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Saturday, 24 October 2015

The importance of being earnest about music

Not really having expected to do so, I thoroughly enjoyed Lavinia Greenlaw’s book The Importance Of Music To Girls.

It’s a dainty little excursion through the author’s childhood via the sounds (music especially) and sensations that accompanied and fashioned her. One reason to like the book is that, er, Greenlaw writes extremely well. There’s sometimes a kind of gossamer fragility to her prose and her subject matter, and it’s nearly always carefully expressed and well thought out. This is her description of a photograph of herself aged seven on a family holiday in Wales:

“My dresses are simple shifts, nothing more than rectangles. This dress is a kind of reward, or perhaps a reminder. I am a girl, my blonde hair is scraped back beneath a clumpy black wig which comes complete with a lace veil I want to call a mantilla but it is no more than a nylon shiver, a shadow across my face.”

There’s a lot that’s well done - fragments of memories, quotations from major writers (Yeats, Woolf, Goethe, Homer, Barthes, Mandelstam, Wilde, Martin Hannett (!)), anecdotes about her liberal, borderline-hippy middle-class parents which often let me a little envious, and, fundamentally, a delicate, bitter-sweet account of her complicated family life and its attendant growing pains (which groups to belong to at school, all the usual acceptance-rejection dynamics, teen angst).

Greenlaw is so agitated

This is all readable enough in its own right. But she threads in a lot about music (more and more as the book goes on) and these parts are especially interesting. Because? Well, partly because she’s fairly skilled at talking about music in the first place (not the easiest task in the world). And also I’d venture to say she has pretty decent taste in music (which helps). Just as usefully (in fact most interestingly of all) she has some fresh insights into what music could mean to a thoughtful, insecure person growing up in nasty old 1970s Britain.

So, OK, the music. She name-checks Joy Division quite a lot, and went to see them a few times in London venues like the Electric Ballroom. It’s new wave that really lights her fire, the aftershock of punk as it (sort of) swept through her backwoods village in Essex in 1976-77. It seems she dropped her dalliance with disco and mid-70s hippy-rock when she was about 14 (already precociously music-receptive), cut her hair, got some drainpipe trousers and … started travelling to see bands like Adam And the Ants, Wire, The Human League, The Pop Group, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Vibrators … There were The Clash and others at the famous Rock Against Racism Victoria Park extravaganza  (she was too far away to actually hear the music), and also lesser-name (but no less good) bands like Swell Maps, A Certain Ratio, and Modern English.

Mostly she doesn’t dwell on the bands or their recordings, just as she doesn’t dwell on anything for long in her light-touch book. But I think the Guardian reviewer Polly Samson’s wrong to say The Importance is “not particularly for music buffs” (whatever a music buff* is!) because this is precisely a book for people who are serious about music, albeit here it’s the emotions that matter rather than the tracklistings.

So she talks about the psychological-emotional effect of seeing Ian Curtis’ freaky dancing or being at a 1978 Vibrators gig where (as she puts it) “most of the other girls there were wearing bin-liners” instead of boring old jeans and sweatshirts. Haircuts are transformatory and she starts trying out DIY styles:

“In the spirit of appropriation, adaption and do-it-yourself, I was constantly on the look-out for something that could be cut up, ripped apart, dyed, bleached, and pinned back together.”

And I also liked her appreciation of colour:

“The colours of punk, like its rumour, set off a vibration and cracks began to appear - orange socks, blue hair, lime-green nails, pink trousers … With punk, it was more as if an old image of the world had been broken down to the four components of colour printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These are dead colours.”

There you go - Greenlaw’s Courtauld’s training’s not been wasted, it appears. She says punk “altered her aesthetic sense completely” and it also seems to have filtered deeply into her subconscious, affecting the way she related to the world. (Surely not?, you’re thinking - but why not? This is the sort of deep engagement that fellow travellers like Julie Burchill or Tony Parsons could only imitate).

So it’s really good stuff. While I wouldn’t want to do without Jon Savage, Greil Marcus et al for the expert commentator’s perspective, I don’t think I’ve come across a book before that gets as firmly under the skin of how punk might make a young fan feel. And that’s what it's all about, right?

And Greenlaw does another thing I found quite impressive. She takes us through her early life, from infancy to college days (as well as a peek at herself aged 24), and instead of the usual “oh, but I’ve outgrown all that now” finale, she leaves us with the impression that she still cares about this music (she was about 45 when the book was published).

Yes, she does something that lesser writers (Giles Smith for example) don’t do: she reminds us why it’s sometimes important to be earnest about music.

*My own music buffery means I can't resist quibbling with a chapter in which Greenlaw talks about an adventurous teenage jaunt to the USA, where she stays with a pen-pal in Columbus, Ohio. Here she marvels at the non-punk teenage straights who seem to be from a shopping mall-dominated alternative universe ("Ohio was not the America I had envisaged from Velvet Underground albums and Jack Nicholson films"). Yet if she'd taken a two-hour trip north on Highway 71 to Cleveland she could have checked out the amazing local scene there (Pere Ubu, Devo, etc). We're so agitated ...

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Massive career, Podcast #122 (Sept 2015)

This is not a love song sang John Lydon in 1983, and likewise this is not a podcast.

Well, not in the ordinary sense of a "radio show" or something rather elaborate, polished and "produced". No, this is merely another in an interminable line of Niluccio on noise podcasts - none more interesting than the last. They'e all the same! (Though all different).

One thing though must be admitted by all my many listeners. It's increasingly obvious that these seemingly innocuous podcasts could be the start of something significant. They're all leading somewhere, aren't they? This is number 122 and after 121 previous attempts I think this could be the one. The big one. Yes, I feel it in my showbiz veins. This could be the start of my massive career ...

1: Diamond Cuts, Beetlework 
2: Bennett, Bravo, Mehr, Olivera, Traveira, Italiano, Adjetival 
3: Transient, Ain’t no cure for the way you walk 
4: Limbs Bin, Fourth of July 2014 
5: Susto, Vampire (Windmill, London 8/9/15) 
6: Joey Fourr, Newark wilder 
7: Abstrakt, War loops 
8: Sly & Robbie, Shabby attack 
9: Steve Combs & Delta Is, Theme R 
10: Massive career 
11: The Sonics, Walkin’ the dog 
12: Rad Times, Don’t care 
13: Gladstone Anderson All Stars, Supermatic 
14: DSM666, Psicopatia 
15: Gumbel, Killing bosses 
16: Super Lungs, ? (Old Blue Last, 20/9/15) 
17: Ocelote Rojo, Nostalgia 
18: Brown Piss, Intro cheesecake 
19: Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra, In my merry Oldsmobile 
20: I Loved, I Hated, Burying the snake 
21: Mutamassik, Ken in kai 
22: Archers Of Loaf, Strangled by the stereo wire 
23: Sidetracked, Rejuvenate 
24: Yusuke Tsutumi, Hokori 
25: NNY vs Structura, Cybernetics 
26: Hypp Fractal, Vanilla powder

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Rock Against Racism exhibition: a message to you Rudie

I had a quick dash around the Syd Shelton Rock Against Racism photo exhibition at the Autograph ABP gallery in east London the other night. Hmm, photos and music - we've been there before (here and here for example!).

Never quite sure I get all that much out of these exhibitions, but hey, that's probably down to my own (many) deficiencies. But ... yeah, some evocative concert shots of The Specials, The Clash, Misty In Roots, The Beat, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Undertones, Sham 69 and others.

Feargal Sharkey, the whitest man alive

All perfectly fine. There's some stark black-and-white photography, famous people captured in their long-lost youth (Paul Simonon's trying-hard-to-out-Billy-Idol-Billy-Idol's all-pout-and-cheekbones "punk pin-up" look, Terry Hall's lugubrious kohl-eyed clown face), and, as so often with these exhibitions, a melancholy sense of time irretrievably lost.

The background details are sometimes good as well. In one photo - a backstage image of a Barry Forde Band/Leyton Buzzards gig in 1979 - I spotted this daubed slogan: "Dead punks don't pogo". No, indeed they don't. 

With Shelton's work though, I found the images of the fans more interesting than the musicians and their (not very glamorous) surroundings. There's the main promo shot of some black teenagers at a Specials gig in Leeds (one with a look of total rapture on his face), and some excellent shots of identikit punk women with their Soo Catwoman/Siouxsie Sioux eye make-up and Rock Against Racism lapel badges.

We're all individuals, we are

Even better are one or two images of the female skins, who to me often have a tough-but-tender look, androgyny battling it out with the bovver boy stereotype they're playing with and (possibly unintentionally) subverting. 

Skinheads v racists

Or not always subverting. Seeing Shelton's skins/short-haired punks puts me in mind of the photo of Iain McKell's that Dazed recently ran showing the deeply unpleasant side of the late-70s/early-80s skinhead scene. A young woman putting on make-up in front of an old-fashioned dressing-table mirror which is casually adorned with "Send Them Back" and other neo-Nazi postcards. Lovely.

In my own glorious gig-going career, a notable event (my second-ever gig) was me going to a biggish Specials' concert in Coventry in 1981, more or less at the peak of their 2 Tone fame. I went with two people from my old school where The Specials phenomenon had been pretty huge. One of these two (neither particular friends of mine) was a chubby Asian kid (parents from India?) who received plenty of our school's typical oh-so-racially-sensitive treatment ("You fucking Paki! Why don't you go back to your own country?"). He didn't fuck off back to India/Pakistan, though, he went to see The Specials instead. Enjoy yourself ...

Looking back, I wonder how much Rock Against Racism changed anything. To judge from surveys of the great British public's growing "concern" over immigration, there is if anything a lot more racism now than there was in the late 70s, just the racism is differently expressed ("too much immigration" not "the blacks are the problem").

Keeping Britain Two-Tone

I definitely like the way RAR made a point of bringing together punk and reggae bands, and the movement was eminently ... laudable. But, like Red Wedge, I don't really think these musical campaigns quite work somehow. Too predictable? Artistically deadening?

Anyway, Shelton's photos are undoubtedly worth a look and I don't mean to disparage them or the scene they document. I'll even check the exhibition out again now the first-night throngs obscuring the photos themselves (!) have pushed off to the next exhibition opening. But oddly enough I've got two other mini-criticisms of the RAR exhibition.

One: I don't think there are any colour photographs on display - a shame I think, though possibly entirely intended. So there are indeed two tones at this exhibition: back and white.

And second: there's no music playing in a gallery exhibiting photographs ... about a music scene. C'mon! Someone do a reggae/punk/ska mixtape and send it in to the organisers, quick. This is a message to you Rudie ..