Thursday, 31 December 2009

The songs that defined a decade... The seventies

1. 'Paranoid' by Black Sabbath (1970)

If Led Zeppelin had been a singles group, they'd get my vote, but the ultimate metal band were Black Sabbath, and they had a chart-topping single all over the world with their debut 'Paranoid'. Harder and louder than anything before it - or anything since - Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler set the mood of a new decade, channelled through the voice of Ozzy Osbourne, a lyric so bleak it's brilliant.

2. 'Brown Sugar' by the Rolling Stones (1971)

Any number of Rolling Stones tracks stake a claim on great single status, but 'Brown Sugar' is their best riff of all, coupled with a lascivious Mick Jagger vocal and lyric that is truly nasty. This appears on one of their greatest albums - 'Sticky Fingers' - and a mesmerising movie - 'Gimme Shelter' - and is the epitome of what they are best at - hard blues-based rock you can shake your maracas to. Its live debut was at Altamont which ended the previous decade on a sour note, but this single kicked off the new one as the greatest rock'n'roll band meant to go on - and did, for a few more years at least.

3. 'Maggie May' by Rod Stewart (1971)

The biggest pratt in showbusiness - check the video - sure could write a song when he put his little mind to it. This number is based on the traditional Liverpudlian song of the same name, and was originally the B-side of the equally fine 'Reason to Believe' but became the A-side by default of airplay. According to Rod, it tells the true story of his first sexual experience with an older woman at the Beaulieu Jazz festival. Since then, Rod has concentrated on younger chicks, as he no doubt calls them. But for all his idiocy, this launched the solo career of what at the dawn of the decade was a singer-songwriter who could rock the house, not just the bedsit. Hence my failure to make space for a minstrel in the Carole King / James Taylor / Joni Mitchell, although most were album rather than singles artists. 'Heart of Gold' by Neil Young was in the reckoning as his only top ten hit but I like him too much to have him represented by such an unrepresentatively whiny dirge.

4. 'Walk on the Wild Side' by Lou Reed (1972)

I'd liked to have included a Velvet Underground song in my sixties selection but if they released a single, it sonly sold to their friends and relatives. That said, if based on the 'influential' criterion alone, The Velvets were a seminal sixties band, and can claim to be more influential now than The Beatles and Stones combined. The album 'Transformer' was produced by David Bowie - not the last time he'll appear in this list - and made Lou Reed a radio star, despite the distinctly un-radio-friendly lyrics that deal with transexuality, rent boys, oral sex and hard drugs. In doing so, it harked back to the Factory scene of the sixties, Andy Warhol always ahead of his time.

5. 'All the Young Dudes' by Mott the Hoople (1972)

David Bowie was the most significant artist of the seventies, reviving the careers of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, defining the glam rock look and sound, before leaving it behind, ending the decade with Eno in Berlin having reinvented himself several times in between. If there is one song that encapsulates the early seventies, it is this one - written on the hoof to save Mott the Hoople from going under, it is a hymn not to youth but youthful self-destruction, a dark anthem if ever there was one.

6. 'Autobahn' by Kraftwerk (1974)

So far ahead of their time, it took the rest of the world 15 years to catch-up, Kraftwerk have had as much influence over the music of the last two decades as The Beatles while retaining the anonymity of machines. Listen to any of the early house or hip-hop records and you'll hear a Kraftwerk sample in there somewhere. Tune into the electropop sounds of the post-punk era and it's just Kraftwerk with the bpm turned up. Not content with creating a wholly new music, they matched it with a new aesthetic, while their stageshow broke all of the conventions of the time, then and now.

7. 'No Woman, No Cry' by Bob Marley (1975)

Reggae was the first 'world music' to become chart music internationally and Bob Marley, promoted by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, was largely responsible for it. He'd spent a decade with The Wailers in Jamaica developing not just his music but its message such that by the time he arrived on the world scene, he did so with the presence of an icon, not an ingenu. In reality, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer had long been exploring how their music could be evolved for a wider market and by what means they could broadcast it beyond the Caribbean. 'No Woman, No Cry' was Bob Marley's first hit as a solo artist in 1975; re-released in its 'Live 1975' version after his premature death, it propelled the 'Legend' compilation to the top of the charts; it has now sold over twenty million copies.

8. 'Anarchy in the UK' by The Sex Pistols (1976)

If punk is to be represented by one song, this is it - spat from the TV into our living rooms, it feels like an assault now; three decades ago, it was a declaration of war. No single before or since has had its visceral power. Forget your Claptons and Becks, Steve Jones is the greatest rock guitarist of all time. Hearing Johnny Rotten's vocal is like being shouted at by a lunatic and finding yourself agreeing with him, whatever it is he's trying to say. As well as being the man behind the melody line, this is the only Pistols record Glen Matlock lent his bass to while Paul Cook had an unerring knack for maintaining the beat amidst the chaos that invariably surrounded the band live. If rock music produces another record of this power, intensity and impact I'll eat my grandmother.

9. 'I Feel Love' by Donna Summer (1977)

Most of disco hasn't dated well, sounding limp compared with the electronic dance music that followed. Giorgio Moroder's all-synthesised backing tracks still sounds like the future, not some idea of the future from the past. When Brian Eno heard it in Berlin working with David Bowie, he declared it would define the future of dance music for the next fifteen years. Thirty, more like.

10. 'Wuthering Heights' by Kate Bush (1978)

One of those rare songs that seems to come out of nowhere, sounds like a classic but is like nothing else you'd heard before. If there is a girl out there who has the talent to write and perform such a work before her teenage years are over, let her step forward now. Written in a few hours after seeing the film of the Emily Bronte novel, Kate Bush confirmed her special genius already established five years earlier when she wrote 'The Man With the Child in His Eyes' as a thirteen year old; it became her second single, and would sit just as prettily on this list. I've failed to make a Devon connection in my seventies selection, but Kate lives out near Start Point; she likes to be left alone, and so do I.

The songs that defined a decade... The noughties

Okay, this might go a bit dad at the disco, but I've set myself a task, so I'm going to see it through...

1. 'Yellow' by Coldplay (2000)

No, I don't like it either, despite Devon being centre of the musical universe in the noughties, Coldplay and Muse being the UK's bona fide international stadium filling acts, and Will Young being the reality show star it's almost okay to like - but not quite. However, it's hard to deny that this record did define the sound of mainstream - it is hardly Indie in label or inclination - lite rock for the decade, and many imitators followed, posh lads with pianos crooning yearningly vague lyrics like this one.

2. 'I Can't Get You Out of My Head' by Kylie Minogue (2001)

Being a child of the eighties, I really didn't think I'd be proclaiming a Kylie track as not just one of the defining songs of the decade more than twenty years after her debut, but a dance-pop classic to be enjoyed on its own terms, preferably on a crowded dancefloor. Written by Cathy Dennis (a solo star of the early nineties) and Rob Davis (formerly guitarist with Mud, and composer of 'Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)' which was another contender in this genre, as were The Scissor Sisters, who have their own Kylie connections), the single went to number one in forty countries, and has soundtrack'd many a great night out at the discotheque. Oh, and 'Spinning Around' deserves a mention too, if only for those gold hot pants.

3. 'Lose Yourself' by Eminem (2002)

With hip-hop and r'n'b becoming the commercial mainstream of the decade, my list might seem a little light on rap, but this track broke all records (number one in twenty-four countries, the most successful rap song of all time) crossed all boundaries (it's been used as a motivational piece in primary schools and is a perennial at sporting events) won both an Oscar and a Grammy and deservedly so. It is also the lead single off the soundtrack to 8 Mile, that rare thing - a movie about music that works for the non-fan.

'Hey Ya!' by Outkast (2003)

Outkast became a pair of solo acts joined at the hip only by a shared moniker, so this could equally be described as an Andre 3000 solo track, and although the duo were born in hip-hop, this is closer to funk, but what it is first and foremost is POP, leaping out of the speakers and asking you to dance. For the visually inclined, the video is also a masterpiece of its kind, featuring a cast of Andres dressed as jockeys and golf caddies mimicking The Beatles' 1964 debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

5. 'White Flag' by Dido (2003)

Again, not a track that would ever trouble my stereo, but at the time it provided the musical accompaniment to many a yuppie dinner party. It must have a secret place in more CD collections than I care to contemplate, 'Life for Rent' (the album it was the lead single off) selling over ten million copies worldwide and being in the top ten selling titles of the decade. I blame Eminem's 'Stan' for making her famous, and almost regret not including it in place of 'Lose Yourself' to do Dildo without having to give her a slot of her own. Others in the 'boring music for boring people' slot include the comeback of Take That - if your Granny likes it, it's probably not very good but 'Patience' is a consummate pop song - and James Blunt, may he be stuck in Sesame Street hell forever.

6. 'Crazy in Love' by Beyonce featuring Jay-Z (2003)

R'n'B has been the dominant sound of the decade and few would deny that Beyonce is the queen of the genre, while Jay-Z is not only her husband but hip-hop's premier artist-entrepreneur; between them, their record sales are well into nine figures; together, they are black America's second couple, next to the Obamas. As for the record, it really is an arse-shaker and take it from me, that really is a compliment.

7. 'I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor' by The Arctic Monkeys (2005)

There's only space for one indie anthem of the noughties, but this one earns its right to decade defining status on several counts. For a start, it demonstrated the power of the internet to hype a band from nowhere to chart topping status, barely touching the sides of the mainstream media in the process. More importantly, it was our first listen to Alex Turner, the best British lyricist since Morrissey. An honourable mention to The Strokes for 'Last Nite' without this, the careers of the likes of The Arctic Monkeys, The Kaiser Chiefs ('I Predict a Riot') and The Libertines ('Can't Stand Me Now') and Franz Ferdinand ('Take Me Out') - not to mention the American contingent such as The Killers ('Mr Brightside') and Kings of Leon ('Sex on Fire') - might never have happened.

8. 'Crazy' by Gnarls Barkley (2006)

One of those songs that came from nowhere and stayed around forever, Crazy was the first song to top the charts by download sales alone, a good couple of years before the MP3 was the dominant medium for the purchase of music. Gnarls Barkley is a collaboration between Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo. Nothing in their previous careers prepared them for success on this scale and they've failed to repeat it, but if this is all they're remembered for, remembered they will be - after nine weeks at number one, they deleted it from the catalogue to save us from the unlikely event of getting bored by it.

9. 'Rehab' by Amy Winehouse (2007)

Somewhere around the middle of the decade, a bunch of girls were doing retro soul, jazz and ska and as good as 'Frank' was, Amy Winehouse seemed like just another chip off that block. Then came 'Back to Black' and for all its musical reference points, you realised you were dealing with a true original with a talent for words, tunes and their delivery. The title track itself could have taken this spot and both 'Tears Dry on Their Own' and 'Love is a Losing Game' will be torch song standards if they're not already. But it's 'Rehab' that both transcends celebrity culture and subverts it, truly a song for our times.

10. 'Pokerface' by Lady Gaga (2009)

I had a moment of conscience here - how can you represent the noughties without a single act born out of a reality TV show? Then I remembered the rules and forgave myself. These songs aren't just meant to define the decade now, but forty years from now. When we look back, I suspect most of the Simon Cowell acts will have thankfully faded from memory, may he be buggered with a ten-foot barge pole. Girls Aloud with 'Biology' came into serious consideration, but more for the Xenomania songwriting and production than what the girls made of it. Girls are very now, of course - Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes, Lily Allen, Duffy etc - but the true original among them to my eyes and ears is Lady Gaga and it's no coincidence she's also the one with international reach who goes across genres and defines not just a sound but a look, the Madonna of our times. She wears rubber, scares your parents and if she doesn't have a cock, she probably wears one on a regular basis. Dishonourable mentions in the minx category also go to 'Hit Me Baby (One More Time)' by Britney Spears and 'Umbrella' by Rhianna, both top pop videos, even without the sound turned down. Respect to Dizzee Rascal for this year's most fun single 'Bonkers' but until he breaks America, he doesn't count as decade defining.

The songs that defined a decade... The sixties.

1. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' by The Beatles (1964)

This isn't a list of the best songs of the decade, remember, but the singles that defined it. This number was not only The Beatles' biggest selling single, but also the one that broke the American market, the number one of that infamous top five that accompanied their first transatlantic trip. It's also the number in which Bob Dylan heard the refrain as 'I get high...' inspiring him to our boys their first joint. They were quick learners, those Liverpudlians.

2. 'Like a Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan (1965)

Talking of Dylan, even his most vehement detractors find it difficult to argue against his being one of the defining personalities of the decade. There's an argument for choosing one of his earlier protest songs - 'The Times They Are A-Changin', say or 'Blowin' in the Wind' - but they were never chart hits and besides, as a pop phenomenon this was his pinnacle. At over six minutes in length, it broke all the rules of radio play, its impressionistic and yet accusing language was hardly typical pop fodder, and yet yet it hit the top ten all over the world. More importantly, that opening snare shot kicked open the doors of the minds of a generation to a different way of being, described in sound by Mike Bloomfield's spiky guitar and Al Kooper's swirling organ riff. It regularly, and rightly, tops lists of the best singles of all time.

3. 'Make it Easy on Yourself' by 'The Walker Brothers' (1965)

Many would argue for 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore', an equally great song from the following year, but this was their first hit single and had teenage girls pursuing Scott Walker and his supposed brothers wherever they went. It was composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, probably the best non-performing writing team of the era, for Dionne Warwick and has been recorded by many other artists since, but this is the defining rendition. Scott now spends his time hanging out in betting shops and backstreet boozers or beating lumps of meat in his avant-garde recordings, released in album form once a decade or so, but for all the qualities of his later solo albums, this was his great pop moment.

4. 'I Got You (I Feel Good)' by James Brown (1965)

The Godfather defined the black music of the era - funk, soul and rhythm 'n' blues - and still seems somehow more current than his contemporaries. With 99 charting hits, there's plenty to choose from, but this was both his biggest smash and signature tune, concise in single form but lending itself to extended workouts on stage.The screams, hollers, drum beat and horn riff have all been sampled numerous times. If there's one artist of the sixties who is truly still setting the agenda for the mainstream of today - dominated by r'n'b and hip-hop - then it's James Brown.

5. 'Good Vibrations' by The Beach Boys (1966)

If we're keeping it simple with our Beatles choice, we've got to go for one of Brian Wilson's mini pop symphonies by The Beach Boys to show how musically complex pop was to get within a couple of years of the puppy love songs typical of the early decade. I'm not saying this is my favourite of their songs - that would be 'God Only Knows' - or even my favourite track of theirs of this type - 'Heroes and Villains' - but while many would advocate going with one of their earlier surf sound classics, but this sums up the ambition of the times when the best composers aspired to out-do each other with every release, create a pure pop masterpiece and top the charts both sides of the Atlantic.

6. 'I'm a Believer' by The Monkees (1966)

The first - and best - of the manufactured boy bands were put together as an American rival to The Beatles, and made a clutch of classic singles, written by some of the best songwriters of the day, before claiming their independence and drifting towards the psychedelic obscurity of 'Head'. All four members had musical talent and creative ambition, qualities no longer priorities to those assembling X-factor style pop acts. The Monkees TV series is a repository of sixties fashion, humour and music and still bears watching today. This number, the biggest selling hit of 1967, was written by Neil Diamond, one of the several Brill Building writers who developed successful recording careers in their own right, and demonstrates that even teeniebop pop can be great.

7. 'River Deep, Mountain High' by Ike and Tina Turner (1966)

Phil Spector has claims on being the producer of the decade and many consider this to be his best work, himself included. Ike Turner might be credited on the label, and ran his revue like Spector governed the studio - but was paid to stay away during recording. It's flop Stateside caused Spector to withdraw from the music industry and lose himself in paranoia and conspiracy. In the UK, it reached number three, justifying its inclusion as a bona fide hit. Many other Spector productions were contenders, but this was his peak, despite some contending that backing black voices with a white pop sound had passed its sell-by date by 1966, the height of the civil rights era.

8. 'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix (1967)

With only one slot available for some riff-driven rock'n'roll there are some tough choices to be made. 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones and 'My Generation' by The Who are each contenders. Both bands certainly had a hand in defining the decade, although arguably didn't hit the heights of their creativity or international fame until the seventies. As well as being the greatest guitarist of his generation - indeed, of all time - Hendrix is the bridge between English and American psychedelia and defines the Summer of Love.

9. 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks (1967)

It's been called the most beautiful song of the rock'n'roll era and the greatest ever written about London but even though it is born of urban loneliness, which has never sounded more romantic, its tone is more that of an English pastoral. Almost thirty years later it became the lodestone of the Britpop movement ,but although some came close, none managed to match its perfection and although he kept up his run of classsic singles into the early seventies, Ray Davies didn't either.

10. 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' by Marvin Gaye (1968)

If Phil Spector epitomised the master-slave model of pop hit production, Tamla Motown established a new business model, run and staffed by black musicians, collectively making records for a burgeoning multi-racial market that broke the traditionally segregated audiences of both radio station and concert hall. Again, there are many contenders from the Motown repertoire, but this one stands out. It was also recorded by The Miracles, The Pips and the Isley Brothers before finally becoming a hit for Marvin Gaye. Berry Gordy hated the track and it might never have been a hit if it weren't for only relenting unprecedented demand from DJs and the public for it to be released off the 'In the Groove' album which was later renamed to bear its title.

The songs that defined a decade...

A friend of mine recently suggested I broadcast the 'best ever singles' (in sequence) on my radio show. I yawned and suggested it had not only been done many times before, but it was a fatuous exercise - one man's best being another's boredom.

He stated that this time it would be different. It wouldn't be any old top ten, it would be THE top ten, not opinion but FACT, by which he meant not somebody else's opinion but HIS.

Too dulled by red wine to argue, I asked him for his list. He reeled it off, expressing the pleasures of many an onanistic hour spent considering this important matter. Too sharpened by red wine not to argue, we then spent a further pleasurable hour or two debating the merits of his list.

His claims to objectivity were limited by the fact that all of his contenders dated back to his youth - from the mid-sixties to the late seventies. Now there is an argument that states this was the golden era of pop music in which the all that a guitar, bass, drums and the human voice can do was done and what has followed has been little more than repetition to ever diminishing returns. It is an argument I have some sympathy with; I've even been known to make it myself on occasion.

But I also have an observation: when it comes to pop music lists, the compiler invariably focuses on the music made when they were in their teens and twenties. Most of us are unable to keep up with the charts beyond the age of thirty. There are exceptions, but they tend to be parents who want to be their children's friends, rather than assume their rightful role of enemy. These funky families share record collections. My God, they even go to gigs together. They probably also share sexually transmitted diseases.

Yes, most of us maintain the diet of our salad days, and are convinced any other vittles just don't taste as good. We're prepared to proclaim the merits of the early Beatles puppy love singles whilst dismissing the current teenie bop pop as mush for minds yet to grow up, their hearing distorted by hormones. We'll extol the virtues of David Bowie and Roxy Music but choke or chortle over Lady Ga Ga's latest bizarre costume creation. We'll wallow in punk rock nostalgia but bemoan the violence implicit - or explicit - in contemporary rap.

How do we break out of the strait-jacket of our times? If there's one thing I like better than lists, it's rules. Give me a list of rules and I'm a happy chappy, so long as I drew them up myself, of course. So I suggested to my friend we make our own lists of the ten songs that defined each of the last five decades, then spend several more happy and drunken hours arguing over them:

1. The songs should have been popular. What's the point of pop music if it's not a hit? Number ones are preferred, but sometimes the tortoise wins the race, so any chart single will be considered so long as it's a genuine hit.

2. The songs should be insanely catchy. When you hear one, it doesn't leave your head for a week. Come across it forty years later, and it's still there, playing on repeat in some back room of your mind. You should know it even if you think you've never heard it - the best pop music has the properties of a virus, enters by osmosis.

3. The songs should be like nothing else before them. Not just popular but ground-breaking. Look back over the charts of past decades and you'll soon realise how many forgettable singles sold in spades. Invariably, those who made a new sound made it best.

4. The songs should have influenced what followed. Sure, there are some one-offs that no one could repeat, most often because no one wanted to. All the best music has its imitators. We think the music of the past is better than that of today because we only remember what of it is worth remembering.

5. The songs should soundtrack their times. When we hear them, we should be transported back then and there - wear the clothes and know the moves that accompanied the grooves. Pop music is the folk music of today. Therefore, in it's own unconscious way, it should also have something to say about its here and now.

If I don't stop on five rules, I'll have to make it ten, so that will do for now. Let's try them out on a couple of decades that bookend the pop era, see what we come up with...

Top ten reasons why lists are rubbish...

1. It is no coincidence that 'best of' lists proliferate at this time of year. They are written by drunken hacks, filing copy from the pub.

2. Lists are the lowest form of cultural commentary, produced by those with nothing to say for those for whom nothing is worth reading.

3. Lists are either produced by self-elected experts (to show how cool or clever they are) or by an aggregate of public opinion (for which the term 'lowest common denominator' was invented.)

4. Lists are invariably produced by men. Only men have both the time and inclination. Only men are that nerdy and that inane. All men are on the autistic spectrum and should be prescribed Ritalin at birth.

5. Women do produce lists, but of a far more practical kind than 'the best Spurs XI' or 'Bob Dylan's studio albums in order from 1 to 42' lists men favour e.g. shopping lists, Christmas present lists, DIY to-do lists, wedding planning lists for the year after next in anticipation of an engagement that never comes, potential name lists for babies yet to be born.

6. Lists have been the saviour of land-fill TV. Got a three-hour gap in the schedule? Knock up a best-of programme on your Apple Mac compiled from stock footage and a bunch of C-list celebrities talking out of their arses.

7. Lists attempt to objectify the subjective. They are the equivalent of ancient rulers carving their decrees in stone. Only written up by the sad and lonely and posted on their blogs hoping for the attention they'll never receive.

8. Lists are most fun when written by committee, a process usually lubricated by alcohol. It's not true that men don't like to express their emotions. They get very heated about which Bob Dylan album is the best - 'Blood on the Tracks' or 'Blonde on Blonde'. The thought that anyone can consider the Manchester United treble winning team to be superior to the Tottenham Hotspur double winning team has been known to reduce a man to tears.

9. You can measure a list maker's ego by the title of his list. 'My favourite...' is modest. 'My recommended...' even considers its audience. 'Top ten...' shows some delusions of grandeur. 'Best ever...' is the province of the ego maniac, only exceeded by 'Countries to invade next' lists, traditionally the territory of blood-thirsty dictators who invariably spent many of their waking hours drawing up lists, usually of enemies to eliminate and town squares requiring their statue.

10. The rule of lists is that they should be a top 10, 50 or 100 and cover the year, decade, century or millennium e.g. the best 10 madrigal performances of the last 1000 years. If you can't think of a tenth that's worthy, you read a rival list and crib of that. If you have more than ten, it's time to kill your darlings...

Now I've got that off my chest, time to have fun compiling a few lists...

Friday, 25 December 2009

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cinema: Michael Jackson's 'This Is It'

Not everyone gets eighties pop, just like not everyone gets Andy Warhol. Used to judging the heirs to Picasso on the production of paintings or the new Bob Dylan on the degree to which they write songs like the old Bob Dylan, naysayers declare the likes of Michael Jackson to be unworthy of their attention and return to their personal canon of the great artists, the classic songs.

The pop process is all about the creation of the pop persona. What the pop persona creates as saleable products are of secondary consequence: records, films, fashions, books and tours for the masses; collectible relics for the connoisseur. The pop artist should aspire to be Midas: in his or her imperial period, everything they touch will turn to gold, and they will seem golden to us.

That is the triumph. It is now a familiar story. Then comes the tragedy. When the lustre fades, the pop artist is stuck forever in the guise of his own creation, forgets his origins as the creator, and in so doing Frankenstein becomes his own monster. Enter Michael Jackson, king of the pop artists and the most fascinating icon of the last quarter of the twentieth century who dragged his bones into this one before giving up the ghost.

I had not previously bought into Michael Jackson - none of his diminishing fortune was filched from my pockets - but I have long been fascinated by both him as his own creation and how we view that creation through that hall of mirrors that is our 24-7 media. If I had plotted his end, would you have bought my book? It was almost too perfect - that final image of the man stripped of his gilded uniform, denuded of his wig, wiped clean of makeup, swimming with pharmaceuticals and prickled with needle holes. He overdosed not on the some Jesus juice that made him feel more alive, but that mother's milk that gave him the perfect sleep of death.

Admiring the chutzpah of his corporate masters - who churned new product of all kinds so soon after his death, before he was even buried, and called each a tribute - I went along to bear witness in the chapel of the cinema, that place where heretics go to play. Just as Roman Catholics dismember the bodies of their saints over time - sending a head here, an arm there - so the pop artist is destined to become more productive in death than he was in life as his acts of self-creation acquire the power of immortality.

But 'This Is It' is not a typical post-death product: to realise anything on their investment in a show that was rehearsed but never performed, their only option was to release a performance compiled from rehearsals. In doing so, they leave a door ajar on how Michael Jackson the pop artist worked - how he went about creating his pop persona.

The rehearsal footage is intimate by necessity: it's primary purpose was to assist Michael Jackson and his creative team in realising their vision for a show that was to be played out fifty times in the O2 Arena in London. The Millennium Dome was the perfect choice, as it came to symbolise the failures of the previous era, rather than becoming an inspiration to the new century. When the HIStory album was released, a giant statue of the pop king was floated past its future construction site.

Now the same footage is put to alternate use as the primary product: the putting together of the show becomes the show itself. The camera is just too in his face for the conspiracy theory of body doubles to be plausible. Old audio may have been dropped into the mix, but there is no mistaking the body that sometimes sketches out a performance with moves and vocal ticks, sometimes responds to even the smallest audience by letting himself go, taking us with him into Neverland.

Would the show have gone on? They seem ready for the crowd. Is Michael a dead man walking? At times he looks flimsy as an x-ray but when he dances he is never frail and when he sings his voice seems to have lost none of its range or power to project. Is it drugs that get him up onto the stage and drugs that put him down again? Anyone who saw the bizarre 'press conference' that launched the enterprise on TV would feel safe in concluding so, and there are moments when his enthusiasm appears enhanced, but he is sound of mind and absolutely focused on every element of the production.

Yes, Michael is the man in charge. This is no doubt the image the editors wished to create, but nevertheless had to have raw material to create it from. He was able to communicate every musician's part with his voice as if he had long ago mastered each of their instruments. He instructs dancers half his age at how to move with more poise and use their energy to greater effect. The details of costume and visuals are clearly important to him. In this way - his way - he shows himself to have been perhaps the greatest showman of our times - even in rehearsal, your eyes can't leave him alone.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Arts in the Recession: The Cult of Amateur Radio

Emails of excitement pulsed out of Phonic FM HQ when The Times published a full length feature on the home station of The Blah Blah Blah Show. In truth, such mainstream recognition barely registered a ripple. The regulars on the Phonic message board were preoccupied by missing keys, faulty equipment, the challenge of staying financially afloat and all else that goes with running a 24-7 radio station on a shoestring.

Maybe I'm on the broadsheet fringe of the roster of presenters - many of whom would have only taken their headphones off to check a mention in Kerrang, Mixmag or some other specialist music or technology glossy - but I read it with interest, not least because it fits well with my current series of articles on trends in the arts during a recession, my theory being that lack of subsidy from the exchequer may be a blessing rather than a curse when it comes to cultural regeneration.

Which isn't to say that Phonic FM is run grant-free and we're very grateful for all those who back us. But it is a station run by enthusiasts, not employees, on a not-for-profit basis, has aspirations to become a company run by the community for its community, and in that way fits my grassroots thesis. Commercial radio is beholden to its advertisers to maintain the largest possible audience, while BBC radio has to constantly reaffirm its raison d'etre by demonstrating mass appeal. Listen to most stations on your dial most times of the day and you'll soon begin to wonder if it doesn't all sound a bit samey the presenters are slick but scripted, their music choices defined by a playlist, the playlist determined by committees of producers who in claiming to forecast popular taste are in fact defining it.

Phonic FM presenters work to a very different rulebook. They receive no pay or payola, have no budget or expenses, do what they do only because they like doing it and hope that others like what they do too. There is a steering group that considers pitches by would-be presenters and does its bit towards quality assurance by listening in and providing feedback but it is hardly intrusive in its methods or working to a grand design. Our audience is known only so much as they make themselves known to us, interacting via email, on the phone or via sites such as this. I could pick out my favourite shows, but yours would be different, best located by tuning in: some are name checked in The Times article, others on the station's Wikipedia entry, all on the Phonic FM schedule. All tastes are catered for except those tastes already catered for by our mainstream alternatives, which isn't to say that you won't hear the popular sounds of now, they'll just be mixed in with sonic curios from all eras and genres with the occasional programme such as ours majoring on spoken word rather than promoting its particular musical manifesto.

DAB radio was meant to widen the dial to British listeners. Although I regularly tune in to some digital-only stations, the choice available is still restricted to 60 or so channels, akin to the range available on Freeview TV. The American model of a subscription based satellite service offers more variety - the US market has always been more niche driven, every town having a station dedicated to country, most one grooving on rap and R&B - but at a price to the listener. In Sirius XM, a merger of previous providers, it now also has a monopoly supplier. Community radio has a different ethos. It reminds me most of the glory days of pirate radio - not the 1960s boat-based channels such as Radio Caroline, as ground-breaking as they were, dragging British broadcasting and its monopoly corporation into the modern era - but the nineteen-eighties when technology became cheap enough to fall into the hands of inspired amateur enthusiasts and a station could be run out of a suitcase from a squat or bedsit. Tune into Phonic FM, relax with your favourite relaxant, and you could almost be back there back then...

Arts in the Recession: Pub Theatre

I'm not going to pretend to my more metropolitan readers that pub theatre is a new phenomenon. In the capital, theatre spaces began to establish a permanent presence above the downstairs bar in the early seventies. But then alcohol has always been part of the theatre going experience: the south bank in Shakespeare's day was alive with beer swilling, whore chasing, bone chewing gamblers and thieves who chose between Hamlet and bear baiting as forms of popular entertainment, while music hall was a riot of gin drinking that began in saloon bars in the early Victorian era.

But what I have noticed in recent times is the new variant of pop-up pub theatre: a company takes over an upstairs - or downstairs - room for a month - or a week or a day - and puts on a play or two before moving on. Theatre professionals may sneer at the idea - they have their subsidised venues to protect - but whatever these productionslack in extravagance, they make up for with intimacy.

I know you have an image of amateur dramatics fixed in your head. Let me try and disabuse you of that notion. These days, we have more trained actors and allied professions than we know what to do with. The academies churn out far more media professionals than the media can ever use. Many of these creative types will spend a year or two eking out a living on the fringe before surrendering to a more lucrative career. Even then, most will want to keep their hand in in their spare time. Of those that make it, some will retain a romantic yearning for their days travelling from small stage to small stage in a transit van.

Let's take the Partcular Theatre Company's recent production of Forsaken at Exeter's Hour Glass Inn as an example. The Hour Glass has long used its cellar room as a place of entertainment. During the last World Cup, it became a sports bar for those who hate sports bars. On Sunday afternoons it has served as both a secret cinema and party venue. During peak periods, it reverts to the kind of restaurant that might be a harem canteen. But in September it became a fifty seat theatre not for one but eighteen performances of an original piece of theatre.

What is more, if the evening of my visit was any indication, it was a sell out - for an unknown company putting on a new piece of writing at a venue with no theatre history. That demonstrates an appetite for endeavours of this kind in our more bohemian provincial towns, but what were the secret ingredients of this particular recipe? Theatre audiences eat and drink: they like to meet first to catch-up socially then hand-out afterwards to discuss what they've just experienced. The Hour Glass encouraged these traits by putting on plates of pre-theatre food at a time that didn't interfere with it's always-busy restaurant. The producers helped out by laying on bite-sized performances at 6pm and 10pm - poetry, stand-up, sketches, music. These were free-to-all, but encouraged ticket holders to turn-up early and stay on late. They gave locals and regulars something not to moan about. And the performers could try out material on a willing audience without the pressure of a paying crowd,

The production team did a good job on the publicity, with distinctive posters up all over town and local press and radio backing the venture. But otherwise they didn't pander to the lowest common denominator. The company specialise in new writing and this piece by Helen Davis took on the unlikely prospect of a nun falling in love with a gay man, managed to avoid the potential for farce and prompted those in the stalls to question their own paths through life, so close were they to the characters doing the same on stage. The setting had a cave-like ambience that could contain a simple set design and create some of the magic of theatre. All of those involved had both professional training and experience and no one left disappointed.

Which isn't to say the truly amateur doesn't have its place. Earlier in the year, a local troupe took over the upstairs room of the Globe Inn in Newtown and put on an evening of Pinter and Beckett. Neither were great, but neither were bad either, and those two playwrights have plenty of badness potential. I predict that over the next few years, not all of our large-scale arts will survive pressures on public funding. As punters, we'll be less willing to pay big ticket prices, more interested in cultural soirées that combine a show of some kind with the opportunity to drink and chat with friends. And if we look back on the history of most art forms, it is out of those small scale scenes that most new work has emerged, away from the spotlight where it has a chance to grow without the need to do big box office, just make enough to get by.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Cinema: A Serious Man

'A Serious Man' sends the Coen brothers back to where their careers as film makers began: set in a nineteen-sixties suburbia of clapper-board houses, parking lots and strip-malls; costumes and interiors are lovingly recreated in grained or patterned sages and browns; spectacles show themselves to be as good a guide to a decade as its architecture. With a soundtrack of pop-psychedelia that dominated the charts that summer that perfectly scores the stoned atmosphere of the movie, you know you're in safe hands from the outset.

Autobiographical parallels are striking: the directors' father was a professor at a midwest university, just like Larry Gopnik, superbly played by Michael Stuhlbarg; his dope-smoking, bar mitzvah taking son Danny is of the age Joel would have been circa 1967, Ethan being three years younger; the brothers saved up for their first Super 8 camera by mowing the kind of well-groomed lawns that carpet the set; in other words, after more than twenty years of movie making, the Coens are bringing it all back home.

Larry is in a bad way. His wife is leaving him for a recently widowed but supremely smug elder from the synagogue. His kids are breaking whatever picket fence boundaries he puts in their way. His brother is taking up sofa space, making himself unpopular, hogging the bathroom to drain his sebaceous cyst, while working on kabbalistic mathematical theories that will only get him locked away. Larry himself is waiting on the faculty tenure committee while fending over student bribes and threats to his plot from redneck neighbours whose life is spent hunting and fishing, not pondering equations and suffering every angst known to the twentieth century. These ordinary woes of the common man are played out in his dreams as the sufferings of Job.

Larry seeks the advice of three rabbis, from junior to senior, getting little but platitudes and shaggy dog stories for his troubles. All he aspires to is respect from his family, community and synagogue, and a place in the academy - is that too much to ask? We're never quite sure. As a tornado heads towards town, some of life's dilemmas have been resolved, but new ones present themselves. The Coens realise their world, establish its characters and then leaves them - and us - to their own devices as the credits roll. As I walked out of the cinema, I felt underwhelmed. And yet I find myself quietly haunted by it. Why?

Perhaps it's because Larry, for all his neuroses and calamities, seems on the verge of a breakthrough rather than breakdown that we never witness him reach. If the folk tale that begins the film is a clue to its meaning, its one that I've yet to unravel; more likely, Ethan and Joel are playing an elaborate joke on us, the audience, but not one that I resent. If anything, the elusive nature of the film is its strength. That, and and its punctuation with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments that will appeal to those of us who like our humour dark; our confrontation with life's mysteries and mortalities unflinching. One of the few certainties in life is that we can rely on the Coen brothers to deliver their original vision while others offer pale imitations that fade from our attention before the lights come up. 'A Serious Man' is a serious piece of work you shouldn't miss.

Cinema: Where the Wild Things Are

Wicked uncle? Looking for an outing to trouble the little ones and their parents over the Christmas period? You could do worse than march them off to 'Where the Wild Things Are', Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 300 word masterpiece into a full-length feature.

When talking movies, I've had plenty of parents extol the virtues of some animation or other, even persuaded me to watch one in the company of their darlings. Most often they're written-by-numbers, producers standing over the scriptwriters with their checklists, ticking down the demographic boxes. Yes, I did notice the adult joke no child would ever get - but I also saw it coming, put there to ensnare me into saying just that. It's grown-ups that buy the DVDs and pay for the tickets, you see. And if you can keep them in the movie theatre rather than round the corner having a snifter, all the better.

Spike Jonze turned down my favourite film of the year - he produced, but opted not to direct, Charlie Kaufman's 'Synecdoche: New York' - to work on this project, so it better be good. He also turned down the usual suspects to write the script with Dave Eggers, whose 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' grew out of the death of both of his parents, leaving him to bring up his eight-year-old brother Toph, giving him more empathy than most for a child coming to terms with personal tragedy - in Max's case, the divorce of his parents and isolation from his sister and peers - by going wild.

Not that Max is so out of control you can't immediately imagine yourself as him in his world, at least if you have known the sadness of a life lived in the imagination, and the satisfaction of knowing it is the only life worth living. Max is a lone wolf, but he also wants to sleep in a pile, just like the rest of us. He bites his mother, but doesn't intend on eating her, and is so disturbed by the prospect of the wild things eating him, he resorts to building a secret place in their shared space, triggering calamity in his wild paradise.

This is a movie that is about childhood, rather than for children, which isn't to say your children won't enjoy it. My walk down the aisle was serenaded by the merry chatter of kids at the cinema but once the lights went down, my viewing pleasure wasn't interrupted, so they were either enchanted or had settled down for a nap, probably doped up by mum with a teat or two of mulled wine. The first twenty minutes depict a child's life as it is - at least, how I remember it, not how most adults want it to be - lonely, mainly; craving attention but not knowing what to do with it; challenging, often, those he feels betrayed by.

Max introduces himself as 'an explorer who travels a lot.' When he runs away from home, his sailing over a year and in and out of a week and through a day to and from the night of his own room is a dream, so what - or who - are the creatures of his dream world? They are wild things, of course, but whereas in the book, we only grow to know and love them through their portraits - here, wonderfully rendered in three dimensions and voice by the likes of James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker - in the movie, we spend over an hour in their company.

The wild rumpus of the first island scenes leave us concerned for the wolf boy's safety as the assorted wild things roar their terrible roars and show-off their terrible claws, but by the conclusion of their first confrontation with our little hero - so well played by Max Records, he may well join that short lineup of child Oscar nominees - they are revealed as a collection of awkward neurotics as sad and lonely as he is. This is the gamble on which the success of the movie depends: if you're disappointed by that thought, you'll be more so by its execution; if it's the inner workings of the mind that interest you most, you're probably already intrigued enough to be reaching for the listings pages in your local paper.

When Carol - the most confused, lovable and dangerous of the creatures - picks out a crown and scepter from among boyish looking bones to hail Max the new king, you worry for the boy, but as the action proceeds, his moments of danger are those of accident rather than design, being crushed chief among them. If the film struggles to retain the attention, it is in stretching this sequence of adventures, few of which appear in the illustrated 1963 original or its later animation, to fill 101 minutes; alone on the island, you sometimes forget what's going on back home, which is what the film is really about.

I'm still trying to get to the bottom of who - or what - these furry manifestations of human psychology are. They are strange rather than scary, the chase and fight scenes fun rather than frightening. Max's imagination is so vivid we know his imaginary friends include a fence post, but these cuddly but cantankerous big softies have no antecedents in his bedroom we're made aware of. Spike Jonze was the right choice as director, bringing much of the charm and novelty of his early video work to proceedings, but maybe he should've waited for Kaufman rather than gone with Eggers to make these horny teddy boys real. Ultimately, they seem to show-off more of the hang-ups of adults than children, perhaps explaining Max's decision to go back to his mum, proving that even for a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king, heart is where the home is.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Arts in the Recession: Creating a Scene

Times are hard and the public purse is empty. Arts organisations that have previously relied on subsidy to stay afloat might find they have to throw away their water wings and swim for their lives. We on The Blah Blah Blah Show are planning to do our bit by publicising much of what's happening on the local scene and the best of the great beyond. But when I was searching for inspiration for the first of my series on arts in the recession, I didn't have to look far - across the Phonic desk, in fact, to my co-host.

I didn't see her at first. While I survey distant lands, Rachel McCarthy is, shall we say, more grounded. But in under a year of activity, she's made quite a bang on the local poetry scene and now she's getting national recognition, the Poetry Society recently naming Exeter's Stanza the most active group nationwide. How has she done it and what can others learn from her example?

It's not that Exeter was doing badly when she arrived. My first introduction to the world of poetry activists was at a small press festival in the Phoenix Arts Centre in the early nineties when magazine editors and publishers gathered together from all over the country, swapped their publications and even sold a few items to wandering poets or unsuspecting members of the public. We have the monthly Uncut series at the Phoenix's Black Box that combines guest poet and open mic and - in various incarnations - has been going for a couple of decades now. The Language Club in Plymouth runs to a similar format, and a carload or two often makes the trip between Devon's two cities. The Wondermentalist performance poetry cabaret was born in Totnes but now holds regular events in Exeter. Tall Lighthouse still hold occasional readings in the Picturehouse while Andy Brown's creative writing MA at the university means we get regular visiting writers of international repute. The Poetry School holds regular courses and workshops at various Exeter venues while several huddles of poets meet at each other's houses to share their work and wine. Exeter is also the home of Shearsman Books, one of our country's most innovative poetry publishers, with an international reputation and list. And poets got to Phonic FM before us - check out Waves With Words every Wednesday morning and hear their interview with Rachel on youtube.

But there was room for a little one, and some of us began to notice a fresh face among the us ageing hacks, offering her card and hustling for email addresses. Now this was unusual behaviour for a poet. We generally like to serve an apprenticeship before daring to open our mouths, let alone taking on the organiser role. But email and the internet has given us new opportunities to gather together like minds - setup a website and mailing list and you're away. They haven't replaced the leaflet and poster, but they've probably had more impact. And while the press and radio - especially alternative local community radio, of course - have their place, it's targetting the likely suspects that has most impact, that and word-of-mouth.

Of course, you have to have something worth marketing, otherwise you'll just get added to spam lists, soon forgotten. Excite got going with a launch event featuring Greta Stoddart reading from 'Salvation Jane', then shortlisted for the Costa Prize. Choosing the Devon and Exeter Institution as a venue didn't just add credibility to the enterprise, it has real atmosphere, its walls lined with leather bound volumes, its armchairs - and some of their occupants - stuffed with horsehair.

There are three things we don't talk about on The Blah Blah Blah Show - politics, religion and money. So I don't know all the secrets of the Excite treasury. But Rachel is a canny northerner - and former bookie - so I'm prepared to take a few bets. If you offer a performer a set fee, you've got to be prepared to make a loss. Now losing grant money is one thing, but shelling out from your own pocket is quite another. So if you offer a performer a cut of the takings, the risk is split with the added bonus that they are encouraged to promote the event, not just you. Given Rachel has put on a series of more-or-less monthly readings, I'm guessing the percentage approach is one she's adopted. While we're on finances, you've got to get the ticket price right for the night, in the fiver to tenner range depending on the box office appeal of your guest. The good ones will sell a few books to boost their earnings. Open mic is a blessing and a curse - think open audition for the poetry X factor - but probably a necessity for all but the best known main readers - they don't just turn-up, they even pay and often bring a friend or two. Besides, it's how even well known performers cut their teeth and sometimes try out new material.

I'm all for added incentives. Wine, for example. If there's no bar, certain poetry lovers will reconvene at the nearest pub, their devotion to alcohol even greater than their love of the spoken and written word. Certain venues have their own alcohol facilities, of course. Speak to them nicely and they might agree to give you a room for nothing on the understanding your punters will be theirs. Poets and poetry fans are heavy drinkers, that's what you need to tell them. And being other-worldly sorts, none of them drive. But for unlicensed venues, you'll have to provide the booze with the ticket price, a donations jar placed accusingly nearby. And truth is, for every wino there's a couple of water drinkers and all those two-for-the-price-of-one offers on cheap plonk help while they're still legal.

Rachel has been especially innovative when it comes to matching venues to events. That weather girl cheek has got her a long way. If one of her friends has a space big enough for an audience, she's probably filled it by now, and if she's not asked you yet, she'll be calling soon. Whether she crosses their palms with silver, I've no idea, but shops and galleries depend on footfall and getting known so why not offer to get a crowd through their door in return for a rent-free room. The Paragon Gallery has hosted both readings and workshop nights. Her partner in crime Piran Bishop has been persuaded to open up his studio in the recent team-up with Overstep Books. And she's held regular open mike nights at Otto Retro - everything is on sale including the chairs you sit on, and the glasses your drink is served in - the most recent being a Liv Torc book launch reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

The Excite brand is already branching out. Blogs have their place, and Rachel is a blogger in her own right. Its first poetry competition was recently won by David E. Butler. And then there's The Blah Blah Blah Show, of course, the first radio arts magazine to be presented by a one host under five years old and the other under five foot tall...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Poetry Review: Liv Torc at Otto Retro

I like Lic Torc. She does what she does - sassy performance poetry, off by heart, acted not just recited - and she does it well. I'm not the only one who says so. She won the South-West final of the Radio 4 Slam, is one of Matt Harvey's Wondermentalist cabaret troupe, and is an indefatigable presence on the local spoken word scene.

I like her work, or rather I like her performing her work. I like the title of her book too - 'Take Your Monkey and Get Out of My Life' - which isn't to say I bought a copy. Truth is, I'd only read it to remind me of her bringing it to life on stage. That's the problem with performance poetry on the page - with an active local scene giving plenty of opportunities to check out its good - and not so good - practitioners, and youtube as a backup if I ever feel like a fix of the same, I reserve my reading hours for other stuff.

Which isn't to say I don't regard Liv as a poet, I do, her and some - though not all - of her tribe - Amazonian and otherwise. Several were up there with her at Otto Retro - Exeter's funky junk store, one of the several homes of East Devon's poetry Stanza, Excite. In a funny kind of way, the setting was like the inside of her mind - eclectic bric-a-brac you probably don't need, but find yourself being charmed by all the same.

Some had her pizazz and the ones that didn't, at least they had a go. I can listen to the worst of them for five minutes, once, on an open mic. By the third or fourth time my democratic instincts are being tested, but I don't begrudge anyone the opportunity. It's how wannabe poets test themselves against an audience, alongside other wannabes, the odd should've-been and the occasional real thing. It's like eating canapes - if you don't like what you've got, there's another one coming along to soak up your glass of wine.

And I kind of regret not buying a copy of that book for the title alone. It would have made a quirky present for one of my younger sisters or elder nieces. I might just have done that but then she was chaired as the Bard of Exeter, made to wear robes and take a vow after a long speech by the Grand Bard about what the recently interred tradition should mean to her and us. That sickle lacked a cutting edge. So I slipped out the door and rushed home to watch Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' instead. And I'd advise performance poets with a comedic wit and sense of the ridiculous to do the same.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Playlist: December 2009

I don't recall all that Rachel McCarthy - my co-presenter - and our guest - Emma Bishop of The Paragon Gallery, Gandy Street, Exeter - played on the show, but these are the tracks I chose and reasons why:

1. 'Must Be Santa' by Bob Dylan from 'Christmas In The Heart'

I'm still coming to terms with the concept of a Bob Dylan Christmas Album, let alone its execution, but this seasonal polka, driven by the accordion of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, is my highlight. Check out youtube for the video featuring a good-time-was-had-by-all house party with our beloved grouch in a blonde wig and eccentric selection of hats dancing the night away while reeling off a list of American Presidents in place of a roll call of Santa's reindeer. What's not to like?

2. 'For Emma' by 'Bon Iver' off 'For Emma, Forever Ago'

I'm introducing all of our guests with an apt tune, whether they realise it or not. Legend has it Bon - Justin to his mum - recorded this in his Dad's log cabin, living off roots, berries and cuts of moose meat. True or not, the record has backwoods atmosphere and a lovelorn lilt that plaid shirt boys and buckskin girls love. I saw him at 'The End of the Road' festival in 2008 and he was still coming to terms with an audience that knew every word.

3. 'Rise' by Public Image Limited off 'Album'

PiL are back on the road; whether their latest incarnation is to my liking I'm as yet unsure; Johnny can still do his cockney Richard III Act for the Sex Pistols Reunion tours but whether his Country Life Butter persona can handle the emotion of his post-punk incarnation is yet to be seen; his appearance on 'The Culture Show' left me unconvinced. This was arguably his last great moment, although 'Open Up', his collaboration with Leftfield, still gets me on my feet.

4. 'Wolf Kidult Man' by The Fall from 'Imperial Wax Solvent'

The Fall played The Phoenix, home of Phonic FM, last month and I'm still recovering from the after show party, an intimate soirée Chez Smith and Poulou in the company of Anthony Frost, cover artist and future guest on The Blah Blah Blah Show.

5. 'I Don't Wanna Be Nice' by John Cooper Clarke off 'The Very Best Of'

To celebrate our induction of JCC into The Undead Poets Society, we span this platter. More on him elsewhere in the blog.

6. 'Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 'And No More Shall We Part'

'Dark, funny and yet strangely moving' is my modus operandi for writing poetry and this track comes out of the same box.

7. 'What's He Building In There' by Tom Waits off 'Mule Variations'

Never seen Tom Waits live, never likely to given he plays rarely and sells out in thirty seconds but he has a live album out from his 'Glitter and Doom' tour featuring a bonus disc of his between song spoken word shaggy dog stories. This isn't one of those, but it's the closest he gets to a poem, albeit with musical backing.

8. 'The Outdoor Type' by The Lemonheads from 'The Very Best Of'

I saw Evan Dando at The Port Eliot Festival this year. He's the kind of guy posh girls want to mother. Proof was in the front row, offering him their world. Apparently he's married an heiress, so has a world of his own. I also saw him bottled off the Acoustic Stage of the Glastonbury Festival in 1995. Portishead were on after and they were late. Great song for a campfire and easier to strum than a Portishead tune.

Cinema: An Education

Usually, I go to the cinema alone. Sad, I know, but it's a fact. Sad too that it might mean I miss out on films like 'An Education'. When selecting which movies I see, I don't just apply a judgement of personal taste, I also gauge popular predeliction, asking who else will be there, a factor in my enjoyment of the occasion. If teenagers are the core audience, forget it. Individually, teenagers are often acceptable company in the way that a dog alone is a personable companion. But gather teenagers - or dogs - into a pack and they behave like a pack: all flying popcorn, giggling conversation and bleeping mobile phones. Given teenagers are the core audience of most movie theatres, I don't just strike out whole genres as options, but chains of venues. Where they gather, I avoid.

Not that many teenagers are likely to see 'An Education'. More sophisticated female sixth formers maybe, adolescents more like the heroine of this story, a coming of age tale come older-man-grooms-younger-woman morality piece based on Lynn Barber's autobiography of the same title, set in a pre-Beatles 1960s London, but scripted by Nick Hornby. However, based on the poster alone, I might have assumed this was marketed at dates for couples where the female is the dominant partner or groups of women who gather monthly to gossip, drink wine and have a slice of culture with their cafe latte. In short, the kind of people I'd like to hang out with were I not a sad solo male movie goer, understandably considered untrustworthy company.

Naturally, I empathised with the predatory male at the centre of the story, when the audience is expected to side with the young female protagonist, a superbly nuanced performance by Carey Mulligan that deserves to win a clutch of awards. In the Lynn Barber book - which began as an essay length piece in Granta - her older man is an altogether less sympathetic character: over the cusp of middle age, without the physical appeal or rogueish charm that Peter Sarsgaard brings to the profession of the slum landlord. His character has more elements to integrate and he almost succeeds, especially in the central mystery of book and film - how did aspirational middle class parents who encouraged their only child to study for Oxford come to accept this man into their home, their daughter's life and ultimately encourage her to be his wife, a proposal she chose not to accept, but only because he was not only spliced, but a Daddy twice over.

Lynn Barber ultimately published her memoir while her elderly parents were still alive, exposing their small mindedness and duplicitous values to all; now projected onto the big screen. It says a lot about the mores of pre-feminist England: ultimately, a father's duty was to find his daughter a good man, goodness defined by means rather than morals. In truth, the book is much crueller, denying mummy and daddy the sympathy that Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour bring to their roles, but it is a cruelty they deserved - in any era, parents who collude in the seduction of their daughter by such an unsuitable suitor deserve cross-examination at the very least, if not abandonment.

This story within the story isn't majored in the film which plays on the romance of trips to Paris and life in a London society somewhere between the opera and the greyhound track. That is it's failing but also its success - Nick Hornby plots a course between authenticity of source and setting, and the darker heart of fifties suburbia, an era now bizarrely celebrated as a golden age. Carey Mulligan as Jennie Miller exposes the lies of her seducer and the hypocrisy of her parents herself, returns to her books and escapes to Oxford an independent woman, ready to claim her own life and live it on her terms, something Lynn Barber has done ever since, becoming one of the great journalists of our times. Her older man was never much of a lover anyhow, preferring baby talk to love making, living so many lives in parallel, he never quite knew who he was.

The film is made for a more forgiving audience: the girl is prettier, her seducer handsomer, the story arc'd rather than jagged, pitched somewhere between escapism and exploitation. What it captures is the end of an era, where the fifties meets the sixties and is found wanting. Women would soon have different choices to those offered by Lynn Barber's parents, and it was Lynn Barber's generation that won them for those that followed. This is an end of innocence movie, but its hard won experience was put to good use in making a life on her own terms, something the movie only hints at with its open ending. An alternative was almost chosen: a final confrontation eighteen months later that never happened in life, or thankfully, on celluloid. Possibility, not closure, is the best way to finish.

Music: Angusband as Theatre

Rock'n'roll is dead. When it died is open to debate. Let's say, for argument's sake, that it was buried with Kurt Cobain. There's only so much you can do with guitar, bass, drums and the human voice. It's surprising it took four decades to occupy all available territory, given it's many practitioners. Jazz has far more permutations and ceased to evolve as both a popular and creative art form circa 'Bitches Brew'. Electronica fared no better. It had two decades of development ending in the mid-nineties. By then, its parameters were defined.

Which isn't to say good rock'n'roll won't be made again. It is being made every day. It's just that it is unlikely to be doing anything new while appealing to a mass audience; what it needs to be a social force as against an act of mere consumption. Any innovator that finds an empty niche is unlikely to set the charts alight. Instead, we'll get diminishing returns on karaoke. Which isn't a bad thing, because rock'n'roll is best enjoyed in a drunken crowd anyway. A listen or two and you've got all that is new from even the best of it. After that, the listening experience is mainly an exercise in nostalgia.

Yes, I know there are new bands. There are even new genres, although they're generally fusions of, variants on or revivals of what's gone before. Most of the young bands that have come to prominence in the last decade sound like music to wet your bed to to me, but then my incontinence years aren't far away. ACDC never made music to wet your bed to, although they are piss yourself funny on occasions, and best enjoyed pissed, the more pissed the better. They make back-to-basics riff-driven rock and that is all they've ever made.

The phenomenon of the tribute band is a relatively recent one. As a mass phenomenon, I suspect their emergence began around the time rock'n'roll as a creative force was on it's last legs. Bjorn Again bounced out of Australia in 1988. The Australian Pink Floyd Show, ditto. Infact, Australia is the home of the tribute band, probably because most world tours never get that far, and although Antipodeans have their own place in rock history, most of them had to relocate to England to make it, ACDC an honourable exception.

The tribute band is distinct from the covers band: groups who entertain club and pub audiences by playing the hits of the day. Many groups of note started out that way, The Beatles included. The history of Beatles tribute bands predates all others, going back to the birth of The Bootleg Beatles in Tiverton, Devon in 1980 but until 1990 the UK was disinterested, still considering the concept somewhat naff, and they earned their crust in Eastern Europe and Asia, also omitted from most tour schedules. Now they play the Royal Albert Hall. Tribute bands don't just play the odd song by an artist, they attempt to recreate the experience of that artist in their prime. In some cases, they endeavour to exceed it, wanting to live up to our fantasy of the true innovators of rock'n'roll live. The Beatles retired from touring before their most ground-breaking years in the recording studio. The Bootleg Beatles can draw from their entire oeuvre, wardrobes as well as tunes, complete with a vanity case of false moustaches.

Let me state it now: I have no problem with tribute bands. I have no problem with a contemporary theatre company putting on a Shakespeare play without the author playing the role of Banquo's ghost. I take no issue with hearing a Mozart symphony without Wolfgang Amadeus on the podium in his powdered periwig either, although I do think conductor and orchestra should be attired in period dress for my visual pleasure. And I see tribute bands as playing to a classical score in a different genre. Only rock'n'roll is not limited to notes being played in the sequence in which they were composed. The experience is multi-sensory. Ideally, a tribute band should ape the original in every aspect; their only creative input should be that of skilled mimics.

Angusband is a tribute band. At least, they are twenty percent of a tribute band. Their Angus Young hasn't just been playing along to ACDC CDs, he's been studying the videos. If I were him, I'd spend a bit more on my shorts - red velvet would be nice - and the nose ring is inauthentic - but he's got the hair - which is more than the original has now - he's got the riffs and he's got the moves. I missed the cannons and I missed the wrecking ball, but loved the spotlit solo from the balcony at the back of the hall. The lead singer fits both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson into his manly frame and does a good job on the vocals of both, although he looks like neither. The rest of the lineup are sidesmen: heads down, crunching riff replication. When they played the Phoenix on November 21st - all proceeds to Phonic FM, thanks lads - all they lacked was an audience ready to play their part. There was insufficient leather, denim and ACDC t-shirts on show for my liking; not enough long hair on the men or poodle perms on the women. Come on people - a tribute band is nothing without a tribute crowd.

Cinema Review: Bright Star

Has there ever been a good film about a poet, about poetry?

If you measure quality in body count and explosions, certainly not, although Arnie as The Terminator had a way with a catchphrase.

If you rate your films in laughs, probably not, unless your idea of a joke is James Bond playing Ted Hughes in 'Sylvia'. There is something preppy about Gwyneth Paltrow, but you can't imagine her writing 'Ariel' or 'The Bell Jar'.

Take your pick of the Bukowski flicks, but they're about the bum, not the bum's work. That said, the bum's life was his work and Mickey Rourke, the star of 'Barfly', was at least a kindred spirit.

'Il Postino' is a fine film and Pablo Neruda was a great poet, but the film takes plenty of liberties with the man - transplanting hims exile from Chile to Italy - but you do get a sense of a poet working, or trying to work. The real star, however, is the postman of its title, and although the soundtrack of the movie contains plenty of poetry, it is the protagonist's belated coming of age and finding love that is the at movie's beating heart, Neruda being his guide to life and romance. It won an Oscar, and deservedly so, but had the postman's mentor been a novelist, painter or composer, would the essence of the film been lost?

As for 'Tom and Viv', it began as a stage play and its cinematic incarnation doesn't entirely transcend those more intimate origins. William Dafoe and Miranda Richardson are both talented actors, but whether they inhabited their characters as they were in life is moot. Perhaps the form of a biopic will never serve poetry well, and this example isn't helped by the Eliot estate's refusal to allow the incorporation of any of his work, not surprising given the not entirely sympathetic depiction of the plight of the straitlaced banker being married to a more-than-kooky heiress. Ultimately, I didn't find empathy with either character easy and that limited my enjoyment; if you get over that, it could be a rewarding two hours.

As for 'Bright Star', the Jane Campion biopic of John Keats in the last months of his life in England, I didn't find empathy either, but that's because Keats is played as a wet rag and Fanny Brawne switches from cutesiness to hysteria without much in between. Yes, it is beautifully shot and fans of the costume drama will no doubt forgive its faults and wallow in the period charm and Pre-Raphaelite cinematography, but its not one for the boys' night out.

Incidentally, 'Bright Star' the sonnet was first published in the Plymouth and Devonport Gazette. If a contemporary local paper publishes a poem at all, it is invariably Aunt Maude's Ode to her recently deceased cat. No doubt Aunt Maude would love the film and like the poem, which conveys - in fourteen lines that define nineteenth century Romantic poetry - what the movie fails deliver in two hours - of what John Keats felt for his greatest love:

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

The Undead Poets Society: John Cooper Clarke

To be deemed worthy of induction into the Undead Poets Society, a writer must have something of the night about him.

Born in a coffin in 1949, with his cadaverous complexion and just got-out-of-the-grave hair, John Cooper Clarke fits the bill, but isn't he just a funny man in a pall bearer's suit, his pipe cleaner limbs fitting those drainpipe kecks most snugly?

He is funny, sure - shoot flies off the ceiling with syringes of blood funny - but that isn't the end of his talents, and nor are his winklepicker boots. To describe him as a performance poet or stand-up doesn't do his stagecraft or pagecraft justice, although he is an example to the purveyors of both of those dark arts. Whatever a poet is, he is it, though some poets would deny it.

He wouldn't trust a man from the academy, and neither should you, but he gets their respect for his metrical ability, dead-eye image play and verbal dexterity. Before the Beat, Pop Art and Punk knocked down the walls of the old school, little Johnny would've been kept out of the playground of poetry, but the Children of Albion let him in on their game and then he changed the rules to ones more to his liking; it's Johnny Clarke's world and the fuddy-duddies will just have to get used to it.

Neither is he a musician, although many of his early works were released on vinyl, the best being 'Snap, Crackle and Bop' produced by Martin Hannett - the man who made Joy Division sound like a World War Two factory - and backed by some of Manchester's finest, Pete Shelley and Vini Reilly among them. But even Yorkshiremen admire the Bard of Salford, Simon Armitage and Alex Turner included, and now he lives in the belly of the beast that is Essex; rumour has it even southern softies like him, and not just the Honey Monster.

In the 2007 film 'Control' he played his self of thirty years before, and looked no more ancient now than he did then, surely proof he is more dead than alive. And yet he lives on: on a stage somewhere near you, often with Mark E Smith of Prestwich not far behind; or between the covers of 'Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt'; or spookily providing the soundtrack to an episode of the Sopranos with the bloody-tastic 'Chickentown'.

If he didn't have to drink so much blood, he'd no doubt lend his name to product again, and sink his fangs into a new generation. By making him our first honorary member of the Undead Poets' Society, perhaps we can urge him back into the immortality of print, before the River Styx takes him down to the dark beyond. If we can't, he has already done enough to live in our veins forever.

Maestros of the Movies: Charlie Kaufman

Who the hell is Charlie Kaufman? That's the question Charlie Kaufman has been asking himself across the course of his screenwriting career. Not in the trivial sense of delivering six autobiographical pieces when few lives deserve one, least of all that of a cranky Hollywood screenwriter. But in the deeper sense of exploring the human condition and the nature of the conscious self:

- In 'Being John Malkovitch' a struggling puppeteer discovers a portal into the mind of a well known actor, who ultimately becomes a world-renowned puppeteer, bringing the art of puppetry to a mass audience.

- Again working with the Director Spike Jonze, 'Human Nature' concerns a scientist couple's attempts to train a man brought up by apes in the ways of the world, until the freedom of the wild life becomes more attractive than civilisation.

- A fictionalised Charlie Kaufman gains a twin Donald in 'Adaptation', more successful in life, love and work but without his artistic integrity. Charlie struggles to adapt an intriguing work of non-fiction, 'The Orchid Thief', seeking the advice of Donald's screenwriting guru, before finally travelling to Florida to confront the author and her real-life lover and inspiration, with tragic consequences that break Kaufman's writer's block.

- 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' is the biopic of the gameshow host and supposed CIA hitman Chuck Barris, directed by George Clooney who opted to strip Kaufman's scripts of much of its surreal and reflexive trickery and go back to source; the movie bombed and Kaufman disowned it.

- 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' was Charlie's first Oscar-winning script, in which the shy Jim Carrey character seeks the help of a medical team who can erase all memory of a failed romance with cookie Kate Winslet from his brain, following her decision to do the same. Two years later, they meet again, just as instructed in their last shared memory, and have another try at mismatched love.

- 'Synecdoche: New York' is Charlie Kaufman's first movie as writer-director, a five-year labour of love in which an alienated and depressed theatre director, Caden Cotard, receives a genius award, funding a project into which he can pour his whole self, a recreation of city life in a gigantic warehouse. Years later, the production has become a world within a world in which Caden Cotard finally relinquishes control to take on the part of a cleaning lady, still obsessed with the artistic problem he has set himself as his mimetic urban creation is abandoned and his own existence ends. It is a dream of life as life is, a rare and fragile thing.

You'll have concluded that a Kaufman movie doesn't lend itself to the one sentence elevator pitch. Though stars queue to work with him, they aren't star vehicles either. Never short of critical acclaim, he's also flirted with popular success; it's prospect has driven him deeper into exploring his self, universalised in the most significant corpus of twenty-first century cinema so far realised.

In 'Adaptation', Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman confronts the aforementioned screenwriting guru with a question: "What if the writer is attempting to create a story when nothing happens?" Larry David asked himself the same when conceiving 'Seinfeld' two decades ago with nine series - fifteen if you include six seasons of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' - of hilarious consequences. "You write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears," comes the reply. Charlie has spent his entire career proving that advice wrong, provoking tears of gratitude and joy in those of us who follow his work.

There is conflict of course: the inner conflict of coming to terms with your self in the world and trying to create something worthwhile out of it; the challenge of artistic endeavor taking on philosophy's perennial conundrums. Beginning with a bang - 'Being John Malkovitch' was the most stunning authorial and directorial debut of the last decade - and ending with a terrifying whimper - I'm convinced I may be living in my own Synecdoche, even though I can neither pronounce or define the term - Charlie Kaufman has broken all the rules of screenwriting. In doing so, he has created a new set of principles for screenwriters - indeed, creative writers of any kind - to follow:

- Write from yourself, not about yourself. There is a Kaufman-like character at the heart of each of his most successfully realised scripts. None of them - even his namesake in 'Adaptation' - are living a Kaufman-like life in the outer world; all of them share one of his inner obsessions.

- Bring the inner world outside. His subjects - the philosophy of mind, the creative process, human nature, the predicament of mortality - are not promising cinematic subjects. But with them, he makes great cinema, by finding a means of untangling them in the outer world, that we all can share, thus proving that big ideas can make big movies, without the conventional virtues of character, plot and story arc dominating their construction.

- Make the unreal real. All Kaufman films are predicated on a ridiculous premise. That's Hollywood. The trick is to make the audience believe it isn't Hollywood for a couple of hours. Charlie takes it further by making movies that Hollywood should never have taken on, and proving those who said so wrong.

- Learn the rules, then break them. Any poet should know their way round a sonnet, but you need a good excuse to write one in couplets of rhyming pentameter. All artists should have a go at drawing from life, whatever their ultimate discipline, however contemptuous they may become of the figurative painter. CK understands the rules of cinema and story telling but isn't constrained by them.

- Trust your audience. So many mainstream movies - and American TV shows - are scripted by committee, that by the time they're made, all the jagged edges of individuality have been smoothed off. We are patronised by such creations, designed for mass appeal, the greatest art form of our times reduced to a marketing exercise. Real artists believe if they resolve a problem for themselves, they resolve it for others.

- Screenwriter good, auteur better. Charlie Kaufman has worked with some talented and individual directors. Spike Jonze has complementary genius: the ability to create compelling visuals from abstract ideas. Michael Gondry also began his career as a pop video maker, but has discovered a talent for intellectually and aesthetically satisfying comedy. But as good as these directors have been, none of them have gone as deep into the Kaufman world as K himself. 'Synecdoche: New York' is a Russian doll of a movie that we may never get to the bottom of, but will keep returning to, happily and unhappily, until we can return no more.