lovelondonscenes 162 – the City in black and white

A week or so ago I had an afternoon stroll through the City. I got off the tube at Holborn and headed east, down High Holborn, over Holborn Viaduct, along Newgate Street and Cheapside eventually to Leadenhall Street, where most of the most spectacular towers lurk, either on that street or nearby. From there I made my way down to St Katherine’s Dock and Tower Bridge, which was heaving with tourists – a contrast to the near-deserted City on a Saturday afternoon.

The architecture of the City is a rather brutal pleasure, but I enjoy the angles, the reflections in the glass walls and the juxtaposition of old and new. It’s all a bit of a mess – no Cartesian planning in London – but that mess throws up all sorts of interesting contrasts. Here are a few of the photos I took – converted to black and white for the contrast, and just the hell of it!

This one’s looking down Farringdon Street from Holborn Viaduct.

Old Bailey, with One Blackfriars in the background.

It’s all over the place down by Bank. Royal Exchange in the foreground.

Cheesegrater on the right. Nat West Tower on the left used to be the tallest when I worked in the City in the 1980s. No longer!

Opposite the Cheesegrater we have the Scalpel.

The Gherkin looms over St Andrew Undershaft church, which pre-dates the Fire of London. It survived that and the Blitz and is still hanging on.

The Walkie Talkie is never far away.

Lloyds of London from Lime Street.

The City from near Tower Bridge. Still a mess!

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Billie Marten at Islington Assembly Hall, 13 June 2019

I first came across Billie Marten last year. I was listening to 6 Music one morning and she was playing a session on Tom Ravenscroft’s programme, when he was covering for Lauren Laverne. I was immediately taken by the mellow beauty of her songs and her singing. It was sort of folky, sort of jazzy, very wistful. When interviewed she seemed a little understated, maybe shy. I liked all of that, and looked up her music on Spotify.  She’d released an album in 2016, called “Writing of Blues and Yellows”. But there were a couple of more recent tracks, too: “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea”, which I recognised as the songs she’d played on 6 Music. Since then, I’ve grown to love those two songs, as well as a fair few from the first album, including ”La Lune”, “Lionhearted”, “Emily”, “Bird” and “Milk and Honey”. She has also done a wonderful cover of Royal Blood’s “Out of the Black”, transforming it from a Metallica-style thrash to a lovely ballad. It’s all about the melody!

A new album, “Feeding Seahorses by Hand” came out earlier this year, and the current tour is obviously promoting that. It’s another lovely collection, marginally more upbeat in sound than the first, but essentially the same soothing concoction. When you delve into the lyrics a lot of them are quite dark. But the music, and Billie’s dreamy voice wash over you. It’s great music to relax to, as long as you don’t study those lyrics too closely. “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea” are both on the album. Other early favourites are “Betsy” and “Bad Apple”.

So, I went along with my friend Shane to Islington Assembly Hall last Thursday to see Billie play all those wonderful songs live. I was really looking forward to this one, and it did not disappoint. It was the first time I’d been to this venue, as far as I can remember. I liked it a lot. A nice size, airy, decent bars, a bit of space at the back, still with a good view, where we lurked. The crowd was almost entirely millennials. That was striking – there are usually quite a few of my generation dotted around. But very few on this occasion. Who knows what drives these things. Maybe it’s a bit too sensitive for most of the veterans, and not quite folky enough for the purists. They are missing out.

Billie and her band – bassist, drummer and keyboards/guitarist accompanying her – were tight and the sound was good. Billie’s singing came through crystal clear.  The set was simple, but rather homely, with the lampshades. They opened with “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea”, both played with a jaunty rhythm. And then “Betsy” and “Cartoon People”, two more of the standout tracks from the new album. “La Lune” followed, and was greeted as a real favourite by the crowd. Most of the songs played were off the new album, I think; though there were a few dips back into the older catalogue.

She played for about an hour and a quarter. It was another of those concerts that I didn’t want to end. Such beautiful music – on one level quite unassuming; on the other, absolutely subsuming. There’s a song by Keren Ann from 2007 which I love called “In Your Back”, in which she sings about diving in an ocean of pink tourmaline. I was never quite sure what that meant, though I felt like I knew. Google tells me that it’s a crystal that cleanses the body of destructive feelings. Quite how a crystal does that, I don’t know, but I think Billie Marten’s music might just have the same effect.

You may not have heard Billie Marten’s music, though she is able to fill a decent-sized venue like Islington Assembly Hall, so a few people have. But if you haven’t, I’d urge you to give her two albums a try. You may find that you agree it is some of loveliest music around.

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The Music of Nashville, May 2019

This May my wife Kath and I spent a week in Nashville, Tennessee (I spent a further week in the state, exploring Memphis and Chattanooga – more of that another time). It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And for one reason in particular – the music. Country music. My love for country music grew over time, starting tentatively in the 1980s. I write about this in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey” in a chapter called Duende – the beautiful sound of breaking hearts. That title says it all really. For me country music is the sound of melancholy. Mostly about losing love, or not finding love, or being down on your luck. But at the same time, finding strength through the music. I’m not so into the uptempo stuff – I’d rather go straight to rock’n’roll for that. And I’ve found that pretty well all my favourite country singers are women. Why, I don’t know, other than feeling that there is something in their voices and their perspective that truly reflects that sense of duende – what Nick Cave once described as “the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lies at the heart of certain works of art”. I would add that there is, at the same time, something uplifting in the sound, when it takes the form of music. The beautiful sound of breaking hearts.

It was Elvis Costello, in the early 80s, who handed me the keys to country music, when he released an album called “Almost Blue”. That was a celebration of many of the great country artists of the past, rendered in Elvis’s inimitable style. Amongst others that that album introduced me to was Patsy Cline. There was a film about her tragically short life at around the same time, and the soundtrack to that became my second country album. Songs like “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy” became favourites. Of course I had Bob Dylan’s ventures into country too, principally “Nashville Skyline”; while some of Bruce Springsteen’s more stripped-back music (think “Nebraska” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad”) had the dark soul of country at its heart. But I didn’t really delve deeper until the 2000s – dance, reggae, rap, soul and jazz, along with a steady diet of indie and punk, were my staples in the intervening period.

It was the discovery of singers like Laura Cantrell, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch in the 2000s that reignited my interest in country, though none of them would necessarily be described as in the mainstream of the music. Lucinda Williams’ “Ventura” off “World Without Tears” from 2003 may just be the saddest song ever. Laura Cantrell’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” is another song I love to this day – a classic example of the strong relationship between all that melancholy and having too much to drink!  But it wasn’t until 2013 that I discovered the singer who remains my favourite country artist: Lindi Ortega. I was introduced to her music by her album of that year, “Tin Star”. She has everything that I want from my country music: a beautiful voice, heartfelt songs and a sense of defiance. She can also get a little weird at times with her lyrics, which keeps you free of too much schmaltz – the biggest risk in listening to country music. I loved “Tin Star” so much that I went back to her earlier albums, which are even better – notably the wonderful “Cigarettes and Truckstops”. And I’ve bought everything since, as well as seeing her a few times when she has come over to the UK. She’s a great performer, and mixes up the ballads with some hard-nosed bluesy rock’n’roll. She’s not huge in the country world, which baffles me, but she has a decent following and a lot of respect. That’s not bad.

The other singer I most like these days is perhaps more predictable, and that’s Kacey Musgraves. I’ve been listening to her since I discovered her first album “Same Trailer, Different Park” around 2015-16 – it came out in 2013. So many great songs on that one, but my favourite remains the wistful “It Is What It Is”. As with Lindi, I love the combination of sensitivity and feistiness, and a refusal to comply with the mainstream expectations while being rooted in the traditions of the music. Of course, with the success of “Golden Hour”, Kacey has crossed over big time into the pop world, and what a great album that is. My No 1 of 2018.  A brief mention for Catherine McGrath too, a young Northern Irish singer who made my second favourite album of last year, “Talk of This Town”. She makes country music with a strong pop sensibility – and the influence of Taylor Swift is obvious. She’s in Nashville right now, writing new songs, no doubt with input from some of those seasoned songwriters in the city who write hits for the stars. I’m looking forward to her next album, not least to see what direction she takes.

So yes, I’ve been ready for a trip to Nashville for some time. And music was at the heart of it. Some extraordinary history, great art, excellent beers and food too. But I’ll concentrate on the musical journey in this piece.

We stayed downtown in a very pleasant apartment on Polk Avenue, surrounded by building works and a parking lot – two common features of central Nashville. From there it was a short walk down to lower Broadway, which is where we ventured on our first evening. Crazy place, and what a noise! The entire street was lined with bars with their windows open and bands playing. The streets were packed. Tourists, obviously, though from the rest of the USA mostly. Not so surprising, I guess, given the size of the country. For us in London, the comparable experience would be going down to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, something we generally try to avoid! But, as a tourist myself, I enjoyed Broadway. It was buzzing, the vibe was friendly, and all the music was very enjoyable, if you stopped to listen. Country-ish, but generally veering towards the rockier side. The spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, especially in the noisiest establishment of all, Kid Rock’s place.

Broadway just before things get going at lunch time

Glad to say no Bud Lite passed my lips on this trip!

We settled on a bar that had two guys with acoustic guitars, who were playing the Allman Brothers’ “Rambling Man” as we walked by. We had a couple of drinks there and enjoyed their set. Not quite as in-yer-face as some, with no drums reverberating around the room. We didn’t hang around for too long, as we were pretty tired from a day’s travelling, but we did pop down to Broadway on a few occasions during the week, and it was always fun. At one point in the week we got talking to a local Nashvillian in an art gallery on 5th Avenue who absolutely hated Broadway, which I can understand; but it is a magnet for visitors and must bring in a lot of money, some of which will find its way to all the aspiring musicians in the city who play in the bars (mainly for tips).

One place that we had recommended to us was the Listening Room café, which sounded like a small place where we might see one or two artists close up. I liked the idea of that, although the reality turned out differently. We went twice, having enjoyed the first evening so much. That was on our first full day there, Thursday 9 May. The Listening Room café is in an area called SoBro – south of Broadway. Still downtown, and only about ten minutes’ walk from Broadway; but really, it looks and feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. And hardly anyone is on the street – everyone seems to drive. Kath and I didn’t hire a car; we walked when we could and otherwise got taxis or took buses. The latter were interesting – it’s fair to say that we were the only people like us on the buses we took. But, you see, walking and taking public transport is entirely normal in London, so we just did it in Nashville too. It meant we got to know the streets a lot better than we would otherwise have done.

Two shots on 4th Ave South in the vicinity of the Listening Room show you what I mean.

The Listening Room café turned out to be quite a lot bigger than expected, and was more a restaurant than a café; but the concept was a good one. Four different artists each sang four songs, taking turns song by song, rather than playing all their songs at once. Typically the singers were people who made a living writing songs in Nashville, and in some cases, were looking to make a name as performers in their own right. From what they said as they introduced their songs, most had been living and working in Nashville for a good number of years. On the first occasion we went there the singers were Hannah Bethel, JD Shelburne, Ryan Calhoun and Stephanie Owen (accompanied by guitarist) who was also the host. They were all pretty good. I really liked Hannah Bethel, whose sound and style was right up my street, and JD Shelburne had a hint of Bruce in his songs and delivery, which naturally appealed. I looked up Hannah’s music afterwards, and there wasn’t that much on Spotify; but she has just released a third track called “Rhinestone Rodeo” which she played on the night, as well as her second release “Train”. Hope she makes it over to London some time.

Hannah Bethel sings; JD Shelburne looks on.

The second time we went there, which was the second show on Saturday, it was all men. I’m afraid I didn’t note all their names and have now forgotten all but one. They all seemed to know each other and a few beers were consumed. The quality of the songs was high – all of them were songwriters for a living and obviously enjoyed playing their own songs from time to time. Three of them looked exactly how you would expect male country singers to look these days: denim shirts, jeans, baseball caps. One at the end of the line stood out: dressed in black, more indie in appearance than country. At first he also seemed slightly detached from the others, but that changed during proceedings. I fact it seemed like he was regarded as the senior figure amongst them. You could tell from his songs too: they had real depth to them. Two were called (I think) “Drinking about You” and “Don’t Call Me When You’re Drinking”, which gives you some idea of his subject material! His name was Matt Rogers. As it happened Kath found herself sitting next to his wife in an upstairs space where we were allocated a table. We got talking to her; she said Matt made a good living from writing songs and had no plans to go out on the road himself. Fair enough, though I do wonder, when you write such good songs, how you feel always giving them to someone else. We had a chat with Matt after the show. He was a really nice guy, very humble. I mentioned to Catherine McGrath to him, as she was in town. You never know!

Matt Rogers in action.

Of course, being tourists in Nashville, we had to have an evening at the Grand Ole Opry, the self-styled home of country music, and a place where every aspiring country artist dreams of playing. We went there on the Friday evening, having visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during the day. The latter is just down from Broadway and opposite the Bridgestone arena, which is home to the ice hockey team, the Predators, as well as being a big concert venue. The museum was really interesting, well put together and very informative about the history of country music. At any one time, three or four artists are featured in depth. One such during our visit was Emmylou Harris. It reminded me that I’ve never really listened to her music properly, apart from some of the music she made with Gram Parsons, and that was a long time ago. And yet, I’m sure my favourite artists have been strongly influenced by her. I was also reminded that I really ought to give a bit more time to some of the greats, like George Jones, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and the rest. One day, one day! I was amused that there is now a Taylor Swift Education Centre attached to the museum. Or maybe that should be impressed rather than amused. She is obviously putting something back into the place that she started from.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 5th Ave South

Me and Taylor!

The Grand Ole Opry is about half an hour’s bus ride out of town, next to a large shopping mall and a theme park called “Opryland”. And yes, we took the bus out there and back. Very cheap too! Unlike the tickets and the drinks at the Opry, but that is to be expected. Going to the Grand Ole Opry is an experience. Again, mostly tourists I would guess, but very, very American – white, middle class American. The show too, was everything you’d expect – very slick, very self-referential; and highly enjoyable. The show is recorded live for radio, and there is still announcer who sounds like something straight out of some kind of 50s talk show and gives corporate sponsors endless plugs. The music, of course, was what mattered, and that was great. There were twelve different acts, divided into four half hour segments. Each segment had a host who also sang a couple of songs, along with each of the other acts. There was a tremendous variety, within the context of country music, from rootsy blue grass to the latest Taylor Swift style country-pop. That was reflected in the age range of the performers too. The youngest was a singer called Tegan Marie, who was 15, though she looked older. She obviously had the marketing men behind her, and was in the Taylor mould. Oldest was Jesse McReynolds, who was still holding his own in his bluegrass band at the age of 87. From time to time the music veered into that middle-of-the-road schmaltz – at one point I had a frightening vision of watching Val Doonican in his comfy sweaters on family TV in the 1970s – but there was some really good stuff too. Highlights included the vocal harmonies of The Isaacs, and the high speed bluegrass of veteran Ricky Skaggs and band at the end. Their technique on both acoustic guitar and electric mandolin was astounding.

Yes, even if most of the music wasn’t really my thing, this was an event to be remembered, and a highlight of the visit.

Jesse McReynolds is the dude in the white jacket.

Tegan Marie

The Isaacs

Ricky Skaggs centre stage with the mane of white hair!

On the Sunday evening we went down to “The Gulch”, a somewhat soulless modern development of office blocks, restaurants and bars on the south west edge of Downtown,  to a place called the Station Inn, which specialises in bluegrass – the mountain roots of country music. On Sunday night they have a jam, where anyone can bring along their guitar or mandolin and play. I imagine there’s a core of people who do it all the time. Most of them looked like mates. They were mostly older, but there were a couple of young lads, who were in the thick of things. The place was very busy – we fortunately got there early as another bar we planned to have a drink in had closed at 4pm. 4pm! So we got a table and a jug of beer and settled in for a couple of hours. Most entertaining; the music a reminder that a lot of it came over from Ireland and Scotland in the first place.

On Monday evening it was back to Broadway, starting down by the river at a place called Acme Feed and Seed. My friend Paul had recommended we go and see a Grateful Dead covers band there – Monday night is Grateful Dead night! He’s a massive fan of the Dead (as it were). They’ve rather passed me by, but I have to say the band we saw were very good. All Nashville session musicians I suspect. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was a pleasant hour or so. After that we went to one of the bars recommended in our tourist guidebook: Robert’s Western World. The place was rammed. The music was good and there were a few people dancing (not us!). Has to be done.

Roberts

The last musical experience came on Tuesday, our last night in Nashville. We went down to a place called the City Winery, which has a couple of music venues. This was the smaller venue, called the Lounge. We saw a Canadian country/folk act called Kacy and Clayton. They were pretty good. On Spotify they’d sounded a bit 60s-ish, looking back to the roots and also just slightly psychedelic. Live it was a bit more straight folk. They had a rather quirky between-songs banter that put me in mind of David Byrne from Talking Heads for some reason. Support act Dori Freeman (with a drummer called Nick Falk) was engaging too. The two bands were clearly friends, and supported each other’s shows. It was an enjoyable, unassuming evening, accompanied by some nice food and excellent wine. Only 40-50 people there, but the atmosphere was good.

L-R: Nick, Dori, Kacy, Clayton

After that we returned to what became our favourite Nashville bar, the Tennessee Brew Works, which was nearby.  Again rather in the middle of nowhere, right next to a highway flyover (probably called something else in America). Excellent range of pale ales and other beers, and a fairly young and probably local crowd. Some decent bands playing at times, too – there was one that reminded me of Little Feat. Check it out if you are ever in Nashville. Another bar we liked was the Flying Saucer, which was near the Frisk art museum and Union Station hotel. A superb range of beers from all over the world and decent food. There was a Flying Saucer in Memphis too, which I popped into while there.

Tennessee Brew Works on the right

A fine selection

And that was music of Nashville, one week in May. We didn’t get over to East Nashville, where all the cool people live apparently, and country musicians put on the occasional informal show. But I think we saw and heard enough to agree that Nashville deserves its title of Music City.

Rooftop bar over George Jones museum. Tennessee Titans football stadium on other side of the Cumberland River.

And to end, I must share this video of the song about Nashville that introduced me to Lindi Ortega. “Tin Star.  As Lindi sings, if the music wasn’t flowing through the blood in my veins, I might just walk away. But it is and she didn’t. And so many others are the same. The dreams keep coming and the music keeps flowing.

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Big Thief at SWX Bristol, 24 May 2019

Big Thief are a band from New York who play music that gets defined as indie/folk, although they don’t fit easily into any category. They are: Adrienne Lenker (vocals, guitar), Buck Meek (guitar, backing vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums). I first came across them when I was mugging up for End of the Road, where they were playing last year. The first song I heard was “Masterpiece” off their first album of the same name. I was immediately impressed. It was anthemic and delicate at the same time. The delicacy came from the fragile vocals of singer Adrienne Lenker. It was a good place to start my appreciation of Big Thief’s music.

As it happens, I missed the band at End of the Road, as I was watching Fat White Family then the Orielles, but I continued to listen to their two albums, “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” and really grew to like them. The songs are often quite gentle, but will then lurch into a jarring guitar break. The words are rather other-worldly, elliptical; musing on relationships, but not in a conventional way. The songs that emerged as favourites for me were “Shark Smile”, which starts with a screech of guitars and then settles into a rumbling, rolling rhythm, while Adrienne murmurs in a country style about the woman with a shark smile; and second, and most of all, Parallels”. I love that song – I’ve listened to it as much as any other in the past few months. For me, it’s the quintessential Big Thief song. It has a lost soul feel to it, that delicacy, and builds to a chant about parallels, which seems to switch key at one point. The lyrics feel like they are about a relationship, but they might also be about another dimension of space and time. The guitar drifts in and out. And caterpillars come into it at one point! This is all good. 

Elliptical, meandering, entrancing, jarring, other-worldly, lost, anthemic, beautiful. The words that describe Big Thief’s music are similar to the ones I’d use to describe Radiohead – think “In Rainbows” crossed with “The Bends”. That occurred to me more than once as I watched the band play at SWX in Bristol on Friday night. They are touring to promote their new album “UFOF”. It’s a lovely album, but you have to listen to it a few times to allow the essence of the songs to reveal themselves. It’s mostly on the subdued end of their musical spectrum, with fewer guitar outbursts (although opener “Contact” gets quite shouty at the end). “UFOF” overall sounds quite like Adrienne’s enchanting solo album from last year, “abysskiss”. 

The concert was terrific. I’d not been to SWX before, and liked it. Medium size, a few hundred, maybe a thousand. It was sold out, and the band got a great reception, from a mostly millennial crowd (with a sprinkling of older types, like me!). Looking at set lists from recent shows , it looked like the newer songs would dominate, but that it was unpredictable, as the set varied every night. And we got lucky: there was a great balance of new and established songs. In fact, almost all of my favourite songs got an airing, including “Parallels” about half way through. That was a bit of a bonus, as I hadn’t been expecting to hear it, going on previous set lists. “Shark Smile” was second song in and was greeted like an old friend. Their bounciest tune, though rivalled now by the bluegrassy “Cattails” off the new album. The crowd loved that one too. “Paul”, which might be their best known song, followed  “Shark Smile” – always good to start with some crowd pleasers. 

Perhaps the most popular song on the night was “Mythological Beauty” from “Capacity”, a mid-tempo beauty with characteristic lyrical twists. If not that, then it was “Masterpiece”, which was second last in the main set. What a great song! Last was “Mary”, which has the intriguing wordiness of The National, another band with which Big Thief have something in common. An uplifting end to the set. Huge applause, followed by a two song encore: two lovely tunes from “UFOF”, “Orange” and “From”. The first was just Adrienne and her acoustic guitar, though the band looked on. 

Big Thief aren’t a demonstrative band: there’s no leaping around, and few words in between songs. Not aloof, although they have a certain New York alternative cool about them. I think they are a pretty modest lot – they express themselves through the music. I was quite taken with the reception they got – I think the band were too. I thought that Adrienne wasn’t far off being in tears as she acknowledged the applause. I saw her solo show at the Union Chapel in January this year. She was quite nervy then, and re-tuned her guitar endlessly. There was less of that in Bristol – being one of four band members isn’t as exposing, even if you are the (reluctant) star. 

But modest or not, Big Thief are a band of real substance, who take some standard musical forms – indie, folk, Americana – and twist them into something quite different. They are clearly building quite a following too. Like the National, they might find themselves becoming pretty big without really seeking it. And that’s because they make music that intrigues you and draws you in. And surprises you. You hear new things all the time. If you haven’t heard them, give any of their albums a try, though I’d recommend going through them chronologically, starting with “Masterpiece”. Which is guess what…?

A few more photos (iPhone and cropped, to get rid of the head of the tallest man in the place, who stood just in front of me!).

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On re-reading “1984” – the Brexit connection

Over the last few days I’ve done a fair bit of travelling. Memphis to Chattanooga by bus, then back to Nashville, and the flight home via Detroit. Amongst other things I took the opportunity to re-read George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984”. It’s a book I first read as a student (of course) and I’m sure I read it again at some point. Written in the late 40s, it has always been seen primarily as a critique of the totalitarian societies of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. Big Brother is Stalin and Emmanuel Goldstein is Trotsky. It is seen as a companian piece to “Animal Farm”, another parody of Soviet Russia. But there is so much more to it than that, and it has a very contemporary relevance.

My motivation for re-reading the book was two fold. First, as a bit of inspiration for my own dystopian trilogy, the first part of which is “The Decision” (available on Amazon and Kindle). My society in 2027 is nowhere near as grim or all-pervasive as that of Oceania in “1984”, though I did nick the idea of having a pointless war against a far off enemy from Orwell’s story – mine is in the Ukraine, and is essentially to use up surplus labour, divert refugees and justify authoritarianism at home. 

Second, and more pertinently, in this era of post truth and fake news, Brexit and Donald Trump, I felt like “1984” would have resonance. And it sure did. Not because we live in a totalitarian society – we don’t. Nor do we live in a deliberately impoverished one – not yet. But we do live in a surveillance society, and Big Brother gets thrown around these days to describe not only governments, but the tech giants too. The things that struck me most, though, were the parallels with contemporary rewriting of history (and even current events) and the motivations for power.

Ignorance is strength. One of three slogans of The Party. The main character of “1984”, Winston Smith, is employed in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news stories, speeches and the like, in order to make the past consonant with the needs of the present: the infallibility of Big Brother, the predictions matching the outcomes, the country that Oceania is at war with, be it Eurasia or Eastasia (which frequently changes). Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. There’s a chilling resonance in that phrase, when we consider the Brexit experience in the UK. Taking back control. The slogan that summarised the appeal of Brexit for many who voted for it. Let’s set aside the fact that a medium-sized country on the edge of Europe isn’t going to be able to control its destiny in today’s interconnected world by going it alone. Let’s just ask what taking back control actually meant. 

The answer of course is complicated, as it would have meant different things to different people. And each individual narrative would be based on a individual version of the past (as well as a vision of the future flowing from it). The past, you see, is a nebulous thing. Some of it is recorded, but it has no tangible existence. It is in people’s minds. Their memories. This is the point O’Brien makes in “1984” as he works on changing Winston’s inner beliefs. Altering his mind so that he ends up loving Big Brother. If you can change the records, keep people in ignorance, and, in the last resort, alter their minds, then you can have everyone believing the same thing. 

That’s not to suggest that Brexit was in any way like this; but much of its appeal was and is based on a number of what I would consider false narratives – while acknowledging that they are false to me and many others, but only because of what I and they consider to be the facts. So, for me, the Brexiter politicians have spun a web of lies, distorted the facts, re-invented the past. Taking back control becomes a return to some halcyon era, when Britain ruled the waves/ stood alone against the Nazis/ controlled a vast Empire/ wasn’t under the yolk of dastardly Euro-regulations/ built the world’s ships/ had loads of money for the NHS, etc, etc. Fintan O’Toole’s book, “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain’”, characterises this brilliantly. The British narrative has become one of victimhood, where things are done to us. And we want to get back to when we did things to other people, did what we wanted, without some foreigners telling us we couldn’t do it. Yeah, let’s take back control! Forward to the past!  It’s pathetic really – in my view, based on my version of the past. But God knows what goes on in other people’s heads…

The other resonance was about the motive for power. Why do so many people want to take back control? For what end? What’s wrong with influencing the EU from within, as one of the three biggest powers in the organisation (as we have done on many occasions)? What’s wrong with being a member of the world’s biggest trading bloc, one that can compete and cooperate on equal terms with other major economic powers like America and China? What’s wrong with being part of an arrangement that has kept peace on a continent that, for most of history, has been riven by war? I don’t know, that’s for sure. All these things come from what you might call pooled sovereignty. We share power, for the common good. That includes our good. It is not a zero-sum game. In “1984” O’Brien acknowledges that what the Party is always striving for is simply power. It is the end in itself, not the means to ensure something else. Sometimes I think this is actually what politicians (and others) end up striving for. They start with something more – a vision of how the world should be – but end up simply aiming for power. Retaining power. The moment some party or person takes over government they start to plot for re-election. To achieve what? Staying in power, and preventing the other lot having it.

And isn’t the motivation of, let’s say, the hardcore Brexiters just the same? They are happy to see the economy tanking, huge queues at Calais and Dover, trade deals worse than the one we have in the EU, security cooperation undermined, possible instability in Europe as a result of the disruption caused by our leaving, collapse of the Good Friday agreement in Ireland, and so on, because we will have taken back control. Our power will be greatly diminished, compared with being part of the EU collective, but what we have left will be all ours! 

Remember though guys, another of the Party’s slogans in “1984”: Freedom is slavery.

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Honeyblood at the O2 Academy, Leicester, 2 May 2019

Yesterday I went up to Leicester to see Honeyblood play at the O2 Academy, which is located in the grounds of the University. It’s just down the road from Leicester De Montfort Hall, which has a special place in my heart, as the first venue I ever used to go to see gigs, back in the mid 70s. It was mostly a diet of rock and metal back then: Status Quo (my first ever gig), Budgie, Uriah Heep, Rory Gallagher, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the amazing Sensational Alex Harvey Band, amongst others.

Why Leicester when I live in London? Well, when the tour was announced, there were no London shows, or at least not until 31 October. Halloween… and the latest deadline for Brexit!  So, taking advantage of my retirement, I decided to go to a couple of shows outside London. I chose Leicester because, apart from some business meetings, I haven’t been there since my schooldays (I was at school in a place called Oakham). And the other choice was Edinburgh, on 3 June, because it was near the end of the tour, it’s Stina’s hometown, and I really like Edinburgh! As it happens, there are now a couple more London appearances: a record launch at Rough Trade East on 25 May and a slot on the bill at Citadel Festival in Gunnersbury Park on 14 July. The latter is home turf – I can walk there in twenty minutes, which will be nice. And, as a bonus, they’ll be at Latitude too.

The tour coincides with the build up to and launch of the new album, “In Plain Sight”, on 24 May. The first three songs to be released from that – “The Third Degree”, “Glimmer” and “She’s a Nightmare” – are all great, catchy songs. “The Third Degree” took us back to the sixties; “Glimmer” is a bit of a glam stomp, and my favourite of the three; and “She’s a Nightmare” could easily be on “Babes Never Die” – it reminds me a bit of “Sister Wolf”. “She’s a Nightmare” is about the night terrors Stina suffered after coming off touring “Babes Never Die” and relaxing. The album, she says, is about how she has been reappraising things over the past year. She was certainly in a bit of a mess at the beginning of 2018, by her own admission. It will be interesting to see how that all comes through in the new album.

So, I was expecting a show heavy on new songs at the O2 Academy. Maybe a bit less punky – again that is what Stina has been saying in interviews. But actually, it was the opposite. Drummer Cat Myers is no longer in the band – I think she got a gig with Mogwai, which is interesting – and a bassist* has been added. The addition of a bassist makes sense – it frees Stina up a bit and adds more heft to the live sound. I’d thought there might even be a keyboard player – but not yet. The result, last night, was a sound that sounded even more raw and rocking than usual. Possibly my perception was shaped a little by being near the front and not far from one of the speakers. And I’m not sure the sound was that great either – there was a fair bit of interchange between the band and the mixing desk through the evening. But Stina is getting a deep and dirty sound from her guitar, which was evident in both the sessions I’ve heard previously, including one with Shaun Keaveny on 6 Music last week. It sounded great in the sessions; live it took me a moment or two to identify some of the older songs.

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The show was a nice mix of all three albums. The three new songs mentioned above all sounded good live. “Glimmer” was a real highlight. There were a couple of other new ones. I didn’t catch their names, but Setlist FM from Cambridge suggests they were called “Gibberish” and “Take the Wheel”. Strangely, the riff in the latter reminded me of “Touch the Leather” by Fat White Family. My hearing does play tricks a bit at live shows! There was a big representation from the first album – including “Biro”, which I don’t think I’ve heard live before. I thought that encapsulated the push for that raw, rocking sound. But it might also be because this really is Stina’s vehicle now, and that first album is clearly very personal. First albums always are. “Babes Never Die” was correspondingly under-represented, though we got “Sea Hearts” right at the start, a rather messy rendition of one of my favourite songs, “Hey, Stellar”, and, of course “Babes Never Die” and “Ready for the Magic” at the end. Hooray! Cambridge had “Walking at Midnight” too, but unless I have had a memory blank, it didn’t feature at Leicester. I’m not sure what was going on with “Hey, Stellar”. Stina missed a few of the lines, and it felt like the timing wasn’t right. Might have been those sound issues – or maybe the new band still needs a bit of time to gel. I also sensed that the band may have been a bit disappointed about the turnout – the place wasn’t much more than half full, and I saw Stina and the drummer looking a bit concerned as they peered into the venue from outside while the support band, Feet, were on. A very positive crowd and a nice atmosphere, but Leicester doesn’t seem to have twigged on fully to the wonders of Honeyblood yet. I guess long tours must be up and down things – not every night is going to be a blazing success. I expect a very different reception at Edinburgh!

So, I really enjoyed the show, but I feel there may be better to come. I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which for me will be Rough Trade East on 25 May. In the meantime, I’ll soon be off to Nashville and Memphis for a couple of weeks, with a large helping of country and soul in prospect!

*I’d name the bassist and drummer if I could find their names anywhere! Stina did introduce them, but I struggle to discern what people say at most gigs. I’ll keep looking, for reference in future reviews.

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lovelondonscenes 161 – A Hammersmith Sunset

I’ve been meaning meaning to post this one for ages. In fact, since I took the photos towards the end of January this year. Not the first pictures I’ve taken of this part of the river; but it is perfect for that setting sun, as you look west.

Some of these images are not apparent to the human eye at the time; but when you point the camera on zoom into the heart of the sun you get some weird and wonderful results!

 

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