Viv Albertine – Clothes, Music, Boys

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With the return of Sleater Kinney and renewed interest in the Riot Grrrl movement it seems rather prescient that two of the major influences on the movement, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth both have books out.  I’ve not got round to Kim’s yet but having just finished Viv’s I feel like I’ve just emerged from a mosh pit, a big smile on my face at the sheer unabashed joyfulness of it all but also bruised, sweaty, scared and somewhat unsettled.

This is no vacuous ghost written PR pamphlet it’s Viv’s voice telling her own story from the birth of punk through to today and it’s a story that is raw, uncompromising, funny, courageous, visceral, shocking, unflinching, uplifting and inspirational.  A bit like the music she played and the bands that reference her, The Slits and others of that ilk, the individual notes may jar at times and appear discordant but the overall sound and message is impossible to ignore.

Viv splits the book into two ‘sides’; Side 1 effectively charting her upbringing, discovery of music, youth, the punk movement, sex, fashion becoming part of The Slits and through to their break up.  Side 2 takes you through more sex and fashion, marriage, illness, depression, blood, family, motherhood, career, middle age, and creative rebirth.  It is not a comfortable ride, the stories and anecdotes assault you in rapid fire fashion sharply written with no punches pulled mirroring the songs of the movement that she was part of.  The characters, music, clothes, boys swirl around in a dizzying kaleidoscope as Viv grows up in the white heat of the punk movement before settling into the seeming middle class rural idle of a designer house by the sea, but as the saying goes be careful what you wish for.

Viv’s writing is whip smart throughout and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so unflinchingly honest, she does not hide from her own mistakes but throughout you get a sense of a woman constantly grappling with who she is and what her place is.  She is also laugh out loud funny and comes across as a warm person who you’d want to spend some time with.

A thought that remains with me after reading this book – what is punk ? and is it still relevant ? for me it’s not about what you wear, look or sound like, it’s about independence of thought the willingness to make your own mind up, go your own way and cut against the prevailing wind. Viv Albertine is the embodiment of this and this book is as punk a book as you could ever hope to read.  However what do I know about what punk is ?  Perhaps this extract from the book where Viv goes to see the Pistols and watches John Lydon gives the best interpretation of punk and it’s continuing relevance:

 All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues.  He’s unapologetic about who his is and where he comes from.  Proud of it even.  He’s not taking the world’s lack of interest as confirmation that he’s wrong and worthless.  I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it’s everyone else who’s wrong, not him.  How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained state school educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band?  I think he’s brave.  A revolutionary.  He’s sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.

For me Viv’s fight to be herself IS the story and in telling it she asks the most pertinent question of all – What does it mean to be an independent, creative, intelligent woman and what has changed in society from 1976 through to today ?

 

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Me and the Manics

 

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Ever since I set this blog up I’ve wanted (but struggled) to write a post on the Manic Street Preachers and I guess more specifically my relationship with them and what they mean to me.  This week I’ll be going to London to see the Holy Bible gig at the Camden Roundhouse (thanks Phil) and I’m excited beyond belief and certainly perhaps more than a man of my age should be but that in itself is testament to the band, their longevity and relevance.

When the Mancis burst onto the scene in the early 90’s proclaiming they were going to be bigger than Guns N Roses and Public Enemy many (especially those in the music press, yes Steve Lamacq I’m looking at you) sneered and dismissed them as fake but what I heard was ambition.  Ambition was an important attribute in South Wales, not in the naked greed sense displayed by the plastic spray tanned idiots paraded on our TV screens on a daily basis, but in the ‘I don’t want my kids to have to work in the pits type of way’.  ‘I want you to get an education and get a good job’.  Good jobs were often seen to be teachers, lawyers, ministers and to this day if you walk into any secondary school in England there will be a good chance you will find teachers of Welsh heritage.  It was recognised that to escape the manual labour and better yourself then education was important.  This had been the case in South Wales right from the early days of industrialisation through the formation of the strong trade unions, miners welfare and institutes that established principles of looking to improve both yourself and your community along lines of equality and social justice.  Many left leaning leaders came out of this approach none more so that Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service. Libraries did indeed give us power.

When the Manics started releasing incendiary recordings chock full of pride, passion, emotion and intelligence I felt a clear lineage through to the likes of Bevan using the microphone in a different way but still using it for powerful oratory, strong messages and vision.  They were light years ahead of any other band at the time and picked up the gladioli dropped by Morrissey and breathed some Welsh fire back into the music scene.  It’s impossible in a simple blog post to cover all of the themes, authors, philosophers, cultural and political reference points that make up so much of their music because to do so would require the writing of a book.  Suffice to say that for me it is so good to have a band writing songs that actually mean something, have been thought about and that provide a fantastic education in their own right.  Having an intelligence in your lyrics however is irrelevant unless you can back them up with brilliant tunes and scorching, visceral live performances which the Manics do in spades.  I’ve been lucky enough to see them in all sorts of venues over the years from tiny sweat stained clubs to Glastonbury declaring they should build a car park over the lot of it.

I grew up in Newport in South Wales, and after stumbling through school travelled north each day up the Gwent valleys to go to Crosskeys 6th Form college.  This was at a time when my home area was being decimated by the Thatcher government and the miners strike was honing my political education.  The year below me at that college were the individuals who would, a few years later, emerge as the Manics and I understood where they’d come from and what they were singing about.  Over the last 20 odd years I’ve aged along with them, but also hopefully changed and developed along the way as they have.  Whenever I hear them, and particularly when it is live, I am transported back to where I’m from and I experience feelings of pride, passion and emotion that no other band can provoke within me.

The Manic Street Preachers – original, intelligent, controversial, ambitious, exciting – simply one of Britain’s greatest ever bands.

Manic Street Preachers - 02 Arena, London 17/12/11 | Photo by Jason Williamson

20,000 Days on Earth

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20,000 Days on Earth reflects the number of days in Nick Cave’s life so far and this engaging docu / rockumentary starring and narrated by Nick himself looks back over those days and delves into the heart of his creative processes, how he goes about writing songs and then delivering those through magnetic live performances.

I’m a big fan of Nick Cave and have closely followed his musical journey since the implosion of The Birthday Party through to his 15th Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away, the creation of which forms the primary musical backdrop to the film.  I think there are very few artists who have managed to mature so gloriously from such riotous beginnings and none who can match Cave’s brilliant lyricism that can conjure up images of such love and tenderness mixed with downright menace and intensity.

The film covers Cave’s fabulous career to date while charting his meanderings around Brighton (where he lives) for one day from dawn to nightfall interspersed with live recordings, either creating the album in France or taking it on the road triumphantly to the Sydney Opera House.  Cave drives round Brighton in the drizzle going to a fictional therapy session (with Alain de Botton) and visiting key Bad Seed collaborator Warren Ellis for some eel stew whilst delivering him a pair of stuffed birds that he has in the back of the car.  All the while he is chatting away and exploring his life and creativity and what that means.  As he chats people from various points in his career appear in the car with him and join in the conversation before fading away as if figments of his imagination.  Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld and Kylie all pop up in the car.  Of course not all elements of his life are included but through this quite unusual vehicle there is enough for you to grasp what he is about, where he has come from and what drives him.

Cave comes across as a highly intelligent, reflective, caring and funny man but above all someone in love with the concept of creativity through words and this comes across beautifully in many moments of the film, not least when he describes his love for his wife Susie and how she represents the distillation of all the beauty and fantasy that he can imagine.  A genuinely touching moment.

He talks of his writing process and how important it is to constantly write, to work on it, to have ideas, that each idea is a small flame and if you nurture it you never know how big the fire might grow, particularly when you hand your idea over to others and to see what happens through collaboration.  He stresses the importance of having a go and to trying things as it’s far better to try and fail that not to try in the first place.

I’ve been fortunate to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on a few occasions and there are few people who can match his intensity on stage where for me he appears like some long limbed Gothic karate kicking preacher here to wrangle and writhe and conjure up some Faustian pact before your very eyes.  This is captured in the final moments in the performance of Jubilee Street, which as it builds to a crescendo is mixed with flashes of Cave performing at all stages of his career before the film ends, at night on the seafront in Brighton with Cave musing on the flame of ideas.

I’ve seen lots of films of bands I like over the years and most music documentaries are to be honest not that great.  This is different in many ways and I was spellbound from start to finish.  Whether or not you are a Nick Cave fan go and see this it’s brilliant.

Flyposting 3 – The Art of the Gig Poster

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When I think back through time and consider how and when I became aware of art I think that it was initially first through music and specifically album covers.  A long time before I’d come across Rothko’s signature use of colour I had been impressed by the stark minimalism of AC/DC’s Back in Black album cover.  There have been a string of great artists and photographers who have designed album covers including Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Saville, Robert Mapplethorpe, Raymond Pettibon, Banksy, Damien Hirst, Sir Peter Blake and Jean-Michel Basquiat to name just a few.  Many of the iconic images are burned into my consciousness and I can remember flicking through racks of records sometimes simply buying a record based solely on the cover design.  This was not always the best policy of course but did sometimes turn up some gems.  As we have moved across to the digital age the art design associated with a record has reduced and I don’t remember covers in the same way I used to which I find a bit sad.

Alongside the album cover artists were also involved in designing flyposters for gigs, often a gig poster didn’t display much other than name of band and venue and this is still often the case today but sometimes beautiful images were produced and at the moment in Gallery Munro House there is an exhibition of lovely original screen printed gig posters (all of which are available to buy at very reasonable prices).  I loved the vibrancy of many of the designs, particularly those of the Manic Street Preachers, Queens of the Stone Age and Public Service Broadcasting.  I liked the way, wondering round the exhibition, that in the same way album covers remind me instantly of the sound of the band these posters transported me to the live venues where I’d seen many of the bands on display.  The exhibition finishes on Saturday I believe so you’ll need to be quick to catch it now but if you are in Leeds over the next couple of days, like your art and music then it’s well worth popping in.

Click through the gallery and let me know which ones you liked and also which album covers made an impression on you.

Shellac – A sound so angular you can see the corners

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I’ve no idea how many bands I’ve seen and gigs I’ve been to over the years but it will run well into the hundreds and while it’s a long time now since I pretty much lived in gig venues seeing several bands a week, I still enjoy getting along to the odd gig and feel the fissure of excitement at seeing a live band as when a live band is good they produce pure alchemy.  Much as I enjoy the whole experience of a live gig it’s not often that I feel real excitement and anticipation before a gig in the way that perhaps I did when I was younger, after all I’ve seen most of the bands I want to see or can see and as ‘new’ musical styles come around I often find myself remembering the bands who did it first and invariably did it better.  A couple of Sundays ago however saw me very excited as I was going to see Shellac, a band for who the word seminal is rightly used, but who I’d never seen before.  They were also playing at the Brudenell, arguably the best small venue in Leeds. For those not aware Shellac contain Steve Albini who’s sound engineering fingerprints are all over some of the great bands and sounds over the last thirty years including Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Helmet, Robert Plan, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, The Cribs, The Fleshtones, The Wedding Present, Joanna Newsom, Superchunk, Low, Dirty Three, Veruca Salt, The Auteurs and along with fellow sonic engineer Bob Weston on base and Todd Trainer on drums create a fearfully sharp and angular sound, a sound so powerful it made me question why any band would need more than three people in it.  There was no slack and no hiding place, every chord, note, noise, crack and beat could be heard and differentiated.  I couldn’t help but compare it to bands where there are sometimes numerous bodies on stage that it has me wondering what they are all doing and what they bring to the sound.  In Shellac’s case it was clear that each member was bringing something unique to the party.

I liked that way the band was set up, democratically with no one ‘fronting the band’, guitar on one side, drums in the middle, bass on the other side.  Todd Trainer on the drums I found mesmerising to watch, he seemed to have arms that went on for ever and I can’t recall any other drummer producing a crack on the skins quiet like it and he would often go completely limp and slump over the drums as if asleep before rousing himself and ploughing his energy into the next furious beat.  With Shellac you don’t get a traditional song with a clear verse chorus arrangement or even one steady rhythm, instead songs will ebb and flow around numerous different rhythms within the same song which creates a jarring intensity and tension as you are never quite sure which corner the track is going take next or which band member is going to grab it by the scruff of the neck but whoever does they are going to do it powerfully.

Within this fantastically chunky sound Albini barks out biting lyrics of humour and sarcasm and then the band stop for a Q&A session with the crowd.  Yep you read that right, questions are shouted out and answers pinged back “did you bring your own drum mikes with you?” “No Nerd”.  What’s the best thing to see in Chicago? “The Bean, a piece of public art in one of the parks” etc.  Few questions later then then launch into the next crunching track.  Another thing that I found unusual was the way Albini played his guitar, low slung a la Hooky, but with the strap strapped around his waist and not over his shoulder.  Try it it’s not easy.

I left feeling really privileged and it was the best gig of the year for me and unlike many times over the years when you build up a band only to be disappointed when you see them I could go and watch Shellac every night and never be bored.  My ears might not thank me though.

British Sea Power @ Leeds Met

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Last week saw British Sea Power return to Leeds and while it was fantastic to head off to Brighton (where they are based)  last year to see them it felt good to see them touring again and returning to their Northern roots.  It’s interesting to think of place with some bands and how that links to their sound and British Sea Power are, for me, very much a band of place.  Firstly, they are and sound, quintessentially British in a way that say Band of Horses are not – both great bands but their sound is very much dictated by where they are from and in the Sea Power’s case this is a sound from the North, of country lanes, hills and hedgerows, mining communities and seaside fishing villages, yet lyrically they combine this music that is influenced by the past and often place it right in the present when looking at the treatment of economic migrants for example.  A complex trick to pull off but one that they do beautifully.

There is an element of complexity and thought throughout much of what British Sea Power do, be it playing at the highest pub in England, writing sound tracks to ancient film of Scottish Fishermen, eulogising bird watching or nods to cycling (check out the video to machineries of joy and guitarist Noble’s rainbow stripes) for example.  This is all well and good and could easily be dismissed as gimickery or perhaps wilfull uncommercialism but the consistently developing albums over the last 10 years and rip-roaring live performances suggests to me that it is not gimickery but creatvity that drives the band.

I have never seen British Sea Power play a bad gig and this one promised to be another belter with rumours of an acoustic set first followed by a full on cranked up set after the support band.  This of course meant that we all turned up unusually early to see what might go on before the support band and happily they did not disappoint by doing not an acoustic set but a warm up of some of their more mellow numbers.  The second part of the gig was not at first the full whig out that I was anticipating but more of a continuation of the warm up with the band producing lush, fully laden harmonies but concentrating on their slower numbers, albeit delivered with considerable power and passion.  Slowly but surely they weaved their way through old and new songs alike gradually building up the pace and atmosphere as if reading a good book before climaxing with All in It which brought on the bears !  Noble donned his flying glasses and I thought he was going to launch himself into the crowd for a bit of surfing as I’ve seen him do before but seemed instead to be quite happy grapplying with the bears.

It was good to see the Met pretty packed out for a band that happily plough their own furrow and I for one can’t wait to see how they continue to evolve, a trick that not many bands can pull off.  Never mind Machineries of Joy I think Machinations of Joy might be more appropriate for this compelling, complex band.

Huge thanks to fellow BSP fan Carl Milner for the fantastic photos.  Check out Carls excellent blog here

One by One … By The Way

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One by One … By The Way is a month long exhibition of photographs by Tony Wooliscroft at Leeds Gallery.  Tony has spent much of the last 20 years photographing The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters and the exhibition shows off this work, primarily focusing on the 2 main men from each band Anthony Kiedis and Dave Grohl.  Now I love live music and have been to hundreds of gigs over the years including seeing both of these bands, who I’m an unashamed fan of, and when live music is good it has a way of connecting those present with the band in a weird alchemy that is as close to magic as I think it’s possible to get.

Capturing that magic and the essence of the personalities involved is a truly difficult thing I think and it’s not something I’ve ever really tried although my co blogger Phil did it brilliantly in this shot at the British Sea Power gig we went to in Brighton last year.  Tony’s collection of the two bands really manages this and the backstage access that he has had provides the opportunity for some intimate and powerful images.  The exhibition covers over 20 years as the bands have grown old disgracefully and judging by the appearances of the band members, particularly Kiedis and Grohl it would seem that the rock and roll lifestyle suits them very well indeed.

All of the pictures are available to buy and this was something that, for me is a bit unusual when going into a gallery.  The Leeds Gallery is an independent commercial gallery (not to be confused with the Leeds Art Gallery) and perhaps I might have been put off with that title as I might think it’s not necessarily for the likes of me.  However I’ve been there quite a bit and it’s very open and welcoming.  I think the fact that it is joined onto Cafe 164 creates a relaxed atmosphere that certainly works for me.  I really enjoyed One by One …. By The Way there are some great images that brought back good memories for me and it’s worth having a look before the end of Feb

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