Tuesday, April 30, 2013

B is for Baader Meinhof

In the pages of Frank's APA we have started doing this thing where we go through the letters of the alphabet and talk about something we like beginning with each letter. This is my entry for the letter B.

Some time after recording the third Auteurs album Luke Haines found himself beginning to lose interest in the band. For some reason he found himself listening to a lot of funk and reading about West German left-wing terrorism in the 1970s. He hit on the great idea of combining the two in a concept album about the famous Red Army Faction (colloquially as the Baader Meinhof gang, after its two most famous members). Thus in 1996 he released this record.

The album overall has a mutant funk feel to it, with odd flourishes of vaguely Middle Eastern sounding strings, calling to mind the links with Palestinian groups the RAF ineffectually cultivated. A lot of the percussion sounds like handclaps or something akin to tablas, with the opening track ('Baader Meinhof') in particular being hand-claptastic.

I do not think this album did that well - I keep seeing people on the Internet saying that they love Luke Haines but that for them this is easily his worst album. These people are wrong. Or maybe they do not share the interest in 1970s terrorism that I have; for me the combination of Luke Haines' cultivated nastiness and a view of the subject gained from reading the likes of Tom Vague's Televisionaries makes this the best thing ever.

The songs take us on a tour of the strange radical politics of the period, throwing out references to the likes of Rudi Dutschke and Carlos the Jackal, as well as to such RAF stalwarts as Andreas Baader, Petra Schelm (not so much a RAF stalwart as their equivalent of Freddy from Superfly) and Holger Meins. The lyrics maybe get more poignant as the record rolls on, increasingly hinting that the RAF was a bloody failure, both for its members and its victims. The closing track, a reprise of the opener, makes the obvious point that far from undermining the state, the RAF's failed campaign reinforced it, by creating a climate of tension that caused people to back more intrusive policing methods.

Lyrics about West German terrorism may not be everyone's cup of tea, but surely everyone can enjoy this album's mutated white English take on funk.

record cover image source

Televisionaries image source


Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Art Will Save The World: a Film About Luke Haines" (2012)

Back in 2007 Luke Haines played Dublin. Two civil servants attended the concert. One of them went up to Mr Haines after the show and said, "I would like to make a film about you". When that fellow revealed his status as a civil servant, Mr Haines laughed in his face and told him to fuck off, but the fellow persevered - dropping out of the service, going to film school and finally securing the funding to make the film, eventually winning over Luke Haines' support for the project. As a result, he made a film which I then saw at a Sunday afternoon screening in the Irish Film Institute. No one knows what happened to the other civil servant.

In some respects this film follows the usual music biopic model. There is a bit of narration form Mr Haines telling the story of his amazing career in music. Archive footage shows his past bands appearing on television and stuff. Various people appear and talk about what they think of Luke Haines and his music (sadly there is no appearance by Metallica or Steve Albini). But it also does a bit of deconstructing he documentary, man, bringing home the blah blah blah artifice of the form, with some people saying things they affirm not to be true. There are also scenes where a load of chancers are auditioned for the role of playing Luke Haines (sadly there are then no scenes of any of these people being Luke Haines, perhaps with one of them fighting Luke Haines to establish which one is the real deal and so on).

I enjoyed this film, particularly the archive footage and any of the scenes were Haines was talking to camera, but I also found it a bit disappointing. Some of this I think comes from the inevitable disappointment of seeing a documentary about a subject you already know a lot a about - I was sorry they did not include more of this or highlight the importance of that. The fairly low budget of the film was a factor here too - the filmmaker attended a talk afterwards and said it was all shot in a couple of days or something, and it does rather show. I suspect, though, that these are the quibbles that come with too much knowledge of a subject - if you just knew a couple of songs by Luke Haines (or less) and were curious to know more about him then this would be a great film to see.

Another problematic feature of the film was that it seems like it came to the cinemas last year but was made some time before that, so events had passed it by somewhat. Obviously the film could have done with an in-depth discussion of Mr Haines' concept album about 1970s British wrestlers and an Irish audience may have been interested in some coverage of his recent collaboration with Cathal Coughlan on the uncovering of the North Sea Scrolls. But the area where the time lag seemed most of a disappointment was in the film's lack of engagement with the whole Jimmy Savile business and the rounding-up of every man involved in the entertainment industry back in the 1970s. The seedy side of the music and entertainment business back then seems like a real concern of Luke Haines in his songwriting, to such an extent that a lot of the Savile and related stories in the papers seemed like the coming to life of Luke Haines lyrics, and it would have been interesting for the film to touch on all that.

The PoMo deconstructionist elements did not annoy me as much as they might have done - indeed, some of them were actually funny. However, I think this drawing-attention-to-the-artificiality-of-the-documentary is something that documentary makers should stop thinking of as in any way big and clever. I am media-literate enough to be aware that there is a certain amount of artifice involved in making documentaries and it really is not something I need to be reminded of when watching them. Unless I am watching a documentary about documentaries, obv.

One final point - Luke Haines is joining that select band of men who looks better as they get older. The contrast between the shots of Young Haines, with his long indie hair as opposed to the dapper chap that is Old Haines is very striking.

LATER - I wonder if I am being insufficiently enthusiastic here? I came away from the film wanting to re-listen to all my Luke Haines-related records, thinking also that there are still nuggets out there on those of his records that I have yet to acquire and listen to properly. This, surely, is a key sign of a successful music documentary.

That concert in 2007


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Koalas' STD Crisis

Everyone loves Koalas, but what not everyone knows is that the honorary bears are in a lot of trouble. Some of their problems are the result of human activity, with Koalas suffering from habitat loss thanks to urban sprawl. Many of them are also being hit by cars or killed by dogs. But some of the problems Koalas face are their own little furry fault, as the marsupials are suffering from an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases spread by their promiscuous habits and lack of interest in safe sex.

Chlamydia seems to be a particular problem, with up to 90% of Koalas being infected in some areas. The disease can prove fatal, but it also has a tendency to leave its survivors infertile, which is depressing the Koala birthrate. Worse, a new retrovirus, akin to HIV/AIDS in humans, has started to affect the cuddly marsupials.

Fortunately some help is at hand. Koalas infected by Chlamydia are being given courses in antibiotics in special Koala-hospitals, where they can recuperate for a couple of months until they are ready to go back into the wild. Volunteers are also looking after the little baby Koalas (known as Joeys) who are left abandoned when their mother succumbs to disease. These people look after the furry orphans until they are old enough to fend for themselves, bringing them tasty eucalyptus for the little fellows to eat in the meantime.

The hope of scientists, though, is to develop an understanding of why Koalas are so much more susceptible to Chlamydia than other animals. That may lead to a vaccine that would protect the marsupial bears from this ailment, while also possibly leading to a vaccine that would protect humans from our own strain of that disease.


Friday, April 26, 2013

v/a "American Murder Ballads" (2009)

This is a compilation of old-timey American murder ballads that I picked up in Edinburgh back in January (only to discover that it is available in Tower here in Dublin). You know murder ballads? They are this sub-category of American folk song, where the song is about homicide, with the singer either singing in the persona of a murderer or describing some other occasion of lethal violence. I first became aware of these things when Nick Cave released his 1996 album Murder Ballads, a collection of new songs nestled in among reworked old-timey tunes. I think that set was considered controversial by some people, though the precise grounds for this are not clear to me. Maybe they thought that Nick Cave's middle-class and increasingly middle-aged audience would start committing murders everywhere after listening to their master's voice. Some people may also have thought there was a misogynist strain to the whole murder ballad concept, and, who knows, they may be right on that one.

This compilation does not have the modern production and complicated arrangements of the Nick Cave record. Instead it boasts some very old recordings, often just a voice and an accompaniment on guitar or similar. I would not be surprised if many of them are out of copyright. They range from recordings by well-known people (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Lead Belly) to ones less familiar, to me at least. Some of the songs are quite famous, even if I was hearing them for the first time - 'Where did you sleep last night?', 'Folsom Prison Blues', 'Stackalee', 'Tom Joad'. They also run the gamut from telling stories of fictional killing to describing real-life murder cases, sometimes in rather outlandish terms. The overall effect is to give open a window into a dark corner of the human experience. But the record is not without humour - Woody Guthrie's 'Bad Lee Brown' ends with the wonderful couplet from a jailed killer: "I'll be here for the rest of my life / all I done was kill my wife", surely a classic of "And now I'm the cunt" discourse.

Amazingly, this is my first direct exposure to the music of Woody Guthrie. I love how jauntily he can sail through songs telling a rather fanciful version of the death of Jesse James, or part 1 and part 2 of 'Tom Joad', where John Stenbeck's Grapes of Wrath is cheerily summarised in just under seven minutes. Where further should I go with him, readers? Or is he one of those "All the songs sound the same" artists where the first few you hear are enough? I also think this record may have given my first hearing of anything by Lead Belly, though the tune of 'Where did you sleep last night?' sounds pretty familiar.

So anyway, if you like old-timey music and are not afraid of songs about people killing other people then seek out this readily available record.

image source (to a website from which you can buy this record)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I for one welcome our new robot insect overlords

A UK man has built a giant six-legged robot. "It wasn't built to be efficient and fast. It was built to look cool and insect-like and fun," said Matt Denton of his monstrous robot, before it slew him and began building more replicas of itself.


Even More

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Three Films by Paul Thomas Anderson

Boogie Nights (1997)
Punch Drunk Love (2002)
The Master (2012)

In the run up to the release of The Master, the Lighthouse cinema showed some older films by Paul Thomas Anderson. I went to see two that I had previously missed. Boogie Nights tells the story of Dirk Diggler, a man with an enormous penis, who becomes a star of the 1970s porn industry. It is an odd film, in that it is very affectionate towards its characters and shows good and bad things happening to them, but it never really gives any sense of whether it has a fixed opinion towards pornography and the porn industry. There is a lot of music in it, not so much the classic waka-waka-waka music that I am told makes for the standard soundtrack to porn films. Instead we get a lot of scenes of people dancing in nightclubs (actually in the same nightclub repeatedly). I was very struck by a scene where everyone starts doing this amazing formation dance - why does this never happen in real clubs?

There is also a funny scene in the all-gone-to-shit stage of Mr Diggler's life in which he and his even less bright friend try to become 1980s pop stars. And a recurring joke in which an African American character is mad into shit country music.

In the film there is a big chunk of it where it all goes wrong for all the characters and they all become sad, with some of this being triggered by the changing nature of the porn industry as video replaces film. But then by the end they all get it together again and the film ends on an upbeat note… except that if you have any sense of historical events you know that HIV/AIDS is coming at them like a honking juggernaut driven by a blind homicidal maniac. It is odd that the film does not engage with this, though it does remind me of, say, the ending of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, where the film goes out on a big note but you know it will really go bad for at least some of the characters afterwards.

Punch Drunk Love, meanwhile, is one of those films in which a guy who is a bit dysfunctional has his life turned around when a good woman falls for him. Such films are always viewed as heart-warming and uplifting but I have found them problematic ever since I read a piece by someone saying that if you look at these films from the woman's point of view they are a bit of a disaster - basically a successful and competent woman suddenly finds herself shackled to some loser man-child.

But I am only really mentioning this film because of the musical and sound content. It has possibly the most amazing sound design of any film I have ever seen, using strange and disorienting effects to communicate the confused nature of its main character. The music is great too, with Jon Brion apparently composing music on the set and then Anderson adapting dialogue and action to fit the timing of the sounds. The soundtrack frequently uses a harmonium, partly because a physical harmonium appears in the film as something of a plot device.

Anyway, if you have never seen this film I strongly recommend it, particularly if you can see it somewhere with decent sound. Notwithstanding my quibbles about the whole woman-saves-fuckwit genre, Adam Sandler in the lead role is genuinely affecting and the music and so on adeptly conveys his confusion and dysfunction.

The Master - did that have much in the way of music in it? I cannot really remember and did not particularly like it that much. The performance in the lead roles by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are very impressive but the film does seem to be one of those plotless ramblers. That said, it did make me weirdly sympathetic to Scientology, as the scenes where the L. Ron Hubbad analogue was auditing or processing or whatever it was the main character made it all look surprisingly impressive.

Image source

A review of Knocked Up, by Joe Queenan.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A is for "After Murder Park" by the Auteurs

In the pages of Frank's APA we have started doing this thing where we go through the letters of the alphabet and talk about something we like beginning with each letter. This is my entry for the letter A.

I am writing about After Murder Park by The Auteurs. This was the third album by this band, released in 1996 when the band's career was on the slide a bit. It was recored by Steve Albini, whose basic approach dovetails nicely with Luke Haines' song-writing. Although the instrumentation is broadly the same as on the previous Auteurs albums (guitar, bass, drums, cello), the sound is rather different, thanks to the live-sounding Albini production with its usual fore-grounded drums.

Haines is I think one of the great under-rated songwriters, someone who has languished in semi-obscurity perhaps because he (by reputation) is such a contrary individual that few people in the biz were willing to do him any favours. His best songs typically see his nasty snarl married to his equally snarling guitars, and you get some songs that really go for that here, with 'Married to a Lazy Lover' and 'Light Aircraft on Fire' being typical examples here. But the songs do not all sound like that, there is also the wonderful 'Unsolved Child Murder', which seems to tell of a community torn apart by a child disappearance, jumping from different points of view including that of the local character who has been popularly tarred with responsibility for the terrible crime. The grim subject is offset by music that is basically late Beatles pastiche. Another fun tune is ' Child Brides', which seems to be from some yokel community with its Own Ways, reacting against city slickers rolling in and taking away their underage wives. Small wonder the album was such a monster hit.

I should have more to say about an album I profess to love, but I was up against time constraints. So I will leave it at that and hope to produce something better for B.


Image source

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The Gathering"

There is this thing called NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. The month is November and in it people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel, starting from scratch; pre-plotting and so on is allowed before November, but no actual words of the novel may be written. I have myself had a go at this NaNoWriMo business, twice succeeding and twice failing. You may recall I posted my two successes on this blog before deleting them to deter plagiarists and stop people from mocking me for my meagre literary endeavours.

In 2012 I failed to produce 50,000 words in November. Nevertheless, as a service to the world I have decided to post what I did write on a blog specially dedicated to my bad fiction. Here are links to the first four chapters of The Gathering:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Future chapters will appear every day here until the text runs out. I will not be posting daily links to each new chapter - if this kind of thing interests you, you will need to go to Panda Write Bad yourself to see them. Or you could ask me to e-mail them to you.

Gratuitous Pandas

see also

Important Panda Pictures


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Heaven Help Us If There's A War


Neosupervital "Neosupervital" (2006)

Another escapee from my friend Mr W---'s record collection, this is from an Irish artist who gives us electropop music with rather arch lyrics. It is enjoyable enough, but it reinforces my damning-with-faint-praise opinion of Mr Neosupervital - he makes for a great support act, but his output was never really interesting enough to take the main stage. These tunes are entertaining enough, but you would not really seek out that many of them and at least one is musically a knock-off of a past pop classic (Kim Wilde's 'Kids in America', if you must know).

Still, there are two great tracks on this. One of them is 'Jazz Fascist', about a guy who is a Jazz Fascist. The other is 'Rachel', whose opening line is "Rachel was a surfer girl". Maybe that tells you everything you need to know about the track, about its oceanic sense of longing and disengagement with the petty concerns of the land. It is a song I will be still listening to in decades to come and it is for this that Mr Neosupervital should be remembered.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Overheard in a Dublin Comics Shop

"This one - it's about this guy who is the last man in the world. Or the last male in the world."

"So all the moths are mad into him?"

"Yeah. They're in some kind of cult or something. Not sure if it's sexist or not."

image source

"NO" (2012)

No is a Chilean film about the beginning of the end of the Pinochet regime (spoiler). Responding to international pressure, the evil general called a referendum to give himself another eight years of dictatorial rule; if he loses the vote, he will have to hand over power to an elected successor. Dreamy Gael Garcia Bernal plays René, a former exile now working in advertising who finds himself assisting the "No" campaign prepare material for their daily fifteen minute TV slot. He lures the No campaign away from a focus on serious politics and depressing things like Pinochet's human rights abuses, instead bringing slick and aspirational advertising tricks into play.

As you probably know, General Pinochet is no longer in charge of Chile, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the No side win the election. The film still manages to extract a lot of tension from the campaign, putting us in the shoes of the people campaigning against the dictatorship, for whom victory was not a foregone conclusion. Right to the end it seemed likely that Pinochet would either win the election fairly, rig a victory, or simply negate the result. Late in the film, when the votes are being counted, there is a sudden power cut, and we feel the fear of the protagonists that they are about to be carted off to one of Pinochet's torture centres. But then the lights come back on and we see footage of Chilean generals heading to Pinochet's palace to tell him to admit defeat.

Spin doctors, image consultants and people from the world of advertising are usually seen as a bunch of style-over-substance wankers, people who are largely responsible for the superficial and shallow nature of the world we live in and the facile nature of political discussion. In No, however, the advertising man is the hero who brings down the dictator. The other people on the No side who want to campaign solidly on the issues are portrayed as self-defeating losers who would be happy to throw away any chance of victory so long as they can avoid any taint of ideological compromise. In that respect, this is a film of impeccably moderate political credentials, with the compromisers presented as the people who achieve things where the steadfast radicals consign themselves once more to the dustbin of history. But the film is still sympathetic to the view of people who see the invasion of politics by facile aspirational advertising methods as fundamentally a retrograde step, regardless of the political outcome. Even so, the viewer is left to agree that the No campaigners were right to use any means necessary to oust Pinochet, including modern advertising methods.

Part of the fun of the film comes from its reproduction of some of the material from the referendum campaign. The No material features a lot of 'We are the world' style singing and people going on about a better tomorrow being on the way. Instead of campaigning negatively against Pinochet they focus more on all that positivity stuff, and they would so have used D-Ream's 'Things can only get better' as their campaign song if it had existed back then. The Pinochet gang seem a lot more defensive, either claiming that the country will be taken over by urban guerrillas if the dictator is defeated or focussing half-heartedly on Pinochet's achievements. They even have this amazingly rubbish moment in one spot where Pinochet himself speaks to camera and says something like: "Not everything I have done has been great, but I'm sure that if you weigh up the good and the bad you will see that there is more of the good".

I am curious, though, as to how many of the characters in the film are based on real people and how many are composite characters. I would also be curious as to how other participants in the campaign view the contribution of the advertising man. One thing you get with successful electoral campaigns is people retrospectively claiming that everything was down to their contribution (see, for example, Eoghan Harris' book about how he single-handedly secured the election to the Irish presidency of Mary Robinson), and I could well imagine that other participants would argue that the adman's influence had been greatly overstated.

I came out of this film thinking that people in Chile must really have hated Pinochet. His lot have a lot of advantages in the campaign - the ability to physically intimidate the opposition, the ability to see their advertising segments before they are broadcast, as well as de facto control of the TV schedules outside the 15 minutes accorded to the opposition. There would also have been the fear hanging over the opposition that if they were to lose then they could be looking at imprisonment, torture or extermination once the eyes of the world had turned away from Chile. And many voters seemed to have feared that the vote would not really be fair and that the security police would round up anyone who had voted the wrong way. Many seem also to have been convinced that the vote would just be rigged and that Pinochet would "win" no matter how the votes were cast; getting these people to bother voting was the big challenge for the No campaign. But with all these challenges, the No side still won. Huzzah! I was nevertheless struck by the quite large proportion of people who voted for Pinochet, effectively asking not to be offered the vote again.

There is a lot more I could say about the film but I think it would be heading into listing random scenes and themes in it, so I reckon you would be better off just going to see it (which you will have to do at home now that it has left the cinema). I will just mention one final odd feature of the film - that it was filmed on video (or to look like it was filmed on video), so that it looks like it itself is an artefact from the 1980s. I think this was done for artistic reasons, to make the reproduced campaign material not jar with the recently filmed scenes with the actors. I cannot say I entirely approved of this choice, as it makes the film look a bit poor (video really does look like shite when projected onto a cinema screen). I am not so wedded to postmodernism that I see the only way to represent the past being to make the representation look like it comes from the past. My own preference would have been for the film to reproduce the video-ed campaign material as it was and then to have the scene with the campaign workers and so on filmed to a proper standard. Not merely would this have looked nicer, it would have more clearly distinguished vintage material from the newly created.

If the DVD release of this film features loads of the original campaign slots as bonus features then I will definitely be checking that out.

Image source

Here is one of the original No campaign ads:

And here is a somewhat predictable article from The Atlantic, which linked to that campaign ad: 4 Things the Movie 'NO' Left Out About Real-Life Chile

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Out Hud "S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D." (2002)

This came my way from Mr W---, as part of his occasional clear-outs of CDs. I do not know anything more about it, except that it seems to be from 2002 or thereabouts. It is a piece of electronic music, vaguely dance music oriented. And the music is not very interesting. It is not the kind of thing that would have anyone saying "turn off that shite!" if it came on, but it is hard to imagine a situation where anyone would say "You know what I would like to listen to now? That's right - S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. by Out Hud". I strongly suspect that by the time you read this Oxfam will be trying to get 50c for my copy of this (and that it will have been deleted from my iTunes).

I hate posting uncomplimentary reviews. I have never made a record myself, but I can imagine all the work that goes into making one, even one I do not like. Out Hud, if you find yourself reading this, I am sorry that I did not like your record.

image source

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Cat that Saved a Life

Cats have a reputation for selfishness, but a cat called Charley has done her bit to improve the image of felines. As a kitten, she was adopted by Ms Susan Marsh-Armstrong. Charley was initially very weak, but Ms Marsh-Armstrong nursed her back to health. As Charley grew stronger she became ever more fond of her owner.

Ms Marsh-Armstrong is diabetic, and one night she went to the bathroom and then collapsed into a hypoglycaemic coma, as her blood sugar had dropped to a dangerous level. Seeing that something was wrong, Charley went to her husband (whom she normally avoided), pawing and licking at him to wake him up from a deep sleep. Once he woke up, Charley then led him to the bathroom where Ms Marsh-Armstrong was lying unconscious. He was able to inject glucagons into his wife and bring her round before she suffered any lasting ill effects.

The family's other two cats slept through the incident.

For her quick thinking, Charley won the Hero Cat title at last year's British National Cat Awards, winning a trophy, three month's supply of cat food and a year's supply of cat litter.


Even More (and image source)

And even more

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"The North Sea Scrolls" (2012)

If you have been paying close attention to my writings then you will know all about this already. It is a collaboration between musical superstars Cathal Coughlan and Luke Haines and Australian writer Andrew Mueller. It purports to describe the contents of the eponymous scrolls, documents found in a house in England that reveal the true history of that country during its period of foreign occupation. The album has two discs, but is not a double album. On one disc, each song is preceded by a discussion by Mr Mueller on the contents of the relevant scroll. On the other disc the same songs are repeated, mostly without the Mr Mueller's spoken pieces, the logic being presumably that people will want to re-listen to the music more than the talking.

The narration and the song lyrics cover areas that are familiar from Luke Haines' own songs - the fascinating world of minor celebrities of the 1970s and 1980s and the general rubbishness of England in the past. An Irish twist is added by the inclusion of references to Martin Cahill (whose murder site I pass every day on my way to work), now revealed to have spent several years as Proconsul in England. Several of the Cathal Coughlan songs also reference the Jerry Cornelius mythos of Michael Moorcock, which dovetails well with the 70s fascination of Old Haines.

The First ScrollWhen I saw the live show of these songs in early 2012, they began with the famous image of Jimmy Savile introducing Frank Bruno to Peter Sutcliffe projected behind them. This was before they opened with 'The Broadmoor Blues Delta'. This was before that Jimmy Savile stuff broke, but it all seems oddly prophetic of it all and to fit in perfectly with the subject matter of this record and other Luke Haines productions. I am curious now as to whether he is now dreaming of writing a concept album about Savile and his partners in crime - something that would be sure to storm its way to the top of the album charts.

On record, the stand-out track remains 'The Morris Man Cometh', a description of how during the occupation of England morris dancers were mobilised as a collaborationist militia. The song is done in a great faux-folkie style with Haines on lead vocals and Coughlan providing some great "hey nonny nonny" backing vocals. However, this should not be thought of as a one-song-album. As well as that track, there is a real beauty and sadness to some of the tunes on which Cathal Coughlan sings lead. I am thinking here of the likes of 'Ayatollah Cornelius' or 'Witches in the Water'. But the whole record is endlessly appealing.

Overall I suppose this record is a bit niche. If you like the same kind of things that I do then you will probably love it. If you are not so interested in peeling back the layers of obfuscation to reveal the truth then this might not be for you.
King Zog of Albania

The North Sea Scrolls live

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Brief Outline of a Trip to Egypt

At some point I will write at tedious length about my holiday in Egypt last October. In the meantime, here is a quick run through of the exciting fun I had there.

Egypt is the monster of the Arab world and a lot of the time it seemed like all 80 million Egyptians were driving past whatever hotel we were staying in. We were doing a pyramids and temples tour run by the popular company Intrepid that took us up and down the Nile Valley and nowhere near any of the popular Red Sea resorts. Taking a tour insulated us from some of the obvious inconveniences of the country and also saved us the trouble of having to decide for ourselves what to see.

Egypt has a lot of things that are a bit of a faff for a visitor - the amount of hassle you will get when walking the street in tourist areas, the constant fear that the food you eat will make you ill, the heat, the noise, the deranged traffic, and so on. But it has a lot going for it too, with amazing things to see the like of which you will never encounter anywhere else. Particular highlights included:

Philae Temple
Philae Temple, where ancient Egypt stops. It seems to have been where the worshippers of the ancient Gods made their last stand. It features a hieoglyphic inscription left unfinished when the temple was closed by the Byzantines - the end of ancient Egypt.

Headless Rameses
Abu Simbel - Rameses II's cyclopean monument to his own ego, an exercise in impressing the otherwise troublesome Nubians.

The library in Alexandria - not the repeatedly destroyed ancient library but a recently constructed modern library stunning in both its sleek architecture and use of the most advanced technology.

We were there
The Pyramids at Giza. The fucking pyramids, for fuck's sake.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo - one of those museums that should be in a museum.

Al-Fishawy's coffee shop in the Khan Al-Khalili Market in Cairo - too lazy to wander around a market in which people will try to sell you things? Then why not sit in a coffee shop and let the market come to you! The rest of the market is great too.

Abou Tarek has no other branches
Abou Tarek's restaurant in Cairo. Abou Tarek has no other branches and only serves kushari, a surprisingly tasty Egyptian staple that contains rice, spaghetti, macaroni, lentils, onions, and chickpeas and is served with a tomato sauce and then seasoned with hot and garlic sauces. NOM NOM NOM. The restaurant seems to have a series of pop songs about itself.

And so on. It was also nice to spend a couple of days after the tour in central Cairo, seeing a non-tourist side of the city and so experiencing a largely hassle free time that made us feel invisible after the various tourist sites.

We had a slight frisson of political excitement when we were unable to get a taxi back to our hotel because Tahrir Square was full of demonstrators. The taxi driver dumped us at the square's edge and got out of dodge as fast as he could, and we did the same, hopping into a metro station as fast as we could. Later we discovered that supporters and opponents of Egypt's president had been laying into each other in the square earlier in the day. Ten minutes walk away there was no sign at all of any of this.

That was the only even remotely edgy situation in which we found ourselves, and it was not that edgy. I would ultimately have to concur with the views of the man at the pyramids who sold me a pile of souvenir crap and urged us all to tell our compatriots that there are no problems in Egypt and that everyone should come and visit there as soon as possible.

See also: They Saw Me Coming - Things I Brought Back From Egypt

This is the trip I went on: Egypt Experience

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I am a My Bloody Valentine apostate

There was a stage in my life when news of a new My Bloody Valentine album would have filled me with rapturous excitement. That stage is long over. I am not one of the people who has been frantically downloading the latest album by these people. When it comes out in a physical format I may well pick up a copy, but I will do so without any great enthusiasm.

I think it was seeing MBV live again at an All Tomorrow's Parties event a couple of years ago that killed my affection for them. A lot of other people there were having the time of their lives at the concert, but I found it hard to escape realising what dull live band they are. Their playing is static and they lack any kind of engagement with their audience (to the extent that when one of them finally said "thanks" after the fifth or sixth song she almost received a standing ovation). Now, I do not think that musicians should necessarily be giving the crowd a load of "OK everybody, are you ready to party? Because now we're gonna rock you out!!!", but it would be nice to get a sense that the musicians are not just phoning in their performances while thinking of their paycheques.

The other thing I found a bit trying about their live performance was how loud it was. [and the comments to this write themselves, being of the "fuck off granddad, listen to yourself complaining about music being too loud" etc. etc. etc.] Why does it have to be so loud? When we saw them, they were giving out earplugs to everyone present. Why not just turn the volume down? Could it be the extreme loudness is just a way of making their dull live performances seem more interesting?

And then there is The Holocaust. One of MBV's most famous songs is 'You Made Me Realise'. On record it has a break of about two minutes where you just get white noise blasted at you and not much resembling a tune. Live they have taken to stretching that bit out to over half an hour. Now, this might have been exciting, challenging, and expectation defying when they first started doing it in the early 1990s, when audience members often reacted with bafflement and fury. Now that they have been doing this for 20 years it is tired and formulaic and to me symbolises how their creative well has run dry.

Of course, it is a bit unfair to judge a band's new studio output by their live appearance - the essence of playing live these days for heritage bands seems to be serving up a simulation of the classic experience for people who want to relive their youth or younger folk who wish they had been there. But I still sense little promise with this new record. The world is not littered with great records released by bands after a 20-year hiatus. I do not think MBV have any magical qualities that would allow them to buck this trend. And the general excitement about this record seems to be a depressing indicator of how uncritical nostalgia grips my own generation as much as those that have preceded us.

That said, I do still love the old records and will continue to do so. I greatly enjoyed picking up the CD reissues of the EPs last year and have listened to them with much pleasure.

A previous moan about My Bloody Valentine (trigger warning: flatulence)

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Sunday, April 07, 2013

"Vertigo" (1957)

The IFI has been running a long retrospective of films by Alfred Hitchcock. This is the only one I have made it too. Even if you have never seen it, you may have heard that it recently topped a poll of Important People by Sight and Sound magazine on the Greatest Film of All Time. I was seeing it for the first time and was concerned that the talk preceding it would be full of spoilers, as it is the kind of famous film that people assume everyone else has already seen. Fortunately my fears were unfounded, with Charles Barr's brief talk a master class in how to impart information about a film without describing everything that happens in it. I will now attempt to emulate Mr Barr by talking about the film without spoiling it and at the same time still being somewhat interesting to people who have seen the films a million times.

The plot is simple enough, at least initially. James Stewart plays Scotty, an ex-policeman who has a fear of heights. He is friends with an artist lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) who is clearly crazy about him but towards whom he harbours no romantic thoughts. Then Scotty is engaged by an old college friend (Tom Hensmore, an Anthony Eden look-a-like) to shadow his wife, Madeleine, (Kim Novak). The problem with the wife is that she is going mad - or is increasingly possessed by some kind of sinister occult power. Scotty follows her and sees her visit the grave of a woman called Carlotta Valdez. Then he sees her visit an art museum to stare at a picture of Carlotta Valdez. Then she checks into a hotel room in what was once the home of… Carlotta Valdez. Ms Valdez is revealed to have been this woman in the 19th century who went mad and killed herself when her married lover took her child away from her. And then Scotty discovers that Madeleine is Carlotta Valdez's granddaughter - OMG!

As is the way of these things, Scotty becomes increasingly obsessed with Madeleine (with creepy voyeurism a big undercurrent here), until he saves her life when, in a trance, she tries to drown herself. After that things develop further and I can say no more for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of people who have yet to see the film.

There is a lot of stunning stuff in this film. The cinematography is great - aside from the wonderful views of San Francisco, it featured loads of vertigo-inducing high and low camera angles, creating a slight sense of disorientation in the viewer mirroring that from which Scotty was always suffering. The use of San Francisco as a location works very well here - aside from its attractiveness as a city, the hills and slopes make its physical appearance a hypnotic nightmare for anyone with an extreme fear of heights. Also striking is the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, even if it lacks a single iconic piece like that of the shower scene in Psycho. And the art direction and costuming are rather appealing. Kim Novak's costumes are the obvious star here, but the simultanaeously louche and smart look of James Stewart the ultimate winner. I am thinking that it really is time I got myself a fedora and took to wearing a jacket and tie at all times.

I think, though, that the performances and characterisation are what really makes this film, in particular Stewart as Scotty. In his talk before the film Barr compared his role to that of John Wayne's in The Searchers - they both are presented as a certain kind of icon of masculinity, but as the respective films progress we see them increasingly as damaged goods. Stewart plays Scotty as the driven detective and the modern day knight riding to the defence of a vulnerable woman, playing on the various good-guy roles he had taken over the years. As the film goes on, though, a more disturbing side to him appears, with him coming across as a cruel obsessive in the latter part of the narrative. His rejection of the artist lady in favour or the unknowable and unattainable Madeleine seems also like an act of childish narcissism on his part.

Hitchcock has an annoying habit of sabotaging his films with scenes of ponderous exposition, thrown in for the benefit of audience members who do not like things to get too confusing. Examples of this would be the psychiatrist's boring explanation at the end of Psycho or the sudden cut away in North By Northwest to the guys sitting in a room who spoil the film's central mystery by telling us what is in fact going on. Sadly, Vertigo does this too, with a premature reveal that removes any mystery from the scenes that follow. Aside from making what follows less mysterious, the reveal also distracts away from how deranged Scotty's behaviour has become by this stage, which is a real shame - Scotty's dysfunctional obsession is surely the key point of the film and anything that draws attention from it is a terrible mistake. Barr mentioned that the premature reveal was filmed by Hitchcock, who then decided not to use it, but the studio insisted on its inclusion. Hitchcock then apparently took to claiming that its inclusion was his idea after all. Oh well.

Vertigo strikes me as the kind of film you can watch again and again and again. On subsequent viewings that reveal must become less important as you appreciate the film less on a plot level. For all my griping, this really is an incredible film and if you have not seen it before you should try to do so, ideally in a cinema with a proper big screen and sound system.

I should also salute the restoration of the 70mm version of the film I saw. It has its flaws and wonky bits but is overall a great piece of work. We were amused to see that the restoration was sponsored by Chivas Regal, which seems rather appropriate given how much whisky and soda is put away by Scotty in the course of the film.

Addendum: while waiting for the film to start, I gazed voyeuristically at the mobile phone of the person who was sitting in the row in front of me. They were looking at something on Twitter. Then I realised, from the distinctive avatar - they were looking at something I had posted on Twitter. This may mean I am famous but probably does not.

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