Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A different way of doing things.

My wife joined the Labour party yesterday.

It's really easy to do online apparently, literally a matter or minutes. I've got other friends who've joined recently too. I'm excited about this. Not because I'm not the most political person - you'll know that if you read this regularly -  but I do find it exciting that the ostensibly 'comfortable' 'middle class' and 'middle aged' or whatever other social groups I and my friends fall into... that these people are not being complacent.  They are  inspired that there genuinely appears to be an effort from Jeremy Corbyn to do away with the PR of politics and try to talk frankly about the issues that affect everyone apart from a small proportion of the wealthy. Of course that's been made into a PR slogan itself now:

But I like the idea that we might return to a country or indeed a world where people are interested in more than just going to Westfield shopping centre or how much their house is worth. I love the fact that Corbyn has more important things to think about than wearing an expensive suit and is quite happy getting on with things dressed like this:

This movement towards a rejection of 'The way things have always been done' is a GOOD THING. I genuinely think people are angry and increasingly motivated. With the help of the Internet, they are beginning to form communities that work for them without having to put money into the pockets of large corporations.

Here is a short list of things that I am viewing as part of this move away from being told what to do :

1) The explosion of craft beer and the return of local breweries.

2) Local Sell or Swap sites preventing needless throwing away or giving eBay more commission.
3) The rejection of car culture and return to cycling after Bradley Wiggins' made it cool again.
4) The debate about home ownership beginning to move towards the realisation: there is no longer a Property Ladder.
5) Actual empathetic human beings with social skills on reality shows.

6) The recognition of vinyl as the best way of communing with recorded music.

Obviously, this being A&Rmchair, it was inevitable that I'd slip that one in.

The point about all this is that it is something of a step back in time, to pre-globalisation when we weren't all supposed to buy and do the same things. I hope you will definitely have things that you've spotted about our lives changing. And those of you with children may say that you try and battle with the corporate stuff but give in to pleas for iPhones or McDonalds. I know I do. But small steps...

Of course, what is also going on is that many of the above 'middle class' people are a) having to find alternative ways to make a living and b) maybe a bit righteous about that. The fact that the creative industries have been changed out of all recognition in the last fifteen years means that a lot of the jobs in print journalism, TV, radio, publishing and music now no longer exist.

I'm finally reading Gone Girl (don't tell me who Dunne it!) the protagonist of which, Nick Dunne, is a longhand version of the sort of journalist who is no longer allowed to write about popular culture because there is no paid media for him to do it on. I'm also reading How Music Got Free which is a brilliant, forensic study of the events which led to the MP3 revolution which decimated the record business. What are all the people who lost their previous living doing now. In the book Dunne opens a bar (hello craft beer!) and the people in the music business are either managing artists or have reinvented themselves (hello, everybody!)

And now there's a book about the overall situation called Crash: The Killing of The Creative Class. The author, an American called Scott Timberg, himself a journalist laments the disappearance of culture in the climate of corporate domination. I confess to not having read it yet but apparently after the catalogue of misery that the book largely is, he finds some solace in the fact that creative people have always found a way to be creative.

Here's hoping. Now where was that Labour party url...

Monday, 21 September 2015

Rocks off in Dismaland

We've slalomed around the maze of cattle gates in front of the building and are now standing inside it,  in another queue facing CCTV cameras, metal detectors and baggage screening machines.

Everything is made out of cardboard.

The girl in the paper inspector's hat glares at the couple standing in front of us:
"Wipe that grin off your face," she says to the guy,"and take that hat off."
Perhaps not wanting to enter the spirit of the thing or maybe because he's a bit chilly in the austere vestibule, he fails to remove his wooly hat. 
"You heard what I said, sir, take the hat off!"
I can't see the expression on his face but his girlfriend is now looking up at him with now only a half smile. 
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to step to one side and assume the position."

While all this is going on, Robyn and I have been keeping tabs on the queue adjacent to us and now there's a gap, which we could jump into. But just as we're about to move, the other security guard , an equally fearsome piece of work, bars us with an upright palm. 
"Don't even think about it! I'm not being your second choice. Get back in line!"
We return to our original place and watch at the man finally removes his hat to reveal stylish, shoulder length hair.
"Disgusting!" says the security guard, "now put it back on."

We are, of course, in Dismaland

The entrance to Banky's Bemusement Park

For those of you who've been asleep or drinking too much in the last month, Dismaland is the temporary "Bemusement Park" set up by Banksy showing work by over 50 contemporary artists from around the eorld all of whom have a similar anger, humour and energy to the legendary street artist. If it was based in London or another one of Britain's cultural capitals, it would be another great must-see modern art show; another thing to tick off in your Time Out weekend attractions.

The view at night from the rather splendid bar - note the Disney-style castle actually looking quite fairy tale-like as opposed to its usual day time burned-out shell makeover.

But it's not happening there, it's happening in Bank's old seaside stomping ground up the road from Bristol, Weston Super Mare. The old Tropicana lido on the seafront has abandoned by the city council since the early 2000s much to locals ire and disgust. There are no municipal pools in the town and despite it being a picture perfect seaside resort, it has the reputation of being the ultimate Btitish summer holiday let-down location: crying children, rain, squalid hotel.  It's the perfect location for a state-of-the-nation contemporary art show.

Another bonus for us is that, now that we live in Stroud, it's very near. We came just after it opened
on a bright, blue-skyed day and stayed until chucking out time. Indeed closing time at Dismaland manifests as the incongruous Hawaian steel guitar soundtrack being interrupted on the tannoy by a gruff voice saying, "Dismaland is now closed. Go home. We don't want you here anymore."

And now we're here again on a Friday night in September. Partly because we wanted to come again before it closes at the end of this month (Boo!) but mainly for Sleaford Mods, a band almost too perfectly suited for such a venue.

Jason Williamson has some pointers for David Cameron.

Like Dismaland itself, Sleaford Mods don't need any introduction unless you've been hiding under the stairs got the last two years. In the picture above you can see frontman Jason Williamson in full on rap rant towards a handily placed canvas of David Cameron in dress suit, dicky bow, champagne flute aloft. Unfortunately my photograph has caught Cameron's suit and shirt but obliterated his face. Something which Williamson pretty much achieved over the course of the show: anticipating today's #piggate PR nightmare, he continually punctuated the tunes with shouts of "Piggies! Oink oink!"directly to the Cameron artwork.

Here's a pic I took the first time we went so you can see what the PM's face looks like in the day - if you look closely you can see a Banksy figure pushing the PM's poster off the wall like so much unwanted graffiti.

The Dismaland stage during this year's day of summer.

I love swearing. It's big and it's clever but only when it's done by the masters - think of Harold Pinter's sudden 'shit cake baker' exchange in No Man's Land, the best of  Derek and Clive, or more recently The Thick of It. It's funny and powerful and achieves the very opposite of when it's used by teenagers at bus stops or drunk cricket fans in pastel shirts. Sleaford Mods unleash a torrent of abuse in every song and you find yourself smiling, laughing outlaid and nodding along in agreement at what a mess we're all in.

And than's exactly what you do at Dismaland too. I don't want to come across as a sales representative for the place (indeed there would be no point as it comes to an end this week, no doubt before Disney's lawyer's can get their teeth into it) but there is so much fun to be had here (not least to see the old, witty and playful Damien Hirst back in full effect after years of investment banking and see some really great new art.

Finnish artist Jani Leinonen's modified cereal boxes. He also collects beggars' signs which he plans to exhibit in gold frames apparently.

Here's a great image gallery of some of the best exhibits put together somewhat ironically by arch lefty newshounds, The Daily Express.

There's also a tough politcal edge to the exhibition too - stalls highlighting how landlords are hiking up rents and forcing people out of their homes (it's happening a lot in Banksy's hometown), an ACAB stall and a self-contained exhibition space called Cruel Bus, which highlights the way urban design increasingly tracks, controls and manages us like cattle. It's a haunting 10 minutes and one that on both of our visits produces the longest queues. Also, it's put together by Jonathan Barnbrook who amongst other thing is Bowie's sleeve designer.

Robyn leaves the bus early, upset by a Morrissey-esque montage of pigs being slaughtered. I stay on, examining various pieces of police riot gear and some cute freebie sweets given away at fairs by weapons manufacturers. Suddenly a voice booms into the bus, startling everyone:
"Ben... Ben! BEN"
I turn round and see a member of the Dismaland staff in distinctive hi-vis DISMAL jacket.
"Er... yes, that's me..."
"Sort it out, Ben! You your wife's waiting for you outside. You might get your rocks off if your lucky."

I sheepishly exit avoiding eye contact with those still on the Cruel Bus.

Monday, 14 September 2015

In which I ask Squeeze an awkward question...

There's a question that I have to ask. I came up with the question but now I'm not sure it's any good and the people I'm asking might not want to answer it and it might be awkward and embarrassing and all that might appear on national radio.

I'm walking down a low-celinged beige corridor with strip lighting and worn out carpet. Despite the austerity of it, it has a comforting, welcoming feel. It's the BBC of old. Not the New Broadcasting House that we're all familiar with from the Beeb's own brilliant W1A but the beautiful old former ice skating rink Maida Vale Studios.

It's a lovely old building that the BBC owned before the original Broadcasting House. But it's a property which I fear will be on the list of things that Director General Tony Hall lets go as part of the corporation's funding cuts. I've been here a few times before many years ago as some of my bands recorded sessions here for John Peel. No doubt there will be plaque dedicated to him on the wall of the luxury apartments that will inevitably be built on the site.

I'm here for the recording of one of Radio 4's Mastertapes. It's a series of interviews with artists about their breakthrough album, which my friend John presents and to which he has invited me. He did this because he knows how much I like the band he's interviewing today: Squeeze. Just like this blog, Squeeze are very much back after a lengthy absence. Unlike this blog however, they're already on the A list at Radio 2. Bet their A&R man is happy. As Pavement once sang: I know him and he is.

The Mastertapes format consists of an A and a B side and during the B side the audience get to ask questions. I'm a lifelong Squeeze fan and South East London veteran. If you search for Squeeze in the tabs on the right you'll find the tale of when I watched them writing a song at my friend's house - or did I? You'll also find how I briefly worked with Chris and Glen when Aimee Mann recorded a song with them. Oh yes, previous form on Squeeze? Tick. So I had confidently suggested some questions for John to ask during his interview but instead of marvelling at my journalistic prowess he's sentenced me to asking one of my own terrible questions. He gives me a card which looks like this with the question written on the back:

It's just Chris and Glen who are being interviewed and the room is full of men and women of a certain vintage - like the ones I described at that Wilko Johnson Rough Trade event in a previous blog: lots of ear hair, jowls and loose fitting black Levis. I've recently turned fifty so I am very much in the same demographic. Fortunately, without those jeans. Glen, as he told the assembled throng is now 57 so he's hopefully leading us all towards a dignified last few decades. Here I am in my own jeans and young person's T shirt in front of the stage in Studio 3:

For my fiftieth birthday last year, I actually went to see Chris and Glen at the Union Chapel in London's fashionable Islington. The crowd there were the same as described in the previous paragraph but with a frisson of media confidence and success. As I sat down on my pew (yes, pop pickers, it is actually a chapel!) I listened to the voices around me chatting excitedly about the imminent show. A voice cut through from behind, a throaty cockney fella with a deadpan delivery: "Blimey, no one's avin' a drink in 'ere! Why can't you get a bleedin' drink? I'm parched!"
A similar voice responded, only it was female and, if possible, throatier, "Calm down, there's a bar upstairs! You can't 'ave everyfink! It's a blinkin' church! You can getchaself a drink upstairs later!"
Were these two for real? It was like they were Mike Leigh characters. I turned round and, I kid you not, it was Paul Whitehouse and Kathy Burke.

This is the only image I could find of Whitehouse and Burke together. It's from the Slobs appearance on game show "Call Me a Wanker".

Back at Maida Vale, Chris and Glen talk about the album East Side Story and play Tempted, Labelled With Love and Is That Love? It is impossible not to get a bit dewy eyed about the whole experience. John points out how many of Chris' lyrics have to do with bathrooms and ablutions and Chris actually looks like it's never occurred to him before. Glen, just like old friends always do, leaps into relentless piss taking: as they stand for another performance his partner's guitar strap is giving him problems  "not clean enough for you?" asks Glen innocently.

And then it's time for the audience to ask questions. I hold my card apprehensively. Other audience members are all starting with an unnecessary introductory bit of flattery about how great East Side Story is ("Greatest album ever made", says one young punter) or how great the new album is (it is actually really, really good, just as good as the Danny Baker inspired series Cradle To Grave it soundtracks). Being a seasoned pro (after all I'm interviewing every week on the Podcast, right?) I tell myself I have no need of this. Be confident  - after all, I've researched it, I already know the answer to my question:

As I read the question to myself I realise that it's been poorly worded and I'll need to change it a bit to make it sound less like Lennon was shot just outside of the building where they were working. While I'm doing this, a married couple are getting loads of laughs with their list of Squeeze urban myths "All true!" laughs Glen. The audience are loving the banter when suddenly John introduces me, "Next question is from former A&R man turned writer, Ben Wardle" And I find myself falling into the flattery trap immediately:
"I just wanted to point out that Glen is wearing a great pair of blue suede shoes that radio listeners sadly aren't going to appreciate..." Actually, this is a good segue, the lighthearted tone is being kept afloat. The laughs die down and I ask the question. The atmosphere immediately changes. Chris and Glen look very serious. Shit.
"Yes, it was a very sad day," says Glen, "We didn't record anything"
OK, I think, now they'll tell the story about producer Elvis Costello suggesting they spend the day playing rock and roll classics and how cathartic it was and how maybe somewhere there are some tapes of those sessions...
"We just went to the pub," says Chris flatly.
"Yes, we were devastated and we just wanted a drink" says Glen.
There's a pause. That's it.
"I think Nick Lowe may have popped in," adds Chris helpfully.
Sound of tumble weed etc.

When the shows go out later this year (December, I think) I suspect my own particular mastertape will end up on the cutting room floor.