Sunday, March 22, 2015

Disclosure



If anyone can claim to be the house photographer for the Manchester music scene since the 1970s, it is Kevin Cummins. Born in the shadow of Maine Road, Manchester City’s old ground, he began photographing Buzzcocks, The Fall and other bands of the city’s fledgling punk scene following the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. And the next year, Cummins was on hand to document the Pistols’ final British gig, a benefit for striking firefighters and their children on Christmas Day in Huddersfield. But it was to be the music that emerged from Manchester in the wake of punk that brought his photographs to the wider audiences of the NME and The Face.

His images of Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths are some of the most well-known in rock photography and all of those artists feature in an exhibition of Cummins’ work currently running in St. Leonards-on-Sea. Disclosure is a retrospective, at the Lucy Bell Gallery in Norman Road, spanning his forty-year career. As well as iconic images of later musicians from his home town, such as The Stone Roses and Oasis, there are portraits of David Bowie and Sinead O’Connor on show, and some of the last photographs of Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers.

The writer Paul Morley once said that he seemed to have been writing about Joy Division for most of his life; and it must be similar for Cummins as it his work with that band, and Ian Curtis in particular, that endures the most and will always ensure their names are inextricably linked: Curtis, cigarette in hand against the black walls of the bands’ rehearsal room; Curtis on stage, shirt untucking, arms raised in mid-dervish dance; Curtis, in the freezing cold, wearing the mac that launched a thousand rain-coated gloomsters (myself included) in tribute. But it is a photograph of the whole band that rivals Peter Saville’s artwork for their debut album as the most iconic Joy Division image.

The group had shown Saville an illustration, from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, of the first pulsar discovered, CP 1919. The graphic, depicting the radio waves emitting from the collapsed star, was used in negative by Saville and centred in splendid isolation against an ocean of black, with no text. The sense of space on the cover was an uncanny reflection of the space within the music and it is immediately recognisable, without words, as a motif for the group. And Cummins’ photograph of the four band-members on a snow-covered footbridge in late 1979, achieves something similar. The dominance of the white space of sky and snow, the hidden blocks of Hulme and the symmetry of the railings pointing to the band – unposed, adrift and barely identifiable - all contribute to a beautiful image that captures perfectly the essence of their sound.

Disclosure is at Lucy Bell Fine Art, 46 Norman Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, TN38 0EJ until 10th April 2015. Entrance free.

Gallery open Tuesday – Saturday 11am-4pm, Sunday 1-4pm.

Kevin Cummins is giving a talk at the gallery on Thursday 2nd April 7-9pm. Entrance £5, booking essential.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Can You Dig It?



Turning over the earth on the allotment in yesterday afternoon’s intermittent sunshine, preparing the soil for potatoes, it occurred to me that there was a time when digging and planting on communal land such as this was a truly dissenting act – one that could lead to persecution and prosecution.

Over three hundred and fifty years ago, a group of radicals began planting vegetables and building homes on common land that had been seized and enclosed by local landowners at St. George’s Hill in Surrey. Food prices were high in the wake of the English Civil War, and the protestors called for others to join them in their project of communal farming and living. Alarmed by such militant action, the landowners called in the troops and the threat of trouble quickly drove some away; but many stuck it out. Throughout the spring and summer of 1649, the “Diggers” as they became known, were led by Gerrard Winstanley as they withstood a campaign of violence and intimidation. It was only after being taken to court that the Diggers were evicted from St. George’s Hill and, when they had left, they immediately established another community at nearby Little Heath. Convinced of their design for life, Winstanley and his followers sent out envoys to spread the word and Digger communities were founded in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire as a result.

Gerrard Winstanley, a herdsman and Protestant reformer, had come to prominence earlier in 1649 with the publication of a pamphlet in which he, and others, called for equality for the common people of England; he felt that the people had been deprived of their birthright since the Norman conquest. Unlike the Levellers, who had begun campaigning during the Civil War for equality in relation to law, Winstanley and his followers argued that freedom could only be obtained by restoring and strengthening the people’s relationship with the land. They called themselves The True Levellers but, because of the nature of their direct action, the term Diggers was quickly attached to them. And it was the putting into practice what they preached that made the Diggers so dangerous to the authorities. This led to their movement being quickly quashed but their example informed much subsequent anarchist and agrarian socialist thought, and led to some of their ideas being put into practice with startlingly contrasting results: think the Quakers and the Khmer Rouge.

Perhaps the real legacy is a little more prosaic. In his 1973 book Anarchy in Action, Colin Ward defined the allotment as land where ordinary people are the catalysts and designers of their own space and community. The true heirs, you might say, of the Digger spirit.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Restoration Time



If Dry the River are mostly described as a folk rock band, they are being done an injustice. The haunting tenor of lead singer Peter Liddle sets them apart from the many bands inhabiting that ground between the tender and the rousing; his plaintive voice manages to lend their songs a quality which is, at once, both hymnal and anthemic.

The East London band established themselves with their debut album, Shallow Bed, in 2012. With its trademark contrast of melancholia and euphoria, it viewed life and love through the prism of religious imagery. Typified by songs that begin softly and build to a crescendo of guitars, this was demonstrated at the Concorde 2 in Brighton last night by New Ceremony - ‘the angel of doubt laid down sand beneath our house’ - and centrepiece song, Bible Belt.

This style has continued on the 2014 follow up album, Alarms in the Heart. The rising title track opened last night’s set and was followed by the sacred scenes of the more even Hidden Hand (‘had a vision in the chapel/the flames flickered on your forehead’) and the delicate and moving Gethsemane (leave that painful memory/in the Garden of Gethsemane).

Introducing early single and set-closing favourite No Rest, with its mitigating refrain of ‘I loved you in the best way possible’, bassist Scott Miller commented that the band had been playing the song live for five years. If that seemed a little tired, it was dispelled at the end by his observation that, despite having had a bad day, gigs like this always raised his spirits. And there’s the rub: nobody can fail to be lifted by the restorative music of Dry the River