Monthly Archives: June 2011

Countdown To Zero: let’s not drop the big one and see what happens

As a child of the 1970s and 80s I pretty much took it as read that the world would at some point in the near future be obliterated by nuclear weapons. The USA and the Soviet Union seemed locked into a patently insane arms race, the government was issuing straight-faced pamphlets about how to survive an atom bomb by hiding under a cupboard door and there would periodically be cheery stuff like Threads or The Day After on television to reassure you of your mortality. I remember going on a CND march through London circa 1983 when, unbelievably as it may sound these days, the police allowed thousands of people to walk directly past 10 Downing Street and chant abuse at the Prime Minister for maintaining the UK’s so-called deterrent. Unexpectedly however one day the Berlin Wall came down, shortly to be followed by the fragmentation of the USSR and the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe and the nuclear threat seemed to go away. We were issued new disasters like AIDS, global warming and genocidal civil wars to worry about and that kept us busy until Al-Qaeda turned up and kickstarted a fresh cycle of insanity.

It turns out, as Lucy Walker’s excellent documentary Countdown To Zero makes clear, that the bombs never went away, and that the danger they represent is very possibly greater than ever. America and Russia still have launch-ready missiles pointed at each other, and plenty of other countries have got in on the act, including celebrated wild cards like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. It’s impossible to conceive of any conflict arising between the two former super-power rivals severe enough for a nuclear response to be justified, but as recently as 1995 Boris Yeltsin was handed a red button and told he had five minutes to decide whether to initiate an assault when a US meteorological rocket investigating the Northern Lights was launched off Norway and misinterpreted by the Russians as a hostile overture. The security surrounding the highly enriched Uranium essential to the manufacture of atomic bombs is worryingly lax – a petty thief interviewed in the documentary reveals that he was able to easily break into outhouses on nuclear sites in former Soviet republics and just walk away with supplies of the elements. The thefts weren’t even noticed by the authorities. Any determined terrorist group with a few million dollars and a bit of expertise could knock together a functioning warhead efficient enough to level a large city once they’d secured a surprisingly small amount of this Uranium. It seems building a Doomsday Machine is not as complicated as you might think.

Walker has rounded up some impressive talking heads for her film, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair and many military, strategic and scientific experts and the consensus is clear: it’s madness to still be keeping nuclear weapons in a state of readiness when there are so many unpredictable variables in the world that might cause them to be deployed in error, or by terrorist intervention. One former lieutenant reveals that he and his assistant had all the information and authority necessary to trigger a Dr Strangelove style global confrontation on their own had they so desired.

The documentary is put together in a clear, non-hysterical style with elegant graphics and editing and no narration, other than that provided by the interviewees. There’s some effective montages of big city street scenes, some chilling archive footage of atom bomb originator Robert Oppenheimer candidly confessing to the appalling implications of his life’s work and a few shocking sequences of test flights and rocket launches that end in disaster. I hadn’t really thought about nukes for years before seeing this – anyone got a copy of Threads I can watch to cheer myself up now?

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Potiche: the umbrellas of farcitude

Potiche, directed by Francois Ozon and starring the reasonably legendary Catherine Deneuve, is a broad 1970s-set comedy in which the arrogant and manipulative director of an umbrella factory with serious staff relations problems is forced to recognise that his hitherto submissive trophy wife (or Potiche) is actually a great deal more talented and suited for positions of responsibility than he would ever have suspected. The film’s deliberately designed to look retro, with many of the standard 1970s signifiers being deployed (eye-watering wallpaper, big lapels, split-screen, the chunky font used for the credits), and it also plays like a throwback TV situation comedy a lot of the time, with simply drawn stock characters clashing melodramatically over domestic arrangements or working practices. Fabrice Luchini in the role of the monumentally unsympathetic philandering husband might as well have the words “I am a bastard” tattooed on his forehead. Fortunately the brash film-making style does seem to settle down as the story develops and by the time the man mountain of Gallic acting prowess that is Gerard Depardieu makes his seemingly inevitable appearance (he’s the local mayor, who goes back some way with Deneuve’s character) it’s all actually quite engaging. The film certainly displays a generosity of spirit and promotes a positive attitude of liberation and tolerance, and Deneuve is a class act throughout, redeeming several scenes that could easily have sunk into cliche by subtly underplaying. There are a couple of quite nice songs too.

Doctor Who 2011: mid-series debrief

Well, it’s all gone a bit complicated really. But I think it’s going to be OK.

Looks like this is the year when Doctor Who the series makes its break with the extraordinarily successful formula established in 2005 by then-showrunner Russell T Davies. Back then the big Welsh guy with the glasses and the infectious enthusiasm took the venerable but moribund fantasy series and worked a TV miracle: pretty much overnight it went from being the butt of a thousand jokes about wobbly sets and staircase-thwarted Daleks to being the BBC’s flagship entertainment product, gathering stellar ratings and much critical acclaim and becoming a merchandiser’s dream, with DVDs, spin-off series, action figures and original novels rife. Davies was a massive Who fan, but more importantly he was a highly competent TV pro, and he knew how to re-tool the show for maximum impact and to make it appeal to an impressive range of demographics – there were bright wizzy colours and effects for the toddlers, scary monsters for the primary kids, cool sci-fi stuff and racy dialogue for the teenagers and genuine wit for the undergraduates and grown-ups. He even managed to work in elements of soap opera to provide some real emotional heft for the first time in the show’s history. By the time David Tennant was nearing the end of his tenure in the title role Doctor Who was even beating Eastenders and Corrie and was for a short time Britain’s most popular television programme, something which would have been beyond even the most hopeless fan’s imagination only five years before.

Davies made a point of not alienating the casual viewer, and it was noticeable in his first couple of series that continuity points to the previous twenty-six years of Who stories were kept to a minimum and that anything in an episode that related to prior events was set in context for anyone new to the series. Most stories wrapped up in a single episode, and those plotlines that did spread over two or more were sure to be reprised with a “previously on…” montage. There were running motifs through all the seasons, but these tended to be extras for the fans, and in general didn’t add up to much anyway (remember the gratuitous device of having characters namedrop Torchwood in series two?) The most important continuity was to do with the emotional states of the main characters, and as this kind of thing lies well within what one normally gets with a long running series it didn’t require too much of an effort from the viewer.

The big man bowed out in 2009 after giving Tennant a suitably operatic (and some might say, overwrought) send-off, and experienced writer Steven Moffat took over as head writer. Moffat had surely earned his place. He’d written some of the best received stories of the revived series, including the sublime Blink, which managed to be simultaneously the most ingeniously plotted and the most downright terrifying episode ever made. At the same time, the relatively unknown Matt Smith took over from Tennant – would the show still pack the same punch as before?

Moffat and Smith’s first season went out last year and seems in hindsight to be a bit of a transitional phase, with the similarities to what had gone before arguably more striking than the differences. Smith is undoubtedly a very canny piece of casting: for the first time since Tom Baker we have an actor in the title role who seems effortlessly alien, although it’s a bit disappointing that the trappings of the character appear to be gradually reverting to the hackneyed “eccentric professor” interpretation of the time traveller. There was a slightly stronger link between the individual stories than before, and certain developments definitely tended more to the cerebral than the emotional, but on the whole these were still stand-alone episodes, and one can easily imagine Tennant playing the lead in most of them.

This time around however it looks like Moffat has decided to cut loose. He’s always been fascinated with structural puzzles and the possibilities afforded by a format where characters can use time to play with cause and effect, and the 2011 series throws down challenges for the viewer right from the off. The opening two-parter (The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon) is stuffed with provocative unresolved events and mysterious plot strands that raise the bar considerably (The Doctor is shot dead five minutes in? Amy’s pregnant, but only sometimes? River Song knows something momentous but isn’t telling?) and even the main narrative involving an alien occupation nobody’s aware of requires unusual concentration to join the dots. There are deliberate gaps and jumps in the timeline and the whole experience of watching it represents a leap of faith that the writer knows what he’s doing and is going to be able to tie his loose ends up adequately. This is no longer a programme you can easily dip in and out of.

The ongoing plot threads continue to make their presence felt through the next three stories, although not so heavily. The Curse Of The Black Spot is on the whole a completely generic and pretty derivative pirate romp featuring Lily Cole as an extraterrestrial siren picking off buccaneers, but it does at least provide some light relief. The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman no less, provides a whole new mind-warping concept to assimilate as we finally get an angle on the TARDIS’s view of the Doctor. This is a bold, imaginative and very well-written tale, but like the season’s opener it does ask you to lean in a bit to get the full benefit. Then there’s another two-parter, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, an overlong runaround set in a monastery that’s also a refinery, that seems to have been included primarily to introduce another ongoing theme, namely the existence of doppelgangers and the possibility that people may not be who you think they are.

Another change this year is the splitting of the year’s thirteen installments into two chunks, with the second lot coming in the Autumn. This is probably a good idea, as it relieves some of the pressure on the production team, and reduces the chance of a sag in quality halfway through the run. It also means that for the first time we get a mid-season finale, the self-consciously epic A Good Man Goes To War, in which Moffat again shows his reluctance to bother with establishing scenarios and traditional build-ups and his delight in throwing a succession of ostensibly unrelated scenes at the audience. We do however eventually get a few answers here after an unfeasibly large stack of questions and some good old Star Wars influenced cosmic spectacle, as well as a wrenching and unexpected reversal, and this half of the season ends in a strangely downbeat manner. It’s been a bit of a weird ride, to be honest.

Doctor Who survived through the 60s and 70s, if not the 80s, through the willingness of successive production teams to ruthlessly throw out aspects of the show they didn’t like and steer the programme in different directions. So there’s some good precedents for Moffat making his changes – I just hope he can deliver on his flashy mysteries and take his audience with him.

Robyn Hitchcock plays Captain Beefheart, The Relentless Garage 3/6/2011

Robyn Hitchcock is obviously a musician who enjoys a challenge. As a tribute to the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, last night he went on stage at The Garage in Highbury with his band and played the whole of the good Captain’s Clear Spot album, originally released in 1972. If you’ve made your mind up to have a crack at Beefheart, and at the same time try not to alienate too many casual listeners, then Clear Spot is an excellent choice of text, being both Van Vliet’s most conventionally funky album and one of his most accessible, but you’re still setting the bar pretty high here – the tricky and intricate guitar parts and the many abrupt changes in tempo make this a collection of songs you’re not going to be able to busk your way through without serious preparation. If anyone’s going to be able to manage it though it should be Hitchcock. He’s got good form on wilfully esoteric and lurchingly abrasive rock music, as anyone who’s familiar with the early Soft Boys recordings can testify, and he’s got a good track record on covering classic material, having previously tackled The White Album, Hunky Dory and Dylan’s 1966 Albert Hall repertoire.

Support was provided by East Anglian saxophone legend Terry Edwards, who had allowed himself to be roped in by Hitchcock for guitar duties in the main band on condition that he could play an acoustic set made up of a few cover versions first. It was an enjoyably eclectic selection: a few jazz standards gently crooned, Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Doctor, The Beatles’ relatively rarely heard You Won’t See Me and, in honour to the late Alex Chilton, Give Me Another Chance by my beloved Big Star. He finished with an idiosyncratic take on I’ll Go Crazy by James Brown, which afforded him the opportunity to switch rapidly between guitar and sax in entertaining fashion.

We then got an unexpected one song interlude featuring Hitchcock, cellist Jenny Adejayan and two backing singers which had been put in, Hitchcock explained, as a “commercial” for his new album Tromso, Kaptein (so new, in fact, that it hadn’t been released in time for the merchandise stall to be able to stock it. I’ve got a copy though, via mail order from the US (/smug)). The song was Old Man Weather and it sounded lovely, and was also the only chance we had this evening to enjoy Hitchcock’s beguiling acoustic fingerpicking style.

For the main event Hitchcock was joined by Edwards on stratocaster and Adejayan again on cello, with Paul Noble on bass and Stephen Irvine on drums. Edwards looked kind of nervous, but the rest of the band seemed game and after some typically deadpan quips about how there’d be a break halfway through to simulate the record being turned over Hitchcock led the musicians fearlessly into Low Yo Yo Stuff. And after recovering from the shock of the sudden increase in volume after the generally mellow opening acts I have to say they sounded pretty impressive. Tight, accurate, with the parts interlocking as they should, and the singer delivering a really quite uncanny impression of Beefheart’s growly and sometimes impossibly deep voice. Hitchcock produced a harmonica for Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man and again reproduced the part more or less perfectly, and the brass parts on the record were delivered very convincingly on the cello, which sounds bizarre but somehow seemed to work. The openings of some of the songs were slightly tentative and fumbled but once the musicians had established the mutant groove things generally worked out OK. Hitchcock was often singing and playing what are essentially lead guitar parts at the same time, which is a very difficult trick to pull off and one that Van Vliet never had to attempt, so he deserves a lot of credit for his musicianship. The only track to actually fall apart was the closing Golden Birdies, for which a roadie had to hold a crib sheet up for Edwards, although it was Hitchcock himself who was the cause of the errors due to his inadvertent transposing of some of the lyrics. The crowd didn’t mind though, and the band came back for a stomp through Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do and Electricity from Safe As Milk as an encore. A short and sweet set, but a hard task successfully achieved – I’ll look forward to Hitchcock attempting Trout Mask Replica some time.

Another best record ever made (1990s division)

It’s a bit surprising in these enlightened digital times to realise that there are still some records (and not particularly ancient ones at that) that are not officially available for purchase. The common assumption with music now is that everything’s instantly accessible: think of a song when you’re walking down the street and you can probably just pluck it out of the ether direct to your phone. This ease of access was certainly not the case in my formative years. Back in the day I seemed to spend most of the free time I had (when I wasn’t playing guitars badly in cellars or making compilation tapes for people who probably wouldn’t ever be bothered to listen to them) wandering around record shops and sometimes record fairs in search of rare stuff. By which I don’t mean bootlegs or live recordings or anything non-official and almost certainly not sanctioned by the artist – what I was looking for were, for the main part, albums and singles that had been released by properly legal record companies but had since been deleted from their catalogues, normally because they hadn’t sold well enough to justify a re-pressing.

So, to get to the case in point. My favourite single of the 1990s, with the possible exception of Common People, is Geek Love by the singularly unpromisingly named Bang Bang Machine. While this is not a very, or even moderately, well known track (it certainly wasn’t a hit), it’s also not barrel-scrapingly obscure – it was after all voted the best song of 1992 by listeners of the John Peel radio show, and he must have had a few hundred thousand listeners at the time. The great man himself was a fan, and a quick look on Wikipedia turns up his effusive tribute: “Even if they never made another record, they’ll have achieved more than most of us do in our entire lives.” I heard the song at the time, but it didn’t really register until a chance hearing about three years ago transfixed me and sent me straight to Amazon and iTunes – it was absent from the latter, and there were only secondhand copies of the 12 inch and CD single available from the former at tea-splutteringly ridiculous prices. Ditto eBay, and everywhere else I looked. I ended up downloading an MP3 from somebody’s blog, which made me feel perversely guilty for some reason as I was hardly depriving the artists of revenue when the work in question is no longer in catalogue, but there you go.

Geek Love exists as a number of different mixes and edits but it’s fair to say that the definitive version is the one that takes up one side of the 12 inch single which has the overall title The Geek. It’s one of those relatively rare long, luxuriantly unfolding tracks that really requires the extra space a 12 inch provides, as opposed to the much more common pointlessly extended versions of perfectly adequate three or four minute songs that abounded in the 80s and 90s. Other examples of 12 inch perfection would include Bela Lugosi’s Dead, and Blue Monday, and How Soon Is Now? If forced to locate this track within a style you’d have to say that it fits closest within the curiously limp and bloodless genre known as “shoegazing”, which involved serious and pale groups of youths with complicated effects pedals and shuffly dance beats you couldn’t actually dance to, and was briefly prevalent in indie circles before Nirvana unleashed Nevermind and gave young people license to both rock out and whinge a lot. Rest assured, this single sure as hell transcends the collected works of the barely remembered Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Curve.

Geek Love starts quietly, with a gentle and mildly accented beat underpinning a stately cycle of chord changes before a lead guitar enters to pick out a nagging but elegantly simple riff. Eventually a high ethereal female vocal reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins comes in, and while you’re pretty sure the lyric is made up of English words it’s hard to make many of them out beyond the opening “float around her” – the effect is however beguiling. The song pulses along dreamily for two minutes or more, and seems as though it may be on the verge of winding down with the vocal dropping out and the instruments sounding more muted when the killer punch arrives: suddenly a full band weighs in, with multiple chunky guitar overdubs and full drums, and the vocal comes back and verily soars. This time the words couldn’t be clearer: “to love/but never to be in love/never to be in love” repeated and taken higher over a haunting and somehow incredibly affecting melody. Samples of dialogue start appearing in the mix, and when you find out where they’re from it makes the track even more powerful – Geek Love is inspired by the 1932 movie Freaks, about a group of deformed circus performers doomed never to forge conventional human relationships. The track surges on, still cycling around the same chords but using them as a base for developing melodic and dynamic ideas, with occasional returns and variations on the refrain. If it didn’t elicit such an emotional response you could even call it prog rock. After nine and a half minutes the track fades out, which sounds like a long time but there’s no doubt the unusual length is justified.

I did manage to get hold of a copy of Geek Love in the end, via Amazon Marketplace, though it took a while before someone was selling one for a reasonable price. I still think it’s a bit of a disgrace that no-one’s ever re-issued it (or even included it on a film soundtrack, where you could imagine it could work very well in the right circumstances). Maybe in the future every piece of music ever recorded, or even thought of, will be immediately available via some Apple or Sky device, but until then…