Saturday, March 19, 2005

Party politics

It had been far too long since our last visit to The REP, and didn't this production of Harold Pinter's 1958 masterpiece just remind us of that fact.

The play itself is captivatingly strange. Set in a boarding house on the coast, it's focused on Stanley Webber, who is the only lodger until the appearance of two sinister characters, Goldberg and McCann, who put the unemployed musician under duress and induce him to suffer a nervous breakdown before leaving with him before the owners of the boarding house can mount sufficient objection.

It's not hard to see why the play divided its first audiences - it closed the same week it opened, but not before Sunday Times reviewer Harold Hobson had declared Pinter "the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London". An unlikely melange of near-slapstick comedy (particularly the dialogue between boarding house owners Meg and Petey), surrealism and kitchen-sink drama, 'The Birthday Party' also has a strong sense of menace, an underlying threat of violence bubbling away and coming to the surface on occasion. The adjective "Kafkaesque" isn't ascribed to it lightly - there's a sense of absurdity, bewilderment and everything only being half-explained familiar from The Trial.

It seems churlish to single out individuals for praise in such a universally superb production, but Dame Eileen Atkins as Meg deserves special mention, her nervous tics and suffocating mothering of Stanley played to perfection.
Reasons To Be Cheerful #8

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The REP

Situated at the end of Broad Street, and thereby helping to confer upon Birmingham's most notorious booze strip a semblance of culture and class, the REP - as the Birmingham Repertory Theatre is better known, and indeed as it brands itself - is widely regarded and respected as one of the finest theatres outside London.

In actual fact, it should be more properly referred to as the New REP, the Old Rep being situated on Station Street just down from The Electric Cinema.

A stylish glass-fronted building, the REP has a couple of bars as well as a very reasonably priced restaurant, with an appealing lunch menu as well as a value-for-money pre-show menu in the evening.

The theatre itself is large, with comfortable seats arranged in fairly steeply banked rows to ensure excellent visibility from all angles. In my experience its reputation certainly seems well founded, 'The Birthday Party' only being the latest of several visits to uniformly excellent productions, with fine acting, astute direction and creative sets the norm. In the autumn we saw a very good performance of Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible', and then shortly afterwards an even better production of Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia'.

Those in charge aren't afraid to take risks with lesser-known dramatists and writers, either - secondary venue The Door regularly offers up opportunities to see smaller productions of a good standard. Indeed, it was The Door's production of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play 'Behzti' ('Dishonour') that provoked an outcry from incensed Sikhs last year, propelling The REP firmly into the national media spotlight.

Tickets can be booked on the day - subject to availability, of course - for as little as £6.50 for the main theatre. A small price to pay for real quality on your doorstep.
"Hilarious & co"

'Nathan Barley' finished tonight with possibly the best episode of the whole series. "Preacher Man" Dan had the pleasure of watching Nathan drink a cup of black coffee with scrambled egg and smoked salmon in it on his recommendation, but the man behind Trashbat had the last laugh.

It was a half-hour filled with very distinctive Morrisisms, from the 'Labour Party Conference' game Pingu was playing on the X-Box to the junkie choir going around schools. He might have taken the concept of ordering someone into doing lots of bizarre and offensive things down the phone straight from his 90s radio show, but it still made for entertaining viewing.

I enjoyed the shout-out to Vernon Kay ("Keep it MENCAP"), but Nathan's finest moment was when the bloke from the film company referred to his pranks as satirical and like "Swift as 'Jackass'", and he replied, "Yeah, or ... even faster".

The series might have been a bit of an in-joke with a quite specific "chuckle demographic", but then Nathan Barleys aren't confined to East London, even though they're highly concentrated there. Probably something that'll work better if watched in sequence, and with repeated viewings revealing new facets all the time, but hardly the dramatic slump in quality certain Morris fans were claiming before the series aired.
Quote of the day

"On Monday morning a police car came whizzing up the lane with a very charming young man and a very beautiful young lady. They didn't accuse me of killing the swan, they accused me of being in possession illegally of a corpse of a protected species. I had to give a statement. I offered them coffee and asked them if they would like to try some swan terrine but I think they were rather horrified. That was a mistake, wasn't it?"

Yes, I rather think it was, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

I bet whoever Sir Peter gave the chance to write this news story will be grateful to him for having brightened up their day.

(*In-joke alert* A news story about swans - are you clenching your fists and grinding your teeth yet, Paul?)

Wonder what swan tastes like, anyway. Like chicken, at a guess.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Blogwatch

Welcome...

Here's What's Wrong With You, a Nottingham-based blog with a difference in that it's written by an American.

Meanwhile...

Mike recounts his moment in the glare of the media spotlight earlier in the week, including a BBC Radio Nottingham interview - "Darlings, I could have danced all night. They practically had to drag me out of that studio. But I was just getting into my stride! Sod the news! I'm on a roll here! As I wandered through the city centre to the office, the strains of '(Is This Way To) Amarillo' blasting through my iPod, it was all I could do not to start swinging my arms, Peter Kay style, and greeting the early morning shoppers with a smile and a wave. 'Good morning Bulwell! How's it hanging, Arnold? Coming atcha, Top Valley!' Eamon? Natasha? Get those sofas plumped up! Michael is ready for you now".

Elsewhere...

Vaughan writes a fantastic post about silence - "Sadly, of course, London silence - in the middle flat of a Victorian conversion overlooking a fairly busy road - is not the most satisfying silence in the world, but it'll have to do for the moment. All I know is that I've treasured every moment of listening to nothing more than the central heating ticking over";

Jonny B returns from Rome on excellent form - "We have neither a Starbucks nor a Pizza Hut in the village, so I was tremendously excited about travelling to the home of good coffee and Italian food"

Inspector Sands defends and justifies his ownership of a Nike Stand Up Speak Up anti-racism band - for what it's worth, I don't agree, but he argues his case well as always;

Paul contemplates naming a new cat - "My wife keeps suggesting names that she thinks are relevant to us, eg 'Trent' or 'Tyne'. I think naming the poor creature after its ultimate resting place is a bit on the harsh side";

Swiss Toni enjoys a good laugh at the Catholic Church's response to Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' - "How many people have died in the name of 'The Da Vinci Code'? From what I can work out, and I haven't read it, the worst thing you can say about it is that it is crap literature. I don't think it's caused any wars - a bit of tourism perhaps, but no massacres or burnings at the stake or anything like that";

Skif is starstruck at the prospect of interviewing John French of The Magic Band;

Mish goes to the National Theatre, has a fag in the company of the Spanish Ambassador and marvels at how petite Penelope Wilton is;

Vicky takes Allan Brown to task for a snide and cliche-ridden article on blogging in the Scottish Times on Sunday;

N invites suggestions as to what he should ask Robert Kilroy-Silk when he visits his workplace this week.

And finally...

Jonathan tells someone where to stick their imaginary periscope.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Say it with spray paint

Graffiti spotted as I was trundling into Nottingham Station on the train this morning:

"Happy birthday Jo, I love you"

Not the sort of hastily scrawled or etched graffiti one might find on the back of the door in a pub toilet, but meticulously crafted in white and an assortment of reds, surrounded by an array of hearts.

A very public declaration of affection - a genuinely grand romantic gesture, given the artist's willingness to flout the law in making it.

Aww.

Graffiti's always fascinated me. OK, so if it's badly done it can be an eyesore, but more often than not it adds some much-needed colour and vibrancy to grey concrete structures and ugly industrial buildings. And if it's not particularly artistic, it's funny - again I'm thinking of the train route into Nottingham, where a couple of lines converge, and one wall loudly proclaims "You gettin head off ya mum"...

[*Meta-alert!*] Blogging's a bit like graffiti. Regardless of protestations to the contrary, the reason bloggers put their words up online rather than simply keep a private diary is so that they're publicly visible. The difference is that, unlike graffiti, blogging's legal, though what you say can still get you into trouble.

Perhaps the urge to be a graffiti artist lurks within us all.
Quote of the day

"Someone asked me how I cleaned up, so I said I had my blood completely changed. I was fucking sick of answering that question, so I gave them a story."

Keith Richards, quoted in this Observer Music Monthly article debunking the ten greatest rock 'n' roll myths.

(Thanks to Andrew for the link.)
"He wouldn't even have the imagination to see whether the tea-cosy would make a serviceable hat"

Skif of Hobo Tread reviews Stewart Lee's show at the Liverpool Laughterhouse on his Box Social comedy blog.

"Once a twist is caught up, there is another subversion of the conventional anecdote to latch onto, and he treats his comedic devices like a magician keen on expulsion from his Circle."

Meanwhile, the recent glut of comedy reviews on SWSL is set to continue, with a trip out to King's Heath to catch Richard Herring in stand-up mode very much on the cards.
Feel good hits of the 16th March

1. 'Morning Bell' (Amnesiac version) - Radiohead
2. 'Goddess On A Hiway' - Mercury Rev
3. 'Bochum (Light Up My Life)' - Six By Seven
4. 'Walk Into The Sea' - Low
5. 'Too Long Awake' - Idlewild
6. 'School' - Nirvana
7. 'Helicopter' - Bloc Party
8. 'Leif Erikson' - Interpol
9. 'The City Consumes Us' - The Delgados
10. 'Na Na Na Na Naa' - The Kaiser Chiefs

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More than words

MERCURY REV / THE DUKE SPIRIT, 11TH MARCH 2005, BIRMINGHAM ACADEMY

I'm starting to develop an intense dislike for the Birmingham Academy. In fact, it's verging on a loathing.

Which is unfortunate, given that that's where about 90% of the gigs I go to take place.

And it's not just the shitty lager which I refuse to endorse by mentioning the venue's full name.

On Fridays and Saturdays I understand the need to get people cleared out for the club night, but is it really necessary to impose a 10pm curfew on bands, which tonight means doors open at 6.30pm? I only live five minutes' walk away, but my companion for the evening has a significantly longer journey.

The upshot is that we walk into the venue, catch ten minutes of The Duke Spirit, and are just getting onto their rumbling, raggedy, slouching wavelength when Leila Moss mumbles "Thanks a lot, goodnight" and she and her bouffant-haired accomplices are gone. The only support band, a band I wanted to enjoy, and they're offstage by 7.55pm. They must have come on at 7.15pm. Great.

During the main act the venue continues to do its level best to ruin the evening. Or, rather, the bar staff do. After the intensely irritating experience of the PJ Harvey gig back in September, I am in no mood to miss a good portion of the headliner’s set by being continually overlooked in the queue, especially when tickets were £15 a pop. And yet that’s exactly what happens.

Twenty minutes after setting off for the bar, a mere ten second walk away, I return with a couple of pints and try to get back into the groove.

Mercury Rev are not a band whose music I’m particularly familiar with – my girlfriend owns All Is Dream, from which several songs are taken tonight – but neither that unfamiliarity, nor the shortcomings of the venue, nor the infuriatingly garrulous Friday night crowd can stop me enjoying their set.

1998’s Deserter's Songs paved the way for the breakthrough success of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin album the following year which unfortunately eclipsed that of the pioneers. At times it’s hard to see a chink of light between the two bands – perhaps unsurprising given that they’re both produced by Dave Fridmann and Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue, possessed of a gorgeous voice, used to play guitar with the Oklahoma oddballs.

There’s the same sort of wide-eyed wonder in the music, too – a reverential awe in the face of nature, human existence and the magnitude of the universe reflected in their lyrics and represented in the projected images in front of which they play. Yep, whether they like the label or not, they’re 21st century hippies.

However, while Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots saw Wayne Coyne and company edging towards minimalism and electronica, Mercury Rev continue to pursue an expansive, romantic, piano-heavy sound tainted by Americana and a hint of Gothicism which evokes the widescreen vistas and clear starlit skies of the Catskill Mountains that the band call home.

The set is at first heavy with tracks from new album The Secret Migration, latest single ‘Across Yer Ocean’ particularly impressive, with older tracks like ‘Tides Of The Moon’ sprinkled in, and, as with the songs themselves, it takes time for momentum to build. But build it does, and penultimate song ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ is incredible, more than enough to compensate for the absence of ‘The Dark Is Rising’ and ‘Chains’. A three song encore concludes with ‘Spiders & Flies’, and then it’s 10pm and everybody out.

The one gripe I have about Mercury Rev’s set has nothing to do with the music. It’s the projections. Images, fair enough. They add to the whole experience. But why bother with all the quotations? It just make them look pretentious and diverts attention away from the performance as punters crane their necks to read the latest pithy words of wisdom (more often than not, some cod-mystic pronouncement that sounds impressive but doesn’t make a great deal of sense).

When the music is quite so eloquent, why bother with words?

Link:

Kenny's review of the gig.

Stylus’s Bjorn Randolph reviews The Secret Migration.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A hard luck story

Commiserations to Mike, Troubled Diva having missed out on a Bloggie in the Best Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual And Transgender category. Still, being nominated for the awards is a fantastic achievement in itself, and there's always next year to go one better.

In advance of the awards announcement, Mike was interviewed for the BBC Nottingham website about Troubled Diva and the nomination by the newest blogger on the Nottingham block, Phill of Danger! High Postage, and will be appearing on the radio (that's the wireless to you, granddad) tomorrow. Click here to read the website interview - as Swiss Toni has commented, "Hurray! Some press coverage on Nottingham that doesn't involve gangs or guns!"

Mike's also taken the opportunity to compile a list of Nottingham bloggers, and thus introduced me to the likes of By The Sea Shore, Swiss Toni's Place and MovieBuff. He's even conferred upon yours truly the status of honorary Nottingham blogger even though SWSL Towers is now situated in the heart of Birmingham and very much is a tower. Unlike those who seem to receive honorary degrees, I am not a flabby, unctuous old duffer who's never visited the city in his life. There is Nottingham content in them there archives if you look hard enough - you're not here under false pretences, honest...
"Technically a Polanski, yeah"

On Friday I returned from Mercury Rev and a couple of post-gig beers for a real treat. I just had time to watch the penultimate installment of 'Nathan Barley' which we'd taped - the best yet, incidentally, especially the characteristically Morris-esque concept of "stray" (straight-on-straight gay) sex - to catch the second of Alan Partridge's two slots on the mostly-excruciating 'Comic Relief' telethon.

Always a pleasure to see Alan back on the telly, and though he wasn't great, his interview with a grown-up former Milky Bar Kid (played by Simon Pegg - he definitely has that "Milky Bars are on me!" look about him) who had been bullied, turned to booze and selling himself on street corners still raised more than a chuckle. Discovering his interviewee was gay, Partridge asked, "So, how do you relax? And I don't mean poppers..."

Better still, shortly after half midnight C4 screened footage from Nick Cave's Brixton Academy show on the November tour. I caught the last four songs - 'Hiding All Away', 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World', 'Red Right Hand' and 'Stagger Lee' - and was impressed by how well the film-makers had captured the atmosphere and intensity of the performance. It brought welcome memories of the amazing Wolverhampton gig flooding back.
Is it just me...

... or could Sir Ian McKellen's forthcoming appearance in 'Coronation Street' - a lifetime ambition, apparently - be one of THE must-watch TV moments of the year? Not just a one-off, either - he's in for ten episodes. Chow on that, Lorraine Heggessey.

It's certainly rather more enticing than the prospect of Tommy Ball and Bert Kwouk guest-starring in 'Last Of The Summer Wine', the concluding ten minutes of which I had the misfortune to see yesterday. This particular episode featured a large inflatable swan. The consequences weren't hilarious, I assure you.
Quotes of the day

"It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work ... I want to achieve it through not dying."

Woody Allen. Who else?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Blogwatch

(Belated) happy birthday to Sarah!

Best post of the week: Nick on his love affair with London - "London is a cruel mistress, but I am becoming numb to her nefarious commercial charms, to her planted desires and avaricious encouragement. I still love her, though. I love the way she smells". (The post does incorporate a review of Embrace's Brixton Academy gig, though - you have been warned...)

Elsewhere...

Mike's annual Which Decade Is Top For Pops? feature comes to a conclusion with a victory for the 1980s;

Skif is left unimpressed by Blackpool - "Amongst all of this are a fair amount of mystics and palm-readers on the seaside strip, including 2 booths for Gypsy Petulengro who has been in place (well, places I guess) for over 40 years. Her vestibules are littered with 10x8’s of the Gyspy herself with her more famous clients. These pictures give an insight into the cultural life of Blackpool, as Russ Abbott rubs black and white shoulders with Roy Walker, Isla Fisher and Keith Chegwin. Blackpool, it seems, fell into a black hole in the early 80’s and for this reason, it is a town that allows Cannon & Ball regular work";

Del is sick of being told how brilliant 'Little Britain' and Scissor Sisters are;

Paul's domestic bliss is rudely interrupted when he arrives home to find his kitchen's sprung a leak;

N argues that most people just don't have the time to spend reading books - "We’re supposed to speed-date, fast-food, Slim Fast. Whatever we do – copulate, eat, diet – we do it only because we have to. And we do it as quickly as we can. Bang, onto the next thing. Even when I do see people reading a book, they’re doing something else at the same time: eating, riding a train to get some place, or topping up their tan. Multi-tasking - just like their line-manager taught them - on their own time";

Mosher encourages support for The Chris Lucas Trust, a cancer charity;

Inspector Sands follows the London Underground's lead and invents some slogans for badges to be worn by public transport users - "Of course, the most useful badge of all would be 'FUCKWIT' - but with their tinny earphones and tendency to brandish iPods, they don't need a badge, do they?".

And finally...

Phill spots a loophole in the admissions policy at the Rescue Rooms.
Quotes of the day

A Stylus special...

"Oh dear god. Right, so now the first half-hour of the chart is...sorrry, what in the fuck is this...Two men are bleating at each other about last night's Eurovision selection programme, and specifically Jordan's participation in it. One of them, who sounds like he's trying to encourage you to take A-Level Geography, reckons she would have been representing 'England' if she had won. They make the staggeringly insightful points that she has fake breasts and dyed hair. They also talk about Javine's breasts. Cookie, oh Jesus... There is now some impossibly stilted banter. They do a phone interview with someone off 'Coronation Street'. Why...What for...What the fuck is this shit?"

William B Swygart pens a brilliant obituary to the UK Top 40, pointing out in the process that not once during the revamped show was mention made of the death of former Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance that day.

"I don’t like this. Warnings / Promises is an accomplished rock record made by an accomplished rock band. 'Back-to-basics' is a conservative epithet and this record is made by conservative men, more interested in craft than inspiration, bound by a subconscious will to safety. Idlewild now sound like REM. Which is to say that the unbound fury became passion and then became earnestness. Which is to say that the maelstrom of white noise became electric strands of silver and then became slide guitar. It has one pace, and that pace is 'mature'."

Nick Southall on Idlewild's new LP - his review's without question more a warning than a promise. Still, I enjoyed their last, The Remote Part, even though the noise was toned down significantly then.

"This is it? This is the great revolution? This is what topped the critics’ charts, inspired a million rapturous articles and blog posts and personal testimonies? This? This rancid stew of sour indie self-regard, the disingenuous assurance that no, now we’re making pop music (so for once it’ll be good, lol)? I realize that one cannot actually hold Broken Social Scene accountable for the comments of others, but anyone who referred to this as some sort of pop masterpiece has hopefully listened to the radio in the interim."

Ian Mathers pulls no punches about Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People LP in the On Second Thought feature. I certainly wouldn't go this far - it's a decent album - but I must confess to wondering what exactly it was that got people foaming at the mouth.
MEME Aid: The Bloggers' Disco

In aid of Comic Relief, Mike's come up with a great fundraising concept.

The idea is a brilliantly simple one: you should imagine the Best Blogmeet In The World, Like, Evah, and suggest one song which you'd like to be added to the Bloggers' Disco playlist. For each song suggested, Mike will donate £1, up to a total of £100.

I've given this some serious thought. Many of the possibles that have sprung to mind would be purely to provide a real contrast to the jollity and brightness of some of the songs already on the playlist (yes, 'Love Shack', I'm looking at you) - 'Mogwai Fear Satan', 'Exit Music (For A Film)', Johnny Cash's cover of 'Hurt'.

Then there were the pop songs that would grace any party - 'Freak Like Me', 'Milkshake', 'Crazy In Love'.

And then there was the thought of "Wouldn't it be ace to see what people did in trying to dance to 'Chris Michaels' by The Fiery Furnaces?"

But finally I alighted upon a song that's pop in the sense that that's what it does to your eardrums. It's short, it's messy, it's fantastically noisy, it would sound amazing through a big PA, it's 'Never Understand' by The Jesus & Mary Chain.

If you want to help empty Mike's pockets by taking part, then click here and follow the instructions.
When recognition comes

I hope you'll forgive me making mention of the fact that The Other Place - Black & White & Read All Over, where all my musings and rantings about Newcastle Utd have been appearing since August - has been featured, albeit briefly, in a blog review in the latest issue of football magazine When Saturday Comes. Not too bad for a mere sapling of a blog, I think you'll agree (if you can pardon my crowing about this in the first place, that is).

Just thinking how several other "normal" bloggers - my B&W&RAO co-writer Paul, Inspector Sands of Casino Avenue and Pete of Expecting To Fly - all also lead double lives writing about football. Better than being bigamists, eh?
Catching up

A hastily-convened blogmeet-of-sorts took place in Nottingham on Tuesday - Mike was there, so was Mish, as well as friends Alan and Caroline, all meeting Paul for the first time. Sadly the latest addition to the city's blogging community, Phill, was working and thus unable to make it.

Even though there was far too much conversational energy expended on Ms Katie Price, it was a very good night.

Don't know about anyone else, but it also felt a bit sordid meeting somewhere other than George's (RIP). Paul, true Geordie that he is, was bemused and impressed by the napkins upon which his pints of John Smith's were routinely placed. As was I, for that matter.
Goin' back to my roots

Not that this necessarily applies to anyone at all, but if you're interested in seeing some piccies of the town I called home for eighteen years, then click here.

The images are a bit deceptive - patches of blue sky, lack of chundering lads over from Ashington for a big night out, absence of shopping trolleys bobbing merrily up and down in the River Wansbeck...

Nah, it's a good place really, though it's a matter of relief rather than shame that I am yet to visit the town's Bagpipe Museum.

(Thanks to Sarah, a fellow Morpethian, for the link.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Guinea pig

(A homage to Jonny B - not that I'm in any way claiming to fill the void while he's away sunning himself in Rome, you understand. No, keep on visiting his place in his absence because Jill Twiss is house-sitting.)

I volunteer to have my head read.

Naturally I am worried.

What will my head say?

Will it embarrass me?

Will it even be legible?

Unlike palm-reading, which is done by wizened bandanna-wearing gypsy crones in caravans at fairgrounds, head-reading is carried out by Scientists in the sort of clinically clean laboratories which are so brightly lit that, if you’re at all hung over, your eyes start to feel like they’re bleeding.

Fortunately, yesterday was my weekly day of abstinence. Even then, it’s still very bright indeed.

Upon arrival, I learn that the Scientists will be aided in the head-reading process by a machine called an MRI, which contains a magnet.

This is no ordinary faintly-amusing-fridge-magnet or red-and-silver-move-it-around-to-give-the-man-iron-filing-facial-hair-magnet.

It’s a BFM (Big Fucking Magnet).

Before entering the room in which the MRI is housed, I have to divest myself of anything metallic. This, it is explained, is because the BFM is so powerful that it can rip out piercings, surgically implanted metal plates etc.

A thought pops into my head: the thought of a piece of metal, implanted without my knowledge, bursting 'Alien'-style out of my torso during the experiment, and me suffering a horrible death surrounded by my own now-external internal organs.

This is not a comforting thought.

I lie down on my back, and my head is clamped into place. By looking up at a mirror placed in front of my face, I am able to see a swirling pattern of dots, not the scenes of gratuitous violence the film 'A Clockwork Orange' has led me to expect.

I am handed a "panic button", which I can press at any time to stop the head-reading process.

I am reminded of a story called 'The Chicken Switch' which fascinated me as a child. A journalist interviews a trainee astronaut about to go into an isolation chamber for a month. During that month the journalist experiences all kinds of horrific visions, suffering from extreme paranoia about the astronaut's condition. When he emerges, the journalist asks how he has resisted flicking the chicken switch. He gazes at the journalist and says something like, "In the minutes before I went in, I picked someone I'd seen recently and focused all my fears and anxieties on them. It could have been anyone, it could have been you...".

As I am slid gracefully into the belly of the machine, I feel a pang of remorse that Angela Lansbury will be suffering acute psychological trauma on my account.

Half an hour later I emerge, the panic button unpressed. Though my hopes of a "Today I was good for the Scientists" sticker are dashed, there is a bounteous stockpile of sweets.

I am invited into the Scientists' inner sanctum and am shocked to discover they have neither white coats nor glasses nor beards. In fact, two of them are ladies! I await Jeremy Beadle or that fat one off of 'Emmerdale' leaping out and informing me it's all been an elaborate and hilarious hoax.

I am shown images of the inside of my head, and one of the Scientists informs me my optical nerves are exactly level, which is apparently unusual. Something to boast about down the pub.

The same Scientist then does one of those computerised facial reconstruction things. I sit and watch. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was just arsing about.

The resulting hairless version of myself looks like someone off 'Crimewatch', someone who might assault you with a pool cue if you looked at his pint funny.

Or like a prehistoric man unearthed in a bog: "Peat Ben. The contents of his stomach reveal his last meal was one of bacon and cheese sandwiches".

I walk home, my head read, kicking myself for missing the opportunity to dress as a guinea pig for comic effect.
Whisky whine

Of late, rock 'n' roll concerts and me have been like ships that pass in the night.

I missed out on The Wedding Present and Willy Mason, both sold out before I got my arse into gear, and I'm cursing myself for being similarly tardy and losing out on The Mars Volta at the Academy tomorrow night and the Bright Eyes / Rilo Kiley double bill in Wolverhampton.

Last night's Raveonettes gig at the Academy was another matter, though. The gig wasn't sold out, and at £8.50 for three bands (they were supported by Dogs and The Boxer Rebellion) it was reasonably priced, but I opted not to go anyway. Not really being able to spare the money or time was one factor, as was the suspicion that the immediate thrill and rush of Raveonettes songs - their last LP Chain Gang Of Love was the 2003 SWSL Album Of The Year - might mean they have less long-term appeal.

The main reason, though, was the fact that the gig went under the banner The Jim Beam Music Tour 2005.

Of course, corporate sponsorship of gigs and tours has been going on for a while. Even before NME secured the backing of Shockwaves for their annual tour it could have been said to be a corporate event promoting NME. It's just that in this case the whiff of corporate involvement is more of a stench, a desperate attempt to reach that binge-drinking youth demographic.

Witness the promotional flyer I picked up at the venue:

"Jim Beam is recognised around the globe for being at the forefront of unique music events at all levels."

At ALL levels? Are you sure? Do Jim Beam help teenage bands pay for the hire of village halls?

"The Jim Beam Music Tour 2005 is not about musical trends or scenes. It's about supporting real music of real quality, performed by a cross section of the most exciting emerging artists on the radar today."

Well, what is "most exciting" at any one time is generally what is trendy. And, from what I can gather, neither Dogs nor The Boxer Rebellion are exactly out of sync with what else is Down With The Kidz at the moment. As for "real music of real quality" - well, the poppists would have a field day with that sort of sub-Stereophonics blathering.

"Jim Beam believes that over time you are ultimately judged not by your label, but by what's behind it. Because with real Bourbon, as with real music, [cue big corporate slogan]'The Stuff Inside Matters Most'".

Oh dear me.

Needless to say, there is no such issue with Friday's Mercury Rev / The Duke Spirit gig, for which I did get off my arse to buy a ticket.
Email of the day

From G, a propos of nothing in particular...

"Dear 'Points Of View',

Why oh why oh why does the BBC insist on ruining harmless children's television with filth and vulgarity?

You can imagine my disgust, whilst watching 'Dick And Dom In Da Bungalow', a message appeared at the bottom of my sceen informing me 'coming up next: Creamy creamy muck!'. I hardly think this is suitable material for such a young age group.

I switched off immediately without actually watching the article in question and then burned my television. I shall also be writing to the Daily Mail and Mary Whitehouse, even though she is dead and probably full of maggots by now.

Yours sincerely

Disgusted

Cumqueef Mills
Twatfordshire
"
Feel good hits of the 8th March

1. 'Havana Affair' - The Ramones
2. 'Last Orders' - Arab Strap
3. 'Diana Ross' - The Concretes
4. 'Do You Realise??' - The Flaming Lips
5. 'Is This All That I Came For?' - The Delgados
6. 'Fight' - Sons & Daughters
7. 'Black Tongue' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
8. 'Drawerings' - Dinosaur Jr
9. 'I Predict A Riot' - The Kaiser Chiefs
10. 'Killing All The Flies' - Mogwai
Overheard

For anyone who, like myself, is fascinated by accidentally overheard snippets of conversation: Tube Gossip.

Three particularly good recent examples:
"She's desperate to get broadband and I think we both know why."
"I very much doubt you will be alive in twenty years time."
"Jenny Eclair is like a black hole where comedy dies."

That last one is the sort of pronouncement He Who Cannot Be Named is prone to make. I wonder...

(Thanks to Bedsit Bomber for posting the link in the comments box of this post on Assistant.)

Friday, March 04, 2005

Blogwatch

If ever you should find yourself in need of a listening ear, then look no further than Dead Kenny. If the recent four-part album review compendium posted on Parallax View is anything to go by, then he's been doing nothing at all of late EXCEPT listening...
Part One - The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Rico, Sondre Lerche.
Part Two - Willy Mason, Bonnie Prince Billy & Matt Sweeney, Low, Mercury Rev.
Part Three - LCD Soundsystem, Chemical Brothers.
Part Four - The Others, The Beat Up, The Fiery Furnaces, The Arcade Fire.

A warm welcome to...

Pete Ashton, a sometime Brummie blogger;
Office Shaped Prison, newish home of an old friend;
The World Of Jill Twiss, whose post about the lack of basis board games have in reality is especially good.

Congratulations to...

Del, who's moved house and whose blog is one year old;
Lord Marmite, whose new job is likely to restrict postings on Amblongus.

Elsewhere:

He Who Cannot Be Named struggles to piece together a coherent account of last weekend's Slint-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival - "I puked all Friday night into the tin dustbin. You know how after the drink and food has been expelled, then you get the gut bubbles and finally the luminous bile. That was me";

Kevin is disgusted by Pitchfork's coverage of the new John Frusciante solo album Inside Of Emptiness;

Meg is confronted with the prospect of a messy break-up - "Breaking up is hard to do. Now every time I pop into a different sandwich shop for lunch, near my new office, I find myself scanning the passing crowds on the street beyond the plate windows, in case one of the Deli-from-Helli employees is out and about, making a delivery, and catches me cheating on them - or rather, cheating on their memory. The guilt. The shame";

50 Quid Bloke reflects on the New Bob Dylan (NBD);

Wan reviews Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil's 'The Story Of English', which sounds similar to Melvyn Bragg's excellent 'The Adventures Of English';

Donna's been to see the burlesque show at the Electric Cinema - "And yes, there were strippers. We saw stars on nipples, flowers on nipples and the promised tassels on nipples... and Elle McPherson-type bodies were not required. Sheesh";

Creepy Lesbo takes Julie Birchill to task for her recent comments on chavs - "Julie Burchill jumps on any bandwagon which is going to get her a bit of publicity for being 'subversive' until she tires of it. She'll soon find something else to whore herself publicity-wise with. And if I were a chav I'd tell her to fuck off and stop using them to fight her own class wars/issues".

And finally...

Anna finds herself mesmerised and terrified by Tom Cruise's eyebrows.
"The country of my heart"

Isn't it great when you get given a platform to spout off about something - or someone - you love? Well, thanks to Phill for offering me the opportunity to write this: D H Lawrence - relevant or relic?.

Still not sure about being referred to as an "expert", though...
Quote of the day

"The LTLP staggers in, like a character Hogarth would have airbrushed out for being too likely to frighten the children."

Jonny B, in a post in which he wishes we were all back living in Victorian times. The post also features an anguished yelp of "ANGUS DEAYTON!!!"

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Chasing the dream

'The Perfect Fool', published in 2001, is comedian / journalist / "opera director" Stewart Lee's first and to date only novel.

The book recounts the adventures of a disparate group of oddballs and fuck-ups which includes: two lazy wasters from a Dire Straits covers band; a whacked-out hippie with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes him search endlessly down the backs of seats for cigarette butts; a bloke with no memory but who's convinced he used to be an astronaut; and a woman trying to escape her past, having indulged in an activity not fit for publication on a family website like SWSL.

The first half is set, for the most part, in Lee's London - a scruffy and grim urban jungle - and the second in the flat expanses of the Arizona desert, where all but one of the central characters meet up and join forces, each pursuing their own dream or quest. The action is complicated by the fact that one of the characters is himself being pursued by the shadowy Hampstead Man.

Though not as laugh-out-loud funny as I'd anticipated, and with an ending which is too neatly resolved, 'The Perfect Fool' is an enjoyable enough yarn featuring some memorable caricatures, as well as being a serious meditation about belief and the lengths to which it can drive people.
Cool hand Ruth

RUTH THEODORE, 2ND MARCH 2005, BIRMINGHAM BRISTOL PEAR

Quids in - two of 'em, to be precise - with a flyer for the latest A Different Kettle Of Fish night over in Selly Oak, the first to feature a live act.

The term "singer-songwriter" is often quite enough to strike fear into my heart, but over the course of two half-hour sets Southampton's Ruth Theodore tries her best to convince me that it needn't be a dirty word.

Whilst some of her more placid and serene songs get lost amidst the chatter - a sad inevitability when not everyone present is prepared to give her their attention - she's at her best when attacking her electric-acoustic guitar with passion, vigour and startlingly quick hands.

The louder songs have a bluesy sound as well as classical hints, and plenty of neat lyrical touches too.

With DJs filling in the gaps around the live sets, we're treated to a healthy mix of rock and indie, including Pavement, dEUS, The Futureheads, Queens Of The Stone Age and Graham Coxon.

It has to be said, though, that French DJ Phillippe Bergeroo blots his copybook by allowing the three-headed mid-90s monster that was Dodgy to roam freely amongst us. I'll put that down to his reliving the memory of spinning Britpop records in his hometown of Lyon when but a slip of a lad.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Punk pop perfection

For the last two nights the Electric Cinema has become something of a rock 'n' roll high school, the screening of the recent documentary film 'End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones' being an educating and informing experience for many of those (like myself) only barely acquainted with the band's turbulent 21 year existence.

There is no narrative voice-over, and so the band members are essentially free to tell their own story unmediated by the film-makers. It's unsurprising, then, that what comes across most clearly is the fact that each of the three core members have such distinctive and different personalities.

Joey: a left-wing liberal Jew, gangly and gawky, socially awkward, not blessed with the chiselled features or natural charisma and self-confidence that makes a conventional frontman. Joey's brother recalls his surprise when he "started attracting girls, girls that weren't on medication".

Johnny: the focus of the band, a hardline right-winger, strong-willed and unapologetically controlling and dictatorial but the originator of some glorious riffs and a much-copied guitar-playing stance, Peter Pan agelessness and bowl haircut that transcended time.

Dee Dee: the funny and fun-loving fuckhead bassist, always courting trouble, mixed up with drugs and unsavoury characters. His acceptance speech at the 2002 ceremony for the Ramones' induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame: "I'd like to congratulate myself, thank myself and give myself a big pat on the back. Well done Dee Dee".

Their differences could have threatened to tear the band apart, particularly the unvoiced and unresolved feud between Joey and Johnny after the latter stole the singer's girlfriend and eventually married her - but, as Johnny puts it, the band came first no matter how badly they were getting along on a personal level.

The film traces the band's beginnings in the Forest Hills area of New York, through their performances at legendary club CBGBs, being signed to Sire by Seymour Stein, the 1976 London gig when The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers were all in attendance (Johnny Rotten wanted to meet the band but was scared he'd get beaten up, fearing they were some kind of gang), the nightmarish recording of End Of The Century with Phil Spector, the 'Spinal Tap' esque revolving cast of drummers, Dee Dee's hilarious attempts at producing a rap album, and winds up with their retirement in 1995 and the deaths of Joey from cancer and Dee Dee from an overdose. (As well as Joey and Dee Dee, Joe Strummer also makes an appearance, and it feels strange to be spoken to so much and on such an intimate level from beyond the grave.)

The music isn't lost amidst the soap opera, either - at times the film is staggeringly loud, and has a Ramones-T-shirted punk in the row behind us moshing away vigorously. What strikes you is both the rawness and blistering pace of their songs, but also the strongly melodic qualities. Their place in the pop tradition is I think affirmed, as is the fact that they were great songwriters, unlike many of their gobby peers.

Though they have proved hugely influential in convincing people to start playing and form bands of their own, and they achieved longevity against all the odds, the lack of real commercial success despite the accessibility of the songs clearly rankled with them. Quite how this was the case is left hanging.
Talking heads

Stylus's Clem Bastow on the Top Ten Things Musicians Have Told Me In Interviews, featuring PJ Harvey, Blondie's Clem Burke, Noodles of The Offspring and Andrew Innes of Primal Scream.

I once had a conversation with Seafood about Chevy Chase films and listened as Pavement's Stephen Malkmus waxed lyrical about the quality of the fish 'n' chips in Hull, but my favourite has to be the time I asked a very inebriated Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap which was his nemesis, alcohol or women. "Neither", he replied, fixing me with glazed eyes, "I'm my own nemesis. I'm a penis".

Also on Stylus: Sarah Karhl reviews The Mars Volta's new LP - "Whereas the somewhat timid and searching De-Loused In The Comatorium was all about surprising audience, critic, and probably the band itself, Frances The Mute is a self-assured organic animal that’s should come as no surprise to anyone. Perhaps not the culmination of their work, it’s a strong step towards it and a great listen.".

It's yet to get a spin on the SWSL stereo (I'll need to prise The Great Destroyer off it first...), but I'm certainly intrigued.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

'Ray'-warded

The Oscars may be an overpuffed, overhyped, grotesquely lavish back-slapping session but it was still good to see that Jamie Foxx was deservedly victorious in the Best Actor category for his starring role as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's wonderful biopic 'Ray', triumphing over such established names as Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp and Leonardo di Caprio in the process.

'Ray' also scooped the award for Best Sound Mixing, though it missed out in the Best Film, Best Director, Film Editing and Costume Design categories.

Another recent release which I enjoyed even more, the offbeat comedy 'Sideways', was disappointingly though not unexpectedly a bigger loser. Alexander Payne lost out in the Best Director category, but had some consolation in scooping the Best Adapted Screenplay award for his reworking of the Rex Pickett novel on which the film is based.

'Sideways' never had much hope of stealing the Best Film crown from the big hitters, but for Virginia Madsen and particularly Thomas Haden Church to be overlooked for the Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor awards respectively was very unfortunate.

Links:

The complete winners' list.

A BBC feature on Jamie Foxx.
Feel good hits of the 1st March

1. 'Death Of A Salesman' - Low
2. 'You Can't Hurry Love' - The Concretes
3. 'Winterkill' - Kid Dakota
4. 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' - The Smiths
5. 'Miss Direction' - Love As Laughter
6. 'Oh My God' - The Kaiser Chiefs
7. 'The Coast Is Always Changing' - Maximo Park
8. 'Party The Baby Off' - The Icarus Line
9. 'Will You Smile Again' - ...Trail Of Dead
10. 'No One Knows' - Queens Of The Stone Age

Friday, February 25, 2005

Holding out for a hero

RICHARD HERRING'S 'THE TWELVE TASKS OF HERCULES TERRACE', 24TH FEBRUARY 2005, MIDLANDS ARTS CENTRE

Barely three weeks after a stand-up tour brought Stewart Lee to the West Midlands, Richard Herring and his new show roll into town, offering me the chance of seeing both halves of the finest comedy partnership of the '90s in less than the space of a month.

Let's face it - it wasn't an opportunity I was about to pass up.

The partnership dissolved in the wake of their 'This Morning With Richard, Not Judy' show failing to get commissioned for another series. Since then, Lee has moved on to (amongst other things) 'Attention Scum!', a novel and, most recently and perhaps surprisingly, an opera, albeit one packed to the rafters with expletives. Herring indulges in some good-natured mockery of his former partner by briefly alluding to "opera director Stewart Lee". (A good deal of Herring's humour comes from his tabloid-like labelling of individuals - hence we get "liar Jonathan Aitken" and "evil John Leslie".)

For his part, Herring has written a play, 'Excavating Rita', and several successful touring shows (most recently, 'Talking Cock'). But he is still very recognisable as the same comic he was in 'Fist Of Fun', still making jokes at the expense of his West Country origins, still childish and cheeky but deceptively acidic at times, able to discuss writing on the face of a dead baby with an Argos biro without fear of causing offence.

'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' developed out of the realisation that even at the age of 37 he remained something of an irresponsible overgrown teenager, but one having a mid-life crisis in recognition of the fact. The concept - trying to achieve twelve feats comparable to those attempted by Hercules - was inspired by a bust of Hercules on the front of his new far-too-big-for-one-person house.

It's not particularly original, owing something to the Dave Gorman / Tony Hawkes school of daft drunken challenges, but it comes across as having developed into a very personal and at times painful struggle which nevertheless enabled Herring to forge much comic currency out of his own sad and nerdishly obsessive behavioural patterns and his flirtations with insanity.

The show itself is a slick, well-rehearsed and extremely amusing narrative of Herring's achievements interspersed with sparkling asides and culminating in some serious reflections on the nature of heroism. On the way we learn about his experiences of shovelling elephant dung, his fifty dates in fifty nights, his tempting of the Loch Ness Monster with a virgin, his attempts to avail himself of Germaine Greer's bra, his hitting a woman in the face with an oar and, of course, Consecutive Number Plate Spotting (CNPS), a game which would be Satan's own were it not for the fact that Herring himself invented it.

A superb evening's entertainment, not least for the horrible image of "having a turd in your sock ... and having to walk to Leicester ... and stay there for the rest of your life ... with your sock being refilled with fresh turd every single day".

Links:

Herring's thoughts on the show.

'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' website.

Herring's blog Warming Up, which he is in the process of turning into a Radio 4 series. Quick, someone sign Jonny B up to follow suit! (Incidentally, he's also adapting 'Excavating Rita' for ITV.)

A Guardian Q&A with Herring. Sample question: How often do you have sex? "This varies wildly depending on circumstances. But luckily I am always there for myself throughout the lean patches."

The official CNPS rules and the unofficial CNPS website - "Please do not play this game whilst driving. Be on the look out for pedestrians and other obstacles. CNPS is a game of boredom and tedium. No-one should die because of CNPS and if they do it should only be through frustration."
Blogwatch

A warm welcome to Stylus staff writer Ian Mathers and his popcult blog Fractionals. (Actually it's more of a return after some unfortunate URL-related mishaps.)

Welcome also to Andrew and Cage Of Monkeys.

Congratulations to Jonny B, whose marvellous blog has kept me and countless others entertained for the past year.

Elsewhere:

The legendary Troubled Diva Which Year Is Top For Pops? feature is back! Click here for the #10s and then scroll upwards;

Kenny reviews Saturday's Low gig in Wolverhampton, as well as last Thursday's Departure / Cherubs / Apartment triple bill at the Academy;

Lord Marmite - an Englishman exiled in Austin, Texas - responds to the Observer article about exurban sprawl in the USA;

Skif waves a fond farewell to Dutch band Persil, and reviews their Liverpool show with The Wedding Present;

N takes issue with Tjinder Singh quote that appeared on SWSL the other day;

Nick puts his hatred for Kasabian into a few hundred well-chosen words;

and Jonathan gets in on the blog plugging act.

...And finally: best wishes to Phill, who leaves his native Birmingham for SWSL's beloved Nottingham tomorrow. (Incidentally, he's just been away for a week in Germany, enjoying snowball fights with lower league football teams and desperate searches for towels.)
Is it just me...

...or has Ricky Wilson (front man for Franz Ferdinand endorsed Leeds fivepiece The Kaiser Chiefs) stolen all his mannerisms from Eddie Izzard?

Heard them for the first time last night on BBC2's 'The Culture Show' - they sounded OK. I've, ahem, procured a copy of their debut LP Employment in advance of its March release - it'll be interesting to see what they're like on record.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"Prophet, Messiah, Saviour"

As someone unfamiliar with Bob Dylan's life as well as with much of his musical output, the first hurdle I had to clear in reading 'Chronicles: Volume One' was to forget about any residual expectations of it being a standard autobiography.

The book is divided into five chapters each of which presents a vivid series of snapshots or scenes from a particular moment in Dylan's life. These chapters are arranged in chronological order, aside from the fifth which returns to the 1950s, a similar time period to that from which the first two are taken.

There is no attempt to construct a watertight linear narrative, and the chapters themselves whirl you around as Dylan goes off on tangents and asides that last for paragraphs or even pages at a time. Potentially confusing and frustrating for someone not already acquainted with his story, but it's actually this quality that lends the book so much of its appeal. Events are recounted just as they are remembered without a whiff of artifice, Dylan appearing scrupulously faithful to his memories which are naturally inconsistent and sketchy at times, extraordinarily sharp and intricately preserved at others.

The first, second and fifth chapters deal with the young man's experiences of finding his feet musically, immersing himself in the folk sub-culture of New York and taking the opportunities presented to him. There are, it has to be said, so many musicians' names that it all starts to blur, but then that just adds to the impression of Greenwich Village as a busy thriving hub of creativity and of Dylan's influences as innumerable and varied. He writes about, amongst others, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, whom he later met: "Woody's songs were having that big an effect on me, an influence on every move I made, what I ate and how I dressed, who I wanted to know, who I didn't".

For someone who was to become phenomenally successful in the 1960s, popular acclaim seemed a long way off: "I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the botom of rivers weren't for radiophiles". Even then, though, there is still a powerful sense of the tantalising possibilities that lay ahead: "The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close".

Though the fourth chapter, detailing his creative rebirth in the late 1980s with the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy, is superb, perhaps most gripping is the third chapter, in which Dylan recalls the bitter experience of the 1960s: "The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. It was just too perfect. In a few years' time a shit storm would be unleashed. Things would begin to burn". As it turned out, the future WAS something to worry about.

Appointed a public spokesman for the burgeoning countercultural movement, Dylan found his life was made a misery: "Demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere - stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation". His home was constantly besieged by "gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues", and the sheer force of his disgust and revulsion at being backed into a corner is staggering - he even confesses to being tempted to start shooting at them.

At his wits' end, he pondered leaving his music behind altogether. "Whatever the counterculture was, I'd seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese".

What happened to Dylan was to happen to Kurt Cobain, albeit on a lesser scale, thirty years later. Unable to shoulder the burden, Cobain shot himself, but for Dylan things gradually quietened down until they were once again bearable: "Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me - anachronisms of lesser dilemma - though they might seem bigger. Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favourite) - stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Saviour - those are tough ones".

'Chronicles: Volume One' is a marvellous book, passionate and lyrical - in other words, well worth a read. One thing, though, Bob - what's all this about, eh? "Bono's got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him. He can roar 'til the earth shakes. He's also a closet philosopher". That night you had him round at your place, you really HAD been at the Guinness, hadn't you?
Welcome to Nowheresville USA

A fascinating article from Sunday's Observer about the "exurban" sprawl of American cities.

The feature's author Tristram Hunt looks at this worrying trend from several perspectives: the soulless and identikit nature of these developments, the political bias of their residents ("exurbia represents the amorphous heartland of George W Bush's conservatism") and the absence of any form of community and social responsibility (in this latter respect they seem to be like some kind of Thatcherite vision of the future made real).

There's not the space in Britain for development and growth to take place on anything like the same scale, I don't think, but all the same Hunt is keen to stress that the American example should provide a valuable lesson: "Traditionally, British policymakers are all too easily drawn to American innovations. But my time in Phoenix has shown the United States pursuing a model we desperately need to avoid: depopulating downtowns, ravaged countryside, unsustainable energy consumption, social and racial segmentation and a sprawling exurbia that is retreating unrelentingly into the future."

Thankfully (and this is something Hunt doesn't mention) there seems to be a concern not to neglect city centres and inner-city areas when it comes to the development of either housing or, in the case of Birmingham most obviously, shops. The problem here is of a different nature - gentrification forcing existing residents out and pricing many first-time buyers well out of the market. It's not just good quality city centre housing that's needed - it needs to be affordable, too.

We've got it half right, though, and seemingly aren't pursuing an ill-conceived policy of letting the nucleus of our cities crumble whilst their boundaries expand ever further - for the moment, at least.
Quote of the day

"I like trying things and discovering how I hate them."

D H Lawrence. You've got to love the curmudgeonly old git, haven't you?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Reasons To Be Cheerful #7

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The Electric Cinema

You know the expression "It'll be in the last place you look"? Well, nothing could be truer of Birmingham.

You want a fantastic Victorian pub restored to its former grandeur and serving the finest real ales and superb Thai cuisine? Go to Newtown, where the sound of gunfire seems to ring out every day.

You want a smart modern theatre with a big reputation? Go to the end of Broad Street, the Brummie beer boys' Friday night catwalk.

You want a fabulous "luxury cinema" dedicated to showing the artier side of things? Go down an insalubrious stairwell that stinks of piss next to New Street Station and hey presto - the Electric Cinema.

The Electric reopened after refurbishment and under new management in December, and is another jewel in the city's crown. With its art-deco stylings and old-school plush red fold-down seats, it's a million miles from the bland McMultiplexes designed to shoehorn in as many punters to has many films as possible.

There's an assortment of snacks, handmade ice-creams and drinks, including a good range of wines starting at about £10 a bottle, all of which can be taken freely into the auditorium.

As can be imagined, it's not particularly cheap - £6 for a standard ticket, £4 for concessions and a hefty £10 for those who would prefer one of the sumptuous leather sofas at the back of the auditorium - but then the glitzy and decadent surroundings certainly merit it.

It won't be long before I'm back again - Monday, to be precise...

Link:

Phill of Danger! High Postage writes about the reopened venue for the local BBC website.
"America... FUCK YEAH!!!"

And the reason for my first visit to the luxurious and classy Electric? To see a phenomenally crude and offensive hour-and-a-half-long puppet show featuring extended sex and puking scenes that I contrived to miss first time around.

I doubt that anyone familiar with Trey Parker and Matt Stone's previous work (see, for instance, 'Cannibal: The Musical') went to see 'Team America: World Police' expecting subtlety, and for the most part the satire is thumpingly obvious - not necessarily in a bad way. There's no real message - it's a bit of a free-for-all with no-one and nothing escaping unscathed.

Well worth seeing for the grisly death scenes alone - Danny Glover and Sean Penn are eaten by cats, Hans Blix ends up as food for Kim Jong Il's shark, Helen Hunt is sliced in half and Samuel L Jackson has the top half of his head kicked off. That's one way to exact punishment for his appearance in the 'Star Wars' movies...

The dicks / pussies / assholes speech at the end is fantastic too - international relations explained in a language Cartman would understand.
Quotes of the day

A distinctly literary flavour today...

"Hailsham is like a physical manifestation of what we have to do to all children. It is a protected world. To some extent at least you have to shield children from what you know and drip-feed information to them. Sometimes that is kindly meant, and sometimes not. When you become a parent, or a teacher, you turn into a manager of this whole system. You become the person controlling the bubble of innocence around a child, regulating it. All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma."

Kazuo Ishiguro talks to the Observer about the private boarding school in his new novel Never Let Me Go.

"I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling."

Hunter S Thompson RIP.
Know Your Enemy #55

"Britpop didn't say anything to anyone who wasn't white."

Tjinder Singh of Cornershop.
"Nathan Barley visits a Covent Garden skate shop and pays £75 for a T-shirt with a vaguely subversive slogan"

For all those interested in following the exploits of that "worthless upper-middle-class cuntsack" Nathan Barley - a compendium of his appearances in the TV Go Home listings.

On reflection, maybe I was a little overcritical about the second episode of the TV series...

(Thanks to Vanessa for the link.)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Enjoy the silence Cum on feel the noize

LOW / KID DAKOTA, WOLVERHAMPTON WULFRUN HALL, 19TH FEBRUARY 2005

Kid Dakota, who feature Low bassist Zak Sally on a couple of songs and whose album The West Is The Future was released on Low's Chairkickers Union label last year, are a really hard act to place.

The artwork for the album (which I subsequently purchase) is by Will Schaff who also did some of the drawings for Godspeed! You Black Emperor's Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and there is a similar sense of a bleak and apocalyptic present about Kid Dakota's music, though their fusion of punk and country is much more accessible than the Canadians' musical output.

On stage in front of an audience almost completely unfamiliar with them, they look at ease, concentrating on louder songs like 'Pilgrim' and the excellent 'Winterkill' rather than on the more moody and ambient album tracks like 'Homesteader'.

Vocalist / guitarist Darren Jackson (not the former Newcastle and Hibernian striker, I might add) has a voice vaguely reminiscent of Brian Molko but far less irritating than that might imply, and looks like a thinner Jack Osbourne. But the real star, from a visual point-of-view, is the similarly besuited drummer, who adds to and dismantles his kit midsong.

From all the fuss that Low's new Dave Fridmann produced album The Great Destroyer has kicked up in indie circles, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's like Dylan gone electric all over again. Let's get one thing clear, though: they've betrayed no-one. If they felt the time was right to move on and leave their "slo-core" days in the past, then it's their prerogative.

In any case, the new material might be quicker, brighter and - most obviously - louder than before, but it's still unmistakeably Low. Whereas before you could see through to the bare bones, they're now fleshed out with a gorgeous guitar fuzz. For the most part, 'Monkey' and 'Pissing' excepted, the darkly sinister edge of 2002's Trust is gone - from that record, only '(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace' appears tonight - and in its place a newfound warmth. It's entirely appropriate that 'Dinosaur Act', the song from Things We Lost In The Fire which signalled Alan Sparhawk's discovery of the distortion pedal, opens the encore.

They might be living up to the billing as a bona fide rock band these days, but that doesn't stop Sparhawk introducing new single 'California' as being about his mother. Although the band seem jovial on stage - they laugh about Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker's kid dancing around to the first Napalm Death record in the empty venue earlier in the evening - the reflective and heart-meltingly sad moments are still there, buried in the middle of singalong set-closer 'Broadway (So Many People)' in the enigmatic line "Where is the laughter?".

They also still have that uncanny knack of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand stiff to attention. Sparhawk's nakedly solo rendition of 'Death Of A Salesman' is something truly special, but Parker is not to be outdone and her astonishingly clear vocals make the hushed 'Laser Beam' one of the night's highlights, along with 'When I Go Deaf', which begins in near-silence before exploding into life with squalling guitar to die for.

So, no 'Canada', nothing from Secret Name, and not quite the Damascene experience of two years ago, but still a very strong early frontrunner for SWSL Gig Of The Year.

Setlist (as far as my alcohol-blurred memory and knowledge of Low's material will allow: ? / 'Monkey' / 'California' / '(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace' / 'Death Of A Salesman' / ? / 'Walk Into The Sea' (acoustic) / 'Pissing' / 'Everybody's Song' / ? / 'Laser Beam' / 'Broadway (So Many People)' // 'Dinosaur Act' / 'Sunflower' / 'When I Go Deaf' /// 'Words'

Links:

Ian Mathers reviews The Great Destroyer for Stylus.

Pitchfork and Splendid review Kid Dakota's The West Is The Future.
'Barley' whine

Oh dear. After Friday's enthusiastic comments on 'Nathan Barley', the second episode turned out to be a real disappointment after the very promising signs of the first.

Though there was plenty of camera trickery this time around (all no doubt justifiable for the party scene), the plot was paper-thin to say the very least. Worse still, it just wasn't very funny, and the satire seemed rather dull and blunt.

Morris has a habit of confounding expectations, but not in this way. Hopefully that episode was a temporary aberration.

(Incidentally, on Friday I mentioned the similarities to 'The Office' and wondered whether Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais had seen it. Well, as it turns out, Merchant is one of the show's script editors (I think), along with Peter Baynham.)
Quote of the day

"The blogosphere will become a force in Britain, and it could ignite many new forces of conservatism. The internet's automatic level playing field gives conservatives opportunities that mainstream media have often denied them."

Iain Duncan Smith predicts the American-style hijacking of the blogosphere by the right here in Britain. God forbid.

I was wondering just the other day why it is that American blogs tend to have a right-wing bias, whereas the majority of British bloggers are, at least as far as I can tell, left-leaning. Anyone got any ideas?

And what is it with conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic believing the conspiracy theory that the mainstream media is controlled by a shadowy liberal elite? I'm frequently appalled by the level of narrow-minded right-wing propaganda we get fed. To say that conservatives are "denied opportunities" to present their case is ludicrous.

(Thanks to Vaughan for the link.)
A secret shared

PostSecret is a blog with a difference, one where people are encouraged to confess their innermost secrets anonymously. It makes for fascinating reading.

(Thanks to London Calling for the link.)