Sunday, April 26, 2015

Drinking and Disaster

When John Bramwell introduces two songs in a row as being about “drinking…and disaster” it raises a big laugh from the audience at Concorde 2 in Brighton on Friday night; but it occurs to me that it would be the perfect title for the next I Am Kloot album. Drinking is important in the Kloot world - either in songs, on stage or off it - but there is nothing disastrous about it from the point of view of those of us who appreciate the brilliance of this band.

The opening lines of To The Brink are a dark joy: “Do you fancy a drink?/I know a place called the brink/Do you want to go there?” And despite running the risk of getting too serious, the lyrics stand up to close analysis: “They’ve got no rule of thumb/So on the counter I strum/With my fingers”. The rhyme and consonance of “thumb” and “strum” is purely poetic, and the close proximity of “thumb” and “fingers” is sublime. He further evokes the experience of the solitary drinker in the crowd with the lines, “I would like to stay with you/But I leave alone”; and when he repeats the refrain, but exchanges “stay” and “leave”, the effect is heart-breaking. It is for this reason that I Am Kloot are more highly rated by their peers than music consumers: Pete Doherty has said that Bramwell is one of the most talented songwriters in the country and Guy Garvey has proclaimed the band to be the most underrated in Britain.

The last time I saw I am Kloot in Brighton, they had just released their sixth studio album, Let It All In, and the songs on the night were largely taken from that and, previous album, Sky at Night. But Friday night’s set was drawn from all six studio albums and even included 1999’s debut single, To You, and This House Is Haunted, from the John Peel Sessions LP. Bramwell tells a Peelesque personal anecdote about having to pull over to the side of the road in his car because he was so overcome by the song he was listening to – which was, of course, his own This House Is Haunted. If this sounds egotistical, it is not; Bramwell‘s self-deprecating humour about his own immodesty is charming.

The first part of the set, with Bramwell on electric guitar, displays the rockier side of the band: Cuckoo and Life In A Day, from their eponymously-titled second album, are followed by the title track from the follow-up, Gods and Monsters. But then electric is swapped for acoustic and, after the customary solo spot to allow for no-longer-sedentary bassist Pete Jobson and drummer Andy Hargreaves to have a fag break, we are in to middle-period I Am Kloot with Someone Like You and Ferris Wheels from the Play Moolah Rouge album. Ferris Wheels strikes me as the consummate Kloot song, with all their favourite motifs present: shooting stars, satellites, stars at night and, of course, the sky.

When I last saw the band live, they were augmented to a six-piece; but tonight it is just the core trio and the audience are called upon to help with some of the arrangements. We are rubbish at being accordions earlier in the set but by the time the evening is nearing its close, we are great at being trumpets on Northern Skies. And when they encore with Twist - possibly my favourite - and Proof, we are fully committed to shared vocal duties.

'Hold Back the Night: I Am Kloot Live', has just been released on Walk Tall Recordings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Changing Landscape

Look at the political map of south-east England, outside of London, and it is a sea of blue. There have been times when there were splodges of other colours, but currently you would have to squint to pick out the tiny dots where there is anything other than Conservative representation in the House of Commons. Of the eight constituencies in East Sussex, five are currently held by the Tories but, in an outcome that will probably mirror our fractured national electoral picture, this is set to change in two weeks' time.

There are two constituencies that cover large, mainly rural areas – Wealden and Bexhill & Battle –and these are typical Tory territory. They have returned Conservative MPs since the dawn of time and that is unlikely to change this year. The odious UKIP polled well in these areas in local and European elections last year but, with large majorities, the Tories should see off any challenge even if UKIP make a sizeable dent in their vote. The Liberal Democrats came second in both seats last time but may see the rise in popularity of the Greens in these areas translate into votes at their expense.

Two of those tiny dots on the map are yellow and represent the neighbouring seats of Lewes and Eastbourne. Lewes was won narrowly by Liberal Democrat Norman Baker in 1997, ending a long line of Tory MPs, and he has held it since with a reasonable majority. Baker is a popular MP locally and has always benefitted from a massive anti-Tory tactical vote; but the radical spirit of many Lewesians view his participation as a minister in the Tory-led coalition government as heresy; the Green Party is hoping to capitalise.

Eastbourne became a Liberal Democrat seat more recently. In 2010, Stephen Lloyd defeated the Tory incumbent by a majority of over 3,000 in a constituency the Conservatives are desperate to win back next month. When there was a major fire on Eastbourne pier last summer, Cameron and Osbourne were helicoptered in the next day with a bag of cash for refurbishment.

Of the four urban seats in East Sussex – three in Brighton and Hove, one for Hastings & Rye – all bar one are currently held by the Tories. Caroline Lucas is the only Green dot on the political map: she represents Brighton Pavilion with a slim majority but may feel some fallout from the unpopularity – transport policies, 2013’s bin strike – of the Green-run city council. I have always been impressed by Lucas: she has been the only MP to appear at local teachers’ strike rallies and has spoken eloquently and passionately against the Tories’ ideological assault on comprehensive education. All four of these constituencies are held with majorities of under 2,000 and are in the top 30 of Labour’s target seats.

With an excellent local candidate in Sarah Owen, opinion polls suggest that Labour will take Hastings and win two of the three Brighton seats: Lucas will survive but the Conservatives will lose Brighton Kemptown and Hove. Hove is something of a bellwether seat: since 1979, whichever party has won there has formed the government. In 1997, on hearing that Labour had taken Hove, Tony Blair became convinced that the Tories had finally been defeated.

Current polling also suggests that Lewes and Eastbourne will re-elect their current MPs and, if this is correct, come 7th May, East Sussex will have one of the most politically diverse landscapes in the south-east: 3 Labour MPs, 2 Conservative, 2 Liberal Democrat and 1 Green.

This may still not represent everyone: speaking recently of his “emotional attachment to a Labour Party that no longer exists”, the writer Irvine Welsh reminded me of my own dilemma. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an alliance launched by the late Bob Crow, most reflect my views but are fielding a candidate in only one East Sussex seat and that is, sadly, not where I live. Thanks to Nick Clegg not holding out for a referendum on proportional representation as his thirty pieces of silver, my vote in one of those large rural constituencies will be irrelevant. But I still don’t know whether to follow my emotional attachment or support those who most resemble what Labour used to be, the only anti-austerity party I can vote for: The Green Party.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Vive le Rock!

Thanks to the wonder of the world wide web, it is possible to carbon date the events and context of your earlier life with precision. Popular culture of the past is catalogued by a legion of obsessives who have documented the detail and minutiae of any niche area you care to investigate. Punk gigs are particularly well-served: enter the words “The Slits” and “Croydon” into a search engine and it reminds me that I saw them support Siouxsie and the Banshees on 9th October 1977 at the Greyhound; google “Buzzcocks Woolwich” and I realise that I was at Thames Poly on a Saturday night in March 1978; search “The Ruts Nashville Rooms” and I know that it was on 6th November 1978 that fighting between punks and skinheads made it one of the most terrifying gigs I have been to. Trying to pin down exactly when I saw Adam and the Ants at the Marquee in Soho’s Wardour Street proved a little difficult, however. I know it was either late 1977 or early 1978, but the Adam Ant website informs me that the band played the Marquee fourteen times in 12 months during those two years.

If I cannot remember or pin down the date of the gig, what I can recall is how theatrical and electrifying the performance was. The slow bass-heavy start of opening song Plastic Surgery was sung by Adam Ant from the dressing room behind the stage, his snow-white tanned face only emerging as the song burst into life. And with Sex Pistol acolyte Jordan as part of the set-up, and songs such as Deutscher Girls, Whip in My Valise and Beat My Guest sung by a leather-trousered and bare-chested Adam, the sense of a band pushing the boundaries of punk even further was inescapable. Along with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Ants were unsigned to a record label at the time and they both eschewed the ram-a-lam-a sound that punk was quickly developing into in favour of doomy bass, icy guitars and a pop sensibility. This made them the two most exciting bands around at the tail end of ’77. The writer Stuart Maconie identifies Joy Division as being the first band about which the term ‘gothic’ was used in the music press; but he acknowledges that 80s' Goth undoubtedly began with the Banshees. I would say that Adam and the Ants, with their heavy S&M image, contributed just as much.

Whereas the Banshees signed a long-term deal with Polydor and immediately began a chart career with top ten hit Hong Kong Garden in the summer of 1978, Adam and the Ants released an unsuccessful one-off single on Decca, the puzzling and twee, Young Parisians. Although some of the live favourites were recorded for John Peel sessions, and Whip In My Valise cropped up on the B side of 1979 single Zerox, by the time I saw them play the Lyceum Ballroom that year there were new favourites: Car Trouble, Physical, Kick. But when the band released their debut album on independent label Do It in October 1979, only one of these songs was included and none of the early songs had survived. One number from the set of the Marquee gigs - Dirk Wears White Sox – was present as the title of the LP but absent as a song. The album received a lukewarm critical response and there was certainly a sense amongst many that Adam Ant had missed his moment. Although this was to be proven wrong (the events of the following year – the discovery of Burundi drumming, theft of the band by Malcom McLaren and Bow Wow Wow, reinvention as native American dandy pirate highwayman, world domination - are legendary) there has always been a sense that the wider world has been deprived of the pre-Prince Charming Adam and the Ants.

Which is why the first date, in Brighton last night, of a dozen gigs billed as ‘Performing Dirk Wears White Sox’ was such a joy. Sandwiched between a faithful run-through of that album and a closing version of Kings of the Wild Frontier (“this song means more to me than any other”), Adam and his current Ants treat us to an extensive selection of those punk era numbers. Plastic Surgery (“don’t go sitting in the sun/your face might start to run”) sounds fantastic and the two-minute tango (brevity was always the watchword) of Deutscher Girls reminds how unafraid they were to take musical risks back then. It would be a cliché to say that these songs never sounded better but in all likelihood, with a very accomplished band made-up of a bassist and a brace each of drummers and guitarists, they have probably never been played better: for all their originality, the Ants were a punk band.

Although he jokes about his bouts of mental illness (“I talk a lot of rubbish, sometimes”), Adam himself looks in good shape. And with a nod to the sartorial side of punk, he is resplendent in Seditionaries' Karl Marx shirt to go with his, now customary, Stetson hat. And he is supported by some luminaries from those heady times: Seaford resident Jordan is in the house and when I am being bored in the bar by a drunk, he mentions Theatre of Hate but takes some convincing when I point out that Kirk Brandon is standing right behind him. The rest of the audience is pretty stylish, too, with a smattering of those tell-tale signs of a punk past: Kohl-eyes, Vive le Rock! t-shirts, leather and tartan. Some, however, get the era wrong: there are a couple of white-striped faces and one poor soul in a Stand and Deliver tunic.

The band are on-stage for an energetic 90 minutes and, of the eleven songs on Dirk Wears White Sox, Tabletalk, the saucy Cleopatra, and the humour of Never Trust A Man (With Egg On His Face) stand out as being the most remarkable. But finishing the set with the title track from the next album – the one that launched the Ants’ pop supremacy - I thought that when the band returned to the stage it would be to perform more of those chart hits; but with further proof of the quality of those earlier songs, they encore with deafening versions – Ant is now a third guitarist - of Zerox and Physical, two more numbers that never made it onto that debut album.