Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Who's 'It's Hard' - reassessed after 36 years

Designed by Richard Evans; released by Polydor/Warner Bros
Why is one of The Who’s most diverse, most accomplished albums, so unknown and so often disregarded? Perhaps because it wasn’t understood in the time it was released in. Townshend was decidedly out of favour with rock’s self-appointed literati who saw the band as a middle-aged rock stadia irrelevance. Yet listening without prejudice reveals some of their best ever songs; songs with relevance then and arguably even more now. Who, in the realm of popular music at least, has ever tried to take on the subject of manhood (‘A Man is a Man’) and successfully captured the absurd expectations, contradictions and, sometimes, quiet bravery that it can encompass? ‘It’s so hard’, as a line in the title track notes, to be true to yourself, to be honest, to be consistent. 

Perhaps if men (and this is a man’s record) could adopt Townshend’s advice in the song ‘Cry If You Want To’, then failure could really be success. This track is part male rock bombast (check out the sonic guitar solo) and part emotional advocacy. Cry, because your childhood illusions have been destroyed – as we now know Townsend’s were – and the sloganising political simplicities of adolescence cannot capture global complexities. In a further example of the song-writing thread running through this album, ‘I’ve Known No War’ contrasts the then (and still) very topical abhorrence of nuclear weapons with experiencing war, and in whose wake The Who and others railed against the very notion of gratitude for past sacrifice. This song (and ‘The Green Fields of France’) should have found a place amongst the war memorialisation that recently marshalled the masses in an echo of 1930s regimes but with even less historical or political context. There are a few non-classics too, though the danceable 'Eminence Front gets close while ‘Cooks’ County’, ‘Dangerous’, etc. ain't filler. One of the most extraordinary tracks is the short but overwhelming ‘One Life is Enough’. It could have been an imagined Townsend/Lloyd-Webber partnership in its stagey-ness, but is almost operatic in the lyrical and vocal ambition that Townshend-Daltrey bring to bear.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

England doesn't deserve to win

For those who insist that sportspeople just want to practise a profession that has nothing to do with politics, and that politics should be kept entirely separate from sport, consider this. As “England”, the football team, exited the World Cup last night, one of the many overpaid football gobshites who substitute verbal diarrhoea for clarity of speech, told 37 million ITV viewers that, despite losing, they had done “the nation” proud and that “the nation” will honour their achievement etc etc. Be in no doubt that the main match commentator, Clive Tyldesley, was being archly political in his propagandist nonsense, whether he quite realised it or not.

There is no nation called England. The nation that he was mixing it up with was one that rejoices under the internationally recognised, legal, title of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. That’s the UK, for short, not Britain and most certainly not England. Only the spatch-cock nation that is the UK could concoct a situation where it doesn’t have a national football team. Instead three constituent countries and one “province” (Northern Ireland) compete against each other on the international football stage as if they are nations.

Of course nations are subjective things, some exist only in the fact that some people feel an affinity to them, whether a “nation” has national independence, statehood, or not e.g. Palestine, Kurdistan etc. In the same sense Scotland is arguably a nation: there are enough Scots who profess to be Scottish (whether they actually want their country to leave the UK or not). The Welsh ditto, most of whom most definitely do not want to leave the bosom of the UK family. Northern Ireland is most definitely not a nation, nor can you give the term 'country' to an artificially concocted place that nearly a century ago was carved out of Ireland to appease a then overwhelming majority who wanted to continue to politically identify with the British state against the wishes of a minority who identified with a nation called Ireland.

That leaves us with the “nation” that the ITV football commentator may have thought he was referring to:  England. England has no political or governmental status, within the UK or internationally. Unlike Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, it has no government, no formal national apparatus. There are laws that apply only to the territory of England, and there is definitely a legal corpus known as English law. But that’s it.

At the start of the match you could hear the Russian stadium commentator, whose serial verbosity periodically interrupted every live World Cup game, say “and now the English national anthem”. The England football team almost sung along as they once again appropriated the UK’s turgid national paen to political quiescence and anti-democratic sentiment. There is no English national anthem. How could there be? ‘English nation’ is an oxymoron. Despite the proliferating born-again Cross of St George enthusiasts, whose empty-headed embrace of the ultimate imagined nation has boomed since England’s second greatest World Cup performance (1990), and a little thing called Brexit (2019?), there aren’t many English men and women who have a clear idea of what their nation actually is. There was no national ambiguity in Zagreb last night though among the fans going ape-shit in a nation of 4m born out of sectarian horror just two and a half decades ago.

If you cannot unavowedly name your nation, then it doesn’t exist (yes, it’s true, a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if nobody is there to hear it). If, like Tyldesley, your nation is a confusion of England, Britain and, I suspect, some half-cocked rewriting of wartime history, and the role of a few German royals and a half-American half English toff called Churchill in it, then maybe this doesn’t matter. But the reason why people get killed in your name without anybody you elect having any constitutional authority over it, and why the tiresome parade of unelected aristocrats propping up the head of state and her church, continues is because the “English” can’t tell their national arse from Rice Krispies. God Save Us indeed.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Prisonaires Live at the Electric Palace, Hastings

“Is this a supergroup?” asked a friend of mine as we took our places last night in the third row of this tiny, historic, yet barely half-full Hastings cinema. If about 250 years of combined experience playing with some of the most important western musicians of the 20th Century fits the bill, then The Prisonaires are definitely a supergroup. While not household names, any blues, jazz-rock, folk, or rock enthusiast will understand that these gentlemen were pivotal to some of the most ground-breaking music of the 1960s and '70s. Yet there were plenty of empty seats in a venue that only has 48 of them.

Acoustic guitarist and leader of the band, Alan King commented wryly that scheduling a gig during an international football tournament is always a disaster. But can it be that south-coast music buffs preferred staying at home to watch telly in the hope that Argentina would defeat the French, than attending a gig of this quality? When The Prisonaires finished their set a member of the audience stood up and shouted that it was the finest gig he’d seen in Hastings in years. It was one of the finest gigs I’ve seen anywhere in years.

Alan (left) with Bobby Valentino (fiddle), Les Morgan (drums) and Tony Reeves (right,bass)

Musical impresario, Alan King was a doyen of the famed 12 Bar Club, the ‘60s Soho music venue that gives the name to Dr King’s ‘12 Bar Music’, the platform for this and for some forthcoming Electric Palace gigs. King told me outside the Gents – the Electric Palace is so small that the toilets are never far away – that he is lucky enough to have played with his favourite guitarists, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, and his favourite singer, Miller Anderson. For many years King also played with his favourite songwriter, Alan Hull (of Lindisfarne).

The aura of Graham and Jansch hung over proceedings as King opened the set riffing on the rite of passage folk guitar tune, ‘Anji’. What the advance publicity promised would be a hybrid of The Pentangle and Can, “with a touch of Miles Davis’” jazz-rock-funk fusion, was underway. ‘Anji’ went from sounding like The Pentangle were performing it, to something with a lot more attitude. Almost like Fairport Convention’s ‘A Sailor’s Life’, but lifted beyond even that wonderfully free-flowing, folk-jazz hybrid  However I couldn’t detect the influence of Can on this or on any of the other tunes The Prisonaires performed last night. It was undoubtedly an eclectic set though, and The Prisonaires have certainly embraced Can’s determination to kick against the musical pricks.

What happened on ‘Anji’, and throughout the gig, was a superannuated jam session without the tedium that that would normally imply. Each number, often only loosely based on professed connections to an original tune, has a distinct concept behind it that’s usually conceived of and initially worked up by Alan King. It might be a radical reworking of a known tune or the fusing of diverse tunes and elements together – the second number was inspired by ‘Sketches of Spain’ era Miles but went all over the place. King communicates with some band members via SoundCloud (“or just by text”, grinned guitarist Paul Baverstock). Rehearsals are live. Some band members, like the audience, may be hearing a number for the first time. To carry this off you need musicians of a very high calibre and, as importantly, imagination.

Alongside King in this endeavour last night were virtuoso fiddle player Bobby Valentino, who at 64 is one of the youngest in the band. Valentino was in The Fabulous Poodles, worked extensively with The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and has played with Dylan, Knopfler and Petty. He is part Stephane Grappelli, part Jean-Luc Ponty, but is mostly just himself. 

Bobby Valentino

On electric lead guitar was Paul Baverstock. Paul, who also spoke to me outside the Gents, said that he was in the celebrated London band that nearly made it big in the early ‘80s, A Bigger Splash. Their first single, ‘I Don’t Believe A Word’, was produced by Sting who also, with Eddie Reader, sung harmonies on it. It made it to the influential BBC Radio 1 review programme, ‘Roundtable’, but had the misfortune of being followed by Prince’s ‘Kiss’ which, Alan said, blew everything else out of the water that week (or pretty much that decade). Last night Paul’s impressive pedal affects assisted him in alternating between a blues-inflected rock guitar sound that often echoed Dave Gilmour, and being a Hammond organ virtuoso. Paul was loud for a small venue but was darned good. 

To his right in the all-star line-up was Tony Reeves. Tony has a strong jazz feel to his impressive electric bass playing; hardly surprising given that he was founder member of fusion band Colosseum and later joined Curved Air. Like Alan, Tony started out on the folk circuit. He’s on Davy Graham’s first two albums. A few years later he joined John Mayall’s celebrated Bluesbreakers, along with Mick Taylor who a few months later replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Reeves has also played with, and produced, John Martyn and is the bassist on a Sandy Denny LP. By contrast, as a Pye Records’ plugger in the mid-60s, Tony promoted, and then played on, Tony Hatch’s ‘Sounds Orchestral’.

Les (drums), Tony (bass) and Paul (guitar)
In the centre of the stage, and often, my friend observed, making sure that the whole thing held together, was drummer Les Morgan (who’s performed with leading UK blues artists Alexis Korner and Jo-Anne Kelly, and with singer Chris Farlow). Les isn’t musically ostentatious like Paul, but, as good drummers often do, provides backbone (and flair) when some of the showmen occasionally threatened to take proceedings off on too conflicting a set of tangents. Alan King told me that the band also normally features Mike Paice (a Jools Holland sparring partner) on sax and harmonica, who, to King’s surprise given the unusual combination of instruments, gels successfully with violinist Valentino.

Among the most interesting musical adventures of the night was a number influenced by Miles Davis’ darker funk-fusion phase that also informed its title, ‘It’s About That Movie Time’; and a latin jazz excursion based on a number by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. In something of a preview of his own forthcoming set at The Electric Palace on 21 September, King took the band on a further musical diversion: ragas. He found suitable accompaniment from Valentino, before Reeves and Baverstock somehow worked out their place in the evolving mix. The Prisonaires' ‘raga rock’ is wholly its own thing, and has been a decade-long musical preoccupation for King. No easy nod here to George Harrison, The Byrds or even L. Shankar. The September gig by Dr King, possibly accompanied by some other members of The Prisonaires, will be well worth seeing.

Getting in tune? Les, Alan & Paul

The closing number was introduced by Alan as a fusion of two pivotal Jimmy Webb songs: - “the greatest anti-war song ever written”, ‘Galveston’, and the “greatest love song ever written”, ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ – but without the words! This was an extraordinary musical idea successfully realised: you could hear the trace elements of both Webb classics in the heady mix.  

On a sweaty night out in Hastings some thirty odd people had experienced a real treat, and they rightly gave the band a rapturous response. Cries for an encore were understandably resisted though as the band, tired and thirsty, had done what they set out to do – whether Can were in the house or not.   

Friday, February 9, 2018

Labour's forgotten the 100th anniversary of working class men getting the vote

The Labour Party has forgotten that it's also the 100th anniversary of working class men getting the vote, all of them. In 2018 Labour is saying that the fight for women's equality still goes on, but has a problem saying that the fight for class equality must continue too. 

Yet ironically today's Labour Party, under a pro-Brexit, left-wing leadership, has no problem getting liberal middle class support. It's the (white) working class (who are often pro-Brexit) that Labour is still struggling to reconnect with. Without them Labour won't win the next General Election. 

Unless Labour can somehow rediscover its class credentials throughout Britain without alienating the metropolitan middle class, the Tories will win again. This requires being progressive on tax and social justice, tough on getting British workers into employment and reducing immigration, and asserting a UK identity that’s inclusive in terms of class as well as gender, sexuality and ethnicity. 

Building a broad class base is good democratic politics. For most of its history Labour has understood that this, rather than narrow sectarian interests, are what brings it power. It can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, propose class war. However Labour didn’t lose elections because it talked about and tackled class inequality. 

Addressing this subject now could bring back some of the badly needed white working class voters who didn’t back Labour at the 2017 General Election, despite Jeremy Corbyn having long been a Brexiteer.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dubai déjà vu all over again

I took the Dubai Metro for the first time, past hundreds of towers, many familiar, some not, standing proud like brazen priapic shrines to pure power. When I last visited here three years ago, the Metro was still under construction. It is better than I thought it would be, and would be a thrilling ride, I thought, at night when the megalopolis is all lit up and passengers can cheaply gawp at the utter presumption of it all.

I was messaging my oldest friend about the changes and trying to convey the wonder of it all, although she’s been back more recently than me. We lived here for a couple of years about a decade ago (when I began this blog), and so the Metro seemed to me like progress indeed. Yet inside I still felt a certain dread. I couldn’t really believe that just getting to the nearest metro stop to the hotel would make life that much easier, not when it’s 100 degrees in the shade and I have a long track record of getting directions or locations wrong. I was also busy reliving some of the worst moments from when I lived here, and not just transportational ones.

I was a long term resident of Deira’s Hotel California, from where I frequently checked out and, after many false starts over three to four months, did finally leave. The visceral feeling I was getting now was about powerlessness, and this goes very deep and has been the product of some therapy in recent years. This time round though the transport hassle at least would be different, no? 

I mean, just outside the new metro stop is a taxi rank. After waiting in the blazing sun with many other people and with few taxis passing by, I think let’s at least get the bus part of the way. Warned by other passengers of the full force of the authorities’ power to give on the spot hefty fines for those lacking a pre-paid ticket, I get off the bus at the next stop, despite being weighed down with luggage. This must surely have helped get me closer to a hotel located, Google tells me, somewhere in al-Mankool near Bur Dubai. The latter was the area that my friend and I eventually ended up living in when the work visa finally came through via a circuitous route that involved frequent buses to Abu Dhabi’s National Media Council. Laysh? Don’t ask.

I got off and walked on in the direction of Satwa, breezing, well by this stage stumbling, past Mankool before eventually realising I had gone too far and that was why Google Maps was telling me the distance was in fact getting greater. A taxi driver pulls up after I reverse direction. I am literally dripping. He is a pleasant guy, Iranian...but no can do, he’s finished his shift and he’s heading home, well not quite, but back to his accommodation, in the other direction, the one that I was previously heading in. He gives me exact, and believable, directions for the hotel. No distance at all in most international cities, but out here, even in early October, it ain’t easy. 

Arriving at the desk I am embarrassingly making the counter very wet, periodically mopping up after myself in between sips of the smallest complimentary glass of fruit juice I have ever been given. Turns out I am at the wrong hotel. Right name but not quite the right location. I am actually meant to be staying in the one in Bur Dubai. Oh yes. I remember now. I mean I didn’t book it, but the conversation about the area that we knew well comes back to me. I then remembered leaving the metro stop, al-Faheedi, and seeing the sign for Bank Street (Khaled bin Waleed St that is) outside the once (and still probably) notorious York Hotel, whose bar was the location of the most brazen female whores I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. I remember thinking ...hmmm, Bank St…..then the faint memory connection was gone...the wires fizzled out.... Google Maps was telling me "no"…and I didn’t seemingly have the ability to focus on the instincts. I am told that it’s a mark of victims of abuse that they’re often in a constant and very heightened sense of alert. Sadly this doesn’t seem to apply when they’re broiling and getting instinctive messaging about their location.

So the receptionist in the wrong hotel gets a guy out front to hail a taxi and we head off back to the metro stop and take a right opposite the York Hotel, and a short way down, walkable, even in this heat, if I’d checked with the hotel before arriving. As the taxi cruises past, in order to do a U-ee (how do you spell that?) I wanted to cry, not for the first time today. Ten years ago I used to just get angry, usually with taxi drivers who couldn’t fight back. Now I just turn on myself. Perhaps quite rightly. I mean I did fuck up, didn't I.

Before Mohammed and I have completed our tour of the numerous facilities of my compact but actually very pleasant room, I fess up to him (having furtively checked my wallet before we got in the lift) that I have no (small) notes. He really doesn’t care. I’ll remember to find you, I said, after shaking his hand for the second time before he'd finished his routine. And I will, and maybe he really isn’t that bothered. Not everyone does everything just for the money. He takes pride in his job, as does the “boy”, for that is what they call them in these parts, who later came and brought a sheet, changing it for the thick duvet that all 4 and 5* hotels all over the fuggin’ world give u, even when the AC isn’t necessarily turned up to polar. He too takes pride in his work. When I complete mine, I tear it apart. Another classic symptom, they say.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Folkstack Lightnin' fire up The Rodmill

Folkstack Lightnin’ are a newly-formed electric folk and blues trio, specialising, as their name suggests, in English folk and American blues music. That in 2017 you can walk in to The Rodmill (Flaming Grill) pub in Eastbourne on a late Saturday afternoon, stumble down the opposite end from the football, and find singer Vanessa Grove, guitarist Kelvin Message and guitarist/singer Neil Grove performing songs as varied as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Dream A Little Dream’ and ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ is nothing short of incredible. These three are dedicated to their craft, preserving the best of what the British music scene has long discarded, affirming these songs’ value for the initiated, and, they hope, converting a few along the way. 
Kelvin gets it on
While the electric guitar-led RnB standards they perform were once the standard fair of aspiring white boy blues-rock bands in Britain, these days they’re rarely heard in pubs that put on live music. Their interpretation of ‘Dust My Broom’ fell somewhere between the Robert Johnson original and the more renowned Elmore James' cover. On many of the blues numbers a great interplay often ensued between the old pro Kelvin on rhythm and the solo pyrotechnics of young guitar gunslinger Neil.

Neil’s vocal delivery is maturing too, even if the salaciousness of some of the old bluesmen’s lyrical preoccupations can jar a little. An up-tempo song like Muddy Waters’ ‘Satisfied’ totally cut through though, especially when it allowed the dueling boys to get almost funky on the instrumental parts.

Neil 'Blues Boy' Grove

Vanessa: folk diva

Folkstack Lightnin’ also dusted off a few, more contemporary, folk-rock numbers: Jethro Tull’s ‘Mother Goose’, Horslips’ ‘Trouble with a Capital T’, and Fairport Convention’s sublime ‘Crazy Man Michael’. An unexpected, and impressive, jazz-inflected vocal detour occurred when they performed the 1920s song later covered by The Mamas and Papas, ‘Dream a Little Dream’. An inspired idea was to fuse Blind Willie McTell’s folk-blues take on ‘St James Infirmary’ with the jazz song, ‘Summertime’, performing the latter in a blues vein and with vocal duties passing from Neil to his Mum, Vanessa.  

The traditional folk songs the trio performed are hardly ever heard outside of the few folk clubs left in the UK, and even there it is unlikely that you would find them sung with such passion. On these numbers Vanessa essentially takes over the show, with the boys providing a relatively gentle accompaniment to her stellar vocals. Among the performances that especially stood out were ‘All Things are Quite Silent’, ‘Sheep Dog, Black Crook’; ‘Ramblin’ Sailor’, ‘The Shearin’s Not For You’, and, the performance that nearly took my breath away, ‘The Lowlands of Holland’. This song has an illustrious pedigree, interpreted by Sandy Denny and Steeleye Span among others. Vanessa sung it with force and no less feeling. Its popular folk theme of being forever wedded to a lover killed in their prime was somehow injected with fresh vigour, before Vanessa militantly ripped into playing the spoons as the boys played the song out. The penultimate number, this could have ended the show. It certainly got the strongest response of the set, with some clapping even discernible from among those who’d only come in for the footie.

They finished their performance with ‘(What shall we do with a) Drunken Sailor’ in an effort to reach those parts of the pub that other, less familiar, songs cannot reach. Now, if they were closing their set at midnight with such a rousing number, just imagine the audience response then.

For my profile of musician and guitar tech Kelvin Message, click on this link 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lessons from Death Row

“The most precious thing you have is what you cannot hold in your hand” is a paraphrase of something Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) wrote about the power of mind over circumstance. Philosopher, poet and resident of Death Row, San Quentin, Steve is one of the contributors to an exhibition of art and words at Sun Pier House in Chatham, Kent. In fact all the contributors are awaiting execution at the infamous Californian state prison.

I went along because my partner is curating an art and text online project on the subject of death and related matters. These guys though are trying to transcend the apparent horror of solitary confinement under a regime where every day could be your last – and many of them have been living this life for 20 plus years. Through art, poetry and philosophical observation they are finding calm, meaning, even redemption, to use one of Steve’s words about a fellow ex-Cripps gang member whose life was terminated ten years ago.

Some have found that an overt spiritual relationship with Christ has helped them come to terms with their daily struggle. Others, like Steve, have a looser, philosophical connection with Christianity, seeing themselves as on a journey of personal transformation that the emotional denial of their life on the outside made impossible but that solitary confinement makes necessary. This doesn’t mean that he thinks we need to junk all our past experiences. The things that cause us shame are part of who we are and we would not be the person we are without them. This resonated with me. It wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t feel that to have murdered someone is wrong – self-evidently part of his redemption was very much about accepting that. It does mean that if we have been wronged, been a victim, as many who go on to wrong others are, then this will have shaped us. For the most part the impact may be negative, perhaps, but we may also have found what he calls an inner light to illuminate our darkness (see below). I was moved by this, even if the light sometimes shines less than brightly. A wisdom engendered as a survival mechanism perhaps, but not less wise for that. 

Some haven’t lost their sense of humour either. Gallows humour abounds in the available San Quentin cookbook, subtitled “Your Last Meal?”, the result of how inmates dreamt up ideas to “re-cook” or “re-present” the appalling food they are served up.

Some of the art seems to reflect the past lives of some of the inmates, voluptuous female figures are a repeated image. In part this is inevitable among isolated men, but there seemed to be more going on than that. 
Luis Maciel's artwork

Some of the art is highly skilled, like Keith Loker’s incredibly precise use of the stippling technique (millions of pencil dots) to evoke an American dream car. Another of his drawings, ‘A Mother’s Thoughts’, had the accomplishment of a professional illustrator. Perhaps he is the boy, depicted in the mind of this elderly looking woman, running on a beach. Another part of the depiction is a grave, her own maybe, or most likely his. Another Death Row inhabitant, Jerry Frye, wrote of his pride that his paintings were seen by his parents before they died. He presumably wasn’t.

A painting by Anthony Oliver
I recommend seeing this show. If you can’t, then check out the website set up by the charity ArtReach, which was founded by the artist Nicola White to promote the work of the inmates. It’s a beautiful space, Sun Pier House. The work and wisdom of these men is glimpsed either side of large windows affording views of swans swimming amidst the old dockyards. 

Sun Pier House cafe
Perhaps it’s fitting that the artists in residence on Death Row, San Quentin haven’t yet made it to the community centre’s official gallery, currently showing impressionistic slices of nature by Medway artists. The inmates’ work is positioned on walls next to dining tables and behind seating in the café. This is in keeping with self-taught artists whose work is from the heart, but it also sometimes made it difficult to fully appreciate the work amidst the mundane chatter of locals enjoying tuna sandwiches. This was also a very English problem of public displays of emotion (engendered by some of what you see and read), and wondering how others might judge you for it. 

In San Quentin, wrote Steve Champion, you daren't question somebody's "phantom face" (see his typed text below) because prisoner code tells you not to compromise another inmate's emotional space. We, however, are free to do so, but perhaps we don't dare either.

Steve Champion