Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Kicking Out at the World

It seems to be the current and popular view that John Lydon, the one-time anti-Christ and Sex Pistol, has undergone a rehabilitation, that he is now a reformed and respectable character. His recent interview with Piers Morgan on primetime, mainstream television saw a cuddly, joking John willing to play the game: he was happy to field the obligatory sentimental questions and be led to the brink of tears over the loss of his mum and his friend, Sid Vicious. It ended with Morgan playfully accusing Lydon of being a nice bloke, these days.

The probable truth is that he was always an affable character - his abrasiveness simply a defence mechanism. He was a teenager when he joined the Sex Pistols in 1975 and, within a couple of years, he found himself to be a public enemy, an immoral influence on the nation’s young. The words of a Libertines' song - “the boy kicked out at the world/the world kicked back a lot fucking harder” - come to mind. It is little wonder that he quickly developed a hard, spiky shell and a reluctance to engage with the media or any authority.

The irony of being condemned by those moral guardians of the 1970s, Parliament and the BBC, is surely not lost on Lydon. Recent revelations about the sexual practices of senior politicians and television personalities tell us that it was the likes of Johnny Rotten who were the ones with a strong moral compass. His railing against power and institutions, informed by his working-class Catholic upbringing, and his oft-expressed distaste for hypocrites and liars, make a lot more sense now.

Lydon is, of course, a survivor and his second band, the sublime Public Image Limited, arguably invented post-punk: the first three LPs the band made are still quite extraordinary to listen to for their experimentation and originality. With different line-ups into the 1980s and 90s, they settled for a more accomplished rock sound that brought success but less musical plaudits. The band then underwent a twenty-year hiatus – which Lydon filled with an autobiography, Sex Pistols’ reunions, reality television and butter advertisements - before re-emerging in 2012 with earlier members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds and new addition, jazz bassist, Scott Firth. Their LP, This Is PiL, was enthusiastically received for its post-punk, prog and reggae leanings.

Since then, the band have been gigging regularly and Lydon has written a second autobiography, Anger Is An Energy. Last year, I saw him promoting that book at the De La Warr Pavilion and, much as I enjoyed the evening, it seemed wrong to be in such a great venue listening to his life story rather than his music. Last night, he returned to Bexhill with PiL to put that right and commented that the book we purchased a year ago has probably make a good doorstop in the interim. I am sure it was a joke, like his comment that he had lived down the road in “far-superior” Pevensey Bay for a while as a kid.

Where Lydon seems happiest is on stage making music. It is easy to forget how remarkable his voice is, ranging from his familiar North London nasal whine to the deep bellow of a demented preacher and often both within one line of a song. The first two tracks on new album What The World Needs Now, Double Trouble and Know Now, were the set openers last night and they perfectly displayed his peculiar talent for hysterical, accusatory ranting. If the opening was frantic, it soon settled to a more thoughtful pace with a terrific version of one of their best songs, Poptones –“I can’t forget the impression you made/you left a hole in the back of my head” - from the ground-breaking Metal Box album, underpinned brilliantly by Scott Firth’s looping and spiralling bass. Lu Edmonds guitar work was inspired throughout and its piercing discordance illuminated the centrepiece of the set, an epic version of 1979’s Death Disco. There were also mid-period PiL treats with versions of Disappointed, The Body and This Is Not A Love Song.

A friend who had seen PiL a couple of years ago said that it was one of the loudest gigs he had been to and, as the evening wore on last night, the volume seemed to be increasing. By the time the set concluded with Religion, a savage attack on the world's faiths, I could feel Firth’s electric stand-up bass in my sternum and, as the song climaxed with Lydon chanting “turn up the bass!”, I could sense my scalp starting to tingle. The band’s two most iconic songs were saved for the encore: they returned to the stage with the rumble of first single, Public Image, and finished with the closest they get to a terrace anthem – “anger is an energy!” – the 1986 hit, Rise. The band seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the evening and lingered on stage as Lydon introduced them – pushing drummer Bruce Smith upstage - to the crowd’s appreciation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

This Must Be The Place

I could persuade none of the kids to go to the allotment with me to dig up some leeks and the last row of potatoes. It was a damp late afternoon and a chill air was also making its presence felt: they were staying firmly put. Arriving back as the day was fading, the sight of the lit interior from outside told me why I had been out alone. I didn’t blame my kids for wanting to stay in – they were curled up on the sofa in the warm embrace of home. Now that autumn is here, I too am disinclined to stray any distance from home. Mind you, I have always been something of a homebody; I have done a bit of travelling but I lack a certain wanderlust.

When it comes to travel, I am a product of my parents: a mum, for whom moving from a small Lancashire mill town to London was such an adventure that she barely travelled anywhere ever again – she never went abroad in her whole life - and a dad who travelled extensively during the Second War but, on returning home in 1945, said he’d seen more than enough of the world to last him a lifetime, thank you very much; he never left these shores again.

It was probably the warm glow of the lampshade through the window that got me thinking of the pull of home. In the version of This Must Be The Place (Na├»ve Melody) from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense film, Talking Heads’ David Byrne sings, “Home is where I want to be/pick me up and turn me round”, all the while swaying onstage with a symbolic standard lamp. Sometimes we need to be away from home to appreciate that is where we belong. The desire to go home can also be overwhelming: at the heart of William Golding's Lord of the Flies Ralph, the leader of the marooned boys embattled by heat, imagined beasts and the others’ betrayal, gazes out to sea in a momentary memory of winter at home: “behind the cottage there was a sort of shed and you could lie up there, watching the flakes swirl past…you could go indoors when you were cold and look out of the window, past that bright copper kettle…”

We also know that sometimes it is better never to leave in the first place. In Dickens's Great Expectations, Joe Gargery visits London and instantly knows where he belongs. He tells Pip, “I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’ meshes…should you ever wish to see me, you come and put your head in at the forge window and see Joe the blacksmith there.” More recently, and perhaps more prosaically, The Clash expressed a similar sentiment: on the cusp of stardom, they sang forlornly on Garageland of “people ringing up making offers for my life/But I just wanna stay in the garage all night.”

Home, though, is not always the one we have built for ourselves and our families. It can be a place or time where we felt most at home. I sometimes think life would be a lot simpler if I could return to the 1970s council house I grew up in and skulk about in the back bedroom listening to David Bowie LPs. In the wonderful Jack Rosenthal-penned 1984 film, The Chain, Leo McKern’s character does manage such a homecoming. The plot follows seven households, each defined by a deadly sin, moving up the property ladder. It begins with a young man moving out of his mum’s Hackney terrace to a rented flat with his girlfriend, and ends with a greedy couple, Nigel Hawthorne and Judy Parfitt, achieving their dream of owning a luxury Knightsbridge home. This home at the top of the chain is being vacated by the rich but terminally-ill McKern who, in a deft cyclical touch, is going to lodge in the Hackney bedroom vacated at the start of the ladder. It is, of course, the house that McKern’s character grew up in as a child, and he is coming home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Golf Between Us

Taking a long, languid walk along the coast between Pevensey Bay and Bexhill in the dog days of the summer holidays, my tranquil enjoyment of the calm sea, the warming sun and the pale blue sky was disturbed. Not by the rattle of the occasional train on the East Coastway Line, nor by families on the beach determined to wring out the last drops of summer fun from a mainly soggy August. What disturbed me was the sound of violence: shouts and blows.

Just past Normans Bay, the countryside above the coastline turns from coarse flat farmland to manicured and modest undulations. And it was from there that the sound – and accompanying sights – were coming. A man, dressed in bright checked clothing, was swearing loudly and beating the undergrowth at the edge of the verdant fairway. That was when I remembered: at this point on the coastal path, a narrow road is all that separates walkers from Cooden Beach golf course. It was Mark Twain who described golf as “a good walk spoiled” and, in my case, it was.

Golf is very popular in the affluent counties of southern England. There are some 30 golf clubs in East Sussex and, with the typical course occupying 120 acres, this means that it dominates huge swathes of countryside and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are guzzled up by the greens and fairways, each day. As a sport, it is not exactly jumpers for goalposts. The resources required to play 18 holes have a massive environmental impact.

The world of golf is now responding to the need to be greener with smarter design so that courses occupy less land and require less water. But it is not the environmental aspect that makes me object to golf. Its popular image as a sport for businessmen – deals done on the course, especially the 19th hole – middle-managers and off-duty policeman is anathema to any liberal-minded soul. It is the sport of the social-climber, the arriviste, the nouveau riche, the petit bourgeois. In the 1980s television series The Wind in the Willows, based on Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian children’s novel, the ludicrous Mr Toad takes up one fad after another; one of his crazes being, of course, golf. But it is in J.B. Priestley’s 1945 stage play, An Inspector Calls, that literature gives us definitive guidance on golf. When the pompous capitalist, Birling, tries to intimidate the avenging socialist, Inspector Goole, by telling him that he plays golf with his boss the Chief Constable, Goole replies drily and simply, “I don’t play golf”.