Monday, 25 June 2012

Crossing Aung San Suu Kyi with The Adverts

Finally caught up with Punk Britannia this week. People were telling how good the John Cooper Clarke documentary was but I’d not recorded it. I tried to watch it while we were in France but the iPlayer said Non. A shame, but I’m sure they’ll show it again. 

Last night I watched the final part of the main documentary (prudently Sky+d before we left) and Cooper Clarke’s name was mentioned in some footage of a 1978 Radio One playlist meeting. “Boring!” said a boomy male voice, which sounded like Dave Lee Travis’. Oh, the irony. How many other vinyl hopefuls that afternoon would go on to have a BBC documentary made about their life 35 years later? Certainly not Captain and Tennille. 

Everyone was smoking furiously in the meeting. Even the scary looking woman chairing it, who looked liked a cross between Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Myra Hindley. You could imagine her sat in front of the guillotine, knitting. To her right sat the Hairy Cornflake himself, resplendent with a cigar in a fug of smug. Further irony: it turns out that Lee Travis had been a World Service beacon of hope for Burmese national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest.. And he was one of the lucky ones invited to meet her during her visit to the UK this week. It  would be easy to make a flippant comment here about how bad life must be to perceive DLT in this way, but hey, maybe if you are a political prisoner with every appeal being ignored by your government despite having a Nobel Peace Prize, the last thing you need for entertainment is John Peel playing The Fall. I don’t know if he was doing Snooker on The Radio on the World Service back then but whatever broadcast ideas the bearded breakfast bore had come up with, they clearly floated Aung San’s boat.

Most of the three Punk Britannia documentaries had footage I’d seen many times before and anecdotes I was very familiar with. This is not a criticism of the show but of my own punk new wave obsessiveness. Grundy, Winter of Discontent rubbish bags in Leicester Square, Jubilee riverboat arrests, Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?  All the punk wave tick boxes were ticked. But I was still glued to the screen.

John Lydon is now the opposite of what he was in 1977, all too willing to laugh and joke and talk about his ‘art’. It was great to see Bruce Gilbert and Colin Newman talking about how radio completely ignored Wire despite the press being all over them. And what an amazing anecdote from Gang Of Four whose At Home He’s a Tourist was scheduled for Top of the Pops as long as they changed the line ‘And the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket.’ The BBC (yes, them again!) didn’t want a ‘disgusting’ word like rubbers on a family show. The band suggested changing it to ‘packets’ but the producers said it would have the same meaning. In the end the band jettisoned the show and another group whose single had stalled at the same chart position for two weeks were given a slot in their place. Sultans of Swing subsequently started climbing back up the charts and Dire Straits’ career was made.

Punk was great for career failure. The other documentary from the season I caught up with this week was We Who Wait, the TV Smith documentary. Again, you can imagine the Radio One playlist meetings after The Adverts had had their heyday. Lee Travis would have been less inclined to allow democracy than the Burmese authorities. But the documentary managed to be completely life affirming. TV - or Tim - Smith came up from Devon with his girlfriend Gaye and they reinvented themselves as punks. Gaye went on to become the female punk icon a year before Debbie Harry and the band signed to the punk label Stiff and toured with punk icons The Damned. (Best tour poster of all time incidentally) Within months they were on Top of The Pops and in the charts. Their debut album Crossing The Red Sea with The Adverts is now acknowledged as a classic. Actually, I’d argue that it’s quite flawed having gone back and listened to it again this week. Despite what luminaries like Jon Savage say, half of it is great tunes, all of it great words but somehow it doesn’t hang together as a whole.

After that it was pretty much downhill all the way for TV Smith. The band went through a Spinal Tap sized list of drummers, made a decent follow up that was given the worst sleeve of all time by RCA, split up, all the subsequent bands he formed failed and he spent the 80s on the dole. However all through this Gaye stuck by him, despite having given up music right after the Adverts split. She is interviewed throughout the documentary and comes across as the perfect partner: intelligent, supportive, full of humour and empathy. No wonder Smith managed to stick it out. Like the song and title of the documentary, he waited and when Atilla The Stockbroker (I know, I know) suggested he just go out and play on his own, sans band his career transformed. He now runs everything himself, plays all over the world to an ever growing crowd of devotees and appears completely artistically satisfied. Living proof that following your dream can eventually come good. 

No doubt Aung San Suu Kyi would have something to say about that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

... and we'd like you to dance.

We were away hiding in France during all the Jubilee 'celebrations'. I'm not particularly against the royal family; they're just there in everyone's life, like football or EastEnders: ubiquitous and - in me at least - inspiring neither devotion nor opprobrium. But I'm glad I missed the TV coverage of it, because I think I probably would have lost a few hours of my life stuck in front of the television. Just listening to The Word podcast describing Madness playing Our House on the roof of Buckingham Palace or Elton looking looking twitchy as Charles made his speech sounded like the sort of thing which I get glued to then hate myself in the morning.

It was a McCartney-tailored event of course. Since Live Aid, he's the jewel in anyone's gala line-up. But looking at the pictures - and yes, OK, I forced myself to watch some of it on Youtube, he is finally looking like the truth: the cherubic pretty boy of the Fabs is finally succumbing to the ageing process.

He is of course 70 years old today. I haven't looked through the papers but no doubt there are vast numbers of people spewing words about it. Actually, I have looked at the Guardian and they've done a nifty image galley of 70 images with corresponding features.  My point - relax, my short point about this is that Paul McCartney has always appeared much younger than he was. Despite the fact that he's the author of not one but two of the most famous songs about ageing, Macca has always seemed ageless. Over the weekend I indulged in the reissued CD of  his debut, which comes accompanied by a booklet of Linda's shots from their early 1970s bucolic family life. The idea of Paul being permanently that age (28) brimming with freedom and confidence at having escaped the Beatles is hard to shake. It's only when you are confronted with close-ups of the dessicated showman with the union jack guitar and braces standing next to the Queen, that the horrible truth becomes apparent. Time has caught up. He now looks, like so many ageing male performers, like an old lady. Soon perhaps, he may join this site.

And to make matters worse, as my mum - with what can only be described as a gleeful twinkle - pointed out, "Cliff Richard is still looking so young." That must have been harsh on Macca during the Jubilee bash. A million years old, Cliff looked full and fresh faced. Paul, still playing Hamburg while Cliff was in the charts, seemed very much like a spinster at the wedding.

Of course, this does not affect the music, which goes on and on. I'd never really listened properly to McCartney before and it's a lovely thing. Junk, particularly, along with its sister Singalong Junk are effortless whistle-along classics. I hold no truck with those that lament Macca's loss of the acerbic, witty realist Lennon. Paul wrote my favourite Fabs tunes and even when noodling away (as he is on much of McCartney) still can't stop himself being a safe pair of hands. I don't find myself slapping on Walls & Bridges very often and you really have to be in the mood for Plastic Ono Band. Paul generally puts you in the mood. Even, it has to be said, when he's playing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

So happy birthday, Paul. Even though you're long past 64, we still need you and life indeed must go on.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Wilko Does It Right

Less than a week after Shelly & co.  I'm back standing in front of a stage waiting for another legend/old fella (delete to choice) to come on. Back when I was listening to the Buzzcocks in 1977, Dr Feelgood seemed like a band who'd been around for ages and were not for me. Wilko Johnson had already left them by the time I first heard my mate Robert's sister playing She's A Wind Up.

Later at Manchester University, me and Michael - who I am out with tonight - used to go regularly and see the then-named Wilko Johnson Band at Band On The Wall  in Swan Street. If I'm honest, the thing I used to love most about going was watching Wilco's bass player Norman Watt Roy, who, ike everyone, I knew from Ian Dury and The Blockheads, his bass playing and look was (and still is) so distinctive - fingers like frenzied spiders, shirt soaked with sweet from the opening number. We've all heard Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick but did you know Norman played the bass part to The Clash's Magnificent Seven when he and Blockheads/Clash keyboard player Mickey Gallagher were jamming in the studio waiting for Simenon and Jones and Strummer to arrive? These days he'd get a writing credit.

Now 25 years later, Watt Roy is introduced by Wilko at the Rough Trade East shop as "The man I nicked from Dury's band". Wilko is here to launch his book Looking Back At Me and has been charmingly plugging it by gurning his way though some vintage anecdotes. He generously reveals how we can copy his guitar style: instead of bar chords, use three fingers over the top three strings then bar off the bottom strings with your thumb; next lift the thumb and fingers to dampen the strings in percussive style while you chug away with your right hand. Simple, right? He blames this rudimentary style on the fact that he was left handed trying to play a right-handed guitar, "it was year's before Hendrix, so playing it upside down wasn't cool, man..." Of course this is ludicrously modesty because the moment he demonstrates the method the room is filled with his such magical Telecaster choppery that it immediately seems pointless bothering trying to emulate it.

The audience is comprised of men even older than those who were at the Buzzcocks show. Here's proof:

See what I mean? A audience of Big Figures. We lap it up though, and are treated subsequent to the anecdotes, to half an hour of choice Wilko: She Does It Right, Roxette, Back In The Night... I love Dr Feelgood now in a way that I don't think I could have when I was at Manchester. I think you have to have got a bit of listening under your belt to appreciate the simplicity and stupidity of it. And EMI have done the decent thing and put together a handsome box set which I've been gorging on for the last couple of weeks. It's the sort of thing that makes me wish I still worked in the industry.

As the band play on I weave my way to the side of the stage where I can see Norman better. Like Wilko, he doesn't have a great deal of hair now but his distinctive Indian look and magnificent sweating fingers are still the same. During the inevitable bass solo, a thought occurs to me that we are now so far out into the waters of middle aged man that any woman here must surely have arrived by mistake - this is the sort of bluesy old muso territory they loathe. Or is that just my wife? I share the thought with Michael and he agrees.

Later as we leave (passing a dapper Charles Shaar Murray at the door) we bump into my friends Sophie and Imogen who immediately trounce my theory. They are beautiful twins who have come - on their joint birthday - to see Wilko play. It seems then that for both men and women, Wilko does it right.