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, Lines, 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.