Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Meet the new year, hopefully not like the old year

Good riddance to 2013. I could say my discontent with this fast fading year, and for that matter 2012, is all about the poor Middle East, but it isn’t. For the most part genuine popular grievances were expressed in 2011 and, quelle surprise, they met the fearsome resistance of authoritarian states ruled by unaccountable narrow cliques. In Egypt the state’s ruling backbone reasserted itself after the Muslim Brotherhood interregnum. In Syria the ruling clique and their allies are, quite literally, fighting for their lives. Frankly, what else was expected? Oh and Libya was an apparently “necessary” western intervention to prevent a massacre in one city that helped to destroy an already weak state and replace it with the anarchy of multifarious militias. Good decision, western and Gulf leaders. 

No, none of that makes me “hope for a better year” in 2014. If “all politics is local” then all of my preoccupations are personal. I don’t have a runner in the Mid-East race, but I do have some family left in England. Some of it has, tragically, gone belly up over the last 15 months, but a lot of it remains, and some of it is even renewed, revisited and meaningful. So here’s to them (they know who they are), and here’s also to that small, diminishing, but valued, group of friends I have actually seen this year. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wreckless Eric live at the Prince Albert, Brighton

When Wreckless Eric walked on to the tiny stage upstairs at the Prince Albert pub in Trafalgar Street on Monday night no one seemed to recognise him.  At first I wondered if he was an ageing roadie. As he stepped up to the microphone there was no audible acknowledgement from the half filled room. Seeing the smattering of chairs occupied in front of him, Eric observed that he had advised the pub not to put more out as his audience would be better off standing up in order to avoid getting haemorrhoids.

Storming into his first number, which was unknown to me, Eric thrashed his acoustic and sung with angst about a seemingly monotonous childhood. His voice was never technically brilliant, but it is still high up on the emotional register. Everything is intensely personal with Eric. As he explained to the Sussex audience, he is a local boy. He grew up in Newhaven and went to school in Lewes. Despite currently residing in New York where he paints and performs, after many years spent living in France, Eric’s youth obviously still resonates with him and with his writing. Droll humour runs through lyrics stuffed full of personal reminiscences, some of which he sparred about with members of the audience. The upstairs room at the Prince Albert pub is as intimate as a gig can get for both performer and audience. Several times Eric only part jokingly asked people to stop staring at him. 

Eric is best known for his Stiff Records material from the late 70s. Many numbers from that period were played on the night. These included “Reconnez Cherie”, and his biggest hit “Whole Wide World”. Always an intense experience, it lost little by being played solo. Not that Eric Goulden is the kind of performer who could have considered a cosy “Unplugged” groove. On the night many of his songs ended up as a thrashy, noise fest. Playing his acoustic through an array of effects peddles, Eric at times threatened to outbid “Metal Machine Music”, Lou Reed’s “pioneering” four sides of feedback released in the early 70s.

On “Joe Meek” Eric sung the praises of the man he called the inventor of British pop music. Meek is most famous for creating “Telstar” at a recording studio he constructed in his tiny Holloway Road flat in North London. That was just round the corner from a car boot sale where my wife experienced an epiphany after spending 50p on a CD copy of “12 o’clock Stereo” by The Hitsville House Band, Eric’s Americana-sounding, largely French, mid-90s combo. From that album, he performed a powerful version of “Can’t See the Woods (For the Trees)”. Sticking around for a chat afterwards, Eric told us that he is planning to record some songs from that period with The Len Bright Combo, a mid-80s garagey-sounding outfit that he has recently been gigging with again.

Eric’s lyrical references and banter suggest a man whose quest for love and happiness has been a rocky one. Yet he declared to his audience his happiness at being married to his sometime song-writing partner and co-performer, Amy Rigby. He ended his set with one of Amy’s songs somehow spliced together with one of his own, “33s and 45s”. This was largely comprised of lyrics based on classic song titles. It proved a suitable closer for a performer who obviously attracts the older fan keen to reconnect with a much earlier period in British music. Yet there is nothing nostalgic about Eric’s musical shtick, even if his between songs banter at one point found him talking about green double-decker buses.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mandela is dead and so is debate

Nelson Mandela is dead. I feel relieved for him and his family. Nauseated at the often absurd coverage of the event in the UK media. Sad at yet another confirmation that the era of great men has given way to the almost universal reign of the indifferent, the ordinary, the petty-minded administrators of tax revenue.

He was to come to prominence in a very different age. His cause, long before it was made fashionable by pop stars and simple-minded sloganisers, obliged both Conservative and Labour governments in Britain to look to what they thought was a higher national interest than majoritarian politics in Africa. The 1980s version of this debate was used by the left of centre Channel 4 News in Britain to settle party political scores with those, mostly dead or irrelevant, in the Conservative Party who did not worship at the shrine of Mandela. Smug, self-righteous, sanctimoniousness abounds, a chance for people to feel good about what records they bought, what stickers they wore, what demos they went on thirty years ago.

The sin of having equated him with terrorism is once again ritually trotted out, as if it is only a term of abuse and not ever a tactic of politics and of war. To target or threaten civilians or civilian life, to seek to wreck or undermine public stability in order to realise a political objective, this is the stuff of armed struggle. It is what the Royal Air Force did against German cities during World War Two and it is what the armed wing of the ANC began to undertake under Mr Mandela’s command before he was incarcerated. It may well be the action of freedom fighters too. The French Resistance killed not just for revenge but to achieve political goals by spreading fear. That is what terrorists do.

Nelson did not agree with the targeting of civilians. He was arrested before the shedding of civilian blood became more acceptable in ANC circles and before he would either have had to resign or accept responsibility for it. I have heard no debate in the last 24 hours about these issues nor any serious assessment of the wisdom of Mr Mandela in going as far as he did in reassuring business and, effectively, white interests that in office neither he or the ANC would rock the boat that much. The legacy of that “pact” continues to this day.

It is ironic perhaps that people all over the world are so ready to deify Nelson as a secular saint when in their own country they bemoan the fact that democracy is “merely” about one person one vote every 4 to 5 years. Twenty two years after his release South Africa struggles to be even that, given the lawlessness and violence that is the stuff of daily life in some cities and the treatment that can be meted out to striking trade unionists.

If Nelson has one simple and yet rare political legacy to be applauded it is his promotion of inclusion and reconciliation. This from a man who could so easily have pursued narrow, sectional and vindictive interests. He is still revered by regimes and militant groups who have every interest in the slogans of liberation but who usually fail to understand that inclusion is not achieved by the denial of the humanity of the other. Just as he did not dress his cause in a racial colour, so Mandela had no sympathy with the communal politics of many of his sympathisers in the Middle East. These are attributes worth remembering and worth revering.         

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Simple Minds Take Us To The Waterfront

Attending a 20,000 capacity music arena is not really my thing. Last night at the O2 however promised to be a special event. Simple Minds supported by Ultravox. I don’t have a single record in my collection by these bands. I liked “Vienna” at the time, although I usually effect the argument that they were better before Midge Ure took over and the “experimental” John Foxx quit to work things out in his “Underpass”. Simple Minds? I was aware of the earlier stuff being a bit “experimental” too, but by the time they had become the all-conquering stadia behemoth circa their very 80s album “Once Upon A Time”, I was almost violently opposed to them. I actually recall gleefully burning a copy of this album with a friend while its owner looked on horrified. Looking back I feel revulsion at my Nazi-like act and self-righteous assumption that I somehow knew what was “correct”, musically or otherwise.

The three of us arrived at the O2 shortly after Ultravox had hit the stage. Located up in the Gods or, more accurately in arena terms, a long, long way from the stage and with only a sideways view of the band, my normal reservations about such venues were affirmed. Many of the songs were unrecognisable and, although played well, they struggled to fill out the enormity of the venue. When “Vienna” kicked in and Midge sang “This means nothing to me,” it took on a very contemporary meaning. His voice though held up to the song’s challenging chorus and the band performed their best known number with feeling. Apart that is from a rather rushed instrumental passage due seemingly to the fact that the violinist was doubling up on keyboards and literally had to run between the two.

The O2 is a very organised place. There are plenty of places to eat at before the gig and, once inside the arena, punters are well served with bars and toilets. Many fans availed themselves of both in equal, mutually dependent measure, throughout the performances. By the time the Minds came on however I began to shift my attitude to the place and to the gig. The light show was improved several notches, the volume was turned up, and the, yes, stadium sound of the band worked well in this environment. Their opener, “Waterfront”, was very tight and was just the kind of sonic boost needed to get everyone in the mood. There was not an empty seat in the place and you had to admire the crown-pulling power of a band that for far more than two decades have abandoned a strong showing in the singles and albums charts. As Jim and the boys cranked out a pretty broad selection from their back catalogue, the audience genuinely seemed to come together as one (aside from those perpetually off to the bar n’ bogs). “Promised You a Miracle” reminded me of how cleverly the band combined the synth pop of that era with rock swagger. Mr Kerr still has a fair amount of the latter, and from where I was sitting at least (aided by glasses) liked fit and healthy and moved in a pretty sprightly fashion for a man of 54. “Someone Somewhere in Summertime”, new to me, was another standout performance on the night.

However, if truth be told, we were really only there for one thing and for one thing only. To hear “Don’t You Forget About Me” as a belated but highly appropriate epitaph to a lost brother in law, brother, and son, respectively. It had been his favourite and was played to the many, many mourners at the funeral. We had wanted to hear a mass crowd sing it, and sing it at the O2 they duly did. We stood up, arm in arm, and sang along to an anthem that has recently taken on a very personal resonance. My objectivity was out of the window, but who’s isn’t at any time?

The band followed the high passion of that number with a much more subtle and sober, but still emotional, song, “Let It All Come Down”, which captured perfectly our mood and, I think, that of many present. Convenience led us to depart during the first encore as “Alive and Kicking” was very much affirming that both the band and us are. The Minds apparently closed with a medley that took in covers of “Take Me To The River” and “Gloria”.

I am still not sold on rock stadia, but the O2 does it well, and Simple Minds did it very well on the night. I guess we have all come a long way since the mid-80s.