Monday, May 27, 2019

Help Is On The Way

When I saw British Sea Power play the night before the EU referendum in 2016, their anthem of welcome and tolerance, Waving Flags, raised the roof and the hopes of those of us keen to embrace the continuing spirit of acceptance at the ballot box the next day. We all know how that worked out.

Three years on, at the Con Club in Lewes last night, it was a rare outing for the lead track from 2011's Valhalla Dancehall album that seemed to catch the political zeitgeist as Yan spat out the chorus "I just don't know/Who's In Control" with a mixture of genuine anger and confusion. Not that anyone can provide an answer in these troubled times but at least a British Sea Power gig in a small sweaty club afforded me the cathartic opportunity to drink beer, dance and bellow along in my own bewilderment.

With a crystal clear sound, the band served up their special mix of the raucous and the tender. Remember Me and No Lucifer were rowdy and the appearance of Ursine Ultra, the dancing bear, and Noble's stage climbing added a chaotic dimension to proceedings. The highlights of the set, for me, were two more recent songs: A Light Above Descending and Praise For Whatever were passionate and poignant, the latter being the outstanding track from 2017's Let The Dancers Inherit The Party album with an outro reminiscent of Bear from 2010's Zeus EP.

The rousing finale of The Great Skua, with an EU flag being waved in the mosh pit, was life-affirming, as always; but I had probably already taken most comfort from the optimistic refrain, "Help is on the way", in set opener, Machineries of Joy. Until that help arrives, at least we have British Sea Power.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Always Different

Expletive, splenetic, compulsive, balletic; it was glorious to revel in the incongruity of Sleaford Mods in Bexhill-on-Sea last night, bringing their dissatisfaction with the contradictions of modern Britain to the genteel coastal town.

It had been four years since I last saw them live, prompted by 2014's Divide and Exit album, but I had tracked their subsequent progress through the consistently excellent Key Markets, English Tapas and this year's Eton Alive. Seeing them again reaffirmed that there is no one like Sleaford Mods and it brought to mind John Peel's aphorism about The Fall: always different, always the same.

The range of targets is as wide as ever: on Flipside, from the latest album, "Graham Coxon looks like a left-wing Boris Johnson" and on TCR, "Everyone still looks like Ena Sharples and Ray Reardon". If the similes make us laugh, songs like BHS, with its condemnation of the greed of capitalists like (Sir) Philip Green - "the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us" - make us as angry as Jason Williamson. But if the number of 'fucks' and 'cunts' are testament to the power of his polemic, the vitriolic language is offset by Williamson's mesmerising stage presence: his restless pacing, his menacing of the mic and his strangely graceful arm movements.

Amidst this performance, Andrew Fearn sways and swigs with a big smile on his face as he takes care of the laptop beats that drive along the stage-front moshing; I have very occasionally seen crowd-surfing at the De La Warr Pavilion but I have NEVER seen beer sprayed around with the reckless abandon that Sleaford Mods prompted. Although there were favourites such as Jolly Fucker, Jobseeker and Tied Up In Nottz to keep the crowd happy, the focus was on Eton Alive, and the final track of the night, Discourse, perhaps pointed the way to a funkier future.

Support, last night, was provided by excellent Mancunian female trio, Lines, whose short and snappy post-punk songs, underpinned by rumbling bass and thudding tom toms, persuaded a large crowd to leave the bar and encourage a talented young band.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Yin and Yang

Driving westwards on Monday evening, I was listening to Quiet Signs, the third album by American folk singer Jessica Pratt. With the rising silhouette of the landscape ahead of me, defined by a line of burnished ochre left in the sky by the setting sun, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was approaching the Mohave Mountains and Pratt's home state of California beyond; but I wasn't: I was passing the Sussex Downs on my way to Brighton to see Pratt play her first gig there since 2015.

Pratt is keen to not be pigeonholed as a traditional folk singer in the mould of Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell and it is true that her claustrophobic songs and affected vocal style have more in common with modern gothic folk artists, such as Marissa Nadler and Aldous Harding; but there is something about the intensity and purity of her songs that harks back to another age. With only Matthew McDermott on a Korg to accompany her voice and acoustic chords, the audience was silently spellbound throughout a set of sparse sounds that selected tracks from all three of her albums. Standouts for me were As The World Turns, from her latest album, and Opening Night, a hypnotic piano movement with wordless vocals, named after the 1977 John Cassavetes film that inspired it.

Support at the Brighthelm Centre - a modern church that I had only previously been in for a trade union meeting but never a gig - could not have been more different. Provided by Saul Adamczewski of Fat White Family, The Moonlandingz and Insecure Men, it was the yang to Pratt's yin. Adamczewski said more between songs than the former's 'thank yous' and even berated us with a Casio dance tune "to liven you stiffs up". In a humorous set - "it's good to be with you in the house of Our Lord" - of acoustic songs augmented by fellow-Fat White Alex White's saxophone, Adamczewski referenced demons of the twentieth century ranging from Goebbels to Gazza via Charles Manson (I might have been a bit unfair on Paul Gascoigne, there). The song Sweet Agony was introduced as being about Paul Sykes, a legendary Wakefield hardman. This gave me a start: taken from the title of his 1988 autobiographical novel, I'll wager that I was the only other person, in a roomful of people come to hear Pratt's quiet meditations, to have read Sykes' Arthur Koestler Literary Award-winning tale of boxing, robbery and battles with the prison authorities. Truly, an evening of joyful contrasts.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Still I Rise

Taking its title from Maya Angelou's poem of defiance, a text I have used over the years to try and expose the monocultural GCSE students of rural East Sussex to issues of difference, Still I Rise is an exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion that explores the history of resistance and alternative forms of living through the prism of gender. Covering a wide range of forms, from art to architecture and graphic design to photography, it is a cornucopia of feminist and gay protest and perspectives.

The display of black and white photographs at the front of the gallery sets the tone with images of mass street demonstrations, including a series from the 1990s in support of disability rights. This is followed by a wall of posters produced by grassroots feminist and queer movements, amongst them the iconic 1975 'So long as women are not free the people are not free' poster by the See Red Women's Workshop.

An area that I had previously been unaware of was use of the built environment to explore feminist ways of living. In the centre of the gallery space is a model of communitarian socialist architect Alice Constance Austin's 1910 design for common dwelling and working. Austin believed that single-family units were a barrier to improving life for women, a theme carried on in the 1980s by the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative in London and Birmingham, whose ideas are presented in 3-D and on film.

In an age where protest seems to have been reborn with the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it is timely to be reminded of the lineage of identity resistance - and there are also some pieces in the exhibition, such as early Stonewall AIDS awareness art, that show just how far we have come; but the most powerful images, for me, were Eduardo Gil's photographs of marches in early 1980s Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were a collective of women whose children had 'disappeared' during the state terrorism of the fascist junta that ruled between 1976 and 1983. They were successful in exposing human rights violations and pressing successive governments for answers. The stark monochrome images are a vivid portrayal of the power of women, irrespective of age and class.

Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 2 is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until Monday 27th May. Admission is free.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Partners in Crime

Not so much a gig, more a very enjoyable Audience With, as The Portable Club presented 'an evening of conversation and music starring Vic Godard with Johnny Britton' amidst the crushed velvet drapes of The Nightingale Room, upstairs at the Grand Central pub next to Brighton station, last night.

Vic needs no introduction but Johnny perhaps does: a Bristolian who was guitarist in the second line-up of Subway Sect that toured with Buzzcocks in 1978, he later had his own band poached by Vic and The Clash's manager, Bernie "call me Bernard" Rhodes, for Vic's 1982 loungecore incarnation at the time of his Songs For Sale LP (that band, with Dig Wayne as singer, went on to become JoBoxers of Boxer Beat and Just Got Lucky chart fame); he then became a protégé of Rhodes, who thought Johnny's matinee idol good looks gave him star quality and, when his time with Rhodes fizzled out, he joined the final incarnation of Orange Juice - perhaps because when Edwyn looked at him it would have been like seeing his own reflection. Now reunited years later, ("I was in need of friendship" - Vic) there is no animosity on Johnny's part for losing his band to Vic and the two have an easy and affectionate rapport.

The evening began with the duo both on guitars and vocals and a couple of songs, starting with Vic's 1999 single, Place We Used To Live. An onstage interview then followed, which teased out some excellent stories about the pair's lives. Vic was on a £200 a week retainer from Bernie (who they both spoke of warmly, contrary to Rhodes' popular Svengali reputation) to write songs with the word 'girl' in them for Johnny, which he had to deliver at the rate of ten a week every Friday. Leaving it until the last minute, he stayed up all night on Thursdays recording them onto cassette very quietly, so as not to wake up his mum and dad; the result was Johnny could barely make out the hushed songs. The Portable Club's host, Algy, reminded us that Vic was arrested on the day of the Sex Pistols' infamous Silver Jubilee riverboat trip; but it turns out he was not on the boat but on Tower Bridge with The Slits, throwing stones at the pleasure cruiser as it passed below - I would have paid handsomely to have seen that.

Further brushes with the law followed in Vic's heroin years: forging cheques, scamming bookies and - a particular favourite - nicking Marks & Sparks carriage clocks were regular necessities to fund his habit. Later, Vic continued to release music regularly - but not exactly prolifically - against the backdrop of day jobs at Ladbrokes and the Post Office, while Johnny had an award-winning career as a costume designer for high-profile horror films.

When they returned to the music, we got covers of T.Rex's New York City and the Velvet Underground's Heroin and a song about Johnny's cat. There were then two of those songs with the word 'girl' in the title: firstly, Girl From Trincomalee (it's in Sri Lanka, in case you're wondering - we were asked but none of us knew) and, the final number of the night, Stop That Girl, from T.R.O.U.B.L.E., Vic's 1986 Rough Trade album. Listening to the beauty and craft of that song, and to Johnny's effortless harmonising, it made me wish that the partnership that Rhodes tried to foster all those years ago, had resulted in more.

Monday, December 31, 2018

As The Year Recedes

This blogpost should have been a review of Nadine Shah's December gig in Brighton but her tour was cancelled as she had to return to the North-East to be with her family. I am not sure of the exact reason but I sincerely hope it is not something too disastrous. Instead, as the year recedes, here are three things I learned in 2018:

There Are No Grown-Ups - In Lord of the Flies, when Piggy bleats that "Grown-ups know things...they ain't afraid of the dark. They'd meet and have tea and discuss. Then things 'ud be all right", he is showing a touching faith in the adult world to solve problems and act in the best interests of the little people. As we hurtle towards the EU exit door, spinning like a car on black ice (I appreciate that we are running out of similes for Brexit but this is one I have personal experience of and it was the most scared I have ever been), I have realised that I am Piggy no longer. Once upon a time, I was: as a child, I adored Harold Wilson (still do, really) and felt that no harm would come to my family all the while he was looking after things. Although I hated Margaret Thatcher and was not over-enamoured with Tony Blair, I still believed that they would act maturely and make decisions that they thought were for the best, even if I did not agree with them. And, oh, if sturdy Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister I am sure we would not be in this mess. Now I am Ralph; not Jack, who greets the lack of grown-ups on the island with all the glee of a rapacious hedge fund manager who has just realised how much money he can make if he says bollocks to the rules, but Ralph. Ralph the leader, whose nervousness and indecision are borne from the knowledge that no one else is going to come along and make things better. Our current Prime Minister is not a leader: she behaves like a civil servant who has been given a brief and has the job of delivering it no matter how ill-conceived the original idea; a leader would question the specification but she is too timorous to be honest with the British people. The Leader of the Opposition, still wedded to the fantasy that he could negotiate a better deal at the last minute, is being equally dishonest. And when you look around, there are absolutely no politicians that could salvage this situation as they are all too busy with their pettifogging party squabbles - "What's grown-ups going to say?"

It's Never Too Late (or Write What You Know) - Having spent a lifetime writing, I finally finished and published a novel this year. Freed from the shackles of full-time teaching, I was able to sit, hunched over a laptop in my kitchen corner, for long stretches while the kids were at school; but that was not the only reason I was able to make the sort of progress that had eluded me before: the difference, this time, was that I was enjoying what I was writing. If I am being honest, I only really have three strong ideas for novels; the one I had been working on for the last few years - an imagined tale involving the Modernist writer Malcolm Lowry and the tattooed curiosity, Horace Ridler - necessitated detailed research. This, coupled with the dense, literary prose style I had chosen to write in, made the whole process slow and, frankly, unenjoyable. One day, I decided to start writing my second idea, for which I had long ago produced a reasonably detailed plan. Set in 1977, with David Bowie, punk, the Jubilee and the Lewisham riot as context, the story charted the coming of age of a fifteen-year-old boy - all stuff I know about. Between October 2017 and April 2018 I wrote two drafts and then a final one and in September this year, two months after my fifty-sixth birthday, When Two Sevens Clash was published.

You Have To Tell Them - I have had cause for regret this year: I never told someone I was very close to that they were my best friend and I dearly wish I had. I think they knew but they have gone now - in tragic circumstances - and I have missed my chance. I am not sure that me telling them would have made a difference but it might have done. My New Year's resolution is to let those close to me know how important they are and how much they would be missed; I respectfully suggest you do the same.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Brilliant and Bizarre

The genius and eccentricity of Lee 'Scratch' Perry go before him in equal measure. One the one hand there is the prolific output of his band, The Upsetters, his production work with Bob Marley and a string of reggae luminaries and his invention of dub in the 1970s. On the other hand, there is his burning down of his own Black Ark studio, a fondness for cosmic pronouncements and an increasingly individual style of dress.

Incredibly, at the age of 82 he has just released a new album and seems to be permanently on tour in Europe and the States. When he took the stage at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill last Friday, what sprang to mind was Dr Johnson's surprise not at seeing something done well but seeing it done at all. And for the first part of the set, I was not sure it was being done well: despite there being much love for him from the audience, the songs were unrecognisable, Perry's talk between numbers was rambling and I had a feeling that he was making the lyrics up as he went along.

It was only when he played Max Romeo's Chase the Devil ("I'm gonna put on a iron shirt, and chase Satan out of earth"), a song that Perry co-wrote and produced in 1976, that things began to hit their stride. Followed up with another of his famous collaborations, The Congos' Fisherman, and a brilliant version of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Crazy Baldhead, there was suddenly a sense of Perry's deserved place as roots reggae's crowned head. And he was wearing a crown of sorts: a baseball cap bedecked with mirrors, badges and feathers topped off a shell suit that looked as though it had been rescued from an explosion in a paint factory. Oh, and his trainers and beard were matching crimson.

Perry also displayed some surprisingly sprightly moves for an octogenarian, although the high stepping and leg kicks might be attributable to the vitamin tablets he took from the suitcase parked in front of the drum riser and necked halfway through the set. Mind you, if I was doing what he does in my eighties I might need more than a few ginseng pills. Bizarrely, he also showed us that he was wearing another pair of trousers under his trousers; what the benefit of this was remained unclear.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry has a history of working with British artists - The Clash, Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor - and this year's The Black Album - what might be his 65th studio album as an artist - has been made with Norfolk-based producer, Daniel Boyle. Never one to shirk giving spiritual advice, Perry finished with arguably the standout track from the album, Your Shadow Is Black, exhorting us to "love yourselves and yourself", a sentiment we were happy to reciprocate.