Friday, 14 August 2020

ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas (2019 Documentary)

ZZ Top | Discography | Discogs

The iconic nature of a musical act can be judged by the speed with which you can draw a cartoon of them. The Beatles: four dark circles with offshoot side burns and maybe a pair of granny glasses. Madonna: conical bra. David Bowie: lightning bolt across a forehead and cheek. Grace Jones: black rectangle with wide eyes and big bared teeth. Slash: big hat, big sunglasses, cigarette dangling precariously from lips. Freddie Mercury: crew cut, moustache.

ZZTop are perhaps the easiest of all to draw: three faces all with sunglasses, two with rectangles of beard and hats, one with a moustache and curly hair. Like AC/DC, whose image has been defined since the beginning by Angus Young’s schoolboy uniform, the Top’s cartoonish look has given them instant brand recognition and also helped to deflect attention away from their personal lives. In the likeable documentary ‘That Little Ol’ Band from Texas’, the only dip into this area is the disclosure that drummer Frank Beard had been in rehab in the mid-seventies. There is absolutely no information about the non-Top lives of other bandmembers Billy Gibbons or Dusty Hill, a refreshing anomaly in an era when we are constantly being served the most mundane information about anyone who’s been on the telly.  

According to the film, in the band’s early years, manager Bill Ham had insisted that they avoid appearing on TV as a way of developing a sense of mystery. It’s possible that Ham’s decision may have had more to do with the fact that the band consisted of three very ordinary looking men. If so, it was a good move: during a two-year hiatus from recording and touring, Gibbons and Hill grew their now trademark ultra-long beards and later adopted the sunglasses that completely masked their faces and turned them into the most instantly recognisable band in the world.

The documentary is mostly about the early years, and while that is almost always the best part of any such film, I was surprised by the speed with which the MTV mega-stardom years were glossed over. There was a little bit about discovering a new, turbo-charged, processed sound and a bit about the making of the unforgettable video for ‘Gimme All Your Loving’, which looked incredibly slick at the time, and a clip of the follow-up ‘Legs’ and then a blank. Nothing about the global success that followed, the sudden jump to stadium concerts and life at the top table, no clips from the videos of subsequent hits. Was this the result of a contractual obligation? Was the recent death of Bill Ham a factor?  It reminded me of the Dolly Parton doc that omitted any mention of ‘Islands in the Stream’.  

Despite this puzzling omission, the film is worth a look. The three bandmembers make for genial, self-effacing interviewees and they remain a curious rarity as 1960s garage band also-rans who became superstars in the 1980s.    

Friday, 31 July 2020

Q Magazine, 1986-2020

‘Lock up your granddaughters: it’s The Rolling Stones!’ That was the caption on cover of the first issue of Q magazine I bought, back in September 1989. I suppose an updated version would read ‘great-granddaughters’. That same snoot-cocking irreverence is also in evidence in this month’s final issue of Q in a republished interview with Lou Reed. The godfather to a million rock bands, and writer of ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ is described in the first paragraph as a ‘legendarily cantankerous old moaner’.  British rock journalists haver rarely had much time for preciousness and Q’s writers were no exception.

According to editor Ted Kessler, it was the pandemic that did for Q in the end, though apparently it had been operating on slim margins for most of his tenure at the helm. Truth be told, had I not learned of the magazine’s passing via the internet I probably wouldn’t have noticed its disappearance from the shelves of my local mag-sellers. The final issue was the first copy I had bought in over twenty years.

A thick square book of a monthly jammed with reviews of the latest releases, Q was pretty conservative. The editorial team invariably chose dependable mainstream megastars for their covers. Paul McCartney (desperately unfashionable for people under thirty) was the first cover star and the likes of Annie Lennox and Phil Collins (both of whom had entered dull mid to late eighties zones) made regular appearances.  Mark Ellen, the original editor, had seen a gap in the market (the music weeklies were at their most politicised and sceptical about the post-Live Aid ‘rock aristocracy’ and there was a large middle-aged pop music audience who were ready to shell out for CD re-releases of old classics) and he exploited it.

But despite its devotion to comfy shoe-wearing superstars, Q could be funny. As well as making fun of the ageing Stones, it also teamed grumpy Van Morrison with Spike Milligan for a photo shoot and for several years its opening feature was the often brilliant interview series ‘Who the Hell does … think s/he is?’ in which Tom Hiddleston regularly punctured the pomposity of stars of varying stature. Long before Louis Theroux, his interview with Jimmy Saville caught the spiky weirdness of the man. ‘I hate children’ was the eyebrow-raising quote highlighted in a text-box.

As a teenager just finding out about pop music, I had purchased it now and again but on discovering NME and Melody Maker it seemed immediately and irreparably staid. It was definitely not the place to go if you were looking for bands on independent labels and even ultra-populist throw-back merchants Oasis didn’t appear on the cover until ‘What’s the Story, Morning Glory’ was a global best-seller.

NME and Melody Maker were the angry teenagers to Q’s comfortable big brother. And they were also where I first read about Captain Beefheart, The Fall, The Velvet Underground and a slew of brilliant albums from the sixties to the nineties. There was less to discover in Q where stadium-fillers like Clapton, Collins, Eurythmics, Dire Straits, Peter Gabriel, Bowie and Sting always seemed to be in the spotlight.  But no doubt that changed over the years as younger readers got on board.

Like all magazines, it had been under the cosh for years, struggling to hold its head up within the flood of freely available digital content – I seem to recall it rebranding itself for a while as a ‘lifestyle’ magazine. and has now gone the way of the weeklies. All that’s left on the shelves are Hot Press (which I always thought survived because of its wide-ranging remit: music but also film, sport, politics and sex) and the rock heritage monthlies Mojo and Uncut. Both of the latter are specialist publications aimed squarely at collector nerds but they do provide oxygen for plenty of new artists. How long those three will survive is anyone’s guess. Online there is Pitchfork and the excellent The Quietus and millions of people blogging, vlogging and commenting on music as a hobby.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Death and Rembrandt

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Watching the excellent BBC 4 documentary on the life of Rembrandt over the last few weeks got me thinking about our relationship with death. The artist’s life was presented as being dogged by personal and financial difficulties. As well as being a genius, Rembrandt was improvident with money, a spendthrift whose profligacy and poor management led to chronic debts. But his life was also touched by tragedy with the deaths of three infant children, his wife Saskia, and then Hendrickje, the woman who succeeded her as his live-in lover.  Modern viewers would of course view this as tremendously unlucky but while death and illness are of course still central to our lives they tend to jump out at us like proverbial bogeymen. In the 17th century, they were part of the fabric of everyday existence.

 Death is something most of us wish to avoid contemplating until it becomes unavoidable. I sometimes wonder if people lived more intensely in the past.  In my lifetime, I have had little exposure to illness and death. I don’t know anyone who has died giving birth, or anyone who had a stillborn child or whose infant died from illness or complications. Cancer has cast its shadow over my life as it has done over the lives of most people in the western world but it tends to creep around in the dark corners rather than stride through the main thoroughfares of existence. Modern medicine has made pain quieter; thicker walls and greater privacy have made it quieter still.

                How different were the lives of Rembrandt and the people of his time. Life was a toss-up. Pregnancy was a hugely dramatic, and much more painful, event and the death of mother, child or both parties was commonplace. How must that have made women feel? How much stress must they have experienced over the course of their child-bearing years? Imagine being continually pregnant and constantly unsure if you or the child would make it out alive? If you were lucky enough to survive the rocky passage into existence or giving birth to a baby, you then had to contend with various pre-penicillin ailments and diseases – plagues and poxes, infections caused by the tiniest of cuts. Making it to forty must have felt like something of a victory. Sixty must have been considered positively ancient.

                I wonder how the pervasive fact of death affected people?  These days, most of us are insulated from death – it’s tucked away behind the walls of hospitals, hospices, and houses populated by small numbers of people. When we do see it, it’s a rare and haunting occasion featuring a family member or an accident. We are considered very unlucky if it touches us during our childhood or young adult years and we call the death of a young person a tragic event. We can plan for our retirement years, confident that we will be thriving at seventy and still relatively healthy ten and twenty years later.

In Rembrandt’s times, the opposite was the case.   I wonder if the greater fragility of existence had a profound effect on how people saw the world and other people, how they experienced life. 

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Scott Walker

                The first time that the name ‘Scott Walker’ properly impinged on my consciousness was when the NME published in successive issues, their critics’ choices of best albums of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and of all time. This was simultaneously a celebration of the rich legacy of thirty years of proper pop lps and a submission to a wave of nostalgia and ‘look back’-it is. It marked the beginning of an era when many acts began to wave their influences about like gaudy flags. But for people like me, it was also an education and from those lists I found out about many, many great works of art. Before those lists, I had never heard of ‘What’s Going on’, ‘Exile on Main Street’, ‘Blue’, ‘Trout Mask Replica’, ‘Innervisions’, ‘Spirit of Eden’ and host of other brain-bending records. Somewhere on the 1960s list, there were the curiously titled Scott 3 and Scott 4.

A couple of years later, I was in a workmate’s flat.  He rolled a joint and put Scott 4 on stereo.  It was a surprising listening experience: some of the songs had MOR show-tuney arrangements but others were startling, sparse and strange. There were glacial harp sounds on the breathtaking ‘Boy Child’, distorted narcoticized keyboards on ‘The World’s Strongest Man’. And on top of everything was the almost comically velvet voice of the intense young man staring disconsolately from the cover.  My next encounter was through a compilation which included jaunty Brel-influenced songs of seedy glamour ‘The Girls on the Streets’ and ‘The Amorous Humphry Plugg’, and those wonderful immersions in pure melancholy ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Big Louise’. Like a lot of the best pop music (and other artforms too, I imagine) the songs teetered on the brink of the farcical, and were perhaps too daft for a lot of modern listeners, but I loved them.

Later on, I was amazed to learn that his first three solo albums had been huge sellers, no doubt partly to do with the phenomenal success of his previous band, The Walker Brothers, and his status as a gloomy pin-up. The fourth of the ‘Scott’ series had been the first to feature all original material but he made the apparently fatal error of crediting the record to his real name (Scott Engel) and without brand recognition, it disappeared and Scott entered the wilderness.

What followed was one of the most curious journeys in the history of recorded music. Walker retreated into MOR covers albums, heavy drinking and drug use and then, in the mid-seventies reconvened The Walker Brothers to produce the hit ‘No Regrets’, two straight albums and then one leftfield leap into art rock with their final lp, Nite Flights. From there on, Walker slid into wilful obscurity, re-emerging once a decade for the next thirty years with a group of increasingly dissonant and confrontational albums that sounded next to nothing like the glorious quartet of ‘Scott’ albums.  I’ve only attempted to listen to one of the later albums but couldn’t get to the end of it.  Watching him being interviewed in the 30 Century Man documentary, he is down-to-earth, plain-speaking, bright-eyed; he seems utterly uninterested in image or in the kind of reminiscing that is the staple of this kind of film. The work he is doing right then is all that matters to him and his past is of no importance. In a more recent BBC interview now on youtube, he is asked about his reputation as a recluse and how he feels about people wondering why they haven’t heard from, or seen, him. ‘I’m not a recluse; I’m low-key,’ he says smiling. ‘Generally, if I’ve got nothing to say or do, it’s pointless to be around.’ Spoken like true artist. Scott Walker R.I.P.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Review: Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power by Stephen Greenblatt

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 In Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power, Stephen Greenblatt examines how various megalomaniacs and their supporters are depicted in six of Shakespeare’s plays. Without mentioning the name of the current incumbent of the oval office, he draws numerous parallels between U.S. president number 45 and some of the greatest villains in literature. 
There is Richard III’s bogus identification with the masses, The Winter’s Tale’s King Leontes’ demand for loyalty above principles, Macbeth’s infecting of the entire body politic. And of course, there is also a host of self-serving toadies who enable these men to rise, some through sheer self-interest, some because they are convinced they can exert some control over the tyrant.  In every instance, the man who attains his position by courting the masses or through shrewd skulduggery turns out to be completely unsuited to rule and chaos ensues. Greenblatt also notes how in Shakespeare’s plays, despots tend to emerge when there are deep political divisions in a kingdom.

Greenblatt writes about each play with great clarity and wisely avoids making explicit reference to the current turmoil in his home country. Shakespeare appeared to use many of his history plays and tragedies to look at contemporary events from an oblique angle (to be explicit could lead to accusations of treason and punishment by torture or execution). Save for his vague comments on the 2016 presidential election in the acknowledgements section, Greenblatt wisely does the same.  This admirably clear and thoughtful book adds yet more support for Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare is ‘for all time’.   

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Return of Microdisney

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In advance of Microdisney’s recent reunion to play their 1985 album The Clock Comes Down the Stairs album live in Dublin and London, BBC 6Music’s Mark Radcliffe asks founding members Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan the inevitable question: if the two shows go well, will they go on tour?  Their decision to re-form in the first place must surely have been a difficult one – seeing them play both concerts and listening to their recorded output from the 1980s gave me the impression that this was a band driven by a deep-rooted contrariness.  In interviews, they allude to having annoyed a lot of people in the music industry, while when they actually perform at the two venues, singer Coughlan makes several references to his fiery younger self. Like many great artists who underachieved commercially, Microdisney were seemingly allergic to compromise.    

                Though they were obviously eager to make a successful career out of music – they signed to major label Virgin in 1986 and many of their songs are hook-laden earworms that recall The Beach Boys, Steely Dan and the intellectual pop strand of the early 1980s represented by Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti – listening to them thirty years later, and seeing them in performance in the National Concert Hall and Barbican Centre, gave me a clearer idea as to why they remain an acquired taste.  

                Take their single ‘Birthday Girl’.  Over an infectiously bouncy melody (further brightened by O’Hagan’s glistening guitar) Coughlan sings a chorus as sweet as any you will hear in the chart: ‘Birthday girl, rosy and special / Will this night last forever?’  But his mournful Cork baritone lends the song an unavoidable sense of melancholy and listening closely, you can later hear him sing  ‘Feed the birds poisoned bread / In the square beneath my place of birth'.  The effect is like biting down on a slice of brack only for your teeth to come in contact with the hidden ring.

 Microdisney were renowned for their live shows and in the reunion gigs, they are punchy and sparkling. Coughlan is often hunched over, his face twisting into a ferocious snarl as he sings. While utterly compelling, it also cements the impression that this is a band who were more intent on creating interesting, original work than on attracting listeners.  

                Halfway through their rendition of The Clock, the band welcome on stage Dublin singer Eileen Gogan, whom they have enlisted to sing the female vocal parts, and their performance of ‘And’, the final song on the album, is one of the highlights of both evenings. Like several of the songs – ‘Are You Happy Now’, ‘Begging Bowl’ – ‘And’ appears to explore the bitter residue of a failed relationship. 

A similar combination of disillusion and defiance is evident on the sublime ‘Loftholdingswood’, one of the non-Clock songs they play once they get through the tracks on the featured album.  A brilliant mixture of synth-pop and country that contains one of the all-time great lines – ‘I died on the cross / Now I’m the boss’ – the song manages to be simultaneously timeless and utterly redolent of rainswept 1980s urban decay.      

                  Answering Radcliffe’s question, Coughlan and O’Hagan claim that they won’t be extending the two gigs into a tour. Maybe that is for the best. Being part of the nostalgia circuit would doubtless make a band as sceptical and sardonic as Microdisney feel uncomfortable, despite the obvious financial incentive. So those of us who managed to see them in the NCH and the Barbican can count ourselves lucky.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Three Books About The Fall

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        The death in January of The Fall's Mark E Smith, and the subsequent internet deluge of tributes and reflection pieces has rekindled my interest in this most unusual and perplexing band. As well as re-visiting the music, I have read three relatively recent books about The Fall, two by former members and one by an obsessive fan.
                Steve Hanley and Brix Smith Start’s autobiographies couldn’t be more different. At times in The Big Midweek, Hanley, The Fall’s bassist from 1978 to 1998, might be writing about working on a building-site rather than touring the world with a highly combustible art rock band. He is so low-key and self-effacing, it’s no surprise to read that he enjoys his current job as a school caretaker. It’s also easy to see how important he was to the band as a calm and solid presence willing to tolerate the often provocative and domineering Smith.  The latter needed good, but passive players to realise his vision and Hanley and guitarist Craig Scanlon fitted the bill. Co-written by Olivia Piekarski, this is a matter-of-fact account of twenty years in The Fall that contains several good-natured anecdotes about Scanlon and Marc Riley (Hanley’s childhood friend).
                As befits someone whose childhood was shaped by regular trips to Disneyland and visits to Hollywood sets, Brix Smith Start’s memoir The Rise, The Fall and The Rise is a lively, technicolor affair in which the erstwhile Fall guitarist charts her journey from broken homes to college band to the fateful concert in Chicago where she met Mark E Smith, her future husband and band-mate, to her later career as the co-owner of a fashion boutique.  Smith Start has a sharp eye for details relating to clothes and locations and for Fall fans, her description of Mark’s flat in Prestwich in 1982 will be worth the price of the book alone. Smith presented such a formidable public image over the years – alternatively derisive and defensive on record and in interviews – that it’s fascinating to read about ordinary details such as his home life, his working habits and the cruise he went on with Brix’s family.
                Dave Simpson’s The Fallen is primarily about Smith as seen through the eyes of some of the sixty-plus people who have been in The Fall. In interviews, Smith often described himself as ‘bloody-minded’ and that is borne out by the testimony of the various ex-members whose memories create a picture of an artist who controlled whoever was in the band like a cantankerous sergeant-major and who exerted his control even to the commercial detriment of The Fall. Hanley and Smith Start both refer to Smith’s tendency to self-sabotage, regularly following up albums that had commercial appeal with harsher sounding, slap-dash, efforts. 
                Of the three books, this is the funniest and the one that would be of most interest to the non-fan. Such is the wealth of recorded material and accompanying stories, a mini industry of books about The Fall might yet emerge.