Saturday 28 September 2019


...aka the sad and sorry tale of how a grown man came to decide there wasn't enough 'Doctor Who' material on the internet...

It’s an open secret with 'Doctor Who' that everyone’s favourite Doctor is their Doctor, the one they remember watching when they were eight. I’m no exception. It’s just that in my case my Doctor, Tom Baker, really was the best. (Honest, it’s official! Opinion polls almost always agree with me!) This was of course nothing but a fortuitous combination of circumstances, but the alignment had an effect on me. (Pity the poor sod who came of age during Sylvester McCoy.)

Yet it also seems significant that the show was a folk memory from the start. It had been broadcast before I was born and I’ve no recollection whatsoever of discovering it, any more than I have of meeting my best friend at infant school. So it never became my favourite show, that was all established before I gained any awareness of things. The show about a time traveller became timeless in itself.

Still, each Saturday night serving of my favourite show had a cumulative effect upon my youthful brain. I don’t just remember the show, scenes and episodes, I remember watching the show - the excitement leading up to it, the cliffhangers, the end credits and reversed time tunnel throwing me back out of it again for another week’s wait.

I can recall quite vividly my Dad coming back from the shop and plopping the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special on my lap. Or the very first time I came across the Target novelisations in a bookshop. Before video, these were my secret route into a secret lore that lay invisible to others - the time traveller’s history. I’d explain the discoveries to be found therein to my schoolmates, sparing no meticulous detail. They would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

But, perhaps because he was the longest-serving Doctor, Baker’s era became a game of two halves. It’s not just that the show hit a peak and then inevitably started to slide down again. It's that a distinct fracture line emerged, and two landmasses pulled apart. Early Baker stands alongside the previous Doctors, Troughton and Pertwee. (Hartnell is perhaps more stand-alone.) While the later Baker went off with his successors...

...which again worked with my age, but this time the other way up. As I was becoming more of a teenage smartarse, and more aware of bad back projection and guns that rather resembled hairdryers but were probably less dangerous, the second landmass was emerging at the same time it drifted away from me. 

The strong storylines, necessary to distract you from the cheap production, were becoming more kitschy. When I peruse the story titles of Baker’s first three seasons, quite strong memories are instantly recalled. The following four (yes, another four), not so much. ’The Sun Makers’? ‘The Ribos Operation’? You what, guv? 

The presence of K-9 became a particular obstacle in my mind. I would earnestly attempt to circumvent the problem by explaining to my schoolmates that proper SF doesn’t have robot dogs with silly names in it. They would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

Even Baker’s tenure didn’t last forever, and before long... well actually after long he was replaced by Peter Davison – surely the poorest-cast Doctor of all. Davison was less mistake and more category error, not so much a bad take on the Doctor as simply not the Doctor. It was like Tristram from ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ had inexplicably turned up for the wrong show.

This well-meaning foppish Englishman was like a parody of his predecessors, an idea of how the programme worked thought up by someone who had never actually watched it. The essential alien quality of the character had been swapped for some cricket whites, the air of mystery at the heart of it substituted by a stick of celery.

By this time, Saturday evenings were more often spent contemplating the lure of the pub than sitting down for some old show I once watched as a kid. Nevertheless it hadn’t sailed out of sight quite yet. I would watch odd episodes and at times be pleasantly surprised by the storylines, even if this involved squinting past the rather wet main characters.

I’d already left home but was back on a weekend visit when I watched the final episode of ‘Caves of Androzani’ with my parents. (Thought by some to be the finest storyline of all.) I can remember making a mental note that, if it had become this good, I should start watching it regularly again. But I mislaid the impulse and so didn’t tune in to see the first Colin Baker story, ‘The Twin Dilemma’. As this is often thought to be the worst storyline of all, that may have ultimately proved fortuitous.

For most of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy’s era my somewhat precarious living arrangements didn't allow for a telly, or got between me and switching it on. Slightly more settled conditions led me to see some of the later McCoy’s. I tended to think they had some good ideas lying within them, but that didn’t mean that anything was actually working. When it went off the air, truth to tell, I barely noticed. By then I was into more mature stuff. (You know, superheroes who used excess violence then got depressed, punk bands who used tunelessness as a protest against the government... mature stuff.)

After that, adherence to the show became an auto-reflex in my mind. Run it up the flagpole and I’d salute. But I felt no cause to go and seek it out. Occasionally the Beeb would have a Doctor Who Special night. But I’d usually use those as social occasions and nostalgia-fests than something to actually watch. (Most probably in response to the way they were marketed.) We'd meet up to watch them, with beer and jumbo packs of Monster Munch. After all, by then I’d reached adulthood. I no longer had to read about wheezing, groaning noises. I was perfectly capable of emitting my own. Particularly after a night of beer and Monster Munch.

Things might well have stayed that way if not for the revival. I first flicked it on merely so I could slag it off with an air of authority, convinced we’d get the McGann mistakes all over again, only to find myself pulled into it. I’d often watch it with my flatmate’s young daughter, who’d not follow the plotlines and get scared by the monsters. I would sometimes tell her about the old show of my youth, and how things fitted in with the new. She would respond by showing not the slightest interest whatsoever.

I’m trying now to remember whether my interest in the old show grew when the Davies era started or when it went into it’s own second-half decline. Whichever, having never never really wiped the show from the hard drive of my mind, and started to become curious as to what it actually contained. How much would it match my ghostly memories?

Once, I was blindly brand loyal. Pretty much anything tagged as SF would get watched, read or absorbed through some orifice or other. Out of that whole slew, how come it was ’Doctor Who’ which stuck in my mind? How could it last so long, with so many different actors and production teams? And, given that longevity and extra-long list of cooks stirring the broth, how can there be things I feel so sure just weren’t 'Doctor Who'? Is it all an idea in my head, which I have attached to hazy memories of some low-budget old TV show? Would I stick to the same schema if watched it again?

And so I started watching it again. From the beginning, the ones I hasn't been able to see first time round through the unfortunate handicap of not having been born yet. And so I decided to review them too. Let’s see how closely they match my folk memory, given above.

Reviews stretching from the series' inception right up until the present day will appear in a strict weekly schedule...

...had you going there! Truthfully, they'll only cover the classic show and go up as and when I get round to it. They'll get interrupted frequently by the normal sort of thing. (And we are in the season for gig-going.) There won’t be much in the way of consistency of approach, I’ll respond to each episode as I find it. Themes, however, will develop. Of a sort. The length of each review will vary haphazardly according to how many things it occurs to me to say. A yet-to-be-determined number will be skipped over altogether. There’s a minority of stories I don’t even intend watching, when a critical mass of critics has already called them out as turkeys. Normal terms and conditions apply.

Join with me now as we wander in the fourth dimension...

Saturday 21 September 2019


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”It’s not really the subject that truly interests me, but the many possible ways of expressing it”
- Ivon Hitchens

Ivon Hitchens was one of the Bright Young Things of British Modernism, hanging out in Twenties Hampstead with the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson as they plotted to reinvent British art. He’s chiefly known for landscapes, which is what we’ll concentrate on here.

’Curved Barn’ (1922, above) is one of many works which place a single building inside a natural setting. As is emphasised by the title, the barn roof is given quite an extensive curve in an environment where nothing seems straight. Nature essentially envelops the barn, a long branch stretching across the top of it. The barely differentiated greens and greys emphasise this, making all seem one undifferentiated growth. This nature isn’t expansive but confining.

But if the barn’s depicted as if part of nature, nature isn’t particularly naturalised. Though there’s a clear-cut sense of pictorial space (the tree trunk before the bushes, which are before the barn) there’s an undisguised artificiality. It could be a stage set or an illustration to a fairy story.

Compared it to ’Grey Willow By the Coast’ (1936) and all the works seem to have in common is an evocation of the English landscape in a restricted, rather sombre palette. Where ’Curved Barn’ is built up of gradated blocks of colour, ’Grey Willow’ is much more painterly. Something it needs to convey its point to us. The mist-shrouded landscape is barely any more recognisable than the two figures which approach. Paul Nash often painted the British landscape as unparseable, littered with strange and unyieldingly inscrutable objects. Hitchens goes a stage further, depicting it as undiscernible.

Everyone from the times talks of how those continental Modernist exhibitions, when first staged in London, packed a heady punch. Viewers emerged from them with their heads on at different angles. The challenge was always to absorb their developments without merely imitating them. One solution was to - somehow - Anglicise them. And there’s a British, rainy-day mysticism to this work.

Hitchens was like the anti-David Bomberg; rather than being transformed by the light of Palestine or the ruggedness of Spain he stuck obstinately to English landscapes for inspiration – thick, gladeless forests whose gloom the sun barely penetrates. He turned provincialism from restriction to identifying feature.

’Winter Stage’ (1936, above) is often regarded as a key work in Hitchens’ development. It’s not, the show informs us, the first to use the elongated landscape frame that soon became a staple of it. But, after ’Still Life’ (1932), it was the first use for a landscape painting. Its advantage is that the work can no longer be taken in at a glance, but needs to be scanned - as you would an actual landscape.

Curiously then the show then tells us almost the opposite, emphasising how its “divided vertically into three sections” as if we should see it as a triptych which happens to be joined together. Whereas what’s significant arrives when we join those parts together.

The object at a window was then a common composition in British Modernism, perhaps the closest you could get to en plein air painting without rain stopping play. Hitchens gives us two open windows for our money, both with objects before them. Unlike ’Curved Barn’ the work looks quite naturalistic. But at the same time it seems designed to screw with any separation between inside and outside.

Is that a window sill at lower centre? It seems to blend seamlessly into the forest behind it.If we look carefully into the ‘main’ forest, we can see at almost dead centre the angled roof and darkened doorway of another building. To the left of this, a cross also appears among the trees.

Hitchens extends this perspective through a smart use of shading. The colours are as dark and sombre as ever. But by lightening some of the foreground browns, to the point they almost but not quite border on white, he gains enough tonal variety to get his deep perspective.

It would be tempting to say this is a direct inversion of ’Curved Barn’, where the outdoors has now blended with the indoors. But it’s less about nature invading culture, the familiar Romantic trope of plant life recolonising a ruin, than suggesting the two exist in a more involved inter-relationship than we normally give credit to. (Sussex locals may also like to know this was painted in Ashdown Forest.)

Hitchens continued to work from nature, often travelling for miles to reach a favoured spot. Yet his work increasingly became abstractions from those scenes. See for example ’Tangled Pool’ (1946, above). There’s nothing wrong with this an approach, after all it’s the one Arshile Gorky took. Hitchens combined this with more visible paint strokes and an almost complete swapping-over of palette, where colours became vivid. The result is works like ’Arno II’ (1965, below).

Every so often, I start to wonder if that lowbrow guy who always asks “is that even art?” might not have a point after all. Is it really a painting, or just someone wiping clean their brushes? Let’s be clear… The least interesting thing about visual art to me is accomplishment, and I consider bizarre people’s veneration of ‘skill’ - which normally means lack of evidence of the painter’s hand. (“It really looks like a real dog!”, and so on.) But that had begun to be challenged by the Impressionists, a full century before. Elaborating the point to this extent seems like repeatedly underlining a sentence already written. You could say something similar about Frank Auerbach and Franz Kline, and in fact I already have.

Furthermore, the more elements you take from a work, the greater the significance that falls on those that remain. For example, colour. If it doesn’t require delicate brush strokes, ’Arno’ does need a strong colour sense. Something which scarcely matters with, say, Malevich whose colour sense was masterful. Whereas Hitchens’ is quite frankly lousy. Colours are slapped on like a kid in a sweetie shop, not knowing what goes where or when to stop.

If it doesn’t necessarily follow that abstraction loses your connection with landscape, that’s still exactly what happened with Hitchens. (Almost inevitably, this seems to be the period where he saw most acclaim. Equally inevitably, I found more than a few reviews on-line which enthused over this era.)

What could have caused such a decline? One possible answer is Modernism losing its cultural cutting edge by the post-war era, and so digging deeper into its formal devices - essentially collapsing in on itself. It became its own self-parody. But with Hitchens there may be something more specific. If he was one of the Twenties in-crowd, he was in particular a disciple of Ben Nicholson. Who had a similar trajectory, first absorbing Continental influences to find a very British take on Modernism - only to then succumb to mannerism and formalism.

The show valiantly attempts to make a virtue of this, telling us how Hitchens “brought continental colour to the English landscape.” And of course this pinpoints his exact failure. Restrict his palette, in the earlier works shown above, and he developed an exceptional talent for working within those limitations. Hand him the rainbow, and he literally painted himself into a corner. The post-war Hitchens is nothing but misapplied Matisse.

At which point all might seem lost. But, if he never got back to the level of the inter-war years and remained highly uneven, he still clambered some way out of this corner. ’November Revelation’ (1973, above) is formally similar to ’Arno II’, broad and boldly undisguised paint strokes. But its colour sense is more developed, setting dynamic strokes of crimson and orange against a steadier background of marine blues. Its ambiguous title, which could refer to a late Autumn scene or some more internal process, is perhaps significant. Now untethered to representation, Hitchens has come out the other end and is free to do things which could only be done in a painting.

“The essence of my theory”, he said, “is that colour is space and space is colour.” By which I think he means, the elements that make up a painting cannot be prised apart like engine parts. Those extended horizontal lines, for example, they couldn’t not be blue.

Hitchens had moved to a seaside location at Selsey. As his inspiration seems to have come from his local environment, and as I’ve already called those horizontal blues ‘marine’, the rest might seem to write itself. But that was in 1963, two years before ’Arno’, so if this was Selsey’s effect upon him it was very much a slow burn.

Equally, it could easily pass for an American Abstract Expressionist work. Except the dates don’t fit there either. That was a movement popularly known at the latest by the early Fifties. Hitchens was scarcely stumbling upon it in 1973. Perhaps he simply had his own internal processes to work through, falling into then climbing back up out of his own happy valley, which couldn’t be hastened along.

Coming soon (or possibly later): This mini-review, which has leaped between decades in a quite cavalier fashion was to be honest all I had time to type out today, so got promoted up the schedule. Normal tardiness in art show reviews is shortly to be resumed.

Saturday 14 September 2019


Patterns, Brighton, Sun 1st Sept

I saw Santiago psych band Follakzoid three years ago, and was much enchanted by their trance-out tracks. But somehow I skipped their return visit to Brighton. So I had to be told, in the few minutes before the band came on, that they had changed round their methods. And, rather than playing more or less tracks from their CDs, they now gave their set over to one gig-long freeform track. Which had induced a somewhat Marmitey reaction in the audience.

It turns out the band have reduced just as they’ve elongated, going down to guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. It’s the guitarist who takes things to the edge. Hands are off the strings for longer than on, mostly putting in short bursts which are fed through loop and delay. The playing part of music becomes a mere raw material.

Though the guitarist opens the set the drummer is given the role of holding it together, stopping it becoming too shapeless. The keyboardist often aligns with the drummer, and it becomes like a multi-coloured etch-a-sketch - they providing the frame while the guitar lines constantly overwrite themselves. Two work while one plays, the others standing workmanlike behind their assigned instruments while the guitarist arm-flailingly freaks.

But the keyboards play both sides, sometimes taking over the proceedings, at others providing distorted voice samples. As well as dynamism and intensity the sound levels range wildly, sometimes thumping you in the chest.

This does have the downside that at times you are waiting for inspiration to re-strike, making it something of a rough-with-the-smooth affair. But it’s become a kind of impro music and that’s often the deal you need to make. No kissing frogs, no princess transpires.

It feels like they’ve gone beyond being a human playback machine, and have worked out to do something live which could only be done live. And it holds to the band’s schtick, a paradoxical combination of depersonalising machine repetition with ecstatic states. Was it Marmitey? Me, I like Marmite.

Meanwhile, on new release ’I’ (purchased at gig) they’ve done something which could only be done on record. Previous releases were recorded old-school, the band playing together in one take. They sounded driven, pressing ahead, even as they also sounded ethereal. No longer. This time… well, I’ll let them explain…

“This record took three months to construct out of more than 60 separate stems – guitars, bass, drums, synthesizers, and vocals, all recorded in isolation. Producer Atom TM, who was not present for recording, was then asked to re-organize the four sequences of stems without any length, structural restrictions or guidelines.”

Their mission statement has long been “with each record to fill longer spaces of time with fewer and fewer elements”, and this really pushes that along. It’s as minimal as any minimal techno.

The feeling’s less ghost in the machine than ghost of the machine. Imagine that, as is supposed to be happening with cars, all ships became automated. They filled the seven seas, with only the trace of human presence about them. Then imagine they all became ghost ships anyway.

Jack Bray has described the effect of this as “at once ominous and tranquil.” To which I’d add, it seems at once an unmappably shifting space and strangely homely.

This does mean there’s only a loose connection between the band live and on CD. I mention this only because it’s the sort of thing which seems to matter to some people. (If pressed, I’d probably prefer the CD to the gig. But I’d prefer not to be pressed.)

There doesn’t seem much footage of this tour, and perhaps because you would need to hear the whole gig, so here’s the final track of the album…

Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 13th Sept

Mclusky first formed in Cardiff in 1996, launching sharp, spiky punk onto the unsuspecting. After three albums, and the usual combination of John Peel plays, critical acclaim and unpaid bills, 2005 saw them call it a day. (Frontman Falco latter commented “We were poor. Poor-poor. Like with a lot of bands at that cursed nearly-perhaps-level… living off hope and experience and eating a lot of bread sandwiches… we toured too much to hold down jobs and earned too little to do anything else.”)

But they who liked the band tended to love them. They originally reformed as a benefit for a threatened local venue, but the bug re-bit. The asterisk added to the name signifies this is not the exact original line-up, with a new bass player. But the focus of the band was always Falco, so that scarcely matters.

This is a punk gig and, fittingly, the first word spoken on stage is “fuck”. People associate punk with rage. and it’s true to say there’s much to be angry about in the world. But punk also contained a fair amount of disdain, derision and scathing black humour. Think of the Sex Pistols. Or, for that matter, Mclusky. The word acerbic could have been coined to describe them.

With album titles such as ’My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours’ and ’The Difference Between Me And You Is That I’m Not On Fire’, they tend to position themselves outside the frame of their songs, pissing in. It’s like a role reversal in which through their songs they heckle the audience. (Falco is known for a merciless way with hecklers, not a skill he needs tonight.) They, in their own words, “introduced me to the joys of doubt”.

I am not sure their songs are about very much. They’re more a clutch of aphorisms, waspish witticisms and strung non-sequiters held together by venom and spittle, individual lines like prongs of barbed wire clumped together but pointing off in different directions. (“Keep your passport near/ There is no other disappointment here”). Sometimes they seem to luxuriate in language for its own sake.

I mention this only as it may be a problem for those to whom punk means the song against nuclear weapons being followed by the song about why you should become vegan. I cannot say I am terribly bothered myself.

Their music is punkishly minimal. Starting as a three-piece, live it’s noticeable how they can drop down to two players for quite long periods. But less commonly for a punk band, they’re musically inventive, giving each song it’s own identity. They know how to pack a catchy tune, and can come up with what sound simultaneously like harmonies and taunts. Their default mode is a kind of nihilistic chirpiness, the energy of punk songs with crafted precision of the best pop songs, normally coming to a neat close in under four minutes.

In fact I could believe that in some parallel universe Falco, after receiving some evil-inducing blow to the head, went on to write conveyor-belt hit singles. And is now lazing beside a private swimming pool rather than standing on the Concorde stage before us herberts. Lucky for us if not him.

From Dublin. Following the code of the asterisk, the poster has titled this track ’Lightsabre C*cksucking Blues’

Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 6th Sept

Teeth of the Sea say of themselves: “Taking on board influences like Morricone, Eno, Delia Derbyshire, Goblin, and the Butthole Surfers, they’ve arrived at an incendiary sound that marries the aural enlightenment of an avant-garde sensibility with the reckless abandon of trashy rock & roll.”

Is there such a genre as post-rock-but-also-dance? It seems there is now. At a time when you imagine every instrumental combination must have been tried out, Teeth of the Sea marry trumpet to electronic beats. And the combination’s a virtuous one, like watching a glider soaring effortlessly above crosstown traffic. It’s then made more virtuous still by their sampling the trumpet and drawing it down into the body of their sound, only for it to take off again later.

Then just when you think you’ve got their sound pegged, the finale abandons the trumpet altogether in favour of a bass and the trio go into full sonic assault mode.

There is perhaps something about it which is either proggy, aloof or some combination of the two. In other words, I’m not sure whether this came from the music or the attitude of the musicians. Of course this is what everyone always says about this type of music, that you don’t even get let into the venue until you’ve convinced the doorman you completed your PHD. That doesn’t stop it being sometimes true. And this tendency isn’t held back by the guitarist’s curious decision to throw in rock God moves.

But overall, much like the trumpet and the beats, it makes for a virtuous combination - something which hits your ears and stirs your feet at one and the same time. I might even go off and trademark ‘post-rock-but-also-dance’. I know a catchy term when I hear one.

Three tracks from Lille…