Friday, April 14, 2017

Never Stop

Danny Baker never stops. Over three hours onstage at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne last weekend, with his Cradle to the Stage show, and he barely gets beyond his primary school years and a handful of reminiscences about great comedians he came across in the 80s. But then he has never stopped: nascent scribblings for Sniffin' Glue, a stint at the NME, yoof documentaries, prime time television shows, comedy writing, ground-breaking radio shows and, most recently, autobiography and its subsequent sitcom serialisation. Transferring the raw material from his autobiographies to a stand-up show was supposed to be his swansong before he retires to the Florida Keys but another tour is already booked for next year so that, despite his many digressions ("Now, here's a thing..."), he can at least get onto his adult life proper.

Once he actually starts his routine - we have a very engaging half-hour preamble about why he's actually doing the show - Baker tells warm and funny anecdotes about his dad, Spud, and family life in Bermondsey. These are extensions of the excellent Cradle to the Grave TV show and are all told with Danny's familiar amphetamine delivery: never missing a beat, never drawing a breath. There are great stories about kids and fireworks, insurance burglaries and his dad's general resourcefulness in always chasing the next pound note to provide for the family. It all paints a picture of life on a south-east London council estate in the 50s and 60s which stays just the right side of nostalgic. But when he mentions his mum's jobs at Shuttleworths and Peek Freans, I can't help but feel a little sentimental: my dad worked at Peek Freans when I was a kid and, such were the employee perks, that I was a teenager before I saw what an unbroken biscuit looked like.

After the interval, when he does move on to his career, he attributes his breaks to "dumb luck" - being in the right place at the right time and having perfect recall. Working on The 6 O'Clock Show, his forensic knowledge of obscure past routines enables him to make instant connections with irascible comedians Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams when the pros around him are floundering. His love of comedy shines through: he talks about Max Miller albums as being more important to him than the contemporary pop music he and his friends were listening to growing up, and he seems genuinely in awe of the fact that he is on a stage where Miller once trod the boards.

He is a marvellous raconteur and, despite claiming to be out of his realm of experience, a natural performer. In fact, his avowal that he is new to the stage is not true: the first time I ever heard of Danny Baker was reading an account in the August 1977 Sniffin' Glue of him jumping up onstage at the Vortex the night Elvis Presley died to berate the punks, who had cheered the news, for being disrespectful to a true rebel. Hopefully, we'll hear that story on next year's tour; but I'm not holding my breath.

Cradle to the Stage is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 30th April.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Still Shining

I first heard of the Jesus and Mary Chain in early 1984 but I didn't know it at the time. At a party in London, a Scottish hairdresser called Alan, who had recently moved to the capital from his home town of East Kilbride, told me about two brothers he knew of who spent most of their time in their bedrooms listening to the Velvet Underground and writing and recording songs. They hardly ever went out as even the littlest kids on their estate would shout abuse at them because of their black clothes, backcombed hair and sunglasses in all weathers; but, Alan told me, they had formed a band and, because they struggled to get gigs, they were moving to London. "They're going to be fucking massive," Alan said. If he told me their band name it didn't register; but the other details did - they sounded so appealing. And within a few months, another Alan had stumbled across them and by the end of the year - on the back of a wave of feedback and riot-strewn gigs - I, and everyone, knew the name of Jim and William Reid's band.

It's been a long and winding road from that controversial genesis to their current tour, which took in the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill under a warm April sky on Thursday night: a now-classic debut album that stayed close to their early principles; a follow up with melodic Top 30 hits; success in the USA in the early 90s; sibling hatred and a final album recorded on separate continents before an inevitable split as the millennium approached. Then, a live reformation in 2007 followed by a decade of intermittent and sporadic activity before an unlikely new album release this March, 19 years after the last. Damage and Joy may have been a long time in the making, and the new songs rub shoulders with tracks from 10-year-old side projects, but it all hangs together to make a cracking album.

The set opener, Amputation, is one of Jim's older songs, previously released online under a different title, but it could easily pass for mid-period Mary Chain, a time well represented here with seven songs from the albums Automatic and Honey's Dead. Jim takes sole responsibility for vocals and apologises in advance for his singing on Some Candy Talking as he finds it difficult. There is no need, as his deep world-weary tone sounds perfect. A man next to me complains that the vocals are being drowned out by the guitars. They always were, I say; that's the point. William spends the whole set bent over his guitar, his frizzy mop back-lit Eraserhead-style. With an additional guitarist in the line-up, they create quite a racket; it's loud but not loud enough the same man complains; this time I agree with him.

There is nothing from Stoned and Dethroned or Munki but the songs from Darklands sound magnificent, especially the hyperbolic gloom of Nine Million Rainy Days which starts off the encores; but the encores are all about Psychocandy with a quartet of songs from their debut kicking off with the peerless Just Like Honey. And then we end up where we started with the new album: War On Peace finishes a stellar gig as Jim Reid opines, "I once shone but now I'm old." They might be older but they're still shining.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Great Grandaddy

Jason Lytle seems a little grumpy: the leader of Californian alt-rock band Grandaddy isn't making much eye contact and he dismisses the audience's early attempts to engage him between songs with a curt, "we've got to get to know each other first." And standing behind his keyboard, which acts as a barrier squarely set centre stage and front, you would be forgiven for sensing an air of detachment; at one point he squats down and, still playing his guitar, completely disappears from view for a couple of minutes.

No matter; the music was outstanding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night: the band's sound was full and rich and the selection of songs stretched from their debut album, Under the Western Freeway, to this year's Last Place. But it was two of the albums in between - The Sophtware Slump and Sumday - that provided tracks greeted most ecstatically by the crowd. Openers Hewlett's Daughter and The Crystal Lake prompted instant singalongs and, after an interlude of new material, He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot enthused those there for trademark Grandaddy songs of grandiose emotional sweep, and Now It's On had the crowd bouncing along to its anthemic chug.

The new album, their first since the band split in 2006 before reforming again in 2012 to play some live dates, picks up where the band left off. Some reviews have levelled this as a criticism but I think the new material is excellent. Four of the stand-out tracks - The Way We Won't, Evermore, I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore and The Boat is in The Barn - were aired last night. The latter, a heartbreaking tale of lost love - "getting rid of all of me is what I figured, delete deleting everything that had occurred, that's when I backed away and headed out without a word" - was one of two encores and the other, reflecting the twenty-year spread of material, was 1997's Summer Here Kids.

With a back projection of slow-filmed natural and industrial landscapes rolling throughout the set, it was a visual as well as sonic treat. And as the set wore on and Lytle's mood improved, it was clear that problems off-stage had been the cause. Whether it was the early curfew - he bemoaned the fact that Concorde 2 turns into "some sort of disco fuckfest" when the band have finished - or that something had been "fucked up", was not clear; but whatever it was, he was keen to reassure us that we "had been great." As had they.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unknown Pleasures

Having grown up on a council estate in the south-eastern corner of the capital city and always been a lover of the urban environment, it was a surprise to me on moving to the East Sussex countryside a dozen years ago to realise that my appreciation of the cityscape had been overtaken by the feelings the rural aesthetic could inspire in me.

Whereas in the city it was those large-canvas sights - the twinkling lights of the office monoliths on the Isle of Dogs viewed from Greenwich Park, the sunset view up and downriver from Waterloo Bridge – that stirred me, in the countryside it is the smaller-scale that stimulates.

Not for me Arcadian pastoral vistas and roses-around-the-door villages much-loved by traditionalists and those who would seek to preserve the countryside in aspic; instead, it is those minor details, the simple pleasures that take me unawares: a gently curving bend in an undiscovered country lane that hints at promise around the corner; a house on a rising piece of land newly revealed behind a freshly-cut hedge; an abandoned piece of agricultural machinery in a field symbolising the power of nature in its relationship with man. And on a spring afternoon this weekend, a just-ploughed asparagus bed, with its deep shaded furrows and sunlit ridges streaming away from me, reminded me that, in this week of weeks, the horizon is filled with the unknown.

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.