Thursday, June 15, 2017

Into the Blue

Stephen Black, otherwise known as Sweet Baboo, tells a very complicated tale of the opening number of his set at the Prince Albert pub: it was originally called Wild Imagination and was the title track of the new album; but Moshi Moshi hated it so much they wanted it left off. So Sweet Baboo retitled another song Wild Imagination, but he is playing the original on tour just to spite the record company. I can’t remember the new title of the original song but it was about trying to persuade Black’s three-year-old son to leave the house more and embrace the outdoors. Are you following this?

This deadpan comic explanation is typical of Black’s between-songs ramblings as he tells us about the space bongo - “people have been going wild for the space bongo” - played by multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones and how the band have slimmed down from a six-piece to three since their last tour. To compensate, he says, they have crammed the stage with equipment; as well as the keyboards and guitars Black and Jones have, there is another Jones - Paul - surrounded by more keyboards than Kraftwerk had between them at the Brighton Centre last week. When things go wrong - as they do a few times - it is all dealt with with good-natured forebearence and a lightning quick catchphrase, "ten years in the biz".

There are some excellent tracks played from Wild Imagination that show the sophistication of the arrangements, the simplicity of the sentiments expressed and the emotion of Stephen Black’s voice. The beautiful Swallows, with its plaintive refrain of “Oh, won’t you come back to me?”, is contrasted with the funk of Pink Rainbow; and songs such as Wild Imagination (the newly titled one) and Badminton capture the bittersweet essence of the Sweet Baboo sound from the previous two albums.

There is a trio of songs from those albums: the glorious Swimming Wild and If I Died from 2013's Ships and the sublime Walking in the Rain from The Boombox Ballads, the track that first caught my ear when I saw Sweet Baboo at the Green Man festival in 2015. However, the stand-out song last night was Clear Blue Skies from the new album. Formless and abstract, it rolls along, swelling and falling, with shimmering and mournful guitars underpinning a lyric of hope and sorrow: "let's rise/ into clear blue skies/ far from home/ clear clear blue/ let's not worry about tomorrow".

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Only Human

Gigs in big venues with prices to match are not where I usually find myself but, thanks to a spare ticket and the largesse of a good friend, yesterday evening I was in a very long queue to see Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre. The anti-tout requirement for ID to verify named tickets, coupled with increased security searches in the current climate, meant the line snaked all the way to the rear of the venue; but it was a good-humoured queue and we ended up sharing bottles of Becks with a man from Hamburg and his grown-up kids. Very fitting.

A Kraftwerk performance is not an ordinary gig: seated in orderly rows, all wearing our 3D specs with faces raised towards the giant backdrop screen that dwarfs the band, when I glanced back we looked like a congregation come to worship. Calling Kraftwerk a ‘band’ hardly seems appropriate: arranged in a line across the front of the stage, the German quartet resemble operatives on a production line. And on the far left is the foreman, the septuagenarian Ralf Hutter, the only remaining original member since Florian Schneider stood down in 2008.

Having never seen Kraftwerk perform before, it was thrilling to experience those unique sounds in a live setting: the sub-bass was like a punch in the solar plexus and those familiar and much-sampled motifs from Trans Europe Express, Numbers and others were a joy to hear. I was delighted that all bar one of the tracks from 1978’s The Man-Machine LP were played: the title track, Spacelab, The Model, the beautifully evocative Neon Lights and The Robots make this, in my view, Kraftwerk’s outstanding album. Others will disagree, I am sure: there was a lot of warmth in the room for the quintet of tracks from 1981’s Computer World, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic, and Autobahn and Tour De France were greeted with cheers.

The 3D graphics were superb and when the curtain reopened for the first encore, The Robots, the band had been replaced by animatronic doppelgangers. Ralf’s, obstinately not programmed in the same way as the other three, stood motionless for the most part and only came to life sporadically to throw some limited shapes. When the curtain failed to close at the end of the track, we were treated to the sight of the showroom dummies being manually removed from the stage. It was a timely reminder that, for all Kraftwerk's automative imagery, they are only human and there are people behind this peerless music.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Waving Flags

The Welsh poet Owen Sheers' 2005 poem, Flag, has an epigraph from Christopher Logue's Professor Tucholsky's Facts. It reads:

'Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.'

I am not familiar with Logue's poem but in those four lines he encapsulates the burning need for nationalism that is all-defining for some. Sheers' poem goes on, in a form reminiscent of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, to chart increasing sightings of the Welsh flag from a westbound train. Sheers expresses both pride - "our flag" - and disappointment - "dreams of what might have been" - in his national identity but what is more interesting about the poem is the disparate places he sees the red dragon. We are used to national flags on public buildings - "glimpsed above a town hall" - but Sheers spots them "strung up on bunting...on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym...tied to the side of a SNAX caravan." It struck a chord with me because, not only have I noticed that any lay-by fast food van seems to be obliged to fly the Union Flag as it dispenses tea and burgers to the travelling public, but there seems to be an epidemic of domestic flagpoles in East Sussex.

There are not many villages in my part of the world where there is not at least one national flag being flown from a twenty-foot flagstaff in a front garden. In the centre of Cowbeech there is a cluster of three homes each with Union Flags atop pristine white poles; I am unsure whether this a demonstration of their patriotism or simply to let the neighbours know that, like the Queen, they are at home. In Pevensey, the Union Flags are complemented by many St. George's Crosses and, in Hailsham, the latter has been painted onto the entire end wall of a terrace of houses; this may be a football hangover from Euro 2016 or the owner could just be showing off on Google Earth.

Whether the increase in English flag-flying has been prompted by the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales in the wake of devolution, I am not sure. The spread of British flags could be a response to the fragile state of the Union but it is more than likely an expression of anti-EU sentiment and an affirmation of British identity in a post-referendum age. Whatever the reasons, I have to confess to feeling troubled rather than stirred by the sight of these flags. This is a shame but, their appropriation by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s, and the English Defence League more recently, have tarnished them in my mind.

The flag-flying is not all bad, however. There are a couple of houses that I pass daily where the owners seem to have an ever-changing supply of international standards - each day presents some sort of Boy's Own test in identifying flags of the world. But whilst one house has flown the rainbow flag on the day of Brighton Pride, the other was sporting a 'Trump for President' banner last November, an action that could not even be redeemed by their sympathetic flying of a Hartlepool United flag the day the County Durham team were relegated from the Football League.

Although Wemmick tells Pip, in Great Expectations, that he "runs up a real flag...and cuts off the communication" when he is at home, the practice of domestic flag-flying is something that seems to have been imported from the United States. There, however, the Stars and Stripes is enshrined in American life by a ritual - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" - recited daily in schools and government institutions. Ours is an old country and I think we will never see such widespread displays of national pride because we are a people who are too relaxed and recalcitrant. A pair of flags I enjoy passing by most of all are flown, I am sure, in precisely that spirit and are on display to puncture the whole puffed-up patriotism of domestic flag-flying: in Maynards Green there is a house that has a large Smiley flag at the top of its flagpole and on the road into Battle there is a lonely cottage that regularly flies the Jolly Roger.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sign of the Times

I had just put up my Labour sign for the County Council elections when the General Election was announced; with such a lack of awareness of local democracy amongst my neighbours, I am sure most of them thought I was just very keen to show my colours for June 8th. My hunch was proved correct when one of them asked where my "Labour thing" had gone after I had taken it down following the East Sussex vote for a respectful period ahead of the Westminster poll. In truth, I was glad to take the sign down - I wasn't looking forward to a General Election: the Conservatives' opinion poll lead seemed unassailable, Theresa May was positioning herself as Iron Lady II and they were set to put Jeremy Corbyn's perceived weaknesses front and centre of their campaign.

Against the odds, however, things started to change: Corbyn immediately looked relaxed and popular on the campaign trail in comparison to May's stilted and staged awkwardness; Labour produced a superb manifesto that promised to scrap tuition fees, protect pensioners and put more police on the streets - and it set out how corporations and the richest would pay for these policies; the Tories produced an uncosted dose of medicine born of the arrogance of a massive poll lead. Reaction was bad to their dementia tax, May u-turned and then lied about it: "Nothing's changed," she snapped at the journalists who had dared voice their derision. May looked weak and wobbly and Labour started to narrow the Tories' lead. Even the hiatus prompted by the terrible events in Manchester has not halted Labour's momentum (no pun intended); they have continued to close in on the Tories in the opinion polls with 24 a point lead now whittled down to single digits.

Be assured the Tories will throw everything at Labour in the final 10 days of the campaign - not about their popular policies but about Corbyn's strength to deal with immigration, terrorism and, of course, Brexit. Expect a desperate Tory campaign to focus on what they see as Labour's glass jaw - the manifesto has less to say on Brexit than other issues; but the die has been cast on our membership of the EU and it would have been a brave Labour leader who bucked the prevailing mood in its heartlands and stood on a platform of reversing the, albeit slim, decision of last June. Although the terms under which we separate from Europe are important, what is more important for Labour in power is to stop the dismantling of the welfare state and the assault on those on low and average incomes through poor employment conditions and frozen pay. If the Leave vote was an anguished howl of pain from 'the left behind', and the Conservatives are intent on delivering Brexit to satisfy them, there will be hell to pay in the wake of a Tory victory when ordinary people realise they are still no better off and quitting the world's second largest economy was not the silver bullet they thought it would be. A Labour government will deal with the lack of funding and investment that is the real issue that affects the marginalised. My sign is back up now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wild Abandon

When Sussex Sedition was a physical fanzine written by people other than just me, we had only one editorial policy: all pieces were to be celebratory; there was enough of the negative written word in the world, we decided, and we strived to only be positive. Continuing on my own with this blog, that has been difficult when it comes to politics but in the case of music it has been easier to toe the line: on the rare occasion I have been to a bad gig, I have simply not reviewed it, despite the still-burning desire to share my thoughts on a Jenny Hval performance in Brighton a couple of years ago. That said, I went to Thee Oh Sees gig at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill last night not expecting to write a review.

I have struggled for the past year to share the enthusiasm of friends, music writers and 6 Music presenters to understand the band’s appeal. I am as one with Marc Riley on most things but when I hear Thee Oh Sees on his radio show it sounds as though it is 1973 all over again – like punk never happened. I am immediately transported back to a time when my sister’s boyfriend lived at our house and would blast out his awful King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator LPs. “You have to see Thee Oh Sees live to fully appreciate them” was the standard response to my complaints and so, when the band’s quickly sold-out Brighton show was transferred to my favourite local venue, I and a couple of other sceptics snapped up some tickets. In truth, I went to bury Thee Oh Sees, not to praise them.

However, even before the Californian band began their set last night, I knew that I was going to have to eat my words. With two drummers front and centre of the stage flanked by leader John Dwyer on guitar and vocals and Tim Hellman on bass, I could feel my sternum weakening when they were only going through their last minute sound level checks. When they began proper, it was an all-out punk rock assault; the energy was ferocious and there was an atmosphere of wild abandon that prompted crowd surfing, the like of which I have never seen before at the De La Warr.

With Dan Rincon and !!!’s Paul Quattrone the dual drummers, this was the line-up that made 2016’s two albums, the band’s 17th and 18th in a 20-year existence, A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances. What was surprising last night was there was barely a hint of the heavy prog overtones I had heard in their recorded output; instead, it was like Nuggets played by Johnny Moped with a hint of Warsaw and late Stone Roses thrown in. Dwyer used his strapped-high see-through guitar like a machine gun and, in a red and black striped jumper and cut-down jeans, looked like he was menacing the rest of the band to keep up with him.

It was a brilliant no-nonsense performance although, with little between-songs interaction, I have no idea what tracks they played; but as the 75-minutes without encore came to a close, my sympathy was with the drummers who were just showing the faintest signs of fatiguing at the merciless pace. Leaving the venue as converts, we hit the fresh air outside only to realise that the atmosphere and pace had also driven on our drinking at a similarly frenetic tempo.

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Ballot

"We are now trying to build a Labour Party branch in my village – seven members and counting – with the modest aim of making sure there is always a Labour candidate on ballot papers. More importantly, it is vital that other views are always heard, even in these conservative rural areas."

I wrote the above words in May 2015 in the aftermath of the general and local elections. Labour had lost the former, but had not even managed to put up a candidate in the latter in my area of Herstmonceux. That was when a small group of new, re-joining and established Labour members started to have monthly 'Politics in the Pub' meetings. These informal gatherings were open to newcomers as well and, from this, we managed to dramatically increase membership in the village. Of course, there were one or two high-profile national events in the Labour Party that local membership levels benefited from at the time, too.

Last year, we joined with a neighbouring area and managed to form the Heathfield and Herstmonceux Branch of the Labour Party. And this week, we have one of the original members of the group on the ballot paper in the East Sussex County Council elections in the Wealden East division, which covers Herstmonceux. Our branch also has one of its members standing in the Heathfield and Mayfield division and, across East Sussex, Labour is contesting all bar one of the council divisions. For a largely rural and conservative area, this represents progression.

In reality, chances of success in these elections is confined to electoral divisions in Hastings and Bexhill; but what is important is that we have been able to deliver leaflets, meet people on the doorstep and outside supermarkets, listen to them and communicate Labour's core message of our ambition for a fairer society and the need to protect essential services in health, housing and education.

In two year's time there will be another round of district council elections and, between then and now, we will be moving on from our original modest aim by working hard on the concerns of ordinary people at the most local level so that, next time around, we can represent them.

Jane Vinnicombe and Dave Newman are the Labour Party candidates in the Wealden East and Heathfield & Mayfield divisions, respectively, for the East Sussex County Council elections on 4th May.

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.