Monday, December 29, 2008

Simon Reynolds – ‘Bring the Noise’

The last Simon Reynolds book I read, Blissed Out, was a largely impenetrable critique of some of my favourite music. By applying literary theory to Throwing Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and A. R. Kane (I never did get properly around to A. R. Kane), Reynolds investigated how music affects individuals and cultures, how sound works on people, how it affects their cognition, and how they use it as a palliative to the ills of society: as a way of feeling rebellious, without actually taking any political action. Dry as it was, I’ve never ready anything else like it. By contrast, Bring the Noise is a far more readable account of a whole load of music I have never heard, with a similar individual / culture sweep. Actually, I have heard quite a lot from the first half: this book is a collection of Reynolds’ journalism between 1985 – 2006, and early on he covers Morrissey (making the same Smiths / Throwing Muses connection as in Blissed Out) and some of the same late ’80s / early ’90s bands (Dinosaur Jr, for instance: ‘J: “My turtle... ran away. Very slowly, he ran away.”’ (p. 66)). In amongst chapters on Ragga, Hardcore Rave, Timbaland and Puff Daddy there sit Nirvana, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers. But the rockers get less and less frequent as Reynolds’ ear is drawn to the electronic, and to hip hop. Which is just not me at all, and I found that for the last 200 pages of this 400 page book, I was almost entirely without reference points.

It’s these pages which fascinate, though. It’s so easy, listening to the little pockets of music which carefully / randomly forged paths lead you to over the years, to assume that Pop Is Dead, at least in the ‘popular’ sense. And who cares, if there are still new sounds which leave you dazed in wonder, like the charts once did (1987, I think it was, for me)? To pass the slack time at work over Christmas, someone dug up some pop quizzes – lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s in spreadsheets, where you have to fill in the song title and artist. I was disturbed to find that Michael Bolton still lurked somewhere in my consciousness, and quite pleased to have forgotten which song ‘I live my life for the stars that shine / People say it’s just a waste of time’ comes from. I would probably have got no marks at all for a ’00s spreadsheet. Simon Reynolds, though, never lost sight of the ‘popular’ part of pop, and it is wonderful to read about it again as something that matters, which has a cultural and a populist weight as well as (or instead of) a pretty tune. He can convey so much of the pop experience that it isn’t strictly necessary to know the music to enjoy the writing. Even if it isn’t possible to imagine sounds purely from his descriptions (not accurately, at least), you do get a sense of the scale, intensity and success of the scenes which spawned them. The way US rap bestrides the globe, the way UK rap doesn’t (but strives to). The way grime came together from three or four distinct sources: ‘gabba-gangsta-garage’ (p. 347), he called it, before it got a proper name. The way Jamaican dancehall feeds into it. The lack of content in rap post-Public Enemy. Can that be true? Is it really just self aggrandising and dissing ‘playa haters’ (people who criticise others who have made it big, it says here)? All of it?

But Bring the Noise’s articles are rarely definitive in themselves: polemic in one direction is often matched by an equal and opposite force elsewhere in the book (I don’t have the quote, but Reynolds does praise US rap’s narrative inventiveness somewhere). Spontaneous reaction is more important here than the after-the-fact eulogising of Rip It Up and Start Again (or almost any other rock book). Appraisals after each piece provide a contemporary context, but they also create a context for each other, you can track enthusiasms as they wax and wane, Reynolds never less than immersed in some scene, trend, record, song. His defence of the Arctic Monkeys against kpunk is almost quaint, he invests so much in his own take on whether it is even possible for a rock band to have worth at this point in history. Of course, the piece isn’t just about his own liking for their record, at its core it is also about whether popular music can still be important. I had rather assumed not, but Reynolds makes a convincing case. ‘Against All Odds’, about grime’s ‘make-or-break’ year in 2005, attributes much of the genre’s power to ‘its expansionist drive, its extroversion, its sheer hunger’ (p. 386).

Occasionally, through the scenes and the smoke and the push and pull of black / white / US / UK, a description of a song will appear, and you’ll remember why it was you fell for rock writing in the first place:

On his remixes of St Germain’s ‘Alabama Blues’ and his own tracks like ‘Never Far From You’, New Jersey producer Todd Edwards developed a technique of cross-hatching brief snatches of vocals into a melodic-percussive honeycomb of blissful hiccups, so burstingly rapturous it’s almost painful to the ear. (p. 219)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stella Gibbons – ‘Cold Comfort Farm’

What with writing about other things, I almost forgot to write about this book. Which would be rather a shame, as it’s been sitting in my to-read pile ever since shortly after this, when the recently almost departed but thankfully not after all Patroclus recommended it over at Cultural Snow (leading to this post). So, a good 18 months ago. It turns out that Cold Comfort Farm is funny in much the same way that Patroclus’ blog is funny: asterisks all over the place, a self-aware mania for tidiness and good manners coming into frequent and fraught contact with disarray and tastelessness. In the book, asterisks are used to indicate ‘the finer passages’ (p. 9). The following merits two asterisks:

**Dawn crept over the downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. (p. 32)

These sections will leave the reader mildly nonplussed, but are as nothing to the three asterisk passages:

***The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman... Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and the cry of cows, the trampling bride-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his...

‘Will you have some bread and butter?’ asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea. ‘Oh, never mind your boots, Adam can sweep the mud up afterwards. Do come in.’ (p. 77)

Flora, a young woman recently bereaved of both parents, has decided against working for a living and, writing to all the relatives she can think of, ends up living with the Starkadders in Sussex (‘Sussex...” mused Mrs Smiling. “I don’t much like the sound of that. Do they live on a decaying farm?”’ (p. 16)). They take her in without accepting the money she offers, explaining that a great wrong was done to her father years ago, for which they must atone. The Starkadders are all rather in awe of this great wrong, though they refuse to say what it was, and persist in calling Flora ‘Robert Poste’s child’, which quickly becomes ridiculous. There is very little in the first three quarters of Cold Comfort Farm which isn’t ridiculous: octogenarian farm hand Adam with his cattle Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless; the bull, Big Business; child-of-the-earth Elfine (‘A pair of large blue eyes looked at her steadily above the green hand-woven hood. Flora pensively noted that they were fine eyes, and that the hood was the wrong green.’ (p. 61)); Seth with his simmering sexuality and his simmering porridge; Mr Mybug (or Meyerburg) with his book about how Branwell wrote all the Brontë novels, and only pretended to be an alcoholic so he could procure gin for his sisters; Aunt Ada Doom, who stays squirrelled away in an upstairs room, running the farm and using emotional blackmail to ensure that no-one ever leaves.

It is marvellous stuff. The earlier chapters almost hurt I was laughing so much. By the end I was enjoying it slightly less – the novel does what a novel has to do, it has characters develop and relationships form, which was mildly disappointing after the wild disconnect earlier on.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Helen Love – ‘It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To’

I always meant to write about Helen Love. Three years ago when the ‘Bubblegum Killers’ EP announced their return to total and unquestionable brilliance, I was busy belatedly discovering Heavenly (prompted partly by a reference in Helen Love’s ‘Rollercoasting’, partly by Everett True playing ‘Hearts and Crosses’ on the Plan B radio show), and planned a Tangents piece called ‘Heavenly vs. Helen Love’, which never happened because how was it ever going to live up to that title? Heavenly hit me just as hard as ‘Hearts and Crosses’ promised, and I had the luxury of discovering their whole catalogue over the course of a single year, falling in love over and over again. I was struck, though, at how similar the songs sounded to Helen Love’s. Not the lyrics, or the instrumentation, or even particularly the voice, but the tunes and the tempo. And, to be honest, I thought I was over them: after reaching a massive peak with ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom’ in 1997, their sound got bigger and their words less smart, and their ‘debut’ album Love and Glitter, Hot Days and Music (after the Radio Hits 1 & 2 collections) was a big let down. Now, to add insult to injury, it turned out they’d nicked their old sound from Heavenly! It was all too much. I am probably the only person in the world to have been outraged by Helen Love’s plagiarism, but it wasn’t the Ramones steals which bothered me.

There was a gap – a five year gap – during which the band must have picked up on these bad vibes from a once fervent fan (perhaps from several), and reconsidered their position. ‘Well, for one thing,’ they probably thought, ‘Heavenly didn’t have a monopoly on singing fast in a polite voice, you’re way off there’. ‘OK, but – the big pumping disco sound? The curtailed lyrics?’ ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ And as if by magic, in 2005 we got the old band back:

She met him 1980 in a school disco / He kissed her for the first time on the last bus home / He said ‘You be Debbie Harry, I’ll be Joey Ramone’ (from ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)

Not ‘She met him in 1980’ – that wouldn’t fit. ‘She met him 1980’. The words were falling over each other again, the excitement was back. Forget everything bad I said, they were just mourning Joey those lost years. Two other totally fab singles followed. I mean really impossibly fab. ‘Long Hot Summer’ is such a great idea for a single that it contains two totally different songs called ‘Long Hot Summer’. The first one starts like this:

Count ’em Dee Dee! / One two three four / Hey ho let’s go! / Hey ho let’s go! / I got ‘Here Comes the Summer’ by the Undertones / I got ‘Rockaway Beach’ by the Ramones / ’Cause it’s a heatwave baby and you know it’s true / I pop my bubblegum just for you

That takes us to 25 seconds. I think they are probably my favourite 25 seconds, on balance. Not of that song, just in general. ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ was what Love and Glitter should have sounded like, a free-er, lighter disco (with a lovely flute part to emphasise the fact), ideology intact: ‘I love this junk shop punk rock glam rock discotheque’.

Then there was a bit more silence, and this autumn I found that there had been an album out since February. Oh well, better late than never. ‘Debbie Loves Joey’ and ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ were present and correct, but they obviously felt that nothing but a single could contain ‘Long Hot Summer’. Quite right too. Putting together my Monorail list the other day, I knew that It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To had to be pretty high up there. It’s more than a throwback to past glories, much in the same way that Helen Love are more than a Ramones tribute band. They are about excitement and happiness and fandom and friendship, and their pop thrill is easily the match of the pop thrills they collage together to make their songs*. This album sees their references broaden out a bit (Wings’ ‘Jet’, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Debbie Harry – nothing past the 1970s), and the sound has changed too. I said we got the old band back, but actually the music is now far more subtle and layered than it was in the ’90s. This record could not have been made on a Casiotone, or at least not just on a Casiotone. Sometimes the drums even sound real, and the fuzzbox gritty. There’s a line in ‘Garageband’: ‘We got a Super Kay guitarist and a girl Hammond organist / Listen to her play all day’ – a Hammond organ isn’t something they’d have used in the old days. Not that this is some exercise in real rock (obviously), but there is a fullness to the sound that it never had before.

The record opens with what has to be the best leading question of all time: ‘Sugar candy candy how do you feel / With shooting stars and laser beams?’ Even if you feel rubbish to begin with, you’ll feel great by the time the question has finished. Definitely by the end of the song (‘It’s My Club...’ itself), which has about a million hooks, and is pretty much the equal of ‘Long Hot Summer’. The rest of the album is not short on them either. ‘Jet’ has another slew. ‘Rodney’s English Disco’ too. ‘Queen of the Disco Beat’ is insanely catchy, and vaguely reminiscent of the Rainbow theme tune. ‘Jet’ starts with some sampled dialogue, oddly reminiscent of Saint Etienne’s So Tough: ‘In the chocolate box of life the top layer’s already gone, and someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom – bloody hell’. Odd because of that line in ‘Shifty Disco Girl’ – ‘she’ll dance to anything but Saint Etienne’ (but then she is shifty, I suppose). ‘A New Squad Attacking Formation’ sounds like the second Go! Team album should have done, a clamour of cheerleading. In context, ‘Staying In’ sounds strangely contemporary – ‘I got broadband connection super fast / I can download songs and photographs’ (broadband? In the ’70s?), and provides the closest the album brings to a change of pace. It’s as fast as all the other songs, but Helen speaks portions of it, so it has a more relaxed feel. And, and, and. It’s all great. Don’t get me started on the artwork, we’ll be here for another 1,000 words. Helen Love were always a band about how brilliant it is to adore pop music, and I can’t tell you how brilliant it is to adore theirs once more.

*Apart, as previously noted, from ‘Baby, I Love You’. Nothing is the equal of that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monorail Poll 2008

Before heading over to the Captain’s Rest for the Vivian Girls last Saturday, Chris and I went to Monorail. He splurged on Tenniscoats-related releases, while I picked up the new Fennesz album and Frànçois’ ‘Brother’ EP. A double gatefold 7" with marbled vinyl and an illustrated lyric sheet for each disc, no less. He can sure do packaging. And songs. Stephen Pastel was in, and after politely declining to help Chris whittle down his large pile of CDs by pointing out the duff ones, he asked us if we’d like to contribute to the Monorail end of year poll. Yes, please!


My list first:

Albums:

  1. Anne Bacheley – Headquarters
  2. Helen Love – It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To
  3. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
  4. Days – Downhill
  5. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
  6. Ai Aso – The Chamomile Pool
  7. Momus – Joemus
  8. American Music Club – The Golden Age
  9. Bare Knees and Ray Rumours – Songs To Play At Sleepovers
  10. Air France – No Way Down
Reissue:

Plush – Fed

Singles:

  1. Sexy Kids – Sisters Are Forever
  2. Ray Rumours and Frànçois – Mr. Bear and Swimmers / Drifters
  3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You
  4. Kings Have Long Arms (featuring Candie Payne) – Big Umbrella
  5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Digg!!!

And Chris’:

Albums:

  1. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night
  2. Ai Aso – The Chamomile Pool
  3. Times New Viking – Rip It Off
  4. Tenniscoats & Secai – Tenniscoats & Secai
  5. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls
  6. Remember Remember – Remember Remember
  7. Anne Bacheley – Headquarters
  8. Momus – Joemus
  9. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
  10. Sic Alps – U.S. EZ

Reissue:

African Scream Contest

Singles:

  1. Planet Sunflower – The Escarpment EP
  2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You
  3. Tenniscoats / Tape – Lutie Lutie / Come Maddalena
  4. The Gummy Stumps – Hightower
  5. Taken By Trees – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Wildhouse, Balcony Bar, Dundee, & Vivian Girls, Captain’s Rest, Glasgow, 5th & 6th December

Visually, The Wildhouse are an odd mix. A stand up female drummer flanked by two male guitarists, one in a black leather jacket with a big black guitar, singing occasionally, fairly static; the other, conspicuously younger than his band mates, spending most of his time facing the back wall or peering into his effects pedals, moonwalking this way and that, transported with the squalling racket he caresses from his guitar. When he does turn around, a Sonic Youth sticker is visible, and the word ‘EVOL’ has been painted on to the strap. He must be the Lee Renaldo of the band. The drummer is clearly their Moe Tucker, but did Moe ever swing to the beat like that? I find it hard to imagine. She fair belts out the simple Velvet Underground / Beat Happening rhythms, singing too, half the time. There’s so much energy in this basic, glorious noise. Thump thump thump. Screeeeeeeeee... . Did I mention the Mary Chain yet? One song is a dead ringer for ‘In A Hole’, but that’s fine. It’s more than fine, it’s exhilarating, it’s driving fast along Interstate whatever (a California one) wearing shades, possibly under bat attack like in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But it is pop too, and I am left wondering with Manic Pop Thrills how come I never heard them before he put them on at Hustlers a fortnight ago.

Vivian Girls come on giggling, with no obvious aesthetic or age differences. They seem like they maybe just graduated from high school and were going to have a gap year or two travelling Europe, then thought, what the hell, let’s throw together a few songs and make a tour out of this. This kind of unstudied approach would be the icing on the cake of a brilliant set of songs, of course (‘we weren’t even trying!’), but I’m not quite convinced that their album cuts it. For a week I was mortally offended by how much it owed to Tiger Trap, then that wore off and it just sounded like a more concise Slumber Party. Who are another band I never quite got – occasionally they would attain the dreamy drowsiness of their name, but too often they just sounded tired. It’s the singing, I think – there is a distance to it, where it could be direct. That quality in a singing voice that draws you immediately in as though to a conversation (listening to Momus’ new album, I noticed that he has this – and you can be sure he knows it). But it’s exactly this kind of subtlety which is bound to matter less at a gig than on record, and so it proves. Vivian Girls are not quite as primal as The Wildhouse, but it’s a close thing, and they cram more tunes in too. Their Mary Chain song of choice is ‘Taste The Floor’ (recycled as ‘Tell The World’), and ‘All The Time’ is vastly more exciting given a live kick. Late in the set they cover The Beach Boys’ ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ (big cheer at the announcement, ‘Oh, you’ve heard of them?’), which is obvious and obviously lovely. The banter is good too – the guitarist and bassist do some telepathy, asking an audience member to whisper the name of a US celebrity to the guitarist, who then wiggles her fingers in the air until the bassist proclaims that it is Lindsay Lohan. There is a gasp from the audience member. ‘Do you think they’ve worked out that Lindsay Lohan is the only US celebrity we’ve heard of over here?’ wonders Chris afterwards. A fun show.

Update: an odd visual mix.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’

As I mentioned a while back, my sister and I once wrote a song called ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ because this book was on a shelf nearby when we were trying to come up with ideas. We liked the title, though neither of us had read it. The first thing that struck me coming to it now was that the French title is Terre des hommes, which is clearly nothing like Wind, Sand and Stars. It seems a harder title, prouder, more (literally) grounded. Wind, Sand and Stars is more awe-struck, and is appropriate in different ways. It seems to say that the physical world is beautiful, wild and immense, whereas Terre des hommes, assuming this, stakes humanity’s claim to it – if not to controlling it, at least to appreciating it. And appreciating nature, and nature’s wildness, is something Saint-Exupéry sees as essential for... what? Certainly for his own happiness. When he tries to argue out from this point, that it is essential for mankind that some of its number take on storms and deserts – not for the practical benefits this can bring, but for its own well-being (almost its spiritual well-being), he loses me somewhat. But watching him get there is pretty inspirational, and it is both a tougher and a more ornate book than I was expecting.

The aeroplane is central. Wind, Sand and Stars is an autobiographical account of the early days of aviation, and underlying Saint-Exupéry’s high flown prose is the commercial imperative to open new mail routes. Here he describes the pilot Mermoz’s flight, ‘the first seaplane crossing of the South Atlantic’, when he encounters some tornados:

Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like the pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through the cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea. (p. 13)

What excites him is that the aeroplane allows mankind to see and to take on nature in ways which were never possible before. The scale of the ground is altered forever once it has been seen from the air. Today we are used to this, and people make coffee table books on the subject, but what Saint-Exupéry captures is the amazement that was felt when the experience was new. He is sensitive, though, to the charge that he is merely a thrill-seeker:

It isn’t a matter of living dangerously. Such a pretentious phrase. Toreadors don’t thrill me. Danger is not what I love. I know what I love. It is life. (p. 98)

Spectacle, like crime, is not interesting. Or at least not for very long. So what does endure?

In my own childhood, my sisters gave marks to guests who were honouring our table for the first time. And when conversation lapsed, a cry of ‘eleven!’ would ring out in the silence, and only my sisters and I would appreciate its charm. (p. 45)

I love this passage. It has nothing to do with aeroplanes, except that he is reminiscing during a visit on his wide ranging travels to a family he has never met before (who live in a ramshackle house with an uneven floor, and vipers who nest under the dining table), and wondering what they make of him. He continues:

But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dream of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who only loves trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery. (p. 46)

This is great too, a fine description of the anxiety one can feel as a child that adult life can only intrude and make things worse. But what is the connection with flying? Consciousness and inspiration seem to be Saint-Exupéry’s true subjects, and it is almost incidental that the thing which inspires him and heightens his own consciousness is flight. Several times he tries to forge a link by saying that this or that spectacle is as nothing to the imagination of a little girl. That he can’t bear to be grounded for any length of time suggests that he is being disingenuous when he says ‘it isn’t a matter of living dangerously.’ In his introduction William Rees says of Louisa de Vilmon’s attitude to the author when they were lovers: ‘She found him impossibly intense and demanding’ (p. xi). To some extent this is how I found his book, but its vitality makes it an engaging read.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Christopher Isherwood – ‘All the Conspirators’

Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt something like this?

And then, look at it in another way. This is a whole-time job. A whole-life job. Well, put aside everything I’ve said so far. Imagine it absolutely perfect. It’s still a job for somebody who’s got nothing else they want to do. I have. I want to paint and write. Of course, I see now that Mother would never allow me to do that and nothing else. But if only I had some work which gave me time for other things as well, I’d be quite contented. I do think I ought to be allowed that. (p. 171)

I don’t want to paint, particularly, but I wouldn’t mind singing a bit more than I do, and writing things to sing. But somehow it just doesn’t come together when I’m working full time – evenings and weekends aren’t enough. Elsewhere in All the Conspirators, Philip’s mother suggests that they should be quite sufficient for his purposes, as though his writing and painting are hobbies: pastimes to fill an idle hour, rather than work in their own right. Because he doesn’t get all creative the moment he arrives home he she thinks he can’t possibly be serious about it. But there are two things which could be happening here: he could be lazy, or it could be that the things he wants to do require more alertness, concentration and time than is left over at the end of the working week. Philip is certainly convinced that he has the talent, but he also caves in rather easily, leaving off his writing just so he can show Mother that this is what employment does to him. Maybe if he could blog, that would be an acceptable compromise – but, it being the 1920s, he can’t.

Cyril Connolly’s introduction says that the book is ‘a study in weakness’, and reveals that ‘Behind the ending “a decrescendo of anti-climaxes” is the ghost of that other ending, with Victor murdered and Allen hanged or married’. It’s Bernard Shaw’s point again: ‘Crime, like disease, is not interesting’. Or the gradual diminution of melodrama through Chekhov’s plays, the gun shot off stage in the final scene remaining until The Cherry Orchard, which manages to do without it. With the crime, All the Conspirators would have been a weaker book – as it is, it is courageously spineless. The reader’s sympathy is with Philip and his sister Joan, but neither really merits more than pity. Her misfortune is to be engaged to Victor, who is decent enough, but a sportsman with all of the sensitivity of Mr Brisk from ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’. An early put-down comes when Victor, on finding that Philip writes as well as paints, compliments him: ‘You seem to be a regular all-round man.’ Philip is not impressed: ‘Imagine feeling flattered at his ridiculous sporting terms. One might think, to hear him talk, that one was useful in the slips.’ (p. 33). It is Victor who comes up with the idea of sending Philip off to a Kenyan coffee plantation as a way of providing him with a better work / life balance (or employment / work balance), a move which infuriates Joan. Victor can’t see the problem: ‘Philip said he wanted fresh air, time to write, an outdoor job, and so forth.’ (p. 194). The situation is funny, but it is not played for laughs. Much of the book is like this: the tragedy is light, little more than discontent, quiet desperation. It can be amusing, at a slight distance. It only becomes serious when Philip runs away near the end, becoming ill from the soaking he receives. And the, er, dirty sheets at the squalid lodgings he ends up in (it really isn’t high tragedy: one night in a poor person’s bed – gosh!)

What is really disturbing through all of this is that the Wrong People are in charge: it is Victor, his father, and Mrs Lindsay (Philip and Joan’s mother) who cause all of the events in the book. The likeable characters – Philip, Joan, Allen, Currants – are totally ineffectual, and ultimately Philip’s art descends to the level of kitsch that is the limit of his mother’s comprehension. Maybe All the Conspirators is a greater tragedy than it seems.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tove Jansson – ‘Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip’ (Vols. 1 & 2)

Sorry, I was miles away. Googling ‘Moomin’, finding a whole franchise of which I’d only been dimly aware until recently. Brought about largely by the garish Japanese cartoon from 1990, which triggered what Wikipedia alarmingly calls ‘The Moomin Boom’. Poor Moomin! To suffer commercialisation, to find himself modelled in plastic, printed on t-shirts, emblazoned on the side of Finnish aeroplanes. Surely all of that would only embarrass him? There has also been a counter-boom, bringing him back down to size. There is a 2003 album of songs which ‘became the core for Moomin music in the 1950s and 60s on the theater stage’ (what did the music accompany? The website doesn’t say). There are these Drawn and Quarterly reprints of Moomin as a daily newspaper strip in the 1950s, which I found through Anne Bacheley’s infectiously enthusiastic blog posts about their French translations. Also worth mentioning is the pre-boom Polish stop-animation TV series which I can just about remember from its second UK screening in 1986, though I didn’t like it much then, probably because it wasn’t Battle of the Planets or Knight Rider. Watching it now, it actually is rather lovely, like The Clangers on a bigger and greener planet.

The comic strips ran in The Evening News between 1953-9, until, as Alisia Grace Chase’s afterword says, Jansson ‘realised that the gruelling schedule of a daily and being creative on demand did not suit her meandering attitude towards life’. You wouldn’t guess it from reading them. The daily comic strip is usually quite a constrained medium: its three or four panels make it suitable for short gags, and though its regularity makes continuity possible, you can never be quite sure that your reader saw yesterday’s strip, so each episode also has to make sense in isolation. Maybe there are other examples, but it’s the first time I’ve seen entire stories told in this way (both of these books contain four). They are picaresque tales, loose and episodic, and... the trouble with writing about them like this is that for one thing I’ll only end up boxing them in when they should be free to fly, and for another, it avoids the main thing I want to say, which is that these are the best comic strips I have seen since Douglas so magnificently responded to my request that he find me something jangly to read by producing some extremely rare volumes of Krazy Kat in about 1998.

Almost instantly I fell in love with Krazy’s – well, with his / her meandering attitude towards life (to the extent of not even having a fixed gender), the dumb wordplay, the great gaggles of characters in the 1920s Sunday strips, the lunatic (non)sense it all made. Reading Moomin now is as thrilling as that. There are similar gaggles (stranger here, as Jansson’s creatures are invented, and often cross – I particularly like her authority figures), but otherwise the drawing styles are quite different, Herriman’s lines scratchy where Jansson’s are smooth as she emphasises shape over texture. Or sometimes even design over drawing: there is a lot of detail in some of these strips, the hotel interiors in ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ are beautiful. It is a comic strip of rare good sense, which can remind you how ridiculous society’s expectations are, and how little you need to be bound by them. In ‘Moomin and Family Life’, Moomin reports that ‘Father and Mother have been lost in the spring cleaning!’ and Sniff advises him, ‘There you are, never tidy up,’ but Snufkin sees the truth of it: ‘Have you never wanted to run away from home? Even parents need a change sometimes...’

In the second volume the life lessons are more explicit: ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’ has Snorkmaiden and Mymble swooning over Mr Brisk, a skiing nut. Which is shocking, because Snorkmaiden is supposed to be Moomin’s girlfriend (except that it isn’t, because she’s always doing this kind of thing). Mymble over-does her attempts to impress Mr Brisk by beating him in a ski jump competition. He gets depressed and sits desolate on a cliff edge, from which Moomin nearly rams him into the abyss until he realises, ‘I can’t. He’s down already.’ In ‘Moomin Begins a New Life’ the inhabitants of Moominvalley are entranced by the Prophet, who teaches them that ‘You’re tied down by traditions and narrow ideas! Do only what you want to do instead!’ Once he has gone Moominmamma wonders, ‘Do you do what you want to do?’ and Moominpappa responds, ‘I don’t know... I’ve never thought about it...’. After he has thought about it, he climbs into a tree with a basket of food and an Agatha Christie novel, and he won’t come down again: ‘No dear, the prophet says we must be free.’

What links these two stories is the satire on the idea of achievement which Mr Brisk and the Prophet share. Mr Brisk is too absorbed in sport to notice the people he impresses whilst doing it (or anyone at all, except competitors who beat him), so what good can it really do him? The Prophet takes an idea, freedom, and wants to see it quantified. It’s as though he’s a government inspector, checking up to see that everyone is sufficiently free – which, as Moominpappa’s justification for staying up his tree implies, is a nonsensical view of freedom. Moominpappa has many nonsensical views. He is the least self-aware character, the most endearing, and the funniest too (I laughed for days at his insistence during ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ that his family refer to themselves as the De Moomins). Taken on his own he is just as flawed as Mr Brisk or the Prophet, but the point about him is that he isn’t on his own, he is part of a family and a community which wouldn’t work nearly so well without him. This is the great thing about the Moomin stories: they draw you in to the fond family circle, but they do it lightly, there’s no obligation. Relax, don’t do what you want to do, be where you feel at home.

Friday, October 31, 2008

George Bernard Shaw – ‘Saint Joan’

It’s got that smell, of cold fitted cushions in a caravan. The paper is spongy to the touch, and quite thick, unevenly cut along the side and bottom edges. It’s hardback, but not luxuriously so: the type is small, and the book itself is larger than an old Everyman, smaller than a modern Penguin. On the first right hand page, top right, are prices in pencil: ‘1.25’, fairly big and bold, and then ‘6/-’ , fainter and smaller. There is a message written in fountain pen, black with a hint of blue, which reads: ‘To Ronnie, Wishing him a Happy Christmas, With love, from, John.’ Who would bother with all that punctuation now? Lower down, in the same hand: ‘Christmas. 1928.’ The book is half preface and half play, the preface being broken down into breathless chunks stamped with headlines like ‘Joan the Original and Presumptuous’, ‘Was Joan Suicidal?’, ‘Joan a Galtonic Visualizer’. The content is didactic and disordered, mostly tending towards the point that contrary to popular opinion, Joan did have a fair and considered trial in 1431, and that the re-examination of the evidence in 1456 which exonerated her and marked the beginning of her legend was a ‘corrupt job’ (p. xi). Joan was canonised in 1920, which explains why this play was written when it was (1924).

Shaw doesn’t think that Joan’s execution was justified, his point is that previous accounts of the story have been too polarised, with Joan pure, beautiful, saintly, and her prosecutors old, corrupt, stodgy. They don’t understand the context, and especially the difference between secular and religious authority. All the same, some of his pronouncements apply equally well to both: ‘The more obedient a man is to accredited authority the more jealous he is of allowing any unauthorized person to order him about.’ (p. xlviii). Except – who could possibly have the authority to accredit God? Sitting in a house stuffed with crime novels it was a thrill to read that ‘There are no villains in this piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting.’ (p. lv). Shaw has a very likeable tone in his preface – the restless, flitting, energetic intellectual (how appropriate for Leslie Howard to have starred in Pygmalion, the manner is the same). I warmed to him even as I wondered what he was doing explaining away his play. He describes it as a ‘sober essay on the facts’ (p. l), but how sober can an essay be which compares the fifteenth century Vatican with twentieth century Trade Unions?

The explanations mean that, by and large, the reader knows in advance the effects that the play is aiming towards: it wants to humanise both Joan and her prosecutor Peter Cauchon, rescuing her from the myth of purity, and him from the myth of corruption. But Cauchon’s corruption at the trial is replaced by Warwick’s (he threatens to have her killed whatever the outcome), and Joan’s purity of purpose is never in serious doubt, though there are a few references to her not being all that pretty. The interesting scenes are early on, when Joan’s conviction carries all before it, forcing the French nobility to let her lead their army by sheer force of will. Robert de Baudricourt is the weak-willed blusterer whom she forces into recommending her to the Dauphin. He opens the play with the marvellous line: ‘No eggs! No eggs! Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?’ (p. 1), before flatly refusing Joan admittance for the nth day in a row. Once she does get in, she makes short work of him, and the possibility that she might actually be in some way divine is suggested at the end of the scene when, after she has secured the recommendation and departed, the hens start laying again.

Scene two follows the same formula, with Joan exerting her naïve charm at court, this time winning over the weak Dauphin, Charles. Joan makes short work of him, too: ‘ I can turn thee into a king, in Rheims Cathedral; and that is a miracle that will take some doing, it seems.’ (p. 31). In the same scene, the Archbishop neatly side-steps the question of Joan’s divinity, saying that a miracle is ‘an event which creates faith’ (p. 23): it is true for those who believe in it, and its objective truth is unimportant. And Joan, a confidence-woman who can’t judge when to stop, takes on ever grander military objectives until the inevitable defeat, capture, and trial. As the circumstances get more serious, the play’s charm ebbs away, and the trial and epilogue seemed less important than the feel of the paper, the inscription at the front, and Christmas 1928.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Times New Viking, No Age & Los Campesinos!, Glasgow Art School, 18th October

Damn, I really meant to do some Times New Viking listening in the week leading up to this, somehow didn’t. And double damn, the whole gig has been shifted forward by an hour and a half, so I have to run all the way from the bus station to catch the second half of their set. Perhaps this wasn’t meant to be, but listening to Rip It Off this morning they do sound like one amazing live band. It was worse for Chris, who stood on the steps outside in a snail-paced queue listening to them rattle off ‘their six best songs’ though several solid stone walls, fuming. Once we got inside, the pace of the set slowed a little, songs stretched out beyond the three minute mark, and it was all good stuff, fuzzy, frantic, plus American and no-nonsense (there’s something great about the way certain Americans can rock as casually as if they were walking to the fridge in their dressing gowns for some milk), but it would have been good to see the poppier end of the set too. Another time, hopefully. The singer / drummer had a Sic Alps T-shirt on, which seemed like a good thing.

No Age’s set didn’t have a poppier end, but let me tell you what it did have. A (nother) singing drummer who sounded like he came from the same street as Daniel Johnston, a deeply southern accent and even some similar tunes (as one song finished I could have sworn it was a cover of ‘Why / Without You’, but it was over too fast to really tell). A guitarist who looked rather like Chris O’Dowd from The IT Crowd, which is to say, more than slightly out of it, with curly hair. He could not understand a single heckle. Their songs had mellow, effect-laden intros but went pleasingly mental as soon as the drums came in. For the final song the drummer came to the front of the stage to sing, the guitarist swapped his semi-acoustic for an SG, started up with a metronomic delay / loop thing, which he left running as he clambered to the top of a speaker stack. He sorted out his pose, wobbling a bit, whilst the drummer returned to his drums and prepared for even more mental-ness. Which duly exploded, and was so fabulous that the guitarist was inspired to wedge his SG into the lighting rig (à la Kawabata Mokoto at Stereo last year), where he left it as he climbed down to stage level again. Unlike Kawabata, this fellow left the guitar plugged in, and, not really having thought it all through, attempted to remove the lead by giving it a good yank. Bringing the guitar crashing down, and nearly killing several of the front row, had they not moved back pretty swiftly. He came over to apologise, like it had been a total surprise that the guitar had fallen when he pulled at it. There was a stunned silence. Still, no-one was actually hurt, and it did prove I suppose that No Age really are as stupendously dumb as their sound leads you to hope they might be. Which is great for indie rock, but if you go and see them, do stand back a bit.

The headliners were Los Campesinos!, which I was cautiously looking forward to, having heard a few singles and quite liked them before they got annoying and had to be deleted. Their dreadful cover of ‘C is the Heavenly Option’ was the point at which I gave up, but I didn’t mind their own songs so much, and imagined that they might be the kind of thing better enjoyed live. But sadly not. ‘They’ve got a publicist,’ muttered Chris darkly, as they lined up on stage, about a hundred of them, the male singer in a red hooded top, the female one with woollen orange leggings on her arms. They made a pathetically ‘big’ noise, with the total opposite of the American bands’ insouciance: they meant it, they were going to sing their little hearts fit to burst to deliver their message that indie pop is where it’s at. But hang on, Los Campesinos!, where do you think you are? You’re preaching to the converted, and you aren’t doing it nearly well enough. I’ve nothing against ultra-reverential / referential Welsh pop, but these guys should really leave it to Helen Love. If you’re going to sing about being excited by pop music, you’d better make sure the songs you sing are the equal of the ones you’re singing about (this is why ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom’ is the most ambitious pop song ever – not quite better than ‘Baby I Love You’, but closer than is reasonable). Doing COMPRESSED TO THE MAX thumping and whacking a xylophone over the top is not the same thing. But what really annoyed me was that they dedicated a song to Kenickie, ‘to mark the tenth anniversary of them splitting up.’ Just... don’t, OK? You are not in the same league, you are not even playing the same game. Having left it rather longer than we should have, we walked.

As for Kenickie, remember them this way.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Clare Grogan – ‘Tallulah and the TeenStars’

A text message from A. yesterday morning: ‘Completely 4got about the Clare Grogan signing 2day at Borders. R u n S working 2day?’ I’m not, as it happens. And he’s right, she has a new kids’ book out, the first in a series of three ‘Adventures of Tallulah Gosh’. It is of course totally tremendous that there are to be stories about that top celebrity, first sung about on ‘Talulah Gosh’ by Talulah Gosh (I never noticed it only had two ‘l’s before) way back in nineteen eighty something, the song that put the pop into indie pop, the fi into lo fi, and – more importantly – announced Amelia Fletcher’s arrival as a great singer. Not that I remember it from the time, but there’s that compilation on K. Brilliant song, in any case. Though what it has to do with Clare Grogan of proper ’80s chart pop stars Altered Images I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell you much about them at all, in fact, but I know that I love ‘I Could Be Happy’, and I know that A. and S. are both daft about Gregory’s Girl, the Bill Forsyth film she’s in. Which leaves the question: are all these fond associations enough to make two grown men with no children go along to a book signing for teenage girls?

I’ve decided this is embarrassing after all,’ says A. as we complete our second circuit of the shop. He has brought a record bag with him, with a selection of Grogan-related vinyl, hoping to get it signed. I am clutching a 7” of ‘Happy Birthday’ which he handed to me when I arrived, suggesting I get it signed for S. Which is very kind of him, and a sweet idea, but it does rather preclude the possibility of nonchalantly pretending at the last minute that I’m not here to get anything signed after all, and am merely on my way to the Proust section. In the event, Clare is welcoming and chatty and A. makes all the right remarks about encouraging kids to form bands. With which she agrees – ‘The important thing is not to take it too seriously, to have fun,’ she says, before flipping through a copy of Tallulah and the TeenStars to show him the picture of Tallulah in a Siouxie and the Banshees T-shirt. Then it’s my turn, and I move forward with the ‘Happy Birthday’ single, a chap to the right of the table helpfully handing me a copy of the book to get signed too. Clare detects some reluctance in this, and half-apologises for the coercion. I say no, it was nothing of the sort, I’ll be interested to read the book, being a big fan of the song. Walking away from the table, A. gives me a funny look and says, ‘You do know where the name Talulah Gosh comes from?’ It seems that I don’t. ‘It was the name Clare was going to register with Equity when she became an actor, but Bill Forsyth talked her out of it.’ ‘So the Talulah Gosh song is...’ ‘A tribute to Clare Grogan.’ Thanks, A.! You might have mentioned that five minutes previously! Bloody hell.

The book is delightful, and delightfully simple. It’s almost a rags to riches story, except that there aren’t really any rags (all the families involved seem reasonably affluent) or riches either, just the formation of a band, a talent contest for them to enter, and various obstacles in the way of their triumph. The ambition of Teresa (AKA Tallulah, three ‘l’s) and her bandmates is kept low-level: the talent contest prizes are only book tokens, and they’re up against a magician, a spotty French horn player and a dance troupe called ‘Happy Feet’ who take the whole thing far too seriously, developing a bit of an attitude towards Tallulah and the TeenStars. ‘I didn’t care what they thought,’ reckons Teresa, ‘I just wanted us to do our song well and for people to like it.’ (p. 83). People do like it. Fun is had. Parents and teachers do their best to put a stop to much of it, at least to begin with: Teresa’s first faux pas is a band rehearsal in her parents’ garage when she thought they were going to be out, her second is a make-over session in which El, having quit the band as a bassist, rejoins them as a stylist (they have a stylist before their first gig! How Pop is that?) Poppy’s parents don’t appreciate having their daughter done up ‘looking like a tart’ (p. 52), and kick up a fuss.

Only occasionally does the story fail to convince – I wondered about the part in which Teresa’s previously hostile sisters win over her parents on her behalf by playing them her demo CD. I would also rather the cool set – Mia and Ava, superior sorts from the year above – had faced some sort of comeuppance, but maybe that’s just me. What convinces the whole way through is Teresa’s narration, full of enthusiasm, scattered with 21st Century allusions (we first see her playing her song ‘Baby I Don’t Bebo’ in her room; she and El skip school and go to Starbucks rather than a café), and with perfectly judged swathes of capital letters (‘WOW! THE GORGEOUS ONE SPEAKS!’ (p. 53); at the Betty and the Bee Stings gig, ‘IT WAS THE BEST NIGHT I’VE EVER HAD’ (p. 73); ‘TALLULAH AND THE TEENSTARS, YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!’ (p. 88)). So, though you can pretty much guess what is going to happen right from the start, Grogan does a good job of taking you along through the highs and lows Teresa experiences as disasters loom and are averted. And a great job of making being in a band at school seem not too cool, not too clever, not too geeky, but a fun and a friendly thing to be involved in.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cheap Cigs & Beer

A little while after I posted the Planet Sunflower EP last month, Catriona reminded me of another song we’d done, wondering why it hadn’t been included. Of course, I’d forgotten all about it, but rooting through some old CDs yesterday I found one labelled ‘CIGS’. From September 2005, according to the dates on the files. It’s not bad either – a bit of a lopsided rhythm, her voice absolutely smothered in reverb (this is what we do when she sings too quietly), but with a flute on it and everything. I’ve added it to the end of the EP.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

John Galsworthy – ‘The Man of Property’

There are certain kinds of story which make for good TV adaptations: novels with large casts of characters, lots of gossip and abundant conflicts of interest (preferably tied in with the differences in attitudes between generations and / or classes) tend to make more satisfying series than more psychological, inward-looking books. Cranford may not be a better novel than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but it made better autumnal Sunday evening viewing. It was funnier, for one thing. For another, the romantic leads weren’t centre stage, and if you popped to the kitchen to make toast at judicious moments you could just about ignore them. The Man of Property is the first volume of The Forsyte Saga, a trilogy adapted in 1967 for what is presumably the longest, most character- and gossip- packed costume drama the BBC has ever made (terrifyingly, Galsworthy followed the original trilogy with two more). I’ve been watching it, on and off, for most of this year and, having slightly lost track of who is whose cousin, estranged daughter, long lost husband, etc., have ended up reading this as a quick, handy way of getting a summary of the plot.

Before the plot comes the opulent backdrop, a society in which everyone can be categorised as Forsyte or non-Forsyte. Here is young Jolyon expounding the theory on Galsworthy’s behalf to the architect Bosinney:

A ‘Forsyte’ is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property. He knows a good thing, he knows a safe thing, and his grip on property – it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money or reputation – is his hall-mark. [...] It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion possible. Without Forsytes, who believe in none of these things, but turn them all to use, where should we be? (p. 157)

This is typical of the book’s tone: cynical but rarely one-sided. People with property don’t know what to do with it (other than accumulate it); those with ideas haven’t the resources to carry them through. Only by mixing up Forsytes with non-Forsytes can anything really be achieved. Pure Forsytes are rare: young Jolyon, as an artist who chooses a loving relationship over the propriety of marriage, would seem to disqualify himself several times over, but when an art critic suggests that his watercolours need to be produced in themed batches before they will sell, he manages to work this commercial idea into his artistic vision. ‘All the men who are making great names in Art [...] are making them by avoiding the unexpected’ (p. 196) is the advice, vaguely reminiscent of a recent Damien Hirst radio interview in which he talked about the ‘lines’ of his work – the butterfly collages, the animals in formaldehyde – and how he was thinking of phasing some of them out. Because the idea is done, or because it will increase the value of the existing pieces? Hirst, surely, is a Forsyte.

Though perhaps not quite to the extent of Soames Forsyte, the anti-hero of The Man of Property: a man totally without imagination, wholly consumed by property, unhappily married to a wife he sees as being the star asset in his portfolio – which is to say, he loves her, after his fashion. She loathes him, and the rhyme between the words ‘loathe’ and ‘Soames’ seems a part of the perfection of his name. Irene is often referred to, with cruel irony, as Mrs Soames. From the first chapter:

Soames Forsyte, flat-shouldered, clean-shaven, flat-cheeked, flat-waisted, yet with something round and secret about his whole appearance, looked downwards and aslant at Aunt Ann, as though trying to see through the side of his nose. (p. 12)

This is during the conversation in which the engagement of Soames’ niece June to Bosinney first becomes known. The engagement never gets off the ground: instead, Bosinney and Irene fall in love, and Soames hires Bosinney to build him a grand country house – because he wants a new start, and wants to coax his wife into it by employing someone of whom she approves. This is the position from which the lives of all concerned will disintegrate through the course of the novel: Bosinney ends up over-spending (by relatively little), Soames suing him not so much for breach of contract as because he hates him. It’s an irresistible downward narrative pull, but a little flat in the book when compared to the TV series: Galsworthy’s style is not strong enough to erase Eric Porter’s up tight, infinitely proper performance as Soames. Nor John Welsh’s, as Soames’ grumpy father James. When his son, still in shock, tells him that Irene has left him, he comes out with:

Left you! [...] What d’you mean – left you? You never told me she was going to leave you. (p. 226)

Information is property too, and the fresher it is the more value it has. Isn’t property ridiculous?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Robert Forster, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 20th September

In amongst the loveliness of walking down the steps by the ticket office into the warmth of ‘Head Full of Steam’, and spotting the selection of rare-looking Go-Betweens 7-inch singles spread out on the merchandise table, I missed the notice on the wall behind them: ‘Robert here 6 minutes after the end of the show’. Leaving the stage a little less than two hours later he announced a revised schedule: ‘I’m going to go upstairs and drink a bottle of cool alcohol-free lager, then I’ll be over at the back if you have any questions. See you there in eight – no, eight and a half minutes.’ And out he bowed: his arms in the air, the crowd’s arms in the air, to more than your average round of cheering. ‘The gig equivalent of a standing ovation,’ thought A. It’s obvious why, of course: The Go-Betweens were always a band who inspired affection, and for most of us this is the first time we’ve seen Robert play since Grant McLennan’s ludicrously premature death two years ago. We’ve always loved him, of course – how could you not? – but this time out it’s that bit more important to show it. Robert knows this, and he gives us the chance: plays Grant’s ‘Quiet Heart’, introduces bassist Adele Pickvance saying, ‘Grant McLennan used to call her the duchess of the deep end’ (exactly the kind of naff thing Grant would say). It’s well judged: an acknowledgement of what we’re all thinking, in the midst of an evening which is more Robert Forster-ish than you would believe.

A. had another thought, during the wait for Robert to finish his alcohol-free lager. That he had begun to resemble someone in the decade since she last saw him, at a Go-Betweens show which I missed, but at which a lemon yellow-suited Robert, chatting afterwards, asked politely about Glasgow bands and Chris warned him off Mogwai (Chris hated Mogwai) by doing an unprovoked and embarrassing hunchbacked impersonation of Stuart Braithwaite, whilst G. attempted to distract attention by standing on Isobel Campbell’s record bag. Robert sipped his herbal tea and Grant was oblivious, intent on finding out where was good to go clubbing. So who does he resemble?

‘Isn’t it obvious?’

‘Not really. He’s Robert Forster – he looks like Robert Forster.’

‘And John Cleese.’

There is something in this. Something of the Ministry of Silly Walks about the rock ’n’ roll moves he started to pull a few songs in, when things really began to take off. Possibly during ‘German Farmhouse’, and the wild-eyed overacting accompanying the line, ‘there was a rumour PAVAROTTI would play there’. There was this thing he did a couple of times: eyes popping out of their sockets, hands stretched wide to the sides of his head, as a way of emphasising something. And the break downs! If you’ve ever dreaded the day your favourite band decided to double the lengths of your favourite songs, putting in quiet bits and bluesy bits and shouting out ‘once more!’ when the break down (do you call them break downs?) seems to be almost over, well – fret no more, if The Go-Betweens are your favourite band, and ‘Spring Rain’ your favourite song. There is clearly no way this ought to have worked, but Robert managed to make these comedy moves with such seriousness that you didn’t know whether to laugh or dance, and ended up doing both. For too much of Robert’s solo career in the ’90s his records (all except Danger in the Past) lacked exactly this crackle – he went blues but forgot that blues needs energy. And now here it is, redeeming the previously anaemic ‘1-2-1’ like it was a beast of a song all along. Even ‘I Can Do’ was kind of OK, and that’s saying something.

There were plenty of songs, too, which had never needed saving – ‘The Darlinghurst Years’ from Oceans Apart (‘this covers the years 1981-83 in my life, in exhaustive detail’), and a couple from this year’s The Evangelist, my favourite record of his since The Friends of Rachel Worth. ‘Demon Days’ was rapturously received, probably for the line ‘the fingers of fate / stretch out and take’, which felt like it referred to Grant, though the song itself is (wonderfully) vague. Older songs included ‘Draining the Pool for You’ and ‘Heart Out to Tender’ – both featuring epic break downs, the latter prompting the heckle, ‘I’ll bid for it!’ – and, glory of glories, ‘People Say’, which is and always has been the last word in two minute off key pop perfection. It really feels now, as it rarely did in the ’90s, that Robert Forster can stand outside The Go-Betweens – now that he has no choice, and now that he no longer has to stand at odds to them. Which is great news: he made a fine journalist and all, in the interim, but what the world really needs are his moves.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Leo Baxendale – ‘A Very Funny Business: 40 Years of Comics’

The most recent Asterix book, Asterix and the Falling Sky, is a two-pronged allegory targeted at the state of comics and the state of the world as they were in 2005. The Gauls’ magic potion becomes Iraq’s supposed stock of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which a group of aliens representing America (and, in the other allegory, Disney) see it as their duty to confiscate. A second group of aliens, the Nagmas (representing Manga), also want to get their hands on the magic potion, because they are evil and want to stomp all over good old traditional comics / western nations with their rampant commercial success / enhanced biffing power. It’s all a bit confused, and a good example of the megalomania which can creep in when a comic artist is stuck at a drawing board for years on end, churning out the funny stuff. I mention it because Leo Baxendale has a bit of an ego on him too, and in this history of his time in comics (thanks to Tim for the recommendation) he rarely misses an opportunity to tell you how good other people think he is, how good he thinks he is, and how he has been ripped off regarding the rights to his strips and characters. The wounded pride is tangible, as it is on his website , where almost the first thing you see is this:

The rights of Leo Baxendale to be identified as author of The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, The Three Bears, and The Banana Bunch, have been asserted in accordance with ss. 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The site also refers to a ‘7 year High Court action over my Beano creations’, so clearly there is bad blood between Baxendale and his former employers. Of course he is entitled to remind people of how badly he has at times been treated, but I was a little worried at the start of this book that it might be simply an exercise in vindication, more about the arguments than the comic strips.

Thankfully, it isn’t. Leo Baxendale loves comics. Though chapter one has the ominous title ‘The creation of Bash Street’, it actually begins with the moment in 1952 when, aged 22, he saw his first Dennis the Menace strip, in a cast-off Beano of his brother’s:

Here was a remarkable new character in a modern urban setting. The Dennis page seemed to crackle with life. I thought ‘I could do something like this’, and promptly started sorting out samples of my cartoon work to send off to the Beano. (p. 6)

This is Baxendale in a nutshell: there is very little separating his appreciation of other people’s talent and his appreciation of his own. At first this is irritating, because he’s always telling you how great he is, and how well developed his humour (‘Animals behaving sneakily are funnier than people being sneaky. I don’t know why this should be, but it is so.’ (p. 8)). It takes a while to absorb the fact that as well as being a touch boastful, Baxendale is very acute in his judgements: he knows what he likes, in himself and in others, and when he finds it, he says so. Much of A Very Funny Business is not about Leo Baxendale at all, but about David Law (who drew Dennis the Menace), Dudley Watkins (Lord Snooty) and Ken Reid (Jonah, ‘an incandescent creation’ (p. 60)). He praises Watkins’ professionalism, but identifies more with Law and Reid as they struggle to keep up with ‘the relentless pressure of the non-stop comics schedules’ (p. 61). He visits the widows of Law and Watkins in the final chapter, ‘Dundee revisited’, and asks them both the same question: ‘Do you think he did too much?’ (p. 128). Baxendale is quite candid about the effect of speed on his drawing: his best, ‘vintage’ work was done slowly, and his career in comics is told as one long struggle to get his workload down to a level at which he can produce good drawings.

He is specific about when this was possible, too. Someone at D. C. Thomson should go through this book (he’s really not that unpleasant about them – IPC come off as faceless and second rate by comparison) and take him at his own estimation: print a collection of the stuff he rates. Starting with all his Bash Street Kids, Little Plums and Minnie the Minxes from 1957-8. He writes about the different styles he went through (drawing under pressure elongates characters, he says, in all seriousness), and you can see the change comparing the ’50s strips reprinted here with the ’70s Willy the Kid material. Both are styles I recognise – the former from Minnie the Minx strips in old second hand Beano annuals (a few going back to the ’70s, but no earlier) and possibly the odd reprint; the latter from IPC’s Whizzer and Chips in the ’80s. Baxendale had retired from comics by then, and hadn’t worked for The Beano since walking out in the mid ’60s. Before seeing the Beano exhibition the other week and then this book, I probably hadn’t seen very much of Baxendale’s work at all, but it looks very familiar. He describes the phenomenon of watching other artists pick up styles he himself used only for a matter of months: his chaotic detail and consistently awesome facial expressions (furious, fiendish, gleeful) became part of the fabric of British comics, and continued after he stopped drawing them himself. He’s earned his time in the garden.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Down an August Path

Walking home late on Wednesday I noticed some sunflowers in a front garden, growing up against a wall, nearly reaching the first storey. Now I’m wondering whether to nip out and photograph them, lit by street lights, sunflowers in the dark. Ungainly things, out of their element. It would make a good back cover, I reckon, in contrast to the sunlight on the front – but it’s half an hour’s walk away, I’ve no bus change and it’s nearly bedtime as it is. So it’s too late, ’cause this is getting posted tomorrow morning, this EP by my sister and I. Planet Sunflower are our band, or duo anyway, and years ago we used to make songs by looping bits of Nick Cave records and writing down the names of things in the room to use for lyrics. ‘In My Eyes’ from Loss Angeles is a Planet Sunflower song (no Cave there – The Seahorses, Stevie Wonder and Beatrix Potter were our, uh, inspirations). Another, the best one, was called ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ for no better reason than that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book of that name was on a shelf nearby when we wrote it. Random choices can be good ones. Though lately when we’ve done stuff it’s been less random, more song-like. Catriona (AKA Janet Sunflower) says, ‘The first two songs are old Planet Sunflower-style (complicated) & the latter two are new PS-style (simple / only got an acoustic guitar on us).’* ‘The Escarpment’ is our first single.

Planet Sunflower – ‘The Escarpment E.P.’

  1. The Escarpment
  2. Big Stripey Lie
  3. Where is the Now?
  4. My Planet Sunflower
  5. Cheap Cigs & Beer
Songs by Catriona and Chris except ‘Big Stripey Lie’ which is by Kate Bush. The first two were recorded in August 2008, and the rest between 2004 – 2006.

Download it here, or listen below.

* She said this before we found the fifth song, so it made sense at the time.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ha Jin – ‘Waiting’

More than with most novels, there is a feeling about Waiting that the blurb on the back tells you all you’re going to find out from the book itself:

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor, has been passionately in love with an educated, modern woman, Manna Wu, but back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years’ waiting, Lin promises it will be different.
The story opens with Lin back at the family home in Goose Village. Manna is not hopeful about the outcome:
By 1983, Lin and his wife had already been separated for seventeen years, so with or without Shuyu’s agreement, he would be able to divorce her next year. That was why Manna was certain that he wouldn’t make a great effort this time. She knew the workings of his mind: he would always choose an easy way out. (p. 15)
The action swiftly moves back twenty years, takes in the meeting of Manna and Lin, and everything indicates that we are in for a narrative framed by its culmination: end, start, middle, end, like an unimaginative biography. Dropped back to 1963, you already know that there is going to be an extra-marital affair of some kind, that it will start around about 1966, and that by 1983 it will be stuck, not very much further on, awaiting the divorce. There is no suspense about this either: the divorce is bound to happen after the eighteen years are up, whereupon Lin and Manna will marry. But how happy an ending can this really be, after all the waiting?

There is precious little passion about Lin and Manna’s love, either. Strange to say about such an inconvenient situation, but it is essentially pragmatic: he doesn’t want an old fashioned, village-dwelling, village-minded wife with bound feet. He’s an educated man, and wants someone he can relate to – what could be fairer than that? She falls for him on the rebound, and after he takes care of her badly blistered feet on army exercises. It all makes some kind of sense at the time, and soon they come to accept each other as partners-in-waiting, emotionally dependent but never consummating their relationship. To begin with they believe they will be married soon, though the reader knows otherwise. Their abstinence is largely due to the fact of living and working in a Communist-run army hospital: there are restrictions on where unmarried couples can walk together, and there can be little privacy when the whole staff live in shared rooms. There is the suggestion, though, that Lin is weak to allow these difficulties to stand in their way:

‘To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn’t think of leaving my family. I’d just keep Manna as my woman here. A man always has more needs, you know.’ He grinned meaningfully.

‘You mean I should have her as a mistress?’

‘Good, you’re learning fast.’

Lin sighed and said, ‘I can’t do that to her. It would hurt her badly. Also, it’s illegal.’

Geng Yang smiled thoughtfully. A trace of distain crossed his face, which Lin didn’t notice. (p. 166)

Geng Yang brushes aside the idea that this illegality would be damaging, offering bribery as a solution. This unpleasant character is more brash, more willing to act than Lin Kong, and is ultimately rewarded for it when he makes a fortune in the construction industry.

The inevitability of the storyline means that Waiting can work as a fable. The moral being that selflessness and generosity of spirit are their own reward, and are worth more than any tangible prize. Ambition is shown to be a drab and ugly thing – whether this is Lin and Manna’s modest ambition to marry, or Geng Yang’s more worldly grasping for sex and wealth. More engaging than any of these characters are Shuyu and Hua, Lin’s first wife and their daughter. Once the eighteen years of separation are over, the novel emerges from stasis in Part Three, when Shuyu travels to Lin’s hospital for the divorce. With her arrival the spell is broken, and the reader no longer knows what is going to happen next. Lin gives her money for a haircut and, not knowing what to ask for, Shuya plumps for the same style as the hairdresser (a bob), and accidentally ends up looking quite good. It doesn’t occur to her to be embarrassed by this ignorance, and by the time the cut is finished she has charmed a small audience with her calm simplicity. Likewise the nurses who treat her sciatica, and who are fascinated by her bound feet (she won’t show them, they are for Lin’s eyes only). Incredibly, Shuya never abandons her idea of herself as Lin’s wife, and she is almost always obedient to him, during and after the divorce. Her circumscribed, unchanging outlook ends up seeming far preferable to the vacillations of Lin and Manna – especially Manna, who builds up such resentment during the years of waiting. Their love, strained beyond endurance by a constant focus on the future, seems as though it has never been real at all; hers simply is, and it endures.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bill Drummond – ‘17’

Momus has it that in the age of information (i.e. now) everyone will be ‘famous for fifteen people’. Instead of Beatlemania and T-Rexstasy in the 1960s and 1970s, big bands with big budgets and big audiences, what we now have is a far wider choice of recording artists with far smaller fan bases. Bill Drummond, another pop star drawn to the art world in recent years, has the figure at 17. Or rather, in reacting to the same situation, he has come up with alternative future, in which performers and audience merge, and in which no more than 17 people will ever hear the same piece of music. It’s as though he has taken things as they are (or as they are likely to become), and shifted them around a bit, so that the same thing happens by design. Putting the svengali back at the helm of pop, or – now that it has broken up – making his proxies the coxes of a million different rowing boats. Is this beginning to sound contradictory yet? Good.

Drummond’s idea is that recorded music is finished. Everything’s been done before, it’s no longer exciting; for music to evolve it needs to leave behind recording (i.e. painstaking, multi-track recording, intended for the repeated listens of the multitude) and become spontaneous, site-specific. Being a man of action, he has set the ball rolling with The17, a choir he has dreamt up, of ever changing membership, who have forgotten everything they knew about music, except that it is vitally important to them: when they sing they have to re-imagine it from scratch. He has spent the last few years conducting (if that’s the word) performances by The17, gathering different groups of 17 people, presenting them with scores made up of instructions but no musical notation or lyrics. The scores resemble those of ’60s experimental musicians like (struggles to remember, until Bill mentions...) Cornelius Cardew, and the way they allow for chance ties in with the little I know of John Cage. Actually, they don’t look like any Cardew scores that I can find online, but isn’t this one just beautiful?

It’s interesting that Bill never address the popularity part of pop directly. The closest he gets is the disclaimer in chapter one: ‘If you are hoping this book will investigate the more high-profile moments of my progress, DO NOT read any further.’ (p. 7). Of course, his work has always been about mass appeal, and almost always obliquely: The KLF’s legendarily brattish and noisy Brit Awards performance made sense only because of the large number of records they sold in the previous year. The K Foundation’s full page broadsheet ads, even if no-one understood them, were still full page broadsheet ads. Bill’s love of the spectacle is what makes him brilliant, but in his writing he has an almost fanatical aversion to mentioning it. All his efforts in the direction of telling you what he is like have him visiting libraries and supermarket cafés, scribbling away in his notebook; or concocting stupid rules for himself relating to the CDs he is supposed to have stopped caring about; or driving, driving, driving. Only when he has convinced himself that he has convinced the reader that he is the most boring man in Britain will he lose concentration for a chapter or two and let out the most exciting, populist thing you ever heard. Like meeting Little Richard in the early ’80s:

‘Are you the boy from the record company?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And who am I?’

‘Little Richard.’

‘And what is Little Richard?’

I thought fast: ‘The Real King of Rock ’n’ Roll.’

‘That is correct. And what else am I?’

‘It depends.’

‘It depends? I’ll tell you what I am. I am the most beautiful man in show business.’

And he said that with a bit of a shriek and then giggled afterwards as if to let me know that he is OK and quite approachable really.

Then he says, ‘Come closer. I want to see your face properly.’ I move closer.

‘Closer still, boy.’

I move closer again.

‘Real close.’

My face is now about 18 inches from his. He stares into my eyes and then lets out the loudest non-amplified vocal sound I have ever heard in my life.

‘A WOMP-BOMP-A-LOO-BOP, A WOMP-BAM-BOOM’. (pp. 120-1)

Unlike Momus, Bill loves the spectacle. He sees it threatened, and responds with an idea which tries to turn fragmentation into a mass event by combining it with experimental music. No one else would be so stupid. He defends his right to make up what he’s doing as he goes along by saying:

As soon as an artist knows what they are doing and how to do it and why, they are dead. (p. 304)

And he’s right. How can you be an explorer if you already have a map? I think the final chapter here is the best thing he’s written, and I won’t spoil it by saying why, but 17 is an appropriate response to our times: concerned with process over product, trying to find a way back to being a fan, when stardom itself is on the wane. And yes, it’s just as good as 45.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Kristin Hersh – ‘Paradoxical Undressing’, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17th August

A man who must be Billy, Kristin’s husband and manager, takes to the low stage in a twilit room with an oval roof and an oval skylight. There is a lectern and a large white screen, which will be used for back projections of paintings (by Molly Cliff-Hilts, says the programme). He does some diffusing, tells us we can clap or laugh if we like, or not if we don’t. Leaving the stage, he attracts some applause himself and puts a stop to it: ‘Don’t clap.’ Which is funny, but I wonder why he feels the need to tell us these things? She’s only going to be reading book extracts, surely? There is a book in the works, with the same title as this show, both being ‘inspired by my teenage diaries’. Something like her appearance on Powell’s Books’ ‘Bookcast’, maybe? Her funny and deliberate prose in her deep and rich voice, some scary songs (I listened to this again at lunchtime today – what is the point of being disarming with people, I thought, if you’re going to lay them out cold with ‘Delicate Cutters’ afterwards? Hanging up my coat as I arrived back, putting my tears away). But no. Nothing like that.

She is dressed in white with a black guitar. Electric, but it sounds deep, warm and half acoustic. She plays the whole way through, more languidly than you’d imagine she could – The Grotto is the closest her recorded playing comes to it. The few repeated chords conjure up a spaghetti western desert. She starts to read: ‘The handmade Jesus on Mr and Mrs Boluc’s living room wall has no face, just a gasping, caved-in head with blood dripping down its chest.’ The online text has ‘jerry-rigged Jesus’, which is even better. Her voice doesn’t take you too far from the western idea, this could be the preamble to some lawless tragedy. I close my eyes for the first few minutes, because I can’t breathe, I can’t leave… but that’s not quite it, it isn’t suffocating. There is something in Kristin’s performance, running through it, the whole thing, comparable to whatever it is that runs through her early records. It’s not something that has been consistently present in her work for a long time, though there have always been flashes. A man made of butter fat careening around on a sno cat. It isn’t the same, it’s older, less fraught. It is placid and it is hurt. It is powerful and affecting but it is not oppressive. This is a surprise: the feeling of being belted around the head by ‘Vicky’s Box’ slowed and withstood, brought under control. It is a good and a positive thing.

Songs are interspersed with the readings, ‘Fish’ first, which as an early song you might expect, also ‘Hook in her Head’, vicious, drained of its pop. Then ‘Slippershell’, a much more recent song (from this year’s series of downloads), but it fits in so well. This was another surprising thing: how cohesive Kristin’s songs are, how well songs from different records go together, given a bit of explanation. She describes various animal hallucinations (her arm as a snake, the wolves that made it into ‘Mania’), including some ‘mechanical bees’, before singing part of ‘Buzz’. There are the people living around and about whilst the Muses got under way – junkies and painters (she prefers the junkies), interchangeable house mates, and an old forgotten film star who was somehow at college with Kristin, comes to her shows with her priest and insists that she must flirt with her audience. There is a dream-like description of a car crash, in which her foot falls off and her face becomes a hamburger (‘I’d ask her to help find my foot, but who would want to help someone with a hamburger for a face?’) The biggest laugh of the evening goes to the line ‘Camel shit shoes – don’t wear them in the rain!’ It’s a funny show. Also surreal, sad, spooky. 24 hours later I’m still tingling. And feeling for the first time that I have witnessed something as uncontrollably great as those early Muses records. Totally fucking unmissable – you have until next Saturday to catch the Edinburgh run.

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