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...
THE LADY, A HOMAGE TO SANDY DENNY
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.
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...