Sunday 27 May 2012


Scanner and the Heritage Orchestra rework Joy Division
Brighton Dome, Fri 18th May

Though it might sound a gimmick, the idea's actually a smart one. Joy Division's spacious yet driving music, simultaneously austere and melodically rich, uniquely lends itself to orchestral or electronic reworking. (Try out, for example this serene but more conventionally 'classical' re-scoring of 'Ceremony'.) Announcement of this gig had me highly hopeful.

But hopes shouldn't be confused with expectations. My fears found an emblem in that affected_underscore inserted into the event name, which has long been a token of Shoreditch_style_techno_hipness. (The phrase itself comes from the opening line of the track 'Transmission'.) I knew not of the Heritage Orchestra but have been lukewarm over Scanner, who seemed forever coming up with good ideas that never quite came off, a conceptual artist perpetually confused that he was some kind of musician.

A few fears, in fact, settled on that_underscore. I feared genre-bending, which is commonly based more around audience demographics than musical notions. Music audiences are no longer tight-knit but disparate, so crossover became a device to net the greatest number. It's the same hapless marketing strategy as those Hollywood films which are a bit rom-com, a bit conspiracy thriller, a bit satire, but nothing very much of anything. Genre-bending is most commonly a fancy term for bet-hedging.

But mostly I feared a project, and those with previous knowledge of my rantings will know I nurse a deep skepticism of anything smacking of such a thing. Projects are hooks which drawn in arts funding, and (every now and again) audiences. And from there they consider their job done.

...yet happily those fears fled. The Festival brochure claimed “rather than classical interpretations or cover versions, Scanner and Heritage Orchestra pay homage to the music and signature spirit that defined Joy Division.” And for once the PR wasn't spin but the honest truth.

If you'd chanced upon the whole thing cold, with no foreknowledge of it or Joy Division's music, you may have sensed some scheme was afoot. But it didn't rule out anyone who hadn't done the background reading. Notably, it wasn't arranged in that literalist 'remix album' format, with their take on 'Atmosphere', then their take on 'Isolation' and so on... Some pieces were so reworked that even a lifelong fan such as myself took a while to spot the original. Long sections seemed, if inspired by the band's music, no longer based in it but able to break off and do their own thing.

That genre-bending business, if it's often less than successful that's because it's more difficult than it looks. Those who vow to march oblivious to such boundaries end up with bloodied noses more often than breakthroughs. If you're aiming to marry a small orchestra with electronics and a live band (as they are here) you need to be master of all those disciplines separately before you can think of naming the day and sending the invites. Which doesn't happen all that often.

And yet here they were blended so finely you barely noticed the joins. Though the novelty of the situation might have initially drawn you, you quickly got over it and listened to the music on it's own terms. Pieces would have contemporary music structures, moving through sections rather than swapping between verse and chorus, but still be driven by the most thrusting popular-music beats.

In short, they shrewdly chose to play down the cross-genre element. However, every now and again, they'd spark things off against each other. A section would be made up of the most intricately beautiful counterpoint, only for everyone aboard to suddenly pile into one pounding riff. Much of it's force would come from it's unexpectedness.

The very success of this was perhaps something of an an irony. The band's dub-influenced, spacious sound effectively boxed them in as a studio-centred outfit. Most live tapes, including the live sides of their posthumous release 'Still', show them struggling to replicate that sound live. (PA technology was poorer then, plus they mostly played in pokier venues during their short existence.) Yet ironically, as was telegraphed by it's title, this event worked particularly well live. The music had a physicality to it that bordered on monumentality, a sense of space, a feeling of force. You felt it in both senses of the word, with the communality of a packed room adding to the experience.

Another feature of the performance which enhanced the sense of a special event, was Matt Watkins' set design. The musicians performed not on the regular stage but inside a giant gauze cube, with projections playing upon it's semi-transparent walls. However the Festival guide's claim we would be able to move around this, making it sound as much an installation as a gig, did seem mere spin. In fact, as it took up much of what's normally the auditorium, we all pretty much found our vantage points best we could and stayed as still as at any regular gig. Indeed, as the back of the cube was effectively made a solid cinema screen, there didn't even seem any real invitation to do otherwise.

One pleasing feature of the visuals is that, though they started off with cityscapes, they soon veered off into more abstract realms. Though urban spaces have long since become part of the band's iconography, us old fans remember there was a time before that. As the band didn't give interviews or even get photographed very much, their look came mostly from their record sleeves. The stark, minimalist design of these, provided by Peter Saville, often didn't incorporate photos at all, and never images either of the band or urban space. (It was years before I knew what any of them looked like!) In fact, the sine-wave lines of 'Urban Pleasures', below, were directly referenced by the projections.

This links to an article in the programme, written by no less than Simon Reynolds. His contention is that the memoir of Curtis' widow, 'Touching From a Distance,' and the subsequent movie 'Control' have skewed our appreciation of Joy Division into a biography of Curtis' short life. Indeed at times, with all the lights and the iconography of Curtis' face and lyrics, the gig started to feel quasi-religious, as if he was some martyred saint. Reynolds feels obligated to counter by emphasising the universalism of the music, and the contribution of the other band members.

My own take on 'Control' was admittedly different. As the band only really broke after Curtis' death, the way myself and many others have heard their music has always been framed by news of it. So I found the film refreshingly myth-deflating. I said “Let's do the punk thing. The punk thing is to kill your idols.” Whereas Reynolds says, “myth is what rock music is all about, despite the attrition of facts and over-exposure wrought by historians and gossipers alike.”

...and let's concede he makes a good point. Cancerous celebrity culture has done much to redefine art as celebrity autobiography, an 'OK' interview with a soundtrack. Distant seem the days where Dylan said “a poet tells you what you feel.”

But where this performance comes in is perhaps via the last item of Reynolds' list - “the unofficial fifth member of the group, producer Martin Hannett.” Though taking place on the anniversary of Curtis' death and at times fetishising his words, playing them as samples or displaying them on-screen, in formal terms it sidelines them. Despite the multifold musicians, there's not a single vocalist on stage. The riffs and tunes are the band's, but what's being channelled is more the austere, expansive sound, taken up and transformed into grander soundscapes.

And pretty much all of that sound was Hannett's. Famously, he foisted that sound upon an initially unwilling group. He was a figure less akin even to George Martin, but should be seen alongside Phil Spector or Lee Perry – a musical visionary in his own right. Of course he needed the band as much as they did him. But if this production's about bigging up his contribution, that's well overdue.

Admittedly, it was unfortunate for the show to finish on its weakest note. After such powerful, expansive music, it made sense in terms of set dynamics to finish with a simpler, more straightforward piece of songcraft. And so we get 'Love Will Tear Us Apart.' This was the only number to feature Curtis' complete vocals, over softer, sweeter, simpler music.

Alas, there seems some sort of conspiracy to redefine this song as a crooner number. Of course there was that risible Paul Young cover in the Eighties, but it now comes even from people you'd think to know better. Only last November, I was saying how much I enjoyed the June Tabor and Oysterband gig, but their version of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'is to me an exercise in point-missing.

The original number is a ballad in a kind of symbiotic struggle with a rock track, fitting the theme of a relationship which is convulsive and unsettled. (I never tire of the opening segue, where the accelerating drums suddenly give way to the main keyboard theme. It's like a twist in a classic movie, which you know off by heart but can still watch over and over again.) Perhaps you need a different angle to avoid duplicating the original. In which case, rather than a crooner, it should be sung more coldly, by someone akin to Marlene Dietrich. Crucially, it should be sung by someone who seems no longer capable of love. As it is, I expect to see some 'X Factor' wannabe emoting their way through it any day now...

But caveats aside, the event was a triumph. It felt in many ways akin to the live 'Joan of Arc' soundtrack from last year's Festival. Both took place in the Dome, were cross-genre and multi-media performances based on an external source. Yet, most importantly, both were the hit of their respective Festivals. Perhaps I should try to wring more drama from these posts by saving that news till later, but I knew even part-way through the gig this would be this year's highpoint.

Still not sure about that underscore in the title, though...

Brighton Dome, 21st May

...from one great vocalist and songwriter, who died tragically young, to another. And, as with Ian Curtis, it can be hard for us to separate Sandy Denny's music from her conflicted and tragic life.

The way we feel about her may be summed up in her song 'Stranger To Himself', which of course gets aired here. Though ostensibly written by her about a man, it's effectively become our song to her.

“You know you're a master of your art
You'll realise that when you think it fit...
You can run for cover, run for cover like a frightened hare
Till it's all over, all over and there's no-one there
Cause you daren't discover, daren't discover that we really care.”

(In fact 'Stranger To Herself' might have made a more memorable night name than 'The Lady' or, from another line in the song,'Her Beauty Lingers Still'. But then who am I to judge?)

The show assembles former collaborators and guest stars to celebrate her “posthumous reputation as one of the UK’s greatest ever singer-songwriters.” Note the p-word. During her time with electric folk legends Fairport Convention she was often thought of as the chassis of the band, to Richard Thompson's engine. Though her voice was inextricably part of their sound, her songwriting tended to be eclipsed by Thompson's.

Furthermore, there's the old joke about the two finest folk composers being Trad and Anon. As they both wrote prolifically for the band, crowding her songs out further, perhaps it's no surprise she soon decided to go solo. Yet I have to confess, and I suspect I'm not the only one, I simply don't know her solo work as well. Which alone may make nights such as this a good idea.

Green Gartside, before launching into the afore-mentioned 'Stranger to Himself' comments “it's Sandy's mysterious songs I love.” And perhaps the nail has it's head struck right there. In a previous post I was upbraided for starting a sentence “folk music should...” So let's just say that the folk music which interests me isn't about the days when a pint of mild cost under three bob. Occasionally such sentiments crop up even here. One song about the freewheeling life of a gypsy is all very well when sung to an audience of mortgaged-up middle class people, but might get a different response from the former residents of Dale Farm.

The folk music which interests me isn't about reacquainting ourselves with our homeland, so much as defamiliarising that land, rending it strange and new again, making us... you've probably guessed where I'm going with this... strangers to ourselves. Art without mystery, wouldn't that be simply decoration?

Yet the paradoxical truth about Denny is that no-one sung about a home hearth the way she could. Her signature song, the classic 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes?' (the inevitable closer here) is so much a song about homecoming that it's about never having left in the first place. It's perhaps the combination of these two things which becomes enthralling, as we simultaneously belong here and don't recognise it at all.

We could slip off here into Freudian notions of the unhomely and the like, but truth to tell I barely understand how any of it works and I doubt Denny did. After all, it's a mystery, right? All we really need to know is that it does work. It's perhaps exemplified by folk tunings, which should come over as antiquated but actually sound strange and eerie.

On top of which, there's simply no getting away from Denny's voice. She has the consummate folk-rock voice, the strength of rock without the theatrics, and folk intonations taken on like that's her natural way of singing. Yet Richard Thompson is possessed of a fine and distinctive voice himself, as I said last time I saw him, but somehow others can sing his songs, he doesn't 'own' them in that sense. I'm not sure that's so true for Denny, even if I've no idea why that might be.

...all of which may make something of a stiff challenge for those performing her songs that night. But then, like the old saying goes, hazards are risks and risks are chances.

You may note I have of late being going to these platform nights at the Dome, then complaining they're like a mixtape you can't fast-forward. But this seemed particularly thrown to the extremes, ranging from the exquisite to the (frankly) bland with little in between. And most peculiarly of all, these zigzags seemed to strike with little rhyme or reason. The opening number, Lavinia Blackwell boldly taking on 'A Sailor's Life', rousingly bode well. Yet it's follow-up was a disappointment, despite being performed by the same band and the same singer!

One constant, which may be down to the centrality of Denny's voice, is that the female singers did better than the male. Another might have been that the traditional numbers associated with her worked more easily. But both rules came with exceptions. Green's version of 'Stranger To Himself' was spirited and faultless. Thea Gilmore came with inauspicious-sounding news that she'd added music to words found after Denny had died. (A project if ever I heard one.) Yet at least one of these, 'Long Time Gone' was unforgettable. To those of us who know a little of Denny's at-times traumatic life the words (“Will he come, will he ever come, home again to me?” as if the antithesis of 'Who Knows?') were almost heartrending.

The band were a similar strange mix, with several outbreaks of Eric Clapton blues guitar. Blues and folk are bedfellows, of course. But that over-saturated style bears the same relationship to blues as the synthetic 'strawberry' flavouring used in sweets and cheap desserts does to strawberries. It's a tag that's been given so long we apply it without even thinking it's nothing like the original.

In short zigzags predominated, fantastical highs and uber-forgettable lows. Reviewing an earlier version of this tribute night in the Guardian, Robin Denslow commented “It had been a great evening, but I went home to listen to her original recordings.”

Well of course he did.

Johnny Flynn at the Denslow-reviewed night, in possibly an even-better version of 'Stranger To Himself' than Green's, followed by 'Long Time.'

This time from Brighton - the closing number, which was... oh, you know already...

Coming Soon! Brighton Festival Theatre and performance...


"Targeting home + family of a politician you disagree with is intolerable bullying... Let's show #UKuncut what people think of targeting families.”

Tory MP Louise Mensch on UK Uncut protestors holding a street party outside the Deputy PM's house, as a protest against Government austerity cuts. In the same thread she insists such events should be made illegal!

"These pen pushers and busybodies are completely wrong. They have no right to stop you from having a party. Let me put it like this: I am the Prime Minister and I am telling you if you want to have a street party, you go ahead and have one."

Prime Minister David Cameron, a little over a year ago, on people's right to hold street parties for the Jubilee without “red tape”.

Consistent as ever, then.

Thursday 24 May 2012


...the conclusion of a look into an exhibition on the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, at the British Museum

Unity: It's Ups and Downs

Perhaps one reason why Islam can seem controversial is it's insistence that religion should have a social dimension, that it's not sufficient to pop off for the odd prayer then get on with the rest of your life. (Though of course for much of it's history Christianity had a similar insistence, and only much more recently came the notion of religion being boxed off, a private matter.)

As anyone who's attended one of these British Museum blockbuster shows can confirm, they do tend to cram the crowds in. And, unsurprisingly, a goodly portion of the attendees are the 'ethnic Muslims' which UKIP and the EDL are always getting their knickers in a twist about. And it is quite striking how in such a logjam situation most Muslims are patient, considerate and scrupulously polite.

...which may seem merely an anecdotal point. But I don't doubt that, at least in part, being beholden to a religion enables that behaviour. It leads to your feeling part of some kind of a society, not that the world crushes people together but they're actually just in it for themselves. If that's regressive, if that's (to take one of the more pseudo-intellectual anti-Muslim arguments) “pre-Enlightenment”, then I simply prefer regressive and pre-Enlightenment to the alternative.

This communalising sense is often explicitly referred to by pilgrims. Michael Wolfe commented “everywhere else, every person looked out for himself. During the Hajj the people looked out for each other.” Ali Shariati internalises the experience: “you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. You have been transformed into a particle which is gradually melting and disappearing. That is is love at it's absolute peak.”

The show also quotes from Malcolm X's famous attendance in 1964 (“the people of all races, colours, from all over the world came together as one”), without mentioning explicitly that the experience led him to break from the black supremacism of the Nation of Islam. It would even be possible to argue that the root of Islam was the desire to end the tribal blood feuds, so prevalent in Mohammed's time, by emphasising human commonality.

Yet is there a downside to all of this? Islam practices unity but the word literally means submission. Unity is vital, but the cost shouldn't be conformity or intolerance of difference.

And it would be politically correct in the worst sense of the term to pretend Islam is free from problems of conformity, with the treatment of women is merely one. Among the (highly polite) crowds were classic examples of the mismatch couple, the man in designer jeans, branded T-shirt and sunglasses, with the woman in full burka. Perhaps I'm ill-practised in cultural relitavism, but I just see a double standard there.

So, how to square the ups and downs of unity? Let's start the next section with a disclaimer. Clearly despicable is any sort of New Agey approach, with it's consumerist, pick-and-mix approach to other religions and cultures. Let's purloin their art and listen to their oh-so-spiritual Sufi music, but not bother with all that tiresome business of praying several times a day! The far-right thugs of the English Defence League may want to destroy Islam, but at least they're not trying to help themselves to the pieces afterwards. (In one of those “know thyself” moments which writing stuff down can bring, I found myself at pains not to give any unnecessary offence to Muslims, then virtually relishing the idea of sticking it to those bleedin' New Agers!)

Religions and cultures should always be looked at wholesale, like those symbolic maps, with every element forming part of the picture. Nevertheless, I'd optimistically like to imagine a more considered view might be able to pinpoint and take up the best aspects of a religion. Otherwise we are stuck with a take-it-or-leave-it response, where the entire thing must be either an eternal truth or a total confidence trick.

It's become a commonplace to argue that communism is really a religion. (Admittedly, if you look at Trotskyism or Stalinism, not without reason.) But I would argue the opposite. Religion is a mis-representation of the sense of human community. Of course we can sense something bigger than you or me! But there's no need to go conjuring up supernatural deities. That something is actually us. It's the pilgrims, not the place, which make the Hajj. Others see things differently, of course. But to me religion is simply communism misspelt. interesting feature of that argument is that in some senses it's the antithesis of the standard communist view of religion, as “the opium of the masses.” Which there may be much truth to, but equally it raises the question – shouldn't we need more opium right now, just when religion is in overall decline? If religion is a mis-representation of the social instinct, then it can also act as a barometer of the social. Hence, in our contemporary privatised world, its signal becomes weaker.

The last time I attended a British Museum exhibition where religion was so central was about Ancient Egypt. And of course few Egyptians today plan to be mummified after death, in preparation for their bodily resurrection. But many modern Egyptians are Islamic. The idea of then going on to attend a show where half the crowd believe fully in everything that's being reported... that's almost as fascinating as the show itself.

Sunday 20 May 2012


British Museum

This one should start with a cluster of apologies! Not only is it a response to an exhibition which has already finished (on 15th April), it's one of the British Museum cultural exhibitions I promised faithfully to stop trying to review! And what's more, it's also a response to a TV show (Rageh Omaar's ' The Hidden Art of Islam') which has equally vanished into the ether! And as if all that wasn't enough, it's probably more polemical than analytical.

”If You Could Just See the Beauty...”

Partly I feel compelled to write about this exhibition because, while obviously it's about the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, it's perfectly possible to take it as an art exhibition. That would be true even if you removed the contributions of contemporary Islamic artists, for much of the historic art which is rich and astonishingly beautiful.

...which scarcely fits the stereotype of Islam as a rigid and austere sect, when not actually banning art then busily draining it's lifeblood through an army of restrictions. Omaar's documentary does a good job of unpicking the history here. In what is quite likely the world's most anti-idolatrous religion, representational art was distrusted as attempting a rival reality to God's creation. Inevitably the precise nature of these strictures varied over time and place. But it would be possible to generalise it into two styles, a kind of melding of abstract art with calligraphy, plus a style akin to naïve or folk art.

Remind you of anything? Where else do we see those two styles in semi-symbiosis, semi-competition? Modernism, right?

As I seem to say with excessive regularity, in art restrictions enable. These rules gave Islamic art more than they took away, much more. Art that is merely imitative of reality is a fool's errand. One Muslim scholar interviewed by Omarr commenting on the restrictions, pointed out you can't draw a duck then watch it fly away. “You can't win with God”, he summed up cheerily. We might say art can't hope to match reality, but we're winding up in the same place as him. There's Brecht's famous dictum, “art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Art is a reducing and (often) an organising force, not reflecting a situation so much as striving to make sense out of it.

So it's perhaps significant that much of the work on display here are symbolic maps, and even the images which aren't still tend to look like them. Figures become like 2D symbols arranged along a flat, often plain white, plane - as if they're floating above it. They have a relationship with each other, but that is enhanced not diminished by avoiding placing them inside a little scene. In other drawings the ground is a flat baseline, like in a child's drawing.

But what of the calligraphic art? It's chiefly represented by the Kiswa, the hangings used for the Ka'ba (more of which anon), one of the most devout purposes in Islam. And as if the rules already imposed didn't seem restrictive enough they then employ a strictly limited palette – black, red, green and gold. And yet look how beautiful they are!

As any dabbler in calligraphy will tell you, writing is another form of drawing. This effect may be enhanced for those of us who can't read Arabic. Perhaps it's just over-familiarity with the Western alphabet, but surely those swoops and whirls more readily become abstract art than any of our own letters. I couldn't help but wonder if Arabic children more readily leapt to the words in a picture book than young Westerners, confronted by our unappealing squiggles.

I confess to be clueless over how the tale develops from here. Is this art slipping it's shackles, asserting itself instead of singing God's praises? Or would a Muslim see the skill and workmanship, the sheer aesthetic power, as indivisible from a testament to God's power? Perhaps similarly, I often reflect how art seems to be replacing religion in our lives, galleries upstaging cathedrals as the centre of some holy mystery. Which always seems to me misplaced.

The Sacred Heart

But for all the exquisite art on display, the most searingly memorable image is part of the Hajj itself. Tawaf (literally 'circumambulation') is the ritual where pilgrims circle the Ka'ba, the large granite block in the centre of Mecca. In one of many never-knew-that moments, the exhibition explains how the central part of the Hajj is not here but actually Wuquf (or 'stay') where pilgrims spend a day of contemplation in the desert. Nevertheless, Tawaf is so powerful an image that it's become the poster boy of the Hajj, in this exhibition and elsewhere.

What is it that makes this image so powerful? Perhaps it would be illustrative to contrast it with the central image of Christianity. Crucifixion can of course be displayed in a variety of ways. You can home in on the cross, without even the figure, and it's a recognisable icon. Or you can pull back into a crowd scene. There's variations in style between Churches and across time periods; Medieval images can look horrifically grisly, yet Victorian paintings romantic, barely different in tone from the Nativity.

Images of Tawaf are much more rigid. The Ka'ba, basically a black block, is at root an almost abstract image, a square surrounded by concentric circles. This makes it less susceptible to reworking. It's an image so elegant in its simplicity, it shrugs off elaboration. There's modern artworks here based around it, but they only really work when they duplicate it in another media. For example, Ahmed Mater's 'Magnetism' (below) reproduces it through an upright magnet and iron filings.

Which is fitting. One of the notable features of the exhibition is (contrary to the claims of fanatics at the fringes of either side) how rooted in Christianity Islam actually is. Tawaf and the other elements of the Hajj duplicate things not done by Mohammed but by Abraham, or his wife Hagar. (Pilgrims visit Mohammed's tomb, but they can skip this step and still claim to have performed Hajj.)

Yet Islam is, in the true sense of the word, stricter than Christianity. Christians are told to think of the poor, maybe even hand over a little money when they can. Muslims are given a fixed portion of their income to donate. The Bible is, at root, a mythopoetic history. The more antagonistic atheists read it as a rulebook, quote-mining it for ammunition. Christians, not without justification, tell them they're missing the point. The Qur'an, conversely, is much closer to being a rulebook. (Christianity of course grew in a time and place when monotheism had already been established by Judaism. Islam did not, which may go some way to account for its greater emphasis on strictures.)

Yet that would only explain what makes the image fitting for Muslims. But...just look at it!... it is clearly powerful in general.

A large part of this is fitting into a myth that's universal – the axis mundi. As children we tend to assume we are the centre of everything, and have trouble conceiving of events happening beyond our sight. As adults we learn better, but this can make the world seem disparate and rudderless. The axis mundi substitutes a place for this personal feeling, somewhere which is always here, no matter where we are in relation to it. Reaching it becomes like coming home, even if we have never been there before. Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), is quoted after his own Hajj: “I had come to the centre of the universe, where the physical and the metaphysical worlds meet.”

It's notable how many of the maps place the Ka'ba at their centre, often saving solid black for it to add emphasis. Even on their journey the pilgrims would re-enact this in microcosm, arranging themselves around the Mahmal (a kind of temple-like tent, which would house the Qur'an.) The exhibition itself duplicates this, it's centre has on one side a re-creation of a Mahmal, on the other a solid wall on which the Ka'ba hangings are displayed.

In the early days, pilgrims were commonly beset by bandits. I imagined the hordes spying them and becoming convinced the Mahmal must contain great treasure, then being nonplussed to only find a book. Similarly, you can enter the Ka'ba. But it's not part of the Hajj and, while a few photos exist of it, the exhibitors decided against showing them.

The very point of the axis mundi is to throw the emphasis back. What makes it the centre of everything is everything. Similarly, what makes images of the Ka'ba so striking are the massed ranks of pilgrims. Yet there's also the Muslim insistence on an insubstantial deity. If everything is pointing at either a book or an empty space, that's scarcely co-incidental. A book can have a grand cover, but that will still be a wrapper for its real essence. Notably, in the quote above, Yusuf Islam refers to the physical and metaphysical worlds meeting.

Sunday 13 May 2012


The Slits and the Raincoats... they had much in common of course. Both formed out of the punk era, and both became irked by the 'girl group' tag which made them sound like novelty acts. Yet both came at things from a place guy groups never would; eschewing heavy riffing, they stitched songs together from skittering polyrhythms, non-standard influences and a love of the unexpected. They even traded a member, for Palmolive swapped her Slits drum stool for one with the Raincoats.

Yet what really made them so perfectly complementary was how very opposite they were to each other. By unwritten law you're supposed to pin all band comparisons to the Beatles and the Stones. In which case the Slits would surely be the Stones. But a better comparison might be Can and Faust, with the Raincoats quite definitely coming in as Can.

While the Slits came out at you, the Raincoats drew you in. The Slits appeared to play the boy's game of rock then subverted it, the Raincoats played their own game from the start. The Slits did the punk thing of wearing their stage clothes on the street, the torn t-shirts, the Union Jack knickers and the tampon ear-rings. The Raincoats did the post-punk thing of wearing their street clothes on the stage. They're about as different from each other and as vital as the sun and the moon...

...there's no point in me telling you any of this really, you might as well play the two YouTube clips below. It's all in there.

As I said much of what I had to say about the Slits after Ari Up's untimely death two years back, let's concentrate on the Raincoats from hereon in. Perhaps the key quote about them is Kurt Cobain's from an America reissue: “When I listen to The Raincoats I feel as if I’m a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark. Rather than listening to them I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above and, if I get caught — everything will be ruined because it’s their thing.” Band member Gina Birch herself commented of the rehearsal-like quality of their gigs: “it was like watching a process, which the audience kind of felt they were privileged to kind of spy in on.”

Their tracks always seemed murmury and understated. I'd try to turn the volume up to catch them, but it just seemed to push them further away. The distant polyrhthyms are like looking at a 3D sculpture from a fixed angle, you feel like you're only getting a limited part of it, and that makes you crane in and pay more attention. In the same interview, Gina also says: “Sometimes, the more secret things are, the more people want to find out about them.” But, above all else, there was never a band for outsiders like the Raincoats. After punk's stridency and sloganising, they were so gloriously unresolved - musically and lyrically.

I saw them one, during their Nineties reformation. They ended up having to soundcheck before the audience, with the gig part starting by Gina saying “err... we're going to start now.” Of course it got less rock and roll from there. They were awkward and geeky. And they were awesome. It was like being in an alternate world where everything made perfect sense from within, only someone opening the door and letting in the outer world could break it. I can quite clearly remember thinking “the sad part is I'll never be able to explain to anyone just how much all this means to me.”
The Slits from the glory days, tearing into 'New Town', Ari as if possessed. (Fast-forward the first minute, which is a scene from 'Jubilee'.)
Two tracks from the second (and best) Raincoats album, 'Odyshape.' The album dates from 1981, so the gig's presumably from a similar time, though no-one in the comments seems to be sure. With a cut between the tracks, there's perhaps a hope the whole gig was filmed and exists somewhere.
...and finally. The Raincoats from 2009, playing the outsider's anthem 'Lola' with the Slits' Viv Albertine.