Thursday, June 15, 2017

Into the Blue

Stephen Black, otherwise known as Sweet Baboo, tells a very complicated tale of the opening number of his set at the Prince Albert pub: it was originally called Wild Imagination and was the title track of the new album; but Moshi Moshi hated it so much they wanted it left off. So Sweet Baboo retitled another song Wild Imagination, but he is playing the original on tour just to spite the record company. I can’t remember the new title of the original song but it was about trying to persuade Black’s three-year-old son to leave the house more and embrace the outdoors. Are you following this?

This deadpan comic explanation is typical of Black’s between-songs ramblings as he tells us about the space bongo - “people have been going wild for the space bongo” - played by multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones and how the band have slimmed down from a six-piece to three since their last tour. To compensate, he says, they have crammed the stage with equipment; as well as the keyboards and guitars Black and Jones have, there is another Jones - Paul - surrounded by more keyboards than Kraftwerk had between them at the Brighton Centre last week. When things go wrong - as they do a few times - it is all dealt with with good-natured forebearence and a lightning quick catchphrase, "ten years in the biz".

There are some excellent tracks played from Wild Imagination that show the sophistication of the arrangements, the simplicity of the sentiments expressed and the emotion of Stephen Black’s voice. The beautiful Swallows, with its plaintive refrain of “Oh, won’t you come back to me?”, is contrasted with the funk of Pink Rainbow; and songs such as Wild Imagination (the newly titled one) and Badminton capture the bittersweet essence of the Sweet Baboo sound from the previous two albums.

There is a trio of songs from those albums: the glorious Swimming Wild and If I Died from 2013's Ships and the sublime Walking in the Rain from The Boombox Ballads, the track that first caught my ear when I saw Sweet Baboo at the Green Man festival in 2015. However, the stand-out song last night was Clear Blue Skies from the new album. Formless and abstract, it rolls along, swelling and falling, with shimmering and mournful guitars underpinning a lyric of hope and sorrow: "let's rise/ into clear blue skies/ far from home/ clear clear blue/ let's not worry about tomorrow".

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Only Human

Gigs in big venues with prices to match are not where I usually find myself but, thanks to a spare ticket and the largesse of a good friend, yesterday evening I was in a very long queue to see Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre. The anti-tout requirement for ID to verify named tickets, coupled with increased security searches in the current climate, meant the line snaked all the way to the rear of the venue; but it was a good-humoured queue and we ended up sharing bottles of Becks with a man from Hamburg and his grown-up kids. Very fitting.

A Kraftwerk performance is not an ordinary gig: seated in orderly rows, all wearing our 3D specs with faces raised towards the giant backdrop screen that dwarfs the band, when I glanced back we looked like a congregation come to worship. Calling Kraftwerk a ‘band’ hardly seems appropriate: arranged in a line across the front of the stage, the German quartet resemble operatives on a production line. And on the far left is the foreman, the septuagenarian Ralf Hutter, the only remaining original member since Florian Schneider stood down in 2008.

Having never seen Kraftwerk perform before, it was thrilling to experience those unique sounds in a live setting: the sub-bass was like a punch in the solar plexus and those familiar and much-sampled motifs from Trans Europe Express, Numbers and others were a joy to hear. I was delighted that all bar one of the tracks from 1978’s The Man-Machine LP were played: the title track, Spacelab, The Model, the beautifully evocative Neon Lights and The Robots make this, in my view, Kraftwerk’s outstanding album. Others will disagree, I am sure: there was a lot of warmth in the room for the quintet of tracks from 1981’s Computer World, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic, and Autobahn and Tour De France were greeted with cheers.

The 3D graphics were superb and when the curtain reopened for the first encore, The Robots, the band had been replaced by animatronic doppelgangers. Ralf’s, obstinately not programmed in the same way as the other three, stood motionless for the most part and only came to life sporadically to throw some limited shapes. When the curtain failed to close at the end of the track, we were treated to the sight of the showroom dummies being manually removed from the stage. It was a timely reminder that, for all Kraftwerk's automative imagery, they are only human and there are people behind this peerless music.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Waving Flags

The Welsh poet Owen Sheers' 2005 poem, Flag, has an epigraph from Christopher Logue's Professor Tucholsky's Facts. It reads:

'Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.'

I am not familiar with Logue's poem but in those four lines he encapsulates the burning need for nationalism that is all-defining for some. Sheers' poem goes on, in a form reminiscent of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, to chart increasing sightings of the Welsh flag from a westbound train. Sheers expresses both pride - "our flag" - and disappointment - "dreams of what might have been" - in his national identity but what is more interesting about the poem is the disparate places he sees the red dragon. We are used to national flags on public buildings - "glimpsed above a town hall" - but Sheers spots them "strung up on bunting...on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym...tied to the side of a SNAX caravan." It struck a chord with me because, not only have I noticed that any lay-by fast food van seems to be obliged to fly the Union Flag as it dispenses tea and burgers to the travelling public, but there seems to be an epidemic of domestic flagpoles in East Sussex.

There are not many villages in my part of the world where there is not at least one national flag being flown from a twenty-foot flagstaff in a front garden. In the centre of Cowbeech there is a cluster of three homes each with Union Flags atop pristine white poles; I am unsure whether this a demonstration of their patriotism or simply to let the neighbours know that, like the Queen, they are at home. In Pevensey, the Union Flags are complemented by many St. George's Crosses and, in Hailsham, the latter has been painted onto the entire end wall of a terrace of houses; this may be a football hangover from Euro 2016 or the owner could just be showing off on Google Earth.

Whether the increase in English flag-flying has been prompted by the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales in the wake of devolution, I am not sure. The spread of British flags could be a response to the fragile state of the Union but it is more than likely an expression of anti-EU sentiment and an affirmation of British identity in a post-referendum age. Whatever the reasons, I have to confess to feeling troubled rather than stirred by the sight of these flags. This is a shame but, their appropriation by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s, and the English Defence League more recently, have tarnished them in my mind.

The flag-flying is not all bad, however. There are a couple of houses that I pass daily where the owners seem to have an ever-changing supply of international standards - each day presents some sort of Boy's Own test in identifying flags of the world. But whilst one house has flown the rainbow flag on the day of Brighton Pride, the other was sporting a 'Trump for President' banner last November, an action that could not even be redeemed by their sympathetic flying of a Hartlepool United flag the day the County Durham team were relegated from the Football League.

Although Wemmick tells Pip, in Great Expectations, that he "runs up a real flag...and cuts off the communication" when he is at home, the practice of domestic flag-flying is something that seems to have been imported from the United States. There, however, the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in American life by a ritual - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" - recited daily in schools and government institutions. Ours is an old country and I think we will never see such widespread displays of national pride because we are a people who are too relaxed and recalcitrant. A pair of flags I enjoy passing by most of all are flown, I am sure, in precisely that spirit and are on display to puncture the whole puffed-up patriotism of domestic flag-flying: in Maynards Green there is a house that has a large Smiley flag at the top of its flagpole and on the road into Battle there is a lonely cottage that regularly flies the Jolly Roger.