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Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, is Doctor Who’s first out, gay companion. In fact she’s the first out, gay, female and black companion. Just laying out the Venn Diagram of her demographic characteristics has been a red rag to elements of the UK press and to some sections of fandom. Being female is conventional and unremarkable for a Doctor Who companion, but Potts’ gender becomes weaponised in culture wars when it coincides with the other categories.

Mackie’s debut was announced on BBC News, and while neither showrunner Steven Moffatt or Mackie herself made a special point of the character’s sexual orientation, BBC News made it the headline to the item. The result was the statement seemed a bit ‘louder’ than the event justified. In turn, the news audience took the announcement of the new character to also be an announcement or ‘promotion’ of her sexuality. Predictably, battle lines were drawn, with flak erupting from at least two different directions. On the one hand there was the tired old conservative mockery against encroaching enlightenment  – ‘If only she were a one-legged dwarf too!’ but also complaints from people who feel the battle for equal representation in the media was won long ago. “Why make such a fuss about it?” On the surface that sounds reasonable.  There’s a question that can be relied upon to occur when an LGBT Pride day happens: ‘Why do you need special day all to yourself?’ Answer: because hetero folk have the other 364. It should be an even playing field. It’s still not. Therefore, events to help define LGBT identity are necessary, and the advent of a character like that of Bill Potts still matters.

For proof of this, witness the number of people commenting on social media that Bill Potts’ sexuality was redundant because she wasn’t the first Doctor Who character to express attraction to their own gender. There’s still work to be done when people either can’t tell or won’t acknowledge the difference between gay and bisexual characters in the show. John Barrowman portrayed Captain Jack Harkness, a 51st Century character who was omnisexual, demonstrating attraction for lifeforms of any or no gender, be they male, female, insect or robot. But the mere fact of his not being exclusively heterosexual in his desires – and the fact that the actor himself identifies as gay – seems to have painted him as by default ‘gay’. In that sense, whilst Bill’s sexuality shouldn’t be ‘a big deal’, clearly for a significant section of the audience it is. What’s interesting is that some of those people are also the ones claiming too much noise was being made about the issue.

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In wider society, LGBT identities are still not fully accepted, and in some ways in the past decade progress has been eroded. Even the relatively small distances traveled have been met with strong resistance. So when voices pipe up too quickly ‘this isn’t a problem any more’, it’s not really sincere.  To those established in the comfort of privilege, each step forward by those with less appears giant, each gradual levelling of the pitch a seismic shift. To dismiss progress in casting diverse roles seeks to undermine these baby steps, painting them as over-compensation, and eventually as a reverse prejudice that should be fought. With heterosexuality still assumed to be the norm, a straight character’s orientation is never announced as such, just taken as read. Previous companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was implied to be bisexual. Unlike Captain Jack, though, who demonstrated his preferences straight away via the story, Clara’s sexual identity was only communicated via hints and winks to the audience. This made it more of an issue than Bill Potts simply talking about fancying a girl she meets in the canteen: it felt cautious, holding back from a possible audience reaction.  By contrast, the matter-of-fact outing of Bill is the sound of someone not making a big deal of it. We will only be able to know it has stopped being an issue at all when a similar future announcement is met with universal silence.

[Less Than] < Divine Comedy

Fuelled by the star power of an A-list ensemble cast, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ was marketed as a comedy of the ‘laugh out loud’ variety, but the truth is somewhat different. Watching it in Sheffield with a multiplex audience, I only heard a handful of laughs, some murmurs of amusement, but mostly silence. No walk outs mind you, Coen Brothers films are never actually badly made, certainly not enough to provoke demands for a refund. There’s a level of craft and artistry at work that will keep their usual audiences in their seats for the duration. It’s just that Coens’ comedy is a peculiar and particular beast. Personally, I’ve found that with the exception of ‘The Big Lebowski’, I’ve gained more laughs from some of their dramas than their avowed comedies.

‘Hail Caesar’ was designed by the Coens as a relaxed ‘fun’ project – they claimed – in the manner of Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’. Set in the same fictional film studio world as ‘Barton Fink’ (1991) it’s an amiable amble through the backlots and sound stages, taking in the artificial worlds of each production, and the foibles of the residents. The film stages set pieces in celebration of golden age Hollywood e.g. a water spectacular with Scarlett Johannson’s knocked up star, a rollicking tap number featuring a closeted gay dancer (Channing Tatum), and a sub-Roy Rogers Western. These sequences succeed on their own terms as spectacle, but they are barely satirised, little of their comedic potential exploited. Of the two funniest sequences, one features studio head of production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) courting approval from a panel of religious leaders for the studio’s Biblical epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ but instead receiving what sounds suspiciously like internet reviewer snark. The other, which earns pride of place in the the film’s trailers, has debonair director Lawrence Laurenz (Ralph Feinnes) struggling to modulate the rodeo drawl of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into the mirthless muttering of his melodrama ‘Merrily We Dance’. These sequences work on their own, but don’t drive the comedy or the film to a climax. Comic potential is leeched away by both the uneven pacing and a refusal to work the audience for laughs. On the EPK for ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the actors talk about their ultimate goal being to make the Coens guffaw. But not enough effort seems to have gone into transmitting the results to the audience. The Coens themselves seem oddly reluctant to get their hands stuck into the dirty business of mining for yuks.

Laying aside possible self-indulgence and a studio willing to let the well-organised and under-budget Coen productions basically make themselves, a gradual change in the brothers’ filmmaking may also be partly to blame. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have developed an aesthetic based on space, stillness and eloquent silence, bracketed by moments of fierce action. This approach flowered most noticeably on ‘No Country For Old Men’. Contrast this with the first visit to Capitol Pictures in ‘Barton Fink’. The omni-present, oppressively detailed sound design and intense performance style works the audience over like a couple of sweaty G Men.  The characters in ‘Barton Fink’ are intense and explosive, like Michael Learner’s ‘bigger, louder, meaner’ studio head Jack Lipnick. Tony Shaloub’s irate producer is burning a hole in his intestine with stomach acid, practically climbing over his desk in agitation at Fink. The characters fill the story like Warner Brothers cartoons bouncing off the walls and hurtling into canyons. Lacking the nervous intensity of ‘Barton Fink’, ‘Hail Caesar!’ doesn’t exploit script, music, editing, sound, or physical performance to that extent. There are no zingers, no lines that explode a laugh. Mannix is the person who would be on the receiving end of Jack Lipnick’s rants (‘Let’s put a stop to that rumour – RIGHT NOW!’), but we don’t even hear a comedy screech emerging from the phone handset to make Mannix flinch, let alone a cartoon hand reaching out to strangle him.

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Whilst ‘Hail, Caesar!’ lacks the correct pace for comedy, the other thing which hobbles it is that Mannix  just isn’t funny. He’s really a dramatic character in a comedy story world. Charged with overseeing the Biblical epic that lends the film its title, Eddie is a pretty Old Testament sort of guy, slapping a starlet in the face for having to extract her from a ‘French postcard situtation’ at the start of the film, then boxing the ears of leading man Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney, giving the Coens the third iteration of his Idiot Trilogy) to knock sense back into his communism-addled skull. Stern and hard-boiled for most of the time, urbane and pleasant only when he needs to be, Mannix is the hub around which the wheel of Capitol Pictures rotates. He’s pragmatic, unknowable and never really makes any mistakes, making it hard for an audience to laugh at or even with him.  A comic lead is usually the most flawed and un-self aware person in the whole film. A walking catastrophe who struggles uncomprehendingly against the forces of nature that trip him up time and time again.  At the very start, Eddie sits in confession and tells a priest that quitting smoking is ‘so hard’ and almost seems on the point of tears. He is clearly talking about something else, presumably the burden of running the studio, but it’s never made manifest in the rest of the story, or Mannix’ behaviour.  He is considering an offer from Lockheed, worrying that his job keeps him away from his family and having a proverbial day from hell. Still, Mannix is often more an observer of events, visiting the separate dramas in different parts of the studio complex, but never really risking anything of his own to solve them. He remains at the end of a phone to the ransom demands of deluded Communist scriptwriter cabal ‘The Future’, despatching Hobie Doyle as his avatar to drag Baird Whitlock back to his wits and his work.

Handing over the resolution of the arch plot to a secondary character is of course a heresy against the storytelling conventions of Hollywood product. However, This also seems to be a result of another trend that has evolved over several Coen films. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have enjoyed using peripheral characters as a Greek chorus to the action. In ‘Fargo’, Marge Gundersson and her husband discuss police work before bed, their humdrum domesticity throwing a strange limelight on the temporary insanity of greed (“And for what? A little bit o’ money”)  that drives the action elsewhere. In a similar way, the CIA men in ‘Burn After Reading’ are left shaking their heads in bewilderment at the lethal, farcical shit show they are tasked with clearing off their desks. The apex of this trend is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in ‘No Country For Old Men’. Always a few steps behind the action, unable to prevent the main actors in the drama from sinking deeper into chaos, he shakes his head and ponders retirement and with it, his own approaching mortality. While this approach has worked in the Coens’ dramas, in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ it sabotages the comedy.

Michael Gambon’s laconic  voice over narration is another tribute to classic Hollywood, but distances the audience from the action even further. His omniscient commentary illustrates the hierarchy on which the characters are arranged, depending on their level of agency. More than once this is illustrated by one set of characters observing another from above. At one point Mannix visits Frances McDormand’s editor, high up above the studio lighting gantries, to watch rushes for ‘Merrily We Dance’. He peers down at the created world of the studio bound drama, further enclosed in the tiny frame of a movieola screen. It calls to mind  the characters in ‘A Matter Of Life and Death’ watching village life from their god-like vantage point in a camera obscura. Seen in that context, perhaps Mannix resembles a middle-ranking deity, walking through his creation and keeping an eye on things, nudging evolution here and there. Meanwhile, Old Testament levels of atomic tribulation await above them all. McDormand gets her neck tie tangled in the editing machinery and almost chokes, jamming the mechanism so that the chilly monochrome of drawing room melodrama blisters into fiery dribbles of melted celluloid, a visual rhyme for how the Soviet sub awaiting defector Channing Tatum could vapourise California.

With the sliding scale of problems  in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ ranging from the macro political threat of nuclear obliteration to Eddie’s struggle not to spark up another cigarette, the choice between shepherding silly, temperamental film folk or taking the cushy gig in a company that just happens to be facilitating the road to Armageddon sits somewhere in the middle; the result is never seriously in doubt. What could have ignited the comedy in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is if the unspoken dread of atomic wrath and pea-witted Hollywood denizens had properly collided. We are denied for instance the glorious sight of Baird Whitlock mustering his best Oscar-bait acting to avert World War III. Having spent a couple of hours in the world of Capitol Pictures, the camera pulls back atop a crane, putting the audience back in a godlike point of view,  reducing the characters to ant-size on a large and lonely planet. Just like the characters, the audience are left to ponder the unknowable motives of the two creators of this world. As above, so below: Coen Brothers comedies, like life, never quite match their trailers.

Adopter Adapter Addendum

If there’s one thing worse than a Luddite, cringing in fear of technological advance, it’s a wide-eyed digital zealot, crowing at the supposed advent of a new paradigm.

Despite being delivered by the ragged, bloody edge of technology, the debate prompted by the arrival of electronic books isn’t nearly so advanced in tone and content as its subject. It’s entirely possible that the rise of ebooks will make traditional publishing more difficult and expensive, in the same way that artists now fight to preserve the one remaining commercial film laboratory that deals in 16mm film prints. But the fallacy is that ebook technology – in fact any digital technology – is immune to redundancy. The overthrow of traditional books is neither inevitable, desirable or even necessary. Why should a new technology automatically mean the death and erasure of the previous generation? Perhaps if the new device provided answers to all the downsides of paper books and greatly improved on their existing virtues, I could see how we could happily go Fahrenheit 451 without any lingering guilt. However the ‘year zero’ approach championed by early adopters never fails to crawl up a handy orifice.

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And old man reading a book, yesterday

Traditional printed media, we are told, is living on borrowed time. The advantages of the latest fondle slab – the IT evangelists have a good line in slang, I’ll admit – are portrayed as self-evident, whilst any defence of existing print media is the mark of self-deception and techno fear. But an ebook doesn’t make print immediately and self-evidently obsolete. Nor does it retrospectively degrade our experience of reading print since it was invented. The device served its purpose in its time and will continue to do so, if not, surely somebody would’ve offered an improvement before now? Walking around my home town, I can see buildings still in use dating from the late 15th Century right through to the present day. Their qualities as architecture and their efficiency of function varies, but they were not necessarily pulverised as soon as people knew how to build in new ways.

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Tolstoy reads so much better like this. 

Ebooks are sold on their compactness, their connectivity with digital media, and the efficient delivery of information. There’s little to argue with there, if data retrieval is all reading is meant to be about. But the experience of reading and of books themselves is more than that, and harder to define in either technological, or commercial terms. Here is where the e-prophets begin to cast stones at unbelievers, making insulting comparisons with quill and parchment. But haven’t we been here many times before? As Victorian buildings still populate our town centres, so earlier technology survives, because it still does the job it was designed to do. Flashback to Judith Hann on Tomorrow’s World spreading jam over the playing surface of a compact disc. No matter how innovations are marketed when they first arrive, faults that we either failed to predict or were mysteriously left out of the sales brochure will surely emerge. If a technology actually works, it can be improved later, finessed and refined. But good design never goes out of fashion. At the heart of good design is simplicity: form follows function. The mug I’m drinking coffee out of hasn’t altered its basic shape for centuries. A paper book is still at heart a very simple and elegant machine to enable reading.

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A (nearly) new format

In the arena of music reproduction, digital downloads have compensated for the fall in sales of physical singles, but at the same time the death of the compact disc has been announced quite prematurely. Meanwhile, vinyl records are actually staging a comeback from their nadir in the mid nineties. Clearly there’s still a market who appreciates media with qualities that digital can’t supply. How can this be when there are cleaner, smaller, faster more efficient methods of delivery sound to your ears? Humans are strange like that. Elsewhere on the planet, in some African countries the preferred medium for music is still the tape cassette, already doubly ‘redundant’ in the northern hemisphere. It reminds us that we bathe in the luxury of planned obsolescence, a river whose current is not so strong however that we can’t swim back upstream if necessary or if it simply makes us happier.

My Public! My Public!

I wrote this many years ago but it still rings true for me. Prompted to post it after my thoughts about encores at the PJ Harvey gig (see below)

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‘More! More! MORE!’ Actually, on second thoughts, don’t bother.

In the back room of a pub, a band have just played their last number. The small audience cheer wildly for a few seconds and then the bottom falls out of the applause as their attention turns to getting one last drink from the bar. Still a few hardy souls are yelling and beating their hands raw: the band catch their breath before they return and launch into another number. Even as they play the room is emptying of people and bar staff criss-cross in from of the stage, collecting glasses as the band work themselves up into a repeat of the frenzy they have just taken forty five carefully planned minutes to achieve. I just hope they call it quits after this one….some hope.

The worst crime a performer can commit is to outstay their welcome. Take one curtain call too many and you could be left basking in a welter of coughing and shuffling shoes, arms spread wide to embrace the retreating backs of your adoring public. Originally, the encore was a bonus that occurred when both artist and crowd excelled themselves, but in practice you will be hard-pressed to find any singer or band who would dare to finish the evening without at least one encore. Of course, it’s the audience who persuade with wild cries and stamping of feet that there is enough juice left in the corpse for a final suck. Like the animal stubbornness which rises in the hearts of drinkers as closing time draws near, audiences can be reluctant to just leave it be; adrenalin, like alcohol, is a strong and addictive drug.

Unfortunately, although both are more effective in a short, fast dose, after a couple of measures it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the law of diminishing returns. Given the choice between forty five minutes of serendipitous brilliance or two hours of reliable, rehearsed competence, many will opt for the latter, in the mistaken belief that they’re getting value for money. It’s become quite common at the end of a gig to hear boos and whistles when no more music is forthcoming, even after a mediocre performance. Never slow on the uptake, bands have absorbed the encore into their manual of reliable pop tactics so that very little encouragement is required to stick a finger down the gift horse’s throat and obtain another song, deserved or otherwise.

Pop music at its best is an intense but fleeting pleasure. That may-fly span is its main asset and the very thing wrecked by bands and audience alike who refuse to kiss the joy as it flies. Conventional wisdom says it takes a transit load of elephantine egos to command a stage and conjure up genius. Any band with an ounce of self-respect would conquer their natural wish to be liked, accept the notion of quality over quantity and so have the strength to shrug off the cries of ‘More!’, but where are these messiahs when the last number has been played and the inevitable robotic baying begins? Most will be on their knees, tearing at their own shroud and selling it off by the yard.

For those in the know, however, the agenda is clear: turn up, get down, get lost.

Civil War Correspondent

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 PJ Harvey, Victoria Warehouse Manchester, 3/11/16

“The woman’s old/the woman’s old and dressed in black…”

Clad in swishing lengths of draped black, a black leather micro skirt and black-feathered skull cap, tonight Polly Harvey cuts a figure that exists somewhere in a venn diagram  which overlaps goth rock chick, voodoo witch doctor and – what’s she probably aiming for – carrion crow. The war reportage of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project took her to Kosovo, scene of the meeting with the elderly gatekeeper in ‘Chain of Keys’, the song which opens proceedings tonight at the packed Victoria Warehouse.

Since the Uh Huh Her tour, Polly Harvey’s last major trawl across venues in support of an album, her appearances have become distinctly hand-picked. Inevitably this means that if you want to see her, it’ll be in fairly large capacity venues. The management of Victoria Warehouse know this too obviously, as the ‘8:15 prompt’ stage time on the tickets comes and goes, people are still streaming in, despite the auditorium being pretty solid from front to back. Bad luck if you’re stood behind someone tall or with a particularly impressive haircut. Meerkat head action and ballet en pointe footwork is required at times to keep an eye line on Polly, particularly when someone raises their mobile phone in benediction to record eyewitness footage that won’t make a bit of sense when viewed the next morning. This kind of thing can drag you out of the spell at a gig, but thankfully the show that follows is so confident and distinctive you’ve little choice but to stay involved. By the end, PJ Harvey has played for the best part of two hours, with no support band.

If you read the publicity for this tour, the names of renowned stage directors, lighting and costume designers might have led you to expect some kind of Pink Floyd multi-media blow out. Or more likely, something in the hinterland of Harvey’s friend and musical contemporary, Bjork. What it actually means is a rock show staged with a spare but pointed sense of theatre. Starting as is now customary, with the band trooping onstage to a martial snare drum beat and saxophone drones from Polly and Terry Edwards, ‘Chain of Keys’ and other songs from  The Hope Six Demolition Project are to the fore in the first half. As the gig progresses, the set list makes sorties back in time, first to Let England Shake, for several songs that have quickly become popular standards in Harvey’s canon. From then, back again to the underrated but pivotal White Chalk.

Slower tracks like ‘Dollar Dollar’ and ‘To Talk To You’ from White Chalk allow Harvey’s voice to expand and encompass the audience in a way that her higher pitched singing elsewhere, subservient to her new mission of documentary song making, perhaps doesn’t. The long term fans welcome the return of vintage songs and along with them, the deep blues moan that she seems to have consciously and permanently abandoned in new material. It’s a mark of just how far Polly has come and her determination to keep moving forward, that when she switches back into old Polly-phonic blues-wailin’ mode, its theatrical nature is even clearer than when she first sang these songs. Harvey relishes the melodramatic howl of ‘To Bring You My Love’, stretching the word ‘love’ into an operatic vibrato so long it’s almost a standing wave. Paradoxically, the oldest song Polly plays tonight, ’50ft Queenie’ suits her new band to a tee, a celebratory thrash by multiple punk Bo Diddley’s, powered by booming multiple bass drums. It’s probably the song that would accompany the opening titles if Nickleodeon ever make an animated series based on Harvey’s rock life.

Arranged to suit the large band full of eloquent and seasoned players, the old songs are infused with new energy, in particular thanks to Terry Edwards, Saxophone Hero. The newest songs give centre stage to sax over guitars, and Edwards’ two spotlight moments on ‘Ministry of Defence’ and ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ bring proceedings to a standstill while the audience applauds his virtuoso Cubist jazz skronk. The punishing sax and guitar salvos of ‘Ministry of Defence’ echo off the walls and the stark backdrop, a trompe l’oeil abstract of tessellated squares, suggesting brutalist concrete architecture seconds away from being demolished by munitions. One stray round already seems to have taken out the traditional drum kit set up and scattered individual components across the stage. These are salvaged by the nine strong band who then use them to reassemble rhythms, held together with syncopated hand claps.

 It wasn’t long after Harvey’s initial success, amid the guitar effects pedal bull market of the early 90s, that her sense of the theatrical came to the fore and allowed her to stand out from her peers. Utilising strong visuals and styling courtesy of Maria Mochnacz, Polly Harvey maintained a protective distance between herself and audience and critics thirsting after autobiographical trauma. When I first saw her perform in 1993 at the Duchess of York in Leeds, Harvey said little between songs and let the music do the talking. Nothing’s changed there, apart from an occasional thank you for applause and introducing the band by name. As she sings, Polly in her inky costume emphasizes the lyrics with precise, carefully chosen gestures and occasional dance moves. In fact not quite dance, it’s almost sign language, like BSL translation inverted to form unreadable subtitles to the action unfolding before your eyes.

The only part of the traditional gig circus that survives to crawl out from under rubble tonight is the encore. Encores are my personal pop bugbear, a ritual that’s long since emptied of meaning. After the show they’ve just seen, I’d have thought the crowd could leave it as it stands, or at least put the effort in and sustain riotous applause until the band are forced to return in order to satisfy them. Certainly they were prematurely eager to clap over the deliberately extended fade out to ‘To Bring You My Love’; still Polly and her band of brothers dutifully reassemble to give the audience their money’s worth. This takes us through a rollicking version of ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’, before leading straight into a slow, simmering curtain ringer of ’The River’ from Is This Desire?

Lights up, the packed crowd breathes out, spreads and disperses,  finishes their £5 pint, retrieves their £2 worth of coat and goes to queue for their £n of taxi cab away from the red brick cavern of Victoria Warehouse. Most of the crowd who made it inside the auditorium went home happy, but none were happier than the venue management who managed to fit two audiences where only one should be. It seems to be what you have to do if you want to see your musical heroes these days. Polly Harvey once joked that she’d probably end up eighty and toothless playing blues for drink in the back of a pub somewhere.  Am I alone in actually looking forward to that gig?

It Was Acceptable In The Nineties #6 – Jane Weaver

This interview was one of myweaversmall first for The Big Issue, and as I remember our chat didn’t exactly generate a mountain of scintillating copy. I put that down to my inexperience and think some additional interviewing must have happened before publication. This might explain the weird bit of Kate Bush-bashing at the end. Whilst not a fan of Bush at the time, I don’t remember actively disliking her, or Peter Gabriel for that matter! Weaver is one of the few performers I interviewed who’s still active today. Looking up her discography , it seems I spoke to her just before she recorded her solo debut album ‘Supersister’ in 1998. However, the death of Manchester Records boss Rob Gretton soon after stymied Weaver’s plans for that album and it  remains unreleased.

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Ask any number of singers what drives them to perform before a room full of strangers and you’ll probably be met with initial bemusement and then the assertion that it ‘just feels right’. But when Jane Weaver began her career at college in Liverpool, singing cover versions at revue nights, she didn’t have that luxury; it didn’t feel right at all.

“People would say ‘You’ve got a sweet voice, get up there’. And I used to hurl in the toilets before going on, I’d be shaking really bad”, remembers the now self-assured singer as she watches the world go by through the windows of Manchester’s Dry Bar. Luckily for the lining of her stomach, things have changed as Weaver has grown more accustomed to performing live. “I don’t hurl, but I still get nervous”, she laughs, drawing on an ever-present cigarette. “Being on stage is dead scary but it’s quite thrilling”.,

That heady shot of adrenalin propelled her in front of a microphone with erstwhile indie contenders Kill Laura. The combination of gritty power pop and Weaver’s implacable tones gained them a live reputation to be reckoned with, and a bit of radio airplay. But like many others before, the band were dropped by their record label. Although initially devastated, the experience hasn’t dampened Weaver’s craving for the pop life.

‘Cinnamon Brow’ – Kill Laura (John Peel Session)

“At the end of the day it’s a business and you do have to separate yourself from that and not let it affect your creativity”.

But it’s only natural that after such a rejection you would want to take stock and figure out what you’re going to do with yourself and it was the same with Kill Laura. By the time they were finished, singer and band had parted company, with it seems the archetypal ‘creative differences’ playing their usual role.

“I couldn’t do a lot of acoustic stuff, because there wasn’t a lot for the band to do” she explains reasonably. “I wanted more of a free rein to what I wanted. I think as a solo artist you can do that, you can have the album with a lot of different sides to it. It’s a lot more difficult in a band”.

Even so, poised to record her first solo album, there’s still a question mark over exactly where Jane Weaver wants to roam. The big, raggy-arsed guitars and nomadic melody of the new CD Scream and Shout aren’t a million miles away from the muscular fret-stomping of her first single We Are Modern. Up against her more recent interest in electronic music, leans the strength of long-cherished guitar heroes like Neil Young and Teenage Fanclub. It’s possible even Weaver doesn’t know where she’s going yet, but whatever route she chooses, it’s feeling and not technique she values.

“I don’t know what I’m playing half the time: I make up chords”, she says, candid to a fault. “I’m frightened of learning what I am playing because I might start thinking about it too much”.

Again, it’s the answer you’d expect from a songwriter anxious not to strangle her muse. Weaver’s attitude to writing lyrics is completely the opposite, comparing it unfavourably to school homework.

“They come at the very last minute, at the eleventh hour. When I’m in the studio, they’ll go: ‘Right, vocal takes’ and I’ll go ‘Can you give me another ten minutes until I’ve actually written them?’ I ended up waking up in the middle of the night, writing a chorus and then going back to sleep, I was so worried that I had to finish all these songs”. And songs are what truly matter to Jane Weaver.

All the singers Weaver lists as heroes are women notable for doggedly pursuing their individual musical path through great songs: Patti Smith, Courtney Love, Kate Bush. Kate Bush?

“The first album I ever got was The Kick Inside, she remembers, lighting up another fag. “I wanted to be Kate Bush. It was just so weird and bizarre, watching her on telly dancing about”.

A Kate Bush fixation we can handle, just so long as she doesn’t begin working with Peter Gabriel. [see what I mean? AM]

 

 

 

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It Was Acceptable In The Nineties #5 – Soundtrack Of Our Lives

Preparing for this interview meant getting a new passport, as I was supposed to fly over to Stockholm to speak to the band. Only after I’d shelled out did the record label’s PR let slip that it would only happen if the interview was syndicated nationally across all editions of the Big Issue.

So instead I applied a stick-on mic to my phone handset, ‘Tinker Tailor’ style, and talked to bass player Kalle Gustafsson…incidentally, I may be a bit slow, but I’ve never got the apostrophe pun in the headline. Anyone?

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While a crowd of British bands sit cross-legged at the end of the century party, trying to suck a last lungful from the collapsed roach of Sixties rock, Sweden’s Soundtrack Of Our Lives possess the underground intelligence required to spark the joint back to life [I had a real downer on Britpop at the time, can you tell? AM] Even so, bass player Kalle Gustafsson isn’t one to intellectualise.

“It’s the music we like the most; it doesn’t matter if it’s new or not. It’s nostalgia, the  music you grew up with when you were a kid” he offers, before contradicting himself. “With some music it doesn’t matter if it’s good, so long as it’s old, like Abba!” Quite.

Extended Revelation, the follow-up to their epic 20-track debut Welcome To The Infant Freebase, may try out all manner of outlandish musical gear from the Sixties and Seventies, but SOOL have learnt what sounds good on them and ignore the obvious totems of the era.

The Kinks and the Stones get a nod, but more dues are paid to West Coast American rock and the roughed-up blues of Captain Beefheart and the Doors.

“It’s more like that whole period”, says Gustafsson, coming clean. “Many people have accused us of stealing things, but it’s taken with love”. That’s all right then.

Luckily, this fondness for all things Sixties doesn’t extend to the stupefying chemical excess that poisoned the arse end of that decade – Soundtrack Of Our Lives are nothing if not a clean-living bunch.

“You don’t want to go into that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle but if you’re on tour it’s hard not to do that”, admits Gustaffson. “We’re not really impressed with that kind of thing. Anyway we’re too old!”

All well and good, but you shouldn’t be fooled by these protestations of senility. If nothing else, the decision to release their next single Avenger Hill Street Blues via the internet shows that SOOL have been keeping up with current events. [Ee, I remember when my modem had to stop to take on more coal!  AM]

Out in the real world, the band stamp the boards with the unhinged glee of eternal teenagers, egged on by their astonishing front man Ebbot Lundberg.  His burly frame resplendent in a vintage kaftan, he gives the onlooker the impression of a contemporary John The Baptist hitting the disco biscuits.

Gustafsson explains the front man’s appeal: “We really want to give the audience something. Ebbot is quite a legend in Sweden because of Union Carbide” he says, adding unnecessarily, “He’s very confident live”.

The rest of the band shares this full-blooded charisma, the result of apprenticeships in other outfits – in particular the aforementioned Union Carbide Productions and playing every rock dive in Sweden. Twice. As a result, SOOL seem to like nothing better than to put the wind up unsuspecting headliners. They regularly outplayed Hurricane #1 (no hard feelings though: “It was very good vibes” says Gustafsson), made Kula Shaker sound like Lieutenant Pidgeon and, rumour has it, scared off at least one major name band who couldn’t risk being blown off stage. Now they sound good and ready to leave the beer-soaked dance floors behind.

“When we were playing with Kula Shaker it was in really nice venues for about 2,000 people and they don’t exist in Sweden. You can’t let a rock audience into those places because they’d smash the whole place up, they’re so drunk and crazy”, Gustafsson laughs.

Soundtrack of Our Lives are about to tour this country with fellow Swedes, The Cardigans, which wil not only see the band play in prestigious venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but also give them the chance to move on from the Welcome To The Infant Freebase songs, which they’ve been relentlessly promoting, even after Extended Revelation had been released in their home country.

“I’m not tired of those songs,” insists Gustafsson. “Some songs need time to mature: it might take two years to find out the right lyric. It doesn’t matter if it’s five years, if the song comes out good”.

In pop music, five years is a lifetime and Gustafsson [could] sound foolishly unassuming. Yet beneath the surface lies an implicit confidence: Soundtrack Of Our Lives fully expect to be around in five years time, but want their music in your head long before then.

 

 

“I Don’t Have Any Heroes, They’re All Useless”

A review of the Sex Pistols Experience gig at the O2 Academy, Sheffield, 30/5/14.

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Sex Pistols Experience photo courtesy of Mark Watterson

There were times during the Sex Pistols Experience last night, where it really did feel like 1976 again. Was it the ear-shredding metallic volume, the sweat, the spilt beer, or the audience’s dodgy personal politics? A week after elections swept xenophobic, bigoted UKIP candidates to power on a fearsome wave of….nine percent, the semi-super annuated crowd at this gig meet singer Rotten/Nathan’s teasing about ‘looking German’ with un-ironic jeers, also served up for the mention of the French. The anti-Johnny Thunders tirade of ‘New York’ (“Ya poor little faggot!”) elicits ‘Ooh ducky’ limp-wristed gestures from the front row. Meanwhile, drunk heterosexual men whip off their shirts and wrestle sweatily in the darkness of the mosh pit.

Maybe that’s just Yorkshire for you. (Sorry, that’s “Yaaaaarkshire! Yaaaarkshire!”) Here to recapture a moment of blazing, angry youth, it’s impossible to ignore the baggage (and padding) the roaring one-time punks have acquired. Peering out over a sea of chrome domes shining with sweat, singer Nathan’s impeccable ginger spikes and flinty Rotten-stare hypnotise the audience back to the days of the three day week, while ‘Kid Vicious’ has perfected his namesake’s dorky rocker pout-and-sneer cycle and casual naming-of-lady-parts. If anything TSPE play better than the real thing, with birthday boy drummer ‘Paul Crook’ as with all drummers, missing the limelight at the rear, but anchoring the band’s attack. Meanwhile ‘Steve Clones’, resplendent in red jacket and white carnations combo does a fine job of conjuring the Pistols’ heavy, near metallic wall of guitar sound. (Not to mention these days bearing a passing and appropriate resemblance to a younger Ronnie Biggs).

There’s a definite art to a tribute band and an important part is attention to detail. The set begins with a B-side, ‘I Wanna Be Me’ and fits in ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ outtake ‘Belsen Was A Gas’, obscure track ‘Satellite’, (Vicious: “ Play the one nobody knows!”) and the Pistols’ favourite covers ‘Did You No Wrong’ and ‘What’cha Gonna Do About It?’ In the middle there’s a ‘Sid Sings’ interlude whilst Rotten goes a for a ‘shower and a shit’ and his back-from-the-grave bassist can chug happily through Eddie Cochran’s ‘Something Else’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’, morphing into a non-orchestral version of ‘My Way’. When Rotten fails to return, we even get ‘Silly Thing’. All that’s missing is Legs And Co to dance to it on Top of the Pops.

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Sex Pistols Experience photo courtesy of Mark Watterson

If that’s maybe a bit too much detail to recreate the Pistols’ heyday, what happens next actually comes close to completing the mid seventies experience, although without the actual spilt blood that would’ve been likely back then. If you’re the singer in a Sex Pistols tribute band, I’m pretty sure you expect and can soak up a fair amount of nostalgic verbal abuse and hand gestures, although these days flicking the V’s has been the victim of a transatlantic takeover by a rigid middle digit. Another US gig custom that’s made the leap across the pond is throwing beer. Pints of it, and not just by accident out of the mosh pit.

The guitarist takes a plastic pot to the head early on, but front man Nathan seems to be the focus of brewery showers, and from one particular perspiring Sontaran. He’s already chided a previous offender “’I get paid to be a wanker, you’re doing it for zilch”. but working his way through ‘Holidays In The Sun’, the Rotten thousand yard stare begins to look especially convincing, until he breaks off to argue with the chump, then said chump’s enraged girlfriend, after her consort has been ejected from the premises. A word in his ear from Vicious gets the front man back into the song, but when traditional set closer ‘No Fun’ grinds into view, the title repeated in a perfect imitation of Lydon’s robotic bark, you really feel he means it, man. The change in mood soaks into the crowd, who forget to applaud as the band leave the stage, and need Vicious to remind them that if they want an encore they’d better actually do their job and make some noise.

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Sex Pistols Experience photo courtesy of Mark Watterson

A ‘punk’ is USA prison slang for the passive sexual partner in the opportunistic homosexuality of confined men. Punk rock was named that as a label for the weak, skinny, oddball freaks who played angry rock music of the rejected and the outsider. When punk first began in the UK, it was cynical, nihilistic and rebellious, but also basically fun. It was only after the Pistols imploded that the individual punk aesthetic of ruined charity shop clothes and safety pins became streamlined into ripped blue jeans and painted leather biker jackets.That’s also when the unfashionable weirdness and silliness congealed into beery, sweaty machismo. Individuality and anarchy boils down into a rigid digit and airborne ale.

The Sex Pistols Experience make anti-heroic efforts to remind us what the original UK punks sounded like, and how their sly taunting managed to wind up people so successfully. The fresh-faced teenager I saw pogoing in his bright yellow ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ T shirt got the message. Some of the people like me who are just about old enough to have been there first time, maybe less so. Things are never what they used to be, mainly because we forget the details, or twist them to fit where we’ve ended up now. As TSPE depart, the kiss off line to ‘No Fun’ and the Pistols’ career is rewritten for our age of constant distraction and misremembered past.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been tweeted?”

It Was Acceptable In The Nineties #4 – Symposium

Haggard old music journalists love a young, crazed band that simultaneously make them feel ready for the grave and also put lead in their pencil. At a certain point, that was Symposium:

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“We’re thinking about setting fire to one of our roadies”, muses the voice on the other end of the phone, “and have him run across the stage”.

You’d think that the vicissitudes of pop had fatally turned the mind of Ross Cummins, leader singer with hyperactive racket-mongers, Symposium. The next minute, the band’s songsmith/bassist Wojtek is dreaming aloud about doing a rock opera – Quo Vadis, Symposium?

It’s clear Ross is tired of his role as pop’s Tasmanian Devil, although he is still inspired by the choreographed catastrophes of Metallica’s last tour. Symposium may have distilled their all-conquering live reputation from copious amounts of sweat generated in overloaded venues, but they’re not coy about the prospect of filling out wide open spaces.

“I can’t wait!” gushes Wojtek. “We love being bombastic, harking back to the Seventies glam era or bands like Motorhead. Although they were really gritty, they could play massive places. You just have to shift into a different gear, but essentially you’re still the same band”. Ross sounds equally up for the crack.

“The good thing about a big stage is that you’ve got to reach people right at the back, on the balconies. Also everything seems a little bit easier, you haven’t got to worry about someone getting up and knocking the mic into Wojtek’s face or tripping over people”, he says with touching concern, before adding, “though I love it when people do that”.

Ouch. During 1997, the music press fell in love with Symposium’s no-holds-barred gigs, mythologising the brain-battering volume, the wrecked ceilings and the injuries garnered en route by their impetuous singer. But Ross can see that his wild man days are numbered.

“What I’ve always said is, don’t expect to see Ross the monkey boy breaking things, because it doesn’t happen every night”. Even so, Symposium always seem determined to better their audience’s frenzied reaction and inevitably there’s a price to pay.

“It’s really physical, what we do on stage”, agrees Wojtek. “It’s like an endurance test as well, because the sets are getting longer and longer”. Perhaps mindful of their physical health, the new album On The Outside, takes a symbolic step away from the speedy punk pop thrashes of One Day At A Time. Offsetting grandiose pillars or rock like The End with delicate meditations of the title track. It’s not what you’d expect from a band raised on Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against The Machine.

“Me and Ross like a lot of female singer songwriters,” explains Wojtek. “Like Julianna Hatfield and especially Tori Amos who we really love, but no one else in the band can understand”. However they overcame their initial reluctance to push the envelope and Wojtek presses home the point about the misleading art of pigeon-holing.

“I think people got the wrong idea when [One Day At A Time] came out, they thought that was all we were about – ska and fizzy pop. But we’re also about a harder edge and a slower, more rock thing”.

“The whole album is quite varied” says Ross. “On the last tour we played Blue and we weren’t sure how it would go down because the crowd are used to jumping about and going mental, but it gave people time to rest and take it all in”.

Nevertheless, other people’s expectations are hard currency in the music business. The band’s initial taste of the music press has been of a distinctly sweet and sour variety.

“It’s just a fickle thing”, sighs Wojtek. “We were taken aback when we got a lot of favourable press, we though everyone was on our side. But later you realise it’s all crap. Our fans know we’re not who the media say we are and they laugh along at it with us”.

Like several other Symposium members, Wojtek trained in violin and piano, and the mischievous suggestion of writing a rock opera is made only partly in jest.

“I’m up for the whole thing, operas, symphonies, everything. I want to write one of each”, he laughs. “Violin concertos, a requiem mass…”. Steady on, lad. There’s even a dark plot to stage a fringe play in London, “Just to throw a spanner in the works and make everyone think, “What’s going on?” Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

 

The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey

Back in 2011 when ‘Let England Shake’ was released, Polly Harvey expressed a wish to be a war artist, a song-writer in residence for the conflict that still consumed Afghanistan. The presence of UK troops in the desert habitat was frequently referenced, notably in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. Harvey’s planned role never transpired, with UK forces withdrawn and the people of Afghanistan left to conduct their own fate. ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ could be seen as Harvey adapting her job description to one of ‘reportage songwriter’, travelling to several locales, accompanying photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the man responsible for the evocative films that compliment every track on ‘Let England Shake’.

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England, yesterday

Maybe it’s this continuation of both the subject matter and approach from the previous record that means ‘Hope Six…’ doesn’t feel like a vast step up from 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning release. The thing that helped ‘Let England Shake’ was its tight focus on one or two connected subjects i.e. war and England. With her attention firmly on those themes, Harvey could make digressions and parallels but always keep her lyrics tethered to a detailed meditation on the ‘grey, damp filthiness’ of English culture. This was further enhanced by a cohesive new musical palette, although keen-eared fans will have heard harbingers of its sound coming in both ‘White Chalk’ and ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’.

Gone was Harvey’s theatrical bass blues howl, replaced with a lighter, more delicate voice at a higher register. Still she retained some of the ventriloquist act speaking in tongues, tics and squeaks that have been her trademark for a while.  The new vocal style  (Harvey calls it her ‘church voice’, good for singing ‘Jerusalem’, no doubt) continues on ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ and it feels like Harvey is making a point about this new phase in her songwriting. She is no longer a spinner of fables and phantasmagoria, but an observer of the present day, a documentary troubadour. But it’s this insistence on veracity and simplicity that occasionally dents the album’s impact. In ‘The Orange Monkey’, Harvey seems to set out her MO for writing these songs ‘I took a plane to a foreign land/and said ‘I’ll write down what I find'”. Passing through various places and giving her impressions, at times the new lyrics feel as if they only observe the surface, and can veer close to the obvious.

I think Harvey is attempting to mirror the stark clarity of Seamus Murphy’s photography, and has decided to eliminate invented storytelling in order to hold true to that way of working. The listener is perhaps meant to read between the lines to find the impact these sights had upon Harvey, without the guidance of invented imagery or drama to convey their power. Perhaps though, even if fiction is ‘lying to tell the truth’, it might have served her better.  ‘Medicinals’, ‘A Line In The Sand’ and ‘The Community of Hope’ aren’t mistaken or misleading in their observations, just somewhat redundant. ‘Community of Hope’ talks of decay and social breakdown in a district of Washington State, but whilst the climactic refrain ‘They’re gonna build a Walmart here’ might’ve been cutting back in 1985,  today it’s just taken as read. ‘Medicinals’ sets up an interesting metaphor for history and progress, only to let it fall flat in the last verse. This is a shame because when Harvey’s eye chooses some really telling detail, the effects are strong indeed. ‘The Ministry of Defence’ pictures a diorama of wartime wreckage and shattered civilian ephemera, over-written by insistent marks of human survival. Likewise ‘Chain of Keys’ uses empty houses and overgrown gardens to hint at atrocities that will mark communities for ever.

Knocked back by the handful of misfiring lyrics, it took me a while to realise the true strength of ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ is its music. Working with long time collaborators Mick Harvey, John Parish, producer Flood and the man for whom the phrase ‘super-talented multi-instrumentalist’ was invented, Terry Edwards, Harvey’s lyrics sit in distinct aural landscapes that open up further and allow deeper investigation with each listen. Saxophone is the latest in Harvey’s bucket list of musical instruments to master, following piano on ‘White Chalk’ and autoharp on ‘Let England Shake’. The brass supplants guitar effects pedals to drive the relentless extended intro to ‘The Wheel’, whilst the angular overlapping soloing in ‘Ministry of Defence’ combine with hammer-blow staccato guitar chords to conjure images of weapons firing and the results: twisted metal reinforcements exposed by mortar fire in a ruined building.

The drums on ‘Hope Six…’ are frequently martial in character, but there’s also a loose, clattering feel, the standard rock kit drum set up has been scattered across several players. It feels homemade, as if during her travels,  Polly has soaked up the sounds of public or folk music making in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as much as the sights. Insistent, slightly ramshackle, these rhythms could be drawn from weddings, funerals, festivals, marches and demonstrations. It was while watching Harvey’s set at Glastonbury this year that the new songs truly came into their own. Their syncopated energy hypnotises, and in the band Harvey has assembled she also creates a male voice choir for the ‘communal singing’ that she hoped ‘Let England Shake’ would inspire in audiences. The moment where this all comes together is toward the end of ‘River Anacostia’, with the crowd clapping a rhythm as the band come the front of the stage and sing a guttural cotton field chant. The longer it goes on, the deeper it goes into your ears and holds you until the song fades down to a standstill.

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‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ turns out to be a serious piece of work, albeit with flaws, showing an artist still moving forward musically if not on the lyrical front. If the album doesn’t make a bold statement of change in the manner of ‘Let England Shake’, I remember that ‘Uh Huh Her’, a release that appeared to tread water somewhat, was followed by the rug-pull of ‘White Chalk’. Maybe something like that album is brewing in Polly Harvey’s head right now.