Monday, 30 November 2009

Studs Terkel: A Tribute

Studs Terkel at the mic, circa 1960 (photo: Russ Arnold), pic here

THE great Chicago author, disk jockey and social historian Studs Terkel was the senior keeper of the annals of the American left for the majority of the 20th Century.
He was a rare beast in terms of the modern media - a man equally concerned with interviewing the ordinary working American as he was with locking horns with global leaders or celebrities.
A prominent civil rights campaigner and target for the House on UnAmerican Affairs Committee, he was a committed Socialist and stood by his politics even when he it cost him work in the early 1950s.
He was best known for The Studs Terkel Program which ran daily on radio station 98.7 WFMT Chicago between 1952 and 1997. He interviewed thousands of guests during that time from Martin Luther King to Bob Dylan and Leonard Bernstein. He asked difficult questions and nearly always got great answers.
His writing career began with a portrait of jazz legends in 1956 and went on to bag a Pulitzer Prize for his legendary book The Good War in 1985.
He continued to write and campaign to the end of his life. He campaigned for health care in 2007 and welcomed the probable election of fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama as President in 2008.
He didn't get to see that historic night for the US but in many ways it was the perfect ending for a life that had been so involved in civil rights and the advancement of rights for the black community.
He died at home at the age of 96 in October 2008 but has left a mountain of books and recordings to guide the way of young journalists wanting to know just how to do it. Maybe if we follow his optimistic and committed example and see the inherently interesting nature of all humans and not just so-called celebrities, then may be new hyper localised form of news media will emerge as voice for all of us.
The Chicago History Museum and the city's historical society have joined forces to produce this remarkable website with transcripts and excerpts from some of his many thousands of interviews of the years, with the wonderful title Conversations with America
He set a standard for all broadcasters in his commitment to finding the real story behind the lives of ordinary people, believing these stories were as valuable as the lives of popes, presidents or pop stars.
Fittingly it is a response to one of his millions of questions that sums up Studs to me. He asked award winning stage actress Uta Hagen about faith, her response could have been about the great man himself.
Hagen: [...] That I am truly religious about. Oh my God, I think that the faith, the miracle of creation is what a human being is capable of communicating. It's not a private thing, it has to be communicated. Which is what I love about art—that you pass on, you make an offering of your spirit to somebody else hoping that it will help them, enlighten them, make them laugh, make them cry. These are things that make our lives worth living as far as I'm concerned. To me, that's art. That's my religion.
This brilliant documentary from Democracy Now is a fitting tribute to a great man.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Report: Paul Du Noyer celebrates the popular music of Liverpool and London

Paul Du Noyer (left) and me in 'convo'. Picture: Afsheen Shaikh, view her work here

I INTERVIEWED Paul Du Noyer about his last two books for the Cornerstone Festival today and it was  a hugely enjoyably hour and a bit because he posited a tonne of hugely entertaining theories about why London and Liverpool musics sound as they do.
His belief about London music is that the story telling elements of classic capital musicians like The Kinks, The Small Faces, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Madness, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Dizzee Rascal form part of an unbroken link between the singing broadside news sellers of the pre-17th Century, pre-newspaper era and the cockney market traders who became the template of music hall.
Furthermore, this thesis is deepened by evidence of the historic pool of talent who sought London as their Whittington-esque showbiz El Dorado over the years.
Musicians headed to London to make their name through the ages and so in the era of music hall they assumed the popular Cockney stereotype that the people loved. The showbiz and 'media' industries of the day were there, and as a result, in later years they went to London because that's where the work was. From music hall to big band, to jazz to folk and rock - even the feckin' Beatles did it - London continued to be a centre for the popular arts.
And although the Beatles didn't, to a large extent, become proto-Lahndaners, London, for most performers is a place where they go to reinvent themselves and to make money in the process. London is pragmatic and showy in equal measures - that's just what people do when they get there. It's the reason why outsiders like Damon Albarn, Jimmy Pursey, Paul Weller et al, suburban boys unsure of themselves, become more Cockernee than the the 'cor blimey, love a dove' natives.
As GM follower Tom McGeehan tweeted after the event today, the key point about Paul's talk was: "London is a city, Liverpool is a state of mind."
Paul's belief that Liverpool has a melodic, stoned and anarcho-surrealist pop sensibility is more in keeping with a debunking of the notion that there is a North South divide fashionable in deconstructions of British culture.
Rather, Paul said, we should think of Liverpool's position in Britain's musical canon more in terms of an East/ West divide that it fits in with a line that runs from the Western Isles of Scotland and takes in Glasgow, the Lake District, Wales and Cornwall.
In these terms, he said, Liverpool's melodic, slightly melancholic dispositions fit in with notions of a residual Celtic Twilight - of a place people may have gone to escape their previous malaises but are marooned because they haven't got to their desired final destinations of the USA or the new world - just like those who came to Liverpool in the first wave of Irish immigration in the mid 1840s.
Liverpool was not a place of ultimate emigration historically. People, either Irish, West Indian or Italian or Scandinavian stayed here not because they intended to, but because they hadn't enough money to go anywhere else. Through this necessity was born a virtue of new 'Scouseness'.
But the seagoing tradition of Liverpool in the time of its prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, drove a collective imagination: dads and uncles came back from foreign lands with exotic stories and the sight of big ships and the eternal Mersey skyline (even to this day) inspire Scouse musicians to produce, not pragmatic storytelling, but dreamy eyes-to-the-sky reverie.

It was a great event, enjoyed by one and all and you can listen to third year journalism student Dave Jenkins interview Paul on Radio Hope in the clip above.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The worst four film trailers of all time

GM WENT to the cinema to see the George Clooney dominated anti-war pic The Men Who Stare at Goats and was confronted with THE four worst trailers of all time in advance of the main feature.
It poses three questions:
a) why would I even go near any of these films? They all look dreadful,
b) has Guy Whattyacallim fallen so far since Lock Stock... that his name is so small on the poster for the obviously dreadful Sherlock
c) why, in an era of crowd sourcing and trending, would you think the, perhaps, lefty types who have gone to TMWSAG would want to see any of these four movies?
BTW: The Cameron Diaz-fronted The Box is an unembedable YouTube, perhaps because it is awful. Try and find it, GM-ers

Paul Du Noyer @ The Cornerstone: The quintessential songs of Liverpool and London

AS mentioned on recent GM's passim, I am 'in conversation' with Paul Du Noyer at the Cornerstone campus of Liverpool Hope University for its Cornerstone Festival tomorrow. (Thursday, November 26, Room: COR114, 1pm)
I have put together a collaborative playlist on Spotify as a talking point for one of the questions.
However, what do you think are the best songs about Liverpool and London or the best songs from acts from those cities?
If you are a Spotify user please contribute here or add your suggestions below.
Click on the picture for initial choices from GM HQ.
Please offer all your opinions widely and generously.

Monday, 23 November 2009

FOLLOW FRIDAY 10: The Go-Betweens

'That's her handwriting/ That's the way she writes' 
The Go-Betweens 'Headfull of Steam'

IN May 2005, I was backstage in Liverpool venue the L2 at The Go-Betweens with Coleraine lad Andy Kelly of the Liverpool Daily Post and his soon-to-be missus Rachael - and we were actually talking to the actual Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens.
I really couldn't have been happier because the band had been my big love for much of the 1980s.
Based around the friendship and song writing partnership of McLennan (above, right) and Forster (left) they were the greatest cult band of their era. Albums like 16 Lovers Lane, Tallulah and Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express were classically literate pop music made by very intelligent people.
They wrote a clutch of remarkable songs on three or four brilliant albums. They may not have troubled the top reaches of the charts, but NO band meant more to me.
They were loved by great looking intelligent women in short Paisley skirts, black tights and DM shoes and wrote magnificent songs and that was enough for me.
As I got older and they broke up to pursue solo projects, McLennan's music meant even more to me. His four solo albums and various side projects were treasured thanks in no small part to the memory of the Gobies. Even Forster's solo albums, although not as treasured, meant something to me.
In this era of free music on demand, I still treasure McLennan's solo albums Watershed, Fireboy, In Your Bright Ray and Horsebreaker Star. They are real high water marks of the era and whether anyone else feels the same way, I couldn't care less.
Then, around the turn of the century, they got back together and made The Friends of Rachel Worth and then in 2005 the glorious Oceans Apart.
After the release of the latter, I interviewed Grant on the phone from his Brisbane home before they played Liverpool, it was a dream come true. He was witty, intelligent and gracious in the way I had imagined he would be when I pretended to do interviews with him as a teenage fanzine writer and wannabe journalist in the 1980s.
As a result of the following piece in the Daily Post I was dubbed 'the wonderful Paddy Hoey' by the band's website, it's still my most treasured achievement in journalism.
Then Grant died and it all stopped. Just after their best album and when they were writing the best music of their lives to the biggest audience the ever had.
Just like Lloyd Cole, The Go-Betweens never let me down, always surrounded me with love and we are all better people for their body of work.
There, didn't mention 'jangly' or 'arch' once.
FOLLOW FRIDAY 10 Spotify collaborative playlist here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Film review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

WITH GEORGE Clooney in restrained, but mouschio-ed, mad mode and Jeff Bridges in hippy dippy, flower child mode - you would be excused for thinking that the Grant Heslov-helmed The Men who Stared at Goats is the anti-war movie the Coen Brothers have never made.
But that would be unfair to a brilliant wee movie which offers tonnes of laughs without being the satiric master class it sets out to be. It certainly has none of the anarchic mentalism of the best of the Coens as well as stopping short of the classic anti-war texts of Catch 22 and M*A*S*H.
But, based on the uproarious 2004 Jon Ronson book of the same name, it fictionalises the US Army's actual madcap investigations into new age and paranormal activities, now fictionally placing them within the context of the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Crucially it keeps most of the screwiness of Ronson's text.
In the 1970s, the army believes that the Russians have been developing the psychic powers of their operatives and so the Yanks try to do the same themselves thanks to the general who believes he can jump through walls if he concentrates hard enough. Clooney's character (Len Cassady) comes to prominence when he 'actually' psychically finds an Italian kidnap hostage and goes on to stop a goat's heart just by staring at it. (He probably didn't really do.)
Ewan McGregor (who seems mostly to have been cast for a long running Star Wars-derived gag) plays mid-Western newspaper reporter Bob Wilton who stumbles upon this story of the Psy-ops organisation during the break-up of his marriage and travels to Iraq to rejuvenate his career. (Having said that, his accent is only authentically mid-Western if we consider the American mid-West to lie somewhere in an area which centres on the Scottish towns of Crieff, Dunblane and Perth).
Clearly, this is another of those ideologically driven projects Clooney takes on, normally with Steven Soderbergh, which sit outside of his main gig of being mega bucks, big box office/ coffee endorsing gold.
TMWSAG takes apart the ridiculousness of the free-market approach to the war in Iraq, as Clooney and McGregor stumble into Iraq during the invasion. We find out that the latter, a former member of the top secret paranormal unit of the US Army, is being 'guided' there psychically thanks to a dream, to find Bridges' character - his former commanding officer.
At this juncture, two rival US security firms shoot one another up in Ramadi and the Robert Altman-style satire is a little heavy handed, but that is unfair of a movie which makes a bigger point.
Through a series of voice overs and flash backs we get a picture of the new age, paranormalist unit which we know actually existed thanks to Ronson's excellent book. The ludicrousness of the Cold War ideology drove some US generals to believe in the nonsense of paranormal powers. In this ludicrous premise, this movie says, lies the ridiculousness of believing in those who believe they can sort out Iraq. If they believe in killing goats mentally - how can we trust their strategy in the theatre of war.
Despite there being a tonne of people on screen, this is essentially a tight ensemble cast. Kevin Spacey puts in his usual brilliant mad turn as Clooney's nemesis, Bridges could have phoned his part in, but doesn't and is as endearing as always. McGregor, accent aside, is convincing as a man cast adrift from the earlier realities of his life and willing to subject himself to the inherent madness in Iraq as a result.
But, ultimately, this is Clooney's film. He is absolutely mesmerising. Every twitch, every eyebrow raise is hugely watchable. It's worth £6.95 of anyone's money of a rainy Saturday evening.
And here's the point of this, frankly,  terrible review: we need actors of commitment like Clooney - a man who can make one for the studio and one for himself when the latter movie is trying to make a serious point.
Clooney has an admirable left of centre political heart which seeks out movies which he knows play against his type and which make a stronger point because of it. In this respect, in committing to a bi-polar career, Clooney becomes something even more important: an actor with a heart, a conscience and a mesmerising presence which decorates anything he is in with a veneer of quality.
Name one other actor who does that from blockbuster to art house?
TMWSAG may not be is not satiric enough to be M*A*S*H or Catch 22 and may not be funny enough to be a Coen's screwball classic, but at least Clooney continues to be willing to put his head above the parapet to do interesting projects which wouldn't normally get made.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Gobshite's interviewed by the wonderful Malachi O'Doherty

IT was a pleasure to voice my admiration for Belfast author, broadcaster, journalist and podcaster Malachi O'Doherty (right)  previously here, but it was an even greater pleasure to chat to him about the future of big and small media on Thursday.
I did talk far too much, but it was brilliant to be speak to the great man and the result is available above.
Rather anachronistically for an author who has written much about the decline of Christianity in Ireland, I most associate Malachi with listening to him on Radio Ulster on a Sunday morning on the way home from mass in the car with the family, after Sunday Miscellany on RTE on the way there.
That, however,  may be an example of what (name drop, ahoy) Joe Strummer  once described to me as 'false memory syndrome.'
Please listen to extracts from his new book here and listen to the future of arts journalism and broadcasting here.
You can download the podcast from the Sound Cloud website by clicking on the audio bar above.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Malachi O'Doherty reads from The Telling Year: Belfast 1972

Podcast TY1  by  VoiceofMal

MALACHI'S book The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 is one of the best written about the bloodiest year of the of the Troubles. Please listen to this extract, because it says much of what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland in that period.
You can listen to extracts of his new book Under his Roof here.

Andrew Graham Dixon: Making art history sexy again

SUNDAY TELEGRAPH and BBC art critic Andrew Graham Dixon is the doyen of arts broadcasters in Britain. Forget yer blokish, yet stealth-high brow Lawson, forget yer self regarding highbrow Sewell, forget even (stifle a gasp) yer populist, knowledgeable and wonderful Kermode (see side bar) - AGD is the guv'nor when it comes to accessible high brow arts programming.
His own CV says more than any crass repackaging that I could do here. It's an astoundingly ambitious body of work.
His current show The Art of Eternity, 'unravelling the mysteries of the art of the pre-perspective era', currently showing on BBC4, is a thoroughly engrossing examination of the role of religion in the development of art from Byzantium to the Renaissance. iPlayer the mutha here.
His genius, and it is really is worth such high praise, is in presenting the difficult historiography of modern art historianship in an accessible way. What shines through is a deep knowledge and love of art nurtured during his postgraduate studies in the Courthauld Institute in the early 1980s. C
He has an enthusiastic onscreen presence and a pleasantly plummy public school way which still fits the role of the modern on-screen intellectual.
But, beyond such simplistic Wolfy Smith-style class politics from me, he succeeds in portraying art history as an essential, interesting, vital and invigorating subject. You will never once think, 'Meh, well it's... just OK.' He makes great art interesting and brilliantly sets it in its historical context.
And, big claim alert, he is exactly the kind of exemplifier we need to use to justify the licence fee in the not-too-distant future debates we will be having with the free marketeers who want to break-up the Beeb.
Every single penny we have paid him was worth it. There, argue that Daily Mail.
Listen to the opening address of his landmark three part  series The Art of Spain below and I dare you not to be enthralled and begging to watch every minute of a work which moves from the Moors to Goya through Picasso, Dali and Miro to modern architecture.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

FOLLOW FRIDAY: Always ready to be heartbroken by Lloyd Cole

MAYBE it's the day for reminiscences of Lismore Comprehensive in Craigavon, but that's where it all started for me with Lloyd Cole. Who'd have known it would end up with sharing a great 12 year old Irish whiskey in a dressing room in Birkenhead next to a vintage tram?
In the mid 80's,  in Mrs Gallagher's form class, there was a coterie of hip lads who had older brothers and so they knew the best music. I was a crushingly unhip, insecure and sheltered first born and became obssessed by this C90 tape they were knowingly passing around with the words 'Lloyd Cole and the Commies' written in felt pen on that wee name strip tapes have.
So I went to where I always went when I needed to find music without asking people and risking looking foolish - the four big white revolving locked racks of tapes in Craigavon library. Mary Thomas the librarian got me Rattlesnakes and away I went. Loved it, I mean really loved it.
I never got to see the Commotions, as I found out they were called (hey we didn't have the internet or Google) until much later, so the tapes meant a great deal to me.
And despite getting into Madchester, Irish indie, rap and hip hop and folk music, Lloyd Cole always stayed with me. Like Joe Strummer or Paul Brady or Public Enemy or Van Morrison, he was always there - a song, a line or a well sung syllable constantly returning to me.
Unlike a lot of Cole fans, after the demise of the Commotions, his music got even more interesting and important to me.
His move to America in 1990ish seemed to bring on better albums and some great interviews in Q magazine, I'm sure one was with Du Noyer.
His first solo record, X, had some brilliant songs on it as did  Don't Get Weird on Me which had fabulously cool sleeve art with pics shot in LA at the Capitol Building. Even the universally dismissed Bad Vibes, from 1993, had a couple of great tracks on it, including 'So You'd Like to Save The World' and 'Wild Mushrooms'.
But 1995 was the year that sealed it for me. Just before moving to Liverpool and right after university, I got Love Story and that was it, I was going to be with him for good, for better or worse.
And it is all down to one song, 'Like Lovers Do', a fabulous tale of love in three episodes which still entrances me. The great video is available here.
You know that idea of one small bit from a song, one tiny sung syllable can be the thing you love most in any artist's canon? Then for me in the final chorus, when Cole sings 'Well, I'm looking right at you now, girl' and his voice descends to a cool, low  register, man I'm gone every time.
Even after he went on hiatus after he had been dropped by Polydor, (when he and his wife Elizabeth started a family), I listened to Love Story regularly.
And then in 2000, I got The Negatives in Quirks Record shop in Ormskirk (where I was working on the incredibly underrated local paper, the Advertiser). It was, for me, the perfect Lloyd Cole album: cool, literate, very Manhattan (where he had been living) and every song on it was brilliant.
I started working on the ECHO the week after I got it and our daughter Ella was born at the end of the year. My happiest memories of this decade are of Ella bouncing along to 'Impossible Girl' in one of those bouncers you hook to a door frame as I did my weights and sit ups. All records you love have a very specific context within which they become more special.
He confounded expectations by producing two even better original albums, Music in a Foreign Language and Antidepressantin 2003 and 2006 respectively.
It was before MIAFL, as he was launching his current solo folk singer incarnation, that I interviewed him first, for the ECHO. It was great and, unlike Van Morrison, it didn't disappoint. As I fed Ella her lunch we chatted and he was witty, urbane, didn't seem to mind me blowing smoke up his ass and he took the piss out of various people, especially the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and the Waterboys' Mike Scott. He gave good copy.
I interviewed him again after MIAFL - this time for the Daily Post as he was about to play Birkenhead's Pacific Road venue and we had a blast, talking about how his dad had been a golf pro at the club local to us and more specifically - Irish whiskey.
I promised him a bottle of Red Breast back stage as it was going to be his birthday. The gig was great, if a wee bit shouty (as Merseyside gigs can be) - I know he didn't particularly enjoy it. But I got backstage and delivered said single pot still nectar and we broke it open and chatted for a few minutes.
I dearly wanted to tell him about Mrs Gallagher's form class and Craigavon library and singing along to The Negtives as our wee daughter bounced and about that really, really great low note in 'Like Lovers Do' and our wee nascent family singing along to the doo doos from the 'Brand New Friend' 12" in the car on holiday in France and how much his music had meant to me over the years. I wanted to tell him how much he had meant to me.
But I didn't.
I became an eejit journalist and pretended he was my mate and just shot the breeze in a dressing room full of strangers in a venue which shared space with a transport museum that has a vintage tram in it.
I wish I had said, 'You know what Lloyd? You're brilliant and you helped me out of a personal jam more than once and gave me some great memories over the years. And, by the way, you know that wee low bit in the end chorus of  'Like Lovers Do' - it kills me every single, bleedin time, lad.'
But I didn't. And I regret it.
He has released two live albums and a collection of Stephen Street mixes of his solo recordings this year (as well as two volumes of Commotions Live at the BBC), reviewed here,  and I couldn't be happier.
Oh that I could say this about every Tom, Dick and Harry band I have invested time and emotional energy in over the years; but Lloyd Cole has never disappointed me. God bless the old boy.
Please add songs to the collaborative Spotify Playlist here

Friday, 13 November 2009

This week's tunes #2: Barenboim does Bruckner

I COULD say that I spent the week listening to Daniel Barenboim's conducting of the Berlin Philharmonic doing Bruckner as a tribute to French anthropologist and originator of structuralist philosophy  Claude Levi Strauss who died last week aged 100.
The old boy was apparently very partial to the 19th Century Austrian composer, but I don't know much more than this. Alas I was listening to it merely because the symphonies are a magnificent noise as background to writing. Very inspiring. One and all should, as the kids aver, check them out, innit.
Click on picture for the tunes played this week.

All Ireland poetry champion: Seamus Fox

BACK in the day, Seamus Fox was the only fella I knew in Craigavon with a Public Enemy record - I had the tape but he had the vinyl.
In fact he was the only person I knew anywhere with any rap music - Craigavon, a town 26 miles from Belfast and at the centre of an area once known as the Murder Triangle in the 1970s, didn't really embrace hip hop. The Bronx, Bed-Stuy or Sugar Hill it was not.
But Seamie was a good lad, same year as me at Lismore and been in the cubs together - so I knew him well enough to try get a gander at this hallowed item.
So I got an invite round to his house in Edenbeg - he won't mind me saying this - he wasn't a great one for tidying. He was 16 and living alone at the time, I think one of his parents had died, can't be sure, but there amid the physical and emotional mess was a pristine copy of It Takes a Nation of Millions...
And not just that, there was Eric B and Rakim and EPMD and Stetsasonic, these were the coolest things I had ever seen. Maybe in the intervening years the incident has become heightened in my memory, maybe he'll tell me it was a one Redhead Kingpin 12".
But the point is that he was always into rap and performance, a bright and intelligent bloke who had no outlet for his massive creative energies. Maybe he felt he shouldn't display his sensitive side and to be fair, there weren't too many performance poets in the lounge of the Drumgor Tavern at the time - you could have measured with a microscope the shortness of the shrift you would have been given in the boozer if you had said: 'houl on there lad, I'm gonna bust a wee haiku here."
But there is a poet in the lounge bar now  because Craigavon's finest bard is the Irish performance poetry champion. He's got his demons but he meets them head-on with a wit and a forthright nature he learned from all those hours listening to 'Cold Lampin' by Flava Flav.
My favourites are Ulster Fry, Trying to Get My Head Straight and the brilliant, brilliant Colonial Ceremony but there are also a number of sensitive love poems he perhaps doesn't get enough credit for. You can hear them here at Malachi O'Doherty's brilliant podcast site.
You should also check out the brilliant montages he does to accompany his poems.
This is what Chuck D would have been rapping about if he'd had a bottle of wine under the curly wurly bridge, bai.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Well sound: Paul Du Noyer speaks to GM about his home cities

GM grabbed 10 minutes with Merseyside author Paul Du Noyer,  visiting fellow of journalism at Liverpool Hope, prior to his talk about the music of Liverpool and London at the university's upcoming Cornerstone Festival.
We previewed the event, at 1pm on Thursday, November 26, here  previously.
Paul's two brilliant books Wondrous Place and In the City are required reading for any lovers of modern popular music, great journalism and especially for those of us who love both.
Deep in the middle of research for a long piece on Ian Dury for The Word magazine (it's hard to believe it is nearly 10 years since the great man died), Paul took time out to reflect on the city of his birth and the city he has spent his adult life in.
Paul Du Noyer - Food for Thought, Venue: Cor 114.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Fat Lady Sings: Arclight - the high watermark for 1980s Irish Rock

WHEN all is said and done, and the dust eventually settles on 1980s/ 90s Irish rock, one song will stand alone. I think anyway.
The Nick Kelly-led The Fat Lady Sings may not have had the same success in Ireland as Something Happens, The Four of Us or The Hothouse Flowers, or the global behemoth U2, but they produced the stand out song of their era: 'Arclight'.
An abstract, oblique and poetic love song - I think - it has stood the test of time.
I saw the band twice and they were great both times, despite Kelly's propensity for wearing what looked suspiciously like leggings with eight hole DMs.
Leaving all that aside, I think this is the great Irish pop song of a great era of Irish pop music.

Friday, 6 November 2009

FOLLOW FRIDAY 10: Something Happens

IRELAND was a brilliant place to be a music loving teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Not only could we get into the Liverpool, Manchester and indie scenes in Britain but we also had a remarkably prosperous and vibrant home scene.
One of the few benefits of the opposing effects of Troubles (North)/ crushing recession (all over) and the global rise of U2 was a slew of bands worth listening to and following.
In the wave which came after the likes of Les Enfants, Cactus World News and Blue in Heaven, we had The Four of Us, Hothouse Flowers, An Emotional Fish, The Fat Lady Sings, and Hinterland among others. Each played widely varying versions of Irish indie, a world away from the Celtic bombast many were accused of.
Looking back on it Something Happens were the best of the lot. Based around the songwriting talents of singer Tom Dunne and guitarist Ray Harman with Eamon Ryan on drums and Alan Byrne on bass, they produced some of the most memorable songs of the era.
Their first album Been There, Seen That, Done That had two great tracks, 'Beach' and 'Forget Georgia', the latter of which was an oblique tribute to REM.
That link is appropriate, in so far as, the Happens managed to mould the twin influences of Michael Stipe's crowd with The Pixies, both bands were amazingly popular among Irish indie fans (along with The Smiths and almost ubiquitous The Cure).
Their second album, Stuck Together with God's Glue, was by far the best of the three they recorded. Produced by Crowded House, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson mentor Mitchell Froom, it managed to bring to their indie sensibilities in line with Froom's trademark quirky keyboard sound.
Unfortunately the stand-out single from the album, 'Parachute' (with Harman's amazing Supertramp-inspired backwards piano intro) was shelved due to sensitivities surrounding the first US invasion of Iraq. It had got them a modicum of attention from the NME and was looking set to be a British Top 40 hit before being withdrawn. (Belfast band Ghost of an American Airman suffered a similar fate with their brilliant single Honeychild.)
The Happens live show was immense and when I saw them on three occasions they were the best of a very good crowd of bands. Only An Emotional Fish came close as a live act. Dunne was a great singer while the real star was Harman on guitar, a gifted, unique player who utilised open tunings and great effects. (Witness the great That Petrol Emotion inspired riff on 'Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello (Petrol)'.
They also did a fine line in quirky covers including a daft hard rock guitar cover of large chested Italian model Sabrina's Euro pop hit 'Boys, Boys, Boys (Summertime Love)' on the B side of the 12" of 'Hello'.
After they were dropped by the Virgin label they recorded one more album Bedlam a Go Go!. It was however a wee touch too commercial and too close to the poppier elements of Celtic rock, in my opinion. Two years later they split.
Dunne has a high profile radio DJ gig now while Harman, having been the composer in residence at an Irish music museum, now works in TV.
I have to say that of all the albums of that time, Stuck Together... is one of the few I play regularly and which has aged tremendously well.
The only problem is: It can't be 21 years ago since I saw them do Beach for the first time. Surely.

MUSIC MISCELLANY: This week's tunes

THIS is the batch of CDs played this week, along with some Falco via the magic of Spotify.
First up is 'Nureyev' by Eskimo Chains who were a Liverpool band fronted by my mate Martin Malone. They made three great albums and he released a solo effort before going on to his current gig which is playing guitar in Simon Armitage's band the Scaremongers. This is the Chains' freshman effort, as the crap Yankee magazines would have it.
May I recommend the Richard Davies album sent to me by GM follower Tony in North Carolina? It's a wee short album on which every song sounds different.
Kraftwerk because me and Tony were watching the German techno kingpins on BBC4 when he was over last week.
The Minnows are a great band from Northern Ireland who took about a decade an half break in their music career to establish hugely successful other careers in PR only to come back with a belting new collection of Lloyd Cole inspired songs. The album is worth a listen just on the basis of its title alone 'Leonard Cohen's Happy Compared to Me'.
The free CD which came with James Brown's first edition as editor of GQ is a belting selection of adult 1990s dance.
You can't go wrong with Girls Aloud, Taha, The Steady, Public Enemy, The Small Faces and the post punk/ new wave best of Atomic.
The CD I'm most proud of is the Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros bootleg of the great man's last ever show before his untimely death in 2002. I'm most proud because an interview I did with him for the Liverpool ECHO is printed on the inner sleeve.
Dabs eyes again...
Double click on the picture for a closer view

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Professor Roy Foster: Redefining Britain and Ireland in the modern era

"Historians who don't reflect on the present when writing about the past err on the side of austerity." Roy Foster
PROFESSOR Roy Foster is one of Britain and Ireland's foremost historians and literary scholars and an often controversial figure for his willingness to challenge the dogmas and sacred cows of modern Ireland.
Tonight he gave a wonderful lecture for the second John Kennedy Memorial Lecture at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies.
Often portrayed as one of the revisionist historians of the 1980s/90s, his mass of superb books, essays and papers on a wide variety of figures from Charles Stewart Parnell to Randolph Churchill to his acclaimed 2005 biography of WB Yeats, his is a constantly challenging critique of how Ireland sees itself and its history.
Introduced by his close friend Marianne Elliott, a formidable historian of international renown herself and the director of the Institute, Foster's lecture was a master class in public intellectualism drawing on a wide variety of sources and jumping seamlessly from century to century and joining up dots previously disconnected.
Among the more memorable of his many points this evening was on the parallels between Ireland, the wider British Isles and the Balkans, asserting that Troubles-era Northern Ireland which had previously been seen as backward and atavistic to the world suddenly became a kind of template for the re-emergence of toxic nationalism at the outbreak of civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
While he poured scorn on some of the many parallels drawn, he said the comparison of Wales to Montenegro held some water as, 'they are both mountainous countries where the people have to endure bearded clerics reciting interminable swathes of poetry.'
His challenging view of the toxic and even benign nationalisms which constantly cry about the damage done in Ireland by the British introduced an assertion that these critics have overlooked one major point: that they have 'forgotten that much of Ireland's success is thanks to possession of an international language in the late 20th Century and in the time of the emigrants from the late 19th century onwards,'.
Much of his focus was on the shared mythologies or agreed narratives that come together to form national identities, and the fact that these can change and be manipulated at times of change.
He cites the fact that Irish nationalism no longer relies on a tribal Celtic purity as it once did and that Ireland has made much currency out of the myth of the Irish as being the blacks of Europe (as seen in Roddy Doyle's canon) - downtrodden but rebellious people, and intensely cool with it.
He drew prescient international parallels the best of which concerned how the protests against JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World by Arthur Griffith's newly formed Sinn Fein in 1907 for the play's portrayal of backward country folk was replicated almost perfectly in Bulgaria when it was performed there in translation in 2007.
His reminiscence of watching British and Irish politicians fall back on to accepted national characteristics at a secret conference in 1982 was tremendously enlightening about the implicit roles we assume as political actors on the macro and micro levels. While the Brits turned into almost toffish Wodehouse creations, John Hume played rebel songs on the piano. It doesn't need further explication.
Ultimately, Foster's work may not provide many easy solutions to the problems of modern Ireland or of identity in post devolution Britain, but it highlights the many myths that have got us into difficulty in the first place.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Gallic dread: French thriller Spiral spins tension to the last scene

DRAMATICALLY, tightly written, stuffed full of emotionally complex characters and a plot which literally left me chewing my fingers to the very last scene, Spiral II came to its (appropriate) dénouement on Sunday evening on BBC4.
Previewed on Gobshite's previously, it again showed every producer of every crime TV programme and movie how to do it - with the exception of perhaps the heads over at HBO.
While the plot kept things going to the last possible minute, the key to Spiral is that you give a monumental fig for the characters you love - literally (as much as you can fictionally) love, because of how real they are written.
And this is the key to Spiral, every one of the main characters has such emotional depth, such a range of political and social motivations for their, at times, compromised behaviour, that it makes for utterly compelling viewing.
From the debonair and ambitious prosecutor Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi) feeding story tips to Le Monde because he fears being blind alleyed in the poorest department of French justice, to corrupt lawyer Szabo knowingly playing for the biggest drug dealers in les banlieus, everyone has a secret or an atavistic urge towards self preservation in a society compromised.
They can't do anything about changing the moral decay of society, they are just doing their moral and/ or financial best out of it.
The most realised creation of the two series is Joséphine Karlsson (played by the luscious Audrey Fleurot), a beautiful red headed lawyer forced into the underworld by connection with Szabo. She (un)willingly takes the coin of brutal drug lords, the Lurbis, because of her love of money, the high life and designer clothes.
(These clothes, (un)helpfully, envelop a body that even Mrs GM never ceases to remark upon has, wonderful breasts. But that's à propos of nothing).
Starting with the find of a charred body in a car which eventually takes in a huge drugs surveillance in southern Spain and ultimately to the quest to find an undercover officer missing presumed dead, in eight episodes Spiral leaves you breathless.
Will Samy the undercover officer who has stolen the heart of emotionally fragile CID chief Laure (Caroline Proust) survive? Will Azziz the brutal rapper/ record producer/ drug dealer/ murderer get brought to justice?
At each juncture Spiral leaves you hanging, begging, grasping for a bone to keep you going. Me and Mrs GM contemplated ducking out the back for a minute because the tension was unbearable. It was like Denis Taylor v Steve Davis all over again for (Northern Irish) me.
Compulsive drama which portrays people in their starkest most compromised light, doing the best they can amid a sea of corruption, neglect and moral ambiguity, Spiral, like The Wire, says more about society than a million well meaning government-sponsored academic studies on the effects of drugs.
The best thing it is all here on the iPlayer for those of you who are licence fee payers.
Authentik, mec!