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.

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