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11 July 2019 @ 01:15 pm

Or "The future isn't quite what it once was"

Or "Here's where I get to use the word lectern"

I was so looking forward to taking the wife and kids to see Kraftwerk on Tuesday night. The little ones love We Are The Robots and I think they'd have had a great time messing around with 3D glasses and ooohing and aaaahing at the special effects. But we were told that we'd have to buy them full-price tickets, which is ridiculous, especially as the same venue allowed kids under 10 in to other gigs for free. In perfect weather, in a spacious venue that never feels crowded even when sold out and with no school the next day it seemed like the perfect way to introduce them to live music.

In their place came one of my in-laws, who holds old-fashioned views on what constitutes good music, often presenting opinions as facts: X is a top-of-the-range guitarist, Y is the sixth-best bass player in the world, that is a great piece of music as it's tough to play, etc. Fact.

So I was worried about how he'd deal with a bunch of blokes standing still behind lecterns twiddling knobs making minimal electropop, and psyched myself up for a difficult post-gig conversation.

The band walked slowly on, milking the cheers and applause with air-punches and rock salutes. Ralf, the only original member still in the band, was clearly overcome with the emotion "Fuck yeah, Luxembourg. I couldn't do this without you, you wondeful people. What a beautiful city! I just wish I wasn't so wrecked from a hard night's drinking. Anyway, do you want some bleeps!?!?!?!?? Do you want some synth wooshes??!!!!?!?!?"

Out came the four old chaps, one of whom was in the original line-up, looking natty in their robot jumpsuits. It's a cool look. I wondered whether people their age should be doing something more appropriate, like mowing the lawn, playing bridge or looking after the grandkids. Still, 'plays mechanical synthpop in a legendary band' is a great answer to the question 'What does your grandpa do?'

What's in a running order? Do you get a hit or two out first to arouse interest? Do you save all your hits till last? Kraftwerk's approach was mildly frustrating: they played a selection of songs from one album, then moved on to the next. So when they kicked off with Numbers and Computers Love, World and Home, it quickly became clear, to my disappointment, that the tracks from possibly my favourite album of theirs were done with before the sun had properly set: seeing an open-air Kraftwerk set with a spectacular, colourful backdrop makes no sense during daylight hours. The sound, though, was as sumptuous as you could wish for.

I'd seen KW a number of times before. The previous time I remember thinking, I'm loving this but I've seen all these films before. This time I hoped for something new, but it really was the same visual material, albeit this time in 3D. Talking of which, do you remember when you first saw a film in 3D? It was only available in specially equipped cinemas such as the IMAX. Nowadays it's relatively commonplace.

Mateja hadn't seen the band before so didn't know what to expect. I gave her the big build-up, naturally. Taking my cue from their ace-sounding Manchester gig a few years ago, when they played the velodrome with members of the GB track-cycling team whizzing around the steep banking while the band played Tour de France, I assumed there'd be plenty of thought going into making each gig of the tour site-specific. And it's now all in 3D! Her reaction to the gig overall was that it was enjoyable but lacked 'wow moments'. It was hard to disagree.

Perhaps the one truly great and original moment of the show was Spacelab, which featured a black and white photo of Luxembourg as the backdrop. All of a sudden an old-school UFO appeared and landed:

(The blur is presumably a function of the 3D effect. It might become clearer with 3D specs.)

It was a fantastic, humorous throwback to what the future used to look like back in the 70s and 80s, and to the era of UFO sightings and people actually going to look for these things.

The thing with Kraftwerk is that they've always been at the forefront of technology or least reflecting technological developments of the day. Neon Lights is a gorgeous evocation of late-70s Germany, where you can imagine late-night trysts in the last bar open in a drab, postwar-rebuilt town, the neon lights reflected in damp pavements. Trans Europe Express, too, had a sense of golden-age nostalgia but the synths, beats and effects were like nothing that had ever been heard before. By 1981, Computer World felt like it had been beamed in from the future, and in some ways still does: stories of home computers and online dating set to the sonic bliss of electro. It was the very essense of modern, with no thought that this was how the future used to look. Even now that record thrills, with its automatic-weaponry rhythm track and astonishing electronic detail - little sonic fireworks going off in different parts of the speakers.

My in-law with the old-fashioned views, to give credit where it's due, made an excellent point: the technology used in this gig was attractive and it worked fine with the music, but it hardly seemed new; indeed, some of the effects looked like the kind of 3D that's been around a decade or two. I'm no expert myself but his point had a ring of plausibility. We're living in a golden age of animation and augmented reality, lest we forget. It seems churlish to criticise Kraftwerk when the films look as lovely as they do, but one wonders whether technology has overtaken them. This after all is a band that, in its heyday, invented sounds and pioneered beats that would be copied and quoted reverentially by those that followed. However, the post-Computer World material they played last night was a reminder of how, by, say, 1986, lots of bands had access to instruments that made sounds like those heard on Musique Non Stop. Nowadays, you download an app and make music (which is great, of course).

In their defence, Man Machine is still funky as hell and the Rodchenko-syle shapes coming out of the screen were gorgeous. The lines across the screen for Trans Europe Express were a minimalistic triumph.

The Robots featured lyrics emblazoned across the screen in monumental 8-bit lettering. Tour de France was an absolute triumph, which almost goes without saying. But, again, those films haven't changed, with the superimposed tri-couleur effects looking very familiar.

The one obviously reworked song is Radioactivity, which has become Stop Radioactivity, and Fukishima gets a mention.

When I first saw KW in 1991 (or 92?) they played The Robots without feeling the need to be on stage. Robots took their place, pretending to dance and play the music. It was hypnotic to watch and incredibly daring. It called into question what a gig actually was, and where gig ended and art installation began. In short, it was exciting. There's an apocryphal tale of the band being replaced entirely by robots during one tour in their heyday, and on the last date actually blowing the robots up, to the audience's immense shock. They eventually ran out on stage saying hey it's us, we're alive! It must have been incredible, whether or not it actually happened.

When a band's unique selling point is futurism, the difficulty is that state-of-the-art technology does not remain that way for very long (and the time-span of cutting-edgeness is getting ever shorter). It runs the risk of getting left behind when the next technology comes along. Kraftwerk have always successfully sold us the future - sometimes old, retro future, often thrillingly new future.

I love Kraftwerk with all my heart - and given a choice between, say, old fellows in robot-wear purveying electro-bleepswith 3D backdrops, and, say, old fellows in jeans, t-shirts, dark glasses and pony-tails churning out old rock riffs, I know which I'd go for every time. There's no getting away from it, though: they have become a heritage act and I will need some convincing to go and see them again. Maybe when the kids are old enough to get their own tickets, I'll come along and bore them with my tales of what the future used to look and sound like.


Not really a battle. Nick and Joan don't seem like the kind of people who'd get stuck in to an ugly set-to. Given Nick's longevity and general genius it would scarcely be a fair contest. Still...

Act I

Conversations with Nick Cave is a concert format in which live performance — just singer with piano — is interspersed with questions from the audience. The idea is to set up a sort of live re-creation of his Red Hand Files blog in which he chats directly with fans.

The success of the format depends very much on the quality of the audience's questions. At the show we attended, there was obviously no prior vetting (Question Time, it wasn't) so the topics covered were inevitably rather uneven. It was a set-up that was, at best, totally charming and insightful but, at worst, with the best will in the world, rather invited audience members to be self-indulgent.

I was hoping to get picked and had my hand up throughout (I had prepared what I thought was an interesting question about where poetry ends and music begins and the magic that occurs when music and words collide). The mic got as near as a chap sitting two seats along from us, but he chose to to use his time speaking in front of a large audience to ramble on at such length I totally lost the thread... some shit about living in Belgium and seeing Cave before and.... By contrast, one fellow to our right asked a corker about a dream he'd had about Cave, Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello, which was sweet, funny and heartfelt. A few times I turned to Mateja and said 'that's a brilliant question'. Too often, though, we had to squirm as people poured out personal details in front of however many thousand people were there. In one case, a mother tried to get Cave to invite her daughter on stage to duet with him, to which his response was 'you shouldn't push your kid on stage like that... I can see she's not comfortable with this'. It was the only time he stumbled over his words and seemed ill at ease. Another bore wibbled on about how 'authentic' he was, to which he responded by talking about the grisly details of violence in some of his work, reflecting a folk tradition that I suspect the questioner wasn't that interested in.

At times he was exasperated: he interrupted one guy with 'what's your name again?' 'George' 'Thanks George' and started clapping and getting the audience to clap in order to bring George's "question" to a close. The audience seemed relieved.

Some questions were concise, pithy and thought-provoking though. Some were even humorous, including a daring pisstake of Nick's distinctive hair-do.

Cave's performances of his songs were extraordinarily good — I mean, he's a spellbinding stage presence whatever he's doing. Our 6-year old son is trying to get his head around the idea that it is possible for a musician to convey power without turning the volume up; more on which later. The Mercy Seat and Papa Won't Leave You still kick arse without the searing guitars and rumbling, malevolent bass.

I ended up enjoying the format, in spite of the uncomfortable moments. One guy behind us said his dad had died during a Nick Cave set. He spoke well and I found this poignant, as did Nick, who responded as compassionately as you'd expect. The whole thing was nothing if not ambitious.

Act II

Two weeks later, Joan As Policewoman turned up and cranked up the volume turned the decibels right down. Live Cave's tour, this was a solo show, with the back-catalogue songs from her new compilation Joanthology , plus a couple of new ones, stripped down to singer + piano, plus forays on the guitar. Joan was occasionally backed by a clicky, glitchy Roland drum machine. Dressed in a striped Bowie jumpsuit and golden platform boots, she didn't really look dressed for quiet but quiet was certainly what we got. The renditions were so gentle she was almost whispering at times and when her voice came to the fore it often cracked and croaked sexily: there was a lot of gasping, sighing and mmmmming close to the mic. Some of the music is gentle to start with (Real Life) so the sweet solo version didn't seem radically different, whereas others that, on record, stomp and bounce (Christobel) gained new life from the near-silent treatment. In any case the outcome was a gorgeous, sensual success.

In the hands of less capable performers, this kind of paring-down/stripping-back can be shitboring. Joan in particular really used it to her advantage. Her version of Prince's Kiss was incredibly minimal but never lost its 'swing' (as much as anything, that's skill) and The Flash gained, rather than lost, power.

Unlike Cave's full-on conversations with audience members, Joan was content with between-song banter, which was relaxed and witty. Stage banter can be awkward, annoying and an atmosphere-breaker, but JAPW knows what she's doing. She introduced one number by saying she'd written the next song for a man whom she believed to be the one. She went on to say that they were, needless to say, no longer together. She pulled this kind of thing off on stage much better than it reads on the page.

After the gig she sat by the merch, signed albums and chatted with fans individually, i.e. not in front, or even within earshot, of everyone else. When I got my moment with her I mentioned that on my way out of the house that evening our son had asked me what kind of music I was going to see. 'Reggae? Rock? Metal?' 'None of those... something quiet and powerful'. Alex looked bemused - quiet and powerful didn't seem to belong together. Joan seemed to really appreciate this little anecdote and signed a record with a dedication to Alex:


No winners and losers in this battle, which was indeed an unfair contest but not in the way I thought when I started writing this. Nick Cave took a risk by letting the vagaries of his audience dictate the tone of proceedings and the ambitious nature of Conversations... is laudable. Joan's 'song + bit of chat' gig was standard fare, of course, but she acquitted herself as magnificently as we have come to expect. What both gigs shared was the idea of going 'naked' and playing bandless in front of hushed audiences. Both shows were beautiful in their own ways.

30 April 2019 @ 10:52 am

I recently took my son Philip, nearly 5, to Georgia (Atlanta, not Tblisi) for some medical treatment. It was not a holiday but it was a memorable trop. Here is a bunch of observations and mini-anecdotes, in no particular order:

  • mad drivers on seven-lane freeways,

  • enormous cars, cartoonish trucks (the environment weeps),

  • the weaponry aisle in the supermarket,

  • coyotes, snakes and fire ants visiting our garden,

  • wildly sociable people,

  • Philip switching accents: speaking cartoon-American for the benefit of our hosts and back to UK English for me; one difficulty is that he's not yet 5 and can't spell, so in his American accent he'd say "torrking" for talking and "flaw" for floor, which was so sweet,

  • churches everywhere in the bible belt, segregation is over but the churches tend to be divided along racial lines,

  • in one (white) church, apparently, young girls dance with poisonous snakes to ward off evils spirits,

  • no public transport, despite our proximity to Atlanta; plenty of unused/disused rail tracks (the environment weeps 2),

  • no pavements/sidewalks; Philip and I went for a walk but turned back fairly quickly,

  • lots of road signs in tiny fonts, many with interesting information e.g. deaf child, blind driveway, but all too few telling you what you need to know (like... Where the fuck am I? How far to the nearest town?),

  • on the subject of roadsigns, I like the wording on some of them: Divided Highway means dual carriageway but sounds like a lovelorn country album from the 60s; 'Cross traffic does not stop' ought to be a proverb but it means, erm, STOP!

  • room to roam — our airbnb hosts' driveway was longer than the road we live on in Luxembourg,

  • ...but if you want phone/internet coverage you might have to set it up yourself,

  • fantastic accents;  African-American and white folks' accents are distinct and distinctive but you can hear where they bleed into one another,

  • the lady doing Philip's bloodtest "Ain't you gorgeous honey? I'm single!" Philip: "Naaa I've gaaaat a girlfriend, herrrr name is Olivia",

  • the lady who drove the bus to the car rental area from the airport helped me with my luggage while Philip slept in my arms: "Awww he tiiiiired! He gawna sleep",

  • the county was run by the sheriff; elections for sheriff were taking place with poster campaigns featuring either photos of men with uniforms and medals or just the name flanked by stars and stripes motifs,

  • the civil war finished a long time ago, obviously, but I got the distinct impression that "the south is not the north and Washington will not tell us what to do",

  • stranger: Where are you from? Me: England. Philip: and I'm from Oppositeland,

  • no separated bins for recyclables (the environment weeps 3),

  • most importantly, Philip's treatment - so far, so good.

14 March 2019 @ 04:15 pm
City fans have left their mark at Gelsenkirchen station. It was quiet though - I wanted a singsong.
City fans have left their mark at Gelsenkirchen station. It was quiet though - I wanted a singsong.
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How carefully do you look at period detail when you're watching historical movies, TV, etc.? Personally, while I am a nerd about certain things I'm not – or try not to be – the kind of person who looks out for flaws when I'm watching the telly. I once watched an episode of Great Movie Mistakes and found it insufferably pointless. Who the fuck cares if there's a continuity error here or there?

There is so much to love about The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. The dialogue, the characters, the late-50s clothes, the lead and her winning charm. It is beautifully observed and often very funny. The writers must've had so much fun making it.

It seems churlish to criticise the series. But there was one thing that jarred, or at least seemed at variance with the rest of the show. Whereas everything was so perfectly 1950s — the cars, the ubiquitous cigarettes, the furniture, the phones*, the records, the shops — the language was at times decidedly 21st century.

[*I loved the early 'speakerphone'.]

Let's take swearing. I mean, it's not as though people didn't swear in the 1950s. Lenny Bruce, for example, who features heavily in TMMM, was famed for his uninhibited approach to language. He was even arrested in 1961 (and posthumously pardoned) for using the word cocksucker, and generally ran into trouble wherever he went due to his 'obscenity'.

The trouble we have looking back on that period, and others of course, is that a distinction needs to be made between a) what people said in real life at the time, b) what they said in films and TV made then, and c) what they say in films made now but set in that period.

It was point b) that made me do a double-take at times when Mrs Maisel and her profane manager came out with swearwords. "You're from the 50s. You don't swear!" The Mrs Maisel character in particular is painted as being from such a straight-laced background that it is startling when she first starts using such candid language to portray her life.

Whereas in films of the 1950s insults would usually begin with 'why, you no-good…', TMMM swore its way through so many scenes and did so in a way that I felt, rightly or wrongly, sounded 21st century.

Leaving the copious effing and jeffing aside, one example of contemporary language that really did leap out at me was when Joel (Mrs M's husband) gets exasperated and shouts 'F. Y. I.' and then goes on to saying something that I can't report because I was too gobsmacked by the text-speak to pay the slightest attention to what came next. Did people actually yell abbreviations such as OMG, WTF, LOL and FYI at one another back in the 50s? Although OMG, for example, is not actually a new expression (there is a famous example of it in a letter sent to Winston Churchill in 1917) I suspect they did not.

At one stage, Susie says 'Thanks for the heads up'. This is such a 21st century expression, at least the way it's used these days in the world of work. The expression 'heads-up' is not in itself new, but in this instance it was used in a way that was (and certainly felt) very much of our time not theirs.

The series was periodically peppered with these new expressions. It wasn't remotely problematic and certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment. As I said in my introduction, it doesn't really matter.

The next question is therefore: what were the programme-makers thinking? A friend suggested to me that this was a deliberate ploy, or that, at the very least, they were aware of this minor anomaly. Which begs the question, if this was not a continuity error, then what was it? Was it just a case of bad writing? Were they just being playful with it?

Examples of placing things in a different context, however illogically, abound. Taking it to extremes, Momus's album Folktronic – 'an anthology of fake folk' – wilfully plays with notions of authenticity and of what belongs where and with what else. The blurb on his website says "Here you'll witness the hideously pompous baroque keyboard licks of 80s synthpop climbing into bed with with fakely traditional ballads, jigs and sea shanties. Here too mock prog epics full of tempo and key changes collide with neo-vaudeville numbers ..." and so on. I liked the idea of this so much that I never got around to actually listening to it.

On a much more mainstream level, Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, with its banging soundtrack and hyper-modern aesthetic, felt daring but never jarring. Only a fool or a curmudgeon would baulk at the cheeky wit of the I Want Candy scene. Peaky Blinders was set in an era decades before Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, but as scene- and mood-setters those songs worked incredibly well. In TMMM itself, the closing credits of each episode are soundtracked by a range of music recorded long after the 1950s (Transvision Vamp, B-52s, Hues Corporation…). This just put a smile on my face while I was watching and never made me turn to my wife and say 'hey wait a minute' as I did with the out-of-time language.

There are all sorts of examples of this kind of thing. These were the ones that occurred to me while I was writing this post.

Time and place are just not that sacrosanct. Another Netflix series Sex Education, a charming rites-of-passage sex comedy, which puts the coming into 'coming of age', is not rooted in any particular place or (copious smartphone-use aside) time. At first I found this disorientating but I was soon won over. All of the actors have English accents but they look like they're in the States: the Moordale Secondary School logo and school jackets are so American. One journalist took the series to task for this but most, from the reviews that I've skimmed through, seemed to be able to let go and just enjoy the programme for what it was.

That's the thing. Sometimes stuff we watch just jars, whereas if the piece is made playfully and with taste and successfully draws you into its world, however clumsily or imperfectly done, then — assuming the plot, performances, characterisation and so on are strong — the viewer has no need to worry about the relationship with reality. Animation and other forms of make-believe may be far removed from the real world but they have the capacity to engage with the audience and make it laugh, shudder, reel in horror, feel all fluffy with happiness etc. You suspend disbelief and let go. Or you don't.

Friends is a particular bugbear of mine. I should've been able to let go but there was something about these nauseatingly smug New Yorkers – and their Manhattan living despite in some cases being on the breadline – that I couldn't get past. Yes ok the programme had some decent gags, but once something loses you, it can't get you back. Nothing to do with continuity, it was just gratingly implausible.

[brief tangent… Talking of Friends, Ross is one of those characters that, as a Jewish viewer, makes me squirm. By contrast, TMMM is full of Jewish characters, some sympathetic and charming, others gruesome and vulgar. I think the programme handles this deftly and I found even the most tasteless scenes (usually with Mr Maisel's gaudy parents) hilarious and never felt like hiding behind the couch or worrying what others may think. But I digress.]

What was it then with the language of TMMM that jumped out at me? I guess it was partly because everything else, but really everything else, had been so incredibly meticulous in every aspect of the period detail (Period detail – haha, you can imagine what kind of risque jokes Mrs Maisel would make out of that phrase). A friend who is a fashion writer pointed out that Mrs M's clothes were chosen not only because they were exactly what a fairly posh housewife would have worn at the time but also because they reflected Mrs M's moods; they became progressively darker as Season One went on and the character's life became more troubled. We are talking that level of detail.

Even when the vocabulary wasn't as specifically of-our-time as the examples I've given (and the others that flew by without my noting them down – I would love to have 20 spare hours to watch the series again and research this properly but I have a day-job and a family) the language had a 21st century feel. They stopped short of telling each other how 'woke' they were or using the word sick in its positive sense. But there was certainly far more 'What the actual fuck?' than 'Why, you and your cockamamie schemes'.

Maybe the makers really did just want to nod, wink and say 'ah fuck it, let's just throw in some modern-day expressions to amuse ourselves, tickle our audience and give a jolt to the new parents snatching some binge-watching time'.

12 February 2019 @ 04:24 pm

The year is 1978. I'm standing on my own in the sweet shop and some kid sees my coat and asks me if I'm a mod or a ted. He doesn’t seem very friendly. I haven't much idea what he means so, in the interests of self-preservation, I tell him I'm neither. My mum got me that coat because it was sensible and not because she wanted me to give me a musical identity. What the hell does 'musical identity' actually mean anyway?

The year is 1979. Dad's driving me to a friend's house. My sister and I have somehow persuaded him to have Radio One on in the car. Gangsters comes on, with its haunting tune, chilling attitude and lyric suggesting (cartoonish) violence in the air: "said you'd been threatened by gangsters/now it's you that's threatening me". What is this?

The year is 1979. I'm making my way into class from the main school hall. ...The school clock, the reddish-orange curtains of the stage, the polished floor.... Suddenly, someone from the year above carrying a transistor radio me tells me Too Much Too Young is number one in the charts. People around start singing it. I have no idea what the singer is on about – I'll find out about that later – but the song is damned catchy and has bounce and vibrancy.

The year is 1980. I'm turning into a fan of music. I now know what music is; or rather, it isn't just something that's on in the background, either on Top of the Pops or on the radio. There are kids at school — black, white and brown kids, boys and girls — who have bought into 2-tone in a big way: porkpie hats, harringtons, chessboard motifs. The hits are so fucking great: On My Radio, Geno, Rat Race, Food For Thought, Night Boat To Cairo, just off the top of my head. What a time to be a kid in your formative years, musically speaking. And 2-tone managed to be serious and angry and joyful and chart-friendly all at the same time.

The year is 1982. Not that it seemed it at the time, but 2-tone was a short-lived phenomenon. We move house to London, where I make friends with another lad, John, who was massively into ska, reggae and 2-tone. I'm a northerner in London and feel a bit of an outsider. John doesn't feel he fits in. Together we plot a ska revival.

The year is 1983. The house parties I go to are almost always awful. Me, John and a couple of other mates bring reggae and ska tapes/records along and sometimes manage to get a couple of tunes played before Michael Jackson and Kajagoogoo (or, come to think of it, Grease or The Time Warp) come back on. We're take ourselves too seriously.

The year is 1984. The remnants of the two-tone movement have splintered off into Funboy Three and the Special AKA (Specials), General Public and Fine Young Cannibals (The Beat), and so on. Although it's becoming clear there isn't much of a movement any more and our ska revival is not getting very far, I have a lot of time for these new bands.

The year is 1985. I become a student and my music tastes well and truly branch out. I get into all sorts of stuff, from indie to African to goth to experimental noise to goodness knows what else. I never stop loving reggae and ska, though, and after a few pints occasionally find myself asking for 2-tone in clubs that obviously have no interest in playing 2-tone. The revival starts here, right?

'Got any reggae or ska?'

'err yeah mate, later'.

In the 1990s I work abroad a lot, broadening my musical palate still further.

In the wider music world, changes are afoot that make my ears prick up. Whereas back in the mid- and late 80s no one cared about Jamaican music any more, by the 90s, Jamaican influence is spreading again (or maybe people are less hung up about admitting their love of reggae): Prodigy sampling Chase The Devil on Outer Space; hip-hop clearly borrowing from dancehall toasting; trip-hop paying attention to dub and its spaciness; jungle [and, much later, dubstep and grime] lifting reggae/dancehall basslines.

The year is 2009. The Specials have re-formed to play some gigs to mark their 30th anniversary. I'm now living in Luxembourg and have met my future wife. No kids yet, so no problem just heading back to London for the weekend. I was just too young to catch the Specials live back in the day — it's not like nowadays when kids seem to get into music much younger (my six-year old is already itching to come to gigs with me). Finally a chance to see them live (30 years too late, but still) with my old mate John, albeit it's only six Specials, without the master Jerry Dammers. What a night, what a band.

The year is 2019 and the Specials, now down to three original members, are no longer a nostalgia project.
12 February 2019 @ 10:24 am

The year is 2019.

I'm not very good at album reviews but here are a few overall thoughts on the new Specials album Encore after one or two listens.

- Encore kicks arse. It does so in a way that is not embarrassingly in denial about the advancing years [more on this later]. It says 'we may not be young any more but fuck, we know what we're doing with a rhythm section'.

- It is tender when needed. The remaining three Specials appear to have used their age to deal with difficult topics (identity, depression) in a way that sounds measured and wise. 

- They've been listening to loads of other styles, just as many of their fans have. Those hoping for a re-tread of The Specials (album) have been disappointed. I'm actually surprised by how ambitious it is. At no time, though, do you think they've lost their identity. 

- Terry is a properly great vocalist. It's taken me until now to realise this. Damon Albarn has been paying attention and I suspect the admiration is mutual. Albarn's new The Good, The Bad & The Queen album is something of a companion piece to Encore.

- The record takes risks. Taking a big swipe at (founding father of ska) Prince Buster took some balls. 

- I've always loved spoken-word songs (e.g. Linton Kwesi Johnson, Black Box Recorder, James Yorkston, not to mention the harrowing 'The Boiler' by the Specials themselves) and the spoken-word material on Encore is terrific. Somehow it makes you stop and pay attention in a way that you might not otherwise with sung songs. 

- I think Jerry Dammers would admire this album. That's a compliment.

- It isn't perfect. Lyrically it's a bit trite in parts, sometimes just in the cause of making lines rhyme. Money and power? Ivory tower, of course! The Specials have always dealt in left-wing politics. That's fine – I'm a traditional Labour voter myself – but just because you're angry about injustice doesn't necessarily mean your lyric is going to be brilliant. There's a skill and an art to doing political song properly (and I'd urge anyone read Dorian Lynskey's brilliant "33 1/3 revolutions per minute" on this topic). I feel Encore gets it right sometimes (BLM, Ten Commandments) but not always (Vote For Me). 

- In some ways it's a record about the passing of time. I was 12 or 13 when the first album came out. I'm in my 50s now. As much as I loved, and identified with, 2-Tone back in the day – and as much as I still cherish ska, reggae and dub – a lot of other music has come into my ears since then. So too the three remaining Specials, with their wrinkles and salt-and-pepper stubble and their broader/richer sonic palette. It is never in denial about being made by three men in their late 50s/early 60s. This is a pop record but it is grown-up pop. They've left some of their fans behind with Encore but it seems that most have grown up with them.

- It made me emotional to hear this record – I was welling up when I first heard it. I'm just so happy, impressed and, yes, proud that this band have made a record as strong as this.

29 January 2019 @ 03:40 pm

Code of conduct for attending gigs (to be placed on prominent display in all venues)

1. Photos. If you must take photos please do so quickly and discreetly.

2. Filming. Phone cameras cannot be uninvented and are only going to improve in quality. This does not mean that you are Jonathan Demme or D A Pennebaker; you do not have stage access or multiple views to choose from. No matter how good your camera, your only view is the one from where you're standing, surrounded by bobbing heads and flailing arms, assuming you have a clear view of the stage at all. If you have to film, be aware that your video may not be absolute rubbish, but it will be not be an Oscar contender or even a youtube sensation; on social media it will probably be liked only by the handful of friends you have who are diehard fans of the band. So if you really must film, make it a brief souvenir for yourself, your friends and your family, whoever, just to give a flavour of what it was like.

It is obvious but must be reiterated (1): the person behind you wants to watch the show, not your phone and your inept attempts at getting the settings right.

It is obvious but must be reiterated (2): Ideally watch, savour and experience with your camera tucked away in your pocket or bag. 

2a. Filming (or, worse, face-timing) the whole show is strictly prohibited.

2b. If the band says no cameras (this happens occasionally), they probably mean no cameras.

3. Talking is permissible but should be kept to a minimum. Whole conversations should be conducted elsewhere, especially if the topic has no relevance to the gig; gig venues are not the place to catch up with people — bars, coffee shops and homes exist for that purpose.

If a fellow audience-member asks you to keep it down, don't get defensive, disdainful or aggressive (not least because it's probably taken them several minutes to pluck up the courage to have a word with you). Remember, they are right, you are wrong. Apologise, move on and shut the fuck up.

If you must pass comment on the performance you're watching, make it a quick one and ideally do it between songs or, if it has to be while music is being played on stage, during the louder numbers.  

In short, always ask yourself if you really need to talk during a performance that you and others have paid to attend.

3a. You have no right to applaud a song you've just chatted through.

4. Kissing your loved one during large sections of the show is strictly forbidden. Public displays of affection are generally not much fun for others to see, but sustained exchanges of saliva (while paying scant attention to the gig) can be awkward for your fellow gig-goers, who, if it's very crowded, may have difficulty moving away.

5. Do not block audience members as they make their way closer to the stage. You have paid to stand anywhere in the auditorium; you share the venue with other people and the 30cm x 30cm space you're in is not numbered on your ticket. You're at a gig, not attending a play or waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy. Think of it like the contents of a bag of grains shifting in transit: expect movement in the run-up to the start of the gig and even after it has begun.


6. Singing along is fine but always respect your fellow gig-goers. Being the only one yelling along with, say, Portishead instead of savouring the opportunity to listen to Beth Gibbons' tender vocals *live* - and thereby preventing others from hearing her - is prohibited. The key phrase there is 'the only one': if the entire auditorium is singing its heart out to some giant anthem that was designed for mass audience sing-along, then you can, indeed should, join in. Look around, check for critical mass.

[Writer's note: I attended a Portishead gig in 2007, where there was a male loudmouth screaming I just wanna be a woman during Glory Box; the irony was lost on the un-self-aware twat concerned.]

7. Dance or mosh with like-minded people.

7a. If you're not a dancer or mosher, or you prefer not to be in the proximity of sweaty folk bundling into one another, go further back. Don't complain if people around you are being lively.

8. Tall people, have some consideration for little folk.

8a. Short people, tall people can't chop themselves in half for your benefit.

8b. Whatever you do, for fuck's sake, don't fight about it.

9. Don't do anything that is unacceptable elsewhere, e.g. violence, groping etc.

10. Be reasonable when it comes to bantering with the band and know when to stop. Good-natured heckling can help musicians settle (remember they're not all ultra-confident and at ease on stage) and get through some tricky silence between songs. On the other hand, getting wasted and declaring undying love to the fit bass player might seem heartfelt and vital to your well-being at the time, but you risk becoming a pest and, if it gets problematic, getting in the way of everyone's enjoyment.


Summary: The reason for going to gigs is not only to see the band but also to share a collective experience with a bunch of strangers. So be nice, show respect, exercise judgement and don't be an arse — all of which can be achieved while having fun and being inebriated.

18 January 2019 @ 02:18 pm

The history of reggae in the UK has been told and retold. The BBC's excellent documentary Reggae Fever: David Rodigan somehow managed to tread new ground and not just follow the usual nostalgic path. It succeeded, for one thing, in finding an angle that, to my knowledge, has rarely if ever had TV's spotlight shone its way — the phenomenon of the soundclash.

Unusually for a pop music documentary, it included interviews with people in old folks' homes playing dominoes and looking back on the old days. I found them delightful. They really got me thinking about how reggae — and its various offshoots — is perceived by successive generations. What was once quite radical (at least its 70s roots incarnation) now sounds like something your parents or grandparents would listen to. 

This is where soundclash culture made its noisy entrance into the film. We are not talking here about deep, mystical rasta-reggae or the sugary lilt of lovers' rock: these are raucous and highly competitive DJ contests — seriously a young person's game, you'd have thought. The footage in the documentary did a pretty good job of conveying the electric excitement but I still got a feeling of 'you had to be there'.

And David Rodigan, the first reggae DJ on British radio, came into his own in that environment. According to the documentary, he managed to obtain personalised tributes from reggae stars, which were then cut onto dubplate specials and played to an excitable audience. In the film we see Rodigan dancing with stiff enthusiasm in a bid to whip up the crowd and win the clash. With his dubplates the opposition barely stood a chance.  One talking head in the programme described him as looking like a white, balding, old dentist, but there he was, in front of audiences of young Jamaicans, doing his best to swing his ageing hips.

I appreciated Rodigan's admission that the whole thing often made him nervous. Some of the clashes seemed decidedly, erm, heartfelt and you could see why not everyone would be suited to this form of pumped-up verbal and sonic combat. Throughout the film he came across as decent, honest and self-aware.

At this point, the programme, not content with serving its audience a warm plate of nostalgia, gave us a taster of the music that had been influenced by sound system culture. Rodigan himself, now 77, seemed quite relaxed, certainly lacking bitterness, when the conversation began to trace the line forward as the music mutated into jungle, dubstep and, more recently, grime. This was something that the BBC's Reggae Britannia documentary, enjoyable as it was, had failed to do, leaving me with a feeling that (the programme-makers thought that) Jamaican music had basically stopped in the late 70s. 

The talking heads (Mykaell Riley, Brinsley Forde, etc.) were illuminating, with one notable exception — Jazzy B, who always gets asked onto these things and rarely seems to have anything to contribute. The footage was well chosen: interspersing National Front speeches with images of young black kids walking through town past white folk is hardly a new device but in this case it was extremely well done.  (The part about the SUS laws was shocking: Trevor Nelson talks about his fear in that climate of openly racist police and school-teachers barely any better. Naively, I'm thinking: Trevor's such an amiable guy, how could they...?)

The programme also featured quite a bit of music from the 1980s, supposedly beyond the golden era. Dancehall acts like Barrington Levi, Half Pint and Wayne Smith were part of my youth and I loved those tunes, which sound as fresh today... oh wait, I'm in my 50s aren't I, and that was a fucking generation-and-a-half ago. Sigh.

03 April 2017 @ 09:36 pm

This morning Alex and I were reminiscing about the days when he spoke about nothing but diggers - invariably they'd be "heavy diggers with sharp teeth". That seems so long ago, as Alex, now three months short of his 5th birthday, has turned into a remarkably eloquent child. He is utterly fluent in English and Slovene, though a couple of days ago he admitted "My English is way better than my Slovene". In fact when his mum talks to him in Slovene he sometimes answers in English, which is a bit of a pity. Inevitable, though, as he goes to an English-speaking school where he gets just a couple of hours' Slovene a week. His English is almost faultless. He uses comparatives and superlatives all the time to tell everyone how he's the best, the strongest and the coolest, etc. and stronger, faster, better than me or his brother or whoever. I wondered at first where he got it from but one day when I brought him to school one of the kids said: "Hi Alex, I'm stronger than you". It was the first thing he'd said to him that day!

Alex's little brother Philip is benefiting enormously from having an elder sibling and is expressing himself very articulately, and with pin-sharp diction. As he's not even three he doesn't actually have a lot to say, but he talks and talks and talks and with remarkable accuracy and some considerable imagination. The other day his teacher at creche said they found a worm on the ground and Philip made up a whole story about giant snakes! And he told me a story a couple of nights ago featuring super heroes doing lots of things in the past tense; if he didn't know the correct past tense form he'd simply say 'did go' 'did play' etc.

He comes out with things that sound so bizarre coming from a tiny child who still has chubby baby cheeks. We laughed so much a couple of days ago when his teacher told us that Philip had told her that she was "a very good teacher".

I'm very charmed by the fact that he always finishes his sentence even when he's whingeing or even crying. So instead of just saying 'no!!' he says 'Noooo I don't [squealing] want olive oil [almost crying] on my pasta'. His grammatical accuracy even extends to reported speech: 'Alex said it was cow's milk' being a very typical sentence for him. On the subject of milk, he's thankfully well aware of his allergy to dairy products. A week or so ago, there were two cartons of milk on the breakfast table, both light blue. I picked the wrong one, which we know could have terrible consequences and Philip immediately yelled "No, that's cows' milk!!!"

On the slightly negative side, he's going through an anti-daddy, pro-mummy phase at the moment and night after night he says 'I don't want you to come in my bedroom'. It's part of the deal, I know. The linguist in me just marvels at the quality of the language!

Both of our lads are heavily influenced by American cartoons and some of the things they say come out quite American-sounding. Philip is particularly attached to the American way of saying things and he often says 'it's my Ameeeerrrican aaaaccent'. He's been doing this since last summer when we listened to Caspar Babypants awesome Whale Song, which includes Sam and swam with strong (southern?) US pronunciation. He's now so attached to this way of speaking that he comes out with 'r' sounds where they're not needed: pizzerr margeriterr, pyjarrmerrs, Matejerrr, etc. Alex is also under the influence of the assistant teacher at school, who's Scottish. So I often hear her pronunciation when he says things like 'yurr' (your) and a very Scottish-sounding there (appearing to rhyme with 'here' rather than 'hair').

The little one has the kind of uninhibited personality that makes him unafraid to say anything to anyone, while his more sensitive, delicate-natured older brother is astonishingly eloquent, but needs time to warm up. Nothing unusual about siblings having different personalities, but I thought it was quite interesting from a language point of view.

It's been far too long since I last did one of these ans gosh the progress is astonishing.