Friday, 28 May 2010

Some other concerts this year

Thanks mainly to my lovely baby son I don’t get out as much as I used to, but I have enjoyed a few concerts this year. The Todd Rundgren gig at the Hammersmith Apollo was good – well, when he played A Wizard a True Star in its entirety it was great; the first half however, Todd’s Johnson, an ‘homage’ to the Blues of Robert Johnson was real bad, so bad I had to go to the stalls bar after three songs. There were quite a few others out there including a mulleted Eighties throwback who started talking to me. Turned out he had come from Norway for this gig and was a very good friend of Jan Garbarek (one of the few musicians whose gigs I have left early from, way too bland). I always take such claims with a grain of salt, but he seemed sincere. Some of the most interesting music I’ve heard in recent years, such as Biosphere and Jaga Jazzist, has come out of Norway.

As the first half ended I went to the upstairs bar to meet my friends, to see that they were talking to the brothers Brewis from Field Music, one of my favourite contemporary groups. I finally got to ask David about the influence of early Genesis on their music and he confirmed that they were extremely fond of the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, solo Peter Gabriel, but not the later stuff. I’ll probably write some more about them at a later date.

The Wizard set was very well done, another of those ‘classic albums’ that would have probably been impossible to do in full live in the Seventies owing to the technology of the time. What has always impressed me about live Todd is his voice, which is still strong and didn’t falter throughout, especially good on the soul medley from side 2. Afterwards, accompanied by the Brewis brothers and girlfriend, we tried to find an open pub near the Apollo, to no avail; unbelievable given the hysteria in the media about 24-hour drinking.

I was also hypnotised by The Portico Quartet at the De la Warr Pavilion Bexhill. The most exciting gig was Iggy Pop and the Stooges, again at the Apollo (somewhere I used to go to regularly in the 70s, I lived nearby, but then didn’t go for years, preferring pubs and clubs). I liked the way they rushed onto the stage and got down to business immediately, Iggy throwing himself with disturbing regularity into the seething crowd amidst an atmosphere of impending catastrophe. Yet again a classic album was being played – this time ‘Raw Power’ with James Williamson on guitar. I’ve never been a huge Stooges fan , but I could definitely see what all the fuss had been about. As my friend shouted in my ear about half way through, it made most Heavy Metal and ‘hard rock’ bands look totally redundant.

At some point I suppose I should write about the history of London, but I’ve had enough of that for a while.

The Fall Shepherd's Bush Empire 7 May 2010 and a Swans diversion

It says something for the late hours kept by Mark E Smith & co that before this concert I managed to fit in the Paul Sandby Exhibition at the RA and a couple of pints in a Mayfair pub, despite finishing work at 8.00pm. The Fall group came on at 10.00 just as I arrived. This is something the long-term Fall fan learns: never turn up before 9.30pm – I even succeeded in missing video mangler Safi Sniper.

The joint was packed. As has been common for some years now at standing gigs the volume of conversation almost drowned out the band. After biding my time for a couple of songs near the bar at the back I realised two things: I was missing out on the ‘energy’ of the group positioned here and the man standing in front of me with [I assumed] a very attractive woman was Frank Skinner.

London appears to be inhabited by a race of giants. Despite being 6ft I felt distinctly dwarfish in this crowd when I got down onto the ‘dance floor’. The sound was much better and by this time things seemed to be happening onstage and a krautrock-style groove was emerging. The musicians were interlocking well, the drummer was giving it a lot of stick. Unusually long set – just over an hour – apparently at one of the early gigs on this tour MES had stormed off after a handful of songs, not to return. This was one of the best I have seen for a long time, another couple of good recent ones for me were in Hove and at the De la Warr Pavilion. Hardly knew any of the songs but that doesn’t really matter; I haven’t bought one of their new records for some years now but still go and see them at least once a year. I love the fact that every time you see them the set list will be different and very few old songs are played.

On my way out I walked past Graham Linehan of Father Ted fame (I had also seen him at a Guided By Voices gig at the Garage some years before). I’d heard him being patronised by Neil Innes on a Radio 4 show where ‘celebrities’ choose a song that means a lot to them – speaking ‘as a musician’ Innes pointed out that the chord sequence used in the GBV song Linehan chose was very simple, but that’s the point Neil, it’s supposed to be basic and crude. God knows what he must think of The Fall. What is it with The Fall and comedians? Stewart Lee – also a Friend of Arthur Machen – has championed them for ages and compiled a best-of a while back. Didn't spot Neil Innes.

I’ve probably seen The Fall over fifty times by now – first time was at the Lyceum around the time of ‘Slates’ - luckily I’ve rarely seen a really bad show. There was a particularly cacophonous and chaotic gig at Dingwall’s which must have been just before the notorious on-stage punch up in New York, where the band deserted their führer. There was a violent vibe in the air that night and the songs were barely recognisable: at one point I realised that they had been playing ‘Jungle Rock’, although Hank Mizell would have been hard pressed to sing along. A friend who was there said that Michael Clark came on to the stage and threw a chair into the audience, but I don’t recall that incident.

One of the best was at Heaven in the mid-80s when there were two drummers and they did a mesmerising version of ‘Garden’, one of my favourites. The support act was Swans – I had been told they were the ‘next big thing’ so I turned up earlier than usual. The spectacle that greeted me was intimidating to say the least: it was VERY LOUD and VERY SLOW - what seemed to be one chord stretched out ad infinitum like a bell tolling with a maniac singer screaming into the microphone in time with the slowly slashing guitarist and a metronomic thumping drum. They looked extremely scary. I remember thinking, as I cowered about half way back by a staircase, that rock music could not possibly get any more brutal and primitive than this, and it probably hasn’t. I can’t say I liked it, but it was a memorable experience. Including me there couldn’t have been more than about twenty people there, everyone else had repaired to the upstairs bars, a few brave souls were actually standing right in front of the stage, but the punishing wall of noise was literally preventing me from moving any further forward, not that I wanted to. It can truthfully be said that at this concert the sound of the chattering crowd was not going to drown out the band. A friend told me that he went to see them a few months after this and that when they came onstage and played the first deafening note the crowd leapt back about six feet.

I saw them again a few years later at the Astoria and by that time they had learned to control the dynamics of their sound – they had actual songs – and the whole experience was very powerful and impressive; as time went by they got quieter and more acoustic – interesting group.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Wigwam Bam

In the mid-1970s I was a regular listener to the Alan Freeman Show, often as background music to the assembly of one of a series of Airfix Battle of Britain aircraft, later to be suspended in dogfights from my bedroom ceiling. Sometimes I would tape stuff that listeners had requested, in many cases forgetting to note the name of the song or artist. I have discovered the identity of many of these over the years, usually by accident; even though I haven’t listened to the tapes for 30 years or more they lingered in the memory.
One of these more recent discoveries was Mamie is Blue by Faust, other old favourites were Space Station Number 5 by Montrose and a session version of Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator. There was a song, I think by Blue Oyster Cult, which I have still to track down. I’m sure iTunes makes this sort of detective work really easy nowadays, but I’d rather trust to serendipity – also I don’t want to own loads of BOC songs.
There was one track which has stayed in my mind for years which I didn’t tape - the bassline was memorable and I know that big Al had announced that it was by a Finnish group called Wigwam. I had not heard Wigwam before or since - until this week when thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a friend I have a stack of reissued cds by various foreign prog (‘progressive rock’ as we used to call it) groups that I shall be listening to over the next few weeks.
I thought the elusive song was from their first British release on Virgin Nuclear Nightclub, but I have now found that it was the title track to the follow-up The Lucky Golden Stripes and Starpose (no, me neither). This was released in the spring of 1976 so that is presumably when it was played on the radio – 34 years ago.
It was strange to hear it again after all that time – my memory of the bass line was perfect although the melody had faded over the years. It is definitely the best track on a record that is pretty limp and another reminder why punk was inevitable at this time, with many prog groups attempting to go commercial and ending up with a kind of mid-Atlantic mush imitating all the banal, MOR American bands that made many fans listen to prog and krautrock in the first place.
The first song Sane Again sounds like a Dark Side of the Moon outtake, the remainder apart from the title track drifts by without imposing itself. Maybe there is a theme of mental illness, but I can't be bothered to read all the lyrics. There are some very poor vocal performances throughout, especially on the last track In a Nutshell a truly dire ham-fisted attempt at a piece of Robert Wyatt/Canterbury whimsy, with terrible lyrics:
Life can be really swell,
If you look at it from a shell etc.
I have heard some of the earlier Wigwam, which I like more – by Nuclear Nightclub the keyboard player and singer Jukka Gustavson and bassplayer Pekka Pohjola had departed (the former 'to discover God' apparently, I’m not surprised having read his lyrics) and taken most of the prog ideas with them. Pohjola’s solo effort The Mathematician’s Air Display is a listenable series of instrumentals with Mike Oldfield on guitar and Pierre Moerlen of Gong on drums; there are song titles like ‘The perceived journey-lantern’ and ‘False start of the shadows’ – yeah!
Nuclear Nighclub, reputed to be their best record, made no impression on me at all. I preferred Fairyport a double lp from 1971 which gets through long screeds of lyrics, mostly of a religious nature, but at least some of the music is adventurous and interesting.
Next up will be PFM.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Subterranean City new Edition

The new edition of Subterranean City finally went to the printers (in China) at the end of last week. It will probably be out before the end of July.

Much time has been spent in recent weeks proof-reading and making last minute corrections, such as checking the opening date for the core section of the newly extended East London line and going for a quick trial journey one night after work. I know that, despite really intensive efforts this time to eliminate typos, the first page of the author's copy that I open will have some glaring error staring up at me. There has been an interesting correspondence recently in the TLS about typos and other errors in published books with the majority of opinion agreeing that it is the responsibility of the author to check everything up to the last minute. While I agree with this I'm sure I cannot be alone in having experienced a number of frustrating incidents where text has been 'corrected' which didn't in fact need to be changed and has ended up inaccurate; it is not always possible to keep up with material that you assume is already fine as you concentrate on the stuff that seems problematical. I have to say that Historical Publications have been very good in allowing me to check corrections at every step this time so I hope that the text will be readable and free of annoying typos. One of my favourites, not from my own work, referred to someone who worked in the 'rage trade'.

Some books (I could name names, maybe in the future) are so littered with typos that you wonder whether the author had any opportunity to make final checks or whether they couldn't be bothered. An entertaining, if typo-ridden, autobiography of a minor Soho figure informed me that he lived in a squalid flat where the shared 'laboratory' was on a lower floor. If anyone does find some typos or plain wrong information in this new book please don't adopt too much of a gloating tone in your correspondence, like the person who wrote a particularly unpleasant letter about my folklore book - a work that additionally suffered from the appearance of a book on the same subject published by a major publisher in the same month (the author even managed to get on the news, such is the reach of these media conglomerates).

The new edition of Subterranean City is much expanded and substantially rewritten with a large number of new pictures. I''ve already organised a few 'promotional' events (more information to follow) and am thinking of collaborating with some horror writers for a reading/discussion about the fertile subject of the underground (especially the tube) in their work.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Friday 21 May 2010 Hogarth's London walk from Westminster Reference Library 18.00-20.00

A beautiful evening with a good attendance (40 booked, 25 showed) considering the alternatives, given the warm weather. As usual, remembered all the things I should have said afterwards but on the whole most of what I had intended to communicate got said. A croaking voice at the beginning - this was my first public event this year - thankfully recovered and I didn't need to sample the whisky that one participant offered me (did he have a hip flask?). Large numbers of people overflowing outside the pubs of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury; someone pointed out Rick Wakeman standing in the street outside the Connaught Rooms 'looking like a bouncer'. On my Whistler walk a few years ago we walked past Chris Squire in the King's Road - maybe I shall be able to collect the 'classic line-up' of Yes in the course of my walks? The generally enthusiastic reception has encouraged me to do a couple more this year - although nobody bought a single book or magazine and the walk was free; at least I did it in work time.