Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bob Marley: get up, stand up…sit down for two and a half hours

Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley, the subject of which being one of the very few musicians of the rock era to have become a genuine icon, is as thorough and well-judged an account of this remarkable man’s extraordinary life as you could wish for. Starting from the circumstances of his birth (his father was a white sixty-something year old plantation official, his mother a black teenager) and his early life in a hillside Jamaican village, it moves steadily through Marley’s move to Kingston and the development of his passion for music, his hooking up with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone to form The Wailers, a ska outfit who had massive success but only in Jamaica, and on to the group’s move to London and Marley’s subsequent superstardom. Canny marketing by Island records boss Chris Blackwell saw The Wailers break through to a mass rock audience in a way no other reggae group had ever done, but by the end of the 1970s Marley seemed to be more than just a particularly hip sort of rock star: his knack for infusing his infectious and highly radio-friendly compositions with convincing and universal messages promoting global peace and unity led to him being courted by politicians and garnering almost Messianic levels of adulation. His death from cancer at the age of 36 was undoubtedly tragic, but probably avoidable had he heeded early warnings about the malignant melanoma in his foot – it certainly sealed in his legendary status.

Macdonald features interviews with pretty much all the major surviving witnesses to Marley’s life: his mother and first teacher, Jamaican reggae legends Livingstone, Jimmy Cliff and the fabulously eccentric Lee Scratch Perry (in his dotage now, but still sporting bright purple facial hair), and his wife Rita, two of his children and Chris Blackwell himself (who, incidentally, is a dead ringer for Michael Caine). These are knitted together with archive interviews with Marley himself (who is usually pretty unforthcoming) and extracts from concert footage, in which the man with the dreads frequently seems to be almost in a trance, channeling a higher plane of existence while his band raises the roof around him. Or maybe that’s just the ganja. Macdonald does entirely without voiceover, though there are quite a few context-explaining captions in a tasteful shade of yellow, and he’s definitely to be commended for not including any vacuous and platitude-laden interviews with current stadium-level stars. The film also gets points for not shying away from the less spiritual aspects of Marley’s life – he loved football, evinced at times a ruthless ambition, and had a fairly chaotic personal life as evidenced by his eleven children by seven different women – and this provides a necessary balance to the somewhat Jesus-like image he appeared quite happy to cultivate at times. Marley’s such a significant figure, in terms of giving a voice and an inspiration to vast swathes of under-privileged humanity as much as anything else, that the two and a half hour running time of this film doesn’t feel like a drag at all, and even the potentially cheesy credits montage showing his music being sung by people all over the world succeeds in being uplifting. A lot of his songs are as familiar and as comforting now as Christmas carols, but there’s a powerful revolutionary spirit still alive in the best of them.

Luke Haines, The Lexington, London 24/4/12

A quick return to Islington’s excellent Lexington pub to see a solo set from a great English contrarian. Luke Haines has been writing and singing surreally barbed satires under various guises for over twenty years, and this show has I guess been put on to promote his most recent album, the extremely pleasingly entitled 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 1980s. I say I guess because on checking later I find that the album doesn’t seem to be currently available to buy as a CD, a fact you can imagine Haines taking great enjoyment in.

Haines takes to the stage in front of a rather magnificent hand painted backdrop depicting a selection of the figures that used to brighten up pre-internet Saturday afternoons: Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, and if these names aren’t familiar to you you probably had a pretty enlightened upbringing. For the first half of the set he’s accompanied on stage by a mysterious masked figure dressed in the costume of the legendary Japanese wrestler Kendo Nagasaki. Kendo maintains a tasteful silence throughout the proceedings and spends most of his time sitting down and reading The Daily Star, but he’s on hand to distribute offerings to the audience: first, a liquid that Haines cheerfully refers to as “acid from Devon” and later a platter of liver-sausage sandwiches that are reverentially handed around like a sacrament. Haines is dressed in black, with his trademark hat and whiskers, and sits in front of the mic armed only with an acoustic guitar. He proceeds to entrance the small but highly attentive audience with a slew of starkly brilliant songs interspersed with bursts of vitriolic but somehow reassuringly avuncular banter.

He starts with some numbers from the new (ish) record, and while it’s uncertain how much effort it’s worth expending making sense out of the umbrella concept for the album (something to do with Mick McManus retiring and setting up a transport cafe which becomes a hub for wrestling gossip. I think), Haines’s gifts for an arresting image, a cutting pay-off line and most importantly a hooky melody are without much competition. We hear of Nagasaki’s manager George Gillett revealing secrets over sausage and mash, Big Daddy getting obsessed with a Casio VL Tone, and Rollerball Rocco being presented with the most inedible food known to man. It all sounds wonderful. We then get an interlude in which Haines reads some astonishingly bitter but frequently hilarious extracts from his books lamenting the vacuity of both popular culture in general and an older generation’s hopeless attempts to understand it (his impression of John Humphrys’s dismissive pronunciation of “pop music” is a pearl), before the man in black picks up his guitar again and briskly runs through what in a parallel universe might have been greatest hits. Haines likes to name names, and has a particular penchant for skewering sacred cows of the hip and trendy, so we get Young British Artist attack I Shot Sarah Lucas and Alan Vega Says, which recasts the singer of the ultra-cred Suicide in a surprising light. He finishes with his old band The Auteurs first single Showgirl and it’s over. He’s been on for over an hour but it feels like five minutes. This man might well be some kind of genius. Though he’d probably castigate me in song if he heard me say so.

Enjoying the silents: The Clicking Of Cuthbert and The Long Hole

Nosferatu and Metropolis aside I’ve never been particularly drawn to silent cinema but like everybody else I loved The Artist, so this year made an effort to turn up to a screening at The 15th British Silent Film Festival, an event that had previously passed me by entirely. I was glad I did. The festival’s comprised mainly of rarely seen films drawn from the archives of the British Film Institute and similar organisations and they’re being presented at The Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge and other appropriate venues with live musical accompaniment in a manner as close as possible to how they would have originally been screened. I bought a ticket to a pair of 1924 adaptations of P.G.Wodehouse’s golfing stories, The Clicking Of Cuthbert and The Long Hole, expecting them to be at best quaint museum pieces, and at worst hopelessly stilted and dated, and was delighted to be proved utterly wrong: both of these brisk half-hour comedies are engaging, witty and at times surprisingly incisive. The whole form makes sense when you’re seeing the films projected in a proper cinema with a live pianist in front of an appreciative audience in a way that it never could on television, and while the stories and characters may be lacking a bit in what would these days probably be called “development” there’s also a level of sophistication apparent that goes far beyond mere slapstick. Part of the art is in the casting – when you can’t hear the actors’ words it becomes even more important that the faces fit the parts, and in both of these pieces they generally get it spot-on, from the deliciously smug sneer of the unapologetically philistine Cuthbert and the hilariously over-intense Russian poet Brusiloff in the first film to the scheming Roger Bingham and starchy Arthur Jakes in the second, with the constantly put-upon and wonderfully expressive Harry Beasley cropping up in both films as a thankless golf caddie. It’s not just the visuals though: many of the inter-titles are laugh-out-loud funny and display the sort of self-referential wit I didn’t think was invented until Monty Python. Praise too for the way the films were set in context, with both an introduction and readings of sections from the Wodehouse stories adding to one’s appreciation. These films were a real tonic, and next year I’ll think about getting a pass for the full four days.

Headhunters: keep your hair on

Those collecting the set of Scandinavian countries from which mordant and elegantly grisly crime thrillers have originated in recent times can now tick off Norway. Following in the wake of Sweden’s Wallender and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Denmark’s The Killing, Headhunters, an adaptation of the novel by Jo Nesbø, once again features gruesome murders, betrayals, dark secrets and suspenseful games of cat-and-mouse, but it has a distinctive tone of its own that makes it well worth checking out: more dynamic, funnier and with an intricate twisty plot that delights as elements click into place unexpectedly.

Typical of the unpredictable nature of the film is the way that the first half hour or so sets up a world of wealthy businessmen and high-powered executive dealing that gives no hint of the physical peril and extraordinary ordeals that lead character Roger Brown (a curiously British sounding name for a Norwegian) will later go through. He’s a recruitment agent – the headhunter of the title – who bankrolls his unsustainably opulent lifestyle via a little art theft on the side, and one’s initial impression is that this going to be a classy caper movie, what with the cat-burglar outfits and the dodging round hi-tech security systems. Things become significantly less civilised however when Roger tries to reel in a ruthless former mercenary who has access both to serious weaponry and a terrifyingly ingenious GPS tracking system, from which there appears to be no escape. Roger’s an intelligent and resourceful man, but he’s not really cut out for this kind of fieldwork and a series of bloody and messy episodes punctuate his desperate attempts to get off the map. These sequences are in turn gripping, stomach-turning, very funny and downright shocking, reminiscent both of Tarantino in the way that bad situations always seem to suddenly get much worse, and Hitchcock, for the skill with which director Morten Tyldum gets one to identify with the hunted man and guides one through some pretty fiddly plot-points. Aksel Hennie excels in the unusually demanding lead role: despite some voiceover at the start and end of the film he’s often having to communicate his character’s inner feelings through facial expression and physical acting and believe me, you really do feel his pain at times.

Headhunters is at times wince-making and times wildly enjoyable but it’s never boring and it manages to tie everything up by the end much more satisfyingly than your average noir, and with no cheesy wisecracking either. I laughed, I gasped and I’m staying clear of outhouses in the woods and winding cliff-edge roads from now on.

Douglas Galbraith: my son, my son

I’m not big on the idea of misery memoirs. But my son, my son, novelist Douglas Galbraith’s account of the abduction of his two young sons by his Japanese wife, would seem to be a very different animal to the celebrity ghost-written “I had a tough childhood, me” stuff you pass at airports on the way to getting a newspaper. For one thing the contrast between the deeply upsetting central event and the controlled, and even wry, manner that the author writes in is remarkable, with episodes like the local police turning up at the house and being openly disinterested in the crime having the tone of a black comedy, and for another Galbraith doesn’t stop with his own ordeal but is able to successfully use it as a jump-off point for a number of fascinating meditations on societal and cultural dysfunction, using biblical, historical, political and even art history reference points. He’s clearly traumatised and angry, and justifiably so – the already pretty toothless international treaty relating to the return of children taken across borders by one parent without the other’s consent has no traction in Japan, which means that Galbraith hasn’t seen his sons in nearly ten years – but he avoids self-pity, and frames his predicament within the context of a modern world where deceit and betrayal have become accepted modes of conduct, in both the personal and the political. Galbraith’s gifts as a writer help make all this potentially depressing material highly readable, and even compelling: the sections in which he finally abandons the expensive and futile legal process to assert his parental rights and instead resorts to artful subterfuge in order to re-establish contact with his family are as gripping as a thriller. While it would possibly be instructive to hear his wife’s side of the story (Galbraith makes no secret of his loathing for her and doesn’t speculate on any part he might have played in the breakdown of their relationship), my son, my son stands as a deeply felt and unusually penetrating exploration of a personal catastrophe.

Robyn Hitchcock plays I Often Dream Of Trains, The Lexington, London 2/4/12

The Word magazine has in recent times established a fine tradition of putting on intimate yet usually fully attended shows featuring talented and well seasoned performers in an excellently equipped room above The Lexington pub in Islington (or alternatively, as a one-off, aboard a pleasure steamer going up and down the Thames). Having finally realised that this venue is only stumbling distance from Kings Cross station, and thus viable as a weeknight evening out, I attended my first Word In Your Ear gig last night: Word editor Mark Ellen’s old mate Robyn Hitchcock revisiting his 1984 masterpiece I Often Dream Of Trains. As it happens this is one of my desert island albums, probably, so it seemed rude not to turn up.

Support act for the evening was Bristol outfit Phantom Limb, whose subtle and multi-layered blend of country and soul probably warrants more focused and dedicated attention than I was able to give in this environment. They’re a six piece band who play mid-tempo for the main part with plenty of space for Yolanda Quartey’s powerful yet controlled vocals to stand out. Guitars are often used for textures and fills rather than to propel the songs along, with the playing on the upright bass much more prominent than that of the drummer. They do raise the pace here and there, even if they never do anything so vulgar as rocking out, and are clearly pretty talented players. I didn’t pick out much in the way of hooks or distinctive lyrics but maybe these songs are growers and need repeated listens to bed in.

For the main event Hitchcock had also assembled a six piece, though for the most part only a few of them are on stage at any one time. This is unexpected: one of the main reasons the Trains album stands out as so distinctive and out of time is its stripped down, echoey, almost skeletal nature, with most of the songs being carried by Hitchcock alone, with just his acoustic guitar, piano or multi-tracked vocals as accompaniment. But in contrast to when he’s tackling an album by somebody else (such as Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot last year, which was delivered with remarkable verisimilitude), RH displays a refreshing willingness to try new approaches to his old material – as he says in one song introduction, the album’s changed, but not as much as he has.

So instead of a straight, respectfully faithful, runthrough, we get a bit of a re-mix. Some tracks are dropped (Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl, This Must Be The Day, Heartfull Of Leaves) while others are promoted from out-take or CD-only status (Winter Love, I Used To Say I Love You, Mother Church, My Favourite Buildings). Stalwart Hitchcock sideman Tim Keegan and Terry Edwards are on hand to handle acoustic guitar duties (Keegan) and sax, keyboard, trumpet and shaker (Edwards), along with cellist Jenny Adejayan and backing singers Jen Macro and Lucy Parnell. The performance doesn’t disappoint, and any changes made to arrangements generally enhance the songs: Cathedral is stunningly beautiful, with Hitchcock and Keegan picking out delicate harmonising patterns on their acoustics, the cello underscores the plaintive Flavour Of Night most effectively, and even my least favourite track on the album, the cod country and western Sleeping Knights Of Jesus becomes something of a delight with the addition of sweet backing vocals. The highlights are the two purely acapella oddities Uncorrected Personality Traits and Furry Green Atom Bowl, which are simultaneously hysterically funny and technically highly impressive. The intricate and idiosyncratic harmonies of these two must have taken some rehearsing. Only on the solo title track does Hitchcock stumble a bit, possibly because he’s played it so often (certainly as part of pretty much every show I’ve seen him do over the last 15 years) that he’s finally losing interest in it. Otherwise, this set was a triumph, and I’m properly happy to have finally witnessed these peculiarly fragile and interior songs live at last.

But that’s not all. After a short break Hitchcock comes out again to play some songs by artists who have been a particular influence on him (“If I’m the plant, these songs are the nutrients” he deadpans). If anything, these renditions are even more impressive than what went before – you’d expect RH to be able to busk his way adequately through a Syd Barrett tune, even if it is an interesting choice (Waving My Arms In The Air/I Never Lied To You), but it takes real talent to pull off Nick Drake’s fiddly picking on River Man, or re-cast The Doors’ The Crystal Ship convincingly for acoustic guitar. I’ve got no idea how RH manages to sing in tune and time at the same time as executing this delicate finger picking but he seems to have no trouble. The other songwriters represented include Bryan Ferry, The Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, Lou Reed (not a Velvet Underground song surprisingly, but the ultra-morbid The Bed, from Berlin), The Beatles (more startling multi-part harmonies on the dauntingly complicated Because, with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside one of the singers this time) and David Bowie, whose Quicksand closed the show. No complaints at all, other than wishing they’d done Life On Mars, and you couldn’t have wished for a better sound mix or more respectful and appreciative audience (nobody in the room talking during the quiet bits? When does that ever happen?) Brilliant gig, and plenty of time for the last train home. I shall come here again.