Wednesday, October 30, 2013

End of the Pier Show

Earlier this year, when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds announced their autumn tour dates, I was relieved that they were not playing the awful Brighton Centre, where I saw them on their last tour in 2008. But the absence of any date in Cave’s adopted home town meant that I was forced to get a ticket for one of their London performances – a regretful decision when they subsequently added a date at the Brighton Dome.

Standing in the bar at the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday night, I worked out that the last time I had been there it was called the Hammersmith Odeon and it was to see Lou Reed. That was 34 years ago to the month and, in the light of Reed’s death last weekend, it would be easy to be sentimental; but that gig did not go well: prominent in the backing band was cowboy-hatted bassist Ellard “Moose” Boles and his millinery seemed to have influenced Reed’s readings of his classic songs that night. Us young punks, there to worship at the altar of the Velvet Underground, fled into the night at the mellow country arrangements. Lest we forget, though, the first Velvets album was recorded in 1966. Go and listen to it again: while they were recording ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’, Britain was listening to Dusty Springfield.

Things have not changed that much; in fact, they have probably got worse. While Cave and the Bad Seeds are admired enough to sell out three nights at Hammersmith, Miley Cyrus is popular enough to top the charts; and it is Cyrus’s body that Cave imagines floating in an LA swimming pool in one of six songs from this year’s nine-track album, Push the Sky Away. But it is not just a new album set: Cave leads the Bad Seeds through a set of hell and damnation, from his back catalogue, that is exhausting. As well as brooding perennials Tupelo, Stagger Lee and Red Right Hand¸ we get the darkness of The Mercy Seat and Jack the Ripper, and a screamingly intense version of From Her to Eternity that is the climax of the first half of the performance.

It would seem churlish to complain when Cave is putting so much energy in as the full southern gothic preacher: prowling the edge of the stage, by turns frightening – “You! With your fucking iphone!” – and flirting with the audience, he shimmies and prances like Trinity in The Matrix about to do Kung Fu. And Warren Ellis’s demented fiddler, slashing at his violin, hair and horsehair flailing, is almost a match. But it is something of a relief from the fire and brimstone when Cave sits at the piano and plays the sublime Love Letter, from No More Shall We Part, and the little heard Far From Me, from The Boatman’s Call. These are the only songs from these two gorgeous albums before the darkness returns - “here comes Lucifer with his canon law” - with Higgs Boson Blues.

After a five-song encore that includes one of the Bad Seeds rare floor-fillers, Deanna, Cave has played for two hours at a mostly frenetic pace. At 56, this might be the last time he gigs night after night with such verve and intensity and, perhaps signalling the way ahead, he returns to the piano for the final encore, a beautiful new ballad that could have come straight from the end of Brighton Pier, Give Us a Kiss.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Out on the Streets Again

So, regretfully, we took industrial action again; for the third time in two and a half years, but the first time since November 2011. Then, it was against coalition cuts to the public sector, and pensions in particular. This time, it was regional action against every idiot idea Michael Gove is subjecting state education to: free schools, reform of GCSEs and performance related pay; and changes to teachers’ terms and conditions that would be like turning the clock back to the 1950s. Every advance that has been won by previous generations of teachers, he is seeking to overturn: agreed working hours, a limit on admin tasks, planned time for preparation and assessment, only rarely covering for absences and – get this - the right to a lunch break. When it was recently revealed that Gove has been having sweet nothings whispered in his ear by Dominic Cummings - one of those creepy, swivel-eyed, ideological policy wonks - some of this started to make sense. I don’t know what it is with the relationship between Tory ministers and their special advisers.

The timing of the strike turned out to be quite fortuitous as there were several blows to Gove’s free school policy last week: the Al-Madinah free school in Derby was given a dysfunctional rating in all categories, with the severest criticism reserved for the standard of unqualified teachers. That this should be a shock to Ofsted – untrained teachers not knowing how to teach – is baffling. Under Gove’s revolution, the only person in a free school who is required to be qualified is the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator). Not even the Head needs to be a proper teacher and, as a result, there were two resignations of unqualified headteachers at free schools in London and West Sussex last week – both realised before the first term of the school year had ended that they were not up to the job.

If we were looking to Labour to offer a future to state education, we were quickly disappointed. The hope that many in education felt, when Ed Milliband shuffled the education shadow Stephen Twigg out the door, quickly dissolved as soon as his replacement, Tristram Hunt, started spouting muddled Tory-lite policy ideas. After the conference season, Milliband had firmly put Labour on the side of ordinary people, and the Tories on the side of business. All that has been undone in his reshuffle, with Hunt unable to articulate coherent opposition to Gove’s dismantling of inclusive education and Rachel Reeves, the new work and pensions shadow, scandalously trying to out-muscle the Tories with her threat to bully benefit claimants.

On the strike day itself, there were teachers’ rallies in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton. There was a tremendous level of support, with over 2,000 out on the streets again in Brighton, marching from Pavilion Gardens to the Brighton Centre to hear speakers from the NUT, the Fire Brigade Union - also having their service attacked - and Green MP Caroline Lucas. There is talk of a one-day national strike in education and other public services, next month. This will be difficult for teachers, who disrupt the school day reluctantly and for who the loss of another day’s pay will be a struggle in these tough times; but if we don’t stand up for ourselves, we will be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Under a Slate Grey Sky

A mild, airless day at Pett Level. The shingle beach, equidistant between Hastings and Rye, is deserted. There is an ominous sky: slate grey stratocumulus. It strikes me that the most expensive pop music video ever made on an East Sussex beach could have been made today without David Mallet’s chiaroscuro effects.

In May 1980, David Bowie descended on this beach with a Pierrot costume, a cast of extras culled from Blitz - the New Romantic club du jour – and a JCB digger. Bowie had recorded his last great album – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – before the commercial highs and critical lows of the 1980s, and the first single from the album, Ashes to Ashes, was to be released in the summer. Bowie saw video as another emerging art form, rather than just an opportunity to act badly or Monkee around to shift some product, and he enlisted Mallet to help him produce four minutes of surreality that would be beamed into everyone's living room weekly on Top of the Pops, once the single became a number one.

Intercut with mostly black and white shots of Bowie in a padded cell, dentist’s chair and on alien life-support (natch) looking knowingly to camera, Bowie’s Pierrot strolls along the beach at Pett Level; flanked by Steve Strange and his muckers dressed as papal new puritans, and followed closely by the JCB, Bowie seems to be burying all that marvellous nonsense bookended by this song and 1969’s Space Oddity. The closing shots show Bowie being harangued on the beach by a representation of his mother – all bleached peach – under an artificial black sky, to the refrain: “my mother said to get things done you better not mess with Major Tom”.

Of course, he did get things done and 2013 is being heralded as the return to form of David Bowie; but this is to deny his bravura music of the 1990s – The Buddha of Suburbia and 1.Outside – and the noughties – Heathen and Reality. However, when the eight-year hiatus since his heart attack came to an end, with – bizarrely for me – an announcement on Radio 4 at 6am on a cold January day, it didn't stop me rushing downstairs to the computer to blub and snivel over the video of Where Are We Now? along with all those others for whom, at one time, only David Bowie seemed to know.