Sunday, March 19, 2017

Musical Education

One of my kids gave me a 'proud parent' moment last week. This was not one of those sports day/nativity play/school report type of reasons for a feeling of puffed-up pride. No, this was altogether more prosaic but no less important in my eyes. My 12-year-old son was doing his homework in the kitchen and listening to music at the same time. Nothing remarkable in that but what caught my attention was the song that was coming out if his iPad: as he wrestled with his algebra, he was doing it to the soundtrack of All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit by Half Man Half Biscuit. I could not have been more happy: this was real education. He told me that he had downloaded that track and Time Flies By (When You're a Driver of a Train) to his Deezer playlist (no, I don't know either). However, he had not discovered these songs entirely independently as, with an eagerly awaited Half Man Half Biscuit gig coming up, I had been playing the Birkenhead band a lot lately; but it was nice to know that my children listen even if it's not to the "hang-up-your-clothes-and-tidy-your-room" stuff.

On Friday night, the gig finally came around at the Assembly Hall in Worthing, a venue I had never been to before; not surprising I suppose, as the forthcoming attractions flyer I was handed on the way in indicated that its bread and butter is tribute bands and revival acts. The latter is not a term that could be applied to Half Man Half Biscuit: despite splitting up in 1986 after only being together two years, they reformed in 1990 and have been making music continuously ever since. Favourites of John Peel, Nigel Blackwell's band occupy a unique place in punk and post-punk music with a repetoire of songs that don't take themselves or anybody else at all seriously.

Drawing on the minutiae of celebrity culture, the set starts off with Bob Wilson Anchorman and soon moves further into singalong territory with Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus. It's not all minor telly stars and sportsmen, though; Blackwell is a sharp satirist, too. The perfect Paintball's Coming Home is like a musical Martin Parr photograph in its biting observation: "they go ten pin bowling after work and they're getting married on a Caribbean beach...they've got a German Shepherd dog called Prince, the one called Sheba died." And we all join in on the pay-off line, "If I'd known they were coming, I'd have slashed me wrists." There is a warmth to Half Man Half Biscuit songs as well, albeit a nostalgic one. We get a glimpse into that world of broken Subbuteo players and dodgy Scalextric transformers on Dukla Prague and the title track from the Trumpton Riots EP plays on our childhood memories; and pretentiousness is punctured with the rousing Joy Division Oven Gloves, complete with oven glove waving from the audience.

Clever and funny as the lyrics are, it is all superbly underpinned by the band's sound. Neil Crossley (who incidentally is the spit of Dudley Sutton these days - I'm sure there's a song title in there somewhere) and his rumbling bass combines superbly with Blackwell's choppy rhythm guitar and Ken Hancock's ("the first man in Wallasey to have a continental quilt") lead guitar to create a powerful post-punk racket; and as if to confirm it, they play a raucous cover of Camper Van Beethoven's mid-80s classic, Take the Skinheads Bowling - another one for my son's musical education.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

White Light

Shuttling backwards and forwards to Eastbourne on Saturday, ferrying kids to various activities, I was struck by how different the light could be over a stretch of 10 miles. The faint amber glow of warm spring sunlight up on the ridge above the Pevensey Levels soon turned to a smoky haze on the marshes and then numerous shades of grey that blended sea and sky as I reached the misty coast. Later in the day, the sun had conquered all and the sky was iridescent violet and peach.

With light on my mind and time to kill before my final pick-up, I was able to pop in to the Towner and view its current exhibition, A Certain Kind of Light. I always enjoy the hour before closing at a gallery as you can usually have the space pretty much to yourself; yesterday was no exception. Bringing together artworks from over six decades, the exhibition shows how artists have explored various aspects of light, from its power as a source of energy and illumination to its transient and transformative nature.

If the range of responses is broad, so too is the diversity of form: encompassing sculpture, installation, video, photography and painting, the exhibition is a stimulating and satisfying experience. David Batchelor's Festdella, a festive tower of illuminated coloured plastic bottles, greets you at the door signalling the warm and celebratory quality of illumination. I spent 10 minutes at Anish Kapoor's untitled mirror trying to work out whether it had a flat surface that gave a three-dimensional illusion or its concavity actually penetrated the wall; the notes suggested the latter but whichever it was, there was a typically enigmatic depth to the work.

Rachel Whiteread's semi-translucent resin cubes are more an exploration of space than light; moulds of childhood hiding places under chairs, they are reminiscent of her 1993 work, House, that mourned the lost space of the interior of a demolished house. Kate Paterson's Totality, a mirrorball reflecting eclipses around the gallery space was disorientating, as was Runa Islam's video loop of a photographic negative of a woman's intense gaze.

More traditionally, I enjoyed Roger Ackling's patterns of sunlight burnt with a lens onto driftwood and TV Room, Paul Winstanley's almost photographic monochrome painting of light reflecting from the screen and ceiling in a deserted television room in a University of London hall of residence. Another painting that stood out was Elizabeth Magill's haunting study in oils, Without, a deserted and darkened landscape lit only by the stars in the night sky.

As the five-minutes-to-closing announcement was being made, I had just reached the final painting. L.S. Lowry was famed for his populated industrial landscapes of his native North-West, but in later life he crossed country to paint a series of seascapes inspired by the North Sea. Seascape 1965 contrasts the grey of the sea and sky with the bleached crests of the breaking waves and an intense white light that radiates out from the barely perceptible horizon. For all its desolation, the light seems to signify that hope is out there somewhere.

A Certain Kind of Light is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne until 7th May 2017; admission is free.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to the Future

The Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the largest on the south coast with a 1700-seat capacity, closed its doors last month whilst it undergoes an interior renovation and the construction of an adjacent welcome building that will house the box office and bar. Due to be completed in late 2018, the refurbishment follows the recent £2 million 5-year overhaul of the exterior. Opened in 1963, this Grade II* listed building has reached a point in its life where it clearly needs some love and attention.

The architects of the building were brothers Bryan and Norman Westwood. Up until then, their Surrey practice had largely been designing laboratories for research institutions and shops, most significantly for long-term client Austin Reed. Such was their expertise in retail design that they produced the definitive text, The Modern Shop, in 1952. After this, they were involved in a wider range of projects that saw them design Liverpool University’s arts precinct, housing for the Greater London Council and the Congress Theatre. It was the Eastbourne theatre that Norman Westwood was said to be most proud of.

Designed in 1958, the Congress was described by the late British-based American architect Rick Mather as having a “Festival-Hall-meets-East-Berlin interior and a dour exterior.” However, it reflected the prevailing trend of the age and its glass, metal and concrete frame frontage are a perfect example of post-war Modernist architecture, whilst its rear elevation owes much to the Brutalist school. Inside, its three-level foyer and the moulded balcony fronts and concealed lighting of the auditorium do, as Mather said, create a Soviet-style atmosphere. Indeed, the last time I was there was to witness the cultural orthodoxy of Reeves and Mortimer.

I first went to the Congress when I was on holiday with my mum and dad at Pevensey Bay. The building would have only been seven or eight years-old then and I do remember it being an exciting and impressive sight for a child of roughly the same age: towering above me on a warm summer’s night, light shining out from its pellucid front, it looked like the future. When I moved to East Sussex permanently a dozen years ago, time had dimmed that memory and the Congress looked as though it was something from the distant past. Next year, hopefully, the future will be back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sussex in the City

The common assumption is that modernism belongs to the city: as a form and a concept, it is popularly thought that modernist art, writing and ideas are essentially a reflection of the urban experience. There are dissidents, however: in The Country and the City, the Welsh cultural academic Raymond Williams rejected the opposition of the country as a pastoral idyll and the city as the heart of modernity. For Williams, the divide was a myth and there was an inextricable link between the two; he considered modernism a single tradition expressing a sense of common experience.

A new exhibition in London, in a neo-Gothic mansion by the Thames, would seem to support this idea of a link between the country and the city. Focusing on the extraordinary concentration of artists and writers in Sussex in the early 20th century, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion challenges the idea of the countryside as an Eden and, instead, presents an area that inspired the experimental and the unconventional.

Created by the Bulldog Trust and curated by Dr Hope Wolf of the University of Sussex, the exhibition contains works from the historical Sussex homes of artists such as Bloomsbury Group painters and designers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Charleston, and the surrealist art and photography of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly. Also featured is modernist art from the collections of Sussex galleries such as the Jerwood in Hastings and the Towner in Eastbourne, and museums at Ditchling and Brighton.

Many of the artists held and shared socialist beliefs and some saw Sussex as a retreat where they could rebel against traditional domesticity by living communally or alternatively. Sculptor Eric Gill was part of a Catholic community at Ditchling Common and his alternate lifestyle tested the boundaries of most people’s idea of common decency. What truly united the artists, though, was the pursuit of innovation and the production of work that challenged traditional ideas about the countryside in the modern age.

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, London WC2R 3BD until 23rd April 2017. Admission is free.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


On stage at the Green Door Store in Brighton last night, everything about Nadia Reid’s set was intimate and understated: she asked for the stage lights to be dimmed an inch, for the monitors to be turned down a little and for the audience to shuffle a step nearer the stage to let the rest of the sold-out crowd in at the back of this tiny venue. And then there was the most intimate thing of all: Reid’s voice. Crystal clear and unaffected, she sings with a beauty and a purity that renders her folk/country songs tender and emotional without recourse to histrionics.

I was alerted to this young singer/songwriter’s debut album, Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs, early last year when it was given a glowing review in Mojo magazine. It was only when it failed to figure in 2016 ‘best of’ lists that I discovered that it had been released the previous year; further digging revealed that it actually came out in 2014 in her home country of New Zealand. That she had made such an assured and mature debut at the ridiculously young age of 23 was further evidence of her prodigious talent. Added to this, her admission that she took seven years to write the songs for the album meant that her debut was the sound of her whole adult life: small wonder it is such a considered and confident album.

With Reid on acoustic guitar and Sam Taylor accompanying her on electric guitar, they replicated the haunting Appalachian sound of the album superbly: Holy Low was dedicated to a baby in the audience (yes, a tiny baby) who was born to the sound of Reid’s songs and the sublime Ruby (“Where did my love go? He was the sailor of my ship”) was played at the audience’s request. Even though they were performing as a duo – it is financially prohibitive to bring the whole band over from New Zealand, Taylor told us when we chatted to him after the gig – rockier tracks, such as Reaching Through, were given full rein. The title track from the new album, Preservation, was an indication that the new songs are just as ethereal and, with her material attracting a lot of airplay on 6 Music, she may not be able to remain understated for much longer.

Preservation is released on Basin Rock on 3rd March.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Trudge Life

At one point on stage at the Con Club in Lewes last night, bass behemoth Jah Wobble chuckled to himself that he loves “trudging through the Wobble back catalogue.” If this was trudging, I highly recommend it. Him and his fantastic Invaders of the Heart propelled us through two hours of sterling musicianship, wise-cracking philosophy and some stellar tunes – all underpinned by Wobble’s low-frequency basslines.

It is not all sternum-shredding sub-bass, though: I last saw Jah Wobble in the early 90s when I went to a couple of his gigs in London at the Jazz CafĂ© and the Astoria. This was at the time of his commercial apex with the Rising Above Bedlam album and I remember, at the Astoria gig in particular, being almost induced into a transcendent state by the higher power of the rising and spiralling bass on Visions of You. The same happened again on that song last night and on the final encore, a rendition of Public Image’s Poptones, which must be one of the most gloriously hypnotic basslines ever created.

There were other examples of his work with PiL in the seventies: a drum and bass version of Socialist from Metal Box; a skanking version of the debut single; an epic treatment of the sprawling closer from the debut album, Fodderstompf – still with falsetto chant of “we only wanted to be loved!” But Wobble had a life beyond Lydon and Levene and has an impressive range of collaborations to his name: he has worked with Paul Oakenfold, The Orb and Primal Scream from the dance end of the spectrum and, from the avant garde, Brian Eno and members of Can. How Much Are They?, from his eighties' work with the latter’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, gets an outing and Liebezeit, who passed away this week, is remembered fondly as “the best drummer I ever played with.”

These days, Wobble also strays beyond his own material: the Harry J. Allstars’ Liquidator gets the audience dancing – some of it interestingly interpretive – and features an interval with Wobble at a metaphorical mixing desk orchestrating an hilarious zoomorphic description of all the instruments in the band; and one of the encores is jazz musician Roy Budd’s theme from the 1971 film, Get Carter, with flashes of Jeff Clyne’s elastic bassline.

With a two-hour set and three encores, it was a great gig; band and audience seemed to really enjoy themselves and Wobble cut a dash in his trademark pork pie hat as he prowled the stage. At one point he even choreographed some moves with the guitarist and trumpeter - but they were swaying not trudging.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do What Thou Wilt

On the 1st December 1947, a 72 year-old man died at the Netherwood Guest House on The Ridge in Hastings. He had lived there for two years and had been in ill health throughout that time; he finally succumbed to chronic bronchitis, pleurisy and heart disease. This was not an unusual occurrence for a seaside town boarding house with an elderly clientele. And this particular guest was typical: he had spent his days unremarkably, taking local walks and beating all-comers at Hastings Chess Club. What had marked him out from the others, however, were the parcels he received from around the world, occasional visitors from London and Europe and the fact that he spent the nocturnal hours in his room at Netherwood reading, writing and taking heroin.

The elderly man was Aleister Crowley and his incredible life had led him, not many years before, to be regularly dubbed ‘the wickedest man in the world’ by the tabloid press. An occultist, he had devoted his life to the search for wisdom through an exotic mix of mysticism, paganism, magic, sex and drugs - it was the last three that really got the press going. Born into a wealthy family in Leamington Spa, Crowley had rejected his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, in his early twenties, joined The Golden Dawn occult society and was soon practicing ceremonial magic. His inheritance allowed him to travel and, after spells in Mexico, Egypt, India and China, where he studied religions and climbed mountains (he was a serious mountaineer), he published The Book of Law, espousing the idea that people should be free to follow their own will. This book, and its motto ‘do what thou wilt’, had supposedly been dictated to Crowley by a messenger from the Egyptian deity Horus and it became the cornerstone of his own religion, Thelema.

Crowley also established an order, the A:.A:., based in Victoria in London, where his religion was practiced. He had become interested in the ritual use of drugs – particularly hashish – in his search for objective truth and had been privately experimenting with bisexuality and sadomasochism. Influenced by his close links with a German occultist group, Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley began to incorporate ‘sex magick’ – the use of sexual activity and arousal - into his Thelemic ceremonies. His spelling of ‘magick’ was to differentiate his sorcery from the popular stage magic of the early 20th century.

Crowley’s chaotic personal life – one of his two daughters had died of typhoid in Burma and his alcoholic wife had been institutionalised in Britain - worsened as his money ran out. He was a prolific writer of books on mysticism but also wrote poetry, plays and articles; and when war broke out in 1914 he travelled to the United States and earned a living there as a journalist writing for Vanity Fair and other publications. He became involved in the pro-German movement in New York and wrote for the propaganda newspaper, The Fatherland. This led him to be condemned as traitor in Britain but Crowley had been, in fact, working as a double agent for British intelligence.

Back in London after the war, he was prescribed heroin to treat his asthma and so began an addiction that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He published Diary of a Drug Fiend in 1922 and was demonised in the popular press as a result. This was compounded when details began to emerge of the goings-on at the Abbey of Thelema that Crowley had established in Sicily. Stories of degradation and depravity led to the Sunday newspaper, John Bull, declaring him to be 'a man we'd like to hang'. In 1923, he was deported back to Britain by the new young Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini.

In the 1930s, Crowley continued his nomadic existence moving from Tunisia, to France, to Germany. He wrote his autobiography in Paris and exhibited paintings in Berlin before moving back to London at the start of the Second World War. After periods in Devon, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, he settled, for the last time, in Sussex in 1945. After his death, he was cremated in Brighton where one of the few mourners read from The Book of Law. The tabloids reported his final ceremony as a Black Mass but were disappointed in the lack of sex and drugs.