…and he was funky

I’ll be honest here. At school, I had mates who were rabid Prince fans. But I wasn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike him, I just didn’t hang on everything he did. I think that’s because, in my teens at least, I had a strangely scattergun approach to musical preference and didn’t fit in with any of the sub-cultures like the Duranies, or the indie kids busy with C86. But that, I suppose, was the great wonder of Prince: you didn’t have to like everything, but you couldn’t NOT like something. And that’s how it was with me.

The first Prince thing thing I ever heard was 1999. And I loved it. I thought he was utterly batshit, but in a great way. I didn’t buy the albums but, from time to time another killer song would hit you. So it was with songs like Little Red Corvette, Raspberry Beret, Purple Rain and the wonders of Let’s Go Crazy.  And that’s before you even consider stuff like I Feel For You, and hi pseudonymous moonlighting for the Bangles

By the time mates were waxing lei so about Sign O The Times and Lovesexy, I was still agnostic, liking some but not all. But again, you find that over time there’s more and more stuff to like, simply because he’s been around and done so much (like that killer Batman soundtrack). You cannot help absorb the work of a man who has rewritten a lot of the so-called rules about being a star in the modern age.

As you get older, you start to look back and realise how lucky you are to have lived through a time of such explosive creativity and virtuosity. The 80s has been lambasted as a decade abandoned by taste, but amongst the dross, so much great stuff came out of it. And that he was in the right place that we could all see it. The body of work is almost beyond belief. There’s a stunning clip of Prince at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame show, playing on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It’s amazing, not least because he is doing this on a stage packed with some pretty stellar talent (and they ain’t slackin’) . And he just shreds it. I’ll remember him this way: the consummate musician’s musician, and a man from another place entirely, who we only got on loan for a while

“Oh no, not again”

It’s not a shock there’s such an outpouring of love for Victoria Wood this afternoon. Hearing of her death comes as something of a surprise, and a nasty one at that. But it’s entirely in keeping with her desire for privacy, and a life away from being famous that few people knew, and she didn’t make a big thing of it.  That part of her personality struck me really powerfully when I heard her second appearance on Desert Island Discs, back in 2011.

Like many comedians, at heart, Victoria seemed to be something of an introvert. She certainly didn’t mind her own company. Thing I remember most from that interview was her answer to the question, “Do you think you’d be fine on a desert island”. Her response really resonated with me. “Yes, I would be. I’d be too fine, actually.” The interview generally shows an unsurprisingly nuanced person, who in spite of all of their undoubted gifts, still had a particulate reticence about sharing them.

But share them she did. I first remember seeing her doing the Wood & Walters shows on ITV when I was a kid. Even then there was a sense that partnership had something very special. There was a definite spark there. And of course on it went to the BBC. Those As Seen on TV shows were a high point of 80s comedy, chiming with me every bit as much as The Young Ones or the goings on at Channel 4. Those shows had a particular cadence and music of their own, and a cast to kill for : Duncan Preston, Celia Imrie, Kenny Ireland &  Susie Blake. They played the score that she wrote, and which sounded just right.

And then there were the songs, of course, of which this is probably the most famous:

But then of course, afterwards, there was other stuff. Lots of it, and none of it less than wonderful. Dinnerladies. Pat & Margaret. Housewife, 49 was a tour de force that showed just a talented actress she was, and writer. God, was she ever a good writer! And then there was Eric and Ernie, which was her idea. And even with the fantastic lead performances, and the cast stuffed with talent, there she was again, playing Eric’s mum, and smashing it out of the park.

Sixty-two is no age at all and, as others have said already, she still had so much left to say and give; her loss sad not just for the ones she leaves behind, but the rest of us, who just loved the work she did.

No, really. What IS the point of Europe?

Barely a week into the never-ending crash that is the official EU referendum campaign, and my will to live is being slowly, inexorably squeezed out of me, like a small, defenceless rodent being gradually crushed by a hungry boa constrictor.

As you might expect, the “big guns” are starting to make their pitches now. And that includes this morning’s comic turn, the chin-free, charm-vacuum that is Michael Gove.

As ever, the tone of the “debate”, with the help of an ever complaisant media,  has turned to the twin horrors of “Project Fear Scaremongering” (translation: I don’t agree with this, but don’t have a response so I’ll just accuse you of scaremongering because I can) and the peevish wailing about so-called bottom line: economically, what has Europe Ever Done For Us? Fine, if that’s all you want to talk about, because (to use the old phrase), you know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I find myself in a different position. I find me asking myself more and more: what is the point of Europe, and what am I in relation to it?

So, let’s take a step back.  The thing I most notice is the parade of people who are embracing an EU exit most fervently. This list includes Boris Johnson (though we know that’s more about the mop-headed ambition engine’s personal agenda than any particular deep-seated conviction); Michael Gove; Iain Duncan Smith;  George Galloway; John Redwood; Chris Grayling. In other words: a procession of uniquely charmless barrel-scrapings. In all fairness, the choice open to anyone looking at the Remain side isn’t any more edifying, including as it does, our dear leader and his chancellor. Galloway aside, the connecting theme amongst the secessionists seems to be a deep-linked connection into neoliberal economics. Anything resembling “social democracy” or worse yet “socialism” is seen as the most pernicious of evils, to be fought off with the political equivalent of a bell, book and candle. So people like Redwood and Gove, who several years ago were enthusiastically talking about junking the NHS and moving to a private health insurance system make me deeply suspicious in their enthusiasm for a Britain outside of the apparatus of EU social structures.  My immediate feeling is that perhaps their antipathy is not towards Europe, but towards any opposition to the balls-to-the-poor economics of asset-stripping that seems to pervade that stream of thinking.

But this also raises questions in my head about wider social organisation. I look at the mostly neoliberal values of those who are so keen on exit, and I see the eminence grise of an essentially Darwinian social model, operating for the benefit of only a very few. The poorest, the most vulnerable, even most of those in the supposed middle are left behind.  This is an essentially American model, with the extra patina of is a special (Anglophone) bond that binds us. All of the moves that a so-called Brexit (and I hate that word) are pushing us towards are predicated on those values.   The neoliberal mentality seems to eschew all of that, and want s to leave so much to the predations of the free market (the one that worked so well in the run-up to 2008, and afterwards)

But they are not the values I stand for.

Europe as a project does stand for something. And I see myself as a European for exactly those reasons. Yes, the EU is  bureaucratic morass, but it is still built on the idea of collaboration, and a sense that to steal a phrase, “we are all in it together”. Social health care is just one of those ideas, or co-ordinating industrial and employment policy, or agriculture, or transport, or research and academic activity.  The social values of a European Union are values I can buy into: the rule of law; protection of the weak; shared values of human decency; individual responsibility; freedom of speech, movement and expression; rationalism and the values of enlightenment that have bound us together as a continent over the last centuries. I believe in the Europe of Voltaire, Mill and Kant.

At a time when the world is even more uncertain and perilous than it has been for many years, the idea that we should be backing away from the very people with whom we share those common values and aims is both terrifying and perplexing to me.  It strikes me that many of those who seek to do it are intent on generating this schism for what are essentially cheap political reasons (yes, I am definitely looking at you, Johnson). Europe, in its current form, was assembled by those who had gone through the horrors of the most disgusting war in human history, and had no desire to repeat those horrors again.  Too many now have forgotten those aims, and are seeking to tear down those foundations without having even the slightest clue about how they will replace what we will lose when they do. Or perhaps they do know, and they just dare not share it publicly with those of us who have most to lose from dismantling this enterprise.

So when I vote, I won’t be making a choice based on the flat tyranny of the “economic numbers”, because I think that there will be some short-term financial uplift. My choice will be made on the basis that I am a European, and both emotionally and philosophically, I believe Europe is where we should be,  and at its heart at that.

 

ELO: Newcastle (14.4.2016)

IMG_1404

It’s hard to remember when I first heard ELO. What I do remember as a kid was the stunning gatefold double album sleeve from the classic Out Of The Blue. At first it was the visuals that hooked me, and still fro, even to this day.  But I do certainly have memories of lots of those songs in my early years, before I really started getting into the music in my teens.

So, here I am, thirty-odd years after getting into them, finally getting a chance to see the Brummie Bearded wonder, Jeff Lynne, playing all this stuff live.  Perhaps the first thing to notice when you look at the set list is the really obvious one: looks at the hits. Very very few bands can have a back catalogue as stuffed to the gunwales with quality as this.  Even for the casual listener, it’s a pretty decent bet that you would know at least a dozen of these songs well.  And you are likely to have heard most of the rest, even if you didn’t know the artist.

For a fan though, there is more of a conundrum: with a back catalogue THAT good, what do you leave out? Well, for a start, there is not a sausage from 1981’s rather brilliant Time album (so, no Twilight, Hold On Tight or Here Is The News. All of them were hits).  No fan faves like the under-regarded Four Little Diamonds. Tonight, there’s no Do Ya, though Jeff tells us that we are getting the band’s first ever single, 10538 Overture, for the first time on the tour, so that will just have to do!.

No matter. The show starts in the best possible style, with Tightrope, for 1976’s A New World Record. This just happens to be my favourite ELO song ever, so I’m already in an advanced state of fan nerdgasm by the time the projections, fanfare and swirling strings have kicked into the number itself. It also says something when songs as strong as Evil Woman and Showdown can sit at the start of the show.  From the outset the audience (me included) are cheering and singing every word. Every song is received with unrestrained glee, and this even included new songs from the latest album Alone In The Universe (of which there are only two: the achingly beautiful When I was Boy, and the fun chug of Ain’t It A Drag).

There’s really no let up: it’s all killer and no filler. Hit after hit, delivered with verve and more than a little twinkle in the eye. Jeff isn’t one for dazzling stage repartee, but does the odd link sounding happy and more than little genuinely surprised at the undoubted pouring of genuine warmth and love the band are getting. This seems to be a them of this tour.

Just as important, some of these songs have been chosen because he knows that fans love them, and because they haven’t had much of an airing. so the gorgeous Steppin’ Out and Secret Messages get a great reception, for example.

As you’d expect from the line up, the quality of the playing is top notch, but the other impressive dimension is the staging. The sound isn’t bad at all for an arena gig, and the projections, lights and lasers are top division stuff. The whole package is simply irresistible.

Even though the energy levels are high (from audience and band alike), the last half dozen numbers are difficult to top as a conclusion to an arena show by anyone. By this stage we’re all singing at the top of our voices, loving every minute.  The roar that greets Mr Blue Sky is even more deafening that what has gone before.  It’s a joyous experience.

The final act is the encore, the usual drill for an ELO show – Roll Over Beethoven, before the lights go up and the show is over. It’s not a cheap night out, but boy was it ever worth it, because it truly doesn’t get much better than this.

Set List

  1. Tightrope
  2. Evil Woman
  3. Showdown
  4. All Over The World
  5. When I Was A Boy
  6. Livin’ Thing
  7. Ain’t It A Drag
  8. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head
  9. Rockaria!
  10. 10538 Overture
  11. Secret Messages
  12. Steppin’ Out
  13. Shine A Little Love
  14. Wild West Hero
  15. Telephone Line
  16. Turn To Stone
  17. Don’t Bring Me Down
  18. Sweet Talkin’ Woman
  19. Mr Blue Sky
  20. Encore: Roll Over Beethoven (youtube link)

 

Frankie Boyle

I’ll be honest, walking into Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday evening after picking up the tickets, the omens weren’t that great. We were told to read the notices, pinned to the entrance doors, which had a fairly matter-of-fact tone telling us that the show would last around 65 minutes and that people were not allowed to leave during the performance. 

But finally, after getting to the seats (row Z, right at the back), the lights dimmed and on came the support act.  And it was a pleasant surprise to see that it was the self-proclaimed “wobbly”, Francesca Martinez, who I’ve heard a couple of times on Radio 4 on the Now Show and News Quiz. She did about twenty minutes, and was nicely sparky with some good material and a couple of great pay-off lines which I’ll not spoil by repeating here.

After a short interval, on came the man himself. He was greeted by some unknown bloke singing at him near the front of the hall. As you might guess, the put-down (involving his mum and a dangerous dog) was pretty withering.  It was also faintly appropriate to me that, part way through his set, I got the BBC News alert announcing Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation. It’s just that no one dared tell him. Which was a pity, as I think he might have had more than a bit of fun with it. As it was, there was a fair amount of material aimed at exactly those targets. However, possibly more surprising to some was some of the material touching on the nature of subjectivity and offence in comedy, and even ideas like phenomenology, which he specifically discussed during the show. Anyone who thinks that Frankie is pitching to the lowest common denominator with his material needs to do some reappraisal.  Some of the tone reminded me of a nicely insightful interview he did a year or so ago with Richard Osman at the Efinburgh Television Festival. 

And then, just like that, he was gone. Lights up, Frankie has left the building. A couple in front of me were lamenting that they didn’t think he had quite hit the levels of last tour. I can’t compare, but I didn’t mind, for three reasons: first, he’s funny, of that there is no doubt; second, he might offend some, but sometimes people need to be offended; third, we need comedians like Frankie Boyle, especially in times like this . Thank God we have him now.

End of an Era

If you’re younger than around 20, say, or not from these shores, then it’s possibly a little difficult to understand exactly how significant Terry Wogan’s death is to those of us who are.

I was born, and grew up in, the 1970s and, like a significant fraction of the whole country, I would listen to his rich honeyed tones as I got ready for primary school each morning; in my early years at secondary school I’d laugh as Kenny Everett bent his oddly effete microphone on Blankety Blank; in my teens I’d watch his Saturday night chat show; as I was coming to the end of school, the mid-week chat show would be the accompaniment to my homework sessions.  And then you’d see him pop up on Come Dancing, or Children in Need, or, as he did for so long, Eurovision. He was everywhere it seemed sometimes, and certainly one of the defining voices of the BBC.

He wasn’t like the newsreaders: he was warm, funny and erudite, though he wore that erudition very light. He spoke personally, to you. And even if you didn’t care for the music all the time (trust me, that was common on Radio 2 in the 70s and 80s), at least Terry would make you chuckle. I’ve even got a book of his, published back then, Banjaxed, which collects up a bunch of stuff from those shows, including gems like the continuing story of the DG’s vestal virgins on the roof of TV Centre, as well as long running exchanges between himself and the public. The thing to notice about the book is that it marks a real connection between the man and his audience, but on a slightly slower burn  in a the days before the instant response of electronic and social media.  When that came though, in his second breakfast spell, he rolled with it. And it worked.

His passing marks a significant point. Ironically, as an Irishman, Wogan signified and embodied many of the values of the Reithian BBC.  But he was an oddly and gently subversive presence too, as others have said at length. In my head I think of him running slightly parallel to Peel in that way, always ready with the pin, ready to puncture some kind of ridiculous pomposity . I know it’s a bit of a cliché to talk about his loss like losing a family member, but this is someone who was invited into your home almost every day in the formative years of my life.  The reason I laugh at some things the way I do is down to him, as is some of the way I look at the world.  Wogan was a symbol of what the BBC should be in people’s lives: a warm, wise, witty steady influence. The BBC will miss him deeply, and I think we all will too.

Bill Bailey: Limboland

Limboland

Limboland

And so the beardy one stops his (now returned) tour bus in Scarborough. This was the first of a two night sojourn by the seaside, the timing of which is a shame because the weather was so shitty; such is life.

The format for a Bill B show is fairly consistent really: beady man comes on stage and talks for a while, playing some musical instruments in between chatty bits. You’ll be pleased to know that he hasn’t really fiddled with the format overly much.

The show has a fairly loose structure, with components you know are pretty much the foundations of the piece. This time there was his family’s trip to see the Northern Lights, and the story of how a starstruck Bill, and his mate, have a disastrous meeting with Paul McCartney. The latter one especially is hysterical. But there are other smart bits, such as the “build your own Moby song”, using samples taken from the audience. This is a thing that can work form venue to venue, but can have nice little twists (like on this occasion having one sample have a tiny giggle at its end, which seems to amuse Bill inordinately)

But the beauty of a performer like Bill is that he can riff off the audience. And when you have an audience like Wednesday’s with some slight strangeness going on, you can tell when he’s getting into it and having some fun. There’s a running theme that developed about the presence of seagulls when fluff/feathers and the like drop down onto him from above.

There are also fun musical moments, as one might expect: a death metal rendition of Postman Pat; the obligatory Scarborough Fair (done à al Rammstein), and some confusion about some of the suggestions for musical accompaniment for walking (including my own heckle of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, which I have actually used for walking, and avoiding the cracks on the pavement).

So, a good night had by all. Can’t ask for more than that.