Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Wise Heads

For quite some time now my late night listening has invariably been I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone, the 2017 album by Chastity Belt. Its understated guitar tones and introspective lyrics are perfect for that time of the day when everyone has gone to bed and the house is finally quiet. This year's eponymously titled successor is already set to follow suit as a midnight favourite.

The Seattle four-piece - Julia Shapiro (guitar and lead vocals), Lydia Lund (guitar and vocals), Annie Truscott (bass and vocals) and Gretchen Grimm (drums and vocals) - are actually on their fourth album, the first two being more rooted in the sound of Washington state's Riot Grrrl movement. On stage at Patterns in Brighton last night, coming towards the end of a 19-date European tour, that experience showed as they delivered a brilliant and hypnotic set mainly drawn from this year's release, but with a few diversions back into their third album.

Music magazine Louder Than War called Chastity Belt 'the spiritual granddaughters of the mighty Raincoats' but they have a more accomplished sound than those art-punk legends and on songs such as It Takes Time, Drown and Ann's Jam the harmonised vocals and the delicate guitar interplay between Shapiro and Lund put their sound somewhere between The Sundays and The Durutti Column; and underlining their ability, Shapiro and Grimm swapped roles for Stuck and Apart in the middle of the set.

When 2017's Different Now, probably their breakthrough track, was played towards the end, the crowd sang along to the guitar motif which made Shapiro smile. The song's lyrics are empowering and forward-looking - 'You'll find in time/All the answers that you seek' - but they can also be reflective and, when they sang 'When you were young/Nothing ever turns out like you think' on Elena, wistful; but mostly I was left with the impression that these women have wise heads on young shoulders. They finished the night with Pissed Pants, the new album's final track and the closest they came to rocking out.

Earlier in the evening we were treated to the lo-fi guitar pop of Sad Girls Club, who surprised us with a fun cover of Britney Spears' Toxic. They were followed by Gang, whose half an hour on stage seemed to consist of one song, or it could have been twelve such was the variety of time signatures on offer; they also had a nice line in Monty Python vocals.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

What Presence

There can be nothing more uplifting than the presence of a smiling and laughing Edwyn Collins, 14 years on from a life-changing stroke, on stage in Brighton last night as he and his band ran through a spellbinding set of songs that stretched all the way from Orange Juice's debut single to his current solo album. Despite being left with a physical weakness on his right side and asphasia that has slowed his speech, Edwyn has not stopped making music and performing live; and a happy upside to his condition is that his singing voice is as robust and fluent as ever.

Opening with the up-tempo title track from 2010's Losing Sleep, and following with the punky Outside from this year's Badbea, told us that this would be a rousing evening and the sound was excellent from the start. When your band has as its core long-time writing and recording collaborators Carwyn Ellis (bass) and Sean Read (keys/sax) from Colorama and The Rockingbirds, respectively, and is augmented by Andy Hackett (another Rockingbird) and Barrie Cadogan from Little Barrie on guitars, you know you're in safe hands.

The set quickly dipped back into Edwyn's Orange Juice past with a sublime version of What Presence?! from the band's final LP and there were further treats from that era: that trio of Postcard Records singles from 1980 - Falling and Laughing, Blue Boy and Simply Thrilled Honey - as well as I Guess I'm Just A Little Too Sensitive, the glorious Rip It Up and In A Nutshell from 1982's classic LP, You Can't Hide Your Love Forever. But it was another track from that album that reminded me how tender and sophisticated Edwyn's Orange Juice songs were. Intuition Told Me Part 1 may only be a minute long but it's lyrics - "smiled lopsidedly, decidedly awkward, he asked her" - can melt your heart in that time.

Between the songs from the Orange Juice days and half a dozen tracks from the classy new album - particularly It's All About You and I Guess We Were Young - there were other gems: In Your Eyes, from Losing Sleep, which saw Edwyn's son William come on stage to sing The Drums' Jonathan Pierce's part; early solo single, the rocking Don't Shilly Shally; the poignant recuperation song, Home Again; and, of course, A Girl Like You, which was introduced playfully and with good humour by Edwyn, as every song throughout a wonderful evening had been.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

True Faith

I’ve hardly written about football since I started this blog. Before then, I probably thought about my team as often as men are supposed to think about sex; but these days, when it comes to football, I am the possessor of a long-held personal faith rather than someone who regularly and devoutly practices an organised religion. I’m a bit like that about sex, too. However, I have been prompted to reflect on my association with football because 30th August will mark the fiftieth anniversary of my first match at The Den to watch Millwall. That day, taken by my dad at the age of seven because I had started to express a fondness for the black and white striped shirts of Newcastle United from pictures in the newspaper, we lost one-nil to Leicester City and I left the ground feeling unimpressed by what I had seen; but it was to be the start of a relationship with a club that has at times defined me, has often exhilarated me but has also, on occasions, made me downright bloody miserable.

I am a third-generation Millwall supporter: my paternal grandad began attending matches in 1910 when the club relocated from the Isle of Dogs to a site south of the River Thames near his home in New Cross; he started taking his son to games in the 1930s and my dad would tell me regularly of the great FA Cup run of 1937 that saw Third Division South Millwall defeat Chelsea, Derby County and Manchester City - all First Division clubs – in front of 40,000 plus crowds at The Den before losing in the semi-final to Sunderland.

After that first match in 1969, I went to most home games with my dad (apart from the 1970/71 season when he disappeared for a year) until I started going with my mates in 75/76. That season was also my first as a season ticket holder - something that I continued up until I moved out of London in 2005 – and was remarkable because it was my first taste of success with promotion to Division Two and it was achieved, in no small part, thanks to the contributions of two skilful young black players, Trevor Lee and Phil Walker, who had been signed from non-league early in the season. This was a rarity then and predated West Brom’s ground-breaking trio of black signings by a couple of years; it was a bold and progressive move by the club and sent out a positive message to the local community at a time when the National Front was on the rise.

From the mid-seventies, my dad attended matches sporadically – I think he felt he had successfully handed on the baton of support – with his last game being the final one at the old Den in 1993 before the club moved to a new all-seater stadium a quarter of a mile away. He did get to see them play in the top flight – the day we won promotion to the old First Division at Hull City in 1988 I went straight from Boothferry Park (well, via the pub) to his house and we stayed up until the early hours celebrating – but he never saw them at Wembley. When Millwall finally got to play at the original Wembley Stadium in the Auto Windscreens Shield Final against Wigan in 1999, he was nearing the end of his life in a nursing home; but he was lucid enough to read the programme and look at the photographs I took for him on the day.

These days Millwall never seem to stop playing at the new Wembley and those play-off finals, and the 2004 FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against Manchester United, are probably the peaks for a Millwall supporter. Although, my fondest memories are not necessarily those that resulted in success: I can still remember the names of the whole of the white-kitted 71/72 team and recall the dazzling football of Possee and Bridges that year more than I can remember the ache of disappointment when we missed promotion to Division 1 by a single point at the season’s end; and I’ll never forget taking the lead at Anfield, when we were finally in the First Division, and singing, “We’re gonna win the League”, to the amusement and bemusement of the home crowd.

Of course, there have been more troughs than peaks and for most of us the trials of being a Millwall supporter have not been confined solely to disappointments on the pitch. Travelling to away games, the police assume the worst of you and the inhabitants of every town or city you arrive in seem to want to kill you. I can’t think why. My most intense period of following Millwall away from home was in the 80s: at the end of the decade because we were playing all the big teams, at the start of the decade - when we were terrible - out of a perverted sense of loyalty. There was some sort of badge of honour to be earned from travelling to Plymouth for a night match, arriving late at half-time to find Millwall already one-nil up and then watching them capitulate to three home goals in the second-half before making the long journey back to London; or going to Newport County in January only to dish out abuse to your own disgraceful journeyman players, Sam Allardyce amongst them, who were all kicked out when George Graham took over as manager a few weeks later and saved us from relegation to Division Four; or being one of less than 50 fellow-travellers making the 600 mile round trip to Carlisle for a meaningless late-season game.

Now I no longer live in London, time and money means I only get to a handful of matches a season; and I’m having trouble handing the baton on to the fourth generation. Of my three kids, only my youngest son showed an interest in coming with me to games but his enthusiasm waned. It didn’t help that he started going when we had season after season of relegation battles in the Championship; in fact, he was eight when he first saw Millwall play but a combination of poor form and irregular attendance meant he was eleven when he first saw them win a match. Now he is older, his interest is returning and he says he wants to go this season; he was born in south-east London and, when he has so many peers at school who support Liverpool and Man City only because they are successful, he understands that Millwall means something to him.

We won’t be at the home game on 31st August against Hull to celebrate my 50th year as a Millwall supporter: a lack of forward planning means I’m already committed to spending the weekend in a field somewhere in Wiltshire drinking cider and listening to live music; but we will be at The Den for the anniversary of my second match. That was a couple of weeks later against Carlisle United and it was also the debut of eighteen-year-old Londoner Doug Allder on the left wing for Millwall. He tormented the Carlisle defence that day and created most of the goals as we came from behind in an exciting match to win 4-2 with the crowd roaring in full voice; and as cross after cross came in, a seven-year-old boy, behind the goal at the Ilderton Road end with his dad, was converted.

*The picture at the top shows Millwall supporters on the pitch after the final home game of the 1971/72 season against Preston. News of promotion rivals Birmingham's defeat had led us to believe we had been promoted to Division One. It turned out to be false and Birmingham went on to win their game in hand at Orient and were promoted instead. I am in the photograph at the bottom in the middle facing away from the celebration.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Style and Substance

Without wanting to pigeonhole bands according to their geography - as I have done before - I felt that watching Melbourne's The Stroppies at the Hope and Ruin in Brighton last night they are bound to repeat the sort of success that other musicians from that Australian city are currently experiencing here. With their lo-fi pop melodies wedded to a tight slacker (there's an oxymoron for you) guitar sound, they were a joy to behold and struck up an easy rapport with the audience right from the start.

Rory Heane's skittering drums signalled the opening of Nothing At All from this year's album, Whoosh! and the majority of the new LP formed the set that followed. Dually fronted by bassist Claudia Serfaty and guitarist Angus Lord, their twin vocals are understated and fit perfectly with the choppy rhythms and Adam Hewitt's sparkling lead guitar. Serfaty's basslines are the key to their best songs, particularly on Present Tense and the outstanding My Style, My Substance; and where Lord's 60s garage keyboards feature, such as on Go Ahead, one of a clutch of songs from 2017's eponymous debut album, the songs are lifted to another level.

The band looked as though they were really enjoying themselves and finished all too quickly with Cellophane Car, a long-form Velvets/Modern Lovers epic that has a hint of Subway Sect's Farfisa-tinged Ambition about it. Despite calls for an encore, Lord pleaded that they had no more songs they could play; it struck me that the next number I hear from them will not be played in such an intimate venue.

The promoters, Love Thy Neighbour, had put together a great line-up and earlier we were treated to impressive and powerful trio, Hanya, and the kitsch and quirky Porridge Radio off-shoot, SUEP.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

I'll Be There

At the end of the hottest day of the year, when I should have been outdoors drinking ice-cold cider under a cooling Sussex sky, I found myself in the sweltering city, suffering the suffocating Northern Line and heading for an upstairs room at The Lexington pub on Pentonville Road. There are not many things that could make me undertake such a blood-boiling journey but a triple bill of Vic Godard and the Subway Sect, Callum Easter and The Shadracks is such a pull that I had to be there.

The Shadracks' raw rhythms showed off their Childish Medway roots as they beguiled us with a short, blistering set. Sickeningly young, the trio's three-minute shards of proto-punk showed a knowledge of 20th century noise that belies their years. When they finished with a cover of Alternative TV's Splitting In 2, it sent me straight to the merch stall to buy their LP, where I was harangued by one of their fans who said I should be buying two of their 7" singles, as well; one contained covers of two X-Ray Spex songs, just to underline The Shadracks' punk rock lineage.

Callum Easter is a different proposition altogether: I've been playing his Here or Nowhere LP since it came out on Lost Map records in April and have been entranced by his sparse and ethereal tunes and ghostly vocals. Based in Edinburgh, but hailing from Dunbar, Easter was part of The Stagger Rats and worked with Young Fathers before going solo. He was alone onstage and replicated the fluid forms of his album with accordion and drum machine and, on one song only, guitar. The bass drone of the accordion underpinned each song and the haunting title track was a standout. The songs are dark and intense and, up-lit by a solitary spotlight, Easter struck an austere figure and his incredible set pitched him somewhere between Nico and Suicide.

It was a Vic Godard tweet that first alerted me to Callum Easter after he had supported Subway Sect in Edinburgh late last year and it was Vic that brought him down to London for this gig. Last night, the ever-changing Sect line-up featured, amongst others, Johnny Britton on guitar, Simon Rivers from The Bitter Springs on keys and Vic in a Die Hard Bruce Willis white vest. This was the second time I had seen Vic since his retirement from the Post, and he has never seemed happier on stage - even if he over-exerted himself at times - and the band have never sounded better. This year's brilliant LP, Mums' Revenge, featured heavily: the set opened with Neil Palmer Woz There, on which ex-Bitter Spring Neil read his poem about illness and love, with its heart-rending refrain of 'I'll be there', over Vic's 2017 single Can't Take The Sunshine Away; and I'll Find Out Over Time, Flash The Magic Sign and Inertia were testament to the current strength of Vic's songwriting. To prove that this has always been the case, we also got old favourites Stop That Girl and Double Negative, one of the earliest Subway Sect songs; the line in the latter, 'they want the keys to the city, watch them fumble for the keys to their car', made me think of those incompetent politicians vying to take the most powerful job in the land. When Vic introduced Inertia as 'our Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun', time was running out and I had to set the controls for the heart of East Sussex and leave early to subject myself to the heat of the tube and the haphazardness of Southern Railway.

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, Liines, 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.