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.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Mark E Smith (1957-2018)

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Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked to hear of the death of Mark E Smith in February. The evidence of hard living had been etched on his face since he was thirty, and since I had become a fan, in the early 1990s, he had always looked at least fifteen years older than his actual age. But having lost contact with The Fall I hadn’t known he was gravely ill, wheelchair bound and had been struggling to fulfil concert dates at several points during 2017.

                Like many fans of the band, I suspect, I went through a spell of intense interest in The Fall (from 1992 to 1994) before moving on and rarely listening to them again. I was in my final year in school walking from one class to the next when a friend offered me a listen through one of his earphones to a snatch of ‘Birmingham School of Business School’. Over a scuzzy electro keyboard, a sarcastic voice slurred its way through a chorus. It was strange and unattractive but interesting.  

                My next exposure to The Fall was their ‘B Sides 84-89’ album, to which I listened to constantly over a period of six months until Smith’s voice and words imprinted themselves in my memory. My friend and I would often say snatches of the lyrics to each other and the one we quoted most often was ‘Slang King’.  A song that contains a bizarre and rib-tickling mixture of ideas, it begins with Smith declaiming ‘Whip wire!’ and ‘Hawk-man!’ before turning into a song that appears to be about ‘Lord Swingo’ and ‘his triumphant procession’.  But then there’s mention of a ‘lime green receptionist’ and ‘Horst the viking’, and a reference to three little girls whose fifty pence doesn’t cover the cost of their chocolate purchases:  and so they ‘had to take, had to put, the Curly Wurley back’. All of which Smith sing-speaks with complete conviction over typical Fall music: a muscular guitar riff accompanied by thunderous bass and drums and spooky circular keyboard motif.  It was a combination I found baffling, hilarious and exhilarating.

On another song from the same album, ‘Clear off!’, skeletal keyboards and liquid guitar  create a suitably eerie soundscape over which Smith, shadowed by a witchy Gavin Friday, repeats the sinister chorus ‘Over the hill, goes killer civil servant’. But then, at the end, it turns colloquial when Smith says, as though he is shouting at someone across his fence: ‘Who’s there? What’s wrong? Clear off!’  This blend of the strange with the prosaic was one of the hallmarks of Smith’s endlessly intriguing lyrics.  At times the songs sounded like Coronation Street on acid or a Kes/Dark Crystal crossover.

Around the same time, I discovered the NME, the highlight of which was always the occasional interview with Smith, who espoused views that you would normally associate with people twice his age and who often launched attacks on other bands including U2 (most memorably when he claimed that Jesus would throw bottles at the band). This was delightful for any U2-sceptics like myself, as in late eighties and early nineties Ireland, the blanket media cheerleading of U2 was suffocating.

Smith carried the confidence that was so apparent on the songs and in the interviews onto the stage where his apparent disdain for, and indifference to, the audience was utterly compelling. The Fall were a legendarily erratic live band and I had the great fortune to witness just one bad show out of the five I attended.

Over the years, my interest in the band waned and was replaced by other sounds though I continued to marvel at Smith’s productivity as I noticed that hardly a year went by without the release of a new Fall album. I had seen his obvious physical decline over the years but it was a tremendous shock to see footage of a wheelchair-bound, cancer-wracked Mark, his body twisted and misshapen, his face entirely unrecognisable, on-stage in Glasgow at The Fall’s final gig in October.  But after the feelings of amazement and pity passed I felt more admiration for Mark than ever before. While most people with such debilitating health problems would (understandably) be keen to hide themselves away from the public eye, Smith put the music first and chose to fight on until it just wasn’t possible anymore.  

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Half Arsed Half Biscuit at Bello Bar, 13 January 2018

If The Beach Boys summon up visions of sun-kissed California and Kraftwerk bring German transport networks to mind, Half Man Half Biscuit are the sound of a rainy afternoon in a big midlands town. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the excellent tribute band Half Arsed Half Biscuit come from Limerick.  Despite the name, there is nothing careless about their dedication to the worthy cause of imitating Birkenhead’s greatest musical exports. 
               Well, ‘export’ is perhaps a little ambitious, as HMHB’s oeuvre has been, since the beginning of their career in the mid-eighties, solidly British in outlook, their songs filled with often vitriolic references to C grade celebrities, many of whom can be filed under ‘Where are they now?’.  You now need to be of a certain age to fully appreciate titles such as ‘Rod Hull is Alive – Why?’, ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’, ‘A Case of Vitas Gerulitis’, ‘The Len Ganley Stance’, ‘I Hate Nerys Hughes’ and ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’. And that is reflected in the age profile of the crowd who have turned up in Bello Bar tonight, several of whom are dressed in Dukla Prague FC tops (in honour of one of the Biscuits’ greatest songs, ‘All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’).
                Winningly, the band play it straight throughout and are always respectful to the songs, the singer (whose resemblance to early HMHB champion John Peel is a little jarring – that’s two tributes in one night!) replicating Nigel Blackwell’s leaden tone to perfection. It is always surprising when he talks in his own Limerick accent between songs and at one point he apologises to any British people in the audience if he doesn’t get Birkenhead just right.
                The show is at its best when the joyful audience sing along to ‘Fuckin’ ‘Ell, It’s Fred Titmus’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Armchair Honved Fan’ and there is some proper moshing going on by the time they get to ‘Kendo Nagasaki’ and the ferocious ‘Trumpton Riots’.    
                At several moments there are reminders of the frequent brilliance of HMHB’s bedsit/dole poetry. ‘The light at the end of the tunnel / Is the light of an oncoming train’ is worthy of Leonard Cohen, while though I am now probably halfway through my time on this earth I still find it hard to argue with their contention that ‘There is nothing better in life / Than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro.’   
                The singer talked about possibly playing Spirit Store in Dundalk later this year – check out their facebook page for more details.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi is a beautiful empty thing that follows a similar template to its predecessor, The Force Awakens: a band of plucky rebels attempt to stymie a new imperial threat while old favourites from the original trilogy are added to warm the hearts of older fans.  But unlike TFA, this film lacks the brio and momentum provided by JJ Abrams’s direction as well as its surprise elements (the new villains, the new masks, the new lightsabres, the stormtrooper turned hero subplot, the Han and Leia family issues). The Last Jedi is a flabby affair that needed some ruthless editing – there is too much aerial footage of Skellig Michael; there’s a section set on an intergalactic version of Las Vegas that seems to have been included to show off CGI technology rather than advance the plot; and at least three endings. There is also too much Carrie Fisher, who really doesn’t seem match fit and too much Mark Hamill, the inclusion of whom feels like a victory for sentiment over storytelling: they are there to appease fans rather than advance the plot. Remove the film from the canon and you would wonder why any director would want to spend so much time lingering on these two characters. 
                As pretty as The Last Jedi inevitably looks, the villains seem more underpowered than ever before. Maybe it’s partly due to Po Dameron’s baiting of him in the opening scene, but Domhnall Gleeson is a watery, dweebish imperial commander and his accent and bearing are reminiscent of an antagonist in a school play. Adam Driver, so good in Paterson, is just too much like a sad sack bloodhound to be a convincing bad guy and why bother making Andy Serkis into dent-headed skull creature when there are few scarier actors than Andy Serkis himself? 
                Daisy Ridley and John Boyega put in solid turns but they are not given the scope they had in Force Awakens when they were allowed be funny and moving. Instead, the spotlight is turned on the veterans Hamill and Fisher, who were never much good in their roles.
                As ever with blockbusters, you are left wondering about the behind-the-scenes machinations, the compromises that billion-dollar franchises inevitably force film-makers to make to keep the fans happy, to secure marketing deals, to win over audiences across the world.  After all, this is as much about maintaining the integrity of a brand and selling merchandise as it is about telling a story, hence this slavishly conservative film that is aimed, like all of the Star Wars films, at children but is desperately trying to keep its nostalgic older viewers satisfied. 
                Watching The Last Jedi you always feel aware that it is one segment of an enormous business, a unit that is there is help keep the merchandising juggernaut ticking along.  

Review: Starman by Paul Trynka

More than any other rock star, David Bowie was intent on writing his own story, and fostering his legend, through his careful control of his musical output and image.  Starman, Paul Trynka’s unfussy 2011 biography gets behind the mystery and presents him as a cultural sponge whose lack of natural musical talent was compensated for by a genius for marrying styles and for coming up with grand concepts.
The book records a life packed with incident and activity, detailing the various false starts of the 1960s, his eventual ‘sudden’ emergence as icon and innovator in 1972, the frequently addled years of super-charged creativity that characterised the rest of that decade, the moribund eighties, the reinvigorated nineties, the more reclusive domestic years of the new millennium and the late creative and commercial resurgence in the three years prior to his final disappearance.
                There is a lot of fascinating  material in this compulsively readable book which creates a beguiling picture of an intellectually restless and ferociously driven individual who, in common with many great artists, was addicted to taking risks, to following impulses (and to taking the ‘contrary’ action) and who tended the get phenomenal results from his various collaborators.
 Trynka gives credit to Mick Ronson for fuelling the sound that made him a major star, to Tony Visconti’s production wizardry on his most daring records, to ex-wife Angie for helping a reluctant Bowie to go for broke with his extraordinary image in the early to mid-1970s. Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers, Carlos Alomar, Mike Garson, the other Spiders and manager Tony de Fries are also given their dues. While many musicians feel they were not properly acknowledged for their input into his greatest recordings, Trynka does make the fair observation that few of them produced anything as interesting without Bowie’s encouragement and the experimental atmosphere he created in studio. And there is much made of his successful role in helping to rehabilitate the careers of Lou Reed and especially Iggy Pop, whose chaotic 1980s provides an intriguing counterpoint to the carefully-planned and tightly-controlled world of Bowie at the same time.        
               His hunger for success and artistic experimentation is complemented by a hunger for physical gratification in the form of sex, cigarettes, coffee, cocaine and alcohol and like so many successful people, one is left marvelling at his physical strength. There are moments when he appears to teeter on the brink of mental collapse (a period spent holed up in L.A. with cocaine paranoia in 1975 is perhaps the nadir) but unlike many others is able to haul himself up and move onto the next project. 
                Like all human beings, he is a complex and it will take years before a genuinely definitive biography will be written about him, and Trynka gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever some contentious issue emerges such as his aunt’s accusation that he neglected his mentally unstable step-brother, his long-term falling out with Iggy Pop, his ex-wife Angie’s scornful remarks about his behaviour, his refusal to play at the Mick Ronson tribute concert, his sometimes cruel dismissal of musical partners (often attributed to drug problems),  and his early embrace of the type of security entourage that became de rigeur for  superstar musicians in the 1980s. It’s possible that Trynka, a working journalist, hoping someday for an interview with his reclusive subject, decided that it might be in his favour to be even-handed in his approach.  The last two chapters of the revised edition, written shortly after Bowie’s death, in which Trynka gives a brief account of his re-emergence from domestic semi-retirement with two acclaimed albums before dying, feel understandably rushed, – there will be much more to say about this extraordinary late period in which the artist embarked on one final act of self-mythologising.