Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Four Book Rockaria Part 2 - Don and Tracey

The third rock book I read was the new book about Don Powell, drummer with SLADE. I first saw Don in 1973 at my first ever gig (when SLADE were supported by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band) - I had tried to get a ticket to their 1972 tour (with Thin Lizzy and Suzy Quatro) but they'd sold out by the time I'd heard they were playing. The last time I saw Don with original SLADE was on the 1980 or 1981 tour but, more recently, at the Koko gig that was filmed for the DVD ('SLADE: Live at Koko' in 2011). Don is, of course, a god. Anyway...

The book is called 'Look Wot I Dun: Don Powell, My Life in SLADE' and has a photo of him in Noddy's mirrored top hat on the front. It's credited to both Lise Lyng Falkenberg and Don, probably because a lot os it is narrated in the first person by Don in a series of quotes. I like that approach since it gives an immediacy to the book that could be lost so easily. So, it's not an autobiography or a biography, it's something in-between (so appropriate since the band used to be called the 'N-Betweens).

As a rabid fan from back in the day then I don't think I learned much about the early years but I lost touch with SLADE from the late '70s so that's what really attracted me in the book, the years I don't really know about. The womanising, the marriages, the drink and drugs, the endless touring and then the silence when Don seriously considered being in another band (I was shocked at that part!). Then the reinvention of Slade II and new tours and his falling in love and moving to Denmark. And, of course, he's still touring.

I loved the quotes from old friends from back in the day and from people like Gene Simmons of KISS acknowledging the power of SLADE and Don's drumming. My favourite quote is from Dave Hill near the end of the book (on page 305 to be precise) when Dave says, "Because that's what Don does - he plays the drums..." yeah? really Dave? That had me chortling!

Thanks Lise and Don for a great read!

The final Book of Four belongs to Tracey Thorn, called 'Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Popstar'. I went to see Tracey do a reading and talk about the book last year and, astonishingly, I've just got around to reading it. And what a good read it is too!

Tracey is two years younger than me so I recognise a lot of what she writes about - I nearly typed 'talks about' just then since that's how the book comes across, Tracey having a chat to you through the narrative of the book. And I like that. I loved the references to people like Patrik Fitzgerald and ordering his records through the back pages of the NME since they weren't stocked by the local record shop. All of that chimed with me. As did maintaining the punk ethos into the '80s and increasingly becoming marginalised. I suspect that's why my memories of the '80s are quite sparse because the world moved on and I didn't. And that's something I really like about this book - yes, it's a narrative of 'I did this then I did that' but it also creates the situation that makes you think about it and question it.

Tracey has the rather odd distinction of being half of an idie band, having huge hits and fallow periods over two decades, being remixed into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and still being with her boyfriend and band-comrade from 30 years ago. How strange is that? And she's still releasing solo records. I loved the short paragraph of pushing her baby son around in the supermarket when one of her old records came on the PA and he points to the loud speaker and to his Mum - the same voice, but how could that be? It must be really strange to be one of their kids!

I loved reading this book and will do so again when I've listened to more Everything But The Girl records to get myself into the right space. I hope we hear more from Tracey.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Four Book Rockaria Part 1 - Viv and Buffy

I've been on a bit of a rock book treadmill for the last month or so reading books I've collected over the last year about rock and pop stars and great heroes. They've lain in a pile in my living room waiting to be opened and the impetus was Viv Albertine's memoir. After that I devoured the others. Reading on the tube and train isn't terribly satisfying so I inevitably started reading during the week on the tube and then curled up on the sofa at the weekend and finished all in a single reading. And I do mean all.

Viv Albertine's book, 'Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys' is named after a phrase her mother uttered to the teenage Viv about all she was interested in. Although the book is dedicated to Viv's daughter the title is from her Mum who died the evening of the book launch show in London. That's rather poignant. I was at the book launch and blogged about it here. I hope there will be more promotional events for the book in London and I'll be there.

Every review of the book you'll see talks about its brutal honesty, the pints of blood she's lost over the years and the punk years. But this is a memoir of a woman in the late 20th century who has, in a sense, several lives and Viv talks about them very candidly. It's almost like listening to Viv chat over a cup of tea, talking in the present tense and then quipping about 'well, I'd learn about what that was about later'. It's a very immediate style of writing and very powerful.

Viv was one of the first punks who saw the Sex Pistols in their early days and, using Johnny Rotten as her model, decided she could be in a band as well. And she formed the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious before he threw her out of the band (and that led to her letting Johnny Thunder inject her with heroin). All the name-dropping you could possibly want is in this book from the early 70s when Viv was a music fan and followed Marc Bolan and T.Rex to being at the centre of the punk revolution - Viv was at the centre of so much. And she pulls no punches.

The Slits, of course, feature large in the book, telling the tale of getting together, going on tour with the Clash, making records and touring. There's a lovely chapter about making 'Cut' with Dennis Bovell and how they didn't really know what they were doing but were passionate about what the outcome should be. Viv comes across as being passionate about everything she does even though she's not terribly confident.

The book is in two parts - Side 1 takes us up to the implosion of the Slits and Side 2 takes us from the early 80s to last year. Viv grows up, she lives a full life, she marries and goes through IVF to have a baby and then has cancer. A slow recovery in the wilds of Hastings leads to Viv rediscovering her art and her need to create, the marriage collapsing and Viv going forward with her daughter alone. Throughout the book - and her life - the problem is confidence and men. Even last year while she was writing the book her manager calls her to tell her he's found the perfect ghost writer for her and when she says she wants to write it herself his response is 'so what's my role then?'. Exactly.

This is an excellent book, not just for old punks to relive the glory days but to understand what it was like being in that scene and what happened afterwards. Who would have thought of Viv as an aerobics teacher? or a film director? or as a housewife in Hastings. Viv is all those and so much more. This is an excellent read and I'd recommend the book to anyone, whether you want the punk tales or simply read about the life of a woman in the latter part of the 20th century.

I can't help but think about the later lines from Viv's song, 'Confessions of a MILF' which go:

'I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lonely life
I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lovely life'

You are a very brave woman, Viv, so thank you for sharing and I hope your life is as lovely as it can be.

One of Viv's favourite songs in the late '60s when she was in the Woodcraft Folk was 'Welcome Welcome Emigrante' by Buffy Sainte-Marie so I had to read the biography of Buffy by Blaire Stonechild that I got on import from Canada. Oddly, 'Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's my Way' is the only book about Buffy which I always think is rather strange given her influence on music (and, of course 'It's My Way' is the title of her first album).

The Buffy book is as far away from Viv's book as it's possible to get. It's rather dry and academic with every quote footnoted and referenced, almost like a thesis without the full academic rigour. Indeed, the 'acknowledgements' section thanks the Canada Council of the Arts for a writing grant and other bodies for helping with 'research expenses'. That doesn't mean it's a bad book by any means, it just means it's in a different place to Viv's book.

It's a fascinating read, from Buffy's early years in New England to discovering her roots as part of the Cree nation, travelling the world singing her songs of love and compassion, her hits and songs being recorded by everyone you can name, having too much money so starting an educational charity. It's all there. And Buffy comes across as being a lovely and politically committed person despite making mistakes along the way.

My only problem with this book is that it seems to be based on existing articles and interviews so little of it is new. It's a collection of Buffy statements over the years so it's good to have them in one place but it doesn't offer any real enlightenment about Buffy or her songs. That was a bit disappointing but I'm pleased to have the book that pulls everything together.

Now, I'm just waiting for Buffy's next album. According to twitter and Facebook she's auditioning producers at the moment so it's almost there. Maybe next year?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

'Amadeus' at Chichester Festival Theatre

Yesterday we got the train down to Chichester in rural West Sussex to the shiny new Chichester Festival Theatre for the matinee performance of 'Amadeus' with Rupert Everett in the lead as Salieri. I've never seen the play or the film so I didn't know what to expect but I was hit quite forcefully by Rupert's tireless performance and his rage at God.

'Amadeus' is the tale of Mozart's period of living in Vienna as an adult after touring Europe as a child prodigy. Mozart escapes the authority of his father and marries for love in Vienna while continuing to seduce as many women as possible. Salieri rules the music scene in Vienna as the court composer who is driven to distraction by the perfection of Mozart's music and plots his downfall.

The story is told in flashback with Salieri an old man in a wheelchair who transforms into his younger self with a smudge of paint on his eyebrows, a dark wig and throwing off his dressing gown. He is transformed into the upright Salieri of his youth encountering Mozart for the first time and having to run from the salon because of the sheer beauty of Mozart's playing. Salieri had previously made a pact with God that he would become a great composer but, somehow, God has undermined this pact by throwing Mozart into the mix and Salieri comes to see this as a war against God who uses Mozart as his weapon.

In typical Faustian manner, as Salieri's star rises Mozart descends into drunkenness and poverty, eventually dying. But years later it's Mozart's music that is played everywhere and not Salieri's so his last throw of the dice is to claim that he killed Mozart so his name will live forever linked to his hated Mozart. It seems to have worked.

Rupert Everett is the star of the show, on stage the whole time in what must be an exhausting performance. He is haughty, charming, feeble when old and vigorous when in his prime. His is a commanding presence on that stylishly baroque stage with minimal scenery or props, a piano on stage much of the time, a few chairs, chandeliers in the air and glass sliding doors all delivering an impression of opulence and grandeur fit for the Austro-Hungarian Emperor in the 1780s.

We have the potty-mouthed, childish Mozart as the enfant-terrible and genius of music stamping round the stage talking about shit and spanking, bringing challenge to the musical establishment of the court and city of Vienna, so wanting to please but continually failing. Joshua McGuire is the grotesque of Mozart for most the play before he becomes a figure of pity in the final scenes, desperate to please but never able to do so. Jessie Buckley plays Mozart's long-suffering wife and very good she is too, clearly the more adult of the two lovers but also capable of descending into lewdness.  She plays a nice line between long-suffering wife and harlot and in the final scene we see her selling Mozart's scores by the note.

I thought the whole cast were great, with the twin chorus gentlemen in grey appearing and disappearing in a blink with news about Mozart, repeating what they say and swirling round in frock coats. Simon Jones was great as the Emperor, not engaged and avoiding any and all arguments or need to make a decision (I missed his dressing gown though).

I hope this production transfers to the West End soon. It's a short run at Chichester and is only on for another two weeks and is definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

'Carousel' at the Arcola Theatre

I've never seen the Rogers and Hammerstein musical 'Carousel' either on stage or the film so the Arcola Theatre revival was the perfect opportunity to put that right. Like everybody else, I'm very familiar with 'You'll Never Walk Alone' as a song (but not the dramatic context) and I know 'Mr Snow' from hearing Barbara Cook sing it and 'What's the Use of Wonderin'' from Amanda Palmer's first solo record. The rest of the score is a mystery.

'Carousel' is, of course, a classic American musical following the smash hit of 'Oklahoma!' and before 'South Pacific' and it suffers slightly by coming between those two shows. Still, it has a great following (which I don't quite understand) and is revered by musical theatre people.

The Arcola puts on a great tribute to the show, a big production in a rather small space that made me worried the dancers would bounce into me (I was sitting in the front row) when they were being energetic and thrown around.

The story opens with the funfair in a small New England town and Carrie and Julie getting free tickets for an evening out. Julie falls for Billy, the fairground barker, and both lose their jobs but end up marrying. Julie realises she's pregnant around the same time as he hits her and, when he knows he's going to be a dad, agrees to rob the local bigwig. It all goes wrong (obviously) and he dies, only to look down from heaven (or wherever) and realises he can help his lost daughter who has just turned 15. This is where it really lost me, when Billy meets his daughter and slaps her hand but she tells her Mum that he slapped it so hard that it doesn't hurt and is that possible Momma? To which Julie replies, 'yes'. Stupid person. You've lost me entirely at this point. The book needs a re-write... badly. What kind of messages has it been promulgating for the last 60 years or whatever?

I thought the cast were great, the play was (largely) fast paced, the songs vigorous and life-affirming. Billy was played by Tim Rogers with lots of energy compared to Julie who was played by Gemma Sutton as a calm centre of the storm. I didn't believe in their relationship as much as I did that of Carrie (Vicki Lee Taylor) and Mr Snow (Joel Montague). I was quite delighted to be introduced to Enoch Snow after listening to Barbara Cook singing about him for years now. I could've done without seeing him in his rather tight underpants but hey, that adds an element of reality I suppose. Both Vicki and Joel had good voices and solid presences and that added to the play.

I liked the recurring circus theme that kept emerging throughout following the introductory 'ballet' - I suppose it plays to the little kid in me that yearns to run off and join a circus. Even when we are taken to the gates of heaven it's the circu characters that greet Billy as (rather stupid) angels and allow him to revisit his family. I worried about the two main circus performers hanging upside down from ladders for so long, Katrina Dix and Joseph Connor, who were consistent throughout. Well done people and to Charlotte Gale for her fire breathing as well.

Much as I hate to dismiss the writers of the magnificent 'South Pacific', 'South Pacific' this ain't. My dissatisfaction with the play isn't really about the production or the actors, it's the play I find fault with. Wife-beating and the bad boy doing what he wants isn't really a story I want to see and I just found it distasteful and its messages worrying. If you've seen any of my previous reviews of plays then it'll be clear that I respond at an emotional level to what I see and if the male lead is a wife-beater then that's all I need to know. Quite frankly, I don't care if it's been a hit all over the world, Julie should slap Billy around the chops and get a divorce.

It's not the production I didn't like, it's the book. And the extended dancing pieces in lieu of songs. Sorry 'Carousel' fans, but it didn't work for me. Possibly it was the bloke behind me that at one point kept banging his foot against the back of my seat that distracted me from the art (until I reached back and vigorously shoved his foot away)? Possibly it was the ridiculous heat and the abstract queue at the under-staffed bar? Possibly it was the interruption by the fire brigade at half time?

I really lost any involvement when we see wife-beater and capitalist-stabber Billy on the borders of heaven complaining about his life. My response was to tell him to shut the fuck up but no, God's (rather stupid) angels decide to give him a second chance and send him back to Earth 15 years after he left it so he can get angry at his daughter and slap her hand. Violence is always his response, it seems. Of course, it could be argued that this is behaviour he's learned from his own father and it's not really his fault, etc etc etc. Well, I don't care, I don't like Billy Bigalow.

My reading of the book probably isn't the same as fans of the musical and that's probably because I'm not a fan. How could I be? I'll honour Rogers and Hammerstein for 'South Pacific' (which confronts the inherent racism of island life) but not for this musical. I probably won't be seeing it again.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Buffy in 'Catch The Dream'

Here's a trailer for the Buffy Sainte-Marie episode of a new series showing in Canada about First Nations artists. I don't quite understand the focus on Buffy's platform mocassins but enjoy anyway!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

'Pretty Vacant'

I've been listening to 'The Best Punk Album In The World Ever', a CD full of the records of my youth and one I haven't listened to in a while. It has all those great punk songs from 1976 - 1978, songs I grew up with and bought the 7" vinyl singles back in the day. Or maybe I taped some off the John Peel show on Radio 1. I like the CD because it's just like an old tape with loads of different sounds one after the other from the Sex Pistols, Undertones, Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Skids, Ruts, XTC, Jam, Damned, Rezillos and so many others.

Whenever I hear 'Pretty Vacant' part of me whizzes back to the summer of 1977 and hearing it for the first time. It's a very distinct memory for me, sitting in the kitchen eating cornflakes and hearing it on Kid Jensen's Saturday morning show, my mother washing up the breakfast dishes and me insisting on having the radio on. It was a road to Damascus type of thing. I'd bought punk singles before and loved The Adverts but hearing 'Pretty Vacant' touched me in a place that hadn't been touched before and awoke something in me that needed to be woken.

I'd not heard the Pistols before. I'd read about them in the NME and Sounds, obviously, but I'd never heard them. No-one I knew had 'Anarchy in the UK' or 'God Save The Queen' so hearing 'Pretty Vacant' on the Kid Jensen show was an ear opener for me and something I'll always be grateful for. I heard 'Pretty Vacant', finished my bowl of cornflakes, grabbed my pocket money and got the bus into Newcastle and headed for the small Virgin record shop behind the City Hall since I knew the Pistols were signed to Virgin and assumed they'd have the record. My memory tells me the shop was small, a bit gloomy and smelling of patchouli but that might be an over-active memory. Whatever. It reinvented me that day.

Has a record ever changed your life?

'Grand Hotel' at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican

Every year the final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama put on a summer show and this year they've chosen to revive 'Grand Hotel'. I saw 'Grand Hotel' in its last production at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 and fell in love with it. It's a very literate and intelligent show, quite densely packed with half a dozen lead characters all with their own inter-twining lives and plots. There are no real goodies or baddies in this show, it depicts the consequences of choices. It's a very clever show but I engage with it at an emotional rather than an intellectual level.

I generally have the memory of a butterfly flittering here and there but this musical has stayed with me over the years. I saw it twice in 2004 at the Donmar, one a programmed performance and the other a midnight HIV/AIDs benefit show. The Donmar production featured Daniel Evans as the dying Mr Kringelein, Mary Elizabeth Mastranatonio as the ballerina and Julian Ovenden as the Baron. The show made the tears well and roll down my cheeks at various places.

Right. So that's my history with the show and I've started off with the personal history to signal that it's an important show for me and I won't tolerate any laziness or mistakes in a production. So, Guildhall students, you have a high legacy to live up to and you certainly won't get an easy ride from me. Did the production work? Damn right it did!

As soon as I walked in to take my seat my expectations were raised by the art deco set of black and white marble floor and gilt trimmings, a versatile set that turns from the foyer, to a bedroom to the hotel bar. Then the music starts and the grand parade as people start milling in th foyer and we meet the lead characters: the Baron ('dangerous games and a carefree existence'), the Prima Ballerina and her Maid, the Book-keeper, the Typist ('I want to got to Hollywood') and the Businessman. We meet the front of house staff at the reception desk and the back room staff ('some have, some have not'), the gangsters who want money from the Baron and the impresarios who need to make money out of the Ballerina. There are a lot of intertwined relationships and themes in this musical.

It's quite fast-paced and we learn a lot about the characters in very short time, like the basic decency of the Baron by helping Mr Kringelein get a room in the hotel when he was about to be thrown out for being jewish and the Typist Flaemmchen being happy to dance with him as soon as she hears he's dying. So, yes, the Baron might be a thief (in the last resort as he says) and the Typist might want money to escape her dreary life but they're basically nice people.

The Baron tries to steal a diamond necklace from Grushinskaya, the Ballerina, but falls in love with her and she with him and this leads to two great songs, the Baron's 'Love Can't Happen' and Grushinskaya's 'Bonjour Amour' the following morning. Finally they have found love and all will be well, she will dance again and he will be her inspiration. On the other hand, we have Flaemmchen selling herself to the Businessman for one thousand marks to take her to America and it is when the Businessman attempts to rape her that the Baron appears in the room to save her. He was in the Businessman's room next door to steal his wallet and he gets shot in the struggle.

The Baron then appears singing 'Roses At The Station' with his last moments of life when he sings about being at the station with roses for his beloved Ballerina as he promised. We learn more about his life in this song, that he has been waiting for love,  "All my life I wanted to be here, all my life I waited to appear at the station with these roses..." and his privileged life,

"I spent my childhood in the fields
My boyhood on horseback
I was a soldier in the war
The bullets whizzed past my ear
And not one came near me till now..."

That's a big show-stopper of a song and the only way the song can be followed is by a couple of dancers coming on to dance a bolero as the Baron lies dead.

We then skip to the next day with police coming to investigate the murder and the Businessman is arrested, Flaemmchen leaving and Mr Kringelein checking out to go to Paris. Who will tell Grushinskaya that her lover is dead? No-one, they'll let her think he's deserted her like all the others, even her faithful Maid Rafaela who loves her mistress. Life goes on however, when Eric the receptionist becomes a father at last (singing a song that echoes one of the Baron's vocal themes) and Mr Kringelein and Flaemmchen leave together to head for Paris to raise her baby. One man dies and lives are wrecked but life goes on. It's a marvellous play with marvellous songs.

The cast were great and so was the music. The acting was good throughout and so was the dancing, it was the voices that drew a line between some of the actors. Best voices belonged to Rebecca Collingwood as Flaemmchen, Ceri-lyn Cissone as Grushinskaya and Emily Laing as Rafaela, all with nice, clear and strong singing voices. Kudos to Ceri-lyn for sustaining the believable Russian accent throughout. Sadly there are no photos of the production available but here's one of Rebecca as Flaemmchen.

The lads were good too, particularly Jay Saighal as the Baron, Joey Phillips as Kringelein, Ben Hall as Businessman Preysing and Jordan Renzo as Eric at the reception desk. Jay has a good voice but the ideal Baron remains with Julian Ovenden with his more powerful and versatile voice. I liked Ben's slowly corrupted Business man who starts off with honour and ends in shame and Jordan had a lovely voice when he sang of his new baby.

All in all it was a great production. It did, however, point to a few drawbacks. Age for one thing. The actors were all in their early 20s and sometimes it's just a relief to see actors of different ages and shapes on stage, not uniformly young and slim. Some of the lads seemed just too skinny for their clothes since they haven't bulked up yet. And where were the black actors? The two Jimmy's song is meant to be sung by black lads but where were they? A note for Simon Haines as the Doctor - great limp but, if you really do have a gammy-leg and a limp then most people learn to compensate for it in different ways - learn to do that and your future limps will be so much more realistic.

But, who am I to be churlish? You were all great and gave me a great night's entertainment seeing one of my favourite and rare musicals and I thank you. You made me cry as well, damn you! I hope to see some of you in the West End in the near future - well done people and good luck for the future!