then Davies went and produced two of his finest scripts in a row - 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left.' And, in what seems a little more than a coincidence, they both challenge the 'galactic saviour' thing head-on.
How to do that? Once you've seen it done, it seems obvious. It's the result of asking another question, what makes the King the King? Crowns and robes, they're just accoutrements. What makes the King is followers, a bunch of blokes treating him like he's the King. In a similar way, what makes Jesus Jesus is disciples. Okay, let's divorce the two... Donna from the Doctor... and see how well they get on without each other.
'Midnight' Resets the Clocks
We start with the Doctor alone, or at least taking a shuttle trip with people he's never met before, in the tellingly titled 'Midnight.' Early on, he short-circuits the shuttle's cacophonous multi-entertainment system and the passengers resort to talk. We could easily take that as a signifier for the changes afoot, not an episode built on flurries of activity and special effects, but on that old stand-by - dialogue.
The subsequent reliance on 'tell not show' at times feels quite wilful. The antagonist is an unseen, largely unexplained force with the power to possess people. In it's native form it's only glimpsed once, briefly, by a crew member - and we don't see what he sees. Later, when it takes over it's first target, we see the victim head in hands. Slowly she starts to turn, we assume we're in for some shock prosthetics and we're wrong. Seeing the woman's own face, but with some malevolently urecognisable expression, is much more effective.

In short, the shuttered shuttle stuck on the planet Midnight was a breath of fresh air. It took the New right out of 'New Who' to take us back to classic drama. In contrast to Davies' dreaded ticklists, the plot is tightly and quite neatly packed around that one central concept. You'd never believe it was by the same writer!
All of which led some to speculate that this wasn't really a 'Who' episode at all. No Donna, no Tardis? Plus, in violation of everything said over 'Last of the Time Lords', this time the antagonist pretty much is pure evil. It's the malevolent outside force, trying to worm it's way in – no further information considered necessary. (Which is of course why it's such a smart move to leave it so mysterious and ill-defined. Not only is the unknown spookier, but any attempt to rationalise or analyse evil diminishes it, leaves it looking banal.) True, some found comparisons with the early story 'Edge of Destruction', but as that was another exception to the rule of the 'Who' canon that didn't change things much.
And in one sense, it wasn't like 'Doctor Who'. We've got used to the Doctor winning friends and influencing enemies by oratory and reputation alone. He carries with him a sonic screwdriver and all but his real power is, as Martha calls it in 'Last of the Time Lords', “just words.” Yet now he's lost his companion, and with her his connection with the human world. And the family group in particular seem oddly normal and everyday, not 'Who' extras so much as just plain extras, like they wanted a fortnight in Marbella but ended up on another planet by misbooking. They don't seem to cotton on that he's star of the show, but treat him like they would any stranger – with mistrust. Before, the Master didn't know what kind of show he was in. Now it's the Doctor's turn. The cosmic saviour gets reacquainted with his fallibility.
all of which is what makes it effective as 'Doctor Who'. We call them “just words”, but of course those connected syllables are strong stuff. They're not just the building blocks of drama, but also pretty effective in our wider lives. As a small child it often seemed to me that much of my parents' power over me lay in their power over words. Not necessarily that they had a bigger vocabulary at their command, but that they somehow always seemed to know what to say. I can quite vividly remember wanting to marshall that sort of power.
But actually that's not quite it. His power of speech isn't absent, it's been quite literally stolen from him and used against him. And, in possibly the episode's most audacious move, it's not the powerless Doctor but the Hostess who spots this and has to save the day. Which she does by dragging the possessed woman out of the airlock - the very thing the Doctor had been so insistent could not be allowed to happen. The ending is downbeat, even morose. The other passengers have to face they nearly killed the wrong man, the Doctor that nothing he wanted came to pass.
Of course it's a bottle episode, scrimping on sets and effects to ease budgets. We later learnt Davies had rush-written it in a matter of days. (Much as 'Edge of Destruction had been.) But, as I'm always saying, in art restrictions often enable, and bottle episodes often utilise the dramatic unities to become firm favourites. This was no exception, even those claiming it wasn't a true 'Who' episode normally conceding they liked whatever it was. For me it wasn't just a surprise spike in quality, or even the antithesis of much that went before - it was pretty much the antidote. Just what the Doctor didn't want had become just what the rest of us did.

No Right Turn
...and then, if you'll forgive the term, Donna's back.
'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' make for an intriguing comparison. One that was never meant to be. Davies seems to have decided early on to have a 'Doctor-lite' then a 'companion-lite' episode, but mostly for production-oriented reasons. (Much as 'Blink' was built to be 'both-lite'.) But the two got shunted together in broadcast order relatively late in the day.
And if 'Midnight' was a last-minute replacement for a dropped script, 'Turn Left' was being seeded from the second episode. (Where a soothsayer describes Donna as having “something on your back.”) While one is a micro-episode, breaking into the schedule and taking place almost in real time, the other follows the length of the series right from 'Runaway Bride'. In complete contrast, this took Davies much longer than normal to write. And yet both were designed as budget episodes. (Part of the rationale of 'Turn Left' was it's ability to reuse existing special effects footage rather than require new stuff.) And both replace a travelling companion with an unseen, manipulating force, to end up exploring humanity at both its best and worst.
The conceit is that this alien entity has affixed itself to Donna's back, and trapped her in a parallel universe where she never became the Doctor's companion. Without her to save him, he dies during the events of 'Runaway Bride' and the Earth is beset by all the disasters he would have prevented. These are episodes which successively came and went, and for each of them we naturally assumed the Doctor would save the day. Piling them up on us like this effectively pulls the rug from under genre conventions, and is almost unsettling to watch.
Worse, we in the human race do not react well to any of this, and Marshall law falls over England. We don't just take the worst, we become the worst. The scenes set in a Leeds street may be designed to echo the Master's rule in 'Last of the Time Lords'. But it's at it's most explicit as immigrants are removed to labour camps, as Donna's grandfather comments “that's what they called them last time.” All the invocations of “wartime spirit” have come true, it's just that we've fallen on the other side of the fence.
The change is pivoted on a trivial-seeming moment, when Donna turns right instead of left, taking up one office job instead of another. At first she's the Donna of 'Runaway Bride', gobby and smallminded, oblivious to events outside her tiny world. She turns right at her Mother's instigation. But she receives another voice over another shoulder, in visitations from Rose. Rose is not the good fairy or the conscience voice. She explicitly tells her “I used to be you,” and just as she 'died' through being trapped on a parallel world, so must Donna suffer her own consequences.

You could still turn right” she's told at the beginning. And we follow the results of that turn almost the whole way through, yet significantly the episode's called 'Turn Left'. Because ultimately what appears a coin-toss isn't at all. Donna can't turn right. It's just not who she is. The Doctor's episode explores his failings, while Donna's is about finding things within her she had no idea were there.
In 'Who' the role of the companion is of course to signify me or you. The Doctor does something brave or smart? Well that's what he's for. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, that's like being told ladders can be tall. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that's a story. Donna first fails to notice the world around her, then when she does she decides to change it for another one. Through all the bleak events, it's uplifting and empowering.
But then again...
'Midnight' was so neatly packed you're pretty much bound to accept or reject it wholesale. 'Turn Left' has a wider lens, which allows for problems to enter the frame. Notably, the focus on Donna doesn't quite mean the Jesus fixation is through. The series has never quite mastered the companion role, always making fresh resolutions it has trouble keeping to, and perhaps this is no exception. The focus is on Donna's bravery, but it can only be done by bringing the Doctor back to life. In a story whose central event is a woman sacrificing herself for a man, it's notable how all the main characters in this fallen world are women. It's even true of many of the minor ones, the UNIT chief, the stroppy official who assigns them to Leeds. (The only real exception being her Grandfather.)
There's also an undertaste, a suggestion that Donna was never really ordinary, never actually like you or me, but always somehow 'special'. What does this do to the the central message, that through our actions we make the world? The problem with a 'special' Donna isn't that her story no longer has a resonance for the rest of us. The problem is that it redefines that 'us' in a narrow and regressive way.
If she's simply ordinary, that suggests that all us ordinary folks have that capacity within us. But if she's 'special', if she's unlike the herd, then doesn't that 'us' shrink to become the viewers of this show? If she's special, we're special! After all, we're the smart ones who get all that stuff about alternate realities and parallel universes. Oh, we may work in the same offices as the norms who watch 'X Factor' and 'East Enders', but we know inside we're really different from them. Donna's the new temp who first looked like one of them, but turned out to be special like us. (Those who continued following the show after Davies may have noticed that the 'specialness' of the companion continued to be a thorn.) It also sets things up for the successor storyline. The one where Davies gave us his variant on the cosmic messiah schtick - the companion as God. Again.
Still, a parallel universe where everything went wrong... what better metaphor for a parallel pair of episodes where everything went right? The series didn't turn. These are just what might have been. A dream, a hoax, an imaginary story. Some of us tend to think the show was always an oddity, never quite fitting in either with the rules of science fiction or the patterns of TV programming. And it worked best when it played up to that oddity, taking its own eccentric path. Davies was always at his worst with his specials and big season finales. It may be he was at his best right here...

Saturday 28 April 2012


Through a combination of time travel and BBC3 scheduling, Four Eyed Gav rewatched some of the final Russell T Davies episodes of 'Doctor Who'. After which he found these words scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper, in what appeared to be his handwriting... 

'Last of the Time Lords': The Power of Prayer 

'Last of the Time Lords', the finale of Davies' penultimate series as chief scripter, contains a curious juxtaposition. 

The Master is crowing over his apparent victory, with Martha forced to kneel before him. But as he swaggers, she simply laughs. He has, she explains, got the whole thing wrong from the beginning. He assumed her plan would be a weaker copy of what he would do, only less daring and ruthless, more constrained by morality. In fact she's done something so different, something which for him is so left field, he was unable to see it coming. A gun? What would she need a gun for? 

It's classic, in quite a literal sense. It's the way evil has been portrayed in the Whoniverse since the first Dalek story. Less an absolute force that opposes good, more a deficiency, a kind of autism. Evil doesn't just do the wrong things in some moralistic sense, evil just does the wrong things. Ultimately it's evil not good which is subject to constraints. It doesn't need overpowering. It needs to be cured. 

And then... 

It seems that Martha has been travelling the world preaching the Doctor's good name to people, how he exists only to do good in the universe. When the population recite his magic name he magically transforms - from the Gollum thing the Master made him - into... well, from here it looks an awful lot like Jesus. 

 I was not at all sure that the Doctor had always been Jesus, so I went back and checked. And indeed, in his early days he was more a stranger, an itinerant, called a “cosmic hobo” by the production team. He'd blunder into situations where he'd normally be initially distrusted. It took a while for the Daleks to start recognising him, and they saw more of him than anybody else. From simple wanderer to galactic saviour, you could call that a bit of a leap. 

Now I'm not a Christian. But I don't object to this because I think Davies is bringing in Christian messages. In fact I think a good writer positively should bring in something of himself, and put a little meat on those plot bones. Previous Who scribe Barry Letts was always working Buddhist messages into his scripts. And I'm no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian, but that seems to me to be things working as they should. No, I'm objecting precisely because that's what Davies is not doing. In fact, were I a Christian, I think I would be objecting all the more strenuously. For the impetus seems to me much more basic and much more base... 

Ticklist TV 

One of the most obvious measures to use when telling fannish from critical writing is it's structure. A critical writer will bend and chop and subject the scruitinsed work to his own scheme. Pieces which merely follow the chronology of episodes tend to be merely fannish. (“And I liked it when the Daleks turned up in their blinging new uniforms. Then I didn't like it when they wore Tommy Cooper hats. Then I did like it when they exterminated Bonnie Langford.” And so on...) 

But the further the Davies era went along the more appropriate that response became. Because the more his scripts came to consist of an acausal string of events, a list of things for you to put your tick or cross against. My response to the end of 'Last of the Time Lords' pretty much is “I liked it when Martha laughed at the Master for being so stupid as to think he would win. Then I didn't like it when everybody prayed the Doctor into being Jesus.” 

How, you may ask, did any of this happen? 

Us fans, we all speculated wildly and enthusiastically about home recording transforming TV. Before it was the most transient of mediums, the screen a virtual etch-a-sketch where one thing replaced another. If you missed an episode you missed an episode. So what else to draw on such an etch-a-sketch but the simplest, most recognisable of shapes? But now things had changed. Scripts could become like novels, developing longer plotlines, building up themes, rewarding repeat viewing. 

But what really transformed TV viewing was a simpler piece of technology, now so familiar we've stopped even thinking about it – the remote control. Before, script writers had to factor in viewers who hadn't been there the last week, and might not be the next. Now they had to take into account those who hadn't been there five minutes ago, and any second now might start wondering if 'QI' was being re-run on Dave. (Channel proliferation is of course the kindling into which the match of the remote was dropped.) 

So how do you stop them doing that? Events, dear boy, events. Something shocking, something unexpected, bursting in every few minutes. The Daleks appear! They have blinging new uniforms! They put on Tommy Cooper hats! They exterminate Bonnie Langford! But she comes back to life! In fact she's now God! And so on... You no longer need to channel-hop, exercising your thumb, not when one programme is willing to simulate that experience within itself. 

Now make a list of all the Events that might happen in a contemporary TV show of an SF bent. Planets explode! The universe in peril! The multiverse in peril! People die! People get better! See how long you can keep it up before the words 'Jesus shows up' inevitably appear before you. Closely followed up by 'Jesus reappears, bigger and badder than before!' Jesus is a reason not to check out 'QI' on Dave. 

Given the circumstances, the word 'risible' would seem an appropriate one. 

(Jesus appearing is of course a convenient deus ex machina device, a way of saying “then everything got better.” Everybody... you, me and remote tribes in Borneo, we have been as one in our complaints. Let's take that as read. Let's stay focused on Jesus-as-Event.) 

But then, just when the trajectory couldn't seem any more clear-cut, when Davies' downward spiral seemed certain, when the most inescapable cliffhanger of all seemed locked in place, then...

Part two here

Sunday 22 April 2012


Barbican, London, Sun 15th April

Does anything sum up the media circus more witheringly than their fixation with anniversaries? The dreary, gormless literalism, the insatiable need to fill column inches with any old irrelevance? But at least the Titanic centenary displaced the accursed Olympics for a while. And it led to one of my favourite pieces of minimalist music, perhaps my very favourite British work, being restaged. (And not just that but what to me is the best of the many versions, the collaboration with Philip Jeck... but more of that anon.)

The Captain...

The night was the very date the ill-fated boat met it's iceberg. Which is neat, but allows a whole bunch of cultural baggage to be brought on board which threatens to sink things before we've set sail. (Which unfortunately includes much of Brian Morton's programme notes. Most risibly he states the boat's “class partitions” were “a gift to Marxists”, clearly confusing us with Hollywood producers.)

Firstly, the piece is foremost... ahem... a work of music. What's significant is that Bryars took the central concept of minimalism as pioneered by Reich and Glass, but took it for his own. The work eschews all the styles' surface features (the clustered beats, the phase-shifting) to take its heart and sail into quite new waters.

It's true Bryars has continued to update the piece with fresh discoveries about the sinking. But that's more to do with maintaining the piece's indeterminacy. (It's composed not to have a fixed score, like a symphony, but forever be a work in progress.) I don't think he's over-interested in the historical aspects or cultural significance of the story. His impetus was hearing an eyewitness account that the ship's band had continued playing as the boat went down. (“The last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.") This led him to picture them playing on even as they sank below the water line.

The water line then becomes a metaphor for the inaccessibility of memory. Underwater objects can appear anything from murkily indistinct to sharp and magnified, as if clearer than something in your hand. But reach down to touch them and you ripple the surface – the object disappears. The past is both larger than life and absent. When you're talking about memory, you're really talking about ghosts.

The work is dominated by strings playing the piece the sinking band actually performed, the hymn 'Autumn.' (Which bears a close resemblance to 'Amazing Grace.') Except they never play the A to Z structure as written. Instead you hear it the way you might hum fragments of a forgotten tune, turning them like awkward jigsaw pieces, hoping they might bring the whole of it back to you. This epitomises both Bryars' theme of the ghostly nature of memory and the piece's minimalist form. Rather than having any dynamic structure it instead floats in a state of perpetuity, rather than advances it shifts. Bryars has called it “the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art.”

Hear any one point and you would have no idea how near the beginning or end you were. You first figure it will carry on like it is for a while. Then you settle in, and find yourself wanting it to continue. Then you reach a point where you can't conceive of it ever ending. That's the point where it's really working.

It's the antithesis of symphonic form. A symphony would try to map the ship's journey through it's movements, give the iceberg a theme and the crash its own thunderous section. This puts one small musical phrase under a microscope, like you might with a drop of seawater. And of course, once you do, it reveals almost infinite riches within.

We've found before at Lucid Frenzy the danger in describing minimalist music, it can sound something austere and challenging, when it really is the polar opposite of all that. This besets us twice over for this piece, whose theme may seem harsh and existential. But listen to it and it simply doesn't feel like it's saying our memories are chimerical, and we are on our own. More that our memories are shifting and ambiguous, but for all that vital. Think of the people you've known who aren't around any more. Remembering them is like taking a long-distance call over a bad line. But that's your only option, and you take the call. The Barbican blurb calls the work “heart-achingly intimate and direct.” (Kate Bush's 'A Coral Room', a more lyrical, song-based take on the same theme, is something people are more willing to see as life-affirming.)

...and the Crew

The genius of Philip Jeck's contribution is that he recognises we don't need to rework a piece that's essentially on perpetual remix anyway, nor another instrument added. Instead he brings in a whole new element which transforms everything else, and it becomes hard to imagine the piece before he got there. He plays turntables, but he mostly adds radio crackle and hum. He starts proceedings with a long section that's like trying to tune into an elusive radio station. Of course, to those of us of a certain age, these sounds of analogue radio immediately recall childhood. They're also similar to sonar, suggesting again at attempts to pierce that murky underwater world.

They collaborate like a duo, taking their own lines but in harmony with each other. The temptation becomes to assign roles to each practitioner. Perhaps Bryars' parts (the strings, the brass) are the attempts to access memory and Jeck's (the radio static) the ether, the spaces inbetween. And you could certainly find points which match that description. But it's not a piece which exists on solid ground, and there'll be other moments which don't. The only constant is the interplay.

Then, on top of all of that, are added the projections by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder. Like Jeck's radio hum, they come at the same theme from a different angle. Photos of the crew and passengers are speckled and discoloured, as if coming to us scrambled and subdued. (Whether they simply now look like that or whether Photoshop had a hand I couldn't say, but I doubt it matters much.) Sometimes they would have the sea surface superimposed on them. (Perhaps something of a literalisation of the concept, but it seemed to work.)

As I'm often complaining, visuals often clamour for your attention and vie with the music they're supposedly accompanying. Yet these didn't show off but relaxed into the common theme, sometimes only showing undulating waves or murky depths for long periods.

In one of my few criticisms, however, I wondered if we really needed two screens, showing the same image in symmetrical reflection. That tended to work for the more abstract sections, such as the waves, but for others became distracting. I wondered if it was more a response to the size of the hall than the music.

Minimally English

It's hard not to see the work as a very British take on minimalism. Original American minimalism was vibrantly modern, while this is about the ghosts of the past which never quite leave us. Compare it to Steve Reich's 'Different Trains'. Everything is summed up in the difference between the thrust of a gleaming train, powering its way across a continent, and a grand ocean liner slowly sinking.

Furthermore, 'Different Trains' was, at least in part, Reich's reaction to the Holocaust. Growing up Jewish in the Forties, he reflected that only an accident of geography prevented him being taken on different trains to quite different destinations. The Holocaust would have seemed only too real for him. The Titanic for Bryars has none of that personal sting, it's more a concept, a name that became an expression. Rolls Royce, status. Rolex, wealth. Titanic, loss. It's that lack of a specific connection that allows it to become such a general concept, and the work a cathedral-like open space for us to be immersed in and lose ourselves in our thoughts.

There was quite a gap between the piece ending and the audience applause. When it came, the reaction was euphoric. But the gap itself was interesting. Let's be honest, it was partly down to the difficulty in figuring out just when an indeterminist work has actually ended. But there's also a sense in which it doesn't end. In Bryars' central image, the orchestra simply carries on. And we could all still hear those haunting notes, working their way around the room...

Not the Jeck version, still less from the concert I saw, and only a snippet but still worth passing on. You can hear bioth pre and post Jeck versions on Spotify.

Wednesday 18 April 2012


Check it out – classic Krautrock! Nearly fifteen minutes of Can, credible contender for the greatest group in the history of everything, ever, going through their paces in their original “any colour is bad” era.

The awesome thing is the way it almost exactly matches everything your parents would say about your music. It's loud, it's repetitive, you can't hear the words properly, it's made by a load of long-haired weirdos... it's like the band went “thanks for the idea” and went wild with it. And Damo, in his scarlet jumpsuit and hair over his face, looks like Sadako from the 'Ring' films. (Okay, your parents didn't specifically mention that one, but it's still cool...)

Genius stuff...

Monday 9 April 2012


Well I quite enjoyed that mini-series of 'Dirk Gently'. Like it's title character, who may be deranged genius or charlatan on the make, it's never quite possible to pin it down...

I mean, obviously you can get things. A bizarre and seemingly random succession of people and events will find their way onto a white board, and link up into a formula. Which will elude Gently for roughly 55 minutes. He will entreat everyone to watch out for coincidences, but not look out for the one coincidence he should have been looking out for. And so on.

But if you can often guess what's happening, where you're wrongfooted is over what you're watching. You know, not the things, not the building blocks, but the tone and spirit. A scene will look like knockabout comedy, chases and capers and all, then you're smacked by a sudden left hook. "Seventy years," comments a young woman after a recent death, "it's neither one thing nor the other." Which, at the end of the day, it isn't.

All smart and genre-defying stuff. But, on the other hand, are we just being given what we want? You know, us media-savvy types who want our TVs to tell us that we're clever. Too much of a good thing. Doesn't that start out as a plus, become a glut and then finally, inexorably a clog?

Let me explain this by taking a tangent...

As a kid, one of my favourite TV shows was 'The Avengers'. Of course, I'd never actually seen it or anything. It had long been off the TV and home recordings were a crazy futuristic dream. Instead I had to rely on my parents to tell me about it. This process might seem rather roundabout but actually added to the show's elusive quality. Unlike most stuff then on the TV, it seemed both one thing and another. It could be spy adventure andabsurdist comedy and surrealist vision. It didn't live inside those neat little genre boxes that confined most other shows. Like Mrs Peel and the traps set by felons for her on a weekly basis, it sprang free of all that.

In that sense the new 'Doctor Who' would seem to owe more to 'The Avengers' than to the old 'Who'. As does 'Sherlock.' As does... and you may well be ahead of me here... 'Dirk Gently.' Like people and events on a white board, it's all starting to link up.

Let me explain this by taking a tangent...

I grew up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, a foreign country if ever there was. Take for example our school music lessons, where our teachers would lecture us on their classical music and how it was objectively superior to our silly pop music. We didn't understand their music, all this stuff about time signatures and recurrent themes, and that proved its worth. They didn't understand our music, which proved it's foolish irrelevance. The whole thing was self-evidently ridiculous, even to us eleven year olds.

They seemed guardians not only of an archaic style of music but the very model of society, which was predicated on everything staying inside it's neat little box, or else anarchy would ensue. So naturally, shaking it up seemed not just desirable but my whole mission in life. If a rock band (say Led Zeppelin) referenced classical music that was just one more step to breaking down those walls. Like Mrs Peel, they were staging a breakout.

Now fast forward to a more contemporary character, such as the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who calls Beethoven a "cat" and makes a point of liking both him and Led Zeppelin. In one sense, fair enough, I like both of them too. But as soon as the thing is taken up in that execrable way the limits of it dawn on you. I like them in different ways. They don't live in different boxes, but they come from different places. They work better apart, as one thing and the other. As soon as you start to imagine them as interchangeable you start to file off at the edges of what made them individual, and what's left is simply homogenous.

Dirk Gently, Sherlock, the Doctor... a dynamic lead who may be genius or deranged, with a plodding, blokeish sidekick in tow. They embark on adventures from rollicking thriller to poignant drama to self-aware comedy and back. Two out of three gain traction from reminding us they were based on an original text which did none of this, back in that black-and-white past. And we, the audience, make the leaps with them. We are, after all, modern and sophisticated and want TV screens which reflect us.

Let me explain this by taking a tangent...

Robyn Hitchcock's original band, the Soft Boys, played psychedelic music at the height of punk. Except what they played was psychedelic music crossed with punk, when the two were held to never mix. He compared it to playing with plasticine which somehow kept it's different colours. Except, he reflected, finally the plasticine all went browny grey, and the band had to split.

Which is my point. We should beware of too much of what we fancy. If we keep playing with the different-coloured plasticine like we are, it will all go browny grey. It will be neither one thing nor the other.


Only bother reading the rest of this if you are one of those clever techy types...
"Okay, I finally accepted my decrepit old computer wasn't about to spring back into life, so went out and bought a new iMac. Assuming my bank manager isn't reading this post, so far to the good. It starts up when it's supposed to (a big advantage over it's predecessor) and I can indulge in long-forgotten habits like watch the iPlayer and listen to Spotify. I'm facing two fairly big problems, however, and if anyone reading this has any advice I'd be grateful.

Firstly, pretty much all my old software has been rendered useless at a stroke - as it's incompatible with the new machine. (Presumably since Macs started using Intel processors.) Following advice from Mr. Google, I downloaded the shareware Open Office, which works pretty much the way I hoped it would. It does about everything Microsoft Word did, except you don't have to make Bill Gates richer for using it. It even happily supports the password-protected files I had. (TextEdit was just shrugging at those and walking off.) It does some distracting predictive texting thing, but I'd guess there's a way to switch that off. 

I also downloaded the Photoshop alternative Gimpshop, and things there ran less smoothly... This claims it needs something called X11 to open, which does indeed seem to strike up when bidden. But from there nothing happens! I simply stare nonplussed at an empty screen which sits where I hoped my new software might be. As I know nothing of this 'X11' business (unless it's a very late 'X-Men' sequel) I am now at something of a loss. Is there a way to get it going? Or alternative shareware I could try?

I'm also going to need some alternative to Quark/InDesign and (ideally) Illustrator for the next time I bring out a comic, so I'd gratefully receive any advice over those.

Secondly, I had a pile of stuff (including most of my half-completed Lucid Frenzy postings) saved on Zip discs. And (you've guessed it!) the new machine won't accept the software to install the drive. Probably more a question for Brighton-area folks, but if anyone has a PowerMac I could borrow for an hour or two so I can switch the data to CD I would be a very grateful man. I still have my drive and the installation software, so all I'd need is access to the machine.

Sunday 1 April 2012


The Haunt, Brighton, 12th March

Lately we at Lucid Frenzy have been insistent that slow is the new fast, and there’s no better poster band for that philosophy than Earth. At one point main man Dylan Carson announces a track to be “the fastest and the shortest we’ll ever do”, and it still lumbers along for over ten minutes, single bass notes seemingly lasting longer than some powerpop numbers.

The band took their name from an early version of Black Sabbath, and appropriately so. Significantly, much of the imagery that surrounds them (in titles and artwork) portrays them as a force of nature. But while pop songs fritter with birds and flowers, Earth are about what’s underneath all that. Earth tracks are pretty much that – tracks. Like winding country tracks, you may have to follow the dirt road a while before you get to the mountain views. But once you reach the views, you know the walk’s been worth it.

However, the Sabbath reference has led to a few misconceptions about the band’s sound. Others have taken the Sabbath template and launched themselves into the outer limits. But Earth remain quite rooted in rock – just the substructure of rock, the rhythm tracks usually buried under something else, played out until they can be played no more. A number of tracks seem hewn from country rock, only slowed down, stretched and bent into a less rigid shape. There’s melodic lines aplenty inside the soundscapes, like the sap in a tree branch. They sound heavy, certainly, but there’s nothing oppressive or ponderous about them – it’s more warm and comforting. They sound, come to think of it, something like the earth.

They’re like the anti-Napalm Death, in the sense of opposite but complementary. One band’s tracks are wound tight like coiled springs, then fired out over the audience. The others are stretched to infinity and beyond. But both have pursued their sound to devotion. (Earth formed in 1989, with this very gig the occasion of Carlson’s Fiftieth birthday.) And in a sense you want them to keep going forever. Earth are like a rolling river you know of. Every so often you want to trek there, dive in and immerse yourself. You may not need to do that every day. But you want to think the river is rolling every day.

A few souls expressed some disappointment with this gig. (And Alexis Petrdis’ Guardian review is correct to say it should have been louder.) But theirs is a sound which doesn’t come out at you so much as draw you in. Don’t expect slo-mo stage diving and plectrums thrown into the audience. As Petridis goes on to say of Carlson, “his rules clearly different to anyone else.” I’d have followed him to the ends of the pier.

Barbican Hall, London, 20th March

“Hip-hop culture democratised sampling, popular music today is a form of music concrete, the voices and rhythms of the past mixing with the sound of machinery and electronics.” runs part of the manifesto for this contemporary music ensemble’s night of Field Recordings. Which is a cool concept for a number of reasons. For one thing, we live in a very sight-based culture, blithely using expressions like “I see what you mean”. While we’re triggered to spot sights, when sound doesn’t contain speech we assume it lacks information and take it in only subliminally. This makes it more of a Proustian cake. Show us a photo of a place we’ve been and we peer into it. Play us the sounds of it and we’re back there.

Hence guest star Mira Calix played some recordings of flight announcements in a plane cabin (in French to dispel any language familiarity). Something about their cadence and echoey sound was indeed evocative. Yet I’m not sure what they had to do with the music which followed. Indeed I might well have preferred the recordings to the ensuing playing, something which would recur for other pieces.

At other times it was like both sides were talking at once, like an irresolvable argument. Christian Marclay, another guest star, provided ’Fade to Slide’, a collage of ‘sound points’ from film clips (carrots being chopped, clogs on the ground etc), “which the musicians use as a structure for their performance.” The musicians filling in for silent visual clues might have worked, or the soundtrack playing alone. (As was done at Marclay’s solo exhibition, at the Barbican a few years ago.) As it was I was reminded of Tom Waits’ adage “if two people are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.”

As I found myself often favouring the concrete over the music, I wondered if they’d had more confidence in the recordings they would have let them speak more. I would have liked to have heard many of the recordings unadorned, preferably in darkness, and in sensurround so each came at you from a different direction. (I was probably getting carried away at this point.)

Perhaps inevitably (if mildly disappointingly), the pieces worked better if the recording was itself more musical. These tended to then use the recording as a backing track or as a ghosted lead vocal. (For example Evan Ziporyn’s ’Wargasari’ with it’s Balinese singer.) Pieces often developed in complexity as they went along, a quite reasonable (if standard) thing for a piece of music to do, but it did seem a way of leaving the recording behind.

Let us concede that other pieces gained mileage out of mimicry. Florant Ghys’ ’An Open Cage’ utilised the Steve Reich trick of taking the cadences of speech as musical rhythms. (From John Cage’s readings, hence the title.) And Tyondai Braxton’s ’Casino Trem’ composed around slot machine sounds until it was hard to hear the join. (I am not quite sure whether I enjoyed this piece or not. But it was arresting and original enough that I enjoyed not knowing.)

I have felt before that reviewing things can spoil them for you in some Heisenbergian sort of way, where you try to pin it to an angle rather than surrender yourself to it. But concept-driven nights can do that to themselves, they become like art projects, casting rigid parameters across everything while music is surely somewhere you want to traverse with instinct as your guide.

So in my best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice, I told myself “ditch the concept... go with the flow!” And once I’d resolved to let go of the hand-holds, the better it all seemed to work. In an endearingly eclectic programme, you weren’t going to like everything. (Nick Zammuto’s ’Real Beauty Turns’ seemed a skit on beauty ads, a pointlessly easy target with it’s irritating jingles copied rather too closely.) However, even then the highpoints seemed furthest from the concept.

Take for example ’Gene Takes a Drink’ by Michael Gordon. (One of the ensemble’s founders, though not here tonight.) That made the juncture not with the recording but between the musicians, a rolling clarinet set against a pulsing minimalist beat. (Perhaps the accompanying film clip was intended as the field recording.)

And my favourite piece of the night was the encore, by definition not part of the concept at all. ’Stroking Music’ a Thursten Moore composition especially for the group, sounded what the Velvet Underground might have been if a contemporary ensemble instead of a rock band. A ticking guitar pulse built slowly and steadily into a thumping metronomic riff, before plunging down the other side into skittering freeform jazz. (A little too much of the latter, but you can’t have everything.)

Such pieces are, for us fey arty types, the equivalent of extreme sports – the rush of a race track or a particularly vertiginous snowboard slope, a white-kunckle ride to clear out the system.

In short, a fantastic concept and (at times) some absolutely excellent music. And at points the two even met somewhere in the middle.

Neither from the Barbican show but two for your money, Ziporyn’s ’Wargasari’ followed by Moore’s ’Stroking Music.’ (You will wonder what my criticisms could possibly have been on hearing these, but they are highlights.)

Had I seen this next lot straight after Earth I could have made some clever-sounding elemental segue...

Brighton Dome, 27th March

It’s funny the way you can lose touch with bands the way you can friends. For most of the Eighties the music Mike Scott made with the Waterboys was something I held in the highest regard. And to this day I insist ’This is the Sea’ to be one of the finest albums ever. (Yes, up there with the first Velvets, ’Horses’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Blonde on Blonde,’ ‘Metal Box’ and all the rest of them.) Then they released one album I didn’t like so much, ’Room to Roam’, and somehow we parted company.

I had heard on the grapevine that at least some of the subsequent releases were better but somehow never rekindled the relationship. The recent news that a whole new album would be dedicated to Yeat’s poetry, ’An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’, led me to imagine something like the older track ’The Stolen Child’ - in which the poem is delivered quite languidly over some Celtic ambience. A good enough track, but not the sort of thing that needed promoting to LP length. Okay, it meant Scott was still holding to it, following his muse and not playing ’Whole of the Moon’ to an Eighties nostalgia night before Bananarama came on. But really, a bit of an art project. The sort of thing everyone dutifully applauds but no-one actually likes.

Then I saw this performance on the Jools Holland show...

..and, suffice to say, I was primed to purloin my ticket for this show.

The first half of the set is devoted to “vintage Waterboys”, which mostly means the first two albums. The band made a good fist out of them, which unfortunately became a problem. Were I to tell you the playing was forceful, that might even sound a good thing. There are bands you’d want to sound that way. But from the first these guys danced to a different jig. Though they came after and in a sense replaced post-punk’s ‘anti-rockist’ ethos, in his own way Smith was just as keen to break down the “factory rhythm” of rock. Their music didn’t march, it swung and soared and shimmered and flew. Of course it was well-composed and well-rehearsed, but it always sounded spontaneous and flowing, like it was somehow just being unfurled. Their sound came to be dubbed the Big Music, after an early single, which I always took to mean ‘vast’ or ‘ascending’. Not bashing ahead at full tilt.

Moreover, Scott’s singing turned in places to the declammatory. Which, if you’re singing “all we’ve got to do is surrender,” suggests the real meaning is “all you’ve got to do is surrender.” His words are allusive and rich with imagery, so don’t really gain from being underlined by the singer’s intonation. Like the works of a colourful painter, they’re best displayed on more of a flat canvas.

Though these were songs from the early days they were not the recorded versions, powered by Anthony Thistlethwaite’s sax, but the later live versions, where the band came to be held aloft by Steve Wickham’s fiddle playing. (Perhaps because Mr. Wickham is here present, and Mr. Thistethwaite not.) The celebrated sax opening of ’Don’t Bang The Drum’ was even a recording, played over the PA as the band reassembled. Which, being the era I love the most, should suit me. But it’s perhaps when they were furthest from being a regular rock band.

The fewer more recent songs (little of which I knew) seemed to survive this treatment better. The hit ’Glastonbury Song’, the only track of theirs I’ve previously found risible, actually became something of a highpoint! I reasoned that the old songs might not be the new bands forte, or this finesse-free first half was down to stage nerves, and the Yeats stuff in the main section would work better.

...which it pretty much did. Rather than some well-meaning attempt to graft poems onto rock tracks, it’s a tribute that for much of the time you could cheerfully forget such origins. (Until Scott back-announced ’An Irish Airman Forsees His Death’, or similar.) But there was also a surprising variety to the sound, not just Celtic-tinged folk rock but blues piano or even the sung-spoken style of Kurt Weill. (Perhaps an unorthodox treatment for an Irish poet, but it worked.) Musicians came and went, with instruments picked up and discarded, everything always on the best setting for that poem now.

The only marring moment was when Scott mock-read ’The Second Coming’ while wearing a theatrical horror mask to a swirling organ. (Do you call it “mock-read” when someone on stage pretends to read from the prop of a huge tome, but never actually looks at it?) But that was a few minutes only of bad Genesis tribute act.

If Bang on a Can made me consider how concepts have a paradoxical effect on creativity, capable of stifling or stimulating, here Scott seemed to find Yeats an endless source of riches. From what little I know of Yeats, he probably makes a fitting subject, with a variety to his work and a language that’s not over-florid. He even wrote a volume helpfully called ’Words for Music, Perhaps.’ Wyndham Wallace’s BBC review confirms something I suspected, that Scott is “not entirely beholden to a poem’s structure.” You need to treat adaptations such as this like collaborations with someone not in the room, respectfully but not reverentially.

The band returned for an extended encore (virtually a third half). This was mostly based around the ‘raggle taggle’ era of Wickham’s playing and perhaps worked better for it, for my earlier concerns did not return. The venue had (somewhat inappropriately) imposed a no dancing policy on the night, which was soon swept asunder and Scott had those of us standing at our seats turn round on the spot. (See accompanying illustration.) They must have played for two and a half hours. Not the mark of an art project.

In total, a band who had a few hits in the Eighties and Nineties, with one original member, whose works from the last two decades I barely knew. And I went home wishing they’d played more new stuff. Not a normal reaction? Not a normal band.

Postscript: My old Mac is neither repaired nor replaced but held together by sticky tape and glue. As what it doesn’t like is powering up, I am no longer powering it down but putting it in Sleep mode when not in use. How well that works may well be measured by how often I get to post here...