Monthly Archives: April 2011

Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex


…look, when I started this thing it honestly never occurred to me that I’d end up writing tributes to dead heroes from my youth pretty much every bloody week like some kind of grief tourist, but…here we go again…I really can’t let this one pass without comment. Marianne Elliott-Said, better known as Poly Styrene, lead singer of the definitive punk group X Ray Spex, died of cancer on April 25th at the age of 53. She had just released her first album for many years, Generation Indigo, which she had been promoting enthusiastically, even conducting interviews from her hospice bed.

If your criterion for a really great group is for them to arrive, put out a bunch of brilliant records, play some electrifying gigs and then call it a day before they get a chance to sink into comforting mediocrity then X Ray Spex may just about qualify as the best band ever (although, like pretty much every other punk outfit they did reform in the 1990s). X Ray Spex released a total of sixteen songs across their five singles and their LP Germfree Adolescents, a discography that can easily be contained on one CD with enough space left over to accommodate a few dodgy live tracks and radio sessions. Even at their least inspired they were full of raw energy, and Poly Styrene’s lyrics were always effective sloganeering against mindless consumerism, but at their frequent best this group was incendiary. The first single Oh Bondage! Up Yours is a basic enough punk thrash, with Lora Logic’s defiantly non-mellow saxophone parping being the one thing to differentiate it from any number of wannabe garage bands, but it’s the unignorable blaring vocal that really marks it out: after the spoken intro declaring “some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” Poly delivers her manifesto for liberation and equality on one hoarse note, sailing up to a high-pitched shriek for the last note of the chorus. Subtle it’s not, but you can’t miss the point it’s making.

It’s the next three singles that are the masterpieces though, a remarkable hat-trick that can stand next to anything I can think of in rock music. Identity powers along on a sax riff enlivened by the occasional widdly guitar fill, with Poly urgently bawling out a cautionary description of nervous breakdown and attempted suicide that’s simultaneously harrowing and thrilling. Germfree Adolescents is a ballad, no less, with a delicately phased and echoey electric guitar pulse underpinning the bleakly humorous lyric about an obsessive compulsive girl who’s terrified of being infected by the outside world and “cleans her teeth ten times a day”. Best of all is The Day The World Turned Dayglo, a vividly surreal nightmare depiction of a absurdist synthetic landscape howled over a cartoon heavy metal guitar lick punctuated by searing sax blasts. Poly’s lack of formal musical training results in the killer touch: extra beats being shoehorned into each chorus that give the song a fascination no music school graduate would have been able to contrive. These three singles are all on the album, along with other gems such as Art-I-Ficial, which again messes with the standard time signature while lambasting the fakeness of modern society, and I Live Off You, the lyric of which is as cogent a deconstruction of capitalism as I’ve ever heard (“I live off you/You live off me/And the whole world lives off of somebody/See we’ve got to be exploited/See we’ve got to be exploited/By somebody/By somebody/By somebody”).

Almost as important as the sound of these records was Poly Styrene’s appearance. She was of mixed race and diminutive stature, and would go out on stage with her hair cropped short and wearing a visible brace on her teeth. I remember seeing her on Top Of The Pops in 1978, where she made an impression on me just because she looked so different from the idealised, airbrushed images you’d see in your standard soft rock video. The way she looked was a powerful message for those who felt themselves disenfranchised by the stifling conventionality of the presentation of society in the media.

X Ray Spex fell apart in 1979 after Poly’s attempts to move the band on from punk to something less overtly confrontational met displeasure from some fans, and after one solo album in 1980 (the deceptively gentle and pastoral Translucence) she spent much of the next decade out of music. She was erroneously diagnosed as schizophrenic, and subsequently sectioned, before eventually discovering she was bi-polar. She was also initiated as a Hare Krishna follower. In the 90s and 2000s she started to play gigs again, and sporadically record. She always seemed upbeat, and was amazingly positive even in her last interviews after she became aware that the end was near. A true one-off.

Pina: dancing about architecture and so on

I’d better fess up before going any further with this – I don’t know much about dance, and usually find watching it either unbearably tedious or hilariously pretentious. Better choose my steps carefully. Writing about dancing is like singing about architecture, or something like that.

Pina was conceived as a joint project between film-maker Wim Wenders and the highly regarded experimental choreographer Pina Bausch, but Bausch’s death in 2009 just before filming was due to start meant that the film has ended up as a tribute to her, and to her work. It’s by no means a traditional documentary. There’s pretty much nothing in the way of biography or history, and the only thoughts we hear about Bausch are those of her dancers, and these tend to be either testimonials to her genius, and pretty subjective ones at that. There are a few archive clips of Bausch dancing and workshopping, but these aren’t given much context. I knew nothing about her before seeing the film, and I could tell you barely anything now.

This doesn’t really matter though, because the bulk of the film is made up of extracts from some very well staged and shot performances of dance pieces worked out by Bausch and her regular dancers, and these are more than enough to hold the attention of even a philistine like me. These works are miles away from formal ballet: they’re physical, sensual, sometimes potentially quite dangerous, often exposing human fragility. A dancer may fall to the ground, only to be caught in the nick of time, or may execute rapid movements across a floor filled with wooden chairs, which are whipped out of the way and then stacked precariously for someone else to dive through. The women are made to seem particularly vulnerable: in the opening interpretation of The Rite Of Spring there’s an almost palpable threat as an alpha male demands a sacrifice from a terrified female group, and in another piece a woman is beset and rudely handled by a clutch of over a dozen men. Bausch seemed to be fascinated by the elements and primal forces, and some of the pieces use fine soil or water to stunning effect. In one piece the dancers are hurling themselves around on a stage sloshing with water that is being poured down on them in a simulation of a rainstorm. God knows what the Health and Safety officers thought.

There’s also a fair amount of deadpan humour on display, particularly when the dances move out of the big warehouse-like settings and into the real world. There are a couple of absurdist moments on an urban commuter train, and there’s the strange juxtaposition of a dancer performing an intense routine at a busy traffic junction. The film is being presented in 3D at cinemas and, as in Werner Herzog’s recent Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, the technique here seems artistically justified as it does help you pick out and differentiate foreground and background dancers in the more complicated pieces.

So in the end, rather surprisingly for me, I found Pina funny, affecting and sometimes quite spectacular, with only the non-dancey talky bits letting it down. Definitely worth seeing on a big screen, and paying extra for the funny glasses.

Elisabeth Sladen

Last night I heard that Elisabeth Sladen had died and it felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I have never been so upset about a public figure dying – not John Peel, who’s probably had influence on me than anyone outside my immediate family and friends, not Kurt Vonnegut, who changed the way I thought about the world when I was 15. Certainly not Princess Diana, although I now feel the way I guess all those people who spent a week mourning and buying handfuls of Elton John singles must have felt.

In case you didn’t know, Lis Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s companion, in Doctor Who, between 1973 and 1976, first with Jon Pertwee and then with Tom Baker. She’s therefore the first new regular character I can remember being introduced into the programme, which I’d been watching all my life (my second earliest memory is alerting my mother that “Doctor Who’s talking to a Sea Devil!” which would have been when I was three years old). Sarah Jane Smith was brilliant. She was strong-willed, brave, independent and cheeky, but also recognisably human and occasionally vulnerable, and was the first fully-rounded, believable assistant the Doctor ever had. Some of this came from the writing (Sladen had the good fortune to join the show at about the same time as the legendary Robert Holmes became script editor), but the reason Sarah topped polls for best ever Who companion time and again is all down to Lis Sladen and her ability to sell even the most far-fetched and outlandish situations. You have to be more than a bit forgiving of a lot of what’s now known as “classic” Doctor Who (stories from both the 60s and the 80s are often toe-curlingly bad, for various reasons), but I can unreservedly recommend pretty much anything that features Sladen and Tom Baker’s Doctor – this is the Golden Age.

Sladen left Doctor Who in 1976, and had a bit of success in other stage and television roles, but she had an indelible connection with Sarah Jane Smith and she was canny enough to know how and under what conditions to exploit it. She appeared in a number of Who spin-offs and anniversary specials during the 80s and 90s, eventually recording some audio Doctor Who adventures for the company Big Finish. It was, however, the extraordinarily successful revival of Who in 2005 under writer Russell T Davies that provided her with an incredible Second Coming. Davies wanted to revive the character for a story illustrating the Doctor’s effect on the companions he leaves behind, and knew that Sarah Jane would be the perfect fit. Sladen was initially reluctant, suspecting that her part would be a glorified cameo, but eventually accepted, and the resulting story – School Reunion – provoked an unanimously positive response from the famously pernicketty Doctor Who fanbase. Sladen was back, looking unfeasibly good for her age, and working as well with David Tennant as she had with Pertwee and Baker. Full disclosure: I cried.

Reaction was so positive that Davies took the amazing step of creating a spin-off series centred around the character and her investigations into extra-terrestrial activity on Earth. The Sarah Jane Adventures, aimed at children but perfectly accessible to adults, debuted in 2007, has run for four series and has achieved great popular and critical success. Sarah Jane has also returned to the parent show twice – once in the finale to the fourth season, when I again got something in my eye on seeing Lis Sladen’s name appear in the opening credits, and once in David Tennant’s last episode. Half of a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been shot – it remains to be seen whether this will be aired.

By a meaningless coincidence I had just finished watching the final episode of the Doctor Who story Planet Of The Spiders last night, at the end of which Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker after collapsing on the floor in front of Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s longtime friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s a highly affecting scene to me, made even more so this time by the fact that Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, recently passed away. I got through it though by thinking “well, at least Lis Sladen’s still going strong”, turned the DVD player off, and had what was supposed to be a quick look at the BBC News website. I just couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t. Some deaths you can rationalise, but Sarah Jane always seemed so real and so human, and Sladen always looked so good and seemed so full of life and compassion and intelligence that this just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. RIP.

Meek’s Cutoff: not exactly a walk in the park

Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is an austere and perfectly controlled account of the journey of a small group of settlers through the barely charted deserts and plains of Oregon in 1845. There are three families, each with a covered wagon and a few scant supplies, plus their grizzled guide, the Meek of the title (played by a magnificently beardy Bruce Greenwood), whose breezy confidence and endless fund of frontiersman’s tales provide less and less reassurance as it becomes increasingly clear that both the direction of the group’s destination, and more urgently, the location of a source of drinking water, are completely unknown to him. The travellers eventually end up pinning their hopes on a native American they capture, but it’s not at all clear if he’s willing, or indeed able, to help them.

There’s a whole lot of walking in this movie. We see the group trudging along under a blazing sun for about ten minutes before there’s any dialogue, and it takes a while to adjust to the deliberate pacing. We see them break when there’s some shade to be had, we see them prepare rudimentary meals and carefully ration their water, we see them light fires at night and retreat to their wagons and then the cycle repeats, with their clothes getting gradually dirtier and their faces more weatherbeaten. Meek aside, they all appear stoic, taciturn and God-fearing to begin with, but as their journey starts becoming more and more desperate their individual characters start to emerge, with Michelle Williams’ Emily showing the most initiative by explicitly confronting Meek and influencing her level-headed husband Soloman (Will Patton) to exert his rationality over the other travellers’ superstition and fear. The conflicts that occur are believable and arise naturally from the characters and the situation and there’s a refreshing lack of irrelevant subplots and manufactured incident.

Rather surprisingly, the film that this meticulously well-researched and staged historical piece reminds me of is the famously low-budget Blair Witch Project, which, incidentally, is I think the last modern American film I can remember before this one to be presented in the old Academy (ie non-widescreen) aspect ratio. Both films are about a small group getting lost in an unmapped and possibly hostile environment, with the people involved getting increasingly paranoid and fractious as hope is lost. The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is, however, somewhat more ambiguous than that of Blair Witch, and may leave you a bit let down, though this shouldn’t discourage you from seeing the film, which I found unexpectedly gripping despite its slowness.

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, who died on March 26th at the age of 76, was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, and is one of the few writers of children’s books that I continued to read, albeit somewhat irregularly, into adulthood. Her novels can broadly be categorised as fantasy, in that they all contain magical or mystical events, characters or artefacts (and even the occasional dragon or griffin), but shouldn’t be dismissed as pompous or humourless escapism – she’s one of the most astute and honest recorders of the child’s view of the world I know, and writes in a pleasingly down-to-earth and often very funny style that simultaneously undercuts and heightens the more fantastical elements of her stories. She skilfully avoids both the portentousness of Tolkien and the jokeyness of Pratchett and creates consistent and emotionally true relationships between her characters that provide you with a route through the bizarre situations she sets up, which is, apart from anything else, very considerate of her: some of the scenarios she presents are amazingly imaginative, with the regular definitions of time, space and even identity being tested to breaking point. She was also incredibly prolific – Wikipedia lists 35 novels, and many short stories and other projects published between 1970 and 2011, and the books are anything but formulaic (the ones I’ve read, anyway).

I’ve been digging out some of her books (and re-acquiring others, thanks to the miracle of Amazon Marketplace) since the news of her death came through, to see whether they retain their appeal and how they compare with the more recent fantasy franchises I’ve encountered. Gratifyingly, so far I’ve got to say they snag my imagination better than pretty much anything from the 21st Century featuring wizardry, witchcraft or massed armies of computer-generated beasties battling noisily (Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films are a notable exception to this). The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a little masterpiece: the ogre of the title is actually nothing more than the unsympathetic stepfather of three children, who are forced to live with him and his two standoffish sons when their mother remarries. The fantasy element of the story is provided by a chemistry set of dubious provenance, the contents of which provoke various unexpected effects – one makes you lighter than air, one turns base metal to gold, one causes two people to bodyswap Freaky Friday style, one causes inanimate objects to come to life (the wriggling and ever-growing toffee bars are particularly icky) and so on. Any one of these phenomena could easily have formed the basis of a perfectly satisfactory children’s book on its own but Wynne Jones characteristically throws them out lightly and doesn’t dwell on them once the point’s been made. Underneath all this, the real plot of the book is moving forward: the gradual coming to a head of all five children’s real grievances against the Ogre, and the friction in the marriage that’s eventually exposed. In Wynne Jones’s books adults are often unreliable, self-centred and neglectful and it can be up to the children to instigate a correction, and what’s really impressive here, as elsewhere, is how natural and believable the confrontations and resolutions are – no Roald Dahl style black comedy vengeance here.

Wynne Jones’s earlier books tend to be set in recognisable urban and suburban locales, with the fantasy elements being stumbled across by regular, and often disadvantaged, children. As well as The Ogre Downstairs there’s Eight Days Of Luke, in which a lonely boy inadvertently conjures up an incarnation of a mischievous Norse God, Wilkins’ Tooth, in which the assumptions a children’s gang have made about a witch-like woman turn out to be surprisingly accurate, Archer’s Goon, in which the powers-that-be that really run an English town are discovered to be somewhat more exotic than the local council, and the heartbreaking Dogsbody, ostensibly about a short-tempered celestial being banished to Earth in the form of a domestic animal, but really about a lonely and ill-treated girl whose only solace is the love she has for her unusually intelligent and responsive dog. You could also include in this group the atmospheric Fire And Hemlock, about a teenage girl who discovers a set of repressed memories of her friendship with a gawky but resolute musician who is struggling to free himself from the influence of his mysterious and sinister ex-wife.

Later on the stories set in alternative realities and deceptively familiar fairytale settings start to be more prevalent. Wynne Jones loves to play with and undermine the standard pre-conceptions about scenarios involving kings, queens, lords, castles, ancient curses and sacred treasures, to the extent that she published a faux guidebook in the mid-90s called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which reads as both a critique and an affectionate tribute to the well worn tropes of the genre. Truth be told, I find her books in this vein harder going than those that start off in the “real” world as they tend to drop you straight into unfamiliar milieus and let you figure out the rules of the worlds at the same time as the characters start subverting them, but my difficulties may stem from the fact that I didn’t get to most of these books until adulthood, and as the author was fond of pointing out, adults don’t read books nearly as carefully as children do. Nevertheless, there are quite a few goodies to recommend: A Sudden Wild Magic, Cart And Cwidder, Year Of The Griffin and Howl’s Moving Castle, which was eventually made into a beautiful, if bafflingly complicated, animation by the Japanese master Hayao Mayazaki. Identity seems particularly mutable in these books, characters are frequently unmasked as imposters, or change name, or age, or species – you need to pay close attention.

I can’t really pick out an all-time favourite Wynne Jones book, but anyone reading this who might want to test the water won’t do much better than Charmed Life, published in 1977. Here we have an alternative English society in which some people have magical powers and some people don’t, and those in the first group tend to look down on those in the second. We have an exclusive school where young witches and wizards are trained by eccentric professors of magic. We have an assortment of spells and charms, the effects of which range from whimsical to devastating. We have a group of bad wizards trying to get the upper hand over the established hierarchy of good, but possibly a bit fusty, wizards…sound familiar? Even if it does, Charmed Life is still worth checking out, if only for not one but two expertly carried off plot twists that pull the carpet out from under you as effectively as an airport thriller. Or indeed, any seven book fantasy series you might care to mention. Diana Wynne Jones got there first, and got there better.

Jonathan Coe: The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim

Maxwell Sim, the narrator of  Jonathan Coe’s somewhat queasy new comic novel, is a clinically depressed 48 year old salesman, recently separated from his wife, with no close friends and an awkward relationship with his taciturn widower father. He’s as desperately lonely as any character I can remember, to the extent that he’s actually pleased when approached by a mugger for the opportunity to exchange a few words and that he imagines himself falling in love with the woman who voices his sat-nav. His self-esteem isn’t helped by his discovery of  various letters, documents and emails written by formerly close companions that all paint him as dull, reactive and unambitious, and his attempts to reach out and connect with the people he meets all seem to backfire horribly. He increasingly finds himself identifying with Donald Crowhurst, whose misguided attempt to sail around the world singlehandedly in an ill-prepared vessel ended in tragedy in the late 60s. This is potentially quite a downer of a book.

Fortunately, Coe is adept at tempering this pretty bleak raw material with some subtle and engaging characterisation, a strong narrative structure that delivers a few unexpected pay-offs and revelations and some very funny setpieces. The tone of the book is frequently informed by David Nobbs’s immortal The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin (there are, in fact, quite a few explicit references for fans to pick up on), particularly in the sequences when Maxwell accepts a job promoting ethically produced toothbrushes for a small firm. The book is set in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse, and there’s some topical comment here and there about globalisation and the depressing homogeneity of British town centres, a trend that Maxwell doesn’t entirely disapprove of (he finds big chain restaurants reassuring, because you always know what you’re going to get). Coe is very good at conveying his character’s unpretentious, sometimes Pooter-ish but never crassly ignorant attitudes while simultaneously letting the reader in on why his friends and family might have given up on him, and Maxwell remains just sympathetic enough to keep you reading despite you wanting to slap him round the face from time to time. Highly recommended, except for those who require dynamism and assertiveness from their lead characters.

Richard Herring: Christ On A Bike at The Junction, Cambridge 8th April 2011

Richard Herring doesn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid controversy with his choice of titles for his stand-up shows – last year’s excellent Hitler Moustache, which used the Führer’s notorious facial hair as the focus for an exploration of the stupidity of racism, is now succeeded by Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming, a resurrection of his first solo show from 2001. The declared theme of this one is to separate Jesus the man, who was probably a nice enough bloke, from the dogmatic and in some cases decidedly un-Christian attitudes of his more fanatical followers, but it’s really more of a jumping-off point for a host of very funny observations, investigations and flights of fancy on the broad theme of Christianity.

Herring, despite being a declared atheist now, was raised in a Christian household and clearly knows his stuff. This is a tight, well-drilled show, which balances discussion of some of the finer points of inconsistency within the Bible with earthy, irreverent and sometimes wilfully blasphemous comedy. There’s always room in a Herring routine for riffs on deviant sexual practices, for example, but he’s a talented enough writer and performer to allow them to arise neatly from the subject matter and never feel gratuitously shocking. The most impressive sections are when he takes the scripture to task head-on: criticising God’s inelegant sentence construction in the Ten Commandments, and reciting from memory Joseph’s knotty genealogy from the first page of Matthew’s gospel before picking holes in it. The biggest laughs come when he dissects the emails he’s received from Christians concerned that he’s on a fast track to hell because of his mocking of the Lord – he manages to mine a good fifteen minutes of material from one complainant’s bizarre list of people on whom God has taken vengeance for their (laughably minor) sacrilege.

This was a very funny, not to mention impressively researched, show, with a brave choice of subject matter. You just wonder what sacred cows Herring’s going to take on next.