This Slapstick Gatecrasher

Sunday 14th August 2016. To the Constitution pub in Camden, for the club night Nitty Gritty. Tonight is also the birthday of Debbie Smith, who’s one of the club’s DJs. Atalanta is on the door, sitting at a little table as one enters the basement down a narrow staircase. I keep her company there for a while, watching others make their way gingerly down the steps too. It’s a pleasingly old building, so the stairs were probably built not so much for club goers to walk down but for minor characters from Dickens to be thrown down.

I spend a pleasant couple of hours here, even dancing a little. The Constitution’s back garden looks peacefully over the canal. As the pub is detached and a good walk from the shops and the more touristy parts of Camden, it has the air of an oasis. Local London. Dog walkers use the towpath, and dogs have been known to wander through the basement’s back door and straight onto the dancefloor. A pug-ish one appears tonight and skips around for a few seconds to a Kinks b-side (‘What’s this? What’s this?’). Thankfully the owner removes this slapstick gatecrasher before it sees the platter of birthday cake in front of the DJ booth.

***

Monday 15th August 2016. I’m editing my review of the Pet Shop Boys book, Smile If You Dare. I cut a line about the possible influence of Paul Morley on the style, mainly because the writer is probably too young. My own generation of music writers essentially fell into two camps: those trying to be Paul Morley – mad, funny, rambling – and those trying to be Simon Reynolds – sober, stern, analytical. There’s a part of the Pet Shop Boys book where the appearance of a hidden track at the end of the Very CD is likened to bettering the resurrection of Christ. I would call this The Full Morley.

There is still a lot of love for the actual Mr Morley today, as his new book on David Bowie is in the Sunday Times General Hardback Top Ten. The music papers Mr Morley once wrote for have either died or become free handouts. For people to pay for a fat hardback of music journalism, and to do so in number, is not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of the books in that chart are either Ladybird parody books or memoirs by the stars of YouTube. It’s very hard not to write something here that will sound like a rant from Ed Reardon’s Week.

***

Tuesday 16th August 2016. To the Regent Street Cinema, where I’ve been invited by Heavenly Films to host a Q&A after a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia. This is Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence, the surname-less frontman with the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2011, where I saw it myself, before getting a proper cinema release in 2012. For whatever reason, the DVD has been only been released now, and tonight’s screening acts as a DVD launch. Paul Kelly and Lawrence himself are present, ready to answer the audience’s questions, and I’m the one with the clipboard, looking like an albino Denis Norden.

I’ve interviewed people professionally for magazines before, but this is my first time as an onstage interviewer. But I go to a lot of film and book Q & A events for my own pleasure, so I more or less know how they’re done. That said, there is a craft to asking the questions, and it’s not always instinctive.  When people talk normally, they tend to monologue at each other, or switch off, or repeat themselves, or interrupt, or go off on tangents. A public interview is a performance: there needs to be a sense of putting-on.

To prepare, I read about a dozen interviews with both Mr Kelly and Lawrence, and watch my own copy of the DVD again. I also watch some old editions of the Parkinson show on YouTube, noting what makes an ‘open question’: one that will ideally guide the interviewee into making those little trips of insight and revelation.

On the night, I am asked to give a short introduction, which I do happily, standing in front of the stage. Housekeeping, flavoured with opinion. I focus on Mr Kelly’s lack of clichés: particularly no uses of studio mixing desks as backdrops to talking heads. And no talking heads, either, in fact.

The Regent Street Cinema has had a long former life as a college lecture hall. This explains the seating, raked high on a steep slope, looking down at the screen. Not unlike the set-up for IMAX screens. A dramatic history too: the Lumiere brothers showed their early movies here in 1896. The tickets for tonight state that we’re in ‘The Birthplace of British Cinema’. A plaque on the street also declares this to be where members of Pink Floyd were students. Not the young Syd Barrett, alas, which would have been apt for a film about eccentrics in music. No, the less interesting but more sensible members. That’s my wording, not the plaque’s.

Special badges are given out to every person as they enter. Sky blue buttons saying ‘Lawrence of Belgravia, Tuesday 16th August 2016’. There’s a queue on the way in. The rows fill up. A staffer whispers to me before I go on: ‘This is more people than we usually have for these things’.

I haven’t spoken to Lawrence since the late 90s. ‘Never say “Long time no see”, says Warhol somewhere. Better to act as if it were yesterday. So that’s what I do. During the Q&A he smiles a lot, which throws me. The first question from the audience: ‘You’re one of my heroes, along with my dad’.

I can’t resist using the Q&A to tell Lawrence that his music is on Lynsey Hanley’s list of songs to accompany her book on class, Respectable. Lawrence says he’s read it; a Birmingham connection. I quote the lyrics Ms H quotes from Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’, the ones about choosing to like whatever music you listen to. Much of her book is about the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, where areas of musical taste are psychologically prescribed.

On a couple of occasions I fall into the trap of asking closed questions, because my brain is wired to come up with theories, almost by default. That’s what five years of university does to you. But then I notice what I’m doing and move on. I’ll be better at doing that next time; I’d like to do more Q & As.

Lawrence stays to sign records for fans. Stephen Pastel and Tracey Thorn are in the audience. JC Brouchard, whom Biff Bang Pow once wrote a song about, gives me a copy of his book, Felt: Ballad of the Fan. ‘Is that a book on Felt?’ asks someone behind me. One of several books, now. There’ll be a BA course in Lawrence Studies one day.

***

Friday 19th August 2016. To the ICA to see Wiener-Dog, the new Todd Solondz film. I loved Happiness, and quite enjoyed Palindromes and Storytelling, but have reservations about this new one.

One thing is that I’m not really in the mood for his signature mix of misery, misanthropy and bad taste. Another is the form: a portmanteau film of four short stories, linked by the titular sausage dog. This works for old British horror films, but not so much for contemporary US black comedies. With one narrative paraded after the other, the overall experience is of fluffy disconnection. A little weaving together of the different strands is needed, a la Pulp Fiction. Or indeed, a la Happiness.

Still, there’s plenty of funny moments, not least the surreal ‘Intermission’, where the dog is filmed as if it were the size of a house, and walks through a series of unlikely backdrops to a Champion the Wonder Horse-like song. But I don’t think anyone sets out to make an intermission the highlight of a film.

***

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Post-Imperial Hair

Saturday 30th July 2016. To a garden in Clapham for Heather M’s housewarming party. It’s one of those occasions where I only seem to know the host, reminding me how bad I am at fitting into social circles. But I enjoy chatting with the others there – a funny, friendly gang. There’s a curious plastic box on a short pole in one of Heather’s flower beds. After placing our bets as to what it might be, Heather explains it’s to repel local cats from using her garden as a latrine. From time to time the box emits an ultrasonic hum. Cats apparently take an extremely dim view of the sound. Presumably even those felines who are partial to experimental music.

Coming back on the train from Clapham, I am surrounded by people in wedding clothes, or in the case of hen nights, pre-wedding clothes. Tiara-ed up bridesmaids, lads in hired suits falling over each other by the station barriers, group outings in specially made t-shirts. The height of the wedding season. All the reports about weddings being too expensive, or about young people preferring to be married to the naughtier parts of the internet, seem exaggerated, at least looking around today. Though I’m not exactly an expert, squeezing past all these glimpses of love lives at Victoria station, then traipsing home to my unshared bed.

***

Sunday 31st July 2016. I’m going through old CDRs of music, throwing them out, wondering just how much music a person ever needs to own. It’s not the same with books. Anthony Powell had it right: books do furnish a room. CDRs, being inelegant and at the mercy of the march of technology, clutter it up.

I read Anita Brookner’s A Start In Life. Penguin have gone Brookner mad since her death, and reissued about a dozen of her umpteen novels as rather beautiful new paperbacks. They look a little like the record sleeves for The Smiths: vintage twentieth-century stock photos in black and white. The exception is the new edition of Hotel Du Lac, which has a colour photo of a summery mountain road, dominated by a clear blue sky. The special treatment is, I suppose, because it was the only one to win the Booker Prize.

With its tale of a quiet, bookish girl at the mercy of a childish and slovenly mother, A Start In Life often reads like Absolutely Fabulous from the point of view of the daughter. The opening line, often quoted, is still the best part: ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’

***

Tuesday 2nd August 2016. Bump into Roz Kaveney in Bar Italia, Soho, and spend a pleasant hour chatting. Some discussion of the Bowie Prom the other night, where various singers covered the songs of the late David B. I think a problem with tribute concerts is that one has to like the singers as well as the songs. On top of that, when it comes to covering Bowie, the man’s image eclipses the material. Bowie’s own versions of his songs are always going to be the most interesting, because it’s Bowie. Still, I admit I have a soft spot for Nirvana’s take on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. And indeed, for Barbra Streisand’s entirely unasked-for ‘Life on Mars’.

***

Thursday 4th August 2016. I’m reading Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable, her new book on the psychological effects of the British class system – ‘the wall in the mind’ as she calls it. It draws heavily on her experiences growing up on a vast Midlands council estate, and takes its tonal cue from Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. What I most like about it is Ms Hanley’s unabashed digressions into her love of pop music and indie bands, seamlessly linking them with her wider discussions of statistics. There’s a section on her life as a member of the Pet Shop Boys fanclub in the late 80s. I’m currently reviewing a new book about the PSBs for The Wire, written by someone not even born until 1988 – a ‘millenial’ I think the term is. It’s interesting to compare the way the different generations write about 80s music; millennials will never know how hard it was to access music that spoke to them, pre-internet. It meant late night BBC Radio 1, or the music papers, or nothing. And then it meant journeying off to a decent record shop. Fandom was harder won.

At one point in the book Ms Hanley recounts a moment where her personal diary was discovered at school by her classmates, only to leave them baffled. It was covered in quotes from the Pet Shop Boys’ book, Annually. This sort of experience is, of course, now vanishing, as the personal jotter of today is more likely to be Tumblr. Teenagers may still feel isolated at school, but once they get online they can at least find a community to suit them. The use of pop music – and pop radio – as a sole access to another world is over.

Ms Hanley views the PSBs’ hits as a kind of entryist portal into a ‘secret language of taste and class’. The Pet Shop Boys were not only ‘The Smiths you can dance to’, as the critics’ tag went. Given daytime radio’s dislike of The Smiths, the PSBs were also The Smiths you could actually be exposed to. It was an era, says Ms H, ‘when it was possible to be sophisticated without apologizing for it’.

She goes on to talk about Momus, in fact, whose music she found through the Annie Nightingale show on Radio 1. A playlist made to accompany Respectable (kindly forwarded to me by the publicist, Emma Bal) includes the PSBs, Momus, and Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’. Ms H likes that Lawrence is from Water Orton, close to where she grew up on the Chelmsley Wood estate, and that he keeps his accent for singing. I’m conducting a Q&A event next week with Lawrence himself, for a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia, so I shall try to mention this.

Having had my interest in the Pet Shop Boys renewed, I’ve also been investigating their fan club magazine Literally, which Ms Hanley must have received as a teenager, and which is still going today.  It’s always been in the same A5 print-only format, and has never been issued in an electronic version. How fascinating that a group as electronic as the Pet Shop Boys also believes in print-only media. That said, I do wish they’d reissue the Chris Heath biographies on Kindle.

I get hold of an issue from 2014, which captures the duo on a US tour. The PSBs now have a strict rule about never letting fans take their photo with them. Autographs, yes, photos, no. Saying no to a selfie is, I suppose, the new way of being sophisticated.

***

Evening: to Vout-o-reenee’s for the private view of a members’ group show. The club has its own art gallery, and many of the members are working artists. So the current show is a pleasingly eclectic experience which nevertheless holds together, thanks to some careful juxtapositions. There’s paintings, sculpture, electronic light displays, and some sort of conceptual work based around a fake blue plaque for Ralph Steadman. I’m a bit baffled by the latter.

Atalanta K’s artwork is a huge painting of two thin greyhound-like dogs, Borzois I think (Atalanta writes: ‘They’re actually Sloughis‘), posed vertically against a black background in the medieval heraldic style.

I also enjoy a painting of an anguished male face, in a pastiche of Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ style. The title is ‘Ceci n’est pas une pape’, or whatever the French is for ‘this is not a Pope’; thus punning on Magritte’s pipe. It takes a while to dawn on me that the figure is Ian Paisley.

**

Tuesday 9th August 2016. To the Curzon Soho for The Neon Demon. I go to a late showing, after 9pm, which suits the film perfectly. Ostensibly a tale of struggling fashion models in LA, it quickly moves into a parade of stagey surrealism, eroticism, bizarre hallucinatory scenes, necrophilia, and finally violent horror. The idea that the fashion world is a form of cannibalism, where young bodies are ‘fresh meat’, is first taken figuratively, and then literally.

The film has had some of the most scathing reviews of the year, so it does rather force the viewer to take a binary side, for or against. In which case I’m on the ‘for’ side, as to write it off is overlook the manifestly superb visuals. Lots of pink-saturated tableaux of the models, whose beauty is so abstracted that it makes me think of the Terence Donovan video for Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, currently on show in the Photographers’ Gallery. It also fits with the recent revival in unrepentant surrealism, as seen in The Lobster, Black Swan and Under the Skin, though mercifully it doesn’t have the latter’s scenes of people moping about aimlessly for minutes on end. I get enough of that at home.

But also it reminds me of Liquid Sky, the bizarre early 80s New Romantic film about models and aliens in New York. This is mainly because The Neon Demon has a very early 80s-like soundtrack, all pulsating synths and ominous drum machines.

What clinches the film as a work of worth is that it’s the first time in years I’ve seen strangers in a central London cinema turn to each other after the lights go up, and start up conversations about the film. That alone makes The Neon Demon special. ‘I think everyone should see it,’ says one woman to me. But not everyone can take gruesome imagery, however beautifully shot.

***

Wednesday 10th August 2016. In the British Library or London Library at the moment, working on the review of the Pet Shop Boys book. There’s not many people about, which is nice, probably because of the fine weather, holidays, and the Edinburgh festival going on.

I’m using my old-school Neo2 word processor, which keeps me offline. Today I spend far too much time fiddling with the opening sentence of the review; always a mistake. You need to press on with the bulk of any piece, and then rework the beginning and ending after that. Today, thinking about Neil Tennant’s changing hairline on the Pet Shop Boys’ record sleeves, a joke suggests itself:

‘I’m not balding. My hair’s just gone post-imperial.’

***

Thursday 11th August 2016. I’m in WH Smith’s in St Pancras, looking for the right colour clipboard to co-ordinate with my summer suits. I regard WH Smiths as a sort of non-binary option for stationery shops. It’s there for those times when one feels neither feminine enough for Paperchase, nor butch enough for Ryman.

I pass some young people sitting on a wall outside Birkbeck. They notice me, laugh and shout out:

‘Haha! His hair’s the same colour as his suit!’

I want to turn around and say, ‘Yes, dear heart. It’s called coordination. You wouldn’t understand.’

Something I don’t miss about being young: having to hang about in groups like that. On corners, or sitting on walls. But I’m not sure I ever did that when I was their age, anyway.

***

Friday 12th August 2016. Early morning. I write this sitting in Spreads café on Pall Mall. A bedraggled, worn-out looking old woman is sitting near me, surround by bags, and trying not to fall aleep. She is dressed entirely in clothes from souvenir shops, topped off with a Union Jack beanie hat. Her t-shirt is an ‘I Heart London’ one. If she were a character in a drama about homelessness or immigration, the makers would be criticised for clunky symbolism. But that’s what she’s wearing.

***

A man at another café table is on his phone, telling off a colleague:

‘We’re not singing from the same hymn sheet, that’s the problem.’

There is a pause.

‘Okay, fair enough. We are both singing from the same hymn sheet. But you’re miming.’


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The Reverse Leonard Cohen

‘You’ll have trouble keeping that suit clean!’ laughs the 537th person today.  Yet when I take off my jacket and neckscarf and pretend to be normal, I find myself envying some other besuited dandyish guy walking about.

I just like to look like myself. Only problem is, to most people I am not myself, I am ‘Oy! Suit!’ until further notice. Roll on further notice.

***

Latitude is more eclectic than ever: this year’s bill includes Mew, Squeeze (the two following each other), Patrick Wolf, and Chas And Dave.  Not Patrick Wolf AND Chas and Dave. But I would never rule out such a team-up here.

A group of 11-year-old boys passes me. A plump, posh one – clearly the leader – suddenly shouts  ‘Hands up who wants to see Spiritualized?’

***

My Friday is very much a day of bits. Bits of acts watched, bits of bands heard. The way sound carries from the various PAs, it’s possible to stand in the woods some distance from the main stage, and hear a kind of organic remix. I can make out the Pet Shop Boys, sounding half underwater, with Bat For Lashes over the top, plus the occasional angry burst of existential swearing from the Poetry Arena. As the wind changes, the mix changes.

Today, I don’t see a single act from start to finish. It starts with me sticking my head inside the Literary Tent for a few minutes to catch Shappi Khorsandi, the Iranian-born comedienne who is currently everywhere. She’s reading from her book, ‘A Beginners Guide To Acting English’, specifically a conversation held at cross purposes with a taxi driver. The cabbie assumes that because she is a lone woman doing two ‘pub gigs’ in one night, she must be a stripper. When he asks her, ‘What do your parents think about your job?’ the daughter of an exiled Iranian satirist replies innocently, ‘Oh, my dad doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he does something similar himself…’

John Joseph B says hello, and I catch a bit of his show in the Cabaret Arena, called I Happen To Like New York. It’s a cross-dressing, picaresque monologue in the vein of Hedwig And The Angry Inch. As it’s more of a scripted story than a cabaret turn, one really needs to see the whole thing from start to finish, and I feel a bit guilty when I pop in about halfway through.

The latest score from the Ashes (or Test Match, or whatever it is), is displayed on a special hand-made board outside the festival’s Supermarket Tent. Years ago, one would assume the person doing the updating would have had a portable radio. These days they could be getting the score from their iPhone. But the score board is still hand-affixed numbers on bits of card, and that’s what pleases me.

I catch a little bit of Lykke Li (though miss her actual song ‘A Little Bit’). By this point I have Fickle Festival Goer syndrome, deliberately wanting a brilliant artist’s next song to be less than brilliant, so it’s okay for me to go and get my jacket from the yurt, or get a drink, or go for a pee, or whatever. Her opening number is heart-stoppingly wonderful, and I am happy. Her second song is just okay, so I am happier still. It means I can get my jacket.

FFG syndrome applies even more to established acts, as nostalgia enters the equation. When the Pretenders are on, you don’t want to be in the toilets for ‘Brass In Pocket’, so the more recent stuff has the Time For A Pee feel. But it can work the other way around. For some, dusty old hits might feel overfamiliar, even stale, and thus toilet-break bound. Going through the motions in every sense. Tracks from poor-selling recent albums may sound fresher live, performed with more gusto.

It depends what people want from their concerts, and what the artists think they might want. Cosy old destinations, or trips to unknown territory? It’s odd how people prefer new material to come from younger acts only (when everything is new), with the exception of Seasick Steve. He’s the Right Kind Of Old.

In my case, I flinch when bands reform just to play the old stuff, if I’ve already seen them first time around. My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies – whom I both saw circa 1990 – are back, but with no new albums. Take That can come back with new hits which eclipse their old stuff, so why can’t MBV and the Pixies?

Every other friend of mine has been raving about the concerts by the reformed Blur. As much as I like a few Blur singles, I can’t get over the sense of Pavlov’s jukebox – a conditioning for nostalgia. It’s as Philip Larkin described his later appearances when his poetry was drying up – ‘pretending to be myself’.

Is the appeal of the Pixies playing ‘Doolittle’ live any different to the appeal of ‘Mamma Mia’? And is there a Pixies musical yet?

There’s hypocrisy here, though: last year I watched the Buzzcocks run through all their old hits, and utterly loved every minute.  So there goes my own argument.

***

Never quite a nostalgia act themselves (I think they’ve resisted the ‘classic album in full’ gigs), the Pet Shop Boys typically pull out all the visual design stops, transforming a standard rock festival stage into their own Devo-meets-Gilbert & George installation. The theme of this one is cubes, squares, boxes and pixels, with a backdrop of white cubes as a projection screen, somewhat recalling Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of all things. Both Boys start off in blocky, Lego-like costumes with gauze cubes over their heads, accompanied by two robot-mannequin dancers whose cube heads revolve in sync. I notice how the older Neil Tennant gets, the higher and sweeter and more nasally-androgynous are his vocals. It’s like Leonard Cohen in reverse.

Despite all the synchronised videos, backing tracks of umpteen synth parts and programmed drums, the only aspect which feels unreal is Mr Tennant swaying slightly on his legs, or indeed moving about at all. Anything other than deadpan stillness seems too much like Rock. Which would never do.

The PSBs do a medley blending ‘Can You Forgive Her’ with a newer track in the same 6/8 time signature. This really does test my ‘old v new’ feelings. ‘Can You Forgive Her’ is one of my favourite songs by anyone ever. By playing snatches of it alongside bits of an unfamiliar new song, I feel frustrated. Medleys are not trying something new: they’re  non-commital dips, unsatisfying gestures, the musical equivalent of a DJ playing the start of a record for it to morph into a bootleg ‘mash-up’ with something else. Which might please the head (‘how clever!’), but rarely the heart (‘Aw… my favourite song. Where’s the rest of it?’)

On the recordings of Noel Coward’s 1950s supper-club performances, his medleys are outrageously cheeky: 20 seconds of one hit, followed by 15 seconds of another and so on. Just enough for the audience to recognise the song and to do that irksome thing of clapping to show they know what it is:

‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)…. Someday I’ll find yooooooo (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)… Mad dogs and Englishmen go out – (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP).’

Ultimately I’ll always want a whole song over any messing about with it. It feels okay to wander about a festival, sampling little bits of different acts, but not okay for the acts to do the same thing to their own material.

***
I meet up with Charley Stone and company (including Charlotte Hatherley) in one of the open-air Obelisk Arena’s raked seating sections. Combined with the huge video screens either side of the main stage, magnifying the performance with lots of  camera angles, it’s far and away the most comfortable audience option. At least, if like me you’re getting to that stage when you crave A Nice Sit Down, and can’t sit on the ground. My days of standing with the packed crowds Down The Front and braving the constant shoving are over. The only problem with the Obelisk Arena seats is being exposed to the elements, but it’s easily solved with an umbrella-cum-parosol.

[Update Sat morning: A strong wind turns the umbrella inside out and splits its spokes irretrievably. I did wonder why it was so cheap. Duration of brolly ownership: less than 24 hours.]

Charlotte H is playing twice this year, as guitarist for Bat For Lashes and as a solo act. Charley and I go to watch her with ‘The Lashes’, headlining in the Uncut Arena. It’s the largest marquee, with standing room only. The options are either standing at the back if you like a little space, though with a severely obscured view, or going further forward into the crowd and suffering the constant pushing and shoving. I remember how I used to deliberately follow bands with limited fanbases but brilliant records, so I’d never have to worry about this happening.  The Garage or New Cross Venue was my limit for standing-only gigs (or The Luminaire today).

Although I’m pleased that BFL’s brand of unbashed artiness and love of dressing-up (the singer enters in a big gold cape) is so popular, after two songs I am nearly kicked in the face by a child sitting on their dad’s shoulders. I read far too much symbolism into this.

By half past ten I’m in bed, utterly exhausted.


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