Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

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Music 2013: Where are we now?

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVArcade-Fire-ReflektorArctic-Monkeys-AMKOD-12JimBobWhatIThinkAboutChrisTTTheBearbilly-bragg-tooth-nailJon-Hopkins-Immunitymusic-david-bowie-the-next-day-album-cover

Ah, music. A whole calendar year without once stepping in front of the mic at 6 Music has seriously affected the equilibrium of my musical clearing house. Though I seem to have been jettisoned by the network, my DJ’s pigeonhole was not sealed up, so some new music still got through, thanks to an assortment of kindly pluggers and expectant artists and managers, all of whom were sending me records in good faith that I might play them on the radio. This was not to be. (My only success in this regard was composing a piece celebrating 80s indie for Front Row on Radio 4, which allowed me to play short bursts of classics like Candy Skin by the Fire Engines and Don’t Come Back by the Marine Girls on national radio, not to mention plug Cherry Red’s historic Scared To Get Happy compilation.) Still, it means I have heard some new music in 2013, although not much. As I have discovered to music’s cost, there’s nothing like having a radio show to focus, organise and refresh your musical tastes. (I still miss the good influence of Josie Long and it’s been two years now!)

My exile from 6 Music has nonetheless pushed me back into the real world, where albums must be purchased. This really concentrates the mind. It makes your purchases more conservative. You buy records by artists you already like – Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, a resurgent David Bowie – although I’d lately lost my faith in Arctic Monkeys and hadn’t even sought out their new album AM for old times’ sake, but then I saw them storm it on Later and I put my money on the counter. So that’s how it works. I won’t order my Top 10 albums, as in earning a place here, they are all winners. I am on friendly terms with three of these artists. Luckily, they have all made records I like this year.

My Bloody Valentine m b v (m b v)
David Bowie The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
Arcade Fire Reflektor (Sonovox)
Jon Hopkins Immunity (Domino)
Various Artists Scared To Get Happy (Cherry Red)
Kitchens Of Distinction Folly (3Loop)
Billy Bragg Tooth & Nail (Bragg Central)
Jim Bob What I Think About When I Think About You (The Ten Forty Sound)
Chris T-T and The Hoodrats The Bear (Xtra Mile)
Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)

RSJ-SEVENinch-Alouise_sleeveWonderStuffGetUp

I accept that the modern music scene is based on tracks, but I shall continue to call them songs, as I pretty much hate the modern world. A few songs have filtered through and found purchase and these are them.

Rob St John and the Coven Choir Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey/Shallow Brown (Song By Toad)
Steve Mason Fight Them Back (Double Six)*
Cud Louise
Daft Punk Get Lucky (Daft Life/Columbia)
Cloud Boat Wanderlust (Apollo)
This Many Boyfriends Tina Weymouth (Angular)
Low Plastic Cup (Sub Pop)*
The Wonder Stuff Get Up! (IRL)**

*These singles both came out at the very end of 2012, but I didn’t hear either until 2013, and I think they were on albums released in 2013, so fuck off.
**I think this one did, as well.

Writer’s blog: Week 23, Thursday

Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …

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I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.

It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”

It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)

Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.

filth

So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.

While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.

Springwatch2013

I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:

The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK

That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films

When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.

As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.

StoneRosesMadeOfStone

Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.

Kazoogazing

MBVcover

Better late than never. And I actually mean that. It has been 22 years since My Bloody Valentine released their second album, Loveless, and I dispatched myself to interview Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, Bilinda Butcher and Colm Ó Cíosóig at the Mitcham home of their manager, for the attendant NME cover story. It wasn’t an easy interview, but then, they weren’t an easy band, and they didn’t make easy records. They stood alone, despite being roped into a fabricated “scene”, cheekily christened Shoegazing. (It was the effects-driven, languidly-paced, pale-faced guitar bands who bloomed in MBV’s wake who really deserved the tag. Oh, and we gave one of them a cover, too – Chapterhouse – a notoriously poor-selling issue, as I recall, despite a decent story written on the road in the States and a fantastic coverline: “Here’s Looking At Shoe, Kid.”)

I fell in love with My Bloody Valentine on first listen, which will have been Strawberry Wine on the Lazy label’s EP of the same name in 1987. Not their first release – I can’t claim to have been in at the ground floor, but then, I was never a tastemaker – but my first listen. It was, of course, You Made Me Realise, in August 1988, that took them to a new level of originality and raw power, and if you weren’t smitten then, you were never going to be a convert.

I had arrived at the NME by the summer of ’88, and, as a result, from my vantage point within the citadel, their subsequent releases arrived, for free, in 12-inch record envelopes from Creation, with my name on. (I would have bought them had my life taken a different turning.) I only saw the band live once, which was at the Town & Country Club in December 1991 on the Loveless tour, but it blew my mind, as promised. (Our deputy editor, Danny Kelly, had been to see them at the beginning of the tour to review, and claimed that during the now-legendary ear-bleeding take on You Made Me Realise, his plastic pint glass flew off the edge of the balcony through the sheer sonic force. We believed him.)

I still hold Loveless to be one of the great albums of all time, never mind one of the great albums of its era. Though it has individual tracks – and a single, in the rave-inflected Soon, which Shields neatly calibrated at the end – it’s one of digitally recorded music’s most persuasive arguments for the Long Player. I had MBV’s early releases on vinyl, but Loveless arrived on CD, and it feels tailor-made for the single listen. You can’t shuffle it. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t, you philistine.)

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVSo, to their third album. (Not a sentence I thought I’d write in my lifetime. Certainly not until the band reformed for those Roundhouse shows in 2008 and Shields started dropping tantalising hints about the record they’d started in 1996 being “three-quarters” finished!) Titled, annoyingly but with scorched-earth defiance, m b v, it arrived on February 2 with almost no fanfare, like the David Bowie single. But would it be any good? I only got my hands on it two days ago, but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait – a wait, lest we forget, during which you could have given birth to a child and watched him or her leave home for university.

Due to the arse-over-tit way I uploaded the album from WAV files to iTunes – and because of the unbearably non-intuitive, counterproductive latest version of iTunes, particularly its search facility – the first time I fired it up from the laptop, it would only play randomly, which was a crime against humanity. I’ve fixed this now. Fortunately, my maiden listen was via my iPod, where it plays in order. So when I’ve been listening to it in transit – and it really suits gazing not at shoes but out of train or bus windows – I’ve experienced it as a whole, in full, from one end to the other. It’s a glorious piece that runs to about 46 minutes over nine tracks. (Loveless runs a little longer, but over 11 tracks.)

Along the way, considering the langorous timeframe, during which time dictatorships have been toppled and wars begun and ended, not so much has changed in the My Bloody Valentine universe. The palette of multiple slightly and not-so-slightly distorted guitars, washed over with sounds that appear to have emanated from synths but, unless the Shields manifesto has changed, won’t have done, is recognisable. (Their tricks have been much copied, and adapted, but still nobody sounds like them.) While the dancey nature of Soon bamboozled us in 1991, it’s the jaunty nature of New You that’s the album’s most generous, head-turning surprise. While opening salvos She Found Now and Only Tomorrow remind us of Loveless, New You, brilliantly named, reminds me of Can’s I Want More in feel, and adds a bona fide bounce to proceedings, as Butcher coos somewhere in the middle distance. It’s a cornerstone track. You have to hear it.

Elsewhere, the drone, screech and aerobatic stream are present and correct, and uneasy listening is the captivating result. If someone listened to m b v, or Loveless, and declared it “noise”, you wouldn’t argue with them. It is. But a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond might have had it. And nor would you try to convert them. For many, this music will go in one ear and, eventually, out of the other. Presumably this is why, with all the hype and expectation, Loveless only got to 24 in the charts 22 years ago. You really do need to tune in, and if not, walk out.

The changes are subtle. An optimism seems to come out in the vocal in Who Sees You, although I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. Is This And Yes bears the unmistakable addition of a keyboard pulse, atop which the vocals positively glisten. If I Am cruises along on a ragged snare beat with woozy vocals that almost take it into Stereolab country. The rhythm on In Another Way is furious – albeit tempered by the balm of Butcher’s serenade. Not so on the instrumental Nothing Is, where this same rhythm is almost repeated but to a much grungier end. Most adjustments, though, are closer to imperceptible. But then, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? (For alphabetical reasons, when the album ends on iTunes, it goes straight into the mechanically rhythmic Machine Gun by Portishead. A sympathetic transition, actually.)

Yes, m b v sounds like the entire sonic cathedral has been filtered through a single kazoo, but the genius of that! And it ends with a mighty six-minute track that seems to have been sculpted from sampled train and plane noises, Wonder, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that it’s for listening to between A and B. Where Soon brought Loveless to an accessible close, Wonder might be the most difficult movement on m b v. It climbs and climbs as if barreling up a mountain with no intention of coming back down.

I actually don’t mind if the fourth MBV album comes out in 2035, if it’s this good. I really, actually don’t.

Marine biography

TraceyThornBedsitDQ

At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)

Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)

I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)

So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.

Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’

In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)

ACMadchesterTimB2

Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”

Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.

TraceyThorn_EdenTraceyThornThe_Language_of_Life_Album

In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.

She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)

And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”

I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.

I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.

I now pronounce you

GAY MARRIAGE OPPONENT HOLDS SIGN IN PROTEST OUTSIDE STATEHOUSE

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, according to the old song. It’s true enough, even though you see horses pulling carriages less these days. It doesn’t specify in the lyric that the people getting married have to be a man and a woman, although having been written in the mid-50s by Sammy Cahn, its implication is likely to be that you should be a man and a woman in order to get married, because you did in those days – and still do in all but nine of the United States – but the song’s sentiment has lasted well over the years. So even though Sammy – most famously through the voice of Mr Frank Sinatra – is implicitly promoting legal heterosexual union, it is still one based wholly in love, so would surely apply to a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, and any transgender combination in between.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
It’s an institute you can’t disparage.
Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.

Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.
Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion:

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
Dad was told by mother you can’t have one
You can’t have none.
You can’t have one without the other.

I ask you this: how much time have you spent in your life agonising over what you think about gay marriage? For me, since the issue of civil partnerships first arose this century, it was probably a couple of seconds, after which I arrived at the obvious conclusion: why the hell not? There is, to me, literally no reason why not. (Fortunately I am not bound by religious dogma of any kind, so my decision is final and resolute.) But it seems that out there in the world of traditional, right-wing thought, especially religious right-wing thought, some people spend an awful lot of time wrestling with the issue. Actually agonising over it. To the point of sending worried delegations to government and taking to the streets with placards.

Even though my views on the banning of fox-hunting are clear – another issue that took up a lot of Parliamentary time during the first act of the New Labour government but eventually passed – I can easily see why some would vehemently disagree with my point of view. I find it much harder to empathise with those who are against gay marriage.

What harm can it do? I posted a Tweet about it this morning, after seeing another Tory on the news bemoaning David Cameron’s apparently radical plan to promote its legalisation with an opt-out for any church that disagrees with the equalisation of rights for all humans, and wondering why, seriously, it would bother a heterosexual so much that a homosexual person might love someone so much that they wish to make it legal, on equal terms with their heterosexual neighbour? If they hold the institution of marriage so dear, why would they legally discourage people from entering into it, just because they are gay?

Commitment to a partner via the tradition of marriage, whether religious or secular, is no bad thing. But there are no rules. Some couples raising kids out of wedlock appear to be doing a great job; and some who are married are having a rotten time of it and may inadvertently be lighting a fuse to future anxiety in their kids. I’m sure gay parents will screw up, too. We’re all human. And that’s the point. No? Some single parents do a better job than unhappily married parents, too. Why is that hard to understand? It takes all sorts.

Homosexuality has been legal in this country for most of my lifetime and the age of consent equalised with the heterosexual equivalent; why dig your Tory heels in on this particular issue? Marriage would make adoption of children easier for gay couples, but I expect the real burst-bloodvessel Tories would be against that too.

What bothers me the most is that even the retired colonels qualify their homophobia with, “We’re not anti-gay but …”, which is always a giveaway, but in this case might even be true on a very superficial level. (I expect they don’t mind what the gays do “behind closed doors”. How tolerant of them.) So you’re not anti-gay, but you deny gays equal rights? Then you are anti-gay. My Tweet to this effect – common sense, as far as I can see – was re-Tweeted about 360 times during the day, and is still being re-Tweeting as I type. I’m glad that it struck a chord, although I wish I lived in a country where it didn’t need saying out loud.

I had one dissenting voice on Twitter – I much prefer preaching to the choir! – from a person who I’m not going to name, as I found their comment calm, honest, non-combative and, in its own way, rational. I also find it easy to sidestep. They wrote, “Why not create a new institution giving the same legal rights as marriage?” Their problem was in calling it “marriage.” I have heard this caveat before. So they weren’t even against gay marriage per se, they were just against it being called “marriage.”

Can this just be a semantic argument, after all? Is it not the institution of marriage but the word of marriage that matters to those against the gay upgrade?

The Commons vote is tomorrow. They’re saying that Cameron’s enthusiasm for the vote-winning legalisation of gay marriage – and that’s surely all it can be – will sink him, and he will be stopped by the “old guard” of the party he seems nominally to be trying to modernise while he and his baronet pals are actually driving the welfare state into the sea and forcing the poor to beg for their food, thus doing what no Tory party has achieved in our lifetimes.

There, I’ve thought about gay marriage for way longer than the subject needed to be thought about. I hope you’re happy, retired colonels on the news! (You don’t look it)

Listening without prejudice

TallShips

As previously revealed, I took home around 20 pre-release CDs – mostly singles; a couple of albums – from my  6 Music pigeonhole last week. I uploaded them all at the weekend and have been listening intently on my ancient iPod ever since. (I’ve noticed that as iPods get smaller, headphones are getting bigger and bigger; my iPod is massive, and my headphones tiny. I’m no follower of fashion!) Anyway, I counted 19 new songs, most of them coming out in February or March. Few had actual paper press releases attached, and if they had information on a sticky label affixed by their plugger, I deliberately avoided reading it, so as to be able to listen to these artists, mostly unknown to me by name, without prejudice. Sometimes, seeing a picture of a band can influence the way you feel about their song.

Now, it’s inevitable that I won’t like everything, or even the majority, in a mass listening session like this, but let’s take out the artists I’d heard of first: Johnny Marr, The Vaccines, Low and The Wonder Stuff. I continue to be underwhelmed to the point of toothache by the Vaccines, who are doing very nicely without me anyway, so I shan’t lose sleep over our lack of a connection. I am already mad about The Wonder Stuff, in person and on record, and fully approve of their From The Midlands With Love project, whose final addition is Planet Earth and Get Up! Johnny Marr’s single Upstarts is OK, confident, driving, but again, he doesn’t need my support. Minnesota’s Low are minor legends, and their new single Plastic Cup is slow, lilting, melancholy and lovely, and its lyric actually has content (“the cup will probably be here long after we have gone”), which is something to cherish in this grey age. Oh, and ex-Beta Bandsman Steve Mason is also well established, and his new single Fight Them Back is effortlessly brilliant.

Since working with Josie two years ago (is it really? yes it is), I have become reconnected with new music, and new artists. So let us praise those songs by bands and songwriters about whom I know next to nothing. The pic at the top is of Tall Ships in action. As I type, I know I really love their coruscating but joyous single, T=0, but I have yet to look them up. They appear English, but who knows? Theirs is the real find of the batch, along with Wanderlust by Cloud Boat. (Nautical theme entirely coincidental.) Again, I know not who Cloud Boat are, or is. But the song is like a mini-symphony, even the three-minute radio edit; I’m getting James Blake, I’m getting My Bloody Valentine, I’m getting early Cocteau Twins … I’m getting something so delicate it makes a kind of mockery of what “a single” is, or should be. I have just found this image of Cloud Boat. Of course they’re in a church.

CloudBoat

Of the rest, I was initially quite taken by the sheer bombast of Pompeii by Bastille, even though it seems to be squarely aimed at the charts with its autotuned vocal and singalong chorus. Far cooler seeming are Io Echo, whose Ministry Of Love has real atmosphere, with female vocals far away in the distance, and more than a hint of Goth in its distorted guitars. Disco Sucks by The Computers has a good title, and is driven by old-fashioned rawk grit. I’m guessing they’re American, and very glad that Jack White came along a few years ago. Further up my street is the driving Ocean by Coasts (heavens: more water!), although, again, it sounds as if it has its eye on the post-Metronomy/xx prize. Also good is On The Spines of Old Cathedrals by Shrag, as it sounds like it was released in the early 90s. Spiky male-female vocals, apologetic drumming, but real energy. Unlike Bastille and Coasts, they don’t sound like they care too much whether or not you dance to it in a club.

I won’t mention the new bands whose tracks I didn’t latch onto. What would be the point of that? Not everything is for everyone. And anyway, I seem to have liked exactly half of the songs I uploaded. That’s pretty cool.

And now, to complete my experiment, I shall look up the bands I like, and provide links to their websites.

Tall Ships are from Falmouth, it appears. (I once lectured at Falmouth University – what a fantastic place.) There is another, American band called The Tall Ships, which is unhelpful, and the phrase “tall ships” mainly takes you to tall ships if you tap it into a search engine, but their MySpace page is here, the video is here, and their product is here.
Cloud Boat have their Facebook page (I really can’t get on with Facebook, but you may be more conversant with its workings), and the video for the full-length version of Wanderlust is here. If I was a band, I’d have a website that just showed a picture of me, and said where I was from. (Follow them on Twitter here.)
Coasts are a mystery. I don’t have the disc in front of me, so can’t even check the sticker. Look them up and find nothing as I did. Maybe I’ve got their name wrong. Still like the song!
Shrag have just announced that they’re calling it a day. Brilliant. This is me really getting in at the ground floor – they’ve only released three albums and about ten singles without me noticing. Still, I like the song, their blog is here, and they even have a Wikipedia entry. I’m going to seek out their last album Canines, from which the single is taken. It looks brilliant:
SHRAG

Io Echo are easier to find, as their name is unique. They have a website, and although I can see that they are a duo, and look quite amazing, it doesn’t say where they’re from. They seem to be very new, with a debut album to come. At least they didn’t split up before I “discovered” them. (Their MySpace doesn’t say where they’re from either.)
Bastille seems to be one man. He’s British and his MySpace page is here. Apparently Huw Stephens likes the song, so it might be a hit. I have no interest in the charts or predicting hits.
The Computers turn out to be British, from Exeter in fact, signed to Fierce Panda, and they look like they wish it was the 1970s. Good on them for that, and for looking like a band. They seem to run a club night called Disco Sucks. I don’t think they have a website, but this is them.

The following artists are well-established, but I liked their songs, and will provide links anyway, since I seem to be running an online fanzine all of a sudden. Steve Mason is here. Low are here. And The Wonder Stuff are here.

Sorry to namedrop but I was having a heated conversation with genial Martin Freeman at the Radio Times party on Tuesday night. He’s a massive music fan, as you probably know – indeed, I first met him when we were teamed up on the Radio 4 music quiz All The Way From Memphis, and had him on Roundtable a number of times – and only a few years younger than me, so we’ve both experienced that awful realisation that modern music doesn’t quite do it for you in the same way that modern music did in the past. Martin wanted to know if it was an age thing, something we all inevitably go through, or whether his feelings about modern music have something to do with the poor state of modern music. I think it’s a bit of both, but more of the former.

True, the singles charts are unrecognisable to me now, with everybody “featuring” on everybody else’s record and slick R&B and autotuned identipop dominant, but without Top of the Pops, I’m disconnected from them anyway. (If it was on, I guarantee I’d watch it every week, and know more.) I’m not in any way disinterested in new music, as I hope this experiment has proved, but even though it’s easier than ever to access music, for free, I find I need a curator, a filter, a third party to keep me up to date. And I have a pigeonhole! (I think Spotify is a smashing thing, but it’s too big. Where to start?)

What do others think? In the meantime, I say hooray for Tall Ships, and Cloud Boat, and Shrag, and Steve Mason, and Low, and The Computers, and a band I’ve not yet heard of who are going to blow me away. (I also got the Palma Violets debut album, which I’m still investigating, but I liked them on Later as they seemed to be young men who’d heard the first Clash album)