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?