Monthly Archives: February 2013

Jake Bugg, Cambridge Corn Exchange, February 25th 2013

Bugg2
I finally ended my four month long gig drought last night and in a new and exciting change for me the act I went to see wasn’t someone of pensionable age. The 18 year old Jake Bugg was one of my highlights of the Cambridge Folk Festival last year when he lit up the room (or tent, to be accurate) armed only with an acoustic guitar, a distinctively plaintive and refreshingly regional vocal style and an enormously pleasing set of brisk and skiffly confections which seemed to hark back to a less complicated age. Since then his career has progressed very satisfactorily, with a bestselling album, a sell-out tour and a fair amount of exposure in the media, where his unique selling points tend to be reduced to youth and authenticity. These angles seem a bit beside the point to me – I like him mainly because he knows how to knock out catchy unpretentious tunes that don’t strain for significance and don’t hang around too long. Judging by the enthusiastic response at the Corn Exchange last night I’m not alone.

Bugg’s now got some musicians to back him up, but the line-up’s about as minimal as it could be to qualify as a full band: just a drummer and a bassist, neither of whom contribute much if anything in the way of backing vocals, with the only concession to rock’n’roll extravagance being the impressive range of guitars the main man gets to play during the course of the set. They crack through the songs from the album with a minimum of fuss, the faster ones jogging along with the zip and charm of Eddie Cochrane and the ballads (which Bugg tends to play solo) having something of the supple and melodic wistfulness of Simon and Garfunkel about them. The sound in the hall is great and the lad can really sing, though his clear high-register crooning makes an incongruous contrast with his barely audible song introductions and half-embarrassed thank yous to the crowd. This reticence is maybe the main factor preventing the show from really taking off – you can’t fault him for not having developed a convincing show-man schtick yet what with the speed with which his career has rocketed but there is a sense that this performance is possibly a bit rushed and perfunctory, with opportunities to exploit the dynamics and contrasts of his material not really exploited. A clue to both this slightly dour persona and another possible influence is given by his choice of encore, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the lolloping beat of which the band render very convincingly. He’s over and out in under an hour, and the hearteningly mixed age audience lap it up, particularly the sprightly anthems Lightning Bolt and Two Fingers, although the tendency of certain audience members to insist on whooping and chatting noisily during the slow ones does detract somewhat from the experience. It would be nice to see him again in a slightly less barn-like environment, though at this rate the next chance to see him you might be at the O2. As an antidote to both maufactured X factor style pop and achingly hip and challenging indie-rock I can highly recommend him, mumbled stage banter and all.

Lennon’s Letters and Dury’s Lyrics

LennonDury

Here’s a couple of rather handsomely put together collections of the words and musings of two great British songwriters.

It would be a bit cruel but certainly not too inaccurate to say that The John Lennon Letters, edited and annotated by long-time Beatle associate and chronicler Hunter Davies, represents what might be one of the final scrapings of the Beatle memorabilia barrel. Davies himself admits in his introduction that this is a pretty scattergun collection, featuring only that fraction of Lennon’s letters that were available and affordable from the canny collectors that have ended up with them, and that furthermore a large proportion of them don’t really qualify as letters at all: to pad the book out, we get postcards, scribbled notes, shopping lists even. Davies has done an awful lot of work to set what he had to work with in context and to provide linking narration so as to minimise the joltiness of the book for the reader, but even so this has the feel of a collection of footnotes to a much more interesting story that’s happening elsewhere, and the profusion of in-jokes, puns, wordplay and impenetrable personal references in the material doesn’t really encourage close examination. Most of this stuff is charming, but barely relevant: cheery replies to fans, Christmas letters to relatives containing family news, mock-imperious instructions to underlings and so on.

Despite all that the book isn’t a complete waste of the dedicated Beatle obsessive’s time, and Lord knows there are plenty of them still around, myself included. The various letters and scraps have been scanned and lovingly reproduced, so you get to see Lennon’s effervescent Milligan-inspired doodles in proper context, there are hundreds of hitherto unseen (by me, at least) photographs, including many of John as a child or in early incarnations of the band and there’s a certain insight to be had here as to how Lennon was spending his time in New York in the last five years of his life, when he’d retreated from public view in order to bring up his son. And every now and then you get something that stands out as having genuine public interest: the letter to the Queen by which Lennon returns his MBE, or a raw broadside against Paul McCartney, in which he attempts to explain his frustrations about the messy legal battle the greatest pop group in the history of the world eventually descended into.

In contrast, ‘Hallo Sausages’ The Lyrics Of Ian Dury, compiled by his daughter Jemima, is well-nigh essential to any fan of Dury, a near-contemporary of Lennon with an equally sharp talent for the resonant lyric who didn’t achieve wide recognition until ten years after the Beatles split up. Dury only had a handful of hits but he added to the language like few rockstars have ever done (‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ is one of his) and as this book makes startlingly clear he wrote a whole lot of songs and took a lot of time and trouble to make sure his words were as good as he could get them, even when it was by no means certain that they’d ever be recorded, or even get tunes added to them. There are over 160 lyrics here, and that’s just the complete ones – Jemima deliberately hasn’t included any half-finished work. As in the Lennon book, we get to see the original manuscripts alongside the transcriptions, though Dury seems to have been a lot tidier in his working methods as in the main they’re neatly typed out, or handwritten with an eye to legibility. Corrections are rare, but the draft of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick presented here still shows some interesting rejected ideas behind the crossings-out. None of these songs were of course ever intended to be read in this way as opposed to listened to, and all of them are going to lose something without Dury’s authoritative vocal phrasing, but it’s fascinating nonetheless to get a handle on how much work went into music that seemed so effortlessly natural and witty and life-enhancing. Jemima compiles the songs chronologically and divides them into sections representing stages in their author’s career, and in between she sketches in details of her father’s life, family, living and working arrangements and friends in clear and accessible prose. There are (again like the Lennon book) copious photographs and reproductions of publicity material and there’s even a CD containing two revealing and characterful interviews. Dury didn’t live long enough to write his autobiography (the only words he managed on the subject before he died at the age of 58 were ‘Hallo sausages’) but this is a more than adequate substitute, and gives much more of the sense of the man than the well-meaning but unnecessarily contrived bio-pic of a few years ago (Andy Serkis’s superb impersonation notwithstanding). I remember seeing Rhythm Stick on Top Of The Pops as a child and being fascinated by the short, funny-looking, not noticeably young, singer – you can’t imagine the powers-that-be letting a one-off like Dury loose on the nation these days, more’s the pity.

Argo: led better

Argo

A bit late, but I finally managed to see the much-admired Iran/US hostage crisis thriller Argo today. I missed out on it when it was general release, partly because I seem to have conceived an irrational animus against its director and star, the perfectly benign, if at one time somewhat over-exposed in the media, Ben Affleck – well, more fool me, because this is one of those movies that is actually as good as everyone says it is. Or better even: while it’s easily as detailed and convincing in its depiction of the ins and outs of covert American intelligence operations as the recent Zero Dark Thirty, it also manages to transcend its notional genre and function in places as both a satisfying human-interest drama and a wickedly irreverent comedy (any of the bits with John Goodman and Alan Arkin in). And unlike ZDT it also makes the effort to contextualise the challenges of the CIA within a broader political framework and to present the point of view of the opponents of the mighty US of A, mainly via an opening montage and voiceover that makes explicit the West’s complicity in the suffering of the Iranian people under first the Shah and then the Ayatollahs. Mainly though Argo is a must-see because it’s such a well-made, intelligent and gripping example of the heist movie, with the stakes made plain, the situations mined for maximum tension without resort to shock tactics (although one or two elements of the climax strain credibility just ever so slightly) and bountiful delightful 70s stylings and hirsute, harried and large-lapelled swearing down phones in offices to be enjoyed. It never once sags or meanders, and I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud as often in the cinema. This write-up has been deliberately light on specific plot detail so’s not to spoil anyone’s enjoyment in the slightest – you should see this film as soon as you possibly can, and I’ll never take Affleck’s name in vain ever again, Scouts honour.

The Top 100 Albums Ever, a definitive and unarguable list

Sorry, this one’s more than unusually self-indulgent…see, the thing is I used to be fatally attracted towards pointless lists of the best songs/films/makes of carpet cleaner etc but I have managed to wean myself off them in recent years, helped largely by a form of passive aversion therapy: these days you can’t open a music magazine without a new and vital list of things you must hear before you die assailing you and I’m at the stage where I could quite happily never think of the words Astral Weeks or Pet Sounds or Exile On Main Street ever again, let alone wade through a rehashed twenty page feature on the making of them.

However…someone on The Afterword forum (the unofficial successor to that of the much mourned Word magazine) yesterday launched a poll to establish The Best Albums Ever, whereby participants were asked to submit a list of their favourites, the kicker being that said list was required to contain not three, or five, or even ten cherished classics but a full hundred. This is such an insane and ambitious undertaking that I felt honour bound to come out of list-retirement and contribute.

So, here’s the list, slightly amended from the one I submitted yesterday due to me inevitably remembering a handful of choice items that really should have been on there. I’ve limited myself to no more than one entry per artist to avoid clogging the thing up with Mountain Goats and Robyn Hitchcock records, but have allowed Greatest Hits and multi-artist compilations in order to correct the bias against great stuff that works better as singles than it does as albums. This was a totally ludicrous exercise, but I had fun doing it and thought it was worth sticking somewhere I could find it later on, and I promise I won’t be making a habit of this kind of thing. Anyway:

1 Big Star: Radio City (1974)

2 Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (1980)

3 The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas (2002)

4 REM: Murmur (1983)

5 The Clash: The Clash (1977)

6 Patti Smith: Horses (1975)

7 Diana Ross and the Supremes: 20 Golden Greats (or any Supremes compilation really) (1977)

8 Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream Of Trains (1984)

9 Pixies: Doolittle (1989)

10 Wire: Pink Flag (1977)

11 Joy Division: Closer (1980)

12 Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (1985)

13 Half Man Half Biscuit: Cammell Laird Social Club (2002)

14 Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

15 Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

16 X Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents (1978)

17 Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)

18 The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (2006)

19 David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)

20 Blondie: Parallel Lines (1978)

21 Gang Of Four: Entertainment! (1979)

22 The Modern Lovers: The Modern Lovers (1976)

23 Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (1978)

24 Public Image Limited: Metal Box (1979)

25 Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (1979)

26 The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (1986)

27 The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)

28 The Jam: Snap! (is this still available? Better than the Greatest Hits cos of the album tracks and B-sides) (1983)

29 Television: Marquee Moon (1977)

30 Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth (1980)

31 Wussy: Funeral Dress (2005)

32 Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969)

33 The B52s: The B52s (1979)

34 Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (1983)

35 The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005)

36 Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978)

37 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004)

38 Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

39 The Vibrators: Pure Mania (1978)

40 The Only Ones: Peel Sessions (1989)

41 Laura Cantrell: When The Roses Bloom Again (2002)

42 Joni Mitchell: For The Roses (1972)

43 Roddy Frame: Surf (2002)

44 The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004)

45 Graham Parker: Heat Treatment (1976)

46 Ian Dury and the Blockheads: Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll (or any half-decent compilation) (1987)

47 The Human League: Dare (1981)

48 The Velvet Underground and Nico: The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

49 Eno: Another Green World (1975)

50 Roxy Music: Roxy Music (1972)

51 The Violent Femmes: The Violent Femmes (1983)

52 Chumbawamba: Anarchy (1994)

53 Husker Du: Flip Your Wig (1985)

54 The Soft Boys: Live At The Portland Arms (1978)

55 John Cale: Paris 1919 (1973)

56 Chic: Les Plus Grands Succes De Chic (1979)

57 Love: Forever Changes (1968)

58 John Grant: Queen Of Denmark (2010)

59 Madness: Divine Madness (1992)

60 Aimee Mann: Magnolia (soundtrack) (1999)

61 Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)

62 The Fall: This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

63 Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones: Have Moicy! (1976)

64 The Wedding Present: George Best (1987)

65 Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses (1986)

66 Iggy Pop: Lust For Life (1977)

67 The Stooges: Fun House (1970)

68 The Monochrome Set: Strange Boutique (1980)

69 The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)

70 Various Artists: Up All Night! (30 track Northern Soul compilation) (1990)

71 Antony and the Johnsons: I Am A Bird Now (2005)

72 Camper van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie (1989)

73 Ramones: Ramones (1976)

74 10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987)

75 Lou Reed: Berlin (1973)

76 Felt: Me And A Monkey On The Moon (1989)

77 The National: Boxer (2007)

78 PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)

79 Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)

80 The Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)

81 XTC: Black Sea (1980)

82 Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1973)

83 The Cure: Boys Don’t Cry (1979)

84 Various Artists: Atlantic Soul Classics (1985)

85 Pulp: Different Class 91995)

86 Various Artists: Motown Chartbusters volume 3 (this is the one with This Old Heart Of Mine and Heard It Through The Grapevine on) (1969)

87 The Strokes: Is This It? (2001)

88 Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (1970)

89 The Undertones: The Undertones (1979)

90 Doors: Strange Days (1967)

91 New York Dolls: New York Dolls (1973)

92 New Order: Substance (1987)

93 Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come (soundtrack) (1972)

94 Robert Wyatt: Old Rottenhat (1985)

95 Morrissey: You Are The Quarry (2004)

96 Orange Juice: The Glasgow School (2005)

97 Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)

98 Nic Jones: Penguin Eggs (1981)

99 Alex Chilton: High Priest (1987)

100 Adam and Joe: Song Wars volume 1 (2008)

Hmm. Lots of quite old, a fair amount of quite new, not much in between. Anyone got any tips for 90s stuff I might like?

Hitchcock: a fat lot of abuse

ImageThe unqualified single word title of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock might lead you to expect a comprehensive cradle-to-grave account of its subject, but like Spielberg’s recent Lincoln its focus is in fact a great deal tighter, concentrating solely on a critical point late in the celebrated director’s life, in this case the problems and tensions involved in the making of Psycho in 1960. With Spielberg’s film this approach seemed fair enough, as the short time frame there encompassed some of the most pivotal events in the history of the United States, but with Hitchcock it’s a lot harder to work out the point of the film, other than that Anthony Hopkins looks pretty good in a black suit and latex-enhanced jowls.

Psycho was certainly an important film for its director, and a ground-breaking one for cinema in general, but while it’s true he had an unusual amount of trouble in getting it made and released due to the studios’ disdain for what they considered its low and tasteless subject matter he didn’t really have that much trouble: he was wealthy enough to be able to fund it himself, he had a dedicated and talented crew on hand who knew what they were doing, and his reputation following a string of hits was such that he was always going to be able to attract bankable stars. In order therefore to provide enough points of drama and conflict for his film Gervasi resorts to drastically inflating some of the sore points we know about the big man’s marriage, obsessions and working methods and then for added value inserting some overwrought dream sequences in which Hitch talks out his problems with none other than Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer whose bloody activities were the inspiration for the novel Psycho was based on. These latter bits don’t half jar, both with the light and unchallenging shooting style of the bulk of the film (it feels like a TV movie) and with every account we have of Hitchcock’s unflappable personality. The sequences showing his mounting jealousy at his faithful wife’s friendship with a handsome and charming screenwriter are slightly more watchable, largely due to Helen Mirren’s skill in not laying the melodrama on too thick, but they’re still not particularly believable – it’s only really in the scenes dealing directly with the planning, shooting, editing and selling of Psycho itself that this film really starts getting interesting, and even there there are regrettable lapses into corniness.

Hitchcock isn’t a disaster, but it does seem to fall between stools a bit, being neither funny enough to be a comedy, insightful enough to be a convincing psychological portrait, nor detailed enough to be a valuable summary of the making of an iconic film. There are some good performances and some surprisingly impressive impersonations from the cast (Scarlett Johannson is very good as Janet Leigh, while James D’Arcy is a dead ringer for Tony Perkins, both in appearance and mannerisms), and it whips along at a brisk pace. You do however end up feeling that while there ought to be room in the world for a bio-pic of a figure as charismatic, influential and talented as Hitchcock, Gervasi’s film is just a fat-suit looking for a story. Pity.

Zero Dark Thirty: taking the bin out

ZeroDarkThirtyKathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty is a long, detailed and convincing account of the CIA’s decade long search for the al-Qaida figurehead Osama Bin Laden. The film has apparently been in development for some time, and its original point was to show the frustration that the continued elusiveness of this legendary bogeyman was causing in the most powerful intelligence organisation in the world – the dramatic events of May 1 2011, when a squad of crack troops descended on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, forced the film-makers to radically re-think the climax of the movie.

As presented in Bigelow’s film the driving force behind the eventual slaying of Bin Laden is agency operative Maya, who latches onto a possible lead as to where the main man is hiding early on and refuses to let it go. Her information comes out of a series of gruelling interrogations of prisoners suspected of having involvement with the 9/11 attacks: these sessions are depicted starkly enough to make a liberal audience wince but with just enough editing to avoid accusations of gratuitous bad taste. Maya develops her case as and when she can over the next ten years despite the flimsiness of the available evidence and the cynicism of her bosses to the point where she’s got the confidence to insist on action, but even on the night of the raid the potential for a humiliating disaster is great.

Zero Dark Thirty is entirely focussed on the procedural rather than the political aspects of its situation, and that’s just fine, given how much care, research and skill has gone into it. It’s in the fine tradition of intelligent movies like Zodiac or The Insider, in that one’s attention is held as much by the way the protagonists find their way through a maze of false leads, information overload and obstructive behaviour from people ostensibly on their own side as it is by the actual subject matter. Everything here rings true: locations, jargon, communication systems, and importantly performances, with Jessica Chastain ably wrung out and nervily intense as Maya. The movie doesn’t even get derailed when Tony Soprano turns up as the head of the CIA, with Torchwood‘s Captain Jack Harkness as one of his sidekicks. Every so often the many scenes of people in offices and desert camps getting raddled about lack of progress are disrupted by outbursts of shocking, unheralded violence: suicide bombs, assassination attempts. The big pay-off for all the to-ing and fro-ing is the last half hour, which is the raid on Bin Laden’s house, observed in minute and nerve-jangling detail – it’s practically a movie on its own, with the stalking about of the heavily tooled up troops weirdly reminiscent to me of sections of Aliens*.

What the film isn’t interested in is politics, or the wider framework into which its narrative fits. The brutal interrogations are implied as absolutely necessary to secure information, and when President Obama is seen on a TV pledging to halt the practice of torture he becomes just another obstacle. You don’t get any insight into what motivates the terrorists, and hardly any mention of the American invasion of Iraq, which some people might say didn’t do much to soothe their grievances. This is a story told from one side, and just a narrow point of view of that side – fine as far as it goes, but it would be interesting to see the opposing view articulated for the sake of balance.

* which I’ve just realised was directed by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron.