PET SHOP BOYS with Johnny Marr + Royal Philharmonic Orchestra : London Royal Albert Hall 02 April 2017
In a practical reprise of 2012's BBC Show at Salford – which made up half of the tour to promote the “Elysium” album – Pet Shop Boys bring a unique(ish) show to the Royal Albert Hall for a one off Teenage Cancer Trust performance. And whilst I have loved this band for oooh, at least three quarters of my life, and the combination of Johnny Marr, and an Orchestra, is a magical promise tonight sees the Pet Shop Boys play probably their most indulgent (song wise), and underachieving (in terms of audience response), show I've ever seen.
It all comes down to the songs. The songs that brought us into their fandom weren't aimless ballads, or unsuccessful attempts at depth. The songs that brought us in touched us, spoke to us, meant something to us. Songs that discussed what and who we are, now and then. Songs that made us see and feel the world differently. And so few of those songs were played tonight. Not every song any band writes is brilliant ; even The Smiths and The Beatles fell foul of that.
Maybe I was expecting too much : certainly, there is a unique power behind seeing them perform so many rare songs with an orchestra. When it hits – when they play songs deserving of the scale – it's staggeringly effective. When it misses – when an orchestra is used to buff up deservedly unappreciated stinkers like “Hold On”, and “Breathing Space” - the effort falls depressingly flat of the target, and I'd've rather the show been shorter than waste the time on such insubstantial material. Especially when songs like The Theatre, Being Boring and Go West, sublime, perfect for the moment, built for an orchestra, are inexplicably ignored.
It's an evening with a handful of hits, and too many misses. An evening where It Couldn't Happen Here is played live for only the second time, and it is mindblowingly good.
There is a majesty when they tower through Jealousy with Chris Lowe there, playing parts on a grand piano that have, for so long, just been sequenced as he only has two hands. There's no doubt how much they both do in the studio that can't be replicated live on stage : the popular conception is that Neil stands around looking bored whilst Chris just does much the same and other people do all the work – and it is wrong.
But also, this is practically a carbon copy of two previous one-off orchestral shows, and there's little 'new' that hasn't been heard before at those two shows. Little indeed. Not one song is less than 5 years old, and nothing from the past two albums is represented at all. It's as if they just reloaded the “BBC Salford 2012” and “BBC Mermaid 2006” Hard Drives, shuffled a few songs around, and let loose. I guess I got to see the “Elysium Orchestral” tour, five years too late.
There's a lot of obscure material in here, most of it taken from 2012's underwhelming “Elysium” (in fact, earlier on we signaled out our two least favourite Pet Shop Boys as being 'Hold On' and 'Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin', only on the grounds I'd forgotten the existence of 'Breathing Space'). In fact, there's four songs taken from that album in the night, alongside the yet-unreleased 'He Dreamed Of Machines' from the Alan Turing song project* and For All of Us from the mostly forgotten “Closer To Heaven” musical – all rare and unusual choices, but they lose most of the audience, and it is difficult to get them back. .
*no one should ever call anything a project. Art isn't a business plan.
And many of these songs have been played once once or twice before : The Survivors, Later Tonight, Tonight Is Forever and It Couldn't Happen Here, are powerful, effective, under-appreciated and simply not played enough. Later Tonight gets its first performance since 1989. You cannot accuse the band of taking an easy route, choosing the obvious songs and playing some obvious choices I'm Not Scared, My October Symphony, Pandemonium, Being Boring and ... but I do wish they had.
Whilst the orchestra play their parts effectively, and it's glorious to see (but not always hear) Johnny Marr adding that perfect texture he contributed to the albums, it's an evening where I feel the crowd are seemingly pulling in a different direction ; where there's definitely two people sleeping on my row (one is, I think, snoring, which is impressive), and where by the tell tale glow of your phone, there's a lot of distraction.
That, combined with a very underwhelming sound mix where neither the electronics, nor the orchestra are loud enough – and where you can talk at normal conversational level and be louder than the act – and it's not going to be a great show by an absolute standard.
It's a downright perverse choice of material that emphasises the chinstroking, thoughtful side of the band, but also, when you've paid for a show – even if that is exactly what you got – there must be a kind of trade off between band and audience : an understanding of the social contract. There's an expectation of a sort around the promise and the delivery. Even we got what we paid for, some of us got everything we didn't want and less. I can't pretend I was enraptured for large parts of the show, I did try, but the pacing and structure of the show was uneven, veering between lively, dramatic material deserving of the scale of an orchestra, and mid-paced, second division ballads hoping for depth but falling short – you can't add meaning to something with an orchestra, only emphasise what it already there. Whilst it was undoubtedly unique, and an experience, the night was underwhelming in some respects – which is a great shame, as there was so much potential, and many different songs crying out for the occasion, that this wasn't quite made real.
Left To My Own Devices
Tonight Is Forever
This Must Be The Place
New York City Boy
- Hold On
It Couldn't Happen Here
For All Of Us
Can You Forgive Her?
He Dreamed Of Machines
Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin
Indefinite Leave To Remain
West End Girls
It's A Sin
DEPECHE MODE Glasgow Barrowlands 26 March 2017
On the heels of another album, their 14th, Depeche Mode return to Glasgow's legendary Barrowlands for their smallest show to a paying audience since 1988 – and their first here in 33 years. It's a very different band now from then, and a very different world. In that gap, Depeche Mode have become seasoned, and mature miserable stadium headliners, released ten albums, and the idea of them ever playing anywhere as small as this ever again seems to have vanished to a distant speck on the horizon.
So this is the best Depeche Mode show I've seen in 27 years of seeing them. It's the smallest, but also, the most... fervent.
Enough hyperbole about exclusivity. Depeche Mode are a band that some people love more than food, or their cat. This is one of those shows which will be etched in legend as, for fans of the band, you hadda be there. This isn't a wet Wednesday in a 3/4's full stadium in Portugal that that's just another day at work for some millionaires and an extra room in the mansion.
This is also the beginning of a long tour, and a public birth for most of the upcoming tour : the four songs from Spirit are new and barely a week old. It's also a determindedly forward looking set : for a band with 39 years history, only a third of the set comes from their alleged bulletproof phase that ended when Dave Gahan died for the second time in an ambulance or when Alan Wilder left the group in 1995. Two thirds of the set comes from the last half of their work : and not many bands can really say that – and none it feels like it doesn't belong. Some bands, after all, desperately shoehorn subpar newer material – long after the muse has evaporated – in an attempt to stay relevant. Others actually write new songs that reflect what it is like to be older, wiser, here and now but from there & then, and make those songs useful and meaningful, about aging in a young world. And those songs don't suck. And those songs belong with the others.
The newer stuff tonight - “Going Backwards”, “So Much Love”, “Cover Me” and “Where's The Revolution?” feel like they could have been made at near enough any point in the bands history, but with a clear line to now, and like the only new stuff that should exist, it sounds like there is a point to these songs. They are angry, socially conscious songs that don't tell us how to think, but explain how many of us feel. There's a sense of these songs, lyrically, being caught in a transition, of the outside world forcing its way in. The urgency underpins the music – unlike previous records, Spirit seems emboldened with an urgency that some of the other albums don't quite have. It's in every second of the album, and the songs seems connected in a way that sometimes, the abstract musing of well-off rich people don't quite have.
And there's a moment in “Cover Me” that even after less than two weeks in the world, I know will always cut to me in a way : I dreamt of us in another life – one we've never quite reached. We all, sadly, probably know that feeling.
Of the other songs, “Barrel Of A Gun” and “Home” are greeted with warmth – it has been a while since either was a setlist fixture – and “Corrupt” is played for the fourth time ever (which is baffling). There's also a sleek, streamlined revisit for “A Pain That I Am Used To”, played in a compelling and urgent remixed fashion. Aside from the one drunk tosser who doesn't seem to grasp there's a bit of dancing at a Depeche Mode gig, everyone is in high, friendly spirits, and the crowd is the liveliest I have seen in ages. Barrowlands deserves a legendary reputation.
Barrowlands is also the smallest paying Depeche gig in 29 years : the audience then aren't just people going to see a band.
They are people who are going to see this band – and travelled a long way to do so.
Many gigs have a problem with their audience to be honest : many of them don't want to be here, or they're here in dragged-along-husband/wife/significant-other capacity. Some of the crowd are always here because it's something to do. Others because they like – not love – the band, and this is the only time they see them. Finally, sometimes, it's people there because someone else can't go, or because their so incredibly drunk they don't know which way is up. But for tonight, I would say 99% of the 1800 capacity crowd are here because they love Depeche Mode, they want to be here, and they know how rare a show like this is.
All of my friends who are there – 8 of us – have come from England to see them : [also, judging from the number of accents and Depeche Mode shirts there are at the airport, there's a lot of tourism in town tonight]
It's a long way from seeing the band as it was 25 years ago, but times change, we change, the world changes.
Alan Wilder has moved on, and the core trio who first played together in a bedroom thirty nine years ago are still here, school friends made successful artists, and businessmen (I hesitate to call the 'rock stars', because they aren't), aided by Christian Eigner on drums, and Peter Gordeno on keyboards/bass, both marking 20 years since they joined the live incarnation of Depeche Mode. It's a different incarnation than popular history tells you, but it's as authentic a version of the band as any other.
The closing strata of the set is a mini Greatest Hits set, with the ever glorious “Walking In My Shoes”, the urgent “Personal Jesus” and a final “Enjoy The Silence” - which, like all the best songs, seems to cover all human emotions at once : joy and sadness, pain and bliss. It may be the smallest Mode show in a long time, and one of the shortest, but given that they are just returning after a three year absence from playing live, and a way yet from the arenas and stadiums that they normally breathe in, but Depeche Mode at the Barrowlands shows that whilst everything seems to change, nothing changes, and when all the video screens and fancy staging is stripped away, they're still a band that with passion and conviction, still trying new things and exploring eternal themes, still worth paying attention to, still important and exciting, and eschewing nostalgia and global stadium karaoke. Not forgetting where they've been, nor going backwards, but hoping to go forwards. Believe me, if they were crap, I'd tell you. And I could name bands that have gone crap. But well, there's nothing to be gained by doing so exactly at this moment.
And whilst the eye of television programmes and game shows may have moved on from Depeche Mode, they've instead just become probably the things most bands aspire : self-sufficient, fully realised, operating on their own terms of engagement, and still producing songs of worth.
Or, of course, you can just dance your socks off and sing along : I'll join you.
So Much Love
A Pain That I Am Used To
World In My Eyes
Where's The Revolution
Barrel Of A Gun
Walking In My Shoes
Enjoy The Silence
PET SHOP BOYS Birmingham Barclaycard Arena 24 February 2017
Where are we now? Pet Shop Boys are getting old. Not that you would know it. The disco Gilbert & George still stick to their guns, avoiding the nostalgia route, maintaining both their commercial appeal and artistic integrity, constantly moving forward and never letting us forget where they've been – or where they are going. Tennant / Lowe are the finest songwriting duo of all time. Yes. Better than Morrissey / Marr. And Lennon / McCartney. Most bands have a first flush – what Tennant has called the 'imperial phase' – and some don't survive it. This act have not only done so, but have continued to remain relevant, and thrived.
Time moves on. We move on. The 13 year old I once was who listened endlessly to “Please” and “Disco” is still in me ; in the way that the band themselves still carry their past selves and incarnations with them now, and change, and evolve, and learn, and refine that now as a band with an average age of 60. There's still their inner selves in there – and it runs like a golden thread through everything they do. That 13 year old is now 43. And I'm still me, but more so. What makes art and music and films and anything matter is that they still speak to us, and as we go through life, the music still speaks to us now. Pet Shop Boys songs are universal ; if you are open to them.
Seeing the show several months down the line from its opening night, there have been some changes : “Opportunities” and “Heart” have been added, “West End Girls” has moved from second place, and the pacing is still a little fragile and uneven. “Twenty Something” has been rotated out, and others moved in. The staging has been expanded, with a deft combination of functional and form. The musicians streamlined slightly, but its still a show where you clearly get your money's worth. A night where, thanks to deft career advice and great songs, Pet Shop Boys once again avoid being a nostalgia act and remain in the here and now. There, but for the grace of Heaven 17, go I.
Oh, and lasers. More lasers than a Star Wars film. Much Laser. So wow.
There's a determindedly historic feel to the show : they know what you came here for, and are unashamed entertainers : there's only a third of their new record here, a steady flow of material through the rest of their career, and an abundance of older hits. But the older hits have been rebuilt and revisited. It's not nostalgia, but a history lesson.
The material is also prepared thematically to follow the course of a night out – hope, romance, and dancing : aside from a opening salvo, there's a middle section focused on love – from eschewing it as a concept to, a few short songs later, giving in : “Love Comes Quickly” is still one of the finest songs of surrender to emotion that I've ever heard. Instead of building a mystique, the band lifted the veil with only their second hit, and being sincere before anyone really worked out how much of it was a artistic conceit.
Moving on from this, “The Dictator Decides” opens a more subdued segment that touches on the complex political situation – the same themes they've been exploring for decades, but as commentary, not polemic. That in the midst of this, there's a world outside. And we know this. But let us not forget a world without dancing, or art, or love is not a world worth having. The final part of the set, moves from dancing to what, in the 1800's, was called 'horizontal refreshment' : where sex is sinful and decadent, and lovely. Was it worth it? Yes, it's worth living for.
It's difficult to read the crowd though : some shows I look at the public before, and I know who is going and who isn't. Here the PSB's appeal is so broad I can't tell. It looks like they could be waiting for a bus or in a restaurant. There is no predefined fan as such, just a wide range of humans. And the crowd are difficult, they all seem to want a version of the band that really only appears towards the end ; a relentless hits machine. Around the time “Vocal” begins with a deafeningly gorgeous bass drum, and the lasers go into overdrive, and then, we're all here, we're all at that moment, after the peaks and troughs, the release, the euphoric, silly costumes & lasers part of the show that turns these old men of electronic entertainment into a forcefed irresistable pop machine : assuming you like them of course, tonight is another evening that makes all the other stuff worth it.
Never got old. Never went down the dumper. Still super.
In The Night
Love Is A Bourgeouis Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Home And Dry
The Sodom & Gomorrah Show
It's A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Always On My Mind
The Pop Kids (reprise)
I despair of politics. Politics has failed us : mankind.
Tomorrow we go from the most dignified President of my lifetime to a sexist, racist, bullying, idiot moron who's up to neck in scandal, 'kompromat', corruption, and nepotism – who got 3 million less votes than the loser. From the best to the worst. (Spare me any comments about Obama's faults – he might have them, but Trump is nothing but faults and will likely endanger the entire survival of humanity in the next four years).
There is no such thing as democracy when the winner gets 5% less votes than the loser. It's not a democracy. It's a fucking dictatorship. And you know it.
Here in the UK, we have the wet lettuce of Corbyn, who is a well meaning but utterly helpless and incapable leader of the opposition. At the time that Britain is divided by Brexit, when we have an unelected Prime Minister hell bent on dragging us out of Europe, despite a plummeting currency, with a razor thin majority from a fraction of the population in an advisory referendum that was only won on a platform of utter lies, Corbyn supports this madness instead of being a capable leader.
The incompetent and corrupt Conservatives – and they are, whether you are a Tory or not - are running rings around him. Corbyn has been handed victory on a plate, and squandered it. He should be making merciless mincemeat of the utter shambles that is Brexit but he isn't.
It seems like an impossible dream to wish for a witty, smart and determined leader. Britain needs someone who will stop this current bunch of multimillionaires dragging Britain back to being a stone age tax haven hell where we don't have human rights, paid holiday, state services, or an NHS but where we do have back street abortionists. Pull up the bridges.
Britain is a drunk man on a Friday night that saw an attractive woman from a distance, rang up his wife, and told her he was getting divorced – and he was keeping the car, the kids, and the house because there's a queue of offers lining up for him. In short, Britain is a deluded idiot. Who needs human rights anyway?
Politics has failed us, the people. Now we fight to keep what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents fought so hard to get. There is a war being waged upon us whether we like it or not. The stakes are too high to fail.
CELEBRATING BOWIE : London Brixton Academy 08 January 2017
Bowie deserved better.
When I saw David Bowie at Glastonbury, I was fucked off my box, and having not slept for three days surrounded by a muddy population the size of Leicester. That was brilliant. Tonight... tonight's show was a great band in need of a great voice, bloated with unnecessary and shambolic guest turns ; none of whom matched the man himself. Such a shame. If anything it reminded us the great talent lost, by falling so far short.
When your Special Guests are The Guy Who Plays Sax In Spandau Ballet Who Got The Day Off Work, Tony Hadley, Simon Le Bon, Boy George, Joe Elliott, La Roux, Tom Thingy from Keane, The Guy From Fishbone In a 'Live And Let Die' outfit, The Singer From Fiction Plane, The Bloke In The Hat That Helps Mick Jagger, and Some Bloke That Runs A Website Who's Aiming For A BBC6 Presenters Job, your guests ain't that fucking special.
To an extent, it feels as if the band booked the gig and they will come but they didn't. There's a huge sense of people being plucked off the guest list and thrown at the stage at the last minute as David Bowie was unable to sing at a few hours notice.
Aside from Gary Oldman, I can't recall any of tonights guest vocalists ever talking about the formative influence Bowie was and is, and when Bowie's band are playing a tribute to him on his seventieth birthday in the town he was born in, almost exactly a year to his death, it's meagre gruel that leaves a sad taste.
With all due respect, it wasn't a celebration to me. We're watching a great tribute band with a string of next-to-nobodies on vocals in a huge venue, and were this not a charity show, I'd've happily asked for a refund. The way I see it now is that I donated a fair chunk of cash to charity and got a mediocre gig for free in the bargain. I'd've had a better night in the pub with my friends to be honest.
And, let's be honest. Adrian Belew, Mark Plati Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zachary Alford, Sterling Campbell and Mike Garson are all former members of Bowie's band, and played on many of the albums and tours. They did a great job, and played passionately. But we don't need to change drummers and bass players and guitarists for every song. We don't need a huge and pointless choir. You need to rehearse a bit, and maybe get some more capable vocalists. At best, I hoped for Bowie's former band and some great guest vocalists on a few songs. The band themselves were good - albeit overpopulated - but the guest vocalists? Not worthy.
Before I went out, I joked that I hoped I wouldn't text “IT'S FUCKING STING” and I hoped the great unknown of guest vocalists would provide a unique and fitting celebration.
At worst, I feared getting the son of fucking Sting.
I got the son of fucking Sting, whose only claim to fame is having had the singer from the Police change his nappies and developing an app you've probably not heard of. Can you name his band? I'm a pop obsessive, and I have no fucking clue who he is. The only reason you know who Pompadour Monterry Ferry (or whoever that foxhunting slime is) is because of his Dad. The only reason you know who that person is is because Sting is his Dad. Sting, who as far as I can remember, never said anything positive about the planet sized genius that was David Bowie. And he gets to sing “Under Pressure”. Even though Tom Chaplin is here, and is known for singing that song.
Nobody was promised any big names, but the guest vocalists are – with all due respect – unfit to be called special. Sure, I can forgive George Michael not singing “Wild Is The Wind”, and not being here, on the grounds of unexpected deadness. But where's the artists who vocally loved him and espoused tributes on his demise? Why are almost all the vocalists stodgy rock stalwarts and 80's hasbeens or neverweres? Even I, as a tragic pop obsessive who absorbs the minutiae of this silly fad called music, has no fucking clue who at least half of the singers are. Clearly, plenty more were asked – or should have been asked – but for some reason were washing their hair. Who isn't here? David Gilmour and Robert Smith – both of whom sang with Bowie and live less than an hours drive from here. Jarvis Cocker. Iggy Pop. Ian Hunter (who sang 'All The Young Dudes'?) Not even Butterfly Boucher, who duetted with Bowie on a new version of 'Changes' in 2004 is here. Brian from Placebo absent. Neil Tennant reprogramming his iPhone, maybe. Instead, we get a three hour set of shambolic guest vocalists with four songs sung by the guy who sings backing vocals for The Rolling Stones and four songs sung by the singer from Fishbone in a bizarre Baron-Samedi style Voodoo Bad Guy From Live And Let Die outfit. Oh yeah, and the son of fucking Sting singing “Under Pressure.” It's like some random episode of The Black★ Factor.
Sure, I'm moaning. But none of the vocalists with the exception of La Roux are even vaguely fit to shine Bowie's shoes.
Joe Elliott sings two songs. Boy George sings a song. Tony Hadley sings a song. Mr Hudson sings a song, whoever the fuck he is. Simon Le Bon does a great job of “Let's Dance”'. But Simon Le Bon is the biggest guest of the night, and I wouldn't cross the road to the Dog & Duck and pay £5 to see Simon Le Bon play David Bowie songs. Adrian Belew does an unexpectedly good job of a stunning “DJ”/”Boys Keep Swinging” medley. The true vocal stars are Holly Palmer, who does a gorgeous “Where Are We Now?” that hints at the glory tonight should have been.
There is a luxurious “Lady Grinning Soul”, and Gail Ann Dorsey dominates a heartbreaking version of “Space Oddity” : Gail not only duetted with Bowie for several years as his bass player – but is also the best singer of the lot.
There's also a distinct lack of songs recorded after 1983 : only the opening 'Dead Man Walking' and 'Where Are We Now?' reflect his final three decades. The albums most of this band touched and recorded in his later years – 'Outside', 'Earthling', 'Hours', 'Heathen', 'Reality', 'The Next Day' are barely acknowledged. And Bowie was often nearing his best nearing the end, as an adult, having seen so much and reflecting back on it. So few artists grow old gracefully and Bowie did with more grace and wit than anybody. All of this is ignored in favour of the first third of his career.
Everything about this show was well intentioned. The band themselves played very well. The aim - to celebrate and bid farewell with grace - was there. But the guest vocalists just weren't good enough to overcome their limitations. Full marks for effort and intention. But they didn't hit the mark. I don't want to be harsh, but i can't lie to you. It wasn't successful.
Bowie deserved better voices than this.
Albums Of The Year, 2016
It's been a strange bloody year. Great music, but bad in many other ways.
1. "Black★" by David Bowie. A staggering, heartbreaking final work. Review here.
2. "Night Thoughts" by Suede. Possibly the best record they have made. Live review of the first performance here.
3. "Atomic" by Mogwai. Review here.
4. "Going Going" by The Wedding Present. Review here.
5. "Post Pop Depression" by Iggy Pop. No review, but it's great.
6. "30 Goes Around The Sun" by The Wonder Stuff. Review of a live show.
7. "You Want It Darker" by Leonard Cohen. Review here.
8. "Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future" by Underworld. Review here.
9. "Hardwired To Self-Destruct" by Metallica.Review here .
10. "Self Titled" by Minor Victories. Review here.
Putting the WAR back into Star Wars
Gareth Edwards has done it. This is everything The Force Awakens should have been. Bold, fun, and unafraid to take risks. This is easily the best Star Wars film since the Eighties. It equals - at least – some of the original trilogy. Sure technology has come on enormously : but without a decent idea or a good script, technology means nothing.
Is this a craven need for nostalgia? Absolutely not. From a strictly purist point of view, you don't need or want the story Rogue One tells ; but it gives answers to questions you may not have had. “A New Hope” makes more sense now. It's a glorious battle built from a few lines of dialogue in the original Star Wars. Were this merely a case of fan-service throwing together old characters in a nonsensical plot to sell toys and gather profit, this would be rubbished by everyone. But it isn't. It's an old-fashioned war film, the type of 70's Man-On-A-Mission thing that you could imagine a grizzled Clint Eastwood in a Nazi uniform in – were it not Star Wars. Disney though have got this right. The stakes are high : and no one is indispensible.
Face it, selling to the House Of The Mouse seems, for now, to be the smartest move George Lucas ever made. Rogue One is the best fanfiction I've seen : infused with the spirit of invention of the originals, built on demonstrable considerable thought, in a way that works. Unlike too many modern films, this isn't just a bunch of setpieces rigged around an anorexic set of infodumps and exposition with a overly complicated bullshit plot. It takes a myth and makes it a compelling story that effortlessly stands with the rest of the canon. It also perfectly rolls into the original trilogy, with careful and thoughtful casting, unexpected experiences from old characters, out-takes from the original films, and brazen guts. There's so much here Gareth Edwards and his team could have got wrong, but they barely place a foot wrong : apart from one shot about three-quarters of the way in that is blatantly wrong - (and narratively incorrect).
The structure is straightforward : it moves quickly and breathlessly but never hurriedly towards a conclusion, and whilst there are many cases where perhaps it feels like a video game – in the sense of an endless procession of Go-Here-Do-This-Press-That-Go-There – it all works. The visuals have several moments that stand equal of any iconic image in the originals : A darkened corridor illuminated by just a lightsaber. A spaceship hanging in the air on the horizon like a portent of doom. A hyperdrive arrival that instantly scuppers established plans. Everything makes more sense.
Rogue One is an old-fashioned war movie that would be superior by any standard, but also, set in the Star Wars universe. It's the first film without Skywalkers, or John Williams, and it is better than many of the old ones. Taking it's cue from an idea from visual effects guru John Knoll, Rogue One is the first of a series of genre experiments that will sit inside the Star Wars universe ; in future, you could, in theory see a subversive comedy set in that world, a version of a love story set in a transport hub called Sith Encounter, a simple spy thriller, or... anything.
Here though, Rogue One takes a plot hole in the original Star Wars – "why is there such a glaring weakness in the Death Star?" – and turns it into a virtue. It takes the established delay in building a Death Star – 20 years – and explains why it took so long : Industrial Sabotage by a reluctant scientist, as well (implied) wilful incompetence to delay the success of the project. I have become Death Star, destroyer of worlds.
The action and battles are genuinely a spectacle. Not merely a bunch of incoherent explosions and flashes, but a narrative that makes sense. That puts the War back into Star Wars. That shows just how big and varied the world is. It's the best Star Wars film in over three decades.
There are 1.3bn white people in the world : around 18.5% of the world population, and 49% of that is male. Therefore white males are around 9% of the whole worlds population. There's no way “Rogue One” is liberal PC nonsense. If anything less than 1 film in 10 should have a white male lead.
THE CURE : London Wembley Arena : 1 + 3 December 2016
And nearly a decade after their last record, the Cure are headlining three nights at Wembley Arena – and the last time they did this was 27 years ago when “Disintegration” was a number 1 album and they were headlining American stadiums. Now they haven't released a record in 8 years or even a new song in that long, tired of the industry treadmill that makes you forgot sometimes why you do it, and a 'marketplace' that is fractured into dozens of pieces.
Over the course of three nights here, they play 95 songs in nine hours, from deep album cuts recorded in the Seventies, to songs that haven't even come out. There's too much thinking sometimes, and whilst some hold on for advances that will ever materialise clinging to old business models that no longer exist from their mansions, others live in the new world. But also, and perhaps more importantly, there seems to be no dimming of the creative urge, or the integrity of this. The core lineup of Smith, Gallup, Jason Cooper on drums and Roger O Donnell on keyboards first played together over 21 years ago, and have built up the kind of fluid abilities some may envy : on their third night, a slight nod of the head sees the band fall into a improvised jam ending to “A Forest” (the kind of thing this band haven't really done in many years), with former Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels on the other hand has, after some tentative early shows, now fully and confidently plays with more than the fluency and power of previous guitar player, the frankly brilliant Porl Thompson : Reeves occupies the roles in the songs with authority, faithfully performing the songs yet also stamping his own interpretation on them.
Given that it's the 14th time I've seen The Cure in the past 25 years (and really, I thought it was more), I've never seen them do a bad gig : I've seen the odd poor set of circumstances, notably, a half-sold Cricket stadium in Manchester in pissing rain where the band played half a set of very new material to a bored bunch of mostly drunk passing voters just before the lineup disintegrated – and this, tonight, with nothing to prove, because they're playing for the sake of playing, with no record to plug, just a racket to make, The Cure play one of the best shows I've ever seen them do. About every ten years I see The Cure play a genuine gobsmacking belter, and tonight is up there with the 2006 Cancer Trust gig and the 1992 Rock City show as almost levitatingly good.
Night#1 they open with the rarely played, and obscure “Out of This World” which taken from commercial-suicide record of 'Bloodflowers'. This was a troubled time or the band commercially, turning their back on the unsuccessful “Wild Mood Swings” that sat in the summer of Britpop, and it was an album of dense, long songs with no hit singles, and just two UK shows in London, After this, the band fall into a set of near enough nothing but hits. In itself, it's practically a perfect gig some bands would rest on themselves, job done, they then also descend into their other stock in trade, of deep and unashamedly maudlin songs. Whilst perhaps the order of some of the songs, and the choice, may seem baffling or alienating to fans who want one version of The Cure, whilst The Cure are several bands all at the same time – and there is an undoubted deflation when they follow “Inbetween Days” with a funeral paced 7 minute seep through “Sinking” - life can't be sliced into parts, just good. Just bad. Just hits. Watching The Cure is a musical DVD box set, and sometimes you do drift from the band as a viewer. But The Cure are very effective at creating and keeping a mood, be it joy, despair, or some form of all of those at the same time.
On the first night, two huge chunks of the set are Nothing But Hits with two runs of 11 top 40 singles in a row. The final night – and the 76th and last show of their tour – sees an average lump of an hour of hits in a row.
8 years since their last album, like many peers, The Cure have become a band that doesn't release records these days. Even before the collapse of the industry, when musicians became older there was less to sing about, sometimes. Bryan Ferry famously said that he didn't write songs anymore because they'd be about swimming pools and cars. The Cure meanwhile, are still writing songs (they play two new ones tonight), the world just doesn't exist the way it used to, and when the economy pays something like 0.00001p per copy listened to, the world is just a bit wrong. A song is worth more than a sandwich. Music is not just in the air, like clouds. Songs are made, crafted, and whilst the songs themselves are sometimes gifts from heaven, they still need to be constructed, and taken from the vision in the mind, to the symphony in your ear.
Some nights, I see the best band in the world. Tonight, The Cure are that band. They're not always my favourite band in the world – maybe in my top 10 – but tonight, like every time I see them, they enter that rare echelon. The list of bands where, if they asked me, yes, I would spend the rest of my life playing in them. Proof that time doesn't dull the blade.
Out of This World,
Pictures Of You,
Just Like Heaven,
A Night Like This,
Three Imaginary Boys,
Play For Today,
Step Into The Light,
Hot Hot Hot,
Friday I'm In Love,
Boys Don't Cry,
Close To Me,
Why Can't I Be You?
10.15 Saturday Night
, Killing An Arab
Pictures Of You,
A Night Like This,
Just Like Heaven,
Play For Today,
Friday I'm In Love,
Doing The Unstuck,
Boys Don't Cry,
Close To Me,
Why Can't I Be You?,
10.15 Saturday Night,
Killing An Arab
A Night Like This,
The Baby Screams,
Pictures Of You,
Just Like Heaven,
If Only Tonight,
It Can Never Be The Same,
Shake Dog Shake,
Friday I'm In Love,
Boys Don't Cry,
Close To Me,
Why Can't I Be You,
Three Imaginary Boys,
10.15 Saturday Night,
Killing An Arab
THE TWILIGHT SAD : London Wembley Arena 1+3 December 2016
Having been on a eight month tour supporting every show The Cure have played this year, the Twilight Sad have become not just one of my favourite bands since I first heard them a few years ago, but also become seasoned, powerful, efficient ; they have grown into their full potential. Their music is not easy : there's little sunshine in the songs, but a dense, layered, warm and maudlin throb built on pounding rhythms, and heart felt vocals. I know why they don't headline stadiums, because this music is too intimate for stadiums. Their songs aren't hits. There's verses, choruses, but more than that, there's texture. Wild, spinning textures.
Being a band where I don't honestly care for the names of the people in them – and this may sound bizarre, but some bands either get so little press coverage, or I don't have the urge to seek out interviews with them – all that matters is the music itself. On stage at Wembley, the vocalist stretches and contorts within the songs – seemingly carried away, but then there comes a time when the sound does things.
As much as The Twilight Sad have 'hits', they play them. “Last January”, “The Wrong Car”, and “There's A Girl In The Corner” are setlist staples, even if you don't know them. The words themselves may be sometimes unapproachable, but they make sense to me on an abstract level of emotional truth. There's words in here ; and they are stark, and human, and vulnerable. And maybe, those words have to be hidden inside the noise. To print them on the page may be too raw. The words were the first thing I fell for : abstract, but meaningful, coming from a recognisable place anyone whose ever had any feelings would know
Music isn't just about the song itself. It's about the sound. The sound they make sounds like.. comfort. Like a warm, reassuring snow, or the sun on your face. It's difficult to talk about without sounding like an utter arsehat in Pseud's corner. But music does things. It isn't about rhythms. Or dancing. Music is about creating or accessing emotion through noises. It's about connecting. Breaching the gap between people. Using and creating a new language to reach a deeper connection.
The Twilight Sad are on of my favourite bands in the world, and you should find out why.
1 December : Reflection Of The Television, Last January, Drown So I Can Watch, Alphabet, Mapped By What Surrounded Them, It Never Was The Same, There's A Girl, And She Would Darken The Memory
3 December : Reflection Of the Television, Last January, Seven Years of Letters, Don't Move, It Never Was the Same, There's a Girl in the Corner, The Wrong Car, And She Would Darken the Memory
LEONARD COHEN, You Want It Darker
And barely two weeks after it came out, Leonard has left us. I prefer to listen to albums for a while, let the records sink in. They are products of years of work. We should listen to them more before we commit to judgement. Cohen songs take years to write, and sometimes decades to reveal their full scope and glory. And, Leonard is gone. I thought he would be immortal. Like Prince, Lemmy, and oh my, David Bowie, I thought they'd just endure. Survive. Carry on somehow.
Ending on a glorious final stretch of creativity, (with four albums and an exhaustive concert set equating to practically one new album a year since 2012), You Want It Darker is a mellow, resigned set, where the intellect is on fire and the music is an exhausted sigh. Given that Cohen was 81 at the time of recording, it's no surprise that perhaps Cohen's contribution was limited to vocals and keyboards recorded in his home studio, augmented with the help of a band offsite and produced by his son. It's not a defiant exit, but a closing of the book. Even before his death, it felt, - like many of his albums always felt, actually – like a closing of the book, a final reckoning. Like a man staring at reality and trying to make peace with it.
There's no dimming of the flame with time intellectually. You might want it darker, and 2016 is the darkest year yet – practically unimaginable in the scale of the horror faced with Prince, Bowie, Lemmy, Brexit, Trump and Leonard himself – and yet, in all of this, there are traces and remains. Records are that, records. Memories. And from the title track - “You Want It Darker”, there's still this sense, this enormous weight, of so many great lost songs we will never hear him sing ; even though there's a recognition of time, when he whispers - “I'm ready, my lord” - that the race is run, that the time is out, that all things are coming to a natural end. And even in this, there is a sense of unhurried thought. Like his later records, the considered and thoughtful, this is a record of time, of contemplation. Music for thinking.
OASIS Be Here Now (Expanded Edition)
Oh God, I love drugs. Aren't they fantastic? They make you think everything is getting better man. And nobody could ever accuse you of not being brilliant and mad for it. Or something. Still, Be Here Now, Oasis third album, is rubbish. You know it. I know it. It's to long. There's too many verses, sometimes the word are drivel. There's long instrumental passages that seem to last longer than a boxset of Game Of Thrones. This album, given, undeservingly, a full belts and braces mega uber reissue treatment alongside a documentary, has aged very, very badly.
At this time, Oasis were bulletproof. They could put out a 70+ minute epic of overlong, meaningless drivel songs, overcompressed, overproduced and massively overthought, alongside a whole bunch of videos that clearly told us that this wasn't a hungry band anymore, but a bunch of newly-rich men who were starting to lose touch. So, for the original album, there's been no tinkering. Unlike some bands, who seem to re-record and alter the mixes for reissues, this is exactly as it was – albeit with a 2016 remix of “D'You Know What I Mean?”. Heaven help us. Be Here Now has a couple of great songs - “Don't Go Away” is the clear winner out of here – and some of the other stuff is very very good, but most of it is just.. dreadful. The songs are too long, the choruses are b-side fodder, the lyrics are “I / Saw A Pie / In The Sky / I / Am Just A Guy / Who Will Be Rock N Roll / I Will Never Die” and every song is full of lines that rhyme every single time even if they don't align with my mind
If you must buy this (and hey, I don't blame you), it's much, much better than the grab bag assortment of leftovers that made the other albums. Here you have a full set of album demos sung by Noel, and several unreleased songs – some of which are good indeed – including the acoustic version of “Setting Sun” which is a practically a brand new song.You also get most of the b-sides (but not the ramshackle covers of Bowie's “Heroes” or The Stones “Street Fightin' Man”, as Oasis were never the most... hip of bands).
“Be Here Now” has aged appallingly – a white elephant of drugs and self-indulgence – that could nearly have been a very good record but instead turned out to be the the first wrong move (of many) in their life. Whilst this deluxe 3CD version is the best edition to get, it doesn't redeem the album beyond it's deservedly low standing. Flawed, and fascinating.
METALLICA, Hardwired To Self Destruct
Metallica albums are always difficult to review. They take years before they come out. They've been thought about long and hard. And given the past few years of their chequered history - the unamazing “Lulu”, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it “Beyond Magnetic” leftovers EP, and the moneysink that was “Through The Never” - Metallica have lost ground and traction. Seemingly paralysed by creative indecision, they finally commit to a record after eight years in a creative wilderness. And here it is.
And it's the worst album Metallica have made in 20 years. At the moment, and after repeated listening, it's a generic grab-bag of OK, mid-paced riffs. A massive step down after the brilliant “Death Magnetic”. It makes “St. Anger” look like one of the best records ever made. Simply put, it's nowhere near as dull, characterless and boring as “Reload”, and probably on a par with the insipid “Load”. The songs are fairly unexciting. It's too long, with too many riffs and segments repeated too long, alongside a bunch of mid-paced, generic, interchangable songs, and utterly predictable Kirk Hammett wah-wah solos that could have been on any record they've made in the past 25 years. Even the tempos are predictable with what feels like the exact same 'dramatic silence' in “Halo Of Fire” that has previously been used in “Sad But True” and “Harvester of Sorrow.” You could drop any of these songs into any album they made in the 90's...and not know the difference.
The songs are often dense and detailed. Every riff that is there should be there ; the product of hundreds of riffs, and dozens of permutations. This is why Metallica albums are often so good : every sound that is there is the best of dozens of possibilities. The problem is that these songs have been tested to destruction, and the album is simply ok. Predictable. There's nothing exciting here, no innovation, nothing that you haven't already heard a dozen times on other better albums over twenty years ago. Sure, if you want “Black #2 : Stadium Rock Boogaloo” or “Threeload!” you're happy as Larry, but this is dull stadium rock that The Cult perfected in “Sonic Temple”, but with added mediocrity. There's no excitement. No fire.
Sure – what you've heard already - “Hardwired”, “Rise! Atlas! Rise!” and “Moths To Flame” are good, but they're the best ones by far. But the time you get to “Here Comes Revenge”, it sounds like a song they've kept in a box since 1991. It's clearly the sound of the band working their way through a desperate need to release uninspired new product, trying to recreate a time that has long gone with a bunch of drearily predictable new stuff that seems like it's a past-their-best stab at reminding us of their history. The songs simply aren't that great – they're predictable, quite good (but, 'quite good' by Metallica's standards is both better than many other bands, and frankly not good enough at all) – but they should never be 'Quite Good'. Metallica should be great and this just isn't. It's the sound of them trying to recapture past glories instead of creating new glories. If you loved “Black” and still want to pretend it's 1991 you'll like this. “Enter Middle-Aged-Man”
Alongside “Black★”, “Lazarus” is the final David Bowie statement : whereas “Black★” turned his death and mortality into a work of art – nobody ever died so well - “Lazarus” is a powerful, dense, and difficult look back through his body of work that recontextualises his past so it faces to his death as well.
Built in a collaborative workshop with Ivo Van Hove and a team picked by Bowie, “Lazarus” picks up the key threads of Bowie's 1976 The Man Who Fell To Earth, and posits the question of “What happened on The Next Day?”.
In this case, Bowie and the team allow this to become allegorical, and not, I suspect through chance. Michael C Hall plays Bowie surrogate TJ Newton (and he does so with a mastery I envy), an alien who fell to earth and is now trapped in these earthly chains. A more effective metaphor for all of us there could not be. After all, aren't we all trapped in our skins, our worlds, these realities we have not chosen? At one point, Newton explicitly says “None of us chose the heads we are born with”.
It opens with Newton, isolated and retired in a New York Apartment, not reading all the books he's wanted to read, but instead slowly going mad. Lazarus is about his quest to escape the reality he lives in ; and, as the plot unravels, it becomes increasingly clear that maybe he has succeeded but not in the way he wanted to. Drawing together songs new, very new (including Bowie's final recordings), and very old, the narrative pulls a common, perhaps hidden theme of the material and recontextualises Bowie's past in a way that adds a richness to them.
Songs such as “Life On Mars” and “Changes” were glorious kitchen sink dramas ; now “Life On Mars” is just about that, but the added element is about a man trying to escape, get off here, free the earthly chains, trying to live life on an alien planet. The placement of the songs and the dialogue are considered, thoughtful, and add new light to the old material. Even “It's No Game” tells, by the title itself, what this is all about. It is a matter of life and death. And, the imagery harks back to old Bowie work. You can easily see this presentation, with some mild amends, as the staging for a challenging Bowie tour that never happened, or perhaps a way of dramatising mortality and the process of coming to terms with the end of our time. Were Bowie alive, I'm not sure how we would read this.. difficult, confusing, challenging. But Lazarus is more than that. The plot is somewhat obtuse – scenes make an emotional sense, but you either experience it on a musical / emotional level as a connecting thread, or in a more literal way about a Rich Old Man Looking For A Spaceship.
The band are well chosen, precise, and accurate – replicating the haunting “Black★” sound but also updating Bowie's material with sensitivity. The Man Who Sold The World – presented in the same arrangement of the Outside Tour has a new context, the line “face to face” isn't just about two human faces, but about turning your face to face an abstract, being The Man Who Sold The World … but which world? His world? Our world? The future? There's so many interpretations available. It's all there. It just depends how deep you can dive. What this does is add an extra layer to Bowie's past ; to show you where he was, and that there was more than you might have originally thought. Some of the obscure material is repurposed : I was never a fan of “Valentine's Day”, and yet here, it's the same song yet also brand new. Everything makes a different kind of sense now.
At the end, Lazarus is dense, challenging and rewarding. Bowies work becomes new. The imagery he used all through his work has a new meaning: no longer a desire to explore other planets, but when Michael C Hall proclaims, definitively, “I'm done with this life. I have to explore other universes!”, it's clear that there aren't just other planets. It was all about finding new worlds, new levels of consciousness, new ways of existing. The final song is “Heroes” as the cast prepare to leave in their vessel.. leave what and go where is unclear.. but to a new land, beyond perhaps even life itself, the song becomes an inner monologue, about our spiritual lives, about who we are inside our own minds, where I will be King. And you will be queen. A hopeful anthem could become a sign of hopeless retreat into our own minds. And, like much of the best work, by anyone anywhere, it works.
“Black★” may by Bowie facing his mortality in the moment. “Lazarus” is him looking back, turning the thousand strands of his past into something new and making sense of it all, even if it doesn't make sense to anyone but him. It's bold, baffling, and by no means easy, but rewarding.
(photographs mostly taken from Sotheby's exhibition Bowie / Collector)
JOHN CARPENTER London Troxy 31st October 2016
At 68, and 22 years since he made his last utterly great movie, in the bonkers “In The Mouth of Madness”, and John Carpenter is playing his first ever concert tour. This is perhaps a more fitting way to see a true artist in his domain ; certainly more dignified than when I saw Terry Gilliam have spaghetti poured on his head.
Carpenter is one of the most commercially unappreciated filmmakers there is ; if his films weren't mostly horror and Sci-fi, if they weren't often made on shoestring budgets, and if they weren't aware of a beautiful self-depreciating humour, Carpenter would be up there with Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. (To me, and some others, he is though). This is not to undersell his other skills. Carpenter is a musician, who – through necessity to start with – wrote the music that accompanied almost all of his films, giving his work a unique, otherworldly effect of electronic pulses in weird time signatures. His films didn't sound like other films. They didn't look like other films. They weren't like other films.
These days, Carpenter has made only a handful of films in the past twenty years, largely unable to gain the even meagre funding for small scale work and having to crush his talent into undeserving scripts. Like Romero, Carpenter has fallen victim, like many of us have, to the changing nature of consumption economy. In film, revenue streams have been sliced to the bone, money has once again moved to the middle men, the bureaucrats and the visionless cash slicers, who expect us to work for free, or 'exposure', unwilling to invest in something that lasts, only chasing the balance-sheet-profitable. Which explains why a cinematic dwarf like Zack Snyder gets $300,000,000 to make brain dead drivel like Spaceboy vs Orphan Billionaire Punchy Punchy, and Carpenter can't even get 3% of that to make anything at all. Films aren't cheap, but some of the most expensive films are the cheapest intellectually of them all.
Built on his side-career, tonight sees Carpenter play his first live show in the capital – incidentally the second live show he ever announced – and, given the accents around us, and the nature of the audience ; horror pilgrims from many countries, alongside a large number of themed Halloween costumes, are here. There's several They Live aliens. A note perfect Snake Plissken. A few Mike Myers. And at least two people dressed in white sheets.
Carpenter is accompanied by a five piece band, of a live rhythm section and guitarist (all borrowed from Tenacious D), lead guitarist and keyboard player, alongside his son Cody on all manner of trademark electronics. Carpenter himself is almost the 'Fletch' of the band, a band leader who sometimes barely plays much. Daniel Davis the guitar player, offers a squall of noise which accurately mimics the now-obselete and probably unreproducable old synth textures and sounds of some of the material.
And whilst I would say most of the sound comes from the backing band, and therefore... how much of this is John Carpenter... that's imitation... the band deserve credit for a note perfect re-creation. The drummer in particular takes the offkilter rhythms no human has ever played and replicates them to perfection. The only variation is the addition of a solid bass drum beat that adds a compelling rhythm to the material and pushes the atmosphere further. It is though, undeniably, a selection of largely atmospheric, minimal material, built on a handful of recurrent motifs, like a terrifying, electronic Ramones, that builds and escalates in dynamics to a generally compelling climax. The songs though are clearly designed around a set of recurrent musical imagery, as film soundtracks, layered in tension/release, with odd timings, somewhat experimental structures, and clearly not your conventional material. Were these not soundtracks, Carpenter would be hailed as a small selling, avant-garde experimental composer in revered tones.
Sound aside, the Carpenter experience is – as you would expect – very strong visually. For most of the set, the backdrop is a projection of key imagery from his films : taken out of context, he's selected the iconic moments and visuals, taking perhaps the approach of Every Frame A Painting. Some of these images are not just iconic, but also utterly bizarre. Some of them ; The Things "Crawling Head", Big Trouble In Little China's "Shadow Battle", The Fogs "Pirate Ghosts In A Church", for example, would sit as lone, classic images of terror, fantasy, and outlandish reality beyond the accepted world. What is strange is I used to watch these on VHS recorded from late night TV, and the theme of those movies, the nature of reality, identity, the fear of the bogeyman, the unusual and the questioning of the accepted convention of the 'real' is the kind of themes that, had Martin Scorcese's name been attached to the films, be viewed as peerless works of genius. Even allegedly lesser films such as the confounding In The Mouth of Madness are, in themselves, only lesser by recognition, not by vision. In this re-presentation, Carpenter as a painter of celluloid visions of the bizarre and unusual is heightened as the images aren't within a context but as visions that would be framed in a museum of the unsettling. Horror and suspense as a genre relies on the sense of … somehow not belonging... of the alien inside the familiar and the mundane, of a world where motives are obscure, and monsters hide the normal, inscrutable.
The other world – of wraiths, of spirits, of a consciousness and existence beyond that which we see with eyes and ears and feel with our flesh – is real. It has touched me. The imagery, and the stories within the films, are part of how I see the world. A world where the terrors that stalk the normal are sometimes incomprehensible in motive or method, and where the reason is not what it seems, or there is no reason at all. There was often no reason in his work, which is much like life itself. We give life the reasons we need even if they are absent.
It's a short show. Carpenter is on stage by 8.32, and it's finished 85 minutes later. We're queuing for toilets by 9.50. It feels slight. And, with an unchanging set being played in the same order something like 26 times in a row, it's also somewhat predictable. But at 68, this might be the once in a lifetime moment. Loving film is a sometimes solitary experience, rigid, controlled : tonight was more a celebration – of fear, of own fragility, of a community that existed in front of the screen. Of facing the manifest of terror, and taking back the joy as an act of defiance.
Also. Bloody Hell. John Carpenter is playing the theme from Escape From New York live in front of my own eyes and ears. Bloody hell. I never thought that would happen.
Escape From New York Theme
Assault On Precinct 13
They Live / Coming To LA
The Thing / Desolation
Big Trouble In Little China / Pork Chop Express
In The Mouth of Madness
Prince Of Darkness / Darkness Begins
Christine Attacks / The Plymouth Fury
PETER HOOK Substance : Inside New Order
Peter Hook is an angry man. Angry at himself, angry at his former record company, most of his former bandmates, and at his accountants. This no-holds-barred* tale is an indie rock equivalent of Motley Crue's The Dirt. Equal to such, in its rampant hedonism, the drug taking, the heartless and stupid promiscuity, the squandering of talent and money, oh my word, the decadent squandering and the recklessness. Nobody comes out of this looking especially good, least of all Hook himself.
*the lawyers have cleansed this and changed names to protect the guilty
This huge tome is utter New Order geek catnip. It's absolutely essential reading, though it is ugly and clearly not objective.
Over 700+ pages, Hook details every thrust, insult, and blow – and every line of blow. It's somewhat surprising anyone in the band is still alive given the utter excess and the reckless way the band was run – leaking money like a sinking ship, run by a tribe of addicts, junkies, cowards and idiots. Hook also clearly demarcates roles in the bands ; and whilst all of us have our own perspectives on absolutely anything, Hook is no hero in this book. The rest of the band are cast out as The Despot Who Wants To Do Everything But Nothing, The One Who Does Nothing, and The One Who Says Nothing, alongside the addition of Young and Stupid Session Musician. It's an ugly tale. Hook himself is self-cast as the promiscious drugaholic who eventually has guest spots on his own albums, sometimes through an inability to contribute. All of the roles are of course, gross caricatures, but they are the ones Hook sketches of himself and others. With a court case coming up, I'm not sure this is wise.
Recollections of most shows are included. Every tour date is shown. No one is spared. God help Hook's karma, because he certainly paints himself as a indefensible man who seemingly inserted every substance on the planet into parts of his body – and parts of his body into near enough female on the planet . And whilst lawyers have removed many names, occasionally they sneak through. Lies, infidelity, and the kind of behaviour that would get sacked in a regular job in days seem like day to day business as usual in this world. It's a twenty six year carcrash of awful behaviour and brilliant music.
Some areas are notable by their omission. Some of the well known financial dealings (such as the alleged huge offset of earnings between bands by Factory's incompetent accountants) are glossed over. The bands big paydays are mentioned in passing (£250,000 for a gig here, and £130,000 for tour there), then dismissed before Hook turns up a handful of pages later doing DJ gigs for £500 because he's skint : even though he's been headlining arenas and festivals for twenty years. The utter waste of money is irresponsible, and when the band gets paid 11 times the average national salary for one show whilst the bass player pleads poverty very shortly after, it's galling and crass. Gillian's departure – even though Hook spends most of the book casting her as utterly uncreative and barely present on most records – is glossed over, with an unsympathetic eye to the reason : after all, if you had a seriously ill child, wouldn't you want to not tour all over the world? However, this is mere detail. Hook needed money to fund the profiligate waste, so she's an obstacle to his earning potential. At the same time, since the illness of a young child also occurred to Hook, it largely did so when the band weren't touring, so he details his own situation far more sympathetically.
Even though Hook paints himself as an appalling addict man-child, there's little in the way of reflection, and nothing in the way of an apology. The whole story is told, and observed, with a critical eye – almost unfeeling. Even after he cures himself of his addictions, Hook is a drydrunk for a while, before he finally reigns in the behaviour. And sends an employee in to inform the rest of the band that he's quitting. And more than he's quitting, that by doing so, he is defacto splitting the band despite the rest of the band not necessarily agreeing with his opinion. I'm not sure if Hook feels he has to apologise for using and casting aside what seems to be nearly hundreds of humans and wasting more money than 99% of the world will earn in their lifetimes. Instead, he magnifies perceived slights and egos, and tells a story that is, to be honest, both depressingly mundane around power, corruption & lies, and, at the same time, exhaustingly exhaustive. It's essential reading and whether you like the bands music or not, one of the most compelling and explicit music memoirs ever written.
But at the end of it all, you won't like him.
INDIE DAZE – London Forum 01 October 2016 – Bentley Rhythm Ace, Gaye Bykers On Acid, JimBob, Pop Will Eat Itself, Echobelly, EMF
By now a regular fixture in my gig calendar, the first weekend in October sees an all day indoor minifestival, the kind of thing that would sell out Reading Festival some years, and probably – for people my age – the highlight of my gig year.
By year three, Indie Daze isn't just an excuse to go and see bands, but an opportunity to see friends. (I'm going to count up how many people I know are here.. give me an hour – well, about 50 anyway.)
When I was younger, you only knew people in your town. Or in a town near you, at any rate. These days, the world is a much smaller place. (Given which, my step count from the show is 24,020 ; or about three days regular walking). Everyone seems to know people from everywhere, with some of us flying from America, or Switzerland. It's a case of not making arrangements, but just kind of knowing people who will be there and seeing them.
Aside from all of that, there's a chance, a feeling of ticking off the bucket list a number of things. If you missed a band way back when, you might very well be able to do so here. Whilst there's a common thread and a core constituency, with the exception of Pop Will Eat Itself (who have played here more than once), each year has a completely different lineup.
The first band I see are Bentley Rhythm Ace (for today, a trio, with Richard March and Fuzz of PWEI and James from EMF), who are, as always, an enjoyable. Whilst the band are normally a quartet, today they're one man down, and in this day and age, kids, jobs, and age make music the thing that you fit in around the other stuff, so a temporary absence is excusable. Not that you would necessarily know : Fuzz plays the drums like he's the best drummer in the world. (I've seen over a thousand gigs, and seen him in four bands - and he is). Bentleys play with a instrumental fury deriving from nothing more, and nothing less, than an ambition to make a racket of utter joy. Lacking an agenda, any lyrical content, or anything, the approach is simple fun. It works, utterly. Whilst at the end there's no lasting memory, and no sense of having had anything meaningful happen, it's still an overall moment of simple, pure, fun. And nothings ever wrong with that.
Indoors, it's mid-afternoon. There's friends to meet. Drinks to drink. Ramblechats to ramblechat about. By 4pm, it's time for the final Gaye Bykers On Acid show. After a 25 year hiatus, GBOA return for a handful of small shows ending with this, an hour in front of around 2,000 people. The show is determinded, committed, a way of ending the band the way bands should end, not with a whimper – but a bang. It's loud, and tight, and excusing the fact that every song is at least a quarter century old, as relevant now as ever. History is a hard thing to forget, but it's wise not to be beholden to it. Knowing the world as it is, this isn't their last shows. But who knows?
Breaking a two year live silence, JimBob – the gorgeously erudite voice of Carter USM – marks his first solo post-Carter-USM-absolutely-final-split with a set of just him and a guitar, a man and his voice, and his best known songs. Therefore, these are almost all Carter songs – with the exception of the cover of “The Impossible Dream” that became a Carter USM showstopper. Even some of the lesser known songs – the wonderful and very, very rarely played “Johnny Cash” from 1997 – are received with open arms.
Pop Will Eat Itself are next. This is the nearest thing to a 30th Anniversary show you can get : Fuzz Townsend is back on drums, and The Buzzard (the bands one-time guitarist who can seemingly play anything, was in some live lineups and on all the albums), are here. Alongside core member Graham Crabb, Mary Byker, and Davey Benett on bass, what you see is the nearest, and most historically representative lineup Pop Will Eat Itself have had in a very long time. I admit to being harsh on the bands new lineup in 2011, and having seen at least a dozen shows by the new lineup, the Graham-Mary version of the band are a good, strong live act. Though, to be honest, oldskool PWEI are, undoubtedly one of my favourite bands of all fucking time, and seeing most of the 'classic' lineup again is exciting. New PWEI have a somewhat rotating lineup (they've had 4 drummers and 3 guitarists and 2 bass players in the past five years across the tours, as much a reflection of the fact that the real world and other commitments keep getting in the way as anything else), but all of the times I've seen them … with the exception of when I saw them the week before I was hospitalised with double pneumonia … they've always captured and maintained the spirit of the band. But this. This is probably the best PWEI lineup I've seen in 11 years. And the best gig(s). *
There's new stuff (2 songs each from New Noise Designed By A Sadist and last years Anti-Nasty League). There's some pissing and moaning from people that want these bands to be an indie time machine, frozen forever in 1992. Saying that the band shouldn't do new songs, because this isn't that kind of gig. The band are not your bitch, and if you're not paying attention to the new stuff, that's not their fault, but yours. There's old stuff. There's Fuzz, who I think is the best drummer on the planet, and who plays with a swing and fluency that most drummers dream of (He also uses a sequencer failure the following night in Bilston to plug his garage). The Buzzard fronts the guitars with a 7 string Inabenez and a boatload of effects pedals, that gives the band a furious chainsaw sound that utterly fits. Not, by the way, that Adam Mole or Tim Muddiman don't fit. Just that this attack seems to give the band a slightly different approach that is refreshing. Graham Crabb and Mary Byker bounce off each other as a perfect foil.
Given that this is also 30 years since the band first came into being, it's fitting that both Richard March (bass) and Adam Mole (guitars) rejoin the band for three songs – Def Con One, Auslander, and Wise Up Sucker. This then, is the nearest to a PWEI reunion in over a decade : the band's final 1996 lineup minus Clint, with Graham and Mary. What's important here is recognising the band and also going forward to the future. And, if I'm honest, standing in a room with 2000 mostly middle-aged people dancing like mad bastards and singing lots of very very rude words is great fun. In my world, this band should be headlining Wembley Stadium whilst The Stone Roses are playing predictable 'album-in-full' gigs at the Folkestone Leas Cliff instead of mining a bankrupt stadium nostalgia bullshit tour.
In the meantime, Pop Will Eat Itself are playing one the best gigs I've ever seen them do. They are, and were, the much under-appreciated amalgamation of the best influences you could have and at least, at least, as influential as The Beastie Boys. And much bloody better. Oh yeah, and the crowd seemingly become a sweaty flood of excitable people that know how to be at a gig without filming everyfuckingthing to Tweet on their Periscope later. Its a joyous celebration that overshadows near enough every other band of the day.
(*I see them the night after, on an underpopulated Sunday in Bilston, which is pretty much my favourite PWEI experience since the frankly incredible 2005 minitour.)
Second place, and following PWEI, are Echobelly. Their approach and material is more... considered than the full on gonzo batshit crazy of PWEI, and thus, there's a sense of the atmosphere drilling down. Like that quiet bit in a movie, the few minutes breather between two big battles, Echobelly have a subdued response and a lower pitch of material that is more thoughtful and considered. It's a credit to the Mute Elephant crew to broaden the days lineup, to add unexpected acts, to widen the years of the day and to show that 'indie' reflects many years and many styles. As long as we don't get the musical amoeba that are Shed Fucking Seven, I'm good.
EMF, meanwhile, are the headline act. With only their third show in six years, and a reputation to defend, this sees the part time band celebrating 25 years of their debut Schubert Dip. It's an under-rated record that got lost in the critical mire when Nevermind came forth as a Cultural Year Zero. Mortality aside – the sadly missed Zac on bass – it's the original lineup of the band that stayed together throughout their entire existence. Ian Dench – the bands Noel Gallagher, to be honest – is back on guitar. And whilst the band had their career cut short by a cruel tide of press brutalism and record company bullshit giving them only three records, it's an energetic 70 minutes.
Of course, it's pure nostalgia, but its also unashamed entertainment. The songs themselves, some are better than others : like any band, whilst the songs follow the relatively standard verse/chorus/instrumentally bit format, sometimes some verses, and some choruses are better than others, and that's the battle. As far as gig openers go, “Children” has one of the best builds there is, a slow escalation of ingredients that suddenly stops, then explodes like a firework in your ears. Atkin may not be the most versatile of vocalists, but he works hard and joyfully that matches the songs whilst around him the band aren't exactly the kids we all used to be, but instead are a fun holiday in the past. Taking a cue from the 25th Anniversary of Schubert Dip, tonight is only the second EMF headline show in nine years, and a veritable bag of near enough everything they did. There's nothing from the under-rated Cha Cha Cha album, and no sign of the great “Far From Me”, but generally, EMF know what is expected : hits. And lots of them. And you get almost all of them. And a crowdsurfing DJ Milf. And a roof raising encore that sees “Unbelievable” played for a second time, this time with guest vocals from Jim Bob, Mary Byker, Graham Poppie, and bass from one-time EMF-er Richard March for his third time on stage in a day. It's a ramshackable excuse of general confusion, which is simple, daft fun tied up with deeper, more meaningful songs hidden inside all the dayglo shorts.
Some the end of the night, and there's lots of us here that somehow still survived another all day endurance test, surrounded by many friends from across a great many places, people I see rarely and love, kindred spirits at the best value gig of the year that is under £5 an act. The world that birthed this music is wide, and in many ways, still ongoing, and Indie Daze is not just a snapshot of a time, but a celebration of another way of thinking, a striving to know that there is more to this world than what was in the pages of the tabloids – and of course, a damn good afternoon and night out.