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.

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.