Wednesday, 17 September 2014

'A Streetcar Named Desire' - NTLive at the Curzon Victoria

This evening was a showing of the new production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the Young Vic as part of the National Theatre Live project, showing live shows simultaneously in cinemas around the country. In my case it was at the new Curzon Victoria cinema deep down in the bowels of the sub-sub basement under Victoria Street. Now, I quite like the NTLive thing - if you can't get a ticket (and 'Streetcar' is sold out for the entire run) then this is a good way of seeing the play and see what the fuss was about. We saw the Donmar's 'Coriolanus' at Brixton Ritzy and that worked ok, so why not? Except for the play.

I am not a fan of Tennessee Williams and not a fan of this play. I saw it five years ago at the Donmar with Rachel Weiss as Blanche and didn't enjoy it. Acting by shouting, I said back then, and it was the same tonight. Is it written into the original stage directions to shout as loudly and relentlessly as possible? Shouting, bullying, simmering violence, wife beating and rape don't make for nice people or a nice experience. Not everything needs to be nice of course but this is just so relentlessly vile. The only remotely nice people are Stella (the sister) and Mitch (the would-be lover) and they suffer most from Blanche and Stanley.

But I'm running ahead of myself here. I must comment on the staging. O yes, I must. The stage revolved for some obscure reason. I mean, why? If you're going to do it in the round then do it in the round, not in the round with a revolving stage thrown in as well. It seemed like every time Blanche went into meltdown mode then she'd be obscured by a shower curtain or a mirror or something. What's that all about? The Young Vic is an interesting space that is very versatile and it's nice that they experiment with it but a see-through set that fails to be see-through at critical moments is a bit pointless really.

Perhaps I should cut to the chase and say that Gillian Anderson was excellent. I saw her in 'A Doll's House' (coincidentally) five years ago at the Donmar and thought she was excellent in that. What is it about the Donmar five years ago? As she spiralled into alcoholic madness in the second half she drew the audience in and it sort of felt like she was with us, the audience, rather than the other characters on stage at the time. We were in her make-believe world with her, the Southern belle with her gentlemen admirers. She's a class act.

I also liked Vanessa Kirby as Stella, Blanche's younger sister who continually makes allowances for and defends her sister. She was very sympathetic and distraught at the end when Blanche is taken away. I was less keen on Ben Foster as Stanley the wife-beater whose role seemed to be to take his clothes off as often as possible. Why? Wander round in a vest all you like but when it all starts to come off time and again it gets bit dull. How many times do you need to change your trousers? He did very good menace though.

The production aside, it's the play that's the problem for me. I just don't like it. At half-time we ran through the Williams plays I've seen and I only liked 'The Rose Tattoo' and that was probably because of Zoe Wannamaker being in it at the National Theatre. I saw 'The Glass Menagerie' in Toronto (I nodded off) and at the Young Vic and 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore' in New York. Never again. I sort of liked 'Spring Storm' at the National Theatre a few years ago - or at least I liked bits of it and it was short. Me and Tennessee don't mix I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Marc Bolan - 'Hot Love'

Marc Bolan died in a tragic accident on 16 September 1977 just as his career was taking off again. He'd just completed the series of 'Marc' on telly and he jammed with David Bowie, his old friend and rival, on the last episode ('Keep a little Marc in your heart'). I've blogged about Marc before - about the anniversary gigs, about the musical and about his influence - and I will probably blog again. This time I'm talking about 'Hot Love', his first No 1 single.

I still have the vinyl 7" single of 'Hot Love' on Fly records (BUG 6) backed with 'Woodland Rock' and 'The King of the Mountain Cometh' produced by Tony Visconti (for Straight Ahead Productions). It was my seventh ever single - I know that because I wrote it on the record sleeve and noted that 'This record was once Top of the Pops'. It was 1971 and this was the start of glam rock. I was there to see it happen.

I don't think I was aware of his first hit single, 'Ride A White Swan'. That was still a bit hippy-trippy and probably too out there for my 11 year old self. But 'Hot Love' was something better. It was hypnotic and repetitive and had lots of 'la-la, la-la-las', perfect for an 11 year old to grasp. And perfect for my punk heroes a few years my senior.

What do these records really mean? How much of of an influence was a song like 'Hot Love' on my young self? The influence of his later singles like 'Children of the Revolution', 'Metal Guru', 'Jeepster' and 'Telegram Sam'? What did they do to me and how did they make me think? I don't know but I did think about a woman in New York city with a frog in her hand the first time I went to New York. You just can't help it really.

I went to the 35th anniversary gig at Shepherd's Bush a couple of years ago hosted by Sir Noddy Holder and Lynsey de Paul with T.Rexstacy and Boy George, Marc Almond, Glen Matlock and Sandi Shaw amongst a host of others. All there to pay righteous tribute to Marc. As is right and proper.

Keep on boogying Marc. We are. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Odd Thoughts On The Train: How Does It Sound Today?

In 'odd thoughts on the train tonight' I was mulling over how music sounds to people today. I'd been talking to a colleague at work about the film 'Pride' and its great soundtrack and then, on the walk to the station, started thinking about earlier music. 'Pride' is set in 1984 and 1985 and I went back to 1977 and hearing The Ramones and The Buzzcocks and how their music had been featured in adverts. Seeing Tommy Ramone as Uncle Monk a few years back in New York (I shook his hand, one of the Ramones brothers!). And then I remembered that 'Anarchy In The UK' by The Sex Pistols popped up on my iPod the other day and how it still sounded visceral and scary. And I wondered how people hear that music today?

Back in the late 70s punk music was the enemy and The Sex Pistols were banned almost everywhere they tried to play. It was rebellion and activism at the same time, a threat to society and something to set us free. It was challenging and that's why I liked it. I'd bought punk records before but it was 'Pretty Vacant' by the Pistols that made me a punk. It was an anthem, a war cry, a call to arms, all in a three minute pop song. It worked for me.

How does it sound today? How do first-time listeners react to it? I don't know because I've been listening to it for 37 years and still love that call-to-arms guitar intro from Steve Jones. If you were 17 and heard it for the first time today how would it affect you (if at all)? Is it just old music from a 70s band that had a few hits?

I remember getting angry (and I mean really angry) when I heard the Buzzcocks 'Ever Fallen In Love' (the version by Nouvelle Vague I think) used in a car advert. How dare they? How dare they corrupt something as pure as that song into a song to sell cars?  That's sacrilege and a crime. Of course, Pete might have needed the money so I mellowed but it does raise some questions about whose song it really is.

How do people hear these songs today? Are they historical old pop songs or are they still radical? I have no idea.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Buffy at the Black Hills Unity Concert

Buffy Sainte-Marie is playing at the Black Hills Unity Concert next weekend as part of the campaign to return the Black Hills of Dakota to the Great Sioux Nation.

The website explains that the concert marks the ceremonial beginning of a campaign to support the Great Sioux Nation "to reclaim their guardianship of the Black Hills as their rightful homeland, building a bridge between the sacred sites of the Black Hills and all people worldwide in support of the Earth." Buffy has sung about the Black Hills in several songs so, naturally, she's involved.

In 1980 the US Supreme Court awarded the Great Sioux Nation $105 million for the loss of the Black Hills. The Sioux refused the money on the grounds that the Black Hills are not for sale. Today, the money is worth $1.4 billion and the Black Hills are still not for sale. Watch the video...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

'Pride' at Brixton Ritzy… and Mark Ashton

I went to see 'Pride' again tonight, this time at Brixton Ritzy. Yes, it still is a great film that everyone must see, but my thoughts were largely about what Fay Marsay (who plays the gobby northern lesbian) said in the Q&A after the NFT screening. Where are our activists today?

I thought of Mark Ashton who, in the film, sets up Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. He was a year younger than me and died in 1987 of HIV when he was 26. He was an activist who changed lives - including mine - but why don't we know about him? He ought to be a hero of the miners' strike, of the young communists, of gay liberation and where is he? Who knows his name?

Do his parents know about this film? What about his brothers and/or sisters? Are they proud of him? Is he mentioned in the annals of the National Union of Miners and the Labour Party? I don't know, but he clearly should be. Obviously, he didn't do it all himself but someone needs to light the touch paper, someone needs to make the first move and, in the telling of the tale, this was Mark.

Has anyone written the story of his short life? I'd like to know more.

This film means that I know his name and will remember him. Everything starts somewhere and this part of the miners strike started with him *fist in the air*.

Kate Bush - Before The Dawn

Some things you just don't expect to happen. Like Kate Bush playing live again or managing to nab tickets in the fourth row from the stage. Things like that just don't happen. Except sometimes they do and you need to embrace them.

I remember hearing that odd song, 'Wuthering Heights', on the radio in 1978 and then seeing its singer on 'Top Of The Pops', that strange creature that danced around while singing. I didn't buy singles back then - except for punk singles and eps - so I didn't buy the single but I did buy the album, 'The Kick Inside' when it was released. The magic had worked on me. And I bought successive album releases on vinyl, then on cassette and then on CD. In a sense I've grown up listening to Kate Bush, just a couple of years younger than Kate, but she was always so much older than me and took me to places I didn't know existed.

So, when the announcement was made that she would be playing at Hammersmith Apollo I could hardly believe it. And image my surprise when I was sent a fan pre-sale code to buy tickets before they went on general release. So I did, with seats in row H for Friday 5 September. The eighth row? I was ecstatic. My ecstasy rose when I heard that the stage had been extended over the first few rows which meant I was now in the fourth row.

But September is so far away…

And then I read a review of the first show in August and knew what would happen and then avoided any other reviews.

Friday finally arrived and I wore the Most beautiful Shirt in the World (only worn to see Buffy Sainte-Marie and Amanda Palmer - and now Kate Bush).  The afternoon dragged and I whinged at work wanting the clock to hit 5 o'clock and then it did and I was off. Missed a District Line train and had to wait six minutes for the next  - will I be late? No, of course I won't, it's only six minutes! I got on the train and sat down and then two stops later Chris got on wearing his irritable commuter face - what are the chances of that? He'd got a bus to Sloane Square from Battersea and just happened to get on, not only the same train as me, but the same carriage and the same part of the carriage. Weird.

Having arrived hideously early we got chips at the chip shop round the corner from the Apollo and did the long circuit walk down to the river and back while we ate them and then joined the snaking queue. At 6:15pm the doors opened and we slowly entered the building to my amazed mutterings of 'it's gone green' and, indeed, the decor is now peppermint and pistachio following it's refurbishment. Straight up to the balcony merch stand to get show books and tee shirts with a mere 25 minutes queuing to get served and then to the bar. The old curtain has been removed form the back of the bar and you can see the lovely art deco windows and Hammersmith flyover (which was a very odd experience). Then downstairs and into the stalls to find our seats… in the fourth row.

And then more weirdness - Clive and Angus on the other side of the aisle. Last time I'd seen them was at the ICA a couple of years ago when we were all dripping from an unexpected downpour to see a documentary about Elaine Stritch. Stress-relieving gossip ensued. Then we took our seats and waited.

At 7:45pm the band walked on and took their places on the raised platforms and then on came Kate Bush followed by five backing singers/actors, doing a slow shuffle onto the stage wreathed in smiles. Sorry, did I just say that? Kate Bush came on stage? Really?  Yes, really.

And there she was, this strange creature of legend, right in front of me. Long hair, long tassels on the sleeves of her black coat and barefoot (I winced slightly at the feet - what if there was a stray pin on the stage?). And then I heard Lily's voice talking of salt and magic and Kate launched into (the 'Director's Cut' version of) 'Lily', only one of my favourite songs! That was Kate Bush up there y'know, singing to me, smiling at me and having the time of her life being worshipped by all these people from all over the globe coming to see her show in west London. And me, of course.

As all the reviews tell you, the first half hour is traditional gig territory with 'Hounds of Love', 'Running Up That Hill', 'Top Of The City', 'Joanni' and 'King of the Mountain'. 'King' ended with a massive cannon explosion shoving lots of pieces of paper into the air with the words from Tennyson that inspired the Ninth Wave on the second side of Kate's 'Hounds of Love' album. Now the theatre would commence!

And it did, with a video of a man ringing the coast guard about a sinking ship and then we had the video of Kate in a floatation tank singing 'And Dream of Sheep' and the Ninth Wave began. Fish People all over, shipwreck, a whale's ribcage, a life-buoy and a helicopter strafing the audience with search lights - it's all in there as we hear and see the tale of a woman drowning. It was very spectacular and brought the song cycle to life by seeing what Kate meant it to be. Rising from the ice dead to be replaced by a raven image, struggling to reach the life-buoy and then being carried off stage and into the audience by the Fish People. Big wow. And then a curtain dropping from the ceiling with a feather motif as we're allowed an interval and the stage is re-set.


The second half opens with a big door opening and it's snowing inside as a mannequin walks out (with his handler dressed in black). This is the Aerial suite, 'A Sky of Honey', in which Kate's son plays the Painter character.  This is all about birdsong on a sunny afternoon leading into evening and the full moon. I liked the inquisitive mannequin who visited the musicians and Kate playing the piano (again barefoot) but didn't like it when Kate's son told him to 'piss off'. That's not nice.

Birdsong saturated the sound for the second half, lots of bird images sweeping and diving, lots of laughter and lots of soundscapes. And then trees came crashing out of the heavens onto the stage (and one went right through the grand piano) and the crescendo approached in 'Aerial', building and building, with Kate turning partially into a bird and, in the final scene, taking off to fly! Wow, that was spectacular! Just a flash of her taking off and then lights out! Astonishing!

The lights came back up for bows and then all left the stage. And Kate came back on stage to sing 'Among Angels' at the piano, alone, before the band joined her for 'Cloudbusting'. She encouraged us to sing along to the chorus so I am now *officially* a Kate Bush backing singer! That was amazing and she left the stage covered in smiles. And I clapped and clapped. And then that was it, it was all over. I'd seen this legendary being and sang with her and smiled at her and clapped at her.

I've seen Kate Bush!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

'Pride' at the National Film Theatre

I saw an advance screening of 'Pride' at the National Film Theatre (or British Film Institute if you must) courtesy of my personal artistic adviser. The film isn't released generally until next week and this screening was followed by a short Q&A with the producer and some of the actors, which was nice.

Do you remember the '80s? I mean, really remember the '80s like they really were rather than how we're meant to remember them? The early '80s being all Duran Duran and 'Rio' and the late '80s being City whiz kids with bricks for mobile phones. No, that's not my '80s at all and that's what this film captures - the real '80s. My '80s. The attention to detail was superb throughout and, at one point, I swear I had the same jumper as one of the miners!

The film tells the tale of a gay group that sets out to support a Welsh village in the miners strike over 1984-85. But that's only one level in the story. There's so much more about bigotry, about solidarity and about love. There are the simple stories of the characters and the reality behind them all since it actually happened (or largely happened).

There are the painful and deeply uncomfortable scenes of the lead activist standing on a stage in front of a hall of miners saying, yes, us gays have raised this money for you and seeing some of the miners get up and walk out. There are the more life-affirming moments when the ladies of the village say that their men never dance and Dominic West (who plays one of the more flamboyant characters) then does a masterclass in disco dancing that makes some of the younger miners realise that dancing attracts the lasses. One of the early scenes is set in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and there's an incredible section set in the Electric Ballroom in Camden when Bronski Beat headline a benefit gig the group organises.

There were some great laugh out loud moments and some tears and the audience erupted into clapping at the end of the screening. I loved the moment when Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton sit quietly buttering bread for sandwiches and Bill says 'I'm gay' and Imelda's character replies 'I think I've known that since 1968'. It's a great moment and helps fill in some of the character's background, with Bill playing so tight and controlled because that's how he's felt he had live all those years when his real friends would have accepted him as he was. There are lots of levels to this film.

Another moment that brought tears of pride to my eyes was when the miners turned up to march in Pride '85 in London and they're getting out of the coaches that bring them to Hyde Park and then we get shots of the miners' banners. Each colliery has (or had) it own colourful banner that the community embraced and endowed with so much meaning it's difficult to explain. I remember seeing the Durham Miners Gala on TV in the '70s and the proud banners flying in the breeze. And it was these banners the miners bought to march behind at London Pride to show solidarity with 'the gays'.

There were so many moments that struck me as 'real', as believable, as 'yes, that happened', even down to the style of jeans. I have my own memories of the miners strike, of course. Back then I worked for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) in St James's Square and, back then, the junior staff did overtime by servicing the overnight conciliation meetings. I did one night during the miners strike, serving tea and sandwiches to both the National Coal Board and the National Union of Miners. At the end of those talks Arthur Scargill brought in a big bag of sweets for the staff that stayed up most of the night to keep them fed and watered but we got nothing from the NCB. Says it all really. I know books will continue to be written about that woman and that strike but that's my memory.

The Q&A at the end was fun too, with some of the questioners knowing the people in the film or having attended the events shown. We had David Livingstone (producer) and Andrew Scott, Ben Schnetzer and Faye Marsay on stage for questions. Faye made an important point about where was activism these days? A 30 second tweet isn't the same as putting your health on the line by going out and actually doing something to change the world. And, she is, of course, right. Where are our activists today? This motley crew changed the NUM policy towards gays and they helped changed Labour Party policy. It can be done.

If it hasn't already come though strongly enough, I *loved* this film. If you're reading this blog then I suspect you will too so please go and see it. You'll love it. Honest!