Friday, 28 March 2014

THE STRANGLERS 40th Anniversary tour review


G Live, Guildford, 25 March 2014

Outliving just about everyone on the alternative music scene, on Tuesday The Stranglers continued celebrating their ruby anniversary in the town where their enduringly misanthropic sound was born.

'We have come to make you function...' (Image: Vanguard)

Me and The Stranglers go back a long way. They're the musical equivalent of Doctor Who, as they've been going so long that I can map different stages of my life with the release of their albums and singles. In the punk days, the Sex Pistols might have been the iconoclasts and The Clash might have had the political cool, but The Stranglers had that wonderful, unfashionable keyboard burble, bass rumble and snapping drums, which I loved from the moment 'Something Better Change' cleared the floor of my frightened class mates during a 1977 disco at Lound Middle School.

'Unfashionable' is a word that defines The Stranglers. Even during their punk heyday they were considered too old and bandwagon jumpers by the music press. This mutual enmity between the band and journalistswhich admittedly the group didn't help by beating some up and tying one to the Eiffel Tower, several hundred feet uphas endured since the release of their first LP. Once punk dissolved and The Stranglers started releasing concept albums about flying saucers (Thegospelaccordingtothemeninblack) and offbeat, mellow singles ('Midnight Summer Dream', 'Skin Deep' and 'Always the Sun' to name a few) the press derision grew even louder. Arguably the nastiest, and funniest, press put-down was one that described the band as 'the Status Quo of punk.'

JJ: threatened. (Image: Seven Street)

Yet, forty years since The Stranglers first played a gig, they're still here. People have forgotten the almost continual bad press and reviews. Over time, the band's diverse, determinedly idiosyncratic and uniquely brooding canon of songs has doggedly outlived musical trends, maturing into one of the most impressive back catalogues in rock. They survived the departure in 1990 of singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell, the man some commentators believed was The Stranglers, and a decade in the record label wilderness to become for some, if not all, the elder statesmen of British alternative popular music.

What's striking about this 40th anniversary tour, witnessed in the band's home town of Guildford thanks to good friends Zoe Ridey and Mike Kenwood, is that The Stranglers played at least one song from every one of their seventeen albums and they were all great. In real terms, that meant a staggering twenty-eight powerhouse versions of their songs from a group whose members are all 50 or over, sporting white hair or no hair at all – the audience sang happy birthday to guitarist/singer Baz Warne during the encore – touring drummer Jim MacAulay aside. Ah yes, the touring drummer. Dear old Jet Black, the band's founder member and original sticksman, is now well into his 70s and although his spirit is still willing, sadly his body isn't so much these days. The first time he appears is eleven songs in, to warm and welcoming cheers, fittingly to play on the band's biggest hit 'Golden Brown'.

Dave: still life. (Image: Wikipedia)
JJ Burnel (bass/vocals), Dave Greenfield (keyboards/vocals), Warne and MacAulay kicked off with two crowd pleasing punk standards in 'London Lady' and 'No More Heroes', but what really impressed me was that for their third number, they piled into the title track of The Stranglers' worst album by a continent Coup de Grace with the same freshness and attack. That's always been the great, and frustrating, thing about this band: if the production on the middle-period albums sometimes let the songs down, live they always had that distinctive Stranglers punch. That's also true tonight of 'Was it You?', 'Never To Look Back', 'Valley of the Birds' and particularly 'Still Life', which I never thought I'd hear them play live again. That’s the one I was still humming a couple of days later.

Baz: hanging around. (Image: R Goodgroves)
Several glasses of red wine to the good, I greet every song, from New Wave classics like 'Hanging Around' and 'Genetix' to less well known but equally deserving gems like 'Time to Die' and 'Freedom is Insane' with the same enthusiasm and don't-care-if-I-look-daft dancing. Judging by the lack of recognition on some of the faces around me, I wondered at times if I was the only guy in the place to have bought and listened to every Stranglers LP. I suppose it must be like supporting your favourite football team when they slide from the premier league to the fourth division and back again. There's a great satisfaction in being able to say 'I told you so!' about a team you've loved for so long being on terrific, celebratory form.

Jet: never to look back. (Image: Stevo Musician)
Just before we had to get the train back to London, The Stranglers play 'Something Better Change' and I'm leaping around down the front and singing (OK then, shouting) along to every word like I'm back at Lound Middle again. I lost my glasses, but then it wouldn't be a Stranglers gig without some minor chaos. There might be more families in their audience now than moshing punks – quite a lot of them, by the look of it – but an enthusiasm for music that now crosses generations is just another twist in the singular Stranglers story.

The Smiths, Blur, The Pogues, Bowie, Oasis, Jesus Jones, Pulp... they've all come and gone, and come back in most cases. I've loved them all, but The Stranglers – as Mike K drolly pointed out, the only band to have ever split up while successfully staying together – apparently go on forever. For a group that have always been self-styled outsiders, that's somehow very reassuring.

Happy 40th, Meninblack. You can count on me being there the next time round.

Set list:
London Lady
No More Heroes
Coup de Grace
Was it You?
Summat Outanowt
Peasant in the Big Shitty
Still Life
Midnight Summer Dream
Golden Brown
Always the Sun
Thrown Away
Never To Look Back
Nuclear Device
Skin Deep
Time to Die
Valley of the Birds
Nice and Sleazy
Walk on By
Freedom is Insane
5 Minutes
Hanging Around
Something Better Change
Norfolk Coast
(There was at least one more, but by then we were running for the train. Which is how it should be.)

Saturday, 22 March 2014



BFI Southbank, 6.20pm, 15 March 2014

Two great English artists, Christopher Marlowe and Derek Jarman make for a thrilling and educational combination in Edward II.
With thank to Lili Gane.

'Some old queen or other...' (Image: BFI)

I made a huge cock up with this blog post earlier in the week, confusing Edward II and Richard II's authors, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare respectively. For some reason I've always confused these two plays; I'm reasonably educated, but at some level I'm obviously guilty of lumping all classical authors together. Interestingly, though, what I originally said about Edward II having contemporary relevance, when I was under the mistaken impression that the Bard had written it, also applies equally well to Marlowe.

Last week week was national William Shakespeare week, when 2,000 primary schools took part in initiatives to get more children interested in England's greatest ever playwright, an encouragingly progressive idea that should become an annual event. Hopefully, it should lead young minds on to an appreciation of other writers like Marlowe, John Webster et al. Very young children tend to be more open-minded than the cynical veterans of middle and high school. I well remember being a jaded fourteen year-old and confronted with my first Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, which I was convinced would be a passport to historical dullness.

I was wrong, of course. Thinking Shakespeare/Marlowe/Webster were boring was similar to thinking that The Beatles were boring because your teachers liked them (and they liked them all). The minute you heard all of Revolver, or saw Henry V performed live – at Lowestoft South Pier, no less, with Juliet Stevenson and Stuart Wilson – you suddenly understood what all the fuss was about. Although Will, Christopher, John and the Fabs are all cultural game changers, the reason the former three's works are still relevant and frequently performed hundreds of years after their deaths is because their plays concern universal constants like power, lust, love and revenge: in short, the dramatic bedrock of critical and popular TV and film hits like The Godfather, Breading Bad, House of Cards, The Sporanos and hundreds of others you might care to mention (including The Prisoner). Lennon and McCartney might be good, but they aren't that good.

All of which brings me neatly to Edward II (1991), the second film I was lucky enough to see as part of the BFI's Queer Pagan Punk Derek Jarman season. A more conventional film than the dark, free-form fantasia of The Garden – because, by and large, Jarman honours the text – I was entranced from the opening scene by the way he made Edward's court a sinister, enclosed world of gloomy, white-washed walls and passageways. OK, this was partly the result of a shoestring budget, but the fact that the outside world is rarely seen (another budgetary measure) becomes a virtue, adding to the feeling of claustrophobia.

The star cross'd lovers. (Image: BFI)
What surprised me the most about Edward II – and this again reinforces the continuing relevance of Marlowe's work – is that for such an old play it concerns the openly gay relationship between Edward (a sincere and sympathetic Steven Waddington; whatever happened to him?) and Gaveston (the superbly feral Andrew Tiernan, rather wasted these days playing Cockney villains). Edward’s kingdom was built on the support of the barons – gangsters, in modern parlance – and, when Edward awards Gaveston lands formerly belonging to the Bishop of Winchester (Dudley Sutton), the anti-Edward faction, fearing the same thing will happen to them, are led by Mortimer (Nigel he-should-have-won-a-BAFTA Terry) into civil war. 

The crucial, modern theme is that Edward and Gaveston’s sexuality isn't really the point. As a scene of Mortimer being serviced by two bisexual 'Wild Girls' makes clear, behind closed doors you could fuck who you liked, but if those private carnal pleasures began undermining established power structures, straight or gay you were in trouble. (This universal truth is visible in everything from the break-up of The Beatles to this year’s hit TV drama The Line of Duty). Edward was also passive and Gaveston dominant, which meant that the lower classes were literally shagging the monarchy, an element of class tension that Jarman plays up through Tiernan’s never-more-rough bit of rough. Offsetting this is Tilda Swinton’s glacial Isabella, the princess exiled from the king's bed. Initially portrayed as the wronged party (even if she wasn’t like that in real life), when she becomes sexually active again with Mortimer she begins a personal descent into rebellion and murder. Sex in general is the catalyst for chaos.  

The great thing about Jarman is that, like a lot of auteur directors before him, he obviously brings his own agenda to the play. I’ve seen Richard Loncraine interpret Richard III as a 1930s fascist leader’s rise to power and Baz Luhrman do a rave culture take on Romeo and Juliet, but in terms of classical drama, for me there’s nothing more powerful than a battle scene between the opposing factions in Jarman's Edward II reinterpreted as a gay demo. At the time of the reprehensible Clause 28, Jarman casts Mortimer’s troops as the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group (one of his personal bete noirs, who got a similar kicking in The Garden). Shown pounding their truncheons on riot shields to make the frightening sound they used to intimidate the miners in the 1984 strike, here they’re guilty of beating Gaveston to death. Elsewhere, there’s a great example of Jarman's exquisitely camp English humour, as a reunited Edward and Gaveston caper around to a comedy soundtrack with dance moves somewhere between Norman Wisdom and Max Wall. It’s typical of Jarman that the scene is both subversive – you’d never see Wills or Harry carrying on like that; well, Harry maybe – as well as very funny.  

Tilda does her best Young American. (Image: BFI)
Once Isabella and Mortimer have defeated Edward, they sit side by side on a huge throne like two excited children; a few scenes later, they’re shown locked up in a cramped cage as the young, gender bending Prince Edward happily dances on top. Jarman/Marlowe's point is that while rulers come and go, the towering machinery of the state endures and Isabella and Mortimer are simply the next victims, following Gaveston and Edward. By contrast with this bleak view, it’s in the changes Jarman makes to the text that his humanity is perhaps most visible. He cut a scene where Lightborn (the mesmerising Kevin Collins) makes a homophobic speech and while he includes the appalling way in which Edward was executed, here it’s shown as a nightmare by the deposed king who might, or might not, survive.

All that contemporary relevance in something that was written I-don't-know-how-many hundreds of years ago: amazing. In Jarman's hands, Edward II is also a stylish, gripping political thriller, and almost the definition of an accessible way into both Marlowe, classical plays generally and Jarman’s perhaps intimidating mindset. If those aren’t good things for young minds to discover and celebrate, I don’t know what are.  

See you at the IMAX for Blue.

Exit Fairclough, stage left.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

BFI DEREK JARMAN SEASON: 'The Garden' review

NFT 2, 4pm, Sunday 9 March 2014

The BFI Southbank is currently hosting a season by experimental film maker Derek Jarman. Keep an open mind and it's an ideal chance to get to know a genuine one-off among British artists.

Jarman in the garden he created on the beach at Dungeness (BFI)

As regular readers will know, avant garde film making isn't something I know an awful lot about, let alone write about. But this year, looking down the barrel of fifty, I've decided that there's never been a better time to be open minded. Handily, the British Film Institute is now hosting a retrospective season of Derek Jarman's work under the provocative title Queer Pagan Punk, and I'm sure the man frequently (and lazily) described as the 'enfant terrible of British cinema' would have approved. With my mind open, empty of preconceptions and almost completely lacking in facts about Jarman, his life and art, on the first warm, sunny Sunday afternoon of the year I went to see the director's 1990 polemic The Garden.

My only real connection to Jarman in the past has been through the wonderfully iconic videos he made for The Smiths, based around their 1986 LP The Queen is Dead. The connection between the band and Jarman becomes clear when you see The Garden. From the bleakly beautiful Kent coast at Dungeness – where the dying Jarman made his home in his final years, building the garden of the title – to his distaste for the tabloid press, he clearly shared the same combination of love and loathing for England in the late 1980s as The Smiths’ Morrissey did.

Jessica Martin thinks pink. (BFI)
The Garden is a journey inside Jarman's personal preoccupations and neuroses. In a largely dialogue-free film, he makes this clear through footage of himself in his home and on Dungeness beach, and before the film starts off-screen you hear him marshalling his production team. From there, the film invites you inside his personal universe which filters the story of a gay Christ through everything he loved and hated about the 1980s. It seems incredible now, but when The Garden was made it was a time when there was no gay marriage, no gay adoption and the sinister clause 'Section 28' was still government policy. Elsewhere, the press was becoming increasingly intrusive and the 'me me me' culture was fuelled by an uncontrollable bubble of credit. It's not surprising that the most powerful images in the film, for me, draw on this harsh cultural background: Judas swinging from a rope as he endorses credit cards; Mary (Tilda Swinton), after giving birth to Jesus, pursued to the point of distraction by press photographers dressed like the SAS; a transvestite being humiliated by three women on a beach, again in front of the SAS paparazzi and, most uncomfortable of all, the two central gay lovers (Johnny Mills and Jarman's partner Keith Collins) being tarred and feathered by Special Patrol Group-era police. Even twenty-four years on, you can still feel the rage these scenes grew from.

It's not all as disturbing as this. Jarman's camp humour is in play throughout. Clearly on his way home from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video, the Devil (Pete Lee-Wilson) is a moustachioed, leather cap wearing man in fetish gear, complete with strap on rubber penis. Actress Jessica Martin drops by to sing 'Think Pink' in authentic (and deceptively political) diva style, three Santas sing an increasingly manic 'Merry Christmas', while the Judas credit card scene is Jarman's humour at its blackest.

'Yo ho ho...!' (BFI)
Watching this mad collision of imagery made me realise why we need avant garde directors like Jarman. The film was made on a budget of £420,000 – which wasn't a lot for a film, even in 1990 ­– yet, as Keith Collins pointed out during his introduction, The Garden manages to have almost as many optical effects – done on tape then, not on a hard drive ­– as the multi-million dollar feature films Superman (1978) and The Black Hole (1979). Artistic limitations are the mother of invention and The Garden has been more influential that those two lumbering blockbusters could ever hope to be. Jarman's moving collage of Super-8 film stock mixed with black and white and overexposed colour, scenes with backgrounds that deliberately make them look false and juddering, abstract imagery have all helped many a pop video director out of a hole, as well as enrich the palette of mainstream cinema. The truly extraordinary music score by Simon Fisher Turner is a seminal example of how to marry mood into sound and image.

So there we are: I was exposed to culture and I survived. I’d sometimes cynically thought that The Garden would be pretentious, self-indulgent rubbish and I'd come out moaning that it was ninety minutes of my life I wasn't going to get back. It wasn't. OK, I didn't get all the references – among them other films such as The Testament of Orpheus and The Gospel According to St Matthew, as well as classical paintings – but you don't need to. Whatever your cultural knowledge or education, you can take something from The Garden. The friend I was with said she was still spotting new things in it and she's seen it loads of times, so it keeps rewarding as a piece of art. I like that.

All in all, I'm quite looking forward to Edward II next Saturday.

In his talk, Keith Collins related a particularly funny and relevant story. When Jarman was in the final stages of his illness he was in a hospice and visited  a regular parade of celebrity visitors such as the Pet Shop Boys and Tilda Swinton, who the star-truck orderlies waved on to Jarman's room. One day, he woke up to find a man he didn't recognise holding his hand. 'Oh, Freddy,' the man wailed, 'you look terrible!' The man was Elton John. Freddy Mercury was in the room next door.

Comedy mixed with tragedy: Derek Jarman's artistic worldview in a nut shell.